Who Killed the Fudge King?

Who Killed the Fudge King?

How I (possibly) solved a cold case on my summer vacation.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 143

Tom Donaghy writes for theater, television, and film. His plays have been produced by the Atlantic Theater Company and Playwrights Horizons, among others. He created the ABC drama The Whole Truth and cocreated, with Lee Daniels, the Fox musical drama Star.

Editors: Jonah Ogles and Seyward Darby
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kyla Jones
Illustrator: Nate Sweitzer

Published in September 2023.

The fudge sold at Copper Kettle was so creamy, so sweet, so beyond compare, that many candy shops on the Ocean City boardwalk didn’t even sell fudge, because there was no point. During summer vacations to the Jersey Shore in the 1970s, my father would take my brother and me as a treat, when we behaved. A pretty girl in a pinafore would greet us outside with a tray of free shavings. We’d load up on them until her smile strained, then proceed inside. Once we popped actual cubes of the magic stuff into our tiny mouths, we were as high as kids are allowed to be.

For decades, Copper Kettle lived in my head as a kind of childhood memory-scape: the salt air coming off the ocean, the shiny vats of molten fudge, the too much sugar all at once. Then, during the pandemic, my family decided to return to the Jersey Shore for my mother’s birthday, so everyone could gather outside. I told my brother we should make our way back to Copper Kettle, and he informed me that it had long since gone out of business. He had some more information too: about what had become of Harry Anglemyer, the man behind the fudge.

In the early 1960s, Harry had a string of Copper Kettle Fudge shops up and down the Shore. So revered were his stores that Harry was known far and wide as the Fudge King. He was even in talks to build a fudge factory—something that would’ve taken his Willy Wonka–ness to the next level—when he was savagely beaten to death on Labor Day 1964. His body was stuffed under the dashboard of his Lincoln Continental, parked at an after-hours nightclub called the Dunes. The case was never solved.

I spent the next two years sorting through a trove of whispers and accusations around the murder. At first I was just curious, but the more I learned about Harry—a figure beloved by friends and strangers alike—the more intent I was to identify his killer.

I scoured blogs, Facebook groups, newspaper archives, and thinly veiled fictional accounts of the crime. As one local put it, over the years a veritable “Jersey Shore QAnon” had blossomed around the murder, raising questions of culture, class, sexuality, and hierarches of power. I discovered a plausible myth, a trove of red herrings, and, finally, what appeared to be the truth.

Almost six decades on, I wasn’t sure anyone wanted to hear it. When I visited Ocean City while reporting this story, a shop owner I engaged about Harry Anglemyer lowered her voice and said, “You know he was murdered, don’t you?”

I admitted that I did.

She responded, by way of warning: “You sneeze in this town and everyone hears it.”

The Fudge King became one of the richest men for miles, with no qualms about flashing his wealth.

Harry Anglemyer, a stocky charmer out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was born in 1927. His high school summers were spent in Wildwood, New Jersey, where he apprenticed at Laura’s Fudge Shop. He was told that this was a little sissy. He didn’t care.

He left high school to join the Navy, served two years at the end of World War II, then returned to the Shore to open his own fudge shop in 1947. In those days, Ocean City seemed postcard perfect. Ten blocks at its widest, situated on a barrier island about 11 miles south of Atlantic City, it was lined with boarding houses, deep porches with rattan rockers, and striped canvas awnings that softened the summer sun. It called itself—and still does—America’s Greatest Family Resort.

The author Gay Talese, who grew up there, once described Ocean City as “founded in 1879 by Methodist ministers and other Prohibitionists who wished to establish an island of abstinence and propriety.” Prohibitionists remain. To this day, you can’t buy booze within city limits. Or have a cocktail at a restaurant. Or go to a bar, since there are none. If you want to bend an elbow, you must belong to one of the few private clubs that allow it. You can also import your own adult beverages, stopping at the Circle Liquor Store in Somers Point before entering town across the Ninth Street Bridge.

You would think that such a gauntlet might encourage at least a semblance of abstinence and propriety, but a 2017 USA Today article deemed Ocean City the drunkest city in New Jersey. It was and is a place of contradictions.

Just like Harry Anglemyer was a man of contradictions. He donated generously to civic causes and charities, including religious ones. He sat on the city’s planning board at the behest of the mayor. He joined the Masons and the chamber of commerce. He befriended prominent men and their wives, whom he squired to social functions when their husbands were busy. He hobnobbed with local luminaries, including the Kelly family of Philadelphia, who kept a summer cottage in Ocean City that Grace Kelly visited—first as a child, then as a movie star, then as a princess. Harry was so well regarded that 1,500 people showed up at the Godfrey-Smith Funeral Home in September 1964 to view his body. Businesspeople, politicians, and socialites came to pay their respects, packing the place with flowers.

Many of them also knew of Harry’s other, less civic-minded side. When he wasn’t delighting families with his fudge or charming the local elite, he liked to go out. He shut down bars. He was a fixture at Atlantic City’s racetrack, where he played the horses. He spent time at the nearby Air National Guard base. During the summer of 1964, he seemed to have acquired boyfriends from both locations.

Harry was, in fact, a little sissy.

Which everyone kind of knew. He was 37 and handsome, he’d never married, and he dressed fastidiously. He had a small dog, acquired on a trip to Fort Lauderdale—which, he confided to a friend, was perhaps “too obvious.” He once had a girlfriend who wondered why they weren’t having sex. She seems to have been the only one in the dark. Men both known and strange came and went from his large suite of breezy, ocean-view rooms above Copper Kettle, right on the boardwalk, where he lived in the summer.

Harry took no pains to hide any of this, an astonishing fact given the pre-Stonewall, postwar pinko-homo panic. In the early 1960s, and especially in small towns like Ocean City, which had a population of about 7,500 during the off-season, men were expected to find a girl and put a ring on her. Especially handsome men with killer smiles, fitted jackets, and penny loafers that shined like onyx.

But something saved Harry from too much scrutiny—for a time, anyway. He was an entrepreneur, and he elevated the boardwalk’s game. He saw the future, which might have been his shield. Other local business owners looked past his sexuality. They wanted even a little piece of his magic.

Harry placed gleaming copper kettles in the windows of his boardwalk shop, poured in liquid fudge, and positioned above them teenage boys with bronzed skin and sparkling white teeth, gripping big wooden paddles, churning and churning. Outside on the boardwalk, children panted as they watched, their faces cracked from too much sun, their bare feet sandy, their eyes wet and hungry. They wanted that fudge so bad. At night, after the last box was sold and the shop had closed, the kettles remained pin-spotted from above like Ziegfeld girls.

Money surged in like the tide. Soon Harry had shops in Atlantic City, Sea Isle City, and Stone Harbor as well. The Fudge King became one of the richest men for miles, with no qualms about flashing his wealth. He purchased a two-story colonial in the Gardens, Ocean City’s fanciest neighborhood, where he lived in the off-season, and kept two cars: the Lincoln Continental where his body would later be found, and a Chrysler Imperial purchased just months before his death.

Most spectacularly, he acquired a blinding ring: five emerald-cut diamonds, approximately eight carats total, set in a band of white gold. It was valued at about $10,000, almost $100,000 in today’s dollars. Harry wore it everywhere. Which was quite a big deal. With the exception of a few families, including the famous Kellys, whose fortune came from brickmaking, Ocean City was for the most part a resort of the working class. Its tourists and year-round residents had likely never seen such jewels except on television, worn by the likes of Zsa Zsa Gabor. Or Liberace.

Harry’s success made him an object of allure and envy, though by all accounts he shared his fortune with others. He frequently bought dinners for his staff. He gave loans to friends and told them to take their time paying him back. (After his death, his family found a drawer full of IOUs.) He even had a brand-new clothes dryer delivered to a young mother burdened by a bad marriage. She wept knowing there was at least one good man in the world.

That’s what most people said about Harry: how good he was, generous and kind, fun-loving and curious. But in the summer of 1964, they noticed something else about him. The Fudge King was uncharacteristically on edge.

Harry was up against the upright citizens of America’s Greatest Family Resort who feared it would become another Atlantic City, that den of iniquity next door that was fast sinking into squalor and corruption.

Of course, the whole country was on edge. JFK had just been assassinated. Vietnam was heating up, and the draft was coming for young American men, including those stirring that fudge in Copper Kettle’s windows. The Civil Rights Act was signed into law on July 2, and now Ocean City could no longer confine people of color to the Fifth Street beach. (Before that, according to one resident, if Black beachgoers breeched the jetty that separated their beach from the other beaches, they were greeted immediately by a chorus of “Go back!”)

Meanwhile, the Mad Men era of whiskey sours and steak Diane was giving way to the Beatles, beads, and flower power. On August 30, the week before Harry’s murder, the Fab Four themselves came through Atlantic City on their first North American tour, and the young people of the state lost their minds.

The youthquake was on the horizon. The Greatest Generation was holding its breath. If Ocean City wasn’t immune from time’s great march, what was?

Certainly not Harry, who saw himself out in front of that particular parade, a fact he’d made clear two years prior by challenging Ocean City’s so-called blue laws. For decades the blue laws had handed over the seventh day almost entirely to the Lord. Most business was prohibited, unless it was church business. You attended service, then went home and kept quiet.

Abstinence and propriety were enforced, as merchants who occasionally tested the laws learned. Two arcade owners were fined for opening their doors; a grocer was arrested for selling a cantaloupe. But generally the boardwalk, both its amusements and its stores, remained shuttered. An ordinance forbade Harry from even making fudge on Sunday.

All this seemed ridiculous to him. How could a resort community be closed for business for an entire day every weekend? The weekends were the moneymakers! If it rained on Saturday, keeping beachgoers at home, it was a total bust. Harry had come to believe that “puritanical restrictions” were holding Ocean City back.

Some in town were inclined to agree. Those who owned businesses, specifically. They appointed Harry head of both the Ocean City Civic Betterment Association and the Ocean City Boardwalk Association. Harry seized the moment, gathering friends and colleagues, telling them that while it was fine for shops to be closed on Sunday mornings for church, they should be allowed to open for the remainder of the day. He further informed them that he would state his case privately to D. Allen Stretch, Ocean City’s director of public safety and the custodian of the blue laws.

Stretch did not agree with Harry. Even a little. He wasn’t about to have the so-called Fudge King tell him what to do, no matter how many business owners Harry had at his back.

Emboldened, affronted, or perhaps not quite reading the room, Harry refused to stand down. During a meeting at city hall, he decided to say aloud to everyone in town what he’d said to Stretch. All hell broke loose as an opposing faction coalesced—one that wanted to keep the laws in place. Harry was up against the upright citizens of America’s Greatest Family Resort who feared it would become another Atlantic City, that den of iniquity next door that was fast sinking into squalor and corruption.

Ocean City’s commissioners, wringing their hands, decided to put the matter of the blue laws to a referendum. When voting day arrived in May 1963, enough locals sided with Harry that the laws were relaxed, allowing certain shops to open their doors on Sunday for the first time. Newspapers reported Harry’s triumph over the pious prohibitionists, who were none too pleased.

This is where things get weird.

Three weeks after the referendum, Harry was arrested on three counts of carnal indecency, or what the press described as “homosexual behavior.” He was fingerprinted and booked at the Cape May County Courthouse. The thing that everyone had pretended to overlook was now being used to indict him. This was no misdemeanor. Sodomy laws were still on the books in New Jersey, punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

Interestingly, the accusers were all public employees: Thomas Sullivan, a bridgetender for the state highway department; James Luddy, who worked in the office of the city engineer; and a local detective, sergeant Dominick Longo, who claimed that “an incident” had occurred in Harry’s apartment above the fudge shop. An explanation for why Longo was up there in the first place came from none other than D. Allen Stretch, who announced that he had instructed Longo, an ambitious cop looking to advance his career, to “get the goods” on Harry because of complaints his office had received, although Stretch did not specify what those complaints were.

According to Longo’s New Jersey Superior Court indictment, Harry Anglemyer “unlawfully, malicious, lewdly and indecently did take the private parts of him the said Dominick Longo in the mouth.” Stretch insisted to the Philadelphia Inquirer that if Longo had permitted Harry’s “unnatural attentions,” it was only because he was “doing his duty.” (The other two alleged incidents came to light soon after Longo made his accusation—apparently, they’d gone unreported for years.)

Harry was furious. He vowed to the Philadelphia Inquirer that he would continue his campaign against the blue laws “despite this legal action which has been brought against me personally.” He then promptly filed his own complaint against Longo. He didn’t deny that there had been what the press called an “incident.” Rather he claimed that it was Longo who’d tried to force Harry into giving him a blow job.

None of this was a good look for America’s Greatest Family Resort. Yet however much the thought of homosexuality disgusted many people, some residents quietly agreed with their beloved Harry that Stretch and Longo were retaliating for his campaign against the blue laws. A grand jury, however, upheld the charges against Harry while dismissing those against Longo.

The first case—the one regarding Sullivan, the bridgetender—went to trial in early April 1964. Harry was acquitted in 18 minutes. The jury, it turned out, felt that something was amiss. Harry took the news in stride, telling a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer that he was a “sitting duck for all the nuts around here until I beat the rest of these charges.” He then vowed to permanently dismantle Ocean City’s blue laws, come hell or high water.

The town roiled, people chose sides, and a trial was scheduled to litigate the remaining charges against Harry—the ones involving Longo—two weeks after Labor Day.

This is when friends noticed Harry’s fastidious presentation begin to fray. Trouble seemed to follow him. He was the victim of several robbery attempts. Some he reported, others he only discussed with friends. Investigators would later learn that he was rolled for money by two young punks, one of whom dragged him from his car at a stoplight and gave him a black eye in the middle of the intersection.

In the weeks leading up to his death, Harry sported not one but two black eyes. He laughed them off as injuries from clumsy falls or from dancing too hard and running into a wall. Maybe he didn’t want people to be more worried about him than they already were. One of his fudge cutters suggested that he hire a bodyguard. Harry said no thanks, he could take care of himself.

Later, people would speculate that he was meeting Longo, that the latter had suggested a late-night rendezvous to lure the Fudge King to his death.

Harry loved the Dunes, an after-hours nightclub just over the bridge from Ocean City, parked on a sandbar at the edge of Egg Harbor Township, an unincorporated no-man’s land. “Dunes to dawn!” patrons liked to say. Harry said it a lot that summer. He was well-known at the Dunes, to staff and patrons alike. Some even suggested it was where he’d met Longo the night “the incident” took place.

The music at the Dunes was loud, the beer plentiful, the air sweaty. On the night Harry walked through the door for the last time, 2,500 people were crammed inside, dancing to house bands the Rooftoppers and the Carroll Brothers.

Harry had been on a bit of a bar crawl that night. First he went to the Bala Inn to arrange for Copper Kettle’s annual employees’ dinner the following night—he told proprietor Engelbert Bruenig to expect at least 80 people. Then he was off to the Jolly Roger Cocktail Lounge, before heading to Steel’s Ship Bar for some live music. Next up was Bay Shores, followed by Tony Marts, where Bill Haley and His Comets sometimes jammed. Here, Harry invited two women to come with him to the Dunes, but it was 2 a.m., too late for their blood.

He tried again at O’Byrne’s—this time inviting a former Copper Kettle worker and his girlfriend. They too said no. On the way out, Harry asked Mrs. O’Byrne herself if she wanted to come with him. She declined.  

Harry continued on to the Dunes. He had to meet someone there. He seemed ambivalent about the mysterious rendezvous, but also determined to go. He mentioned this to a couple of people that night, in one of the many places where he was allegedly seen. Over the years Harry, like Elvis, was reported to have been seen in more places the night he died than would have been humanly possible.

Later, people would speculate that he was meeting Longo, that the latter had suggested a late-night rendezvous to lure the Fudge King to his death. If Longo could get Harry out of the picture, people theorized, there wouldn’t be a trial in September and Longo could get back to his ambition. (He would become Ocean City’s chief of police in 1975, and remain in that position for 20 years.) But considering the two men’s legal tango, it didn’t make sense for Longo to have initiated the encounter, much less at a place where they’d both be recognized. And even if Longo had made such a request, surely Harry wouldn’t have fallen for it.

Who, then, was Harry meeting?

Sometime between 3:30 and 4 a.m., his maroon-colored Lincoln, its whitewall tires dusted with sand, pulled up to the Dunes. The parking lot was so full, Harry had to circle the building, and two doormen would later recall him searching for a spot. He eventually found one on Ocean Drive.

Once parked, he proceeded in the side door, box of fudge in hand. (He’d brought every proprietor he saw that night their favorite kind, as an end-of-summer gift.) He settled in at the bar, where owner John McCann—a former bootlegger—bought him a drink. They shared some laughs, including one at Harry’s expense: When a man on the prowl for a date wandered over, McCann pointed to Harry and said, “Why do you need a girl when Harry’s right here?”

Harry laughed the loudest, bought people drinks, then fought off sleep while waiting for whomever he was supposed to meet. At about 5 a.m., he left.

Six hours later, as the tide went out and the mud hens squawked, one of Harry’s delivery men, making a fudge run to Atlantic City, observed his boss’s Lincoln still in the parking lot. Peering through the window, he saw Harry’s body wedged on the floor of the passenger side. Conspicuously absent was his spectacular diamond ring.

He was 37 years old.

The news hit the papers that afternoon. People in town were horrified to read that Harry had been found with “severe head injuries,” his skull fractured in at least two places. Though some were quoted as saying that Harry “practically asked for it,” or that he’d made “too many important enemies.” In the Philadelphia Inquirer, Stretch and Longo expressed their regret that the criminal charges brought against Harry never resulted in his “being ordered to accept psychiatric treatment which he badly needed.”

The rumor mill roared to life. Was this a revenge killing? A robbery gone wrong? A crime of passion? Because it wasn’t immediately clear who had killed the Fudge King or why, a fog of dread set in. The Dunes was padlocked. The grocer who’d been fined for selling the Sunday cantaloupe claimed that he’d received an anonymous phone call warning him not to drive by the Dunes ever again—as he did every day on the way to market in Atlantic City—or he too might meet his end.

The investigation ran into an immediate snag: The crime had occurred on the busiest day of the year for New Jersey state police. Potential witnesses had already scattered to the winds. With the summer season coming to a close, some 150,000 people took to the New Jersey Turnpike, migrating back to their suburban lives in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland. To make matters worse, there were no fingerprints in Harry’s car, the result of what police described as a “film of dust which adhered to the dampness of the dew from the previous night.”

But within 48 hours, investigators caught a break. They identified two witnesses to the murder: a young couple, Joyce Lickfeld and Kenneth McGinley, who were sitting in a red convertible parked two car lengths behind Harry’s Lincoln. The couple reported that when Harry approached his car after leaving the Dunes, he was with another man. Lickfeld and McGinley weren’t locals, so they didn’t recognize Harry or who he was with. The two men slipped into Harry’s car, and all was quiet for several minutes.

Then Lickfeld and McGinley heard someone shout, “Get out of here, you creep!” Harry and the man burst from the car and brawled onto Ocean Drive, tangling viciously. Soon after, the couple heard a loud crack as Harry’s head hit the pavement.

According to Lickfeld and McGinley, the man told Harry to get up, but Harry lay motionless, facing up toward the crescent moon. Cars began to honk; one, parked across Ocean Drive, seemed to do so with particular urgency. Suddenly, two men appeared out of the darkness, running toward Harry. They grabbed him under each arm and dragged him, penny loafers scraping the pavement, to his car. They told the couple that they had matters in hand. The couple, shaken, went inside the Dunes.

Lickfeld and McGinley helped police make a sketch of the killer. If anyone else saw what happened, they never came forward.

Months went by. The Dunes remained padlocked. Harry’s sister, Elaine, took over the fudge shops. Then months became years. Finally, in 1967, authorities announced that they had indicted someone, but not anyone who’d been whispered about by locals. Instead, it was a man named Christopher Brendan Hughes, 27, who was in a federal prison for his part in an extortion ring that targeted gay men. But while the Kansas City Star reported that “shaking down homosexuals had been Hughes’s major source of income for several years,” he insisted to the paper that he was no killer and pleaded not guilty to murdering Harry. Still, the authorities felt sure that they had their man—not least because Hughes had been in possession of Harry’s ring.

Harry’s sister told reporters that her family was glad to see a suspect in custody, and many Shore locals agreed that Hughes must have been the culprit. Three years after the crime, they were hungry for a trial, for answers. Meanwhile, Joyce Lickfeld did her best to keep her head down. She was told she would be the prosecution’s most important witness—she, not McGinley, had gotten a look at the killer’s face.

In September 1969, the case finally went to trial. This was just two months after the Stonewall riots, and the culture was shifting. Gay people were suddenly willing to fight their oppressors. Some were beginning to think of them as a protected class. In this climate, the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office might have felt a keener pressure to convict the killer of a well-known gay man.

Harry’s bloody penny loafers, slacks, Ban-Lon polo, and pinstriped jacket were entered into evidence. Scores of witnesses were called. Expectations ran high that there would finally be justice. But the whole thing sank like a stone. A onetime cellmate of Hughes’s named Ronnie Lee Murray, who had an uncanny ability to break out of jail—he’d managed three escapes in his career, and was even caught trying to flee his cell in the weeks just before the trial—refused to repeat under oath what he’d apparently told police during the investigation: that Hughes had confessed to the murder. Even being charged with obstruction of justice didn’t loosen Murray’s tongue. When the judge asked why he’d changed his mind, he replied, “I don’t want to get into it.”

A conviction would have to rely entirely on Lickfeld’s testimony. She took the stand and was asked to describe what she’d seen at the Dunes, and then to point out who in the courtroom resembled the man who killed Harry. Lickfeld fretted and fumbled and looked right past Hughes, who was sitting a few feet away from her. Instead, she pointed to a very surprised sheriff standing in the back. The courtroom erupted.

Hughes’s attorney, Leland Stanford III, called no witnesses. Hughes was acquitted in under an hour. His wife and sister leapt from their seats and cried, “My God!” The Ocean City Sentinel-Ledger reported that unless new suspects appeared, “law enforcement officials regard the murder case as closed.”

No suspects ever did.

The trial had been a horrible show, nothing more, she told me. She was glad someone “on the outside” was finally looking into the story.

For a long time, for a lot of people, this is how the story ended: abruptly, unceremoniously, with what seemed like more questions than answers. But a cohort of Ocean City residents insisted that the answers were right there for anyone who bothered to look. They believed that a toxic brew of prejudice, rage, and power had doomed the Fudge King.

I agreed, and thought that the story might make a great screenplay—a kind of South Jersey noir or David Lynch fantasia, where the flowers are pretty above the surface but gnarly worms lurk just below. Yet, soon I was hooked more deeply by the story of a fellow gay man living a relatively out life in the town where my family had spent our summer vacations. Someone whose reward for trying to yank Ocean City into the future was to become a target of hate and hypocrisy.

I started my research by reaching out to William Kelly, a journalist, local historian, and blogger who had written about the case on the ground in South Jersey. Initially we talked on the phone. His voice was reedy, phlegmy—I imagined him with a white beard and a fisherman’s cap. He assured me that the case could be solved entirely by the evidence from the investigation. But law enforcement didn’t have that evidence, he told me, because it had been destroyed. Which was convenient, he claimed, since law enforcement itself was involved in the crime. Ocean City power players at the highest levels.

There was someone he wanted me to talk to immediately: the young mother in a bad marriage to whom Harry had gifted that new clothes dryer. Now in her eighties, she remained angry about Harry’s murder, adamant that he’d been crushed by a cabal of powerful locals—and certain she knew who’d killed him. The trial had been a horrible show, nothing more, she told me. She was glad someone “on the outside” was finally looking into the story. She felt that it was time for “the truth to be known.” And while she insisted on remaining anonymous, she did have some information for me.

She was at the Dunes the night Harry was killed, she told me. Her father was a manager there. She saw Harry leave, and whom he left with. “Everyone knows who got away with murder,” she told me.

The killer, she claimed, was a ne’er-do-well from a prominent family. He was still very much alive, in Florida, to which he’d relocated soon after the crime. Where exactly in Florida she didn’t know. But she promised to engage his family in Ocean City, with whom she socialized on occasion. Perhaps they would tell her where he was.

For a while it seemed like this would happen, but then the balking began. “Maybe this whole thing wasn’t such a good idea,” she said. Then: “You have to promise me you won’t tell anyone.” Then: “Oh, I won’t see his family for a while.…”

When I expressed my frustration to Kelly, he advised me to forget about her, but to follow up on what she’d told me. What I needed, he said, was to get my hands on a certain affidavit that would prove her allegations. The document in question, which Kelly claimed to have seen, was dictated by a milkman named Lou Esposito who’d been out making deliveries the morning Harry’s body was found. Esposito told Kelly that he’d driven by the Dunes, seen state police examining the scene, and pulled off the road to learn what he could. At that point, he claimed, he’d heard voices behind him in the marsh. “He didn’t have to die,” one of them supposedly said. Esposito then turned around and recognized three local men, including the one the young mother told me she’d seen leave the Dunes with Harry. He was throwing a bloody shirt into the water. Esposito then sped off, believing he’d gone undetected. That night, however, he got a call demanding his silence or else. Soon after, Esposito purported, he was awarded a long sought-after job with the fire department—a reward, he believed, for keeping his mouth shut.

At the end of his life, Esposito wanted to unburden himself, so he dictated all this to his lawyer. He then gave a copy of the affidavit to Kelly, who promptly made copies for several of his friends for safekeeping. Kelly had since misplaced his copy, and most of the people he’d given the others to had died—as had Esposito and his lawyer. The only person who might still have one, Kelly said, was a local architect named Jack Snyder. But Snyder didn’t return any of my calls. Or emails. Or letters. Because he had recently died.

I felt more than a bit of skepticism about the affidavit. But at this point, I was in thrall to the local myth, however unbelievable it sounded. I was also struck by an anonymous comment in one of Kelly’s blogs that said of this story, “I believe the delivery man you refer to was my dad. He told me many of the details you mentioned [before] he died in 2003.”

If this was Esposito’s son, perhaps he would know where the affidavit was. Kelly told me that the son had the same name as his father and was “listed in the phone book.” So I called him. Lou Junior picked up on the first ring, listened to my spiel about the affidavit, and paused before responding.

It was a dirty bit of business, he finally said—a broad cover-up, he agreed. Harry was a great guy who did a lot for Ocean City, and law enforcement had most definitely been involved in his death. Lou had been ten years old when Harry was murdered, and even then he knew that Harry was gay. Everybody did. But he couldn’t help me with the affidavit, because, he told me, I was talking to the wrong Lou Esposito. See, there had been two Lou Espositos in town, and I was talking to the son of the other one.

His father had known the Lou Esposito who supposedly gave the affidavit, because they used to get each other’s mail. His father had even made payments on the other man’s car loan before the mistake was discovered. The correct Lou Esposito had some daughters, he told me. Maybe they would have their father’s affidavit? They were still around, but he didn’t know their names: “They got married and stuff,” he said.

I longed to set sail from the land of dead architects and lost affidavits. I wanted concrete information. Preferably a gun that smoked.

I decided to return to Ocean City, declare myself a child of its summers, and talk to locals and the law enforcement agencies that had handled the initial investigation. Maybe doors would open, and documents—if any were left—would be coughed up. At the very least I could hear for myself that they no longer existed.

I flew from Los Angeles to Philadelphia in May 2022, picked up my brother and our mother—who asked, “Is it wrong to be excited about a murder?”—and headed down the Shore.

The three of us stood at 11th Street and the Boardwalk, where Harry’s flagship store had been. The shop was no longer the gleaming showstopper I remembered, and it now had the affrontery to sell someone else’s fudge. Above it was the suite of rooms where Harry had lived, where Longo went “to get the goods.” Its many windows were flung open, and inside a cleaning crew busied about, readying the place for summer.

Standing in the shade of the old Copper Kettle, the full force of what I experienced as a child suddenly returned. Something had never felt quite right about Ocean City: I could never really be a part of it, however much I wanted to. There was nowhere for someone like me, with my queer desires, to go in America’s Greatest Family Resort, except under or out.

Which made me wonder: Why had Harry stayed? Why didn’t he park his talents elsewhere? In the 1960s, large communities of gay people were establishing themselves in his hometown of Philadelphia and in New York. Harry had to know about them. Why would such a charming and innovative businessman remain in Ocean City?

Just then my phone flashed: “Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office.” The very office where Harry had been booked on lewdness charges. Before my flight, I’d left a message with Lieutenant Joe Landis, its LGBTQ liaison, thinking I’d have a sympathetic ear.

Landis told me that he was not in his office, that he was still working remotely because of the pandemic, and that the records on the lewdness charges against Harry were probably long gone. He suggested I call Captain Pat Snyder at the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office, which might have records on Harry’s murder.

I left Captain Snyder a message, then followed my mother into a bookstore, where she asked a clerk if they had any books on Copper Kettle. This was the clerk who lowered her voice and said, “You sneeze in this town and everybody hears it.” Realizing that I had a live one, I pushed the issue of Harry’s death, asking if she had any idea who might have been involved. She paused, then wrote a name on a piece of scratch paper and passed it to me.


She then insinuated that Harry and Longo had been having an affair. My mother looked at me, her eyes big behind her glasses. On the same piece of paper, I wrote another name—the one given to me by the young mother in a bad marriage. The man she said had left the Dunes with Harry, the same man Lou Esposito allegedly swore was one of the men he saw in the marsh after the killing. I passed it back to the clerk.

She glanced at it. Yeah, he was involved, too.

Could she tell me more? She exchanged looks with another clerk behind her. No, she said, that’s all she had. Could she think of anyone who might tell me more? She suggested a local author who had written a book that included a chapter about Harry’s murder, albeit in fictionalized form. But the book was out of print. And its title escaped her.

I asked if I could have the author’s name so I could search for the book online. She exchanged another look with her fellow clerk. No, I could not have his name—he was a local who wrote under a pseudonym “because he knew too much.”

But he came into the store all the time, she added. I left my contact for her to convey when she saw him next. She promised she’d pass it along, to which I responded, trying to break the accumulating tension, “I’m just in it for the fudge.”

The two clerks chuckled, then fell silent as we left.

I decided to call the young mother in a bad marriage, to tell her that I was in town and that someone had just confirmed the name she’d given to me. She seemed startled that I was in Ocean City, claimed she was under the weather, and said she’d call back. I never heard from her.

Bells were ringing, locals were ghosting, and there was, I have to admit, something delectable in the Nancy Drewness of it all.

“Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office” flashed on my phone. Captain Snyder himself was now calling, intrigued by the message I’d left. His voice was serious, full, resonant. I launched into my spiel about the Fudge King’s unsolved murder.

“Was that the case where the victim was gay and romantically involved with a cop?” he asked.

He told me that he would ask around for any materials that might still exist, although after all these years it was probably a long shot.

I hung up and googled Captain Snyder. He was one of the top detectives in Atlantic County and a graduate of the FBI Academy. Not a bad person to have taken me seriously. Better still, from his online photo he looked to be somewhere in his forties—which meant that he was one or two generations away from anyone still spooked by the crime. Also, he didn’t stumble on the word “gay” like several locals had up to this point.

I circled back to William Kelly, the blogger. Could he meet? He suggested the Anchorage, one of the bars where Harry was allegedly seen the last night he was alive. I left my mother and brother on the boardwalk and drove our Kia rental to Somers Point, where the Anchorage, a candy-colored Victorian tavern, sits just a few yards from Great Egg Harbor Bay.

I immediately spotted Kelly at the bar—a big man in his seventies, ruddy, with watery eyes, his breathing loud and labored. He was sitting with his girlfriend, a Kewpie-ish redhead somewhere in her sixties, and a male friend, around Kelly’s age but smaller, taut, watchful.

Kelly told me that he’d just had a blood transfusion and wasn’t sure how long he’d last with his health problems. Every man is remembered for one thing he did on this earth, he said. Solving the Fudge King’s murder would not be his. He implied that he had bigger fish to fry, glancing around. His friends were silent.

I wondered if we shouldn’t move to a quiet corner. We were in full view of the other patrons. But he said that he wasn’t scared to discuss the crime out in the open, or to have written repeatedly about it over the decades, naming names and pointing fingers at people he’d known his entire life.

“What could they do,” he said, “kill me?”

Kelly told me not to put too much stock in Captain Snyder’s promise to help. “He had to say that,” he said. He offered more names of people who might have intel on Harry’s murder. A well-connected local who had mob connections. Another milkman who’s now a real estate agent. His friend suggested that I talk to a UPS guy who parked himself on a barstool at Gregory’s at 5 p.m. every day.

I felt myself once again drifting from the facts.

In the small talk gluing it all together, we got onto the topic of the Warren Commission. Kelly looked at me incredulously and said, “You don’t actually believe one gunman killed JFK, do you?”

I slumped, dejected and day drunk, into the parking lot—just as Captain Snyder called back. He had found something, he said, sounding a little amazed. Materials pertaining to the investigation.

What materials? I asked, astonished.

He was not permitted to say, he replied.

I said I’d be right over. He said no, I would need to file a public records request. The entire process would take some weeks, and he couldn’t guarantee that what had been found would be made available to me.

OK, I said, could he at least tell me the nature of what he’d found?

No, he could not.

Because the windshield of their convertible was covered with dew, she couldn’t see what was going on, so she peeked over it. That’s when she witnessed Harry being assaulted.

Back home in Los Angeles, I called a lawyer friend to ask her about submitting an Open Public Records application. She offered to be the Harper Lee to my Truman Capote, holding my hand as I drafted the request. She cautioned me not to get my hopes up: “Records in these cases could mean cops’ coffee receipts.” I worked with my Harper, lit votives, burned sage, sent my request, and was rewarded two weeks later with a terse email that read, “The agency possesses no responsive records.”

I called Captain Snyder with more than a little bass in my voice and said, “What gives?” He paused, reiterated that some materials had been found, and instructed me to file again—this time to a certain person’s attention. I refiled, cc’ing the good captain to let him know I meant business.

Two weeks later I received in my inbox 168 pages of investigative material pertaining to Harry Anglemyer’s murder: from the initial investigation by the New Jersey State Police, through the handoff to the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office some years later, and up to but not including the trial. The courtroom records, I learned after filing another request, had been destroyed, which was standard procedure at the time for any trial resulting in an acquittal.

Captain Snyder had been slyly schooling me about how to get what I wanted, and now it was pouring out of my printer. Scores of typewritten interviews and reports, much of it reprinted from old-timey carbon copies, then mimeographed, then digitized into PDFs. There were redactions everywhere, and big chunks of it were out of order, as if everything had been thrown loosely together and shoved in a filing cabinet.

I stayed up all night reading, ruining my eyes. The pages filled out gaps in the news reports from the day, revealing much that had been hidden from the public. I’d expected Mayberry-level ineptitude, but this was a comprehensive investigation with almost 100 witnesses, handled by the New Jersey State Police, law enforcement agencies in several other states, and the FBI.

According to news reports, they began by looking for anyone with damaged fists, as the assault had been so brutal. Meanwhile, they talked to people who’d seen Harry in the 24 hours prior to his death: His secretary, Daniel LeRoy. His sister Elaine, who also had an apartment above the fudge shop. Dunes staff who remained local when the summer ended. All of them were eliminated as suspects. Many couldn’t recall seeing Harry at all that night, nor could two Egg Harbor Township patrolmen assigned to the area—although one had noticed Harry’s distinctive car gleaming under the parking lot’s lights.

Two bartenders who’d been swigging champagne in the parking lot said that they’d seen Harry in the hours before his death with his head on the bar. Standing next to him was a man in his late twenties, taller than Harry, who had long dark hair and was wearing a dark suit; he was “possibly Italian.” The bartenders asked the man if Harry was “bothering” him. The man said no. They asked Harry if he needed help to his car. He said what he always said, that he could take care of himself.

The police interviewed Copper Kettle staff, including a former fudge cutter who’d apparently vowed to “get Anglemyer’s ring by Labor Day.” They also spoke to a local with a “Beatles haircut” who turned out to be one of the punks behind Harry’s black eyes. The young man claimed that Harry had grabbed him “by the privates,” then admitted to being after Harry’s ring too. Both the fudge cutter and the punk had criminal records. But when they took polygraphs, they registered no reaction when questioned about the killing. Police ruled them out as suspects.

Investigators soon located Joyce Lickfeld and Kenneth McGinley, who were in their twenties and had broken up earlier in the summer, only to run into each other that fateful night at the Dunes. They weren’t up to no good, as some newspapers implied—they were discussing what had torpedoed their relationship. (Eventually, the intensity of the investigation and their role in it would bring them closer, and they would marry.)

