From the Historian

PSI ALUMNI HISTORIAN’S REPORT

Spring 2017

By T. Semmes Favrot

The Psi Interregnum: DKE at the University of Alabama, 1856-1885
Arsonists, A Set of Keys, A Tree Stump and a Duel

Most of us in the Psi Chapter are aware that our Chapter, the first fraternity at the University of Alabama, was founded in 1847. Many of us also know that Psi was involuntarily inactive from 1856-1885, due to a ban on all fraternities imposed by the University administration in 1856. Why was this ban enacted? At that time, the University had become increasingly wary of fraternities, but not for the same reasons generally espoused today by the PC crowd which sees fraternities as the embodiment of evil. Rather, the University became alarmed by the fact that most national fraternities were generally of Northern origin. Recall that DKE was itself founded at Yale, in Connecticut, in 1844. The Alabama faculty became increasingly concerned that the impressionable minds of young Southern men were liable to be “poisoned” by radical alien ideas filtering down from these fraternities’ Northern chapters. What sort of “poisonous” ideas might they have had in mind in 1856? The faculty did not specifically say, but the abolition of slavery certainly comes to mind. In 1856, slavery was becoming a contentious national issue, and the movement for its abolition was gaining strength in the North. This issue of course became even more prominent four years later with the election of President Abraham Lincoln, with the Civil War breaking out shortly thereafter.

So, with the ban on fraternities at Alabama taking effect in 1856, and lasting until 1885, the presence of DKE at the University was eliminated during that 29-year period, right? Well, yes and no. First of all, although not completely clear, the ban on fraternities may not have applied to the existing members of the fraternities, but rather only precluded the initiation of new members. At least eight Psi Brothers remained enrolled as students at the University from 1856-1859, and may have been allowed to informally continue to operate as DKE.[1] Their numbers gradually dwindled, however, and the last member of the old Psi Chapter to leave the student body was Brother James Edward Webb, who graduated as Valedictorian of the Class of 1859. Thereafter, the active Psi Chapter ceased to exist until being re-activated in 1885, a period that we refer to herein as the Psi “Interregnum.”[2] However, a number of Psi Brothers remained at the University in various other capacities after 1859, and there are also legends, mysteries, half-truths and outright falsehoods that have circulated about DKE’s presence on campus during the Interregnum.

Arsonists
 

Several DKE alumni taught at the University during the Interregnum, and one served as University President. Perhaps foremost among these in some ways was Brother William Stokes Wyman, Psi 1851. He began teaching at Alabama a couple of years after graduating, was a Professor at the start of the Interregnum in 1856, and served throughout the Civil War until the University closed after being burned by Federal troops on April 4, 1865, after which Wyman’s role at the University really got interesting. However, a visit to the University at that time by another Deke bears mentioning. The University campus was burned very late in the war as part of an invasion of Alabama by Union forces who sought to hasten the war’s end by destroying previously unaffected regions of the state like Tuscaloosa. General and DKE alumnus John T. Croxton, Phi Yale 1857, with 1500 men under his command, split off from the main Federal force and descended on Tuscaloosa to burn the University and destroy war-related industries in the city. This was one campus visit by a Deke that we all could have done without.

A Set of Keys
 

Back to Brother Wyman: the main University campus was then located on what is now the Quad, and after Croxton’s arsonists burned it, there were only a few buildings left standing, one of which was the Observatory, which still stands, right behind the DKE house. Abortive efforts to re-open the University began soon after, with Brother Wyman returning to resume his position as Professor. However, in 1868, the Reconstruction Alabama state government appointed a Yankee carpetbagger named Arad Lakin as University President, and he was sent to assume control over the University from Brother Wyman. When Lakin arrived in Tuscaloosa, however, Wyman refused to hand over the keys to the University to him, declining to recognize the legality of Lakin’s appointment. When an angry mob appeared at Wyman’s residence, apparently intent on doing violence to Lakin, Wyman protected Lakin by hiding him under a bed.[3] Lakin fled Tuscaloosa that night, never to return.

