Invisible Kid

Invisible Kid
Sentenced to life in prison at 16, Adolfo Davis hoped a Supreme Court ruling would give him a chance at a new beginning. But nothing about freedom turned out as he expected.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 114


Maddy Crowell has written for Harper’s, The Guardian, and The Point. She lives in New York City. Hear more about “Invisible Kid” and the Atavist redesign on the Creative Nonfiction podcast.

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Adam Przybyl

Published in April 2021.


INCARCERATION

1.

Sometime after he had given up hope and then recovered it, Adolfo Davis began writing letters from his prison cell. Around 1999, he bought paper and pens from the commissary and wrote one letter after another, three times a week. He wrote on his bed, a squeaky metal frame with a lumpy loaf of a mattress, under the ugly glare of a fluorescent light bulb. There was nothing much to look at in his cell, just gray walls and a burnt-orange door made of steel, with tiny holes drilled through it. Muffled sounds from the hallway helped him figure out what time of day it was, when it was mealtime, which guards were working.

“My name is Adolfo Davis, and I’m trying to get home and regain my freedom,” he would write. “I didn’t shoot nobody. Please, help me get a second chance at life.” He sent a letter to nearly every law firm in Chicago, and after that, to every firm he could find in the state of Illinois. Most of the time, the letters went unanswered. Occasionally, he received a curt apology: “Sorry, we are at capacity.” Or simply: “We can’t, but good luck.”

Adolfo was in his early twenties when he started writing the letters. He had a boyish smile, a light mustache, and a disarming charisma that could fold into stillness when he felt like being alone. In 1993, at the age of 16, he’d been convicted as an accomplice to a double murder that took place when he was 14. He claimed that he was there when the killings happened, but that he didn’t pull the trigger. For that he was serving a mandatory life sentence, without the possibility of parole.

Prisons in Illinois were teeming with cases like his—Black men who’d been locked up as teenagers. Few would ever be freed. Over the years, Adolfo watched friends become optimistic and then have their hopes dashed by the courts, by politicians, by their own lawyers. He once saw someone make it to the front door of the prison after a ruling was issued in his favor, only to be sent back to his cell when a state’s attorney made a last-minute phone call to a judge.

Sometimes Adolfo felt like he was trapped at the bottom of an hourglass, the sand piling up around him: Every falling grain meant another day of his life lost. Except that he wasn’t sure exactly what he was missing. He’d been free in the world for only 14 years—about as long as it takes some woolly bear caterpillars to become moths. What he remembered best was the small slice of Chicago’s South Side where he grew up. He remembered selling drugs on street corners, and coming home to find no food in the house. He remembered being evicted 11 times in 12 years, and sleeping in apartments crammed with other kids, aunties and uncles, friends. He remembered doing wheelies on his bike, showing off to the other kids in his neighborhood. He remembered getting up early on Sundays to get a Super Transfer—a bus ticket good for an entire day—and riding downtown, where skyscrapers towered above him. He and his friends would spend the day shining shoes or breakdancing for money.

The letters continued into Adolfo’s thirties. At some point, he began to wonder if he’d be writing them for the rest of his life. He would if he had to, because despite the terms of his sentence, the only thing that sustained him was the thought that he might eventually be released. So he kept writing; the months bled together, and the years did, too.

One day in 2009, Adolfo got a letter from the officials at Illinois’s Stateville prison, where he was incarcerated, notifying him that a lawyer would visit him the next day. Her name was Patricia Soung, and she was from the Children and Family Justice Center, a legal clinic run by Northwestern University, in Evanston, just outside Chicago. Adolfo had no idea what her visit was about, but he felt a sudden buoyancy.

When he met Soung, he could tell right away that she was, as he later put it, “an alpha”—professional and direct. Yet she seemed to care about him as a person, too. She and her team were working on juvenile-justice cases in Illinois, she explained, and they’d come across his. She wanted to take it on pro bono. Was he interested?

In more than a decade of writing letters, Adolfo had never sent one to Soung or the Children and Family Justice Center. This offer of possible salvation came entirely out of the blue.

2.

At the time when Adolfo met Soung, the United States was the only country in the world that sentenced children convicted of certain crimes to life in prison. In Illinois, as in many other states, adolescents as young as 14 could be transferred to an adult court, allowing prosecutors to circumvent a juvenile-court system that was considered more rehabilitative than punitive. If a child was convicted of a double murder in adult court, the mandatory sentence was life imprisonment without the possibility of parole—judges were barred from taking into account the circumstances surrounding the crime to lower the sentence. The year Adolfo was arrested, 2,500 other adolescents across the country were serving mandatory life sentences.

Individuals convicted of certain crimes before they were 18 could also be sentenced to death, until a 2005 Supreme Court decision, Roper v. Simmons, abolished that option on the grounds that it violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The decision was based in part on the idea that adolescents had an “underdeveloped sense of responsibility” and were “more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressure.”

A coalition of activists and lawyers decided to use Roper to try to bring an end to mandatory life sentences for minors. The group was led in large part by Bryan Stevenson, an Alabama lawyer who saw an opportunity in the ruling: If the Supreme Court agreed that adolescents’ brains were fundamentally different from adults’, he reasoned, then why should a child ever be sentenced as an adult? Stevenson began searching the country for test cases—people serving life sentences who’d been locked up as kids. He had nearly 2,000 to choose from.

Stevenson zeroed in on 35 cases, spread over 20 states. They mostly involved the youngest adolescents condemned to die in prison. Stevenson filed an appeal in each of the cases, and two of them eventually reached the Supreme Court. In the first, Miller v. Alabama, a man named Evan Miller was 14 when he beat his neighbor and then set fire to his trailer, killing him, after a night of drinking and drug use. In the second, Jackson v. Hobbs, Kuntrell Jackson, also 14, robbed an Arkansas video store with two older teenagers, one of whom killed the store’s clerk.

In 2012, the Supreme Court delivered a monumental five to four decision in favor of Miller. It ruled that it was unlawful to hand a child a mandatory life sentence that failed to take “into account the family and home environment … no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.” As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg put it during oral arguments, “You’re dealing with a 14-year-old being sentenced to life in prison, so he will die in prison without any hope. I mean, essentially, you’re making a 14-year-old a throwaway person.”

Adolfo Davis at age 15

The ruling was groundbreaking in that it compelled judges to consider a child’s background in determining sentencing. But it also left open the question of whether the decision could apply to older cases, ones that had already been litigated. Soung’s team at Northwestern wanted to use Adolfo’s case to set a precedent, cementing that the Miller ruling could be applied retroactively. In 2014, they brought his case before the Illinois Supreme Court, and to Adolfo’s amazement the judges ruled in his favor: Based on Miller, he could appeal his life sentence. The decision didn’t set him free, but it cleared a path for that to happen.

Suddenly, Adolfo’s story garnered national attention. He found himself on the front page of The New York Times—a photo of him in an oversize brown prison uniform appeared above a story about his case. “A Murderer at 14, Then a Lifer, Now a Man Pondering a Future,” the headline read. Journalists from the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Tribune, and WBEZ contacted him, asking him to share his story. “‘I’m just praying for a second chance,’” one headline declared, quoting Adolfo.

By then he was 38. He’d spent nearly a quarter-century—most of his life—behind bars. With every letter he sent and every prayer he whispered, he’d been waiting for this moment. The possibility of release softened the harsh edges of prison, made them tolerable. At the same time, he was wary of what might happen when his case went back to court. The system had always been against him. Why should anything change now?

His resentencing hearing was scheduled for April 13, 2015. When the day finally arrived, Adolfo felt too jittery to eat breakfast, but he tried anyway, forcing spoonfuls of lukewarm eggs into his mouth. From a friend in prison, he’d heard that his assigned judge, Angela Petrone, was tough; she’d been a  prosecutor before taking the bench, and tended to give the state the benefit of the doubt. Adolfo feared that the outcome would not be good.

His attorneys understood that fear. They, too, knew Petrone was often conservative in her rulings. Still, any sentence other than life in prison would open the door to Adolfo someday being free.

“Are you ready?” Soung asked when Adolfo sat down at the defense table in the courtroom, dressed in slacks, a light-pink shirt, and a purple tie. It was the first time he’d worn civilian clothes in more than 20 years. Adolfo nodded. His face was calm, but every cell in his body seemed to quiver.

A team from Channel Seven, one of Chicago’s largest news stations, showed up to report on the hearing, along with writers from several major newspapers. It was a big case in Illinois. The courtroom was packed, and activists from around the country were watching closely. To the defense team, the question was not whether Adolfo deserved punishment—his conviction would stand no matter what—but how much time was enough, given the challenging environment he grew up in and his age at the time of the crime. For the prosecution, the hearing was a fresh chance to prove that Adolfo deserved to spend his life behind bars.

The state prosecutor, James P. McKay, was familiar: He had argued the case against Adolfo 22 years earlier. A white man in a black suit who moved restlessly around the courtroom, McKay spoke first. “It took a jury all of three hours to find [Adolfo] guilty,” he said in his opening statement. “Make no mistake about it, this defendant was not a 14-year-old naive, scared, merely present lookout, despite what some people out there want the world to believe. Make no mistake about it, Judge, this defendant was a shooter. The ripe old age of 14, this defendant was a shooter, an executioner. They might have been young, but they were violent.”

While McKay spoke, Adolfo exhaled softly. It was going to be a long day.

3.

Adolfo Davis was born in 1976 and raised in various neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago, including the Back of the Yards. The area got its name for its proximity to the former Union Stock Yard and Transit Co. It had once a major meatpacking hub, but the industry dried up in the decades following World War II, and by 1990, after many of the neighborhood’s Slavic immigrants moved away, Black and Latino families had moved in.

Adolfo’s mother, Karen, was only around in physical form. As Adolfo remembers it, she “loved drugs more than her children.” When he was a toddler, his grandmother Fannie became his legal guardian. Fannie had migrated to Chicago from Mississippi in the 1950s, but she found life in the city just as challenging as it was in the South: She tried to support her 11 children, and then their children, but she never earned enough money to feed everyone.

At school, kids teased Adolfo for smelling bad and for wearing the same clothes every day. He would beat up anybody who made fun of him. He got into so many fights that he was kicked out of middle school without ever learning to read or write. To cope with feelings he couldn’t understand, he discovered new ways to harm himself, pouring alcohol on his head and setting it on fire, or burning himself with his mother’s cigarettes. He once played Russian roulette with a friend’s loaded gun. For fun, he and some older boys in the neighborhood scaled roofs and jumped the gaps between buildings, with the street 30 or 40 feet below. At night he wet the bed and suffered from insomnia, sleep terrors, and hallucinations. “I stayed out of the house as much as I could,” he recalled. “I just felt like I didn’t ever want to be born. All the time, I’d look at other kids who had good mothers or fathers, and I wished I had what they had.”

To get money for food, Adolfo and his brother walked to a Shell station five blocks from their house and pumped gas for a few quarters. Because that didn’t always earn them enough, they learned to steal what they needed. One day, Adolfo was shivering with hunger when he saw another child, a girl, step out from a corner store with a sandwich in her hand. Adolfo tried to snatch it from her. She fled with the sandwich but dropped three dollars’ worth of food stamps and 75 cents in change. Adolfo picked it all up and treated himself to a large soda pop, hot dogs, and fries. A few days later, he was arrested for robbery. The police took him to a station, with plans to release him that night. But nobody came to pick him up, so officers sent Adolfo to the Cook County Temporary Juvenile Detention Center, also known as the Audy Home. He was nine.

When he got to Audy, for the first time in his life, Adolfo was given three meals a day and a room with a bed to himself. After he was released, he tried to get himself locked up again anytime he grew tired of worrying about where his next meal would come from. Audy became his home away from home. From 1986 to 1990, he was taken to a police station on 20 occasions, and he was sent to Audy in half of those instances—anytime the charge was relatively serious, like when he stole a car.

His frequent arrests caught the attention of the Department of Family and Children’s Services. When a probation officer visited his home in 1990, the officer noted that he had a “mother reeking of alcohol.” According to a DFCS report, the home had “cockroaches climbing on the walls,” no kitchen table, and as many as 15 children inside. The caseworker recommended that Adolfo be “removed from his home environment.” But nobody ever came to get him after that visit. 

Adolfo found a family in the streets instead. The two warring gangs in his neighborhood were the Gangster Disciples and the Black Disciples, which at one point had been a single gang—the Black Gangster Disciples—before splitting into factions. The Gangster Disciples, or GD, dominated Adolfo’s block. Founded in the 1960s by Larry Hoover and David Barksdale, the GD was one of the largest street gangs in the country, claiming up to 30,000 members. In its heyday, according to Illinois state prosecutors, the GD generated up to $100 million a year in drug sales. The gang was believed to be responsible for hundreds of murders in Chicago in the 1980s, at the peak of the crack epidemic. It recruited young boys from all over the city.

One day when Adolfo was 11 or 12, he was walking with a friend, Eugene Bowman, when a group of older teenagers approached them and asked if they wanted to make $250 a week. All they had to do was stand on the corner and keep watch for police cars. If they saw cops, they were instructed to shout code words—like “1151” or “Suzy!”—to raise the alarm. He and Eugene accepted the offer immediately. Soon after, Adolfo got a tattoo of his new gang’s symbol on his forearm—a six-pointed star with devil horns, with a “G” inscribed in the center.

For the first time in his life, he felt like he belonged somewhere. He didn’t have to worry about being fed, or about loneliness. Gang members took care of him; they gave him food and brought him into their homes. As he got older, he was handed a gun that he was never taught how to use, and introduced to designated street corners where he was supposed to sell drugs.

Then one night, everything went terribly wrong. It was October 1990, a particularly dangerous time in Adolfo’s neighborhood. There was an ongoing war over drug territory, and someone from the Black Disciples was rumored to have tossed a Molotov cocktail at a GD leader’s house. Adolfo, who’d turned 14 two months earlier, met up with Eugene Bowman and Allen Caffey, another gang member, who intended to retaliate by stealing drugs from their rivals. The three teenagers, all armed, caught a taxi to 56th and Calumet, a notoriously contested area where they knew about a drug house controlled by the Black Disciples. When they reached the house around 1 a.m., they saw someone walk out. They pointed a gun in his face and told him to show them where the drugs were kept. When someone opened the front door, shots flew.

The details of what happened next are murky. A prosecutor would later argue that all three boys—Adolfo and his two friends—fired their guns. Adolfo says his gun was knocked from his hand as soon as he entered the apartment. Four men were shot. Two of them were killed instantly, including Keith Whitfield, a teenager who used to eat lunch with Adolfo on the roof of his building. Adolfo felt numb. He fled the scene just as sirens began screaming in the distance.

The next day, October 10, 1990, the fact that four men had been shot, and two killed, on the South Side barely made the news. In the Tribune, it was lumped together with several other weekend deaths under the headline: “Columbus Day Weekend Adds 13 Chicago Killings.”

4.

The shootings occurred as the tough-on-crime era was getting into full swing. Four years earlier, President Ronald Reagan had signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which allocated funds to build prisons and introduced the idea of a mandatory minimum sentence for selling drugs. The presidential election in 1988 saw the release of the infamous Willie Horton ad, which peddled racist stereotypes and helped sink Democrat Michael Dukakis’s bid for the White House. By 1994, there were over a million people incarcerated in the United States—three times more than in 1980.

The same year, President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which included the three-strikes statute requiring “mandatory life imprisonment without possibility of parole for Federal offenders with three or more convictions for serious violent felonies or drug trafficking crimes.” Adults weren’t the only targets of new legislation. In 1996, Hillary Clinton gave a campaign speech for her husband in which she warned of a threat facing the nation. “These are not just gangs of kids anymore,” she said. “They are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘super-predators’: no conscience, no empathy.” (Clinton apologized for the remark in 2016.) By the end of the decade, all but four states had passed laws that made it easier for children to be tried in adult courts.

Two days after the murders at 56th and Calumet, the police showed up at Adolfo’s grandmother’s house looking for him. He wasn’t home, but when Adolfo saw his grandmother later that evening, she told him that he needed to go talk to the police. He didn’t think much of it: He hadn’t shot anyone, so why should he worry? Because he was a minor, the police said that his mother had to accompany him to the station. Though she was intoxicated at the time, she obliged.

As soon as they entered the station, according to Adolfo, he was taken to an interrogation room and handcuffed to the wall, and he wasn’t read his Miranda rights. (During his trial, police officers disputed this: They claimed Adolfo was read his rights, and that he was not handcuffed. No evidence exists to corroborate either account.) Because he couldn’t read or write, Adolfo recalled, the police offered him a statement they’d drafted and told him that if he signed it, he could leave. They read it out loud to him. Adolfo’s mother urged him to sign so they could go home. He did. “I never thought that signing that paper meant I wouldn’t be back home for 30 years,” he said.

Adolfo remembers being removed from the interrogation room. His bail was set at $100,000, which his family couldn’t pay, so he was taken to the Audy home until his trial, which was held three years later.

At Audy, Adolfo’s grandmother came to visit him at least once a week. They played cards together, and she snuck him candy and snacks. She never asked him what happened the night of the killings, but Adolfo could feel how much it weighed on her. She was the only person he felt loved him, and he had let her down. A new pain began burning inside him. He felt like he was a burden to her, to everyone.

One day not long after his 15th birthday, when his grandmother had just left after one of their visits, Adolfo climbed onto the bed in his cell to peek out the window. He saw her crying at the bus stop outside. It was too much. He attached the sheet from his bed to a pipe above him, tied it around his neck, and jumped. Even though he was only five feet tall and little more than 100 pounds, the pipe collapsed under his weight. He sat on the floor crying, thinking, I’m so stupid I can’t even kill myself. He was placed on suicide watch.

When it finally came time for his trial, in March 1993, Adolfo joined his state-appointed lawyer, Mark Kusatzky, at the Cook County courthouse. “Guns, gangs, drugs, and murder, that’s what this case is about,” the prosecution’s opening argument began. “And more simply, that is what Allen Caffey, Adolfo Davis, and Eugene Bowman were about.”

About a dozen witnesses spoke—detectives who’d been at the scene of the crime, forensics experts, a doctor, a firearms examiner, police officers who’d interrogated Adolfo, and two men who’d survived the shooting that night, Alfred Weeden and Lamont Baxter. Both of them pointed Adolfo out to the judge and said he’d fired a gun. Bullets from the weapon Adolfo was said to be carrying were never recovered from the shooting, but in the end, whether he fired a weapon or not hardly mattered. According to Illinois law at the time, if someone was convicted of participating in a double homicide, even if they didn’t actually kill the victims, the mandatory sentence was life.

Adolfo was found guilty of two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of attempted murder, and home invasion. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. On the trial transcript, his name was misspelled in the case title: The People of the State of Illinois v. Addolfo Davis. Nobody had bothered to correct it.

5.

In 1994, Adolfo was transferred to Stateville Correctional Center, an imposing maximum-security prison spread over 2,200 acres of land and surrounded by 33-foot walls. Adolfo was still small in stature, and he was not yet 18, making him one of the youngest people incarcerated at Stateville. The moment he walked in, he saw a prisoner wearing a Chicago Bulls collectors’ cap and a Duke University hoodie, with a flashy chain gleaming on his chest. The man was mopping the floor. Adolfo couldn’t believe that someone in lockup was allowed to dress like that. When he approached, the man asked Adolfo if he was in a gang.

“GD,” Adolfo said. The guy held out his fist to bump. He was GD, too. Soon after, Adolfo met a GD kid he grew up with, who showed him around and introduced him to more gang members. There were hundreds of them. Adolfo was surrounded by family.

The rivalries from the streets seemed to be exacerbated inside the prison walls. There were dozens of gangs: the Black P Stones, the Latin Kings, the Almighty Saints, the Spanish Cobras. Stateville was virtually lawless. Adolfo smoked weed, partied, drank, got a 20-year-old pregnant, and was involved in so many fights that he was repeatedly sent to an isolation unit. While he was in isolation one day, a guard humiliated him by trying to take away his belongings. As revenge, Adolfo hid a can of tomato paste inside his laundry bag. When the guard came to unlock his door, Adolfo swung the bag straight at the man’s face, splitting his cheek. Another time, when he was 19, he hit a rival gang member in the face with a pipe. He assaulted guards and other prisoners so often that finally he was sent to Tamms, a supermax prison.

Adolfo arrived there in 1998, with his hands and feet shackled. Located 350 miles from Chicago, Tamms was the farthest Adolfo had ever been from home. He was taken to a 70-square-foot room that held a toilet, bed, and sink. He was kept in his cell, alone, for 23 hours a day. It was there that he finally began to experience the full weight of his sentence. “Time felt slow, slow, slow,” Adolfo said. “It wasn’t getting no better. When you’re in prison, you’re stuck there all day. Nothing to do but stare at the walls. You try to sleep all day, but you wake up and it’s the same day.”

At first he felt suicidal again. Then angry. He began writing poetry—he’d learned to read and write early in his sentence—that came out in floods of rage directed at his mother. “How could you bring me into this world / When you knew you wasn’t ready?” one early poem inquired. Another went: “I wish I could have died at birth, / so I would have never seen your face, / and you could have felt the pain / that you have given me.”

Adolfo had few visitors. Over the years, friends and relatives showed up in spurts, but just as Adolfo became hopeful that they would be a steady presence in his life, they’d stop visiting altogether. In 2002, he was removed from Tamms and sent from prison to prison across Illinois—a dizzying experience. In 2010, back at Stateville, he began to have one regular visitor, someone he knew from his earliest days in detention at Audy: Father David Kelly, a 54-year-old priest who ran an organization in the Back of the Yards called the Precious Blood Ministry.

Kelly, who moved to the Back of the Yards in 2001 and never left, was a revered figure in the neighborhood. Precious Blood was just down the street from one of Adolfo’s childhood homes, though he wasn’t aware of it at the time. It was meant to be a place where young boys could intern at the woodshop instead of dealing drugs—where they could be mentored by older men and women who had served time in prison and were eager to help others avoid the same trajectory. In some cases, Precious Blood helped kids with bail and temporarily housed men and women who’d recently been released from prison.

Adolfo’s days in prison remained long and empty. The hope of getting out became his only lifeline.

When Adolfo was on trial, Father Kelly had showed up. He later wrote letters to Adolfo, and Adolfo wrote back, telling him about his days and what he was thinking. Sometimes Adolfo sent Father Kelly his poems, which Kelly put in a Precious Blood newsletter and shared with kids in the neighborhood. When Kelly began visiting Adolfo regularly at Stateville, they met in the visitation area, which had vending machines full of snacks Adolfo didn’t often get to indulge in: chips, soda, hamburgers, popcorn, Twinkies. As they ate, Kelly asked Adolfo about his life, about what he might still do with it, even from behind bars. They talked about what it would mean for Adolfo to become a positive force in the world. Sometimes, Kelly arranged phone calls with younger boys in the Back of the Yards so Adolfo could tell them about the things he wished he’d done differently at their age.

With time, Adolfo learned how to pace his days. He started playing chess with a friend, who went by the nickname Rip, across the courtyard from his cell. He’d step up to a window the size of an air vent in the corner of his cell and signal his move with his hands. Rip would repeat the signal through his own window to confirm, then they’d both jump down and move the pieces on their respective boards. A single game could take up to seven hours. Rip was agonizingly slow. When they had a chance to meet in the courtyard for an hour one day, Adolfo asked him why he took so long to complete a move.

“I’m praying,” Rip explained.

Rip, who was also serving a life sentence, was a Muslim. One day, he brought a copy of the Koran to Adolfo. Adolfo found its teachings to be a revelation. “There was a peace to it, a unity, a patience,” he said. He started praying five times a day, and one night, after cleansing his entire body, he recited the Shahadah, the Islamic declaration of faith, alone in his cell. “There is no God but Allah,” he whispered. “Muhammad is his final messenger on earth.” He felt tranquility. 

But even with faith, Adolfo’s days in prison remained long and empty. The hope of getting out became his only lifeline. The legal climb was a slow crawl—even after Soung offered to help him get a new sentencing hearing, it was difficult for him to keep his spirits up. And then one day, unexpectedly, Adolfo fell in love.

It was Valentine’s Day in 2012, and he was making a routine call to his cousin in Chicago, who was getting a haircut at the time. Adolfo heard a woman’s voice in the background, and he asked if he could speak with her. When the woman came on the phone, Adolfo found her voice warm and open and strong. She didn’t ask him why he was in prison. She didn’t seem to judge him. Her name was Everlena McCoy, and they soon began speaking every day. They talked for hours about her life, her kids. He told her about his days, and his childhood, and how it was hard for him to trust anyone.

When Everlena visited him in prison, she nervously towed her three small children along with her. She was the most beautiful woman Adolfo had ever seen—tall and dark, with a big, toothy smile and brown eyes that narrowed when something didn’t wash with her. He got up the courage to propose on the anniversary of their first conversation. He had nothing to offer her, he said, getting onto his knee in the visitation area, except a lot of lonely nights. She didn’t care. “Yes!” she said. “Oh, my God, yes!”

When Adolfo was in court for his resentencing hearing, Everlena was there. Maybe he could offer her more after all. It no longer felt impossible that they’d be able to share a real life together.

6.

Adolfo’s hearing lasted from eleven in the morning until ten that night. His lawyers called nearly a dozen witnesses who’d known him in prison, each of whom testified about his reformed behavior. His entire life, people had said bad things about him—that he’d never amount to anything, that he was a murderer, a criminal. Prison guards had reiterated this, beating him down, sometimes physically. Now people were insisting that the opposite was true, that he was a person who mattered. In a strange way, it was like watching a eulogy being delivered at his own funeral.

Father Kelly was called to the stand.

“Do you remember your first interaction with Adolfo?” Soung asked him.

“I do, because it was a serious case. People were talking about it, but also [about] how young he was when he came in,” Kelly said, referring to the period when Adolfo was in juvenile detention. “I, you know, felt that, I felt his youth.”

Adolfo watched the judge’s body language closely during the trial. He felt like she hardly ever looked at him, and often seemed bored or annoyed with the defense’s witnesses. McKay, the prosecutor, would interrogate the witnesses during the cross-examination, which Adolfo found confusing. At times he felt like he’d woken up in 1993, and he was on trial for murder again.

Everlena anxiously watched everything unfold from her seat behind Adolfo, in the first row of the crowded courtroom. After the hearing concluded, all they could do was wait for the ruling. Days passed, then a week. It was excruciating. Everlena remembered how excited Adolfo had been before the hearing, how when he called her, he swooned over all the things they could do together if he got out. But neither of them felt like the hearing had gone well. The judge hadn’t seemed interested in the witnesses who’d praised Adolfo, and McKay had worked hard to prove that he’d pulled the trigger in the murders.  

Everlena McCoy

A few weeks later, everyone returned to court to hear Judge Petrone’s decision. When she began delivering it, she failed to notice that Adolfo wasn’t in the room. Soung interrupted her—Adolfo was in the bathroom and would be there in a moment, she said. When he arrived, Petrone started reading again from her 18-page ruling.

The judge had considered the factors brought before her—Adolfo’s age at the time of the crime, the circumstances of his childhood, his actions during incarceration—as required by the Miller ruling. “Defendant’s acts showed an aggression and callous disregard for human life far beyond his tender age of 14. This sentence is necessary to deter others,” she said. “It is necessary to protect the public from harm.”

Petrone resentenced Adolfo to life in prison, on all counts, without possibility of parole. It was a heavy blow to advocates’ efforts to apply Miller in a way that meaningfully changed the lives of people convicted of crimes as children. It wouldn’t be the last: In April 2021, the Supreme Court affirmed that judges are allowed to sentence minors to life without parole, so long as it is a discretionary sentence and not a mandatory one. The same month, an Alabama judge resentenced Evan Miller to life without parole.

After hearing Petrone’s decision, Adolfo dropped his head onto the defense table. Later, he sobbed in a corner near the courtroom where nobody could see him. The character witnesses, the media fever, his own transformation, and most of all his hope—what had it all been for?

7.

Soung promised Adolfo that her team wouldn’t stop fighting for him. She’d moved to California by then, so she passed his case to a new lawyer—an energetic public defender named Heidi Lambros, who urged Adolfo to appeal his resentencing. He was reluctant; being sentenced to life without parole a third time was almost too brutal to imagine. Then again, what choice did he have? To accept that he would die in prison? Everlena insisted that he keep pressing forward.

In December 2016, Lambros filed a 67-page brief with an appellate court, arguing that, at the resentencing hearing, Petrone had effectively discounted Adolfo’s youth at the time of the crime. “Not [only] did Judge Petrone ignore Miller’s constitutional imperative,” Lambros wrote, “she showed contempt for Miller, finding that its central precept—that adolescents have a ‘lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility, leading to recklessness, impulsivity, and heedless risk-taking’—was based on pure ‘speculation.’” Yet again, Adolfo waited for his case to inch its way through the justice system.

A few months later, Everlena was driving home from playing bingo when she got a call from Lambros. “The state’s attorney’s office is willing to make a deal,” the public defender said.

The same year Lambros filed the brief, Kimberly Foxx had been elected Illinois’s state attorney. A product of Cabrini-Green, one of Chicago’s public housing projects, Foxx had come into office determined to undo the consequences of the policies passed during the tough-on-crime era. While Foxx could not overturn Petrone’s decision, she could offer Adolfo a deal. What Lambros had called to tell Everlena was that Foxx had agreed to reduce Afoldo’s sentence to 60 years. Because of his good behavior, he would only need to serve 30—and that meant he could walk free in 2020.

Everlena was giddy. “Yes, yes, yes, you can accept that deal!” she told Lambros.

Everlena drove home and anxiously waited for her fiancé to call, which he usually did around 5 p.m. When he heard the news, Adolfo dropped the phone and started weeping. “Hello?” Everlena said. “Hello?” She thought he’d hung up on her.

After a long pause, Adolfo picked the phone back up. “I’m doing it, baby,” he said to her. “I’m finally getting out.” He said that he had to call her back, though—he didn’t want the other prisoners to see him crying.

Adolfo spent every day after that phone call preparing himself for—and fantasizing about—his release in 2020, which was then nearly three years away. He worked out every morning and dreamed of being able to walk freely outside, to stroll down city streets, feel the cool air blowing off Lake Michigan, see the seasons change. He imagined writing bestsellers; he would embark on book tours and sit on panels to tell people about the wrongs of the criminal justice system, how prison could break you if you let it. He wanted to sell his poetry as well as the artwork he’d painted behind bars. He wanted to transform the Back of the Yards, to show kids that there was another path. He wanted to buy a house. He wanted to feel what it was like to ride a bike again.

Just before Adolfo was released, Father Kelly called him with a warning. “You need to get counseling first, when you come out. You have these visions of how things are going to be, as though everything will fall into place,” Kelly said. “The outside world is not how you think it is.”

Adolfo Davis
Adolfo in April 2021

FREEDOM

1.

On March 21, 2020, Adolfo put on a black Nike track suit and a pair of Air Max sneakers. He packed up the only things he owned: a few family photos and a folder full of legal papers. Then he walked through the metal door leading out of Jacksonville Correctional Center in central Illinois. A lieutenant told him good luck after handing him a disposable face mask. “Thanks,” Adolfo muttered. He didn’t turn around.

There were piles of crusty snow on the earth, which in the distance was peppered with farms and factories. A vast white sky went on for miles. He hadn’t seen anything but a square of it, from the confines of a prison courtyard or a transport van, in three decades. He sucked in the cold air. Finally, he thought to himself. Finally!

Everlena was there to greet him. He held her hand, enjoying a strange sense of privacy as they walked, very slowly, away from the prison. Adolfo was terrified of going too fast—he worried that the warden would call him back, or shoot at him, if he moved too quickly. He felt paranoid that the whole thing was some sort of ploy, that he’d suddenly be returned to his cell, like that fellow prisoner he’d known years before who never made it out the front door.

His sister Traci was waiting in the visitors’ parking area. When he reached her, he pumped his fists toward the sky. She started clapping and crying. They pulled each other into a tight hug.

“Something is about to happen,” Adolfo said to nobody in particular as they drove away. “This can’t be real. Is this real?”

Everlena laughed. “It’s real,” she promised.

They had a nearly four-hour drive ahead of them, past alternating patches of auburn and white fields. Traci pulled into a gas station, where Adolfo picked out three different kinds of Gatorade, a Skor bar, and a Snickers. There were so many more candies and flavors than when he was a kid. If he’d had enough money, he would have bought everything on the shelf.

They drove around the edge of Springfield, the state capital, heading north. They scrolled past flat plains and exit signs with the symbols for gas stations, McDonald’s, and Subway. Eventually, Chicago’s skyline emerged. The city began to flood through the darkening car windows. Adolfo blinked. He thought he was dreaming: An advertisement on a billboard was suddenly alive, dancing and flashing colors. The streets, by contrast, were deserted.

Just one day earlier, Governor Jay B. Pritzker had announced that Illinois would be under complete lockdown for the time being. All nonessential businesses were shuttered overnight, and all parks, paths, and lakefront trails were closed. Adolfo had heard about COVID in prison, but he didn’t know what to believe. Now, driving through the city’s empty streets, the pandemic seemed very real. Still, Adolfo found it oddly comforting, like the city had been vacated for his arrival—like it was all his, for just a little while.

They exited Lake Shore Drive, entering the South Side. This was home. They turned west on 55th Street and drove past Washington Park, where Adolfo used to sell drugs. He stared at it. Someone had built a diving board over the public swimming pool, but everything else looked exactly the same.

That night, at Everlena’s house, Adolfo lay in bed, jumpy and exhausted all at once. He’d played the possibilities of what this day might be like over and over in his head. Now he stared at the ceiling, scared that if he fell asleep, he’d wake up back in prison. He turned onto one side, then the other; he fidgeted, trying to get comfortable. Finally, around dawn, he shut his eyes. The world dissolved from view.

2.

A lot about the world had changed over the previous 30 years. Cell phones were sleek and pocket-size, and they functioned like personal computers. Cars were fancier and glided all but noiselessly through Chicago’s streets. Politics seemed to be changing, too. America had elected a Black president—twice. Adolfo remembered the night of the 2008 election, how he had stared at Barack Obama’s face on a prison TV screen and thought, Maybe he will make a difference for us.

But the years went by, and prison stayed the same. Adolfo felt let down. He’d heard about the Black Lives Matter movement before his release, and he wondered whether it would make a difference. Would Black kids raised on the South Side of Chicago have a future to look forward to, something better than what he had?

When he got his license, Adolfo drove past his old haunts. He went alone, blasting the watery vibrato of jazz-gospel singer Tevin Campbell on the car’s speakers. Houses he remembered being lived in were boarded up or had shattered windows. Pipes were broken, and paint peeled from apartment buildings. Whole blocks that were once home to grocery stores and arcades were now entirely empty, their lots overgrown with weeds and littered with cigarette butts. Kids younger than 14 were out selling drugs, even during the pandemic.

A spot he kept returning to was the last apartment he’d lived in with his grandmother: a three-story brick building down the street from a corner store. A sign hung from it, geared toward investors who might want to purchase the property: “100% NO MONEY DOWN! NO CREDIT CHECK.

“It’s like in prison, you have to look strong, smile, and keep your back straight, but on the inside you’re dying,” Adolfo said. “That’s how I looked at that building. The foundation was still strong, but inside, the spirit was dead.”

At first, Adolfo didn’t believe Everlena when she told him that he couldn’t walk leisurely around the neighborhood. “When people don’t know you,” she explained, “you’re like a target. They’ll think you’re from a different place, a different gang. They’ll shoot you if they don’t know you.” She instructed him to hide the GD tattoo on his forearm. He covered it with a bandage whenever he went out, and waited for tattoo shops to reopen so he could get it removed. Sometimes he wondered if he’d been safer in prison.

Gun violence in Chicago was surging. By July 2020, more than 1,300 people had been shot and 320 killed. In one two-week span over the summer, nine children were murdered. Chicago’s mayor, Lori Lightfoot, declared that the city’s violence needed to be treated as a public health crisis. Activists said it wasn’t enough.

In July, ten blocks away from where Adolfo and Everlena lived, a car drove past a funeral procession for a deceased gang member, and shots were fired indiscriminately into the crowd of mourners. Fifteen people were hit, and all of them were hospitalized. Tamar Manasseh, who founded the anti-violence group Mothers Against Senseless Killings Chicago, said she’d requested that law enforcement increase nearby patrols ahead of the funeral. “I told the police they were going to shoot up the funeral, AND THEY JUST DID!!!” Manasseh posted on Facebook. “Please tell me how this happened AFTER the police had been notified that it would?”

Adolfo and Everlena talked about what it would be like to leave Chicago, to go somewhere safer than the South Side, where they could walk the streets without looking over their shoulders. The daughter Adolfo had never met, the one conceived early in his prison sentence, was now 24 and living in Las Vegas. Maybe he and Everlena could go there. They threw out other options over dinners: Iowa, Georgia, Missouri, maybe the suburbs, or a smaller town in Illinois—places where they could get a modest house and live a quiet life. But a nagging feeling kept Adolfo from making any real plans. He felt haunted by the lack of progress he saw, watching kids on street corners and hearing about friends of friends being shot.

“I spent thirty years depending on other people to help me live,” Adolfo told Everlena one day. “Now it’s time for me to give back.”

Father David Kelly and the Precious Blood Center

3.

The Precious Blood center is a tired-looking orange-brick building that spans half a city block. But when Adolfo started going there, it felt different than the surrounding neighborhood. Posters reading “Black Lives Matter” hung from the chain-link fence next to peace signs. A full-length basketball court was available at all hours for kids to practice. There was a peace garden—a labyrinth of stones neatly configured into a giant swirl—and a vegetable patch where volunteers grew tomatoes, zucchini, herbs, and carrots.

It felt like a sanctuary. But as Father Kelly liked to remind people, “It’s not a bubble at all.” There were no locked gates separating Precious Blood from the rest of the community, a decision intended to send a welcoming message: Come as you are. Gang members were not prohibited. “That’s the point. That’s who’s invited. That’s who it’s for,” Kelly said. “This would be a huge failure if it were an oasis that kept people out. The whole idea is to bring them in.”

Kelly had promised Adolfo a job at Precious Blood when he was released. What began as an internship became formal employment in May 2020. Adolfo spent most of his time figuring out how to log into Zoom seminars, where he shared his story with hundreds of strangers. “Sitting in prison, thinking about my life, I think, man, I was messed up,” he said during one panel with the Iowa-based Fountain of Youth, a community-building nonprofit. “How did I make it this far? God put me through all that to put me here right now. Yes, it hurt. That’s why I dedicate as much time as I can to show the young that, man, it’s gonna hurt. But they got people who genuinely care for them, who have their back.”

Sometimes kids who hung around Precious Blood would watch Adolfo speak. A teenager named Curtis Dixon even took notes when Adolfo starting talking about how nothing had changed since he was locked up. Curtis hadn’t realized how neglected their neighborhood had been, and for how long.

Everything about Curtis reminded Adolfo of his own story: Curtis was raised in the Back of the Yards by an overworked mom with four kids. He grew up not knowing who his father was. At home the power went on and off. There was no heat in the winter, no furniture to sit or sleep on, and food was sometimes scarce. They were evicted four times in four years. “We basically raised each other,” Curtis told Adolfo. 

When he was in third grade, Curtis started “going outside,” which meant hanging out with older kids. When he turned 14, he dropped out of school and began getting into arguments with his mom. When he was 16, he got his girlfriend pregnant. Not long after, he left home. By the time Adolfo met Curtis, he’d moved into Precious Blood, where he was trying to turn his life around. He had dreams of one day owning a boxing gym. He spent his days running on a treadmill, lifting weights, and practicing his jabs. Curtis felt as if all the pent-up anger inside him came leaking out when he exercised, like air escaping an overfull tire.

Father Kelly monitored Adolfo closely, making sure he was taking care of himself. Once, Adolfo attended a three-day training program for what’s called Truth Circle, a restorative-justice practice adopted from Native American rituals and intended to promote healing and foster relationships within communities. (At Precious Blood, staff often employ the technique when bringing families together—for instance, when one family has had a loved one killed or injured by a member of another because of a gang rivalry.) The training took place in a darkened room, with soft music and candles. Adolfo joined a circle of about 15 people seated around a patchwork quilt that held various objects: shells, stuffed animals, a miniature cauldron. A woman named Pamela Purdie led the session. “Whenever people ask me what I do, I tell them that I create safe spaces,” she told the group. The training was designed to teach people exactly what that meant.

Purdie asked if Adolfo wanted to stand up and tell his story. Adolfo spoke quietly, like he wasn’t sure what the volume of his voice should be, how much was too much. He said he’d just gotten out of prison and that he wanted to help new generations of boys and girls on the South Side. “We have to teach them how to focus, how to be from here to here,” he said, raising his hand from a low position to a higher one. “We have to show how to return them to citizens and get they lives together.” The people in the circle around him offered silent nods.

Purdie asked the group to leave the room and, in private, to each draw a picture of the place where they felt safest in the world. Everyone disappeared, but Adolfo remained where he was, toying with his phone. When the group returned to the room, carrying drawings of beaches and forests and homes, Adolfo was asked to share first. He held up his name tag.

“My safe space is me—Adolfo,” he said, pointing to his heart. It was something he’d learned in prison: The only security and comfort he had was himself.

4.

Adolfo didn’t know where to concentrate his energy. He moved restlessly from one kid in need to another, one crisis to the next. It felt like every day, he heard about a new shooting, sometimes within a short distance of Precious Blood. The pandemic torpedoed the above-board economy the neighborhood still had; small businesses were constantly going under, and more people than ever were out of jobs.

After George Floyd was murdered, Adolfo helped pick up broken glass in the neighborhood. He couldn’t grasp why everyone seemed so focused on one man’s death when people were dying violently every single day. He felt like some of the deepest problems in Black neighborhoods were ignored. He wasn’t convinced politicians were the answer to making a difference. The real work had to come from within communities. “If we don’t do it for ourselves,” he said, “nobody else is gonna do it for us.”

One day, Adolfo had an idea. He wanted to organize a bike ride through Back of the Yards. He would call it Pedal for Peace. He hoped that it would be the start of a movement in the neighborhood to bring an end to gun violence. He brought it up with his colleagues at Precious Blood, and everyone was enthusiastic. Together, they mapped out a six-mile route through the neighborhood and set a date in September. Adolfo designed T-shirts that read “Pedal for Peace,” and a local bicycle shop donated a few dozen used bikes and helmets.

On the morning of the march, Adolfo awoke early, picked up Everlena’s eight-year-old niece, Niya, and brought her to the basketball court at Precious Blood. She’d never learned how to ride a bike, so Adolfo spent an hour trying to teach her. Niya pedaled for a second and then fell, repeatedly, until it was decided that she’d ride in the Precious Blood van, which would be at the front of the procession.

Niya was annoyed. “Why are no girls riding?” she asked Adolfo, her face framed by long braids. The court was starting to fill up with mostly young boys from the neighborhood, many of them not much older than her. They rode in restless circles, doing tricks with their bikes. “Do we have more boys than girls in the world?” Niya continued.

Frances, a black terrier owned by a member of the Precious Blood community, had trotted over to Adolfo by then. Francessss, Adolfo cooed, opening his palm to reveal some of the dog treats he always kept in one of his pockets. He scratched the dog’s side.

“This is what I was made to be doing. This is it.

The event’s scale didn’t resemble the high-profile racial-justice protests that took place over the summer: Around 50 people showed up. Adolfo recognized nearly every face from the neighborhood. A lone police officer arrived in a squad car to lead the group, and kids on bikes started pulling away from Precious Blood. The facility’s van followed, bearing hand-painted signs that read “Spread the Love,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “Pedaling for Peace.” The siren of the squad car echoed through the still streets, and people came out onto their porches to see what was happening. A few cars honked in support as the group crawled forward. Younger boys riding their bikes with no hands urged the police officer to speed up. They were having fun.

Adolfo alternated between the front and back of the procession. It went down 51st Street, jolting some neighbors awake with cheering, cut through a corner of the 60 acres that make up Sherman Park, and looped back to Precious Blood. By then Adolfo was sweaty and glowing. “This is what I was made to be doing,” he told his friend Joe Joe, bumping his chest with his hand. “This is it.

5.

The exhilaration wore off quickly. Life on the outside was harder than Adolfo anticipated, and unexpected things pulled him down. Bills kept flooding in; his weekly paycheck seemed to empty into a black hole of rent, groceries, internet, and electricity. He tried to start his own business selling books of his poetry and T-shirts printed with his paintings, but he only sold a few. COVID made it hard to see his friends and family. Under the pandemic lockdown, unable to visit loved ones, Adolfo sometimes felt like he was still a prisoner.

Anytime someone asked how he was doing, he’d nod his head, which was often shaded by a slightly askew baseball cap. He was “cool” or “good,” he said. He seldom let on how he was really feeling, even to Everlena. The bike ride had been a high point—it made him feel like he could marshal the goodness and energy necessary to help his neighborhood. But afterward nothing seemed to change, and the number of shootings in Chicago increased one by one.

Adolfo and Everlena had hoped to buy the house they were living in, but with his low credit score and her out of work because of COVID and a 2018 brain aneurysm, it didn’t seem possible. Adolfo began looking for a second job, and he got one with Amazon, packing boxes from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., three nights a week. The work wore him down, until he could barely function. He had to quit. A few months later, he took a job as a night-shift security guard. Still, he felt like it got harder to save money, not easier.

Everlena worried about him. When she tried to guide him through something that had passed him by when he was in prison—for example, how to know which emails and phone calls were spam—he sometimes snapped at her. When she gave him driving directions, he occasionally did the opposite of what she said, just because. He seemed to never sleep, to never stop moving. At a barbecue he hosted in their backyard, Adolfo disappeared just as it was getting started. He’d run out to wash his car, or his stepdaughter’s car, or maybe to the grocery store. Nobody knew for sure. An hour later he returned, just as abruptly as he’d left. “What are you doing?” Everlena asked him.

“Washing the car,” he shrugged.

“Why?” she asked, laughing.

“He treats me like I’m his warden,” she explained to a friend at the party. “He’s been in there since he was 14. He still has that mentality that he’s locked up and I’m trying to be his warden. It makes me want to say, ‘Well, just mess up all you want.’”

Adolfo started using his Facebook page to express himself. Often this took the form of video confessionals as he drove, his phone recording his face from beneath the steering wheel as he mouthed the lyrics to songs or talked about his childhood. One day, instead of sharing a video, he wrote:

I love what I do. But inside I am still dealing with a lot…My life has been a journey I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I am still trying to figure out reality from dreams. I am tired but I have to push through it. I have no choice because I have to pay bills. I never had the opportunity to just enjoy life. My life has been an ongoing struggle and fight just to exist. But nothing has changed. I just want to not have to fight to exist anymore and not have to be the strong one all the time. I’m tired.

More than 50 people responded, sending virtual hugs and words of encouragement. One commenter quoted Angela Davis: “Freedom is a constant struggle.” Another wrote, “God gives the toughest battles to his strongest soldiers.” Friends who’d been incarcerated warned him of the “adjustment period” and the “ill affects of the cell.” He needed to be patient.

Father Kelly noticed how thin Adolfo was stretched—he’d go from running errands for family members, to giving kids at Precious Blood a ride to wherever they needed to go, to delivering clothes to a homeless shelter every day after work. It was as if Adolfo was afraid that the only way to make his life work, for everything to come together and make sense, was to keep his foot on the accelerator. “It’s OK to say no sometimes,” Kelly told him one day. “You have a 14-year-old’s vision of how things were going to be, as though everything was just going to fall into place. But if you want to do this work, it’s not a sprint. You need to be asking: How many days am I going to be able to do this?”

Adolfo nodded. He knew he needed to slow down, he just wasn’t sure how. He worried, too, that it might keep him from becoming the role model he wanted to be. Telling his story didn’t feel like enough. Just being there didn’t, either. What if slowing down meant helping fewer kids than he wanted to help, or none at all?

6.

To clear his head, Adolfo took long bike rides out by Lake Michigan. One day, he invited Curtis Dixon to come with him. It wasn’t long after Curtis’s 18th birthday, which had taken him by surprise—he never thought he would live to be an adult. Now that he was one, he didn’t have a clue what came next.

Adolfo picked Curtis up in the morning, treating him to a McGriddle sandwich and orange juice from McDonald’s. Then they coasted out of the neighborhood, heading northeast, toward a part of Chicago Curtis had only ever seen a few times in his life. He’d never realized how easy it was to leave the streets he knew, how limitless the city could suddenly feel. After about 30 minutes of pedaling, Lake Michigan extended out to the horizon, a lapping green sea buoying sailboats like they were toys. Heavy spring rains had caused water from the lake to spill onto the bike path. “It’s slippery!” Adolfo called over his shoulder to Curtis. “Be careful!”

“I got this!” Curtis shouted back, holding his phone with one hand, filming the lake, and the handlebars with the other.

Just then his front tire skidded out from under him. The entire left side of his body was wet and covered in dirt. Blood dribbled down his elbow. Adolfo stopped and came running back to help. Curtis brushed the fall off, and before long they were riding again. They pedaled past a bank of yachts, deposited in a marina that was off-limits to the public.

“Hey, how much you think one of these cost?” Curtis asked Adolfo, slowing to examine the boats.

“These yachts cost over a million dollars,” Adolfo said, speeding up. “Maybe five million!”

When they got closer to downtown, Adolfo thought of all the times he’d come here as a kid, stealing money or shining shoes so he would have enough cash to eat. This part of the city looked different than he remembered it, fancier and more modern—a result of the hundreds of millions the city had spent reconstructing its lakefront for North Side residents and tourists.

In Millennium Park, home to the modern pavilion at the center of the downtown facelift, Adolfo led Curtis toward the Bean, the famous 110-ton stainless-steel mirror shaped like a massive legume. They stared, as if in a fun-house attraction, at dozens of versions of themselves—some close, some far away. They stood in silence, watching each other’s distorted bodies and the cityscape behind them.

As the afternoon sky mellowed into early evening, they hopped on the South Shoreline train to go home. With Adolfo in the lead, they boarded in the wrong direction. Realizing their mistake, they switched trains. Adolfo stood at the window. He pulled out his iPhone to record the city as it passed, blurry behind the grime on the window. Curtis stretched comfortably in his seat, watching Adolfo film the world with childlike joy.

The train rocked through the city, and the skyscrapers became smaller and smaller, until they were just receding specks in the distance. Finally, the South Side greeted them, looking the same as it had earlier that morning—and, to Adolfo, almost exactly how he remembered it as a teenager, back before he spent 30 years imagining how things might be different if he ever managed to return home. What had changed was his reflection in the window.

The train pulled into the 51st Street station. The doors opened and, side by side, the two men stepped forward.


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Castles in the Sky

Castles in the Sky

While renovating a house in San Francisco, a couple discovered a diary, hidden away for more than a century. It held a love story—and a mystery.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 109


Christina Lalanne lives in San Francisco and works in the travel industry. She holds a master’s degree in historic preservation.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Adam Przybyl
Illustrator: Jacqueline Tam

The typeface Blocus is used courtesy Martin Desinde via the Velvetyne Type Foundry.

Published in November 2020.

One

A few years ago, my husband and I decided to buy a house. We wanted to save a piece of historic San Francisco, making a new home in an old place before it became unrecognizable. Mat and I visited a few grand Victorians, their facades dripping with gingerbread trim. Inside we expected to find the San Francisco that my parents and grandparents knew: formal, dignified, timeless. Instead there was clean, crisp minimalism. Silicon Valley tastes had gotten there first.

What luck, then, that we did find our house. Narrow and wooden, it was in some ways a time capsule of 1910, the year it was completed, with stained-glass windows, parquet floors, and a built-in buffet. Most of its surfaces, however, had been painted white. Realtors had informed the sellers that to attract buyers and a good price, the place needed to be brightened up. So the subtle distinctions among types of wood—oak, mahogany, fir—were erased in favor of aesthetic uniformity and an oppressive glare.

Thankfully, the house’s most unusual features were left exposed, though you had to squint to see them amid the encroaching whiteness. Two murals, dusty and faded—they were unsigned and of no great ability, but what charm they had. Stretching across all four walls of the dining room was a depiction of colonial San Francisco. Catholic priests, swashbucklers, and revelers passed in front of a faded Mission church, opposite a seascape with a Spanish galleon in the foreground and another silhouetted on the horizon. Seagulls hovered above the buffet. A small back room presented a quieter, more reflective mural. It was a landscape of the American West at its most idyllic: a tranquil lake and waterfowl surrounded by a thick forest. Occupying two corners were, respectively, a white stork and a pair of mute swans, distinguished by their orange beaks. A mighty, lone mountain loomed behind them.

Who had created these scenes? My imagination filled in a story. Maybe the builder was a European aristocrat whose father had squandered the last of the family fortune. The son was forced to live modestly, in no grand neighborhood and in a house too small for servants. But he refused to do so without art or elegance, so he adorned the walls himself.

Or perhaps he was a man of noble Spanish descent who with melancholy dreamed of the days before American fortune seekers arrived. Even though he hadn’t lived through that era himself, it was in his blood. He could feel what it was like when California was sparsely populated by Indians, cattle, and Spaniards, when contact with the rest of the world came through only a handful of ships per year.

Maybe he was a former frontiersman who recalled the wonder of the landscapes he had willed himself across. People don’t understand nowadays, he would say, how easy they have it—just hopping on a train to get where you’re going doesn’t provide the same satisfaction as getting there on foot. He recalled leaving home as a boy, the flatness of the East giving way to the ruggedness of the West. He hadn’t just witnessed the change—he’d felt it beneath his boots.

The first week we owned the house, Mat and I learned the true identity of its builder. Such are the wonders of the internet. A quick newspaper-archive search and there he was: Hans Jorgen Hansen, a young Danish immigrant alternately described as a carpenter and a contractor. He built many houses. This one, finished when he was 30 years old, was his home.

He had created something beautiful, but the world it seemed didn’t value his vision of beauty anymore. I was determined to restore the house and to hear what it had to say, to find the story I was sure it held. What I didn’t expect was that the story would come to me in written form, after being secreted away for more than a century.

Two

It is probably easier to ignore the past, to forget what came before and remake the world clean and new. That has never appealed to me. I value the past because I have to. My parents died when I was in grammar school, my mother a year before my father, orphaning me and my three siblings. Now, years later, few traces of them remain. I inherited my dad’s 1969 orange Jeep, by which I mean that Mat and I dragged its remains out of a barn and spent thousands of dollars making it drivable again. The Jeep is old and stiff, the floor rusted through in spots, and there never were doors or a roof. I’m sure I make for a curious sight driving around San Francisco in what most people would relegate to a junkyard. I joke that one day, just like in the cartoons, I’m going to go over a bump and suddenly be holding a detached steering wheel, the rest of the Jeep broken in a heap beneath me.

Renovating a house, then, wasn’t the first time I had taken something old and neglected and broken and tried to make it whole again. Our house is on the western side of San Francisco, in what was once marked on maps as the Great Sand Waste. Drifting dunes were tamped down to create more than 40 avenues of prewar, suburban-style housing, and the neighborhood was optimistically renamed the Sunset District. There is a calm sameness to the swath of single-family homes that seem to march out to meet the ocean. While I will never love the fog that drifts in from the Pacific and the drabness it brings, I chose to live here. And I convinced Mat to do the same, out of a stubborn insistence that I am a San Franciscan. I grew up here. So did my father and grandfather.

I once found a picture of our house from 1914. Sand is piled up on the empty lot on the south side, where an apartment building would eventually be built. A woman and child perch on a horse cart being drawn up the street. Lace curtains hang in the house’s windows. They seem so real that, sitting inside more than 100 years later, my urge is to turn around and part them, letting in whatever sunlight manages to peek through the passing clouds.

Even when there is sun, the dining room gets almost no light. That was intentional: Builders at the turn of the 20th century knew that dining rooms would be used most often in the evening, when candlelight cast a warm, intimate glow. To enhance the effect they were placed in the center of homes, the ceilings set lower than in other rooms, and the walls paneled in polished wood. Mirrors, brass fixtures, and crystal knobs lent sparkle.

When we moved in, these details were covered by the menace of white paint. At first I thought I would just strip the buffet. I geared up—heat gun, dental tools, chemical strippers, protective respirator—and worked for three weeks, six hours a day. When I finally freed it, the oak glowed a beautiful, natural orange. The art-glass windows in the cabinet doors had been a garish yellow, but now that the panel behind them wasn’t white, they were a warm amber. The room’s mural of colonial San Francisco even seemed to mellow. The galleons no longer sat on a chilly black ocean—the water was a lovely midnight blue. I noticed for the first time the use of tangerine paint on every wall, meant to complement the wood in the buffet.

