The Divorce Colony

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The Divorce Colony

The strange tale of the socialites who shaped modern marriage on the American frontier.

By April White

The Atavist Magazine, No. 55


April White is an editor for the Harvard Business School Bulletin. She is a historical researcher and the author or coauthor of numerous books on food, cooking, and travel.

Editor: Katia Bachko
Designer: Thomas Rhiel
Producer:Producer: Megan Detrie
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Riley Blanton
Illustrations: Jonathan McNaught


Published in November 2015. Design updated in 2021.

One

The morning of Monday, February 8, 1892, dawned clear and cold in the frontier town of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The previous night’s snow had made the roadways treacherous for horse-drawn carriages, but the Baroness Margaret Laura De Stuers was undeterred. Just before nine o’clock, she approached the Minnehaha County courthouse. In the morning light, the imposing quartzite edifice shimmered purple against the white snow. Its tower—the clock faces still missing from the as yet unfinished building—rose 165 feet into the clear Dakota sky, a beacon visible from anywhere in the small town. It would soon become a landmark known nationwide by the nickname the Temple of Freedom. The baroness was here, 1,200 miles from her hometown of New York City, for a divorce, one that her husband, the law, and society had conspired to deny her.

Margaret—Maggie to her friends, of which, at this point in her life, there were few—climbed the staircase to the second-floor courtroom and walked with her lawyers to the plaintiff’s table. Even in these spare surroundings, the 39-year-old baroness exuded an aristocratic elegance, though her sloping shoulders lent her an air of perpetual sadness. Accompanying her were her chaperone, William Elliott, and her maid, Maria. William seated himself in the first row of opera chairs reserved for the public, and Maggie glanced at the defense table with relief. Despite the rumors, the defendant was not in attendance. Maggie’s husband, the Baron Alphonse Lambert Eugene Ridder De Stuers, had declined to travel from Europe to confront his wife of almost 17 years. But even in his absence he caused a sensation.

The rest of the two-story courtroom was largely empty, with the exception of a clutch of newspaper correspondents who had reported on every scrap of news about Maggie, a niece of the late John Jacob Astor III and the first of that leading New York family to seek a divorce. Her life, the New York World wrote, had “furnished a series of very romantic chapters during the past two or three years, and society has been prepared for an additional chapter more romantic and fascinating than any of its predecessors—very possibly, in case she obtains a divorce, her marriage to the devoted lover of her girlhood days.”

Just after 9:15, Judge Frank Aikens gaveled the court to order, and Maggie’s lawyer, Captain William H. Stoddard, called her to the witness stand. Captain Stoddard came primed for a fight, but he questioned his client gently. There was much ground to cover, from her New York society wedding in 1875 to her desperate flight from her Dutch husband and their home in Paris in 1890. To secure a divorce, Maggie had to convince Judge Aikens that her husband had treated her cruelly. But first, Captain Stoddard asked Maggie for her name, for the record, and then posed one of the most important questions of the trial: How long have you been a resident of Sioux Falls?


The decision to end a marriage was most often the domain of the wealthy man, who had the money and influence to shape, circumvent, or simply ignore the law.

In 1892, the young state of South Dakota was a refuge for divorce seekers. It had among the laxest divorce laws in the country, offering numerous grounds and, more importantly, requiring only 90 days residency to fall under the court’s jurisdiction. Meanwhile, Maggie’s home state of New York had some of the strictest laws, granting absolute divorce only for adultery; some would resort to hiring actresses to play the part of the mistress. In other states, one could sue for a divorce of room and board, which allowed for physical and economic, not marital, separation. South Carolina was stricter still, forbidding it entirely. This hodgepodge of laws created the legally debatable phenomenon of the “foreign divorce,” in which one spouse traveled to a jurisdiction with more favorable laws.

Divorce was anathema in the United States in the late 19th century. Yet demand was on the rise, especially among women, for whom the hurdles of escaping an unhappy marriage were high. Historically, the decision to end a marriage was most often the domain of the wealthy man, who had the money and influence to shape, circumvent, or simply ignore the law. Many men could walk away from their wives, secure in their fortunes, their place in society, and the legitimacy of their children. Women, who for centuries lacked economic independence and social standing outside marriage, were often hesitant to divorce. But as Maggie traveled to Sioux Falls, that dynamic was shifting.

Throughout the United States’ history, the most permissive divorce laws had existed at the edges of the settled country, before the land and the laws had been tamed. In earlier years, Maggie might have traveled to Pennsylvania, Indiana, or Illinois; each of those states was briefly a destination for divorce seekers before residency requirements were lengthened. South Dakota’s laws were not written to encourage divorce—the short residency requirement was a holdover from the peripatetic nature of pioneer life—but divorce seekers did not concern themselves with the intention of the law, only the opportunities it afforded.

Sioux Falls, at the eastern edge of the state and the nexus of six railroad lines, was the most convenient South Dakota destination for foreign divorce seekers from the East, and the Cataract House hotel, at the corner of 9th and Phillips, was their comfortable if expensive way station: steam heat, elevator, and electric bells to summon the help, all for three dollars a day. After 90 days, they would be recognized as residents of South Dakota. Across the street, the Edmison-Jameson building housed nearly a quarter of the town’s outsize legal community: 38 law firms and counting. In Sioux Falls, Maggie found a community of divorce seekers from New York, Boston, Chicago, even England—the pioneers of the “Divorce Colony,” as newspapermen christened it.

“Now that a niece of William Astor has joined the divorce colony in Sioux Falls,” the Philadelphia Record had written following her arrival on June 1, 1891, “the South Dakota style of severing matrimonial bonds may become more popular than heretofore. The amazing elasticity of the complaisant South Dakota divorce laws has up to this time escaped the attention of all but a few wandering actors and actresses.” 

By the time of Maggie’s trial eight months later, the Cataract House ledger read like the courthouse docket. Maggie, along with her maid and her dog, Tweedle, had a suite of four rooms on the top floor of the four-story building, remodeled to Maggie’s taste with new furniture, a large bathtub, and a piano. Her parlors filled a prime corner of the hotel. At the other end of the hallway, the curious William Elliott, whom Maggie introduced as her second cousin, occupied two rooms. Among the other divorce colonists in residence were 25-year-old Boston Herald scion Charles Andrews, who was seeking a divorce from his wife, Kate; Edward Pollock, sent from New York by his well-to-do family to end his marriage to the household maid; Alice Crane, in Sioux Falls for a divorce from her English cousin, who tricked her into marrying him in hopes of stealing away her fortune (which was not quite as large as he had thought); and Ida Tyson, in exile at the Cataract House with her seven-year-old son, awaiting freedom from a husband who had committed adultery. Rumor had it that her husband was elsewhere in South Dakota, accompanying his married mistress in her own quest for a divorce.

Rivaling Maggie for the title of most notorious divorce colonist was 25-year-old Mary Nevins Blaine, the young wife of Jamie Blaine, the wayward son of secretary of state James G. Blaine. Mary came to Sioux Falls in late April 1891, and her efforts to secure a divorce were daily newspaper fodder, printed alongside hopeful speculation that her father-in-law, who narrowly lost the 1884 presidential election, would again seek the Republican nomination. Many feared that the secretary of state’s failing health would prevent him from running; others wondered if his youngest son’s very public divorce would end his presidential ambitions.

To read the front pages of the country’s newspapers or sit in its church pews in 1892 was to know that the United States was facing a divorce epidemic. By one estimate, more divorces were granted in the United States than in all the rest of the Christian world combined. Even more concerning to many was the rapidly rising divorce rate—an increase of some 157 percent between 1867 and 1886—and the brazen attitudes of the divorce seekers. For as long as there had been marriage, there had been a debate over its dissolution: Who had the right to end the relationship? When? Why? How? And, often, for how much money? The answers varied from country to country and decade to decade, but one overarching theme emerged: Marriage was too integral to society to leave the decision up to the spouses alone. Through laws, religious dictates, and social pressure, society would govern divorce.

But in the late 19th century, the United States was undergoing rapid societal and economic transformation: industrialization, urbanization, growing middle and working classes, increasing class consciousness, and evolving roles for women. Among progressives and liberals the changes were celebrated. Among conservatives they were feared. Divorce and the Divorce Colony became a scapegoat for those fears: “Utah, Connecticut and Illinois have in the past shared the distinction of being the banner divorce communities, but South Dakota bids fair to outrival them all,” The Salt Lake Herald observed with some alarm in August 1891. “In other states and territories where the divorce industry has been worked so industriously, those interested have thought proper to preserve some degree of secrecy. Here it is altogether different.”

The women and men of the Divorce Colony were unwitting participants in a now forgotten chapter of American social history. The South Dakota town was a “grand phantasmagoria,” the New York World reported. “No one can begin to appreciate the situation unless he is here on the spot. December wed to May, old men’s disappointed darlings and young men’s slaves, young men with elderly affinities, yet unrequited love and budding hope and dead passions, all figuring in one fantastic show.”

Only a generation after married women had gained the right to own property, and still a generation before women gained the vote, the actions of these Sioux Falls colonists had forced the issue of divorce into the nation’s churches, courthouses, and legislatures. The battle was not a quiet one. The colonists were challenged not just by contrary spouses but by a growing anti-divorce movement of clergymen, conservative politicians and judges, and others who saw divorce as an attack on the family and proposed stricter laws across the country. The nearly daily news of arrivals, filings, depositions, and decrees in the Divorce Colony—a “Mecca for the mismated,” according to the Pittsburgh Daily Post—spurred their efforts. Each of the colonists was there for his or her own reasons, but their collective presence would make Sioux Falls the crucible of the country’s growing divorce crisis and, ultimately, change marriage and divorce in American society.

Two

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Maggie had waited in Sioux Falls for 252 days: first the three months required to establish residency, then another five months for her lawyers to prepare depositions and legal filings. Now, for her long-anticipated day in court, Maggie was dressed elegantly in a dark brown, three-quarter-length Persian lamb cloak. A brown soft felt hat with a broad feather hid much of her dark golden hair. Her fair skin was paler than usual, but she spoke in a clear and musical voice as she answered her lawyer’s questions.

“I was married in New York City, April 20, 1875,” she explained, showing little emotion in the retelling. “My husband was the chargé d’affaires for his country at Washington. Soon after, we went to Europe traveling.“

The wedding had been the social event of the 1875 season. It had also been something of a shock. No one had expected the impetuous young Miss Carey—daughter of John Carey and Mary Alida Astor—to be swept off her feet by the Dutch diplomat, a formal and polished man 12 years her senior, and the promise of a fashionable European title. They had expected her instead to marry the handsome Elliott Zborowski, a tall and charming millionaire about Maggie’s age and one of the most daring horsemen in New York. She had met him during a Newport summer.

Among the most exclusive of New York society, Maggie had a reputation for her “exceedingly eccentric and interesting” personality. 

