The Great Rush
By James Tobin
As fast as a man is pushed over and falls, he arises and puts his breast to the solid wall of human beings and shoves.– A spectator at the Great Rush of 1872
Chapter 1 No Rules, No Pads
On the night of Friday, November 9, 1872, a determined squad of Michigan medical students drew up plans for combat.
Earlier that day, on the stubbly, unmarked playing field at the northeast corner of the Diag—about where the Chemistry Building stands now—the Medics had been handed their hats by a crowd of students from the Literary Department.
The game was “football”—the earliest version, a rule-free, pad-free blend of rugby, soccer, and rioting, with dozens of players on each side.
The Medics were down but not out. “The slumbering lion in the breasts of the Medics was aroused,” one observer wrote later.
The sawbones had learned that on the next afternoon—Saturday—the freshman and sophomore Lits were scheduled to play another football game, this one a casual contest among themselves.
So at their Friday night conclave, the Medics decided on tactics for another meeting with the Lits.
This time, it would be no mere game.
Chapter 2 Seeing Red
The Medics were on average several years older than the Lits, and—by their own estimate, anyway—heavier and stronger. At least a few were veterans of the Union Army that had put down the Confederate rebellion only seven years before.
They were not going to concede bragging rights to a bunch of Lit boys who recited odes and couplets.
As the sun passed the zenith on Saturday, November 10, the Medics gathered near the Medical Building on East University (about where Randall Lab stands today). There were at least 300 of them. They tied bright red rags around their wrists and necks, so they could recognize each other when the dust began to fly.
Then they marched onto the field where the young Lits were scrimmaging.
Chapter 3 “An Exuberance of Spirits”
American colleges had seen rushes as long as there had been colleges, and there had been rushes at Michigan at least since the 1850s.
Sometimes a rush started spontaneously in a crowded corridor or stairwell of a classroom building. A little careless shoving would escalate into a concerted effort by members of one class to eject members of another class from the building—usually freshmen versus sophomores.
Other rushes were outdoors and semi-scheduled. They were pure melees. The customary goal was for one class to throw the members of the other class over the picket fence that surrounded the campus.
For sophomores, it was the age-old principle of hazing: To make the newcomers earn their place among their elders by enduring a ritual punishment. For the freshmen, it was to prove their right to membership in the club.
Juniors and seniors regarded themselves as too dignified for such hijinks and generally stayed aloof. In editorials, they traded opinions about whether rushes were good or bad for the youngsters. The general view: rushes were a harmless ritual, a channel for natural male aggressions that must be vented every autumn before the year’s hard work got underway.
“To be sure, it is undignified,” wrote one upperclassman in the Chronicle, a predecessor of the Michigan Daily, “but who looks for chilling dignity in a freshman or a sophomore? … The boys are back after a long vacation, glad to meet each other, full of life and vigor, and overflowing with an exuberance of spirits which must be worked off some way. How better can it be done than in a friendly encounter, where no ill-feeling is manifested or felt, and the only damage done is to the coats and shirts of the combatants?”
But sometimes things got ugly, and in the fall of 1871, antagonism was building not just among the classes but between the three academic departments—Literary, Medical and Law.
“To be sure, it is undignified, but who looks for chilling dignity in a freshman or a sophomore?”
Chapter 4 “The Horror of a Mob”
The faculty had been trying to bring the three departments into harmony by staging an annual “University Day,” with the whole student body marching in a grand procession from campus to a local church and back.
Three years back, in 1869, the departments had argued over who would march first in the parade. In 1870 the procession ended with a street fight and the blue silk banner of the Laws ripped to pieces on the ground.
That was the last “University Day.”
The start of the fall semester of 1872 brought the usual skirmishes. U-M’s first women students were among the startled eyewitnesses.
One of these was a 21-year-old from upstate New York named Mary Downing Sheldon. One afternoon in late September, Mary stepped out of class and found herself in the middle of a small riot.
“I must tell you about the rush,” she wrote her best friend back home. “I never saw one until this semester. The Sophs took off coats and vests and stood waiting. The Fresh came out of their recitation room door and found their way blockaded. One after another tried to force his way. One after another was seized, by foot, head, or any convenient part, his hair pulled by anybody who could reach it, his limbs pulled in as many different directions as there were Sophs around and he was finally thrown down heels over head in the sand to bite the dust.
