Recent Disturbance at Theater Recalls Serious Clashes of the Past, During One of Which a Cannon Was Trained On College Buildings

“THE recent demonstration by Yale students at the Shubert Theater in New Haven when Roberta Arnold, starring in ‘Sisters,’ during its run there, was obliged to step out of her character and urge the youths to desist, proved that the students of today are little different from their fathers and grandfathers of many years ago. Boys will be boys whether they represent the stirring sixties, the elegant eighties, or the trotting twenties, and the annals of the town and gown affairs in the Elm City show that while times and conditions change, the spirit of youth as depicted by the average student goes on as of yore.

Probably it was due to the careful vigilance of theater managers covering a period of years, the modern tactic of the police department and the fear of official action by the college authorities, that prevented the demonstration a week ago from reaching the proportions of student riots of other and perhaps, in their way, more boisterous years. Theater managers have let it be known that every undergraduate is entitled to just as many privileges and as much courtesy as any other patron, but that they must not let their enthusiasm or lack of enthusiasm go beyond the bounds of propriety. This attitude toward the college man has been vigilantly and energetically backed up by the police department and university officials.

Hence when the large body of boys, at least 300 of them, began to make themselves obnoxious during the performance of ‘Sisters,’ immediate steps were taken to quell any serious disturbance and after there had been one arrest and a general apology, the situation quieted down and there were no hard feelings on either side.

Heckling at Miss Arnold’s Performance.

The performances in which Miss Arnold had starred had been marked by heckling and general boisterousness throughout the week and when the Wednesday night performance was underway conditions became bad. Almost from the rise of the curtain it was apparent trouble was brewing and Miss Arnold was greeted by a chorus of hurrahs and hoots which grew louder as the entertainment progressed. Various fraternity members were wearing fraternity colors in their buttonholes and these flooded the stage as Miss Arnold opened her lines.

For a time she remained silent but the hooting showed no indication of becoming less. Then Miss Arnold addressed the boys pleasantly and brought some measure of calm. Later lines in the play casting reflections on college men elicited more tumult and finally near the end or the first act the leading lady stepped completely out of character to administer a firm reprimand to the youths. During the intermission some of the leaders sent apologies to Miss Arnold and although one student was arrested and later released, the trouble was at an end.

However, the affair while it lasted was put down by theater attendants as unparalleled in fifteen years. Police had responded on a hurry call and stood ready to take stringent measures in event the large assembly of students got out of control.

-Image courtesy of, University of California collection, “History of the class of Nineteen-hundred and fourteen, Yale college,” by George Washington Patterson, Yale University, Class of 1914

The Riots of Other Days.

They recalled the riots and demonstrations of other years when the results were far more disastrous, leading to at least one fatality and many injuries.

Standing out as by far the worst clash between town and gown in the Elm City was the historic occurrence of March 19, 1854, which, before It was over at the end of two days, had claimed one death and many injuries. A coroner’s inquest at the time was unable to reveal the murderer of Pat O’Nell, genial bartender at the old New Haven Hotel, who was stabbed, presumably by a student, in the midst of a riot near the corner of Chapel and College Streets. For years afterward the spirit between the Yale students and the town boys was far from friendly.

This daddy of all town-gown riots had its inception during a performance of a play which was being presented by a New Haven family consisting of Elisha Homan, his three brothers, and a sister, Esther, in the old Exchange Hall at Chapel and Church Streets where Riker’s drug store is now located. In those days the hall was known as Homan’s Atheneum and was the mecca for Yale men as well as the townspeople.

On Mischief Bent.

The college boys were bent on an evening of fun on the night when the riot began. They poured into the Atheneum 200 strong, and began to disturb the general peace of the place with squawks and deafening yells. The town folks objected. Among the college men, but not a Yale man, was a red-headed, pugilistic sort of chap, on from his home in Kansas for a visit with student acquaintances. He early assumed leadership of the student crowd and hurled defiance at the town boys who had insisted that the Yale men leave.

That night the college seethed with excitement but to those on the outside it was thought that the trouble was over.

The Kansas leader assembled the college students at 7 o’clock the next evening on the College Street side of the New Haven Hotel, where the Taft is now located, and led his warriors four abreast down Chapel Street to Church where they took possession of the Atheneum.

In the meantime the townies headed by a large group of what were described at the time as ‘roughs and toughs’ had assembled on the southerly side of the theater. Then the battle began.

