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The Founding and Growth of Phi Kappa Psi

By James T. Herron, Jr.

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Originally published in The Jefferson College Times, Vol. 9, No. 4, September 1976. Reprinted with the author's permission. The Jefferson College Times is a publication of the Jefferson College Historical Society. Society membership is open to all: Individual $10; student $5; contributing $15; business or institutional $25; sustaining $50; life $150. Send membership requests and fees to Joseph A. Solobay, 514 Craighead Street, Canonsburg, PA 15317.


The first article in this series about fraternities at Jefferson College dealt, from a statistical viewpoint, with the men who founded Phi Gamma Delta. In this issue we will look into the difficulties encountered by the second fraternity that originated at Jefferson College in its struggles to make a place for itself in the college community. We will study the situation primarily from the point of view of the early members of the fraternity, making liberal use of their own words. This is not an objective approach to the subject, but is shows more clearly the students and their politics.

Honor is a word much used in the lexicon of the mid-nineteenth century. Letters written by Jefferson College students often contain the indefinable term. Academic use of the word is less nebulous. Scholastic excellence was rewarded with "honors" at graduation. The term also denoted the victors in the annual Literary Society Contests.

February of 1852 saw the birth at Jefferson College of an organization rooted, at least ostensibly, in honor. This was Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity. The Greek letters are the acronym for the phrase, in Greek, "Friend's Association of Honor".

There were two fraternities at Jefferson College at this time, Beta Theta Pi and Phi Gamma Delta. Beta Theta Pi had been founded at Miami, Ohio in 1839 and was instituted at Jefferson in 1842. The Philo Literary Society was the Beta's sphere of influence. They were generally regarded as "lops" or "long-ears", those students who considered themselves to be intellectually and morally superior.

The other fraternity in existence prior to the founding of Phi Kappa Psi was Phi Gamma Delta, which originated at Jefferson College in 1848. The Deltas' power was in the Franklin Literary Society. They were regarded as "shorts" or "short ears", and were more free-wheeling than the lops.

A member of Phi Kappa Psi in the 1850's states: "The 'Lops' were the pious par excellence.... The 'Shorts' were made of the remainder, though it was no imputation on a man's piety to be called a 'Short'. There was another set called the 'Neutrals' (who) were the object of our tactics."

The fraternities at Jefferson College were not only secret organizations, but they also functioned surreptitiously. Members did not wear their fraternity pins where there was a danger of being seen by a fellow student. Many men were not known to belong to a fraternity until they appeared at Commencement wearing a pin.

The fraternities themselves did not openly proclaim their existence; their triumphs and defeats were the reflections of those of the members. It was the goal of each fraternity to have its members perform in the Literary Society Contests and to give the speeches at commencement that denoted the honor graduates.

It is difficult to comprehend the great importance of the literary societies at Jefferson College. To the college student at that time, oratory, select speaking and debate were criteria by which his intellectual abilities were judged. A college catalog of the 1850's states that the literary societies were "ornaments to the College and valuable auxiliaries to the mental training of the students."

These societies, Franklin and Philo, were not composed of just a small segment of the student body. Virtually every student was a member of one or the other. They were the largest and most publicized student organizations, at the college. The Annual Contests were gala affairs. A band was usually hired for the occasion, and the results of the contents were published in the Pittsburgh newspapers.

The fraternities, however, were small societies of selected individuals. The individuals were chosen not only because of their compatibility, but also because they were likely candidates for scholastic and literary society honors which would reflect favorably upon their fraternity.

W. G. Keady, a Phi Kappa Psi who graduated from Jefferson College in 1856, wrote about the struggle for prestige among the fraternities. "The end of college politics was the possession of office and gaining for 'our men' the honors of contest. The far-head objective [of Phi Kappa Psi in 1853] was to replace the older fraternities and to lead both literary societies."

