Committees of Vigilance

By Lilia Walsh

An earlier article on the ARB blog on a “Mick and Mack” cartoon in University News referenced an intriguing entity: the Committees of Vigilance. These were official school clubs of upperclassmen, whose main purpose was to keep the freshman “in line” and enforce school spirit. They did this by paddling freshman at the start of the New Year, publicly humiliating them, and enforcing rules throughout campus during the year. To the current observer, this seems like school-sponsored hazing, and it was, more or less, though it is clear that this was a different time and a much different campus culture.

The issue of University News in which the “Mick and Mack” cartoon is included features no less than three articles on abusing freshman: “Paddling: And Terpsichorean Exhibitions Divert Crowd – Freshman Come in Contact with the Committee of Vigilance and White Pine,” “Frosh: To Be Inflicted with New Kind of Mental Torture – Chairman of Committees are Making Elaborate Plans for Trying Erring Youth,” and “Vigilantes: Take Inhuman Joy in Prosecuting Ignorant, Helpless Fresh women – Reception Given Freshman Girls – Unique Method Used for Getting Acquainted – Successful Year is Assured.”

Certainly a disturbing collection, these articles detail the tactics taken by the two “Committees of Vigilance” at UC, one for the male freshman and one for the women. They seem to dramatize, rather than minimize the ‘torture’ inflicted.

“Paddling and Terpsichorean Exhibitions” describes the events of the day: “That very important body known as the Men’s Vigilance Committee has started on its colossal task of suppressing the childish chatter of one of the largest freshman classes in the history of UC.” Largely, this was done in the traditional way: with paddling, “Several unruly neophytes came into contact with white pine.” However, some of the treatments were more forgiving: “Some were given an opportunity to torment the dignified onlookers with vocal selections, while others gave classic terpsichorean interpretations.” Terpsichorean refers to dancing, and it seems that freshman were made to dance for the crowd that had gathered to watch.

The “new kind of mental torture” in the title of the second article referred to the committee’s plan to employ more public humiliation, and less pinewood paddling with the new class of freshman: “Mental agony will be substituted for physical violence.” The article on the women’s committee details the ‘torture-fest’ the committee staged, but ultimately stresses that the women’s aim was to “educate the frosh rather than humiliate them.”

The committees saw their work as a very important part of the high school to college transition, they argued: “The change from high school to college life is a bigger step than most freshmen realize. We have a real school, and want every freshman to get the proper spirit as quickly as possible.” They continue, stating: “Despite backsets, and reverses, the Men’s and Women’s Vigilance Committees are going strong, and doing a good business”, though they do not explain what those ‘backsets’ and ‘reverses’ were.

Times have certainly changed.  Now more that 40 states have anti-hazing laws, though this hardly means that the tradition has disappeared. In February of 2000, the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority at UC was disciplined after complaints about hazing incidents, including forcing their new members to crawl up the steps of a fraternity house.

One page from the 1919 edition of The Cincinnatian, titled “Men’s Trial” depicts a number of hazing traditions, including two men boxing with blindfolds on, paddling, and what appears to be covering the heads of freshman with soap or shaving cream.

Men's Trial, 1919 Yearbook

Additionally, the yearbook features a two page spread for both the Men’s and Women’s Vigilance Committees.

Surprisingly, the short article, which accompanies the group photo of the Men’s Vigilance Committee, stresses the unusual mercy and kindness the committee had exhibited this year.

The yearbook also lists Dorothy E. Cone, vice-president of the senior class, as a member of the Vigilance Committee, in addition to ‘Glee Club’ and ‘Junior Prom Committee’. Several seniors are shown posing with the Mick and Mack sculptures. The spread for the Women’s Vigilance includes the rules which freshman must follow, including: wearing a green ribbon in your hair on Wednesdays, sitting only at the side tables in dinning areas, “reverence your elders – do not sit at ease while they stand” and “especially avoid all communication with men in military attire.”

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Women's Vigilance Committee