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 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.

© 2023 The Atavist Magazine. Proudly powered by Newspack by Automattic.

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 exhausted Gibson struggling to keep his head above the water and pulled him aboard. Downstream they picked up Nevills, who had managed to swim to the riverbank. But the WEN and capsized Botany were gone from sight, lost to the raging river.

The foursome made their way downstream with painful slowness, sometimes walking and lining the boat, sometimes rowing with all four of them crammed together in the tiny craft. (“Felt like a blooming ferry,” Jotter noted.) Dark Canyon Rapid was looming—they could hear its hollow, ominous boom. Had their companions made it to safety before reaching it?

Then Clover and Atkinson came into view, waiting on the shore around a fire, the two boats tied up beside them. They’d come through nine rapids in a little more than five miles, all while towing an upturned boat—a wild, battering ride. Atkinson had a deep gash in his leg, and Clover had a purple bruise blossoming on her thigh. Everything in the Botany was soaked, including the food supplies and Gibson’s prized movie camera. “Much rejoicing,” Jotter wrote in her logbook that night.

Nevills did not echo the sentiment. He reckoned that he’d brought a group of greenhorns onto the Colorado, and everyone could imagine what the newspapers would say if an empty boat washed up at Lees Ferry. The were behind schedule—the party was expected by July 4, but they weren’t going to make it. The river had shown its claws and teeth. In a moment of despair, Nevills told his companions, “This is the end of my career as a riverman.”



Back then, the Department of the Interior planned to construct dozens of dams along the Colorado River, for hydropower, water supply, and recreation. Government engineers envisioned a series of ponds from one end of the Grand Canyon to the other to reduce the rough, silt-laden river into a clear, controlled stream. Jotter carried the specter of that possible future with her in the form of topographical maps made by Colonel Claude Birdseye of the Geological Survey in 1923, when he was tasked with identifying potential dam sites. She’d gotten copies of the maps from the colonel himself before the trip—though before giving them up, Birdseye tried to dissuade her father from letting her go at all.

Jotter didn’t know that the canyons the expedition drifted through would one day be submerged beneath the waters of an artificial lake. The group lined Dark Canyon Rapid rather than risk another disastrous run. It was here that a tributary called Dirty Devil River poured into the Colorado. A few decades later, that confluence would vanish behind Glen Canyon Dam under the waters of Lake Powell.

The group sometimes spotted the names of travelers who had made it that far, painted up on imposing walls of rock. “Buzz Holmstrom” still shone fresh from 1937, an unwelcome reminder of his declaration: “Women do not belong in the Canyon of the Colorado.” Eight miles farther along, another sheer cliff bore the words “The Eddy Expdtn,” badly faded, and “Hyde,” with a date below: November 1, 1928. Bessie and Glen Hyde hadn’t lived to see December.

While the others labored to unload and line the boats through a nearby rapid, Atkinson took a can of white paint and added “Nevills Expedition” to the cliff, with all six of their names below. At first, Jotter winced at defacing the stone, but she didn’t voice an objection. It was hard not to wonder: Would this be a record of their accomplishment or an epitaph?

Reporters in the world above the canyon seized on the expedition’s nonappearance at Lees Ferry to speculate, with ghoulish glee, about its fate. The Geological Survey reported unusually high water on the Colorado, and plenty of rivermen were willing to speak about the “unimaginable difficulties” of the trip and condemn the expedition for being “thoroughly unplanned.” Unnamed sources believed that the party was “drifting helplessly on the crest of the stream, or already smashed to bits on the jagged rocks.” Journalists took every opportunity to remind their readers that “no woman had ever before conquered the Colorado.”

One reporter cornered Holmstrom, then working as a boatman for a Lake Mead tour company, and asked his opinion of the “lost” expedition. Holmstrom detailed the dangers the group were facing, then added, “I’m glad I’m not on that trip, but I certainly hope they get through all right.” Soon after, he hitched up his boat to his car and set out for Utah: He would stage a rescue if need be.

Meanwhile, Jotter’s family lived in daily expectation of news—bad news. Jotter’s mother traveled to Ohio to visit her mother, who wept in terror over Jotter’s fate. “I have a deep and growing realization and conviction of personal responsibility,” Jotter’s father wrote to his wife while she was away. “No use to tell you not to worry. You will and so will I.”

Early on the morning of July 7, a plane flew over the Colorado River, searching for the missing group. It wasn’t until evening that the pilot spotted them, preparing for supper on a willow-shaded sandbar. The plane circled and dropped leaflets like snow. The expedition party scattered, each person trying to catch one. Nevills and Harris went to scale a nearby cliff, and Gibson climbed a willow, while Clover found herself mired in mud. Jotter stayed where she was—she was busy cooking—and Atkinson stayed with her. They were rewarded when a fluttering piece of paper landed nearby. It read:

We are U.S. Coast Guard plane searching for a party of six U. of Michigan geologists reportedly late at Lee’s Ferry. If you are they, lie down all in a row, and then stand up. If in need of food, sit up. If members of the party are all ok, extend arms horizontally. It is imperative that we know who you are, so identify yourself by first signal first.

Jotter and Atkinson went through the necessary gymnastics. Gibson returned and joined in. The plane dipped its wings and departed, ready to send good news to the world.

The expedition arrived at Lees Ferry four days behind schedule. Reporters were sprawled on the sand, asleep. When they woke to the three boats and six crew members pulling in, they scrambled. Ultimately, the weary group were persuaded to stage their arrival a second time so that news cameras could capture the moment. Then they devoured watermelon, too absorbed in the delight of fresh fruit to answer questions.

Jotter had letters waiting, along with a piece of her brother’s wedding cake. He’d been married on July 1, a date chosen to distract their parents from worrying too much about his sister. The expedition would stay a week at Marble Canyon Lodge to rest and resupply. Jotter had time to dash off letters of reassurance to her family and friends, making light of the “terrible accounts of our suffering” printed in the newspapers. “Girl Left Alone,” screamed one headline on July 9, telling a vividly imaginative story of the night the Mexican Hat had gotten loose. It painted a picture of Jotter stranded on the tempestuous river’s shore while wild animals howled. Jotter wrote emphatically to her father not to believe a word of it. “At no time was I cold, unfed; nor did I hear animals growling from the rim.… Really most of the stuff written has been absurd, and so wrong that the only right thing was the date-line.” To her roommate, Hussey, she wrote, “May not continue trip, but keep that quiet for the present.”

Two of the group decided to depart. Harris and Atkinson had new jobs waiting for them back home, and Atkinson was disgruntled that he’d had no time to collect zoological specimens, which he’d planned to sell to make up the cost of the trip. This meant that the crew were short two oarsmen. The expedition had reached the mouth of the Grand Canyon, but it wouldn’t enter unless it could recruit two people who could handle a boat and were willing to take on the river’s most dangerous rapids. Clover and Nevills borrowed a decrepit truck and drove straight through the night back to Mexican Hat, where they hoped to find volunteers.

Bill Gibson, Buzz Holmstrom, and Gene Atkinson (from left) with Jotter on Navajo Bridge.


Jotter and Gibson were finishing up a long, lazy breakfast the next morning at Marble Canyon Lodge when a rattling Buick towing a battered gray boat pulled up outside. A stocky, weather-beaten man climbed out of the car: Buzz Holmstrom. He’d learned the expedition wasn’t lost soon after arriving at the boat launch in Green River. No one needed a rescue, but curiosity drove him to the lodge: Holmstrom had come about these women on the river.

Born in a logging camp in Oregon, Holmstrom had run the Rogue, Salmon, and Snake Rivers in handmade boats. He didn’t do it for money; running rivers didn’t pay. Between boat trips, he drifted from job to job. When he wasn’t broke, he sent money home to support his mother. He’d proved too shy to make a good tour guide at his current job on Lake Mead, so he spent much of his time scraping paint and sopping up bilge water.

Holmstrom hadn’t sought any publicity for his solo trip down the Colorado, worrying that some government official might try to stop him from attempting it. Afterward, the Saturday Evening Post made him famous anyway—and paid him handsomely. Holmstrom disliked media attention, but he knew its worth. Secretly, he was concocting a plan with a fellow river runner named Amos Burg to repeat his 1937 Colorado trip. This time, Burg would make color movies of the journey. They had a half-formed idea of showing them at the World’s Fair in San Francisco.

When Holmstrom first got word about the Nevills expedition, he worried that the era of derring-do on the Colorado—his era—was coming to a close. Soon anyone with money to spare would be able to pay a guide to take them down the most dangerous river in the world. Why would they want to see films of an adventure they could go on themselves? “If that weren’t enuf trouble,” he wrote to his mother, “now these women are in the canyon—if they make it I guess it will be time for me to go and hide somewhere.”

His plan for a rescue mission wasn’t entirely altruistic. When he met Jotter and Gibson at breakfast, he told them, “I brought my boat with some idea of going hunting for you.” Jotter thought there was just a trace of embarrassment in his manner when he looked at her. “Course, I thought it would be good publicity for me, too,” Holmstrom added. 

She was disarmed by his frankness. The trio spent the day together, wandering around the lodge. Holmstrom was a sympathetic listener. Jotter and Gibson relayed their difficulties, and Holmstrom described the rapids ahead: Soap Creek, House Rock, Hance, Sockdologer, Grapevine. He had no qualms admitting that he’d been terrified on his solo trip. One night in Cataract Canyon, he awoke in the darkness and stumbled down to the river to cling to the bowline, in a cold sweat at the thought of his boat tearing away downriver without him. But it had been worth it. What Jotter felt about plants, she realized, Holmstrom expressed in a kind of rough poetry about the Grand Canyon. “The spell of the canyon is awfully strong and it holds something of me I know it will never give up,” he once told an interviewer.

Jotter didn’t hold Holmstrom’s feelings about female river runners against him. She thought him “simply swell” and joked about losing her way in the canyon so that Holmstrom could indeed come to the rescue as he’d planned. She was open-hearted, candid, and eager for his advice. “I’ve never felt so much like a hero-worshipper,” she wrote in her journal.

She asked him if she should keep going, revealing the same doubt she’d shared in her letter to Hussey. He told her that she should.

The next day, Holmstrom treated his new acquaintances to lunch. Afterward, they said their farewells on Navajo Bridge, an enormous arch made of steel spanning the Colorado just below Lees Ferry. The river, 500 feet below, was an unfathomable green and deceptively calm. The canyon’s faces caught the sunlight and flashed vermillion. Gibson took a photograph of Jotter and Holmstrom leaning against the metalwork of the bridge, smiling and relaxed.

Holmstrom gave Jotter a good-luck charm to carry the rest of the trip: his waterproof match case with a compass attached to one end. She told her father in a letter that she’d accepted the souvenir as a representative of the crew but thought privately that it was a pity she was taller than Holmstrom—she didn’t like to date anyone shorter than herself. Holmstrom wrote his mother with a warm description of his visit to the lodge, filling his letter with the haphazard dashes he liked to use in lieu of proper punctuation. “They are all fine & I hope they go thru O.K. tho it would probably be better for me if they didn’t,” he wrote. “The women on that party are really doing better than the men—this Lois J. is almost 6 feet tall—rawboned—freckled & tanned—very strong works like a horse helping portage & trying to get specimens & a good sport—never complaining.”

But would they have the chance to continue? Clover and Nevills had made it as far as Tuba City, in the bleak highlands of Arizona, before they had to look for some other means of transport—the borrowed truck threatened to rattle itself apart on the washboard roads. Ed Kerley ran the trading post there. Nevills pounded on his door until he woke up and agreed to give them a ride. Better yet, Kerley had more than a working vehicle: He had a cousin, 24-year-old Lorin Bell, who was raised on the Navajo Nation and loved to travel. As Clover described the scene, they shook Bell awake and asked him if he’d like to run the river. “Hell yes!” he said. “What river?”

They continued on to Mexican Hat, where Nevills picked up a friend of his to be the second boatman, 44-year-old gold prospector Dell Reed. Nevills saw his wife, Doris, and his two-year-old daughter, Joan, before dashing back to Lees Ferry with the new recruits. Jotter was relieved. “I’m all pepped up,” she wrote to her father. The two women were tasked with repacking the boats while Nevills scheduled pictures with the press. Clover also arranged the first of three shipments back to Michigan, this one including all the plants she and Jotter had collected so far.

On July 13, cars and people lined Navajo Bridge to get one final glimpse of the three boats setting out downriver. After the near disastrous first leg of the journey, Nevills was again feeling buoyed. “This is a swell gang and we’re going to town!” he wrote as they set off. 

From left: Jotter at camp; expedition members hiking along Havasu Creek in the Grand Canyon.


At last the expedition entered the Grand Canyon. The Colorado became like a plunge into the past, each river mile revealing another chunk of prehistory. First were the pale, water-pocked ledges of the Kaibab limestone formation, laid down 250 million years ago when the desert was a sea. The farther the expedition went, the higher above them the limestone rose, all the way to the canyon’s rim, where tourists leaned over the abyss. Beneath the Kaibab was the Coconino sandstone, ancient dunes that rippled with the imprint of long-ago winds; then the Hermit shale, split with strange fossils; and then bands of Redwall limestone shot through with petrified shellfish.

There were secrets to be learned here, about past climates, warm shallow seas, and the inexorable work of uplift and erosion. But Jotter wasn’t a geologist; she’d come to find plants. In her journal, acknowledging the spectacle of stone, she scribbled, “nice clouds and red cliffs.”

On July 15, they pitched camp in a spot with an overhanging ledge in case of rain. While Clover cooked dinner, Jotter scrambled up a hillside to pluck samples of plants with fierce and lordly names: scorpionweed, catclaw, yellow spiderflower, desert prince’s plume. She cut a few leaves from an agave with a 12-foot stalk and puzzled over its curious red spines before realizing it was her own blood. “The red was my contribution!” she wrote. That night, too restless to sleep deeply in the heat, she dreamed of pressing plants in sleeves of newspaper.

Clover couldn’t sleep either. She stood spellbound beneath the gibbous moon as it illuminated the high cliffs, a play of silver light and deep shadow. She’d been warned about the Grand Canyon—its oppressive walls and gloomy crags, how the sound of water striking rocks preyed on travelers’ minds. But what she saw wasn’t fearsome. It was a nameless beauty.

Both women rose early. Scientifically, it would be the most important day on the river. They’d made Nevills promise to make a special stop at Vasey’s Paradise, where freshwater springs cascaded from the Redwall limestone in ribbons of white. Powell had looked at this spot with a geologist’s eyes, describing the spray from the sunstruck fountains as a “million brilliant gems,” but he’d named it Vasey’s Paradise after George Vasey, a friend and botanist who’d explored the upper Colorado with Powell in 1868. Plants there reveled in water: mosses, ferns, desert paintbrush, red monkey flower. Penstemon tempted hummingbirds with scarlet trumpets. “We collected furiously,” Jotter wrote in her logbook. The women sampled everything they could see except the poison ivy, which lay in green hummocks over rocks printed with the silver tracks of snails.

Bell and Gibson, meanwhile, stripped down to shorts and showered beneath one of the waterfalls. By noon the men were waiting hungrily for lunch; they expected the women to cook, as always. Clover suggested that they get out the canned food and cold biscuits left over from breakfast. They managed that, but when the women had finished pressing their samples, they found the rest of the crew “waiting bug-eyed and expectant under a rock,” still hungry. In a rare moment of impatience, Clover wrote, “We have spoiled them completely.”

Mere steps away from the springs, the canyon’s desert vegetation asserted itself—scowling cactus, shrubby saltbush. This place followed none of the neat rules Clover and Jotter had learned in botany textbooks. The naturalist C. Hart Merriam had come to Arizona in 1889 to work out his theory of life zones. He’d used the San Francisco Peaks, just east of the Grand Canyon, as a living laboratory, describing how plants grew in predictable zones determined by climate: alpine tundra descending to desert. The Grand Canyon defied all such categories. Clover and Jotter sampled moss one moment, plucked succulent pads the next. Barrel cactus blushed pink with sunburn on exposed rock faces, while across the way redbud and hackberry trees hunkered gratefully in shade. Mormon tea, with its stubby green fingers, clung to steep talus slopes. Dismembered prickly pear pads washed into the spaces between flood-tossed boulders and took root. They found an extraordinary number of hedgehog cactus, their pink blooms faded in the heat, on ledges hundreds of feet above the river.

“Here is a case,” the botanists wrote, “where drought vies with flood waters in exterminating plants struggling for existence in a trying situation.” It was what they’d come for—not to conquer or impress, but to learn.

On July 18, they entered Upper Granite Gorge, where the basement of the world lay exposed—gray Vishnu schist ribboned with pink granite, formed 1.7 billion years ago when life had not progressed beyond a single cell. No way to portage or line the boats here: They had to brave the whitewater. Holmstrom had warned Jotter about Grapevine Rapid in particular. As she looked out over the churning whirlpools, she felt “the old before-the-exam feeling in the pit of my stomach.” She smoked a cigarette and felt better but then lost her balance and nearly took a bad fall as she navigated a narrow ledge above the river. She climbed into the boat feeling weak and shaky.

“Here we go,” she told Bell, her partner on the ride.

“We’re in for it!” he replied.

A wave on one side, a hole on the other—they dashed through the rapid on what Jotter called “considerable of a ride.” There were more rapids ahead, but none so large, and before Jotter knew it the Bright Angel suspension bridge loomed ahead, bearing a gaggle of reporters. “Look as if you’re glad to be landing!” one of them yelled down.

Jotter wasn’t glad at all. “It meant people, fuss, and the end of a perfect day,” she wrote.

For generations, a narrow path here had wound from the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, down stony switchbacks, and into a green oasis of cottonwood trees. The Havasupai, whose feet had worn the path, called it Gthatv He’e (Coyote Tail Trail), a reference to the brushy ends of spruce trees. When the Grand Canyon became a national park in 1919, authorities worked to clear away old mining claims and tent camps. The government also denied the ancestral claims of Native people who moved seasonally into the canyon and onto the plateau above to hunt, gather plants, and conduct ceremonies. The Havasupai were confined to a reservation. Their path was built over and renamed Bright Angel Trail.

Floods of travelers now came down the trail on mule trains to see the river and sleep at Phantom Ranch, a hostel built in 1922. When the expedition members arrived at the ranch, weary and sunburned, they faced an admiring chorus of photographers, cowboys, and tourists. They ate dinner amid the hubbub and then headed to the river’s edge to camp in the quieter company of cottonwood trees. In celebration of their arrival, Clover passed around a jigger of whiskey. Under the cover of darkness, Jotter secretly poured hers out on the sand. They still had nearly 200 miles to go, from Bright Angel to Boulder Dam.

Most of the crew hiked to the South Rim the next morning, where civilization awaited in the form of a hot bath. Reed stayed behind with the boats. The others spent two days at the top, ushered around for photographs, interviews, and lectures, testing Jotter’s patience. She was eager to get back to the river. 

Jotter wrote to Hussey, “The canyon is lovely, Kay, and not particularly terrifying.” She added, “We’re being lionized pretty badly and as you say the emphasis has been on”—here she sketched a small circle with a cross below, symbolizing the female sex—“rather than on Botany.” Still, what they’d gathered in their press, now bulging with plants, made her proud. It was heavy and unwieldy. So rather than carry it 11 miles up the canyon herself, Clover arranged to have someone haul it up the Bright Angel Trail and ship it to Michigan. They continued downriver, leaving the press for the time being exposed to the elements at the base of the trail.

Norm Nevills, Elzada Clover, and Emery Kolb (from left) between Bright Angel Creek and Lake Mead.


The plants they saw began to change. Ocotillo appeared, bundles of sticks with firework-red sprays of flowers. Barrel cactus and agave thickened on the talus slopes. Clover and Jotter found it difficult to collect anything. There was hardly any time to stop and no easy way to dry the plants. Nevills strained an old knee injury; Bell hurt himself pulling on the oars during a bad run of whitewater. They navigated rapids—big ones—nearly every day. The women often walked, on Nevills’s orders. Jotter had high hopes of being allowed to run a rapid herself; she’d rowed a boat before, though only in calm water. But Nevills wouldn’t allow it. He didn’t mention her request in his journal but noted that he considered Jotter “too reckless.” Perhaps it was her habit of sitting up on the stern in rough water that annoyed him.

They reached Lava Falls, the Grand Canyon’s most infamous rapid. The river made a dizzying, nearly 40-foot drop here; only one or two people had ever tried to run it. “All members would like to run, of course,” Nevills noted, but he chose to line, the safer option. Somehow it had all become routine. Clover wrote, “It was just a part of the day’s work to make a flying leap for shore, to climb steep cliffs after plants, and to get photographs.”

Early in the morning on July 29, when they were just a day or two from the shores of Lake Mead, a small plane flew overhead. Nevills was cheerful that the world would soon receive word of their safety—that is, of his success helming the expedition. But the moment set off a deep melancholy in Clover. “Can’t even get away from the world here,” she lamented.

They camped that night at Diamond Creek, where 81 years earlier, Lieutenant Joseph Ives of the U.S. Army became the first non-Native to visit the bottom of the Grand Canyon. He’d come upriver by steamboat, and when it broke on the rocks at Black Canyon, he kept going on foot. “The region last explored is, of course, altogether valueless,” he’d reported. “It can only be approached from the south, and after entering it is there nothing to do but leave. Ours has been the first, and will doubtless be the last, party of whites to visit this profitless locality.” What his Hualapai guides thought of the river wasn’t recorded, but Ives was convinced that the Colorado River, “along the greater portion of its lonely and majestic way, shall be forever unvisited and undisturbed.”

He was wrong on both counts. Disturbance had already crept in from European influence. Jotter and Clover found tamarisk trees, an imported Eurasian species, thick along the riverbanks. They had recorded other exotic plants: tumbleweed in Cataract Canyon, Bermuda grass below Bright Angel Creek. Plants weren’t the only symptoms of change. Feral burros and cattle grazed the side canyons. Government officials had introduced non-native fish into the Colorado River system: rainbow trout, common carp, channel catfish, and others favored in sportfishing. Populations of native Colorado pikeminnow were crashing, their migration blocked by Boulder Dam. Within a few decades, not one would be left in this stretch of river. Only the canyon walls stood fast, recording time yet seemingly untouched by it.

The crew passed the point where the Hydes’ boat had been found by a search party. Clover wrote in her journal, “Makes me feel almost ashamed to enjoy it so much. It is a great river with a hundred personalities, but it is not kind.” Thirteen miles downriver, they reached Separation Rapid, where the three men had abandoned Powell’s crew. Below this point, the rapids marked on Colonel Birdseye’s maps no longer existed; they’d been submerged by the slack water of Lake Mead.

A despondent feeling settled over the party. “There was a feeling of regret as the last rapid came into view,” Clover wrote. “No more would we have that feeling of uncertainty and expectation. Lake Mead lay placid ahead.”

Boulder Dam had been completed just two years before, and the Colorado was still pouring into the reservoir. Lake Mead would rise nearly to capacity in 1941. (Stressed by drought and water demand, it would only reach that level of abundance again in the wet winter of 1983–84.) The group camped, and by the light of a fragrant mesquite-wood fire, they scrubbed their clothes and faces clean and signed one another’s helmets, like high school kids with yearbooks. “Enjoyed fighting Botany and the old Colorado with you,” Clover wrote to Jotter, who replied, “It was a pleasant two months—and thanks for showing me so much.”

So much of what they’d collected would soon be lost.

From left: Clover; expedition members resting in the lower Grand Canyon.


Without a current to carry the boats, the crew traded turns at the oars, rowing with blistered hands in blistering heat, fighting for every mile. They slept in a narrow, barren spot by the lake and awoke at 4 a.m. to start all over again before the sun returned. That morning, another plane dipped low overhead as they pushed through the water. The only other excitement came from a live rattlesnake Bell caught at their campsite that he carried with him in an empty bacon can.

