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Some Notes on Theta's History

Our Alabama Chapter's Relation to First Kappa Alpha Recalled; The Sigma Alpha Epsilon Tradition

By William Alfred Rose (Alabama 1924, Yale 1925)

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As a part of the introduction to an early history,* we find the following:

The originall of nations and auncient families is often obscure and hard to be discovered. Histories anent the beginning of famous nations are filled with fictions and unwarranted traditions. Families, tho latter, and have the help of evidents, charters, registers, &c., yet oftentimes warrs, depredations, hostile and contingent fires, have destroyed these . . .

*The Family of Kilravock, 1290-1847; published at Edinburgh in 1848 by the Spalding Club. The original manuscript was written in 1683-4.

How appropriate an introduction to the history of the beginnings of a college fraternity chapter which has just celebrated the 75th anniversary of its establishment! "Warrs, depredations, hostile and contingent fires" have all occurred, yet we are fortunate in having sufficient data gleaned from early records to enable us to form something of an intelligent idea of the early days of what is now the third oldest active chapter of our fraternity.


Prior to the year 1855 there existed at the University of Alabama chapters of four organizations which, while then somewhat different from fraternities of modern times, might nevertheless be placed in that classification: Kappa Alpha, Delta Kappa Epsilon, Alpha Delta Phi and Phi Beta Kappa. Of these, Phi Beta Kappa was apparently then, as it is now, an honorary organization. It did not compete in the selection of its members with the other organizations named and it is not mentioned in the memoirs of the founder of our chapter, although the records of the university and of Phi Beta Kappa itself show the establishment of its present Alpha of Alabama in 1851 and its existence and the initiation of members by it until destruction of the university by Union forces during the War Between the States. It was the twelfth in the order of establishment of the present United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa. 

The Kappa Alpha referred to had no connection with either of the two fraternities bearing the same name in existence today. It was founded at the University of North Carolina in 1812 and was the first of the fraternities bearing that name. Its full name was Kuklos Adelphon (Circle of Brothers) and its motto, taken from Horace, was "Never while I am in my right mind will I despise a jocund friend." 

Baird* tells us that its constitution, ritual and secrets were so similar to those of the original Phi Beta Kappa (founded in 1776) as to indicate strongly that it was a descendant of one of the community branches chartered by that fraternity before its dissolution at William and Mary College in 1781. Its chapters were called circles which were organized in various communities as well as in colleges, these community circles being composed of the professional and gentry classes, united for social and literary purposes. It is known to have had not less than fourteen college circles with a possibility of as many as twenty-one, which was a very large organization for that time. 

[Archivist's Note: Baird's conclusions about the origins and nature of Kappa Alpha have received criticism; see Robert S. Tarleton's outstanding critique at the Ward-not-Artemus site.  He mentions Sumpter Lea (Alabama 1857).] 

*William Raymond Baird, Manual of American College Fraternities, Tenth Edition, 1923. 


Baird gives the year of the establishment of the circle of Kappa Alpha at Alabama as 1848 but there are evidences in the university records that it existed as early as 1842. Delta Kappa Epsilon placed its Psi chapter at Alabama in 1847 and the Alabama chapter of Alpha Delta Phi was established in 1850. 

In his "Recollections" appearing in an issue of The PHI GAMMA DELTA published in 1879, John Mason Martin (Alabama 1856) states that he conceived the idea of founding a society to be known as the Phi Alpha Fraternity, and with that end in view he devoted much of his time during the summer of 1854 preparing a constitution and by-laws for his new organization. Martin has been generally considered to have been a member of Kappa Alpha and his name appears on its roll of prominent members. For that reason it is hard to reconcile such membership with his desire to found a new fraternity, but it is probable that the internal dissensions in Kappa Alpha, which are hereafter referred to, had already begun. Moreover, it is known that he was a man of great initiative and he probably desired a small fraternity with members of his own choosing rather than the larger group composing the circle of Kappa Alpha, whose membership is known to have been large enough to have been a material factor in the student elections as is evidenced by the cause of its subsequent dissolution. 

Martin further tells us in his "Recollections" that upon his return to the university at the opening of the fall session in 1854 he abandoned his plan to found a new fraternity and decided to seek a charter of Phi Gamma Delta, assigning as his reason the very excellent position which he had learned the Fraternity held at Union University in Tennessee. For that purpose he persuaded Theodore G. Pearce and John J. Harris, both of whom were members of Kappa Alpha, to unite with him in his efforts, following which he took up correspondence with William F. Owen (Union 1854), who was a native Alabaman, and an application for a charter, signed by the three named and Walter C. Roper, who had been added to their number by them, was then transmitted to the chapter at Union University. Following "due inquiry," as he terms it, into the character and status of the university and the petitioners, a charter of Phi Gamma Delta was granted. 

