It was hardly the weather for a suicide. Students had gathered at Collegetown Bagels -- a popular watering hole on days like October 8, 2008, when the Ithaca sun makes an unseasonable appearance -- and from the outdoor patio, you could make out the lofty spire of McGraw Tower, poised now to chime two o'clock. At one minute before the hour, a pair of students crossed the stone bridge to class, the college town behind them, Cornell University ahead, and the deep gorge ninety feet below.
Across the street, an elderly woman was coming the other way. A lanky man in a navy track jacket walked briskly a few paces behind, his face obscured by a white cap. Back in town, a sophomore was feeding a parking meter, when she saw something from the corner of her eye. The man had stepped onto the bridge's western parapet. "I can't look!" someone ahead exclaimed. Up on the bridge, the older woman turned to find anyone who had just seen what she'd seen.
By the time the dean of students, Kent Hubbell, arrived, a small crowd had gathered around the bridge. One man walking through the gorges had his camera handy, and snapped four pictures of the body, which, within thirty minutes or so, was removed by emergency workers. Soon the crowd cleared, and an hour later, the bridge reopened for traffic. "Life went on," remembered Hubbell. "It's amazing how quickly." As for the two witnesses on the bridge, they didn't even wait around to see what happened. "As soon as we heard someone calling 911," said one, "my friend and I continued to campus."
If people in Ithaca seem inured to suicide, that's because they are. For as long as anyone can remember, Cornell's gorges have furnished a wide open casket for those so inclined, and Ithaca, in turn, earned the unwanted distinction of "suicide capital of the combined Ivy League, Big Ten, Little Three, and Seven Sisters," as one local writer put it. Although commensurate with national averages, suicide at Cornell -- or to borrow the local vernacular, "gorging out" -- has become the stuff of myth. And sometimes reality, as this month, when the university lost three students -- in February, Bradley Ginsburg, 18; three weeks later, William Sinclair, 19; and the very next day, Matthew Zika, 21 -- in as many weeks to its precipitous gorges. The recent spate of suicides has cast a pall over the campus. "The cumulative effect of this loss of life is palpable in our community," said Susan H. Murphy, the university's vice president for student and academic affairs, in a video address. University staff, Murphy said, were knocking on student doors, and even stationed on the campus bridges.
But if suicide, as the adage goes, is a permanent solution to a temporary problem, then confronting suicide is just the opposite. While the problem abides, the solutions -- and the attention these tragedies occasion -- inevitably wear thin. Thus, in the fall of 2008, the suicide of Jakub J. Janecka. That day, when police asked the university if Janecka, 33, was an enrolled student, they were told no, but that he was an alumnus, now ten years past his date of graduation. From the small town of Honesdale, Pa., Janecka had recently completed graduate studies in Washington D.C. But what brought him to Ithaca, if not the end he found, no one was quite sure. And why Janecka -- or, for that matter, any of the young men -- came to the gorges to meet that end is a question best answered from the beginning.
In May of 1866, Ezra Cornell gathered his friends and backers to a site four hundred and twenty five feet above Lake Cayuga, the longest of New York's Finger Lakes. Most of the intended trustees -- including Andrew Dickson White, later the university's first president -- preferred a downslope site, but Cornell insisted on this rarified expanse. Cornell, generally a solemn man of few words, splayed his arms to the north and south and decreed: "Here on this line extending from Cascadilla to Fall Creek, with their rugged banks to protect us from uncongenial neighbors, we shall need every acre for the future necessary purposes of the University." And so between two gorges, Ezra Cornell built a great university.
Secluded by two natural barriers, Cornell University rose as an ivory tower of American academe. As the Alma Mater's intones:
Far above the busy humming
Of the bustling town,
Reared against the arch of heaven,
Looks she proudly down.
Nearly a century later, when an editorial in the Cornell Daily Sun asked, "So what is the spirit of Cornell?" it was the university's apartness they singled out: "It can be felt perhaps only by wandering through that metropolis of learning perched on a hill."
Within a few short years, the nascent school on a hill outgrew its southern frontier. As John Schroeder, a former writer for the Daily Sun who now serves as its full-time adviser, has recounted, to reach campus each morning, students in the inaugural class of 1868 had to negotiate a rickety footbridge that dipped into the Cascadilla ravine. In the summer of 1896, architect and alumni William Henry Miller drew up plans for a vaulted bridge of stone and earth. That bridge, now known as the Collegetown Bridge, opened for traffic -- and admiration -- on April 7, 1897. In the words of O.D. von Engeln, a professor of physical geography: "Continuing up the hill we turn to the left and come directly to the stone arch bridge over Cascadilla Stream. One may lean far out over the parapet of this bridge and look directly down on the rushing white current of the waterfall below known as the Giant's Staircase, many feet below."
From very early on, the specter of suicide haunted Ithaca's gorges. In 1889, an engineering student named Edward Wyckoff drew up plans for a suspension bridge to span the northern gorge, Fall Creek. When a professor failed his proposal, Wyckoff angrily withdrew from the university, and, as legend had it, threw himself into the ravine. In fact, Wyckoff never jumped, and a decade later financed the bridge's construction himself. His erstwhile instructor was vindicated, however, when a replacement was installed in 1961. Still, the rather tenuous bridge remains steeped in mythology: it's said a kiss shared at midnight will portend certain marriage, while one unreturned will collapse the bridge entirely.
Throughout the next century, suicides both real and rumored left a morbid blemish on the student body. On a January morning in 1940, when Douglas James Hill failed to show up for breakfast, his fraternity brothers became concerned. Hill's body soon turned up in Fall Creek, and was raised with the aid of a tow car and winch; the boy's father sent a business associate to accompany home his son's remains. Later that same year, Shirley Slavin arrived with her mother to enroll for freshman classes. After a few days on campus, she journeyed to the east side of Fall Creek, lingering for nearly an hour. In front of more than twenty witnesses, Slavin asked a passerby to hold her books and purse -- and then leapt 125 feet to her death.
Before long, bridge suicides inspired the occasional prank or allusion. On November 19, 1953, the Daily Sun offices received an anonymous tip: "I just saw someone jump." At about the same time, someone crossing the bridge discovered a moth-eaten topcoat, a pair of paint-stained men's shoes, two outdated textbooks, and a typewritten note. Police searched the entire night without finding a body. There was nobody to be found. A decade after, in his novel Cat's Cradle, alumnus Kurt Vonnegut wrote: "Or if the sun comes out, maybe I'll go for a walk through one of the gorges. Aren't the gorges beautiful? This year, two girls jumped into one holding hands. They didn't get into the sorority they wanted."
Rob Fishman appears on Ithaca's WHCU to discuss the Cornell suicides.
Fifteen years later, at midnight on March 10, 1968, a senior sat on the ledge of the Collegetown Bridge. After a patrol car passed by, he left, only to return again a half-hour later. After more than an hour, policemen and friends coaxed him down from the bridge, and tragedy was averted. In the following day's Sun, the near-victim was described as a "ruddy-faced 200-pounder." For the many that year who did suffer suicidal impulses -- or worse, mention in the next day's paper -- the city of Ithaca created a Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service, which was incorporated in 1969. That first year, the crisis phone line received 387 calls. Today, there are between 20 to 35 calls per day, or nearly 10,000 calls each year. Of course, as Deb Traunstein, the director of education, notes, many of the callers are overwhelmed with work or worried about their futures, and not in any immediate danger. But then not everyone who is feeling suicidal calls either.
Follow Rob Fishman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/rbfishman