The Stabbing.

Fists and clubs flew and it was not long before the students were in full flight up past the Central Green to the campus. At a point opposite what was known as Judge Shipman’s Folly, a dwelling house so called because it had cost the unheard of sum of $7,000, Pat O’Neil was stabbed, so it was thought, by a member of the student crowd.

Students Barricade Selves In Hall.

He was taken to the offices of the town watch in the old Globe building where he later died. In the meantime the townies, urged on by the utmost frenzy, forced the students to the campus where the latter proceeded to barricade the doors and windows of South College Hall.

The town boys, swelled by this time to more than a thousand, next went to the munitions house of the old National Blues, a military company, and forcing the door, lugged out the largest piece of equipment they could find. This proved to be a huge brass cannon. They towed this to the green opposite the college and had every intention of blowing the college buildings and the students sky-high.

The mayor and the police officials were by this time expending every effort to quell the riot and were calling out the militia companies. Equipment Master Beldon of the National Blues, hearing of the break at the supply house, speeded through the mob to the upper green and by a ruse was enabled to reach the cannon. He told the frenzied mob that he wanted to see that the cannon was able to do the work and was allowed access to it. Taking a rat-tail file from his pocket he suddenly jammed it into the touch hole of the cannon and it was immediately rendered useless barely in time to save the college buildings and the students, quaking, shivering and praying, behind the barricaded doors.

The pugilistically inclined gentleman from Kansas was never heard from again for he left town sometime during that night when some semblance of order had been restored. A Spaniard by the name of Emanuel Espanosla, who was the son of the then president of the South American country, Colombia, was one of the students involved at the time.

Suspected Student leaves Town.

Suspicion as to the slabbing of O’Neil fell upon a student by the name of Simms from Texas and friends during that night procured from ‘Turnip Top’ Benton, who ran a livery stable where the Union League Club now stands, his speediest horse, ‘Buckthorn,’ and before dawn Simms had driven away. It is said that neither he nor ‘Buckthorn’ ever returned to New Haven.

Conditions quieted down after awhile although for a long time afterward feeling ran high.

It was on February 26, 1877. that the next really serious outbreak occurred. That night a band of jovial students went to the performance at Music Hall where ‘George, the Count Joannes’ was playing to a large audience. After the entertainment a large group of students awaited to escort the tragedian to his hotel but the actor was detained. In the meantime the students became impatient and when a policeman ordered them to move away they refused. Apparently the officer’s diction was not acceptable to the students. The boys began to push the policeman and shortly a Scientific student was lying on the sidewalk from a blow on the head.

Police Versus Students.

The riot was on and the police, recalling the occurrence 20 years before, dispatched every available officer to the center. Wholesale arrests were made but the next day all were either released or given small fines.

‘Four Years at Yale’ depicts many smaller riots and demonstrations which marked the period of which the book relates and discloses that the day of the eighties were turbulent ones between town and gown.

One of the most serious of the ‘bottle night’ clashes occurred on Sept, 26, 1907, when the class of 1911, known during their four years there as “Nineteen Lemons,” waxed too enthusiastic for the police and intervention was necessary before order was restored. In those days there were drinking emporiums galore in New Haven and ‘bottle night’ was one of the wildest nights of the year. Around the center at that time were White’s Tontine, Old Heidelberg, Pabst’s, the Boulevard, and Heublein’s, al1 cafes which are now merely memories to New Haveners and Yale men.

Foremost among the theater riots during the present generation was that which occurred just before the war at the Old Hyperion Theater shortly after that theater, in its day one of the finest in New England, had been taken over by the Shuberts.

-Image courtesy of, University of California collection, “History of the class of Nineteen-hundred and fourteen, Yale college,” by George Washington Patterson, Yale University, Class of 1914

The Coming of Gaby Deslys.

Gaby Deslys, the French beauty, then much before the public eye as the favorite of the Portuguese king, came to New Haven as star in a musical revue. She was heralded far and wide and her coming attracted no little attention, especially in college circles.

She played at the Old Hyperion, located opposite Vanderbilt Hall. Gaby’s press agents had set her forth as the favorite of King Manuel and she was to wear many of the jewels including the priceless necklace he was said to have given her.

