Home |   Museums and Sites |   Pawnee Bill Ranch and Museum |  Transcript

Pawnee Bill Ranch

Princeton Riot


Download audio

This podcast is produced by the Pawnee Bill Ranch and Museum. All rights are reserved. Please credit the Pawnee Bill Ranch and Museum Podcast if you use information from the podcast in any research or publication.

<Introduction Music>

Anna: Thank you for downloading the Pawnee Bill Ranch Podcast brought to you by the staff of the Pawnee Bill Ranch.

Erin : Welcome to the Pawnee Bill Ranch podcast. I’m Erin Brown, Pawnee Bill Ranch Curator.

Anna: And I’m Anna Davis, Pawnee Bill Ranch Historical Interpreter

Erin: So Anna, we discussed in our last podcast how we were going to do a series of unusual Wild West Show related topics through June in honor of the Ranch’s Wild West Show re-enactment and last month we talked about the “Case of the Two Tents” which took place in Bayonne, New Jersey in 1906. Today we are going to discuss the Princeton Riot. It is an example of uncalled-for craziness at its finest and, in my opinion it’s definitely an instant classic.

Anna: I know. I’m really excited about this topic. The Princeton Riot story is just another example of what we can uncover through reading Route Books, those wonderful juicy journals chronicling life on the road with the Wild West Show. Now, if you’re unfamiliar with what a route book is, typically one or two cast members were employed during a Wild West Show season to write down the happenings on each stop of the Wild West Show. They are part historical record, part gossip magazine, and full of all sorts of inside jokes, strange happenings, and heartwarming stories. Of course the place that we’re talking about today is Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey. And I don’t know if it’s just me, but it seems like a lot of these strange stories are taking place in New Jersey!

Erin: No offence, New Jersey! Princeton University was founded in 1746 as a religious school by the Presbyterian Church in Elizabeth, New Jersey. It was known then as the College of New Jersey and would remain under that name until 1896 when its name was changed to Princeton. This was almost 150 years after the university had moved from Elizabeth to Nassau Hall in Princeton. By the time of the name change, the university no longer had ties to the Presbyterian Church but its name had made it into the same league as other major Ivy League Schools such as Yale, Harvard, and Brown.

Anna: Now, Princeton has always had a reputation of liberal education and some of the brightest minds in American history have studied and taught there. Aaron Burr, James Madison, Woodrow Wilson, and Grover Cleveland are among the list of alumni and great thinkers like Albert Einstein were faculty members who taught students. Now, Erin, when I was researching this topic the list of alumni or professors at the university were just a who’s who of Poet Laureates, Nobel Prize winners, Pulitzer Prize winners, or just world leaders in general. It was almost mind-numbing.

Erin: Right and like any university, Princeton has a long list of traditions that students and alumni hold near and dear to their hearts. And it was one tradition in particular that would ignite a war between students at the university and the cast members of Pawnee Bill’s show

Anna: Everything was going pretty normally for the Wild West Show during the start of the 1899 season. The show had just opened on May 6 in Chester, PA and they worked their way through New Jersey before landing in Princeton on May 15. Now little did they know that the largest event of the season was waiting for them at the university. Show posters had started to appear on Princeton’s campus a few days before the Wild West Show was scheduled to be performed but many of the students just thought that they were a joke.

Erin: What happened when Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show tried to parade through the streets of Princeton that day was covered in newspapers from Maine to California. It was tradition that the Wild West Show would parade to the Show grounds – in every town they toured. It was part of the town’s overall Wild West Show experience and usually, the parade was met with applause and it generated excitement for the event to come.

Anna; Except that this parade didn’t quite go as expected. The show quietly entered the city of Princeton and geared up for their journey through the University. It generated some excitement all right, but not the kind that anyone from Pawnee Bill’s team was hoping for. In fact, the opening lines of that day’s route book reads, “Long before this item is written you will have forgotten the Princeton – Pawnee Bill battle, and to say it resembled a battle is not exaggerating it any way.”

Erin: It was an unwritten rule in Princeton that no parade that passed the University would return. Well, to parade Princeton it was impossible to avoid passing the university and impossible to return without passing the university. Apparently the students had succeeded in stopping circuses, but the Route book says they “reckoned with their host” when they decided to tackle a Wild West Show, meaning that they didn’t know who they were picking a fight with, so when the parade reached the University – they met with some serious problems.

Anna: Some newspaper accounts even sort of thought Pawnee Bill brought the whole thing on himself by violating tradition and attempting to parade in the first place. It was common knowledge that the students would try to prevent a parade; so many people questioned why Pawnee Bill would do it in the first place. We don’t really have an answer for that, other than it was Pawnee Bill’s tradition to parade. He wasn’t going to be stopped or be told what to do. Pawnee Bill was a stubborn man and his Wild West Show cast was comprised of tough, wily, characters who probably felt like they could handle the situation. A group of college kids wasn’t going to scare them.

Erin : And handle it they did. Newspapers report that the students gathered in force and met the parade at Nassau Street and decided to start their fun by throwing fireworks under the feet of horses, one of them Pawnee Bill’s. They also threw firecrackers under the bandwagon. They exploded under the feet of the horses leading the bandwagon and made them understandably frantic. The lead horse stumbled and fell and then all the others horses went down too. But somehow the cast recovered and the parade went through – but unfortunately, it had to return though.

Anna: Now the time lapse between the first pass through and the return allowed the students to organize an attack. This is all done by word of mouth at this time. They bought and stole eggs. They bought and stole a variety of vegetables to throw at the cast. Now this is really crazy, but some newspaper accounts relay that the students tore up the lawns of local houses to use the clods of turf as missiles. And this isn’t a small group of people we’re talking about either! The newspapers are quoted as saying that hundreds of students joined in on the attack.

Erin: And they say we live in a violent time now. Anna, you and I both know that you do not want to see a fired up cast member – then or now- because what the reports say is that the cowboys and Indians just rode their horses into the crowds, knocking over the students and running over them. You would have thought the students would have given up, but it got even uglier.

Anna: Yeah, Princeton rioters turned from clods of dirt and eggs to stones and more fireworks. The reports say the Mexican and South American cowboys roped and drug some of the students behind their horses, other cowboys shot blanks directly into some of the crowd’s faces – and then some hit students over their heads with six-shooters. Reports say they stampeded the crowd back onto campus. They didn’t stop the fighting until the wagons were safely away from the University and the cowboys retreated shortly thereafter.

Erin: Yikes! That is too wild for me! Needless to say, there were numerous injuries. One reported a skull fracture and there were many just general wounds that go with being battered and beat up. But the newspapers and route books estimate that 120 mounted cowboys and Indians licked somewhere between 800-1400 students.

Anna: That is a lot of people involved in this incident!

Erin: Yeah.

Anna: Francis Landey Patton, who was the president of the university at the time, was so upset by the day’s events that he called a meeting of the entire student body and forbade any of them from attending the Wild West Show that evening. Apparently, he was afraid of more trouble and didn’t trust the students to keep level heads.

Erin: Yes, I think he was sick of the drama and ready for some calm to come to campus. But you know kids; some of them went ahead and went to the show. What could have been another explosive incident was solved though when Pawnee Bill addressed the students directly and soothed everyone’s emotions. Luckily, there was not more trouble in Princeton.

Anna: And they say that college kids with spring fever do wild things. These kids were out of control and Pawnee Bill’s cast responded in kind. Pawnee Bill kept strict control over his cast and expected them to act in a genteel and peaceful way, but this is one example in which the cowboys did whatever they had to do to protect themselves and each other.

Erin: Yeah, it was a very tight brotherhood indeed. I recently pulled one of our documentary artifacts to help when researching this story. The National Police Gazette dedicated a full 11x15 inch page to a depiction of the riot. It’s really interesting. It’s an artist’s black and white rendering and it shows a mounted cowboy, Indian, and Mexican riding into the crowd on these wild eyed horses, lassoing students and using bolas, which was kind of a throwing weapon with weights on the ends to fend off the attack. The students are depicted as the epitome of sophistication wearing these fancy suits and bowler hats and defending themselves from the brutish cast members with their fancy walking sticks. It’s kind of a humorous little finding that demonstrates how the media spun the story at the time for mass audiences.

Now another interesting side note, Anna, is that our alma mater was initially referred to as the Princeton of the Plains. Oklahoma State University even adopted the Princeton mascot, the tiger, and their colors, orange and black. The orange and black colors stayed but fittingly, and thank goodness, the nickname changed to the Cowboys.

Anna: Yes, and I think Pawnee Bill and all of his original cast members would be very proud to know that OSU went from honoring Princeton with their nickname to being called the Cowboys. Another interesting note when we were researching this is that looking back through the Princeton University newspaper archives, I started to find out that this was the stuff that Princeton legends were made of. The Princeton newspaper twenty-five and even fifty years on would refer back to this riot as one of the greatest events that ever took place for their student body.

Erin: They just could not get over it!

Anna: Well, there is one more story to go with our Wild West Show series! And I think we’ve saved one of the very best for last. Pawnee Bill was a man that loved exploring new and exciting ways to get people to come and see his Wild West Show, but there was one stunt that he tried that would “send tremors up and down his spinal column” for the rest of his life.

Erin: Yeah, this is going to be a fun one because when you were initially telling me about it, you were laughing about it so hard you couldn’t even talk, so I think this is going to be a really fun time! Next time we will be discussing Pawnee Bill’s ill-fated hot air balloon ride during the 1894 Antwerp World’s fair. But before we go, we would like to take a moment to tell our listeners about a very special event taking place. This year the Oklahoma Cultural Heritage Trust released a list identifying the Top Ten Endangered Artifacts in the state. We are happy to announce that Pawnee Bill’s Calliope has been selected into the program and has been selected as one of the top 25. Thought to be the only Wild West Show calliope in working condition, we believe it is extremely important to preserve and protect this amazing piece of history.

Anna: And we need your help to make that happen! Right now voting is ongoing to choose the top artifacts on the list. Voters can vote as often as they like until June 1st, 2013. To vote for Pawnee Bill’s Calliope, listeners can go to www.culturalheritagetrust.org. Listeners can also find more information and links to voting on our Facebook page. Again, voting continues until June 1st, 2013 and the winners will be announced in August.

Erin: Well, that’s about it for this time. I’m Erin Brown.

Anna: And I’m Anna Davis. Thank you for listening and we’ll see you next time.

Anna: The Pawnee Bill Ranch is owned and operated by the Oklahoma Historical Society. For more information go to www.pawneebillranch.com or find us on Facebook under Pawnee Bill Ranch and Museum.