America’s dark hazing history: How sick initiation rituals have been killing young men since 1905

Inside America’s dark history of deadly hazing: Fraternity initiation rituals have killed nearly 500 college students since 1838 through alcohol poisoning, drunk driving, beatings and fatal pranks

There have been 281 hazing-related deaths since 1838 across America Most involve alcohol – in 2021, three boys died from alcohol poisoning after taking part in pledge challenges at their schools There have also been beatings, drunk driving accidents and one boy was hit by a train in 1905 after his fraternity brothers challenged him to lie on tracks Since 2005, there has been a spike in alcohol deaths thanks to the tradition of  ‘bottle passing’ which involves a pledge being given a bottle to finish in one nightThat is what happened to Danny Santulli, the University of Missouri student now in a wheelchair and blind as a result of the brain damage he sufferedThirteen states have felony hazing laws but some states have no laws at all There were no hazing deaths in 2020 as a result of COVID closing schools  






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America has a long, dark history of college hazing that has seen nearly 300 young students die in accidents while being initiated into Greek life.  

The latest incident to shock the country was the October 2021 hazing of Danny Santulli, a 19-year-old who survived severe alcohol poisoning but is now blind and wheelchair-ridden as a result of it. 

Danny’s family’s lawyer, David Bianchi, described it as the worst case of hazing injury the country has ever seen. 

‘You can’t be more injured and still be alive,’ he told this week after filing a lawsuit against two of the frat boys involved. While Danny survived, more than 200 other kids have not. 

There is no official database for hazing deaths or injuries thanks largely to the blanket of secrecy that is immediately thrown on incidents by universities, fraternities and sororities. 

Danny Santulli, left, before he suffered brain damage after a night of forced alcohol at the University of Missouri, and right, recently. He is blind and can no longer walk or talk 

There have been hundreds of hazing deaths across America in the last 20 years. Some of the most recent incidents – dating back to 2011 – are shown above 

The closest count to an official tally is that of Hank Nuwer, a journalist who has covered hazing and written multiple books on the topic. 

By his count, there were 179 hazing deaths at American colleges between 1838 and 1999, and an additional 101 between 2000 and 2022. 

Three boys died in 2021 after schools reopened following a year-long shutdown thanks to COVID. There were no hazing deaths in 2020 and so far, there have not been any in 2022.  

In recent years, alcohol poisoning deaths have been on the rise. In all three suspected hazing deaths of 2021, the victim died as a result of acute alcohol poisoning. 

There was a brief gap in hazing deaths in 2020 when college campuses closed as a result of COVID-19.

Now, with more kids rushing back to school, there are fears of an uptick – and experts however say hazing will be harder to police now that more and more kids are taking the rituals off-campus, out of the view of the schools which monitor them. 

Pledges are loaded into the back of a U-Haul van to be driven to a hazing event at Northeastern University 

‘It’s all going underground,’ Nuwer told He said the uptick began in 1995 when the tradition of ‘bottle passing’ began. 

It involves a pledge being gifted an entire bottle of alcohol – normally cheap vodka – to finish in one evening. 

Nuwer’s research – which involves interviews with fraternity brothers and psychologists – reveals that the entire act is underpinned by camaraderie. 

‘There’s denial after the incident that occurs, a blindness among fraternity members just like the government in Bay of Pigs.

‘If you do something risky enough long enough something bad is going to occur, but they don’t see it coming. Interview after interview I find them surprised and I don’t think it’s faked surprise. 

He said the only way to stop hazing is to stop the tradition of pledging – but colleges and fraternities are hesitant. 

A 1905 article from The Albuquerque Evening Citizen details how student Stuart L. Pierson was tied to train tracks and hit by a locomotive in a hazing ritual at Kenyon college 

‘These slaps on the wrists are not helping anybody. I think it makes frat members arrogant and thinking. Everybody should have a good time but no one should die for a good time. 

‘In doing the research and talking to people, [it seems] it’s a form of cheap entertainment – it’s a kind of domestic abuse. They call themselves brothers sons dads, it’s in a house.

‘We have to end pledging – end that power dynamic,’ Nuwer added. 

Adam Oakes (left) died at Virginia Commonwealth University last February as a result of alcohol poisoning. Phat Nguyen (right) died in November at Michigan State University 

In another incident in 2019, Western Michigan University student Bailey Broderick was killed when she was struck by a van being driven by a drunk pledge carrying out one of his tasks – ferrying his fraternity brothers around campus. Hunter Hudgins was charged with her death

Stone Foltz, pictured with his parents, died last year in an alcohol hazing at Bowling Green State University 

While alcohol poisoning is a leading cause of hazing death, it is not the only root of the problem. 

Other incidents include that of Stuart Lathrop Pierson, an 18-year-old who died in 1905 after being tied to train tracks as part of a hazing prank at Delta Kappa Epsilon at Kenyon College in Ohio.

Drum major Robert Champion was beaten to death in 2011 by frat boys taking part in a hazing challenge 

A newspaper article from that year has the headline: ‘Was this student hazed to death?’ 

The coroner found that Stuart had either been tied to the tracks or was somehow unable to get away fast enough as a locomotive train approached him. 

In another incident in 2019, Western Michigan University student Bailey Broderick was killed when she was struck by a van being driven by a drunk pledge carrying out one of his tasks – ferrying his fraternity brothers around campus. 

In 2018, Collin Wiant died from asphyxiation after inhaling nitrous oxide from a whipped cream canister at Sigma Pi. 

Five years earlier, students Marvell Edmondson and Jauwan Holmes both drowned after a night of drinking at Virginia State University. They had attempted to swim in a river. 

Hazing is a felony crime in 13 states if it causes serious harm or death. 

Those states are Florida, Texas, California, Utah, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and New Jersey. 

Alaska, Hawaii, New Mexico, South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana do not have any specific hazing laws.   

The parents of drum major Robert Champion, who was beaten to death in 2011, sit in court as his killers are charged with manslaughter 


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