I knew it wouldn’t be right to stop. I had to liberate the wall panels, the window frames, the box-beam ceiling. I stripped the dining room for a year and a half, patiently picking paint out of egg and dart trim and dentil molding. Stripping leaves a lot of time for thinking, and my recurring fantasy was of unloading trash bags full of white paint chips onto the doorstep of whoever had decided that obscuring this house’s interior was a good idea. Perversely, perhaps, I enjoyed the work and continued the transformation when I finished the dining room. I spent six months stripping the small back room with the second mural, three weeks stripping the bedroom mantel. Today the house’s entryway greets me with half-white, half-exposed panels every time I walk through the front door.

Other parts of the house we sent off for restoration. We had the living room mantel and the bookcase next to it ripped out, and we carefully labeled the pieces of wood that piled up on the floor so we knew how to fit them back together. Mat and I knocked 13 doors off their hinges, then removed the hardware too. We hauled everything out for a chemical bath. After being dipped in giant vats, the wood came back renewed.

Our house began to offer the kind of clues I’d hoped for, hints about its story. When we took the bookcase off the wall, a piece of paper slipped out. I unfolded its edges, perforated by a hundred tiny nibbles that made me wonder if resident mice had been trying to make paper snowflakes. The bites formed a perimeter around a faded hand-drawing of the brackets on the house’s exterior. This was part of the builder’s original design.

When we repurposed a bedroom as part of an enlarged kitchen, we carefully removed the charming inlaid squares in the floor’s corners to reuse later. Under each one, someone had placed a piece of card stock advertising a tailor named C.J. Petersen. Who was he, and why had someone put the cards there? I leaned them on a window ledge as a reminder to find out.

I once discovered a paper bag crumpled up in the house’s rafters. I’d hoped it held photographs that previous owners had forgotten. Maybe I would catch a glimpse of lives otherwise lost to time. But when I opened the bag, I immediately threw it down in horror. Inside were two sets of dentures. Surely someone was having fun with me.

I was raised Catholic, and while it’s not very fashionable to believe in God anymore, the alternative is to accept personal extinction. I believe only time separates the living and the dead, and that it’s not an insurmountable barrier. My parents, for instance, still exist somewhere. My youngest sister once went to a psychic who surprised her by announcing that our parents were watching and guiding her. Except they really weren’t too concerned with her—they’d been busy directing their energy toward our sometimes wayward brother. (My sister was annoyed but conceded that he was probably a better use of their resources.) I was sure that whoever left the dentures had a far less noble purpose. I imagined them looking down from the heavens, laughing at a century-delayed joke.

One cold January evening, as the fog hung low to the ground, the cable cut out while we were watching TV. Mat went downstairs to reset the modem. Our basement had been torn apart for several months because we were doing a seismic retrofit. The steps I soon heard Mat walking back up were also in need of an upgrade. The wood that at some point had been used to repair the staircase was cheap, and the sound the steps made underfoot was loudly hollow. That night, however, the thud was arresting. Mat wasn’t walking back to me—he was bounding.

He flung open the door to the room where I was waiting and held out a book, its marbled cover torn and thick with dust. Somehow I knew in that moment that it held the key to the house’s story. By bringing the house back to life, I had earned it.

I opened the cover and saw in elegant handwriting the name Hans Jorgen Hansen and the year 1900. It was a diary belonging to the man who built our house. As I turned the pages, I noticed that someone else had written on them, too, a woman named Anna. How unusual, I thought, for two people to share a diary—even more so because, according to historical records, Hans’s wife was named Christine.

Three

The story of Hans and Anna begins the way stories often have over the centuries: A youth on the verge of manhood sets out from his ancestral village. In this case that village is in Denmark, and the year is 1900. The forces of the world conspire to entice young men like Hans, now 20, out of the fields and into cities. If they have a yearning for adventure and a bit of daring, they continue onward to new lands. They may never return to the villages that shaped them because the world needs them. Its appetite for ambition and cleverness is insatiable. Tradition be damned—here is progress.

On the second day of the first year of the new century, Hans loads his suitcase into a wheelbarrow and sets off down an icy road, pushing his belongings over gentle hills. He arrives at a train station, where he buys a third-class ticket to the industrial city of Odense. By urban standards it’s provincial, but broad boulevards have supplanted medieval lanes, lending Odense a bit of grandness. Hans is here for a train transfer, but with time to see something new, he walks into the bustling town.

He’s looking for a bookstore—an appropriate goal in the city whose most famous son is also Denmark’s greatest storyteller, Hans Christian Andersen. This Hans, the subject of our story, appreciates Danish literature, but right now all he wants to read about is America, because that is where he longs to be. On Vestergade—gade is Danish for “street”—at one of the largest booksellers in Odense, he thumbs through journalist Henrik Cavling’s dispatches in From America. He would like to buy it but should probably save his money. He doesn’t want to leave empty-handed, however, so he purchases a diary instead.

That diary—dagbog in Danish—will accompany Hans around the world. It will feel at times as if it were his only friend, his dear bog. For now he continues by train to the seaside town of Faaborg, where he will work.

Anna and Hans knew better than most that the bonds of blood aren’t always enough to keep people together. Together they would create something stronger.

When he arrives, a letter is waiting for him. It’s from Anna in America. Anna who has already gone into the mouth of the hungry world. From the moment he first saw her, six years earlier in his village, Hans knew it was his destiny to be with her, the beautiful girl with black hair. It wasn’t her fault that she had to leave him. Anna lived with her grandparents, and she was only 14 when her grandfather died. She and her grandmother had no one else to rely on in the village, so they soon left for a place called Michigan, where Anna’s aunt lived.

People said that if her mother had made better choices, Anna’s life would have unfolded differently. Anna was born out of wedlock. Other boys might have looked down on her for this, but not Hans. In Anna he saw a nobleness of spirit.

Besides, his mother had also committed a sin when she conceived him; he and Anna had that in common. Their respective fathers were good enough to acknowledge their progeny, bestowing them with a little dignity and a surname. Anna’s paternal grandparents were the ones who’d raised her. But she and Hans knew better than most that the bonds of blood aren’t always enough to keep people together. Together they would create something stronger.

Four

I didn’t learn these details from the diary. At least, not right away. Its entries were written almost entirely in Danish, which I can’t read and don’t speak.

There were two diaries, in fact, the second of which had relatively little writing, all of it by Hans. There was also a stack of letters. Mat found everything—all this treasure—when he went to reset the modem. The basement ceiling had recently been demolished as part of our renovations. The books and letters had fallen from their hiding place, a cavity where Hans—who else?—had stashed them. I wondered if Mat and I were the first people to read them in a century.

At first all I could learn about Hans and Anna was gleaned from the documents’ few sections written in English:

Dear Anna… Tonight I have been reading over and over again your old letters from the dear old time; but I must not dream the old dreams; but Oh Anna I can’t help it because I do love you in spite of all.

Dear Hans… I am to blame for all you have ever suffered and God forgive me for it…. I am so sorry I was such a good for nothing foolish girl but at the same time I never meant to do any sin.

What drama or scandal was locked in these pages? Handwriting is a funny thing, not least because few people read it much anymore. Anna’s was neat, polite, and comfortably contained by the page. Hans, whose writing made up 90 percent of our find, had a bolder stroke. His flourishes veered maddeningly into indecipherability. In places, the pressure he exerted on his pen had made the ink pool and the letters bleed.

I sent a few diary passages to various Danish friends of friends, but while the language was theirs, none wanted to spend the time required to decipher such baroque penmanship. Frustrated, I made out the letters as best I could and typed the words they seemed to form into Google Translate. At first what came back was gibberish. But the longer I spent with the words, the more of them I got right, and the more the translator divulged actual language. I was also becoming familiar with Hans’s scrawl. His “D” was the longest, most elegant version of that letter I’d ever seen. It marked the beginning of the diary entry in which he lovingly recalled meeting Anna when they were children.

I eventually typed every word from the diaries and letters—some 20,000 in all—into the translator, and a picture of Hans and Anna’s story began to come into focus. Mat and I also did some genealogical research, amassing supporting facts. I found documentation of Anna and her grandmother’s 1897 passage to New York via Ellis Island. I found the household in St. Joseph, Michigan, where Anna was employed. I found evidence of Hans’s departure from Denmark after his stint in Faaborg—a voyage to Sydney, Australia, and onward to Brisbane—as well as his death certificate and a record of his grave just outside San Francisco, which we visited. We reconstructed Hans’s family tree and found a great-grandson on Facebook. We learned that Hans had three children with the woman named Christine, and that their marriage ended in divorce. 

I was sure I knew why: Hans and Anna could only love each other. What then had kept them apart?

Five

Winters in Denmark are long and cold. The wind that sweeps off the North Sea blows through the country’s bays, shallow hills, and beech forests. The nights, too, can seem endless. A man may find himself alone with his thoughts for longer than should be allowed. “There is not much to say,” Hans writes one January evening, “just that time was twice as long as the previous day.” Sheltered by thick, half-timbered walls, illuminated by weak candlelight, Hans and other men stave off boredom with games of cards and letters from faraway places.

Hans often lies awake at night imagining himself in New York, where Anna will travel from Michigan to reunite with him. In his diary he writes that the streets “will be completely different from the cobblestones of Faaborg.” He decides to “learn something useful to be worthy of her” and becomes a carpenter, a job he hopes will allow him to earn his way to America and support Anna. But good-paying work can be hard to come by in Denmark, and Hans will spend portions of the winter and spring of 1900 trying to find it.

In moments of despair, his mind wanders back to happier times. When he was 14, he tended cows in Husby, the farming hamlet where he grew up. Husby overlooks the sea, and the wind carries the smells of agriculture into peoples’ homes. At the heart of the village’s expansive fields sits the parish church. Most churches in rural Denmark have simple whitewashed towers, but not this one. To create a symbol befitting their status, the local aristocracy—among the most powerful landholders in the country—took inspiration from Italian artistry. Husby’s church boasts a copper onion dome atop a Tuscan-yellow tower, a glimmer of grandeur in an otherwise modest landscape.

Hans remembers his younger self leaving the cow fields one day to play with other boys in the village and seeing Anna for the first time. “In my quiet mind,” he reminisces in his diary, “I imagined myself and Anna engaged.” It was as if he didn’t really have a choice, not that he wanted one. Fate brought them together again at age 16, working as farmhands at the home of a widow. Anna was lively and dramatic, a “witty endearing spirit.” After she moved to America, she and Hans began a correspondence. They “became closer and came to rely on each other,” like family of their own choosing.

“I have seen many beautiful girls,” Hans writes in his diary, “but no one has been able to erase the image of my dear black-haired girl with the brave and joyful mind.”

Now, in Faaborg, Hans receives letters from Anna assuring him that she loves him. He is certain their union “will soon become reality,” that they “live only in the world of dreams yet.” In Danish, there’s a word for this kind of reverie: luftkasteller, or “castles in the sky.” Hans is building luftkasteller. The castles are their future, his and Anna’s, strong and impenetrable.

Or so he thinks.

Passage to America can be expensive. Other Danes are instead leaving for Australia, where the government is so desperate for labor that it will subsidize a man’s journey. Hans would likely live someplace hot and dusty. Going there would delay his arrival in America by years. Still, it feels one step closer to Anna.

That is how Hans finds himself in the middle of the Indian Ocean, aboard the steamship Oroya, as the year turns from 1900 to 1901. The journey to Sydney lasts 45 days. Hans and a few Danish friends board another ship to Queensland, then travel 300 miles to the territory’s interior, where dry grass stretches on and on until there is enough moisture to support a forest of red cedar, kauri pine, and other trees. The men help fell those forests, cutting the timber used to fuel the continent’s economic growth.

Hans lives in what the Australians call a humpy: a structure made of two poles stuck into the ground to keep a tin roof aloft, and open in front to the elements. There is only enough room for two makeshift beds. One is for Hans and the other is for his friend, a man named Sorensen. They wash their clothes in a river and cook their food over an open flame. The Australian heat is so fantastic that sometimes Hans can only laugh at it.

He thinks often of Anna, especially at night as the moon rises. “I have seen many beautiful girls,” he writes in his diary, “but no one has been able to erase the image of my dear black-haired girl with the brave and joyful mind.” Yet something has changed. He has not received a letter from her since he left Denmark. “I long to hear a little from little Anna in America,” Hans writes in April 1901. “It is 6 months since I got the last letter from her but I wait every day.”

He doesn’t know it yet, but his luftkasteller are about to break apart, and they will threaten to crush him. By the end of 1901, Anna will be married to another man.

Six

The details of when Anna decided to forsake Hans and how she told him weren’t contained in the diaries or letters that fell from my basement ceiling. Perhaps Anna did finally send him a note in Australia, only to say that she couldn’t wait for him any longer—she needed certainty, a family, a life. Or maybe she had no choice. Anna would later write, vaguely, of getting “in trouble on my own.” Did she, like her mother and Hans’s had before her, become pregnant out of wedlock? Unlike them, did she decide to marry her lover? I could only guess that the missive containing that explanation was gone because Hans couldn’t bear to keep it.

Anna’s marriage might explain why Hans didn’t write in his diary for four years. He suffered grief in silence. Their story wasn’t over, though. I knew that for sure, because Anna didn’t write in the diary until 1905.

I was hooked on the puzzle I was piecing together, to the point that people in my life started asking why. To me the question was the reverse: Why wouldn’t I try to untangle the story of a love affair more than a century old? Who wouldn’t want to learn what became of Hans and Anna? So what if they weren’t my ancestors. So what if they were just ordinary people who lived ordinary lives. Anyone in my position, with a diary full of mysteries that all but fell into her hands, would surely go to the same lengths to find answers.

In truth, I know that my fascination with the past—reawakening it, finding meaning in it—motivates me to ask questions that many people don’t need answered. It compels me to do things that to others seem drastic, even obsessional, but to me feel inevitable. Like scraping paint from the walls of my house for so many hours, over so many months, that long after I’ve removed my respirator for good, I sometimes think I can still see its outlines on my face.

A few years ago, while going through digitized family videos, I found old Super 8 footage of my dad taking a trip to Utah in his—our—orange Jeep. No sound, just moving images of my 20-year-old father, with his own father by his side, maneuvering along four-wheel-drive trails. The Jeep was shinier than I’d ever seen it. There was no one left to ask what route my father and grandfather had taken on that trip, but I knew the canyons of Utah well. I was certain I could find the trails from the video. I isolated images of rock formations and scoured online photos until I found a match: Paul Bunyan’s Potty, a natural arch in Canyonlands National Park. Mat and I loaded the Jeep onto a rented trailer and towed it 1,100 miles to Utah. We brought a drone and a GoPro with us. Mat did all the filming as I drove roads the Jeep had been down some 40 years earlier.

I don’t know what I expected to find in Utah, only that I was sure I had to go. The same was true when I bought a plane ticket for April 2019 and traveled more than 5,000 miles from San Francisco to Denmark. I rented a car and drove alone down country roads on a frigid day, feeling excited and a little embarrassed. When I arrived in Husby on a Sunday, the buildings were so sparse that calling it a town seemed generous. The only business I was able to identify was an auto repair shop, and it was closed.

I wanted to find a road called Norregade—it was there, at the home of the widow of a man named Lars Andersen, that Hans and Anna first spent time together as teenagers. “The wind is crying out and bringing back to my thoughts the winter when we were together,” Anna once wrote. She and Hans said their goodbyes on Norregade before Anna left for America. “I remember our last meeting like it was a shooting star,” Anna wrote. “God knows if we meet again on this rolling earth.”

On my map of Husby, Norregade didn’t exist. I assumed it had been renamed and I just needed to ask someone in town. Driving Husby’s back roads, I spotted a couple out for a chilly afternoon stroll. I slowed the car, rolled down the window, and shouted, “Do you speak English?” They turned to look at me and replied with an almost bewildered “Of course.” Well, I explained, I have a strange question. You see, I come from America, and a Danish man built my house 100 years ago, and I found his diary, and do you know where Norregade is?

The couple said they didn’t, that they were only weekenders. But their neighbors might. They climbed in my car and we drove 30 seconds to the home of a retired couple who were in the midst of baking rye bread. I asked if they knew Norregade. We don’t, they said, but our other neighbor might—she’s 90 years old. The husband went to fetch her. Five minutes later she was beside me, the expert who had lived in Husby her whole life.

She knew Norregade—it was now called Sjobjergvej. (Vej means “way.”) She had known the Andersens, too, the family of the widow Hans and Anna once worked for. She even knew which house had belonged to them, and marked its location on my map. I set out for Sjobjergvej, where I asked my questions all over again and found myself welcomed into the home of another couple. The old farmhouse where Hans and Anna worked had long ago been demolished. Still, I was in the place where their love story began.                                              

People’s eyes lit up when I explained why I was in Husby, just me and my binder full of photocopied diary entries. A woman cheered when I showed her pictures of my house, like Husby’s worth in the world had been secured by what one of its sons achieved elsewhere. And here I was, ratifying his efforts by traveling all the way to Denmark.

I visited other towns that figured in Hans and Anna’s story. I contacted regional archives to locate documentation of their existence. I sat with historians who translated diary entries better than I—which is to say Google—ever could, scribbling as they spoke. I popped into a coffee shop and didn’t leave for five hours, as an impromptu cadre of locals pored over documents and pictures, coming up with their own theories about Hans and Anna. I sparked enough interest that I was later contacted by an amateur genealogist who sifted through Danish church records on my behalf, gathering information about Hans’s and Anna’s families.

I came home from Denmark with a better understanding of who Hans and Anna were and where they came from. If only every trip a person takes could be so warm, so fruitful. Hans once wished the same, only to embark on a hopeful journey that ended in bitter disappointment. 

Seven

Hans’s American dream gnaws at him. Is the country really all that people say it is? He finally is able to find out for himself when he travels to California’s northern timber country, where the giants of the forest sit in a landscape that formed in the Jurassic period. The redwoods are the tallest things alive. The Douglas firs are almost as mighty. Together they seem to dare men to build something—a civilization—as grand as they are.

Hans finds San Francisco to be a marvelous party disguised as a city. He plays cards, bowls, and gambles. He wonders if settling down will ever be for him if it means that he’s not with Anna.

They still write to each other. As friends. Childhood friends. Practically family. In the fall of 1905—more than five years since Hans left Denmark, and eight since he last saw Anna—he travels to see her. He is bound for Chicago, where she can visit him from her home just across the city’s great lake, and he can return the courtesy. He’ll find work and a place to live for a while. And maybe he’ll like it enough to stay. Maybe Anna will ask him to.

Anna is the same kindhearted, buoyant young woman he remembers—still beautiful, with jet-black hair and sharp, full features that give depth to her lingering girlishness. She has lived in the small town of St. Joseph ever since she left Denmark. Her grandmother and her aunt and uncle are close by. She has no children. She has worked as a servant in wealthy households. She has never been truly happy.

But oh, how Anna has loved Hans’s letters. What adventures he’s had, how worldly he’s become.

Anna’s marriage isn’t going well. Her husband, whom Hans meets in Chicago, is a mischievous and sometimes callous man. He was born in Germany. He loves to drink, sometimes with women who are not his wife. His name is Emil, but no one calls him that. Everyone calls him by his last name, Frost—even Anna.

Frost isn’t a fool. He sees what’s going on between Anna and her friend. Once, when drunk, man to man, Frost tells Hans he would sell Anna to him for $500. Then he pretends it was a joke all along. Ha! Frost says he couldn’t live without her anyway. Later, Frost tells his wife that Hans “didn’t care enough…. I won’t let him have you now.”

On one of Anna’s weekend visits to Chicago, she and Hans go out, just the two of them, for dinner at a restaurant on Humboldt Avenue. Neither will write down what transpires that evening, but maybe—surely—it happens like this: Their conversation turns to Frost, because it always does. Anna grew up without parents and told herself that, even if her origins were impure, she would always be pure of heart. She’d made a vow. But if only her husband could be more like Hans. He sits listening to her. It takes everything within him not to move his hand across the table and put it to Anna’s cheek and tell her he loves her more than anything. At the very least he needs her to understand that he thinks she deserves the world. Hans starts to tell her about his diary with the marbled cover. He will give it to her, and she will understand how he feels. The proof is in the writing.

She still has hope, or maybe it’s faith. “It is God’s will that when you and I again get together it will be under different circumstances,” Anna writes.

Anna returns home to St. Joseph in possession of the diary. She reads Hans’s words from 1900 onward and is overcome—she scribbles into one of the diary’s margins that when she grasped his devotion, her heart “almost stood still.” She knows the diary is not hers to keep, but when she gives it back to Hans, she wants him to find comfort in her words, just as she has in his. Anna writes:

Oh how my heart ached for you the day we left Chicago. I sat like a dead woman all the way home. Frost talked and I could not answer. I think that was the saddest day of my life. How I would love to be with you but I can’t until God wills it so…. My beloved brother life would be empty if it were not for you…. We were born to each other I feel it.

The possibilities spin in her head. It’s not an honorable thing to do, leave one’s husband. At least not now. Maybe she will in the future. Even though it would be a sin. But doesn’t God want people to be happy? Doesn’t he want her to be happy?

When it’s time to return the diary, some two months after Hans gave it to her, Anna has made up her mind. “I would be the happiest woman in the world if I could always be with you but there would be one little drop in our cup and that would be that I would always fear that I had done a sin,” she writes in her final entry. To leave her marriage would jeopardize her soul—and Hans’s, too. “In parting us this time,” she writes, “[God] also saved us from the results of what we would have done.” As long as Frost “does his duty,” Anna says, “I shall do mine.” She still has hope, or maybe it’s faith. “It is God’s will that when you and I again get together it will be under different circumstances,” she writes.

It is a sad truth to bear, and Hans decides to return to California. He has shared everything with Anna—what more can he do? She is welcome to visit him. “You are all I have,” he writes in the diary, “and you are as welcome as flowers in May. I am always waiting for you to pay me a visit or to stay forever.”

Hans makes his arrangements to leave Chicago, diary in hand. One day he writes with what feels like finality, pledging to get married to someone else just to show Anna he can live without her—she who says she loves him but who “promised someone else the same.” Hans writes, “You and I little Anna could be happy; but you set me apart for another.… Anyway, I am not angry with you in any way.”

It is now the spring of 1906. What neither of them knows—what no one knows—is that the God whom Anna so fervently believes in will soon punish San Francisco. On April 18, at 5:12 a.m., the ground beneath the city will shake harder than it has ever shaken before. When the earthquake is over, the fires will start; they won’t stop for three days, until most of the city is reduced to ashes.

Once the dust of the disaster settles, the old game of making a fortune will return in full swing. Two hundred thousand people—half the city’s population—will be homeless, which is good business for someone like Hans. Skilled men will be needed to sweep up the ashes and put houses back where they used to be.

Hans returns to San Francisco, or what’s left of it. He will stay forever.

Eight

To tell the story up to this point, I had most of what I needed. The diaries and letters were often rich in detail, certainly full of emotion. I just needed to organize what Hans and Anna wrote into a narrative, supplemented by what I had learned in Denmark and in my genealogical research. But Hans mostly stopped writing in his diary after leaving Chicago. An entry here and there, nothing more. They were short and often melancholy. “The sadness is coming over me again,” he noted on August 10, 1908.

The last time he wrote in the diary, Hans was 30. It was 1910, the year he finished building the house in which I now live. It probably didn’t happen this way—probably wasn’t this dramatic—but I imagine Hans huddled in the dark of his basement, shaking his head in disappointment as his pen meets the pages of his bog for the last time. Before he closes the cover and hides the diary in the ceiling, he writes:

September 19, 1910

Many years have gone since I last wrote in my book, and I have to talk to someone tonight…. My whole life has been destroyed and I have now been away from [Anna] for a long time. And yet her and no other is what my life is all about. Anna, Anna why is everything against me. Everyone tells me I’m crazy, because I am not taking any interest in anyone but you. I shall always keep you in my mind and treasure your memories and keep them for myself. Goodnight, you are my life’s star, without you everything is empty and you never want to write to me. Everything that I have is your letters and the memory of you. Goodnight my beloved friend, you are my everything. Hope disappears. I hope it will rise again.

Three months later, Hans married Christine Petersen, literally the girl next door, on what was surely a miserable wedding day. “I know that I do sin if I marry another,” he’d once written. Hans and Christine’s great-grandson told me that their marriage was not a happy one. Their divorce was contentious, and Hans was not remembered fondly by his descendants. I didn’t pry. I knew from Hans’s diary that he soured over time. A romantic became a cynic. A hopeful youth grew into a bitter man.

Maybe Hans wasn’t wholly deserving of my sympathy, but understanding what ruined him was another matter. I still had so many questions: Did Hans leave the diary and letters untouched for as long as he lived in the house, or did he retrieve them from their hiding place on occasion to read in secret? Christine and her brother C.J. Petersen, the tailor whose name was on the cards Mat and I found in the bedroom floor—one small mystery solved—were awarded the house after Christine’s divorce from Hans was finalized in 1929. Were the hidden documents left behind on purpose, valueless after so many years, or forgotten in the chaos of separation?

More research only led to more questions. In newspaper archives, I found a perplexing detail: Right around the time that Hans returned to San Francisco, in 1906, Anna and Emil Frost were divorced after all. Unfortunately for Hans, Anna’s liberated future didn’t include him. Maybe it was only the idea of Hans—comforting, attentive, a reminder of home—that Anna loved.

I knew that Anna was 25 when she divorced. After that her trail went cold. I couldn’t find evidence of her anywhere. As I had when I first saw the murals in my house, I started filling in the blanks with a story: Anna lived the rest of her life in Michigan, working in other people’s homes. She remarried someone kind and reliable, but it was a relationship absent the passion she had known with Hans. She had children. In old age, perhaps she returned to Denmark. She’d once written to Hans that she couldn’t “wait til we get to our fatherland … where our feet trod when we were children (God bless those days).” Maybe for the sake of nostalgia—something she hadn’t allowed herself to feel while raising her family—she traveled to Husby and visited Norregade, standing on the quiet lane I would visit several decades later. Maybe she hoped that being there could answer her questions about the life she’d chosen not to live.

Nine

I have a vivid memory, early one morning when my father was in the hospital, of my uncle making his way up the carpeted stairs to the bedrooms where my siblings and I slept. I was nine years old. I knew my uncle was bringing bad news. How is that possible, to just know? Maybe his steps were slower or heavier than normal. Or maybe you can feel someone you love slipping away from this world.

Every few years I have a different experience of knowing. I’ll be in a crowd or walking down the street, and I’ll catch a glimpse of my mother or father. Something about the way they move or hold themselves or brush their hair from their face makes me certain. I’m wrong, of course, but the joy is true. If only for a moment, something I want seems real.

A similar thing happened when I finally found Anna. My trip to Denmark had furnished me with the facts that follow a person during their life, no matter where they end up. I knew Anna’s date of birth and the village where she was born and her date of entry into the United States. I knew that her father was Danish, her mother Swedish. I found her application for a passport. I looked at her picture, her dark hair and mournful eyes. She signed her name in the same meticulous way she had in Hans’s diary.

These facts are what made me sure that the Anna I came across on Ancestry.com was unmistakably, irrefutably her. My heart leaped in my chest. Then it fell, because of where I found her and what it might mean.

She wasn’t in Michigan or Chicago or Denmark. Anna had been in San Francisco all along.

She had moved here by at least 1910. What reason could there have been but Hans? Yet two months after Hans wed Christine, Anna married a man named L.B. Carpenter. They never had children. A mining engineer, Carpenter died in 1929 and left Anna with no choice but to return to domestic service as the Great Depression unfolded. Meanwhile, Hans never recovered his financial footing after divorcing Christine, though he continued to build houses. He moved into a residential hotel in the Tenderloin, a neighborhood then full of clerks and teachers, skilled laborers and transient workers, all living conveniently in the city’s downtown.

Did Hans and Anna try a relationship when she first arrived, only to find that it couldn’t live up to what they’d imagined for so long? Hans’s diary gives no indication of this—perhaps when they were finally together, he didn’t feel the need to write. In his final entry, Hans wrote that he’d been “away from [Anna] for a long time.” What if he meant months, not years, as I’d assumed? I found myself hoping so. The notion of Anna coming to San Francisco and not seeing Hans felt impossible.

Hans died in 1966, Anna in 1968, which meant they both lived into their eighties. I was able to find only skeletal traces of their later lives. Addresses in city directories. Census data, but only up to 1940. Newspaper clippings that mentioned city lots Hans was developing. Anna didn’t have any descendants to find and interview. Hans and Christine’s great-grandson told me that St. Joseph, Michigan, sounded familiar, but he wasn’t sure why.

There was one final revelation, and with it a glimmer of hope: In the last decades of her life, Anna moved into an apartment building in the Tenderloin. She lived only three blocks away from Hans. Maybe this was a coincidence, but I remembered the words of their youth. “I know that sometime a time will come when Anna and I are together,” Hans wrote. “A voice whispers in my ear that (Everything comes to those who wait) and I will wait for you to come in 20 years.” Here is Anna: “When you and I get to be 80 years old I shall love you just the same no matter where you are…. Never forget that I am always with you and always will be, [even] if you go to the end of the world.”

I drove to the Tenderloin and walked the distance between their apartment buildings. The historic cityscape, rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake, is pleasing, even if the neighborhood became synonymous with inner-city vice. This was already becoming true in the mid-20th century, when Hans and Anna lived here. Perhaps by then the tempestuousness between them had eased and they were a comfort to each other. I imagined Hans ambling to Anna’s apartment, and Anna coming down to greet him, seeing his familiar grin. Maybe they no longer interpret the pull between them as romance, cherishing it instead as an unbreakable kinship.

She takes his arm and, side by side, they walk through the city.

Ten

In the home movie Mat and I re-created in Utah, I am behind the wheel of my father’s Jeep. The drone, piloted by Mat, shows me driving a barren red-dirt trail, steering through a series of technical four-wheel-drive maneuvers, and coming to a patch of earth where the road ends. The drone zooms out to show why: I have come to a bluff—there is a sheer 1,000-foot drop to the Colorado River below. Since the Jeep can go no farther, I get out and walk to the edge.

When we returned home from Utah, I took our footage and combined it with what my father had filmed on Super 8. I spliced scenes together, blurring the line between past and present. The moment when I’m on the precipice cuts to one at the same spot shot decades earlier. My father is there, his legs dangling over the cliff. I reversed the footage at this point so he appears to turn and greet me—the approaching figure—with a knowing nod. He’s like the wise knight in The Last Crusade, waiting all those years for Indiana Jones to arrive.

The movie seems to enter a time warp at this point, flashing rapidly between past and present. Few people who know my family have been able to get through it with a dry eye. At the end, Mat runs into the frame for the first time. The spell is broken. Mat puts his arm around my waist as we wave to the camera. Or are we waving to my father, thanking him for leading us here and for the opportunity to see him again?

I am desperate to communicate with the past, but so much of it is elusive, scattered, unknowable. I’m all too familiar with the frustration of sifting through fragments of truth and possibility for answers to my questions. I understand now that searching and listening and following are vital, but not always enough. I reconstruct what I can and use imagination to bring the rest into being. To set the world as it should be. To set it as I need it to be. What else can I—or anyone—do?

I write all this enveloped by Hans’s study. It’s a beautiful, peculiar little room, the one with the second mural. The sharp California sun streams through the picture window, with its tulip-patterned stained glass, and brightens the Honduran mahogany I spent half a year liberating from white paint. The effort it has taken to get here—I know it, because it was partly mine. The room sprang from Hans’s mind and from materials he could get his hands on, but it is here, still, because of me. So is the love story once concealed in the basement. I found it, heard it, and told it the best way I know how.

Maybe, though, someone else’s version of Hans and Anna’s story was always in plain sight. I stare up at the mural of the American West. For a time, I was confused by the two mute swans and the white stork, painted in corners of the room, because neither species is native to North America. I should have put it together sooner: The mute swan is a symbol of Denmark—the national bird—and features in Hans Christian Andersen’s iconic fairy tale “The Ugly Duckling.” White storks, now rare in the country because of habitat changes, traditionally arrived in Denmark from Africa each spring, signifying new beginnings.

The pair of swans—they’re Hans and Anna, aren’t they? Surrounded by the possibilities of a new world, swimming together in calm waters, together forever. It’s what Hans wanted more than anything, this ending to their story, and he made it so.


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Stranger Than Fiction

Stranger Than Fiction

Inside the ‘Epoch Times’: How an aspiring poet in Brooklyn became a tool in a right-wing propaganda blitz linked to Falun Gong.

By Oscar Schwartz

The Atavist Magazine, No. 108


Oscar Schwartz has written for The Guardian, The Baffler, The Atlantic, and Wired, among other publications. Originally from Australia, he is now based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter: @scarschwartz.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kate Wheeling
Photographer: Jonno Rattman

Published in October 2020.

*Indicates a pseudonym.

I.

“Blame it on the Falun Gong / They’ve seen the end and you can’t hold on now.”

This lyric from the title track of Guns N’ Roses’ album Chinese Democracy popped into Steven Klett’s head as he rode the New York City subway one sunny Wednesday morning in March 2016. Klett, 27, was on his way from his apartment in Brooklyn to a job interview at a newspaper. He was wearing a green button-down shirt, a suit jacket, and black pants. His shoulder-length auburn hair was tied back in a tight, low ponytail. He needed this job desperately.

The position—breaking-news web content writer—was not his ideal gig. Klett had an MFA in poetry, and his chapbook A Field Full of Mirrors had been published in 2015 to some acclaim. He had dreamed, however briefly, of being a full-time poet. Now he was spending his days writing freelance copy for a public relations firm, earning $10 per article. He was a tidy, proficient writer, and had applied to jobs at venerable media outlets like Mother Jones and Slate. This was his first interview.

Before encountering the listing online, Klett had not heard of the Epoch Times. He browsed articles on its website, mostly brief reports cribbed from other news sources. The opinion section leaned conservative, offering takes that might appeal to Klett’s father. Klett considered himself something of an anarchist. But, as with his poetic aspirations, he was ready to set aside his political beliefs in order to make rent without having to skip meals.

One detail about the newspaper that seemed peculiar was its extensive coverage of human rights abuses in China. In particular, there were numerous reports about an organization called Falun Gong. Klett had not heard of Falun Gong, a spiritual movement whose followers, his cursory research showed, had been targeted for persecution by the Chinese government. As the subway rattled beneath the East River and Guns N’ Roses played in his mind, Klett wondered: Blame Falun Gong for what?

Klett arrived at the 12-story brick building on West 28th Street and took the elevator up to the fifth floor. He was greeted by the newspaper’s human resources manager and two senior editors—Cindy Drukier, who had a subtle Canadian accent, and Jasper Fakkert, a tall, slim man with a ginger beard that he scratched nervously. Drukier began the interview by noting that the two writing samples Klett had submitted concerned politics. She asked where he got his news. He said The Atlantic and The Washington Post, eager to veer as close to the ideological center as possible. The editors nodded.

After asking about his education, his work experience, his writing skills, and his poetry, the conversation turned to current events. The previous evening, Donald Trump had convincingly beaten his Republican opponents on Super Tuesday, and the prospect of his candidacy was being taken more seriously. Hillary Clinton had edged out Bernie Sanders. Klett, like many Americans, believed she had a real shot at the presidency.

Fakkert, who had a Dutch accent, explained that he was only interested in hiring reporters who would be able to cover the news in a fair and impartial way. “Here at the Epoch Times,” he said, “we are a nonpartisan news source.” Fakkert asked if Klett could write from a perspective that conflicted with his own views.

Klett had prepared for this question. He explained that a few months earlier he’d been asked by a manager at the PR firm where he freelanced to write a short blog post about Trump’s appearance hosting Saturday Night Live. Personally, Klett found Trump unfunny and self-aggrandizing, but the manager told him that Eric Trump, one of the candidate’s sons, was a client at the firm. “I was taking as neutral a position as I could,” Klett said of the post he ultimately wrote. “I thought of it as an exercise and a challenge to take my opinion out of the article.”

The editors smiled and thanked him for coming in. Later that day, they offered him the job.

As the subway rattled beneath the East River and Guns N’ Roses played in his mind, Klett wondered: Blame Falun Gong for what?

At a sports bar on a cold evening in December 2019, Klett leaned forward on his stool so I could hear his gentle, droning voice above the obnoxiously loud Christmas music. His long hair was magnificent, voluminous, excessively brushed. It lent him a strong resemblance—but for a long scar running down his forehead—to Axl Rose. He had a meticulous memory and offered keenly observed details about his experience at the Epoch Times. The outlet, Klett learned during his tenure there, did much more than cover Falun Gong.

Since coming to global attention in the late 1990s, Falun Gong has flourished precisely because its adherents use print and digital media to reach sympathetic audiences beyond China. Falun Gong simultaneously spreads news of its plight and amplifies the worldview of its charismatic founder, Li Hongzhi, who claims that his teachings are rooted in ancient beliefs and practices and promise believers health, freedom, and moral fortitude. But where some see a virtuous community, others see a cult: Critics say that Li is a narcissistic charlatan who enlists guileless followers to adopt his conservative social views.

Falun Gong practitioners insist that this portrayal is false, concocted by Beijing to tarnish Li’s name because the Communist regime perceives his movement as a threat. But while it is true that China’s state media routinely depicts Falun Gong as deviant, the movement’s positive image emanates largely from its own information apparatus. When reporting on Falun Gong, Western journalists tend to draw on both characterizations, presumably in the name of objectivity. If each is a fabrication serving divergent ideological ends, though, can the result be anything but a collage of propaganda?

The Epoch Times is a key player in the ongoing information war between China and Falun Gong. Indeed, the newspaper is the cornerstone of a media empire that the spiritual movement has built over the past 25 years. It publishes editions in 36 countries and 22 languages; most of the bureaus are run by Li acolytes. In the United States, it reportedly reaches 250,000 weekly print readers, with 34 million monthly page views online. (The Epoch Times and the editors named in this story did not respond to multiple requests for interviews and comment.)

Klett didn’t know any of this when he was hired. Nor was he aware that the Epoch Times was becoming embroiled in yet another power struggle, this one in the United States. As the 2016 election approached, the newspaper morphed into a pro-Trump bullhorn. Writing on his personal blog, Klett would later compare the work he did at the paper to that of Russian bots, which “sow discord in the name of activism, and reduce talking points and political agendas to the conflicts that they engender and narratives that they inhabit.” In the lead-up to the 2020 election, the Epoch Times has pursued this strategy more vigorously than ever. An NBC investigation found that, in the first half of 2019, the newspaper laid out $1.5 million for some 11,000 pro-Trump Facebook ads—the only organization that spent more was the Trump campaign itself. More recently, the newspaper has peddled narratives about COVID-19 that cast China as the pandemic’s chief villain and Trump as a potential savior.

Klett is no longer employed by the newspaper, but he sent me documentation from the period when he worked there and contact information for friends and former colleagues who could corroborate his account. The story of how he became a cog in a burgeoning propaganda machine—and why he stayed on even as the paper’s history and biases became clear—offers a glimpse into the right-wing news industry that has upended the media landscape. It’s a story about the perils of clickbait journalism and disinformation, and the consequences of apathy and alienation. It’s also about the Byzantine collection of interests that helped usher in the Trump presidency.

Klett said that during his stint at the Epoch Times, he had a front-row seat to the epistemic crisis triggered by Trump’s ascendancy, one that has made distinguishing truth from political fiction increasingly difficult. “In that first interview, I was being honest when I said I could be neutral. I really believed that was possible,” Klett admitted, hands shoved deep into his pockets as we walked down a Brooklyn street in search of a quieter bar. “By the time I left, just a few days before the election, I realized what everyone is still coming to terms with.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“That there’s no difference between the news and propaganda. That objectivity is about who has power.”

II.

The ubiquitous newspaper boxes of New York City—those colorful plastic and metal shells that, day in and day out, once served up the latest information about the world—today look like relics of a bygone media heyday. The red ones from which generations of New Yorkers grabbed the Village Voice stand empty. The blue and white dispensers of The New York Times are often vandalized beyond recognition. The containers that still offer the city’s free dailies are largely ignored by commuters staring at their social media feeds—unless they’ve been repurposed as receptacles for takeaway coffee cups.

The Epoch Times is an exception. Its bright yellow boxes adorned with royal blue text sit on street corners and near train stations everywhere from Chinatown to midtown Manhattan to Flushing, Queens. They are well maintained and frequently restocked, offering passersby a weekly tabloid for 50 cents. If the vast majority of New York’s dilapidated, graffiti-covered newspaper boxes offer a tangible symbol of the death of print, the Epoch Times containers, which are often secured firmly to the ground with metal chains, signify the newspaper’s staunch if quixotic mission to reach the largest possible audience by all available means.

Klett was told that his role at the paper would be to expand its reach on social media. As part of a new digital team, he would generate fast-paced, engaging news articles designed to increase traffic via Facebook and Twitter, where audiences were orders of magnitude larger—and even more chaotic—than on the bustling streets of New York. As was the case with his other writing jobs, clicks would be the metric by which his performance was assessed. He would be paid $2,500 per month, with the expectation that he’d get 100,000 hits per week. Anything over that would earn him a bonus.

Klett’s title was political reporter. At the time, he was following politics with obsessive focus. Like many of his friends, he was fascinated with Bernie Sanders’s campaign and spent many nights in bars talking about whether democratic socialism would ever come to America. Klett’s friends, like Klett himself, were mostly overeducated, underpaid, and downwardly mobile, snapped out of political apathy by the prospect of a revolution “for the people.” Klett was horrified by the spectacle of Trump’s campaign. He knew that there was an America that greed and bigotry appealed to, but it felt far away from his present circumstances in Brooklyn—far away, even, from the mostly white, middle-class town where he grew up.

Born in the final year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, Klett was raised in Clifton, New Jersey, in a two-story house on a dead-end street with a well-kept lawn and an aboveground pool. His father was quiet and worked a job that he only ever described to his family as “middle management.” Klett’s mother stayed home to take care of him and his brother. His father was a Republican, his mother a centrist Democrat. But they didn’t talk much about ideologies or affiliations. Politics were private, a matter of personal taste.

From a young age, Klett understood that he perplexed his parents. Where they sought to find a frictionless path through their suburban existence, Klett, though withdrawn, always seemed to stick out. He was an avid, precocious reader with a predilection for classic novels. In elementary school, he read Moby Dick. In middle school, he insisted on carrying around a copy of War and Peace. He rejected his parents’ Christianity and could quote Friedrich Nietzsche from memory. In high school, when his mother pushed him to join the marching band, he agreed begrudgingly, then complained that the conductor was an authoritarian. Klett made few friends and spent a lot of time in the counselor’s office.

His two salves were rock music—Soundgarden, Nirvana, Iron Maiden—and his grandmother. She lived on the lower floor of the family home. When Klett was fighting with his parents, he went downstairs to watch MSNBC with his grandmother or listen to her read from The New York Times. Sometimes she told him stories about when she worked as an air traffic controller in the Mojave Desert during World War II. She made the world feel bigger than Clifton, New Jersey.

After high school, Klett went to the College of New Jersey, just over an hour’s drive from home. He joined the track team in an attempt to make friends, but he found the hypermasculine culture of competitive sports menacing. He didn’t drink or do drugs, and he was still a virgin. He wasn’t invited to many parties, and he probably wouldn’t have gone anyway. Klett stayed up late in his room reading William S. Burroughs and writing poetry, imagining himself as one of the lost souls of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, outsiders “who scribbled all night rocking and rolling over lofty incantations which in the yellow morning were stanzas of gibberish.”

In addition to studying philosophy and literature, Klett enrolled in a journalism class. His teacher, an adjunct who also worked at a Philadelphia newspaper, was idealistic about the function of journalism. She told her students that more important than learning to write a good lede was developing a keen, unflinching interest in the pursuit of truth. Bob Woodward was the paradigm for which they should strive—a Republican in his private life whose yearning for truth was so pure that he wrote stories that brought down a Republican president.

Several weeks into the semester, Klett’s instructor was assigned to cover a mass shooting. A 32-year-old man had stormed a one-room Amish schoolhouse in rural Pennsylvania, shooting 11 students and killing five, all of them girls. When the instructor returned to class a week later, she looked as if she hadn’t slept. She told her students that no one in the Amish community would speak to her—her editor was expecting a story, but she had nothing to work with. Standing behind the lectern, she cried.

To Klett, it seemed that she had absorbed the trauma of the people she was covering. He empathized. As a child, he had on occasion become so deeply engrossed in stories that the boundaries between his life and other people’s blurred. In fourth grade, when he first learned about the Holocaust, he became severely depressed; he knew that his family had German ancestry, and he felt implicated. His mother demanded that Klett stop watching coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial after he confessed to having visions that he was the one who’d murdered Nicole Brown Simpson.

As the semester continued, Klett experienced a familiar muddling of his internal world and external reality. He had considered becoming a journalist but now realized he was ill-equipped to deal with other people’s pain. The future felt uncertain. Klett kept to himself more than ever. He stopped eating and interacting with other students. When a concerned peer told an RA that Klett hadn’t left his room in several days, the college called his parents. Klett never received a clear diagnosis, but doctors prescribed him a long list of pharmaceuticals.

The rest of college passed at a steady, medicated cadence. Klett spent the weekends at home and found his parents overbearing. As a diversion he started a band, the Undercover Rabbis. He met a woman who invited him to live with her and some friends at a winery in Pennsylvania, an offer he accepted after graduating in 2010. The group worked at Whole Foods Market during the day and threw raves at night. Klett used drugs and drank and slept with women and men, all for the first time. He identified as queer, first with trepidation, then with joy—the word itself helped explain why he had always felt so different.

In 2011, Klett received a transfer to work at a Whole Foods in New York City, where he lived for a time in an apartment in Ridgewood, Queens. His grandmother, who had recently died, had left him a small amount of money, which Klett used to pay for an MFA in poetry at the New School. When he wasn’t packing boxes or swiping items through the checkout at Whole Foods, he composed poems that were more controlled than his college writing. His final portfolio, exploring the boundaries between madness and inspiration, intimacy and abuse, was chosen by his professors to be published. “My favorite sex position is the Van Gogh,” one poem begins. “I won’t draw you a picture but it ends with you cutting off my ear / We can only do it twice.”

If Klett was succeeding creatively, his personal life was in disarray. He was trying to leave an abusive relationship and struggling to keep his job. Shortly after graduating, he was fired. He wrote copy for content farms to make rent on a Brooklyn apartment he shared with Martin*, a young housing lawyer and professed Marxist who lectured Klett about the failures of the Obama administration and how the impending Clinton presidency would be more of the same.

Klett listened to Martin, who seemed to know more about political theory than he did. He too felt alienated from what he called “the liberal elite.” But he also remembered the night Obama won the 2008 election. Fireworks outside his college dorm lit up his room, and he could hear spontaneous renditions of “We Shall Overcome” in the hallways. It was a time when Klett was feeling stable, and optimistic about the future. Now he was broke and bored, obsessively following the news and skipping meals. He could feel his reality once again begin to tremble.

When he received the offer from the Epoch Times, which on the surface appeared to offer stability and predictability, along with a regular paycheck, Klett felt a profound sense of relief. It couldn’t have come at a better time.

Klett wrote copy for content farms to make rent on a Brooklyn apartment he shared with  a young housing lawyer and professed Marxist who lectured him about the failures of the Obama administration.

Klett settled into the rhythms of working life. He awoke around 6:30 a.m., switched on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, smoked a joint with Martin, and then headed into the office. He scrolled through his news feeds while drinking a large iced coffee and jotted down story ideas for Fakkert, the digital team’s editor. Fakkert arrived each day at 9 a.m. and squeezed a red stress ball while listening to the day’s pitches.

There were five other journalists on the digital team. A man from Staten Island with tattoos on his arms and contacts at local police precincts; he worked the crime beat. There were two women from Brooklyn, one who had studied journalism and specialized in human-interest stories, and another who covered celebrity gossip and entertainment. A third woman was from Queens; she had previously worked on NBC’s breaking-news desk. Lastly there was Jenna*, a sharp-tongued, perpetually ironic philosophy student who covered science and technology. She and Klett became friends.

Their work was like that of any number of millennials paid to generate content to feed the insatiable appetite of social media. Each team member sat in a small cubicle and churned out content, trying to reach 100,000 clicks per week. It seemed like a huge number, but their bosses assured them it was achievable. The stories they wrote were short and required no original reporting—they were rewrites or pastiches of existing articles and press releases. The work was not particularly absorbing, but the atmosphere in the office was comfortable. After being assigned his stories— “Former Russian World Chess Champion Criticizes Bernie Sanders’s Revolution as ‘Dangerously Absurd,’” “Fox News Poll Gives Hope to Kasich, Discourages Rubio”—Klett would put in his earphones and write as quickly as possible, pausing only to grab a burger or sushi for lunch with Jenna. He headed home at 6 p.m., and prepared for the next day by reading the latest news on social media before going to sleep.

Klett noticed a stark division in the office. The digital team sat together in a small room, apart from the writers, editors, and designers who worked for the print newspaper. The bathroom and kitchen were shared, but the print staff generally kept to themselves. When Klett tried to engage, they were friendly but impersonal. They steered most conversations to the stories he was working on that day.

Whereas the digital team was made up mostly of people who grew up in or around New York, the print staff was geographically diverse, hailing from China, Europe, Canada, and Australia. Many of them seemed to be married to or seeing someone else on staff. They were workaholics, arriving each day before the digital team and leaving well after. Stranger still, many—if not all—of them were followers of Falun Gong.

The relationship between the spiritual movement and the newspaper had been touched upon briefly during the digital team’s orientation. Stephen Gregory, the paper’s publisher—a large, balding man who favored khakis and polo shirts—had explained in a lilting voice how the Epoch Times was founded at the turn of the millennium to inform the world about Falun Gong’s persecution at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP. (The new hires were later shown an hour-long film featuring a Chinese man, a Falun Gong practitioner, sitting in a blossom-filled garden talking about how he had escaped to America to live a life of peace.) Gregory said that the paper had since expanded its mission, striving to offer objective, independent reporting on current affairs and world news. While the paper was no longer explicitly connected to Falun Gong, it shared certain values with the movement. These were encapsulated in the Epoch Times’ motto: “Truth and Tradition.”

The digital team was also given a tour of the two floors immediately above the newsroom, which were the headquarters of New Tang Dynasty Television, a cable channel with the same mission as the paper. They were greeted by a senior executive, a Chinese-American man, who guided them to a large room filled floor to ceiling with monitors. The network broadcast programs in dozens of cities around the world, including several in mainland China, where viewers used circumvention tools to bypass firewalls and censors. It was necessary work, the new hires were told. The network had to tell the people of China the truth.

III.

In “golden monkey splitting its body,” the arms form a straight line with the shoulders, stretching toward the horizon on either side of the body. In “two dragons diving into the sea,” the arms reach forward. In “bodhisattva touching the lotus,” the arms are positioned diagonally with the body, hands pointing toward the ground. These movements are part of the recommended hour-long physical routine that many Falun Gong practitioners perform every day. The exercises are serene, deliberate, symmetrical; often they’re done with eyes closed. From New York to Toronto, Sydney to Bangkok, groups of people—many wearing yellow shirts—gather in parks in the early morning to do the movements together.

If you ask a devout Falun Gong practitioner, they might say that the exercises are physical expressions of wisdom dating back to a divine, prehistoric culture, discovered and revived by a spiritually gifted leader to help humanity reconnect with a godly essence. If you ask a historian of China, they’ll likely trace the origins to the 1950s, when the ascendant Communist regime was manufacturing a new national character—one that was modern and scientific, superior to the feudalism of the past, yet still maintained a distinct Chinese identity. Among other things, this immense project demanded a new medical paradigm that preserved traditional healing practices while rejecting their religious and spiritual foundations. Such a paradigm presented itself when a young government clerk wrote a report claiming to have cured himself of various ailments with slow exercises and breathing methods later called qigong, or “energy cultivation.” The report caught the attention of high-ranking officials, who found it useful for their purposes. Medical authorities studied the clerk’s “cultivation system,” as the exercises became known, and used them throughout the late 1950s in specialized clinics and sanatoriums to help people manage pain and sickness.

With the dawning of the Cultural Revolution came a reversal: Qigong was denounced by the state as “feudal superstition.” The government clerk was jailed for being “the creator of the poisonous weed.” The exercise regimen disappeared from public life until the late 1970s, when the paranoia of the “ten-year catastrophe” began to recede.

Qigong experienced a grassroots resurgence in parks throughout Beijing. Amateur teachers who had continued practicing in private during the purges began offering their own particular cultivation systems. State authorities gave tacit approval, and charismatic teachers expanded their followings. By the early 1990s, qigong fever had swept the country. The most popular teachers, or “masters,” became national celebrities. This spurred aspiring spiritual leaders from the provinces to travel to Beijing in the hope of launching their own qigong schools. Among them was Li Hongzhi, who arrived in the capital in 1992 with a cultivation system he called Falun Gong, meaning “the way of the dharma wheel.”

Like other qigong masters, Li had an instinct for self-mythology. He claimed to have been born on the same day as the Buddha and to have been a spiritual prodigy instructed by the most learned Buddhist and Daoist teachers in northeast China. By adolescence, the story went, he had acquired supernatural powers and a lucid comprehension of the ultimate truth of the universe—insight that, as an adult, he synthesized into Falun Gong. His regimen of simple, fluid exercises proved popular, and he rapidly found a following.

What distinguished Li from other qigong teachers were certain spiritual and moral elements he considered necessary for cultivation. In addition to exercises and meditation, Falun Gong demanded personal conduct of its practitioners that was consistent with what Li defined as the three moral axioms of the universe: truth, compassion, and forbearance. He also subscribed to a cyclical view of history, characterized by periods of moral decline followed by apocalyptic redemption. The modern world, Li believed, was in a degenerate state, which manifested itself in popular culture and loose social mores. In long, tangential lectures, he railed against drug use, homosexuality, miscegenation, sexual freedom, and “the demon nature that bursts forth on the soccer field.” He claimed that it was his task to help as many people as possible realize the folly of their ways through Falun Gong, so that when the moment of redemption arrived—and Li asserted that it was coming soon—they would be saved. He called this process “Fa-rectification.”

By 1994, Li had become a major star of the qigong world. His rise, though, came at a moment when the CCP was growing suspicious of qigong’s popularity. Sensing that the cultural tide was turning, Li announced that his mission in China had come to an end. In 1995, he departed for an international lecture tour through Taiwan, Southeast Asia, Europe, and Australia, where his teachings were popular among Chinese diaspora communities and some white New Age types. The tour turned into a permanent relocation. Eventually, Li settled in upstate New York.

In July 1996, China’s Central Propaganda Department banned the publication of Li’s writings, including the Zhuan Falun, the Falun Gong bible. Several newspaper articles accused Li of being a swindler who spread superstition and pseudoscience. From New York, Li connected with practitioners in Beijing on websites and email lists, where he encouraged them to peacefully protest the suppression of their movement. Over the next few years, Falun Gong acolytes staged some 300 demonstrations in China.

The protestors, who often sat cross-legged and silent, were mostly tolerated by the authorities. That changed on a Sunday morning in April 1999, when some 10,000 practitioners gathered outside the Western gate of Zhongnanhai, the guarded compound near Tiananmen Square where the CCP is headquartered. The protestors were quiet and calm, but the intimidating scale of the demonstration unnerved CCP leader Jiang Zemin, who behind closed doors declared Falun Gong the most serious political threat to party authority since the student demonstrations a decade earlier. (Li claimed to have more than 100 million followers at the time; scholars put the figure between 20 million and 60 million.)

State-run media launched a full-scale propaganda war, classifying Falun Gong as a cult posing a danger to the nation. Li rejected the characterization. “We do not oppose the government,” he once said at a conference. “We do not involve ourselves in politics.” The Chinese authorities intensified the crackdown, demanding that government officials who had practiced Li’s cultivation style renounce their affiliation and arresting people considered to be the movement’s key organizers. Falun Gong has since alleged that many of its practitioners were tortured while in custody and that hundreds died as a result. (Some human rights organizations have repeated this claim; Chinese authorities deny it.)

Li largely retreated from the public eye. Falun Gong purchased 427 acres of land in the hills of Deerpark, New York, where it built an expansive, ornate, high-security compound known as Dragon Springs. As well as providing Li with new living quarters, Dragon Springs became a spiritual base for his movement. It has a large temple and is now home to a private high school and college. Over the years, neighboring communities have raised concerns about the compound’s growth. Meanwhile, rumors of abuse and cult-like behavior have circulated, based on testimonials from former Falun Gong practitioners.

The task of defending the movement has fallen largely to North American followers, who unlike their counterparts in China face no risk of imprisonment for their support of Falun Gong. They are often middle-class professionals; many are Chinese immigrants. Among them is John Tang, an émigré with a doctorate in theoretical physics from the Georgia Institute of Technology. In 2000, Tang founded a small newspaper and named it the Epoch Times—a reference, perhaps, to Li’s frequent insistence that the turn of the millennium would bring “a new epoch.”

Li claimed that it was his task to help as many people as possible realize the folly of their ways through Falun Gong, so that when the moment of redemption arrived they would be saved. 

