The Zombie Invasion of 1881

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.

It’s not uncommon for Swarthmore students today to make plans for a hypothetical zombie apocalypse. The fortress of choice for most seems to be McCabe, with its bottleneck entryway and thin windows, although I’ve heard arguments for taking to the roofs of buildings like Parrish or Tarble. Yet it’s a little-known secret of Swarthmore history that once upon a time, Swarthmore students were actually forced to make these decisions. A Phoenix article from September 1881 tells us:

“They came from the Crum. Slobbering, slavering, the reanimated corpses of Quakers past staggered up Magill Walk to lay siege to our beloved yet defenseless ivory tower of pacifism. Their macabre maws salivating over our slightest movements, the undead invaded with a brainlust that could only be satisfied by Swarthmorean intellectuals.”

The administration’s response was tepid at best. President Joseph Swain made his requisite address to the college, reminding students to come to the Deans with any and all concerns regarding academic stress or the zombie apocalypse, and then mysteriously disappeared. Some conjecture that Swain sold his colleague, physics professor Reginald Stanton, to the zombies in exchange for sanctuary in the nearby town of Strath. This rumor was probably propagated because Stanton, obese and brainy enough to provide sustenance for several zombies for a week, was found mauled to death on Whittier Place at a time of night when no sane person would wander the college paths alone. Furthermore, following his return, Swain began to refer to the town next door as the “Haven of Strath.”

It was thus up to the students to defend the college. Several tried to engage the zombies in conversation; the same Phoenix article mentions doomed efforts by John Yarnall ’85 and Phyllis Birnbaum ’85 to “foster a dialogue with the undead.” They seemed to think the creatures could be reasoned with, but the eager freshmen were quickly mauled to death. The zombies then left their bodies in the Friends Meeting House as a grisly example to the rest of the student body. The disemboweled carcasses publicly festered for the next few days, attracting flies and maggots.

Engineering student Daniel Quartermain ’82 noted in a personal letter, “Our laboratories and libraries may be rich, but the College is remarkably understocked in terms of light artillery.” Indeed, an inventory of Swarthmore’s weaponry counted a grand total of six rifles at the invasion’s beginning. Yet on the evening of September 25th, a small cadre of enterprising students fashioned several trebuchets to supplement the college’s defenses. Students soaked their clothes in cooking brandy and rubbing alcohol, set them aflame, and launched them from the south-facing rooms of Parrish 4th down onto zombies sauntering along Magill Walk. Several students, though, protested against such violent means, rallying around the cry, “Judge them not by the pallor of their skin, but by the content of their character!”

These makeshift molotovs killed one zombie outright, but simply angered the rest. The creatures regrouped, and at approximately 10 PM the zombies outright invaded Parrish – thus walking directly into the students’ plans.

While the zombies entered, the entire student body evacuated through the tunnels under Parrish to the heating facilities – save one student. Luke Tietz ’83 took it upon himself to become the sacrificial lamb of the college. Little by little, he drew the legions of zombies up to the top of Parrish, pioneering the “blunt-object-to-the-face” style of zombie combat. Perhaps the bravest student ever to attend Swarthmore, we can only imagine his horrific death: bitten by zombie after zombie, he presumably became one of the enemy before his untimely end.

And while the entire zombie horde was inside Parrish, the student body set it aflame. Amassing the chemicals of the science labs and the looseleaf papers of the library, the students set fire to Parrish at twelve different points. The fiery conflagration spread quickly, the bones of the undead crackling and popping like dry leaves in the brisk fall nighttime.

The story of the Great Fire of Parrish has been bowdlerized over the years – does anyone really believe it was an accident? – and the true story can only be found in the bowels of the college archives. The administration has, perhaps under pressure from the federal government, hushed up the incident. The college wallows in the myth of the Phoenix, never realizing the true cost of the college’s rebirth.

Yet the records exist, and there remains cause for worry. There is strong evidence that Crumhenge continues to be a site of ceremonial zombie rituals, and the Crum Woods Stewardship Committee’s proposal to bring in sharpshooters to “cull the deer” is widely considered to be a front to eliminate a rising zombie threat. It is easy, but foolish, to ignore these signs.

Constant vigilance.