Beneath the sun-bleached boats, the water was no longer muddy and red—it had turned clear blue. When they decided to pull into a side canyon for an early lunch, “the boys swore violently when they found they had only rowed six miles,” Clover wrote.

They hadn’t yet begun to eat when a distant rumble echoed over the lake water: a motorboat. Everyone dashed to the water’s edge to shout and wave. The boat turned toward them. They soon saw that Holmstrom was at the helm. It turned out he’d also been in the plane that spotted them that morning. He’d come to welcome them to the end of a journey.

Hastily, the crew tied the three boats behind Holmstrom’s, like ducklings bobbing in their mother’s wake. They barreled five miles to Emery Falls, a silver cascade tucked into a cove of the Grand Wash Cliffs. This marked the end of the Grand Canyon. Everyone piled out for a swim and a hike to a nearby cave that contained the ancient remains of extinct giant ground sloths. Clover passed out briefly from the heat but recovered enough to identify ephedra and other bits of plant material in the fossilized dung.

Soon they were joined by a larger boat from a Lake Mead tour company, carrying park officials and cameramen. They rode in style to Boulder City, Nevada, at the far end of the reservoir, with boxed lunches, ice-cold sodas, and endless requests for photographs, autographs, and interviews. “Women Make Perilous Trip Through Colorado Gorges,” declared the Associated Press, describing Clover and Jotter as “two Michigan schoolma’ams” with “copper-tanned cheeks.”

The first non-Native women to make the journey through the Grand Canyon had done it in 43 days—almost exactly as long as expected, despite the early delays. It was strange to be off the river. That night in the hotel room they shared, Jotter washed her face and hands in the bathroom sink and then asked, “Elzie, do you want to reuse this water?” The women stared at each other for a moment before bursting into laughter.

The party broke up a few days later. Clover, still in Boulder City, missed the sensation of the boat moving up and down on the waves. One day alone in her hotel room, she gave in to anguish and wept. Then a call came from the lobby: Holmstrom was there. He’d just given his boat, the Julius F, a fresh coat of paint and wanted her to see it. Clover splashed cold water on her swollen eyes and went to meet him. Holmstrom understood: He had experienced what he described as an “all-gone feeling” after leaving the Colorado. He told Clover his secret, that he planned to float the river again that fall with Amos Burg. “He’s as lonely as I am for the river,” Clover wrote in her journal.

A week later, Clover and Nevills left for Mexican Hat, the WEN rattling in a boat trailer behind them. They’d made plans to descend the San Juan together, along with Lorin Bell. It was a sweet, lazy river compared with the Colorado. On the way back to Utah, they stopped at the South Rim. It was there that Clover made a terrible discovery: The plant press she’d left for shipment at the base of the Bright Angel Trail had never made it out of the canyon. Everything from Vasey’s Paradise. Everything collected in the upper canyon from Lees Ferry to Bright Angel. Proof of how remarkable the Grand Canyon’s flora was, how defiant of the harsh conditions. All of it was missing.

Clover was determined to track down the press. Maybe it had fallen off a mule; maybe it had never been picked up in the first place. Whatever happened, it was nowhere to be found. By the time Clover returned to Ann Arbor, she’d given up hope that it ever would be.

The botanists buckled down to write up their scientific discoveries, based on their notes from the journey and the specimens they’d managed to preserve between Bright Angel and Lake Mead, but the lost plants cast a cloud over the work. Had it really been worth it, risking their lives? Could they justify the danger and expense of the journey without the greater portion of their collection? It was a terrible thought that they might be remembered—if they were remembered at all—for being women, not scientists.

Lorin Bell and Jotter pulling out of one of the Colorado River’s rapids.


Clover made plans to return the following summer and take a mule into Havasupai Canyon to collect more cactus. Jotter, absorbed in her thesis work and with no money to spare, declined the invitation to join her. In early September, a letter arrived from Wyoming. “Dear Lois,” it began, in cramped writing on a torn-out sheet of notebook paper. “Pardon that informal greeting but it’s the only way I know to start a letter.”

Holmstrom was on the river again, traveling from Wyoming to Lake Mead with Burg and another companion. Jotter haunted his journey. He thought of her in Cataract Canyon when he discovered an abandoned tin can labeled “Appls” in a feminine hand. Her name, and Clover’s, shone not far from his own, painted in white on the canyon wall. He postmarked letters to Jotter at every possible stop, warm with admiration. His change of heart was sincere. “I really think you fit into river life just as well as any man I know & a lot better than some,” he told her.

At Marble Canyon Lodge, a letter was waiting for him. Jotter described an outfit she’d worn for a publicity event—brown velveteen and blue silks. Holmstrom scribbled back, “I don’t think I would like you as well that way as all tanned & weatherbeaten & run down at the heels a little in an old pair of slacks.” Then he confessed his own ragged appearance: His shoes had given out, and he hadn’t taken a bath since he left Wyoming. “I’m beginning to think perhaps women could really do some good on a trip like this by keeping everyone cheerful & the general appearance a little better,” he said.

It was autumn, and the cottonwood leaves crisped into paper-thin circles of gold. On October 22, Holmstrom pulled the Julius F ashore at Bright Angel Creek. Burg, who followed in a modern rubber raft, fiddled with the cameras he’d brought to film the adventure. The third man on the trip, Willis Johnson, wandered into the canyon on his own. Fallen leaves crunched underfoot. Not far from Bright Angel, he chanced across a curious artifact: a pile of newspapers stacked neatly on a rock. He went closer and saw tongues of cactus sticking out of seemingly every layer. A forlorn prickly pear had thrust out a five-inch-long pad as if reaching for the light.

He knew right away that it must belong to Clover and Jotter—who else would have cared to collect so many plants? Johnson “felt real proud” to carry the lost press back to camp and place it in Holmstrom’s care. The next day, Holmstrom lugged the awkward bundle 11 miles up the Bright Angel Trail to mail to Michigan. A letter from Jotter was waiting at the top. Holmstrom sent a response back with the plants, saying that he’d reached the trailhead so tired he could barely open the envelope from her. He added, almost as an afterthought, that her plants were in a “bad state of disrepair.”

For Jotter and Clover, retrieving their press meant the most important collections from their trip were finally available for study. They sent some of the plants off to specialists for identification, while the rest went to the University of Michigan Herbarium, as had been promised before the expedition. In 1941, they published a paper on the Grand Canyon’s cactus, followed closely by a comprehensive plant list. It included four new species.

Holmstrom had come to the rescue after all. He wasn’t a likely hero, the man who’d despaired to hear of two women descending the Grand Canyon. But he understood how much the plants meant and the significance of Clover and Jotter’s journey—not to journalists or river rats, but to science. Finding the press helped guarantee that the risks the women had taken would be outweighed by their discoveries.

“She must have been a remarkable woman,” Willis Johnson later said of Jotter. “She probably didn’t know that Buzz was in love with her.” If true, Holmstrom never acted on it. The two kept in touch for some time. Their letters were filled with respect and admiration for each other, and for the wild places each of them loved and understood in different ways. “I was helping a fellow move today,” Holmstrom once wrote to Jotter in a letter. “His wife had a cactus plant which would have fallen off the truck if I hadn’t grabbed it with my bare hands. Right then I [thought] of you.”  


Many of the expedition members felt a pull to the West and its rivers for the rest of their lives. Clover continued to travel and lecture about her adventures; she eventually retired in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, close to the cactus she loved so well. She died in 1980. The publicity of the expedition paid off for Nevills. He operated a successful river-rafting business with his wife, until they died in a plane crash in 1949. All told, Nevills ran the Grand Canyon seven times. He is remembered today for his boat design and for being the first guide to take women and children into the canyon.

In 1939, Holmstrom took a socialite named Edith Clegg across the United States by river: the Columbia, Snake, Yellowstone, Missouri, Mississippi, and Hudson. He served in the Navy during World War II and then worked as a government surveyor. He died on the Grand Ronde River in Oregon in 1946, apparently of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Grief poured in from fellow river runners. His mother chose the words on his headstone from a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson: “Home is the sailor, home from the sea.

Jotter wrote to her expedition friends with an eager interest in every new river trip they took, and amassed stacks of newspaper clippings about the Grand Canyon. But her life moved in a different direction. She married a Guatemalan botanist named Victor Cutter II in 1942, took his last name, and defended her Ph.D. thesis while six months pregnant with her first child. Her husband died in 1962, when their daughter, Ann, was 18 and their son, Victor, just 11. She went back to work as a botany professor.

She lived in North Carolina, where she filled her home with plants and her dinner table with lively conversation among students and fellow scholars. Like her parents had with her, she taught Ann and Victor to love science and quietly championed women’s equality in the workplace. “I think my mother was ahead of her time,” Victor remembered. “The river trip was just an example of that.” Later in Cutter’s life, she traveled to Mexico and South America, including the Amazon rainforest. She saw new places and new plants on every trip.

Cutter was 80 when she went down the Grand Canyon a second and final time. She was invited on a scientific expedition by three ecologists—Robert Webb, Theodore Melis, and Richard Valdez—who were studying old photographs to learn about the rate of environmental change in the canyon. They struck upon an idea: Why not ask the people who’d seen it way back when? “I am not sure you realize how legendary you are in Grand Canyon history,” Webb wrote to Cutter. Her botanical research from 1938 had grown in importance: She and Clover had compiled the only plant list made in the Grand Canyon before the closure of Glen Canyon Dam in 1966. The dam had profoundly altered the river, eliminating the floods that once built sandbars and laid landing pads for cottonwood seeds each spring. It had also galvanized a community of environmentalists who couldn’t accept the idea of damming the Colorado from one end to the other. The admiring public no longer wanted to “conquer” the Grand Canyon: They wanted to restore it. Clover and Cutter’s plant list was now a basis for that work.

The so-called Old Timers’ Trip launched from Lees Ferry on September 8, 1994, and ended at Diamond Creek 12 days later. Cutter was the only representative from the 1938 expedition, but the group included two other women: Joan Staveley and Sandy Reiff, both Nevills’s daughters.

Cutter appreciated the expedition’s focus on science. There was time to talk about what had changed and what remained the same. The river was greener than she remembered, the vegetation thicker along its banks, particularly the pesky, exotic tamarisk trees. Cottonwoods and willows were fewer. Many beaches once used as campsites had eroded away.

An interviewer named Lew Steiger asked Cutter about all these changes as sunlight slanted gold and pink down the canyon walls and the river chattered behind them. She replied, “I recognize that there [are] many individual small differences. But the feeling that you get when you look up and see one high wall lit up, and the rest less so.”

Jotter passed away in 2013 at the age of 99. Until the end, she kept two souvenirs of her river trip: the match case from Holmstrom, and the yellow helmet scribbled with her companions’ signatures. The ink faded over time, and the names became barely legible. Holmstrom’s words, though, stood out boldly still, as if they’d been traced afresh in the intervening years: “To the girl who proved me badly mistaken.”

Masterpiece Theater


Masterpiece Theater

A Dutch gallerist made thousands of forgeries and passed them off as the work of real artists. When he was caught, a new con began.

By Anna Altman

The Atavist Magazine, No. 94

Anna Altman has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, n+1, Bloomberg Businessweek, and other publications. She has also worked as a German fiction scout and a German-to-English translator.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kate Wheeling
Illustrator: Harry Haysom

Special thanks to researchers Maria Hohmann and Stefan Kuiper.

Published in August 2019. Design updated in 2021.


At first the letter read to Mira Feticu like a suicide note. “I am tired of being the guard,” it said. “The story is over. It only brings trouble.”

Consisting of a few short sentences typed on cream-colored paper, the letter wasn’t signed. “It was so dark,” Feticu said later. “I thought, What story? Somebody needs something.” The letter described a remote forest in Romania, Feticu’s native country, and included instructions. “Follow the path. After 450 meters you will find an old tree,” it directed. Nearby was another tree, marked with red paint. “Harlequin lies buried under the rock.”

The letter wasn’t a suicide note—it was a treasure map. The harlequin was Pablo Picasso’s Tête d’Arlequin (Harlequin Head). Completed in 1971, two years before the artist’s death, it’s a drawing in ink, colored pencil, and pastel on thick brown paper. The work was part of a private collection that hung in Rotterdam’s Kunsthal museum, a pavilion designed by Rem Koolhaas, until the early morning hours of October 16, 2012, when thieves broke in through a back door and made off with the Picasso and six other works, by Henri Matisse, Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, Lucian Freud, and Jacob Meyer de Haan. Experts estimated that the missing items were worth as much as $115 million. Four Romanian men were apprehended, tried, and convicted, but the art was never recovered. The mother of one of the men claimed to have burned it in her kitchen to protect her son; she later retracted her statement, but a forensic analysis of the ash in her stove found traces of what appeared to be nails from art frames used before the end of the 19th century. Some experts believe that at least three paintings went up in flames.

The mysterious letter sent to Feticu in November 2018 suggested that the harlequin drawing had survived. “Can you imagine?” she asked me a few months after she received it in the mail. “The chance to find a Picasso.”

Feticu is an author and poet who lives in the Netherlands. She has a round, youthful face and straight dark hair that she sometimes dyes blond. In 2015, she published a novel called Tascha, based on the story of a girlfriend of one of the Rotterdam thieves, who brought his lover to the Dutch city to become a sex worker. Presumably because of the book, Feticu was the recipient of the letter indicating that whoever had the Picasso drawing wanted to give it up. The note was an invitation: Come get it.

Feticu told me that she contacted the Dutch police, speaking briefly with a detective who had investigated the heist in 2012; he said that he would call her back. When he didn’t, Feticu confided in Frank Westerman, a fellow writer and friend. They decided to go to Romania together.

Five days later, Feticu and Westerman were tromping through a snowy forest in eastern Romania, near the village of Carcaliu, where the thieves were originally from. Following the letter’s instructions, the writers walked until they located a stripe of red paint on a tree. After clearing away snow, leaves, and a thin layer of dirt at the foot of the trunk, Feticu and Westerman found a rock. Underneath, wrapped in plastic, was the treasure they’d hoped would be there. The black ink, the pastel shading, the elongated, contorted face with a bulbous nose, close-set eyes, and deep wrinkles that hardly look like laugh lines—it was the missing harlequin.

Feticu burst into tears. “I was more than excited,” she told me. Holding the Picasso in her hands, she considered how the tragedy of the Rotterdam heist, and the humiliation she felt it cast on Romanians, might be transformed into a story of redemption.

Feticu and Westerman returned to their car, photographed the drawing, and sent the images to news programs in the Netherlands. They then drove to the Dutch embassy in Bucharest, where the Picasso was whisked to Romania’s national art museum. Rather than greeting them as redeemers, the police interrogated Feticu and Westerman for several hours, to make sure the writers weren’t complicit in the heist. “I was a little bit scared, because the Romanian police are not so kind,” Feticu said.

The pair were cleared, and news of their discovery headlined the evening news in Romania. The story quickly spread around the world, picked up by outlets like The Guardian, the Associated Press, and Le Figaro. A sensational crime, an anonymous tip, and a prized work of art buried in the earth made for a remarkable tale. Reporters and art lovers alike were hopeful that authentication efforts would prove that a masterpiece had indeed been found.

Within 24 hours, however, the optimism had evaporated.

Peter Van Beveren, a onetime curator of the collection from which the work was stolen, saw a digital image of the drawing and recognized it as a fake. He noted at least six differences between the work that Feticu had found and the original Picasso: the trajectory of lines, the color tones—“deviations,” as Van Beveren called them. Confirming the curator’s suspicion, Westerman and Feticu soon received email messages from men who had seen the news out of Romania. Picasso hadn’t made the drawing, they said. But they knew who had.

“For as long as mankind has coveted objects for their history, their beauty, their proximity to genius, the forger has been there with a mocking smirk ready to satisfy the demand,” writes Frank Wynne in his book I Was Vermeer, a study of Han Van Meegeren, a notorious art forger who swindled, among others, Hermann Göring. A successful forger has the ability to produce art of high quality, certainly, and also an inside knowledge of the workings of the art world, from its business dealings to its social mores. A forger is a storyteller, even a performer—someone who can charm customers, appear trustworthy, and spin a convincing tale about where an artwork came from and how they came to possess it. To forge art takes showmanship and a healthy dose of chutzpah. Frauds must be willing to brazenly claim that a work is genuine; some go so far as to approach experts or artists themselves and request authentication.

This collection of talents, such as they are, isn’t as rare as it might seem. Fakes are everywhere in the art world. Thomas Hoving, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, estimated in his 1996 book, False Impressions: The Hunt for Big-Time Art Fakes, that 40 percent of the 50,000-odd works he examined during his tenure at the museum were “either phonies or hypocritically restored,” an idiosyncratic way of saying that someone had added signatures or flourishes to a real piece. Other estimates of how much of the art market is fake range from 20 percent to more than 50. As Wynne points out in his book, this is not a recent phenomenon: In 1940, Newsweek quipped that “of the 2,500 authentic works painted by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, 7,800 are in American collections alone.” Some experts believe that museums have the greatest number of forged works, in comparison with galleries and auction houses. Once it’s been acquired, art in museums isn’t likely to be subjected to further scrutiny.

Maybe the least common type of forgery is the presentation of a substitute work for an existing one, as was the case with Tête d’Arlequin. Most fakes fall elsewhere on the scale of falsification, from works of unknown origin upgraded in value by a forged signature, to copies of lithographs or other printed works added to a limited series, to canvases painted in the carefully emulated style of a major artist.

There are plenty of ways for forgers to exploit opportunities in the way art is produced and authenticated. Although the public celebrates solitary genius—one individual being singularly responsible for an oeuvre—renowned artists over hundreds of years have signed pieces produced by the people they employ in workshops. Andy Warhol called his studio the Factory for that reason. Determining what is genuine, made by a particular hand, is a tricky business, and the unregulated ecosystem of trained experts, historical documentation, and scientific techniques used (or not used) for authentication lets through plenty of fakes.

It takes a certain psychology to exploit art’s loopholes: a tendency toward self-aggrandizement, a loose relationship with the truth, and a sense of superiority, particularly vis-à-vis art royalty. Many forgers take a perverse pleasure in thumbing their noses at gatekeeping elites. And forgers can be something of a Rorschach test for the public. The art world, with its exclusivity, money, and pretension, elicits strong, sometimes negative reactions. The idea of someone skilled enough with a paintbrush or pen to fool the rich and powerful can be tantalizing. “To art critics, the forger is a mediocre artist seeking revenge; to the media, a conman interested only in money; to the apologist, he is the equal of the masters he forged; to the public he is often a folk hero,” Wynne writes.

The forger whose work appeared on the Romanian news in 2018 is among the most prolific in modern history. He spent some 20 years duping auction houses, art dealers, collectors, and perhaps even the artists he mimicked. He then spent another 20 capitalizing on his notoriety as a criminal. He painted the Picasso that wasn’t (not his best work, admittedly) and conspired to bury it in Romania.

Since the fake Tête d’Harlequin was uncovered, he has continued to tell his story on his terms—in an attempt to reclaim lost glory, perhaps, or because he believes in the self-mythology he perpetuates. He says that in playing with the line between authenticity and perception, what people know to be true and what they want to believe, he’s pointing out our collective hypocrisy when it comes to art, beauty, and talent. In piecing together his past and tracking him down in the present, I navigated boasting, trickery, contradictions, and unlikely invitations—on the part of the master forger and from people fascinated by his life and work.


One day in late September 1993, Sue Cubitt, an art historian, was sitting at her desk at Karl and Faber in downtown Munich. The 70-year-old auction house held art sales twice a year, and the catalog for the fall auction was nearly due at the printer. Cubitt was going over details of the works that would be on offer when a Dutch dealer came in without an appointment. “He was more like a kind of bureaucrat. He was a sort of unobtrusive character who spoke quite softly,” Cubitt recalled. “He raised no suspicion.”

The man introduced himself as Jan Van den Bergen, and he offered a drawing by Karel Appel for sale. Appel, also Dutch, painted expressive, figurative abstractions, often in bright colors, and he drew inspiration from folk and children’s artwork. Associated with the COBRA group—an acronym for a loose association of artists in Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam—Appel was prolific and well-known in the European art scene. That day in 1993, Van den Bergen handed over an Appel drawing created with a brush and pen, in India ink and crayon. Dated 1950, it depicted several crudely drawn figures and was titled Deux Enfants et un Poney (Two Children and a Pony).

While many consigners haggle over a minimum price at which to sell their pieces at auction, Van den Bergen said that he wasn’t picky. Cubitt took the drawing and jotted down some notes so that she could draw up a contract. Van den Bergen gave her an Orléans, France, address for his gallery. Back then, throughout the art world, it wasn’t customary to ask for personal identification—this was a gentleman’s business, and no one wanted to be rude. Unbeknownst to Cubitt, Van den Bergen made other stops around the same time to consign works at auction houses in Bonn, Cologne, Hamburg, and Dusseldorf.

Van den Bergen promised to follow up promptly with the Appel drawing’s certificate of authenticity, which he had neglected to bring with him. Some weeks later, the certificate arrived by mail. It had what Cubitt described as “a very flamboyant Appel signature”—quite large, but with the telltale slanting letters that the artist used. With its authenticity attested to, Karl and Faber decided to put the drawing in its upcoming auction.

Two months later, Cubitt received a fax from Jan Nieuwenhuizen Segaar, the proprietor of Nova Spectra, a gallery in The Hague that represented Appel. Karl and Faber’s auction catalog had come to Nieuwenhuizen Segaar’s attention, and he knew immediately that Deux Enfants et un Poney was not an original work. Concerned, Cubitt informed her boss. In her telling, he wasn’t convinced that he should pull the work from the auction—it already had bids, and Cubitt said he “was keen on every single deal that he could make.” She remembered telling him that they had no choice, not with “negative information”  in hand. “I won, and it did not come under the hammer” of the auctioneer, Cubitt told me.

The fact that Van den Bergen had consigned an inauthentic work didn’t immediately raise eyebrows. Mistakes happen; people don’t always know when they’re handling a forgery. A dealer might be asked by a client to sell an inherited work that turns out to be a fake, or one dealer might mistakenly sell a forgery to another. When a work is considered suspect, an auction house calls an expert—the artist, their primary dealer, a conservator—for verification. In most cases, if the work can’t be authenticated, the house simply declines the sale, explains why, and returns the work to the consigner. “You don’t just run to the police and say, ‘I think something’s wrong, can you deal with it?’” Cubitt explained.

The episode with Van den Bergen might have been forgotten, but six months later, on March 30, 1994, he returned to Karl and Faber. Again it was just days before the house’s auction catalog was due at the printer. Van den Bergen had three items he wished to consign: an ink drawing by Marc Chagall, a gouache by Asger Jorn, and a painting by Appel. Cubitt was on holiday, so her secretary received the items and drew up the necessary paperwork. The contract stipulated a total value of 80,000 deutsch marks (about $50,000 at the time). The auction that would include the works was scheduled for early June.

When Cubitt returned to the office, she found the items waiting for her. “I remember looking at the name of the consigner and thinking, Aha, we have to be very careful here,” Cubitt recalled. She leaned the three works against a wall, facing outward so that she could see them each time she walked past. “I’d come back to them and look at them again and again,” she said.

None of the works was anything special or unusual—the Appel was a bit garish, while the Chagall, in Cubitt’s words, was “decorative, a lot of blue, one of these typical floral bouquets.” But the certificate for the Chagall made her suspicious. It didn’t have several of the usual pieces of information. It lacked a number—akin to that included on an invoice—that would indicate its assigned place in the authentication records of the Comité Chagall, a foundation in Paris that verifies the artist’s work. It bore the foundation’s official stamp but neither an address nor a date of review. Instead, there was a typewritten paragraph attesting to the work’s authenticity.

