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Debunking the Purdue Cannon: A Failed Attempt at Rewriting Big Ten History

Come for the football folklore, stick around for the archival research.

Syndication: Journal-Courier Nikos Frazier / Journal & Courier via Imagn Content Services, LLC

This isn’t the story I meant to tell. It’s a failure, at least as far as deep-dive research projects posted on the Big Ten’s premier shitposting site can be failures.

My goal was to debunk the legend of the Purdue Cannon, or at least poke holes in the story behind the trophy. Something about the myth of the handheld artillery piece screamed bullshit to me. The background seemed too absurd to be accurate. So this week, in celebration of the Cannon’s 80th year as a rivalry trophy, let’s dive into the archives.

As the legend goes, and as recounted in this Off Tackle Empire piece from BoilerUp89, a group of Purdue fans brought a miniature cannon onto the Lafayette-Champaign train for the 1905 Purdue-Illinois game. They hid the makeshift military weapon in a drainage pipe near Illinois Field and fully intended to make some noise with it after their victory. Purdue blanked Illinois 29-0, but their supporters never fired the cannon in celebration. At some point during the game, an Illinois fraternity found the hiding place and stole it; the Purdue fans returned home empty-handed.

The cannon allegedly sat in the possession of an Illini fraternity house or perhaps survived a barn fire in rural Illinois. The stories differ. Nearly 40 years later, Quincy A. Hall, an Illinois alum with an alleged hand in the theft, miraculously rediscovered the miniature mortar. He presented it to Illinois and Purdue as a potential traveling trophy in 1943, and the Cannon has since served as an emblem of the rivalry for 80 years.

I called bullshit.

It’s too strange, too convenient, too perfect to be authentic. It even involves Purdue and trains! I assumed that it was a fabrication by the schools, a way to add historical weight to an upstart rivalry trophy, something that would rhyme with the stories of the Little Brown Jug or the Old Oaken Bucket, something that would connect with the bygone early days of college football.

Dear reader, I was wrong.

To be clear, I can’t prove anything. History can be complicated and hazy, especially for an amateur trying to play detective with a story over a century old. But after an obsessive dive into the archives, here are the facts.

Purdue was well known for firing cannons in West Lafayette in victory, regardless of whether the game was home or away.

The Indianapolis Journal. Sunday, November 16, 1902.
The Indianapolis News. Monday, November 14, 1904.

Given the campuses’ locations, a sizable crowd of nearly 300 Purdue fans made the train trip to Champaign in 1905. Purdue beat the shit out of Illinois and went home to celebrate.

The Indianapolis Star. Saturday, October 21, 1905.
The Purdue Exponent. October 27, 1905.

In 1943, Hall handed the Cannon to the Illinois and Purdue athletic directors for use as a traveling trophy and implied that he had a hand in the 1905 theft.

The Dispatch. Moline, Illinois. Wednesday, September 29, 1943.

Hall would have been a freshman in his second month of college for the 1905 Illinois-Purdue game. A year later, he was on the sophomore side of a flag rush against the freshmen in November 1906. This wasn’t a present-day college rush event. Flag rush was an intensely violent version of capture-the-flag in which a banner was raised up a greasy pole, and both sides would attempt to be the first to bring it down. There was only one significant injury in the 1906 version in Champaign; Hall broke his collarbone.

The Champaign County News. Saturday, November 24, 1906.

In 1907, Hall graduated from Illinois a year early with an engineering degree, then promptly left the country to work on the Panama Canal. On a break from Panama in 1909, he returned to Champaign to visit with his Delta Upsilon brothers.

The Daily Illini. Urbana, Illinois. Tuesday, September 28, 1909.

After helping to engineer the Canal, he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota. When the First World War broke out in 1917, Hall enlisted. After the war, he stayed active in a Minneapolis Illini alumni club and continued to work as an engineer.

His family remained in rural Milford, Illinois. In 1935, Hall’s father passed.

After this, Hall listed Minnesota as his permanent residence, but he’s included as part of his aging mother’s household in Milford. Hall traded in his engineering work for the management of the family farm.

By 1940, he made Milford his permanent home. In 1943, he presented Illinois and Purdue with the Cannon.

We now enter into the realm of historical speculation.

Knowing what we know about Purdue fans and their love of explosives at the turn of the century, let’s assume that the Boilermaker fans added a new twist for the 1905 game. Let’s imagine that in addition to the large-scale artillery used in West Lafayette, they also brought a miniature cannon to Champaign.

Let’s imagine that Hall stole it. Maybe he did it to impress his future Delta Upsilon brothers. Perhaps he was a college freshman doing freshman things. Maybe Hall just did it because he was the kind of guy who would violently break his collarbone during an intramural college event.

But the Cannon exists; we have to believe that in 1905, while Illinois was getting their asses kicked by the Boilermakers, a 21-year-old Quincy Hall stumbled upon a miniature military weapon in a ditch, grabbed the damn thing, and ran.

Let’s imagine that it held pride of place in his fraternity house, a memento of the football seasons gone by. Maybe he left it with Delta Upsilon when he boarded a ship bound for Panama, but on break in 1909, nostalgia got the better of him. He took it home and dropped it off at his family farm for safekeeping. There, the cannon sat while he worked on the Canal, served in the war, and engineered the infrastructure of Minneapolis. He lived an entire life while the cannon gathered dust.

And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth. And for nearly forty years, the Cannon passed out of all existence.

Until years later, Hall came home to care for his ailing mother and rediscovered a piece of his youth, tucked away for decades in his childhood home.

It’s probably for the best that most of our college escapades aren’t made of weaponized wrought iron and enshrined in football folklore.

Long live the Purdue Cannon.