photo illustration of Hugh Troy, Class of 1926, on a graphic background

Prankster’s Legendary Exploits Enthralled Cornellians for Decades

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Hugh Troy 1926 played epic practical jokes on campus and elsewhere, painted murals—and went on to join the CIA

By Joe Wilensky

He was an accomplished artist and a prolific writer—authoring children’s books and penning many humorous pieces for Esquire, Life, and The New Yorker. He served in World War II as a combat intelligence officer, and spent more than a decade at the CIA.

But Hugh Troy 1926 is best remembered—on the Hill and beyond—as an unrepentant prankster and practical joker.

Some of Troy’s campus pranks were elaborate, like adding a fake pipe to the Bailey Hall organ and filling it with various items—including a live duck.

Others were fairly simple (and, in retrospect, rather meanspirited), like setting up phony “class photo” shoots, only to have the posers drenched with water as he clicked the shutter.

In his heyday and for decades afterward, Troy was lauded by many as the “world’s greatest practical joker.”

In 1983, his legend was bolstered by a biography penned by his cousin, Con Troy 1928—titled, aptly enough, Laugh with Hugh Troy.

"Laugh with Hugh Troy" book cover

But nearly a century after his time on the Hill—and almost 60 years after his death in 1964, at age 58—Troy is no longer remembered by most Cornellians, and it’s hard to parse fact, exaggeration, and fiction from the decades-old tales of his exploits.

An Ithaca native and the son of a dairy science professor (Hugh Troy Sr. 1895), Troy first studied architecture and then fine arts on the Hill, while building a reputation for an ambitious and varied series of japes and pranks, often with the help of co-conspirators.

He stole a well-known professor’s boots, painted them to look like bare feet, then covered them in lampblack and returned them. The next time the man wore them in the rain, the lampblack washed off, creating an amusing spectacle.

One of his most famous practical jokes gave rise to the short-lived legend of the Beebe Lake rhinoceros.

A Hugh Troy-illustrated cover of the program to an October 1947 Cornell vs. Navy football game
As an alum, Troy illustrated Big Red game programs, like this football one from 1947. (Provided)

Using a professor’s wastebasket made out of a real rhino foot (yes, this was a thing back then), Troy made tracks in the freshly fallen snow early one winter morning. The footprints went across campus to a hole in the Beebe Lake ice, making it look like the animal had fallen in.

A zoologist examined the prints and confirmed they were, indeed, that of a rhinoceros; some avoided drinking the campus water, complaining of a rhino-like aftertaste.

Tragically, though, the story may be fabricated; no newspapers mentioned it at the time. Even Morris Bishop 1913, PhD 1926, in his A History of Cornell, noted that “no one in Ithaca remembers hearing the tale until long afterward.”

Similarly, Troy was said to have written sports stories for the Daily Sun about a fictional student, Johnny Tsal, who always came in last—his surname spelled backward—at track meets, but there’s no trace of them in the Sun archives.

“I think Hugh Troy’s greatest talent was storytelling, given that many of the pranks he’s become known for seem to have never actually happened—but he was undoubtedly a larger-than-life personality,” says Corey Earle ’07, who teaches a popular course on Cornell history and includes tales about Troy in a lecture on campus pranksters.

Other Ithaca exploits attributed to Troy include: painting a series of black ovals (resembling toilet seats) on the bench of a trolley car waiting booth; tricking local police into letting him and his friends steal every barber pole in town; scaring a professor with a trompe l’oeil artwork of a hole in a “crumbling” classroom ceiling; and painting, in Greek, a phrase akin to “and so’s your old man” in a mural that included real quotations from classical playwrights.

He was undoubtedly a larger-than-life personality.

Cornell history expert Corey Earle ’07

“You don’t sit around and think up a practical joke and then go out and buy all the things to do it with,” Troy said during a panel discussion on campus in 1960, where he explained that most of his pranks were based on spur-of-the-moment ideas. “A situation presents itself, and you just can’t help doing something about it.”

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(When not engaging in practical jokes, Troy found time to paint conventional murals—including in Willard Straight Hall’s Ivy Room, a fraternity house, and the Ithaca Yacht Club.)

Troy managed to evade serious consequences for his cheeky exploits—until the end of his senior year, when he and a few friends produced a satirical newspaper as part of the traditional Spring Day festivities.