At first the paper was written, edited, and printed by volunteers—Chinese and non-Chinese followers of Li’s teachings, few of whom had any experience in media. It was funded almost exclusively by donations from wealthy Falun Gong practitioners. The goal was to provide an alternative narrative to China’s propaganda about the movement. The first edition, published in Chinese, appeared in May 2000; an online edition followed later that year.

Participating in the media arm of Falun Gong quickly took on a spiritual dimension. Writing or editing for the Epoch Times became an extension of Fa-rectification, the cosmic mission of saving souls. Li made clear that personal cultivation now included acts of hongfa, which roughly means “clarifying truth” to the wider world. But the paper didn’t always get the facts right. In October 2000, it reported that Jiang Zemin had caught a “strange, fatal disease” requiring his leg to be amputated at the upper thigh, a demonstrably false claim. Other stories were murkier. In 2001, after Chinese state media claimed that Li had incited a group of Falun Gong practitioners, including a 12-year-old girl, to self-immolate in Tiananmen Square, the Epoch Times countered by insisting that the event had been staged by Chinese authorities. International media and human rights groups were unable to verify either side’s version, or anything in between. The Washington Post’s attempt to do so produced an article headlined “Human Fire Ignites Chinese Mystery.” The truth of the matter has never been settled.

For the Epoch Times, funding from a growing diaspora of Falun Gong practitioners and other Chinese dissident communities led to explosive growth. By the mid-2000s, it was publishing editions in dozens of cities and several languages around the globe, including an English version in New York. It joined other Falun Gong–associated media outlets, including New Tang Dynasty Television, under the umbrella of the Epoch Media Group. The paper published special editions, such as 2004’s “Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party,” a quasi-McCarthyist screed that claimed the CCP was the real “evil cult,” one that “destroyed traditional culture” and “oppose[d] the universe.” And it promoted any allegation of human rights abuses in China, including regular updates regarding accusations that the government was harvesting organs from thousands of Falun Gong prisoners. (While it is beyond dispute that China has forcibly removed organs from prisoners, it is not clear that Falun Gong believers have ever been singled out for this practice.)

While the newspaper was clearly aligned with Falun Gong’s interests, its senior executives worked to publicly minimize the connection. “The paper’s not owned by Falun Gong, it doesn’t speak for Falun Gong, it doesn’t represent Falun Gong,” Stephen Gregory, who in addition to being the publisher is a longtime Li follower, told an Associated Press reporter in 2007. “It does cover the persecution of Falun Gong in China.” Meanwhile, in online commentary, Li—whose connection to the paper was always kept vague—continued to emphasize the spiritual function of what he called “our media.” In 2009, he delivered an address in the Epoch Times New York newsroom, congratulating the staff for successfully raising awareness of his movement’s struggle and its worldview. He said that they’d had a “major impact in Fa-rectification.”

Staff rarely speak publicly about the newspaper’s affiliation with Falun Gong. Several current and past employees did not reply to my interview requests. Some who did expressed distrust of mainstream media. Those who agreed to speak, including people who worked alongside Klett, preferred to do so anonymously.

On pureinsight.org, a Falun Gong website, I found a testimonial about the experience of working at the Epoch Times, written by someone who referred to himself as a “disciple from New York, USA.” The anonymous writer, who said he began working at the paper in 2012, described waking up at 3 a.m. to distribute 5,000 newspapers across Manhattan, first on foot and later by bicycle. His manager would strap bundles of papers onto his back before he peddled away. Even in the middle of winter, when it was freezing cold and often raining, the writer said he was filled with great joy, knowing that he was on a noble mission.

He eventually moved up at the paper—to the sales department, to editorial, and finally to a digital-side role focused on boosting subscriptions. He confessed to having moments of doubt, wishing for more recognition of his work and questioning the wisdom of his superiors. But they always passed. “I see that in the coming years the amount of work will be daunting as the Epoch Times is expanding across the US and the world,” the disciple wrote. “However, I feel that Master has arranged the wind to be in our sails, and that he is guiding every step in both my and the whole media’s development. As long as I don’t impede Master, there shouldn’t be anything that we can’t do.”

Writing or editing for the Epoch Times became an extension of Fa-rectification, the cosmic mission of saving souls.

By the time Klett was hired, the paper was a purportedly objective outlet with an unconditional bias made obscure to outsiders. One way that bias manifested was in prohibitions on certain content. “Truth and Tradition” meant that reporters could not cover modern music or art, only the classics. Stories about the LGBTQ community were to be avoided—Gregory reportedly told the new digital team that it was a controversial topic that conflicted with the family-friendly position of the paper.

Besides joking about it with Jenna—she liked to say that they’d been hired by a weird cult—Klett didn’t think much about Falun Gong or how it shaped his job. It wasn’t his goal to empathize with the movement’s belief system, which, as far as he could tell, was at odds with his own. He just wanted to reach his weekly target of 100,000 clicks.

Klett achieved this convenient detachment through an intellectual sleight of hand. In college, he’d read postmodern theories by thinkers who seemed to drive a wedge between language and meaning—to insist that words had a multiplicity of possible interpretations that exceeded the intentions of any author or speaker. Klett, who in conversations with me made reference more than once to the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, imagined himself as a kind of postmodern information worker: He generated “content” the meaning and significance of which had nothing to do with him. It was a formal exercise, one that he was getting better at every day.

A contemporary of Klett’s preferred theorists was Paul de Man, a Belgian national who was a professor of literature at Yale. His controversial, yet influential, thesis held that a text was a paradox no one should seek to resolve; language always contained contradictions, and it was the task of the reader to identify them while resisting the impulse to privilege one interpretation over another. When it was revealed in the years after his death that, during World War II, de Man had written some 200 articles for several Nazi-controlled newspapers—and that some of what he’d published had been anti-Semitic—his acolytes were forced to reckon with his legacy. Some disavowed him. Others tried to redeem him with evidence of good behavior; they pointed out, for instance, that de Man sheltered Jewish friends in his apartment during the war. Derrida went one step further: On close reading, he argued, de Man’s writings revealed a subversive, anti-anti-Semitic interpretation.

For his longtime critics, the disclosure of de Man’s past was vindicating. By reveling in contradiction, they argued, de Man had adopted an essentially nihilistic mode of critique. As one writer put it, he was a “connoisseur of nothingness”—a phrase that could easily apply to Klett during his stint at the Epoch Times.

Still, there were moments that rattled Klett. On June 12, 2016, a gunman opened fire at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing 49 people and wounding 53 others. The story broke over the weekend. When Klett arrived at work Monday morning, he noticed that none of the accounts of the incident on the Epoch Times’ website mentioned that Pulse was a gay club. He strategized how he could pitch a story to his editors that acknowledged the facts while bypassing the newspaper’s vague prohibition against covering LGBTQ issues.

That day he was working with an editor named Henry Bevington, a perpetually chipper Australian man with a wispy black beard who wore paisley button-down shirts. Bevington brought Klett tea each morning, pouring it from a red kettle. He was more visible in his allegiance to Falun Gong than some other staff; he once came to work dressed in the movement’s trademark yellow T-shirt after attending a demonstration to raise awareness about persecution in China. Klett realized Bevington might be wedded to the values that determined the paper’s coverage.

Klett pitched a story about the shooting that focused on a speech that Trump, who was still seeking the Republican nomination, had made in the aftermath. Trump split with other Republicans by expressing solidarity with the LGBTQ community. Klett figured that because Trump’s stance on other issues was conservative, the approach might work. Plus, stories Klett had written about Trump had generated a lot of clicks, including one about a Mexican restaurant owner who tripled her business after Trump brought her onstage at a rally. But Klett received a curt no.

Usually, he might have complained to Jenna about the incident and moved on. But he felt pained by the attack on the LGBTQ community, and angry that it hadn’t been acknowledged at his workplace. He sent Fakkert and Bevington an article from a left-leaning blog pointing out how some Republican responses to the shooting had erased the identities of the people targeted. According to Klett, Bevington approached his desk and, with a smile, told him that he didn’t understand the point of the article. “Some people don’t believe in that,” Bevington said, seeming to refer to homosexuality. “You can’t fault someone for not saying something.”

Klett excused himself, walked to the bathroom, and splashed cold water on his face. When he returned to his desk, he sat down and started writing an article about the Orlando shooting that didn’t include the word “gay.” It focused on how, in the wake of the tragedy, President Barack Obama hadn’t used the phrase “radical Islam.”

That words could have multiple, sometimes contradictory interpretations was an idea Klett had found fascinating in a theoretical context. It had been useful in his studies and personal writing. Now, though, it seemed as if he was being asked to use that idea to make real-world events seem uncertain, contested. In retrospect, it was a harbinger of what was to come.

IV.

By the time Trump became the Republican nominee, in the late summer of 2016, the digital team had morphed. Jenna had been laid off for failing to generate sufficient clicks; the reporter who covered crime had been let go, too. Klett, meanwhile, had been promoted. Now earning an extra $500 a month, he wrote his usual number of digital stories as well as the occasional feature for the print newspaper.

When Trump promoted the outrageous lie that Obama and Hillary Clinton were “founders” of ISIS, Klett wrote a story without critical evaluation; the fact of Trump’s comments, rather than their veracity, was what mattered. This seemed more or less in keeping with the Epoch Times’ professed commitment to unbiased coverage and its desire to ramp up page views—inflammatory comments by public figures drive clicks, after all. Other developments, however, made it hard to ignore that an unspoken enthusiasm for the Republican candidate had taken hold in the newsroom. There had been a palpable shift in the paper’s editorial direction, and it seemed to come straight from the top.

While other media outlets reported on Trump’s outlandish and incendiary Twitter behavior, Klett said that his editors discouraged him from covering it. After submitting a story comparing Trump’s and Clinton’s immigration policies, he received an email with feedback from Stephen Gregory; it was important, the publisher explained, to note that Trump was the only candidate addressing the fact that an “open border” allowed gangs, criminals, and terrorists to enter the country. Overall, Gregory said, Clinton’s policies would amplify the power of the executive branch and diminish that of Congress, continuing the legacy of Obama’s presidency.

In another instance, Klett was asked to read over a colleague’s story comparing Trump’s and Clinton’s economic policies. There was one line that caught his attention: “Trump seeks to revive American greatness with policies aimed at kick-starting economic growth.” Klett told his colleague that the word “greatness” was biased and a regurgitation of Trump’s campaign slogan. The colleague, according to Klett, said that Gregory had inserted the line.

Klett noticed that a number of journalists from the print side—mostly young men who practiced Falun Gong and had worked at the paper for a while—were becoming more brazen in their support of far-right ideas. One colleague shared a video by internet pundit Stefan Molyneux, whose YouTube channel promoted scientific racism and white nationalism. Echoing boilerplate language from the right-wing internet, staff said they didn’t necessarily believe everything they circulated in the office, but at least it was an alternative to the lies propagated by mainstream outlets. With blithe arrogance, most U.S. media used the cover of objectivity to conceal liberal bias. Truth tellers—like themselves, even like Molyneux—were pushing against this hegemony, courageously pursuing fair reporting and highlighting ideas that the corrupt media elite would not.

A number of journalists from the print side—mostly young men who practiced Falun Gong and had worked at the paper for a while—were becoming more brazen in their support of far-right ideas. 

Maybe it shouldn’t have been surprising, given its roots, that the Epoch Times would employ people suspicious of establishment forces, or that its socially conservative ethos would make it a natural mouthpiece for Trumpism. Nor, perhaps, should it have shocked anyone that the paper, created with the explicit goal of waging an information war, would thrive in a propaganda-rich election season rife with conspiracy theories. Still, given its affiliation with Falun Gong, the outfit was something of an unexpected player in the right-wing media ecosystem emboldened by Trump’s candidacy. Where its role made the most sense was with regard to China. The paper boosted Trump’s pledges to get tough on Beijing if he was elected. An article Klett wrote about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump wanted to leave and Clinton wanted to strengthen, was syndicated by Infowars.

Klett discussed with his parents the option of quitting. They told him that just because the work was difficult wasn’t a reason to leave, that the time had come for him to accept the reality of adult life, that it would show strength of character to persevere under challenging circumstances. He also discussed his dilemma with Martin, his roommate. At the time, Martin was using his law degree to represent landlords in the Bronx. Just as Klett disliked writing pro-Trump propaganda for a fringe newspaper, Martin didn’t want to evict families from their homes. That millennials had to do work at odds with their political values wasn’t their fault; it was a sign of a fundamental failure of “the system,” Martin insisted, proof of how neoliberal hegemony and late-stage capitalism destroyed the soul. A political revolution was necessary.

This made sense to Klett, and helped him justify going to work every day. He also found it difficult to quit the paper because of how nice everyone in the office was, how misaligned their personal conduct seemed with their political motivations. His editors were helpful, attentive, supportive. They often congratulated him on the work he was doing and rewarded him with longer-form assignments, sometimes even front-page features in the print paper. They knew that he didn’t necessarily share their views, but they were convinced of the basic goodness of their mission and, it seemed to Klett, assumed he’d eventually come around.

Perhaps that’s why, on September 15, 2016, Fakkert asked him to attend a speech Trump was giving to the Economic Club of New York at the Waldorf Astoria hotel. Klett arrived at 9:30 a.m., stoned, wearing a vest and a magenta shirt—Fakkert had told him to dress nicely. He met Valentin Schmid, a journalist from the print side. They were ushered to an upstairs press gallery where a few dozen journalists sat staring at their phones. The attendees in the ballroom were dressed in tuxedos and ball gowns—extravagant, Klett thought, for a lunch event. After taking their seats, the guests were served plates of chicken.

Mike Pence appeared on the ballroom’s stage, gave a brief address about economic prosperity, and then introduced Trump. The candidate spoke of his strong polling numbers in Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio, about jobs and manufacturing, immigration, the failures of the Obama administration, and, finally, the corporate tax cuts he was planning to roll out. Klett noticed that Schmid was the only journalist who clapped along with the crowd, prompting other reporters to look at him incredulously, which made Klett feel paranoid.

After the event, Schmid took Klett out for lunch at a bistro on 57th Street. Schmid, who was from Germany, wore polo shirts with upturned collars and had a lazy eye. He was among the coterie of young men on the print side who had taken a liking to Trump and his messaging. As they sat eating—Klett a burger, his colleague a steak—Schmid held forth about why Trump appealed to his libertarian sensibilities. To him, Trump was unafraid to speak the truth. The people who feared him most were those in the liberal mainstream media and political elites accustomed to pulling the strings of power in their own favor.

Klett had heard all this before—talk of absorbing bullshit from a broken system before seeing the light, recognizing who the real villains are. He knew that many on the print side were seekers, people who had been on tumultuous, sometimes strange personal journeys before finding Falun Gong and, through that, the Epoch Times. Some had lived in hippie communes. Others had partied as a way to distract themselves from their inner dissatisfaction. In a way, Klett thought, they were not unlike other people from his life: fellow loners in college, the queer community in Pennsylvania, the poetry freaks at the New School, the leftists he met in Brooklyn bars, his roommate. They all felt alienated from reality and wanted a radical change.

Schmid asked Klett about his own political ideology. Klett said he didn’t really have a coherent one, but that he had anarchist leanings. “Aha, so you want what I want,” Schmid replied, taking a bite of his steak. “I want to tear down the system, like you.”

V.

Around then, in September, a group of interns arrived at the Epoch Times. One afternoon, Klett walked into the kitchen to find one of the new arrivals busy on her laptop. She was tall, with straight black hair tied up in a bun; a single blue streak matched the color of her eyeshadow. Klett introduced himself. She looked up and, in a heavy accent, said her name was Gaia Cristofaro. She had just arrived from Italy and was interning with the newspaper’s design team. Klett said that he wrote about politics for the digital side. She said that she didn’t like politics. “Nobody does,” he replied.

Three days later, he again crossed paths with her in the kitchen and decided to sit down for a longer chat. Often he found conversations with people from the print side awkward. Not with Cristofaro. They spoke about art and music and literature. Both had strong opinions about Derrida and Franz Kafka. Both listened to the band Thee Silver Mt. Zion. Both admired the paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Cristofaro showed Klett some of the sketches she was working on for the design team. He was impressed. He found her captivating.

They started taking lunch breaks together. Cristofaro—who did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story—was 33 and an artist. She had grown up in Florence, right by the Duomo. She had been rebellious in her younger years, but it left her feeling discontented and lost. She came across one of Li’s books. She had been raised Catholic, and the strict morality and spiritual teleology of Falun Gong resonated with her, as did Li’s supposition that the modern world was degenerate. Cristofaro had since maintained a strict cultivation practice and given much of her spare time to the Falun Gong community. She had organized an art exhibition in Florence on behalf of the movement. And now she was in New York, ready to help in the service of hongfa, before one of the most unusual elections in U.S. history—one in which the candidate the Epoch Times had all but endorsed was turning the very notion of truth on its head.

At lunch one day, Klett noticed that Cristofaro had not touched any of her cucumber sushi. She had dark circles around her eyes, and her hands were shaking. Klett asked if everything was OK. Cristofaro apologized. She hadn’t got much rest, she said, since arriving in the city. Her work schedule—Monday through Friday, 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.—on top of exercise, meditation, and reading groups with other Epoch Times employees, meant that she had almost no time to herself. Moreover, the room where she was staying in Jersey City, which had been assigned to her by the newspaper, was in the same building where other staff lived. It was more like a big dorm than an apartment complex, she said. She found it uncomfortable and dirty. There was no privacy. She couldn’t sleep.

To make matters worse, Cristofaro had initially been promised that she’d contribute illustrations to the paper, but her superiors now insisted that she work on formatting and other menial tasks. Cristofaro put her head in her hands. “What am I doing here?” she asked Klett.

Cristofaro and Klett began to meet outside work hours. One Sunday, she told him that she was in the United States on a vacation visa and that she wasn’t being paid for her time at the paper. According to Klett, Cristofaro said that uncompensated work was common among Falun Gong practitioners—a claim echoed in news reports and first-person accounts by former acolytes that I read during my reporting. Believers could volunteer at one of the many organizations around the world associated with the movement: an Epoch Times bureau, New Tang Dynasty Television, a magazine called Taste of Life, or the Shen Yun dance company, which is based at the Dragon Springs compound and infamous in New York City for its ubiquitous advertising. Cristofaro had done other internships and enjoyed them, but so far this one had been mostly unpleasant.

Klett wanted to help but didn’t know how. His colleagues on the digital team teased him that he was moving over to the dark side. “Just watch out, or she’ll make you join that group,” one told him. On a Friday afternoon, as Klett was getting ready to clock out, Fakkert asked for a minute of his time. He said that Klett was spending too much time exchanging messages with Cristofaro on the office’s internal chat system. They needed to focus more on their work.

After the encounter, Klett asked Cristofaro who else knew about their friendship. She said that her immediate boss and maybe one other colleague did. Later she sent Klett a message. “Now that I think about it better,” it read, an editor “told me not talk with you too much, he said that very casually.”

“Ciao have a good weekend,” Cristofaro said, “and forget about that.”

Cristofaro had been raised Catholic, and the strict morality and spiritual teleology of Falun Gong resonated with her, as did Li’s supposition that the modern world was degenerate.

Klett decided to keep his distance from Cristofaro in the office. Outside work, however, they saw each other more often. One day in October, they went to Radio City Music Hall to see the Icelandic group Sigur Rós perform. They arrived at the venue early and took their seats. When the music started—ethereal, ambient—they kissed for the first time. Over the next two weeks, they hung out in bars in the West Village after work. As they talked about their lives, or when they kissed by the station where Cristofaro caught a train back to Jersey City, she would remind Klett that she was leaving in November, when her visa expired.

Everything was hurtling toward November. When he wasn’t with Cristofaro or thinking about her, Klett was ensconced in political news and polls. Every time Trump made a shocking new claim—the system is rigged, Hillary is sick, what about her emails?—Klett would observe as the mainstream media reacted with disbelief. This is not America, he heard liberal pundits say. Wasn’t it, though? Plenty of people reading his articles were Americans who liked Trump. It seemed to Klett that divisions ran so deep in America’s collective psyche that one side could no longer see the other.

Living and working amid so much bifurcation was exhausting. Klett was looking forward to the time after the election when things would return to normal. But then, in the last week of October, something changed in the office. Without warning, Fakkert began ignoring the digital team, not hearing their pitches or assigning them articles. They went from pumping out several pieces a day to more or less sitting idle at their desks.

On October 27, the HR manager summoned them into a small office. He told the group sympathetically that digital journalism was more difficult to break into than the paper had first imagined. Other publications were laying people off. The Epoch Times simply couldn’t afford to keep the team on any longer. Their employment was being terminated.

Based on the paper’s web traffic, this didn’t immediately add up to Klett. What’s more, the election was only a week away—it seemed absurd that the paper would get rid of him, a politics reporter. Klett wondered if there was another reason the team was being let go, one he couldn’t see.

He walked out of the room in a daze. Standing there was Fakkert, who took him by the shoulders and cried. Klett started to laugh.

The election was only a week away—it seemed absurd that the paper would get rid of him, a politics reporter.

The next week passed in a blur. Klett watched the news and checked the latest polls, now without purpose. He messaged Cristofaro, trying to arrange times to see her, but she was always caught up with work or cultivation. Finally, in early November, Klett received a text inviting him to dinner in Chelsea. It was her going-away party. She was leaving the next day.

When Klett arrived at the restaurant, Cristofaro was already there with a few other Epoch Times employees and a man she had befriended in a park while doing Falun Gong exercises. They ate pizza and then got gelato. The man from the park did most of the talking, spouting conspiracy theories that he said he’d learned about from Infowars.

Eventually, Klett and Cristofaro walked to the Strand bookstore, then to a movie. Afterward, Klett accompanied Cristofaro to her train. They kissed. He asked if she would consider coming back to his place, to spend one night together. She said no. She told Klett that he wasn’t “virtuous” enough. Cristofaro had hinted before that it was somehow immoral for them to spend time together, that it contravened a code of behavior expected of her by Falun Gong. If Klett wasn’t a practitioner, they couldn’t be together.

Three nights later, with Cristofaro back in Florence, Klett opened a bottle of wine with Martin and sat down to watch the election results. Despite everything he’d seen as a politics reporter—from the shrewd manipulation of content at the Epoch Times, to the devious fearmongering at Breitbart News, to the full-blown conspiracy peddling of Infowars—he still believed that Clinton would win. As he watched the results trickle in, he realized his error. Martin opened another bottle of wine. “Goddammit, I don’t want to have to see Donald Trump’s fucking face for the next four years,” he said.

Klett was silent. He told himself this wasn’t his fault—he was just a lowly worker at an obscure newspaper that had a curious affiliation with the rise of Trumpism. He felt a familiar sensation, one he’d had when he worried about his family’s German ancestry and saw himself holding the knife used to kill Nicole Brown Simpson. Reality was wobbling. But whether Klett was ready to admit it or not, this time his imagination wasn’t to blame. By writing the news, he had become part of the story.

VI.

Klett was unemployed until the following June, when he was hired by the International Business Times. Again he was a digital content writer, required to generate as many articles as possible to get as many clicks as possible. Coincidentally, IBT had been linked to a controversial religious sect known as the Community, a fact that Klett wasn’t aware of when he was hired. In a corner cubicle near Wall Street, he trawled Twitter looking for trending news he could repackage for the website—a celebrity feud, Martin Shkreli controversies, Trump’s Twitter meltdowns. His performance was measured by software called Chartbeat, which his editor monitored assiduously. Klett told me that he was fired after six weeks for not meeting his click quota.

He found a job writing copy for a vaping company. At the time, he was also working on his second poetry collection, The Book of Gaia. After saying goodbye to Cristofaro in early November, Klett thought they’d never speak again. But she’d messaged him the next morning—a cell phone video shot from her plane as it took off, Manhattan receding into the clouds. They’d been texting and making plans to see one another ever since. After a few months, Klett had accrued enough miles on his credit card for a trip to Italy. In September 2017, he boarded a plane, shaking and giddy. It was his first time traveling to Europe.

Klett stayed with Cristofaro in her mother’s apartment in Florence. They took long walks, and Cristofaro was knowledgeable about the city’s heritage. She was also angry at what she perceived as intruding vulgarities—commercialism, tourism, even contemporary art. One afternoon, as they passed the Duomo, Cristofaro stopped in front of the cathedral and wept. It was offensive, she said, that people would simply gawk and take pictures of the building without understanding its context.

Klett learned about Cristofaro’s daily Falun Gong cultivation practice. She meditated at six-hour intervals—dawn, midday, dusk, midnight. He would sit with her and hold her hands while she did it. The thought occurred to him that if he started practicing Falun Gong, their relationship would deepen. “Why don’t you just do it?” a friend asked him. “You could have it all!”

It wasn’t an option, though. Klett didn’t want cosmic answers for everything in his life, and he didn’t like cultivation. He had become more politically active since leaving the Epoch Times. He now volunteered with the Democratic Socialists of America. There was no way he could square his political beliefs or his identity with Falun Gong, even for the person he loved.

Klett worked up the courage to ask Cristofaro how she reconciled the supposed morality of Falun Gong with what she said had happened in New York, the way she’d been exploited at work. She said that she felt like some people in the newspaper office had been corrupted by America, that they had lost their way and were no longer engaging dutifully with Li’s teachings. Klett suggested that maybe Falun Gong had lost its way. Cristofaro became angry and, through tears, told him that as a non-practitioner he had no idea what he was talking about.

Despite the disagreement with Cristofaro, after arriving back in New York, Klett began planning for a return to Italy. He saved money and enrolled in an English-teaching course, hoping to find work in Florence. But then, just a week before Klett was set to fly back in February 2018, Cristofaro told him that she’d changed her mind; she was seeing someone else. It was best if he didn’t come.

In a corner cubicle near Wall Street, Klett trawled Twitter looking for trending news he could repackage for the website—a celebrity feud, Martin Shkreli controversies, Trump’s Twitter meltdowns.

Klett retreated into himself. He worked from home, writing for the vaping company. In his spare time, he read about the Mueller investigation. He began imagining himself back at the Epoch Times as a bot, mindlessly churning out words that became tangled in algorithms that pushed disinformation. When Klett published a blog post on Medium about his experience at the newspaper, he expected it to go mostly unnoticed.

In the spring of 2019, however, he received a message from an investigative journalist at NBC who wanted to talk to him about what he’d written. Klett agreed to meet at the NBC office in Manhattan. By coincidence, the appointment was scheduled on World Falun Gong Day. When Klett got off the train at 47th Street, he found himself surrounded by practitioners marching in celebration. Among the sea of yellow shirts, Klett thought he spotted Valentin Schmid. He lowered his head and made his way into the halls of NBC.

A few months later, NBC News published an online exposé about the Epoch Times’ rise as a right-wing media outlet. It revealed the paper’s massive spending on pro-Trump Facebook ads. It also identified employees who had splintered off to create hugely popular YouTube channels, including Edge of Wonder, which had hundreds of thousands of subscribers. The channel’s upbeat hosts pushed the QAnon conspiracy theory with a smile. Klett recognized them from the paper’s print side.

The NBC investigation wasn’t the first to describe the relationship between the Epoch Times and far-right forces. In 2017, a journalist went undercover at the paper’s Berlin office and found strong support for Alternative for Germany, the country’s nationalist party. The next fall, BuzzFeed News detailed how the paper had pushed the debunked “Spygate” conspiracy theory, which proposed that the Obama administration had infiltrated Trump’s presidential campaign. Then, in May 2019, the progressive nonprofit Acronym identified the Epoch Times as one of the biggest spenders on pro-Trump video content on Facebook.

The NBC investigation went further, emphasizing the connection between the Epoch Times’ political bias and Falun Gong’s apocalyptic worldview. “Former practitioners of Falun Gong told NBC News that believers think the world is headed toward a judgment day, where those labeled ‘communists’ will be sent to a kind of hell, and those sympathetic to the spiritual community will be spared,” the article read. “Trump is viewed as a key ally in the anti-communist fight.”

Stephen Gregory published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal describing NBC’s reporting as “agenda-driven journalism” that was “in line with Beijing’s propaganda.” He claimed that the Facebook ads in question weren’t pro-Trump—they merely spotlighted the newspaper’s work in order to boost subscriptions. “Because we’ve taken the lead in reporting on Spygate … these ads often feature articles reporting on President Trump. That doesn’t make them ads for Mr. Trump,” Gregory wrote. He denied any direct connection between Falun Gong and his newspaper. Klett noticed that some of his former colleagues took to social media to say that no one accused The New York Times of being a Jewish newspaper despite the many Jewish people on staff. (An Epoch Times contributor made similar comments to me in an interview.)

The newspaper started running online ads under the auspices of entities with names like Pure American Journalism and Best News. This went against Facebook’s transparency rules, and in August 2019, the platform banned the Epoch Times from advertising. The paper found other avenues to spread its message. A website called the BL, or Beauty of Life, created a network of phony Facebook profiles, including some with computer-generated faces, which were used to amplify the reach of pro-Trump content. Gregory denied ties between the BL and the Epoch Times, but in December 2019, Facebook told the technology news website The Verge that BL executives “were active admins on Epoch Media Group Pages as recently as this morning when their accounts were deactivated and the BL was removed.”

Meanwhile, at least one news report suggested that the paper’s digital media strategy was influenced by Chris Kitze, an entrepreneur who a decade prior essentially invented the idea of using conspiracy theories to generate viral content with his website BeforeItsNews.com. Kitze happened to be a longtime Falun Gong practitioner.

VII.

There is a slogan inscribed on the main gate of the western wall of Zhongnanhai: “Long live the great Chinese Communist Party.” After 10,000 Falun Gong devotees gathered in protest next to the compound in 1999, China scholars and observers had to wonder: Where did this spiritual movement, which claimed millions of followers in a country that demanded faith only in the ruling party, come from?

One explanation, according to some historians, was that Falun Gong was best understood as a modern incarnation of the White Lotus society, a secretive Buddhist sect that emerged within Chinese peasant communities in the 14th century. Its adherents, said to practice esoteric rites under the cover of night, were considered religious zealots who prophesied the imminent arrival of a messianic bodhisattva who would usher in an era of universal enlightenment. When news of the White Lotus reached the ruling class, the group was deemed a cult. Its rituals were banned, forcing the White Lotus underground. Practicing became a political act, radicalizing segments of society that went on to participate in the bloody rebellions that brought down the Yuan Empire. Over subsequent centuries, fearing the populist power of the spiritual movement, imperial forces responded to reports of White Lotus activities with claims that the group was evil and dangerous.

The hypothesis offered by some of the first scholars of Falun Gong, and repeated by Western media, was that the conflict between Li’s followers and the CCP was, in essence, another cycle in the long history of state versus cult. When I began reporting this story, that struck me as a good framework for understanding Falun Gong and its motivations. But then I found the work of Barend ter Haar, a Dutch professor of Chinese history and religion. He believes that it’s possible much of the primary documentation about the White Lotus—police inquiries, court proceedings, reports, even individual confessions—was fabricated by ruling forces. In other words, the White Lotus might be a myth used by the elite to strike fear into the public and, when convenient, to inculpate political dissidents in a nefarious cabal. It might be fake news.

While reading ter Haar’s research, I felt something akin to the sensation Klett had described, of reality wobbling. It wasn’t the first time a factual bedrock seemed to fall away in my reporting. Researching Falun Gong and the Epoch Times was like holding a sieve. I would establish what I thought was true, only to find enough contradictory information to raise a doubt in my mind. Facts were hard to distinguish from ideological constructions. The layers of spin and myth seemed endless.

I wanted a concrete truth, however tangential or unlikely, to round out my reporting. On a warm Friday evening in late June 2020, Klett pulled up outside my apartment building in a dark blue Toyota Sienna. I got in the back, pushing aside empty cardboard boxes and coffee cups. Klett introduced me to his girlfriend, Arielle, who was sitting up front. He apologized for being late; he had just clocked out at his job delivering pharmaceuticals around Brooklyn, which he’d picked up at the start of the year to earn some extra money. It had been deemed essential work as COVID-19 rippled through the neighborhoods he served.

The pandemic had been a boon for the Epoch Times. When the coronavirus first hit, the paper ratcheted up its anti-China content. It was among the first outlets to spread the story that COVID-19—“the CCP virus,” as the paper dubbed it—was bioengineered and released from a Wuhan research laboratory. In April, the paper unveiled a 54-minute documentary on a subsidiary YouTube channel, “exposing” the “origin of the CCP virus.” It also produced an eight-page special edition entitled “How the Chinese Communist Party Endangered the World” and sent it unsolicited to tens of thousands of mailboxes in the United States, Canada, and Australia. On July 4, it would publish an article promoting the practice of Falun Gong as an antidote to pandemic-induced stress.

Klett and I had been speaking on the phone at night, nailing down the details of his story. He seemed less interested in the Epoch Times’ pandemic propaganda or the impact of his work at the newspaper than in whether there really was a compound in New Jersey where Falun Gong housed overworked acolytes. I had found an online testimonial that described “dorms” provided for practitioners working at the Epoch Times. I asked Klett if he had any way of determining the location of Cristofaro’s old apartment. He had a vague sense that it was near Journal Square in Jersey City. He also had an idea: What if we waited outside the newspaper’s office in Manhattan and, when an employee came out, followed them home?

That’s what we set out to do that Friday. After crossing the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan, we approached an exit to Chinatown. Klett pointed to a large billboard featuring a woman leaping into the air, her legs in a split and parallel to the ground, white skirt fanned out against a bright shade of emerald. The copy read, “2020 Shen Yun. 5,000 years of civilization reborn.”

“It’s like I can’t escape them,” Klett said.

We identified two young employees—both wearing cream-colored chinos and blue shirts, with Epoch Times lanyards around their necks—emerging from the newspaper’s office on 28th Street and 7th Avenue. We followed them to New Jersey. In Hoboken, we saw them enter a three-story apartment building. I checked the names on the mailboxes. Nothing stood out. A cardboard box left outside held a dozen secondhand books about Frank Sinatra, including His Way, an unauthorized biography that claimed to go “behind the iconic myth of Sinatra to expose the well-hidden side of one of the most celebrated—and elusive—public figures of our time.”

If a compound for Epoch Times staff existed, this wasn’t it.

As we drove back to Brooklyn, fireworks exploded overhead. There had been a relentless barrage for the past few weeks, colorful explosions beginning each night at sundown and not letting up until early morning. Some New Yorkers were frustrated by the disturbances, while others speculated about their origin in increasingly conspiratorial terms.

Arielle said that she had read—on Twitter somewhere—that there was a man in a white SUV driving around neighborhoods handing out fireworks to young kids. Setting them off was intended to cause chaos and push civilians into a heightened state of alert to prepare for an upcoming military takeover. I stayed silent. Klett laughed.

“At this point,” he said. “I’d believe anything.”

The Epoch Times was among the first outlets to spread the story that COVID-19—“the CCP virus,” as the paper dubbed it—was bioengineered and released from a Wuhan research laboratory.

It’s hard not to empathize—at least to some degree—with Klett’s credulity. We live in a world where a kaleidoscope of information sources compete for our attention, making truth seem relative and waking life feel like an epistemic free-for-all. Journalists have unwittingly promoted or generated propaganda. In September, reports emerged that the Russian troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency had hired U.S. reporters to contribute content to a site targeting left-leaning voters with misinformation.  

Trust is eroding, ambivalence is soaring, and, for many people, seeking is becoming a steady state of being. For some, like Klett, detachment—from responsibility, from consequences, from facts—is a defense mechanism. But what does that mean for questions of rightness and moral conviction? Often they are sidelined by apathy and languish, unanswered.

The ultimate beneficiaries are ideologues and megalomaniacs willing to manipulate people’s grasp on reality, along with the opportunists who glom onto their rise. The Epoch Times is an example of the latter: It has capitalized on Trumpism, hoping to promote its versions of truth and tradition and to tip the balance of power in Falun Gong’s information war with Beijing. In a sense, the paper is succeeding. In June, the State Department released a statement designating the U.S. operations of China Central Television, China News Service, the People’s Daily, and the Global Times “foreign missions.” It continued, “While Western media are beholden to the truth, PRC media are beholden to the Chinese Communist Party.” Meanwhile, the Epoch Times was cozier than ever with the Trump administration. Its reporters received special treatment in press briefings, alongside alternative outlets like Gateway Pundit and One America News. In Falun Gong’s decades-long quest for Fa-rectification, there is arguably no more resounding success than having the attention of the White House.

By the end of the summer, a paywall ad promised that, for $77 a year, the Epoch Times’ online subscribers would “get real news other outlets don’t report” from “one of the few media that report factually on President Donald Trump.” As of this writing, the paper routinely mixes pro-Trump messages with anti-China ones. Its daily email newsletter has implied more than once that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden might be in league with the CCP for his family’s own business interests. Trump, meanwhile, is portrayed as committed to protecting America from China’s influence.

Many editions of the newsletter feature glowing quotes from subscribers in praise of the outlet’s mission and values. After witnessing “the contempt for America and its people [that] oozes from mainstream news sources,” one woman says, the Epoch Times “restored my faith in journalism.” Another quote describes the newspaper as “the bible of journalism.”

“Thank God for the TET,” it concludes, “providing truth in a world blinded by fake news.”


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The Pretender

THE PRETENDER

People in Blooming Prairie, Minnesota, thought Lois Riess was a nice wife and grandmother. If she had a vice, it was playing the slots. Then she committed murder.

By John Rosengren

The Atavist Magazine, No. 107


John Rosengren is a journalist based in Minneapolis who has written for more than 100 publications, including The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated, and The Washington Post Magazine. He is the author of nine books, including Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Nina Zweig
Illustrator: Jennifer Dionisio

Published in September 2020.

Part One

On the evening of Friday, March 23, 2018, the police department in Blooming Prairie, Minnesota, dispatched two officers to check on a man named Dave Riess. They drove up a winding dirt drive to a modest tan rambler. The house was dark. So too was the long, low-slung building, located about 50 paces from the front door, where Dave raised fishing bait at the Prairie Wax Worm Farm.

None of Dave’s employees nor his business partner had seen or talked to him for almost two weeks. He hadn’t picked up or returned their calls. They had received responses to texts, but Dave usually dictated his messages, which made the words run together. These replies used punctuation.

Stranger still, Dave was supposed to have left for a fishing tournament in Illinois on Tuesday, March 20. He would have taken his white Cadillac Escalade, which was what he typically used to pull his 20-foot-long boat. But on Thursday, two worm-farm employees saw Lois, Dave’s wife of 35 years, pull out of the driveway in the Escalade. They hadn’t seen her since.

Concern soon escalated to alarm, and the employees called the police.

Blooming Prairie is a blink of a town in southeastern Minnesota. It’s a stop along the railroad tracks that run parallel to U.S. Highway 218, surrounded by vast fields of corn and soybeans. There’s a two-block Main Street of brick buildings, with storefronts that include B-Z Hardware, Farmers & Merchants State Bank, and J & H Liquors. A neat grid of quiet streets about a mile and a half square contain mostly single-story houses. Blooming Prairie is a town of about 1,900 people who leave their front doors unlocked and know each other by their first names. It’s not a place steeped in intrigue. At least it wasn’t.

The Riesses’ home was in the country—a mile south on 218, past six massive grain bins that sat on the edge of town. The night the police visited was dark and cold, with snow still on the ground. No one answered the door. The two officers walked around the house’s perimeter and noticed light coming from an open bathroom window. One hoisted up the other to peer inside. He spotted what appeared to be a body covered with a blanket.

The cops summoned two deputies from the Dodge County Sheriff’s Office, who went inside the house. They found Dave Riess on the floor. He had been shot twice with a .22 handgun—once in the chest, once in the back. A bullet had pierced clean through his forearm, suggesting that he had raised it to protect himself. He’d been dead for ten days, maybe longer. His body had started to marble, bloat, and decompose.

Ask anyone in Blooming Prairie and they’ll tell you that Dave was a jovial guy. Quick with a tip on a fishing spot. Generous with his employees. Loved to tell stories. Made up funny songs. But his laugh left the biggest impression. The rumble in his throat built to an eruption that shook his husky frame. Soon you were laughing, too, maybe without even realizing why. Being around Dave just felt good.

“He was my best buddy,” Jerry Bissell, a Blooming Prairie resident, told me recently. “Every day I go by their house, I wonder what the hell happened up there.” To find out, law enforcement had to answer another question: What the hell happened to Lois Riess?

Blooming Prairie is a town of about 1,900 people who leave their front doors unlocked and know each other by their first names. It’s not a place steeped in intrigue. At least it wasn’t.

South Padre Island is a narrow strip of land in the Gulf of Mexico at the southernmost tip of Texas. It’s a popular vacation spot for families and retirees. On April 9, 2018, a middle-aged woman with long blond hair checked into the island’s Motel 6, a white complex with blue doors. She requested an out-of-the-way room and paid cash in advance for a week’s stay.

Two days later, in the early afternoon on Wednesday, April 11, the woman left Room 227 and walked across the parking lot to the Padre Rita Grill for lunch. The owner, Cathy Laferty, a friendly 61-year-old with blond hair herself, greeted the woman and complimented her cute outfit and matching hat. “What’s your name?” Laferty asked.

“L—,” the woman hesitated, “Donna.”

“Like Madonna?”

“Yeah. That’s why I just go by Donna.”

It became their little joke, and how the woman introduced herself around South Padre, where she decided to stay awhile. Donna returned to the grill daily, often in the evening, when there was live music. “She was happy, laughed a lot. A delightful person,” Laferty said. “I probably would’ve hired her if she’d asked for a job.” Donna liked to sit at the corner of the bar, where she could talk to people on either side of her. She was sociable, striking up conversations with waitstaff and other customers. She mentioned that she’d been in Florida previously but had found it overrun with old people. She said she was recently widowed, had come into money, and was looking to buy a condo. She asked locals like Laferty about property taxes and homeowners association fees.

She always paid in cash from a large wad, and tipped generously. The grill’s staff liked her. “I would’ve invited her to my house,” said Laura Giacchino, who waited on Donna the first time she came in. Donna flirted shamelessly with the Padre Rita bartender, Arnie, who was several years younger than she was. He flirted back, but demurred when she asked him out.

Donna made other friends around town. She met Isabel Barreiro at the Motel 6 pool. Barreiro, who was 52 and lived 75 miles away in Alamo, had come to the island by herself for a short vacation, something she frequently did. Cool, she thought when she met Donna, another woman by herself. Someone to talk to. They hit it off, had a couple of drinks, and sat “chatting and chatting,” Barreiro said later. Donna explained to Barreiro that her husband had died, tearing up as she spoke. Barreiro didn’t ask questions, to avoid being nosy.

Over the next two days they had lunch, went shopping, hung out in each other’s motel rooms, and sat on the beach. Donna posed for photos with her new friend. “She wasn’t shy with the camera,” Barreiro said. “She wanted me to take pictures of her.”

A week later, the national news sent shockwaves through the Padre Rita Grill and across South Padre Island. That’s when locals discovered Donna’s true identity. “We had no idea when she was here that she was a murderer and trying to hide,” Laferty said. “You just never know people you see on the street or who walk into your bar, who they really are.”

Dave Riess
Part Two

Born in Rochester, Minnesota—home of the Mayo Clinic—on April 24, 1963, Dave Riess grew up southeast of the city’s downtown. He was a prankster at Mayo High School, class of 1981. The spring before graduation, he enlisted in the Navy and was stationed in San Diego, where he married Lois Witte on September 17, 1982. He was 19; she was 20.

Lois was also from Rochester, the fourth of five children. Their father was an engineer at IBM. Their mother was a hoarder, which so embarrassed Lois as a teenager that she didn’t invite friends to the house. Lois left Mayo High School after the 11th grade. Following their wedding, she and Dave had three children in four years: boy, girl, boy. “She was caring, always put herself second and us kids first,” Braden, the youngest, told a reporter after his father’s death. When Dave finished serving a Navy stint in Guam, the family moved back to Rochester.

Dave drove a forklift at Crenlo, a manufacturer of metal equipment, and eventually opened the Bait Box, a small shop where he sold live bait and fishing tackle. Lois ran a day care center out of their home, which had an aboveground swimming pool in the backyard. In 2005, they moved to Blooming Prairie, where Dave could pursue his dream of opening a wax worm farm.

Several months after they arrived, on the afternoon of February 16, 2006, a fire destroyed their house. No one was hurt, but the Riesses lost everything, including their cats. The cause may have been some faulty wiring Dave had done, which he felt terrible about. In a show of sympathy, their neighbors took up a collection. “That’s something our community does for people, whether they know them or not,” said Becky Noble, executive director of the Blooming Prairie chamber of commerce.

After they’d moved back into their rebuilt house—three bedrooms, two baths—Lois set up a day care facility there. She often had hot breakfast sandwiches ready for parents dropping off their preschoolers. Once her children had children of their own, Lois lavished her five grandkids with gifts, including cell phones and ATVs they could ride around the property. She joined the women’s bowling league at Bunkies, the four-lane alley on Blooming Prairie’s Main Street. She traveled to tournaments around the state with a group of about three dozen women, Noble among them. “She was fun-loving,” Noble said. “She had the cutest smile.”

That seemed to be the consensus around town: Lois was nice. She kept a clean house. She could be thoughtful, giving some friends who liked horses a set of tumblers frosted with equine figures. When Tess and Rod Koster invited Lois and Dave to their lake house along with another couple, Lois brought steaks for dinner and made breakfast for the group.

She was a good cook. A couple of times a week, she brought lunch over to the four or five guys working at the worm farm. They especially liked her generous servings of lasagna. After she stopped running the day care, around 2014, she helped out at the farm occasionally. It became a lucrative business. The staff made weekly deliveries to Walmart, Kwik Trip, and bait shops throughout Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa. They also shipped boxes of wax worms—excellent bait to catch pan fish—all over the country. Winter was the busiest time, with the worms in high demand among ice fishermen. “That place was a moneymaking machine,” Dave’s friend Jerry Bissell said of the farm.

Dave treated his employees well. They were mostly young guys in their late teens or early twenties who came to think of him as a second father. He put gas in their trucks, gave them money when they needed it, took them fishing. “He was kind to people he didn’t even know,” said Denny Clark, another friend of Dave’s.

In fact, that’s how they met, 30 years ago when Dave was still living in Rochester and came over to Denny’s house with a mutual friend to lay some carpet as a favor. They got to talking about fishing and became fast friends. Dave and Denny rented a trailer home on the Mississippi River as a base camp for angling expeditions. They entered competitions and did well enough to win some money and be featured on television. “There was a lot of laughter in that boat,” Denny said of their trips together. “Being out there, it didn’t take a whole lot to get him laughing. He was just a happy guy.”

Lois and Dave often ate dinner at the local Servicemen’s Club. He volunteered on the board there and looked after the books. When Dave discovered someone was embezzling funds, he put a stop to it. He also campaigned for the club to start selling pull tabs, similar to lottery tickets, to raise money. The idea met with some resistance, but Dave managed to push it through.

Dave was a decent bowler, but he preferred shooting pool at the Pizza Cellar or the back room of J & H Liquors. Many days after work, he’d go into town to have a few beers—always Miller Lite—with a half dozen other men and to bullshit around the pool table. They’d often end up back at the worm farm, hanging out in the office, which Dave had equipped with a good stereo. On Sundays, the group gathered in Kelly Njos’s man cave, a shed behind his house, to watch the Vikings on the big-screen TV. Lois usually sent along something she’d made—deviled eggs or a cake.

The last time Dave’s friends saw him was at the J & H on a Thursday evening, March 8, 2018. They drank, shot pool, talked about football—nothing out of the ordinary. Looking back, they figure Dave was killed that Sunday. That’s the last time anyone saw him, when Dave and Lois went to Wisconsin to see their grandson play in a basketball tournament.

That seemed to be the consensus around town: Lois was nice. She kept a clean house. She could be thoughtful, giving some friends who liked horses a set of tumblers frosted with equine figures.

On Monday, March 12, Lois stopped by the worm farm’s office. Instead of greeting the workers warmly and asking about their weekends like she usually did, she kept her head down. “Dave’s not feeling good,” she said. “I’ve got to take care of him.”

They didn’t see her Tuesday or Wednesday. On Thursday, she came down to the office again. Dave? Still sick, she said. She was going to take him to the doctor on Friday. It seemed odd to the employees, Dave being absent and incommunicado, but he did have a history of stomach trouble. They didn’t want to bug him if he really was ill.

Lois sat at a desk in the office staring out the window toward the house. At one point, she put her head in her hands, elbows on her knees.

“You OK?” one of the employees asked.

“Yeah, fine. I didn’t sleep good last night.”

The following week, Lois said that the doctor had cleared Dave to compete in the season opener of the Cabela’s Masters Walleye Circuit, a fishing competition on the Illinois River. That meant he’d leave on Tuesday morning, pick up Denny Clark, and make the five-hour drive down to the competition site. His employees assumed that’s what Dave did—until they saw Lois drive off the property in the Escalade, two days after her husband should have taken it to the event.

The 56-year-old grandmother turned up the next day at Diamond Jo, a farm-themed casino just across the Iowa border, off I-35, a 45-minute drive from Blooming Prairie. She went there frequently, sometimes with friends. She liked to play the slot machines in the high-rollers room. At 6:30 p.m., she bought a packaged sandwich next door at the Kum & Go. Video surveillance showed her—five-foot-five, about 165 pounds—dressed in white slacks and a black-and-white-striped cardigan, unbuttoned over a purple T-shirt. Her hair was bleached to the point of looking white.

“Say, if you want to start heading south, would you take 35 south, just to keep going on down to the next state? Is that the way to go you think?” she asked a clerk while he was making change for her.

“I think so,” he said.

“OK, well thank you,” she said, her voice girlish.

It was that night when police found Dave’s body. Lois had been in and out of the house for more than a week while he lay dead in the bathroom. By the time investigators from the Dodge County Sheriff’s Office, Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, and Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation arrived at Diamond Jo the next day—having tracked Lois’s cell phone there—she was gone. Her children were distraught at the news of their father’s death and their mother’s disappearance. They had no idea where Lois was. One of her sons told an investigator that she hadn’t opened the Snapchats he’d sent her.

The Dodge County Sheriff’s Office released a statement identifying Lois as a person of interest sought by law enforcement and “known to frequent casinos.” It warned that she might be armed. (Indeed, several years earlier, her father had given her a collector’s item, his Colt Woodsman .22.) The office assigned the case to general investigator Ben Bohle, who had been with the department since 2009.

Bohle discovered that in the previous week, Lois had deposited two business checks missing from the worm farm—one for $8,684.80, the other for $1,209.60—into her husband’s personal checking account at Citizens State Bank in Glenville (now Produce State Bank), a half-hour drive from Blooming Prairie. She had then cashed three checks drawn on his account—for $2,500, $7,500, and $1,000—the last two on March 23. Bohle soon secured a warrant to arrest Lois for felony theft.

From the beginning, Lois was the only suspect in Dave’s death. “All signs pointed immediately to her,” said Brian Smith, a U.S. marshal who assisted with the investigation. But why would she kill her husband? That’s what everyone in Blooming Prairie was talking about, from impromptu musings in the aisles of Vandal’s grocery store to Mr. Pfiefer’s forensics class across town at Blooming Prairie High School, which discussed the case for several weeks.

Investigators found no evidence of Lois or Dave having an affair, nor of any domestic abuse. The fact that Lois had forged the checks and gone to the casino, along with information law enforcement had gathered about her stealing money in the past, pointed to another motive. “That was a new one on me,” Smith said. “It was hard for me to wrap my mind around someone committing a murder to feed a gambling addiction.”

Why would she kill her husband? That’s what everyone was talking about, from impromptu musings in the aisles of Vandal’s grocery store to Mr. Pfiefer’s forensics class across town at Blooming Prairie High School.

Compulsive gamblers fall into two basic categories: thrill seekers, who are usually men playing skill-based games with high stakes, wanting to win big, and escape artists, who often play slot machines, not to hit a jackpot but to enter a trancelike state. Women with a gambling habit are most likely to fall into the latter category. Electronic slot machines, “like alcohol and drugs, can be used for mood management,” according to a 2005 article about female gambling published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction. “Many women with gambling problems are seeking a way to numb emotions, shut out the world and orchestrate a time-out.”

The article continues: “As problem gambling progresses, many women become more and more isolated. This exacerbates the feelings of loneliness, shame and guilt that women with gambling problems experience.” During the course of his investigation, Smith discovered that Lois had withdrawn from family and friends of late. “I don’t know if it was a condition of her addiction, but she’d cut ties with a lot of people, family and friends,” he said. “A lot of people we talked to said, ‘Yeah, I know Lois, but I haven’t talked to her for a while.’”

Dave occasionally went to Diamond Jo with Lois, but gambling wasn’t his thing. It was hers. And it had become a problem in the years leading up to Dave’s murder. Lois had bilked several worm-farm employees, soliciting donations for a golf cart Dave could use to shuttle back and forth from the house—a vehicle that never materialized. One family member suspected that she went to the casino with money designated for the interment of her father’s remains, because his ashes had sat in her house for many months after his death in 2014. Her son Braden told Inside Edition that Lois had gambled away a $500,000 inheritance from her father. “It was all secrecy,” he said. “Gambling’s a terrible thing where it can suck people in and destroy lives.”

The most brazen theft was from Lois’s oldest sister, Kim. In October 2010, Kim’s marriage was failing, and she had a mental breakdown. Lois and Dave let Kim live with them for a while before placing her in adult foster care. In February 2012, claiming that her sister was “unable to perform tasks for daily living” or “make decisions regarding her medical needs,” Lois applied to be Kim’s legal guardian and conservator. According to forms Lois filed with the courts, her sister suffered from bipolar disorder, as well as clinical depression, and had the cognitive capacity of a ten-year-old. In required annual filings, Lois reported that her sister’s emotional, mental, and physical states had deteriorated. She noted that Kim had schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease. She also declared that Kim had obsessive compulsive disorder that caused her to go on shopping sprees and spend lavishly.

With access to Kim’s resources, which included a $200,000 inheritance from their father, Lois withdrew thousands of dollars at a time from an ATM at Diamond Jo. A court audit dated September 15, 2015, uncovered Lois’s fiduciary betrayals of her sister. They included payment of $14,070 on an alleged debt to their already-deceased father, supposed gifts to Lois’s three children totaling $15,000, and almost $8,500 in reimbursement for undocumented expenses purportedly paid by Lois. A social worker advocating on Kim’s behalf requested suspension of Lois’s role as guardian and conservator. Lois had explanations, but the court didn’t buy them. On October 8, 2015, her guardianship was suspended, and four months later she was officially discharged. (Kim, who remains under the state’s care, could not be reached for comment.)

The Steele County Attorney’s Office decided not to press criminal charges against Lois after a judge ordered her in December 2016 to repay $100,534 to Kim. Lois’s attorney through most of this time, Kristin Haberman, told me she was confident in her assessment of her client. “Lois is a really pleasant person to be around,” Haberman said. “She’s friendly, caring, warm.”

Dave occasionally went to Diamond Jo with Lois, but gambling wasn’t his thing. It was hers. And it had become a problem in the years leading up to Dave’s murder.

Brian Smith first heard about Dave Riess’s murder while he was fixing dinner one night in March 2018. Smitty, as friends and coworkers call him, was at the time the lead coordinator for the U.S. Marshals’ North Star Fugitive Task Force, based in Minneapolis. He knew Dodge County sheriff Scott Rose, who had helped him on cases in the past, and offered to return the favor by investigating the case. Rose welcomed the assistance.

Smith heard speculation that Lois was siphoning money from the worm farm, and that for Dave, who was well aware of his wife’s gambling habit, the last straw came when she took the couple’s savings, set aside for a new vehicle, and squandered it at the casino. “After that the husband said, ‘I’m done. I’m cutting you off. If you want money, you can work for me in the business, but I’m not giving you any more,’” Smith said.

Most people in Blooming Prairie knew Dave and Lois as a nice, normal couple. Once the press invaded the community after Dave’s murder, those who knew about things like Lois’s theft from her sister invoked the omertà typical of small towns, refusing to comment. The people closest to the Riesses were aware that all was not right and hadn’t been for several years. “Lois was likable, but you always knew she was a click off,” said Scott Carlson, one of Dave’s inner circle of friends. “She did some oddball shit.”

In July 2016, for instance, she disappeared for three days. Dave discovered some new debts she had incurred and was so concerned that he reported her missing to the sheriff’s office. When Lois returned, she said that she’d been visiting a girlfriend in Minneapolis; she acted like it was no big deal.

Friends heard Dave make an ominous comment more than once: “If I ever go missing, you come looking for Lois.”

Part Three

Pam Hutchinson arrived in Fort Myers Beach, the resort hub of Estero Island, in the Gulf of Mexico, on April 3, 2018. She was there to be with her longtime friend Donna Fetrow, whose husband had recently committed suicide. Fetrow planned to spread his ashes on nearby Sanibel Island. While Fetrow stayed with family on Sanibel, Hutchinson checked into condo 404 at the Marina Village at Snug Harbor, a time-share complex. She was staying alone.

