February 21, 2017

LETTER TO THE EDITOR | Cornell’s Strangest Tradition

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To the Editor:

This spring we will contemplate the 50th anniversary of the second greatest loss of life tragedy in the history of Cornell University: the Cornell Heights Residential Club fire of April 5, 1967 that took the lives of eight students and one professor. This was the first of three incendiary attacks on students in the College of Arts and Sciences six-year PhD Program by person or persons unknown.

Yes, these deaths were murders, but why do none of the several memorials for the victims ― the official statements, the services in Sage Chapel, the lone plaque at the steps of Hurlburt House, ever mention that horrific fact? Paging back through the Ithaca and New York newspapers of 1967 we find that the authorities were certain that the fires were arson and that a Canadian laboratory reported traces of a fluid accelerant in all three. And one Cornell student was mysteriously missing from the scene when classes resumed that fall.

How was all of this forgotten? There was never an arrest, never an arraignment, never a trial and never, after the summer of 1967, a report of case status by any University or law enforcement official. The deaths could not be erased, but the crime, the nine homicides, could be slipped into an Orwellian memory hole and replaced with, as we might say today, alternative facts.

A student of Cornell history will not be surprised at this amnesia. Consider the following two precedents.

On Feb. 20, 1894, sophomore pranksters injected chlorine gas into Ithaca’s downtown Masonic Hall filled with banqueting freshmen. Many were sickened, some critically, and a black cook, Mrs. Henrietta Jackson, was killed. The coroner investigated and identified two suspects, law student Fred Luther Taylor ’96 who refused to incriminate himself during grand jury proceedings, and his roommate, engineering student Carl Louis Dingens ’96. No indictments resulted, no trial occurred and the homicide remained technically unsolved. Taylor and Dingens continued with their studies and took their Cornell degrees in June of 1896.

In 1901 businessman William Torrey Morris, Cornell ’73, obtained control of the Ithaca Water Works with the help of friends on the Cornell Board of Trustees (notably Chi Phi fraternity brother Robert Henry Treman ’78) who underwrote a $100,000 bond issue. In 1902 he directed that construction begin on a reservoir fed by Six Mile Creek in the watershed between East and South Hills, but failed to insure that work crews had adequate access to sanitary facilities and, out of financial considerations, elected not to build a needed water filtration facility. In 1903 fecal contamination of the city’s water supply derived from that watershed led to a typhoid epidemic.  Eighty-two people died, including 29 Cornell students. University President Jacob Gould Schurman and the Trustee’s Executive Committee campaigned with much success to keep these circumstances and their role in this disaster out of the nation’s newspapers. So we have negligence, wanton disregard of human life, simple murder and absolutely no retribution, no trial, and no justice. On June 16, 1903, Theodor Zinck (the pub owner immortalized in “Give my Regards to Davy”, 1905), despondent over the death of his daughter, Louise, rowed a boat from the shore of Lake Cayuga. On June 22, draggers recovered his body from the depths.

This is the quintessential Cornell Tradition: inadvertent murder, befuddled police, never a trial and the miscreants escape ― careers untroubled, unhindered. Then all is forgotten. Any memorial to the dead is sanitized; the underlying cause of death ― manslaughter, chicanery, malfeasance, is purged from the record. As Vonnegut said, “And so it goes.”

And The Cornell Daily Sun? In the case of the 1894 Chlorine Banquet The Sun did a passable job covering the then public grand jury proceeding, but it never took aim at Morris or any of his Cornell trustee enablers when the cause of the 1903 typhoid epidemic was discovered. Similarly, the 1967 Res Club tragedy was never reported for what it was: a multiple homicide by one or more serial arsonists. The University trustees called for a policy of “official silence” and the Sun rolled over. There you have it: three loss-of-life tragedies, but only one declared murder in the lot.

So what will The Sun publish on this 50th anniversary? A minimalist story: there was a fire, nine dead, how sad? Or will The Sun editors dig and dig deeply ― examining documentary scraps in the Library archives, demanding fresh statements from law enforcement authorities, seeking clues in the files of the University Counsel and reporting obstructions as they occur? It is time for some grown-up investigative journalism. Does The Cornell Daily Sun have what it takes? Inquiring minds want to know.

William Fogle, Jr. ’70

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for sharing. I’m afraid the Sun does not have what it takes. They try to be everything to everyone and the important issues are lost among Sex-on Thursday articles and the like.

  • Grammarian


    • Bill Fogle

      Thank you. I see that I am archaic. Bill
      Brian A. Klems on “Ensure vs. Insure.”
      “There are some newspapers and magazines, such as The New York Times and The New Yorker, that still use “insure” in both instances, but it’s fairly archaic to do so. Most publications differentiate the two.”

