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A Columbia Moment: Burial of the Ancient

Our last Columbia Moment featured the Black Avengers, a group of sophomores who wore black hooded robes and went around beating up freshpeople in New Jersey. This time, we learn about the Burial of the Ancients, a massive drunken book-burning celebration. Erik Kogut, who keeps a blog about Columbia history here, writes.

How much do you hate Principles of Economics? Enough to commit the seminal textbook of Messrs. Hubbard and O’Brien to the pyre? We cast off our used books for a few nickels at Book Culture, but in the late 19th Century the only way to shake off a class was to burn the textbook in a drunken midnight bonfire called, depending on who you believe, Burial of the Ancient, Burial of the Antiquities or Perideipnon.

Columbia College men in the 1860’s were required to take all of the same classes. Of their required courses, the most hated by far was Ancient Geography. Even in its time the class was mind-bogglingly useless, consisting of rote memorization of the geography of ancient Rome and Greece. The textbook, written by Bojesen, was particularly reviled. Sources don’t reveal which intrepid Columbian, or even class, decided to publicly burn his book. All we know is that by 1863, an invitation to the midnight processional of the Burial of the Ancient had come to be a normal ending to the Sophomore year.

Planning for the marches would begin early in the Fall semester, when officers (including one Nicholas Murray Butler) were elected to the Burial Committee. Officers were in charge of procuring speakers and an honorary poet, printing invitations, and, most importantly, purchasing large quantities of ‘bier’, wine, champagne and cheeses.

The parade would begin on upper Fifth Avenue. In the front was a group of policemen, followed by members of the Burial Committee, pallbearers, beer bearers and finally the rest of the Sophomore Class.  Everyone wore black robes with their class year emblazoned on the back or, failing that, turned their coats inside out. After arriving at the Columbia campus in midtown, the Class would gather around the bonfire. Songs would be sung, poems read and there would always be a speech or two about how much the Class hated Bojesen.

But it wasn’t until the book was committed to the flames that the night really began.

The Sophomores would drink a good deal of beer. A popular pastime was to go rouse President Barnard and listen while he implored the class of drunk sophomores to go back to sleep. If that proved a little wearisome, the boys would roam around town, serenading the schools for young ladies. Eventually the Class would meet back up at a pre-determined drinking hole and proceed to get further smashed. Finally, the class would separate and stumble home to their families’ townhouses in Brooklyn or Lower Manhattan. Columbia, after all, was still a commuter school.

The midnight revelry wasn’t appealing to everyone. One well-intentioned reformer set off fireworks instead of supplying beer, causing destruction to the College Halls and delaying the actual drinking by at least an hour.

Unfortunately for those in favor of midnight revelry, the tradition died by the late 1880s. By 1884, Bojeson had been switched out for Legendre, the Committee had been taken over by tee-totallers, and the whole event was a crashing bore. The Burial of the Ancients died quietly, never having had the chance to reach Morningside Heights.

All photos courtesy Columbia University Archives

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10 Comments

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous i don’t even know erik kogut, but he seems pretty awesome to me.
    make these posts a regular, bwog!

  • thanks Erik says:

    @thanks Erik this series is surprisingly entertaining.

  • thanks says:

    @thanks i have another litograph marking the celebrating the hunderedth anniversary of columbia college, and the costumes make a lot of sense now in light of all this pagentry that you describe.

    also, i was reading a book on the skull and bones (it also has a rather lengthy sketch of college life at yale in the 19th century) and they had a similar ceremony up in new haven called the burial of euclid. basically everyone hated the course on geometry so they all burned and buried their books after it was over. seems like one may have gotten the inspiration from the other.

  • these posts says:

    @these posts are so rad

  • Too Easy says:

    @Too Easy Just look at the top hats flying in that first picture. Looks like a perfectly spiffing good time!

  • CC'XIV says:

    @CC'XIV awesome.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous love kogut and this feature, good work bwog

  • CC2011 says:

    @CC2011 did this in high school at the end of the school year. called it “festivus” in honor of the seinfield holiday. once a buddy and i actually bought a bear trap and flung “jane eyre” and some other horrible 19th cent brit lit novels at it till they were tattered, then we burned em and used the fire to char hot dogs and inaugurate the summer.

  • CC 13 says:

    @CC 13 The night after the FroSci final exam, burn the slides on the sundial.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous Lol Ancient Geography? I’ll never complain about the current core again

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