Fifty years ago, S. Aaron Laden ’70 asked me to come to his dorm room for a secret meeting. That evening he informed the assembled group of a preposterous plan. He noted that the approaching Princeton-Rutgers game marked the 100th anniversary of college football. In the years before 1869, Princeton and Rutgers students had rumbled several times over possession of a Revolutionary War cannon. The cannon ultimately was buried on campus between Whig and Clio with just the breech end above ground. According to legend, the two universities agreed to settle their differences with a football game, and hence intercollegiate football was born.
Aaron said the idea would be to steal the cannon, claim Rutgers had purloined it, and then to display it before the game and acclaim our recovery of it. But the cannon weighed 1,088 pounds, and we never could have removed it. Instead, he said, let’s just dig a hole next to the cannon, cover up the portion above ground with the dirt, and trick everyone into believing that Rutgers had stolen it. Incredibly, our band of 12, in the dark of night, did just what Aaron proposed — and it worked.
A half-century ago on Sept. 25, one of the most ingenious hoaxes in Princeton history succeeded. Newspapers across the country touted Rutgers’ “masterful coup.” A day later we revealed, to another avalanche of national news, that the cannon was safely in place and it had all been a deception executed by clever, imaginative Princetonians. The headline in The Philadelphia Inquirer declared:
Cannon Heist All a Hoax
Princeton ‘Outguns’ Rutgers