Carleton Capers: An Incomplete Compendium of Pranks

By Danielle Kurtzleben '05 and Jan Senn

They say that most learning happens outside the classroom. For some students, those extracurricular lessons include learning how to sneak past security guards, send anonymous tips, and pull off elaborate capers. To chronicle this unorthodox education, the Voice presents some of Carleton’s most famous (and infamous) pranks. The hundreds of stunts undertaken over nearly a century and a half—only a small fraction of which are represented here—range from the innocuous to the incendiary, from cute to criminal. Though pranks are common on many college campuses, Carleton students approach the tradition with the same commitment they show for their studies, pulling off their shenanigans with creativity, technical proficiency, and even elegance.

October 31, 1893

11_31_1893Observetory.jpgIn one of the earliest pranks on record, 12 students convey a stolen carriage to the top of the observatory by means of planks set against the side of the building, according to an account in the 1893–94 Algol. The buggy, which is believed to belong to Bible study professor Arthur Pearson, bears a hand-painted sign that reads “From Joppa to Jerusalem,” a reference to Pearson’s fascination with the first railroad in Palestine, as expressed by his oft-repeated observation: “Why, you can ride now from Joppa to Jerusalem in a palace car in three hours and a half!” The following Halloween, notes the next year’s Algol, “faculty place strong force of watchmen around college buildings.”

April-May 1895

In the spring of 1895, a student resolves that “too long has the High Jinks lain dormant. We must act and at once.” He calls others to join him in “the ancient and mysterious order of the D.D.Ph.D.” On the night of April 24, according to the 1894–95 Algol, members of the D.D.Ph.D. steal cats from the Hall of Science, tie tin cans to their tails, and let them loose in Gridley Hall to wake the female residents. In the early morning of May 9, group members scale the Willis clock tower and post on the clock face an inscription that protests College rules, such as mandatory 10:00 a.m. chapel attendance. A week later, Gridley’s much-put-upon female residents arrive for breakfast only to find that the chairs have been wired to the tables.

Bear.jpgJune 4, 1909

Pelican.jpgFollowing the theft of taxidermy specimens from the museum in Williams Hall, the Carletonia (predecessor to the Carletonian) reports: “All the beasts of the field and fowls of the air were scattered about the campus.” Buffalo.jpgThough the stuffed specimens are soon returned, Carletonia editors note that “many students discovered for the first time that Carleton College has a fine museum.”



May 1928

Memorial.jpgStudents are suspended for the remainder of the school year after they return from the Shattuck (now Shattuck–St. Mary’s) prom past curfew and, locked out of their dorms, spend the night around a campfire near the Cannon. Their classmates protest the suspension by holding a mock memorial service for the 23 students, who are permitted to make up their exams the following fall. Nonetheless, in a letter to the Carletonian, one female student refers to the administration as “a bunch of tyrannical, medieval-minded old mossbacks.” 


Perennial prankster Jack Carson ’32 (pictured far left with President Larry Gould) and his friends become irritated with a vesper speaker who continually goes over his allotted time, so before his next appearance they plant several alarm clocks around the chapel, set to go off at the scheduled end time. In another stunt, Carson fills the pipes of the chapel organ with flour just before a visiting artist’s recital. From his dorm window, the intrepid Carson often takes potshots with his rifle at the campus clock, causing it to chime. Puzzled maintenance staff repeatedly try to fix the clock before they discover the cause of its malfunction.

Carson, who is asked to leave the College in 1931 after several drinking and gambling episodes, later becomes a comedic actor in Hollywood. “Perhaps I’m prouder of [Carleton] than it is of me,” he recalls in a 1954 interview with the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune during his appearance at the Aquatennial. 

May 27, 1935

Late in the evening, newly elected cheerleader Burt Krayenbuhl ’37 and 12 fellow students, some of them masked, take two horses from the College farm, leading one to Willis Hall and one to Nourse Hall, but are nearly caught in the act by night watchman Roy Brees. Referred to in a 1933 Carletonian as “that guardian of our morals . . . and our pleasures,” Brees is unpopular with many students because he often interrupts couples on their dates in the Arb. According to a written statement, the young men decide to throw a blanket over Brees and toss him into Lyman Lakes. They attempt to surround him on the Bald Spot, where he flashes his light at them, draws his pistol, and warns them to leave or he will shoot.

