“In New Haven in 1919, spring really did burst out all over in the most memorable and bloody town-and-gown riot of modern time. It lasted for three days and three nights, several innocent bystanders were killed, and several score were hospitalized. And, except for the casualties, everybody concerned had a marvelous time which is why I felt so abused at not having been in it.
The reason I was not on hand for this affair was that I was ignominiously hospitalized at the time, from infectious boils, acquired as a wrestler. So I missed all the fun.
The whole thing began simply enough. There was a parade. It was to celebrate the return of the veterans, and its route of march led past the Yale campus. The City of New Haven put it on. All veterans were urged to march, and an invitation was duly printed in the Yale Daily News. But the undergraduate reaction to this courtesy was a resounding horselaugh.
Student veterans had done their marching; the American Legion found few recruits among them. When the day for the parade came, however, some embryo stuffed shirts got out their old S.A.T.C. uniforms, put them on, and joined the marchers.
The parade itself had bands, of course, and when it came abreast of the campus, these bands drew heads to windows. Soon these heads had many a coarse comment to make on the military below. This might have been enough to start trouble, but when the students in the windows saw some of their own classmates in the ranks, their joy and derision knew no bounds. Those who were hapless enough to boast an S.A.T.C. ancestry, everyone felt, had it coming to them.
Maybe a few things did get thrown out the windows. Anyway, enough happened to encourage the newspapers in New Haven to print a scathing editorial denouncing the bad manners of the clearly unpatriotic Yale student body.
And that still might have been all right if the editorial writer hadn’t gotten carried away and included in his dithyramb a suggestion to the citizens of New Haven to do something about it. They did.
Some veterans’ organization announced that it would hold a mass meeting of protest on the New Haven Commons the following noon and the newspaper had to go and box that on the front page. It was an invitation to every hoodlum within trolley trip of New Haven to come and join the fun. Several thousand showed up. On this assembled multitude, some rabble rousers went to work, and within the hour and a convenient lunch hour it was, too the ranks had swelled to ten thousand strong. Finally some- one yelled, ‘What are we waiting for? Let’s go get ’em’ and the show was on.
New Haven’s ancient green abuts the old Yale campus, the strong high gates of which could be hastily closed. But the Yale campus is only a small part of the University, which spreads out over a square mile or two to the west and north.
Breaking against the fortress that the campus now became, the mob split and be- gan overflowing adjacent streets, smashing windows and overturning cars as it went. And also, as a matter of course, beating the hell out of anyone who looked like a student of Yale University. The hallmark of a student then being his hatlessness, anyone with the bad luck to be uncovered got beaten up. Since the seniors in New Haven’s high schools were also against headgear, an appalling number of them were casualties.
I don’t think anyone knew exactly how the riot came to acquire such momentum that it took several days and nights to stop it. I put it down to the counterattacks that soon began developing. Students on the Academic campus, who’d been locked in, man- aged to get out, through the windows. And Sheff Town couldn’t be locked up. Within hours, counter gangs had been recruited and were at work. On their side, the Townies kept bringing up reinforcements from mill towns like Branford and Bridgeport. These always were tough places. On both sides, all sense of proportion was soon lost in the melee of flying fists and on and on it went.
A wonderful example of a typical misfortune was what happened to a boy named Roland M. (“Poly”) Hooker. (He was later to become one of my best friends, but I didn’t know him then.) Hooker had been off on a binge the day the shooting began and returned to town, the second night, in a beautiful robin’s-egg-blue Pierce Arrow touring car with the top down, accompanied by three other undergraduates and two young ladies. They had driven innocently down Chapel Street and turned into an alleyway by the old Hyperion Theater, which led to the garage where Hooker stabled his car. A small splinter group of fifty or sixty Townies saw him making the turn and followed such conspicuous evidence of student affluence down the alley.
