The very best of student escapades

Take an environment that can generate the Triangle kickline, Cane Spree, and the Nude Olympics, let it percolate for 250 years or so, add a pile of 18-year-olds and The Daily Prince­tonian’s annual joke issue, and you would expect some pretty spiffy student pranks to break out.  

You would be right.

From the discovery of the first 500-pound farm animal on the top floor of the first dorm, Nassau Hall, in 1756 – roughly 10 minutes after the first undergrads took up residence – students have approached with zeal and craft an array of jokes, hoaxes, and physical gags that beggar the mature imagination and often social propriety.

Here, counting down, are Princeton’s top 10 pranks – at least in this ­reviewer’s mind:

No. 10   When Harold Shapiro *64 returned to become Princeton’s president, his home phone number was listed in the local directory. So in 1996 an enterprising group of students printed hundreds of fliers advertising a new pizza joint on Nassau Street offering large cheese pizzas for only $5, and delivery until 2 a.m. – with Shapiro’s number. The telephone line at the new Hal’s Pizza was inundated by midnight, but the resourceful economist found the weak spot in the hoax: He took the phone off the hook. 

No. 9   There was a point behind clapper stealing when it began in 1864: If the Nassau Hall bell didn’t ring, you didn’t have to go to class (or so students said). Freshmen nabbed the bell dozens of times over the decades, breaking inside locks, climbing outside walls, even masquerading as repairmen. But the expense to the University of computer-timing mechanisms, dramatic 40-foot student swan dives onto gravel and potentially — of course – lawyers doomed the quasi-annual tradition in 1992, when the clapper was removed permanently. 

No. 8   On the theory that no altruistic gesture should go unpunished, final exams – unproctored, thanks to the Honor Code pledge, since 1893 – have proven a marvelous target of opportunity. Many are the examinees (unfailingly, ringers) who have burst into sobs and violent rants, ripped their papers to shreds, and stormed out. An inspiring exam-hall favorite in the ’60s and ’70s was the Red Baron, a dashing — literally – ace streaking through, to thunderous applause, in World War I pilot’s leather helmet and goggles, red silk scarf and/or red cape and/or red sneakers ... and nothing else. 

No. 7   On the Thursday prior to the Yale football game in November 1979, four Yale cheerleaders picked up their mascot, Handsome Dan, for a photo shoot from the professor who owned him. They all then vanished. Not being complete sadists, the disguised Princeton undergrads who had pulled off the bulldognapping called the owner to reassure him and promise him wine and cigars, then returned Danny Girl – the only female Dan to date – to the real Yalies at halftime of the game at midfield, demurely festooned in orange and black.  

No. 6   The Princeton University Band’s track record of friction with author­ity figures may have peaked with a November 1967 show at Harvard televised by ABC. The network was unhappy with the scramblers’ previously broadcast double entendres and was going to ignore the band; members got wind of this and invited the TV director to its Saturday-morning Cambridge rehearsal. The first formation was a gigantic “ABC” on the field with network theme music, while the public-address narrator intoned blandishments about “a blatant plug.” The director thought this was cute, so the network reversed course and carried the band show at halftime. On the field, though, the “A” quickly changed into an “N” and the band broke into “Who’s Sorry Now?”

No. 5   Awarding extra points for longevity, and for repeatedly appearing in front of both administrators and parents, we laudate the Latin salutatory address, a staple since 1748. Ostensibly a display of the students’ amazing facility in classical languages, around 1950 it took a huge leap into prankdom by surreptitiously giving only the new graduates Latin cue sheets telling them to applaud (hic plaudite), boo, hiss – whatever – at crucial points; thus it serves each class as a last bonding in-joke of us against the world. Stubbornly remaining in the original Latin as the rest of the Commence­ment ceremony switched over to English, it continues to this dei and ad infinitum.

No. 4   There have been many inspirational imaginary classmates, usually created to embody group spirit – among them, Scott Fitzgerald’s classmate Bert Hormone ’17 and Ephriam di Kahble ’39, who one term “turned in” 20 signed final exams (recall #8 above) – but the hands-down winner is Joseph D. Oznot ’68 p’01 s’01, created from thin air by four members of the Class of 1966 and so well-credentialed (great SATs and personal interview executed by non-Princeton ringers) that he was enthusiasti­cally admitted by an oblivious admission office. His new Class of ’68 took the gag and ran with it, documenting Oznot’s daring global exploits in Class Notes over the years, including his relatively recent marriage to his daughter’s freshman roommate. 

No. 3   Under pressure from veterans in 1936, Congress made controversial World War I bonuses payable immediately. In view of the grim world situation, an impromptu Prince­ton student group thereby demanded $1,000 payments in advance to all draft-eligible males since they certainly would be called into the military soon, and were at least alive to enjoy the money now.   Gleefully anointing themselves as the Veterans of Future Wars, they struck a nerve in the national psyche; 500 campus chapters organized almost ­instantly, outraging both veterans and Congress.

No. 2   In 1875, acting on a rumor, Rutgers students stole the Revolu­tionary War cannon buried next to Clio Hall. It was returned from New Brunswick to Princeton only through the intercession of impartial negotiators, similar to today’s Middle East diplomacy. Subse­quently, a week before the Rutgers-Princeton 100th-anniversary football game in 1969, it was stolen again, leaving behind a huge hole in the ground and derisive scarlet anti-Tiger graffiti. Several Rutgers groups took credit, and the proctors – based in Stanhope Hall, about 50 yards from the crater – were abashed. The day before the game, the Princetonian was tipped to the truth: Princeton seniors had dug the pit and piled the resulting dirt on top of the cannon, figuring correctly that no one would bother to look underneath. The cannon hoax embarrassed the bogus Rutgers claimants and raised Princeton school spirit, slightly salving the Tigers’ subsequent 29–0 loss.

And the No. 1 Princeton prank of all time: On the Friday afternoon of Houseparties in 1963, the desperadoes swung into action: A car was parked across the Dinky line, four horses rented from a nearby stable, masks and ­six-shooters acquired, “victims” prepared. The Great Train Robbery went off like clockwork, with four students riding out of a John Wayne film to hold up the blocked train on its way to campus, fire a couple blanks, “kidnap” four dates and then – after politely refusing the wallets and gold ­jewelry offered by clueless commuters – galloping into the woods, the eight men and women hanging onto the horses for dear life. The conductor arrived at Princeton station with the honor of being the victim of the only railway holdup in the United States since 1923; the perps rode over to Cap and Gown in full regalia, stopping by Bo Diddley’s live set on the front lawn. Thence they rode west, into the sunset and the mists of legend.  

It’s certainly true that a successful prank is dependent upon timing, the prankster, the prankee, and good publicity — not to mention the local forces of law and order — so this list is necessarily subjective. If you feel your roommate’s adventure with the dry ice, wastebasket, and two hamsters should have made the top 10, don’t just seethe. Rush to paw.princeton.edu with your story, or any other campus-prank tale you’ve heard, and share it by posting a comment to this article. It’s also a good place to check on prank/hoax rumors you may have long puzzled over; arguments will be adjudicated by Liz Greenberg ’02, author of the senior thesis “Barely Remem­bered: A History of Prince­ton University Prank Traditions,” using the strictest of standards:“What would the Red Baron do?”

Gregg Lange ’70, PAW Online’s Rally ’Round the Cannon  columnist, last May received the Alumni Council Award for Service to Princeton. Presumably, this was not a hoax.