By Iliyah Coles ’22
East College, built in 1833, was Princeton’s first building solely used to house students. It stood across from West College (now Morrison Hall) and Cannon Green, and the Bulletin Elm once stretched from East College to the Old Chapel. Before its demolition in 1897, East College had been the site of many interesting occurrences.
In February of 1871, after some considerable snowfall, a few students thought it would be fun to steal a sleigh that was standing alone in front of the Methodist Church and drive it around town for a while. They ended up back at East College, and then decided to stable the horses right there in the lower entry. The owner came by the next morning and was enraged to see his horses standing in the entryway.
Horses weren’t the only unusual thing found at East College. For years, the largest post-Revolutionary War cannon in the town stood on its grounds. It was first removed in 1812, but in 1836, a group of Princetonians (townspeople) went on a trip to retrieve the cannon from New Brunswick. After the cannon malfunctioned on the way back to Princeton, it never fired again. Two years later, the University claimed ownership and placed it right outside East College.
One of the creepiest occurrences at the College was what one student called “The East College Ghost.” One evening in 1869, a student returned to the dorm after a night of partying and punch-drinking. He crashed on his bed and woke up in the middle of the night to find a ghost-like figure staring him in the face. He wrote, “It was a long, dark face; the nose was huge and flattened, and the nostrils wide and gaping; a sort of fiendish grin was on its countenance ; a devilish grimace flashed across the visage of the Thing […]” After the student stared at the figure for some time, it disappeared. Three weeks later, he saw it again, this time, fully sober. He fell asleep and woke up to the same figure staring at him; it disappeared again after a few moments. “I confess to being in a very wretched state of mind; I thought it was really the Evil One and no mistake.”
More time passed, and the student discovered a cloven hoof print underneath his window where the figure would usually appear. “It was too much for me,” he explained, “I swore off chewing tobacco, began to attend chapel, did reform straightway, strange as it may seem, and became a law-abiding, peaceable member of the community.” The student later stumbled upon a few cows standing outside the dormitory. One turned around to face him and the student saw that ghost-like face again. He realized his window was only three feet from the ground, so he assumed the face of the cow was the apparition that visited him some nights.
A sadder story in the history of the dorm concerns the alum who wished to die in East College, George Edwards, Class of 1889. In his late twenties, he was infected with a terminal disease (tuberculosis). Edwards was aware of his imminent fatality, and decided his last wish was to see one more Princeton-Yale baseball game and then pass away in the same room where he once lived. The Princeton students who knew of the alum made his dying wish a reality and helped Edwards around the campus as his health started to fail. He died a few days after his arrival, in his favorite place on earth. Edwards left $150,000 (nearly all of his fortune) to the University, which is equivalent to roughly $4.3 million today.
On a lighter note, Princeton’s cane sprees used to be held behind East College. The traditional game was a sort of wrestling match between selected freshmen and sophomores. Whoever strangled the cane free from the other’s grasp won. The spree became much more of a formal affair in 1875, when the wrestlers were divided up by weight classes and spectators looked on from the sidelines and the windows of their dorms.
Stories like these exemplify Princetonians’ connection to East College. When it was set to be demolished in 1897, the students and alumni refused to let it go down without a fight. They thought room for the new library could still be made if East College was just picked up and moved to a different location. Unfortunately for this group, their plan for the building did not succeed, as it was taken down later that year. However, the contractor for the demolition allowed souvenirs from the building to be given to alumni.
Alexander, James W. Princeton, Old and New: Recollections of Undergraduate Life (New York: Scribner’s, 1899).
Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112)
Historical Photograph Collection, Grounds and Buildings Series (AC111)
Historical Postcard Collection (AC045)