Police asked them to recount what they’d witnessed that night. Lickfeld said that they were sitting in the car when “two fellows” approached from the rear. One of the men, presumably Harry, was “walking like a girl.” The two men entered the car in front of Lickfeld, then, after a few minutes, exited and began arguing. Because the windshield of their convertible was covered with dew, she couldn’t see what was going on, so she peeked over it. That’s when she witnessed Harry being assaulted. McGinley intervened, offering his help. Harry’s assailant replied, “That’s OK, buddy,” as if he and Harry were just a couple of drunk friends having a bad night.

Lickfeld told police that she got a good look at the killer because she was sitting against the convertible’s passenger-side door, facing the Dunes, when Harry and the man walked by. She said that the man was in his late twenties, white but with a dark complexion, and sported slicked-back hair. He was “maybe of Italian extraction,” medium build, taller than average, wearing a dark suit, white shirt, and black tie. This sounded to me a lot like the man the two drunk bouncers saw Harry talking to at the bar.

When the sketch of the killer was published in newspapers, people called investigators in droves.

It looked like a cook in a Wildwood restaurant who “beats up women and queers.”

Someone’s daughter’s piano teacher.

“That manager of Aunt Jemima Restaurant.”

“An usher at the General Motors exhibit” at the New York World’s Fair.

A man who “acted like a homosexual, spoke of hairdressing, and made remarks of being in Harry’s pad.”

People inserted themselves everywhere, throwing enemies under the bus, suggesting people who bore no resemblance whatsoever to the sketch, and offering up their opinions as they pretended to be Harry’s best friend—or distanced themselves from him when questioned about being seen with him that summer.

At one point, investigators wondered if Harry’s nephew Charles, who worked at Copper Kettle, was involved in the killing, but Charles denied it. He said that he’d always worried about his uncle. When Harry “talked openly about his homosexual problems,” Charles counseled him to “do it elsewhere,” so as not to get in trouble in Ocean City. Yes, he’d sometimes followed his uncle, but only to make sure he was safe.

Some of the more promising information came from Catherine Lee Gordon, Harry’s maid. Gordon had seen quite a bit while keeping house for Harry that summer. Men came and went via the apartment’s three entrances. Investigators asked her to provide names of everyone who’d visited the apartment that summer, especially anyone she thought was close to him. Straight away she mentioned jockey Howard Grant, whom Harry had picked up at the Atlantic City racetrack. Grant had moved into the apartment in July, bringing with him his mother and one of her girlfriends.

Gordon also told police about airman Thomas Campbell, who’d come into the picture even before Grant moved out. Gordon found him more agreeable than the jockey. Campbell liked to play the piano, so a besotted Harry had one delivered to the apartment. Next came Campbell’s friends for raucous parties; they liked to sing into the wee hours, full of whiskey. This was the kind of party that took place the weekend before Harry’s death, Gordon said. It started with dinner, after which a man who resembled the sketch stopped by. Harry showed him around the apartment, but Catherine didn’t get the man’s name.

All these tips were dead ends. There is no record of Grant ever being questioned by police, and case files show Campbell learning about Harry’s death from a mutual friend on the beach, then flying to Germany a few days later to fulfill his Air Force duties.

Longo’s name comes up three times in the entire 168 pages. The first is with regard to an anonymous letter that arrived at the offices of the state police. “Why don’t you ask Longo what happened?” it read. “A couple of the ones involved in those ‘morals charges’ would love to have Harry out of the way.” Later, a caller told police that the sketch of the suspect looked like Longo, then hung up after refusing to give her name. The third reference to Longo came courtesy of the man himself: He contacted an investigator to say that the sketch resembled a “drifter from Longport whose father has an Esso gas station.” Longo knew this man to play the horses and hang out at the Dunes, and Ocean City police had a warrant out on him for writing bad checks.

Stretch’s name appears once in the files. An anonymous caller claimed, “Stretch is the guy who put the money up to have Anglemyer killed, and three henchmen did the job.” The tipster promised to call back the following week with more information but never did.

If police followed up on these tips—including Longo’s drifter—there’s no record of it in the files made available to me. Nor is there any documentation of Longo or Stretch being questioned about Harry’s death or providing alibis for the night of the murder. Though parts of the file were redacted, nothing I read suggested that law enforcement considered either man a suspect. Lickfeld and McGinley don’t seem to have been shown their photos either. I couldn’t ask Longo, who died in 2006, or Stretch, who died in 1985.

As I was coming to the end of the files, I found something that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up: a formal mention of the 1963 lewdness charges against Harry in a two-page memo issued by an Atlantic County detective. Dated the day after the murder, it lists his three accusers: bridgetender Thomas Sullivan, engineer James Luddy—but not Longo. Instead, the memo gives the third man as someone named Bill Blevin.

That was the name of the man the young mother in a bad marriage told me she saw leaving the Dunes with Harry. One of the names supposedly in Lou Esposito’s missing affidavit. The person the bookstore clerk believed was involved in the killing.

But how had Blevin’s name wound up replacing Longo’s in the memo? It appears nowhere else in the investigation files I received. And no one else I spoke to could connect Harry to Blevin.

I attempted to locate Blevin, turning up an address at a Fort Lauderdale strip mall and one on the Gulf Coast. Letters sent to both were returned. I reached out to his cousin Robert—who as it happened had worked with Longo on the local force before succeeding him as chief of police—and also to a surviving Blevin sibling, without success.

Then I got a tip. A friend of Blevin’s had heard that I was asking around, and he was willing to talk.

I was skeptical. The friend had been described to me by one local as someone who was less than trustworthy. Maybe so, but information he gave me checked out. He knew all the places Blevin had lived since leaving Ocean City when no one else did. And he provided me with Blevin’s obituary from 2002, printed by a newspaper in Knoxville, Tennessee, establishing that he was not alive and well in Florida.

And the story he told me was this: For reasons that are unclear, Blevin had become a target of Longo’s ire and, knowing Longo’s expanding sphere of influence, set sail from the Shore forever.

This at least had a ring of truth. Longo, according to some of my local sources, had a history of personal retaliation. People started calling him King Dominick at a certain point because of the power he wielded around town. Still, this was just one man’s version of the past.

With Blevin’s obituary in hand, I was able to locate two of his children: Beth Blevin and Teri Gagliardi. My heart about stopped when they described their father as “Italian looking”—just like Lickfeld, McGinley, and the Dunes bouncers had characterized the man last seen with Harry. But the Blevin daughters also described their father as scrawny, which didn’t square with the description of the suspected killer. And neither Beth nor Teri had any recollection of the names Harry Anglemyer or Dominick Longo.

I was no closer to determining how Blevin’s name wound up in the memo instead of Longo’s. It certainly seemed odd, because everyone in town knew that it was Longo, not Blevin, who’d accused Harry of lewdness. (And Blevin’s name appears nowhere else in the investigation files.) Could Longo have replaced his own name with Blevin’s as part of his grudge against the man?

Maybe, so many years after the fact, no one could provide the answer. But I did begin to wonder if the erroneous memo naming Blevin, along with the references—or lack thereof—to Stretch and Longo in the case files, were the seeds from which a legend grew. Perhaps these mysteries made their way into Ocean City’s water, reaching people like William Kelly and the young mother in a bad marriage and the bookstore clerk—people perhaps inclined to believe that the grassy knoll was lousy with gunmen.

Just as bootlegging arose from Prohibition, so did the extortion of gay men arise from laws criminalizing queer behavior.

Over the course of the investigation, New Jersey law enforcement ruled out suspect after suspect until only Christopher Brendan Hughes’s name remained. He was the father of two small children with a common-law wife in Pennsylvania whom he hardly saw because he was busy extorting money from gay men from Baltimore to Chicago. His name was given to New Jersey state police by the FBI, after the bureau interviewed an associate of his named Thomas Rochford, aka Tommy Ryan.

The extortion ring Hughes and Rochford were in was known to police as the Chickens and the Bulls. The group’s MO was what law enforcement used to refer to as “fairy shaking,” where they would target a gay mark, then send in a “chicken” to lure the target to a hotel room. Soon after, a “bull” would bust into the room, flashing a badge and handcuffs, pretending to be a vice cop, and demand money. If the mark didn’t comply, the bull would threaten arrest, which carried the risk of being named a homosexual in the press.

The Chickens and the Bulls were an insidious success, managing to snare thousands of targets, from congressmen to military brass. It was rumored that they almost brought down Liberace, but Mr. Showmanship could afford to pay them off. Other men weren’t so lucky. They went bankrupt, got divorced, lost jobs—one Navy admiral even killed himself.

Law enforcement had long overlooked crimes against gay men, and even tacitly encouraged them. Just as bootlegging arose from Prohibition, so did the extortion of gay men arise from laws criminalizing queer behavior. But around the mid-1960s, law enforcement became interested in prosecuting the Chickens and the Bulls, in no small part because cops didn’t appreciate being impersonated by criminals. So began what the FBI referred to as Operation Homex, a coordinated effort to take down the Chickens and the Bulls.

Hughes was netted in the operation. He was a chicken—and an effective one. He was young. He was smart. He was pretty. And according to FBI files, Hughes took Harry’s ring to Chicago to fence it. The ring was later stripped of its stones. One became part of an engagement band given to the fiancée of one of the Bulls; another was placed in a tie pin for which a dirty cop held the pawn ticket.

Prosecutors couldn’t lean on other members of the Chickens and the Bulls to place Hughes at the Dunes the night of Harry’s death. Rochford was institutionalized—his lawyer said that his memory was “wiped from shock treatments.” The boss of the whole ring, Sherman Kaminsky, was in the wind. (The FBI didn’t catch him until 1978, when he was living in Denver under an assumed name and overseeing a business breeding rabbits.) Law enforcement interviewed some of Hughes’s associates from Marcus Hook, the hardscrabble Pennsylvania town where he grew up, but none of them were called to testify at trial. Instead the prosecution relied on Ronnie Lee Murray, Hughes’s old cellmate. But he ultimately refused to take the stand.

And then there was Joyce Lickfeld. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Hughes looked “a good deal like the police sketch drawn of him,” the one Lickfeld made possible. But that wasn’t true. He had fair hair, blue eyes, and a slight build. “Slender and stoop-shouldered,” the Ocean City Sentinel-Ledger wrote, “looking more like a high school teacher than a brawler.” It’s no wonder that when Lickfeld looked around the courtroom for Harry’s killer, she didn’t finger Hughes.

But then hadn’t the prosecution showed Lickfeld photos of Hughes during the investigation? Only one person could tell me for sure.

Joyce was afraid because the case remained unsolved. She was worried that people might come for her.

Joyce is now divorced from Kenneth and remarried, with a different last name. She’s in her eighties and lives in a ranch-style home in a small central New Jersey town. Inside, on practically every surface, are seashells.

“I just love the seashore,” she said.

It hadn’t been easy to find Joyce, and at first she wasn’t sure she wanted to talk. Eventually she said yes, and we scheduled a visit via text, which included a lot of emojis on her end. Now we sat at her dining table having coffee. She’d put out an array of muffins. With her were her sister and her son with Kenneth.

Joyce had startling blue eyes, almost turquoise, and she wore a blouse of the same color. Her hair was chestnut red. Her manner was shy, and there was something about her that felt like it needed protecting. Which is perhaps why her son and sister were there.

She told me that for years she kept a scrapbook of news clippings about the murder. She wasn’t eager to bring it out. I proceeded gingerly. Joyce was afraid because the case remained unsolved. She was worried that people might come for her. She also felt partly responsible for the mysteries that had accumulated over the previous 60 years, and also guilty that she couldn’t help Harry’s family find closure. Even though she knew none of it was really her fault. Still, “witness trouble” was what law enforcement officials had blamed the collapse of the case on, and she was keenly aware that she’d been the prosecution’s sole eyewitness.

Her recall was quite good, and the account she gave me of the murder matched the one she’d given the police, including the sound of Harry’s head hitting the road, that crack so sickening she can still hear it today.

She did add one thing that she hadn’t mentioned to investigators: As Harry walked past the convertible where she was sitting with Kenneth, he was holding hands with the other man. Why hadn’t she mentioned this to investigators? I asked. Because, she said, such things weren’t discussed back then. Instead she told police what I had read in the files, that Harry “walked like a girl.” This was, she said to me, the best she could do in 1964.

As for Christopher Brendan Hughes, yes, Joyce had seen mug shots of him in 1967, when he was indicted. And back then she thought, sure, this could be the man from the Dunes. But she never saw Hughes in person until the trial, because he’d been in prison. When she finally did, it seemed to her that he could only be the killer if he’d lost a lot of weight and dyed his hair. Ultimately, she didn’t believe he was the man she saw that night. So she pointed to the surprised sheriff in the back, who had dark skin and hair, because of all the men in the room he looked the most like the culprit.

“Would you like to see the scrapbook?” Joyce finally asked.

She picked it up off a credenza behind her and placed it between us. In it were not only newspaper clippings about the murder, but also souvenirs from her life: coasters from the bar where Kenneth proposed, postcards, dried flowers. There wasn’t one section for the murder and one for mementos—it was all mixed together, showing her life, the good and the terrible, as it happened.

Was there anything else she wanted me to know? Only that she’d met Harry’s mother and sister at the courthouse right after the trial, and they told her she could have a job at Copper Kettle if she wanted. That meant a lot to Joyce.

After our visit, I went to Harry’s grave at Northwood Cemetery in Philadelphia. He’s buried in a mausoleum along with his mother, though it wasn’t his initial resting place. Mrs. Anglemyer had her son disinterred at some point and commissioned the much grander resting monument for the two of them. From it you can see the house they lived in when Harry was a child.

The cemetery was ancient, in disrepair. A groundskeeper led me to the plot, explaining that Harry’s mother had paid for “perpetual care.” The mausoleum gleamed, and the grass around it was mowed, while the rest of the cemetery was gray-brown.

Tucked in the iron grate of the mausoleum’s door, through which I could see Harry’s name and that of his mother on the crypt, was a small American flag—the kind you’d wave in a parade—and a nosegay of fresh flowers. Two striking flashes of color in an otherwise monochromatic landscape.

I remarked to the groundskeeper that the flowers and the flag must have been part of “perpetual care.” But he said no. He had no idea who’d put those there.

“Are you sure they’re all dead?” Joyce had asked me about the suspects. It was a hard question to answer—the uncertainty shot through the whole story meant that there were surely names of suspects I didn’t know about. But there were plenty I did know about, based on my interviews and the investigation files. Some of them had been ruled out by law enforcement, but I wasn’t convinced—the files weren’t thorough enough for that. I started making a list: men of interest.

Longo and Stretch were on it. So were Kaminsky and Rochford. Bill Blevin, though I had serious doubts. The fudge cutter who claimed he “would get Anglemyer’s ring by Labor Day.” Arthur Marshall Brown, aka Arthur Kebabs, and Frank Ozio—the punks who rolled Harry a few weeks before he died. A Dunes bouncer named Saba “Buddy” Taweel, who looked like the sketch of the suspect and whom Lou Esposito allegedly named in his affidavit as one of the men in the marsh near the scene of the killing. Frank “Birdman” Phelan, who’d gunned down a couple in the basement of a Philadelphia restaurant. John “Chickie” Binder, a diamond-obsessed burglar who, according to an informant, had spotted Harry at the Dunes that summer and knew him to be “an important queer” he might roll. Another Dunes bouncer. A Dunes doorman. Christopher Brendan Hughes’s associates from Marcus Hook, who had rap sheets and, in interviews with police, placed themselves at the Shore the night of Harry’s death.

I couldn’t ask the Atlantic County prosecutor who worked the case—the aptly named Solomon Forman—for his opinion on any of these names. He was long dead. I assumed other key figures from the 1969 trial were gone, too. But maybe not Hughes’s attorney, whose job it had been to at least consider alternate theories of the crime. Hughes was a small-time crook who, despite his success in the Chickens and the Bulls, surely didn’t have the money for a private attorney. Which meant that he would have had a public defender. Perhaps someone precocious, eager to make a name for himself. Someone at the start of his career. Someone in his twenties in 1969 who might still be alive.

After Joyce couldn’t identify Stanford’s client in court, the only thing Atlantic County had on Hughes was Anglemyer’s ring.

“My client was innocent,” Leland Stanford III told me. Hughes was only put on trial “because of all the public pressure, because of Harry Anglemyer being so popular and well-known.”

Stanford, like Joyce, is in his eighties. Retired now, he left the Jersey Shore over a decade ago and today lives in a beach community farther down the coast. He had more to say than anyone I’d talked to, and not only about Hughes, his former client. His memory of the trial was astonishing. He attributed this to it being an indelible moment in his life, his first high-profile case, an extremely heady time.

Stanford had never seen the case files—the process of discovery back then was much more selective—so I told him what I knew. And he told me what he knew. He said that the sheriff standing in the back of the courtroom, the one Joyce had pointed to, was a buddy of his, a man named Samuel Shamy who was, incredibly, the first cousin of Dunes bouncer Saba “Buddy” Taweel. Was I once again in the land of local conspiracy? Stanford said no, Taweel’s alibi was airtight. That his cousin was in the courtroom had been merely a small-town coincidence.

What Stanford did think significant was that Shamy and his cousin were of Lebanese descent, with dark skin and hair, as Joyce and Kenneth had described the killer having. Further, both men had a unibrow, as did the suspect in the artist’s sketch. This was the first I’d heard about this detail. But when I looked closely at the sketch, I could see what Stanford was talking about: a dusting of hair above the bridge of the nose. No descriptions of Hughes mention it.

Stanford had no knowledge of the Longo and Stretch theory, nor of the name Bill Blevin. He told me to be wary of narratives built up over time. His only concern was clearing his client based on what he knew from his own pretrial investigation. And he felt certain that Hughes had not committed the crime. “The first words out of his mouth were ‘I’m innocent,’ ” he said. Hughes was a career criminal, I pointed out, and one who extorted gay men. But Hughes told Stanford that he never would have gone after Harry, that he only targeted men who didn’t want the world to know they were gay. Stanford was saying that Harry was basically too out of the closet to be extorted.

He had a point. In fact, when Harry was accused of lewd acts by Longo and the other men, he didn’t deny being gay—he only denied the specific charges against him. He didn’t have a wife to worry about, or a boss who might fire him if the truth came out. He wasn’t the kind of target the Chickens and the Bulls preferred.

Also, after Joyce couldn’t identify Stanford’s client in court, the only thing Atlantic County had on Hughes was Anglemyer’s ring. “He looked nothing like the drawing, and there was no direct evidence of any kind identifying him,” Stanford said. It wasn’t enough to prove murder. Which Stanford didn’t believe Hughes was capable of, physically or otherwise.

Did Stanford have any idea who had killed Harry Anglemyer?

He said that he did.

Could he tell me?

No, he could not.


Because the person might still be alive.

Was he afraid that this person would come after him?

No, he said. They’d be very old at this point. And the case could hardly be retried after all this time, so he wasn’t being professionally cautious.

I changed tack: Why was he convinced of the real killer’s identity?

Finally, he said: “Because of some things Christopher Hughes told me.”

When other bars closed, Hughes and his friends proceeded to the Dunes. Inside was Harry Anglemyer, diamond ring blazing.

Suspicious of lawyers, Hughes initially represented himself. Eventually Stanford came on board, and midway through the trial, Hughes trusted him enough to take him into his confidence. He admitted to Stanford that he was indeed at the Shore the night of the crime, partying with some of his boys from Marcus Hook. When other bars closed, Hughes and his friends proceeded to the Dunes. Inside was Harry Anglemyer, diamond ring blazing.

According to Hughes, it was one of the other guys from Marcus Hook who targeted Harry—a guy who looked Italian. He wasn’t known to be a member of the Chickens and the Bulls, but was extremely close to Hughes—at the very least familiar with Hughes’s line of work.

Hughes, then, may have been one of the men who came running when Harry hit the pavement, who helped the real killer stuff him in the car. Hughes admitted to Stanford that he eventually absconded with Harry’s ring, which explained why he was able to transport it to Chicago.

Hughes’s version of the story describes a crime of opportunity that happened to involve a member of the Chickens and the Bulls. While I still didn’t have the real killer’s name, I was inching closer to the truth. But one thing still rankled me: Harry had told various people that he was going to the Dunes to meet someone. Perhaps the whole thing, I pondered, was more planned than Hughes admitted to Stanford. Maybe Hughes or one of his associates identified Harry over the summer from all the press they’d been reading in connection with the lewdness charges brought by Dominick Longo, with D. Allen Stretch’s support. Maybe they arranged to meet Harry that night for what they hoped would be an easy grab-and-go robbery, only to have it end in murder.

I ran all this past Stanford, who, ever the lawyer, refused to speculate. I asked him if he’d encountered the man Hughes had identified as Harry’s killer before.

He said that he had. Several times. The man actually attended Hughes’s trial on and off—though presumably not the day Joyce testified, lest she identify him. He also showed up, unannounced, in Stanford’s office during that time. Stanford didn’t know why and sent him packing. “I wanted nothing to do with him,” he said.

Which makes it all the more notable that the day after the acquittal, Stanford received a call from this man. “He sounded like he was partying,” Stanford told me. “He just wanted to make sure, in my opinion, that he could not be charged with the murder now. I told him no, it didn’t appear he could be. He would have been charged by then if prosecutors felt they had something. The fact is, they had stopped investigating.”

Did you ever give his name to anyone else? I asked Stanford.

He said that he had. To none other than Solomon Forman, shortly after the Hughes trial.

Forman, then in his sixties, never learned how to drive, so he often got a ride to the courthouse with Stanford. It was during one of these drives that Stanford told him that they’d picked the wrong suspect to prosecute, then offered the name Hughes had provided as the real killer of Harry Anglemyer

On hearing it, Stanford said, Forman became quiet. He then admitted that he’d thought the county’s case against Hughes was lousy, and agreed that the wrong person had been tried. Furthermore, he said that he’d been assigned to the case—he was Atlantic County’s best trial attorney at the time, and after five years of the Fudge King’s murder remaining unsolved, there was considerable pressure to put the damn thing to bed.

About the name Hughes had given Stanford, Forman didn’t disagree. “You are probably correct,” he said.

But if the wrong person was indicted, I asked, why hadn’t authorities retried the case with a new suspect? Because there wasn’t enough evidence, Stanford explained. Nothing physical certainly. And because no one wanted to touch the matter at that point. Prosecutors had spent five days putting witnesses on the stand, only to end up with a drubbing acquittal in under an hour. They had lost all credibility. Without an utterly airtight case, they weren’t going to charge anyone else with Harry’s murder.

I understood that to get the suspected killer’s name from Stanford, I would need to prove that he was dead. Immediately after our call, I snail-mailed him the obituaries I’d assembled of everyone I considered to be a suspect. I would have sent them via email, but for some reason Stanford never received the other messages I sent that way. He never called me either, so after I knew the obituaries had arrived, I called him. Repeatedly. Comcast kept telling me that his cell phone was offline for “service interruptions.”

When I got through, an excruciating week later, I asked him if he was satisfied that the person he believed had killed Harry was well and truly dead.

He was, yes.

Was he now prepared to tell me his name?

He was. And he did.

The name made immediate sense. Investigators had tried to reach him as they looked into Harry’s murder, but were unable to locate him.

It was Kevin Hughes, Christopher Brendan Hughes’s younger brother.

Kevin had a longer—and more violent—rap sheet than Christopher, including a string of burglaries, two years on the lam, armed robbery, and assault and battery of a police officer. Witnesses told investigators that he was a “cop hater.” And he looked much more like the artist’s sketch of the killer than his brother did. He was taller, dark, muscled. According to Stanford, “It was like they had different parents or something.”

Although Kevin’s photograph was requested by police, there is no information that it was ever received, let alone shown to Joyce and Kenneth, or that he was ever considered a suspect. His brother was the more obvious culprit, said Stanford—the guy fencing Harry’s ring and extorting rich gay men. Kevin Hughes would live out his life without ever being implicated in the murder. He died in 2004 at Shore Memorial Hospital, the same hospital where Harry’s autopsy took place.

As I researched the Hughes brothers, a few things pulled me shockingly close to them. Things I couldn’t have imagined when my brother first told me about the Fudge King’s murder. They grew up in the same county I did—Delaware, aka Delco. They went to the same Catholic high school I briefly attended, where I, like Harry Anglemyer, was called a sissy and smacked around by tough boys like the Hugheses.

I searched my school’s online archives and found their names and class—but no photos. Some kids couldn’t afford to have their pictures taken back then. Or didn’t bother to. Or they dropped out before graduation. Kevin and Christopher Brendan Hughes’s names were accompanied by blank squares.

It’s a long shot, but maybe someday soon there will be a measure of justice for the Fudge King after all.

In the spring of 2023, I was in Philadelphia visiting my mother when I noticed a brass plaque on an old brownstone near Rittenhouse Square. It read “The Vidocq Society.” I knew this to be a consortium of private investigators, largely former law enforcement, who had banded together to help solve cold cases—most recently, Philly’s infamous “Boy in the Box” case from the 1950s. My mother, still excited by murder, wondered if we shouldn’t go in. We did, and there we met with director William Fleisher in his mahogany-paneled office, the walls filled with degrees and citations. He listened patiently to everything I’d uncovered about the death of the Fudge King.

What I told him was, of course, only a theory—hard to prove without, say, forensics. Harry’s bloody clothes or shoes, for instance. He nodded, then said he couldn’t help me. The Vidocq Society only works with police agencies, not private citizens. But he suggested I contact someone with the recently formed New Jersey State Police Cold Case Task Force. He then handed my mother his card with his cell number, in case she ever got “in trouble in the neighborhood.”

I called the task force and connected with detective Taylor Bonner. He was reluctant to look at the case, as he didn’t have any files on it, or even a file number. I had all that, of course, but after I presented it to him, there was still a bit of hesitation on his part. It was Atlantic County that had tried the case, and Bonner felt it was theirs to reopen or not. I offered Captain Snyder’s name immediately—with more than a little ta-da—and Bonner said he’d get back to me.

It took him some weeks, but he did. He had spoken with Pat Snyder—Snyder has since been promoted to chief—and after some back and forth they wanted me to know that they would work together to re-review the case. Currently, there is an Atlantic County detective assigned to it and one other high-profile cold-case murder. It’s a long shot, but maybe someday soon there will be a measure of justice for the Fudge King after all.

If this new theory turns out to be true, it will complicate the local myth surrounding Harry’s death, the one whispered and blogged about and alluded to in a hastily scribbled note from a bookstore clerk. Blogger Kelly says he’s fine with that—and continues to offer the names of people who might know more.

But Leland Stanford III, for all his help, has been impossible to reach recently, either by phone or registered mail. I even sent him a box of assorted fudge but received no reply. I can only hope that he stopped talking to me because he’s now talking to the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office as it reinvestigates the case.

Whatever comes of the theory that Kevin Hughes was Harry’s killer, I’m not keen to let Longo and Stretch off the hook. Their fear and loathing of Harry—businessman, dandy, Good Samaritan, and the thing that dare not speak its name—may have set in motion a string of events that culminated in his death. Their open bigotry and defamation of Harry, both during his lifetime and after his murder, mark them as villains in my book.

It’s gratifying to feel that I may have moved the needle on an unsolved murder. Especially the murder of Harry Anglemyer, a man I came to see more vividly as time went on, as if he were emerging from a fog, bringing the past back to life—both his and mine. I am not a great believer in ghosts, but I can say that on more than one occasion these past two years I have felt his nudge. Sometimes quite forcefully. As if Harry wanted this solved, the truth finally revealed.

Harry, like all of us, was caught in the grip of time. Of the world changing, as it insists on doing, and too fast for some people’s liking. In Harry’s case, he found himself caught between midcentury notions and a more tolerant era approaching, firmly believing—perhaps naively so—that he could ride the seismic cultural shifts coalescing around him to wealth and happiness.

But history’s rhythms can be maddening. Advance, retreat. Waves against the shore. Ocean City was recently in the news for replacing several members of its school board with those endorsed by Moms for Liberty, a right-wing nonprofit that advocates for “parental rights” with regard to shaping what kids are taught about, among other things, LGBTQI issues. The featured speaker at one of its campaign rallies was pastor Gregory Quinlan, who believes Christ “defined sex.”

What would Harry make of this? I imagine he would have looked to the horizon while savoring everything as much as he could. Which is what he did in the summer of 1964, even with so much on his mind. He was by all accounts a good and charming and, yes, horny man who believed that in the end, if we’d only live and let live, have more sex, cheer on more jockeys, sing more songs while someone tickles the ivories, and buy fudge on Sundays, the future might be a much more delicious place.

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Dead Reckoning

Dead Reckoning

Fourteen U.S. destroyers barreled down the California coast in a dense fog—until a wrong turn led to the largest peacetime disaster in American naval history.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 142

Robert Kolker is the author of the New York Times best-selling Lost Girls and Hidden Valley Road. He is a National Magazine Award finalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and New York magazine, and through the Marshall Project.

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Darya Marchenkova
Illustrator: Harry Tennant

Published in August 2023.


There is a noise that, for a Navy captain, may well be the worst sound imaginable—worse than the boom of cannon fire, the whistle of a missile, or the whoosh of a torpedo. That noise is the long, piercing scrape of metal against rock. It’s the sound, quite simply, of everything going wrong.

Edward Howe Watson heard that noise on September 8, 1923, at 9:05 p.m., while sitting in his ship’s quarters, directly beneath the bridge of the United States Navy destroyer Delphy. Watson was a 49-year-old naval commander—a privileged and pedigreed, blue-blooded son of an admiral, Kentucky born and Annapolis trained. A year earlier, he’d taken command of the Delphy’s entire squadron of 19 destroyers. This had been a promotion, a welcome sign of forward momentum in a long and varied Navy career. Privately, Watson told his wife that he’d have preferred a battleship. But he seemed just one promotion away from getting that too, and after that perhaps an admiralty, like his father before him.

The Delphy had left San Francisco that morning and spent the day speeding south along the coast of California. Thirteen more ships in Watson’s squadron trailed behind. The destination was their home port in San Diego. This was a training exercise—a speed trial, the sort of thing the Navy, under considerable budget pressures, hadn’t tried since the war. All day the destroyers maintained top speeds in challenging conditions: bad weather, massive waves, a civilian vessel requiring rescue. By late afternoon, no one on any of the ships could make out the coastline through the haze. Watson wasn’t concerned; he had one of the Navy’s best navigators for the Delphy’s skipper, and he was using dead reckoning—the time-tested technique of calculating location from a ship’s compass direction, estimated speed, and the amount of time traveled—to ensure that they were where they needed to be. Best of all, a rival squadron of destroyers, part of the same training exercise, were making worse time. Watson was winning the race.

By nightfall, the Delphy was coming close to the Santa Barbara Channel, with San Diego in reach by dawn. A few minutes before 9 p.m., Watson ordered a turn east toward the coast for the final approach into the channel. The entrance was a risky place for a squadron traveling at 20 knots—littered with rocks, reefs, and shipwrecks just beneath the water’s surface—but it was the shortest route, and using it all but guaranteed that Watson would win. The other ships would follow, and they’d all be home in record time.

That was when Watson heard the noise—first the scrape, and then a thunderous boom. In that flash of a moment, Watson knew. They were running aground. Careers would be destroyed, reputations and legacies wiped away—and, worst of all, lives could be lost. But he could not have known that what happened next would become the greatest peacetime disaster in the history of the U.S. Navy. That it would prompt a court-martial of 11 officers, also the largest of its kind in history. And that, in the aftermath, he would be forced to rethink everything he believed about the price of honor and the true meaning of leadership.

And that, even now, 100 years later, there would be no end to the arguments over who exactly was to blame.

The destroyers under Watson’s command were known as four-stackers, marked by a quartet of tall, identical cylinders arrayed neatly in a line down the ship’s center, like the bristles of a toothbrush. Each ship was 314 feet long and 32 feet wide, nimble and powerful enough to target German submarines during the First World War. But by the time Watson took command of Squadron 11 in 1922, the war was over, fuel was being rationed, and military funding had been slashed across the board. While four-stackers could carry as many as 131 men, budget cuts reduced the number on board to roughly 100. It was an unfortunate time to be rising in the Navy. America may have just won a war, but the nation’s reputation was fragile. Washington was a hotbed of corruption; President Warren Harding’s Teapot Dome bribery scandal had implicated naval secretary Edwin Denby. Now more than ever, the Navy needed a demonstration of confidence, of authority. And Watson needed the Navy, too, in his own way.

Watson had grown up amid privilege, his only care, perhaps, the burden of expectation. He was the eldest son of a powerful Kentucky family, a member of America’s brand of aristocracy. One of his great-grandfathers had served as governor, was a five-term U.S. senator, and advised two presidents. The family superstar was his father, John Crittenden Watson, who earned his place in history as a Union Navy lieutenant during the Civil War battle of Mobile Bay. In 1864, Captain James Farragut of the battleship Hartford led a squadron of ships into Confederate waters and shocked everyone around him when he ordered his fleet into a mine-strewn waterway, crying out, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” Watson’s father was Farragut’s faithful aide-de-camp. He’d heard the captain say it, and quoted him for years afterward, codifying the legend.

Watson grew up with that story, which was also becoming the Navy’s story—the daring squadron commander defying all odds, cheating death, seizing his place in the world. He entered the Navy in his father’s shadow: The elder Watson went on to be an admiral, and often told the tale of how he’d been the one to lash Farragut to the Hartford’s rigging, so his body would be found if the ship went down. Between the younger Watson’s many postings—on the Amphitrite, the Maine, the Brooklyn, the Baltimore, the Richmond, the Prairie, the West Virginia, the Detroit, the Iris—his father would step in and offer plum assignments; Watson even went along as his father’s aide to the coronation of King Edward in London. He married well—a St. Louis socialite named Hermine Gratz, whose sister married a Rockefeller—and a life of ease awaited once his time in the Navy ended. But during the Great War, Watson only managed to take command of a battleship late in the effort, and he never saw combat. So when the destroyers of his squadron were given a chance to prove their worth, the opportunity couldn’t have come soon enough.

On Friday, September 7, 1923, Watson summoned Squadron 11’s commanders to a meeting. The ships were docked in San Francisco, where the crews were on shore leave. Watson announced that he’d lead them to their home port in San Diego on a training exercise, coupled with gunnery and tactical drills. Their orders, Watson said, were to travel at 20 knots, faster than any ship had been permitted in years.

For the first time since the war, these destroyers would do what they’d been built to do, although it would come with some risk. There was no telling what toll such an extreme pace would take on the ships’ turbines when sustained for 453 nautical miles. Watson shrugged off such concerns; that was what the exercise was for. Besides, Squadron 11 wouldn’t be the only fleet of destroyers bound for San Diego that day. Squadron 12 was going, too. This would be a race, and Watson intended to win it.

William L. Calhoun was ten years younger than Watson, in his late thirties, and a touch portly, with thinning blond hair. Like Watson, he had something of a pedigree: His great-grandfather was John C. Calhoun, the South Carolina senator who served as vice president under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. But unlike Watson, no one seemed to expect great things from Calhoun. He grew up in Palatka, Florida, and went to public school before scoring a spot at the Naval Academy. Calhoun once said that on his way out of town, a schoolteacher told him he wouldn’t amount to anything.

Calhoun proved that teacher wrong, working his way up from ensign to gunnery officer to chief engineer before switching to submarines, commanding a division of them during the war. He came home highly decorated in 1918, but endured several more humdrum postings before, in 1923, he was given command of a ship—a destroyer in Watson’s Squadron 11.

If the new job intimidated Calhoun, he didn’t show it. Aboard the ship, the young commander was something of a breath of fresh air, at least compared with his predecessor, whom many had found brusque. As a leader, Calhoun cultivated a mix of relentlessly demanding and personally appealing. The crew liked him straight away. They wanted to impress him.

Then, in September, came the orders from Watson. After paying his dues and biding his time, Calhoun was facing his first trial as the skipper of his own ship.

Eugene Dooman was in the lobby of the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco when he spotted his old friend Edward Watson. It was September 7, the same day Watson had given his squadron their orders. Dooman was a 32-year-old career diplomat who’d been stationed at the American embassy in Tokyo for a decade. He’d met Watson during the three years the captain lived there after the war, serving as a naval attaché. Watson and Dooman shared a love of Japanese culture and a fascination with the country’s history and the traditions of its royal family. Now Dooman was at the start of a long leave back in America and glad for this chance meeting, because he was in a jam.

