The Butcher of Havana

The Butcher
of Havana

How a drifter from Milwaukee became the chief executioner of the Cuban Revolution—and a test case for U.S. civil rights.

By Tony Perrottet

The Atavist Magazine, No. 120


Tony Perrottet is a historian and journalist. A regular contributor to Smithsonian, he is also the author of six books, including Cuba Libre!, Pagan Holiday, Napoleon’s Privates, and The Sinner’s Grand Tour. Listen to Perrottet on the Creative Nonfiction podcast.

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checkers: Kyla Jones and Naomi Sharp
Illustrator: Patrick Leger

Published in October 2021.


Part One

On the balmy night of April 9, 1959, a little over three months after Fidel Castro and Che Guevara seized power in Cuba, a group of famous international writers gathered in El Floridita, a popular restaurant in Old Havana. They were an urbane set—Tennessee Williams, George Plimpton, Elaine Dundy, and her husband, Kenneth Tynan—and they were expecting to carouse with Cuba’s most beloved yanqui, Ernest Hemingway. Instead, they encountered another Midwestern expatriate, wearing a wide military belt and a hulking .45 service revolver.

Burly and tattooed, the man had rough-hewn good looks. He was in his late thirties—more than two decades younger than Hemingway—and stood five-foot-ten, with thick brown hair and, in the words of his draft card, a “ruddy” complexion. An English journalist later described him as “tall, straight and meanly friendly,” with striking blue eyes that, “yellowing after only a few beers, suggested company dangerous to keep when drunk.” The American’s words tumbled out in the distinctively nasal accent of someone from blue-collar Milwaukee. He pronounced “that” as “dat” and dropped his g’s. He was the uneducated son of Polish immigrants, the type of man one of Williams’s own fictional snobs might have called a redneck.

But if his origins were humble, at El Floridita the man needed no introduction. His image had appeared on the front pages of newspapers across the United States. In fact, after Hemingway, he was probably the most notorious American in the Caribbean. His name was Herman Marks, and he had risen through the ranks of Castro’s rebel army to command the revolution’s firing squads. Around Havana, there were rumors that he had a sadistic streak; his version of a coup de grâce, it was said, was to empty his pistol into a condemned man’s face, so relatives could not recognize the corpse. Marks’s brutal work had earned him a nickname: He was El Carnicero—the Butcher.

The literati peppered him with questions, and Marks responded with pride. He boasted of being second-in-command to Che himself at La Cabaña prison, and declared that he was so busy, he conducted nightly executions until 2 a.m., and sometimes until dawn. He called the proceedings “festivities” and showed off his cuff links made from spent bullet shells.

Marks knew what the gathered writers were really after. It was an open secret in Havana that he invited select visitors to the executions, which were conducted in the empty stone moat around La Cabaña, beneath a giant floodlit statue of Christ with outstretched arms. American politicians, journalists, starlets, and socialites had all made discreet inquiries about watching a firing squad do its work. Williams, whose grandfather had been a minister, forlornly felt that he might comfort a condemned man by offering “a small encouraging smile” before he was shot.

On this particular night, Marks told the group at El Floridita, he had a busy schedule. The prisoners awaiting execution included a German mercenary. “He made the invitation as easily as he might have offered a round of cocktails at his home,” Plimpton later recalled. Marks counted the visitors out: “Let’s see… five of you… quite easy… we’ll drive over by car… tight squeeze…”

Unnoticed by the others, Tynan had been listening to Marks with growing horror, and now the Englishman leapt to his feet and began shouting. According to Plimpton, the red-faced theater critic squinted his eyes and flapped his arms like an enormous bird while denouncing Marks. He didn’t want to be in the same room as an executioner, Tynan gasped, let alone witness his handiwork. He would attend the execution only to run in front of the firing squad to protect the condemned. Tynan then stormed out of the bar, followed by Dundy.

“What the hell was that?” asked Marks. He told the remaining writers to meet him in the lobby of a nearby hotel at 8 p.m.

With a Colt .45 revolver, $400 in cash, and “about ten words in Spanish,” as he later put it, Marks took a boat to Cuba. His plan was as audacious as it was simple: He would join the revolution.

Almost nothing about Herman Marks’s early life suggested that he would someday play a pivotal role in a Latin American revolution. He was born in Milwaukee in 1921, and raised in a neighborhood of shoddy brick houses and bare streets. His father, Frederick, was an unemployed alcoholic who beat him; his mother, Martha Yelich, barely kept the family afloat by working as a short-order cook in a diner. He does not appear to have been close with his elder sister, Elsie, or his younger one, Dorothy; but he remained devoted to his mother throughout his life, in his own eccentric fashion.

The Markses’ volatile marriage crumbled during the Great Depression, when Herman was 12. After his mother remarried, Herman began getting into trouble. He skipped classes and was expelled from every school he attended; at 14, he was sent to a reformatory, where he ran away on three occasions and was once caught stealing a car. Over the next two decades, he was arrested 32 times in ten states, from Hawaii to Maine, mostly for drunkenness, petty theft, and disorderly conduct.

He never stayed more than three months in any one place, working odd jobs in factories, on docks, and at horse ranches. In April 1939, he joined the merchant marine, and he served in the Pacific during World War II. (He later claimed in court that he “had been in jails all over” the region, including while on shore leave in Australia.) After the war, Marks floated aimlessly around the United States, Mexico, and Canada, adding to his rap sheet: vagrancy in Texas, public drunkenness in Ohio and North Dakota, attempted grand larceny in New York City, and “prowling” in Las Vegas, a crime for which he was given 30 days in jail and then told to leave town. In Los Angeles in 1949, he robbed an elderly woman, drunkenly grabbing her by the throat. According to the police report, he only made away with naphthalene mothballs “to the value of 29 cents.” He got six months for assault but escaped from jail with two friends. While fleeing, all three seriously hurt their ankles after jumping from a dangerous height; Marks and one of the other men limped on for weeks, until they were caught in Galveston, Texas, and sent back to California to finish their sentences.

Back home in Milwaukee, at age 27, Marks brawled with his mother’s third husband and physically threw him out of the house. (Yelich took her son’s side; he was fined five dollars by local authorities for his actions.) Later that same year, he was arrested and convicted of carnal knowledge with a 16-year-old girl. According to the police report, Marks was working as a stable hand and met the girl at a bar, where, the police conceded, she had shown the bartender a birth certificate that said she was an adult. The pair then attended a riotous celebration in a barn where, an investigator noted, “drinking and sex parties went on almost nightly.” Marks was sentenced to three and a half years in prison.

His niece, Penlo Hobbs, remembered her relatives being frightened of Uncle Herman well before he entered the state penitentiary in Waupun. “He was the bogeyman,” she said. “We weren’t allowed to have anything to do with him.” Even Marks’s mother had reservations about her son. “I don’t know what happened to him,” she once told the Milwaukee Sentinel. “Whatever he did was not my fault. I sent him to parochial school and raised him good.”

She said Marks was generous when he wasn’t broke, lavishing her with bouquets of flowers, but mainly he spent his money on girls and booze. And he had an explosive temper. “He was always drinking and fighting,” his mother said. “As soon as somebody said anything wrong, he was up and mad.” Marks’s erratic personality was symbolized by his tattoos. His left arm bore a double heart inscribed with the words “Love, Nellie.” (There is no record of who Nellie was.) On his right arm was a skull pierced with a dagger, alongside the military motto “Death Before Dishonor.”

His mother took Marks in after he was released from Waupun penitentiary in 1955. A few months later he left home again. “He kissed me one day and said he was going,” his mother recalled. Somebody took a photo of him looking bronzed and fit, which Yelich carried in her purse until the day she died. “I don’t think he knew where he was going,” she said. “He was looking for something.”

He found it on a shrimp boat in Florida. While hauling nets in late 1957, he ran into some men he knew from his days in the merchant marine. They were from Cuba, an island Marks had visited several times in the service, and once as a tourist. It was now embroiled in a civil war between leftist revolutionary guerrillas, led by a young lawyer named Fidel Castro, and the military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. That Christmas, Marks learned that one of his Cuban friends had been murdered in Havana by military police; they purportedly broke into the man’s house one night and shot him dead at his kitchen table. Soon after hearing the news, Marks went to an army surplus store in Key West and bought olive drab fatigues and paratrooper boots. With a Colt .45 revolver, $400 in cash, and “about ten words in Spanish,” as he later put it, Marks took a boat to Cuba. His plan was as audacious as it was simple: He would join the revolution.

Havana was under military curfew, with Batista’s menacing, blue-uniformed intelligence officers patrolling the streets. Loitering in the city’s bars, Marks failed to find any agents of M-26-7, Castro’s underground 26th of July Movement, named for the date of the group’s first armed uprising. So Marks took a bus east to the sleepy town of Manzanillo, in the tropical foothills of the Sierra Maestra, where he met two young Cubans also hoping to join the guerrillas. The trio hiked for three nights before reaching a jungle outpost of some 40 rebels under the command of Captain Paco Cabrera. An English-speaking officer interrogated Marks. Like many of the roughly two dozen yanquis who ultimately joined Cuba’s rebellion, Marks rewrote his personal history. According to one guerrilla, he claimed that he was a Korean War veteran; to others, he explained that his facility with weapons was born of a childhood enthusiasm for guns. He was accepted into the group with a meal of beef and celebratory rum.