“Since seeing that I have a much more vivid idea of the horror of a mob and the fierce cruelty of mankind.”
Chapter 5 Pushing and Shoving
It was mid-afternoon on Saturday, November 10, when the Medics, each festooned with his blood-red rag, loomed into view.
The young Lits, surprised, asked: Oh…you fellows want to play?
Here accounts diverge.
Some said there was, indeed, a game or two of football.
According to other witnesses, the Medics said: No, we don’t want to play.
For a few minutes the two crowds of men milled around as “a couple of excited speakers” tried to catch their attention. But the general hubbub was too loud for anyone to hear them.
Then men on either side began to push and shove, and the episode that soon would be known simply as the Great Rush was on.
Chapter 6 An Early Advantage
This was the Medics’ side of the campus. By sheer brute force, they aimed to push the Lits all the way across the Diagonal and over the picket fence along State Street.
In a mass, they began to push and strain against the Lits’ bodies, bawling: “Go west, young men!”
It was a contest of primitive force—nothing more than a mass effort by one side to push the enemy away.
“As fast as a man is pushed over and falls,” a witness wrote, “he arises and puts his breast to the solid wall of human beings and shoves.”
The Medics had caught the Lits by surprise, and in the early going they enjoyed a clear advantage in tactics and numbers. Not counting the new women Medics, the leaders had recruited virtually all the medical students from freshmen to seniors.
The Lits had only their first- and second-year men.
Until, that is, the roar of the rush was heard across the campus, and the junior and senior Lits caught wind of what was going on.
It was a contest of primitive force—nothing more than a mass effort by one side to push the enemy away.
Chapter 7 Single Combat
By mid-afternoon, the Medics’ advantage in numbers had vanished.
Junior and senior Lits, all veterans of past rushes, cast aside their upper-class disdain and threw themselves into the scrum alongside their younger brethren. Spectators estimated there were now upwards of 300 Medics and and 300 Lits straining against each other.
“Westward!” cried the Medics.
“Eastward!” cried the Lits.
“It was an ennobling sight to see those seven hundred men work with all their might to accomplish nothing,” commented one who who stayed out of it.
One-on-one tussles occurred all over the field. “The war cries of ‘Here Lit!’ ‘Here Medic!’ ‘Go it, Medic!’ ‘Go it, Lit!’ were heard on every side.”
The noise could now be heard for half a mile. Townie spectators and the noncombatant law students flooded the periphery to watch.
A rumor went around that President James Burrill Angell himself marched into the fray to try to call a halt. If so, he was ignored.
After two hours, exhaustion was setting in, and the combat took a new form.
Here and there in the mass, a well-matched Medic and Lit would be seen locked in struggle.
“Form a ring!” someone would shout.
Then several men would lock arms to enforce a space around the two combatants, and the primitive straining of man against man turned into a wrestling match. Nearby brawlers would take a break to watch.
Whenever a Lit or a Medic put his rival on the ground, his classmates would seize the winner and hoist him up in the air. Then a crowd of the enemy would try to tear the victor down.
Somebody produced a few pairs of boxing gloves, and the wrestling matches gave way to fisticuffs. Again, those nearby would take a break from the rush to watch.
“Frequently,” wrote a spectator, “the victorious one would raise his fallen foe and, shaking him by the hand, in token of good will, seek other prey.”
One scribe, penning his account of the battle, was moved to quote from Tennyson’s Morte d‘Arthur:
“And in the mist was many a noble deed, and many a base
And chance, and craft, and strength in single fights…”
Chapter 8 “Over the Fence!”
Dusk was coming on. The interlude of single-combat struggles had given most of the fighters a chance to catch their breath. Now, with both armies rested, a cry went up to bring the rush to a decision.
The Lits’ larger numbers were quickly felt. The mass was now moving slowly but decisively toward the eastern border.
“Over the fence! Over the fence!”
