During nearly every May Day between 1891 and 1904, male underclassmen at KU could let off some end-of-semester steam with a semi-sanctioned tussle called the “Maypole Scrap.” Participants in these apparently intense physical melees ran the risk of black eyes, bruised noses, loose teeth, broken shins, ripped clothing, heads smeared with tar, and the occasional fractured jaw. But serious injuries were rare and punching was considered poor sportsmanship.
In its early days, the Maypole Scrap regularly pitted alliances of sophomores and seniors or law students against a force of juniors and freshmen. Over time as it evolved into a KU tradition, the fighting was usually limited to freshmen and sophomores. Despite its violence – or perhaps because of it – many contemporary observers welcomed this almost annual encounter as a positive demonstration of school spirit. Others considered it a barbaric ritual that harmed the University’s reputation.
Typically, preparations for a confrontation began shortly after midnight on May 1 when a group of freshmen would assemble in the vicinity of present-day Fraser Hall and erect a tall maypole flying their class flag. They anchored the pole securely and often coated it with concoctions that might include such ingredients as tar, turpentine, lamp black, molasses, axle grease and barbed wire.
By morning, a mob of freshmen milling around the pole would taunt all passersby – students as well as professors – into tipping their hats as a sign of respect. Those who refused had to outrun their tormentors. If captured, these recalcitrant individuals were threatened with having their faces pressed into the grimy mixture on the maypole unless they made the appropriate obeisance. It was an offer that most chose not to refuse.
The real action began when the sophomores launched their attack. Their goal was to scatter the defending freshmen and pull down the maypole, generally within a set period of time. The resulting fray was usually a matter of pushing, shoving, tackling, and charging, but over the years, sophomore classes experimented with other more novel tactics.
In 1892, for example, sophomores hurled snakes, liquefied hydrogen disulfide, and firebrands at the maypole defenders. In 1899, they tossed flaming bales of hay at their freshman foes, and in the following year, one enterprising sophomore who had worked as a cowboy nearly succeeded in lassoing the maypole down. And on two occasions, the sophomores attempted encirclement of the freshman encampment with a heavy wire cable.
Another feature of Maypole Scraps was the taking of prisoners. Captives were tied and bound with whatever materials happened to be at hand: rope, wire, even chains. Sometimes the prisoners were thrown into a hedge or rolled down a hill; once they were even padlocked in a room in a Lawrence house.
KU women kept to the sidelines during these skirmishes, but they were more than simple spectators. Contemporary reports regularly cited freshman women in particular for rendering effective assistance to their fellow class members. Such aid ranged from the Betsy Ross-like sewing of the class flag to the provision of coffee and sandwiches. In the Maypole Scrap of 1900, a daring band of “freshman lassies,” as the Kansas University Weekly called them, even succeeded in liberating some of their captured male classmates.
KU Chancellor Francis Snow took a permissive view toward these battles, which the student newspaper invariably described as a “good natured contest” in which “no ill feelings were engendered.” His successor, Frank Strong, was initially favorably disposed toward the Maypole Scraps as well. In 1903, he addressed a post-melee chapel session attended by the bruised and battered combatants from both sides, hailing them for their gentlemanly conduct and their vigorous class spirit. Reportedly, he even contended that such confrontations, when conducted properly, were of great benefit to the University.
Others were not so sure. By 1904, the Maypole Scrap was engendering additional bouts of increasingly ferocious inter-class fighting, and in one of these incidents, two freshman suffered serious injuries. A rising tide of criticism in the state’s newspapers prompted Chancellor Strong to force the freshman and sophomore class presidents to sign a no-fighting pledge in 1905. That May Day, a mock funeral cortege made its way down Massachusetts Street, effectively burying the Maypole Scrap custom.
A kinder and gentler celebration, the so-called “May Fete,” made its debut in 1908. Maypole dancers replaced the maypole fighters in an afternoon-long festivity that included processions, music, dramatic performances, and the crowning of a May Queen.
As late as 1911, at least one disgruntled KU alum from the Class of 1896 was complaining that the May Fete had “emasculated” the Maypole Scrap and helped turn the University into something resembling a “female seminary” for “the most lady-like and Lord Fauntleroyed individuals in the world.” He appears to have been in the minority. The Mayday mayhem was never revived.
Henry J. Fortunato
Department of History
University of Kansas