Marks’s profile among the guerrillas rose when he saw three teenagers fumbling with a U.S. Army .30-caliber machine gun and stepped in to show them how to disassemble and clean it. By the time he was finished, a crowd had gathered around him, with men holding up rusted and broken weapons, wordlessly appealing for help. He was soon tasked with fixing the array of firearms used by rebel forces, everything from sport rifles to shotguns to carbines dating back to Cuba’s colonial days.

Marks was assigned to the unit led by Che Guevara, which suffered the highest casualties in the rebel army—one of its cohorts was dubbed the suicide squad. Marks quickly rose through the ranks to become a captain. In the spring of 1958, Che transferred him to Minas del Frío, a rebel stronghold, where Marks helped establish a military school and train recruits to repel the impending Operation Finish Fidel, a mass invasion of the Sierra Maestra by Batista’s army, which outnumbered the guerrillas 100 to 1. By May, Marks was on the front lines of combat. In one skirmish, he broke three teeth on a rock when he tripped leading a charge; in another, he led a group of 18 rebels who disabled a 250-man convoy in an ambush.

By August, Batista’s generals had to admit that they could not dislodge the guerrillas, and the army withdrew from the Sierra Maestra. The following month, Marks volunteered to join Che on a harrowing 350-mile mission across the mosquito-filled swamps of the eastern lowlands. The rebels hoped to establish a new base in the Escambray Mountains of central Cuba and use it to seize enough ground to effectively cut the island in half. In a biography of Castro, journalist Tad Szulc observed that the expedition, where the men would abandon the known terrain of the Sierra to trudge across exposed, unknown, and hostile territory, “must have seemed like a demented plan.” Che warned volunteers that conditions would be miserable, food short, and casualties likely close to 50 percent. Marks signed up anyway.

Although most of the mission’s men survived the trek, it was universally agreed to be the most grueling campaign of the entire war. Che’s column walked mostly at night to avoid army patrols and strafing airplanes. They forded rivers naked and once traversed a shallow lagoon filled with razor-sharp plants. They suffered from dire hunger and endured hurricane-fueled rain. “I’ve been through enough mud and water to last me the rest of my life,” Che wrote to Castro. “Hunger, thirst, weariness, the feeling of impotence against the enemy forces that were increasingly closing in on us, and above all, the terrible foot disease that the peasants called mazamorra—which turned each step our soldiers took into an intolerable torment—had made us an army of shadows.”

During a skirmish, Marks was wounded in the knee and ankle. Infection set in. “Pus and blood was continuously running, and I couldn’t get a shoe on my foot,” he later said. He had trudged with Che for over a month to get to the Escambray Mountains, but the possibility of fatal gangrene now threatened. Che decided to get the yanqui to safety. In early November, supporters of M-26-7 smuggled Marks from a farm into the city of Santa Clara, where he was dispatched by plane to Key West for medical care.

Although he had gone to great lengths to make sure Marks did not succumb to his injury, privately Che was not unhappy to see him go, writing in his war journal that the American “fundamentally … didn’t fit into the troop.” One of Che’s close aides, Enrique Acevedo, told biographer Jon Lee Anderson that Marks was “brave and crazy in combat, tyrannical and arbitrary in the peace of camp.” According to Acevedo, the American’s ruthless nature had disturbed the Cuban recruits—particularly his readiness to volunteer for execution duty, which he did with “an enthusiasm that was unseemly.”

The Cubans’ reaction to Marks echoed that of a reform-school psychiatrist who’d encountered him when he was 16. The psychiatrist reported that Marks was oddly detached—“a very stolid emotionless person when not excited” who “shows almost a lack of adequate feeling in respect to situations he finds himself in.” Later, when Marks was in Waupun prison, the facility’s psychiatrist found that he was “amoral rather than immoral,” and was “narcissistic in his makeup.”

These assessments would resonate throughout Marks’s peculiar career in Cuba.

Part Two

On New Year’s Day in 1959, Marks was resting in his hospital bed in Key West, listening to the radio, when a news update came over the airwaves: Batista had escaped from Havana in the hours before dawn that day, abandoning his country. In that moment, Castro’s rebel army had been handed effective control of Cuba. Days later, Marks hobbled to the docks and took the first ferry to Havana, which was still operating daily. He wanted to savor the victory, rejoin his compañeros, and, not incidentally, claim his promised share of property following the revolution’s land reform, which had always been at the top of Castro’s agenda.

Marks arrived in Havana on January 3 to find the city in a tense state of limbo, awaiting Castro’s arrival in a triumphant procession from the east. When news of Batista’s flight had filtered out on New Year’s Day, jubilant Habaneros sacked several casinos and smashed parking meters with baseball bats; Marks walked from the dock to the presidential palace along empty streets strewn with debris and shattered slot machines. Most of the city was under lockdown, with gun-toting cadres loyal to the M-26-7 maintaining a fragile order. Batista’s disgraced police and rank-and-file soldiers were all lying low; Boy Scouts had taken over as traffic cops, directing the few cars still on the roads.

At the presidential palace, armed student activists told Marks that his old comandante, Che, and an advance guard of 200 rebels had taken over La Cabaña. The golden-hued Spanish fortress was built in the age of conquistadors to guard galleons filled with Aztec and Incan gold from pirates; under Batista it had been a military base and a prison. It housed some 3,000 troops, but the demoralized officers had surrendered to the rebels without firing a shot. Marks made his way there to report for duty. 

He spent his first night in Che’s billet, carousing, and after breakfast the next morning, Che took him to the quartermaster to find fatigues and a beret. Whatever concerns Che had had about the American during the rebels’ trek eastward the previous year weren’t enough to dissuade him from appointing Marks head of security at La Cabaña.

On January 8, Havana’s silence broke when Castro arrived, riding atop a tank and surrounded by guerrillas. He proceeded along the Malecón waterfront, thronged by adoring crowds. Eventually, Castro took the penthouse apartment atop the Havana Hilton as his temporary office, while guerrillas slept on the floor of the hotel foyer. For weeks the streets of Havana were filled with music and dancing to celebrate the demise of the ancien régime. Guerillas were offered free bus rides, meals, and alcohol wherever they went.

At La Cabaña, to focus his officers’ restless energies, Che offered literacy classes and crash courses on international politics, explaining the importance of Vladimir Lenin and the Soviet Union. Still, a festive air permeated everything. Che’s office was besieged by female admirers who lined up for hours hoping to see him; when he barred the door, they climbed through the windows. The fortress’s former officers club was thrown open to the barbudos—“bearded ones,” as the shaggy young guerrillas were nicknamed. The English writer Norman Lewis visited La Cabaña and found rebels in freshly pressed uniforms, “sipping delicately from small coffee cups, and smilingly discussing the past achievements and future promise of the new order.”

Lewis was among the small army of foreign artists, writers, and celebrities who descended on Havana to enjoy the intoxicating “honeymoon of the revolution,” as the French intellectual Jean-Paul Sartre called it. Another was veteran Milwaukee Journal reporter William J. Normyle. He visited Havana in mid-February, and was surprised to learn that Castro’s guerrillas included one of Wisconsin’s native sons. He wrote a glowing profile of Marks, dwelling on his idealism and derring-do as a freedom fighter. Marks revealed that he had no plans to leave Cuba anytime soon. “I’m staying here,” he told Normyle. “There’s a lot of work to be done.”

Marks, it seems, conveniently left his criminal history out of his interviews, telling Normyle that he had attended vocational school in Milwaukee before joining the merchant marine. What’s more, Normyle’s article didn’t mention that at least part of Marks’s work in Cuba was shooting prisoners to death.

Three judges heard attorneys and witnesses, and parsed the evidence to decide who was mistakenly charged, who deserved long prison sentences, and who should be sent al paredón—“to the wall.”

For many foreigners, the first dark chord in Havana’s celebratory mood was struck by the start of trials for “war criminals” from the Batista regime. Nobody knows the exact death toll of the seven years of Batista’s military rule. The figure 20,000 was offered by the director of Havana’s morgue in 1959, and accepted by the revolutionary government. Although the true number may be less, nobody disputes that the carnage was horrific. Nearly every Cuban had a family member who was illegally detained, tortured, murdered, or disappeared by the regime. Castro urged Cubans not to take revenge against Batista’s henchmen who remained on the island after the dictator’s escape. He promised proper trials based on laws he had signed in the Sierra Maestra in February 1958. Yes, his brother Raúl had ordered that more than 70 Batista loyalists be machine-gunned before open graves in the city of Santiago, but henceforth, Castro insisted, the proceedings would be civilized—there would be none of the bloody mob violence associated around the world with uprisings and revolutions past.

The first trials, the so-called Cleansing Commission, were set up in Havana in January 1959 under the supervision of a young lawyer named Miguel Ángel Duque de Estrada. Che presided as the “supreme prosecutor.” Targeting the most detested members of the Batista regime, the trials were held at La Cabaña, where 800 prisoners were squeezed into stone cells made to hold only 300. Three judges heard attorneys and witnesses, then parsed the evidence to decide who was mistakenly charged, who deserved a long prison sentence, and who should be sent al paredón—“to the wall.” By the end of January, some 100 Batista loyalists had been executed.

