Yale sociologist Janet Stimson’s new book, Written in Wood: Yale at 200, gives an insightful if sparse account of the university and New Haven at the turn of the 20th century. But what is most groundbreaking about Stimson’s study are the sources on which she draws: she bases her entire history on hundred-year-old inscriptions carved into the tables at Mory’s and Louis’ Lunch.
“My goal was to piece together whatever I could find, to paint a true portrait of the lives of Yale students from a bygone time,” she writes in the preface. In the third chapter, for example, she tells the heartbreaking story of “Douglas G.” who in 1902 “was here [at Louis’],” and in that same year “wuz [sic] here [at Mory’s].” Then in 1904, according to Stimson’s evidence, Douglas G. became acquainted with Thomas P., and the two had designs to remain best friends forever. Also dated 1904, an inscription on a Mory’s table proves that “Douglas G. loves Blanche.” At this time “Douglas was on top of the world,” Stimson argues. “Here we have a Yalie, probably about 18 years old, almost definitely an athlete—tall, long blond hair, strikingly handsome. He undeniably frequented all the hotspots on campus; he had at least one very good friend in Thomas P., and, apparently, he had won the heart of a beautiful, intelligent young lady whom he intended to marry.”
Filling in details that would be lost on the non-historian, Stimson goes on to describe with characteristic sensitivity the disintegration of Douglas’ relationships with Blanche and Thomas P. An inscription in Douglas’ handwriting on a Louis’ countertop reads “THOMAS P. SUX [sic],” indicative of a souring of their friendship. “Clearly the cause was Thomas’ stealing Blanche away from Douglas,” argues Stimson, citing another carving at Louis’ that shows the initials T.P. and B.F. encircled by a heart. (The heart, according to Stimson, was believed to be responsible for feelings of love.) “We never see another carving that makes reference to Douglas G.” she concludes the chapter. “The tragic likelihood is that Douglas, in the prime of his life, committed suicide out of despair. There is a possibility, however, that Douglas challenged Thomas P. to a duel, not an uncommon practice at the time, and lost. What remains unclear, though, is whether the duel was conducted with swords or with pistols.” So concludes the third chapter of Written in Wood.
Other chapters in Stimson’s riveting history focus on the longstanding student debate over who rules—Yale football or Yale baseball; and who among over a dozen competing individuals is number one.