University News

Watch your step! Campus curses abound

By
Senior Staff Writer
Monday, September 7, 2009

You might think your chances of graduating are related to how much you study, or that with responsible behavior you’ll have a safe and stable love life. But according to a number of Brown myths and legends that have endured over the years, your fate might be sealed by a careless misstep — literally.

A decades-old myth says that girls who walk over the Pembroke seal, located on steps near Alumnae Hall, will become pregnant before they graduate, and that male students who tread over the Pembroke campus landmark won’t graduate at all.

Gayle Lynch, a senior library specialist who has been working at the John Hay Library for 43 years, estimated that women at Pembroke College popularized the myth about the seal in the 1940s and 50s. When the University went coeducational in 1971, the myth changed to include men, according to Lynch.

But the Pembroke seal isn’t the only University landmark that threatens students with academic failure or a love-life calamity.

In accordance with a long-standing Brown tradition, first-years walk through the Van Wickle Gates into campus, and graduating seniors walk through the gates in the opposite direction after commencement, out into the world. University folklore, as tour guides regularly tell visitors, dictates that any female student who passes through the gates more than twice will not get married, and males will not graduate.

Members of groups like the Brown Band who need to walk through the gates more than once for events like Convocation and Commencement have come up with clever ways to avoid the curse. Some people cross as many digits and limbs as they can while walking through, said Christopher Moynihan ’11, a drummer in the Band.

But, he added, “It’s hard to cross your fingers while playing an instrument, so it’s preferable and much safer to hop through backwards on one foot.”

Moynihan said nobody takes the myth seriously, but many of the band members do take precaution when they walk through, especially during big events.

“During Commencement, we keep it fairly clean and formal,” he said. “It’s good to have a few silly traditions.”

A lesser-known myth involves Brown’s “sacred” libraries: the John Hay, the John Carter Brown and the Annmary Brown Memorial. According to the myth, often repeated on tours, students who go into all three of these libraries during their freshman year will not get married. (Unlike its better-known companions, this curse, apparently does not discriminate by sex.)

Dennis Landis, curator of European books at the JCB, said he believes the myth grew out of the serious nature of the libraries. At one point in its history, the JCB’s doors were permanently locked, he said, and if a student wanted to go inside, he or she had to ring the doorbell. A librarian would decide if the student was suited to enter. It was believed that anyone who was studious enough to be let into the library was too absorbed in their studies to ever marry, according to Landis.  

In years past, the Annmary Brown Memorial Library was also a place frequented only by the most dedicated students. At one point, the heating in the building was so poor that students could be seen shivering as they studied, Landis said.

The Hay was included in the myth sometime after 1964, when the Rockefeller Library replaced it as the University’s main library, Landis said. 

The old library’s mystery grew with the addition of its collection of rare books, including an anatomy book bound in human skin. Landis speculated that the Hay’s collection of such strange and unusual objects may be a reason it is now also believed to be cursed.

But not to worry — not all of Brown’s myths are about curses. Some helpful hexes have trickled down through the years, too. For instance, Lynch said, rubbing the nose of the bust of John Hay in the John Hay Library will bring a student good luck. The statue was installed in 1910, according to the Brown admissions Web site — and the varnish on its nose has completely worn away after nearly a century of rubbing by anxious Brown students.

For all the students worried about their marriage prospects, Campus Tour Co-Coordinator Christiana Stephenson ’11 offered a solution. Stephenson, a Herald business staff member, said she tells her tour groups that if students kiss at midnight under Soldier’s Arch at the Thayer Street end of Lincoln Field, they will get married to each another.