Front page of the 1926 satirical newspaper that got Troy and several classmates in trouble
The infamous newspaper. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

Called The Globe & Square Dealer, it described a student being given arsenic in the infirmary and poked fun at the honor system with a story headlined “All Seniors But One Ousted from Arts College.”

But it was a page 4 headline—“President Breaks Wind for New Aeronautical College on Upper Alumni Field”—that got him into hot water. (“Banquet Lends Festive Air to Occasion,” the next line jovially observed.)

A situation presents itself, and you just can’t help doing something about it.

Hugh Troy 1926, on his inspiration for pranking

Administrators tried to buy up all copies of the offensive issue, even as it garnered real-life media coverage.

(As the Syracuse American reported: “‘Bad Taste’ Causes Ban on Naughty Cornell Magazine.”)

The group was hauled before a faculty committee; most had their credits for the term canceled. Troy—listed on the masthead as “Unmanageable Editor”—took full responsibility, and was additionally suspended for the next semester.

He never did return to complete his degree—though he did occasionally come back years later, as an invited speaker recalling his adventures.

After moving to NYC—where he worked as a muralist and writer—Troy continued his pranks. In a twist on his Ithaca barber pole jape, he purchased a park bench and, with friends, would carry it out of city parks; when police would stop them for theft, he’d present the bill of sale.

He and some cohorts also donned work clothes and gathered shovels, pickaxes, and road signs, then dug a large hole at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 54th Street—leaving it blocked off.

It reportedly took the city three weeks to realize that the authentic-looking worksite was fake.

1941 postcard, illustrated by Hugh Troy, to advertise the release of his book “The Chippendale Dam”
Troy, an award-winning illustrator and author of children’s books, created this 1941 postcard to advertise his latest. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

And, in what may be the ultimate mashup of life and art, Troy crafted a human ear out of dried beef, mounted it in a velvet-lined shadow box, and surreptitiously installed it in a Van Gogh exhibit—labeling it as the organ the artist had cut off in 1888.

“Soon a large crowd was gathered around the ear, ignoring the paintings,” observes, where a few of Troy’s alleged exploits are chronicled. “Troy, meanwhile, was able to examine Van Gogh’s works in peace.”

Top image: Photo illustration by Cornell University.

Published March 29, 2023


  1. Sharon Hegarty Williams, Class of 1965

    My father, Dr. (Charles) Paul Hegarty ‘34 BS Ag, PhD ‘38 was one of Hugh Troy’s “co-conspirators”. He often talked about marching across the Arts Quad over fresh snow on the other end of Hugh’s pole, from which was suspended Professor Fuertes rhino foot wastebasket. He never mentioned going on to Beebe lake.

    He said Hugh also placed a crashed plane in the middle of the Arts Quad. Dad spent many hours with Hugh while Hugh painted murals at the Ithaca Hotel downtown.

    • Sharon Hegarty Williams, Class of 1965

      Nancy, I believe 6’ 7” President Rhodes requested it be done, and it was accomplished with the type of of crane they used to clean the clock and change the time.

  2. Nancy Daly Chretien, Class of 1972

    I so enjoyed reading this article about Hugh’s pranks on my beloved Alma Mater. I had never heard about him before. Someone needs to tell these stories to the incoming freshman to keep the history alive. Cornell has an illustrious history. Now if we could only find out who put the pumpkin on top of the BellTower in the late 1990s.

  3. Kenn Young, Class of 1977

    All through my years at Cornell’s school of architecture, the freshman photo always ended with buckets of water dumped on the unaware incoming class. Sounds like Hugh Troy might’ve started that tradition.

    • John Finn, Class of 1983

      Thanks for a great article! A devious group of alumni recently restarted H.T. exploits. Woolly mammoth tracks were seen on the ag quad, etc.
      Check out youtube “Join The Funn!”

  4. Carol Troy

    Hugh Troy was my uncle — my father Francis B Troy, Cornell 1929, often told tales of Hugh. The two roomed together in NYC during Prohibition (!). My father loved twins Johnny & Connie Larco-Herrera (sp?) of Lima, Peru who had the museum of gold– and lots of cows. Anyone interested in further Hugh Troy family stories can phone me via WhatsApp in San Miguel de Allende, in the Mexican high plains. Books, paintings etc. Carol Troy. Vassar 1966

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