Charles Francis Himes and his involvement with Phi Kappa Sigma
Greek letter organizations on college campuses have been around since the birth of the United States. On December 5, 1776, the same year that the Declaration of Independence was signed, the first greek letter fraternity was founded.2 This event would eventually alter, more than any other single influence, the complexion of college life in the United States.3 Phi Beta Kappa was introduced as the first fraternity at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. It “had all the characteristics of the present-day fraternity: the charm and mystery of secrecy, a ritual, oaths of fidelity, a grip, a motto, a badge for external display, a background of high idealism, and a strong tie of friendship and comradeship…”4 It was founded for literary and social purposes and began to expand its chapters throughout the east coast during the latter part of the eighteenth century. Although Phi Beta Kappa became strictly a scholarly honorary society in 1831, the enticing idea of secret fraternal organizations had already begun to spread and other fraternities began to arise around the new nation during the beginning of the nineteenth century. By 1850, eleven of the present fraternities had already been founded.5
It was around this time that the fraternity movement began to reach into Pennsylvania, appearing first with the founding of Phi Gamma Delta at Jefferson College in 1848, which also became the home to the first chapter of Phi Kappa Psi in 1852. The original chapter of Phi Kappa Sigma was located at the University of Pennsylvania and was founded by Dr. Samuel Brown Wiley Mitchell on October 19, 1850. These first three fraternities became known as the “Pennsylvania Triad.”6
Dr. Samuel Brown Wiley Mitchell, founder
of the original chapter of Phi Kappa Sigma in 1850.
"Along with other fraternities, Phi Kappa Sigma was banned from the University of Pennsylvania campus in 1852. Dr. Mitchell was called before the Board of Trustees and asked, 'Why do you wear that 'Piratical' ensign?' His answer was not recorded, but he must have been convincing since the fraternity was allowed to maintain a sub-rosa existence with headquarters in Mitchell's rooms at the Philadelphia Hospital, where he later served as Assistant Physician."7 Mitchell and six other friends adopted a constitution, parts of which indicate that it was never the intention of the founders that Phi Kappa Sigma would remain a local fraternity. Their wishes were granted in 1853 when the Beta chapter was established at Princeton in New Jersey. The brothers of Phi Kap could now call themselves a national fraternity. One year after that, the Epsilon chapter at Dickinson College overcame many struggles with the faculty to become the fifth chapter of Phi Kappa Sigma in the nation.8
It is important to understand the conditions at the College under which Charles Francis Himes, Emanuel H. Reigart, John Southgate Tucker, and James David Watters first formed the Epsilon chapter at Dickinson College. As fraternities had grown in popularity and spread throughout the nation’s universities, anti-fraternity sentiment began to rise. “It is hardly recognizable today how intense was the opposition to secret fraternities at that time, not only on the part of the college authorities, but on the part of a great majority of the students and…of many parents…”9 The resentment of these secret fraternities by the faculty of Dickinson College was described by Charles Francis Himes in 1904 to be a result of the fact that:
when they did not know exactly what a body of students was doing, especially if they were concealing it under oath-bound formulas, and grips and passwords, coupled with enigmatic, ominous Greek letters, there was certainly something more than suspicious involved.10
Most of the student body denounced fraternities as undemocratic and probably detested their exclusion from them. The campus community as a whole regarded fraternities as evil and Dickinson College devoted much time and energy to digging up these secret organizations and destroying them as quickly as possible. One example of the faculty’s detest for such activities is evidenced in the treatment of the Zeta Psi fraternity, which appeared at Dickinson in 1852. Fraternities at the time were banned and were carefully concealed from college authorities. However, as soon as College President Jesse Truesdell Peck got wind of the organization, he quickly moved against it. His last report as president of the college to the Board of Trustees in 1852 read:
Resolved, that the Faculty request the Board of Trustees so to amend the statutes, as to provide that no society or association of students shall be allowed to exist, whose constitution, rules, and by-laws shall not be approved by the Faculty, and to whose meetings members of the Faculty may not at all times have access.11
The Board of Trustees modified Peck’s resolution into one that had been previously adopted by President Allen of Girard College and passed the following resolution on fraternal organizations and secret societies just before Charles Collins took over the presidency of the College:
Resolved, that no society or association shall be organized or allowed to exist among the students without the approval of the Faculty first obtained; and no such society or association shall hold meetings in any other place than such as the Faculty may designate within the college premises.12
Interestingly enough, this resolution has never been repealed and still exists on the books this very day.
