GRANVILLE, Ohio - What they hoped to accomplish by setting off a smoke bomb in a dorm-room laundry basket is unclear. If they wanted attention, they got it. They might end up with far more. Neither Denison University officials nor local authorities are amused by the latest stunt that some are blaming on a century-old secret society of student pranksters.
GRANVILLE, Ohio — What they hoped to accomplish by setting off a smoke bomb in a dorm-room laundry basket is unclear. If they wanted attention, they got it.
They might end up with far more.
Neither Denison University officials nor local authorities are amused by the latest stunt that some are blaming on a century-old secret society of student pranksters. The state fire marshal’s office is investigating the Oct. 24 fire in Beaver Hall, which was quickly ruled arson.
“This senseless act put the lives of more than 80 students in danger and could have turned deadly,” Chief Deputy State Fire Marshal Jeff Leaming said in a news release the next day.
Charges have yet to be filed, but witnesses who spoke to Granville Township firefighters that night seemed to have little doubt about who was responsible. They gave up a name that has been attached to mischief at the private school for decades.
“Several masked suspects entered the building wearing full-faced hockey masks and ‘Wingless Angels’ black or red sweatshirts,” the fire department’s report reads. And so a society that operates beneath a shroud of anonymity could soon have faces, names and even criminal charges attached to its members.
“I think that their intention is to draw attention to themselves,” said Laurel Kennedy, Denison’s vice president for student development. “I think, in this instance, it got away from them.”
The Wingless Angels started in 1905 as a group of kids who just wanted to drink, according to an Oct. 30 profile of the society in the student newspaper, The Denisonian. Over time, the Angels morphed into a small group of pranksters who embraced the slogan “righting the wrongs of Denison.”
Not everyone was charmed, though. After the Angels raided a women’s dormitory in 1966, Denison’s faculty and student councils tried to take down the society by forbidding students to be part of any organization that disguises the identity of its members. That didn’t work.
The so-called “Mystic and Calorific Band of the Wingless Angels” persisted. Over the years, its actions became more bizarre.
The Angels, who have a membership of fewer than 10 that changes annually, once revealed their identities and played a friendly softball game with administrators at the end of the school year, Kennedy said. But that ended as the pranks became more mean-spirited. Sometimes, things got violent: In 1987, members of the Angels were accused of trying to decapitate a turkey in the dining hall and then assaulting the manager who tried to unmask them.
As the group’s actions became more extreme, fellow students started losing patience. When the Angels threatened to put feces in food to force a dining-hall boycott in 2008, a writer for campus publication The Bullsheet questioned whether the group even cared about students anymore.
“You just like running around in stupid masks pushing people over, playing in your imaginary gang,” he wrote.
Local authorities noticed a change in the Angels as well. In recent years, the secret society seemed to cross a line, said Granville Township Fire Chief Jeff Hussey
“Historically, they engaged in pranks and things that were not criminal in nature and not necessarily destruction,” Hussey said. “They’re really committing crimes now.”
In the past three years, fire crews have responded to four fires thought to have been set by the Angels. Two involved the torching of homemade signs, one was a failed attempt to scorch a “WA” into a front lawn, and the fourth was the Beaver Hall fire.
According to the fire-department report in that most-recent fire, a group of masked people entered several occupied rooms in Beaver Hall before finding an empty sleeping room just before 9 p.m. They placed an 8-inch-long smoke bomb deep into a basket of clothes and then ran outside and into a waiting sport-utility vehicle.
The fire didn’t burn long. University security personnel put it out with an extinguisher. Michael Cohen, who is a junior at the school, wrote on Twitter that the Angels are “officially a joke and bring shame to Denison students.”
Cohen, of Houston, said he can’t say for certain that the Angels are to blame, but “the stunt definitely got students mad.”
The Wingless Angels did not respond to a Facebook message seeking comment, and former members — some of whom are lawyers and bankers and high-level executives — didn’t want to talk about the society.
The Angels do seem to want to distance themselves from the Beaver Hall fire, though. On Oct. 27, they posted: “We are in no way related to the incidences on Wednesday night,” adding, “We shall find those responsible and bring them to justice.”