A large pumpkin impaled on top of a tower
On October 8, 1997, Cornell's campus experienced an unusual sight: a large pumpkin impaled atop McGraw Tower.
Almost 25 years ago, someone impaled a 60 pound pumpkin on the top of a spire at Cornell University in the middle of the night. It was over 170 feet (51 m) off the ground. To this day, no one is really sure how this was accomplished without anyone noticing.
Pumpkin prank perpetrator puzzle persists 20 years later
On the brisk autumn morning of Wednesday, Oct. 8, 1997, Cornell students, faculty and staff strolling by McGraw Tower noted an unusual sight: a large pumpkin impaled on the spire 173 feet up. For 158 days, the pumpkin sat atop McGraw Tower through fall, a harsh winter and into the spring.
Cornellians asked two questions: Whodunit? Is it real?
Nobody knew. The pumpkin mystery is woven into the fabric of Cornell history.
News of the prank found its way into enduring fame thanks to coverage in The New York Times in late October. The Cornell Daily Sun ran a daily “Pumpkin Watch” feature through Halloween, and the Sun’s editor-in-chief, Hilary Krieger ’98, was interviewed on campus by Matt Lauer live on the “Today” show. The Associated Press ran a story and photo of the pumpkin that appeared in hundreds of newspapers. The Cornell News Service – the predecessor of the Media Relations Office – fielded radio interviews from across the United States. CNN and MTV carried reports.
A contest for students
Early in the spring semester, Provost Don M. Randel sponsored a contest for students to determine if the pumpkin was real.
Physics majors Jon Branscomb ’98, Eldar Noe ’98, Fred Ciesla ’98 and Samuel J. Laroque ’98 used a remote-controlled balloon and Rube Goldberg ingenuity to snare pumpkin samples. In preparing a 30-page report, they found the cored gourd offered ventilation, allowing the pumpkin to dry naturally. It had become “a leathery husk, that could cling to the spire for decades,” the report said.
Retrieving the pumpkin
Because of the danger involved in retrieving it, administrators decided to leave it until it rotted and fell off. However, the pumpkin rapidly dried out in the cold air and remained on the tower until it was removed with a crane on March 13, 1998.
On March 13, 1998 – a Friday – Randel was scheduled to ascend McGraw Tower in a crane-hoisted gondola to retrieve the pumpkin.
Cornell students, faculty and staff gathered in Ho Plaza for the removal. Staff made cakes shaped like pumpkins and the tower; Cornell dairy served pumpkin ice cream; and many wore celebratory pumpkin T-shirts.
But sometimes pumpkin parties go awry. While testing the crane, a gust of wind blew the gondola into the pumpkin, knocking it onto the scaffold planks, intact and unbroken – frozen by the previous night’s cold.
Examining the pumpkin
After the pumpkin was retrieved from the scaffold, Randel appointed a commission, led by plant biologist John Kingsbury, to examine it.
Two decades later, the pumpkin perpetrators have not been uncloaked. But the question of whether the gourd was real was resolved in April 1998. With suitable fanfare at Willard Straight Hall’s Memorial Room, the Kingsbury commission confirmed the object in a four-word executive summary: “It is a pumpkin.”