Excerpt halfway through Chapter 11, “Ill Met by Moonlight” by Hank Nuwer
Around 9:00 p.m. or shortly after, while Mortimer Leggett was marching with Northrup, about nine Kappas and one pledge headed from Ithaca toward the rough country near Giles Street with plans to meet the duo. Lee was the first to catch up with Northrup and Leggett. Three weeks earlier, Lee himself had passed all preliminaries and been initiated into the society. The three paused at a fence, and the next preliminary ritual commenced. Northrup, with Lee’s approval, blindfolded Leggett and then helped him get over the fence into a field appointed for additional rituals.
Not long after the blindfold went on, KAS members Wason and William Sturges, both Cleveland residents, vaulted the same fence and approached Leggett, Lee, and Northrup at the rendezvous point. Wason and Sturges had been here in this appointed field several times previously with pledges that now were initiated members. Thus, this was a planned chapter event, albeit mild hazing in the eyes of outsiders. Cornell KAS men who cherished fraternity membership all their lives regarded it as nothing less than a dignified ceremony with gravity and merit they would reminisce about as old men.
Usually, at this point, two Kappas were supposed to link arms with the pledge so that he didn’t trip or fall over potholes and rocky dodges. Wason, one of the strongest members, alone linked Leggett’s arm in his, although Lee was close at hand.
There was time for the trio to relax as they waited for others to show. Northrup and Sturges walked about the field and shared light conversation. Wason saw a hemlock tree and decided he’d take Leggett over to rest up against it for the grueling preliminaries that remained. Lee followed.
The Hemlock above a Gorge
The lone hemlock’s roots dug like claws into uncultivated earth at the edge of a gorge. Its roots were misshapen, bulging, and ready to trip all interlopers. The tree’s leafy lower limbs resembled small bushes that blanketed the roots. Blindfolded pledge Mortimer Leggett leaned against the tree with the two society members at his side. The two would continue the preliminaries as soon as the second blindfolded pledge arrived in the escort of additional KAS members. Had these other men come a few minutes earlier, the trio would have never approached the tree.
As with most hazing incidents, when a death occurs, both reckless disregard and the absence of common sense are to blame. Neither of the two brothers with Leggett had carried a lantern to the dangerous gorge area; it was lit only by moonlight. Had Wason and Lee brought an oil lamp, they would have spotted the yawning gorge hidden behind the hemlock and backed away.
Leggett did not know where he was or precisely what the brothers expected of him. He assumed that he was in good hands. The blindfold was part of a trust-building exercise.
Lee, later described by a New York reporter as a beardless and handsome lad of twenty years old, observed that the pledge appeared tired after the long pledging walk.
Wason also saw Leggett slump from fatigue. He sprang to give the pledge a helping shoulder. Leggett, unable to see through the blindfold, took a step toward the sound of tree limbs cracking under Wason’s footgear.
Lee watched his companions begin to sink through the leaves. He threw out his arms to save them, concluding that a ledge must lie beneath the canopy of leaves and roots. Lee dropped through the tree leaves and over the hidden cliff wall, the bodies of his friends flailing in the air beneath him.
The trio plunged more than forty feet ….