Barnard “Mysteries”

Ever wish your NSOP experience had come with a little more blatant, school-sanctioned hazing?  Probably not, but had you matriculated as a Barnard Freshman between the years 1890 and 1927, that’s just what you would have gotten in the form of “Mysteries,” an initiation event perpetrated by the sophomore class on the freshmen early in the term.  According to a news clipping found in one of the scrapbooks of Eleanore Myers Jewett, Class of 1912, Mysteries were “instituted by the class of ’93 as a means of damping the ardor of their overspirited inferiors,” and by 1910, when Myers Jewett sat on the Mysteries planning committee, their intent was to dampen spirits indeed.

In Myers Jewett’s scrapbook, she outlines the “Order of Events” for Mysteries ’10, an impressive catalog of kiddie-Halloween-party-style gags: blindfolded Freshmen were led through a “Reception Line” featuring the horrible “wet shammy glove,” the gruesome “two sausages,” and the devilish “hard boiled egg,” to name only a few.  The tortures continued with a “Registration in gore,” where freshmen inscribed their names on a list, writing “with the nose” in “tepid cream.”  At one point the presumably quivering freshmen were compelled to “pick out mummies’ eyes from a pail of slime,” a fantastic proposition that the Mysteries Committee managed with, Myers Jewett helpfully notes, “marbles in a pail of wet dough.”

These travails were all fun and games compared to the “torture chamber for those [freshmen] who had been disrespectful to any Soph at any time.”  Here, Myers Jewett makes good on her scrapbook’s earlier descriptions of a “’black list’ of freshmen” for whom “special tortures” were set aside; inside the “torture chamber,” freshmen met a “white spook with wet shammy glove and menthol pencil.”  What, you ask, is a “menthol pencil”?  Wyeth Laboratories’ hefty 1906 An Epitome of Therapeutics gives us a hint: “for immediate relief from the pain and swelling caused by the bites of insects, particularly mosquitoes, gnats, and black flies, also the sting of bees, etc…rub thoroughly the spot affected several times with the Menthol Pencil” (252). A menthol pencil, then, is a topical pain-reliever, but anyone who’s slathered on some Burt’s Bees knows how shockingly cold such a minty balm can be—especially when unexpected.

After the freshmen had been suitably cowed by many more of these sorts of torments, the sophomores read out a list of “Laws for Freshmen” to be obeyed for a two-week period following Mysteries; these “Laws” included dicta such as “Always bow to a Sophomore respectfully,” “No walking in the Soph corridor,” and, most notably “No rats, puffs, or false hair.”

Anna Herrmann, Barnard Class of 1911, demonstrates how best to use rats, puffs, and artificial hair in her Mortarboard portrait, 1910. Courtesy of Barnard College Archives

This is 1910, remember, and in 1910, a girl wasn’t a girl without a giant mass of hair piled on her head.   However, the Barnard ladies of the ‘Aughts and ‘Teens weren’t necessarily blessed with more hair or better back-combing techniques than we are today; instead, they cheated a little to achieve the perfect ‘do.  A “rat” is essentially a stocking filled with stuffing in a flattish roll that, lying on the head with the hair combed over it, adds volume and shape to the hairstyle.  Is this totally wacky? Absolutely.  But to our Barnard sisters of yore, their rats and puffs and bits of fake hair were as essential as straightening irons are for some of our number today (for those interested in trying out some hair rattery for themselves, here’s a handy tutorial from the blog American Duchess).  Deprived of their rats—which, according to a newspaper clipping included in Myers Jewett’s scrapbook, were “kept in a safe deposit vault hired by the sophomore class”—the freshmen grudgingly went about with their hair unpuffed, accusing the sophomores of attempting to undermine competition for those fine Columbia gentlemen and generally making it known that they felt “it was one of the most cruel kinds of hazing ever attempted” (same newspaper clipping).  Myers Jewett’s scrapbook contains months of letters to the Bulletin demanding the retiring of Mysteries as a result of 1912’s outrageous behavior.

