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Sunday Favorites: the Joke is on You


Unidentified women at Stetson University in Deland Fla.

Photo: State Archives of Florida

DELAND – Aprils Fools' Day pranks are often harmless, zany bits of fun between co-workers, family members and friends. They hardly ever have a lasting impact beyond a good laugh, but that wasn't the case around the turn of the century in Florida. In 1908, one April Fools' prank became the subject of a Florida Supreme Court ruling when Stetson University student Helen Hunt (West) challenged her expulsion for hazing.

The Stetson University College of Law became the first law school in Florida to admit women in 1905. However, when Florida's Supreme Court ruled in favor of West, who claimed other girls attending the university at the time had set her up, the question of whether the school knew how to treat a lady was up in the air.

More importantly, the ruling also marked a great milestone for the treatment of women at the time. Hunt was a child of 15 when she enrolled in the university in 1907. Because she was underage, Dr. Lincoln Hulley, the president of the institution, assured her parents prior to her conscription that she would be “well taken care of“ during her stay and offered to personally “act as a father to her,” according to court documents.


Early photo of Stetson University in Deland Fla.

Photo: State Archives of Florida

However, Hulley could not protect her from a group of girls that influenced her into taking part in a dormitory tradition on April 1, 1907. It was custom that the girls commit an “April Fools' frolic” during the night. Several girls organized a crowd of ladies that awoke the new recruits with bells while they slept, then wreaked havoc in the dormitory. Hunt and a few others were persuaded to join in the fun; Hunt was given a bell and told to ring it which she did.


A few days later, Hunt and two others were summoned to the president’s office where they were accused of hazing other students and playing pranks such as putting out the lights as well as the bell ringing. Hunt confessed to ringing a bell, but said she had “nothing whatever to do” with either of the other charges. Without any other explanation, she was told to “pack up her things and leave by night.”

When she asked why she was being expelled, Hulley would offer no other comment.


Helen Hunt sued the university and Hulley, alleging that she was "maliciously, wantonly and without cause in bad faith expelled" from the University, and that such expulsion was confirmed, ratified and approved by its Board of Trustees.



Stetson University Campus in Deland Fla.

Photo: State Archives of Florida

The case was tried in Orlando on May 16, 1922. Hunt’s attorney alleged that while the other two girls accused of hazing were basically given a slap on the wrist, Hunt was ordered to leave during the night. Hulley, who took an oath of protection in the presence of her parents, never told them of her expulsion. The defense attorney stated, “He made no inquiry as to her financial ability and made no provision for her protection before leaving.”


“He was bound to know that for her to know that in order to return to her home she would have to travel from Deland to Orange City on a public road then have to catch a train for Titusville, changing cars for the East Coast train for St. Augustine,” the defense added.


The court ruled that after examining all the evidence carefully, they found nothing connected with Miss Hunt's suspension that indicated malice on the part of either Dr. Hulley or Stetson University.

However, after giving due consideration to citations by the defendants, they supported the contention that she should have been awarded a hearing before being sent away from the University. The trial resulted in a verdict and judgment against both defendants, the corporation owning the school and the university president, in favor of the plaintiff in the sum of $25,000.00.


After her expulsion, Hunt graduated from Florida Female College in 1908. She participated in the suffrage campaign, and in the movement for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. She also became a member of the National Woman’s Party, a National Council member, and an editor of Equal Rights.


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