In those days, it was not characteristic of Roland M. Hooker to return from a binge stone sober. And indeed he was not when, coming to rest in the garage, he looked up to find himself surrounded by grim countenances. He was six feet three inches tall and had bright red hair. Clearly he was not going to sit there and do nothing. But beside him sat a smoother and much more self-possessed classmate, who stood up and took charge before Hooker could move. This one asked the ringleader what it was all about, and was told. Thereupon he launched into a brilliant and reasonable defense of his own and his fellows’ credentials.
‘I myself,’ he said, ‘served two years at sea on a submarine chaser. And this gentleman here,’ he said pointing to Hooker, ‘was twice decorated for bravery in action. We’re on your side, brother veterans.’
A breath of approval ruffled the upturned faces of his audience. He had just about won the day when some dim and con-fused version of what was going on finally made its way into Hooker’s head. Wriggling from behind the wheel, he stood up and pushed his persuasive advocate out of the way.
‘These bastards,’ he announced in a loud, clear, and very deep bass voice, ‘killed my father and my mother and now the sons of bitches want to kill me.’
He was never able to recollect what made him say that, be- cause when he came to, he was in the New Haven General Hospital with his jaw broken in four places. The odd rib or two and collarbone, he didn’t count. It was the broken jaw, which interrupted his career as a tankard man, that bothered him…
These stories are typical of the three days and nights of the Great Riot of 1919. The New Haven police had never at any time even approached the ability to calm things down. It was strongly suspected by the students that their hearts were not in it, as long as more students than Townies were being beaten up. Hostility between the New Haven Police Force and Yale students has over a century of tradition behind it.
The Governor of Connecticut was working on getting the militia out when the Fire Department took over. It was the Fire Department that put out the fire. Strategically stationed pumpers with high-pressure hoses cooled out first one group and then another, and the violence sputtered and went out.
I have not studied the history of undergraduate riots, but I suspect that spring is the natural season for them. It is also, and eminently, the season for girls. And in New Haven in my day girls meant Chapel Street and Chapel Street meant girls.
To residents, of course, Chapel Street is simply the east-west artery that divides uptown from down and also the City from the University. South of Chapel lies the business district of New Haven, its warehouses, and, finally, the railway station; to the north there are the post office and civic buildings, the better residential districts, and, just west of them, Yale University. On Chapel itself, facing the Green and the University, there are, in succession, the biggest department store in town (Malley’s) and the Taft Hotel, which is often thought of as an outpost of Broad- way because it stands next door to the Shubert Theater. At the Shubert, they try out so many Broadway productions that the lobby of the Taft always seems to bulge with actors and actresses, harassed producers, press agents, and distraught playwrights when they aren’t crowded into oblivion by a football crowd bound for the Yale Bowl.
To the men who play football in the bowl, Chapel Street is a much simpler thing; it’s the place where you pick up girls. That is, it was for a long succession of generations, including my own. Maybe it isn’t any more. Maybe the Cocktail Lounge, which didn’t exist in my day, has taken over. But Chapel Street was a trysting place as far back as my father’s time. In those college scrapbooks of Father’s there are sketches showing Chapel Street girls in exaggerated bustles carrying parasols and being bowed to by scheming young men in tight-fitting pants. Their bowler hats were always respectfully tipped.
Father, of course, never explained such phenomena to me, ever. All the sex education I got from him was brief and to the point. When he was driving with me back to college after some vacation or other in my eighteenth or nineteenth year he said suddenly, apropos only of a long silence: ‘Be careful when you get to New Haven, boy; don’t ever run around with a mill girl.’ I was too startled to ask what memories prompted the remark. I never did find out. My father’s icy reserve when the subject of sex entered the conversation was always too formidable for me to crack.
His repertoire, however, did include one risque joke, which he would retell from time to time under very special circumstances. It was about a tiny little man who was annoying a great big buxom woman by following her about. When she could stand it no longer, she called a policeman and had the little man arrested. He’d been tagging after her all day long. When they got to the police station, the big desk sergeant looked down at the little man and shook his head.
‘Whyever would you be doing such a thing, annoying this nice lady that’s done you no harm?’
‘Meaning no offense, sir,’ said the little man, ‘I was just charging my battery.’