Marks was in many ways the perfect soldier to run the firing squads. He was ambitious and had shown in the Sierra that he was not averse to undesirable and even grisly tasks. He believed that the executions of Batista’s most loathsome minions was part and parcel of the revolution, and he saw Che’s decision to put him in charge of carrying out such a difficult job on behalf of the Cuban people as an honor.

Marks achieved a burst of notoriety when the new government initiated Operation Truth. It chose three of the most brutal Batista partisans to prosecute at a public trial, and Castro invited international journalists as observers. He even offered to pay their expenses. All told, 385 journalists from U.S. and Latin American media converged on Havana. It turned out to be a PR misstep; what happened next was a show trial, held at the aptly named Coliseum, the national sports stadium. The accused men were paraded before 18,000 jeering and furious Cuban spectators. For the benefit of those who could not attend, the event was televised live.

The first accused man to take the stand was Major Jesús Sosa Blanco, a garrison officer from the provincial town of Holguín, who was charged with 108 murders, many preceded by savage torture. He was also believed to have ordered the massacre of unarmed campesinos. Over 12 hours, some 40 tearful witnesses, including widows and a 12-year-old boy, took the stage to testify about the murders of their loved ones. The audience screamed and wailed. When the handcuffed defendant morosely repeated that he had only done his duty, his words were drowned out by the crowd chanting, “Al paredón! Al paredón!

Sosa Blanco was convicted and sentenced to death. On February 18, his appeal was adjudicated without a public audience, and his sentence was upheld. Some 200 barbudos came to watch him die. The condemned man was transported in a small bus to La Cabaña’s dry, floodlit moat, where Marks unlocked his handcuffs and led him to the spot where he would be executed. According to Marks, Sosa Blanco asked if he could address the crowd with some final words and then give the orders to the firing squad himself. Marks agreed. “Although I am marked as a criminal,” Sosa Blanco said, “I have served my government to the best of my ability as an officer.” He wished good luck to all those gathered, and then cried out: “Pelotón, atención! Prepare! Apunte! Fuego!

All this left the international community outraged. U.S. journalists in particular denounced the executions as well as the trials at the Coliseum, some of which were televised, with language that veered into ugly bias. Time led the charge, decrying the “popcorn-munching atmosphere” and insisting that it revealed a congenital Cuban longing for “blood purges.” U.S. senators held press conferences to warn that the Cuban uprising was spinning out of control, just as the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions had before it.

Many Cubans saw American objections to the executions as rank hypocrisy. For seven agonizing years, the U.S. government had not breathed a word of protest against Batista’s regime, which had killed so many Cuban citizens. After Batista’s flight, mass graves were opened all over the island, full of corpses with broken limbs or missing eyes; many victims had been burned, strangled, disemboweled, or buried alive. Police stations were found to contain torture implements, including handmade tools designed for pulling nails and teeth, electrical wires that could be inserted into ears, and “fire seats”—perforated metal thrones under which flames mutilated genitalia. When Castro asked Cubans for a show of support for Operation Truth, a million demonstrators gathered in Havana to demand more executions and to express outrage at the Americans’ double standards.

Soon, though, with a diplomatic tour to the United States pending, Castro bowed to international pressure and moved the trials back behind the closed doors of La Cabaña. They were now held at night within the bowels of the prison, “in a large hall that might have served as a church,” according to Norman Lewis. Benches held dozens of prisoners’ relatives, many of them women and children. “The place was surprisingly quiet,” Lewis noted, “and despite the provision of microphones I had to listen intently to follow the details of what was going on, especially when prisoners under examination replied to questions, as they usually did, in a low-voiced, hesitant fashion. Two small birds fluttered continuously under the roof.”

Although the accused men Lewis saw tried were “criminal small-fry,” he flinched at the barbarity revealed in their testimony. A boyish 18-year-old named José Cano was accused of stabbing one victim in the eyes before murdering him. Another, Gregorio Gonzalez, aged 22, said he had executed a 73-year-old grandmother with two shots to the head for harboring a pair of rebel agents in her house. A death sentence was handed down for both men. Only a woman’s gasp broke the silence in the room.

A photograph taken around the time, published in The New York Times Magazine, shows Marks in smart guerrilla khakis, standing at attention as he hears a verdict. It was his job to escort men like Cano and Gonzalez to their deaths, one after the other.

Visiting reporters, politicians, and movie stars lined up for their turn to witness an execution, including the Hollywood matinee idol Errol Flynn, who was so shaken by the experience that he retched on a guard’s shoes.

By the end of March 1959, the nightly firing squads at La Cabaña had become something of a production line. According to wire reports, Marks had already carried out 200 executions, though he claimed the figure was closer to 80; on one busy night, he told an Associated Press reporter, 11 men were put to death. To the many foreign journalists who attended, Marks insisted that he was acting as a humanitarian. It was he who had suggested that the executions take place in the moat beneath the looming white statue of Christ, because the figure would be an uplifting last sight for the condemned. He said he also wanted to ensure that the process was clean and efficient, compared with messy executions that had been conducted in the provinces.

Some observers found the proceedings a little too efficient. “It was a mechanical, cold-blooded, business-like procedure for Marks,” New York Times reporter Herbert Matthews wrote, “like a butcher killing cattle in an abattoir.” Still, glitches happened. When the floodlights failed, sentences were carried out by the headlamps of military Jeeps, as if they were gangland murders in Hollywood B movies. There were scenes of panic and despair. Some condemned men tried to buy their freedom with money or gifts. A more serious problem was that the young soldiers in the firing squads, who were generally between 16 and 20, often lost their nerve at the decisive moment. The Cubans did not follow the European tradition of giving one of the riflemen a blank round to salve the squad’s consciences, so the soldiers often aimed for a leg, a shoulder, or the wall. This left Marks to fire the fatal shot into a man now writhing in agony. On one occasion, when a man waved a Santeria hex at the riflemen and cursed them, their children, and their grandchildren, all six deliberately missed. Marks shot the man himself and had the squad court-martialed.

Marks’s local infamy rose another notch when the English-language Times of Havana, beloved by American tourists and expats, ran a profile of him on April 2. It was largely sympathetic, apart from describing him as “humorless” and noting that he “discusses his duties unsmilingly and unemotionally.” Marks hit on many of the themes he would return to in interviews over the coming months. “Running firing squads is not a pleasant job, but it’s one that must be done,” he said. “When a soldier gets his orders, he carries them out whether he likes it or not.” Marks also expressed his love for his new home. “Cuba is a beautiful country,” he said. “The people are wonderful. I like everybody here and most everybody likes me. I’ve got a good position in a happy, contented place.”

A long waiting list formed for Marks’s macabre tourist attraction. Visiting reporters, politicians, and movie stars were eager for their turn, including the Hollywood matinee idol Errol Flynn, who was so shaken by the experience that he retched on a guard’s shoes. Still, Flynn was fascinated enough to invite Marks to dine with him and his 16-year-old paramour, Beverly Aadland, in his hotel suite, where Flynn argued that condemned men should have a say in the method of their own executions. Marks disagreed, pointing out that they had never given their victims a choice. “Somebody was pretty smart in the government by putting an American in charge of blowing out Cuban brains,” Flynn wrote in a letter at the time. (Flynn also reported the rumor of Marks’s sadist coup de grâce—that he deliberately disfigured some condemned prisoners by emptying his pistol into their heads—but admitted that he had not seen it himself, despite attending several executions. The story, Flynn wrote, was “hearsay.”)

Ernest Hemingway encouraged George Plimpton to witness an execution, because “it was important that a writer get around to see just about anything, especially the excesses of human behavior.” But Plimpton didn’t attend on the night he first met Marks at El Floridita. When he, Tennessee Williams, and the other foreigners whom Marks had invited convened at the appointed time in the hotel lobby, Marks turned up only to inform them that the evening’s executions had been called off. Plimpton speculated that Marks had been set on edge by Kenneth Tynan’s rant about the proceedings at La Cabaña, and that he sensed others in the group might have concerns. “He had doubtless concluded that we were an odd lot: our own doubts so obviously seethed; we didn’t seem grateful; we kept staring at him with our mouths ajar,” Plimpton wrote.

It is also possible that Marks had no idea how famous Williams was when he extended the invitation, and had been subsequently warned off by a superior. Only the afternoon before, Tynan and Williams had visited the presidential palace to meet Castro. They waited for two and a half hours until, Tynan later wrote, “with a shrug and a cry, someone identified Mr. Williams as the famous Yankee playwright, and we were promptly whisked into Castro’s sanctum, where, unknown to us, a crucial cabinet meeting had been in session.” Castro halted the proceedings to pay tribute to Williams, explaining in faltering English “how much he admired his plays, especially the one about the cat that was upon the burning roof.”

