Murder on the lake: the Leighton Mount tragedy
    Photo by Natalie Krebs / North by Northwestern

    Ninety-one years ago this month on a warm night, a young boy playing in the sand underneath Lake Street Pier (near the site of the modern pier in Dawes Park) made a discovery that would change Northwestern forever. In a small hole beneath the pier, between heavy slabs of concrete and decaying rope, were a bunch of bones decayed with quicklime and a dirty silver belt buckle bearing the initials “L.M.”

    Little Henry Warren had found Leighton Mount.

    Two years earlier in 1921, Leighton Mount was an incoming freshman at Northwestern excited for the class rush. The class rush, traditionally held the Wednesday before the start of classes, was a rite of passage for incoming freshmen that took the form of an organized battle between the freshman and sophomore classes.

    Class rush at Northwestern and many other schools had developed out of the “cane rush.” Canes were a symbol of distinction and honor in Victorian society, and it was impressed upon freshmen that they were forbidden from carrying them. Sophomores were tasked with enforcing this prohibition by any means necessary, until an annual competition was held in which freshmen could fight for the right to bear canes. This competition was called cane rush. It often took the form of a wrestling match over a single cane, in which each class would strip naked and grease themselves, then fight for the most hands on the cane.

    After canes began to go out of style, class rush became more like an intense game of capture the flag. One night before classes, the lake shore would be divided up into a sophomore zone and a freshman zone. Each class would then attempt to sneak across the divide, kidnap opposing class members and “duck” them into the lake. Soon, it also became a tradition to kidnap “high-ranking” members of the opposing class during the week leading up to night of rush. Kidnapped students were sometimes taken as far away as Wisconsin and forced to hitch rides home.

    By the time Leighton Mount was a freshman, class rushes had been going on for almost twenty years and had become highly organized. The Student Council even had a “Scrap Committee” that only a year earlier had been tasked with developing rules for class rush at the request of Northwestern President Walter Dill Scott in order to decrease the amount of injuries. Scott did not consider the rush to be in violation of Northwestern’s anti-hazing policy at the time, which defined hazing as “an interference with the personal liberty of another.”

    On the night of September 22, 1921, according to a report in the Evanston News Index, Leighton kissed his mother goodbye and told her he was off to the “big scrap.” Leighton was then next seen near the old Patten Gym around 3:30 in the morning, after having ducked some sophomores. It would be the last time he would be seen alive.

    When Leighton failed to return home the next morning, his mother contacted President Scott for information on his whereabouts. After some pressure from Scott, Mrs. Mount admitted that there had been trouble between her and Leighton over Leighton’s love interest, an Evanston nursemaid named Doris Fuchs.

    When Doris Fuchs was brought in for Scott’s investigation, she quickly admitted that Leighton had seemed “unusually morose” the day before. After some pressuring from Scott, she also claimed that he had told her, “After tomorrow night’s rush, you’ll never see me again.” With those words, Scott considered the meager investigation closed, and told Leighton’s parents that unfortunately, “Leighton had probably carried out his threat to run away or commit suicide.”

    With Scott’s quick action to close the Mount investigation, class rush might not have made the papers had it not been for another unfortunate happening. Not long after Northwestern student Arthur Persinger joined in the class rush, he was kidnapped and carried to the southern tip of Evanston. A group of students took him out to a piling in the lake off the coast of Calvary Cemetery and bound him hanging upside-down by his feet.

    Persinger was then soon forgotten, and hung upside-down until a passing fisherman finally rescued him. Persinger reported the incident to the police, and there was a small barrage of criticism from the local press, including the Chicago Herald and Examiner, which called the actions “unmitigated cruelty.”

    In response, Scott and the University quickly expelled 15 students and specified that class rush would now be required to take place only during the day. The National Journal of Education praised the University’s “prompt and effective treatment of the case,” but there was little actual change in class rush.

    A little more than a year later, disaster struck in what would become one of the worst April months in Northwestern history. Early in the morning of April 27, 1923, a car full of Northwestern students celebrating the end of the spring class rush (which signified the end of mandatory freshman beanies), sped onto the bridge over the Skokie Canal and collided with an oncoming vehicle. One student was killed, and the Chicago papers quickly picked up what was believed to be the latest class rush incident. The Chicago Daily Tribune called it “the climax of a hazing battle,” though Scott personally wrote the editor of the Northwestern Christian Advocate to clarify it was “an unavoidable accident.”

    Three days later, Henry Warren found Leighton Mount’s bones.

    By the time President Scott heard that Leighton’s body had been found, a state investigation was already underway. The Assistant State’s Attorney, Edgar A. Jones (sitting on the left in this picture), immediately began to call in students for questioning. After Jones began to call in a number of football stars, however, Scott (a former footballer himself) appointed University counsel for the students and told the Evanston News Index that any more “kidnapping and forcible holding” by the state of its students would “not go unchallenged,” forcing Jones to travel up to Northwestern to continue his interrogations.

    As Jones continued to interview possible witnesses, Scott’s advisers suggested in a letter that he start his own “quiet investigation.” Scott’s “investigation” was a campaign to promote the theory of Leighton’s suicide. He told a grand jury that he “was still not one hundred percent sure” that the bones were Leighton’s, and then began to contact administrators at other colleges in order to compile examples of college suicides. He also sent telegrams to the editors of numerous local and national papers in a desperate attempt to suppress the news of the incident.

    Only a couple weeks later on the front page of the Chicago American, the headline “SCOTT NAMES SPOKESMAN IN THE MOUNT CASE” towered over the second headline, “Russia Massing Troops on Turk Frontier.” The press was almost completely one sided; practically the only press that sided with the University was the Daily Northwestern. With so much anger directed at Northwestern, it appeared, as Evanston’s the Newcomer put it, the “University itself was on trial.”

    Scott responded by hiring a Methodist minister already well-known for his nontraditional views, Rev. Almer M. Pennewell, to produce pro-University propaganda. His “non-biased” review of the case, "Whatsoever Things Are True of Northwestern University" (a play on Northwestern’s motto), was successful in selling many Northwestern alumni on the suicide theory. However, whatever support Scott had gained was soon lost when Jones’s team examined the details of the Persinger incident and discovered that police records had been illegally modified to say Persinger had not been dangerously tied upside-down. Under pressure from the authorities, the mayor of Evanston admitted to the Press Intelligencer that he had made the changes at Scott’s request.

    Jones then finally released his theory of the crime, which was widely published in the News Advocate:

    “That freshmen, late in the evening, seeking sophomores, came upon Mount. Not recognizing him as a freshman and believing him of a higher class, they tied him to the piling of the Lake Michigan pier head downward. That Mount’s head hung in the water further than anticipated and when they went to release him found he was dead. That his body was hidden under the long pier and covered with chemicals to protect against detection.”

    The exact details of Leighton Mount’s death would never be known, and although Scott managed to sweep his questionable dealings under the rug (he would remain president for another 16 years), the case had a drastic impact on Northwestern.

    Photo by Natalie Krebs / North By Northwestern

    After the press began to subside, the University released a pamphlet, "The Elimination of Class Rushes at Northwestern University." It introduced a new anti-hazing pledge that defined ducking and kidnapping as hazing, and a new position to enforce the pledge, the Dean of Men, now known as the Dean of Students. Most importantly, it apologetically admitted that class rush had been banned for good.

    The pamphlet did specify, however, that “University spirit and class loyalty should be encouraged, but they must be directed in channels consistent with the University aims,” which led to the replacement of class rush with the way that classes, fraternities, sororities and even student groups still battle today: intramural sports.


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