|Publisher:||Indiana University Press|
|Edition description:||New Edition|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
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Dead to Rites
The Chlorine Poisoning of Henrietta Jackson
Cornell University sponsored a gala inauguration for President Jacob G. Schurman on November 11, 1892. The faculty and students applauded and stomped the floor as Schurman said, "It is my desire and prayer that Cornell University may go on to evolve a more perfect type of manhood — a manhood which, shuffling off the animal core and fulfilling the divine idea of man, shall attain to a sense of honor that feels a stain like a wound, to an integrity that will not palter with the truth."
Fifteen months later, a Cornell student, in collusion with other confidantes, killed an innocent woman in a hazing incident. Here is the story of that death.
The evening of February 20, 1894, brought fair weather for Cornell's Class of 1897 freshman banquet. Hazing in the form of kidnappings and battle royals between first- and second-year class members had plagued Cornell on banquet night for years, including an 1882 incident that saw five expelled and forty disciplined. First-year class officers endured hair shaving, body painting, and abandonment in the countryside. Fraternities and sororities hazed back then also, but never with the brutality and mean-spiritedness of sophomores on the prowl.
As darkness fell, sophomores from the Class of 1896 stormed the entrance to the Masonic Block building in Ithaca, New York. The Class of '97 repelled their charge with the aid of junior class bodyguards. However, one member of the sophomore class had scuttled into the Masonic Block much earlier and plotted to ambush freshman attendees.
The event began on the fourth floor in the banquet hall with toasts by the freshmen officers. A kitchen adjacent to the hall was used for food preparation. The Lyceum Theater orchestra played "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and "The Freshman Battle Hymn" to the tune of "John Brown's Body." So many students packed the banquet hall that waiters had trouble scooting by with trays. A photographer's popping flashbulbs captured the event. Cornell's carnelian red and white dominated the decorations, but the occasion also saw plenty of lavender and purple crepe, the class colors.
Henrietta Jackson, a sturdy African American cook, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with a white cook in the massive kitchen adjacent to the banquet hall. They labored to prepare the menu: blue point oysters, a bouillon soup, filet of beef smothered with champignon mushrooms, potato croquets, escalloped apples, and lobster salad. The sophomore prankster huddled in an empty office on the third floor. Days earlier the conspirators had staked out the Masonic Block and calculated that this room was situated beneath the banquet hall. The plan was to pump raw chlorine into the celebration to send revelers scattering. During a rehearsal, one of the plotters had drilled two holes in the ceiling with an augur.
That afternoon the perpetrator barricaded the flat's door with a store-bought brace, a cleat, new screws, and a wooden board.
A little after 11:00 p.m., the perpetrator connected rubber and glass tubes to two empty dark-colored jars that once had stored soda-fountain syrup. The jars contained chlorine made with commercial potash and other ingredients found in any mercantile store. He pumped the chlorine into the room above. Confused shouts erupted when the vapors spread. The raider, assuming the chaos signified choking freshmen, escaped through a window, knocking puffs of snow off the sill. So little snow was knocked off, according to an investigating Ithaca police officer, that it was likely one person had committed the act. Light snow coated the alley ground. He obliterated his footprints, with or without the help of conspirators, and bolted like a thief in the night. However, the amateur criminal left behind paraphernalia that later served as evidence. The potash package, purchased from a local merchant, bore the store's name handwritten in ink. The perpetrator also had abandoned a shipping box from a New York merchant labeled with the address of "6 Cook Street," likely his own boardinghouse.
If the prankster had removed the labels, he would have left no clues.
The Pranksters' Misjudgment
The conspirators had miscalculated. Instead the tubes went into the kitchen, where waiters loaded trays with lobster salad, and poked out the floorboards beneath a wood-burning stove. Had the gas entered the packed hall as intended, it would have sickened many freshmen. The toxic gas would have caused instant coughing, suffocating, and, likely, a mass panic. A reporter wrote that students would have gotten trampled at the exits.
What happened was bad enough.
The menacing gas overtook the kitchen workers. Several were students from Cornell hired by the caterer for the night. Others were regular employees of the caterer. A few were moonlighting Ithaca blue-collar helpers.
A server named John from Utica, New York, gasped for air. "I have got to get out of the room," he complained, wheezing. The white cook started gasping and said, "I can't stand this." Waiter Samuel Hutchings was overcome by the gas and could not breathe. It was a sensation that continued the next day after he had passed out at home. "It felt as if I were being choked," he reported.
Quick action kept a bad situation from getting worse. Someone shut the doors leading into the banquet hall. Consequently, no freshman was gassed, although the New York Times reported incorrectly that some had been. Upperclassmen E. A. Ladd and Thomas McNeil III, who were serving as sentries, raced into the kitchen to render assistance but were overcome. (McNeil, once an outstanding athlete, suffered respiratory issues after the chlorine incident and died eleven years later). Someone misdiagnosed the problem as a malfunctioning stove and doused the fire with water. Two men grabbed cloth rags to avoid scalding their hands and tossed the stove reservoir out the window.