Maggie and the baron were married at Maggie’s family home, an imposing New York brownstone at 34th and Madison. In a drawing room overflowing with flowers, an Episcopal minister, representing Maggie’s faith, and a Catholic priest, representing her betrothed’s, had presided over the union. The wealthy Astor family, among New York’s most important, was well represented; Maggie’s uncles John Jacob Astor III and William Astor, along with his wife, were both in attendance. The bridesmaids were a who’s who of the country’s most influential clans: Maggie’s cousin, Emily Astor; Daisy Rutherford; Minnie Rhinelander; and Sallie Delano. Sallie, in a gauzy frock of bright red tulle, had declared Maggie’s handsome new husband to be “the nicest foreigner I have ever met.” The couple departed New York for Europe and a life of beautiful homes and beautiful dresses on Maggie’s annual $80,000 income from her family. Maggie bore the baron four children—twins Mary Alida and John, Bertie, and Margaret—as the couple moved from London to Paris to Madrid and back to Paris. There the baron served in the prestigious role of minister plenipotentiary for the Netherlands, and Maggie had been spotted waltzing to Strauss on the banks of the Seine.

But in court, Maggie told a different story.

“What was your husband’s treatment of you in London?” Captain Stoddard asked her.

“He was very unkind to me,” Maggie said simply. “He would scold me before people. He said I was ‘a savage American’ and a ‘baby,’ and that I didn’t know how to behave myself.”

“What was his conduct in Paris?”

“It was about the same. He was rude to my friends, especially my American friends, and humiliated me in their presence,” Maggie told the court.

“Was he cruel to you at Madrid?”

Maggie recounted an episode from March 13, 1881, the day that Czar Alexander II was assassinated. The baron had demanded that Maggie cancel a small party she had planned in their Madrid home. Such a festive gathering was inappropriate on a day of mourning. Maggie refused, and when her guests arrived the baron accused her of behaving indecently and ignoring her duties as a diplomat’s wife. What did those duties include? Maggie regaled the courtroom with another scandalous tale. The baron had been negotiating a commercial treaty in Madrid and needed the cooperation of the minister of commerce. He tried to enlist her help. “Make him fall in love with you,” the baron demanded. “You know how.” “I told him I was not doing such work,” Maggie recalled. “I refused flatly to thus place my womanhood at the services of the state.”

Maggie continued her stories, the gallery of the courtroom slowly filling as word spread of the drama unfolding in the courthouse. She needed little prompting from her attorney. She recalled how her husband had accused her of adultery. When she denied the charge, he demanded she go to a church and swear to her faithfulness. She did, but he still refused to believe her. She told of his controlling nature: “My husband objected to my reading anything but history. One day I was reading a harmless English novel when he entered the room, snatched the book from me, and went out, slamming the door.” And she told of threats of physical violence. One morning, as Maggie prepared to venture out from their Paris home, her husband demanded to know why she was taking a cab instead of their carriage. “He came up close to me, screamed in my face, grabbed my parasol from me, and swung it ten or twelve times over my head,” Maggie said. Her husband had later explained to her that he did it to frighten her. “I told him, ‘You might frighten your Dutch women that way, but you can’t thus scare an American.’”

Those in the growing audience may have been surprised by Maggie’s defiance in the face of the cruelty she detailed. But among the most exclusive of New York society, Maggie had a reputation for her “exceedingly eccentric and interesting” personality. She never cared for what others—her family included—thought of her. Her learned disregard for their judgment served her well now as she revealed the most humiliating moments of her marriage for the court and the press: “One day at dinner we had present some eight or ten guests. I made some remark which he didn’t like. He jumped right up from the table, screamed at me, spit in my face, and said, ‘I wish to God I had not married you.’”


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The exploits of the Divorce Colony did not escape the notice of South Dakota Senator James Kyle, a Congregational minister who had been elected in March 1891, shortly before Maggie came to South Dakota. In the middle of a rainy spring, the young Populist had arrived in Sioux Falls to visit his sister. He planned to spend the summer touring the state to discover what legislation would best serve his constituents. Though he hadn’t stayed long in Sioux Falls, he found his answer there: What South Dakota needed was national divorce reform.

In January 1892, a month before Maggie’s trial, Senator Kyle boarded a train in Sioux Falls bound for Washington, D.C. In his pocket he carried a piece of paper designed to end the Divorce Colony: a proposed 16th amendment to the United States Constitution. If adopted, it would be the first change to the Constitution in two decades.

Article XVI.

The Congress shall have exclusive power to regulate marriage and divorce in the several States, Territories and the District of Columbia.

In the House, a Republican from New York and a Democrat from Pennsylvania both filed similar resolutions the same month. “The necessity for some such enactment is too apparent to be questioned,” wrote the Chicago Mail.

Kyle waited three and a half weeks for his amendment to come to the floor of the U.S. Senate. In that time, Elizabeth DeBaum was awarded a divorce in Sioux Falls on grounds of imprisonment. Her husband had gone to jail as part of a bank forgery scheme. Caroline Buell, on grounds of desertion, though in truth it was Caroline who deserted her husband when he tried to gain control of her family inheritance. William Thomas, on grounds of his wife’s cruelty. According to the Argus Leader, he pleaded “too much mother-in-law.” Joseph Hunt, on grounds of desertion and cruelty. Hunt’s wife, the “belle of the village,” the newspapers explained, had become “too much enamored of … Hunt’s hired man.” Judge Aikens also heard testimony in Pierce v. Pierce, filed by Reverend George Pierce of Massachusetts.

On February 3, 1892, Kyle warned the Senate chamber that the nation’s disparate divorce laws placed “in jeopardy our whole social fabric.… A national law would secure to us the stability of the marriage relation, preserve the family and the home, and thus lay a broad foundation for the perpetuity of the nation.” Kyle, square shouldered with a prominent mustache, was a noted speaker, known in South Dakota for his candor and plain talk. In the Senate chamber he made a legal argument for federal powers, but the minister’s intention was clear: The divorce law must be both uniform and strict. Such a law would end the phenomena of the foreign divorce and the Sioux Falls Divorce Colony.

If Kyle succeeded in his efforts, there would be no loophole left for divorce seekers like Maggie. She had contemplated ending her marriage many times before, but her legal options had always been few. In England, a wife could seek a costly divorce from the civil courts, but only with clear evidence of her husband’s “aggravated adultery”—infidelity with an additional charge of cruelty, rape, or incest. Adultery was one of the few accusations Maggie did not level against the baron. In Madrid, she had no recourse at all; Spain did not allow divorce. Maggie’s choices were further complicated by the baron’s diplomatic status. In the eyes of the Dutch government, the laws of his homeland might have superseded those of his posting. The Netherlands provided four grounds for divorce—adultery, desertion, imprisonment, and serious physical cruelty. These laws were strictly applied and permitted few divorces. Dutch couples had another option, extremely progressive by United States standards: divorce by mutual consent. But Maggie knew the baron would not consent.

Only during Maggie’s time in France had she seen wives with a true right to divorce. A new law had cleared a legal path for a woman claiming cruelty, and in Paris there was an air of permissiveness and even sophistication around the idea of divorce. In the French capital, Maggie began to research the widely varied divorce statutes of the United States, obtaining a book on divorce law. In its pages she learned of the 90-day residency rules of the Dakota Territory. Her uncle John Jacob Astor, who passed away in 1890, had also told her of Sioux Falls. “He said it was a thriving and interesting place, and showed me photographs,” Maggie recalled in court. “This gave me the first idea of coming here.”

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Three

Maggie was often plagued by what her doctors called a nervous condition, but throughout the morning on the witness stand her composure prevailed. After all, this was not the first time the details of her marriage had been laid bare before the public. In December 1889, the New York World reported the scandalous news: Maggie, who had come to Newport for the summer season, would remain and seek a divorce in Rhode Island. The newspaper was optimistic about her chances—money, of which Maggie had plenty, would settle it—but unable to shed any light on the cause. “In the absence of other reasons,” the newspaper concluded, “Mme. De Stuers’ present action is attributed to the eccentricity always characteristic of some members of the Astor family, the development of which in various ways and in various individuals has furnished endless scope for comment among society people.”

Maggie’s Rhode Island divorce suit might have succeeded, but her aunt, Mrs. William Astor—the Mrs. Astor, self-appointed matriarch of the family—would have none of it. Divorce was social suicide, and Mrs. Astor, a fierce defender of marriage even in the face of her husband’s infidelities, certainly could not have accepted a divorced woman into her parlors. In March 1890, Mrs. William Astor traveled to Paris with a single mission: to reconcile her niece with the baron, sparing New York’s leading family the embarrassment of its first divorce. Her trip was a successful one. Shortly thereafter, Maggie sailed for France to reunite with her husband. The reunion lasted less than a month.

Now Captain Stoddard asked Maggie to recount the events of June 13, 1890, in Paris, the last time she saw her husband. Maggie had told this story before, but rarely in such detail. She hesitated and dropped her voice to a whisper as tears filled her brown eyes.

“That day was a beautiful spring one,” Maggie began. “I was just getting ready for my walk when the baron came to my room in a more than usually amiable frame of mind and remarked, ‘It would be a favor if you would put the walk aside for this morning, as the sculptor is coming.’”

Maggie had obliged, remaining in her room as she awaited the artist commissioned to create a bust of her. That was when Maria, who sat in the courtroom as Maggie relived the day, came rushing to her room: “The house is locked, the windows barred, your room guarded, and the doctors are coming up the stairs!”

The baron’s pleasant demeanor had been a ruse to detain Maggie for the arrival of two doctors from Hospice de la Salpêtrière, the infamous female insane asylum. Maggie knew the doctors who entered her boudoir. The baron had called on Dr. Eugene Cheurlot previously to treat her fainting spells and her nervous and irritable tempers. Maggie had been especially troubled with this condition since the death of her eldest daughter, Mary Alida, in 1884 at the age of nine; she still mourned the loss. The first time, Maggie had promptly dismissed Cheurlot, accusing him of gross ignorance and incompetence. Now he was accompanied by Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot, who was not dispatched so easily. Charcot was the chief physician of Salpêtrière and the world’s foremost expert on hysteria. If he diagnosed Maggie with hysteria, she would undergo the treatment he had developed for the disease: institutionalization and hypnosis.

Charcot had pronounced Maggie mentally deranged but not hysterical. Maggie explained the grounds for the diagnosis to the courtroom: “He said any woman who treated so kind a husband, one so indulgent and considerate, who never harmed anything, in the manner I did must be insane.” The doctors had produced a certificate declaring that Maggie was suffering from neurosis. Charcot did not find it necessary to commit Maggie to Salpêtrière, but he declared her unfit to care for her children.

“Suddenly, my husband came into the room,” Maggie said. “I asked him to explain. He said he would eat his lunch and then tell me. I waited. Three hours of agony, of torture, passed—” Maggie burst into tears on the witness stand, and the court waited until she haltingly continued the story. She rose from her bed in search of her husband, only to see from her window that he was in a carriage with their children, driving away from the house. Maggie threw open the window and shouted for the coachman to stop. He did, but the baron, in his deep voice, instructed the coachman, “Drive on.”

That night at midnight, Maggie, accompanied by Maria, fled from Paris. She took with her only her jewels, leaving behind a closet of some 200 dresses and tens of thousands of dollars in other possessions. She traveled to the German spa town of Wiesbaden, under the ruse of a troublesome shoulder, and then Hamburg, a favorite summer destination of New York socialites on the Continent. Then she disappeared. Maggie’s whereabouts were unknown until she arrived in Sioux Falls almost a year later.

The memory of the final day of her marriage was still a painful one for Maggie. “That was the last glimpse I had of my children,” she told the court in a tremulous voice. “I have not seen them since. ”

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The courtroom was now crowded, but Maggie told her story for one man: Judge Frank Aikens, the final arbiter of every divorce suit filed in Sioux Falls. The 36-year-old lawyer and politician was once a darling of those who opposed divorce. He had signed some 200 decrees in 1890, but he was rumored to harbor a discomfort with the growing Divorce Colony and the abuse of South Dakota laws by mere visitors to the state. In late July 1891, as Maggie waited out her 90 days, the curly-haired judge had put the Sioux Falls bar on notice: Divorce seekers would need to abide by both the letter and the spirit of the state’s law. The court would require affidavits from divorce applicants declaring that they had not come to the state with the intention of seeking a divorce and that they planned to remain in the state after the divorce proceedings concluded. Shortly thereafter, Judge Aikens refused a divorce to Benjamin Mann of Philadelphia, who had arrived in Sioux Falls more than 150 days earlier.

The newspapers reported that the judge had taken a stand against foreign divorces. By strictly construing the law, he could single-handedly shutter the Divorce Colony. The anti-divorce movement was gleeful. Judge Aikens was hailed as a “righteous” judge, and he was mentioned as a worthy congressional candidate. Newspaper columnists advised the unhappily married to give up on the idea of a Dakota divorce and speculated that Maggie and the other divorce colonists would be unsuccessful in their efforts. One Sioux Falls lawyer claimed to be dropping out of the divorce mill. “Most of the trouble at present arising out of the divorce law is not due to the law itself,” he said, “but to the bad intent of the people who come out here to make use of it.”

Two days later, the Argus-Leader set the record straight: Residency was not at issue in the Mann case. Judge Aikens had instead found that the depositions in the case were incomplete and that proper efforts had not been made to locate the absent defendant. Divorce seekers would need only to swear to their South Dakota residency; the judge would not ask for more evidence. “This will protect the spirit as well as the letter of the law,” he explained. Those who opposed “easy” divorce would have to find another way to banish it. Soon the ministers and others who cheered the righteous judge turned against him, accusing him of drunkenness in the face of the state’s temperance laws and licentious behavior with the divorce colonists at the Cataract House.

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The elegant Cataract House dining room, with its lushly patterned wallpapers and white tablecloths, had become the central gathering spot of the Divorce Colony—and those who would gossip about its colonists. The townspeople dined alongside the divorce colonists, but most were unwilling to associate with the visitors. “There does not seem to be an affinity between those who have happy homes and those who are getting rid of unhappy ones,” a newspaperman observed.

Excluded from good Sioux Falls society, the divorce colonists formed their own. They strolled along Phillips Avenue—the most fashionable of the women dressed in long Louis coats with high-puffed sleeves, standing collars, and cinched waists—and traveled to Milwaukee, Chicago, and San Francisco, where they were less known, if not more accepted.

Maggie, a decade older than many of the women in the Divorce Colony, mostly kept to herself, with William at her side. But who exactly was this man who was so attentive to Maggie? “I haven’t any connection with this divorce case. I don’t want to mix up in it, either,” the six-foot, well-tailored William told a Chicago Daily Tribune reporter. “No, my dear fellow, I won’t say whether I am a relative of the madam or not,” William said when questioned further. “But I can say this: If I ever mix up in the case it will be with a revolver.”

Unconcerned with the rumor mill, William, on his new horse, a white umbrella attached to the saddle, often led the divorce colonists on excursions into the countryside. In the summer, he and the other sporting men among them hunted; in the winter, when they weren’t in the billiards parlor below the Cataract House, they raced sleds down 6th Street. Mary Nevins Blaine entertained the women with her beautiful singing voice.


Such frivolity appalled many of the town’s residents, especially Bishop William Hobart Hare. When Judge Aikens refused to shut down the Divorce Colony, the townspeople looked to Hare for guidance. The 53-year-old bishop, the son of an East Coast clergyman, had been a respected pillar of the region since the 1870s. He had originally come to the area for the air, searching for a better climate for his young wife, whose health was rapidly failing. After her early death, he had returned to minister to the Sioux Indians and built a small but prominent parish.

The bishop had long been outspoken on the subject of divorce. As early as 1885, he had warned against its scourge: “It is by no means safe therefore to say, ‘What the law allows must be right.’ In the matter of marriage and divorce the law allows much that is not right.” Throughout the summer of 1891, the bishop had been on a mission trip in Japan. He returned to find the Divorce Colony. He later wrote to his daughter-in-law of his dismay: “The scandalous divorce mill which is running at Sioux Falls, with revelations of the silliness and wickedness of men and women … made my return home a very gloomy one. I despise people who trifle with marriage relations so intensely that the moral nausea produces nausea of the stomach. I have a continual bad taste in my mouth.”

The bishop’s disdain reflected the strict doctrine of the Episcopal Church, which allowed divorce only for adultery and restricted remarriage, and his belief that divorce was an evil toward women, whom divorce cast into society without a husband to provide for them. But he also took the Divorce Colony as a personal affront. The bishop had a long and close relationship with the Astor family. Maggie’s uncle, the late John Jacob Astor, had donated more than $25,000 to the bishop to build a cathedral in Sioux Falls in honor of his late wife, Charlotte Augusta.

Now, as the bishop again preached from the altar of St. Augusta Cathedral, he saw Maggie and other divorce seekers filling the pews. The church had been a safe haven for Maggie throughout her stay in Sioux Falls. In gratitude she donated three elaborate stained-glass windows to replace the simple ones that illuminated the altar. Her generosity only enraged Bishop Hare. “I won’t have them,” the bishop declared when the windows arrived. “I’d as lief paste up the flaming placards of a low circus.” The windows were hidden away in the basement.

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Four

Maggie had been on the stand almost four hours when the baron’s attorneys began the cross-examination.

Her husband was represented by Alpha Fremont Orr and his partner, Joseph Lawrence Glover. The two men were hoping the case would propel their fledgling careers in the lucrative divorce business. Orr began with deceptively simple questions: “When did you come to Sioux Falls? Who came with you? For what purpose?”

“To establish myself and to get as far away from my husband as possible,” Maggie said in answer to this last question.

“Did you come here to get a divorce?”

“I did not. I came here to think the matter over.”

The court adjourned just 20 minutes into Maggie’s cross-examination, to reconvene at two o’clock. When Judge Aikens gaveled the court to order in the afternoon, the gallery was standing room only.

The baron was not in attendance, nor were any of the witnesses on his behalf. Instead the defense attorneys had numerous depositions on hand. The baron’s own testimony ran to 75 pages. It painted a very different picture of the woman before the court, describing a depressive and abusive wife and neglectful mother. His wife did not even want children, the baron claimed, and she did not take proper care of the household or support him in his career. She drank and smoked and behaved erratically. In his deposition, the baron told of a marriage as difficult as the one Maggie detailed, but in his telling, Maggie was the one with a temper, and she was said to suffer from a disease that made her “complain of everything and nothing.” He did not want a divorce.

The baron’s deposition had arrived from Paris two weeks before the start of the trial, along with a new response to Maggie’s suit. Initially, the baron had denied Maggie’s claims of cruelty and maintained that the suit was legally suspect because Maggie was not a bona fide resident of Sioux Falls, having traveled to the city for the sole purpose of getting a divorce. She had offered him money for a divorce, the baron charged, which was against the law. He had “absolutely and peremptorily refused to listen.” In the latest filing, he charged his wife with adultery—with one Elliott Zborowski, alias William Elliott, the very same man who had wooed Maggie before her marriage and who sat in the front row of the courtroom.

The accusations were “something like a thunderbolt dropped from a clear sky,” wrote the San Francisco Chronicle. The baron’s amended complaint told the court a story of an illicit romance that started in the fall of 1888. He filled in the missing year of Maggie’s life, claiming that his wife had left their home in Paris in 1890 to join William in London, where they lived on the same street before departing together on a steamer bound for the Indian Ocean. The New York Sun spun tales from an anonymous traveler on a steamer from India to Italy. He told of a couple who claimed to be a duke and duchess, registered as Mr. and Mrs. Elliott, and purchased piles of silver and many horses in Bombay. The man, the anonymous traveler later discovered, was the very same man Sioux Falls knew as William Elliott. The woman was a tall, handsome blonde who “had the air of a woman accustomed to continental life. She smoked cigarettes on deck.”

In a hearing a week before the trial began, Maggie’s lawyer had argued forcefully that the new charges were nothing more than a stalling tactic in a case that had already been delayed for months. Judge Aikens had agreed, ruling that the baron’s charges of adultery would not be considered by the court. But when Glover rose to continue the cross-examination his partner had begun before the court recessed, he tried again. He asked Maggie to testify to her whereabouts between her June 1890 trip to Germany and her July 1891 arrival in Sioux Falls, when, the baron had charged in his failed motion, she had been living and traveling with William.

Maggie’s attorneys objected. Judge Aikens agreed, rebuking the baron’s attorneys: “This case closes on June 13, 1890.” But Glover decided to raise the charge of adultery a final time: “Isn’t it true that in case you get a divorce, you intend to marry Mr. Elliott?”

The case was in Judge Aiken’s hands alone. If he found that she had proven the baron’s cruelty, Maggie would be granted a divorce.

An unexpected sound echoed through the courtroom: Maggie, on the witness stand, and William, in the audience, laughed. Captain Stoddard objected to the question, and Judge Aikens again ruled in Maggie’s favor. The baron’s lawyer’s efforts to embarrass and ensnare Maggie had failed.

The plaintiff’s only other witness was Maggie’s maid, Maria. On the witness stand, the French woman was nervous and her English hard to understand. The newspaper reporters translated her allegiance quite clearly for their readers: “I have known Mrs. De Stuers for the past fourteen years. I have known the defendant for the same length of time. The baron’s conduct was often wild and foolish—screaming loud.”

At 4:30, the attorneys began to read the defense depositions into the court record; there were more than a dozen, from doctors, diplomats, and servants on two continents. Some were still en route from the East Coast. Among them was a deposition from Arthur Astor Carey, Maggie’s younger brother. In it he testified on behalf of the baron against his sister: “As to the baron’s treatment of my sister, I should say that he never treated his wife in a cruel or inhuman way. He was intentionally kind and considerate.” Judge Aikens agreed to enter the late testimony into the record but interrupted the lawyer’s monologue; the court would forgo further public reading of the documents.

The hearing had ended. Those in attendance believed that Maggie had acquitted herself well. “The Baroness De Stuers has won all the hearts here,” opined the New York Herald. The New York World imagined a vote of the audience: “Is Mme. De Stuers crazy? Spectators in the court-room attending the madame’s divorce trial would answer at once ‘no.’ Is she mentally unbalanced? Again ‘no.’ Is she erratic in her temperament? Decidedly ‘yes.’” But the case was in Judge Aiken’s hands alone. If he found that she had proven the baron’s cruelty, Maggie would be granted a divorce. If he found that she had not, the baron and the baroness would remain married.


Almost a month after the trial, late on a Saturday afternoon, Judge Aikens signed the final paperwork in the case of De Stuers v. De Stuers. After the courthouse closed for the day a clerk was sent for, and shortly before six o’clock, thwarting both the newspapermen who would report on the verdict and the lawyers who would appeal it, the clerk filed the judge’s decision: an absolute divorce. A few weeks shy of her 17th wedding anniversary, and nine months after her arrival in Sioux Falls, Maggie was free.

In the decree, the judge found the baron guilty of “acts of extreme cruelty” toward his wife, “which have inflicted grievous mental suffering upon her.” Judge Aikens concluded that the baron had schemed to institutionalize Maggie and abscond with her children. Doctor Charcot’s “pretend examination” of Maggie was dismissed as insufficient to form an opinion on her well-being. The judge awarded Maggie custody of her youngest daughter, believed to be hidden away in a French convent. She did not seek custody of her sons.

Maggie had been ill for weeks, in a nervous and weak condition that had confined her to her rooms at the Cataract. But on the following Monday morning, at 11 o’clock, Maggie, accompanied as always by William, returned to the Minnehaha County courthouse. She had one more piece of business here. In the presence of the clerk of courts, Maggie swore that she was, finally, “both single and unmarried,” that she was “of sound mind, not deprived of civil rights, and could lawfully contract and be joined in marriage.” Maggie signed the marriage certificate, using the name De Stuers one final time. And for the first time since they arrived in Sioux Falls, William signed his full name, with an exuberant Z: William Elliott Morris Zborowski, groom.

The wedding was performed quietly in Maggie’s parlor at the Cataract House a half-hour later, witnessed only by the couple’s New York attorney and another friend. A small private banquet marked the occasion. Maggie’s health prevented her from leaving Sioux Falls immediately after the wedding. She waited two weeks before departing for Chicago. William generously tipped the Cataract House staff, and the couple announced their plans to return in a month.

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Maggie and William—again known as Elliott, the given name he had answered to for most of his life—stayed for a brief time in Chicago. Although no less an authority than Ward McAllister, gatekeeper to New York’s most exclusive circle, assured that Maggie and William would be welcomed in society, the Astors continued to shun them. Maggie’s dear childhood friend and bridesmaid Sallie Delano—now Roosevelt—visited Chicago, but Sallie’s husband asked his wife not to see her divorced friend. “It is not easy to make up my mind!” Sallie wrote in her diary, but she did not see Maggie.

At first the newly wedded Zborowoskis worried about going to Europe, where William had family and property. The baron still claimed Maggie as his wife. In the Minnehaha County courthouse, his lawyers had appealed Judge Aikens’s decree, and the Dutch courts did not recognize it. But finding themselves unwelcome among their American acquaintances, the couple sailed for Europe despite the risk. It was said that if William met the baron, there would be a duel. After their arrival on the Continent, the baron shifted tactics, seeking his own divorce decree in the Netherlands. He received it—and custody of Maggie’s daughter, whom he continued to keep from her. She was never reconciled with her children.

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Five

On New Year’s Day 1893, Bishop Hare took to the pulpit at St. Augusta Cathedral with a mission. Maggie and William had not returned to Sioux Falls, but as he faced his congregation their offense was still on Hare’s mind. Though he had already made it clear to members of the Divorce Colony that they were not welcome in his church, at least 14 of them sat in the pews as the bishop began his sermon. “Some say that it is a good thing for South Dakota to have divorces and divorce suits,” he said, nodding to the city’s lawyers. “I say that it is alarming, and our lax divorce laws have become a national scandal.” He continued in his clear, ringing voice, “It is not so much the securing of a divorce which is so shocking, it is the consecutive polygamy which is practiced in marrying again so soon to a man or woman who has been courted while the suit for divorce to the former husband or wife was pending.”

Hare’s sermon echoed through the cathedral: “Do we wish to be famous? This makes us infamous. Do we want credit? This is discredit.… A shadow is being cast on the city’s prosperity!” Hare was reaching the end of his sermon, but his intensity continued to increase: “What then are we to do with the divorce industry? Dread it! Dread it! It is the disruption and destruction of the family.” The bishop pledged to protect the family. He went to Pierre to lobby the South Dakota legislature to end the Divorce Colony.

At the bishop’s urging, South Dakota strengthened its divorce laws, like each frontier state before it. On March 1, 1893, the legislature lengthened the state’s residency requirement from 90 days to six months. But the stricter laws did little to reduce the number of divorces in the country. The desire for freedom that led Maggie and the other colonists to South Dakota overwhelmed legislative correction. The divorce rate continued to rise, evidence not of an increase in bad marriages but of the increasing determination and ingenuity that unhappy wives and husbands applied to finding a legal escape from them.

For a brief period, divorce seekers traveled instead to Fargo, North Dakota, where the 90-day residency rule of the Dakota Territory was still on the books. But when North Dakota extended its residency requirement to one year in 1899, South Dakota’s six-month requirement was again among the most welcoming, and the Sioux Falls Divorce Colony was reborn. It took Bishop Hare eight years to rally the anti-divorce movement in the state to lengthen the residency requirement to one year, effectively closing the Divorce Colony a second time.

By the time Hare succeeded in 1908, national divorce-reform efforts such as Senator Kyle’s Constitutional amendment had faded away. Even at the height of the debate, those who opposed divorce were loathe to give the federal government control over an institution governed by the states, and the political will to challenge the increasing numbers of divorce seekers was fading. When the anti-divorce senator died in 1901, South Dakota elected Alfred B. Kittredge, one of Sioux Falls’ most prominent divorce attorneys. Within another five years, the anti-divorce movement admitted defeat, and Nevada—home to Reno, the country’s next fashionable divorce destination—continued to reduce its residency requirement from six months to three months to just six weeks by 1931. 

The divorced, once pariahs, were no longer ostracized in polite society. To much surprise, Maggie’s aunt, the famously scandal-averse Mrs. William Astor, who had convinced Maggie to return to her husband in 1890, was one of the first to welcome divorced women—though not her disgraced niece—into New York society. In 1896, Mrs. Astor’s own daughter Charlotte Drayton divorced her husband, who had charged her publicly with adultery. The following year, in Newport, Mrs. Astor threw a party in her daughter’s honor and welcomed guests alongside the divorced woman. Though Bishop Hare’s own position toward marriage never softened, today the windows Maggie donated in 1891 hang in St. Augusta’s Cathedral, now known as Calvary Cathedral. One, installed before the bishop’s death in 1909, has a new memorial pane affixed, erasing Maggie’s efforts to honor her parents. The memorial panes on the other two, installed after his death, were laboriously scratched out, but a name remains faintly visible: Mary Alida, the daughter Maggie mourned.

The laws and attitudes that governed marriage and divorce changed incrementally and inconsistently in the years since the Divorce Colony—no-fault divorce, first introduced in 1970, would not be adopted in all 50 states until 2010—but a course had been set in Sioux Falls. It would be the people, not the church, the courts, or state or federal governments, who defined their most intimate relationships. The divorce colonists, through their individual actions, had forced the nation and its institutions to grapple with the need for accessible divorce and the shifting power dynamics of marriage. And despite all the warnings, these changes did not lead inexorably to the destruction of the family or the country.

The evolution of the nation’s marriage laws in the past century—changes that have extended the institution to ever greater numbers, including interracial and same-sex couples—are widely heralded as civil rights victories. The right to divorce that emerged from the Divorce Colony is rarely celebrated in the same way, but the two are inextricable. To be free to choose who to love is to be free both to marry and to divorce.

But none of these changes were Maggie’s intention when she came to Sioux Falls. Her divorce was not a test case but a personal triumph. As she told a Chicago newspaper in a rare interview: “I made up my mind to leave my husband to save myself.”


We welcome feedback at letters@atavist.com.

The Desert Blues

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The Desert Blues

In 2001, two unlikely friends created a music festival in Mali that drew the likes of Bono and Robert Plant. Then radical Islam tore them apart.

By Joshua Hammer

The Atavist Magazine, No. 48


Joshua Hammer is a former Newsweek bureau chief and correspondent at large in Africa and the Middle East. He is a contributing editor to Smithsonian and Outside, and his writing also appears in The New York Review of BooksThe New Yorker, the AtlanticThe New York Times MagazineNational Geographic, and many other publications. His fourth book, The Badass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts, will be published by Simon & Schuster in early 2016.

This project was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.


Editors: Katia Bachko and Joel Lovell
Producer: Megan Detrie
Designer: Gray Beltran
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kyla Jones
Images: Alice Mutasa, Nadia Nid El-Mourad (including cover photo), Jonathan Brandstein, Corbis, Associated Press
Video: Joe Conte/Ola TV
Music: Samba Touré, “Fondora”; Noura Mint Seymali, “Tikifite”; Super Onze, “Adar Neeba”; Lo’Jo, “De Timbuktu à Essakane”; Terakaft, “Alghalem”; Khaira Arby, “La Liberte”



Published in May 2015. Design updated in 2021.

Author’s Note — November 20, 2015

The terrorist attack at the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, the capital of Mali, wasn’t supposed to happen. Just a little more than two years ago French forces crushed a ragtag army of a thousand jihadis who had seized control of most of the African country. Opération Serval initially seemed a smashing success: French soldiers killed hundreds of extremists, dispersed the rest deep into the desert, and restored a sense of fragile normality to a region where, for one grim year, music was banned and adulterers were stoned to death.

Since early this year, however, Mali’s home-grown insurgency—which some say inspired the Islamic State—has come back to life. Militants have chased African peacekeepers out of the desert and carried out a series of murderous attacks across the country. On Friday—precisely one week after IS terrorists murdered 129 people on the streets of Paris—Mali’s jihadists carried out their most daring operation yet, storming the gates of the luxury hotel, seizing dozens of hostages and murdering at least 27 people, as of this writing. The hotel was a regular destination for Air France flight crews on the Paris-Bamako route, and some theorized that the act had been carried out in solidarity with IS. Whatever the case, France now appears to be waging war on at least two fronts. And Mali, its former colony, is spiraling again into instability and violence.

I have reported in Mali for more than 20 years, drawn to its vibrant music scene. In 2014, I traveled to the region to understand how the country’s musicians became a target of the Islamist rebels. What I discovered was the story of a friendship between two men who have lived the conflict in the most intimate way imaginable.

—Joshua Hammer

One

When Mohamed Aly Ansar studied international law at the University of Bamako, in the capital of Mali, he spent his days thinking about how to bring development to his impoverished nation. But at night he had a much different dream, one that came to him over and over: He saw himself standing in the middle of the desert near a stage, watching as a helicopter descended. The chopper was carrying the Swedish pop group ABBA, and Ansar was there to receive them.

Thirty years later, on January 12, 2012, a version of that dream came true. Ansar stood on the tarmac at the airport just outside Timbuktu, searching the dark sky for the lights of a private jet. Ansar was the founder of a three-day concert series called the Festival in the Desert, sometimes referred to as the African Woodstock, and on this cool night, he was waiting for Bono to arrive.

Around 8 p.m., the plane carrying the U2 front man alighted on the small runway, and Ansar climbed aboard to greet his guest. He found Bono relaxing on a sofa with his wife and a few friends. The group was excited about the festival, and Bono, dressed as always in black, asked Ansar, whom everyone called Manny, whether he thought Timbuktu was safe.

The situation was fine, Ansar replied. And everything was fine, but he knew more than he was saying, and he didn’t want to scare his guests.

For years, Mali had been among the most stable countries in western Africa, a democratic, laid-back, tourist-friendly oasis. It also had one of the world’s most vibrant music scenes. The Festival in the Desert had flourished since its inception in 2001, and some of the most famous musicians in the world—Robert Plant, Damon Albarn, and other Western stars—had come to play with popular Malian musicians. But things had grown darker in recent months. The Tuareg, a group of nomadic Berbers who periodically rose up against the government in the remote northeast corner of the country, were restive again. Radical Islam, introduced to North Africa in the 1990s, was rapidly gaining converts. And the Arab Spring, which began as a moment of hope in late 2010, had created ethnic and religious chaos that threatened to destabilize the entire region.

Even as Ansar reassured Bono—and it was true that at that moment the city of Timbuktu was enjoying a period of temporary calm—a large group of jihadist fighters were encamped in the desert. Armed with weapons stolen from the armories of the recently murdered Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddhafi, the jihadists had announced their plans to attack the government’s weak army. Six weeks earlier, three Europeans had been kidnapped and a fourth killed at a hotel in Timbuktu. Ansar didn’t mention his fear that his famous guest might be abducted.

Bono and his entourage boarded a guarded convoy of four-wheel-drive vehicles and drove to the festival grounds outside Timbuktu—a wide, sandy tract bordered by white domed tents. Troops patrolled the dunes outside the festival grounds, scanning the horizon for suspicious movement. As the crowd of 7,000 braced against the cold night air, Ansar escorted Bono to a VIP box. After an hour, Bono retired to a French-owned luxury guesthouse, where he was guarded by a dozen troops. The next day, he took a hike alone past the military perimeter and into the dunes while Ansar waited anxiously in a tent on the festival grounds.

That evening, Tinariwen (pronounced tee-na-ree-wayn), the festival’s headliner, took the stage. The band was composed of former Tuareg rebels who had achieved international fame with their haunting music, known as the desert blues. The group had formed in exile in Libya during the 1980s, and their music was deeply rooted in the Tuareg’s turbulent history: Like protest singers in the United States during the Vietnam War era, the musicians gave voice to an angry, alienated generation. They sang not about peace but about war, a fight for the dream of an independent Tuareg nation, which they called Azawad—“land of pasture.”

The crowd exploded when Bono got up to join the band, dancing and improvising with the singers and guitarists. A few hours later, he boarded his jet and flew to Bamako, in the south, far from the jihadists’ stronghold.

A year later, I sat with Ansar in the garden of a riverside guesthouse in Bamako. He described the palpable relief he felt once his celebrity charge had departed. The festival had been an artistic success, he said, and had even made some money, but there was no time to celebrate. In the weeks before the event, newspapers had predicted that the Islamist rebels would attack and Western embassies had warned that northern Mali was highly dangerous. Ansar knew too well that those fears were well founded. After all, Iyad Ag Ghali, the man who commanded the fighters, had been one of Ansar’s closest friends—and had even inspired the festival that he and his rebels now saw as an affront to their vision for an Islamic state in Mali.

The story of their friendship, sealed by music before it was severed by ideology, is in many ways the story of Mali itself, and of the fractures between radical and moderate Islam that have emerged across the globe. But for Manny Ansar and Iyad Ag Ghali, their estrangement revealed more fundamental questions—about belief and betrayal, and about how well we really know those closest to us.

On January 14, roadies dismantled the stage and fans began the long journey home from Timbuktu. Meanwhile, somewhere in the desert, Ansar’s old friend was rallying hundreds of jihadist fighters. Once everyone departed, Ansar wondered if he had just closed his last festival and whether Ghali would deliver on his threat to destroy everything they had built together.

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Audience members at the Festival in the Desert. Photo: Alice Mutasa

Two

Manny Ansar and Iyad Ag Ghali met for the first time in January 1991, at the villa of a prominent Tuareg politician in Bamako named Baye Ag Mohamed. Four months earlier, Ghali and 45 rebels armed only with knives and hand grenades had ambushed a small army camp in northeast Mali. In close combat, rebels killed nearly 100 people and captured armored vehicles, mortars, and rocket launchers. The attack, the most brutal in a series of them, forced the army to retreat, and Mali’s military dictator Moussa Traoré began negotiations with the rebels.

Government officials and rebel commanders met in Tamanrasset, a large town in the southern Algerian desert. The enemies reached a ceasefire agreement, and the regime brought a delegation of five rebel commanders to Bamako for a round of ceremonial events. Mohamed invited Ghali to stay with him and arranged a meeting with Ansar. 

The roots of the hatred between the Tuareg and the Malian government date to the end of the 19th century, when the French colonial army forcibly occupied the Tuareg’s traditional homeland in the central Sahara. French administrators joined the arid north with the Niger River valley and the southern savanna, both dominated by black Africans, creating an awkward colonial construct they called French Sudan, later known as Mali. It would never be an easy peace, in part because the light-skinned Tuareg traditionally believed that blacks were inferior and kept many as slaves. (Descendants of those black slaves, known as bellah, speak Tamasheq, the language of the Tuareg, but tend not to identify as Tuareg because of the racial divide.) In the 1950s, the colonial administration considered joining the north with the Saharan regions of other French colonies to create a separate Tuareg state, but the idea was abandoned because the territory wasn’t viable without access to the Niger, Mali’s lifeblood.

In 1991, Ansar was working as an administrator for a Norwegian development organization in Bamako. He was also the leader of an association of young Tuareg students and professionals from the Timbuktu region that raised money from European donors to build wells and primary schools in the northern desert.

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In college, Manny Ansar made recordings of traditional Malian musicians. In 2001, he founded the Festival in the Desert to celebrate their music. Photo: Jonathan Brandstein

Ansar and his fellow urban Tuareg didn’t support the rebellion, but they were in awe of the insurgents’ military prowess. “Everyone wanted to see these people who, when they started to fight, put Moussa Traoré in the position of begging,” he recalled. “They were like Rambo. There was something mystical about them.” Some worried that he was committing treason, but Mohamed assured Ansar that the rebels wanted to make peace. 

Ushered into Mohamed’s salon, Ansar laid eyes on the guerrillas for the first time. The men’s hair was long and tousled, their faces sunburned. Though they had done their best to attire themselves properly, with vests, trousers, and button-down shirts, it was clear that they had just emerged from the desert. Tall, slender, and bare headed, with expressive eyes, a wild black mane, and a walrus mustache, Ghali stood out. Ansar regarded him with a mix of admiration and trepidation.

Ansar invited Ghali and his four fellow commanders to a reception at a popular Bamako restaurant. He didn’t know what to expect, but he decided to break the ice with music and had crafted a mix tape of songs by some of Mali’s biggest stars, including Ali Farka Touré, a masterful guitarist and vocalist from the north, and Salif Keita, an albino troubadour from southern Mali. Four of the Tuareg commanders chatted up the female guests and danced, but Ghali sat silent in his chair. “He was closed off, shy, naturally fearful,” Ansar remembered, speculating that he had had little interaction with women before this, or that he had suffered some trauma that made him suspicious and guarded around strangers.  

When the meal was over, Ansar and Ghali retreated to a private room. Ansar told Ghali that because his father was a decorated Tuareg officer in the Malian army, he grew up on military bases and saluted the flag every morning. 

“What made you want to raise arms against the state?” Ansar asked.

Urged on by Ansar’s extroverted nature, Ghali began to talk. For the next several hours, he recounted his tumultuous youth, which followed the contours of Mali’s difficult path. Ghali grew up near Kidal, a dusty administrative outpost of 2,000 people living in wattle-and-daub huts in the shadow of a French colonial fort. 

When Mali achieved independence in 1960, long-smoldering ethnic animosities reemerged. Tuareg, who comprise about 3 percent of Mali’s population of 16.5 million, felt oppressed and ignored by the central government. In 1963, when Ghali was a small boy, Tuareg rebels swept across the desert on camels, seized rifles from government depots, and ambushed government soldiers. The government forces could not defeat the rebels and began to target civilians and their livestock. Thousands of innocents died. Ghali’s father, who served as a guide to the government army, was killed by a Tuareg rebel. And yet, after witnessing the killings of so many of his fellow Tuareg, Ghali, like many of his generation, came to believe that his people’s survival depended on forming their own state. During a devastating drought in the 1970s, government troops stole food donated by international aid agencies and sold it in markets. Many young Tuareg fled into exile, and Ghali left Kidal. “We didn’t believe we had a future here,” he told Ansar.  

He traveled by camel and on foot to Libya and settled in a shantytown outside Tripoli while he looked for work. A photograph of Ghali taken around this time shows a teenager with an Afro and flared jeans poking out beneath an embroidered Arab gown. In Tripoli, in the 1970s, Ghali began to frequent cafés in Tuareg neighborhoods, where a vibrant music scene was preserving the Tuareg culture. Many of the exiles’ songs recalled the rebellion of 1963 and the dream of a separate Tuareg nation. The singers modernized the traditional music of northern Mali, replacing the four-string lute, or teherdent, with acoustic and electric guitars. A typical song declared: 

You should be in the desert 

Where the blood of kin has been spilled

That desert is our country 

And in it is our future.

When Ghali spoke of Tuareg music, Ansar felt the distance between them shrink. As a boy, Ansar had been drawn to Tuareg warriors and their doomed struggle. He had grown up in a desert encampment 75 miles north of Timbuktu, a region of rolling dunes and a few scattered Artesian wells. When he was five years old, a tall bronze man, wearing a purple turban decorated with silver jewelry, arrived at his home. The man wore a traditional white gown, or boubou, from which dangled goatskin bags covered with red and green embroidery, and he carried a teherdent made of wood and leather. He was a griot, an itinerant singer and oral historian who traveled from village to village, telling stories about Tuareg culture and history. The adults laid carpets in the dunes and gathered the family around a bonfire; people from neighboring encampments came to watch the griot’s performance. The griot sang about Ansar’s great-great-grandfather Ngouna, who was the chief of the Kel Antassar clan when the first French soldiers arrived in the Sahara. In the late 1890s, Ngouna led the Tuareg resistance against the French military occupiers; he died in an ambush in the very dunes where the griot performed. 

While he was at university, Ansar had often traveled back to his ancestral home with a reel-to-reel tape recorder, capturing the performances of traditional musicians. He made cassettes of the music and played them for his fellow students back in Bamako. 

While Ansar graduated from college and started working in rural development, Ghali became a mercenary. In 1981, Gaddhafi began recruiting a force to expand Libya’s influence in Africa and the Middle East, and Ghali joined the fight. He spent the next decade in and out of Gaddhafi’s camps, training in Syria and fighting in Lebanon alongside Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization, and later in Chad, where Gaddhafi was trying to unseat the country’s president. 

Whenever Ghali returned to Libya, he lived in a Tuareg military camp near Tripoli. There he met Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, a skinny, brooding man with a billowing Afro. Alhabib’s father had been executed for helping the rebels in 1963. After the government destroyed the family’s livestock, he fled to the Algerian city of Oran, on the Mediterranean. In exile, Alhabib fashioned a guitar out of an oilcan and a bicycle cable. He was a musical omnivore, drawing on everything from the protest music of the Maghreb and Egyptian pop to the desert blues of Ali Farka Touré to Bob Marley, Elvis Presley, and Carlos Santana. The music he composed was often nothing more than a couple of chords and a repetitive phrase. It was austere and haunting, with Alhabib’s unpolished voice imparting a ragged authenticity. 

“They murdered the old folk and a child just born,” Alhabib sang in “Sixty-Three,” one of his early songs:

They swooped down to the pastures and wiped out the cattle

’63 has gone, but will return. 

Before long, Ghali began writing romantic ballads and martial songs for Alhabib and his band, including an anthem that would become the national hymn of Azawad:

Like true warriors we are going to trample on the enemy

Yes, in the name of God, we rise up and begin. 

By 1990, the Tuareg rebels in exile had become disillusioned with Gaddhafi, who promised to provide them with arms and vehicles but never delivered. Ghali left Libya with about 100 rebels and returned to Mali. “We are not bandits, but we want to claim our rights as Malian citizens,” they declared in a communiqué. “Today, these rights are trampled upon by the Malian government, which considers us strangers.”

Ghali’s army soon grew to more than 1,000 men. Their years of fighting for Gaddhafi had created a fierce force skilled in close combat. They seized vehicles from an international relief agency in northern Mali and captured weapons from poorly trained Malian soldiers in the north, who were quick to abandon their bases. 

In the evenings, the rebels gathered to hear Alhabib, and other Tuareg musicians who had joined the fight, play music around a fire. Bootleg cassettes of these sessions circulated throughout the north, attracting more young Tuareg to the insurgency. As Alhabib sang: 

Let the blood boil if it is really in your veins

At the break of day, take your arms and take the hilltops

We kill our enemies and become like eagles

We’ll liberate all those who live in the plains.

For months, Ghali’s men hammered the Malian forces, until the government finally conceded in September 1990 and negotiated the ceasefire. In Bamako, Ghali was stunned by what he found—educated Tuareg like Ansar, with decent jobs, and plenty of black Malians who didn’t want to exterminate the Tuareg. “Before I came here I thought Mali was an evil place,” he told Ansar. “I’ve seen a different reality.” 

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Tuareg rebels in the Malian Sahara, November 1990. Photo: Getty Images

Three

Ghali worked to maintain the ceasefire, but the accord began to unravel. Moussa Traoré’s dictatorship collapsed in the face of nationwide protests in March 1991. The interim leader, a former military man named Amadou Toumani Touré, pledged a quick democratic transition and committed himself to a lasting peace in the north. But many fighters in Ghali’s ranks believed that the instability afforded them an opportunity to wrest more concessions from the new government and urged him to resume their fight. European and American diplomats, as well as representatives from Mali’s powerful neighbor Algeria, warned Ghali that the Tuareg faced international isolation if they picked up their guns again.

Caught between powerful forces, Ghali organized a conference in June 1991 and called upon his new acquaintance Ansar to help him urge their fellow Tuareg to keep the peace. Ghali was waiting at the airport in Tamanrasset when Ansar arrived. The rebel chief brought Ansar to his modest house, introduced him to his wife and daughter, and took him out for a meal. “I’m going to lose the peace, Manny,” he said. Ansar reached out to influential young Tuareg from the north, and soon after, Touré organized a special flight to carry 30 Tuareg tribal chiefs and politicians to Tamanrasset. 

For the next ten days, Ansar met Tuareg leaders from across the country in the grand salon of the Tamanrasset governor’s mansion, urging them to stand behind the accord and persuade the fighters to lay down their arms. In the evenings, he and Ghali walked in the lively streets of Tamanrasset, stopping at small cafés to hear live music. 

One afternoon, Ghali drove Ansar to a dry riverbed in the shadow of the Hoggar Mountains, which rise to more than 9,000 feet. A dozen all-terrain vehicles were parked at a camp, and mutton sizzled on a grill. Ansar sat beside Ghali on a carpet in the white sand, and together they watched low clouds on the horizon glow orange, then purple. Alhabib, Ghali’s friend from the camps in Libya, and Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, a former rebel-musician from a family of Islamic scholars deep in the Malian desert, set up a rudimentary sound system and played the songs they’d written in exile. As their guitars and raw voices echoed across the riverbed, Ansar drifted back 25 years to songs he had heard as a child.

My God, this is Ali Farka Touré singing in Tamasheq, the language of the Tuareg, Ansar thought. Ghali, too, seemed transported. “All the stress, the rebellion, the attacks were left behind,” Ansar recalled. One of the songs that the group sang was “Toumast,” or “The People,” a call for rebel unity:

A divided people will never reach its goal

It will never cultivate an acacia tree with beautiful leaves

A divided people will lose its way

Each part of it will become an enemy in itself.

Despite Ghali’s efforts the ceasefire collapsed, and Tuareg radicals resumed attacking army posts and camps. In 1992, after the deaths of hundreds more fighters and civilians, Ghali finally persuaded factional leaders to sign a new accord. Funds were set up to support former rebels and compensate victims. Government troops agreed to withdraw from many posts in the north, and hundreds of former rebels joined the Malian armed forces. 

After the new pact was signed, fighters began collecting their weapons. In March 1996, the country’s newly elected president joined Ghali at a ceremonial burning of 3,000 Kalashnikovs in Timbuktu. The weapons were encased in the Flame of Peace monument to commemorate the occasion. Nearby murals painted by local artists depicted Malian soldiers clasping the hands of Tuareg insurgents. For the first time since 1990, Mali was at peace.

The government hailed Ghali as a statesman and a peacemaker and considered various political and military positions for him but ultimately decided that the Lion of the Desert, as many called him, would never be satisfied in a conventional post. “Because he was the biggest fighter, no one was in a position to be the chief of Iyad,” Ansar explained. In the end, Ghali became an unofficial security adviser to the president and a diplomat without portfolio. He worked out of his villa in Bamako and also at the so-called Commissary of the North, located next to the president’s palace, a whitewashed Moorish-style villa perched atop an extinct volcano. He traveled with the president on diplomatic missions to Mauritania, Algeria, Niger, and other countries, and often brought Ansar along. Ghali now wore a Rolex watch, bespoke suits. and finely embroidered boubous, (“He was fascinating to people,” Ansar said, describing the many admirers who showered his friend with gifts), but he didn’t greedily pursue power or wealth. 

Nor did he practice his faith. Ansar prayed five times a day and fasted during Ramadan, but Ghali avoided prayers and never set foot in a mosque. “I was the good Muslim and he was the bad Muslim,” Ansar said. Ghali smoked, was reputed to be a big drinker—though Ansar never saw him touch a drop—and, when they traveled, was often out carousing all night. “People wanted to talk to him in the morning, and he just wanted to sleep,” Ansar recalled. “You could only bother him after 11:30.” 

Ansar frowned on such habits, but Ghali had earned his respect. During the factional fighting that had followed the breakdown of the peace in the early 1990s, Ghali’s men had brutally mistreated a captive, who later died. Ghali was infuriated when he learned of the crime, and he punished his men, he told Ansar. “He was a rebel commander, but he never condoned torture,” Ansar said. “He had a warrior’s code of honor.”

Ansar lived on the outskirts of Bamako, in a large house he had built for his family. (His wife gave birth to a daughter in 1995 and a son five years later.) He often hosted parties at which insurgents turned musicians were regular guests. As the evenings wore on, they would climb a spiral staircase to a rooftop known as La Terrasse des Fêtes, the Party Terrace, and listen to music and talk until dawn. On most Sundays, the friends gathered near the Niger River, a few miles outside Bamako, and held informal concerts hosted by Ghali and Ansar. Here, Alhabib and Alhousseyni would play for hours in the shade of a mango tree, typically joined by two female musicians, one playing the traditional imzad violin, the other the tindé drum.

The two former fighters formed the core of a group that had played together since they met in the Libyan rebel camps. Ansar became their manager, booking them into concert halls in Bamako. The rebellion was over, but they still sang songs about insurgency and the mythic Tuareg nation of Azawad. 

In 1999, the band accepted an invitation to play at a festival near Nantes, France. They chose La Groupe Azawad as their name. and Ansar booked flights and secured passports. They flew to Brussels Airport on Sabena Airlines, but when they arrived they were pulled aside for questioning. The police detained the group in a windowless cell after inquiring what the band, clad in traditional Tuareg veils and robes, were doing in Europe and whether they had sufficient funds. (They didn’t.) Seventy-two hours passed before the authorities finally released them. Alhousseyni commemorated the ordeal with a song: 

We thought we would arrive in paradise with Sabena 

Instead we ended up in prison with Sabena.

Despite the complications, the concert was a resounding success. Immediately after returning to Mali, Ansar decided that the name La Groupe Azawad was too politically charged, and he asked them to find an alternative. The musicians started calling themselves Kel Tinariwen, the People of the Desert, which was soon shortened to Tinariwen. 

Four

In January 2000, Ghali invited Ansar to Intejedit, a remote valley of rocks, reddish sand, and unearthly silence in northeastern Mali. Ansar traveled there by Jeep from Bamako, a three-and-a-half-day journey. This could be Mars, he thought as he drove through the scorched, barren land. The valley of Intejedit was fiercely hot. Barren sand dunes lie to the west, while in the east rose the Adrar des Ifoghas massif, a nearly impenetrable range of eroded sandstone and granite boulders surrounding sandy riverbeds.

Amid this striking scenery, Ghali had organized an event he called the Kidal Festival. Hundreds of Tuareg nomads had pitched goatskin tents around a makeshift stage. They slaughtered sheep and settled in for three days of music, camel races, and a camel “beauty pageant”—all arranged by Ghali to drum up tourism and development in the region. At Ghali’s request, Ansar had brought a Malian television crew to film the event for the national network. 

Ansar and Ghali were inseparable. They watched camels thunder down a sandy path, listened to Tinariwen perform, and soothed an angry Tuareg chieftain who felt that his clan had been shortchanged by the peace agreement. The festival culminated with the “dance of the camels,” featuring a group of Tuareg women draped in black who sat in a tight circle beating drums, chanting, and rhythmically clapping their hands. Tuareg riders in turquoise gowns and turbans led their camels, bearing richly embroidered saddles, in a circle around the women. “He was proud of how well the camels had been trained,” Ansar remembered. “He was proud of his culture and happy to have the chance to show it to me.” At the end, Ghali presented his friend with a large white camel—“the most beautiful animal I had ever seen,” Ansar said—as a token of their friendship. It was, Ghali told him, “the number one camel of Kidal.” 

During his days with Ghali at Intejedit, Ansar began to realize the potential of a commercial music festival in the Sahara, one that would attract Western tourists and musicians and promote Tuareg culture. He envisioned a roving concert series that would take place in a different venue each year and include Tuareg clans across the north, all of whom would share in jobs and revenues.

In January 2001, Ansar joined with members of Ghali’s clan, the Ifoghas, to produce the first official Festival in the Desert, also north of Kidal. Through his development group in Bamako, Ansar persuaded the embassies of France, Germany, and the United States, as well as Mali’s Ministry of Culture, to contribute financing for the three-day affair. The chief of Ghali’s clan organized tents, firewood, food, water, and provisions for the crowd; Ghali himself, a power broker in the region, assured Ansar that he would keep the visitors safe.

At the time, political tensions were roiling. Months earlier a recalcitrant Tuareg rebel and close friend of Ghali’s, Ibrahim Ag Bahanga, had turned against the peace pact and launched a small-scale rebellion near Kidal. Malian officials hoped to use the festival to dissuade Tuareg from joining Bahanga’s uprising. Conferences took place during the day, followed by music at night. One evening, to Ansar’s annoyance, the politicians ordered the producer to delay opening the concert because the meetings were dragging on. 

Ghali used the occasion to carry on his own clandestine peacemaking mission in cooperation with the Malian government. While Tinariwen performed on a makeshift stage in the sand, before Western ambassadors, government ministers, and 2,000 Tuareg men in cerulean robes, Ghali huddled on a dune a few hundred yards away with Mali’s prime minister and Bahanga, trying to talk the rebel leader into laying down his arms.  

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Festival entrance, Essakane. Photo: Alice Mutasa

Five

During the winter of 2002, around the time of the second Festival in the Desert, a friend in the Tuareg community told Ansar that a group of Muslim missionaries from Pakistan had arrived in Kidal, Ghali’s hometown, to preach their version of the religion to the Tuareg there. Mali’s Muslims are predominantly Sufist. Theirs is a tolerant, mystical form of Islam whose adherents venerate Muslim saints and chant wazifas, or the names of God. 

The missionaries who arrived, by contrast, belonged to the fundamentalist Tablighi Jamaat sect, which extols a return to the austere lifestyle led by the Prophet. Members of the group that came to Kidal sleep on rough mats and use twigs to brush their teeth. They spend a portion of every year on overseas proselytizing missions.

“The Pakistanis are up there converting all the former Tuareg rebels,” Ansar’s friend told him. “They’re all becoming devout.” Even Ghali, Ansar learned, was going to mosque now on a regular basis and had expressed keen interest in what these strict Muslims had to say. 

A year later, Ghali invited Ansar to visit him at his home. When he entered, he found Ghali seated on the floor, absorbed in a copy of the Koran. Ansar had never seen him reading the Holy Book before. Soon after, Ghali again summoned Ansar to his home and began to lecture him. He thumbed through the Hadith, the sayings of the Prophet, and told his friend that life is “like a waiting room in an airport when you are in transit,” a brief interlude before the “real journey” begins. “You had better be prepared,” he admonished. Ghai pressed Ansar to cancel the Festival in the Desert. It was a “materialistic pursuit,” he said, that “won’t speak well for you before God after you are dead.” He handed Ansar a book about the proper way to pray and urged Ansar to read the book and put it into practice. 

Ansar fended him off gently, defending the festival as a source of much needed hope and jobs. “Leave me alone for five more years, and when I turn 50, I’m going to stop everything and follow your advice.”

“No, that’s too late,” Ghali replied. “You don’t know if you’re going to die today.” 

Soon after, Ghali invited Ansar to meet him at a Salafist mosque. Salafism is a radical branch of Islam that worships the Prophet and his original followers, the salaf, or ancestors. Ansar arrived to find Ghali seated on a mattress in a small prayer room, a stubbly beard forming on his cheeks. Delighted that Ansar had come, Ghali suggested that he spend the entire weekend there. Ansar looked at the cramped cubicles, the dirty mattresses, the bearded acolytes, and politely declined.

Ghali had given up his rich diet of lamb and couscous, his bespoke suits and embroidered boubous. He seemed to subsist on nothing but milk and dates, and he dressed in a white djellaba, a long Middle Eastern robe, and short trousers that ended well above his ankles, as favored by fundamentalist Muslims. He removed all photographs and paintings from his house, made his wife wear the veil known as the hijab, and kept her confined to home. And he began giving away his prized possessions, handing his expensive Rolex watch to another former Tuareg rebel. Ghali confided to Ansar that he was saying “twice as many prayers” as those required by Islam, because “of all the things I have done that I regret.”

Ansar was mystified by his friend’s devotion but tried to remain open to it. “He was always smiling,” Ansar said, “like a child.” 

“You must not lose yourself entirely in religion,” Ansar told him. “You were the one who created these problems for the state and for the society, so you have to stay in charge, to maintain the peace.” 

Ghali waved him off. 

When I spoke with Ghali’s old musician friend Alhousseyni of Tinariwen, he told me that Ghali “began to lose his friends, his acquaintances, and he became solitary. He entered a different world.”

In 2003, Ansar moved the festival across the Sahara to Essakane, west of Timbuktu, a remote and otherworldly sea of dunes that served as a traditional gathering place for his clan, the Kel Antassar. The British guitarist Justin Adams arrived to play with Tinariwen, whose first album he had recently helped produce. Adams was joined by Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, who jammed with Tinariwen and Ali Farka Touré before an audience that included hundreds of foreign tourists. Thanks to Plant, the festival drew media attention around the world. It also produced some awkward encounters. Vicki Huddleston, who had just arrived in Mali as the new U.S. ambassador, reached Essakane on the festival’s first afternoon. Huddleston made her way to a section reserved for diplomats and briefly inspected her designated tent, marked by an American flag flying out front. When she returned late in the afternoon, she noted with puzzlement that the flag had been removed. 

“Is somebody in there?” Huddleston’s public affairs officer inquired, standing outside the tent.

Out stepped Robert Plant. 

“This is the ambassador’s tent,” the officer said.

“But I am ambassador to the world,” Plant protested, before surrendering the quarters to Huddleston.

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Preparations for the 2003 festival in Essakane, west of Timbuktu. Photo: Nadia Nid El-Mourid

In the spring of 2003, an organization calling itself the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, based in Algeria, kidnapped a group of European tourists—most of them German—on a desert highway and led them on a punishing hike south through the Sahara, to the Adrar des Ifoghas massif.

Mali’s president, Amadou Toumani Touré, realized that he had a radical Islamic threat inside his borders and reached out to Ghali for help. The leader of the group, a former Algerian paratrooper who called himself El Para, offered to free the hostages in exchange for a ransom from the German government, and Touré asked Ghali to make the deal. 

Surrounded by barren hills, the Tuareg negotiator and the Arab terrorists sat on blankets in a dried-out riverbed and discussed terms. El Para agreed to a five-million-euro ransom, and Ghali delivered the money, flown down from Germany in a government jet, in a batch of suitcases. The hostages were freed immediately, earning Ghali the goodwill of both the Malian government and the jihadists. 

Soon after, Huddleston met with Ghali in Kidal. Huddleston and other American officials worried that the Germans’ five-million-euro payment would enable the Saharan radicals to buy weapons and recruit jihadists. They were also concerned about Ghali and his flirtation with fundamentalism. In 1998, John Walker Lindh, a young American, had traveled with preachers from Ghali’s sect, Tablighi Jamaat, to Pakistan and soon joined the Taliban. Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged in the United States for the September 11 attacks, regularly attended a Tablighi Jamaat mosque in France. 

For half an hour, Ghali and the ambassador talked about the state of things in the north and the importance of keeping the Tuareg at peace for the sake of development. Huddleston noted his piercing eyes and full beard, the flowing white robe and intricately folded head scarf typically worn by Tuareg. He looked, she thought, like a classic desert warrior. When she pressed him about possible ties with Islamic terror groups, Ghali assured her that he had no interest in their cause.  

Vieux Farka Touré performs. Video: Joe Conte/Ola TV

Six

As the festival grew, Ansar began to believe that it could help unite all of Mali through music. Although he was growing distant from Ghali, he took solace in the fact that the festival that Ghali had inspired was providing jobs to Tuareg and establishing Timbuktu as an international tourist destination. Western journalists and diplomats were praising Mali as a symbol of hope and freedom on a deeply troubled continent. And stars from around the world were clamoring to appear at Essakane.

Around 2007, Ansar began receiving warnings from Tuareg elders that a new movement of Islamic jihadists in the Sahara, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, viewed the festival as an abomination. The group was made up of some of the same Algerian jihadists whom Ghali had first encountered in 2003, when he negotiated the release of the European tourists being held by El Para. “They are saying that you’re spreading debauchery, that you’ve created some kind of Sodom and Gomorrah in Essakane,” he was told. And yet, AQIM never attacked the festival, and the radicals—who had begun seizing Western tourists and aid workers across northern Africa and holding them for ransom—never attempted a kidnapping in or around Essakane. When I asked Ansar why, he said he couldn’t be sure, but he believed that his longtime friend was quietly protecting it—and him—from violence.  

Outsiders, meanwhile, had little idea of the tension behind the scenes. I visited the Festival in the Desert in 2008, at the height of its popularity, when 8,000 people came to Essakane, a quarter of them Westerners. Tourists in safari jackets filled the sandy streets of Timbuktu. They flooded the markets and packed their rented Land Cruisers with tents, coolers, bottled water, food, first-aid kits, extra fuel, GPS devices, and other supplies for the two-hour journey down a rough track through the desert.

The festival was a grand, unforgettable scene. White canvas tents and traditional nomadic dwellings stitched together from the hides of goats dotted the wind-rippled white dunes. After a day in the heat and a communal meal with a party of young Australians on a months-long trek through Africa, I fell asleep in a tent before midnight. Two hours later, awakening to an infectious guitar phrase, I scaled a 50-foot-high dune overlooking the floodlit stage. I lay back on the cool sand, stared at a sky filled with stars, and let the hypnotic vocals and guitar licks of Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, Tinariwen’s lead singer, wash over me.

Tinariwen perform. Video: Joe Conte/Ola TV

In late 2008, Ghali informed Ansar that he had accepted a diplomatic assignment to the Malian consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

“I want to be close to the Great Mosque of Mecca, where I can pray every Friday,” Ghali said.

Ansar was appalled. He couldn’t understand why Ghali would leave the country for an inconsequential post, especially at a time when Tuareg insurgents were stirring again and radical Islamists had begun kidnapping Western tourists, aid workers, and diplomats in the north. Ghali had recently negotiated on behalf of the government and freed hundreds of soldiers captured by a Tuareg splinter group around Kidal. “God gave you this intelligence, the power to find solutions,” Ansar argued. “You don’t have the right to leave it all behind.”  

