Hazing dispute led UMaine students to strike in 1909

Posted Dec. 06, 2009, at 8:11 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:26 a.m.

The great student strike at the University of Maine a century ago began quietly enough. Upperclassmen refused to sign their registration cards, which contained a pledge to stop hazing freshmen. Students wanted a definition of hazing, but President George E. Fellows told them there was no way the obnoxious practice could be defined in an ironclad way. “Even the co-eds of the upper classes [are] refusing to sign the pledge,” the Bangor Daily News said on Sept. 17, 1909. The enrollment then was just 749 students, including only 89 women.

The next day, after a meeting between student and faculty leaders, the dispute seemed to be over. Students agreed to sign the pledge with the understanding it didn’t apply to milder methods of “subjugating and disciplining” freshmen. Midnight razoos, in which freshmen were forced to crawl on their hands and knees through a gauntlet of upperclassmen wielding paddles, dunks in the Stillwater River and “other forms of hazing as may work injury to health and limb” remained banned. An “amicable agreement” had been reached, said the newspaper.

Of course, nothing of the kind had been reached. The strike was the culmination of months of bitter feuding between students and faculty about who would run the campus. It involved a variety of issues such as the elimination of “cozy corners” at student dances. Student instigators were thinking up ways to stir the simmering pot.

On Monday night, Sept. 20, a sophomore proclamation went up on walls all over campus. It contained 10 commandments for freshmen written in “flaming red letters.” Among the warnings were these: Freshmen shall not smoke pipes, swear, wear derby hats or kid gloves or be seen with girls.

Two days later, President Fellows warned sophomores in a chapel speech that they must cease all forms of hazing. “His speech was occasioned by the appearance … of the figure ‘13’ [a reference to the Class of 1913] daubed in black paint over the face of all the posters put up by the sophomores two nights ago and by the idea that this might incite the sophomore class to some act of violence toward the freshmen,” said the Bangor Daily News on Sept. 23.

Three weeks later the pot boiled over. After a series of hearings, the faculty suspended nine sophomores for hazing incidents on Sept. 16 and Oct. 6. The professors interviewed nearly every sophomore. The nine were the ones who confessed. Their sins included turning a hose on a group of freshmen and “using the open hand.”

The accused were Archie A. Adams, of LaGrange; Edward W. Conners, of Great Works; Carl S. Cleaves, of Bar Harbor; Shirley A. Joyce, of Bar Harbor; Charles W. Newell, of Houlton; Walter E. Perkins, of Old Town; Clayton H. Steele, of West Jonesboro; Lester L. Richardson, of Greenwood, Mass.; and George R. Wood-bury, of Beverly, Mass. Cleaves, a football player, had his suspension lifted later after he proved an alibi. A few dozen more students were “censured,” and Adams’ name was later moved to this list.

Immediately after chapel that morning, hundreds of angry students assembled in front of Alumni Hall and held an “indignation meeting.” “Many were strongly of the opinion that all should leave at once,” said the Bangor Daily News on Oct. 14. “One thing which was most noticeable was that the freshman class stood in a body and repeatedly cheered the sophomore class to show that they were entirely in sympathy with them and were not opposed to any hazing which they had received.”

“FACULTY IS FIRM; STUDENTS GO OUT,” declared a large headline at the top of the newspaper the next morning. The students demanded the suspensions be rescinded. Headed by the university band, they marched around the campus, then into downtown Orono and back to the athletic field, where about 500 held a mass meeting. Even “the young ladies” were cutting classes. Nearly everyone was except a few freshmen and the football team, which had a chance at the state title that season.

Alumni attempted to mediate on behalf of the students. Calls were heard for the trustees to hold a special meeting to settle the dispute, but they declined. The days dragged by without resolution. Some students went home. Others worked improving their fraternities. Still others went hunting. Meetings were held, resolutions ex-changed. Professors gave lectures to classes attended by one or two students. The strikers accumulated damaging class attendance “cuts,” which became another issue in the struggle.

Then the students ended the strike as quickly as they had started it, returning to their classes on Friday, Oct. 22. The decision was reached at a mass meeting at Orono Town Hall at which alumni negotiators reported that trustees had stated during a meeting that the suspended students would be guaranteed a fair hearing. No other students would be punished for hazing offenses or for cutting classes. Some commentators claimed the students had won a partial victory, while others claimed they had gone back to classes on exactly the same terms offered by the faculty. Hazing rules remained unresolved.

Some weeks later the faculty lifted the suspension of the seven remaining sophomores after class leaders submitted a petition agreeing to abandon “all forms of hazing.” The trustees endorsed their action a few days later. “NO MORE HAZING AT THE U OF M,” announced an optimistic headline in the Bangor Daily News on Nov. 18.

During the struggle, there was speculation that President Fellows could not survive politically. He left at the end of the school year for another position. He may have been “a surrogate sacrifice” for all sorts of university problems that were going on with the state legislators as well as with students and alumni, historian David C. Smith has suggested in his book “The First Century: A History of the University of Maine, 1865-1965.” “There seems to be little reason why this situation should have been carried so far,” Smith wrote. “Fellows did not adopt extreme regulations, for that time, and his faculty backed him strongly. However, it is significant that the alumni backed the student insurgents so strongly.”

An illustrated collection of Wayne E. Reilly’s columns titled “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire” is available at bookstores.

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