The show itself proved to be a mediocre musical revue. There wasn’t much to it but the women in the cast were lavishly gowned and there was quite a display of jewelry. The curiosity over King Manuel’s favorite naturally drew big crowds, but after viewing the first act there seemed to be little satisfaction either with Gaby or with her show.

At the beginning of the last act the Yale men present, who had been growing mote and more hilarious in guying the players, started throwing money on the stage. Some of the coins hit Gaby and she become very indignant. In an instant and as if by magic the entire student body rose and began yelling at the top of their lungs.

The Show Is Stopped.

Tumult followed and the students began a rush to the stage. Two or three men got on the stage before the stage hands, who had sent a hurry call to the police, were able to get out to fight them back. The curtain was rung down and the performance stopped. The company left the stage and the house was ordered cleared.

The Yale men refused to leave and the large crowd that remained commenced to jump upon the seats in the orchestra pit. Chairs were pulled up and smashed, and pandemonium broke loose. The place was wrecked and many tiers of seats had to be replaced before the theater could be reopened.

Repeated effort to clear the house proved futile as the students were stubborn in their desire to remain. Then of a sudden the curtain was rung up again and several of the stage hands began to play the hose on the audience. In the rear of the house many women who were endeavoring to leave or who lagged behind to view the excitement were drenched and had their clothing ruined. The management later reimbursed all claims presented.

Outside on the streets the rioting resumed and a Yale athlete, member of the football team, was among the students knocked out by policemen.

One fellow was arrested after a brick had been hurled through the illuminated sign in front of the theater, but he was released later when it was proven he had not heaved the missile. The only injuries other than loss to property were to a few students who were knocked down in the fight.

The affair was unquestionably the biggest theater riot yet participated in by Yale students but the matter was soon forgotten and passed by. No action was taken by the university officials.

Managers Put Their Foot Down.

Since that time there has been a general understanding among the theater managers that they will not tolerate unseemly conduct from the students or from anyone else. A year or so ago a party of students at Poli’s Palace discovered that by standing up in the gallery they could cause pantomimes to show upon the screen where a photoplay was being presented. This performance on their part, however, did not last long. They were speedily escorted to the street and thence to the police station, where all four, scions of wealthy families, were fined the following day in city court.

It is now the agreed policy among the theaters that all students be treated with the utmost courtesy, but that they be allowed no more favors or privileges than are shown other patrons. It is not infrequent for students to make remarks to players on the stage but these are met with prompt action by the theater attaches. Riots of other years so far as theaters are concerned are minimized by the determination of the managers not to tolerate any boisterousness in their playhouses. The danger of an outbreak usually comes when the students attend in a body and the spirit of fun gets the better of them.

The 1919 Outbreak.

A resume of the disturbances by Yale men in the past would not be complete without mention of the outbreak which occurred in 1919 just after the members of New Haven’s companies in the 102nd Regiment had returned from France.

The victorious soldiers participated in a parade which marched passed the Yale building in College Street. For some reason the veterans thought they had been affronted by the college men and there was a gathering of town fellows the next night on the lower side of the Green near Bennett Fountain.

This indignation meeting crystallized feeling against the students and soon the town men, among them many of the war veterans, swarmed over the Green past Center Church in the direction of the campus. They proceeded to smash windows and raise havoc generally while the students retaliated as best they could. Every effort was made by the police and fire department to curb the riot and the firemen played water on the disturbers. Rioting continued the next night on an even larger scale, windows being broken in buildings as far away as Whitney Avenue. Yale later brought damage claims against the city for broken windows and other damage which had been done.

The dining hall riot of more recent date was confined entirely to students. This outbreak occurred at the University Dining Hall adjoining Woolsey Hall where undergraduates expressed indignation over certain restrictions which had been posted there.

They began by tossing biscuits from one table to another and it was not long before dishes were being hurled forward and backward in the big eating place. Tables, linen, and china were ruined and later the university prepared a schedule of damages which amounted to a round sum. This they assessed against the entire class which had participated in the riot. There were also other punishments inflicted upon the class as a whole, and this taught the youths a lesson which will not soon be forgotten by succeeding classes of Yale men.”
-Excerpt courtesy of, The Hartford Courant, Sunday, December 18, 1927. (top) “A group of the class of ninety-something just everlastingly whooping things up. Those were the days when college boys were one hundred per cent hellions — ask any grad.” Image courtesy of, The Hartford Courant, illustration by R. V. Culter in “The Gay Nineties,” Sunday, December 18, 1927

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