The Sabrina Statue: Looking Back, Looking Forward

The Sabrina statue, a relic of Amherst traditions past, returns to campus this June. Contributing Writers Lilliana Delise ’24, Joline Fong ’26, and Anna Penner ’24 dive into the history of the statue — investigating the controversy and symbolism, and setting out rules for a hopeful future.

The Sabrina Statue: Looking Back, Looking Forward
Sabrina was gifted to the college in 1857. Photo courtesy of Max Shoop’s book entitled “Sabrina.”

At reunion this June, the statue of Sabrina will return to Amherst’s campus for only the third time in the last 15 years. The statue, which remains an enigma for many current Amherst students, was named Amherst’s Greatest Tradition by the New York Times in 1931. In a special topics course on U.S. Public History taught by President Michael Elliott, we spent part of last semester focusing on the treatment of the statue throughout time, in particular noting the gendered aspects of its history and the tension it has brought between the administration and the students. In this article, we overview the controversial history of the statue and also plead that we not relegate Sabrina to the fate of a distant memory, but instead find ways to make the tradition relevant to Amherst’s community today.

The Conception of the Goddess of Amherst College

In 1913, Amherst had an unusually lively set of traditions, a fact that might seem surprising in light of modern complaints about the lack of student traditions. From standard hazing practices that required freshmen wear beanies (a custom lasting into the 1960s) to annual class sport competitions with the reward of a keg of cider, Amherst overflowed with traditions. Among the many, the story of Sabrina stands out as a unique part of the college’s traditions.

In 1857, Massachusetts Governor Joe Hayden gifted the college a 350-pound bronze statue of the nude nymph Sabrina. Max Shoop, class of 1910, wrote a book entitled “Sabrina,” which can be found in Amherst’s archives. According to him, for the first few years, men at Amherst left the statue alone. It was around 1860 when the first prank took place: an Amherst student dressed Sabrina in clothing he stole from a girls’ school. He was severely reprimanded by the college, and the next day the statue had a gash in its cheek where he had hit it with an ax. In the following years, students regularly dressed Sabrina in stolen garments and painted the statue every color imaginable. These first pranks involving the statue were a rebellion against the administration, but they were also tinged with a combination of sexualization and violence towards Sabrina.

In 1884, Sabrina disappeared for the first time. According to Shoop, “Indignities grew in number every year, and the bronze statue was so woefully treated after every [sports team] victory that the authorities at last decided to be rid of her, and so put an end to all such pranks.” However, the college groundskeeper, known as “Professor Charlie,” took pity on the statue and hid it away in a barn rather than smashing it like the college had instructed him to do.

Legend has it that Sabrina reappeared in the dream of two Amherst men from the class of 1890, Duffey and Ingalls. The men set off and rescued her. Having appeared through this supernatural manifestation, Shoop says, “From that time on the oft-mutilated statue was deified, and ever since has been a living Goddess.” When the men brought Sabrina back, they planned to surprise the college with an elaborate demonstration, but students from the class of 1891 had caught on and intercepted the dinner in Johnson Chapel. The battle over the statue was intense in a way that seems almost unbelievable — the top section of the staircase was broken, and a student broke both his legs jumping out a window. The Class of 1890 emerged victorious, and the tradition began of even- and odd-class years attempting to steal the statue from one another.

With her reappearance, Sabrina became a symbol of pride and honor bestowed upon the classes guarding her, but it also served to demonstrate the masculinity of Amherst men. The inter-class heists took on an almost absurd and often violent intensity, with archive records revealing shoot-outs, arrests, appeals to governors for legal support, and trips to jails, sausage factories, and European countries. After getting Sabrina through a heist or an inter-class year handover, the men treated the statue like a woman who needed saving and protecting, allowing them to assert a perceived compassionate dominance over it. The statue also endured a crude sexual violence — in 1893, future Chief Justice and sophomore at the time Harlan Stone stole Sabrina, and Shoop wrote that Stone “pounded more vigorously and shouted more lustily” than other Sabrina suitors, resulting in the statue’s successful capture. This tradition cannot be understood without recognizing the violence and sexualization the statue embodied as the only female figure on campus.

In 1918, Amherst men began to take steps to quell the intensity of the trickery. A committee of odd and even representatives met and agreed on a set of rules, which included (1) that the statue be shown before the college at least once every year, (2) prohibition against guarding it in a way that required breaking the law to release it, i.e. a storage vault, and (3) in the case of theft from private property, the committee assumes any burglary charges. In 1919, the rules were updated yet again to prohibit the use of firearms and to establish a committee made up of representatives of the two upper classes to make, interpret, and regulate rules for the tradition. The stealing diminished a bit in the following years, according to Winthrop Smith, class of 1916, Halvor Seward, class of 1919, and John Gibson, class of 1919 in their 1921 edition of “Sabrina: Being a Chronicle of the Life of the Goddess of Amherst College.” Eventually the college decided to do away with the tradition altogether, welding it in place in Morgan Hall in 1934.

In 1951, students found the school lacking a sense of unity. As a result, they looked to the statue of Sabrina as an opportunity to reignite spirit. The class of 1951 rented acetylene torches, stole a copy of the key to Morgan Hall, and learned the watchman’s schedule so they could break in and display the statue over a baseball game. In a letter to President Charles Cole, the students claimed, “We have been and are now well aware of the reasons why Sabrina was given back to the college and anchored in the Morgan Library … we determined at an early point to take great care to avoid the unfortunate kind of rivalry which characterized the Sabrina situation in the early thirties [sic].” Like the students in 1919, students recognized the violence of the tradition as problematic and therefore sought to change the tradition to make it more relevant to their time.