After eventually leaving the University over what he and others saw as the Reconstruction authorities’ misguided efforts to re-open Alabama as “a school which commanded neither respect nor patronage,” Wyman returned when the University finally re-opened in 1870, and served as a Professor throughout the remainder of the Interregnum. He also served as Acting President of the University from 1879-1880, and again from 1885-1886, having declined the offer of the Presidency three times. Wyman’s son, William S. Wyman, Jr. 1887, was a Charter Member of the reactivated Psi Chapter in 1885.

Other prominent Psi Dekes of the Interregnum were Brothers Burwell Boykin Lewis ‘57, John Archibald Jones ‘55, William James Vaughan ‘58, David L. Foster ‘53, John D. Weeden ’58, and Hilary A. Herbert ‘56. Lewis served as President of the University and as a Professor from 1880 until his death in 1885. In his final days as President before his death, Lewis supported the lifting the ban on fraternities, no doubt at least partially motivated by fond memories of his days with the old Psi Chapter. Lewis is buried in the cemetery located just south of Bryant-Denny Stadium, at the opposite end of the stadium from the DKE house.[4] Jones and Vaughan served on the faculty with Brother Wyman until the burning of the campus in 1865, and both resumed their positions upon the re-opening of the University in 1870. Vaughan, with short intervals of absence, remained until 1882. Foster served as University “Surgeon” (i.e., physician), Weeden as Professor and University Trustee, and Herbert as University Trustee at various times.

DKE alumnus John C. Calhoun, Eta Alpha Washington and Lee 1868, an Alabama native, became a Professor at the University in 1877. He was one of several DKE alumni instrumental in reviving Psi in 1885. It is said that thereafter “through many years [he] was Psi’s best friend and counselor.” He kept his own handwritten records of members of each DKE Chapter from the 1850’s-1890’s, one volume of which is in the Psi Archives.[5]

A Tree Stump

The Psi Chapter crest. The Latin motto underneath means, “We practice virtue.”

There is a DKE legend set during the Interregnum that seems to be reflected in the Psi Chapter crest (see photo). In 1883, not long before the re-activation of Psi, individual DKE chapters began to design their own chapter crests, based on the familiar DKE crest. The Psi crest which was created upon re-activation has as its central feature an image of a tree stump in the middle of the crest. The tree stump and the story of its significance also once featured prominently in Psi initiation rituals, but prohibitions on the public discussion of Psi mystics preclude further discussion of such in this article. However, Psi alumni beyond a certain age will clearly recall the tree stump and its place in their DKE initiation.

The story told of the tree stump in my day said that, after the 1865 torching of the University campus, the men of Psi, having nowhere else to meet, held their chapter meetings at a certain tree stump located deep in the Alabama woods. The flaw in this story is that we now know that there was no Psi chapter in existence to meet at that time. As noted above, the last student member of the chapter graduated in 1859, and, between the burning of the campus in 1865 and its re-opening in 1870, it appears that the only Deke who remained actively associated with the University for any significant period was Brother William Wyman. Since the Psi chapter crest does date from the 1880’s however, there is obviously a true and important old story surrounding the tree stump. However, the tale of it signifying a chapter meeting place in the aftermath of the war doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

A “Duel”

            Another DKE legend set in the Interregnum period, which seems to have taken hold in more recent years and which is thought by some to have been the basis for the origin of the Undertakers Ball, involves a duel that supposedly took place between a Deke and a member of another fraternity at the University in the 1800’s, in which the Deke was killed. In this telling, Undertakers is said to have originated as a commemoration of the death of this departed brother. This legend seems to be prevalent among the younger element of the Psi chapter. But is there any truth to it?

