Columbia’s history of minor mayhems.
By Anna Patchefsky
In 1771, Columbia underclassmen Thomas Shreve, Isaac Abrahams, and Cornelius Bogert stole a set of teacups from another student’s room. For their petty crime, the trio was grounded to the College Hall of King’s College, a schoolhouse, library, dormitory, and landmark of 18th-century lower Manhattan.
One imagines these teacups stacked along a windowsill overlooking the Hudson River. Like a first-year’s collection of cheap liquor, the teacups scream “I’m newly independent. I drink.” In reality, the crime was less devilish—the teacups contained but tea. Perhaps the bounty was more symbolic, with these Columbia trouble-makers longing for tokens of their cinnamon-spiced nights.
The teacup incident gives us a hint that, over the course of 250 years, college behavior hasn’t changed much. Thanks to The Book of Misdemeanors Of King’s College, New York, Shreve and Co.’s misconduct is sealed in a tightly-bound leather book and tucked away in Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The Book of Misdemeanors, also called the “Black Book,” is a compendium of accounts from January 1771 to August 1775 documenting Columbia’s earliest mischief-making days. In 1931, Milton Halsey Thomas, editor of the first published edition, described the original leather volume as College President Myles Cooper’s imperfect attempt to enforce a rigid system of Anglican discipline. With entries logged by Cooper, university instructors, and other Columbia presidents, it upholds the record-keeping tradition of Cooper’s alma mater, The Queen’s College, Oxford.
After 1775, when education ceded to revolution, it seemed as though Columbia’s accounts of petty crimes and roguery might disappear into the historical void. (When the school reopened in 1784, Cooper’s log was not revived). But in 1901, The New York Times printed an article about the “curious volume,” which kept its legacy alive. According to the Times, the teacup thievery showed that “the modern college boy comes honestly by his sign-stealing propensities.” It took the book’s contents as fact and concluded that it offered an unvarnished (albeit tea-stained) look at pre-revolutionary college life.
It was not just kleptomania for which colonial Columbia punished its students—dishonesty was their primary peccadillo. Shreve, Abrahams, and Bogert may have been penalized for stealing teacups, but the University faulted the trio most for “denying they knew anything of them.” Shreve’s frequent appearances in the Black Book’s pages earned him the title of “most culpable” among the three, as his track record of deceit approached pathology. Shreve was the mischief-making monarch of campus, consistently peeving the administration with his absenteeism. His distinct style of roguery and its predictable stunts tired even the author of the Book. When Shreve was reprimanded by the Board of Governors—alongside his buddy Bogert—the Black Book does not give the “different heinous offences” committed by the Columbian the dignity of a full account. Likely there were too many to list, or else their severity was overwhelming. Months later, on Dec. 23, 1771, the Board of Governors lifted his consequences in full and Shreve could return to class. Given his penchant for truancy, this Christmas present probably seemed more severe a penalty than his previous sentence.
On Saturday, Aug. 5, 1771, Cornelius Bogert decided not to come to class. Rather than memorize the first three chapters of the Iliad—a task required of all King’s College boys—Bogert absented himself. Basking in the sweltering August heat, he was surprised when President Cooper arrived on horseback to reprimand him. Dreading classroom tasks that awaited him, including translating the Aeneid into English, Bogert refused to return. According to the Black Book, Bogert later declared that “he did not know” he had been sent for. The Board of Governors, not fond of his deceit, caught him in the lie, but eventually, the record would show, even he was “absolved.”
Bogert and Shreve reappear in the book on May 4, 1772, a big day for Columbia’s mischief-making scene. On April 28, Beverley Robinson, an indolent peer, had “spit in the Cooks’ Face, kicked, & otherwise abused him.” On May 4, his punishment was issued: to stay within the confines of the famed College fence, commissioned by Cooper to keep college boys in and prostitutes out. Despite the magnitude of Robinson’s offenses, the judgment committee could not neglect Bogert and Shreve, who had skipped prayers and forgotten their homework. For these sins, additional exercises were ordered, at the behest of the president. Apparently reformed, Shreve would go on to become a prominent reverend of an Anglican church in Nova Scotia.
These three were not the only boys with klepto tendencies. James Douglass, perhaps seeking to practice his John Hancock, stole eight sheets of paper and a pen-knife. For this, he was reprimanded before the entire student body. After the porter stripped him of his gown he was made to kneel and read an “Acknowledgement of his Crime.” Columbia’s disciplinarians denied Douglass his uniform cap and gown for an entire week. Why was the pen-snatching Douglass subject to public humiliation while Robinson, who beat up the campus cook, was merely detained within campus walls? The Black Book contains no notes about the background of these boys. Was Robinson tantrum-prone and overindulged as a child? Did Douglass lack pen and paper of his own? Administrators similarly did not explain, within the book’s pages, how various punishments were decided; punishment, seen as necessary, did not invite scrutiny.
The Black Book brims with whimsy. On July 9, 1772, Jacob Remsen was doomed to translate four chapters of Jean Heuzet’s Selectae e Profanis—a social history of English life including a wealth of travel accounts, diaries, maps, and charts—for skipping class “under pretence of sickness.” In fact, Remsen had skipped school to fish. (He had also punched a peer the week before.) Remsen’s misdirection is complemented by the book’s other examples of attempts at escapism. On June 17, 1773, James Davan locked himself in his room when summoned by the president, and the ensuing hunt “caus[ed] four Doors to be broke open before he could be laid hold of.” Eventually, he was found in the room across from his own, which he had accessed by way of a false key. Davan later reappears in the Book for stealing a “very large Quantity of Vine out of the president’s garret.” Some of these crimes are so antiquated they resist translation. Yet, even today, we recognize their motivating impulse.
One hundred and eighty years after the book’s last entry, history professor Dwight Miner directed attention back to the Black Book. Miner, who earned the sobriquet “Mr. Columbia” for his immense love for the school, gave a lecture on colonial campus life to a packed auditorium of undergrads, and was met with roaring laughter. One student fell out of his chair. Modern students made punchlines of their colonial forebears to contrast college experiences across centuries; yet, in joining a tradition of humor and lightheartedness on a campus known for its rigidity, Miner’s audience may have had more in common with their mischievous ancestors than they would’ve liked to imagine.
The boys of the Black Book are not famous. They have no apparent effect on our lives today; their prose inspired no literary movements and their theses supported no scientific theories. Nothing more than the classmates of Alexander Hamilton, they remain uncelebrated Columbians. They have no building dedicated in their honor; cursive scribble in a tea-stained book is all the archive of their time here. Still, these conspicuous, once-condemnable moments of their college years live on in Columbia’s library. Glimpses into the quotidian elements of 18th-century Columbia reveal a history more tangible than the exalted narratives of Columbia’s consolidation that we are so accustomed to hearing. The Black Book defies our institution’s myths of excellence, and honors, instead, the profound—at times, severely punished—plainness of every student. From its pages, we learn that college has always been a place for trouble-making. Since the beginning of American education, pupils and disciplinarians alike have understood that where there are rules, there are misdemeanors. And while not everyone can be the next great alum, all of us can make a little mischief.