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Beta Theta Pi

The First Fraternity at Jefferson College

By James T. Herron, Jr.

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Originally published in The Jefferson College Times, Volume 9, Number 5, November 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 two articles in this series about fraternities at Jefferson College concerned the fraternities founded at Jefferson College, Phi Gamma Delta and Phi Kappa Psi. However, these fraternities were preceded at Jefferson College by Beta Theta Pi, founded at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio in 1839.

The Betas at Jefferson College took pride in their exclusiveness. Their desire was to take only "the most worthy students of the Institution".

This article will discuss the advent of the fraternity system at Jefferson College and the dissemination of both the fraternity and its members from the college.

The first college fraternity was founded in 1776 at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. This prototype Greek-letter society was Phi Beta Kappa, originally a secret social fraternity. In 1831, Phi Beta Kappa renounced secrecy and became the honorary society it is today.

The path of the social fraternity concept from William and Mary to Jefferson College is circuitous. In about 1817, a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa was instituted at Union College, Schenectady, New York. Other fraternities, including Sigma Phi, founded in 1827, were patterned after Phi Beta Kappa at Union. The path next leads to Hamilton College, Clinton, New York where Sigma Phi placed a chapter in 1831. The next year, a rival fraternity, Alpha Delta Phi, was founded at Hamilton and in 1833 established a chapter at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio.

Alpha Delta Phi soon was in control of student politics at Miami. As had happened at the other colleges mentioned, a rival society sprang up to oppose Alpha Delta Phi. This fraternity, Beta Theta Pi, was founded at Miami University August 8, 1839; the first fraternity to be founded west of the Allegheny Mountains.

Miami University in the fourth decade of the nineteenth century was in many ways similar to Jefferson College. There were two literary societies on the campus, the Union Society and the Erodelphian Society. As at Jefferson, the fraternities were outgrowths of the literary societies.

Beta Theta Pi was founded at Miami by John Reily Knox, the president of the Union Society. Walter Havinghurst, in The Miami Years, 1809-1969, states: "The original aim [of Beta Theta Pi] seems to have been merely to offset the influence of Alpha Delta Phi in the literary societies."

Thus far, the path has led from Williamsburg, Virginia to Schenectady and Clinton, New York and to Oxford, Ohio; a journey that has taken over sixty years. At this time, the late 1830's, college fraternities are confined to the New England states, New York and Ohio.

The spirit of the times was for expansion, striking out for new frontiers. So it was for Beta Theta Pi. In the three years after its founding at Miami University, five additional chapters were established; three in Ohio, one at Transylvania in Kentucky, and on June 1, 1842, a chapter at Jefferson College, Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. This was not only the first fraternity at Jefferson College, but is reputed to be the first college fraternity in the State of Pennsylvania.

The chapter at Canonsburg was established by Rodney Mason, a member of Beta Theta Pi at Miami who transferred to Jefferson College early in 1842. The men who gathered to organize the Jefferson Chapter on June 1, 1842, were Ulysses Mercur, a senior from Bradford County, Pa.; A. W. Hendricks, a junior from the state of Indiana; W. M. Houston, a junior from Lowell, Ohio; and the transfer student from Miami, Rodney Mason, a member of the sophomore class. Although not one of the organizers, Isaac S. McMicken, a senior, was also present at the meeting. All but Hendricks were members of the Philo Literary Society at Jefferson.

The fraternity immediately took hold at Jefferson. Later in the month, five additional men were initiated. The decision that the chapter should achieve strength through the quality of its members rather than through size is demonstrated in a letter from Ulysses Mercur to another chapter of the fraternity, dated July 15, 1842. "Our present number is considered to be as great as will be conducive to the welfare of Society, and we flatter ourselves that this Chapter is placed upon a foundation which will secure the most worthy students of the Institution, and leave us nothing to fear from the establishment here, of any other similar Society." Indeed, no other was formed at Jefferson for six years, until the founding of Phi Gamma Delta, in 1848.

It was fortunate for Beta Theta Pi that its Jefferson Chapter was strong. Other chapters, including the parent chapter at Miami, fell upon hard times. At the fraternity's convention held in 1851, only two chapters, Western Reserve and Jefferson, were represented.

The chapter at Jefferson College was responsible for the organization of four additional chapters of Beta Theta Pi at other colleges. The first, at Princeton, was the result of the efforts of William M. Scott, a student at the Princeton Theological Seminary. However, Scott could not have been a member of Beta Theta Pi as a student at Jefferson. He graduated in 1841, the year before the fraternity was instituted in Canonsburg. He must have been initiated after graduating from college. The chapter at Princeton was short-lived, dying in 1846 due to the passage of anti-fraternity laws by the University.

The next new chapter formed by Betas from Jefferson was at Hampden-Sydney, in Virginia. This chapter was established in 1850 by Charles Martin (Jefferson 1842) and William H. West (Jefferson 1846) both of whom were professors at Hampden-Sydney. This chapter remained active for over sixty years, the charter being revoked by the fraternity due to a marked decrease in enrollment at the school.

In 1852, a chapter of Beta Theta Pi was instituted at North Carolina by William Green (Jefferson 1850). Green had been a student at Jefferson College at the time Phi Gamma Delta was founded, so he was no stranger to inter-fraternity rivalry. The North Carolina chapter of Phi Gamma Delta had been formed the previous year, and it probably was of great satisfaction to Green that one of the charter members of that chapter was persuaded to jump to the Betas.

The incident at North Carolina parallels an occurrence at Jefferson College in 1848. One of the signers of the original constitution of Phi Gamma Delta left the fraternity to join Beta Theta Pi. In the Jefferson College case, the deserter was called a "traitorous Simon" and an "infamous, groveling, hell-deserving wretch" by Deltas. His name was blotted out in the minute books and on the constitution and he is never referred to by name by the fraternity. In the North Carolina case, the man's name appears on the rolls of both fraternities.

Jefferson College also contributed another chapter to Beta Theta Pi, although in an unusual and indirect manner. At Denison University, Granville, Ohio, a chapter of Kappa Phi Lambda Fraternity became a chapter of Beta Theta Pi. Kappa Phi Lambda had been founded at Jefferson College in 1859. The Beta Book states: "The petitioners had constituted one of the chapters of Kappa Phi Lambda, a fraternity which had several chapters in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan but disintegrated because of the arbitrary and despotic methods of its founding chapter at Jefferson College."

During Beta Theta Pi's twenty-three years at Jefferson College (from 1842 until the merger of Washington and Jefferson Colleges in 1865), 114 men were initiated into the fraternity. This is not a great number. During the 1850's and into the 1860's, other fraternities had larger memberships.

However, from the time of its institution in 1842, the Jefferson College Chapter of Beta Theta Pi had aimed for quality rather than quantity. The Betas tended to select for their brotherhood the 'lops', the more serious students. This was the character of Beta Theta Pi at Jefferson College, an exclusive society whose members tended to think of themselves as being the elite of the student body.

Were the Betas the hypocrites of Jefferson, or were they really exceptional men? To determine this, we shall look at the careers of some of these men whose common characteristic was that they had, for a few years, each been a member of a secret society at a college in the hills of Western Pennsylvania.

 

Charles Martin ('42) spent most of his life as an educator. He was Professor of Languages at Hampden-Sydney (where he organized the chapter of Beta Theta Pi) from 1847 until 1871; interrupted for two years by service in the Confederate States Army as adjutant, lieutenant and captain. After he left Hampden-Sydney he taught at several institutions and, in 1876, was awarded an LL.D. degree by both Hampden-Sydney and Washington & Jefferson. In his later years he served as a government clerk and Clerk of a United States District Court.

Isaac McMicken ('42) practiced law until 1846 when he joined the army. He served in the Mexican War, achieving the rank of major. He was appointed Consul to Acapulco, Mexico in 1857 and died there in 1858 of yellow fever.

Ulysses Mercur ('42) practiced law until 1861, when he donned the judge's robes. From 1864 until 1872 he was a member of the U.S. Congress. James G. Blaine, in 20 Years of Congress, said of him: "Ulysses Mercur, whose learning as a lawyer and whose worth as a man have since received their reward in a promotion to the Supreme Bench of his state." He served as a Justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania from 1872 until his death in 1887; the last four years as Chief Justice.

JOSEPH R. WILSON ('44) attended Western and Princeton Theological Seminaries. From 1849 to 1851, he was pastor of the Chartiers (Hill) Presbyterian Church, near Canonsburg; and for the next four years was a professor at Hampden-Sydney College. He also served as pastor of congregations in Virginia, Georgia and North Carolina; and taught at seminaries in South Carolina and Tennessee. He is best known, however, as the father of Woodrow Wilson, the twenty-eighth President of the United States.(picture on left)



ROBERT P. NEVIN ('42) was a druggist and manufacturer of white lead from 1842 until 1870, when he turned to journalism. From 1870 until 1884, he was editor of Pittsburgh newspapers, and was the author of several books.

JOHN WEAVER ('42) of Canonsburg, a grandson of John McMillan, studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. He returned to Canonsburg in 1844, and practiced medicine in the town until his death in 1856.

WILLIAM J. McCULLOH ('43), a civil engineer, was Surveyor-General of Louisiana, Commissioner of the Land Office of Louisiana, and from 1865 until his death in 1877, was chief engineer of the New Orleans, Opelousas & Great Western Railroad (known popularly as the "Opelousas", and sometimes as the "Applesauce").

JOHN McPHERRIN SULLIVAN ('43), the valedictorian of his class, practiced law in Butler, Pa. until 1854, when he entered government service. From 1867 until 1882, he was United States Collector, Internal Revenue, Twenty-third District, Pennsylvania.

JOSEPH H. MOORE ('44), from Opelousas, La., practiced law in his hometown from 1849 until 1880. During the Civil War, he served as a member of the Louisiana Legislature; from 1880 until 1888, as a Judge of the Court of Appeals. He was granted an honorary A.M. degree from W & J in 1888.

MILTON S. LATHAM ('45), after graduating from Jefferson College, went to California where he practiced law. In 1851, at the height of the gold-rush, he served as District-Attorney for Sacramento. He was elected Governor of California in 1859, and was inaugurated January 9, 1860. However, he resigned two days later having been elected on January 11 in a special election to fill the U. S. Senate seat left vacant by the death of one of the California senators. He took his seat in Washington, D.C. and served until March, 1863.

JONATHAN LETTERMAN ('45) graduated from Jefferson Medical College in 1849 and was an army surgeon from 1849 to 1864. He served as Medical Director of the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War. Letterman General Hospital in San Francisco is named in his honor. (See Jefferson College Historical Society Newsletter of March, 1973)


JOSHUA T. OWEN ('45) was born in Wales and emigrated to the United States when he was five years old. He practiced law until the outbreak of the Civil War, at which time he entered the Union Army. During the war, he had two horses shot from under him. He attained the rank of brigadier-general although he had no previous military experience. After one engagement, General Hooker reported: "The Sixty-Ninth Pennsylvania, heroically led by Owen, advanced in the open field with almost reckless daring." After the war, he returned to the practice of law and served in the Pennsylvania Legislature and as Recorder of Deeds in Philadelphia.




JOHN T. EDGAR ('47) taught in Tennessee and was the principal of a school for women in Kentucky. During the Civil War, he was Consul-General to St. Thomas. He returned to Washington, D.C. for five years after which he left government service and was a merchant in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1875, he was appointed Consul-General to Beirut, Syria and served there until he died in 1882.

JOSEPH H. CALVIN ('49) was born in Ireland and studied theology at Princeton after graduating from Jefferson. He served as a pastor until 1859, when he became Professor of Languages at Austin College, Texas. During the Civil War he was, at least nominally, Professor of Greek at Oakland College in Mississippi. From 1865 until his death in 1867, he helped to revive the college as its president.

ALONZO LINN ('49) attended Western Theological Seminary after his graduation. From 1854 until 1857, he taught at Lafayette College. He was called in 1857 to return to Jefferson College as Professor of Greek. He taught at Jefferson until the merger in 1865, and then at W & J until his death in 1901.

JACOB WINTERS ('45) was born in Canonsburg, studied at both the Western and Princeton Theological Seminaries, and served churches in West Virginia and Missouri. From 1863 until his death in 1873, he was the editor of the TRINIDAD ENTERPRISE, Trinidad, Colorado.

WILLIAM GREEN ('50) returned to his home state of North Carolina to study law. There he instituted the chapter of Beta Theta Pi at Chapel Hill. Soon after being admitted to the bar, he was State Solicitor and served in the State Legislature. During the Civil War, he served in the Confederate States Army, rising to the rank of colonel. After the war, he returned to the practice of law in Franklin County, North Carolina.

THOMAS G. GRIFFIN ('50) was born in Mississippi, studied law in Louisiana, and practiced in Texas and Florida. He was a colonel in the 8th Mississippi Volunteers, Confederate States Army. For reasons not known, he left the country in 1865 for Central America. He died in Honduras in 1887.

WILLIAM H. PYLE ('51) was born in Ohio and returned there to study medicine. He practiced in Texas except for the war years when he served as a Confederate Army Surgeon. In 1870 he was elected to the Texas Senate.

RUSH CLARK ('53) was born in Pennsylvania and went to Iowa after graduating where he studied law. He was a member of the Iowa Legislature during the Civil War and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for two terms.

ENOS BARNETT ('54) taught in the North until 1856 when he accepted to chair of Professor of Mathematics at the Mississippi Military Institute. However, unlike some of his fraternity brothers, he left the South shortly before the war broke out. He served the Union in the Civil War as Quartermaster of the 83rd California Volunteers. He died at sea in 1865.

WILLIAM B. COOK ('60) taught in Kentucky for two years. From 1862 until 1865, he was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, but spent two of the three years in the infamous Libby Prison. After the war, he studied law and practiced in Pittsburgh until his death in 1870.


WILLIAM H. WEST ('46) was a tutor at Jefferson College in 1848 and 1849. He then taught at Hampden-Sydney and helped to organize that chapter of Beta Theta Pi. He entered into a legal career during which he was a member of the Ohio Legislature, Attorney-General of Ohio and a Judge on the Ohio Supreme Court. West lost his sight while a Justice on the Ohio Supreme Court, but because of his remarkable abilities, continued to effectively serve on the bench. He was renowned for his public speaking ability, and at the Republican National Convention of 1884 gave the nominating speech for James G. Blaine, the party's presidential candidate.



GEORGE PAULL ('58) taught in Mississippi for a time after graduating, but returned to Pennsylvania where he was graduated from the Western Theological Seminary in 1862. He requested the Board of Foreign Missions to be sent to Africa, but due to the Civil War it was two years before he arrived at Corsico, on the west coast of Africa. A year later, at the age of twenty-nine, he was dead; the victim of a tropical disease.

MATTHEW S. QUAY ('50) studied law and in 1856 began his career in government as Prosecuting Attorney of Beaver County, Pa. He was a Pennsylvania legislator, Secretary of the Commonwealth, private secretary to Governor Curtin, Military Secretary, Colonel of the 134th Pennsylvania Volunteers and Treasurer of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. In 1886 he was elected to a seat in the U.S. Senate, where he served for a total of fifteen years.

JAMES A. BEAVER ('56) graduated from Jefferson College at the age of eighteen, and was admitted to the bar in 1859. When the Civil War broke out, he entered the U.S. Army as a lieutenant and within three months was commissioned a colonel. That he led his men as well as commanded them is shown by the fact that he was wounded at the battles of Chancellorsville, Spottsylvania, Cold Harbor and at Petersburg. His final command in combat was at Ream Station where he was shot in the leg by a musket ball necessitating the amputation of his right leg at the hip.

Beaver was mustered out of the service in December of 1864 with the rank of brigadier-general, and he returned to the practice of law in Bellefonte, Pa. He served as brigadier-general and as major-general of the Pennsylvania National Guard from 1870 until 1887. In 1887, he was elected Governor of Pennsylvania, and after that served as a Justice of the Supreme Court of the State of Pennsylvania.

 

As is shown by these examples, Beta Theta Pi did choose well the men who were admitted into the brotherhood. The sample is admittedly biased, exhibiting the cream of the crop, but the harvest was exceedingly good.

Of the 114 Betas who graduated from Jefferson College, one-third eventually became lawyers. Many rose to high positions in government, far more than are represented here.

Slightly more than one-third of the brothers of Beta Theta Pi studied theology after graduating; of these, nearly one-half received the honorary degree, Doctor of Divinity.

Twenty-three of the Betas served in the Civil War. Four wore the confederate gray; nineteen the Union blue. Four of the twenty-three died as a result of their service.