Keady also tells about some of the methods used to gain the upper hand. In 1856, Phi Kappa Psi did not have a strong candidate to give the "Original Oration" for the Philo Literary Society at the Annual Contest. As the time for the election of the orator approached, it appeared that the most likely candidate was a member of Beta Theta Pi, whose power in the Philo Society the Phi Psi's wished to usurp.

Keady states:

Though our personal feelings led us to acknowledge the fitness of the man proposed by the opposition, yet expediency forbade our letting him be elected. We had to find an available candidate outside of the fraternity. One was found who was a fine declaimer, but who could not write an oration. At the request of the chapter, I wrote his probation piece... and when he was elected, I helped doctor up another piece for the contest.

It may seem strange that what was called an "Original Oration" would be ghost-written; it is more strange that a piece would be "doctored up" to be given as an original oration. However, the most amazing aspect of the incident is not mentioned by Keady. William G. Keady, the ghost-writer of the Philo Literary Society's original oration, was a member of the Franklin Literary Society.

The Franks' original orator was also a member of Phi Kappa Psi, Thomas Campbell. Therefore, at the contest, both Philo and Franklin presented original orations written by Phi Psi's who were members of the Franklin Society.  The records of the contest state that the "honors were divided", in other words, a draw.

If this procedure doesn't seem to be proper for a group which styled itself the "Friend's Association of Honor", perhaps it was that they felt the end justified the means.

The ruthless machinations of inter-fraternity intrigue are shown by the case of a Phi Psi who was approached by a newly formed fraternity. It was probably either Phi Kappa Sigma or Kappa Phi Lambda that offered him membership. Both were formed in 1854. The unnamed Phi Psi wrote in a letter: "They got me in, and I have been trying ever since to break it up, by getting all the worthless fellows in college in it."

This activity was not officially condoned by the fraternity, but neither did Phi Kappa Psi originate such tactics. It was merely a case of doing unto others as others have done unto you. Keady relates that when Phi Kappa Psi had just been formed, the other fraternities

. . . each waved the 'bloody shirt' at the newcomer, as effectively as it has been waved in these days of advanced (?) politics. Every wild student, every drinking 'cuss', every blackguard, everyone under suspicion, was ranked among the Phi Psis. If a party of fellows were drunk, it was the 'Phi Psis on a spree'. Their meetings were said to be orgies, at which the tables of the law were regularly smashed, et cetera.

Another part of the letter written by the Phi Psi who tried to break up the rival fraternity gives an idea of the intensity of the animosity between the members of the fraternities. This should put to rest any idea that Canonsburg was a quiet, peaceful college town and that the students were all staid and studious Lord Fauntleroys.

There was a pretty big time here during the week after election of orator in the F. L. Society. There was an awful fuss that night. It started about a Delta (a mighty little thing to start a fuss about). This Delta...had paired off with a Freshman, and afterwards went and voted. The row began with that. That night about seventy-five fellows met on the pike. One of our fellows, a Marylander, struck a Skull [member of Phi Kappa Sigma, so-called because of the fraternity insignia], a Kentuckian; the Skull drew a knife, but was unable to use it, for the crowd rushed in on him.

The Founders of Phi Kappa Psi

The men who founded Phi Kappa Psi, and in so doing upset the balance of power, were William H. Letherman, a Junior, and Charles P. T. Moore, a Sophomore. The Centennial History of Phi Kappa Psi; 1852-1952 states: "Each had been invited to join by fraternities already established, but both had entertained a strong dissatisfaction with the character and the personalities."

During his college years, William Letherman lived with his widowed mother in a house on the east side of Main Street (North Central Avenue) above the College. It was in this house that Letherman and Moore founded Phi Kappa Psi. Other students had been invited to join in the venture, but on the appointed night, they did not appear.

A year later, the two men recorded in the minutes of the fraternity: "Believing that by an association governed by fixed laws and regulations they could advance and promote each other's interests and improve each other morally and intellectually, Messrs. Moore and Letherman having written out a constitution which should govern them to a great extent, met in Mr. Letherman's room on the 19th of February, 1852, and founded the Phi Kappa Psi Association."

