February 14, 2024

Princeton University Trivia Book Takes on Campus Myths and Truths

By Anne Levin

Maybe you’ve heard of Betsey Stockton, the enslaved servant of a Princeton University president who founded the first school for children of color in Princeton in 1840. Perhaps you’re aware of the year that the University finally admitted women (1969).

But you might not know about the 24 Princeton students who were arrested for “sleighing” in Trenton and drunkenly singing “Jingle Bells” loudly, after midnight, on January 18, 1879. It’s also unlikely that you’ve heard the rumor that Alexander Hall was designed by an architecture student as his senior thesis, for which he was failed. Later, seeking revenge, he donated money on the condition that his design be used.

Not true, according to The Princeton University Trivia Book, compiled by former Mudd Manuscript Library archivist Helene van Rossum and University Archivist and Deputy Head of Special Collections Daniel J. Linke. The book, a collection of historic and recent facts — some funny, some bizarre, all informative — will be published in May by Lyons Press. It is the fifth such publication in Lyons Press’ College Trivia series, joining trivia books about the universities of Alabama, Central Florida, South Carolina, and Texas.

The publishing company reached out to Linke a few years ago and asked if he’d be interested in doing a trivia book about Princeton. He wasn’t sure he’d have time for such a project.

“But Helene and I have been collaborators on things for a number of years, so I talked to her about it,” Linke said. “And we decided to collaborate again.”

The two brainstormed about categories, and Van Rossum put together a spread sheet. “First of all, any project with Dan is always fun,” she said. “We had so many resources, starting with what has been posted on the Mudd Manuscript blog — tidbits perfect for trivia questions. So we reviewed them, and we came up with all of these things. We have a whole spreadsheet with all of our sources in case people ask us, ‘How did you get this?’ ”

The collaborators knew they wanted the trivia questions to reflect contemporary as well as historic Princeton. Among other sources, they consulted the book I Can Do Anything: Stories from the First 50 Years of Women’s Athletics at Princeton University by Princeton Athletics historian Jerry Price. Women and minorities are the focus of several queries.

“We wanted to make sure certain things were well represented, like the student population, minorities, and things that might not have been talked about 20 years ago,” said Linke. “We wanted to show how Princeton has changed. Our goal was to make readers understand that Princeton has evolved. It’s a much more diverse and welcoming place than it used to be.”

There are 650 questions in the book. Some of them are Jeopardy-style, where the answer is provided, and the reader supplies the related question. “Originally, that was one of our categories,” said Linke. “But our editor suggested we intersperse them throughout the book. And it made more sense.”

One of the Jeopardy entries is about an incident during University President John Maclean’s tenure (1854-68), when students hauled two donkeys from a nearby farm up to the top floor of Nassau Hall. The question is, “What was Maclean’s response when they asked how the animals got there?” His answer: “Through their great anxiety to visit some of their brethren.”

Another trivia question asks whether it is true or false that the campus radio station played the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s Messiah when the trustees announced that women could attend Princeton as undergraduates. It’s true.

Some cartoons and informational tidbits are interspersed among the trivia questions. One, a telegram from 1953 graduate and astronaut Pete Conrad, when he was orbiting the Earth aboard Skylab, responds to an invitation to his 25th reunion: “Sorry, I can’t attend but I’m ‘out of town on business.’ ”

There are questions about the annual P-rade, the song “Old Nassau,” and when the Triangle Club performed its first kickline (1903). The origin of Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, the Teach for American program, and the renaming of the former Marx Hall after longtime Campus Dining employee and election poll volunteer Laura Wooten are the subjects of just a few of the other trivia questions.

“Some of the questions are funny, and some are reflective of the dedication of alumni,” said Linke. “There is a dedication to the place that I think is unmatched. There is so much loyalty. So hopefully, people will enjoy this book.”