Ye olde Thanksgiving at Georgetown University

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[Editor's Note: This post was originally published last year.]

Thanksgiving dinners and football may be proud American traditions, but nowadays, they don’t figure very heavily into life at Georgetown. That wasn’t always the case. Students used to celebrate Thanksgiving Day all together on campus (forget skipping your Wednesday classes) and Georgetown University used to annually host the Washington Thanksgiving Gameā€”the most popular football game in town.

Beginning in the 1850s, Georgetown began to throw a yearly Thanksgiving Day feast for its students, which Georgetown’s Southern students referred to disparagingly as “Yankee Christmas.” The turkey dinner, Robert Curran writes in The Bicentennial History of Georgetown University, took place after a High Mass and came “with all the trimmings, including pumpkin pie.”

By the 1880s, a concert that included performances by the Georgetown Banjo Club, Mandolin Club, and Glee Club rounded out the night.

Georgetown began to host the annual football game by the turn of the century, and at the time, it was the place to be in Washington on Thanksgiving Day. Attendance was regularly in the thousands. It was a time when college football was a brutal affair and it wasn’t uncommon for players to incur injuries that resulted in death.

That was the case for a Georgetown halfback, George Bahen, in 1894, when he was paralyzed in a game against the local Columbia Athletic Club.

The nonchalance with which reporters covered the game, which took place on November 29, speaks to how common the scene of a player being carried motionless from the field was to late nineteenth century football.

“Fully ten thousand people were present in the park, and the scene was one of the prettiest ever witnessed in Washington … Fish-horns, cow-bells, and every device for making noise known to the small boy at Christmas time and Fourth of July was forced into service to supplement the refined efforts of lung power to give expression to the pent-up feelings of the excited multitude,” the Georgetown College Journal wrote.

In fact, the Journal article dedicated more words to its description of the crowd than it did to describing Bahen’s injuries, although the reporter immediately recognized they were severe.

“Bahen, Georgetown’s plucky little half back, lay white and motionless on the ground. In assisting Mahoney’s play he had come into collision with Leete, and was met by the latter’s head planted in his abdomen or stomach … It is said also that that he was struck twice, and that after he was down one of his opponents kicked him in the back, while another jumped upon his prostrate form, planting both knees upon his stomach. However this may be, it is certain that after the mass of players was disentangled, he was found to have sustained severe and probably fatal injuries.”

The reporter launched immediately back into post-game coverage.

The December issue of College Journal reported that Bahen had been paralyzed from the waist down, but was lucky to be alive.

“The physicians, who from the very start gave little or no hope of recovery, now speak more encouragingly, and we are looking anxiously for the day when we shall see ‘Shorty’ back again on campus.”

“Shorty”‘s friends held a benefit to cover his medical expenses in mid-March, but at the end of that month, Bahen worsened and died, according to student records.

But in the tradition of old sports coverage, let’s launch right back into the post-game: what about the rest of the game against the Columbia Athletic Club?

“Columbia won again,” the Washington Post reported the next day. “[F]our times in five years that the blue and gray of old Georgetown has been trailed on the football field by the sturdy kickers of the athletic club … When those college youngsters have had a night’s rest and begin to think over yesterday’s record, they will recall half a dozen times when Georgetown might have scored … But it avails nothing. Georgetown lost.”

Some things never change.

Photos courtesy the Georgetown University Archives.

h/t Georgetown’s Twitter feed for the Thanksgiving Proclamation.

One Comment on “Ye olde Thanksgiving at Georgetown University

  1. Shorty’s grave is in Mt Cavalry Cemetery in Richmond with an inscription regarding his death on the field of athletics.

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