Hazing at Cornell: A Tradition?

12 08 2010

So, I’m sure there a couple of pro-Greek readers who are already feeling a little twinge of concern regarding the title of this article. I have little interest in pursuing current events regarding hazing (except for News Tidbits entries). I’ve graduated, and unless I get an email on my fraternity’s alumni listserve that says they’ve been suspended or kicked off campus (heaven forbid), I’m not going to pay attention to the half-hearted attempts of the current Tri-Council to police its affiliated chapters. More importantly, hazing is not just limited to the Greek system; campus clubs and intercollegiate sports teams have been guilty of hazing practices as well. According to Cornell’s anti-hazing website, the definition of hazing is very vague, and just about anything that causes physical or mental discomfort is hazing. In that vein, a pledge quiz or an extra lap for the new track team distance runners could conceivably be hazing. However, most people have a pretty good idea where the line is crossed between hazing and non-hazing.

Historically speaking though, Cornell’s tradition of hazing in its more recognizable forms goes back virtually to the founding of the university (and on a larger scale, back to the times of ancient Greece). The first hazing death at Cornell (and the first Greek hazing death in the country) would occur in October 1873, only eight years after the university’s founding.

Mortimer N. Leggett was a member of the class of 1877, a freshman who had arrived on campus only a month prior. He was well off, the son of General M. D. Leggett, the U.S. Commissioner of Internal Revenue. He wrote home nearly every day and spoke very highly of Cornell and its students. He received an offer to join the Kappa Alpha Society (up until the middle of the 20th century, freshman could join fraternities as soon as they arrived on campus), which he regarded highly for its abstinence from strong drinks and prohibition of foul language among members. Well, one night in early October, Leggett was blindfolded and transported into the countryside, and told to find his way home. After some time wandering, two sophomores of the society met up with him, removed his blindfold, and they began to walk back in what they thought was the right direction. Tragically, as they were unfamiliar with the topography, all three stumbled off a gorge cliff near modern day Giles Street in Ithaca, and fell into Six Mile Creek below. Mortimer Leggett succumbed to the injuries sustained in the fall, and the two sophomores were seriously injured. While obviously upset over the incident, General Leggett concluded no real hazing had taken place, just some “hocus-pocus” that went horribly wrong. He later accepted honorary membership into the fraternity [Bishop 132].

Twenty years later, another death from a hazing prank occurred. This one requires a bit of a background explanation. Up until about the late 1930s, the sophomore class always battled the freshman class as a rite of passage. Basically, the two classes were to beat the living crap out of each other as a way to attain/maintain dominance. Formally known as rushes, the brawls were so bad in some years that the Ithaca police had to break it up, akin to a massive riot.

Well, after the frosh won a sporting event in early 1894, the sophomores devised a scheme to pay them back. While the frosh were attending a formal dinner at the Masonic Temple in downtown Ithaca, several sophomores drilled a hole into the floor above the party, inserted a tube and attached it to a chlorine generator [Nuwer 105] . However, they misdrilled, and instead of pumping gas into the banquet hall, the chlorine was pumped into the kitchen, near a stove. It was suspected the the chlorine chemically reacted with small amounts of carbon monoxide to produce phosgene, a compound made famous as a chemical weapon during WWI (basically, it destroys the body’s ability to carry oxygen from the lungs and into red blood cells, leading to choking fits and suffocation). The freshmen began to have coughing fits and breathing difficulties and promptly evacuated the premises. It wasn’t until about 3 AM that the body of cook Henrietta Jackson was discovered in the kitchen. Cornell turned the matter over to police, but the police nor private detectives not a hefty reward from faculty could draw out the culprits of the crime. In the Book Wrongs of Passage by Hank Nuwer, at least two other hazing deaths occurred in the late 1800s, but these are not explained in detail.

Notably, these are just some of the higher-profile cases. Times change, and there haven’t been fatalities at C.U., but hazing continues in its dangerous forms.

Fast forward a century. Prior to the late 1990s, the house at 409 Elmwood Avenue in Collegetown was the house of Alpha Phi Alpha, a very-well respected, historically African-American fraternity. In the fall of 1994, an Alpha pledge named Sylvester Lloyd was beaten so badly that he needed skin grafts to repair the damage and blood transfusions to limit infection. The fraternity lost recognition and Cornell attempted to sell the house (based off later university maps, it seems they were successful, as it’s not listed as a campus property). Lloyd sued the fraternity and Cornell for several million dollars, but the case against Cornell was dismissed (can’t seem to find how much he got from the fraternity; but his linkedin profile is one of the first things that comes up in google). The fraternity closed, reopened and struggled from about 2003-2006, and closed only to restart again about two years ago. It’s a messy history and their hazing incident is a big reason why.

Then of course, there’s the expose Adam Zwecker wrote, “Hazed and Confused”, which was published in Spring 2004. The house involved has its identity kept a secret, but it seems folks have a pretty good idea who it is. I’d discuss this work more, but I’ve already profiled it in previous entries; it’s a really good read if you have a half hour of time to read through it all.

Hazing continues today; several organizations have been punished (I use that term lightly) for hazing in the past few years, the latest being Alpha Delt’s “Ivygate Affair” (fun fact – I edited the article on that incident because one pledge’s father would not leave me alone until I did). It’s not right and it’s hardly justifiable, but it still happens and it will continue to happen. Even if we had no Greek system, hazing would still exist on campus. Even if you took away the sports teams, and the service frats and the clubs, it would still exist. Sadly, I think the university can try its damndest to control it, but it will never go away completely. But it doesn’t hurt for the university to try to do what it can to protect the students’ well being.



One response

18 08 2010

The rushes worked like a capture-the-flag of sorts. All of the Freshmen would line up on one side and all of the sophomores on the other 50~200 feet apart and in the middle would be an item, traditionally a cane or log or something. After someone said “Go!” everone would “Rush” toward the item and attempt to claim it for their class. This event would devolve into a giant brawl with members of each class ripping parts of each others’ clothing for souvineers. When a winner was finally declared, the item was cut or broken into small pieces and one piece was given to all members of the winning class.

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