William Letherman, or 'Letterman' as he later spelled his name, was born and raised in Canonsburg. His older brothers, Jonathan and Craig, both graduated from Jefferson College in 1845 and were members of Beta Theta Pi in its early years.

His father, Dr. Jonathan, who spelled his name Leatherman, was a physician. He was a member of the Board of Trustees of Jefferson College from 1820 until his death in 1844. William Letherman's mother, Ann, was the daughter of Craig Ritchie, a prosperous and influential merchant, and one of the earliest settlers in Canonsburg. Ritchie had been among those instrumental in founding the Canonsburg Academy, the antecedent of Jefferson College, and also had been a member of the College Board of Trustees, having been first appointed by the Pennsylvania Legislature when the college was chartered in 1802.

William Letherman is described by a friend in the History of Phi Kappa Psi (1902):

Letterman, while not a brilliant scholar, was very much of a gentleman in his manners, and was very popular among his fellow students. His father was a very distinguished physician and stood high socially in an exclusive community. Letherman showed his social culture in all his manners. He was tall, six feet or a little more in height and an Adonis of physical beauty. Letherman sympathized with the South in the Civil War. The last time I saw him was in Boston, where he was arranging for the establishment of some reduction works for copper ores, to be used for the benefit of the Confederate Army. He told me how he had got across the border, and how he expected to get back again to the heart of the Confederacy.

Note that the author of these lines spelled Letherman's name both ways.

After graduating from Jefferson College in 1853, Letherman attended Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, where he was selected to offer an oration at graduation. He practiced medicine in Texas from 1856 until his death in 1881.

The other founder, Charles P. T. Moore, was the product of a wealthy family from Mason County, Virginia (now West Virginia). Moore did not attend Jefferson College for long after Phi Kappa Psi was founded. In 1853, he transferred to Union College in Schenectady, New York. After his graduation from Union, Moore studied law at the University of Virginia. He later became a judge in the West Virginia courts.

Although Moore's influence upon the infant fraternity was mostly by correspondence, in his later years he retained a strong interest in Phi Kappa Psi and was frequently called upon for advice. 

Early Members of the Fraternity

Four days after the founding of Phi Kappa Psi, its size doubled with the addition of Isaac Van Meter and James T. Metzger. Both men were members of the Sophomore Class, and, like the founders and a majority of the early initiates, members of the Philo Literary Society. Van Meter graduated ahead of his class, but he was in poor health. He returned to his home in Ohio and farmed until his death in 1861. Metzger, from Bedford, did not graduate.

Within the next week, two more names were added, John Parramore, a sophomore from Virginia, and Perry McDaniel. McDaniel is listed in the college catalogs as Charles W. McDaniel, of Canonsburg. At the time of his election into the fraternity, he was not a student in the college classes, but was in the Preparatory Department of the college. He remained in school and graduated in 1856, but he is not mentioned in the fraternity histories. He may have left the fraternity soon after his initiation.

Later in the term, Joseph C. Nevin became the first member of the Franklin Literary Society to be initiated. The next year he became the first Phi Psi to resign and join a rival fraternity at the college.

Although the membership in the fraternity was increasing, Phi Kappa Psi was not strong and probably would have failed were it not for Thomas Cochran Campbell, who was initiated in January of 1853. It was he who gave motivation and form to the fledgling fraternity. The History of Phi Kappa Psi (1902) states: "Tom Campbell lived for Phi Kappa Psi. His love for her was that 'surpassing love of woman'. His active waking hours were devoted mainly to planning for her welfare...."

Thomas Campbell, who undertook the task of making Phi Kappa Psi successful, was a man of unusual talents and background. His story is related by W. G. Keady in his article entitled "An Old Boy's Recollections" which first appeared in Phi Kappa Psi's publication The Shield, and is reprinted in the fraternity's histories. Although the account contains some erroneous material, it gives an insight into the early years of the fraternity and its members at Jefferson College.

