Hazing: A Weed in the Garden of Evil by Hank Nuwer (Revised and updated Feb. 27, 2020)
While colleges across the country are finding creative ways to celebrate National Hazing Prevention Week next September (2020), I’ve managed considerable progress on my goal to create a database of every hazing incident reported in the media from colonial days to the present. It will be published in my forthcoming book titled “Hazing in American Culture.” begun with a small seed- money grant generously provided by Franklin College–thank you, FC.
The present database has come a long way from the database I published in my 1990 book, “Broken Pledges,” using then mainly Lexis-Nexis data–or the database I published in “Human Behavior” magazine in 1978 using data combed out of New York Times annual indexes.
My database of hazing deaths now reveals that the U.S. experienced at least one hazing death per year 1959 to 2019.
One can only pray that 2020 will be free of the first hazing death in 61 consecutive years.
Much of that updating came as a result of research performed for my Indiana University Press investigative book, “Hazing: Destroying Young Lives” (2018).
The new database at https://www.hanknuwer.com now shows one death per year in U.S. colleges, secondary and elementary schools from 1959 to 2019. Consider 1959. Alaska and Hawaii were admitted to the US Union. Frankie Avalon, Elvis Presley and the Isley Brothers rock and rolled. NASA revealed its roster of the Mercury Seven astronauts. Me? I was a student at St. John Gualbert’s Elementary School in western New York State.
Some years many deaths occurred, not just one. Consider this, too: Although there were no U.S. deaths recorded in 1958, there was an annual death from 1954 to 1957. Hazing and so-called initiation deaths in North America include deaths in Canada and Mexico student groups.
In addition, I counted a relatively small, though disturbing, number of hazing deaths over the years in Boy Scouts, Masonic organizations, the Knights of Columbus, and the U.S. Armed Forces. The story of how Benjamin Franklin in 1737 momentarily tarnished his reputation by failing to stop a dangerous hazing prank is the first incident in this database.
Behind every death is a family torn apart by the loss of a loved one who was strangled by alcohol, beaten to death, struck by a car while blindfolded, drowned, and so on.
The first fraternity death, that of Mortimer Leggett, son of a famed Civil War general with the same name, occurred at spanking new Cornell University in 1873. Young Leggett fell off a cliff on a required midnight walkabout while wearing a blindfold in gorge country.
Then there is the proctor who got sick and tired of being hazed at Swarthmore College and grabbed a flashlight and rifle to slay one tormentor as he slept. The hazer escaped the electric chair with an insanity plea.
There was the death of Clemson pledge Tucker Hipps. Hipps died when he fell from a bridge at Lake Hartwell. His was the second Clemson fraternity death at that lake. No reporter, including me, reported that fact until a new keyword search came up with another tragedy at Clemson in 1961.
Stashed among thousands of news clippings about hazing are earnest appeals from educators, grieving parents, activists and earnest students to do away with this “weed in the garden of academe” as one pundit called it in an 1860 speech at Harvard.
But the problems of hazing in 1860 are the same now, but the perpetrators are a lot more careful to hide their tracks, to lie or to stonewall investigators, and to intimidate anyone threatening to come forward with the truth.
I’ve met dozens of the hazed and hazers alike, the families of the dead, the dedicated Greek professionals, a lot of jaded alums, and activists from HazingPrevention.org, Stophazing,org, the AHA Movement and so on. Many parents who gave years of service to the cause have quit, so disillusioned by the continuing string of deaths that they no longer can even utter the word “hazing.”
Much has been tried. Bystander training. Help Weeks instead of Hell Weeks. Associate memberships instead of pledges. Delayed rush. Yanking charters. Involving the parents of hazing victims. Many good people have tried their best to kill this weed in the garden.
But still the deaths continue.
My list of deaths gets longer, longer and still longer.
Stopping hazing is easy, I tell students. “Just don’t do it.”
But too many don’t listen. They just do it.
Hank Nuwer is a Franklin College journalism professor (retiring from teaching in Spring 2020) and the author of “Hazing: Destroying Young Lives,” “The Hazing Reader,” “Wrongs of Passage” and many other books.