In 1870, the class of that year purchased a statue of Ben Franklin, which was placed on a tall stone pedestal. It stood on the west side of campus at the junction of the sidewalks leading to old Haven Hall (Law School) and old Mason Hall, facing in toward campus (just west of the north end of current Angell Hall).
Ben’s jacket and breeches were frequently to be found painted in the university’s colors of maize and blue. Although the Class of 1870 thought they had purchased a bronze sculpture, it was in fact made of pewter. In 1899 a student shoved a beer bottle into Ben’s “pocket” creating a hole in the hollow statue. In order to prevent further deterioration, the Plant department drilled a hole in Ben’s head and filled the statue with cement. But as winter approached, the cement froze and expanded, causing one of Ben’s arms to fall off.
Long-time maintenance worker George Lutz recounted Ben’s tragic story in 1935: “The question arose what to do with Ben. It would not do to destroy him because some of the old grads were still alive and when they would come at Commencement time they would want to know what became of the statue. So we took him into the Boiler House which was close by and tied him up on a shelf which we erected for him and he stayed there several years. When going into the place one morning [in the spring of 1907], there lay Ben in hundreds of pieces. This made matters worse than ever, and the question was what to do with the pieces. So we gathered them up, placed them in a two-wheeled cart and gave Ben a decent burial. Hardly had we disposed of him when inquiries came in wanting to know what had happened to Ben Franklin, and of course they went to Dr. Angell [then president of the university], to get the particulars. I was called into the President’s Office and asked to tell him all about it. I can see him yet how he laughed when I told him what had happened, and all he said was, ‘George, this is a closed incident.’ The class, though they were lawyers, evidently had one put over on them because the statue which looked like bronze was only a metal as brittle as pewter.”
An alumnus making a return visit to Ann Arbor in 1900 had indeed gone in search of Ben and found him perched in the boiler room. The alumnus reported on Ben’s demise to a former classmate: “A ghastly fracture of his personality, in the region of his steenth cervical vertebrae, caused his premature demise at the age of 25, and all the efforts of the University surgeons and copious applications of Portland cement were unavailing, and he now stands shorn of his perennial coat (and pants) of yellow and blue paint, alone and unnoticed. It is rumored that marauding Boxer students were responsible for his assassination.” Campus legend has it that Ben’s “decent” burial was made in the infamous “Cat-Hole,” a depression filled with murky water which was formerly located south of the Central Power Plant, although it was filled with earth by the time old Ben may have been entombed there.
This story originally appeared on the President’s Advisory Committee on Public Art website. It was reprinted here with permission.