- When Zephaniah Swift Moore set off from Williams College to establish Amherst
College almost 200 years ago, the horse he rode had no mane or tail. Some Williams students cut them off.
- The Amherst campus’s first library was open only one hour per week.
- The class of 1878 held an elaborate mock funeral for their math textbooks and then set them on fire.
- In 1907, astronomy professor David Peck Todd took the College’s telescope to Chile, where the expedition’s sponsor, Percival Lowell, used it to observe what he thought were artificial waterways on Mars—but the “canals” he saw were likely just the veins in reflections of his own retinas.
These are just a few of the “Weird Amherst” facts Nancy Pick ’83 shared in a talk at Reunion this year. She found them during her three years of research for a coffee-table book to commemorate the College’s upcoming bicentennial in 2021.
Of her search for “offbeat stories that few people knew” about Amherst’s history, Pick says, “I love the chase!” Her research led her not only into the College’s archives—where, she says, everyone’s favorite object is a 19th-century German-made doll of an Amherst football player—but also to the Connecticut basement of Brian Meacham ’97, who collects “Amherstiana.”
“I scored some great finds on eBay, and I couldn’t resist a hand-colored glass Magic Lantern slide of Joseph Hardy Neesima (class of 1870), founder of Doshisha University, being sold by a collector in Alaska,” adds Pick. “Also, when it turned out that Amherst’s papier-mâché human anatomical model from the 1840s had not survived, I tracked down an identical model in the UK, at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science at Cambridge University.”
Pick, whose earlier books include Curious Footprints: Professor Hitchcock’s Dinosaur Tracks and Other Natural History Treasures at Amherst College, says she was particularly fascinated to learn more about Amherst’s African-American history, with the help of research assistants Matthew Randolph ’16 and Constance Holden ’15. Pick also hired an archivist to sift through the Library of Congress’s files on Charles Hamilton Houston, who graduated from Amherst in 1915 and went on to become the legal architect of Brown v. Board of Education, the case that dismantled segregation in U.S. public schools. Perhaps the quirkiest item they found there was a cartoon drawn by Houston, showing a baseball game with a score of Amherst 99 – Williams 0. But especially moving was the senior-class questionnaire in which Houston described what he would do if he ran the College: “Make Amherst more alive intellectually, and create closer brotherhood between Amherst men.”
Pick says she has just finished writing the coffee-table book. Its working title, based on the final line of “A Hymn to Amherst,” is Eye, Mind and Heart.