Then Cubitt noticed a typo. The certificate said that the Chagall had been made “environs 1952.” In French, environs means “in the area of”—whereas environ means “circa.” It isn’t a mistake a fluent French speaker is likely to make. “That’s what really set the alarm bells going off,” Cubitt said.

She consulted experts about all three of Van den Bergen’s latest consignments, reaching out to Nieuwenhuizen Segaar at Nova Spectra to review the Appel, an art historian named Otto Van de Loo to look at the Jorn, and the Comité Chagall in Paris. All of them rejected the works as inauthentic. The Comité said that the certificate for the ink bouquet was a fake, but a good one. Nieuwenhuizen Segaar told The Art Newspaper that the certificate on the Appel was also suspect. “Appel rarely issued certificates,” he said. “When he did, he didn’t sign them like this, nor did he go into details about the technique used.”

Cubitt decided to call the police.

She contacted Ernst Schoeller, the superintendent of the art and antiquities division of the State Office of Criminal Investigations in Stuttgart. A trim man with arched black eyebrows, Schoeller specialized in art crimes, including forgery cases. In response to Cubitt’s tip, Schoeller called several auction houses across Germany. He learned that Van den Bergen had recently offered 35 works to five institutions. The items were of comparatively modest value. The highest reserve price—a minimum amount below which an auction house agrees not to sell—of any of the works was around 37,500 deutsch marks ($22,500) for a Chagall. Still, a fraudulent operation on the scale of dozens of consigned works was notable.

Schoeller’s interest was piqued. By chance, due to other investigations, he’d gone to Paris a few months prior, where he’d procured one of the Comité Chagall’s authentication stamps. Schoeller was quickly able to confirm that the stamp used on the Chagalls that Van den Bergen had consigned was fake—it was the wrong size. Suspecting that he had a seasoned fraud on his hands, Schoeller advised German auction houses not to give Van den Bergen notice that he was being investigated, lest he go dark.

Schoeller traveled to France, where along with local police he arrived at the address that Van den Bergen had given to Cubitt as the location of his gallery. It was on the Rue Maltotiers in Orléans. Except there was no gallery: It was just an apartment building. A visit to an address that Van den Bergen had used in Paris led investigators to a plumbing and bathroom-fixture shop. A woman who worked there said she would occasionally forward Van den Bergen’s mail to yet another address in Orléans, so the police returned there. To Schoeller’s consternation, that address was a front, too—it was the site of an abandoned house. But the tip wasn’t for naught: The post box was the same one listed as a return address on some of Van den Bergen’s fakes when they were delivered to auction houses. It was also where Schoeller found a check from a German auction house for 10,000 deutsch marks (around $6,100).

In a matter of days, their pursuit took Schoeller and the French authorities farther south. In the early morning of May 6, 1994, Schoeller and a phalanx of police arrived in Linazay, a town of only about 200 residents situated between the cities of Poitiers and Bordeaux. At the end of a long driveway of flowering chestnut trees was a twin-turreted, 20-room mansion called Château de la Chaux. (Chaux means “lime,” as in whitewash.) Van den Bergen rented the property for about 5,000 francs ($900) per month.

No one was home. A gaggle of geese cackled in the expansive interior courtyard, threatening to give away the plainclothes police officers who planned to hide among the trees and bushes, waiting for Van den Bergen’s return. The person who eventually arrived was a woman named Ellen Van Baren; she was Van den Bergen’s girlfriend. She drove onto the property in a battered Renault and quickly found herself surrounded. Later, in a TV interview, she recounted seeing between eight and ten police cars, and “one German guy [who] was very excited and asked me all kinds of questions. He walked around the house, and the more rooms we entered, the more paintings we saw, the more excited he got.”

Van den Bergen had all the tools required to produce fake certificates of authenticity, including a bag full of stamps and 30 vintage typewriters used to approximate typefaces from various time periods.

Inside the château, Schoeller found hundreds of artworks that he and the French police suspected were fraudulent. They were attributed to masters like Picasso, Matisse, and Joan Miró. They were arranged in neat stacks, apparently ready for sale. Fake Chagall paintings hung above the stove, drying. Several rooms were designated for a particular artist whose style was being faked. Authorities also found half-finished works, sketches for new ones, contracts with auction houses in Belgium, Switzerland, and New York, and false authentication certificates. Moreover, Van den Bergen had all the tools required to produce fake certificates of authenticity, including a bag full of stamps and 30 vintage typewriters used to approximate typefaces from various time periods. In a dustbin were strips of paper cut from forged certificates to eliminate watermarks, which might have given away the documentation’s true age.

“You know you’ve reached the end of your hunt,” Schoeller said years later in a TV interview. “You’re at the source of the whole evil.” He called the feeling of discovering what was inside the château “sublime.” (Schoeller, now retired, initially seemed willing to discuss the case but ultimately declined to be interviewed for this story; he said that he didn’t want to spend his retirement talking about his work.)

The Telegraaf, a Dutch newspaper, called the cache the largest quantity of fakes ever found in a single location. Schoeller’s investigation estimated that the total value, had the works been sold under false pretenses, was likely more than five million deutsch marks ($3.1 million). Given the scale of production on display, it was difficult to estimate just how many fakes had already entered the market, purchased by unsuspecting buyers before the police caught on. Newspapers reported that forgeries produced at the château had turned up in Switzerland, France, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Scandinavia, and the United States.

Scale wasn’t the only issue that made tracking sales difficult. “The works are so damn good,” Schoeller told the Stuttgarter Nachrichten, “that the forgeries are hard to recognize.”

Creating a damn good fake isn’t easy. Beyond a superlative ability to paint, a forger needs materials appropriate to the era in which the real artist worked—canvases, frames, and paint pigments. These can be difficult to source or re-create, and many forgers are found out because of mistakes they made in their choice of supplies. For example, the presence of acrylic paints, which became available in the first half of the 20th century, would readily give away a fake rendition of an old master’s work. Then there’s the process of re-creating the natural aging that artworks undergo, especially oil paintings and works on paper. Temperature, humidity, dust, and dirt all take their toll. Forgers must “damage” a counterfeit to the extent commensurate with its purported age. Experts armed with UV lights, X-rays, and other technology might see right through the lie.

That is, if such intense scrutiny is applied at all. The technology and expertise required for authentication are expensive. While major museums and high-end dealers have the funds to put acquisitions under a magnifying glass, more modest outfits often do not. They rely instead on the trained eyes of employees, the reputations of consigners, and historical documentation of ownership and certification, known in the art world as provenance. Some of the biggest art cons in recent decades relied on compelling backstories. Wolfgang Beltracchi, who along with his wife, Helene, was convicted of selling some $45 million in forged artwork in 2011, concocted an elaborate tale in which Helene inherited a significant collection from her grandfather. The works didn’t have certification, she claimed, because many of them had been looted by the Nazis, and the paperwork was lost in the process. The Beltracchis went so far as to concoct vintage photographs of Helene posing as her grandmother in front of some of the forgeries, which they presented to auction houses and dealers as proof.

Strategy, or deciding what kind of art to fake, is also key. Potentially blockbuster works—oil paintings by Michelangelo, say, that might be worth tens of millions of dollars—are likely to be put through the authentication wringer. Less prized items are not. Prints, works on paper, and gouaches (opaque watercolors) usually sell for less than $10,000 and pass through small auction houses and dealers. It’s much easier to elude detection when the stakes, relatively speaking, are low.

That may have been one reason Van den Bergen forged the types of works he did—smaller-scale compositions on paper rather than oil paintings. But he may have had other, more personal motives. Among the paintings recovered from the château were large-format abstract canvases, filled with geometric shapes in shades of lime green and orange. They were originals of the artist, and Schoeller wasn’t impressed. “He’s a perfect craftsman but not an artist,” the investigator told the Stuttgarter Nachrichten. “He has no style of his own.” Perhaps that’s why he’d become a forger in the first place—an abundance of artistic ambition without the vision to realize it. 

One way or another, authorities hoped to get answers from him: Van den Bergen was apprehended at a train station, slightly tipsy, a few hours after the raid at the château. He joined Van Baren in the Orléans jail. As Schoeller and other investigators would learn, it wasn’t the first time that the forger had been detained. And his name wasn’t Jan Van den Bergen—it was Geert Jan Jansen.


Jansen was born in 1943 in Waalre, a town in the southern Netherlands. Today it’s a wealthy enclave, but when Jansen was growing up—just after World War II—life was modest, even austere. His father was a lighting designer and engineer, and Jansen later described his parents in his memoir, published in 1998, as “idealists who liked to hike in their free time. Vegetarians and pacifists who required few creature comforts. Not too much time should be spent on eating and drinking. Anything that looked luxurious was regarded with suspicion.” The family was unpretentious but loved the arts. Jansen recalled going to his first exhibition at the age of three, at the Van Abbe Museum in the city of Eindhoven, where his parents lifted him up so he could see the paintings better. In 1956, the Jansens took their son to the Venice Biennale.

Jansen moved to Amsterdam in the 1960s to study art history. He’d enjoyed painting and drawing from a young age, and he later said that he regretted not attending an art academy. As a student, he visited galleries and auction houses and attended his second Venice Biennale in 1964, describing it as “the Olympic Games of fine arts.” He became interested in the Bergen School, a Dutch expressionist style from the early 20th century. It wasn’t popular among art buyers, so Jansen could purchase original pieces on a modest budget. “As a student, you don’t have money to buy everything you like, so I had to sell one painting in order to pay for another I enjoyed still more,” he later said. “That way I started to get into the art business.”

Jansen’s amateur collecting segued into a vocation. After finishing school, he worked in an Amsterdam gallery called Mokum; founded in the early 1960s, it specialized in realist painters. Later, Jansen set up his own spaces—first Gallery Jakob, and then Gallery Raam. He sold contemporary art collected by a prominent Dutch family. Sometimes he wrote art criticism for a weekly newspaper. He got married and had two sons.

Jansen’s galleries weren’t terribly successful, and he struggled to support his family. His first forgery, a gouache he produced in the mid-1970s, was completed during a particularly slow period at work. He joked—alluding to the unflattering depiction—that the painting could have been a self-portrait. He would later describe the act of creating it as happenstance, but signing it as a Karel Appel original certainly was not. Nor was the decision to consign it to a local auction house or to sit in the back row of the sale watching as bids rolled in. It reportedly went for 2,600 guilders ($1,400), and Jansen later claimed to have recognized the buyer: Aldo Van Eyck, an influential architect who knew Appel personally. Jansen also claimed to overhear Van Eyck boasting to an Amsterdam art dealer that he’d seen the gouache in Appel’s studio and it was easily worth three times what he’d paid for it.

It’s all but impossible to prove whether or not these circumstances are true; both Van Eyck and Appel are now deceased, and betrayals and lies seem to come easily to Jansen. “Honestly, I regretted it. I felt guilty,” he wrote of selling his first fake. “But I couldn’t change anything.” Which, of course, wasn’t true—he could have confessed and righted the wrong. Instead, he forged again.

His second fake was another gouache attributed to Appel, depicting a child with a toy. After that he kept mimicking the Dutch artist, whose work was in demand among buyers. In his licit business dealings, Jansen had handled a number of real Appels, so consigning a few extra ones, albeit fakes, wasn’t likely to raise eyebrows. Appel’s work had a crude quality that was easy to copy—so easy, in fact, that he was the target of many forgers. Moreover, the artist wasn’t always scrupulous about authentication. Nieuwenhuizen Segaar confirmed that, on more than one occasion, Appel mistakenly authenticated fake works attributed to him.

Renée Smithuis, a Dutch dealer active at the same time as Jansen, told me, “Everyone knew that Jansen was forging.” Some people worked with him anyway—Smithuis said she did not—because he sold works at relatively low prices. That was “attractive for many shady art dealers,” Smithuis explained. In some instances, Jansen used fake names for consignments: Van Tongeren, Van Drissel, Van Geren. He later bragged that he had “so many names, I can hardly count them.”

Over the years his schemes grew. He began working with a screen printer to replicate hundreds of Appel lithographs. He branched out, forging the styles of more prominent artists. “For me the excitement was in mastering an artist’s style, and I’ve mastered the entire alphabet of 20th-century artists: Appel, Chagall, De Kooning, Matisse, Picasso,” Jansen later told Wynne, the author of the book about forgery. Jansen also claimed that the quality of a fake was less important than a convincing signature. “I discovered there was a real thrill in the ‘magic-wand effect,’” he said. “You scribble the right artist’s signature in the right place and suddenly doors open.”

In 1981, according to A Small History of Dutch Crime, by Pieter Felter, the Dutch police were tipped off to the existence of a forged Bart Van der Leck painting. The trail, Felter wrote, led to Jansen, who claimed that two disgruntled gallerists in his business circle were the informants. The subsequent investigation led police to search Jansen’s home in the town of Edam, where they confiscated business documents and several paintings. They also found stamps used to produce authenticity certificates, including one from the Asger Jorn Foundation in London. According to press reports, a search of one of the city’s famous cheese factories near Jansen’s home turned up 76 fake Appels that he’d somehow stashed there, though how or why he’d chosen the location eluded investigators.

Jansen and his wife, an art restorer, were taken into police custody. He denied wrongdoing, and the couple spent four days behind bars. Ultimately, no charges were filed. Creating and possessing forged work isn’t punishable under the law. Newspapers reported that the police hadn’t amassed enough evidence of actual crimes—namely, the sale of fakes passed off as originals—and that people negatively affected by Jansen’s con hadn’t come forward to file legal complaints.

According to Jansen, business continued as usual after his release. In 1988, Appel lithographs that seemed to originate with Jansen attracted police suspicion again, in part because a gallery in Amsterdam was selling them at such low prices. Although the history of the legal case is murky, with many details lost in the predigital era of Dutch law enforcement, traces suggest that Henk Ernste, an art dealer, knowingly sold Jansen’s forgeries. Ernste was expelled from Switzerland and deported to the Netherlands, where he was arrested at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. He was able to avoid criminal proceedings by agreeing to a financial settlement.  

When police looked for Jansen, however, they couldn’t find him. Jansen separated from his wife and took up with another artist named Ellen Van Baren. He was doing a lot of his dealing in Paris; hoping to avoid detection by Interpol, he and Van Baren moved regularly. They settled in the French countryside in January 1989, five years before Schoeller caught up to them. By then, the statute of limitations had expired for any charges that might have been brought against Jansen in the Netherlands.

After the arrests in 1994, Schoeller issued a triumphant press release laying out the international scope of Jansen’s fraud and lauding the French police for helping bring him in. Schoeller also praised the “vigilant auction house” in Munich that tipped him off—a nod, specifically, to Sue Cubitt. “It now has to be determined how many art lovers were impacted,” the investigator concluded, calling on anyone with a complaint against Jansen to come forward. In France, where Jansen faced prosecution, the maximum penalty for art forgery was five years.

The bar for proving that an art crime has been committed is difficult to clear. Once complainants come forward seeking reparations—usually from the buyers of fraudulent work rather than the artists who’ve been copied—authorities must prove that misrepresentation contributed to the decision to purchase, that a financial loss was suffered, and that the seller had been intentionally deceptive. (Dealers who sell fakes almost always play dumb.) Because the burden of proof is heavy, many forgery cases don’t end up in court unless they concern additional crimes, such as mail fraud or breach of contract.

Jansen acknowledged to police that he had made the 1,600 fakes they found in his château, but he denied selling any forgeries. According to the Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad, authorities turned up receipts for sales made under false names for a total of 60,000 Dutch guilders (nearly $33,000) over four years. It was something—proof that Jansen was lying about not selling fakes—but not enough, perhaps, to mount a prosecution that would end Jansen’s gambit for good. “It is not much at all for so many works,” Jansen’s lawyer said in an interview.

Schoeller’s call to art lovers who’d been defrauded was followed by a similar entreaty in France, disseminated through radio, television, and other media. According to the Sunday Telegraph, the police in Orléans even displayed some of Jansen’s fakes at its headquarters, purportedly to jog the memories of people who might have done business with Jansen in the past. This created a spectacle more than it produced useful information. Indeed, the authorities’ efforts led to very little in the way of complaints against Jansen.

Frustrated, the French public prosecutor threatened to charge buyers of Jansen’s fakes as accessories to a crime if they refused to help. At that point, according to press reports, two complainants came forward. Allegedly, other defrauded purchasers whom authorities had contacted directly responded with a shrug. Journalists covering the case described one individual saying that he loved the painting he’d purchased from Jansen and didn’t care whether it was genuine or not. Another man, an art dealer, allegedly insisted that what he’d bought was authentic.

Frustrated, the French public prosecutor threatened to charge buyers of Jansen’s fakes as accessories to a crime if they refused to help.

While the case languished, Jansen and Van Baren sat in jail for six months. Jansen spent his time writing a memoir and painting. He claimed that fellow prisoners called him Van Gogh and that the director of the prison joked about wanting to commission two Picasso drawings. Eventually, the pair were released—the state couldn’t legally keep them in custody any longer—but they remained in Orléans on probation for 30 months. The French government confiscated Jansen’s passport so he couldn’t travel. “Without an identity card, you can’t rent a house, you can’t open a bank account. Friends, my family wanted to send me money—it was not possible,” Jansen later complained. He also had to check in with the police regularly. In a profile from this period, the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant described him showing off his best fake signatures, including those of Picasso and Matisse, on a napkin at a restaurant. An hour later, he signed his own name at a required police visit. “I had almost forgotten how,” Jansen quipped to an officer.

When his probation ended, Jansen moved to Antwerp, Belgium. “Not because he fears problems in the Netherlands,” a sympathetic, perhaps credulous news report said of his decision not to go home, “but because of a scarcity of houses.” Jansen continued to paint, but he had a new scheme: He sold his derivative works—“lookalikes,” he called them—under his own name, hoping to profit from his scandalous public persona. He finished the memoir he’d begun writing in jail. He called it Magenta: Adventures of a Master Forger.

By 2000, the French had pieced together enough evidence to put Jansen on trial, but it was a limp across the finish line. Only one accuser appeared in court—a second failed to show. According to the Sunday Telegraph, Jansen promised to reimburse the claimant. He was convicted and given a year in prison, with four years of probation. His sentence was suspended because of the time he’d already served. Van Baren, for her part, denied collaborating with Jansen. “I transported a few things, but I thought they were real,” she said at the time. She was charged and convicted as an accessory, and her sentence was also suspended for time served. The Algemeen Dagblad headlined its coverage of the trial, “French justice department has to let go of ‘the swindle of the century.’” The paper also referred to the result of the case against Jansen as a “black day for justice in France.” Jansen’s lawyer mocked the court’s inability to pin charges on the couple. “Speaking in artistic terms,” he said, “it wasn’t a masterpiece.”

Causing further embarrassment to the French, Jansen responded with a complaint of his own: He wanted some of his artwork back. The lot was being stored at the Palais de Justice in Paris. Authorities didn’t want forgeries flooding the art market, so a court had ordered them destroyed; the plan was to burn the lot in an incinerator at the Louvre. Other works, including Jansen originals, could be sold off, the court said, “if it could be established that they were indeed genuine.” Jansen, worried that the authorities would make mistakes and that real works would meet a fiery end, demanded that approximately 200 works of true value be returned to him. He described them as small pieces by major artists that he’d bought either because he liked them or as research for his fakes. On a list Jansen submitted to the court of works to be salvaged were paintings, watercolors, and etchings by Rembrandt, Miró, Picasso, Magritte, Matisse, Leo Gestel, and Sal Meijer.

A French judge ruled against Jansen’s request to recover the items. As an article in the Telegraaf explained, determining which works were real would incur sizable costs to the state. Jansen was livid, telling the press, “If the judge doesn’t want to investigate what is real and what is fake, then you shouldn’t burn them. I already accepted the loss of the value of the works a long time ago. But it is just a principle, it is not right.”

Jansen refused to take no for an answer, and he had an unlikely ally in Rudi Fuchs, the director general of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. In a written statement, Fuchs argued that the collection shouldn’t be destroyed: It included several works he considered to be genuine. (He stressed that his plea was not a defense of Jansen.) The Dutch secretary of culture, Cees Van Leeuwen, also weighed in, emphasizing that the real works needed to be identified and saved.

In 2005, more than a decade after Jansen’s arrest, a French court agreed to let him recover some of the works from the château. According to Jansen, the returned items were a hodgepodge of genuine and fake art, because the experts whom the French justice system had summoned weren’t up to the task of making correct determinations. “These people were mostly the same ones who authenticated my work as real for the previous ten years,” Jansen later said derisively in a TV interview. He continued to tell the press that the French were going to destroy genuine works. “Among the lots to be burned is a Miró I bought at auction at Drouot in Paris,” he said in one instance. “Nothing is wrong with that one, and I even have the purchase receipt, but it won’t be released.” Jansen added, “That the experts are incapable of authenticating those works doesn’t give them the right to simply destroy them.”

Ultimately, it isn’t clear how many works, if any, were burned. Jansen didn’t go back to France to get what the court allowed him to retrieve; he still feared arrest. Instead, Van Baren drove a truck across the border to pick up the trove. Many of the returned paintings were damaged, Jansen claimed, with canvases coming off their stretchers. Some looked like they’d been stored in standing water.

Jansen described their condition as yet another sign of elite hypocrisy. His own criminality, he insisted, wasn’t so egregious. “I know I did something that is not allowed,” Jansen told De Volkskrant. “But I don’t think anyone is worse off for it.”


That line became something of a professional philosophy for Jansen, and it permeates Magenta, his memoir. The book is an uncontested account of his life, told exactly as he wishes. It is nonetheless revealing about the psychology of a man obsessed with both deceit and attention. Throughout the text, Jansen jumps around chronologically, revisiting his childhood and art-history studies alongside what he considers to be the greatest, and most audacious, hits of his criminal career. He admits to not being great with dates or figures—a convenient hedge against accusations that he may have gotten details in the book wrong—and he is forthcoming about his flexible approach to truth. “I have the habit, in all circumstances, of being silent or lying,” he writes. But just three pages later, he claims that he doesn’t “enjoy lying.”

Jansen boasts of petty crimes, like sneaking out the back door of a hotel so he wouldn’t have to pay, and other, more serious ones, like stealing money from the Swiss bank vault of a colleague. His version of the events surrounding his 1994 arrest boldly contradicts other people’s accounts, as well as known facts. He writes that Sue Cubitt was freshly hired at Karl and Faber when he consigned an Appel to her; in fact, she’d been working there for more than a decade.

Similarly, he devotes considerable space to his disciplined silence in the face of interrogations about the works recovered at his chateau, though a London Times article from May 1994 told a different story. Describing an “Ali Baba’s cave of art fakes,” the article reported that Jansen “accepted responsibility for the works discovered in the raid.” The report continued, “After his arrest, Mr. Jansen displayed his talent to the investigating judge, reproducing several famous artists’ signatures.”

In Magenta, Jansen gloats about seeing his fakes in galleries from London to New York, in museums, and in the catalogs of reputable auction houses, but he demurs on the details of the works and where he sold them. (People who’ve had dealings with Jansen, including Nieuwenhuizen Segaar, Appel’s gallerist, and Smithuis, the Dutch art dealer, refute the claim that Jansen sold to reputable museums outright.) Jansen also describes visiting Andy Warhol’s Factory, where he says he took the liberty of signing paintings in Warhol’s name in front of the artist himself. Afterward, Jansen says, Warhol asked him to drop his pants so that he could take a Polaroid. Jansen uses the anecdote to brag that he’s well-endowed.

