DECEMBER 20, 2018 – Who was Allen Kaplan? For those who were alive in the early 1950s, the tragic story of Allen Kaplan is, at best, only a foggy memory.
Allen Kaplan was a bright, articulate, athletic 18-year-old graduate of Chelsea High School’s class of 1950. While at Chelsea, he excelled at basketball, which led him to Northwestern State College in Natchitoches, Louisiana, where he continued to play basketball.
According to newspaper accounts at the time, Allen became the target of a cruel hazing prank perpetrated by more than 20 upperclassmen and others on the night of March 1, 1951.
At the time, sources from Northwestern State College said a group of upperclassmen had arranged a fictional blind date with Allen, and drove him 12 miles to a wooded area overlooking the Red River. The students had arranged for Kaplan to be met by an upperclassman who posed as the irate husband of the so-called blind date. The man reportedly fired a shotgun blast. Bystanders fled and disappeared in the darkness, leaving Allen behind. No one saw him return to his dormitory that night, and no one reported seeing him the following morning.
Concerned by his absence, classmates and local residents searched the area on March 2 and 3. The search failed to turn up any clues. On March 5, Allen’s bereaved and outraged father and uncle flew from Boston to Louisiana to take part in the search. Finally, on March 9, eight days following his disappearance, Allen’s body was found circling in a whirlpool in the Red River at the base of a bluff, near the scene of the prank.
Following an autopsy, Natchitoches Parish coroner Dr. W.H. Pearson said that Allen “apparently fell about 40 feet down the rocky bluff.” Dr. Pearson said that despite the presence of “multiple contusions of the entire body and generalized hematomata [areas of black and blue and bruising], no evidence of foul play was found.” Dr. Pearson determined the cause of death to be “accidental drowning,” and added that Kaplan may have been unconscious before he struck the water.
On March 9, Northwestern State College Dean of Men Dudley Fulton said he “had been too busy with the search to weigh disciplinary measures for the score or more who participated in the practical joke.”
“The question of criminal prosecution has not been raised,” said District Attorney Lester Hughes. “The circumstances would make conviction difficult.” Additionally, students who took part in the hazing incident refused to discuss the death, as their coach had advised them to do.
Allen’s father told newspaper that his son’s death was a tragic accident, and that he would leave the disciplinary measures in the hands of college authorities. At the time of this review, there is no record available of any disciplinary measures having been taken against students.
With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight and the passage of 67 years, several questions remain unanswered. Was this an anti-Semitic hate crime? Could that be the reason the crime was not more aggressively prosecuted? How were Jews looked upon in the early 1950s in the Deep South? Natchitoches is located in a sparsely populated region of western Louisiana, where people did not know or understand Jews. The autopsy findings also raise more questions than answers. Do “multiple contusions of entire body” indicate a fall, or a beating? Did he fall, or was he pushed?
The injustices perpetrated against Allen Kaplan are now only minor footnotes in local Jewish history. If Allen were alive today, he would be 86 years old. Given his talents and intellect, who knows what he might have accomplished. If his peers were alive today, would they remember anything? His parents are now long gone. They went to their graves with so many questions unanswered.
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