Dead to Rites: The Chlorine Poisoning of Henrietta Jackson
by Hank Nuwer
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.”1 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.2 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-toshoulder 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.