Dooman had brought something bulky and valuable with him from Japan—a heavy leather valise containing $3,000 in silver coins. This, oddly enough, would be his travel budget during his time away from Japan. Instead of paper money or a letter of credit, his bank in Tokyo persuaded him to accept silver; the bank would need to back up any large withdrawal with silver anyway, and if Dooman took it to America with him he’d save the bank freight and insurance. For his trouble, the bank gave him an extra $400.

Dooman hadn’t counted on the bank being closed when he reached San Francisco. Worse yet, it was a Friday. Dooman would be stuck with a burdensome valise filled with silver until Monday, and he was scheduled to leave on Saturday for his next stop, Los Angeles. But now, in the hotel lobby with Watson, a solution presented itself.

Watson told Dooman that he was taking his squadron to San Diego early the next morning, and he invited him along. It would require a little domestic diplomacy on Watson’s part: His wife, Hermine, had asked him to bring their nine-year-old daughter, Clifford, on the Delphy, while she accompanied some friends on a road trip to San Diego. But Watson never warmed to the thought of having along a young girl on a destroyer. With just one available cabin on the ship, Dooman was a convenient excuse for Watson to change the plan.

The diplomat said yes right away. The invitation neatly solved his problem. It would be easy enough to get a train to Los Angeles from the squadron’s destination of San Diego, and Dooman’s silver would be well protected during the journey. Watson cleared his guest through official channels, and Dooman arranged for a trunk with the rest of his belongings to be sent ahead to his hotel in Los Angeles.

The next morning at 7 a.m., Dooman, valise in hand, arrived at the San Francisco Navy pier. The diplomat was ushered aboard the Delphy and into the guest cabin, where he changed into a heavy tweed suit to block the wind while on deck. He intended to enjoy the trip.

Watson was coming up on 50 years old. This was a chance, maybe his last, to prove himself at sea.

For Watson, it was no small thing to run into a friend from Tokyo. Japan was Watson’s last posting before taking command of Squadron 11. His time there may have been the most successful of his career. Decades later, a colleague called Watson “one of the most likable and dynamic, intelligent and alert naval attachés we have had in any country.”

Watson arrived in Tokyo in 1919 with orders to monitor the country’s designs on expansion. Japan had been making strides toward imperialism, and Washington was determined to maintain U.S. influence around the world after the war. Watson’s predecessor left him with very little in the way of intel, forcing him to start with next to nothing. But after hosting parties for his Japanese counterparts, Watson discovered that he had a knack for eliciting information. His technique, as later described by an underling, was “telling them too much so that they could learn too little.” Japanese officers found Watson’s chattiness mystifying, and disarming. He produced memos full of policy insights—many of which proved especially useful leading up to an international disarmament conference Japanese officials attended in Washington in late 1921. And he exposed attempts by the Japanese to bribe Navy officers for information.

Watson was making a name for himself for the first time, excelling at a game his father, the illustrious Civil War hero, had never played—a modern, 20th-century pastime, built for an age of global politics. Beyond his canny way with people, Watson also had a knack for seeing around corners. He insisted that the U.S. counter Japan’s efforts to control the Pacific, and when Washington failed to follow some of his recommendations, he issued a dire prophecy. “If we know the minute details of Japanese plans for aggression,” Watson said in 1922, “we are in a position to thwart them while they are still in the planning stage… Otherwise we shall one day be confronted with a surprise that will hit us right between the eyes.”

Watson seemed well positioned for the life of a diplomat, proto-spy, and statesman. All that ended abruptly when he received a promotion to command a squadron of destroyers. His career lurched back onto a familiar track—his father’s trajectory, the family business. Not without some regret, he returned home. Watson was coming up on 50 years old. This was a chance, maybe his last, to prove himself at sea.

Now Watson’s two paths were converging, or at least bumping up against each other for a day. At the very moment he was called upon to show his stuff as a naval commander, he also had the chance to catch up with a trusted colleague from his time in the Far East. The timing was even more welcome given how, just a week earlier, Japan had experienced a once-in-a-lifetime catastrophe. The great Kanto earthquake—even today the most lethal natural disaster by far in the nation’s history—had laid waste to much of Yokohama and Tokyo, followed by typhoon-fueled fires and powerful tsunamis. More than 100,000 deaths were estimated, and Tokyo was under martial law. Many around the world, Watson included, were anxious to hear what had been destroyed, how many lives lost. On the water, he and Dooman would have time to talk about it all.


Patches of sun broke through the San Francisco fog on the morning of Saturday, September 8, as Watson’s ships set off down the coast. Fourteen of the squadron’s destroyers would take part in the exercise, divided into three divisions, with Watson aboard the Delphy in front. The Delphy would handle navigation for all the ships. The others would follow the leader, just like many great Navy squadrons before them, including Farragut’s in Mobile Bay.

They hit a wall of haze at 8 a.m., but the gunnery exercises took place as scheduled. At 11:30 a.m., the crew of the Delphy spotted a lighthouse at Pigeon Point, one of several shore locations ships used for a visual fix. All seemed well. But this would be the last time that day anyone would be able to see land.

The weather was changing—first fog, then more haze. For the rest of the afternoon, the Delphy’s crew used dead reckoning to estimate its position. Lieutenant Commander Donald T. Hunter, the Delphy’s skipper, had taught navigation for two years at the Naval Academy. The California shoreline did not present much of a challenge. Based on the ship’s estimated speed of 20 knots and the typical currents, Hunter, working alongside the ship’s navigator, Lieutenant Laurence Blodgett, calculated their location and continued hurtling down the coast.

But a few hours passed and still no visibility. The Delphy had one more tool to assist with navigation: a radio device that allowed ships to request compass bearings from shore stations. Radio direction finding, or RDF, was still in its infancy—it would be the precursor to radar, which wouldn’t come to ships for more than a decade—but the technology had been a great help during the war, detecting the location of German submarines when they surfaced to send wireless transmissions. After the war, RDF had been slow to catch on. While a number of lighthouses up and down the East and West Coast were equipped with it, ships like the Delphy had only a clunky-looking circular antenna on board. Upon request, a lighthouse worker would use an RDF device to send a signal to the ship’s antenna, then contact the ship by traditional radio to provide a compass reading. If a lighthouse was, say, due east from a ship, a navigator could use that reading to calculate the ship’s position. The system was far from ideal. There was, in fact, no way to tell which side of the looped antenna the station had detected, which meant that every reading came with an opposite possible “reciprocal” bearing. A bearing of due east sometimes really meant due west; it was up to the navigator to discern which was most likely correct.

To many seasoned Navy officers, RDF seemed almost foolish. What navigator worth his salt would trust dubious readings from a lighthouse jockey and a loop of wire over his own calculations? Hunter, who’d once famously made his way into an Alaskan port through a blinding fog, usually had little use for RDF. But three hours was a long time to go without seeing anything, so at 2:15 p.m. Hunter had his crew contact the only RDF-equipped station along the route—the lighthouse at Point Arguello, at the edge of the rugged coast that jutted out 80 miles northwest of Santa Barbara.

A radioman at the lighthouse sent back a compass reading: 167 degrees. This suggested that the ship had already passed Point Arguello, which was obviously wrong; they hadn’t been on the water nearly long enough. Hunter asked for a repeat bearing and got a similar reading. Meanwhile, the crew still weren’t able to see anything on the shore to confirm their position. When Blodgett, Hunter’s second-in-command, suggested moving closer to the coast to improve visibility, Hunter said no—that would force them to slow down and scuttle the squadron’s speed exercise. Instead, Hunter questioned the lighthouse radioman, radioing back that they were north of Point Arguello. The radioman supplied the reciprocal reading. That seemed to produce reasonable verification that they were where they thought they were.

For consequential calls like this one, Hunter turned to Watson, his commander, for approval. For much of the day, Watson had stayed off the bridge; by at least one account, he’d spent that time in his quarters, in conversation with Dooman, stepping out every hour or so to sign off on Hunter’s decisions. Watson agreed with his captain that they were where dead reckoning placed them—that the RDF had to be wrong. They continued on, the Delphy in front, 13 destroyers following. But their location on the route was hardly a trivial concern. Point Arguello marked the spot where Watson’s ships needed to turn left into the Santa Barbara Channel. If they turned too soon, they risked running headlong into Honda Point.

Everyone on the ships knew about Honda Point—a hook of land jutting out from the coast a few miles north of the entrance of the Santa Barbara Channel. The shore along Honda Point is made up of sharp igneous rock and steep bluffs with few beaches. The waves are relentless, and boulders and reefs lurk below the waterline like booby traps. Its original name, Point Pedernales, was from the Spanish como un pedernal, or “like flint.” Some referred to it as the Devil’s Jaw.

Then, as if to demonstrate the hazards ahead of them, news came of a crisis in the channel. Another vessel—not a Navy ship, but a steamer called the Cuba—had run aground that morning in the fog along the rocky shore of San Miguel Island, at the channel’s southern boundary. The Cuba had been full of passengers; a hundred people were floating in lifeboats or had already made it to shore. One of Watson’s division commanders, Walter G. Roper, aboard the destroyer Kennedy, asked to join the relief efforts.

Watson refused. The squadron had its orders, and another ship had already been sent to the Cuba’s aid. Watson thought it best to stay out of the way of the rescue operation, along with the rocks where the Cuba ran aground. He and Roper argued about it over the squadron’s party line—which meant that other crew members on Roper’s ship heard the exchange—and finally Roper relented.

For generations, the Navy had allowed its commanders extraordinary leeway in decision-making. It was standard procedure not to second-guess the man in charge. This was the ethos Watson grew up with, his father’s credo. He believed that his squadron needed him to lead, especially as the weather got worse—fog, rain, buckling waves, and the coast nowhere in sight.

One of Watson’s ships, the John Francis Burnes, had dropped out of the exercise with a boiler problem. That was unfortunate, but for Hunter and Watson it was no reason for the rest of the squadron to slow down. At 4:27 p.m., with the fog even thicker, Watson ordered the remaining destroyers to assume a column formation, each boat following the one in front by sight, with just a few dozen yards between them.

At 5 p.m. the sun came out briefly, but Hunter still couldn’t make out the horizon through the haze. Watson’s column of ships continued on for three more hours, unable to tell exactly where they were, yet confident they were far enough south of Honda Point.

The clock was ticking: To wait any longer would risk the ship hitting the far side of the channel.

At 8:35 p.m., the Delphy received another compass reading from the Point Arguello lighthouse. This time it placed them well north of the channel entrance. Watson, summoned to the bridge after dining with Dooman, couldn’t believe it. How could they have traveled all day and still be so far from the channel?

The more Watson thought it over, the less he trusted RDF. They were again faced with a choice: trust the new technology, or trust dead reckoning. And once again, they had a solution available to them that made sense of the confusing information they’d received: the reciprocal compass reading. When they flipped the RDF compass point, yet again the Delphy was where dead reckoning placed it. Problem solved, it seemed.

The Delphy’s navigator, Blodgett, knew that there was another tool they could use to make sure the ship had reached the channel: a fathometer, which measures depth. A shallow reading would mean the Delphy was too close to the coast to safely turn. Blodgett wanted to do a depth sounding. Hunter said it wasn’t necessary. And of course, to do a sounding they’d have to slow down.

Watson affirmed Hunter’s conclusion. He agreed that they had passed Point Arguello. This meant that the clock was ticking: To wait any longer would risk the ship hitting the far side of the channel, repeating the Cuba’s mistake. And so at 8:45 p.m., the Delphy laid plans for a 55-degree course change to port—a left turn, straight into the channel. Watson returned to his quarters.

From the bridge, Hunter could see the lights of ten or more ships behind him in the dark. Maybe visibility wasn’t so bad after all? But then, just after the turn, the Delphy plunged once again into a thick fog bank. The men on board couldn’t see a thing.

Two boats behind the Delphy on the Young, William Calhoun still couldn’t make out the lights from Point Arguello. Perhaps the fog was too thick, or the Young too far from shore? But he did see the lights of the Delphy and the S.P. Lee, just ahead, and some of the other ships behind. So he continued to follow the leader.

Then came a jolt to the ship—not so much heard as felt, a slight trembling in the hull. At once, Calhoun thought they’d been rammed, but by what? He rushed to the bridge just in time for a second jolt. There was nothing slight about this one. The Young’s navigator had lurched out of the formation—technically the correct reaction for a ship running aground—only to slam into something harder.

Right away the Young started to list, its engine room filling with water through a gash in the hull. It took just seconds for the entire destroyer to lean about 30 degrees. Then the power went out. Between the darkness and the fog, no one could see a thing. By the time Calhoun ordered his executive officer, Lieutenant Eugene Herzinger, to pass the word to stand by to abandon ship, the ship was listing nearly 45 degrees. This meant that the lifeboats were no longer an option—they were completely submerged.

Calhoun was left with one narrow hope: that the Young could somehow settle against whatever it was they’d rammed into and avoid sinking entirely.

He crawled up to the ship’s port side, which had now risen out of the water. The hull was coated in oil, and so slick that the crew that made it up there before him now had nothing to hang on to. Some had fallen into the water, and there seemed to be no way of helping them. To follow them in would doom them all.

And so Calhoun retracted his own order to stand by to abandon ship and told everyone around him to spread the word to gather on the port side, and above all not to jump into the water. “Don’t leave her—she is on the rocks!” Calhoun cried. “She can’t sink. Stick and you’ll be saved!”

On the Delphy, Dooman was with Watson in the captain’s quarters when a noise came from beneath the ship. That scrape of metal against rock was unmistakable. Even he, a civilian, knew that they had hit bottom.

Then came the crash. The ship lurched, sending both Dooman and Watson toppling and shattering the glass of the portholes. Dooman was thrown against the window at his back. Drawers jumped out of cabinets, papers flew, everything not nailed down was suddenly somewhere else. Without a word Watson dashed to the bridge, leaving Dooman alone.

The bridge was in chaos. As far as Watson and Hunter were concerned, there was only one possibility: They’d gone too far ahead, hitting the same spot that claimed the Cuba, San Miguel Island. They’d soon learn how wrong they were. But in that moment, Watson ordered two radio messages to the other ships: “keep clear to the westward” and “nine turn”—turn to port, where he thought the others could still get to the channel.

The collision with the rocks had sent the bow of the Delphy high into the air. Waves swung the ship around so that it was now astride the beach, braced against a series of rock outcroppings. Each new surge sent the vessel into spasms, quickly rupturing the hull. Down-the-line ships had followed the Delphy’s lead. The S.P. Lee swung around to the side of the shore and halted. The Young was next, lurching sideways and sinking; it smashed into the shore just moments before the Delphy and was almost gone. Watson could only guess what was in store for the other ships—maybe the rocky shore would claim them all.

There was a more immediate concern, however. The waves slamming the Delphy repeatedly into the rocks had caused the fuel tanks to rupture. Hunter knew that the oil burners were still operational, making a boiler explosion all but imminent. He shut the master fuel valve from the bridge and ordered all crew in the engine room and the steaming fire rooms to lift the safety valves before coming up. By then the ship was pounding the rocks so violently that Hunter knew it was only a matter of time before it broke up and sank.

That was when Hunter asked Watson for permission to give the abandon ship order. Watson was quick to agree. But abandon for what? Oil from the Delphy was gushing into the surrounding water. The sea was a thick stew, with a five-inch slick on the surface, making swimming near impossible.

The men on the top deck with Hunter were desperate to get off the ship.

Back in Watson’s quarters, Dooman could hear the ship’s siren. He ran out on deck in time to see the Delphy’s searchlight beaming the water. He saw another ship crash, then another. He heard sirens and saw searchlights from those, too—ship after ship—and knew there had to be more behind them.

With men rushing everywhere and sirens wailing, a thought gripped Dooman: the silver. He stopped an officer, who told him that the lower part of the Delphy had flooded; this included the guest cabin where Dooman was staying. In any case, the silver was too heavy to carry if he needed to swim to safety. Dooman hurried back to Watson’s cabin. He sat down and waited, unsure of what to do next, or if he’d been forgotten completely.

The men on the top deck with Hunter were desperate to get off the ship. Some of the crew had braved the sludgy water and made it to an outcropping about 15 feet from shore; others became mired in the water, only to be pulled back onto the Delphy. Blodgett worked to set up a rope the men could use as a guide to the outcropping. Not everyone made it: Fireman Third Class James W. H. Conway and Cabin Cook Sofronio Dalida both died in the water.

Worst of all was the slow-motion tragedy of Fireman J. T. Pearson, who leapt overboard to help save three men in the water, shattered his glasses, and was blinded by the shards. Pearson cried for help and was pulled back aboard the Delphy. He was hysterical with pain and panic, and had taken in so much seawater and fuel that he fell to the deck. Blodgett held a flashlight as a pharmacist’s mate worked to remove the glass from Pearson’s eyes, to no avail. The ship was slick with oil, and equipment was flying everywhere, making it impossible to get Pearson onto a raft without endangering more lives.

Left with no other choice, Blodgett ordered a radioman to lash Pearson to the Delphy’s searchlight tower—what appeared to be a safe place amidships, forward of where the waves were breaking over the hull. They used a signal line that was tight enough to secure him, but not so tight that he couldn’t free himself if he regained his faculties.

The plan was to come back and evacuate him; that never happened. The waves raged into the night as, from the shore, the men of the Delphy could hear his repeated screams.

Calhoun didn’t know how long he had before the Young would sink. The ship had tilted fully onto its side in practically no time at all; Calhoun later put it at just 90 seconds from the moment they ran aground. Now his ship was sliced open on the starboard side, with just two feet of the port side still above the surface of the water.

With the port side now the Young’s deck, some 80 men gripped the smashed portholes of the ship’s hull. Many were barefoot and wore what they’d gone to sleep in; some were tied to one another with lines. They waited for rescue as the waves crashed against the ship.

Calhoun knew that he hadn’t time for his men to put on life preservers and file into lifeboats: Like Hunter on the Delphy, he was aware that the active burners could explode the boiler, igniting the oil in the water around them. He asked for a volunteer to extinguish the burners. Fireman I.T. Scott came forward, then rushed below.

Minutes passed and Scott didn’t return. Had he cut the boiler? Did he escape the ship? Calhoun had no way to know for sure.

Calhoun’s executive officer, Gene Herzinger, and Chief Boatswain’s Mate Arthur Peterson climbed up and out from a bridge window. Peterson found an axe and smashed the portholes, providing the crew with handholds as the sea inundated the deck. They were 100 yards from shore, too far to risk swimming amid the oily waves and jagged rocks.

Or was it? Peterson wanted to try. He grabbed a life preserver and some rope and volunteered to swim for a large rock nearby. If he could reach that spot with the line, the other men could use it to get there, too, and they’d be that much closer to shore.

They were working through a plan when the Chauncey came into view. Calhoun nearly panicked. All it would take was one strong wake to shove the Young off its perch on the rock. The Chauncey got close enough to hear the Young’s crew—Calhoun loudest of them all—shouting not to collide with their sinking ship.

The ship slammed into the tiny craft, threatening to crash on top of them.

The Delphy’s lights went out. Alone in Watson’s quarters, Dooman couldn’t see a thing. He’d have no choice but to abandon the valise. Dooman returned to the deck, frightened but also appalled to have been forgotten.

The ship was low in the sea, and water swamped the deck. Dooman saw some of the crew at the stern, which appeared to be angled higher than the rest of the ship. Higher seemed safer, so he made his way in that direction, pulling himself along by the torpedo rails as waves smashed the deck. When Dooman arrived at the back of the Delphy, he saw that the men had run a line between the ship and a large rock 40 feet from shore. He also saw how dangerous it was—some who’d attempted the crossing had been flung into the water—and he was afraid to risk his life.

Dooman decided to run back to the front of the ship, until an officer shined a flashlight in his face. “You’re the passenger,” the officer said. It seemed that Dooman hadn’t been forgotten after all. He asked the man for help, and with the help of another sailor they found a raft stored on deck. They threw it over the side and jumped in, only to realize that it remained lashed to the Delphy. They were stuck. The ship slammed into the tiny craft, threatening to crash on top of them.

Dooman had a small penknife attached to his watch chain. He handed it to the sailor, who hacked through the line. With some effort, the raft made it over the waves to the rock. From there they were able to walk to land when the tide receded. One by one, Dooman and the others reached safety.

Watson finally made it across the line at 11 p.m. With one exception—Lieutenant Pearson, blinded and lashed to the rigging of a capsized, disintegrating vessel—the captain was the last to leave his ship.

The Chauncey threw all its power into reverse, but it was stuck with competing mandates—to avoid a collision with the Young, and to avoid the cliffs of Honda Point. In the end it hit the Young: The undertow hurled the Chauncey’s stern up against the destroyer’s port propeller blades, which ripped into the Chauncey’s starboard hull.

Water gushed into the engine room, the ship lost power, and, in a final insult, a wave slammed the Chauncey onto a reef. Lieutenant Commander Richard H. Booth sent down an order to stand by to abandon ship and, like Hunter and Calhoun before him, began weighing strategies to get his crew to shore alive. Perversely, the collision was good news for the Young. Once the Chauncey was firmly stuck on the same reef, it shielded Calhoun’s ship from some of the most turbulent waves.

Better still, the Chauncey was fairly close to shore—about 25 yards—and was no longer at risk of sinking. Now all the crew of the Young needed to do was get to the Chauncey, which was about 75 yards away. Members of the Chauncey’s crew succeeded in dragging a pair of lines ashore and setting up as many rafts to ferry the men through the oily waves.

Once ashore, the survivors climbed a steep cliff to reach the mainland. A radioman on the Chauncey named Frederick Fish later remembered finding an unconscious crew member of the Young in the water and bringing him to land. Men from the Delphy were there as well, Fish recalled—“walking about in a dreamlike daze, stumbling and falling, cutting their hands and bare feet on the jagged edges of the cliff.”

Looking out at the water, Fish could see the Delphy smashed against a rock and observed its crew shuttle as many men to shore as possible. Before long, Fish heard “the cries for help of an injured man who was lashed there.” That was Pearson. Blodgett from the Delphy was on shore, and he told Fish what had happened—how Pearson was blinded and strapped to the hull of the Delphy. “His calls kept up through the night, and they still ring in my brain,” Fish recalled. “To hear a fellow creature calling for help and not be able to relieve him is the crudest torture possible to man.”

“Had he lost his hold,” Calhoun recalled, “he would have been in fuel oil and an angry sea, and would undoubtedly have lost his life.”

On the Young, holding fast to its sinking hull, all the remaining men could do was look on as the crew of the Chauncey worked to save themselves before setting up a line for the other ship. Finally, someone decided not to wait any longer. Peterson, the chief boatswain’s mate, had planned to swim for the rock between the Young and the shore before the Chauncey arrived. Now he was ready to swim to the Chauncey.

Peterson took three lengths of line totaling more than 100 yards, found a doughnut-shaped buoy, fastened the line to it, and slipped the buoy over his head. On Calhoun’s order, he dove into the frigid water and made it to the Chauncey in a matter of minutes. A crew member recalled hearing Calhoun shout that a swimmer was coming their way. Once Peterson had been lifted aboard the Chauncey, Herzinger followed using Peterson’s line. “Had he lost his hold,” Calhoun recalled, “he would have been in fuel oil and an angry sea, and would undoubtedly have lost his life.”

After Herzinger made it across, the Chauncey sent back a seven-man raft. Evacuations commenced—four men on the first raft, eight on the second, ten on the others. It took 11 crossings to get everyone who could be found off the Young. Calhoun made one last inspection before boarding the final raft. “I want to state that Providence put the Chauncey ashore in that place,” Calhoun later said. “It is absolutely certain in my mind that the loss of the Chauncey saved half of the crew of my ship or more.”

There was one additional consolation: Fireman Scott, who had volunteered to shut down the Young’s boiler, finally reappeared at about 10:30 p.m., when the lighthouse keepers on shore heard cries for help from the bottom of the bluffs—five surviving sailors, including Scott. He’d made it off the Young and into the water but was unconscious, and when he awoke he clung to a piece of flotsam; he’d floated for an hour before being hauled aboard a raft.

Calhoun knew that not everyone from his ship had made it. He wondered how many still flailed in the oil-coated water. And the engine- and fire-room crews deep inside the ship: had they been trapped down below, or were they pulled out by the undertow as the ship rolled? Those men—his men—had been 150 yards from shore with no way out of the ship.

On shore, when Herzinger mentioned to Calhoun that the losses were great, as many as 20 or 30 sailors, the young captain’s response was grave: “My God, I know—but we will not discuss it now.”

The rescue efforts were just getting underway as the remaining ships neared Honda Point, still following the leader. For some it was too late to change course. One after another, they smashed into the shore—a seven-ship pileup on the California coast—hitting rocks, reefs, and, in some cases, one another.

The officers of the Woodbury saw lights ahead of the other ships and assumed a man was overboard. They reversed engines, but not soon enough to avoid ramming a large boulder.

The Nicholas struck a reef, and the pounding surf spun the boat until it pointed out to sea. The oil, the rocks, and the darkness made lowering rafts impossible; the men had to wait all night for a lifeline from shore.

Then came the Farragut, named for the great Civil War hero. Lieutenant Commander J. F. McClain ordered a full stop, but reversing the engines doused the ship’s lights. Suddenly, it was dark again, and the Fuller, next in the squadron line, collided with the Farragut before hitting a pinnacle rock—the same one that had claimed the Woodbury.

The ships at the back of Watson’s column, the Percival and the Somers, had time and space enough to change course. The last division—the Paul Hamilton, the Stoddert, and the Thompson—never took the turn into the channel.

Along the shore, an entire community was mobilizing to help rescue the sailors still in the water. The ships’ sirens had woken nearby residents, who loaded their cars with blankets, hot coffee, and food, and rushed to the steep bluff. A fishing captain, Giacomo Noceti, bravely ferried his boat to the edge of the rocks and retrieved some 150 men with lines. A nearby rail station became a headquarters for relief workers, who brought aid in and shipped rescued sailors out. A passing train took the injured to Santa Barbara hospitals, and later that day another transported 38 officers and 517 enlisted men to the naval base in San Diego.

The Delphy snapped in two just five minutes after everyone except Pearson had evacuated. The ship’s searchlight tower leaned farther over with each barrage of waves, until it dragged the rest of the ship over and down. The section of the deck where Pearson had been tied up was pulled into the ocean. He was one of the Delphy’s three casualties that night.

How many were lost from the rest of the fleet wouldn’t be known for hours. Through it all, Watson checked on the injured, organized search parties, tallied his men, and reported back to naval headquarters. By morning, he was preparing to send salvage parties back to the ships and arranging for the care of survivors. Even Calhoun, grappling with unspeakable losses, would later praise the commander, stating, “I only hope that if ever I am faced with the tragedy that faced him that night, I’ll be half the man that he was: cool, calm, courageous, and thoughtful; never missing an opportunity to aid.” But in idle moments, alone with his thoughts, Watson seemed to Dooman years older.

When a search party returned with the body of Fireman Conway, who had fallen from a rescue line into the water, Watson approached the stretcher. He raised the blanket and looked down on Conway for a long moment. Then, silently, the captain unbuckled the sword he wore and laid it beside the body.

Was he thinking about all the men—some 300 or so, as he estimated early on—who might be dead because of the decision he’d signed off on?

Was he thinking about his friend Dooman, there only because of his invitation? Or his daughter, who’d been promised a spot, and how lucky it was she hadn’t been aboard?

Was he thinking about his wider family? His father and the legacy of the Watsons, that night on the Hartford in 1864 and Captain Farragut’s cry of “Damn the torpedoes!”? Did he sense any connection between that historic moment and his decision to push forward at all costs?

There would be time for him to mull these questions—to sift through everything that had happened—later on that night, in the weeks and months to come, and for the rest of his life.


In the space of just ten minutes, the Navy lost more ships than it had during all of World War I. Seven destroyers ran aground, one after another, each with more than 100 men aboard. Some of them split in two on the rocks. They collided with one another. They hemorrhaged oil—some 300,000 gallons covering 800 acres.

Twenty-three sailors lost their lives: three on the Delphy, twenty on the Young. A miracle by some measures, a debacle by others. Of the men trapped inside the Young, most probably fought through smoke and gas, darkness and freezing water. None made it to shore. Those who didn’t drown immediately were caught in the ebbing tide and sucked out to sea.

The disaster was front-page news around the country. Some 10,000 people turned up for a memorial service in San Diego. A week later, hundreds of visitors from Santa Maria, Santa Barbara, and other nearby towns flocked to the cliffs above Honda Point to view the wreckage. Demand to visit the scene was so high that a special train was provided on Sunday. Many packed a lunch and remained on the bluffs all day.

The day after the disaster, Navy secretary Edwin Denby seized on the great Kanto earthquake as the explanation. It was because of the quake, he suggested—an act of God, with unthinkable ramifications an ocean away—that nothing went as planned on the water that day. It explained why the ships never really reached 20 knots. Usually, the current pushed ships south; on that day it pushed them north. “One of the destroyers was broken in two, and it seems as if she was carried bodily up and dropped,” Denby marveled.

Others blamed technology: that infuriating RDF, sending good sailors astray, undermining their expertise. “The theory was advanced by mariners,” The Washington Post reported, “that the compass bearings taken from a nearby shore station as guidance through the fog, had been transmitted erroneously.”

Yet to some the weather and the obscure compass readings only explained so much. The Navy scheduled an inquiry for Monday, September 17. Depending on the outcome, the next step could involve court-martials. That left a week for the press to point fingers. “There has been a peculiar reluctance on the part of officers responsible for full and prompt reports of what happened,” a New York Times editorial declared. “For the honor of the United States Navy and for the good of the service those who were responsible should be made to suffer for it.”

Among those who might bear responsibility, Watson was an ideal target. Not only had he been the one in charge, but he offered a newspaper-ready narrative: an admiral’s son, wealthy and connected, now facing utter disgrace. Watson and the ship commanders hunkered in San Diego, awaiting the inquiry in silence. Those close to Watson encouraged him to try and stop what was coming. His brother Loyall urged him to stand firm and defend himself. His brother-in-law, Clifford Gratz, wanted to leverage his family’s relationship with the Rockefellers to spare Watson and help stave off any embarrassment to the family. Naval Academy friends worked back channels, pleading for leniency. 

But there was one person whose opinion mattered more than any other. On September 16, retired rear admiral John Crittenden Watson, then 80 and in fragile health, wrote to his son from his home in Washington, D.C. “I knew the saving of all the lives possible would be the greatest comfort to you and our dear Hermine,” the elder Watson wrote. “Like both of you, our thought is that you were able to save not only your own life but to assist others.”

With its measured tone, the admiral’s letter spoke volumes. There was no assurance of his son’s guiltlessness—no proclamation that, faced with the day’s beguiling circumstances, he would have acted the same. The message was clear: A man’s fate mattered less than his reputation. The family’s honor rested with Watson now.

This was a search for scapegoats—but should the ships’ commanders have expected anything different?

Typically, Navy inquiries are confidential, as with a grand jury in a criminal case. But the press demanded that they be allowed to watch, and Denby relented. As the inquiry got underway, its public nature seemed more than anything to dictate what would become of Watson and his commanders. No one wished to give any impression that mercy would be shown to the men behind the worst peacetime disaster in Navy history.

Watson and his commanders wouldn’t be allowed to testify; as they were possible defendants in court-martial proceedings, anything they said could expose them to prosecution. Only one senior crew member of the Delphy was called to testify: Laurence Blodgett, Hunter’s second-in-command. “We were satisfied that the Arguello radio station was wrong,” Blodgett explained from the stand. “They kept giving our position north and to the west of Point Arguello, and when we could not make this check with our figures, we finally took the reciprocal of their bearings, which would show us already in the Santa Barbara Channel.” As soon as he finished, the prosecutor asked to add Blodgett to the defendant list too. His role in making navigation decisions transformed him, in the eyes of the court, from a bystander to a suspect. Off the stand he went; the defense never had a chance to cross-examine him.

This was a search for scapegoats—but should the ships’ commanders have expected anything different? Watson at least was desperate to have his say. Just days after the worst possible thing that could have happened on his watch came to pass, he was staring down what he considered another disaster. The men under his command—the ones who’d followed his lead—were about to lose their reputations and livelihoods. This could be why, on the inquiry’s second day, Watson made his first public comments about Honda Point. “The responsibility for the course of the destroyer squadron was mine, a responsibility which I fully realized,” he told a reporter for a news service, whose story would appear in papers around the country in the days to come. “But that decision was based upon 33 years of experience in the Navy, and made after due consideration of reports of our position from the Point Arguello radio station, which were confusing.”

It was part mea culpa, part dogged display. Watson continued on like this, switching from accepting blame to explaining why, given the weather and the cryptic RDF readings, anyone in his position would have done the same thing. “The condition of visibility, remember, was such that we were unable to get our true position from the stars. We were compelled to rely upon the radio station. I asked for our bearings repeatedly. From about 6:30 until 8 o’clock p.m., that most vital period in our lives, we were unable to get radio bearings from the station. I accept that responsibility. I made a naval officer’s decision. I was content the radio station was wrong. And that is why I gave the order.”

On September 22, Watson issued a similar statement to the court of inquiry and to the press: “The Squadron Commander hopes the responsibility for this disaster, which he considers entirely his own, may not descend upon the able and loyal subordinates who supported him on all occasions.” Watson was sacrificing himself, throwing himself into the prosecution’s line of fire. He also asked the court to waive its rule barring potential defendants from testifying—in effect, making himself more vulnerable to court-martial so that he could have his say now.

The court granted Watson’s request, and he was permitted to take the stand on September 24. “The responsibility was mine,” he said. “I was convinced that the station was wrong. But they were right.”

The court of inquiry’s president, Rear Admiral William V. Pratt, attempted to pick apart this blanket admission. “Do you feel,” he asked Watson, “that you can assume all of the responsibility that at times must fall on the shoulders of your division commanders?”

“I have no desire to assume their responsibilities,” Watson replied. “I simply want to make clear that I assume all of my own.”

Edward Howe Watson

Watson braced himself for a public flogging. So perhaps he was as surprised as anyone when the opposite occurred. Almost overnight, the squadron commander transformed—in the eyes of the public, at least—from the incompetent scion of a naval legend to a paragon of selflessness and sacrifice. More than one newspaper editorial used the word “manliness” to describe what he’d done.

“Capt. Watson has given a splendid example of the finest attributes of character overcoming the elemental instinct of self-preservation,” the Army and Navy Journal declared, while the San Diego Sun waxed on about Watson’s “heroic” soul. “He waits for no court martial. He relies not on lawyers. He seeks no avenue of evasion. He resorts to no subterfuge. Lest the blame rest on some innocent man, he takes upon himself full responsibility for his actions.”

Others around the country joined the chorus, taking Watson’s testimony as their cue to examine what true leadership really meant. “The heroism of captain Watson is of a different type,” declared the Santa Monica Evening Gazette. “It manifests itself after deliberation; after the weighing of consequences.” And this from the San Francisco Chronicle: “From the moment the ship struck, his bearing and speech have been that of a most remarkable example of real manliness under the most distressing conditions which an officer in his position can ever meet.”

The goodwill seemed to play a part in Watson persuading the other officers named as defendants to join him in testifying, so that they also would have the chance to recount what had happened that night. This was no small thing: By opening themselves to prosecution, these officers had to have faith that Watson’s contrition would reflect well on them. Admiral Pratt called their decision to testify “worthy of the best traditions of the Navy.” 

When the Delphy’s skipper, Hunter, testified, he also made sure to blame the technology, as Watson had. “I’ll have to admit that it was an error in judgment,” he testified. “But as contributing causes I believe … the fact that a bilateral radio compass is used there were partly responsible.” Hunter also floated the “possibility” that “abnormal currents caused by the Japanese earthquake” contributed to the problem. In response, the lieutenant commander in charge of the Point Arguello lighthouse took the stand, defending his compass bearings that night. In fact, the readings had been within a few degrees of accuracy the whole time, even if one of them had required a reciprocal adjustment.

Many of Watson’s other commanders said that they weren’t responsible for what had happened because they’d been duty-bound to follow the Delphy’s lead. The Navy’s sacred adherence to chain of command suddenly was on trial, too. Robert Morris, the commander of the division of ships immediately astern of the Delphy, said that they “could not possibly be held culpable in carrying out the destroyer doctrine of following their leader.” Rear Admiral Pratt asked Morris, “Does seniority take the place of common sense?” Morris replied, “They are supposed to be synonymous.”

Not every skipper had hewed so tightly to that edict. Thomas A. Symington of the Thompson, the last ship in line, said that once he’d noticed the confusion of lights and sirens ahead, he slowed down to take soundings. Leslie Bratton of the Stoddert said that he’d opted to violate the no-navigation order and asked the lighthouse for radio bearings himself, then steered his ship away in time to avoid disaster. Hardy B. Page, navigator of the Hamilton, said that he’d suspected there was a problem ahead and advised his commanding officer to get word to the division commander—a decision that helped the division’s three ships escape intact.

Finally, the board heard from Walter Roper—the division commander who a few hours before the disaster had jousted with Watson by radio about helping the Cuba. Roper was as flinty on the stand as he’d been that night on the water. “I’m not a desk man. My experience comes from hard knocks,” he said, a jab at Watson’s lack of experience and Hunter’s academy training. “There are too many book-learned and not enough practical men running the Navy.” In Roper’s view, those on the Delphy should never have assumed that the ship really was going 20 knots in such choppy water. The error, he said, was in putting “too much reliance on computation of speed by propeller revolutions.” In his experience, he said, he’d seen propellers indicate 20 knots when the ship was in fact going only 12.

Roper made a point of saying that he would have heeded the lighthouse. “I have gone into the most dangerous harbors in the world through impenetrable fogs, guided almost wholly by radio compass,” he said. His division had never turned left, he testified, because he never came close to trusting the Delphy. “I was positive we had not passed Point Arguello. I did not know the forward ships were turning. Could I have seen them, I would not have followed, but instead would have tried to stop them. My motto is ‘Never try to turn a corner until you have passed.’ ”

Rear Admiral Pratt asked Roper if he would have turned left had he been on the ship behind the Delphy. “Of course I would not,” Roper said. “ ‘Follow the leader’ is all right, but it should be tempered with common sense. When I was a boy, our leader once jumped off a barn. I stayed put—and walked down to pick him up. He had a broken leg.” The room erupted with laughter.

But the fact remained that Roper failed to speak up against Watson at the time. Had he been stinging from their quarrel over the Cuba? If he’d said something—one of many ifs that night—might the entire disaster have been avoided, and 23 lives spared?

“I am ready and anxious to take my medicine,” Watson said. “I don’t want an acquittal.”

On October 12, the court of inquiry made its determination. Never mind the weather and the radio; the Honda Point disaster, the court ruled, was the result of “bad errors and faulty navigation.” Faced with so much uncertainty, the ships should have slowed down to take depth soundings. Following the leader may have been a Navy tradition, but it shouldn’t trump reason.

Eleven officers were recommended for court-martial. Watson, Hunter, and Blodgett were charged with “culpable inefficiency and negligence,” and eight others with simple negligence. But the court seemed gripped by contradictory impulses. It issued a letter to Calhoun, the Young’s commander, commending him “for coolness, intelligence, and seamanlike ability,” and to Walter D. Seed, of the Fuller, for “great bravery in swimming … about seventy five yards, through a rough and turbulent sea … for the salvage of the crew.” Yet both also faced charges of negligence.

The court-martial proceedings took place in rapid succession during the month of November. All eyes remained on Watson. Would his penitence spare the others? On November 7, Watson doubled down with another public statement. “I am ready and anxious to take my medicine. I don’t want an acquittal. For me to be acquitted by this court would be bad for the naval service, to which both my father and myself have devoted our lives.”

Calhoun, at his trial, went out of his way to commend Watson. He testified that in his opinion no power on earth could have saved the Young and the other ships after the Delphy ran aground. Calhoun insisted that he had no reason to suspect the Delphy of any errors, and testified that he and the Young’s crew would not have done anything differently had they been at the front of the line—except perhaps take soundings.

Watson reciprocated as a witness at Calhoun’s trial. “Every man of the crew of the Young owes his life solely and entirely to Commander Calhoun,” he testified.

In his summation speech in Watson’s trial, Watson’s lawyer, Thomas T. Craven, noted how, at Honda Point, “fate was indeed stern upon this occasion.” If the Delphy had continued south for just a few more minutes before turning, the entire column of ships would have cleared the rocks. If they’d turned a few minutes sooner, the coast would have been more forgiving, resulting in less damage and fewer lives lost. How many Navy men, Craven asked, had made similarly small missteps and escaped the hand of fate? Watson, he suggested, was a victim of bad luck.

Calhoun was acquitted after 40 minutes of deliberation. Blodgett, the Delphy’s navigator, was also acquitted, as were seven other defendants. There were just two convictions: Edward Howe Watson and Donald T. Hunter would not escape official blame for what happened that night. But considering the scale of the catastrophe, their sentences were lighter than expected. Both Watson and Hunter were allowed to continue their military careers, but with lower ranking numbers, which virtually eliminated the possibility of promotion. Neither would command a ship again, but they would retain their ranks. And the careers of the other men would be saved.

“It is a very proper sentence,” Watson told reporters. “It is a fitting punishment. The loss of a few numbers could not be a sufficient punishment for an error as great as mine was. I am glad that the sentence is as severe as it is. It puts me very near the bottom of the list of captains, I guess. Needless to say, it does not make me happy.”

Watson had transformed from a villain to a hero with his admission in September. Now, in December, with his career intact, things changed again. Back Watson went, from hero to goat. Yet, by taking the blame, had Watson—no matter how gallant the gesture—simply given the Navy a smooth path toward putting the embarrassing episode behind it? And was the Navy now rewarding Watson for his contrition? After the loss of seven ships and 23 lives, how was it exactly that not one member of the Navy had lost their job?

“Just learned court-martial has been very lenient with everybody,” President Calvin Coolidge said. Navy Secretary Denby also made sure to grumble publicly that the “sentence in [Watson’s] case is inadequate.”

On December 29, the Army and Navy Journal reported, “The light sentence created almost as great a sensation at Washington as the disaster.”

Eugene Dooman’s escape from the scene at Honda Point occurred just before dawn after the wrecks, when a train to Los Angeles approached the local station where the relief efforts were headquartered. Watson told Dooman and a few others to board it. Hundreds of other men would be taking the San Diego train a few hours later. Dooman, like many in the squadron, was covered from head to foot with oil, so a conductor placed some newspapers on the seat, and off they went. In Los Angeles, Dooman was on his own again, delivered from the tragedy—and from the official narrative.

The available record from the court of inquiry and Watson’s court-martial includes just one mention of a civilian on the Delphy, but Dooman’s name never appears. In the years to come, as military and civilian historians researched the Honda Point disaster, the idea of a not-spoken-for witness to the disaster proved tantalizing. He was called the “mystery guest,” the “civilian,” the “phantom passenger.” Rumors circulated that he and Watson had been drinking that day (Watson and others denied this), or that Watson subsequently swore him to silence about what really went wrong that night. But while Dooman’s identity was never well publicized, it was never really secret either. In January 1924, he gave a long interview to an English-language paper in Japan, complimenting Watson’s performance on the night of the wreck and relating the tale of his own escape. Had the historians and writers seen that article, the mystery would have been solved.

After 30 years as a diplomat in Tokyo, Dooman came home to America after Pearl Harbor, retiring just a few years later, in 1945. It took until the 1960s for him to be located and asked about Honda Point. “I am not competent” to pass judgment on Watson’s decisions that day, he wrote one interlocutor in 1966. “That is to say, I cannot weigh the extenuating circumstances, but a disaster did occur and the man who made the decision had to assume responsibility.”

Dooman was asked why he was never called to testify in the inquiry, and what happened to the $3,000 in silver he’d brought on board. The answers, it turned out, were linked. The silver was sacrificed, Dooman wrote, in the name of discretion. The money had been found in the wreckage, he wrote, “but could not be claimed without the probability of being called as a witness in the court-martial, and Watson and his defense officer were afraid that my testimony might prove harmful to Watson, since I was with him when the ship struck.” By today’s standards, these actions would have constituted a cover-up. But every answer Dooman gave seemed to prompt more questions. Why had the Navy not asked him to testify? Did his job in the State Department play a part in that decision? Or was the Navy afraid that additional testimony from a civilian passenger would add yet more unwelcome intrigue to a debacle it wished would just go away?

Dooman wouldn’t say. But he and Watson remained friends for years. A few days after the disaster, Dooman explained, with the inquiry not yet begun, he’d paid a visit to Watson and his wife at their home in San Diego. (Some armchair historians, parsing the disaster’s themes of negligence and culpability, have gone so far as to wonder if the captain reimbursed Dooman his lost $3,000 in return for his discretion. If such a thing occurred, Dooman never mentioned it.) The Watsons would later visit Japan, in 1937, and dine with Dooman there. He curtly alluded to the price Watson paid for the tragedy, the toll it took on him. “After the disaster,” Dooman wrote, “he lost his zest for living and became very despondent.”

Just after the court-martial, Dooman wrote a letter to Watson, one of dozens sent by friends and well-wishers hoping to soften the blow. “Do you know what a splendid impression you have made on everybody,” the diplomat wrote from Washington, “not only those high in the Navy but the man in the street? I dined with Admiral Knight who said splendid things about you. I think you will appreciate even more, though, what I overheard in the cars the other day—‘Well,’ said one, ‘I don’t get this stuff about the compass, but as long as we have fellows in the Navy like this guy who took the blame we shouldn’t worry.’ ”

“There was nothing the fleet wanted that Uncle Bill wouldn’t get,” one commander would say.

William Calhoun was cleared of any blame for the Young’s tragedy; he was even commended for his cool demeanor during the rescue. But the loss of 20 men weighed heavily on him, and for a time it seemed foolish to assume that Calhoun would command a ship again. Eventually, however, his career righted itself. After serving on several ships, further instruction at the Naval War College, and a stint as an instructor at the Naval Academy, Calhoun returned to sea as commanding officer of the USS Rochester, and later the USS California. In 1938, he was promoted to rear admiral. The next year, he became commander of the Navy’s Pacific base in Honolulu and remained in that position through World War II. “There was nothing the fleet wanted that Uncle Bill wouldn’t get,” one commander would say.

Calhoun retired in 1946 a four-star admiral, after 44 years of active service. There was just one thing missing from his time at sea: He never saw battle. For that he’d be granted some satisfaction from the author James A. Michener, who’d been a lieutenant commander under Calhoun during the war. “Those of us who worked for Uncle Billy believed that he had played a major role in smothering the Japanese with matériel,” Michener wrote in his memoirs, “and the fighting admirals agreed.” In Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific—the Pulitzer Prize–winning basis for the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical—Calhoun is said to be the model for Millard Kester, a grounded admiral who finally gets to do battle at sea, leading an entire invasion force. And winning.

Calhoun died in 1963; he had married and was a grandfather many times over. In 1984, some 61 years after the disaster, a scuba diver and amateur treasure hunter exploring the California coast noticed something shiny on the ocean floor, churned up by a recent storm: a class ring from the Naval Academy. It didn’t take long to connect the ring to its deceased owner. The diver had hoped to make some money for a discovery from the site of the disaster. One collector offered him $1,500. Then a fellow diver let him know that Calhoun’s widow, Rosalie, was alive and living in Coronado, near San Diego. Her phone number was listed. He agreed to sell the ring to her for $400—the cost of the dive, he said.

Rosalie had never remarried. The ring, when the diver handed it over, stirred something in her. “It’s like part of him was brought back,” she said, filled with emotion for her lost husband.

On December 14, 1923, six days after Edward Howe Watson’s conviction in a Navy court-martial, his father, retired admiral John Crittenden Watson, died at 81. A fellow retired admiral, Colby M. Chester, wrote to the younger Watson that same day: “Your name was the last one uttered by your father, and I know how happy the Honda affair made him.” Happy that his son’s career was intact, perhaps. Or that the family name had, despite everything, retained some of its dignity. 

On January 10, 1924, Watson along with his wife and daughter moved to Honolulu, where he was stationed until his retirement five years later. In the 1930s, the Watsons lived in New York and then in Jamestown, Rhode Island, visiting Japan several times. In the years before World War II, Watson indulged his fascination with Japan, writing poems about historic Japanese figures. That other existence he might have led before Honda Point—the life of a sly and insightful Navy attaché, drawing out spies and supplying Washington with essential information about a potentially lethal foe—seemed to loom large for him.

In the late 1930s, Watson drafted a long policy memo about Japan to a friend at the Naval War College, still hoping someone would heed his warnings—“stuff that I have worked up during the past 5 years, since my retirement,” as he described it. “Perhaps it will help to save many hours to some fellow who is doing a bit of research work on the subject. Dispose of it as your judgment dictates. Either in the files or by burning.”

Watson died of heart disease in a Navy hospital on January 7, 1942, a month to the day after Pearl Harbor proved his point. His family later said that they thought the attack had hastened his death. Honda Point was not mentioned in any of his published obituaries.

Watson had pursued a life of significance, of honor. At Honda Point, the son emulated the father, following the traditions of leadership codified by an entire generation—and those same traditions contributed to the disaster. But after the worst happened, and the nation had judged him, he chose to preserve his character. In doing so, he acquired a different kind of significance, one he hadn’t expected.

In his papers, there is a letter from Watson’s father written on October 1, 1923, just after Watson had publicly accepted responsibility for the error that cost the Navy seven ships and 23 lives. In its tone, the letter was far warmer and more effusive than the one that had preceded it. “I cannot express in any words how proud we are of you and of your devoted wife,” the father wrote.

In the letter, Watson’s father offered his son a gift. He said that a relative of the late Admiral David Farragut had written to him “to express his confidence in you,” and sent along a precious keepsake: a makeshift tourniquet the elder Watson had made aboard the Hartford during the Civil War, “just as we were about to pass up the Mississippi by the Confederate batteries.”

Farragut had given this rag—a relic of John Crittenden’s most glorious moment in the Navy—to his own son “to use in case of a wound.” Now it seemed that someone else had a better use for it. “When I wrote him I know you would love to have it, he sent it to me,” Watson’s father wrote. “I will hold it for you until you come East. All of us join in ever much love to all three of you.”

And so Edward Howe Watson was offered a tourniquet—a message from father to son. His son was wounded and needed care. His son was worthy of greatness. His son was a Watson. And in court his son had not shirked from his duty to do what the father never had to do: go down with his ship.

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The Titanic of the Pacific

The Titanic of
the Pacific

A tale of disaster, survival, and ghosts.
By Tyler Hooper

The Atavist Magazine, No. 138

Tyler Hooper is a journalist who resides in Victoria, British Columbia. His writing has appeared in CBC, Vice, and the Vancouver Sun, among other publications. He is the host and producer of the podcasts The Missing and Unexplained and True to the Story

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kyla Jones
Illustrator: Yiran Jia

Published in April 2023.


It was a warm winter’s day in San Francisco, and the city’s main port, the Embarcadero, bustled with activity. Men dressed in waistcoats, blazers, and homburg and bowler hats smoked their pipes and fidgeted with their mustaches. Women in elegant blouses and skirts so long they touched the ground sheltered from the sun under broad-brimmed hats trimmed with feathers, ribbons, and flowers. Children clung to their mothers and watched wide-eyed as crewmen hauled more than 1,400 tons of cargo and freight—canned goods, fresh fruit and vegetables, crates of wine—into the forward hatch of the steamship Valencia, soon to depart for Seattle.

Frank Bunker and his family stood in the crowd waiting to board the ship. Today, January 20, 1906, marked the beginning of a new chapter in Bunker’s life. In his late thirties, with dark, neatly parted hair and a clean-shaven face, Bunker had recently accepted a prestigious job as assistant superintendent of the Seattle school district. He had built his reputation as a bright young teacher and administrator in San Francisco—one newspaper touted him as being among “the best educators in the state.” Seattle presented an exciting new opportunity. It was one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, with a population that had exploded from 3,553 people in 1880 to more than 80,000 by 1900. Bunker hoped to leave his mark on the city’s school system.

Seattle was thriving for one reason: gold. With the discovery of bullion in the Yukon and Alaska in the late 1800s, Seattle became known as the “gateway to gold” among prospectors looking to head north and make it rich. In a few short years, the frenzy had transformed Seattle from a frontier town into a metropolitan hub. Real estate, shipbuilding, and other economic sectors were booming.  

Industry was why F. J. Campbell, his wife, and their 16-year-old daughter were traveling to Seattle on the Valencia. Campbell was of average build, with a finely groomed mustache. He had been employed as an agent by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in Alameda, just across the bay from San Francisco, until he struck up a friendship with an employee of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, who convinced him that they could start their own machine business in Seattle. Eager to chase his fortune, Campbell quit his job, packed up his family, and secured passage north.

The Bunkers and Campbells were among the roughly 100 passengers booked on the January 20 journey. Originally, a ship called City of Puebla was scheduled to carry them to Seattle, but the vessel’s tail shaft had snapped on a recent voyage, so the Pacific Coast Steamship Company commissioned the Valencia in its place. The iron-hulled ship boasted three decks, a single smokestack, and two masts, as well as a 1,000-horsepower engine that allowed it to reach a cruising speed of 11 knots. The ship looked sleek, with a bow stretching 100 feet long. Because the Valencia was designed to run the warm Atlantic waters between New York and Venezuela, however, it could be challenging to guide through the notoriously volatile seas of the Pacific Northwest, where it had been sailing for the past several years.

Tasked with getting the Valencia safely to port was a crew of more than 60, led by Captain Oscar Marcus Johnson. A man of slender, rigid frame, Johnson came from a family of mariners. Born in Norway, he had traveled to America as a teenager. He started as a common seaman and worked his way up. Now 40, Marcus had been married to his wife, Mary, for five years. The couple resided with their three-year-old daughter on Powell Street, which connected San Francisco’s main fishing wharf to Market Street. Mary worried about her husband when he went to sea; she looked forward to the moment when she could wave to him from their front window upon his return. 

Mary wasn’t the only woman on Powell Street anxious for her husband’s well-being. Among the Johnsons’ neighbors were the Valencia’s fourth officer, Herman Aberg, and his wife. According to Mrs. Aberg, not long before Herman departed on the trip to Seattle, a fortune-teller arrived at their doorstep, knelt, and laid out what the Seattle Daily Times later called “ancient grease-covered cards.” The fortune-teller predicted that Herman would soon be shipwrecked, leaving Mrs. Aberg a widow. Herman laughed. Mrs. Aberg begged him not to go on the journey, but Herman went anyway.

Mrs. Aberg would describe the unheeded premonition later, when Herman did not return to Powell Street, meeting his end in the cold, cruel ocean hundreds of miles from home. It would prove just one haunting detail in a story full of them.

The fortune-teller predicted that Herman would soon be shipwrecked, leaving Mrs. Aberg a widow. Herman laughed. Mrs. Aberg begged him not to go on the journey.

A person prone to superstition might be forgiven for thinking that the Valencia was cursed. Built in 1882, the ship was fired upon the following year near the island of Curaçao, and again four years later, this time by a Spanish warship just off the Cuban coast. During the Spanish-American War, it was leased to the U.S. Army and used to transport troops to the Philippines as part of an unofficial effort to aid rebels who, like their Cuban counterparts, were vying for independence from Spain. When the conflict ended, the Valencia’s owners put it to work transporting gold-crazed passengers to and from Alaska and the Yukon, but the ship’s luck didn’t change in the new environment.  In March 1898, during its maiden voyage to Alaska’s Copper River, rough seas and poor food quality almost led to a mutiny. In February 1903, another steamship rammed into the Valencia a quarter-mile from Seattle’s harbor, nearly wrecking it. And in 1905, Captain Johnson ran it aground just outside St. Michael, Alaska; the crew had to move 75 tons of cargo onto another vessel before they could free the Valencia.

It is impossible to know if this legacy was on Captain Johnson’s mind after passengers finished boarding the Valencia and the ship sailed away from the Embarcadero, past Yerba Buena Island, and through the Golden Gate to the open ocean. Though Johnson occasionally commanded the Valencia, taking the ship up north during the summer months, he had only taken the route to Seattle as captain of a different steamship, called Queen. The trip required sailing through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, part of the stretch of ocean between southern Oregon and the northern tip of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, where hundreds if not thousands of ships had wrecked by the early 20th century, earning it an ominous moniker: Graveyard of the Pacific.

The region’s unpredictable weather and ocean currents often pushed ships toward the wet, rugged, foggy coastline, creating a navigational nightmare. The farther north a ship traveled, the worse the conditions tended to get, particularly in winter. Unlike the Atlantic coast, which had numerous harbors where ships could shelter during storms, the shore of the Pacific provided little refuge. Between San Francisco and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a distance of approximately 660 nautical miles, there were maybe ten harbors that could be used by ships the size of the Valencia, if conditions were favorable. If a vessel was in distress, running aground on a sandy beach was rarely an option, as there were few such beaches to speak of. Meanwhile, of the 279 U.S. coastal lifesaving stations, only a handful were on the Pacific.  

Johnson and his crew planned to keep the ship between five and twenty miles of the coastline for the duration of the voyage. They hoped to reach the Cape Flattery lighthouse on Tatoosh Island, marking the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, within 48 hours. They hoped, too, for calm seas. In November 1875, the steamship Pacific sank 80 miles south of Cape Flattery in under an hour, taking as many as 300 souls to their deaths.

The first day of the Valencia’s voyage was uneventful; the ship steamed smoothly into the starry night. By roughly 5:15 a.m. on Sunday, it had traveled 190 miles and passed the lighthouse at Cape Mendocino, the westernmost point in California. It was the last time the people aboard would have a clear view of the shore until they reached Washington State. Upon passing Cape Mendocino, it was typical for a ship’s captain to chart a course to the Umatilla lightship, 477 miles north. The lightship was at a critical junction in the voyage to Seattle, a beacon signaling that Cape Flattery, and a ship’s necessary turn eastward, was just 14 miles away. 

As the Valencia steamed up the coast, the weather worsened. On Sunday afternoon, the wind shifted from a northerly breeze to southeastern gusts. Gray clouds gathered over the ocean, and as the sky became hazy, the seas grew heavy.

At 5:30 p.m., Johnson noted in the Valencia’s logbook that the ship, then ten miles offshore, had passed Cape Blanco on the Oregon coast, meaning that it had traveled 335 miles from San Francisco. However, second officer Peter E. Peterson would later say that no one on the ship’s bridge could see the Cape Blanco lighthouse, perched atop 200-foot chalky-white cliffs.

The sun briefly appeared on Monday morning, but conditions declined as the day went on. Peterson later said that visibility reduced to the point that he could see only a couple of miles into the distance. It was evident that Captain Johnson was starting to feel anxious. That evening, around 8 p.m., he asked Peterson, “When do you think we are going to make Umatilla lightship?” 

Peterson was an experienced seaman who had worked for the Pacific Coast Steamship Company for nearly a decade. He had started as a sailor on the ship Pomona, where he lost a finger. By 1906, Peterson knew the route from San Francisco to Seattle well, having traveled it more than 100 times, including on the City of Puebla as second mate.

Now Peterson studied the Valencia’s log, an instrument trailing behind the ship to help estimate its speed, and concluded that they had traveled 307 miles beyond Cape Blanco. In theory that meant the ship was only 13 miles away from the Umatilla lightship and should pass it sometime around 9:30 p.m. However, Johnson and first officer W. Holmes believed that the Valencia’s log was overrunning by approximately 6 percent—in other words, they thought that the ship was traveling slower than the log showed. It’s not clear why Johnson and Holmes held that belief, though Johnson’s previous experience in the area may have held a clue. He had commanded ships in the area during spring and summer, when northerly winds prevailed. In winter the opposite was true; winds from the south propelled ships up the Pacific coast at higher speeds.

Peterson told the captain that he trusted the log, given the weather conditions and his knowledge of the ocean at this time of year. If anything, he suspected that the log was underrunning. But he did not press the point. This was Peterson’s first trip on the Valencia; he had joined the ship’s crew at the last minute, to replace an officer who had been transferred to another vessel. Peterson knew virtually none of the men on board, save for a few servers, two cooks, and a fireman. He had never worked with any of the other officers, and it was a violation of the accepted order on any ship to defy the captain. Later Peterson would say that he took no part in the calculations required to plot the Valencia’s course—that was Johnson’s and Holmes’s responsibility. 

By 9 p.m. on Monday, the Valencia’s log showed that the ship had traveled 652 miles, which would have put it very close to the Umatilla lightship. However, Johnson was adamant that the lighthouse was still some 40 miles away. Privately, Peterson believed that the Valencia was likely past the lightship, nearing the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Around this time, Johnson ordered a course change that would bring the ship closer to the coastline. He also told the crew to gauge the depth of the ocean beneath the ship every half-hour by taking sounding measurements. To do this, the men dropped an 1,800-foot cable into the water until it hit bottom. At 9:30 p.m., the crew detected a sounding of 480 feet. An hour later, they measured 360 feet. The shallower water likely meant that the ship was getting closer to land.

By 11 p.m., the ship was moving dead slow, just four or five miles per hour. Johnson was sure the Valencia was approaching Cape Flattery. The captain stood on the bridge, waiting to hear a fog signal bellow from shore. No sound came.

Peterson later claimed that Johnson and Holmes had discussed taking the vessel west and waiting in the open ocean until daylight to figure out their exact location, but Johnson never gave that order. Instead, the Valencia continued chugging east. The sounding measurement at 11:15 p.m. was 240 feet. At 11:35 it was 180. Ten minutes later, the ocean’s depth was just over 140 feet. 

These were not the expected readings for the area where Johnson thought the ship was—the water was getting too shallow too quickly. Panicked, he changed course again, plotting a northwest route. Soon after, Peterson spied a dark object on the ship’s starboard side. He ran across the bridge and pointed it out to the captain.

When Johnson saw the dark silhouette, he cried out, “In the name of God, where are we?” He ordered Peterson to direct the crew to turn the ship “hard to starboard.” Peterson sprinted to the telegraph to issue the instruction.

The ship turned sharply, but it was too late. Just a few minutes before midnight, the Valencia collided with a rocky reef. 


Frank Bunker could not sleep. That evening on the saloon deck, he had seen the ship’s crew conducting depth measurements. After Bunker retired to his quarters, he could still hear the deep whir of the sounding cable being lowered into the sea every half-hour, then every 15 minutes or so. The noise kept him and his wife, Isabel, awake in stateroom number 26. As midnight neared, Bunker noticed that the intervals of sound were getting shorter—he remarked to Isabel that the Valencia must be entering shallower waters.  

Just as Bunker finally began to doze off, the room shook violently. The commotion startled Isabel and woke their two children. Bunker jumped out of bed and put on his coat and trousers. As he rushed for the door to inquire what had happened, another tremor tossed his wife and children to the floor.

Half dressed, Bunker stepped onto the deck. The dull glow of the ship’s lights illuminated the scene before him. Crewmen ran frantically from the vessel’s bowels to the bridge, while various passengers in their nightclothes looked on in either bemusement or concern. Bunker asked a group of people what was happening. They said that the ship had struck something but didn’t think it was too serious.

By then, Johnson had ordered the crew to investigate whether any water was leaking into the cargo hold, which would mean that the ship’s hull had been breached by the reef. Initially the crew found only a few feet of water midship. But soon the ship’s carpenter reported seven feet in the hold as well as in the crew’s mess room.

The Valencia’s fate was sealed: It was sinking, and there would be no saving it. If the ship drifted out to deeper waters, the hold would fill in a matter of minutes, and everyone aboard would surely perish. Johnson looked at Peterson. “I am going to beach her,” the captain said. He wanted to lodge the ship firmly amid the rocks to buy time.

Johnson ordered the crew to put the ship in reverse at full power. The Valencia’s propeller sliced through the frigid 43-degree ocean water. As the ship’s stern slammed into the reef, the bow became submerged in the sea. One after another, waves cresting at ten feet crashed over the vessel.

In the darkness, the captain and crew could not see land, but they knew it must be close. Reaching it was now a matter of survival. The Valencia carried six lifeboats; two of them were wooden, while the rest were made of metal. The ship also had a workboat and three rafts—one made of wood, and two made of tule, a buoyant reed material. Taken together, there was enough space to transport everyone on board to the invisible shore.

Johnson ordered all crew on deck to prepare the lifeboats for launch. Peterson turned to run to his station, but when he reached a set of stairs he slipped and slammed his head against the deck.

The Valencia’s fate was sealed: It was sinking, and there would be no saving it.

Anxious voices outside his cabin roused F. J. Campbell from sleep. Half awake and half naked, Campbell slipped out of bed to see what the fuss was about. Outside, people rushed to put on life preservers while the crew lashed lifeboats to deck railings. Campbell ran back to his cabin, got dressed, and hurried to his wife and daughter’s quarters, where he helped them put on their life preservers before shepherding them to the deck.

Frank Bunker and his family were already there. “Take on the boats!” Bunker heard a crew member yell. The passengers did not know what to do. There had been no lifeboat drill since leaving San Francisco. People shoved one another as the crowd heaved toward the lifeboats.

Just then, the water pouring into the ship shorted out the electrical system, plunging everything into darkness. It was impossible to differentiate crew from passenger. Adding to the pandemonium were the rain and wind, which made it difficult to hear instructions.

When Frank Richley, the firemen’s mess boy, reached the lifeboats, he found a distraught cluster of passengers, including the Campbell family. Richley took Mrs. Campbell’s hand and helped her into the boat. The Campbells’ daughter was hysterical and sobbing; Richley picked her up and handed her to her mother. Mr. Campbell followed his wife and daughter, fighting other men for space in the boat. If he’d had a gun, Campbell thought, he would have waved it around to stop people from crowding one another.

Fifteen people climbed into the Campbells’ lifeboat, which was near capacity. As it was lowered down the ship’s side, foam-capped breakers slammed it against the Valencia’s hull, forcing Campbell and the other men to push the oars against the ship to avoid the small boat being smashed to pieces. Eventually, they reached the ocean’s surface, and the men managed to free the boat from its rigging.

Johnson, observing from the bridge, ordered a searchlight aimed at the lifeboat. Frank Richley watched as the light pierced the cloak of night. Men struggled with the oars, battling to keep control of the boat as waves sucked them away from the ship. 

On the Valencia’s deck, Frank Bunker heard a crew member cry: “For God’s sake, give the women and children some chance!” The man then picked up one of Bunker’s children and motioned for the family to follow him. They crossed to the ship’s starboard side, where a lifeboat was hanging from its davits.

The Bunkers piled into the boat with other passengers, as well as Richley. As it descended toward the sea, the boat swung wildly. Bunker thought they might all be tossed into the freezing water. The ordeal was so terrifying that a man and a woman on board decided to get back onto the Valencia. The woman jumped from the lifeboat and clung to a ship’s railing before being pulled onto the deck; the man managed to grab a pulley and haul himself up.

Once the lifeboat reached the water, Bunker placed his two-year-old son, his namesake, under a seat so the oars would not strike him. Then he and the other men aboard worked to free the boat from the Valencia’s keel. Richley, the only crew member on the boat, paddled frantically. “Let’s get her out to sea!” he yelled.

Some distance away, Campbell caught a glimpse of the second lifeboat clearing the Valencia. He and the other men on his boat could not get the tholepins, used to secure the oars to the sides of the craft, to lock into place. Left to the mercy of the waves, the boat moved in fits and starts toward what appeared to be a rocky shoreline, slowly emerging from the darkness.

Alongside the Campbell family was passenger Albert Willis, a 17-year-old Navy seaman. Willis had just completed his training in Pensacola, Florida, and had been assigned to the USS Philadelphia, anchored in Bremerton, Washington. Though he appeared young, with blond hair and boyish features, his experience at sea made him an asset. As Willis watched the other men struggle with the oars and tholepins, he noticed a small object bobbing in the water on the boat’s floor. It was the plug for the drain hole in the bottom of the boat. Without it in place, the boat would soon sink.

Willis grabbed the plug and jammed it into place, but he could not stop water from coming in. He tried to make a seal around the plug with his fingers, but the effort was futile. Before long a shadowy breaker threw the boat against a rock, and the passengers spilled into the frigid sea.

Campbell tried to hold on to an oar, but another passenger grabbed his leg, pulling him underwater. The two men struggled with each other and the undertow. Finally, Campbell felt the man’s grasp break. The stranger washed away in the icy water.

Still wearing his life vest, Campbell managed to kick his way to the surface. He let each wave push him closer to shore, clinging tightly to one rock and then another whenever the water receded. Campbell was exhausted and fighting for his life. It had not yet dawned on him that he had seen neither his wife nor his daughter since capsizing.

Unlike the men in Campbell’s lifeboat, Bunker and his fellow passengers managed to secure their oars. They pulled hard, trying to position the boat so it would ride the waves and not be rolled by them. Just as they seemed to gain control, Bunker looked over his shoulder and saw a large swell headed straight for them. It collided with the lifeboat, tossing the occupants into the sea. 

When Bunker surfaced, he swam toward the white hull of the overturned lifeboat. He could not find anything to grab onto, so he jammed his freezing fingers into a tiny crack in the wood. Soon another wave struck the lifeboat, righting it. Bunker managed to pull himself in; there was so much water in the boat that it was only inches from sinking. He was shocked to find his wife sitting exactly where she had been before the boat flipped. Either Isabel’s life preserver had gotten caught on the bench, keeping her in place as the boat rolled, or she had climbed back into the boat before her husband.

Isabel told Bunker to search for their children. He frantically scanned the nearly submerged boat. He plunged his hands into the water, trawling along the floor until he felt a life preserver. He pulled hard and found that the vest was still attached to his son. The boy was not moving and did not look to be breathing. Bunker laid him across his lap and started chest compressions to get the water out of his lungs. Suddenly, the boy coughed and cried. It was a moment of relief, cut short by the fact that Bunker’s daughter was nowhere to be found.

Isabel turned to her husband and said that she was so cold—she was not sure how long she could hold on. A dark shape jutted into the sky ahead of the boat’s bow. “There is land,” Bunker said to his wife. “If you can hold on a few moments longer, perhaps we will be on the beach.”

As Bunker consoled her, he heard a cry for help from the side of the boat—it was Frank Richley, still in the water. Bunker pulled him into the boat. The four survivors huddled together as the sea pushed them toward the looming bluff. Bunker tightened his grip around his wife and son, bracing for impact when they reached the shore. They hit rocks and the boat stayed upright, but only for a moment. Another wave slammed into the craft, plunging the occupants into the ocean once again.

Bunker was dragged out to sea by the undertow, then hurled against the rocks by the incoming waves, a pendulum of movement that was sure to kill him if he did not get to land. He managed to grab hold of one a rock and inch his way up the surface on his belly. He grasped for sand, dirt, land. He tried to stand, but his life preserver felt as heavy as a block of concrete—it was waterlogged.

Bunker mustered the strength to break the strings of his vest, then crawled forward on his hands and knees. He had made it to a beach. It was pitch dark. Then he heard someone call out.

Campbell had reached the beach, too, and pried himself out of his life jacket. Once free he stared out at the Valencia. It was only a few hundred feet from shore. The proximity was jarring. So too was the fact that Campbell had no idea where he stood. He could only assume he was on the coastline of Washington State. But where exactly? How far from civilization, from help?

Campbell was one of seven men to survive the first lifeboat’s capsizing. The others were George Billikos, a fireman on the Valencia, who lost his shoes in the water; Albert Willis, the Navy seaman, whose pants snagged on a rock when the boat rolled; and Yosuki Hosoda, Mike Stone, Tony Brown, and Charles Samuels, all passengers. Only Bunker and Richley survived from the second boat. All the women and children in both vessels were lost.

The nine men cried out in the dark and followed one another’s voices. They converged at the base of an 80-foot cliff, the silhouette of which Bunker had seen just before he lost his wife and son. Rain pelted the men, all of whom were hypothermic. They packed together to keep warm. The roar of the ocean was incessant.

At one point, Bunker staggered away from the group toward one of the lifeboats, which had reached the shore and sat overturned. An inkling of hope spurred him to search it. He crawled underneath, but no one was there. What he did find was a can of oil. He brought it back to the group and poured the contents over a lifejacket. Someone produced a match, but it was wet. The men gave up on the idea of a fire.

In the distance, above the ocean, a red bolt shot through the sky. The streak was followed by a loud bang. Sparks arced toward the heavens, illuminating the Valencia, stuck in the rocks below. The waves were pounding the vessel, flooding it, breaking it apart. The men realized that the Valencia’s demise would not be quick.

In the light of the distress flare fired from the ship, the survivors on shore could just make out the contours of the ghostlike figures on board waving their arms. Before the men could wave back, the sky went black.

When Peter Peterson recovered from his fall, the Valencia was in chaos. The ship’s remaining lifeboats launched one after another to catastrophic failure. A panicked passenger cut the aft tackle of one of them. “Like a shot the stern of the boat fell to the water’s edge, leaving the bow hanging in the air,” Frank Lehm, the Valencia’s freight clerk, later wrote of the scene. “The occupants were spilled out like pebbles from a glass and fell with shrieks and groans into the boiling surf…. The next wave swept them away, and where the glare of the searchlight played on the water we could see the white, terrified faces of the drowning people flash by with the look of deathly fear such as is seldom seen.”

