Disorder in Old West: the Student Riot of August, 1850

Charles Phillips
Charles Phillips

On the night of August 13, 1850, Charles Phillips, then a tutor of mathematics, heard “loud vociferations, high words, as of persons quarrelling, and other noises” coming from Old West (then known as West Building). As he went to investigate the disturbance, he could not have anticipated that the evening would end with him and a colleague cornered in a dorm room, fending off rioting students.

In his first sweep of West Building, Phillips found most of the students quiet in their rooms, but heard and saw students yelling and throwing stones at each other outside. He ran into his colleague Dr. Elisha Mitchell in the hallway, and they continued the investigation. In one room, the professors found “great disorder—the beds rumbled, the chairs in confusion, the floor very wet, and the remains of a stone vessel scattered up on it.” They found a nearly empty jug of whisky under the bed.

Elisha Mitchell
Elisha Mitchell

Upon leaving West, the professors encountered Manuel Fetter, professor of Greek language and literature, and retreated to the Laboratory to discuss the situation. However, as they left the Laboratory, they were immediately attacked. Phillips recalled:

Because of the vollies of stones which swept the passage I kept close to its northern wall, and looking through the opening that leads to the front door of the building I noticed a group of persons standing before the door. Immediately a volley of stones (or bats) entered, and a person passed me quickly accompanied by another volley. On speaking to him, I recognized Prof. Fetter who told me that he had been violently struck on the hand and leg. So violent was one of the blows that his cane was knocked to a distance from his hand.

Manuel Fetter
Manuel Fetter

When they eventually made their way back to West Building, they were met by more rowdy students, some disguised with blankets or fencing masks. As some students escaped through the windows, others began lobbing stones and sticks at the professors. The professors barricaded themselves in a student’s room, but the rioters continued their attack, knocking out a panel of the door. Phillips explained:

Discovering our exact position [in the room], those outside endeavoured to hit us by throwing obliquely into the room through the door and windows, and by introducing their hands so as to throw sideways directly at us. One individual introduced through a window, a stick two or three feet long and of the size of one’s wrist, evidently intending to swing it around and so strike us. As missiles were still entering the room, and our present was the only safe position, I immediately seized a chair and as an act of self defence urgently necessary, threw it in the direction of the concealed assailant. This act rendered the students outside much more excited, and threats of great violence, even to the getting our heart’s blood, were uttered for our striking a student.

After about an hour, a student, J.J. Slade, was able to reason with the rioters and escort the professors out on the condition that they leave campus immediately. The professors left and reported the night’s events to the president. They returned later that night with several other faculty members and searched the residence halls, but the disorder had subsided and most students were asleep in their beds.

The student who had come through the window with a club (and subsequently been hit by a chair) was expelled, but most students involved in the riot were not identified.


Charles Phillips’ testimony on the events of August 13, 1850. From the University Papers (#40005), University Archives, Wilson Library.


Building Old West

On this day in 1822, the cornerstone of Old West was laid. The building was finished and in use by July of 1823.

In 1848, additions were made to both Old West and Old East to accommodate the debating societies. Both the original Old West and its additions were built using the labor of  enslaved African-Americans.

The postcard in the gallery above, postmarked 1911 and addressed to “Mr. H.B. Marrow, Raleigh, N.C.”, shows Old West. It reads:

Hello How are you getting on these hot days? I hope you are having a real good time — and be sure and don’t work too much. (?) I am having a fine time this summer. I suppose you will be back before very long now. Mama came home from Va. a few days ago. Sincerely, H.M.P.

For more on the history of UNC buildings, see the exhibit, “Architectural Highlights of Carolina’s Historic Campus.” For more on slavery and the history of UNC, see the Virtual Museum exhibit, “Slavery and the University.”

Library Rules, 1799

Silhouette of the Campus of the University of North Carolina 1814
Silhouette of the Campus of the University of North Carolina 1814

Ever wonder what library rules were like in 1799, soon after the founding of the University of North Carolina library?  In this gem of an entry from the General Faculty and Faculty Council Records, the Board of Trustees write the rules for the library.  Notice that some things never change: reference books remain in the library for the most part, call slips go out with books, and fees are paid for “defaced” books.

The university acquired its first book in 1785: “The Works of the Right Reverend Father in God” by Father Thomas Wilson.  Though it was still eight years before the founding of the first state university, the book was placed in the New Bern Academy for safekeeping until the university opened its doors

The building they are writing about in the 1799 rules is still standing, though it is no longer a library.  The Philanthropic Society Library was housed in Old West, and was one of only a few university buildings.  There is evidence, though, that aside from the well-stocked “society” libraries, the University Library remained in a 9 feet by 12 feet room in the President’s House until 1814!

The library was only open 2-3 hours per day as late as 1885, which put a damper on students camping out during finals.  Librarians, of course, were not SILS educated, but instead members of the Philanthropic Society who volunteered their time as university librarian to watch over the collection, which numbered a few hundred books.

All students paid a fee of $1-2 per semester until the early 1800s, when the university allocated $250 per year to the library.  The library endowment is now well into the millions, and student fees (though most of the fees are not for the library) are thousands of dollars.

Do you want to learn more about the history of the University library buildings?  This is just a preview for the University Buildings exhibits, coming this spring to a library near you!  The exhibit on the library buildings will be up in Davis Library March 1-May 31.  See the full list of library rules after the jump!

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