In the meantime, however, Martin had become involved in what he deemed an affair of honor, resulting in his resignation from the university. Sumpter Lea (Alabama 1857) has given an interesting account of the incidents involved.*

 *Statements herein attributed to Sumpter Lea were made by him in a series of interviews with John M. Bradley (Alabama '12) in 1912 and 1918.

One evening in the spring of 1855 a student by the name of James Jarvis Cooke, a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon, called upon a noted Tuscaloosa belle who was related to John Mason Martin and who was wearing a dress trimmed with some rare old lace, highly prized but not washable and perhaps colored with age. Cooke made a remark to a group of students that he had just called upon the noted young lady, naming her, and was greatly surprised to find her wearing dirty clothes. Martin, hearing of the remark, began looking for Cooke and found him the next afternoon reading a book in Woodruff's Book Store. He asked Cooke about the alleged remark and when it was repeated they "mixed it," the affair ending by Martin stabbing Cooke in the abdomen with a knife.

It being at first thought that Cooke had been fatally stabbed, a hostile crowd of citizens soon gathered and threats were made against young Martin. His father, Joshua Lanier Martin, who had been governor of Alabama a number of years before and who was deeply respected, jumped upon a wagon standing in the street and, brandishing his cane over the heads of the crowd, dramatically exclaimed: "Give me John Mason Martin and you can have him anytime you want him; if he is not here I'll eat an acre of blazing hell." The governor was allowed to take his son home. Cooke soon recovered.

In view of his affair with Cooke, Martin resigned from the university. Shortly thereafter, Woodlief Thomas of the chapter at Union University, then a graduate member and a Baptist minister, arrived in Tuscaloosa as the legate for the purpose of installing the Phi Gamma Delta chapter. While Martin was no longer a student at the university, nevertheless Thomas decided that since he had been selected for membership by the Grand Chapter he was entitled to membership.

Thus at 10 o'clock on the morning of Saturday, May 11, 1855, Pearce, Harris and Martin met Thomas in the City Hall in Tuscaloosa, and were there admitted to membership in Phi Gamma Delta, and in the afternoon of the same day Roper, who could not be present in the morning, presented himself in the same hall and was also initiated. The system of naming chapters by Greek letters being then unknown to the new members they first called themselves "Euilada Chapter," taking the name Theta some time later.


Martin left the following Monday for Centre College in Kentucky, where he had been promised admission to the junior class without loss of standing, and accompanied Thomas as far as Nashville, Tenn. It might be noted that the chapter subsequently installed at the University of Texas is largely responsible to Thomas for its existence, and it is a matter of record that Martin founded Iota Chapter at Centre College after his matriculation there, but, because of' the lack of suitable material that chapter died the next year following his return to Alabama, from which institution he was subsequently graduated.

About the same time events of great importance were happening at Alabama. The office of junior class valedictorian was one filled by popular vote among the students and was considered one of the highest honors in college. Two members of Kappa Alpha were candidates for the honor: Sumpter Lea (who was subsequently elected) and Ben Yancey (a son of William L. Yancey of Secession fame), as was likewise a third student, Mat Sanders, a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon. The Kappa Alpha Circle became embroiled in a serious internal dissension upon its failure to agree on which of its members it would support, the majority action supporting Lea. The breach gradually widened until the minority faction finally withdrew from the fraternity and disclosed its secrets, resulting in dissolution of the circle and, within the course of another year or two, dissolution of practically all of the other circles and ultimate disruption of the fraternity, thus bringing to an end an organization that had exerted great influence in early college fraternity life.


Upon the dissolution of Kappa Alpha at Alabama many of its members joined the other fraternities, thus accounting for the dual membership of its members. John Mason Martin and two of the other charter members of our Alabama Chapter were listed among its members, as were Sumpter Lea and Benjamin Carter Adams (Alabama '56), and possibly others of our later initiates. It is not known whether the dissolution occurred before or after the installation of the Phi Gamma Delta Chapter, but both episodes undoubtedly occurred at approximately the same time, thus tying our chapter in with the older organization through their dual memberships and partially accounting for the extraordinary strength which the new chapter was able to enjoy from its beginning.