But things didn’t end in the hotel lobby. In a final twist, as Plimpton revealed many years later to James Scott Linville and another colleague at The Paris Review, Hemingway himself decided to take his friend on an evening jaunt to see Marks at work. He prepared shakers of cocktails for himself and Plimpton to take with them. According to Linville, “Arriving at their destination, they got out, set up chairs, brought out the drinks, and arranged themselves as if they were going to watch the sunset. Soon enough, a truck came. … The truck stopped and some men with guns got out of it. In back were a couple of dozen others who were tied up. Prisoners. The men with guns hustled the others out of the back of the truck and lined them up. And then they shot them. They put the bodies back in the truck and drove off.”

Jean Secon

By then, Marks’s reputation as a killer was international news. An AP reporter named Theodore A. Ediger broke the story in late March, and his work was syndicated, appearing in newspapers across America, including the Milwaukee Journal. Ediger’s profile detailed Marks’s work as an executioner, but the author was nonetheless a little starstruck. He described Marks as a “slender, sun-bronzed officer” who was fondly referred to as “El Capitán Herman” by his Cuban comrades. When asked about his youth in America, Marks claimed to have worked as a coal miner in Butte, Montana, and as a “hospital surgeon attendant.” Ediger concluded the piece, “He says he likes Cuba so much that he is not homesick.”

This time the publicity in Milwaukee, where Marks’s photo ran on the front page, drew the attention of John C. Burke, the warden at Waupun penitentiary, where Marks had done time. Burke contacted the Journal, and Normyle, the reporter who had met Marks in Havana back in February, did some digging and discovered Marks’s 32 criminal convictions. “Marks Left Crime Trail,” another front-page headline soon read. In the accompanying article, Burke described Marks as “a real stinker” and a “rascal” who caused constant trouble in the prison by refusing to work. The exposé was picked up by other papers and various magazines, including Time and Newsweek. It also heralded Marks’s debut in The New York Times, under the headline “Executioner Is Ex-Convict.” Marks’s criminal past was linked to rumors of his cruelty in Cuba, and to his nickname, El Carnicero.

If anything, the coverage enhanced Marks’s mystique in Havana’s expat circles, where oddballs and outsiders abounded. Marks was given the best tables in the swank restaurants that were still operating in the city’s Art Deco hotels. He became a familiar figure at El Floridita and Sloppy Joe’s, another popular drinking establishment. He made regular cameos at an office in downtown Havana, which was shared by New York Times correspondent Ruby Hart Phillips—a prim, matronly figure whose uniform was “grey sweater, carmine blouse and blue slacks,” according to Time—and Ted Scott, the brothel-hopping Times of Havana editor. In his office, Scott had set up a makeshift shooting gallery, with cards that moved on a wire; in his downtime he used an air pistol for target practice. One day, Phillips had to restrain Marks from trying to hit the cards with his .45 revolver.

Jean Secon, a striking American photojournalist in her twenties, had moved to Havana in 1958 and established herself as a stringer. She was arrested by Batista’s regime for attempting to meet Castro in the Sierra and flown back to Havana. After the revolution succeeded, she became a fixture in the city, hobnobbing with barbudos in restaurants and bars. In early 1959, she met Marks while attending an execution. The two hit it off and became romantically involved.

The couple shared a talent for Gatsby-like reinvention. Like Marks, Secon had buried her past in America. She’d fled her life in upstate New York, divorced her husband, and worked as a model in Manhattan before lighting out for Cuba. Now her life was full of adventure. Her future in the tropics, and with Marks, looked bright.

Part Three

In May 1959, following a successful diplomatic tour of the United States—where he was feted by crowds in Washington, D.C., and New York City, and on the campuses of Harvard and Princeton—Castro put an end to the execution of “war criminals.” According to the most reliable figures, some 500 of Batista’s cronies had been sent to the wall, most of them on Marks’s watch. On June 2, Che was married at La Cabaña to his sweetheart Aleida March, a guerrillera who had been his personal assistant during the war. After a rum-fueled reception in his bodyguard’s quarters, Che was sent by Castro on an international tour, which took him to India, China, and Africa.

Marks and the other men under Che’s command regarded his new diplomatic role as a demotion from his work at La Cabaña. They were also upset to learn that they would all be transferred to the sleepy province of Las Villas to do odd jobs, such as enforce the desegregation of beaches. “It was like the house falling down,” one of Che’s young officers recalled.

Over the summer of 1959, the happy atmosphere for American expats in Cuba eroded. Castro’s government followed through on its promise to break up sugar estates larger than 3,300 acres, including Castro’s own family farm near Birán and vast tracts owned by American companies. Instead of providing compensation in cash, the government offered dubious bonds. Tit-for-tat retaliation between Washington and Havana ensued. Moscow, sensing an opportunity, stepped up its support for Castro’s government. Historians continue to debate whether Castro jumped or was pushed into the arms of the Soviet Union. What’s certain is that his government gradually filled with Communist activists.

Marks would later tell U.S. authorities—perhaps playing to their sentiments—that he opposed the creep of Communism into the ranks of Cuba’s freedom fighters. He claimed that when he discovered that the literacy teachers at La Cabaña were using Communist pamphlets for their classes, he made a bonfire out of the reading material—a move that surely would have annoyed the pro-Soviet Che, had he heard about it, but which was not yet a punishable offense. After the move to Las Villas, Marks blamed his political outspokenness for a series of further transfers deeper into the countryside, a sort of Cuban Siberia. For a while he was in a “no-man’s-land,” as he put it, training “misfits” from the rebel army who had gone AWOL or fallen asleep on duty. Eventually, he ended up in the city of Santa Clara, with his captain’s rank intact but no duties to perform.

While he was posted in the provinces, Marks observed from a distance a bizarre episode of Cold War espionage in which a fellow American guerrilla fighter—William Morgan, known as the Yankee Comandante—helped foil a military coup against Castro backed by the right-wing dictator of the Dominican Republic. In the crackdown on critics of the revolution that followed, Secon made her first appearance in The New York Times, not as a reporter but as a news item. When she and another journalist tried to interview Morgan in his Havana home, the pair had the honor of being the first U.S. correspondents arrested by the Castro regime. The nature of the charges was never clear, a sign of the government’s increasingly authoritarian bent and Castro’s suspicion of a free press. Secon and the other journalist were detained for a week, then released.

In September, Che returned from his triumphant world tour—he was the toast of the international left—and revisited his old regiment in the provinces, informing them that he was moving into Cuba’s civil sector. He would run the Industrialization Department, to develop the national economy, and take over as head of the National Bank. Marks, though, remained in his rural limbo; Che, always a calculating figure, had evidently decided that the American was no longer of any special use. Then, in a lucky break, Marks ran into another of his former guerrilla commanders, the prodigiously bearded Camilo Cienfuegos, who pulled a few strings and got him transferred back to Havana to command an infantry battalion at Campo Libertad (Fort Freedom). Marks was put in charge of the various security details assigned to officials’ homes and to Havana’s railways and bridges. He was given a large house with a swimming pool, along with a Packard sedan.

That October, one of Castro’s most beloved Sierra compañeros, Huber Matos, resigned from the rebel army to protest the growing influence of Communists in the government. He was immediately arrested as a counter-revolutionary and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Matos’s imprisonment was a turning point in U.S.-Cuban relations: The Eisenhower administration issued increasingly bellicose statements, and Cubans began to feel a sense of siege. Bombs planted by anti-Castro agents exploded in Havana stores, and light planes from Florida dropped incendiary devices to set fire to sugarcane fields. Anti-Castro guerrillas began operating in the countryside, funded by right-wing exile communities in Miami. By the end of 1959, the CIA was thinking about assassinating Castro, a consideration supposedly justified by the increasing presence of Soviet officials in Cuba. The American public was also souring on the revolution. It wasn’t long before the New York press, which previously had compared Castro to George Washington, began referring to the Cuban leader contemptuously as El Beardo.

As rumors of an impending U.S. invasion grew, Castro began arming Cuban citizens with vintage Soviet weapons, and he revived the tribunals—this time with the power to impose a death sentence for offenses against the revolution. In January 1960, Marks was made chief security officer at El Princípe prison, another colonial relic in Havana. Its cells were crammed with 3,000 inmates, mostly opponents of Castro from militant dissident groups. The Butcher was told to get back to business.

“I am proud to have fought with such men as Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, proud to be part of the revolution,” Marks concluded, “but I am also proud of being an American citizen, and I do not intend to stop being one!”

In February 1960, a U.S. embassy staff officer named Wayne Gilchrist steered his lumbering Chevrolet into the cobbled courtyard of El Princípe and handed Marks an envelope. Inside was a Certificate of Loss of Nationality. The United States had stripped Marks of his citizenship.

It was another indicator, if any more were needed, that the romance between the United States and revolutionary Cuba was well and truly over. One by one, Marks and other yanqui expats who had remained in Castro’s forces after Batista’s exit were stripped of citizenship. Their crime? Serving in a foreign military.

Marks did not take the news lying down. A few days after Gilchrist’s visit, he held a press conference. Secon covered the thinly attended event—Marks later conceded that it had lured only “three or four” journalists—for the Times of Havana and the wire service United Press International. The Times ran her story on the front page, with a photo of Marks wearing a beret and a “well-trimmed beard,” as she described it, which he “thoughtfully fingered” as he pondered his legal situation. Marks claimed that Americans in Cuba were being targeted for political reasons. “A person’s citizenship is his right of birth,” he declared, noting that Americans had fought in the Spanish Civil War and as part of the British and French armies in the two World Wars without losing their nationality. “I am proud to have fought with such men as Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, proud to be part of the revolution,” he concluded, “but I am also proud of being an American citizen, and I do not intend to stop being one.”