Peterson made his way to his lifeboat station, where he and other crew members helped eight men and three women into a boat. Peterson jumped into the vessel to steady it at the same moment someone shouted to lower it down. Off-kilter, Peterson clung to some mesh wire on the edge of the ship. Just as he thought he might lose his grip, a fellow sailor grabbed him and pulled him to safety on the Valencia. The lifeboat was lowered into darkness, only to be overtaken by the sea.

All told, as many as 60 people died in attempts to get the lifeboats off the Valencia. By Tuesday morning, several hours after it hit the reef, only two rafts and one lifeboat remained on the ship, along with roughly 60 passengers. For now, the crew ceased trying to launch the remaining vessels. Everyone was cold, tired, and hungry. They needed rest. They would try again at first light.

According to one account, some passengers grew desperate and leapt overboard; whether they had been hopeful or suicidal, none survived. Children cried out for parents they could not find. Eventually, amid howling wind and biting rain, survivors seeking refuge from the elements assembled in the dining saloon, where kitchen staff prepared sandwiches. Many people went without food, however, as most of the ship’s provisions sat submerged in the rising water belowdecks. 

On the bridge, Captain Johnson tried to keep his composure. He still did not know where the Valencia was. He could not surmise if either of the first two lifeboats had made it to shore. He watched as relentless breakers engulfed the forward components of the ship: the pilot house, the chart house, and, soon enough, parts of the bridge.

Johnson and the crew decided to set off emergency flares, hoping someone, anyone, might come to their aid. One of the flares misfired, mangling Johnson’s hand. Another shot into the black sky, revealing a cliff. There was land, and not far. Some of the Valencia’s passengers thought they saw figures on the beach and frantically waved.


Early on Tuesday, January 23, with the faint gray hue of daylight creeping over the horizon, Frank Bunker and the other eight men on the beach decided to move. They could not stay where they were without food and water, and they needed to determine their location.

Bunker tried to find a path leading away from the beach, to no avail. The only way out would be to scale the steep bluff. Bunker found a promising stretch of rock, dotted with roots and ferns he could grip while climbing. He began to ascend and made it far enough up that he decided the route was safe, then went back down to inform the other men.

They waited until the sun rose to climb. Bunker led the way, showing the group where to place their hands and feet. He positioned himself at one particularly difficult spot to assist each man as he passed. The last to take Bunker’s hand said that there was a tenth survivor on the beach, one who must have escaped the Valencia on another lifeboat. He appeared to have gone insane and refused to climb the bluff. Bunker told the others to wait for him at the top while he investigated.

He descended to the beach and scanned until he found the man. His face looked like he had been raked against the rocks as he washed to shore. He was delirious; there was no way he could climb. Bunker laid out two life jackets, eased the man onto them, and left him there, then ascended the bluff.

Bunker described what the men saw at the top as “terrible brush, a frightful place.” The ground was laden with mud, rocks, and roots, and thick with salal bushes. In a surreal moment, fueled by hunger, exhaustion, and hypothermia, one of the men thought he saw pieces of paper on the ground. Bunker told the men that if this was so, they must be “near civilization.” When they finally reached down and picked up the paper, they discovered that it was chunks of snow.

In time the men spotted a telegraph cable and a corresponding trail running along the coastline. Now they faced a choice: They could follow the crude path and seek help, or remain near the beach in the hope that the Valencia’s remaining crew could get a line to shore, which the men might need to secure for the people stranded on the ship to be towed to safety.

A debate ensued. Bunker was adamant that the men go find help; he was not convinced that the Valencia could get a line to shore. Frank Richley disagreed. “Let’s stay by here and see what we can do for the ship,” he said. George Billikos, the fireman, also wanted to stay on the bluff. According to Billikos, Bunker said that no one had to follow him, but that he had lost his wife and children, and now he was going to save himself.

All the men except Billikos followed Bunker into the brush. Even Richley went. Billikos stayed behind at first, but alone, freezing, and without shoes, he quickly changed his mind. He would take his chances with the others. He hurried to catch up.

Bunker tried to find a path leading away from the beach, to no avail. The only way out would be to scale the steep bluff.

For the people on the Valencia, dawn finally brought the shoreline into focus. The sight of land, however, offered little reprieve. They could make out no features to help them identify their location, and no signs of life—no structures, paths, or people. They saw only ridges, trees, and shrubs. “Taken as a whole, it would be hard to find a place so comparatively near to civilization yet practically so inaccessible and isolated as the place where the Valencia went ashore,” a report later stated.

Swimming to shore was all but suicide, a fact made clear by the bobbing corpses of passengers who had fallen or leapt into the sea. “The bodies of the drowned, which by that time, must have numbered full sixty, were seen floating around the beach and dashing up against the iron-bound cliff, which loomed so close to us,” freight clerk Frank Lehm wrote. “The bodies were caught by the waves, thrown against the rocks, and then caught by the undertow and drawn back.”

It seemed that the only hope for those still aboard lay in the remaining lifeboat and two small rafts. Around 8 a.m., boatswain Tim McCarthy approached Captain Johnson and said that the ship would not last much longer—the ocean was simultaneously devouring it and taking it apart at the seams. Johnson ordered McCarthy to gather volunteers to take the last lifeboat to shore, where the Valencia’s crew would aim a Lyle gun, a short-barreled cannon that fired a projectile with a rope attached to it. Once the volunteers on the shore had secured the rope, passengers and crew would evacuate the ship—they would slip one by one into a harness known as a breeches buoy and be pulled ashore.  

This was McCarthy’s second outing on the Valencia, but he had more than 15 years of experience at sea. He grew up fishing off Gloucester, Massachusetts, and had “sailed in steamboats and steamers and everything that has floated,” according to later testimony. McCarthy was not a physically imposing figure—he was wiry and of average height—but he was confident and commanded respect from the crew. 

When McCarthy asked for volunteers to join him on the lifeboat, one of the first to raise his hand was Charles Brown, who since 1891 had worked on English sailing ships and American coasting vessels. McCarthy asked sailor John Marks if he would come, too. Marks replied, “I’ll go anywhere.” In all, six men set off on the mission.

The sea had become even heavier throughout the morning, and it would require finesse to get the small vessel into the open water without capsizing. The men took their places and locked in their oars. McCarthy sat in the back, ready to steer, and studied the waves. They would need to break away just as a swell passed the ship.

One wave rolled by, then another, then another. On McCarthy’s command, the men oared the boat away from the Valencia’s hull. A wave caught them, and while they managed to keep the boat from tipping over, one of the oars snapped in two. McCarthy urged the men to row hard, and when they cleared the Valencia’s bow, they let out a yell of triumph. McCarthy quickly silenced the elation—they still had to get to shore. “Go to it for all you are worth!” he cried, and the men leaned into their oars.

On the Valencia, Peterson and other crewmen moved the Lyle gun to the aft of the ship, which offered the best position for getting a line to shore. The crew tied a rope to the projectile, primed the cannon, angled its barrel, and ignited the fuse. The first attempt failed, as the line chafed against the box and broke. A second line was prepared, and a loud boom echoed through the ship as the projectile launched into the air, arcing over the beach. It landed on top of the bluff. There it would wait for McCarthy and his crew.

Not everyone was confident that the men would succeed in reaching land, much less in securing the line. Fireman John Segalos (or Joe Cigalos, according to some reports), a Greek immigrant who had come to America to make money to support his aging mother, looked at the roiling sea and convinced himself that he could swim to the beach with a rope line and secure it from there. He took off his coat and vest. In his pocket was a small knife; he would need to cut the line he was carrying if it snagged on debris or, worse, a corpse. “I have to die sometime,” he said. “I might be dead, or I might do something.” Then Segalos looked to the sky. “God help us!”

He tied an end of the line around his waist and told one of the ship’s engineers to pull on the rope if he disappeared beneath the waves. When he saw his chance between swells, Segalos dove. The shock of the freezing water sent the air rushing from his lungs. He flailed his arms, surfaced, and swam, dodging rocks and logs.

People gathered at the Valencia’s railing and watched as Segalos struggled to get to shore. He did not make it far: The line around his waist became entangled, so he cut it. Segalos then turned and tried to make his way back to the ship, but a large log slammed into his head. Someone threw him a buoy, and passengers pulled him aboard.

Segalos was rushed to one of the few dry bunks left on the ship and given whiskey and fresh clothes. “It seemed to suck the life out of me,” he said of his experience in the sea, “and time after time, as I tried to make the shore, I found myself getting weaker and weaker.”

Another crew member also tried to make it to the beach, but he too had to be rescued. Now all the survivors could do was wait and see if McCarthy and the other men in the lifeboat could make landfall and find the line shot from the Lyle gun. But hope was fading fast: The boat was no longer in sight.  

“The bodies of the drowned, which by that time, must have numbered full sixty, were seen floating around the beach and dashing up against the iron-bound cliff,” freight clerk Frank Lehm wrote.

The lifeboat did not capsize. Rather, it traveled several miles north as the men aboard fought with the ocean to make a safe landing on shore, away from crashing breakers and jagged rocks. McCarthy and his crew still believed that they were somewhere along the coast of Washington State, and they kept heading north in the hope of finding the Cape Flattery lighthouse. After several hours, they were soaked, tired, and breaking or losing oars one after another—still there was no sign of the lighthouse.

Eventually, they spied a beach that looked suitable for landing. The men angled the boat toward shore and peeled off their heavy life jackets. “If we should happen to hit the beach,” McCarthy said, “be ready to jump before the boat turns over and kills us.” For once there was good luck: The men paddled in unison, crested a wave, and slid onto shore. McCarthy looked at his watch, which miraculously was still ticking. It was five minutes after one on Tuesday afternoon.

The men knew they needed to head south if they were to get to the Valencia and secure a line for the survivors. They began to walk, sticking to the coastline at first, but a large waterfall and cliff soon hindered that plan. They turned inland and tried to carve a path through thick bramble but gave up after about 100 yards. Back on the beach, they decided to go north, clambering over driftwood and rocks, only to encounter a fast-moving river. When McCarthy waded into the water, his foot got stuck in the mud, and the group thought better about trying to cross. Back to the lifeboat they went.

Then through the fog one of the men spotted a telegraph line at the beach’s edge. They followed it until they came to a cabin—a decrepit shack, really. As the men examined the structure and its surroundings, one of them called out, “I think there is a trail here!” They followed the path, bushwhacking their way through overgrowth. After a few minutes they came across a white signpost nailed to a tree. “Three miles to Cape Beale,” it read in big black letters. The men looked at one another, confused.

They were not in Washington. The Valencia had traveled farther north than Captain Johnson believed—the reef it struck was just off the southwestern coast of Vancouver Island. McCarthy’s party had made landfall at a place called Pachena Bay, and Cape Beale was the lighthouse closest to the wreck. There, perhaps, the men could find help. They set out northward, using the telegraph line as their guide.

In 1889, the Canadian government began installing more than 100 miles of telegraph wire from the city of Victoria up to Cape Beale. Before then lighthouse keepers and people living in small villages along the coast had no easy way to communicate with the rest of the world; local First Nations communities were still using dugout canoes to get from place to place with whatever information needed to be shared. No one had any way of calling for help in an emergency, including a ship in distress.

The telegraph wire was strung between trees, and a telephone line was added in 1899, when the technology was still in its infancy. Linemen were hired to maintain it. Each lineman was responsible for a 25- or 30-mile stretch of wire. The job was arduous: Linemen were tasked with navigating the rough trail that followed the wire and repairing sections downed by storms or fallen tree. They waded through waist-high rivers, crawled through steep gorges and ravines, used homemade ladders to reach high portions of line, and avoided bears, wolves, and cougars as best they could. When necessary they took refuge in huts built along the trail.

As McCarthy’s group set off, they had no idea that Bunker, Campbell, and other survivors from the Valencia were following the telegraph line, too, several miles to the south. That party’s progress was slow. At least two of the men had no shoes. One had a badly sprained ankle. Albert Willis was nursing an injured finger and what he thought might be several broken ribs. Meanwhile, the trail was hazardous, littered with rocks and logs slick from the winter rain. Thick brambles and dense underbrush snaked through the woods. To the west was a steep drop to the sea that a man could easily tumble off if he tripped or was pushed by the wind. The constant sound of waves crashing into the jagged rocks was a stark reminder that death could be imminent.

After crossing four gullies, early Tuesday afternoon the Bunker party descended a steep part of the trail that led to an expansive beach. They were grateful to be walking on flat ground. Eventually, they came to the Darling River, swollen with winter runoff. On the opposite side they saw a cabin. The telegraph wire ran straight through it.

After surveying their options, the men realized that there was no easy way to cross the river—they would have to swim against the current. One man would go first with a rope and secure it on the far bank so the others could use it for support as they crossed. Bunker volunteered. He tied a rope around his waist and dove into the raging river. The men on the shore watched, praying that the torrent wouldn’t carry him away. Bunker made it across and secured the rope, and soon the others joined him.

Together the men staggered toward the cabin. They burst through the door and were elated at what they found: a stove, benches, rolled-up blankets stored in the rafters, a couple of coats, a can of moldy beans, some bacon, lard, an axe. And a receiver, designed for both telephony and telegraphy. Bunker rushed to the receiver, hoping that the device worked and that someone was on the other end.


Around 2 p.m. on January 23, David Logan received a message at his home in the remote settlement of Clo-oose. Logan was one of Vancouver Island’s first telegraph linemen. The message he received was a plea for assistance. The sender relayed that a ship had wrecked traveling from San Francisco to the Puget Sound, that 50 people had drowned, and that perhaps 100 people remained on board. The sender also indicated that a band of survivors were sheltering in a cabin.

Logan called the Carmanah Point lighthouse telegraph office, located four miles south of Clo-oose. He told the lighthouse keeper about the message, and the keeper agreed to send his son, Phil Daykin, and another man north to meet Logan so they could form a search party and find the shipwreck.

Meanwhile, at the Cape Beale lighthouse, the keeper’s wife, Minnie Paterson, also received Bunker’s message, though she struggled to understand it, perhaps due to damage in the transmission line. Not long after, Paterson heard her large Scotch collie bark, followed by the scurry of her children’s footsteps as they ran for the yard. Paterson, who was eight months pregnant, got up to see what was causing the commotion. Through a window, she saw six weary figures approaching the lighthouse. It was McCarthy and his men.

Paterson made her way to the door as her children sprinted toward them.

“You are the shipwrecked crew,” Paterson said in greeting. “I was so sorry we could not connect with you.” 

McCarthy appeared baffled. “What do you mean?” he asked.

“Were you not trying to talk to us from further along the line?”

McCarthy realized that if Paterson had received a message, there must be other survivors. Perhaps passengers and crew on the first two lifeboats had made it to shore. “We are off the Pacific Coast Company’s boat Valencia that was wrecked along here. I don’t know exactly how many miles it is,” McCarthy told Paterson. “I want you to telegraph to Victoria or Seattle to get assistance.” 

Paterson escorted the men into the lighthouse. She fiddled with the receiver, trying to reach the men in the Darling River cabin, and finally established a connection. On the other end was Bunker. He relayed that he had lost his wife and children and that there were nine men in his party—seven passengers and two crew. He said they were in bad shape.

Paterson assured McCarthy and the other men at the lighthouse that their fellow survivors would be rescued. Then she turned back to the receiver and started wiring another message. This one would let the world know about the disaster unfolding off the coast of Vancouver Island.

McCarthy realized that if Paterson had received a message, there must be other survivors. Perhaps passengers and crew on the first two lifeboats made it to shore.

At around 3:30 p.m., Captain James Gaudin, a marine agent for the Canadian Federal Department of Marine and Fisheries, was at his desk in Victoria, preparing to go home early, when he received a telegram from Cape Beale that made him jolt from his seat. “A steamer has been wrecked,” it read. “About one hundred drowned. Nine have reached the telegraph hut. Will wire particulars later.” 

Gaudin knew the schedules of the ships passing through the area, and he knew that the Valencia was late to reach its destination. This wasn’t necessarily an anomaly—ships ran behind all the time. Now Gaudin wondered if something disastrous had happened.

A second message confirmed his fears. “Steamer Valencia ashore in [a] bad place,” it read. “About 110 people on board. Rush assistance. Six men have just reached here. Between 50-60 drowned.”

Gaudin picked up his telephone. He would not be going home anytime soon.

As word of the wreck spread, three ships set out to reach the Valencia: Czar, a tug boat; Queen, the steamship sometimes commanded by Captain Johnson; and Salvor, a wrecker helmed by H. F. Bullen. Bullen assumed that the Valencia’s remaining passengers and crew had already abandoned the ship, and that the Salvor would do what it was built to do: gather valuables and usable materials from the wreckage.

All three vessels were en route by Tuesday evening, traveling west through the Strait of Juan de Fuca. They would need most of the night to reach the Valencia, but as the ships got closer to the open ocean, they were battered by strong winds and seas. The crews decided to wait until dawn before forging ahead. The next morning, the three vessels convened at the Carmanah Point lighthouse, where they were informed that the wreck was roughly 11 miles northwest, near Seabird Rocks. The Salvor, Czar, and Queen continued up the coast.

Just after 8:30 a.m., Herbert Beecher, a local mariner who had volunteered to be on the Queen that day, placed a spyglass to his eye and squinted down the barrel. He scanned the fuzzy horizon until his eyes made out the Valencia, lodged fast on a shallow reef. The bow faced the ocean, and the stern was pointed toward the nearby shore. Breakers crashed over the decks. Survivors had lashed blankets in the rigging for shelter and confined themselves to the last bit of the hurricane deck not yet submerged in the ocean. Plumes of smoke appeared. Beecher was ecstatic: People were alive and needed rescuing.

The Queen was too big to get close to the wreck, so it drifted a couple of miles offshore as the Czar slowly maneuvered through shallower waters to assess the situation. The Czar’s crew reported back to the other vessels that they saw no signs of life. The Queen’s captain, N. E. Cousins, later claimed that he tried to dispute this report, describing what Beecher had seen through the spyglass. But there was either a miscommunication or a misunderstanding, because at 10:15 a.m. the Czar and the Salvor both vacated the area.

The Queen remained where it was, and the mariners aboard began discussing rescue options. They could deploy the ship’s lifeboats, but Cousins worried that the vessels would not make it through the mist, wind, and ten-to-fifteen-foot seas. As the weather worsened, Cousins went to his quarters to put on his oilskin coat. Someone came to the door and told him they had spotted another ship: City of Topeka, a larger vessel in the same fleet as the Queen and the Valencia, had steamed through the night from Seattle to reach the scene.

Cousins made his way to the bridge just as the City of Topeka pulled alongside his ship. Cousins shared what he knew with J. E. Pharo, the assistant manager of the ships’ parent company who was aboard the City of Topeka, and Pharo told him to return to Victoria. Pharo may not have wanted another vessel out of commission, since that would cost his company money. The Queen was instructed to load passengers and embark on a scheduled trip to San Francisco.

Cousins did as Pharo told him. Meanwhile, the City of Topeka steamed toward shore, looking for the Valencia. With scarcely any visibility, the ship went up and down the coast, even reaching as far as Cape Beale, until finally someone spotted a dot floating in the sea.

Plumes of smoke appeared. Beecher was ecstatic: People were alive and needed rescuing.

The ocean had consumed most of the Valencia’s cabins. The last of the food was gone. During the night, some passengers stripped off their clothing to make a torch, a tremendous sacrifice considering the cold. They dipped the garments in kerosene and set them ablaze, hoping to attract attention. No one came.

Sometime Wednesday morning, the foremast rigging gave way, plunging 20 to 30 people into the icy water. A few were lucky enough to be pulled back on board. A slew of bodies were swept away from the ship and crushed against the rocks close to shore.

Then, around 9 a.m., a familiar shape was spotted, the contour of a ship in the distance. A wild cheer broke out. Two smaller vessels soon appeared, coming nearer the wreck than the first. None of the vessels got close enough to establish contact. Passengers waved blankets from the rigging. Some suggested setting off the Lyle gun to attract attention. The fuse sparked, the gun went off, and smoke poured from the barrel.

Captain Johnson stood on deck and watched the three ships sit idle in the rain and fog. He instructed the remaining crew to take the two rafts still on board and load as many people as possible into them. Johnson would not be going anywhere. He knew that his responsibility was to stay aboard the Valencia until the very end, whatever that entailed.

Those onboard were stunned when none of the surviving women would get in the rafts. They believed that with ships in sight, rescue might be imminent. If it wasn’t, the women had little reason for hope. Many had watched their husbands and children die. They preferred to stay where they were. Some began to sing “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” a hymn that in just a few years would become famous for reportedly being the last song sung aboard the Titanic.

Men readied the rafts. The first group to leave consisted mainly of crew members, including chief cook Samuel Hancock. After clearing the ship around 10 a.m., the men rowed toward the distant vessel—only one seemed to remain—but then lost sight of it. Hancock knew there was a northerly current and told the men to keep the shoreline in sight.

Peter Peterson stood on the Valencia’s deck, watching as the topmast came crashing down and the hurricane deck finally caved in. It was now or never—the last raft needed to leave the ship. Captain Johnson tried to change the women’s minds. “This is the last chance,” he said. One replied, “We might just as well die on the ship as die on the raft.”

Approximately 20 male passengers and crew, including John Segalos, who had tried to swim a line to shore, squeezed into the raft. Johnson told Peterson to go, too. Once in the water, the men used large pieces of wood to paddle.

The men aimed for shore, until a mess boy cried out. He could see smoke in the other direction. Soon they spotted a large black hull cutting through the water, then two large masts. They heard three loud whistles pierce the air. It was the City of Topeka.

The captain of the City of Topeka sent a lifeboat out to meet the men in the raft. The survivors were in a ghastly state, their skin purple and numb. A crewman tossed a line to Segalos. Peterson began to lose consciousness as the lifeboat towed the raft toward the ship. He could barely keep his head above the waves washing over the raft. The last thing he remembered before blacking out was pulling alongside the City of Topeka.

The survivors were rushed to the ship’s doctor. After being examined, they were given whiskey, dry clothes, and warm blankets. “If we had been an hour longer on that raft, I believe every man would have gone insane,” Joseph McCaffrey, a passenger on the Valencia who was picked up by the City of Topeka later said to a newspaper reporter. “One could tell by the looks in the eyes of his companions that reason was fast departing. Just touch one of the men and he would growl like a trapped animal.”

During the night, some passengers stripped off their clothing to make a torch, a tremendous sacrifice considering the cold. They dipped the garments in kerosene and set them ablaze, hoping to attract attention. No one came.

The raft carrying Hancock and a handful of other men drifted north, farther than intended. It passed Cape Beale and entered a bay dotted with islands. Everyone aboard was hungry, injured, and exhausted. One man died, likely from exposure; the others threw his body overboard. Two men, perhaps driven mad, jumped into the sea. When the survivors finally beached on Turret Island around midnight, one man attacked Hancock and attempted to eat him. The others subdued the man, who curled up on the ground and never got up. The next morning, a survivor named Frank Connors seemed to go insane, according to Hancock, and ran off into the trees in search of a lighthouse he believed he saw.

In total, only four men who washed up on Turret Island survived. Hancock and firemen Max Stensler and George Long would be rescued from the island on January 25. The following day, Connors would be found wandering nearby.

Down south, the survivors resting with Minnie Paterson at the Cape Beale lighthouse waited to be rescued, as did the Bunker party, huddled in the cabin on the Darling River. Meanwhile, the search party consisting of David Logan, Phil Daykin, and Joe Martin was approaching the Valencia’s location. The trio had hiked several miles, sleeping on the ground overnight and using a damaged canoe to cross a swift-moving river. At a rocky outcrop, they spied a line of rope suspended in the trees and, suspecting it had been fired from a Lyle gun, followed it to the edge of a cliff. Down below, just offshore, was the Valencia.

The scene was brutal. Bodies of the dead littered the shore. People still clung to the ship’s wreckage, flinching when icy ocean spray hit them. When the survivors spied the three men on the cliff, they cheered and hollered. But the search party was ill-equipped to help. The line from the Lyle gun had snapped. The men could not find a path down to the beach. There seemed to be no way to reach the ship.

Just after noon, the ocean swallowed the Valencia. A massive wave swept over the ship, and Logan, Daykin, and Martin watched as dozens of people fell into the sea. Some of them, hugging pieces of debris, were swept into the abyss, while others were caught in the waves and dashed against the rocks. Two clung to the aft mast, the only part of the ship still visible, until they could no more. Logan, Daykin, and Martin stood by, helpless. “The end of the Valencia,” Canadian author Richard Belyk would later write, “was a theatre of horror.”

Eventually Logan, Daykin, and Martin left the cliff and hiked three miles to the Bunker party’s cabin. When Logan spotted one of the survivors, who had emerged from the hut to greet them, he shouted over the rushing of the Darling River. The men needed to use the telegraph to send a message to Cape Beale: The Valencia was gone.


In the days following the sinking of the Valencia, debris kept washing to shore. So did corpses. All told, an estimated 126 crew and passengers died in the wreck, including every woman and child on board. David Logan, First Nations communities, and the crew of a ship called Grant scoured Vancouver Island’s beaches at low tide, collecting waterlogged bodies and preparing them to be shipped to Victoria and Seattle.

While other survivors journeyed home, Frank Bunker stayed behind to help with the search. His wife and children were never found. Nor were F. J. Campbell’s wife and daughter. Captain Johnson’s body was lost, too. Fourth officer Aberg, whose wife had believed a fortune-teller’s claim that her husband would perish at sea, was among the dead who were found. He wore a blue sweater and a monogrammed ring, and he was identified by survivors.

When possible the dead were sent home by ship to loved ones. Some were left where they were found because the terrain made retrieval too difficult. Others were in such an advanced state of decomposition that they were impossible to move. Among the bodies recovered, many could not be identified because of bloating, or because waves and rocks had smashed their features. A coroner’s description of one reads, “Height 5 feet 11 inches. Weight 200 pounds or more. Reddish moustache. Laced shoe, No. 10. Striped shirt, blue and white. Dark vest, with Union label. Black tie. Black socks; Flesh coloured underwear. Grey and black trousers. Long hands. Dark Hair. Features unrecognizable. Taken to Hanna’s, Undertaker. Coffin marked ‘XIII’ at foot and on lid.” 

The unidentified were buried along the coast in unmarked graves. At one site, on a beach near Tofino, large crosses marked their final resting places. Eventually, a funeral service would be held at the Grand Opera House in Seattle for some of the dead. A 50-piece band played “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” a senator delivered remarks, and a poet recited original verse. Then a procession of more than 300 people followed a funeral car drawn by six white horses to Mount Pleasant Cemetery, where more than a dozen unidentified bodies from the Valencia were laid to rest beneath a shared monument.

The tragic news of the Valencia’s demise raced across the continent. It made the front pages of newspapers in Canada and the United States. The horrific details fueled public outcry. Families and friends of those who had perished wanted answers: How could so many people die so close to shore? Soon politicians in Ottawa and Washington, D.C., were being grilled.

Both governments commissioned reports to determine what had gone wrong and what could be done to prevent future tragedies. The Canadian inquiry was headed by marine agent James Gaudin, who had received a telegram about the wreck from Minnie Paterson at Cape Beale. By March 20, 1906, the probe had reached its conclusion. Ultimately, the commission blamed Captain Johnson, who was found to have “made a grave error of judgment in attempting to make the entrance to the Strait in such weather as prevailing at the time without exhausting every means of ascertaining his position.”

The American inquiry also found that, given Johnson’s uncertainty about the Valencia’s position, he should have taken the ship out to the open sea until he could safely chart a course to Seattle. “Such action Captain Johnson failed to take,” the report stated, “and upon his improper navigation in this respect must rest the primary responsibility for the disaster.” (Johnson was not the only person whose reputation was sullied by the wreck. J. E. Pharo, assistant manager of the Pacific Coast Steamship Company, submitted his resignation even before the U.S. report found it inexcusable that he had ordered the steamship Queen to leave the scene of the wreck, where it might have participated in a rescue operation.)

Both government reports made recommendations to improve maritime safety, including better lights and foghorns at key points along the West Coast. “If such a terrible disaster must occur, it must be regarded primarily in the nature of a lesson for the future—a lesson not to be disregarded,” the U.S. report stated, “and if the government, acting upon this lesson, shall make all reasonable provisions within its power for the safeguarding of this coast, the victims of Valencia will not have perished in vain.” The Canadian government urged that new vessels built to travel the region include watertight compartments belowdecks. It also called for building more lighthouses on Vancouver Island, equipping them with rescue boats, and clearing a lifesaving trail along the coast so shipwrecked survivors could reach shelter and assistance.

Before those changes could be made, Minnie Paterson became famous when another ship, a 168-foot sailing vessel called Coloma, foundered just off Cape Beale. With the telegraph line down, Paterson set out on her own in rain and wind, hiking several miles through marshes, streams, and vegetation, to find help. The Canadian government awarded her a silver plate for her efforts. She died of tuberculosis five years later.

John Segalos, the fireman who tried to swim to shore and was later picked up by the City of Topeka, was awarded multiple medals for his bravery on the Valencia, including one from the Seattle chamber of commerce. In time, though, his life fell into disarray. In 1928, after relocating to the East Coast, he was robbed and assaulted, and his cherished medals were stolen. He died, almost destitute, at the age of 76. For his part, Frank Campbell shared his witness account of the tragedy, then disappeared from the historical record, his fate lost to time.

When Frank Bunker finished looking for bodies from the Valencia, he continued on to Seattle to begin his job with the city’s public schools. He did not stay long—Bunker returned to California and served as superintendent of schools in Berkeley until he lost a bitter school board election. He then headed east, became a professor of school administration in New York, and published several books. He later opened one of the first junior high schools in America.

Bunker remarried in New York, but he never had more children. The specter of his son and daughter, lost in the Pacific, must have been ever present as he devoted his life to education. “I have no children now,” he said many years after the wreck, “but I know nothing as dear as a little child.” Bunker died in 1944.

Over time the wreck of the Valencia became more than a cautionary tale. To locals on Vancouver Island, it evolved into a ghost story. As early as 1906, witnesses reported strange occurrences near the reef where the ship sank. A local Nuu-chah-nulth man, Clanewah Tom, claimed he saw a boat full of skeletons in a coastal cave a few hundred yards from the wreck. Mariners described glimpsing a phantom ship with wraithlike figures clinging to its sides floating just offshore.

In 1933, captain George Alexander MacFarlane found the lifeboat Tim McCarthy and a few other men used to get to shore in a farmer’s field in the Alberni Valley of Vancouver Island. MacFarlane removed the nameplate with an axe and kept it in his home. In 1956, it was donated to the Maritime Museum of British Columbia, where it remains today, along with other remnants from the wreck. 

Most of the Valencia, however, still sits where it sank. The reef and rocks that doomed the ship can be seen from the West Coast Trail, the name given to the 75-kilometer path that the Canadian government carved along the shore to improve rescue operations in the wake of the Valencia disaster. The trail, now primarily used for hiking, traces the old telegraph line that Bunker, Campbell, and other survivors followed to find refuge.

The wreck occurred near kilometer 18 of the path. On the bluff overlooking the sea, which Bunker and other survivors scaled, there are two red Adirondack chairs. For the unknowing it is a peaceful spot, a place to rest and watch the waves crash against the rocks below. But reminders of the past lurk just below the breakers: plates from the ship’s hull, a section of the engine, a propeller and its shaft. Under the weight of the ocean, pieces of the Valencia rest in their shallow grave.  

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.


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. 


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.


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.


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.


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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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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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


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.


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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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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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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.”


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


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


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.


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.


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


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


“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.


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.


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



Now you’ve got crap in your pants

And crap to patch your pants!

Shit-caked country!


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.


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.

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The Ghost Hunter

The Ghost Hunter

For hundreds of years, there were rumors of a shipwrecked treasure on the Oregon coast. But no one found anything, until Cameron La Follette began digging.

By Leah Sottile

The Atavist Magazine, No. 99

Leah Sottile is a journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times Magazine, Playboy, The California Sunday Magazine, Outside, The Atlantic, and Vice, among other publications. She lives in Oregon.

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Designer: Ed Johnson
Fact Checker: Tekendra Parmar
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Illustrator: Peter Strain

Published in January 2020.

Prologue: The End

The story goes like this: Sometime around the year 1694, a ship wrecked near the foot of a mountain in Oregon. The area’s indigenous people named the peak Neahkahnie (knee-ah-kah-knee), “the place of the god”—a wide, tall mountain that appears to rise out of the Pacific Ocean like a giant climbing out of a bathtub. Its shoulders are cloaked in a dense forest of spruce and cedar, where elk find refuge in mists and leave hoofprints in the mud. For more than three centuries, the Nehalem-Tillamook people have told the tale of a ship that crashed there, a devastating collision of man and nature.

The ship was a Manila galleon, a “castle of the sea,” dispatched across the vast Pacific Ocean from the Philippines to Mexico and carrying the finest goods known to man: ivory statues, delicate china, exotic spices, golden silk. To lose a galleon was to experience death hundreds of times over: hundreds of men and boys foundering in inky black water, hundreds of hearts ceasing to beat, hundreds of lungs inhaling water. It also threatened the life of an economy. Only one or two galleons sailed east for Acapulco each year, packed with thousands of pounds of treasure. The cargo was traded for silver, which was brought back to Manila and then traded to the Chinese emperor. When the galleon wrecked near Neahkahnie, its cargo likely plunged into the ocean. Sculptures of virgins and saints spiraled down like white torpedoes. Blocks of beeswax plummeted like boulders. The ornate blue and white porcelain never stood a chance against the coast’s sharp rocks.

A huddle of malnourished sailors were said to have emerged from the water, dragging a heavy chest over the beach toward Neahkahnie. By some accounts, the sailors then murdered an African slave who’d helped carry the chest, dumping the man’s body in a hole with the treasure before covering it with earth. The wreck reverberated for generations, the stories of treasure repeated and retold, rephrased and revised, evolving with each telling: The galleon wrecked in an epic battle with two other ships. The survivors, once ashore, were slaughtered by tribal people.

But what really kept the tale going was the wax. Sergeant John Ordway of the Lewis and Clark Expedition wrote in 1806 of Native people trading in beeswax some 50 years before bees even arrived on the West Coast. Galleons carried wax molded into huge blocks and stamped with shipping numbers; Catholics in the New World fashioned the stuff into church candles. There was so much wax on the beach near Neahkahnie that early European homesteaders made a business out of mining it from the dunes. Still today, every time a slow morning beach walker unearths another brown knob of beeswax from the sand, the legend takes a new breath. If there’s wax from the shipwreck, why couldn’t there be treasure buried on the Oregon coast, far beneath the dirt and sand?

And so the story wends its way into new ears and new hearts. The possibility takes on a new shape. The bounty could be a chest filled with gold. Priceless artifacts from the Spanish empire. A pile of sparkling jewels.

It’s almost too much to resist.

Chapter 1: Rich Stuff

I first heard about the legend of the treasure in the spring of 2018. My friend Doug Kenck-Crispin, host of the Kick-Ass Oregon History podcast, and I were at a Japanese teahouse in Portland when he slid a packet of photocopies across the table toward me. The packet read “Tales of the Neahkahnie Treasure” and included a black-and-white photo of a large stone with some kind of code carved into its surface.

He told me that the Oregon coastline around the town of Manzanita was dotted with bits of beeswax and broken porcelain, the purported remnants of a galleon wreck. Native people once made arrowheads out of shards of china. Early white explorers made references to “redheaded Indians” in the area—were they the offspring of the ship’s survivors? Chief Kilchis, one of the last free Tillamook leaders, was rumored to be a descendant of a galleon crew member.

Some people believed that “marked stones” like the one in the photo Doug showed me were once meant to help triangulate the location of the buried treasure. But the stones were eventually moved from their original locations on and around Neahkahnie. So, while people assume they mean something—that they were placed by someone, at some time, for some reason—no one knows what. (Some scholars believe that they were actually put on the coast by Sir Francis Drake during his circumnavigation of the globe, aboard the Golden Hind, in the late 1500s.)

People have scoured the Oregon coastline trying to find the galleon’s riches for more than 150 years, ever since homesteaders arrived, heard the tale of treasure, and began digging. Doug told me that people were likely still out there looking.

