The Dartmouth Letter Sweater Case

Sixty years ago this week, the criminal behavior of some college fraternity boys -- and why they did it, and how they got away with it -- transfixed the nation. Whatever you may think of the 2006 Duke lacrosse rape case, it pales in comparison with the Dartmouth football letter sweater case.

This appalling and revealing story, all but forgotten today, is re-told by Nicholas L. Syrett in "The Company He Keeps: a History of White College Fraternities," which was published this month by the University of North Carolina Press. Syrett is an assistant professor of history at the University of Northern Colorado.

Early on the morning of March 19, 1949, Dartmouth College student Raymond J. Cirrotta died of a brain hemorrhage at a hospital near the campus in Hanover, N.H. Cirrotta had entered Dartmouth before World War II, then enlisted voluntarily after war broke out, serving in Japan before returning to college on the G.I. bill. Partly because of the G.I. bill, the composition of the student bodies at elite U.S. colleges was rapidly democratizing, and Cirrotta was representative of the change. He was an Italian American from New Jersey, left-leaning in his politics and, perhaps because of his war-time service, did not shy away from an argument or defer to the social elites on campus.

The night before his death, Kappa Kappa Kappa (known as Tri Kap) held a drinking party at its frat house. A number of Dekes -- members of Delta Kappa Epsilon -- joined in the boozing. At some point, six of the Dekes and two of the Tri Kaps decided to go looking for Cirrotta, who was not a member of either fraternity but was known, and disliked, by some of the partygoers. Apparently, Syrett writes, "the fraternity men thought Cirrotta may have been on a date and that finding him with his date and teaching him whatever lesson was planned might doubly humiliate him."

But Cirrotta wasn't on a date. He was asleep in his room in the college's Massachusetts Hall. When the frat guys roused him, he was wearing a Dartmouth letter sweater, reserved for members of the varsity football team (to which he did not belong). "What happened next remains somewhat murky," Syrett writes, but at least two of the fraternity brothers began beating Cirrotta, while the others looked on and did nothing to stop the violence. "By all accounts, Cirrotta did not defend himself, not once striking back," Syrett notes. Found by his roommate, the WWII veteran was taken to the college infirmary, then transferred to a Hanover hospital, where he died on the operating table at 5 a.m..

The case made headlines across the country. There was speculation that Cirrotta was killed because he was Italian American, or because of his politics, or because he happened to be wearing the letter sweater. We'll never know for sure, Syrett concludes, because in the subsequent trial only two men -- Thomas Doxsee and William Fenton --were defendants, and they received suspended sentences and a few hundred dollars in fines. Dartmouth suffered bad publicity from the incident, and many of the participants may have desired to spare the college further embarrassment: The county solicitor (prosecutor) and the defense attorney, as well as the state attorney general and New Hampshire's governor, were all Dartmouth graduates. What's more, the prosecutor was "a Tri Kap man," the defense attorney was a Deke, and they had been classmates in the Dartmouth class of 1938.

Oh, and the judge? He "had recently been acquitted on charges of manslaughter in a hunting accident," Syrett writes matter-of-factly, "and he had had the same defense attorney as the accused Dartmouth students."

"The Company He Keeps," which the author calls a study in the social history of masculinity, devotes only about five pages to the letter sweater case. Much of the book focuses on the social and economic functions of fraternities, their attitudes toward women ("women, in fraternal logic, exist for men's pleasure, not as human beings interested in their own fulfillment"), and the image of manhood they have cultivated. It's a not a very flattering reflection of that image.

--Alan Cooperman

By Alan Cooperman |  March 20, 2009; 12:33 PM ET Alan Cooperman
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Pales in comparison? I think not. And it's really pathetic that you must go back 60 years to find your counterpoint to the Duke rape hoax fiasco...

Posted by: jballard701 | March 23, 2009 8:00 PM

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