Thomas Campbell, the son of a Presbyterian missionary, was born at sea in the Indian Ocean. He was raised in Northern India by Hindu servants, and according to Keady, could read and write Hindi, but little English. When he was about twelve, he accompanied his father to Philadelphia where he was left in the care of guardians for his education. His father returned to the mission fields.

Tom had trouble adjusting to a culture foreign to him, and his guardians were forced to place him in the Philadelphia House of Refuge. This was a school with very strict discipline, primarily for orphans, but it may have been an early type of reform school.

After two years in the institution, Campbell was, in Keady's words, "tamed and civilized, partially at least". When he was nineteen, it was decided by his guardians that he should further his education. Arrangements were made for him to accompany Keady, who was about to enter Jefferson College. It is interesting to note that although Campbell lived some seven years in Philadelphia, he considered India his home. The college and literary society catalogs list his residence as Saharunpur, N. India.

Keady does not equivocate concerning the importance of Thomas Campbell to the fraternity. He states that what Campbell did

. . . was to build up and set in order the Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity. Almost everything distinctive or peculiar in the character and the working of the Fraternity had its origin in Tom's brain. Even the phrases in addresses delivered afterward by others, which I have heard or read, amid all changes, keep his models. The seals were of his design. The rude Greek of the passwords, et cetera, is his. In fact, all the machinery came from his workshop — the very work most needed and least thought of. He was voluminous in letter writing, and all the correspondence and copying were exclusively in his hands.

Campbell, the stalwart Phi Psi, had not been completely tamed as may be illustrated by these vitriolic descriptions of rival fraternities at Jefferson College. It was published in the literary journal of Phi Kappa Psi at Canonsburg.

From the whole mass of living beings on the face of the earth there cannot be collected another set of men professing Christianity, who are in a higher degree devoid of all principles of honor, truth and justice than this Satanic B-society and their feminine colleagues. The ----  aren't much; we scarcely notice them. There is a little animal, which, although nauseous, it is better to tolerate than exterminate - that's the -----'s. We would soon rid ourselves of them, but we don't want to be engaged in dirty work.

After his graduation from Jefferson College in 1856, Campbell attended Western Theological Seminary. He was licensed by the Presbytery of Ohio in 1859, but died only a few years later at the age of twenty-six.

The Growth of the Fraternity

The aims of the fraternity were two-fold; to "give it standing or influence in the college", and to institute chapters at other colleges. In the desire for the fraternity to expand, at times unusual methods were employed.

There were initiates who had yet to take college courses. Also, men were elected to membership in the fraternity who had already graduated from college. In 1854, James G. Dickson, a Canonsburg physician who had graduated in 1847, was initiated into Phi Kappa Psi. The next year, Julius Smith, an 1853 graduate was initiated.

There may have been a good reason for the election into membership of these two men. Dickson was the brother-in-law, and Smith the son, of Dr. William Smith, the vice-president of the college as well as the professor of Greek.

Membership was, at times, offered with a certain degree of recklessness. Thomas Campbell, the Phi Psi of Phi Psis was once expelled from the fraternity for initiating a man without bothering to have him voted upon by the chapter. Campbell was, however, soon reinstated.

After several years of nearly foundering, a concerted effort was made to fulfill the objective of giving the fraternity standing in the college community. This was accomplished by selecting for membership men who showed potential for honors in class and in the literary societies.

The first of these men sought for membership, at the behest of Tom Campbell, was William Keady. He became the first initiate of 1854. Keady is described in Old Jefferson College and Its Class of 1860 as the "genius of the Class of 1856".

Keady, in the description of his initiation, states that there were only four members of the fraternity present, one of whom had already graduated. The state of the fraternity was little better than it had been two years earlier when it was founded.

Members were added, one by one, who would stabilize the fraternity, as well as better its reputation. These were the men who went on to win honors in the literary societies and at graduation.