      • Grammarian

        My sincerest apologies. My intention was to sound simultaneously perspicacious and obnoxious, and I seem to have achieved the latter without the former. I regret attempting either. Thank you for making us all a little more knowledgeable today.

  • Watching Fogle for years

    Assuming that there were official cover-ups in 1894 and 1903 does not logically imply that there was a cover up in 1967. Many generations of Cornell leaders had passed in the interim.

    The responsibility for investigating the deaths at the Residential Club rests with the Village of Cayuga Heights, the State of New York and the federal government, not Cornell. At the time, Cornell had 49 members of its Board of Trustees and a number of senior administrators. One would have to imagine a very large conspiracy to keep the murder quiet.

    The first rule of journalism is “consider the source.” The author of this letter also wrote letters to the editor (including one published in the Cornell Alumni Magazine) arguing against the NYC Cornell Tech program on the grounds that an affiliation with Technion would bring in the covert participation of Israel’s Massad spy network.

    Was Cornell criminally negligent in failing to provide a working sprinkler system in the Residential Club (a building that was purchased by Cornell rather than built from scratch as a dorm)? At this point, it does not matter. What is important is that the fire caused Cornell to reexamine fire safety in all of its buildings and those higher life safety standards continue to be applied today.

    • Bill Fogle


      14 Mar 1968, attorneys representing Jeffrey W. Smith, Sr. (b. 05 Apr 1918), the father of Jeffrey W. Smith, Jr. (b. 24 Oct 1949, d. 05 April 1967), file a wrongful death action against officials of Cornell University in the U.S. District Court, Northern District of New York. A judgement of $1,750,000 is demanded. This case goes to a jury trial. On 21 Aug 1972 attorney’s for Cornell formally concede in a stipulation “that Cornell University was negligent in a manner which resulted in the death of Jeffrey W. Smith, Jr.” The case closes with a settlement for the plaintiff.

      A memorandum filed with the lawsuit on 11 Dec 1972 revealed that Smith’s father suffered “a severe neurotic depressive reaction” and was ruled to be disabled by the Social Security Administration following the death of his son. Smith’s mother (b. 10 Feb 1918) fell into a severe depression and “committed suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills” on 12 Oct 1969. Both parents were age forty-nine at the time of Smith’s death.

      U.S. District Court, NDNY, Civil Action, 68-CV-91, Jeffrey W. Smith Sr., etc. v. Cornell University. Cornell Daily Sun, LXXXIV, #107 (15 Mar 1968): “$1.75M Suit Filed” by Sam Roberts. Cornell Daily Sun, LXXXIV, #109 (19 Mar 1968): “Notice Given in Fire Suit.”

      Excerpts, NDNY, 68 Civ 91 Jeffrey W. Smith Sr., etc v. Cornell University
      Verified Complaint, filed 14 March 1968 (Excerpt)

      JEFFREY W. SMITH, SR., as Administrator of the Goods, Chattels and Credits of JEFFREY W. SMITH, JR., deceased, Plaintiff, against CORNELL UNIVERSITY, Defendant