Many workers fled. One stumbled into a hallway and was helped downstairs. A drugstore adjacent to the Masonic Block was open, and some of the stricken were helped inside. Others stayed in the room to assist gasping, falling-down workers who felt disoriented and were vomiting. Workers opened the windows to inhale chilly winter air. One student worker passed out as he draped his body over the sill, but fortunately he fell onto the floor instead of pitching to the ground. A worker who recognized the scent of chlorine purchased a vial of ammonia at the open store and raced back into the kitchen prepared to revive any passed-out workers.
Pandemonium in the Kitchen
Henrietta Jackson wheezed. The cook had been working alongside the stove longer than anyone, including her daughter Mary Matilda Jackson on the opposite side of the kitchen. Mary had been minimally affected, but her mother was prone to chlorine sensitivity. The savior with the ammonia pressed some to the cook's lips with a handkerchief to revive her.
Warren Kenyon, by day a clerk at Platt & Colt's Pharmacy, was on cleanup duties in the kitchen when the gas poisoned the air. He thought that a skunk had gotten into the building. Miss Jackson shouted that her mother needed assistance. Although he himself could barely breathe, Kenyon staggered to assist Mrs. Jackson down the stairs. They fell and other rescuers took her by the arms and led her to the street. "She seemed to be very still and quiet," said Kenyon. "[Mrs. Jackson] walked right along quiet, and apparently had her eyes shut, I thought."
Once outside, the victims took heaving gasps of air, but Mrs. Jackson found it impossible to breathe. While the Cornell Class of '97 remained in the hall and toasted one another with Roman punch, Mrs. Jackson's bleached lungs failed her. The cook's daughter went back inside the Masonic building to retrieve her belongings. A rescuer took the stumbling Mrs. Jackson to Dr. Walter Lockerby's home office at 26 East Seneca Street. The physician and surgeon was an ear, nose, and throat specialist.
The time was close to midnight. Dr. Lockerby answered the doorbell and let the two inside. Mrs. Jackson collapsed in the chair nearest to the door and asked for water. He fetched a glass as the rescuer explained how the cook had come to be in this condition. Her suffering was immense, and the reddish color to her cheeks signified that her brain and heart were oxygen-deprived. Her breath emitted the distinctive odor of chlorine that the physician used to sanitize his office. Mrs. Jackson managed to take swallows of water. Dr. Lockerby snatched her arm. Her pulse was imperceptible. She clearly was asphyxiating. Her shallow breaths made it apparent that she was at the point of death, and the man who had brought her here for help now hurried to get Mrs. Jackson's daughter.
The physician assembled a teaspoon of digitalis squills, glycerin, and water in hopes of helping her heart work. When that treatment failed, he tried to force ammonia spirits into her. The doctor's wife, Edith, scrambled out of bed to offer assistance. Mrs. Jackson's body relaxed, and the victim sank back into the chair. A puddle of urine leaked onto the floor. Mrs. Jackson's death occurred a mere five minutes after she had entered the house. Dr. Lockerby and his wife dragged the cook out of the chair and placed her body flat on the floor to try to revive her. Mary Matilda Jackson arrived and saw her mother's corpse. She ran to summon her father, William.
After the gas subsided, kitchen workers returned to the scene while the banquet still reigned, there to be interviewed by Ithaca night sergeant John Edgar Clapp. Clapp was a retired professional baseball catcher. He had informed police in 1881 that a gambler had offered him a bribe to throw a game, earning his moniker "Honest John."
The next morning, Clapp and a second officer traced the tubes from the kitchen to the source. With the door's room barricaded, they had to gain entry by smashing a hole in a door panel. They found the boxes with identifying labels and some tin wires hidden in a long stove used to heat flatirons. The jugs, brace, and a bit were stashed behind a sign and covered with abandoned clothing.
Newspapers Blame the Victim
The cook was survived by Mary, William, and her elderly mother. Mrs. Jackson had been the family breadwinner. Media coverage the day after the attack embarrassed Cornell's administrators. President Schurman promised that the instigators would be punished. Editors disparaged the institution as nothing more than a trove of ruffians, murderers, and cowards. The initial newspaper coverage, edited in the wee hours, was dismal journalism. The Ithaca Daily Journal mistakenly reported that daughter Mary Matilda Jackson, not Henrietta Jackson, had been killed. Newspapers as far away as Missouri incorrectly announced that student worker Thomas McNeil had died.
In a day the Ithaca papers correctly identified Mrs. Henrietta Jackson as the deceased victim. An Ithaca newspaper printed a brief correction acknowledging that McNeil and the other student were alive and recovering. However, much coverage was unfavorable and disenfranchised Mrs. Jackson. Papers described her as an overweight, elderly "colored woman" with a bad heart. They printed rumors she had been in ill health. One of the most disturbing aspects about Jackson affair is that out of thousands of news stories, few, if any, reporters interviewed the cook's surviving husband and daughter. Instead of afflicting the comfortable, journalists censured the aggrieved family, rarely taking their side.
