Why you should care
Because never in the field of higher education have so many died so pointlessly for so little.
Like many college freshmen today, 18-year-old Mortimer Marcellus Leggett had high hopes when he entered Cornell University in the fall of 1873. He planned to become a patent lawyer like his father and aspired to join the school’s chapter of the prestigious Kappa Alpha Society. About a month later, young Mort Leggett’s battered body had to be retrieved from the bottom of one of the gorges that Ithaca, New York, is famous for after a Kappa Alpha initiation activity went horribly wrong. The following day, Cornell’s student newspaper dryly noted that Leggett had died while fulfilling “society purposes.”
While Leggett’s death may have been the first recorded fatality from fraternity hazing in American history, it was far from the last. For years, these modern rites of passage have often ended in harmful, and sometimes lethal, mishaps. The annals of higher education are filled with tales of pledges who have died of alcohol poisoning or when the grave they dug for themselves collapsed; who have never returned from the “one-way rides” they received to remote locations; who have lost testicles because of violent wedgies (true story). And so as another cohort of college freshmen enter the hallowed halls of academia this autumn, it’s important to remember that hazing in higher education has a long and checkered history, one that does not begin with Animal House, or even the advent of fraternities and sororities.
The cover-ups that we see on college campuses today go back all the way to the first fraternity hazing death in 1873.
Hank Nuwer, editor of Hazing: Destroying Young Lives
The harsh initiation practices now called hazing have been around for centuries. And their association with higher education is pretty much as old as higher education itself, going back to the founding of Plato’s academy in around 387 B.C. Plato himself lamented the “practical jokes played by unruly young men that injured the hazed and citizens who got in the way,” and likened the perpetrators to wild animals. Hazing, or pennalism as it was known at the time, continued into the Middle Ages and the founding of the first universities. In the 14th century, the University of Paris forbade the practice. Martin Luther endured hazing as a student in Erfurt, and advocated for the practice as a means of bolstering young men’s ability to meet life’s challenges.
Pennalism, including the practice of “fagging” (as it was called at universities like Cambridge and Oxford in the U.K.), was primarily a means of humiliating first-year students into acknowledging their inferiority to upperclassmen and converting them into de facto manservants to their collegiate superiors. Often it was not just a private arrangement: In Harvard’s early days, it was dictated by college rules, which required that, among other things, “freshmen run errands for all upperclassmen, never be ‘saucey’ and obey every upperclassman’s order.”
But it was not until extracurricular societies, including almost exclusively male social fraternities, started to proliferate on college campuses during the 19th century that hazing really came into its own. By the time Mort Leggett entered Cornell in 1873, hazing was a fact of life for many freshmen, usually taking the form of being paddled, getting one’s head shaved or performing some sort of physical challenge. The “preliminaries” that Leggett was told he would have to endure to “earn” membership into Kappa Alpha Society entailed being blindfolded and marched at night up a narrow trail adjacent to a ravine. When the young pledge was left unattended for a moment, he lost his bearings and tumbled into the gorge below. Neither KAS nor any of its members received any punishment, and key details of the incident, including that Leggett had been blindfolded, were omitted from accounts of the time, says Hank Nuwer, editor of Hazing: Destroying Young Lives. “The cover-ups that we see on college campuses today go back all the way to the first fraternity hazing death in 1873.”
And even when colleges took action against the perpetrators of hazing-related incidents, there was little true condemnation. Often when an offender was expelled from school, says Nuwer, practically the entire student body would walk him to the train station and treat him as a departing hero. It was only in the early 20th century, once hazing deaths became increasingly commonplace, that college administrators started to take notice and to call for an end to the practice. But, as still happens today, says Nuwer, support for the organizations and their rites among prominent alumni has blunted any real reform.
Hazing on U.S. campuses has continued largely unabated for much of the past century. One of the unintended consequences of the GI Bill, which helped millions of war veterans get a college education, was the introduction of even more physically strenuous — and hence more dangerous — rites into hazing’s arsenal. After hazing deaths fell off for a time during the Vietnam War (when fraternity membership was associated with being “square”), they came roaring back with the Animal House days of the late 1970s and ’80s when the overconsumption of alcohol grew to be an even more prominent feature.
In theory, hazing is less tolerated than ever today. Most national fraternal organizations in the U.S. have outlawed it, universities assure concerned parents it is not condoned on their campuses, and the prevalence of smartphones makes it even harder to cover up incidents. Still, for all the talk, says Nuwer, hazing remains prevalent. There has been at least one hazing death in the U.S. every year since 1961, and the practice is expanding in other countries, like India, where it is considered an essential part of the college experience. As Nuwer puts it: “No one has found the magic button to get an entire culture to stop.”