Arts & Culture / Mosaic / October 20, 2010

Arguing: Knox’s original sport

“Fifty years ago there was no such thing in the world as a Gnothautii society. Ours is the original, first and only one I ever heard of. It sprang into existence in the month of September, 1849, and like all the great dynasties and powers of earth, began in a fight.”

— E.S. Wilcox during a reunion of the Gnothautii society in 1899

Although Alumni Hall now stands quiet and empty, it used to be home to two rival literary societies, the Adelphi and the Gnothautii, whose writings and debates filled its west and east wings with the voices of a literary golden age. The Adelphi and the Gnothautii were both founded in the early years of Knox and have contributed to its legacy, its library and in the building of Alumni Hall.

The Origins of the Adelphi and Gnothautii

Founded in 1846, the Adelphi Literary Society was named after the Greek “adelphi,” meaning “out of knowledge.” The preamble of its constitution said, “We, students of Knox College, to secure for ourselves and our successors the benefits of associated effort in the attainment of knowledge and in the development of our intellectual and forensic abilities, do ordain the following constitution.”

Its rival, Gnothautii Literary Society, was founded by ex-members of the Adelphi in 1849. It began when E.S. Wilcox, as a sophomore and then-Adelphi member, was voted into office despite the protests of Adelphi’s junior and senior members. The following year, the seniors conspired with the freshmen to vote Wilcox and his fellow juniors out of office.

Wilcox spoke of the origins of his literary society’s name during a reunion nearing its 50th anniversary, saying, “The name Gnothautii was improvised for us by Professor Grant, our Greek professor. It is a good name, a unique one, but I have sometimes half suspected that in giving us this name from the Greek of ‘know thyself,’ Professor Grant may have hidden in the word a bit of sly sarcasm at what our contemptible rivals, in moments when they forgot their manners, may have possibly called insufferable conceit.”

During the literary societies’ first four decades, they made their homes in “West Bricks” and “East Bricks,” dorm buildings surrounding Old Main that eventually served other purposes. Each society built up their own libraries and collections during this period while writing their own speeches, poems and papers, as well as having debates during meetings.

In the 1903 “Gale” yearbook, in a section “The Good Old Times” and under “Embryonic Great Men,” H.W. Read said, “Among the pleasant recollections of college days, none come to me with more fragrant memories than those of the old Adelphi. Even as a Prep, rooming on the third floor of the ‘West Bricks,’ on a summer evening, when all doors were open, many times I listened to the overflow of eloquence and wisdom proceeding from the little ‘band-box’ where the Adelphi at that time held its sessions.”

Also in the 1903 “Gale,” under the title “Gnothautii of the Sixties,” a member of 1866 said, “The Gnothautii, when I was a member, had its quarters in the attic of the building recently torn down, then known as the “East Bricks” … The civil war depleted our ranks and many to whom the younger looked up with a mingling of awe and devotion gave their lives for their country. Debates upon party issues were sure to be passionate. Party feeling sometimes became personal when patriotic Democrats defended their country against the charge of disloyalty, and two of the nobles of this party vindicated their sincerity by death in their country’s service.”

A publication titled “The Rise and Fall of Oratory at ‘Old Siwash’” tells of a time when debate was more popular than athletics at Knox, recounting, “But the athletes, though they took part in a meet, were primarily a cheering section for the pundits of the Adelphi Literary Society, who were scheduled to engage the Phi Alpha, of Illinois College in formal controversy as part of the forensic program.”

Literary Societies Caught in a Rivalry

The rivalry between the Adelphi and the Gnothautii sometimes resulted in more than a heated exchange of words—in one instance, it almost turned physical. In an undated newspaper clipping, under “A Society Riot at Knox,” on a Monday morning the members of the Gnothautii discovered that a few evergreens were missing from their hall and suspected that their rival, the Adelphi, were the perpetrators. After gathering their numbers and armed with a couple of baseball bats and ‘an old broom or two,’ they went to Adelphi Hall with the intent to wreck it. After the Gnothautii found the evergreens, “an attempt was made to burn them, somebody saturating them with kerosene for that purpose. The war was waged warmly for a time, a rough and tumble fight was imminent, when the imposing form of Prof. Comstock appeared upon the scene, who at once commanded in thunder tones, ‘Disperse you rebels! Disperse!’ They dispersed, and thus ended this bloodless battle.’

Literary Legacies

Both societies have left quite a legacy after their founding, including members who would one day be influential, and brought together famous speakers. Under “The First Inter-State Contest” in the 1903 “Gale,” there was a report of how the Adelphi Society issued an invitation in Nov. 4, 1873 to Midwestern colleges and universities in Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin to send one speaker each to an Inter-State oratorical contest sponsored by the Adelphi Society. Two of the governors of those states invited each appointed judge and state papers gave the contest great publicity. On Feb. 28 in 1874, “the greatest audience ever gathered in the Galesburg Opera House greeted the contestants.” According to a 1948 publication entitled, “College Hero—Old Style” by Wade E. Arnold, 2,500 filled the opera house. The speeches began on Friday evening and lasted until after 11 p.m. and the judges were still debating as it neared midnight when they finally chose the winners.

