The Wreck

The Wreck

A nightmare at sea turned into one of the greatest rescues in maritime history. When a rookie treasure hunter went looking for the lost ship, he found a different kind of ruin.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 65

A longtime contributor to Wired, David Wolman has also written for The New York Times, Outside, Nature, BusinessWeek, and many other publications. He is the author of three works of nonfiction, and his first Atavist story, “The Instigators,” was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 2011.

Editor: Katia Bachko and Seyward Darby
Designer: Tim Moore
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Tekendra Parmar
Illustrator: David Johnson
Video and Map: Courtesy of Taylor Zajonc and Endurance Exploration Group
Special thanks: Erin Kinchen, Joyce Miller, Mary Lou Eichhorn, Jonathan Frochtzwajg, Donna Blinn, Aimee Brigham, Timothy Cerniglia, the Zajonc family, and especially Phyllis Edwards

If you are a descendant of someone connected with the Connaught story, or think you might be, we would love to hear from you. The passenger list for the ship can be found here. Email David or send a note on Twitter to @davidwolman using the hashtag #thewreck.

Published in February 2017. Design updated in 2021.

Of the nearly 600 souls on board the crippled steamship, five were priests. Over the noise of ripping wind and sailors shouting, the holy men offered spiritual counsel to any passenger who would listen. They assured anxious women and children that God held them in His righteous hands. To the men they spoke more plainly: Barring a miracle on this Sunday, the Lord’s Day, October 7, 1860, everyone on the ship would drown in the turbid waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

Just shy of 400 feet long, the craft carrying the priests and their makeshift flock was a colossus by the engineering standards of the day. The Connaught, christened in honor of the western Irish province where it docked, was close to completing its second transatlantic voyage. But with the destination, Boston Harbor, about 150 miles west, disaster struck.

Caught in a storm, the Connaught began flooding on its starboard side, tilting into the ocean at a steep angle. The engines died. Then came a fire belowdecks. The luxury ocean liner had transformed into a death trap.

Stranded on deck alongside the ship’s crew were poor Irish immigrants and card-carrying members of America’s upper crust, including Hugh Whittell, a wealthy California entrepreneur, and William Hurry, a prominent New York architect, developer, and abolitionist. Overhead, tied to the ship’s masts and snapping in the wind, were flags signaling distress.

Toward midday, the 42-year-old captain, Robert Leitch, ordered his crew to secure every hatch and to cover broken skylights and other openings with wet blankets and jackets. If he couldn’t stop the Connaught from becoming an inferno, he could at least slow the destruction, gaining perhaps another hour or two before the ocean consumed his ship and the lives on board. All the while, the five priests urged passengers to resist fear, remain steadfast in their faith, and die with dignity.

Then, in the distance, as if sent from heaven: a boat.

One hundred and fifty years later, Taylor Zajonc sat in his tiny home office poring over the details of the Connaught’s sinking. On the second floor of a prewar brick townhouse in Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Georgetown University, the office still had its original single-pane windows, which meant that it was sweltering in summer and frigid in winter. The wood floors were so uneven that Taylor’s wheeled chair rolled away from his desk if left unattended. It couldn’t go far, though. “I stuffed that office with so many maritime history books,” Taylor recently told me, “that I was genuinely concerned the floor might give out and send me tumbling into the living room below.” Most days, his border collie–chow mix, Potter, slept at his feet.

Taylor’s job was to evaluate information about shipwrecks for potential survey, salvage, and recovery—what most people call treasure hunting. Tall, with wide eyes, thinning blond hair, and a calm disposition, the 28-year-old researcher wasn’t a maritime thrill seeker like those who, armed with scuba gear and a daydream, dive for gold in their free time in places like Key West. For Taylor, treasure hunting was a family business—his father taught him the ropes—and an intellectual pursuit. He spent more time scouring books than he did out on the water, piecing together historical data about lost ships: the cargo never recovered, the estimated location and depth of wrecks, insurance claims, passenger manifests, and more. He read so much about disasters that he sometimes experienced them in his dreams.

Recently, Taylor had started working for a wealthy Floridian who was getting a new search-and-salvage enterprise off the ground. The boss wanted Taylor to come up with a short list of wrecks they could hunt, based on location and potential profit; from that they would pick one to pursue. The Connaught was no secret to maritime historians. It was listed in numerous books about shipwrecks, with accounts indicating that it sank with £10,000 in gold bullion on board. Thanks to gold’s price jump in the mid-aughts, the lost haul would now be worth as much as $15 million.

Money, though, wasn’t the only reason Taylor focused his attention on the 1860 disaster. Treasure hunting is almost by definition about optimism. You need to believe that fortune awaits beneath the waves—all you have to do is go get it. Taylor, however, saw magical thinking as a problem, enticing adventurers to take fanciful, costly trips that often turned up nothing. He wanted to prove that a successful treasure hunter ignores the role of luck in a search and maximizes those of science and skepticism, an approach that tends to erase a good deal of the romance.

Where it endures is in the stories. Taylor’s dad had taught him that while treasure may capture the imagination, what sticks in our memories are the tales of the people who survived or perished in shipwrecks. In gathering evidence on the Connaught for his employer, Taylor would uncover a story so captivating, it was as if he had dreamed it. The plot began with an engineering marvel, a catastrophe, and a stunning feat of courage. It ended with piracy, treason, and a hero disgraced.

In April 1860, tens of thousands of people gathered at the docks just outside Newcastle, England, to witness the launch of the Connaught. Shipping executives schmoozed with local scions of industry and politics. As the giant ship slid stern-first along oiled rails into the water where the River Tyne meets the North Sea, the crowd cheered. A militia band played the folk song “Off She Goes.” The Connaught had been constructed in neighboring Jarrow by the shipbuilding firm of Palmer Brothers & Co., but it was being delivered to Galway, Ireland, where it would be the crown jewel of the city’s port and of the Atlantic Royal Mail Steam Navigation Company.

An illustration of the Connaught’s launch in Newcastle. (London Illustrated News)

During the first half of the 19th century, advances in boiler designs, paddles, and metalwork had ushered in the age of steamships capable of traveling along the rivers of Europe, down the length of the Mississippi, and, soon enough, across oceans. In 1838, Irish scholar and popular science writer Dionysius Lardner wrote that it was “as chimerical to talk of going to the moon as running a steamer service to New York from the British Isles.” By 1860, an ocean crossing took just one or two weeks. Whoever owned the ships, governed their ports of call, and secured contracts for cargo stood to profit immensely. The Atlantic Royal Mail Steam Navigation Company was incorporated in 1858 for just that purpose.

The Galway Line, as it was informally known, was supposed to transform its quiet namesake into a port city to rival existing powers. That was the vision, anyway, preached by area businessmen. Ships carrying passengers and international mail would have a shorter journey to America than those departing from ports to the east, such as Liverpool and Dublin. A busier Galway would also require new rail links to handle increased traffic and freight, a pleasing prospect to entrepreneurs eager to lay tracks across Ireland. Announcements in the local press advertised a “New Line of Steamship to America” and offered fares to emigrants looking to set off westward.

The Connaught was the Galway Line’s most impressive ship. It was equipped with three 800-horsepower oscillating engines, and at its center stood two massive paddlewheels three stories tall. Whereas most vessels at the time had rounded bows, the Connaught was one of the first to incorporate a “wave line,” characterized by a concave hull that came to an unusually narrow point, almost like a blade. Engineers had calculated that the shape would make vessels cut more smoothly through water, speeding travel.

Matching the Connaught’s sleek figure was an all-white paint job that earned it a moniker: the White Boat. The bow was adorned on its right side with a favorite emblem of Ireland, Erin and her harp (from the Gaelic Éirinn go Brách, meaning “Ireland Forever”) and on its left with an image of Lady Liberty. The stern was ornate, with figurines and inset carvings of the ship’s name and port. On the main deck, framed skylights and companionways featured carved, polished teak accented with stained glass.

The real glamour, however, was inside. The saloon and first-class cabins had walnut and maple paneling with paintings depicting scenes of the Irish countryside. A lounge was furnished with the finest upholstery and capped by a marble ceiling. Throughout the ship was the same spare-nothing adornment: diamond-cut glass doorknobs, velvet couches, and burnished gold molding. Reporters for the Galway Vindicator who toured the ship took note of two bookshelves in the main cabin. Their contents: four volumes of the Book of Common Prayer, three miscellaneous titles, and 19 copies of the Bible.

The same members of the press were forbidden from joining the Connaught’s trial cruises around Galway Bay before the ship’s first ocean crossing. Reporters took this as a sign that the Galway Line’s top brass were hiding something, and they raised concerns about the vessel’s seaworthiness. They were drowned out, however, by the public fanfare surrounding the ship and by the blessing of local Board of Trade inspectors. Under a bright sky in the summer of 1860, the Connaught embarked on its inaugural voyage to America.

One afternoon in 1987, when Taylor Zajonc was five years old, his father paid an unannounced visit to his son’s kindergarten in Spokane, Washington, carrying a handful of tarnished coins and a six-inch metal spike. Tall and thin, Guy Zajonc wore a three-piece suit with a gold chain connected to a pocket watch. “This is real treasure,” he told the children. “It’s from a shipwreck nearly 300 years old.” Taylor, who was developing an early and keen interest in history—ancient Egypt, Vikings, and Captain James Cook were his favorite topics—was dazzled.

Guy was a respected attorney in town. He had a top-floor office, a good income, and a happy family. On weekends he volunteered as a high school track coach. Yet as his career wore on, he was finding real estate transactions and contract law less than thrilling, especially compared with the tales of adventure that he and Taylor were reading at home.

Before coming to his son’s school that day, Guy had met with a man who was hoping to raise money for a treasure hunt: salvaging a lost Manila galleon off the western coast of North America. The man brought along the coins and spike, artifacts from another wreck, as proof that the venture would be worthwhile. Guy had asked to borrow the items to impress his young son.

Treasure hunts are notorious for financing problems, personality clashes, and legal challenges.

Guy offered free of charge to help the man obtain a legal permit to recover the galleon—not always an easy task, given the ownership, insurance, and sovereignty disputes that treasure hunts can provoke. They are also notorious for financing problems, personality clashes, and legal challenges. The galleon project proved no exception and was scrapped in short order. Guy heard that an investor from Texas had lost $300,000 and had no clue where the money went.  

Still, Guy was hooked on treasure hunting. The world of underwater explorers is tightly knit, and he was suddenly an insider. All it had taken were some phone calls and a few trips to meet (and drink) with adventurers and investors. It helped that most of the players he encountered lacked legal training, which made Guy an instant asset. He got along with these dreamers, especially the eccentric millionaires who bankrolled the ventures—“likeable rogues,” he called them.

In 1998, Guy organized a mission to Japan’s “golden submarine,” the I-52, which had been discovered three years prior. Bombed by the Allies in World War II, the sub sank near the dead middle of the Atlantic, taking with it more than two tons of gold. Guy arranged for the shooting of a National Geographic documentary about the effort to salvage the wealth and established himself as a man who got things done.

Over the next few years, he tackled several more projects. Whenever he visited a shipwreck site, Guy tried to bring his sons. (Taylor has a brother, Austen, who is younger by three years.) In September 2000, a team of Russian explorers was taking wealthy tourists to visit the final resting place of the Titanic. Guy was part of that expedition, and he managed to talk the Russians into letting his sons tag along. The following year, Taylor joined the same crew on a cruise to the Bermuda Triangle to investigate the wreck of a trading vessel that sank in 1810, carrying millions of dollars in silver coins. He participated in a submarine dive to more than three miles below the ocean’s surface, a depth that for a teenager—so far as Taylor knows—remains a record. Only as an adult would he realize how exceptional these experiences were. “Almost everybody thinks the way they grew up was totally normal,” Taylor told me.

In 2003, Guy became general counsel for a new Florida-based company called Odyssey Marine Exploration. With Odyssey’s launch, and that of another large firm in London, treasure hunting arrived on Wall Street, complete with stock issuances and ticker symbols. (Odyssey’s is OMEX.) With big-league financing and sturdy corporate structuring, the new ventures would be far removed from the world of weekend divers and quixotic explorers. Odyssey had slick offices in Tampa, a 230-foot research vessel, a $1.5 million tethered robot for filming and retrieving debris from the seafloor, and about 100 employees. In Guy’s first year, the company recovered an estimated $75 million in gold from the SS Republic, found off the coast of Georgia.