Because Mrs. Jackson's death was a homicide, a coroner's jury was empowered to find the individuals responsible. In charge was J. Watson Brown, MD, a local physician who had been elected Tompkins County coroner in 1892. The grand jury was charged with determining if murder charges could be brought against the person or persons whose "act evinced [a] depraved mind, regardless of human life."
An autopsy destroyed the Ithaca Daily Journal's speculations about the victim's age and health. Dr. Martin Besemer, who performed the postmortem examination, swore to the inquisition that Mrs. Jackson was extraordinarily healthy and had the internal organs of a much younger woman. She was only fifty-three years old, not elderly. He found no sign of disease, which he testified to in the inquiry conducted by the coroner's jury foreman D. F. van Vleet, Esq., a Cornell alumnus, Chi Psi fraternity alumnus, and Democratic Party leader.
The only sign of aging at all was in the left lung where the doctor found "a slight degree [an inch in diameter] of some calcareous matter."
"Was that deposit sufficient to have caused death?" asked van Vleet.
"No, not sufficient probably," said the doctor. The lungs did show evidence of congestion that "could have been" due to the chlorine, however. He went on to say that either smoke from the stove or an irritant gas caused her death. Jackson's lungs had filled with clotted blood.
"The heart was an extraordinary specimen ... for a woman of that age?" inquired van Vleet.
"That is the conclusion we came to," Dr. Besemer said.
A handful of Cornell class officers took up a collection and purchased an Ithaca City Cemetery grave marker for Mrs. Jackson. A funeral was held on February 24, 1894, at the M. E. Zion Church. Pastor J. H. Callis denounced the killing by individuals making sport at the expense of others. Many Cornell students attended the funeral. Seating was standing room only.
Testimony at the Inquest
Witness Edwin Gillett, a clerk at C. J. Rumsey & Company hardware dealers, revealed an important piece of testimony at the inquisition: "A young man, clean face I should say, about seventeen to eighteen," had walked into the store to purchase an augur for boring holes. He came back and talked to another clerk, saying it was too short at about six inches, and he wanted to trade for a longer one. Gillett told the inquiry that he wasn't sure if he would be able to identify the purchaser.
The inquiry called Hiram Haskins, a druggist at 6 East State Street in Ithaca, and showed him some wrapping paper in a package bearing that address. He did not know who had purchased the package but was certain it contained a half-pound of potassium permanganate, which was an antiseptic and disinfectant used to make chlorine. He described the buyer as short, maybe five-foot tall or a little taller, and around thirty in age, a dozen years or more older than the average sophomore. Nonetheless, he had reckoned this man of mystery to be a student. The two had a conversation about making chlorine. Haskins also recalled selling customers rubber tubing in recent weeks but added that as it is a supply that is purchased every day, he could not identify who had poisoned Mrs. Jackson.
The jury interviewed Charles F. van Houten, a tailor who worked in a suite opposite the office where the gas had been released. He said several young men had been running in and out of that room for a week. Although they had made a slight commotion, he hadn't confronted them. He convinced the jury this had been no operation of a single rogue, but rather a confederation of rogues. He testified that he heard no sound in that room the day of the banquet. The perpetrator had operated with stealth. This was a planned ambush with malice aforethought, not a spontaneous act of hazing.
The jury also conducted interviews with sophomore class members, but all of that testimony went nowhere. Most testified that they were nowhere near the Masonic Block that fateful night and were questioned no longer.
The coroner summoned six students who lived at the 6 Cook Street boardinghouse. Local newspapers had named sophomore roommates Carl L. Dingens of Buffalo and Frederick L. Taylor of Plainfield, New Jersey. Suspicion arose when the coroner was unable to locate them. A Cornell probationary student who lived at the Cook Street boardinghouse testified that Dingens was absent from the house for two days. Taylor turned out to be spending time avoiding reporters at his fraternity house instead of studying in his studio.
Based on testimony and investigations by Ithaca police, a list of suspects was put together by prosecutor J. H. Jennings. All evidence was circumstantial. Not one witness admitted seeing anyone suspicious in the Masonic Block on the day in question. Prime suspect Carl Louis Dingens was the son of Joseph Dingens, a Buffalo, New York, merchant known for his marketing skills. The father published and sold his own Cosmopolitan Cook and Recipe Book and hawked mixed drinks sold in fancy bottles, such as Persimmon's Rye, Magnolia Rye, and a drink named after Napoleon. His company sold the finest coffees in the world, or so his brochure boasted. Together with his brother, Joseph ran the Dingens Brothers store at 333 Main Street in Buffalo, peddling wine, liquors, cigars, mineral waters, and food products.
Excerpted from "Hazing"
Copyright © 2018 Hank Nuwer.
Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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