Bizarre Boston: Raising Hell at Harvard

When I think about college students raising hell, I picture kegs of beer, red plastic Solo cups and loud music. Oh, and maybe a beer funnel or two. In my mind, the phrase “raising hell” is just a metaphor for having a wild time. However, maybe it’s not always just a metaphor. For some Harvard students in the 1600s, the phrase took on a very literal meaning when they summoned Satan from the depths of Hell into Harvard Yard itself.

Harvard was founded way back in 1638 by the Massachusetts legislature and it’s the oldest college in North America. The legislature’s main goals in creating Harvard were to “to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity, dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches.” Most of Harvard’s early graduates went on to become Puritan ministers and theologians.

Despite this focus on religion (or perhaps because of it), some students at Harvard were also interested in slightly more esoteric areas of study. According to historian Michael Quinn, students at Harvard routinely studied topics that today would be considered part of the occult. For example, anyone studying medicine was required to also learn rudimentary astrology while students hoping to achieve a master’s degree needed to learn alchemy. Harvard was not unusual in having these requirement. Students at Yale explored similar topics, and Yale president Ezra Stiles (1727–1795) studied alchemy and the Kabbalah. The old-time Ivy league schools sound a lot like Hogwarts.

Given this intellectual climate, it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that some students decided to put what they learned into practice. One day in the 1640s, Harvard’s first president Henry Dunster (1609–1659), who was also a minister, was called away to Concord on some ecclesiastical business. Seeing an opportunity for some unsupervised extracurricular activity, a group of students conducted an arcane ritual designed to summon the Devil from Hell. They were pleased to see that it worked but were much less pleased when they realized they hadn’t yet learned how to send him back.

As Satan ran amok on Harvard’s campus, a messenger was sent to Concord to find President Dunster. When Dunster learned what the students had done, he leapt on his horse and galloped at full speed back to Cambridge.

When he arrived at Harvard, Dunster searched frantically for the Evil One but to no avail. The Devil was hiding from the holy power of the minister. Thinking quickly, Dunster drew a circle on the ground using gun powder. The Devil instantly appeared inside the circle. Apparently he was drawn to the gun powder’s familiar sulfurous smell, which reminded him of his infernal home. Dunster lit the circle on fire and the Devil disappeared in a cloud of black smoke back to the nether regions. Only a foul stench remained to remind Harvard of their unwelcome visitor.

Is this story true? It was first recorded in a book commemorating the founding of Mason, New Hampshire, where many of Dunster’s descendants settled. Perhaps it was just a way of making him seem even more important than he already was. Even if it’s not true, it’s a nice illustration of the perils and possibilities of a good liberal arts education.






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