Ithaca, N.Y. — Freshmen moving to Cornell’s campus this late August may encounter some serious challenges — the pain of being away from home, for instance, or difficulty finding their classes.

Barring wildly unforeseen circumstances, however, they will not be exposed to what their predecessors were: The wild melee of bones, boys and brainlessness once known as “Mud Rush.”

Photo from the 1920s. (Courtesy of Cornell)

We’re taking a look back at “Mud Rush” as part of The Ithaca Voice’s weekly #Throwback Thursday series.

Related: 9 photos of Ithaca’s gorges from the 19th Century.

Related: 14 old photos of Ithacans enjoying the lakes.

Luckily, our friend and Cornell Historian Corey Earle has agreed to help out.

(Also courtesy of Cornell)

Earle said that Mud Rush was pretty much a wrestling competition between the freshman class and the sophomore class.

“Class rivalry was a big thing in the early 20th Century,” Earle said.

“So you would have this organized battle somewhere on campus where it was suitably muddy.”

Cornell’s campus in 1924. (Courtesy of the History Center in Tompkins County, as are the next 3)
“Just before the soph frosh rush,” a caption on the back of this photo says. From 1918.

It was serious business.

“They basically pummeled each other in the mud,” Earle said.

People would get injured — broken bones, twisted ankles … pretty much what you’d expect from huge swaths of energetic young men going at each other.

“It was a pretty savage event,” Earle said.

One Cornell Daily Sun article from 1922 outlines the rules: The goal was for the freshmen or the sophomores to forcibly drag their opponents over to their side. Then the fun started.

“The captors will have the privilege of ornamenting their victims in the manner they consider most fitting, using water colors to get the best results,”  The Sun article notes.

So the mud was crucial. Another Sun article gave a favorable weather report for the event.

“There should be no lack of mud with which to plaster the captives,” the story said.

The competition ended sometime around 1929, Earle said.

“It was definitely a spectacle,” he said.

Courtesy of Cornell
Courtesy of Cornell)

But the archives keep the tradition alive, at least in some way.

An article in the blog PaperSleuth, which ties the “mud games” to other Cornell traditions, quotes a student from the time:

“The underclass mud rush lived up to its reputation of former years, a relic of barbarism. …Ralph Munns, the wrestler, was as effective as three aggregate cigarette-smoking sophomores. Bodily he carried about and pummeled two sophomores at a time.”


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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.