Jansen describes visiting Andy Warhol’s Factory, where he says he took the liberty of signing paintings in Warhol’s name in front of the artist himself. 

The arrogance on display in Magenta is evident in interviews that Jansen has given since the events in France. “Even I find it crazy to think I’ve created genuine Picassos. But every time I look in the catalogue raisonné of his work, there they are,” he told Wynne. The implication is that once the art world accepts a work as genuine, for all intents and purposes it is. But there’s also delusion in his thinking, namely the idea that someone mimicking an artist can meaningfully add to an authentic oeuvre. Jansen goes even further: If fakes are as good as the real thing, aren’t they worth celebrating? “When a musician reproduces a sonata of Bach, one applauds him. Me, I reproduce a sonata of Picasso and I am placed under arrest,” he lamented to the CBC in 2008.

Jansen loves to cast himself as a victim, suggesting that early in his career he was naive to play by the rules of the art world and trust that it wasn’t corrupt. He complains that people would sell work for him and never give him the money he was owed. Eventually, desperation led him to change tack. “I simply couldn’t afford the rent anymore. Gas and electricity were turned off, the bailiffs were at the door. That kind of misery,” he once said. He turned to forgery, which only showed him how venal and greedy the art world was, how full of mercenaries and, at times, how willfully ignorant. “Most art dealers and gallery owners are interested in earning money,” Jansen writes in Magenta. “An art dealer who has invested in a work doesn’t want to look for mistakes in the painting anymore, that doesn’t interest him. A dealer wants to earn and tries to find a customer as soon as possible.”

He spins anecdote after anecdote, all with the same purpose: to illustrate that what he did was well within the bounds of the sketchy behavior the art market routinely tolerates or even encourages. One of his favorite stories—impossible to confirm—is about a fake Picasso that he sold to a London collector. During the sale, the collector wasn’t satisfied with the provenance documentation, so he insisted that he and Jansen approach Picasso together to verify the work. Picasso’s response, according to Jansen, was elliptical: “How much did you pay for that? That much? Well, in that case it’s a real Picasso.”

Jansen has gone so far as to brag about his devil-may-care attitude, which he says reveals the art world’s flaws. In an interview with the Dutch newspaper De Morgan, he said that he once finished some fake certificates of authentication in the early morning, mere hours before consigning the works. In Magenta, he describes slapdash methods of aging his fakes, from emptying a vacuum bag full of dust onto canvases to leaving works under a doormat for weeks. “The footsteps do wonders,” he says. He writes of one fake getting wet from either cat urine or spilled beer; it didn’t matter which. He sold it anyway. To achieve craquelure, the network of fine cracks that appear over time and indicate a painting’s vintage, Jansen describes leaving works on top of a hot oven or putting watercolors out in the sun. He also claims that once, when a thunderstorm scattered gouaches he was drying on a balcony, he inadvertently stepped on a few in his haste to recover them, leaving footprints. He decided to consign the gouaches anyway, and he recalls the dealer who bought them insisting that the marks were proof of authenticity—only an artist would walk on his own work.

Jansen wants people to see his adversaries as ridiculous, unworthy of sympathy or any claim on the truth. It’s a pompous take, certainly, and his musings on the nature of quality conveniently gloss over the value that comes from knowing whose mind conceived a work and whose labor created it. Jansen has expressed pride that his forgeries were never found out for stylistic reasons—it was documentation, like errors on certificates, that exposed him—but Nieuwenhuizen Segaar disagreed. “Jansen doesn’t want to be betrayed by his work, by gouache or ink, but by text,” the gallerist told me. “He’s always trying to put himself in a better light than he is.”

Nieuwenhuizen Segaar pointed out that, arguably, the beginning of the end of Jansen’s criminal career was his recognition of the fake Appel drawing in the Karl and Faber catalog. If not for that, would Cubitt’s suspicions have been aroused when Jansen returned with another consignment? Would she have scrutinized the Chagall certificate, noticed the typo, and set off a police investigation? “He’s not a big forger. They don’t exist!” Nieuwenhuizen Segaar exclaimed, taking issue with the very idea of expert counterfeiters. “If they are big forgers, they make their own paintings.”

After the trial in France, Jansen did create his own work, in the style that Schoeller once dismissed as pedestrian. Jansen boasted that he had “developed a method” of painting abstract canvases by using a teapot to pour acrylic paint in graphic patterns. Occasionally, he found venues to show his work. Cubitt told me about going to the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht about a decade after Jansen’s conviction. She took a wrong turn and ended up on a deserted industrial street. At the end of it was a huge sign bearing Jansen’s name, advertising an exhibition. “I thought, Am I going in? Will he recognize me? Will he shoot me?” Cubitt recalled.

She did go in, and Jansen didn’t recognize her. “His paintings were, as you’d imagine, a kind of very ugly version of Karel Appel,” Cubitt said. “Really hideous color. There were a lot of them, and they were big.” She added, “It was quite interesting to see that he was back doing something he’d never been successful with.”

Jansen profited more by emphasizing his talents and history as a forger. With his so-called lookalikes, instead of expertly copying signatures and forging authenticity certificates, he presented the paintings as the work of “Geert Jan Jansen in the style of.…” He even copied famous paintings. Van Gogh’s Red Vineyard and Thatched Cottages at Cordeville, Klimt’s The Kiss, Monet’s water lilies—Jansen forged them all. He began advertising his versions of famous works in the Telegraaf and other Dutch newspapers; in at least one case, he offered a free silkscreen print in the style of Picasso, Matisse, or Klimt to anyone who purchased a DVD detailing his career as a forger. “Nowadays, Jansen lives as a well-respected artist,” the ad read. “But how did he once end up on the wrong track? What role did the art market play? What is the secret behind his fabulous technique?”

Jansen was offering supply to meet demand: The public was fascinated by him. In 1999, he appeared on an episode of The Black Sheep, a Dutch TV show that brings controversial figures on stage to confront a panel of their critics. During his appearance, Jansen came face-to-face with several dealers and collectors he’d defrauded and experts he’d tricked. Other people were brought in not for any past interactions they’d had with Jansen but for their representative opinions. Then there was a couple that had purchased one of Jansen’s forgeries; rather than press charges when they learned the truth, they’d opted to open a museum devoted to fake art in a small Dutch town.

Nieuwenhuizen Segaar was there—he was irate—and so was Smithuis, the Dutch art dealer, who rose in partial defense of Jansen. “I like the man, and I also think he is a criminal,” she said. “I don’t justify what he did, but it’s not Mr. Jansen alone who is hypocritical.” Jansen came across as more celebrity than crook. Asked by the host why he agreed to go on the air with his critics, Jansen replied wryly, “Because I am the black sheep, and they are the herd.”

When I contacted her for this story, Smithuis elaborated on the hypocrisy she’d mentioned on the show. She explained, namely, why she thinks people were loath to press charges against Jansen. “Of course they did not complain to him (or the police),” she wrote in an email. “That would affect their ‘good’ name.” We talked, too, about a mystery: Did Jansen’s forging make him rich? It’s hard to say without access to his financial records. According to the Sunday Telegraph, at the time of his arrest in 1994, Jansen had about £100,000 (approximately $150,000) in seven bank accounts. The French police commissioner who worked the case, a man named Jean-Claude Colin, speculated at the time that Jansen had “fat bank accounts” in Europe’s tax havens.

Smithuis is skeptical that Jansen ever had money socked away. If he’d really been wealthy, she pointed out, more people would have tried to sue him. “He was a small painter with a big mouth, an amiable appearance,” she told me, “a man who presented himself much bigger than he was.”


Jansen’s career didn’t repel everyone. His hubris, his outspoken personal philosophy, and his hunger for publicity brought him to the attention of two theater directors several years after the case in France. The resulting creative relationship was the reason Jansen forged a Picasso that wound up under a tree in Romania, duping Mira Feticu. That con, in turn, was the reason I began reporting this story—and why I eventually found myself fuming in a dark auditorium in Germany.

Yves Degryse and Bart Baele run an experimental theater company in Belgium called, improbably, Berlin. They first collaborated with Jansen in a 2014 production called Perhaps All the Dragons, a roundtable of 30 individual monologues detailing real but unusual lives. Jansen’s was one. Sensing there might be more to say, the directors concocted a new production focused wholly on Jansen. Considering the artists whom Jansen liked to emulate, and given the works lost in the high-profile Rotterdam heist, Degryse and Baele came up with a concept that linked the life of the master forger with the fallout of the crime. “The idea was very quickly there,” Degryse told me, “and then the preparation took many months.” Berlin decided to call the piece True Copy. (Jansen also takes credit for the title.)

The convoluted plan went like this: Jansen forged the Picasso drawing stolen from Rotterdam and gave it to the directors, who took it to Romania. They buried the drawing and set up a surveillance camera in a nearby tree. Then they sent out six anonymous letters—three to people in Romania and three to individuals in the Netherlands. Among the recipients were journalists, an art detective, and Feticu. The directors waited to see if anyone showed up in the woods. If someone did, Degryse and Baele hoped that the Picasso would be authenticated and perhaps even restored to its collection.

In the meantime, True Copy debuted in Antwerp in early November 2018, just days before Feticu and Westerman went searching for the forged Picasso. Jansen was billed as the star, taking to the stage to talk candidly about his career as a fraud. In early performances, audiences learned of what was happening in Romania via video screens that showed footage of the harlequin drawing being buried and of the empty forest. If someone came looking for the work, audiences were told, that denouement would be incorporated into the show. Indeed, once Feticu and Westerman arrived, film of them digging up the Picasso became part of the play.

According to Berlin’s directors, what they did in Romania wasn’t a publicity stunt or a joke—it was a test to see how far a forgery could go before the art world realized it was being conned or was willing to admit it. The aim, the directors said in a press release after Feticu’s discovery became international news, was “to find out at which point in the process things would falter, with whom and why.” Would an expert point out discrepancies? Or would the desire for a work to be returned to its rightful place win out? As Baele put it in an interview with a British newspaper, “Isn’t it much more refreshing to go along with a beautifully packaged lie?”

Degryse told me that the project had even higher-minded intentions. What if a forger could use their talents for good? So much art has been lost, stolen, or destroyed in the world—what if Jansen could offer the “gift,” as Degryse put it, of restoration? Berlin imagined a scenario in which a beloved work of art was found, the world rejoiced, and that was the end of it. “Nobody knows it’s a fake,” Degryse said. “That was the ultimate goal.”

It didn’t come to pass. Jansen’s fake was found out, and quickly. The ruse was revealed when the Berlin directors contacted Westerman and Feticu to explain what they’d done.  True Copy continued its run, touring cities in Europe. Berlin publicized the show as putting Jansen “center stage,” so in May 2019 I booked a ticket to see it in Germany. Degryse mentioned that there was a twist in the performance—did I want to know what it was? Assuming it was something best experienced in a theater, I said that I would wait.

Up to that point, I’d had trouble getting ahold of Jansen. Degryse said that it wouldn’t be a problem to interview the star. I boarded a plane wondering which version of Jansen I would finally meet.

When Jansen took the stage, he looked younger and healthier than I’d expected—the directors had told me that the 75-year-old was recovering from a recent bout of pneumonia. He appeared as he did in photos, with large blue eyes, thick lips, and a balding pate trimmed with tufts of gray hair. He wore brown trousers, a blue button-down shirt, and a wide-lapel blazer. He kept a pair of plastic-frame glasses on a lanyard around his neck; sometimes he perched them on his forehead.

The set included a gallery wall, dense with video screens in gilded frames displaying images of some of the most famous paintings in the world, as rendered by Jansen’s hand. A modest wooden table was positioned at the front of the stage, where at times Degryse and Jansen sat talking. The script borrowed heavily from Magenta, and it was almost entirely a monologue. Jansen expounded on his theories of authenticity, quality, and storytelling. He rehashed his favorite anecdotes, like the one about emptying vacuum bags on his work. He went on at length about art dealers who “weren’t exactly guilt-free themselves,” because they often didn’t really care whether works were real or not. “They all skirted the issue. Mentioning it meant incriminating each other,” Jansen said. So what if he exploited people and took a tiny piece of a lucrative pie? He bragged that he’d never had an unsatisfied customer.

Though he explained how he made fakes, Jansen didn’t show the audience his process—at least, not immediately. Creating art was meant for the studio, he said, so Berlin built one for him behind the set, in an unseen space that he sometimes retreated to down a narrow passage, with a camera operator on his heels. What Jansen did in the studio appeared before the audience via video feed on the set’s gallery wall. That way the forger retained the privacy he required to make his art while viewers got the voyeurism they’d been promised.

Everything Jansen said went unopposed; the play wasn’t interested in juxtaposing his distorted positions with arguments against what he’d done. Degryse told me that Berlin had considered bringing other perspectives into True Copy but decided against it, so that audiences would get an unadulterated take on the ideas that sustained Jansen. “It was better to make the extreme choice to let him talk,” Degryse said.

The auction got my blood pumping—this must be the twist, I thought. Even if the painting was a fake, and not a very convincing one, what a great story it would make for whoever bought it. 

At one point in the show, Degryse, clad in black jeans and leather boots, took on the role of an auctioneer. One of Jansen’s paintings—a large portrait similar to those Picasso painted of his lover Dora—was on the block. “It’s perfectly legal,” Degryse reassured the audience. “We just have to agree on one thing: The work we are auctioning was made by Geert Jan Jansen but bears the signature of the original artist. In here it’s a Geert Jan Jansen, but the moment you leave the room, that changes.… If you buy it and hang it up in your house, to the outside world it becomes genuine.” Degryse assured the audience that the auction was real, that bids were binding. They would start at 2,000 euros ($2,200).

The auction got my blood pumping—this must be the twist, I thought. Even if the painting was a fake, and not a very convincing one, what a great story it would make for whoever bought it. In spite of myself, I found myself yearning to bid. Uncertain what to make of Degryse’s insistence that the auction was real, however, and without 2,000 euros at my disposal, I kept my hands in my lap. (Degryse later told me that many winners never claimed their lots. Berlin had sold only six of Jansen’s paintings by the time I saw the show, despite dozens of performances.)

The audience’s mood had been loose since the opening curtain. People laughed loudly, including at Jansen’s quip that “an Appel a day keeps the doctor away.” Were they taking at face value the claim that Jansen did no harm? I asked the man sitting next to me why he found it all so funny. “I guess not knowing what’s true and what’s not,” he replied with a shrug. But the audience’s laughter didn’t sound uneasy. It sounded like they felt they were in on a joke.

The final scenes of the play included footage from Romania: Degryse and Baele mounting their camera and leaving the forest. Feticu and Westerman digging in the ground. A gasp, a shriek, Feticu crying. Romanian police setting up a perimeter of yellow tape. Word ricocheting around the world that the Picasso had been found.

As the video vignette concluded, the play’s background music grew moodier. Then there were two voices: Jansen speaking on stage and another man, unseen, speaking from the art studio. “I knew you wouldn’t be able to keep quiet,” Jansen said, as if irritated. “Why are you interrupting me, Geert Jan?” Suddenly, he was referring to the voice backstage by his own name. “Why can’t the work of a real—a good—master forger be a masterpiece?”

As he spoke, the man on stage fumbled at his neck, loosening his collar. He let his glasses hang on their lanyard and removed his microphone. And then he reached with both hands into the neck of his undershirt and peeled off a full-head mask. Underneath was a balding man, his bare head glistening with sweat from more than an hour under stage lights and latex. Without looking out at the audience, the man walked into the hidden studio, where the audience could see him on video drawing up next to—yes—Jansen. The real one, it seemed. Jansen introduced the man in the mask as Luk Sponselee, an actor. “Tonight, and the coming nights, you are Geert Jan Jansen,” the real Jansen said. “Not really, but it’s not a monstrous lie either. Very authentic.”

The music became a steady drone. In the play’s final moments, the gallery wall rotated, slowly revealing the hidden studio. But inside, where we expected to see Jansen and his double, there was nothing. Just darkness—an abyss—with one narrow, piercing light shining out at the audience.

Degryse and Baele had a talking point they used in interviews: What if you’re looking at a work of art and it moves you, and then someone whispers in your ear that it’s fake? Your emotional experience of the artwork changes, but why? Is the change valid? The directors seemed to be arguing that devaluing art based on its origins is an acquired prejudice, something that benefits the market but not the viewer. Art can be beautiful—and stay beautiful—no matter its origin, and we should question why we value the aesthetic quality of an image less than the aura of the person who made it.

True Copy mimicked the experience that Degryse and Baele described. The audience believed that it was seeing Jansen, and there was a strange frisson, a mise en abyme, in observing someone who’d built a career on lies tell what he claimed was the truth. It was part of the reason I traveled so far to see the show. Would I find him believable? Impressive? Charming? What would I have made of Jansen if he had walked into an auction house where I worked and tried to sell me a drawing?

Instead, viewers of the play were confronted with the familiar distance of theater. We weren’t watching Jansen at all, but an actor, someone taking on a life that he’d never lived. We didn’t learn anything about Jansen’s believability or self-presentation. Instead, the theater directors played with the distance between what we expected—and were told to expect—and reality. I found the conceit cheap, but it played well. The rest of the audience seemed enchanted. During a Q&A after the performance, one person told Degryse that the decision to use an actor instead of Jansen himself was a gift.


I knew before I went to Germany that Feticu was angry about what had happened in Romania. “It has not been a joke for me. My whole life was turned upside down,” she wrote in an email. Westerman had a different reaction. “I ended up in a work by Eugen Ionescu,” he told one news outlet. Feticu and Westerman had invited the men behind True Copy to speak to them about the whole episode on a Dutch TV program, but they declined. “She accuses us of having misled her on this journey. I do not understand that,” Degryse told a newspaper reporter. “The profession involves certain risks.” (He seemed to mean journalism, though that isn’t Feticu’s primary vocation.)

Feticu, who is publishing a short book about the debacle, called Picasso’s Downside, said that she didn’t think it made much sense for a convicted criminal—a counterfeiter, at that—to be given a platform for spouting lessons about authenticity. Art should be a playground for experimentation and expression, she said, but there should be limits imposed by human decency.

After the play, I was less interested in heady concepts and skillful sleights of hand than in the fact that Jansen was nowhere to be seen. I had come ready for an interview. Was he in the theater somewhere? Was he even involved with the show? Had he painted the Picasso, or were there endless layers—and lies—to the clever deceits True Copy unspooled?

I returned to my hotel room and looked back through my correspondence with Degryse. Yes, he had said that arranging an interview wouldn’t be a problem. I looked at the press release for True Copy, and yes, it was there: “Berlin puts Geert Jan himself on stage.” There was a suggestive quote from Jansen, though. “The only one who never gets any recognition is the forger,” he said. “Unless he is unmasked.” And then I reread reviews of the play. One, on the Arts Desk website, said that Jansen is “present” before musing that “even writing this I’ve become an accessory to Berlin’s fibbing, for not everything written above is fully true.” No one revealed the secret. (For his part, Degryse would have preferred I not reveal it, either.)

When I confronted Degryse, sitting in the grass in a park near the theater the day after the performance, he wasn’t overly apologetic about misleading me—even though I had crossed an ocean and was, as it happened, visibly pregnant. “There are more people who don’t trust me anymore after True Copy,” Degryse said. “Maybe I should have said beforehand, it’s really an important question, this question of how much do you want to know.” I asked again if he could arrange the interview he’d promised, and Degryse called Jansen on his cell phone. It seemed clear that he’d never mentioned me to Jansen before. Degryse set a date for an interview, but I would have to go to the Netherlands, to Jansen’s estate.

That’s how I found myself about an hour outside Utrecht, in a car with Berlin’s communications officer, going up a long driveway toward a 15th-century château on the banks of the meandering Kromme Rijn river. The home’s monumental facade was fronted by symmetrical, curving staircases. This is only one of Jansen’s homes—he also spends part of the year in Italy. He still lives with Ellen Van Baren, who rode her bike past our car on her way to her own painting studio.

Jansen greeted us at the top of the stairs in slate-green slacks, a purple linen shirt, and a cardigan. His glasses were on a lanyard around his neck. The château was impressive and generous, with high ceilings and elaborate stucco. It was shabby, too, with peeling paint and cracked plaster in every room. Modest belongings were scattered around. Jansen’s bed, surrounded by stacks of paintings, had a thin coverlet on it.

Like the La Chaux estate where Schoeller had found Jansen’s stash of fakes, the mansion hosted several studios, each peppered with the detritus of a painter: rolled up tubes of paint, dirty brushes, tilted easels, half-finished canvases. Jansen told me, in occasionally halting English, that he paints every day, sometimes on several canvases, in the styles of various artists. Nearly every room had several canvases hung on the walls. Jansen has boasted that he doesn’t copy works, that he “adds his own” to an existing series (say, for example, Monet’s haystacks), but the paintings at his château told a different story. Here were Vincent Van Gogh’s irises, Edward Hopper’s lonely diner patrons, Vermeer’s streetscapes. (Now that he’s no longer constrained by the need for convincing historical materials, Jansen makes more premodern fakes.) There were white, gessoed canvases covered in nothing but Jansen’s rendition of Picasso’s signature. There was even a Banksy—the only contemporary artist, Jansen said, that he’s interested in copying.

The Vermeers and Rembrandts didn’t appear believable at all—more like gestures, the kind of knockoff a certain type of collector who loved a particular artist might purchase knowing full well that it wouldn’t fool anybody. The Klimts offered slightly better approximations of the real thing. More striking than the quality of any particular painting, however, was the overwhelming preponderance of work and the sheer variety of output. Upstairs in an attic lit by a massive skylight were piles upon piles of paintings—hundreds of them, uncatalogued, a practice Jansen had always resisted lest a record be used against him in court. There were originals and fakes, some in elaborate gilded frames, others naked. They were all left open to the elements. Dead flies littered one corner of the floor.

After touring the house, Jansen and I sat to talk in the kitchen, which was lined with open cabinets that revealed mismatched dishes. Stroopwafels sat in a box on the counter beside an IKEA lamp; a fake version of Monet’s water lilies hung on the wall.

Upstairs in an attic lit by a massive skylight were piles upon piles of paintings—hundreds of them, uncatalogued, a practice Jansen had always resisted lest a record be used against him in court.

Jansen told me that working on True Copy allowed him to speak—really speak—for himself. “I’ve had a lot of publicity and interviews, but when I see it in the newspaper, it’s a little bit different. They use words I would never use. Even things I detest,” he complained. (Magenta, it seemed, wasn’t enough of a platform for him.) He called the French justice system his biggest promoter. “They told everybody they couldn’t see the difference. They called me the most important art forger of the century,” Jansen said. I recalled, too, the ad hoc exhibition of his work at the Orléans police station. Jansen smiled slyly as he recapitulated some of his elaborate theories, including that his fakes had been a boon to the artists he copied. He’d helped ones with smaller oeuvres, for instance, gain recognition. “I took a lot of work out of their hands,” he said. There was no sense that he had done the artists any wrong.

Jansen was friendly, even solicitous—he was proud to show off his château and the multitudinous works showcased within it. But he also seemed tired, his performance perfunctory, like his heart wasn’t in the rehearsed show he was putting on. I heard once more about Aldo Van Eyck claiming to have seen Jansen’s forgery in Appel’s studio, about Picasso’s response to an expensive fake, about a prison director in France who’d asked Jansen to make him his own faux masterpiece. Jansen had his sound bites, and he intended to stick to them.

Was it all worth it, I asked, the course he’d taken? Did he ever lose sleep over his crimes? Jansen’s response was quick and blasé. “Oh no,” he said. “I enjoyed it.”