When a $100-a-day position opened up for an archaeologist’s assistant—really a glorified gopher—Guy called Taylor to see if he wanted it. The younger Zajonc was a semester away from finishing his bachelor’s degree in psychology at Western Washington University.

“Take a night to think about it,” Guy said.

“OK,” Taylor replied. “But it’s going to be yes.”


The Connaught’s maiden voyage from Galway to Boston, with a stop in St. John’s, Newfoundland, was anything but auspicious. One of the ship’s pistons fractured, causing a two-day delay. After undergoing repairs stateside, it began the journey home, but another piston failed. The ship eventually limped back into Galway almost a week behind schedule.

Optimists would call this sort of thing typical: “Baby disorders and untoward misfortunes,” The New York Times reported, “the usual forerunners of gigantic success.” Besides, it could have been far worse. Steamships were prone to boiler explosions and spontaneously combusting piles of coal. Dozens of vessels were lost due to accidents throughout the 19th century.

The Connaught’s second crossing began on September 25, 1860. A few days in, it passed another ship bound for Europe that had lost its masts in a storm. Captain Leitch offered assistance, but the damaged vessel was faring just well enough that its crew declined. The Connaught steamed on, straight into the same storm. Within a day, heavy seas were blasting the ship, sending waves over the sides and into the bulwarks, shattering windows on the deck. A number of paddlewheel blades were lost or damaged.

Before sunrise on Wednesday, October 3, the Connaught docked in St. John’s. Two passengers were so shaken by the storm that they decided to stay put, not traveling on to Boston. The Boston Pilot later reported that even some seasoned mariners “felt there was great danger” on board. Just a few more hours in rough seas and the Connaught “might have broken her back.”

One of the passengers who declined to continue was Reverend Peter Conway from Headford, near Galway, who had listened to confessions and administered penance during the worst of the storm. Conway was so unimpressed by how the grand ship had performed that, in an undated letter published in the Newfoundlander newspaper, he called the Connaught “the worst ship ever built.” He opined that the builders should have been prosecuted for putting so many lives in danger.

Most of the passengers, however, were sufficiently reassured when Leitch and the local representative of the Galway Line hurried to recruit mechanics to repair the ship. While that work was under way, coal and provisions were replenished, and a dozen new travelers boarded, including W.H. Newman, the U.S. consul to St. John’s. In addition, £10,000 worth of gold was loaded onto the Connaught for transfer to Boston. Who the money belonged to and what its ultimate destination was have never been confirmed; one theory is that the British government was making payments for expenses incurred during a recent visit to North America by the teenage prince who would go on to become King Edward VII.

The Connaught left St. John’s on the same day it had docked. For the first time since the storm, the mood on board was sanguine. The crew sang traditional Irish chanteys, such as “Haul Away, Joe” and “The Lever Line.” As they steered toward Boston, they faced only a moderate headwind from the southwest.

In January 2004, Taylor Zajonc moved to Tampa to start working at Odyssey. He was a quick study and impressed the company’s research experts. They agreed to let him become a “stack rat,” delving into library special collections, newspaper microfiche, and obscure corners of the Internet looking for information about shipwrecks. Taylor read his way through the books and binders in Odyssey’s research archive, which was scattered across office shelves, filing boxes, and storage units, then reorganized the materials into a searchable filing system. “It was a mess like you wouldn’t believe,” he told me, “years’ worth of stuff that had just piled up.”

An ad for the Connaught’s first voyage. (Boston Daily Advertiser)
An ad for the Connaughts first voyage. (Boston Daily Advertiser)

Next he began honing Odyssey’s research methods with an almost compulsive commitment to empiricism. From field experiences with his dad, he had seen how assumptions and bias threatened the chances of a successful discovery or salvage mission. A classic example was the I-52. After the initial find, the project leader saw black-and-white video footage of the wreckage that revealed a cluster of rectangular shapes. They had to be gold bullion, he decided, based on their size and lack of corrosion. (Part of what makes gold so bewitching is its resilience to deterioration.) So his team went to retrieve them. The objects, though, turned out to be tin ingots—there is so little chemistry in the deep ocean that most metals barely deteriorate. The misstep cost the mission precious time and resources.

At Odyssey, Taylor was learning that emotions and marketing optics seemed to factor into discussions about projects as much as probabilities and evidence did. He decided to draft a white paper on “actionable shipwreck intelligence.” A wreck, he wrote, should be rated according to four criteria: confidence that it can be found, value of the presumed cargo, likelihood of recovery, and the path to legal salvage. Imagine, for instance, a shallow-water wreck with verifiable cargo worth hundreds of millions of dollars. A promising target—except that it’s just a few miles from a North Korean naval base. For a wreck to warrant the company’s attention and resources, it would need to score well on all the criteria.

Taylor’s method soon became the standard format for the research department’s reports. Yet around the same time, the Zajoncs began noticing subtle discrepancies between what Odyssey’s research staff reported to upper management and what the company was telling investors. The father and son—along with other employees—raised concerns about the company’s headline-grabbing claim that it had found the HMS Sussex, which sank in 1694 near Gibraltar with ten tons of gold. They believed Odyssey executives should have been more forthright about the possibility that what they had found was another wreck in the same area.

At odds with the company’s leadership, Guy quit just before Christmas in 2005. He went back to lawyering in Spokane and, as always, kept an eye out for new adventures. Guy told me that it felt to him as if Odyssey, which became entangled in seemingly endless court battles, had “snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.”

For Taylor, who quit soon after his father did, the situation was crushing. Straight out of college, he’d hit upon a dream job. Now it was gone. To make ends meet, he took a position developing architecture and engineering courses for an online-education firm. Recalling his disappointment, Taylor told me, “I thought I would never be able to do something quite so interesting again.”


The Connaught’s luck began to run out soon after the ship departed St. John’s. On Friday, October 5, 1860, increased winds began beating the ship’s bow. Waves intensified, too, pummeling the steamer overnight and into Saturday. By that evening, the Connaught was facing another full-on tempest.

Around 8 p.m., a leak was discovered in the engine room. Leitch ordered that pumps be brought down from the deck and set his crew to bailing. Some passengers, noticing the commotion, convivially stepped up to lend a hand. Despite their efforts, water began filling the engine room and seeping into the forward bunkers.

Passengers felt the ship pitch hard to the right and stay that way—a result of it taking on so much water. Stepping out onto the deck, Hugh Whittell, the California entrepreneur, was met by a deafening rush of wind. Crewmen were scrambling about for pumps and buckets, muttering to one another. They told Whittell that everything was under control. If the wind cooperated, the Connaught would reach Boston that night.

In fact, the situation was worsening. By early Sunday morning, the encroaching waters belowdecks threatened to kill the fires that powered the forward boilers. Around 4 a.m., the flooding in the engine room extinguished the fire used to fuel the ship’s steam pump, rendering useless an essential tool for combating the leak. Four hours later, water finally overwhelmed the ship’s furnaces, and the engines sputtered to a stop. An eerie quiet followed.

Hundreds of the Connaught’s passengers gathered on deck. Some asked Leitch what they could do to help, and he requested that men continue to bail seawater. Lingering hope soon gave way to dread, however, when anxious whispers spread word of a new danger: fire.

Smoke had begun rising through the stoke hole toward the rear of the ship. Leitch dispatched an officer to find the source of the fire, but the man met only an impenetrable cloud. The blaze, which seemed to be coming from somewhere between the boilers and the stern, must have been building while all hands were dealing with the leak.

The exhausted crew responded with buckets of seawater and wet blankets, but they were fighting blind. Unable to get close to the fire’s source due to the flooding and smoke, they could only aim their dousing in the general vicinity of where the flames emanated from deep within the ship’s belly. The Connaught was still taking on water and slumping further into the sea. Waves sizzled as they met the metal hull, which was burning from the inside out.

At least one passenger made preparations to leap into the ocean. Finding a rope maybe 15 or 20 feet in length, he tied himself to a metal railing on the ship’s low side. Should the heat of the fire become unbearable, he would jump into the water and pay out the rope to get away from the flames. There he planned to remain until someone saved him or the great ship pulled him under.

W.H. Newman, the U.S. consul who boarded in St. John’s.(Library of Congress)

Leitch was no stranger to disaster. As captain of the steamship City of Philadelphia a few years earlier, he had been caught in a severe fog and had run the ship aground near Cape Race, east of Newfoundland. With calm waters and the Newfoundland shore less than a mile away, the evacuation into lifeboats proceeded smoothly. All the passengers were transported to safety with luggage, food, and sails, which they used to craft makeshift tents as they awaited help.

The Connaught didn’t have the same advantages; it was in rough waters and far from land. With no way to get the upper hand on the fire or the leak, the captain must have known that salvation would require another ship. Leitch told a crew member to scramble up the mainmast and scan for distant sails. “Nothing to sight, sir,” the man shouted back.

The passengers on deck anxiously watched the sailor. Minutes later he yelled, “Sail on the lee bow!”—but the vessel was too far away to notice the Connaught’s distress flags and soon slipped from sight. Other ships followed the same agonizing pattern.  

Then, a little before noon, another vessel appeared.

“Can you make out if she is coming toward us?” Leitch asked.

“I think she is, sir,” the sailor answered, followed soon after by, “She sees us!”

W.H. Newman, the U.S. consul, had been moving hand over hand along the railing of the sloping deck to keep from falling. He later wrote that before spotting the brig, everyone on board was “humanly speaking, without hope.” When Newman heard the crewman’s shout from the mainmast, he looked out on the horizon and could see the ship heading toward the Connaught “with bursting canvas, dead before the gale.” The crew fired a cannon, an emergency signal, to beckon the vessel to their aid.

Passengers rejoiced. The priests announced that deliverance was imminent. When the two ships were roughly 200 yards apart, Leitch called for the other captain to make himself known. “The brig Minnie Schiffer, Captain Wilson,” came the reply.

Captain John Wilson of New Orleans, to be precise, in command of a cargo ship, laden with fruit and wine and not even a quarter of the Connaught’s size.

Micah Eldred was itching to do something exciting with a multimillion-dollar fortune earned in the financial industry. A native Floridian who loved the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Eldred had watched closely as search-and-salvage ventures came and went, sometimes burning huge amounts of capital with little to show for it. Believing he could do it differently—and that there was money to be made—he connected with Guy Zajonc through a mutual contact in 2009 and said he wanted to start a business.

After his experience at Odyssey, Guy had come to believe that a viable treasure-hunting enterprise was likely a chimera. “You’re too smart for that,” he told Eldred. When the 41-year-old entrepreneur insisted that he would put up $600,000 of his own money, the elder Zajonc relented. To start, Eldred didn’t need to buy a fancy vessel or equipment, Guy advised. He needed research. “This may sound self-serving,” Guy said, “but it’s the truth: You should hire my son.”

A few weeks later, Eldred did. Taylor was about to get married and move to Arlington where his wife, Andrea, had secured a government job. He was hired part-time to develop a list of wrecks from which Eldred’s new business, dubbed Endurance Exploration Group, would pick its first target.

Working from home, with excursions to the library at Georgetown, Taylor focused his energies on steamships. Records are more plentiful for steamers than they are for earlier ships, and hulking masses of metal on the seafloor are more easily detectable than decaying wooden wrecks are. The Connaught made Taylor’s list early, and it scored well on the criteria he’d carried over from his Odyssey white paper. The wreck, believed to be about 600 feet underwater, was too deep for scuba divers but well within the range that remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) could handle. It was close enough to U.S. shores that the legal route to salvage would likely be straightforward. And, of course, there was the missing gold.

A rough map of the Connaught’s location when it sank.

To identify the shipwreck’s probable location, Taylor combed through newspaper clippings, government communiqués, and weather reports. Sometimes he imagined himself as one of the two captains—Leitch and Wilson—making decisions in real time.

