PAW Tracks

As freshmen in 1950, Richard Muhl ’54 and Alan Whelihan ’54 took part in a September tradition: stealing the clapper from the Nassau Hall bell. But holding onto the prize proved to be harder than expected. Listen to their story in PAW Tracks, our new podcast series.

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The Class of ’54 clapper captors.
Princeton University Archives

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The Nassau Hall bell. Princetonians today think of it as a sound of celebration, announcing the start of Commencement or the P-rade. For earlier generations, the bell signaled something different: the start of classes. And that, in turn, sparked a tradition for Princeton freshmen.

AW: I’m Alan Whelihan of the great class of 1954. Well, the tradition was to steal the clapper from the bell so it wouldn’t ring for the first classes on the Monday morning when classes started. So the idea was take the clapper from the bell, and classes would not have to start.

Whelihan spoke with PAW in June, when he was back for the Class of ’54’s 60th reunion. He had known about the clapper tradition before he arrived on campus. He had uncles and neighbors in the Philadelphia suburbs who had graduated from Princeton. But for newcomers like classmate Richard Muhl, a native of St. Louis, Missouri, the University’s customs were entirely new.

RM: My name is Richard R. Muhl, class of ’54, was known then as Dick. I mean, I’d never heard of the cane spree, for example. So I came without any preconceptions, other than I was probably lucky to have been awarded a scholarship and an entry. So everything about it was new.

Muhl was an engineering major, which in those days meant arriving early for a special course before the start of classes. During that course, he became friends with a fellow freshman named Bob Marler and began to learn more about Princeton.    

RM: There were sophomores around, too, who were also a week early. So we moved into our dorms probably two weeks before some of our roommates got there. And so we were learning not only what that stuff in the brown bottles tasted like, but about the things that freshmen did if they were real freshmen. And somewhere along the way we heard there was this tradition of the freshmen stealing the clapper. Bob and I decided that we were as well equipped as anybody to kind of lay siege to it.

That was step one — deciding to steal the clapper. Then came the planning.

RM: So, we thought about how we were going to do it, and Bob and I decided what we needed to do was have a large pipe wrench, in case we ran into a lock that we needed to remove, and maybe a lock to put on behind us, so we would get locked in. And we made one or two reconnaissances of the upper hall and scoped it out. But I think it was a Sunday that we decided this was going to be it.

Whelihan, who was part of Muhl’s clapper caper crew, recalled an additional bit of creativity.

AW: We got and dressed in painters’ costumes, with a ladder and what not, to sneak in, we though, undetected. I think probably the proctors had been alerted to let this happen.

After getting into the building, the freshmen waited a bit before beginning the task of detaching the clapper from the bell.

RM: Bob was going to be our ground man, and Ken Schneider was the fellow who was going to be up in the cupola with me. So we duly got up there with a vice-grip pliers and a bolt remover, to give us some leverage. So at some stage, the two of us got up there, and we put one on one side and one on the other, and the thing came off really surprisingly easy. I think it was only a half an hour. So I think maybe Dean Godolphin or somebody had put some oil on it or some Rustoleum to make sure it came off easily and nobody was going to lever themselves out of the cupola onto the roof.  

We should note here that Muhl and Whelihan’s stories differ a bit. Muhl said he and Ken Schneider liberated the clapper. Whelihan thought it might have been classmate Noah Herndon. But keep in mind, this happened 64 years ago. In any case, the two agree about what supposed to happen next.

RM: I must have given it to Bob, who meanwhile was evading some of the proctors, who probably weren’t around anywhere. So we’d done our work, slipped the clapper to Bob, and he’d heaved it over the edge or slipped it over the edge. And we’d had a couple people waiting. But we didn’t realize there were two after it — so not only the two good guys, but about six bad guys. Somehow the next morning we woke up to find that the clapper that was so well hidden was not well hidden anymore. And then it came negotiation time.

The Daily Princetonian reported the details: A second group of freshmen had swiped the hidden clapper, and after a meeting, the two sides agreed to share it by cutting the trophy into 13 pieces. Muhl and Whelihan say that never happened. But at least they were etched into history as clapper thieves. That had to count for something, right?

AW: I don’t think there was any prestige. We got recognition by having our names and our picture on the front of The Daily Princetonian. I think that was the end of it.

Muhl did end up with part of the prize.

RM: Bob and I ended up with each a quarter of a clapper, and somebody had another quarter — I think we did it into quarters, and Bob and I took our two. The only reason I’m pretty sure about that is for years, I one quarter of a clapper and a big pipe wrench at my house back in St. Louis, Missouri, as proof that I was certainly going to do something with it, someday. But that may have been where my aspect of the project lost enthusiasm, or the chase was better than the prize, because it stayed there for the next 30 years, until my parents moved out. And then I think it probably just went into the ether. It was a great tradition!

In 1992, a student fell after scaling the outside of Nassau Hall, and the University removed the clapper to prevent future accidents. It is still installed for special occasions, but clapper stealing has been relegated to the archives, where the tradition lives on in photos, stories, and yes, a few of the prize clappers, donated by alumni long after their capture.