American newspaperman Philip Leslie Graham (1915–1963) was fond of saying that journalism is the “first rough draft of history,” but sometimes that first draft is a long time coming.
Just this month, The New York Times published N. R. “Sonny” Kleinfield’s thorough account of the April 1967 fire that took the lives of a Cornell assistant professor and eight students: “Never Solved, a College Dorm Fire Has Become One Manʼs Obsession.” Many will read this story as the belated search for a suspected arsonist, a miscreant who allegedly attacked and killed Cornellians, including members of the University’s novel Six-year PhD Program. But Kleinfield’s engrossing tale is primarily about alleged public corruption in a town-gown enclave: namely, collusion by Cornell University administrators, local law enforcement officials and the press to stall a criminal investigation.
In June of 1967, after a second and third fire again struck the ‘Fud’ students who had been relocated from their damaged Cayuga Heights Residential Club dormitory, Ithaca Police Chief Herbert L. Van Ostrand (1907–1997), Ithaca Fire Chief Charles M. Weaver ’39 (1917–1992) and Tompkins County District Attorney Richard Byron Thaler ’53, LLB ’56 (1932–2017) each stated for the record that they suspected the first fatal fire to be arson.
But then the story died — completely. The last mentions of any active criminal investigation were in The New York Times (3 June 1967), The Ithaca Journal (17 August 1967), The Cornell Alumni News (October 1967) and The Cornell Daily Sun (5 April and 13 May 1968). Kleinfield reports that one of the last two living police investigators, Harlin R. McEwen, doubts that the Res Club fire was arson, insisting that any inquiry is a trip “down a rabbit hole.” Tompkins County District Attorney Matthew Van Houten appears to be more than a little vague about the homicide question despite his April 2017 admission, “We do know that the fire was of human origin.”
So, we have gone from official certainty in 1967 that the fatal fire was arson to doubt in 2018 with no evidence of any kind to justify this bureaucratically convenient revision. Three questions remain. Were these nine deaths murders? Why did the criminal investigation stall without any result? Why did a feckless press corps allow this tragedy to slip into a half-century memory hole?
There is still work to be done. This is not a search for the murderer; it is an investigation into why and how that law enforcement search was aborted.
The Cornell Daily Sun may have dropped the ball in 1968, but I give this student newspaper credit for reopening a case that the University would like to remain forgotten. In 2014, former Managing Editor Tyler Richard Alicea, Cornell ’16, wrote a story about the alumni investigation and revealed the existence of a April 17,1967 letter by Steven Muller (1927–2013), Vice President for Public Affairs, complaining to University President James Alfred Perkins (1911–1998) about the policy of “official silence” imposed by Board of Trustees Chairman Arthur Hobson Dean ’21 (1899-1987). Then last year, Mary Elizabeth “Meg” Gordon, Cornell ’20, wrote a fine piece on the tragic fire’s 50th anniversary. Finally, I was allowed to slip in a published letter that addressed similarities between the 1894 Cornell Chlorine Banquet (the inadvertent murder of a black cook, Mrs. Henrietta Jackson), the 1903 typhoid epidemic (82 deaths, including 29 Cornell students, due to fecal contamination in the Ithaca water supply) and the 1967 Res Club tragedy.
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.”
Speaking for the families of those who died and the survivors who escaped — some of whom were attacked twice, I call upon The Cornell Daily Sun to finish this inquiry.
Another surge of investigative journalism might tell us (1) when the original criminal investigation petered out, (2) if the original assessment by officials that the first lethal fire was an act of arson is correct, (3) when law enforcement authorities first learned that one ‘person of interest’ had purloined a new identity circa 1968, (4) why that person was sent down (rusticated), and (5) precisely when this occurred. Neither the identity of that person nor information that would compromise the case is required to answer those five questions.
The answers are in the files of TCDA Matthew Van Houten, the Cayuga Heights Police Department and Cornell’s Office of the University Counsel. You can anticipate that all will resist cooperation and access, but the press is not powerless. Persistence, carefully worded questions and published reports of every refusal encountered will erode the “official silence” that Steven Muller complained of a half-century ago.
Finally, you have access to some of the best advice going — Cornell alumni who ran the Sun back in the 1960s and have since risen to positions of influence in journalism. Ask for their help. Get them involved. Their experience in dealing with recalcitrant officials will be invaluable.
And do not forget technical resources. The STEM departments at Cornell can help by critically reviewing reports of chemical assay and by modeling fire propagation in the Res Club structure to address the questions about fluid accelerants that were raised in 1967. That appears to be a very sensitive matter to both Van Houten and McEwen. Let’s find out why.
This will be a tough nut to crack — and it will take time, but if The Sun does not take up the task, who will?
William Fogle, Jr. ’70