Mark J. Price

The sound of muffled laughter echoed through the quiet corridors of Buchtel College in Akron.

During the late 19th century, mischievous students took the starch out of the Victorian era with a series of outrageous pranks that burst the seams of buttoned-down society.

The elaborate practical jokes, as daring as they were diabolical, bewildered professors, aggravated administrators and amused classmates of the hilltop campus, the forerunner of the University of Akron.

The Ohio Universalist Convention established Buchtel College in 1870 as “a denominational institution of learning.” The school, which opened in 1872, was named for its largest benefactor, John R. Buchtel, an Akron industrialist and philanthropist.

Buchtel College’s code of conduct was so strict that students received demerits for infractions such as missing lectures, loitering in hallways, straying from campus and arriving late for meals. Youths faced a private admonishment at five demerits, a public admonishment at 10 demerits and a suspension or expulsion at 15 demerits.

Despite the academic risks, some students couldn’t resist shenanigans.

One popular prank was to sneak to the top of stairwells and drop paper bags filled with water. Launched from dormitories on the upper levels of Buchtel’s main building, the aqua bombs exploded on the first floor, drenching anyone who had the misfortune of passing near the handrail.

“On one occasion a mischievous boy, who always looked angelically innocent, dropped an unusually large sack of unusually cold water with unusually accurate aim on the head of an unusually tall, slender, black-bearded, deep-voiced professor,” recounted English professor Albert I. Spanton, an 1899 graduate, in his history Fifty Years of Buchtel (1922). “The indignant instructor, almost as wet as a drowned rat, rushed with fearful leaps to the top floor, and burst into the room of the innocent-looking boy, who was sitting at his desk evidently hard at work on his Greek.”

The student nonchalantly looked up from his book and asked the professor what he wanted. The dripping instructor left without saying a word, sure that he had invaded the wrong room.

“It was mighty lucky for me he didn’t come over to the desk, for I had jerked that Greek book up in such a hurry, I was holding it upside down,” the student later told friends.

Other pranks

Ah, the stairwells. Boys lived in the east hall and girls lived in the west hall. Unmarried faculty members also resided at the dormitories to maintain order. Late at night, students removed slats from their beds and slid down the steps on makeshift sleds. They scrambled upstairs before faculty members could figure out who was causing the commotion.

Pranksters were known to heat iron dumbbells and cannon balls over gas jets and gingerly roll them down the stairs. The THUNK THUNK THUNK inevitably drew the attention of the uninitiated. One professor picked up an offending object as it smashed into his floor, but he dropped it immediately because it was fiery hot. Those rascals were at it again!

Students blew air into gas pipes, extinguishing public lights. They tainted drinking water with foul-tasting salts. They raided Buchtel’s hog pen, where trash was disposed, and painted the pigs bright red.

“Chapel exercises were favorite targets for student pranks,” history professor George W. Knepper explains in his UA book New Lamps for Old (1970). “The working day started at these services and they afforded a splendid opportunity for the ingenious prankster to produce effects before a wide audience, since the president customarily presided, the faculty sat in dignity upon the platform, and all students were present. The pranks ranged from the amusing to the disruptive. One morning the president raised a box-like cover that was kept over the Bible, and a chicken emerged, crowing his discontent.”

During another chapel service, a pianist was startled to find that his instrument made no sound despite repeated pounding. He lifted the lid and was dumbfounded to learn that the entire insides of the piano were missing.

Another morning, hooligans removed the entire contents of the chapel — including pulpit, platform, piano and chairs — and arranged everything in proper order on the front lawn. Stuffed animals from the biology room were placed carefully on the wooden seats in solemn poses.

Legendary incidents

One of the legendary pranks at Buchtel College was a bit of cloak-and-dagger skulduggery. Late one night in 1876, students “borrowed” a wagon from the Collins Buggy Co. on South Main Street, rolled it to campus and dismantled it piece by piece. They hauled the components to the Buchtel College roof and reassembled the wagon by lantern light.

When dawn arrived, students and professors gaped at the vehicle resting on the crown of the five-story building, a remarkable feat of ingenuity that was the subject of discussion for decades.

From there, it was only a hop, skip and a jump to actual livestock.

Perhaps the greatest practical joke in Buchtel College’s history came at the expense of a gentle bovine.

“One night an unofficial and hastily improvised class in biology induced a cow, her feet muffled in carpet, to climb the stairs in the stillness of the velvety dark evening, and on an upper dormitory floor they hitched her to the knob of a professor’s door,” Spanton recalled. “The professor opened his door in the morning, and in walked the cow.

“A peculiar thing about the cow was that although she had been led upstairs in the dark with no particular difficulty, nothing in the world would persuade her to walk down in the light of morning. The problem finally had to be solved by the construction of an inclined plane, formed by laying boards up the stairs. Then the cow was thrown, her feet tied, and on her side she went sliding down the boards.”

Pranksters probably made up only a fraction of the 2,000-student population, but they left their imprint on the school’s lore. When Buchtel converted in 1913 to the University of Akron, a municipal college, the bar was already raised high on student high jinks.

A little mischief truly goes a long way.

Mark J. Price is the author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or mjprice@thebeaconjournal.com.