The Tragic Story of the British Student Who Died During an Initiation Ritual
Ed Farmer's untimely death after a pub crawl is not the first time a student has died after some kind of college induction.
Left: Ed Farmer (Facebook); Right: CCTV footage of Farmer on the floor from the night of his death (Northumberland Police)
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
It was 5:45 in the early hours of Tuesday December 13, 2016 when Newcastle University student Ed Farmer's unconscious body was delivered to the city's Royal Victoria Infirmary.
His clothes were soaking wet, part of his head had been shaved, and his blood-alcohol level was running at 400 milligrams of alcohol in every 100 milliliters of blood, over five times the legal drinking and driving limit. Doctors gave him a 1 to 2 percent chance of survival, but even that slim hope proved optimistic.
When he died the next day, Ed Farmer's official cause of death was recorded as "a hypoxic brain injury because his brain was deprived of oxygen due to cardiorespiratory arrest." What that means is that the excessive consumption of alcohol had led to fluid filling his lungs and starving his brain of oxygen. He was 20 years old.
The previous evening, Monday, December 12, had begun just like many other nights out in towns and cities up and down the country. Farmer, a freshman economics student who had previously attended the £31,000 [$39,160]-a-year Oakham School in Rutland, arrived at the Three Bulls Heads pub in Newcastle's Haymarket area at around 7:15 PM. He was there, along with between 30 to 40 of his fellow students, to take part in a pub crawl initiation to Newcastle University's Agriculture Society. Only male students had been invited on the night out, and had all been given the same instructions. They were to bring with them: "a 70 cl [750 ml] bottle of hard spirits, some money, no student ID, a train ticket, swimming goggles, a Kinder egg, and some lubricant."
The reason they had been told not to bring student ID was that the organizers were aware these sorts of initiations, involving heavy drinking, had already been banned by Newcastle University, and the students didn’t want to be linked to the institution in any way.
The group began the evening at the Three Bulls Heads in boisterous fashion by buying 100 vodka and oranges, which amounted to two or three drinks each. That set the tone for the night. After leaving the pub they went down an alley to swig from their own bottles of spirits. They then stumbled down Newgate Street to Beyond Bar, where they each had another four to six drinks. They then went to The Basement Trebles Bar, a student nightclub beneath The Charles Grey pub, which promotes a deal of three drinks for five dollars. The group was eventually asked to leave when two members instigated what they called a "lizard fight," which involved linking their belts together to tussle in a tug of war.
After leaving The Basement, the group made their way to a train station. As they walked they passed around intentionally unpleasant food, like chicken's feet and raw potatoes. CCTV footage shows that, by this point in the night, Farmer was already having trouble standing. He was carried off the train at West Jesmond and, despite it only being a ten-minute walk, was driven to Sanderson Road and the house of James Carr, the Agriculture Society chairman, who had organized the night.
At the house, the initiation ceremony took an even more extreme turn. Students apple-bobbed in containers of piss and alcohol, and freshman students were given cocktails of wine and milk to drink, before crawling to the garage to have their heads shaved. Some drank shots of vodka from a pig’s head, although Farmer was too drunk to even attempt to take part in this. Nevertheless, his head was partially shaved by a third-year student. He was snoring so heavily that the others assumed he'd simply fallen asleep. Sometime after midnight, he was left to sleep off the night’s excesses in a corridor of the house on Sanderson Road.
The heavy snoring, in fact, was a sign that Farmer’s airways were starting to become blocked with liquid. It was around 4 AM when the other students noticed that he had stopped breathing and put him into the recovery position. Carr, whose house they were in, later said that he was woken by another student saying they "needed to get Ed to the hospital." He added: "You don't consider the consequences unless something dramatic happens. Looking back now, I don't know what to say. I knew that it would not have been allowed by the school. I said I didn’t want it to happen. If I could turn back the clock it's a no-brainer."
Rather than calling an ambulance, the remaining students decided to carry Farmer into a car and drive him to the Royal Victoria Infirmary. By the time he arrived, Farmer had gone into cardiac arrest. Doctors said that if Farmer had been taken to hospital earlier and had arrived prior to the cardiac arrest it's possible he would have survived the night.
Speaking at the inquest at Newcastle Civic Center in October of 2018, Carr confirmed that the purpose of the night had been to introduce new members to the Agriculture Society by encouraging them to drink as much alcohol as possible. "The purpose of the event was, and it's an awful word, an initiation-style evening to welcome everyone into the society, but there was no requirement to turn up—you would still be included if you didn't go," he said. Asked whether freshman students were forced to drink such excessive quantities, he added: "I believe there would have been encouragement from older students, but it was not forceful. As a freshman, I felt pressure to drink, but I would not say I was forced."
At 6:40 AM on the Tuesday morning, less than an hour after Farmer arrived at the Royal Victoria Infirmary, his father Jeremy heard a vehicle coming up the driveway of his home in Leicester. Looking out through the window he saw that it was a police car.
"When the police had left the house, I was 99 percent certain that he would end up with brain damage," Jeremy Farmer would later tell Radio 4's Today program. "Helen, my wife, she was more optimistic. But certainly, when we got up to the Royal Victoria Infirmary they did say that he was in a very serious state. They’d done a brain scan and the brain was dead. So our reaction was well, in that case, turn him off. There is no point in keeping him alive."
Ed Farmer is not the first British student to die as part of a college society initiation ceremony. In November 2006, 18-year-old Exeter University student Gavin Britton died after taking part in a three-hour pub crawl intended to initiate him into the Golf Society. At one point, he stood on a pub chair and was cheered on as he downed a green cocktail called a "Jackson Five" containing around 12 shots of alcohol. His fellow students were too drunk to notice him leave the group, and his body was found by workers in Exeter city center the following morning.
