The body of a young teacher of Columbia University who shot himself because of fear that he was going to lose his job was found in his department today when he was to have been notified of his reappointment.
He was David Halfant, instructor in economics and a former teacher at the University of Missouri. Halfant, described as an able instructor and a brilliant scholar, formerly attended the University of Chicago. He had completed two-thirds of a course for a doctor of philosophy degree at Columbia and was also engaged in research work.
Columbia University authorities indicated Halfant was of a melancholy disposition. His library, they said, consisted chiefly of German philosophic works of a generally pessimistic nature. Two sealed letters found near the body were addressed to Bessie Halfant, 2601 Douglas boulevard, Chicago, and to Russell Bander, University of Missouri.
This is a tragedy, to be sure. Let's see what we can find out about David Halfant before his untimely death.
David Mandel Halfant (sometimes spelled "Helfant" or "Helfont") was born in Russia on November 17, 1897 to Max Halfant (1868-1941) and Lena (1879-1948). He would be joined by a sister, Bessie (1903-1993), in 1903. The Halfants left Russia in July of 1904, travelling to New York, and then on to Chicago. Max Halfant was "in the salvage business" which was a polite way to say that he was a junk man.
The Halfant family did not participate in the 1910 US Census, but when David registered for the draft in September of 1918 he listed his address as "1512 Edgemont Avenue" in Chicago. Edgemont avenue was renamed Grenshaw Street, and the block where David lived is now known as "University Village" a housing development for students of the University of Illinois at Chicago. The entire neighborhood was razed for the building of the university in the 1950s.
As mentioned in the story about his death, David Helfant attended the University of Chicago, graduating January 15, 1920 with a Ph. B. degree. He was also a member of the Phi Beta Kappa national honor society.
The 1920 US Census has the Halfant family still living at 1512 Edgemont Avenue in Chicago. The Halfant family owned the building and occupied one of the apartments, and rented out the three other apartments in the building. They told the census taker that their mother tongue was "Jewish."
After graduation from the University of Chicago, David Halfant stayed on for postgraduate studies. In 1921 he won the prestigious Julius Rosenwald Prize for scholastic excellence and was awarded an A.M. degree.
After graduation he was employed as an instructor at the University of Missouri at Columbia from 1922-early 1928. In February of 1928 he took up his position as an economics instructor at Columbia University in New York, renting an apartment at the rear of 44 Morton Street in the West Village neighborhood. It was here that he took his own life on May 23, 1928.
|44 Morton Street, New York City|
Since the tragedy happened in New York, the New York Times carried a detailed story:
A light burned all day Monday in the room of David Halfant, graduate student and instructor in economics at Columbia University, in a three-story building in the rear of 44 Morton Street. It was noticed again on Tuesday. Acquaintances of Halfant rang his bell but obtained no response.
When the light was burning yesterday for the third consecutive day, a tenant thought something was wrong and went for Patrick Burns, the caretaker. He opened the door with a pass key and found the student lying dead on a run in front of the mantelpiece.
The student was fully dressed and his spectacles were in place. Just over the right eyebrow was the wound of a .45-calibre army bullet. the revolver lay on the floor. Several books on the mantelpiece had been knocked down, apparently by the recoil of the revolver. The circumstances indicated that the student, whose belongings were all packed up for a trip to Washington in connection with research he was doing for the Institute of Economics, had suddenly changed his mind, abruptly decided to commit suicide, had steadied his arm by resting it on the mantelpiece and fired. His hat lay beside him. Apparently he was all dressed and ready to go out when the sudden decision to kill himself came upon him.
Because the man was wearing his hat and glasses at the time that he was shot, Captain Athur A. Carey of the Homicide Squad personally visited the room with several detectives, thinking it might be a murder case. There were no signs of the presence of a second man, however. Two letters were found on the table in the room, one addressed to his sister Bessie Halfant of 3603 Douglas Boulevard, Chicago, and the other to Russell Bander, University of Missouri, Columbia, Mo. Both of these were sealed and whether they disclosed an attempt to commit suicide was not learned.
Mr. Halfant had been worried, according to a statement made on behalf of Columbia University, by the fear that he would not be reappointed to his position as an instructor in a Columbia University extension course of economics. He had been so appointed, however, and a letter had been sent to him to notify him of the fact before it was known that he had taken his life. According to members of the Faculty in economics, Mr. Halfant was a brilliant student and a good instructor. He had completed two-thirds of his work for a degree of Doctor of Philosophy at Columbia and seemed to be assured of a successful academic career.
Among the books thrown to the floor, apparently by the recoil of the revolver were Conrad's "Lord Jim," Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations" and a volume of Nietzsche. A report was given out at Columbia University that the reading of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and other pessimists had induced a pessimistic state of mind in the student.
Friends said, however, that his worries were about his own future rather than about the speculations of the German philosophers. It was said that he had sought appointments, conditional on his obtaining his Ph.D. in New York University, the University of Oklahoma and Brown University, but that he had met with refusals and that he believed these refusals were due to discrimination against him because he was a Russian Jew. He apparently surmised erroneously that he was in danger of losing his Columbia post on the same grounds.
Mr. Halfant was educated at the University of Chicago, where he received his Ph.B. degree in 1920 and his A.M. in 1921. Before coming to Columbia he had been an instructor at the University of Missouri, Columbia, Mo. He came to Columbia last February, obtained his instructorship and enrolled as a candidate for the Ph.D.
Maybe I am just suspicious by nature (or I have seen too many Perry Mason programs) but this sounds fishy to me - and not just to me. I gave a draft of this article to a co-worker to read and without any prompting she said "It looks like murder to me." Perhaps if we knew what the contents of the two letters were, that might change things, but suicide is rarely a spur of the moment act. Halfant was packed and had his hat on ready to leave for his trip. How often does someone lean against a mantlepiece and shoot themselves with their hat and glasses on? If Halfant had received the rejection letter from Columbia that would be different - but he hadn't.
The New York Times had a small follow-up article about the death of David Halfant:
There was a small Death Notice in the Chicago Daily Tribune on May 26, 1928:
Professor David Halfant was buried at Gate 8 - Chevra Shomer Hadas of Jewish Waldheim Cemetery in Forest Park. His family gave him a beautiful tree-type monument with his information enclosed in a heart. I'm sure his family and friends were bereft.