In October 2010, several months into his research, Taylor got a break when he came across an account of the burning and sinking of an unnamed ship, written by a mariner who had been off the coast of New England in 1860. The article included a bare-bones map and rough coordinates of where the mariner believed he had spotted the vessel. (Eldred and Taylor requested that I not share the specifics of where the account was located. “It’s clearly a findable document,” Taylor wrote in an email, “but we’d sleep better at night knowing that someone still needs to spend the money and time to dig if they ever want to look for the Connaught themselves.”)

Taylor contacted Eldred about the latest piece of evidence. They decided it was time to move their operation out of the library and into the sea.

Fifty years old and standing about five-foot-eight, with brown hair, gray eyes, and a small scar on his forehead, John Wilson was a longtime seafarer. Born in Baltimore, he later moved to New Orleans, his wife’s hometown, and built a career as a ship captain and co-owner of a few different vessels. He spent much of his time transporting cargo in and around the Gulf of Mexico. In the 1840s, working for an import-export business called Schiffer & Brothers, he delivered goods to Tampico, Mexico, during the Mexican-American War. In 1856, commanding the Minnie Schiffer, which was named after the daughter of one of the company’s owners, he transported soldiers of fortune to Nicaragua, where they participated in a short-lived attempt by William Walker, an American civilian, to conquer the country.

On October 7, 1860, Wilson was nearing the end of his latest journey, bringing the Minnie Schiffer home to America with cargo from Europe. When he spotted a ship, a cloud of smoke, and distress flags in the distance, he told his crew of six men—four of whom spoke no English—to bear down on the vessel. As he got closer, he could see that the boat was pitched on its side. After hearing cannon fire, Wilson ordered a crewman to raise a flag in reply.

He piloted close enough to the Connaught to communicate with Captain Leitch. “Make ready to take us all on board without delay,” Leitch yelled. “The ship is all on fire below.” Wilson responded, “Yes, I am ready to take you.”

The fire inside the Connaught was so intense that passengers still stranded on deck could feel the heat through their shoes. More than once, flames leapt out of the ship’s skylights.

Some passengers on the Connaught quietly worried that the Minnie Schiffer was too small for the task at hand. The tops of its masts were almost even with the larger ship’s bulwarks. If Wilson decided to take only some of the passengers, or even if a rumor broke out that he would, pandemonium would follow. When Leitch asked if his counterpart could accommodate everyone, however, Wilson responded that he “would stand by as long as there was one on board.”

The rescue would depend on the Connaught’s lifeboats ferrying passengers to the Minnie Schiffer. There were fewer skiffs than needed for everyone on board—commonly the case for ships of that era—necessitating dangerous trips back and forth. Leitch ordered the men on his deck to form two parallel lines facing each other, creating a tunnel of sorts to usher women and children to the sides of the Connaught. Because the seas were rough, the lifeboats would be lowered first, and passengers would descend ladders or be let down by ropes once the vessels were on the water.

As the first skiff neared the ocean’s surface, a violent wave threw it against the Connaught’s iron hull, smashing the lifeboat to pieces. The rest of the boats made it to the water intact, but they were moving targets for the passengers trying to board—smacking against the ship one moment, separating from it by several feet the next, rising up to a ladder’s final rung with one wave, dropping far below with the next.

A man named Patrick O’Flaherty slipped as he tried to load into one of the boats. Leitch himself climbed down a line, swung out over the water, and pulled O’Flaherty to safety. William Hurry, the wealthy Manhattan developer, fell out of a lifeboat and was overwhelmed by the waves. Thomas H. Connauton, the first mate, threw him a wooden pulley that was buoyant enough to buy Hurry a few minutes above water. The crew tossed him a line and dragged him back to the lifeboat.

When the first load of survivors finally set foot on the Minnie Schiffer, Wilson spotted some of the Connaught’s sailors trying to hide among the throng of travelers to avoid going back to assist. He yelled at them to do their duty, and they reluctantly returned to the lifeboats.

By that point, the fire inside the Connaught was so intense that passengers still stranded on deck could feel the heat through their shoes. More than once, flames leapt out of the ship’s skylights. By sunset, only about 200 people had been carried to the Minnie Schiffer, leaving some 400 yet to be rescued. Darkness would bring more hazards, and crew members from both ships begged Wilson not to send them back to the blazing steamer. A few again tried to hide, this time belowdecks on the cargo brig.

“Every soul must be saved!” Wilson shouted.

He gave the order to maneuver his ship close enough to the Connaught to throw over a line. Tying off was a huge gamble: An explosion on the Connaught, or even a wayward ember, could have jeopardized the Minnie Schiffer and all on board. Yet narrowing the gap between the ships would also speed the transfer of the remaining passengers.

The risk paid off. By 9:30 p.m., all the passengers were safely away. Fire soon shot up the ropes, masts, and mainsail of the Connaught. When the last of his crew had escaped, Leitch, weaving his way through the smoke and flames, made one last sweep of the ship before climbing down into a waiting lifeboat. By 10:45, he was aboard the Minnie Schiffer, his face and hands singed. Rescued travelers were crammed so tightly in the bulwarks and on deck that some were forced to perch in the ship’s rigging. The brig also towed the Connaught’s lifeboats, filled with additional passengers.

Wilson turned the Minnie Schiffer toward Boston. He ordered his crew to offer caskets of wine and raisins to the survivors. He then made his way around the deck, distributing cups of water and asking people if they were injured.

Hours later, behind the overloaded brig, a giant fireball drifted on the horizon, illuminating the night sky.

In the summer of 2013, Micah Eldred chartered a commercial fishing boat out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. With rented sonar gear and a small crew, he began surveying nearly 800 square miles of ocean floor in search of the Connaught. It was painstaking work, moving over a measured grid for days at a time as if endlessly mowing a lawn. Sonar emits sound waves and picks up responding signals. Depending on the depth and distance of a wave’s bounce and whether it ricochets off sand, metal, wood, or another material, a different signal comes back. The technology then creates images out of the sound waves, known as sonographs.

Taylor took a vacation with his wife at the same time the survey was happening. Sonar missions, he explained, “aren’t that interesting. You’re just one more mouth to feed.” Back home in Arlington, he received the sonographs and got to work cataloging everything he saw. He tabbed through image after image on his computer, zooming in to squint at shadows, bumps, ripples, and shapes that might have represented something man-made.

An ROV scanning the ocean floor for the wreck.

Near the middle of the search area sat an obvious shipwreck. It had a pronounced, narrow shape with a tapered bow. Taylor knew that the survey area was full of World War II wrecks. He also knew that sonographs can behave like a Rorschach test: People see what they wish to see. Skeptical that this was the Connaught, he still showed the image to Eldred, who pointed out a bulge on one side that he thought looked an awful lot like the shadow of a steamship’s paddlewheel. Eldred sent the images to some sonar specialists, who replied that the measurements didn’t match up: This wreck wasn’t the same length as the Connaught.

Guy Zajonc, who also took a look at the data, was more optimistic. He noted that a boxy section in the middle of the wreck indicated heavy machinery of the sort steamers once carried. He also eyed two similarly sized black holes where masts may have stood. In a phone call with Eldred, Guy said, “That’s your boat.”

Weighing the conflicting opinions, Taylor toggled between lithographs of the Connaught and the sonar images. What was he missing, he wondered? He touched base with his father, who suggested that the length issue might be a red herring. Guy zeroed in on a rough line, or “knife cut,” running across one image. He thought it indicated a hiccup in the software that had translated the sound waves into pictures. If he was right, the glitch could explain the size discrepancy that the sonar experts had identified.

The hunch was enough for Eldred to green-light a follow-up expedition. It was time, finally, to go down to the wreck.

Two days after rescuing the Connaught’s passengers, the Minnie Schiffer arrived in Boston Harbor. As it approached India Wharf, hundreds of people who had gathered on the docks began cheering and waving hats. Spouses, siblings, cousins, and friends had gotten word of a disaster and rescue at sea. Now they crowded the shore, screaming the names of relatives they hoped to find alive.

Some of the Connaught’s passengers, elated or delirious, tried to jump from the ship as soon as the wharf was within reach. Others wore the stunned look of civilians in a war zone. Some didn’t have shoes. A number of passengers sat down on the wharf, seemingly unsure of what to do next. One girl clung to a prayer book that she had held throughout the catastrophe.

Over the course of the following week, more-detailed accounts of the rescue began to emerge. Passengers furnished newspapers with personal stories, all of them praising Leitch, whose “intrepid coolness,” wrote the Boston Evening Transcript, was crucial to the survival of the passengers. Then there was Wilson, the “brave and unselfish commander,” as the Baltimore Sun described him. “Judging from his well-known humanity,” wrote The New York Times, “nothing could have afforded him so much gratification as the opportunity of being instrumental in saving so many human lives.” The paper touted that “in his social relations, no less than among his sea-faring acquaintances, he is distinguished for his urbanity and great kindliness of character. With his employers he has always stood very high for his integrity, his only fault being, they say, that he is so unselfish and liberal that he saves nothing for himself. Having no children of his own, he has adopted and brought up several orphans.”

Neither captain gave interviews, but each provided the authorities and the press with an official statement. Leitch’s was an exacting, if not exhaustive, technical account, all but devoid of emotion. Wilson’s was a few short paragraphs that applauded the conduct and courage of the Connaught’s officers and passengers while chastising the sailors who had tried to hide instead of manning the lifeboats.

News of the astounding incident soon went global: In terms of the number of lives saved, it was one of the most successful rescues in maritime history. Survivors, dignitaries, and fellow mariners arranged for gifts and financial compensation for Wilson, including a gold pocket chronometer presented to him by the British consul in Boston. During their time aboard the Minnie Schiffer, rescued passengers had also decided to reward Wilson and his crew. Led by William Hurry, the impromptu committee raised $500 in pledges on the spot, with some people managing to donate only a few pennies. A follow-up meeting was held two nights after disembarking in Boston, at the grand Tremont House hotel. This time the discussion was about recognition and compensation for the crews of both ships—men who were, in W.H. Newman’s words, “instruments in the hands of God.”

A few days later, in New York City, Hurry met with Galway Line representatives and agents from various life-insurance companies. At Hurry’s urging, more than $3,300 was pledged in recognition of the “generous and humane spirit of the noble-hearted Captain of the Minnie Schiffer.” By mid-November, the fund for Wilson stood at more than $5,000—about $150,000 today—and growing. Donors included individuals, small businesses, law firms, Wells Fargo Bank, shipping companies, and the Panama Railroad Co.

Leitch soon went back to work; he would captain passenger ships for another quarter-century before retiring in England. Wilson, meanwhile, returned to Louisiana, where the sensation of the rescue made him a local celebrity. There were profiles in newspapers and gifts delivered to his door, including a silver plate and pitcher. Hurry’s fund was set to arrive, too.  

According to one press account, the captain took a job as a harbor master in the city. It’s possible that this was a position earned as a result of his heroism. Just as likely, though, he accepted it to take a break from grueling long-distance journeys. To Wilson’s admirers around the globe, he was surely deserving of rest.


On a glassy September morning in 2014, the crew of a rented research vessel called the Manisee lowered a tethered ROV into the Atlantic. The ROV pilot used a joystick to drive the boxy, yellow-and-black machine toward the seafloor. Eldred stood in the cramped cabin next to the pilot and watched the ROV’s grainy video feed on a monitor.

First a school of fish, then some broken bottles and dead coral came into view, followed by giant shards of a ship’s iron hull. A few minutes later, the Connaught’s massive and unmistakable paddlewheel appeared. It was the first time anyone had laid eyes on the ship since the early-morning hours of October 8, 1860.

Eldred cracked a smile and picked up his satellite phone. He called Guy Zajonc in Spokane, even though it was before 5 a.m. there. “We have video!” he announced. Guy gave a groggy congratulations. Then Eldred called Taylor in Arlington. The younger Zajonc should have been thrilled, and he did indulge in a quiet, slow-motion fist pump. Mostly, though, the bookish treasure hunter felt relief. “Finding the Connaught meant my methodology worked,” he told me. “Failure would have meant that it was flawed.”