Hutchinson, 59, with short blond hair and a wide smile, was outgoing and quick to make friends. She loved to fish for marlin, stay out late, and vacation in Mexico. She had been a successful car saleswoman in Virginia Beach before divorcing her husband about two years earlier and moving to Bradenton, Florida. The week she traveled down to Fort Myers Beach, she’d found a condo in Bradenton that she wanted to buy.

On Tuesday evening, she had dinner with Fetrow on Sanibel and then watched the sun set. On Wednesday, Fetrow made the short drive to Fort Myers Beach, and the friends ate lunch outside at a restaurant off Old San Carlos Boulevard. That evening, Hutchinson passed on Fetrow’s offer to join her for dinner on Sanibel. Instead, she spent time with another middle-aged woman she’d just met. The woman inspired Hutchinson’s sympathy with her story of being recently widowed. After the pair spent about three hours drinking together, a security camera filmed them walking toward Hutchinson’s condo.

Hutchinson had intended to leave on Thursday, April 5, but decided to stay another night. That evening she ate an early dinner with her new friend at the Smokin’ Oyster, a tropical-themed tourist dive. Surveillance footage shows the two of them sitting at the bar, Hutchinson in a pink camo baseball cap and white blouse, the other woman in a blue T-shirt and cream-colored slacks. At one point, the woman removed the sunglasses pushed above her forehead and swished her bleached hair over her shoulder. At 7:37 p.m., Hutchinson paid for a Long Island Iced Tea, a watermelon margarita, a sweet tea, a Bloody Mary, and a Bahama Mama, along with half a pound of peel and eat shrimp, a side of chard, and a small chowder.

That night, Fetrow texted Hutchinson from the beach where her family was spreading her deceased husband’s ashes, but got no reply. She didn’t think much of it at the time. Meanwhile, Hutchinson’s realtor in Bradenton, Judy Keene, sent her the application required by the homeowners association for the condo she was going to purchase. They traded texts, but Keene didn’t hear anything from Hutchinson after about 7 p.m. When her client didn’t reply to texts over the weekend, Keene figured maybe she was having buyer’s remorse.

Fetrow texted Hutchinson from the beach where her family was spreading her husband’s ashes, but got no reply. She didn’t think much of it at the time. 

At 8:30 a.m. on Friday, April 6, Laurie Russell, manager at the Marina Village, received a call at the front desk from condo 404. “Oh, my gosh, I slept until 4 p.m. yesterday, and then I went out and met some great people and I’m gonna go boating today,” the woman on the line said. “Is there any way I could stay for the weekend?” Russell agreed to put an additional three days on one of Hutchinson’s credit cards.

Shortly after 11 a.m., a woman walked up to the counter of the Wells Fargo Bank in Fort Myers Beach wearing a white fedora with a black ribbon around the rim. She withdrew $5,000 from Hutchinson’s account, making small talk with the teller, saying she was staying in a nearby hotel but had bought a house in Bradenton. She left the bank, but rather than go boating, at some point that afternoon she started driving north in Hutchinson’s white Acura TL. She went past Bradenton, about 90 miles upstate. She drove all the way to Ocala, an additional 130 miles, and checked in to a Hilton that evening.

She signed Hutchinson’s name for two room-service deliveries, paid with one of her credit cards, and left the next morning. Shortly after 10:30 a.m., she used Hutchinson’s card to make three withdrawals of $500 each at a Bank of America drive-up ATM in Ocala. Then she continued north, eventually turning west and crossing the state line. She headed for the Coushatta Casino Resort off State Highway 165 in the town of Kinder, which boasts “the most slots in Louisiana!” She won a $1,500 jackpot on a $5 play.

The woman used a driver’s license and Social Security card to collect her winnings at 1:35 p.m. Both belonged to Lois Riess.

The police followed Hutchinson’s credit card trail, which led them to the surveillance videos from the Smokin’ Oyster, Wells Fargo, and Ocala Hilton. The same woman was in all the footage.

On April 9, Laurie Russell was checking units at Marina Village for a possible water leak. When she entered 404 there was a foul smell. She figured it was sewage, the source of the water problem. Still, something about the space seemed strange, so she asked two male guests outside to go back in with her.

In the bathroom, the guests found a dead woman lying on the floor. She had blond hair and was wearing a pink camo baseball cap, a white blouse, blue Levi’s shorts, and Teva flip-flops. A pillow, perforated by a bullet, was on top of her legs. The shot that killed her had sliced through the woman’s lower left lung, her heart’s right atrium and aorta, her esophagus, and her upper right lung. A .22 bullet was lodged in the right cup of her bra.

The woman had collapsed while her stomach and intestines filled with blood. As the odor emanating from the condo indicated, she had been dead several days. Her toothbrush was in the sink, where she must have dropped it when she was shot. Someone—presumably the killer—had covered her with a towel and stuffed more towels against the crack under the bathroom door. Before leaving, they turned the thermostat down to 61.

The group that found the body called 911. Upon learning that Hutchinson had been staying in 404, Lee County sheriff’s deputies called her ex-husband in Virginia Beach. They interviewed guests at the Marina Village as well as Hutchinson’s friends. They followed her credit card trail, which led them to the surveillance videos from the Smokin’ Oyster, Wells Fargo, and Ocala Hilton. The same woman was in all the footage.

She looked like Hutchinson—the right age, similar hair color, comparable complexion and build—but by then the deputies had identified the body in the bathroom. It was Hutchinson. The more surveillance video they watched, the more they saw of the other woman. It even placed her in 404 at the time of the murder. Footage stamped 7:46 p.m. showed Hutchinson and the woman approaching Hutchinson’s condo. At 8:34 p.m., a camera captured the woman walking by herself toward the building’s fourth-floor elevator. She stood in the landing area for 13 minutes, appearing distraught and upset, perhaps crying. Then she returned to Hutchinson’s condo.

Video from the next morning captured the woman in the Marina Village parking lot. She backed up Hutchinson’s Acura next to a Cadillac Escalade, then transferred luggage and other items from the SUV into the sedan.

The evening before Hutchinson was found murdered, a sergeant with the Lee County Sheriff’s Office had come across a white Cadillac Escalade with Minnesota plates at Bowditch Point, on the northern tip of Fort Myers Beach. It had been abandoned. He ran the registration and found that it belonged to Dave Riess. Investigators didn’t know what to make of it until they watched the surveillance video from the Marina Village. Tess Koster of Blooming Prairie connected the final dots.

Someone—presumably the killer—had covered Hutchinson with a towel and stuffed more towels against the crack under the bathroom door. Before leaving, they turned the thermostat down to 61.

A week before Hutchinson’s body was found, on a beautiful sunny afternoon, Tess Koster was cleaning the garage of one of the five rental units she and her husband, Rod, owned on Fort Myers Beach, where they wintered. The rest of the year they lived in Blooming Prairie, where they owned a car dealership. That day their daughter, Breauna, contacted them to say that a woman had called the dealership and identified herself as a friend. She said she was in Fort Myers Beach and wanted to visit the Kosters.

Breauna had given the woman the address where her parents were—880 Third St. She didn’t think twice about it. The Kosters were always inviting people from Blooming Prairie to visit them. Several years earlier, for instance, when they sat next to each other at a wedding, the Kosters had told the Riesses that they should come down to Florida some time.  

About 1:45 p.m. on April 2, from the garage at 880 Third St., Tess saw a woman with a white ponytail at the end of the drive check a notebook in her hand, then look at the house number. Tess took a step toward her, thinking she was there to inquire about one of the rentals.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

The woman looked up. When their eyes met, Tess immediately recognized Lois. She had talked to friends back home, so she knew about the discovery of Dave’s body ten days prior. Lois also seemed to recognize Tess. She ducked her head, muttered “Wrong house,” and walked off quickly. Tess saw her drive away in a white Escalade.

She and Rod called 911. After half an hour, two deputies showed up from the Lee County Sheriff’s Office. They knew that Lois was wanted on the felony theft charge and in connection with Dave’s death, but they figured that seeing Tess had spooked her off the island, that she was long gone by then. They provided additional patrols in the Kosters’ neighborhood but didn’t stake out the bridge to the mainland or search Fort Myers Beach for Lois or the Escalade. “The police down there did a horrible job,” Breauna said. “That woman [Hutchinson] could still be alive today.”

After discovering Hutchinson’s body only two blocks from the Kosters’ house on Third Street, Lee County law enforcement eventually called Tess down to the station. They showed her three video clips and two photos of the woman making bank withdrawals in Hutchinson’s name. In all of them, Tess identified Lois Riess.

Pam Hutchinson
Part Four

Authorities in Florida sent out a nationwide BOLO—be on the lookout—alert. In Minnesota, investigator Ben Bohle saw it and contacted the deputies down in Lee County. They compared notes on the homicides of Dave Riess and Pam Hutchinson: Both victims were shot in a bathroom with a .22 handgun and covered with a blanket or towel. Afterward, the suspect took each victim’s vehicle and money.  

If Lois was responsible for killing not only her husband but also a stranger, finding her was more urgent than Minnesota authorities had initially thought. “She looks like anybody’s mother or grandmother, yet she is a cold-blooded killer,” Carmine Marceno, then Lee County’s undersheriff, said on television. “The suspect’s resources will run out and she may become very desperate, and she could strike again.”

U.S. marshals elevated their search for Lois to a “major case.” They set up a national hotline and posted billboards in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and Nevada that read “Wanted: Murder,” with Lois’s name and photo. They put up a $5,000 reward. Crime Stoppers of Florida offered an additional $1,000 reward.

Widespread media coverage helped bring in tips, which law enforcement sifted through, but Lois’s trail had gone cold since a remote camera spotted the white Acura along Texas Highway 77 outside Refugio, south of Houston, on April 8 at 11:16 p.m.

Authorities figured she was likely headed to Mexico. They alerted U.S. Border Patrol and Mexican authorities. They checked to see if Lois had an active passport. She didn’t. “She could be trying to get in with somebody that had the ability to get across the border,” U.S. Marshal Brian Smith said. “Find somebody with a passport and assume their identity like she did with the woman in Fort Myers Beach, or somebody with access to a boat.”

Smith logged plenty of overtime, regularly getting up early to make the 75-mile drive from Minneapolis to Blooming Prairie, executing search warrants, and spending “hours and hours and hours” with Bohle going through the Riess house, looking for anything—bills, statements, receipts, electronic devices—that might help them capture Lois before she could kill again or disappear across the border.

For Smith, the work became personal after seeing how the situation had devastated Lois’s two older children, Bill and Bria. The youngest, Braden, didn’t have much to say after his appearance on Inside Edition. Bill and Bria declined to talk to the press entirely and cut short phone calls from me. But they worked closely with investigators to locate their mother and find out what had happened to their father. “They’re really, really nice people,” Smith said. “I was highly motivated to bring this case to closure.”

“She looks like anybody’s mother or grandmother, yet she is a cold-blooded killer,” Carmine Marceno, Lee County’s undersheriff, said on television.

The widespread media attention and police alerts about Lois didn’t seem to penetrate the community in South Padre. Workers at the Padre Rita Grill and elsewhere on the island relied more on local sources for news and information. That helped Lois hide in plain sight, less than 30 miles from the Mexican border, calling herself Donna. Amanda Camacho, the Motel 6 clerk who had checked her in, later said that she transformed from looking “like an elderly lady” when she arrived into someone more provocative, wearing short shorts and tank tops. On her belly, she had what looked like a fresh tattoo, depicting a palm tree and a beachside sunset.  

For more than a week, Lois traipsed around South Padre making friends. On April 17, Ron Mulholland met her at the Padre Rita. The 76-year-old, who owned several condos on the island, stopped in for dinner about 9 p.m. and sat near her at the bar. After chatting for an hour, she accepted his invitation to go to the Coral Reef, a karaoke bar just up Padre Boulevard. When Mulholland dropped her off at her motel later that night, he gave her his business card and suggested they get together again.

More often, the people Lois befriended were like Pam Hutchinson: middle-aged women, single or traveling alone. One evening she approached Bernadette Mathis, a 65-year-old court reporter, who was sitting alone at the bar of Liam’s Steak House and Oyster Bar. They struck up a conversation. After dinner the women exchanged phone numbers. Lois later texted Mathis: “Bragd about my new friend. Be good n safe. I want to hang out soon.” Mathis did not have many friends outside of work and was happy about the prospect of making a new one. The next evening the women met for dinner again at Liam’s. Mathis didn’t make it through her second drink—she could usually handle more—before she appeared to be intoxicated. The bartender wondered if someone might have slipped her something.

Later, Mathis had a fuzzy recollection of how she and Lois ended up back at her house. They sat in the hot tub, and Lois spent the night in the guest bedroom. There were security cameras throughout the residence. The next morning, Mathis took Lois out to breakfast at the Rancho Viejo Country Club. Mathis noticed that Lois took out some pills—she had a few kinds—and took one. After breakfast, Mathis drove her new friend back to the Motel 6. They made plans to meet again for dinner the following Friday, April 20. “She acted like a really nice person, and I trusted her,” Mathis later told law enforcement.

Peggy Houlihan met Lois at the Motel 6 pool one day with Isabel Barreiro. A musician planning to perform that evening at the Padre Rita’s open mic, Houlihan had her guitar with her, and the three women sang some songs together. Barreiro recorded it. Lois seemed happy to be included.

Yet something about the situation made Houlihan uncomfortable. Lois was pressuring Barreiro to stay on the island longer. Houlihan wondered if the women might be lovers, or if that’s what Barreiro’s new friend was hoping they would become. That evening, Lois arrived at the Padre Rita before Barreiro and joined Houlihan at her table. Barreiro had already relented to stay an extra night, but according to Houlihan, Lois seemed agitated, fretting that Barreiro might have departed the island without telling her. When Barreiro finally arrived, Lois took her to a separate table. The two women left without saying goodbye.

“I didn’t know till the next morning that Isabel was OK,” Houlihan later said. (Houlihan, Barreiro, and Mathis didn’t respond to requests for interviews; details of their interactions with Lois are taken from police interviews.) “Isabel came to say goodbye to me,” Houlihan continued. Barreiro left South Padre that day, not knowing how close she’d gotten with a killer.

The people Lois befriended were like Pam Hutchinson: middle-aged women, single or traveling alone. 

On April 19, more than a week after she had arrived on the island, Lois drove Hutchinson’s Acura a few miles down Padre Boulevard to Dirty Al’s, which claimed to serve the “best seafood on South Padre.” She asked to look at a menu. A waiter chatted with her for a few minutes.

Across the room the manager, George Higginbotham, observed the conversation. The woman looked familiar. The long bleached hair—hadn’t he seen her somewhere? When she swished it over her shoulder, it clicked. CBS This Morning.

After she returned the menu and walked out of the restaurant—she wanted to eat at a bar, and Dirty Al’s didn’t have one available for seating—Higginbotham told his staff, “That’s her, the woman who killed the lady in Florida!”

Nah, the other employees said.

“It is,” Higginbotham insisted. He urged them to see what car she got into. It was a white sedan, the kind of vehicle the murder suspect was driving. Higginbotham called the police.

Brian Smith was one of the first people to be notified about the tip in South Texas. He was immediately in contact with the deputy U.S. marshals dispatched to South Padre. When they arrived at Dirty Al’s, Higginbotham told the marshals that Lois was wearing a yellow tank top and white shorts, and that her car had Florida plates. He had surveillance footage but didn’t know how to retrieve it.

The marshals didn’t have to look for Lois very long. She had gone to the Sea Ranch restaurant, right next door to Dirty Al’s. They spotted the white Acura parked outside.

While officers secured the restaurant’s exits, several marshals and local cops entered the Sea Ranch and quickly surrounded Lois. She was sitting at her preferred location: a corner spot at the bar. One of the marshals picked up her purse. “Lois, we’re going to take you out of here and explain what’s going on,” Marshal Shelly Sleep said. “Don’t make a scene.”

Lois complied without comment. Sleep found that strange, since fugitives usually resist arrest or feign innocence. “She didn’t have a single emotion on her face,” Sleep said.

The next day, authorities converged on South Padre Island. Sheriff’s deputies came in from Florida; an officer from the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension flew down from Minnesota. They took DNA swabs from Lois and obtained warrants to search the Acura and Room 227 at the Motel 6. They found a map, a brochure from the Lucky Eagle Casino, pill bottles, and piles of clothes, including the white fedora she was seen wearing in surveillance videos when she posed as Pam Hutchinson. They found tissues, soap, and a green and white towel taken from Marina Village. A small stash of LifeStyles Ultra Lube Plus condoms. Hutchinson’s checkbook, four credit cards, and $548 in cash. A black bag with bullets, a holster, duct tape, and rubber gloves inside. Two handguns, the Colt Woodsman .22 her father had given her, and a Smith & Wesson nine millimeter.

They also found “what appeared to be a trophy,” according to investigators: Hutchinson’s sunglasses, wrapped in a hand towel.

Lois Riess
Part Five

The arrest of Lois Riess unnerved the people she’d met on South Padre. Isabel Barreiro, Bernadette Mathis, Cathy Laferty—all the women who’d been taken in by her friendliness—shuddered to think that they could have been her next victim. Mathis, not having heard about Lois’s arrest, showed up at Liam’s for their scheduled dinner on April 20. When she asked around, she learned that the woman she knew as Donna was someone else entirely. “I feel very betrayed, and I feel stupid that I could be so gullible,” she told a reporter. “It’s just scary—very scary to meet a stranger and think that they’re going to be your friend and they turn out to be a killer.”

Tess Koster had been so shaken by Lois’s appearance in her driveway in Fort Myers Beach that she broke out in a rash and threw up the next two mornings. Perhaps Lois had hoped she’d find one of the Kosters’ rental units empty so she could squat there. But Tess, who bears a resemblance to Lois—blond hair, about the same age—fears there was a more sinister reason for her visit. “I was afraid for my life,” she said. “She’s turned me from that small-town trusting person to having a loaded gun by my bed.”

In Blooming Prairie, the six weeks between Dave’s disappearance and Lois’s arrest rocked the community’s sense of itself. Suddenly, the previously anonymous town was in the headlines because of someone the national media dubbed “Losing Streak Lois” and “Killer Granny.” To think that a neighbor—a woman with whom people had shared meals, drinks, and laughs, someone trusted to care for local children—had done what she did was crushing. So too was the absence of any clear reason.

As a violent criminal, Lois Riess is an outlier. It’s rare for women to kill at all, and when they do it’s often an exceptional event, the result of jealous rage or the need to protect themselves from an abuser. “She doesn’t fit a profile because you don’t have enough people to make a profile,” said Tricia Aiken, a forensic psychologist in Minneapolis.

Did gambling make her do it? Despite headlines and popular theories suggesting this was the case, there are only a handful of instances worldwide during the past twenty years of problem gamblers killing other people. The most similar case might be Donna Blanton, who in 2003 shot her husband of six months, a Virginia state trooper, with his own .380 pistol after they argued about her gambling debt. It’s far more likely for problem gamblers to be violent toward themselves. One in five have seriously contemplated or attempted suicide, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling. “One reason we think there’s a higher suicide rate is that people with a gambling problem have fewer options, less help and less understanding,” said Keith Whyte, NCPG’s executive director. “We don’t want the image of the gambling addict to be a homicidal maniac. These are folks who face a lot of shame and stigma.”

Gambling addiction is complicated, messy, not the kind of disease that often develops in isolation from other problems. “A number of our patients have co-occurring disorders,” said Mike Schiks, CEO of Project Turnabout Recovery Center, in Granite Falls, Minnesota, which treats gambling addicts. “It’s not a singular-dimension illness.”

Those co-occurring conditions can include depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. They often cluster in families, and that seems to have been the case with Lois’s. Her mother, who struggled with hoarding, was eventually committed to a state hospital for the mentally ill. In addition to Kim, Lois had another older sister, Cindee, who suffered from depression. A year after Lois killed her husband, Cindee acted out violently, too.

In March 2019, at her house about ten miles southeast of Rochester, Cindee argued with her 37-year-old son, who was drunk. He shoved her. Cindee and her husband kicked him out. Shortly after, she found him lying in the driveway and told him to get in the car so she could take him away. He refused. She got in her 2004 Ford Explorer and drove over him. He suffered a badly fractured pelvis and head injuries. When a deputy asked Cindee if she had meant to run over her son, she said, “You bet.”

She was charged with second- and third-degree assault, criminal vehicular operation, and domestic assault. The morning of August 5, 2019, she quarreled with her probation officer. That afternoon she purchased a clothesline from a hardware store in Rochester, drove to Quarry Hill Park, near where she and Lois grew up, walked through the woods to a pedestrian bridge spanning a deep ravine, and hanged herself.

In a court appearance, Lois acknowledged that she had been taking medication for “a mental condition.” When she went missing in 2016, Dave told police that Lois suffered from depression. Could she also have experienced late onset of something like bipolar disorder? According to one study, 10 percent of bipolar cases occur in people over the age of 50. “All of these pieces together give you a lot more confidence there was an acute manic psychotic episode,” said John Fabian, a forensic and clinical neuropsychologist who has examined nearly 700 murder cases.

As people close to the Riesses knew, there had been signs that something was amiss. In December 2015, a few months after Lois’s theft from her sister Kim was exposed, Dave came home from lunch at a Dairy Queen with a coworker. He asked the coworker to drop him at the house instead of the worm farm so he could use the bathroom, and when he walked inside he found Lois unconscious in a chair. She had overdosed on pain pills.

Dave called 911. First responders performed CPR. A helicopter airlifted Lois to Saint Marys Hospital in Rochester, part of the Mayo Clinic. After almost two weeks, she recovered. She stayed out of sight in Blooming Prairie for a while, and when she did start going out again, she acted as if nothing had happened. Other people did, too.

That’s how you carry on in a small town. Dave did his part to shield his wife from the cruelty of gossip and conjecture. Not one to talk about emotions, he made only passing comments to his closest friends about her gambling and his concerns about her health. Once, though, he confided in a friend about finding Lois unconscious. “That was one of the biggest mistakes of my life, going up to the house that day,” he’d said.

It’s rare for women to kill at all, and when they do it’s often an exceptional event, the result of jealous rage or the need to protect themselves from an abuser.

Lois Riess appeared in Florida district court on December 17, 2019. To avoid the death penalty, she admitted to shooting Pam Hutchinson with a firearm and pled guilty to first-degree murder. She also pled guilty to grand theft of a motor vehicle and other property and criminal use of personal identification information of a deceased individual. She did not provide a statement but simply answered the court’s questions. “Pursuant to the agreement, ma’am, I will adjudicate you guilty,” the judge said, sentencing her to life in prison without parole and ordering her to pay $38,556 in attorney fees and other expenses.

On August 11, 2020, after delays due to the coronavirus, the pretrial hearing in the case of Dave Riess’s murder took place in the auditorium of a Minnesota high school two miles down the road from the Dodge County courthouse, which can accommodate only seven spectators. Fifty people were there, including some family, several reporters, law enforcement, and plainclothes security guards. Lauri Traub, Lois’s court-appointed public defender, had worked out a deal with Matthew Frank of the Minnesota attorney general’s office. (Frank is also prosecuting Derek Chauvin and three other Minneapolis police officers in the death of George Floyd.) Lois would plead guilty to first-degree murder of her husband and receive a mandatory life sentence without parole. She would be able to serve her time in Minnesota, closer to her family, instead of Florida.

Promptly at 1:30 p.m., the cast of attorneys, bailiff, and court reporter strode onto the stage and took their places at neatly arranged tables. Lois entered stage left, clad in an orange jumpsuit and white sneakers, hands shackled at her waist. Her long hair was brushed smooth. She located her two oldest children and their spouses, seated in the auditorium’s front rows. It was the first time she had seen them in two years and five months; they had only seen her on TV screens. Her face was partially covered by a light gray protective mask, but her eyes seemed to be smiling at them.

Judge Jodi Williamson told Lois that she could remove her mask so the court could hear her responses, then established, through a volley of questions she put to the defendant, that Lois was satisfied with her defense and was thinking clearly, unaffected by medication she took for arthritis and high cholesterol. (There was no mention of antidepressants or any other medication to treat mental illness.) Williamson confirmed that Lois was pleading guilty because she was indeed guilty.

When it was Traub’s turn to ask questions, Lois recounted how she had killed Dave: On Sunday, March 11, after she and Dave had attended their grandson’s basketball game in Wisconsin, Lois wanted to stay with her family, but Dave wanted to leave. They left, and argued on the drive home. They continued to argue in their bedroom. According to Lois, Dave took a loaded handgun out of the dresser, offered it to her, and said, “Why don’t you just kill yourself? Maybe you’ll get it right this time.” Instead, she took the gun, aimed it at her husband’s chest, and fired twice.

“Did you know Dave was dead?” Traub asked.

Lois sighed. “Yes.”

“What did you do then?”

Tears pooled in her eyes. “I laid down with him.”

The judge could not hear her response and asked Lois to repeat it.

“I laid down with him. I closed his eyes.”

Lois lowered her head, obscuring her face with a curtain of hair.

The prosecutor asked, “You made the decision to shoot him?” Lois eyed him squarely. “He was right in front of me,” she said, “and I looked at him in the heart and shot him.”

The family in attendance did not react visibly to this story, but expressed their feelings clearly in the impact statements that followed. A social worker read the first on behalf of Dave’s elderly mother: “When you killed David, you took my heart. David was this family’s ray of sunshine. I will never forgive you.” Lois clenched her mouth. Dave’s sister, Cindy, said her brother died “just so a cold-blooded murderer could satisfy her gambling addiction,” and that “she left him laying dead while she partied and gambled just like before.” Lois dropped her eyes.

When Lois’s firstborn, Bill, approached the podium, Lois turned in her chair to face him. “You stole something from us we’ll never get back,” he said. “I’ll never be able to forgive you.” Lois dabbed at her eyes. Bill collected his breath. “The hurt you caused my kids, your grandkids… God, they loved you so much.”

Lois’s daughter, Bria, was the last to speak, which she did with difficulty. “Losing my dad at the hands of my mom is something I’ll never be able to process,” she said. “If I could go back in time to make sure my mom got the help she needed and never kill[ed] my dad—those are thoughts that constantly haunt me.” Lois grimaced and nodded, crying softly.

The judge issued the mandatory life sentence without possibility of release. She set aside the charge of felony theft and left open the question of restitution to be determined later. Lois put on a pair of brown plastic glasses to read her own statement. “What I did is an unpardonable crime,” she said. “Solitude is forever. I feel I deserve this. I will have no reprieve. My life without David is my sentence, my penance. Our children are loving, caring, strong people.” She paused, sniffled. “It’s because of David’s strengths they are that way. My best accomplishment was having our children.”

She apologized to Dave’s family and friends for “taking him from you,” and swiveled to regard her children. “I feel I need to say this: I didn’t know how much pain I was in until I wasn’t anymore.”

“He was right in front of me,” Lois said, “and I looked at him in the heart and shot him.”

Lois declined several requests for an interview. People who’ve followed her case or been affected by her crimes are left to speculate what she meant by “pain.” A mental illness? An unhappy marriage? The gambling addiction? Something else?

When the hearing ended, Lois stood and crossed the auditorium’s stage in her orange jumpsuit and white sneakers, flanked by Traub and a sheriff’s deputy. She gazed at her children, placed her right hand on her heart, and mouthed, “I love you.” Then she bowed her head and walked off the stage.

Afterward, outside the auditorium, I spotted Traub, who had previously talked to me about her client. The two women are about the same age, and they both have three children they enjoy bragging about. “I know she killed two people and it sounds kind of weird, but I genuinely like her,” Traub had said back then. In an otherwise empty corridor, I asked her if she believed Lois. Traub paused, shrugged her shoulders. “That’s her story,” she said. “That’s the story she’s been telling all along.”

Then she flicked my elbow with the back of her hand, as though we shared a confidence, and added, “Why would she lie to me?”


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The Free and the Brave

THE FREE AND THE BRAVE

A patriotic parade, a bloody brawl, and the origins of U.S. law enforcement’s war on the political left.

By Bill Donahue

The Atavist Magazine, No. 106


Bill Donahue has written for The New York Times Magazine, Outside, and Harper’s, among other publications. He is based in New Hampshire. Follow him on Twitter: @billdonahue13.

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kate Wheeling
Illustrator: John Lee

Published in August 2020.

I.

American flags lined the parade route, and more than 200 men in shined boots stepped into formation. The date was November 11, 1919—a proud occasion, the first Armistice Day. It had been exactly one year since Germany signed a pledge to stop fighting Great Britain, France, the United States, and other allies, thereby ending World War I. If ever there was a moment for solemn patriotism, this was it. And if ever there was a town suited to express rock-ribbed, God-fearing devotion to America, then Centralia, Washington, was the place.

Centralia was a tidy and prosperous logging town of 7,300 set amid the primeval forests of the Pacific Northwest. Its municipal fathers had taken special pains to ensure that their town stood head and shoulders above other, less civilized western outposts, with their dingy saloons and whorehouses. Centralia had concrete sidewalks. It had streetlights and streetcars and a sewer system. It had a volunteer fire department and a newspaper that dutifully championed the decency and civility of the town’s leaders as they shaped Centralia into a bona fide municipality.

The morning of the parade, that paper, The Centralia Daily Chronicle, reminded readers that Armistice Day was not a party. It was, rather, a holiday “warning against any efforts to interrupt the natural development of Christian Civilization.” The largest perceived impediment to “Christian Civilization” in 1919 was Bolshevism, which had reached full flower two years earlier during the Russian Revolution and found a foothold in America by way of a growing labor movement. A Red Scare was in full swing, and the Chronicle’s editorial homed in on that newfound American obsession. “We can sing and shout and march to the tuneful music of the fife and drums and the martial bands,” it read, “but in all we must not forget the battle is not all won until the disease spots have been eradicated.”

The Armistice Day marchers believed in the righteousness of that battle. Members of the local Elks Club were there, along with a contingent of Boy Scouts and some Marines. Centralia was also home to a newly minted chapter of the American Legion, a national veterans’ group. The Grant Hodge Post was named after a local Army lieutenant who died in France’s Argonne Forest. Eighty of its Legionnaires brought up the rear of the parade.

They were led by a young veteran and lawyer named Warren Grimm. Solidly built and fair, with thinning dark blond hair, Grimm had played football at the University of Washington a decade earlier. As a freshman, he earned himself the nickname Wedge by playing the starring role in a brutal hazing ritual: He led 50 classmates to victory over a sophomore squad in a no-rules skirmish by forming them into a wedge and charging. Now Grimm, 31, led a different kind of configuration. As the Legionnaires divided themselves into eight platoons of ten men each, a marching band played the popular World War I–era tune “Over There.” The lyrics went:

Johnnie, get your gun, get your gun, get your gun
Make your daddy glad to have had such a lad
Tell your sweetheart not to pine, to be proud her boy’s in line.

The parade kicked off at 2 p.m. and followed Centralia’s brick-paved main thoroughfare, Tower Avenue. At the north end sat Centralia’s grandest edifice, the Union Loan & Trust Building, a three-story brick structure replete with a Doric arch over its doorway and a belt of white stone running the length of the facade. Many of its hundred or so windows were elegantly domed at the crest, and the building’s size and heft clearly identified it as the seat of all rectitude and power in Centralia. A men’s clothing store selling dress suits occupied the building’s ground level, exuding respectability. The president of Union Loan & Trust kept his office on the second floor, while the third floor was home to the Elks Club. At one point, the Chronicle was housed in the basement, where it served as a pep squad for the town’s elite and the resource-rich county over which they held dominion. “There are more opportunities to the square inch,” the paper once proclaimed, “than in any other place in the world.”

Just a half-mile away from the Union Loan & Trust Building, the view from the north end of Tower Avenue was harder and grimier. It featured a clutter of low-rent boarding houses that drew itinerant loggers who felled trees in the forests surrounding town. Two stories high, with a warren of small rooms equipped with cold-water sinks, the hotels were home to a constellation of weary and solitary men who typically arrived in town with just a few bucks to their name. There was the Arnold, the Avalon, the Michigan House, the Queen, and the Roderick.

It was in front of the Roderick that Centralia’s Legionnaires suddenly stopped during the parade. Warren Grimm raised his arm and shouted, “Halt, close up ranks!” It was a strange command. The Armistice Day marchers were spaced out by then, with Grimm’s men well behind the rest of the procession. By halting, the Legionnaires would only widen the gap.

Facing the veterans on the Roderick’s ground floor was a 1,000-square-foot space that served as the union hall for the local chapter of the Workers of the World. A large storefront window bore the initials IWW, three letters that evoked the purported evils of Bolshevism or the virtues of economic brotherhood, depending on who was reading them. Grimm’s men stood motionless for a moment. The crowd that had gathered to view the parade waited for the Legionnaires’ next move.

So did several armed Wobblies, as IWW members called themselves. The Wobblies were hidden from view, prepared to attack if anyone tried to eradicate “disease spots.” They wouldn’t let that happen—not again.

II.

Centralia was in some ways a wholesome idyll—the kind of place that in November 1919 ran a news story about “seven boys charged with Hallowe’en pranks” who appeared “before Police Judge Hodge yesterday evening.” (The boys, the Chronicle reported, were “given a lecture by the court and ordered to repair the damages they did.”) But the town was also plagued by troubles that would seem familiar today. The influenza epidemic cast a shadow over everything. In the fall of 1918, it had killed eight people inside of 36 hours in and around the nearby town of Chehalis, and just a few weeks before the Armistice Day parade, the Chronicle had intoned, “Many medical men say we will probably have another epidemic this fall.” Influenza masks were everywhere, and the paper carried advertisements for a dubious elixir, cascara quinine bromide, said to kill the flu if swallowed.

Meanwhile, America was riven by a political divide that deepened sharply in 1919, cutting into small towns like Centralia. The American Legion was founded that March by a contingent of World War I veterans who aimed, according to their constitution, to “foster and perpetuate a 100 percent Americanism.” The group’s language would soon be picked up by another growing movement devoted to patriotic purity: The Ku Klux Klan, revived by a Methodist minister in 1915, also began touting “100 percent Americanism.” The KKK beat and lynched African Americans. It went after Jews and Catholics. It deplored communists and anyone associated with them.

So did the most powerful men in U.S. law enforcement, who fixated on acts of violence staged by a few extremists as evidence of the American left’s wider, nefarious aims. Luigi Galleani, an infamous anarchist orator and political sage of the day, espoused “propaganda of the deed,” which to him involved eradicating capitalism by using explosives. On April 29, 1919, disciples of Galleani sent former Georgia senator Thomas Hardwick a package bomb that blew off his housekeeper’s hands. On June 2, another bomb went off at the Washington, D.C., home of U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. Though no one in the home was injured, it shattered the windows—and engendered a historic shift in the way the United States policed the political left.

To combat what he deemed a burgeoning terrorist movement composed of “ultradicals or Bolshevists,” Palmer opened the Radical Division inside the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation. As he staffed this new unit, he made an unorthodox promotion, choosing as its director a recent law-school graduate, just 24 years old, who’d began his career by helping the government track down “alien enemies” during World War I. J. Edgar Hoover joined the Radical Division in August 1919. Three months later, on the night of November 7, the boy wonder set anticommunist shock troops loose on 12 cities nationwide. In each locale, the target was the Union of Russian Workers. Hoover’s men rounded up 1,100 suspects, whom young J. Edgar aimed to deport. In Manhattan alone, at the Russian Peoples House in Union Square, the troops arrested more than 200 people and injured many by whacking them on the head, according to one man, with “a twelve-inch steel jimmy and a stair bannister.” Then they herded the accused into the Justice Department’s local bureau. The interrogations lasted until 4:30 a.m.

Powerful men fixated on acts of violence staged by a few extremists as evidence of the American left’s wider, nefarious aims.

Nothing so dramatic had yet happened in Centralia. Still, local politics reflected the national backdrop. Centralia’s young professionals, men like Warren Grimm, were in thrall to one F.B. Hubbard. At 73, Hubbard was a charter member of the Elks Club and president of the town’s largest employer, the Eastern Railway & Lumber Company. Also the president of his own bank, he was the financier behind the Union Loan & Trust Building. Hubbard had silver hair and a broad, bushy mustache. In photographs, his gaze was so steady, his posture so ramrod straight, that he seemed carved in stone, his torso and head forming an invincible marble bust. A New York native, Hubbard had made a small fortune mass-producing narrow wooden crossarms for telegraph poles before moving to Centralia in 1908. By 1919, he had more than 200 people working for him, distributed across 9,000 acres he owned—magnificent, lumber-rich forest, all of it underlain, according to the Chronicle, with “a fine coal deposit.” His allegiance to the town was so deep that the newspaper once saw fit to uppercase his virtues—“Energy” and “Thoroughness”—before noting, “His counsel is much sought and prized by the public, and his natural tendency … is to aid every industry that makes for the social, mental, physical and financial betterment of the district.” 

Hubbard’s archenemy was organized labor, which had a strong appeal in western Washington. Loggers in the region earned about two dollars a day for up to 12 hours of work. When they were on the job, they lodged for weeks on end in cramped cabins in the woods. There were “40 men in the bunkhouse,” according to Eugene Barnett, a logger who moved to Centralia in 1918. “You worked all day in the rain. You came in at night and hung your soggy clothes up around the one stove in the center of the room with wires going out from it in all directions like a spider web, and they hung there and steamed all night. And you slept there in that steam. That’s the only bath you got.”

In 1914, a short-lived group called the International Union of Timber Workers zeroed in on Hubbard’s practice of paying employees poverty wages—some of the workers at his plant made as little as $1.35 a day. When two of Centralia’s Protestant ministers showed up at Hubbard’s office, sympathetic to his workers and hoping to have a look at his payroll, he showed them the door. The union decided to go on strike, and 125 men walked off the job that August. As the picket began, the president and the secretary of the union jointly wrote a letter to the Chronicle, noting that in Hubbard’s lumber camps, loggers were charged 50 cents a month for the use of $4 mattresses.

The Chronicle hurt the union’s cause by calling strikers “agitators” and running a puff piece that extolled Hubbard’s “almost paternal consideration for his employees.” The paper went so far as to claim that Hubbard had “some ideas that might be considered almost socialistic by more material captains of industry.”

Hubbard didn’t change his policies. Instead, he increased the length of the workday at his mill from eight to ten hours, and also hired scabs. In January 1915, more than 70 of these new workers sent a joint letter to the newspaper that pilloried the “self-styled strikers” and proclaimed, “We, the employees, are satisfied with the treatment and the scale of the wages paid us.”

It wasn’t long before the strike ended and Hubbard moved on to more pressing concerns, such as the purchase of a couple of three-car locomotives to transport his timber. But the battle between industry and labor in Centralia was just getting started. 

 F.B. Hubbard

III.

The IWW was a vehemently anti-capitalist organization. When it was founded in 1905, in Chicago, the IWW drafted a constitution that borrowed a page from Karl Marx, calling on the workers of the world to “organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.” By the middle of the next decade, the IWW had chapters across America. The IWW’s 150,000 members took to the nation’s streets, spouting diatribes against monied interests as police endeavored to silence them with billy clubs.

The IWW’s foot soldiers were shunned even by mainstream groups such as the American Federation of Labor. Wobblies lived on the margins, fraternally bound as outsiders. Often they rode freight cars together from town to town. As they rattled along, they raised their voices to sing political anthems. One, entitled “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum,” had a line that went, “If I didn’t eat, I’d have money to burn.”

Hubbard and other lumber barons glowered as the IWW took a stand in the Pacific Northwest. In 1916, even before the U.S. entered World War I, the timber industry had begun supplying the Allied powers with lightweight, tensile Sitka spruce that was perfect for making airplanes. The IWW monkey-wrenched this effort in 1917 by rallying some 10,000 loggers into a three-month strike aimed at reducing the length of their workday from ten to eight hours. Once the men prevailed upon some of the logging companies to reduce hours, the Wobblies ended the strike but encouraged loggers employed by inflexible bosses to lollygag on the job. An eye-catching Wobbly sticker declared, “The hours are long and the pay is small. Take your time and buck them all.”

The stronghold of the 1917 IWW strike in Washington State lay just west of Centralia, amid the fog and spattering rain of the Olympic Peninsula, in towns such as Aberdeen and Hoquiam, where meagerly paid, left-leaning Finnish immigrants maintained large “Red Finn” halls at which the IWW’s leading luminaries—poet and journalist Ralph Chaplin, for instance—stopped to lecture. The IWW didn’t yet have a strong organized presence in Centralia, though it wasn’t for lack of trying. In 1915, vigilantes marched a group of Wobblies out of town. In 1917, the IWW opened up a local hall, but the landlord soon evicted them under public pressure. After the Wobblies rented a new space, Centralia’s Commercial Club met to consider a plan to “take matters into their own hands,” according to the Chronicle.

Hubbard was among the residents of Centralia intent on deflecting the IWW’s encroachment. In May 1918, during a parade that was part of a fundraising drive for the town’s chapter of the Red Cross, Hubbard’s Elks detoured from the route to raid Centralia’s IWW hall. They burned the union’s typewriter along with its files and newspaper archives. They carried the IWW’s Victrola and rolltop desk into the middle of Tower Avenue, then held an impromptu street auction to benefit the Red Cross. Hubbard himself scored the desk, which he donated to Centralia’s chamber of commerce. Meanwhile, the half-dozen Wobblies lingering inside the hall were “lifted by their ears into a truck,” according to one report, and taken to a nearby field, where they were flogged with sticks and ax handles.

The following summer, the Wobblies again tried to make inroads in Centralia. A logger named Britt Smith was able to convince the owner of the Roderick Hotel to rent the bottom of her building to the IWW for use as a hall. Smith moved in on September 1, 1919. He set up an apartment in the back and appointed the front with furniture. He had good reason to hope that the hall would grow into a sort of community center. On the Olympic Peninsula, the sprawling Red Finn halls had libraries and gymnasiums. Labor groups used the facilities for union business—meetings and fundraisers and such—and also for wiener roasts and wedding showers, plays and funerals.

But as Smith harbored dreams of a promising Wobbly future in Centralia, he also worried that the union’s opponents might try to rid the town of its despised red blight once and for all. In June 1919, the Centralia chamber of commerce met to discuss the Wobbly problem. It formed a Citizens Protective Association and made Hubbard its chair. When the association gathered at Centralia’s Elks Club on October 20, Hubbard pressed the police chief to force the Wobblies out of town. The chief declined, saying there was nothing illegal about the IWW being there. If he was the head of police, Hubbard shouted, he would toss the Wobblies out right away.

Later that night, Hubbard formed another committee, this one dedicated to seeking extralegal methods of evicting the Wobblies. Warren Grimm was named chair. Grimm’s experience with communism, and his disdain for it, was well known in town. During the war, he had been stationed in Siberia. What he saw there disgusted him. In a guest column for the Chronicle, he once sniffed, “Vladivostock, although a city of 125,000, has neither sewerage nor water systems.” In June 1918, when an IWW sympathizer named Tom Lassiter—a partially blind man—was attacked in Centralia, Grimm took the side of his assailants. Lassiter ran a newspaper stand selling labor rags such as the Industrial Worker. Two thugs kidnapped him, drove him out of town, and threw him into a ditch. Discussing the incident with a fellow lawyer, Grimm said, “That’s the proper way to treat such a fellow.” Soon after, in a Labor Day speech delivered in Centralia’s Riverside Park, Grimm fulminated about “the American Bolsheviki—the industrial workers of the world.”

No wonder, then, that the Wobblies feared the first Armistice Day might bring fresh trouble. They met the night before the parade to hatch a plan: They would secret guns to strategic positions in and around the hall, from which they could protect it. If the parade, led by Hubbard, turned into the sort of attack they’d seen before, they’d be ready.

When Grimm ordered the Legionnaires to halt at the Roderick, the Wobblies on the lookout had only to raise and cock their guns. When several of Grimm’s men burst into motion, hurling themselves at the IWW hall’s locked door and breaking the large storefront window, the Wobblies took aim. As shattered glass flew, five gunmen had Grimm in their sight.

IV.

Three of the men were a block to the east, across a set of railroad tracks, lying prone on Seminary Ridge. The elevated position gave them a bird’s-eye view of Tower Avenue. Another Wobbly, O.C. Bland, a father of seven, was situated across the street from the Roderick, wielding a .25-35 rifle in an upstairs room of the Arnold Hotel. He was in such a hurry to get the barrel of his gun out the window that he smashed the glass and cut a bloody gash into the back of his hand.

A block away, in the Avalon Hotel, was a large mustached man who had just arrived in Centralia. At a meeting in the IWW hall the night before, he’d mentioned that his name was Davis, but no one seemed to know him, and there was something clownish about him: When presented with the challenge of sneaking a rifle into the Avalon to avoid suspicion, he tried stuffing it down the leg of his pant. His stiff gait prompted other Wobblies to laugh, so he wrapped the gun in an overcoat. Now he was aiming the rifle through the slit of an open window.

What did Davis see, peering down? Some historians contend that, as the rest of the Armistice Day parade moved down Tower Avenue, Grimm shouted, “Boys, aren’t you with us?” He tried to beckon some of the marchers back to help with the Legionnaires’ attack on the Wobblies’ hall. A corollary theory holds that Grimm channeled his athletic past. Did he put the Wedge, the maneuver from his college days, into action as his men charged the hall? Did he lead the way? There is, of course, no footage of Centralia’s Armistice Day parade, but it seems likely that Grimm, at the very least, took part in the assault.

Perhaps no one inside the IWW hall was more willing to fire upon the Legionnaires than Wesley Everest.

At about 2:35 p.m., a few moments after the violence began, Grimm was struck in the chest by a bullet fired from above. It likely came from Davis’s gun, aiming from across the street. Grimm staggered half a block to a shed behind a candy store, where he told a doctor—a fellow Legionnaire who’d raced to help him—that he felt “an awful pain” in his stomach. By the time he climbed into the car that rushed him toward Centralia’s hospital, his wound was as “big as an inkwell,” according to a fellow passenger. Grimm would not survive the day.

From his perch in the Avalon, Davis could see a Legionnaire rushing north on Tower Avenue. His name was Arthur McElfresh. He’d fought in the Argonne Forest and now, at 26, was the manager of the Prigmore & Sears pharmacy. With a few other Legionnaires, he found cover behind a building located some 50 feet from the IWW hall, on the same side of the street. When McElfresh peered around the corner to look at the Roderick, he took a fatal bullet to the head. It’s impossible to say with certainty who shot him, but it was likely Davis, who would have had a clear line of sight on McElfresh.

The three gunmen on Seminary Ridge began shooting, peppering the parade’s marchers and spectators. Most of the crowd dispersed in a frenzy, unsure of where the shots were coming from. Centralia’s Legionnaires, however, kept pouring into the IWW Hall—they were trained soldiers and undeterred by artillery fire.

Seven Wobblies waited inside the hall, and they were the salt of the earth. Their leader, Britt Smith, was a native of southwestern Washington, who walked with a limp. In time, legal papers would describe him as “sober, honest and reasonably industrious.” Bert Faulkner, a 31-year-old veteran, had attended high school with Grimm in Centralia. He was missing his left middle finger, the result of a logging accident. Mike Sheehan, a Wobbly elder in his sixties, was a Spanish-American War vet who had been involved in organized labor ever since he joined his father’s butcher’s union at the age of eight. Another man in the hall was a minister’s son and ideologue named Ray Becker. Twenty-six years old, Becker had fled divinity school to work in the woods of Wisconsin, Illinois, and Minnesota. He’d served jail time for evading the draft, and arrived in Centralia just two days before the parade, with a zealot’s fire for social justice and a .38 pistol.

But perhaps no one inside the IWW hall was more willing to fire upon the Legionnaires than Wesley Everest. He was 28 and handsome, with red hair. He crouched in the back of the hall with an Army-issue .45 automatic pistol. Within moments he would turn himself into a folk hero, the subject of myth. 

By the mid-1910s, the IWW had 150,000 members.

V.

John Dos Passos, one of America’s most widely read 20th-century writers, would later refer to Everest, a World War I vet, as a “sharpshooter,” alleging that he fought in the trenches of France. In his landmark novel 1919, Dos Passos claimed that Everest earned “a medal for a crack shot.” Elsewhere, Dos Passos made Everest sound like Daniel Boone, writing of the veteran, “His folks were of the old Tennessee and Kentucky stock of woodsmen and squirrel hunters.” Others have traded on the salacious tale that Everest married and fathered a child with Marie Equi, an Oregon lesbian, physician, and Wobbly icon.

None of this was true. Everest was a hard-luck case and a nobody who, by odd twists of fate, found himself at the center of a historic street battle on Armistice Day. He grew up on a farm in tiny Newberg, Oregon, and his life was shaped by trauma. His father, a schoolteacher and postmaster, died before Everest was even a teenager. In 1904, when he was 13, Everest’s mother was thrown from the seat of a horse buggy. Her head hit a rock and she died hours later, leaving behind seven orphans. “We children were distributed among aunts and other relatives,” his younger brother Charles wrote in a 1977 letter that offers one of the few original accounts of Everest’s life.

For Everest, the third-oldest child, the fatal accident gave way to an unsettled existence. At first he lived on a great-aunt’s farm outside Portland, and then, when milking cows no longer agreed with him, he ran away. He wasn’t yet 15. “I do not know where he went or what he did,” Charles wrote, “but I heard he was felling timber in the woods at age 17.” Charles didn’t see his brother again until 1911, when Everest got a job on the railroad near where Charles lived. “He worked a short time,” Charles wrote, “and disappeared.”

Everest was working for the IWW by the age of 21. In 1913, he was on Oregon’s southern coast, in the village of Marshfield, organizing a logging strike summed up eloquently in a headline that appeared in The Coos Bay Harbor: “35 Men Refuse to Work in Deep Mud. Strike for Less Hours and More Pay.” The six-week campaign failed. Along with another Wobbly leader, Everest was escorted out of town by what The Coos Bay Times called a “committee” of 600 armed citizens—a group that included “practically every businessman in Marshfield.” The men dragged Everest through the streets until he was scarcely able to walk. They forced him to kneel and kiss the American flag. They put him on a boat bound for a distant beach. And they advised him to never return to Marshfield, “as he might,” in the newspaper’s words, “suffer greater violence.”

When Everest was conscripted in 1917, it was into a special contingent of the Army that logged spruce for airplanes in western Washington. He stubbornly resisted the lessons of Marshfield. During his 16-month Army hitch, he spent much of his time in the stockade, repeatedly punished for refusing to salute the American flag. “In the mornings,” writes John McClelland Jr., the author of Wobbly War: The Centralia Story, “Everest would be let out of the stockade at reveille when the flag was raised. Everest would refuse to salute whereupon he would be marched back to the stockade for another day.”

Everest arrived in Centralia in the spring of 1919, and he liked to wear his Army uniform around town. It allowed him to blend in, and he likely donned it on a visit to the Elks’ clubhouse, where a group of concerned Centralia citizens gathered that October to discuss the threat of organized labor. He came away convinced that the town’s citizens were determined to shoot up the IWW hall on Armistice Day. “When those fellows come,” he told other Wobblies at their own meeting, “they will come prepared to clean us out, and this building will be honeycombed with bullets inside of ten minutes.”

It was Everest who argued that the Wobblies should arm themselves for the parade. Listening to him make his case, 21-year-old IWW logger Loren Roberts concluded that Everest was “a desperate character. He didn’t give a goddamn for nothing. He didn’t give a damn whether he got killed or not.”

Everest had been right that the Legionnaires were planning an attack. He was wrong, though, about the hall being “honeycombed with bullets.” When Grimm’s men charged, they were unarmed.

VI.

As the Legionnaires forced their way inside the hall, Everest and Ray Becker, the minister’s son, shot wildly, hitting no one. The vets kept coming. Four Wobblies, including Becker, ran to the back porch of the Roderick, where they hid in an unused freezer. Everest kept running, past the porch and into an alley. Men in military uniform sprinted after him. He kept shooting, and this time his aim was good. Ben Casagranda, a Legionnaire and the owner of a Centralia shoeshine parlor, fell to the ground with a bullet in his gut. Another veteran, John Watt, fell beside him, hit in the spleen. Watt would survive; Casagranda would not.

The Legionnaires, who greatly outnumbered the Wobblies, began asking neighbors of the Roderick for their weapons. Some broke into a hardware store, searching for guns and cartridges. A few who were still unarmed followed Everest at a careful distance.

Everest scrambled west down alleyways, through vacant lots, and past horse stables. He was moving toward the Skookumchuck River, less than half a mile from the IWW hall. On the north bank were farms and forests through which he could escape into the mist.

As he ran, Everest stopped every so often to hide behind a building and shoot at the soldiers on his trail. He missed, wasting bullets. When he got to the river, it was swollen with autumn rains and moving too quickly to cross. Everest was trapped.

The Legionnaires began asking neighbors for their weapons. Some broke into a hardware store, searching for guns and cartridges.

F.B. Hubbard’s nephew, Dale, lumbered toward him, pointing a pistol at Everest as two other Legionnaires hurried to assist. He instructed Everest to drop his gun. Like Grimm, Dale Hubbard had played football at the University of Washington. He’d served in France, with a division of forestry engineers, and gotten married a month earlier. He was 26. He’d borrowed the pistol he was holding from someone he’d encountered en route to the riverbank. The gun didn’t work, though—Dale was bluffing.

Everest didn’t know this, and he likely regarded Dale’s steady pointing of the weapon as a death threat. Still, he didn’t acquiesce to the command that he drop his pistol. Instead, according to legal papers, Everest hurled “defiant curses” at Dale. When Dale moved toward him, Everest fired repeatedly, wounding Dale repeatedly. Dale fell to the ground. He would die that night. 

Everest had just shot a veteran in front of two other soldiers, and his gun was now out of bullets. He tried to reload, but Dale Hubbard’s allies tackled him. The Legionnaires kicked him in the head, drawing blood. When he refused to walk, they strung a belt around his neck and dragged him a mile to the Centralia jail.

The assault on the IWW hall.

VII.

As Everest was hauled through town, no one asked questions. Instead, a crowd grew around him, convinced he was evil, and eventually he found himself “in the vanguard of a howling, sneering mob,” one witness wrote decades later in the Chronicle. “His head was a bloody mass of welts from both men and women who dashed out sporadically from the curb to pummel him with their fists.”

Someone in the mob threw a hangman’s noose around a light pole, according to one eyewitness. Everest was led beneath it. As he stood waiting for his end, he berated the crowd, calling them “cowards, rats, and Hubbard’s hirelings.” As the crowd aggravated for the Wobbly’s demise, an elderly woman intervened and begged Everest’s tormenters not to hang him.

Soldiers lifted Everest off the ground by his neck and feet like a sack of potatoes. They tossed him into a jail cell. As he lay in a pool of blood, squads of Legionnaires combed the streets of Centralia looking for other Wobblies. The IWW hall had been ransacked and destroyed. Mobs burned the Wobblies’ furniture in the street, along with piles of books and labor newspapers. They tore a porch off the side of the Roderick, prompting the building’s worried owner, Mary McAllister, to hastily install an American flag in her window lest the whole place be leveled.

Across the street, O.C. Bland wrapped a towel around his bloody hand. He left the Arnold Hotel, crossed Tower Avenue, and walked east, hoping to convalesce at a friend’s. When he reached Seminary Ridge, he encountered Davis, the crack Wobbly gunman who had likely killed two people that day. The Legionnaires were searching for him. When The New York Times reported on the hunt the following morning, it wrote that the servicemen “searched the highways and byways for all suspicious persons and then sent out parties into the timbered country around the city.”

When they could not find Davis in the open air, the Legionnaires stormed a seedy, smoky pool hall. According to the Times, they “lined about 100 persons against the wall and searched them.” Sixteen men carrying IWW cards were arrested. At least 25 alleged Wobblies ended up in Centralia’s jail alongside Everest.

At 5 p.m., Centralia’s Elks and Legion Post #17 gathered for an emergency meeting in the Union Loan & Trust Building. They adjourned briefly to return home for their guns, then convened again to devise a plan of action, booting anyone who was neither an Elk nor a Legionnaire from the room.

Shortly after the men emerged at 7 p.m., they arrived at the jail in a caravan of six vehicles, each of which had its headlights switched off. The men occupying the vehicles had no problem getting inside. The jail was guarded by a lone watchman, and they were operating under cover of darkness—someone, possibly Centralia’s mayor, had managed to temporarily cut the electricity flowing from the town’s power plant.

“The first person to enter the jail was F.B. Hubbard,” Esther Barnett Goffinet, daughter of Wobbly Eugene Barnett, wrote in her 2010 book, Ripples of a Lie. “Someone in front of the jail turned their headlights on and Hubbard yelled, ‘Turn off that light! Some IWW son-of-a-bitch might see our faces.’” 

It’s not clear that Hubbard actually said this—or that he was even at the jail that night. Goffinet’s source was a pair of affidavits given several years later by two Wobbly prisoners with an ax to grind. Still, the vignette gets the deeper story right. Working his connections and exercising his clout, Hubbard had spent much of 1919 quarterbacking Centralia’s war against the red scourge. Now his ugly hopes were coming to fruition.