The new president of the college, Charles Collins, discovered the existence of the Zeta Psi fraternity on his campus. Angered by the secret group, he required the members of Zeta Psi to burn all of their chapter documents publicly in front of both faculty and students. Its members were refused admittance to the College the following fall if they did not take an oath stating that they would not try to re-establish a chapter of Zeta Psi at the college, and the brothers were also required to sever all relations with other chapters of the fraternity. In addition to these things, Collins requested a letter from the head of the national chapter stating that he would not try and establish another chapter there, and all twelve members were severely punished.13
The members of Zeta Psi attempted to reorganize even after their punishment by the faculty, but they could not find enough participants to begin the fraternity anew. Himes was actually asked by the brothers of Zeta Psi to join the fraternity upon his entrance to the College. He declined, stating later that “there were some in the chapter I did not care to be on the terms of intimacy (with)…still more I hesitated to entrust my college existence to them.”14 However, as Charles Francis Himes stated in his anniversary address:
there was a fascination to the average American student, not only in the secrecy of these organizations, but in the measure of risk and danger attending connection with them, which taken in connection with their intercollegiate character, made this form of violation of college laws peculiarly attractive to some…15
Perhaps it was this fascination that led Himes aid in the founding of his own fraternity at the College, even when faced with such violent opposition from faculty and administration. Himes recorded his own feelings about the Zeta Psi issue in a June 25, 1853 letter to his parents:
The faculty at a meeting took into consideration the abolishing of a secret society founded by several fellows from Yale who came in for that purpose…the faculty knew nothing about it and have been spying and scouting a long time to find out something…they meet in an unknown hall down (?) street. The faculty strongly suspect it is a Deist society. They take none but those of respectable standing in their lap. They generally have gold badges. I believe Dr. Collins and the Profs. Have found out something about this…16
Also during this time period, two literary societies were extremely popular on the campus among students and faculty. Although the meetings of these organizations were nearly more secret than those of fraternities, the Belles Lettres Society and the Union Philosophical Society were looked upon favorably by the faculty and even gave public exhibitions and debates that were of high interest to the entire Carlisle community. In his Fiftieth Anniversary address to Epsilon, Himes gave reason for the fact that the faculty staunchly supported the two secret societies but refused to even consider the possibility of fraternities on their campus. “The saving feature, in all this secrecy, for the faculty, was that they were in it, as well as many members of the Board of Trustees, by reason of membership in one or the other of the societies, with all the privileges of such membership.”17 These two organizations were so secret that even the janitor was “initiated”, as to make sure that he would not reveal any information that he might find while cleaning either of the two meeting halls.18
Charles Francis Himes joined Belles Lettres in 1853 upon his entrance to the College at the age of fifteen. He was extremely active in the organization for all three of the years he spent at Dickinson, even helping to design the society’s badge during his senior year.19 The sentiment of Belles Lettres and the Union Philosophical Society towards fraternal organizations was less than favorable. “Anti-fraternity sentiment ruled both literary societies, where Society politics, it was alleged, had been affected by the comparatively small but compact body…”20 However, these feelings did not seem to stop Himes when he was given the opportunity to join the newly formed Epsilon chapter by Emanuel Reigart, class of 1857, in 1854.
Charles Francis Himes as a student.
Photo from daguerreotype taken by James Watters.
Courtesy of Dickinson College Special Collections.
