- Historic Sites
A Black Cadet At West Point
One morning Cadet Johnson Whittaker was found battered and bleeding, trussed to his barracks bed. Who had done it, and why?
August 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 5
As Burnett hurried off for help, he met Cadet Frederick G. Hodgson and asked him to stay in Whittaker’s room. Hodgson surveyed a chaotic scene. Whittaker’s room was the typical cadet’s double room of that day. In the corner diagonally opposite Whittaker’s bed, steam pipes entered the room from below, and there was enough open space around the pipes to allow a glimpse of the room below. There were walls two feet thick separating the room from those on either side of it, while above was the roof of the building. The furnishings were scanty: a bed, a small desk and chair, a washstand, a gun rack, and an open clothespress.
Whittaker was in his underclothes. There was blood on his hair, his ears, and the shoulders of his undershirt. Some could be seen on the legs of his drawers, above the knees, and on the bands tied around his ankles and wrists. There was also blood on the floor near him, on the wall above the middle of the bed, and on the mattress near where his feet were tied. An Indian club at the foot of his bed was also marked with a few drops.
On the floor Hodgson noticed a smashed mirror, face down, and near it clumps of black hair and burned scraps of paper. Between Whittaker’s body and the bed there lay a pocketknife with the blade open, and close by his head was a bloodstained handkerchief from which a corner (and probably a name tag) had been torn. The gaslight in the room was only partially turned on and gave a dim light. The window curtains were closed tight.
Cadet Hodgson, while waiting for help to arrive, touched nothing in the room, including Whittaker. He felt that to touch him before a superior officer had surveyed the scene would be improper. Other cadets gathered outside the door, but no one came in. Whittaker still seemed to be unconscious, but he was breathing evenly.
In a few minutes Burnett returned with the officer of the day and helped untie the black cadet. The post surgeon, Major Charles T. Alexander, M. D. , came in several minutes later. He immediately checked Whittaker and found that his pulse and body temperature seemed normal and that his skin had a “natural appearance.” He opened one of Whittaker’s eyelids and found that at first his eye pointed upward, but on command it looked straight ahead.
Despite the fact that he could not rouse Whittaker, Dr. Alexander made no further examination until the arrival, shortly afterward, of the commandant of cadets, Lieutenant Colonel Henry M. Lazelle. Both made new attempts to rouse Whittaker. Dr. Alexander said afterward that Whittaker now spoke for the first time: “Oh, don’t cut me, I never hurt you.” Colonel Lazelle said curtly: “Get up and be a man,” while Alexander shook and pinched the cadet. Whittaker thereupon appeared to be “restored to perfect and complete sensibility.”
Dr. Alexander then treated Whittaker’s wounds, and the black cadet was ordered to report to the post hospital. He walked there under his own power and ate breakfast. He was again given a cursory physical examination and was dismissed for class, having missed only one period. That evening between five and six thirty, General Schofield ordered the assistant post surgeon, Dr. Henry Lippencott, to examine him.
The two doctors differed strangely as to some of Whittaker’s injuries, but they did agree on the key ones. He had “incised wounds on the anterior surface of the lobes of both ears”—five eighths of an inch long on the right ear, slightly shorter on the left. A small piece of flesh was gone from the tip of the left lobe. The equivalent of a “thin scratch” was found on his left hand and “two parallel cuts” about five eighths of an inch long were discovered across the top of the big toe of his left foot. The two doctors estimated that Whittaker had lost from “one and one half to two ounces of blood” in all.
When he had first found Whittaker, Burnett had thought he had a fractured skull, but the doctors discovered no evidence of severe head damage. They found that Whittaker’s hair had been crudely cut “in swaths, extending to the back of the right ear, around and upward to the left.” Various other spots on the head had also been clipped of hair.
Whittaker’s story of what had happened, which he repeated again and again during the day, was briefly as follows.
About 2 A.M. he had awakened to what sounded like the movement of the latch on his door. He listened sleepily, decided that the noise was probably the wind rattling the window, and went back to sleep.
Sometime later he was suddenly dragged out of bed and awoke to see, in the half-light, three men, two dressed in dark clothing and the third in a gray suit. All three wore masks. He tried to struggle against his attackers but had little success. He was seized by the throat and choked, struck on the temple, and given a bloody nose. One assailant warned: “If you don’t be still, you will be a dead man; don’t you holler.”