Sabrina Doesn’t Live Here Anymore — Who Does?

After 1934, the tradition changed in a number of ways. The first is that the statue fell from the popular imagination of Amherst students, and the tradition has only been revived a few times, and rarely for more than a couple of years. The tradition also lost most of the violence and sexualization that had characterized so much of the earlier treatment of the Goddess. Additionally, the antagonism towards the administration became a much less central part of the tradition.

Once co-education was officially instituted in the late 1970s, the statue came to represent a symbol of women’s experience at Amherst. In spring 1985, English Professor Eve Sedgwick addressed the Amherst student body in a lecture titled “Sabrina Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” to discuss how the welfare of the first women students at Amherst mirrored that of Sabrina’s.

“She is told that she’s a goddess, but she is compulsively degraded, humiliated, and treated like property. People pretend to feel awe for her, but they treat her as the most familiar of familiar objects,” she said. “She is told that she is especially sanctified and spiritual, but she is totally identified with her body both because it is a nude body and because it is a female body.”

Sedgwick also pointed to the impact of violence, like the violence against Sabrina, on women’s experience: “Even good, nice, loving, sympathetic men who are supportive to women benefit from the oppression of women. They benefit from violent, threatening, and misogynist men.” The violence and sexualization against the statue that had absorbed the student body’s outward masculinity also served as a reminder to Amherst’s co-eds of what they had in common with the statue. As Sedwick said, “Every couple of years, the guys truss her up and dangle her from a helicopter and fly her across a field just so that we can get a sense of where we’re coming from.”

While the statue’s history thus became more political during the ’80s, the tradition itself was reinvigorated with significant buy-in from women at the college. In a conversation with Chief Advancement Officer Betsy Cannon Smith ’84 on the nature of the tradition during her time at the college, Smith remarked that the tradition in the early ’80s was not misogynistic anymore. In records of Sabrina from Amherst’s archival collection, all mentions of kissing and fondling disappeared by the time of co-education. This, Smith believes, is what the tradition was meant to be (or at least what it should be): a group of students with a shared excitement for tradition, and for what the statue had meant to decades of prior students. In 1977, Bruce Bruce Becker ’80 and Rosanne Haggerty ’82 discovered Sabrina’s hiding place in a local barn. They maintained possession of the statue until 1993, keeping Sabrina tucked safely away in the home of Haggerty’s mother — who later confessed to disappointment that no one ever attempted to break in and obtain the statue.

During this period, the tradition came to be used to raise money for the college. The class of 1952 was the first to develop a fundraising challenge to be the Sabrina class. According to a 1988 Amherst Student article, they raised over 300,000 dollars — equivalent to 1.5 million dollars today. While the tradition still relied on stealing, sexualization only haunted the history of the tradition in the background. Once a tool against the administration and an act of rebellion, Sabrina became a tool to bring alumni and the administration together for a common cause.

A changing relationship with the administration is representative of a shift that was occurring across the country. In the mid-80s, a national trend arose of colleges becoming more heavily involved in the nonacademic lives of their students, according to the New York Times. The article specifically cites Amherst’s debate over ending Greek life, arguing that some of the changes were in order to better integrate women into the college. The abolishment of fraternities brought in a new era for women at the college, and indicated new administrative oversight of social life.

Sabrina in 2013 with a copy of The Amherst Student. Photo courtesy of The Amherst Student.

How Will We Remember Sabrina?

The history of Sabrina is unquestionably filled with violence and the mistreatment of female figures. The history is also, however, embedded with school unity and community. At certain moments, Amherst has chosen to draw on different aspects of the statue’s history, changing the way we as a collective community have written the tradition into our memory.

In the last two decades, the statue has been seen only a couple of times. In the 2010s, the college faced a number of challenges, including heightened awareness of sexual violence on campus and debates about Amherst’s traditions, exemplified by the mascot controversy. It was in this context that the statue was stolen by Maria Kirigin ’14 and some of her classmates. And as Kirigin wrote, “I am not proposing that we change our mascot to Sabrina — that would only degrade her further. But I do think Amherst students desperately need something to rally around. I believe that — only if reintroduced carefully — Sabrina can become an important part of our college’s future rather than an anachronism incompatible with what we wish Amherst to be. To continue hiding her from the students and from our history would only be doing her (and the Amherst community) more injustice.” Ironic indeed that Sabrina has only been seen on campus once since being transferred into “the care of the class of 2014.”

This is not to say that the history of the statue should be disregarded entirely. But it is important to mention that blatant misogyny has not been part of the tradition for almost a century. And there have been students since at least 1910 working to rectify the treatment of the statue. So perhaps rather than seeing Sabrina as a testament to what we cannot change, she should be remembered as a testament to what has changed, and a reminder of what more must change. We thus propose an update to the 1919 Constitution of the Sabrina.

The 2024 Constitution of Sabrina

  1. Sabrina must appear once a year at a large gathering
  2. Efforts to capture Sabrina should not be through violent means, especially through the use of firearms
  3. The Sabrina tradition should not revert back to the sexualization of the early days
  4. The Sabrina guardians must inform the community of Sabrina’s wellbeing
  5. Sabrina and non-Sabrina committees must be established across class years
  6. The tradition should connect alumni to current students rather than being held singularly in the hands of alumni
  7. Sabrina should be passed through the class year committees
  8. In the case that an alumnus maintains guardianship past the point of their graduation, they must appoint a student who knows her location