A faint blush always illumined my father’s flowing and snowy- white mustache when he told this tale, which must have been right on the button when the Leyden jar was first invented.
When you’re eighteen and it’s spring, no one’s batteries need charging. And the young ladies who strolled on Chapel Street in my day were not yet sophisticated enough to distinguish between students who were members of fraternities and outcasts like Bish and me. They were not ladies of light virtue really. Or let’s put it, rather, that they had their self-respect. Most had jobs, many of them in Malley’s, so that when they came off work they had simply to tarry on Chapel Street a while in case something should turn up. Their curious pride was that they went out only with Yale students. To socialize with their brothers’ friends, they considered beneath them little snobs that they were rapidly be- coming. And, of course, for self-protection they always hunted in pairs and knew well how to administer the brisk brush-off. The crusher, in 1919, was ‘Oh, be your age!’
If nothing promising turned up on Chapel Street, young ladies on the prowl would then proceed to a moving-picture house a few blocks away, just off Church, the street that intersects Chapel to make New Haven’s Broadway and Forty-second Street. There, the male signal that interest had been aroused was given by mov- ing over and sitting directly behind the young ladies, who, of course, had already given their signal by sitting in front of two unoccupied seats.
In the moving-picture house, further approach was not oral. It was distinctly bad form to speak first. You simply reached a leg out under the seat in front of you, and knew where you stood by how hard it was kicked. This was called ‘Playing Footy’ and sometimes went on for a long while.
It was during this phase that conversation could begin but not between boys and girls. The girls discussed the boys, each speaking only to the other, and the boys discussed the girls, in clearly audible tones, so that the frank and scathing quality of the sarcasm could be appreciated. When, as and if wits were seen to match, the bargain was made.
What happened next depended, of course, upon whether the particular students involved were in funds that evening. The girls understood this. For them it was a game of chance whether the payoff was a single beer, which had to be nursed all evening, or a taxi down to Savin Rock for a shore dinner and it was etiquette for them not to wheedle. They were really very nice girls.
At Savin Rock, if they made it, the party found a pleasant provincial amusement park, complete with a roller coaster and a tunnel of love. Going there had charm, but what gave it thrill was the common knowledge that it bordered a certain row of dingy clapboard houses. These had once been mansions but were now available to the public as houses of assignation. They had names like Jimmy’s and Joe’s, and they were all alike. In the downstairs parlor, there was a bar where cheap liquor was sold for a dollar a one-ounce whisky glass and you could sit around there getting up your courage to rent one of the rooms upstairs.
The acquiescence of a Chapel Street girl to be taken to Savin Rock most definitely did not include a commitment to proceed with you to Jimmy’s or Joe’s. That part was optional or, rather, it was up to you to make it seem inviting enough for a girl to risk cross-questioning when she got home. For home she would go eventually but if Savin Rock included Jimmy’s, she knew darned well she’d be late, and maybe smelling of whisky.
So the usual process of initiation into manhood for the Yale freshman in those days involved a series of forays over a period of weeks, each one getting closer and closer to Jimmy’s or Joe’s, and, finally, in a turbulence of conflicting emotions, ‘making the grade,’ as it was put.
The actual act itself was never very pretty. It had usually taken too much whisky to get up nerve enough to be there at all, for everybody was very shy about everything. It was, for in- stance, against the rules to leave a light turned on. A girl might go to bed with you, but she’d sooner die than let you see her in her slip.
Also, everybody was very ill at ease afterward and usually remorseful. These were not love affairs. They were part of the ritual process of growing up; and they were rites conducted by amateurs. The most vivid memory I have of my own rite is the number of cigarettes my young lady had to light and smoke down to a stub that burned her before she would condescend to begin.”
-excerpt courtesy of the Internet Archive, “Point Of Departure, An Adventure In Autobiography,” by Ralph Mcallister Ingersoll, 1961. (top) Image courtesy of, “Pictures of buildings, grounds and landmarks in New Haven, 1653-1970 (inclusive). Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University,” “Hyperion Theater, 1030 Chapel Street, east of High Street,” photographer unknown, 1908