J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, September 08, 2019

“Caught running naked across Harvard Yard”?

Last week I wrote about Charles Adams, John and Abigail’s second son, starting at Harvard College in 1785.

Charles turned out to be the biggest disappointment of that generation, and the trouble started in college, but I had trouble nailing down the details.

I found multiple references to a drunken, naked romp through Harvard Yard, but the stories differed on the details, and none came with pointers to period sources. Or any sources at all.

The earliest was this webpage from the American Experience television series, tied to a 2006 show. In the capsule biography of Charles, it says:
At age 15 he entered Harvard, where he became embroiled in a scandal in which several boys were caught running naked across Harvard Yard. School records indicated that alcohol may have been involved.
Sometime in 2006, someone created a Wikipedia page about a Harvard streaking tradition called Primal Scream. That entry reaches for historical tradition by stating:
While the records are not entirely clear, it appears that when Charles Adams, son of John Adams and brother of John Quincy Adams, was a student at Harvard, he and a few friends were disciplined for getting drunk and streaking naked across the Yard. He was later readmitted.
The one source originally cited was the American Experience webpage—apparently that page was the “records…not entirely clear.”

Joseph Ellis’s First Family: Abigail and John (2010), says of Charles:
He had apparently fallen in with a rowdy crew at Harvard, been disciplined by the college for running naked while drunk through Harvard Yard, and persisted in his bad habits and bad associations after graduation.
The citations for this paragraph offer no evidence for that phrase about “running naked while drunk,” however. (In fact, in the edition I’m seeing the notes cite a letter from Abigail as 30 March 1789 when it should be dated 30 May.)

Finally, Eric Kester’s That Book about Harvard: Surviving the World’s Most Famous University (2012) quotes a campus tour guide saying, “Did you know that in 1785, Charles Adams, son of President John Adams and brother of President Quincy Adams, was severely disciplined for getting drunk and streaking through the Yard his freshman year?” This book subsequently became a second source for the Wikipedia article, even though it may well have been inspired by Wikipedia in the first place.

Having now looked into Harvard’s disciplinary records, I can state that none of those accounts is accurate.

TOMORROW: The Adams boys—a study in contrasts.

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