Imagine you are heading out to Homecoming, visiting with returning alumni and catching the football game. There are numerous events you wish to catch during the weekend, but one in particular that all your friends are talking about…the “annual coffin parade.” Checking the student newspaper for more details on this strange event, you learn that during the match against the Western Maryland (now McDaniels) Green Terror, “on Saturday morning, C.U. cheerleaders will drag the casket out on the field…for the edification of the Terror team and rooters.” Do you decide to attend?
Sometimes when one is digging through the archives, one unearths all manner of buried tales. The tradition of the so-called “Western Maryland Coffin” is one such a tale. Similar to the Old Oaken Bucket of Indiana-Purdue or the Michigan-Michigan State Little Brown Jug, the Western Maryland-Catholic coffin was a rivalry trophy handed off between the schools. Whoever won the grudge match each season would carry off the macabre reward to their home campus. While the tradition of such trophies is not unusual, the choice of object is certainly eyebrow-raising.
The November 14, 1935 Tower reports the origins for this curious tradition as follows:
The annual homecoming event between the Green Terrors of Western Maryland and the Flying Cardinals, of Catholic U. brings to light one of the those hoary tales of tradition that the “old boys” love to retell. It has to do with the famous Western Maryland Coffin. Now way back yonder in 1913, when the Terrors first met with the Cards, one of the C.U. carpenters who was evidently imbued with the C.U. victory spirit thought the best thing to do with the Terrors who were to be beaten, was to bury them, so he went to work and built the coffin.
With a score of 17-6 in favor of Catholic, the coffin seems to have done the trick and remained on campus. The two teams would not meet on the gridiron again until 1924, with the coffin reemerging. However, this time, the Terror defeated the Cardinals. Rather than surrender the coffin to their victorious rivals, it is reported that:
[Coach Eddie] La Fond and some of his cohorts stole the object of the argument – the coffin…after beating around the bush, La Fond admitted the theft, but said that it was impossible for him to return the article because he has mislaid it.
Lest you think that a coffin’s shadow had passed from the campus, the lost trophy was located a decade later! In 1934, the Tower exclaimed, “The Terrors’ Ghost Coffin, Aged Sarcophagus Unearthed,” declaring that the superintendent of maintenance had located the long-lost coffin in the basement of St. Thomas Hall.
St. Thomas Hall, also known as the Middleton House, was the oldest structure on the campus. Originally built as a summer cottage (named Sidney) in 1803 by newspaperman Samuel Harrison Smith, who had relocated to Washington at the invitation of President Thomas Jefferson. (During this period, Smith would host many dignitaries at the House, including Jefferson and James and Dolly Madison.) Sold in the 1830s to James and Erasmus J. Middleton, father and son respectively. With the surrounding land purchased for the new Catholic University in 1886, the House became a residence, first for the Paulist Fathers from 1889 until 1914, and later a dormitory for lay students until 1933. From that date, until its demolition in 1970, it housed the School of Social Service…and apparently a misplaced coffin.
After its rediscovery in 1934 – and some quick repairs – the coffin was triumphantly paraded around campus during the following week’s pep rally events. And despite a Terror victory (2-0) over the Cardinals that fall, the Western Maryland team seemed uninterested in carrying off the coffin, with the Tower declaring that, “Catholic University is particularly proud of the fact that this coffin has never left the C.U. campus.”
The following season, the Cardinals would win against the Terrors (19-6) and go on to win the 1936 Orange Bowl. Eddie LaFond, the once tomb raider, was by this point the longstanding and nationally recognized head of the University’s boxing, football, and basketball programs.
With the Orange Bowl win and the tradition of the casket well-established, the student press trumpeted the presence of the coffin during the fall semester of 1936. The homecoming events even advertised a halftime show, which included “the annual coffin parade.” But the parade was not to be that year or any years after. In the dead of night, the coffin vanished days before the big game. The Tower was quick to blame Western Maryland, stating, “This conclusion was drawn quite logically because of the fact that it would be of value to only the Green and Gold [Terror] followers.”
However, while this archivist plans to check further into the whereabouts of these legendary trophy, there is a part of me that believes the coffin is still stashed away somewhere on campus…