Reigart had been initiated at his home in Williamsport, Pennsylvania on September 5, 1854 by William Neff of the Gamma chapter at Lafayette. The pre-medical student returned to Dickinson where he received the charter for the Epsilon chapter on September 9 of that same year. John Tucker and James Watters were approached by Reigart about joining the fraternity secretly, which they did. All three men then approached sixteen year old Charles Himes and together the four of them founded the Epsilon Chapter of Phi Kappa Sigma at Dickinson College.21
Building their organization was not easy, as the administration became suspicious of everything after the Zeta Psi fiasco. Complete secrecy was the key to survival of the Epsilon chapter:
One of the oldest fraternities now on campus voted at one time that any man so careless as to subject himself to faculty suspicion of his membership was, as a penalty for that carelessness, expelled from the fraternity, on being questioned by the faculty. He was, of course, restored to membership on proper amends, but in the meantime he assured the prying faculty that he was not a fraternity man!22
Himes’ loyalty to his fraternity was contagious, and throughout his career he could count on his Phi Kap brothers to stand staunchly behind him. He took charge of the fraternity for the remainder of the time he was a student at Dickinson College. He and his co-founders were all members of the Belles Lettres Society, and the first initiations into the Epsilon chapter were held in the society’s hall. In his anniversary address in 1904, Himes stated that:
The initiations in the Belles Lettres Hall are accounted for by the great secrecy of that Hall, before alluded to, which was available for initiations as long as members were exclusively of that literary society, as was the case in the beginning.23
Later in 1855, the brothers began to take members of the Union Philosophical Society who therefore could not be initiated in the Belles Lettres Hall. So they moved initiations to the home of Daniel S. Burns, which Himes described as having “barely room enough to turn around, and go through the formalities of initiation”. As their chapter grew, Himes recognized the need for a larger space and convinced the others to take a small room on the third floor of a house in a remote part of town. They named the hall “Golgotha”, or “the place of the skulls”, which was their fraternity symbol and the men came and went in small groups as to avoid detection by anyone.24 In 1856, one year after Himes graduated, Horatio Collins King, class of 1858, was initiated into the Epsilon chapter. He described the initiation process of the fraternity in the following journal entry, written on Thursday, June 26, 1856:
Frank F- tells me my name has been proposed and I am elected a member of the [Phi Kappa Sigma] Society, the existence of which in college is known only to its members. At 9 P.M. Messrs Hulsey and Bird came to my room and escorted me to I.D. Clarks room at Mrs. Armstrong’s. Before entering the room, was blindfolded, and an obligation of Secrecy was imposed upon me. I was then led to a table, my right-hand placed upon a human skull, and my left hand upon my heart, and I then received the first degree repeating and swearing to observe a most binding oath.25
Finding new members for initiation into the Epsilon chapter was no easy task. As Himes pointed out later in his life, there were many men who could be considered to be exceptional fraternity men, but there were other things to consider along with this point. Since secrecy was of the utmost importance, the brothers had to be sure that they could trust their college career to the prospective member’s judgment. If this prospective member decided for any reason to approach the faculty about the existence of the fraternity, the college careers of the entire chapter were in jeopardy. It was also necessary to judge the feelings of the prospective member on the subject of fraternities before the question of them joining could be asked, as most men in those days were of anti-fraternity sentiment. Lastly, there was the final problem of asking the prospective student to join the Epsilon chapter without raising the suspicion of other students or faculty. This problem was solved, Himes explains, by a short walk along the railroad, during which “the most momentous questions of the day were settled.”26
Phi Kappa Sigma badge
Courtesy of Dickinson College Special Collections.
When Charles Francis Himes graduated from the college at the age of seventeen in 1855, the Epsilon chapter that he and his three friends had founded at Dickinson College was still running smoothly. In a history of the fraternity written in 1954, Dickinson student William Woodside wrote that:
when one considers the overwhelming opposition toward fraternities, it is amazing that the fraternity could exist for even a short while, but so great was the bond of membership and the good judgment of the members that Epsilon existed for over three years without faculty discovery.27
Himes kept the secret of his fraternity even after he had left school in 1855, speaking of it only to his fellow Phi Kaps and to his family. Two of his younger brothers, William and James Himes, would also become members of Epsilon during their time at Dickinson.28 Keeping the organization a secret was, of course, trying at times. After three years of hiding from the faculty and administration, President Collins discovered the Epsilon chapter.