The posse dragged Everest outside, where a crowd of about 2,000 people were now “swarming like bees,” the Tacoma News-Tribune reported. “They were rough men, angry, scornful men whose pockets bulged menacingly with the weapons they made small effort to conceal.” Some in the crowd wanted every single Wobbly in Centralia to hang. They shouted, “Lynch ’em!”

The caravan moved west, bound for the broad Chehalis River. Everest was defiant. “I got my man and done my duty,” he said, not specifying which of his victims he intended to kill. “String me up now if you want to.”

Men who were never charged in court knotted a noose to a crossarm of a bridge over the Chehalis. They put it around Everest’s neck and let him drop. A moment later they heard a low moan and knew that Everest was still alive—they’d flubbed the hanging. They pulled him up. They found a longer rope and let Everest drop again. This time his neck snapped. When at last his body went limp, the vigilantes in the caravan turned their headlights on so they could take aim. They shot some 20 or 30 bullets into Everest’s corpse.

They left his body dangling. Early the next morning, November 12, someone cut the rope. That evening, the Seattle Star reported, Everest’s corpse “was dragged through the streets. The body was taken to the jail and placed in a cell in full view of 30 alleged IWW prisoners.” 

“The sight was intended as an object lesson not only for the prisoners huddled in their cells,” the Star noted, “but to all men who fail to respect the men who fought for the United States.”

VIII.

In the lyrics to a 1920 song titled “Wesley Everest,” Wobbly Ralph Chaplin channeled Christ’s crucifixion as he envisioned the activist hanging from a noose. “Torn and defiant as a wind-lashed reed,” the song goes, “a rebel unto Caesar—then as now—alone, thorn crowned, a spear wound in His side.” In The Centralia Conspiracy, a book published the same year, Chaplin burnished Everest’s martyr status by suggesting that his killers had castrated him. “In the automobile, on the way to the lynching,” Chaplin writes, “he was unsexed by a human fiend, a well known Centralia business man.”

The story of Everest’s castration is arguably the most remembered detail of the Centralia tragedy. It is so widely accepted that Howard Zinn presented it as fact in A People’s History of the United States. The story is likely bogus, however. In a meticulous 1986 essay, Wesley Everest, IWW Martyr, author Thomas Copeland makes clear that, in late 1919, not a single report—from journalists, from Everest’s fellow Wobblies, or from the coroner—mentioned castration.

Still, Chaplin’s mythmaking is nothing compared with the stagecraft of the trial that ensued after the Armistice Day violence. In early 1920, in a courthouse in Montesano, Washington, 11 Wobblies stood accused of committing murder during the shootout. To intimidate the jury, Hubbard’s company joined other citizens in paying 50 World War I veterans $4 a day to sit in the gallery dressed in uniform. Outside the courtroom, the soldiers enjoyed free meals at Montesano’s city hall and met trains to discourage IWW supporters from disembarking.

The troops camped outside the courthouse for two weeks and stirred such fear that two jurors secretly carried guns.

The judge presiding over the case, John M. Wilson, refused to let the jury consider the buildup to the shootout—the 1918 attack on Centralia’s IWW hall, for instance, and the October meeting at the Elks Club to discuss the “Wobbly problem.” Prosecutor Herman Allen, meanwhile, turned the proceedings into a circus. Mid-trial, Allen summoned assistance from the Army as what he called a “precautionary measure” against Wobbly violence. Eighty enlisted men were dutifully sent to town. The troops, who arrived armed, camped outside the courthouse for two weeks and stirred such fear that two jurors secretly carried guns in case of a Wobbly attack. Their fear was unfounded, however. Nobody on the union’s side was calling for an uprising in Montesano. In fact, leftist protestors stayed away from the heavily patrolled town.

For the Wobblies on trial, there was one sliver of light: Davis, the stranger who’d probably killed two Legionnaires, had escaped. Somehow, despite extensive searching, Davis had vanished, never to be found. The only other Wobbly known to have killed anyone was Everest, and he had been lynched. As it sought payback for the death of four Legionnaires—Grimm, Hubbard, Casagranda, and McElfresh—the prosecution offered a tenuous argument that the defendants were to blame.

Allen tried to build a case that Wobbly Eugene Barnett, not Davis, had leaned out the window of the Avalon Hotel to kill Grimm. Credible testimony, however, suggested that Barnett wasn’t even in the Avalon when the shooting broke out; he managed to wriggle free of first-degree-murder charges. In the end, the jury zeroed in on the planning that had gone into the Wobblies’ armed resistance, and found seven men, including Barnett, Ray Becker, O.C. Bland, and Britt Smith, guilty of second-degree murder. Each received a 25-to-40-year sentence.

Wesley Everest

IX.

Wesley Everest, Warren Grimm, F.B. Hubbard—indeed, everyone who walked the streets of Centralia in 1919—were bit players in a larger drama. Throughout American history, corrupt power had always found a way to justify cruelty by reframing truth and instilling fear. In 1830, when Andrew Jackson forced thousands of Native Americans west along what became known as the Trail of Tears, he asked, “What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms?” In Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court enshrined white supremacy under the false promise of separate but equal.

In the case of Centralia, the shootout shook an already anxious nation. Three days after it happened, The New York Times ran an editorial declaring that the incident “has probably done more than anything else to arouse the American people to the existence, not of a menace to their Government, but of human miscreants from whom no life is safe, however humble.” The Red Scare would die out in 1920, when the Justice Department lost face by issuing warnings about a May Day anarchist uprising that never happened. Still, Centralia left its imprint. A new suspicion had wormed its way into the back of the American mind. Citizens opposed to leftist politics now harbored a heightened sense that evil could emerge anywhere, even in the streets of a small town in the woods.

Centralia also afforded young J. Edgar Hoover an opening. At the time, Hoover was still living with his parents, but in the wake of the Armistice Day tragedy, the world opted to take him seriously. He ran with it. In a memo, he asked an aide to “obtain for me all the facts surrounding the Centralia matter.” The following month, four days before Christmas, at 4 a.m. in the frigid darkness, Hoover showed up at Ellis Island. The 249 Russian dissidents he had rounded up were herded toward a creaky old troopship that would carry them back to the Soviet Union. Soon, Hoover began compiling a file on Isaac Schorr, the activist lawyer who represented many Ellis Island detainees. Then, on January 2, 1920, Hoover orchestrated his biggest set of raids yet. This time, at least 3,000 suspected communists were captured in more than 30 U.S. cities—all on the same evening.

In time, Hoover became the most prominent reactionary public official in America. Instrumental in the FBI’s founding, he directed the agency for 48 years and kept secret files on thousands of Americans. When a reporter once asked him whether justice might play a role in addressing the civil rights movement, Hoover responded coolly, voicing words that might have played well in Centralia in 1919 (and the nation’s capital today). “Justice,” he said, “is merely incidental to law and order.”

Throughout the 1920s, a dedicated and conscientious Centralia lawyer, Elmer Smith, tried to fight Hoover’s law-and-order approach. He led a campaign to free the Wobblies convicted of conspiring to murder Legionnaires on the first Armistice Day, and he did so with such flourish that he once drew 5,000 people to a speech in Seattle. That day, Smith argued that the Northwest’s lumber barons, having sent the Centralia Wobblies to jail, also had the power to free them.

Smith got no judicial traction, though. The Wobblies languished in prison. One of them, an Irishman named James McInerney, died of tuberculosis in 1930 while behind bars. The following year, Eugene Barnett was allowed to go home to nurse his wife, who was sick with cancer. O.C. Bland was paroled soon after, and in 1933, Washington’s then governor, Clarence Martin, granted parole to three more Wobblies.

Only Ray Becker, the minister’s son, remained behind bars. Bitter, paranoid, and holding firm to his anti-capitalist convictions, Becker refused to seek parole. Instead, he wrote handwritten pleas—to newspapers and also to a judge—as he sought admissions of guilt from everyone he believed had conspired in framing him for murder. Becker did not leave jail until 1939, when Governor Martin announced that, after 18 years, he had served his time.

X.

The legacy of the Centralia shootout is still palpable in the town. In the center of its main green space, George Washington Park, fronted by a long, regal concrete walkway, is a bronze statue erected in 1924. The Sentinel features a helmeted World War I soldier, his lowered hands gently wrapped around the barrel of a rifle. An American flag flutters high on a pole behind him, and an inscription on the statue’s side honors Warren Grimm and the three other soldiers “slain on the streets of Centralia … while on peaceful parade wearing the uniform of the country they loyally and faithfully served.”

Not 200 feet from The Sentinel’s patinated nose, on the exterior wall of the Centralia Square Hotel, is a bright mural titled The Resurrection of Wesley Everest. Awash in splashy oranges and yellows, installed by artist Mike Alewitz in 1997, the mural depicts the lynched Wobbly with his arms held high in victory. Flames crackle beneath him; they signal, Alewitz has said, “discontent.”

When I visited Centralia not long ago, I stayed at the Square Hotel, so that every time I stepped into the street I found myself crossing the energetic force field between the statue and the mural. It was pouring rain most of the time I was in town, so usually I hurried, intent on staying dry and on ducking the bad municipal feng shui achieved by the memorials’ counterposition.

Once, though, heading out for an interview near the former home of the IWW, I paused in the space between. I watched as the flag above The Sentinel was pelted by steady rain. The shootout in Centralia was a fight over what that flag meant. One side wanted an America that was fair and equitable, framed by the right to free speech and steeped in justice for all. The other was mesmerized by the battlefield glory that the flag represented, the legacy of bloodshed knitted into its stars and stripes. In their opinion, such a legacy demanded obedience. It was worthy of vigilant defense, and if marginal citizens did not behave like 100 percent Americans, well, it didn’t matter if they got trampled.

Standing there, I wanted to believe that in the 101 years since the Centralia shootout, the Legionnaires’ cruel patriotism had withered away—that the intervening century had delivered the nation to a gentler, more humane outlook. But I knew that wasn’t completely true. In recent years, Donald Trump had resurrected the exclusionary nationalism of the early 20th century, justifying racist and xenophobic policies under the banner of making America “great” again. At the same time, a socialist was a legitimate contender for president—twice—and Black Lives Matter grew into the largest social justice movement in U.S. history. There was still hope, but it had to be nourished.

The rain picked up. I was running late. I hurried north toward the scene of battle.

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Do You Hear the People Sing?

Do You Hear The
People Sing?


Brutality and
resistance on the
front lines of
Hong Kong’s battle
for democracy.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 105


Lauren Hilgers lived in Shanghai for six years. Her articles have appeared in Harper’s, Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Magazine. Her book Patriot Number One was a New York Times notable book in 2018.

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Adam Przybyl
Illustrator: Mike McQuade

Published in July 2020

By the time Grace¹ arrived at Hong Kong Polytechnic University in November 2019, she had forgotten the date and the day of the week—the longer she spent protesting, the more time seemed to fray around the edges. She was battle hardened and exhausted. Hong Kong’s police were employing increasingly authoritarian tactics against pro-democracy protesters like her. She had become accustomed to the smell of tear gas and the sound of canisters squealing as they arced overhead. She knew the feel of protective gear on her face and the heft of flame-resistant gloves on her hands. Compared with those things, the date didn’t matter.

Grace is in her early twenties, a political-science student. She first joined the protests, hopeful and bold, in June 2019, during the annual candlelight vigil that takes place in Hong Kong on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. She was intoxicated by the idea of the movement, the feeling of bodies united together in a cause. A swelling in the chest, a sense of hope and desperation—she had never experienced anything like it.

Months of sustained protest followed, and Hong Kong was haunted by scenes of violence in the streets, at the airport, and on the MTR (the city’s metro). Protesters initially had set out to derail an extradition bill that would allow the government to transport accused criminals to mainland China, but as law enforcement cracked down and videos of brutality spread, the movement’s focus shifted to ending police violence and demanding that all Hong Kongers be able to vote for the city’s highest-ranking officials. Despite those progressive goals, there was an end-of-days feeling to the protests. A disquieting thought hung in the back of Grace’s mind: Hong Kong was dying, and she was helping it make one last stand.

Huge marches were followed by smaller actions. Protesters broke up into leaderless pods. Years of arrests and kidnappings had made putting anyone in charge too risky. Protesters developed a strategy, embodied in the slogan “be water”—assemble for an instant, then drain through the surrounding streets—allowing them to clash with police and avoid arrest. It was inevitable, in retrospect, that the strategy would sometimes fail. That the water would pool and become trapped.

PolyU was a hive of activity when Grace arrived on what turned out to be November 14. Protesters had occupied the school and were using it as a base of operations. PolyU students who had joined the demonstrations prepared meals and set up a supply room full of clothes, gas masks, and first-aid materials. They put sleeping mats in the gym. Older protesters took younger ones under their wing. Some demonstrators set up lookouts on the roofs of school buildings, arming themselves with bows and arrows. In the student-government headquarters, a group gathered to discuss an action intended to stymie nearby traffic, bringing a busy part of Hong Kong to a standstill.

Over the previous five months, Grace had become an efficient, unflappable protester—a far cry from the person she had been before, someone unpolitical and naive. “I was just a normal girl in Hong Kong,” she said of her life before the movement. At PolyU, she knew how to keep calm, proceed from task to task, ready herself to face the police.

Looking back, she can’t remember the exact moment when law enforcement reached the campus—she only knows that the atmosphere changed. The bustle of preparation turned to confrontation and then panic. A protester watched from a rooftop as armored vehicles lined up below. As an opening salvo, police in SWAT gear shot canisters of tear gas into the building where the protester was perched. “I didn’t have any mask. I didn’t have anything on me,” the protester later said. “From that moment, I just thought, Oh God, they want us all to die.”

Hong Kong was not a democracy, but citizens held on dearly to the idea that it was at least autonomous.

A normal Hong Kong girl, according to Grace and other protesters, is a student who wears a uniform, works hard, and occasionally goes out to buy bubble tea with her friends. “In Hong Kong, children are scared of the sun,” a protester who goes by the alias V told me, only half joking. “They don’t like walking, and they don’t like running.” They study. They go to school. They come home. They don’t spend much time thinking about politics.

That was Grace growing up. She was born too late to remember a time when Hong Kong wasn’t part of the People’s Republic of China. The handover happened in 1997, after more than a decade of negotiations between Great Britain and the PRC. The new constitution, called the Basic Law, established the policy of “one country, two systems”—Hong Kong could govern itself for 50 years, during which Mainland China’s laws would not extend to the city. Still, the PRC held sway. The Basic Law, for instance, promised freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, but it gave the National People’s Congress in Beijing the power to interpret those rights. Hong Kong was not a democracy, but citizens held on dearly to the idea that it was at least autonomous.

During Grace’s childhood, Hong Kong had an independent judiciary and a freewheeling economy, with few of the controls that limited capital flows in the mainland. And as China’s economy gradually opened up, it offered substantial opportunities for Hong Kong’s elites, whom Beijing actively courted. In Hong Kong, business and governance are directly connected. Only half the seats in the city’s governing body, the Legislative Council (or LegCo), are elected by the people. The other half are reserved for so-called functional constituencies, industry-based voting blocs that effectively allow corporations to shape policy. As the businesses that formed those constituencies cozied up to mainland China, their interests aligned more and more with Beijing’s.

In 2003, a proposed national-security law that would have limited free speech and introduced the crimes of subversion, secession, and sedition—all of which are invoked to punish dissidents in the mainland—was scrapped after 500,000 people took to the streets in protest. (Organizers estimated the crowd at that size; police put the number at 350,000.) In 2010, people demonstrated again, calling for universal suffrage and protesting the arrest of Liu Xiaobo, a writer and activist from the mainland.

Grace, still in grade school at the time, was only vaguely aware of these events. She knew that her parents voted for pro-democracy candidates in LegCo elections, and she knew about the annual Tiananmen vigil, where people wearing white—a mourning color—lit candles and sang songs. Her perspective began to change in 2012, when the city’s National Education Services Center moved to instate a pro-China “moral and national education” curriculum in schools. Pamphlets promoting the curriculum were distributed throughout the city, emphasizing the need to build a national identity and criticizing multiparty systems for causing “malignant party struggle” in the United States and elsewhere. “We will never be independent,” the head of the National Education Services Center told CNN, “so we should learn to think the same way as China.”

That July, some 90,000 people, many of them students Grace’s age, took to the streets to protest what they saw as a brainwashing effort. (Police again put the turnout much lower, at around 32,000.) There was a hunger strike and an occupation of legislative offices. Grace didn’t join the demonstrations—her parents opposed them—but then the pro-China headmaster at her school instructed a group of students to circulate a petition in favor of the new education regime. Her peers asked Grace to add her name. “They weren’t mean about it,” she said. “They just wanted to get the signatures as fast as possible so they could get it over with.”

The petition prompted Grace to think about the ideas raised by the new curriculum and about her own cultural identity. Hong Kong was not mainland China, and she was not mainland Chinese. She was a Hong Konger. She found it annoying that the headmaster had foisted the petition on students. Grace refused to sign. It was the beginning of her political awakening.

She wasn’t alone. Across Hong Kong, there were teenagers who increasingly spent time estimating the value of the freedoms they enjoyed and guessing at Beijing’s intentions. Among them was V, an aspiring musician, whose sister also wanted to fight for democracy. Terra was another, a science student at Hong Kong Chinese University with an excellent GPA. Yet another, Jack, took cues from famous resistance leaders, reading Malcolm X and Frantz Fanon. All these young people would eventually wind up at PolyU when protesters occupied it. Like Grace, they later shared their stories with me.

First, though, came the Umbrella Revolution.

Pro-democracy legislators and activists staged a sit-in. They were arrested one by one, singing “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from the musical Les Misérables.

In 2014, Beijing proposed changes to how Hong Kong chose its most powerful official, the chief executive. Traditionally, the chief executive had been selected by a committee of electors, many of them loyal to Beijing. China’s new plan would allow Hong Kongers themselves to vote for their leader—so long as Beijing approved the candidates.

Thousands of citizens, led primarily by students, mounted a resistance. Grace joined a student strike, boycotting her classes. Other young people marched in front of then chief executive Leung Chun-ying’s home and outside the legislative building, where LegCo was required to approve China’s plan for it to go into effect. They erected tents along a stretch of highway next to the building and built a camp, a progressive community where art projects were scattered among supply caches and sleeping bags. Protesters set up barriers, distributed protective goggles, and organized first-aid teams. They established supply lines so they wouldn’t have to leave their positions; they could maintain the pressure day and night. There was even a study tent where students could go to keep up with their schoolwork.

Police in Hong Kong had dealt with large-scale protests for decades, but their response in 2014 was uncommonly aggressive. Hundreds of demonstrators were arrested. The police used tear gas for the first time since 2005, when they launched it into crowds protesting a World Trade Organization meeting. Law enforcement threw 87 canisters at the LegCo protesters, who carried umbrellas to shield themselves. Nineteen days into the 79-day protest, a TV news crew caught seven plainclothes police officers beating a protester named Ken Tsang on video and broadcast the footage to the city. Many Hong Kongers were outraged.

Despite police violence, the pro-democracy movement intended to remain peaceful. Johnson Yeung, a former leader of Hong Kong’s Federation of Students, an organization that represents student unions at Hong Kong’s universities, told me that protesters wanted to believe that their adversaries were rational actors. The thought was, as Yeung explained it, “If you provide some room for an authoritarian regime to coexist with you, then they will give you some allowances.”

As the protests stretched on, Grace became more and more interested in what was happening. Her father was moving in the opposite direction. “My dad thinks Hong Kong is free enough,” she said. He considered the protests disruptive. There were clashes with police in a residential neighborhood called Mong Kok. Traffic in the city often ground to a halt. Grace’s father didn’t see the ragtag beauty in the protest camp. “My dad wants a stable society and doesn’t want a ruin in the place where he lives,” Grace said.

The protests ended in December 2014 when a court ordered the camp outside LegCo cleared. Protesters dispersed largely without incident; by the time police showed up, many people had already left. Still, approximately 200 pro-democracy legislators and activists staged a sit-in. They were arrested one by one, singing “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from the musical Les Misérables.

The following June, the legislature voted against Beijing’s revised election plan. But it was a hollow victory—no other reforms were put forward, which meant that the chief executive would continue to be selected by committee.

Following the protest, the situation in Hong Kong worsened. In mainland China, a crackdown on lawyers and dissidents was underway, and Beijing’s harder line was increasingly felt in the city. Late in 2015, five Hong Kong booksellers who stocked books banned by Beijing were kidnapped and taken to mainland China; they subsequently resurfaced in videos admitting to crimes like “illegal book trading.” One of the accused confessed to involvement in a fatal drunk-driving incident. He was eventually convicted of “providing intelligence overseas.” (Since then, only one of the booksellers has been released; he fled to Taiwan.)

In the 2016 LegCo elections, six candidates were disqualified by Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leaders for expressing support for the city’s independence. After the election, an additional six legislators were expelled from LegCo for the way they took the oath of office. Some coughed at key moments. Some mispronounced words—“People’s Republic of China” sounded more like “People’s Refucking of Jeena.” (The oath is recited in English.) Others shouted pro-democracy slogans, and one person spoke the words extremely slowly.

The following year, three of the Umbrella Revolution’s most vocal leaders were sentenced to several months in prison for their roles in the movement. Having a criminal record would prevent them from running for political office for five years.

By the time protests reignited in 2019, many young people felt that their strategy needed to change. “Beijing is writing the rules,” Yeung said. “It is hard to outcompete an opponent who is writing and breaking the rules whenever they want.” A consensus emerged that pacifism was not the only answer. “Through violence you recognize your own power,” said Jack. “You can stand up and oppose the government.” He considered Beijing a colonizer—and he was determined to fight back.

Grace didn’t want to go to her first demonstration alone. Her boyfriend, whom she met online before the protests started, wasn’t interested. While he supported the movement, he preferred to stay off the front lines. (He didn’t want to speak with me for this story.) Her older sister would join the protests, but not until later. Most of her friends were focused on their studies. They “didn’t have similar goals,” Grace said. “They would end up being soft protesters, rather than going to the front line.” Meanwhile, her father detested the protest movement more than ever; he thought Grace had been brainwashed by outside forces.

Grace had always considered herself an independent and self-sufficient person, but she worried about crowds and the potential for violence. So she called a friend, and on June 4 they made their way to the annual Tiananmen Square vigil in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park.

The 2019 memorial was charged. That February, Hong Kong’s government had proposed the extradition bill, the piece of legislation that would make it legal for people who were wanted for crimes in China—Hong Kongers such as the booksellers—to be extradited to the mainland. Protesters had been active ever since. On the daily news, Grace had watched the pro-democracy crowds grow. She was in university by then, and studying revolutionary movements in her classes. She watched the movie version of Les Mis over and over.

At the vigil, she lit a candle and kept close by her friend. She was awed by the crowd and the people around her. “I felt I was in union, that we all had the same beliefs and thoughts,” she said. “I could feel hope and love from the crowd.” Grace knew she would be back. Five days later, she headed out again.

The second protest Grace attended drew nearly a million people, according to organizers. (Police put the number at around 240,000.) Grace was still nervous, so she again went with her friend. A sea of people wearing white and holding signs packed Hong Kong’s roads. Grace and her friend left the protest before nightfall, when law enforcement moved in. The police clashed with the remaining protesters on the road outside LegCo.

Grace watched on television as protesters toppled traffic barriers and the police responded with pepper spray. She was home safe, but she didn’t want to be, not anymore. She decided to join the next protest, scheduled for June 12, in a more official capacity.

Hong Kong protesters communicated with one another on the messaging service Telegram and a website called LIHKG. The latter, a threaded discussion forum similar to Reddit, restricts connections to Hong Kong ISPs, which made it more difficult for outsiders to infiltrate the movement. Both allow users to remain anonymous.

Protesters took care to protect their identities. “I would not use my real phone,” Jack said. Like many, he used burners so the police couldn’t track him. Whenever possible, he didn’t use a phone at all. “People prefer to meet in private spaces face-to-face and not leave any record,” he said. Online, people rarely shared personal information, only what was necessary to prove they weren’t police: a snapshot of an ID or a staff card indicating where they worked—proof, presumably, that they weren’t law enforcement. The images often remained available for only a short time.

People used digital platforms to organize into teams—protest cells tasked with performing a singular function. A team might run supplies, provide first aid, clean up after protests, or protect the walls of Post-it notes that had popped up all over the city, filled with messages of support for the movement. Everything was fluid. Teams might decide to change function mid-protest or plan their own actions, apart from the big events.

Grace answered a call on Telegram to join a supply team. She would help gather masks, helmets, water, and umbrellas—whatever protesters needed to protect themselves—and distribute them at the planned action on June 12. Grace arrived at a safe house the day before the protest. There were students and parents, wealthy people and workers. Veteran demonstrators taught her how to use gas masks and to protect fellow protesters. When returning to the safe house, for instance, she shouldn’t take a direct route, and she should never follow the same path twice. Some demonstrators changed clothes several times during a protest, to throw off anyone who might be following them.

The next day, more than 40,000 people gathered outside LegCo to protest the reading of the controversial extradition bill, the first step to its passage. Grace ran into the crowd, dropping off water and first-aid supplies. The reading was canceled, and a few hours later the police rushed the crowd. Grace fled. It was the first time she’d heard the smack of rubber bullets, the pop and whistle of tear-gas canisters. “I saw the movement of the crowd and grabbed my teammate’s hand,” she says. “We didn’t know where it would be safe to go.”

Some of Grace’s team wanted to continue ferrying supplies; others ran toward the confrontation with police. Grace followed the chatter on Telegram and LIHKG from the safe house, where she’d made it unharmed. She sent updates on what police were doing—their location, where they were headed—so that her teammates could get out safely.

The police penned hundreds of protesters in the courtyard of the CITIC Tower, an office building across the street from LegCo, and fired tear gas into the crowd. Videos spread online of protesters trying to get into the tower even as smoke from the courtyard filled the lobby. The police beat people with batons and pelted them with rubber bullets. As avenues of escape opened and closed, Grace did her best to inform her teammates.

Once the police ended their assault, the demonstration dispersed. Four people were later arrested at a hospital while being treated for injuries. In the days that followed, Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, justified the aggressive response by claiming that there had been a riot. The protesters talked on message boards: Had anyone seen a riot? Grace hadn’t. No one had.

Grace’s world was the streets. Every time she went out, she crossed paths with people who were at once anonymous and somehow close to her.

The police violence on June 12 made the protesters feel more united than ever. They came up with a list of five demands: withdrawal of the extradition bill; Lam’s resignation; an investigation into police behavior;  withdrawal of the designation of the protest as a riot; and release of all arrested demonstrators. Four days later, Grace joined roughly two million protesters in the streets. (Police estimated the crowd at 338,000.)


The protests became a gathering storm—more frequent, closer together. On July 1, the 22nd anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from the British, organizers estimated that 550,000 people rallied in the city. (The police reported around 180,000.) That night, protesters broke into the LegCo building. They unfurled the flag of British colonial Hong Kong and graffitied messages on the walls. A photo of the words “It was you who taught me peaceful protests were useless” went viral. Within weeks there would be a social workers’ march, a march of the elderly, a march for mothers—all of them in solidarity with the student-led movement.

Grace was almost never home. Her world was the streets. Every time she went out, she crossed paths with people who were at once anonymous and somehow close to her. She ran through a number of positions on teams organized by friends of friends or people she’d met on Telegram. She served as a lookout. She helped post art and spray graffiti. Eventually, she specialized in neutralizing tear gas. Wearing flame-resistant gloves, sometimes carrying tongs and a big water bottle, she would toss canisters away from protesters or douse them until they sputtered out.

Grace had conviction, one of her teammates said. She believed the movement could succeed. And she was happy to be working alone, without friends or her boyfriend or sister along. She knew people who protested with family members or significant others—though rarely on the same team—and recognized how difficult it was for them. “I saw people hug or kiss and then split up,” she said. “The couples would cry and say, like, ‘You need to come back safely and I will be here waiting for you!’” Grace was relieved that she didn’t have to worry about her boyfriend.

Her father called her phone nonstop when she went out. He demanded that she come home. Whenever she left the house, he shouted after her, “Don’t fight with the police!”

At the end of June 2019, a survey conducted by the University of Hong Kong found that a record number of city residents identified as Hong Kongers rather than simply Chinese. Meanwhile, the number of respondents who felt proud of being Chinese had dropped to an all-time low. Support for the pro-democracy movement was mounting.

Lam pledged to withdraw the extradition bill, but the protests didn’t stop. Amnesty International released a report decrying the treatment of protesters in custody, which in some cases the organization claimed amounted to torture—beatings, delayed access to medical care, forcibly shining laser pointers into detainees’ eyes. Journalists wore helmets and goggles to press conferences to protest what they described as a deliberate attempt by police to target the press. Law enforcement remained defiant, defending every action.

On July 21, following a protest in one of Hong Kong’s business districts, hundreds of men appeared on the streets in Yuen Long, a neighborhood an hour from downtown by metro. They wore white T-shirts—by then protesters had begun wearing black, while supporters of Beijing had adopted white—and carried metal bars and wooden clubs. At 10:30 p.m., the men began attacking people. Around 100 of them descended on a metro station and set upon anyone wearing black. Others were caught up in the violence: a pregnant woman, a journalist, random subway passengers. Local law enforcement arrived at 11 p.m. but did nothing. By the time police showed up with riot gear, nearly three hours later, the attackers were gone.

The pro-democracy protesters grew suspicious. Using thugs to carry out orders from the state is common practice in mainland China. A video circulated showing police officers talking to the men in white instead of arresting them. Law enforcement would take 37 men into custody over the next few months, on suspicion that they were linked to local triads, or criminal gangs. Only seven were formally charged.

Everyone felt the antagonism building. Grace narrowly missed being hit in the head with a rubber bullet at a protest outside the Sham Shui Po police station. Terra, the science student, recalled an officer pointing his rifle at her and her friends while they captured the scene on their phones. On August 11, police disguised as protesters attacked a dispersing crowd, beating demonstrators and crushing one student’s head against the concrete. He begged for mercy and spit out teeth as he laid in a pool of blood.

On August 31, protesters defied a ban on demonstrations and used the metro to move around the city, popping up in one place, then quickly moving to another. At Prince Edward Station in Mong Kok, on a platform packed with families and commuters, an alarm went off, and the police swarmed. They ran through the crowds, pushing people aside, looking for anyone in black. Videos showed people on the ground, putting up no resistance as police beat them with batons; first-aid providers being turned away from a man who was apparently unconscious; a couple huddled next to a stopped train, crying out as the police showered them with pepper spray.

Terra was one stop away, in Yau Ma Tei station, when a train from Prince Edward pulled in. “Suddenly, I saw people screaming and crying, and a lot of blood and umbrellas. It was a mess,” she said. Terra was not on a first-aid team; her job was cleaning up after protests. So she started picking up discarded gas masks while others tried to help the injured. She didn’t realize that the police were on their way. When they appeared, Terra dropped her bags and ran toward the escalator. Officers grabbed at her arms. “I felt like I’m not prepared to fight back. I’m not strong enough to push away a police officer,” she said. But she made it out of the station.

There were other incidents, too many to list. By the end of the summer, it was all but impossible to keep track. For Grace, time was starting to blur. More and more, she found herself on the front lines, joining protesters like Jack whose job it was to clash with police directly.

Jack wielded an umbrella and wore a gas mask so he could hold his ground as long as possible when the police charged. That helped people behind him get away, flowing down side streets unharmed. Front-liners also began participating in the targeted destruction of property. “You started to have more clear goals as time went on,” Jack said. “It was a faster pace.” Protesters broke windows in government buildings and in shops associated with organized crime, which seemed to have joined forces with the police. They threw Molotov cocktails and set things on fire. “You just judge there is not a lot of police coming yet, you destroy a China Bank machine or whatever, and then you go,” Jack said.

In September, an Indonesian journalist was blinded in one eye after being hit with a rubber bullet fired by police. In October and early November, at least two protesters were shot with live rounds. Grace was determined but fatigued. She kept fighting, knowing that her side, while not outmanned, was certainly outgunned. “We don’t have what they have,” one protester told me, referring to the police. “They have no limits on hurting us.”

Anyone could join the protests. Office ladies in high heels could make Molotov cocktails on their way to work.

In the early hours of November 4, a student named Alex Chow fell from a parking garage as police used tear gas in a nearby clearance operation. He died four days later, and Hong Kong erupted with renewed vigor. Protesters launched a campaign they called “blossom everywhere,” which employed hit-and-run techniques intended to cause chaos. They appeared at night, stacking bricks in roads like mini Stonehenges, aiming to snarl traffic. Sometimes they strung together metal street barriers, connecting them with zip ties to make them harder to clear away. The actions were small, quick—multiple groups would engage at once in activities all over the city, then recede into the darkness. Anyone could join the protests, even for a moment, and then return to normal life. Office ladies in high heels, Yeung said, could make Molotov cocktails on their way to work.

When the “blossom everywhere” offensive launched, Hong Kong’s universities were logical places for protesters to congregate. Many are located on major thoroughfares and near the bridges and tunnels that connect parts of the city. Even as classes continued, schools became de facto protest headquarters. The police knew this was happening, and on November 11, they bombarded Hong Kong Chinese University (CUHK) and PolyU with tear gas—the start of what would become a protracted battle.

Grace started the week at CUHK. She still made it home on some nights, hitchhiking to her parents’ apartment. When she stayed on campus, she slept outside next to other students. They shivered as nighttime temperatures dropped. “Everyone was getting hypothermia,” Grace said.

CUHK seemed to become the center of the clashes. Students threw debris onto Tolo Highway, located below the hillside campus. When hundreds of police charged on a bridge over the highway, protesters fled under a torrent of tear gas. Outside CUHK, the police parked vans and set up a perimeter, blocking the main entrance while attempting to break through barriers the protesters were defending. Protesters formed human chains to transport supplies across campus. Terra opened the doors of a student-run co-op to the newly resident protesters. She made them cups of noodles.

On November 13, a Wednesday, the courts rejected an appeal from students to ban the police from entering campuses without a warrant. The same day, Grace left CUHK. Other protesters convinced her to head to PolyU, where students needed help. They wanted to block one of Hong Kong’s most important arteries, ratcheting up the chaos engulfing the city.

The campus felt chaotic, like the protesters were making it up as they went. 

Hong Kong Polytechnic University is a fortress of red tile. It sits above the entrance of the cross-harbor tunnel, which allows commuters to move between the Kowloon Peninsula and Hong Kong Island, located off the city’s southern coast. Despite the campus’s centrality, its design separates students from the urban fray—the cluster of highways, train tracks, and tunnels that surround it. The school’s buildings, each designated by a letter of the English alphabet, form a linked perimeter punctuated by barrel-like turrets, which students call cores. The structures are so tightly connected that a person can wander from one end of campus to the other and only rarely set foot outside. Amid all the tile, on the northwest side of campus is a white building, designed by Zaha Hadid, that houses the university’s design school and resembles a giant cruise ship.

PolyU is accessible almost exclusively by pedestrian overpasses, bridges, and stairways. In some places, these pass below the elevated roads around campus; in others they’re perched above traffic. At first this layout seemed to protesters like an advantage. They could block access points with bricks and furniture, keeping the police at bay. They slept in a gym at night and sprawled in tiled courtyards during the day, their voices echoing off the towers around them. Someone made signs out of cardboard directing protesters to available showers. People practiced archery and made slingshots out of bamboo. Some practiced throwing Molotov cocktails into an empty pool, to refine their aim. They were getting ready for whatever came next.

On the Thursday when Grace arrived at PolyU, protesters had already managed to block the cross-harbor tunnel, setting toll booths on fire and throwing down debris from an overpass they’d occupied. The campus felt chaotic, like the protesters were making it up as they went. There wasn’t enough food. “People were feeling distressed,” said Jack, who arrived at PolyU around the same time Grace did.

Grace volunteered to mix Molotov cocktails. To ensure she was getting the balance of gas and oil just right, she threw test explosives down an empty walkway and measured how close she could get before feeling the heat. (The farther away the better, to help keep the police at bay.) Grace wasn’t as effective as some others on the front lines. She wasn’t strong enough, for instance, to throw the Molotovs very far. Here was something she could do: test the heat of the bombs against her own skin.

On Friday, November 15, the police had yet to charge the barricades around PolyU. But the protesters knew this would happen at some point. It was hard not to think of Tiananmen Square. What if the police used live rounds? What if demonstrators were arrested and sent to mainland China, despite the extradition bill’s demise? The protesters decided to act preemptively. They piled debris in the roads closest to campus and set it on fire.

The roads burned for hours before the police came, on Saturday. They positioned water cannons and armored vehicles on the far side of a sea of bricks scattered across the asphalt at PolyU’s main entrance. Grace and Jack joined students gathering at the campus’s access points. Vans and officers approached from the south, spraying water and a blue liquid spiked with pepper spray. The protesters, some of whom assembled into a tightly packed testudo formation beneath umbrellas or scavenged pieces of debris, had amassed Molotov cocktails and boxes of bricks. They could throw them by hand or launch them from makeshift catapults. Some protesters held walkie-talkies, to pass along instructions and intel.

A standoff ensued—the police fired projectiles, and the lines of students fell back and then surged forward, hurling explosives and debris. Updates about police activity circulated throughout Saturday night via Telegram, walkie-talkies, a whiteboard in the campus canteen—any way the protesters could think of to get the word out. When reinforcements were needed at one entrance or another, Grace added her body to the crowd, holding an umbrella to deflect water and pepper spray. When the police threw tear gas, she did her best to put it out. The police shot the canisters parallel to the ground rather than in an overhead arc, aiming directly at the crowd.

News and rumors flew over Telegram and on LIHKG. The police announced that anyone who wanted to leave PolyU peacefully could exit via Y core, a building toward the northern end of campus. Some left, but many of them were arrested, including members of the media and first-aid groups. The remaining protesters knew that they couldn’t trust the police. They held their lines. At one point, the police retreated from the main intersection on the south side of campus long enough for protesters to retrieve bricks they’d thrown, to be used again.

On Sunday night, more than 24 hours into the siege, the police attempted to break through a group of protesters who had planted themselves on a bridge above the cross-harbor tunnel. Two armored trucks approached a line of open umbrellas; Molotov cocktails flew. When one of the police vehicles caught fire, a gasp went up from the protesters—a moment of surprise that soon turned into a cheer. The flaming car backed up and returned to the police cordon.

The protesters weren’t losing—not yet. But they were tired. They were frightened. They were hungry. When Grace heard that the police had threatened to use live bullets, she started to feel desperate. At CUHK, she knew how to get out and did so whenever she wanted. At PolyU, the police weren’t leaving—and they weren’t allowing anyone else to leave.

Grace’s phone buzzed with a new rumor: The police were about to break through the barriers and storm the campus.

People began talking over how to escape. The protesters didn’t want to be arrested and charged with rioting, which can bring a penalty of up to ten years in prison. They didn’t want to be shot or injured. They just wanted to go home.

Word spread that some students were climbing a tree on the edge of campus, easing out onto the branches, and dropping down into the road to be picked up by passing cars—the city had grown so concerned about the protesters that strangers were offering them a ride. Grace ran to the tree and was waiting her turn to climb when her phone buzzed. She launched Telegram. A message said police had taken up a position just beyond the tree and were arresting people as they landed on the ground.

Grace heard about another escape route, but police discovered it before she could get there. Messages were hitting her phone constantly. Pictures of police with sniper rifles. Word of another clash. Early on Monday morning, her phone buzzed with a new rumor: The police were about to break through the barriers and storm the campus.

Grace joined a group of protesters in an empty classroom. They barricaded themselves in and went silent. The officers entered PolyU at 5:30 a.m., arresting people in a part of campus that had been set up to triage protesters with injuries. Then they withdrew. It wasn’t a raid, the police insisted—it was a “dispersal operation,” aimed at collecting explosives. They seemed to be shifting their tactics: Rather than an all-out assault, they were going to wait the protesters out.

Students who had hidden started to emerge. Grace and other protesters came out of the classroom and checked their phones. There was a new plan: The protesters would leave together, as one.

Hundreds of young people headed for a pedestrian bridge that led away from campus. Students wearing protective gear took it off so they could move faster. V, the musician, was walking with his sister, but she passed out when the tear gas, which the police kept firing from outside the barricades, became too thick. “I’m grabbing her, and her boyfriend is grabbing her as well,” V said. “She just can’t feel anything. She felt so heavy.”

Grace ran. A rubber bullet hit the helmet she was wearing. Then she saw people ahead of her running back—the police wouldn’t let them leave. She was disoriented by the smoke and the noise. She ran with a crowd until someone broke a window of the library. Grace climbed over the shattered glass to get inside.

She called her parents and told them that she couldn’t get out. Her father didn’t believe her. “He thought it was not a big deal. He thought his daughter could escape so easily,” Grace recalled. Her mother cried with her and said she was proud. Grace sent a message to her boyfriend, telling him that if she died, he should never forget who killed her: the police.

The protesters at PolyU pinned their hopes on a group of marchers heading toward campus. There were thousands of people: parents, office workers, more students.

The plight of the trapped students captured Hong Kongers’ attention. People called for the protesters to be let out. On Monday, pro-democracy legislators declared the situation a humanitarian crisis. The popular singer Denise Ho took to Twitter to ask the world to help save Hong Kong’s students. Meanwhile, an editorial in the Global Times, a Beijing-based publication, called for the police to fire live rounds.

On Monday night, many of the protesters at PolyU pinned their hopes on a group of marchers heading toward campus. There were thousands of people: parents, office workers, more students. Terra joined from CUHK. “The people next to me were wearing suits—they just got off work,” she recalled. The group hoped to draw police away from campus long enough for the students to escape. It didn’t work.


People who’d given up were slowly trickling off campus. Those who weren’t picked up by cars or motorbikes were arrested. Jack tried to escape through the sewers, but the map he had wasn’t right—he ended up at a dead end. He felt like a trapped animal. Beyond campus, the police were blasting songs by movie star and singer Jackie Chan and theme music from television shows, trying to prevent the protesters from getting any rest. “From time to time, they will make some announcement, ‘Oh, just come out and surrender, we will treat you good,’” Jack said. “Everyone knows they won’t treat you fairly.”


He heard that some people had cut the crash netting used to protect the campus from an elevated road. Protesters could climb up to the road, wait for the police to change shifts, and run when they had an opening. Jack hid in some bushes for several hours. When it was time, the protesters he was with went in groups of three. Jack’s group was the second to run. The police caught him. The other two protesters escaped.

Hundreds tried to get out via Z core, the last building in the chain of PolyU, connected to the rest by a sky bridge. The police were shooting tear gas from the road below, but then the wind changed direction, blowing the smoke back, forcing the cops to retreat. Protesters rappelled down from the bridge and were carted off by people on scooters waiting below.

This was her chance. Grace went.

The bridge stood about 20 feet over the street—a covered stretch of glass and steel with high railings on both sides. Just beyond the railings were rounded metal ledges where a person could stand, albeit precariously. There was one spot where someone had strung ropes that reached from the bridge all the way to the ground.

Grace slung herself over the railing and felt pain shoot through her arm. But she couldn’t turn back. She waited, balancing on the bridge’s metal lip. When it was her turn, Grace leaned out; she grasped a rope and jumped. Her injured arm couldn’t handle the weight of her body. She fell.

It took ten days for the police to clear the campus. They arrested more than 1,100 people.

When Grace hit the pavement, pain shot up her leg and back. A group of strangers ran toward her. She couldn’t walk, so they picked her up and put her on a scooter. The ride from campus was a blur of agony. At some point, Grace lost consciousness. When she came to, she was in an apartment. She tried to get up but couldn’t. She wanted to call her boyfriend, but she couldn’t get her phone out of her pocket by herself. “I kept asking about the situation inside of PolyU,” she said. Grace learned that many protesters were still trapped.

Over the next few days, Grace was moved from safe house to safe house. A doctor came to examine her; she had multiple injuries, but she asked me not to describe them, since they could be used to track her down. She contacted her parents, and they came to see her. By then the injured had flooded the city’s hospitals. Soon after Grace escaped, Hong Kong’s medical authority reported that doctors had treated about 300 people from PolyU.

It took ten more days for the police to clear the campus. Finally, on November 29, the siege was over. The police had arrested more than 1,100 people. The authorities announced that they’d recovered 3,989 petrol bombs, 1,339 other “explosive items,” 601 bottles of corrosive liquids, and 573 weapons. The implication was clear: The police hadn’t done anything wrong—they were contending with dangerous people.

Grace went home to recover from her injuries. She monitored protests from her phone as they continued to flare up around the city. In late November, an election for Hong Kong’s district councils—local advisory bodies in charge of community activities and environmental improvements—handed democracy advocates an overwhelming victory, with 86 percent of the vote. Two weeks later, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers took to the streets to insist that China meet their demands for a freer city. Beijing made no concessions.

In December, the international members of a panel tasked with reviewing police behavior at PolyU stepped down in protest—the group had too little investigative power, they said. The same month, Hong Kong’s police chief cryptically thanked China’s public-security bureau for its “vigorous support and help.” Shortly after, a leaked use-of-force police manual showed that Hong Kong’s officers regularly broke their own rules. Again, there were no consequences.

Then, in January, everything came to a screeching halt—the protests, the press conferences, the arrests. The coronavirus pandemic shut down Hong Kong. For the first time in months, it was quiet.

During the lockdown, Grace texted with her boyfriend and started to think about her schoolwork again. She chatted online with friends. Still, her mind wandered. She couldn’t sleep well—she had nightmares. Every time she heard a siren, she jumped. It was strange to have been at PolyU and feel as if the world was ending, then see life go on, however quiet.

Terra had fought with her parents during the 2019 protests—they were pro-Beijing—and moved in with her boyfriend. Now she watched as friends stewed in their hatred of the police. “A lot of my friends are still stuck in those moments,” she said, referring to the violence of last year. “Even though we are staying at home, they are still making video clips about those battles.”

Terra tried to think about the future. She wanted to form an organization to help protesters who’d been arrested and were now facing criminal charges. She also joined Grace and other demonstrators in throwing herself behind the idea of the Yellow Economic Circle, a campaign to convince Hong Kongers to stop shopping at stores that supported the Chinese government, spending their money instead at businesses allied with the pro-democracy movement.

“Sometimes I feel passionate and determined and I want to change the world,” Terra said. “But when I feel uncomfortable I have another mindset, which is: Hide in a cave, hide in a mountain, hide in CUHK, get a research job and a comfortable position.” She could try to resurrect the normal Hong Kong girl.

As protesters like Grace and Terra used the pandemic lockdown to ponder protest tactics, strategize about local elections, and plot boycotts, Beijing changed the rules again. The national-security law that had been proposed and rejected in 2003 was resurrected. This time, Beijing announced that it would not need the approval of LegCo to enact the law. It exploited a loophole in Hong Kong’s constitution that allowed China to introduce certain laws by decree.

“The world is just disgusting,” Jack told me. “People who have capital will migrate and flee. The people who need to flee the most cannot really go—either they have no money, or they have a criminal record because of the protests.” He remained in the city, where his own legal case, the result of his arrest at PolyU, was pending.

The national-security law represented everything the protesters at PolyU feared might happen. It would introduce the crimes of subversion and secession, with a maximum penalty of life in prison. It would make damaging public transportation a crime tantamount to terrorism. It would enable Hong Kong’s chief executive to cherry-pick the judges who hear national-security cases, overriding the city’s prized independent judiciary, and allow some trials to happen behind closed doors. Beijing was coming for the protesters. And it was coming for Hong Kong’s freedoms.

The situation was grim, but the city’s pro-democracy forces persisted. “Before you get slaughtered,” Terra told me, “at least you should yell.” Demonstrators flooded the streets in May, despite a ban on gatherings because of the pandemic. The police came too, toting blue signs that read, “This meeting or procession is in breach of the law. Disperse or we may use force.” On June 4, the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the city prohibited the annual vigil for the first time. People came out anyway.

It didn’t matter. At the end of the month, Beijing made its next move: It approved the national-security law.

In late July, four students were arrested for publishing “secessionist” social media posts.

Without question, Grace knew that she would join the next battle for democracy. “I don’t want to leave Hong Kong,” she told me. “Hong Kong is my home. I will fight until it dies.” Having recovered from her injuries, she joined a protest on July 1, the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China. The crowds were smaller than in years past. The police had already changed the wording on its posters: “You are displaying flags or banners/chanting slogans/or conducting yourselves with an intent such as secession or subversion, which may constitute offenses under the ‘HKSAR National Security Law.’ You may be arrested and prosecuted.”

When Grace returned home, she watched bystander videos making the rounds online. A journalist thrown sideways by a blast from a water cannon. An older woman pulled out of her car by police. Riot cops charging with batons. Around 370 people had been arrested, ten of them under the national-security law. Protesters circulated jokes about what they might be detained for: Loving Hong Kong too much? Or something Beijing hadn’t thought of yet?

Books critical of Beijing disappeared from Hong Kong’s libraries. The office of the Public Opinion Research Institute, which publishes polls about politics and local identity, was raided and threatened with the confiscation of its computers. As demonstrations continued, some protesters held up blank pieces of paper to signify that nothing was safe for them to say. The police arrested eight of them. In late July, four students were arrested for publishing “secessionist” social media posts.

Grace knows that her time might come. But she will keep protesting, whether that means detainment or worse. She has already written down everything she wants her friends and family to know if that happens. She wrote the message even before she knew if she would make it out of PolyU alive. It was a goodbye to the people she loved, and a testament to her conviction.

“Officials have forced the people to fight back, blood for blood,” she wrote. “In the face of occupation, of suppression and abuse, Hong Kong people must resist and never compromise. You, like me, might feel exhausted. You will inevitably feel powerless in the face of the Communist Party. But you should know that there are many people who will walk with you along this difficult path. And, although I am going to stop here, you will help me to continue on.”

“I would rather be ashes than dust,” Grace wrote, quoting Jack London. “I would rather die than live quietly.”


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The Long Walk

The Long Walk

When a group of Black mothers in Ohio were told to wait for school integration, they started marching every day in protest. They kept going for nearly 18 months.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 104


Sarah Stankorb’s articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Longreads, The Guardian, and The Atlantic. She lives in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter: @sarahstankorb.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kate Wheeling
Illustrator: Rachelle Baker

Published in June 2020

Chapter One

It started with fire.

July 4, 1954 fell on a Sunday, and Philip Partridge went to church that morning. A father of three and an engineer, Partridge was a white man with an evident cowlick that clumped boyishly over the middle of his forehead. He was also a man of conscience, and he believed in civil rights. When the church congregation bowed their heads to pray, Partridge asked God to show him how he could help his Black neighbors.

Two months prior, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. In Hillsboro, Ohio, where Partridge lived, there was a single, combined junior high and high school, attended by all the older students in town, but the elementary schools were still segregated by race. Black children attended Lincoln School, while white children went to Washington or Webster. Partridge was worried that the district would delay integration indefinitely, so as his pastor preached about martyrs, he struck a spiritual bargain: If God would wake him up at 2 a.m. the next morning, he would set fire to Lincoln. No separate school, his logic evidently ran, no segregation.

Divine intervention or not, in the early-morning hours of July 5, a thunderous electrical storm woke Partridge. He got up, dressed, and collected two cans of fuel and some matches. Later his attorneys would call Partridge “deeply religious” and an “idealist.” They would compare him to “Saul on the way to Damascus.”

Partridge broke into the basement of the brick schoolhouse and poured fuel all over the walls and floor. He lit a match. When he left Lincoln, the building was ablaze.

Chapter Two

Hillsboro was like other small cities in southwestern Ohio—an island of neighborhoods with a Main Street, surrounded by a sea of farm country. The Ohio River, about 40 miles south, had once been the dividing line between the free north and the southern slave states. Racism and Jim Crow leaked over. Hillsboro had a movie theater where Black and white patrons sat separately. At restaurants, white diners were welcome to eat in, but Black customers had to take their ten-cent hamburgers to go. Among stories about the hospital auxiliary and the 4-H Club, the city’s newspaper ran ads for a minstrel show, and its society page had a separate section for “Colored News.” As in many northern cities, whether because of government redlining or habitual segregation, Hillsboro had a few neighborhoods where Black people’s homes were clustered. Everywhere else was mostly white.

Gertrude Clemons and Imogene Curtis lived in one of Hillsboro’s Black neighborhoods, and as one did in a time when kids ran freely between yards, the two women made a habit of chatting over their shared fence on Baker Street. The day of the fire at Lincoln School, rumors circulated that a Black youth—the sort of kid who was always in trouble—was responsible. But then, to general astonishment, Partridge confessed so that his crime wouldn’t be pinned on the young man. Local officials tried to get Partridge, who was employed by the county, to resign from his job, but he insisted that he’d “done nothing wrong in the engineer’s office.” He was sent to Lima State Hospital for a 30-day mental-health evaluation.

Imogene wrote him a letter offering some solace. She was that kind of person. Raised in a log cabin by her grandmother, who was five years old when slavery ended and who worked for the white family on whose land the cabin sat, Imogene had graduated high school and attended classes at Ohio University. Her husband, Orvel, was an associate pastor at Hillsboro’s New Hope Baptist Church. She was constantly reading and knew just whom to call, or at least who to ask about whom to call, when people in need came to her—people in pain, people with problems in the courts, people struggling to find a job or housing. Reporters would later describe Imogene, who had round cheeks and a permanent crinkle around her eyes because she smiled with her whole face, as “light skinned” and “plump.” Some people would say she was the “ringleader” of what happened after the Lincoln fire. No doubt she was already busy organizing as she talked over the fence with Gertrude.

Gertrude was beautiful. She wore store-bought dresses and rings on almost every finger. She’d left school in the eighth grade to help raise her 11 siblings, but she was naturally astute. (She eventually  parlayed her modest education into a career in finance at Ohio’s Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, and became a licensed minister.) Like Imogene, Gertrude had serious concerns about Lincoln. The school was built in 1869 to serve the Black children of Hillsboro, which back then had de facto segregation. In 1939, the school board—due to overcrowding, it claimed—formalized the racial divide by transferring the few Black students attending Webster to Lincoln. “That’s when we should have raised a rumpus,” Imogene once told a reporter. The fire Partridge set badly damaged Lincoln, which hadn’t been in good shape to begin with. The building was dilapidated to the point that, in winter, snow blew inside. Six grades were split between two classrooms and shared two teachers. There weren’t any maps on the walls for learning geography. The students inherited books, often with pages missing, discarded by the white elementary schools.

While the women talked at the fence, Gertrude’s two daughters played close by. The younger one, Joyce, was a careful eavesdropper, and she heard what her mother thought about the situation at Lincoln. What Joyce didn’t immediately understand Gertrude explained to her later. For a few years, vocal Black parents had been asking the school board to integrate the elementary schools. Now the Supreme Court had ruled that separate but equal was unconstitutional. Gertrude and Imogene believed that their children should not have to go to Lincoln anymore. They’d talked to other mothers who agreed.

With the school year approaching, Imogene joined a citizens’ committee to fight for integration. She typed up a petition asking “the Board of Education of Hillsboro, Ohio, to admit the colored children of our community into the other schools of the community, namely Webster and Washington schools.” The petition argued that “the conditions at Lincoln School are of such as to not warrant our children the proper training and education.” Failure to integrate, the petition warned, would result in legal action. It was signed “Imogene Curtis, President of P.T.A.” in big letters and black ink. Gertrude volunteered to gather signatures from other parents, mostly mothers.

Imogene Curtis and Gertrude Clemons 

In mid-August, Imogene and Gertrude delivered the petition at a school-board meeting. It didn’t go well. “Negroes are asking the impossible,” one board member insisted. A school levy, which local voters rejected several times before it finally passed, had just gone into effect. Superintendent Paul Upp promised that, once the tax money was used to fund major renovations at Washington and Webster, the young children of Hillsboro would be integrated. He anticipated completion of the project in 1956. “Why can’t they hold out for perhaps two more years?” a board member asked, referring to the city’s Black population.

The school board formally rejected the mothers’ petition. It then accepted an insurance adjuster’s offer of $4,295.50 to patch up Lincoln. Integration could wait.

Around the time of the meeting, Imogene received a letter from Partridge. He’d been deemed sane after his stay at the state hospital—even if, as the doctors determined, he possessed “some unusual and strong ideas.” He thanked Imogene for what she’d written, saying that it had been a great help to him and his wife in their time of uncertainty. “Many people seem to think I made a mistake,” Partridge wrote. “If so, I earnestly hope that it has not harmed the cause of colored people in Hillsboro or elsewhere.”

The harm that Imogene wanted to remedy was the school board’s vote. Unwilling to take it as final, she traveled to the Columbus office of the NAACP to ask the group to intercede. She and other parents turned their citizens’ committee into a local chapter of the organization; Imogene became vice president of the new branch. Russell Carter, a regional legal representative for the NAACP, agreed to stand by, ready to go to court if the district refused to integrate Washington, Webster, and Lincoln once the school year began.

