October 30th, 1929- The Day a Cow Entered Parrish

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

In the wake of Halloween, I think it’s appropriate to celebrate the 80th anniversary of one of the more wonderful pranks ever pulled at Swarthmore: the Cow Episode. On December 4, 1929, the editor of the Phoenix received a letter from the owner of Crumwald, a nearby farm with some loose connections to the college:

Dear Sir:

On the night of October 30th a very peaceful cow was missed from my barn. On the same night a cow, I am told, was discovered on the second floor of Parrish. Rumor has it that these two cows were one and the same. It does not seem possible that my cow could have wandered to Parrish unassisted. If she was assisted I am filled with wonder and amazement. This particular animal when out has a decided antipathy to assistance of any sort and would require the whole football squad to manage her.

Under the circumstances I am filled with curiosity and envy; curious to know if this cow discovered in Parrish was really mine; envious because I should have liked to have been in on the fun.

An anonymous letter from someone who really knows the facts would be much appreciated and at least satisfy my curiosity. Thank you!

Very truly yours,

W. A. Clarke

What absolutely hilarious rhetoric: “A very peaceful cow was missed,” “I am filled with wonder and amazement,” and “a decided antipathy to assistance.” The world needs more letters written like this, to serve as alternatives to your average online rant.

The perpetrators replied to Clarke’s letter anonymously. It wasn’t until 1963 that one Hugh McDiarmid revealed himself as the author of the anonymous response, which outlined how the students accomplished the prank. They seem to have encountered very little resistance from the cow, who allowed herself to be led calmly and peacefully from the barn down to campus and up to Parrish. They ran into some trouble on the steps of Parrish when “half way up she stuck while she relieved herself with awe inspiring plops of an excess amount of waste.” The conspirators “jimmied” the window and let the cow in; although, removing the cow from the building seems to have taken substantially more effort, with the janitors needing to call in their friends to help relocate the cow.

There’s plenty of documentation detailing the events of the night. The Phoenix headline for the next week read “Cow Invades Parrish! Frightens Second West But Is Finally Quelled,” and ran a story explaining, “Shortly before dawn [the students’] peaceful slumbers were rudely shattered by the bovine musings of a cow which had suddenly turned intellectual.” A student literary publication, The Manuscript, included a lengthy poem of unwieldy quatrains chronicling the night:

“I spellbound watch the curious trot
Of that peculiar beast.
Why it’s here or how, I can
Not fathom in the least.”

Though I’m sure it wasn’t an unusual practical joke for the time, I do rather like the idea of Swarthmore College inspiring a certain scene in the movie Animal House. The account of the Cow Episode in the anonymous response letter is unique, however, in that it illuminates the reasons for the prank:

“The idea, of course, was not original but the prank was the outcome of several factors and the fulfillment of a long felt desire. It was done partly to embarrass Miss Stiltz (House Director) who possesses an astounding faith in locks as a means of keeping students within bounds, and partly because it was felt that the college was losing its “spark” and more or less neglecting the human side of college life. Summing it all up we felt that a more appropriate night than Halloween couldn’t be chosen.”

To paraphrase: students felt that the “spark” of social life at Swarthmore was lacking…so they brought a cow into Parrish.

The letter concluded:

“…We all feel that something constructive was really accomplished by the act and I sincerely hope you don’t regret the part played by your cow in the re-awakening of the college.”

Isn’t that lovely? All it takes for the college to undergo a social “re-awakening” is for students to bring a cow on campus. It’s a shockingly simple solution to so many of our problems.

Although, I will say – it’s only the second-best prank in college history. To read about the best, check out p. 80 of this edition of the alumni bulletin for the story of when Sergei Nesmeyanov, the infamous Communist oppressor of human rights, came to speak at Collection.

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