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The Legend of Professor Josiah Carberry

Legacy of enigmatic professor persists on campus

On an otherwise average day in 1929, an unusual note appeared on a bulletin board in University Hall. 

“On Thursday evening at 8:15 in Sayles Hall J. S. Carberry will give a lecture on Archaic Greek Architectural Revetments in Connection with Ionian Philology,” the note read. “For tickets and further information apply to Prof. John Spaeth.”

Posted on the board by Spaeth, a professor of classics, the strange notice caught the attention of Brown’s undergraduates and professors. It was soon modified by another professor who inserted the word “not” between “will” and “give” for what he suspected was a hoax.  

But upon being challenged, Spaeth gave a biography of Josiah Stinkney Carberry, a professor of psychoceramics, or the study of cracked pots — introducing a fictional character that would become an enduring face of campus lore for generations of future Brown students. 

Spaeth explained that Carberry had his “ungrammatical wife Laura, his poetical daughter Patricia, his puffin-hunting daughter Lois and his accident-prone assistant Truman Grayson, who was always being bitten by things that begin with A,” according to the Brown Library. 

The elusive professor of psychoceramics caught the popular attention of campus. He sent so many “telegrams, letters and postcards” to local publications that he was banned by the Providence Journal. His editorials and ads became commonplace in campus newspapers. 

Over 250 years, students have passed down a trove of stories, legends and rules from one generation of Brunonians to the next. Professors and administrators have helped to keep these traditions alive, naming buildings after the fictional professor and writing editorials in his name. 

Many of these legends have a lasting influence on campus today. 

Shared mythology

“Urban legends are a way for students to express apprehension about being away from home but (they) also (serve) as a way to connect with other students over this shared Brown mythology,” University Archivist Jennifer Betts wrote in an email to The Herald. “It becomes an important part of the academic tradition, shared across generations of alumni.”

Students are introduced to these legends upon arriving on campus. For instance, “The Brown Book,” which is given to first-years during orientation, warns students about the “Holy Trinity of Libraries” and the Pembroke Seal. 

“Don’t step on the seal!” it exclaims, explaining that women who step on the seal will become pregnant, and men who step on the seal will not graduate. This particular myth likely originated as a “popular warning to female students in the 1940s and 1950s,” Betts wrote, but its exact source is unknown. It was expanded to include male students when the University became co-educational in 1971, she added. 

Another myth states that first-years who step foot in the John Hay Library, the John Carter Brown Library and the Annmary Brown Memorial in one year will never get married. Students also are told to rub the nose of the bust of John Hay in the Hay Library for good luck. The statue’s nose has been “rubbed shiny by generations of Brown students,” according to the library website

The life of Josiah Stinkney Carberry

Professor Carberry’s enigmatic life leaves much to the collective imagination of generations of students.

Conflicting reports place him as beginning his career at the University in 1820 and 1929, and as being born in 1825 and 1929. One 1958 article in The Herald by Josiah Carberry III that celebrated Carberry’s birthday could not locate Carberry “for a comment on his age” but expects “that he has some years to his credit.”

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His title ranges from professor of psychoceramics to professor of speleology, the study of caves. His years of travel have taken him to destinations such as New Hampshire, Hawaii and Turkey.

He was known for being scheduled to give lectures on campus every Friday the 13th, and he would host “milk punch and rum ball” parties to welcome incoming first-years. 

Carberry appears in a May 1929 issue of The Herald, when it was reported from “semi-official information” that the professor of Hindo-Geramic Pottery would go on loan to the (similarly fictional) Southwestern Arkansas Normal Institute. In his departing remarks, Carberry mused on the glory of American womanhood and the beauty of the Providence River in a torrent of nonsensical remarks. 

“Whenever temptation faces you, just think of home and mother, because I love to see the true and fearless, frank and plain spoken spirit of our undergraduates,” Carberry said to The Herald. “America must go on, the saviour of the world, the only place where there are so many laws that it is fun to break them, nay rather it is hilarious to disobey these mandates.”

In August 1943, The Herald announced that Carberry would be interviewed on the Brown Network — the former name of Brown’s radio station WBRU — about his recent year-long expedition in Hawaii to conduct “scientific studies … on the culture of the aborigines of the region.” Since his return, Carberry had been working as an electrician adviser for a production of “Ladies in Retirement” and collaborating with The Herald to establish its new editorial policy. 

Carberry rose in prevalence on throughout the 1950s and ’60s, during which time he appeared in nearly 20 Herald articles recounting his adventures in far-reaching corners of the world. 