On November 27, 1857 the Epsilon chapter roll was obtained by the faculty, which named a total of thirteen students as members of the fraternity.29 Horatio Collins King described the event in his journal in November of 1857:
The Phi Kaps learned from Ben Purcel, present assistant in the Grammar School, that their organization has been disclosed to the faculty, by some person or persons to us unknown. Ben had a long conversation with Prof. Johnson who favors the order, and Johnson advised that we should draw up a memorial, stating our ignorance of the law against secret societies, the benefits of the organization, and praying that it may be duly legalized. In case of emergency, we held a meeting and acted up on this hint. The memorial was drawn up and the full list of members sent in accompanying it. In the mean time we put Perry, Zimmerman, and Pennel through the 1st degree. The faculty kept us in uncomfortable suspense until Friday, the 27th; Johnson invited all the members to his room, and invited them to sign a paper promising a discontinuance of the order, which all, after a long winded speech by Johnson, accordingly did. We held a final meeting at 9 P.M. and formally disbanded. Messrs. Perry, Zimmerman, and Pennel then reorganized, admitted some of the old members, who deemed the Phi Kap oath more binding than the promise, and were willing to lay aside a few conscientious scruples. Among those admitted were, Hulsey, Slape, Cloud, Tyler, and myself, John Hays being already a member. We proceeded to an election for officers. So we still flourish, but the most profound secrecy is required, and the least suspicion would almost be our College death warrant. All adjourned in high spirits…30
Although Himes had graduated and was teaching in the west, he received news of the discovery through friends attempted to help however he could. An April 23, 1858 letter from his co-founder James Watters described Phi Kap affairs as being “an infernal mess” at the college.31 The fraternity was required by President Collins to disband, hand over their chapter papers to be burned, and to sign a pledge not to meet as a group thereafter.32 Due to this order by Collins, no records of the fraternity during this time aside from personal papers of its members survive. According to Charles Coleman Sellers, “when discovered by the faculty and order to disband it (the fraternity) gave, but by no means kept, its acquiescence.”33
Letter signed by the members of Epsilon, November 27, 1857,
promising Pres. Collins that they would disband the fraternity.
Photo courtesy of Dickinson College Special Collections.
Supported by its original founders, including Charles Francis Himes, who was still very active in Epsilon affairs, the existence of Phi Kappa Sigma continued in secret even after it was discovered by the faculty. The story, as we can infer from Horatio King’s journal entry as well as from additional information, was that the Epsilon chapter was given a grace period by the administration between the time they were discovered and the time they were required to disband. Instead of using this one day to renounce their fraternity and all of its works and gather their papers together for burning as the faculty had hoped they would do, the Phi Kap brothers quickly initiated three new members. Clayton Cannon Pennel, George Henry Zimmerman, and a man by the last name of Perry were initiated so that when the existing members were forced to de-pledge the following day, there would be new members to carry on the tradition that had been started by Himes, Watters, Tucker, and Reigart.34 Thus, the faculty failed to destroy the chapter completely.
By February of 1858, the newly initiated brothers of Epsilon had readmitted the old members of the fraternity. The group met where they could, when they could…with complete secrecy being even more necessary than before, as the brothers were sure to be expelled if they were discovered again by President Collins.35 The members took great care in making sure to avoid all suspicions. In February of 1859, Epsilon member Daniel Stam Burns was at a Phi Kappa Sigma convention in Washington DC at the same time that Collins was there on business. Burns documented this in a letter to Himes on February 18, 1859:
Dr. Collins has again gotten wind of E. (Epsilon) having seen accounts of the convention…he catechized Weech very closely and insultingly and wanted him to tell all he knew about it. If he had undertaken to play that game with any of us less good-natured than Weech, he would certainly have been insulted. Dr. C. was in town here at the same time but I took precious good care he shouldn’t see me. If the boys are again discovered they will probably meet a severer fate. At any rate, I think E. has seen her best days. ‘Rome has lost the breed of noble bloods’. To no past period of my life can I revert with such pleasure as the times I spent with that crowd in the days of their rise and glory.36
Faculty opposition was such that, upon a motion passed on January 31, 1859, the members agreed to formally disband after each meeting so that any member who was interrogated by faculty could honestly reply that he had once been a member of a fraternal organization, but that the organization had since been disbanded.37 However, Himes stated in his address that Collins’ punishment of the Epsilon members in 1857 was “the last formal opposition of the faculty to fraternities at Dickinson…they still regarded them with high disfavor and they were not recognized in any way, but they were let alone.”38 Perhaps this new “laissez-faire” attitude of the faculty was due to the fact that the College was suddenly facing a much larger problem than secret fraternal organizations on its campus. The Civil War was about to begin.
