The Hugo N. Frye Sesquicentennial Committee of Cornell University planned an event to honor New York’s often-overlooked political activist and founder of the New York Republican Party. The event was scheduled for May 26, 1930, and the organizers sent invitations to politicians throughout the country. Since Frye was, admittedly, a lesser-known historical figure, the invitations included some pertinent information about him:
“This little-known patriot of Central New York has been deprived of the fame that should have been his for his part in the organization of the Republican Party in New York State. Born on a little farm in the struggling hamlet of Elmira, near the scene of Sullivan’s encounter with the Indians, Frye served his country in the War of 1812, and returned to take a humble but active part in the political life of his community.
From his opposition to the Mexican War was born the idea of a political party that would incorporate the principles of protection for our industries and freedom for the Negro. His slogans: ‘Protection for our Prosperity’ and ‘Freedom in the Land of the Free’ became the rallying cry of those honest farmers who later became the nucleus of the Republican Party in the Empire State.”
The organizers may have been disappointed by the lack of notable guests. None of the invited dignitaries were able to attend. They did, however, receive a number of responses, expressing their deep admiration for Frye.
Charles Curtis, the Vice President of the United States, sent his regrets, adding, “I congratulate the Republicans on paying this respect to the memory of Hugo N. Frye and wish you a most successful occasion.”
Joining the VP in expressing his admiration of Frye, Secretary of Labor James Davis wrote, “It is a pleasure to testify to the career of that sturdy patriot who first planted the ideals of our party in this region of the country. If he were living today he would be the first to rejoice in evidence everywhere present that our government is still safe in the hands of the people.”
Claudius Hart Huston, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, wrote, “Our country has been providentially favored in every crisis in not only having men who were willing to espouse the cause they were convinced was honorable and just, but who were willing to bear the brunt of being in the forefront of economic and political thought.”
The first congresswoman to be elected from New York, Ruth Pratt, sent her greetings: “Greetings and all good wishes to all of you who are gathered to pay tribute to the memory of Hugo N. Frye. I wish it were possible for me to be with you.”
The laudatory comments about Frye certainly sounded nice. There was just one tiny problem: Hugo N. Frye never existed. He was the creation of two student editors of the Cornell Sun, Edward T. Horn III (who went on to become a prominent Lutheran pastor and author of The Christian Year) and Lester Blummer. “Hugo N. Frye” was their crafty way of saying, “You go and fry.”
The Hugo N. Frye Sesquicentennial celebration event took place on schedule. The culmination of the festivities was the solemn reading of all of the politicians’ words of support for the fictitious honoree.
Word of the hoax quickly spread around the country. Mississippi Senator Byron Patton “Pat” Harrison gleefully read aloud a newspaper account of the hoax while Vice President Curtis was presiding over the chamber. Curtis, for his part, took it all in good humor. He was seen joining in the senators’ laughter, even as he attempted to restore decorum to the proceedings.
The New York World, on May 30, 1930, applauded the students’ prank, writing, “Simply, one imagines, because some politicians feel it necessary to go beyond the bounds of sensible decorum in everything they do: in their speeches, they laud causes that were explained to them only five minutes before they entered the hall; in their personal contacts, they claim acquaintanceships that they never had; in their letters, they pretend admiration for ‘sturdy patriots’ that they never even heard of. This is supposed to represent being on the job, playing the game, keeping the fences in repair; what it actually does represent is a sleazy kind of fawning, and it is a pleasure once in a while to see it trip its toe and come sprawling on its face.”
Not everyone was as pleased with the Frye incident. Cornell administration took issue with the hoax and required Horn and Blummer to send letters of apology to those who had been duped.
The Hearst newspapers offered the students $500 for the original letters from the politicians. Having already felt the heat of campus administration, however, the young men declined the offer. Instead, in a public ceremony, they burned the letters.