“Josiah Carberry, Brown professor of Speleology on sabbatical leave since 1892 is reported winging his way back from outer Mongolia where he has been in quest of the seven eyed wombat,” reads a February 1953 article. “If Professor Carberry returns in time, he is scheduled to appear opposite Mrs. Feeney of Sharpe Refectory fame in a scene whose nature is yet to be announced.”

In January 1955, Carberry mailed a donation of $101.01 to University President Henry Wriston. The enclosed letter explained that the funds should be used to create a special fund in honor “of my future late wife; to be known, of course, as the Josiah S. Carberry Fund.” The letter was mailed from an address later found to be the New Hampshire State Liquor Store, according to an April 1956 Herald article

The fund has been used to purchase books “of which Professor Carberry might or might not approve,” according to the library bookplate. Purchased books include “A Manual of Egyptian Pottery” and “The Flim-Flam Man.”

The gift also stipulated that every Friday the 13th should be celebrated as “Carberry Day,” with brown jugs left around campus for community members to drop spare change into to continue to augment the fund. These jugs have been occasionally said to collect money to pay for the “unfortunate medical bills” of his clumsy assistant Grayson. 

The first Carberry Day was celebrated in 1956, accompanied by a Herald feature on the professor’s life and accomplishments. 

“He was born in a corridor in University Hall at the age of 50. His wife, Laura, and his two charming daughters, Lois and Patricia, were born at the same time at the Faculty Club,” the article reads. Carberry was immediately offered a job at the University, the article continues, but as of 1956, he had recently “semi-retired.”

Carberry was fond of traveling for his study of ceramics, and former Wriston was said to have a collection of postcards “postmarked Cairo, Egypt, Turkey, the Kodiak Islands and New Hampshire State Prison,” according to the article. 

The Herald, at the time, set out to interview Carberry, though he was “a difficult man to reach.” 

“His phone has been disconnected by the telephone company, and his daughters thoughtfully screen every potential interviewer for psychoceramosis,” the article reads. “Carberry deplores crackpots.”

The Herald’s persistence paid off and an interview was arranged. When Herald reporter John Barcroft ’59 arrived at Carberry’s Benefit Street home with just a cartoonist by his side, they found that it was “jammed with vases and pots, urns and vats.” Carberry sat through the entire interview holding “a book before his face.”

The reporters also found that Carberry’s assistant Grayson was, in fact, a bird. 

“He is the only one that I can trust around my ceramics,” Carberry explained to Barcroft. “His job is to dust the vases. And, of course, he accompanies me on my trips. That is why his loyalty is so amazing. He has been bitten in the course of duty by aardvark, anteater, antelope, armadillo, Aberdeen Angus and the Army Air Force.”

Carberry is also known for his several notable publications, including a cookbook entitled “The Carberry Cookbook: From Soup to Nuts.” Written by Leslie Wendel ’55, the book raised funds for the Josiah S. Carberry library fund, according to her son and illustrator of the cookbook Andrew Wendel ’85.

Carberry “was not really something that people were aware of very much by the time that I was (at Brown), which is something that my mother set about to correct,” Andrew Wendel said. The publication of the book was followed by an official University dinner featuring recipes from the book, including one serving camel meat. 

Professor Carberry has a litany of other accomplishments under his belt. In 1966, he was awarded an honorary M.A. degree by the University. He was even offered the position of University president in 1970, but turned it down because “he felt compelled by his time-honored tradition of non-appearance to refuse.”

Now, Carberry is commemorated on campus as the namesake of Josiah’s — a late-night eatery known for its spicy chicken sandwiches and affectionately known by students as Jo’s.

A fading legend

Carberry’s most recent communication arrived on the desk of Betts on Aug. 16 after the University library announced that it would no longer use the Josiah library catalog — a move that, as Betts wrote, is a “sign that some legends fade over time.”

“While I’m saddened to no longer represent the Library, I understand that time marches on,” Carberry wrote. “Hopefully, the Carberry name won’t be entirely forgotten — after my many years toiling away at good old Brunonia, I trust I leave some sort of legacy behind. My time at Brown has been an unmitigated pleasure for me, in any case.”

Carberry sent the letter alongside a pouch of mementos from his travels as a “belated August Carberry Day donation.”

“With mask and vaccine passport in hand,” Carberry wrote, “I’m off on my next adventure.”

In response to an interview request for this story, Carberry regretfully declined due to travel conflicts. Rumor has it that he is sailing through the Bermuda Triangle in search of ceramics to salvage from sunken ships.



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