Ask the Archivist


Guns in the Classroom

Q. I'm always taken aback when I hear about violence on college campuses these days. Everyone seems to be waving guns around. Am I kidding myself in remembering that things were more peaceful in the 1950s when I was at Boalt? --TW, Century City

A. While the level of violence was certainly lower when you were at Berkeley, we don't need to dip far into the resources in the Archives to discover that it wasn't all The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. A potentially tragic incident in a Torts class being taught by William Prosser could have been (as the saying goes) ripped from today's headlines. 

Dean Prosser wrote about a 1953 incident during which a strange man in a large straw sombrero entered his Boalt Hall classroom during a Torts lecture:

He was a tall, thin man with a bald head, although he was in his thirties; and a pair of very bushy eyebrows, with very intense and piercing blue eyes under them. He turned up at my office while I was teaching Torts, asked where I was, and then came into the classroom. He interrupted the class a couple of times asking foolish questions, and I stepped on him pretty hard. After the hour he came up to the desk and started talking to me, cutting in ahead of the students, and I stepped on him again. When the boys got through with their questions, some of them stuck around while he started in on me.

It took about a minute to spot him as a litigating paranoic, or in other words a lawsuit nut, of the kind that pesters all law offices to death. He wanted me to take his case, or to recommend some lawyer like Clarence Darrow to take it for him. His case was a jumble of complaints about completely unrelated things--a finance company had picked up an automobile on which he had defaulted, and had gone off with some things he had left in the glove compartment, and so on.  

Presently he got off onto his recent arrest, in San Diego, for carrying a pistol without a permit. I was still annoyed with him, and talked pretty roughly to him, suggesting that if he was guilty he ought to have been arrested. He argued about that, saying that he had asked for a permit and they wouldn't give it to him, and that was in itself a denial of his legal rights. When I asked why they refused the permit, he said flat out that it was because he had had two years of treatment in the army for syphilis of the central nervous system.  Or in other words, paresis.  

At about this point it began to occur to me that a crazy man who carried a gun in defiance of the law after he had been refused a permit might be a dangerous character, and I began to be a bit more polite to him. He had a lot of complaints about how he was treated in jail, which I have no doubt were justified. He ended up by wanting to enter our law school to learn law so that he could try his own case. I was relieved to find that he had had only two years of arts college, and I told him we couldn't let him in until he had the other two. He then left abruptly to go down to the registrar to see if he couldn't get credit for the other two, or else register and start work on them.

When the intruder had left the classroom, Prosser called the campus police, who located him and took him into custody. The large straw sombrero was difficult to miss. When the man was searched, they discovered that he was indeed carrying a loaded pistol. The Dean reacted with his usual sardonic humor:

All this is of course all over the school, and for some reason I appear to be a hero to my class. I can't imagine why, although the way law school rumors develop I should not be surprised if the legend is already started that I took the gun away from him, knocked him out with it, and sat on him until the police came.

Have a question?  Ask the Archivist: benemann@law.berkeley.edu.


10/18/2012