The following post was authored by Camila Tessler, archivist in Manuscripts and Archives. All references to archival collection material are to items from the William Henry Anderson Correspondence Regarding the Crocodile Club (MS 2018).
On January 9, 1858, William Henry Anderson (Class of 1859) wrote to his father that the Crocodile Club, a Yale undergraduate group, was flourishing. In fact, he wrote, “I think I can safely say that [the Crocodile Club] is … the most popular club of all.” (MS 2018, Box 1, folder 5). A little more than a month later, on February 21, Anderson again wrote to his father, admitting that the faculty were recommending that the club disband. In a month’s time, how did Yale College’s “most popular club” fall so low as to be forced to disband by the faculty?
The Crocodile Club was a popular eating club, which provided a way for students to socialize and dine together. These eating clubs still exist at other Ivy League institutions, such as Princeton, but at Yale the only modern equivalents are the senior societies. The Crocodile Club was apparently successful, racking up bills of “nearly a thousand dollars” (Box 1, folder 4), which is the rough equivalent of $30,000 in today’s money. The club appears to have been comprised of many students who could afford to both eat out and board with the other “crocodiles.”
On the night of Feburary 9, 1858, following several nights of tension between New Haven firefighters stationed near the campus and groups of students, members of the Crocodile Club encountered a group of New Haven firemen while on their way back from dining. As an altercation between the two groups spiraled out of control, the leader among the group of firemen, a man named William Miles, was shot by one of the Yale students. (Lyman Hotchkiss Bagg, Four Years at Yale, New Haven: C.C. Chatfield & Co., 1871, pages 510-511).
William Anderson was present and wrote to his father about the incident, his arrest, and the subsequent trial. He stated in a letter dated February 19, ten days after the incident, that “suspicion of course fell upon the club and perhaps justly and we were all implicated and are as much guilty as another in the eye of the law” (Box 1, folder 6). In the same letter, Anderson went on to relate to his father that “counsel advised me not to answer anything that would show I was there … and he advised all the rest to the same”. Their refusal to testify landed the boys in jail, but only nominally. Anderson claimed that he spent most of his jail time studying and did not suffer any inconvenience, though it is not altogether clear whether this is a fact, or something added to reassure a potentially concerned parent. Anderson’s letters are rife with reassurances to his parents that everything at Yale is fine, so playing down his jail time wouldn’t be completely out of character or context.
As the trial moved forward it quickly became apparent that justice favored gown over town. Even though Anderson clearly knew who shot Miles, he asserted that “I have the consciousness of knowing that I did not injure a person that night, not so much as a scratch. That consciousness, you know, will be worth worlds to me for if I knew that I had killed the man, even in self defense as what was done by whoever did it, I could hardly bear the thought” (Box 1, folder 8). Anderson continually refused to testify, as did the rest of the rest of the Crocodile Club group. Their silence bought them their legal innocence, as no one was sentenced to jail time. Anderson believed that it was “a very fair verdict” (Box 1, folder 9), since there were no legal consequences.
That lack of legal punishment did not, however, free the Crocodile Club members from consequences at Yale. In a letter to his father dated March 24, almost a full month after the end of the trial, Anderson revealed that “[the faculty] talked it over till noon and there decided to separate from the college three members of the club, Carrington, Smith, and Lorichell. This separation is about equivalent to a dismissal” (Box 1, folder 11). This dismissal was accompanied by a reference to any other college of their choice, so the dismissal, while a bold action on the part of the faculty, was one with a golden parachute.
Events where town and gown were diametrically opposed were common in the 1850s, and they are equally common today. The details of this case were so odd though, and the first-hand testimony in letters home from one of the participants so palpable, that the incident is worth exploring. Looking over historical cases such as the rise and fall of the Crocodile Club can help us to contextualize and have a clearer understanding of the relationship between Yale and New Haven over time. In this case Yale students were absolved Yale of a terrible crime through silence, and did serious damage to the town-gown relationship. We struggle with similar incidents today and can use the rise and fall of the Crocodile Club as one lens for examining accountability and justice in the ongoing, evolving relationship between the communities of Yale and New Haven.