Tuesday, March 12, 2019

"Crank Letters"

A crank letter accusing the dean of having Murder in the curriculum
“Five or six undergraduates on a Saturday night got to house-hopping, as they called it. Going around to houses that were having beer parties or liquor available, and getting free beer and free liquor, moving from house to house until they were, if not drunk, at least, well, intoxicated, if there’s a distinction....Somebody in the group decided they would go and challenge some undergraduate. His name was Cirrota....Well, they got into a fistfight in the boy's room. He was knocked to the floor, and got...a brain hemorrhage, and died.”  -- Former College President John Dickey

This "incident," as it was often called by College administrators, took place on the night of March 18th, 1949. Raymond "Ray" Cirrota '49, the victim of the attack, was taken to Dick's House after complaining of a headache and then died that same night. The story quickly got picked up by the state and national newspapers, putting Dartmouth at the epicenter of a sensation: a murder on campus, alcohol abuse, debauched soirees at fraternities, stars of the football team implicated, an unclear motivation, and a College administration that kept its mouth shut. As the case went to trial, this setup was clearly hospitable for misinformation and an intense if ungrounded response by the larger public. Cirrota’s killing remains
Page one of the letter reproduced in the post
tragic and certainly called for deeper investigation at the time. However, the true details of it remained murky for a while after the fact, while speculation on the part of the media and the general public was profuse from the get-go.

A folder in Dean Lloyd Neidlinger’s records on the case testifies to the stormy backlash directed at the College. This folder, titled "Crank letters," has letters of discontent that were sent to the dean's office from all over the East Coast after new of the Cirrota incident were made public. Some letters were made with a typewriter and others were scribbled down by hand. The people who wrote them were locals, alums, teachers, the Society for the Prevention of the Cruelty to Animals, and other concerned citizenry, including the aunt of a certain delinquent in New York and a couple who preferred to remain anonymous and with good reason, considering the spite in their writings.

The earliest letter arrived on March 22nd from Oranger, New Jersey, from an outraged alumnus:

"My dear Dean Neidlinger: 

Fie! Oh Dartmouth College! Long live Dartmouth? Lo Sin! Down Dartmouth! Burn and scorch it from the face of the earth!! Even God Almighty knows that Dartmouth could hit the news headlines in many other ways than “Murder on the Campus.” Those responsible for the death of a student should be punished in like manner. But, I doubt very much if justice will triumph in this disgusting heinous affair. Especially, if those responsible have fathers who are men of wealth. If such is the case, then money is evil and so are the fathers who plan to buy their sons out of this foul situation. I say, curses of hell should follow those involved in this dead student’s murder- the guilty should be dogged until they draw their last breath, whether it be the beaters of death regarding Cirrota or those seeking light punishment or exoneration of the guilty involved. 

You, Dean Neidlinger, are in part, responsible also. Isn’t it odd that you know nothing about the drinking brawls and excessive drinking that prevails on your campus? What kind of a college Dean are you? Look into your filthy campus and weed out the foul human elements who thrive on prejudices, hatred, acts of anti-everything that’s not decent and against the whole social order of man. 

Dartmouth, a center of learning, distinguished etc. ??? No, my dear Dean, Dartmouth has become a degrading ugly, institution of baseness. The devil himself is dean of Dartmouth, not you!!! 

Erase the besmirched name of Dartmouth, if it’s at all possible. Personally, I don’t think you are capable. I prefer to remain anonymous and forget I ever went to Dartmouth. And- may God deal with the guilty and take a hand in the course of Dartmouth. 

Sincerely, a shocked individual"

page two of the letter reproduced in the post
The anger vented by this letter sets a tone which borders the absurd and invites ridicule from readers. Yet, the assumptions the writer made are by no means counter-intuitive. The dean and the administration could not escape the fact that a student had died on their watch and that some of the suspects came from affluent backgrounds that were handy when those men later applied for jobs or admission at other colleges in the aftermath of the judicial proceedings. For the man who wrote the text, Dartmouth is a symbol of depravity and the case itself justifies the violent rooting out not only of the men involved in it but of all “vile elements” from the school. Another distressed citizen wrote to the Dean condemning “alcoholism and fraternity snobbishness”, and establishing that certain characteristics of the campus culture paired well with murder. A Mr. Drew from Lowell, Massachusetts, underscored the widespread alcoholism that prevails at Dartmouth by providing a list of criminal cases involving students from the College, of which the Cirrota case was only the latest and most disturbing.

After the Grand Jury of New Hampshire returned the first verdict in the trial, a $500 loan and a
Two short responses to the Cirotta death that were sent to the dean
suspended sentence, the public was outraged once more. A Ms. Mc Dough of New York accused the school of bribing the local police and the district attorney. An anonymous postcard from D.C. described the verdict as an indication of great problems within the community where the case was prosecuted. The last letter that received a response from Neidlinger’s office alleged indifference on Dartmouth’s end with regards to the trial and an institutional failure with regard to the teaching of moral values. The dean’s response did not address these accusations directly but instead argued that the lady who sent the letter was greatly misinformed. Other responses that the Dean wrote in defense of the school claimed that these accusations concerned issues that affected American youth overall and couldn't be resolved by the administrators at any single institution. Either way, the "Crank letters" in the Cirrota case capture not only the history of that case but also a cultural moment in US history.

To explore the Raymond Cirrota Case records, come to Rauner and ask for DA-46, Box 3139.

Posted for Veselin Nanov '20, recipient of a Historical Accountability Student Research Internship for the 2019-2020 academic year. The Historical Accountability Student Research Program provides funding for Dartmouth students to conduct research with primary sources on a topic related to issues of inclusivity and diversity in the college's past. For more information, visit the program's website.

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