The Manisee crew’s next move was to rig a magnet and a small grabbing device on the ROV and send the machine back down to the wreck. The idea was to recover metal fragments, which could be used to validate the ship’s identity. The ROV did better than that, though, scooping up a number of artifacts, including dishware adorned with the turquoise seal of the Atlantic Royal Mail Steam Navigation Company. To search for the lost gold, the team would eventually have to return with advanced excavation technology—specialized gear that can cut through tangles of fishing nets and push aside heavy piles of debris.

Footage from the initial discovery of the shipwreck.

Eldred marvels at what took place on the water back in 1860. “Think about that time period,” he told me recently. “It was common for people to not even know how to swim. Transporting all 600 of them from that huge vessel to a 100-foot-long sailing ship, and no one getting hurt or killed in the process—it’s just amazing.”

Endurance Exploration Group pushed out an announcement of its discovery, but initial media attention was scant. Perhaps this was because there was no money shot of gold hitting the deck. Or maybe it was because no one died in the sinking. The Connaught was an almost-tragedy, and a long forgotten one at that. It lacked the heartbreak of the Lusitania or Titanic. The only real victim was the Galway Line, which never recovered from the disaster and subsequent accidents involving other ships in its fleet, forcing the company to fold in 1864.

Yet there is a legacy of personal ruin here. Just not the one Eldred or Taylor expected to find.

By the end of 1860, the American republic was fraying. Within six months of the Connaught disaster, the Civil War began. Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, issued a proclamation “inviting all those who may desire, by service in private armed vessels on the high seas, to aid this Government in resisting so wanton and wicked an aggression, to make application for commissions or letters of marque and reprisal to be issued under the seal of the Confederate States.”

In shorter terms, Davis authorized southerners to become pirates to make up for the Confederacy’s naval inferiority. Among the first ships to enter into service was a 500-ton steamship called the Calhoun that berthed in New Orleans. Within a few months, its 85-man crew had overtaken six neutral vessels and confiscated cargo including whale meat, oil, and $24,000 worth of limestone.

The Calhoun’s captain was none other than John Wilson.

Word seeped out of the South that the famed captain had “identified himself with the interests of the Southern States,” as the London circular Bond of Brotherhood put it. In June 1861, the Galway Vindicator noted that Wilson had “recently gone into the privateering business,” and the following winter a New York Times headline read, “The Defection of Capt. Wilson, of the ‘Minna Schiffer.’”

Why, asked a reporter with the Boston Journal in January 1862, would a person “held in the highest esteem as a brave man by the people of the North,” who had gained worldwide fame under the flag of the United States, turn and “renounce his allegiance to the Government which had protected him in every sea, and cast his lot with the conspirators”? It was a rhetorical question: The writer professed to have learned the captain’s motivations. He had spoken with someone close to Wilson who relayed that the captain felt he was “no longer a citizen of the United States”—for reasons dating back to well before he was extolled as a hero.

During the Mexican-American War, Wilson had owned a ship called the Star. Carrying commercial goods to the port of Matamoras, on Mexico’s eastern coast, the Star was captured by U.S. officials occupying the city. Although it was a U.S.-flagged vessel, the boat’s cargo was owned by a foreign merchant, which may have been what prompted customs officers to pounce. The goods were confiscated, and the ship was sent to Galveston, Texas, where it was later sold. The merchant brought a claim against the Treasury Department for illegal seizure and was compensated. Wilson did the same, and a judge ruled in his favor. Yet he never saw a cent. The failure of “authorities at Washington to make reparations,” wrote the Boston Journal reporter, “naturally excited Capt. Wilson to enmity against the Government, and when the rebellion broke out, actuated by a spirit of revenge, he embraced the earliest opportunity to obtain redress.”

Once proclaimed a “gallant commander,” by 1862 Wilson was dubbed “the recreant captain.” This was the turnabout of a public caricature, however—an incomplete picture of a man who wasn’t so simple to begin with. Historical records indicate that, as The New York Times reported, Wilson may have adopted at least one child. However, accounts also show that he owned slaves. In addition to lugging food and wine on the Minnie Schiffer, Wilson co-owned or captained ships at various times that transported human cargo within the United States. All before he took up arms against the government and targeted fellow mariners.

The Minnie Schiffer rescuing the Connaught’s passengers. (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London)

In the winter of 1862, shortly before Union forces set out to seize New Orleans, the Calhoun was captured smuggling gunpowder, coffee, and chemicals from Havana to Louisiana. By that point, Wilson had already moved on to command other ships. In scattered accounts, he is listed as an owner or captain of a number of pirate and blockade-running ships, including the J.O. Nixon, Florida, and Cuba. There is a brief mention in a Philadelphia newspaper indicating that he may have been detained in Key West in March 1862. An 1863 roll of prisoners of war includes a John Wilson who violated a blockade on the Potomac River. There is also a John Wilson listed on the passenger manifest of a ship traveling from Mobile, Alabama, to New Orleans in June 1865. This was just after the war ended, and there were a number of former prisoners on board the ship. Otherwise, clues as to Wilson’s whereabouts at this time are scant.

After the war, the government offered amnesty to most secessionist sympathizers, but not to anyone who had disrupted “commerce of the United States on the high seas”—that is, not to pirates. The exception was reversed two years later, yet Wilson lived out his days in obscurity and poverty.

Toward the end of the 1870s, local newspapers ran a few short items urging the public to lend support to the old captain and to his wife, who had suffered a stroke. They lived in a small house on Franklin Street, on what is now the edge of the French Quarter. In 1875, the New Orleans Republican ran a one-paragraph classified ad with the title “A Silver Souvenir.” It reveals the depths of Wilson’s destitution:

Several prosperous merchants in New York city held a meeting for the purpose of paying a tribute to a gentleman who had proved himself a humanitarian and a hero. A neat sum of money was contributed, which purchased a splendid silver pitcher and salver. Both pieces bore appropriate inscriptions to the honor of Captain John Wilson of the big Minnie Shipper. This honor was conferred on the captain as a slight token for his noble conduct in having rescued half dead passengers from the wrecked steamship Connaught, about 150 miles from Boston. The event was duly chronicled in all the leading newspapers of the day, and Captain Wilson suddenly became renowned. He was prosperous then, possessing all manly faculties, but his condition is different now. The hand of hard fate has pursued him, and chance has landed him in our city at the bottom of the ladder. Through thick and thin he has clung to his silver present, but at last he has nothing else left which can procure bread and meat. The pitcher and salver may be seen in the Phoenix saloon, St. Charles street, and as a last resort will be disposed of, simply to satisfy a foolish habit of eating. Who will be the purchaser?

A local British consul saw the ad and wrote an editorial pleading for donations on behalf of the captain, who was now nearly blind. The letter was reprinted in other newspapers, and from as far away as New York and Ohio, people wrote back and sent money. One Connaught passenger sent a note to the Republican, passing a message on to Wilson and anyone else who’d been involved in the rescue.

“By the by,” it read, “tell them I have a daughter we call ‘Minnie Schiffer.’”

Micah Eldred wants to return to the Connaught, possibly as soon as this summer. He’s sure the gold is there—all he has to do is go get it. True to his pragmatic nature, Taylor Zajonc said of the pending salvage mission, “I’d be the last person to guess what might happen next.”

With his research for Eldred complete, Taylor now channels his love of treasure hunting into fiction. His first novel, The Wrecking Crew, is a swashbuckling maritime adventure about a down-on-his-luck salvage expert named Jonah Blackwell who demonstrates almost preternatural competence under pressure. The second installment in the Jonah Blackwell series, Red Sun Rogue, comes out in March. Taylor has only moved on from the Connaught in the literal sense. It’s “one of the great stories,” he told me—the kind that sticks.

One piece of the tale, though, is lost forever. Almost no one is buried in the ground in New Orleans, because the high water table would spit bodies back out during heavy rains. Captain John Wilson, who died on September 20, 1877, was entombed at the Girod Street Cemetery. His crypt’s inscription read, “Commander of American brig ‘Minnie Schiffer’ who rescued 601 lives from British steamer ‘Connaught’ which burned at sea Oct 7, 1860.”

That tomb is long gone. In 1957, bodies from the Girod Street Cemetery were exhumed to make way for downtown development. Some remains were interred elsewhere, but most were not. Wilson’s bones were most likely crammed into an old oil drum and thrown away.

The Instigators


The Instigators

Retracing the forces behind the Egyptian revolution.

By David Wolman

The Atavist Magazine, No. 04

Award-winning journalist and author David Wolman is a contributing editor at Wired, a former Fulbright journalism fellow and a winner of the 2011 Oregon Arts Commission individual artists fellowship. He is the author of two works of nonfiction. His third book, The End of Money, will be published in February.

Editor: Evan Ratliff
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kathleen Massara
Illustrators: Ben Gibson and Jason Oldak
Portrait Photographer: Julia Gillard
Infographics: Erik Steiner, Spatial History Project at Stanford University
Translators: Wiam El-Tamami, Mandi Fahmy, and Sharaf Kamal Al-Hourani
Inline Extras, Additional Reporting, and Video Editing: Olivia Koski
Music: Jefferson Rabb
Special thanks: Sysomos, who provided crucial data for the Visual History infographic.

Published in May 2011. Design updated in 2021.


At around 11 o’clock on the chilly morning of February 10, Ahmed Maher was walking toward Tahrir Square in Cairo. Egypt’s revolution had been raging for more than two weeks, and the 31-year-old civil engineer was at the center of it. Maher, a founder of the activist group April 6 Youth, had joined forces with other opposition parties to urge tens of thousands of everyday Egyptians into the streets. They had flooded the square on January 25, been pushed back by police, and then retaken the ground on January 28, demanding an end to the 30-year regime of President Hosni Mubarak. Two weeks later, they were still waiting for it.

Maher’s phone rang. It was a fellow activist. “My friend,” the caller said. “You must come and meet me. You must come and meet me now!”

“OK,” Maher replied calmly. “Where?”

The man told Maher to get in a taxi and head east. As the car wove through downtown and out past dense neighborhoods capped by minarets, Maher received further instructions: The destination was an office of the Ministry of Transportation, near Cairo International Airport. He also learned the alleged purpose of the rendezvous, which he relayed to an acquaintance in a text message:

I’m now going to a meeting with ministers, talking with them about how Mubarak will go. But it’s top secret.

Maher’s caller was a man named Wael Ghonim. A Google executive who had played a key role in mobilizing turnout for the protests, Ghonim had been thrust into the center of the revolution a few days earlier. Detained by police on January 27, blindfolded, and denied communication with the outside world, Ghonim was finally released 12 days later. Hours after he was freed, he had given a heartfelt television interview that inspired thousands more Egyptians to pour into the streets for the first time in their lives.

The revolution seemed reinvigorated. As quiet replaced the state-sponsored violence inflicted on demonstrators at the beginning of the protests, many prominent Egyptians called for the activists to vacate Tahrir Square so the economy could get moving again. Even the international media were eager to nudge the narrative, looking for signs of Cairo’s return to normalcy: traffic jams, ATMs dispensing cash, cargo-laden street vendors. Ghonim’s release, and the outpouring in response to his interview, changed that.

Still, Maher needed to be careful. As long as Mubarak hung on, there was no telling what the regime—or even one cold-blooded member of the secret police—might do. Maher had been a target of the state security apparatus for the past three years, forced underground before and after protests organized by April 6 Youth, or A6Y. He’d been arrested and tortured, as had many of his peers. “I need to be able to move fast,” he told his wife, Reham, explaining his regular absences from family life. “If you want me to be safe, you must leave me alone.” He slept at a rotating collection of locations: inside his beige 1986 Fiat, on a couch his parents kept in storage, on the floor of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights.

Now he was alone as he stepped out of the taxi and entered the Ministry of Transportation building. Everyone was waiting for him. On one side of the table sat Ghonim, a coordinator with the National Coalition for Change (the political group led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei), and a friend of Ghonim’s whom Maher didn’t know. On the other side sat three men. He recognized only one: Ahmed Shafik, the former Air Force Commander whom Mubarak had named prime minister on January 29 in an attempt to placate the protestors.

The man beside Shafik extended his hand toward Maher. “Mahmoud Wagdy,” he said flatly. Maher froze, then aborted the handshake. As Cairo’s former head of prisons and criminal investigations, Wagdy had overseen the incarceration of Maher, hundreds of bloggers, opposition political candidates, and activists.