Psi House Corporation President Brock Jones ’84 recently pointed me to an interesting entry on the website of the Alabama chapter of Sigma Chi fraternity, which may serve as a basis for this legend. The pertinent parts of this website entry state:

Within one year of the [Alabama Sigma Chi] chapter’s founding [in 1876], a disagreement arose between two members of Sigma Chi and Delta Kappa Epsilon. On February 28, 1877, two students, Kibble J. Harrison (ΣΧ) and William W. Alston (ΔKE), walked to opposite ends of the second story veranda of Woods Hall to settle their dispute…. Harrison challenged Alston to a duel to settle the matter, and Alston accepted the challenge…. As the two students reached the end of the Woods Hall veranda, Harrison drew his pistol and fired one shot. Alston returned the shot but then slumped over the veranda banister and fell to the ground of the quadrangle below, where he lay dead. Harrison was promptly brought to trial for the murder of Alston, but he was acquitted…. As a result of the illegal duel, University officials, already suspicious of Greek organizations, mandated the disbanding and removal of all fraternities on campus….

This account of the subject “duel,” which was apparently more of an outright murder than a duel, is based on an actual historical event, but it contains a number of serious factual errors. (For an authoritative account of this shooting, see History of the University of Alabama, pages 499 et seq.). First and foremost, William W. Alston was most certainly NOT a Deke.  His name does not appear in any Psi records, nor is he listed in the 1890 DKE Catalogue, which is 1698 pages long and considered quite authoritative, as being a member of any other DKE chapter. It’s not even clear whether Alston’s nemesis, Harrison, had a legitimate claim to being a Sigma Chi. Recall that the University’s ban on fraternities commenced in 1856, and continued until 1885.  So, this 1878 (not 1877) “duel” had nothing to do with the ban on fraternities, which had then been in place for 22 years.  There is some indication that there may have been some clandestine “secret societies” in existence at Alabama during the period of this “duel,” and that Alston and Harrison may have been members of rival such groups. Sigma Chi may or may not have been one such group, but DKE certainly was not. Note also that the term “secret society” could mean anything from a nationally recognized fraternity to a homegrown group of students banding together as such.

Bottom line: The exact date of the origin of Undertakers is uncertain, but it was of much later, 20th Century, origin, and had nothing to do with the Alston-Harrison shooting of 1878.

From the foregoing, we see that, while the Psi Chapter was completely inactive from 1859-1885, there was at least one DKE alumnus, and usually more, present at the University, in various capacities, throughout the entire Interregnum period, except for the period immediately after the burning of the campus in 1865 and again from 1868 to 1870, when William Wyman refused to serve as Professor to disassociate himself from perceived illicit attempts to re-open the University.

This article is of course only a brief summary of the events covered and the Psi alumni named, but, as usual, newsletter space limitations preclude me from doing full justice to the subject matter. The definitive word on the old ante-bellum Psi Chapter and its re-chartering in 1885 consists of three related articles, totaling 22 pages, published together in the DKE Quarterly in 1886, entitled “The Psi Chapter,” “The Revival of Psi” and “The Status of the Chapter.” These articles can now be found on our chapter website at uadke.org, under “From the Historian.”

We are also left with some lingering questions as we close. What is the true story behind the tree stump on the Psi crest? And when and how exactly did the Undertakers Ball originate? Stay tuned.

In the Bonds,
Semmes Favrot ’82
New Orleans, La.
Alumni Historian
sfavrot@cox.net

 

[1] See 1890 DKE Catalogue.

[2] Our dictionary defines “interregnum” as “a period when normal government is suspended, especially between successive reigns or regimes; an interval or pause; from Latin, inter- ‘between’ + regnum ‘reign.’”

[3] For further details, see Chapter XIII of History of the University of Alabama, Volume One- 1818-1902 by James B. Sellers, and Searching for Freedom After the Civil War, by Ward Hubbs. Be forewarned, however, that this latter book is not for the faint of heart.

[4] For more on Lewis, see Sighs of Psi, Fall 2012.

[5] See Sighs of Psi, Spring 2011.

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