Where he seemed less practiced was when we discussed his original works. He wanted to do more of them, he said, but forgery, even when forthright, brought in more money. He didn’t have gallery representation and wanted it. For the time being, he invited people to his castle once a month for what he called an exhibition. On a table by the front door was a sign-up sheet for his mailing list with half a dozen names scrawled on it—real ones, presumably, written by the people authorized to sign them.

There Are Places You Cannot Go


There Are Places You Cannot Go

A friendship born out of the ruins of a nation, a dangerous journey home, and a 40-year search for the truth.

By Brent Crane

The Atavist Magazine, No. 93

Brent Crane has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Outside, and The Economist, among other publications. He was previously a reporter for the Phnom Penh Post.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Tekendra Parmar
Photographer: Thomas Cristofoletti

Published in July 2019. Design updated in 2021.


One day in February 2019, Cindy Coleman sped through central Cambodia in a motorcycle rickshaw. Most of the half-hour ride from the capital, Phnom Penh, to her destination followed a narrow two-lane road through poor, bustling towns. The rickshaw, or tuk-tuk, passed a busy wet market with fish gasping in styrofoam boxes, meat hanging from rusty hooks, and women in face masks pushing wagons of river snails. “The kids aren’t in school,” Coleman shouted over the roar of the wind and the engines, referring to a gaggle of roaming children. It was a national holiday, and hot. The air smelled of mangos, burning charcoal, and sour trash.

The tuk-tuk came to a stop at the edge of the Bassac River. Coleman, petite, with short white hair and an airy white shirt, ducked out of the rickshaw and made her way toward a shaded school across the street from the water. Dogs began barking. “Oh, be quiet,” she rejoined. The last time Coleman visited Cambodia, she walked with a cane. A recent hip replacement meant she didn’t need it anymore, but she kept a pad in her shoe to compensate for a leg shortened by the surgical procedure—an annoyance for the 77-year-old retired social worker and teacher from northern Michigan. She preferred flip-flops.

The school gates were closed. Coleman placed her small hands on the wrought-iron bars, slipped her fingers through the slots, and gazed at the empty grounds. Low-lying, red-roofed buildings encircled a concrete courtyard. There were palm trees, potted plants, and a flagpole. Cambodia’s flag—navy blue and red, with a white sketch of Angkor Wat in the center—hung motionless in the heat. “This is the place,” Coleman murmured. “I’m sure of it.”

Decades ago, this school, like all of Cambodia, was a kind of prison. From 1975 to 1979, the country was ruled by a Communist militia known as the Khmer Rouge. The group seized power in a coup, and immediately, as if thrust into a fever dream, Cambodia transformed. The new regime turned back the clock to what it called Year Zero. Private property was outlawed, families split apart, whole cities emptied. A few days after the militants took Phnom Penh, residents were marched into the countryside at gunpoint to build a new proletarian utopia. They were allowed to bring only what they could carry. Many died or were killed along the way. Those who survived began a life of toil, working long hours in makeshift labor camps, their days dictated by orders delivered over crackling loudspeakers or shouted by exacting military cadres. Everyone was forced to wear black.

The threat of death was constant. People were called away by the authorities and never came back. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to who disappeared. At any time it could be you, your brother, your daughter. Temples were used as torture centers; ancestral farmland served as mass execution sites. Under the Khmer Rouge, one in four Cambodians died. It was the worst genocide since the Holocaust. Tiziano Terzani, an Italian reporter who covered the country both before and after the Khmer Rouge’s reign, wrote that he “could no longer see a row of palm trees without thinking that the tallest were those most fertilized with corpses.”

The school that Coleman had come to see, 40 years after the Khmer Rouge’s downfall, is in a place called Prek Pra. The Communists referred to the surrounding area as Region 25—everything in the country has another identity, one that it was forced to inhabit. After peering at the small campus for a while, Coleman lit a cigarette and walked away from the gate, toward the river. She stood on the bank, thick with reeds. Rising above the ochre-colored water were clusters of wooden hovels balanced on stilts. To the north was Phnom Penh, a cityscape interrupting the flat, brown and green countryside. Coleman studied it like someone might a tombstone. It represented, she later remarked, “the beginning of the end.”

Looking out at the river, its soupy current flowing southward, Coleman was thinking of old friends.

Cindy Coleman looks through the gate of the school in Prek Pra.

Chapter 1: Premonitions

Social activism practically ran in Coleman’s blood. Her father, John Bartlow Martin, was a celebrated investigative journalist who reported on the forgotten segments of society—the poor, the mentally ill, criminals. Today there is a journalism award in his name at Northwestern University. He and his wife raised Coleman and her two younger brothers in Illinois. A tomboy, Coleman watched Cubs games with her father and joined him on hunting trips; she got her first shotgun in her early teens. She was also curious and passionate, intrepid and decisive. In college, she attended feminist rallies, even burning her bra at one. Later, she got involved with antiwar efforts and volunteered as a marshal at protests in Washington, D.C.

By the mid-1960s, Martin was working in government. He’d been a speechwriter for various political figures, including Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy. Once elected president, Kennedy appointed Martin ambassador to the Dominican Republic. On a visit there one summer, Coleman met a young foreign service officer named Joseph Fandino. A charming Cuban American from New York City—among the first Hispanic members of the foreign service—he’d served in the Air Force during the Korean War and attended Columbia Law School. Like Coleman, Fandino was sharp, quick on his feet, and darkly funny. Once, when angry rioters swarmed a car he and Martin were riding in, the ambassador asked, “Joe, what do you intend to do if things get really bad?” Fandino responded, “I’ll jump out of the car, tear off my tie, and yell, ‘Down with the Americans!’”

Coleman stayed in touch with Fandino. Eventually, they were married. Fandino was posted to Spain in 1968, and Coleman went with him. Despite her husband’s job, she was stalwart in her opposition to U.S. foreign policy. She even anonymously copublished an antiwar ad in the International Herald Tribune, which she remembered provoking an investigation within the U.S. embassy. Coleman helped resettle Cuban refugee children in Spain, and after she and Fandino moved back to the United States, she became a social worker for abused children. By then she and Fandino had two kids of their own, a boy and a girl.

In September 1971, Fandino was sent on assignment to Vietnam by the U.S. Agency for International Development, as part of a hearts and minds campaign. Coleman hated the new position: Her husband was now part of a war that she thought was an abomination. She also worried about his safety. When Fandino came home to America for Christmas, Coleman pleaded with him to quit. “I kept saying, ‘If you go back you’re gonna die,’” she said. “It was one of those things. I just knew.”

Fandino returned to Saigon. In June 1972, Coleman received a call from a State Department receptionist. Her husband had died in the line of duty. Coleman never learned how.

Nhek Veng Huor grew up about 120 miles northwest of Saigon, just over Vietnam’s border with Cambodia. His village was in Prey Veng, a poor province in a poor country. Its name means “long forest” in Khmer, the language of Cambodia’s dominant ethnic group. French colonists converted much of its jungle into farmland in the 19th century. Silt deposited whenever the Mekong River overflowed made the soil fertile. Both of Nhek’s parents were rice farmers.

Born in 1952, Nhek had eight siblings. It was clear from an early age that he was smart. The family acted accordingly, preparing him for life beyond the rice paddies, for an education. His father pushed Nhek to learn; the boy got more free time to read and study and received fewer chores than his siblings. He excelled in school. In his free time, Nhek roved the village and the countryside with his best friend, Peng, who came from a wealthier family. They climbed tall, skinny palm trees, caught croaking frogs, looked at the stars, and swam in ponds. Peng was a good student, too. Theirs was a bond forged by the pressure of familial expectations: Leave the village, make something of yourself.

Nhek and Peng were the only children their age who in 1969 went to Phnom Penh for high school. The city’s long, Parisian-style boulevards were hectic with shiny cars manufactured in Japan and America; its cafés and nightclubs blasted rock and roll. Magnificent new buildings, designed by visionary architect Vann Molyvann, gave the city a sense of looking to the future. Nhek had few means to partake in the capital’s pleasures, though. Any money he had went toward schooling and food. He secured free lodging with a Christian missionary, who helped him sharpen his French.

Cambodia had been independent since 1953, and by the time Nhek arrived in Phnom Penh, the country was becoming a war zone. The Nixon administration had begun a covert bombing campaign aimed at disrupting a network of Communist supply routes that cut through Cambodia. Over several years, the United States bombed Cambodia more heavily than it did Japan during World War II, including Nagasaki and Hiroshima. This effort only bolstered support for Cambodia’s own leftist insurgency. Strongest in rural areas, it was led by the Communist Party of Kampuchea, which would become known as the Khmer Rouge.

A 1970 parliamentary coup in Cambodia ushered in a fierce anti-Communist government, led by an army marshal named Lon Nol. Unhinged and unpredictable, with a penchant for the occult, Nol was prone to delusional thinking; one U.S. government cable described him as “a sick man, both mentally and physically.” Nol dramatically escalated Cambodia’s battle with the ascendant Khmer Rouge while encouraging U.S. air strikes. Shell-shocked peasants poured into Phnom Penh. Many were forced to live in the streets. Food prices skyrocketed. Amputees were a common sight. The war, once a distant worry for city dwellers, became impossible to ignore.

The conflict became Nhek’s life when, after high school, he enlisted in the navy. He joined the crew of a ship that transported troops to battle. It had a heavy front hatch, which Nhek helped lower onto riverbanks so that soldiers could scramble out. Guerrilla strikes were common. “They attacked every time we got out of the city,” remembered Sim Tan, a veteran who served on the same ship. Nhek kept a yaon, a piece of cloth blessed by a monk, with him always; it was said to afford protection. Once, after lowering his boat’s hatch, he watched as the deploying troops were decimated by a rocket attack. Their limbs stained the water and the sides of the boat red. Somehow, he was unscathed.

Nhek was eventually stationed on a larger carrier affixed with a 105-millimeter cannon. His job involved transporting supplies provided by the U.S. military in South Vietnam up the Mekong to Phnom Penh. The war was getting uglier. Nhek killed Vietnamese and his own countrymen—the enemy was defined by ideology. In one battle, he helped rescue a civilian family, which returned to Phnom Penh with him. Nhek became engaged to a daughter in the family.

In early 1974, Nhek received good news: The humble country boy had been invited, along with other select servicemen, for military training in the United States. Navy commander Sophano Vong called each man personally to deliver the message. Nhek enrolled in three months of mandatory English classes at the naval headquarters in Phnom Penh. It was a happy time. Instead of deploying to battle zones, he was learning a new language. When lessons were done for the day, he went to bars and movies with friends. “We’d just have a good time together,” serviceman Um Sihourn said. “Nhek and I were like twins.”

One day, Nhek and Um visited a palm reader. Like many Cambodians, Nhek harbored a strong belief in the supernatural and in destiny. He was leaving his country, his fiancée, and a war that had engulfed his life. He wanted to know what would become of him. The seer made two predictions: You will soon travel far away, she told him—and never in your life will you marry.

Nhek Veng Huor’s passport photo and application.

Chapter 2: Year Zero

The men’s training began in the fall of 1974, at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Friends remembered Nhek radiating warmth, but he could also be rowdy, in the way of young military men. He drank beer in the dorms, and once, during playful roughhousing in a campus cafeteria, he tackled an Iranian serviceman twice his size who was also there for training. “All the teachers said, ‘Don’t mess around with this guy, he knows kung fu,’” Um remembered. Nhek also wasn’t afraid to speak his mind. On another occasion in the cafeteria, he accused an English teacher of speaking down to the Cambodians and demanded an apology. The teacher had been instructing them on how to use a toilet.

That winter, the Cambodians continued their training in Newport, Rhode Island, at a U.S. Navy facility composed of squat buildings on a rocky spit of land jutting into Narragansett Bay. Newport Bridge, stretching across the water and easily visible from the school, must have seemed near divine to a rice farmer’s son from a province where the only way to cross the Mekong was by boat. In a picture of the Cambodian servicemen taken on campus, Nhek crouches in a black uniform and white hat. He has large ears and a dark mole beside his nose. His left hand is draped over his knee, his mouth pulled into a pensive grin.

With its pristine streets, quaint New England charm, and extravagant wealth, Newport could not have been more different from Phnom Penh. This was especially so in January, when the Cambodians experienced their first blizzard. At first they marveled at the snow, laughing and taking pictures. The novelty wore off during their daily dawn walks to an indoor pool where, as part of their physical training, they had to tread water. They requested thicker jackets.

Meanwhile, Cambodia descended into chaos. Congress forced an end to Nixon’s bombing campaign, and the Khmer Rouge ramped up its efforts to seize Phnom Penh. Rockets and artillery shells rained down on the capital, and civilians perished while shopping, biking, or hawking noodles. The city was running out of food, medicine, money, and oil. Blackouts were common. Supplies had to be airlifted in by U.S. military planes because the Khmer Rouge deployed floating mines in the Mekong.

In early April 1975, Lon Nol fled the country. Soon after, the communists captured a key military base south of Phnom Penh. To the men in Newport, it was crushing news: The Cambodian capital became a sitting duck. On April 12, U.S. Embassy staff began evacuating the country. A week later, Khmer Rouge troops entered Phnom Penh virtually uncontested. As the militants asserted control, ordering everyone by megaphone to evacuate to the countryside, an Associated Press reporter named Mean Leang transmitted a message from the bureau. “I have so numerous stories to cover. I feel rather trembling,” he wrote. “Appreciate instructions. I, with a small typewriter, shuttle between the post office and home. May be last cable today and forever.” A year later, he would be executed.

Nhek waited for America to send him home. Instead, it sent him to Cindy Coleman.

The old Cambodia was gone. The Khmer Rouge renamed the country Democratic Kampuchea, a signal of its intent to erase history. In Rhode Island, many of the servicemen requested political asylum. A State Department representative described the situation as “unprecedented”: soldiers on student visas—they were in training, after all—suddenly made stateless. A Navy spokesman called them “men without a country.” They were assured, in letters sent by President Gerald Ford, that the government would resettle them.

Nhek, though, didn’t want asylum. He wanted to go back. This perplexed some of his fellow servicemen. “I couldn’t believe he would trust the Khmer Rouge,” Um said. Everyone knew how brutal the Communists could be, a reputation accrued over many years of war. They decapitated “Lon Nols,” shorthand for government soldiers, with the razor-edged branches of palm fronds. Captured Cambodian servicemen often chose suicide instead.

In mid-1975, as Um and other soldiers began the resettlement process, Nhek went to Camp Pendleton, a military facility in Southern California on a green stretch of rolling plains between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ana Mountains. Thousands of Indochinese refugees were already there, housed in hastily erected camps. Saigon had fallen to the North Vietnamese shortly after the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh, and operations New Life and New Arrivals were underway: In the largest humanitarian airlift in history, the United States transported some 150,000 asylum seekers to military bases in Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Florida, and California.

Among them was Peng, Nhek’s best friend from childhood. Peng was thrilled to see Nhek but bewildered by his friend’s plan. “You better stay for a while,” Peng remembered cautioning him. “Wait to see what’s going on in Cambodia. Right now nobody knows.” The arrival of Year Zero had brought a virtual news blackout. People who made it out of the country spoke of horrors—killings, torture, forced labor—but it was hard to separate rumor from fact.

Nhek convinced himself that his chances of surviving were good. He reasoned that the new regime surely had desperate need of skilled navy men like him. He had some money saved up that could be used to bribe officials. Besides, the civil war was over. Going back might be risky, Nhek thought, but it wasn’t suicide. He said goodbye to Peng—who moved to nearby Long Beach to start a new life—and waited for America to send him home. Instead, it sent him to Cindy Coleman.

Every day in the autumn of 1975, Coleman walked the two blocks from her townhouse in Center City, Philadelphia, to the local branch of the Nationalities Service Center, a refugee-resettlement agency. She was 33 and recently remarried, to a social worker named Joe Coleman. As a volunteer at the center, she helped register refugees for English classes. The agency occupied several floors of an old brick building with dark hallways. Its director was a man named Mike Blum, a short, fast-talking liberal idealist with a curly beard.

One day, Blum called Coleman into his office, a large room with windows overlooking busy Spruce Street. By that point, three weeks into her time with the Nationalities Service Center, word of Coleman’s past experience with refugees had got around. Blum had an assignment for her, a paying one. The agency had been subcontracted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to manage a group of 114 Cambodians. Roughly a quarter were civilian families. The majority were military men who’d been training in various parts of America when the Khmer Rouge overran Phnom Penh. All of them wanted—desperately—to go back. Some had even threatened suicide if they couldn’t.

The Cambodians had been corralled and were now coming to Philadelphia, where they would live in a YMCA in Center City for five months. During that time, someone had to figure out how to get them back to Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge had almost no diplomatic presence anywhere in the world, which meant there wasn’t an embassy or consulate to liaise with in Washington, D.C., or New York City. The regime had cut off the country from international travel, allowing commercial flights to come only from Peking (now Beijing). It wasn’t clear what repatriation would require: what documents, whose permission, which transit route. It would be Coleman’s job to oversee the group of stateless people until the details were ironed out.

“It was pitched to me as crisis management, basically,” Coleman recalled. The Cambodians were due to arrive in a week. She accepted the job on the spot—she never shied away from a challenge.

On the night of December 11, 1975, Coleman, Blum, and another Nationalities Service Center staffer named Mary Beach drove to Philadelphia International Airport to meet the Cambodians’ plane on the tarmac. Blum and Coleman boarded to make an announcement over the intercom, introducing themselves and welcoming the men and women seated in the jet’s rows. “I remember feeling really nervous, but not about the project, just that I had to say something,” Coleman said. She despised public speaking as much as she hated airplanes. When the introduction was over, the Cambodians disembarked and loaded into buses bound for the YMCA.

The servicemen moved into the eighth and ninth floors of the facility, while the civilians, most of whom didn’t speak English, moved into the twentieth. Coleman, whose office was on the eighth floor, became the point person for the soldiers, while Beach lived among the civilian families. The situation was tense from the start. A man named Norng Sam Oeurn was the first soldier to introduce himself to Coleman. He had a rigid posture and, according to Beach, “a face that always looked like it was wincing.” Norng, who often carried his suitcase with him, told Coleman sternly that the servicemen “would take it from here”—they didn’t need her guidance.

Not all the men were so cold. One was a pilot named Taing Vannassy who always wore a long white scarf with a bomber jacket, like an old-fashioned aviator. Another was an aging navy captain named Keo Keam who was perpetually sick; he stayed bundled in flannel pajamas, a sweatshirt, and a wool hat, and he wore his room key dangling from a string around his neck.

Then there was Nhek, who’d come all the way from Camp Pendleton. He was especially affable. He began stopping by Coleman’s office every day, settling into a chair near the door. “He’d come in for ten or fifteen minutes,” she recalled. “Sometimes he’d just sit.”

Nhek was charming and endearingly curious. He asked about Coleman’s evenings—where she’d gone, what she’d done—as well as her kids and her home life. Coleman took an immediate liking to the soft-spoken man. There was something quietly impressive about him. “I always considered Huor one of the smartest and bravest of the entire group,” she said, using his first name.

Before long, Nhek was sitting in a chair closer to her desk. He called Coleman bong srey (older sister). They were becoming friends.

Youk Chhang of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) helps Coleman check records from the Khmer Rouge’s Paris mission.

Chapter 3: In Another Life

The servicemen instituted a strict system of internal control: check-in procedures, a nightly curfew, mandatory meetings, and a prohibition against single men visiting the twentieth floor. They set a desk next to the eighth-floor elevator, and a watchman was there at all hours. All comings and goings were monitored.

To some extent the rules were kneejerk, products of the servicemen’s ingrained military culture. They were also political and preemptive. The men were going back to a country utterly remade, and they had to be ready. That meant eschewing American influence. The Cambodians studied Communist philosophy. In nightly, hours-long gatherings that mirrored reeducation sessions, they confessed to various impurities of the flesh and the mind: adultery, doubting the revolution, studying English or Christianity. Once condemned by the group, they could be redeemed.

Coleman and her colleagues were barred from attending these sessions. Many of the servicemen were wary of the American staff, who they feared only wanted to thwart their efforts to go home. Beach recalled one of the men telling her that he knew “it would look bad on the U.S. that these guys wanted to return to a Communist country.” They began calling each other “comrade” and America “imperialist.” They organized a “supreme committee” mimicking the structure of the Communist Party in China. Norng claimed that he was in touch with a Khmer Rouge “mission” in New York. Contacts at UNHCR and the State Department told Coleman there was no such thing. (Later, it would be revealed that the mission consisted of a Cambodian economics professor who received information from Phnom Penh via a Chinese courier at the United Nations.)

Meanwhile, the private conversations between Coleman and Nhek that began as small talk evolved into more substantial dialogue. Nhek talked about his time in the war, his family, his worries and doubts. He admitted that he’d considered striking out on his own—leaving the group and traveling to a country where it might be easier to repatriate. Somewhere in Africa, maybe, that wasn’t aligned with either side of the Cold War. In the charged atmosphere at the YMCA, where the group mattered more than the individual, the thought constituted a high offense.

Beach remembered other servicemen telling Nhek not to be so sociable. “He really didn’t care what the rest of the group thought,” she said. “He would talk to us anyway.” On a few occasions, Nhek snuck out to get French novels from the Philadelphia library. He went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and became indignant when he saw an Angkorian statue, arguing that it belonged back in Cambodia. One day he asked Coleman where in Center City he might find a woman he could pay for sex—a forbidden act. Gingerly, she suggested a shady-looking fortune-teller’s shop. That evening, Coleman laughed all the way home.

Life at the YMCA wasn’t all secrets and suspicion. The refugees had a food allowance, and a nearby Thai restaurant compiled a special menu entitled “For Our Cambodian Friends.” On a television in a common room, the men devoured episodes of M.A.S.H.— Nhek and three of his close friends always sat on a brown leather couch to watch the show. Most mornings, Beach, a 22-year-old blonde who walked with a limp, would accompany the Cambodians to local newsstands so that they could look for stories from home.

In the afternoons, the YMCA opened its recreation rooms to the servicemen, who liked volleyball and Ping-Pong. They were particularly adept at the latter, and an audience often formed around their matches. “I couldn’t even see the ball when they were playing,” Beach recalled. Sometimes Blum, the Nationalities Service Center director, joined in. The servicemen let him win. “Hey folks, we live in a democracy here. Just play your game,” Blum told them one day. He never got another point after that.

One night two Cambodians started playing a guitar and a fiddle. The others gathered to hear the music; so did some of the American staff. In a photograph snapped during the impromptu show, Nhek is seated cross-legged on the floor, his eyes fixed on the guitarist. He looks content.

In early February 1976, a UNHCR official named Virendra Dayal arrived at the YMCA with news. A Khmer Rouge mission in Paris—one that actually existed—had informed the agency that the Cambodians would need to come to France and apply for new passports. There would be multiple interviews and reeducation classes. There was no guarantee that the Cambodians would be allowed to return home. Speaking solemnly, Dayal gave the room his recommendation: Become refugees, start new lives. On his way out, Dayal stopped and placed his hands on Coleman’s shoulders. “Poor friends,” he said sympathetically.

The announcement increased the sense of urgency at the YMCA. The group had hoped they would be granted repatriation collectively, because there was safety in numbers. That they might be separated, and that any one of them might be denied entry to their home country, was devastating news. Some of the Cambodians repeated threats of suicide by self-immolation or starvation. A psychiatrist hired by the Nationalities Service Center said the group had hysteria. Some were prescribed valium. The psychological distress was piled atop existing physical ailments acquired through poverty and displacement, particularly among the civilians: tuberculosis, malaria, oral disease. (A patient report from Temple University’s dentistry school described one of the Cambodians as having “severe dental disease with rampant decay affecting every tooth in his mouth.”)

