Princeton’s new president, James McCosh, speaks from the porch of what is now Maclean House on his arrival, Oct. 20, 1868; less than two months later, students stole his horse.
Princeton University Archives
That Was Then: January 1870

In the annals of student mischief, stealing the horse of the president of Princeton ranks high. It was an expensive steed (valued at $1,500 in 1868, or $26,100 today), presented to the College’s new president, James McCosh, by an alumnus and taken from its stable in December 1868. 

Although the horse was soon found by a farmer and subsequently retrieved by a Trenton policeman, one mystery remained. Who had stolen it?

A year would pass before this question was publicly resolved, first in the pages of the Newark Daily Journal and then in the January 1870 edition of The Nassau Literary Magazine, which reprinted the tale, authored by an unidentified member of the Class of 1869. Pseudonyms were used — the chief perpetrator, Ned Scott, does not appear on Princeton’s student rolls — and as the Nassau Lit acknowledged, “whether this account is entirely correct or not, matters little. It is said to be true.”

With that caveat, readers learned that shortly before Christmas, while cramming for their final examination, two students, Ned and Chasey, decided to fortify themselves with a number of “Jamaica hots.” On their homeward stroll, Ned took a fancy to inspect McCosh’s horse, prying off the stable padlock with an iron bar. He then proposed riding to Trenton for “oyster stew,” but the initial gallop, with just a blanket and halter for support, proved too much for Chasey, leading to a second theft — “a nice, trim-looking sulky” — and a rapid flight when suspicions were aroused.

Reaching Trenton, the fugitives found the restaurants had closed. “Then our desperate situation dawned upon us vividly. Ten miles from home, the city asleep, ourselves hungry and most fearfully cold.” There was nothing to do but to abandon the long-suffering animal and make for the Trenton railroad depot, whence the pair returned to Princeton.

The author put a positive spin on McCosh’s reaction to this caper: “Could our dear President ... have seen the mettle of his horse as thus put to trial, he would have blessed the giver of that horse.”  

John S. Weeren is founding director of Princeton Writes and a former assistant University archivist.

For the record

The caption for the photo of James McCosh has been updated.