Pranks and hoaxes are an important part of Harvard’s history; in fact, it’s entirely possible the FM chairs were joking when they asked me to write this article. Many pranks in Harvard’s history, it seems, center around a particular weekend in November—current students, we’re lookin’ at you to make every day of the year paint-a-historic-statue day. Regardless of the uneven timing of the practical jokes, FM delved into the archives to bring you a sampling of the multitude of pranks in the College’s history.
Early 1800s—In the days when the bell in Memorial Church is open to the public, students find it amusing to tug the chain during the small hours of the morning, prompting officials to restrict access. In this era of unintentional early-risers begins the “Medical Faculty Society,” or the “Med. Fac.”: a group of students dedicated to pranking the College. In the century before it was abolished in 1905, the society regales Harvard with lectures in broken Latin, fake diplomas bestowed upon notable dignitaries such as the prince of Haiti and a sea serpent, live cows on top of Memorial Hall, and two of Harvard’s Bibles sent to Yale.
1885—William Randolph Hearst is expelled from Harvard for mailing his professors chamber pots. Each is customized with the recipient’s name and image engraved on the inside of the pot.
April 26, 1953—As part of an ongoing rivalry, The Crimson steals the Lampoon’s beloved Ibis from under the nose of then-president John H. Updike ’54. In response, the Lampoon kidnaps Crimson’s president and managing editor, though the two resurface in Manhattan after the Lampoon realizes their prank cannot escape the law. While in New York, the two students previously held against their will donate the ibis to Moscow University, putting the ibis into the custody of Semyon K. Tsarapkin, the deputy representative of the USSR to the United Nations. The Lampoon is able to use its connections to retrieve the bird before it is sent to Russia.
November 27, 1963—Yale suspends six students who are caught painting “BEAT HARVARD” in blue, three-foot letters on the Widener columns. Removing the statement costs around $1,000, paid for by the accused students.
November 22, 1982—Spectators and football players alike are alarmed at the Harvard-Yale football game when a massive black balloon swells out of the 45-yard line. Quickly dubbed “The Blob,” the balloon spells out the letters “M.I.T.” and explodes into a puff of smoke. At halftime of the same game, 40 M.I.T. students disguise themselves as members of the Yale band and rush out onto the field, lying down in a formation that spells out the acronym of their school. Ten minutes into the fourth quarter, red and while placards are handed out. Harvard spectators are told they read “Beat Yale,” but in reality they read the name of—what else—M.I.T. A fourth planned prank involving the sound system never comes to fruition.
October 14, 1983—At 3:02 a.m., a Harvard student reports to HUPD that the John Harvard statue has been painted green, an act that was attributed to Dartmouth prior to the annual Harvard-Dartmouth football game. A Crimson article reporting on the prank notes that when several Dartmouth fraternities were contacted and requested to admit responsibility for the paint, “all were happy to hear that John Harvard was painted green, but none would say they did it.”
October 27, 2009—The Hasty Pudding Club has its initiates “guard” the John Harvard statue, preventing tourists from taking pictures, the only time this has occurred since the invention of the portable camera.
September 27, 2011—The Lampoon steals the President’s Chair from The Crimson, and lends it as a prop on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. This time, no international diplomacy is needed to return the organization’s emblem.