It’s interesting to learn that there was once a weird end-of-term tradition among junior Brown University students in Providence. In early July each year they would parade in a boisterous throng from the University to the Seekonk River by flaming torchlight, in order to “bury Whately”. This appears to have been done from 1833-8, then again from 1853-9 — when the tradition ended due to the advent of the Civil War.

Whately is of course rather a similar name to Whateley, the famous name from Lovecraft’s story “The Dunwich Horror”. Wilbur Whateley ends up horribly dead in the “reading-room” of a university library, you’ll remember. He evaporates, and so cannot be buried.

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“…[the] earliest known program [for the “Junior Burials”] being for the year 1853. On these occasions there was a procession through the city streets with a brass band, banners and burning torches, as the rhetoric textbooks of Richard Whately, George Campbell, and William Spalding were conveyed in a coffin to Ferry Wharf [Fox Point, Providence, at the confluence of the Seekonk and Providence Rivers]. There the students embarked in boats to an offshore spot where the funeral ceremonies were conducted, complete with orations on the textbook authors, a poem and an ode, and the books were thrown overboard [sealed in a coffin].” (Encyclopedia Brunoniana)

According to Encyclopedia Brunoniana the tradition was taken up again in the 1870s, without the books of Whately but with more ghoulish costumes — and this time a burning of the books rather than a burial-at-sea…

“They were later revived as a “cremation,” and the textbook authors singled out [as] Elias Loomis on analytical geometry and Thomas B. Shaw’s Manual of English. The later processions did not head for the boats, but paraded across Red Bridge (and, once across, opened the draw bridge with the approval of the appropriate authorities) and burned the offending books. The cremation held in 1875 was described in rhyme in a local newspaper under the heading, “Brown Boys ‘On the Rampage’”:

“Thursday, by early candle light,
appeared a strange and grotesque sight,
upon the College Campus green,
a sight as queer as e’er was seen.
It was the Brown boys, out in force,
to celebrate in usual course,
their Class Day eve, with mock display,
and mimic funeral pageantry.
The Juniors, in outlandish guise,
bedecked themselves to strike surprise
to all who saw them thus arrayed,
on their accustomed street parade.
Some wrapped in winding sheets were ‘most
too noisy for a sober ghost,
and some wore horns, in travesty
of his Satanic majesty,
The latter seemed, upon the whole,
familiar with the title role,
and many, as the train went by,
inclined to Darwin’s theory.
From street to street the cavalcade,
with blatant hand, its progress made;
red robes, a skull and cross-bones bare,
looked hideous in the torches’ glare.
Beyond the [River] Seekonk’s further shore,
the strange procession marched, and bore
an English text-book, with Greek fire,
burned on a mock funeral pyre.
This frolic o’er, each Junior sped
at midnight to his little bed,
ending in peace this revel queer,
which comes, thank God, but once a year.”

The tradition had its last year in Providence in 1884, when the books documenting the university marking-system were buried (the Brown lecturers had started to complain that the students were becoming embarrassingly likely to burn textbooks written by Brown staff).

What of Whately? Richard Whately (1787-1863) was not actually a Professor at Brown University, but was rather the British free-market intellectual and nominal churchman who was the author of the hugely influential Elements of Rhetoric (1828) and Elements of Logic (1826), and also the editor of Bacon’s Essays with annotations (1857). Lovecraft’s use of the name Wilbur for Wilbur Whateley is a red herring if one looks for it in the real Richard Whately — since it is an obvious nod to Wilbraham, the topographical inspiration for “The Dunwich Horror”.

Could Lovecraft, so ardent a student of his city’s history and of ghoulish burials, have known of the Whately burial tradition? Possibly, although there is no evidence in the surviving letters that I know of. Nor is it in the city histories. A city prefers to forget many things about itself.

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