 There is an old tradition in Theta Chapter to the effect that Noble Leslie De Votie, who founded Sigma Alpha Epsilon at Alabama in March, 1856, was a member of or associated with the group that was initiated into Phi Gamma Delta upon or following the granting of its charter but that admission into the fraternity was for some unknown reason denied him and he used in the establishment of S. A. E. the constitution and by-laws that Martin had written for his proposed Phi Alpha Fraternity. This tradition is substantiated by a letter written by Major Frank Keck* in which Keck states that Martin himself told him that story. Sumpter Lea, who was a close friend of De Votie and claimed to be largely responsible for De Votie having decided to attend Alabama, was positive in his statement that De Votie was a member of Kappa Alpha and that he joined in the fall of 1854. It is possible, therefore, that De Votie was a member of the majority faction of Kappa Alpha which supported Lea, many of which joined Phi Gamma Delta. Lea, however, did not remember De Votie as a member of the group, but he added that if Martin made the statement attributed to him he would believe it as Martin was a man of unquestioned integrity.

 *Frank Keck (CCNY 1872, Columbia 1875) to John M. Bradley (Alabama 1912), dated June 28, 1918.


The only other documentary evidence of these facts is in Martin's "Recollections" in which he states that after abandoning his plan to establish the proposed Phi Alpha Fraternity he gave the manuscript of its constitution and by-laws, familiar only to himself, "to a fellow student who was after-wards one of the founders of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity and [I] have reason to believe that I am the true author of their constitution, etc." In any event it is a matter of history that S. A. E. was founded in Alabama the year following the establishment of Phi Gamma Delta at that institution and the badge of S. A. E. today carries the letters FA [phi alpha] at the bottom thereof and the pledge pin used by that fraternity also has the letters FA [phi alpha] across its face.

Under such circumstances was Theta Chapter of Phi Gamma Delta established. This first organization of that name was short lived but it enjoyed extraordinary success and numbered among its members men who took a high rank in the later life of the state.

A university regulation in 1859 disbanded all secret fraternities then existing. Baird, in several editions of his Manual, has stated that our chapter continued to run sub-rosa until killed by the closing of the university in 1863 but we have been unable to find any proof of such. Martin states in his "Recollections' that the chapter ceased to exist in 1859 and the chapter roll does not show any initiates after the class of 1860, the members of which were probably initiated before that year. Baird's statement concerning the sub-rosa chapter is, therefore, respectfully challenged.


A review of John Mason Martin's activities, taken from his picture in the university library, is of interest:

Honorable John Mason Martin, A.B., A.M., LL.D., founder of Theta Chapter of Phi Gamma Delta; son of Joshua Lanier Martin (governor of Alabama 1845-47) and Sarah Mason; born Jan. 20, 1838; A.B. University of Alabama, 1856, A.M. 1859; LL.D., Centre College, Central University and Georgetown University; state senator and president of senate, 1873-76; United States Congressman, 49th Congress, from 6th District of Alabama, 1885-87; instrumental in re-establishment of University of Alabama School of Law in 1872; professor of Law, University of Alabama, 1875-86;married Lucy C. Peck (sister of Samuel Mintern Peck, poet laureate of Alabama) of Tuscaloosa; died in Bowling Green, Ky., June 16, 1898.

Through the efforts of Martin and John J. Harris (Alabama '56) the inactive chapter was revived in 1876, following the repeal of the anti-fraternity regulations and it again numbered among its members men who achieved pre-eminent success both in college and in later life. But it, too, was short lived and surrendered its charter in 1879 when the trustees of the University passed new anti-fraternity regulations.

Theta Chapter was revived for the last time in 1901, largely through the assistance of Sterling A. Wood, '77, a member of the second group, thus tying in each revival with the preceding group. It has again enjoyed marked success. It numbers among its members many prominent alumni of the university and the loyalty of its alumni to the chapter has been an occasion for frequent comment by members of other fraternities. It was the first fraternity to erect a home on the university campus, constituting the beginning of Alabama's widely-known and beautiful "fraternity row." It has maintained a consistently high scholastic standing and rarely have the honors and activities of its members been outnumbered by those of other fraternities. It has maintained the high ideals of its predecessors and, situated as it is in the heart of the South where a genteel background still counts for something, it has not lost sight of such in the selection of its members. The number of its members who saw service during the World War as a goal to challenge the other fraternities at Alabama. [sic]

As we look back over its history and realize the position which this chapter has occupied in the life of this hundred-year-old institution, it was no surprise when Dr. George H. Denny, a member of Sigma Chi and president of the university, in a talk before the members of the men's Panhellenic Council at the university in 1927, held up Theta Chapter of Phi Gamma Delta as an example that they would all do well to adopt as a model for their own fraternities.

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