The third person, a burly man dressed in a black suit, didn’t introduce himself but kept his eyes fixed on Maher.

Ghonim’s default bearing is amicably chatty, and this day was no exception. When Maher arrived, Ghonim was already delivering broad-stroke statements about how all citizens must work together to protect Egypt and build a brighter future. Shafik responded with a string of similar sentiments, absent specifics. He mentioned nothing about Mubarak leaving power.

Maher suddenly realized that this was not a meeting to arrange for Mubarak’s departure. A6Y, together with other opposition groups and the protesters in Tahrir Square, had refused to negotiate with the government until Mubarak was gone. Now Maher found himself at the negotiating table. Was it a trap? Even if Wagdy didn’t have henchmen waiting outside for Maher, word that he had met with the government could decimate A6Y’s credibility with protestors—and possibly undercut the revolution itself.

Maher sat silently with his arms crossed, avoiding eye contact with Wagdy. Finally, Shafik addressed him directly.

“Why aren’t you smiling?”

“There is nothing to smile about,” he replied.

Shafik tried to warm him up with small talk, joking about Maher’s shaved head. It was a subject Maher himself often laughed about. During the protests, he wore a ski hat. “My head can be quite shiny,” he had told a friend with a wink. “That doesn’t exactly help when you’re trying to go unnoticed.” But the joke didn’t work here. Maher sat expressionless.

Wagdy also tried to warm him up. “Why are you so quiet? I hear that you are this wild revolutionary!” he said, turning to the man in the black suit. Maher would later learn that this man was the chief scorpion himself: General Hassan Abdel Rahman, director of the State Security Investigative Service, the organization that directed the arbitrary monitoring, detentions, and torture of opposition-group members.

When the meeting concluded, Maher shook hands only with Shafik. “This isn’t what we came here for,” he said to Ghonim before turning for the exit.

Maher jumped in a taxi and headed back downtown. He was frustrated but hopeful. It was clear from the meeting that Shafik was acting independently of Mubarak, a sign that the regime was fracturing. The military, he realized, might already be readying for a formal takeover of the government. This hypothesis gelled with a tip Maher had received just hours prior; a midlevel army official had told him Mubarak was on his way out. That prediction hadn’t come to pass at the meeting, but Maher could tell things were getting close. After the meeting, he sent me this text message:

Mubarak will go now. LOL.



I first met Maher in 2008, when I traveled to Egypt to see firsthand how the country’s young political activists were using Facebook. At the center of that movement were Maher and A6Y, a then newly established opposition group that was using online organizing to gain members and jump-start small protests. I wrote about their efforts for Wired magazine, but not long afterward a kind of opinion backlash began to form in the West. Pundits declared that the success of April 6 Youth would be fleeting and that technologists had inflated the importance of social media in the world of political activism. A6Y’s brand of activism was mere slacktivism, they chided; changing the world is about more than accumulating “friends” and “fans” online. The idea that the tiny buzzing of A6Y on Facebook could loosen Mubarak’s grip on power seemed preposterous.

Back in the States, I followed the tribulations of April 6 Youth through press releases about the latest arrests of bloggers and protesters. But Maher and his colleagues pressed on, gathering supporters and waiting for the conditions that might spur them, and Egyptians in general, into action.

Then, on January 25, 2011, the revolution began.

Through the weeks of protests, violence, and triumph, I, like many people captivated by the Arab Spring, was glued to my television and computer monitor. But I was also following on my phone, through the occasional bulletins from Maher and others on the scene who were pulling strings imperceptible to the rest of the world.

After Mubarak’s ouster, it would become almost hackneyed to call the revolution a leaderless one. “All of Egypt was as one hand,” people on the streets of Cairo would tell me later. “There was no one, two, three, or five individuals. There was everyone.” One investment banker sounded more like a flower-power peacenik: “It was every class, every religion, every age. It was truly incredible.” There were martyrs, of course: More than 800 people were killed during the uprising, primarily by baltagiya, the regime’s hired thugs, with blows from truncheons, sniper fire, or random shots into crowds. But there weren’t leaders. “No one was a hero because everyone was a hero,” Wael Ghonim tweeted just after the revolution.

The Egyptian revolt lacked a figurehead like a Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. The uprising, however, was not nearly as spontaneous as it might have seemed. Resentment against Mubarak had been building for years, even decades, and the country’s well-organized labor movement gained strength, power, and influence as the protests continued. But the revolt was also the culmination of years of plotting and daring and experimentation by activists organizing in the virtual world. Most Egyptians don’t have access to the Internet, and a third of the people in the country can’t even read. Yet the very idea of a leaderless, politically neutral uprising was conceived, nurtured, and brought to fruition by young activists using the new digital tools suddenly at their disposal.

Ahmed Maher was one of the engineers behind the tectonic events in Egypt. In mid-March, I caught a plane back to Cairo to find out what, exactly, he and A6Y had done.

Ahmed Maher, April 2011 (Photo by Julia Gillard)


Maher grew up in a humble apartment in a rundown area of Maadi, a suburb of Cairo. He is the eldest of three children. His father worked for the state-owned El Nasr Automotive Manufacturing Company, and his mother worked at a nearby school.

Young Ahmed rarely played soccer outside in the streets with other kids. His world was books. On trips to Alexandria to visit his mother’s family, he would spend hours in the print shop run by his grandfather, not far from where the new Library of Alexandria now stands. He loved comic books, science fiction, The Adventures of Tintin, and a popular series for preteens called The Five Adventurers, about a group of adolescent detectives who race around Egypt cracking cases the police can’t solve. Maher’s mother recalls a doctor suggesting that she limit her son’s reading, to give his eyes a respite. At night, Maher would read under the covers with a flashlight.

As a young student, when Maher failed to rank first in a subject, he would attempt to hide his report card from his parents, even though his mother worked at the same school. He was a sensitive boy, she says, and although he is quiet and rarely talks about emotions, he is very much that same person today. “When he speaks passionately about something, you can see his eyes well up with tears,” she says.

The family got their first PC in 1998, when Maher was attending a local university, studying engineering. He had wanted to be a doctor, but when his high school exit exams fell just shy of the scores needed to go into medicine, he turned to engineering. “I was disappointed at first because I didn’t really like math, but I reshaped my mindset,” he said. “If I am going to be an engineer, I thought, then I will learn to like it.” Doctors, he concluded, just read information and act on standard practices. Engineers get to read, organize, and innovate.

By now, Maher had begun frequenting cybercafes, playing online games and visiting chat rooms under the alias Ghosty, a nod to his reputation for quiet. He eventually stumbled on the blogs of outspoken political activists like Wael Abbas and Shahinaz Abdel Salam. But there was no eureka moment. His political awakening was more akin to the mixing of ingredients that, due to their chemical makeup, become volatile. His father was openly critical of Mubarak: The regime had closed the plant where he worked, forcing him to take an early retirement. When Ahmed opened his own engineering business, he quickly saw that his prospects were determined not by the marketplace or talent but by connections (which he lacked) and bribes (which he could not and would not pay). He was also disheartened by simple statistics: A quarter of Egypt’s young people were unemployed, in a poor country managed by one of the world’s most corrupt governments. As he thought about engineering, he realized that bridges, buildings, tunnels, and schools—no matter how well designed—don’t get built without a government that invests on behalf of its citizenry. A civil-liberties attorney in Cairo named Gamal Eid told me that Maher was just “a regular guy who became fed up with corruption and gained the courage to act against it.”

In the fall of 2004, Maher began logging onto Yahoo Groups and other forums to read about the anti-Mubarak group Kefaya, Arabic for “enough.” He started attending weekly demonstrations and was soon volunteering for the secular, liberal El Ghad party, led by Ayman Nour. Nour won about 7 percent of the vote in the 2005 presidential “election,” whereupon Mubarak had him imprisoned on trumped-up charges.

In April of 2006, Maher was arrested during a sit-in supporting a group of judges who were calling for a more independent judiciary. He was imprisoned for two months. “If you’ve never been arrested, the fear of arrest persists,” he later recalled. Once it had finally happened, though, the fear vanished. His mother, however, burst into tears when she learned of her son’s incarceration while watching television, and she urged her husband to convince Ahmed to tone down his activism. Maher’s father listened attentively but did nothing of the sort. Soon, when his mother realized there was no sense in trying to change her son’s mind, both parents quietly lent him whatever support and financial assistance they could.

During his two-month incarceration, Maher sometimes slept 20 hours a day, waking only to eat, use the restroom, and read Mickey Mouse comic books. He says he can fall asleep almost instantly, even if he’s sitting in a chair or curled up sideways on floor tiles in a dilapidated office. The joke among fellow detainees at Cairo’s Torah Prison was that Maher landed himself in jail so that he could catch up on his sleep.

The following winter, Egypt’s national soccer team reached the finals of the continental championships, and a Facebook fan page for the team grew to 45,000 people. Maher and his fellow activist Egyptians suddenly saw the social network’s potential as a tool for mobilization. He was captivated by the idea that a Facebook group is inclusive and egalitarian. It gives participants the power to reach out to all other members at any moment, from anywhere.

But then what? Could a virtual gathering on Facebook influence real-world events? Or would it only lead to talking in circles? Maher decided to find out.

In March of 2008, Maher and a woman named Israa Abdel-Fattah created a Facebook page called April 6 Youth to support an upcoming workers’ strike in the Nile River delta city of El-Mahalla el-Kubra. They sent out emails inviting people to join, urged participants to change their profile pictures to the A6Y logo, and inundated Facebook news feeds with protest-related information. In virtual space, they conjured a new reality: The strike was not a one-time expression of grievance; it was a movement. Within three weeks, the Facebook group had grown to more than 70,000 people. When the day of the strike finally came, the A6Y mobilization helped build turnout in both Mahalla and Cairo. What was destined to be an unnoticed workers’ strike—in a town no one outside Egypt had ever heard of—became an explosive street riot that attracted international media attention and embarrassed the regime.

Soon after, government officials announced that Mubarak was considering blocking Facebook. At the time, damming access to a popular website looked like the typical paranoia of an authoritarian state; none of the activists imagined that a government would (or even could) completely sever Internet access and silence cellular networks. Eventually, the regime backed off its threat.

Buoyed by the success of the strike, Maher and his fellow organizers tried to hold a follow-up rally in May in downtown Cairo. This time the security police were ready. The street where the activists planned to gather was cordoned off, and the tiny trickle of protesters were picked up one by one. Agents of the regime had also taken extra steps to cripple the demonstration in advance. Telecoms were told not to connect calls between anonymous subscribers, essentially eliminating communication between activists who made a habit of switching their SIM cards. The government also temporarily raised wages, hoping to neutralize one of the primary grievances that had fueled the riots in Mahalla. Meanwhile, security officers had been prowling online, joining the Facebook group under fake names and creating bogus pages to slander Maher.

Three days later, Maher was driving to work in his blocky Fiat, which he had nicknamed Zazua. As he neared his office, a crew of police officers ambushed him and surrounded the car. Maher tried to gun the accelerator, sending one of the men jumping back and wincing, but Zazua was pinned between too many vehicles. The officers pulled him out, blindfolded and handcuffed him, and threw him into the back of a van. At the New Cairo police station, one of the officers began punching him, yelling “This is for what you did to my arm, you fucking bastard!” Maher figured he must have been the one he’d hit with the car. Way to go Zazua, he thought.

Maher was then transferred to a state security facility at Lazoghly. The torture lasted about a day and a half. The agents stripped him and covered him with oil—a method for dulling the visible impact of blows—punched and slapped him, dragged him across the floor, and threatened him with electrocution and rape.

When he was released, Maher went to his parents’ apartment. They didn’t know that he had been arrested, and he would have preferred to return to his own apartment to sleep. But his mother had been sick with cancer, and it was her birthday. After climbing the stairs to the eighth-floor apartment, he sat stiffly in the corner on an orange couch, head cocked to the side, wearing a turtleneck sweater to hide the bruises on his neck.

“Are you OK?” his mother asked.

“Yes. I just slept funny.”