Secon editorialized her own outrage. “If the reputation Herman Marks won in the Sierra Maestra still holds,” she wrote, “the U.S. State Department will have one hell of a battle denying what the man calls his birthright.”

By the time of the press conference, Marks was well into his stint at El Princípe. His time there produced a string of lurid stories, although their veracity is difficult to establish; most were retroactively spread by Miami Cubans when anti-Castro propaganda became virulent in their city. In the Cuban poet Armando Valladares’s error-filled 1986 memoir, Against All Hope, Marks is depicted as a savage drunkard who referred to the prison as his “private hunting preserve” and would order the guards to attack inmates with chains and truncheons before stealing their possessions. Valladares describes Marks’s executions as gory ordeals, with the American often bringing his pet dog with him to lap up the blood of the condemned. John Martino—an American casino worker with mob connections who was arrested for smuggling Batista henchmen out of the country—wrote a tome in 1963 called I Was Castro’s Prisoner, which includes a chapter entitled “Sadists and Perverts of El Princípe.” After one inmate begged to be spared, Martino claimed, Marks fired all the rounds in his pistol into the man’s face, turning it into “a shapeless piece of meat,” and supposedly giving his mother a fatal heart attack when she opened his coffin at the funeral.

The story later circulated that Marks was stripped of his position at El Princípe due to his brutality and alleged theft of prison funds; Marks denied the charges when they surfaced. Whatever the truth, he was transferred from the prison in March 1960 to downtown Havana, where he trained police officers in firearm safety after a series of clumsy shooting accidents injured bystanders. It was a demotion, perhaps, but hardly a disgrace.

Despite months of relative luxury thanks to his job perks, Marks was painfully aware that life for Americans in Cuba was becoming more dangerous by the day. The escalating drama was excellent copy for Secon, but it risked spinning out of control and trapping the couple, or worse. The most alarming sign was an enormous May Day rally in the Plaza de la Revolución, where cadres of Cubans armed with their Soviet weapons marched past Castro’s podium in a tropical echo of Moscow’s military parades. Castro orated about the threat of a U.S. invasion, which Cubans, he said, would face like the Spartans at Thermopylae. A chant began: “Cuba sí, yanqui no!”

Marks became convinced that he was being followed by Cuban intelligence agents. His paranoia increased when, in early May, several officers close to him were arrested. Secon was just as jittery. As Marks later recounted, “A lot of people were coming to the same conclusion: Get out while there was still a chance.”

Part Four

At 2 a.m. on May 10, Secon was frantically packing her bags and burning papers in the kitchen sink of her apartment when she was startled by a knock at the door. Her first thought was that Castro’s intelligence agents had come to arrest her. She had been working on a story about Communist activity in Cuba, and was determined to get her files out of the country and publish the piece. But she had also been tipped off by friends in the government that she would be detained at the airport if she tried to leave; she was convinced that she would be tried as an American spy and sentenced to 20 years.

When she opened the door, though, it was only Marks. Secon “nearly collapsed with relief,” she later wrote. Marks, too, was ready to flee. He told her that he had been engaged in counter-revolutionary activity and had been warned by old friends in the security forces that he was about to be arrested. Their only hope of escaping the island, the pair agreed, was to hijack a boat.

Secon later recounted their daredevil flight in two magazine stories (one penned under a pseudonym) and assorted newspaper articles. The facts are hard to confirm, at least for the period when the pair were still in Cuba, but Secon’s description of the escape generally fits in with the findings of subsequent investigations and court records. At her apartment, Marks told Secon that he refused to be taken alive and she should be ready for a gunfight. He then drove off to find a revolver and army fatigues for Secon, so she could blend in with the revolutionaries. Eventually, in the predawn darkness, the pair climbed into Marks’s Packard, made sure they weren’t being tailed, and drove west along the empty coastal highway.

In the fishing village of Los Arroyos, Cuba’s westernmost point, they hired a boat for the following morning. But their choice of egress was too obvious; other desperate Cubans had shanghaied vessels there in recent weeks. When Marks and Secon turned up for their charter at 4 a.m., they were joined by three armed soldiers. “Nothing personal,” one told Secon. “Too many people have been leaving Cuba by boat lately.” The couple were forced to spend a long, anxious day fishing. Afterward, Marks and Secon put their catch in the trunk of the Packard, and the soldiers said that they would be wiring Havana to report that two norteamericanos had been on a boat.

Driving away from the harbor, Marks was recognized at a road block by a former compañero. In later court testimony, Marks described an edgy standoff: Secon picked up a rifle in the car and flicked off the safety, and a guard snarled, “Well, we’re not going to get you here, but we’ll get you further on in another place.” Marks and Secon spent the next two nights, Secon later wrote, driving “back roads and cow trails” to avoid detection, and creeping around yacht clubs looking for unguarded boats, before deciding that they should try their luck at a tourist resort.

They boarded a car ferry to the Isle of Pines, a remote island off Cuba’s south coast, and checked into the swanky El Colony, which was still popular with U.S. vacationers and had a busy marina. The pair chartered a ramshackle 33-foot launch called the Coral del Mar for a day of fishing with a middle-aged captain named Julio Perle and his brother. When they arrived at dawn the next morning, they learned that Perle’s skinny teenage son would also be coming along. An hour later, as the trio of Cubans were preparing the fishing lines over a reef about six miles from port, Marks and Secon pulled out their weapons and ordered the crew to motor due west to Mexico.

Perle and his brother were adamantly pro-Castro and refused to cooperate, so Secon kept a gun trained on them while Marks skippered the launch, navigating without charts and zigzagging to avoid navy patrol vessels. That night they were hit by a Caribbean squall so violent it made the Cubans, now locked belowdecks, seasick. The flat-bottomed craft, which Perle’s family had built themselves, slapped against the open waves and made sluggish progress. At dusk the next day, the lights of Mexico’s Yucatán coast became visible just as the boat’s fuel ran out. “The engine gave one short cough and died,” Secon wrote. The five people aboard could only pray for help from a passing boat as currents carried them away from shore into the vast Gulf of Campeche.

On land, the hijacking had become international news. Although details were hazy, the escape of El Carnicero and a crusading female reporter from Cuba was covered by the AP and The New York Times. Meanwhile, according to Secon’s later accounts, the situation aboard the Coral del Mar was growing desperate. The three Cubans were dragooned back on deck to fish before nightfall, in order to extend the boat’s meager rations. After dark they were locked up again, and Secon and Marks took turns guarding them. The next day, lack of sleep, combined with what Secon described as “relentless sun, maddening thirst, and tension,” began to take their toll. When Marks nodded off for a short nap, Secon had a confrontation with Perle, who threatened to move on her and seize her weapon; he only relented when she took off the safety and convinced him she would fire.

On the fourth day at sea, they encountered two passing vessels. One, a freighter, did not respond to gunfire, frantic waving, or SOS flashes with a mirror. The other turned out to be a Cuban fishing boat, with a crew of ten who stood on the gunwales and stared at the Coral del Mar silently. “Why they did not jump us I do not know,” Secon wrote. She wondered whether Cuban radio had warned listeners that she and Marks were “armed and dangerous.”

At last, on the seventh day, they spotted a shrimp vessel from Florida. “Fortune again smiled on our sun-black skinny faces,” Marks later said. The captain, “a kind and generous man,” gave them a full tank of fuel and ten gallons of water. According to Secon, the Coral del Mar headed back to Cuba, with Perle, his brother, and his son on board, while the rescue boat carried her and Marks west. Secon claimed that Marks eventually swam ashore to the Yucatán with his pistol, promising to meet up with her later in Mexico City, while she stayed on the boat, which was headed for Texas.

The pair did eventually connect in the Mexican capital, but the truth about their rescue came out some time later, when Normyle, the reporter for the Milwaukee Journal who had kept close tabs on Marks, traveled to the Isle of Pines and interviewed Julio Perle. The captain of the Coral del Mar told Normyle that, contrary to Secon’s story about heading west, she and Marks had immediately made for Florida aboard the American shrimp boat, which Perle said was named the St. George. Normyle tracked the vessel down in Tampa. The captain, James E. Cartwright, said he had no idea about the pair’s dramatic past. They had told him they were on a fishing trip and were afraid to return to Cuba because of “the troubles there,” so he let them sleep for two days and nights on mattresses on his boat’s deck as he sailed it back to Tampa. Cartwright had intended to alert immigration officers of his castaways when they docked on May 25, but the couple were so amiable and thankful that he didn’t bother. (Cartwright would regret his candor; after Normyle’s story was published, immigration services in Miami fined him $4,020 for failing to declare his passengers.)

From Tampa, Secon and Marks made a beeline for Mexico City. There, as Secon polished her stories about their escape for publication, Marks applied for asylum.

Secon wrote a vivid “interview” with Marks for the popular men’s magazine Cavalier. It became the December cover story, with the sensational title “Castro’s No. 1 Killer Talks.

