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March 14, 2012
At the end of an eventful day, September 29, 1872, Mary Downing Sheldon, a junior in LSA, took out paper and pen with images of mayhem fresh in her mind.
"I must tell you about the rush," she wrote her best friend. "I never saw one until this semester."
She had been walking between classes on the Diag when she saw a crowd of young men packed around the entrance to a classroom building. All of them were sophomores, she soon realized.
"The Sophs took off coats and vests and stood waiting. The Fresh came out of their recitation room door and found their way blockaded."
Mary stood back and watched, aghast, as one freshman after another tried to bull his way through the dense crowd.
But "one after another was seized, by foot, head, or any convenient part, his hair pulled by anybody who could reach it, his limbs pulled in as many different directions as there were Sophs around, and he was finally thrown down heels over head in the sand to bite the dust.
"Since seeing that," Mary wrote her friend, "I have a much more vivid idea of the horror of a mob and the fierce cruelty of mankind."
* * *
The old school "rush" was a mainstay of campus life at Michigan and many other schools long before it was domesticated beyond recognition into—as today’s dictionaries put it—"the process whereby college fraternities or sororities entertain new students in order to assess suitability for membership."
From its beginnings before the Civil War into the early 1900s, the rush was a rite of passage by physical ordeal and, quite literally, class warfare.
Sometimes spontaneous, sometimes scheduled, the fracases typically pitted sophomores against freshmen, with the sophs out to show the freshmen their proper place as underlings. Juniors and seniors generally regarded themselves as above such childish frolics, though they approved of them, having weathered the ordeal themselves.
Sometimes it was simply a matter of planned physical abuse, as in the incident Mary Sheldon witnessed. More often the rush entailed the capture of a piece of turf or the forcible ejection of the enemy over a fence or boundary. It was semi-good-natured and dangerous. Serious injuries were common, accidental deaths not unheard of.
At Michigan, the rush was often waged not only between the underclasses but between schools—Lits vs. Laws, Laws vs. Medics, Medics vs. Lits.
Six weeks after seeing her first rush, Mary Sheldon reported one of these school-vs.-school rushes, now with a certain bloodthirsty fascination.
"Yesterday there was the greatest rush there has been for years," she told her friend. "The whole literary department against all the medical. The battle commenced early in the afternoon and lasted until it was too dark for the combatants to distinguish one another. The medics wore red bits of cloth tied around the arms and a great many of them had their cheeks painted red…
"There are rumors…that there were two or three badly hurt and not expected to live. This may not be true, but then again it may. Although we live a full half mile away, yet we heard the shouts and yells the whole afternoon.… The literaries finally conquered, throwing the Medics over the high picket fence."
The next morning there was heated talk about the battle at her boarding house breakfast table, with one of her housemates, a Spaniard from Cuba named D’Aubique, recounting his own heroic role.
The landlady, Mrs. Foster, said someone should have put a stop to it.
"Who can stop it?" D’Aubique demanded. "President Angell can’t, for he came right out among the Freshmen and Sophomores!"
"President Angell!" Mrs. Foster scoffed. "Would you expect him to be able to stop a herd of wild buffaloes on our Great Plains when the fire was behind them? No more can he stop these young hot heads!"
When, in a letter to the Chronicle, forerunner of the Daily, an indignant student protested the rush as "entirely unbecoming to university men or the character of gentlemen," he was countered by an upperclassman who compared the tradition to the noble games of ancient Greece and Rome.
"If carried to excess it may do physical injury," the defender conceded. "But all athletic sports are liable to the same objection…. A rush is the incarnation of energy in its most playful mood.
"What is there to stamp rushing as a more ungentlemanly sport than foot-ball? Does not the latter partake of the nature of the rush? Is there not the same rudeness—the same boyishness—the same spirit throughout?"
* * *
By the early twentieth century, faculty and administrators had had about enough.
The main event had been regularized into a single day in the fall, "Black Friday," when freshmen gathered to defend a flagpole where their banner flew. But guerrilla strikes between the classes went on for weeks beforehand.
When a Daily reporter in 1908 asked Harry Burns Hutchins, dean of the Law School (and a U-M "Law" of 1871 himself) whether he approved of the rush, Hutchins stormed: "Approve of it! Young man, the whole business is an abomination—a disgrace to an American university! … How can we go to Lansing and ask the legislators to make us appropriations? The first thing they do is to throw the rush up in our faces."
Hutchins warned Law students to quit the rush or be expelled. A year later, in 1909, he was named president of the University, and before long the rush was seen less and less. Remnants of the original survived only in bloodless, sanctioned remnants called "Cap Day," "Class Day" and "Field Day"—and in fraternity hazing. The old rush has more in common with a fifth-grade game of Capture the Flag than with today’s sedate "Rush Week."
Did you have any strange initiation experiences at Michigan? If you were in the Greek system, what was your experience of Rush Week? Share your stories in the comments section.
is an author and historian. His new book, The Man He Became: How Franklin Roosevelt Defied Polio to Win the Presidency, will be published by Simon & Schuster in November.