The Students and the Town
There were many conflicts in the early days between members of the student body and various elements in the young and growing town of Ann Arbor. Some of these events are interesting because they reflect not only a mischievous penchant on the part of the students for playing pranks and practical jokes, but also the misunderstanding which arose between students and townspeople and the resulting effort by citizens and faculty to preserve law and order.
The population of Ann Arbor was greatly increased during the middle of the nineteenth century by the immigration of German settlers. These people were industrious and thrifty and became in time a leading influence in the life of the town. Some of them early established drinking and eating places in Ann Arbor after the German style. Among such taverns were Hangsterfer's and Binder's, both favorite student haunts.
In 1856 occurred what later was to become known as the "Dutch War." Two young men had made themselves conspicuously unpleasant at Hangsterfer's. They were reprimanded by the proprietor, and, a quarrel resulting, the students were ejected. The next evening they returned, greatly reinforced, and threateningly informed the proprietor that he must treat the crowd or "take the consequences." Upon his refusal, the students charged him with the battle cry, "revenge or beer!" A fight resulted in which knives were drawn, clubs were swung, kegs and barrels broken up, beer spilled, and the place badly damaged. The terrified defendants fled, with the students in pursuit. They were halted by the police, and although the officers of the law used diplomacy in attempting to settle the difficult situation, the students nursed a grudge and awaited an opportunity "to get even." After attending an Alpha Nu "spread" at Hangsterfer's, six students, ready for mischief and bent on revenge, decided to attend a dance for the townspeople, advertised to take place at Binder's. By means of a window, they gained access to a room where refreshments were laid out ready to be served. Here, carelessly noisy while eating and drinking, they were discovered, and although five got away, one was Page 1778captured and held. Those who escaped rushed back to the campus for reinforcements, and a crowd of students surrounded Binder's demanding the release of the prisoner. Binder, in turn, retaliated by asking a ransom of ten dollars for the culprit. The students became angrier and more determined. Using three large timbers as battering rams, they advanced upon the building, much to the terror of the guests within. Some of them obtained muskets. Surrounded by such a hostile force, Binder yielded and gave up the prisoner. The next day warrants were issued for the six students, but they were aided not only by their fellows, it is said, but by members of the faculty, and were so well shielded that in time the complainant, when confronted with a charge of selling liquor to minors, withdrew his complaint, and allowed his warrants to be quashed.
Other exciting conflicts between students and townspeople arose out of a mischievous desire on the part of the students to tear up the wooden sidewalks which lined the city streets and to carry away the gates and the posts of the fences which enclosed private yards. In the early days many complaints in the college papers concerned the constant need for repair of these rickety walks. On Monday evening, April 11, 1870, members of the class of 1873 raided and tore up the walks, making a very thorough job of it. The malefactors were threatened with arrest. City officials were violently angry, and only through the agency of Acting President Frieze, who took upon himself the financial obligation of settling the matter, were friendly relations restored. The class of 1873 later reimbursed Dr. Frieze by an assessment on the class.
During the 1880's the celebration of Halloween caused much damage to the town. In 1881 some junior medical students smashed street lamps and were fined $150. In 1883 the walks were torn up again; business signs were removed and lost to the rightful owners; and a statue of Benjamin Franklin which adorned the campus was covered with fresh paint. Considerable antagonism existed between the students and the Ann Arbor police force. At the slightest provocation "wild" students were arrested by the minions of the law.
For years there were no mail deliveries in Ann Arbor. The post office was lodged in a small frame building at the northwest corner of Ann Street and Fourth Avenue. In the late afternoon and evening, it was customary for the students to assemble and stand in line for their mail. On October 12, 1877, the freshmen and sophomores, after threatening to attack each other at the post office, adjourned to the campus for a "rush," but certain citizens had been sufficiently alarmed to summon help. A student who had taken no part in the disturbance was foolishly arrested in the post office, however, and not discharged until the next morning. This resulted in more student ill feeling toward the police.
At the opening of the 1879 term, such resentment had developed between students and the local constabulary that on the evening of October 14, policemen were stationed at the post office door so that only one student at a time could enter. It became apparent that an unnecessary delay would ensue in the delivery of the mail. The angry students broke out in hostile shouts and yells, and of course a disturbance arose. On the following night a large crowd of students and armed citizens gathered. The fire bell was rung to call out the state militia, and the latter charged with fixed bayonets. The mayor offered two dollars for every student arrested, and many were taken into custody. This unfortunate action Page 1779caused considerable trouble and did nothing to allay the ill feeling and animosity which was arising between "town and gown."