Mexico City in 1960 was famous for welcoming political exiles of every stripe. People fleeing the Soviet Union, Latin American dictatorships, and McCarthyism congregated in the capital, following in the footsteps of Leon Trotsky and Luis Buñuel. The city also had a Wild West air. Marks was sure he and Secon were being tracked by agents of both the CIA and Cuban intelligence whenever they left the UPI news agency’s offices. He decided it was safer for them to slip back into the United States and lie low.

Secon appears to have made the trip first, traveling north to New York, where she had an apartment. Before he could join her, Marks was jumped by men in Ciudad Juárez. They tried to force him into a car, but he escaped with little worse than a torn shirt. Marks crossed the border at El Paso on July 22, even though his only identification was an expired Wisconsin driver’s license. He later claimed that immigration agents didn’t even ask to see it. He traveled by Greyhound bus to Manhattan, where he headed straight for Secon’s apartment, a walk-up on East 78th Street, then an unglamorous periphery of the Upper East Side. The pair were so broke, the only furniture they owned was a mattress they kept on the floor.

For the next six months, Marks lived happily under the radar, using the alias Fred Keller and picking up odd jobs, including work as a housepainter. He used the same name in September, when he went to a New York hospital for surgery on his right arm, which probably had been injured in Mexico. “I did not want to be a sitting pigeon for any Cuban communists or Fidelistas,” he later said of his subterfuge.

In fact, Marks knew he was a target for any number of enemies. He was hated by the exiled supporters of Batista, whose cronies he had executed; he was hated by moderate Cuban exiles, who saw him as a stooge of the Castro regime; and he was hated by pro-Castro agents, who felt that he had deserted the revolution. For good measure, he was also wanted by the FBI as a potential subversive, and could be arrested at any moment by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) as an illegal alien—he’d lost his citizenship, after all.

Despite all this, Marks thought he could be useful to the CIA for his inside knowledge of Cuba. In October 1960, Secon made contact with the agency and arranged a meeting in Washington, but it was postponed. On November 2, Marks turned up unannounced in Milwaukee at the house of Martha Yelich, his mother, and stayed for four days. Yelich recalled that he crept like a burglar up the stairs to her apartment. “Somebody knocked and then I heard his voice. … He looked good and was in fine health,” she said. Martha was unaware of her son’s pariah status. He cooked dinner for her each night he was there, and she persuaded him to shave his beard. “I told him to clear off his face and he listened to his mother,” Yelich said. She noticed that he avoided going out in public, but she didn’t ask why.

When Marks returned to New York, he and Secon decided on a plan of action that turned out to be ill-advised. Using the nom de plume Allen Forbes, Secon wrote a vivid “interview” with Marks for the popular men’s magazine Cavalier. It became the December issue’s cover story, with the sensational title “Castro’s No. 1 Killer Talks” screaming above a cartoonish illustration of blindfolded men before a firing squad. The 11-page feature included photographs Secon had taken on the boat from Cuba, along with so much detail about Marks’s adventures that the story would later be entered as evidence in court.

If Marks and Secon thought they’d gain sympathy for his cause, they were mistaken. The article’s main effect was to alert the INS that the Butcher was not hiding out in Mexico, but was back in the United States, where he no longer had any legal right to be.

There must have been a sense of déjà vu. At eight o’clock on the bleak, snowy evening of January 25, 1961, Secon and Marks heard a banging at the door of the apartment. Standing in the hall were two INS agents. Prompted by the Cavalier story, Oscar Colton and Robert McLaughlin had tracked Marks to his rundown Manhattan love nest. “And I asked them, I says—couldn’t we wait until tomorrow? I’ll come tomorrow,” Marks said in a later INS interview. “They says—if you could come down now, we could finish it off in a short time, and you’ll go home and it will be all over.” Secon accompanied them and protested that Marks should have an attorney present, but the agents insisted they simply wanted his cooperation in tracking down illegal Cuban refugees.

They questioned Marks for more than four hours while reassuring him that he was not under arrest. Around 2 a.m., agent Colton drew up a statement and encouraged Marks to sign it. “By that time I was exhausted,” Marks recalled. “They told me I should sign it and I’d be able to go home soon. I just glanced through it.” When Marks noted some discrepancies, Colton stressed that they were not important—the statement was just a formality. But when Marks signed and put down the pen, the agents placed him under arrest. He was taken to a holding cell and told that, as a non-U.S. citizen, he’d be deported back to Cuba.

Marks was placed in handcuffs around 4 a.m., then transferred by eight officers in three police cars—sirens blaring through silent streets encrusted with grimy snow—to the maximum-security Federal Detention Center on West Street, near the Hudson River. A clerk presented Marks with a ten-point “bill” listing the particulars of the government’s case against him. The next day, two other INS agents turned up to interview him. This time—finally—he demanded an attorney.

As Marks well knew, being sent back to Havana would be a death sentence. To survive, he had to stay in America. And to do that, he had to fight.

Part Five

Marks’s arrest made the front page of The New York Times—indeed, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy announced the triumph himself, congratulating the INS agents and promising Marks’s speedy expulsion from the United States. In Milwaukee, where Marks had become a larger-than-life figure, Democratic congressman Henry Reuss demanded a probe into how Marks had slipped into the country in the first place. Surely border agents had lists of notorious reprobates who had lost their citizenship, Reuss said. In fact, citizenship was so rarely stripped from Americans that the congressman was merely displaying his legal ignorance. Still, Ruess said that Marks should remain in a New York prison, because, if returned to Cuba, he would only resume his bloody job as executioner, making the United States a “butcher in accessory.”

Hate mail about Marks landed at the State Department. One letter alleged that Marks had “enjoyed killing Christians” in the Spanish Civil War. “Observers state he had a sexual reaction at the times of actual death,” the author added.

Photographers gathered when Marks was brought in handcuffs to his first INS hearing on January 30, surrounded by 20 plainclothes policemen in case of anti-Castro protests. Dressed in a dark, disheveled suit, black tie, and cheap winter overcoat, Marks appeared startled, dejected, and nondescript. In fact, scoffed Newsweek, the Butcher “looked as mousy as a henpecked shoe clerk.”

The INS claimed that Marks was an illegal alien, and that he should be deported for illegally entering the country and for “moral turpitude.” As evidence of the latter, it cited his carnal-knowledge conviction in Wisconsin. Jean Secon had hired a New York lawyer, Carl Rachlin, to represent Marks, and Rachlin noted in court that U.S. officials had known about Marks’s presence in the country since his return in July, and had even been in contact with him. (This is possibly a reference to the postponed CIA meeting brokered by Secon.) When Marks took the stand, he criticized the INS agents for tricking him into signing a confession. As The New York Times reported, “He seemed haggard and nervous as he sat at the hearing table and spoke in a low voice.”

Rachlin was able to obtain an adjournment and time to prepare a proper defense. Marks’s case was subsequently delayed multiple times, and he remained in INS custody without being charged for nearly nine months. At his second hearing, on February 13, security was again high—Marks was secreted in through the back entrance. Rachlin won another adjournment but promptly withdrew from the case “for personal reasons,” almost certainly because he was frightened by the political hysteria surrounding Cuba. Finding a replacement was nearly impossible. No one in America, it seemed, was willing to defend the Butcher of Havana.

In early March, Secon approached the American Civil Liberties Union to take up the case. The ACLU had a long history of confronting politically motivated attacks on U.S. citizens, often representing defendants maligned by the wider public. In fact, the legal organization had formed in 1920 in the wake of the so-called Palmer Raids during the first Red Scare, when Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer arrested thousands of suspected radical immigrants and began deportation proceedings against them.

A crusading New York labor lawyer named Murray A. Gordon agreed to take Marks’s case pro bono. Gordon was the Alan Dershowitz of his day. A graduate of City College (“the Harvard of the Proletariat,” as it was known then), Gordon would make a name for himself representing Jewish associations and African-American activists in the South. Unpopular figures were his specialty, and he intended to turn the reviled Marks into a test case for civil liberties.

Marks’s treatment by the INS was part of a constitutional drama that had remained unresolved for the full 40 years of the ACLU’s existence. At issue was whether U.S. citizenship was an innate right protected by the 14th Amendment or a gift granted by the federal government that could be removed at will, by “denationalizing” the native-born or “denaturalizing” people from other countries who’d attained American citizenship. As Yale professor Patrick Weil writes in his book The Sovereign Citizen, most Americans today are unaware that the right of citizenship was ever at risk. But the removal of it—a tactic most often wielded by authoritarian regimes—was for decades the U.S. government’s ultimate weapon against individuals it deemed undesirable. The Red Scare of 1919–20 was only the first spasm, initiating a pattern of left-wing immigrants being targeted for deportation. Most notoriously, Russian-born feminist and anarchist firebrand Emma Goldman lost her U.S. citizenship on a trumped-up technicality and was shipped off to Moscow.

During the McCarthy era, the government used the threat of denationalization against American-born dissenters. It was a new twist in an old game: Punitive laws intended to keep unruly foreigners and naturalized immigrants in line had been on the books since the 1798 Alien Friends Act. Native-born citizens had historically been far less vulnerable. Now, among a string of dubious laws passed by Congress, the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act included a provision that would ultimately be used against Marks. It stated that any American who served in a foreign army automatically forfeited U.S. citizenship. In response, progressives argued that Americans could be deprived of their citizenship only by voluntarily renouncing it.

