The Dreaded Scourge of “Follicular Ticsiphobia”

Womans Building

Above: The Woman’s Building, the first UT residence hall for co-eds. It stood where the Flawn Academic Center is today.

April 13, 1915: “The medical authorities have been unable to cope with it,” reported The Daily Texan. A mysterious illness had swept through the University’s only residence hall for women. Within just a few days, 35 of the 86 residents had been stricken, along with the head matron – Mrs. Neil Carothers – and four members of the staff. “The disease,” warned the Texan, “has been diagnosed as – “

Follicular Ticsiphobia.

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Old Main.Water Tank.BluebonnetsA century ago, the spring of 1915 was an exciting time on the Forty Acres. In February, a group of sophomores kidnapped the freshman class president to prevent him from attending the annual Freshman Ball, though he managed to escape. March was welcomed by an all-out rumble between law and engineering students at the old water tank on the north side of campus. Several professors stayed up all night to safeguard the tank, only to wind up making an incredibly precarious early morning climb up to the roof of the old Main Building to grab a flag hung by some students in the Academic Department. April finally arrived with its annual blanket of Texas Bluebonnets (photo above), but trouble was brewing in the Woman’s Building.

Opened in 1903 as the first UT residence hall for co-eds, the Woman’s Building housed 86 girls, mostly in single rooms, along with head matron Mrs. Carothers. Students enjoyed their own dining room and parlor, and a full gymnasium in the basement, which included a pool, elevated running track, and basketball court. (The first basketball games at UT were played by women.) The girls, though, were only allowed to go out three times a week, had an unwavering 10 p.m. curfew, and needed a chaperon to accompany any dates.

1915 Cactus.Hattie HigganbothamIn mid-April, a mysterious illness arrived at the Woman’s Building. Hatie Higganbothom (left), a senior in the Academic  Department, was the first victim.  A chill was followed by a high fever, headache, and sore throat. The University physician, Dr. Joe Gilbert, made a house call and thought it might be a case of tonsillitis. Hattie’s third floor
neighbors volunteered to help change cold compresses, refill a glass of iced pineapple juice, and offer comforting words, all while studying for mid-term exams.

But with a contagion loose in the residence hall, it was only a few days before the inevitable. Anne Aynesworth (below right) was the next casualty. As a 1915 Cactus.YWCA.Aynesworthprecautionary measure, Dr. Gilbert placed her in Seton Hospital, then just northwest of campus on 26th Street, but it was too late. On the first day, more than 30 girls visited Anne, brought flowers, fruit, and news that others had succumbed: “Viola Baker has it – fainted on the stairs.” The next morning, less than half of the group was still healthy. By afternoon, only Pinkie Miller had escaped. Head Matron Mrs. Carothers was ill, along with four of the kitchen staff.

Dr. Gilbert reversed course, kept everyone at the Woman’s Building, and turned the hall into a makeshift infirmary. Co-eds who were still well were excused from classes and pressed into service to carry sick trays and smiles upstairs to the fallen.

A letter writing committee was organized to notify parents, and each patient was consulted as to which letter they’d like sent to the folks at home. The committee created three types from which to choose: the not-to-worry letters to shield parents from undue anxiety, letters designed to raise a little concern and thus provide a ready excuse for a poor report card at the end of the term, and, lastly, letters calculated to alarm parents just enough that they would send flowers . . . and checks.

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Sunday evening, April 11th, was one of the few times during the week that men were allowed to visit the Woman’s Building, though with so many girls ill and confined to their rooms, only one gentleman was seen in the parlor. A sophomore, who also happened to be a reporter for The Daily Texan, had called upon his girlfriend. The two were sitting in “Lover’s Nook,” in a corner of the parlor next to the grand piano.

A few of the girls spied the reporter and, perhaps giddy from climbing stairs and tending to the sick all day, saw an opportunity to have some fun. They huddled a few minutes to perfect their plans, and then approached the reporter and his date with serious faces.

“Would you mind telling us,” asked one of the co-eds with a sense of foreboding in her voice, “do people outside the building know? That is, is it generally suspected what we fear about the present situation?”

The reporter perked up. His journalistic nose smelled a story. He casually replied that he didn’t think the campus knew too much, but, of course – and let his sentence drift away.

“You won’t mention it, of course?” said the co-ed. “It hasn’t been officially given out, but all indications are that we have,” she dropped her voice to a near whisper, “Follicular Ticsiphobia in the house!”

“Follicular Ticsiphobia” was a name the girls had invented just moments beforehand.

The reporter remained with his date until curfew, and then hurried off to the Texan offices to tell the editor and write his scoop.

Follicular Ticsiphobia Headline

It was Tuesday morning, April 13th, when the Texan announced to the world that an epidemic of Follicular Ticsiphobia had decimated the ranks of the Woman’s Building. “Every precaution is being employed to suppress its spread,” stated the newspaper, “but so far the medical authorities have been unable to cope with it.”

As Dr. Gilbert made his morning rounds to check on his patients, every girl had seen the paper and asked, wide-eyed, “Is it true?!” Anne Aynesworth recalled, “He swept my Texan aside, thrust a thermometer under my tongue, and muttered something about young idiots who ought to be expelled, and then stalked out.”

The prank was a success. The following day, the Texan ran an update that claimed the illness among the co-eds had been checked, and Dr. Gilbert thought it was simply a peculiar form of the flu. “Though the name Follicular Ticsiphobia did not follow Doctor Gilbert’s diagnosis,” the paper explained, “the girls assert it is by no means inappropriate, as it translates into plain English as ‘throat fits’ or something of the sort.” So much for fact checking.

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1913 Cactus Yearbook.Womans Building.That might have been the end of the episode, except that newspapers across the state subscribed to the Texan to keep up with events on the UT campus, and the Texan was mailed daily. Through the rest of the week, several of the state’s dailies saw the story and republished it almost verbatim. If it had happened a century later, Follicular Ticsiphobia would have been trending on Twitter.

It wasn’t long before the President’s Office and the Woman’s Building were besieged by telephone calls and Western Union telegrams from harried parents. Would the girls be all right? Had it spread to the men’s dorm? Had the campus been quarantined? Mrs. Carothers, still bedridden, pale, and weak, resolved to answer every telegram, and dictated her reassuring replies in a raspy voice that was barely above a whisper.

Within two weeks, the outbreak of tonsillitis, or the flu, or whatever it was, ran its course and disappeared from whence it came. But for years, even the slightest case of an allergy in the Woman’s Building was jokingly declared to be a new outbreak of Follicular Ticsiphobia.

1957.Womans Building from West Mall

Above: In the 1950s, the old Woman’s Building (left) could be seen from the West Mall, standing next to Hogg Auditorium. The building burned in 1958, and was replaced in the 1960s by today’s Flawn Academic Center. The sidewalk on the right now passes along and under the east side of the FAC. Click on the image for a closer view.

The University’s Halloween Donkey

DonkeyAll 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.

B Hall Color PostcardOn 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.”

B Hall Residents 1905

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.

UT Campus 1905

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.

Womans Building Entrance

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.

water-tank-band-hall-at-baseThe 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.