The first day of classes was September 7, a Tuesday. There were at least 67 elementary-school-age Black children in Hillsboro, and that morning most of them reported to Washington and Webster, walked there by their mothers. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that, despite the school board’s decision, Superintendent Upp had instructed teachers and students to accept Black children if they showed up at the white schools. “We do not anticipate any trouble at all,” Upp said. The children were allowed in. Their names were taken by teachers. They were shuffled into classrooms, where chairs were added for them.

Whatever triumphant feelings the first day brought, however, were soon dashed: Upp told the press that he wasn’t sure where the Black children would be assigned permanently—they might be sent back to Lincoln. School went on break after that, for an extended weekend holiday that would allow Hillsboro residents time to attend and show animals at the county fair. On September 13, when classes resumed, the school board met to approve the city’s first residence-based zoning plan.

At first glance, it seemed like a logical enough arrangement. An imaginary line bisected Hillsboro north to south; all the children who lived east of that line would go to Washington, while those who lived west of it would go to Webster. However, there were two discrete areas carved out of the Washington zone. They were the city’s Black neighborhoods. The children who lived in them were the only ones designated to attend Lincoln.

The man in charge of establishing the zones was the city solicitor, James Hapner, a bespectacled white man with neatly trimmed hair. The segregation he proposed was obvious but incomplete, since a handful of Black children whose families lived in predominately white neighborhoods would go to Washington or Webster. Zoning individual homes, perhaps, would have been too blatant. Hapner and the school board defended the plan by insisting that it addressed overcrowding conditions at Washington and Webster while also reflecting existing attendance patterns as much as possible.

News of the zoning plan ran in a local paper under the headline “Most Negroes Sent Back to Old Building.” The story sat directly above an item from Lewisburg, West Virginia, where strikes by white students had led the board of education to halt integration at two schools. In other news, a grand jury had charged Philip Partridge with arson and burglary, the latter for forcibly entering Lincoln with intent to commit a felony. He was out of jail on $2,000 bail.

Hillsboro parents received a typed letter from the school board detailing which of the city’s streets were in each zone and noting that, after Thursday, September 16, failure of any parent “to send his child to the proper school will result in the child being withdrawn from the school he is now attending.” Imogene, Gertrude, and other concerned Black mothers met at a church to hatch a plan. Together, they prayed, they would get through this somehow.

Chapter Three

Early on the next school day, Black mothers in neat dresses and children wearing crisply ironed clothes and shined shoes stepped out of their homes into the bright morning light. The kids, as ever, were under orders to use their manners. Together they walked the tidy streets of Hillsboro, where parked Chevys with finned taillights signaled midcentury prosperity. The group carried signs that read, “We pay taxes. Voted for school bonds. For what?” and “If you were in our place would it be different?” Some of the mothers and kids headed to Webster, others to Washington.

Imogene, her hair pinned back and her bangs ironed into a single prim curl, held her protest sign boldly aloft. Gertrude stayed at the rear of her group because Joyce, who was 12, was shy. Gertrude’s sister Zella Cumberland marched, too, holding her daughter Myra’s hand. The little girl was just entering school for the first time, and she thought she was on a fun walk with a bunch of neighborhood kids. Zella, pretty enough for the movies, had dropped out of school in the eighth grade to work in tomato fields. “Get your education. They can’t take your education away from you. Learn everything you can,” she often told her daughters. Another mother who joined the protest was Elsie Steward, a widow with nine kids. After the fire at Lincoln, Elsie became worried that the building’s second story would collapse on her children. “So I said I wouldn’t send mine back,” she later recalled.

When the group bound for Webster arrived at the school, they stood out front, waiting. At 9 a.m., when the bell sounded, about 20 kids broke from their mothers and headed inside. The three Black children who’d been zoned for Webster were allowed to stay, but the rest were sent back out to their mothers, who were still standing on Walnut Street. Within minutes the mothers sent the kids walking right back in. The school sent them out again.

The mothers talked to their children and then sent them once more through the door. School officials still refused to take the children. Out they walked. Finally, the mothers and their children headed home.

The same thing happened at Washington. Some of the 14 children who walked in at the first bell were allowed to stay, because they happened to live in the predominantly white neighborhood zoned for the school. The rest were turned away.

The press quoted Upp saying that any children who weren’t in their assigned classes the following Monday would be counted truant; school officials would take their parents to court. Defiantly, the mothers dressed their kids for school that day and walked them to the doors where they weren’t welcome. At Webster, the principal met them at the threshold. “Nothing’s changed. You’re not assigned,” he told the group.

“Get your education. They can’t take your education away from you. Learn everything you can,” Zella Cumberland told her daughters.

At a meeting with parents, the school board kept up the truancy scare tactics, trying to get the protesting mothers to reenroll their children at Lincoln. “You need to send your kids to Lincoln School, or we’re going to come and take them,” one board member snapped. “I’ll tell you what,” Gertrude replied, “you let me go home, get my washing and everything done, and you want to send me to jail? You send me to jail, but my child will not go to Lincoln School.”

The other parents marveled at Gertrude’s nerve. Some were worried that local authorities might actually take their kids. No one came for Joyce.

Imogene stopped by Gertrude’s one night with good news. The NAACP was firmly in favor of the mothers’ campaign. At the Ohio chapter’s annual convention, which happened to be in mid-September, delegates had contributed $101.50 to a new Hillsboro Legal Fund.

The NAACP’s lawyers told Imogene that if the mothers wanted to fight the school district in court, there had to be a lead child plaintiff, just like in the Brown case. It’s unclear why the attorneys didn’t pick one of Imogene’s children. Decades later, her daughter Eleanor would point out that Imogene “got enough publicity not being the plaintiff.” Maybe not being named in the suit would allow her to be more of a rabble-rouser, troublemaker, and instigator—words that observers of the case would use to describe her.

“Well, you use Joyce,” Gertrude offered to her friend, “because there’s no way they take her away from me—there’s no reason for it.”

That’s how the mothers’ lawsuit, filed in federal court on September 22, 1954, officially became Clemons v. Board of Education. There were other plaintiffs: Dorothy Clemons and her mother, Roxie, who were related to Joyce and Gertrude; Myra Cumberland and her mother, Zella; Deborah Rollins and her mother, Norma; and Elsie Steward and her daughters Evelyn, Virginia, and Carolyn. But Joyce Clemons was the name people around the country would see when they read about the first test case of Brown v. Board north of the Mason-Dixon.

Chapter Four

The NAACP petitioned for a temporary injunction against the Hillsboro school board and Upp, which would allow integration to begin at once. Federal judge John H. Druffel denied the motion, saying that the defendants hadn’t been properly notified that the suit would be filed. That was how he always handled these things, he added. Druffel scheduled a hearing for September 29. The mothers prepared to go to court.

They had an up-and-coming legal star in their corner, a woman named Constance Baker Motley. Raised along with 11 brothers and sisters in New Haven, Connecticut, she could trace her lineage back to slaves on the Caribbean island of Nevis. Motley was in her early thirties and had been hired at the NAACP in New York City by Thurgood Marshall. She had drafted the initial complaint for what became Brown v. Board and was the only woman to work on the landmark case.

After celebrating the Brown decision—“those who knew Thurgood knew that ‘party’ was his middle name,” Motley later wrote—the NAACP decided to start bringing desegregation cases to court in border states such as Missouri, Maryland, and Ohio. The odds were better there than they were in the Deep South, which was under the jurisdiction of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, known for its hostility to civil-rights claims. The NAACP’s strategy was to start in the north and work its way down, enshrining the rights of the Brown case as it went. Given Hillsboro’s location, the mothers’ case was the right fight at the right time in the right part of the country.

The first hearing was held in Cincinnati, and Motley was there with two local lawyers: Russell Carter, who was Dayton’s first Black judge, and James McGee, who would be elected Dayton’s first Black mayor. The Hillsboro Board of Education was represented by Hapner, the city solicitor who’d drawn the controversial zoning map. The school-board members, white men in muted suits, sat wide-legged in their seats at a hardwood table, upon which sat a single file folder, a few pieces of paper, a book, and one manila envelope. The plaintiffs looked twice as good and twice as ready. Their table was heaped with legal books, folders, and handbags. The mothers wore dresses and skirt suits. Motley looked like she could have been one of them: She was around the same age, clad in a dark dress with a flared white collar. Her curled hair hung just over her ears, a style similar to that worn by Zella Cumberland and Gertrude Clemons.

The mothers were stoic. Elsie Steward had taken a precious day off work to be here. Gertrude peered through spectacles. The women’s demeanor suggested that they had no intention of leaving until they got what they came for.

Motley began her opening remarks by noting that the NAACP was prepared to share the facts of the case and proposed conclusions under the law. Judge Druffel, a plain-faced man who’d been appointed to the bench by Franklin D. Roosevelt, said he didn’t want to hear any of that—just give the evidence, he said. He told Motley to watch her time. He seemed like a man who’d already made up his mind.

Motley defined the facts anyway: The child plaintiffs, she said, had registered in person at Washington and Webster at the beginning of the school year, and the district was trying to force them to go to Lincoln solely based on the color of their skin. Throughout the proceedings, she would hang her argument on points that, within a few years, would be distributed to NAACP branches nationwide as a blueprint for identifying segregation in public schools: acquire a map (or draw one) showing school zones and residential patterns; indicate any instances of gerrymandering around segregated neighborhoods; enumerate student enrollment and school capacity, as well as the “number of white and Negro students … number of empty classrooms, and number and type of any special rooms (art or music rooms, lunch rooms, health room, etc.) being used as classrooms to help relieve over-crowding.”

Hapner told the court that, due to overcrowding at Webster and Washington, the school board had decided to rezone. “Strictly upon residential lines, the infant plaintiffs were required to attend the Lincoln School building,” Hapner noted. Pointedly, he mentioned that there were “students of Negro race” at Webster and Washington. Segregation, therefore, couldn’t have been the goal. That there were no white students living in the Lincoln zone Hapner framed as happenstance.

The plaintiffs’ side called an expert witness, a professor at Ohio State University who specialized in educational administration. He had recently conducted a study of the Hillsboro school system and found that the district operated “two so-called white schools” and “the so-called Negro school.” Superintendent Upp verbally confirmed to him that the neighborhoods included in the Lincoln zone “had been selected because they did include the Negro population.” If the plan was indeed designed to achieve a better balance of enrollment across schools, it had failed: The professor had found on September 8 that a total of just 17 children were attending Lincoln, down by 53 from the previous year. Meanwhile, there was an average of 35 kids per class at Washington and 38 at Webster.

The women’s demeanor suggested that they had no intention of leaving until they got what they came for.

Next, Motley got Marvel Wilkins, the school-board president, on the stand. Wilkins had a button nose and the prominent forehead of a balding man. He denied that there were any racial differences among Hillsboro’s elementary schools. When Motley inquired whether there had ever been any white children at Lincoln, he said he couldn’t be sure. “There were certain children that you cannot state which race they belong to that went to that building,” Wilkins explained. Motley pointed out that there was a white family that lived right next door to Lincoln. “Isn’t it true that they go to Washington only because they are white?” Motley asked. Wilkins said no. Since the rezoning, he emphasized, “we have colored children going to the Washington building.”

When it was his turn on the stand, Upp was asked to draw the Lincoln school zone on a map of Hillsboro. Upp, who had a hawkish mien and wore black-framed glasses, said he didn’t think he could. Despite working in the district for 32 years, Upp claimed, “I don’t think I am possessed of enough facts to do it.” He said that the zones had been drawn on the advice of legal counsel—Hapner, that is—“based on a residential area, of trying to continue the pattern of operation that we have had in Hillsboro.”

“Then your zoning was very convenient along the racial lines?” asked Russell Carter, who was questioning the witness. Carter raised the fact that hundreds of white kids—525 total—from the surrounding countryside were transported into Hillsboro to attend school. If space was such a concern, Carter said, why didn’t the district assign some of those students to Lincoln? “The spirit of the community in which I live would not indicate to me that to be a wise thing to do,” Upp admitted. “I have started into this program of integration with a very clear conscience and a desire to accomplish it in a smooth, intelligent, sane manner.”

In a scene that would beg the credulity of anyone familiar with a courtroom TV drama, Carter’s next task was questioning his opposing counsel. He got Hapner on the stand and asked him to mark up the new school zones on a map of Hillsboro.

“Will you … draw for us, in red pencil, the Lincoln zones?” Carter asked.

“I prefer to use another color,” Hapner replied.

“You don’t like red?” Carter asked, too innocently for a man who fought civil-rights cases and knew the dramatic potential of a city official redlining a map in a courtroom.

“No,” said Hapner.

“I don’t blame you,” Carter said.

Hapner outlined the Lincoln zone in blue. He designated the Washington and Webster zones by drawing an orange line between them. Carter asked why two neighborhoods were excluded from the Washington zone on the map, as if they’d been sliced out. Hapner claimed confidentiality as the school board’s attorney. He denied that race had been a motivating factor—after all, a few Black families now had to send their kids to Washington and Webster because of the zoning. As for Lincoln remaining all Black, Hapner now claimed, “It would be disastrous to attempt to assign children—white children—to what was considered in the minds of the community to be a colored school.”

The defense had witnesses it wanted to call, but Druffel said that he’d heard enough. He determined that a ruling in the case would be premature: He didn’t want to make any judgments until the U.S. Supreme Court decided how much time schools around the country should be allowed to integrate. The school district, Druffel said, could proceed on its own terms, delaying integration until renovations at Webster and Washington were completed.

In a battle of bureaucratic machinations, it was another roadblock—a big one. Outside the courtroom, photographers asked the protesting mothers to line up with their legal team. They clutched their handbags and stood for the flash. They had no reason to smile, so they didn’t.

The NAACP attorneys soon appealed to a higher court, arguing that the judge abused his discretion and seeking a definitive ruling in the case. It criticized Druffel’s decision for seeming to conclude “that it is not yet certain what the rights of the plaintiffs are.” In the meantime, the mothers had a choice: They could send their children to Lincoln and wait for integration to happen, or they could resist.

Chapter Five

Life, as it does with children, found a routine. Each morning in what had been delineated as the Lincoln zone, some 20 mothers and their nearly 40 combined children got ready to walk to school. Elsie Steward’s house in the northeastern corner of town simmered with the barely contained chaos of nine hungry kids trooping downstairs. Elsie stood at the stove making fried flatbread to serve with butter and jam. Her husband, James, a bricklayer, had died a few years prior from a heart attack; he went to bed one night and didn’t wake up. The Steward kids knew their daily responsibilities, a division of labor that put one or another of them in charge of sweeping, dishes, taking out the trash, and other chores. For the most part, Elsie could keep her kids in line with a stern look. A snap of her fingers meant that you’d pushed it too far.

Chores done and mouths fed, Elsie would leave her house with Evelyn, Virginia, and Carolyn, her elementary-school-aged children, all plaintiffs in the NAACP’s case. The Stewards, who lived just up the street from Lincoln, walked more than a mile to Webster. They joined other women and their kids along the way. A second group walked to Washington. Collectively, they became known as the marching mothers of Hillsboro.

In the early days of the march, Carolyn Steward, who was seven at the time, saw some white construction workers along her route pull down their pants, exposing themselves to the kids. “So the parents decided this is not the way to walk,” she recalled. The mothers opted instead for a street that took them past a garage where men stood outside to scowl at them. At one house, an old man sat on his porch swing every morning, glaring at the marchers. At least the garage guys and “Swing Man,” as one of the children dubbed him, kept their pants on.

Fathers didn’t march. They were working, “which was a good thing, because it was a peaceful march,” Carolyn said. It might not have remained so if men were involved. “The way people talked and the way they acted while we were marching,” Carolyn explained, “it would have been a really bad scene, I’m sure.”

Sometimes the marchers sang silly songs to keep the children occupied. The kids played skip-the-crack along the sidewalks. As they approached Webster, the window blinds in the classrooms would draw shut, keeping the white children inside from seeing the marchers. At the door, the principal went through his routine. “Nothing’s changed. You’re not assigned,” he’d say. With that the marchers would go home.

Day after day, the same walk, the same refrain. No one expected it to suddenly change. That wasn’t the point.

Sometimes newspaper people came and snapped photos of the mothers and children being turned away at the door. The battle drew press from around Ohio and was picked up by the wire services; Imogene handled many of the interviews. One article claimed, “The average citizen of Hillsboro seems singularly unaware of any conflict over the integration problem.” The average white citizen, anyway.

Teresa Williams, whose mom, Sallie, took her on the march, grew up playing with white kids from a big family that lived near hers on East Walnut Street. Teresa was taught that people weren’t born racist. In her view, if her white playmates “didn’t know what was going on” with the march, it was “because it wasn’t talked about in their home.”

Myra Cumberland approached her mother, hoping to understand why she couldn’t go to school. “Why don’t they want us there? Just because we’re Black?” she asked. “You just don’t worry,” Zella told her. “Let me worry about that.” But Myra knew it had something to do with the color of her skin. Every once in a while, she heard adults talking about people who wanted “to hold Blacks back.”

Occasionally, the NAACP attorneys visited, “big shots coming in all dressed up,” as young Joyce Clemons saw them. She was especially taken with Motley, who was tall and carried a briefcase—a woman in a position of power. One day the lawyers came to march with the mothers and children; they wanted to follow the path and experience the rejection, to know what the daily ritual felt like.

In mid-October 1954, a large photo of a defeated Philip Partridge, his wife, and his attorneys ran on the front page of Hillsboro’s Press-Gazette. Partridge had been sentenced to between one and 15 years in the state penitentiary for setting fire to Lincoln. Ultimately, he served just nine months before his release. The mothers marched through his time behind bars. They were still marching when he was set free.

Chapter Six

In December 1954, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Judge Druffel to show cause if he wasn’t going to rule immediately in the Hillsboro case. So after Christmas, Druffel called the attorneys, mothers, and school-board members back to court. The board had been asked to provide an official map of the school zones, which the plaintiffs hoped would clearly show the gerrymandering. But the district’s representatives didn’t bring one. “I am not a draftsman,” Wilkins, the school-board president, said on the stand. “I probably couldn’t have done it right if I had tried to do it.”

Motley had come prepared. She admitted her own map as exhibit number five. The Webster zone was orange, Washington’s was blue, and Lincoln’s was red.

During questioning, Wilkins argued that some Black children preferred Lincoln over being forced into a new school where they would “definitely get run over.” Druffel asked what that meant. They’d get made fun of, Wilkins explained—it happened to the poor white children who came to school “all dirty or something, and they are not very popular.” Other kids wouldn’t play with them. They went home crying.

As it happened, Wilkins continued, on the first day of school, some Black children had wanted to go to Lincoln but couldn’t. “They went to the Webster building, crying, come up to the office, scared to death, didn’t want to go in there,” he claimed. “We felt sorry for some of them, and the parents of some of them just kind of pushed them in there.” He was talking about the mothers, of course, and a table full of them were watching him testify. Wilkins quickly clarified that some neighbors had told him this. He didn’t know which kids cried; he didn’t actually see the scene himself.

Since the previous hearing, a few mothers had quit the march and moved their children back to Lincoln. What’s more, according to the school board, some Black families who lived in the Webster or Washington zone had asked that their children be allowed to go back to their old school; the board had obliged those requests. Motley saw a contradiction. “There are certain Negro children attending Lincoln by their own choice,” she said, but “the plaintiffs, who chose to go to Washington and Webster, do not have that choice.” Why was it, she wanted to know, that Black residents were allowed to choose segregation but not integration?

Wilkins said he wasn’t sure he understood the question. The courtroom broke into laughter. Druffel threatened to clear the spectators. Motley pointed to the mothers and spoke of their children. “Why did they not have a choice to go to Washington and Webster, as these other Negro children who were assigned there had a choice to go to Lincoln?” she asked. Wilkins told Motley she was asking the question backwards. They went two more rounds before Hapner interjected.

“Your honor, if the witness doesn’t know, I would like him to be given the opportunity to say so,” he said.

“He didn’t say he didn’t know,” Motley replied.

“We more or less let the kids go to school they was assigned to last year, if they wanted to,” Wilkins offered. “And the ones that we had to change, we had to make laws, and they had to stay within those geographical drawings of the resolution to go to the school they was supposed to.”

At that point, Druffel cut off the exchange by asserting that the plaintiffs had to go to Lincoln “because they are in the Lincoln zone. That’s the answer.” He instructed Motley to call her next witness, leaving the double standard she had highlighted unaddressed.

Superintendent Upp took the stand and spoke plainly. He said that the zoning was based on “a pattern of education that we have had for some time,” and that the current segregation was both partial and temporary. The plaintiffs’ counsel pointed out that if Hillsboro had segregation of any kind, since the practice had been deemed illegal in Brown v. Board, “your total action is illegal, isn’t it?” Druffel cut in again: “The Supreme Court hasn’t formulated a pattern as to how they are going to work out their own decision. So if they can’t make up their mind, I don’t see how you can ask this witness to.”

Upp said that the district was willing to integrate, but not yet. The problem wasn’t race—it was space. If Hillsboro had the capacity in its facilities, it would integrate tomorrow. “I have no prejudice toward colored people. I have none now, none whatever,” Upp insisted. If the board had wanted to zone on the basis of race, it would have just said, “All colored children go to the Lincoln building.” But it hadn’t.

“There is no problem here,” Upp said, “if we just let it alone.”

Druffel’s ruling came as no surprise. On behalf of the court, he wrote, “We do not deem it our duty to interfere with the program of integration as outlined by the Board and Mr. Upp, Superintendent of Schools”—the program, that is, slated to go into effect in 1956. Druffel’s opinion concluded, “We think Mr. Upp’s solution is sound and the best.”

The mothers’ solution was to keep walking.

Chapter Seven

Virginia Steward had a stomachache. Or so she said. Virginia feigned sickness a lot in those days. She was eight years old, and as her mother, Elsie, led her and her sisters on the march day after day, month after month, back and forth to Webster, she kept angling for ways to get out of it. As she would later put it, she found the whole thing “devastating.”

Virginia worried about the kinds of things that all young kids do. For instance, her little sister Carolyn had developed a talent for sparking arguments between Virginia and another sibling for her own amusement—and it always seemed to happen right before Elsie was due home from work, when they’d be sure to get into trouble. Virginia knew snippets of what was happening elsewhere in America. She had impressions of fires and Black children unwelcome in white schools. She knew that there were lynchings in the South. She worried about the white men who leered at her as they all marched down the street. She was anxious about how much longer she’d have to walk past them. It was now the spring of 1955—would this still be happening in the fall?

Virginia wasn’t sure it was doing any good. Some other kids in her neighborhood had reenrolled at Lincoln, after their parents were told they might lose their jobs if they kept protesting. Gertrude Clemons, though she had no intention of giving up on the march, had lost a few housekeeping jobs over it. Once, when Elsie attended a court hearing in the case held in Cincinnati, she asked her eldest daughter to cover for her at a house she cleaned. When the employer, a woman, learned where Elsie was, she announced, “Well, I thought Elsie was better than that.” (Elsie’s daughter retorted, “I thought you were better than that.”)

“Why do we keep doing this?” Virginia asked her mother. There was no budging Elsie. Virginia would hug her belly, saying it hurt, hoping her mother would at least spare her the walk on that particular day. “No, let’s go,” Elsie would say. And out the door they went.

Unlike Gertrude, whose husband, Hamer, delivered coal and was a barber, or Zella Cumberland, whose husband worked at a foundry, Elsie was on her own. She did other people’s laundry. She scrubbed clothes by hand, hung them on a line to dry, then took a break to walk to the 1950s equivalent of a food bank, where she stood in line for cheese, flour, and butter. In the summer, her kids helped pick enough berries to can jam and jelly for the rest of the year. She also made a stockpile of canned beans and zucchini relish. Her elder sons hunted rabbits and squirrels for meat. Even though Elsie made it smell good, Virginia gagged over it. But she also knew that if she didn’t eat it, she was going to bed hungry.

Some of the mothers converted their kitchens and living rooms into classrooms. They took in children whose mothers had to work.

As a child, Elsie had walked more than two miles each way to school—far enough that the district gave her family money for the shoes she wore through each year. (It never provided a bus.) Elsie liked school until a new principal arrived. He was, by all accounts, mean to Black students, so Elsie quit after the 11th grade. Now she was fighting for her children to get the kind of education she had wanted.

Just because they were marching didn’t mean that a better education could wait. When they got home each morning, none of the kids were allowed to sit idly by. The mothers requested help from Wilmington College, a school with Quaker roots in a nearby city that had weathered its own integration fight in 1952. Mary Hackney, a teacher taking time off to raise her youngest children, and whose husband served on a committee at the college, met every Monday with two other Quaker teachers. They drove to Hillsboro and passed off lesson plans and worksheets to the marching mothers. At the end of each week, the Quaker teachers would come back to collect papers to grade.

Some of the mothers converted their kitchens and living rooms into classrooms. They took in children whose mothers, like Elsie, had to work. Imogene taught Joyce Clemons, Teresa Williams, and a few other children. She was a natural teacher. She didn’t have her students raise their hands; instead she would go around the kitchen table and give each child a chance to share their answer to a question or problem. “That way no one felt out of place,” Joyce recalled. Zella Cumberland was another teacher, and she taught kids in the large front room of her house. Teresa’s mother, Sallie, who played pick-up sticks, hopscotch, and made-up games with her children, taught another group, as did Rose Kilgore and Minnie Speach, who lived just down the alley from each other.

Educating the children at home resulted in far smaller student-to-teacher ratios than they’d ever had at Lincoln. Built-in to the experience was an ethos about what it meant to fight for one’s rights—the kinds of sacrifices and solidarity required. The kitchen classrooms were proto–Freedom Schools, a decade before Freedom Summer.

Chapter Eight

The school year ended in disappointment. In May 1955, as the mothers prepared to take a break from marching for the summer, the Supreme Court directed school districts nationwide to make a “prompt and reasonable start toward full compliance” with the Brown ruling. It urged “all deliberate speed,” but what that entailed wasn’t clear. What distinguished, say, a slow effort made in good faith from one made in bad faith was left up to the lower courts, which the Supreme Court said should retain jurisdiction in cases pertaining to school segregation.

It wasn’t the decisive stance on an integration timeline that the NAACP had hoped for. A “reasonable start” and “all deliberate speed” were in the eye of the beholder. To some, that might look a lot like Hillsboro’s two-year integration plan endorsed in Druffel’s ruling. The appeals court reviewing the marching mothers’ case might agree.

When school reopened in September 1955, the mothers picked up where they’d left off. They now trooped a total of 47 children to school. All but 11, who lived in majority-white neighborhoods, were turned away from Washington and Webster. They went back to their homeschools.

The second day of school, a Thursday, the principal at Webster didn’t make it to the door before the mothers and children arrived, so they entered the building and sat down on the floor. Joyce Clemons was surprised and amused by the adults’ approach of “let’s see what’s going to happen now.” Before long the principal came bustling out of his office. “You guys have to leave, because there hasn’t been a decision yet,” he said. He ushered them back outside, where they stood for a time with their protest signs before marching past Upp’s office and going home.

Days turned into weeks; the march continued. At one point, a local paper ran a photo of the mothers and children under the headline “Parade at School.”

The fire happened late one October night. It wasn’t at Lincoln this time, and it wasn’t intended to hasten the cause of equality. The orange flames danced on the arms of a cross—it was a fire that chilled, that was meant to strike fear.

The cross was burned in the yard of the Blakey family, who lived on East Walnut Street. The march went past their house every morning, but the Blakeys were among the families who’d left the protest sometime prior and reenrolled their children at Lincoln. The Clemonses could see the fire from across the street. Joyce woke up in the middle of the night to find her parents watching the flames through the window. She didn’t understand. It took time—listening to her parents’ conversations, to what other people said about what happened—to grasp the meaning. In the moment, all she knew for certain was that her parents made sure to look, to bear witness. To her they seemed fearless.

Zella Cumberland had already read to her girls and tucked them in when she heard about the fire. She wanted to see it for herself, but she didn’t want to leave her girls at home, so she woke them up and put them in the car. By the time they arrived, the fire had been put out. Smoke still hung in the air above the charred cross, which had been wrapped in burlap and doused in fuel. Later, Zella explained to her daughter Myra that the cross had been set on fire because people were against what the marchers were doing.

The police tried to brush the incident off, suggesting that it was a Halloween prank. Mrs. Blakey issued her own statement. “Whoever burnt the cross in the Blakey yard, we wish they wouldn’t do it again,” she said, “because my husband has a violent temper and will shoot first and ask questions later.” She added in a later interview with a Press-Gazette reporter that her family had been out of the integration battle for a while. “Now it looks as if we’re back in it again,” she said. Gertrude Clemons told the same reporter that the cross burning wouldn’t stop the march. “The only way to stop it is to burn us,” she declared.

The tough words and the fire worried little Virginia Steward more than ever. The people who burned the cross could do something else, something worse. What if her mother and the other mothers got killed? Maybe, Virginia hoped, the seriousness of it all would mean she finally didn’t have to walk anymore. But the cross “didn’t bother me any,” Elsie Steward later said. The morning after the burning, she and the other mothers marched their kids to school.

Chapter Nine

The cross burning was an act of terror, but not a setback. Those came courtesy of state institutions. Legislation proposed by a group of Ohio senators that would have empowered the state board of education to withhold funds from districts that still assigned students to schools based on race died in committee. In public testimony, the president of Ohio’s NAACP said Hillsboro was one of the “problem areas.” (He also called out segregation in cities as big as Columbus, the state capital.) Then, in December, the Ohio Education Association, a teachers’ union, rejected a proposal to stop directing money to districts that segregated, opting instead to give commendations to districts that integrated quickly.

As those with the clout to shape policy worked in half measures at best, the marching mothers and their children met each bleary winter morning for the walk to school and back. Their hopes still hung on the NAACP’s appeal of Druffel’s ruling, which had yet to be heard in court. It finally happened on December 29, 1955, a year to the day after the mothers had last appeared in Druffel’s courtroom. The NAACP’s legal team took the case to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, and Thurgood Marshall himself traveled from New York to make the oral arguments before a three-judge panel.

It took a week for the court to rule, and the decision was two to one—in favor of the mothers and their children. One of the judges was Florence Ellinwood Allen, who had previously been the first woman to serve on Ohio’s Supreme Court, and was one of the first women to serve as a federal judge. A white woman who wore her hair in an Aunt Bee upsweep, Allen wrote the majority opinion. She noted that while the district claimed its rezoning of the elementary schools was not based on race, Upp had testified that “temporary segregation” existed. Druffel’s ruling, then, was a violation of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board.

Allen could find “no case in which it is declared that a judge has judicial discretion by denial of an injunction to continue the deprivation of basic human rights.” The rezoning in Hillsboro, she continued, had been a subterfuge to continue separating children by race. To justify segregation on the grounds that schools were too crowded had no basis in law. Even if it had, the figures on enrollment across Hillsboro’s schools didn’t support the overcrowding narrative.

The court ruled that Druffel had to provide a permanent injunction that would end all racial segregation in Hillsboro on or before the start of classes the following September. At a press conference the day the decision came down, Druffel threatened to defy the directive. He invited the school board and Hapner to meet with him the following week to discuss next steps. He said it would take nothing short of an order from the Supreme Court to change his mind. Druffel insisted that he would get an attorney if necessary. “The case can be taken to the Supreme Court in my name,” he said.

NAACP attorneys Russell Carter, Constance Baker Motley, and James McGee.

As long as the status of their case was up in the air, the mothers would keep protesting. Press attention mounted. In March 1956, Jet magazine’s cover line read, “The Northern City that Bars Negroes from School.” The story inside featured photos of the march and of mothers teaching kids at kitchen tables. There was Joyce Clemons keeping her eyes down on her books, Carolyn Steward following along as a classmate read aloud, and Sallie Williams—a mother whose name was misspelled in the caption—reviewing vocabulary words on a chalkboard that she held in her lap. Upp was quoted insisting, as ever, “There is no trouble here.” Imogene, referred to as “Mrs. Orvel Curtis,” voiced skepticism that the school board would meet the September deadline for integration. “They never did anything before until we got after them,” she said.

The legal threats against the mothers ended abruptly that spring. In early April, the Supreme Court declined to review the circuit court’s decision. Unless the school board filed a motion for reconsideration, Druffel would be forced to write an order directing Hillsboro to integrate. At that point, the school board decided it was done fighting. For all his bluster a few months prior, Druffel acquiesced, too.

There wasn’t much celebration over a win that by then was some 20 months in the making, all of which the mothers had marched, save summer break. The mothers were strong Christian women, as Joyce later described them; they’d prayed and worked, they’d done what was right, and that was enough. When Sallie Williams told her children that the march was finished and they’d be going to Webster, they were relieved. “We were just glad it was over so we didn’t have to walk anymore,” her daughter Teresa said.

But it wasn’t over, not quite. Imogene showed up at the school-board meeting the same night the Supreme Court decided not to review the case. She sat quietly for two hours, taking notes as the board discussed pay raises for teachers. Her son played beside her while she waited to speak. Finally, she got her question in.

“What is the status of our children?” Imogene asked. She explained that they had been tutored, and she wanted to know if they could take a test to be placed in the appropriate grades. Not in the fall, but now.

What was the point, the board replied, when summer break wasn’t far off? “You’d get a dandy lot of education in one month of school,” said the new board president, William Lunkens. “At least we’d have the satisfaction of having our children in school,” Imogene countered. Eventually, Upp stepped in, saying that he recommended testing administered by an outside source, “so that nobody can say we were prejudiced.”

The next morning, for the last time, the mothers got up, dressed their kids, and marched. “You’re not assigned,” the principal at Webster said. But rather than walk away, this time Gertrude Clemons spoke up. “We’re going to sit awhile,” she said.

The principal asked the group not to interfere with the orderly operation of the school. He left them standing in his office. There weren’t enough chairs for them.

Chapter Ten

On April 13, 1956, testing led by officials from Ohio’s department of education took place at Webster. One six-year-old girl cried for her mother after being led inside. Upp barred reporters and photographers from entering the building. He said he wanted “to maintain order and prevent the children from becoming unduly excited.” Imogene, though, was as willing as ever to talk to journalists. She was confident that the kids would do well. They’d used the right books, done the right lessons. When they finished the exams and came outside to be with their mothers, Imogene let the press know that the children hadn’t found the tests very difficult.

But when the results were announced, only one Black student—Teresa Williams’s little sister, Mary—had passed at grade level. That meant all the other children would have to reenter school in the grade they’d been in when the march started—or even lower. The idea of being held back, “that kinda messed you up,” Teresa recalled. For the mothers, the outcome was reminiscent of the district allowing a few Black children to be zoned for Webster and Washington so that it could insist that segregation wasn’t the goal.

The district claimed that the tests were widely used standardized exams, administered and scored by men from the state department of education, and then, as reported in the press, “double-checked by local officials.” Mary Hackney, the Quaker teacher who had been checking the students’ progress for a year and a half, was not typically the assertive type. Still, she made her way to the principal’s office at Webster. She spotted papers stacked on the corner of his desk and grabbed them. “Oh, are these the tests?” she asked, leafing through. Hackney, who knew how to interpret standardized-test results, told the mothers that, from what she saw, the children should have been allowed to advance.

“Many of our people died freeing us and our descendants,” Imogene pointed out, “but it didn’t make the victory any worse.”

A few of the mothers threatened legal challenges over the grade placements, but they ultimately relented. It was time to claim victory, however unfinished it felt. When a dismissive editorial appeared in the Press-Gazette, saying that the mothers had won only by making their children suffer, Imogene penned a response. “In spite of the board’s trying to be vindictive I do not regret sacrificing my child so other boys and girls in years to come have a decent and non segregated Education,” she wrote. Her youngest son, John, would eventually graduate high school later than other kids his age, but at least he was learning “to have faith and courage to stand up for his ideals in spite of cost and great obstacles.” He was also learning not to believe everything officials said, to always look for the truth himself. “Many of our people died freeing us and our descendants,” Imogene pointed out, “but it didn’t make the victory any worse.”

She closed with a warning. The board might have been patting itself on the back for having the last word on grade placements, but Imogene was sure that every time its members looked the “children in the face their conscience will hurt them and they shall have no peace.”

Chapter Eleven

On April 17, the marching mothers’ children walked into Washington and Webster and were allowed to stay. Joyce Clemons had been heading into sixth grade at the start of the march, but now she was back in fifth. Her day started quietly, with her mother escorting her down mostly empty hallways that seemed to have been cleared to limit any confrontation. Throughout the day, Joyce noticed white children hanging back. They avoided mingling with her and the other Black students, not sure what to make of them. Some of Joyce’s teachers weren’t nice to her, but the one in her homeroom was. For the first time in almost two years, Joyce was able to take a seat in a real classroom.

Though she should have been in fourth grade, Carolyn Steward was enrolled in second. “It was so boring for us,” she recalled. “We were already more advanced than the classrooms they put us in.” Teresa Williams was placed in fifth grade, though she was old enough—and ready—for sixth. She found that one of the biggest adjustments was getting used to having a single grade in a classroom, with “everybody doing the same work.” It wasn’t like Lincoln, which sat empty for the 1956–57 school year before being sold the following summer.

Virginia Steward stayed inside for recess—nobody would let her jump rope or play hopscotch with them anyway. A few of the white kids told her they would have let her join, but their parents told them not to. “Don’t let us come by there and see you out there with them little Black kids,” the adults said. Virginia’s little sister was more gregarious: Carolyn went outside and played with anyone who’d let her. It seemed like the younger a child, the easier it was for them to find acceptance.

There were challenges beyond making friends. Myra Cumberland had a teacher who gave her dirty looks. The teacher, an older woman, wore thick-soled shoes, what Myra called “old-lady comforts.” One day, Myra was wearing a white dress with purple polka-dots, and the teacher kicked the edge of it. Myra tried to brush off the footprint but couldn’t. When her mother saw the smudge and asked how she got dirt on her dress, Myra didn’t tell her. She never did. Looking back, she isn’t sure why.

Perhaps it was because she was learning to take care of herself. All the kids were, and not just in school. Over time some even engaged in their own acts of defiance. One Sunday after church services, when Virginia was 11 or 12, she and a few friends stopped at a coffee shop for a Pepsi, knowing full well that they wouldn’t be served. They waited about half an hour and were ignored, so they made a mess with the ketchup and mustard at their table. Around the same age, Virginia went to the movies with her brothers, and they ignored the usher when he directed them to the seats for Black people. The usher demanded that they relocate from the white section or “get up and go home.” They wanted to see the movie, so they moved.

As Myra grew up, she became athletic. She played softball with a group of kids, some white. She even played football with boys. The kids at school called her Wilma Rudolph—the Black sprinter who in 1960 became the first U.S. woman to win three gold medals at the Olympics—because she was so fast. By the seventh grade, everyone treated her well enough. One day in algebra, the teacher left the room for a few minutes. There was a new student in class, a white boy who had just moved from Cincinnati, and when Myra stood up to sharpen her pencil, he cried, “Don’t touch me, you’ll get me dirty!” Two of the other white boys in the class grabbed him by the foot and dangled him out the second-floor window. They made him apologize to Myra, then brought him up again. By the time the teacher returned, the students were mostly back in their places, and the new boy looked flushed and disheveled. The teacher asked what was wrong. “Nothing,” he said.

The other white boys let him know that next time, they’d drop him. He never called Myra a name again. Like many people, Myra and the boy would both stay in Hillsboro for the rest of their lives. Years later, when she saw him around town, he was friendly to her.

Chapter Twelve

When the march began in 1954, South Carolina governor James Byrnes argued that Hillsboro’s spectacle was evidence that some cities needed to continue school segregation. The mothers’ victory helped achieve the opposite. Across Ohio, it was invoked by advocates fighting segregation in Cleveland, Akron, Columbus, and smaller communities throughout the state. It was cited in legal proceedings in New York and Texas. As a vital test case for the implementation of Brown v. Board of Education, it created a domino effect—one small city’s integration would pressure another to follow suit, then another, then another.

Yet the march never rooted itself in the national consciousness like the story of the Little Rock Nine or Ruby Bridges eventually did. Perhaps that’s because the events in Hillsboro were relatively peaceful, or because the city wasn’t in the Deep South. Or maybe it’s because, for many years after, the city’s white majority didn’t talk about it—content, it seemed, to be done with that chapter of Hillsboro’s history.

It has now been 66 years since the mothers and their children started marching. Only in recent years, as the Highland County Historical Society began to emphasize Lincoln School’s history, have the marchers received any recognition for their efforts. In 2017, the mothers and their children were inducted in the Ohio Civil Rights Hall of Fame.

Among its genealogical offerings, Hillsboro’s library keeps a typed biography of Imogene Curtis in a thin white binder. It includes an interview with James Hapner, who said that he always had faith that the school board would keep its word and integrate once building renovations were done. Still, he said in retrospect, the board was at fault for formalizing segregation at Lincoln in the first place. Hapner was glad when the fight with the mothers ended. “We knew she wouldn’t give up,” he said of Imogene specifically. “I understood why she did it.”

Imogene’s years could be measured in letters to the editor, calls on behalf of neighbors in need, and attendance at important events. When Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech on the National Mall, Imogene was there. In 1984, she was asked to teach at Webster Elementary. A year later, on a visit to the offices of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where she was helping a woman fight housing discrimination, Imogene fell in an elevator and broke her femur. She died a few weeks later from a blood clot.

Constance Baker Motley, the mothers’ attorney at the NAACP, went on to successfully argue nine cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and lead litigation to integrate southern universities. She became the first Black woman elected to the New York State Senate and the country’s first Black female federal judge. Reflecting on her fight against segregation, she once wrote that “becoming a part of history is a special experience, reserved for only a few. It’s like earning a law degree or a Ph.D.; nobody can take it away from you. You may be forgotten, but it’s like immortality: You will always be there.”

Motley passed away in 2005. Most every adult who played a part in the story of Hillsboro’s march is dead: Hapner and Upp, Druffel and Partridge. Zella Cumberland died this spring, becoming the latest of the mothers to pass away. The only one still alive is Elsie Steward. She turns 104 on June 30, the day of this story’s publication.

When I interviewed her, Elsie couldn’t always answer pointed questions—rather, she plucked memories as they surfaced. Still, her grasp of the details of her life exceeded that of someone a third her age. Her catalog of time was more sizable than most people could ever hope to have. She wasn’t sure why I wanted to talk about the march. It was so long ago. It was just something she did every day for a couple of years. She’d had so many years.

The surviving daughters, and a few sons, are the ones who carry on the legacy of the march, who tell the story. In the spot where Lincoln once stood, there is a food pantry and a brown State of Ohio historical marker that describes the marchers’ integration fight. Washington School has been replaced with a fire station. A couple of years ago, Webster, long abandoned, was set to be demolished. Virginia, Carolyn, Joyce, Teresa, and Eleanor, Imogene’s daughter, went to see it one last time. Hopping caution tape and stepping over broken glass and smashed concrete, they took a last walk up to the front door together and posed for photos. A wrecking ball hung nearby, the future looming over their past. The demolition crew didn’t understand what these retirees were doing on the worksite.

Elsie wasn’t sure why I wanted to talk about the march. It was so long ago. It was just something she did every day for a couple of years. She’d had so many years.

The women stepped away from the building and watched as it fell. They’d fought so hard to enter Webster. Some of them had sent their own children there. Now they’d outlasted it. All that was left was wreckage and dust. The daughters of the march got in their cars and headed home.

Joyce Clemons, whose married name is Kittrell, is a retired Head Start teacher and factory worker who also happens to have a black belt in karate. Her mother’s spirit manifested in Joyce’s habit of encouraging her children, and later her grandchildren, to play with kids of all backgrounds. “The most important thing, as y’all are growing up, is to learn to play together,” she would tell them. “Don’t look at each other’s color. Just get along together.” More recently, when we talked about the uprisings in dozens of U.S. cities—sustained demonstrations against police brutality and racial inequality—Joyce mirrored her mother’s capacity to speak truth and ground it in faith. Like someone who’d been raised to wear her best dresses when protesting injustice, Joyce was dismayed by demonstrators tearing up property. “Hatred don’t get you nowhere,” she said. Neither, however, did it exempt anyone from her goodwill: Though Donald Trump “caused a lot of this because of his prejudice,” Joyce told me, she still prayed for him and his family.

In early June, Hillsboro saw its own Black Lives Matter demonstration. On Facebook, people who opposed the rally threatened to show up with AK-47’s. “LOCK AND LOAD, HILLSBORO,” one post read. (It has since been deleted.) Despite a few people openly carrying firearms outside the veterans’ memorial, hundreds of Black and white residents marched peacefully through the city’s streets to the Highland County Courthouse, where Eleanor, carrying her mother’s torch, was among the featured speakers.

Joyce thinks the story of the marching mothers and the case that bears her name should be taught in schools, reminding young people that “we could be in even worse shape than we are now if it hadn’t been for someone stepping up and standing for us.” Joyce and I talked about history and heroes, how bravery doesn’t have to be grand or famous to matter. “I feel like I accomplished life because of what happened,” she told me of the walk she took from 1954 to 1956.

The marching mothers of Hillsboro hinged extraordinary change on life’s most mundane details: Getting ready for school. Lessons, worksheets, homework. Showing up no matter what. Taking disappointment in stride. For nearly two years, they set out on a daily journey that required gumption and resilience. They taught their children to keep going. They taught them to know when the walk is not yet done.


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Long May They Reign

Long May
They Reign

A butterfly named Flamingo, an epic migration, and the crusade to save one of America’s most iconic species.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 103



Nora Caplan-Bricker is a journalist, essayist, and critic whose work has appeared in Slate, Harper’s, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Magazine, among other publications. She teaches creative writing in Boston.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Adam Przybyl

Published in May 2020.

One

The phenomenon that some people in Brookings, Oregon, would later call a miracle began in early July 2019, when the same monarch butterfly appeared in Holly Beyer’s yard almost every day for two weeks. Beyer recognized it by a scratch on one wing. She and a friend named it Ovaltine, inspired by ovum, for the way it encrusted the milkweed in Beyer’s garden with eggs. Each off-white bump was no larger than the tip of a sharpened pencil. Clustered together on the green leaves, they looked like blemishes, as if the milkweed had sprouted a case of adolescent acne.

Brookings sits on Oregon’s rugged coast, and squarely within the monarch’s habitat. Every spring and summer, several generations of butterflies breed, lay eggs, and die, each in the span of about a month. The last generation of the year is different. Come fall, rather than produce offspring, it migrates south. Beyer, a petite retiree with a trace of red in her gray hair, is part of a local group who promote butterfly-friendly gardening practices—planting native flowers, for instance, and forgoing pesticides.

Most female monarchs disperse their eggs as widely as possible, but for unknowable reasons, Ovaltine laid almost 600 in Beyer’s yard. Under normal conditions, fewer than 5 percent of monarch eggs survive to adulthood. Beyer wanted the marvel she had witnessed from her deck to have a happier ending. She snipped the laden leaves and brought them inside, to shield the eggs from wind, rain, and predators. Before long she had hundreds of caterpillars, then hundreds of butterflies. She released them into the wild, and Brookings, with a human population of just 6,500, was suddenly ablaze with orange wings. A person could be taking the trash out or crossing a parking lot and see a flash, like a struck match, from the corner of their eye.

Soon the monarchs had blanketed Brookings in “the second eggsplosion,” as Beyer put it. “Every milkweed plant”—the only flora that monarch caterpillars eat upon hatching—“got egg-bombed.” Over the next several weeks, Beyer counted nearly 2,700 eggs in her yard. Based on other people’s reports from their own gardens, she estimates that there were 5,000 more across Brookings.

Beyer dutifully gathered the eggs laid on her property and put them in a maze of mesh crates she’d set up on the small deck of her 400-square-foot apartment. As the caterpillars hatched, she gave her life over to their care. The tiny creatures do nothing but eat and evacuate, and Beyer spent every day harvesting milkweed to go in one end and sweeping away the droppings that came out the other. “I would start at 10 a.m. and wouldn’t finish feeding them until six at night,” she told me. “I lost 15 pounds because I forgot to feed myself.”

A friend of Beyer’s sent out a grassroots SOS, begging anyone in Oregon with experience hand-rearing monarchs to come and take some of the remaining eggs off her hands. That’s how Amanda Egertson heard about the eggsplosion. A trained ecologist, Egertson is the stewardship director of a land trust in central Oregon. She lives in the city of Bend, almost 300 miles away from Brookings. She called her husband and asked if he could skip work for a day or two. They packed their kids into the car and started driving.

Waiting for them in Brookings was a makeshift incubator for 110 monarch eggs: a foil lasagna pan lined with damp paper towels to keep the milkweed leaves placed inside it from wilting. It would be up to Egertson to usher the butterflies into life. If she succeeded, the monarchs hatched under her care would be the first she’d seen that year. In the weeks leading up to her trip to Brookings, she’d scouted for flickers of orange as she traversed the land trust. For the first time she could remember, she hadn’t seen a single one.

A paperclip weighs a gram; a monarch weighs about half that.

While Egertson was retrieving the lasagna pan, I was a continent away, sitting for hours every day on my in-laws’ porch in Massachusetts. From there I could see thick patches of butterfly weed, a variety of milkweed that grows wild on their hilltop property. It was waist high in places, and covered in starburst bunches of brilliant orange flowers. Each tiny blossom had one row of tangerine petals stretching down and another row stretching up, like little dancers with raised arms. The plant is sometimes called orange glory, which suits it. When my husband’s father cut the field, he mowed carefully around the flowers. Once, he motioned me off the porch swing where I was reading to show me a monarch feeding on the blossoms.

The monarch (Danaus plexippus) is a large butterfly, and among the slowest moving in North America. It takes no special skill to spot one or to identify what you’ve seen. If you went to an American elementary school, you probably learned in science class how a monarch egg becomes a caterpillar becomes a chrysalis becomes a butterfly. Some lepidopterists (butterfly experts) disdain monarchs in the way that anyone with esoteric tastes looks down on what’s popular. “People call them the cockroaches of butterflies,” one scientist told me.

But the world has dulled your capacity for wonder if you cannot be awed by monarchs, which undertake one of the longest annual migrations of any insect on earth. A paperclip weighs a gram; a monarch weighs about half that. The thickness of a piece of paper is one-tenth of one-thousandth of a meter; the thickness of the monarch’s distinctive orange wings—veined in black and dappled with white spots at the edges—is measured in microns, or millionths of a meter. Monarchs can travel even on wings that appear too torn for flight, and scientists estimate that in good weather they can cover 30 miles or more in a single day. East of the Rockies, millions of butterflies migrate thousands of miles, from southern Canada to central Mexico, where oral traditions suggest that the incandescent insects have blanketed forests every winter for centuries. West of the Rockies, a smaller number of monarchs fly south as the weather cools and spend the winter huddled in trees on the central coast of California. No one knows how they find the groves to which they return every year.

The monarch was once as common as it is beautiful—the most ordinary of extraordinary things. As a child, I saw them all the time in the warm months, drinking from weedy flowers at the edges of cornfields. Now, though, the population is in precipitous decline. This is true all over North America, but especially out west, in places like Oregon and California. In 2018, a count of western monarchs turned up only 27,218, fewer than 1 percent of the number recorded in the mid-1980s. Worse still, that figure failed to clear an existential threshold of sorts: Ecologists had recently warned that the western monarch’s risk of extinction could intensify if the population fell below 30,000.

The causes of the decline are many and manmade: loss of habitat, increased use of pesticides, the acceleration of climate change. On the broadest scale, these forces overlap with the reasons that the island where my in-laws live floods more severely with every passing year. Visiting them last summer, I spent more time outside than I had since my childhood, but the pleasure of sunny days was darkened by dread. The monarchs in particular brought me back to a time before I knew about climate change or lived with the awareness that I might someday witness a mass extinction. The idea of a future without them started to represent everything I was frightened to live through.

The world has dulled your capacity for wonder if you cannot be awed by monarchs, which undertake one of the longest annual migrations of any insect on earth.

It’s not news that our impending environmental cataclysm requires urgent action, especially by world leaders and fossil-fuel companies—people and entities with the power to fundamentally change the way we use our planet’s resources. The steps we can take as individuals won’t be sufficient; they won’t even be significant unless millions of people follow suit. For me at least, this made it hard to commit to even small forms of environmental action. I would attempt something—composting, or taking the bus more, or cutting meat out of my diet—only to find that it didn’t allay my sense that I was doing nothing. It was like trying to ride a bike when the gears wouldn’t catch. I wanted to push the pedal down and feel myself move.

I envied my father-in-law’s steady sense of purpose as he mowed around butterfly weed so that monarchs could feed on the flowers. It was a modest act of stewardship that brought him great satisfaction when butterflies landed on the patches of growth he’d conserved. I, too, wanted to do something that mattered in ways I could see and feel.

Near summer’s end, I read a news article in which a biologist made a case for monarch conservation that went beyond butterflies. Karen Oberhauser of the University of Wisconsin–Madison described monarchs as a flagship species, an animal that captures imaginations and induces people to care about its fate. “We’ve surveyed people and asked, ‘How much would you pay to save monarchs?’” Oberhauser said when I called her. “It’s up there with whooping cranes, polar bears, and wolves—all these charismatic vertebrates.” When people like my in-laws protect monarch habitat, they assist other species they may never have heard of. By extension, they support entire ecosystems. “On some days, I feel like maybe we won’t save monarchs, but if we try to save them, we’re going to do good for the world,” Oberhauser said.

Was this what I had been looking for—an animal to lend its shape to my formless sense of environmental grief? In the book What I Don’t Know About Animals, novelist and essayist Jenny Diski observes that humans have been turning animals into symbols ever since the beginning of language, employing them as tools “to think about anything and everything.” Maybe I could make monarchs my personal shorthand for something otherwise too large to grasp. I didn’t yet know about Beyer and Egertson, who were upending their lives with a feverish energy that comes from believing you can make a difference, but I had arrived at a similar idea: I hoped that, if I trained my attention on a single creature, I would figure out what it meant to do my part. Maybe fear of a loss specific enough to imagine would impel me to act. And once I started, maybe I wouldn’t stop.

Two

Back home with the eggs, Egertson cut air holes in giant Tupperware bins, which covered the floor of her son’s bedroom. “He gets the best morning sunlight,” she explained. After the eggs hatched, the caterpillars grew quickly, sometimes doubling in length in the span of 48 hours. They molted their striped skin five times in two weeks. Egertson returned to the store for more bins, then more again. When she and her family ran out of milkweed to feed the caterpillars, they called on neighbors to harvest it from their yards.

Eventually, Egertson carried the Tupperware condominiums upstairs to the master bedroom and opened the doors to the deck to expose her charges to fresh air and light. At night, when the temperature dropped into the forties, she and her husband piled their bed high with blankets. During the day, when the sun heated the room to 90 degrees, they stripped down to tank tops.

After two weeks, the caterpillars started to crawl to the roofs of their enclosures and hang upside down in a J shape, like a collection of fishhooks. One by one, each creature began to pulse, and its skin went translucent. Slowly, its striped outer layer peeled back from its head, revealing a sticky, twisting green mass whose gyrations gradually stilled. Over the next day, it inflated and hardened into a perfect jade pendant adorned with gold flecks. This was the chrysalis, a shell that looks like a sarcophagus but is really a womb. Inside, a butterfly was taking shape.

Egertson tried to stay close to home so she wouldn’t miss the moment when a monarch emerged. She swims at 4 a.m. every morning, and she perched her cell phone on the edge of the pool so she could check it after each lap. One morning she got the text she’d been waiting for and “flew out of the pool,” she told me. She raced home, “wet suit and all,” and made it in time.

In the hours before a monarch “ecloses,” or emerges from its chrysalis, its wings become visible through the shell. The lacquer splits, and the butterfly pushes itself out on long black legs. It pumps fluid from its abdomen through the veins of its wrinkled, misshapen wings, which slowly unfurl into four fiery orange and black fans. Within a few hours, they harden and dry. If the process is interrupted and the wings remain crumpled, the monarch won’t be able fly.

Handling the new butterflies with great care, Egertson and her family affixed tags to their wings—lightweight but durable stickers bearing serial numbers that scientists use to track the insects’ journey if they are spotted again. Researchers have been tagging butterflies since the 1940s, when the zoologist Fred Urquhart decided to trace the until then unknown route of the eastern migration. The organization he founded, now called Monarch Watch, remains the largest tagging project east of the Rockies. Egertson had requested stickers from a lab at Washington State University that hosts one of several tracking operations out west. When she applied the tags to the butterflies, her fingers came away dusted with glittering scales.

Egertson’s family gave each insect a name along with a serial number: Michael Phelps, for the Olympic swimmer’s butterfly stroke; Chopin, for one of Egertson’s favorite composers. Egertson’s 11-year-old son, who had shared his room with the caterpillars, named one monarch Flamingo, after the species for which he had dyed his own hair neon pink.

