Halloween riot spooked college

Julia Burkstaller

Julia Burkstaller

SDSU’s (South Dakota State College back then) enrollment was dramatically decreased and its reputation damaged after the 1892 Halloween Revolt.

“It took 19 years for enrollment to fully rebound,” Amy Dunkle reports in her book, The College on the Hill.

The South Dakota Board of Regents fired six beloved instructors in order to make room for new ones. That’s when the student body shared their opinion on the issue.

The SDSU President at the time was Lewis McClouth. He promoted several friends to positions at SDSU. Students declared the new instructors inadequate.

A September 1891 issue of the Industrial Collegian describes one new staff members, “He has no culture, no general education and his speech betrays his utter ignorance of even the elements of English grammar.”

In protest, the women of SDSU made a black flag with skull and cross-bones that stated the motto, “Me taedit vitae,” which translates into, “My weary life.”

On Oct. 31, 1892, the men of SDSU gathered to build a pile of combustible material over 15-feet high for a bonfire in the drive near the flagstaff.

With the sounding of the bell at 2 a.m., the kerosene-drenched pile was lit and the flag was raised.

The students wanted to be heard, and they were. The deafening blast of a Civil War cannon got the attention of the city before the fire.

“It was the first time in the history of the college that the students demanded to be listened to,” said V.J. Smith, former director of the Alumni Association.

The students involved retreated before they could be caught by McClouth and did not discuss anything related to the event to keep themselves out of trouble.

When spring semester began, it was announced that the beloved instructors had been permanently terminated from their jobs at South Dakota State College.

A mass meeting was held by the enraged students to write a letter of their disapproval to the Argus Leader. The letter was angry and critical of the Board of Regents and McClouth.

More than half the student body left the school to show their disgust with the Board of Regents and their decisions.

An ultimatum was issued. If the students were not back within three days of leaving, they would be kicked out permanently by the governor.

Even with this threat, most of the students did not return. They enrolled in different schools and swore to never go back to SDSC.

This large protest finally encouraged an investigation of why the students were so upset. They were found to be right in being upset by the decisions made by the school.

“It took a lot of guts to do what they did,” said Smith.