Death on the Tracks

The Fallout

View a graph of Kenyon's enrollment after Stuart Pierson's death in 1905.

As the train rumbled through the darkness, eighteen-year-old Stuart Lathrop Pierson had, perhaps, a moment to consider his fate before the locomotive removed his head and he passed into Kenyon history.

On October 28, 1905, the train was bearing down on a fraternity ritual. The freshman may have bolted awake from a deep sleep on the railroad bridge where he had been sent, a short walk from campus. Or he may have been bound in some way and struggled in vain. Maybe he recalled his last words to his father, who was waiting in Gambier: "Good night, pop, I will see you after a while."

Pierson is now seen mostly as a ghost, a charter member in the pantheon of Kenyon spirits, taking up residence occasionally in the back bull's-eye of Old Kenyon. "The ghost thing," said Garrett Fields '12, president of the Lambda Chapter of Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE). "A few of our brothers believe it more than others."

In the litany of Kenyon's mortal tragedies, none, it may be argued, assailed the College as did Pierson's mysterious death. And none may have posed a greater threat to the institution.

The story, made to order for the sensationalist press of the day, attracted widespread scrutiny even as—or perhaps because—the telling details were fogged in controversy. The death and its circumstances combined for a public relations melee on an international stage. The players included aggressive Knox County officials and the stalwart College president, William F. Peirce, locked in a public feud. In the wings was the specter of hazing. At a time of national philanthropy and the expansion of colleges, Kenyon's growth stalled and enrollment did not top its 1905 level until 1915.

That the story still has legs was evident in a 2010 public discussion of the event in Mount Vernon, featuring a local freelance writer quoting a retired forensics expert who had decided that Pierson had been bound. Others disagree.

The final moments of Pierson's life will remain obscure. He was keen on joining the DKE chapter as his father had. The DKEs now mark the anniversary with a bonfire. "We don't really tell the story in terms of the specifics," Fields said. "We remember and kind of mourn and talk about the history of DKE. We use it more as a day to bring us together," he said. "It's kind of difficult in our minds to put ourselves
in his shoes."

Pierson's father, the wealthy Cincinnati businessman Newbold Pierson, had arrived in Gambier to be with his son for the initiation. The train carrying Newbold had been so late in arriving that his son had spent the entire previous night awake. That long stretch without sleep, Newbold would later contend, contributed to his son's demise. The dispatching of pledges to remote places after dark was typical of initiations at the time.

The unscheduled west-bound train struck Pierson and stopped his watch at 9:41 p.m. Engineer Jeff Vanatta, at the helm of Cleveland, Akron & Columbus Railroad locomotive No. 26, and his crew saw nothing on the tracks and had no idea they had struck anything until they reached Mount Vernon, their maintenance destination, where some fabric and blood was found. The body, still warm when found by fraternity brothers sent to retrieve Pierson, was hustled off the tracks shortly before another train arrived. The young men heard the campus clock strike 10:00.

Within hours of the death, Newbold had arranged for a special train to carry his son's body home before dawn on October 29. President Peirce notified local authorities only after the train had departed. In the firestorm that was to come, Peirce's character would be tested. And the thirty-seven-year-old president, who had taken the job in 1896, came out swinging. Peirce had ushered the mangled body of Pierson into his home on October 28 and summoned a Gambier physician, but not Coroner William W. Scarbrough. Peirce went on to mount a brisk defense of the College, defy local authorities, and steer Kenyon through a crisis that undermined its reputation.

News Fever

Was Pierson escorted by fraternity members to the railroad bridge or was he directed there and told to stay until fetched? If escorted, was he tied to the tracks or bound in any other way? Was he impaired or did he lapse into a deep sleep? Did the College cover up a crime or protect the innocent?

Newspapers and commentators around the world were not bashful in their speculation. As one newspaper noted, the incident was "the talk of the United States for weeks." Headlines cried, "Student Was Tied to Track" and "Stuart Pierson's Head Cut Off and Placed in a Lunch Basket." Le Petit Parisien said the incident "exceeds in atrocity the most macabre inventions of Edgar Allen Poe."

Newspaper artists found a common theme in a terrified innocent tied to railroad tracks. The Chicago Chronicle illustration showed hooded men carrying rope along tracks, overseen by the Grim Reaper. A Wisconsin paper sketched a student tied to railroad tracks beside a lantern shaped like a skull, under the headline "The up to date college fraternity initiation." The newspaper wondered, "Was the student hazed to death?" The Los Angeles Sunday Times topped that with a cartoon titled "The evolution of college hazing," showing a locomotive tearing into a body, detached head propelled like a rocket from a launching pad.

In an editorial, the Oregonian of Portland decried "the murder of young Stuart Pierson by his fellow students at Kenyon College" in a "barbarous atrocity." The newspaper mocked Peirce and his defense of the College, suggesting he was "encouraging crime."

The Rev. Washington Gladden, nationally prominent Congregationalist pastor, social activist, and author, then serving in Columbus, Ohio, called the fraternity brothers "young barbarians." And in a letter to the College canceling his subscription to the Collegian, R.E. Macduff of Jackson, Michigan, the rector of St. Paul's Church, howled, "That fraternity ... KILLED HIM just for FUN. I say killed but believe that murder is the juster word." Hundreds, he said, agreed with him, and he promised that his sons "will go to no football or hazing college."

Commentaries on hazing quickly followed news reports of the tragedy, and the Ohio General Assembly passed a law with restrictions on the practice.

The local community, a newspaper reported, was in a "fever heat." And another included an interview with an "old resident of Gambier" who had seen drunken students leading fraternity initiates by ropes or forcing them to "crawl on hands and knees around town." He knew they were intoxicated because, well, "once I smelled some of their breaths."

Accounts that another student, Paul Barber, had been tied to the tracks earlier that same evening and that the coroner was offered bribes to whitewash the case were later proved false.

The Chloroform Bluff

That Scarbrough aggressively pursued the case was never in doubt. He accused Kenyon of a cover-up and ultimately ruled that Pierson was "tied fast to railroad tracks or railroad ties or otherwise bound and tied." After traveling to Cincinnati for a look at the body, but not undertaking an autopsy, he called for an inquest. That session included testimony from thirty-three witnesses, including a Cincinnati police detective who contended that the victim, based on marks on the body, was bound at the right wrist and left ankle.

The contention of the family and the College, supported by witness testimony, was that the young student was sent alone to the bridge. There, Newbold Pierson said, "My boy fell asleep." Aroused by the train, it's believed he stumbled into its path. No evidence of a rope used to bind the young man was found. In an interview, the father accused Scarbrough of "trying to make a reputation ... at the expense of my wife's heart and my peace of mind."

Gambier physician Irvin S. Workman, summoned by Peirce to examine the body on October 28, also went to the scene that night. He found a basket, about five inches tall, that fraternity members were typically told to carry when sent to remote places to ponder their initiation. The basket was undisturbed by the train and held a length of coiled rope, cigarettes, and, according to the physician, "some little notion" under a cloth. Rope was sometimes tied around the bodies of fraternity pledges and used to pull or guide them from place to place. Newbold Pierson said his son bought a bottle of chloroform, fig cakes, and safety pins for the basket, which was also to include a razor. The chloroform, one fraternity member testified, was a "bluff." No evidence indicated that Pierson was under the influence of chloroform, although some newspaper accounts made that suggestion.

Workman surmised that the body was "probably dragged over or rolled over and over," with an arm nearly torn off, a wrist broken, "bones injured all over his body" with "bruises and indentations."

At the inquest, village resident Ralph McMahon, who cleaned the tracks the next morning with village Marshal Frank Dial, was asked if he found the head. "No, sir," he replied, but he did come up with "a little piece of skull, a little piece of jaw bone," and some muscle attached to fabric. Those pieces he collected in a box, which he said he buried. A fraternity member promised to pay him $3 for his work, McMahon said, but he noted that he had not yet collected his wage.

After the inquest, county Prosecuting Attorney Lot Stillwell said, "I shall proceed at once to bring the guilty person to justice." The Knox County grand jury, however, refused to indict anyone on any charge.

In a show of confidence, Peirce arranged to publish the entire inquest testimony in book form. He also had a book published with eleven legal opinions gathered from judges and lawyers who criticized the work of local officials. He threatened to start impeachment proceedings against Scarbrough and wrote a letter to newspapers that November, with his account of events. One headline read, "President of Kenyon Scores the Coroner."

Scarbrough, he said, was "entirely mistaken." Pierson, he said, bid his father good-bye and walked alone to the bridge. The three fraternity members who found the body after being sent to bring the young pledge back to the lodge included "the college organist" and a Zanesville, Ohio, businessman ("a married man, with a family"). Peirce "broke the awful news" to the father, whose "first thought" was to get the body home to his wife. "There were no traces of bandages or ropes on the bridge or on the body," Peirce wrote.

He went on to say that there was no history of Kenyon fraternities tying initiates to railroad tracks. "There has been no attempt on the part of the college authorities to stifle investigation."

A Smart Guy

The incident was a defining moment in Peirce's forty-one-year career at Kenyon, said Christopher Barth '93, director of library and information services at Luther College. Barth wrote his honors thesis on Peirce and taught Kenyon history when he worked at Kenyon as director of information resources.

"Peirce was a smart guy, and I think he realized pretty quickly that night that this was a big deal," Barth said. "He acted quickly. He tried pretty hard to manage and spin it as we would do in the twenty-first century." By "spiriting the body out of town," Peirce hoped to convey that the death was merely an accident. By delaying his call to the local authorities, he hoped to prevent them from "delving too deep into College matters." But Peirce's actions encouraged rumors, Barth said, and the president acknowledged the irritation of the coroner.

"It's hard to argue that the fraternity and also the College didn't have some responsibility," Barth said. "The College and the fraternity created a situation and put (Pierson) in harm's way. Was he tied down? I don't think we'll ever really know."

Years passed before the College "climbed back out of the ditch," Barth said. The death of a student on railroad tracks "was not the brand Peirce was hoping to build." But the president went on to build the foundation for the modern Kenyon.

Peirce was "rather monomaniacal" about Kenyon and fit "the romantic ideal of a college president in the first half of the twentieth century," said College Historian Thomas P. Stamp '73. A strong character was needed to deal with the Pierson death "in a forthright, honorable way," Stamp said. "He was utterly convinced" that what he said about the case was true. And he probably faced "difficult conversations" for years afterward with prospective donors, faculty members, parents, and students.

Perry C. Lentz '64 H'09 P'88, retired professor of English and a DKE, believes the incident was devastating at a time of philanthropic generosity and contributed to the College's history of being underfunded. "I think the College would be rather different," he said. "It would probably be twice as large with a lot more endowment." In his day, Lentz said, the chapter "wore the ghastliness of that very lightly," taking some pride in the notoriety.

Believing that young Pierson was not bound but fell asleep on the bridge, Lentz contends that the local coroner "saw a chance and made a huge deal out of it." In agreement is the chapter's alumni advisor, Robert G. Heasley '60 P'83 '88. Heasley has read the testimony. "He wasn't tied," Heasley said. "He was sent down there. This train came along. That created the whole story and almost the demise of Kenyon. This thing was international news."

Speculation about the incident itself runs with speculation about the damage done to Kenyon. Stamp believes the February 1906 fire that took three student lives and destroyed the Kenyon Military Academy spurred and blurred the effect of the Pierson death. The military academy was a preparatory boarding school with enrollment at the turn of the century close to that of the College.

The two tragedies created "a perfect storm," Stamp said. The military academy never reopened, and Kenyon's enrollment dipped and wavered before recovering in 1915. "This played into a concern about fraternities and especially about hazing. So this was sort of the worst-case scenario, and it was pinned on Kenyon." The College persevered and no major changes were made in its operations.

"I think it was something that the College first felt some shame and then embarrassment about," he said. "It's not something that crippled it. And now it's become a ghost story."

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