Egertson and her kids released Flamingo in a park in Bend on a sunny day in September. Afterward, Egertson went to a tattoo artist to have butterflies inked onto her foot and ankle. They were a 50th birthday gift to herself, a reward for making it through what she told me was a difficult decade. “I’ve been smitten with butterflies my whole life,” she said. “At first glance they seem so fragile, like the wind can just blow them any which way. Like they don’t have a lot of say about where they end up. But in fact they do. They’re incredibly resilient, powerful creatures.”

As Egertson gritted her teeth against the sharp scratch of the tattooist’s needle, she hoped that Flamingo was drifting southward—borne, at least that day, on a light breeze.

Monarchs migrate to the same groves year after year. 

It’s not strictly rational to devote one’s excess energy to protecting a species loved mostly for being beautiful, especially when so much of the world is dying. Insect populations in particular are in free-fall, and monarchs are far from the hardest-hit species among those that scientists are able to monitor. Entomologists estimate that humans have identified as few as 20 percent of all insect species, meaning that millions of unique creatures could be swept off the planet without our knowing that they existed in the first place. No one can make a case for ensuring the butterflies’ survival based on particular usefulness. Though they get lumped in with pollinators, they are bad at the job. They don’t even come close to rivaling bees, without which farmers would need to hire human workers to pollinate fruit trees.

Karen Oberhauser’s argument about flagship species helps explain a recent burst of interest in monarchs. Many conservationists choose to focus their efforts on keystone species, which anchor ecosystems (starfish, for example, keep tide pools from being overrun by mussels), or indicator species, which reflect the health of a landscape (dragonflies can’t live on polluted streams). But prioritizing flagship species like monarchs is a practical choice for advocates competing for the public’s attention. It helps that, unlike some endangered species, monarchs don’t require governments to set aside large tracts of land for them. They don’t need pristine conditions or continuous wilderness. What they need are options: milkweed on which to lay eggs, and nectar plants on which to feed all along their migratory path. An ecologist I interviewed estimated that monarchs might be able to pass through a landscape that is just 1 percent habitat—that is, it might be enough for an urban neighborhood to offer up a pot of milkweed or a flowering window box for every few hundred feet of concrete.

This fact—call it the allure of tangibility—has helped spur tens of thousands of people across North America to get involved in conservation efforts on the monarch’s behalf: people like Beyer, Egertson, and my in-laws. “Pretty much anyone can help,” said Emma Pelton of the Xerces Society, the leading advocacy organization for insect conservation. “This is an area where individuals can have an impact.” One activist I spoke to, a former fourth-grade teacher in Illinois, had converted an old school bus into a traveling classroom that she drove around the corn belt proselytizing about planting milkweed for monarchs. “It’s like Ms. Frizzle’s Magic School Bus,” she told me.

Hand-rearing, however, is a part of the crusade to save monarchs that most scientists reject. For starters, it can sow confusion among researchers. A bonanza of butterflies in a place like Brookings, where monarchs might have been scarce but for human interference, foil attempts to track—and thus support—the shrinking western population. “We can’t trust the sightings we have,” Pelton said. “In such a critical year, after the population collapses, it’s really frustrating. It’s a huge loss to our ability to understand where the population is so that we can help it.” Some experts also fear that butterflies hatched in captivity may be inferior navigators, making them less likely to survive their long migration. Other studies suggest they may be at higher risk of spreading disease. Most concerning, monarchs have evolved to produce hundreds of progeny that don’t make it, employing a different biological strategy than large mammals that lavish energy on each individual offspring. By protecting eggs and caterpillars that might have been picked off in the wild because of an inherent weakness—and by encouraging inbreeding, which reduces genetic diversity—the people hand-rearing monarchs almost certainly introduce inferior genes into a struggling population. “You need to be a really fit monarch to make it,” Pelton explained. “The last thing we want to do is make them weaker.”

Experts consider mass rearing a misdirection of energy: To save a species you must protect its habitat, not keep a few creatures alive on your porch or in your bedroom. Egertson, who oversees the planting of native flowers on her land trust, understands these concerns—to the point that she hesitated before taking the trip to see Beyer. Though she had raised a few butterflies in the past, just for the joy of it, she had qualms about hatching more than 100 in captivity. “Any time you tamper with nature, you have to wonder if you’re doing the right thing,” she told me. “But if you were to ask me, do I regret participating in captive rearing, the answer is absolutely not.” The severity of the crisis made her want to do something that felt more immediate. “The numbers are so low that, if we can boost them at all, maybe that will make a difference,” she said.

Pelton told me that she worries about quashing the energy of volunteers who are just trying to help. It makes sense that adding individual lives to a plummeting total seems like the best, most direct thing a person can do. “It’s hard for people to grasp whole ecosystems—that’s hard for me even in my backyard,” Pelton said. “We all pivot toward something we can grasp, like an animal. But the question is if we can look a little wider. People spend hours every day rearing caterpillars. If you spend hours every day doing anything, you could be a fantastic community organizer working to reduce pesticides, or have an amazing garden that helps lots of animals, not just monarchs.”

To avoid becoming paralyzed by the number and scope of the environmental problems we face, it’s often necessary to narrow our focus. How do we also keep a view broad enough to see how our actions fit into, and sometimes work against, a larger effort? It’s a difficult balance. To avoid losing hope, people need to experience their individual power to change things. But with the fight to save monarchs, as with so many crises, little of the work that needs doing can be done alone.

Three

Monarchs migrate solo. The first challenge facing the butterfly that Egertson’s son named Flamingo was likely crossing the Cascade mountains running from southern Canada to northern California. Clearing a 10,000-foot peak is well within a monarch’s capability; although the eastern and western migrations rarely mix, butterflies have even been known to cross the Rockies. On cool nights, finding shelter from the wind and other elements would have been imperative. Once the sun set and the temperature dropped below 55 degrees, Flamingo’s powerful wing muscles would become paralyzed; another 15 degrees and he would no longer be able to crawl. If he were knocked to the ground in the night, he could become prey for mice or voles. They would eat his narrow body and leave his wings in the dirt like a discarded costume.

There were also human dangers to contend with, starting with busy highways. Along the eastern migratory route, millions of Flamingo’s kind become roadkill every year; according to one study, collisions with cars in Oklahoma, Texas, and northern Mexico deplete the monarch’s numbers by as much as 4 percent. Out west, researchers see less evidence of significant losses along highways, but the smaller population can little afford any at all. It complicates the picture that one promising initiative to restore monarch habitat is to plant flowers on roadsides, since the land there has few other uses.

After a few weeks, Flamingo probably reached the wide, flat floor of California’s Central Valley. Most western monarchs are funneled through this corridor, which some 40 years ago was an inviting place: a rich patchwork of grasslands, dotted with bright blooms in all but deepest winter, threaded with streams and rivers, and soaked with sun almost 300 days of the year. John Muir famously described the Central Valley as “the floweriest piece of world I ever walked, one vast level, even flower bed.” But in recent decades, industrial farming has ironed out all but the last inches of wild land, replacing ungoverned prairies with perfect rows of produce. Roughly a quarter of America’s food comes from the Central Valley, including 40 percent of our fruit and nuts. The region is also California’s fastest growing in terms of population. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates that more than 99 percent of the valley’s standing grass consists of green lawns and cereal crops. Cultivation has crowded out native grasslands, with their goldenrod, milkweed, and thistle.

Water is also a scarce commodity. Vast wetlands once fed by the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers shrank by more than 90 percent in the past century as the water was diverted to irrigate fields. A seven-year drought, which ended in 2019, dried up even more marshlands, endangering birds as well as butterflies. The northern end of the valley is famous for vernal pools unlike any on earth: Rain fills them in winter, and they evaporate slowly in summer, leaving rings of wildflowers each time the water level drops. The WWF estimates that more than two-thirds of these unique ecosystems have disappeared, either drained for agricultural use or leveled to make way for pastures and fields.

Where Flamingo once would have found water and nectar there were instead gleaming cattle and tidy crops treated with pesticides. Crops like strawberries and almonds are rendered unsellable by even the slightest damage, so farmers make liberal use of chemicals to keep them pristine. When the Xerces Society tested milkweed across the valley, it found pesticide in every sample, including plants grown in private gardens by people who claimed they had never sprayed. Even if Flamingo managed to find food, he risked consuming poison along with his meal.

Monarchs migrate hundreds or thousands of miles every year.

Art Shapiro knows all about poison. He started counting butterflies in 1972. He was new to the West Coast back then—he’d moved for a job in the zoology department at the University of California, Davis, not long after finishing his doctorate at Cornell—but he was accustomed to spending long days searching for insects. Growing up in an unhappy home on the outskirts of Philadelphia, he would slip out the door with a field guide in his pocket and lose himself looking for flashes of color in an undeveloped expanse of land across the street from his house. As a college student in the 1960s, he studied phenology, the scientific term for biological seasonality: how subtle cues such as temperature and sunlight tell fruit trees when to bloom, insects when to hatch, and birds when to migrate. Shapiro began to dream of creating an enormous data set. If he could track many butterfly species over many years—wet years and dry ones, hot years and cold ones—he would be able to see which aspects of a climate exerted the most control over the life cycle.

In California, he selected five sites at various elevations, each with its own diverse ecosystem, and made the rounds every two weeks, weather permitting. He compiled a list of 160 species of native butterflies to monitor, monarchs among them. Unlike scientists who tag monarchs to track their migration, Shapiro’s goal was to compare the size of butterfly populations from one year to the next. The methodology could hardly have been simpler: He visited the same sites on the same schedule and noted the number of butterflies he saw. Since Shapiro didn’t drive, each location had to be accessible by public transportation; he sometimes hiked several miles from a bus stop to get where he needed to go. In those early days, he rarely failed to find his quarry. At a single stop, he would frequently see as many as 30 species. Along with monarchs, there were skippers and sulfurs, swallowtails and painted ladies, henna-colored lustrous coppers and periwinkle Melissa blues.

He planned to do the project for five years, since that was all the time he’d have if he didn’t get tenure. When he was offered a permanent place at the university, he decided to keep going. Gradually, Shapiro added five more sites, until his study covered a large swath of the Central Valley. As local bus systems grew less reliable, he asked graduate students for rides. He became a fixture at gas stations and dive bars all over his route, his annual arrival a welcome sign of spring. We spoke over the phone for this story, but in pictures Shapiro looks like a hermit in a Georgian-era painting—weathered face, wild hair, enormous white beard—except that he’s often wearing a Southwestern-patterned shirt.

After a few decades, he realized that he had inadvertently conducted what might have become the world’s longest continuous butterfly study, rivaled only by one of similar vintage in the United Kingdom. He soon noticed something else: The number of butterflies at his locations was declining. At first, Shapiro wasn’t too worried. Insect populations are naturally “bouncy,” meaning that numbers can dip in years with unfavorable weather and rebound quickly in good years, since each female lays hundreds of eggs. But in 1999, the populations of multiple butterfly species crashed simultaneously, their totals plummeting well below any natural ebb that Shapiro had witnessed before.   

Shapiro strongly suspected that the butterflies were suffering the effects of neonicotinoids, a class of insecticides that were introduced in the early 1990s and entered wide usage toward the end of the decade. Neonics, as they’re called, are systemic, meaning that plants absorb them into every cell from bud to stem, and they can be long-lasting, building up year after year and persisting in water and soil even if a farmer stops using them. A growing body of research would ultimately support Shapiro’s hypothesis, showing that even in doses too small to kill outright, neonics shorten the life spans of insects and make them weaker fliers and foragers. Because the pesticides attack a creature’s nervous system, they interfere with navigation, which matters for species like bees, which must find their way back to their hives. The major varieties of neonics are now banned for outdoor use in the European Union but remain popular in the United States, where they have been connected to the widespread collapse of bee colonies.

Art Shapiro became a fixture at gas stations and dive bars all over his route, his annual arrival a welcome sign of spring.

They also have especially pernicious effects on migratory species like monarchs. Karen Oberhauser of the University of Wisconsin remembers the world before butterflies began disappearing. In 1997, a boom year, she flew to Mexico to see eastern monarchs in their overwintering grounds. She witnessed millions of roosting insects, clustered on every inch of oyamel fir trees, their combined weight bending the boughs. Seeing them gathered together, Oberhauser felt a shiver of fear: They seemed so vulnerable, as if a single blow could erase them from the earth. In the years that followed, she noticed how much habitat monarchs had lost in the agricultural fields that form a large part of their summer breeding grounds. She realized that crops genetically engineered to be resistant to herbicides allowed farmers to blanket their land with chemicals, which eradicated millions of acres of milkweed that once flourished between the soybean plants and cornstalks. Monarch numbers had fallen in tandem. Oberhauser began raising money and advocating for conservation efforts. “A lot of what’s driving monarch loss is changing agricultural practices. Addressing that is going to require policy changes,” she told me.

In California, Shapiro continued to see worrying signs. Monarchs’ seasonal behavior seemed to be shifting. The last generation of butterflies that hatches each fall is called a super generation. During their migration, they enter a state known as reproductive diapause, conserving the energy that other generations expend breeding so they can live six months or more—enough time to make it through winter and breed first thing the following spring. But Shapiro started to hear stories of winter roosts breaking up earlier and earlier. Whereas they used to stay put until March, now they were disbanding in late January or early February. Were they taking their cue from the ever milder weather? Where would they find nectar and milkweed, when most native plants break ground in March at the earliest? Would a freak storm batter them to death or a cold snap freeze them? No one could guess how many migrators might be surviving the winter only to die without finding somewhere to lay their eggs in the spring.

As Shapiro described it, 2018 was the year when “everything went in the toilet.” He witnessed the worst butterfly season he’d ever seen. He counted only 12 monarchs in all of his stops, and for the first time ever he didn’t see a single monarch caterpillar. The once common species had become so rare so abruptly that every individual insect seemed to matter. Would the next year be the one when Shapiro finally saw no monarchs at all?

Four

By October 2019, if he survived that long, Flamingo might have faced fire. In Sonoma County, along the Central Valley’s western edge, the season’s worst wildfire consumed almost 80,000 acres. Acrid smoke blanketed much of the Bay Area. What does a monarch make of a forest fire? Does it waste precious energy flying around it, or risk getting caught in the conflagration? Still heading south, Flamingo might have ridden the same winds that carried embers across the landscape, wisps of fire that shone even more brightly than his vivid wings.

A few weeks after the Sonoma fire died down, I was preparing to fly to California, too. I had arranged to join an annual effort, organized by the Xerces Society, to monitor western monarchs in their winter habitat—groves where butterflies, in an unsolved mystery of migration, return to the same roosts year after year. Some coastal cities have built around these stands of trees, even if they’re in the middle of town. The first scheduled stop on my itinerary was Ellwood Mesa, a sandy bluff of eucalyptus groves just west of Santa Barbara. But by Thanksgiving morning, it too was in the path of a wildfire. Thousands of people in the surrounding county had evacuated. “There’s no way anyone can take you there,” a municipal employee told me when I called from my home in Boston. Ellwood Mesa was vulnerable to stray embers and to mudslides. When I asked if I could go alone, there was silence on the other end. “There are signs telling people to enter at their own risk,” the employee said finally.

I hung up feeling thwarted. My husband tried to comfort me: Even if the fire interfered with my plan to see a species imperiled by climate change, didn’t that only prove my story’s point? I packed a bag and boarded my flight. I landed in Los Angeles and turned on my phone to find a text from another city employee: A snowstorm had dampened the blaze. I could go to Ellwood Mesa after all.

Xerces calls its annual monitoring effort the Thanksgiving count because it takes place over three weeks in November and early December. More than 100 volunteers visit upwards of 240 sites where monarchs are known to roost. The count is not unlike Art Shapiro’s work—volunteers note every butterfly they can find, then tally the numbers into a single snapshot of the total population that made it to the coast for the winter. If they see any with tags—a rare, exciting event—they can compare the serial number with an online database and determine where the butterfly came from.

In 1997, its first year, the count recorded more than 1.2 million monarchs. Two years later, that figure fell to fewer than 250,000, despite an increase in the number of sites being monitored. Though the population still fluctuates, it hasn’t broken 300,000 since 2000. It plunged to the historic low of 27,218 in 2018. Volunteers visit most count sites only once; if a site is subject to more frequent monitoring, Xerces uses the highest number observed in a single day. Between this and the fact that some butterflies might be spotted twice if they move between neighboring groves, the final tally is more likely to overestimate the monarch population than to underrepresent it.

Once upon a time, Ellwood Mesa attracted more than 100,000 butterflies each year. When I pulled into the site’s parking lot on a Tuesday morning, the sky was overcast. The clean, sweet smell of eucalyptus washed over me. Ellwood Cooper, who once owned this land and for whom the site is named, was a rancher and horticulturalist who helped introduce eucalyptus to the United States. He raised his first trees here in the 1870s. Cooper envisioned the quick-growing eucalyptus as an invaluable source of lumber. It turned out to be brittle and prone to decay, but it did provide an ideal winter home for monarchs, which were observed on the West Coast in growing numbers as eucalyptus spread in the late 19th century. Today, the tree is widely considered a scourge on the landscape. With its shaggy bark and fragrant oil, it is quick to catch fire. But it is also monarchs’ preferred home for the winter; though the insects roost in other trees, such as cypress, they choose eucalyptus groves over forests with exclusively native species. This has put monarch advocates in the odd position of trying to protect a beloved native butterfly by fighting to plant a despised invasive tree. 

What does a monarch make of a forest fire? Does it waste precious energy flying around it, or risk getting caught in the conflagration? 

The volunteer coordinator for the monarch count in Santa Barbara County was a woman named Charis van der Heide, a monarch biologist and environmental consultant for the city of Goleta. She wore a straw hat and hiking boots, and the rest of her attire was dotted with images and emblems of butterflies: a patterned scarf at the neck of her purple parka, a crocheted keychain dangling from her backpack. I followed her down a sandy path into a grove of trees, where the light grew dimmer and the smell heavier and loamier as we followed a muddy streambed. The ground was blanketed with strips of gray bark—“eucalyptus are messy,” Van der Heide said—but many of the branches above us were bare. According to Goleta officials, one in five trees here died during California’s long drought. Of those that remained, many were ailing. Giants 180 feet tall leaned against their neighbors or bent into archways over the path.

Changes in the grove have profound consequences for monarchs. Butterflies choose where to roost with extreme sensitivity. New generations not only go to the same groves and trees as the previous year’s butterflies—they alight on the same branches. They seek a precise microclimate, a perfect alchemy of humidity, temperature, wind speed, wind direction, and light. Every time a tree falls, the delicate balance shifts.

We entered a clearing. Van der Heide, who is in her late thirties, with wavy chestnut hair and a broad, friendly face, pointed out the features that once drew monarchs here. Perhaps because they are meandering fliers—they flap-flap and glide, flap-flap and glide—they choose groves with high, vaulted ceilings that are “cathedral-like,” Van der Heide explained, gesturing upward. The natural architecture gives them space to flit and float. But a thinning canopy may not provide sufficient protection from winter storms. The grove we stood in was once enclosed on three sides by thick walls of trees; now trunks crisscrossed the forest floor, leaving openings everywhere.

Van der Heide told me that she wanted to plant more eucalyptus where we stood. The controversy surrounding that approach didn’t bother her. “We conserve what we love,” she said—even if a favorite natural phenomenon might not exist as we know it without human influence. She echoed Oberhauser’s point about flagship species, arguing that fighting for monarchs could help a wide array of pollinators that share their habitat. “Having a little pragmatism about what people can get behind can serve you in a larger way,” she said.

But even with new eucalyptus to draw them, would the butterflies return in large numbers? As the climate changes, many species are expected to shift their habitat ranges northward and upward, to higher elevations, chasing the conditions for which they’ve evolved. Monarchs might soon abandon the known groves altogether. Maybe they already have. Some count volunteers told me that, in their most optimistic moments, they imagine the butterflies aren’t declining—they’re hiding, and we just have to find them. But it’s not clear where exactly they could have gone. “If you look in the hills, we don’t have trees up there,” Van der Heide told me. “They’ve all burned.”  

 Charis van der Heide

Van der Heide scanned the trees around us, looking for monarchs. “OK, so we have a few,” she said, handing me her binoculars. I looked and looked, but I couldn’t see them. Van der Heide set up a scope and showed me a cluster of 27. The outsides of their folded wings were tawnier than I expected, muted enough to blend in with dead leaves. Somehow they all knew to hang at the same angle, so that their identical wings formed an intricate pattern. Occasionally, a pair of wings opened, looking almost red in the deep gloom of the grove, then closed back into the tessellation.

We followed a path deeper into the woods. Two weeks earlier, Van der Heide had counted 250 butterflies on the mesa, most of them concentrated in the single grove we were now headed to. That wasn’t many for a site where she, along with other volunteers, had counted 47,500 butterflies in 2011. But it beat finding only 27. Van der Heide seemed optimistic that she could show me more.

We reached a small overlook. In past years, volunteer docents brought tours here to gaze into the grove below, as if it were an amphitheater. Van der Heide opened her backpack and pulled out a binder, opening it to a picture taken on this spot in 1975. The photographer had aimed a lens up the trunk of a tree entirely concealed beneath thousands of butterflies, a carpet of orange wings that led straight to the sky. People who rode horses here decades ago have described similar scenes—of sitting, frozen in awe, as butterflies descended on their mounts, drawn by the smell of sweat. Imagine a horse that looked for an instant as if it were made of butterflies, at risk of dissolving into a flurry of wings.

Van der Heide raked the branches with her binoculars. We stood there for a long time. She didn’t move to take out her scope or fill the silence with effusive talk. She just looked, swung around, and looked again. “Wow, I’m not seeing any right now,” she said. “That’s really hard.” The hundreds she’d seen here before the snowstorm that put out the fire were gone, possibly washed away. She turned from the empty grove. “That’s really hard,” I heard her repeat under her breath.

As we emerged from the woods, we ran into a group of teenagers on a field trip, led by members of the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, one of whom conducts the Xerces monarch count in nearby Ventura County. “Did you see any?” the group asked as we drew level.

“I saw 27,” Van der Heide told them.

“How have your numbers been?”

“So low.” “So low,” the woman from Ventura echoed sadly.

“Two weeks ago, I saw 250 across Ellwood Mesa,” Van der Heide said.

One of the Fish and Wildlife employees whistled. “That’s crazy,” he said. “Two years ago, there were literally thousands.”

As the kids started down the path, Van der Heide’s Ventura counterpart lingered with us to talk about her cadre of volunteers, who were finding so few butterflies that their work took almost no time. To keep them engaged, she kept sending them to reconfirm what they’d seen, or rather what they hadn’t. “I feel like I should do something,” she said as she took off after her group. “But I don’t know what to do.”

Five

I was struck by the strangeness of the assignment I’d made for myself: I’d come to observe an absence, to look at the lack of what used to be. In Pismo Beach, another count site, people described the nadir of 2018 in anguished terms. “It was like, uh-oh, where are they?” count coordinator Jessica Griffiths recalled. Sites that had hosted thousands of monarchs the year before had only a few hundred, or a few dozen. So far in 2019, Griffiths had seen more than she did the year prior, but nothing approaching what, until recently, she’d considered normal. “I’m surfing the line between relieved and bummed,” she told me.

As we spoke, we walked a serpentine path through a eucalyptus grove where she had seen a cluster of monarchs two weeks earlier. Now all we found were pairs of wings, left behind by whatever had eaten their owners. None of the wings had tags. None of them had flown here from a makeshift nursery in Oregon.

I did see a tag in another part of Pismo Beach, on a tree blanketed with more than 1,000 butterflies, a big cluster by California’s new standards of scarcity. I was visiting the city’s monarch sanctuary, a tiny park in the dunes where tourists stroll around a viewing area smaller than a city block, sturdy fences separating them from the trees. My guide at the site, a California State Parks employee, beckoned me under a barrier to see the monarchs huddled on the leeward side of a cypress tree.

I willed myself to feel wonder and failed. I couldn’t help but compare what I saw before me with the images I’d seen in photographs, of the same site shrouded in more than 100,000 butterflies. It’s the abundance—the mysterious gathering of monarchs that flew hundreds of miles alone—that makes the migration astounding. One butterfly can make your breath catch; a roost of 100,000 can transport you into a dream. For me the diminished cluster did neither. The monarchs looked drab and windblown. They reminded me of a tattered piece of cloth torn from a quilt, a sign of the undamaged thing that should have been.      

Then I saw a flash of orange too bright to be natural. I squinted and found it again, a neon spot on a wing at the heart of the cluster. I shouted for the State Parks employee. “Look, I found a tag,” I said, too excited to care that I was being pushy. My heart was suddenly beating very fast. “I’m pretty sure it’s a tag.” We took turns pressing an eye to the lens of a scope, struggling to find the right butterfly. When we did, neither of us could make out the minuscule numbers that would tell us where the monarch had come from—who had tagged it and sent it on its way.

It started to rain, first a few drops, then harder. The wind picked up, ruffling the branches so that the monarch swayed in and out of the scope’s view. My guide warned me that we didn’t have much time; the equipment could be damaged if it got too wet. I wanted to stay. I told myself I would stand there as long as it took—never mind the equipment, or interviews, or getting soaked. I felt a wild excitement at the chance to be part of something, to finish what whoever had tagged the butterfly started, to add a data point to the store of common knowledge. I wanted this creature, which had worked so hard to sustain a dying migration, to accomplish something more than its own survival.

Eventually, we made out most of the number, through the zoom lens of a camera. We climbed into a State Parks truck, wet and shivering. Back at her office, my guide checked the tag’s digits and discovered that the butterfly had already been sighted a few weeks before. So much for my contribution.

Sitting in my rental car with the heat on blast, I asked myself why I had crossed the country, trailing my invisible cloud of carbon emissions. For a moment, I’d been sure that my presence mattered—that I’d landed in the right place at the right time. As my sense of significance ebbed, I thought of Emma Pelton, urging me to think about western monarchs as a whole population, not to fixate on particular butterflies. Was there a corollary, one having to do with accepting that my individual impact might be beyond my reckoning or take place outside my view?

I had assumed that monarch advocates found motivation in seeing the imprint of their efforts, but that turned out not to be entirely true. During our time together, Van der Heide brought up her anxieties about climate change, her uncertainty about the world her young children would live in as adults. I asked if devoting her days to butterfly conservation made her feel that, in some way, she was helping stave off that dark future. Not really, she replied. “I feel like I’m at the tail end of something amazing,” she said of the monarchs’ migration to California. “I feel like I’m recording the end of something, and in twenty years people won’t even know that there used to be monarchs here.” 

Volunteers count monarchs at sites along California’s central coast.

When the Xerces Society tallied the final numbers, it found that the 2019 monarch count had barely improved from the year before. Volunteers had seen 29,418 butterflies, still below the estimated extinction threshold of 30,000. When I spoke with Pelton, she told me that she and her colleagues were focused on figuring out where monarchs go if they are indeed leaving their winter roosts early, and how to get milkweed and nectar plants into the ground in those places. The size of each year’s first generation of monarchs matters exponentially for the number of butterflies that will set off on the migration come fall.

A familiar monarch might have been among those that emerged from the roosts. In late fall, a researcher in Santa Cruz spotted a monarch with a white sticker—a Washington State University tag—on its wing. It was perched on a twig of a Monterey cypress tree. The serial number indicated that the butterfly had flown roughly 500 miles, all the way from Bend, Oregon. It was Flamingo—he’d survived the migration.

Egertson indulged in a moment of pure joy when she heard the news, jumping up and down in her office. “For me, that was one of the most profound experiences,” she said. She compared the feeling to giving birth to her children, or to the rush that comes from doing things that scare her. “If this tiny creature that weighs no more than a paperclip can fly from Bend to Santa Cruz, then I most certainly can do whatever it is that I’m facing,” she told me. Recently, she’d been trying to overcome a lifelong fear of public speaking. She agreed to address a room of 500 people about monarch conservation. To get through it, she made hundreds of pairs of antennae and asked the audience members to wear them. She told me it was the hardest thing she’d ever done.

By February, 22 of Ovaltine’s descendants had been sighted in California. Holly Beyer, in whose yard all this began, hoped that the number of survivors was evidence that hand-rearing doesn’t necessarily produce monarchs with diminished navigation instincts. For Pelton, the news didn’t allay her concerns. If the monarchs raised in Brookings were genetically inferior, and enough of them survived the winter to pass their weaker traits to a new generation, that could make matters worse for the species in the long run. What looked on its face like a small success could pose a danger to the entire monarch population out west.

For the time being, Egertson was avoiding the controversy, devoting her energy instead to interventions she felt sure about. When we spoke, she’d recently placed an order for thousands of native flowers and plants, including milkweed, to brighten her land trust. She described with relish the exhaustion that descends during a day of hard work outside. “I love that feeling,” she told me. “When your back is sore, and you’re looking at an old roadbed that has now come to life as a meadow. It feels really good.”

Six

By the time I sat down to write this story, the world was facing a faster-moving disaster than the monarchs’ decline. People everywhere were sheltering in their homes to avoid catching the novel coronavirus or spreading it to anyone else. Some environmentalists saw cause for hope in the speed with which ordinary people took action and in the vivid illustrations of our interdependence across the planet. The question seemed to be whether we would succeed in maintaining a sense of urgency once the present danger had passed.

The response to the COVID-19 crisis suggests that we are capable of the kind of collective action that could slow the advance of climate change and repair other forms of ecological devastation. But it also illustrates the limits of what we can do as long as our leaders keep denying reality—as do most politicians, on both sides of the aisle, when it comes to the enormity of the environmental catastrophe before us. Without political action and economic reforms, the world will keep growing warmer, until monarch butterflies, like so much else, disappear for good.  

Karen Oberhauser has provided input for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as it considers whether to list the monarch as a threatened species, which would expand the regulatory protections and funding sources available for its conservation under the Endangered Species Act. A decision, now several years in the making, is expected by the end of 2020. “We can try to get as many people as possible doing things that will support monarch conservation, but I believe, in the long run, it’s going to take regulation,” Oberhauser told me. She wouldn’t share her opinion on the specific matter before the government, but she talked about reversing the fortunes of monarchs by limiting herbicide and insecticide use and by paying farmers to devote parcels of land to conservation instead of agriculture. Meanwhile, the Xerces Society has helped at least 30 local governments pass policies protecting insects from neonics and other pesticides—a modest start, but perhaps a model for the future.  

As long as the coronavirus traps us at home, the only environmental actions within reach for most people may be the smallest ones. In March, I got a message from an ecologist via an email list of monarch enthusiasts. “We appear to have entered a new era of uncertain duration,” Chip Taylor wrote of the lockdowns beginning in many U.S. states. “Yet, we must carry on with monarch conservation—somehow.” He urged everyone to order flats of milkweed and flowers.

“Gardening gets you out of the house,” he wrote. “Social distancing and quarantines will ground many of us, confining us to our properties yet giving us time to garden for monarchs.” I forwarded the email to my in-laws, who were hunkered down on their hilltop, and called local hardware stores to find flower seeds that I could plant in pots on my fire escape.

I knew that I could faithfully water my flowers and still the summer could pass without a single monarch finding them. Maybe, if that happened, I would once again feel like I had done nothing. But it felt like doing something to cover my face with the cloth mask a friend had made me and walk to the store in a light April drizzle. Maybe, like Egertson, I had looked to the monarchs for courage—a sense of steadiness that would permit me to act without knowing whether what I did would matter, or how.

I bought seeds to grow dusky purple lavender, mauve coneflowers with glaring red eyes, and pom-pom-shaped Lilliput zinnias in orange, yellow, and pink. And even though the packet said they would take at least a year to bloom, I bought the seeds for orange glory. At home, in the closet, I had a stack of clay pots. I would fill them with soil as soon as the weather turned.

Maybe I had looked to the monarchs for courage—a sense of steadiness that would permit me to act without knowing whether what I did would matter, or how.

How long did Flamingo live? There were no sightings to tell us that he made it through the winter. If he survived long enough to find a mate, the female butterfly would have had to locate milkweed on which to lay her eggs. As I write this in early May, it’s possible that Flamingo’s descendants are retracing the path of his migration, fanning north and east in successive generations. If they are sufficiently numerous, maybe a few will survive to reach Oregon.

I’m still chasing a sense of satisfaction in the small things I can do. It feels like the only way to face the possibility of their futility. In California, I tried to find pleasure in wending through forests, scanning patches of sky for flying monarchs, even as I braced myself to see empty blue. I noticed myself getting better at looking for butterflies. At Ellwood Mesa, I’d struggled to pick them out of the gloom, but in the groves of Santa Cruz—my last stop, like Flamingo’s—my eyes went right to them. At the very least, I was learning how to bear better witness. And what I saw was not entirely absence.

I didn’t see Flamingo, but I did see a cluster of perhaps 2,500 monarchs on a towering cypress tree. I was in a field near Lighthouse State Beach, and the air smelled of salt and rang with the cries of seagulls. At first the tree was in shadow, and every monarch sat folded. But then a cloud moved. When sunlight slanted across the upper branches, the monarchs opened their dazzling wings one by one. They blazed like little lanterns. I watched one drift up into the sky, weightless, and I felt it: the joy of living on this damaged planet, and a will to witness whatever comes next.


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The Bard

The Bard

One man’s quest to save the music of the Holocaust.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 102


Makana Eyre is an American journalist based in Paris. His first book, about Aleksander Kulisiewicz and the music of the Holocaust, will be published by W.W. Norton & Company.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kate Wheeling
Illustrator: Clay Rodery

Special thanks to Barbara Milewski, associate professor of music at Swarthmore College, and Peter Wortsman, writer and translator, for their translations of the song lyrics. Translation assistance was also provided by Joanna Suchomska and Iza Wojciechowska.

Published in April 2020.

1.

Thousands of people had journeyed to the ruins of Waldeck Castle, a collection of stone arches, mossy walls, and eroded towers on a ridge in the Hunsrück mountains of West Germany. It was May 1967, the fourth spring in a row that a folk festival had been staged at the medieval site. Forests spanned the valleys below—miles and miles of oak and hornbeam, green and thick with leaves.

The festival drew young people from across West Germany and other parts of Europe. Clad in jeans and colorful shirts that wouldn’t have been out of place in a hippie enclave like San Francisco—or, two years later, at Woodstock—the audience lounged on the grass and watched dozens of performers take the festival’s small stage. There were earnest voices, acoustic guitars, and lyrics about peace, love, and resilience. Among the performers were local acts—Romani jazz bands, for instance—and big names from overseas, including Sydney Carter, who played the song “Turn Him Up and Turn Him Down,” and Hedy West, a banjo-playing folk revivalist inspired by the Appalachian culture in which she grew up.

One performer seemed out of place. He was an old man—at least he looked old. He was thin, and in his hair and eyebrows were streaks of gray. He was known to perform wearing an ill-fitting outfit, baggy and striped. It was the uniform of a concentration-camp prisoner.

An excerpt from “Jüdischer Todessang.”

The man stood before the microphone, holding a steel-string guitar. He took a long pause before he spoke, offering a few words about the songs he would be singing. Many of their composers, he said, had perished in Nazi camps. The man closed his eyes and drew a deep breath before plucking the guitar and beginning.

Bom, bom, bom, bom

His voice was heavy and haunting.

Lee-lay, lee-lay, lee-lee-lay

The piece was intended for a chorus, but no other voices joined.

We’re bound for the gas

For the gas

For the gas

The crowd before him sat hushed.

2.

On a bygone spring day, in May 1940, a bus pulled up to a white gatehouse 20 miles north of Berlin. Flanking the structure were walls with razor wire looping along their crests, threatening pain or worse for anyone who tried to escape from KL Sachsenhausen, a Nazi concentration camp. Framed in the center of the camp’s wrought-iron gate were three words: “Arbeit macht frei” (work sets you free).

The bus’s passengers were mainly Polish political prisoners: intellectuals, writers, and artists, many of them purged from the streets and flats and cafés of Kraków and the surrounding region. Among them was 21-year-old Aleksander Kulisiewicz.

“Alles raus!” the SS guards screamed. Everyone out!

The guards circled the bus. Some of them held the leads of German shepherds, and the dogs lurched and snarled. Others wielded clubs. On the crest of each man’s cap gleamed a silver skull and crossbones, the forbidding symbol of the SS-Totenkopfverbände (Death’s Head Units). When the prisoners squeezed out the bus’s door, they were met with screams of “schnell, schnell” (quick, quick) and the blunt end of the guards’ clubs. They ducked the blows as best they could.

By then, Kulisiewicz had suffered beatings at the hands of the Nazis for several weeks. The first one took place in an interrogation cell at the jail in Cieszyn, his hometown, located along the Olza River, which formed Poland’s border with Czechoslovakia. His crime, ostensibly, was writing an article. In response to events like the annexation of Austria and the terrorizing of Jews on Kristallnacht, Kulisiewicz had published pieces in local newspapers decrying Adolf Hitler and the rise of fascism. In the interrogation cell, SS men placed a copy of one article on the table before him. “With a fist, we will squeeze every insult against the Polish nation down your throat,” it read, “and we will use the broken teeth to make an inscription in front of the theater in Cieszyn: ‘People who are passing by! Tell Adolf that this is the way we broke the teeth and hit the face of the Hitlerite system.’”

The SS officers beat Kulisiewicz, breaking his teeth as they went. “Count, you dog!” he heard them shout. Kulisiewicz was forced to count each bloody tooth he spat onto the concrete floor, bowing and repeating “danke schön” (thank you) every time.

The beatings continued in the Polish city of Wrocław, where the SS transferred Kulisiewicz, and then at Prinz-Abrecht-Straße, the Gestapo’s headquarters in Berlin. During his journey to Sachsenhausen, as fists and boots rained down on his body, Kulisiewicz sometimes found himself thinking of the last student he’d tutored in Polish literature, a job he took after finishing his own studies. Her name was Ewunia, and she was just six years old. He taught her about Polish history, the beauty of their mother tongue, and the writers she would read one day, men like Adam Mickiewicz and Henryk Sienkiewicz who had penned epic poems and sprawling novels under other repressive regimes. Kulisiewicz imagined Ewunia growing up with that knowledge still alive in her mind. Somehow it made the blood in his mouth less bitter.

Kulisiewicz was forced to count each bloody tooth he spat onto the concrete floor, bowing and repeating “danke schön” (thank you) every time.

Kulisiewicz and the other new prisoners at Sachsenhausen were ordered to form rows of five. They stood in a large semicircular yard dirty with black cinders; around its perimeter was a wide track paved with smooth stones. Beyond the yard were dozens of long one-story barracks, painted dark green and fanning out from the heart of the camp. Prisoners hurried about, dressed in striped shirts and pants made of a stiff material. They only ceased their frantic motion when they were addressed by a member of the SS. Then they would halt, take off their caps, and hold them rigidly against their right thighs until the guard moved on. Some prisoners pushed carts full of dirt or sand. Others carried wood on their shoulders. Harnessed like animals, some men pulled carts filled with garbage.

Every prisoner was thin, but some were so emaciated that their stomachs and backs appeared to meet. They shuffled from place to place, sometimes hunching over to scavenge for cigarette butts flicked away by guards. There was an otherness about them, as if the camp had forced an essential piece of their humanity to depart. Kulisiewicz committed their image to his memory. He would later learn that they were called Muselmänner, a slang term that many prisoners used to describe those among them who seemed ready for death. To Kulisiewicz, the word—German for “Muslim”—connoted foreignness, alienation, and dislocation.

When the guards finished counting them, the new arrivals were ordered to march. They made their way to the intake buildings in the quarantine barracks, isolated by barbed wire from the rest of the camp. In quarantine they would be subjected to lessons in physical discipline for however long the SS wanted—it could be weeks or months. Each man waited to be called forward to a desk, behind which sat another prisoner; much of the camp was run by detainees. When it was Kulisiewicz’s turn, he gave the man at the desk his full name (Aleksander Tytus Kulisiewicz) and date of birth (August 7, 1918). He was handed a slip of paper. Written on it was the number 25,149.

“Learn it by heart,” the prisoner at the desk said. It was Kulisiewicz’s new identity.

There were more lines, more waiting. In one room, the prisoners were forced to give up their belongings. Clothing, watches, cash, food, papers—all of it documented in ledgers and stuffed into sacks. Naked, they went to another room, where men with electric razors shaved them under harsh lamplight. Everything was shorn: pubis, armpits, legs, head. Kulisiewicz felt the teeth of a shaver press against his forehead and plow to the base of his skull. Stroke by stroke, his dark hair fell onto his bare shoulders and down to the floor.

Then came the distribution of uniforms, a cold shower, and barracks assignments. Kulisiewicz’s barracks held about 300 men. He received a cloth badge bearing the letter P inside a red triangle, which he had to sew onto his uniform. P meant Polish; the red signified that he was a political prisoner.

Kulisiewicz realized that most of the detainees in charge were German. It seemed that many of them were communists and trade unionists, people the Nazis viewed as enemies who were put in the camp during the regime’s crackdowns of the 1930s. The SS guards were like angry deities who intervened in the drudgery of camp life to scream, beat, and kill. “There are no sick prisoners,” one blockführer (block leader) told new arrivals. “In the camp, you’re either dead or living. The only way out is through the crematorium.”

The white Gothic script painted across the gables of the barracks closest to the camp’s main yard suggested another way out. In German, the words said, “There is one path to freedom: its milestones are obedience, industry, honesty, order, cleanliness, sobriety, truthfulness, sacrifice, and love of the Fatherland.” Kulisiewicz could read the writing because he’d grown up speaking German with some of his relatives.

At the end of his first day in Sachsenhausen, Kulisiewicz sat over a bowl of soup. A few potatoes rested at the bottom of the murky broth. Around him were other Poles newly torn from their lives and loved ones—priests removed from parishes, teachers from classrooms, communists from printing houses, students from dormitories. Before bed, Kulisiewicz looked out the window of his barracks. He saw watchtowers looming over the camp, with gun barrels protruding from observation points. Beyond them he glimpsed the tops of pine trees scraping the dull evening sky.

Kulisiewicz lay on his side between two other men, on a straw mattress on the floor. What did he think of as he tried to escape a waking nightmare? Maybe he conjured what brought him joy. Perhaps, as he fell asleep, he thought of music.

3.

In 1926, as a boy of eight, Kulisiewicz wanted to impress some of his friends and a girl he liked named Věruška. It was a harvest day, hot, and workers from nearby fields sat around on their break drinking coffee and eating potato pancakes. Kulisiewicz loved to entertain, and when he and his friends climbed onto the roof of a laundry business, he found what he hoped could be his props: two wires that fed electricity into the building.

The adults on the ground below warned the children not to touch the snaking cords, that they would deliver a fatal shock. But Kulisiewicz couldn’t help himself. The temptation of testing the adults’ honesty consumed him so much that he brushed the back of one of his hands over the wires. When he wasn’t shocked, he decided to go a step further: Mimicking a ringmaster or magician, he declared that, for his next act, he would pick up the wires, surely astonishing Věruška and the other children. Over the shouting of the adults, Kulisiewicz did as he said he would and grasped the cords in his fists.

When he awoke, he was buried up to his neck. He couldn’t feel his body; he could only bob his head up and down against the loose, sandy soil. Witnesses to his electrocution had put him in the ground, believing that the earth might draw the charge out of his body. Eventually, he regained enough of his strength to crawl from the hole, with some help, and go home.

Kulisiewicz soon realized that, ever since the accident, he’d spoken with a horrible stutter. There was no speech therapist in Cieszyn, so one day, when a circus came through town, his father took him to the hypnotist—a man known only as Roob. “You must speak, you must recite poems, but you will do it differently than all other children,” Roob told the boy. He instructed Kulisiewicz to picture a blank page in his mind and then imagine writing what he wanted to say. “Whatever you write on this page, read it immediately, and if you do that, you will not stutter,” Roob said. “You will even be able to speak publicly.”

Kulisiewicz spent the rest of his childhood practicing the technique. He used it when asking for meat at the butcher, writing out in his mind how much ham or tenderloin he wished to buy. At school, when the class recited poetry or passages from Poland’s great books, Kulisiewicz imagined the words before saying them.

The technique helped him overcome the stutter. It also helped him nurture a budding power of memory. From early in his life, Kulisiewicz had found it easy to recall words and lists. In school he excelled at anything requiring memorization. The technique Roob taught him further sharpened his recall, making it extraordinary: He could store information and call it forth whenever he desired, like pulling a book off a shelf in his mind.

Several years after encountering Roob, Kulisiewicz himself joined the circus: In his late teens, he left home to follow a young woman, an acrobat he’d fallen in love with. His job with the circus largely consisted of cleaning up and breaking down tents, but he learned about performance, too. Clowns, dancers, and contortionists taught him how to tell jokes and engage an audience.

Kulisiewicz’s father was dismayed. His own roots were humble—the elder Kulisiewicz was one of more than a dozen children born in a small Polish village to a carpenter and his wife. He’d married a woman who was raised upper middle class, the daughter of an Austro-Hungarian engineer, and he had studied at the prestigious Jagiellonian University in Kraków, a remarkable feat for the son of a rural laborer. He went on to become a language professor at a classics school attended by the sons of local nobility. He wanted his son to complete his education.

Kulisiewicz obliged his father, enrolling in Jagiellonian University to study law, but his coursework held little interest for him. Instead of memorizing legal doctrines, he was drawn to the city’s cabarets. Music had always fascinated him. In Cieszyn, the townspeople sang Polish folk tunes, and sometimes as a teenager he’d heard Yiddish and Romani melodies. He had a good voice, and he could whistle well. Because of his memory, he learned songs quickly and never forgot them. For small sums of money, he would perform in Kraków’s smoky clubs, singing the tangos and love songs of interwar Poland. He became obsessed with the rush that being onstage delivered.

While in law school, Kulisiewicz performed music in Kraków’s clubs.

In September 1939, Nazi Wehrmacht tanks rumbled into Poland. Luftwaffe bombers screeched across the sky, leaving plumes of black smoke in their wake. Meanwhile, in the east, Joseph Stalin’s tanks rolled over the cobblestone streets of cities and towns. The Red Army imprisoned Polish soldiers and took over local governments.

After five weeks, the roar of the invasions died down. The Polish army had been crushed. Some military leaders escaped to France, where they attempted to form a government in exile. When that didn’t work, they fled to London and tried, with little success, to govern their occupied land from afar. Others were rounded up and sent to camps. After just two decades of freedom, secured at the end of World War I, Poland was again under the control of its stronger, more aggressive neighbors.

Kulisiewicz’s father was at immediate risk after the Nazi invasion: The family heard that the regime was planning to purge schools and cultural institutions and to deport professors and teachers to labor camps. When the knock on the door his family feared finally came, Kulisiewicz was the one who answered it. The SS officers asked where his father was. Kulisiewicz said that he was out. The men reviewed the records they’d brought with them and said that the regime wanted Kulisiewicz, too. He was detained on the spot.

In the days and hours leading up to that moment, Kulisiewicz had been mourning the loss of his country. He thought of Biłgoraj, east of Cieszyn, which the Nazis had torched. Because it was an old, poor place, its houses built mostly of wood, much of the town had disappeared. Only piles of ash and a forest of orphaned chimneys remained.

The devastation of Biłgoraj was a far cry from the thoughts that had consumed Kulisiewicz not so long ago. Before the invasion he’d fallen in love again, this time with a young Czech woman named Bożena. She sold vegetables in the town square. She was poor and often barefoot, and she didn’t love him back. Kulisiewicz tried to change her mind. Sometimes he stood next to her baskets of potatoes, cauliflower, parsnips, carrots, and turnips and sang to her.

“You will go hoarse,” she told him, trying to shoo him away, “and won’t impress the world with your singing anymore.”

4.

Sunday afternoons were among the only times when the prisoners in Sachsenhausen’s quarantine had little to do. They took the chance to recuperate before the next day, when their brutal disciplinary routine would begin again: the marching, the squatting, the running. The Nazis called it “sport,” a euphemism for physical activity so intense it seemed choreographed to drain the life out of a man. Kulisiewicz had been at the camp only a few weeks, but his naturally slender body was already shrinking. His arms were sinewy; bones jutted out where they hadn’t before. Around him men had begun to die of malnutrition.

Kulisiewicz was anxious to make contact with his family. He had no information about their fate, nor, surely, would they of his. They had no way of knowing that he was hundreds of miles from home, already wasting away.

On this particular afternoon, guards informed the prisoners that the camp authorities would let them send letters if they paid for stamps. But Kulisiewicz had no money. The unfairness of it brought tears to his eyes. He made his way to the barracks where the SS housed some priests. Surely, he thought, a man of God would take pity on him and give him the money to write home. A stamp was only six reichspfennigs, after all, just a few cents.

He approached a Czech priest, still fat from his privileged life before the war. Kulisiewicz spoke Czech—he’d done so with Bożena—and he had studied the country’s literature. He hoped that his knowledge would endear him to the priest. In Czech, Kulisiewicz recited the poetry of famous writers like Jiří Wolker and Jaroslav Seifert, then he asked for a few coins, explaining the situation. The priest considered the request and asked for something in return: Kulisiewicz’s margarine ration.

Kulisiewicz feared that giving up a morsel of fat could mean death, but a letter to his family seemed worth the risk. He left the priests’ barracks with coins in his pocket and a thought weighing heavily on his mind: The camp was full of opportunists, men only concerned with saving their own skins. Even the priests he’d been taught as a child to revere, who were supposed to be generous and good, were bastards willing to survive off the misery of others.

Music helped Kulisiewicz cope. He often sang in his head as a way to distract himself from the torture and humiliation of sport. Now, as he walked away from his encounter with the priest, he began to whistle a song: Vittorio Monti’s “Csárdás,” a wailing tune inspired by Hungarian folk music. Its melancholy opening notes were meant to be bowed out on the lowest string of a violin.

After a few minutes of walking, Kulisiewicz noticed a prisoner behind him. The man was short, bald, and thick chested. Stitched to his striped uniform was a yellow Star of David. He seemed to be listening intently. Kulisiewicz stopped his song. The man said shyly, almost in a whisper, “Please, keep whistling, sir.”

Kulisiewicz was taken aback. The man spoke Polish and addressed him formally, despite being at least two decades older. Still feeling the sting of losing his margarine, Kulisiewicz muttered a reply. He didn’t wish to talk with a stranger who he assumed wanted only to beg for something or recruit him to a camp organization. The man persisted, talking to Kulisiewicz about music he liked. Eventually Kulisiewicz warmed to him.

When Kulisiewicz confessed what had happened with the margarine, the man took him by the arm and together they walked back to the priests’ barracks. Kulisiewicz pointed out the Czech priest who’d taken his ration. The priest was leaning against a wall, chatting with someone and munching on bread. The man with Kulisiewicz approached the priest and demanded that he give back the margarine. Speaking sharply, the man looked the priest straight in the eye, unafraid. Other prisoners heard him and gathered round.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” the priest replied, smiling.

The man pressed, and the priest’s smile disappeared. The priest lunged forward, his hands in fists, and struck the man across the face. He called the man a damn filthy Jew. More prisoners joined in, kicking and yelling at him.

When they managed to flee, the man was bruised, and Kulisiewicz was disgusted. They eventually had to part ways, because Jews and other prisoners weren’t housed together. As Kulisiewicz made his way to his barracks, he couldn’t stop thinking about the Jewish prisoner.

Prisoners sometimes sang in the barracks at Sachsenhausen.

A fellow Pole named Bolesław Marcinek told Kulisiewicz about the choir. Marcinek was 17 and had also been held at the jail in Cieszyn. One night in the barracks, Marcinek said that if he liked music, Kulisiewicz should go listen to the singing in blocks 37 and 38, where Jews were housed. A group of men had formed a choir and sang whenever they could, thanks to a block guard, a communist prisoner, who allowed it.

Kulisiewicz was stunned. As soon as an opportunity arose, he snuck into block 37 to watch one of the choir’s secret rehearsals. He stood in the back of the room, up against a wall. Some 30 men were arrayed before him, warming up their voices. All of them wore the Star of David. Some were balding, with wrinkles crawling around their eyes and across their foreheads. Others were young—still teenagers, perhaps—with smooth faces and thick hair.

The men didn’t seem to be professional musicians, but that didn’t matter. Their conductor knew how to draw out the best possible sound. He would stop the men’s singing to adjust the division of voices, making sure there were four strong groups—altos, tenors, basses, and basso profundos—able to sing in harmony. He assigned each man to a group based on the tone, timbre, and range of his voice.

The conductor was the man who had stood up to the priest. His name was Martin Rosenberg. That a clandestine choir existed at Sachsenhausen was surprise enough to Kulisiewicz. That he’d already met the conductor, and under such unusual circumstances, felt like more than a coincidence—it was something like kismet. When he noticed Kulisiewicz, Rosenberg smiled. He kept his hands aloft, never stopping his work. His blue eyes gleamed.

Kulisiewicz recognized some of the music, folk tunes and songs featured in Yiddish-language films of the 1930s. He saw how the members of the choir seemed revived, if only a little, by the music. Rosenberg later told him that he formed the group—at great risk to everyone involved, especially himself—because he had to. “I could not look at those people, knowing that they would die and they would never sing together,” Rosenberg said. “That would be a betrayal.”

“Muselmann—Kippensammler”

Kulisiewicz felt much the same. On a warm summer evening, he stood in a corner of his barracks before a few dozen prisoners. They leaned against bunks or sat on the floor. When the dazzling brightness of a watchtower spotlight swept past a nearby window, it illuminated their ashen faces.

Kulisiewicz began to sing. His voice was faint, so as not to draw the attention of the camp guards:

I’m a godforsaken Polish pagan

To everyone here I’m less than nothing

They pu-pu-pu-push me around

Ow-ow-oww!

Oh Muselmann, Muselmann

Kulisiewicz looked at the faces of the men before him. They were mostly Poles, expelled at gunpoint from the lives they knew. By then everyone knew what their future held: chattel labor, murderous overseers, beatings, hangings, their only means of escape in the plumes of black smoke rising from the crematorium.

Beyond barbed wire the sun shines brightly

Beyond barbed wire children play

But on the barbed wire

A sad, charred body droops

Oo-woo-woo!

As the song came to an end, Kulisiewicz would have slowed to the pace of a lullaby:

Mama, my mama

Let me die in peace

It was the first performance of the first song he’d created at Sachsenhausen.

5.

When they could, Rosenberg and Kulisiewicz met to talk about music. Rosenberg said little about his life or the circumstances that had brought him to Sachsenhausen. It was as if there had been a breach in the universe—everything that happened before the war, outside the camp, seemed inconsequential in comparison with the here and now. Unless, that is, a fact of someone’s previous life made them special in the Nazis’ eyes, for better or worse.

Rosenberg alluded to being a communist and expressed disdain for Europe’s aristocracy. In time, Kulisiewicz learned that he was born in 1890, came from the Polish town of Szreńsk, not far from Warsaw, and went by a musical alias before the war: Rosebery d’Arguto. That’s what Kulisiewicz took to calling his friend. Rosebery, in turn, called him Aleks.

Often they met before or after one of the Jewish choir’s secret rehearsals. Rosebery spoke of his favorite composers—illustrious Europeans like Edvard Grieg and Felix Mendelssohn, and beloved Poles like Władysław Żeleński and Józef Nikorowicz. The men discussed how fascism profaned music and used it for evil. They built a bond that transcended their age difference and the fact that one of them was a Catholic and the other a Jew.

Rosebery’s choir staged its first performance, hidden from the Nazis but open to some prisoners, in block 39. Beforehand, men stacked up the barracks’ collection of thin mattresses and blankets, making space for the crowd that eventually gathered. During the show, Rosebery’s hands—rising and falling, beckoning strength and then urging softness—seemed to shape the men’s voices.

The choir held more performances and so did Aleks, sometimes to celebrate birthdays or holidays. Rosebery and Aleks determined which barracks were the safest for gatherings—usually the ones overseen by German leftists who had been imprisoned since the Nazis’ rise to power. The men also knew how to calibrate the timing and volume of performances. If, say, a prisoner had escaped the camp, everyone was subject to much greater scrutiny. Performances needed to be smaller, quieter, and possibly held at night—or not at all.

All the while, Aleks composed his own songs, putting new lyrics to melodies he remembered from his youth. He did it for entertainment and to avoid thinking about the camp’s conditions. He also used music to create a record of life in Sachsenhausen. Prisoners were dying of malnutrition, exhaustion, disease. They were taken to the crematorium and turned to ash. Many prisoners knew that, across the Nazis’ expanding empire, the regime was killing people: men, women, and children, shot and buried in trenches. While squatting during sport, his legs swelling from the lack of circulation, Aleks wrote lyrics about the horror the world had become. Word by word, line by line, verses came together in his mind.

He couldn’t write the songs down. Doing so would mean punishment, even death. Nothing could be saved—except in his memory. Using the trick the hypnotist had taught him as a child, Aleks began to build a catalog of music and poetry. At first much of it was his. But some pieces came from Rosebery and his choir, and over time they increasingly came from other prisoners. A man in the barracks after a long day of sport would begin to sing, and Aleks would listen, committing the words and melody to memory.

