All Hallow’s Eve has once again arrived in Austin. Ghosts, witches, zombies, and other ghoulish creatures will soon wander the neighborhoods, plying their trade in search of sugary treats, or gather by the thousands on Sixth Street for some late night revelry.
Such was not always the custom. “Trick or treating,” as a modern tradition, has only been around since the 1930s. A century ago, Halloween in Austin usually meant mischief, at least for those living near the University of Texas campus. A favorite practice was the mysterious disappearance of items, from yard decorations to signs to delivery wagons, which were quietly spirited away overnight, only to reappear somewhere on the Forty Acres, waiting to be reclaimed by their owners.
On Halloween night 1906, about a half hour before midnight, engineering sophomore Alfred “Alf” Toombs entered the north door of B. Hall on the ground floor. B. Hall (photo at right) was the first men’s dorm on the campus, and the bottom floor housed both the kitchen and dining room. At the late hour, the room was dark, but as Toombs pulled on the door handle, there was some resistance. At first he thought he’d encountered a fellow student leaving the building at the same time.
Instead, Toombs discovered a donkey hitched to the doorknob on the inside. The animal belonged to Mrs. Carothers, head matron of the Woman’s Building (the women’s dorm), and was the pet of her two children. Evidently, the donkey had been kidnapped from his stable and was an unwilling participant of some Halloween shenanigans.
“I suppose that the parties who had left him there thought they had done their best by him,” recounted Toombs, “but I felt sure that better disposition could be made of his presence.”
Above: B. Hall residents pose for a group photo.
Toombs went upstairs to consult with his fellow B. Hall residents. Among the suggestions was to place the animal in the vestibule of the Woman’s Building, where his presence would surely produce the kind of unrest intended “to remind some unfortunate that Halloween was once more with us.”
Some of Toombs’ cohorts voiced doubts that the donkey could be persuaded to climb the fourteen steps at the entrance to the building to reach the vestibule. To make sure the animal was ready, the group decided to first “rehearse” on the steps of the Engineering Building (today’s Gebauer Building), and then walk across campus for the final performance.
The campus in 1906. B. Hall, the men’s dorm, is on the far right, while the Woman’s Building, placed as far away as possible across campus, is on the left. The Engineering Building (today’s Gebauer Building), is just to the left of B. Hall.
With plans made, a group of six B. Hallers led the donkey out of the dorm to the Engineering Building, a short walk to the northwest. With a little pulling, pushing, and half-lifting, the animal climbed the steps and demonstrated his abilities. The students led the donkey back down again, and started out for their goal.
Along the way, the group met up with Gene “Deb” Debogery, a genial fellow denizen of B. Hall who called himself the “East Texas Crow” because of his frequent, raucous “cawing” in imitation of the species. Debogery was also an avid baseball fan, though not as good a player. He was often found in front of B. Hall playing catch with someone, and at the same time either endangering the health of fellow students walking to classes, or breaking windows in the hall.
On this occasion, Debogery had been out celebrating the evening and “was fairly well organized,” according to Toombs. Deb enthusiastically volunteered to help, though the rest of the group quickly realized that any chance of quiet had been lost.
Unlike the rehearsal at the Engineering Building, the donkey was far more reluctant to climb the stairs of the women’s dorm (photo at left). After several attempts, the group resorted to lifting the animal’s front two legs completely off the ground and pulling on a long rope which had been passed behind the donkey’s back legs. Subtle it wasn’t, but the job was completed and the vestibule was reached.
But once on the top step, Deb discovered that the latch to the front door was unlocked, and soon insisted that their charge be taken inside and tied to a stair post. To pacify Deb, the others put him in charge of the task.
The reluctant donkey was pushed inside to the spacious front lobby of the Woman’s Building, but the clatter predictably woke some of the residents. A light appeared at the top the stairway, and the commanding voice of Mrs. Carothers soon followed. “Who’s there?!” she demanded, “And what are you doing?” A few tousled heads poked out over the banister, and one belligerent maid let fly a hairbrush at the intruders. One of the men answered that they’d brought another boarder, to which Mrs. Carothers retorted that the dorm was full. No matter. The donkey was secured to the stair post and the group quickly decamped.
The evening’s adventures were not quite complete, however. As the B. Hallers made their escape out the front door of the Woman’s Building, they were confronted by the University’s night watchman who had witnessed the whole escapade. He retrieved the donkey, led him easily down the stairs, and told the students that the animal would be secured to prevent further antics. The watchman intended to place the animal in the new band house, a makeshift structure set up under the campus water tank as a place for the University Band to rehearse.
Above right: The old water tank, placed on the north side of campus (about where the Painter Hall parking lot is today), with a temporary band hall installed at its base. The University Methodist Church and Littlefield Home can be seen behind it, with 24th Street heading downhill to the right. Click on an image for a larger view.
The donkey, by now tired of being led around, refused to enter the darkened confines of the band room outright. “We’ll help!” volunteered the B. Hall contingent. Unaware of the trap that was being set, the night watchman agreed, and pulled the animal from the front while the group pushed from behind. Of course, once the watchman and the donkey had entered the band house, the door was quickly closed and padlocked. The two spent the rest of the night together, mourning their plight and leaving the campus unprotected.
What a story! You are a master detective to ferret out these tales.