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