In mid-February, Blum and Coleman traveled to Washington to speak with State Department officials, who recommended that the Cambodians get to Paris as soon as possible. The government had intelligence suggesting that the Khmer Rouge mission in France might shut down, cutting off the only known access point for repatriation. Soon after, a few of the Cambodians requested to leave for Paris, and the Nationalities Service Center helped them get French visas. Among them was Keo Keam, the old navy captain; he’d run afoul of some of the other servicemen, who in a state of growing paranoia now believed he was a CIA plant. Taing Vannassy, with his scarf and bomber jacket, went too. Before he boarded a bus for the airport, Taing hugged Coleman and sniffed her, a Khmer signal of affection. “I’ll see you in another life,” he told her.

Blum told a newspaper reporter at the time that the Cambodians “would like to go silently back to Paris and silently back to their country.” In reality they were desperate. After the first Cambodians left, others began bombarding Coleman, begging to be sent to Paris. “In an alley, walking home, people jumping out of buildings, people showing up at my door, people calling at night on my home phone saying, ‘I have to be next, I have to be next,’” Coleman said.

Even while they coordinated visas and flights, Coleman and the other American staff issued repeated reminders: The Cambodians could become refugees at any time. No one was forcing them to return. None of them took the offer.

High-rise buildings surround Tuol Sleng, the school converted into a prison by the Khmer Rouge.

Chapter 4: “Love, Huor”

The Cambodians kept tabs on everything the Americans at the YMCA did. When Coleman went to pick up a set of airline tickets to France at a local travel office, some of the men followed her and hid in a bookstore across the street, holding open volumes up to their faces as if they were in a Spy vs. Spy comic. When she flew to Paris for a short visit because the first group of men were still waiting for passports and had run out of money, they would meet with her only in out-of-the-way cafés. They wouldn’t tell her where they were staying or where the Khmer Rouge mission was located. They didn’t want to jeopardize their chances of being allowed into Cambodia—not when they’d made it that far, to the final gauntlet. “This was real cloak-and-dagger stuff,” Coleman recalled.

Meanwhile, news reports about Cambodia were scarce. Some mentioned that half a million people had died of starvation, disease, or execution since the fall of Phnom Penh. The group in Philadelphia largely ignored such reports. “They didn’t believe that Cambodians would treat other Cambodians that way,” Beach recalled. Instead they read work by American journalist Gareth Porter, who praised the Khmer Rouge victory and disparaged claims of Communist atrocities. (In 1977 congressional testimony, Porter described international reaction to the Khmer Rouge as “hysterical” and the death march after the fall of Phnom Penh as a “myth.”) Porter’s writing inspired optimism among the men. Coleman felt it, too. “I still hold that against him,” she said of Porter.

According to Coleman, the State Department—specifically the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs—told the Nationalities Service Center that it knew nothing about what was happening in Cambodia. In fact, an official in Thailand named Charles Twining was filing reports to the bureau informed by refugee interviews. On March 31, 1976, Twining described “a Spartan, miserable existence for people constantly living in fear, under strict control. Disease and executions have become commonplace.” There was also at least one government cable about the fate of Cambodians who returned home from foreign countries. Sent in September 1975, it noted that there was “fairly reliable evidence that a number of Cambodians who repatriated themselves from Thailand were executed by the Khmer Rouge.”

As they prepared to leave, the Cambodians ventured into Philadelphia, visiting the zoo and the Liberty Bell. Nhek and Coleman sometimes drank together at the YMCA, and she was allowed to attend reeducation film screenings. At one, the Cambodians showed a propaganda movie about the industrialization of North Korea. Everyone sat on the floor, backs against the wall, passing around a soda can half-full with gin. Coleman was next to Nhek. The film lasted nearly four hours. Turning to Nhek at one point, Coleman quipped, “Dear God, if only we invaded North Korea, I wouldn’t have to sit and watch this stupid movie.” The two friends burst out laughing.

If Coleman was like a bong srey to Nhek, Beach was something else. Nhek told her about Cambodian cultural etiquette: Don’t touch a child on the head; don’t put your feet on a seat. He relayed a Khmer folk tale about a couple in love who couldn’t be together, so the man swallowed the woman up. That way he could produce her from within himself whenever he desired.

One day, Nhek mentioned that there was a woman waiting for him back home. A few days later, he reversed course, insisting that he had made it up “because he was trying to make me jealous,” Beach recalled. Nhek told her that Cambodian men, when they are interested in a woman, follow her around so that she will grow used to him. “One day I had gone out of the Y, and when I got back I was standing, waiting for the elevator, and all of the sudden I noticed he was behind me,” Beach said.

Nhek and Beach developed a romance. It was sweeter than it was impassioned. He liked her, she liked him; they were both modest people. In March 1976, Nhek proposed. Beach was shocked. “I really hadn’t known him all that long,” she said. If Beach accepted, Nhek said, he would not return to Cambodia.

Beach told Coleman, who counseled against accepting the proposal. “If not now then later he will resent you for having kept him here and not letting him go back home,” Coleman said. It wasn’t that Coleman didn’t want her friend to stay. She constantly pressed Nhek to change his mind, not because of romance but because it would mean safety, a better life. During one exchange, she lost her temper and threw a packet of cigarettes at him. “I didn’t realize Americans were emotional,” Nhek said.

Ultimately, Beach asked Nhek if he would be happy living in America without her if a marriage didn’t work out. He didn’t answer.

A few days before Nhek flew to Paris, in April 1976, he gave Coleman his navy officer’s hat. Once he got to France, the interviews and reeducation with Khmer Rouge officials began. Coleman waited for word of what would happen next. Nhek called her one night. “We’ve all been accepted to go back,” he told her. In three groups over as many weeks, the Cambodians would fly to China, then to Phnom Penh. The friends talked for a bit—Nhek liked Paris; everything was fine with the Khmer Rouge mission; the YMCA was quiet without the servicemen around.

In mid-June, Nhek called Coleman again.

“I’m leaving in the morning,” he said.

“Will you be safe?” Coleman asked.

“I don’t know.”

“For God’s sake don’t go. Come back. If you come back, I’ll take care of you.”

Nhek was crying. “I have to,” he said, and hung up.

A week later, Coleman received a postcard from Athens, where the plane to China had made a refueling stop. Another one arrived from Peking.

“The city is beautiful and silent,” it read. “Love, Huor.”

The entrance to Tuol Sleng, still lined with barbed wire.

Chapter 5:  Not Enough of Anything

Coleman stayed at the Nationalities Service Center for another year before taking a job—again working with refugees—at the Pennsylvania Office of Mental Health. She thought about Nhek and the other Cambodians often. She even kept Nhek’s passport photo in her wallet, alongside photos of her children. There was nothing she could do for him. Nothing, that is, but worry.

The situation in Cambodia remained frustratingly hazy. The silence emanating from its confines could be excruciating, and as an outsider, Coleman had no easy way to penetrate it. She considered finding a way to travel there and seek out her friends. Then, in late 1978, three Western reporters were given a tightly controlled tour of Phnom Penh. One of them, a British writer, was murdered by a Khmer Rouge soldier. News of the incident, like removing a veil, brought into stark clarity for Coleman that there was no way she could—or should—go to Cambodia. She had five children and a husband to think about. She felt absurd for even entertaining the idea.

A few weeks later, in December 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia. Once allies, the Communists in the neighboring countries had become adversaries. The Vietnamese easily overpowered the Khmer Rouge, and leaders in Phnom Penh fled into the country’s forested north. (Pol Pot, the regime’s notorious dictator, would remain there until his death in 1998.) Overnight, the government’s grip on its citizens loosened. Refugees began spilling out of the country into Thailand, where they gathered in camps. The Cambodian diaspora went into a frenzy as people frantically searched for information about family and friends they hadn’t heard from since 1975.

Coleman and her husband, Joe, took leave from work and flew to Thailand. She was determined to find Nhek and the others, or at least some news of their fate. “It was just, make the reservations, go visit the camps, do anything—just get to the border and see if I could find anything,” Coleman recalled. She had a list of names and some photos, including Nhek’s passport picture. In the image, his shiny black hair is combed over. He has a wide jaw, full lips, and an imploring gaze.

Coleman kept Nhek’s passport photo in her wallet, alongside photos of her children. There was nothing she could do for him. Nothing, that is, but worry.

Officials at the U.S. embassy in Bangkok already knew who Coleman was because of her work in Philadelphia. “Around here we call you Ms. Cambodia,” one staffer told her. The embassy provided the Colemans with a car and a driver. For more than a week, they traversed the Cambodian border, moving between refugee camps. They were desperate places, Coleman said, with “not enough of anything.”

Coleman had drawn up fliers in Khmer identifying some of the servicemen: their names and the fact that they were ex-military. There was barely anywhere to put up the fliers, however, save for a bulletin board in one camp. So Coleman talked to whomever she could. “I was going to any little field where there was a group of bedraggled Cambodian refugees sitting, surrounded by Thai guards and barbed wire, just looking for a familiar face,” Coleman said. “Nobody knew anything.”

One day toward the end of the trip, in an eastern Thai region called Aranyaprathet, Coleman walked from the car, alone, to the border. Nothing marked the divide but a rusty iron gate. The land was flat all the way to the horizon, with high grass and few trees. “There wasn’t a soul,” Coleman recalled. “It was just dead silent.”

She stood looking into Cambodia. It was a strange feeling to be so near this country that had had such a dramatic impact on her life. She thought about stepping in—over the invisible boundary, toward the truth about her friends. But then she thought about the land mines in the ground, the Thai border guards that were possibly watching her, the brutal heat, and her dismal chances of success. Dejected and exhausted, Coleman turned back to the car. “There are some places you cannot go,” she said.

In the fall of 1980, Coleman was in her office at the newly formed Indochina Refugee Action Center in Washington, D.C. She was up to her elbows in resettlement work once again, and she had yet to hear any news, good or bad, about Nhek and the other Cambodians. She hadn’t lost hope, but she was realistic. “I knew it was looking pretty grim,” she said. “It had been a long time.” That day around noon, Ben Kiernan, an Australian scholar, stepped into her office. He hadn’t announced his visit. He was a historian, and he had just returned from Cambodia. He knew about Coleman’s search for her friends.

Kiernan told Coleman that he’d met Ung Pech, a survivor of Tuol Sleng, the infamous Khmer Rouge prison, who’d recently become the first director of a museum dedicated to what had happened between 1975 and 1979. Pech was compiling names of the people killed by the regime, which, like the Nazis, had kept detailed records of its cruelties. Kiernan handed Coleman a list. There were dozens of names, most of which she didn’t recognize. But 19 of them she did—19 of the servicemen she’d helped in Philadelphia were dead. One of them was Nhek.

“I just kind of shut down,” Coleman said. She’d waited so long, and now she knew. The truth was too big, too final. She couldn’t feel it.

A few weeks after Kiernan’s visit, Coleman had lunch with a journalist who’d been to the refugee camps in Thailand. She carried with her a letter from a Cambodian refugee who was a dancer before the revolution. Coleman read it, and one line landed like a punch to the gut. It was an entreaty, the kind of desperate plea that follows an unfathomable disaster, and it triggered the full weight of Coleman’s grief and guilt.

“Does anybody out there remember me?” the letter read. Coleman began crying and couldn’t stop.

 Remains of prisoners held at Tuol Sleng.

Chapter 6: Confessions

Coleman held onto Nhek’s passport photo for another decade, until she moved to the Bahamas. Her marriage to Joe Coleman ended in divorce, and with her kids grown and gone, she went to the island nation for a fresh start. She worked as a schoolteacher and a translator for Cuban refugees. Gazing one day at the picturesque beach next to her home, she thought: Nhek was a navy man. She walked to the ocean’s edge and tossed her friend’s photo into the great spill of radiant blue. It was a way of moving on.

In 1998, Coleman moved to a small town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with her new partner, a yachtsman and Korean War veteran named Larry Shanley. She taught sociology at a high school. She told the story of the servicemen to her students, and some of the teenagers suggested that she might be able to find out what had happened to Nhek and the other men. The internet, a new luxury, might turn something up, the students offered. They crowded around a classroom monitor. Some browser searches led to the website of an organization called the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, or DC-Cam, a research organization in Phnom Penh that preserved records of Khmer Rouge atrocities. Kiernan, by then a scholar at Yale, had helped start DC-Cam in 1997 with funding given to the university by the State Department.

Coleman sent a short email to DC-Cam inquiring about the Cambodians who’d lived at the Philadelphia YMCA. She hoped that some of them might still be alive. Maybe there’d even been a mistake and Nhek’s name shouldn’t have been on the list Kiernan showed her. DC-Cam’s director, a gregarious man named Youk Chhang, responded quickly. “Sorry to tell you, they’re all gone,” he wrote.

It was a devastating start to a years-long correspondence between Coleman and Chhang. Like most Cambodians of his generation, Chhang understood loss. Though he’d survived the Khmer Rouge, several of his family members had not. After the Vietnamese invasion, he’d lived in a refugee camp in Thailand for many years before eventually making it to the United States, where he earned a degree in political science from the University of Texas at Dallas. He’d then returned to Cambodia to run DC-Cam. Over time he and Coleman would become close friends. “I think Cindy feels a sense of guilt for helping them come back,” Chhang said. “But I tell her, ‘It’s not your fault.’”

In one of their early exchanges, Chhang said that he had torture confessions from some of the men, recorded at Tuol Sleng. The documents, often remarkably long, were the final records of many victims of the Khmer Rouge. Chhang offered to translate them into English. Coleman told him to send copies of the originals to Michigan; she’d have someone there help her with them. She got the papers in the mail and leafed through what amounted to the last chapters in the lives of Nhek, Taing, and others. She asked a Cambodian friend to translate. Not wanting to distress Coleman with the confessions’ contents, the friend politely refused.

Coleman let the documents sit untouched for several more years. In 2008, she and Mary Beach went together to Cambodia, both for the first time. They met Chhang and toured Tuol Sleng, which had been transformed into a museum of the genocide. It made Coleman want to throw up. Displayed on long panels were photographs of prisoners taken upon their entry into the prison: doomed men, women, and children, their eyes pleading from every frame. Coleman searched for faces she knew and found none. She and Beach also visited Choeung Ek, better known as the Killing Fields, where more than a million people had been executed and dumped in mass graves.

Though Chhang had offered before, Coleman didn’t ask him to translate the confessions. She was too overwhelmed. Perhaps her Cambodian friend in Michigan had been right; maybe she wasn’t ready to hear the truth—not yet. “I could barely take the fact that they were all dead,” Coleman said. “I couldn’t face it.”

It took another seven years for her to decide that she wanted to hear her friends’ voices. When she did, Coleman was back in Phnom Penh, volunteering for DC-Cam. Larry, who’d never really approved of her returning to Cambodia, because he worried about her safety, had died recently. Coleman had her cane by then; her hip replacement was still a few years off. She spent a portion of her days at DC-Cam, which occupies a modest building beside the imposing, lotus-shaped Independence Monument in eastern Phnom Penh. Coleman sat next to a Khmer translator, slowly going through the confessions.

The translator dictated. With a pen, Coleman wrote out the words once uttered by people she cared for. Nhek’s confession was nearly 400 pages long.

Only a few thousand Cambodians repatriated from abroad after the Khmer Rouge took power. Among them was Ong Thong Hoeung, an intellectual who survived the genocide; he later remembered a militia cadre boarding his plane while it was on the tarmac and collecting people’s personal items like watches and passports in a bucket. Most repatriates were taken to the Khmer Soviet Technical School in Phnom Penh, known then as K-15. Servicemen like Nhek were separated from the other new arrivals, most of them students, and the groups immediately began reeducation in the form of hard labor: smashing rocks, digging in rice paddies, repairing houses. “The reeducation was for us to forget everything in the past,” Ong recalled. He never witnessed any violence at K-15, but he saw many people “taken out” who did not return. Meals consisted of a “thick gruel … like the food we give pigs to eat.”

According to Nhek’s confession, which reads almost like a memoir, after ten days at K-15, he and some other servicemen were sent to work at a place called Ta Lei, a village outside Phnom Penh. Some weeks later, on August 10, 1976, he and a soldier named Soem Sei Lena, who had also been in Philadelphia, were sent to another labor site south of the capital. It was on the east bank of the Bassac River, in Prek Pra, at a school with pastel yellow walls. It was the school that, in 2019, Coleman would visit on a sweltering February day.

Nhek and Soem plotted to escape, to get to Vietnam—they wanted to live. On the night of August 18, they snuck out of their sleeping quarters in the school. They were armed with a homemade hatchet, a knife, and a slingshot. Silently, the pair managed to slip past the camp’s guards—youth with Kalashnikovs—and into the nearby jungle. The day before, one of them had climbed up a coconut palm and scoped out a route that avoided other labor camps. They followed the path east toward the Mekong. At dawn, when the rising sun illuminated the plain of central Cambodia, they neared the river and felled two trees in a banana grove. The men hauled the green trunks to the riverbank and rested until the evening.

As darkness fell, Nhek and Soem, clutching the tree trunks as flotation devices, eased into the flow of the Mekong, submerging their sweaty bodies into the dark torrent. Water soaked their clothes and splashed their faces as the current carried them south toward freedom. Around dawn, Soem said he was feeling unwell, so the pair rested at a place called Dei Ith, where the Mekong narrows. Other people would try to escape Cambodia the same way, and the Khmer Rouge would eventually set up guard positions at Dei Ith. But that August, there were none.

The men found some corn and ate it raw. In the late afternoon, they heard voices and hid among the trees. A few hours later, they decided to enter the river again to continue their journey. But a group of peasants appeared, detained the men, and gave them up to authorities. Though Nhek’s confession mentions the weapons that he and Soem carried, it says nothing about fighting back.

Each confession was recorded by a torturer tapping away at a typewriter, then the account was signed, dated, and stamped with the prisoner’s thumbprint. Once it was finished, the only thing left to do was die.

The men were sent to Tuol Sleng, which the Khmer rouge called S-21. It had once been a high school—square buildings surrounding two sun-drenched courtyards, taking up several blocks in south-central Phnom Penh. Of the more than 15,000 prisoners assigned to Tuol Sleng, less than a dozen are known to have survived. When the Vietnamese entered the premises in 1979, there was fresh blood on the walls but no prisoners.

Tuol Sleng was the black, raving heart of the Khmer Rouge’s murderous enterprise. The regime sent people there not to house them but to break them. The facility’s crumbling surfaces were the color and texture of moldy bread. Spirals of barbed wire topped the walls surrounding it. Cells were hardly bigger than a few square feet, hastily created in classrooms out of cheap concrete and brick. Each was equipped with a chain to loop around the prisoner’s ankle and an ammunition box for bodily fluids.

According to the few survivors, interrogations could last days or even weeks, and they often extracted only lies. Prisoners were under excruciating pressure to confirm the conspiracy theories of their torturers, who were themselves under pressure by superiors to discover such plots. People were asked who recruited them to the CIA, KGB, or Vietnamese intelligence forces, and who among their friends and family were working as spies. They were accused of trying to sabotage the regime. Guards beat prisoners with sticks. They pulled out toenails. They broke fingers. They attached wires to ears and administered electric shocks. Eventually, prisoners relented and told their captors what they wanted to hear. Each confession was recorded by a torturer tapping away at a typewriter, then the account was signed, dated, and stamped with the prisoner’s thumbprint. Once it was finished, the only thing left to do was die.

Nhek’s records say nothing about how he died, but most people at Tuol Sleng were transported to the Killing Fields, where, to save ammunition, soldiers executed prisoners by hitting them in the back of the head with a shovel or some other blunt object. Nhek was put to death after admitting in his confession that he’d been involved in a clandestine CIA plan to overthrow the Khmer Rouge, a common theme in torture documents. He also said that he was party to a CIA scheme to take down Kim Il-sung in North Korea before doing the same to Cambodia’s leaders.

As she scratched it down with her pen, Coleman recognized this detail. It echoed the joke she’d made to Nhek at the Y, when they’d watched the propaganda film together and sipped from the same can of warm gin.

View of the Bassac River, where Nhek mounted his escape.


The servicemen from the YMCA were told in Paris that they would be reunited with their families in Cambodia, but there is no evidence that this ever occurred. Following the Khmer Rouge’s collapse, one man’s wife contacted the U.S. military asking where her husband was. She had no idea that he’d returned for her. The servicemen returned home to a purging they didn’t—or didn’t want to—expect. In 1976, the Khmer Rouge accelerated its campaign to rid the country of suspected enemies. People once associated with Lon Nol’s government were among the prime targets. Though Nhek’s attempt to escape down the Mekong may have been what sent him to Tuol Sleng, he likely would have wound up there regardless. The regime always found a reason to kill.

It took three months for Coleman to finish Nhek’s confessions and four others. One came from Keo Keam, who had survived only four days at Tuol Sleng. The navy captain’s cause of death was listed as “[got] sick and died,” but Coleman chose to believe that “he willed himself dead.” The translation work was exhausting and painful; Coleman could do it for only a few hours in a sitting. Still, there were times it made her laugh, like when she copied down claims that she and other Nationalities Service Center staff were CIA agents. “There was stuff that was just funnier than hell,” she said.

Nhek had relatives who survived the genocide but never learned his fate. Peng, still living in California, reached out to Coleman after learning of her connection to his friend. (I wrote about Coleman in a 2016 article for the Phnom Penh Post, which Peng read.) He put her in touch with Nhek’s surviving siblings, who were still living amid the rice paddies of Prey Veng. Coleman went to meet them at Nhek’s childhood home, a green-roofed dwelling on stilts. “People told me he had been arrested, but I didn’t believe them,” said Vann Limheng, Nhek’s older sister. Coleman shared what she’d learned from the confession. She also recounted happier memories from the YMCA.

Speaking with people who knew him, it was clear that Nhek had become a repository for various emotions, traumas, and explanations—joy for halcyon legacies and youthful promise; guilt over living when others had not; regret over actions not taken and things not said; confirmation that, far too easily, human cruelty can become a source of power. Peng said that he had recurring dreams about Nhek in which his friend was dressed well and looking healthy, like he had when they were young. Sihourn Um, who became a software engineer with IBM in Colorado, and later Texas, remembered Nhek as a patriotic warrior who would have done anything for his country. To Mary Beach, he represented a parallel life.

For Coleman, he would always be “a sweet, gentle, poetic, smart, lovely, kind guy who everybody agrees was just a wonderful, wonderful kid.” He’d been cut down in his prime, severed from his home and then swallowed by it. Not in an act of devotion like the one described in the Cambodian folk tale, but in an attempt at total annihilation.

Love is obliteration’s undoing; memory endures. On the morning that Coleman and her translator finished Nhek’s confession, they sat at a table in a shaded outdoor space at the DC-Cam office. Just as the translator reached the end—the pages that preceded Nhek’s unrecorded death—a butterfly came over the steel wall surrounding the office. “It just kept flying around, and I started watching the butterfly. I quit writing,” Coleman said.

She was entranced. Coleman, a longtime gardener, had never seen a butterfly like it before—small, with yellow and black wings. It fluttered for several minutes, until the translator read the final words on the page before her: “Signed, Nhek Veng Huor, September 13th, 1976.” The butterfly rose up as if on a current of air. Then it went back over the wall, flitting out of sight.

The First Responders


The black men from Pittsburgh who made up America’s original paramedic corps wanted to make history and save lives—starting with their own.

By Kevin Hazzard

The Atavist Magazine, No. 92

Kevin Hazzard’s work has appeared in Atlanta magazine, Men’s Journal, Creative Loafing, and The Washington Post. He also writes for television. A paramedic from 2004 to 2013, primarily at Grady Hospital in Atlanta, he is the author of A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic’s Wild Ride to the Edge and Back (Simon and Schuster, 2016).

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kate Wheeling
Illustrator: Marc Aspinall

Published in June 2019. Design updated in 2021.