My eyes went wide as he talked. How had I never heard this before? I grew up in Oregon in the 1990s, and like anyone raised in that place and time, I’d been obsessed with The Goonies, the 1985 film about seven Oregon kids who discover an old pirate map and set out to find the treasure. The Goonies was my sick movie, my “Mom, I’m bored” movie, my Saturday afternoon movie, watched over grilled cheese and tomato soup. Most of it was shot on the Oregon coastline: the spiraling wet roads of Ecola State Park, Cannon Beach’s mammoth Haystack Rock. The Goonies is a tale of good trumping evil and honor besting greed, a story that made me think kids understood how to find truth in a way that adults somehow forgot along the way.

What Doug was saying made me think that maybe, in a sense, The Goonies was real—maybe there was an actual Oregon mystery to be solved, one that took the right sort of person to crack it wide open. I left that day clutching the packet of papers Doug had given me, sure that I needed to know more.

Doug suggested I talk to another writer who’d become obsessed, a man named J.B. Fisher, who’d recently written a book called Echo of Distant Water, about one of the strangest missing-person cases in Oregon history. We met on a perfect Portland day, when the clouds and the Willamette River seemed to merge and it was hard to tell if the rain was coming from the sky or the ground. We shook off our jackets inside a coffee shop, and Fisher told me that he, too, had felt compelled to learn more about the galleon. But he’d barely begun his search for answers when suddenly he stopped. Someone who knew a lot about treasure hunting on the coast told Fisher about another writer who’d come sniffing around.

“He was met with an untimely death, a head-on collision,” the man said, suggesting that perhaps the accident had been caused by supernatural forces. Fisher thought the message was clear: Stay far away from the Neahkahnie treasure.

The wreck reverberated for generations, the stories of treasure repeated and retold, rephrased and revised, evolving with each telling.

The 362-mile Oregon coastline, stretching from Washington State to California, is entirely public land. Thanks to a 1967 law, everyone has the right to “free and uninterrupted use” of the state’s beaches. But for several decades, if you wanted to dig for riches in the sand, you had to request a treasure-trove permit. The first person to file for one was a man named Ed Fire, who made his initial request in 1967. In a photograph accompanying a front-page news story from May of that year, Fire stares with dark, fierce eyes into the camera, holding up an L-shaped hunk of metal he’s uncovered somewhere. In the background, his wife—a handbag slung over her arm and a kerchief covering her hair—holds open a book. The photo caption reads, ambiguously, “[She] shows the page in the book on the treasure which has given her husband his clues as to its location.”

Fire told reporters that he would dig only during the week, when fewer people would be around to stare. He was both private about his search and ostentatious; he would use an enormous bulldozer on a pristine beach to aid in his hunt but insist that no one watch as he did it. He told state employees that God was telling him where to look.

For 22 years, Fire hunted and hunted and never found anything of value—nothing he disclosed to the public, at least. He argued and quibbled with state employees over his right to rake up the land around Neahkahnie. “It is my every intention to execute my rights as an individual to do what I feel is right and my feeling is that what I am doing on the beach is beneficial,” he wrote in a 1968 letter to the state land board. To Fire, it was beneficial to dig for “gold, silver, precious ores, jewels” that could be worth millions. Two decades later he remained empty-handed, and he’d become outraged with Dave Talbot, the state parks administrator, over delays in obtaining a new permit. “I will not evaporate into thin air and disappear,” he wrote to Talbot. “I have finally unlocked the secret of what took place on the Oregon coast all those years ago. I will fight for that permit come hell or high water.”

Fire was hardly alone in his search. From 1967 to 1999, when the state’s treasure-trove system was repealed, effectively closing the door on digging on state land, more than a dozen people filed permits to search for the fabled galleon bounty. The applicants were all men in the sunset of their lives. Geriatric Goonies. And most claimed to be blessed with some special, secret knowledge. Their claims are chronicled in a set of boxes stored in a closet at the state parks department—boxes filled with letters written by men who said they’d been touched by God, men who claimed to know, without a shadow of a doubt, where the treasure was.

In 1983, L.E “Bud” Kretsinger—a trucker-hat-wearing Manzanita tavern owner with a beach-ball belly—told the Oregonian that he and his digging partner would soon unearth the treasures of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. (It’s unclear how he got that idea into his head; several seekers assumed that biblically significant items might have been on board the galleon.) “We figure it’s a trillion dollars’ worth of loot, not counting the Biblical stuff,” Kretsinger said. Later that year, he inflated the story, telling a Tillamook Headlight-Herald reporter that he was digging for “ancient scrolls written by Moses himself.” He convinced himself he might even find the Ark of the Covenant.

The state, though, was always getting in his damn way—they revoked his permit for failing to comply with the rules and for causing environmental damage. “It’s very frustrating,” Kretsinger said. So, without a permit, he dug a 14-foot hole in Oswald West State Park. He came up with nothing.

In the late 1980s, Bill Warren, a Frank Sinatra impersonator from California who performed under the name Michael Valentino, focused his sights on the Neahkahnie legend. By March 1989, Warren was calling state officials several times every day over his application for a permit, which was crawling its way through the bureaucracy. He demanded that the people he wanted to speak to be pulled out of meetings. “Who the hell do you think you are?” Warren asked a secretary who answered his calls. “You are a public employee and do not have the right to tell me who I may or may not speak to. Do you understand, little girl?”

“This happens more days than not,” the secretary wrote in an interoffice memo.

In 1989, the State Land Board placed a moratorium on issuing any more permits until a few things were cleared up: The legislature needed to figure out a plan for who would keep the bounty if one were ever found. And then there was the fact that issuing permits conflicted with protections for archaeological sites. Fire called this “a deliberate plot” to steal the treasure.

If Fire and the other men who’d recklessly pursued the mythical riches had little regard for Neahkahnie’s environment or the people tasked with protecting it, they had even less for the people who’d lived there since long before the galleon’s wreck. “Neahkahnie Mountain is a very special place in Tillamook traditions,” said Robert Kentta, cultural-resources director for the Confederated Tribes of Siletz, which is made up of 27 tribal bands, including the Nehalem-Tillamook. When hunters dredged and shoveled along the coast in search of wealth, they were pillaging lands that the tribes considered sacred. “All the digging and things that went on on the mountain, looking for treasure, have had an impact on it as an important cultural place,” Kentta said.

For generations, many Oregonians had indulged that Goonie side of themselves, allowing every single bit of wax and porcelain to restart the song of buried riches. That’s the thing about being a kid—childhood is marked by impulsivity, shortsightedness. And it can be forgiven. But when grown men applied that mentality to Neahkahnie, they closed one eye to the truth of the place: They were digging up someone’s home, which once contained every treasure its inhabitants needed.

Here’s the thing I realized about The Goonies: It’s a story where, in the end, wealth brings happiness. Jewels are salve for the world’s problems—foreclosure, gentrification. The final scenes of the movie tell aspiring Goonies to take note: Adventure itself is only good if it turns up something of value. Your spirit and cunning are, in isolation, frivolous things to be tucked away in an attic, just like Mikey’s dad did with that dusty old map. Had they found nothing, Mikey and Chunk and Stef and Data merely would have worried their parents sick for a day.

Kentta warned me that prioritizing the tantalizing prospect of riches over the true story of a wreck and its aftermath could have consequences. There have been children’s books, a movie called The Legend of Tillamook’s Gold. “These stories have fueled the fevered search by others in the past, and we do not want to trigger more,” Kentta said.

All that feverish hunting hadn’t unearthed so much as a flake of gold. I looked for every permittee whose name was in those files at the state parks department, hoping to talk to an actual treasure hunter. Eventually, I realized that the most dogged among them were dead, including Ed Fire. But as Kentta had implied, there was another story here, another hunt to embark on.

Few people had ever tried to mine the other mystery of Neahkahnie: Who were the hundreds of men on the galleon when it sank in the shadow of the mountain? The answer to that question had remained buried for some 300 years, as if the men’s souls were waiting for the right person to be born, someone who could both exhume them and lay them to rest once and for all.

She came, of all places, from the desert.

Chapter 2: The Obsession

Cameron La Follette can’t remember the first time she saw the ocean. Maybe it was at a summer camp in Maine? Maybe on a trip to California? She isn’t sure, but for all her life she considered the sea wild and vast and strange. “I must have absorbed something, somewhere along the line, that was setting the stage for this,” she told me, “because it’s unlikely that I would fall so hard for something that I knew absolutely nothing about. Absolutely nothing.”

La Follette was born in Phoenix, Arizona. In the early 1970s, she moved to Oregon to attend Reed College. She dropped out after two years, taking a job with the Oregon Wilderness Coalition (now called Oregon Wild) working to protect old-growth forests. Four years later she took up school again, this time at the University of Oregon, where she completed a bachelor’s degree in journalism. “I always did love words above all things,” she said.

After graduation she began law school at the University of Oregon but moved to New York City, where she completed her degree at Columbia University, then got a master’s in psychology from NYU. For a decade she studied and worked, amassing knowledge and degrees. Deep down she felt like she wasn’t home and might never be. Home wasn’t the desert, where her family had raised her. And it wasn’t New York, which was an assault on her senses. Pizza. Perfume. Constant motion, a static of visual human noise. She couldn’t focus there, could barely jot down words on a page. She dreamed of the primeval smell of forests, of soil and Douglas fir, of the roiling ocean—of Oregon. “I really like being rained on,” she said.

One New York winter day, she passed a sidewalk vendor selling Christmas trees mounted on wooden stands. She heard the breeze pass through their branches. She missed that sound. But she didn’t want to hear it from trees on stands. She wasn’t herself here, not the person she’d always wanted to be. I need to get home, she thought.

Then, on the morning of September 11, 2001, she received a phone call. “I thought, Who’s gonna be calling so early in the morning?” It was a distant cousin, wanting to know if La Follette was OK. “Of course. I’m having breakfast,” she replied. She turned on the radio, realized what was happening, and went outside, where she saw crowds of people looking up at a perfect autumn sky. In the distance, sirens screamed. Fighter jets carved arcs over the city. She knew this was the moment. She had to go back to Oregon. Now.

“I think it was two or three weeks later. I frantically got things packed, closed my bank account, said goodbye to some close friends, closed out everything I needed to do, rented a car, and headed over the George Washington Bridge,” La Follette told me. She drove across the country—across the Great Plains, over the mountains of Wyoming and Idaho, and into the desert of eastern Oregon, where she veered the car to the side of the road, opened the door, and stepped out onto the shoulder to snap a picture of the “Welcome to Oregon” sign. Home. Finally.

La Follette again landed in the environmental sector, this time concentrating on land-use protections in the state’s coastal region. She stayed with the job. By age 60, when I met her, she had become the executive director of the Oregon Coast Alliance.

It was a stroke of luck, or perhaps magic, that led her to the galleon. In 2014, in connection with a work project, she was looking for historical records about the town of Bayocean, a place once touted as the Atlantic City of the West that literally fell into the sea in 1960. La Follette went to the website for the Tillamook County Pioneer Museum, looking for information about the doomed town, and her eyes fell on an announcement for an upcoming lecture. It was about the wreck of a Manila galleon.

She thought: What? A galleon had wrecked in Oregon? “The instant I heard about it, I wanted to know not some things, not a few things, not the basics, but everything.”

She dreamed of the primeval smell of forests, of soil and Douglas fir, of the roiling ocean—of Oregon.

One hot summer day in July 2018, La Follette stood in front of a crowd of graying history buffs and told a tale of tragedy and treasure. “When the galleons wrecked, it was always a horrifying and spectacular thing,” she said, looking through wire-rimmed glasses at the room of faces. Hers wasn’t a dry PowerPoint presentation. She told a complex story that kept the room of retirees—and me—riveted, like a schoolteacher reading a storybook to a classroom of gaping children. At times her telling drew gasps from the crowd.

I had dropped in to her talk at the Oregon Historical Society on my way to a heavy metal show. This is to say: I stuck out. I sat in the back, craning my neck to see the screen at the front of the room and filling my notepad with questions. Afterward, I waited in line to meet her.

When I reached La Follette, I couldn’t help but notice her eyes flick down at my dark clothes and the tattoos covering my arm. Did a flash of doubt cross her face? She agreed to speak to me on the phone, and two weeks later I called. One of the first things she said was that I was absolutely not allowed to write about her galleon research for Playboy, a magazine I often freelance for. I told her no problem, writing for skin mags wasn’t my sole focus.

Even with that assurance she was prickly, in a professorial way. I got the sense that she thought I was incapable of telling the story of the galleon with the necessary care. “This is a really important part of Oregon history,” she said. “It’s a tragedy. It needs to be treated with gravity.” I assured her that I could do that. And I told her that I felt I had to tell this story. I talked about being from Oregon. I talked about the reporting I’d done. I listed my credentials. I promised to be careful, factual, accurate, precise.

She reluctantly agreed to go on the record. I asked if I could visit her at home; she said no. Instead, she suggested a restaurant at a sleepy motor lodge in Salem, the state capital. We met there on a cold day in January 2019. I sipped hot coffee, poured by a server at the end of her shift who told us to sit as long as we’d like, then put on her jacket and left.

Over the next five hours, La Follette drank one glass of ice water. She spoke differently than before. During the lecture I’d attended, the story of the galleon came from her lips like a fairy tale. Now she talked about it as an event that had shifted the tectonic plates beneath her own life, even if it had happened hundreds of years before she was born. I asked her what could make someone become so obsessed with a 17th-century shipwreck.

She shook her head and looked me in the eye. “It was immediate, it was visceral, it was absolute, it came without warning,” she said. “And it has never ended.”

It was as if she’d turned her back to the sea for a split second and found herself knocked flat by waves that dragged her to a place from which she could never return.

“It was immediate, it was visceral, it was absolute, it came without warning,” La Follette said. “And it has never ended.”

Back in 2014, after she learned about the lecture on the galleon, La Follette called Scott Williams, the maritime archaeologist who would be delivering the talk. She asked him if he knew what had happened to the galleon. Williams, in fact, knew a lot. He had spent years doing fieldwork with other archaeologists, geologists, and researchers as part of the volunteer Beeswax Wreck Project. The group had set out hoping to learn the name of the ship that had turned the coastline near Neahkahnie into a potential archaeological site.

Williams emailed La Follette a 2011 paper in which he and other researchers revealed that the galleon that crashed on the Oregon coast was very likely the Santo Cristo de Burgos. Radiocarbon dating on broken porcelain had pinpointed manufacturing to the Kangxi period in China, and the patterns consisted of designs common before the 1700s. Cross-dating that information with records of lost galleons, the researchers narrowed the possibilities to two ships: the Santo Cristo de Burgos, which vanished in 1693, and the San Francisco Xavier, lost in 1705. In the middle of the 12-year span between the vessels’ final voyages, something monumental struck the Oregon coastline: the Cascadia earthquake of January 26, 1700, which is believed to have measured up to 9.2 on the Richter scale. It sent a tsunami—a wall of water taller than 25 feet—crashing into the shoreline, forever reconfiguring it.

Based on the high elevations and inland locations where wax and porcelain had been found on the Nehalem Spit, a thin ribbon of land between the Pacific Ocean and Nehalem Bay, the Beeswax Wreck Project, together with geologists from Portland State University, concluded that the unnamed galleon was almost certainly the Santo Cristo. Normal tides could never have reached those places. The tsunami was the only thing powerful enough to carry wreckage that far.

Williams told La Follette that his team had conducted some archival research into the Santo Cristo to support their findings. They knew that the ship had sailed to Mexico once, returned to port in the Philippines, and set out again in 1693. The captain had left some 30 crew members behind on the dock in Manila, though the researchers didn’t know why. Then the galleon disappeared forever.

Williams’s team wants to find the ship, any remaining part of it. La Follette had a different concern. “I remember thinking, But what happened?” La Follette told me. “Who was this captain who left his crew onshore? And why?”

She disappeared into stacks of books. New books, old books, rare books. Books on galleons, books about life on the ruthless sea, books about colonial Spanish silver mines in the New World. She would work at her job all day, then read all night. She’d finish a book and think, More. I need more.

Douglas Deur, an anthropologist friend at Portland State University, suggested she contact the Archivo General de Indias, a home for valuable documents pertaining to the Spanish empire in the Americas and the Philippines. It’s located in Seville, Spain. La Follette began searching for an archivist there who was familiar with maritime records. She found Esther González Pérez.

La Follette wanted a cargo manifest for the Santo Cristo. Initially, González couldn’t find one, but she found other things that filled out the story of the galleon—for instance, taxes and salaries paid to crew members on the ship’s earlier journey. At one point, González excitedly emailed La Follette with a discovery that the Santo Cristo had carried liquid mercury in its hulls, by order of the viceroy of New Spain. Liquid mercury was essential for silver mines in the New World, used in the process of extracting metal from ore.

Every time González got back to her, La Follette had new questions. They went back and forth like this for a few years—new requests, new reports; new reports, new requests. Between 2015 and 2017, La Follette spent more than $10,000 of her own money paying González, other archivists, and translators in Spain, Mexico City, and Manila. “I couldn’t get a new garage door. I couldn’t get glasses that actually worked very well,” La Follette said. “I was looking at things blurry in the distance and was like, I really gotta get glasses, but it’s gonna cost $800, and I have to pay Esther’s bill.” Just like Ed Fire, La Follette couldn’t rest until she reached the bottom of her curiosity.

Eventually, González unearthed a partial cargo manifest buried deep in the archives, the best evidence yet that the Santo Cristo had, in fact, been packed with treasure: fine bedsheets embroidered with flowers, ivory sculptures of the infant Christ and saints that would be placed in New World churches, gold paper fans, delicate lace. And wax for candles.

González also found a passenger list, filled with the names of the people who’d been aboard the ship. Artillerymen Pedro de Echavarría, Juan de Cretio, and Pedro Posadas. Seamen Sebastián Ximenes, Fabián Faxardo, and Constantino de la Cruz. Apprentice seamen, blacksmiths, artillerymen. Names upon names upon names that no one had uttered for centuries.

Chapter 3: Our Captain

As La Follette told me the story of her quixotic quest, an unfortunate thing kept happening: Right when she would get to an important part of the tale, a man on the other side of the restaurant who seemed to be on a conference call would shout into his cell phone excitedly, as if he were at a hockey game. I set my recorder on top of a coffee cup and inched it closer to La Follette. I shielded the microphone with my hand in a feeble effort to block the man’s voice. “Yeah! Two hundred bucks!” he yelled at one point. I don’t think he even noticed us; if he did, he didn’t consider us worthy of his manners. We rolled our eyes at each other across the table.

“Don’t say anything important right now,” I told La Follette at one point. She laughed, and I felt like she might be starting to like me. We traded ideas about somewhere else to go, somewhere quieter, somewhere a man wasn’t taking up so much space. Ultimately, we decided to do our best to ignore him.

The man left an hour and forty minutes into our interview, and the restaurant went quiet. La Follette could finally tell me how her story of the galleon ended, where it all went.

In the winter of 2016, La Follette realized that she knew very little about the Santo Cristo’s captain. Research showed that he was one Don Bernardo Matias Iñiguez del Bayo y de Pradilla. Something about his name struck her as interesting; del Bayo didn’t sound traditionally Spanish to her ear. La Follette determined that it was, in fact, a Basque name. She purchased The Basque History of the World—which isn’t about ships or shipping at all—and devoured it, just to get a better sense of the culture the man grew up in. Soon she was emailing another faraway academic: Alvaro Aragón Ruano, a professor at the University of the Basque Country, near Bilbao. “I emailed him. In English, not Spanish. I don’t speak that much Spanish. And I said I was researching a galleon wreck in Oregon,” La Follette said. She asked if he might be able to help find out more about the captain’s family history. “He emailed me back within two hours.”

Aragón did some sleuthing and discovered that del Bayo was a knight in the Order of Santiago, an elite military organization of Spanish nobles that still exists today. The captain would have had to fill out a detailed application with his entire family history. Such a document would surely be housed at the National Archives of Spain.

La Follette rushed to ask González to visit the archives in Madrid. The application was there. González scanned the ancient document, and La Follette hired a translator. Finally, she thought, I’m getting somewhere.

She learned del Bayo’s parents’ names and where he was baptized. Aragón even sent her a photo of the baptismal font where del Bayo was christened. She hired a graduate student in Mexico City to go to the Archivo General de la Nación. The student unearthed more about del Bayo—before his galleon days, he was the mayor of a silver-mining town called San Luis Potosí, back when Mexico was known as New Spain. During his tenure, del Bayo used his own money to pay for municipal improvements that would carry floodwaters away from the town.

Much of La Follette’s research was guided by questions she could not explain the origins of—questions that led her to breakthrough after breakthrough. The details about del Bayo’s life gave the story new shape. He wasn’t just a name anymore. La Follette felt that she knew him as a real person.

She continued to trade emails with Aragón. She asked him if perhaps he could locate an image of del Bayo’s family’s land, maybe an old Basque farmhouse that had been preserved—something she could feature alongside her research when she published it. By then, La Follette had decided to work with Douglas Deur, the anthropologist, and a few other galleon obsessives to write several articles for the Oregon Historical Quarterly. In fact, her research was so extensive, the editor at the OHQ agreed to devote an entire issue to the Santo Cristo

“I’ve never seen anything like this before, and I don’t think I’ll see anything like it again,” Eliza Canty-Jones, the OHQ’s editor, told me. I asked her what made La Follette’s research so exceptional. Her answer: La Follette herself. She wasn’t the first person to become obsessed with the galleon—at one point during my reporting, I sat in a maritime museum poring over a trove of files gathered by someone, now deceased, who believed the ship to be the San Francisco Xavier. But La Follette was one of the few people driven by a sense of humanity, a deep and serious respect for the people who lost their lives on the ship. “She’s amazing,” Canty-Jones said.

Canty-Jones is right—La Follette is amazing. Amazing and strange and wonderfully deliberate. I’d never met anyone like her. After our meeting at the restaurant, we talked more. I found myself wanting to be more like her. What if I were driven by a curiosity so intense that I became single-minded in a quest? What if all of us were so thirsty—unquenchably so—about the questions in our hearts?

“Do you have fans?” I asked her during one of our conversations.

“I hope not,” she replied quickly.

What if all of us were so thirsty—unquenchably so—about the questions in our hearts?

On July 11, 2017, two days after La Follette asked Aragón for help finding an image of del Bayo’s home, he responded with something even better. Attached to his email was an image of a painting.

By a stroke of luck, Aragón happened to know a history professor in San Luis Potosí. He’d reached out to her to see if she knew anything about a man named del Bayo who had once been mayor of the town. She went to a local church and, with her smartphone, snapped a photograph of an intricate altarpiece. From Mexico back to Spain, from Spain to Oregon, the photo came to La Follette’s inbox. In the painting, the Virgin Mary stands atop a Roman column, the crowned baby Jesus nestled in her arms, angels peeking out from her skirts. Below her feet, a crowd of men have fallen to their knees, awestruck. At the Virgin’s left foot, a sharp-nosed man wearing a suit of armor clasps his hands in prayer, lips parted, gazing upward. According to the painting’s caption, it is del Bayo.

La Follette gasped when she saw it. It was him! Right there! “I would never have guessed we would get a likeness of our galleon captain,” she told me, her voice softening. Here was the image of the man she’d been imagining for so long—the man who had led others across a vast ocean, had been thrown off course, had perhaps caught a glimpse of Neahkahnie just as his ship was about to capsize in a deafening storm against the rocks.

I saw a shimmer in her eyes as she talked—not from tears, it seemed, but from wonder. This was not the stern-faced person I’d first met. She had become someone else entirely. She was a treasure hunter—cunning and smart, and seemingly guided by an invisible hand, the kind of force that, if you haven’t felt it, you may never fully understand.

Chapter 4: The Gyres

There was still one more secret to be revealed, a part of the story that La Follette had kept almost entirely to herself. She confessed to me that there was a purpose behind her unusual research—maybe not a method to the madness, but a motive. There was something in it for her.

“As soon as I heard about the galleon, I wanted to do one thing only: I wanted to write an epic about it,” she said. I raised my eyebrows. Epic? Was she a poet? This was all for a poem?

I’d done research on La Follette before our meeting and hadn’t seen a thing about poetry. Turns out, that’s because almost nothing she’s written has ever been published. But she told me that the University of Oregon Archives houses more than 2,000 pieces of her work. My jaw dropped. (The University of Oregon confirmed that it houses her prolific output.)

She’d always been a poet. As a teenager, La Follette would scribble verse that was raw and angsty. Her cheeks flushed at the memory. By the time she was 25, she’d written 1,000 poems. “All of which were terrible,” she told me. As she continued to write, she devoted herself to composing poetry that read almost as if it were written in another time. She stuck with that form. Her work is never experimental, the point never diffuse or unclear. She writes about history, about nature.

Poetry was the reason she left New York City. She was living the wrong life there because she wasn’t writing. She couldn’t even bring herself to tell anyone who she really was. “Not being able to say, ‘I’m a poet,’ gave me an unspeakable sense of misery,” La Follette told me. Her voice was lost. “I couldn’t find it.”

In Oregon, she devoted herself to finding her voice again—or, really, to determining if it was ever there at all. “I was so afraid it was fly-by-night or a shallow well,” she said. Soon she was writing weekly. Poetry became her purpose. She gave herself to it. She would isolate herself if that was what it required.

But what to do with everything she produced? “The only thing I really care about, if something happens to me, God forbid, is the poetry. I have no place to give it, or no place to take it,” La Follette said. She can’t stand self-promotion, but she wanted something to come of her years of devotion. So one day she called the archivist of the special collections at the University of Oregon, a man named James Fox, and asked if he’d be interested in having her work. “There was kind of a cold little silence,” she recalled. “And he said, ‘Usually, if the archive is interested in someone, we contact you.’” La Follette argued her point—her poetry wasn’t in vogue in the publishing landscape, but she had something important to say.

Fox agreed to look at a handful of poems. “She was assertive. She had a vision,” Fox, now at California State University Sacramento, told me. La Follette anguished over which poems to send and then waited for a response. When she didn’t hear from him in due time, she called Fox. “He said the words I’ll never forget. Quote, ‘Your poetry definitely has merit,’ unquote,” La Follette recalled.

Fox agreed to take it all, intrigued not only by the volume of her work but also by its connections to La Follette’s environmental activism in Oregon. “She’s certainly an anomaly,” Fox said. “Her poetry was powerful.” It overflowed with spirituality, “of seeing God in nature. Whatever your idea of what God might be, the landscape is sacred,” Fox explained.

Fox went to Salem and took La Follette to dinner. They became friends. Every three years, she sends a new bundle of poems to the archives. It has continued to take them even though Fox has moved on.

I asked who her favorite poets were, and La Follette named a few. Among them was one that I, too, had great affection for: William Butler Yeats. It’s not uncommon to like Yeats. Still, I jumped in my seat when she said his name.

As La Follette spoke, I saw images of gyres in my mind. Gyres were of great interest to Yeats. Made of a pair of interlocking spirals, they form a shape much like an hourglass, one ascending, growing smaller as it meets the belly of another, which simultaneously descends into the first. Time in geometric form. One spiral beginning only because another ends. Death and life. The Basque nobleman and the poet who found him, connected.

As the galleon was crashing, and the story of the men on board was ending, a new story was beginning. It was one of myths and searchers and romantics. Two tales woven together, each incomplete without the other.

Poetry became her purpose. She gave herself to it. She would isolate herself if that was what it required.

What La Follette had embarked on was unlike anything I’d ever heard among the writers I know: historical research spanning years and years in order to write a single poem. The special issue of the history quarterly was a byproduct. All the mining, the money, the people assisting in other parts of the world—La Follette wrangled it to write a poem that might never be published, that might sit forever in an archive.

After I left our meeting at the restaurant, I pulled my car to the side of the road and jotted down a note about La Follette, one that felt addressed to my future self. That finally I’d met someone who’d found a way to block out all the inessentials of the world, who’d sequestered herself inside her curiosity and never lost her focus on protecting that. In the days and weeks and months after our meeting, I thought of her every time I became distracted. I thought about rising early in the morning, stationing myself in a corner of my house with only a candle and a pencil and the thoughts in my head. But I never did it.

In March 2019, I asked La Follette for another interview. I wanted to talk about her poetry, I told her. I wanted to know where she wrote, and how. She said yes.

She lives in a white World War II–era home on a long Salem street full of houses just like it. The branches and leaves of tall trees condense the misting rain into thick, heavy glops that fall on the people walking below. We sat in La Follette’s small dining room, off a kitchen painted a quiet mint green, at a table covered in a white floral tablecloth. There were stacks of books piled on top, mostly nonfiction books about maritime culture. There wasn’t any fiction; she doesn’t read it. Framed photographs hung on a wall next to the table—a dramatic slot canyon, a coastline shrouded in clouds.

I’d noticed before that when La Follette talked about the galleon, she mentioned the sensory experience of what it must have been like on board the Santo Cristo—how it smelled, what the men ate. She imagined what their moans sounded like once they realized they’d run off course, wandering the ocean. She saw things differently, felt things differently, too. She told me why; it’s a neurological condition called synesthesia.

When she looks at the color of someone’s shirt, a taste emerges across her palate or a tone buzzes in her ears. That day, she was wearing a purple fleece jacket that tasted of warm apple cake and butter. She had a gray one that put the earthy texture of dried mushrooms in her mouth. “After I wear it for an hour or two, I’m like, I gotta get out of this thing,” she said. “The colors that you see in the house are all colors that I can handle.” The tastes they generated were good ones; the tones weren’t too loud.

For all her life, even before the galleon business, poetry to La Follette was like prayer or meditation or feeding herself regular meals. It was also a way of expressing the interconnected sensory experience she was living. A routine that allowed her to focus her way of seeing the world.

She writes most days, and she begins late, after she’s finished working in her home office, made dinner, and read a book. It could be 11 p.m. She boils water for tea, then carries two kerosene lanterns into the dining room. She sets them on the table, touches a match to their wicks, and carefully replaces their glass chimneys. A pad of lined paper and a Bic pen are ready for her. She sits, turns around a small wooden clock so that it faces away from her—“I’m not in the world of time anymore,” she told me—and begins. The only image in her line of sight is a small woodcut of a seeker: a man whose head cranes upward, as if he’s looking beyond earth and sky into an unknown celestial world.

She doesn’t stop writing for hours; the lanterns cast shadows that jump across the walls until one or two in the morning. “I’m in a very small pool of light, and there’s darkness all around me,” she said. There is only her small, looping cursive and the rhythm of the words on the page. And, occasionally, more tea.

Two months after the OHQ hit local shelves, La Follette began work on her epic poem about the galleon. For years she’d kept to a strict routine, writing on Wednesdays and Thursdays, editing on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Now she added a new day: Sundays were for the galleon.

On the day I visited her, she’d been at it for months, though she said she was taking a short break after writing about the wreck and the bloody aftermath. She’d known it was coming. Eventually, she’d write of a massacre, when indigenous men killed some of the sailors for assaulting local women. She knew it might stop her cold. Maybe she wouldn’t be able to continue. “I’ve been dealing with these men and their fates, trying to bring them back into history, for three years now,” she told me.

But she marched into the breach headlong. She wrote and wrote, and her body was wrecked when she finished. She was exhausted, panting. “It was so emotionally intense,” she told me, her face slack at the memory.

The poem would cover everything: the voyage, the wreck, the oral histories, the treasure hunting—all of it. Even the men like Fire and Kretsinger, whom I’d come to think of as a little wild-eyed. She rejected that idea. “Nobody who walks the borders of new ideas is going to be ordinary,” she said. “It’s not appropriate to dismiss them as wild-eyed crazies rooting in the mud of Neahkahnie. I look at them very differently. They were responding in their own way to the enormous and powerful presence of Neahkahnie Mountain. And also responding to the ancient but vague tragedy.”

They were dreamers, like her.

Epilogue: The Beginning

On a November morning, I went to a place near to where the Santo Cristo ran aground some 326 years earlier to see if just maybe I might find a bit of wax or a piece of porcelain. Neahkahnie Mountain was watching. I walked along the shoreline, following beachcombers in the mist, their heads down and their shoulders slumped. We were the wonderers and wanderers, the scavengers and optimists who thought that maybe Neahkahnie would smile on us in a way it had no one else. My eyes fell on every rock and shell fragment as if each were a possible discovery. But no, they were just rocks and shells.

Why was I here? What was I looking for if not the Goonies-style adventure I once thought I might find? I knew so much now about what really happened here, and it was bittersweet to see it differently than I’d imagined.

I was thinking about all this when I spotted a small plastic bottle, about the size of a cheap pint of vodka. When I got close, I could see it wasn’t trash. Inside was a rolled up piece of yellow paper. I looked around for someone who might have dropped it, but there was no one.

This couldn’t be an actual message in a bottle, could it?

I picked it up and speed-walked down the beach toward the house where I was staying, where my retired mom was reading on her iPad. “Mom!” I yelled, throwing the door open like I hadn’t in thirty years. “I found a message in a bottle!” Scuffing my boots on the front mat, I held up the bottle, caked in sand, so she could see it.

“Holy shit! You meant it!” she said, flinging the iPad away, padding toward me as I withdrew the yellow scroll from the bottle. I carefully unfurled the wet paper, releasing sand fleas onto the kitchen counter. Mom stabbed at them, screeching, with a paper towel.

When the note was laid flat, all I could see were the pencil scribblings of a toddler. There was an s, an f. The figures in between looked more like cave drawings than letters. I couldn’t help but think of a kid somewhere, probably not far away, scratching a message onto the paper, tucking it into the bottle, then chucking it into the ocean. Maybe it came from long ago; maybe it had been thrown out there yesterday.

Once it was dry, I put the note where it belonged, in between the pages of La Follette’s research in a copy of the OHQ—a treasure hunter’s equivalent of a flower pressed in the pages of an old book.

As the galleon was crashing, and the story of the men on board was ending, a new story was beginning.

It was the New Year, early 2020, when I heard from La Follette again. An email. Subject line: “The epic is done!!”

I was standing at my kitchen counter, and I rushed to plug my phone in, heart thudding against my ribcage as I opened the attachment. The Wreck of the Santo Cristo, the title page read. I took a deep breath. What spirals would I find? I slid down to the floor, a pot of rice simmering above me, and began to read.

This is the tale of the unknown tragedy,   The wreck and disappearance of the Santo Cristo,A Manila galleon, a strong castle on the sea,   That fought winter gales and pride’s pitiless blow,   Warring constellations and winds turned foe,And ghastly fate. Hounded by an evil star,A ship forced to shores remote and far.

I thought about how, at one of our meetings, La Follette had told me about the time she knocked on the door of a Manzanita beachcomber and asked to hold a piece of porcelain he’d pulled from the sand. She’d never actually touched anything from the galleon. The man placed a bit of china into her palm. When she held it, she didn’t taste a thing, didn’t hear a low aria. But she did picture a man in her mind, a noble captain whose fingers might once have brushed up against its cold white surface.

As I read La Follette’s poem, my eyes and cheeks were hot knowing finally, with certainty, that the treasure of Neahkahnie had always been real. It was something no man could ever find in the earth. It was something else entirely. The senses, distilled. Moments in time, converged. It was the work of a seeker who poked her head among the stars.

She saw something up there. And she brought it back.

Click here to read a selection of Cameron La Follette’s poetry about the lost galleon, published exclusively by The Atavist.

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“Your Honor, Can I Tell the Whole Story?”


“Your Honor, Can I Tell the Whole Story?”

A murder in New Orleans, a trial that lasted less than a day, and the lives they entangled for the next three decades.

By Nick Chrastil

Published in partnership with The Lens.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 97

Nick Chrastil is a writer based in New Orleans. He has written for Slate, Roads & Kingdoms, ThinkProgress, The Lens, and other outlets.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Tekendra Parmar
Photographer: Akasha Rabut

Published in November 2019. Design updated in 2021.

The address where Greggie Jones was killed, 4639 Wilson Ave.

1. The Crime

Guns were on everyone’s mind. In January 1987, New Orleans’s Times-Picayune ran a story in its lifestyle section with a picture of a hand gripping a revolver, hovering over a map of the city. The headline posed a question: “Should You Get a Gun?”

A sense of unease overwhelmed New Orleans—journalist Nicholas Lemann, a distressed native, lamented that the city’s “supreme confidence about itself seemed to be truly shaken.” White people had left New Orleans in droves after Ruby Bridges desegregated William Frantz Elementary in 1960. Many of them went to first-ring suburbs like Metairie, where former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke would eventually win a statehouse seat. The oil bust had decimated the economy. Louisiana’s unemployment rate was the highest in the nation—one in eight people were out of work. To save money, New Orleans mayor Sidney Barthelemy laid off 1,100 municipal employees and put the rest on a four-day workweek. The war on drugs had replaced the war on poverty. Mandatory punishment for distribution of heroin was a life sentence. To relieve overcrowding at Orleans Parish Prison, the sheriff set up tents in a nearby park to serve as makeshift cells.¹ Neighbors complained that police radios were interfering with their TV signals.