Another "rush" occurred in the post office in November, 1890. Several days later, rifle shots were heard in the center of the town. Several hundred students gathered, sensing and perhaps looking for trouble. Although the shots had been fired to celebrate the marriage of a member of the local militia, a noisy and excited crowd gathered in front of the house where the festivities were being held. The militia was called out, a conflict arose, the police attacking and trying to capture the students. One freshman, apparently only an onlooker, was struck by the butt end of a musket. A hand-to-hand fight ensued in which the sergeant of the militia was injured by a missile thrown by someone in the crowd. The student who had been attacked died. Public sentiment was aroused, and action by the governor of the state resulted. The local police force was disbanded, thus helping to allay the bitter feeling of the students toward the townspeople.
Many other student pranks caused difficulties between citizens and students. Upon one occasion, when the electric street railway was new in Ann Arbor, a student was carried beyond the place where he wished to alight. An argument arose between student and motorman. The student, demanding that he be returned to his destination, drew a revolver and wounded the motorman. Although he was arrested and expelled from the University, he escaped conviction.
On Commencement Day, in 1878, when the first Ann Arbor Railroad train arrived from Toledo, one of the flatcars contained a huge cannon, which was captured and pulled up State Street to the campus. During Commencement exercises in University Hall someone touched off the cannon, and the report, it is said, "was thunderous." Only President Angell's poise and sense of humor saved the dignity of the Commencement exercises.
One of the most sensational of student riots, known as the Star Theater riot, occurred on the night of March 16, 1908. The Star Theater was a "nickel" motion picture house situated on the south side of Washington Street, midway between Main Street and Fourth Avenue. One of a group of students persisted in whistling during the performance after he had been warned to be quiet. The proprietor ordered the troublemakers to leave. An altercation arose, during which one student struck the manager. In the scramble which resulted, the wrongdoers were ejected, but the next night several hundred students gathered outside the theater to jeer and sing.
On the following Monday the proprietor announced that his performance was conducted for townspeople and added that he did not care for student patronage. That evening almost a thousand students gathered in the street before the theater, defying the management. Eggs and vegetables were thrown at the theater. Bricks from a nearby building in the process of construction were hurled, and mob spirit ran riot. The theater and its contents were well-nigh demolished, the proprietor escaping by way of the back door. The fire department was called out, but streams of water did little to deter the angry students. The officers of the law were almost helpless. Even President Angell and Dean Hutchins, who were called, could not make themselves heard. On the following day eighteen students whom the police had been able to pick up on the outskirts of the mob found themselves in jail. Fifteen were turned over to the circuit court, but were bailed out and Page 1780criminal charges against them dismissed. The student body, however, dug down into its pockets and raised more than $1,000 to pay for the damages.
Riots prompted by the desire for free shows at the theaters have not been uncommon since that time, especially since the increase in the number of motion picture theaters. It was customary in the 1920's and 1930's for the management to give complimentary performances at the time of class games and on other special occasions.
In the early 1920's, upon one occasion, students rushed the Whitney Theater to see a well-known musical, entering the theater without tickets and occupying the best seats, thereby preventing the rightful occupants from seeing the performance. The united efforts of Dean Bursley and President Burton were necessary at that time to enable the "show" to go on.
In the early days the visit of a circus to Ann Arbor was an event. It was not unusual for groups of students to "rush" circus performances. On May 23, 1871, they bolted classes to see the Van Amburgh Circus, and only two boys appeared in Professor Jones's Greek class. (It is interesting to note that later all of the bolters were suspended until the following September.) Owing to some slight altercation between students and circus personnel, the students returned in the evening bent on mischief. By some trick they managed to loosen the seat supports so that both seats and occupants fell during the performance. A riot ensued. Memory of this escapade is preserved for Michigan students in the well-known song "I'm Going to the Hamburg Show," the word "Hamburg" having been substituted for the long since forgotten Van Amburgh. Another unfortunate "circus prank" occurred in the 1900's during a visit of Ringling Brothers to Ann Arbor. At that time the students threw firecrackers under the elephants during the parade. The terrified elephants, of course, stampeded, and the crowd rushed off in all directions. Ringling Brothers never visited Ann Arbor again, and for years the larger circuses avoided the city.