Not Exactly A Hoot
It billed itself as “The Paper Without a Heart or Soul.” Present-day readers might be excused for wondering whether the Sour Owl lacked a brain as well. Originally published by certain KU juniors, the Sour Owl’s contents actually gave new meaning to the concept of “sophomoric.”
During its intermittent 40-year run (1914-56), this so-called campus humor publication printed a mix of bawdy jokes, lewd illustrations, nasty gossip, sexual innuendo, and outright fabrications worthy of a supermarket tabloid. Always notorious and regularly condemned by KU administrators, one issue was even deemed “obscene literature” by the office of the US Postmaster General and declared “non-mailable.” Today, however, readers in search of titillation or amusement would be better off looking elsewhere. The Sour Owl demonstrates yet again that while the human comedy is timeless, topical humor ages quickly. Maybe you had to be there.
First launched on May 9, 1914, the Sour Owl was the official publication of a student group called the Owls, the honor society of the Junior Class, which was founded in the same year. Numbering 16 members, this organization’s stated purpose was “to initiate and promulgate movements for the best interests of the Junior Class and of the University, and to advance the spirit of fellowship among the students.”
The paper was intended to be an antidote to the University Daily Kansan, which many Owls believed was too wedded to University administration. In later issues, the Sour Owl would indict the Kansan as a “padded hammer” for its “chicken-livered” treatment of important issues and for employing “clown reporters” with “wilted spines.” In all things, though, the Sour Owl promised “to speak fearlessly, truthfully, and heartlessly,” although with its first editor-in-chief listed as someone named “I.M. Smutty,” the publication seemed eager to incite controversy, even scandal.
And so it did, on May 14, 1915, creating what the Graduate Magazine later called, “the most disagreeable incident of the school year.” Although its previous two issues had caused minor stirs on campus, owing to the sheer novelty of the publication, the third, appearing on the day of the May Fete (with many parents in attendance), caused a firestorm of criticism and condemnation. In that issue, “the paper without a heart or soul” published details – rather lurid for those days – about several KU students’ private lives. (Interestingly, earlier that month, a concerned undergraduate had warned KU Chancellor Frank Strong in an anonymous note that “a bunch of malicious, dirty gossip” contained in a “vile smut sheet” was about to sully the reputations of a number of “perfectly innocent girls.” The student pleaded with Strong to protect these young women, “who have no means of ‘getting back’ at their tormentors or of knowing who has collected this ‘smut.’”)
This issue of the Sour Owl named names, in one story detailing how a student, Leonard Farris, had been “very fortunate” in having so “successful an alliance” with Maude Coverdale which, they sourly added, was “nothing to brag about.” It also recounted an “offence that was witnessed” between Frank Feirerabend and Bertha Steele on “the north porch railing at 1234 Oread.” Calling the encounter a “pretty little exhibition,” the Sour Owl cautioned them in the future to be “a little more discreet.” It then added, “It is a certainty that if Bertha continues to improve in the next four years as she has in the last five months, she will be a master of that fine art.” The paper also questioned the nighttime trysts or “dancing lessons” going on between Arline Griffith and Charles Stiller. “It may have been a dancing lesson,” the Sour Owl allowed, “but if Stiller hasn’t learned after a long winter of three and four lessons a week, he will never learn.”
Immediately, the University’s disciplinary committee was inundated with complaints from students, parents, and faculty members, even representatives from the local YWCA chapter. The Kansan itself published a number of editorial statements in the days following the Owl’s appearance, one of which insisted, “KU men are gentlemen. They look with contempt on a publication which smears mud on a woman’s name. There is room here for a satirical, outspoken publication, but not for an indecent one.” Furthermore, “Students will not tolerate a filthy Sour Owl any longer. The Sour Owl,” it warned, “must clean up or leave.”
By May 26, two weeks after the Owl’s issuance, the Kansan could proclaim that “Student sentiment at the University is determined to clean up the Sour Owl…. The vigorous protest against [it] is proving to those who support this institution that the students have no sympathy with the tone of the last Sour Owl.” Its spreading of “foul gossip” must be stopped. KU faculty and administrators fully concurred.