Part I

The riots that had begun in the heart of Pittsburgh’s Hill District on April 5, 1968, now seemed to rage beyond control. The world was all flames and broken glass, black soot and charred wood, food looted from stores, then dropped in egress. The day before, Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, and the calm that normally characterized the Hill, as the neighborhood was called, had given way to chaos.

John Moon darted down Centre Avenue—terrified, exhilarated—as smoke poured into the air. Gangly and clean-shaven, his hair cut close to the scalp, Moon was a senior at Fifth Avenue High School. When word of the trouble reached them, Moon and his black classmates had walked out en masse. Now he ran the half-mile from school to the intersection of Centre and Crawford Street, the heart of the riots. Dusty shards of red brick from the destroyed facades of storefronts skittered across the asphalt and crunched under his shoes.

Moon was a transplant—he’d only recently come to Pittsburgh from down south—and the riots caught him flat-footed. One minute he was cruising toward graduation, working nights and weekends at Shep’s hardware store and playing football in a small field near the Monongahela River. The next, a Molotov cocktail was sailing over his left shoulder and shattering a plate-glass window. He was in the belly of the civil rights movement.

Moon was reticent by nature, a detached observer who mostly kept to himself. He was tall, with rigid posture. He spoke rarely and in a soft voice that was half an octave higher than you’d expect. His friends thought he was aloof, but he’d watched the national news footage of lunch-counter sit-ins, of police dogs and fire hoses, of freedom riders and black students walking into white schools for the first time, and he was just as angry and frustrated and hurt as his peers were. He may not have expected the riots on the Hill, but he understood why they happened. “It all built up and spun around in our heads,” Moon said. “Then there was an explosion.”

Born in 1949 at Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital, Moon lived the first eight years of his life just south of Georgia’s capital city with his parents, Clinton and Elzora, and his younger sister, June. In 1956, his mother died of complications from alcoholism. His father quickly realized that he couldn’t raise two young children alone and brought Moon and June to the Carrie Steele-Pitts Home, an orphanage in Northwest Atlanta. Clinton worked as a handyman, and when time allowed he visited the kids on weekends. But he soon grew ill—Moon never learned the specifics—and died.

The children were well-fed and suitably clothed, sent to school and allowed time to play, but the orphanage staff never displayed the affection of a genuine family. There was no physical contact, no love, only the occasional toy or gift a child could call their own. “Everything belonged to the group, so when you got something, you didn’t let anyone touch it,” Moon said. One year, a relative sent him two dollars for his birthday. Rather than spend it, Moon tucked the money into an envelope that he kept nearby at all times. He slept with it under his pillow, hid it in his shoe when he showered, and carried it in his pocket when he went to school. “I said to myself, If you spend this, you’ll never have it again. So I just kept it,” he said.

In the summer of 1963, the year he turned 14, Moon and his sister found themselves in a visiting room where an aunt they’d met only once, Mary Kelley, was waiting for them. The siblings could barely believe it. “You accept you’re not leaving,” Moon recalled of life at the orphanage. “There’s no hope of going anywhere, unless a miracle happens.”

Kelley looked at each of them and asked if they wanted to come live with her in Pittsburgh. “It was shocking. The word adoption wasn’t in my vocabulary,” Moon said. It turned out that his father had maintained contact with relatives in Pennsylvania, who’d told Kelley that the kids needed a home. Kelley brought the children to her brick row house on Colwell Street, with a stoop and a white awning above the door.

Overnight, Moon had a mother and a father, security and love. He later described the adjustment as “traumatic,” because it was all so new, so intimate. He couldn’t remember ever being hugged or kissed before arriving in Pittsburgh. The three-bedroom house was crowded with seven people, including two stepbrothers and a stepsister. Moon’s uncle—now his adoptive father—supported everyone on his meager salary from a steel mill. Each night, Moon washed and folded his clothes so that he could wear them again the next day. It wasn’t a perfect life, but it was better than living on public assistance in a crumbling tenement, like some of his classmates at Fifth Avenue High did.

Wedged between downtown and the affluent, predominantly white Oakland neighborhood, the Hill had for 200 years served as the heart of black Pittsburgh. It once boasted a Negro League baseball team, with Satchel Paige on the mound; Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong played in the local jazz bars; and there was a black-owned newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier, with national syndication. Then, in 1956, the future arrived with the heavy crash of a wrecking ball. As part of an effort to modernize, the city plowed through a large swath of the Hill to build a civic center with a vast, usually empty parking lot. The city razed 1,300 homes and businesses and displaced 8,000 people. Gutted and stripped, what remained of the Hill slumped into poverty. Crime arrived, and with it the stigma of being a black man who lived in the neighborhood and surely would amount to no good.

This was the environment that shaped Moon. He’d tried to ignore it but couldn’t escape the fact that the outside world saw him, simply because of where he lived, as an “unemployable,” a term used in the local press to describe residents of the neighborhood. “I really resented that label. It meant you were of no use,” Moon said.

Before the riots, Moon hoped that hard work and maybe a little luck would give him a shot at a good job, a house of his own, a life just a bit better than the one his adoptive parents had. After the fires of April 1968, as his neighbors swept up the ashes, he worried that hope didn’t apply to him. He saw how the city and the National Guard let the Hill burn. “As long as it didn’t affect the white or business areas, they stood by,” he said. “They didn’t care why we were rioting. They just kept it penned in.”

A few months later, with graduation behind him, Moon followed his adoptive father into the steel mills. He got a job loading massive metal coils onto railcars and sometimes operated a blast furnace. He worked six or seven days a week and spent his money on an expansive wardrobe. In his spare time, he strutted down the sidewalk in khaki pants and an alpaca sweater, his shoes buffed to a mirror shine. Gone was the kid who’d worn the same clothes every day.

At work he was in awe of the equipment and the blisteringly hot liquid metal, but he was unimpressed with the management, which was exclusively white. Sometimes there were layoffs due to a lack of work, and he’d find himself with nothing to do. The message was clear: If he wanted to get ahead, he’d have to go elsewhere. “So I left,” Moon said.

A relative suggested that he get a job as an orderly at Presbyterian-University Hospital, part of the University of Pittsburgh. In 1969, he completed a brief course on the basics of moving and washing patients, making beds, and following hospital policy. It wasn’t flashy work, but it was stable, and a lot less dangerous than the steel mill. “I could either use my head or my back,” Moon said. “I chose my head.” He soon realized that he enjoyed caring for people; it revealed empathy and compassion he hadn’t known he possessed. As he transported patients, they would peer up at him, their eyes projecting loneliness, fear, vulnerability. “I know what it’s like,” Moon said. “When I looked at those patients, I could feel for them.” He wanted to do more—to heal, to save, to be the miracle that unexpectedly entered a stranger’s life. During the 1968 riots, he’d seen where hopelessness led. He didn’t want to feel that way—and he didn’t want anyone else to, either.

One night in 1970, while walking in a hospital hallway, Moon saw two black men in white tunics pushing an empty stretcher. He’d never seen the men or their uniforms, which were affixed with patches reading “Freedom House Paramedics.” He stopped walking to get a better look as they passed by but caught only a glimpse before they were gone, off to whatever job they were doing. It looked important, far more so than what he did as an orderly. Later he saw the men again, this time rushing by with a stretcher loaded with a howling patient. Moon spun and watched as one of them flagged down a white doctor with a casual flick of the wrist—and the doctor actually followed. Just as fast as they’d come into the hospital, the men disappeared through a set of swinging doors.

Moon still didn’t know who they were, where they’d come from, or what exactly their job was. He knew only that here were two men who carried themselves as if they knew something no one else did. Cockiness isn’t uncommon in a hospital, as Moon well knew, but here was an attitude of complete confidence coming from someone who was black—from someone who looked just like him. Whatever a paramedic was, that’s what Moon wanted to be.

Peter Safar

Part II

John Moon wasn’t the only one who didn’t know what a paramedic was. Most people in America didn’t. Today the role is clearly defined: A paramedic is certified to practice advanced emergency medical care outside a hospital setting. They’re the people who shock hearts back into beating, insert breathing tubes into tracheas, and deliver pharmaceuticals intravenously whenever and wherever a patient is in need. Until the mid-1960s, however, the field of emergency medical services, or EMS, didn’t formally exist. Training was minimal; there were no regulations to abide by.

Emergency care was mostly a transportation industry, focused on getting patients to hospitals, and it was dominated by two groups: funeral homes and police departments. Call the local authorities for help and you’d likely get morticians in a hearse or cops in a paddy wagon. If you received any treatment en route to the hospital—and most likely you did not—it wouldn’t be very good. At best, one of the people helping may have taken a first-aid course. At worst, you’d ride alone in the back, hoping, if you were conscious, that you’d survive.

Standards for emergency care were so low that, in 1966, the federal government released a study reporting that a person was more likely to die from a highway accident in Kansas than from a gunshot wound in Vietnam. In a Southeast Asian rice paddy, a soldier could at least expect a medic to arrive and provide care where he’d fallen. An IV, bandages, pain meds—you could get them in the jungle, but not in an American city. Certainly not in a place like Pittsburgh, where the police ran the ambulance service and where calls to improve it, or to offer an alternative, had long been ignored. It took a very public death to open the door for change.

On the night of November 4, 1966, David Lawrence, a former mayor of Pittsburgh who’d also served as governor of Pennsylvania, collapsed on stage at a campaign rally. Someone called an ambulance and the police arrived. They put Lawrence onto a crude stretcher, loaded him into a paddy wagon, and drove ten minutes to Presbyterian-University Hospital, where he was met by Dr. Peter Safar, a wiry Austrian anesthesiologist. Lawrence had suffered a massive heart attack and showed no brain activity. His family ultimately decided to take him off life support.

Over the following weeks, as the city grieved, Dr. Safar stewed. The police had been poorly equipped. Safar concluded that, had they been driving an ambulance designed to enable crews to provide critical care, Lawrence might still be alive. CPR training could have helped, too. Safar would know. He’d all but invented it.

Born in Vienna in 1924, Safar was drafted into Adolf Hitler’s army despite his Jewish ancestry. In 1943, he was nearly sent to fight on the Eastern Front; he escaped deployment by smearing himself with an ointment that inflamed his eczema. He began studying medicine and emigrated to the United States in 1949. He settled in Baltimore, where he practiced medicine and studied resuscitation. Safar discovered that adding direct ventilation—now called mouth-to-mouth—to the already established practice of chest compressions exponentially increased the chance of survival for a patient in cardiac arrest. Though Safar is now hailed as the father of CPR, the medical establishment initially disagreed with his notion that the method could, maybe even should, be taught to private citizens. To prove them wrong, Safar paralyzed volunteers with curare, the compound used by Amazonian tribes to make poison-tipped arrows, and trained Boy Scouts kept them breathing using only mouth-to-mouth. Gradually, across America, ordinary people began using CPR.

In Pittsburgh, where Safar had moved in 1961, Lawrence’s death exacerbated the pain of personal heartbreak. In June 1966, Safar’s 11-year-old daughter Elizabeth suffered a severe asthma attack and stopped breathing. When Safar arrived at the hospital to take over his daughter’s care, he was able to restart her heart, but she never regained consciousness. Elizabeth, it turned out, had received no treatment en route to the hospital, and prolonged lack of oxygen led to brain death. The tragedy was a lasting source of regret for Safar; according to his son, it “cast a shadow over the family.” It also drove him to double down on his belief that providing medical care outside hospitals was critical. Some sick and injured patients simply couldn’t wait; the process of saving them had to start immediately.

Shortly after Lawrence’s death, Safar heard that Phil Hallen, a progressive activist and president of the Maurice Falk Medical Fund, a local philanthropy, had proposed the establishment of a city ambulance service, manned by specially trained technicians called paramedics. Safar invited Hallen to his office and unleashed a torrent of ideas. What if ambulances weren’t just crowded, repurposed cargo spaces but mobile intensive-care units, where paramedics could use portable cardiac monitors, administer medication, and perform CPR? Safar described how tall and wide ambulances should be, and how to position the seats inside to maximize patient care. He talked about installing automated suction units that could help clear blood and vomit from the mouth and lungs of an unconscious patient.

Together the two men hashed out a plan: Hallen would raise the money, Safar would contribute his medical expertise, and together they would design advanced ambulances and teach paramedics to provide care on the scene of an accident or emergency. It would be a pioneering medical effort, and Hallen, who was white, suggested another first. The Falk Fund was committed to mitigating racism, and Hallen wanted to staff the service with young black men from the Hill. He hoped that empowering individuals long deemed unemployable would be a source of pride in the black community, a symbol of equality, and a signal that bigoted notions about the black people of Pittsburgh standing in their own way were nonsense.

To help with recruitment, Hallen and Safar partnered with an organization called Freedom House Enterprises, a nonprofit dedicated to establishing and supporting black-run businesses in the city. Freedom House handled staffing for the fledgling ambulance service and recruited the first class of paramedics, including Vietnam veterans and men with criminal records. Though some of the recruits had an idea of what they’d signed up for, many were all but shanghaied off the streets of the Hill just hours before the classes that Safar had designed were scheduled to begin—Freedom House needed a set number of students to fully staff the service. Once they learned more about the opportunity, most of the impromptu recruits threw themselves into training.

After undergoing a battery of tests, including psychological evaluations and interviews with various medical professionals, the recruits embarked on Safar’s 32-week paramedic course, the first of its kind in the world. They learned about anatomy, physiology, CPR, advanced first aid, nursing, and even defensive driving—a must when piloting an ambulance. They completed internships at Pittsburgh’s morgue, with anesthesiologists in surgical settings, and in emergency rooms. Sometimes they were mistaken for orderlies and asked to mop the floor.

Call the local authorities for help and you’d likely get morticians in a hearse or cops in a paddy wagon. If you received any treatment en route to the hospital—and most likely you did not—it wouldn’t be very good.  

In the first two years, nearly 50 recruits completed the program and began working from a base of operations at Presbyterian-University Hospital. The medics of Freedom House—the name stuck—formally hit the streets in July 1968, a few months after the riots that erupted in the wake of King’s assassination. They served the Hill, Oakland, and downtown, operating two ambulances. In its first year, Freedom House responded to nearly 6,000 calls and was credited with saving more than 200 people from heart attacks, gunshot wounds, stabbings, and overdoses. In nearly every case, the paramedics arrived in less than ten minutes; often they got there much faster. Fewer than 2 percent of Freedom House’s patients died before they reached the hospital.

The city’s safety director called the service “excellent.” Still, it was forced to beg for public funding. “It was tricky, because nobody understood what we were doing,” Hallen said. Pittsburgh offered some money, but not enough to keep the service running, so Hallen turned to the private sector. When a contact at the Ford Foundation expressed confusion in a phone call about what Freedom House was, Hallen packed a few trainees into one of the ambulances, drove north to the foundation’s New York City office, and parked just outside its 43rd Street entrance. All day people climbed inside the ambulance and looked around. The trainees gave a CPR lesson. The road trip proved worthwhile: Freedom House got the money Hallen wanted.

John Moon was a lot like the curious New Yorkers. After spotting the paramedics for the first time, he watched them carefully whenever he saw them at the hospital—smoking cigarettes, joking with each other, filling out official-looking paperwork. He noted how, when their radios crackled, the men hopped into their ambulances and disappeared, sometimes into the dark, uncertain night. “I was in awe of them,” Moon said. “I had to join. It was almost like a calling.”

It took a few months, but in 1971 he finally worked up the courage to ask about joining their ranks. Sitting in an office chair across from Freedom House’s operations manager, Moon explained why he was there.

“Since I first saw you guys,” he said, “it’s all I’ve wanted to be.”

“A paramedic,” the operations manager replied.

Moon blinked. He still didn’t know the word. “I don’t know. I guess, yeah. I’ve been an orderly for a few years now and—”

The man cut him off.

“You don’t have the qualifications,” he said. “There’s no applying. You have to earn your way in.”

The man stood and shook Moon’s hand. “Go take the course,” he said. “Then we’ll talk.”

That’s how Moon found himself enrolled in emergency-medicine classes. They kicked his ass, but he didn’t care. “I had a specific goal in mind—to join Freedom House,” he said. When he finished the training and was finally given a white uniform, it was better than any alpaca sweater. “It was a very intense moment,” he said of slipping into the tunic for the first time. “A proud one. Like putting on a $500 suit. From that moment, taking care of people wasn’t something I did. It became who I was.”

Twelve hours after donning the uniform, Moon was speeding through Pittsburgh’s streets in the front seat of a Freedom House ambulance as a voice on the dispatch radio sounded in his ear, firing off details about a man who’d overdosed on heroin and was lying unconscious in the street. Behind the ambulance’s wheel was George McCary, who’d joined Freedom House in its earliest days—back in 1968, when his grandmother had threatened to kick him out of the house if he didn’t get a job. McCary was thick, with a rolling gait and an easy smile. There was nothing easy about Moon that day. “I was terrified,” he said.

McCary screeched to a halt outside a darkened building. As he grabbed his equipment, all Moon could see were the patient’s outstretched legs on the sidewalk; the man was surrounded by a crowd of anxious onlookers. McCary, who seemed to know everybody at the scene, quickly began to distract them. Moon found himself alone with the man on the ground. He dropped to his knees, checked for breathing, and found none. With shaking hands, he tore open the packaging of a reusable ventilator. Moon gave the patient a quick puff of air and saw his chest rise as his lungs filled. Moon looked over his shoulder. There was McCary—still talking, still smiling, keeping the crowd busy. Moon realized it was all part of the job. “We worked together for three years,” Moon later said. “I let him handle the crowds. He was happy-go-lucky. He knew everybody. He was like the mayor.”

After Moon pumped a few more breaths into the patient, he and McCary put the man on a stretcher and hurried him to the ambulance. Moon used the electric suction system—the kind Safar had dreamed of putting in ambulances—to clear the man’s airway. By the time they arrived at the hospital, the patient, who only minutes before had been limp, was very much alive. He was laughing with McCary.

Moon was on his way. So was Freedom House. The medics had proven themselves, and Safar was eager to ramp up their skill set and expand the service. He wanted it to cover all of Pittsburgh, and the county, too. With a note of optimism, Safar wrote in a letter to the city, “The time for action has come.”

John Moon

Part III

Barreling down Fifth Avenue, the ambulance whooshed past vacant lots and houses with boarded-up windows. It was a grime-caked Chevy G20 van, 40,000 miles past its prime and riding on a set of bald whitewall tires. A piece of silver-colored trim had broken off, leaving a lonely trail of holes where rivets should have been. Its grill was punched in and hot to the touch. Painted on the van’s side were the words “Freedom House Ambulance.”

McCary drove with one hand as he ate a sandwich. Beside him sat Moon. It was 1974, and in the three years since joining Freedom House, Moon had grown an afro and a beard, though neither were full yet. He wore square-framed silver glasses that sat stylishly on his nose.

As the ambulance pulled onto the Presbyterian-University Hospital campus and into its usual parking spot, the engine shuddered and then stalled. Moon sighed and flung open his door, which let out an aggrieved moan.

Despite its early successes, Freedom House had struggled. It was undermanned and underfunded. The paramedics still weren’t working across the whole city. Pittsburgh would allow them to serve only those neighborhoods they’d started out in, and the service ran the majority of its calls in the Hill—a fact that elicited complicated emotions among the paramedics. They were bringing medical care to people in need, many of whom they’d grown up or gone to school with. Moon and the other paramedics had escaped the cycle of violence, drugs, and poverty that wracked the Hill, but now they were present for the darkest, sometimes final moments of people who had not.

Freedom House charged $25 to $50 per run but made very few collections; people struggling to buy daily necessities tended to ignore ambulance bills, and the paramedics weren’t about to chase them down. Management had to decide where to spend money. Or rather, where not to spend it. Ambulance repair was last on the priority list. Brakes and steering regularly locked up. Doors fell off their hinges. One crew reported that the bolts securing the passenger seat had jiggled loose; the seat, along with its occupant, had toppled over. At least once, an engine caught fire.

A bigger problem than unpaid bills was dwindling municipal support. Initially, the city had agreed to contribute $100,000 a year and to direct emergency calls that came into the police from the three designated neighborhoods to Freedom House. Then, in 1970, a new mayor took office. Pete Flaherty was tall and broad shouldered, the son of Irish immigrants. As a city councilman, he challenged his own party’s mayoral candidate and broke from the Democratic machine that had crowned every mayor since the Great Depression. Labeling himself Nobody’s Boy, the 45-year-old was a small-government fiscal conservative who lowered taxes and trimmed the city’s payroll. He strongly opposed public-private partnerships like Freedom House.

Flaherty halved the city’s contribution to the paramedics’ budget, even as Freedom House’s operating costs rose. Making matters worse, the city was chronically late delivering payments. In 1973, Freedom House received no municipal money—funds that were supposed to be paid out monthly—until November. Flaherty turned down offers for Freedom House to expand across the city, including into wealthier, whiter neighborhoods, where bill collection wouldn’t be such a challenge. The police already had those areas covered, the mayor said.

Moon and the other paramedics had escaped the cycle of violence, drugs, and poverty that wracked the Hill, but now they were present for the darkest, sometimes final moments of people who had not.

Safar and his staff presented data showing that the police provided subpar emergency care 62 percent of the time, compared with 11 percent for Freedom House. He blamed the city’s paddy wagons and the suburbs’ funeral-home hearses for 1,200 preventable deaths each year. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where journalist Dolores Frederick doggedly covered the ambulance wars, reported that the purchase price of Freedom House’s ambulances was $7,000 and that the paramedics made $153 per week. Police wagons cost $17,000—though, to be fair, they were used for multiple purposes—and the cops who drove them made $230 per week. Op-eds in the Post-Gazette accused Flaherty of trying to placate the police union.

In his memoirs, Safar would blame “racial prejudices with white police officers eager to maintain control of ambulances city-wide” for city hall’s treatment of Freedom House. Flaherty’s record on race was complex: Though he disbanded police tactical squads, whose reported brutality upset the black community, he also opposed school busing. Safar’s take seemed right to Moon. “I don’t know if Flaherty was racist,” he said, “or just head of a racist system.”

One morning, Moon walked into Freedom House’s glass-walled station, and the operations manager told him that there was a new policy: no more sirens when driving downtown.

“What?” Moon asked, incredulous.

“Mayor banned ’em. You get to the edge of downtown, turn ’em off.”

“For what?”

“They’re too loud,” the manager said dryly. “The noise is bothering the business community.”

Without use of the sirens, traffic wouldn’t move aside for the ambulances, which meant that police officers, who were still allowed to use theirs, could beat the paramedics to patients in need. And even when the paramedics did get to an emergency scene first, it didn’t always go well. On one run, Moon entered a large office building with a cardiac monitor, oxygen, and a jump kit on a stretcher, which he crammed into a small elevator. On the seventh floor, he followed a series of narrow hallways past sprawling offices until he found his patient sitting in a conference room, leaning forward, clasping her chest, most likely having a heart attack. The hope that flashed in her eyes at the sound of his approach disappeared when she registered Moon. She was white; he was black. She said she didn’t want him to touch her.

Moon had heard this before. He got down on one knee, looked into her eyes, and in his soft voice said, “Without care you’re going to die. And we’re the only ones here.” The woman acquiesced. Sometimes, though, patients didn’t.

Other cities saw the success of Freedom House’s model and copied it, among them Miami, Los Angeles, and Jacksonville, Florida. Even Flaherty couldn’t deny that medical history was on Freedom House’s side. In 1974, the mayor announced a plan to institute a citywide emergency-care system, complete with state-of-the-art ambulances staffed by paramedics. Rather than absorb the groundbreaking company of black paramedics, however, Flaherty proposed training police officers. Freedom House would remain funded through the end of the year. After that the money would be gone for good.

