In 1895, hundreds of ministers and church leaders came to New Haven for a conference of the Christian Worker’s Association. Little did the city know the conference would give the city the title ‘wickedest city in the world.’
Some of the most high-profile young pastors and religious leaders of the age gathered at the conference to recharge and re-arm themselves in the battle for the souls of America’s young people. And New Haven welcomed them, though the city soon had second thoughts.
The group started a fiery debate around the country about whether New Haven had let Yale college turn the city into the wickedest city in the world.
Rev. Reuben Archer Torrey of Chicago started the kerfuffle at a reception opening the conference.
Torrey, himself a Yale Divinity School alumnus, took firm aim at his alma mater when discussing immorality. The sons of the American privileged class were running amok, with devastating impact on the working class people of New Haven. The Christian Worker’s association focused much of its work on reaching out to poor young people and diverting them from lives of sin. But the streets weren’t the only places where Satan did his work.
New Haven, Torrey suggested, must have filled a potter’s field with the corpses of young girls, their downfall and demise brought about by their association with the heathen offspring of the American elite who filled Yale’s dormitories. Many of those despicable youth – now in adulthood – could be found serving in Congress.
Yale, and as a result New Haven itself, were awash with debauchery, earning it the” wickedest city” moniker.
Torrey’s speech found a welcome audience among the assembled Christian missionaries. Also in the crowd, however, was a writer from the New Haven Palladium newspaper. And he dutifully recorded Torrey’s sentiments and published them.
The news coverage incensed New Haven’s business community. Defenders of Yale reacted immediately.
Rev. David Burrill Pastor of Marble Collegiate Church in New York City eventually publicly attacked Torrey for his past behavior. He told colleagues that a week-and-a-half after Torrey arrived at Yale, classmates had to drag him to his room in a helplessly drunken state. For the next year-and-a-half, Torrey lead a “dissipated” life until rescued by Christian students at Yale. Torrey denied this.
Timothy Dwight had only recently taken on the role of Yale president. A religious man who lead Connecticut’s Congregational Church, Dwight had inherited an institution in financial distress. Dwight had taken the unusual step a few months earlier of mailing out a letter declaring that Yale was, in fact, a trustworthy institution of Christian values, a suitable institution for young men to attend.
With no time for distractions, Dwight announced he would offer no opinion on the discussion about morality at Yale. Nor would he take any part in the discussion over the wickedest city. He wanted to do nothing to fan the flames. But the flames hardly needed any fanning.
The Controversy Unfolds
As one newspaper put it: “People in New Haven are recalling and rehashing old stories of the hair-brained escapades of the sons of wealthy parents who come to Yale with more spending money than brains, and squander it in dissipation, to the lasting injury of their associates.”
And people didn’t have to cast far back in their memory for examples. The latest scandal had taken place in February of that year when Yale had to expel Elliott Shepard, great-grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt.
Police had responded to Shepard’s dormitory and found him loudly partying with three women. After questioning, it turned out Shepard had imported a half-dozen prostitutes from New York for him and his friends.
Nevertheless, the pressure mounted on the association to tamp down the controversy. Torrey relented, and agreed to speak out on the matter because he felt it unfair that his words were damaging the city’s reputation.
Backtracking and Fueling The Fire
On the final day of the conference, some 800 to 1,500 in attendance, Torrey and a local minister, Rev. John Collins, secretary of the association, teamed up to try to squelch the furor.
They made a mild rebuke of the Palladium, challenging the accuracy of its reporting and criticizing the newspaper for not checking its facts with Torrey before printing its articles.
“Did you hear me yesterday say that New Haven was the wickedest city in the world?” Rev. Torrey asked Rev. Collins. Collins replied that he had not and assured him that the report must have been an error.
The two ministers then offered a resolution to the conference that attempted to set things right.
“Resolved. That from our own observations and the statements of our president and secretary, the latter of whom has long lived in New Haven and as a city mission worker, had an unusual means of investigation, we believe New Haven to be, in nearly every way, a more than usually clean and moral city.”
Rev. Torrey had questioned the wisdom of the resolution but agreed to go along with it. Turns out he was right to worry. The resolution sparked fierce debate. Many in the crowd said that Torrey had only spoken what many ministers in the city had said about Yale and New Haven privately – often in more vivid terms than Torrey chose. Others questioned why the group should “whitewash” the city.
A stream of speakers rose, some to tell that they believed Yale was an upright institution. Any college had its share of young men who chose to live sinfully.
Mrs. Poteat Speaks on the Wickedest City
Tucked in the audience were Rev. Edwin Poteat, of New Haven’s Calvary Baptist Church, and his wife Harriet Gordon Poteat.
Harriet Poteat was no minor figure. Her father, Adoniram Judson Gordon, was a well-known minister and missionary who founded Gordon College and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. When she spoke, people listened. And she was in the mood to speak.
“When I heard Monday that Rev. Mr. Torrey had made these statements about Yale and New Haven, I said, ‘thank the Lord that he has the courage and Christian conviction to stand up and say so,’ she told the assembled crowd.
After seven years in New Haven, Poteat said she and her husband had witnessed a parade of students arriving at Yale. As a courtesy to their parents, the Poteats would ask the young men to dinner. The first year, they showed up and were polite. The second year, they showed up and had taken up smoking. The third year, they didn’t show up at all.
“They go down, down, down and I believe more boys are ruined in Yale University than any other place I know of,” she said. “I would as soon send my sons to Hell as to send them to Yale College.”
Fuel for the Fire
Poteat’s remarks fired up the assembly and members again began queuing up to tell of the tales of barroom wickedness they had observed in New Haven. Torrey and Collins quickly pushed their resolution to a vote.
The resolution passed, but Poteat’s speech had stolen the moment as newspapers across the country carried the news that Hell had been compared favorably to Yale.
Speculation began to grow about fallout from the conference. Reverend Poteat issued a statement that his wife was not inclined to retract her statement, though there was talk he would lose his pulpit. But before any effort at recrimination could build steam, the students of Yale stepped up.
Yale and the Wickedest City
As if on cue, one week after the Christian Worker’s conference, two Yale students, Henry Sage and Henry Bond, decided to have a night of debauchery with two local women, May Wilson and Annie True. Their escapades wound up splashed across the pages of newspapers.
Sage, a relative of millionaire New York financier Russell Sage, and the rest of the party, had spent an evening traveling the back roads drinking. Returning in the early morning hours, they had to summon a doctor when May Wilson collapsed. The doctor revived the young woman at the hospital and determined she had been under the influence of alcohol and some sort of drug.
Sage and other Yale students passed a hat and tried to bribe newspapers into suppressing the story. When that failed, they reached out to family who successfully had some newspapers pull the story. But it was too late. Other, independent newspapers published.
As quick as it started, the story of the Devil and Yale died out. Rev. Edwin Poteat went on to have a long career, eventually serving as president at Furman University for 15 years. Rev. Collins would continue his work, with his efforts eventually laying the foundation for what is today the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. Rev. Torrey preached throughout the world and wrote more than 40 books.
Timothy Dwight, meanwhile, developed a reputation as one of Yale’s most important presidents, helping steer the university toward a future in which the institution stressed academics and produced fewer “‘hair-brained escapades of the sons of wealthy parents.”
This story updated in 2022.