The South left the Union in December of 1860, and Fort Sumter fell in April of 1861. The southern brothers of the Epsilon chapter were called back home to fight, and the northern members had to do the same. On April 21, 1861, the last meeting of the Epsilon chapter was held before its members went off to fight against each other in the war.39 Inside an autograph book of Francis Sellers dated April 21, 1861 it is written “…the saddest meeting in the history of the Epsilon chapter."40 A typed excerpt from the Phi Kappa Sigma newsletter from the fall of 1954 inside the autograph book reads:
The war clouds which had hung over the nation from the election of Lincoln in 1860 broke into open conflict with the firing on Fort Sumter. On April 21, 1861, Epsilon held its last meeting shortly past midnight. All of the members gathered in the room of John E. McCahan and Francis B. Sellers in West College and dispensed with the usual forms of business so that the brothers could say their last farewells before leaving for their respective armies.41
Other autographs in the book belonging to Sellers read as follows:
If I wear the Phi Kap Badge, Don’t Shoot me Frank. Yours fraternally, H. Kennedy Weber. Baltimore, MD.42
Our Country, may it always be right, but Right or Wrong, Our Country. Farewell Forever.43
Dear Frank, though I am a Secessionist, yet I am your friend. May prosperity attend you in all you do except in making war upon the South. Yours fraternally, Cyrus Gault Jr.44
The members of Epsilon still at home in the North refused to forget the feelings of their southern brothers or let politics break apart their brotherhood. William Woodside writes that when a motion was made “on April 20, 1865, to drape the hall in black for thirty days because of Lincoln’s death, the motion was soundly defeated.”45 The brothers refused to entertain partisan sentiments. Nineteen southern and fifteen northern members of the Epsilon chapter fought in the Civil War and all but four of them returned. William Harnsburger ’56, Jennings Hulsey ’58, Zebulon Dyer ’59, and William Cannon ’60, all were killed in the war. John Tucker, one of the original founders of the group and a captain for the Confederacy, lost an arm in the war.46
Following the Civil War, Charles Francis Himes returned to the college as a professor in the fall of 1865 and again became extremely active in the affairs of his fraternity. Now that he was on campus again, it was easier to monitor what was going on and to advise the current members on issues. He realized that the war had hit both the school and the chapter hard. The school lost nearly all of its southern students, and none returned to take their place after the war was over. In the fall of 1866, after the close of the war, there were only six brothers present on campus to begin the twelfth year of the existence of Epsilon at Dickinson College. Himes aided the students in gaining additional members, and within a few months the chapter was again at full strength. He was ever present at fraternity functions during his time at Dickinson. A letter from Himes to the Epsilon’s in 1866 contained the minutes of an alumni chapter of the fraternity that he established with two men by the names of McComas and Bouy, showing his love for Phi Kappa Sigma.47
Also during this time, other fraternities had begun to spring up on campus, as the faculty had ceased to prosecute students for being members of the organizations. However, there was a serious lack of students to join them. Dickinson had financial problems following the Civil War, and as a result there were only fifty-one students enrolled at the college in 1877. In addition to this, there were now six active fraternities on campus competing for their membership. Because Epsilon refused to compromise the standards of membership which the fraternity had always demanded, no new members were initiated after 1877.48 These standards had been in place since the founding of the fraternity. Horatio Collins King described the process of choosing members in his journal in 1856, saying: “This is a choice crowd, about the best in the college. If there is one objection made to a name proposed, it is rejected. So it is a very great compliment to be elected a member.”49 The members, old and new, of Phi Kappa Sigma would not lower their standards just to keep their chapter alive on campus. So the Epsilon chapter of Phi Kappa Sigma ceased to exist on campus in 1877. However, the charter of the fraternity was never formally surrendered.50
In the late 1880’s, Charles Francis Himes began to gather some of the other older alumni of the fraternity, including Ovando Super ‘ 73, William Trickett ’68, and Edward Biddle ‘ 70, and began to explore options for the re-establishment of the fraternity at Dickinson College. In 1895, Himes realized an opportunity in the Alpha Zeta Phi fraternity. It was a local organization established on the campus in 1889 whose members had nearly all been picked by President Reed and thus showed great promise. The fraternity had been attempting to secure a charter from the national organization of Psi Upsilon but had been unsuccessful. In 1895, Himes and Super approached the members of Alpha Zeta Phi and suggested that they revive the Epsilon Chapter of Phi Kappa Sigma at the College.