Since A6Y had formed in 2008, Egypt’s security police had been monitoring the activists’ Facebook pages, trying to glean intelligence or even sabotage dissidents’ anytime-anywhere assembly. Maher took to calling Facebook the “underground headquarters of the resistance.” The government’s infiltration efforts occasionally created confusion, but in most cases they were laughably transparent. The giveaway was that the saboteurs’ Facebook profiles were nearly blank: few friends, no photos, no wall posts. They had created ciphers, not people. Activists also put plans to a vote within Facebook, which served as a filter on the fake activist’ contributions to the discussion. The ideas voiced by saboteurs would quickly become outliers, forgotten along with other, more pedestrian bad ideas.

Maher and other core members of A6Y’s inner circle called themselves El Matbakh, the Kitchen. They would sometimes take their communications outside the visible Facebook discussion areas and wall postings into cloistered online chat spaces or smaller Facebook groups. Offline, a small inner circle, referred to as “the coordinators,” began meeting monthly at clandestine locations or on the Cairo Metro. In June of 2008, I read a news item about the group and began corresponding with Maher. A few weeks later, I was making plans to meet up with him in Cairo and shadow the group during a protest attempt on the beach in Alexandria.

They chose July 23, the public holiday marking the nation’s 1952 revolution and an end, of sorts, to monarchical rule. Crammed into one of two minivans with the protesters, I watched Maher hurriedly type and send text messages to scouts on the beach who were looking for a location that wasn’t already crawling with police. We eventually unloaded, and the rabble-rousers, many wearing matching A6Y T-shirts, began assembling a kite decorated to look like the Egyptian flag.

But the seaside demonstration was over as quickly as it started. Plainclothes security officers quickly descended on the small gathering and, speaking calmly at first, worked to disperse it. Before long, they were shouting and shoving. One of Maher’s closest confidants, an animated English-speaking banker named Waleed Rashed, turned to me. “Those trucks,” Rashed said, pointing to two army green vehicles speeding past us on the road. “They are coming for us. It is a U-turn there,” he said, pointing to the north. “You must go now.” When I saw the trucks slow to make the looping left turn and head back down to our spot on the beach, I walked away.

That night I learned that some members of the group were later tackled in the street, the police yelling, “Where is Ahmed Maher?” A handful of A6Y members were detained, including Maher’s younger brother, Mostafa. The next day, they grabbed Ahmed as well.

The Mahers’ mother, coincidentally, was already in Alexandria. Her younger sister had recently died; now she learned that her sons had been arrested. (She had not even known they were in Alexandria. No one had. The morning Ahmed left Cairo, he had told his wife he was going to work as usual.)

Maher’s mother went to the police station, wearing all black as if in mourning.

“My sons are here in Alexandria for my sister’s funeral, and you have arrested them!” she shouted at the officer, demanding that they be released.

“Who are your sons, ma’am?”

“Ahmed and Mostafa Maher.”

“Ahmed Maher? He is the leader! The leader of a bunch of criminals! We have all kinds of files on him!”

The officer refused to let her see or contact her sons. She finally managed to find a sympathetic prosecutor, who told her he would do his best to ensure they were treated well. Quietly, he also told her that Ahmed and Mostafa were heroes. “Egypt needs more like them,” he said.

The Maher boys were released within days. Neither had been tortured. I returned to the U.S. to write about the quashed protest. I admired their courage, but the whole thing felt like a prank. At that point, it was hard to imagine Maher and A6Y toppling much of anything.


After the crushed Alexandria protest, Maher and his cohorts regrouped. By the fall of 2008, A6Y was becoming fairly well known in Egypt, at least among the young. Much of that success traced to Maher’s quiet leadership and organizational acumen, combined with the magnetic force of some of A6Y’s more vocal personalities, like Waleed Rashed and a tech-savvy 19-year-old blogger named Mohamed Adel. But it was Maher’s vision that propelled them forward. “He made the bridge from online to offline organizing,” says Sherif Mansour, a senior program officer with Freedom House, a human-rights group in Washington, D.C.

In person, Maher displays a soft-spokenness that can be mistaken for shyness, until you notice how closely he’s concentrating on a conversation. To spend an afternoon, or even a few days, with Maher is to watch him listening. “Everyone says I am so calm, but it’s not that way to me. It’s not calm inside my head,” he told me. “But I make things happen suddenly, so many people are surprised by what I do—that this quiet person did these things.” The Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas told me that Maher “is a velvet fist in a velvet glove. He always avoids clashes with people.” His aura of decency, coupled with his regular-guy street cred, only increased after he was tortured, drawing more young people into A6Y.

Yet while the group’s eagerness for regime change crystallized in online conversations, it was clear to everyone in the Kitchen that they needed to learn more about effective street organizing. So A6Y’s leaders turned again to the Internet, this time for a crash course in the history of nonviolent opposition. The April 6 crew read about the U.S. civil rights movement, studied the writings of Gandhi, and, most critically, connected with the organizers of Serbia’s Otpor student movement.

In 2000, Otpor had helped overthrow the government of Slobodan Miloševic with adroit application of nonviolent protest strategies. The campaign had worked so well that Otpor organizers launched a training program for toppling, or at least upsetting, incumbent governments. It is called Canvas, for Center for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies. Foreign Policy magazine dubbed it “Revolution U.” In the summer of 2009, A6Y’s Mohamed Adel flew to Belgrade for a Canvas session. Slightly pudgy and disheveled but quick-witted, Adel had been blogging about politics and government corruption since he was 16. “I had to tell people about what I saw in my village,” he told me. In Belgrade, Adel met activists from all over the globe, building relationships with like-minded organizers in Tunisia, Algeria, and elsewhere in the Arab world.

Back in Cairo,  shared what he had learned: Design demonstrations that put the authorities on notice in unexpected ways. Use art and humor, and stay focused on issues that resonate with the masses. Plan events on public holidays. When you do take to the streets, bring water so you don’t pass out; carry a flower to symbolize peace and the lid of a pot or garbage bin to protect against batons; wear comfortable shoes for standing and running, a scarf to shield against tear gas, and leather gloves to protect hands from tear-gas canisters. Wash tear gas from your eyes with soda. Most important of all, don’t treat the police like enemies, because they are not enemies. If any of your fellow protesters look like they might be losing their cool, or if they commit acts of violence, surround and isolate them.

Just as A6Y was establishing itself as a political force and expanding its demonstration tactics, however, the organization faced internal chaos. Maher kept getting fired from jobs: employers would get a visit from state security soon after hiring him and decide that the risks weren’t worth it. At one firm, agents seized Maher’s desktop computer. At home, Maher faced pressure from Reham, who did not like the fact that whenever her husband wasn’t working, he was off at meetings, hiding, or in jail.

That summer a few of the group’s newer members began showing up at A6Y meetings, commandeering the conversation with moronic arguments about how using technologies like Google and Facebook was wrong because they were built by American companies. (Despite the billions of dollars in aid from Washington, Egyptians—like many people in the Arab world—have reactions ranging from skeptical to resentful toward U.S. involvement in their affairs.)

Maher, Adel, and others quickly identified the newcomers as state security plants. “They were just foolish kids,” says Maher. But before the organizers could weed them out, these foolish kids managed to hack into many Kitchen members’ email accounts, which they then made public. They even dug deep enough into Maher’s inbox to find my correspondences. In one tabloid article that Maher remembers, he was accused of collaborating with a Mossad agent identified as David Wolman.

The Kitchen responded with a counter-hack. Adel put together a dummy Facebook page that appeared to contain scandalous information about Maher and A6Y. In fact it was a data trap: To view the information, users had to input their email addresses and passwords. Adel collected their logins and showed them to A6Y’s followers. Maher realized that this kind of online threat was arguably more dangerous than the security forces breaking up street protests or throwing people in jail. Foiled protests could serve to reinforce peoples’ anti-regime convictions, whereas sowing doubt on the Internet about A6Y’s authenticity could undercut support from its base. Much of the battle between state security and activists had moved online.

In the fall of 2009, Maher and his crew began sketching plans for a demonstration against police brutality to take place on January 25, a holiday that honors Egypt’s police. Opposition groups and young activists considered the holiday something of a sick joke, as if Mubarak was making it mandatory that they celebrate state-sponsored torture, intimidation, and graft. But January 25 also offered an optimal occasion for protest: Instead of enjoying a day off, the cops would have to deal with demonstrators. This meant the activists could force the police into what the people at Revolution U called a “dilemma action.” If the regime aggressively thwarted the protest, it would underscore the message of the protesters. If it gave the activists a generous berth, they’d be free to transmit their message.

The activists gathered at a meeting place announced online: the Journalists’ Syndicate. They would do the same a year later, meeting at the General Prosecutor’s building. Both times the result was the same: the January 25 protest fizzled, broken up by police at the gathering point before it could gain momentum. They drew barely a flicker of coverage from domestic and international media. Nevertheless, the A6Y activists decided to make Police Day protests an annual event. Maybe next year, Maher thought, they could attract more people. “You need the perfect conditions,” he had once told me, “a time when people are receptive to being active.”



On June 6, 2010, a 28-year-old businessman named Khalid Mohamed Said was seated in a cybercafe in his hometown of Alexandria. According to witness accounts, two local detectives entered the second-floor establishment and began beating him. They slammed his head on a table before the owner told them to take the fighting outside. They pulled Said out to a building entryway where they kicked him and smashed his head against an iron gate until his body went limp.

Official reports of the incident alleged that Said was a drug dealer wanted by police for weapons possession. He died, the authorities claimed, after resisting arrest and trying to swallow a bag of marijuana. But activists were quickly convinced that Said was killed for posting a video showing local police divvying up marijuana they had recently seized. It wasn’t just activists, though. People all over the country, many of whom had no interest in politics, were appalled with official explanations they believed to be lies.

After Said’s family was called to the morgue to identify his body, a photograph of his horrifically mangled face was posted online. The image was too shocking for young Egyptians not to share. Mohammad Al-Anwar, a 22-year-old medical student from the city of Zagazig, later told me that Said’s murder was somehow different from other episodes of torture or murder at the hands of the regime. “Maybe it was because he was a well-known and educated guy with many friends. And the picture. I mean, he was so completely disfigured. I don’t know what it was exactly, but it spread like fire.” A 24-year-old woman I spoke with in Cairo welled up as she recounted what happened to this man she’d never met. “He was this good-looking guy who by all accounts was liked by everyone.” It was painful, another woman told me, to think that Egyptians had let their country devolve into the kind of place where this could happen.

It wasn’t the photo alone that was spreading but also a Facebook page erected in Said’s honor. A number of online memorials were posted, including one created by members of A6Y, but one in particular became a meeting place for tens of thousands, and soon hundreds of thousands, of Egyptians. A month after the murder, the page had 180,000 fans. They convened to vent, connect, pay tribute, and, although they may not have realized it at the time, unite. The page was called We Are All Khalid Said, and the title alone spoke to the sense among Egypt’s educated (but often unemployed) youth that the corrupt state of the State was now everyone’s business.

The person who created We Are All Khalid Said chose to go by the moniker El Shaheed, the Martyr. The page’s content was welcoming and interactive, with emotionally forthright conversations and a seemingly limitless string of thought-provoking comments and links. It encouraged visitors to share news, videos, and photographs about injustices suffered at the hands of Mubarak’s security forces. And its creator took pains to keep the page as casual and unpolitical as possible, using, for example, the Egyptian Arabic of the streets rather than the classical Arabic usually reserved for writing. The posts were drenched in earnestness:

We will triumph because we have no agendas, because we don’t understand politics and negotiations and the dirty games of give-and-take. We will triumph because our tears are heartfelt, because our love is instinctive, because our dreams are legitimate … and because hope has now possessed every one of us. We will triumph because Egypt is above all.

A few weeks after the murder, people organized vigils to honor Said. Dressed in black, they gathered by the corniche in Alexandria, facing the Mediterranean, and on the banks of the Nile in Cairo, to observe an hour-long “silent stand.” Under a Mubarak-era law, any unsanctioned gathering of more than five people could lead to police custody or jail time. By standing at least 10 feet apart and staring out at the sea, the participants were not, technically, assembling.

Just after midnight on July 8, the mysterious man behind We Are All Khalid Said sent an email to Ahmed Maher using the alias Khalid Said. He began by praising the work of the A6Y:

You and Kefaya were the first people in Egypt to wake up and hopefully, God willing, this awakening will continue and we can do something to change this country because we all have the same goal.

