This Week in Princeton History for March 25-31

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, the Princetonian urges an alumni organization to hire editors with more “integrity”, a new program in electrical engineering is announced, and more.

March 25, 1965—Detectives find no explanation for the apparent suicide of lecturer Robert M. Hurt, 29, described by colleagues as “relaxed” and “cheerful” prior to his death.

Robert Hurt, ca. 1960s. Historical Photograph Collection, Faculty Photographs Series (AC059), Box FAC51.

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Suicide, Princeton University, and Emotional Labor in Public Services

Though it may not be obvious to most of the people who use our library, work in special collections often includes playing a role in someone’s grieving process. Archivists have begun talking about the ways in which interacting with donors puts them in the position of providing comfort to the bereaved, but this is also work performed by those who interact with researchers. For those of us in public services, this usually means providing information about the deceased to those in mourning. One kind of loss, however, is distinct from the others, and the emotional labor for me working with these patrons is different, too.

We confront human mortality on a daily basis in the archives. Many records, after all, cannot be viewed during a person’s lifetime. Death comes into the picture in a variety of ways, but reference inquiries about suicides are usually phrased without the same clarity as other types of questions, as though speaking of suicide itself will injure the person making the inquiry. Though I have responded to several people who have called or emailed Mudd Library looking for information about someone who committed suicide, I have yet to speak to or read an email from anyone who disclosed the fact of a suicide up front. Instead, they tend to ask about “someone who died” or even just “someone I knew.”

My own emotions surface at unexpected news of a suicide in ways they do not when I am caught by surprise about the news of other kinds of unexpected deaths, a phenomenon psychologists label “transference.” Though I may remember the unusual circumstance of someone’s demise I uncover in my research if it is especially noteworthy—such as an alum who electrocuted himself trying to install a TV antenna—they are far less personally provocative. I cannot recall their names; a week or so passes and new questions push them away. This is not so with suicide. One example that particularly stands out in my mind came in almost two years ago, just after the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor (December 7, 2016), when an elderly alum wrote to ask a seemingly innocuous question: Did a Princeton student die in a train accident immediately after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor?

Frank Birney ’42’s entry in the 1942 Nassau Herald.

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This Week in Princeton History for May 21-27

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, a rally pushes for the expulsion of repeat sexual harassers, the New Jersey State Board of Health investigates a typhoid outbreak, and more.

May 22, 1931—The Daily Princetonian laments the suicide of influential cartoonist Ralph Barton and notes it reflects a larger societal phenomenon. “Among the more sensitive, which naturally includes men of talent and genius, this psychopathic condition is as common as measles. … The germ is in the age itself…and no-one has yet found means to combat it.” (Those interested in the work of Ralph Barton can find examples at Firestone Library in the Graphic Arts Collection.)

May 23, 1988—Students hold a demonstration advocating the expulsion of those who repeatedly engage in sexual harassment.

Flyer advertising rally, May 23, 1988. Women’s Center Records (AC248), Box 1.

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This Week in Princeton History for January 29-February 4

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, the death of a member of the Class of 1919 sparks national debate, the chess club organizes, and more.

January 29, 1975—Alum Henry Pitney van Dusen (Class of 1919) enters into a suicide pact with his wife. Their deaths will spark nationwide debate over euthanasia.

January 30, 1997—Sarina Sassoon ’00 appears on the Late Show with David Letterman, where she discusses Princeton’s mascot and her future plans, holds cue cards, and operates a camera.

Sarina Sassoon ’00. Photo from 2000 Nassau Herald.

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