There is no common factor to be found in the men of the Gamma Chapter of Beta Theta Pi at Jefferson College other than the fact that a large proportion of them went out and made their mark upon the world. Their numbers were not great; their accomplishments were.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Baird, W.R., Baird's Manual of American College Fraternities,

Menasha, Wis. Baird, W.R., Beta Letters, New York, 1918

Biographical Directory of the American Congress, U. S. Government Printing Office, 1950 Biographical and General Catalogue of Washington and Jefferson

College, Phila. 1902 Blaine, James G., Twenty Years of Congress, Norwich, Conn. 1893 Chamherlin, W.P., The History of Phi Gamma Delta, N.Y. 1921 Howe, Henry, Historical Collections of Ohio, Norwalk, Ohio, 1896 Miller, P.T., The Photographic History of the Civil War, N.Y. 1911 Nevin, A., Encyclopaedia of the Presbyterian Church, Phila., 1884 Phi Gamma Delta, Fraternity of, The Purple Pilgram, Wash. D.C. 1975 Shepardson, F.W., The Beta Book, Menasha, Wis. 1935.


Postscript

There was no chapter of Beta Theta Pi at Miami from 1848 until 1852. An interesting series of events led up to this four year hiatus.

The first decade of Beta Theta Pi on the Miami Campus was a period of strife. During this time, the students were in rebellion against the faculty, particularly against the presidents.

The president of Miami University from 1841 until 1844 was George Junkin, a Presbyterian minister who had graduated from Jefferson College in 1813. A member of the faculty described him as "our little warlike Dr.... [a] rather hard case to get along with". During his tenure, he managed to antagonize not only the students but also the townspeople. On one occasion, students filled the chapel in which he was to hold services the next day with hay.

President Junkin resigned in 1844 and in 1845 Erasmus D. McMaster assumed the presidency. Despite the change, rebellion lay smoldering, particularly in the literary societies and the secret fraternities. The student-faculty strife and the growth of the fraternities may well have been related. Certainly, fraternity members were instrumental in fomenting the rebellion.

One summer night the students filled the chapel, not with hay, but with cattle: twenty-three of them. The next day at chapel, President McMaster railed against students who were at home only in a barnyard and should have stayed there. Some must have taken his advice; in 1847 the enrollment fell to 137.

The climactic events of the strife between the students and the school have been termed the "Snow Rebellion". The rebellion had no killed or injured, but certainly had plenty of snow.

The incidents started with a group of Miami students returning to the college after a Wednesday evening prayer meeting on a snowy night in January, 1848. As the students neared the college, they started rolling snowballs, about a dozen of them.

The students rolled their snowballs across the college yard, through the door of the college's Main Building and into the hall of the building. When their night's work was done, the door to the chapel and each of the recitation rooms was blocked with a ball of snow. A large snowball was pushed against the door at the entrance, blocking it from the inside. The miscreants got out of the building by means of a rope from a second-story window.

The next day the students trooped past melting masses of snow to their seats in the chapel to hear the president of the college rail against the guilty parties; promising that he would have them expelled so that Miami could become a "decent college".

The day was warm and the snow turned to slush. That evening the snowballers of the previous evening, joined by many who had not been a part of the previous night's fun, gathered in front of the Main Building. In comparing their activities with those of the previous evening, the minutes of the Board of Trustees state that they worked "with greater determination, excesses and success".

First, the windows and doors were nailed shut. Then anything that could be found, including about twenty cords of wood, was piled against the doors. Finally, tons of slushy snow were added to the barricade. The weather finished the job: the temperature dropped and the students' handiwork became a reinforced iceberg.

The following Monday, four days later, the building was again in use, but not for classes. A tribunal was held in a second-floor classroom where the students were interrogated one-by-one. Forty-six students admitted guilt but refused to apologize. All were formally expelled, but the faculty offered to reinstate anyone who would acknowledge that what he had done was wrong.

The expelled students neither apologized nor did they slink away in shame. For their farewell to Miami University, they hired a brass band and paraded through the village of Oxford.

The Miami Chapter of Beta Theta Pi Fraternity marched in that parade. After the Snow Rebellion, there were only two Betas remaining in the college, both of whom graduated that year. The chapter was not revived until 1852.

 

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