Starting in the mid-1950s, the Supreme Court was plunged into what Weil calls a legal war, issuing conflicting rulings on laws that allowed individuals to be targeted based on government whim. These laws, the ACLU realized, might be used to exile anyone the State Department found problematic. The case of the Butcher—the lofty-sounding Marks v. Esperdy, as it was logged in courtwas really a defense of every native-born American’s right to citizenship.

Marks spent his days “molesting the prisoners and making fun of all of them,” Algaze said. “He was the terror of every prisoner. They called him the Death Bird.”

On March 27, 1961, Gordon captured national headlines with his rhetoric in court, describing to an INS judge the capricious nature of the government’s attack on his client. He pointed out that even Grace Kelly, who ruled a foreign country, Monaco, had been allowed to keep her U.S. passport. A few reporters grudgingly agreed with Gordon—the Boston Herald noted that the issue at stake “does not end with Marks but touches us all.” Meanwhile, news came from Havana that Marks’s fellow yanqui soldier of fortune, William Morgan, had been arrested as a counter-revolutionary, dragged up against the pockmarked stone wall at La Cabaña, and executed. It was a reminder to his supporters of what Marks already knew: that his prospects, were he to be sent back to Cuba, were grim.

After another postponement, the INS court reconvened on April 5. The New York Post’s Murray Kempton gave a wry account of the proceedings, in which prosecution witnesses included two Cuban refugees whose testimony revealed little of note about Marks’s activities in Havana. The first, Roger Gonzalez, was a former rebel officer who’d fled to the United States and was then arrested by the INS as an illegal alien. “He had met Marks once at some girl’s apartment,” Kempton noted, presumably referring to Secon and her place in Old Havana. “They had talked about the past in the hills.” Another former Cuban military officer popped in from Flushing to talk about uniform styles.

But other prosecution witnesses had plenty to say, including the former public defender for Batista’s officers in La Cabaña, Israel Algaze y Maya. He testified that Marks would “die of laughing” whenever a death sentence was handed down by revolutionary tribunals in 1959. Algaze had witnessed many executions, he attested: “I saw the bodies, I saw the coffins, I saw the blood on the floor.” Marks spent his days “molesting the prisoners and making fun of all of them,” Algaze said. “He was the terror of every prisoner. They called him the Death Bird.”

The INS submitted this sort of evidence about Marks’s character over objections from Gordon that the agency was wallowing in “gore and morbidity.” Whether or not Marks was a “sadist” in his duties as executioner, Gordon said, was irrelevant to the legal issues at hand.  When Marks took the stand, he was asked whether his work at the prison after the rebels’ 1959 victory had been voluntary. “Nobody refuses Che Guevara, believe me,” he said, seeming to imply that he’d been compelled into his position at La Cabaña. To disobey Che, he added, would have been “plain suicide.”

Gordon had tried to locate friends of Marks’s in Havana to testify about his purported anti-Communist activities, perhaps trying to play to American sympathies. Marks’s old journalist buddy Ted Scott had offered to supply an affidavit, but he boarded a ship bound for New Zealand before doing so. The New York Times’ Ruby Hart Phillips also begged off. Former U.S. consular official Hugh Kessler was refused permission to appear by the State Department. “Unfortunately,” Gordon declared, “the reaction has been that people were afraid to testify in a case of this sort.”

Murray Kempton was intrigued by the case’s ironies, and in his write-up of the hearing he drew a parallel between the U.S. and Cuban legal systems, both of which in his view had created what amounted to kangaroo courts. “Gordon is working in a court rather like La Cabaña,” Kempton wrote. “Its fundamental theory is represented by the notion that Marks, being a bad lot, should have his citizenship taken away on some excuse or other. If American citizenship were confined to the virtuous, of course, there’d be no voters except Pat Nixon and Billy Graham.”

On April 17, some 1,400 soldiers, Cuban exiles trained and supported by the CIA, landed on Cuba’s south coast near a cove with the evocative name Bahía de Cochinos (the Bay of Pigs). When John F. Kennedy balked at providing air cover, the invaders were pinned down on the beaches by Cuban militiamen, with Castro personally commanding. After three days the exiles surrendered. The debacle humiliated the United States and drove Cuba irrevocably into the Soviet camp of the Cold War. Che sent a message to JFK expressing his gratitude for the invasion, so permanently had it solidified support for the leftist revolution.

In this frenzied atmosphere, the INS ruling that came down on June 1, 1961, was predictable: The judge declared Marks “a stateless person,” and ruled that he could be deported to any country that would take him. But for the ACLU, this was only the opening round. At a press conference, Gordon swore to appeal. He did, and on August 4, the Board of Immigration Appeals confirmed the court’s decision. However, as the Times wrote, “A spokesman expressed doubt … that Marks would be deported because of the difficulty of finding a country that would accept him.” He was now in the unenviable position of languishing behind bars until some other country raised its hand to take him.

Of particular concern to Gordon was the idea that Marks, who had no hope of paying his $10,000 bail, might stay in detention for years awaiting a resolution. In October 1961, the INS judge reduced the amount to $5,000, and the ACLU somehow cobbled together the funds. When he was released, Marks quietly slipped out of the INS’s West Street detention center and moved back in with Secon.

He was free but trapped in a legal twilight zone. On the surface, Marks’s life as “a man without a country” was not crippling: He could legally work, but he couldn’t vote or serve on a jury. While his case proceeded, the INS merely required him to report once a year and to register his address. In reality, though, the agency did not hesitate to make life miserable for Marks. When he joined the Teamsters, for instance, it presented union officials with details of his criminal record and forced him to resign.

In March 1962, Gordon and the ACLU took Marks’s case to the Federal District Court in New York, which issued a surprising ruling. Judge John M. Cashin affirmed that Marks had lost his U.S. citizenship in accordance with federal law, but also ruled that the United States could not deport Marks because the grounds given by the INS —illegal entry into the country, moral turpitude—were invalid. Cashin said that Marks still had a plausible claim to U.S. citizenship when he re-entered the country, and that because his 1951 conviction for carnal knowledge occurred back when he was a citizen, it was irrelevant to the case.

The Department of Justice immediately announced that it would appeal. The ACLU vowed to fight for Marks all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary.

With Marks’s case, Chief Justice Earl Warren was hoping to clarify the cloud of legal confusion surrounding American citizenship.

Marks had always had a difficult personality, and the stress of his situation exacerbated his explosive temper. After he failed to turn up to several meetings, then verbally abused his lawyer over the telephone, Gordon had had enough. He sent a formal letter terminating their relationship “for personal and professional reasons.” Marks apologized and asked to be taken back. “I realize that I have been upset and have said things that have made you upset,” he wrote, assuring Gordon that he had “great respect” for his handling of the case. “I apologize to you for anything I have said in the heat of angry exchange that has offended you.”

Gordon reluctantly agreed to keep Marks as a client, a decision that became even more personally dangerous in the fall of 1962, as Cuba pushed the United States and the Soviet Union toward a nuclear confrontation. While the next appeal in the case was pending, U.S. spy planes discovered that the Soviets were building launch pads in Cuba. In October, the missile crisis brought the world the closest it has ever come to Armageddon, as President Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev faced off while a Russian fleet headed to Havana with warheads in their holds. A last-minute deal averted nuclear disaster, but in America anything to do with Cuba became more toxic than ever.

There was a sense of inevitability when the Federal Court of Appeals in New York reversed the lower court’s lenient ruling on April 9, 1963, and declared—once again—that Marks could be deported. He would have to surrender to the INS, although an assistant U.S. attorney admitted that he would not be sent back to Cuba, since his return would likely be a death sentence. By now, Marks and Secon had fallen out, and he was living in Los Angeles. On April 16, Marks flew back to New York to turn himself in.

Gordon and the ACLU made good on their promise and lodged an appeal with the Supreme Court. Soon, America’s highest court agreed to hear Marks’s case. On April 2, 1964, at the height of cherry blossom season, Marks and Gordon climbed the gleaming white steps of the Supreme Court. It was a long way from the impoverished back blocks of Milwaukee and dreamy tropical avenues of Havana. Marks may have noticed that the Cuban Capitolio was a replica of the U.S. Capitol, rising across the street from the court. The key difference was that the Havana dome had been built to outstrip the yanquis’ original—the Capitolio rose several feet higher.

With Marks’s case, Chief Justice Earl Warren was hoping to clarify the cloud of legal confusion surrounding American citizenship. The case had been accepted along with that of Angelika Schneider, a German-born woman who had lived in the United States since the age of five, was naturalized and raised in New York, but was stripped of her citizenship in her late twenties after she married and moved to Cologne. (The 1940 Nationality Act stated that naturalized citizens lost their rights if they resumed residency in the country of their birth for a period of three years, or lived anywhere else outside the United States for five.)

