Throwback Jack: Clocks and robbers

November 3, 2011

Halloween at Georgetown is full of traditions: watching The Exorcist in Gaston, exploring the underground tunnels below campus, or taking part in spreading old rumors about the supposedly haunted fifth floor of Healy Hall. But what about the story that attributes wails in Healy to the ghost of a student who was crushed to death between the clock hands in the clock tower? This story may originate in another Georgetown tradition: stealing the clock hands straight off the tower as a prank.
Though it is not clear when or why this tradition began, according to a 1966 article in the Hoya, tradition dictated that freshmen abscond with the hands for a “short period of time” during the beginning of the school year. In 1966, that short period lasted for over a month.
According to the tradition, successful pranksters were supposed to mail the hands to the Vatican, to be sent back with a “return to sender” stamp. There were, however, variations on this. For example, a pamphlet found in the University Archives stated that in 1989 they were sent to the White House with the request that President Reagan personally return them. The Secret Service sent the hands back to University. In 1975, students stole the hands, only to replace them after painting them with “festive red and white peppermint stripes for Christmas.”
According to the pamphlet, “entrance to the soaring heights of the Healy Clock tower requir[ed] a ‘folding key’ and physical stamina.” However, the extensive plotting and planning that seems to have been coordinated by student pranksters suggests that it required a bit more than a key and physical fitness.
In 1976, according to a Hoya article, nine freshmen living on the fifth floor of Copley began mapping out all the possible entrances to the clock tower. They called themselves Hands of the Clock Klub, or HOCK, and went by nicknames and numbers that were assigned to each member. They came up with four ways to access the clock: “Hernando’s Hideaway”—a padlocked door with an iron bar in Healy, a securely locked door in Gaston Hall, “a panel in the ceiling of the fourth Healy,” and a “narrow window at the top of a fire escape of Healy.” Anyone who got through Hernando’s Hideaway would also have to pass through a second door secured by three locks and a burglar alarm.
Members of HOCK decided to access the tower through a panel in the ceiling of Healy, spending “four hours removing floorboards from the story above the attic.” They used a hand drill in place of a saw to avoid making too much noise. Once the floorboards were removed, a door with two padlocks was dealt with using hacksaw blades, a wrench, and a screwdriver, and the students were out of there with clock hands in hand.
According to articles in the Hoya, the University began to seal up all entrances around 1976, but this did not stop students from attempting to steal the clock hands. However, it did make the endeavor a bit more dangerous.
Attempts to steal the hands seem to have been successful roughly every five years, with the most recent theft occurring in 2005. We are just about due for another successful attempt, but beware: the University’s shifting responses to attempts demand caution. In 1976, students who were caught climbing up to the tower were let off with a $40 fine and a letter sent home. However, in 2005, the University took matters more seriously. An article in the Hoya said that students involved in the 2005 attempt were on academic probation for a year and had to write an essay on ways to engage in more constructive traditions. So if you’re a senior looking for a job, you might want to follow tradition and leave this to the freshmen.

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