The second objective of the fraternity, to institute chapters at other colleges, was initiated with the transfer of Charles P. T. Moore to Union College in 1853. It was his intention to start a chapter of Phi Kappa Psi there, and much correspondence between Moore and the chapter at Canonsburg was on this theme.

Moore was unable to institute a chapter of Phi Kappa Psi at Union. The histories of the fraternity state that he did initiate a student at Union into Phi Kappa Psi. This is an error. The man, Eugene M. Sanford of Milledgeville, Georgia, was at the time a student at Jefferson.

Moore did, however, almost cause the fraternity's demise. Since he was unable to start a chapter of Phi Kappa Psi at Union, Moore was given permission to join one of the fraternities there, Delta Phi. He had entered Union in March of 1853 and was elected to membership of Delta Phi in June. However, even before he was initiated into the Union College fraternity, it was proposed that Phi Kappa Psi be merged with Delta Phi. The arrangement proposed was a yoking of the fraternities in such a way that each would retain its name and sovereignty, but that all brothers would have dual membership. Since Delta Phi was a much stronger and older fraternity, having been founded at Union in 1827, It is conceivable that Phi Kappa Psi would have been engulfed.

After much discussion, the plan was rejected by Phi Kappa Psi. Joseph Nevin, who had been the seventh man initiated into the fraternity, strongly advocated the merger. When his view was not upheld, he resigned from Phi Kappa Psi and joined Phi Gamma Delta.

Charles Moore did not desert the fraternity that he had helped to found. Although he was unable to start a new chapter of Phi Kappa Psi at Union, his efforts at the University of Virginia, where he attended law school, were successful. The efforts of the fraternity to expand to other colleges bore fruit when a chapter of Phi Kappa Psi was established at the University of Virginia in December of 1853. Soon, other chapters were formed at Washington and Lee and at Allegheny College.

Some attempts to institute new chapters involved almost desperate means. In the Jefferson chapter learned that a man from Allegheny City (now a part of Pittsburgh) was going to Williams College, in Massachusetts. This person, although not a Jefferson student, was summarily initiated into the fraternity for the express purpose of starting a chapter at Williams. The attempt was unsuccessful; at Williams he joined Kappa Alpha Fraternity.

Initiation into Phi Kappa Psi was also conducted by mail. A student at a college not having a chapter of Phi Kappa Psi could sign the oath and receive the secrets and constitution of the fraternity by mail. Ha was considered to be a member of the Pennsylvania Alpha (Jefferson College) Chapter and could initiate other men at his college and start a new chapter of Phi Kappa Psi. A number of chapters were started in this way and the practice continued into the l88O's. The records of Phi Kappa Psi list 200 names as being members of the Jefferson College chapter. Of this number, nearly one-third are not found in the Jefferson College catalogs.

Jefferson College and Phi Kappa Psi Leave Canonsburg

At the time of the union of Washington and Jefferson Colleges in 1865, Phi Kappa Psi had become a strong and stable fraternity. Some twenty chapters had been established, primarily in the mid-west and the south. Chapters in the south had dissolved, at least temporarily, due to the Civil War, but as a whole, the fraternity was successful.

The Jefferson College Chapter was also doing very well. Keady states that Phi Kappa Psi had "more than (its) share of honors in literature and scholarship every year". However, the chapter finally met a foe it could not overcome.

Jonathan Edwards, D.D., LL.D., the first President of the newly formed Washington and Jefferson College, was strongly antagonistic toward fraternities. Both the Jefferson College chapter, Pennsylvania Alpha, and the Washington College chapter, Pennsylvania Delta, were dissolved.

It was not until 1873, when W&J had consolidated all its classes at Washington and had a new president, that Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity was petitioned to re-institute Pennsylvania Alpha. The re-establishment of the chapter, at W&J, was as unusual as its earlier history. It was not even a Phi Psi who caused the chapter to be re-formed.