After conducting an inquiry into the matter, the University’s disciplinary committee secured a formal statement and apology from members of the Owl Society. According to J.M. Johnson, president of the society, he and the other 15 members had intended to publish a newspaper “devoted to outspoken criticism of the weaknesses of the Administration of the University, to a frank revelation of the foibles of members of the faculty, and to the humorous exposure of students who have laid themselves open, by unbecoming conduct, to just reproof.” They had been convinced, though, “from the formal protests,” that their newspaper “reflects discredit upon the student body, upon the University, and upon the Owl Society.” Thus, they promised never again “to take part … in the publication of anything which casts unwarranted aspersions on the moral character of any person, or which would be regarded by right-minded people as an indecent publication.” That said, the committee recommended to Chancellor Strong that the Owl Society’s statement “be accepted as sufficient apology for the present offense” and that he not pursue “more drastic discipline.”
On May 31, 1915, Chancellor Strong prepared a statement addressed to all KU faculty and students. In it, he lamented that “any student or body of students … should be so wanting in the true perception of what becomes a gentleman, so blind to the demands of decency and chivalry, as in any way to desire or allow a publication” such as the Sour Owl. The Owls “must bear the responsibility and stigma” for a publication “that has brought disappointment and harm and shame to the University community in Lawrence, to the graduates of the University, and to its friends and supporters throughout the state and the country. This, “ he added, “is no light load to bear.”
As for punishment, Strong agreed with the disciplinary committee to accept the Owls’ signed apology, which was to appear on the front page of the Kansan’s June 1 edition. He also warned them, “The University is entirely opposed to the publication of any vulgar, indecent or libelous matter” and “will hold the Owl Society … strictly to account in regard to future publications.”
These words and the pious promises they generated were not, apparently, binding across the generations. The Sour Owl continued to push the envelope of humor and indecency over the years. For example, the May 1936 issue sparked a campus-wide “purity campaign” to change the direction, leadership, and contents of the Sour Owl. And the November 1944 edition provoked even more controversy, when the publication offended not only the University community, but ran afoul of federal obscenity laws and US postal regulations as well.
This particular issue opened with a cover illustration of a large-handed KU football player torn between catching a pass and grabbing the massively protruding breasts of a comely co-ed. Then followed some gossipy reports on who was cheating on whom and a collection of snide jokes. (Sample: “What is that Pi Phi’s name? Her name is Virginia – they call her Virgin for short but not for long.) But the coup de grace was a detailed, and rather demeaning, roster of each sorority’s pledge class, complete with the women’s “vital stats.” For each one, the Sour Owl gave the young lady’s name, hometown, age, height, weight, hair and eye color, and offered some comments in a “remarks” section. These observations were usually flattering, though superficial, such as “Sweet young thing … Very attractive … Gorgeous … Blonde Bombshell … Vivacious.” Some were bland: “O.K. … Nice personality … Not bad.” Some were rather mean: “Built like a house” and “Screw-ball type.” And others were downright obscene by 1940s standards, such as “Stacked” and “Sex from the word go – go!”
The first sign that this issue had gone over the edge was when the Kansan reported on November 20, 1944, that “the Soul Owl, college ‘humor’ magazine and sponsored this fall by the All Student Council (ASC) after a lapse of two years, has been barred from the mails, according to local post office authorities…. The ‘unmailable’ status presumably has been given on the basis that the magazine contains obscene literature.” Though it took until November 27 before the official decision came down from Washington, by the 22nd, the All Student Council members responsible for the publication prepared a formal apology to KU Chancellor Deane W. Malott, who called the publication “a breach of good taste and conduct.”.
On November 28, the chancellor responded to the ASC, saying that the Sour Owl was so vile that he had “no alternative but to take cognizance of it, particularly since the All Student Council itself has taken no positive action, except to write a letter of apology to me.” He proceeded to ban the entire nine-member staff from any further student activities and from holding any office or employment in the University. “The situation” was, however, “more important in its broader aspects. This magazine was sponsored by the All Student Council, the group more than any other responsible for student leadership, for student expression, and for student participation in the affairs of this campus. It failed completely in its responsibility in this case. And failure in student leadership is a failure upon the part of the entire University.” Malott wanted the ASC to have every opportunity to be “an active force in the life of the University,” but warned “these opportunities lie always on the side of decency and thoughtfulness, for the University and for the rights of the individual student.”
The obscenity charges and official University sanction did not permanently silence the Sour Owl. It continued appearing intermittently through the mid-1950s. The November 1944 issue was, and remains, however, the highlight (or low-light) of its long history at KU. That edition, as the Graduate Magazine later put it, was “more outstanding in its frankness of ribaldry than its subtlety.”
John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas