The Minnesota Murderess

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The Minnesota Murderess

A new wife, a dead husband, and the arsenic panic that shook the Victorian world.

By Christine Seifert

The Atavist Magazine, No. 88


Christine Seifert is a professor at Westminster College in Salt Lake City. She’s the author of the Young Adult novel The Predicteds, as well as the nonfiction books Whoppers: History’s Most Outrageous Lies and Liars and The Endless Wait: Virginity in Young Adult Literature. She has written about sex and pop culture for numerous publications.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Tekendra Parmar
Illustrator: Joe Gough

Published in February 2019. Design updated in 2021.

1. A Death Most Foul

Stanislaus Bilansky was sick. Throughout the winter he had suffered bouts of indigestion, and now it manifested as a terrible burning in the stomach after eating. Even with light meals of soup and arrowroot, he experienced pain and vomiting. During the first week of March 1859, he was mostly bedridden in his home on Stillwater Road in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

His doctor of nine years, Alfred Berthier, would later testify that he knew Stanislaus to be in good health, even if he was “gloomy” and “hypochondriacal.” Berthier thought his patient might have alcoholism, because excessive drinking could cause a persistent “inflammation upon the gastric regions.” On March 6, Berthier prescribed an absinthe tonic. Stanislaus also took Graffenburg Pills, a commercial remedy touted as a panacea for everything from cholera to hangnail. As with many so-called miracle cures patented in the 19th century, there was virtually no proof to support the claims of its medical efficacy. What it actually cured, if anything, was unclear.

Stanislaus got worse. At about 3:30 on the morning of Friday, March 11, his eldest child, Benjamin, brought him a dram of liquor. Stanislaus’s third wife, Ann, whom he had married the previous September, was resting in another room. Earlier that night, she had told her new husband that she did not wish to sleep next to him while he was feverish. This reportedly caused Stanislaus to become excited and angry. The liquor was likely an attempt to calm him so that he could get some much-needed rest.

An hour and a half after taking the drink, Stanislaus was dead. He was 52.

The burial was planned for the next day. Before the funeral procession to the cemetery, John V. Wren of the Ramsey County coroner’s office arrived at the Bilansky home to conduct a routine inquest. A quickly assembled coroner’s jury took statements from several witnesses, including members of Stanislaus’s family, a maid, and some neighbors. The panel ruled that the death was a result of natural causes—a long illness—and they chastised Stanislaus’s wife for not calling a doctor in the hours before he died. Their sharp admonition of Ann was published in one of the main local newspapers, The Daily Pioneer and Democrat.

Stanislaus was buried on Saturday, March 12, at 5 p.m. He was not in the ground. That evening one of the witnesses who had spoken to the coroner’s jury confessed to her husband that Stanislaus’s death was no accident. At his urging, she went to the police with a scandalous story of foul play. Law enforcement quickly ordered the exhumation of Stanislaus’s body. An autopsy and toxicology tests would follow.

By Sunday afternoon, police had arrested Stanislaus’s wife for homicide. They also detained her nephew John Walker in connection with the crime. The Daily Pioneer and Democrat soon ran an article claiming that Ann and Walker were having an affair and that she had killed Stanislaus, presumably to pursue the torrid romance more freely. Ann’s method of murder, authorities said, was arsenic poisoning.


So began the trials of Ann Bilansky. There were two: the legal one and the one staged in the court of public opinion. Often it was hard to tell which was which. Newspapers across Minnesota and as far away as the East Coast wrote breathless accounts of the purported murder and subsequent courtroom drama. People read those stories, staining their fingers with ink, because they were thirsty for news of the devilish Mrs. Bilansky. Like any good gothic novel or penny dreadful, the story was thrilling—all the more because it was true.

If the tone of the reportage is any indicator, for many spectators, the narrative wasn’t a whodunit. Guilt was all but certain. The mystery was why Ann would kill her husband of less than a year. Was it malice, money, or solely her love for another man? Was she born with a wicked heart, or had it curdled over the years?

In this gripping “whydunit,” each installment that appeared on newsstands was like a drug, ready to be snatched up by eager customers with a few pennies to spare. Would Ann the irredeemable go free to kill again? If not, would she rot in a musty prison cell or become the first woman executed in Minnesota, a newly minted U.S. state? Many people hoped for the latter. In their minds, Ann’s execution would serve as a symbolic cleansing of evil from a God-fearing society.

Like a Greek tragedy—Aeschylus’s Oresteia, perhaps, in which Clytemnestra murders her husband, Agamemnon—Ann’s trials spoke to the cultural moment. They were chapters in a bigger story about a macabre anxiety that gripped Victorian Europe, then traveled across the Atlantic Ocean. The story was thick with fear and hysteria, and informed by entrenched social tradition as much as incipient laboratory science. It was rooted in a singular obsession—a question that had long captured fascination and provoked dread: What is a wife capable of if she no longer needs or wants her husband?

2. Scandal in Saint Paul

With a population of about 10,000, Saint Paul was the largest city in Minnesota and the capital of the state, which joined the union in May 1858. A month prior, Mary Ann Evards Wright, who went by Ann, had arrived in town. Little is known about her life before then, except that she said she was a widow from Fayetteville, North Carolina, who had made her way to Pleasant Hill, Illinois, after the death of her husband in a railroad accident. At the request of John Walker, Ann joined him in Minnesota. Walker had been living in Saint Paul for a few years without family, and he had recently fallen ill with typhoid. He hoped his aunt would help him convalesce—or so he and Ann claimed, their critics would later assert.

Ann was in her late thirties, hardly an ingenue. She was tall, with blond hair, gray eyes, and a long nose. She had an overbite, with protruding front teeth, and a low-pitched voice. Ann did not hesitate to speak when she had something to say; The New York Times would later call her “talkable.” She seemed to have completed some education, and she had no children or much family. Ann dressed neatly, and while she was not beautiful, she carried herself with a dignity that must have been attractive.

Walker, 26, worked as a carpenter. Like his aunt, he had light eyes and blond hair, though his was curly. He was a smaller man—between five-foot-five and five-foot-seven—but he walked with good posture. It’s unclear whether aunt and nephew lived together while Walker recovered from typhoid. By some accounts they did; according to others, Ann lived with a Mrs. Harvy Davis and worked as a seamstress to make money while nursing Walker back to health.

Not long after Ann’s arrival, Walker introduced her to Stanislaus Bilansky, a man more than a decade her senior. He was of Polish descent and had left Wisconsin for the Minnesota Territory in 1842. He worked as a tailor and ran a small bar and grocery store out of his home in Lower Landing, an area of Saint Paul where steamboats traveling on the Mississippi River regularly docked. Locals regarded Stanislaus as rich because he had purchased a claim to land. The extent of his wealth is a fact lost to history, but his perceived affluence may have explained his ability to attract multiple wives. Certainly, his appearance, disposition, and habits did little to recommend him.

Stanislaus’s perceived affluence may have explained his ability to attract multiple wives. Certainly, his appearance, disposition, and habits did little to recommend him.

Short and portly, Stanislaus was described by many who knew him as an alcoholic. His second wife, a woman named Ellen, said he was “given to hard drinking” and often fell sick after “sprees” of imbibing. She also described him as jealous, cruel, and deeply superstitious. A premonition, for instance, had convinced him that he would die in the month of March.

Stanislaus had no children with his first wife, about whom little is known. He and Ellen had three: Benjamin, Rinaldo, and Kate. When, after nine or ten years of marriage, an exasperated Ellen left her malcontent husband, the children stayed with their father in his home-cum-business. When he wed again in September 1858, Ann moved in. Walker came too, occupying a two-room shanty situated on Stanislaus’s property.

If Stanislaus had ever been rich, he was not now; he lived only off his modest earnings. Ann took over the housekeeping and cared for Stanislaus’s young children. Because her husband fell ill shortly after they wed, Ann likely looked after his businesses, too.

Ann befriended Lucinda Kilpatrick, a woman who lived across the road. Lucinda, who was in her twenties, visited often through the worst of Stanislaus’s illness. She noted that Ann was stoic in her grief, never crying or appearing upset. At Stanislaus’s bedside, Lucinda heard Ann ask what should be done with his children—a fair enough question, given that she was not their mother, but odd because it seemed to show that, despite Dr. Berthier’s opinion, Ann thought Stanislaus would soon die. Perhaps she was taking cues from her husband, who was sure he “was not going to live,” according to Lucinda. Or maybe something more sinister was afoot.

Lucinda would later claim that she had not known Stanislaus to have the “blues”—indeed, she had always found him cheerful, a sharp contrast to the inebriated, pessimistic figure others saw. When she sat with him one day while he was ill, Stanislaus told Lucinda that he “had nothing to live for.”

In an attempt to console him, Lucinda told Stanislaus a story about a sick man who allowed only his wife to care for him. Then the wife died suddenly and he recovered. “He married a young girl afterwards,” Lucinda concluded triumphantly. The next day, Stanislaus was dead.


When Ann’s murder trial began on May 23, 1859, Lucinda was the prosecution’s first and most vital witness—the person who had changed her testimony shortly after speaking to the coroner’s jury. She took the stand and recounted a shopping trip that she and Ann had taken together on February 28, which in retrospect roused Lucinda’s mistrust of her friend.

According to Lucinda, she and Ann went uptown to the post office to send some letters and retrieve their mail. They then walked to W.H. Wolff’s drugstore on Third and Wabasha Streets. Ann asked for arsenic to kill rats in her home, but the price was too high for her budget. From there the women visited Day & Jenks, a different drugstore, where Ann purchased a jar of arsenic for ten cents. Ann did not dispute that she had purchased the poison, commonly used to kill pests. Stanislaus himself had requested it, she said, because rats were eating vegetables stored in their root cellar. Lucinda told the court that she had never once seen a rat in the Bilanskys’ home.

The information that most interested the jury—and the readers of next day’s papers—was what Lucinda claimed the two women had talked about during the shopping trip. If Stanislaus died, Ann allegedly said, people would be suspicious of her, so she asked Lucinda to buy the arsenic for her. “Mrs. Bilansky,” Lucinda claimed to have replied, “if I wanted arsenic, I would buy it.” Later, after Stanislaus’s death, Lucinda said that Ann came to her in a panic, begging her to say that she was the one who had purchased the poison. “If they don’t find arsenic in the stomach,” Lucinda recalled saying, “they can do nothing with you.”

In court, Lucinda presented as every bit a lady of high moral virtue. She had been shocked by the strange requests from her neighbor. She shared other details, including the conversations she had had with Stanislaus about death. She said that her husband, Andrew Kilpatrick, had offered to sit with Stanislaus on what would be his last night alive but that Ann had insisted there “was no necessity for it.” Nor had Ann been willing to call for a doctor—the very thing the coroner’s jury would later scold her for. (By some accounts, Lucinda did not share this information during the initial inquest because Ann had hidden menacingly behind a nearby curtain as the interview took place, though this claim was never substantiated.)

After Lucinda stepped down, a young woman named Rosa Scharf took the stand. Ann had hired Rosa, a local girl, as a housekeeper on March 2. Rosa told the packed courtroom that she had witnessed “improper actions” between Ann and Walker. After Stanislaus’s funeral, she saw Ann undressing with the door of her room open while Walker was in the house. Furthermore, Rosa described suspicious glances exchanged between Ann and Walker—“something in the expression of their faces and eyes” that did not “look natural.” Rosa said she asked Ann how she could be so careless about undressing in the house, to which Ann allegedly responded that she was just used to having Walker around.

Rosa recalled that she had heard Stanislaus say that he was jealous of Walker. She doubted Ann’s devotion to her husband, because Ann was not “kind and attentive” during his illness, nor did she behave “as a wife should.” Rosa then recounted an exchange with Ann that had occurred while the two women sat together in the Bilansky home prior to Stanislaus’s death. An old man ambled past the window. “I had better set my cap for him, for he has money,” Ann said, according to Rosa. When Rosa protested that a loveless match would be an unfulfilling one, Ann replied, “You could give him something to sleep himself to death.” Ann then mused about the amount of poison it would take to kill a man.

Later, Rosa claimed, Ann warned her to “be careful” when washing dishes, “for there had been food [on] them” meant for Stanislaus. After the funeral, while riding home together in a carriage, Ann purportedly told Rosa that Stanislaus “must have taken poison.” By that time, the coroner’s inquest had been closed; no one was looking for evidence of poisoning. Yet Rosa remembered Ann talking about the means of her husband’s demise as all but fact.

Neither Rosa nor Lucinda offered any tangible evidence that Ann had committed a crime. They had not seen her slip anything into Stanislaus’s food or drink, nor had they heard her confess to wrongdoing. Suspicion, though, was a mighty cudgel. Implicit in the women’s testimony was a phenomenon that everyone following the trial would have known well, a widespread panic about an unholy trinity: a housewife, ill will, and arsenic.

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3. Beware the Arsenic Assassins

Arsenic, As on the periodic table, is a metalloid found in various minerals and in pure crystalline form. The colorless, odorless white powder widely known as a poison is actually arsenic trioxide, a compound of the element. Its fatal application dates back thousands of years. In 82 B.C., responding to a spate of deaths caused by the ingestion of arsenic and other toxins, Roman ruler Lucius Cornelius Sulla made poisoning, or veneficium, a crime.

Over time, arsenic became known as a woman’s weapon when less extreme measures—the law, money, family power—were not on her side. In the 1600s, there was a thriving, female-run business in Rome and the surrounding region that sold a substance called Aqua Tofana to women who wanted to get out of marriages, particularly abusive ones. The poison, made of arsenic mixed with other substances, was a quick way to eliminate a spouse: A wife had only to put it in her husband’s food. Because the effects of poisoning—cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, rashes—mimicked any number of common illnesses, it was easy enough to get away with murder. One proprietress of the Aqua Tofana enterprise may have assisted in the killing of some 600 people before she was discovered and executed.

One of the first documented cases of arsenic poisoning in England, where between 1750 and 1914 there were more than 200 court cases involving the crime, was Mary Blandy of Oxfordshire. In 1752, she admitted to putting something in her father’s gruel and tea, but claimed she did not know it was poison. Mary was in love with a sea captain by the name of William Henry Cranstoun, a clumsy, smallpox-scarred man whom her father, Francis, did not approve of. Francis had good reason: Cranstoun was already married. Upon her arrest, Mary claimed that Cranstoun had told her to put the substance in her father’s breakfast because it was magic and would change her father’s mind. Cranstoun by then had fled. Mary was hanged.

Arsenic became known as a woman’s weapon when less extreme measures—the law, money, family power—were not on her side.

Many cases likely involved false allegations. In 1815, again in England, a 20-year-old maid named Eliza Fanning cooked dumplings for her employers, Robert and Charlotte Turner. She ate from the same pot they did, and following the meal, all three became ill. After recovering, the Turners accused Eliza of trying to kill them. They maintained that she had eaten less from the pot, so that she too would get sick but not die, and accused her of not tending to them properly during their illness. As for motive, Mrs. Turner said she was sure that Eliza was mad at her because she had recently chastised the young woman for being half-dressed in front of an apprentice. Eliza was found guilty and hanged.

To prove that poisoning allegations were true, scientists developed toxicology tests to identify arsenic. Some were more accurate than others. The best was the work of an English chemist named James Marsh. In 1836, he introduced what would become known as the Marsh test. It involved a U-shaped glass tube, open at both ends and longer on one side. Marsh dropped a small rod into the shorter arm, along with a piece of zinc, and corked it. Into the long end, he poured the suspected arsenic sample and some sulfuric acid. If the sample contained no arsenic, the zinc would bubble and vent pure hydrogen through a valve in the tube. If arsenic was present, the zinc produced a different gas, called arsine.

The test was hailed as an extraordinary development, but it was far from perfect. For one thing, arsine was dangerous if inhaled. More worrying, impure zinc often contained arsenic and could lead to false positives. Marsh argued that there was a simple solution—run the test on the zinc alone to establish its purity—but not all chemists were so fastidious. And there was another problem: A sample containing antimony, a naturally occurring substance sometimes found in the body, could produce the same results as one with arsenic.

While forensic science was still in its infancy, arsenic became as easy to buy as flour or sugar—which is exactly what it looked like. By the 1840s in England, any person with two pennies could buy an ounce and a half of the powder while shopping for tea or milk at the grocery store. Unscrupulous shopkeepers sometimes used arsenic to cut sugar, which was more expensive, while others, either careless or illiterate, mixed up the two substances. In 1858, 20 people died and more than 200 became ill after a candymaker in Yorkshire used arsenic in his confections.

There was demand for arsenic because England had a rat problem, and the poison was the perfect antidote to the disease-carrying rodents. People mixed a bit of it with oatmeal or some other food and left the concoction next to a rathole. Others washed their floors with arsenic-infused water. Still others simply set out a saucer of the powder and waited for the rat carcasses to pile up. Arsenic was also in just about anything manufacturers could think to put it in, because chemically, it gave items a rich green hue. It was used in paint, fabric, cosmetics, soap, candles, wallpaper, candy, artificial flowers, even children’s toys. Believed (wrongly) to cure diseases when administered in small doses, arsenic was also found in tinctures and remedies. One of the most famous was Dr. Fowler’s, a tonic that contained about 1 percent potassium arsenite. The manufacturer claimed that the tonic could cure leprosy and gangrene, among other conditions, but the label also contained a warning that Dr. Fowler’s would “produce abortion” if a pregnant woman took it.

Given the numerous avenues of exposure, most people were probably walking around with some level of arsenic in their system without knowing it. This made toxicology tests for willful poisoning unreliable, but that didn’t stop coroners from performing them. If the results came back positive, law enforcement was quick to assume that there had been foul play—of a sort the British public particularly relished.


Household Words, a weekly magazine edited by Charles Dickens in which articles appeared without bylines, once called murder by poisoning “a fiendish sophistication”—and nothing was more terrifying or seductive than the idea of family members killing one another at the dinner table. In 1855, according to author Sandra Hempel in her book The Inheritor’s Powder—arsenic’s Victorian-era nickname—one British paper asked its readers, “Your friends and relations all smile kindly upon you; the meal … looks correct but how can you possibly tell there is not arsenic in the curry?” The people who made the curry—who handled most any food preparation, really—were either wives or hired female help. In an era when women were beginning to demand new rights and fair treatment by men, it was only a modest leap in the popular imagination for women to embrace their Eve-like penchant for betrayal.

Fleet Street tabloids, which exploded in number after Parliament reduced the tax on papers from four pennies to one in 1836, could not get enough of black-widow stories like that of Mary Ann Geering of East Sussex, who decided to slip arsenic into her husband’s food. Richard Geering had inherited 20 pounds, and the couple’s relationship was on the rocks. Mary Ann saw an opportunity. After a weeklong illness, Richard died. Within months, two of Mary Ann’s adult sons had also died following a similar illness. A third son became sick but recovered after leaving Mary Ann’s home. The bodies of her husband and other two sons were exhumed, and toxicologists found arsenic in their stomach lining. Mary Ann confessed to poisoning and was hanged. Then there was Mary Ann Cotton, who over some 13 years poisoned three husbands and as many as 15 children. She collected insurance payments each time a family member passed away. Eventually, she was convicted and executed. Rebecca Smith also killed most of her 11 children with arsenic. Saddled with an alcoholic husband, Rebecca assumed poisoning would be preferable to slowly starving to death. She, too, was executed for her crimes.

These women were guilty, but others convicted through scientific evidence likely were not. Arsenic was everywhere and in everything, and the media claimed that any woman could be a murderess in disguise. When men—because all police were men—investigated cases of suspected poisoning, they looked for gendered motives: a woman mistreated by her employers, cheated on by her husband, or involved in a love triangle. Feeding on the arsenic panic, author Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote a three-volume best-selling novel called Lucretia, or the Children of the Night, about a stealth poisoner named Lucretia Clavering. Her last name was a reference to a village in Essex where a high-profile arsenic poisoning had occurred.

The stories, both real and imagined, so frightened people that, in 1851, Parliament passed the Sale of Arsenic Act. The law required druggists to clearly label arsenic and keep records of who bought it. Though unsuccessful, some lawmakers even pressed their colleagues to bar women from purchasing arsenic altogether. Not that doing so would have stopped the panic’s viral spread: By mid-century, fears of women wielding arsenic had hurdled over the pond.


On November 7, 1849, in eastern North Carolina, Alexander C. Simpson sat down to his dinner at around 1 p.m. At the table were his wife, Ann, a boarder named Samuel G. Smith, and a friend, one Mr. Whitfield. After the meal, Ann Simpson brought out two cups of syllabub for herself and her husband, who consumed his with a silver spoon. Both Smith and Whitfield were Sons of Temperance and did not partake of the creamy dessert drink made with wine or sherry. When Alexander finished, he asked for more; Ann gave him the rest of hers. She then got up to serve coffee, placing a cup on the table that Smith believed was for him. “Mr. Smith,” Ann allegedly corrected, “I said that was Mr. Simpson’s coffee.” Her husband, she explained, “required his coffee sweeter.” Smith was given a different cup.

Alexander became ill that evening and vomited throughout the night. W.P. Mallett, his regular doctor, saw him the next morning and prescribed pills made of calomel powder and opium, along with a dose of morphine. By Thursday evening, Alexander was suffering from severe diarrhea. He died sometime between 8 and 10 p.m.

Mallett was suspicious. After the postmortem, he placed Alexander’s stomach in a jar and brought it to Dr. Benjamin Robinson, who had experience testing gastric fluids for arsenic. Robinson performed two tests and became convinced that Alexander had died of poisoning. But was it intentional?

A coroner’s jury ruled that there was enough evidence to indict Ann for murder. The courts issued a bench warrant, but Ann had already fled to South Carolina. From there she reportedly went to Cuba, where she remained in hiding for months. She then returned to North Carolina for her trial in May 1850, undoubtedly hoping to be exonerated.

The prosecution presented a case based on Robinson’s toxicology reports. “I entertain no doubt,” Robinson said on the stand, “that there was arsenic in his stomach.” When questioned about the possible effects of the calomel prescribed by Mallet, Robinson said “it could not have produced the same results.” However, many doctors at the time disagreed. Made of a mercury compound, calomel caused gastrointestinal problems and other side effects, including bleeding gums and facial tremors. It was so suspect that, in 1825, the Richmond Enquirer published a tongue-in-cheek poem about doctors who prescribed the substance:

Since calomel’s become their boast,

How many patients have they lost,

How many thousands they make ill,

Of poison, with their calomel.

In addition to calomel, the defense pointed out, Alexander had been taking iodine during the six months before he died, to treat a scrofulous disorder. He was supposed to take only a teaspoon per day, but what if he had measured poorly? An excess of iodine could cause stomach pain, vomiting, and diarrhea. Ann’s attorney also suggested that Alexander might have had cholera, and he questioned the toxicology tests for arsenic, describing them as “uncertain, inconclusive, and fallacious.”

The prosecution mustered several witnesses who detailed Ann’s failings as a wife and as a woman. Rachel Arey, an acquaintance, claimed that Ann had said she’d visited a fortune-teller and learned that Alexander would die in a few months, leaving her free to marry “her first love.” A neighbor of the fortune-teller, who had since died, claimed that she had seen Ann visit “once or twice a day.”

The Simpsons’ boarder, Samuel Smith, claimed that Ann had once asked him about the effects of arsenic. A clerk in a local store testified that he had sold an ounce of the poison to Ann a week before Alexander died. Nancy Register, a seamstress who had lived with the Simpsons for a short period, claimed that Ann once read aloud from a letter Alexander had sent her. Despite professing not to remember much of the letter, which Ann allegedly had burned, Register managed to recite a good deal of it: “I once thought you loved me, but now I have reasons to suspect, that you love another better than me. For the sake of your friends, you may stay in my house, but you must find your own clothes as well as you can. Prepare a bed for me up-stairs tonight. You can no longer be my wife.” Register also testified that Ann had never loved Alexander and had only married him for money.

According to the prosecutor, the “vices of the world” had worked upon Ann, leading her to commit “the most horrid and detestable” of wrongs. The judge chimed in to call it “the darkest in the catalogue of crimes.” Even Ann’s attorney said that murdering a husband was “so monstrous, so revolting, so unnatural, that one is tempted to pronounce its impossibility.” Still, he argued, Ann had not done it. He asked the jury to picture his client with “her fair neck bared, and circled by the hempen cord, her delicate frame enveloped in the felon’s shroud, and the scene closes upon the gallows and the grave.” The lawyer then urged, “Gentlemen, you can let her live.”

The trial lasted until 3 a.m. on a Friday morning, at which time the judge sent the jury directly to deliberate, fearing that a period of rest would provide too many opportunities for outside opinions to taint their views. Three hours later, the jury returned. The verdict was shocking: not guilty.

Ann Simpson left the courtroom a free woman, but she would be remembered by many people in North Carolina and beyond as the woman who got away with murder. Nine years later, when Ann Bilansky went on trial in Minnesota, the prosecution was determined to avoid the same humiliating outcome.

4. Not to Soothe but to Destroy

On May 28, 1859, the fifth day of the trial, the defense team cross-examined William H. Morton, one of the prosecution’s medical experts. According to The Daily Pioneer and Democrat, Morton and two other doctors had conducted a postmortem examination of Stanislaus Bilansky’s stomach and found internal inflammation that indicated possible arsenic poisoning. They then performed the Marsh test, along with a number of other procedures, which Morton said revealed a fatal amount of poison. He testified that the cause of death was arsenic in “sufficient quantity” to have killed poor Stanislaus within half an hour.

Ann’s defense set about explaining the problems with the tests. First, the lawyers cast doubt on Morton’s abilities as a toxicologist by asking him to explain the result of each experiment he had run. Morton said there had been five tests in all, and he admitted that two were known to provide inconsistent results, while another pair had produced no evidence of arsenic. Only the fifth had yielded a positive result that might stand up in court. Morton also admitted that he had not performed any arsenic tests prior to Ann’s case and generally had little experience with chemistry. Morton confessed to using nitric acid instead of sulfuric acid in one test, a mistake that might have affected the results. Lastly, he acknowledged that antimony, sometimes found in the stomach, can produce lab results similar to those of arsenic. As The Daily Pioneer and Democrat reported, “Antimony is the most common source of fallacy in Marsh’s test,” and illness caused by arsenic and by antinomy “would be very nearly the same.”

The defense introduced a Dr. Vervais, who criticized Morton’s findings. Even the test that had identified arsenic, Vervais said, could have been flawed if, say, the glass laboratory tube had overheated. Questioning scientific evidence was the defense’s best move, given that forensic toxicology was so new to the public and the courts, particularly in a fledgling state like Minnesota. Still, science on its face could be convincing, and the media played loose with facts. The Duluth News-Tribune, the eponymous paper of record in a town some 150 miles north of Saint Paul, published a story indicating that arsenic was definitively present in Stanislaus’s stomach.

District attorney Isaac Heard, the lead prosecutor, knew that the scientific evidence might not be enough to convict Ann. He told the jury that, while they must be convinced of guilt, the reasons “need not amount to absolute demonstration, such as alone can be obtained by mathematical science.” Heard said the jurors should rely on testimony that was rational and probable—testimony like that of Lucinda Kilpatrick and Rosa Scharf. What did their statements reveal about the sort of woman Ann really was? On the one hand, men were supposed to be stronger, smarter, and more capable than their wives. But even the best of them could be felled if they trusted wily, unscrupulous, or deranged women.

The press tackled this angle with vigor. One reporter argued that the Bilansky case was a “tragedy, which has been enacted all the world over, wherever a woman, bad enough to be a harlot and bold enough to be a murderer, has wished to get rid of a husband whom she disliked, for a paramour whom she preferred.” Because Ann never testified in her defense, her voice was all but absent from news stories. In its place, the press projected a caricature. On the second day of the trial, The Daily Pioneer and Democrat described Ann as “composed and self-possessed,” an indication that she did “not show a deep concern in the proceedings.” When Lucinda testified, the paper claimed, Ann displayed “feelings of enmity … frequently smiling behind her handkerchief, as if intent on bringing scandalous information to light.” Ann demonstrated “more concern and anxiety” when Rosa took the stand, suggesting that the forthcoming testimony would reveal something damning—something newspaper readers ought to pay close attention to. Rosa went on to claim that Ann and Walker were lovers.

The case was a “tragedy, which has been enacted all the world over, wherever a woman, bad enough to be a harlot and bold enough to be a murderer, has wished to get rid of a husband whom she disliked, for a paramour whom she preferred.”

The Daily Pioneer and Democrat also described Ann’s defense as “slight.” In fact it was anything but. Multiple witnesses testified that Stanislaus was depressive by nature and at times even suicidal. Orrin Branch, a family friend, testified that once, when Stanislaus did not come to an appointment, Branch assumed that he had killed himself because he was “trouble-prone.” If Stanislaus did die from ingesting arsenic, might he have taken it himself? Stanislaus’s ex-wife Ellen testified to his disagreeable nature. Dr. Berthier spoke of his drinking habit and persistent stomach problems. A neighbor, G. B. Galinksa, said that Stanislaus had talked about financial problems, including $200 in debt on which he was paying 36 percent interest.

One of the Bilansky children, ten-year-old Benjamin, testified that, contrary to what Lucinda had said, the family did have rats in their home. Three other witnesses corroborated his statement. As for Ann’s alleged affair with her nephew, everyone who lived in the house swore they had never seen Ann in Walker’s rooms. If she undressed while Walker was in the main house, the two were well separated by a wall.

The defense tried to pursue a line of argument undercutting Lucinda’s testimony. The lawyers had obtained evidence that Lucinda may have had her own incriminating secrets: romantic letters and gifts that she had sent to Walker. Was she jealous of Ann’s close bond with her nephew? Did Ann’s disapproval stand in the way of Lucinda pursuing an affair with the young man? Had Lucinda sensed an opportunity with Stanislaus’s death to get Ann out of her way? And surely it was odd that Rosa had boarded with Lucinda and her husband during the trial, providing the perfect opportunity for the two women to square their stories.

For unclear reasons, the judge ruled the content of the letters from Lucinda to Walker inadmissible, but Ann’s defense still peppered the witness with questions about her motivations for sending them. In response, Lucinda stonewalled. She refused to talk about her past, including relationships prior to her marriage. She also would not answer questions about a ring and breast pin that she allegedly had given to Walker.

“Did you in the months of December, January, and February send letters or other messages of love and affection to Mr. Walker?” a defense attorney asked.

Lucinda replied, “I decline answering.”

“When did your friendly acquaintance with Mr. Walker commence?”

“I am not prepared to answer this question.”

Frustrated, perhaps, by the lack of forthcoming information, a reporter for The Daily Pioneer and Democrat skipped printing further details about the exchange. He wrote instead, “Very much time was consumed in arguing technicalities and the admissibility and regularity of questions.”

By the time Walker took the stand, he faced no charges in the case; the police had dropped them for lack of evidence. Walker defended his aunt, swearing that he and Ann were not having an affair. He claimed that he did not have a romantic relationship with Lucinda either, but noted that they had fallen out as friends in the recent past. (Lucinda said she “couldn’t tell the time when the coldness commenced.” ) Walker cast doubt on Lucinda’s indictment of Ann for not calling her husband a doctor the night he died, testifying that Stanislaus himself stubbornly refused treatment because he feared being overcharged.

The idea, as an author writing about Ann’s case a century later would put it, that Walker might have “agitated the bosoms of at least two women involved in the trial” certainly made for good newspaper copy. Reporters, however, skimmed over the matter and all but dismissed Walker’s testimony. They presented Lucinda as an obedient, dependable woman, the kind that society needed, in contrast to Ann, who would stop at nothing to have “more unrestrained intercourse.”

The prosecution closed its case by reminding the jury that Ann had committed murder “coolly” and with the “subtle instrument” of arsenic. She had taken advantage of her husband’s trust and doctored his “food and drink by her hands not to soothe and save but to destroy.” Heard, the prosecutor, told the jurors—all of them men, and most of them likely married—that “no more atrocious crime can be committed.”

After five hours of deliberation, the jury returned to the courtroom at around 5:30 p.m. on June 3, 1859. It had reached a verdict: Ann was guilty of first-degree murder.

5. The Bird Had Flown

The Daily Pioneer and Democrat later mused that the jury was unsympathetic because Ann “seemed to be utterly devoid of all natural female modesty, and even of common decency.” That word—decency—shaped what happened next, as Minnesota authorities and Saint Paul society debated what to do with their very own murderess: lock her away for life or let her hang.

Minnesota turned one year old the same month as Ann’s trial, and the state was eager to demonstrate to its East Coast brethren that it was no longer merely a northern outpost of the Wild West. In August 1859, The Daily Pioneer and Democrat ran a front-page article called “What Is Said of Us,” regaling readers with visiting reporters’ impressions of the state. Cosmopolitan correspondents, Minnesotans were told, “uniformly express their admiration of the scenery and great fertility, and astonishment at the rapid progress we have made.” The article relayed the rhapsodies of one New York reporter too overwhelmed to “convey the impression which the magnificent country made” on him.

Executing a woman could tarnish the civilized veneer that Minnesota was so diligently polishing. Death-penalty abolitionists throughout America had long argued that killing a woman was below the dignity of the state; even many proponents of the punishment agreed. In the mid-1800s, The New York Times began editorializing against hanging women because it was not “proper.” In practice, the penalty was rare. During the 19th century, just 49 women were executed in America, most after being convicted of killing their husbands. That figure was less than the number of executions nationwide in most years—63 in 1859, for instance.

The St. Cloud Democrat, a Minnesota newspaper, echoed the decency argument in an editorial opposing a sentence of execution for Ann. State-sanctioned murder was no different than blood vengeance, the paper argued, so if the government decided to put its most famous prisoner to death, “the Haiwain [sic] islands … would be a suitable place”—a racist dig at the Pacific kingdom. Justice Charles E. Flandrau of the Minnesota Supreme Court opposed execution, too. “It rather shocks my private sense of humanity,” Flandrau wrote in a letter to the governor, “inflicting the extreme penalty on a woman.” But plenty of people disagreed. The Daily Pioneer and Democrat reported on the “eagerness and persistency” of women in Saint Paul who wanted to watch Ann hang. Proponents believed her execution could serve as a lesson to other wives tempted to rid themselves of their husbands.

While the debate unfurled, Ann held out hope, however small, that the state would overturn her conviction, rendering the prison-or-death question moot. Through the summer of 1859, she sat in a Saint Paul jail cell awaiting news of an appeal her lawyers had filed. On the afternoon of July 25, Walker visited Ann to deliver bad news: The state Supreme Court had denied her petition, which meant that she had exhausted her options to prove her innocence. A judge would sentence her before the end of the year.

Walker stayed with Ann for two hours, comforting her. After he left, Ann paced the jail’s halls until about 8 p.m., which was when the guard, a man named Smith, went to fetch the keys to return the prisoner to her cell. Ann seized the moment. She ran down a set of stairs into the basement and pushed herself through a small, only partially barred window. Her feet touched the ground, and Ann ran.


When Smith realized Ann was not in the hall where he had left her, he assumed she had gone to her cell and was waiting for him there. She was not, so Smith searched the rest of the jail. Only after going downstairs to the basement and seeing the window did he conclude, as The Daily Pioneer and Democrat reported, “that the bird had flown.”

Smith sounded the alarm, and the police immediately began a search throughout Saint Paul. They placed roadblocks at the edges of town and stopped passing carriages. The sheriff’s office made handbills that proclaimed in bold type, “ESCAPE OF A MURDERESS.” A $500 reward was promised to anyone who captured her.

Smith came under suspicion for being part of the escape plot. He claimed to have left Ann alone for only one or two minutes, but The Daily Pioneer and Democrat argued that “it requires too great of a stretch of credulity to suppose that Mrs. Bilansky escaped through the carelessness of the jailor—unless indeed the jailor was paid for his carelessness.” (Either that or Smith was “an idiot.” ) The New York Evening Post, meanwhile, reported “criminal carelessness, if not still more criminal corruption, on the part of the jailer.” Implied in the reporting was the notion that Ann could not have escaped by her own wits.

For nearly a week, Ann was on the lam. Her flight was the talk of Saint Paul. Police and citizens looked high and low for her, not because she posed any danger but because her escape surely signaled the guilt her lawyers had so vehemently denied. Ann had to be caught and brought to justice.

On August 1, she was spotted on a road about two miles outside Saint Paul, headed toward the town of St. Anthony. Ann was dressed in men’s clothes—a disguise, presumably—and accompanied by Walker. Upon their arrest, The Daily Pioneer and Democrat reported that Ann “manifested considerable emotion,” while “Walker was as cool as usual.” The circumstances only solidified public perception that their relationship was unseemly.

During questioning, it emerged that Ann initially had hidden near Como Lake, a 70-acre body of water in greater Saint Paul. She had convinced a boy from a nearby farm to bring her food and send word to Walker about her whereabouts. Walker then provided her with men’s clothing and found a barn—owned by George Lumsden, a man who had been in jail with Ann and befriended her—where she could conceal herself. When they left Saint Paul, Walker and Ann had decided to walk west after discerning that search parties were looking for her to the east.

Walker spent a month in jail but was not indicted for aiding Ann. He was released on September 13. Ann, meanwhile, was kept under close watch by the sheriff. Livid that she had made a fool of his department, he reportedly treated Ann with great cruelty.


On Friday, December 2, 1859, Ann entered the Ramsey County courthouse for her long-awaited sentencing. Accompanying her was a new defense attorney, Willis Gorman, a former governor of the Minnesota Territory. The Daily Pioneer and Democrat wrote that Ann walked with a “firm step” but used a handkerchief to cover her face. The judge asked if she would like to make a statement to the court. Ann rose to speak, one of the only times she had been allowed to defend herself on the record.

“If I die in this case, I die an innocent woman,” she declared. “I don’t think I have had a fair and just trial. You can proceed.”

According to a journalist, the judge told Ann that she would receive “no pardon” and that “it was useless for her to attempt to avert her doom,” which was “as certain as her crime had been heinous.” He sentenced her to one month in solitary confinement and then to be “hung by the neck until you are dead.” Ann began to cry. Unfazed, the judge continued: “May God, in his infinite compassion, have mercy upon your soul.”

6. The Last Days of a Pettifogger

Minnesotans reveled in having a wicked celebrity. The Daily Pioneer and Democrat mused that “probably no jail ever contained a criminal, either male or female, under imprisonment for such a crime, who exhibited such a complete want of decency and propriety.” When meeting with visitors, Ann reportedly discussed the trial in minute detail, but the paper said she could not be trusted to tell the truth, being a “complete pettifogger.” People around Saint Paul began jokingly accusing anyone who told a lie of having “been to see Mrs. Bilansky.”

Still, many locals remained uncomfortable with the idea of Ann, or any woman, dying at the hands of the state. A contingent dubbed “the friends of Mrs. Bilansky” by the press implored the governor, Henry Hastings Sibley, a Democrat, to commute her sentence prior to leaving office at the end of 1859. Instead, Sibley passed the decision off to his successor, a Republican named Alexander Ramsey.

Lessening Ann’s sentence ran contrary to the new governor’s interests for three reasons. First, his brother had sat on the jury that convicted her. Second, both of Ann’s defense attorneys were Ramsey’s political enemies. Third, the governor was concerned that there would be an outbreak of violent crime if citizens believed the justice system was weak in the face of a wretched menace. Ann wrote a four-page letter to Ramsey imploring him to reconsider her sentence and “throw around me the bulwark of [the law’s] protection.” She said, “[I have] waited patiently to have an opportunity to satisfy the public mind of innocence of the crime on which I have been imperfectly and unfairly tried.” Ramsey was unmoved. He recorded his exasperation with Ann’s dedicated supporters in his journal, claiming “much annoyance on the part of the persons asking her commutation.”

Ann spent her days in religious study, showing what one reporter described as “an earnest desire to make preparation for the great change that awaited her.” She mingled with other prisoners, speaking frankly about her fate. She reportedly told one inmate that, on the day of execution, “Old Gabriel will blow his trump for me—I wish he would blow it before that time and knock Ramsey County jail higher than a kite.” When she was not angry, Ann could be forgiving. “Mrs. Kilpatrick made a great many false statements,” Ann once said of Lucinda. “I always believed that her husband forced her to do so.”

People around Saint Paul began jokingly accusing someone who told a lie of having “been to see Mrs. Bilansky.”

The twists in Ann’s case were not done yet: On January 5, 1860, Rosa Scharf died of a drug overdose. The night prior to her death, Rosa reportedly had visited the Kilpatricks to discuss Ann’s fate. She then returned to the family for whom she had worked as a housekeeper since Ann’s trial. Rosa took a large amount of laudanum and never woke up.

Her death may have been an accident, as laudanum was widely used for medical reasons. If it was suicide, however, that raised a question: Why did Rosa want to die? Could it have been because she felt guilty about giving damning testimony about Ann? Was it possible that she had lied under oath? Lucinda might have had an answer, even if it was as simple as denying that Rosa’s death had anything to do with Ann. To the press, however, she was silent on the matter.

Whatever doubts Rosa’s death sowed, three weeks later, on January 25, Ramsey signed the order of execution. The date of Ann’s hanging was set for March 23, some time between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Until then, the forces opposed to it vowed to continue their fight.

On March 5, the Minnesota state legislature passed a bill commuting Ann’s sentence to life in prison. That would serve the dual purpose, lawmakers argued, of punishing her transgressions and showing Minnesota to be as refined as any other state and as paternal as a gentleman toward even the most wayward women. Three days later, in what The Daily Pioneer and Democrat described as a “manly veto,” Ramsey overturned the bill. As a reporter relayed, Ramsey believed the legislation was unconstitutional because it effectively took away his sole power to pardon the convicted. He wanted to show the world that Minnesota had no “contempt for the law.”

Two weeks later, on March 22, the day before the scheduled execution, the man who had prosecuted Ann stepped forward to demand mercy. District attorney Isaac Heard wrote a letter to Ramsey. Whether motivated by his conscience or an allegiance to the letter of the law, Heard said that Ann’s trial had been been marred by at least two problems. First, the jury had been allowed a three-day weekend in the midst of the proceedings, during which they had almost certainly heard talk of the trial, including details about the case printed in the papers but not presented in court. Second, Heard pointed out that Ann’s first defense attorney, a Yale graduate named John Brisbin, had fallen ill during the trial and had not been able to present a robust exculpatory case.

That evening, in her cell, Ann once more awaited news from Ramsey’s office. She was 40 years old. Would she make it to 41? Would Heard’s letter be her deliverance? In the months that she had spent behind bars, Ann had been baptized and confirmed a Catholic. Now she prayed for salvation.


At 3 a.m., Ann fell asleep on her cot. She awoke a few hours later to stillness: There had been no word from the governor. A priest, Father Caillet, eventually came to sit with her, along with some nuns and other devout Saint Paul ladies who could not countenance the barbarity of executing a woman. Outside, people were streaming into the main public square to witness Ann’s death.

Ann calmly ate a small breakfast at 8 a.m. She offered a gift to one of the jailers, a Mr. Hoffman, who had been kind to her during her incarceration. It was a book entitled The Most Important Tenets of the Catholic Church Explained. Inside was tucked a letter in which Ann urged Hoffman to seek God so that he might “prepare an entrance in that blessed abode.” One by one, Ann said goodbye to her fellow prisoners, speaking through her tears. She met with a few visitors to bid farewell. Walker was not among them; he had left Saint Paul for good.

At 10:15 a.m., Ann emerged from her cell dressed in a long black robe and brown veil. She stood arm-in-arm with Caillet on one side and Hoffman on the other. Before they exited the jail, Bilansky leaned into Hoffman and made a request. “Don’t let a crowd see me,” she pleaded. “I am willing to meet my God, but I don’t want to have a crowd see me die.”

There was nothing Hoffman could do to honor her wish. The gallows were in a small enclosure outside the jail. About 100 people had crammed into the space. Among them were a few dozen women, some with babies in their arms, which prompted the The Daily Pioneer and Democrat to write, “What could have induced these women to voluntarily witness a spectacle so harrowing to the feelings of even the ‘sterner men,’ we cannot imagine.” Outside the enclosure, a crowd of 2,000 people also hoped for a glimpse of the murderess. They stood on a large pile of stones in the square, gaining a view of the gallows’ posts. Others climbed onto rooftops, wagons, or carriages.

Members of the Pioneer Guard, a volunteer state militia, dressed in heavy coats and caps stood sentinel with guns at the ready to keep the crowd at bay. But people never grew disorderly, The Daily Pioneer and Democrat reported. They may have been there to witness theater, but they respected the solemnity of the show. A woman was about to die. It was clear that no answer would come from the governor. Time and hope had run out.

Ann walked to the gallows. She stood atop the platform before the sea of onlookers and delivered a short speech. “I die without having had any mercy shown me, or justice,” she said. “I die for the good of my soul and not for murder. May you all profit by my death. Your courts of justice are not courts of justice—but I will get justice in heaven.”

Ann requested that a traditional black hood be pulled over her face. She asked, too, that the noose be placed carefully so that her neck would break and she would not die by suffocation. Hoffman slung the rope around her like a collar and tightened it. Ann asked aloud for Jesus Christ to save her soul. “She was not defiant or stoical; neither did she shed a tear,” the Cleveland Morning Leader reported.

She stepped off the platform.

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7. The Legend of Ann Bilansky

Ann’s lifeless body dangled in the air, swaying, for 20 minutes. The crowd scarcely made a sound, save murmured prayers. Then, just as quietly, it dispersed. The somber show was over. Minnesota had carried out what is now believed to be its first legal execution as a U.S. state. It was the only one that would ever involve a woman: Minnesota banned the death penalty in 1911.

The public and press were not done with Ann yet, however. A year after her hanging, The New York Times published a brief article suggesting that, in fact, she may have killed more than one man. Recall Ann Simpson, the woman acquitted of poisoning her husband with arsenic in North Carolina in 1850. The paper pointed out that the women had the same first name and that both hailed from Fayetteville, a town of fewer than 5,000 people. No one—at least among the sources the Times spoke to for its article—knew much about what had happened to Ann Simpson after her trial. Likewise, Ann Bilansky’s life before she came to Saint Paul was an empty box. Was this a coincidence? Or had Ann Simpson been found innocent in error, only to make her way north, change her name and backstory, and murder another husband?

Seemingly no attempt was made to contact whatever remaining family Ann Bilansky had in North Carolina. Still, the Times said it “tend[ed] to the belief” that the two women were “the same person.” Other papers agreed. The Milwaukee Sentinel ran an article with the headline “The Murderess of Two Husbands.” In death, Ann Bilansky was becoming even more infamous.

Had Ann Simpson been found innocent in error, only to make her way north, change her name and backstory, and murder another husband?

There is no hard evidence that the women were one in the same. The press in North Carolina described Ann Simpson as petite, with dark eyes and a small nose—a beauty—not tall and gawky like Ann Bilansky. Based on newspaper accounts and trial transcripts, historical researchers believe that Ann Bilansky’s first husband was a Mr. Wright who died in a rail accident, as she had claimed, though neither their marriage license nor his death certificate seems to be available today. As for Ann Simpson, after inheriting her deceased husband’s sizable estate, she married again: On April 17, 1852, in Charleston, South Carolina, she said I do to Charles Young. What happened to her after that is not wholly clear, but according to at least one account, the Youngs lived in the Low Country for some time, and upon her death, Ann was buried in Fayetteville.

The more likely explanation for the media’s conjecture is that they were following a script written over the course of the arsenic panic. Both Anns—in possession of one of the most common names in the English-speaking world—were rumored to be married to men they did not love and to be sexually involved with others. Both of their husbands died after exhibiting symptoms of poisoning. When they combined those narrative elements with the women’s shared connection to Fayetteville, the media had a truly sensational story: A wife worse than any you can imagine. A traveling threat. A serial arsenic assassin.

Other women were charged with arsenic poisoning in America before the heyday of the panic passed. Mary Hartung of Albany, New York, served five years in prison for the crime, though she claimed her lover was the one who had poisoned her husband. Sarah Jane Whiteling of Philadelphia was hanged in 1889, after being convicted of killing her husband and children. Whether they were guilty or innocent, women’s cases were often riddled with ugly misogyny, flawed toxicology, and salacious press coverage—all of it familiar.

In no small part, bias and errors derived from a culture-wide fear of gender deviance. In the 1800s, women were incrementally gaining power and choosing their own destinies. What if they went so far as to kill men who stood in their way? Just as much as the state needed to punish murder, so too did it have to enforce proper womanhood in a rapidly changing social order. Science, journalism, and law, still the dominions of men, were tools for catching bad women and holding them accountable.

Was Ann Bilansky guilty? Most likely not. At the very least, she did not receive a fair trial. She was, however, transgressive in her own way. She did not embody the feminine ideal. She had no children of her own, and she liked to talk, perhaps too much for men’s taste. She traveled alone across America. Her only close relative was a young, single man. That she was not a high-society gentlewoman but a working wife surely did her no favors in the public eye.

In her final days, Ann told reporters that she had suffered enough “for all the wrongs I have ever done in my life.” None of those wrongs, it seems, was greater than being a Victorian woman with a dead husband on her hands.

A Note on Sourcing

A number of historians have written about Ann Bilansky’s case. Matthew Cecil’s essay “Justice in Heaven: The Trial of Ann Bilansky,” published in Minnesota History (Winter 1997–98), was particularly helpful as a starting point. I followed Cecil’s lead to the archive of 1859–60 Daily Pioneer and Democrat articles, all of which were generously loaned to me on microfilm from the Minnesota Historical Society.

A number of books included helpful chapters on Stanislaus and Ann Bilansky. Most notable are Legacy of Violence: Lynch Mobs and Executions in Minnesota, by John D. Bessler (University of Minnesota Press, 2006); “The Penalty Is Death”: U.S. Newspaper Coverage of Women’s Executions, by Marlin Shipman (University of Missouri Press, 2002); Murder in Minnesota: A Collection of True Cases, by Walter N. Trenerry (Minnesota Historical Society, 1962); Women and Capital Punishment in America, 1840–1899: Death Sentences and Executions in the United States and Canada, by Kerry Segrave (McFarland and Company, 2008); and A History of the City of Saint Paul to 1875, by J. Fletcher Williams (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1983).

John D. Bessler’s article “The ‘Midnight Assassination Law’ and Minnesota’s Anti-Death Penalty Movement, 1849–1911,” published in the William Mitchell Law Review (1996), provided vital information about Minnesota’s history with execution. “Gall, Gallantry, and the Gallows: Capital Punishment and the Social Construction of Gender, 1840–1920,” by Annulla Linders and Alana Van Gundy-Yoder, published in Gender and Society (2008), did the same for details about women and the death penalty.

Arsenic has an insidious and rollicking history. Sandra Hempel’s book The Inheritor’s Powder: A Tale of Arsenic, Murder, and the New Forensic Science (W. W. Norton and Company, 2013) is a treasure trove of fascinating facts and lore, along with ghastly stories about the arsenic panic. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill generously lent me a delicate copy of Ann K. Simpson’s trial transcripts, printed and bound between dusty covers. Author and researcher Karen Cecil Smith provided additional information about Simpson’s life and death.

Lastly, two individuals were invaluable to my research. Roxanne Derda, circulation manager at Westminster College’s Giovale Library, managed an onslaught of interlibrary loan requests, listened to me talk about arsenic for many months, and helped me sort through archived materials. Chris Dasanjh, librarian and head of collections and access at Giovale Library, provided the Minnesota Supreme Court opinions on the Bilansky case.

The Whalers’ Odyssey

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The Whalers’ Odyssey

A courageous tribe, a colossal foe, and a terrifying ocean voyage.

Story and Photos by Doug Bock Clark

The Atavist Magazine, No. 84


Doug Bock Clark’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, GQ, Wired, Rolling Stone, and The New Republic, among other publications. He won the 2017 Arthur L. Carter Reporting Award and is a visiting scholar at New York University’s Journalism Institute. This story is adapted from Clark’s first book, The Last Whalers (Little, Brown), which is available for order.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Adam Przybyl

Published in October 2018. Design updated in 2021.

Prologue

The Lamalerans are the last of their kind. For five centuries, the Indonesian tribe has survived by hunting whales from a rocky Pacific island so remote that their countrymen call it the land left behind. Several Inuit communities hunt the massive mammals, too, but the Arctic seafarers increasingly derive sustenance from packaged foods and mechanized fishing methods. Not the Lamalerans. The 1,500 tribespeople still get most of their calories by spearing prey with bamboo harpoons. Annually, they take about 20 sperm whales—from a worldwide population in the hundreds of thousands—and use every part of their catch. They jerky the meat to feed themselves through the lean monsoon season, when storms make it difficult to launch boats.

From 2014 through 2017, over several extended visits, I lived with the Lamalerans to document their exceptional but threatened culture. The tribe has long followed the ways of their ancestors, a set of rules handed down through the generations that dictate a camaraderie so intense that anthropologists have ranked the Lamalerans as one of humanity’s most cooperative societies. Today, venerable traditions are being undermined by cell phones, television, government regulations, and other modern influences. One area where the old ways persist, though, is the hunt: Dozens of Lamaleran men still coordinate on ancient wooden boats to kill the largest toothed predator in the world, then share in the bounty.

Whaling is harsh, dangerous work, and not every hunt is successful. Such was the case in 1994, when the Lamalerans undertook a harrowing voyage that became the kind of legend that fathers tell their sons. Not only did they fight for their lives against a seemingly invincible whale, but they confronted a danger new to many of them, one more threatening than any leviathan: the outside world.

Baleo! Baleo!—“The hunt is on!”

The cry resounded through the seaside village of Lamalera, beginning on the beach and sweeping through the ramshackle houses and surrounding jungle as every man, woman, and child who heard it added a voice to the shouted relay, chorusing that sperm whales had been sighted. It was a Thursday in early March 1994, and the squalls of the monsoon season were nearing their end. Many hunters were pile-driving flagstones into their village’s single dirt road, which had all but liquefied during months of rain. They dropped their shovels and sprinted to the shore. Using log rollers and their shoulders, they shoved the téna, their 35-foot wooden whaling ships, across the sand and into the surf. Captains yelled exhortations. Once the water unyoked the weight of a boat from the backs of its crew, the men leaped aboard.

Ignatius Blikololong, 44 years old and one of the most renowned harpooners in the tribe despite his slight frame, had bid a hasty but impassioned farewell to Teresea, his wife, before setting out. Teresea was due to give birth to their next child at any hour. Ignatius did not want to leave her, but he could not shirk his duty; the tribe had almost exhausted its food stores. As he clambered atop his hâmmâlollo, a bamboo platform jutting five feet from the prow of the téna, and sharpened his harpoons, he prayed for a swift and safe return.

Also aboard Ignatius’s téna, which was called the Téti Heri, was Yosef Boko Hariona, Teresea’s close relative. He was entering his sixth decade and his eyesight was faltering, but still he whaled; his son had died, and there was no other man to support his wife, husbandless daughter, and grandchildren. Yosef Boko wielded the ship’s tiller oar as the crew paddled through the breakers. Though he could no longer stroke as forcefully as younger men, he steered with savvy.

Six boats in all cut through the waves, chasing the white whale spouts, which contrasted against the dark sea and stormy sky. As they rowed the men sang:

Kidé ajaka tani-tena (Many widows and orphans cry)

Lié doré angina (Requesting for the wind to join us)

Hari hélu bo kanato. (And for the fish to come to us.)

The Lamalerans sing for every occasion. To celebrate a successful hunt or to lament returning home empty-handed. While axing trees, building boats, pestling rice into flour, weaving sarongs, rocking babies to sleep, and recounting the stories of the ancestors. The songs are more than music—they are prayers. The Lamalerans believe that everything, from whales to the sun, has a spirit they must honor. The music entreats the winds to rise, the waves to fall, and the ghosts of the tribe’s dead, whom they worship according to a unique mixture of Catholicism and animism, to help the living. The Lamalerans believe that the ancestors send sperm whales to sustain the tribe and as a reward for following the old ways.

Ignatius Blikololong calls to the whales.

The group of téna converged on the whales like a wolf pack. Aboard the Téti Heri, Yosef Boko called out a rhythm and ten men with hand-carved wooden oars paddled in unison. When the boats were sufficiently close to the whales, which weighed dozens of tons each, Yosef Boko shouted, “Nuro menaluf!” (hunger spoon). Colloquially, it means, “Row as fast as you’d spoon rice if you were starving!” Or perhaps most accurately, “Row like you want to feed your families!”

On the hâmmâlollo, as his crew paddled furiously to bring him within striking distance, Ignatius readied his 15-foot bamboo harpoon, which was tipped with a foot-long iron spearhead, forged in the village. He got so close to his prey that he could see ellipses of O’s dimpling its gray snout, stamped by the suckers of giant squid the whale had devoured a mile below the ocean’s surface. Ignatius crouched low, his muscles quivering as he held his weapon above his head, then he dove off the hâmmâlollo with kamikaze grace, ramming the harpoon into his prey with the full weight of his body. The harpoon’s shaft shuddered, bent, and then straightened, stuck in the soft flesh two feet below the whale’s dorsal hump. Ignatius rebounded off the animal’s flank and into the sea, then frantically swam back to the Téti Heri.

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A harpooner jumps to spear a whale.

The Lamalerans’ strategy in a hunt is to land as many harpoons as possible. As a second lamafa (harpooner) from another téna added his weapon to the animal’s back, the ropes attached to the harpoons drew taut, and soon the whale was pulling the weight of both ships. Ignatius and the other hunters hoped that the animal would soon exhaust itself, allowing the men to swim alongside it and saw at it with their knives until it bled to death and they could drag it ashore. As the Téti Heri and the other boat harried their prey, the other four téna speared the remaining whales in the school, including a 30-ton female and a toothless, 10-foot infant.

At first the battle was close enough to shore that Teresea and the other hunters’ wives watched, as if Lamalera’s oceanside cliffs were bleachers and the sea a stadium. Whaling was always risky, with injuries and occasionally death resulting from the hunts, but it was also routine enough that any sense of danger was dulled. Before long two téna brought the female and baby whales to the beach, the crews singing gratefully to honor the ancestors. But the Téti Heri, along with three other téna, were dragged by their whales over the horizon. Teresea and the other women returned to weaving or cooking, keeping one eye on the sea.

By late afternoon, instead of the palm-leaf sails of the téna appearing again in the bay, a storm front arose. The ways of the ancestors forbade the use of engines on whaling boats, but the tribe did have two skiffs equipped with outboard motors, which it dispatched to find the hunters. Strafing rain turned the search party around. At dusk the downpour broke briefly, and the tribe lit signal fires on the beach to guide the whalers home. Fresh rain soon extinguished the flames. The weather made Teresea nervous, but hunts sometimes extended overnight. There was no cause for worry yet.

Through the night, Teresea crouched in her bamboo hut and cradled her pregnant belly. Her youngest son, Ben, slept on a mattress stitched out of old rice sacks and stuffed with corn husks; he had tried to maintain a vigil for his father and to comfort his mother, but eventually he had succumbed to exhaustion. Every so often, Teresea would rise and peer out the hut’s door and through the storm toward the thrashing ocean, wondering nervously whether the baby or Ignatius would arrive first.

Ignatius dove with kamikaze grace, ramming the harpoon into his prey.

Two whales had towed the Téti Heri and the other téna east. At first, Ignatius, Yosef Boko, and their fellow hunters had rested for several hours, confident that the combination of blood loss and the drogue of the boats would exhaust their prey. But as Labalekang, the volcano looming behind Lamalera, diminished from a mile-high peak to a thimble of dirt, the whales never faltered. As dusk drew near, the hunters decided that they needed to attack again.

The whale that the Téti Heri and another boat, the Kéna Pukã, had initially harpooned tore through their ropes and escaped. The men’s last chance to return to Lamalera with a catch became the whale lashed to the other two téna—and currently giving them hell. One of those boats, the Kelulus, had just been uppercut so hard by the whale’s tail that its crew was stuffing two cracks zigzagging through the hull with sarongs, trying to keep the sea from bubbling in.

As the Téti Heri attacked the whale to distract it from the listing Kelulus, Ignatius found himself confronting a grotesque beast: Its head and belly were streaked with white, as if it were partially albino, and half its lower jaw had been snapped off, probably during battle with another sea creature. When Ignatius embedded his harpoon, the whale began lobtailing—inverting itself so that its tail stood out of the water and its nose pointed toward the seafloor, then sledgehammering its flukes into the waves. Ignatius ordered his ship to flee, spooling out rope attached to the latest harpoon. To cover the Téti Heri’s retreat, the Kebako Pukã landed another spear, the tenth lodged in the animal; in retaliation, the whale stove in the ship’s bow strake. Half the crew stripped to plug the puncture with their shirts while the rest back-paddled.

Stymied, the fleet let its opponent take several hundred feet of rope, rowed close together, and conferenced. Some of the men said that, when they first attacked the school, they had seen a calf—the one that the other boats had slain and taken back to the village—suckling this whale. They guessed that it was a mother strengthened by a desire for revenge. Ignatius feared that she was not an animal at all but an unholy monster. Though she was only about 45 feet long, she had already done more damage to the boats than a bull whale could.

The sun crisped to an ember, and its last rays were blotted out by thickening clouds. As the whale drew them farther out to sea, Ignatius realized that they had not trapped the animal—it had trapped them. From the hâmmâlollo, he waved a two-foot flensing knife and addressed his fellow hunters.

“The time has come for us to cut our harpoon ropes and go home!” he shouted.

The other whalers responded, “Don’t let it go! We’ll take it tomorrow!”

And so they kept on.

Night soiled the evening. The men hammered sprung boards tight again with whetstones, roped shattered strakes back into place, and stuffed pith caulking into cracks. Lightning flared. Thunder drummed. Rain began to pellet the Lamalerans as waves tackled the téna. The men became so exhausted bailing water with halved coconut shells that they had to work in shifts. Ignatius labored stoically, not resting like the others, and tried to ignore his yearning for his wife, his worry that their child had been born, and his guilt for not being there.

Around midnight the storm subsided. The men bedded down atop wound ropes and furled sails. The fleet had rushed into battle so abruptly that they carried almost no food or drink, so the men wrung rainwater from their hair and clothes into their mouths. Yosef Boko stowed his steering oar but remained awake, tracking the whale’s movements as they were telegraphed through the harpoon ropes. As the tiller man, it was his job to guide the whalers home, and even if he could not steer them to safety right then, he felt a responsibility to keep watch. He trembled with the premonition that this whale would defeat them. When Ignatius had offered to cut the ropes, Yosef Boko had silently urged him on. If he was lost at sea, who would care for his family?

By the time dawn pearled, the broken-jawed whale was hauling the Lamalerans through sea beyond the sight of land. Ignatius called the téna together and announced, “We must have offended the ancestors yesterday for the whale to be so fierce. We must all clean our mouths so that God will entrust this whale to us and the village can eat.” The hunters prayed.

Soon after, it seemed that at last the whale’s strength began to wane. She no longer surged forward, instead paddling tiredly along the water’s surface. Rather than fountaining, she spouted only light mists in quick bursts, as if hyperventilating. Believing her to be weakened, Ignatius did not select a harpoon from the weapons rack for his next move. Instead he tied a rusty boat hook to a bamboo pole and ordered his men to row quietly forward. He slid the hook into the whale’s blowhole and yanked back.

The colossal head turned. An eye judged Ignatius.

The whale geysered, dislodging the hook. Then she head-butted the Téti Heri so hard that caulking popped out from between its boards, and the Savu Sea began trickling in. A terrifying possibility dawned on Ignatius: Perhaps the whale had only been playing weak, trying to draw in the fleet to destroy it. No blood reddened her spouting, which meant that the harpoon strikes had failed to penetrate her vital organs. Her wounds were only skin-deep.

The whale battered the Téti Heri with its tail until the téna retreated. Next it broke off the hâmmâlollo of the Kéna Pukã and rammed open the bow of the already hobbled Kelulus.

In a desperate sortie, the lamafa of all four ships gathered in a phalanx on the prow of the Kebako Pukã, the lone undamaged ship, and attacked together. But no matter how much pink blood poured from her lacerated hide, the whale’s spouting remained pure.

Ignatius was sharpening a lance with a whetstone for the next assault when the Kebako Pukã’s hull leaped beneath his feet, nearly catapulting him into the sea. The whale’s flukes tore open the bow, so that its halves only connected like a clamshell at the keel. The men fled the wreckage, swimming to the Téti Heri. The whale lobtailed, as if challenging the Lamalerans to return to the ring.

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Whaling boats at dusk, with raised palm-leaf sails.

Ignatius, Yosef Boko, and many of the other men were now convinced that their opponent was an evil spirit. The hunters finally agreed to cut the ropes that bound them to the devil whale and return home without a catch. But the harpoon lines were not disposable factory-made ropes: They were the leo, the spirit ropes of the téna. They were woven from jungle cotton and the bark of gebang palms and hibiscus trees, representing weeks of communal work in the village. They could not be carelessly trashed. It was decided that someone would swim to the whale, through the shark fins now razoring the bloody ocean, and cut the lines near the harpoon heads, to save as much of their length as possible.

Fransiskus “Frans” Boli Bediona, a stocky 36-year-old with a wild beard and mane, who served as the backup lamafa on the Kelulus, volunteered for the mission. As one of the tribe’s shamans, he participated in the hunting with a religious fervor, and he had been one of the strongest voices urging the fleet not to give up the day before. Now he was sure that the ancestors were testing the mettle of their descendants, and he meant to meet that challenge.

As Frans pulled himself along a harpoon rope with one hand and clutched a knife in the other, he kicked the hammerhead and tiger sharks that zipped in and nosed him like dogs. The Lamalerans believe that a shark will not hurt a man with a pure heart, and Frans knew himself to be righteous. As he drew closer to the whale, the sharks peeled off to avoid the reach of its tail. He got within a few feet of the whale’s flukes, then hacked through the harpoon lines. The ropes were reeled in, and Frans hitched a ride on the last one.

The whale stroked away, shadowed by dorsal fins. Then she spouted, raised her flukes—either in threat or farewell—and dove. She did not resurface.

The Lamalerans believe that a shark will not hurt a man with a pure heart.

The Lamalerans set about improvising what repairs they could. The crew of the Kéna Pukã winched ropes around its prow, squeezing the boards tight enough to prevent the boat from taking on more water. It was in bad shape, but many men loaded into it, for the Kebako Pukã and the Kelulus could now support only skeleton crews. Then the whalers lashed their fleet into a line, with the Téti Heri in the lead. Abandoning the damaged téna was never discussed, for the Lamalerans believe whaling ships have spirits just as men do. Frans felt that the Kelulus and the Kéna Pukã, both ships he often served on, had mothered him through trials “like a hen protecting her chick.” Now he had to protect them.

With clouds smothering the sun and land hidden by the horizon, the Lamalerans were unable to track north toward home. To save their flagging strength, they decided to play the lottery of the wind. The crew of the Téti Heri stood up a 20-foot bamboo mast and unfurled a sail made of dried palm leaves quilted across a grid of ropes. Once, entire fleets had sailed the Pacific using such sails, but these were probably among the last in the world. The Lamalerans rotated the fabric around the mast until it caught a zephyr, and the téna skidded together over the waves.

By midafternoon, palm-fringed hills edged above the southeastern skyline like a cloud bank. It was Semau Island. The Lamalerans had located themselves, but the discovery was not a happy one: Semau lay more than 100 miles from Lamalera. Rather than try to make landfall, they decided to direct themselves homeward.

As a second evening neared, another storm swaggered toward the boats. The two damaged ones, tugged along by the functional pair, were slowing progress, so the men of the Téti Heri told Ignatius to ask the other crews to let them go ahead alone. Ignatius strained his sandpapered throat to make himself heard over the groaning squall. “May we go?” he asked. “The wind is strong. We will tell the village what has happened and where you are.”

Frans was enraged. It was unthinkable that the crew of the Téti Heri would even consider leaving: That was not the way of the Lamalerans. The most important directive of the ancestors was that the unity of the tribe was paramount. All fathers taught their sons a saying: Talé tou, kemui tou, onã tou, mata tou—one family, one heart, one action, one goal.

“We live and die together!” the men in the damaged téna answered Ignatius. “You can’t go ahead!”

The waves were sharpening into whitecaps. The crew of the Téti Heri urged Ignatius to try again.

Contradictory feelings roiled his heart: He would never abandon his tribesmen, but would not they all have a better chance of survival if the Téti Heri raced ahead? There was no point in solidarity if it meant his children, including his unborn baby, would lose their father. Ultimately, even if he wanted to remain with the fleet, he could not overrule his crew, yet he wanted the other tribesmen’s blessing to leave.

“May we go first so the village knows we are not all dead and can send help?” Ignatius shouted. Again he was rebuffed.

Only this time, as he was calling to his brethren, his crew untied the rope linking their boat to the others. Unburdened, the Téti Heri shot ahead on the turbulent sea. The other téna shrank to three bobbing figures. Then the lowering heavens curtained them off. Ignatius could not control his tears. He felt as if he had been forced to forsake his tribesmen. And he knew that the ancestors always exacted revenge for such failures—on individuals and on the tribe as a whole.

The Téti Heri could not outrun the latest gale, and before long the storm threatened to use the boat’s sail like a lever and flip the craft over. It took Ignatius and two other men to dismantle the mast, though usually one man could handle it. The tempest seemed to double the darkness of the night, and it whirled the boat and heaved the sea over the outriggers. Men slumped against the thwarts, bailing desultorily, and those too exhausted to work crawled under the sail. Five times Ignatius gathered the crew and led them in prayer, until the accumulating water forced them to resume bailing.

We are all brothers, Ignatius thought. It would have been better if we had died together. Lord, at least bring us to shore, so our families can find our bodies and give us proper funerals, and we can join the ancestors.

We are all brothers, Ignatius thought. It would have been better if we had died together.

That night the eighth child of Ignatius and Teresea came crying into the world. Even though she was a girl, she was named Ignatius Seran Blikololong Jr. Christening her with her father’s name was a way of summoning his lost soul home.

The next morning, a Saturday, dawn flickered behind wet clouds like the flame of a whale-oil lantern sparking to life behind a bamboo lampshade. Maria, Frans’s wife and Ignatius’s sister, had slept on the beach to tend the signal fires, and she woke with sand in her hair. Nearby, Fransiska, Yosef Boko’s wife, refused to eat and ignored her grandson, who cried and pawed at her for attention. The women were joined in their vigil by nearly 50 other wives, and the group watched as the village’s fleet launched to locate their husbands. The 17 boats dispersed toward every point on the compass, carrying fresh coconuts, water, and rice wrapped in banana leaves, to feed the men if they were found.

The Savu Sea is not wide; on a clear morning, it is possible to glimpse the peaks of Timor Island, situated on the other side of the expanse, from Lamalera’s cliffs. Even if the téna had been dragged south into the Indian Ocean, they should have been able to navigate back to where search parties could spot their sails. That two full days had passed without a sighting meant that the likelihood of a safe return was swiftly diminishing. The men might be added to the list of the Lamalerans, more than 39 in all, lost at sea in the previous century. Every year, the village’s priest inaugurated the hunting season by reading each name aloud.

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Faces of Lamalera.

The elders gathered under the banyan tree in the village square to try to ferret out the crime that the ancestors must have been punishing them for in sending so many men to a watery demise. A runner was dispatched to the island’s capital, a 30-mile trek over the mountains, so that government authorities could broadcast a radio message to alert ships in transit to look for the missing téna. Then the tribe gathered on the beach for a religious service.

Shortly thereafter, as if by the grace of God, someone spotted a diamond sail splitting the horizon. A motorboat was dispatched to run supplies to the téna. A man with binoculars announced to the crowd on the shore that the Téti Heri was coming in. A rumor circulated that a corpse was aboard. The whalers had been nearly three days at sea without food and water, after all. Teresea, Maria, and Fransiska wept, knowing that Ignatius and Yosef Boko crewed the Téti Heri.

When the téna made landfall, its crew was so sunburned that skin from the men’s chests and thighs had peeled away. Their lips were puffed and blistered. Bloodshot, their eyes seemed to glow. Even supported by a man on either side, the returned could barely walk.

Tribesmen had to coax Yosef Boko to let go of the tiller oar. He had barely slept the entire journey, believing that as long as he held the oar, he was protecting his crew. When he stepped out of the boat, he embraced Fransiska; though both normally prided themselves on their reserve, they were racked by sobs. At their house, Yosef Boko washed the salt water off his body with a bucket shower, devoured a plate of rice, and fell into a sleep that would last nearly a full day.

While the rest of the men were surrounded by their families, Ignatius walked down the beach toward his hut. Fear unmanned him. Where was his wife? Had something gone wrong with the pregnancy? A female relative, whose husband was aboard one of the boats still at sea, approached and slapped him on the shoulder. She cried, “Where is my husband? Where is my husband?” His throat was so dry Ignatius could not speak; he had been unable to stomach the water and mashed bananas delivered to him by the motorboat. How could he explain to this woman that they had left her husband behind?

Then he spotted his eldest daughter, who pushed her way out of the crowd and hugged him. “You have a daughter!” she said of the new baby. Ignatius croaked an apology for not being there when the baby arrived, but his daughter laughed. “The important thing is that you’re home!” she said.

Once the happy families had returned to their abodes, only the disappointed wives of the men still at sea were left to build a bonfire on the headlands. Maria threw deadwood onto the flames as if making an offering or willing the desperate light to beckon Frans home. She was increasingly sure that her husband was dead and that she was now a widow, a status every Lamaleran woman fears, not only because of the loss but because the tribe’s faith forbids remarriage. If Frans did not return, she and her three children would have to subsist on charity.

Every few minutes, eerie trumpeting echoed from the darkness like distant, mournful music. After the crew of the Téti Heri had admitted to leaving the fleet in hopes of sending help once they got home, the motorboats had been dispatched again, this time with conch shells, which could be heard over a great distance. Between calls made by the motorboats’ crews, Maria and the other yearning wives listened for any answer. Around midnight the motorboats returned alone. The wailing of the women woke the village.

For days afterward, Maria waited on the beach for sails that never came. Eventually, when all hope was lost, the village sent divers to retrieve nautilus shells, their delicate whorls bent into the shape of eternity. The tribe buried the shells in place of bodies.

Maria threw deadwood onto the flames as if making an offering or willing the desperate light to beckon Frans home.

After the Téti Heri had untied itself, Frans had furiously watched Ignatius, his brother-in-law, and the other betrayers go. It felt as if the abandonment took a long time. Each time the fleeing téna sank into a trough between waves, a moment later the tip of its sail would reappear as the ship was lofted by a roller. Frans thought of his three children, especially his infant daughter, only nine months old, with her sweet, bubbling laugh. The ancestors had granted him barely any time to get to know her. He tried not to brood on the hardships his children would endure without a father to protect them. He hoped at least that Ignatius would step in. Almost all his other male relatives—men who could have provided for Frans’s family in his stead—clung to the wrecks of the three téna.

Eventually, the Téti Heri’s sail did not rise again.

The remaining men were in desperate condition. Frans had caulked a breach in the Kelulus with his shirt, and he wore only shorts; already his chest and shoulders blazed and prickled with sunburn. Thirty-four people were crammed onto the Kéna Pukã, which comfortably held no more than 14, and it rode so low that waves spilled over its railings. The other two boats were attended by a single bailer each to keep them from swamping. The whalers could have lightened the load of their sinking ships by discarding equipment, but they believed that the leo had souls and the sails were the ships’ sarongs. Without them the boats would be naked.

Swept east, the men glimpsed the bent tip of Labalekang. The volcano, which towered above their village, provided some small hope. They began to paddle weakly, taking a few strokes and then resting. Black clouds avalanched toward their backs. Soon night hid Labalekang and brought with it a new storm. Despite having to furiously bail, Frans was thankful for relief from the torturous sun and the nourishment of the rainwater.

Dawn emerged bluebird clear, hazeless. Labalekang had vanished. The crew had lost all sense of position in the night. No one possessed the strength to lift a paddle. Some men’s speech began to slur. Frans told himself that he must not cry; he needed the moisture.

Late Saturday afternoon, not long before Ignatius and the crew of the Téti Heri would arrive home, the abandoned whalers spotted a pair of cinder-cone volcanoes to the east. The sight crushed Frans: It was Flores, two islands west of his home. The latest storm had swept them dozens of miles off course and outside any area that a Lamaleran ship would search for them. They tried to maneuver north and east, but the wind was against them, driving them farther from the Savu Sea and into the wilderness of the Indian Ocean. Some men tied themselves to their ships so that if they died, their bodies might one day be found. Frans was not ready to do that, not yet.

That night rain came again—without a storm, for once. The men suckled from their shirts, their beards, and the sail. Once they had rehydrated, some began chewing their clothes. One thin hunter gorged himself on dried tree pith. Except for a few noodles of seaweed plucked from the ocean, they had eaten nothing in three days. With too many men for everyone to lie down in the hulls of the boats, they took turns slumping over the thwarts or sprawling on the hâmmâlollos.

Frans fever-dreamed about God, heaven, hell, and his family. At a vague hour, the cloud cover momentarily parted to reveal the star-encrusted sky. The Southern Cross was staked there. Frans knew this constellation as the Pointer, since from the Savu Sea it always aimed toward Lamalera. For a moment the way home was revealed. If they could just follow that course, Frans might survive and once more balance his daughter atop his head while she screamed with laughter and pulled at his hair. But then the clouds returned and stole the knowledge of the direction where his family lay.

By Sunday morning, the Kebako Pukã was taking on so much water that the other boats could no longer pull it. The craft would have to be abandoned. Its captain, Fransiskus “Sisu” Bataona, volunteered to go down with his ship, but the others told him it was not necessary. Instead, he climbed atop the hâmmâlollo, now jutting just above the waterline. Sisu felt like a leaf at the end of the dry season, withered and about to fall. He addressed the spirit of the téna: “We now have no more strength. It is better that you go before us and wait for us on shore.” He invoked a ceremonial leave-taking sometimes used to say goodbye to the dead.

Frans fever-dreamed about God, heaven, hell, and his family.

The other Lamalerans wept. They knew everyone shared responsibility for abandoning the sacred téna. The disappointed ancestors would surely exact their vengeance.

By the time that Sisu disembarked for another boat, the currents had started to take the Kebako Pukã. The boat swiveled, its hâmmâlollo grazing the harpooning platforms of its two fellows as if in farewell. Waves edged up the prow. Soon the ocean swallowed the ship. A hoarse wail burst from the Lamalerans.

Throughout Sunday afternoon, the Lamalerans hallucinated, imagining they saw signal flares on Lamalera beach and paddling as hard as they could toward them. The extinguishing of the sun ushered in yet another night at sea and demolished the whalers’ fantasies: There was nothing ahead but darkness. The men lay still as corpses in their ships. Frans thought some of them had already died. Still, he did not lash himself to the thwarts. He could endure a little more. If morning dawned hopelessly, he would tie himself to the téna. It would be as God willed it.

A little before midnight, Frans stirred from his fugue to one of his shipmates croaking. The man was pointing a finger. Frans followed the man’s direction and saw a row of halogen-lit windows floating above the Savu Sea, framing fancily dressed men and women with pale skin. A thick beam of light roved across the waves, blinding him when it settled on the téna. Frans suddenly understood why the ancestors had teased the whalers with the phantasm of home: They had been encouraging the crews to cling to life for just a few hours more.

A metal vessel four times as long as a téna, with the words Spice Islander painted across its hull, chugged toward the Lamalerans. Salvation had arrived in the form of a cruise ship.

Hauling a whale ashore.

Frans had glimpsed modern ships while hunting, but he had rarely seen one this close. When a metal arm lowered a speedboat into the water, he thought he was delirious. The speedboat zoomed up to the Lamalerans, and its crew tied on to the téna in order to drag the bewildered whalers to the Spice Islander. Promises of food and water enticed those crew members who had prepared for death to untie themselves and climb aboard.

As the Lamalerans stepped onto metal stairs lowered from the bow, 40 or so foreigners lined the railing, aiming strange metal boxes that emitted white flashes. The hunters leaned against the sailors, infantile with weakness. The white-skinned men and women shook the Lamalerans’ hands and gave them plastic water bottles, which the men struggled to open until someone showed them how to unscrew the caps. The tourists made them pose and held up the metal boxes once more. Frans was too tired and thankful to care.

The captain of the ship, a man named Sebastianus, led them to the mess hall. They were served coffee sugared with condensed milk, along with crumbly slices of white cake, which tasted bitter to Frans and which Sebastianus told them was called bread. The captain was from Larantuka, the largest city in the archipelago where Lamalera is located, and he had met members of the whaling tribe before. His eastern Indonesian accent and familiarity with their culture put the men at ease. Sebastianus explained that the Spice Islander had been cruising from the Komodo Islands, home of the legendary dragons, to Timor, where the tourists would fly home, when he heard a radio bulletin about lost ships. His marine radar soon pinged two unidentified vessels adrift off normal shipping lanes, and he set out to investigate.

At the end of the meal, Sebastianus apologized that the two surviving téna would have to be scuttled. Frans and the other Lamalerans begged him to save the boats, explaining their spiritual value. He agreed to try. Using the onboard crane, his crew winched the Kéna Pukã onto the cruise ship’s deck, where its hull, ravaged by the whale, was bared for all to see. But when the Spice Islander’s crew tried to lift the Kelulus, the damaged vessel began to break apart.

The Lamalerans beseeched Sebastianus to drag the Kelulus to the nearest island, where they hoped to stash the wreck until they could return for it. But he explained that doing so would take them many miles out of their way, and he had to get the foreign passengers to their destination the next day, lest they miss their plane. “The law of the sea is to save people,” Sebastianus said, “not boats.”

Until then, a sole Lamaleran had remained aboard the Kelulus to protect it. Now he was brought onto the cruise ship, carrying the leo. The téna’s sail and harpoons were left for the ancestors, who would row it in the watery underworld. The floodlights of the Spice Islander illuminated the Kelulus as it began to sink. “You go ahead and wait for us on shore,” a Lamaleran cried out. “Soon we will join you!”

The rope between the Kelulus and the Spice Islander was unknotted. A whaler declared, “It’s better that I go with my téna!” and tried to climb over the railing, but other men restrained him. Many Lamalerans wept hysterically. Others covered their eyes, unable to watch the sinking of the second ship they had lost in a single hunt. Frans tried to face the tragedy unblinkingly, but inside he grieved as if he was watching the drowning of a family member.

Every téna had an eye painted on either side of its bow. As the Spice Islander motored away, its wake spun the Kelulus to face the departing Lamalerans. As the two vessels separated, the Kelulus never broke eye contact. Frans was sure that its spirit was bidding him a personal farewell. The tourists photographed the spectacle.

The Lamalerans slept that night on nests of blankets and pillows piled on the viewing deck. Frans was so exhausted he could not help but sleep, but he kept waking abruptly to unquiet thoughts. What would have happened if the Spice Islander had not discovered them? And how would the ancestors judge them for losing the téna?

“The law of the sea is to save people, not boats.”

The next morning, Frans was thrilled and unnerved as he explored the cruise ship. He had never been on a vessel that did not rock in the waves before. The air-conditioning baffled him. He was amazed by the miniature waterfall that poured from a bathroom ceiling to clean him. He was amused that the tourists pooped in a chair; Lamalerans use squat toilets. When he glimpsed the queen-size beds and ceiling lights of one of the tourist’s cabins, he could not help but wistfully compare it with his mattress stuffed with corn husks and his tiny brick house with no electricity.

Sebastianus had radioed ahead, and a crowd of government officials, journalists, and expat Lamalerans thronged the wharf of Kupang Harbor on Timor. Behind them, sunlight glittered on thousands of corrugated tin roofs, TV aerials, and radio antennas. Frans had only ever traveled to the rural islands neighboring Lamalera to fish; he had never seen anything like this. His first instinct was to hide, but he had no choice except to confront this brave new world.

As he and the rest of the whalers waited for a ferry to take them back to Lamalera, Frans wandered Kupang’s dusty lanes. He saw the impending future: multistory concrete buildings, TVs blabbing about Indonesia’s president, radios playing Ace of Base, motorbikes zooming across newly built asphalt roads. Here were more than 100,000 people who had forgotten their ancestors and abandoned the sacred past for a future that, to him, seemed cheap, chaotic, and unfulfilling. That made Frans yearn for home.

Finally, after several days, the Kéna Pukã was loaded into the cavernous metallic hold of a ferry. The tribe had been alerted by then to the survival of the men, and it sent a message directing the ferry to drop them at a neighboring village, where they had to wait several days while the nautilus shells were dug up and a shaman reversed the funerals that had been performed for them. Later, Frans would help lead a separate mystical rite to recall the souls of the sunken téna.

Yet there was no ceremony to remedy the unprecedented betrayal by the Teti Heri’s crew. It had rent the unity prescribed by the ancestors: talé tou, kemui tou, onã tou, mata tou. The ancient Lamalerans had considered this oneness so fundamental that they did not leave instructions for how to heal a break.

The tribe rebuilt their fleet, and the whale hunts continued. Frans reconciled with the men of the Teti Heri. Still, an existential rupture remained, like a leak in a téna. Over the coming years, Frans would sometimes find himself staring at the western horizon, remembering the alien world beyond it. He wondered with trepidation when it would arrive. He knew it would not be long.

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Fransiskus “Frans” Boli Bediona takes a break from work.

Epilogue

Two decades later, when I met the Lamalerans, they were engaged in a desperate battle to preserve their traditions against the overwhelming pressures of globalization, which had already extinguished many indigenous cultures around the globe. Ignatius was striving to teach his son Ben how to whale, but Ben was making secret plans to run away to the tourist mecca of Bali and become a DJ. Ben was not alone among the new generation yearning for a modern life, casting doubt on the survival of the ways of the ancestors. And yet some of the tribe’s youth still fought to continue the traditions. Even after a whaling accident in 2014 almost killed Jon Hariona, the grandson of Yosef Boko, he kept striving to become a lamafa, like his ancestors before him.

The full story of the Lamalerans’ struggle to forge a place for their way of life in the new millennium is told in my forthcoming book, The Last Whalers.

Axes of Evil

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Axes of Evil

Four days, two murders, and one poplar tree that almost ignited World War III.

By Josh Dean

The Atavist Magazine, No. 81


Josh Dean is a correspondent for Outside, a frequent contributor to Bloomberg BusinessWeek, GQ, and Popular Science, and the author of The Taking of K-129: How the CIA Used Howard Hughes to Steal a Russian Sub in the Most Daring Covert Operation in History. 

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Daniel Moattar

Published in July 2018. Design updated in 2021.

1

The poplar was a problem. One of the few survivors from a deciduous forest bombed into oblivion during the Korean War, the tree towered 40 feet over a stripped, scrubby landscape; in the summer, its leaves formed a thick green crown. A stranger to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the skinny belt of no-man’s-land that has divided the Korean peninsula since 1953, might have seen this as evidence of nature’s resilience. To the U.S. soldiers patrolling the area, however, it represented a conspicuous security risk.

That’s why, at 1030 on August 18, 1976, a 2.5-ton truck—a deuce and a half, in U.S. Army lingo—rolled up to the poplar and parked in its shadow. Out climbed a crew of five civilian maintenance workers, all of them Korean, and a ten-man security platoon led by Lieutenant Mark Barrett, a South Carolinian who’d been in Korea only a few weeks. Barrett’s boss was there, too. Captain Arthur Bonifas had arrived in a jeep and now stood to the side as the workers ascended the tree with axes and clippers and began to cut the branches.

A cheerful, devoutly Christian native of Newburgh, New York, and a father of three, Bonifas was in the final days of his deployment to Korea. The 33-year-old West Point graduate was known among his men for being very smart—he’d once taught math at his alma mater—and impeccably polite. Soon he’d be off to a new post, in Georgia, where he’d be promoted and placed in command of an artillery unit. In fact, Bonifas had already ordered the uniforms and shoulder boards that would reflect his new rank as an Army major.

The job in Georgia would be less unpredictable than the one that had brought Bonifas to the foot of the tree in Korea. Here he was second-in-command of a complex military entity known as the Joint Security Force (JSF), comprised of three platoons of American and South Korean soldiers who served as guards in the Joint Security Area (JSA). Situated in the heart of the DMZ, the JSA was also called Panmunjom, after a tiny settlement that once stood in the same spot, or simply the truce village, because it’s where the armistice that froze the Korean War was reached. Just under 900 yards across at its widest point, the JSA was supposedly neutral and the only place where soldiers from the Korean People’s Army (KPA) and the Republic of Korea (ROK)—north and south, respectively—stood face-to-face, while keeping watch over various ornamented buildings frequented by tourists and government officials. In reality the plot of land, which on a map resembled a slightly squashed circle, was one of the tensest places on the planet.

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To monitor pressure in this geopolitical tinderbox—that is, to keep tabs on bad behavior exhibited by KPA guards—U.S. soldiers manned various checkpoints and guard posts. Everyone’s least favorite assignment was Checkpoint 3 (CP3), positioned at the foot of the so-called Bridge of No Return, which traversed the narrow Sachon River. Halfway across the concrete span was the North Korean border. Some U.S. guards feared being kidnapped and dragged across that invisible line, in which case they almost certainly would not be rescued, because Pyongyang would deem movement by U.S. forces into northern territory to retrieve prisoners an invasion. The North Koreans constantly harassed and intimidated the men stationed at CP3; they’d even erected two unauthorized checkpoints in close proximity just to impede access to what the Americans took to calling the loneliest outpost in the world.

Soldiers at CP3 took some comfort in knowing that, 600 yards up a nearby hill, their platoon mates at Observation Post 5 (OP5) had eyes on their position—except in summer, when the pesky poplar, in glorious bloom, blocked the sight line.

Almost anywhere else in the world, a military order to trim a tree for security reasons would have been considered uncontroversial. In the JSA, however, everything was disputed. The first attempt to tackle the poplar’s branches had been foiled by KPA guards who insisted that security officers from both sides of the JSA would need to approve any landscaping. A maintenance crew tried again on August 17, this time with a larger number of guards in tow, but the mission was rained out. On the third go, Bonifas decided to supervise, to ensure that the job got done. The operation would likely be his last in the JSA, and he wanted to be there in case the KPA caused trouble again. “Make sure you’re firm,” the JSF’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Victor Vierra, told him.

Special activities in Panmunjom were always filmed in case of incident. As Bonifas’s crew got to work, Captain Larry Shaddix, the JSF’s logistics officer, took up a position on a platform outside OP5. Shaddix raised his 35-millimeter camera’s telephoto lens and began to shoot. For a few minutes, there wasn’t much to see. The work was going according to plan, until Bulldog arrived.

Bulldog was Lieutenant Pak Chul, a rabidly patriotic North Korean platoon leader notorious for his provocations in the JSA, like the time he kicked an American guard in the groin during a scuffle over photographs. Bulldog strutted around, trying to make small talk with Captain Kim Moon Hwan, Bonifas’s Korean translator and the ranking ROK officer at the scene, and offering unsolicited advice to the civilians in the tree, some of whom had been on the scene last time, when their work was halted by KPA guards, and so were unnerved by Bulldog’s arrival.

Then, for no obvious reason, Bulldog changed course. He ordered the civilians to stop cutting—and threatened to force the issue, even shoot the workers, if they didn’t obey him.

Bonifas had seen enough. He strode forward and announced that the work would continue, period. The trimming was a legal, peaceful matter—a “routine action,” a Pentagon report later stated—that had been announced in advance. Besides, it would be over soon. Bulldog responded by muttering something to one of his guards, who ran off across the bridge and came back a few minutes later in a truck with reinforcements, bringing the number of KPA soldiers at the tree to at least 30. The North Koreans now outnumbered Bonifas’s men three to one.

Bonifas wasn’t about to be intimidated. Aware of the power a gesture can wield, he turned his back to Bulldog. That’s why he didn’t see the KPA leader calmly remove his watch, wrap it in a handkerchief, and put it in his pocket. Another North Korean officer rolled up his sleeves like a Mafia heavy preparing for a fistfight. Then Bulldog attacked Bonifas from behind, screaming an order to his men as he hit the base of the American’s skull with an open hand. The command meant, Attack the enemy and kill them!

On any other morning, Mark Luttrull would’ve been at Bonifas’s side. The , who was on his second tour in the Army after a brief, unsuccessful stint in college, had served as the captain’s personal driver for the better part of a year. Luttrull adored his boss, in no small part because the first duty Bonifas had given him was to escort Miss Rhode Island into the JSA as part of a USO tour. Luttrull especially liked driving Bonifas to security meetings in Panmunjom. The captain would ask Luttrull to drive fast while he rode in silence, studying his notes.

On August 18, however, Bonifas had asked Luttrull to stay behind at Camp Kitty Hawk, the JSF’s home base about a mile south of Panmunjom, to prepare his field gear to be turned in at the end of his deployment. Luttrull was sitting in the camp’s administrative office when he saw Kim, Bonifas’s translator, stumbling up a hill from the direction of the JSA, covered in blood and mumbling something that Luttrull couldn’t make out until the ROK captain was a few feet away.

As soon as he understood Kim’s words—“Captain Bonifas! Captain Bonifas!”—Luttrull ran for a radio and paged his boss. Then, as his call echoed from the camp’s tinny loudspeakers, a piercing siren began to wail.

U.S. military bases along the DMZ had two sirens: one for exercises and one for actual emergencies. This was the latter. It signaled for every man, from the infantry to the cooking staff, to drop what he was doing, throw on fatigues, a flak jacket, and a steel-pot helmet, and run to the armory for weapons and ammunition. Luttrull did exactly that.

John Pinadella, a 20-year-old private from New Jersey, had just come off a rotation in the JSA. Shifts in the zone were 24 hours each, from 0800 to 0800, and Pinadella’s last task before leaving Panmunjom that morning had been to open CP3 for the day. He’d thought it odd when three soldiers, instead of the usual two, showed up for the shift. Why did the checkpoint need reinforcing? But no matter—Pinadella had his sights on a little R&R. After a daylong stint with the Quick Reaction Force (QRF), the first-response team for incidents in the JSA, he’d get 24 hours off.

QRF duty was usually boring. The men sat around cleaning weapons, reading pulpy novels, bragging about their Korean girlfriends, and thinking about the leisure time that lay ahead: a full day of pickling themselves with booze in the nearest town, then sleeping it off before the whole cycle started over again. Pinadella was also crossing boxes off his calendar. He was the “shortest” guy in his platoon, the one with the least time remaining in Korea. He had just 98 days and a wake-up left before he went back to the United States.

Pinadella was reading mail on a cot in the unit’s Quonset hut when his platoon leader barged in, alarmed. Something had happened in the JSA. The lieutenant ordered Pinadella and the other men to gear up and get ready to go back, possibly into danger. “Get on the trucks!” he barked.

Half of the troops in the QRF, including Pinadella, were loaded into the open bed of a truck. These men were riot control, under orders to stop whatever was happening in the JSA, and they carried pickax handles. According to the terms of the armistice, soldiers on both sides could wield only batons and sidearms in Panmunjom, and U.S. commanders insisted that their troops stick to these options—unless there was an extraordinary escalation of violence. If Pinadella’s group couldn’t quell a crisis, or if the situation went truly, terribly sideways, then the other half of the QRF would be sent in. Those men would have M16s.

Just accessing Panmunjom, however, posed a problem. The moment the QRF entered, the United States would technically be in violation of the armistice. No more than 35 armed soldiers—30 enlisted men and five officers—from each side of the DMZ could be in the JSA at a given time, and that day’s rotation of Americans and South Koreans was already in place. Only the commanding officer on the scene was authorized to call in additional manpower. That was Bonifas, and no one could reach him.

Frustration built as the men of the QRF sat in their trucks waiting for information. They moved forward, as far as Checkpoint 2, just outside the gate to the JSA, and were sitting there as fellow soldiers on duty in Panmunjom began to straggle out. The men looked dazed; some were bleeding. There’d been a fight, they said, a bad one.

The exiting soldiers who weren’t hurt were asked to regroup and serve as backup for the QRF. Two of them refused, and Pinadella was stunned. Whatever had happened inside the JSA was so horrible that members of an elite U.S. force couldn’t face the scene again.

Finally, orders came down from Lieutenant Colonel Vierra to deploy the riot squad. As his truck rolled through the gate, Pinadella didn’t know that Bonifas had already been evacuated to the medic’s station at Camp Kitty Hawk, where Luttrull, his stomach in knots, was awaiting news. The medic on duty sought out the specialist, whom he’d heard was looking for Bonifas. Luttrull demanded to know what had happened to his boss.

“I tried to save him,” the medic stammered. “It was too late.” Bonifas was dead of catastrophic blunt-force wounds, including one that had split his helmet, and his eyeglasses, in half.

Map of the Joint Security Area. (Wikimedia Commons)
Map of the Joint Security Area. (Wikimedia Commons)

Shaddix, the logistics officer with the camera, had captured the murder in still frames. After Bulldog struck Bonifas on the back of the head with a karate-style chop, the captain fell to the ground and never got up again. At least five KPA guards immediately set upon him, kicking and hitting his head and body.

“Jesus Christ!” another American at OP5 yelled. “They’re killing him!”

Around the poplar, all hell broke loose. The civilian workers leapt out of the tree and ran, dropping their clippers and axes, which became weapons as North Korean soldiers snatched them up, encircled the guards who’d come to protect the tree trimmers, and commenced swinging and hacking. Shaddix’s photos would show outnumbered U.S. and ROK soldiers trying to fend off the attacks without resorting to firearms. An after-action assessment found that the men “reacted to a surprise, unprovoked attack with restraint and self-discipline.” Not one of them ever drew a gun.

The fight was brief, no longer than a few minutes, but furious. “There wasn’t time to be scared,” one of the U.S. soldiers later observed. “I was just trying to survive.” When Pinadella and the riot squad arrived, less than 30 minutes after Bulldog had initiated his assault, the scene was eerily calm. The North Koreans had retreated across the bridge or gone back to their stations inside the JSA. With no fight left to join, the QRF evacuated the men at OP5, including a rattled Shaddix. Inside the truck, someone pulled a fire extinguisher from its mount, and Shaddix gripped the canister tightly, ready to use it as a weapon if any North Koreans tried to stop the vehicle.

When the Americans and South Koreans regrouped outside the JSA for a head count, Bonifas wasn’t the only officer missing. There was no sign of Lieutenant Barrett, the man in charge of the security team at the tree, either. The last time anyone could remember seeing him was behind a retaining wall above a ditch near the poplar, where he’d apparently run to help a soldier who’d  been surrounded by KPA guards.

The QRF’s riot-control team piled into their truck for the second time and drove back through the JSA gate. The vehicle went straight to the tree, and as soon as it screeched to a halt, the men scrambled out and began to search for Barrett. Pinadella jumped over the retaining wall and down into the ditch, where he found the lieutenant lying on his back, covered in mud and blood. Ax wounds riddled the young officer’s body from head to toe, and Pinadella was afraid to touch him, lest he make the lieutenant’s condition worse. He reached down tentatively to check for a pulse. Oh, my God, Pinadella thought when he felt a faint beating. He’s alive!

The young soldier choked back a wave of nausea and put his minimal training in field medicine to work. He screamed for help and cleared Barrett’s airway with his fingers, which allowed the injured man to cough and breathe a little better. When another private slid into the swampy depression and saw Barrett, he unleashed a primal scream; he seemed ready to charge up the hill at the nearest KPA checkpoint and attack whoever was there. Pinadella told the private to channel his adrenaline into getting Barrett out. Together with two other soldiers, they carefully lifted the lieutenant out of the mud, carried him to their truck, and gently laid his body down in the bed.

The men assessed Barrett’s injuries as the unit sped out of the JSA. There were deep blade wounds in the lieutenant’s chest, and blood was pouring from them. It pooled and quickly congealed in the thick August heat, causing boots to stick to the vehicle’s floor. One soldier attempted mouth-to-mouth, but it seemed futile; more air was exiting the wounds on Barrett’s head and neck than was reaching his lungs.

Barrett was transported to a helicopter that would carry him and several wounded ROK soldiers to a hospital in Seoul. As the chopper rose into the sky and shrunk out of sight, Pinadella made his way back to barracks. He changed out of his blood-soaked fatigues into a clean uniform, then he grabbed as many clips for his .45 semiautomatic pistol as he could carry. If there was about to be a battle with the North Koreans, he wanted to be ready.


That afternoon, all U.S. soldiers were ordered to convene in the mess hall at Camp Kitty Hawk, where Vierra, their gruff, square-shouldered commanding officer, addressed them. By then word of Barrett’s fate had arrived: Despite the efforts of Army medics aboard the helicopter, the young lieutenant had succumbed to his wounds before reaching Seoul.

Vierra assured his men that retaliatory action would be taken, and soon. He was awaiting orders.

“We’re going to feed you now,” the colonel told Pinadella, Luttrull, Shaddix, and the other confused, angry soldiers, “because we don’t know when you’re going to be able to eat again.”

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The trimming of the poplar tree on August 18, 1976. (Courtesy of Wayne Johnson)

2

A U.S. soldier stationed in Panmunjom hadn’t been killed in almost a decade. The last was in April 1968, when North Korean guards ambushed a truck en route to the JSA, leaving two Americans and two South Koreans dead. “About 20 bullet holes could be seen in the shattered front windshield of the truck,” the military newspaper Stars and Stripes reported. “Both headlights were blasted out. Three of the tires were punctured, and at least 40 rounds had ripped through the truck’s rear canvas cover.” An observer commented, “I don’t see how anybody survived this.”

In the years that followed, the JSA reverted to its norm: an uncomfortable state of high alert and suspicion. “The combination of physical, psychological, political, diplomatic, and military stresses,” George Chobany, the officer who led the QRF on the day of the ax murders, later wrote, “made duty in the JSA unlike duty just about anywhere else in the world.” Only certain men were chosen for the job. Members of the ROK contingent, known as the Korean Augmentation to the United States Army, tended to come from influential South Korean families and performed well on English tests. On the American side, recruits had to score more than 110 on the Army’s General Technical exam, an academic-aptitude test, and ideally have no black marks on their disciplinary record. They also had to be at least six feet tall—for maximal intimidation factor—and have a mellow temperament.

When men arrived on deployment in Seoul, an Army representative referred to as the turtle catcher sought out the tallest among them who met other basic requirements and asked if they’d like to volunteer for special duty. Those who said yes were taken north for further interviews and tests—for instance, soldiers screaming at them suddenly and for no apparent reason. The idea was to see how they might handle being cursed at and spit on in the JSA, because that would absolutely happen. North Korean soldiers in Panmunjom were instructed to be provocative, while their U.S. and ROK counterparts were under strict orders not to take the bait.

North Korean soldiers in Panmunjom were instructed to be provocative, while their U.S. and ROK counterparts were under strict orders not to take the bait.

Much of the resulting gamesmanship was childish. Technically, the JSF fell under what was called the United Nations Command—another bureaucratic by-product of the armistice—and when leadership put floodlights on the exterior of the UNC headquarters, North Korea responded by erecting bigger, brighter lights at its main station. KPA guards sometimes taunted African American soldiers with racist gestures and placed boards covered with nails, pointed ends up, along the routes of UNC vehicle patrols. A stranded jeep was an opportunity for harassment, so if tires punctured, drivers were told to continue driving on flats.

U.S. soldiers weren’t innocent of mischief. They liked to play hopscotch on their half of the Bridge of No Return, drop their pants to moon guards on the other side, and sneak up on the KPA barracks in the middle of the night to pound on the walls until everyone inside was awake. On winter nights, they sometimes poured water on the steps of North Korean checkpoint buildings, so that the guards who arrived the next morning would slip on the ice.

By 1976, however, fatuous competition and pranks were giving way to renewed KPA aggression. In June of the previous year, a North Korean journalist spat on U.S. Army major W.D. Henderson as the two men sat on a bench arguing. When Henderson struck the man, KPA guards surrounded the major, stomped on him, and crushed his larynx, necessitating his evacuation from Korea. Several months later, a JSF guard on jeep patrol, Michael Brouillette, was assaulted when he took a detour near the Panmungak pavilion, North Korea’s main building in the JSA. Brouillette’s arm was broken, and he was later awarded a Purple Heart.

Keeping cool in the face of violence was a matter of U.S. policy, but that didn’t mean that the Americans simply turned the other cheek. In early 1976, at the suggestion of a soldier in , led by Lieutenant David Zilka, night patrols began carrying larger clubs—ax handles instead of riot batons—for protection. At the next joint security meeting, the North Koreans ranted about “Zilka’s Mad Dogs, who patrol the JSA at night and carry big sticks!” Second Platoon proudly adopted the Mad Dogs nickname.


Major General John Singlaub was in a staff meeting of the Eighth Army Command in Yongsan, a garrison in Seoul that served as the U.S. military headquarters on the Korean peninsula, when he got word by phone that two Americans had been killed in the JSA. Singlaub, who’d cut his teeth parachuting behind enemy lines during World War II and now wore two stars on his uniform, knew that nearly every U.S. official required to initiate a response to the murders was currently out of the country. General Richard Stilwell, the commander of all U.S. forces in Korea, was in Japan, making his last official visit before retiring from the Army after 38 years and three wars. Stilwell’s deputy, Air Force lieutenant general John Burns, was logging his monthly flight hours. And the American ambassador, Richard Sneider, was on holiday in the United States. “I was the man on the spot,” Singlaub later wrote in a memoir.

Singlaub sent a jet to Japan to retrieve Stilwell, then called the general to let him know that a plane was en route. “Sir, I think you should return to Seoul immediately,” Singlaub said. Stilwell considered the minimal amount of information he was able to receive over the unsecure line and asked his chief of staff to do two things while he flew back to Seoul. The first was to request an urgent security meeting for the following day, so that he could deliver a message to Pyongyang that its aggression would have swift, severe repercussions. The second was to prepare all units in Korea for a shift to Defcon-3, should the order come from Washington. Defcon, short for defense readiness condition, ranges from 5 (normal) to 1 (nukes are flying). Defcon-3 would involve American forces gearing up for possible combat.

The North Koreans were already broadcasting their version of events via Radio Pyongyang. “Around 10:45 a.m. today,” a bulletin announced, “the American imperialist aggressors sent in 14 hoodlums with axes into the Joint Security Area to cut down the tree on their own accord, although such work should be mutually consented beforehand. Four persons from our side went to the spot to warn them not to continue the work without our consent. Against our persuasion, they attacked our guards en masse and committed a serious provocative act of beating our men, wielding murderous weapons, and depending on the fact that they outnumbered us. Our guards could not but resort to self-defense measures under the circumstances of this reckless provocation.”

Barely five hours after the killings, North Korea showed its cards to the world. Pyongyang had sent a delegation to a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement—a collection of countries that never officially chose a side in the Cold War—which was being held at the time in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The North Koreans distributed a document to the gathered representatives describing the fight in the JSA in terms similar to those used by Radio Pyongyang, then introduced a resolution calling on the conference to order the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Korean peninsula. It passed easily.

To American leaders, the timing was hardly coincidental. Singlaub considered the response from Pyongyang to be “clear confirmation that the murders had been part of a carefully planned campaign designed to force American troops out of Korea.” A memo prepared for the deputy national security adviser suggested that the highest levels of the North Korean regime had likely approved the attack at the poplar tree. The goal, the memo stated, may have been to provoke American troops to “over-react with firearms,” creating an international incident that could influence world opinion and the upcoming U.S. presidential election, which was less than three months away. A CIA report titled “DMZ Incident,” delivered by the agency’s director, George H. W. Bush, to secretary of state Henry Kissinger, described North Korea’s endgame: “If U.S. forces withdraw, if U.S. resolve appears seriously weakened, we believe the North might well act on its overriding goal of unification and seize the opportunity to achieve it militarily.”

The scary thing was that, given the opportunity, North Korea might well succeed. In 1970, a U.S. intelligence assessment had found “general parity” between North and South Korea’s military forces. But four years later, analysts noticed that North Korea was diverting concrete and steel into new, unknown military developments—a worrying development that, with the Pentagon’s attention focused on Vietnam, had gone largely unnoticed. Further review of satellite imagery led to a “horrifying” revelation, as the officer at the National Security Agency assigned to solve the mystery put it. Somehow the intelligence establishment had missed an enormous military buildup, despite U.S. armed forces being parked right next door.

Somehow the intelligence establishment had missed an enormous military buildup, despite U.S. armed forces being parked right next door.

Every line item stunned the Pentagon. North Korea’s armored divisions were 80 percent larger than those described in the 1970 assessment, and the country didn’t have 21 divisions of 10,000 combat troops each; it had 41. The intense, increasingly aggressive Kim had at least 2,000 modern tanks and 12,400 artillery pieces, most of them deployed to fortifications along the DMZ, within easy firing range of U.S. and South Korean forces, as well as fighters and bombers parked in hangars constructed inside mountains and reinforced with all that concrete and steel—save the portion used to build an extensive series of tunnels under the DMZ itself, including one big enough to accommodate a full combat division, with artillery.

According to Singlaub, the United States was forced to accept the “troubling, seemingly unbelievable conclusion” that “Kim Il Sung was poised to invade South Korea,” perhaps by engineering a false-flag attack. Kim may have been telegraphing this fact when he told a Japanese journalist five months before the ax murders that his country planned to “stir up world opinion more vigorously” by publicizing America’s “criminal barbarities.” The CIA believed Pyongyang would use the publicity around the JSA fight to garner allies and sour the American public’s view of the country’s military presence in Korea, to the point that U.S. forces would leave, clearing a path for the north to invade the south. There was reason for Pyongyang to think that possible: The long, bloody slog of Vietnam had worn thin Americans’ patience for war, and on the presidential campaign trail, a Georgia peanut farmer named Jimmy Carter was agitating to withdraw American soldiers from Korea.


General Richard Stilwell (U.S. Government)
General Richard Stilwell (U.S. Government)

When Stilwell landed at Kimpo Airport in Seoul, Singlaub met his boss and briefed him in the car on the way to Yongsan. The two had known each other for 25 years, since Stilwell ran the Far Asia division of the CIA and Singlaub served under him. When Stilwell got his fourth star and was given the prestigious Eighth Army Command, he picked his old friend to be his chief of staff. Now the men sped toward base, discussing how to respond to the murders. As Stilwell saw it, there were relatively few options—three, really. The United States could do nothing, but that would be seen as weak. It could launch a massive retaliatory response, with bombs and rockets, but that might start World War III. Or U.S. forces could do something “meaningful,” an action that sent a message but wouldn’t result in American casualties. Stilwell favored the third option, but what meaningful thing could U.S. forces do? And what if the North Koreans overreacted, igniting the very war Stilwell had hoped to avoid?

By the time Stilwell arrived at the newly designated war room, a concrete basement at Yongsan, it was 2040 on August 18, and he had a plan in mind. U.S. forces needed to reassert control before the situation in the JSA slipped further into chaos. Because the fight had started at the poplar tree, Stilwell reasoned, the response should be focused there, too. “That damned tree must come down,” he told Singlaub. Not only that, but the JSF needed to destroy the two checkpoints near CP3 that North Korea had installed without approval. They’d stood long enough.

The mission was a matter of both tactical necessity and principle, and in theory it could be done quickly and in a way that appeared to respect the parameters of the armistice. But there was a way to make a louder point, too. Chopping down the poplar would be a real threat if, in Singlaub’s words, it was accompanied by a “massing [of] American air, ground, and sea power to remind the North Koreans of the nature of their opponent.” Stilwell had the perfect name for the mission: Operation Paul Bunyan.

3

The security meeting that Stilwell had ordered Singlaub to organize was held the morning after the murders. It was a gathering of the Military Armistice Commission, comprised of North and South Koreans, Americans, and neutral-nation observers—Czechs, Poles, Swedes, and Swiss—who oversaw implementation of the peace agreement and mediated disputes in the JSA. The MAC headquarters, a narrow, single-story building with blue walls, parallel banks of windows, and well-worn office furniture, had seen its share of one-upmanship and sabotage. In the early days of the armistice, each side had attended MAC meetings with a progressively bigger flag to place before its delegation, until they could no longer fit comfortably in the room. More than once KPA soldiers were seen shining their boots with an American flag. Later the U.S. side assigned guards to protect its microphones, because the American delegates were concerned that the North Koreans would cut the cords.

The meeting on August 19 was different, because the stakes were unprecedented. Normally, a U.S. honor guard attended in Class A uniforms: white helmet, blue satin sash, polished boots. That day, members of the JSF had been on alert for nearly 24 hours. They were dirty and sweaty, wearing combat fatigues and scuffed boots, and they were seething at the deaths of Bonifas and Barrett. According to one observer, they “marched in with a force and purpose like never before,” forming a cordon as Rear Admiral Mark Frudden, the senior U.S. representative at the meeting, strutted from his car to the conference room in impeccable dress whites.

Press swarmed and flashes popped as Frudden and other officials arrived. A TV camera panned the tense scene, pausing for a moment on the exhausted face of John Pinadella, who was  a member of the honor guard. Later that night, when the footage played on the evening news across America, Pinadella’s father would relax for the first time since the announcement the previous day that two unnamed soldiers had been murdered in Korea. His son was not one of the dead men.

Frudden opened the meeting by delivering a written message from Stilwell. “The UN Command views this brutal, vicious act with gravity and concern and warns that such violent and belligerent acts cannot be tolerated,” Stilwell wrote. “North Korea must bear full responsibility for all consequences.” As expected, emissaries from Pyongyang pushed back. North Korea had fully denied the 1968 killings of the men in the truck, and this time, too, it claimed innocence. American soldiers provoked the violence, the country’s representatives said. This was often how it went at MAC meetings: The Americans complained about KPA aggression, and North Korean envoys pretended nothing had happened—or flipped the blame back on their adversaries.

This time, though, the Americans had evidence of murder: the photos that Shaddix had taken from OP5. Shaddix had used Ektachrome, a high-end Kodak color film, and because there wasn’t a single facility in South Korea that could process it, the Army had overnighted the film to Japan with orders that it be developed and returned by the following morning, in time for the MAC meeting. Now an aide spread the damning pictures out on the table as Frudden read more of Stilwell’s message. “Your guards took the very axes meant for peaceful uses,” it said, “and turned them into instruments of death.”

“Your guards took the very axes meant for peaceful uses and turned them into instruments of death.” 

South of the JSA, U.S. staff sergeant Charles Twardzicki of the Second Engineer Battalion was summoned for a special assignment. It was Twardzicki’s 25th birthday, and he was supposed to have the day off. Instead, he and a lieutenant would drive north, change into a uniform from one of the JSA’s neutral nations, and go on a recon mission in Panmunjom. Their task: to get a good look at the poplar and decide how to chop it down. There wouldn’t be enough time for measurements, so the men would have to suggest a plan after merely eyeballing the tree.

The lieutenant was supposed to brief various commanders, but he got caught up in another meeting, so Twardzicki, an enlisted man, was tasked with delivering the intel to a room twinkling with brass. The sergeant stood sweating as generals and admirals—“lots of stars and eagles,” he recalled—breezed past him into the meeting room, where they aired their opinions on how best to take down the poplar. “The Navy said, ‘We can come in close with a battleship and drop a round right in there,’” Twardzicki recalled. “The Air Force said they could smart-bomb it, and I think the Marines were of the mentality that, ‘We’ll low-crawl in and use our bayonets and whittle it to the ground.’”

Finally, attention turned to Twardzicki. What did the engineer think?

To sever the tree at its trunk, he replied, would require a large saw powered by air-compressors, which would mean transporting heavy equipment to and from the JSA. If Stilwell was looking for speed and stealth, though, the engineers could work the old-fashioned way: by climbing into the tree and using chainsaws to cut the branches where they forked until only the trunk remained. The job wouldn’t be pretty. Saws would break, but the engineers could bring extras.

What about a backup plan, the commanders wanted to know—how long would it take for the engineers to set charges on the tree and blow it to smithereens? Twardzicki, an explosives expert, said that he could prepare satchel charges and rig them in the crotch of the tree in about two minutes. The engineers wouldn’t have much time to exit the blast zone. “They’ll be pulling toothpicks out of their butts,” Twardzicki told the room. He felt as if he were spitballing—there was, he later said, a “pull-it-out-your-butt fudge factor” to the whole conversation.

Later that day, one of Twardzicki’s platoon mates, Bruce Simpson, was also called in for his opinion. Simpson was a 23-year-old specialist who had worked for a landscaper back home in Massachusetts, making him the only guy on the engineering squad with actual expertise in cutting trees.

“How long will it take?” an officer asked, referring to Twardzicki’s plan.

Simpson considered the question for a moment. There was driving and parking and setting up a ladder and climbing into the tree and starting the chainsaws and accounting for a few of them conking out. Then, once the branches fell, the men would have to cut them into pieces and drag them off the road, so that they didn’t give the North Koreans another reason to complain. Finally, the soldiers would have to drive out of the JSA.

“Probably 45 minutes,” Simpson answered.

Was he certain of this?

“Yep. I can guarantee it,” Simpson said, even though he couldn’t.

This was good enough for the brass.

At 1300, Kimpo International Airport was closed for an hour for a somber event: a memorial service for Bonifas and Barrett. Stilwell presided over a short ceremony, during which Bonifas was posthumously promoted to major and both men received Purple Hearts. Afterward the caskets containing the men’s remains were placed on a plane and sent home. Stilwell then flew north, where he presided over a second memorial service at the officers’ club at Camp Kitty Hawk. The general stood next to Bonifas’s and Barrett’s boots, which were on display in front of a small altar, and as he finished his remarks, he told the troops who packed the room that something big was going to happen—an important action, which they would lead. On that ambiguous note, he headed to the helicopter that took him back to Seoul, where the plans for Operation Paul Bunyan were quickly filling up a binder.

Singlaub wrote, “The key elements were surprise, speed of execution and withdrawal, and avoidance of direct engagement with North Korean troops.” The job of cutting down the tree would fall to a pair of eight-man teams from the Second Engineer Battalion, Twardzicki and Simpson’s unit, and they would be protected by two platoons of U.S. and ROK infantrymen and a contingent of South Korean special forces. Behind them, just beyond the JSA border, would be an ROK recon company reinforced with U.S. anti-tank missile teams. An infantry company of about 150 men would hover in 20 Huey helicopters, with 12 AH-1G Cobra gunships flying alongside them. Tank-busting F-4 Phantoms would fly in slightly higher orbit, and F-111 strategic bombers would orbit higher still, visible on North Korean radar.

Forces would mobilize on the ground, too. Three batteries of American 105-millimeter howitzers would move across the Freedom Bridge, the only permanent span over the Imjin River, which skirted the southern edge of the DMZ. Twardzicki and other engineers had already wired the bridge for destruction in the event of war. On the opposite side of the Imjin, three more batteries of ROK heavy artillery would be placed in clear view of North Korean positions. Lastly, at the moment the tree-trimming convoy rolled into the JSA, “a massive flight of B-52 bombers from Guam would be moving ominously north from the Yellow Sea on a vector directly to the North Korean capital,” Singlaub wrote, while the USS Midway carrier group, which would have moved to Korea from its base in Japan, “would launch 40 combat aircraft” to “vector north above international waters.”

Once the plan was complete, Stilwell needed Washington’s approval, but he was worried about D.C. officials’ penchant for micromanagement. He’d watched politicians muck up numerous operations in Vietnam, and his deputy, Lieutenant General Burns, had seen it first-hand in 1975, after Khmer Rouge soldiers in Cambodia seized the container ship SS Mayaguez, prompting an infamous botched rescue mission. Burns was in Thailand, overseeing air support for a Marine assault on the island where the Mayaguez hostages were thought to be held, when the White House had intervened, using a command-override channel to reach the helicopters directly. According to Singlaub’s account, Air Force pilots were shocked to hear their controllers’ voices replaced by that of a civilian—specifically, Henry Kissinger, who had no direct authority over a military operation. Singlaub claimed in his memoir that Burns was about to order the Marines not to land on the island, where an ensuing battle and chopper crash killed 41 U.S. soldiers, but couldn’t because of the override. “Kissinger bypassed the entire local command structure and fouled up the operation,” Singlaub wrote. “We were determined this would not happen to us.”

Stilwell dictated the memo for Operation Paul Bunyan over a secure line to the Pentagon, and he chose his words carefully. This was not the starting point for a conversation—it was a final document that didn’t require further comment or conversation. He described the range of North Korea’s possible responses: It might do nothing, which he hoped would be the case; it might react with small-arms fire, which could be met with mortars and gunfire to cover an evacuation of U.S. and ROK forces; or Pyongyang could panic and stage a larger attack. “We would then have to be ready for more important actions,” Stilwell said. “In between the two extremes are a legion of possibilities which could make precise control of escalation difficult to manage. We will need good local communications, cool heads, and thorough understanding of the mission.”

Stilwell waited until late at night Korea time to send the message. He knew the Ford administration was eager to move quickly, and he wanted to limit the amount of time for possible meddling, so he requested a green light within 24 hours. Once he got it, the mission could launch at dawn on August 21.


When top national-security officials met at the White House to discuss the ax murders, Ford wasn’t there—the president was in Kansas City, Missouri, for the Republican National Convention, facing supporters of an ornery upstart challenger named Ronald Reagan. Ford wasn’t the only top decision-maker absent: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was also at the convention, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was traveling, forcing the deputies for both to take their seats at the table in the Situation Room.

Kissinger dominated the meeting, expressing frustration that the U.S. soldiers at the poplar hadn’t fought back. “If I had been one of those men and was being beaten to death,” he remarked, “I would have used a firearm.” Now he firmly supported retaliation. “If we do nothing, they will think of us as the paper tigers of Saigon,” the secretary of state said. “There may be another incident, and then another.”

“If we do nothing, they will think of us as the paper tigers of Saigon. There may be another incident, and then another.”

Some officials went so far as to suggest dropping smart bombs, staging B-52 attacks, and coordinating assaults by Airborne Rangers. The acting chairman of the Joint Chiefs floated a plan to use a submarine or Navy SEALs to blow up an “industrial site” at a North Korean harbor, but he backed off the idea after assessing that the chances of pulling it off without casualties was slim. Ultimately, none of the men wanted dead Americans on his conscience, nor did he want to be blamed for starting yet another war in Asia.

According to a declassified transcript of the meeting, the advisers decided to “seek presidential approval of a military action to cut down the tree and try to do it in such a way as to avoid confrontation.” This was the basic premise of Operation Paul Bunyan, and like Stilwell, the men in Washington wanted to do more than merely dispatch soldiers with hedge clippers—they, too, wanted to demonstrate military might. “It will be useful for us to generate enough activity so that the North Koreans begin to wonder what those crazy American bastards are doing or are capable of doing in this election year,” Kissinger said. Yet he was as wary of Stilwell as the general was of the secretary. “We are not going to let Stilwell run loose,” Kissinger warned.

While Washington spent the day reviewing the memo for Operation Paul Bunyan, armed forces in Korea were ordered to go to Defcon-3. It was the first time the U.S. military had raised its alert status in the region since the Korean War. Washington also launched a military mobilization of breathtaking scale. The Pentagon staged an “exercise” that routed B-52s armed with conventional and nuclear weapons uncomfortably close to Pyongyang. A squadron of F-4 fighters flew from Kadena Air Base in Okinawa to Korea and was joined by a squadron of nuclear-capable F-111 fighter-bombers dispatched from Idaho. The USS Midway was sent toward the Korean peninsula from elsewhere in the Pacific, while RF-4D reconnaissance planes and Wild Weasel air-defense-suppression jets arrived from bases in Japan and the Philippines after flying within range of North Korean radar. Two infantry divisions, one American and one South Korean, were pushed forward from their bases south of the Imjin River to the DMZ, while conventional and nuclear artillery and missiles were moved into concrete bunkers built in preparation for precisely this kind of emergency scenario. Every military unit in Korea was abuzz with activity; cargo helicopters shuttled munitions and equipment out of Seoul, and truck convoys clogged the roads heading north.

The armed forces also planned for a worst-case scenario. SR-71 Blackbird surveillance jets took off from a base on Taiwan to take detailed photos of North Korean military movements and identify the coordinates of anti-aircraft radar, which lit up as the jets screamed past 80,000 feet in the air. Intelligence analysts would use the coordinates to pre-target Nike Hercules missiles and then, if necessary, launch them in advance of U.S. bombers raining fire north of the DMZ.

The Blackbird was, and still is, the fastest manned plane in history, so there was no reason to be secretive about its mission. The jet was too fast to shoot down—or do anything about, really, other than complain. That’s what the North Koreans did, issuing a proclamation over state radio about the “military provocation” and the drumbeats of war. “The U.S. imperialist aggressors should be clearly aware of the fact that they will never be able to avoid the grave consequences that might arise from such reckless provocations of violating the armistice in Korea,” Pyongyang warned. “They should act discreetly.”


The clock was ticking toward Stilwell’s deadline for a green light. The general was surprised when he received a communiqué asking if it would be possible to mount Operation Paul Bunyan sooner than he’d suggested; the Ford administration wanted it over and done with. Sure, Stilwell replied, he could do it, but the operation would be “ragged,” because he’d have less time to prep his men and move equipment. “We are aware of our solemn responsibility to accomplish the mission with minimum jeopardy to our forces,” he replied. Stilwell reiterated what he’d said in his memo: 0700 on August 21 was optimal. His men could roll in and, if Simpson’s guess was right, cut down the tree in 45 minutes, finishing before 0800, when KPA guards would drive across the Bridge of No Return to assume their positions in Panmunjom for the day.

On the night of August 19, Ford accepted the Republican nomination for reelection, telling the crowd in Kansas City that he was “proud to stand before this convention as the first incumbent president since Dwight D. Eisenhower who can tell the American people, ‘America is at peace.’” The line was written for cheers, and Ford paused to take in the applause of some 2,000 GOP delegates, none of whom had any idea that, halfway across the world, the United States was preparing for war.

Kissinger had flown to Kansas City to brief Ford in person, which he did in a back room of the convention center. The president was nervous about coming off as too aggressive, but he agreed that the United States needed to make a point.

On the morning of August 20, Washington dispatched the order to execute. The message reached Stilwell at 2345 his time, 15 minutes before the deadline. Just under the wire, Operation Paul Bunyan was a go, with only one addendum from Washington: Kissinger insisted that, should the tree mission draw North Korean fire, America would get revenge by destroying KPA barracks near the JSA. Stilwell didn’t like the idea—for one thing, the strikes would land uncomfortably close to the camp housing Swiss and Swede observers of Panmunjom—so he added a caveat: The bombing of the barracks could be executed only on his direct order.

4

Secrecy was paramount. The only way for Washington to monitor the mission in real time was by secure phone, and Stilwell, with the Mayaguez fiasco very much in mind, used this to his advantage. He allowed only two secure lines out of Korea, both connected to the Pentagon. One of them was at his desk in Yongsan, and the other was at his forward command post, where he’d relocate during the mission. From each of those locations was a secure line to the operation task force in the DMZ. In practice this meant that the only way for Washington to communicate with forces in the field was through one of Stilwell’s offices, and the only way to contact those offices was through phones located at the Pentagon. If Kissinger wanted to talk to someone in the DMZ, he’d have to go to the Department of Defense in Arlington, Virginia. Stilwell exerted further control by directing Singlaub and the rest of his staff to leave the lines to the Pentagon off the hook. When his staff needed to speak to Washington, they would initiate the conversation, and when it was over, they would cover the mouthpiece with a Styrofoam coffee cup so that it sounded like they’d hung up.

Singlaub assumed the job of choking off Washington’s access with gusto. He informed his communications officer, a colonel charged with manning the phones in Korea and delivering messages to and from the Pentagon, that his “entire future in the U.S. Army” depended on following the order that “under absolutely no circumstances whatsoever” should he allow “any direct communication from a higher headquarters” to bypass Yongsan. “I don’t care,” Singlaub told the officer, “if President Ford himself is on the other line.” In the event of objections, which were inevitable, the colonel was to say that, unfortunately, the communications system in Korea was incompatible with the one back home, preventing him from patching calls through to the front. This was a lie, and technicians would likely know it, but Washington was half a world away, with no way to open additional lines to Korea. Officials might get mad, but they wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.

A half-hour after receiving this order, the colonel returned with a message. Washington wasn’t happy; it wanted a direct line to the front. The colonel returned again to report that officials in the U.S. capital wanted to know how old the tree was, a pointless question that boiled Singlaub’s blood, and then a third time to say that the lieutenant general in charge of worldwide military communications was personally demanding a secure line to the DMZ.

“I told [him] to talk to you, sir,” the colonel told Singlaub. “He was not exactly pleased.”

“Don’t worry, colonel,” Singlaub replied. “I’m your rating officer, not him.”

There would be no sleep that night, but there would be more bureaucratic conflict. Around 0400, Ambassador Sneider finally arrived in Yongsan, after a daylong flight from the United States. As Sneider entered the war room, Stilwell was on the phone with the commander of the task force. When Sneider realized who was on the line, he reached for the phone. The muscles in Stilwell’s arm clenched as the ambassador grabbed the receiver, and the two men engaged, according to Singlaub, in a “ludicrous tug of war” that the general ultimately won.

“Was there something you wanted me to ask?” Stilwell said politely, if smugly, after hanging up.

Sneider was miffed and reminded the general that he was President Ford’s personal representative in Korea. If Ford had questions for “my field commanders,” Stilwell replied, “I’ll be happy to relay any.”

Stilwell was on the very edge of retirement and so had little to risk in the way of his career by placing obstacles between Washington and the DMZ. His top priority was to not introduce any unnecessary risk into an already sensitive mission. When he met with South Korean president Park Chung Hee to discuss Operation Paul Bunyan, he agreed outwardly with Park’s optimism that the tree would come down and that Park’s hand-selected ROK commandos, who were masters of martial arts, could take on KPA soldiers if it came to that. In truth, Stilwell thought there was a strong chance the North Koreans would fight back—hard—and once the bullets were flying, it would be difficult, maybe even impossible, to stop the fire from becoming an inferno.

In the war room, Singlaub was thinking about extreme measures. “It was my estimate, shared by many of the staff, that the operation stood a 50-50 chance of starting a war,” he later wrote. “We might be teetering on the brink of a holocaust. If North Korea did invade, we would have no choice but to request authorization for the first use of nuclear weapons since World War II.”

Just before dawn, Singlaub took a moment to find a quiet corner and pray.

Members of Third Platoon. (Courtesy of Wayne Johnson)
Members of Third Platoon. (Courtesy of Wayne Johnson)

At 0500, members of the JSF were awoken and instructed to move “as quietly and expeditiously as possible” to a barracks. Once they were assembled, groggy-eyed, the briefing began. Before them stood their platoon leaders and captain Ed Shirron, who’d replaced Bonifas. Shirron announced a surgical mission into the JSA to cut down the poplar tree, backed up by tremendous force. “The way it was explained, it sounded like it was going to be the most carefully staged and concentrated display of power since D-Day in World War II,” then private Bill Ferguson recalled.

The mood was heavy, the room silent. After nearly 48 hours of wanting revenge but being allowed to do nothing—of wondering what was going to happen along one of the world’s most precarious military fault lines—the JSF was being asked to finish the job that had started the crisis. The plan was invigorating, and also terrifying. Every man who worked in the JSA knew the rumor that, by taking up his post, he was automatically known to the Army’s Graves Registration Service, which handled retrieval, transportation, and burial of soldiers killed in the line of duty; that way, if the North Koreans ever launched a fusillade and wiped Panmunjom from the map, the Pentagon would know who’d been killed without having to identify them. Now, with Operation Paul Bunyan, the Army was rolling the dice on the men’s lives. “My life expectancy if anything happened,” Ferguson said, “was extremely short.” After the briefing, he wrote letters to his family members, just in case.

The operation would begin at exactly 0700 and involve all three U.S. platoons in the JSF, plus select troops from the Second Infantry Division, the only other American unit based north of the Imjin River. The JSF guards were told that they could take only the most basic defensive gear, including flak jackets, ax handles, and their .45 handguns, which were meant for close range and would be virtually useless against an attacker more than ten yards away. With no idea of what lay ahead, the men snatched up whatever rudimentary weaponry they could hide in their boots and pockets: knives, shoestrings, socks stuffed with rocks. “If there was the slightest chance that we somehow survived,” Ferguson said, “we at least wanted some kind of fighting chance to not become prisoners.”

Twardzicki, Simpson, and the other engineers who would cut down the poplar gathered their chainsaws—about a dozen in all—and piled into two dump trucks to head north. Their commander briefed them one last time.

“If the North Koreans go to stop this thing,” he said, “you know what they’re going to shoot at.”

“The guy with all the stars, right?” Twardzicki replied.

“No, the guy with all the chainsaws.”

At 0648, as the sun was rising, 23 vehicles loaded with soldiers rolled toward the JSA. At the same time, the 20 Huey helicopters carrying the Army rifle company took off and began circling above the DMZ. Cobra gunships, armed with Gatling guns, Hydra rockets, and anti-tank missiles, joined them.

The soldiers sat quietly in the trucks. Ernest Bickley looked at the stitches in his right hand, which patched a wound he’d suffered in the fight that started this whole mess. He wasn’t a smoker, but when an ROK Marine offered him a cigarette, he took it and smoked for the first time. In another truck, two thoughts ran in a loop in Ferguson’s head, both of them from movies. One was a quote from the 1970 western Little Big Man: “Today is a good day to die.” The other was a song lyric from Paint Your Wagon, the Clint Eastwood musical: Where am I going, I don’t know / When will I get there, I ain’t certain / All I know is I am on my way.

Mark Luttrull, Bonifas’s former driver, was a late addition to the unit. He’d told Vierra that he wanted to be at the tree when it came down, and he’d been called to meet with Captain Shirron at 0300. “I’m looking for a radio operator,” Shirron told him. It had to be a volunteer, because the job was dangerous. In battle, the guy with the antenna standing next to an officer was always among a sniper’s first targets.

“You’ve got only a 50-50 chance of returning,” Shirron told him.

“I’ll take the job,” Luttrull replied. Now, in the back of a deuce and a half, he thought mostly of Bonifas, and he wasn’t afraid.

The last stop before the gate to the JSA was Checkpoint 2, where John Pinadella was waiting. Pinadella had a special job: Just before 0700, he was to walk into Panmunjom and observe KPA activity. What was the size of the North Korean force? Had any guards showed up early that day? Pinadella did as he was told and saw nothing out of the ordinary. He returned to the checkpoint and used a field phone to call back to base.

“Go,” he said.

Then Pinadella opened the gate to let the trucks through. In the basement of his checkpoint were ten M16s and 3,000 rounds of ammunition. Pinadella’s instructions were to use them to cover the trucks if they came streaming back in retreat. By then soldiers stationed at camp would be igniting fuel cans and explosives positioned at the door of every building. The camp would go up in flames, ensuring that nothing of strategic value would be left behind for the North Koreans to seize as the men of the JSF fought for their lives.

The camp would go up in flames, ensuring that nothing of strategic value would be left behind for the North Koreans to seize as the men of the JSF fought for their lives.

The first deuce and a half roared through Panmunjom’s gate, turned left, and headed for CP3, the loneliest outpost. It stopped at the poplar long enough for the guards in back to jump out and take up defensive positions around the tree, then the driver backed up onto the Bridge of No Return and parked, effectively blocking any KPA vehicles from crossing. A second truck arrived with a platoon of ROK commandos in civilian uniforms, and they spilled out into a half-circle around the tree. Finally, in a dump truck came the engineers, who immediately pulled out their ladders and saws and got to work.

The chainsaws weren’t prime specimens; they were Vietnam surplus and ran well only when held straight up and down or dead flat. Hold one at an angle and it got wonky. Twardzicki and Simpson prayed that the machines would work well enough. They didn’t want to deploy the backup plan of loading the tree with explosives and running like hell.

Twardzicki mounted a ladder and began sawing into one of the poplar’s three main limbs. He cut a wedge out of the far side, a trimmer’s trick to make sure the branch didn’t fall back on him, then commenced furiously sawing. He was too busy to wonder whether someone somewhere had a sniper rifle aimed at his head. Twardzicki knew that there were layers of security around the tree and up in the air, including the B-52s now circling the scene, their bellies loaded for bear with bombs.

It seemed like no time before the first branch came down. The mass of wood dropped with a thud onto the engineers’ truck, denting the hood. “I vividly remember the crash it made as it fell on the truck, and the cheers we all made—raising our ax handles and yelling,” Ferguson recalled. Engineers on the ground then cut the limb into smaller pieces and threw them into the ditch where three days earlier Pinadella had found Barrett on the brink of death.

By then the KPA had received a communiqué from the UNC, sent strategically—on Stilwell’s orders—at 0705, after the trucks were already in the JSA. It stated that a UNC work party would “enter JSA at 0700 in order to peacefully finish the work left unfinished by the UNC work detail which was attacked by your guards on 18 August.” As long as the KPA didn’t engage, the message said, there would be no violence.


Ferguson and his platoon mates near the tree gripped their ax handles, keeping one eye on the engineers’ trimming and the other on the activity across the bridge. At first the North Korean guards reacted as Stilwell hoped they might. The KPA closest to the bridge appeared confused, and when backup arrived, those soldiers also seemed like they didn’t have orders to follow.

But then a group of KPA guards ran from their barracks to an observation post built on a hill. They set up a machine-gun nest, with barrels aimed across the river. A few minutes later, a makeshift convoy of vehicles—trucks, buses, a clunky old East German sedan—arrived, and about 150 reinforcements with small arms jumped out, taking positions along the Sachon River.

The Americans were prepared for this. A second platoon of men, poised up a hill near OP5, moved forward to reinforce the guards near the poplar. Meanwhile, soldiers from the Second Infantry who’d been waiting near the gate to South Korea moved ahead, too. In full battle rattle, they fanned out along the JSA’s main road, clearly visible to the North Koreans.

The Americans were merely showing force in numbers. Several ROK soldiers, however, reacted differently to the sight of KPA guards taking attack positions. They ripped open their shirts to reveal Claymore anti-personnel mines strapped to their chests. Each man clutched a detonator in his hand and waved it in the direction of the KPA soldiers, yelling at them to cross the bridge and face certain death.

ROK men wearing explosives and howling at their enemies shocked forces on both sides of the river. Luttrull yelled to Captain Shirron, and the unit radioed Vierra at his command post outside the JSA: “Be advised that the ROK special forces have Claymore mines!”

Vierra was furious. This wasn’t just a violation of the armistice; it was a reckless action that put his men, and the entire operation, in jeopardy. To him it seemed that “they had their own plan—to cause the KPA to do something.” He wanted to scream into his command channel for someone to rein in the South Koreans immediately, but he knew that had to be careful with his words. He was already concerned that, if hostilities broke out, he might not be able to control the ROK. “I did not know whether they would follow my orders,” Vierra said. “I did not know their orders.” He held his tongue.

At the tree, Ferguson froze at the sight of the ROK soldiers. Time seemed to warp. “Some things appeared to be in slow motion,” he said, “and other things seemed to happen faster than my eyes and brain could register them.” Then he heard a faint rumble in the air—a thump, thump, thump coming from the south. He looked up. It was a gray day, with a low ceiling of clouds, but not so low that he couldn’t see the source of the sound: a phalanx of U.S. helicopters rising up over the horizon line and hanging there, “seeming to stretch for over a mile.”

Ferguson was suddenly hyperaware of his tenuous place in the world. “Nukes in the air, who knows how much artillery from both sides concentrated on our location, crazy guys with mines on their chests yelling at the North Koreans to come on over, the KPA less than 100 meters away with machine guns trained on us, and me and my buddies are standing around with ax handles and .45s,” he said.

Ferguson took a breath and waited for the rifle crack or puff of smoke that would signal the end. “All I’m thinking,” he recalled, “is that I hope I can take a couple [KPA] with me.”

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Staff Sergeant Charles Twardzicki (right) at battalion headquarters. (Courtesy of Charles Twardzicki)

The engineers in the tree didn’t feel the gathering storm. They were busy wrestling their unwieldy chainsaws through gnarly wood, their arms burning with lactic acid, then trading off the job with other men. Twardzicki in particular was having problems. His chainsaw had stalled. He yanked on the starter once, twice, several times. It flooded. For four or five minutes passed, which felt like hours to everyone watching, Twardzicki fumbled with the machine. “What the hell is going on?” he heard someone ask. Finally, the saw wheezed and whirred back to life, and Twardzicki finished off the stubborn branch.

But there was still more to cut—one last big branch, high up the trunk and difficult to reach. Simpson was standing on top of the dump truck’s roof and leaning out as far as he could without toppling over so that his saw could reach the limb. He was visibly tired from the labor, but he had to keep going; the 45 minutes he’d promised were all the engineers needed would soon be up.

Just then an engineer named George Deason bounded over to the tree. A lieutenant, he’d been with the unit tasked with tearing down the KPA’s two illegal checkpoints. That work had been easy enough. The men had wrapped heavy chains around each structure’s gates and posts, attached the chains to a truck’s bumper, and given the driver a thumbs-up. Now Deason wanted to make his fresh arms useful at the tree. He hopped on top of the truck and took the saw from a weary Simpson. Standing on his toes, with fellow soldiers spotting him, Deason finished off the branch.

With that, the poplar was no more. Its foliage and limbs lay in chunks on the ground, and what remained standing was a sad, serrated trunk in the shape of a fork.

As soon as the final limb was cut into pieces, the engineers jumped back into their truck and drove away. His work finally done, Twardzicki took in the scene and was stunned by one particular sight: a group of ROK commandos, at least a platoon’s worth, emerging from near the Sachon River, where they’d apparently been hiding in dense brush since infiltrating the JSA the night before. They wore camouflage face paint and carried guns and grenades. “They were armed to the teeth,” Twardzicki said. Their covert placement was yet another decision the South Koreans had made without U.S. knowledge.

The first branch fell at 0718, and the last soldiers were leaving the JSA by 0745. Since the convoy had rolled in at 0702, after Pinadella opened the gate, Operation Paul Bunyan had technically lasted 43 minutes—two less than Simpson had predicted, making him look brilliant. When the engineers arrived back at camp, Twardzicki spotted Stilwell. He walked over and handed the mission’s architect the small wedge of wood he’d cut out of the first branch. It was the only piece of the poplar any of the men carried out of the JSA.

5

The North Koreans hadn’t reacted in real time. A U.S. intelligence analyst listening to KPA tactical radio channels later observed that the show of force “blew their minds.” There was no gunfire until 1015, when an overzealous KPA soldier took some pot shots at a U.S. helicopter circling the scene. That fire, Singlaub later wrote, “stopped abruptly when six Cobras banked line-abreast and swung into firing position, their twinkling laser sights directly on the enemy gun position.”

But the crisis wasn’t over. There was still a chance that Pyongyang was plotting a response—which could happen hours or even days later. In the meantime, the Americans had to go about business as usual in the JSA. After all, they’d told the KPA that the chopping of the tree was merely the completion of routine work. For the remainder of August 21, after the helicopters and planes and infantry brigades had pulled back, Pinadella and other guards were left on duty in checkpoints and observation posts, watching their KPA counterparts and analyzing every move. “Those were the scarier moments,” Pinadella said. “The task force was gone, and now we were just out there by ourselves listening to the North Korean tanks rumbling off in the distance.”

U.S. and South Korean officials held their breath waiting to hear what Pyongyang would say about Operation Paul Bunyan. There was mostly silence, even on propaganda channels. Then, around 1200, an urgent request arrived: The North Koreans wanted a meeting of the MAC.

The body convened late that afternoon, and because the meeting had been called so suddenly, there was less pomp than normal. According to U.S. embassy reports summarizing the event for Washington, the atmosphere was “calm and quiet.” The KPA delegation seemed “chastened,” as one diplomat put it. There was no bluster, no talk of imperialist aggressors or imminent war. In fact, the only people in the room who seemed peeved with the United States were the neutral-nation observers, who’d been given no advance warning of the operation. They “were cold and refused to acknowledge the U.S. rep’s salute,” a CIA report noted.

Pyongyang’s senior representative glumly read a message from Kim Il Sung. The note expressed “regret” over the August 18 incident and stated that it was Kim’s hope that both sides would make efforts to prevent anything like it from happening again.

Luttrull was on guard outside the windows of the conference room that afternoon and watched the exchange. He saw Pyongyang’s emissary, his head bowed in contrition, pass the note from the Supreme Leader across the table to Admiral Frudden, who shot back, “That is not enough!’” Luttrull felt the same way. Bonifas’s killing haunted him, and he regretted that he hadn’t been at the tree when Bulldog attacked. “I might’ve fired,” Luttrull said. “Even though I knew that was against the rules, and I could’ve started a war, I might’ve done it.”

Later that day, a press officer at the State Department echoed Frudden’s retort, telling a reporter that the message from Pyongyang didn’t go far enough to satisfy the United States. At the very least, Washington wanted a full public apology. But Kissinger, conscious of the president’s desire to end the crisis and move on to dealing with his reelection, quickly walked the statement back. “We consider this a positive step,” the State Department clarified.

Certainly, the North Korean response was unprecedented: It was the first time Pyongyang had expressed any responsibility for violence in the DMZ. The message from Kim was also the first that North Korea’s leader had personally sent to the UNC in its 23-year history of enforcing the armistice.

In the days that followed, stress in the JSA remained high. Every man was aware that the mission could have ended differently, with twitchy ROK commandos or KPA guards opening fire at their enemy. “The scuttlebutt was that they already had the telegrams printed to our parents and loved ones,” Pinadella said. Amplifying tension was the fact that American forces were still at Defcon-3. “They flew the B-52s for days afterward,” Pinadella recalled, and the JSF guards knew that the planes’ silhouettes, tens of thousands of feet in the air, preoccupied the KPA. “We’d be close to the North Koreans, like a couple of feet away, and we’d point up in the sky,” Pinadella said. “I used to point and do a whistle, like a bomb’s sound, and say, ‘Kaboom!’—North Korea gone!”

The next MAC meeting, on August 25, provided the balm that Panmunjom needed. This time the North Koreans proposed something historic: a permanent barrier, which neither army would be allowed to cross, to be erected along the international demarcation that cut through the JSA, ending almost a quarter-century of free movement. The UNC supported the idea, and it was formally adopted on September 6. Two days later, the Joint Chiefs of Staff reverted troops to Defcon-4, and the USS Midway departed Korean waters for its base in Japan. There would be no World War III over a tree.

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Private John Pinadella (top) in the remains of the tree. (Courtesy of John Pinadella)

Stilwell retired as scheduled, on November 1, 1976, and he always spoke in rote, soldierly terms about the dramatic mission to chop down the poplar. It “was a simple military operation performed with precision and discipline,” he once told an interviewer. Singlaub was more reflective. “The only reason Kim Il Sung finally backed down,” he wrote in his memoir, “was that we made him understand the danger he faced.” In the summer of 1976, North Korea’s leader was arguably bolder and more powerful than he’d ever been on the international stage, and he used the dispute over the tree to flex his newly honed military muscle. But Kim underestimated his adversary—in particular, its willingness to resist aggression with threats of its own.

The men who participated on the ground in Operation Paul Bunyan went back to their regular deployment duties, and later to their personal lives. Twardzicki saw a story in Stars and Stripes in which the wife of an F-4 pilot told the reporter how worried she’d been about her husband during the mission, flying 30,000 feet over Korea. Oh really? Twardzicki remembered thinking. How about the guy with the chainsaw? Looking back, he said, “that one event probably made my career—to be the guy who cut the tree down. I didn’t know whether they expected me to be expendable or important.” Pinadella, meanwhile, learned that his mother, a lifelong Democrat who’d been campaigning for Jimmy Carter in 1976, cast a vote for Ford that November “because he didn’t escalate” in Korea.

Ford lost the election, and in 1977, when Singlaub publicly opposed President Jimmy Carter’s proposal to remove troops from Korea, the general was relieved of his duties in Yongsan. Two years later, facing political pressure and intelligence reports of Pyongyang’s continued military strength, Carter relented on his plan, and U.S. soldiers stayed in place. By the 1990s, South Korea had assumed sole responsibility for defending its side of the DMZ. American guards remained close by to serve as reactive support if necessary. They are still there today, stationed at a base rechristened Camp Bonifas.

The concrete barrier requested by Pyongyang went up in the JSA in the fall of 1976. More than four decades later, it was at this divider, erected because of Operation Paul Bunyan, that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in met to discuss bilateral relations and denuclearization. On April 27, 2018, the sworn enemies strode to the barrier, stood on either side, and shook hands. Then Moon invited Kim to step over the curb into South Korean territory—the first time a North Korean head of state had crossed the border since 1953.

The poplar tree is gone, even the trunk. Its former location is marked with a stone memorializing the deaths of Captain Arthur Bonifas and First Lieutenant Mark Barrett. The tree, though, never really went away. A week after Operation Paul Bunyan, Larry Shaddix took a crew into the JSA to retrieve the poplar’s dismantled branches, which were still lying untouched where the JSF had left them. The men secured the trees remains in a fenced lot that the Army used for storage; only Shaddix had a key. “The tree became very popular after the incident,” he said.

Pieces of the poplar ended up in various hands, but the chain of custody—exactly who got what, when, and where they took it—isn’t always clear. Several soldiers assigned to the JSA took thin slices, which they shellacked and mounted in offices and homes. Bruce Simpson’s hangs above his desk at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.

The section given to Stilwell, who died in 1991, was hung on a wall at the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon, alongside a plaque reading, “This wood was taken from a tree at Panmunjom. Beneath its branches two American officers were murdered by North Koreans. Around the world, the tree became a symbol of communist brutality and a challenge to national honor. On 21 August 1976, a group of free men rose up and cut it down.”

Ordinary Person, Wild Radical

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Ordinary Person, Wild Radical

Seventeen years before the Stonewall Riots, Dale Jennings proclaimed to a California court that he was a homosexual. It was the first glimmer of a civil rights revolution. This is the story of an unsung, and reluctant, hero.

By Peyton Thomas

The Atavist Magazine, No. 80


Peyton Thomas is a novelist and journalist who has written for Vanity Fair and Now magazine, among other publications. They are the recipient of a Lambda Literary Fellowship, a Bill 7 Award, and a Norma Epstein Foundation Award in Creative Writing. 

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Adam Przybyl
Illustrator: Ellis van der Does

Acknowledgments: Special thanks are owed to the librarians and archivists of the Toronto Reference Library, the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives, the Los Angeles County Superior Court, the Delmar T. Oviatt Library, and the Homosexual Information Center. This project was made possible by the generous assistance of Eric Slade, Loni Shibuyama, Will Fellows, Ellen Jarosz, Jon Marans, and Bill and Jonathan Shibley. 

Published in June 2018. Design updated in 2021.

Prelude

Where seven men once stood, only four remained. They were silver haired, with wrinkles cross-hatching their papery skin. Under a searing California sun they moved slowly, tilting on metal walkers and wooden canes. Half a century prior they’d risked everything—investigation, imprisonment, even death—to gather in dim basements and curtained living rooms, away from prying eyes. They’d formed a circle, joined hands, and recited a pledge in hushed unison: “We are sworn that no boy or girl, approaching the maelstrom of deviation, need make that crossing alone, afraid, and in the dark ever again.” Now, on a bright afternoon in the summer of 1998, they were gathering for one last meeting of the Mattachine Society.

If you know the story of the Mattachines, it’s likely only in brief, as an inconsequential prelude to a revolution. The Stonewall uprising of 1969, that glorious cavalcade of shouting and smoke and shattered glass, has been canonized as the birth of gay activism in America. A national monument stands at the site; in his 2012 inaugural address, President Barack Obama spoke of Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall. Within the LGBTQ community, it might as well be the Big Bang.

Yet the clandestine Mattachine Society, formed in California in 1950, paved the way to Stonewall. Its founders were thinkers and writers, friends and lovers. After a burst of pioneering activism, their work took on a life of its own; in the decades that followed, they drifted apart. Three of its founders died before 1998, when filmmaker Eric Slade convened the survivors in Los Angeles for interviews that would compose his documentary Hope Along the Wind. The men seemed giddy to be together—all but one.

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While the others embraced and whispered the compliments of old men (“You haven’t changed!”), Dale Jennings hung back. So tight was his grip on his walker that his knuckles were white. Eighty years old, he wore a utilitarian blue jumpsuit buttoned fast over his rotund figure. His white, wiry hair stood up straight on his head, as if shocked into formation. When Harry Hay, an old comrade draped in luxurious purple fabric, spotted Jennings, he approached and leaned in for a hug. Jennings parried, lifting his hand for a desultory handshake instead. Within the gesture were decades of painful personal history too complex to exhume in the moment.

Later, seated before Slade’s camera, Jennings summoned his story. Dementia was setting in. As he spoke into the microphone pinned to his lapel, he was fuzzy on specific dates and small details. He contradicted himself. He also recollected without nostalgia. The other men described Mattachine meetings as invigorating. To Jennings, they’d been unbearable bores. “We kept repeating ourselves!” he snorted. “I just sat back and went into a coma.”

A contrarian in his youth and a curmudgeon in old age, Jennings had always cut a complicated figure. Being at the vanguard of a movement never suited him, and he’d struggled to shoulder the hero’s mantle, often wishing that he could shrug it off entirely. It had fallen on him heavy and unsolicited in 1952, in the form of a stranger’s menacing stare. Jennings then carried it into a California courtroom, where he declared himself a homosexual at a time when to be gay was to violate the law of the land. The pronouncement was valorous, and its impact was deeply felt, if not seen, in the years that followed. But when Slade asked Jennings if he would do it all again, nearly half a century after the events that shaped his fate, the elderly man shook his head.

“The answer is no,” Jennings replied. “Absolutely not.”

Act I

When Jennings was a child, his parents never missed an opportunity to proclaim that he was exceptional. Born in Amarillo, Texas, on October 21, 1917, and raised in Denver, he distinguished himself as a gifted violinist. His parents, a working-class salesman and a housewife, pinched pennies to pay for his weekly music instruction. It was a drain on the family’s finances, but the Jenningses were willing to make sacrifices—to a point. When his elder sister, Elaine, requested lessons of her own, she was told that the family could only afford to educate Dale, the nascent virtuoso. “If he was rude or obnoxious,” Jennings’s nephew Patrick Dale Porter wrote in a letter to a longtime friend of his uncle’s, “he was ‘special,’ and it just had to be forgiven.”

After graduating from high school in 1935, Jennings enrolled at the University of Denver. By then his love of music had transformed into a desire to write stories for the stage and screen. Lured by Los Angeles, he left college, moved to California, and rented a converted stable at the corner of Olympic Boulevard and Alvarado Street. The space doubled as the headquarters of Theater Caravan, a ragtag drama troupe that Jennings founded. He designed sets, composed music, hired actors, directed, and performed. Over two years, Theater Caravan mounted some 60 plays. The troupe never earned a substantial income, but it granted Jennings creative freedom the likes of which he’d never experienced before. In a set of photographs from this era, he appears lissome and joyful, clad only in white shorts, leaping into the air like a seasoned dancer. At some point in these carefree years, Jennings married a woman named Esther Slayton.

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Dale Jennings

Then, like many young men of his day, he set aside his professional pursuits to fight in World War II. On November 13, 1942, Jennings walked through the tall gates of Fort MacArthur in San Pedro, California, to spend three months in basic training and then study anti-aircraft technology. He became a technical sergeant and was transferred to Camp Hulen near Palacios, Texas, where he trained in cryptography. In December 1943, he was stationed in the southern Philippines as a member of the 356th Searchlight Battalion. He taught courses on scouting and reconnaissance. In the wake of the historic campaign on Guadalcanal, Jennings was transferred to that island and lived there for a time.

Even in wartime, Jennings couldn’t stop himself from picking up a pen. He volunteered as editor in chief of his battalion’s newspaper. In private moments, according to anthropologist C. Todd White, Jennings kept a diary. He wrote affectionately of his wife, whom he called Tuck. He also described an unnamed man in his battalion with whom he shared a strong, strange connection. “I looked at him today and knew that our friendship is a nighttime thing,” Jennings journaled. “By day, with all his features sharp and clear, I do not know him.”

Away from home, surrounded by men, Jennings began to acknowledge a fundamental truth about his being—and the extent to which the world despised it. “There is a delicate tropic fern … that closes up when touched,” Jennings wrote in his diary one evening. “A design of rich, green living changed in the moment of touching into a withered, brown, dead-seeming wisp of rubble.” Earlier that day, he’d observed two soldiers examining such a fern, poking at the fronds and laughing as the leaves shriveled. One man called it a cannibal plant; the other disagreed. “They’re a homosexual plant,” Jennings recalled the second man saying. “Use their pollen on themselves.”

“Somehow,” Jennings concluded, “I was very angry.”

After two years and 15 days of duty, Jennings returned to Fort MacArthur on Christmas Eve 1945. He was decorated with several medals and a Philippine Liberation Ribbon with one Bronze Star. On January 2, 1946, he was honorably discharged. Six months later, he divorced Slayton. He resolved to rekindle his career in Hollywood and to explore sex with men. But he didn’t brand himself gay. According to White, who studies the history of LGBTQ organizing in California, Jennings once wrote that declaring himself attracted to men “would be like tattooing a target on one’s chest; it would be the equivalent of suicide.”


This had been the case since the earliest days of the republic. The first European settlers in America observed gender nonconformity among indigenous peoples and ruthlessly stamped it out. Colonial legal codes, drawing from the Bible and a 1533 English “buggery law,” regarded homoerotic acts as transgressions on the level of adultery, fornication, and bestiality. The penalty for sodomy could be as severe as death. By the late 19th century, harsh laws remained in effect, but homosexuality nonetheless emerged as an identity cutting across lines of culture and class. Alongside this flowering came backlash, including in liberal Southern California. In 1887, moralists in Los Angeles complained of “sissy boys” who gathered in “trysting places” like Central Park, Pershing Square, and Westlake Park (now MacArthur Park). That year a controversial All Fool’s Night ball drew enormous crowds of cross-dressers—or “drunken prostitutes of both sexes,” in the words of a contemporaneous bit of press, who took part in “vile orgies.” This sort of indignant outcry spurred the Los Angeles City Council to pass an ordinance in 1898 forbidding individuals from “masquerading” as a different gender. In 1915, oral sex between members of the same sex, previously considered a misdemeanor, joined sodomy as a felony under a revised penal code.

Still, the film industry made Los Angeles a bastion of relative freedom. During Prohibition, gay speakeasies were popular; when alcohol became legal again, the establishments multiplied into what historians have referred to as a “pansy craze” of bars catering to gay patrons. Private parties were even more liberated. Hollywood luminaries like George Cukor, director of hits such as The Philadelphia Story and Gaslight, opened their homes to young gay men, lesbians, and “Gillette blades”—early slang for bisexuals, in reference to the double-edged razors. Ben Carter, an African American casting agent, hosted gatherings for black gay men aspiring to careers in show business, providing a space free of both homophobia and racism.

Straight audiences were kept in the dark about the private lives of their favorite stars. Though androgyny enjoyed a cultural moment in the early 20th century, with tuxedoed women like Marlene Dietrich and effeminate men like Rudolph Valentino capturing viewers’ hearts, censors pushed hard for depictions of conventional gender roles. In 1930, Hollywood studios caved to the demands of moralists, unanimously agreeing to the stipulations of the Hays Code, which banned representations of homosexuality in film.

During the postwar period, as part of a widespread cultural embrace of family and tradition, films took a rigid perspective on sexuality. Studios mandated that partners of the opposite sex accompany stars to public appearances. Henry Willson, a prominent talent agent who was privately gay, hired off-duty police officers to watch his closeted clients and keep any jilted lovers quiet. At least once, he used outing as a weapon. When Confidential, a tabloid newspaper, threatened to publish an exposé on Rock Hudson’s homosexuality, Willson bought its silence with a salacious tip about another gay actor, Tab Hunter, who’d been arrested for lewd behavior at a dance party. The Motion Picture Production Association paid the police to keep gay scandals quiet. “Carousing wild men like Errol Flynn and homosexual stars were constantly being picked up by the LAPD,” historian Joe Domanick has written, “but never booked.”

Gay men who weren’t famous were among cops’ favorite targets. If you were a homosexual in Los Angeles in the early 1950s, and you’d never been arrested, you almost certainly knew someone who had. LAPD chief William H. Parker was a hardline reformer bent on rooting corruption out of his force and reducing crime citywide. He was also a bigot. A square-jawed military veteran with an austere crew cut, Parker referred to black people as monkeys and Latinos as the offspring of “wild tribes.” He directed his vice squad to pursue homosexuals by entrapping them and charging them with “lewd vagrancy” and “sexual perversion.” According to historian Lillian Faderman, Paul de River, the LAPD’s head criminal psychiatrist under Parker, wrote that homosexuals were “a grave danger to society” and “seducers of children.” In “sexual orgies,” he added, they were even prone to commit murder.

In 1948, the Los Angeles Times reported that the LAPD kept records on 10,000 “known sex offenders,” a euphemism for homosexuals. 

“Wild Bill” Parker, as he was known in Los Angeles’s gay scene, was an existential threat. In 1948, the Los Angeles Times reported that the LAPD kept records on 10,000 “known sex offenders,” a euphemism for homosexuals. Helen P. Branson, who operated a gay bar in the city, described the cops’ standard playbook in a memoir. “Young and good looking policemen are dressed as ‘gay’ as they know how,” she wrote. “They go into a gay bar, act as they think a gay fellow should act, and wait for someone to talk to them. They offer someone a ride or accept a ride, and that does it. Some of them play fair, inasmuch as they wait for the gay one to make a pass at them, but many others wait only long enough to get in the car before declaring the arrest.”

Across the country, urban law-enforcement agencies were deploying the same predatory tactics. Police in Washington, D.C., arrested more than 1,000 homosexuals per year; in Philadelphia, cops filed an average of 100 misdemeanor charges against gay people every month. But the LAPD had a special advantage: It could recruit undercover operatives from the scads of handsome young men who populated Los Angeles in search of stardom. Rendering the approach all the more insidious, some of the actors recruited by the LAPD were themselves gay. Some vice-squad officers even used entrapment for sexual gratification, sleeping with their marks at night and producing their badges over breakfast. (A macabre joke among gay men of the era was, “It’s been wonderful, but you’re under arrest.”) Black and Latino gay men endured particularly brutal treatment at the hands of the police, while lesbians were subjected to raids on the bars they frequented, along with detentions, beatings, and bogus charges.

Entrapment was only the first act in a long, dramatic nightmare. The maximum sentence for engaging in oral sex was 15 years in prison; anal sex could result in a life sentence. Lesser charges carried strict punishments, too. If a person was found to have violated Section 674a of the California Penal Code (“soliciting or engaging in lewd or dissolute conduct”) or 674d (“loitering in or around a public toilet for the purpose of engaging in lewd or dissolute conduct”), they were required to register as a sex offender until death. Those who plea-bargained usually received two years of probation and an order to refrain from associating with known homosexuals. Many people who ran the gauntlet of the legal system faced further abuse after it spit them out. As a result of their orientations being exposed, their families forced them into asylums, where they often endured castration, hysterectomy, or lobotomy.

Not only did the LAPD terrorize gays, it also rarely deigned to protect them. “We don’t realize the physical danger that the early queers lived in,” Jennings told Slade in 1998. “There were so many that were beaten up and left to die that were never reported…. The police thought, Well, the queer must have made a pass at somebody, so let’s forget it, and that was the end of it.”


In 1950, Jennings married again, to a woman named Jacqueline Carney. “I wasn’t about to be tagged as fag,” he later wrote, “and so leaned over backwards playing it straight.” The couple fought frequently about whether to have children. Carney was aware of her husband’s sexual attraction to men and worried that their offspring would inherit it. “She was afraid it was catchy,” Jennings told Slade. “She didn’t want to bring up a brood of little queers, you know? A silly woman.”

The union was annulled after only a few months. Seeking community and identity, Jennings gravitated toward Los Angeles’s leftist circles, which overlapped with its underground gay scene. He advocated for the civil liberties of Japanese Americans and redress for their internment during World War II. He rubbed elbows with members of the Communist Party, including Bob Hull, a gay music student with sweet, boyish features. It didn’t take long for Jennings to fall in love with Hull. “He was brilliant, absolutely brilliant,” Jennings recalled. “I so admired him.”

Born and raised near Minneapolis, Hull had attended the University of Minnesota, where he was a chemistry student by day and a communist organizer by night. Like Jennings, Hull had come to Los Angeles hoping to make art. One day after a musicology class, his instructor, Harry Hay, slipped him a pamphlet calling for “androgynes of the world” to unite. Hull hurried home and showed it to Jennings. Curious, Jennings tagged along a few days later when Hull and his roommate, Chuck Rowland, ventured to a meeting of like-minded men at Hay’s house.

Years later, when asked to describe the origins of his relationship with Hay, Jennings blinked, exhaled, then burst into riotous laughter. “Oh dear,” he said. “That’s the beginning of a volume as big as War and Peace.”

Act II

The house was tucked behind laurel, oleander, and bottlebrush on a hill in Los Angeles’s Silver Lake neighborhood. It overlooked the vast, picturesque reservoir from which the area took its name. Residents of the two-story clapboard homes lining Cove Avenue could reach the water by walking down a public set of steep concrete stairs. It was up those steps, Hay later wrote, that his guests approached on November 11, 1950. Rowland was clutching the pamphlet Hay had given to Hull. “We could have written this ourselves!” Rowland exclaimed. “When do we get started?”

The answer was now. Hay kicked off the gathering with a speech about “the heroic objective of liberating one of our largest minorities from social persecution.” He was approaching 40 and handsome, with a chiseled jaw, cleft chin, and furrowed brow. When he spoke about the wholly unprecedented and dangerous undertaking of organizing gay men, Hay’s confidence was contagious. As Jennings later put it, “I’d never met such a persistent, omnipresent man in my life.”

Hay had been born the bluest of blue bloods. His parents, Henry and Margaret, met in Edwardian South Africa, where Henry managed the Witwatersrand gold mine under Cecil Rhodes. Hay never lived up to his father’s expectations, never exhibited the discipline and hard work that Henry deemed fundamental to manhood. After an accident in a copper mine left Henry with one leg, the family relocated to Los Angeles. There, Hay developed interests in music, literature, and theater. Henry began to fear his son was a sissy and tried to beat him into normalcy.

Hay’s deliverance arrived at age 11, when he found a copy of Edward Carpenter’s The Intermediate Sex at the library. Carpenter’s book, one of the first to speak positively of “homogenic attachments,” was a revelation to Hay. “As soon as I saw it, I knew,” Hay told his biographer, Stuart Timmons. “I wasn’t the only one of my kind in the whole world after all, and we weren’t necessarily weird or freaks or perverted. There were others. The book said so.…. Maybe, someday, I could cross the sea and meet another one.”

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Harry Hay

In his early twenties, Hay became active in the Communist Party. He performed in agitprop demonstrations and traveled north to raise his fists in the San Francisco General Strike of 1934. He was bothered, though, by the party’s prohibition of same-sex behavior and the Soviet Union’s persecution of homosexuals. Other gays and lesbians in the party opted to conceal their orientations, but Hay struggled to rectify his identity with his politics. He eventually enlisted the services of a psychiatrist, who suggested that he do what everyone else did: marry, have children, and keep his sexuality a secret. Hay followed those instructions to the letter. In 1938, he married fellow communist Anita Platky and officially joined the party. The couple settled in Silver Lake and adopted two children. For the duration of their marriage, which ended in divorce in 1951, Hay never told Platky about his affairs with men.

He also didn’t discuss his evolving views on homosexual identity. In the late 1940s, Hay drafted a prospectus on the topic, drawing inspiration from Joseph Stalin’s definition of nationhood. “A nation,” Stalin wrote in a 1913 essay, “is a historically evolved, stable community of language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a community of culture.” Lineage and genetics, in other words, were secondary to collective values. Stalin devised this definition to restrict potentially fractious ethnic elements in the Soviet Union, but Hay saw it as applicable to an imagined revolution: homosexuals declaring themselves part of a fledgling nation. “We have a territory in common,” Hay said in an interview with Eric Slade, referring to gay neighborhoods and nightlife. “We have a language in common—because, after all, the language of camp, when you come right down to it, is the way by which we can all reach each other almost simultaneously. And we certainly have a common psychology of make-up, which manifests itself in a community of culture.”

Hay became enamored with the idea of forming an organization of homosexuals. In July 1950, he met Rudi Gernreich, a Jewish fashion designer who’d fled Nazi-occupied Austria. The two became lovers. Hay confided in Gernreich about his idea for a group, and Gernreich responded with unbridled enthusiasm. They spent the rest of the summer discussing how to proceed. To gauge interest, they trawled Los Angeles’s gay haunts with a petition opposing the Korean War. As they collected signatures, they engaged men in conversation about the government purging homosexuals from federal employment, an event now known as the Lavender Scare. Most of the men to whom Hay and Gernreich spoke thought that the firings, which had begun that year at the State Department, were a travesty. They balked, however, at the suggestion of forming a gay collective to do something about it.

Months passed before Hay and Gernreich found an ally in Hull and, by extension, Jennings and Rowland—fellow “sexual outlaws,” as Hay later wrote. After the first gathering in Hay’s house, the men agreed to keep meeting to discuss ways to protect their rights and bring more men into the group. After a few conclaves, they decided that they needed a name. Hay searched for inspiration in history and was delighted to discover medieval France’s sociétés joyeuses. The groups of unmarried young men adopted the dress of court jesters—both male and female—and participated in performances critical of the monarchy and the Catholic Church. Central to these performances were folk dances known as les mattachines, which historians described as relics of Pagan fertility rituals. Hay saw contemporary parallels with gender nonconformity and communist agitprop. He wanted to call the new group the Society of Fools, but Hull suggested the more oblique Mattachine Society. “The need to explain the name to others,” wrote Will Roscoe, a historian and a longtime associate of Hay’s, “would give members of the organization the chance to define themselves in their own terms.”

Jennings didn’t share Hay’s obsession with the past. “I thought, Here we were, here and now,” he told Slade in 1998. “Who cares about the Middle Ages?” Still, he couldn’t deny the thrill of being part of something new and progressive. “I became more of a split personality,” Jennings said. “I was an ordinary person during the day, and evenings I became a wild radical.”


Inspired by the Communist Party’s inner workings, the founders of the Mattachine Society shrouded the group in secrecy. The five men formed a steering committee, dubbed the Fifth Order, and shielded their identities. New members would be organized into cells that remained unknown to one another. The society would keep no membership records. Anonymity was security.

The Fifth Order’s first priority was to create a safe gateway for recruits. It settled on a series of public discussions on popular sexual subjects like the Kinsey Report, which in 1948 had proclaimed that some 10 percent of American men were “more or less exclusively homosexual.” The Mattachines hoped the events would attract gay men and women without requiring that they out themselves. On December 11, 1950, 18 people gathered for the first of these discussions. They used clinical, academic language to tiptoe around the topic of homosexuality. The founders scanned the sparse crowd, taking note of any individuals who seemed particularly interested in the conversation. They planned to take those people aside later and invite them, discreetly, to become Mattachines.

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The Fifth Order in 1950.

By April 1951, the society had added only a handful of people to its ranks, including Konrad Stevens and Jim Gruber, who joined the Fifth Order, bringing the founding membership to seven, and Ruth Bernhard, the first female Mattachine. Hay insisted on pomp and circumstance when inducting members, including the recitation of a pledge. “To many a homosexual, who may have lived out years of loneliness or bitterness, believing that his lot in society was a miserable one and without hope,” Jennings later wrote, “the sense of group fellowship, the joining of hands in solemn oath, bespoke something so new, and of such dazzling implication, as to be well-nigh unbelievable.” Hay conveyed to the newcomers with blistering pride that the Mattachines were building an empowered entity—a nation, really—that would march toward social emancipation.

That conviction drove a wedge between Hay and Jennings. “I didn’t believe we were a minority—and by the way, I still don’t,” Jennings said in 1998. Rather than promote a collective identity, distinct from the cultural mainstream, Jennings was concerned with the more practical goal of ensuring freedom of choice in sexual behavior. Whether homosexuals wanted to be part of a glorious community was immaterial to the protection of their well-being. In meeting after meeting, Jennings held firm to his stance, sowing discord with Hay and other Mattachines. “We would argue all the same old points, and I found, to my alarm, that the people who opposed me were not any more willing to give in than I was,” Jennings later said.

By 1952, the internecine rift had widened into a gulf. Bob Hull broke up with Jennings to be with Paul Benard, a bisexual actor and new society member. “The first act of the Paul-Bob alliance,” Hay later recalled, “was a concerted effort to kick Dale out of the top Mattachine echelon.” Jennings grew distressed and despondent. It seemed like his days with the society were numbered.

Act III

On the night of Friday, March 21, 1952, Jennings set out from his apartment in central Los Angeles to see a movie. His breakup with Hull still smarted. Settling into the anonymous darkness of a theater for a couple of hours, he hoped, would be a balm. His only obstacles on this quest were his own standards; Jennings passed one theater, then another, stewing about the lowbrow tastes of the moviegoing public.

A little before 9 p.m., he headed toward a third theater, hoping for a better selection. Along the way he took a detour through Westlake Park in search of a public restroom. “This, too, was a mistake,” Jennings would later write in a detailed account of the evening. “Respectable people don’t use these civic conveniences under any circumstances.”

When Jennings entered the restroom, it was empty. He relieved himself, turned around, and stepped to a sink to wash his hands. When he looked into the mirror, he saw a man standing over his shoulder, leering. The “big, rough-looking character,” Jennings recalled, had somehow entered the bathroom without making a sound. Jennings’s heart began to hammer against his ribs. He said nothing, pushed past the man, and left as quickly as his legs would carry him.

The stranger followed.

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As Jennings walked toward the movie theater, the man trailed him, trying to strike up a conversation. Jennings alternated between asking the man to leave him be and not answering at all. If the stranger was soliciting sex, Jennings wasn’t interested.

At the theater, Jennings groaned when he saw on the marquee that the only movie showing was one he’d already seen. Frustrated, and more than a little flustered by the man from the bathroom, he decided to go home. The stranger continued to shuffle along a few feet behind Jennings as he made his way toward his apartment. Surely, Jennings thought, the man would give up eventually. When Jennings reached his door, he put the key in the lock and looked over his shoulder. Firmly, he told the man goodbye. But the stranger shoved him aside, twisted the knob, and strode into the living room.

Stunned, Jennings stood in the doorway. Was the man planning to rob him? Assault him? Worse? Years later, in an allegorical short story, Jennings would imagine the man as a ravenous dog. The protagonist, a stand-in for Jennings, tries to placate the dog: “He spoke reassuringly, then squatted with one hand held out. The big dog merely stood looking straight at him, not panting, not moving as it watched. Reflected light made flat, cold discs of its eyes.” When the protagonist attempts to sidestep the dog, the animal lets out a low, cruel snarl.

The stranger slumped onto Jennings’s sofa, legs sprawled wide, and reached down the front of his pants. He lifted his chin and shot Jennings an ugly, suggestive look. So this was a solicitation, albeit an aggressive one. Jennings shut the door. A jumble of thoughts rushed through his head. He was afraid of the man and certainly didn’t want to sleep with him, but he didn’t know how to get rid of him. Calling the police was risky. No matter what he said, the officer on the line might assume that he’d invited the stranger in and then had a change of heart. If that happened, the cops might arrest him for lewd behavior.

The man called out to Jennings, propositioning him, and Jennings responded by begging the intruder to leave. Instead, the man rose from the couch and sauntered into the bedroom. He dropped his jacket on the floor. His fingers went to his collar, and he began to unbutton his shirt, grinning at Jennings all the while.

“Come in here!” he said. “Let down your hair!”

The man sat on the bed, leaned back, and slapped the mattress, motioning for Jennings to sit.

“You have the wrong guy,” Jennings said.

Finally, the stranger lost his patience. He lunged forward, grabbed one of Jennings’s wrists, and forced the fingers of the trapped hand beneath his waistline, past his belt buckle. Jennings leaped away, clutching his hand to his chest as if he’d burned it on a stove. He “almost felt raped,” he would later tell a friend, and feared he might actually be. With every muscle in his body tense, he waited for the stranger to react.

The man reached into a pocket. Out came a badge. With his other hand he retrieved cuffs.

“Maybe,” the undercover cop said to Jennings, “you’d talk better with my partner outside.”

Jennings emerged from his front door in handcuffs. There wasn’t anyone outside. The cop’s partner was back in Westlake Park, waiting with a third officer in a squad car near the restroom where Jennings had been targeted for entrapment. Jennings was forced to walk over a mile back to where the mortifying saga had begun, the cop prodding his back the whole way. When they arrived, the officer greeted his colleagues by complaining that it had been a slow week for the vice squad. “It’s all I can do,” he said, “to keep up the old quota.”

Jennings was shoved into the back of the car, where the trio of officers launched into an interrogation. “It was a peculiarly effective type of grilling,” Jennings later remembered. “They laughed among themselves. One would ask, ‘How long you been this way?’” Too scared to speak, Jennings sat on his hands and thought only of the possible consequences of his precarious situation. Annoyed by Jennings’s lack of cooperation, one of the officers turned the key in the car’s ignition and maneuvered the vehicle into the street. At a painfully slow pace, less than ten miles per hour, the car wound through the streets, venturing farther and farther away from the park, into neighborhoods Jennings barely knew. He was sure he was going to be beaten, perhaps in some remote spot outside the city limits. The cops “repeatedly made jokes about police brutality,” Jennings wrote. “Each of the three instructed me to plead guilty and everything would be all right.”

In the end, they didn’t beat him. Terrifying him had been sufficiently fun. Around 11:30 p.m., they returned to their station and booked Jennings on a charge of lewd and dissolute conduct. They put him into a jail cell, and his bail was set at $50 (the equivalent of about $470 today). At 3 a.m., when he was permitted to place a phone call, an exhausted Jennings dialed Harry Hay, the only person he knew who had a checkbook.


By 6:30 a.m., Hay had swept in to rescue Jennings, posting bail and ferrying his fellow Mattachine to the Brown Derby for sustenance. The popular diner, with its iconic building designed to look like a giant hat, was one of Hay’s favorites. The pair slid into a half-moon-shaped leather booth beneath walls cluttered with cartoon sketches of the Derby’s most famous patrons: actors, producers, and the like. Hay knew that his first task was to cheer Jennings up. After they ordered breakfast, though, he revealed his ulterior motive.

“Dale, the whole society that we have going is going to support this,” Hay said. “And we’re going to fight it.”

Jennings looked up from his coffee, bewildered. “We’re going to fight it?”

“Yes,” Hay continued. “You’re innocent, and we’ll prove it. This is what we want.”

“Good God,” Jennings said. “Where do you get this we stuff?”

Hay laid his hands on Jennings’s shoulders, staring at him with his trademark solemnity and “imperial self-confidence of the chosen,” Jennings later wrote. Entrapment, Hay explained, was destroying lives. But unlike most victims, Jennings was well positioned to mount a legal challenge. He was currently employed as an advertiser for his sister’s sewing business, so he stood no risk of losing his job. Divorced and childless, he wouldn’t embroil any family in scandal. “The Great Man pointed out that I, in my miserable way, would be somewhat Chosen, too, if I stood up to the Establishment,” Jennings wrote. “I had nothing to lose but my chains.”

“The Great Man pointed out that I, in my miserable way, would be somewhat Chosen, too, if I stood up to the Establishment. I had nothing to lose but my chains.”

Hay’s appeal to blaze a trail, Jennings later said, was “not a very comfortable thought to someone whose world has just ended.” If the case went to court, the publicity might ruin his professional prospects. And he couldn’t shake the feeling that Hay was more concerned with what the affair represented than with how it might affect Jennings personally. He asked Hay if he would plead innocent under the same circumstances. “He himself would be honored to do such a thing,” Jennings recalled. “But, of course, he had too many familial responsibilities.”

Hay managed to convince Jennings to at least convene an emergency meeting of the Fifth Order a few days later, on the evening of March 28. Together, Hay said, they would decide what to do next. So the Mattachines piled into Jennings’s living room. Hay, true to form, opened with an impassioned address about elevating the plight of homosexuals into mainstream political discourse. The moment, he argued, was a golden opportunity to argue that homosexuals deserved the full protection of the law. Furthermore, the Mattachine Society might put a nail in the coffin of entrapment, a practice that threatened not only gay men, but any second-class citizens who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time with cops who had to hit arrest quotas.

In blocky handwriting, Rudi Gernreich dutifully recorded the meeting’s minutes in a notebook, including discussion of Jennings’s constitutional right to due process:  

Entrapment case. Decision to fight on basis of 5th Amendment—politically, not morally. Test case—willing to fight from lowest courts to highest. Try to get support from ACLU and other civic groups.… Every minority in danger on entrapment basis.

Several years prior, Gernreich himself had been in Jennings’s shoes. Entrapped by police, he took his case to court, proclaimed his innocence, and demanded a jury trial. At times during the proceedings, he felt that he was making headway. One woman on the jury was pleasant enough, looking at him from her perch with what he thought was sympathy. Yet the jury found him guilty. Devastated, he made a point of staring down each juror, one by one, as the verdict was read. When he landed on the kind-seeming woman, she turned her face to the wall, refusing to look him in the eye. Now Gernreich was hungry for justice—to fight, win, and repudiate the woman who had been unable to meet his gaze.

As the conversation unfolded, Jennings realized that his comrades were in unanimous agreement with Hay. “We seized on it as a rallying point,” recalled Jim Gruber. “There wasn’t much arm twisting at all. Inasmuch as I was often a dissenter, I was aware that any of the dissenters would have spoken up at that point.” Especially emphatic was Chuck Rowland, who rose to his feet, eyes flinty with righteous indignation, and gestured at Jennings. “The hinger of fistory points!” he shouted.

The group fell silent at Rowland’s blunder. They stared at each other for several seconds. Then Gernreich began laughing. The rest of the men followed suit, some of them falling over sideways. In that moment, Jennings felt his resistance melting. “One of my prevailing thoughts,” he later said, “was, I’m not alone.”

Act IV

In 1950s Los Angeles, only a few attorneys deigned to represent homosexuals in court, and they were more interested in financial gain than civil rights. Harry Weiss, a lawyer who owned a popular gay nightclub called the Crown Jewel, was rumored to cooperate with the vice squad. Weiss, dubbed “the faggot lawyer” by judges, purportedly gave the police tips regarding the identities of his gay patrons. The vice squad then passed Weiss’s business card to any men they arrested, and Weiss paid the police half of any legal fees he earned from the resulting cases. Another attorney, a flamboyant woman named Gladys Towles Root, a.k.a. “the defender of the damned,” appeared in court in elaborate, colorful outfits that rivaled the nighttime getups of the drag queens she represented. “She had all sorts of connections in the city government, so she’d get you off,” Jennings once said. “Her charge? Very often it was everything you had.” Records from the period indicate that Root and Weiss charged clients on a sliding scale from $2,800 to $28,000 in current dollars; the wealthier the client, the more he paid.

Regardless of a case’s specifics, Root and Weiss generally required defendants to plead guilty to misdemeanors and pay whatever fines the city demanded. The only benefit for the defendants was that they avoided felony convictions. “You were run through the mill,” Jennings recounted, “and swore to God you’d never go into another park.”

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George Shibley

After Jennings agreed to plead innocent, Hay suggested that he retain Long Beach lawyer George Shibley, an old leftist acquaintance. “George has always said that I taught him more about Marxism than anybody else,” Hay once claimed. A Lebanese American attorney with a long, narrow visage, wide brown eyes, and thick brows, Shibley had developed a reputation in the 1930s and 1940s as a defender of labor unions. In one case against the Ford Motor Company, he’d proved himself so potent an adversary that Ford had attempted to hire him as in-house counsel; Shibley declined the offer. He won public renown during the sensational 1942 Sleepy Lagoon trial, in which he defended several Latino youth charged with murder. The judge in that case, Charles Fricke, was known for handing down harsh sentences. “It was said that when you went to trial in Fricke’s court, you had two prosecutors there,” Shibley’s son Jonathan told me in a recent interview, “one from the DA’s office, and Fricke.” Shibley made so many objections over the course of the trial that Fricke mocked him; in one hearing, according to Jonathan, the judge said, “I’d be disappointed if you didn’t make at least one per session.” The defendants were convicted, but Shibley filed an appeal, accusing Fricke of prejudice. The court ruled in favor of the defendants, and their sentences were overturned.

Shibley had never defended gay clients, but that didn’t matter. “He said he didn’t give a damn what the charge was,” Jennings remembered. “He was for civil rights, and he sounded like Christ on a white horse. God, he was everything.” His sympathy for oppressed minorities came from experience. Although he wasn’t Jewish, his appearance made him a frequent target of anti-Semites, as did the fact that his wife was white. “When he first moved to the neighborhood,” Jonathan told me, “we heard rumors that some of the neighbors were saying, ‘Let’s get that Jew for being with that white woman.’”

Shibley’s only hesitation in accepting Jennings’s case was his lack of knowledge about homosexuality, so he asked the Mattachine Society to educate him. The Fifth Order carpooled to Shibley’s office on a weekly basis in the months leading up to Jennings’s trial, which was set for June 1952. “We went down every Friday night after work, all about seven or eight of us,” Hay later said. “We told our coming-out stories to him. We educated him on what it was like to come out as a homosexual in a straight world, and what we ran into, and what our problems were.” Shibley came away angry that the men were treated so badly and eager to defend Jennings. “He [felt] that what they were doing to this man was, in the vernacular, just plain chickenshit,” Jonathan Shibley said, referring to the LAPD’s actions. “So what if he’s a homosexual? He’s minding his own business. Why was Mr. Cop trying to harass him?”

This was likely the first time in American history that an attorney had agreed to defend homosexual rights. It was certainly the first time that a group of gay activists banded together to legally defend one of their own. The Mattachines’ first concern was fundraising. Shibley’s services would cost $7,000 (in current dollars), and the group hoped to raise an additional $28,000 to print and distribute copies of the trial transcript to lawyers across the country. If Jennings won, the Mattachines wanted other progressive legal minds to know how to defend gay clients in similar entrapment trials.

To support Jennings without exposing their secretive group, Shibley suggested that the Mattachines form an ad hoc Citizens Committee to Outlaw Entrapment. Coordinated by the Fifth Order, the CCOE raised money for Jennings’s defense and tried to publicize his trial in the media. The press, though, had no interest in covering it. “I let all of these various news services know about the trial every step of the way,” Hay said once. “Not one single magazine or newspaper or radio station or TV station ever printed or published or spoke one word about this entire trial. We had a total conspiracy of silence.”

Without coverage, the CCOE had to rely on informal networks within Los Angeles’s gay community. They distributed flyers throughout the city: on beaches, in bars, and around popular cruising spots. Members of the Fifth Order met with gay small-business owners, encouraging them to surreptitiously drop flyers into customers’ bags at check-out. The flyers laid out Hay’s vision of homosexuals as a minority and the CCOE’s mission to fight police brutality. Jennings’s trial would “expose to all eyes an injudicial and unconstitutional police conspiracy which, under the cloak of protecting public morals, threatens not only all Minorities but civil rights and privileges generally.” The Mattachines hoped that other people in Jennings’s circumstances would follow his lead. “If 1 percent of the people who had been entrapped had stood up, things would have changed drastically,” Jennings said in 1998. “Here was one person standing up. That just upset the apple cart completely.”

Donors began to mail donations to the CCOE’s post office box. Encouraged, the Fifth Order scheduled a number of fundraising events. The first was a showcase by Lester Horton’s dance troupe, one of whose members had been entrapped by police in early 1952. Jennings was also sent on a kind of lecture tour, appearing at public discussion groups and private gatherings to talk about his case. “I was called upon just about every night of the week,” he later said. “These gay guys [would] sidle up and say, ‘I feel for you. I think you’re just wonderful.’”

“I gave out autographs,” he added. “It was ridiculous.”

As his trial approached, Jennings’s misgivings about the whole endeavor returned in force. His newfound status as a civil rights leader made him more anxious than proud; it felt thrust upon him rather than chosen or earned. “I certainly didn’t feel heroic at all, in any way,” he recalled. “I felt sucked in by a system that was absolutely voracious. It ate me alive and picked the bones over.”

Jennings was afraid that he would be found guilty, and he hated feeling subsumed in the excitement about what the case meant. Also distressing was that many of his peers didn’t believe his story. They thought he’d invited the cop to his apartment and maybe even had sex with him before the badge came out. The truth about what transpired before the arrest didn’t matter to his supporters, so eager were they to have a champion of their rights. But Jennings wanted people to believe him; he couldn’t stand to be regarded as a liar. “To be innocent, and yet not be able to convince even your firm constituents,” he wrote in a 1953 essay, “carries a peculiar agony.”

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The trial began on June 23, 1952. Settling into his seat, sweating through his Sunday best, Jennings feared that the judge and jury were already allied with his adversaries. The prosecution’s case had been argued successfully many times before, against many innocent gay men. A city attorney would pit the police’s false claim that Jennings had behaved lewdly against his description of entrapment. The attorney would then tar Jennings as a pervert, a degenerate, a sexual psychopath who had conspired to seduce an upstanding officer of the law. The members of the Mattachine Society who’d accompanied him provided little comfort; they could only observe in silence from the courtroom’s gallery.

When Shibley rose to make his opening argument, though, Jennings was reassured that the trial would follow a new script. The lawyer made no effort to deny Jennings’s homosexuality, no attempt to curry favor with the court by portraying him as a heterosexual family man. Instead, Shibley argued that “homosexuality and lasciviousness are not identical” and that “no fine line separates the variations of sexual inclinations.”

“The only true pervert in the courtroom,” Shibley declared, was the arresting officer.

With that pronouncement, Shibley shifted the court’s focus away from Jennings and toward the officers who’d detained him: partners James L. Martin and T.N. Porter. The two cops had recently been charged with assaulting a different prisoner; the following day, in fact, they would appear in another courtroom as defendants. According to the Los Angeles Times, Martin and Porter were alleged to have beaten a man named Ramón Castellanos, striking him “several times with fists and elbows, as well as a ‘dark object.’” Castellanos had sustained lacerations to his head and scalp, a black eye, a broken nose, and numerous bruises. Pressed to explain Castellanos’s injuries, Martin and Porter said he’d tripped over a large flower pot. The LAPD’s internal affairs division was unconvinced by the explanation and suspended the officers pending trial. The Castellanos case didn’t prove Jennings’s innocence, but the charges against Martin and Porter, and the specter of their suspension from the police force, worked in Shibley’s favor. In entrapment trials, police testimony was considered unimpeachable; Shibley shook that assumption on day one.

By the time he took the witness stand, Jennings felt emboldened by Shibley’s defense. Under oath he declared himself to be a homosexual. Before he could continue, the judge interrupted him. “We don’t use that word here,” he said, casting a withering glance at the defendant.

In a sense, the judge was correct. Men went to great lengths, often pleading guilty to lesser charges, to avoid the humiliation of their homosexuality being made public during a trial. On the few occasions when defendants pleaded innocent, they built cases on the assertion that they weren’t homosexuals and therefore couldn’t possibly have done what they were accused of. Not Jennings. “What you’re doing is silencing me,” he replied to the judge. “I’m here because I am an avowed homosexual, and I’m not ashamed of it.”

It was unprecedented for a gay man to speak so boldly before a court, in California or anywhere else in the United States. Shibley didn’t dwell on the symbolism of Jennings’s statement, however. He drilled down on inconsistencies in the police officers’ stories. According to LAPD policy, two cops had to be present at an arrest. Jennings had been detained by just one officer before being perp-walked to the squad car in Westlake Park. T.N. Porter, however, claimed otherwise when he took the stand. Shibley paused for dramatic effect before replying, “Well, that’s very interesting. Because in your deposition, you say exactly the opposite.”

Over the course of ten days, Shibley continued to punch holes in the cops’ credibility. That the officers were juggling the Jennings proceedings with the Castellanos trial made his job easier. It also made his pioneering defense of Jennings all the more profound. Shibley vouched repeatedly for the decency and innocence of his client, in contrast to the violent behavior of the police, and argued that Jennings’s sexual habits should have no bearing on his constitutional rights.

Shibley delivered the final blow in his closing statement, when he turned inward for inspiration. He invoked his experiences with prejudice: the neighbors who’d sneered at his interracial marriage, the people who’d called him a “Jew bastard.” Shibley knew what it was to experience oppression, alienation, and loneliness. Didn’t everyone, in some way? And didn’t everyone deserve respect? Certainly no one should be subjected to state-sponsored cruelty. When Shibley finished his emotional address to the jury, Hay saw “wet eyes in the courtroom.” As he later explained, “We had never heard a kind, good word said about us in public before in our lives.”

 “We had never heard a kind, good word said about us in public before in our lives.”

During their first round of deliberations, 11 jurors voted to acquit Jennings. Only one member, the foreman, called for a conviction. So the group deliberated for 40 hours, most of it spent laboring to convince the foreman of Jennings’s essential humanity and of the cops’ clear deceit. Finally, the jury returned to the courtroom without a verdict. The foreman hadn’t budged. The group was hung. “They asked to be dismissed,” Jennings later wrote, “when one of their number said he’d hold out for guilty ’til hell froze over.”

The prosecution could remount the case “in an orderly and a decent fashion,” the judge instructed, but the district attorney wasn’t interested. Though Martin and Porter were simultaneously acquitted in the Castellanos trial, a hearing of the LAPD’s internal Board of Rights found them guilty “of using undue force in making an arrest and making false reports to a superior officer.” Martin was suspended without pay for a month, and Porter for three months. They were public liabilities to the LAPD, and trotting them out for a second prosecution of Jennings might ignite a political scandal. “And so it was dropped,” Jennings said in 1998. “The cops copped out.”

Three months after his arrest, Jennings had won. So had the Mattachines. “Walking out of the courtroom free was a liberation that I’d never anticipated,” Jennings recalled. “I never thought this would happen.”


The media didn’t report Jennings’s acquittal, much less the Mattachine Society’s hand in it. Once again, the CCOE spread the word via flyers. “A great victory for the homosexual minority,” they proclaimed. Word quickly spread through gay communities beyond Southern California. The CCOE was bombarded with letters of support, some from homosexuals wondering how they could establish advocacy groups like the one that had supported Jennings.

And so chapters of the Mattachine Society began to appear in other cities. They spread south to San Diego and north to San Francisco, then east to Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C. Gerry Brissette, a lab technician at the University of California at Berkeley, was inspired enough by the Jennings verdict to launch a Mattachine chapter. “They flock to us in hordes,” Brissette wrote in a letter to Chuck Rowland, “hungry, anxious, eager to do something, say something, get started.” As the group’s expanding membership infused it with professional and political expertise, the scope of the organization ballooned and branched. In Long Beach, factory workers established a group; in Laguna Beach, according to Rowland, membership comprised mostly “Junior Chamber of Commerce types.” Some clusters of Mattachines preferred to debate intellectual topics—the sociology of homosexuality, gay themes in literary fiction—while others set their sights on police entrapment in their own cities and towns. They compiled newspaper clippings on vice-squad arrests, gathered testimonials from victims, and labored to raise awareness of police tactics.

Within a year of the Jennings trial, historian John D’Emilio believes, the Mattachine Society counted close to 100 chapters, with about 2,000 participants total. Those numbers may be underestimated, given the group’s resistance to official rolls. Most of the new members didn’t share the communist ideology of the Fifth Order, but Hay was “delighted,” he later said, “with the fact that people were all practically pounding down our doors, wanting to get in.” Rowland echoed the sentiment: “We moved into a broad, sunlit upland filled with whole legions of eager gays.”

Jennings, however, was characteristically suspicious. He found that the shine of his legal triumph quickly faded. He was proud that so many people wanted to support the Mattachine Society, and that he’d played a key part in securing their attention. But he was also unsettled. “All of a sudden, we had houses overflowing with strange people that came uninvited,” he recalled. “I didn’t like it.” In retrospect, his skepticism may have been well founded.

Act V

In early 1953, the Los Angeles Daily Mirror published a story on the Mattachine Society, written by a reporter named Paul Coates. It was the first article in the evening paper’s history to use the term homosexual. It wasn’t a glowing profile of the organization’s expansion, however—it was an alleged exposé on the dangerous political power of gay men and women.

Coates fretted that homosexuals in Los Angeles made up a voting bloc of nearly 200,000 people. If empowered by lax policies and cultural tolerance, they might overthrow the very foundation of decent society. Coates’s sources for these claims were spurious, as were his accusations that members of the Mattachine Society were subversives. “If I belonged to that club,” Coates wrote, “I’d worry.”

The article’s fearmongering was an echo of what was happening nearly 3,000 miles east of Los Angeles on Capitol Hill. In January 1953, senator Joseph McCarthy began his second term in office. Deploying his investigative powers as the newly installed chairman of the Government Operations Committee, McCarthy was intent on rooting Communists out of U.S. government. If there was anything he disliked as much as a leftist, it was a homosexual, so he went after them, too. Anti-communism swept the country, reaching even the liberal enclave of Hollywood. As more and more people fell prey to accusations of ideological treason, homosexuals increasingly feared for their jobs, their reputations, and their lives.

The Daily Mirror article sent the Mattachine Society’s membership into a state of panic. Many new recruits demanded that the Fifth Order abandon its policy of secrecy, expunge Communist sympathizers, and reinvent itself as a more dignified organization. Members of the Laguna Beach branch even proposed that all Mattachines swear fealty to the United States. Rowland responded to the idea by writing in a letter that “come hell or high water, we will oppose all idea of a non-Communist statement by any group using the name Mattachine.” Concerns kept pouring in. “Many members of the meetings … feel that Mr. Coates asked legitimate questions,” wrote Marilyn Rieger, a participant in another Mattachine chapter. “Explanations are definitely in order…. [We need] complete faith in the people who set forth policies, principles, aims, and purposes.”

Hoping to soothe everyone’s worries, the founders invited more than 100 Mattachines to a weekend-long “democratic convention” in April 1953. The stated aim was a restructuring of the society; those gathered would draft a constitution, establish by-laws, and elect officers. In reality, the Fifth Order expected nothing less than two days of heated debate about communism, and that’s what it got. Participants left the weekend having resolved little, so a second gathering was scheduled for May. By that time, opposition to the Fifth Order was better organized and far more vocal. “We know we are the same, no different than anyone else,” Marilyn Rieger said in an address. “Our only difference is an unimportant one to the heterosexual society, unless we make it important.… [Our] homosexuality is irrelevant to our ideals, our principles, our hopes and aspirations.”

Rieger’s statements emphasizing sameness stood in diametric opposition to Hay’s vision of homosexuals as a distinct cultural minority. Indeed, they were more in line with Jennings’s views on sexual orientation. But Jennings, long an avowed leftist, couldn’t abide Rieger’s hard-line anti-communism. He feared it spelled the undoing of the Mattachine Society. “If the opposition had wanted to ruin us, that was the perfect way to do it,” Jennings said in 1998.

The members of the Fifth Order were outnumbered. Rieger’s words had struck a chord with Mattachines who wanted to reduce antagonism in their lives, to be welcomed into the fold of mainstream society rather than stake a claim on their own frontier. Though the founders and their supporters were able to narrowly defeat resolutions denouncing “subversive elements” and “infiltrat[ion] by communists,” they saw plainly that their time was up. “We all felt, especially Harry, that the organization and its growth was more important than any of the founding fathers,” said Jim Gruber. “We had to turn it over to other people.”

“The organization and its growth was more important than any of the founding fathers. We had to turn it over to other people.”

At the conclusion of the May convention, the Fifth Order announced that it would step down from leadership. “This,” Hay later said, “was not the golden brotherhood that I had looked forward to.” Another meeting in November 1953 marked the formal changing of the guard. Some founding members would remain with the society in informal capacities; others opted to end their involvement altogether.

For Jennings, the decision to depart wasn’t easy. On the one hand, he felt relief. He’d never liked Hay’s theatrics, as much as Hay had never liked his reluctance. “Like a Judas,” wrote Hay’s biographer, Stuart Timmons, “Jennings was continually in vocal opposition to anything that Hay favored.” The dissolution of the Fifth Order represented an opportunity for Jennings to continue activism on his own terms, which meant working as editor in chief of One magazine, a new gay-interest publication and one of the first of its kind in America. In 1953 and 1954, Jennings wrote the majority of the magazine’s content, often under pseudonyms. He did so to camouflage the small size of the staff; perhaps, too, he wanted to keep his name out of the limelight in a way that the Mattachines had made all but impossible.

Yet Jennings also found himself looking back on the society through rose-colored glasses. In a few short years, and despite internal turmoil, it had put homosexual organizing on the political map. At the November 1953 gathering, where Jennings accepted an award for his contributions to the Mattachine Society, he gave a lengthy speech that doubled as a farewell. “This is most decidedly not just another meal,” he said. “Nor are we here to applaud society at large for loosening a jot more of its infinite prejudice. Or the law for a smattering more of acquittals and dismissals. Or religion for rattling a few less teeth on its bone necklace.

“In today’s absence of tomorrow’s laurels, let us immodestly crown ourselves,” Jennings continued. “And how realistic—how crystal clear-eyed we are to do so. For we are most surely making history.… Our only mistakes occur when we forget that fact.”

Before ending the speech, Jennings breathed deeply and looked at the sea of faces before him. “Let’s applaud ourselves,” he said. And the room did, everyone rising to their feet in a standing ovation. Those gathered behooved Jennings to join them—to clap, for just a moment, for himself.

spotmattach-1530228146-16.jpg
The surviving members of the Fifth Order in 1998. 

Postscript

The Mattachine Society existed for several years after its founders walked away, but in a state of steady decline. Its revolutionary verve dwindled, and so did its membership. When the Stonewall riots happened in 1969, the last vestiges of the group, including its concern for tradition and assimilation, were swept off the agenda in favor of a more radical LGBTQ-rights movement—one in line with what the Mattachines had had in mind when they first gathered in Hay’s Silver Lake home.

The members of the Fifth Order lived to see gains (anti-discrimination legislation) and tragedies (the HIV/AIDS epidemic) befall gay Americans. Their own lives took dramatic turns. Hay was summoned to Capitol Hill in 1955 and asked, “Are you a communist?” He was no longer formally involved with the party, so he was able to say no, saving himself from further poking, prodding, and humiliation by McCarthyites. Hay went on to found a spiritual movement called the Radical Faeries, which urged gays and lesbians to resist “hetero-imitation” and develop distinct identities. He developed a reputation as an elder statesman of the gay rights movement, lending his name to various causes and providing invaluable perspective on the plight of homosexuals in the postwar period. Hay passed away in 2002 at the age of 90.

Jennings’s life recentered on his first love: writing. He left One magazine after a few years and began focusing again on film and fiction. He published a novel in 1968 and sold a movie treatment to Warner Brothers in 1970, which ultimately became The Cowboys, starring John Wayne. In the 1980s, Jennings lost much of his money in a lawsuit filed by a former lover. To make ends meet, he came aboard as a staff member at the Homosexual Information Center, a nonprofit research and archival outfit dedicated to compiling and sharing information about LGBTQ history. As Jennings’s health suffered under the weight of dementia and alcoholism, he bequeathed his papers to the HIC. He didn’t grant any interviews until Eric Slade approached him for the documentary about the Mattachines. “For a bunch of faggots,” Jennings told Slade, “we were very courageous to start at that particular time, when a false word or gesture, or some character thinking you were queer, could get you beaten up.”

Jennings died in 2000; he was 82. His New York Times obituary described him as “a novelist, playwright, and pioneer of the American gay rights movement.” It didn’t mention his ambivalence about his heroics. Perhaps that’s what the deeply private Jennings would have wanted. Slade, though, had pressed him on the matter, questioning his assertion that he wouldn’t relive his experience in court.

“Why did you decide to do it?” Slade asked.

“I didn’t have a choice,” Jennings replied.

“Well, you could have pled guilty,” Slade pointed out.

Jennings sat quietly for a moment, slumping away from the camera, deep in thought. “Oh, I suppose…,” he ruminated. Then he straightened up and shook his head vigorously.

“No,” he said. “I couldn’t.”

Porambo

Porambo

A fearless journalist wrote a seminal account of police brutality during the 1967 race riots. Then he wound up on the wrong side of the law.

By Greg Donahue

The Atavist Magazine, No. 77


Greg Donahue is a writer and documentary filmmaker based in New York City. He has produced stories about refugees, vertical farms, North Korean abductions, and youth boxing. You can see more of his work at gregjamesdonahue.com.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Adam Przybyl
Cover Image: Essex County Files

Published in March 2018. Design updated in 2021.

1983

The night Ron Porambo was shot in the head, he told his wife that he was going out to meet a friend. It was late, but that was when the 44-year-old newspaper reporter did his best work. As he had countless times before, Porambo slid into his Volkswagen hatchback and cruised through the dark into downtown Newark.

Outside the car windows, Newark’s row houses looked like gathering ghosts. Block after block, the battered wooden structures loomed three stories tall. Their facades caught the dull glow of the streetlights that flickered on when the sun set each day; the broken lights—and there were many—had been that way for as long as Porambo could remember. Below sagging front stoops, where cracked asphalt met stained sidewalks, garbage clogged the gutters.

Newark had been decaying for decades. Crime, corruption, and disenfranchisement had led Harper’s magazine to dub it “the worst American city.” Porambo, though, saw it as scrappy and resolute. He saw himself in much the same way: as a man with something to prove.

Porambo drove to 186 Ridgewood Ave., the address where he was supposed to meet his friend. After pulling to a stop at the curb, he cut the ignition and waited. He’d made a career out of consorting with hustlers, sex workers, and drug dealers to unearth gritty investigative stories about the city’s poorest residents. Most of his sources and subjects were black. Porambo, who was white, wrote about the people he believed had the most insight into suffering, inequality, and resilience in America. “They know,” he once told a fellow reporter.

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A man approached his passenger-side window. It wasn’t the person Porambo had expected to see—or if it was, the greeting was a terrible shock. The man raised a .38-caliber handgun and pulled the trigger.

Three bullets penetrated Porambo’s skull. Another lodged in his left leg. He slumped over the steering wheel, filling the streets of Newark’s South Ward with the drone of a car horn. The sound must have scared off the attacker before he finished what he’d come to do. A rag was later found stuffed in the car’s gas tank; lighting it on fire would have blown the hatchback, and Porambo, to oblivion.

As blood poured from his head and thigh, Porambo struggled to open his door. A 16-year-old girl who lived down the street walked by just as what remained of the bullet-riddled window shattered onto the pavement. She ran home to call the cops. By the time they arrived, Porambo was unconscious. He would later recall feeling like he’d slipped into a dream. He was weightless, flying.

The crime, committed on May 19, 1983, made headlines in New Jersey. It wasn’t the first time Porambo had been in the news for finding himself at the wrong end of a gun. His meticulous reporting on Newark’s 1967 race riots had culminated in his opus, No Cause for Indictment, a book that implicated law enforcement in the unjustified killings of nearly two dozen black residents. The New Yorker heralded it as “probably the most moving and instructive book yet written on any of the bloody civil disturbances of the sixties.” After it was published, an unknown assailant caught Porambo in his car unawares and shot him in both legs. Porambo claimed that the attack was retribution for his reporting. His publisher took the opportunity to place a full-column ad in The New York Times promoting the book in block letters: “LAST WEEK THEY TRIED TO MURDER THE AUTHOR.”

In a different world, Porambo might have joined Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, Truman Capote, and Jimmy Breslin in the pantheon of 20th-century journalism’s giants. No Cause for Indictment might have become mandatory reading in classes on investigative reporting and urban studies. Today, it might be referenced in articles about police brutality—a subject Porambo covered relentlessly—and Black Lives Matter. Instead, scarcely anyone knows Porambo’s name.

That’s because, by the time he was shot on Ridgewood Ave., his life had gone off the rails. Porambo seemed to carry two opposing selves, one as bitter as the other was generous; his wife sometimes called him Jekyll and Hyde. During the years that should have been his journalistic prime, his dark side won the battle for his soul. On that particular night in May 1983, he wasn’t attacked for his reporting, but for his second, unlikely career.

When he awoke after surgery in a Newark hospital, Porambo still had a bullet in his brain. Doctors couldn’t get it out, leaving him with permanent speech and motor deficiencies. He couldn’t remember who’d shot him, but that didn’t matter. Porambo had been handcuffed to his bed. The cops who’d pulled him from the Volkswagen were investigating the fearless writer for murder.

1965

The bar where Porambo spent late nights while working at his first full-time newspaper job, in Kingsport, Tennessee, was called the Bloody Bucket. The name honored the vicious brawls that frequently broke out there. Little more than a two-room shack that looked like a place where firewood would be stored, the bar teemed with sex workers, johns, and moonshine bootleggers. In 1965, the year Porambo arrived in town, police arrested the Bloody Bucket’s owners for “running a Negro house of prostitution catering mostly to white customers.”

It was exactly the kind of rough-and-tumble joint where Porambo liked to cultivate sources for his stories in the Kingsport Times-News. Municipal buildings and politicians’ offices he could do without. The same went for the manicured suburban existence of his childhood.

He was born in East Orange, New Jersey, on Thanksgiving Day in 1938, to Millie and Frank Porambo. They owned Franchett’s, a wholesale bakery; his father had patented a device to manufacture double-twist crullers. The Porambos were traditional Italian American Catholics, hardworking and dutiful. Thanks to the doughnut business, they were also quite wealthy. As a kid, Porambo liked model boats and comic books, and he developed a fascination for the culture and history of Native Americans. He considered their collective plight to be America’s original sin and was apt to decry it to whoever would listen. “He was always for the underdog,” Ron’s uncle Mike Magnolia once told a reporter.

By his early teens, Porambo was restless. The sober experience of Catholic school was becoming unbearable for the energetic, socially conscious kid. Hoping to find their son an outlet, his parents encouraged him to sign up for a youth-boxing program in nearby Newark, run by Jack Reno, a police officer and local sports legend. Most of the young men Porambo encountered in the gym came from Newark’s poor black neighborhoods. In the ring, the hierarchies that plagued society fell away. A boxer proved his worth by fighting and winning, nothing more. Porambo was enthralled.

At first he came off as a rube to the native Newarkers. “He used to show up at the gym, and he’d be wearin’ these big thick suspenders and plaid shirts,” sparring partner Chico Belleran told a journalist at New Jersey Monthly years later. But his opponents quickly found out that Porambo could punch. After only a year in training, he won the 1955 New Jersey Golden Gloves. He turned pro and earned a reputation as a middleweight who, rather than use footwork to avoid getting hit, relished slugging it out. When Reno asked Porambo why he didn’t try to out-box his rivals, the young man replied, “You know, Jack, that’s my style.”

“He’d get to talking to his opponents before a fight, get to feelin’ sorry for the guy and all that. Then he’d go out an’ lose.”

The teenager was fiercely independent, and his time in Newark created a gulf between himself and his family. He started dating black women and brought them home to meet his stunned parents. He asked Reno to save his boxing earnings in an account to help him pay for college, so that he wouldn’t be beholden to anyone. Supporting himself as a prizefighter, he explained to a friend, was the “right thing to do.”

Porambo landed a few big fights in his early twenties, including bouts at Madison Square Garden and one in front of John Wayne on the undercard before the historic Ingemar Johansson–Floyd Patterson heavyweight championship in Yankee Stadium. His softer side, though, derailed his career. “He was a terrific puncher, but he didn’t have that killer instinct,” Belleran said. “He’d get to talking to his opponents before a fight, get to feelin’ sorry for the guy and all that. Then he’d go out an’ lose.”

As his boxing ambitions waned, Porambo looked for other ways of making a living. He joined the military, but that ended abruptly in 1963, after he rowed a boat away from his posting at Fort Slocum, New York, for a midnight rendezvous with a woman he’d just met. He toyed briefly with joining his older brother, Carl, in the family business, but Carl was as eager a rule follower as he was not. Finally, Porambo settled on attending Rutgers University’s journalism program. He later told The New York Times, “I knew that was the only course I could conceivably pass.”

After graduating, Porambo took to his new profession with characteristic doggedness and an instinct for landing a knockout punch. Within a year of starting the job in Kingsport, one of his features won a state journalism prize. He was willing to cover topics other reporters wouldn’t: Kingsport’s black neighborhoods, for instance, and the city’s homeless population. He once wrote a story about an abandoned parking lot nicknamed “the jungle” where alcoholics drank grape juice mixed with Solox, a shellac and paint thinner consisting of ethyl alcohol, methanol, and gasoline. Ingesting it caused the individuals to fall into a nearly comatose condition. During his reporting, Porambo counted some 75 empty cans of Solox scattered around the jungle. Kingsport’s public-safety director called Porambo’s report an exaggeration, so the journalist went back to the lot and gathered every can he saw—76 this time—and photographed them stacked neatly in the Times-News’ offices. The image ran in the paper with the headline, “All Right, Jim, You Count ‘Em.”

Porambo was also audacious when it came to love. One night at the Bloody Bucket, the 27-year-old spied a pretty, stylish young black woman across the room. She eyed him, too, the white guy with a roguish grin and heavy-lidded brown eyes. Thanks to a strict routine of push-ups, sit-ups, and running, Porambo’s coltish, five-foot-eleven frame remained chiseled, though he’d given up boxing. His lips were thick and his ears misshapen from getting knocked around the ring, giving his visage the raw look of a sculptor’s first pass at a clay bust.

The woman’s name was Carol Scott, and she was 19, with a seven-month-old daughter named Glenna. Porambo liked Carol because she was strong-willed and curious. She liked Porambo’s intellect and brio. Soon after they met, she started wearing his college ring on a chain around her neck. “It just got serious right away,” Carol told me in a recent interview, snapping her fingers. “I didn’t have a fear of going out with him.” Her attitude was bold, given the politics and social mores of Tennessee. Interracial marriage was illegal. Six months after meeting Carol, Porambo proposed anyway.

In early 1966, the couple drove to New Jersey and holed up in a motel near Porambo’s parents’ house. He called his uncle Mike to the hotel and asked him to break the news of the impending marriage to the rest of the family. Maybe hearing it from him would help smooth things over, he thought. It didn’t. To Porambo’s parents, dating black women when he was a rebellious teenager was one thing; marrying one was another.

Porambo argued with his mother about the relationship over the phone. When his parents finally had the couple over for dinner, Carol sat uncomfortably at a table as the hosts, who barely addressed her, disparaged black people. Porambo admonished them. “What do you mean by ‘those people?’” he demanded. “They’re people just like we are!” By the time the dinner ended, it was clear that he and Carol would be getting married without his family’s blessing.

1966

For all the time he spent in dive bars, Porambo rarely drank to excess. Yet he showed up to his own wedding plastered. He and Carol had recently moved to Albany, because it was legal for them to marry in New York. As Porambo staggered into the Catholic church, the quick-thinking priest corralled him into a side room to offer some counseling—and, in all likelihood, a large glass of water.

Carol waited patiently at the altar, beaming in a blue chiffon dress and white veil. Glenna, whom Porambo had adopted, played on the floor with the young son of the wedding’s only invited guests: Fred Bruning and his wife, Wink. Bruning and Porambo both worked at the Knickerbocker News, a local paper, and the two had become fast friends; their families spent evenings together cooking Italian food or playing marathon games of carom billiards. Because the Brunings weren’t Catholic, the priest had asked two female church employees to serve as witnesses. They looked on wide-eyed as Porambo eventually emerged from the side room and walked unsteadily across the sanctuary’s marble floor to his southern bride. When the priest asked Porambo if he took Carol to be his lawfully wedded wife, Porambo threw back his head and yelled, loud enough to shake the rafters, “I do!” After the ceremony, the newlyweds returned to their basement apartment with the Brunings to celebrate. The party quickly shrank to three as Porambo found a comfortable spot on the bathroom floor and slept through his wedding night.

Family photos. (Courtesy: Carol Porambo)

Porambo cut an equally blunt figure at the Knickerbocker News. On his first day in the office, he wore a black beret cocked sideways across his forehead and carried an electric teakettle tucked under one arm. A full-bend pipe was clamped between his teeth, and a wake of spicy tobacco musk trailed him through the newsroom as he walked to his desk. Before long, water was boiling in the kettle and Porambo was on the phone hunting for stories. He hadn’t yet introduced himself to his coworkers.

In the 1960s, city newsrooms hummed with excitement; they were the beating hearts of a robust industry. Reporters bustled down narrow aisles yanking sheets of copy paper from messy desktop stacks and hammered away at Underwood typewriters. Ink from hot-metal Linotypes hung in the air in thin clouds. Writing styles were evolving, particularly at big New York outlets. Journalists were becoming household names by bringing personality to formerly stodgy newswriting. They experimented with voice, perspective, and structure. Porambo read and idolized hard-nosed, humane writers—Jimmy Breslin, in particular—for providing an unflinching glimpse into the lives of blue-collar workers, marginalized minorities, and crime lords. He promised to bring a similar voice to Albany, which he saw as a launchpad for fame in a bigger market.

In exchange for his talent, he wanted autonomy. “He was going to write what he wanted to write, in his own particular way, at his own particular length, at his own particular rhythm and rate,” Bruning recalled. But Porambo’s editor, Bob Fichenberg, didn’t agree. Fichenberg was a by-the-book executive who wasn’t impressed with his new hire’s independent streak. Porambo’s first drafts were often an ungainly mess, and he was savagely unyielding when copy editors altered his work. Time and again he found himself in Fichenberg’s office, engaged in a shouting match over the timeliness of an article or the quality of his prose. In a matter of months, Porambo was fired.

Over the next year and a half, he bounced around half a dozen papers: the Morning-Journal in Lorain, Ohio; the Suffolk Sun in Deer Park, New York; and the Toronto Telegram, to name a few. Editors tried to tame him, but Porambo grew increasingly arrogant and unmanageable. Sometimes his tenure lasted only a few days before he got fed up or was canned for refusing to neuter his style for a publication he considered unworthy of his talent.

Eventually, he landed back in his home state, at Camden’s Courier-Post. He wrote articles about work programs for the handicapped and rural land grabs. Most of his reporting, however, was set in the black slums of nearby Philadelphia. Porambo had long believed that the front lines of America’s most vital news cut through the tenements, factories, bars, and back alleys where the oppressed fought against the grinding teeth of poverty and prejudice. This proved true in what came to be known as the long, hot summer of 1967, when simmering racial tensions boiled over in some 159 cities. From Atlanta to Buffalo, Tampa to Detroit, black residents took to the streets to protest police brutality, segregation, housing discrimination, and other wrongs.

“Color breeds hatred in this country, and we’ve never known just how deep it went until 1967, the year of the riot.”

Porambo watched the events unfold and covered the impact they had in Philadelphia, where a riot three years prior had left hundreds injured. Authorities feared a repeat incident. For one story, Porambo visited a craps game at an apartment in north Philadelphia, where police claimed that dangerous militants were living. In the building, the reporter found only weary, poverty-stricken black residents whom city planners and social services had all but forgotten. “Color breeds hatred in this country,” Porambo wrote, “and we’ve never known just how deep it went until 1967, the year of the riot.”

He also noted that “stories are starting to come out about needless shooting” by police—injustice magnified by tragedy. Some of those stories were emerging from Porambo’s beloved Newark.

1967

A rebellion was all but inevitable. The immediate post–World War II economic boom had attracted workers to Newark and helped grow the city’s industries, but white residents soon began deserting the crowded urban landscape for the suburbs. After surging for decades, Newark’s population shrank by nearly 8 percent in the 1950s. Black residents, who had a harder time finding jobs and affording homes, stayed behind, and Newark soon became one of America’s first majority-black cities. It was still run by a white power structure, however, and corruption and inequality ballooned. Poor black neighborhoods were home to some of the highest rates of crime, unemployment, substandard housing, tuberculosis, and maternal mortality in the country. Residents’ patience with the status quo stretched thinner with each passing year.

The city was a combustion chamber primed for an explosion. All it needed was a spark. One finally came on the evening of July 12, 1967, when a man named John Smith flashed the high beams of his cab and drove around a police cruiser that was blocking his lane at the intersection of South Seventh Street and 15th Avenue. The cops quickly pulled him over. Smith was a reserved black man in his forties, originally from North Carolina. He lived alone, and when he wasn’t driving his cab, he enjoyed practicing the trumpet. He explained to the white officers that he thought he’d passed their cruiser legally, but they arrested him anyway. They told the woman in the back seat of Smith’s car that she’d have to find another ride home.

A few minutes later, an incapacitated Smith was dragged through the rear door of Newark’s Fourth Precinct. Residents of the Hayes Homes project across the street from the station watched it happen. Smith had been battered with a nightstick in the ribs and groin. Yet a rumor quickly spread that the police had beaten him to death.

Within an hour, dozens of people had gathered to protest outside the Fourth Precinct. The crowd quickly grew into the hundreds. When someone threw a Molotov cocktail at the building, police stormed out, batons swinging. The crowd dispersed, but later that night angry looters took to smashing liquor-store windows. Police director Dominick Spina advised his officers to let the situation lie, “because once you begin to look at problems as problems, they become problems.”

The plan backfired. Police stood by for nearly two days as the looting spread. White-owned stores were targeted; to signal plunderers away, black business owners scrawled “Soul Brother” on their windows with soap. When mayor Hugh Addonizio called in state troopers and the National Guard, he said in dismay to an arriving officer, “It’s all gone, the whole town is gone.” The sense of alarm spiked even higher when word came across the police radio that someone had swiped 24 rifles from inside a Sears-Roebuck. “The line between the jungle and the law might as well be drawn here as any place in America,” governor Richard Hughes told the press.

Over the next three days, Newark became a city under siege. Bridges were barricaded. Tanks rumbled down thoroughfares, cracking the pavement with their armored weight. State police converted a stadium into barracks and marched through the streets in formation, rifles at the ready.

Many of the officers were reservists, and their inexperience showed. They were quick to fire their weapons. They sprayed the Hayes Homes with bullets in response to suspected sniper fire, killing three women in their apartments. In another incident, ten-year-old Eddie Moss was shot in the head and killed as his father slowed the family car before a roadblock on the way home from a meal at White Castle. Michael Pugh, 12, was shot to death while taking out the trash. Jimmy Rutledge, 19, was left with 42 holes in his body after he was caught looting a liquor store. The majority of the wounds were shotgun blasts to the back. Six were in the rear of his skull.

All told, over five days, 13,319 rounds of ammunition were fired in what authorities described as a peacekeeping effort. Twenty-six people lay dead, ranking Newark’s riots among the deadliest in American history. Among the casualties were a cop, a fireman, and 21 civilians, all shot by police or guardsmen.

Governor Hughes extolled the outcome. “I felt a thrill of pride in the way our state police and National Guard have conducted themselves,” he told the media. As for the roots of the unrest, authorities dismissed the notion that racism, economic disenfranchisement, and state-sanctioned violence were to blame. Instead, they accused communist agitators, paid protestors, and criminal thugs of stirring unwarranted rage among the city’s poor.

It was a time before cell-phone videos and body cams, and the accounts of white officers met with little resistance, trumping those of black citizens. No one in the state or local government was charged with wrongdoing. Not everyone, however, could accept the whitewashing these events received. Among them was Porambo.

1968

Six months after the riots, Porambo left the Camden paper for a gig at the Daily Journal in the town of Elizabeth, a few miles south of Newark. The paper had long been a stepping-stone for cub reporters who went on to bigger and better things. Carl Bernstein had just departed for The Washington Post. Porambo wanted to follow a similar path.

His first piece was about a candy-store robbery. He transformed the story of a petty crime into something bigger by writing it from the imagined perspective of the thief, describing what it was like to need money so badly that you’d take a gun into a shop catering to children. He followed that with a story about a family of 17 living in four rooms—“the bare edge of civilization,” he called it—whose patriarch was murdered in a dispute over a billiards game. Next came a profile of a black building superintendent who, after saving the lives of 20 residents when the structure he maintained went up in flames, was fired and evicted for demanding that the landlord improve the property’s conditions.

Joe Jennings, the executive editor, loved Porambo’s unorthodox style. “He was one of the best pure writers I’ve ever seen at a newspaper,” he said years later to New Jersey Monthly. Thom Akeman, a fellow reporter, described Porambo’s work as having “a lot of leeway and imagination,” which made it compelling. “I’d never stopped to think about looking at a robbery from the point of view of the guy who has the gun,” he told me.

Porambo and his growing family—he and Carol had two more children togetherlived in a house in the Weequahic neighborhood of Newark, a middle-class, mostly black area. He was happy to be home, but he found the city of his youth irrevocably changed, tattooed with a post-riot identity. Burned-out buildings dotted downtown, citizens projected an air of defeat, and the city’s reputation lay in ruins. The New York Times described Newark as a “nightmare … finally succumbing to America’s catalog of urban ills.”

One day, Porambo covered a meeting of the Newark Human Rights Commission, a community group that advocated for police reform. He watched as witness after witness took to the floor to recount beatings and shootings perpetrated by police during the riots. The stories had been circulating through Newark’s black neighborhoods for months. In his article about the meeting, Porambo noted, “It was the first time these things were said in a public auditorium,” but the black survivors of the riots “heard nothing they didn’t know.”

He was determined to put the stories he heard on the front page. So he got to work on what the Daily Journal dubbed the Post-Riot Notebook, a 15-part series intended to introduce readers to the people living in the areas of Newark most affected by the unrest. Porambo knew that something bigger than the color and detail of individual lives was at stake in his reporting. The governor, the mayor, cops, and public prosecutors had all denied complicity in what had transpired in July of 1967. Now, in the name of justice, Porambo wanted to expose it. In the introduction to the series, he promised that “those within the power structure will not like what they read because it will be too close to the truth.”

To get the story, he did what he’d always done. He became a regular at Newark’s roughest watering holes, sitting on stools and slouching in booths at establishments with names like Dick and Ann’s and the R&R. He frequented pool halls and sweaty go-go joints. He told regulars everywhere he went that he wanted to hear what really happened during the riots—what the people who lived through those harrowing five days witnessed. That Porambo was married to a black woman gave him extra cachet in the establishments where he spent late night after late night.

“Those within the power structure will not like what they read because it will be too close to the truth.”

People talked. Over hot dogs and games of nine-ball, he heard desperate scenes recounted, like the one on Beacon Street on the evening of July 14, when state troopers opened fire for no apparent reason. In the melee, James Snead, 36, was shot in the stomach while repairing his car. Karl Green, 17, was shot in the head. Both survived. Seventy-six people signed an eyewitness petition demanding an investigation into the shootings, but no action was taken. For the series’ fifth installment, Porambo drove with 22-year-old Mack Tucker to the spot where police shot him while he sat in a friend’s car. Tucker bore the scars of slug wounds on the side of his face and neck.

The death of Jimmy Rutledge, a looter discovered with 42 bullet wounds, was perhaps the most damning. In the series’ eighth installment, an anonymous police detective walked Porambo through the shooting. Cops on the scene had claimed that Rutledge brandished a butcher knife before they opened fire. But the detective was incredulous: somehow, Rutledge had found the time to wipe his fingerprints from the handle of the blade before falling to the floor dead. According to witnesses, his last words were “Don’t shoot. I’ll serve my time in jail,” followed by “I will come peacefully.”

The more he heard, the more Porambo’s outrage grew. The Post-Riot Notebook consumed him. At a certain point, he took up residence in the Daily Journal’s office, sleeping at his desk and showering in the bathroom the next morning. His union reps fumed over his unlogged overtime. But his dedication was about to pay off.

The New York publishing house Holt, Rinehart, and Winston got wind of the series and offered Porambo a modest $7,500 advance to expand his investigation into a book. He jumped at the chance. He was eager to leave newspaper work behind for a while. No more battles over word count or whether he had to cover a school-board meeting. No more destabilizing hired-and-fired cadence to his life. Just a chance to make it big. “This was going to be the vehicle for him becoming famous and important and influential,” Fred Bruning, Porambo’s old friend from Albany, told me. “He wanted all those things badly. But I think that his first priority, always, was to give voice to this stuff that he felt so passionate about.”

1970

Nearly every morning, Porambo donned a heavy gray sweatsuit, leashed up Ralph, the mutt he’d rescued in Tennessee and loved so much that he’d contemplated listing him as a dependent on the family’s taxes, and jogged several miles through Newark’s South Ward. On his way home, he always picked up fresh bread, tea, and the first editions of the local papers, which left ink stains on his hands. Porambo ate breakfast with his wife and children, Glenna, Franklin, and Ronda. Then he went into his small, book-lined office and shut the door. He was not to be disturbed while he wrote, connecting the dots of the scrupulous reporting he’d compiled over the previous two years.

Unraveling the facts of the riots wasn’t easy. Many of the surviving victims and the families of those killed moved frequently and rarely filed a change of address. Porambo had worn through shoe leather ringing doorbells all over the city. In the process, he fell more deeply in love with Newark. “Everything’s so personal,” he told a reporter, “because everybody’s crushed together, deprived of human rights, down to life itself.” He was as likely to interview a community activist or business owner as a career criminal or drug addict. He described the array of characters he encountered as the personification of “much of black Newark as it was six months after its riot.… Black men sell women and white men buy them. Black children shoot heroin and white politicians give the city away to the mobsters who supply the narcotics.”

Of course, not every pimp and pusher was interested in talking to a reporter. While pounding the pavement, Porambo was threatened more than once, and he kept a revolver close at hand: sometimes under the seat of his car, other times hidden in the light fixture on the living room ceiling. When muggers demanded his grandfather’s pocket watch, they discovered the ex-boxer still had a nasty left hook.

Early in the summer of 1970, Porambo turned in a 700-page draft to his publishers. It landed on the desk of Warren Sloat, a laid-back, 35-year-old editor. “I was appalled by some of the writing,” Sloat later said. “It was just all over the place.” He spent several weeks poring over the text, crossing out digressive rants about conservatism and Richard Nixon. Beneath the vitriolic fat, though, he found a lean narrative of authenticity and verve. “The voices of the people he spoke with rang true,” Sloat recalled. “And his description of how he found them was terribly interesting.” Porambo described it as “sifting through the ashes.”

The book was a scathing account of police brutality, corruption, and cover-ups spanning several years before and after the riots. Porambo chronicled, for instance, the shooting death of 22-year-old Lester Long Jr. on June 12, 1965. Cops pulled Long over because his car had a noisy muffler. Suspecting that his license might be fake, they put him in the back seat of their cruiser. The stop happened across from the Happy Inn Tavern, and a crowd, including some of Long’s friends, gathered outside to watch. After 45 minutes of being detained, Long made a break for it. He got about 30 feet from the car before a bullet hit him in the back of the head. At first the local papers reported the police’s version of events as fact: Long had tried to cut an officer with a knife, the officer had stumbled out of the car bleeding, and a gun had gone off accidentally. But the crowd that watched the events unfold claimed there was no knife, no blood, no accidental shooting. Bystanders saw an officer square up and gun down a fleeing man.

Corrupt political machinery quickly hijacked the narrative. Police advocates claimed that Newark’s finest would be devastated if one of their own were charged with murder. Long had a criminal record, they pointed out. The accused cop went so far as to sue a citizens group for handing out leaflets that labeled him a killer. “What should have been an issue defined by facts had become an ideological conflict with ‘police morale’ as the main issue,” Porambo wrote. “Any action was permissible if it maintained so-called law and order.” This same thinking, he believed, led to the bloody display in 1967.

“If there are two occupational groups that can be expected to lie with abandon on the witness stand,” Porambo wrote, “they are hardened criminals and experienced police officers.”

“If there are two occupational groups that can be expected to lie with abandon on the witness stand, they are hardened criminals and experienced police officers.”

One chapter in the book was dedicated to the trial of John Smith, the cab driver whose arrest had sparked the riots and who had been charged with assaulting two police officers. He claimed that the officers had brutally beaten him; they countered that Smith was the one doing the beating. That Smith had injuries requiring hospitalization and the officers seemed unharmed didn’t shake the court’s opinion. An all-white jury convicted Smith, who after appeals served just under a year in prison.

Porambo broadened his reporting to examine corruption in law enforcement beyond the riots. A heroin dealer went on record to say that he was occasionally supplied by an officer in the city’s vice squad. Porambo unearthed Mafia campaign contributions that had helped elect Mayor Addonizio. And he didn’t hesitate to name names as he laid out kickback schemes that traveled all the way up the chain of command to police director Dominick Spina.

Warren Sloat knew he had something astonishing on his hands. When his heavy edit made it to Porambo’s desk, however, the writer reacted with typical outrage. He’d never met Sloat. Who was this son of a bitch carving up his book? He jumped in his Oldsmobile and raced the ten miles down Route 22 to Plainfield, New Jersey, where Sloat lived on a tree-lined street in a stucco house with a play set in the backyard. Porambo marched up to the door and rang the bell.

After ushering the livid writer inside, Sloat gathered his revisions and Porambo’s original material. For two hours, they sat at a table comparing the texts line by line. The changes were justified, Sloat explained, if only to distill the most important and convincing aspects of the work. “I’ve never read a book quite like this,” he told Porambo. It was going to be valuable to the people of Newark. It might garner national awards.

For the first time in his career, Porambo bought into the editorial process. He headed back to Newark sure that he was on the verge of fame and fortune. He’d been driving a soft-drink delivery truck to make ends meet since his advance ran out. Now he began dreaming of a Pulitzer Prize.

While Sloat put the finishing touches on the manuscript, Porambo hustled to secure what he believed would bring his reporting into perfect focus: photographs taken by the county coroner’s office of bodies with wounds in their backs, sealed by the courts from public view, showing beyond a doubt that many of the riot’s victims were shot as they fled police. Porambo was willing to do anything to obtain visual proof of police brutality, even pay one of the force’s own. In November 1970, he approached officer John Balogh, a hard-bitten veteran whom he’d interviewed during his reporting, and made an under-the-table offer: ten photos for $10 apiece.

At first, Balogh appeared agreeable to the offer, and he provided half the requested the photos. But it turned out to be a ruse. Balogh recorded their conversations and shared them with public prosecutors. One day at a local restaurant, he passed a second stack of images to Porambo, and the writer chose the ones he wanted. As the final payoff went down, Porambo found himself in handcuffs. Balogh was arresting him for bribing a police officer.

Porambo seemed unfazed. “The worst I can get is six months,” he mused in an interview with Thom Akeman, his ex-colleague from the Daily Journal. “Unless I get one of those judges I wrote about.”

1971

The book was published, without photos, while the bribery case was still pending. It was a masterpiece of urban reporting, as raw as it was authoritative. The first page alone must have caused jaws to drop and eyebrows to jump as readers, particularly white readers, took it in. Porambo began his 398-page investigation with a description of a black dancer:

She was ghetto Newark and her brown arms glistened and drops of sweat covered her bare stomach. They formed trickles that dripped into her navel and on down into what little there was of the bottom half of her dancing costume, down into black Newark, a place where tattered kids play on dirty brick streets; where, at the first light of dawn, working people rise for another day’s labor and junkies look for anything worth stealing to feed the needle; where locked warm thighs in the restless morning start the cycle all over again, bringing screaming infants into a cramped jungle that now must be called post-riot Newark. … Keep moving, brown-skinned girl, you are Newark and you are beautiful and the place you call home has a primitive beauty and allure of its own.

In the next paragraph, he called the deaths caused by police during the riots “homicide,” an unflinching accusation that he later unpacked in the book’s most devastating chapter, entitled “Nailing the Lid on a Coffin.” Porambo outlined each of the killings brought before grand juries after the riots. He described eyewitness accounts in meticulous detail—people who’d watched the violence from apartment windows and fire escapes and street corners—and revisited the police’s own investigatory materials. The picture he painted was at best one of police misconduct, at worst one of a murder spree. Yet in case after case, the authorities had proved immune to prosecution. “Due to insufficient evidence of any criminal misconduct,” courts ruled, “the jury found no cause for indictment.” The phrase became the title of Porambo’s book: No Cause for Indictment: An Autopsy of Newark.

The city had placed fault for the deaths on the shoulders of the looters and protesters who’d flouted the law in the first place, and on individuals not sufficiently cognizant of the war zone Newark had become during the riots. Porambo declared this nothing short of craven racism. “The inference was clear that the guilty included Eddie Moss’s father, for taking his son out for hamburgers,” Porambo wrote, “Michael Pugh’s mother, for telling her son to carry out the garbage, and Mrs. Brown, Mrs. Spellman, and Mrs. Gainer”—the three women killed in their Hayes Homes apartments—“for being the same color as the rioters.”

When the book hit shelves, Porambo became a household name in Newark overnight. “It was a reference point,” Amiri Baraka, a poet and community activist who featured in the text, later told the Star-Ledger. “One had to be able to say, ‘Yes, I know that book,’ whether you had read it or not.” A review in the Baltimore Sun noted, “Even if Mr. Porambo is wrong ten per cent of the time, and that is unlikely, his is still a very serious indictment of the Newark police.” Kirkus heralded, “Porambo is energetic, angry, and he spares no one.”

“It was a reference point. One had to be able to say, ‘Yes, I know that book,’ whether you had read it or not.”

Frustrating to the writer, most of the major New Jersey papers didn’t review it—perhaps because he’d reserved disdain for his own tribe in the book, dubbing the local press “the whorehouse’s blushing counterfeit virgins.” Porambo believed newspapers had done little to investigate violent incidents, instead parroting police accounts. When evidence proved those accounts wrong, the stories often went uncorrected. In one case, Porambo confronted a reporter who’d written about the shooting of 17-year-old Dexter Johnson after an alleged struggle with police. Witness accounts made it clear that a fence standing six feet high separated Johnson and the cop who’d shot him; a scuffle between the two would have been physically impossible. The reporter was shocked when Porambo told him about the contradictory evidence. In his book, Porambo derided lazy reporting as the reason “why whites, who read once again of a ruthless punk and a valiant police officer, remain so uninformed.”

No one demanded retractions or sued. Still, Porambo was prepared for backlash. “I wrote a book about how people were murdered during the riot,” he told a reporter. “I also wrote about corruption in city government and the police department. It’s only natural that I join the victims.”

Three weeks after his book’s release, in December 1971, Porambo was driving in the thin light of dawn along a desolate street abutting Interstate 78. In his rearview mirror, he saw a car with its headlights switched off surge toward him. It veered left and pulled alongside his window. The driver whipped out a pistol and sent seven bullets into Porambo’s Oldsmobile before speeding away. Porambo lost control of the car and jumped a curb. He stayed crouched in his seat, covered in broken glass and too afraid to move, for a solid ten minutes.

Afterward, Porambo told reporters that he was certain the attack had to do with his book. He even insinuated that the police were trying to shut him up. “Newark is the way it is,” he said. “Nothing should be surprising in Newark. Nothing.” A sluggish investigation turned up no suspects or evidence.

Soon after, Porambo got a job as a correspondent for 51st State, a program that aired nightly on public television in the New York City area. The show offered “news from the bottom up,” told through the perspectives of the people who lived it, and reporters weren’t afraid to be provocative. Porambo fit right in. He spent most of his time in the field but sometimes came to 51st State’s headquarters above Columbus Circle in Manhattan. Producer Gary Gilson remembered him as a “madman genius” and “like a member of an Italian street gang. He was rough, but he was an artist.” It showed in his segments. One of Porambo’s investigations, about the ease of buying illegal guns on the streets of Newark, opened with the camera zoomed in on a man leaning into a car window, seemingly doing business with the person behind the wheel. As the camera pulled back, viewers saw that Porambo was the buyer. He turned to face the lens, lifted the pistol he’d pretended to purchase, and fired several shots. It was unnerving stuff, and it has been lost to history: When the station that aired 51st State moved offices in the 1990s, it recorded over or lost almost all of the show’s archive.

On January 14, 1972, Gilson, who was in charge of Friday programming, answered his desk phone. When he did, it threw his scheduled lineup into disarray. Porambo was on the line. “It’s Ron,” he said. “I can’t come in. I’ve been shot.”

The night before, around 11 p.m., he’d gone to Dick and Ann’s, one of his favorite bars. He’d ordered a drink from waitress Sherry Rivers, who mentioned that a man had been in earlier asking about a “white guy.” The stranger was talking about Porambo, who took the news in stride. Maybe it was someone out to get him, like whoever had shot up his car a few weeks prior, or maybe it was someone who just wanted to talk. After Dick and Ann’s, Porambo went to Tony’s Tavern, where the bartender told him that someone had been asking around for a “white dude shooting pool.”

The cover of the original paperback. 
The cover of the original paperback. 

At 1:30 a.m., Porambo paid his tab and went to his car. The driver-side door was still busted from the shooting, so he climbed through the passenger’s side. As he slid across the bench seat, a heavyset white man pushed through the open door behind him and leveled a pistol at his head. Porambo kicked and fought, but he couldn’t get away. The attacker fired seven times, and bullets penetrated both of Porambo’s legs. Blood began soaking his pants. He had his own gun under the seat, which he managed to grab and discharge at the fleeing assailant. But the man got away, leaving only a brown loafer in his wake.

At the hospital, after doctors bandaged his legs, Porambo held court with journalists who’d gotten wind of the shooting. “I don’t think they’re trying to kill me,” he said. “They just want to terrify me.” Newark cops were stationed at his door, and as visiting hours ended, they tried to escort the interviewers out. Porambo argued that the journalists should be allowed to stay. Neither side would back down, so against the wishes of his doctors, Porambo checked himself out of the hospital. In a fury, he grabbed some crutches and hobbled out the building’s double doors.

Over at 51st State’s offices, Gilson rushed to put together a new opening segment with the title “Our Man in Newark Has Been Shot.” TV crews showed up on the steps of Newark’s police headquarters to demand answers. Suspicious that he might have staged the shootings, officers asked Porambo to take a lie-detector test. He refused. “The cops just want to try to discredit the book,” he told a reporter, also noting that a polygraph would be “very unreliable for someone with my temperament.” One of the bullets in the second incident had narrowly missed an artery. He took chances, Porambo insisted, but he wasn’t stupid.  

Or was he? The night of the second shooting, before Porambo went to Dick and Ann’s, he and a friend whom his kids called Uncle Artie sat in his office sipping scotch and milk. Carol was in the adjacent living room listening to Roberta Flack on the record player, and in between tracks she caught snippets of the two men’s hushed conversation.

“Come on, man. You’ve got to do this for me, man,” Porambo said.

“What if I mess up and do something else?” Artie responded.

“I need you to do this,” Porambo implored.

Eventually, the men left the house together, Porambo telling Carol that they were off to play some pool. Unsure what her husband was planning, Carol brushed off what she’d overheard and turned up the volume on “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.” When the phone rang several hours later, and a voice on the other end told her that her husband had been shot, Carol’s first thought was, I can’t believe he convinced Artie to do it. She and Glenna grabbed the three portable TVs in the house and lined them up on the wide kitchen counter, tuning them to ABC, NBC, and CBS. They sat at the kitchen table watching as Porambo talked with newscasters in the hospital.

Quietly, Carol told Glenna what she suspected had happened. But she had no plans to tell the cops. Glenna understood why. In the Porambo household, loyalty was to the bone. If one of the kids snitched on another for breaking a rule, the tattler caught it first with a wooden ruler. So mother and daughter tacitly agreed to keep their lips sealed about what in retrospect may have been a warning sign of Porambo’s deteriorating grasp of right and wrong.

Others soon followed. No Cause for Indictment sold out its initial run of 7,500 copies, and the publisher ordered a second printing. The critical success buoyed Porambo’s belief that he would win a Pulitzer. He already felt that he’d earned it by dedicating years of reporting to his book and even risking his life for it. “He used to talk about it all the time,” Carol told me. In the spring of 1972, however, a jury of his peers decided that another book was more worthy of nonfiction’s highest honor: a history of General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell’s exploits in the Far East by historian Barbara W. Tuchman. Porambo was heartbroken. “He didn’t have another dream to replace that one,” Glenna told me.

Intensifying his pain and frustration was Porambo’s realization that his book wasn’t having the tangible impact he’d hoped, however naively, it would. Newark had elected its first black mayor while he was writing it, a development that Porambo lauded. During the mayor’s first year in office, however, eight black people were shot dead by police for petty crimes, six as they fled scenes. Soon after, the Evening News and Star-Ledger decided to cut back on crime reporting, because editors worried that stories of violence were becoming repetitive for readers. In his book, Porambo had pilloried Tony Imperiale, a Stetson-wearing, race-baiting rabble-rouser who’d encouraged white citizens to take up arms against rioters in 1967 and once referred to the civil rights movement’s most prominent leader as “Martin Luther Coon.” In 1970, Imperiale was elected to the city council; three years later, he became a member of the state senate.

Porambo had written a seminal text about urban America. He’d used bold tactics. He’d positioned himself on the right side of history. It hadn’t been enough to move Newark’s social needle. Would anything?

When a source gave him documents outlining corruption in city contracts, Porambo saw it as a chance to at least force some discreet change. According to the documents, officials were approving payouts for demolition contracts on buildings that didn’t exist. Porambo trusted his source, a 23-year-old city employee named Aleck Grishkevich. The two men were drinking buddies. Porambo produced segments on 51st State based on the papers and demanded that officials state on the record when indictments would be forthcoming. He confronted representatives of the mayor’s office and the demolition company that had allegedly drawn canceled checks for the work orders.

Then one day, Porambo received a call from Grishkevich’s mother. Her son had been arrested on forgery charges, she said. The documents used in the segments were fakes. When Porambo reached out to the prosecutor’s office, he learned that a warrant had been issued for his arrest, too. He pleaded ignorance about the forgery, and ultimately the charges against him were dropped. But he’d put his colleagues’ credibility in jeopardy by failing to corroborate the details of the materials provided by his source. The show fired him.

Around the same time, the longstanding bribery charges were finally brought to court. Porambo was found guilty and served three months behind bars. He emerged jaded and indignant.

1973

The renowned psychoanalyst Alfred Adler believed that the need to cope with feelings of inferiority drives human behavior. We work hard in personal, professional, and communal spheres to develop self-assurance, and we establish goals that might compensate for our perceived deficiencies. When people can’t overcome or process these flaws, however, they can grow depressed, anxious, and insecure. Some channel their frustrations into manipulating or dominating other people. They become, in a word, bullies.

Porambo fit that mold. The one-two punch of losing the Pulitzer and his job at 51st State proved too much for him to bear, and his psyche cracked. He’d always been argumentative, volatile, and domineering. Now he could be vicious. Even his eyes changed. The brown wells that had always seemed attentive became cold and unfeeling. He looked “like nobody loved him,” Carol told me.

When he got back late and found his kids’ clothes and toys left in piles on the floor, Porambo would wake them, even in the middle of a school night, and demand that they clean their rooms. He would holler at his wife and dump laundry she’d folded down the stairs. He could be physically abusive, too, often reserving his fiercest anger for his son Franklin. “He would slap him in the nose and then look at me and say, ‘See what you made me do?’” Carol recalled. “I would go off to a motel with the children until he calmed down.”

Despite his professional blunders, Porambo still had plenty of admirers. He got a job as a field producer for City-TV in Toronto and moved his family to Canada. His kids gathered around the television at 7 p.m. each night to watch their father, wearing his signature black beret, unleash blistering reports. Carol worked as a photographer at a mall, and the family lived in a roomy two-bedroom condominium with floor-to-ceiling windows. On Sundays, Porambo planted himself in front of the TV to watch football. He always rooted for the underdog. The family seemed to friends and neighbors like the picture of domestic bliss. Privately, though, Porambo was becoming increasingly erratic.

One day, Carol came home to find that he’d painted the exterior of their home a rusty red, because he was sick of it being uniform with the condos around it. The paint job lasted only as long as it took the community board to have it sandblasted off. Porambo made good money, roughly the equivalent of a $150,000 annual salary today, and his parents regularly deposited money into the family’s bank account. But Porambo was reckless with cash and fell into debt. He maxed out two credit cards to buy Carol a $1,500 blue and gold macaw named Harold for her birthday. He taught the bird to sip wine from a glass until it skulked off-balance along the edge of the dining table. He refused to cage it, even outside. Once, during a family barbecue, Harold flew up into some trees, and the fire department had to come retrieve him.

Losing his job didn’t scare him straight. It only pushed him deeper into vice.

Rather than pay off his credit cards, Porambo sent letters to the banks pretending to be an attorney. He claimed “Mr. Porambo” had fallen ill and couldn’t pay his bills on time. Eventually, he wrote that his client had died. At work, Porambo began taking small payoffs from stringers at the TV station in exchange for guaranteeing that their clips were broadcast. When their segments didn’t show as promised, the freelancers alerted executives to the scheme. Soon after, the station discovered that Porambo had been cooking his expense reports. Once again he was fired.

The question of why a reporter who’d built his reputation skewering corrupt systems would lie to banks, to say nothing of swindling fellow journalists for a few bucks, is difficult to answer. Maybe he genuinely believed that his family needed the cash. Or maybe he feared that he was living the cookie-cutter life he’d always dreaded and broke the rules just to prove that he could. Either way, losing his job didn’t scare him straight. It only pushed him deeper into vice.

One day in March 1978, Porambo dyed his hair a garish red—or donned a wig that color, no one can remember for sure—and drove to the parking lot of Toronto International Airport. He carried a toy gun that he’d spray-painted to look real. Porambo approached a parking attendant, demanded money, then ran away with the cash. A few days later, police tracked him down and arrested him. Porambo claimed that he’d robbed the attendant to make a mortgage payment. “I just did the wrong thing,” he told a reporter several years later. “I was real messed up.” Yet the crime was so preposterously amateurish, so cartoonish, that it seemed engineered to fail.

One theory, now shared by Carol and Glenna, is that Porambo intended to get in trouble with the law, or at least flirt with the prospect. The seed of this theory is a book. In 1968, writer Nathan Heard had published Howard Street, a hyperrealistic novel set in Newark. It was about sex workers, pimps, and pushers, and it was hailed for its raw honesty. Boosting the book’s profile was the fact that Heard wrote it while he was finishing an eight-year stint in prison for armed robbery. His vivid prose and personal story wowed readers and the literary world. Howard Street sold a million copies. Porambo kept a copy on his shelf, where it became an object of envy for him. In Toronto, he started working on a novel he titled Walker’s Last Stand. No one ever read the draft—Porambo was protective of his work, and the manuscript was later lost—but his family gathered that the plot centered on a criminal enterprise. Perhaps, Carol and Glenna told me, No Cause for Indictment had made him realize that, despite his reporting chops and ear for gritty, untold stories, he lacked the profile to launch a book about urban life into the commercial stratosphere. In which case, maybe he thought that crossing the line into criminality would give his writing authenticity.

The idea sounds farfetched. Then again, Porambo was notoriously rash. And the theory brings to mind the first story he wrote for the Daily Journal, about the robbery at the candy store. On its face, the article reads like a remarkable feat of empathy with the thief. But could its perspective have been a sly confession about how Porambo got the story? Given the trajectory of the writer’s life, in hindsight it seems plausible.

Following the stick-up at the airport, Porambo was found guilty of armed robbery. Carol packed up the family car and headed back to Newark. She was fed up with her husband’s antics, but she still loved him. She’d be there when he got out.

Porambo kept working, taking inspiration from his circumstances. He was allowed a typewriter in his cell and published a piece in the Toronto Star on the endless boredom of “dead time,” the days that convicts spend before sentencing that may or may not count as time served. After nine months, he was released and deported to America, where he reunited with his family in Newark. It wouldn’t be his last stint behind bars.

1980

Porambo was determined to sell Walker’s Last Stand. The manuscript was finished, and he wanted it to win the accolades that No Cause for Indictment hadn’t. He commuted into Manhattan for long dinners with book publishers at Italian restaurants in the West Village, with Carol by his side. He was so pushy when promoting his work, so sure of his brilliance, that she was sometimes embarrassed for him. “Ron had no shame, so nothing was awkward for him,” she said. When nothing came from a meeting, he would mutter to his wife under his breath, “I hate people.”

Without a book deal or steady work, Porambo began leading a double life. By day he worked on his novel and pitched freelance articles. By night he descended into Newark’s underworld—this time not as a reporter but as a participant. In 1980, the city was posting some of the highest crime rates in the country, and Porambo joined the fray by reviving the stick-up routine he’d tried in Toronto. Glenna, with whom Porambo was close, helped him. She rode with her stepfather to nice neighborhoods and cased potential marks. When Porambo bought wigs and fake mustaches for the disguises he wore when holding people at gunpoint, he paid Glenna $10 to trim them so they’d fit his face. “It was a lot of money back then,” she told me.

Porambo pocketed modest amounts of cash from his robberies, but that didn’t seem to be his main motivation. Like his parents all those years ago, Porambo fumed about “those people,” except he was referring to whites who worked in Newark during the day and returned to their cushy suburban homes at night. He ranted to Carol about how the rich never spent their money where it was needed.

“He thought he was getting back at rich people and society,” Carol confided in Fred Bruning, who’d kept in touch while building a respectable career at papers up and down the East Coast. Or maybe, Carol added, her husband was just unwell.

There was a Robin Hood quality to his logic, but Porambo didn’t spread the wealth he pilfered. He seemed more vindictive than benevolent.

There was a Robin Hood quality to his logic, but Porambo didn’t spread the wealth he pilfered. He seemed more vindictive than benevolent.

Porambo made friends with street criminals willing to team up with him on jobs. One night in June 1980, he and an accomplice, 20-year-old Richard Norman, staked out the parking lot of Snuffy’s, a restaurant in the town of Scotch Plains. It featured faux marble colonnades, lobster buffets, a plate-breaking show with cries of “Opa!” and a “sit down eating clam bar”—the greatest hits of Greek American hospitality. Their stomachs full of surf and turf and two-dollar glasses of wine, a couple named the Kilpatricks were walking to their car when Porambo and Norman approached. One of them pistol-whipped Mr. Kilpatrick, and the attackers made off with $277 in cash. Fifteen minutes later, the police pulled them over in a car matching the description the Kilpatricks had provided. Porambo later admitted to being a little “high on alcohol” during the slapdash heist. Once again the weapon he used was a toy gun.

Porambo was sentenced to seven years for robbery and assault and shipped off to Leesburg State Prison, a medium-security lockup that employed inmates in good standing on a working farm. Porambo did well inside, and he even gave his investigative career another go. He began looking into the prison’s bloated work contracts and compiled a 16-page report on fraud and kickbacks. He tried to mail it to a newspaper, but prison authorities discovered the draft and confiscated it. Despite the provocation, he earned early release to a halfway house in less than two years.

As a parolee, looking for a job was a legal requirement. Asking Newsday to hire him was ballsy. The Long Island daily was cherry-picking writers and editors from bigger, better-known outlets. Murray Kempton, the former editor of The New Republic, came on board as a columnist in 1981 and won a Pulitzer four years later. Breslin jumped ship from the Daily News and worked at Newsday until he retired in 2004. Porambo secured an interview with Tony Marro, one of the top editors, and hoped he could convince the paper’s leadership to help him stage a comeback.

When he visited Newsday’s offices, Porambo’s first stop was at the desk of Fred Bruning, who’d recently joined the staff. Over the years, in phone calls and at dinners when the men found themselves in the same city, Bruning had been a calming influence on his friend. He’d always been jealous of Porambo’s talent. Now, as they sat in the Newsday cafeteria, Bruning realized that the journalist he’d long admired was no longer there. Personal demons had done their worst; the conversation was brutal. “Looking grim and exhausted,” Bruning later wrote, “Porambo told me he was going to give newspapers one more try. But, he warned, if he couldn’t find a job at a prestigious place like Newsday, if the business rejected him again at this late date, he was returning to his avocation—to crime.”

The gig at Newsday didn’t materialize. Over the next few weeks, Porambo appeased his parole officer by picking up work at the Atlantic City Press. Then, in January 1982, he missed his nightly sign-in at the halfway house. He explained that he was late because he’d been at work—the very work that the legal system required him to have. It didn’t matter. He was charged with attempted escape and shipped back to prison. When he got out a few months later, he made good on what he’d told Bruning he would do.

1983

Porambo rubbed spirit gum along the contour above his upper lip and pressed the flimsy mustache into place. He pulled the wig, selected from the Headstart Hair for Men line, over his scalp. He’d bought it a few weeks earlier at a store called Town Wigs in Irvington, New Jersey, where he’d told the salesman his name was Ron Pope. The wig made him look like Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees. He glanced in the mirror to make sure he was unrecognizable. Then he grabbed his brown overnight bag and stuffed his supplies inside: silver .32 revolver, duct tape, ski masks, fake police badges, bullets, and makeup.

Carol was crying. She pleaded with him not to go. They had money; they would make rent. And there were consequences to the dangerous game Porambo was playing. “God don’t like ugly,” she told her husband.

Since getting out of Leesburg the second time, Porambo had settled into a new line of crime: taking down drug dealers. It was a high-risk, high-reward business. The upsides were cash and other items—cocaine, marijuana, jewelry—with serious street value. Plus, Porambo’s marks rarely called the police. But there was little room for error in robbing hustlers. One mistake and you could wind up dead.

There was little room for error in robbing hustlers. One mistake and you could wind up dead.

Porambo didn’t work alone. His accomplices were the same sort of people he’d once relied on for news tips. There was Eddie Crawford, who supplied Porambo with information about targets—where they lived, what they were carrying, when their shipments came in. Larry Page and Bob Windsor, two men Porambo had met in prison, helped him do the dirty work: While he held a dealer at gunpoint, they would shake the target down. After making their getaway, the team would divvy up the spoils. Jewelry got fenced through Willie Rabb, the owner of a We Buy Gold outfit in Newark.

Carol disliked her husband’s new friends so much that she quit her job as a nanny to make sure her kids were never alone when Porambo brought the men around. Windsor was from south-central New Jersey and had been in and out of jail for the past decade. He was 38, white, and a little overweight. Porambo sometimes scolded him for being a junkie. Page was black, a few years younger, and imbued with a cruel streak. According to Carol, “He was the devil.”   

There was no better proof than what happened on April 10, 1983. It was a rainy spring day. Water dripped from trees and gutters as Porambo and Page walked toward a five-story redbrick apartment building in Newark. They had to pass the entrance a few times before someone who lived in one of the units came out. Porambo, wearing a blue uniform jacket, smiled and tipped a fire-marshal hat toward the tenant. Then he stuck his foot between the door and the frame; he and Page slipped inside.

Three floors up, Sidney Davis and his girlfriend, Betsy, were naked and doing cocaine on Davis’s big circular bed. A 34-year-old drug dealer, Davis wasn’t the richest or flashiest guy pushing coke in the neighborhood, but he moved a decent amount of it. Just after 2 p.m., there was a knock at the door.

“Did you hear that?” Betsy asked.

Davis stuck his head out from the bedroom. “Who’s that?” he yelled.

“Fireman,” was the answer. Davis hadn’t heard an alarm in the building. Still, he threw on a robe and opened the door.

He instantly knew he’d been set up. These guys were no firemen. Porambo pushed past him and pulled a revolver from his jacket pocket, which he pointed squarely at Davis’s chest. Then Page barged in, and the robbers forced Davis to lie facedown on a couch.

Porambo kept his gun trained on Davis while Page scoured the apartment for money and drugs. In the bedroom, he found a few thousand dollars, diamond-studded watches, and Betsy. She was trying to hide from the intruders. Page started to force her into the living room, then changed his mind. He pushed her back onto the bed and raped her.

When Page finished, he dragged Betsy out to the couch and threw her on top of Davis. Then he shoved a pillow over her head and demanded that Porambo shoot them both. For all the mayhem Porambo had caused in his life, he’d avoided crossing the line that divides threatening deadly violence and committing it. Davis, though, couldn’t have known that. Lying on the couch under the weight of his girlfriend’s battered body, he decided that he wasn’t going down without a fight.

Davis roared up from the couch and lunged at Porambo. Betsy did the same, clawing wildly at the faces of the two surprised robbers. In the ensuing fight, bottles were smashed, furniture was flipped, and skin was torn open. Then a crack of gunfire split the air. A downstairs neighbor heard it and stuck her head into the hallway. She listened as two men raced to the exit on the floor above her, one of them shouting, “Hurry up, I’m hurt!”

As Porambo and Page bolted from the building, Betsy called the police. When they arrived, the officers found Davis laying in the hallway, his bloodstained robe trailing behind him. He had a gushing wound in his chest. Adrenaline and shock had kept him awake long enough to tell the cops that a white man had shot him. He was pronounced dead within the hour.

Inside the apartment, there were blood smears on the floor and coffee table, and a long streak on the wall where a hand had reached for support. In the bedroom was an extensive stash of cocaine and drug paraphernalia. Betsy was hysterical and unable to describe much of the robbery, except to say that she’d been raped. On the floor, detectives found a black wig, a blue fireman’s hat, and a silver .32-caliber revolver with two spent cartridges.

When Porambo returned home later that night, he was bleeding from a gash on his head and wearing different clothes than he’d left in. “Whose sweater is that?” Carol demanded. All Porambo would say was that he’d borrowed the shirt from Page. “What have you done?” Carol asked. Her husband stood in front of a mirror trying to pull off the gluey wads of wig hair matted together with dried blood. Someone had smashed his head with a vase, he replied. She didn’t believe him. “I can’t help you,” Carol said, throwing up her hands. He’d made his choices.

Porambo packed a suitcase and disappeared for a couple of weeks, staying at Windsor’s bungalow in southern New Jersey. A seismic shift had occurred: Porambo was now a killer, and it was likely only a matter of time before Davis’s associates came looking for him. His nerves were raw. He told Carol and his children not to open the door for anyone they didn’t recognize. “You could sense a little change in the way he felt about it. He said he might’ve stepped a little too far,” Glenna told me. Before long, though, he started lining up a slate of new jobs back in Newark. He was like an addict convinced that he wouldn’t overdose a second time. “I went about it the way I did everything else,” Porambo later told Bruning of his criminal exploits. “If there had been eight days in a week, I would have done it eight days.”

One month after Davis’s murder, Porambo and Windsor robbed a major drug dealer named David Williams, a job that involved dressing as cops and tying up Williams’s domestic help in a brazen midday home invasion. The pair made off with a briefcase of cash, jewelry, and drugs. When Porambo delivered the jewelry to Willie Rabb, his longtime fence, Rabb had a choice to make. Porambo had been a reliable partner, but Williams was a fearsome guy. If the drug dealer found out that Rabb had flipped his possessions, it could spell the end for the We Buy Gold proprietor. Rabb picked up the phone, called around until he got Williams on the line, and told the dealer how the job had gone down.

A few days later, on the night of May 19, Porambo was home with his family when the phone rang. He answered it in his office and kept his voice low while he talked. “All right, I’ll see you there,” was all Carol caught of the conversation. After Porambo hung up, he told his wife that he was going out. As usual, she begged him to stay and he brushed her off, telling her that he’d be back soon.

It was the same thing that Eddie Crawford, Porambo’s tip provider, had told his girlfriend a few hours earlier. After taking a phone call, Crawford had left home and gone into Manhattan, where he’d been gunned down by an unknown assailant. By the time Porambo got in his Volkswagen and drove to 186 Ridgewood Ave., Crawford was in a Harlem hospital, brain-dead. Maybe the person who’d called Porambo’s house had warned him that he was in danger, too. Or maybe it was the same individual who lured Crawford out. Nobody knows for sure, because the next time Porambo spoke to anyone, he was under arrest in a hospital bed, with a bullet lodged permanently in his brain and little memory of how it got there.

The cops who responded to Porambo’s shooting searched the Volkswagen where it had happened and found a bag containing wigs, fake badges, and two loaded pistols. The accessories linked Porambo to several unsolved crimes, including the murder of Sydney Davis. A rent receipt led police to an apartment in Belleville, New Jersey, where they found cash, stolen driver’s licenses, maps with homes and addresses circled, passports and birth certificates with random names, and more guns and disguises.

To some people, the scope of Porambo’s crimes seemed implausible. His parole officer told police that he’d had “no inclination that [Porambo] was doing anything wrong.” Local newspapers covered the story, listing the pending charges against him and referencing Porambo’s renown for his “controversial book.”

Carol’s reaction to the scope of her husband’s deceit was stoic. Nothing surprised her anymore. “It was just so hard for me to even cry tears,” she told me. In a final act of spousal loyalty, she dug through Porambo’s office and found a fireman’s uniform he often wore during robberies. She burned it in their apartment building’s incinerator.

1984

While he sat in jail awaiting trial for felony murder, acclimating to life with a chunk of metal in his head, Porambo’s moods were fitful. Sometimes he was chipper, like the day a detective visited him with a nurse to take hair and blood samples. The nurse patted one of Porambo’s muscled forearms in search of a vein, and the inmate bragged that he’d been doing lots of pull-ups lately. At one point, he said to the detective, “It’s really nice to make your acquaintance. I only wish it had been under different circumstances.”  

“You’re the first guy in seven years in your situation that ever said that to me,” the detective replied.

When the nurse turned her attention to his hair, zeroing in on a strand to pluck, Porambo said, “Don’t take the gray hairs! Those are special to me.” When the nurse asked why, he glanced up with a scampish grin, “I got them from all of my unpublished works.”

In other moments, Porambo was matter-of-fact. Page and Windsor had given statements to the police implicating him in multiple crimes, including Davis’s murder, in order to protect themselves. He assumed they did so because they were sure he would die of his gunshot wounds. “How can you hurt a man who’s already dead?” he explained in a letter, one of hundreds he wrote while awaiting trial. The letters piled up on his lawyer’s desk, in the prison warden’s office, and at the newsroom of the Star-Ledger. He wrote so many to Richard Newman, the judge assigned to his case, that Newman was forced to recuse himself after prosecutors complained that the accused’s overwhelming contact might influence the trial.

Some of these letters revealed another side of Porambo—a peculiar, perhaps delusional one. He claimed that Jesus Christ had been whispering in his ear since he woke up in the hospital. He carried a small crucifix to legal meetings and signed correspondence “Sincerely and Faith in Christ.” Before a pretrial hearing, as he was preparing “notes” for the new judge on his case, he suddenly switched to writing that Jesus had told him, “No, no, run. Go to court! Why write the judge when you can tell [him] face to face.”

When the trial finally began, in July 1984, two of Porambo’s letters became focal points for the prosecution. In one, Porambo offered to testify against Page in exchange for a plea bargain; it was a tacit admission of guilt. In the other, he stated that he was “the only person who can or will recount the last moments of Mr. Davis with the dignity with which he deserves.” That sentence placed him at the scene of the murder.

Porambo’s defense was based largely on the precariousness of circumstantial evidence. His blood type was found in Davis’s living room, for instance, and Betsy identified the disguises in his car and at the secret apartment as looking similar to those worn by her attackers. Porambo’s lawyer also contended that the Newark police were framing his client as payback for No Cause for Indictment. The corrupt system Porambo had exposed, the attorney argued, had finally found a way to silence him. There was no proof to support that claim, however.

Porambo’s guns and disguise materials. (Essex County Files)

As the trial dragged on, the damage to Porambo’s neurological system caused spittle to collect at the corners of his mouth and sometimes drip down his chin. He was prone to bursting into tears unexpectedly. When he was called on to don the disguises allegedly used in his crimes, the moisture on his face rendered the glue used to attach them useless. Cheap beards and mustaches drooped pathetically off his visage as he stood before the jury. His lawyer later described it as “almost a sick kind of scene.”

Carol came to the hearings. She knew that their marriage was over, but she wanted to be present for her husband’s reckoning. Nervous that whoever had shot Porambo—a crime the police never solved—might come after her, she kept a low profile by sitting in the back row and avoiding the press. She never spoke to her husband. She can’t remember even making eye contact with him.

On October 2, 1984, a jury of eight women and four men found Porambo guilty. He was sentenced to 30 years to life. Though he never admitted to killing Davis, as the trial came to a close, Porambo made a statement before the court. “I am two people,” he told the judge. “I’m a good person and a bad person. I know that now.”

2006

For the first few years of his sentence, as he passed through bland prison hallways on his way to eat or shower, Porambo bounced awkwardly on the balls of his feet. Brain damage had spoiled his equilibrium. Below his black, thick-framed glasses, his chin jutted out at a strange, painful-seeming angle. He still drooled. Yet he kept in shape by jogging for an hour every day in the recreation yard, stopping to change into dry sweats halfway through. And he loved to shadowbox, doing the footwork that, as a teenager, he’d shunned in the ring. His moves inspired shouts of “Rambo!” among fellow inmates, who liked the smart, funny, and accomplished guy from Newark. Prison officers were less enamored: Porambo once threatened a hunger strike, detailing a “suicide schedule” in a letter, unless they provided him with speech and occupational therapy.

Eventually, Porambo began to wither, emotionally and physically. Outbursts of anger at his brother’s family, who tried to maintain contact with him, drove them to cut off communication. (Family members I contacted either did not reply or declined to comment.) His psyche took a major hit when, in 1989, his daughter Ronda slipped into a coma during routine surgery related to rheumatoid arthritis. Doctors said she was unlikely to survive. Prison authorities told Porambo that he could either visit her in the hospital or go to her funeral. He chose to see her before she died.

Carol heard her husband before he entered Ronda’s hospital room: his shuffling footsteps in the sterile hallway, the clanking shackles on his wrists and ankles. During the 15 minutes he was allotted for the visit, he wept over Ronda’s inert body, gripping it as tightly as he could. Then he trundled out. It was the last time Carol ever saw him. Years later, Porambo would remember Ronda’s death and say simply, “Lost without her.”

The trapped bullet eroded Porambo’s memory and his ability to speak and move. In time he was relocated to a prison unit for people with permanent health problems. When he could no longer jog, he took to walking the yard. When speaking more than a few words at a time became difficult, he scribbled on a pad of paper. Another prisoner helped him do basic tasks like tie his shoes and type.

In the summer of 2006, after Porambo had been behind bars for 23 years, Fred Bruning paid him a visit. They hadn’t seen each other in decades. Bruning found his old friend a shell of his former self, a desperate man who alternated between boisterous fits of laughter and racking sobs when talking about the past. Responding to questions, Porambo mostly grunted, roared, or scratched words onto his pad of paper. His phlegm-rattled breathing made him sound like a predator on a phone call in a horror movie.

Bruning had come to interview Porambo about his life. “Where’s Carol?” Porambo wanted to know. Bruning had no idea. They talked about what Porambo would be doing if he were free. “Work,” he managed to say. Then, putting pen to paper that was wet with his saliva, he continued, “Work is everything.” Bruning mentioned that two of his children, including Porambo’s own goddaughter, taught in minority schools. “God bless her,” Porambo wrote. When Bruning brought up the most painful subject of all—how his friend had wound up disabled and serving time for murder, how a life of such promise had come to this—Porambo let out a series of mournful cries before managing a single word: “Mistake.”

Porambo let out a series of mournful cries before managing a single word: “Mistake.”

Three months after Bruning’s visit, on the morning of October 22, a corrections officer peered through the cutaway glass window of cell 2C. Inside, Porambo was on his knees with his upper body bent over the metal frame of his stiff cot, as if in silent prayer. An hour prior, he’d had his breakfast. The officer knocked on the door. Porambo didn’t move.

The guard called in a “53,” the code for a medical emergency, over his walkie-talkie, and the lock on Porambo’s cell thudded open. Paramedics rushed in and dragged Porambo’s unresponsive body onto his mattress. They began chest compressions. Thirty-three minutes after being discovered in his cell, Porambo was pronounced dead.

At first it wasn’t clear what had killed him. The medical examiner saw no signs of physical injury: cuts, scrapes, bruises, torn fingernails. Porambo’s gray hair was shorn nearly to his scalp, and there was no visible head trauma. It wasn’t until the examiner conducted a full autopsy, cutting open his body, that she found the cause of death. The reporter once hailed as “a truth-seeker above all,” the criminal deemed by Newark prosecutors as “an extreme risk to society,” the erratic father, husband, friend, and colleague who’d been shot six times, had choked on a slice of orange. He was 67.

Finding any next of kin was difficult. No one could figure out where Carol was; she’d long ago ceased interacting with Porambo and anyone who knew him. When I tracked her down for this story, she was living in Kingsport with a second husband, in a cramped, homey apartment across the street from where the Bloody Bucket used to be; the place was filled with pictures of grand- and great-grandchildren, stacks of DVDs, and several pet cats. Carol told me that she and her children finally learned of Porambo’s death months after it happened, when Glenna searched for her stepfather’s name online and came across an obituary. By then, lest Porambo wind up in a pauper’s grave, his brother had claimed his remains.

Cleaning out the dead man’s cell, at least, was easy. Everything he owned fit into two plastic bins: a few books, a black-and-white portable TV, an electric typewriter. And a letter.

It had arrived in June 2006, a second chance in a white envelope. “Dear Mr. Porambo,” it read. “I was very moved by your book, No Cause for Indictment: An Autopsy of Newark. It’s an important piece of journalism and an enlightening read.” The sender was an editor at Melville House, a small publisher, who’d found a used copy of Porambo’s book on a sale rack at a local library. “I write to ask if you would allow us to bring it back into print,” the editor went on, remarking that the following year would be the 40th anniversary of the Newark riots. “We believe the book deserves a new life.”

With the help of another inmate, Porambo had typed a reply accepting the offer. The paper was taut and stained with tears.

When the book was reissued in 2007, its publisher crowed of the author, “His life … had this one great piece of work. And, by God, if you accomplish one great thing like that in your life, is it really a wasted life?” Warren Sloat, the original editor, penned a new introduction. “There’s nothing to compare with Porambo at the top of his form,” Sloat wrote, describing No Cause for Indictment as “borne aloft by an authentic literary voice.” That voice reverberated through time, with a righteous fury as widely relevant in the 21st century as it was when the book first appeared. Porambo wrote of “two distinct worlds,” one “rented to the city’s poor, a sprawling mass of slums and high-rise prisons,” the other for prosperous white people who “retreat” from facing up to pernicious realities in which they are complicit. Racist public policies cemented the divide, and bigoted law enforcement patrolled it. “Violence perpetrated on ghetto people is condoned by police superiors,” he said, “if not by overt action then at least by silence.”

Sloat pondered the book’s limited success—“maybe [it] was too late to be journalism and too early to be history”—but not Porambo’s existential downfall. That task fell to Bruning, whose prison interview formed the reprint’s poignant epilogue. He cycled through possible psychological explanations, concluding that nobody could say for sure what went wrong in Porambo’s life, not even Porambo himself. Bruning then quoted Spanish author Miguel de Unamuno, who once wrote, “At some point, it is inevitable that you find yourself and it is up to you to determine whether that moment, that encounter will be about gladness or about sorrow.” Bruning wondered. “Did gladness spook Porambo? If so, sorrow awaited.”

When I spoke to Bruning on the phone in the fall of 2017, he told me, “There is a starting point to this somewhere, somehow. Without knowing it, there’s going to be a hole in every story done about Ron.” Perhaps, though, that hole is the point—the counterintuitive thing that makes the narrative of Porambo’s life both universal and complete. We all have cracks, some wider than others, through which devils can creep to fight our better angels. And as Porambo wrote in his book, “There are no such animals as ‘minor corruption’ or ‘little lies’ … since both evolve into predatory monsters.”

The Old and the Restless

The Old and the Restless

An indecent proposal, a crime of passion, and legends of murder in an enclave of bohemian retirees.

By Chris Walker

The Atavist Magazine, No. 75


Chris Walker is a former staff writer at Denver alt-weekly Westword. Prior to living in Colorado, he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for NPR, ForbesThe Atlantic, and Vice. His website is chrisallanwalker.com


Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Tekendra Parmar
Illustrator: Bijou Karman

Published in January 2018. Design updated in 2021.

Act I

Ajijic. Such a strange word, Jackie Hodges thought as she rode in a Porsche convertible through a stretch of lush, rolling mountains in central Mexico. The 45-year-old American knew virtually nothing about the small town where she was headed, including how to pronounce its name. “Ah-hee-heek,” locals would patiently repeat again and again after she arrived. In Mexico’s indigenous Nahuatl tongue, the word means “place where the water is born.”

It was the fall of 1969, and Hodges needed a distraction. Her second marriage was coming apart at the seams. Eager to get away from her home in Pasadena, California, she’d seized upon an invitation to visit Lona Mae Isoard, a friend who lived in Ajijic. Hodges had always puzzled over Isoard’s decision to move there. A talented painter who liked to wear her gray hair in a French twist, Isoard was a seasoned traveler who’d lived in Paris and Rome. Why settle down in a Mexican pueblo of barely 5,000 people just south of Guadalajara?

The environs were pretty, at least. Hodges spotted Ajijic as the Porsche, in which Isoard had picked her up at Guadalajara’s airport, crested a mountain pass. She took in the expanse of Lake Chapala, Mexico’s largest freshwater lake. It stretched some 11 miles south and 50 miles east to west. Dotting its northern edge were picturesque fishing communities, one of which was the women’s destination.

They wended their way down the highway until the convertible’s tires met cobblestone. The Porsche rattled into the heart of Ajijic, where blue tin placards proclaimed the narrow streets’ names, children ran around shoeless, and bare-chested men hawked fish pulled from the lake. Hodges spied a pig strung up outside a home, rivulets of blood running from a gash in its neck down its snout to the ground. Nearby a group of caballeros with spurs on their boots rode sidestepping horses. The women drove past the Posada, a lodge and watering hole that had served as the de facto center of Ajijic’s expatriate scene since it opened in 1938. Eventually, they came to a row of brightly painted brick-and-mortar homes, one of which was Isoard’s.

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“Rest up,” the painter told Hodges after they’d gotten settled. She would need energy.

The following evening, Isoard threw nothing short of a bacchanal. Some 60 people came, martinis flowed, and conversations slurred. “Have you met Jackie?” Isoard said to guest after guest, nudging the newcomer into the night’s starring role. The air was thick with smoke from Cuban cigars; a group of businessmen had just returned from Havana. At one point, they launched into a spirited argument with a couple of former diplomats over America’s embargo of the island nation. Rolling her eyes, Isoard directed a five-piece band she’d hired for the night to stand close to the men. Then she gathered up several women and displaced the debate with a dance floor.

Before the party was over, Hodges had a good if drunken understanding of Ajijic’s expats. Most of them were retired or nearly being so, but they refused to act like they were aging. Among them were many artists, writers, and actors—both has-beens and still-wannabes—who made the town feel like a Shangri-la for sun-setting bohemians. The wild party scene was fabled among those who’d experienced it, and some impressive names had made cameos. D.H. Lawrence wrote the first draft of his novel The Plumed Serpent while residing in the area in 1923. During the 1950s, Beat writers swallowed a drink or five at the Posada. Then came the hippies, who earned Ajijic a shout-out in Tom Wolfe’s 1968 book The Electric Acid Kool Aid Test as a stopover during a drug-fueled escapade by the LSD evangelists known as the Merry Pranksters.

The discomfiting contrast between their privileged existence and the substantially poorer one of the Mexicans they lived among didn’t seem to bother many expats. Ajijic’s low cost of living was a draw, along with its bucolic setting and temperate weather. To foreigners, whatever the town lacked—paved roads, telephones, TVs—it made up for with characters who embodied a popular saying: Once a private crossed the border into Mexico, he could be a general. People’s pasts became whatever they said they were. Take Zara Alexeyewa, known as La Rusa, who’d lived in Ajijic since the 1920s and claimed to be a ballerina from Russia. Over time local journalists and historians would uncover some 18 aliases she’d used and pinpoint her birthplace as New York. Alexeyewa fancied herself queen of the expats. Her attitude was imperious, and she was never seen walking anywhere. She rode around on a black horse, sitting sidesaddle in a long dress and wide-brimmed hat.

Hodges, a free spirit who’d always lamented that she missed visiting the Paris of Gertrude Stein by a generation, was enamored. After her visit with Isoard, she returned to Ajijic for longer stretches over the next three summers. By 1972, she was looking to buy a casita. By 1976, she was divorced and living in Ajijic year-round. She began dating a housing contractor, got married again, and never looked back.

I know this because she’s my grandmother. Now 93, Hodges has lived in Ajijic all my life. The place has changed since she first arrived. Development has altered the landscape, and Mexico’s drug war has taken a toll. My grandmother, though, is a time capsule. A flamboyant raconteur, she embellishes stories of parties that evolved into orgies and acquaintances who turned out to be CIA spooks with dialogue she couldn’t possibly have been privy to. I take everything she says about Ajijic with a grain or two of salt.

In 2015, she told me a story I couldn’t shake, about a person she couldn’t shake. Around Thanksgiving, we were in her living room discussing the litany of outrageous people and situations she’d encountered. Short and rail thin, with a dyed platinum-blond bob, she gesticulated as she spoke. Suddenly, with dramatic flair, she declared, “I’ve only met one person in my lifetime that I thought was truly evil.” The way she emphasized the last word jolted me. She meant it.

That person was Donna McCready, a charismatic, controversial figure in Ajijic in the 1970s and 1980s. So incredible were the instances of seduction, betrayal, and violence in which McCready is said to have played a part that they are now the crown jewels of local lore. Many of the old-timers who got entangled in McCready’s web are long gone, as is the woman herself, but some are still alive. I sought them out to hear their accounts, which added layers both macabre and poignant to the story my grandmother told me.

It boils down to this: In Ajijic, Donna McCready’s name is synonymous with murder.

Act II

One balmy afternoon in late 1976, Judy Eager was sitting near the entrance of the Posada when she saw two women roar into view astride motorcycles. They were newcomers, sporting black leather jackets and stony expressions that seemed to say fuck you. Expats rolled into Ajijic all the time, usually in less dramatic fashion. Eager and her husband had arrived only two years earlier, on the recommendation of a cab driver in Guadalajara, where they’d been vacationing. Soon after, they moved to town and took over stewardship of the Posada. Slinging drinks at the bar, they got to know everyone.

In the pair of leather-clad women, Eager sensed trouble. They pulled up to the Posada and came in for drinks. Their names were Donna McCready and Lois Schaefer, they were from Sausalito, California, and they were on a road trip through Mexico. They were also dating. Ajijic hosted a sizable gay population, but its members tended to be discreet about their relationships. The women were anything but: At the Posada, they were all over each other. The “dykes on bikes,” as Eager described them, took a liking to Ajijic and decided to stay.

Schaefer was middle-aged and boisterous, while McCready was in her thirties—young for an Ajijic expat—and resembled a school-age tomboy, with a short, shaggy haircut and thick glasses. On first impression she was quiet, but she relished making a scene and telling shocking stories. According to one Ajijic resident, McCready and Schaefer once decided to get a drink at Azteca, a dark cave of a saloon on the town’s main plaza. It catered to blue-collar Mexicans and featured a trough under the bar where patrons could relieve themselves. When an inebriated man insulted Schaefer, McCready came at him swinging. The women were hauled off to jail on assault charges—which McCready later claimed were dropped because she gave the station chief a blow job.

Schaefer and McCready didn’t stay together long. Mundane arguments over things like doing the dishes could turn violent. After they split, Schaefer struck up a new romance with a blonde named Susie Emery. One night during a squabble, Emery pulled out a gun and shot Schaefer through the breast; the bullet entered one side and came out the other. Judy Eager recounted the aftermath in her diary, which she recently showed me. “They both ended up in jail, had to pay a large fine to get out, and were both on probation for three months,” Eager wrote. “They became lovers again. Lois had Susie’s name tattooed above the bullet hole.” In Ajijic, it was a characteristically crazy incident.

McCready, meanwhile, got around romantically, according to Jan Dunlap. The two women bonded over a mutual predilection for mischief. Dunlap had moved to Ajijic with her five kids in 1967, after federal agents raided her home in New Mexico as part of a crackdown on a marijuana-trafficking ring involving her husband. She later opened Big Mama’s, a bar located across the street from the Posada that quickly earned an unholy reputation as a site for drug transactions. (Dunlap swore she wasn’t involved.) In comparison with the Posada, where caballeros only occasionally engaged in pistol shootouts—Eager called them “misunderstandings”—Big Mama’s was a dive. Patrons stumbled between the two establishments every night, until someone drunkenly announced whose house everyone could migrate to for a party.

McCready came by Big Mama’s alone around 11 a.m. most days to have a nip of tequila and chat with Dunlap before checking her mail at the post office. The women traded gossip, and McCready talked about her recent flirtations and sexual conquests. No one was off limits. McCready even propositioned Dunlap one day. “I already tried that once and didn’t like it,” she replied with a hearty laugh.

McCready wasn’t beautiful, in Dunlap’s opinion, but she could switch seamlessly from controlling an interaction with her charm to listening with apparent sympathy. Dunlap suspected that McCready’s savvy was why some people were drawn to her. Others thought it signaled a proclivity for manipulation. “If you studied her closely, her cold gray eyes gave away the secrets of a hard diabolical mind and a mean spirit,” reads the treatment for an unpublished screenplay about McCready, written in the 1990s by a former actor and Ajijic resident named Bob Jones. “The time left to her would be littered with victims.”

Around 1979, McCready began working as a home nurse for Steve and Pat Harrington, an older couple who owned a large estate on a hill above town. The home had a private drive, up which expats climbed to attend lavish parties—the sort that made other locals, who thrived on a culture of one-upmanship when it came to entertaining, green with envy. Steve had developed a serious heart problem that required constant care. McCready landed the job by claiming to have nursing experience. (No one I spoke to could remember whether she really did.)

As the weeks passed, McCready spent increasing amounts of time at the Harringtons’ tending to her sick charge. She also spent a lot of time wooing and then sleeping with Steve’s wife.

When Dunlap heard about the affair, she thought it fitting for McCready and her scorn for social mores. Dunlap would later recount it when crafting her own screenplay about McCready, called With Money Dances the Dogs:

PAT

Kiss me, DONNA. I need your arms around me.

DONNA caresses PAT. She has her hands inside PAT’S clothing, fondling her breast. One hand moves further down. PAT is in ecstasy, forgetting everything. DONNA is being very methodical, she knows what she’s doing.

Steve’s health declined quickly, and before long he died. According to Mexican law, a body must be buried or cremated within 48 hours of death. Unless there’s suspicion of foul play, autopsies are not routine. Steve was interred, and that was that.

McCready and Pat soon went public with their romance. For some residents, especially those who’d been friends with the Harringtons for many years, the affair was terribly gauche. When Judy Eager heard the news, she was angry. How could Pat move on from Steve just like that? Was she lonely or confused? My grandmother visited Pat, whom she considered a friend, and noticed that she’d undergone a makeover intended to take years off her appearance. She wore a pink dress and had curled her hair. “She was flitting about like a little kid,” my grandmother recalled.

Gossip began to swirl, including the conjecture that Steve may have succumbed to a most unnatural death at the hands of his wife’s lover. It was the sort of gross speculation that expats relished, especially while sipping cocktails. “If you live in Ajijic,” Dunlap told me, “you know it thrives on scandal.”


The first time I spoke to Dunlap, she told me that, not long after Steve died, McCready arrived at Big Mama’s for one of her visits. The place was empty. McCready marched over to the bar and announced, apropos of nothing, that she’d killed Steve.

Dunlap stood waiting for the punch line, but it never came. Instead, McCready doubled down on her claim. “She said she smothered him with a pillow,” Dunlap recalled, “and that Pat was watching from inside the coat closet.” Later, McCready told Dunlap that she and Pat had plotted the murder in order to collect Steve’s inheritance, only to discover that he’d changed his will to give some relatives the Ajijic estate and most of his money. Perhaps he’d sensed something nefarious afoot.

In another interview, Dunlap remembered McCready jesting publicly about murdering Steve. “She used to brag about it at cocktail parties,” Dunlap told me. “She’d say jokingly, ‘Sure, I killed him.’ Everyone would just listen to her and laugh.”

Dunlap wasn’t sure what to think, much less say. Why would her friend admit to a crime and risk getting caught? Was she trying to deflect suspicion through morbid humor? On the other hand, if she was lying, it was a bizarre yarn to spin, even for someone with a devilish streak and a fondness for shock value.

In the absence of proof, Dunlap uneasily let the matter lie. Years later, in her fictionalized take on the story, she tweaked the narrative to depict McCready poisoning her elderly employer:

STEVE is in bed, reading a book. DONNA enters the open doorway and knocks.

DONNA

Stevie Poo, I’ve brought you a pot of hot tea, made English style. See, I’ve even added milk, just the way you like it. My mother used to serve it to me like this, she always said it made me relax and sleep better. Here’s hoping it does the same for you.

It would be easy to dismiss this as the stuff of cinematic melodrama, a scenario Dunlap dreamed up for her screenplay. (The script was never produced, but there is periodic chatter around town of Meryl Streep or Sharon Stone being attached to it—wishful thinking in a community of lifelong dreamers.) No one else I spoke to remembered McCready boasting openly of killing her lover’s husband.

Dunlap, however, wasn’t the only Ajijic resident to claim that McCready confessed in confidence to murder. Nor was Steve Harrington the only purported victim.

In 1982, at a New Year’s Eve dinner party at the Posada, a distraught-looking Pat pulled my grandmother aside. “I’m losing her, Jackie,” she whispered miserably. “Donna is in love with someone else.” She was right: McCready broke up with Pat, prompting the spurned widow to leave Ajijic for good. McCready then moved on to occupy one corner of another love triangle.

Dunlap wasn’t the only Ajijic resident to claim that McCready confessed in confidence to murder. Nor was Steve Harrington the only purported victim.

Like the Harringtons, the Taylors were a wealthy retired couple. Albert had been a producer of Broadway shows, and Hildegard was a former model. They maintained an aura of elegance—Albert often wore a monocle—and fawned over one another. When he developed dementia, however, Albert’s personality changed. Pamela Duran, who knew the Taylors well, described how Hildegard would take him to social gatherings, where he sat silently among friends as if in a stupor. In other instances, he grew abusive, yelling at his wife for reasons he couldn’t articulate.

Hildegard sought someone with nursing experience to care for her ailing husband, and McCready got the job. Given how sick he was, no one was surprised when Albert died. But Duran was stunned when, one afternoon, McCready sidled up to her on the Posada’s patio, where she liked to watch the sun set over the lake. McCready sat down at Duran’s table and admitted out of the blue to killing Albert.

According to Duran, McCready leaned forward so that other happy-hour drinkers couldn’t hear her. “I killed Albert by smothering him with a pillow,” she whispered. Duran could only stare at her blankly. “He just didn’t have any quality of life,” McCready continued. “He couldn’t finish a sentence. He peed on himself all the time. And he was mean to Hildegard, so I went in and put a pillow on his face, and I killed the old bastard.”

“You… you did?” Duran finally stammered.

“Yeah, I did.”

Duran told me that she didn’t reveal McCready’s confession to anyone. “I knew that if I did, she’d say, ‘Oh, I was just bragging. I didn’t do that,’” Duran said. “I knew she was telling the truth.” Jan Dunlap also said McCready told her about killing Albert, but by dropping a radio into a tub where he was bathing—and with Hildegard’s knowledge. No one else I spoke to had heard anything about Albert being electrocuted.

The verifiable outcome of his death was that Hildegard and McCready announced their relationship as if it were an engagement. “Everyone, I want to tell you something,” Hildegard said at a dinner party, after clinking her glass with a fork to get the room’s attention. “I am in love with Donna!” Once again, though, McCready’s relationship with a new widow didn’t last long. This time the reason was tragic. Hildegard developed a nasty cough, and when she and McCready traveled to a hospital in Houston to have it checked out, they learned that the cause was terminal throat cancer. Hildegard’s demise was fast and ugly. She had a tracheotomy, and McCready would indulge her requests at parties, which Hildegard still attended, to pour gin down the tube in her throat.

Hildegard died in March 1984. For a brief time, McCready’s spark for trouble seemed to dim. She wasn’t seen at many social gatherings, though she did host a prime-rib dinner in Hildegard’s memory. Some residents felt sorry for her. But when McCready received a sizable inheritance, including at least one property the Taylors had owned in Los Angeles, the cloud of suspicion around her darkened once more. She really is just a gold-digger, people whispered, some with genuine disdain, others with morbid glee.

By all accounts, McCready moved on, setting her romantic sights elsewhere; my grandmother claims that McCready once made a pass at her, right after her third husband died. McCready’s most fateful entanglement, however, was yet to come. It involved a couple with an outwardly idyllic marriage who kept painful secrets, and an indecent proposal gone horribly wrong. No one disputes that the affair ended in a brutal crime.

Act III

When Joe and Barbara Kovach decided to retire in 1980, they had no idea where they’d wind up. They just knew that they wanted to explore the world outside the Chicago suburbs where they’d spent most of their marriage and raised their daughters. Joe, 61, and Barbara, 50, had been movers and shakers in Bolingbrook, a small town Joe had helped to incorporate in 1965.

Joe spent his days behind a typewriter as editor in chief of Beacon, a local newspaper. Barbara ran the paper’s sales department and was active on the board of Bolingbrook’s library and park district. When they decided to leave, the Kovaches wrote a farewell column:

We have lived here for 17 years and have been publishing Beacon for 16 years. Without qualifications, this has been the richest and most rewarding time of our lives, and it has been our friends, associates and readers who have made it so. We will be going to warmer climes and will be facing new challenges and experiences, but leaving will not be easy…. The only way to say good bye is to say it. Good bye. We love you. JJK and BAK.

Then the Kovaches made that classic American move: They bought an RV, which they christened the Pinta, and decided to drive until they felt like staying somewhere. Over several months they headed east, then south, sending their adult daughters postcards from a hit parade of monuments and museums. They crossed the border into Mexico and, like my grandmother more than a decade prior, eventually came upon a panoramic view of Lake Chapala. “Barb, I don’t know about you,” Joe said as they looked at the water, “but I’m never leaving.” It was December 1980. They settled in Ajijic, sold the RV, and rented a house.

The couple came with extra baggage—the emotional kind. Joe wasn’t faithful. He was always flirting with other women and had even made public gestures that landed him in hot water with Barbara. He’d had trouble explaining why, when he’d met a woman in Bolingbrook who owned a cherry tree that wasn’t producing fruit, he’d bought two pounds of cherries and individually tied them to the tree’s branches. Then there was the period when he spent weekends in Indianapolis, supposedly to get better acquainted with a son from a previous marriage whom Barbara had never met. When the son called the Kovaches’ house one day and announced that he was trying to establish contact with his absent father for the first time, it became evident that the tall, slender man with whom Joe had taken pictures in Indianapolis wasn’t really his son. Presumably, the photo was part of a scheme to cover up the fact that he was visiting another woman.

Barbara nearly left Joe a couple of times. Once, she packed her bags and bought a plane ticket to Miami to stay with her sister-in-law. Joe convinced her to let him drive her to the airport and, before they even reached the terminal, to cancel her ticket. It wasn’t wholly surprising; she’d always been susceptible to his persuasions. The Kovaches had met in 1950 in Boston, where Barbara grew up and was studying at the Massachusetts School of Physiotherapy. Joe, born in Hungary, had come to the United States as a child and wound up in Boston after his first marriage ended. He was six foot two, strapping, and a real charmer. When he began courting her, Barbara was dating a doctor, so Joe sent her a case of apples with a note attached: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

When he began courting her, Barbara was dating a doctor, so Joe sent her a case of apples with a note attached: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

Joe’s charisma, however, was a facade that shielded troubling behavior from public view. To his four daughters, Kitt, Karen, Kim, and Kandi, in order of age, he could be a tyrant. He was obsessed with instilling an appreciation for the arts, literature, and history. Most family dinners took place at 6 p.m. sharp and began with a quiz. Joe asked trivia questions, and if one of his daughters gave the wrong answer, he replied with cutting commentary like, “You need to worry about getting married, because you’re clearly not going to make it in school.” As the girls grew up, small infractions of house rules could trigger disproportionate responses. Once, Joe woke Kandi up around midnight and made her hand-wash every dish in the kitchen because she’d put one back in the cupboard with a trace of food on it. Another time, Joe had her spend an entire Sunday walking back and forth across the street in front of the house because he’d caught a glimpse of her forgetting to look both ways.

When tragedy struck, Joe was similarly controlling, and Barbara went along with him. Kitt developed leukemia when she was a young teenager. Her parents decided not to tell her that she was dying; in fact, they told no one except Kim and Karen—their youngest was spared from the news—and a few close friends. They claimed that they didn’t want Kitt to fear dying and acted as if her nosebleeds and waning energy were nothing to worry about. One day in 1968, when she was 15, Kitt went to the hospital for a particularly severe nosebleed. She never came home. After her death, the Kovaches grieved and continued to celebrate her birthday privately, but Joe and Barbara also insisted on keeping a stiff upper lip. “It was as though, if you didn’t talk about it, it didn’t happen,” Karen later told me.

Setting out in the RV a dozen years later was a chance for the Kovaches to put the past behind them. Barbara saw it as an opportunity to move past Joe’s affairs and reset their marriage. But things didn’t exactly work out that way.


Ajijic had always had painful colonial undertones: foreigners staking their claims to various pieces of property and hiring locals as their gardeners, drivers, and maids. The extent to which the two worlds—white and not—meshed depended on what sort of life an extranjero (foreigner) envisioned on the shores of Lake Chapala. Each of the Kovaches had different priorities.

Barbara committed to learning Spanish and hoped to model herself on longtime expat philanthropists like Neill James, who after arriving in the 1940s supported aspiring Mexican painters and donated to the Lake Chapala Society, which provided funds and school supplies to area children. Barbara’s good works took the form of cooking and delivering meals to residents, both foreign and Mexican, when they were sick. To bring in additional income, she worked as a cashier at a clothing boutique that catered to wealthy tourists and Mexican vacationers.

Joe, by contrast, didn’t bother to learn much Spanish. He started running bridge games and organizing luñadas, guided nighttime horseback rides that promised a dude-ranch-like experience with meals cooked over a campfire. The moonlit trips quickly became popular among extranjeros, who put a wild spin on them. One night, after swigging vodka atop their horses, two women charged into the streets of Ajijic like cavalry, announcing themselves as “the rowdy bunch.”

Where the Kovaches had a shared interest was parties. They cultivated a reputation in the town’s Rolodex of social hosts and wrote letters to their daughters back in the States saying that retirement was the most fun they’d ever had. They had so many friends, they held a small “practice party” the night before throwing a big shindig, inviting B-level acquaintances who wouldn’t fit in their house for the main event.

By the mid-1980s, McCready had also jumped into the hosting game. Her signature was a lobster feast. She would travel to Mexico’s Pacific coast and come back with at least a dozen crustaceans, which she then served to impressed dinner guests. Also impressive to inebriated crowds was the pet duck she kept in the swimming pool in her front yard. “Donna was now the hostess with the mostess,” reads Bob Jones’s script treatment. “She developed her own fan club, of which Joe and Barbara were her key members.”

McCready and the Kovaches also got to know each other through the Lakeside Little Theatre. The nonprofit organization, founded in 1965, organized productions of classic English-language plays, as well as scripts written by expats. Joe was an actor, while Barbara worked behind the scenes fundraising to secure the company a permanent venue so that it could stop staging shows at the Posada. McCready was the theater’s treasurer and also directed plays. In December 1985, she helmed Send Me No Flowers, a comedy about a man who thinks he’s dying and tries to find his wife a new husband; the movie version starred Rock Hudson and Doris Day. Joe had a small part in the show as a salesman of burial plots.

At cast parties, according to one Ajijic resident, McCready displayed a “cruising mentality” as she eyed potential love interests. Joe gave her a run for her reputation. Retirement hadn’t cured his wayward eye as Barbara had hoped it would, and he garnered a social profile as an arrogant, irredeemable flirt. At one of Joe’s luñadas, my grandmother recalled, a woman fell off her horse and broke her arm, after which he showed up at her door with flowers and profuse apologies. The woman found the gesture kind, but when he kept coming back day after day, she told him to stop or she’d have to call the police.

Joe and McCready eventually—some might say inevitably—collided in a scenario so bawdy that it seemed yanked from the pages of Shakespeare. In late 1986, after deciding he was attracted to McCready, Joe asked her to have an affair. If she had sex with him, he claimed, she’d never want to sleep with a woman again. Amused and not entirely opposed to the idea, McCready made a counterproposal: First she’d whisk Barbara away on a trip. If she couldn’t seduce Joe’s wife, then she’d sleep with him.

Joe agreed to the wager, and the women went on the trip. What exactly transpired, no one who’s still alive knows. But McCready won the bet—and more. After the women returned to Ajijic, Barbara had news for Joe: She was leaving him, for good this time, to be with McCready.

Joe and McCready eventually—some might say inevitably—collided in a scenario so bawdy that it seemed yanked from the pages of Shakespeare. 

At first the Kovaches didn’t tell their family about the separation. Letters they wrote in late 1986 make no mention of McCready. One such missive was the couple’s Christmas letter:

This month marked our sixth anniversary in Mexico. How time does fly. We have been living in our present home in Ajijic over two years and plan to stay here indefinitely. The place suits us to a T and there is just enough work and gardening to do to make it interesting and not tedious…. Perhaps in the near future you will head down our way. It is still the best bargain vacation spot.… Just give us a little notice to make sure the casita is available. Again, a merry Christmas and a happy new year. As ever, Barbara and Joe Kovach.

Privately, however, losing Barbara drove Joe nuts. He was feeling particularly vulnerable because he’d just learned that he had prostate cancer and would need surgery to remove the tumor. He’d started taking medication to relieve his pain and counter erectile dysfunction—an insult to his bruised sexual ego. In desperation, Joe faked a suicide attempt to get Barbara’s attention. He called her at McCready’s house and begged her hysterically to come home, claiming that he’d taken a bunch of pills. The ploy didn’t work.

Joe, Barbara, and McCready kept their strife under wraps. The wider expat community was unaware of the disintegration of the Kovaches’ marriage and McCready’s role in it. Not even the troupe at the Lakeside Little Theatre knew. Only very close friends were told what was happening. In retrospect, this may have been because Barbara and McCready hoped to slip out of Ajijic without much of anyone knowing.

In early January 1987, they told Joe that they were moving to California to start a life together. McCready would sell property in Los Angeles that she’d inherited from Hildegard and use the money to buy a house in Palm Springs. The women elected not to cut off contact with Joe, operating on the shaky understanding that they could all stay friends. In an undated letter to the two women, which I obtained from the Kovach family, Joe kept a cordial tone as he addressed their pending departure:

It is evident that you will have to stay at Donna’s house for some time to take care of some practical matters which concern all of us, mostly Barb and I. Following are a list of these matters, though I doubt if they are all inclusive.

Notifying our kids and your parents and other relatives. I will offer no objection on how or what you tell them but for the sake of consistency I should get a copy of these letters. Perhaps the same should hold true for mutual friends in the states. You will also be giving explanations to your co-workers and our mutual friends in this area.

I still think it is very important that you and Donna make some arrangement for your benefit if things do not work out for you. You know you can always come back to me but feeling the way you do about me I do not think you would. Rest assured however, that if you want to come back and I am living with someone else at the time, that person will know that you have first priority because it is you that I love.

In any case, I believe we should all get together at our house after work tomorrow, sober and calm, and discuss all this. You will want to pack your bags in any case.

The women agreed to meet with Joe but flipped the invitation, asking him to McCready’s house for dinner on the evening of January 9. Two days later, they planned to drive away for good.


The gathering began smoothly enough. Joe arrived at McCready’s house at 7 p.m. He and Barbara poured aperitifs as McCready readied the meal. The trio made it through at least a couple of drinks and accompanying niceties before the conversation went south.

Joe had come prepared with a Hail Mary appeal, as he had when he’d dissuaded Barbara from leaving him on the way to the airport many years prior. Couldn’t the women delay their departure, at least until he had his prostate surgery in Guadalajara? McCready said no. But how could they just abandon him like this? They’d be kicking a man who was already down. McCready again flatly refused. She and Barbara were leaving, she told Joe, on January 11.

That’s when Joe lost it. He yanked out a hunting knife that he kept tucked inside one of his boots, common knowledge to anyone who’d seen him use it during the luñadas. According to what Barbara later told friends, he lunged toward McCready, who yelped and dived underneath her dining room table.

Barbara threw herself in front of Joe. She could feel McCready’s arms wrap around her legs as she faced down her husband.

“Go ahead and kill me!” she screamed.

“I would never kill you, Barbara!” Joe yelled back.

Barbara kept her gaze locked on her husband and his hunting knife. Then the thought occurred to her, Why isn’t Donna helping me?

She felt her lover’s grip weakening on her legs and heard a gurgling sound. She looked down and saw that McCready’s neck had been sliced open. Joe had managed to do it when he’d first come at her with the knife. McCready was bleeding out on the Turkish rug beneath the table.

She gasped for air a few times through her punctured trachea, then stopped. She was gone.

“You see what you’ve done?” Barbara cried.

“Yes, I’ve killed her!” Joe responded. “And they’re going to hang me for it.”

Joe didn’t chase Barbara as she burst out of McCready’s house and ran a block to the home of her friend Kathy Curtis. “Joe just killed Donna,” she blurted out when Curtis opened the door. Curtis brought Barbara inside and called the police. When they arrived, they took Barbara to the station to be interviewed. Then officers walked with Curtis over to McCready’s house, where a crime-scene investigation was already under way.

By the next morning, the news had spread. As expats ran into each other in Ajijic’s main plaza and tight lanes, there were hushed conversations, and some not so hushed ones. The rumor mill went into overdrive. One version of the story involved Joe beheading McCready. A neighbor claimed to have heard Joe sharpening a knife before he left for the dinner. Could the murder have been premeditated? When my grandmother heard the news, she was shocked by the barbarity of the crime.

Barbara didn’t want to talk to anyone. After leaving the police station, she holed up in McCready’s house, which hadn’t been scrubbed of her lover’s blood. Joe was nowhere to be found. Clothes, cash, and his yellow Volkswagen bug were gone from his house. He’d fled in the middle of the night.

The buzz continued at a long-planned bake sale to benefit the Lakeside Little Theatre. Every gringo in town seemed to be there. Cookies, bread, and pastries exchanged hands as people shared information and opinions about the murder. There was shock, along with speculation that Barbara might have helped Joe escape. They were still married, after all, and he was the father of her children.

The gossip also contained a heavy dose of she had it coming, which calcified as the days and weeks passed. Xill Fessenden, an artist who moved to Ajijic in 1985, remembered people talking about how McCready had stolen three wives and probably killed two old men. “So many people came to the defense of Joe,” she told me. “People kept saying that Donna deserved it.”

“I mean, she may not have been the nicest person in the world,” Fessenden added, “but who deserves to be murdered?”

Act IV

Interest in that question evaporated quickly. After McCready’s death, there were new scandals for expats to fixate on, like the revelation that a couple of their own were CIA operatives associated with the Iran-Contra affair. “The thing that people always said about the stories that came out of Ajijic was that, once all those stories were collected, no one would believe them,” Ron Wallen, a former resident, told me. “Because that’s what Ajijic was: one unbelievable story after another.”  

No one heard from Joe again. Barbara organized McCready’s cremation and remembrance, to which none of the deceased’s family came. Then she found herself marooned. Joe had taken the checkbooks, the Social Security payments they received were in his name, and she didn’t qualify for any of her lover’s estate. A stipulation in McCready’s will assigned her assets to her most recent “live-in” spouse, and when lawyers asked Barbara for mail sent in her name to McCready’s address, she couldn’t provide any.

Some townsfolk who felt sorry for her offered distinctly Ajijician gestures. One artist invited Barbara over to unveil a large painting that depicted the murder. In the work, Joe loomed over McCready’s crumpled body, clutching a bloody knife in one hand. The artist thought that seeing it might be cathartic for Barbara. Instead, she started crying and asked to leave.

By 1989, Barbara had saved up enough money selling textiles and working as a caterer to move away. She headed to Barbados, where she worked at a bed and breakfast, then to Maine to care for her elderly parents. She remained in contact with a few people in Ajijic but never set foot there again.

“That’s what Ajijic was: one unbelievable story after another.”  

Over the years, the absence of key players in the crime, combined with many locals’ aging memories, distaste for McCready, and fervor for juicy lore, allowed falsehoods to become accepted fact. Joe cutting off McCready’s head, for example, hardened into the plot. Paradoxically, the effect of countless retellings was reductive. Characters were essentialized—the wily predator, the long-suffering wife, the jealous husband—to support the tale’s operatic scaffolding. The internet and the ability to scout for information about the event and the people involved didn’t become part of the cultural mainstream until well after 1987, making it easier for the story to remain cocooned.

Separating myth from truth meant diving into a murky quagmire of loose ends that most Ajijic residents had never been concerned with. Why did Barbara enter into a romance with a woman who’d used her as a sexual bargaining chip? How did Joe evade justice? Did the Kovaches ever meet again? And, above all, did anyone know the truth about Donna McCready?


First I traced the Kovaches’ trajectories to find out where they’d wound up. In December 2016, I tracked down their daughters, all of whom live near Phoenix. At Karen’s house, we sat in a ring around the dining room table. The women all possessed the same almond-shaped eyes and easygoing smile, which looked a lot like Barbara’s, based on pictures of her that I’d seen. I explained how I’d first heard about Joe’s crime and produced a copy of Jan Dunlap’s screenplay, which they didn’t know existed. They eagerly paged through it. Kim read some of the dialogue aloud:

BARBARA

I’ll go home and talk to JOE. It may take a while, so don’t get all bent out of shape if I don’t come back until tomorrow.

“Oh, Mom would never say that!” Kim declared with a laugh. Her sisters agreed.

Collectively, the women then shared what they knew about the events that transpired after McCready’s murder. Some of it their parents had told them; other details were divulged in family letters.

After leaving McCready’s body on the dining room floor, Joe decided that he had to get across the U.S. border as quickly as possible. His yellow Volkswagen was a fugitive’s nightmare, but he got behind the wheel anyway and headed for the safest place he could think of: his sister Ann Garey’s house in Berkeley, California, some 1,800 miles north. During a pit stop in Puerto Vallarta, he called Garey. He refused to explain what had happened but said that he would be at her door in a few days. He continued driving north, then ditched his conspicuous coupe before leaving Mexico. He worried that border security might have been told to look out for it. Joe walked into America.

Whether he took a bus or hitchhiked north, no one can remember. By the time he arrived at Garey’s home, he was a wreck: paranoid, haggard, and lacking a plan for what to do next. He told his sister, who’s now deceased, that he’d killed a woman in Ajijic. She was horrified, but Joe swore that he’d acted in a moment of madness. McCready drove him to do it, he said, by mocking him.

In a letter to the Kovach daughters dated February 6, 1987, Garey wrote that Joe was heading to a local hospital for his prostate surgery:

Emotionally, of course, he is still in sad condition, but physically he at least looks much, much better than when he arrived. We all know that this is not the kind of thing Joe would do if he were rational—no matter what she [McCready] said. Something inside him must have snapped and who can say what it was. It’s such a terrible thing to have happened—to everyone concerned. Unfortunately there is no way to undo it—so it seems we all have to go on doing what we are doing—each in their own way—and that is coping and trying to make the situation as bearable as possible.

By then, Kim and Kandi had traveled to Ajijic to be with their mother. They were stunned by everything they learned. They’d known very little about McCready before her murder, and they had no idea Barbara was interested in women. They were told about the bet that had initiated the affair; Barbara had been angry about it, but not enough to ignore her attraction to McCready. As for Joe, he was a philanderer and a cruel father, but he’d never been physically abusive. That he could murder someone seemed unthinkable to his daughters. By his own confession, though, he’d done it.

In Berkeley, Garey found Joe a therapist and a lawyer. Harold Rosenthal was the attorney; he’s retired now. When I spoke with him, he said that he received at least half a dozen calls from the FBI regarding Joe in the winter of 1987. There was no formal charge against his client, but the agency wanted him to “answer some questions.” Rosenthal advised Joe, whom he found to be a “very, very nice man,” not to agree to it. Meanwhile, Rosenthal focused on readying a defense, operating on the assumption that the FBI would eventually obtain a warrant and arrest Joe.

That never happened. Months passed, and the FBI stopped calling. Rosenthal finally decided that there must not have been enough political will or interest to mount a transnational legal case. (Though the U.S. consulate in Guadalajara reportedly cooperated with local authorities immediately after McCready’s death, no one I talked to at the State Department, including representatives of its historical archives, could find any documentation to that effect.) Joe could live his life having gotten away with murder.

Joe’s therapist was named Richard Delman. He’s still in practice near San Rafael, just north of San Francisco. Delman described Joe as “regretful and remorseful about the death of Donna.” He also said that Joe “desperately wanted to be rescued” from the situation he’d dug himself into but refused to pay for intensive psychotherapy. Joe was shocked by the cost of treatment and talked about how everything was cheaper in Mexico, where he’d grown accustomed to the peso. The best Delman could do was recommend that Joe establish regular routines for himself rather than worry about whether he’d find himself in handcuffs on any given day. “He suggests I try to get back into the same kinds of things I’ve been doing: bridge, theater, etc.,” Joe wrote to Kim on February 23, 1987. “This is exactly what I would like to do after getting settled down and getting a job.”

More than anything, Joe wanted Barbara. “That is still the most difficult part for me, not hearing from Barb,” he wrote to Kim. “I’m 67 and feeling old for the first time. I just hope there is enough time left for her to forgive me before it is too late. Thirty-four years and four children is a lot to throw away because of one moment of insanity.”

According to their daughters, Barbara and Joe never saw each other again. When they signed divorce papers in 1989, they did so separately. It was Barbara’s decision. She ignored Joe’s pleas for forgiveness, which he expressed in letters as he moved from California to Arizona, then to Illinois, and finally to Budapest, his birthplace. In a missive dated December 1, Joe wrote:

Dear Barb,

Another year older. Two years ago, I did not think I’d last this long. Even a year ago I had doubts. Strangely enough, I feel quite well, mentally and physically. Have not had a depressed period for over a month or more. Have put on a few pounds. Nightmares are much less frequent and I often sleep through the night. My guilt feelings have not abated, and I suppose they never will, but I am learning to live with them. Why this discourse? Well, Hon, I still entertain the thought that you still retain enough feeling for me to be glad to know that I’m feeling and doing better. Perhaps you do not care at all, which is probably closer to the truth. I find it so very difficult to cling to the hope that you are concerned. I love you so very much.

She didn’t respond, and Joe eventually gave up writing to her. But he frequently asked his daughters how Barbara was doing, including when they hosted him in their homes. He wore out his welcome in every instance, proving the same overbearing presence he’d been in the women’s childhood. “He’d blame my kids for everything,” Kandi told me. Karen wondered where a man who’d murdered someone and destroyed his marriage found the audacity to return letters she wrote to him with grammatical corrections appended.

Kandi and Karen severed contact with their father in the final years of his life, as he lived off $900 a month in Social Security checks and whatever he made occasionally writing for Hungarian newspapers. Only Kim stayed in touch with him until he died in November 2011. She was the one who broke the news to her family, including Barbara. Her mother hardly reacted. “She was emotionally and physically divorced from him,” Kim recalled.

Joe’s body was donated to science. No funeral was held.

By then, Barbara was living in Phoenix to be close to her daughters and grandchildren. She avoided talking about what had happened in Ajijic. Kandi brought up McCready with Barbara just one time.

“Mom, do you think you’re a lesbian?” she asked tentatively. “Do you want help finding a partner?”

“I think I was just lonely,” Barbara responded, then changed the subject. She never spoke of McCready again before dying of pancreatic cancer in December 2013.

For three decades, the woman their mother loved and father killed had been a lingering mystery to the Kovach sisters. They listened with rapt interest as I described my grandmother’s proclamation that McCready was evil. They’d never heard the rumors about her murdering Steve Harrington and Albert Taylor. In fact, they’d talked to very few Ajijic residents who knew McCready or their parents.

It wasn’t entirely a surprise, then, when Kim offered to join me in Ajijic as I looked for evidence of McCready’s life. She wanted to find it, too, and share it with her sisters. We agreed to meet in Mexico in August 2017.


Ajijic no longer feels like a secret. Cheap flights arrive regularly in Guadalajara, and snowbirds—people who travel south to escape the winter in second homes along the lake—are more common than ever. The breathtaking natural views that lured my grandmother and many others have been irreparably altered. Development has been swift and aggressive. There are power lines, radio towers, and rambling McMansions in the foothills above the water. Along the lakeshore are crowded bars, convenience stores, and a Domino’s Pizza. In 2008, Walmart set up shop on the highway leading to Guadalajara.

Juxtapositions define Ajijic. On my first day there, I went on a stroll and passed a parade of horses and a brass band—a funeral procession. Then I turned a corner and saw a Google Street View car, bumping along the cobblestones with its roof-mounted camera.

Longtime expats bemoan this state of affairs. A friend of my grandmother’s blamed NAFTA. “We began to get satellite TVs, telephones, imported items, and all sorts of creature comforts that you wouldn’t have here before,” she told me. “Plus, there were no gated communities. Now people can close the gate, and they’re in Mexico but they’re not really here.”

“There were no gated communities. Now people can close the gate, and they’re in Mexico but they’re not really here.”

Like many foreigners in the community, she was quick to gloss over expats’ complicity in the disparities between the lives of foreigners and natives. It’s true, however, that the days when residents ran into each other on a daily basis in a handful of haunts have all but vanished. Big Mama’s is gone; Jan Dunlap, the onetime proprietor, now lives in California. The Posada moved in the 1990s, and the new version just isn’t the same.

When I pressed locals for their memories of McCready, I found their recollections similarly diminished, save those pertaining to her love affairs and death. People who talked with authority about her as a local legend knew remarkably little about her life, particularly before she came to Ajijic. It was as if she had only ever existed in a paradisiacal version of the town and become fossilized as a social upstart with an untamable libido.

Even residents who kept notes about life in Ajijic had little to share. When I met Judy Eager for coffee at the new Posada, which she now runs with her son, she produced a large bound diary. The only entry Eager could find about McCready from the years leading up to her death described her arrival with Lois Schaefer in 1976. It said that the women had lived together “for eight years” in California before relocating.

Schaefer died in 1988, but her son, Ed, lives in the Bay Area. We spoke on the phone, and he remembered McCready, whom his mother met in 1965 or 1966, shortly after she split with Ed’s dad in an acrimonious divorce. Ed spent summers with the two women at their home in Sausalito, and he said McCready, whose background was a mystery to him, “wanted nothing to do” with a kid. She and Schaefer drank heavily, hosted large parties, and sometimes got into scary arguments. Once, they came home “drunker than skunks,” and when McCready noticed that Ed hadn’t done the dishes, she threatened him with a butcher knife. Ed stayed outside wearing only his underwear until his mother had calmed McCready down enough that it was safe for him to go back into the house. Another time, he came home and noticed three fresh bullet holes in the side of the house.

“To me it was no big deal,” Ed said. “It was like water off a duck’s back, because it was always crazy,” meaning life with his mom. Before we hung up, Ed confirmed the story about Schaefer being shot through the breast by a lover in Ajijic.

One afternoon, I paid a Mexican driver named Chevy, who patiently ferries elderly expat women around town, to take me to McCready’s house. We talked in Spanish, and I told him I was working on a story about un asesinato (a murder). This didn’t faze him. Today there are a number of sensational murders associated with Ajijic. In 2000, an American couple, Norris and Nancy Price, were shot to death in their home. Police suspect that it was a contract killing, ordered over a land dispute. In 2005, authorities arrested Perry March, who was living with his young children and father in Ajijic, for murdering his wife in Tennessee a decade prior. He was convicted the next year. In 2012, hit men from a drug cartel killed, decapitated, and disposed of 18 Mexicans just outside town.

McCready’s home on Avenida las Robles was painted bright blue and orange and surrounded by a wrought-iron fence. The pool where her pet duck once swam was still in the front yard. When we pulled up, Chevy instantly knew whose murder I was interested in. “Oh!” he exclaimed. “Señora Donna!”

It turned out that when he was a teenager, McCready had hired him to wash her car every weekend and deliver copies of the local newspaper to her doorstep. Chevy said she was always very nice to him.

My conversation with Chevy led me to Carlos Hernandez Del Toro, a local attorney who also knew McCready. He was wary of talking to a reporter but said that McCready came into his life when she and Pat Harrington organized a drive to collect supplies for his high school. McCready took a liking to Del Toro and eventually supported him through law school in Guadalajara. He went on to represent her interests and said she was like a godmother to him. As with Chevy’s recollections, the generosity Del Toro described was absent from most expats’ depictions of McCready. But anything he knew about her personal life Del Toro wasn’t willing to discuss. As soon as I mentioned Hildegard Taylor and the property she’d left to McCready, he blurted out, “I have no interest to talk to strange people I do not know!”

I then turned to public records in search of McCready. The only news item I could locate was the dramatic 1987 article about her murder in a Mexican newspaper, accompanied by her obituary. It said that McCready was 45 when she died, that she kept “manikins in her home she used for target practice,” and that she was originally from North Carolina, where she attended “the state university.” I called the registrars at both of North Carolina’s main higher-education systems and found no record of her attendance. Through searches of government databases, I found a Donna L. McCready, which seemed promising, given that the newspaper article about her death had said that McCready’s middle name was Leason. But the birth year (1936) and location (Los Angeles) of the person I’d found conflicted with McCready’s obituary. I emailed a surviving brother of Donna L. McCready and one of his sons, who replied, “Donna never lived in Mexico, hope that helps you.”

I couldn’t help but wonder if McCready had used her real name when she was in Ajijic and before, in Sausalito. Maybe she was someone else entirely. Given her affinity for stirring up intrigue, it didn’t seem out of the question.


The most revealing insights about McCready came from a small cluster of people who considered themselves her friends. They don’t run in the same Ajijic circles as my grandmother, and their take on what happened 30 years ago is different from prevailing opinion.

Helen DesJardins and Joan Gamma have lived in Ajijic on and off since 1983. When I met them at their home, a short walk from Lake Chapala, they told me that the rumors about McCready murdering the husbands of her lovers were ludicrous. “Donna wasn’t like a lot of people thought she was. She was very loyal,” Gamma told me. She would know: Gamma was with McCready at the hospital in Houston when Hildegard Taylor succumbed to throat cancer. Gamma described her friend as devastated by the loss.

She also dismissed the idea that McCready tried to seduce women for financial gain. “If she was all out for money, then why did she end up with Barbara?” Gamma asked. “Barbara had no money.” She and DesJardins hadn’t known about the bet with Joe Kovach when it happened, but they were certain that no matter how it was formed, the bond between McCready and Barbara was genuine.

“Donna was a somewhat tragic figure,” Gamma continued. “She had a rough childhood. She had a terrible stepfather, and her mother was dead.” I asked for more details, but that was all she knew.

It wasn’t the only reference I heard to McCready having a traumatic history. Jan Dunlap said that McCready once described an uncle sexually assaulting her when she was just eight or nine. But Dunlap’s knowledge ran no deeper than Gamma’s. McCready, it seemed, hadn’t liked to talk much about her early life, and no one pushed her to reveal more than she wanted to. In Ajijic, after all, a person’s past was whatever they said it was.

Gamma suggested a connection between McCready’s younger years and her liaisons with married couples. “What she wanted was a family, so she would come into a family of people—husband and wife—and she would love them both,” Gamma explained. “She wanted to be accepted by them.” If true, it would mean that Steve Harrington and Albert Taylor dying in succession, with McCready in their employ and sleeping with their wives, was mere coincidence. In which case people’s assumptions about McCready’s ulterior motives might have derived from astonishment that Pat and Hildegard would take a female lover.

“What she wanted was a family, so she would come into a family of people—husband and wife—and she would love them both.”

Toward the end of my trip, Kim Kovach arrived in town. Together we met with Estela Hidalgo, an artist and sculptor who was a friend of Barbara’s. The encounter started out awkwardly, as Hidalgo didn’t mince words about Joe. “I’m sorry,” she said to Kim, “but I didn’t like your father from the first moment I met him.” Hidalgo described Joe as “rude” and said she knew people who wouldn’t invite him to parties because his womanizing made guests uncomfortable. “I know,” Kim replied.

Then Hidalgo pivoted to talking about Barbara and how deeply affecting the events of January 9, 1987 must have been for her. “She loved Joe and Donna, so she lost two people in one second,” Hidalgo said. As for McCready, Hidalgo said, she “looked for trouble. There were dinners when she tried to seduce two or three women in a single evening.” When she fell for Barbara, though, she changed.

“When she was with Barbara,” Hidalgo said, “it was only Barbara.”


What I came to realize was that when McCready was alive, prejudice ran deeper in Ajijic than its carefree expats were willing to admit. It carved lines around crowds and cliques on the basis of class and identity. These borders were largely invisible to the people they divided; everyone mingled at the same parties and bars and dinners, because that was life on the shores of Lake Chapala. Still, social and cultural rifts defined the local appetite for gossip—in particular, what sorts of behavior were considered beyond the pale and who was cast in the recurring role of the town villain. When I regaled my grandmother with Gamma’s and Hidalgo’s theories about McCready, she balked. “I don’t buy it,” she said. Never mind that, as she eventually admitted, Hildegard once wrote her a letter rejecting outright that McCready had killed Albert. (My grandmother said she later lost the letter.)

When Ajijic’s old-timers pass away, the legend of Donna McCready will slip quietly into oblivion. It’s vexing not to have an answer to every question about the enigmatic woman. Yet it also feels fitting for someone who enjoyed inspiring a mix of ire, suspicion, and yearning. Even in death, McCready wreaked havoc.

The morning before we left town, Kim Kovach met with Gamma and DesJardins to pour a vial of Barbara’s ashes, which she’d brought from Phoenix, into the lake. They did it at the end of a pier next to Ajijic’s esplanade. “It was lovely,” Kim later told me. Gamma and DesJardins mentioned to Kim that, over the years, they’d scattered several friends’ ashes on the lake. “You should write a book about all of them,” Kim told the women, “and you should call it Our Friends in the Lake.

Among those friends was McCready. Her memorial wasn’t lovely, I learned, but it was perfect.

On a January day in 1987, Barbara and a few friends gathered on the same pier where Kim later stood. After a wine toast, the executor of McCready’s will, a retired lawyer from California, inverted a plastic bag containing her ashes in order to dump them in the water. Just then there was a gust of wind. The executor lost his grip on the bag, dropping it into the lake, and a portion of the ashes blew over the small crowd.

“She was all over everybody,” one of the attendees told me. “Donna got the last word and the last laugh.”


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The Improbable Life of Paula Zoe Helfrich

She was the daughter of a U.S. spy, an exile from Burma, a flight attendant in a war zone, and half of an epic love story. But how much of that was true?

By Julia Cooke

The Atavist Magazine, No. 67


Julia Cooke’s essays and reporting have appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, SalonThe New York Times, and Tin House. They have been anthologized in The Best American Travel Writing 2014. She is the recipient of a 2016 New York Press Club award and the author of The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba, which features reporting on youth culture in Havana. 


Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Jake Scobey-Thal
Photos: Courtesy of Rebecca Sprecher and Mary Uyeda

Published in May 2017. Design updated in 2021.

One

The four Burmese officers who came to the apartment that morning in 1963 didn’t break down the door. They pounded hard, though, very hard. When Paula Zoe Helfrich answered, they told her in no uncertain terms that she would board an evening flight out of Rangoon. She would not be allowed to return.

A steely new regime in Burma was causing outsiders to scatter. Indian merchants were gathering what earnings could be salvaged from their teak and rice mills before heading west. White expatriates weighed England versus Australia. Deportations of foreigners grew increasingly common. Still, Paula had assumed that her father’s stature would ensure her immunity. He had worked with the highest powers of Burma’s postcolonial government; surely his 17-year-old daughter would skim above any discord like fat on milk.

Besides, she was a native. Her parents were from Illinois, but she had been born in Rangoon. She spoke Burmese. She reflexively knew the differences in climate, language, and culture between the country’s highlands and ports. She had ridden elephants in the jungle and wore longyis, traditional wrap skirts. She had a job at a tourism desk in Rangoon’s stately Strand Hotel and a room in the apartment of a family friend. After work she and her boyfriend, a handsome Burmese student with revolutionary leanings, walked along the shores of Kandawgyi Lake, where dense foliage furnished private nooks. She loved how the pink evening light reflected off the nearby gilded Shwedagon Pagoda onto the lake’s flat water.

Disorder, the result of World War II’s aftermath and simmering interethnic conflict, had afflicted Burma for as long as Paula could remember. Consequences were visible: People displaced from the countryside lived in shantytowns along Rangoon’s fringes. In 1962, the situation took a dramatic turn. The military staged a coup and expelled international organizations, including the Ford Foundation and the Asia Foundation. It banned Western-style dancing, horse racing, and nightclubs. That summer, troops stormed a Rangoon University meeting on democracy, killing dozens of people, according to human-rights groups. The next day, the regime blew up the campus’s student union. The situation became progressively dire as the months wore on.

The following September was when the officers came for Paula. She was ordered to leave because she had spent time with questionable people, namely her boyfriend. Her father didn’t put up a fight. She had less than 24 hours to pack her possessions, bid farewell to the love of her life, and stop for a bowl of mohinga, perfumed fish and noodle soup, on her way to the airport. When Paula told me this story, she described her deportation so vividly that I all but saw the officers’ broad shoulders in her doorway, the rutted roads jolting the car that ferried her to the plane, and her hands nervously gripping her knees as she rode.

She was heading to a place she’d never been and a family she’d never met: grandparents, an aunt and uncle, and cousins in Chicago. She would find the Windy City smelly and orderly, sometimes beautiful but too often cold. She had never experienced the sting of a Midwestern winter. She didn’t even own a coat.  


I once spent half an evening as Paula’s daughter. We met at a 2014 conference in Bangkok of former Pan Am flight attendants; she was the keynote speaker and I was researching a book. In her speech, she talked about growing up in Southeast Asia and feeling out of place in the United States when she was plopped there in the 1960s. She’d lived a series of interlocking adventures: traveling the world with Pan Am, helping evacuate refugees during the Vietnam War, running for office in Hawaii, self-publishing a novel based on her life, returning alone to live in Burma, now called Myanmar, as a middle-aged woman. Paula’s voice was silvery, musical, and rich with laughter. She was in her sixties, she told the group, but she felt like she was thirty. Her two daughters still asked her what she planned to do when she grew up.

The conference’s final dinner involved a river cruise. We drifted past the Thai capital’s skyscrapers, drinking wine and listening to the wafting music of a sequin-clad Elvis impersonator under a sky that threatened rain. At one point, I found myself sitting next to Paula on a crusty vinyl stool bolted to the boat’s aft. I was younger than everyone in the crowd by three decades and had grown weary of explaining my provenance. Paula noticed.

Paula and her daughters.
Paula and her daughters.

“Wanna be my daughter?” she asked conspiratorially, leaning toward me in a quiet moment. Her smiling face, eyebrows raised, was an invitation. “Sure,” I answered.

For the next hour, as people swirled by to talk to Paula, she introduced me as her offspring. It wasn’t an impossible sell—we both wore our curly hair loose and natural; we both had strong opinions and loud laughs. I watched as she explained who I was with zero doubt or hesitation ruffling her features. The other women nodded in understanding. I caved when I ran out of platitudes based on my thin knowledge of her. I finally admitted that we were not, in fact, related, and everyone was amused. No one asked who I really was.   

Paula struck me as magnetic and the rare person who, with no loss of kindness, acts first and considers how people might feel afterward. She seemed in full possession of herself, and what I felt that night was akin to envy, staring upward from my relative youth at this woman of boundless energy and verve. She captivated listeners with the details of life events that seemed stolen from fairy tales. Most striking was an epic love story: When she moved back to Myanmar, Paula told me, she found the teenage boyfriend that the deportation had cost her and married him.

What a magnificent coincidence, I thought, to anchor Paula’s story. The contours and formative incidents of her life, in Paula’s sweeping, confident telling of it, conformed with cookie-cutter precision to the grand currents of history in Southeast Asia. Burma’s independence coincided with her birth and imbued her upbringing with adventure. Its slide into authoritarianism displaced her physically but couldn’t uproot her identity or her affections. Decades later, the country’s reopening drew her into its ebullient orbit and engineered an improbable reunion with a man she’d thought she would never see again. The arc of a life, punctuated by remarkable love, loss, and deliverance—it was a saga that I wanted to write.

The contours and formative incidents of her life, in Paula’s sweeping, confident telling of it, conformed with cookie-cutter precision to the grand currents of history in Southeast Asia.

I also wished to be as curious and bold as Paula when I eventually married and, I hoped, became a mother. She became more than a potential interview subject; she was a candidate for some personal pantheon of spirited women I could locate in my mind on demand, perhaps even call on from time to time. Paula spoke of my coming to visit her in Myanmar as inevitable.

She was right: After a year of occasional correspondence, I flew to Yangon, as Rangoon is now known. It was September 2015. “Aaaaah! Julia, yes!” came the cry from her bedroom when her husband announced that I was at their front door. Paula gripped my arm when she saw me. She’d lost weight since I’d met her, and her hair was less curly. Even so, her gaze possessed startling immediacy. She was impatient and impetuous by nature, but when she looked at you, she seemed to scan everything she found and settle on something—the piece of you that interested her most.

Paula still embodied the dichotomies that had initially drawn me to her: international and American, feminist and feminine, strident and warm, independent yet deeply connected to others. As I talked with her, interviewed friends and family, and explored documents pertaining to her past, another contradiction revealed itself, this one between fact and fiction. Put simply, not every detail of the stories Paula told me about herself was true. In some cases, veracity was less splendid, while in others it was more poignant. “Paula was a creative person,” her younger sister Mary Uyeda told me, “and there were times when that creativity exceeded reality.” Why was the truth of her objectively extraordinary life not enough for Paula, I wondered. Why did she need more?

Somerset Maugham, one of many writers to use Burma as a backdrop, once described it as having “a beauty not of nature, but of the theater.” When I met Paula, the country had become her stage for reclaiming the junctures of a life often shaped against her will. I didn’t know it yet, but I was part of her farewell performance.

Two

In the archives of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri, a samurai sword sits in storage, never before displayed to the public. It is believed to have belonged to Shojiro Iida, commanding general of the Japanese 15th Army in Burma during World War II. Aung San, the architect of Burmese democracy, gave it to Truman in 1946.

Memorandums between Truman’s office and the War Department reveal some hesitation over the president’s acceptance of the sword. To not take it risked alienating the man very likely to claim power in an independent Burma. To receive it would be to recognize his legitimacy while England still technically ruled the gangly country stretched alongside China and Thailand. In the end, Truman’s top military aide accepted the sword on his behalf.

Lieutenant Colonel Baird Helfrich was the emissary dispatched to gift the blade to the president. A lawyer by training, he had arrived in Burma in 1944, to lead a secret wing of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA. He was tasked with infiltrating various groups of anti-English revolutionaries to identify those allied with the Japanese and cultivate others deemed susceptible to American influence. He fell in with Aung San, then a leader of Burma’s Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League, and “displayed outstanding acumen, diligence, and daring in obtaining information vital to the United States Government,” according to his OSS personnel file.

After the war, Baird returned home to Illinois, where he married a woman named Patricia “Pat” King who’d been a code breaker in the Navy. They honeymooned in China, then returned to the Midwest, where Baird continued his law career. In Rangoon, Aung San was assassinated in July 1947, six months before Burma achieved the freedom for which he’d struggled. The Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League vaulted into power nonetheless, with U Nu, an ally of Aung San’s, as prime minister. The new government quickly found itself navigating conflicts with ethnic minorities and political rivals fighting for their say in the country’s future.

The Helfrich family.
The Helfrich family.

By the early 1950s, civil war had ebbed. Burma had a lively media and a growing educational system. U Nu aligned himself with anti-communists on state visits, and under General Ne Win, the army became professional and unified, able to squelch border skirmishes with the Chinese. Foreign interest in the country swelled. Burma was rich in natural resources and strategically located amid the Cold War dominoes of Indochina.

Baird sensed opportunity: A few years in Burma investing in various businesses and his family could return to the United States with the funds and connections to launch his political career. (If he still worked for covert services, Baird slid under such deep cover that today the CIA will “neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence” of records on his postwar activities.) His wife found Illinois “much too quiet to suit,” anyway. So they decamped. “It all sounds just a bit monumental an endeavor,” Pat Helfrich wrote in her first letter to her skeptical parents, describing various projects and plans that she and Baird would undertake in their new home.


Paula told everyone she knew, even her children, that she was born in Burma. For some listeners, she added a dash of intrigue: Pat delivered the Helfriches’ first child in Rangoon, but Baird wanted the infant to have a passport indicating that she’d been born on American soil. Not long after her birth, he walked a few blocks from his downtown office, where he represented John Deere and other American businesses seeking a foothold in Burma, to a warren of townhouses and department stores. There, in a small, discreet office, he had Paula’s first passport forged. It said she was born in Peoria, Illinois.

This is the first fable to fall away from the scaffolding of Paula’s life. Her mother’s letters, which Paula collected and intended to publish, reveal that she was born in the United States: in Peoria, on August 15, 1946, one year to the day after the Japanese surrendered in World War II. The Helfriches’ next three children—Ellie, Stuart, and Mary—were also born in Illinois. Paula was five when the family moved to Burma. “Paula has come through the whole thing as casually as though she were just crossing the road,” Pat wrote to her parents.

On the other side of that road lay Technicolor longyis, gleaming pagodas, spicy curries, and more than 135 ethnic groups that testily comprised the country. It’s plausible that Paula’s early memories of the Midwest faded quickly and forever. Or perhaps she claimed Burma as her point of origin, knowing it was not, because it felt truer than fact.


A family of six stands in front of a wood-gabled, Tudor-style white house with that colonial incongruity between European architecture and surrounding tropical foliage. It’s April 1952; the Helfriches have arrived on an ocean liner from California to learn that their new home at 26 Park Road in Rangoon is occupied by another family, the result of a miscommunication with a Burmese friend of Baird’s who rented the house to them from overseas.

The knowledge that her family would be sharing a house with the Nicholses, Americans who were leaving for Madras (now Chennai) in India that September, startled but didn’t displease Pat. She had people to introduce her to life as an expat housewife. In letters home, she wrote of new activities and routines. The children gaped at the snake charmer at the Rangoon Zoo, splashed around at the Kokine Swimming Club, and admired a cream-colored Packard owned by a friend of Baird’s, with a horn that tooted “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” The humidity prematurely sealed Pat’s letters; bugs ate her books. Paula called the abundant lizards that flitted through the house “baby alligators.” Pat and Baird sat through daily Burmese lessons, but the words never stuck. The children took almost immediately to the language.

Paula attended classes for a time at a school called Methodist English, where her classmates included Aung San Suu Kyi, Aung San’s daughter. I spoke with the now famous politician’s schoolmate and former personal assistant, writer Ma Thanegi, who told me that though she’d known of Paula, they weren’t friends. The foreign children socialized less with the native Burmese than they did with their own.

Paula (left) and younger siblings.
Paula (left) and younger siblings.

Pat claimed to hate segregation, the backbone tenet of colonial life holding that Western children should grow up free of the polluting influence of locals. In her letters, she wrote of her own unlearning of American-ness. Though a Burmese servant could have gone to the outdoor markets for her, Pat shopped for her family’s groceries herself, learning how the religious affiliations of the vendors—Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim—dictated who sold what and when. She had a strapless gown made by a local tailor who used rattan cane in place of whalebone for the stays. Pat fancied herself a trendsetter.

Paula once described her mother’s letters as “chirpy,” but I sense tension in them, especially the ones from that first year: a bold young wife and mother in a far-off place writing home to her staid, well-to-do, disapproving “Mother and Daddy.” Pat described the dignitaries and business groups the Helfriches entertained; she effused about the government’s eagerness to adopt mechanized farming, which had helped Baird secure his John Deere contract. She wrote indignantly that clips her father sent her penned by a Chicago Tribune reporter—articles from that time describe Burma as a “land of sham” that “claims to be just about everything it isn’t,” where “officials can’t speak [their] own language”—didn’t match her observations. She’d met the reporter in the mere three weeks he’d spent in the country and found him chinless and haughty, like a British overlord. He couldn’t be trusted, Pat told her father. Still, she requested, please keep sending such “interesting—if ill-informed” articles.

Through all her writing ran two consistent threads: a commitment to adventure and unconventionality, and an acute awareness of how to shape the way other people viewed her life. Paula would inherit both qualities.

Three

“By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea, There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me”

The first lines of “Mandalay,” Rudyard Kipling’s famous 1892 ode to colonialism, introduce readers to Moulmein, a port city in Burma some 200 miles overland from Rangoon. Moulmein is also the setting for George Orwell’s iconic anti-imperialist essay “Shooting an Elephant,” in which a British officer, who may or may not be Orwell himself, reluctantly kills an elephant that has rampaged a local market. “When the white man turns tyrant,” Orwell writes, “it is his own freedom that he destroys.”

By the mid 20th century, the city had bloomed into more than an object of literary appeal. It was an industrial hub, a signal of independent Burma’s economic rise. Workers floated felled logs down the Thanlwin River for the timber industry, and rice mills clustered along the waterfront. The Helfriches and their children—there were five by then—moved to Moulmein in 1956. Baird had business interests there and wanted to monitor them closely.

Riding an elephant at the Moulmein mill.
Riding an elephant at the Moulmein mill.

At his wood mill, two trained elephants worked from seven to four each day, scooping logs from the river and dragging them up the shore. The workday ended with the blaring of a horn. The elephants, accustomed to the sound, would stop lugging and stand still. In the evening humidity, which settled like a blanket around the shoulders, Paula and her siblings visited the animals. They’d touch them and giggle. Sometimes, Paula rode one and gave it orders to pick up planks of teak between its trunk and tusks. In her memory, “Moulmein was elephants,” she later told me. It was also the scent of fresh bread and coconut pancakes from an Indian bakery, and the Helfriches’ dark-wood longhouse on stilts. The children rode to school, which was run by Catholic nuns, in a rickshaw pulled by a donkey. Among some 2,000 students, they were the only Westerners.

Pat had invited her parents to visit Burma, at one point offering first-class passage on a luxury ship and sightseeing “from Moulmein to Mandalay to the Shan Hills.” Mother and Daddy’s rejection was not included in the cache of letters that Paula later collected. Another letter, though, indicates that the Helfriches booked passage back to the United States in 1957. They spent the summer visiting family and friends, road-tripping from Illinois to Virginia. They stopped in Europe on their way back across the globe. Pat was pregnant with her sixth child by then. En route to Rangoon, she suddenly went into labor. After an emergency landing in Iraq, baby Tommy was born at the American hospital in Baghdad.    

Before reading the letters, I had asked Paula whether she’d been to the United States before her deportation. “Never,” she’d told me, firmly shaking her head. “We had been on one trip to Europe, we’d gone through Rome and to different places in the European continent, and Paris.”

Her cousin John Miller remembers meeting her in Virginia on the trip she claimed she didn’t take. Paula would have been 10 or 11. Miller told me that he was disconcerted at how much of the chicken served at one dinner the young Helfriches devoured—gristle and sinew, pieces and parts that American kids discarded—and how their eating habits contrasted with their prim British accents.


Back in Burma, the post-independence government began to fracture. “It had always been a hodgepodge of competing interests, ambitions and loyalties, held together by the partnerships at the very peak, between U Nu and his chief lieutenants,” writes scholar Thant Myint-U in his history of Burma, The River of Lost Footsteps. “There was no clear ideological divide or really even differences over policy. It was more the story of friends and colleagues who after twenty years living and working at close quarters, through war and peace, were getting tired of one another.” In 1958, a weakened U Nu ceded power to the military; he would reclaim control two years later through a popular vote. The U.S. embassy began warning Americans when it was prudent to stay indoors. Burma in the late 1950s was firm but wobbly, “like a bowl of Jell-O,” Rhoda Linton, an American woman who taught at a missionary school back then, told me. “You never knew what to expect. Things changed very fast or not at all.”

Burma in the late 1950s was firm but wobbly, “like a bowl of Jell-O,” said Rhoda Linton, an American woman who taught at a missionary school back then. “You never knew what to expect. Things changed very fast or not at all.”

By then, the Helfriches had quit Moulmein for a farm up north in Burma’s hilly Shan State. Baird had overseen a rollout of John Deere tractors there some years earlier. Pat, intent on securing a good education for her eldest child, sent Paula to high school in Darjeeling, India, the summer resort of the British Raj. At Loreto Convent, a school where Mother Teresa had trained and Vivien Leigh had attended classes, Paula’s classmates included Nepali royalty and the scions of aristocratic families from Thailand and Bhutan. She learned to play field hockey and ride horses. She ranked among the top three students in her class, argued on the debate team, and acted in plays; she stepped into Bela Lugosi’s shoes to play the lead in Dracula and sang as Cousin Hebe in HMS Pinafore.

On vacations, Paula returned to Shan State. It felt prosaic beside Loreto, all farmland and a tangle of younger siblings. Cosmopolitan Rangoon, though, tugged at her, even as the political havoc there worsened. In 1962, a final coup entrenched Ne Win in power and landed U Nu, his ministers, and 30 ethnic chiefs in custody. The new military-run government abolished the constitution, disbanded parliament, and introduced the Burmese Way to Socialism, an ideology that prioritized state-run institutions and rejected outside influence. The government nationalized major industries, including rice farming, mining, and logging. Production quickly plummeted, and foreigners began leaving the country by the thousands, then tens of thousands, every month.

As a teenager in Burma.
As a teenager in Burma.

When she finished high school, Paula moved to the capital. Despite its tumult—or perhaps because of it—she loved the city. She enrolled in a typing course, where she sat at a small, flat desk amid rows of Burmese classmates, her wavy light-brown hair deflated by the tropical air. She learned shorthand and the feel of onionskin beneath her fingers. At night, wearing lipstick purchased at Bogyoke Market, she attended dances at the Strand under high ceilings with polished wood rafters and lilting fans. One day she met a charismatic young man, the life of every party. He waited for her outside her typing class on his motorcycle. The force of what she felt for him came as a surprise, and they hoped to elope, revising their plans on an almost daily basis in the constantly changing political climate.  

Paula felt alive: loved and in love. She also felt invincible—until the day those four officers knocked on her apartment’s door.

Four

Seventeen-year-old Paula continued wearing longyis after arriving in Chicago against her will. She eventually began to dress in Western styles, but she couldn’t kick her foreign accent. Social codes mystified her: wearing shoes on shag carpeting; the way people said “come over anytime,” then looked at her funny if she actually did stop by. She missed eating rice at every meal. Paula had an American passport, but she play-acted at being an American.

She lived at her grandmother’s house, the two-story brick manse in Winnetka where Pat had grown up and where certain doors remained closed at all times. Grammy, as Paula called her, was convinced that the ghost of her recently deceased husband flickered through the house, lingering in rooms that she forbade her granddaughter from entering. “I expect that the effort to make Grammy understand about Burma is a hopeless pursuit,” Pat commiserated in a letter.

Adulthood was thrust upon Paula. She found work as a Pan Am receptionist; she had flown the airline to and from India during her school days. By the summer of 1964, when Chicago was rocked by race riots in the suburb of Dixmoor, Paula had secured a job as a travel agent and discovered that she could eat rice and curries at an Indian restaurant in the city. Not the same as in Burma, but not terrible.

Letters from her parents grew melancholy. Pat and Baird urged their eldest child to be forbearing; they certainly had to be. The industries in which Baird had invested were decimated by nationalization. His missives to Paula included requests to borrow money from her small salary to help the family stay in Burma, even as everyone they knew was leaving. The demonetization of currency in 1964 wiped out savings across the country.

The same year, all remaining ethnic Indians, including those whose families had been in Burma for generations, were expelled. Hundreds of thousands boarded boats and planes with nothing but the clothing on their bodies. By 1965, the Burma Socialist Program Party stood as the country’s only legal political entity; dissent was not tolerated. “This Ne Win bunch,” Baird noted in a letter, “are surpassing even our wildest thoughts on irresponsibility and goodies for one’s friends—and jail for thine enemies.”

Paula traveled to Maryland that year to welcome her younger brother Stuart to America; he would live with family friends in order to attend high school while the rest of the Helfriches prepared to return. Baird flew in a few months later to procure a job in Washington, D.C., and a house in the suburbs. In 1966 came Pat and the younger children, including a new baby named Cathy. They arrived in New York on a coal steamer after a month at sea. One particularly gruesome ocean swell had sent Cathy rolling across the deck in her lifejacket.

Paula, Baird, and Stuart converged on Manhattan to meet the remaining Helfriches at the harbor. They were thin and shabbily dressed. All the possessions they’d packed into their Burmese baskets fit with them in two taxis, which Paula told me carried them to the Waldorf Astoria. A friend had lent them an apartment for a few days.

In one of the final letters Pat wrote to Paula before the Helfriches moved, she described traveling from the Shan State farm to catch a train to Rangoon for a wedding. There was rain and a bus headed for the wrong destination. She finally found a potato truck and hopped in the back with five Burmese passengers. Clunking through the rain, after small talk established who they all were and where they were going, after the sharing of fruit and snacks, the Burmese began to sing. “As I watched … beautiful scenery pass and flash by, listened to the music, and realized that I was riding on a potato truck,” Pat wrote, “I had a funny and weird feeling. I was perfectly at home.”

Now the Helfriches’ Burmese experiment, all 14 years of it, was over.


Back in Chicago, Paula told me, she enrolled at Northwestern University. Her attention, though, was elsewhere. In her novel Flying, which Paula described as a thinly veiled memoir, the protagonist, Zoe (Paula’s middle name), writes a brokenhearted letter every day to her Burmese boyfriend. He is a guerrilla, fighting the new regime. Eventually, the missives are delivered through a sequence of shadowy messengers, winding up in either Burma or Vietnam. She never knows for sure where her boyfriend is hiding, and she never gets a letter back.

Around her neck, Zoe wears a silver coin on a tattered string, a gift from her boyfriend. An anthropology professor identifies the coin as a pendant. He points to its Buddhist iconography and asks how she came by the piece. Zoe “kept the details to herself,” the book reads. “Who would believe it?”

When they met again many decades later, Paula discovered that her long-lost love still enjoyed dancing, as they’d once done together at the Strand. Now, though, he preferred to wear a longyi and nothing else. Her husband the warrior, she said, “who I can’t for the life of me get to wear a shirt.”

Five

Marriage to someone else, someone not concealed in a jungle, must not have seemed like the worst idea. It offered a new beginning, a dive into an adult life of her own making. Paula met a man, a Chicagoan of Polish descent, and they soon wed.

The marriage didn’t go well, and it didn’t last long. He was abusive. She didn’t speak of him much to anyone, not then and not later, I was told in interview after interview with friends and family; she never mentioned him to me. I imagine the unhappiness of that marriage falling around her like a veil. The turmoil, the feeling of powerlessness, must have been at once familiar and new. It fell to her to get out. So she did.

Paula divorced and, within a few years, started working at Pan Am again, this time as a stewardess. She met every requirement for female employees in the airline’s golden age: fluency in English and another language, at least two years of college, height over five foot two, trim, beautiful, extroverted, quick on her feet. Also: able to walk down an aisle in heels without wobbling, culturally aware, flexible yet bossy, witty, and afflicted by wanderlust. Paula wanted to return to Southeast Asia and visit other faraway destinations.

Who spoke Burmese? The stewardesses didn’t expect to see this white woman, “cute as a bug on a pistol, obviously a very strong personality,” as one friend from that time described Paula.

Most of the women who signed up for Pan Am’s stewardess program had predictable language proficiencies: French, German, Spanish. Paula Zoe Helfrich, from Maryland, as she was listed in the training class of March 1970—all traces of Chicago and the Midwest erased—spoke Burmese. Later, on flight sign-in sheets where the women listed their languages before takeoff, those who came after Paula would glance up and look around in confusion. Who spoke Burmese? They didn’t expect to see this white woman, “cute as a bug on a pistol, obviously a very strong personality,” as one friend from that time described Paula to me.

During a Pan Am layover in Tahiti.
During a Pan Am layover in Tahiti.

The itinerant lifestyle suited Paula. A crew flew together for a week or a few, passing days in Paris and Monrovia and Singapore and Sydney, then splintered apart for time off. On vacations, Paula went to the Amazon, where she trawled caves thick with monkeys. She went to Timbuktu, just because she could. Pan Am kept strict rules for its stewardesses’ appearance, and in company photos Paula’s hair is neatly tied under a prim hat. She cocks her head and wears an arranged smile. In personal photos, though, her long hair is parted down the center and cascades down her chest. The more implausible the setting or action, the more comfortable she appears. At a zoo, she grins with her arms slung around a snake a foot wide and several times as long, curled across her neck and shoulders. Wearing a bikini, she leans against the post of a thatched hut in Guam, legs crossed, sipping a mixed drink. Atop a curved rock with the sand houses of Timbuktu clustered in the background, her hands pick at desert grasses.

The Vietnam War was in its fifth year when Paula started working as a stewardess. Pan Am contracted critical support to the U.S. military, blurring the line—as it had during World War II—between private, profit-seeking business and government entity. At one point, providing services for the war effort in Saigon was Pan Am’s largest global operation. A stewardess had to be able to relate, as more than one who’d worked for the airline told me, to celebrities and CEOs, but also to refugees and immigrants boarding a plane for the first time, and to servicemen on their way into combat, holding in their chests the sharp knowledge of what they’d been drafted to do. The women carried identification cards designating them as second lieutenants in the armed forces; in the event of capture, they were to be treated according to the terms of the Geneva Conventions. After meal service, they would listen to tales of combat or play cards with soldiers heading for a stint of R&R. Sometimes, disembarking from a flight, they would glimpse bullet holes in the plane’s fuselage.

The early 1970s was also an era of skyjackings and political bombings; a stewardess had to remain composed on the knife’s edge of danger. All were trained in emergency procedures and casual diplomacy, taught to conduct themselves as surrogate ambassadors to the United States. In Flying, Zoe, who becomes a stewardess like Paula, knows how to tell a passenger to fuck off with “a ten-dollar sentence,” so long as she adheres to protocol and smiles.

When she had enough seniority to choose, Paula requested Pan Am’s Honolulu base as her home. She lived near the beach, and when she wasn’t flying, she spent time with surfers and musicians and Army vets. Then a tragedy took her to the very edge of the war.


Operation Babylift was supposed to be a series of flights paid for by the U.S. government to evacuate orphans from Saigon as North Vietnamese troops threatened the city in early 1975. Various humanitarian and adoption agencies would help place the infants and young children in homes across America. Similar missions had brought children from Germany and Japan at the end of World War II, from Korea in the 1950s, and from Cuba after the Bay of Pigs.

On April 4, minutes after an Air Force cargo plane carrying the first group of orphans took off from a base in Saigon, the flight crashed, killing dozens of children and adults. It would be over a week, the Pentagon reported, before another flight could depart. Horrified by the disaster, American businessman and philanthropist Robert Macauley mortgaged his New Canaan, Connecticut, house to cover the fee of chartering a Pan Am 747 to get the survivors and a few hundred additional orphans out of the country. A second plane, paid for by an adoption agency, would follow.

In Hong Kong, several stewardesses were informed that their plane would be departing for Vietnam, not continuing on its scheduled route. They were all offered the chance to stay behind rather than fly into a war zone; a few quietly took their leave. The night before the flight, the remaining women slept at a Hyatt hotel—or didn’t sleep at all, as one told me. On the bus to the airport they were silent. Among them was Paula.

In the air on the way to Saigon the next day, Paula mixed formula and set up cardboard cribs. The plane must have seemed cavernous: the cold, canned air with so few bodies to warm it, the rows of metal and fabric seats, the sense of a clock ticking toward inevitable pandemonium.

As it neared Saigon, the plane dove steeply to avoid possible mortar fire, causing the women’s stomachs to plunge. On the runway, the plane taxied past the wreckage of the Air Force C-5A. The stewardesses had been told to keep away from the windows, not to look at the charred gray metal set against waving palms and rice paddies.

On Operation Babylift.
On Operation Babylift.

The plane stopped. The doors were opened, and a blast of heat entered. Then people were rushing up the stairs. Children’s limbs were bare, their faces streaming. Soon the women who held the orphans had damp faces, too. “You didn’t know if it was sweat or tears,” Tori Werner, the plane’s purser, told me. The stewardesses helped pat the infants down to check for bombs and converted the upstairs cabin of the 747—where they usually served lobster thermidor and cherries jubilee to first-class passengers—into a makeshift sick bay. The children wore bracelets with their names and those of their prospective adoptive parents on one wrist, medical bracelets on the other. The Pan Am women read off diseases: polio, hepatitis, tuberculosis, chicken pox. Doctors from a Seventh Day Adventist hospital in Saigon who had been enlisted to fly with the children wanted to bring their nurses, but the women hadn’t been granted permission to leave the country. “We strip-searched the nurses and stowed them in the lavatory until after takeoff,” Werner told me.

The stewardesses loaded infants into cardboard bassinets and pushed them under the seats. They strapped in whomever they could. With some 400 children packed in, the pilot took off. The scent of vomit and loosened bowels filled the plane’s air. “That’s the smell of freedom,” Paula would remember crowing as the flight ascended, banking high in the sky.


After delivering the children to the United States, the flight’s crew was given two weeks off. Paula rested in Honolulu. Just one day later, though, she received a phone call. “Would you like to fly another babylift?” the voice on the other end asked. A flight had been chartered again.

This time the crew didn’t make it to Vietnam. Controversy had sprouted around the mission; children with living parents had been discovered among the rescues. Within a month, a federal class-action lawsuit would be filed alleging that many of them hadn’t been orphans. Years later some of the children would seek out birth mothers in Vietnam. Others would call the Pan Am stewardesses, by then retired, on Mother’s Day.

Paula signed on for other potential evacuations from Saigon in the waning days before the city’s fall. For two weeks, according to one fellow stewardess, Paula and a Pan Am crew waited at a base in Guam for assignments. Flights had to make it in and out of Saigon before nightfall; if they didn’t leave by 3 p.m., they wouldn’t leave at all. At three, the pilots and stewardesses could start drinking the tension away, before reliving the same anticipation the next day.

During those two weeks, on a flight to evacuate some Americans, Paula told me, she smuggled Vietnamese refugees on board. Because it was unofficial, you’d be hard-pressed to find their names in a passenger manifest. In Flying, she writes about a U.S.-chartered flight for a dozen aid workers; Zoe, enraged at the waste of so many empty seats, marches “in cold fury” to the Vietnamese Pan Am agent and invites him to put refugees on the plane. The plane returns to Guam with 100-odd Vietnamese bar girls and their half-American children. “A different kind of Babylift,” Paula writes. “They were all survivors, hard-edged and glittery, beautiful and absolutely fierce in their determination to make a new life—it did not much matter where.”

No one from Pan Am with whom I spoke remembered young Vietnamese women being evacuated on such a flight. Werner, though, recalled Paula getting off a plane in the Guam heat one day “just so upset. The crew had taken out only 22 people. They could have taken 150. People were desperate to get out. She thought it was very selfish.” In her fiction, it seemed, Paula had righted the wrong she’d been unable to prevent in real life.

Six

Here is fact verifiable by the existence of her two daughters: In Hawaii, Paula married a fellow Pan Am employee. She stopped flying in 1976 and shifted to a position in management, then hopscotched to catering and, finally, to operations. Her husband tried to convince her to move to California, and she gave it a shot, but the mainland never stopped feeling foreign. They returned to Hawaii, a sort of middle ground between the country on her passport and the one she considered home. In 1980, Baird and Pat moved to Hawaii, too; most of the Helfriches would eventually converge there. Pat cooked Burmese food in her kitchen. When the menu included curry, her children would descend on her house.

Baird died in 1981. Paula told me she took some of his ashes and scattered them in Moulmein, though how and when is unclear. In the 1980s and 1990s, Myanmar was one of the most isolated countries in the world. Agitation and crackdowns were common. Aung San Suu Kyi led the National League for Democracy (NLD), which won elections handily in 1990, but the military nullified the results and put Suu Kyi under house arrest for much of the next two decades.

With one of her daughters in Hawaii.
With one of her daughters in Hawaii.

To Paula’s two daughters, born in the early 1980s, Myanmar was a far-off place of wondrous tales whispered to them at night before bed. The elephants at the teak mill; lions that lived under the house in Moulmein; their uncles hunting deer or boar in Shan State. They also heard stories of the boarding school in Darjeeling, where the prince of Nepal had given their mother a rose. In winter, Paula told them, she would steal out of her dorm bedroom when she heard jackals howling at the moon, her feet light on the sharp chill of stone floors, her hands pushing a high window open. The windowsill was wide and sturdy, and she’d sit on it. The big, bright full moon hung above her. She would howl with the jackals.  


Paula and her husband divorced when she was about 50. She went back to school for anthropology and took her daughters to visit the convent in Darjeeling. Inspired by her involvement in the Transport Worker’s Union in her Pan Am days, she began to work for senator Daniel Inouye and soon became executive director of the Hawaii Island Economic Development Board. She had a knack for fundraising, event planning, and public advocacy. After a decade in politics, Paula decided to run for local office in Hilo. Her bid for county council was rebuffed; she lost to a lawyer after, as her daughter Laurien Helfrich Nuss put it, “being kicked around a bit” by the old boys’ club.

In Darjeeling, Paula told her daughters, she would steal out of her dorm bedroom at night and sit on a wide, sturdy windowsill. A bright full moon hung above her, and she would howl with the jackals.  

She retreated into daily life in Hilo. She had a boyfriend, daughters in and just out of college who visited regularly, and correspondence with Rebecca Sprecher, an old stewardess friend, with whom she jointly wrote chapters of what would become Flying. Still, the world beckoned.

In Myanmar, a series of 2007 protests incited a violent crackdown but also persistent rumors of infighting within the junta. Meetings held with United Nations officials and Suu Kyi presaged an opening. That year, Paula and Mary, her younger sister, signed up for a volunteer medical mission to the country: Mary was a nurse, and Paula served as a translator. On the plane, Paula stood up at one point and walked to the bathroom. When she returned, Mary told me, Paula announced that she was going to stay in Yangon after the mission.

She’d met someone in the back of the plane in line for the restroom who had offered her a job teaching English at an international school. He could help her get a visa. The long-ago deportation, apparently, wouldn’t pose a problem. She’d finished the heavy work of parenting, Pat had passed away in 2000, and she was no longer married. Why not go?

After the plane landed, Paula composed emails to her daughters: “Hey what do you think, your mom’s gonna move to Burma.” Laurien told me that she wasn’t surprised.


Some things from Paula’s childhood were familiar: the smells of burning wood and diesel fuel, of mohinga stalls on the streets; the multitude of ethnic groups sharing the same space. New, though, were the government minders who tracked Paula’s whereabouts. Whenever she saw them outside her apartment, she invited them in for tea. They never accepted.

Her first few years in the country coincided with increased sanctions and mass incarcerations of dissidents. Then, as though the bubble of strain hanging over the country had become so large that it could not help but quiver and burst, change began to happen. In 2010, Myanmar held its first elections in 20 years, leading to a shift from military rule to military-backed civilian rule. Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest. In 2011, the government released thousands of prisoners and signed a law allowing unions and strikes. The next year, the NLD won 43 legislative seats—by the numbers not much power, but recognition of legitimacy nonetheless. The new president introduced economic reforms, liberalizing foreign investment and reducing state control over a swath of industries. International sanctions began to dissolve.

Paula’s 2011 wedding to Saw Phillip.
Paula’s 2011 wedding to Saw Phillip.

Paula taught English to children and translated for monks. She helped to reinstate a local Rotary Club and attended biannual reunions with Loreto Convent alumni. Occasionally, she wrote articles for a Burmese business magazine. She was involved in the Pan Am network through which I met her and gave a weekly talk at the posh Governor’s Residence Hotel, lecturing about Burmese history to guests sipping gin and tonics. She always wore a flower in her hair.

And then there was love. Paula had not moved back to Myanmar with the intent of finding it, but she did. She told Sprecher, her Pan Am friend, that she encountered the object of her affection—the man she told me was her teenage boyfriend—at a horse race in Bagan, an ancient town known for its temples rising like a toothy crown into the sky. Their relationship bloomed around a campfire. It was comfortable and new, daunting and exciting.

Her father had often referred to Myanmar as a “missed opportunity.” Paula didn’t want the same to be said of her own life. “She was going to fulfill that dream of marrying a Burmese man,” her sister Mary told me, “which she could not have when she was 16.”

Seven

In July 2015, Paula wrote me an email. “Hurry! I will return to Hawaii Dec with husband… this may be it as I have health issues. Nothing fatal but serious and $$$ challenges, dammit.” For several months, we’d been talking of meeting again; this would be my only chance.

I quickly booked my ticket and flew to Myanmar. I knew I would be chasing Paula’s past down streets renamed by the regime that kicked her out, looking for her childhood in crumbling buildings. I would also be tracing the blurry line between truth and fabrication in a mind given to embellishment.

After landing, I rode into Yangon watching its famous round pagodas glint above the trees. I saw glass and steel buildings that had been constructed in just the past few years, since the loosening of trade sanctions. On traffic medians, clusters of children played soccer, their limbs flashing under the streetlights.

The next morning, I hired a driver to take me on a tour of the city, a haphazard combination of nationally relevant locations and places Paula had frequented: the Strand Hotel and the sprawling university complex where she’d canoodled with her husband way back when; Suu Kyi’s house and her father’s enormous red tomb. The driver, Than Lwin, sketched out stories of student protests, like those in 1988 that percolated from the university out to monks, housewives, taxi drivers—seemingly everyone. He didn’t tell me about the thousands of people the government killed when it retaliated. At Suu Kyi’s home on Inle Lake, Than Lwin explained how an American man—“Fifty! He was fifty!”—swam across to meet the Nobel Peace Prize winner while she was detained. There was no sensationalism in his telling of history, just action and reaction plainly related, with human idiosyncrasy sprinkled in.

In Yangon’s endless, messy traffic, cars were plastered with campaign bumper stickers and flags. Privately owned vehicles, which had more than doubled since the loosening of import laws, offered the opportunity to mount an opinion.

I had arrived in the lead-up to a general election, and Suu Kyi, still leader of the NLD, was running. I saw few campaign posters, but in Yangon’s endless, messy traffic, cars were plastered with NLD bumper stickers and flags. Privately owned vehicles, which had more than doubled since the loosening of import laws in 2011, offered the opportunity to mount an opinion.

After moving back to Myanmar.
After moving back to Myanmar.

Paula wasn’t answering her phone or email. She hadn’t come to meet me at my hotel as we’d planned. When I went to the Governor’s Residence to try to get her address, I was told that she hadn’t given her usual talk in weeks. I knew she lived in Thanlyin, a city of just under 200,000 people across the Bago River from Yangon. Than Lwin picked me up on my second day to go find her. As we sat in traffic on a bridge, he pointed out condo towers rising on the far bank; the 135-acre complex was financed mostly by a Singaporean firm. According to legend, he added, shifting easily to the ancient past, this was the same spot where Prince Min Nandar had been swallowed by a crocodile.

In Thanlyin, we went to the market, the municipal water office, two Buddhist complexes, and the local immigration office searching for signs of Paula. Than Lwin translated or spoke on my behalf. Finally, a pink-lipsticked immigration bureaucrat, one of 12 uniformed women in a room thick with wobbly stacks of manila folders, thumbed through a list of foreigners in Thanlyin—all on business, social, or meditation visas—and found Paula’s address.


My palms were sweaty when we pulled up to a concrete house with high white walls and metal gates. Her husband answered the door. So this was him, the stuff of romantic legend. He was tall, fit, and shirtless, just as Paula had described him. He chewed betel nut impassively as Than Lwin introduced us, and he spoke very little English. I saw behind him two suitcases splayed open on the floor at the edge of the nearly empty living room. Their departure from Myanmar was imminent.

Paula’s husband retreated into the house and waved me in. I stood in the living room with Than Lwin for a moment, then heard Paula’s high, loud voice as she walked in unsteadily to greet me. “We were just saying, When is Julia coming to visit?” she exclaimed. She was much sicker than she had let on in her email. Her legs had slimmed enough that, without the cane she used, they appeared unable to support her.

Her husband dusted off what little furniture remained in the living roomthey’d sold or given away the rest in preparation for their departure—and we sat down to talk. “I don’t know that I know,” I said, turning on my recorder, “how you two first met?” Finally, I would learn the full arc of their love story, of rekindled infatuation and the improbability of entering into a marriage they’d plotted as lusty teenagers.

In an instant, the myth crumbled. Paula said they’d met for the first time not long after she arrived in Myanmar. He was head of security at the school where she first taught English. Paula interrupted herself to speak in Burmese to her husband, who disappeared and reemerged with a glass of water and a pillow for her feet. “He’s Karen,” she continued, referring to an ethnic minority that has been fighting the government since the 1940s. He had once been a soldier in the Karen National Liberation Army.

I wanted to press her—I also wanted to do anything but press her. Paula was so ill, her home so bare, her husband so attentive, and my arrival so hasty. Our conversation drifted. Then, as if it could suffice, I returned to the topic of her marriage and kept my approach simple: So she hadn’t wed her teenage sweetheart, I clarified.

“Ah no,” she said brightly, as if she’d forgotten having said otherwise. “That was Allan.” He was Chinese-Burmese and had moved to Australia years before. She’d seen him once or twice when he’d come to visit Myanmar; he had five children of his own.

Her third husband’s name was Saw Phillip. He was a few years younger than her and handsome, with a broad, open smile. He was a fan of American country music, an avid cook of local delicacies like snake and eel, and a horse trainer. They spent four years circling one another, attracted but not interacting much, until they found themselves together at the horse race in Bagan. After they began to date, Saw Phillip didn’t wait long to suggest marriage; as a Christian, he didn’t approve of cohabitation before marriage. We’re too old to mess around, he told Paula as he proposed. In photos from their 2011 wedding, they wear velvety flower leis, stitched together by Paula’s daughters.

Paula and I spoke for an hour and made plans for interviews over the coming days. As Than Lwin and I drove back across the river, my mind felt thin and reedy. I tried to wrap it around the details of her life that Paula had shared and the fractures running through them. Perhaps, I thought, I could find mooring in Myanmar itself, something physical and true. Than Lwin and I headed back to Yangon, to 26 Naut Mauk Street, which used to be 26 Park Road, Paula’s first house in Myanmar.

It looked nothing like the photos I’d seen. A high fence had been erected around the house, and fancy cars sat in the driveway. Nearby, the occasional well-preserved colonial-era home faced others with walls so deteriorated that they resembled latticework. During the bad decades, I learned, the elite had allowed their houses to rot. An unpainted exterior let them live comfortably inside while seeming to remain equal with the population outside: a true facade. Now they were shells.

The remnants of Paula’s past were equally gutted in Mawlamyine, as Moulmein is now called, where Than Lwin and I drove on a sunny afternoon a few days later. We found Baird Helfrich’s teak mill, or what remained of it. The languishing structure had sat empty for years before it was finally bulldozed not long before we arrived. A towering smokestack, lumpy earth, and hunks of gray stone remained. Two stray dogs nosed the dirt. None of the neighbors knew what was going to be built on the empty land, but fresh orange bricks stacked in a pile augured some new structure.

I wondered what had happened to the elephants Paula so loved. As the economy worsened, I learned, elephants working at mills were sent into the wild to fend for themselves. But they’d lived so long in captivity that they starved. Supposedly, mossy hunks of elephant bones still litter the jungle around Mawlamyine.

Eight

There is another version of how Paula left Burma in 1963, less dramatic but no less devastating. The Chinese invasion of northern India the year before had put a stop to her classes in Darjeeling ahead of a holiday break; students had descended from the mountains on a train line clogged with munitions for the Indian army. When classes resumed in the new year, Burma’s government had tightened restrictions on foreigners’ movement across the country’s borders. Paula never graduated from Loreto Convent. She moved to Rangoon, took a typing course, and worked at the travel desk at the Strand—that’s all true. She was in love with Allan and she wanted to stay in Burma, even as it was falling apart around her.

In this version, the real one, triangulated from letters, the memories of family and friends, and her own contradictions, Paula was sent away—simple as that. Pat and Baird made the decision. Her parents needed permission from the government; any foreigner trying to leave the country would have had to fill out the proper paperwork. They did so, and then they put her on a plane to Illinois. Her younger siblings were told that she needed to expand her opportunities. She also needed to meet, as her sister Mary put it, other fish in the sea.

“We knew America was going to be a big change for you and that all of us are going to have to do some adjusting to get back into the swing of American life,” Baird wrote in a November 1963 letter to Paula, just a few weeks after she’d left. “We also think that some of your initial impressions will modify slightly, and hope that things are gradually settling down for you,” chimed Pat in the next missive.

As I read these letters, sitting on my couch in New York on spring mornings that were longer and brighter every week, I considered how something as objective as the sun in Chicago must have betrayed Paula. She’d never experienced seasons, other than dry and rainy. She wouldn’t have been used to the way daylight up north gets thinner as September moves to November, and how the sun races across the sky in December. The loss of light, along with the cold, would have felt foreign, perhaps like an alternate reality.


Autobiographical memory is among the trickiest of all psychological materials. The emotional content of an experience affects the way it becomes imprinted in the mind, which then erodes with age. Research also shows that the emotions we feel when looking back on an experience, along with the reasons we want to remember it, shape which details surface and which are forgotten. There’s other sculpting that occurs between an experience and its recollection. “Knowledge acquired after an event, and changes in our feelings toward and appraisals about an event, can lead to biases in how we recall emotional details,” psychologists Alisha C. Holland and Elizabeth A. Kensinger wrote in a 2010 study. Memory, then, can be factually inaccurate but also the truest window into how a person perceives her life.

The stories people believe about themselves depend on audience reception, too. Storytelling, as an evolutionary mechanism, is how humans transmit facts, using sticky emotional content to amplify instructive potential. In Paula’s narration of her life, I discerned call and response: People’s fascination with specific details, their evident desire for shock and awe relieved by romance and justness, influenced the tales she spun. I was one of these people who, with a needy ear, unwittingly encouraged her. “Mom knew so much about the world, fact-wise,” her daughter Laurien said. “She had this ability to tell stories and embellish or create them in such a way that they became these legends.”

Pain also played a part. “Coping mechanisms in dealing with emotional disappointment … can also influence memory,” Holland and Kensinger wrote. Laurien noted that her mother “found comfort in being able to almost psychologically reframe her trauma through telling a truth that felt right to her versus what was literally fact.” When I compare the facts of Paula’s life that I discovered with the version she told me, where there are inconsistencies there is also survival instinct, a need to persevere through chaos, to rationalize mistakes made, love sacrificed, and stability lost. Each creative retelling of her past enabled Paula to take a step forward, bridging gaps in official narratives she did not write. Stories allowed her to generate fissures in the flat surfaces of power structures that she could not control.

In Vietnam.
In Vietnam.

One of those structures was Myanmar itself, whose government all but erased the first decade of her life. The regime didn’t talk about or teach the history of the 1950s, except to say that the civilian authorities of the day didn’t care about nationalism and were risking the country’s future. State propaganda still paints the fleeting decade between colonialism and military rule with the same black brush; it is sometimes called the “time of trouble.” Than Lwin told me that he wanted to study history, but the university in Yangon was closed for much of the 1990s, when he was of student age, for fear of an uprising.

Only recently have efforts to preserve memories and revive open discussion emerged. Last year a collection of Burmese and Western academics relaunched the Independent Journal of Burmese Scholarship. Christina Fink of George Washington University told me about an oral-history project conducted in 2010 for the NGO Internews: Several dozen elderly Burmese were interviewed about the postcolonial era. Their testimonies varied, but they spoke overwhelmingly of freedom of speech, vibrant media, and the aftermath of civil war. Each interviewee put different conditions on the publication of his or her interview: “not to be released until I die,” for instance, or “not to be published until full democracy is achieved.” The interviews have not been released.

Paula’s idea of home was plastic out of necessity. She remembered it one way, experienced it another, and lived, in her mind, somewhere in between.

Nine

“I’m making a list!” Paula exclaimed when I walked into her house for lunch on my last day in Yangon. At that point, I’d spent hours listening to stories in which dates shifted and anecdotes played out first in one setting, then in another. I had resolved to ask no more questions, only to be present. “A list of all the places I’ve been for you,” she continued. “I loved anything to do with weird places and blood and guts and gore.”

She numbered the list in shaky block letters. She started with the Yucatán, where she’d climbed pyramids and thought of Burma’s jungles, and then the Amazon. The Marquesas, Nepal, Huahine in French Polynesia, Syria. Just as she wrote “East Africa” next to number nine, her pen ran out of ink. I told her not to worry about it. She was writing on the back of an undecipherable lab report from Pun Hlaing Siloam Hospitals. It was stained with soy sauce from a feast Saw Phillip had prepared for us, which we had just devoured.

Each creative retelling of her past enabled Paula to take a step forward, bridging gaps in official narratives she did not write. Stories allowed her to generate fissures in the flat surfaces of power structures that she could not control.

I left Yangon two days before Paula and Saw Phillip were scheduled to depart for Hawaii. I spent my last sunset in Yangon walking its crooked sidewalks, sidestepping rusty splotches of betel-juice spit. Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party would win the election the following month, smiled down on me from posters that had finally sprung up during my stay. I ate a bowl of mohinga at a restaurant downtown. When he drove me to the airport that night, Than Lwin gave me a fossilized hunk of wood from his native village as a parting gift. “Maybe I am a reporter, too,” he said gravely as he shook my hand.

My arms had started to itch at dinner, and by the time I landed for a layover in Hong Kong, my entire face had swollen into a fair, if unpurpled, approximation of someone who’d lost a fistfight. I found a doctor, got a few shots, and remained in Hong Kong for 24 hours, until the swelling went down. The allergic reaction was minor, an entirely solvable bit of bodily treason, and yet the symmetry struck me—the taste of what Paula must have felt many times in her life: isolation, fear, and throbbing unreality, and then, when order was restored, a chasing sense of luck, confidence, even fearlessness.

Less than a day after I arrived home in New York, Paula landed in Hawaii with Saw Phillip. Her daughters met her at the airport and took her straight to the hospital. Within a day and a half, she had died. Liver disease was the cause. Rebecca Sprecher, her Pan Am friend, called and told me. The news struck me as both unbelievable and fitting: Paula’s death was sudden and tragic to those who knew her, but she had hurdled into it telling her own story.

The impact of a story—its spell—is unique to every listener. Different people were drawn to different aspects of Paula’s life. “She was an actress and a politician, too,” her sister Mary told me. “She was truly passionate.” Sprecher admired the combination of intellect and daring, how Paula read T. E. Lawrence and “had me reading the Raj Quartet long before Masterpiece Theater [adapted it]. She went everywhere, she had read everything, she knew everything…. I was in awe of her.” As perhaps the last person to hear Paula tell her story in full, I was rapt by the Herculean effort of remaining a woman who moved through the world with daring and panache even when outside forces threatened to disable those impulses.

“There is no Myanmar word for goodbye,” Paula wrote in the prologue she’d planned to publish with her parents’ letters. “One simply announces a departure.”

The Wreck

The Wreck

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

The Atavist Magazine, No. 65


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


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

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

Published in February 2017. Design updated in 2021.


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

connaughton-1488221772-93.jpg
An illustration of the Connaught’s launch in Newcastle. (London Illustrated News)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

connaughtall-1488172799-63.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, a little before noon, another vessel appeared.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Every soul must be saved!” Wilson shouted.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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An ROV scanning the ocean floor for the wreck.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Footage from the initial discovery of the shipwreck.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Codename: Chilbom

On a fall morning in 1976, a bomb exploded in the middle of Washington. The shock waves were felt for the next 30 years.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 59


Zach Dorfman is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council, where he was previously senior editor of Ethics & International Affairs, the Council’s quarterly journal. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles TimesNational Interest, The Los Angeles Review of BooksThe AwlDissent, and American Interest.

Editor: Joel Lovell
Designer: Tim Moore
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Muna Mire

Published in July 2016. Design updated in 2021.

Shortly after 9:30 on the morning of September 21, 1976, a light blue Chevy Chevelle carrying three passengers moved along Washington, D.C.’s Embassy Row, merging into the flow of commuter traffic around Sheridan Circle. The man in the driver’s seat was Orlando Letelier, an economist and fellow at a left-leaning think tank, the Institute of Policy Studies. In the passenger’s seat beside him was 25-year-old Ronni Moffitt, a fundraiser at IPS, and behind her was her husband of four months, Michael Moffitt, also 25, a researcher working with Letelier on issues related to the future of Letelier’s native Chile.

It was a small miracle that Letelier was there in Washington that morning, working at IPS, commuting from the house he shared in Bethesda, Maryland, with his wife and four sons. Six years earlier, he had been a close confidante to Salvador Allende, the democratic socialist elected president of Chile in September 1970. For two years, Letelier served as Allende’s ambassador to the United States. In May 1973, he became foreign minister, and three months later, as right-wing resistance to Allende was intensifying, he was appointed defense minister, in charge of a military establishment openly hostile to the president.

On September 11, 1973, that hostility erupted into a deadly coup led by military leader General Augusto Pinochet. Allende’s three years in office had been marked by intense social instability, fomented in part by the United States, which since 1962 had been covertly financing newspapers, political parties, and, eventually, neo-fascist paramilitary groups as part of its covert war against leftist political movements in Latin America. That morning tanks surrounded Moneda Palace, the seat of Chile’s presidency. Just before noon, the Chilean air force began strafing the building. A firefight ensued between military forces and pro-Allende snipers positioned around the palace. Rather than be taken prisoner or forced into exile, Allende, holed up in La Moneda, took his own life.

Over the next few months, more than 1,200 people—leftist politicians and government officials, union leaders, activists, and students—were summarily executed. Many were arrested, brought to detention centers, and then murdered, their bodies flung across Santiago thoroughfares and dumped along urban riverbanks. On the morning of the coup, Letelier rushed to the Defense Ministry to try to restore order. In an interview published posthumously in Playboy in 1977, Letelier said that the moment he entered the ministry, he “felt a gun in my back” and was quickly “surrounded by ten or twelve men,” all pointing their weapons at him. He was taken into military custody. That night, from his holding room, Letelier watched nearly two dozen executions in the palace courtyard. At 5 a.m., he heard a commotion outside his room. “Now it’s the turn of the minister,” one soldier said. About 30 minutes later, a group of armed men entered his room, one carrying a blindfold. Letelier knew immediately what was coming. While he was being led to the courtyard, however, an argument ensued between two officers over who was in charge. Letelier remembered one of his captors saying, “You’re lucky. They won’t give it to you, you bastard.”

Instead he was flown with other prominent political prisoners to a detention center on Dawson Island, a frigid, forlorn place in the Strait of Magellan, closer to the tip of Antarctica than to Santiago. Letelier was beaten, threatened with execution, and forced to perform hard labor in subzero conditions. He remembered Dawson as “an inaccessible, frozen hell.”

After three months there, Letelier, malnourished and greatly weakened, weighed only 125 pounds. Another six months went by before he was transferred to a less punitive facility north of Santiago. A year after the coup, he was suddenly released from military custody and sent to Venezuela, where the powerful governor of Caracas had been lobbying for his release. He rejoined his family there and was offered the research position at IPS, which was hostile to the junta and critical of U.S. intervention in Latin America.

When the bomb went off in Sheridan Circle, Orlando Letelier’s Chevelle was lifted entirely off the ground, flames roaring from its windows. An explosive consisting primarily of C-4 had been attached to the car’s I-beam, directly beneath the driver’s seat. The flaming vehicle crashed into a Volkswagen in front of the Romanian embassy.

Michael Moffitt regained consciousness in the back seat, overcome by heat and the stench of burning hair and flesh. His shoes were blown off his feet; at first he had no feeling below the waist. Gasping for air, Moffitt pulled himself through a shattered window and saw his wife standing with her back to him. He moved to the driver’s side to check on Letelier.

Moffitt found Letelier facing backward and wedged between the steering wheel and the driver’s seat. The bottom of the car had been blown out, and Letelier had been rotated 180 degrees, folded over like a piece of origami. When Moffitt tried to lift Letelier out of the car, he saw that his body was completely severed at the torso. Letelier would die within minutes.

Because Ronni’s back was turned to him, Moffitt hadn’t seen that his wife was clutching her throat as she stumbled away from the car. Nor did he realize that her face was badly burned and that a piece of shrapnel the size of a thumbnail had pierced her carotid artery. He looked away from Letelier, who Moffitt realized was hopeless, and watched his wife fall to the ground, blood gushing from her mouth.

Within minutes of the explosion, Sheridan Circle was swarming with hundreds of law enforcement personnel from several agencies—local D.C. police; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms; the FBI; the Secret Service; and the Executive Protection Services (responsible for safeguarding members of the foreign service) were all present. When FBI special agent L. Carter Cornick Jr. had arrived, about ten minutes after the bombing, his first thought upon surveying the crime scene was that it was a “nightmare.” Cornick didn’t know if the FBI had jurisdiction, but he began to work as if it did. He saw the remains of a man being loaded into an ambulance; a woman lying on the side of the road, an emergency worker attempting to revive her, to no avail; and a crazed man, covered in burns, “deafened and incoherent,” screaming about an organization called DINA.

It was still morning rush hour, and cars were backed up for miles. When another official tried to reopen part of the circle to vehicles, Cornick ordered them to cease immediately. “I said, ‘No! I don’t care what you do with traffic,’” he recalled. “‘The crime scene is here once.’” To make matters worse, rain had begun to fall, washing away particulate matter that Cornick knew would be crucial to the investigation. (Human detritus was eventually recovered from the roofs of nearby embassies, some 40 feet off the ground.)

As the FBI’s explosives unit fanned out across the area, Cornick learned that the bureau had been given jurisdiction over the case and that he would be running the show.

I met with Cornick last summer at his home in suburban Virginia. At 75, dressed in khakis and a crisp blue dress shirt, he’s still trim and youthful looking, an easygoing, natural-born raconteur.

A former marine, Cornick worked counterterrorism for the FBI for over twenty years. In the early 1970s, he helped solve armed robbery cases in Puerto Rico, then later investigated the 1983 American embassy bombing in Beirut that killed 63.

“Bombing investigations are inherently difficult to solve,” Cornick said, “because evidence is destroyed as well as people.” For 12 years, until his retirement in 1988, he led the FBI’s investigation into the Letelier bombing.

The only reason the FBI had any claim on the case at all was due to a law called the Protection of Foreign Officials Statute, which had only been written in 1972. And the foreign-ambassadors clause of the law, which gave the bureau the authority to investigate crimes committed against current or former diplomats, was only added at the suggestion of a junior State Department attorney. That Cornick would work the case was dependent on this minute legal detail.

Larger forces were also at play. During Watergate, the FBI—which investigated the break-in and eventually identified members of the Nixon administration and re-election campaign as culpable—was under tremendous political pressure. L. Patrick Gray, the FBI’s acting director, helped the Nixon administration delay the investigation in 1972, and so legitimate concerns about the independence of the bureau led to the creation of the major crimes unit in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. For the first time, and much to the chagrin of agents in the bureau, U.S. attorneys would work investigations with their colleagues from the FBI instead of merely prosecuting them. Watergate was handled this way, and the Letelier bombing was the second case to fall under the unit’s authority.

Early on the morning after the bombing, the FBI’s special agent in charge, Nick Stames, called Cornick into his office and told him he’d be working the case with the Justice Department.

“No, I’m not,” Cornick recalled saying. “I have no intention of working with the Justice Department. I don’t want some assistant U.S. attorney telling me how to run a case.”

The man who would become his partner was equally unenthusiastic. When assistant U.S. attorney Eugene Propper heard about the Letelier killing, his first thought was that it would become an albatross hanging around some poor prosecutor’s neck. “I remember sitting at lunch with a very good friend of mine, who was also an assistant U.S. attorney, saying, ‘I wonder who’s going to get that case,’” Propper told me when we talked last summer. “‘That’s not going to be any fun.’ And when the U.S. attorney spoke to me about it, he said, ‘Look, we’ve never had a case like this. We may never solve it no matter what you do. Give it your best shot.’”

Propper, who went on to coauthor a book about the killing, Labyrinth, in 1982, was only 29 when he was assigned to the most high-profile investigation in the country. Today he expresses shock at some of his own actions nearly 40 years ago. In his pursuit of the case, he even agreed to be led blindfolded to a meeting with a prominent anti-Castro militant in Miami. “I wonder what sort of insanity caused me to do that,” he said. But then he recalled that the militant told him, “If we wanted you dead, we wouldn’t have to blindfold you.”

Propper and Cornick met for the first time in Propper’s cramped office the morning after the bombing. They were an incongruous duo: Cornick clean-cut and clean-shaven, genteel, and deeply southern; Propper an outspoken, bearded, motorcycle rider from Long Island. For the next three years, the two men would work together on the case the bureau codenamed Chilbom.

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Rescue crews and investigators at the site of the bombing, September 21, 1976. (Photo: Associated Press) 

Within two days of the bombing, an informant named Ricardo Morales told the FBI that he knew who was responsible for the killings. It was two Cuban brothers, he said—Guillermo and Ignacio Novo—living in Union City, New Jersey. Both were well-known anti-Castro militants, and both believed themselves to be—and were anxious to be considered—part of a much larger fight against communism that extended through all of Latin America and, indeed, in their minds, across the globe. When asked where his information came from, Morales, a high-ranking member of Venezuela’s intelligence services, said that he learned about the Novos from Dr. Orlando Bosch, an infamous anti-Castro terrorist, federal fugitive, and trained pediatrician also living in Venezuela. Morales, himself a committed anti-Castro militant, was a profoundly shrewd operator, at various times informing for the CIA, FBI, DEA, and Miami Police Department, all the while working for the Venezuelan intelligence agency, known as DISIP.

This arrangement was less unusual than it may seem. By the late 1960s, DISIP was populated by a number of high-profile anti-Castro Cubans. To this day there are lingering questions as to why the Venezuelan intelligence service would absorb so many foreigners into its ranks, given the obvious sensitivities of the job. It may have something to do with what American officials referred to in the early 1960s as the “disposal problem”—that is, what to do with Cuban militants who’d been trained by America to take on Castro and, now living in exile in America, were waging that fight on U.S. soil, in operations the U.S. government didn’t sanction and couldn’t control. As far back as the Kennedy administration, officials knew they had created something of a monster: thousands of highly committed anti-Castro foot soldiers willing to wage war across the hemisphere in the effort to defeat communism.

Such men were useful to the CIA, if they could be managed. But they often proved unwilling to abide by agency strictures. When I started discussing Morales’s and Bosch’s roles in the case with Cornick, he gave me a quizzical look, then asked, “Do you know how the Cubans got to Venezuela?” When I said no, he erupted, “The agency put them down there!” Cornick claims that the CIA placed Cubans “recruited by the agency to fight the good war against Castro” into Venezuelan intelligence. (I later asked retired CIA agent Jack Devine, who helped run covert operations in Latin America for over two decades and was stationed in Chile from 1971 to 1974, about Cornick’s claim. “He’s full of shit,” Devine responded. “Go show me. Prove it.” This was the only instance during our interview where Devine, who was otherwise guarded and deft in his responses, flashed a hint of pique.)

Given the thick web of relationships, some of which were still operational in 1976, between the Cubans in DISIP and the CIA (not to mention the vested interest the agency has to this day in not disclosing these ties), it’s hard not to consider Cornick’s assertion credible.

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Guillermo Novo, November 1975. (Photo: Courtesy of latinamericanstudies.org)

These Cubans in Venezuela were linked to the Novo brothers—the men who Ricardo Morales told the FBI were responsible for the killings—through an umbrella group called the Coordination of United Revolutionary Organizations. Cuban militants were notoriously splintered, and CORU—formed at a meeting in the Dominican Republic in June 1976, three months before the Letelier bombing—was an attempt to bring together the major exile groups and to coordinate future targets, there to put aside their differences and focus on shared enemies and goals.

There were a number of anti-Castro groups in attendance, among them the radical Cuban Nationalist Movement (CNM), represented at the meeting by Guillermo Novo and another of the group’s leaders, Jose Suarez, whose reputation for ruthlessness (his nickname was Charco de Sangre—“Puddle of Blood”) was widely known. Orlando Bosch, the source whose information regarding the Novo brothers had been passed on to the FBI, was also there. According to a declassified FBI telegram from late September 1976, Bosch had an agreement with the Venezuelan government: As long as he refrained from planning and committing terrorist attacks inside Venezuela, he would be allowed to raise money for anti-Castro activities (an agreement he violated four months after the meeting, in October 1976, when he and another Cuban in Venezuela, Luis Posada, conspired to bomb a Cubana Airlines plane, killing 73, including Cuba’s national fencing team).

At the time of the CORU meeting, Guillermo and Ignacio Novo were famous, or infamous, among the exile groups for their botched attack on the United Nations headquarters in December 1964. Using a bazooka, they launched a rocket across the East River, hoping to strike the General Assembly during a speech being given by Che Guevara. The Novos misfired, the missile fell into the river, and nearly two weeks later they were apprehended for the attack—only to be released in June 1965 because they were never properly processed by the NYPD. Farcical as the operation might have been, it foreshadowed a stunning wave of violence, all in the name of anti-Castro militancy, that would be carried out within the borders of the country most committed to stopping the spread of communism.

Between 1974 and 1976, there were over 200 bombings in the Miami area alone, including the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the local FBI office, the Dade County Police Department, and the airport. Five Cuban exiles were assassinated during this time.

For his part, after the botched UN attack, Guillermo Novo orchestrated a scheme to blow up a Cuban ship anchored in Montreal and to attack the Cuba booth at the Montreal World’s Fair in 1967. A trained chemist, Novo worked as a lab supervisor in a chemical company in New Jersey. In 1968, when he was expelled from the American Chemists Association after being convicted of possession of explosives, he turned to selling cars, at least during the day.

Jose Suarez, the Novos’ partner in the Cuban National Movement, also led a double life selling cars in New Jersey. Suarez was a colonel in Castro’s army before defecting to the United States in October 1960 and receiving training by the CIA for the Bay of Pigs invasion. According to an FBI informant at the CORU meeting, it was Suarez who told attendees that the CNM needed to “perform one more contract” for the Chilean government before they could cease operations in the U.S.

When Carter Cornick arrived at the bomb scene in Sheridan Square and heard Michael Moffitt screaming about DINA, the name meant nothing to him. But it meant a lot to Letelier’s family and colleagues at IPS, whom Cornick visited the evening of the bombing. They told Cornick they were convinced that the government of Chile, all the way up to President Augusto Pinochet, was complicit in the crime. And they all believed that DINA, short for the Directorate of National Intelligence, was the prime culprit.

DINA was Chile’s combined foreign intelligence agency and domestic secret police. In the years after the coup, DINA agents were responsible for hundreds of summary executions and nocturnal disappearances (in which, after the disappeared were murdered, their bodies were often loaded onto airplanes, their stomachs slit open to prevent floatation, and dumped into the sea). From late 1973 to 1977, DINA was led by Pinochet’s right-hand man, Manuel Contreras, who also served as a CIA informant during those years against leftist sympathizers in Chile. The CIA’s friendliness toward the Pinochet regime, and DINA in particular, manifested itself in other ways. A State Department official named Bob Steven, who was based in Santiago in the mid-seventies, said in an interview in 2001 that the CIA possessed what “amounted to a veto” over the State Department’s reporting on the country’s human rights abuses, making it nearly impossible for State Department officials in Santiago to transmit information back to D.C. about the regime’s use of torture or extrajudicial murder.

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Orlando Letelier, Washington, D.C., 1976. (Photo: Museum of Memory and Human Rights)

As a former high-ranking member of the Allende government, Orlando Letelier still had important connections in Washington, through which he lobbied forcefully against the Pinochet regime. He was particularly close to prominent Senate liberals Ted Kennedy and George McGovern and congressmen Tom Harkin and George Miller. He spoke at the UN about mass torture being perpetrated by the regime and helped convince the Dutch government to cancel a $63 million investment in Chile’s mining industry. As Letelier’s stature rose, Pinochet and Contreras feared that he was becoming the unofficial leader of the opposition and that he would begin to form a government in exile.

That a military government with a history of murdering its enemies would seek to obliterate one of its most prominent critics should not have been shocking. But the Letelier killing was followed by a surprising suspension of disbelief in Washington. Many refused to consider that a foreign government would be so brazen as to commit a spectacular assassination a mere 100 yards from the Chilean ambassador’s residence. It is hard to imagine a less covert way of eliminating one’s adversaries.

The CIA quickly made clear that it was disinclined to view Chile as a suspect. Jack Devine, the retired CIA agent who was based in Chile from ’71 to ‘74, described the Letelier killing to me as one of those situations “where conventional wisdom and rationality sometimes gets in the way of intelligence.” The assassination was seen as so “outlandish,” he said, that the idea that the Chileans—our allies, after all—could have committed it was “almost incomprehensible.” Devine said that his view was shared by almost everyone he worked with in intelligence at the time. A declassified National Security Council memorandum, written the day of the killing, speculated that, “in view of Letelier’s role in the Allende government, right wing Chileans are the obvious candidates. But they seem to be too obvious, and we think that they would think twice about creating a martyr for the Chilean Left.”

The germ of an unlikely idea began to grow, nurtured by the ascendant conservative politics of the time: that Letelier was murdered by one of his own in an effort to discredit the Chilean regime. The day after the killing, the New York Times editorial board floated this possibility. Prominent right-wing intellectuals and politicians such as William F. Buckley, Jesse Helms, and Ronald Reagan, who hosted his own radio show at the time, all ran with the idea. Some even suggested that Letelier was a secret Soviet or Cuban agent.

In such a charged environment, federal investigators felt the political ramifications of the case acutely. They were attacked by liberals for not assuming the culpability of the Chilean government; they were attacked by conservatives for trying to demonize a steadfast ally in America’s war on communism.

“When we looked at the Chileans,” Propper told me, “we looked at the Pinochet government, which really came into effect because the CIA helped get rid of Allende. I met with people at the CIA who said, ‘What the hell are you doing? You can’t be pulling that shit up again.’”

The State Department was also not enthused about the investigation. The prevailing stance at Foggy Bottom was one of passive, even hostile, noncooperation. According to Bob Steven, who returned to D.C. in 1977 to oversee the Chile desk, “The basic attitude was that we had approved the coup, that our interests were best served by a military regime, and that it was not in the U.S. interest to see the situation become inflamed or otherwise rattle the cage.” Nonetheless, Steven began to pursue the case vigorously and was censured by the assistant secretary through an intermediary. “He called me in and said, ‘Bob, we really think that we should let Justice take the lead in this.’ The signal was very, very clear: Lay off.”

“The CIA helped get rid of Allende. I met with people at the CIA who said, ‘What the hell are you doing? You can’t be pulling that shit up again.’”

Under this intense glare, Cornick and Propper turned their attention to anyone other than the Chilean government who might have a motive for the killing. “Everyone kept telling us, ‘DINA did it, DINA did it, DINA did it.’ Well,” said Cornick, “that and a dime will get you a cup of coffee in a courtroom.” Letelier had a reputation as a lothario, for instance (it was widely known that he was having a relationship with a well-connected Venezuelan woman); maybe he was killed by a jealous spouse. Another theory had it that perhaps he was involved with Ronni Moffitt, and so Michael had arranged for the murder. As Propper recalled, “The FBI felt quite strongly that they’d look like idiots if they investigated all this other stuff”—meaning leads that went back to the Chilean government—“and it turned out to be that his wife wanted him dead because he had an affair.”

These theories quickly proved baseless, while the chatter about the role of the Cuban Nationalist Movement was unceasing. Cuban diplomats at the United Nations, whom Propper met with in late 1977, claimed that Cuban intelligence had identified the CNM as the authors of the bombing. There was the talk from Orlando Bosch in Venezuela about the role of the Novo brothers. There was evidence that Bosch, Guillermo Novo, and Suarez had traveled together to Venezuela in December 1974, on their way to Chile to establish a relationship with the Pinochet government. There were also tantalizing reports from FBI agents working informants in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, as well as in Union City, of Guillermo Novo meeting with a mysterious tall, blond Chilean, a colonel in the Chilean intelligence services, just prior to the bombing.

In mid-October 1976, Propper brought Guillermo and Ignacio Novo before a grand jury. The Novo brothers denied knowledge of the killing. But Propper and Cornick became increasingly suspicious that if the Novos hadn’t killed Letelier themselves, they knew who ordered the assassination. So Propper tried to arrange a trip to Venezuela, in order to get Bosch’s official testimony about the Novos’ involvement and to procure hard evidence that Guillermo had traveled through the country. To Propper’s increasing frustration, though, Venezuelan officials, who now had Bosch in custody, stonewalled him for months, refusing to permit him to meet with Bosch.

Finally, in March 1977, after exhausting legal negotiations with the Venezuelans, Propper was granted permission to travel secretly to Caracas, but he was still denied a meeting with Bosch. He spoke with a DISIP official who said he had personally met Novo and Suarez, who were with Bosch in Caracas in 1974. Back in the U.S., Propper, now surer than ever that Novo and Suarez were key to the case, now called Suarez to testify at the grand jury. Suarez refused to cooperate and was jailed for contempt. He would remain in prison for nearly a year, until late March 1978—the longest possible jail time for the violation.

Propper and Cornick also began to close in on Guillermo Novo. Armed with proof that Novo left the U.S. illegally—his parole agreement from the attempted bombing in Montreal in 1967 forbade him from traveling outside the country—Propper arranged for a hearing on Novo’s parole violation in late June 1977. When the day came, Novo failed to appear, becoming a fugitive. It was a disastrous development for Propper, who’d finally caught Novo in a bind and planned to use Novo’s precarious legal situation to pressure him into talking. Now the man had disappeared entirely.

But other members of the Cuban Nationalist Movement did start talking—even bragging—to their associates about their exploits. Ricardo Canete was a small-time criminal in Union City with ties to the CNM. In the spring of 1977, Canete was caught counterfeiting U.S. currency and admitted that he had also provided false IDs to CNM members after the Letelier bombing. Canete, pressured into informing for the FBI, relayed conversations he’d had with two CNM members—a man named Alvin Ross, who told Canete he’d helped build the bomb that killed Letelier, and another named Virgilio Paz, who admitted that he’d taken part in the killing.

Canete feared for his safety. By sharing their exploits with him, Ross and Paz had purposefully brought him into the conspiracy. He could no longer claim that he merely provided these men with false documents; he was now an accessory after the fact to a double murder. One evening in March 1978, concerned that Canete would testify to a grand jury, Paz and Ross blindfolded him and drove to a windowless safe house. They took him to a room whose walls were lined with machine guns and threatened him and his family.

Of all the CNM members involved in the killing, Ross was the oldest. Paz, who was only 24 when the assassination took place, was almost two decades younger. But the two men had much in common. Paz, who was 15 when he fled Cuba in 1966, blamed Castro for the death of his father, a former officer in the Cuban military expelled after the revolution. Paz traveled with his family to Mexico City, en route to defecting to the United States. While in transit, Paz’s father contracted pneumonia and died. Settling in Union City—home to the second-largest Cuban population in the United States—Paz became involved with the CNM at a very young age. He was selected as the leader of its youth section, and was the director of its newsletter, El Joven Nationalista (The Young Nationalist).

Ross was a veteran and victim of America’s secret war against the Castro regime. Born to a British father and a Cuban mother, he fled the country soon after Castro’s final victory on New Year’s Day 1959. Like Jose Suarez and Luis Posada, he was recruited by the CIA to fight in the Bay of Pigs in April 1961. Indeed, like Posada, he was brought to Guatemala by the CIA and trained as an infantry captain in anticipation of the invasion. (He claimed to the FBI that in Guatemala someone from the U.S. embassy gave him a phosphorus weapon disguised as a pack of cigarettes.) Ross was taken captive during the botched invasion of April 1961, and was eventually released in a prisoner exchange.

Paz and Ross detested Letelier for his socialist political leanings, but their eagerness to take part in the assassination went beyond their desire to rid the world of one more leftist.

According to Cornick, the CNM “wanted recognition by the Chilean government. That was the important thing in becoming a legitimate force in exile. That’s what they wanted. And the Chileans agreed to provide training. So there was a quid pro quo in there.” The hope was that cooperation with the Pinochet government, which was seen as a beacon of anticommunism and a regional leader, would catapult the CNM to preeminence among the Cuban exile community.

For Cornick and Propper, though, proving that the CNM was working directly with the Chilean government—connecting the dots between the men in Union City and DINA—was an ongoing exercise in frustration.

They did have one possible if puzzling lead, concerning two DINA agents entering the country in late August 1976, about a month before the Letelier assassination. Despite its general reluctance to get involved in the investigation, the State Department handed over to Propper and Cornick photographs and background information on the DINA agents—Juan Williams and Alejandro Romeral—who’d entered the U.S. through Miami with official Chilean passports.

The memo from the State Department recounted a bizarre diplomatic incident in Paraguay a month earlier: At the request of DINA head Manuel Contreras, two Chilean men using those same names—Williams and Romeral—had also applied for visas to the United States. As part of their cover, “Williams” and “Romeral” were going to travel to the U.S. as Paraguayan nationals. When a Paraguayan official informed the American ambassador, George Landau, about Contreras’s request, Landau grew suspicious. Why would intelligence agents from Chile, a friendly government, need to travel to the U.S. with false Paraguayan passports? It was well known that spies from friendly regimes used false names when they traveled, but not under the aegis of another government. Notifying the CIA and State Department, the ambassador rescinded the visas for Romeral and Williams, but not before copying the photographs of both men from their passports.

Then, prior to Williams and Romeral entering the U.S. with Chilean passports in August, the Chilean government informed U.S. officials, including the CIA, that the two men were planning to visit the country. This was not exactly an advisable strategy to carry out an assassination, thought Cornick. If DINA was planning on using these men to kill Letelier, why would they alert the U.S. government to their presence on American soil after they’d already botched an attempt to shroud their trip in secrecy?

Cornick checked immigration records and found no mention of Romeral or Williams passing through customs. For months it remained a dead end, until July 1977, when FBI agents showed the passport pictures to Ricardo Canete, the counterfeiter turned informant, and a jailed Cuban militant named Rolando Otero. In front of Cornick, Otero identified Williams as a Chilean colonel he met in February 1976. Separately, Canete identified Williams as the blond Chilean colonel he had seen meeting with Guillermo Novo shortly before the assassination.

Propper and Cornick now knew that Williams had been in the country. They knew that he was a colonel in the Chilean intelligence services. And they had a witness placing him with Guillermo Novo right before Letelier was killed.

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Wanted poster for Virgilio Paz, 1978.

What they still didn’t have, though, was hard evidence that either man had entered the United States. So Cornick revisited the INS office in December 1977, this time with a team of FBI agents, scouring the facilities until they found documents showing that Romeral and Williams had indeed entered the country in August 1976. The problem now was that the documents also showed that both men exited the country on September 2, 1976, long before the assassination. If Williams left the U.S. then, how could he have met with Novo around the time of the killing?

Whatever the truth was about who these men were, and whether they were the same men in the strange Paraguay incident, Propper wanted to question “Williams” and “Romeral.” There was, however, the small matter of inducing the Chilean government to produce two primary suspects—covert operatives in that country’s intelligence agency—in a high-profile assassination. In February 1978, Propper sent a formal request to the Chilean government, imploring Chilean authorities to bring Romeral and Williams in for questioning regarding the Letelier bombing.

A month after Propper’s official request, the photos that he provided of Romeral and Williams were leaked by someone at the FBI to the Washington Star, a widely read daily newspaper at the time, and were subsequently published on the cover of the conservative Chilean daily El Mercurio. El Mercurio identified Williams—the “blond Chilean” who was not a Chilean at all. His real name was Michael Townley. Townley was the son of a Ford executive formerly based in Chile. He was born in Waterloo, Iowa. He was an American.

The release of the photos unleashed a torrent of information. An employee of the Organization of American States identified “Romeral” as Armando Fernandez, a captain in the Chilean army and DINA operative. Fernandez had a sister in New York. When agents questioned her, she confirmed that her brother had visited the U.S. in early September 1976.

As for Townley, FBI agents fanned out up and down the East Coast to question his friends, family, and business associates. They spoke to his father, Vernon, who now worked as a bank executive in South Florida. They visited an AAMCO auto-body shop in Miami, where Townley was employed as a mechanic in the early seventies, before the coup. And they stopped at a shady private-security equipment retailer, where, under the alias Kenneth Enyart, Townley appeared to have made a number of purchases of surveillance electronics on behalf of the Chilean government.

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July 1979 issue of El Nacionalista, publication of the Cuban Nationalist Movement. (Photo: Courtesy of latinamericanstudies.org)

But it was in Tarrytown, New York, a picturesque commuter village on the Hudson River, where the pieces all came together. Townley had a sister living there. When agents showed her the picture of the man identified as “Williams” and asked if he was her brother, she said yes and that he had stopped in for a brief visit—the first in some time—in September 1976. When agents asked to look at her phone records, she obliged. There they found a series of phone calls from the house in Tarrytown to Union City on September 19, 1976—two days before the assassination. The number in Union City was the home phone of Guillermo Novo.

On March 19, 1978, six days after FBI agents questioned Townley’s sister, Propper and Cornick arrived in Chile looking to make a deal with the Chilean government to let them take Townley back to the United States. They believed he was still in the country, likely being hidden by allies in DINA.

After weeks of stalling on the part of the Chileans, and intense legal wrangling between the two governments, the Chileans finally gave up Townley, and Cornick escorted him back to the U.S.

Townley was 33 when he orchestrated the murder of Ronni Moffitt and Orlando Letelier. He had lived in Chile since he was 14, eventually marrying a Chilean woman, Mariana Callejas—who would also become a DINA agent—and settling in Santiago. He was harshly anticommunist, participating in numerous acts of sabotage and helping to set up a bomb-making factory for a neo-fascist group, Patria y Libertad (which had received funding from the CIA) in 1972. In the spring of 1973, Townley, pursued by the Allende government, was forced to flee the country.

After the coup in September 1973, though, Townley returned, and within six months he’d become an official agent of DINA. The agency sent him on several missions abroad—to Argentina in September 1974, where he helped arrange the fatal car bombing of the dissident Chilean general Carlos Prats and his wife; to Mexico in the spring of 1975, to try to assassinate a group of leftist Chilean politicians; to Rome in October 1975, where he masterminded a failed assassination attempt on Bernardo Leighton, an exiled Chilean politician and his wife (the would-be assassin succeeded in maiming both); and then to Washington, D.C., in September 1976, to kill the man who may have been the Pinochet regime’s most vocal critic. In just a few years, he had gone from being an agitator and provocateur to a state-sponsored assassin.

When Propper and Cornick brought Townley back to the United States, investigators had an important decision to make. They could prosecute him for the murder of Letelier and Moffitt, or they could pressure him into revealing details of the larger conspiracy. “We had good circumstantial evidence.” Cornick told me. “We did not have, in my opinion, a prosecutable case. So what we did was we made a deal with the worst possible guy. The government never does that. But without it, we had no case.”

In exchange for pleading guilty to the crime of conspiring to murder a former official—with a maximum sentence of just ten years, and with the first opportunity for parole after three years and four months—Townley agreed to divulge all the details of the killing. His deal stipulated that he was only required to provide information regarding violations of U.S. law or crimes committed in U.S. jurisdictions; that he could not be charged by American officials for crimes he committed abroad while working for DINA; and that, finally, once his prison sentence was completed, he would be permanently resettled in the United States under the witness-protection program. The agreement was signed on April 18, 1978.

In a conference room at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, Propper, Cornick, and other investigators sat rapt as Townley chain-smoked and paced the room, unfurling the details of the conspiracy. On behalf of DINA, Townley said, he and his wife, Mariana Callejas, traveled undercover to New Jersey in February 1975. There he met with Guillermo Novo, Jose Suarez, and another CNM member at a restaurant in Union City. Townley said that if the CNM would assist in several planned assassinations, Chile could provide material support and training to the group. Novo, noncommittal, arranged a meeting in Townley’s hotel room the next morning.

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Cuban Nationalist Movement logo. (Illustration: Courtesy of latinamericanstudies.org)

Before the agreed-upon meeting time, the three CNM members burst into Townley’s room. Suarez pointed a gun at him and his wife. The other men rifled through his belongings, accusing him of working for the CIA and searching for clues about his true identity and affiliations. Eventually, following a period of interrogation, the men relented, and a tenuous alliance, characterized from that moment on by mutual mistrust and paranoia, was formed. Soon after the meeting in Union City, Townley and Callejas traveled to Florida to meet another CNM member, Virgilio Paz, who would then join Townley on his missions to assassinate Chilean socialists in Mexico and to kill Bernardo Leighton in Rome.

In June 1976, Townley met his DINA supervisor on the outskirts of Santiago, where he was assigned the mission to assassinate Letelier. “Try to make it seem innocuous,” Townley recounted his boss saying. “But the important point is to get it done.”

Townley flew into JFK on September 9, 1976, ready to oversee the assassination. He would later reveal in letters from prison that he carried with him liquid sarin, a deadly nerve gas, secreted in a Chanel No. 5 bottle, hoping that he might get close enough to Letelier to use it. In the airport, Townley met a DINA agent (Armando Fernandez, the “Romeral” to Townley’s “Williams”) who had been conducting surveillance on Letelier. According to Townley, Fernandez handed him a document containing “a sketch of Letelier’s residence and employment,” as well as his license plate number and information about the kind of car he drove and the route he followed on his daily commute.

Townley rented a car and headed straight for Union City, where he met Novo and Suarez and requested their assistance in assassinating Letelier. A few days later CNM leadership agreed.

Using the sarin properly would be difficult, so they settled on a car bomb. According to Townley, on the evening of September 14, Guillermo Novo and Suarez gave him and Paz C-4 compound, TNT, and a detonating cord. Later that night, Townley and Paz drove from New Jersey to Washington, D.C. They spent two days trailing Letelier. On September 17, they went to Sears to purchase more parts for the explosive. Suarez arrived the next day, and the three men assembled the bomb that night and decided to immediately place it beneath Letelier’s car.

On the way to Letelier’s home, Townley recalled, he “was informed by Paz and Suarez that they expected me to place the device on the car.” They wanted to ensure that DINA—and Townley himself—were “directly tied” to the plot. After some difficulty, he attached the bomb to the car’s undercarriage.

Townley flew back to New York early the next morning and traveled to Tarrytown to visit his sister, where he made the calls—the vital evidence that the FBI would later discover—to Novo’s home in Union City. On September 19, he met with Novo one final time, then flew to Miami, where two days later he would learn on the radio that not only had Letelier been killed, but so had an American woman in the car with him. In Miami, he met Ignacio Novo for a celebratory drink and then boarded a plane back to Chile.

By April 1978, Guillermo Novo had been a fugitive for ten months, since the day he failed to appear in court on suspicion of violating his parole. The FBI hadn’t stopped pursuing him, though, and neither had police in Miami and New Jersey. So when an officer in a Miami restaurant spotted a man wearing a shaggy brown wig who nevertheless strongly resembled Novo, he was immediately suspicious. The suspicion intensified when he realized that sitting with the man he believed to be Novo was another man he was almost certain was Alvin Ross. A third, unknown man was with them. The police tailed the three men to a hotel near the airport, informing the FBI about their discovery. They were told to hold off on making an arrest—a warrant was being drawn up for Alvin Ross, whose house in Union City had recently been searched, yielding a number of explosives and bomb-making materials.

Ross’s warrant came in late the next morning, April 14. Under surveillance by the FBI and the Miami Police Department, the three men were seen loading large bags into two cars, a gray Lincoln Continental and a brown Chevy Nova. Ross got into the Lincoln and drove in one direction; Novo and the third man took the Chevy in another. A police car soon pulled right behind the Lincoln, forcing Ross to turn into an Exxon station. Ross got out of the car, identified himself, and was placed under arrest.

Agents searched the car and found a pound of cocaine, as well as a scale, a .38-caliber Derringer, a stainless-steel .38-caliber Smith and Wesson revolver with five rounds of ammunition, a loaded .45-caliber Detonics automatic with a clip containing six rounds, a loaded .38-caliber Smith and Wesson revolver with extra hollow-point rounds, a Gucci bag, a fedora, and birth certificates for a number of men. With a straight face, Ross said that he “did not know anything about the weapons and cocaine,” according to FBI reports. (Ignacio Novo’s wife later said it was powdered milk, part of a setup aimed at “discrediting the patriotic work being performed by the CNM.”) There was also a brown address book inside the trunk with the name Andreas Wilson in it, an alias of Michael Townley’s. Next to the name was Townley’s phone number in Chile.

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Mug shot of Alvin Ross, 1981. (Photo: Courtesy of latinamericanstudies.org)

The agents also found two blank checks and a New York State driver’s license for a man named Manuel Menendez, the third man they had seen with Guillermo Novo the previous night and earlier that morning. Menendez was a known member of a drug-smuggling ring that, according to a Miami Police Department intelligence report, brought 120 kilos of Mexican brown heroin into Newark a month, “a central figure in a drug organization that was so huge that DEA could not effectively penetrate it.” A single recent bust of this organization had netted 45 pounds of heroin and $400,000 in cash.

FBI agents and Miami police officers tailed Menendez and Novo until they stopped at a restaurant at the Holiday Inn Airport Lakes. They sat for about ten minutes. Then they got up and walked into the hotel lobby. Menendez exited the building, heading for a car in the parking lot, where FBI agents immediately intercepted him. Seeing the agents enter the hotel lobby, Novo turned around and walked to an elevator. An agent hurried to the elevator and rode with him, and when Novo pushed the button for the eighth floor, the agent—in what must have been the longest elevator ride of Novo’s life—waited for him to get out. As soon as he did, the agent asked for his ID. He took out a Florida driver’s license in the name of Victor Triquero. This was not persuasive, and although Novo attempted to continue denying his true identity, he eventually gave in.

After Novo was taken to the local FBI office in Miami, agents went through the contents of the brown Chevrolet and found a locked black Skyway suitcase in the trunk. Menendez denied that it was his. Then they asked Novo about it and whether he knew the combination. “Try 207,” he said. When they opened it, they found a dozen clippings of recent newspaper articles from the Miami Herald and elsewhere about Michael Townley’s transfer from Chile to the United States and his plans to testify about the assassination of Orlando Letelier.

The grand jury indictment was handed down on August 1, 1978, more than 22 months after the investigation began. It charged seven men—Manuel Contreras, Pedro Espinoza, and Armando Fernandez in Chile, and Guillermo Novo, Alvin Ross, Jose Suarez, and Virgilio Paz in the United States—with the murder of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt. (Ignacio Novo was charged concurrently with perjury and failing to report a felony.) But only three of the seven were in custody: Guillermo Novo and Ross, and Ignacio Novo, who was arrested by authorities at his sister’s home in north Jersey. Virgilio Paz had disappeared, as had Jose Suarez, who had been in prison until the end of March 1978 for his refusal to testify in front of the grand jury. Released just a few short weeks before his indictment, he, too, had vanished.

The three Chilean DINA officials—Contreras, Espinoza, and Fernandez—were thousands of miles removed from American jurisdiction and would need to be extradited to stand trial, a remote possibility. The Chilean judicial system was thoroughly subordinated to the military regime itself, and judges were cowed. Following a formal request by U.S. officials for the three men in late September, Contreras, Espinoza, and Fernandez were brought before a Chilean judge in October 1978, where all three lied about their knowledge about the crime. A wave of bombings, widely seen as a warning against pursuing the case too far, shook Chile. The home of the chief justice of the Chilean Supreme Court was bombed. Then the home of the judge investigating that bombing was bombed. The Chilean Supreme Court formally denied the extradition request.

On January 9, 1979, the trial commenced in Washington, D.C., under judge Barrington Parker. The level of security was extremely tight: Judge Parker, Assistant U.S. Attorney Propper, and at least one FBI agent had been threatened. A man had stalked an agent’s fiancée, warning her to dissuade him from pursuing the case. Once, when the judge temporarily retreated to his chambers, the Novo brothers and Ross began to viciously harangue Michael Townley, who was then in the courtroom, in Spanish, calling him a “traitor,” a “faggot,” and a “son of a whore.” Supporters of the defendants were bused down from New Jersey, lending an air of menace to the proceedings. “Someone should cut out your tongue!” yelled a Cuban woman in the gallery to Townley.

Michael Townley, now the government’s star witness, patiently recounted the whole plot on the stand. The prosecution’s case depended on making him believable. But FBI agents and prosecutors knew that his testimony alone might be insufficient, since the defense would attempt to paint Townley as unreliable—he was, by his own admission, an assassin and spy in the employ of a foreign government. So they had to provide corroborating evidence.

“An idea began to creep into my mind,” Cornick told me. He approached some of his colleagues with an audacious plan: “I said, ‘Suppose we built another bomb, just exactly like the first one. And suppose we got another car and blew that thing up. Would we get the same results?” If the two cars looked similar, argued Cornick, it would prove that Townley was the maker of the original bomb and therefore establish his reliability as a witness. Cornick’s bosses were incredulous about the idea—he had to convince them of the wisdom of allowing a confessed murderer, who also happened to be an explosives expert, to build a bomb on the government’s dollar. They had to take the request for approval, which they eventually received, all the way up to the deputy director.

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Aftermath of controlled FBI bombing, 1979. (Photo: Courtesy of Carter Cornick)

Cornick then called an FBI agent in Detroit and asked him to get in touch with General Motors and see if they could buy a car to blow up. It turned out GM had exactly the model and color Cornick was looking for. They took Townley out of prison, chaperoned by U.S. marshals, and visited every place he patronized while making the bomb—one of which was a Radio Shack right behind FBI headquarters. Townley then built a replica of the first bomb, and they attached it to the car and detonated it in an FBI training center in Quantico. As the smoke cleared, Cornick looked at Townley. He had turned “white as a lampshade,” Cornick said. Propper was also watching him. “I’ll never forget the look on his face,” recalled Propper. “Like, ‘Oh, my God, I did that.’ He looked sick, like he realized what that could have done to somebody.”

When I visited him at his home, Cornick brought out a framed set of pictures to show me. On the left side of the frame were photos of Letelier’s car. On the right were photos from the exact same angles, but of the test car. They looked identical: crumpled, burned, rent in the same places. “When I saw the car,” said Cornick, “I was just dumbstruck. We were all dumbstruck, those of us who had been at the crime scene.”

The trial lasted five weeks. The evidence was overwhelming. In prison, Guillermo Novo and Ross had been engaging in loose talk about their role in the Letelier killing, and the CNM’s activities more broadly, and admitted their involvement to fellow inmates, who became witnesses for the government.

But it was Townley’s testimony that made the case. When the jury went into deliberations, they asked for two items: the telephone receipts indicating when Townley had called Novo from his sister’s home in Tarrytown, and the pictures of the two destroyed cars. They found the defendants guilty on all counts. Guillermo Novo and Ross were each sentenced to two consecutive life sentences. Ignacio Novo was sentenced to eight years in prison, with the potential for parole after 32 months.

Finally victorious after a multiyear odyssey, FBI agents and prosecutors began saying their goodbyes. They ran into the lawyers for the defense, who, according to Cornick, were “as good as it got.” Exchanging pleasantries and shaking hands, the Cubans’ lead attorney turned to Cornick and smiled. “You got it all right,” he said, “except for one thing.”

“What he meant was who pushed the button,” Cornick said to me. “I though it was Suarez. It was Paz.”

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Protesting the jailing of Guillermo Novo, New York City, 1979. (Photo: Courtesy of latinamericanstudies.org)

Virgilio Paz woke up the morning of April 14, 1978, ready for a normal day at the car dealership where he worked. Leaving his apartment, he realized that he was low on cigarettes, so he decided to stop at a convenience store located at the corner of 48th Street and Bergenline Avenue in Union City. He double-parked his car and walked into the store, making small talk with the shop’s owner.

On the front page of the newspaper, kept on a small bench by the shop’s window, The New York Times was reporting that Michael Townley had been deported to the United States. Paz bought the paper, rushed home, and handed it to his wife. He knew immediately that Townley would talk. He gathered clothing, papers, money. He phoned a CNM sympathizer and asked him to call his workplace and tell his bosses that he was ill. He told his friend that he would need a ride out of town. That he would fill him in on the way. And then he was gone.

The Chileans and Cubans who perpetrated the murder of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt believed that they were carrying on a proud legacy of resistance to tyranny; that the revolution that shook Russia in 1917 only presaged further horrors elsewhere; and that the paramount lesson of the 20th century was not found at Auschwitz in 1945 but in Spain in 1936. Augusto Pinochet even viewed himself as a latter-day Francisco Franco.

Through DINA, the Chileans formed alliances with like-minded organizations abroad: French and Italian neo-fascists, Corsican criminal syndicates, even German crypto-Nazis now living in Chile. (Colonia Dignidad, a German commune in rural Chile founded by the serial child molester and ex-Nazi Paul Schafer, was used by DINA as a detention and torture center. Schafer connected DINA agents to ex-Nazis working in West German intelligence in order to hunt down Chilean dissidents in Europe.)

This sense of existential threat was shared by many in the Cuban exile community in the United States. It was also largely ignored by U.S. law enforcement officials, considered a matter of “local interest” reflecting narrowly provincial Cuban concerns.

The misunderstanding on the part of the Americans approached a type of willful myopia. An article from the April 4, 1978, edition of the Miami Herald (“Home Held Bomb Gear, FBI Says”) describes the electronic circuit boards found in Alvin Ross’s home in Union City. Accompanying the article is not a picture of Ross but of Guillermo Novo, walking out of a courthouse in a light-colored suit and open-necked shirt. Facing the camera, his right hand is raised. His pointer and middle finger are forming a V. Below the picture is the caption: “Guillermo Novo Flashes Peace Sign.” This was an egregious misreading of the situation.

Victory, not peace, was the organizing principle of the Cuban Nationalist Movement and its fellow travelers, and victory could only be achieved through a war waged “throughout the roads of the world.” La lucha—the struggle, the fight—could know no bounds. The question was, who was prosecuting that fight, and how, and with whose support?

It’s well documented, of course, that the U.S. government, largely through the CIA, long supported anti-communist activities throughout Latin America. But the Americans’ relationship to the individuals and terrorist groups and repressive regimes that carried out those activities—as well as the relationships of all those entities to each other—were often opaque, at best, and thick with suggestion.

Take those between the 2506 Brigade (composed of veterans of the CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion), the Cuban Nationalist Movement, and the Chilean government. In April 1975, the 2506 Brigade bestowed its first annual Freedom Award to General Augusto Pinochet. In December of that year, exiled Cuban leaders in Union City held a meeting attended by over 2,000 people in support of the Chilean junta.

In late April 1978, the lawyer for Guillermo Novo and Alvin Ross said that he was no longer representing them and that the 2506 Brigade would be covering their legal fees. A 2506 Brigade manual detailing surveillance methods, as well as bomb-making techniques, was recovered from Ross’s apartment (he, too, was a Bay of Pigs veteran trained by the CIA in Guatemala) after his arrest. These instructions included guidance on the proper use of TNT, C-4, and plastic detonating caps, all of which were used in the bomb that eventually killed Letelier and Moffitt.  

Leading up to the trial, the president of the 2506 Brigade wrote to major New York newspapers, declaring that the charges against the Novos and Ross were totally false and that their indictment was a bald attempt to persecute “Cuban Freedom Fighters.” A local merchant association sponsored a rally in Union City to protest the Novos’ and Ross’s jailing, and there were subsequent rallies held in Manhattan. On the day the trial began in January 1979, members of the Cuban Nationalist Movement walked up and down Berganline Avenue in Union City, intimidating shopkeepers into closing their stores to show solidarity with the jailed men.

These self-declared freedom fighters also unleashed a wave of terror within the U.S., the country that had given them refuge. Over a 48-hour period in December 1975, the city of Miami was shaken by thirteen separate bombings. In September 1978, the Cuban National Movement, under the nom de guerre Omega 7, bombed the Cuban Mission in New York City. The following month, it bombed a store across from Madison Square Garden and the offices of a Spanish-language newspaper in Manhattan. On March 25, 1979, bombs went off at John F. Kennedy Airport, at a pharmacy in Union City, and at a social service agency for Cuban refugees in Weehawken, New Jersey. These were followed by the bombings of the Cuban Mission in Washington, D.C., a cigar factory in Miami, and a travel agency in Puerto Rico in July. Between 1975 and 1983, Omega 7 carried out over 45 bombings in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, and at least four assassinations, including a Cuban diplomat who was gunned down in his car in Queens on September 11, 1980. This is an American reality nearly impossible to fathom today.

On the morning of October 3, 1979, Hernan Cubillos, the Chilean foreign minister, entered the ultra-exclusive River Club in Midtown Manhattan and sat down for breakfast with former secretary of state Henry Kissinger. Under Nixon, Kissinger had overseen the campaign to destabilize Allende’s Chile and bring the military to power in September 1973.

By late ’79, though, relations between the United States and Chile had grown much more strained. Two days before this breakfast, the Chilean Supreme Court had rejected the U.S.’s extradition request for Manuel Contreras, Pedro Espinoza, and Armando Fernandez, and had ordered them freed from the military hospital they were being held in. The State Department howled in protest. Many on the left in America demanded that the Carter administration sever all diplomatic ties with the Pinochet government and institute punitive sanctions against the regime.

The contents of the conversation between Kissinger and Cubillos, which I discovered in Cubillos’s personal papers, have never before been made public. According to Cubillos, who sent a classified telegram to the Chilean Ministry of Foreign Affairs summarizing his meeting, Kissinger had “harsh” words for Carter’s policy of encouraging democratization in Latin America. “What do we gain,” Cubillos reported Kissinger saying, “in replacing the military if it’s going to be left in the hands of the communists?” He added that the current administration’s treatment of the Pinochet regime was a “disgrace.”

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A never before publicized account of a conversation between Henry Kissinger and the Chilean foreign minister Hernan Cubillos. “When I mentioned the Letelier case and indicated our puzzlement at the fact that the United States did not respect Latin America’s legal institutions, he admitted we were right: that the Chilean legal decision was correct, but that this was not a legal problem so much as a political one. “It needs to be managed,” he said, “with political judgment.” Apologizing for his frankness, he said this was a bad case for us, and had been badly managed politically. He added that his only advice was that we treat the current United States administration with “brutality.” He suggested “this is the only language they understand.” He repeated this same idea several times during the conversation. He later said we should make our positions public, and move forward decisively.”

Kissinger also disparaged a number of high-level State Department employees—undersecretary Patt Derian was “stupid”; assistant secretary Viron Vaky was a “fanatic,” a “very dangerous element”—and gave advice on how Chile’s military regime could improve its image in Washington. He promised to speak on behalf of Cubillos with Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski. (“If he worked with me he would be a good element, but I don’t trust him by himself,” Kissinger said.) He advised Cubillos to try lobbying senator Howard Baker and to not spend much time on senator Jesse Helms. (Helms was too far to the right for his opinions to be useful in swaying public and political opinion.) He gave Cubillos the names of figures at prominent think tanks such as the Council on Foreign Relations, the Institute for Strategic Studies, and the American Enterprise Institute.

Cubillos asked about how the Chilean government should handle the ongoing Letelier case. It was a difficult question to answer, Kissinger said, because “the Carter administration is making enemies of its friends, and making friends with all its enemies.” He told Cubillos that the decision by the Chilean Supreme Court to deny the extradition request was correct. The Letelier case was “not a judicial problem, but a political one.” And “‘it needs to be managed,’ Kissinger said, ‘with political judgment.’”

The next administration will very likely be a Republican one, Kissinger said. According to Cubillos, he then used the idiomatic Spanish to say, “Until then, you will have to amarrar los pantalones”—resort to tough measures. “His only advice,” noted Cubillos, was to treat the Carter administration “with brutality.”

“This is the only language that they understand,” said Kissinger.

According to Cubillos, Kissinger returned to this idea “numerous times” over the course of their breakfast, which took place two days after Chile had denied the U.S. government’s extradition request for three men charged with murdering a former diplomat, and an American citizen, in the heart of Washington.

On September 15, 1980, the D.C. appellate court reversed the verdict against Guillermo and Ignacio Novo and Alvin Ross. There would have to be a retrial because some of the government’s evidence had now been deemed inadmissible. The defendants had talked loosely while in prison about their role in the bombing, including to government informants. But when those admissions of guilt were used in the trial, the appeals court ruled them “deliberately elicited.”

Propper calls the appeals court’s ruling a “horrible decision.” The anger rises in his voice even now as he speaks of it. “The case would never be reversed today,” he told me. “It was a very liberal court that came up with a theory [about the use of informants] that I think is completely bogus.” He worked on the case for years, solved it, and brought at least some of the perpetrators to justice—only to be defeated on technicalities. Still, the prosecution had an avenue for legal recourse: the appellate court’s decision could be brought before the Supreme Court on appeal. Propper, who was now in private practice, lobbied the solicitor general’s office to take the case.

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Celebrating the acquittal in Union City, New Jersey, May 1981. (Photo: Courtesy of latinamericanstudies.org)

But the politics of the case had changed, as had the country’s priorities. Carter, who had made human rights a cornerstone of his administration’s foreign policy, had given way to Reagan—whose election caused the Chilean military to “dance in the streets,” according to the U.S. ambassador there. And the new administration, pursuing a policy of aggressive anticommunism, treated the Chilean military dictatorship with forbearance, even admiration.

Bob Steven, the State Department official who’d been based in Santiago, was now working at the department’s Office of Humanitarian Affairs in Washington. Steven recalled a closed-door conversation he had with his then superior, Elliott Abrams, in which he brought up Letelier. “I just mentioned Orlando Letelier and the case and how it had affected and complicated the relationships we were having with Chile,” Steven recalled. Abrams looked at him, he said, and simply commented, “‘Wasn’t he some kind of a communist?’ In the context of the conversation we were having, I interpreted it, and I think correctly, as saying, ‘What difference did it make if he got assassinated? He probably had it coming.’”  

Elsewhere, the center was not holding: In Iran, where a revolutionary Islamic regime had overthrown the shah and upended America’s entire strategic calculus in the region; in Afghanistan, where a group of mujahideen had launched a holy war (with CIA backing) against the Soviet empire; and in El Salvador, where a ruthless oligarchy (supported by the U.S.) had suppressed a left-leaning opposition demanding land reforms, sparking a civil war that went on to kill 70,000. Looking out on a world loosed by anarchy, U.S. officials saw countries like Chile as potential stabilizers, perhaps a little impertinent at times, but an integral part of the anticommunist firmament nonetheless.

The solicitor general’s office declined to appeal. For Propper, this was much worse than the original reversal—“I was appalled,” he told me—because it meant that the Justice Department was letting the case die. Pleading with officials in the department, he reminded them that the Letelier case had involved a spectacular act of terrorism perpetrated on the streets of Washington, D.C., and that it led to a multiyear criminal investigation with many international ramifications. “I said, ‘Guys, this was the biggest criminal case in the country at the time.’ And they said, ‘Yeah, but we have a lot of issues to look at up there and this particular issue is not a big one.’” To this day, Propper is convinced that if the Supreme Court had taken the case, it would have reversed the appellate court’s ruling.

And so, in early May 1981, the second federal trial of Alvin Ross and Guillermo and Ignacio Novo began. By the end of that month, they were acquitted on all counts related to the murders.

In one final strange turn of events, in May 1983, Michael Townley was paroled from prison, after serving a mere 62 months. Eugene Propper told me something that had never been reported before, that “some prison official or trustee or someone” had mistakenly revealed Townley’s identity as a material witness for the government, thus putting his life in danger, so Townley had to be whisked away early into witness protection.

By the mid-1980s, then, not a single man named in the original indictment for the murders of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt, one of the most high profile acts of terrorism ever perpetrated in America, was in prison. Jose Suarez and Virgilio Paz were still at large. The Novo brothers and Alvin Ross had been released on appeal and acquitted. Michael Townley was living a new life under U.S. government protection. Manuel Contreras, Pedro Espinoza, and Armando Fernandez were in Chile, protected by the Pinochet government.

These dynamics all changed with a single phone call. In early January 1986, U.S. attorney Larry Barcella received an urgent message from Alfredo Etcheberry, a prominent Chilean lawyer employed by the U.S. government to handle extradition requests and other legal matters regarding the Letelier case. Etcheberry was calling about Armando Fernandez, the DINA agent who had tailed Letelier in the weeks leading up to the assassination. Through an intermediary—Federico Willoughby, Pinochet’s former press secretary—Fernandez had reached out to Etcheberry. Fernandez said he wanted to change his relationship with the United States; he was tired of living under a cloud of suspicion and wanted to be able to travel freely throughout North America and Europe. He said what he wanted, most of all, was to “clear his name,” which had been besmirched by his association with the Letelier case. He wanted to defect. In exchange, he was willing to provide testimony about Contreras’s and Espinoza’s—and perhaps even Pinochet’s—foreknowledge of the killings, and about the subsequent cover-up.

For Barcella, Fernandez’s account of the assassination was “light years beyond anything” any Chilean had previously admitted. Though as deputy chief of mission George Jones, who was stationed in Santiago at the time, recalled: “We had no way of knowing if this was a setup or what it was … there were all kinds of problems.” Jones said there was intense skepticism about whether anything could ultimately be done. “How on earth is this guy going to be gotten out of Chile?” he said. “Being an army officer, is he going to walk up to the airport and fly to the United States? That is not at all likely.” (Active-duty military officers required special permission from their commanders to leave Chile. According to Fernandez, a plane was once forced to return to Chile in mid-flight because there was suspicion that he was on it.) There was also the question of what guarantees Fernandez would demand from the U.S. government.

Still, U.S. officials were enthusiastic about pursuing Fernandez. It was now Reagan’s second term, and human rights had become a more explicit part of the administration’s foreign policy. The U.S. had begun to distance itself somewhat from the Pinochet regime. In fact, the CIA had recently launched a formal inquiry to determine whether Pinochet was himself responsible for the killings. (The 1987 CIA report, the existence of which was kept secret until October 2015, strongly concluded that Pinochet was culpable. The report itself remains classified, but a memo to Reagan from secretary of state George Schulz, who read the report, states that the CIA has “convincing evidence that President Pinochet personally ordered [Contreras] to carry out the murders.” Schulz’s memo also concludes that “Pinochet decided to stonewall on the U.S. investigation to hide his involvement” and continues to do so, including through the possible “elimination of [Contreras,] his former intelligence chief.”)

In order to communicate without drawing attention to their negotiations, U.S. officials and Fernandez’s handlers in Chile developed an ingenious solution. Fernandez had a sister who lived in New York, and she would serve, along with an American lawyer, Axel Kleiboemer, as his emissary to U.S. officials. But first they needed to be completely apprised of what Fernandez knew about the murders and what kind of deal he was willing to take.

In March 1986, Fernandez wrote his sister a letter, which was passed discreetly out of the country in a classified diplomatic pouch. The letter instructed Fernandez’s sister to call him and announce that she was thinking of taking a trip to Chile to visit family. In Chile, Fernandez would relay all the pertinent information about the case to his sister, along with his conditions. She would then meet with U.S. officials in New York. She made the trip in mid-April, and soon thereafter the settled on the general contours of the deal.

State Department officials realized, though, that they couldn’t rely on intermediaries to conduct the complex negotiations still to come. In Santiago, Deputy Chief of Mission Jones decided to arrange a secret face-to-face meeting with Fernandez. As Jones recalled, “The ambassador … didn’t want anybody else at the embassy, except for the station chief, to know anything about this. … We were so concerned that if somehow word got out, Fernandez would disappear into a cell and never be seen again until you heard the noise of the firing squad.”

Jones arranged for the meeting to take place at the apartment of an embassy secretary, whose flat was unlikely to be bugged. On the afternoon of the rendezvous, he abruptly dismissed his driver and bodyguard. “I said, ‘That’s all for today. Nothing else on the schedule.’ They thought it was very peculiar that I was home at that hour of the afternoon and peculiar that I wasn’t going anywhere else.” As soon as the men were out of sight, Jones grabbed a bottle of Scotch and hailed a taxi to meet Fernandez, where they began to work out the logistics of a further meeting to take place outside Chile, in Buenos Aires.

“We were so concerned that if somehow word got out, Fernandez would disappear into a cell and never be seen again until you heard the noise of the firing squad.”

Jones informed Fernandez that his contact there was going to be CIA. The agent at the rendezvous point would have a rolled-up magazine next to him. Jones also gave Fernandez a “contact phrase” so Fernandez could be sure of the agent’s identity. As the meeting date neared, though, Fernandez balked, worried that it was too dangerous to leave the country unless it was for the last time.

On January 14, 1987, after more than a year of planning, Fernandez finally met with a group of senior representatives of the State Department, U.S. Attorney’s Office, and FBI at an empty apartment leased by the embassy commissary. (Because of fears that Cornick would be recognized in Santiago, he joined a secondary team operating out of Buenos Aires.) U.S. officials arrived in Santiago with a cover story about needing to interview a State Department employee. Fernandez’s American lawyer, Axel Kleiboemer, flew in for a Chilean “vacation.” It was agreed at that meeting that Fernandez would flee Chile for Brazil before making his way to the States. “The CIA station had checked and found out that his name wasn’t in the Chilean lookout book,” recalls Jones, meaning he wasn’t on any kind of airport watch list. “They had someone who had access to the airport computers and established that as near as they could tell, if Fernandez tried to leave, his name wasn’t going to come up on any kind of screen. So he decided he was prepared to risk it.”

Over the next few days, U.S. officials, along with Fernandez and his representatives, moved from safe house to safe house, negotiating the final details (among them that a female agent meet Fernandez at the airport in Rio to make it seem as if he had a Brazilian love interest). Finally, during a 2 a.m. car ride through Santiago—they had run out of safe houses—Kleiboemer told the Americans that they had a deal, conveying a message from Fernandez: “I will be in Rio Thursday. Or I’ll be dead.”

On January 22, Fernandez boarded a Santiago-to-Rio flight undetected. He was met in Rio by a team of FBI agents and State and Justice Department officials. Kleiboemer warned Fernandez that the lead U.S. attorney there, David Geneson, “hated” Fernandez. “He wants to put you in jail for the rest of your life,” Kleiboemer said. “If he catches you lying, that’s where you’ll be. So tell the truth. Anything you say will be tested by polygraph.” The Americans interrogated Fernandez for three days and subjected him to repeated polygraph tests that lasted up to ten hours at a time. Reporting back to Washington, the Rio team bragged that interrogators had “done a splendid job of breaking down Fernandez’s defenses.”

Fernandez admitted to conducting surveillance on Letelier in September 1976. He said that Contreras and Espinoza had overseen the operation, and that Pinochet himself had advance knowledge of the killing. He also said that he had been ordered by his military superiors to lie to U.S. investigators. He would not, however, admit to knowing in advance of the mission’s ultimate objective—the assassination of Orlando Letelier. (Fernandez claimed that he was told his mission was simply to surveil Letelier, since Letelier was suspected of attempting to set up a government-in-exile. It was only later, he said, two or three years after the killing, that Contreras told him that Pinochet had ordered the killing.) For Larry Barcella, who knew the case better than anyone still working in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, this was, “of course, a lie.” Barcella’s skepticism was borne out by the polygraphs, which agents said found “consistent signs of deception in Fernandez’s disclaimers.”

But the political value of Fernandez’s testimony—it allowed U.S. officials to pressure Chile for the extradition of Contreras and Espinoza, to formally request civil damages on behalf of the Letelier and Moffitt families, and to demonstrate American resolve against terrorism—outweighed the legal or moral ambiguities. Fernandez continued to deny advance knowledge, and he provided just enough cover (he was never made aware of the plans, he claimed, but he “supposed” that’s what the mission could be all about) for officials to maintain the fiction. On Wednesday, February 4, Fernandez arrived in the United States. He agreed to plead guilty to one count of accessory after the fact, with a maximum sentence of seven years.

He served seven months. He was a free man in America, living under witness protection, by the end of the year.

The story fed to the press upon Fernandez’s arrival was that he felt dishonored and mistreated by the Chilean regime, that he had a guilty conscience, that he wanted to do something to make his dead father proud. It was not that Fernandez was already wanted by Argentinean authorities in connection with the 1974 assassination of a dissident Chilean general; or that by 1987 he had publicly admitted his prior membership in a military squad known as the Caravan of Death, which was accused of a series of prisoner massacres in northern Chile in 1973; or that it was clear by then that Chile was slowly transitioning away from military dictatorship.

No one discussed that Fernandez had received intelligence training at Fort Gulick, a U.S. military facility in the Panama Canal Zone, which meant that the very skills he had employed in the plot to assassinate Letelier may have been taught to him by the American government. The story was that he had fled under duress, not that he had been aided by Federico Willoughby, Pinochet’s former press secretary, who happened to be an antagonist of Manuel Contreras. The story was definitely not that, as early as May 1979, Willoughby had traveled secretly to Washington with a message: in exchange for prosecutors dropping the charges against Fernandez and Espinoza, Pinochet would be willing to hand over Contreras. And it was most certainly not that, by 1979, Pinochet believed conflict with Contreras, who was openly provoking and challenging him, was inevitable. The story was justice, penance, and progress, not calculation, interest, and survival.

On April 12, 1990, almost exactly a month after Chile returned to civilian rule, FBI agents and police in St. Petersburg, Florida, surrounded a modest home on a quiet residential street. Then they telephoned the house and told Jose Suarez to come out.

Suarez, who had been a fugitive for 12 years, was living an anonymous life with his young wife and infant child. FBI officials said they had received the information that led to his arrest in early April. His wife claimed that they had lived in Florida for seven years.

Less than a week later, Suarez’s lawyers entered a not-guilty plea before a U.S. magistrate in Washington, D.C. A trial date was set for September 10, 1990. Over a decade had passed between the original indictment and Suarez’s capture.

A Jose Dionisio Suarez Legal Defense Fund quickly materialized in Miami, Tampa, West Palm Beach, New Jersey, and California. Four Miami radio stations held a marathon fundraiser on behalf of the defendant. Guillermo Novo appeared as a special on-air guest, soliciting aid for his erstwhile comrade in the Cuban Nationalist Movement.

Prosecutors brought Michael Townley, who was still living under witness protection, in for questioning. The case against Suarez was utterly dependent on Townley’s testimony. But Townley’s relationship with the U.S. marshals responsible for his protection was “strained,” remembers Eric Dubelier, one of the U.S. attorneys overseeing the case, and he was making increasingly unreasonable demands in exchange for his testimony.

According to a number of declassified documents, Townley said he was unwilling to testify at all unless the U.S. government promised to shield him from potential extradition to Chile, Argentina, and Italy. He had good reason to fear for his freedom. In fact, on the very day Townley was paroled in the U.S. in 1983, Argentina formally requested his extradition in connection with his role in the 1974 car bombing of the dissident Chilean general Carols Prats, which killed Prats and his wife. At the time, a U.S. attorney found that Townley’s prior plea deal, which guaranteed protection against further prosecution within the U.S., implied protection from such requests. Now Townley was scared that what he revealed on the stand could subject him to further legal action.

Townley’s conditions riled officials at the highest levels of the U.S. government. The Department of Justice had never in its history agreed to protect the recipient of a plea deal from extradition to a country where the United States had a mutual extradition treaty in force. It could put the U.S. in violation of its international legal commitments and encourage other countries to deny American extradition requests. Nevertheless, senior officials in the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Justice Department were willing to concede to Townley’s demands, given the import of the case and his centrality as a witness.

Officials in the State Department were not as pliant. They were upset by the original 1978 agreement with Townley (which had been drawn up without their input) and infuriated that the U.S. Attorney’s Office had not consulted with them now before assenting to Townley’s conditions. The matter traveled up the bureaucratic chain until, on August 28, 1990—less than two weeks before the trial date—deputy secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger wrote an extraordinary letter to attorney general Richard Thornburgh, registering “in the strongest possible terms” his “personal objection to the unilateral action taken by the U. S. Attorney.” In an earlier draft of the letter, he had said that he was “prepared to go on the record rejecting the assurance provided to Mr. Townley unless I receive a full explanation as to the basis for the actions in the case.”

Dubelier told me that he never expected there would be a plea. But on September 9, 1990, one day before the trial date, prosecutors announced that Jose Suarez had agreed to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to murder a former official. As part of the deal, his wife would be protected from charges related to her harboring a fugitive. Suarez would serve no more than 12 years in federal prison.

With Suarez’s conviction, four of the five Cubans connected to the murder of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt had seen their day in court. There was only one remaining fugitive, Virgilio Paz.

Paz heard the news while sitting in a liquor store parking lot in West Palm Beach. It was late February or early March 1991. His phone rang—a former member of the CNM, who knew Paz’s true identity, calling to say that America’s Most Wanted was going to air an episode devoted to Paz on April 19. His story would be broadcast into millions of homes. “What are you going to do?” asked the man from the CNM. “Why don’t you get the fuck out of there?”

Paz called his ex-wife and told her the news. On April 19, he took her and their children to a safe house nearby. They watched the program together there. It showed a picture of the two of them on their wedding day.

His family stayed in the safe house for a few days after the show aired. Paz slept at home, alone. But he went out in public all over West Palm Beach. He wanted to be arrested in public, he later wrote, “to avoid losing control of the situation,” fearing that if he did, “someone’s finger would slip on the trigger of an automatic weapon.”

On Monday, April 22, Paz prepared for work, assuming that he would be arrested that day. As the owner and operator of Greenheart Landscape Maintenance, he had several teams of workers on the job on a given day. He decided to supervise one of them in the field—something he rarely did—in Boca Raton, just to remain in public view. There was no sign that his identity had been revealed. Nothing. He retrieved his family from the safe house and brought them home.

The next morning, he surveyed the surrounding area for signs of police or the FBI. He took his son to school and headed to work. The offices of Greenheart Landscape Maintenance were located on Industrial Avenue in Boynton Beach. Paz knew that it was the worst possible location from which to escape—lined with storage facilities and ending in a cul-de-sac that abutted a canal. But he didn’t plan on running, in any case.

His instincts were right; this was where he would finally be apprehended. Before long he was surrounded by parked cars. Agents poured out of them, pointing their guns at him. A helicopter circled overhead, an armed FBI agent leaning out over one of its skis.

Paz, sitting behind the steering wheel, slowly reached his hands upward to the roof of the car. An agent walked up to Paz’s car, opened the door, and pointed a gun at his left ear. He pressed the gun firmly against Paz’s head and told him to hold the steering wheel tightly with his right hand, then to slowly reach around with his left to unbuckle his seatbelt. Paz complied, and the moment the belt came unsnapped, the agent pulled Paz out of the car and handcuffed him.

Paz’s time in South Florida had been remarkable for its unremarkableness. He was the picture of a solid citizen: a member of the Inter-American Business Association, and the Latin Chamber of Commerce in Palm Beach County, and the Cuban-American Club of West Palm Beach. He employed more than two dozen people at Greenheart Landscape Maintenance, which he’d owned since April 1986. Since 1980, he lived under the name Frank Baez, although he’d tried out other aliases, including, for a time, Ronaldo McDonaldo.

How could a man with such a high profile remain completely clandestine to his friends and neighbors, and to the community of expatriates and exiles of which he was a part? How many people knew about his past and countenanced the lie?

On September 12, 1991, Paz was given the same plea deal as Jose Suarez—a maximum sentence of 12 years for the crime of conspiracy to murder a foreign official. He called the murders a “horror” that changed his life forever. But during his arraignment he smiled and waved to the crowd of Cuban expats who’d gathered to support him at the court house in West Palm Beach. “Viva Cuba!” they cried.

Paz served a little less than seven years and was released in May 1998. Suarez was also freed around this time.

But neither was quite free yet. In 1996, the Republican Congress passed a law, signed by Bill Clinton, that subjected noncitizens, including legal permanent residents, convicted of violent crimes to be automatically deported. The day Paz and Suarez left prison, they both were taken into the custody of the Immigration and Naturalization Services.

Like all Cubans in INS custody, their situation was unique. The United States and Cuba had no working extradition agreement. There was no way to process Cuban detainees and certainly no guarantee that the Castro regime would wish to repatriate them. The law required deportation, but there was nowhere to actually deport men like Paz and Suarez.

They found aid from the Cuban American National Foundation, the country’s most influential Cuban lobbying group. Under the tutelage of its founder, Jorge Mas Canosa, CANF became a bastion for anti-Castro hardliners. Mas himself fought in the Bay of Pigs and had an accommodating attitude toward the men on the extralegal fringes of the exile community.

CANF’s lawyers argued that Paz’s deportation—even if possible, which it was not—would violate the UN Convention Against Torture, since Paz would almost certainly be brutalized by the Castro regime.

In June 2001, the Supreme Court ruled that the INS could not indefinitely hold detainees from countries with whom the United States lacked an extradition agreement. There were roughly 3,400 people eligible to be immediately freed by this decision, but attorney general John Ashcroft seemed determined to take advantage of a loophole stating that those detainees who were considered “dangerous criminal aliens” or “terrorists” were exempt from the ruling—that such men could, in fact, be held indefinitely. Those definitions proved broad enough that the vast majority of detainees remained in custody, though their connection to terrorist acts were questionable at best. By August 2001, only 300 detainees had in fact been released. One of the very first was Virgilio Paz.

CANF was deeply connected to local politicians, including two Cuban-American Republican members of Congress from South Florida, Lincoln Díaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. They, in turn, had important connections of their own, including Jeb Bush, then the state’s governor, who had a nuanced understanding of the truculent politics and fierce loyalties among South Florida’s anti-Castro Cuban community. In 1990, he successfully petitioned his father to free Orlando Bosch, widely considered responsible for the 1976 Cubana Airlines bombing that killed 73, among many other terrorist acts. (George H.W. Bush was intimately acquainted with the details of the Cubana bombing: it, like the Letelier killing, occurred when he was head of the CIA.)

According to the journalist Ann Louise Bardach, in 2001 Jeb Bush also successfully lobbied his brother to secure the release of Virgilio Paz and Jose Suarez. On August 14, 2001, Suarez walked out of an INS facility in Bradenton, Florida. “This is a fantastic day,” he said, “because I’m going to embrace my family and my children.” Less than a month later, the politics of terror in this country would shift seismically, but not before a few “men of action” in South Florida found themselves treated, yet again, to an especially soft landing.

For Michael Moffitt, the years following the assassination were unbearable. He was obsessed with the details of the bombing and became an insomniac and an alcoholic. He eventually put his life back together, remarried, and started a family. But over a decade after the bombing, he said that the smallest event—“a scene in a movie, a car, noise, a smell, dreams, or even a random image”—brought memories of the day rushing back. He obsessively checked his vehicle for hidden explosives, afraid to get in the car with his own family.

No one prosecuted for the Letelier and Moffitt murders served more than 12 years for the crime. Michael Townley and Armando Fernandez both presumably still reside in the United States under the witness protection program. Guillermo Novo, Jose Suarez, and Virgilio Paz all live freely today in South Florida. Alvin Ross lives in New Jersey. Ignacio Novo died in 2004. Guillermo Novo was arrested, along with Luis Posada, the Bay of Pigs veteran and co-mastermind, with Orlando Bosch, of the Air Cubana bombing, in Panama in 2000 for attempting to assassinate Fidel Castro. Posada and Novo were released under murky circumstances in 2004.

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 From left: Alvin Ross, Guillermo Novo, and Virgilio Paz in 2012. (Photo: Courtesy of latinamericanstudies.org)

These men still associate with one another. A 2012 photo, posted on an obscure website devoted to Cuban exile politics, shows Novo, Ross, and Paz together at a restaurant. Pictures from another such site show Suarez and Posada at an April 2015 meeting of militants in South Florida. Even more recent Facebook pictures show Paz and Suarez together.

Manuel Contreras and Pedro Espinoza, the two DINA masterminds behind the killings, have faced harder times. When Chile began its fragile transition back to democracy in 1990, civilian officials proved surprisingly dogged in their pursuit of justice. In 1991, both Contreras and Espinoza were sentenced to prison for crimes connected to the Letelier assassination. They were released in 2001. In 2005, they were incarcerated yet again, this time for much lengthier convictions. Contreras was sentenced to roughly 500 years in prison and died there in August 2015. Out of all the alleged perpetrators named in the 1978 indictment, it is the two men who stayed in Chile, who were never tried in America, who faced the most time in prison.

None of this is to minimize the effects of the FBI investigation. Manuel Contreras was removed from DINA—indeed, DINA was dissolved and entirely reorganized—because of American pressure. The day after Paz pleaded guilty in a D.C. court, a Supreme Court justice in Chile’s newly democratic government reopened the Letelier investigation. Nor were the effects limited to Chile.

“What the U.S. did in investigating this case has had enormous, enormous impact in Latin America,” John Dinges, an expert on Pinochet-era Chile, and the coauthor of Assassination on Embassy Row, a 1980 book about the Letelier killing, told me. “The beginning of the uncovering of all these human rights crimes—of Operation Condor, of the internal workings of the security services, all of that began with the FBI investigation. It was the first penetration of the interior workings of these intelligence forces. There’s a direct line between the FBI investigation and the enormous amount of information that we have now.”

The Letelier case also helped transform the way the FBI handles terrorism cases. It is hard to imagine this in the post-9/11 era, but terrorism was simply not a bureau priority in 1976, at least not like it is today. Much has changed since then. “You can call the Letelier case terrorism,” Propper remarked to me, “but it’s not terrorism like terrorism exists today. It was a foreign government deciding to get rid of one of its own citizens, and they were stupid enough to do it in the United States. There was a logic to what they did, even if it was a stupid logic. They weren’t planning to kill Ronni Moffitt. That was the Cubans, who didn’t care.”

The men who pushed the button almost certainly knew that the Moffitts were in the car. When Paz was released, he held his press conference at the CANF offices. He called the murders a “grave human error.” Sitting with his attorneys in August 2001, Suarez also said he regretted the bombing, “especially” the murder of Ronni Moffitt. Empathetic gestures of this sort can leave one legally vulnerable, however, and so they have to be carefully qualified. “He’s sorry in a humanitarian way,” Dario Diaz, one of Suarez’s attorneys, immediately stated to the Tampa Tribune. “The same way we’re sorry for Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandi.”

These expressions of remorse were feints, acts of performative contrition. The truth was, is, much more unyielding: “Now,” wrote Virgilio Paz on his Facebook page in April 2015, “looking back retrospectively after all those years, it’s worth asking ourselves: was it worth pursuing what we thought was our duty? Was it worth the risk and everything that we left behind? Was it worth giving up or losing our youth, families, and bringing suffering to our loved ones? Was it worth giving up the economic future that we could have achieved? Was it worth it? Yes, for me it was, because I think that we did what we thought was our duty as CUBANS.”

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Cartoon from La Nacionalista. From left: Ignacio Novo, Alvin Ross, and Guillermo Novo. (Illustration: Courtesy of latinamericanstudies.org)

On this point, at least one old “comrade” from the Cuban Nationalist Movement, Alvin Ross, agreed. “Si, Virgilio,” Ross replied to the Facebook post. “It was worth it, and it will be worth it till your last breath.”

Here it all was, alive as ever—Castro’s New Year’s Day revolution of 1959, CIA training camps in the jungles of Guatemala, blood of the patria soaking into the beach at the Bay of Pigs, jets thundering over the boulevards of Santiago, a car erupting in flames in Sheridan Circle, the bombs going off in American cities, month after month, for years, all in the name of la lucha, the struggle.

“Si, Virgilio,” Ross continued. “Tu lucha was worth it.”


A Note on Sources

In 2000, President Clinton ordered the release of thousands of Chile-related documents as part of what became known as the Chile Declassification Project. This includes “documents produced by the CIA, DOD, NARA, NSC, FBI, DOJ, and the Department of State.” In October 2015, President Obama supplemented this release with hundreds of new documents. Much of what appears in this article is the result of sifting through this trove.

I also interviewed a number of individuals associated with the case, though former government officials, as well as law enforcement agents, refused interview requests, often multiple times. Repeated requests for interviews with former members of the Cuban Nationalist Movement were similarly denied.

I am indebted to two books published in the 1980s, Assassination on Embassy Row, by John Dinges and Saul Landau, and Labyrinth, by Taylor Branch and Eugene Propper. Both books are key pieces of the historical record. I am also indebted to Without Fidel and Cuba Confidential, both by Ann Louise Bardach; The Pinochet File, by Peter Kornbluh; The Condor Years, by John Dinges; Legacy of Ashes, by Tim Weiner; and Miami, by Joan Didion.

Through the Library of Congress, I found the invaluable Oral History Interviews, conducted through the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training. I also read many hundreds of pages of court documents, as well as newspaper and magazine articles, from 1973 to 2015, including from the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Miami Herald, St. Petersburg Times, Tampa Tribune, New York Daily News, Hudson Dispatch, and Associated Press, as well as New York Magazine, among other sources. The nonprofit National Security Archive has done path-breaking work on Pinochet-era Chile, and many other countries and I benefitted greatly from their work.

I also conducted research at the Hoover Institute Library and Archives at Stanford University, where I found the George W. Landau Papers and Hernan Cubillos Salato Papers, which provided new and illuminating details about the case.


We welcome feedback at letters@atavist.com.

Satchel Paige and the Championship for the Reelection of the General

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How the best baseball pitcher in the American Negro leagues came to play for the cruelest dictator in the Caribbean.

By Jonathan Blitzer

The Atavist Magazine, No. 57


Jonathan Blitzer has written for the Oxford AmericanThe New Yorker, and The New York Times, among others.


Editor: Katia Bachko
Designer: Thomas Thiel
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checkers: Juanita Ceballos and Jika Gonzalez
Illustrator: Kelsey Dake
Photographer: Tatiana Fernández Geara

Published in February 2016. Design updated in 2021.

One

On a warm April day in 1937, Satchel Paige sat in his room at a boarding house in New Orleans, listening to voices drift up from the lobby. Word around the establishment was that some guys with foreign accents and Panama hats were looking to talk to him. Paige had asked around, but no one knew who they were. He was used to being pursued. He was the most famous black baseball player in the country and the ace pitcher for one of the best teams in the Negro leagues, the Pittsburgh Crawfords.

The season opener was scheduled for April 25, and Paige had arrived alone, in his Green Packard convertible, without his teammates or his coaches knowing whether he was going to show up at all. He liked making people wait. He did it to batters, who suffered through his famed hesitation delivery; to his wife, Janet, who finally issued an ultimatum after three years of dilatory courtship; and to his fellow Crawfords, who struggled to stay loose midgame while he sauntered out to the stands to smoke and spar with the fans. They all put up with his antics because he was the best there was, and he knew it.

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Satchel Paige

By the spring of 1937, he had earned hundreds of wins and multiple no-hitters. He dominated the black circuit during the spring and summer, lending out his services to white semipro teams for pocket money along the way. In the off-season, he barnstormed across the country and played winter ball in California, where he pitched against big leaguers like Jimmie Foxx and Dizzy Dean, who came away saying he was the toughest pitcher they’d ever seen. He was every bit the showman that he was the ballplayer. As a youngster in his home state of Alabama, he’d once called in his outfielders to sit in a half-circle around the mound, with runners on base and two away. He wanted to get the final out of the inning on the strength of his arm alone. When he struck out the batter on three straight pitches, his gambit instantly took on the cast of legend. “If you can do it, it ain’t bragging,” Paige used to say—he even bragged about bragging.

Paige rented a room at a battered boarding house with a pointy, shingled roof on Dryades Street, in downtown New Orleans. It was one of only a handful of places in the city that accepted black lodgers. Paige had been ducking in and out since he got there, rushing to the team’s practices and exhibition games in preparation for opening day against the Crawfords’ crosstown rivals back in Pittsburgh, the Homestead Grays. It would be the start of a season-long “diamond war,” as one newspaper wrote, and New Orleans was chosen as neutral turf for the showdown.

Unlike the white Major Leagues, with top-dollar salaries and the media’s undivided attention, the Negro leagues consisted of one improvisation after another; operations were underfunded and undersubscribed. Getting fans to turn out depended more on spectacle than on the quality of the play itself. Gus Greenlee, the owner of the Crawfords, profited from a healthy rivalry between the two teams. In addition to Paige, he was peddling a novelty act: a right-handed catcher who reclined in a multicolored rocking chair behind home plate. Greenlee was sure that his team’s new catcher would “start throwing and rocking his way to fame,” he said, adding, “He’s liable to be as big an attraction as Satchel before the season’s gone.”

Soon after Paige got to town, his teammates told him about the men who had been lurking by the fields and asking about him. Paige began to notice them in the bleachers, flitting forms in the distance that would mass when he took the field and then scatter when he walked off. Wherever he drove, he felt that he was being followed. Paige figured he knew what it was all about: another offer, possibly to play somewhere south of the border like Puerto Rico or Cuba. “The pay was always good down there,” he would later recall in his memoir. “Down there, nobody was locking their doors to Ol’ Satch.” Whoever these guys were, though, he would have to avoid them. He didn’t want to be tempted away by their offers. Janet was pressuring him to stay put after he had traveled to Puerto Rico without her, canceling their vacation so he could pick up an extra paycheck, and she was still upset with him.

Now, from up in his room, Paige could make out the sounds of Rs rolling and vowels flattening out, like he remembered from the Caribbean. He thought he heard his name and bolted upright. Dressed in his usual attire, a flashy suit and fedora, Paige grabbed his car keys and scrambled down the stairs to the alley where his car was parked. The rooming house shared a driveway with a shoe-shine parlor called Globe Trotters. Sun glinted off its sign and into Paige’s eyes as he wheeled out. He’d almost made it to the street when, suddenly, there was a screeching of tires and a black limousine slammed into view, blocking his way. A door opened and out stepped a short man, with brown eyes and black hair oiled back to accentuate a mild widow’s peak; he was fair skinned and wore a cream-colored linen suit.

“I’m Dr. José Enrique Aybar,” he said as Paige cautiously got out of his car. “I direct the baseball team in Ciudad Trujillo.” The men in Panama hats, it turned out, were from the Dominican Republic.

“I’d heard of sick clubs and ballplayers that looked pretty sick,” Paige later remembered, “but I never knew there was one so sick it needed a doctor to manage it.” He fixed his gaze on Aybar. “What can I do for you, Doc?”

“President Trujillo has instructed me to obtain the best pitcher possible for his team, and our scouts recommend you,” Aybar said.

“I’m glad your scouts like me, but I figure I’ll just stay with Gus Greenlee.”

“We are very interested in winning,” Aybar said. “We will give you thirty thousand American dollars for you and eight teammates, and you may take what you feel is your share and divide the rest.”

Paige was stunned. “Do I get to see the money?”


In the pantheon of American baseball, Satchel Paige has always occupied a special place. He was one of the game’s all-time greats and also one of its most shameless and storied self-promoters. A whole mythology surrounds him and his exploits; he talked almost as fast as he pitched. In photos his mischievous smile made him seem invincible. A few years ago I learned, by chance, that he had played for one of the most infamous Latin American dictators who ever lived. It struck me as the kind of story only Paige himself could concoct, a tale so gaudy as to seem camouflaged in the annals of sports. I decided to investigate what happened when these two outsize individuals collided.

I began with Paige’s famously self-aggrandizing memoir, Maybe Ill Pitch Forever, in which he breezily recounts his first meeting with Aybar. There’s an insouciance to the anecdote that is vintage Paige. But while he portrayed his Dominican suitor as straight-laced and blandly solicitous, Aybar was the emissary of one of the most violent and dangerous men of his day. Paige didn’t know that at first. (In his defense, neither did the U.S. government.) Some accounts of their meeting have Aybar wielding a pistol to drive home his offer, although Paige was apparently unimpressed. Perhaps so far from the Dominican capital, where he held tremendous power, Aybar did not seem threatening.

In his later years, Paige talked openly about his anxious impressions of General Rafael Trujillo, who ruled the country from 1930 to 1961, but by then the story had already been buffed to a high sheen. I always wondered if it wasn’t meant to be blinding. Paige liked to tell tales—zany and quippy and heaped high with bravado. But a plaintiveness shone through. I was lured to the legend of Paige’s greatness by his own storytelling, only to find a fissure in the monument he’d built to himself.

Paige was all but synonymous with black baseball, and yet it often seemed that his towering celebrity in the Negro leagues hardly registered in the vehemently segregated world beyond. The feeling dogged him from his early days but seemed to gain force in the 1930s, when he was maturing as a player. One day, while playing winter ball in California, he was contacted by scouts from the Yankees, who wanted to test a young prospect named Joe DiMaggio by trying him out against Paige’s pitching. DiMaggio joined a team of pro players culled from some of the best Major League rosters, while Paige’s teammates consisted entirely of high schoolers and amateurs. Paige struck out 14 batters on the day and knocked in his team’s only run, single-handedly carrying the squad into the tenth inning, but the game was remembered for a fluky infield hit he surrendered to DiMaggio with two outs and a runner on third. The scouts cabled back to New York to relay DiMaggio’s definitive new credential—“Hit Satch One for Four”—launching his pro career. “I got more notice for losing that game than I did winning most of my other games,” Paige said afterward.

While the Yankees were signing DiMaggio, Paige slunk off to continue barnstorming, which brought its own problems. Being black meant something different every place he went. In Bismarck, North Dakota, he played alongside white teammates—something that would have been unfathomable in the South. He was the toast of the town for his dominance on the mound in the Midwest, and yet he and his wife had to live in a semi-furnished railway car on the outskirts of town. “Having to live like that ate at me,” he said after he got back to Pittsburgh. “The blood gets angry.” By the mid-1930s, white baseball stars were starting to publicly question the league’s policy on segregation, but nothing came of it: Pro owners either wouldn’t take the risk of being the first to sign a black player or simply couldn’t fathom eliminating the racial barrier.

When Paige accepted Aybar’s offer, a young journalist named Ollie Stewart, writing for the Baltimore Afro-American, saw Paige’s defection as more than a mere dollar proposition. “While some newspapers and sports writers were hammering away (verbally) to open the gates of white baseball leagues to colored players, Satchel Paige and a few other guys got tired of waiting for the miracle to happen and quietly shipped off to Santo Domingo to cash in on their talent,” he wrote at the time. South of the border, Stewart said, “the color of your bills seems all that counts.”

If you’d asked Paige why he did it, he probably would have winked and told you about the money-filled briefcase Aybar brought back, as promised, after their chat in the alleyway. But there was something else he was questing after, something harder to pin down. He was willing to trade a city he knew for one he didn’t, to give up his bankable celebrity in the States for a chance at a different life, and to cash in on his reputation by cozying up to the strangest allies he could find. In the process, he very nearly brought an end to the Negro leagues for good. What’s stunning even now is Paige’s willingness to risk so much. At 30, married and in his sporting prime, he decided to leave behind the world that made him.

Two

The precariousness of black baseball gave rise to a paradox: The league was made and run by strongmen and swashbucklers who projected power in spite of their unequal status. Perhaps the lone figure in the game who could rival Satchel Paige for brashness and bravado was Gus Greenlee. Like Paige, he was over six feet tall and commanding, but where Paige was wiry, with a winsome nonchalance, Greenlee was thickset and imposing, 200 pounds and fleshy faced. He had come up hard, from the South, and clawed his way north toward prominence. Greenlee dropped out of college, abandoning his family to come to Pittsburgh, where he began driving a cab and selling bootlegged whiskey, earning the nickname Gasoline Gus.

By the time Paige met him, Greenlee was a power broker of black Pittsburgh. The Caliph of Little Harlem, they called him. He was a veteran of the First World War, an impresario, and a business owner, all self-made. He owned the Workingmen’s Pool Hall, the Sunset Café, and Crawford’s Grill, which took up nearly a whole city block and played host to the city’s black elite. But running numbers was his lifeblood. He pulled in $25,000 on a good day, which allowed him to finance the one thing that gave him his special sense of purpose: his ball club. He bought the team in 1930, then recruited top-flight talent to build the premier outfit in the game: Satchel Paige; a clean-up-hitting catcher by the name of Josh Gibson; and a center fielder, James “Cool Papa” Bell, who was said to be so fast that he could switch off the lights and be in bed before the room got dark. The league’s scattershot quality made Greenlee an instant titan. He wasn’t just a club owner; he was the president of the league, having revived it after a string of bankruptcies.

Perhaps the lone figure in the game who could rival Satchel Paige for brashness and bravado was Gus Greenlee. 

But by the spring of 1937, Gus Greenlee was in a bind. One of his employees was snitching. The cops kept busting up his numbers rackets, and it was bleeding him dry. Much to their annoyance, he’d already told Paige and his teammates that they’d have to go to New Orleans on their own dime. He’d pay them for their opening games, but they were in charge of their own accommodations and travel until then. Greenlee’s troubled finances exacerbated a long-standing worry that Paige would spring from his grasp and even take some of his teammates with him.

In March, Greenlee traveled to New York for a weekend meeting with other club owners and league officials. They packed into a small office at the Tammany Democratic Club on Seventh Avenue to hash out details of the coming season. One thing they could agree on was a need for stronger contracts, since all of them were concerned about losing their top players. Team owners were always cutting deals to lure players away with better salaries or bonuses; it was known as contract jumping. Greenlee was the worst offender, but even he was growing battle weary. All the teams were hurting as the Depression dragged on. Ticket sales had slumped by the end of the previous season, and practically every club was in the red.

The meeting was civil. No more breaking contracts, the owners decided. What was true for the players had to be true for the owners, too. “No infringement of territory rights,” Greenlee declared. The league commissioner, Ferdinand Q. Morton, nodded vigorously. “That’s right, no nosing in,” added Cum Posey, the debonair owner of the Homestead Grays. He glared at Greenlee as he said it. Greenlee had been pilfering some of Posey’s best guys, then trading them back at a profit. The latest was Josh Gibson, whom Greenlee sold back to Posey for $2,500 while they were all still seated around the table.

As opening day approached, Greenlee was cautiously optimistic that the new contract agreements meant he could stop worrying about Paige. By 1937, Greenlee had already banned Paige from the Negro leagues once before for breaking his contract and accepting more money from other teams, but, desperate for Paige’s star power, he’d taken him back.

Three

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Dr. José Enrique Aybar

Aybar was an unctuous negotiator. He trotted out a parade of luxuries to ensure that Paige appreciated the significance of being summoned by a head of state. “I never seen a man with such power,” Paige remembered. He was describing Aybar but thinking of Trujillo. “He flies us down to Ciudad Trujillo on a big plane, and we ain’t put out no place to let other passengers on. No, sir. We got right of way. And what’s more, we don’t even have passports.” Janet Paige would follow several days later—Aybar was paying for her trip, too. Paige’s personal catcher, a bruiser named Bill Perkins, was also along for the ride. All they knew was that they were playing for Trujillo.

Each year, the Dominican Republic celebrated a baseball tournament that divided the country into four regional rivals. Clustered around Santiago, in the north, were supporters of the Eagles of the Cibão region; in the east, fanning out around the port city of San Pedro de Macoris, were those faithful to the Estrellas de Oriente, whose mascot was a giant elephant; Santo Domingo, the capital city, which had been recently renamed Ciudad Trujillo, was cleaved in two by those loyal to the Escogido Lions and the Licey Tigers. Stars from across Latin America flocked to the Dominican Republic to play, and the nation happily succumbed to baseball fever.

In February 1937, a council of businessmen convened in the capital to plan the year’s tournament, and the proceedings took on an air of solemnity and anticipation. Trujillo had recently announced presidential elections for the following year; he enjoyed the formality of the vote, all the better for his personal pageantry. The tournament, as one of the signal events on the national calendar, would need to reflect his supremacy. The council decided on a fitting title: “The Championship for the Reelection of Rafael Trujillo.”

Soon after, the owners of the Tigers and the Lions—long-standing cross-town rivals just like Greenlee’s Crawfords and Posey’s Grays—combined forces to represent the city. If Santiago and San Pedro de Macoris could summon fearsome and gigantic beasts to represent their clubs, Ciudad Trujillo’s image was bigger still: The club was called the Dragons, and Aybar himself signed on as its vice president. Winning the tournament was an obsession for Aybar—a gift he wanted, and felt he needed, to deliver Trujillo himself.

Aybar was a rabidly loyal supporter of Trujillo precisely because he’d once been a traitor to the cause. He was a dentist by training but also something of a kingmaker—a member of the reigning political party and a frequent speaker at its meetings. When Trujillo first came to power, after a coup he’d orchestrated in February 1930, Aybar had been one of his most vocal naysayers. The son of a poor postal clerk who had a reputation for cattle rustling, Trujillo was an uneducated tough; as a teenager he enrolled in the country’s national guard, which had been set up and run by U.S. marines in the early 1920s, when the Americans occupied the country. Quietly but tenaciously, he rose through the ranks, eventually becoming head of police. Trujillo wasted no time in consolidating his power, and he gave the national police a new name: the Dominican Army. But even as Trujillo grew in stature, Aybar doubted his staying power. Trujillo called for an election in May 1930 to shore up his legitimacy. A month before the vote, Aybar gave a speech in which he said that Trujillo was like “the product of an abortion; he had no viability at all.”

If uttering those words had felt, for a moment, like an act of grandiloquent heroism, it had promptly become a liability. Rumors that Trujillo was systematically eliminating his rivals spread in the run-up to the vote. The military stormed meetings of political opponents, jailing and killing critics. Politicians outside Trujillo’s orbit fled the country, while judges tasked with overseeing the vote abandoned their posts and sought asylum at the American embassy. Gangs loyal to Trujillo rode the streets of the city in dark, unmarked cars, wreaking havoc.

By August, with the city shaken and smoldering, Trujillo had won the election with more votes than there were eligible voters. From that moment on, Aybar labored hard to make his loyalties clear. Before long, the local press started calling him the Dominican Doctor Goebbels. He hounded Trujillo’s critics and devised elaborate schemes to eliminate anyone who could damage the dictator’s popularity. By 1937, he was a member of Trujillo’s inner circle, even creating a special security detail for the leader, drawn from students at the university where he was dean of the dental school.


The streets were full of soldiers, armed and draped in military fatigues, when Paige arrived, on April 18. He touched down 50 miles east of the capital in a Pan-American hydroplane with a twin tail and four propellers mounted on each wing. As it skipped across the Higuamo River, people ran to the bank to wave it in. A group of men from Aybar’s club greeted Paige as he climbed out, enthusiastically shaking his hand before piling together into a car.

I can only imagine what Paige must have been thinking on that drive. The trip was more than an hour long, so there would have been plenty of time for him to reflect on his situation. But Aybar mostly kept him in the dark. Paige must have known a little Spanish from stints playing in Latin America, but not enough to ask his hosts hard questions. “If that man don’t like you, you wake up and you’re movin’,” he later wrote of Trujillo. “And from what I seen it don’t take much for him not to like you.” Trujillo’s sway was unmistakable, even in the jumble and fog of his arrival. It was waiting for Paige like an announcement on the facade of the hotel where he was staying: Hotel Presidente, a three-story structure with a rooftop garden overlooking a park in the center of town.

Last summer I visited the National Archives, in Santo Domingo, to root through old newspapers and steal a glance into Paige’s life in the capital. There were two main dailies back then, El Listín Diario, which came out in the morning, and La Opinión, which was sold around lunchtime. There may not have been an explicit policy of censorship at the time, but the papers were visibly constrained just the same, the style cramped and canny. Both trafficked in the mainstream news of the day: headlines about the Spanish Civil War raging in Europe, obligatory panegyrics to Trujillo, and society pages with wedding announcements and photos of tiara-wearing doyennes. Tucked in the middle of each broadsheet was the sports section. The columns teeter and veer, the tiny type packed densely around scant photos. The sports pages of La Opinión were looser and more playful, and they brimmed with commentary and humor pieces. Journalists were savoring the drama well before Paige arrived in the capital.

When the council overseeing the tournament first met, its members made a fateful decision: No limits would be placed on the number of players each team could import from abroad. This immediately set off an arms race. In each city, influential businessmen and political figures rushed to recruit the best talent. Dominican players alone weren’t enough to assure victory; the teams looked mainly to Cuba, Latin America’s baseball capital, to secure the most competitive rosters. “We would have imported white American league players,” Aybar told the press, but “the salaries paid them by the big league magnates made it impossible for us to do better.” Not so for black American players.

From the start of the tournament in March, the competition was stiff. The Estrellas de Oriente, the champions from the 1936 tournament, already boasted the country’s greatest star, the fleet-footed center fielder Tetelo Vargas, who was joined by an array of decorated Cuban moundsmen. Santiago was reportedly paying the highest sum in the history of Latin baseball—about $1,000 a month—for the Cuban legend Martín Dihigo, a player so complete and dominant he was known as El Hombre Team, because he played every position on the diamond, and often hit third in the batting order, the spot reserved for the deadliest hitter in the lineup. The Dragons, meanwhile, had assembled a squad that consisted of a smattering of Dominicans and Cubans, a costly lot whose combined star wattage was dim. 

There was a certain irony to these recruiting sprees, given Trujillo’s fanatical patriotism. His rhetorical platform had trumpeted the dignity of the nation above all else. Yet, in the baseball tournament meant to serve as the principal advertisement of his reelection, there were a surfeit of Cubans. One sports reporter groused, “It’s simply a drag-out fight among the regions in which each one tries to spend more money buying ballplayers from abroad.” The stakes were too high to spare any expense but too expensive not to imperil nationalist dogma.

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An artifact of the 1937 championship. (Courtesy of Orlando Inoa)

The schedule, which consisted of about forty games, was straightforward: three matchups each weekend in two separate ballparks. There’d be a double-header in one—a game in the morning at 9:30, a break for lunch, and an afternoon game at three; then, later that evening, the players would pack into a caravan of automobiles, complete with team-supplied chauffeurs, and travel to one of the other two cities represented in the tournament for the Sunday game.

The Dragons were having trouble just staying out of last place by the time Paige arrived. Fans were disgruntled, and the sports pages of the Ciudad Trujillo newspapers were riddled with invective against the hometown losers. There was a sinking feeling in the capital that the Trujillo club had thrown its money after a bunch of lackluster prima donnas.

Paige’s debut with the Dragons came on April 25, the same day that he was supposed to be facing the Homestead Grays in New Orleans. It was the first game of a double-header against the Estrellas de Oriente. The papers described Paige as being “at least 6 feet 7 inches tall,” a good four inches of exaggeration; with him, they claimed, the Dragons were easily “the best baseball club ever assembled in all time in the capital.” A few days before Paige flew in, another American star, Herman Andrews, had arrived on a steamer and had been clobbering the ball in the Dragons’ weekday warm-ups. Two thousand fans showed up to watch him take batting practice, and he rewarded them by hitting seven home runs out of the park and straight into the sea behind the stadium. The team’s president announced that he would employ divers and install inflatable docks to catch all the balls.

The promise of a big offense, in the form of Andrews, coupled with legendary hurling from Paige, worked the capital into a frenzy. The Café Hollywood, a downtown bar with a carefully curated aristocratic feel, was selling tickets for the weekend’s games and had already raised prices for Paige’s big day. The local newspaper sold five-cent baseball cards of the players in anticipation.

Paige and Perkins wore their Trujillo pinstripes on the street. There wasn’t a clubhouse at the stadium, so they changed at the hotel, slinging their spikes over their shoulders and walking south, in flip-flops, down Calle Pina toward the sea. Swarms of fans buzzed around them, calling out to Paige and asking for autographs.

Trujillo had rebuilt the stadium four years earlier, after a hurricane razed the capital, killing thousands and reducing the city to rubble. When Trujillo was through, every cornice of the city seemed to bear his fingerprints. The baseball stadium rose like a shrine, with three tiers of seats spread along the first- and third-base lines which came together in a V that touched behind home plate; the outfield was spectacularly framed by the sea. In right field, just beyond the fence, was the partially submerged hull of an American battleship with four gigantic stacks, called the USS Memphis, which had crashed on the rocks in a storm in 1916 and had never been hauled away. It was a fixture of the landscape, and a target in deep right field for batters, as was a sign nearby, erected behind the center-field wall, that read: National Championship for the Reelection of President Trujillo, 1938-1942. Long Live the Benefactor of the Fatherland. Anyone who hit it received a $25 reward. In Paige’s view, there was something menacing about the layout. “The diamond was in a place that looked something like a bull ring, only there’s no bull fights down there,” he told an American journalist years later.

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The battleship USS Memphis loomed beyond right field. (Courtesy of Cuqui Córdova)

Seven thousand fans packed the seats for Paige’s first game, filling the stands with the steady rumble of cheers and stomping feet. The grass on the field looked thick, and there were mounds of dirt around each of the infield bags.

Paige strolled out to the mound to take his warm-ups, kicking his foot high in the air and rearing back with a twist of his torso before uncoiling toward the plate. He was lanky, and his uniform sagged around his slender frame. But there was a majesty to his figure as glimpsed from the stands, where his easy, fluid movements made him look like a pulsating force field, gliding and snapping in his motions. It was Paige against the Cuban ace Ramón Bragaña—a battle between the King and Prince of the plate, the papers said.

Paige took the mound first. He circled the hill, flipping the rosin bag in his hand before tossing it aside and dragging his cleats down across the rubber. His eyes burned as he zeroed in on Perkins’s mitt. Paige rocked back with his left foot and raised his arms straight above his head, then let them slump down to his chest as he readied himself for a kick of his leg. Time stood still through these preliminaries, and Paige liked to make the batter flinch, blowing the ball in just as he was getting antsy. Paige and Perkins were the perfect match of bravado. Paige had written FASTBALL on the sole of his left cleat, so that it was the last thing the hitter would see as Paige’s enormous foot came tumbling toward him off the mound. Perkins, for his part, had written THOU SHALL NOT STEAL across his chest protector.

There was a majesty to his figure as glimpsed from the stands, where his easy, fluid movements made him look like a pulsating force field, gliding and snapping in his motions.

Tetelo Vargas led off, and Paige walked him, then forced the next three batters to ground out to the infield. He eased into his rhythm, striking out the Estrellas’ captain in the second inning, then its shortstop in the third. As he walked off the field, Dragons fans threw money onto the diamond in rowdy appreciation.

The game was scoreless through three innings, but the Estrellas put a run on the board in the fourth. The Dragons answered with three of their own in the bottom of the inning; by the sixth they were up six to one, and Bragaña had been taken out.

Then Paige began to falter. It started when Tetelo walloped a double to center, followed by a home run by the Estrellas’ shortstop in the top of the seventh inning. “He hit it to the Memphis,” fans shouted while the runners rounded the bases and Paige kicked at the dirt. A message had been sent: Paige, and the Dragons, were not invincible. In the eighth, Paige gave up another run after allowing two more hits and put runners on first and second. It was clear that the time had come to pull him from the game.

By now the Dragons’ lead had narrowed to two. Paige’s replacement, a surgical Cuban right-hander named Rodolfo Fernández, walked the bases loaded and let up a double, which scored three. The Dragons were now down one, and the score held going into the bottom of the ninth, when Silvio García, the Dragons’ third baseman, ignited a two-out rally to tie the game and send it into extra innings.

The teams battled into the bottom of the 11th, the score even, as the Dragons loaded the bases. The Estrellas brought out a hard-throwing left-hander named Manuel “Cocaina” García to face Herman Andrews, who’d already struck out three times. The Dragons manager, in turn, replaced Andrews with a right-hander for a better hitting matchup.

Cocaina worked from the windup, blazing the ball in with a windmill delivery. His first pitch was a ball—then his second and third. With a 3-0 count and the winning run on third, he delivered his next pitch, which drifted out of the strike zone. He walked the batter, forcing in the winning run.

The Dragons streamed onto the field in celebration, and the fans climbed down from the bleachers. A chorus of “Hero” reverberated around Silvio García, feted for his game-tying double. From the dugout, Rodolfo Fernández noticed that the runner who had just been walked had not made it to first base in the crush of festivities, and the umpire had still not officially called the game. Fernández shouted and pointed, and for a second the celebrating stopped as people looked quizzically at the wildly gesticulating pitcher; the runner, hearing him, spun around, ran to first, and touched the bag, and with that the Dragons won 8–7.

Paige’s debut had ended in a no-decision—technically he neither won nor lost, because the score changed so many times after he exited the game—but his reception afterward was cold. The pro-Dragons press in Ciudad Trujillo lambasted his “poor” outing in barbed headlines, and there was half-serious speculation that the team would have to lower ticket prices back to pre-Paige levels. The next game was a week away, and Paige would have to prove himself anew.

Four

For months I’d been on a quest to find the scorecards from the 1937 tournament. I first heard about them from a Dominican memorabilia seller living in Miami, whom I’d met on the recommendation of a chiropractor out of Dallas with a Negro league obsession that he nursed in his spare time. These were the kinds of people I was meeting, the sort you could cold-call one afternoon with a wildly random question about 1937 only to find an unflappable voice on the other end of the line who’d cut you off—politely—to recite the batting orders of the teams in question. I eventually learned that the scorecards did exist but had been sold to an auction house in Pennsylvania, then, in 2014, acquired by an unnamed buyer for $6,658.33. After that the trail went cold, and I flew to Santo Domingo to see what I could turn up.

It was there that I met Cuqui Córdova, an 87-year-old amateur historian who has amassed, in his cozy family apartment, the largest collection of Dominican baseball memorabilia in the world. In three manila file folders, tucked away in a desk-side drawer, were his records of the tournament. And there, wedged between photographs of Paige, Aybar, and the USS Memphis, were ratty photocopies of the scorecards. In neat, sometimes florid longhand, designated spectators noted with letters and symbols the schematic developments of the games. “R-SS” meant that the batter hit a ground ball to the shortstop (in Dominican parlance, the R stood for “rolling”), “2B” that he hit a double. English words were written into the cramped little boxes reserved for each batter, often with phonetic miscues like “aut” instead of “out” (spelled like it sounds to a Spanish speaker).  Each scorer had his own style, telltale penmanship, or preference for how to space out the markings on the page. With the scorecards, it was like a light suddenly went on. The plays of every game were illuminated, but there was also an unexpected effect—doubt over Paige’s reconstruction of some of the action. Now I could see past his serial embellishments and, with the additional aid of the newspapers, right onto the field itself.

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A scorecard from the 1937 championship, part of Cuqui Córdova’s collection.

A week later, in Ciudad Trujillo, the Dragons had hosted the Estrellas and lost badly. “We played like we never seen a baseball before,” Paige said. The next day, he was back on the mound in Santiago against Martín Dihigo and the Eagles. The matchup, which featured three new black Americans making their debuts for the Santiago squad, brought thousands to Enriquillo Park. “It ain’t no cakewalk,” Paige later described it. “We got a flock of colored Americans on our team, but they got as many on theirs. How them babies could hit that ball!”

The game was scoreless when Dihigo came to the plate in the bottom of the third, tapping his cleats with a reddish bat and wiggling into the box. The fans rose to their feet. Paige may have been the famed ace, but Dihigo was the pride of Latin baseball. Theirs was shaping up to be the matchup of the tournament—Paige all brash and flashy, an American through and through, and Dihigo a paragon of quiet grace and command.

Paige was sweating on the mound. He looked at the ball in his mitt, focusing in on the stitching, with the word Wilson written between its seams. He had to paint the corners against Dihigo; a single mistake could be costly.

Paige reared back and delivered, his long limbs popping and whirling toward the plate, ropy and cyclonic. He fired one strike, then another. He clocked in a curveball off the plate to see if he could tempt Dihigo to fish (no luck); he tried to sneak in another and missed. The count was two balls and two strikes. He paced around the mound and glared at the runner on first, then remounted the rubber in the stretch, his shoulders facing third and his arms dangling down at his sides as he looked in for a target. Perkins didn’t give Paige any signs. When they first met, back in Birmingham, Paige had told him, “I’m the easiest guy in the world to catch. All you have to do is show me a glove and hold it still.”

Perkins got set, his mitt upturned and steady behind the plate. Paige whistled it in, and just as the ball crossed the plate Dihigo strode effortlessly forward with his left foot, extending his arms out to meet the pitch. With a smooth, compact swing Dihigo connected, and the ball soared into the outfield. Antonio Castaños, the Dragons’ right fielder, camped under it, bounding back farther and farther toward the wall, but the ball kept going, clear of the right-field fence for a two-run homer.

By the seventh inning, Paige had been yanked. The Santiago fans were dancing in the bleachers, clapping and moving their hips to a merengue called “Leña,” the Spanish word for kindling, in a tribute to the team’s hot bats. Aybar had warned Paige about the stakes, and Paige had only half believed him. Now he could see that the teams were evenly matched.

Back in the capital later that night, Paige sent a cable to Cool Papa Bell in Pittsburgh requesting reinforcements. Paige had conferred with Aybar, who gave him special dispensation to offer money—$800 a head—to Bell and three others to join the team: an outfielder named Harry Williams, the pitcher Leroy Matlock, and shortstop Sam Bankhead. A few days later, Bell cabled back. “Satchel, they treatin’ us so bad here we’ll come down. But make it a thousand, and we’ll stay eight weeks.”


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Gus Greenlee

In Pittsburgh, Gus Greenlee’s team was dwindling before his eyes. By late May, eight of his top players had left for the Dominican Republic. He knew more would follow. Scouts were sneaking into games to scope out recruits and approaching them on the sly to lure them to Ciudad Trujillo with more money than Greenlee could ever offer them. “Haiti pirates,” he called them. At Crawfords games he prowled the stands, searching the crowds for interlopers. He also deputized his public relations man to make his own rounds badmouthing Paige as one of the ringleaders of the exodus.

The departures fueled a debate in the black press. Paige sympathizers saw him as a businessman angling for a good deal. All through the 1920s, baseball fans had gotten used to reading about marathon contract negotiations for white players, like Babe Ruth, whose astronomical salaries were national news and beyond reproach. There was no reason why Paige, who was black baseball’s equivalent hero, shouldn’t enjoy the same privileges, argued Ollie Stewart, the sportswriter for the Afro-American.

The opposing side was made up of supporters of Greenlee and the club owners, who claimed that Paige and the others were ingrates for abandoning the leagues that had made them. Most of the local papers had long been loyal to the club owners anyway, and the tone of their screeds was personal and cutting. The pitcher whose name was once synonymous with black baseball had come to symbolize the disloyalty threatening to do the whole sport in. “Satchel Paige has gotten more out of Negro baseball than anyone ever connected to Negro baseball,” Cum Posey wrote in his regular column in the Courier. It was a rare moment of agreement between him and Gus Greenlee, two rivals united against a common scourge. “Negro baseball does not owe him anything. He owes negro baseball plenty.” Like the other club owners, Posey was losing players to the Dominican Republic, but it was the broader pattern that concerned him. It wasn’t just the 1937 season but the risk that black baseball could go out of business.

The pitcher whose name was once synonymous with black baseball had come to symbolize the disloyalty threatening to do the whole sport in.

Meanwhile, the Dominican race for American talent was gaining speed. On May 4, two days after Dihigo hit his deep home run off of Paige in Santiago, the Estrellas’ owner, a businessman named Federico Nina, arrived in New York. “Pleasure” is all he proffered to the agents who processed his papers, before proceeding to the Hotel Hargrave on 72nd Street to meet up with Luis Mendez, the Dominican consul. Both men were short, with dark hair and brown eyes, and had a preference for light-colored suits and wide-brimmed hats. Together they left for Pittsburgh, where the Crawfords and Grays were playing a series at Greenlee Field. Nina had his eyes on a trim right-hander named Ernest Carter, one of Greenlee’s guys, but he was also in the market for infielders, and Pittsburgh was a fount of talent.

The following Saturday, they took their seats in the stadium’s bleachers. Greenlee had men scanning the stands; he’d gotten a tip that two foreigners had been driving around Pittsburgh asking for directions. But in a stadium full of black spectators, the Dominicans blended right in. When Nina arrived in New York, the agents at customs had recorded his race as “negro.” Greenlee’s henchmen would have to keep their ears open for any stray Spanish overheard in the stands.

It didn’t take long for the two to be found. Greenlee called a local alderman, telling him that a “raid” was in progress and that foreign agents were lurking around the city with the aim of breaking legally binding contracts—a crime, he claimed, that was tantamount to conspiracy. The alderman called the cops, while Nina and Mendez, none the wiser, followed Carter to the Crawfords Grill for the post-game celebration. Before long the three were repairing to Carter’s hotel off Wylie Avenue to talk about an offer. Carter’s manager, the barrel-chested Oscar Charleston, a wily outfielder and veteran of the leagues, watched as they left the restaurant and followed them to the hotel.

Nina and Carter had just shaken on the deal—$775 for eight weeks of play—when Charleston burst into the room, shouting insults. He towered over Nina, wagging his finger in the diminutive Dominican’s face. “I came here to whip you,” he shouted. “But since you’re so little, I won’t do it. Why don’t you go into the white leagues and get your players?”

The police arrived and cuffed Nina and Mendez, who were stunned by the turn of events. The charges against them were bloated and dramatic, bearing evidence of Greenlee’s handiwork: The two had “unlawfully, falsely, knowingly and maliciously conspired, combined, and confederated and agreed to induce, entice, and take from the Pittsburgh Crawfords, Inc., and Homestead Grays Inc., certain baseball players and employees of the said corporations under written and binding contract.” Their acts were “dishonest” and “dishonorable,” and redounded to the “prejudice of … the National Association of Negro Baseball Clubs.” Included among the charges was the list of players Nina had been courting: four from the Crawfords and two from the Grays. The players, in the language of the allegations, were “the property” of these two teams; luring them away was on par with theft.

Nina and Mendez spent two nights in jail before posting $1,000 bond; by the time they were released, the jailing had become a major diplomatic incident. Mendez had contacted the Dominican consul general, who spoke with the U.S. State Department. Cordell Hull, the secretary of state, personally wrote him back to say he was looking into the situation. Calls were made, cables sent. The Allegheny County district attorney spoke with the alderman, and finally a judge dismissed the charges. The two Dominicans were free to go home, which they did—taking Carter and several other ballplayers with them.

As Greenlee and the other club owners saw it, there was only one viable option for stemming the tide of departures: They had to convince the U.S. government to intervene. The next week, team owners held an emergency meeting in Philadelphia, where they voted unanimously to circulate a resolution among sympathetic national congressmen. Their message was clear, if desperate: “Be it resolved that these actions on the part of the Dominican baseball promoters and permitted by the officials of the Dominican Republic BE AND ARE HEREBY CONDEMNED. Be it further resolved that steps be taken to have these practices STOPPED.” In their view, the ideal outcome was for the State Department to order Trujillo to fly Paige and the other players back. They bombarded their representatives, arguing that the congressmen risked insulting their black constituents unless they took action to save black baseball. The Dominican affair, Greenlee’s lawyers told two Pennsylvania Democrats, “involves a matter of great importance not only to us as club owners, but also to the American Negroes generally.” Meanwhile the league’s commissioner, Ferdinand Morton, beseeched New York senator Robert F. Wagner, an outspoken fan of black baseball, to intervene on the owners’ behalf. “All the work which we have done to secure for the colored ball player a decent wage will go for naught,” he wrote.

For all their fervor, they hit a wall. According to the American attaché in Santo Domingo, Nina and Aybar were acting out of private interest, so there wasn’t much room for diplomatic intervention abroad. But there was enough political will to find some sort of solution. In late June, Hull’s deputies met with the owners in Washington.

The meeting’s minutes and internal memos, catalogued at the National Archives, reveal that the government officials were eager to help Greenlee and his counterparts in good faith. But their cooperation highlights a major contradiction at the heart of the American government’s attitudes toward black baseball and its black citizens. If the government’s openness to the interests of the Negro leagues indicated a conciliatory approach to the black community, it also emphasized just how limited that benevolence truly was. The government had never taken serious interest in integrating professional baseball, and it would be 17 years before the U.S. Supreme Court put an end to legal segregation. Yet there was the secretary of state, hosting black club owners in the country’s capital.

Five

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Rafael Trujillo

For the players in Ciudad Trujillo, the week between games was long and full of temptations. They went to nightclubs and cabarets, to brothels and swanky bars with names like the Rialto and the Encanto. They danced to five-piece bands that played merengues, which Trujillo had recently declared the national music, and in honor of the Americans, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington tunes were sometimes interspersed in the lineup for a dose of straight-ahead Yankee swing.

Race translated differently in the Dominican Republic. The black Americans were absorbed right into the teeming, multiracial scene. Sometimes, as a kind of Caribbean grace note, they were even called gringos. Still, there were ugly moments. The pitcher Bert Hunter, who was playing for Santiago, struggled with his control early in the tournament and became an immediate target for testy fans. He was heckled and called King Kong. When he finally settled into his groove after a few games and won the fans over with a commanding victory, he lumbered past the first-base line, swinging his arms up and down in mock imitation of a gorilla, and yelled back at them, in broken Spanish: “¿Ah, sí? ¿Ya no King Kong? ¡Ahora gran pitcher Hunter! ¡Mucho bueno!(“Oh, yeah? No longer King Kong? Now the great pitcher Hunter! Very good!”)

His rage confused the Santiago faithful, who understood racial innuendo by a different standard: To them, as to Trujillo, being “black” meant being Haitian. There was a long strain of racial antipathy toward the country’s neighbors to the west, and Trujillo, whose family was partly Haitian, took pains to emphasize his own affinity with Europe. He enacted harsh anti-immigration laws to keep out Haitian fieldworkers and even took in leftist refugees from the Spanish Civil War, an anathema to a right-wing strongman, simply to “whiten” the complexion of the population. His obsession with merengue was a more benign example. He much preferred it to Afro-Cuban dance music like the rhumba because it reminded him of an old-world, European-style waltz. Satchel and Janet Paige danced it, delightedly, without knowing the fetishism it stood for.

The high-society allure of the capital exercised a particular tug on the players. The aspiration of achieving celebrity commensurate with their talent, so baldly squelched in the States, was finally a reality. The journalist Ollie Stewart, who’d traveled to Santo Domingo to cover the tournament for the Afro-American, saw life there as practically utopian. “If there is a future for colored Americans (and I am convinced more than ever now there is a bright one) it is in this part of the world—in these islands now being developed, now coming into their own.” In his view, there was one person to thank for that: Rafael Trujillo. “President Trujillo rebuilt the city, made it sanitary, built streets, roads, put in electric lights, good water, drained off mosquito-infested swamps and brought peace to the republic,” Stewart wrote, echoing, ironically if only unconsciously, the kind of contemporary tropes being used overseas to prop up dictators like Mussolini. Behind closed doors, Trujillo was summoning his aides for advice on how to dispose of the Haitians crowding his borders. But on the streets, all Ollie Stewart could see were storefronts decorated with photos of the American ballplayers.

The aspiration of achieving celebrity commensurate with their talent, so baldly squelched in the States, was finally a reality.

The players themselves were lulled as well. Not only did they have their hefty monthly salaries; they also walked around with their pockets flush with cash from a raft of tournament-wide incentives—$10 bonuses for won games, $10 more for home-runs, $40 for the winning pitcher. Bill Perkins traveled with an entourage to keep the fans off. “He was such a heavy lover, this precaution was taken to keep the women away from him,” Stewart observed. When Paige walked the streets with Janet he was mobbed, with boys perpetually trailing him and women shouting insults at his wife. “You’re not beautiful, we’re beautiful!” they yelled, as if trying to peel Paige away.

The festive mood had grown somber by May. The Dragons were losing, stuck in last place in spite of the tens of thousands of dollars spent on their success. While Federico Nina was trawling for talent in Pittsburgh, his Estrellas blew out the Dragons in back-to-back matchups in San Pedro de Macoris, outscoring them fourteen to three. After another string of losses, this time to Santiago, the Dragons’ management adopted special “disciplinary measures” to “submit the players to solid training and to wean them from all the whiskey and beers.” The newspapers called out Paige, Andrews, and Perkins by name as repeat offenders. Excessive drinking now led to fines, which the papers catalogued as though the whole of the capital was acting as the team’s chaperone. The week after the Dragons eked out a lone victory against Santiago, Andrews and Perkins each had to pay $6.25 for a night of debauchery that had led to a missed practice.

The Dragons’ manager resigned, “in light of the fact that the club needs someone who can dedicate more time to the discipline and organization of the operation,” as he put it. Two other businessmen, who vowed to redouble their supervision of the team, took over in his stead. Their first move was to institute a curfew. “It was almost like we was in jail,” Paige complained in his memoir. “We was kept at a hotel and had to be in bed early. No matter what we done—like if we went in swimming—there was soldiers around and nobody could speak to us.”

I was stunned when I came across this account in Paige’s memoir. Paige’s complaint about the soldiers chimes with what is easily his most infamous, if also most beguiling, anecdote from the time. In the midst of one tight game, while he was on the mound, Paige says, Trujillo ordered troops to surround the field. The dramatic subtext is clear: If Paige hadn’t come through with a win, he wouldn’t have survived to tell the tale.

The other players remembered swimming and fishing, even horsing around on the beach, but none of them mentioned these stifling armed watchmen, nor, for that matter, the same sense of imminent disaster. What likely fueled these discrepancies was Paige’s sourness about anyone telling him how to live at all. There’s no question that the Dragons’ owners were bothered by Paige’s lifestyle; he had been an exceptionally expensive acquisition, and the team’s management, understandably, felt he was overindulging. Paige was used to getting what he wanted from Greenlee, and that wasn’t how the Dominicans operated.

But it’s also true that Paige was feeling the pressure more than most, since Aybar had been portentous with him from the outset. He was earning big money—$1,200 a month for three months, plus several hundred more as a bonus—to bring the capital its championship. “We was President Trujillo’s ball club and we got to win that championship, because if we won’t win maybe the people won’t reelect him again,” Paige said. “It’s that important.” Mostly, this was Aybar talking. Like any proper courtier of his era, he could be more Trujillista than Trujillo—more of a booster for the regime, and more of a menace.

Paige looked and acted unflappable, but to judge from his memoir he truly was getting nervous. The troops he saw on the street may very well have merged in his mind with the curfew and the new battery of restrictions from the team’s management. Aybar had convinced him that Trujillo was lurking behind every out of every inning and that the consequences would be grim if Paige couldn’t turn things around for the Dragons.

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An advertisement for a game between the Dragons and the Eagles.

Paige wasn’t the only one to feel the pressure. The tournament had been charged from the start, with fans sometimes storming the field in protest when a call was made against their club. But by May, players, coaches, and managers were all getting tense as play tightened.

The Dragons responded by cleaning house. On May 19, management announced a “new Unified Front,” headed by Aybar, to strengthen team discipline. The phrase was meant to have a political ring to it, and Aybar decided to run the club like it was an extension of the government. When a fresh batch of American recruits arrived in San Pedro de Macoris to play for the Estrellas, soldiers escorted them to the capital, where they suited up for the Dragons. Nina made more than one trip back to the States to plug the gaps in his roster, and when he returned he was arrested and thrown in jail for a week before he could go home.

Two days after the Dragons’ new initiative was announced, Cool Papa Bell, Leroy Matlock, Sam Bankhead, and Harry Williams arrived on two private planes chartered by Aybar. It was the biggest single importation of new recruits to date. An entourage waited for them at the landing strip, complete with the team’s captain, the new director of discipline for the club, a member of the executive committee, and a lucky Ciudad Trujillo fan brought along to pose for the press. The team officials immediately presented the four players with tournament registration papers to sign, and they set out for the Hotel Presidente. “Forty-five days ago, none of this seemed possible,” one news article declared; the capital had become a kind of magnet for the premier black American talent of the day. The arrival of four more players was touted as an immediate achievement of the new Unified Front.

The Dragons’ next home game, against the Estrellas, was a triumph. Paige gave up just two hits that made it to the outfield, and Cool Papa Bell smacked a single and stole a base, the fans gawking at his speed. His trademark was a chop-like swing of the bat that grounded the ball straight into the dirt so it would careen up high into the infield. In the time it took for the ball to drop into a fielder’s mitt, he’d already be standing on first. Everyone cheered as he scampered to the bag. When Bell reached base, it was like his team had a run in the bank; he was so fast, he could score from first on a bloop single to even the shallowest part of the outfield.

The Dragons notched one victory, then another. The Eagles were holding firm, but the once champion Estrellas were beginning to buckle. In June, Ramón Bragaña, the team’s star pitcher and best hitter, was suspended for ten games for getting into a fistfight with an umpire. A week later, the Estrellas lost 20–5 to the Eagles in a game held in honor of the birthday of Trujillo’s son, Ramfis. Nina was savaged in the press for seeming to have thrown the game to save his best players for their next matchup, later that day, against the Dragons. It was an unfair charge that stemmed from an indisputable reality: Against the expanded ranks of the Dragons and the Eagles, the Estrellas were outgunned and overmatched.

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The Santiago Eagles. 

In a few short weeks, the momentum had shifted: the black American players were dominating the competition, and by the middle of the summer the newspapers had taken to calling the tournament the World Series of Black Baseball, championship billing that Gus Greenlee and the other club owners had for years tried in vain to drum up in the States. By the end of May, even more players had arrived to shore up the ranks of the Eagles—the pitcher Chet Brewer, the second baseman Pat Patterson, and outfielder Roy Parnell.

The Dragons, meanwhile, were on an upswing of their own. After the arrival of Bell, Williams, Bankhead, and Matlock, the reliever Robert Griffin joined the team on June 1, and there were rumors that Josh Gibson would be coming later that same week. The Estrellas managed to scrounge up a few black players—the hard-hitting second baseman George Scales and, later, Ernest Carter—but they didn’t have the firepower to match their rivals. Between May 22 and June 12, the Estrellas lost five of seven games and sank into last place. The Dragons passed them on their way up into second place and were now within striking distance of the Eagles.

By now, Paige’s and Aybar’s fortunes were entwined. Each victory the Dragons notched brought Paige one step closer to making it out of the Dominican Republic safe and triumphant. At the same time, it meant ever better publicity for Trujillo. Paige labored on the field, while Aybar conspired off it. And all the while the team in Trujillo’s name became like another medal on the general’s decorated lapels. His hold on the country tightened as he consolidated monopolies in the salt, tobacco, and lumber industries; the list of his assets grew larger by the day. His wife, meanwhile, was put in charge of a business that forced state employees to pay her a 2 percent service charge to cash their paychecks. Together, Trujillo and his family gained control of 40 percent of the country’s wealth, and his reign was only just beginning.   

As Paige’s luck on the diamond took a favorable turn, he began to question whether he even wanted to return to the States. “I would be willing to go to South America and live in the jungles rather than go back to the league and play ball like I did for ten years,” he wrote in an op-ed that ran in the Afro-American later that summer. “The opportunities of a colored baseball player on these islands are the same or almost the same as those enjoyed by the white major league players in the States. That’s something to think about it.”

Practically all his old teammates were in Ciudad Trujillo with him anyway. Josh Gibson arrived on June 11, and fans turned out by the thousands to watch his debut the next day. The Dragons were facing the Estrellas at home, and Cocaina García kept Gibson hitless, but barely. In the sixth inning, Gibson crushed a line drive straight back up the middle and right at the pitcher. The ball sought García out like it was personal, and he flailed his glove to knock it away from his face. Gibson had arrived ready, his swing unkinked and fluid. The next day, he hit a double against the Eagles, and the game after that he pounded a double and a triple.

The Dragons and Eagles were pulling away. By June 21, the Dragons were 13-11 and the Eagles 11-10. The Estrellas had sunk three games under .500. The baseball council decided to narrow the tournament’s final three weeks to a competition between the two leading teams; it declared the Estrellas’ chances mathematically impossible, given their current record, and took the team out of contention, thanking Nina and his guys for their service. Tetelo Vargas and Cocaina García left for Venezuela, Ramón Bragaña for New York. For the Dragons, this cordial exit didn’t mean that there was a graceful way that they, too, could lose the tournament—in fact, just the opposite. Now the Dragons and Eagles would have to square off on center stage.

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The Dragons with Dr. José Enrique Aybar (second row center; Satchel Paige is seated to his left).

Aybar sent away for new uniforms from Havana, one last frill for his team in the final stretch. The Dragons didn’t need any fresh motivation, though. The team was finally gaining momentum. The players were on a tear, besting the Eagles in a string of matchups. And with three games left, in the final week of June, they needed only two more to clinch victory.

The Eagles fought back. In the first game of a double-header on July 4, in Santiago, they kicked off the bottom of the first inning with a six-run rally against the usually untouchable Robert Griffin. Martín Dihigo pitched for the Eagles. The Dragons didn’t get on the board until the sixth inning; then they exploded for three more runs in the seventh and came back to within one run in the top of the ninth before the American Clarence Palm, in to relieve Dihigo, closed them down. The final score was 8–7, and the Eagles had managed to withstand the Dragons at their offensive best. Josh Gibson had hit for the cycle—a single, double, triple, and home run—but it wasn’t enough.

In the afternoon game, Paige was back on the mound, strong as ever, but his counterpart, the ex-Crawfords pitcher Chet Brewer, was better. He threw a one-hitter, in which the Dragons eked out two paltry runs on three Eagles fielding errors. The Eagles survived elimination yet again.

In the customary week off before the next game, Brewer, who’d been stationed in Santiago throughout the tournament, came to the capital to relax for a few days. He and Paige were likely to face off again in the coming weekend, the latest in a career-long rivalry between the two players. They were reluctant friends, close after all their years together. “None of us got any publicity when Satchel was there,” he once said. Brewer was soft-spoken and even-keeled, but he felt some resentment toward Paige. “I pitched against Satchel a lot of times. We just about broke even on wins,” he said. Yet “they always starred Satchel. He had all the billing.”

One evening, Brewer walked over to the Hotel Presidente to see if Paige and some of the other guys wanted to have a drink, but they weren’t there. In broken Spanish, he asked a boy in the street about the ballplayers; by this point, everyone knew them in the capital. “They’re in jail,” the boy replied.

Paige had complained before about feeling, at certain moments, like the Dominican Republic was one big prison cell, but that had been an exaggeration. This time it was literal. It wasn’t even the first time he’d been locked up for baseball—he’d once found himself in jail in Pittsburgh while Greenlee and another owner fought over who had claim to the pitcher. (Keen on some extra money, Paige had signed contracts with both of them.) This time, though, it had to have been terrifying. For all Paige knew, he’d been put on lockdown by order of the dictator himself. On top of that was an even scarier association: a black man, in 1937, stuck in a jail cell.

It’s impossible to reconstruct exactly how Paige wound up there, but it seems safe to assume that Aybar ordered it. Brewer figured that someone in the upper echelons of the team’s management had decided to lock up Paige before his big start to make sure a night of carousing wouldn’t dull his performance. The pressure put an added strain on Paige as he suited up the next morning. “You’d have thought war was declared. We were guarded like we had the secret combination to Fort Knox,” he said. Paige was no stranger to the spotlight, but he was starting to wonder about his safety. Say the Dragons didn’t win, he recalled thinking—we’re here without passports!


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From left: Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Bill Perkins.

There was another game the following week, and the Dragons, behind Leroy Matlock, would have a chance to secure the championship. Before the Dragons walked onto the field, Aybar took the team aside and got everyone quiet. Then, in a soft but firm voice, he gave them a laconic piece of advice: “You better win.” Paige, his voice a little shaky, piped up. “What’a you mean, we better win?” he asked. Aybar’s response was sterner still. “I mean just that. Take my advice and win.”

The Dragons took their warm-ups, and Paige glanced around at the stands. “Some of them guys the president had watching us sent shivers up and down your spine. They was that tough looking. They packed guns and long knives, and I know they could use ’em. We didn’t want to give them a chance,” he said. He had plenty of time to take stock. Leroy Matlock got the start and Paige watched from the bench. Matlock was in fine form in the early innings; from the looks of it, Paige’s services might not be needed at all.

Brewer was back on the diamond for the Eagles, even though he’d gone the distance the previous game. This was another advantage for the Dragons—their bullpen allowed each of their starters a comfortable amount of rest. If it wasn’t Paige on the hill, it would be Matlock; if not Matlock, Griffin; and if not Griffin, then Rodolfo Fernández. The Eagles had a slightly tighter rotation, especially since the Cuban southpaw Lefty Tiant had gone back home a few weeks before. Their signal ace was Brewer, who, for his part, showed no signs of fatigue. He gave up first-inning hits to Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson, but that was to be expected; each of the next two innings Brewer retired the Dragons in order.

The din in the stadium grew steady, with shouts and cheers blanketing the ballpark; in its evenness, the noise almost seemed to fall away, and a kind of silence reigned over the diamond itself. The teams went back and forth through the second, third, and fourth innings. One squad stole a few hits, then stranded its runners on base when the opposing pitcher hunkered down.

In the bottom of the fifth, Brewer had fallen into a rut—he’d walked the lead batter and then surrendered the game’s first run. With one out, he gave up three consecutive hits to load the bases. Martín Dihigo had seen enough. The player-manager trotted in from center field, where he’d started the game, and relieved Brewer himself. By now Dragons fans were in hysterics. Dihigo took his warm-ups with an easy, rolling motion and barely even a kick of his leg. Sam Bankhead, who was due up, stood a few feet off the plate and took practice swings in sync with the pitches as they came in. Dihigo signaled he was ready, and the umpire waved Bankhead over to the plate.

Dihigo wound up and delivered, and Bankhead unleashed a mammoth swing. The ball shot off his bat, rising steadily over the infield, then the outfield; it easily cleared the fence for a grand slam. Money, hats, and flowers rained onto the field. The Dragons scored three more runs by the end of the inning and were up eight to zero going into the sixth.

Paige came into the game in the top of the ninth inning with the Dragons leading by five. There was one out, and runners stood on first and second. A cushy lead like this could be dangerous for Paige, who was best when pitching with a sense of urgency.

Feeling that victory was within reach, the local fans called out to Paige to put the Eagles away. “The more the fans yelled, the harder I threw,” Paige said. “I bet I never did have a better fastball only I never see any better hitters than them guys.” The first three batters he faced all got hits—and just like that the Eagles had three more runs on the board and had pulled to within two, the score at 8–6. “Boy, my mouth was dry that day,” he later wrote. “‘Satchel, old boy,’ I say to myself, ‘If you ever pitched, it’s now.’”

The fearsome Roy Parnell grounded to second for out number two, and up came Dihigo. He scorched a single to right field, and again the bases were full. The leading run was on first base. Paige disliked pitching at the stadium in Ciudad Trujillo because it was so small—short fences in left and right field and a cropped outfield. He felt his back was against the wall.

Clarence Palm, the Eagles’ imposing catcher, strode to the plate. He took a hefty cut at the ball, and it skipped into the gap between short and third. Bankhead ranged to his right and dug the ball out with a sure-handed grab, then planted his right foot and gunned the ball across the diamond. One of the runners crossed home and another, the tying run, was rounding third. Everyone watched as the ball sailed across the infield toward first base. Paige stiffened. The throw was on line; the first baseman stretched out from the bag to snag it. The umpire pumped his fist—Palm was out at first. Dragons win.

The team celebrated by the mound, circling around a grinning Satchel Paige. He’d gotten himself out of another jam. A photographer steadied the revelers and had them pose for a picture, then took one of Paige alone, his hat off and a dazed smile on his face. He was missing a button on his jersey, so that the word Trujillo, which was emblazoned across his chest, didn’t quite line up; it was a final act of unwitting irreverence.

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From Cuqui Córdova’s collection, a photograph taken at the end of the 1937 championship, after the Dragons had clinched the victory.

Six

If Paige thought victory would ingratiate him with Trujillo, he was sorely mistaken. Aybar organized a celebratory picnic at one of the dictator’s residences, but Trujillo never showed. There was one crucial fact about Trujillo that Paige did not know: The dictator didn’t even like baseball. Not only that, he hadn’t gone to any of the tournament games. The championship held in his honor hardly seemed to register with Trujillo at all. His daily memos, typed up and brought to him each morning as a primer on what was going on in the country, mentioned agrarian reform, bureaucratic appointments, diplomatic engagements—all manner of small-bore politics and administration, but not a word about how the tournament was developing.

For months, Trujillo had been receiving updates about the growing presence of Haitians at the border, which he increasingly viewed as a threat to Dominican sovereignty. On August 4, 1937, a few weeks after the tournament ended, he took a trip to the border himself. The situation, as he saw it, was becoming ungovernable. Dominican farmers complained that Haitian immigrants were pillaging and robbing their plots, and Haitian currency was circulating on the Dominican side, which Trujillo took as an added affront. He fired his agriculture secretary and ordered the construction of a Catholic church in the border town of Dajabón, vowing to return and police the area personally.

On October 2, after coming back for another survey, Trujillo gave orders to his officers: Any Haitian on Dominican soil illegally was to be killed on the spot. The military fanned out along the border, spreading terror. For a full week, soldiers hacked men, women, and children to death with machetes. Around 15,000 people were killed before the campaign let up.

The rampage made international news. Though Trujillo remained in power, his rule growing ever more brazen and bloody, outcry over the massacre forced him to withdraw from the 1938 elections. The Championship for the Reelection of Rafael Trujillo, and all the other blandishments gracing the social calendar during the previous year, had brought too much attention to a dictator who, finally, needed to lay low. He named a puppet in his place to quiet some of the international uproar. The years wore on. Critics at home and abroad mysteriously disappeared. Rival presidents in neighboring countries uncovered plots to assassinate them that seemed to emanate from the Dominican capital. Thirty years into his reign, Trujillo, his family, and their cronies controlled 80 percent of the nation’s economy and employed 45 percent of the country’s workforce.

One night in May 1961, on a dark stretch of coastal highway, Trujillo was assassinated en route to visit his mistress. With the collapse of the old order, Aybar, who had enjoyed a long career under the dictator, lost the protections that came with that privilege. In 1965, American troops invaded the Dominican Republic to support a coup and police the streets through the ensuing chaos. One night a mob rampaging through the upscale neighborhood of Santo Domingo where Aybar lived tried to rob his house; he ran outside to frighten them off, waving a revolver. American soldiers, who arrived on the scene but didn’t know exactly what was happening, took aim and shot him dead.


Shortly after the tournament ended, Satchel Paige and his fellow Americans returned to the States, where they played on the semipro circuit for a few months while waiting for a rapprochement with team owners from the Negro leagues. They banded together under the name the Trujillo All-Stars and, dressed in their old Dominican pinstripes, entered a prestigious semipro competition in Colorado called the Denver Post Tournament, which they won. When the papers didn’t name-check Trujillo, they referred to the team as “Satchel Paige’s Outlaws,” an appellation he welcomed. “If you ask me what was the biggest event for colored baseball in 1937, I’d say the winning of the pennant of the Dominican Republic by the best players in the league,” Paige said, proud and unrepentant. That fall the international press began reporting on Trujillo’s atrocities, and while it seems unlikely that Paige kept up with the developments, it also seems inevitable that he took note of the criticism directed at Trujillo.

In between Trujillo’s and Aybar’s deaths, Paige published his memoir. By then he was trying to define his legacy. Professional baseball was integrated in 1947, and its protagonist wasn’t Paige—or, for that matter, any of black baseball’s legendary stars—but a 28-year-old second baseman who’d played all of five months in the Negro leagues. His name was Jackie Robinson, and as Paige immediately grasped, he was instantly immortal. “I’d been the guy who’d started all that big talk about letting us in the big time,” Paige said in his memoir, with more than a touch of resentment. “I’d been the one who everybody’d said should be in the majors.”

The main reason he was left off the integrated rosters was his age: He was 41 at the time. By then, Cool Papa Bell was on the path to retirement and Josh Gibson was already dead, of a brain tumor. If together they’d been trailblazers—the game’s first true black stars—they were also the first to be sacrificed in the push to integration. Pioneers but throwbacks, they were too weathered to lead the way to the sport’s next frontier. Paige watched as Robinson broke the color barrier in the National League and then as a center fielder named Larry Doby followed suit, 11 weeks later, in the American League.

Paige wasn’t ready to resign himself to the bleachers. The day after Doby signed with the Cleveland Indians, Paige sent a telegram to the team’s owner: “Is it time for me to come?” The response was chilly: “All things in due time.” Paige, dejected, kept barnstorming. Now that professional baseball was integrating, the Negro leagues teetered on the brink of irrelevance—and, in short order, bankruptcy, too. Greenlee, for one, was a husk of his former self. His stadium had been demolished in 1938, and soon after he was forced to resign as league president. Once he was shut out, he never managed to work his way back into black baseball; he’d created too many enemies. In 1946, at the age of 50, he suffered a heart attack, and he died six years later.

One day in early July 1948, while Paige was traveling with a semipro club in Iowa, he got a call from the Indians. The team was ready to give him a tryout. They were in a tight pennant race that summer and short on pitchers. “I wasn’t as fast as I used to be, but I was a better pitcher. If I couldn’t overpower them, I’d outcute them,” he said of the prospect of facing big-league batters. The world’s first glimpse of Paige in the bigs wouldn’t be of the dazzling fireballer he’d been all his life but of a grizzled veteran. It was both a tragedy and a triumph. On July 7, he was signed. Two days later, at the age of 42, he took the mound for Cleveland in his Major League debut. He had prevailed against all odds—even, it seemed, the passage of time. As always he had a saying handy to motivate himself: “Don’t look back, someone might be gaining on you.” He remains the oldest rookie in the history of the game.