Sometimes Aleks sang of courage—of men like Jan Miodoński, a doctor and professor who once confronted Sachsenhausen guards when they threatened some older prisoners. In other instances, Aleks sang of home:

Oh Kraków, oh Kraków

Lovely city

Everyone’s astonished

By your beauty

“Mister C”

Aleks wrote lyrics about the wider war. In the wake of the Allied humiliation at Dunkirk, Hitler’s army advanced east and west across the continent, snuffing out any hope that the conflict would be a short one. At a secret performance, Aleks debuted a song that he called “Mister C,” about Winston Churchill:

It’s the second year, dear God

And the swastika’s still frolicking

There is no power that can exhaust it

So we’d all better get down on our knees

Meanwhile, Mister C puffs his big cigar

Mister C blows out some smoke

Europe crumbles all around him

But he’s got the coin and he’s got the blues!

Mister C will snuff out his smoke

And he’ll spit on Adolf’s “Sieg!”

He’ll pay for Adolf’s funeral on the Isle of Rugia—

Maybe as early as ’43!

For Aleks and Rosebery, for the men who witnessed their performances, and for those who sang or hummed along, music was a form of defiance. If the prisoners shared their art, the Nazis couldn’t take everything from them.

While squatting during sport, his legs swelling from the lack of circulation, Aleks wrote lyrics about the horror the world had become. 

When Aleks was released from quarantine and joined the main part of Sachsenhausen, he found himself farther than ever from Rosebery. Still, they found ways to meet. Sundays were when they were most likely to see each other and seek an escape from their circumstances by talking about music. Once, Rosebery complained about jazz renditions of folk songs. Why ruin beautiful music?

Adapting to life outside quarantine felt like being initiated into a new universe. There were more than 10,000 men on the grounds, prisoners from all over Europe, and a strict hierarchy was observed. At the top, as ever, were the Germans, mostly political dissidents and convicts locked up before the war. Below them were men that the Nazis considered Aryan—Norwegians, for instance—followed by the French. Eastern Europeans came next: Poles, Czechs, Ukrainians, and, in increasing numbers, Russians. On the lowest rung were Jews and homosexuals.

A prisoner’s ranking, Aleks soon realized, wasn’t necessarily fixed. Upward mobility was possible if a man had useful skills or other resources. Being fluent in German put him above many of his fellow Poles, but he would have to figure out other ways to make himself indispensable, or at least not an easy target. For Rosebery, being both Polish and Jewish, the scramble for status was even harder and more necessary. In the 1930s, he had conducted socialist choirs that sang in protest of capitalism. This ingratiated him with some of the camp’s German communists, who arranged less arduous work assignments for him or gave him extra food.

Sachsenhausen was a machine for the Third Reich. The men who survived quarantine were assigned a work detail, and their toil was in the service of Hitler’s vision for his new empire. The camp’s brickworks, for instance, supplied building materials intended to expand Berlin. Another unit assessed the strength of synthetic leather that the Nazis hoped would be durable enough to stitch into boots for Wehrmacht soldiers fighting on both fronts. It took only a day of work for Aleks to understand that the SS would squeeze every bit of energy and effort out of him; if he died, they would replace him with another man. Protecting himself from the most brutal kind of work was a matter of survival.

Each day began with reveille at 4:15 a.m. The men made their beds, ate stale bread, and drank hot liquid brewed with burned potato peels or rotten roots to make it seem like coffee. By five they were marching to the appellplatz (roll-call square), which faced a gallows. Thousands of men lined up in rows of five, standing at attention to be counted. They repeated the ritual at dusk.

Aleks was assigned with many other Poles to the brickworks, which was located along a canal about two miles from the main camp. The SS guarded the prisoners’ every move as they worked. On the canal were barges piled with sand. The men’s job was to unload sacks of it, carrying the heavy cargo across a narrow plank stretching from barge to bank. Sometimes guards would shake the plank as the men crossed; to them it was an amusement. If a prisoner fell into the canal and couldn’t swim, often the SS men laughed as they watched him drown.

These and other deaths produced a grisly sight at evening roll call. The SS required that every man from that day’s work be present, dead or alive. Survivors hoisted corpses onto their shoulders or dragged them to the appellplatz. After roll call, the dead were left in heaps. Prisoners working as body collectors lifted them onto wooden carts and wheeled them to the crematorium.

When winter arrived, the brickworks became more dangerous still. A layer of ice formed on the canal, and sometimes the plank iced over, too. By then the prisoners were carrying cement—two sacks at a time, tied together and looped around each man’s neck. If a prisoner fell and broke the ice, no matter how much he clawed for life, the sacks would drag him below. Shards of ice sliced men’s hands as they sank. Blood stained the canal’s frozen surface. The bodies were never recovered.

6.

Singing in his barracks, Aleks made a name for himself with his darkly comic lyrics. He composed lines about Wilhelm Böhm, an enthusiastic crematorium guard known to call out to prisoners who passed by him, “Come to Böhm! You’ll surely be coming my way soon, so why not now?” Aleks sang:

Whether it’s by night or day

I smoke corpses—full of joy!

I make a black, black smoky smoke

’Cause I am black, black Böhm!

“Czarny Böhm”

Soon, Aleks’s power of memory became as well-known as his musical skill. Prisoners started coming to him, asking that he remember their songs. “Aleks,” they would say, “do you have some room in your archive?” He would close his eyes and respond, “Dictate it to me.”

This was how he met a man called Aron. Tall, young, and once broad shouldered, before starvation set in, Aron told Aleks his story when they met while sweeping the camp’s pavement. Before the war, he had worked as a watchmaker in Poland, where he’d lived with his wife and young son. When the Nazis deported Jews from their town, the family were sent to Treblinka, a death camp. There the SS smashed his son’s head against a wall and shot his wife. Aron told Aleks that he witnessed both murders. He begged an SS guard to let him stay with his son overnight, before the body was incinerated the next day. He pulled the boy’s corpse from a pile and curled up on the floor next to it. In a silence heavy with the stench of death, Aron composed a lullaby in Yiddish.

Aron told Aleks that he’d managed to escape Treblinka and obtain a fake passport. He made his way to Berlin, where he again found work as a watchmaker. He went undetected until one day he saw some boys from the Hitler Youth bullying an old Jew. He leaped from his workshop and hit one of the boys. The police arrived, examined his documents, and realized that they were counterfeit. Soon he was on a train to Sachsenhausen, not because he had escaped from Treblinka, and not because of his heritage. It was only when he undressed at the camp’s showers that he was outed as Jewish.

Aron asked Aleks to memorize the lullaby that he’d written at Treblinka. It took several days for him to dictate it, because they could speak only while they swept. The SS were watching, so they had to be quiet and keep close. Lyric by lyric, Aron shared his song:

Crematorium black and silent

Gates of hell, corpses piled high

I drag stiff, slippery corpses

While the sun smiles in the sky

Here he lies, my only little boy

Tiny fists pressed in his mouth

How can I cast you into the flames?

With your shining golden hair

Aleks saw that the man’s knees were thicker than his thighs, that he spat blood, that his body looked almost transparent. Sometimes feces ran down his leg. Still, Aron went on, bending his head toward Aleks, demanding that he remember the lullaby. “This is my only vengeance, you goy!” he wheezed.

Lulay, lulay—little one

Lulay, lulay—only son

Lulay, lulay—my own boy

Oy…oy…oy

Oh, you sun, you watched in silence

While you smiled and shined above

Saw them smash my baby’s skull

On the cold stone wall

Now little eyes look calmly at the sky

Cold tears, I hear them crying

Oh, my boy, your blood is everywhere

Three years old—your golden hair

When he reached the final stanzas, Aron’s voice rose, almost to a shout:

Lulay, lulay—little one

Lulay, lulay—only son

Lulay, lulay—my own boy

Oy…oy…oy

“Shut up or we’ll attract attention!” Aleks said. “And anyway, what kind of lullaby is this if you shout it?”

Aron looked at him with contempt. “You’re an idiot,” he said. “All I wanted was for my child to wake up.”

“Aleks,” prisoners would say, “do you have some room in your archive?” He would close his eyes and respond, “Dictate it to me.”

Life grew more brutal. The SS picked off prisoners to kill in arbitrary ways. They would order a man to take off his cap and throw it past a cordon line, then order him to retrieve it. If he did, the guards shot him for trying to escape; if he didn’t, they shot him for insubordination.

Thousands of Soviet prisoners of war arrived, then quickly disappeared. Word soon spread that the SS had lined them up in a special building. The guards shot them one at a time until they were all dead.

Aleks felt the depth of the camp’s cruelty when SS guards who had learned about his singing took him to the medical ward. The chief doctor of Sachsenhausen, Heinz Baumkötter, injected him with the bacteria that causes diphtheria, an ailment of the respiratory system that can cause suffocation. It can also destroy the vocal cords. That evening back at the barracks, Josef Čapek, a painter, and Walter Thate, a onetime paramedic who worked in the medical ward, smuggled Aleks an antitoxin. A few days later, the doctor brought him back in to see how the injection was working. Baumkötter forced Aleks to sing, and since he was still able to, the doctor injected him with another dose of the bacteria.

Again friends snuck Aleks the antidote. Again when he discovered that the bacteria had no effect, Baumkötter gave Aleks another dose. After taking the antitoxin once more, Aleks was summoned by Baumkötter. This time the doctor merely shrugged. “Let that dog continue to sing,” Aleks heard him say.

7.

Rosebery feared that the Jews had little time left. He told Aleks he saw omens that he was sure presaged their deaths. One evening in early October 1942, he came to Aleks. “You are not a Jew,” he said. “If you survive, you must sing my song of bitterness and revenge, my death song. You have to sing it all around the world, or else I will curse you and you won’t be able to die in peace.” Aleks promised he would.

The song Rosebery referred to was an adaptation he had just completed—new lyrics put to an old melody. He called it “Jüdischer Todessang” (Jewish Death Song). Aleks heard it a few nights later, when he attended a rehearsal of Rosebery’s choir, which had continued to perform in the Jewish barracks. It was cold, and a hard rain was falling. Aleks saw shivering men singing by candlelight, their faces glowing. He crouched in a corner; prisoners who were not Jewish were strictly forbidden from being there.

First came the basses, deep and slightly hoarse: Bom, bom, bom, bom. They sang in unison, their eyes fixed on the flourishes of Rosebery’s outstretched hands. Then came a falsetto voice: Lee-lay, lee-lay, lee-lee-lay. It was Rosebery himself, Aleks realized. He imagined the basses as death, fast approaching, and his friend’s voice as the children it would soon claim. He knew the melody: It was a song from a Yiddish-language film that was popular in Poland before the war.

A young Jew with the thick neck and muscles of a newly arrived prisoner stepped forward. In a pure and vivid baritone, he sang of ten brothers who traded wine. One by one, the brothers died:

Yidl with your fiddle

Moyshe with your bass

Play, oh sing a little

We’re bound for the gas!

For the gas

For the gas

Aleks saw SS guards burst into the barracks before the song reached its end, a series of quiet knells. He quickly slipped out a window into the darkness as a guard gripped the youngest singer, Izhak, and smashed his head. He watched as the rest of the men were marched outside to the appellplatz and forced to their knees. In the mud, soaked through by the rain, they continued to sing.

A guard kicked Rosebery in the teeth, and blood splattered on the guard’s shoes. The SS man made Rosebery lick it off. Lee-lay, lee-lay, lee-lee-lay, the men kept singing.

The guards forced them to stay there through the night. Many did not live to see morning. For those who did, it was only a few days before the SS rounded them up and deported them to a death camp. Rosebery was among them. The night in the rain had been the last concert of Sachsenhausen’s Jewish choir.

8.

Aleks was devastated by the loss of his friend. Still, he kept composing, adding riskier songs to his repertoire—ones that could get him killed if the SS ever heard them. Months turned into a year, then another. When he learned of the Nazis’ waning power in the war, he revisited a song that he’d written shortly after he arrived at the camp. He called it “Germania,” and initially it had been about the seemingly unstoppable expansion of Hitler’s empire. Now Aleks added a second verse:

You had half the world

Germania!

Ma-nia!

Now you’ve got crap in your pants

And crap to patch your pants!

Shit-caked country!

“Germania!”

The Americans and the British intensified air raids on Berlin in the winter of 1943 and 1944. Aleks could see the planes roaring across the sky toward the capital just south of the camp. Bombs shrieked toward the earth. Sometimes the blasts were powerful enough to shake the bunks of the barracks and bright enough to see from the windows. Aleks wrote:

My, oh my, pretty little gate

You swallow everyone up, you don’t let anyone out

My, oh my, nasty gate

You’ll be busted to pieces

I guarantee it, filthy scum!

New prisoners arrived in droves. Thousands of Polish men came to Sachsenhausen after the Germans crushed the Warsaw Uprising. Prisoners came from other countries, too—the Nazis’ territory was shrinking, and detainees had to be put somewhere. The camp’s population swelled into the tens of thousands. Among the new arrivals were women. Food, already scarce, became an extravagance; the weakest prisoners died rapidly. As he starved, Aleks furiously memorized the songs he heard people sing.

Bombs shrieked toward the earth. Sometimes the blasts were powerful enough to shake the bunks of the barracks and bright enough to see from the windows. 

In late March 1945, word got around that everyone at Sachsenhausen would soon be evacuated. On April 20, for the first time ever, there was no roll call at the appellplatz. The next day, the blockführer announced that everyone who could walk would leave immediately.

Aleks took his place in a column of Poles—as ever, five wide—and began marching. If someone stopped or fell, the SS shot them and left their body on the road. Aleks understood the danger he was in. He could hear artillery rumbling in the distance and machine-gun fire popping in the forests. The SS were jittery. The slightest infraction could mean death; the guards even shot men who stopped to urinate. Aleks saw bodies in ditches, presumably unlucky prisoners who’d been shot in the columns ahead of his. Eventually, dead women and children were in the ditches, too.

The marching ceased only at night, when the prisoners camped along the road. Some men found shelter in old barns, and a few lucky ones dug up potatoes in abandoned gardens. Songs swirled in Aleks’s mind. He had to be careful—to blend in, keep his head down, never make eye contact with a guard. Sticking out could mean death.

The march ended without a fight. Soviet troops didn’t intervene. Prisoners didn’t revolt. After a few days of marching, the SS guards simply fled, disappearing into the forest, changing into civilian clothing taken from farmers or the dead. Suddenly, the prisoners found themselves free. Some ran. Some just sat on the ground, trying to gather the strength to decide what to do next.

Aleks remained for a few days where the marching had stopped, near the German city of Schwerin. Then he moved on, determined to trek back to Poland. He walked and took buses and trains when he could. He traversed Czechoslovakia and eventually reached the river that marked the border with Poland—the Olza, on whose banks he had grown up. He could see Cieszyn across the water.

By then he was sick. He reached a hospital, where a doctor diagnosed him with typhus. His fever was high. He lay in a bed, delirious, approaching death. When he mumbled, asking for a nurse to come to him with a typewriter, the doctors thought he was mad.

9.

His fever eventually broke. When he was able to leave the hospital he found his family, who had survived the war. Life went on, as it must. In the postwar years, Aleks enacted a convincing imitation of normal. On some nights, he went to cafés in Kraków where former Sachsenhausen prisoners met to share stories. The men worked as carpenters, engineers, doctors, and scientists. They were committed to rebuilding Poland, even as it struggled under the yoke of the Soviet state. Aleks, by contrast, felt stuck. He’d held several jobs—overseeing a lemonade factory, working as a journalist in Prague. His first marriage, which produced two sons, ended. He found himself obsessed, to the detriment of everything else in his life, with the promise he’d made to Rosebery.

By 1960, Aleks was working as a salesman; his wares were state news pamphlets. He was often on the road, traveling throughout Poland, and along the way he met more and more people who had survived the Nazi camps. He asked them for their stories and about music they remembered. Soon he was corresponding with strangers, writing hundreds, perhaps thousands of letters to former prisoners of Sachsenhausen, Dachau, Buchenwald, and other camps. Documents, musical scores, recordings, maps, notes, and diaries arrived at his apartment. Aleks, with a meticulous eye and a fastidious method, filed everything neatly into folders he kept in cabinets and on shelves.

The work took a toll. Money was scarce, and his health faltered. A second marriage, in which he had another son, ended. Aleks’s friends encouraged him to give up documenting the music of the camps, but he couldn’t.

Aleks began performing some of the songs he learned, mostly at festivals or in small gatherings at student clubs and concert halls. He did so first in East and West Germany, then in other parts of Europe. Often he donned a camp uniform. Singing was a political act, albeit a wholly different one than it had been at Sachsenhausen. In Italy, neofascists planted a bomb under the stage where he was set to perform. The police, tipped off, disarmed the device.

Kulisiewicz dedicated his life to documenting the music of the Nazi camps.

The performance at the Waldeck Castle festival was an important one, placing Aleks alongside prominent figures in the folk revival. Who was in the audience mattered just as much. With World War II more than two decades gone, many young West Germans wanted to show the world that, unlike previous generations of their countrymen and women, they were on the right side of history—that they opposed, for instance, the bombs lighting up the skies of Vietnam. The annual festival, which had started as a celebration of music with little in the way of organization (or sanitation), had always had political overtones. The 1967 event was no different. “The fourth festival should openly discuss not only the difficult questions of our society, but also the difficult questions about the form of artistic engagement,” the program stated.

When he took the stage, Aleks’s music reminded the festival’s audience that the past was still present—that the terror their fathers had inflicted lived on, and would forever. When he finished, the crowd remained quiet. It was how audiences usually reacted to his music. Applause felt unseemly in response to what he’d just performed: the songs of the dead—of his dead.

Back in 1945, feverish at the hospital, Aleks hadn’t been mumbling. He’d been dictating music—the lyrics of the songs written on the blank pages of his mind during his five years at Sachsenhausen. He needed to say the words aloud, for someone to listen, in case the typhus killed him. He needed to pass the music on, as he’d told Rosebery he would.

A nurse realized that there was sense to what he was saying, so she got a typewriter and started to transcribe. She returned again and again to his bedside over several weeks. When Aleks was finished, the nurse had typed of pages of song lyrics and poems.

Among them were the mournful lines of “Jewish Death Song,” which Aleks would perform at Waldeck Castle and elsewhere. He had kept his promise.


Publisher’s Note

Aleksander Kulisiewicz died in Poland in 1982 at the age of 63. His archive, which contains the correspondence, music, scores, and memoirs he collected from former prisoners of the Nazi camps, is now housed at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, D.C.

The excerpt from “Jüdischer Todessang” comes from publicly available audio of Songs From the Depths of Hell, Kulisiewicz’s 1979 album, produced by Smithsonian Folk Ways Recordings. Other music samples are from the collection Ballads and Broadsides: Songs from Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp and are used with the permission of the USHMM.

“The Bard” is based in part on the memoirs and memories of Holocaust survivors. As is well documented, trauma of the kind endured by camp prisoners can affect what a person remembers, and how. The Atavist presents events as sources recalled them, supported by rigorous fact-checking of the circumstances in which they occurred.


© 2022 The Atavist Magazine. Proudly powered by Newspack by Automattic.

Revive

Revive

A fatal overdose, a stunning coincidence, and a mother’s long quest to heal.

Joy Fishman
The Atavist Magazine, No. 101


Max Blau’s work has appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Bitter Southerner, The New York Times, and Politico. He holds an MFA from the University of Georgia and lives in Atlanta. This story was supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems. It was a finalist for the 2021 Dart Awards for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma.

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Designer: Ed Johnson
Fact Checker: Adam Przybyl
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Illustrator: Kate Copeland

Published in March 2020

The phone rang, piercing the lonely quiet of Joy Fishman’s Manhattan apartment. It was October 2003, and Joy was watching TV and waiting for her husband to come home. She glanced at the caller ID. 305. Miami-Dade County. Her heart raced. At this hour, after 9 p.m. on a Tuesday, it had to be about her son, Jonathan.

Jonathan was 32 and had struggled to quit using heroin for nearly a decade. He had been arrested some two dozen times and gone to rehab more often than Joy could count. She had tried everything she could think of to help her son. She had issued stern warnings, staged interventions, accompanied him to detox, paid for inpatient care, and searched for experimental therapies. She had received so many calls about Jonathan that they’d become a way of marking time, like tracking a child’s height with pencil marks on the frame of the kitchen door.

Still, in the months leading up to this particular call, Joy had allowed herself to feel hope. Jonathan had moved in with his girlfriend, Ashley, and even introduced her to Joy. He had a job at a treatment facility helping other people stay sober. In the past, Jonathan’s drug-free stretches lasted only days or weeks, but now he hadn’t used in roughly two years—his longest stint without heroin since his early twenties. Joy had let a sliver of optimism into her life, a faint belief that this time Jonathan’s sobriety would last.

But when the phone echoed through the apartment, Joy knew it meant bad news. She always knew. She picked up the receiver. Her daughter, Julie, was on the line. A suburban Miami hospital had called her. The doctor had spoken tersely, with an urgency reserved for news of the dead and dying: Jonathan’s family should hurry.

The next morning, Joy and her husband, Jack, arrived in Miami on an early flight and raced to the Hialeah Hospital intensive care unit. Joy greeted Julie with a hug, a long one, like those Jonathan often gave the people he loved. She glanced at her son on the bed. His hefty frame—six foot two and 250 pounds—was a commanding presence even in stillness. She kissed his forehead, leaning around the breathing tube that obscured most of his face, and placed a hand on his tattooed arm. It seemed cool to the touch. “I knew this was going to happen one day,” Joy said. “I knew.”

The day before, Jonathan had been dumped outside the hospital, unconscious and weakly gasping for air. A nurse rushed outside and observed the pinpoint size of his pupils—a telltale sign of an overdose. Hospital personnel hoisted him onto a stretcher and raced him inside. A doctor ordered a drip of naloxone, a clear, odorless drug that can reverse the effects of an overdose. But the drug didn’t work—its efficacy depended on being administered as soon as possible after an overdose, and that narrow window had closed as Jonathan lay sprawled alone outside Hialeah’s doors.

Moments after receiving the naloxone drip, Jonathan stopped breathing, and his heart went into overdrive. A doctor ripped open his shirt, slapped two pads onto his chest, and powered up a defibrillator. “Clear!” they shouted. And again. “Clear!” The electrical shocks jolted through Jonathan’s body, resetting his heart to a steady rhythm. Hialeah’s doctors called his next of kin to tell them that Jonathan was in critical condition.

After Joy’s arrival, at the family’s request, the doctors agreed to send Jonathan to Jackson Memorial Hospital, one of America’s best-resourced medical facilities, located in the heart of Miami. Joy had been there before with Jonathan and knew it had more specialists, more advanced treatment options, and more hope to offer. Paramedics loaded Jonathan into an ambulance for the seven-mile trip. As the ambulance neared Jackson, seizures violently shook Jonathan’s body, and he had to be sedated. Jonathan went into a coma. For the next two days, doctors ran a battery of tests looking for any sign that he would recover. They found none.

Joy had always thought that the worst day of her life would be the one when she attended Jonathan’s funeral. She had never considered that she might have to make the decision for him to die. One night as Joy was leaving the hospital, she passed a young man in a motorized wheelchair; he was hooked up to tubes that assisted his breathing. She thought, I can’t let Jonathan live like that.

Before she could tell the doctors that she wanted to take her son off life support, however, the hospital staff informed Joy that Jonathan had died. It was as if he had spared his mother one final agony. A decade later, Joy would find a way to do the same for other parents in her position, thanks to a remarkable coincidence and some unlikely allies.

Hialeah Hospital 

Jonathan was born in 1970, two weeks before the new year. When New Year’s Eve arrived, Joy held a flute of champagne and thought about how sweet the rest of her life would be. She had left suburban Long Island, where she was raised, and traveled the country selling Italian-made clothes. She’d married Dan Stampler, the tall, dapper owner of the Steak Joint, a Greenwich Village fixture that served portions so big Stampler was credited with inventing the doggie bag. As midnight approached, Joy checked on baby Jonathan and gazed out the window to watch fireworks explode over a snow-covered Central Park. This is as good as it gets, she thought.

The family soon moved to Miami Beach, where Joy would have a house, a yard, and a slower pace of life. There, Stampler’s heavy drinking worsened. At home, when his tumbler ran dry, Stampler sometimes screamed at her and hurled the empty glass at the wall. He ignored her pleas to seek treatment. So Joy left him, abandoning her dreams of an easy life, to protect her children.

Divorced by age 30, Joy worked odd jobs and attended psychology classes in the evening to become a therapist. A professor advised Joy not to get a job that involved seeing patients—he felt that she was too direct and dismissive. She began working for a 30-bed drug-treatment program run by Catholic Charities, a faith-based organization that oversaw a network of social services. Her take-charge attitude and talent for tackling laundry lists of tasks led her up the ranks. Before long, she was running the program.

When it came to recovery, Joy clung to a philosophy of abstinence, which fit with national opinion. In the 1970s and ’80s, the war on drugs was in full swing. Politicians spoke about illegal drugs and those who used them as threats to America’s moral fabric. The country had moved from an era of hippies and hallucinogens to one of Just Say No and D.A.R.E. A fundamental misunderstanding of dependency flourished—that it was a personal weakness, a failing. The American Medical Association wouldn’t formally recognize drug addiction as a disease until 1987.

Joy understood that addiction could be passed down from, say, father to son. But she didn’t view it as a chronic condition like, say, heart disease or diabetes that required regular care and treatment. She thought it was best countered with strict rules, not coddling.“Mothers were dragging their sons in,” Joy recalled of the Catholic Charities center where she worked. “The first thing I would say is, ‘Mother, get lost!’ That was the philosophy: ‘Get out. He’s going into the program; he’s not holding on to your apron strings.’”

As Jonathan grew into a tall, lanky teenager, early signs of depression appeared. Joy worried that his severe acne, along with what she suspected to be an undiagnosed learning disability, had stymied his self-confidence. She tried to help. She enrolled him in therapy and performed small acts of love; on rough days, she made him his favorite food—tuna salad on a toasted bagel. The family moved to New Orleans in the mid-1980s to be with Joy’s new husband, Norman, and then back to Miami when the marriage fell apart. Joy sent Jonathan to a boarding school in Vicksburg, Mississippi, hoping that the structure would help. But he was soon kicked out for using drugs and moved back to south Florida. There, Joy caught Jonathan smoking pot, stuffing towels under his bedroom door to hide the smell. She took a hard-line approach: Joy warned Jonathan not to use drugs, grounded him when he did, and threatened rehab when the behavior persisted.

None of it helped. In Miami, Jonathan was part of what Julie called the “burnout crew” at Miami Beach Senior High School. “Seven o’clock in the morning, someone would pick us up, and we’d get high on the way to school,” Julie recalled. She remembered walking in on Jonathan in their apartment building’s storage room, where he was hanging out with friends and holding what appeared to be a crack pipe. Julie figured that he was just experimenting.

Joy moved Jonathan to an alternative school, where he eventually earned his GED. When he was 17, she staged an intervention in their living room. Julie was there. So were Jonathan’s grandparents and a recovery specialist who urged him to enroll in a rehab center called the Village. Jonathan walked out that day, upset, but he enrolled at the center shortly after. He stayed for over a year and eventually took a job there, making sure other people in recovery showed up to their meetings. In 1993, he moved to New Haven, Connecticut, to attend Southern Connecticut State University and be closer to a girlfriend. After a year, though, they split up and Jonathan moved back to Miami.

At first, Joy was relieved to have her son nearby. But soon she noticed signs that Jonathan was using again. He started stealing things to pawn for drug money. Not just for pot, but for heroin, too. When he stole a sterling-silver set that had been passed down through the family for generations, Joy decided to cut him out of her life. She even took out a restraining order, vowing to keep it in place until he got his act together. “I didn’t know what else to do,” she said. “Tough love was the prescription.”

One day in 1996, Joy got a call informing her that Jonathan was going through withdrawal. She rushed to his side. Sitting in the emergency room at Jackson Memorial, waiting for a bed to become available, she wondered if her strict approach had driven Jonathan deeper into drug use. She had acted with what she believed were the best intentions, but in doing so she’d limited her ability to step in as his addiction worsened. Now she watched Jonathan as pain coursed through his body—every ounce of him seemed to be screaming for more heroin. She made a silent promise to do whatever it took to help him.

After Jonathan got out of the hospital, Joy attended a meeting for family members of addicts, held in a church recreation room. She’d been there before and found comfort. She sat in the circle and listened to other parents talk about how they had distanced themselves from their children. “If you told the group you didn’t answer a phone call from your son, everyone applauded,” Joy recalled. For the first time, that approach seemed cold, even spiteful. The more she scrutinized the abstinence model—the didactic embrace of sobriety, the callous treatment of those who used—the more uncomfortable she became.

When other people in her life got sick, she offered help. Why should she treat someone with addiction any differently?

 Joy began trying to meet Jonathan’s needs, whether that meant giving him money, cooking him a meal, or intervening in dangerous situations. One night at 3 a.m., Joy awoke to the sound of the phone ringing. “He was with a girl,” Joy said, “and they were having a fight in a motel.” Joy drove to where they were staying. She calmed Jonathan down enough to defuse things before the police arrived.

She had no textbook, no support group, no friends who understood the complexities of her situation. “It wasn’t something that you talked about,” Joy said. “I was alone.”

She watched Jonathan as pain coursed through his body—every ounce of him seemed to be screaming for more heroin. 

Joy had always been a social butterfly, someone who loved cocktail hours and dinner parties. When Jonathan was using, she needed a release more than ever, experiences in which she didn’t have to think about her son. One night, Joy went with friends to Williams Island, an enclave of luxury condos and spas that caters to rich Floridians. With short blond hair that emphasized her prominent cheekbones, Joy, by then in her early fifties, commanded attention. The event she attended happened to be singles night. After some mingling, two of her friends approached her with a question: Did she want to meet a man in the crowd who was lovely and rich? Joy said yes. A few minutes later, a fellow in his mid-sixties, wearing a sport jacket and jeans, approached her. His name was Jack Fishman, and he asked her to dance.

The next evening, they dined at an Italian restaurant. Joy found Jack charming, and the two quickly became an item. To some people, Jack seemed aloof, his wry humor lost under a heavy Polish accent. But Joy enjoyed his insatiable curiosity for the world. They took walks on the beach and traveled everywhere from the Florida Keys to the English countryside. Jack adored her. He was known to say to friends and family, “Isn’t she beautiful?”

Jack’s family was Jewish. They had escaped Poland after the Nazis invaded, securing forged Nicaraguan passports and fleeing over 7,000 miles east to Shanghai when Jack was eight. The Chinese city, occupied by Japanese forces, was known as the Port of Last Resort for providing Jews with safe harbor. Still, under pressure from their allies, Japan forced some 20,000 Jewish refugees into a crowded ghetto. After the war, Jack moved to New York to become a rabbi, but once he arrived at Yeshiva College, he was drawn to chemistry instead of the Torah. He pursued this new love in graduate school, studying under Carl Djerassi, the inventor of the birth-control pill. Over the next three decades, Jack became a widely admired cancer researcher—he was described by one peer as a “scientist’s scientist.”

By the time Jack met Joy, he was an executive for a pharmaceutical company called Ivax, which manufactured and distributed generic drugs. Joy tried to keep track of Jack’s accomplishments in the field—there seemed to be many—but he offered up few details. He had studied estrogen’s link to breast cancer, producing papers that would be cited thousands of times. He had consulted with the world’s top government health agencies. And he had created a variety of chemical compounds and medicines, including one that he called a “miracle drug” for the way it interacted with opioids. Joy was intrigued but didn’t ask him to talk more about his work. Who wanted to discuss the past when they could focus on their golden years together?

Jack kept at a certain remove from Jonathan. He listened when Joy vented to him about her son, but he never became involved in the hard work of parenting a child battling addiction. “He was supportive of me, but he wasn’t warm and fuzzy with Jonathan,” Joy said. “He wasn’t warm and fuzzy with his kids.” (Jack had four sons from previous marriages.)

Joy was the one who took all the phone calls from Jonathan. Mostly they were about his arrests—for petty theft of AA batteries, deodorant sticks, or the occasional bottle of champagne—or something that he needed from her. When days went by without a call, she grew worried that Jonathan was locked up or, worse, that he had died. She would go to Overtown, a neighborhood widely considered to be the epicenter of Miami’s opioid crisis, and show Jonathan’s photo to store clerks and drug dealers. “Have you seen my son?” she would ask.

Joy scoured magazines and academic journals for information about addiction. The more she read, the more confused she became. There seemed to be no consensus about how best to help someone using opioids. “I was heartbroken not knowing what to do,” Joy said. Sometimes, when she felt particularly directionless, she fell into spells of tough love. In May 1998, Jonathan called her while in the grip of withdrawal. Joy asked what he needed. “Some drugs,” he told her. Though saddened and frustrated, she nevertheless offered to help by contacting friends. “I called everybody asking, ‘Do you have any OxyContin?’ Nobody did,” Joy said. Jonathan then asked Joy to buy him heroin. She picked him up and, following his directions, drove to a gas station parking lot. She gave Jonathan $30, he bought the drugs, and then Joy drove him back to her home. A police car was waiting.

Before Joy had left the house, she’d asked Jack to call the authorities. Not wanting to be arrested for helping Jonathan buy drugs, she told the responding officer that she and Jonathan had gotten into a “verbal altercation,” according to the police report. The officer then asked Jonathan if he had a drug problem. Jonathan said he did and that he needed help. Joy watched as Jonathan pulled the heroin her money had paid for out of his pocket. The officer slipped Jonathan’s hands into wrist ties and walked him to the squad car. “I put my kid in jail because I thought it was safer,” Joy said. Better locked up than dead.

In 2000, Jonathan drifted further out of touch as he cycled in and out of jail on a string of felony theft charges. Joy’s life became hectic—she married Jack, then she contracted Rocky Mountain spotted fever from a tick and spent time in the hospital. “Jonathan just wasn’t around,” Julie recalled. “We didn’t know how to get the news to him.” During that period, drug use pushed Jonathan into homelessness. When Joy finally recovered from her illness, she rented Jonathan an apartment in the Miami area and furnished it with second-hand items from Goodwill. She bought him a guitar so he could play music. “I hoped to establish a state of normalcy,” Joy said, “something familiar, something like home.”

Jonathan participated in two offshore trials of ibogaine, a psychoactive drug derived from a West African plant root that some experts consider effective in treating addiction. (It has been fatal in certain instances and is classified as a controlled substance by the Drug Enforcement Administration.) He stayed sober for more than a year after the first trial. After the second, he worked as a driver for a treatment facility and moved in with Ashley, whom he’d met at the trial. Joy invited Ashley’s parents up to New York City, where she and Jack had a second home. They drank champagne and fantasized about a wedding date for Jonathan and Ashley.

Still, Joy knew that with her son, nothing good ever lasted long. “There was no peace,” she said. “You were always waiting for the other shoe to drop.” In October 2003, it finally did, with Jonathan’s death at Jackson Memorial.

Jonathan

Back then, silence seemed like a shield against stigma. Obituaries rarely mentioned that someone had died of an overdose. People chose vague language to describe their tragedies, or attributed the loss of a child, sibling, or spouse to an unspecified illness or a car accident. Joy, though, decided against that: In the obituary she published in the Miami Herald, she was honest about Jonathan’s addiction.

After the funeral, Joy attended a group meeting for parents who had lost their children to overdose. She noticed pictures of the deceased lining a stage. There was a tissue box under each participant’s chair. The sadness of those other parents, and the group identity they’d built around it, was jarring. It seemed to Joy that grief consumed their lives. She didn’t want to end up like that.

Instead, she poured herself into a relationship with Ashley. She treated the young woman like a daughter-in-law, calling her on the phone, catching up during visits to the home she and Jack kept in Miami, urging her to spend time in New York. Then, exactly one year to the day after Jonathan’s death, Joy’s cell rang as she was walking her dogs with Julie in Manhattan. Ashley had died of a heroin overdose. “I hit the ground,” Joy said. “I literally fell down.”

The back-to-back losses left her feeling twisted to the point of snapping. She now understood the impulse some people felt to keep grief private, to never talk about the loved ones who had died. It was too painful, too risky. Her pain surfaced in other ways. She asked Julie to consider naming her third child after Jonathan, but Julie declined—she didn’t want to pass along the weight of her brother’s traumatic life. In conversations with friends and family, Joy criticized President George W. Bush, who she felt prioritized sustaining the war on drugs over funding for addiction research.

In 2006, Israeli pharmaceutical giant Teva purchased Ivax, the company where Jack once worked and now sat on the board. The deal was worth $7.4 billion, in part because the previous year Ivax had formed a partnership with Purdue Pharma to distribute a generic form of OxyContin. It would be prescribed to and abused by untold numbers of people. According to Joy, at the time she was unaware of Ivax’s connection to the unfolding opioid crisis.

The Fishmans cashed in their stock in Ivax—combined, it was worth more than $100 million. They went from well-off to fabulously wealthy. The money couldn’t take away Joy’s sadness, but it provided a distraction—at least for a while.

By year’s end, though, Joy was staring down a new crisis: Jack was diagnosed with prefrontal dementia. Joy found herself back in the role of caregiver. She decided that, every day, she would allow herself to mourn Jonathan for exactly 15 minutes, while she showered in the morning. She could cry, but once she was out and had dried off, she would turn her attention to Jack. When he forgot an important detail about his life, she reminded him of it. When he repeated stories, she listened as if hearing them for the first time.

One day in 2012, a reporter from The New York Times visited the Fishmans’ posh apartment building—the San Remo, on the Upper West Side—to write a story about how much money its wealthy residents poured into politics. The conversation veered into Jack’s career as a scientist. A detail about Jack’s past made it into the story as a parenthetical: “Jack Fishman, along with his colleagues, invented and patented in the 1960s the drug Naloxone, which is given to people who have overdosed on opioids like morphine and heroin.”

Naloxone was the compound that Jack had told Joy was his “miracle drug,” the same medication that doctors had administered to Jonathan in a failed attempt to reverse his overdose. Those 29 words in parentheses would change the course of Joy’s life.

She decided that, every day, she would allow herself to mourn Jonathan for exactly 15 minutes, while she showered in the morning.

In the spring of 2013, Joy received a letter from a stranger. His name was Ethan Nadelmann, and he lived a few blocks away from her in New York City. He’d read the article in the Times and wanted to speak to Jack about naloxone. Joy called Nadelmann and arranged a time for him to come over.

Nadelmann was uniquely positioned to understand naloxone’s potential. As the founder of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), a progressive organization working to end the war on drugs, Nadelmann was evangelical about harm reduction, a philosophy that encouraged medical professionals, governments, and others to help people facing addiction become as healthy as possible, even if they continued to use. During the AIDS crisis, harm reduction inspired activists to distribute sterile syringes and bleach kits that could be used to disinfect dirty needles. Introducing naloxone to America was another step in the crusade to assist, not punish, drug users.

Better known by the brand name Narcan, naloxone prevents opioids from interacting with the brain’s receptors. If the compound is delivered by injection or sprayed into a person’s nose shortly after an overdose, the blue of a user’s lips will disappear. Pale cheeks will redden. Shallow breaths will deepen. Jack Fishman and his colleagues patented naloxone in 1961, and the Food and Drug Administration approved it for treating overdose a decade later. But it could be administered only by medical professionals, which limited its impact to hospitals and ambulances. By the time a person who had overdosed received treatment from a paramedic or doctor—if they got any care at all—it was often too late for the drug to work.

In the mid-1990s, harm-reduction experts began advocating for the antidote’s wide distribution, so that those closest to drug users could help save their lives. Dan Bigg, cofounder of the Chicago Recovery Alliance, convinced some doctors to quietly prescribe naloxone to heroin users and the friends of people who were at risk of overdosing. In January 2000, Bigg lugged black duffel bags full of naloxone to Seattle for a first-of-its-kind overdose-prevention conference, organized by Nadelmann.

Nadelmann saw naloxone as being to opioid users what an EpiPen was to people with life-threatening allergies—something that should be nearby at all times, just in case. He began lobbying state officials to decriminalize the antidote’s use outside hospitals. The DPA also urged police chiefs around the country to equip their officers with it. Yet opponents in many states, including Florida, were resistant to expanding naloxone’s availability. They believed it would encourage illegal drug use.

Without strong backing from government officials, Nadelmann went looking for private funding. Again he encountered resistance. Many health foundations, steeped in the gospel of abstinence, also worried that naloxone would spur drug use. Nadelmann pitched an oil scion and a rock star who had lost loved ones to overdoses. Neither wrote checks for naloxone advocacy, Nadelmann said—what had happened to them was “so painful, they wanted to run away from it.”

Nadelmann was eager to meet the drug’s inventor and perhaps win over Jack as a patron. But as Nadelmann entered the Fishmans’ apartment, Joy tempered his expectations. She explained that Jack, now 82, could barely remember the names of family members. “Jack’s dementia was far enough along where he couldn’t hold a conversation for more than two minutes,” Nadelmann said. The men briefly connected over the fact that Nadelmann’s father, a rabbi, had also fled the Nazis, but that was as lucid as Jack got during their meeting.

Still, when Joy invited Nadelmann to talk with her afterward he stayed. Feeling unusually comfortable, Joy began to talk about Jonathan. It was the first time she’d done so with a stranger. She described the havoc all those phone calls had wreaked on her life, the nights that stretched on and on with worry, the many attempts she’d made to help her son get drug-free. “Everything I mentioned, even things like ibogaine, he knew about,” Joy said. “He was the first person I knew that had deep knowledge about addiction. I respected him.”

Between 1999 and 2012, opioids had killed more than 220,000 Americans. Nadelmann was stunned that one of them was the stepson of naloxone’s inventor. “It was extraordinary,” he said. Nadelmann took the opportunity to draw back the curtain on the drug that Joy somehow knew so little about. He described the DPA’s campaign to get it from hospitals into the streets. He talked about how deaths could be prevented, how police officers and drug users could revive people before paramedics even arrived at the scene of an overdose. Parents who had lost children to drugs had recently testified at a federal meeting about making naloxone available over the counter, like allergy medicine. Slowly, doctors were more freely prescribing the drug to those who needed it. Florida, however, was not among the early adopters of progressive naloxone policies.

Quietly, as was her way, Joy was filled with anger and sadness. She knew that Jack had long kept a single vial of naloxone in their medicine cabinet, a memento from his life in the lab. She didn’t know that she could have used it—or, better yet, given it to Jonathan and Ashley to use if either of them overdosed. She already blamed herself for not doing more for her son. Now, as she pieced together the full irony of her family’s story, she marveled at the unfairness of it all, not least that she was realizing the truth at a time when Jack could no longer help her make sense of it.

As she and Nadelmann continued to talk over the following weeks, he encouraged her to help him grow the harm-reduction movement. She could share her story and help spread a lifesaving philosophy. They could get naloxone into the hands of people like Jonathan before it was too late. Few people were better positioned to push that message than Jack Fishman’s wife—the mother of a child who’d died of an opioid overdose and a person immersed in some of America’s wealthiest communities. 

Joy saw the merits of Nadelmann’s pitch. Still, she was a private person with a patrician demeanor, someone who had decided to cope with her loss alone, for 15 minutes a day. She wasn’t sure she had the strength to talk about Jonathan often, much less to strangers. She was hesitant about her personal tragedy being the thing people knew about her. “I didn’t want to be a professional victim who was constantly referring to their child, holding a photo of him at age five, saying, ‘My poor son,’” Joy explained.

Nadelmann told her there were thousands of Jonathans across the country, young people tempting fate every time they used. Many of them would wind up dead at the end of a needle unless naloxone and other harm-reduction measures reached them first. “You have a responsibility,” Nadelmann told Joy. “You have to talk about Jonathan.”

Jack Fishman, circa 1974.

Joy spent the following weeks processing the gravity of Nadelmann’s visit and his request. She desperately wanted to talk to Jack about it, to ask the thousand questions racing through her mind. But even if she asked them, he couldn’t answer. In December 2013, Jack passed away.

As Joy descended into grief yet again, it was Julie who took up the banner of harm reduction. She had learned how to administer naloxone, and in 2014, she attended a conference of the Harm Reduction Coalition in Baltimore. She texted photos to her mother of people wearing T-shirts that said, “Keep Calm, Carry Naloxone.” She told Joy about meeting grown men who cried as they talked about how naloxone had saved their lives. When she returned home, Julie told her three boys about Grandpa Jack’s miracle drug. She gifted the youngest a “Got Naloxone?” shirt. “It became part of our everyday lives,” Julie said. “Hearing people express gratitude for Jack’s invention made it more positive than just talking about the loss of Jonathan.”

Joy realized that Julie was right—that she should be cementing Jack’s legacy in the history of harm reduction. She and Jack’s biological children directed money from a family trust to the DPA, which helped Nadelmann cover the cost of training people to use naloxone. The prospect of turning knowledge into action energized Joy. It made her feel like she was doing something for her son. “Jonathan was a victim of an intolerant, prudish, and judgmental society,” Joy said. “I didn’t have the right words before, but I was giving my son his humanity back.”

One day she wrote Nadelmann an email. “I have this feeling I belong with all of you,” she said. Harm reduction was taking on greater national urgency. The government had tightened the flow of prescription opioids, forcing drug users to seek out more dangerous substances like heroin, fentanyl, and carfentanil. Researchers predicted that if nothing was done to stem the crisis, by the mid-2010s some 200 people would die of overdoses every day. Joy wanted to do more. Nadelmann said she should meet Hansel Tookes. He worked at the very hospital where Jonathan had died.

Julie texted photos to her mother of people wearing T-shirts that said, “Keep Calm, Carry Naloxone.”

A 34-year-old medical resident at Jackson Memorial, Tookes was leading a campaign to lift Florida’s ban on syringe exchanges. He had come of age as a gay black man in Miami at the peak of the HIV epidemic and had dedicated his career to studying the virus and its impact. He did so first as a public-health researcher, collecting dirty syringes from sidewalks and under freeway overpasses. He finished medical school at the University of Miami. Now he wanted to open the state’s first syringe exchange, a place where drug users could come for supplies and care, free of judgment.

In late 2015, Joy went to a swanky restaurant in Miami to meet the young doctor. As waiters carried shrimp ceviche and chicken liver crostini to other tables, she waited—Tookes was late. When he finally arrived, the tall, bearded resident was in sea-green hospital scrubs.

Over the meal, Tookes explained that Florida’s opioid death rate had doubled since the early 2000s, due to a crackdown on pain doctors who churned out opioid prescriptions for cash. Miami-Dade County led the nation in new HIV cases, in part because more drug users, unable to get pills, were transitioning to heroin. In some cities, including Miami, a gay black man had a 50 percent chance of contracting HIV at some point in his life. Still, Florida lawmakers had ignored the evidence showing that other states were able to reduce infectious-disease rates and deaths by legalizing syringe distribution. Joy understood what Tookes was talking about: Jonathan had contracted hepatitis C likely through sharing dirty needles.

Tookes knew that stemming the tide of infectious disease went hand in hand with reducing opioid overdoses. The safer drug use became, through sterile needles, naloxone, and other means, the fewer the deaths and the lower the health-care costs.

Joy told Tookes about Jonathan, about how her tough love had evolved into a strategy of supporting him the best she could, how none of it had stopped her son from getting dumped outside a hospital. Tookes was struck by Joy’s candor, the power of her story, and the grace with which she talked about her son. “I’m not easily intimidated or impressed,” Tookes said. “But I was intimidated and impressed by Joy. She had a powerful aura.”

Tookes broached the topic of his push to have Florida’s ban on syringe exchanges lifted. He asked if Joy would be one of the faces of the campaign, if she would tell Jonathan’s story to a wider audience. She wanted to know if he was willing to have his staff and volunteers distribute naloxone. Tookes said he was open to the idea.

Joy left the meeting knowing she wanted to help Tookes—the question was how. She spent the next few weeks thinking about Jonathan. On his best days, her son had been in the trenches, helping fellow users cobble together stretches of sobriety. “There comes a time when you can’t just write a check, where it doesn’t mean anything,” Joy said. “You have to be hands-on.” She contacted Tookes and said as much. Tookes knew exactly where she could start.

Hansel Tookes

Tookes had been lobbying the Florida legislature to eliminate the syringe-exchange ban since 2012, but his opponents had routinely dismissed or outmaneuvered him. Most recently, in 2015, a conservative lawmaker who chaired a subcommittee in the Florida House of Representatives had refused to grant a hearing on a bill legalizing statewide needle exchanges that Tookes helped craft. In response, Tookes narrowed the bill’s scope: The new version called only for a privately funded pilot exchange in Miami. If he started small and showed that sterile needles worked, maybe it would pave the way for more exchanges. And if the pilot program was funded with private donations, including a substantial check from Joy, the bill would be heard by the health and human services committee. Tookes hoped it would be an ideal venue, given that some of the legislators seated on it were medical professionals.

Tookes considered Joy, and the power of her family’s story, to be his ace in the hole. He asked her to speak before the committee, hoping she could secure approval for the bill to go up for a vote in the Florida house. With matters less personal, Joy had little problem speaking before an audience. But this would require the kind of public soul bearing she had long feared. She would have to talk about Jonathan. And what about Jack—would she need to say that her husband could have done more to make naloxone available to everyone who needed it, including her son? Many of her closest friends, had they been in her shoes, would have left those stones unturned. “I was petrified,” Joy said.

One day in February 2015, Joy walked down the halls of the Florida State Capitol, the sparkles on her navy blue blouse glistening in the fluorescent lighting. When she entered the room where the committee hearing took place, it was packed with lobbyists and concerned citizens, there to debate the needle-exchange bill and other measures. As she waited her turn to speak, lawmakers and speakers spent two hours debating the merits of everything from medical marijuana to insurance reform. Finally, the committee took up the Infectious Disease Elimination Act and called Joy’s name.

She gripped the dais with her right hand, stood up straight, and glanced toward the lawmakers. She hadn’t prepared a speech, but she knew what Tookes needed from her. That didn’t include talking about Jack if she didn’t want to, if she wasn’t ready. She just needed to tell Jonathan’s story and emphasize how a program like the one Tookes envisioned would have helped her son, how it could help others.

Leaning slightly toward the microphone, she said, “My son, Jonathan, died of a heroin overdose.” Digging her left thumbnail into the tip of her finger, she looked ahead, trying to appear confident, as if she’d done this before. She tripped over a few words but quickly recovered, explaining how Jonathan had stolen needles, not because he was a bad kid but to take care of himself. “To get needles, you need a doctor to write the prescription,” she explained. “You need money to pay for the needles.” She noticed some of the lawmakers nodding their heads.

“I know that all of you know someone—a relative, a friend—who is an addict. This is going to be a program where not only will they get clean needles, but they’ll be educated [about] opportunities for rehab,” Joy said. To close her remarks, she referred back to the key tenets she’d learned from Nadelmann and Tookes. “It’s called harm reduction,” she said “We want to see less overdoses, less cases of AIDS, less cases of hepatitis C. Thank you.”

Joy sat back down. “I had a feeling of accomplishment,” she recalled, “that I did my job. I hoped it would mean something.” A few other guests offered their support for the bill. There was little opposition, in part because of how lean the bill had become through Tookes’s effort to appease conservative lawmakers. Then the committee members debated among themselves.

When the vote happened, it was so quick and simple that Joy could hardly believe it. The bill passed and was sent to the legislature. A few weeks later, Tookes called her. He was ecstatic. After years of opposition and excuses, the bill was becoming a law. Governor Rick Scott had signed it, and it would be in effect by the beginning of the summer. Joy, Tookes said, had broken the logjam.

Digging her left thumbnail into the tip of her finger, she looked ahead, trying to appear confident, as if she’d done this before.

Joy and Tookes worked together to open the exchange, becoming friends and confidants in the process. They were an odd couple—a gay black millennial who did yoga and traveled the country to see Mariah Carey concerts, and a Jewish grandmother with multiple homes who loved rescue dogs. When Tookes’s mother passed away, Joy took him and his partner out for dinner on difficult, lonely nights. When Joy posted on Facebook about missing Jonathan, Tookes reminded her that she was loved. When they weren’t swapping stories over crab legs or glasses of champagne, they were calling or texting each other.

Tookes handled the logistics of opening the exchange, which would be housed in two renovated shipping containers set up near Jackson Memorial. Joy drummed up support. She wrote a personal check for $50,000 and helped raise another $150,000—enough to fund the exchange’s first year of operations. She told a Miami Herald reporter that she missed Jonathan’s bear hugs and that the exchange would allow other mothers to keep hugging their sons. In the interview, she pulled out a single-dose, nasal-spray bottle of naloxone. “I always have it,” she told the reporter. “Everyone should.”

Tookes sent mothers who had lost their children to speak to Joy. “They would be desperately searching for catharsis,” Joy said. She listened, comforted them, and encouraged them to channel their grief into supporting harm reduction.

The exchange opened on December 1, 2016, World AIDS Day. Things were so busy from the beginning that it wasn’t until the following March that Tookes was able to hold a press conference announcing the program. A gaggle of reporters, doctors, and police officers were there. Standing behind the podium, Tookes said that his team would offer free naloxone to anyone who needed it. He had another announcement, too, something he hadn’t yet discussed with Joy—the exchange’s mobile unit, which traveled the city helping people in need, would be named after Jonathan.

Joy was floored. Tookes thanked her for her support and urged her to speak to the crowd. “I’m sorry [Jack] is not with us today to see what a miracle drug he created,” she said. When she mentioned Jonathan, her voice trembled and cracked slightly. She vowed to be a “spiritual mother” to people who came to the exchange. “This is a place where a drug-addicted person can come, not be judged, not be called slang names, and be accepted as a human in need,” Joy said. “We welcome them here. We look at them as full human beings.”

After years of feeling alone with her grief, Joy had found her tribe. She locked eyes with Tookes and hugged him. He’d helped her turn Jonathan’s life into more than a tragedy. “You can’t live with that sadness all the time,” Joy said later. “Holding on to that pain is destructive.”

Joy returned every few weeks to volunteer at the exchange. As wary visitors entered the shipping containers, she greeted them warmly at the front desk. She was direct but never dismissive—that old psychology professor of hers had been wrong. She instructed people to count off the number of dirty needles they had brought in and to throw each one into the trash. She took them to a corkboard affixed with various gauges of needles. After people chose their preferred size, Joy filled their orders. In brown paper bags, she assembled sterile syringes and cookers, tourniquets, lighters, and condoms. She directed anyone who wanted to be tested for infectious diseases or to seek treatment for addiction to Tookes’s office. And she told everyone who’d listen about naloxone, urging them to take doses of Jack’s drug wherever they went.

Her work was a far cry from what she once did with Catholic Charities, telling mothers not to coddle kids struggling with addiction. She insisted that regular patients stop referring to her as Mrs. Fishman. To them she became Mama Joy.

A naloxone dispenser.

The Fishman family does not receive any profits from sales of naloxone. Jack developed the drug for a commercial firm and never renewed the patent. Today, his antidote is available from pharmacists—without a doctor’s prescription—across the country, and it’s covered by most health-insurance plans. Yet access to naloxone isn’t where harm-reduction advocates want it to be. They criticize politicians who still preach abstinence and drug companies that have raised the price of the antidote. They continue to ask the FDA to approve naloxone for over-the-counter purchase, which the agency has failed to do despite publicly acknowledging the good it would do. As a member of the DPA’s national board, Joy is involved in pushing for greater naloxone availability nationwide.

When policymakers aren’t standing in the way, harm reduction works. One day in September 2019, Joy sat behind the exchange’s front desk, waiting to hand Jack’s drug to anyone who needed it. Since opening, the exchange had collected 360,000 dirty syringes, provided medical treatment to 1,200 people, and helped 200 patients detox. An estimated 1,450 overdoses had been reversed. Earlier that day, the drug had saved a patient found splayed out on the sidewalk near the exchange.

According to the most recent data available, opioid-related fatalities dropped in Miami-Dade County in 2017 for the first time in five years; in other Florida counties, death tolls continued to rise. Those statistics are among the evidence that’s helped convince state lawmakers once skeptical of harm reduction to support the cause. In the spring of 2019, the Florida legislature voted to allow any county that wanted a syringe exchange to open one. By early 2020, officials in five additional Florida counties had lifted local exchange bans, clearing the way for future harm-reduction services from Tampa to Tallahassee. Still, most counties have yet to follow suit, and the ban on using public funds for exchanges remains intact. For her part, Joy continues to donate money to Tookes’s exchange.

There’s a whiteboard at the exchange that, on the September day when Joy was volunteering, had a message scribbled on it: “It’s important to meet people where they’re at, but not leave them where they’re at.” She knows the mantra well. In her life, it applies to more than just Jonathan, Ashley, and the patients at the exchange. She has a boyfriend, a man named Ken Peters. In December 2018, one of his two sons fatally overdosed. Rather than leave him where he was, consumed with grief, Joy offered support and guidance. She remembered how hard it was after Jonathan died when someone would ask how many kids she had. She urged Peters to always make space for both of his boys. “Just say, ‘I have a son, and I lost another son to overdose,’” she told him.

Peters carries those words wherever he goes, along with a dose of naloxone that Joy gave him.


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