John Herron had been a student at W&J but had transferred to Lafayette. At Lafayette, he became a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon Fraternity. Herron returned to W&J and, with other students who wanted to start another fraternity at the college, petitioned Delta Kappa Epsilon to revive her chapter at W&J.

However, approval was for some reason delayed. The petitioners then made overtures to Phi Kappa Psi which resulted in the re-establishment of the Pennsylvania Alpha chapter. There, at W&J, this chapter of Phi Kappa Psi remains active today.

 

Postscript

William G. Keady, whose writing was liberally used in the article on Phi Kappa Psi, was a man whose life is a study in diversity. He was born in Baltimore on February 25, 1833. After completing high school, he worked for five years in a Philadelphia book printing firm. In May of 1853, he entered Jefferson College.

In the Jefferson College Catalogs published his junior and senior years, his address is given as St. Louis. In the catalog of the Franklin Literary Society he gives his address as "the wide, wide world".

The respect in which he was held by his classmates is demonstrated by the eulogies printed in the 1902 Reunion Book of the Class of 1856. These sentiments also give a good idea of what he was like during his college years. The following are selected quotations from the eulogies:

"He was a remarkably versatile man and easily excelled in anything he undertook. The fires of genius slumbered in his brain, and often were kindled into a glow."
"Keady seemed to me to be the most brilliant and ready writer of our class."
"He was not a close student. His life for a time was somewhat reckless."
"... Keady was an extremely lovable fellow, and that the affections and emotions were strong, and in a degree, mastering, his character."
"He was not worldly-wise, and had no selfishness in his makeup that I could ever see."
"Keady is recalled as a bright member of our class, full of dash, and exuberance of life, with much versatility of mind that sparkles sometimes with poetry and fun, tinctured with some taste for the stage, as when one night in the Frank Society, bringing a chain to the rostrum, he acted the 'maniac'."
"Though of a mischievous turn, and rather wild for very close study, his grades were very high in all branches of class work. He is photographed in our minds as graduating with high credit, delivering an original poem on 'The Old College Bell'."

After graduating from Jefferson College in 1856, Keady taught in Kentucky and then in Tennessee. In the fall of 1857, he began the study of law in St. Louis. When he completed his law studies, he decided he would need some money to open an office and to survive the lean months ahead. Therefore, he returned to teaching.

Keady was a private tutor in Clairborn County, Mississippi until 1861, when he was appointed head of the Preparatory Department of Oakland College in Mississippi,

He never did open that law office. The Civil War changed his plans. In July of 1861, Keady enlisted in the Confederate Amy as a private. The next year he was captured and imprisoned for five months at Camp Douglas, near Chicago. After his release, he rejoined the Confederate Army. Keady lost his right am in the defense of Vicksburg in June, I863.

His army career finished, he went back to teaching. He taught in Georgia for a year, and then returned to Mississippi. After the war, he helped re-open Oakland College, starting with one student.

After a year at Oakland College, Keady moved to Red River County, Texas to raise cotton. His agricultural career was cut short by malaria, so he moved back to Mississippi, where he opened a school at Vicksburg.  Oakland College called him again, in 1868. He served as Professor of Latin for a year.

In April, 1869, Keady married Martha Chambers of Canonsburg, and that fall took charge of the Brashear Female Seminary, in Port Gibson, Mississippi. While there, he began private studies for the ministry.

Keady remained at Port Gibson for two years (a long time far him}. He then took his family to Springfield, Illinois, where he taught school and completed his theological studies. He was accepted for the Presbyterian ministry in April, 1872, without ever attending a theological seminary.

Keady continued his peripatetic ways as a minister. He served eight churches in five states over the next 27 years. He was respected as a man of extraordinary ability. The degree of Doctor of Divinity was conferred upon him by W&J in 1383, only eleven years after he had entered the ministry.

William Keady's final pastorate was in Newberne, Alabama. He served there for thirteen years. This was the longest time, by far, that he had stayed in one place since he left Baltimore as a boy. He died January 8, 1902, at Newberne.

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