  • [1] In 1974, the jail housed an average of 800 prisoners per day. By 1987, the number was up to 3,800.

The Times-Picayune’s gun feature offered readers advice for dealing with their existential anxiety, courtesy of the New Orleans Police Department. “Males, females, young people, the elderly, they’re all talking about guns,” an NOPD officer told the newspaper. “There are a lot of ladies who say they’re in a position they’ve never been in in their life. They’re frightened in their houses, they’re frightened in their cars.” The paper explained where people could attend weapons-training courses. A sidebar with a list of “Things to Consider” encouraged potential gun owners to ask themselves, “Are you committed to using a gun? Can you shoot someone?” If a reader wanted to buy a firearm, the police recommended any name-brand .38 revolver “because it is simplest to load and use, and gets the job done.”

Susan Wolfe, a resident of the affluent Lakeview neighborhood, had a .38 Smith & Wesson blue steel snub-nose five-shot revolver. A medical student at Louisiana State University, Wolfe came home on the afternoon of April 28, 1987, to find her back window open. Someone had climbed inside and thrown her belongings about. In addition to her JVC portable radio, the intruder had taken her gun. The police who came to the scene recovered no physical evidence left by the perpetrator. At Wolfe’s request, a crime-lab unit dusted for fingerprints. None were found.

That night, Wolfe’s stolen .38 was used to shoot a man named Greggie Jones. Police found Jones in the yard of his house at 4639 Wilson Ave. in the neighborhood of New Orleans East. He was wearing a brown checked shirt and a hat. His bicycle was lying nearby. He’d been shot twice and was gasping for breath. One bullet had entered the back side of his right wrist and shattered the tip of the radius bone. A second bullet had entered the right side of his chest. It went through his heart and into his spine. An officer bandaged Jones’s chest wound, then an ambulance drove him two and half miles to Methodist Hospital. There, Jones was pronounced dead.

Back on Wilson Avenue, police took statements from Jones’s neighbors, all potential eyewitnesses. Lester Hill said that he was sitting on his steps across the street when he heard gunshots. Hill saw a gray car, possibly a Ford Pinto, parked in front of Jones’s home, and a black man wearing a beige shirt and dark pants. The man was carrying a gun, which Hill described as “shiny in color.” The suspect walked from the yard and got into the passenger seat of the gray car. Another man was behind the wheel. The pair drove away, turning onto a dirt road that led to the Pecan Grove Apartments on Chef Menteur Highway. Hill did not know either of the men, but he told the police that he would be able to identify the one with the gun.

Jones’s brother Eddie lived next door, and he’d also heard shots. When he looked outside, he saw his brother lying on the ground. Down the street, about a block away, Eddie saw a black man heading toward the highway. Kenneth Walker, who lived at 4648 Wilson Ave., said that he heard shots but didn’t see anyone or anything of note.

The most important witness would prove to be Jones’s live-in girlfriend, Vanessa Causey. She wasn’t home when he was shot. She told police that she’d gone out to look for Jones earlier in the evening and was walking back when she heard gunfire. As she approached the house, Causey saw a black man in a dark shirt and beige hat leaving the yard. She claimed that she recognized the man: His name was Willie, and he’d gotten into an argument with Jones earlier that day. Causey didn’t provide the suspect’s full name.

She described Willie as approximately five foot six and 185 pounds, “walking toward her direction,” according to the police report. “After that, unknown.”

New Orleans Parish Prison, where Erin Hunter was held after his arrest.

2. The Cop

Donald Hoyt was the homicide detective first assigned to investigate the murder. In his supplemental report, written the day after the crime, he noted that it was obvious “that the victim had been dealing in drugs.” Inside Jones’s house, Hoyt found evidence of crack cocaine use: freebasing pipes and baking powder. Police also removed 16 joints and two syringes from Jones’s clothes when they arrived at the crime lab to be catalogued as evidence. The autopsy report noted that Jones had “old and recent venipunctures of the right arm.” When the toxicology test came back, it showed that Jones had cocaine and angel dust in his system.

A black man who did drugs had been shot, probably by another black man, possibly because of drugs—that was about as far as Hoyt got with his investigation. A month after he was assigned to the case, he retired. He hadn’t been able to locate the witnesses for follow-up interviews. The case was going cold when it was handed off to detective Jacklean Davis.

Davis was an anomaly: She was the first black female homicide detective in NOPD history.² On her first day in the division, some of her colleagues put dog shit in her desk drawer. They glued her belongings to her desk and hung up pictures of Aunt Jemima. “Everybody from the South knew who Aunt Jemima was,” Davis said in an interview. “She’s considered a house nigger.” Once, when Davis’s daughter called the office looking for her, she was advised, “Nigger, don’t call anymore. That bitch doesn’t work here.”

  • [2] In 1973, a black officer filed a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination in NOPD’s staffing practices. At the time, NOPD had fewer than 100 black officers on a force totaling some 1,300. After a settlement was reached, white officers filed a reverse-discrimination suit.

Davis’s life experiences up to that point may have helped her endure the cruelties of her fellow murder police. A profile in Ebony magazine recounted her difficult biography: When she was three years old, her father died in a car accident. A few years later, Davis, along with her younger brother, went to live with her great-aunt and uncle. The aunt was a sex worker who ran a boarding house for merchant marines on Baronne Street in New Orleans’s Central City, not far from the Mississippi River. The uncle was a sailor who was home only a few weeks out of the year. Starting when Davis was eight years old, he used those respites to molest her. She lived in constant fear when he was around. When she was nine or ten, Davis was also raped by one of her aunt’s boarders. She didn’t tell anyone at the time. “I enclosed all the guilt,” she told Ebony.

Jacklean Davis, as featured in Ebony magazine. (Via Google Books

When she was 14, her abusive uncle died of cancer. Three years later, her aunt, a consistent source of love and support, passed away. Around the same time, Davis gave birth to her daughter.

Like opposing magnetic forces to the hardships of her life, ambition and persistence propelled Davis forward. She graduated high school and enrolled in college. She got a job as a transit clerk. She took the civil service exam and failed. She took it a second time and failed again. She took it twice more and failed. On her fifth try she passed and went to the police academy. In 1979, she started as a patrol officer. Davis worked her way up to the city’s vice squad, where her childhood observations of the habits and postures of sex workers made her valuable as an undercover operative. She claimed that a magistrate judge once said to her, “With your ass, I’d solicit you.”

From vice, Davis moved over to narcotics and eventually to rape investigations. “Each rape case was like a counseling session to me,” she told Ebony. Davis excelled—she had a 100 percent clearance rate by the time she left the division—but her record didn’t guarantee respect when she transferred to homicide at the age of 30. Once again she had something to prove. “Every case that I got, I was looked at under a microscope,” Davis told a Knight-Ridder reporter. “My biggest accomplishment, I consider, is not cracking under pressure.”

Davis was among the cops who responded to the scene of Greggie Jones’s murder, but there is no record of her speaking with witnesses that night. She officially took over the case on July 1, 1987, a few months into her homicide tenure. She reached out to the key witnesses, including Lester Hill, who’d said the night of the murder that he could identify the man he saw carrying a gun. Davis couldn’t find Hill, and he was never interviewed again. On July 9, however, Vanessa Causey finally answered her phone.

According to Davis, Causey reiterated that she knew the man she’d seen leaving the shooting, the one she’d called Willie. His actual name was Erin Hunter. “Causey stated [that on] the night of the fatal shooting incident, she was very traumatized and couldn’t remember Hunter’s name,” Davis wrote in her case report. Causey reportedly told Davis that she’d run into Hunter several days after the killing. He’d asked her where she was living because his girlfriend wanted to get in touch with her. Causey said that she gave Hunter a fake address and, fearing for her life, fled the city for a couple of months, which was why detective Hoyt hadn’t been able to reach her. According to Davis’s report, Causey had “agonized over the fact of Hunter not being arrested for the murder.” Now she was ready to talk.

Davis wrote in her report that, after her conversation with Causey, she searched for Hunter’s name in the NOPD’s computer system. She discovered that he’d been arrested that very morning for possession of stolen property. Tipped off by a man who claimed to have sold Hunter a stolen television set, cops had shown up at Hunter’s door with a search warrant. When no one answered, they entered through a front window, and the officers found Hunter in the bathroom. (Hunter told me that he willingly let the cops in.) They handcuffed him and recovered the stolen TV, along with several guns. One was a Smith and Wesson .38 revolver. Records showed that it belonged to Susan Wolfe and had been reported stolen in April.

A report from the NOPD ballistics division dated July 15—less than a week after Davis spoke to Causey—states that Wolfe’s gun fired the bullets found in Jones’s body. The next day, Davis met with Causey and showed her a photographic lineup. Causey identified Hunter as the man she’d seen at the crime scene. That evening, a judge issued an arrest warrant for Hunter, who had made bail after being detained for possessing stolen goods. The new charge was murder, and it landed him behind bars indefinitely.

Davis hadn’t interviewed Hunter. She never would. When asked why during the reporting of this article, she said that she didn’t often speak to homicide suspects. “I didn’t have to talk to him,” she said of Hunter. “The crime lab said he was found in possession of a weapon used in a homicide, so it was his obligation to tell his defense attorney how he came to have that gun.”

With an eyewitness and a ballistics match, it seemed likely that Davis would clear the case, continuing her unlikely run as one of New Orleans’s best detectives. The investigation into Jones’s murder also happened to connect to one of Davis’s earlier successes. When she was a rape detective, she helped put a man named Melvin Williams away for 50 years. Williams, for his part, maintained his innocence. The victim in the case was Vanessa Causey.

Orleans Parish Criminal District Courthouse, where Hunter was tried.

3. The Witness

The Orleans Parish Criminal District Courthouse stands on the corner of Tulane Avenue and S. Broad Avenue, its southeastern facade bearing a quote from John Adams: “This is a government of laws, not of men.” In that building, in 1987, determinations of guilt and innocence were forged in a dark furnace of history as unwieldy as it was punitive. The institutions meant to ensure due process, conferring legitimacy with badges, robes, reports, dockets, legalese, and conspicuous whiteness, were undermined by incompetence, disinterest, and contempt. Truth was replaced with convenience, investigation with expediency. Lives, particularly black ones, were often treated as expendable.

Causey entered the courthouse on September 16. She’d led a hard life. In addition to the alleged rape, she’d struggled with addiction. According to several friends and acquaintances whom investigators later interviewed—some of whom also spoke to me for this story—finding ways to procure drugs was the organizing principle of Causey’s life. She set up people for Jones to rob, including drug dealers. “She was that type of person, when she get high, she don’t give a damn,” a person close to Causey told me on condition of anonymity. “‘Get whatever I gotta get to get high, get mine the best way I can.’ And that was her motto, which was a bad concept.”

When Causey appeared before the grand jury, there were new details in her story, ones she hadn’t told Davis or the cops who’d responded to the scene of Jones’s murder. She testified, for example, that she’d seen a man in a white cap get into a gray Ford Pinto, like the one that Lester Hill, Jones’s neighbor who’d never been re-interviewed, claimed to have seen. Causey told the jury that at first she couldn’t see the man’s face, but when she did, she knew it was Hunter. His mother lived in her neighborhood, and he had previously dated her sister, who Causey claimed once heard Hunter describe himself as a hit man. (There is no record of the police interviewing Causey’s sister.)

Causey also said that Hunter sold cocaine and had once been robbed at a local hotel. That incident, Causey implied, could explain his motive for murdering her boyfriend: Jones knew who was responsible for the robbery but wouldn’t tell Hunter, because Jones didn’t think it was his place to get involved.

Causey said that she’d spoken “casually” with the police on the night of the murder but didn’t identify Hunter. “They asked me did I see who done it, and I told them no, because I didn’t see him shoot him,” she said. “I didn’t want to think he did it.” Why, then, had she given the police the name Willie? Causey said that she’d heard someone call Hunter that before. Causey also claimed that she’d contacted an investigator at the district attorney’s office, a man named Anthony Radosti, with information about the murder, then called detective Davis. Radosti’s name wasn’t in Davis’s case report; in a letter sent several years later to Hunter, Radosti would say that he had no recollection of being involved. Meanwhile, Causey’s testifying that she had called Davis contradicted the detective’s own account of initiating contact on July 9.    

“Even though I didn’t see him fire the shots,” Causey told the grand jury, referring to Hunter, “it was in my heart, you know, that he did it, and I got on my knees and I asked God, I said, ‘Well, if he’s not the person who did it, remove these feelings from my heart,’ you know? And those feelings haven’t been removed, and I knew God would have answered my prayers, because I have faith and trust in Him.”

The grand jury ruled to indict.

Hunter was in lockup at Orleans Parish Prison and assigned a lawyer from the woefully underfunded and understaffed Orleans Indigent Defender Program.³ His counsel hadn’t visited him or told Hunter that Causey was the person who’d identified him as a killer. In fact, Hunter didn’t even know that it was Jones he was accused of murdering. “Hell, I don’t know if the guy was black or white, viennesse or cuban,” he wrote in a letter to his attorney four months after his arrest and two after his indictment. “Do I have a right to know what in the hell is going on?”

  • [3] At the time, New Orleans did not have a dedicated office of the public defender. In 1993, this was deemed to be unconstitutional. Still, an office wasn’t created until the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It has struggled with deficits and a backlog of cases ever since. 

In the same letter, Hunter demanded that his lawyer leave the case. A new indigent defender named John Dolan took over. Hunter’s frustration and distrust persisted. He wrote letters begging Dolan to take his case seriously and wondering if the attorney was planning to sell him out to the DA’s office somehow.

Hunter learned the basics of the case against him at a motions hearing held in February 1988. Causey failed to show up. “We have been trying to get in touch with her, we have been unable to,” a prosecutor told the judge. When Hunter heard Causey’s name said aloud, however, he was relieved. He knew Causey through her sister and because he’d sold her cocaine a few times. He’d heard that she could be trouble, sometimes getting thrown out of her mother’s house. Still, if she was the state’s main witness, there must have been a mistake. When Causey saw that he was being charged for Jones’s murder, she would confirm that he hadn’t done it. “I thought for sure she was going to exonerate me,” Hunter told me.

The home where Jones and Vanessa Causey lived has been razed.

4. The Evidence

After the hearing, Hunter wrote to Dolan demanding to know more about the gun that had been matched to the bullets in Jones’s body. “You can’t tell me what gun was involved in the murder, or is they going to use the gun as evidence,” Hunter wrote. A few weeks later, he wrote again. “You keep telling me the gun isn’t a problem, it’s the eyewitness we have to worry about,” Hunter said. “Mr. Dolan, you don’t have to worry about anything, I’m the one who have to worry.… I told you the last time we talked (Feb. 5, 1988) I wanted to see this gun but you keep throwing in my face this gun don’t mean nothing.”

Hunter’s adamancy came from the fact that stolen property had been part of his livelihood before his arrest. In addition to selling drugs, Hunter worked as a fence—someone who moves stolen goods in exchange for cash and drugs. If he knew which one of the guns taken from his home by police had been used in the killing, maybe he could clear things up. He could say who he got it from and when. If he’d purchased the weapon after Jones’s death, wouldn’t that point to his innocence? In addition, after Hunter bailed himself out of jail following his arrest on the stolen-goods charge, he’d returned to the same house where the police had seized his guns. When the police came looking for him again, he was right where they’d found him before.  “If I would have known any one of those guns was involved with a murder, I would have took off somewhere,” Hunter told me. “Went to Florida, California, somewhere.”

According to Hunter, the state gave him written information regarding the type of gun used to kill Jones about two weeks before his trial, but he couldn’t positively identify the weapon without seeing it. He later wrote in a legal filing that the “court must be mindful that Petitioner was a fencer for two years and has been in contact with well over 100 guns, especial 38s.” Hunter finally saw the gun at his trial, which took place in July 1988, a full year after his arrest. The prosecution introduced the Smith & Wesson into evidence, and Dolan asked Hunter about it on the stand. Hunter was eager to reveal what he knew.

“Could you tell the ladies and gentlemen of the jury how you became in possession of said weapon?” Dolan asked him.

When he answered, Hunter turned his attention to the judge. “Your honor,” he said, “can I tell the whole story?”

“Just listen to my question,” Dolan instructed. “How did you get the gun? Did you steal it? Did you buy it?”

“I bought all my stolen property.”

“You bought it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“This particular weapon, do you know who you bought it from?”

“Yes, I bought it from a guy named Willie.”

“A guy named Willie?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you know his last name?”

“Willie Harris.”

“Did you give Willie a bill of sale for that weapon?”

“No, sir. It’s like collateral.”

“When did you buy it?”

“I bought it sometime in June”—that is, several weeks after the murder.

Hunter denied that anyone had ever called him Willie, as Causey claimed on the stand. She’d shown up for court this time. It was Hunter’s word against hers—none of the other witnesses were asked if Willie was Hunter’s nickname.

On cross-examination, prosecutor Luke Walker returned to the matter of Willie Harris. Hunter’s use of that name in his testimony was the first time, as far as the record showed, that it had been linked to the case. Willie Harris was a real person. He was also dead. He’d been murdered in the Ninth Ward in July 1987. Whether or not Hunter knew this by the time of his trial isn’t clear. (Harris’s killing was never solved.)

“Willie Harris, this fellow you bought this gun from, do you know him?” Walker asked.

“Yeah, Willie Harris,” Hunter replied.

“Where does Willie stay?”

“He stays in the Ninth Ward, I think he stays with his parents on Almonaster Street”— which was indeed where Harris’s family lived.

“You subpoenaed him, you got him in here, don’t you, because Willie is back there, right?” Walker asked, knowing that no Willie Harris was in the courtroom.

“No, I don’t know where Willie is.”

“You didn’t subpoena him to come and testify?” Walker continued. “Even though you know that, if convicted, you will go to jail for the rest of your life, you didn’t bring Willie, the man who can clear you?”

“You never told me what gun it was,” Hunter responded. “This is my first time ever seeing the gun.”

Judge Frank Shea once held six felony trials in a single day; he claimed it was a world record.

5. The Judge

At times, the trial reached points of near incoherence. Dolan, who waived his opening statement, called the location of the murder Milton Street, not Wilson Avenue, confusing Hunter on the stand. When Causey introduced still more new information—that she’d seen a gun in Hunter’s hand at the murder scene, that her brother was with her at the time—the defense didn’t ask why her story kept changing. (Her brother was not called to testify.) When she said that neither she nor Jones had used drugs, Dolan didn’t bring up the toxicology report showing that, in the deceased’s case at least, this was demonstrably false. He didn’t press her when she said that she’d called Jacklean Davis about the case and not the other way around, as Davis recounted on the stand. Given their previous association during the rape investigation, which was noted in the trial record, could the discrepancy have pointed to something other than an error of memory?  

The defense’s witnesses did little to help Hunter’s case. A man named Earl Phillips was called to testify that Hunter had been at his house watching his band practice at the time of the murder. But when he was asked about a specific date from more than a year prior, Phillips fumbled under oath: He managed to convey only that Hunter was often at his house. Stewart Mitchell, the man police claimed had tipped them off to Hunter’s possession of stolen goods, was supposed to undermine the prosecution by stating that it had offered him a deal on a charge he was facing if he testified against Hunter. On the stand, Mitchell couldn’t recall the name of the person who’d supposedly made the offer. He said he knew nothing about the murder.

The whole trial took place in a single morning. For Judge Frank Shea, the pace was a source of pride—indeed, it was the essential feature of his judicial identity. Shea had been on the bench for 25 years, and his breakneck docket had earned him a statewide reputation. In 1975, he personally presided over almost a third as many trials (113) as the rest of the judges in Louisiana’s 63 parishes combined (377). In 1983, a man named Keith Messiah was given the death penalty after a trial in Shea’s court that lasted one day, including jury selection and sentencing. (After a lengthy appeals process, Messiah’s sentence was reduced to life in prison.) In 1984, Shea set what he insisted was a world record, holding six felony trials in a single day. When asked about the feat by a reporter, Shea responded, “We have a legal phrase, res ipsa loquitur. It means, ‘The thing speaks for itself.’”

  • [4] Calvin Duncan, George Toca, and Elvis Brooks were among the people sentenced to life without parole in Shea’s court. The Innocence Project New Orleans later brought claims challenging their guilt; the men took plea deals and were released from prison.

Admirers said that Shea’s style was efficient—the state House of Representatives even passed a resolution commending him for “conducting speedy criminal trials.” But detractors, including Shea’s 1972 election opponent Salvatore Panzeca, called it disgraceful. “When a judge boasts that he tries cases in record time, his allegiance is not to justice, but to the clock,” Panzeca told the Times-Picayune. “When the judge pressures the attorneys of poor and uneducated defendants to plead their clients guilty, so as to keep his docket clear and save himself the trouble of having to hear their cases, he assaults the Bill of Rights and profanes our heritage of law.” After polling well behind Shea in the primary, Panzeca dropped out of the race.

The speed at which cases moved through Shea’s courtroom was a product of his impatience and temperament. He chain-smoked cigarettes on the bench; news reports described him as presiding while engulfed in a cloud. He was known to berate lawyers and clerks who didn’t move fast enough. Late in his career, which lasted until 1997, Shea pulled a gun on a shackled defendant in his courtroom. He later told a reporter that there’d been nothing to worry about, because he was a terrible shot and “couldn’t hit a bull in the ass with a bass-fiddle.” (Shea died in 1998.)

  • [5] Shea was preceded in death by members of his immediate family. In 1981, his 11-year-old son drowned in a canal, and his body washed into Lake Pontchartrain. Six years later, Shea’s house caught fire. He was rescued; his wife and daughter died. The incident report lists the cause of the fire as “careless smoking.”

At Hunter’s trial, Shea was true to form. As a news article noted, Hunter’s testimony on his own behalf lasted “at most ten minutes.” When the prosecution concluded its cross-examination, Hunter had more he wanted to say in his defense. He wished to make clear that police had first come to his home in search of stolen property, not on suspicion of murder.

“Shut up,” Shea said. “You already testified. Now be quiet.” He ordered Hunter removed from the stand.

“Why y’all misleading these people?” were the last words Hunter was able to offer before stepping down.

The jury deliberated over a lunch break. When they came back, they found Hunter guilty. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole. An account of the trial, published in the next day’s paper, told the streamlined story that Hunter had endeavored to correct—that Causey had identified Hunter as the killer, which led the police to search Hunter’s home, where they “found his second problem, the gun.”

It wasn’t the last time Hunter would face Shea. Three years later, in September 1991, he sat on the witness stand again, arguing that he’d received ineffective assistance of counsel from Dolan. It was the latest phase of an appeals process that had ricocheted around the Louisiana courts until it landed on Shea’s docket. Shea made it clear he had no interest in retrying the case. “I don’t plan on spending the day with you,” Shea said to Hunter’s new public defender.

Shea wouldn’t allow Hunter to state for the record when he’d learned which gun was used in the murder. “Your honor,” Hunter implored, “instead of cutting me off, let me talk, please. This is my life.” Shea told him that he understood, then threatened to hold Hunter in contempt of court. “You are a defendant,” Shea said. “You don’t tell me what to do.”

Shea ruled that there was no evidence that Hunter had received ineffective counsel. Hunter appealed all the way to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which denied his claim. He remained locked up at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, better known as Angola—the name of the slave plantation that once occupied the land where the prison sits.

The land where the Louisiana State Penitentiary sits was once a slave plantation called Angola.

6. The Inmate

The first time he was ever arrested, Hunter was not yet a teenager. He lived in the Ninth Ward, where his three elder brothers were in charge of minding him while their mother worked. “I guess you could say they did a poor job,” he once wrote in a letter to a lawyer. Hunter got in trouble with his friends, knocking over trash cans, stealing bikes and chickens, and breaking into wharf buildings to drive the lift machines. One day, the kids tipped a machine onto some train tracks. Hunter, still in elementary school, was arrested for criminal trespassing.  

A few years later, when Hunter was 13, he and two friends were implicated in a purse snatching gone wrong. When the victim, a 75-year-old woman, wouldn’t give up her belongings, an assailant hit her on the head with a pistol; three weeks later, she died from her injuries. Hunter and his friends said that they were innocent, that they hadn’t even been at the scene of the crime. While awaiting trial, Hunter stayed at a juvenile detention facility known as the Youth Study Center. In court, his teacher testified that he’d been in class at the time of the killing, and produced schoolwork to prove it. The judge dismissed Hunter’s case. His two friends, however, were tried as adults. One pled guilty to manslaughter. Another was tried, convicted, and sent to prison for life without parole at the age of 17. Hunter wouldn’t see him again until he, too, was sent to Angola.

  • [6] The friend, Barry Williams, was released on parole in 2018, after the Supreme Court declared juvenile life without parole unconstitutional.

Hunter would later trace his path into serious criminal behavior back to the boys he met at the Youth Study Center, who in his words made him “look like an angel.” After he got out, he and a friend began stealing cars from parking lots downtown by taking keys out of the booth when the parking attendant was seeing to another car. It was easy. The first vehicle they stole, in 1979, was a Ford Maverick. Hunter was 16. The boys took the cars for joyrides. They were broke, so they stole gas, too. Eventually, they traded one of the cars for a gun. It didn’t have any bullets, but they used it for holdups anyway.

Hunter’s career jacking cars and robbing people ended with a high-speed chase and his arrest. Not yet 18, he was sentenced to spend the rest of his youth in a juvenile facility, this one in Monroe, Louisiana. He got his GED and learned how to weld. He also took piano lessons. He was released at 20 and held a few odd jobs, including a stint at a factory making fish tanks. He enrolled in classes at Southern University at New Orleans. Still, he continued to have run-ins with the law. In 1985, he was charged with felony theft for using a stolen credit card to buy clothes; he spent nine months in Orleans Parish Prison.

Not long after he got out, Hunter entered the drug trade. He started out small, a few grams here and there. Then he began dealing more and enlisting other people to help him sell it. Business stopped cold when Hunter, by then in his late twenties, found himself facing the second murder charge of his life—the one that didn’t go away, no matter how hard he tried to make it. “I went on a mission to learn as much law as possible to prove my innocence,” Hunter told me in a letter.

His approach reinforced a certain irony: For people who claim to be wrongfully implicated in a crime, the same set of rules, language, and logic that they believe conspired to put them behind bars is the only thing that can get them out. At Orleans Parish Prison, back when Hunter was first awaiting trial, a fellow prisoner known as Bouncer kept a stack of attorney-filed pretrial motions that he’d collected from other prisoners. Hunter would copy them, substituting information about his own case where necessary, and then file his versions with the court. He also requested case law to read, but he didn’t understand any of it. “The courts’ legal jargon was foreign to me. I read and read and did not understand a damn thing,” he said.

He learned, though. By the time he got to Angola, Hunter had a good handle on criminal law. He even filed his own supplemental appellate brief on direct appeal, pointing out discrepancies between the trial transcript and the original police report, and arguing that he’d received poor counsel. (This brief led to the unsuccessful 1991 hearing before Judge Shea.) At Angola, Hunter took paralegal classes through Northwestern Missouri College. He had to stop when Congress repealed Pell Grants for prisoners in 1994. Undeterred, Hunter kept looking for any angle that might prove he’d been unjustly convicted. He filed public-records requests and wrote letters to anyone who could possibly shed light on his case.

Erin Hunter as a young man. (Courtesy: Hunter family)

One person Hunter wrote to was a lawyer named Laurie White. White specialized in post-conviction work and had become an outspoken critic of longtime New Orleans district attorney Harry Connick. She voiced support for civil rights lawsuits filed by prisoners against the DA’s office and criticized Connick for his unwillingness to test DNA evidence in old cases. By 1997, she’d secured new trials for six men convicted of murder in cases where prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence. White also taught legal classes at Angola. Hunter, though, wrote White a letter in 1999 for a different reason: Before becoming a defense attorney, White had been an assistant district attorney in Connick’s office. She was one of the prosecutors on the team that convicted Hunter.

White wrote back warmly. “I thought someday I would run into persons that I had prosecuted,” she told Hunter. “I am glad to see you are doing well for yourself as an inmate counsel.” White said that she’d been under the impression that Hunter’s conviction had already been reversed due to Dolan’s poor representation. She recalled that Causey had been an unreliable witness. “She disappeared several days before your trial and our investigator located her in the wee morning hours,” White wrote. She offered to help Hunter if he was continuing his legal battle. “I would be happy to assist you with an affidavit that it was my belief that [Causey] had been a drug user, or could be a drug user, as she was an extremely unreliable ‘street person’ type who insisted that her life was in danger,” White wrote. (White declined to be interviewed on the record for this story but responded to some fact-checking queries.)

Hunter’s next move was a federal appeal, during which he enlisted the help of Chris Aberle, the first and only private attorney to take his case. In 2002, a federal court denied Hunter’s petition. The ruling stated that Hunter had failed to show that the state courts were unreasonable in their rejection of his previous claims. When I spoke to Aberle, he said that he barely remembered Hunter’s case—it was more than 15 years in the past. A letter that Aberle wrote in the immediate aftermath of the federal court’s decision suggested that, back then at least, he felt strongly about his client’s situation. “I have fought and am still fighting for a number of persons, who, like you, were tried unfairly,” Aberle told Hunter. “I never know if they are truly guilty or innocent but I do know that the system failed them or outright cheated them. What is particularly distressing in your case, however, is that it is one of the very few where I truly think that not only were you tried unfairly, but that in all probability, you are innocent of the crime.”

Hunter had been in prison for almost 15 years by that point; he was running out of options. Aberle told Hunter that he would refer the case to the Innocence Project New Orleans (IPNO). He wasn’t the only person to do so.

Investigators spoke to people in New Orleans East who suggested that Causey was a confidential informant for the police.

7. The Inquiry

“Would you please consider handling the case of Erin Hunter?” So began a March 2002 email from Laurie White to Emily Bolton, then the director of IPNO. White said that she didn’t have any direct evidence of Hunter’s innocence, but she recalled that Causey was of “dubious character” and that Hunter’s attorney was “a walk-over, to say the least.”

“I would be very interested to help free a person that was wrongfully convicted,” White wrote, “especially if I was the convictor!” She also sent a letter to Hunter informing him of her referral. “I will, as I told you before, be as honest and forthright in any testimony that is required in your case,” White said. “I am not interested in you remaining in jail if you are in fact innocent and the prosecution was improper.”

IPNO decided to look into the case, but it was just one of many in a city swimming in dubious legal outcomes. When Tom Lowenstein joined IPNO in the fall of 2008, Hunter’s file was still in the queue of cases the organization had deemed worthy of investigation but didn’t yet have the resources to take on. IPNO volunteers at a local synagogue had begun filing records requests, but there was no legal team working Hunter’s case.

Eventually, Lowenstein was assigned to it, along with another new face at IPNO, attorney Paul Killebrew. They began their investigation by visiting the crime scene with a map that Hoyt, the initial homicide detective, had drawn. The small home on Wilson Avenue that Jones and Causey had once shared was boarded up and in disrepair, the lot where it sat overgrown. (The house has since been razed.) The attorneys paced off distances noted in the police report. “We re-created it as much as we could from the ground up,” Lowenstein said.

Soon, though, it became clear that Hunter’s best innocence claim didn’t hinge on the details of the crime scene—the crux was what might have transpired between Davis and Causey. Aberle had suggested as much in his federal appellate brief. Causey’s late identification of Hunter, on the same day he happened to be arrested on a stolen-goods charge, seemed like too much of a coincidence. Aberle proposed instead that Davis had learned that the murder weapon was discovered at Hunter’s house, then reached out to Causey based on her eyewitness statement and the two women’s prior contact. “Ms. Causey revealed that she knew of Mr. Hunter, as he used to date her sister,” Aberle wrote. “Detective Davis was, at that point, sure that she has solved the murder, notwithstanding Ms. Causey’s previous story about ‘Willie.’” Davis, Aberle continued, “brought pressure to bear on Ms. Causey to claim, if not believe,” that she’d seen Hunter at the crime scene. “Detective Davis reasoned, perhaps, that even if she were wrong about Mr. Hunter, he was a criminal regardless.”  

Aberle’s argument echoed a statement written by prosecutor Jack Peebles during Hunter’s first appeal: In a brief, Peebles argued that, “if there was an iota of evidence in the record before this court that the police had found and identified the murder weapon in this case and then used pressure on Vanessa Causey to identify the defendant as the perpetrator, a new trial should be granted.” Peebles had believed there was no such iota. For Aberle, suggesting that there could be was a legal exercise: He was presenting what he believed to be a plausible theory of the case, one that a competent attorney would have pursued but Dolan had not. “The balance of the evidence, including the police reports, other documentary evidence, and the testimony of uncalled witnesses, was kept from the jury through gross incompetence of appointed trial counsel,” Aberle wrote. (Dolan passed away in 2003.)

When he was working the case in the early aughts, Aberle didn’t have concrete evidence of any wrongdoing by Causey or Davis. That was now up to Lowenstein and Killebrew to find. Immediately, there was an obstacle. In the decade after Hunter’s conviction, Causey herself had been charged with a series of crimes, including drug possession, prostitution, kidnapping, and aggravated battery. She landed behind bars, and in 2002, she died from an illness.

Lowenstein and Killebrew pieced together what they could about Causey, talking to her family, friends, and acquaintances. Some believed that Causey was right about Hunter’s guilt. The IPNO investigators talked to Greggie Jones’s brother, who said that Hunter was lying when he said under oath that he’d never met Jones—the pair hung out frequently, he said, and he’d even seen Hunter at his brother’s house. Meanwhile, Causey’s brother claimed that he’d been with her when the shooting happened, as she’d testified at trial but not initially told law enforcement. He’d never been interviewed by police or come forward with information of his own volition. He “waffled a bit,” the IPNO investigators reported, when asked if he’d actually seen Hunter at the shooting. They later concluded in a report that he “may have been at the murder scene, but his recollection has been tainted by what his sister later testified to in court.”

A few sources who spoke to IPNO had a different take, reporting that Causey was a police informant. The exact nature of her purported role was murky. “She sent so many people to jail, it’s pathetic,” one IPNO source, who described Causey as being like a little sister, told me. Another source said that he’d seen Causey get picked up in a car by none other than Jacklean Davis. The women would drive around the neighborhood for a while, then Davis would drop Causey off.

When Dolan had asked Davis at trial about her prior relationship with Causey, the detective had responded that they knew each other during “another investigation.” Dolan didn’t push the matter further. Davis was asked about Causey again during Hunter’s 1991 appeal. The defense asked if she’d had “any dealings” with Causey other than the rape case in which Causey was a victim and the investigation of Jones’s murder. “No, sir,” Davis said.

Davis told IPNO, and later confirmed to me, that Causey was at one point her confidential informant, but she was adamant that their working relationship didn’t develop until after Hunter’s trial. Only during the fact-checking phase of this story did she acknowledge that Causey had been an informant on a case prior to Jones’s murder.

Davis’s star had plummeted in the years between Hunter’s conviction and the IPNO investigation. Once named officer of the year by the New Orleans Black Organization of Police, and profiled in national magazines under headlines like “From Outcast to Supercop” (Reader’s Digest), Davis was accused of perjury in 1994. She allegedly provided conflicting accounts of her surveillance of a fellow officer under the auspices of NOPD’s internal affairs division. Criminal charges were dropped, but Davis was suspended and ultimately kicked out of internal affairs. She spent several years shuttling between police forces in various districts. She often worked night shifts and supplemented her income with a security detail at Walmart.

In 2002, Davis and a fellow officer were convicted of shaking down show promoters while working security at a party affiliated with Essence Fest, a music event held annually in New Orleans. Davis claimed that the allegations were motivated by NOPD politics. At trial, her lawyer didn’t put her on the stand to testify; he didn’t want her to have to address the old perjury charge. Davis was found guilty of extortion and sentenced to 30 months in federal prison. At the time, she told a reporter that she was frustrated that law enforcement didn’t seem to want to hear her side of the story. “My secret as an interrogator was this: I listened to people,” she said. “I wanted to hear other people’s versions of what happened.”

