Whispering Pines: Written in Stone

In this month’s column, John R. Cross ’76 investigates a series of untimely “deaths” in the late 19th century at Bowdoin and at other colleges and universities.

As the first building of the Bowdoin campus, begun in 1799 and completed in 1802 (after a hiatus in construction due to a lack of funds), Massachusetts Hall commands the attention of visitors for its historic significance and its architectural appeal. Few notice the small granite marker that sits flush with the ground surface in a triangular patch of grass on the east side of the building. The name “Anna” is carved in relief on the stone, along with an incised number 77. The identity of Anna, the meaning of the number, and the reason for the stone’s location next to Massachusetts Hall are fleeting questions for which a good guess might suffice as an answer: perhaps the stone pre-dated the founding of the College; it could be a memorial for a woman who fell to her death from one of the nearby dorms in 1877; or maybe it marked the burial place for a professor’s dog. However, the presence of two similar stones, “Anna 78” and “Anna 80,” among a dense cluster of lilies at the south end of Appleton Hall adds to the mystery, and indicates that something beyond a single event was involved here.

Like so many 19th-century Bowdoin traditions, the story of the “Anna” stones had disappeared from living memory, and never reached the threshold of significance to be included in published histories of the College. In 1974 the late Dick Chittim ’41, professor of mathematics, published an article in the alumni magazine on the burial of “Anna Lytics,” drawing on 1870s accounts from The Bowdoin Orient. At the end of a year-long—and required—course in Analytical Geometry, the sophomore class would stage a ceremony for the burning and/or burial of the hated books that were the earthly remains of “Anna Lytics.”  Elaborate black-edged programs announced the order of exercises, music, the order of the torch lit procession, and the parade route through downtown Brunswick, ending with graveside services in the pines on the east edge of the campus. The three markers that remain on campus were moved to the south end of Appleton at some point in the early 20th century. There is a persistent rumor that Arctic explorer Robert Peary of the Class of 1877 (“Robertus E. Peary,” who delivered the elegy for the burial of Anna ’77) and some of his 25th Reunion classmates moved the stone to its current resting place by Massachusetts Hall.

The earliest account that I could find for the burial of Anna Lytics at Bowdoin was in 1853. The tradition was observed with some regularity in the 1870s and early 1880s, and ceased after changes in the sophomore year curriculum reduced “Anna’s” ability to inspire terror. The Orient commented on the relative merits of each class’s celebration of the burial of Anna Lytics, and admonished those classes that failed to uphold the tradition (members of 1879, you know who you are!).

From the Latin text and Latinized names to the imitation of the language and ritual practices associated with death and burial, there is a strong connection of the “Anna” ceremonies to the growth of secret societies on college campuses in the years following the Civil War. I had always thought that the story of the “Anna” stones was a uniquely Bowdoin expression of rebellion and undergraduate exuberance.  However, the burial of textbooks (especially books on mathematics) dates back at least to 1843 and the burial of “Euclid” by Yale students in a simple daytime ceremony. Within a few short years the annual celebrations of Euclid’s demise were described as “reckless deviltry,” “lawless disturbance,” “irreverence and profanity.” With the refusal of the Yale Class of 1860 to carry on the tradition on the grounds of morality and public safety, it ended.

Within the broader context of 19th-century collegiate life, campus newspapers played an important role in shaping student opinion by including news from other colleges. News of a new boathouse being built at one college would generate interest in establishing a rowing club at another. Shared news and shared experiences helped to define the problems and possible solutions for college students in the late 19th century. Traditions were similarly imitated and adapted; thus, at Amherst, funeral rites were observed for Mattie Mattix, while Trinity buried Conics, and Bates mourned Anna Lytics. In an elaborate ceremony at Rutgers in 1886, Anna Lytics was tried, sentenced, executed, and cremated. Syracuse students oversaw the death of Calculus, the son of Anna Lytics and Geo. Metry.

The development of parallel traditions at other colleges or universities in no way diminishes Bowdoin’s uniquely rich—and enthusiastically observed—celebrations of Anna’s demise. At no other college will you find a permanent monument to Anna or her kin, created by the students who endured the hardships imposed by mathematical rigor. To Anna—hail, and farewell!

With best wishes,

John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations

Comments

  1. John: You’ve scored again with Anna Lytics! For me, I would have buried Chem Istry! Tim

  2. Byron Whitney `67 says:

    We left no permanent marker, but I can recall a group interment of our calculus texts freshman year in a construction site on campus.

  3. Bill Shoemaker says:

    Great story John, keep up the good work.

  4. Tony Antolini '63 says:

    As a freshman pledge at Psi Upsilon I had to find all the Anna stones and then find out what they meant. Thanks for the reminder. I had forgotten. But at the time (1959) I somehow got the story. I suspect it was from Prof. of Classics Nate Dane, also a Psi U.

  5. Robert Kinn says:

    Thanks John, yet another great window on how we came to be, hopefully the current crop under the pines continue to express a spirit of rebellion and undergraduate exuberance – irrational or otherwise!
    Truly enjoy these,
    Bob

  6. I had the same experience as a pledge as Tony’s. We had to locate the Anna stones and know their origin. One positive of fraternity pledging in those days is that we were required to learn Bowdoin history and traditions. I once knew the history of the gates and could recite the presidents in order with their dates of service.

  7. Scott Diddel '75 says:

    John-
    Great job and thanks for the historical/hysterical “ANNA” update. As President of PsiU back in ’74…the “ANNA” mysteries obviously must have been solved, thus our Frosh pledges were spared the hunt for Anna. Alas…one more tradition that was buried and forgotten way too soon.

  8. Robert Hamlin says:

    John,

    A great story. Being a math major there were times I would have welcomed the death and burial of a few exams, had I known about Anna Lytics.

  9. Dave Larsson says:

    John,

    Great job. I think both John and Scott will agree with me that not too many Psi Us would have been found in an analytic geometry class in the mid 70s.

    Dave

  10. Andy White, '66 says:

    Not only was the story of the burning and burying of Anna still current in the early to mid 60’s, I first heard it from my high school math teacher who knew it well from the 1920’s.

  11. Karen Eldracher Swartz '82 says:

    Great article! As long as there’s Anna Lytics, there will be prayer in he classroom! :)

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