It must have been among the more satisfying moment in Gordon’s career to stand before the Supreme Court, and his two-hour oral argument was captured on tape. The recording can still be heard in the National Archives today: Gordon’s patient voice echoing in the chamber, questions from the elderly justices issued in shaky tones, occasional laughter from the audience. Gordon argued that the case against Marks was purely political, and that Congress should not have the power to expatriate Americans. There was a long and illustrious history of foreigners serving in the wars of other countries, Gordon said: Polish hero Tadeusz Kosciuszko and the Marquis de Lafayette, a Frenchman, fought in the American Revolutionary War, Germans fought for the Union in the Civil War, and Americans fought for France and Britain before the United States entered the two World Wars. Gordon also noted that only six other countries in the world denationalized citizens for serving in a foreign military, including Afghanistan, Indonesia, and Panama.

What’s more, Gordon argued, if left stateless Marks would probably remain under indefinite supervision. In response, one of the justices brought up the case of Ignatz Mezei, a Hungarian cabinetmaker suspected of being a Communist, who had recently spent four years trapped on Ellis Island before being allowed to settle in Buffalo. There was a moment of dry humor as Justice Hugo L. Black inquired about Mezei’s fate:

Justice Black: As I recall it, he was sent away because it was thought he was so subversive, he might destroy the country.

Gordon: He was. He was found to be subversive.

Black: Is he still here?

Gordon: He’s still in the United States. (Gales of laughter in the court).

Justice Brennan: And the nation still stands?

Gordon: The nation stands.

Based on the composition of the court, Gordon was confident that it would rule five to four in Marks’s favor, restoring his citizenship. But at the last minute, the progressive justice William Brennan discovered that his son, a lawyer, had discussed Marks’s case with an attorney working to prevent Marks from regaining his status as a citizen. Brennan felt that he had to recuse himself due to a conflict of interest. His would have been the deciding vote in Marks’s favor. Instead, the court handed down a hung decision, which meant that the New York federal court’s ruling stood. Marks would remain a stateless alien trapped in America.

The decision—or lack of one—dismayed civil libertarians and became the subject of a New York Times editorial five days later. “It was the first time the Court had upheld expatriation of a person who can claim no other nationality,” it read. “Mr. Marks literally becomes a man without a country.” If Marks had broken American laws, the editorial argued, he should be prosecuted within the legal system, not made “an outcast. Is a man who serves in a foreign army a worse threat to our national integrity than one who bribes a jury? We think Congress should have no power to expatriate Americans even for acts that it thinks show lack of allegiance.”

The Butcher of Havana’s life became wholly mundane, as he worked part-time doing the accounts at his brother-in-law’s hairdressing salon, Jerry’s Styling Studio, and fretted about getting W-2s for his tax return.

The day after the supportive Times editorial was published, Marks managed to sour public opinion of him once more. On the night of May 24, Secon called the police to report that Marks had forced his way into her apartment. According to the NYPD, “He had been annoying Miss Secon in recent weeks with telephone calls, using obscene language and threatening to kill her.” Marks was held on $10,500 bail—$10,000 for a misdemeanor charge for the obscene calls, and $500 for disorderly conduct. Presumably, the ACLU helped raise funds for his release.

From there, Marks’s last appearances in public life descended into farce. In the early hours of August 13, 1965, he was arrested in Manhattan for climbing a tree to spy on a neighbor with a pair of binoculars; he was taken into custody after he fell 30 feet and broke his leg. The press had a field day with Castro’s Peeping Tom. His old nemesis in the INS, district director Peter Esperdy, wearily explained that Marks still couldn’t be deported, because there was no place to send him. (The agency had put out feelers to Havana through Switzerland, with no luck.)

As his leg healed, Marks moved back in with his mother in Milwaukee. For a year he lived quietly, hobbling in and out of the apartment. “The doctor didn’t set his leg right,” Yelich later recalled. The Butcher’s life became wholly mundane as he worked part-time doing the accounts at his brother-in-law’s hairdressing salon, Jerry’s Styling Studio, and fretted about getting W-2s for his tax return. Still, the INS and the FBI kept vigilant watch on him and his family, opening their mail and tapping their calls. His local notoriety was boosted by a Milwaukee TV station’s documentary about him.

Then, in the summer of 1966, Marks found himself in serious trouble with the law again. It was almost as if he were determined to remain beyond all possible sympathy in the eyes of history: A woman accused him of child molestation.

The details are disputed, but the woman (we only know that her name was Mary) alleged that Marks had been recommended as a babysitter for her two daughters, aged four and six, by a friend who assured her that despite his shady past he was “wonderful with children.” One day, the six-year-old “blurted out what happened.” Mary accused Marks of “taking indecent liberties” and filed charges. On August 18, Marks walked into the foyer of the district attorney’s office where the mother was giving testimony, then turned around and left.

His mother insisted that the charges against her son were false. Mary, she said, was a local dancer who had accused her son as an act of revenge. “She was a nightclub floozy, that girl,” Yelich told the Milwaukee Journal. “She got him into trouble. He told her she could be picked up by men on any corner and she got mad. She was that kind of woman. She lied and tried to get even.”

Nobody knew where Marks was hiding. Two weeks later, one of Yelich’s neighbors spotted him driving along a road near his mother’s house. It was the last time anyone saw him. After that, he vanished.

“Is my son dead?” she sighed. “I hope not. I hope not.”

Even Marks’s lawyers couldn’t find him. The FBI kept a hawklike eye on Yelich, but Marks never contacted her. In January 1968, the ACLU tried to get in touch with him, but the telegram was returned unopened. The last correspondence from Gordon’s office is dated August 30, 1968, when Marks’s bail bond was forfeited.

There was the occasional false alarm. In November 1968, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police reported to the INS that Marks had been fingerprinted entering Canada. Upon further investigation, however, the Canadians said it was a mistake.

Ironically, in 1967, after Marks disappeared, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that would have rescued him from his stateless limbo. In Afroyim v. Rusk, the court affirmed that U.S. citizenship was inviolable under the 14th Amendment. From that moment on, Americans could lose their citizenship only by explicitly renouncing it; it could not be stripped by an act of Congress. Marks’s citizenship could be restored—if only he would reemerge.

A pathetic coda to his saga came in December 1970, when Yelich, now 74 and dying, put out a public appeal in the Milwaukee Journal for her son to come home so she could see him one last time. She spoke to a reporter, “her head covered with a fading babushka, her eyes misted over.” A photograph showed her with cat’s-eye glasses. “I’m sick, and I want to get in touch with him,” Yelich said. “I would like to have him here. Everything, tell him, would be straightened out.” She said that the FBI had told her Marks had gone back to Cuba, and then she showed the reporter the picture of her son she’d long kept in her purse.

“Is my son dead?” she sighed. “I hope not. I hope not.”

Her effort was in vain. When Yelich died 11 months later, in October 1971, the funeral was held in secret, to avoid any press. A reporter tracked down her relatives four days later, but they refused to discuss Marks, who they said had only brought shame on the family.

The INS kept in touch with the Milwaukee FBI about the case for years afterward, but the trail was cold. The New York criminal case for the Peeping Tom incident lapsed in 1974. The INS and FBI closed their files on Marks in 1980. The Butcher had slipped out of history for good.

Epilogue

Today, Marks’s fate remains a mystery. Did he indeed return to Cuba, as his mother said the FBI told her, joining the trickle of airplane hijackers, left-wing activists, and Black Panthers who took refuge there in the 1960s? It seems improbable, given the risk to his life. Marks’s INS file notes, in 1970, “Inf. of possible execution in Cuba,” but the story was discounted. At least one foreign journalist who inquired after Marks in Havana was told that the yanqui turncoat had been “put up against the wall,” but there’s no evidence of that happening; the story was almost certainly bluster on the part of the Castro government. Even so, the idea of the Butcher being executed had the ring of poetic justice, and it makes for such a tidy finale to his narrative that it was reported as fact by Norman Lewis in the 1980s.

The only government agency that may be aware of Marks’s fate is the CIA, but its file on him has remained closed, for unspecified reasons of national security, despite my own repeated requests under the Freedom of Information Act. Conspiracy theorists would no doubt conclude that Marks was finally recruited by the agency in the late 1960s and given a new identity to help with covert operations. But this too seems implausible. In an interview, Félix Rodríguez, the CIA Cuba specialist who helped track down Che in Bolivia in 1967 and was present at his execution, scoffed at the idea. Now 80, and using a motorized wheelchair to navigate Miami’s newest Bay of Pigs museum, he said that he had never encountered El Carnicero in his decades as a field agent. He also indicated that such a meeting would not have ended well.

“If we had met him…,” Rodríguez remarked menacingly, and left the rest unsaid.

Another rumor held that Marks started a new life in Miami and filled a safety deposit box with a pile of money. But the truth is likely neither scandalous nor romantic. Penlo Hobbs, Marks’s niece, told me that the family thought he’d fled to Mexico. Marks may well have wound up in a pauper’s grave south of the border.

As Murray Kempton of the New York Post once remarked in his coverage of El Carnicero, “There must be a moment in the course of every revolution when its maximum leader demands that, for certain responsibilities, there be found for him an American gangster.” Dark humor aside, Kempton urged Americans to accept that “such a man is our very own,” as the country “gave him birth and formed his character.” RFK considered figures like Marks “un-American,” but Kempton argued the opposite—that Marks was in fact utterly American. That, perhaps, is the most certain part of the Butcher’s strange tale.


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