A future editor of The New York Times, John H. Finley, was a member of the Adelphi Literary Society and won first honors in the Interstate Oratorical Contest in 1895. On a piece of paper with “Pledges Made at Adelphi Banquet” at the top, second on the list was S.S. McClure with the words “Paid 8/27/1907” next to his name. The Knox Student of 1880 mentioned a debater from Illinois College who won second place during the seventh Illinois elimination contest in Galesburg. His name was William Jennings Bryan, who in the future would become a famous politician and populist. His subject was “Justice,” and judges ranked him first in delivery.

Also reported was the “debate on the subject ‘Resolved that the Liquor Traffic Should be Prohibited by Law.’ The negative was defended by an early opponent of the eighteenth amendment from Knox College named Henry T. Rainey. He lost the decision. But he won it fifty-three years later, when he was speaker of the House of Representatives in the Congress which voted repeal.”

Knox has famous publications but the literary societies paved the way for them. The 1926 “Gale” reported that the first student journal was the “Knoxiana,” started in 1854. After the Gnothautii started printing the “Oak Leaf,” “a spirited literary battle ensued, involving all the college. These journals were finally discontinued and no other journal was published until 1878, when the “Knox Student” was first issued.”

The Adelphi and the Gnothautii brought in many famous speakers as the 1937 “Gale” mentioned, “It was these two societies which were instrumental in bringing such personalities as Brooker T. Washington [sic], Jane Addams, and Fridtjof Nansen to Knox.”

Adelphi and Gnothauii help make Alumni Hall a reality

As West and East Bricks were deteriorating, both the Adelphi and Gnothautii needed new homes. In a circular Letter from the Adelphi Society of Knox College, dated 1884, it said, “The Society sadly needs a new Hall. The old building in which the present hall is situated is in such a condition—the foundation settling and walls cracking—that repair is impossible, and consequently any outlay towards refurnishing or ornamenting the hall would be extremely unwise. Yet something must be done, and that immediately. The only alternative seems to be to build a new hall.”

The article “The Alumni Hall” in Volume X, No. 3 of the Knox publication, the “Coup D’Etat,” recounted how the Adelphi conceived of the notion of Alumni Hall. It said, “In the spring of ‘84, after the most successful lecture course the College had ever known at that time, the Adelphi found herself cumbered with $800 surplus in the treasure … Finally, at the close of a tedious session, as we were disconsolately wending our homeward way, lingering a moment at the corner of South and Prairie streets, looking at the Catholic Church, which was then being built, the irrepressible, poetic and victorious Bender, raising a brick to add emphasis, exclaimed: ‘Let’s build a new hall!’”

In 1890, Alumni Hall was built and ready for use. H. Mark Gilbert of the class of 1885, delivered the address at the laying of the Adelphi corner stone of the west wing of Alumni Hall. The east wing of the new building was home to the Gnothautii.

The decline and demise of the ‘old lits’

After many years of being a huge part of Knox College, the influence and number of members of both societies dwindled. The 1926 “Gale” said, “But during the World War, the society suffered along with similar organizations. When Mr. McConaughy became president of the college, the historic home of Adelphi was converted into a number of classrooms and offices for the professors. The entire wing has been redecorated and furnished, so that the appearance has been greatly altered. What was once the rendezvous of an ardent group of young men, is now merely a small part of our growing institution of learning.”

On a list of Adelphi presidents, there was a break in the list of presidents with a note in parenthesis that said, “Adelphi did not function after Christmas, 1916)” In a reverse of fate, members of the Gnothautii broke away to reform the Adelphi. In the 1923 “Gale,” under “1921-22 Adelphi Officers,” it reported that on “May, 1921, eight men withdrew from the Gnothautii Literary Society for the purpose of re-establishing the Adelphi Literary Society. These eight men with the addition of one other formed the nucleus of the present society.”

Under the list Adelphi presidents of 1926-27, there was a note that said, “Did not reorganize in Fall, 1927. Re-organized in Fall, 1937, with ladies admitted to membership.”After 1941-42, the list stopped and said, “Continuing as an informal literary group.”

For the list of Gnothautii presidents, there were the notes, “Not reorganized, Fall, 1926. Reorganized, Fall,1937, with ladies admitted to membership. (Did not reorganize, Fall, 1942)”

During the dedication of Alumni Hall in 1890, Hon. J.A. McKenzie said, “This country is great in all things. It possesses true greatness more than any country of Europe, but Europe possesses one thing great, which this country does not have and may never have—great ruins! … May this building never be in ruins. May it ever stand a lasting monument to the Alumni, to the Adelphi, and to the Gnothautii.”

It seems bitterly appropriate that Hon. McKenzie placed his hopes in Alumni Hall for the future of the Adelphi and the Gnothautii legacies—as the histories and memories of the Adelphi and the Gnothautii have faded into the background of this college, and so too has Alumni Hall.

Sheena Leano


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