In 2005, 19-year-old Tom Ward was a student at Hull University when he took part in a drinking competition known as the Beverley Road Run. He drank at least 12 pints and between four and six shots in between racing from one pub to another with fellow members of the college rugby team. After returning home he fell down the stairs and landed in a way that stopped him from breathing. His housemates, who had not been taking part in the contest, found his lifeless body when they got home from the movies.
Likewise, in 2003, 18-year-old Alex Doji was a member of the rugby team at Staffordshire University when he died choking on his own vomit after an initiation ceremony in which he had to pick deflated balloons with his teeth from a tub of chilli, dog food, and pig offal.
Rugby teams at universities have developed such a close association with heavy-drinking initiation ceremonies that last year the RFU, Rugby's governing body in England, estimated that 10,000 students had stopped playing rugby rather than put themselves through the humiliation of initiation. That followed in the wake of reports from the University of Manchester that some of their rugby initiations included apple-bobbing for a dead rat in a bucket of cider, sliding across a groundsheet covered in shit, piss, and vomit, or even maintaining eye contact with a senior player while he received a hand-job in a strip club.
The aftermath of each of these incidents—dating back 15 years—tends to follow a similar pattern. There are immediate calls to ban initiation ceremonies which feature heavy drinking, and usually schools and societies are only too happy to do so. At first, these bans are strictly enforced and societies, chastened by high-profile incidents, rein in their excesses. However, over time they slowly creep back in and become more extreme, until another incident happens and the cycle starts over.
There are also obvious limits to the extent with which universities can police student behavior, particularly when it is not taking place on campus. As was revealed at the inquest, the Newcastle University Agriculture Society members who were there on the night of Ed Farmer's death specifically left school identification at home because they were aware that this type of initiation ceremony had been banned.
As Farmer's father Jeremy pointed out in his Radio 4 interview: "I think they’re all banned from universities across the country. It’s just that they weren’t implementing the ban." He added that he thought schools could do more to enforce the bans, saying: "We are of the opinion that there should be… draw a line in the sand, so that from this point on everybody knows initiations are banned and if you step over that line you will be removed from the university."
In the US, deaths from equivalent hazing rituals are even more common than they are in the UK. Professor Hank Nuwer, the author of Hazing: Destroying Young Lives, is one of the country’s leading experts on the issue. According to statistics he collected, there were 40 deaths from hazing in the US between 2007 and 2017, with alcohol poisoning the leading cause of death. As a result, all but six US states now have some sort of anti-hazing law, while in ten states it's considered at least a misdemeanor or even a felony if the activities result in serious bodily harm.
Professor Nuwer tells me that he began writing and campaigning against hazing after the death of student John Davies at the University of Nevada, Reno, where Nuwer himself had been a postgraduate student and a rugby and baseball player. He recalls once intervening when he saw a young man "frothing at the mouth from slogging 190-proof grain alcohol."
Based on the experience of American states, Nuwer argues that "a university policy prohibiting initiations is not enough" but that laws can make a difference, as they make "people see these kinds of initiations as a criminal act." As he points out in regards to Ed Farmer, "Apparently, those who coerced Mr. Farmer into drinking too much thought of themselves consciously or otherwise as breaking rules, or they would have carried school identification."
Nuwer believes that strict legal punishments, such as those that exist in Florida and Pennsylvania—and can result in felony homicide charges and lengthy prison sentences for organizers of hazing—"certainly deter some youths, if only because they fear jail and a tarnished resume and Google's long memory."
However, what really needs to change in order to stop these kinds of deaths may go beyond the capabilities of law-makers or universities. Nuwer tells me that there needs to be a "paradigm shift in attitudes by a nation's students as a whole. There has not been the shame and condemnation attached to hazing by enough students to put a stop to these deaths—especially because chugging alcohol in a ritual is somehow seen as a heroic participation in an act of heroism."
For their part, Farmer's family did not seek to place the blame on his fellow students. Jeremy Farmer said: "We certainly don’t blame the students who were part of the initiation process. I think we don’t ultimately blame the university. It's just a lack of understanding on the university’s part of the problem that they had got, and I think it’s been quite a shock to them to understand the seriousness of the problem."
Ultimately, it is students themselves who need to look out for one another and take their responsibility for their own and other people's safety seriously. Ben Butler, a spokesperson for the alcohol advice charity Drinkaware, tells me that while traditionally British students have had a reputation for heavy drinking, that may be changing. "There's often an assumption that all college students want to drink alcohol, but it's not inevitable or a requirement that young people should drink alcohol just because they are going to college," he says. "In fact, more and more young people are choosing to drink less or not at all."
With Christmas party season already underway on the second anniversary of Farmer's death, Butler says it's important that all students understand that drinking to excess can carry serious and immediate risks. "Our bodies can only process one unit of alcohol an hour," he explains. "Drink a lot in a short space of time and the amount of alcohol in the blood can stop the body from working properly. It affects judgment and reasoning, meaning you are more likely to lose self-control or put yourself in a risky situation, which could lead to injury or accidents. It can also impair the memory."
If you are planning on going out and getting drunk, as part of an initiation ceremony or not, Butler offers the following advice: "Eat a proper meal before you go out, pace yourself with water or soft drinks and make plans in advance to get home with someone you trust."
And as the members of Newcastle University’s Agriculture Society learned, to Ed Farmer’s ultimate cost, if someone you're with has drank too much, then getting them medical help sooner rather than later is the true act of heroism.
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