I suppose we've become a little used to Pinkerton Academy winning state championships. Our school has become the state's juggernaut with an enrollment of over 3,000 students. So many times we have been crowned the best in football, baseball, lacrosse, basketball and sundry other sports.

Go back 120 years to 1894 and you'd find things very different. Pinkerton was then a school of only 77 students. The school spent zero dollars on sports. Anyone who wanted to play football or baseball had to supply their own uniform and the coaches were unpaid volunteers. The school did however pride itself on its academic prowess. Many of the academy's graduates had met with success at the Ivy League schools and in professional careers. The only extracurricular contest that the school's trustees did support was debating.

In 1886, the students began a debating society named the Philomanthean Society. Its name is from the Greek meaning "Love of things learned." Most debates were between fellow members of the society at monthly meetings. Later the students began to have debating contests between the classes such as seniors vs. sophomores. Only rarely would the academy challenge or be challenged to debate against another school.

In January 1894, the academy received a debate challenge from Manchester High School. The Queen City school's debating team was considered the best in the state and had easily beaten every other school it had met in verbal warfare. If Pinkerton Academy's debaters could beat Manchester's it would be recognized as the new state champion.

This contest took place at 8 p.m. on the evening of Jan. 18, 1894. By mutual agreement the contest was to be held at the academy's chapel on the second floor of the brick Romanesque Pinkerton Building. Admission to the event was 25 cents. An hour before the debate the chapel was filled to capacity with many spectators forced to stand in the rear of the chapel, in nearby classrooms, or in the corridor. A special train had brought 200 from Manchester; these city folk were forced to walk the long mile from the Broadway depot to the academy's campus.

At exactly 8, the three Manchester debaters entered the auditorium; each man wore a bright colored sash bearing the letters "MHS." Immediately after they were seated on the stage the Manchester three and their 200 supporters rocked the room by yelling in "a hilarious and deafening manner" their school's cheer. When the Pinkerton three marched in there was silence. Headmaster George Pinkerton had previously told his students that he expected no cheering; proper decorum to be maintained at this debate. The question to be argued was "Resolved, that Congress should pass more stringent immigration laws." Manchester was to argue the positive; Pinkerton, the negative. The three judges were attorney Greenleaf Bartlett of Derry, Manchester Judge Nathan Hunt and Prof. George Cross of Exeter.

A young man from Manchester went first, giving a well rehearsed speech centering on our country's long history of national crises including that of 1776 and the Civil War. The speaker asserted that the problem of unrestricted immigration had the potential of creating even worse disruption of our nation's fabric. In rebuttal, the Pinkerton student Guy Griffin spoke 12 minutes without notes. He told the judges that up until recently the immigration laws had indeed been too lax. But the new immigration laws of 1891 and 1893 were "as restrictive as could well be desired."

Manchester's second debater again went back to the past when immigration was practically unrestricted and the laws were inefficient; anyone who could buy a ticket could take a boat from Europe or Asia to America and be admitted. Few if any questions were asked of the immigrant. The second Pinkerton speaker, Frank Marsh, countered by producing government statistics to substantiate his belief that America not been being hurt by immigration but rather had been greatly helped.

The last Manchester debater argued that the problems of easy immigration were well documented by the "reliable sources" that he held in his hand. Then, in a dramatic gesture, the Queen City teenager threw these pamphlets and newspapers across the floor toward the Derry debaters. This theatrical break from decorum was not well received by the audience. The final Pinkerton speaker, William Alexander Adams put the final nail in Manchester's coffin. He pointed out to the judges that all their facts and figures were "too antiquated to deserve consideration." He told the judges to look at today's law. Unlike the past, the present (1894) immigration laws keep out undesirables by forbidding entry to "cripples, criminals, paupers, those liable to be paupers, blind people, the aged who were poor or unfit for work, and many other classes" In 1893 alone, there had been 1,600 immigrants rejected for admission to America. To have more immigration laws would hurt America by keeping out people who would help our country grow.

While the three judges deliberated, a piano solo entertained the crowd. Finally, the head judge walked onto stage. He praised both sides ... and then after a long pause told the hushed audience that by unanimous vote the victory belonged to ... Pinkerton. A polite round of applause and muffled cheer went up from the crowd. Soon everyone left the chapel to go to their homes. Once the Pinkerton students were out of the building, a very loud and sustained cheer "was given with a vigor that made the hills and hollows ring with echoes." Probably even Headmaster Bingham wasn't upset by this breach of decorum. I can even imagine that the six-foot-four principal might have even joined in the howling and hollering. Why not! For the first time in its long history, Pinkerton Academy was recognized as the best in the state.

Pinkerton was No. 1 ... and this would be far from the last time that we would be recognized as New Hampshire's best.

Rick Holmes is the official town historian of Derry. His office hours at the Municipal Center are Mondays from 8 a.m. to noon and Wednesdays from 4 to 7 p.m. Several of his books on local history are available at Mack’s Apples and Derry’s libraries.

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