Campus culture is constantly evolving at the University of Kentucky. The early students at A&M College were often criticized for their often overly boisterous pranks. In a particularly infamous period before organized athletic programs and recognized campus groups the local newspapers identified the mischief as: “The State College Trouble,” “State College, Another Ruction,” “On a Tear,” “Student Racket,” “State College Rumpus,” and “Cadets on Rampage."
At a time when the public was still willing to believe the hazing stories that came from the campus, the “Disappearance of Willis Smith” became the subject of public interest. On the night of September 22, 1908, W. E. Smith, a freshman, was reported to have left his room to attend a meeting of his class at the Old Dormitory, but never reached his destination. When he had not appeared by the next day, his brother became alarmed and appealed to the university and city authorities. Having been the victims of so many pranks on the part of the students, the police and the faculty at first refused to take the matter seriously.
Accepting the general opinion that the boy was being held prisoner by hazers, university officials appealed to the students to release him. When Willis still did not appear, the case became a state-wide sensation. There were many theories and clues but all proved false.
Early in October, his brother, L. E. Smith, reported that he found in his box a penciled note signed, “Black Hand,” which warned that he “had better stop this investigation.” Detective Chief Malcolm Brown took this as virtual proof that the missing youth, perhaps injured by hazers, was being kept in confinement by students.
Other clues had to be investigated; a report that a body had been discovered burning on the city dump, caused a momentary furor until it was proved otherwise. A small boy told a story of overhearing a student’s conversation that Smith had been bound, gagged, and locked in a freight car, although railroad officials attempted to discount the story, it received wide credence, and Smith “discovered” at widely separated points.
A man found in a boxcar attracted attention until he was able to establish his identity as a foreigner who had never even heard of State University, Lexington, Kentucky. A strange young man turned up in Decatur, IL, where a letter to Willis Smith was also found, caused much speculation. A stranger at Wyandotte Station near Lexington brought attention closer to home, but again the trail was false. A picture which was thought to resemble the missing freshman was discovered in the band of a hat found floating down the Ohio River near Louisville and this discovery convinced many people that at last the lad’s fate had been brought to light.
The failure to find a solution to the mystery led to many theories, from the youth having met with foul play, to gory stories of his demise, to information from a séance, where it was learned the boy had been killed as the result of hazing on the campus and that his body had been thrown in an abandoned well. At this point the spiritualist made arrangements to come to Lexington to locate the well. While President Patterson worried for fear many students would fail to return after Christmas, Willis Smith walked into his sister’s home at Owensboro.
His reappearance could not have been better timed, and great was the relief felt by all friends of the university. The ridiculous affair was not yet closed, however, for the errant youth now told a hair-raising tale of being kidnapped, drugged, transported over a long distance by freight car and horse, and held for days in an isolated mountain cave in Wisconsin from which he had finally managed to escape. His sunburned face and work-hardened hands gave the lie to this story.
However, and after consultation with his brother, he concocted another. According to the “Second series of Wandering Weary Willie’s Novels,” as the student newspaper phrased it; he had left Lexington when a fraternity threatened to haze him, knowing that “if they tried that somebody would get killed.” The students branded this story as false, and Smith’s story was generally doubted.
Each year until their graduation, the members of Smith’s class observed with appropriate ceremonies the anniversary of his disappearance, flying the flag at half-mast and constructing in front of the Main Building a grave over which was shed many a mocking tear.