On September 18, 1895, the thirteen members of Alpha Zeta Phi were initiated into the Epsilon chapter of Phi Kappa Sigma at a home on West Pomfret Street which became the first fraternity house on the campus. Charles Francis Himes’ fraternity was back in business. The fraternity did not remain for long on Pomfret Street, however. The fraternity owned the home, but was happy to sell it to the College a couple of years later as the chapter was badly in need of money. Their house was eventually made into a women’s dormitory.51
Himes’ involvement in the fraternity throughout his career is visible through his actions and the actions of the fraternity members. They never forgot their founder as long as he lived. He was honored as toastmaster multiple times at the yearly Phi Kappa Sigma banquets, and the practiced lecturer also often gave speeches to the brothers of Epsilon on subjects ranging from “Our Founders” to “Fraternity Ideals” and “Old Epsilon.”52
Charles Francis Himes, John Tucker and James Watters all attended the Fiftieth Anniversary Banquet of the fraternity that they had founded in 1854. Emanuel Reigart had died after a long career as a physician in Iowa on February 28, 1899.53 The members of Epsilon had wanted the three surviving founders to give a speech, but Watters and Tucker left the task up to the more practiced lecturer of the group – Himes. A letter to Himes on April 22, 1904 from John Tucker upon accepting the invitation to the banquet reads, “I am delighted to hear that you are preparing a paper that will tell of how we defied the Faculty and the many (?) to which we resorted in order to escape the vigilance of Dr. Collins and his associates.”54
During his address in 1904, Himes recounted the history of the fraternity that he so loved. He stated that he felt that fraternities were one of the most interesting phases of modern college life. He also spoke of the period after the initial discovery of Epsilon by Charles Collins, when fraternities were allowed to exist on campus without the fear of prosecution, and told of the day that the Phi Kap brothers were able to finally wear their badges in the open instead of hidden under their lapels. “The fraternity spirit pervaded the whole college,” he said, “and soon other fraternities instituted chapters in safety, and a new changed era of fraternity life began.”55 One of his most important statements of the night was when he told his fellow brothers that “this fraternity broke the way for the toleration of other fraternities.”56 This was true, and all credit for that statement was due to Himes, Watters, Tucker, and Reigart. Their courage and advisement throughout the years was the sole reason that Phi Kappa Sigma had survived beyond their discovery by the faculty in 1857 and through the hard times of low enrollment at Dickinson after the Civil War. But Charles Francis Himes’ work for his brothers was not yet done.
Much of the talk at the Fiftieth Anniversary banquet centered on the fact that the fraternity still did not have a place to call home. They had wanted to raise enough money for years to buy a house for their chapter. Himes supported their request and got the alumni to promise to raise $1,000 if the active chapter would equal that amount.57 He addressed the situation in his speech at the anniversary banquet. “Fraternities change with the times, and must accommodate themselves to changing conditions.”58 He also went on to caution the Phi Kaps, saying:
Living together is not associating together. That fraternity that magnifies the fraternity idea, makes everything subordinate to it, will have the greatest certainty of a prosperous existence. The boast of a fraternity must not be its house, but its membership, its spirit, its harmony, its promotion of good comradeship and fellowship.59
The Epsilons were granted a house in the fall of 1904 and a Board of Trustees for the house was headed by Himes and included Super and Biddle, who as president judge of Cumberland County had granted the charter for the house that was to belong to the fraternity. The final amounts of money were raised and the house was finally opened in February of 1907.60
The chapter did indeed have good cause to mourn, for the loss of these two outstanding Phi Kaps did much to sever the chapter’s last link with the pre-Civil War Epsilon, or what Himes used to refer to as that "heroic days of the college fraternity."64
Charles Francis Himes had an enormous impact on the Epsilon chapter of Phi Kappa Sigma at Dickinson College. From aiding in its beginnings at the College and helping the chapter to rebuild during the mid-1890’s, to advising its younger members and aiding in the struggle to raise money to buy a chapter house in the early 1900’s, Himes was obviously completely dedicated and loyal to Epsilon. He stood as a symbol to the younger members of what the meaning of fraternity truly was, and they looked to him as a role model as both a member of Epsilon and as a member of society as a whole.