On March 7, 1936, troops marched into the Rhineland and British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden warned Adolf Hitler that any attack against France or Belgium would force Britain to defend their allies.
While the situation worsened in Europe, in Syracuse, people were reading about what sounded like a shocking crime.
Someone had tried to mail a bomb to the Chancellor of Syracuse University.
The Herald breathlessly reported the story on the morning of March 8. The first paragraph sounded frightening:
“A package addressed to ‘Comrade Chancellor Charles Flint, Walnut Street, Syracuse, N.Y.,’ and opened in the Syracuse Post Office early Saturday was declared by United States Secret Service experts to have all the appearance of being a carefully-prepared and powerful nitroglycerine bomb.”
The so-called bomb was picked up from the city’s University section and delivered to the main Post Office. Postal employee Edward Baisley heard a ticking sound inside the package while the mail was being sorted.
The Syracuse police were called, and the Secret Service were notified.
After an officer sliced open the package with his pocketknife, Agent William Karp peeked inside.
“That’s a bomb, all right,” he declared.
The package was put into a metal can and doused with water.
An investigation of its contents found a “partly dismantled but going alarm clock of a cheap type,” two dry cell batteries, two pasteboard tubes and cotton, which had a “gummy” feel, like it had been soaked it nitroglycerine.
There was also a playing card inside, the ace of spades, considered a symbol of death.
The always hyperbolic Syracuse Journal declared the bomb was “the work of a madman who showed professional skill in fashioning the machine.”
Well, maybe not.
Both the Journal’s and the Herald’s opening paragraphs made it sound as if the bomb was an instrument of mayhem. A Herald headline called the bomb an “infernal machine.”
But in reality, the bomb was a dud and further, after a little more thought, nothing more than a harmless prank.
A taste test of the cotton found that the “gummy” feel was from dissolved ordinary table sugar.
Then there was the fact that Flint was not even in Syracuse at the time the package would have been delivered. He and his wife were in Florida doing a speaking tour.
“Comment was made that a person intelligent enough to nave put together the mechanism in the package would, in all probability, have ascertained If Chancellor Flint was in the city before mailing a bomb to him,” the Herald theorized.
It was also noted that a serious bomber would not have mailed a bomb on a Saturday as it would be not delivered until at least Monday.
(The use of the word “Comrade” on the address label was also interesting. If it was someone looking to make a statement about Communism, Flint was an odd choice. The chancellor, the Herald wrote, had “taken no public stand against Communism which would make him a target for any crank adherent of that creed.”)
If widespread newspaper coverage of the bomb being discovered did anything, it forced the perpetrators to come forward.
On Sunday, March 8, 1936, 25 Syracuse University students, all men mostly from the School of Architecture, arrived at Police Headquarters to confess that they had sent the fake bomb to Flint.
“The newspaper reports, indicating a widespread investigation, led to hasty conferences among the under-grads Sunday morning,” the Journal reported. “They decided that their safety lay in mass action and after a conference with Dean Harold Butler of the College of Fine Arts, they marched down to police headquarters in a body.”
Like probably most college pranks, this one grew out of “idle conversation” on a late Friday night.
While members of the architecture school struggled over a drawing of a church (yes, really!) a plan was hatched.
All of the 25 students played a role.
One got the alarm clock, other contributed some wire and cotton. Someone rustled up a shoebox and another found some old batteries.
The idea of partly dismantling the clock and keep it ticking was meant to make it look more “bomb-like.”
The original plan was to send it to a one of SU’s sororities but that was ruled out in favor of sending it to Flint’s house.
Adding “comrade” to his name was “just a sheer stroke of genius,” they thought.
The laughter died down when they were each charged with disorderly conduct, their ties and belts taken from them and placed in holding cells.
All pleaded not guilty and were paroled.
They must have become very nervous when Postmaster Edmund Weston declared, “What those students did is a federal offense, and the case must be thoroughly investigated by postal inspectors.”
But there was little chance of that.
“It was pointed out,” the Herald said, that “no postal regulations could be cited which forbade the mailing of sugar, cotton, clocks or dry cell batteries, even in an arrangement looking pretty much like a bomb.”
The students crafted a written apology to Flint.
They explained that the incident, which was now called the “Sugar Bomb Hoax,” was not meant to be disrespectful, “but was done in the spirit of fun.”
To his great credit, Chancellor Flint did see the funny side of the whole matter.
“I could think of several sins of omission and commission for which I deserve a blowing up,” Flint wrote in an official statement on March 18, “but I couldn’t even guess which particular one merited such seemingly drastic treatment.”
He considered the matter “over.”
“It was a good joke” and he hoped the “boys will settle down and do some studying for the rest of the semester.”
1911: After the resignation of a popular principal, Baldwinsville students go on strike
1921: The day Syracuse took a stand against dancing by banning the camel walk, the toddle and the shimmy
1911: To make city safer, Syracuse considers taking on a public menace: ‘bristling hat pins’
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An invention from Upstate NY soon became the preferred method of execution across the United States — the electric chair. In “The Condemned,” we trace the history of the chair through the stories of five men who were sentenced to death for their crimes. Explore our series here.
This feature is a part of CNY Nostalgia, a section on syracuse.com. Send your ideas and curiosities to Johnathan Croyle at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 315-427-3958.