There’s been a lot of discussion recently about changing up the mascot. While there have been many suggestions for a new mascot, Sabrina has been put forth a number of times. As a campus presence since 1857, in the form of statue, humor magazine, a capella group, team nickname and legend, Sabrina makes a certain kind of sense as a mascot; in some ways she’s been serving as one for quite some time. However, I’d like to strongly suggest that, on a campus that has been working hard on sexual respect, perhaps a statue of a naked young woman with a 150+ year history of “abduction” and gender inflected manhandling would be a poor choice.
The statue of Sabrina (a mythical water nymph who had been human until her father’s spurned wife had her drowned in the river Severn) was donated to Amherst College in 1857 by Joel Hayden, State Lieutenant Governor (who bought it from a garden statuary catalog, which is why there are so many other Sabrinas floating around out there). It was on display in the college flower garden (near the Octagon and North College, roughly where Henry Ward Beecher is now) until 1884, when the administration, sick of the pranks that the students were playing with the statue, had it removed. The story goes that the college janitor was asked to break the statue up, but couldn’t bring himself to do it and instead hid it in his barn, where it was discovered four years later by students and became the subject a long period of inter-class rivalry.
The heart of the Sabrina tradition during its heyday (1880s-1930s), was the theft of the statue back and forth between odd and even classes and the presentation of the statue at the class banquet of whomever had possession of it. The banquets were a prime opportunity for the other classes to attempt to steal Sabrina back, and so they were generally shrouded in secrecy and intrigue and frequently were violently interrupted. During the actual banquet, toasts were made, pictures were taken and the tradition was for all the students to kiss the statue.
The ante was eventually upped, with public showing of the statue at campus events, starting in 1909 and arguably peaking with a showing in 1919 in which there was a car chase, gun fire and a car accident that left a number of students injured.
Interest and activity tapered off in the 1920s and finally, in 1934, the statue was given by the students to the college. It was refurbished and placed back on its base in the Hitchcock memorabilia room in Morgan Hall (the precursor of Archives and Special Collections). There were a number of theft attempts in the following decades (including one decapitation, quickly mended with some welding), but none successful until members of the Class of 1951 used an acetylene torch and the back stairway to make off with it the day before their graduation.
In the end the class of 1951 gave Sabrina back to the college as well. It was displayed in Converse briefly in 1977 and promptly stolen (and just as promptly retrieved by campus police) and again, successfully, in 1984 until it was once again returned in 1994 (with two helicopter flights over sports games in between). The college has trotted the statue out for reunion with regularity during its periods of custodianship.
Since May 2008, Sabrina has once again been in the hands of the students. This time, you can catch up with her on facebook, where, refreshingly, she has a voice and the old, icky sexual objectification seems to be fully dispensed with. Nonetheless, I’d still say that the long, complicated history of Amherst students and Sabrina doesn’t lend itself to a cartoonish foam reincarnation.
Having given the Sabrina mascot idea a thorough airing, I’d like to humbly suggest an alternative: the Lady Amherst Pheasant – perhaps the perfect thing for a school whose main rival sports a cow mascot… and a fine reminder not to take ourselves too seriously.
If you find the history of Sabrina intriguing, you can find a whole lot more of it on our flickr site and in the archival Sabrina Collection. Also: Sabrina: the class goddess of Amherst College (c.1910) by Max Shoop and Sabrina: being a chronicle of the life of the goddess of Amherst College (1921) by Smith, Seward and Gibson. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s “Sabrina doesn’t live here anymore” (Amherst magazine, Spring 1985), while it gives Sabrina shallow consideration, contains a fine and very cogent explanation of privilege, and for that I would recommend it.