To apply a little bit of pop psychology to this practice, in a brief digression, what we see in Mysteries ‘10 is a classic cycle of hazing.  Tortured similarly but one year ago, the sophomores try to get even not on the people who subjugated them, but on the next round of victims; by lording it over newly-arrived girls, they state firmly and forever that they can no longer be taken advantage of in a similar fashion.

How did the sophomores get away with it?  As a clipping from an unnamed newspaper in Myers Jewett’s scrapbook tells us (if only Eleanore had cited her sources!), “as Barnard is a department of Columbia University, the girls in the institution are supposed to obey President Butler’s [that’s Nicholas Murray Butler, president of CU from 1902-1945] rule that there is to be no hazing.  But they evade that rule by holding their initiation ceremony under the supervision of the Barnard Student Council, and the Council sees that no overstrenuous punishment is meted out to the first-year students” (emphasis added).

Does all this seem crazy and totally “overstrenuous” to you?  Yeah, me too.  Fortunately, we can breathe a collective sigh of relief that Mysteries neither started out nor ended up this petty or cruel; in fact, its original intent was not to humiliate or shame the freshmen classes, but to include them in a tradition of student camaraderie—despite what Jewett’s 1910 news clipping said about “damping the ardor of their overspirited inferiors.”

This book played a central role the Mysteries ritual from 1893 until it was lost in 1905. The Mysteries book reappeared in 1912 and was in use until 1929. Courtesy of Barnard College Archives

There is one artifact in the archives that proves this quite conclusively—the “Mysteries Book.”  Donated by the Barnard Undergraduate Association to the Alumnae Association in 1931, the Mysteries Book was the focus of Mysteries in its original state; from a letter to the Bulletin in 1910, we learn that “when the Mysteries were organized some years ago, it was for the purpose of transmitting to the freshman class a mysterious book” as a sign of solidarity.

A poem billed as a "fragment from an old primer" extolling the virtues and vices of a Mr. Woodward. Courtesy of Barnard College Archives.

What’s in the book?  Satirical poems—parodies of then-famous songs and still-famous poets—containing “sacred and inviolate jokes or puns perpetrated at the expense of the Faculty.”  An ancient-looking tome with a lock on the side (seriously) and a little matching key, the Book is full of some of the prettiest handwriting you can imagine—both a condemnation of our current chicken scratch and a hint at how long college girls of yesteryear must have spent practicing penmanship.  Think how many books they could have read with those hours!  At any rate, the Book also gives us a more favorable history of Mysteries, courtesy of the entry by the Class of 1914, which comes after “a lapse of seven years” in which no entries or satirical poems appear.  According to the Class of 1914 (or, more accurately, Jean Earl Mökle, the member of it who wrote the 1914 pages), “during the period between the sophomore years of the Classes of 1907 and 1914,” the Mysteries Book was “lost, and ‘Mysteries’ gradually degenerated into an ‘absolute rough house,’ culminated by the somewhat notorious ‘reception’ given to 1913 by 1912.”

That “reception,” of course, is the “wet shammy,” “torture chamber,” “no rats, puffs, or false hair” extravaganza Myers Jewett describes, an event characterized in the Book as “a pointless imitation of the customs of hazing in Men’s Colleges.”  The Class of 1914 set Mysteries back on its original course, passing the Book on to the class of 1915 in all friendliness; 1915 passed it on, with no torture, to 1916, and the tradition kept on in a kindly fashion for another fifteen years.

The Class of 1914 reinstated the Mysteries Book and its accompanying friendly rituals. Courtesy of the Barnard College Archives

The last entry in the Mysteries Book is by the class of 1931, and though the entry does not reveal any waning of the ceremony’s popularity, 1931 nevertheless  passed to Book on not to 1932, but to the Alumnae Association.  With the retiring of the Book, Mysteries eventually faded into Barnard’s mysterious (ha ha ha) past, leaving behind only a few artifacts and a vague scent of juvenile transgression.

-Julia Mix Barrington ’12