Suddenly it was no longer a real contest. The Medics’ forces seemed to dwindle sharply, and as dusk came on, the Medics remaining on the field were hoisted and thrown over the eastern fence—though not before each one’s red rag was torn off his wrist or his neck and flung to the
Filthy but victorious, the Lits formed up in procession, then marched across the Diag and on into town, cheering and singing all the way.
Chapter 9 “Ridiculous Results”
The next morning, in Mary Sheldon’s boarding house, one of her housemates—a male Medic—was still pondering the sheer force of the thing.
“Who can stop it?” he cried. “President Angell can’t, for he came right out among the freshmen and sophomores!”
“President Angell!” retorted the landlady, a Mrs. Foster. Would you expect “him to be able to stop a herd of wild buffaloes on our great plains when the fire was behind them? No more can he stop these young hotheads!”
There were contesting explanations for the sudden collapse of the Medics. The Lits, of course, claimed superiority in strength and cunning. But an interesting theory—given by a writer who signed himself only as “Medic”—said the medical students had collapsed because of a difference in student appetites.
The Medics, he explained, were accustomed to getting their dinner a half-hour earlier than the Lits. So, with dusk approaching and everyone in the mood to quit, anyway, the Medics were slightly more addled by hunger than the Lits. Most of the Medics—so this theory went—had simply walked off in the gathering darkness, leaving only 15 or 20 of their mates who “were violently set upon and thrown over the fence.”
And there were arguments, as usual, about whether the rush had been good or bad.
“All who were engaged in it,” said one commentator in the Chronicle, “went to their homes tired, and bruised, and sore; many with clothes completely torn off, others with hats, coats, and collars gone, and their underclothing in rags; a feeling of animosity was created between the departments, and a determination that this will not be the end of it is felt by the conquered. These are the ridiculous results.”
Another student saw it entirely differently: “The extreme good feeling that prevailed was highly gratifying to all. The scene at the breaking up of the street parade seems to indicate that one of the happy results of the rush will be to establish a firmer bond of union between the different classes, and we see no good reason why any ill-feeling should arise between the two departments concerned.”
Chapter 10 The Legacy
The rush of November 1872 may have been the largest of its type but it was hardly the last. Rushes continued at Michigan for years.
It was generally acknowledged that some combination of nature and nurture destined young college men to compete for primacy on a field of battle. But the rush was so dangerous that faculty had no choice but to step in.
This didn’t just happen at Michigan. College faculties faced the same challenge everywhere.
Year after year, the professors promoted anything that might channel raw undergraduate aggression into contests bound by regulations and rituals.
The brute-force eastward/westward contests shifted to slightly more ingenious events called pole rushes, in which the freshmen battled the sophomores to capture a flag from the top of a pole. But pole rushes were little safer than the original version.
There were sponsored tug-of-war contests, with freshmen and sophomores trying to pull each other into the Huron River. There were mass games of “pushball,” in which competing crowds tried to push a giant inflated ball past a goal line. (This game made a comeback decades later as “earth ball.”) Class rivalries were confined to annual “Black Fridays.”
But only one sanctioned substitute for the rush caught on and stuck for good—the evolving sport of football.
Through the 1880s and ‘90s and into the new century, the game of getting a ball across a goal line gradually stole popularity from the eastward/westward mass rush. It took on more rules. Mob against mob became eleven to a side. The battle was confined to a sanctioned “line of scrimmage.” And bodies were cushioned by helmets and pads.
So when we watch the Wolverines on Saturday afternoons—especially when we witness the collision of the offensive and defensive lines—we are seeing a highly ritualized and rule-bound version of the old rush.
The key eyewitness accounts of the Great Rush of 1872 are “The Departmental Rush,” Chronicle, 11/16/1872; “The Rush Again,” Chronicle, 11/30/1872; and “A Campus Rush in the 1870s,” Michigan Alumnus, April 1917. Mary Downing Sheldon’s letters are held in the Mary Sheldon Barnes papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College. Other sources include Greg Kinney, “The Evolution of Michigan Football,” Collections (the magazine of the Bentley Historical Library), Fall 2015. (Many thanks to Greg Kinney and Lara Zielin of the Bentley Historical Library.)