Moon tried to ignore the politics. “I knew it was going on, but I was focused on the patients,” he said. “That’s what mattered.” Some paramedics were angry. “If this was a mostly white operation,” Eugene Key brooded at the time, “I don’t think this would be happening.” The men weren’t alone. Some public officials confronted Flaherty. “We must continue the Freedom House ambulance service and hopefully expand it,” city council member Eugene DePasquale wrote in an op-ed, adding that asking police to do more work “would be stretching the department too thin.” Flaherty retreated in the face of pressure, but only a step. He agreed to fund Freedom House for an additional year. Then, he said, the police would take over for good, running a half-dozen brand-new vehicles the press dubbed “super ambulances.”

Safar was close to giving up. He even recommended in a letter to the Freedom House board that the service stop accepting money and be “permitted to die a dignified death.” However, in the fall of 1974, just as the project seemed to be on its last leg, Safar began serving on a committee convened by President Gerald Ford to coordinate the development of national emergency-care standards. The committee explored the idea of giving a grant to a single paramedic service, which would serve as a testing ground and pilot program for the rest of the country. As one of only five people on the committee, Safar would’ve known about the grant. He may have reasoned that if Freedom House won it, the service would receive enough recognition to persuade Flaherty not to shut it down.

There was a problem, though: Freedom House had been fighting to keep the lights on while Safar simultaneously ran the anesthesiology department at the University of Pittsburgh, so the paramedics’ proficiency level hadn’t advanced far beyond their initial training. They couldn’t yet intubate patients, for instance, and lacking consistent medical supervision, their discipline and skills were slipping. Safar knew that winning the grant would require tough, tireless leadership that he couldn’t provide. Yet every doctor he asked to train and oversee the medics said no.

So he turned to a stranger. Through the hospital grapevine, he heard that a medical fellow was curious about ambulances. Her name was Nancy Caroline, and though she was young, her résumé was impressive. She’d finished high school early and attended Harvard’s prestigious all-female affiliate, Radcliffe College, graduating summa cum laude in 1966. Amid the rigors of medical school, she’d found time to write poetry and make a surrealist film; she’d also taken a brief sabbatical to study under Noam Chomsky at the University of California at Berkeley. Safar immediately dispatched three of his senior staff at the hospital to sell the 31-year-old with straight brown hair and an electric smile on the idea of Freedom House.

Caroline was in the ICU checking on patients when the doctors approached her.

“Dr. Safar has a challenging job for you,” one of them said.

Caroline paused before answering. “I already have one,” she said.

Safar wanted her to serve as the new medical director of Freedom House, the doctors explained. Caroline shifted her weight. She knew of Safar. Every young doctor in the hospital was simultaneously awed and intimidated by the harried physician who breezed by in his white jacket and threadbare slacks. But she’d met him only once, for just a second, and she’d never heard of the organization Safar’s staff were describing.

“What’s Freedom House?” she asked.

“They’re a group of EMTs.”

Caroline knitted her brow. “What’s an EMT?”

One of the doctors thrust a bundle of documents into her hands. “You’ll love it,” he said.

He was right, even if he didn’t realize it. Caroline was restless by nature and hadn’t found her professional groove in Pittsburgh. She lived in a small apartment and kept a diary documenting her dissatisfaction. “Rain the interminable,” she wrote one day, describing Pittsburgh’s bleak weather. “The endless gray saps my energies, replacing them with a … longing … without an objective.” She wrote of wanting “meaning to overtake my existence.” As her brother Peter once said, Caroline was also “a born contrarian.” She relished a challenge. “The best way to get her to do something is to tell her she can’t,” he said.

The paperwork Safar’s staffer gave Caroline described nearly seven years of Freedom House’s complicated, acrimonious history. As she pored over the pages, she was impressed by the program’s promise and shocked by the city’s unrelenting opposition. She finished reading and dashed off a memo to Safar. She asked how much of her time the job of medical director would take and what it would pay, and she said that she didn’t want to be a paper pusher. She wanted to treat patients, “be that in an ER, helicopter, truck, bicycle, or whatever.”

Safar assured her she would be doing important, hands-on work. Caroline accepted.

It was December 1974, and when she told fellow doctors the news, they shook their heads apologetically. “It’s really not as bad as it seems,” one told her.

Nancy Caroline

Part IV

January 1975 arrived with an icy, stinging wind. Caroline’s first encounter with Freedom House was painful, too, laden with bias and suspicion. Writing about it later, she described “three very imposing, bearded, machismo characters who might easily have passed for the Black Mafia” appearing in her office door. The men, supervisors of the emergency service, had come to present their grievances to the new boss. Caroline was so intimidated that she didn’t hear a word they said. She simply nodded, her mind reeling, until they left.

The paramedics’ reaction to Caroline was little better. When the operations manager announced her hiring, the men were incredulous. That a woman—a white woman—would be in charge didn’t make sense or seem fair. What could she teach them? They wondered if she could possibly understand the racism and condescension that stood in Freedom House’s way.

Her goal was to prepare Freedom House to win the federal grant that would allow it to make medical history and hopefully save the service from closure. She listened to the paramedics’ radio chatter, read the reports the men wrote after each call, and ventured into the field with them. What she found was chaos. Each paramedic seemed to operate according to instinct rather than any common standard. One day, Caroline joined Moon when he brought a patient into the emergency room. While giving his report to a nurse, he struggled to explain the medical history, the findings, and his actions. After a few minutes, the doctor just walked away. “It was humiliating,” Moon said.

Caroline knew that communication mattered; fairly or not, medical professionals took people seriously only if they used the right words and cadence. Caroline began what she later called an Orwellian reign of terror, keeping eyes and ears on everything the paramedics did and pushing them to improve. “We were all scared of her,” Moon said. “She was everywhere. Anything you did, you’d have to explain to her.” Caroline used the service’s radio to insert herself into every emergency call. There wasn’t a single case of Freedom House deploying to the Hill in early 1975 that wasn’t haunted by Caroline’s disembodied voice.

Caroline instituted weekly debriefings where medics stood before their peers to have every detail of a case questioned and reviewed. “All you knew was that they were going to take one of your calls and critique it,” Moon said. “But you had no idea which one it would be. You had to be ready for anything.” In one of the meetings, Caroline selected a call in which Moon responded to a patient with chest pain. The questions came in a flurry: Why hadn’t he double-checked the patient’s vitals? How much oxygen had Moon given? Had he checked if the neck veins were distended? No? Why not? What did the EKG read? “It required only a month or two to establish the necessary paranoia,” Caroline later wrote.

She wasn’t always so tough. On one occasion, Moon recalled, she noticed him staring intently at an EKG monitor—those squiggles had always vexed him, and he couldn’t get a read on them as fast as he wanted. Caroline gave him a quick, thorough set of pointers. “The simplicity of her explanation was amazing,” Moon said. He was soon able to distinguish between first-, second- and third-degree heart blockages at a glance.

When Caroline wasn’t checking the paramedics’ work or leading training in advanced life support—the kinds of skills that would help the service win the grant—she was begging Freedom House’s board of directors for new equipment or doing rounds at Pitt’s hospital, where she was technically still a fellow. “Too many cigarettes,” she wrote in her diary. “Too little sleep. A state of strange lucidity. The mind outdistances itself and is forever doubling back to pick up stray thoughts.” Safar wrote to Caroline, reminding her that she’d volunteered for the job, which was now consuming her to the point that she often slept on a cot at Freedom House’s headquarters. “Certain of your remarks,” she fired back, “warrant comment.” Most disturbing, she wrote, was the “implication that I was given a position for which others were clamoring.… I took a job no one else wanted.”

Caroline struggled to connect with the paramedics. They didn’t know, for instance, that 1975 had started with a personal loss. Caroline had received a call about her fiancé, who lived in Boston. He’d been found dead in his apartment near Massachusetts General Hospital. The death was ruled a suicide, though Caroline had trouble believing it. This “massive dose of human tragedy,” Caroline later wrote, left her “entirely fed up and disillusioned with mankind.” She felt lost and alone, in need of salvation.

She found something like it one day around lunchtime, just as everyone at Freedom House’s station was getting hungry. A man was having a heart attack, and before the dispatcher was even done talking, Caroline was up and out the door. She was followed by paramedics. They rocketed through the Hill in an ambulance and pulled up to a crowd of cops and bystanders, but no patient. Someone pointed to an open manhole. The man was underground. A cop, smirking, said, “It’s a perfect job for Freedom House.”

Whatever flashed in the paramedics’ eyes—hurt, anger—Caroline registered it. She faced them. “Ready?” she asked. Walt Brown, one of the responders that day, spread his arms wide: “After you, doc.”

One by one, the group squeezed through the hole and descended from the mild sunshine of a winter’s day to the dank gloom of a sewer. They found their patient ten yards away, in full cardiac arrest. Caroline started ventilating, and Brown administered compressions. The man needed to have his heart shocked. “Stand very clear,” Caroline instructed the paramedics as she placed the paddles on the patient’s chest; there was ankle-deep water beneath them. They nervously held their breath as Brown hit the shock button. The man arced and stiffened, then came to rest. The group turned to the cardiac monitor they’d brought with them. His heart was beating.

Freedom House had brought a man back to life deep beneath the city’s streets, working in the dim halo of lamplight. Now they had to get him aboveground. They put him on a portable stretcher to haul him straight up through the manhole, but he wouldn’t fit. A city sewage worker who’d led the paramedics to the patient said he thought there was another, larger hole not far away. Off they went, Caroline later wrote, “a little band of pilgrims wandering through the bowels” of Pittsburgh—the city employee up front with a lamp, Caroline behind him holding the medical equipment, then Walt Brown and George McCary carrying the stretcher and the patient, who was now breathing on his own. They walked for several blocks; they got lost, they got wet. Eventually, they made their way back to the world, blinking in the sun.

The call complete, McCary looked at Caroline. They hadn’t had their lunch. “You hungry?” he asked, carefree as ever.

Brown slowly turned his head to take in what was happening. The men didn’t normally eat with the boss.

“I know this place,” McCary continued, “biggest fish sandwiches in Pittsburgh.”

There was a silence that seemed to stretch forever. Then, nodding, Caroline said, “I’d eat one of those.”

“You’re gonna like it,” McCary said, bobbing his head. “Place is legit.”

Red lights bounced off the tenement’s cracked walls and gave Bedford Avenue, crowded with people, the feel of a disco gone wrong. Half a block away, someone was whistling a slow tune. Caroline emerged from the ambulance, joining Moon at the bottom of the steps leading into a building. She followed his gaze to the ground, where a small dark puddle had pooled.

“Blood?” Caroline asked.

Moon nodded. “Looks like it.”

The blood led them up the steps, then disappeared behind a door, into the dark recesses of an apartment. They followed it inside and to the kitchen, which smelled of garbage. A bare lightbulb reflected off broken windows and cast shadows across rotting timbers. Children ran in and out of the room as an old woman shrieked. In a corner, a shirtless drunk man smoked a cigarette, staring idly at another man who lay unconscious on the floor in a widening pool of his own blood. The old woman stammered that the man had been stabbed. Moon dropped to his knees to cut open the patient’s pants. Blood spurted from his thigh, covering Moon’s hands and soaking the white cuffs of his jacket. Moon bandaged the wound, then slipped on military anti-shock trousers; once inflated, they compressed to stabilize a fracture or stem a hemorrhage. The bleeding stopped.

Back in the ambulance, Moon started an IV, and the man recovered consciousness enough to say that his girlfriend had hit him in the head with a bat before stabbing him. Moon looked behind the man’s ear and found bruising, the telltale sign of a basilar skull fracture. His stomach sank—in the midst of all the blood in the apartment, he hadn’t assessed the man’s body to identify other possible injuries. Moon looked at Caroline, who shot him a smile of encouragement. He was doing well, making progress.

Moon presented a perfect report on what he’d found in the field—including an EKG reading. The admitting doctor, a white man, stood in stunned silence as Moon walked away.

It was mid-February 1975, and Freedom House’s transformation was in full swing. Caroline had followed the paramedic crews, and she knew how hard they worked. She trusted them, and they’d begun to trust her, too. “She became one of us,” Moon said. Caroline suspected that the cops were withholding emergency calls in Freedom House’s coverage area, so she programmed the police frequency into the service’s radio. When Moon or another paramedic heard a call come in—a low squawk emanating across the airwaves—he’d sprint out the door to an ambulance, turn the key, yank the gear stick, and stomp the gas. The vans didn’t have power steering, so the drivers had to wrestle them up and down Pittsburgh’s hills, shoulder muscles screaming all the way. The brakes barely functioned and had to be pumped repeatedly. After quaking to a stop, the men would jump out, grab their equipment, and hope to reach the patient just as the police—bewildered, pissed—arrived on the scene. Moon said he’d flash his most apologetic smile and say with a shrug, “Happened to be in the neighborhood.”

Under Caroline’s leadership, Moon and the other paramedics dived into more than 200 hours of lectures, demonstrations, and practical sessions in hospital units and labs. Doctors and nurses at Pitt got used to seeing a brash young woman trailed by a cluster of black men breezing through the halls. One afternoon, Moon and Caroline delivered a patient from a call together, and Moon presented a perfect report on what he’d found in the field—including an EKG reading. The admitting doctor, a white man, stood in stunned silence as Moon walked away.

The paramedics practiced intubation on mannequins and dead dogs. If they could master that skill, it would be a game changer. Moon was the first among them to try his hand at a real patient. He was summoned one day to a hospital operating room; he felt a knot form in his stomach as his mouth went dry and his hands became damp with perspiration. A sedated patient, prepped for surgery, lay on a gurney. Safar stood nearby. Moon’s eyes darted to the steel surgical tray where the intubation equipment was neatly laid out, waiting for him.

“You have 30 seconds to intubate,” Safar said. “Go.”

Moon tilted the patient’s head back and grasped the cold metal of the laryngoscope in his left hand. He slipped its curved, blunt blade into the patient’s mouth to lift the tongue and get a view of the vocal cords—the gateway to the trachea. He couldn’t see them. The clock was ticking. Safar was watching. If Moon got this wrong, he could insert the breathing tube into the esophagus, dangerously inflating the patient’s stomach. Beads of sweat formed on Moon’s neck.

He caught sight of the cords. Not daring to take his eyes off them, he reached for the next piece of equipment—an endotracheal tube—with his right hand. He slipped it into the patient’s mouth and passed it between the vocal cords. Then he removed the laryngoscope and looked up. A second doctor pumped air into the patient’s chest while Safar checked to make sure the patient’s lungs inflated. The tube was in place. It had taken Moon less than 20 seconds to get it there.

The paramedics had heard the rumors circulating around Pittsburgh. That they were running craps games in the back of the ambulances. That they were selling drugs. That $25,000 had gone missing from Freedom House’s budget. “Twenty-five grand?” Moon spat the first time he heard that one. “That’s like a million dollars around here. This place would go under immediately.”

The rumors might have been ridiculous, but they didn’t surprise Moon. “Freedom House was successful,” he said. “You look inside the vehicle, you see who’s in there, and you discredit the organization.” The men and Caroline all hoped that validation was forthcoming—the kind that would silence critics once and for all.

To show off Freedom House’s advanced skills and unflagging work ethic, Caroline decided that, as part of an international symposium on emergency medicine that took place in Pittsburgh each year, the paramedics would conduct a disaster drill. She wanted some of the best doctors in the world to see for themselves what Freedom House was capable of. It would go a long way toward the organization winning the coveted federal grant, which would be announced in July 1975. Bigger cities were vying for the money, too. Freedom House needed to put on a show.

It was a hasty decision, and Caroline immediately regretted it. She drew up a detailed script for staging a car crash, choreographing where to place fake patients in various states of emergency. Caroline had trouble getting city permits to stage the drill, convincing the police to provide crowd control, securing wrecked vehicles to set the scene, and then finding someone to tow them to the site. Worst of all, perhaps, was the pressure: If Freedom House failed—if the men were humiliated at the symposium—it would likely be shuttered before the year was out.

The rehearsals went terribly. The paramedics were accustomed to real emergencies, to improvisation, not to memorizing what amounted to a detailed dance. They performed the wrong care on patients, used the wrong equipment. The men and Caroline were certain they were screwed.

May 9 broke warm and clear. By noon, with the sun directly overhead, the temperature was in the upper seventies. A light wind blew. It was silent outside the downtown Hilton except for the shuffle of feet. Before an expectant crowd of nearly 100 people, spread out across a city block, was a collage of wrecked vehicles and 14 critically injured patients. Caroline felt frozen in place, terrified, as she watched the drill begin. Feedback squealed through speakers as one of her colleagues stepped forward and read from his script. After describing the horrific accident before the crowd, the doctor presented each of the victims’ injuries in excruciating detail—where and how they were broken open and bleeding, who was likely to die without immediate and expert care.

“If this happens in your town,” he read, “would your community be able to respond?”

The distant wail of a siren split the air. The sound grew closer, and a Freedom House ambulance rounded the corner. Two paramedics sprang out. After assessing the scene, they called four additional units. At the five-minute mark, Moon threw his truck into park and hit the street running. From the corner of his eye he could see the crowd. He reached the patient he was supposed to treat and quickly dropped to his knees.

Caroline watched as, like Moon, each paramedic hit their mark. Patients were triaged into four categories: critical, urgent, non-urgent, and deceased. In about 20 minutes, more than a dozen people were treated and transported away. For the audience, it was like glimpsing the future—one in which trained technicians dispatched into the field handled even complicated medical crises with speed, skill, and proficiency. If medics everywhere were able to do exactly this, how many lives could be saved? According to James O. Page, a pioneer and historian of emergency medicine, word quickly spread that Freedom House paramedics were “the most skilled and sophisticated in the nation.”

After the drill, Caroline sat by herself and smoked a cigarette. She felt victorious but frazzled. She watched as the crowd of doctors and experts fawned over the black paramedics from the Hill. “I found myself among these genuine, warm human beings,” she later wrote in her diary. “I have chastised them, praised them, berated them, laughed with them, cried with them. I have met their wives and husbands and parents and children. They have kept me alive.”

Now, it appeared, she’d returned the favor. A few weeks after the symposium, Freedom House won the federal grant. It would develop the first nationally recognized standards for emergency training and medical practice by paramedics. “We did something no one thought we could,” Moon said. “To have jumped those barriers, proved everyone wrong? Nobody could take away what we did or the pride we had.” Surely, he thought, Pittsburgh would agree.


Part V

Moon was wrong.

The grant would be processed through city hall, and despite its huge strides, Mayor Flaherty still saw Freedom House as expendable. That summer he announced that Pittsburgh would develop a citywide paramedic service manned by civilian medics, not the police. Freedom House wasn’t part of the plan. The city would terminate funding and the agreement to direct calls to the service before the end of 1975. Pittsburgh’s new paramedic force would be built from scratch. The city began hiring replacements, all of whom were white.

Caroline was offered the job of medical director. Safar, too, had been left out of the city’s planning—seemingly on purpose—but he urged her to accept. She resisted. “I must be the last to abandon the sinking ship,” she wrote in a letter to Safar. “You entrusted me with Freedom House, and I will see it through to its conclusion.”

Leveraging her position as the only person in Pittsburgh with direct experience running an advanced ambulance service, she told Flaherty that she would accept the job only if the Freedom House medics and dispatchers were hired alongside her. “There are 30 human beings at stake in the present power shuffle, and they count for more than any title the city or the university could bestow on me,” she wrote. She also asked that the city do its best to keep the crews together and that, on the day of the official changing of the guard, it arrange a formal ceremony to acknowledge the service Freedom House had provided Pittsburgh.

“Anxious to avoid confrontation and another ambulance controversy in the press,” as Caroline later wrote, Flaherty agreed to her demands, with one exception: There would be no ceremony, no announcement, no official recognition of what Freedom House had accomplished. Moon and the other paramedics were in shock. “It was as if Freedom House never existed,” he said.

All that remained was to close down Freedom House’s station. One day in the fall of 1975, shortly before the doors were locked, Caroline sat quietly in the front seat of a worn-out ambulance—not out of necessity, but out of devotion. As the sun streamed through the windshield and baked the cab, a frantic cry went out over the radio. A pedestrian had been struck by a car in Squirrel Hill, one of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods, one that Freedom House had never been allowed to serve. The mayor would only allow the police to cover it.

“There’s pieces of his leg all over the street!” the officer yelled into his radio. “Send Freedom House!”

Before Caroline could react, the cop came back over the airwaves to say that an ambulance had arrived on the scene, from somewhere else in the city. The dispatcher asked if she should cancel the call to Freedom House. Caroline listened in weighted silence. Finally, the air crackled as the policeman keyed up his radio once more. The medics on-site were panicking, he said. “We need someone here who knows what the hell they’re doing!”

Caroline started the engine and hit the gas.

As midnight approached on October 15, the crew room was silent. Moon stood near the front wall of glass, staring out at the night sky. The expressionless faces of his unexpected, acquired family, scattered across the space behind him, were reflected before him. Freedom House manager Bob Zepfel, a big man in a red polo shirt, grabbed the phone and dialed the Pittsburgh police dispatcher.

Freedom House had received a private letter from city hall thanking the medics for their cooperation during “this difficult period.” Flaherty had closed his brief missive with the line, “This letter will serve to acknowledge the service that has been rendered.” Caroline wrote her own letter to the staff. “You’ve taken a dream and made it real,” she began. “For many of you, this is the end of a grand adventure, the end of a dream that was born eight years ago.… And if you take with you into the future the dedication and spirit and pride which you have shown in your work here, you will keep alive all that is meaningful and important about Freedom House.”

Zepfel gripped the receiver as the medics, wearing their white jackets, looked on. “This is Mr. Zepfel, manager of Freedom House Ambulance Service,” he said when dispatch answered. “It is now 11:59 p.m. As agreed with the City of Pittsburgh, we are now going off the air.”

Twenty-six Freedom House employees went to work for the city after that final night together. Twelve months later, less than half remained. “They were forced to hire Freedom House,” Moon said. “They weren’t forced to keep us.”

In some cases, the city broke its promises to Caroline. In others, it made it all but impossible for the men to stay. Paramedics were separated from crew members they’d worked with for years. Some were weeded out with new pass-fail exams; those who made the cut were often shunted to positions that didn’t reflect their qualifications. Moon wasn’t allowed to treat patients without prior approval from the highest-ranking employee on the scene of an accident—almost always someone who had less experience than he did. Not even Caroline was immune: City officials quietly pushed her toward the door, and she left the job as medical director in 1976.

Caroline went on to write the first textbook on EMS training. She moved to Israel in 1977 and founded that country’s national ambulance system. She flew medical relief missions to Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Sudan, and Ethiopia, then returned to Israel to start its first palliative-care program. In 2002, she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. She spent her final days in her own hospice center, where she died at the age of 58. She maintained a close friendship with Safar until the end. He died the following year, at age 79, after being nominated for the Nobel Prize in Medicine three times.

John Moon stayed on with Pittsburgh’s paramedic service. He officially retired in 2009—his last role was as an assistant chief—and started running a home health-care business with his daughter. He was proud of playing a small part in nudging American medicine into the future, even if it had been cut short, and even if most people didn’t know about it. “No one imagined the impact Freedom House would have. Generations of paramedics have carried on what we started. That’s our legacy,” Moon said. “We want to be included in the history, to have a voice.”

Moon didn’t live in the Hill anymore. Still, on occasion he pointed his Cadillac toward the old neighborhood and bombed through the rolling streets. In the adrenaline rush were all the memories of Freedom House—of radio calls and heart shocks and EKG readings and blood and death and triumph and brotherhood. Since the service answered its first call, the world had changed so much, and not enough.