      Civil Action No. 68-CV-91

      EIGHTEENTH: That on the 5th day of April, 1967, during the pre-dawn hours of that day, while the plaintiff’s intestate was a resident or tenant of the aforesaid Cornell Heights Residence Club, and was then and there lawfully on said premises, a fire originated and spread in said premises, as a result of the negligence of the defendant, thereby causing the plaintiff’s intestate to sustain personal injuries resulting in his death.
      NINETEENTH; That the aforesaid accident and death of the plaintiff’s intestate resulting therefrom, were caused solely by the negligence of the defendant, without any negligence on the part of the plaintiff’s intestate contributing thereto.
      TWENTIETH: The defendant, CORNELL UNIVERSITY, was negligent in failing and omitting to exercise reasonable care to keep the aforesaid Cornell Heights Residence Club in a reasonably safe condition for use of persons lawfully on said premises; in carelessly, recklessly and negligently operating, maintaining and controlling the aforesaid premises, so as to create, maintain and cause the aforesaid dangerous conditions to exist; in violating the fire laws, rules and regulations then and there existing; in violating the building code regulations then and there existing; in causing a large conflagration to be started and maintained in the aforesaid premises; in causing, allowing and maintaining a nuisance, hazard and trap to exist on the aforesaid premises; in failing and omitting to use reasonable care to prevent fires from breaking out in the aforesaid premises; in failing and omitting to promulgate and enforce safety rules and regulations in the case of fire in the aforesaid premises; in carelessly and recklessly operating and maintaining the aforesaid premises so as to make the same unsafe for those lawfully upon the same; in failing and omitting to furnish proper and sufficient exits so as to permit the residents of the aforesaid residence club to leave said premises in case of fire, and more particularly in that residents; of the second floor thereof, where five of the fire victims resided, were forced to escape through window, by hanging bed sheets and shower curtains therefrom and climbing to the ground because their only means of escape was the central staircase, which was filled with dense acrid smoke; in failing and omitting to furnish and maintain sufficient and adequate fire extinguishers and other proper firefighting equipment on the premises; in negligently storing large quantities of highly combustible and inflammable materials and substances in the aforesaid premises, without any fireproof covering or any adequate and reasonable safeguards for the prevention or spread of fire in the aforesaid premises, particularly in the basement thereof; in failing and omitting to adopt a proper and adequate plan of evacuation of the aforesaid premises by the residents in case of fire; in failing and omitting to properly inspect the aforesaid premises for potential fire hazards; in negligently designing, constructing and maintaining the aforesaid premises, without proper fire safeguards for the protection of the occupants thereof; in failing and omitting to erect and maintain smoke barriers and to provide adequate ventilation in the aforesaid premises, and more particularly, in that all the victims in said fire died from asphyxiation; in failing and omitting to take proper and adequate precautions to prevent the inception of the fire and to take proper steps to extinguish the fire before it had spread; in negligently repairing, renovating and redecorating the aforesaid premises, and more particularly, in removing the fire doors in the process; in failing and omitting to furnish reasonable means of access to said premises for firemen and firefighting equipment; in failing to submit to the Cayuga Heights Fire Department, during the year 1966, a fire inspection report by the Cornell Fire Inspector, pursuant to an agreement with the City of Ithaca and the Village of Cayuga Heights, permitting the defendant to inspect its own buildings for potential fire hazards; in failing and omitting to file its 1966 fire inspection report with the director of the New York State Division of Fire Safety, in direct violation of Section 807 (b) of the Education Law, which states, inter alia, that “all such records so filed in any public office shall be kept as public records”; in failing and omitting to correct the numerous deficiencies noted in its 1965 inspection report made on May 4, 1965; and in further failing and omitting to follow the directives contained in the official analysis of said 1965 inspection report, by George H. Proper, Jr., the Director of the New York State Division of Fire Safety, in December, 1965, ordering, inter alia, (a) that there shall be at least two means of direct exit to the outside ground level, remote from each other, leading from each floor of student occupancy,” and more particularly, in that, at the time of said fire, only the first floor of the aforesaid residence club met said specifications, and that five students died on the second floor from smoke presumably when they were unable to get out of the building; (b) that ” corridors over 300 feet length should be provided with smoke barriers to prevent fire-smoke from extending to other sections of the building”, and more particularly, in that all nine deaths in said fire were caused by the smoke which swept through the building’s corridors which still lacked any kind of smoke barriers; (c) “that all exit ways leading from places of assembly should be provided with emergency lighting independent of the normal electric service,” and more particularly, in that after the lights went out during the fire, the residents at said resident club groped through the corridors filled with gray acrid smoke, searching for exits; (d) “every building of student occupancy should be equipped with an adequate fire alarm system,” and more particularly, in that there was a delay in sounding the fire alarms after the discovery of the fire; (e) “if the inspection is conducted by other than the fire department affording protection, the school authorities shall give reasonable notice when the review will be made to | the local fire department”, and more particularly, in that local fire officials were not notified thereof, as aforesaid; in failing and omitting to have fire escapes from the second floor of the aforesaid residence club, as required by the Building Code of the City of Ithaca; in failing and omitting to have a sprinkler system in the corridors and halls of the aforesaid residence club; in failing and omitting to properly investigate the series of recent small fires in the aforesaid residence club and to take proper safety precautions to prevent future fires; in failing and omitting to have fire doors in the aforesaid residence club at the time of said fire; in failing and omitting to instruct the resident s of the aforesaid residence club as to what to do in case of a fire; in failing and omitting to conduct periodic fire drills during the then current academic year, in violation of Section 807-3 of the
      Education Law, which provides that “fire drills shall be held at least three of times in each year, one/Which fire drills shall be held between September 1, and December 1 of each year,” and which make such neglect a misdemeanor; in failing and omitting to have night watchmen or other guards on the premises of the aforesaid residence club; in negligently overcrowding the aforesaid residence club; in carelessly and negligently failing to promulgate or enforce any rule or rules for the warning of residents and occupants of the aforesaid residence club of the existence of a fire therein; in carelessly and negligently failing to advise or warn the residents or occupants of the aforesaid residence club that the same was on fire after the said fire had been discovered; in negligently, carelessly, wrongfully and unlawfully allowing, maintaining and permitting the aforesaid premises and the appurtenances belonging thereto and used in common therewith, to be, remain, and continue in a defective, dangerous and unsafe condition; in that the aforesaid residence club was an inherently dangerous structure and instrumentality; and in otherwise being careless and negligent in the premises.