He then complained about a newspaper report crediting A6Y with organizing the silent stands. His objection, he said, arose from the fact that he’d worked hard to use We Are All Khalid Said to “attract many non-political people who do not want to feel that I am a political person, or that this community is part of a political organization.” But then he offered the hint of a pledge:

If you would like to, consider me someone who is preparing a generation of young people to join you or anyone else afterwards… I want us to be one hand and to continue each other’s work, so that we don’t get into conflicts and our positive efforts to change Egypt end up turning negative.

 Maher responded immediately, praising “Said” for his mobilization efforts and apologizing for the misinformation in the papers, adding that the error was not the fault of anyone within A6Y. (Egypt’s media, at the time, tended to tie any activities conducted by young people to the A6Y.) But Maher also pointed out that A6Y’s involvement had helped magnify the demonstrations. And because members of the group had been studying up on strategies for nonviolent protest, they were able to help direct the crowds to minimize conflict with the police. Then he added:

This leads us to an important point: maybe we can have a declaration between us, agreeing to consult, collaborate, and coordinate together, so that young people will not be so scattered and afraid anymore during these protests.

Without coordination, Maher explained, people brave enough to head into the streets often have to return home just as fast, having achieved nothing “because one dumb officer shooed them away like flies.”

At 3:13 a.m., “Said” sent a reply. “I can’t begin to describe how happy I was when I read your e-mail,” he wrote. He appreciated that Maher was sensitive to the tone he was striking with the Facebook page. Police brutality, human dignity, freedom—these are universal issues, not political issues. “Said” did not want the agendaless brand of We Are All Khalid Said to be contaminated by an open connection to a political group. Still, Said pointed out,

You have probably noticed how [on the Facebook page] I am gradually moving them away from this fear [of politics] and subtly inserting some political subjects.

The two activists would trade a few more brief emails; Maher then suggested they continue the dialogue via either Gmail or Yahoo chat. “Said” closed out the exchange:

Anyway, I think we can really help each other and benefit from one another. Our goal is one.

I’ll try to be online around midnight.

But I only have Gmail.

While Maher and the pseudonymous organizer continued chatting for months in the online world, offline Maher had found an employer willing to serve as a kind a benefactor. Mamdouh Hamza was a well-known liberal activist in Cairo and the owner of Hamza Associates, a major architecture and engineering firm behind famous projects like the new Library of Alexandria. A friend had told Hamza about Maher’s job troubles. “I hired him without an interview,” Hamza told me later. “I was determined to protect this young man.”

The steady paycheck meant Maher could focus on plotting. On December 30, 2010, “Said” wrote Maher in a chat session, suggesting that they “collaborate on a crazy idea”:

Maher: Oh really? Crazy people are the ones that create change.

Said: January 25th is “Police Day.” We want to celebrate it.

Maher: Cool.

Said: [Showcasing] positive examples and negative examples of police behavior.

Maher: We celebrated it last year.

Said: Really? Send me any links so I can see what you did.

They conferred about what kind of demonstration to conduct, and Maher reiterated the idea that the police were especially “pissed off” to have to work on Police Day. Said wrote back, “I can energize people to participate.” But he needed Maher’s expertise with information dissemination, publicity, and details about how to evade the police. It was soon settled: We Are All Khalid Said would endorse and advertise a January 25 event, while A6Y would coordinate the logistics.

In the first weeks of 2011, emotions in Egypt were smoldering. On January 1, a bombing of a church in Alexandria killed 21 people and injured almost 100 more. Many Egyptians believed the attack was launched by the regime to incite anger between Muslims and Christians. (An investigation is still under way.) Regime change was also fresh in people’s minds because of speculation that Nobel laureate, and local hero, Mohamed ElBaradei might run for office. Next was Tunisia, where protesters had successfully ended the 23-year reign of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Ahead of the January 25 event, A6Y set up a control room in an apartment owned by Maher’s boss, Hamza, in an old building downtown. As news of the revolution in Tunisia spread, a public discussion emerged on We Are All Khalid Said about giving a Tunisian-style gift to the Egyptian regime.

By January 14, Egypt’s Twittersphere began to fill with chatter about the uprising. One microblogger wrote, “Dear people watching Arabs Got Talent. There’s a better show going on called Tunisia’s Got Freedom. Watch that.” Two days later, another popular microblogger, 24-year-old Gigi Ibrahim, posted this: “The black and white days are coming, there is no grey.” Others kept directing and redirecting followers, friends, and digital passersby to “a Facebook event page for a revolution in Egypt: Don’t forget to RSVP…” On the 17th, Ibrahim again: “A MAN IN #EGYPT SET HIMSELF ON FIRE CHANTING AGAINST STATE SECURITY IN FRONT OF PARLIAMENT AT 9:00 AM TODAY #Sidbouzid #Revolution attempt?”

That same day, Maher sent “Said” a note after a meeting with other opposition groups:

There have been some suggestions for a protest at the Journalists’ Syndicate, but I’m not convinced. But in today’s meetings to coordinate for January 25, the idea of marches was widely accepted. They will begin in local areas, culminating with a central event in Cairo.

The problem is how to gather when they [state security] can strike any place that we announce. If the organizers started gathering by surprise—and that’s easy enough to do—how do we gather people and continue marching?

There is also a disagreement on the gathering point: Tahrir Square or the Ministry of Interior. Tahrir is easy for the police to lock down, and would be hard to storm if we had less than 5,000 people with us.

Maher detailed how protests in Tahrir over the past few years had been stifled by police who were able to “scatter” people before they could get there.

Two days later, Maher wrote “Said” with another update. “Imagine this,” he wrote. On January 25, various groups of protesters would gather in local areas and then converge on Tahrir. Different opposition groups—ElBaradei supporters, Ayman Nour’s El Ghad party, etc.—would be responsible for the different parts of the city. They would invite people from the neighborhoods to march with them; they would maintain contact with the command center; that would hand out fliers; they would make masks with Said’s face on them; and they would not carry banners associated with political parties—only the Egyptian flag. Their demands: better wages, resignation of the Interior Minister, and an end to the emergency law that gave police free rein to terrorize without consequence. They would also flood Facebook with simple explanations of the protesters’ demands and guides to nonviolent protest tactics—a how-to straight out of the Canvas playbook.

A week before Police Day, a 21-year-old Cairo University student named Alya El Hosseiny was at home, sitting on her bed with her notebook computer, reading about Tunisia’s toppled dictator. She happened upon the Facebook event page for the January 25 demonstrations and decided to post on Twitter about it. “I looked around and couldn’t find an existing hashtag,” she told me later via email, referring to the handles that allow Twitter users to follow every post about a topic. “So I just made up something short and sweet. I thought it was temporary, until I found out everyone was using it”:



On the morning of January 25, 2011, Maher was driving around the Cairo neighborhood of Mohandessin. He had been in hiding for days. When he left his apartment a few days prior, Reham asked where he would be heading for the protests. Maher shrugged and said they were still sorting out details.

Maher was wearing a thick pullover sweatshirt with gray patches, a raincoat, a scarf, and a ski hat. Zazua, Maher’s car, has black trim, a thick coating of dust, and a broken triangular window by the driver-side mirror. The car is decorated with two small black fists, the emblem of A6Y and of just about every other solidarity group of the past 100 years: one on the rear windshield, the other on the fuel-tank door. At around 11 a.m., Maher headed toward the square in front of Mostafa Mahmoud Mosque, which sits almost in the middle of one of the area’s widest and busiest thoroughfares, Gameat Al Dowal Al Arabia, or Arab League Street. An array of smaller streets shoot off from it like spokes.

The coalition of anti-Mubarak groups had chosen Mostafa Mahmoud as one of four major landmarks in the city that would serve as initial gathering places. From each, the respective groups would march to Tahrir Square. “It was just like in the movie V for Vendetta,” Maher recalled, referring to the moment in the film when thousands of Londoners march on Parliament.

It was a little after 11:30 when Maher drove past the front of the mosque. Peering out the window of his car, he could see that it was crawling with plainclothes security officers, as well as a lineup of black-clad riot police.

Good, they’re here, he thought, before driving away.

A few days prior, A6Y operatives had announced on Facebook and in newspaper advertisements that a rally would take place outside the mosque after midday prayer, at around 2 p.m., on January 25. Located in a well-to-do neighborhood, Mostafa Mahmoud was exactly the kind of place the police would expect middle-class kids playing around on Facebook to congregate for a demonstration.

The mosque was indeed the protest location, but for the A6Y protestors and the crowds they hoped to rally, it was merely the end point of a larger plan. Shortly after noon, eight groups of about 20 A6Y veterans were dispatched into the back alleys of the shaabi, or working-class neighborhoods, not far from the mosque. From there they would lead, and grow, a series of disparate marches that would converge and arrive en masse at Mostafa Mahmoud. This time it would be impossible for the authorities to pick protesters off individually as they turned out for the main event.

To execute the plan, each unit would linger in the area of Mohandessin until the unit leader received a call with instructions about a precise starting point. The fewer people who knew the exact geography, the less chance state security agents had to intercept or disrupt them. Only Maher and the march coordinator overseeing the eight units knew the starting places. The A6Y team had examined Google Earth images of the city in advance and sketched out routes. Eventually, the narrower streams through the back alleys would meet up and make their way down Arab League Street before arriving at Mustafa Mahmoud.

At 12:30, Maher made three calls. The first was to the operation coordinator, who then dispatched the eight units to their starting points in the shaabi neighborhoods. Then Maher called the protest coordinators in Alexandria and Port Said.

“How’s it going over there? Are you ready? OK. Let’s go.”

As they moved through the narrow alleys, the protestors chanted slogans—“Long Live Egypt! Long Live Egypt!” and “Bread, Freedom, Human Dignity!”—and cheerfully urged people standing in shops and doorways and looking down from balconies to join in.

Just after one o’clock, Maher drove back to the mosque to find hundreds of people gathered. They appeared to be everyday Egyptians from off the streets, responding to the newspaper announcements or word-of-mouth invitations from friends and neighbors. Within an hour, their numbers had swelled to a few thousand. It was fast turning into one of the biggest rallies in Cairo’s recent history, and it hadn’t technically started yet. The scene was electrifying but chaotic. None of the people gathered had been versed in the tactics of nonviolent protest. The crowd was eager to take action, or at least to go somewhere.

Maher jumped up on the railing of a fence and began shouting.

“Just wait! My friends are coming! More people are coming!”

A few people in the crowd recognized him and began repeating the message. To his relief, Rashed, the ebullient spokesman of A6Y, was also there. Maher and Rashed managed to convince everyone to sit down. At one point, Maher guessed that there were as many as 7,000 people surrounding the mosque and spilling out onto Arab League Street. Then he got a call from one of the A6Y leaders guiding the streams of marchers through the shaabi. The eight units had converged and were nearing the overpass that would deliver them to Arab League Street and the mosque.

“Maher!” he heard shouted into his phone. “We have 10,000 people!”

Maher couldn’t believe it. A few minutes later, he got another call from another of the group leaders. Maher covered one ear to block the noise of the crowd.

“We must be 15,000 people! We are nearing the bridge!”

It was 2:20 before the marchers began arriving at the square in front of the mosque. From his perch on the fence, Maher looked out at an almost incomprehensible scene: A ribbon of humanity stretching down Arab League Street as far as he could see.

People began shouting, “Akheeran! Akheeran!” At last! At last! Maher wandered among them, slapping hands and hugging friends. But triumph was usurped by concern: The crowd could splinter at any moment. Maher, Rashed, and other members of A6Y knew that the protest would have the greatest impact if the massive gathering stuck to the plan and headed to the heart of the city, combining forces with the other protest battalions. They locked arms to make a perimeter around the marchers, trying to keep people on course. Periodically, they broke off and sprinted to the front of the pack. Their goal was to keep everyone pointed toward what would soon affectionately become known as the Republic of Tahrir.