Krayenbuhl, himself the son of a night watchman, tells Brees he’s going in the lake. “You wouldn’t dare shoot a student, Mr. Brees,” he says, and begins to advance. Brees drops his flashlight and fires, the bullet striking Krayenbuhl in the abdomen. Brees calls for an ambulance and reports the matter to the dean of men. Krayenbuhl dies four days later in the Northfield hospital. A coroner’s jury exonerates Brees, who testifies that he can’t swim and was afraid for his life. He is removed from his watchman duties and assigned to work in the College shop. 


Bruce Herrick ’58 comes across a bust of the late-18th-century German poet Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller stored in the Scoville solarium. In a decision that will have repercussions for decades, Herrick gives the statue a new home in his room, where it remains without attracting much attention. The following academic year, Herrick moves to Jewett House and places the bust on the mantel.

That October, residents of Richardson House decide Schiller needs a change of scenery, steal the bust, and chain it to a table at Richardson. Jewett House discovers the theft and challenges Richardson House to a football game to decide ownership. Richardson wins, keeps possession of the statue, and chains Schiller to a radiator. (Guess what happens next.) And so begins the Schiller saga, the annals of which could fill an entire issue of the Voice.


This 1926 photo of the main reading room in Scoville is the earliest known image of the bust of Schiller (circled in red) on the Carleton campus.

Winter term 1957

Dante Stephensen ’58 unlocks a kitchen window before leaving his shift as dishwasher in the Gridley dining room. At around 3:00 a.m., he and four other members of the Class of 1958—William “Gunnar” Paisley Brown, WinterTerm_1957.jpgJack Halpin, Doug Harris, and Loren Surpless—crawl through the window, wielding pliers and screwdrivers. The members of the “Gridley Gang,” as they come to be known, remove three of the four legs from each dining room table, leaving all of the tables tilted at a 45-degree angle. The men then stash the table legs in a barn at the Carleton farm, where they are eventually found days later.    

“We were not there the next morning when the girls came down for breakfast, but we sure heard about it,” recalls Stephensen. The perpetrators don’t reveal their identities until the class’s 25th reunion, at which time Gridley Gang members confess to guest of honor Casey Jarchow (dean of men from 1946 to 1967), plead not to be retroactively expelled, and present him with a drawing of the caper. According to Stephensen, Jarchow admits that their prank was one of the few he was unable to solve during his time at Carleton.

November 1962

In a dramatic appearance, Schiller, tied to a 50-foot chain, dangles from a helicopter over Laird Stadium during the Carleton-Lawrence football game and is greeted with a standing ovation from the Carls. Daniel Jepsen ’66 and Bill Kolb ’66, who rented the helicopter with contributions from Severance Hall residents, return Schiller to his home “in the Lyman Lakes drainpipe,” according to a 1965 Carletonian article. 

8-Severence-icicle.jpgWinter term 1963

Seniors Stephen Stigler, Bob Miller, Tom Miller, and Richard Collier create a gargantuan icicle by carefully feeding water, later dyed with red and blue food coloring, to a rope dangling out their window on the fourth floor of Severance Hall. When the patriotic-looking mass, estimated to weigh about 1,000 pounds at its peak, eventually backs up into and breaks a window on the third floor, the men stop adding water at the dean’s request and untie the rope. According to Stigler, “At about 4:00 a.m. some spring morning, we heard a huge crash and found the icicle gone.” 

Winter term 1967

SnowJob.jpgTemperatures skid to 30 below zero and students block the College library entrance by building a snow fort topped with a sheet on which are painted the College crest and the words “Centennial snow job.” When the library opens the next morning, a great deal of chipping and digging is required to gain access to a door. “Somebody—somewhere—must think Carleton’s Centennial [celebrated over the 1966–67 school year] is a real snow job!” notes the 1967 winter issue of Carleton Comments, an alumni publication.

9b-Laura-Barton-'77-Female-Streaker-photo.jpgFebruary 2, 1974

At the curtain call of a Carleton performance of Measure for Measure, Laura Barton ’77 dashes across the stage wearing only a ski mask, socks, and tennis shoes, as well as the words “Eat at Dino’s” painted on her back. After Barton runs offstage, six female friends cover her with a large coat and help her make a quick escape.
As a result of the incident, Barton catches cold and breaks up with her boyfriend, who she says is embarrassed at her run in the buff. She also gains nationwide notoriety and is cited in the March 18, 1974, issue of Time magazine as the first recorded female streaker. Called in to see the dean of students, Barton expects punishment, but is congratulated on a well-executed streak. “I wouldn’t have streaked the play if it hadn’t been a comedy,” says Barton.

May 28, 1977

pirckheimer-hires.jpgJoe Fabeetz runs for CSA Senate and wins 1,012 votes, more than any other candidate, despite his last-minute removal from the ballot due to the fact that he does not exist. After his win, Fabeetz, who is purportedly the creation of Mark Horst ’77, achieves national notoriety with mentions in the Associated Press and on CBS News.

“Though I did assist Joe Fabeetz in his campaign, along with campaign committee members Rob Letchinger ’78 and John Foster ’79, I could hardly take credit for his election or much of what he has said and continues (much to my astonishment) to
say,” says Horst.

November 1979

A group calling itself the Gang of Three steals a portrait of Carleton’s first president, James Strong, from Laird and replaces it with a Day-Glo velvet painting of Elvis. In a ransom letter, they vow to return the Strong portrait only after their demands—which include establishing a fund for handicapped rock stars and appointing the coordinator of campus activities as ambassador to Norway—are met.

JamesStrong.jpgFor several months, a spirited exchange ensues between George Dehne, director of College relations, and the mysterious group, which comes to be known as the Gang of At Least Three and Not Over 1,600—and includes two members who reportedly serve on Carleton’s Board of Trustees in 2011. When Dehne refuses to negotiate, the group sends a Polaroid photograph of the portrait with a knife at Strong’s throat.

Eventually the group returns the portrait, with the condition that Carleton administrators dedicate an area of Sayles-Hill to Monkees guitarist and Carleton alumnus Peter Tork ’64 (then known as Peter Thorkelson). In a final concession, Bob Cooper ’80 offers to work 20 hours for the Schiller Society if the Tork dedication takes place within a week. In March, with many of the conspirators present, the College officially dedicates the now-defunct Peter Tork Pinball Area in Sayles-Hill.

October 16, 1986

In honor of National Birth Control Day, the Carleton Arch, a sculpture by Dmitri Hadzi in the Founders Court of the Gould Library, is decked out in an enormous condom, and a large diaphragm is suspended from the ceiling of Sayles-Hill. The administration quickly removes the displays, much to the dismay of their creators, who, according to commentary in the October 24, 1986, Carletonian, are concerned that no one else seems to care about this challenge to their freedom of expression.

September 21, 1992

12b-Mission-to-Lars-photo.jpgShouting “power to the women,” eight female students dressed in black with metal cone-shaped breastplates and bags over their heads run in formation to Laird. They enter the president’s office and grab the bust of Lars Olson, the reputed inventor of lutefisk, which was presented to President Steve Lewis by the president of St. Olaf at Opening Convocation.

The abduction of the lutefisk patriarch develops into a Lars for Homecoming Monarch movement, but the effort amounts to nothing. However, according to the Carletonian, the Viking-like costumes and mention of lutefisk illustrate “that age-old [tenet] of Carleton humor, that anything funny can be made funnier by adding a Scandinavian reference.”

September 9, 1994

A squealing pig, thrown down the Chapel aisle by two masked men, greets students at Opening Convocation. The animal finds a home at a ground crew member’s house, where it befriends a pig that was involved in a similar prank staged at the Libe a year before.

February 3, 1996

On the evening of the Midwinter Ball, 18 students enter Gould Library and remove a 20-foot steel sculpture known as “the Bug” from the lobby. In fewer than 10 minutes, they disassemble the Bug into three pieces, 13a-Bug-in-Libe.jpgsmuggle it across campus, and reassemble the sculpture in its new location—succeeding after another group’s 1993 attempt failed due to a run-in with security. Ann Zawistoski ’97 is on duty at the circulation desk and runs to the Center for Mathematics and Computing to report the theft because all the phone handsets in the Libe are missing (later found in a book cart in the elevator).

Posters publicizing a concert by the Bug are plastered across campus, and Carleton security staff members discover the sculpture on the Concert Hall stage, posed behind a music stand.

Unnamed participants later tell the Carletonian that “the goal was to do a prank that was in good humor as opposed to vandalism” and that could “be undone fairly easily.” However, the sculpture sustains some structural damage due to its dismantling, the artist takes offense, and the Bug never returns to the library.

May 4, 1996

At what is now known as the Great Schiller Exchange, a mysterious group called 85 Lost Sheep subject President Steve Lewis to a complex set of instructions and intense negotiations when he offers to replace a damaged bust of Schiller. After an intricate ceremony involving masked students, recorded messages, scuba divers emerging from the Cannon River, and the new bust’s exodus in a canoe accompanied by a recording of Elvis Presley singing “Hound Dog,” Lewis sums up the exchange: “Well, that was a bit on the elaborate side.”




September 1999

Students paint President Steve Lewis’s likeness on the College water tower. They later claim that they chose Lewis as their subject because they “wanted a determined and unique individual who is willing to go against the grain.”

November 17, 2003

In a heist that unnamed sources say involved weeks of careful planning, student pranksters break into a display case in the Libe and make off with Oscar, the stuffed emperor penguin that President Larry Gould brought back from Antarctica in 1930 and later donated to the College. Stolen once before in 1996, Oscar is replaced this time with a small stuffed toy penguin and a note explaining that he has been liberated.

Northfield police are called in to investigate. In a campuswide e-mail, College archivist Eric Hillemann and librarian Sam Demas tell the Carleton community that the penguin, due to its fragility, is not
a suitable prank target.

Soon an anonymous caller tips off authorities to Oscar’s whereabouts and the bird is found wrapped in a plastic bag in a Carleton baseball field dugout, having suffered minor damage. In a Minneapolis Star Tribune article covering the theft, bandits say the prank illustrates that “[Oscar’s] spirit and the tradition of unorthodox collegiate merry-making are alive and well at Carleton.”

Carleton authorities are decidedly un-merry, however, and a January 2004 Carletonian letter to the editor calls for the responsible individuals to “make restitution” of $1,200 for damages to Oscar and his display case. No one is ever punished for the incident.

Spring 2004

16b-PHUC-Group-Seal.jpgUnidentified members of a group intending to resume Carleton’s tradition of creative pranking without causing harm—and whose moniker is Pranks Help Unite Carls (PHUC)—convert a dip in the hallway connecting Davis and Burton Halls into a fishpond. The perpetrators line the dip—a roughly four-foot-long depression with several steps linking the residence halls on either side—with plastic, fill it with water and goldfish, and install a footbridge to allow students access across. The group also submits an extensive manifesto about goldfish habitat rights to dean of students Mark Govoni.

The prank is the first of PHUC’s goldfish-themed stunts: painting goldfish on the walls and floor of the tunnels, suspending a large inflatable goldfish from the rafters of Great Space, and installing two 40-foot goldfish, engineered to withstand wind gusts, on the roof of the Rec Center. The goldfish go up at 4:00 a.m. and are removed before 8:30 a.m. by staff workers.


June 2010

17c-R2D2.jpgStudents affix painted butcher paper and bedsheets to Goodsell Observatory, transforming the building into Star Wars character R2D2. Using a digitized scale model of Goodsell for exact measurements, the pranksters create the building-size costume as part of a contest to obtain Schiller from his custodians. Facilities staff members remove the decorations almost immediately, leading the students to make a second attempt.

Despite a note left on the building promising that Goodsell will “magically revert to its original form within 24 hours if left alone” and adding that “we worked really hard on it,” the observatory’s droid dress stays up only marginally longer this time around before staff members again take it down. Photos and video of the stunt go viral on the Internet, showing up on the Web sites of Minneapolis’s CityPages and the Chronicle of Higher Education, and on Gawker’s io9 science fiction blog.

April 1, 2010

18-Balloon-Prank.jpgThe night before April Fool’s Day, about 50 students gather on the second floor of Laird to blow up approximately 4,000 balloons. Two hours later, “someone on the inside”—according to an unnamed source—unlocks the doors to the presidential suite and students fill President Rob Oden’s office and adjoining conference room with balloons. Arriving at work the next day, Oden finds a pushpin taped to his office door. Students return to clean up the popped balloons but leave some remnants in President Oden’s desk drawer.

The same day, a construction sign and earthmover appear on campus as President Oden pulls his own April Fool’s joke by sending an all-community e-mail with a video clip announcing the College’s plans to build a multistory administrative facility in the middle of the Bald Spot. 

August 2010

19a-Poskanzer-dining-with-Schiller.jpg19b-Poskanzer-riding-a-scooter.jpgPhotos of newly arrived President Steve Poskanzer spending a day with the bust of Schiller appear on Carleton’s Facebook page and in the Carl (the Carletonian’s arts supplement) during New Student Week. Schiller’s guardians report a witty exchange of clues to set up Schiller’s meeting with President Poskanzer, and the story is picked up by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Web Extra: The College bases its official responses to pranks on the Carleton Community Standards.

Add a comment

The following fields are not to be filled out. Skip to Submit Button.
(This is here to trap robots. Don't put any text here.)
(This is here to trap robots. Don't put any text here.)
(This is here to trap robots. Don't put any text here.)