As it happened, Laurie White was openly sympathetic to Davis’s situation at NOPD. “She is a prime example of discrimination on the police force,” White told a reporter in 2003, following Davis’s conviction. “But with everything that happened to her, she kept silent and handled herself with a lot of class.” After Davis was released from prison in 2004, White gave her a job as a receptionist in her law office. Davis remained there until White closed her practice to become a judge. “I know a lot of prominent people,” Davis told me. “Just because I went to prison, that don’t mean anything. People know me, my integrity.”

IPNO obtained Davis’s file as a homicide detective, and it was there that Lowenstein and Killebrew found what they believed was a break: a computer printout of Hunter’s arrest record dated July 14, 1987. That was the day the ballistics examiner completed the analysis linking the Smith & Wesson .38 to Jones’s murder. What Lowenstein and Killebrew didn’t find in Davis’s file was evidence of a printout from July 9, the day that she’d always claimed she first called Causey, learned that Causey had seen Hunter at the scene, searched his name in the NOPD database, and come upon the record of his arrest that morning. Also missing from the file was any record of that conversation with Causey. Was it possible that Davis was mistaken or had lied about the timeline of what she knew and how she knew it?

Another perplexing part of the file was a computer printout of the police report about the burglary at Susan Wolfe’s home. It was dated May 26, 1987, ostensibly the date Davis pulled it from the NOPD’s computer system. What cause might she have had to print the report out a month after Jones’s murder and several weeks before taking over the case? The IPNO investigators also had questions about the case’s ballistics report. How exactly the match between Wolfe’s gun and the bullets in Jones’s body came to be made wasn’t clear. As a matter of course, the NOPD ballistics team would have compared bullets from unsolved homicides with guns seized by officers, but in this instance the turnaround was unusually fast—less than a week. The report states only that “specimen 2 were fired by specimen 1.” It does not indicate whether or not the lab tested the other guns recovered from Hunter’s home, including a second .38, listed as being among his lawful property.

Davis wrote in her case report that the two NOPD detectives who seized the weapons during Hunter’s first arrest requested that all the guns be tested. She later testified that she was the one who made the ask of the ballistics division, and that she specifically requested testing on Wolfe’s .38. “Given what we know now about the tendency of forensic examiners to reach the results desired by the requesting officers or prosecutors, it’s totally plausible that the ballistics ‘match’ in this case is not a match at all,” Killebrew wrote in an email during IPNO’s consideration of Hunter’s case. “One thing we’ve discussed doing early in the litigation of this case is to request to have the gun and bullets re-examined.”

Davis has always maintained that she performed her job to the letter of the law. She repeated this to me: Any timeline discrepancy, she argued, would have been caught by the DA’s office, and if Causey gave false testimony, it would have been exposed in the appeals process. In their report, however, the IPNO investigators claimed that Davis had “withheld … information from prosecutors and lied about the sequence of events in her own police reports and at trial.” All of which, they wrote, “deeply undermines the State’s case.”

The main entrance to Angola.

8. The Breakdown

In a perverse way, Hunter’s industriousness as a self-educated legal expert may have been his undoing. For more than a decade after his conviction, he’d done everything by himself, exhausting the avenues available at the state level for legal relief. He’d enlisted Aberle only at the end of the road, hoping to have a better shot on federal appeal. The problem, Killebrew told me, was that courts tend to look at new evidence in isolation, often ignoring its implications with regard to previously available evidence. “It was going to be hard to get the court to see the whole picture,” Killebrew said. Moreover, if a person files a habeas petition—a claim of unjust imprisonment—in federal court and it fails, the bar for the government to consider a second petition is much higher. “This is another way in which post-conviction law is, in my mind, very, very cruel,” Killebrew said.  

  • [7]  It can be difficult for prisoners filing their own petitions to convince the courts to take them seriously. In 2008, a court administrator in the New Orleans suburb of Gretna revealed in a suicide note that he was responsible for unilaterally denying petitions filed by prisoners without attorneys. Writs in lower courts are supposed to be reviewed by a three-judge panel; the appeals court had violated that rule in more than 2,500 cases, each of which added a $300 filing fee to its coffers. 

IPNO takes a deliberate and cautious approach to its work. Resources are limited, and the organization litigates the cases it is most likely to win. With Hunter, there were additional considerations: For instance, were his case to go to court, it would be heard by Judge Julian Parker, whose assessment of innocence appeals was notoriously tough. In 2009, Lowenstein and Killebrew brought what they’d found to the rest of IPNO and a few outside attorneys. “The question was, OK, Tom and I have a fervent belief about what this means,” Killebrew said of their findings. “How does this play to others?”

The answer: Not great. There were a few sticking points. Even if Davis had lied or made errors in reporting the timeline of her investigation, Causey’s eyewitness statement and the gun found in Hunter’s apartment still looked bad. Some of the reviewers they presented evidence to, Killebrew said, saw “a different pathway” to the same outcome. With Causey gone, interrogating her statements and testimony was impossible. Another issue was that, while the July 14 printout proved that Davis had looked up Hunter’s record on that day, it didn’t prove that she hadn’t looked it up previously. Maybe she’d done so on July 9 but misplaced the document or thrown it away. “It was the difficulty of proving a negative,” said Richard Davis, IPNO’s legal director, who oversaw the investigation of Hunter’s case.

It was also difficult to pursue an alternative theory of Jones’s murder. Aberle had suggested that Willie Harris was the real culprit—that he got into a drug-related dispute with Jones, killed him, and then sold the gun to Hunter. With Harris dead, however, that avenue of inquiry was extremely narrow. The IPNO investigators developed another theory, based on interviews with a number of people who were close with Jones. Those sources said that Jones had ripped off some Cuban drug dealers who killed him—or had him killed—as retaliation. A few people even suggested that Causey had set Jones up. There were several variations of this story, however, and no one named a potential shooter.

Investigators decided that the one thing that might give Hunter’s case a real chance was an affidavit from Laurie White. It would need to say that, had she known back in 1988 what IPNO knew now, White would not have prosecuted the case. White, by that time, had gained an even more prominent position in New Orleans’s criminal-justice apparatus: In 2007, she’d been elected as a criminal district-court judge. Lowenstein called an affidavit from someone of that stature the “holy grail of innocence work.”

Killebrew and IPNO’s director went one day to meet with White at the courthouse. Their intention was to gauge White’s response to their findings before asking for her support. They waited in White’s courtroom as she worked through her docket; during a break in the proceedings, she invited them back to her chambers. They presented her with the evidence suggesting that Davis may have pressured a witness in order to clear a case. As Killebrew remembered the encounter, White was unimpressed. (White, for her part, said during fact-checking that she didn’t remember this meeting.) Killebrew said her concerns echoed those already raised at IPNO: There was still an eyewitness, and there was still a murder weapon. “I didn’t view it that way,” Killebrew told me, “but I can’t say that she was being unreasonable.”

Hunter spent three decades behind bars at Angola.

9. The Counsel

Lowenstein and Killebrew broke the news to Hunter that IPNO wouldn’t be filing a post-conviction petition on his behalf. Hunter had always been stoic about his case’s many turns; the same was true with the final one. Hunter took it “heartbreakingly in stride,” Killebrew remembered. Lowenstein wasn’t surprised. “Erin at that point had won three—and I think he ended up winning four—cases in federal court,” he said. “Erin understood the law way better than I did. He was the one who would talk legal theory to me.”

Indeed, by 2009, Hunter’s dealings with the legal system extended well beyond his own case. At Angola, he’d risen from cleaning the prison’s law library to serving as an inmate counsel, responsible for representing other prisoners in disciplinary proceedings and helping them with legal appeals and petitions. The prison’s librarian, who was also the coordinator of the inmate counsel program, was a man named Norris Henderson. He recalled prisoners seeking Hunter out by name and reputation. “Everyone trusted him with their litigation,” Henderson told me. “He had not only the commitment but the expertise to go along with it. I watched his complete metamorphosis from that caterpillar to the butterfly.”

Hunter with Derek Temple. (Courtesy: Derek Temple)

Lowenstein was right: Hunter had helped secure the release of four men from Angola. One of them was Derek Temple, convicted of possession with intent to distribute cocaine, who because he had a prior record was sentenced to life in prison without parole. An appeal that Hunter helped prepare on Temple’s behalf convinced the Louisiana Supreme Court that the drugs found during the arrest were obtained without probable cause, in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Temple was released in 2003, having served only six years after being told that he would die behind bars. When I met him more than 15 years later, Temple was on a break from working on an offshore oil rig. “He gave me the direction to get my freedom to be sitting here in front of you,” Temple said of Hunter. “It means a lot. It’s hard to explain it to you, you can use a lot of words, but you have to be in my body. It’s a remarkable feeling.”

For his part, Hunter reflected on his legal work as if it were a spiritual calling. “Each milestone I reached it became less about me and more about humanity,” he wrote to me in a letter. “I befriended other inmates who needed help and weren’t as fortunate as I was to learn the law. My plight became much bigger than I had anticipated.”

Hunter, though, never gave up on his own case. There was always a chance something could change—that new evidence would crop up or that a sympathetic district attorney might agree to discuss a post-conviction plea deal. In 2018, after more than 30 years behind bars, Hunter gathered dozens of letters from inmates and guards testifying to his character and advocating his release. The letters spoke to his intelligence, humility, and dedication to helping other inmates. In a place unsuited to easy favor, Hunter had earned people’s admiration.

  • [8] In 2014, IPNO and the DA’s office announced the Conviction Integrity and Accuracy Project, intended to identify unjust trial outcomes and rectify them. IPNO told me that Hunter’s case was referred to the joint project, which ended just one year after its launch. IPNO claimed that the DA’s office didn’t put forward the resources it promised. The DA’s office said the project was axed as part of budget cuts.

“It is my opinion that if any offender deserves another chance to be freed, it is Mr. Hunter,” wrote prison employee Linden Franklin. Antonio Whitaker, supervisor of the cell blocks known as Camp D, said that Hunter “exemplified the best of character—humbleness and trustworthiness.” Fellow inmate Ricky Javis said, “If there was a buddy system, where my chances for parole would be based upon the success of the person I elect to go home on parole, I would pick Erin.” Rickey Valentine, another prisoner, happened to be Greggie Jones’s cousin. “Whatever may or may not have happened, I don’t believe you could have hurt him,” Valentine wrote. “Even when I reveal to you who I was, you never once change from doing whatever you can for me and others. I am writing you to say thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Then there was Larry McClinton, who’d been locked up almost as long as Hunter had. “He was always whispered as one of those brothers that did not commit the crime that he was convicted of,” McClinton wrote. “I can remember many times pondering on such men. I committed my crime and it is often arduous at times coping with being away from friends and family. So I can only imagine what the innocent go through. And yet, I’ve never witnessed Hunter (as he is called) upset or angry.” McClinton concluded, in a remarkable sentiment, “He is a man that epitomizes integrity and I would willingly advocate for his freedom before my very own.”

Hunter spent three decades behind bars at Angola.

10. The Balance

Freedom never came for Erin Hunter. On , 2019, as this story was being written, he died at Angola. He was 56 years old. The cause of death, according to friends and family, was a heart attack. An autopsy is pending.

Norris Henderson, who is now out of prison, saw Hunter a few weeks before he died. He recalled that his friend had a new project: identifying prisoners convicted in non-unanimous jury decisions. Until a ballot measure did away with it in 2018, Louisiana was one of the only states in the nation with a constitutional provision that allowed people to be found guilty by a 10-2 jury vote. The repeal did not apply retroactively, but in the fall of 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court was scheduled to hear oral arguments in a case that could change that. In anticipation of a favorable decision, Hunter was trying to determine who at Angola might benefit. (As of this writing, the Supreme Court had yet to rule on the case.)

The non-unanimous jury provision has a deeply racist history. Enacted in the late 1800s, it was intended to produce a large number of guilty verdicts in order to bolster the convict-leasing system, which extended the profits of slavery to white landowners well after the Civil War. Hunter’s case was also tied to the racial prejudices that run through Louisiana’s legal foundations. This was true regardless of his guilt or innocence, which given his untimely death seems likely to remain an open question forever.

To read the transcript of Hunter’s trial, which runs all of 81 pages and can be digested in half an hour, is to encounter a disregard for human dignity instrumental in producing the most sprawling system of incarceration in the world. Killebrew called the circumstances of Hunter’s case a “tragedy with many authors.”

“There was a failing public defenders’ system, there was a DA’s office that was not operating according to professional norms, there were state laws that were particularly cruel, there were judges who sentenced everyone to the maximum amount they could,” Killebrew said. “There was just a whole combination of factors that led to, I have no doubt, thousands and thousands of people not being served with justice.” Lowenstein put it more succinctly: “Erin Hunter got caught up in a perfect storm of New Orleans bullshit.”

The repeal of the non-unanimous jury law is part of a broader reckoning over criminal justice in Louisiana. The vast majority of reforms, however, are incomplete, and their lasting power is yet to be determined. They are also primarily forward-looking, doing little to ameliorate harm already caused or to grapple with its moral weight. “What about everyone who experienced the growth of mass incarceration, who were the victims of it?” Killebrew asked. “They deserve justice, too. Policymakers don’t have a lot of stomach for going back and fixing those types of problems.”

Lawmakers aren’t the only ones who are reticent to look back. For some people, it is too painful or risky to be asked to extend trust to a system that has ignored or actively betrayed them time and again. When IPNO interviewed Greggie Jones’s brother, he said, “Nobody ever want to talk to us back then. Now they want to have an investigation?” When I asked one source why people were hesitant to talk about the case, he told me, “A lot of people figure, man, I stay away from that. Let old wounds just die out, and wither in the wind, and stay in the wind.”

Hunter was still alive when I first interviewed Jacklean Davis. She was living in New Orleans East, the neighborhood where Jones was killed. We sat on her couch for several hours. She smoked Hat’s Off cigars and recalled growing up with Tyler Perry; she claimed that he based his Madea character on her great-aunt. She talked about the racism she encountered at the NOPD, the political forces that conspired to send her to prison, and the incompetence of her defense attorney. Davis stressed her integrity, her commitment to truth and justice, her inability to live with a guilty conscience. She was adamant that she did nothing wrong in Hunter’s case.

Sometimes, though, there was a note of dissonance in her certitude that the system was right about his guilt and wrong about hers. At one point, she said it meant something that 12 individuals had come to the conclusion that Hunter was guilty. Then, after a pause, she added that juries can be wrong, of course. She, too, had a jury trial.

I was the person who informed Davis that Hunter had died at Angola. I did it in a phone call. Soon after we hung up, Davis called back, sobbing. “It really hit home how life is not perfect. We all make mistakes. To atone for these mistakes, most of us live and get the opportunity to do it, some don’t,” she said. “I can have respect for him. That he fought the good fight. He believed—and I cannot disregard his belief—that he was innocent, and he should not have served the time. And he went to his grave doing this.”

Then, before we ended the conversation, she repeated something that she’d told me before. “I am not hostage to my past,” Davis said. “I’m gonna leave that with you.”

The Wild Ones


The Wild Ones

People said that women had no place in the Grand Canyon and would likely die trying to run the Colorado River. In 1938, two female scientists set out to prove them wrong.

By Melissa Sevigny

The Atavist Magazine, No. 96

Melissa Sevigny is a science writer based in Flagstaff, Arizona, and the author of two books, Mythical River and Under Desert Skies (both 2016).

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Adam Przybyl
Images: Norman D. and Doris Nevills Photograph Collection, courtesy of Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah

Acknowledgements: The narrative is primarily informed by the Lois Jotter Cutter Papers, Cline Library Special Collections and Archives, Northern Arizona University. Special thanks to Peter Runge for access to material not yet curated for research, and to Ted Melis and Victor Cutter III.

Published in October 2019. Design updated in 2021.



The river had cut into the plateau, or else the plateau had risen around the river. No one could say for sure in 1938. But what did it matter how it formed? It was there, this sunset-hued cleft of stone in the high country of Arizona. A warning. A challenge.

An Englishman who toured northern Arizona that year declared, “Out here is a country almost without a history,” a fantastical landscape of weird pinnacles, sheer cliffs, and menacing canyons. He was wrong, of course. The Grand Canyon had a history, printed in lines of pink and beige down its mile-deep walls, with trilobites as punctuation. Generations of Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Havasupai, Hualapai, Southern Paiute, and Yavapai-Apache had called this place sacred and considered it home. For some of them it was the place of origin, where all humankind arose.

Tourists at Grand Canyon National Park—numbering more than 300,000 annually by the end of the 1930s—did not think of it that way. They came to the South Rim to lean over the low stone walls and gape at the Colorado River far below, a loose silver thread in a tapestry of stone. They gasped, they marveled. The river was a wild place, maybe the last wild place in America. Tourists thought of it as untrammeled, untouched, and nearly impossible to explore. And after they saw it, they went away.

Dams, though, had begun to tame the river, especially since the Boulder Dam (renamed the Hoover Dam in 1947) slammed shut its gates in 1936 and knotted the river into Lake Mead along the Arizona and Nevada border. River runners had begun to float the Colorado, but not many, and not very often. Only a dozen expeditions—just over 50 men, all told—had traversed the Grand Canyon by boat since John Wesley Powell led a government-funded expedition to map the river in 1869, during which boats were destroyed and three men vanished. Those who ventured into the canyon emerged with stories of wreckage flung along the rocks and skeletons tucked into stony alcoves clutching withered cactus pads in their bony fingers. The Colorado was considered one of the most dangerous rivers in the world.

When an expedition arrived in the town of Green River, Utah, in the summer of 1938 with an ambitious itinerary in hand, local residents and veteran river runners were quick to shake their heads. The group planned to row the Green River 120 miles to its confluence with the Colorado, then drift through Cataract Canyon, the fabled graveyard of the Colorado, where whitewater and hidden rocks conspired to smash boats to smithereens. They would resupply at a landing site called Lees Ferry, near the Utah-Arizona border, and then enter the Grand Canyon, where the only way to communicate with the outside world would involve a long, grueling hike to the rim. Ninety miles downstream, they’d have one last chance to break—abandon the river—at Phantom Ranch. After that, there’d be no choice but to make the harrowing descent downstream to Lake Mead. If they did, they’d have traveled more than 600 miles by river.

“You couldn’t pay me to join them,” declared one river rat.


It was high summer, a season when broiling heat gave way to black, booming thunderstorms. The Green River was already muddy and swollen with rainwater. The Colorado ran at nearly full flood stage. In addition to terrifying rapids, the expedition’s members would face heat, hunger, and fatigue.

Not least among the journey’s many dangers, according to “experienced river men” who refused to give their names to the national newspapers covering the expedition, was the presence of women in the party. Only one woman had ever attempted the trip through the Grand Canyon. Her name was Bessie Hyde, and she’d vanished with her husband, Glen, on their honeymoon in 1928. Their boat was found empty. Their bodies were never recovered.

Unnamed sources told reporters that the two women in the crew were “one of the hazards, as they are ‘so much baggage’ and would probably need help in an emergency.” They were scientists—botanists, to be precise. “So they’re looking for flowers and Indian caves,” a river runner said. “Well, I don’t know about that, but I do know they’ll find a peck of trouble before they get through.”

In fact, Elzada Clover and Lois Jotter had come from Michigan with much hardier plants in mind. Tucked into side canyons, braving what Jotter called “barren and hellish” conditions, were tough, spiny things: species of cactus that no one had ever catalogued before. Clover and Jotter would become the first people to do so—if they survived.

But the newspapers didn’t much care about that. Journalists crowed that the women had come to “conquer” the Colorado, and they fixated on the likelihood of failure. In the privacy of her journal, 24-year-old Jotter had a one-word reply: “Hooey.”

Lois Jotter on the banks of a placid stretch of river.


On her birth certificate she was Mary Lois Jotter, except that a clerk had transposed the a and r and given her a mangled first name—Mraythat no one could pronounce. The state of California was not particularly concerned with correcting the mistake. It took her parents some two decades to amend the spelling on official records. No matter: She preferred to go by Lois anyway.

Jotter spent her teenage years in Michigan, roaming the woods on Sunday afternoons, delighting in the exotic plants of a botanical garden near her home. Her father, E.V. Jotter, was a forester from a German Mennonite family. Her mother, Artie May Lomb, had come from a lineage of distinguished engineers. They encouraged, even expected, their daughter to love science. She could trace her desire to be a botanist back to a particular moment, when her father pointed out Acer negundo, the box elder maple. She was seven.

She studied biology and botany at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and plowed ahead with her Ph.D. work in a department that had only two female faculty members. Jotter’s focus was the cytogenetics of Oenothera, the evening primrose. She spent summers as a camp counselor in Michigan, and she learned to row a boat so she could rescue any kids who toppled into the lake. In 1937, while still in graduate school, she worked in Yosemite as a National Park Service naturalist.

As much as Jotter loved the outdoors, she thought of herself as bookish and a bit of a klutz. She wasn’t particularly adventurous—certainly not as much as her mentor, Elzada Clover, a professor at the university. The two women shared an apartment in Michigan for two years and were friends as well as colleagues. Born on a Nebraska farm, Clover was drawn to the open spaces and fierce beauty of the desert. She spent the summer of 1937 collecting plants in a lonely corner of Utah. There she met a river runner named Norman Nevills in a dusty town called Mexican Hat. Clover suggested that they take mules into the Grand Canyon to collect plant specimens for research. Nevills was enthusiastic. But, he said, why not take boats instead?

Each agreed to invite two more people on the expedition. Nevills found Don Harris, a young engineer with the U.S. Geological Survey, and William Gibson, an artist and photographer from San Francisco. Clover invited Gene Atkinson, a 25-year-old zoologist at the University of Michigan. The final slot needed to be filled by a woman, for the sake of propriety: It wouldn’t look right for Clover to be the only female in the group.

At first, Clover hesitated to invite Jotter. As Jotter put it, “She knew my parents had no spare daughter.” But Jotter jumped at the chance to go; what botanist could resist the lure of collecting material from a place as remote and mysterious as the Grand Canyon? The prospect caught her imagination. Jotter had to request time off from her thesis work, and she needed her father’s permission to go, written up in a formal letter to show the head of the botany department at the University of Michigan. She also needed $200 to cover her share of the cost of the expedition’s boats and supplies. She wrote her family a flurry of letters in the months before the trip. 

“If I weren’t almost certain (cheerful thought) that we would get thru OK I wouldn’t go,” she wrote to her father, though she admitted that she’d probably be “scared pink” most of the time.

Jotter filled her letters with reassuring details: a careful accounting of the costs involved, her confidence in Clover to protect her from the “familiarities” of men, the river experience of the rest of the crew, and the greatly improved maps of the Grand Canyon. She even listed the clothes she’d wear: long-sleeved shirts, fitted overalls, cork helmet, wool socks. “This is carefully planned,” she wrote. “I know that I’m not getting into any lark, but you know, that it will be something I’ll always regret not doing, if I don’t.”

Her father gave his blessing and sent the $200. When the spring semester ended, Jotter told a friend about her summer plans. The friend’s mother overheard the conversation and was aghast. “Have you seen that river?” she asked.

“Yes,” Jotter lied. She hadn’t seen the Colorado, but she’d read everything about it she could get her hands on. The title alone of Clyde Eddy’s 1929 book Down the World’s Most Dangerous River might have scared her off. But there were also the tales of Powell’s footsore crew eating handfuls of moldy flour. Or the drawings she’d seen of ominous rock spires blotting out the sun. Jotter felt she’d done her homework: She knew what to expect.

The friend whose mother had been aghast mentioned Jotter’s summer plans to journalist at the student newspaper, the Michigan Daily. The story made the front page, with the headline: “Faculty Women to Face Danger on Stormy Colorado for Science.” Cameramen from The Detroit News were in the parking lot on June 7 when Jotter, Clover, and Atkinson loaded up their gear. The trio agreed to a last-minute photo shoot—perhaps, though nobody said it aloud, a final photo shoot.

Then the three scientists piled into Atkinson’s car for the weeklong drive to Utah. Even that comparatively tame adventure had moments of foreboding. Clover admired a long black car that passed them on the road before realizing it was a hearse. Jotter woke in her hotel room one night to wailing sirens as a bakery across the street went up in flames. “I am saved for the Colorado,” Jotter noted in her diary as firefighters doused the blaze.

Only her roommate back in Michigan, Kay Hussey, knew that Jotter had boxed and labeled her possessions for distribution before she’d left for Utah. Just in case.

Norm Nevills’s father, William, building a cataract boat.


The town of Mexican Hat, Utah, named for a rock formation that looked like a jaunty stone sombrero, had no electricity. Nevills, his father, William E. Nevills, and Harris used hand tools to build the three boats that would carry the expedition down the river, working out of the little hotel that Nevills ran in town. Each boat measured 16 feet long and was held together by some 2,000 screws, with watertight compartments at either end and a hull reinforced by oak ribs. They were newfangled vessels of Nevills’s own design—he called them cataract boats. They had a shallow draft and eight-foot-long wooden oars thrust through eye hooks on each side. The boatman sat in the center and faced downstream. Though the cataracts were wider than the boats traditionally used on the Colorado, there wasn’t much room for passengers. They had to cling to the front or rear deck or get out and walk in rough water.

Each boat had its name printed on the side—the Botany, the WEN (Nevills’s father’s initials), and the Mexican Hat—along with big block letters reading “Nevills Expedition.” The sight dismayed Jotter. She had envisioned the trip as a scientific voyage under Clover’s direction, during which their collected plant specimens would be carefully transported to the University of Michigan for study. Nevills had a different idea entirely: This was a business venture with paying passengers. He hoped to make a name for himself as the Grand Canyon’s first commercial river guide—though he’d never run the Colorado River before. (No one on the trip had.) Nevills’s experience included floating the San Juan, a tributary of the Colorado that passed through Mexican Hat. The journey ahead could make or break his career. He needed publicity, as much as he could muster. It helped that the two women brought a frenzy of news coverage with them from Michigan. When he got the chance to talk to reporters, Nevills emphasized the care and precautions he’d taken preparing for the expedition. It was as safe as any journey downriver in nearly unknown territory could be.

They were risking their lives—everyone in the group was clear about that. They just weren’t in agreement on why. Was it for publicity or for plants? News wires picked up the Michigan Daily story, and each retelling was more sensationalized than the last. The “relic flora” and “important cacti” mentioned in the original article became “botanical freaks” in an Associated Press story. Eventually, nothing much was said about science at all. One reporter noted, “The women, besides their scientific work, will do the cooking.” Articles described “Miss” Clover as a 40-year-old college professor, plump and bespectacled, while Jotter was thin, freckle-faced, and nearly six feet tall. Indignant, Jotter corrected that description whenever she could: She was five feet seven and a half inches.

On June 19, a caravan of cars left Mexican Hat pulling the three boats on trailers. The six expedition members drove to Green River, where they were mobbed by reporters and autograph hunters. Clover and Jotter, hot and dusty from the drive, were dressed in practical brown overalls.

“Do you think women can do anything a man can do?” an Associated Press newsman wanted to know.

No, the women replied emphatically. The question annoyed Jotter. In terms of strength, she probably couldn’t do the same work as a man. But her mind, her abilities, and (she hoped) her endurance in the rough country ahead were just as good. Or better.

“What do you think of the riverman’s statement in the Saturday Evening Post?” came the next question.

They’d seen the article, of course. Everyone had. The riverman was Buzz Holmstrom, a 29-year-old from Oregon who’d run the Grand Canyon solo the year before—the only person on record to achieve that feat. The Post had printed a seven-page, blow-by-blow account of his thousand-mile journey from the Colorado River’s headwaters in Wyoming all the way to Lake Mead. Holmstrom was speaking of the vanished honeymooner Bessie Hyde when he said, “Women have their place in the world, but they do not belong in the Canyon of the Colorado.”

Jotter smiled at the journalist who asked the question. “Just because the only other woman who ever attempted this trip was drowned,” she replied, “is no reason women have any more to fear than men.”

At least that’s what the newspapers reported. In her diary that night, Jotter scribbled wearily that she’d tried to speak as little as possible, knowing how easily her comments could be misconstrued. “My dear, don’t believe anything you do see that is supposed to be something we said,” she wrote in a letter to Kay Hussey, her roommate, “because we’ve been beautifully misquoted out here.” Jotter also enclosed a schedule of the journey in the short letter to her friend: “Lees Ferry, Arizona, July 4. Grand Canyon, July 14. Boulder Dam, July 30,” she wrote. “Please do not be worried if we don’t get there on the exact date, as we may lay over for a week for high water.”

The two botanists stayed up late that night creating makeshift plant presses—strips of newspaper layered with blotting paper to absorb moisture, held between cardboard and cinched tight with leather straps. They’d insert plants and squeeze them flat to preserve them, a tricky proposition with cactus, and send them back to Michigan in three shipments: one at the start of the Grand Canyon, one halfway down, and one from Lake Mead. The presses would be stuffed into the boat hatches along with the food, life preservers, and Clover’s sewing kit. Other supplies included Jotter’s bedroll: a mammoth creation of overlapping blankets around an air mattress—a gift from her parents—wrapped in heavy canvas ground cloth. Most of the food was canned, even the potatoes, the fruit, and a brand of dried milk called Klim.

Early the next morning, the party put into the Green River. “Two flora-minded women from Michigan join four equally adventurous men today in a daring boat trip down the restless Colorado river’s mile-deep gorge in quest of nature’s secrets,” began the adjective-riddled Associated Press story. For all her bravado in letters to her parents, Jotter felt relieved when the three boats floated just fine in the water.

On the placid river, sliding in the shade of cottonwood trees, the memory of dire predictions began to fade. Everything seemed planned, predictable, safe. “Much singing and sitting on sundeck,” Jotter wrote in her logbook of those early days. On the third night of the trip, Nevills gave the group a lecture on how to run the rapids ahead. Jotter recorded his advice: “If you do get sucked in, hit stern first and square, current not too strong at cliff walls, quarter up-stream, row against, always hang on to boat, etc. etc. Finally and so to bed.”

Later, Jotter added a wry note to that entry, “I guess I really must not have listened to all this with any sense of responsibility.”



They reached the Colorado River on June 23. That’s when the trouble began. 

Here, at the confluence with the Green River, they’d enter Cataract Canyon—with its 63 rapids, the most treacherous stretch of river they’d encounter. The group pulled their boats ashore to scout the rapids and search the canyon walls for an inscription left by Powell. The river was a churning white maelstrom, crunching logs and trapping boulders in its maw. While the men plotted their course, Clover took the opportunity to snatch up a few plant specimens and Jotter rested on the shore. The character of the river had changed, it seemed—it was now deep, swift, and powerful. Then Gibson shouted: “My God! There goes the Mexican Hat!” Jotter’s boat had tugged free from its mooring on shore, empty except for much-needed supplies. She dashed to the river’s edge. Her rowing partner, Don Harris, ran past her, calling for Jotter to follow him. They both climbed into the WEN.

“We’re going right through, so hang on!” Harris shouted.

Jotter bailed water with an empty coffee can while Harris put his back into the oars. In no time, the river had swept them around a bend, out of sight of their companions. Somewhere between terrified and exhilarated, they rode out four rapids before Harris pulled into an eddy to rest.

“Do you want to stay here while I go on?” he asked between heaving gasps. 

“No,” Jotter said.

Back into the main current they went. Waves crashed as the sun went down. Soaked and chilled, they beached again—there was still no sign of the Mexican Hat. But Jotter thought she glimpsed a sandy patch of land ahead, the kind of spot where a boat might run ashore. They continued along the riverbank until they saw a flash of white paint and a curved prow. The boat had indeed run aground, with all its food, clothing, and blankets still safely stowed. It had traveled five miles.

Harris left Jotter and walked back upriver to deliver the news to the rest of the crew. He promised to return as quickly as he could. He found his companions waiting around a little campfire on the opposite bank, cooking a dreary dinner of canned peas. Harris shouted to get their attention.

Clover, Nevills, Gibson, and Atkinson quickly climbed into the Botany and crossed the choppy water, fighting to hold a straight line. In giddy relief, they shook Harris’s hand and clapped him on the back. He and Atkinson decided to walk back to Jotter, taking the only flashlight. The rest of the group resigned themselves to a miserable night. The Botany had no cooking utensils and hardly any bedding among its cargo. They had to “chuck conventions”—Clover’s words—and huddle together for warmth. “What a night for the first one on the Colorado!” she wrote in her journal.

Harris and Atkinson didn’t make it back to Jotter straight away. The boulder-strewn terrain proved too difficult to navigate in darkness, and they lay shivering on a rock in wet clothes until dawn. Jotter spent the night alone. She dried out the food and bedding on the Mexican Hat and collected driftwood for a fire. She put her back against a stone and kept her face toward the flames. She toasted some bread and ate it. The river was rising, and soon Jotter had to move the fire back from its encroaching edge. Stars bloomed in the night sky above the canyon’s close walls—a great river of stars, perfectly echoing the real river below.

Jotter should have been afraid. Almost no one believed that she belonged on the expedition, let alone out on her own in the treacherous wilderness. The journey had barely begun—500 dangerous miles stretched ahead. Cataract Canyon was the expedition’s first test, and it seemed they were failing it. They were cut off from any hope of help if someone was injured, a boat was damaged by the rocks, or their food supply spoiled.

The noises of the night rose around Jotter—water rushing amid the roots of willow trees, the susurration of the river, small creatures rustling in the brush. She wrote in her logbook, “Felt quite alone.” But the solitude didn’t frighten her. She confessed, “I had a lovely time.”

Morning dawned pink and gold. Jotter woke early, washed her face in the river, and carefully applied her makeup, just as she and Clover did every morning in the early days of the expedition, before Jotter gave it up as “useless.” Then she waited. Harris and Atkinson arrived first, relieved to find her safe, and the rest came down in the Botany not long after, hungry for breakfast. 

Reunited, they continued downriver. Nevills and Harris, who had the most rowing experience, sometimes took the boats through the rapids one at a time, walking back between each run. It gave Gibson a chance to film with his 45-pound movie camera as the boatmen ran the rapids. But the arrangement also meant long periods of separation and nerve-fraying waits. Once, Gibson announced that he would abandon the river and walk to Moab, Utah, if Nevills turned up dead.

The mishap in Cataract Canyon had shaken the expedition. Sometimes Nevills didn’t want to plow through the whitewater before them. Instead, the group “lined” the boats—guiding them by rope from the shore—or dragged them overland on skids. Or they unloaded and carried them. Everyone pitched in when a portage was required; it was grueling work in the heat, with loose stones to dodge and pink rattlesnakes coiled in the sand. Nevills fretted that the women were taking on too much of the physical labor.

They drank river water that left their mouths lined with clay and grit in their teeth. A week into the trip, everyone grew nauseous. Prescription: a shot of whiskey. Gibson awoke one night in terror, yelling about the river closing over his head. After a while, even the rocks seemed to ripple and heave.

Like the river, Jotter’s journal took on a different character. During the wearisome drive from Michigan to Utah, she had delighted in plants—or, in her words, “botanized lots.” She noted the sinuous tracks of cottonwoods, recorded goatsbeard, white larkspur, and evening primrose, and lamented a “rather barren stretch as far as flowers go.” Now, on the Colorado, she and Clover rose every morning before the rest of the crew to gather plants, make notes, and cook breakfast for everyone. In the evening, one of them would press the specimens collected that day while the other made dinner. Jotter had little to say about their findings in her logbook. The botanists’ collection, she believed, would speak for itself once it was back in Michigan.

Jotter’s writing focused instead on the novelty of river life: cooking food over a campfire, washing clothes (her own and sometimes those of “the boys”), trying to bathe in the river or change in the privacy of her bedroll—all the daily domestic concerns of making and breaking camp. Only one topic consumed her more, and that was running the rapids.

On June 29, the group awoke to a landslide in the distance raising a cloud of white dust. The river was still high, muddy and red with runoff from the rain. Gypsum Creek Rapid lay ahead. The water seemed smooth, and Nevills decided to run it without stopping first to scout. Nevills and Clover went first in the WEN, then Gibson and Atkinson in the Botany. Without warning, the boats plunged over a steep drop. The Botany was tossed up, then overturned. Atkinson clung to the hull, but Gibson was gone, swept into the river—his nightmare come true.

Clover wrote that the little boat caught in the curl of the wave would have been a “beautiful sight if it had not been so dangerous.” Nevills bent to the oars of the WEN, heading to intercept Atkinson and the overturned boat. Atkinson clambered aboard while Clover grabbed the Botany’s trailing rope and hung on. Six feet from the shore, Nevills jumped out, intending to tie up the boats, but the slick rope ran through his fingers. He went into the river, too, while the boats swept on without him.

Some ways behind, Jotter and Harris made the run safely in the Mexican Hat, though they nearly lost the oars as the waves pummeled their boat. They found an