By evening there were tens of thousands of people in the square. The police eventually blocked bridges across the Nile, preventing additional protesters from the west from entering Tahrir. But critical mass had already been achieved. By that time, says Rashed, it was “like a war zone.” Members of A6Y and other activists groups that had helped choreograph the march were running through the side streets of downtown, trying to escape the rubber bullets, police batons, and tear gas. On Twitter, there were strobelike reports of pandemonium: “Tear gas!!” “Eyes burning fuck.” “Police is throwing rocks at us.” “Someone badly injured in his leg.”

By nightfall, after protesters had taken up positions in Tahrir for what would become a kind of siege in reverse, Maher and other members of the Kitchen were back in the control room. Their careful planning had paid off. No one had predicted such enormous turnout, but they knew their next steps. January 25 was a Tuesday, and by the next morning they were hurriedly making plans for an even bigger demonstration on Friday, using social media to spread the message but also getting taxi drivers to talk about it, jotting down details on banknotes, and telling anyone who would listen that this giant event was about to take place. They even branded it: the Day of Rage.

Much as they had for the Police Day “celebration,” they advertised the January 28 protest by using event pages on Facebook. Maher and “Said” also put together a document titled “Everything You Need to Know about the Day of Rage.” They wrote it in Google Docs so that once it was up it could be edited by the masses, much like a Wikipedia entry. “Who We Are,” the document begins. “We are Egypt’s young people on the Internet.” It then runs through the basics: why they were protesting, their demands, demonstration places and times, and, perhaps most critical, demonstration instructions emphasizing calm, unity, and level-headedness. “If you’ve never been in a protest before, don’t stand in the front,” the document instructed. “Leave the front lines for those who are more experienced in leading protests and marches so there is no confusion in decision-making.” The guide was appended to the Facebook event page for January 28, which, of course, was administered by We Are All Khalid Said.

By the 28th, the campaign of violence orchestrated by the regime was coming to a head. The young blogger Mohamed Adel was grabbed on the street and beaten up. Maher, meanwhile, was racing around the neighborhood of Imbaba, a poor area in Giza, again trying to keep thousands of marchers on course. Microblogger Mahmoud Salem tweeted that afternoon: “I am ok. I got out. I was ambushed & beaten by the police, my phone confiscated, my car ripped apar& [sic] supplies taken #jan25.”

And then, just before 6 p.m., Egyptians were cut off from the world and from each other. The country’s major Internet service providers were ordered to shut off their networks, rendering websites hosted in-country inaccessible and preventing Egyptians from using email, Facebook, Twitter, and other social-networking services. Mobile-phone networks also went dark, except for anonymous, pro-Mubarak messages sent by the regime.

For many Egyptians, blocking Internet and cellular communications was the last straw. If they had been reluctant to step out into the streets, now they were compelled to—it was the only way to be in contact with one another. For the protest architects, though, the outage meant hurried contingency plans and workarounds. Someone from the Kitchen ventured out to purchase a satellite television for the control room so the group could receive news from beyond. A few locations had also escaped the blackout because of obscure ISPs or international dial-up numbers. Local blogger Sarah Carr found herself with an intact connection, and her apartment quickly filled with friends, and friends of friends, eager to get word out to friends and family.

The Internet blackout was matched by more intimidation, detentions, and beatings. On February 3, after representatives from various opposition groups dispersed following a meeting at Mohamed ElBaradei’s villa, all of the A6Y members who attended the meeting were picked up by police. That same night, security police came the closest they would come to grabbing Maher. Two minibuses pulled onto El Tawfikia Street and stopped in front of building No. 1, which houses the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, one of the bases of operations for opposition organizers outside of Tahrir. Hamza, Maher’s boss, was in the crowd standing across the street when it happened.

Plainclothes officers entered the building and climbed the stairs. They apprehended about 10 people, including the Center’s director, and ushered them downstairs and into the minibuses. According to Hamza, the authorities were also shouting rumors that the people being arrested were from Hamas “and that they have come to burn Cairo. They were kicking [the activists] and hitting them.” A6Y had been using an office just one floor down from the Law Center. Al Jazeera reporter Elizabeth Jones, who had embedded with the A6Y organizers for a documentary, was also briefly detained and then released. Later, her television footage would provide a window into how the group had managed to continue coordinating their part of the revolution from the control room amidst the chaos.   

Maher had just returned from his one respite from the revolution: a small party to celebrate his daughter’s third birthday. As he walked around the corner onto El Tawfikia, he saw soldiers standing post at the entrance to the Law Center and a few people walking out of the building, their hands bound. “Some young people standing downstairs signaled to me to leave quickly, but I didn’t understand. Suddenly, the soldiers noticed me and started running to try and arrest me,” he said. “I ran from them through the side streets. I went home to Tahrir Square to spend the night there because it was the safest place in Egypt.”


Meanwhile, Wael Ghonim was missing. Based in Dubai, Ghonim had arrived in Cairo before January 25 to participate in the protests. He wasn’t just any Egyptian citizen returning home to join his people, however. He was also the mastermind of We Are All Khalid Said. On January 28, he disappeared. The regime may have been after him because he had been openly running the fan page for Mohamed ElBaradei or because the secret police had uncovered his other identity. Ghonim had a contingency plan in place so that if he were detained, one of the few people who knew he was the administrator of the Facebook page would go public with his secret. It was by way of this plan that Maher learned the identity of his co-conspirator. He thought back to a conference about blogging that he and Ghonim had attended in Qatar. During the sessions, Maher had been trading live chat messages with the man he knew only as “Said,” not knowing that he was seated just a few feet away. At one point during a break, Ghonim had casually asked Maher what A6Y had in store for Police Day.

Now Amnesty International, opposition leaders in Egypt, and executives at one of the richest companies in the galaxy were negotiating for Ghonim’s release. When he was finally freed on February 7, he agreed to a television interview on the popular Dream TV program 10 O’clock. When the host asked him to respond to accusations that it was the protesters, not iron-fisted government ministers, who were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of activists throughout Egypt, Ghonim broke down. “I want to say to every mother and father who lost their son: I am so sorry, but it’s not our fault,” he said, fighting back sobs. “I swear to God it is not our fault. It’s the fault of everybody who was holding on to power and refusing to let it go.”

Maher was happy to see his collaborator released but worried about the consequences of a misstep from the newly famous Ghonim. The revolution had been in a precarious lull: By now, Mubarak had made nontrivial concessions, the public was getting tired of revolution-induced economic paralysis, and high-profile people like billionaire businessman Naguib Sawiris were saying that the protesters had underestimated their achievements. “They should declare victory,” Sawiris told The New York Times, and go home.

Ghonim’s release reinvigorated the protesters and the general public alike, but his stardom, not to mention the shock of his time in captivity, made the situation fragile: What if he lost his head? If Ghonim had been coerced or somehow convinced to renounce the protests, or if he even made a comment significantly out of sync with the coalition’s public statements, the movement could be fatally crippled. Maher had to reach him.

Through a professor whom both men knew, Maher conveyed a simple plea to Ghonim, the man who had been his invisible collaborator for months: Stay on message. Mubarak had to go, and the protestors wouldn’t leave Tahrir until he did. Ghonim agreed.

The next day, a Tuesday, Ghonim spoke to the crowds at Tahrir. The media had its new narrative thrust, and demonstrators nationwide were galvanized. Maher, meanwhile, was tapping away on his smartphone and his white notebook computer in the control room. A6Y’s leaders were churning out press releases, taking interviews with journalists, and coordinating with activists in Alexandria, Port Said, Suez, and elsewhere. That day, Maher sent me another text message:

We will organize a great demonstration on Friday in all of Egypt.

They called it the Friday of Departure. That Thursday, Maher got the call from Ghonim to join the secret meeting at the Ministry of Transportation, where he had to face down some of the very men who had hunted him.

The next day, Maher parked Zazua downtown and started walking toward Tahrir. As he passed an electronics shop, he looked in and saw Vice President Omar Suleiman giving a live address. Maher popped into the store just in time to catch the crux of the message: Mubarak was gone.


Saturday, March 19. Maher and Reham walk hand in hand past the elementary school in Maadi where earlier in the day they had cast their ballots. Maher wears a black T-shirt and Reham a pink headscarf. She is eight and a half months pregnant. (Her doctor gave her a due date of April 6.) Today’s referendum is a vote for amending the constitution or scrapping it entirely. The lines extending out of the polling station are long, but the atmosphere is festive. Young people snap photographs with their cell phones, and voters exiting the school building inspect the ink on their fingers. A few people recognize Maher but not many. “More women than men,” he says, a fact that Reham affirms with a teasing nod.

Since the revolution, Maher has been busy. Yesterday he smoked cigars with the Cuban ambassador and tried to sit still for a photographer from The Washington Post. He has also had meetings recently with British Prime Minister David Cameron, the head of the British Parliament, officials from the European Union, and ambassadors from more than half a dozen countries. He had to turn down an invitation to the U.S. embassy because of exhaustion. Recently, when he showed up at the swanky Cairo Marriott for a meeting wearing his typical long-sleeve T-shirt, sneakers, and cargo pants still stained with mud from Tahrir Square, a hotel staffer looked him over and asked what he was doing there. Maher took some satisfaction in saying that he had a meeting with Ahmed Zewail, the revered Egyptian scientist and Nobel laureate. Soon Maher will fly to Spain, where he will speak about his experiences, and, after that, to Qatar, New York, and the salons of Paris. “Do you tweet?” one Western journalist recently asked him. “Do you blog?” “Are you Moses?” (Answers: Yes. Yes. No.) For other members of A6Y, the situation is similar: a whirlwind of travel, queries from publishers, speaking gigs, and discussions with academics and activists from Athens to Boston, all eager to put together a postmortem of events that to most of the world appear to have sprung from nowhere.

The night before the referendum, Maher and a handful of people from the Kitchen gathered at an outdoor café near Cairo’s stock exchange. Maher sat with his briefcase resting on his lap, doing more listening than talking. Someone had a laptop that was passed from person to person every few minutes. Rashed, the boisterous A6Y spokesman, started teasing Maher. A woman had told Rashed that she wanted to marry a man like Maher. Standing up for theatrical effect, Rashed asked, “What do the rest of us have to do? Is it the bald head? Is that the secret?” he said, prompting laughter from the group.

At one point, I asked Rashed if he ever thought they would be here, celebrating the end of the regime. When we had met in 2008, during the brief protest on the beach that day in Alexandria, things hadn’t exactly gone so well.

“That was a great day. The greatest day,” Rashed said.

I asked him what he meant, but he was simultaneously looking at the A6Y Facebook page on the laptop, smoking shisha, and chiming in to two other conversations. So I asked again. How exactly does a demonstration that attracts almost no curious passersby, ends within minutes, and results in beatings and arrests for a handful of participants qualify as a great day?

“Because of this day, we know we are an important group. They came for us right away. Why? Because we are a real problem for them. Thanks to that day, people all over Egypt and outside of Egypt—they know us. They know of this group that is against the government and that we are dangerous to the regime.” That fierce crackdown, said Rashed, provided invaluable advertising and showed the activists that they were powerful. He paused for a moment before repeating his conclusion. “It was a great day.”

Maher agreed. It wasn’t merely that the regime had revealed how worried it was about A6Y and about activities as innocuous as flying a kite-flag. That day in Alexandria, Maher told me, showed that A6Y was “a political force to be reckoned with, just like any party or political organization in Egypt.” Before, he said, A6Y was seen as just a bunch of kids playing around online. What had looked to the outside world like a failed protest was in fact a crystallizing moment that transformed A6Y from small-time protesters into full-fledged insurrectionaries.

A little before midnight, the Kitchen dispersed; there was still a curfew on in Cairo between 12 and 6 a.m. Even today the political situation in Egypt remains unstable. Protests continued well into April, often relating to wages or objections to figures from the old regime who’d retained power or had not been charged with any crimes. A standoff at Cairo University between students and administrators appointed by the former ruling party has yet to be resolved, and on April 9, the military used force to break up a protest in Tahrir, killing two people and injuring dozens. “We have much work to do,” said Maher.

The day after the referendum, Maher’s plan was to go to work and try to be a civil engineer for at least part of the day before leaving for a series of meetings in the evening. After that he had to take Zazua to the mechanic. The car needed a new muffler and replacement glass for the broken window. This was no time to run into car trouble.  The baby was due any day.