Many students have fantasized about burning their textbooks, maybe some have even done so, but few taken it to the level of the Amherst College students of the 1860s to 1880s. In Archives and Special Collections, we have programs, photographs, newspapers articles and other ephemera from 14 ceremonial textbook burnings during these decades. The general formula seems to involve the freshmen burning (what we presume to be single representative volumes of) their first year mathematics textbooks in a boisterous late night ceremony, often complete with band, bier, funerary oration and throngs of wailing mourners. Programs were created in secret and handed out surreptitiously. Often the sophomores attempted to disrupt the proceedings and the faculty took a very dim view of the affairs, particularly in the early years.
The first program in our files is from 1866, the “burial rites of ye classics and mathematics,” although Cutting’s Student Life at Amherst refers to an earlier tradition of book burning that this event revived. A “funeral ceremony of ye much revered conics” took place the following year. The student newspaper had not yet been formed in those years, so we don’t have any information beyond the programs, but the events clearly featured funeral processions with costumed characters, songs and an extreme quantity of math puns. The program from 1867 reads in part, ” the funeral train will march from the elliptical abode of the deceased, and after describing an Hyperbola will proceed by the ‘Broad and pleasant way’ in a tangent to the Conical Pyre.”
The next program, from 1870, includes this fascinating note on the cover, “Oration by L. Bradley Jr. who was suspended for delivering the same. The performance was witnessed by half the college + after the burning, the class serenaded Dr. Hitchcock, Prof. Mather + Mr. Dickinson with horns, creating so much noise and terror in town that a child is said to have been born very unexpectedly + prematurely. During a reprimand of the class by Dr. Stearns for this disturbance, W. J. Swift giggled, and was expelled on the spot by Prof. Harris. He was taken back however.”
The presidential rebuke doesn’t seem to have carried much weight, as cremations were held each of the next six years.
The first photograph from one of these events is this tintype of two of the characters from the 1875 events in memory of Math E. Matica. The Amherst Student reported on July 7, “whatever doubts may have existed as to the propriety of a public burning of Mathematics must have been dissipated last Friday evening. The Freshman class, for some time, has been making extensive preparations for this occasion. Vague rumors had been floating round, leading us to expect something more than common, yet we doubt if there were any who were not completely surprised at the fine display the Freshmen made. The Florence Band furnished the music, and at a little after nine o’clock, the procession was formed north of the town. It certainly presented a weird appearance as it marched along, the band playing a dead march. The hearse was drawn by four horses. It contained an elegant casket, on which was inscribed “Math. E. Matica, obiit IV. Non. Ivl. MDCCCLXXV.” Six pall bearers, dressed in white robes adorned with various mathematical figures, walked at the side of the hearse, which was followed by the chief mourners, i.e., the first walkers. Then came the chorus, followed by a wagon containing the materials for the pyre, and last of all, the class. Each man had a torch, and the whole effect was striking. One unique feature was a man on horseback, bearing a transparency of the “Pons Asinorum.” The funeral exercises were held on the plain east of the College church. A poem was read by W. D. P. Bliss, and the oration delivered by H. P. Peck, both of which were excellent. The Carmen Lugubre was well rendered by the chorus. Then came the affecting farewell, and as each mourner passed by the coffin and beheld, for the last time, the beloved dead, the air was rent with cries of anguish. Even the horse was seen to weep, and an attendant was necessary to wipe away his tears. The remains were then burned, and after rendering several college songs, the procession departed. The great crowd who came to witness the obsequies, and their manifested pleasure, was but a just reward for the labors expended in preparation.”
Actors in the funeral pageant of Anna Lytt, 1882
Amherst Student, Nov. 24, 1883, “The Cremation of Mathematics, which had been postponed several times, at last occurred on Monday morning Nov. 12th between 2 and 5 o’clock. In some respects these exercises surpassed anything of the kind ever witnessed in Amherst…. Heading the procession rode the “Gym. Capt.,” attired as a warrior; the North Amherst Band; several Magi on horseback; a platoon of Elders dressed in togas of various hues; the monument of the deceased borne by six white robed virgins; the orator borne in an antique looking cart; the body of the “late lamented” Mattie Matix on a bier, heavily draped draped, drawn by four horses; the “Orchestra of Hades;” followed by a weird mixture of mourners and ballet dances; and last but not least a finely draped car on which rode four devils with crimson bodies and black faces, which were rendered more terrible by the fire burning in the center of the car. After the parade all withdrew to Blake Field, where the ceremony was held, which consisted of an oration by F. B. Wild, and a poem by W. C. Fitch. After drowning their grief in a mug of cider, they silently dispersed.”
Clyde Fitch, class of 1886, the figure reclining on the bed in the photograph above, went on to a notable career in the theater. A note on one program reads, “this was a success largely owing to the efforts of Bro. Fitch. A longer course in math made it impossible for subsequent classes to hold cremations.”
Despite the curriculum changes, at least one last textbook burning took place in 1888. This one was unique in that it featured a mock trial for witchcraft and subsequent cremation. A life-size effigy of Anna Lytic G. Ometry was created for the occasion:
Students in this era were expected to learn largely by rote and the curriculum was often defined by the textbooks that the students would work through. The freshman mathematics textbooks that were probably used (and abused) during these years were Elias Loomis’ Elements of Analytical Geometry, James Coffin’s Elements of Conic Sections and Analytical Geometry, and Edward Olney’s A University Algebra. I imagine that the rigorous adherence to text probably gave extra relish to the students’ end of semester capers. In an era with a relatively high mortality rate and a penchant for oration and pageantry, staging mock funerals was a much more intuitive release for pent-up student frustrations than we might think now.
For images of all the textbook burning material (and to revel in a seemingly endless stream of math puns, including some in Latin and Greek), see our flickr page
For more information on the 19th century curriculum at Amherst, see: Amherst College Catalogs online
These materials are all drawn from the Amherst College Dramatic Activities Collection.