For more than 100 years, stealing the Nassau Hall bell clapper was a popular student prank — and even a rite of passage. The first daring student, believed to be Robert Charlton Reading of the Class of 1865, climbed the outside of the bell tower in March 1864 and made off with the clapper, after which a janitor had to strike the bell with a hammer until a new clapper was installed. In subsequent years, clapper theft became such a freshman tradition that the University kept a barrel of clappers on hand for quick replacement.
If students were caught in the act, they were individually fined. In 1933 one group of freshmen found an itemized bill — "one clapper, $30" — from the proctors attached to the ladder on which they had climbed the building. During the war years punishments were more severe because of the metal shortage, but clapper nabbing resurfaced once World War II was over.
In February 1955, the 98-year-old cupola bell cracked and had to be replaced. The administration announced that since the new clapper was welded into place the tradition would have to end. However, in 1964 three sophomores succeeded in taking the clapper from the new bell. Although various methods of preventing the theft were pursued for the next few decades, freshmen continued the custom undeterred.
In 1991, one student sprained an ankle while scaling Nassau Hall; another dropped the clapper from the roof, narrowly missing students on the ground. At that point, the administration had the bell clapper removed. The next year, officers of the freshman Class of 1995 assured the administration that the clapper could safely be restored. The University complied, but the clapper's allure was too strong. In April 1992, Geoffrey MacArthur, a member of the Class of 1995, was injured when he fell 40 feet from the third story of Nassau Hall in pursuit of the clapper, which was then permanently removed. So that the campus would not be completely bereft of bell ringing, a recording of its peals was broadcast over speakers.
Now the Nassau Hall bell rings for only a few University events every year: the P-rade, Baccalaureate, Class Day and Commencement. Technicians reinstall the clapper for these occasions and remain in the bell tower while it is in use.