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Penn Bowl Fight

Debate over the date of the first Bowl Fight at Penn is longstanding. The earliest recorded Bowl Fight was in 1861, when there was "no fight, no bowl-only a spoon" (The Pennsylvanian, December 1, 1909). At the time, it was popular practice to name in public the academic rankings of university men: highest honors went to the first honor men and lowest to the third honor men. In 1861, the sophomores thought to mock the lowest of the freshmen third honor men by presenting him with a wooden spoon. In 1865, a large wooden bowl accompanied the traditional wooden spoon. That year, the sophomore class put the lowest ranked third honor man in the wooden bowl and paraded him around campus. Starting at Penn's campus, then located on 9th Street, the crowd proceeded west down Chestnut to Broad Street and back. At this time, the sole object of the fight was to keep the "Bowl Man" in the bowl for the duration of the march. This task became more difficult when, in 1867, the Bowl Man resisted being put into the bowl, thus beginning the tradition of the fight. Over the years, the fierceness of the fight increased, which led the university faculty to intervene periodically in an attempt to abolish it. They succeeded in stopping the fight in 1887, only to have it return the next year with more force than ever before.

Eventually a set of rules was put in place to instill some order in this otherwise chaotic brawl. The fight was broken into fifteen-minute halves. In the first half, the sophomores attempted to touch the freshman Bowl Man with their bowl, while the freshmen attempted to get their Bowl Man over the soph goal line before being touched. The only goal for the freshmen in the second half was to break the sophomores' bowl. If this was not accomplished (and it often was not because the sophomores were wise enough to construct unbreakable wooden bowls) the winner of the second half was the class with the greatest number of hands on the bowl when time was called.

A particularly savage Bowl Fight was held on January 12, 1916. Seven hundred freshmen and sophomores fought doggedly to get as many hands as possible on the bowl. The struggle suddenly stopped when the men discovered the lifeless body of William Lifson lying facedown in the mud. Lifson had suffocated when his face was pressed into the mud under the weight of the other men. His hands were extended before him, the tips of his fingers touching the bowl. "For seventy years the undergraduates at the university have believed that no higher honor can be won by a freshman than to be found touching the bowl at the conclusion of the fight. Lifson had won that honor" (New York Times, January 13, 1916). Following this horrific incident, Penn's Undergraduate Committee voted to abolish all class fights.