Ghali said that he was tired of the internecine warfare between Tuareg factions, and tired of Malian politics in general. He wanted out, and he was searching for a new direction. A few weeks later, Ghali boarded a plane for Jeddah. But after less than a year he returned to Mali, with newspapers reporting that he had been expelled from Saudi Arabia for allegedly making contacts with radicals.

Ansar shrugged off the news. In fact, he would later admit, he was pleased that Ghali had been forced to leave a dead-end job in Saudi Arabia, auguring a possible return to a domestic political role. Ansar continued to regard Ghali as a “great man,” he said, “who had always been respectful toward me, in spite of my resistance to his offers to lead me along the ‘right path.’” He regarded his piety as a good thing, on balance. “I had nothing against someone who transformed himself into a monk,” he would say years later, “to leave behind all the good things in life in order to nourish his faith.”

“Are you sure you’re not heading down the road of violence?” Ansar asked him upon his return. Ghali shook his head emphatically. “We are pacifists,” he said.

When they met again in February 2010 by chance in a roadside restaurant north of Bamako, Ghali was far less warm. Ansar was driving north to the Festival on the Niger, a five-day concert event set on a barge in the river. This time, Ansar said, Ghali stared at him with contempt, offering an unspoken rebuke to his former friend for continuing his passion for music.

It was the last time the two men would see each other, but it wasn’t long before Ansar realized how fully his friend had immersed himself in his fundamentalist faith and violent Islam.

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Fighters from Ansar Dine in the desert outside Timbuktu. Photo: Associated Press 

Seven

In December 2010, Tunisians rose up against President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, a repressive figure whose free-spending wife had come to epitomize institutional corruption. The Tunisian revolution inspired Egyptians to demand the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, who fell weeks later. Soon it was Gaddhafi’s turn. In Benghazi, in eastern Libya, security forces killed many protesters, and rebellion spread. NATO forces, acting on a United Nations Security Council resolution, attacked Gaddhafi’s army. Gaddhafi called on the Tuareg of Mali for help, and several thousand answered his plea. Despite their help, Tripoli fell in late August. In the ensuing chaos, Tuareg looters ripped off the gates of arsenals across Libya and filled their trucks with heavy weapons. Then they headed back across the desert to Mali.

Ghali, meanwhile, was plotting his next move after his disgraceful expulsion from Saudi Arabia. He watched with keen interest as a rebel movement, consisting of secular Tuareg, coalesced in northern Mali. That fall he drove to the camp of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, as the group now called itself, and made a bid to become its commander. But Ghali had few diehard supporters left among the Tuareg rebels, some of whom viewed him with suspicion because of his longtime ties to the government; others were repelled by his fundamentalist leanings. The rebels rejected him.

A short time later, in Kidal, Ghali established his own rebel movement, Ansar Dine—Defenders of the Faith—consisting of Tuareg who embraced fundamentalist Islam. Ghali made an alliance with AQIM, whose confidence he’d won years earlier by arranging the five-million-euro ransom for the German hostages. 

Ghali’s new Islamist coalition soon proposed a partnership with the nonreligious Tuareg rebels who were encamped, with their heavy weapons, in the northern desert. The secular rebels were deeply divided. Some viewed the Al Qaeda fighters as criminals, killers, and international outcasts, and wanted nothing to do with them. The majority, however, saw the alliance in opportunistic terms. By merging their men and their heavy arms with AQIM and Iyad Ag Ghali’s Ansar Dine, they would likely roll over the Malian army and achieve their long-held dream—Azawad.

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Iyad Ag Ghali (second from right) with Tuareg fighters. Photo: Corbis

Four days after the Festival in the Desert, on January 18, Ghali and the Ansar Dine rebels attacked an army camp in a remote village in northeast Mali. They overran the compound, then lined up nearly 100 soldiers and civilians and executed them, either by slitting their throats or shooting them in the head. The French government accused Ghali of Al Qaeda tactics. 

“My God,” Ansar exclaimed when he saw his old friend in combat gear, surrounded by armed jihadist fighters, on Malian TV. “He always swore to me that his Islam would never become violent.” 

The insurgents were growing in number, capturing weaponry and moving freely through the desert. In Bamako, mobs attacked businesses run by Tuareg. The president pleaded for calm. 

“Do not confuse those [Tuareg] who are shooting at military bases with those who are living amongst us, who are our neighbors, our colleagues,” he said on state television, but the message didn’t get through. 

“It’s you who have destroyed the country,” one man shouted at Ansar as he was stopped in traffic in downtown Bamako. 

In Bamako, threats against Tuareg intensified. As the situation worsened, Ansar flew with his family to Ouagadougou, the capital of neighboring Burkina Faso. A few weeks later, President Touré arrived there on a state visit. In his hotel suite, Touré pleaded with Ansar to return to Bamako, promising that the situation was stable. The Tuareg population in the south felt vulnerable and afraid, he said, and he believed that Ansar’s return would send a positive signal to them. Even now, Ansar realized, Touré failed to understand the enormity of what was happening in his country. His military was collapsing, Mali disintegrating. Ansar’s eyes filled with tears—Touré took his hand, and then the president teared up, too. 

In a show of fidelity to the president, Ansar left his wife and children in Burkina Faso and returned home on the presidential plane. But days later, Touré and his wife fled the palace ahead of a gang of marauding soldiers, taking refuge first in the Senegalese embassy, and later going into exile in Dakar. 

A junior army officer seized control of the government. Across the north, the military quickly collapsed. Soldiers fled south, abandoning an area the size of France—stretching from the Algerian border to Mali’s Inner Niger Delta—to the rebel army. By late March, two-thirds of the country was under rebel control. On April 1, Ghali led a convoy of 100 vehicles flying black jihadist flags into Timbuktu. 

Ghali declared war on the north’s musicians, whom he now believed to be a threat to the Islamic state that he had nearly formed. Members of Tinariwen fled to California. In Niafounké, an oasis town that lent its name to an album by the late desert-blues master Ali Farka Touré, Ghali’s fighters threatened to chop off the fingers of the singer’s protégés. In the summer of 2012, Ansar Dine militants trashed the studio of Khaira Arby, a popular half-Tuareg, half-Arab diva known as the Nightingale of the North, and threatened to cut out her tongue if they captured her, forcing her to flee to Bamako from Timbuktu. A few weeks later, Ansar Dine vandalized the house of Ahmed Ag Kaedi, a Tuareg guitarist from Kidal, taking special care to douse his guitars in gasoline and set them on fire.  

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Khaira Arby. Photo: Alice Mutasa

The militants set up a Sharia court in the former La Maison hotel, where Bono had stayed during the festival three months earlier, and meted out medieval punishments without mercy. They lashed women caught with their faces uncovered, chopped off the hands and feet of suspected thieves, and stoned an unmarried couple to death. 

In December, Ghali and his partners in Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb gathered several hundred jihadists for a war conference near Essakane, the former site of the Festival in the Desert. Between prayers and grilled lamb, they set a date of mid-January for the conquest of the remaining third of the country. When Ansar heard about the gathering, he was certain that Ghali had chosen the area to rebuke him for refusing to close down the festival. As Ansar said, “He was telling me, ‘This place is no longer for singing and dancing, no longer for debauchery, no longer for the hippies of the world. This place is now for jihad.’”

In January 2013, jihadists drove hundreds of pickup trucks mounted with heavy weapons toward the government front lines, where ill-trained soldiers were charged with preventing the rebels from breaking through to the south. In a savage battle, the jihadists killed dozens and sent the rest fleeing into the bush. Ghali and his men were just eight hours from the capital now, and Ansar suspected that AQIM and Ansar Dine were mobilizing jihadist cells inside Bamako to facilitate their entry.

In Paris, President François Hollande followed the events with alarm. The prospect of a radical terrorist state in the former French colony, of the potential kidnapping and execution of French citizens, prodded him into action. He ordered armed helicopters stationed in nearby Burkina Faso to launch a counterattack. The choppers fired rockets at the militants’ vehicles. French jets from Chad followed, and with support from tanks on the ground, dozens of rebels were killed. 

A convoy of blood-streaked pickup trucks, led by Iyad Ag Ghali, made its way back toward Timbuktu. Ghali had gambled that his lightning strike against the south would overwhelm the government forces, never imagining that a powerful Western army would intervene so quickly. 

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Tuareg on camels at sunset. Photo: Alice Mutasa

Eight

I met Manny Ansar for the first time a few days after the French intervention. He was sitting at a table in the outdoor bar of the guesthouse in Bamako, where I was staying, overlooking the Niger River. The haunting music of Ali Farka Touré was playing softly on the bar’s sound system. 

Ansar was a slender man in his early fifties, with a receding hairline, a narrow face, and a thin mustache. He wore jeans, sandals, and a loose-fitting, open-necked white shirt. Ansar seemed distracted, dazed by the dramatic turn of events, and still bewildered by his friend’s transformation. “I don’t understand what happened to him,” he said, going back and forth between English and French. “I could see that he had become radicalized, but I never thought that he would be capable of senseless violence.” Ansar acknowledged that Ghali might have become hardened to warfare and killing as a boy, but he had believed that the Tuareg leader’s embrace of religion had changed his life for the better. “Never violence,” he repeated. 

Even now, I thought, he seemed to be in a state of denial about Ghali’s crimes. Ansar said he heard that Ghali had been “furious” when his men overran the military camp in northern Mali in January 2012 and, in the war’s most notorious episode, killed nearly 100 people. And he was sure that Ghali had not been behind the most heinous applications of Sharia law. “I never had any proof that Iyad punished anyone who listened to music or that he tortured or executed anyone,” he insisted. “I hope that I never have such proof.” And yet it was hard to believe that Ghali’s men would have disobeyed their powerful commander; plenty of witnesses I talked to later would describe Ghali as being intimately and actively involved in every stage of the war and the brutal occupation of northern Mali. 

The Festival in the Desert had been canceled that year, and Ansar had little idea about its future or his own prospects. Ghali’s fate seemed equally unclear. Days after my first encounter with Ansar, as French forces advanced on Timbuktu, Ghali fled north from Kidal and disappeared. According to conflicting reports, he had either taken temporary refuge in Mauritania or was hiding in a mountainous region of Darfur, in western Sudan. For the moment, he appeared safe from the French special forces who were tracking down jihadists across Mali by air and by road.

When I returned to Mali a year later, sporadic rocket attacks and ambushes of French troops and civilians in the north had forced Ansar to cancel the festival for the second year in a row, but he had found a temporary solution. Ansar had organized a series of “concerts in exile” to keep the music of the north alive, and he invited me to join him at a performance of northern musicians at the Festival on the Niger in Ségou, a southern town that had never been occupied by the jihadists. 

We walked along the riverbank at dusk while waiting for the first night’s performance. On this stretch of the river, in December 1893, French officers and Senegalese infantrymen boarded a gunboat for Timbuktu—only to be massacred a month later by warriors led by Ansar’s great-great-grandfather. Ansar was a direct descendant of perhaps the greatest Tuareg rebel, yet he had been driven all his life by a yearning to knit his country together.  

At 10 p.m., Ahmed Ag Kaedi, the Tuareg musician whose instruments had been burned by Ghali’s men, climbed onto the stage with his band. Clad in boubous and veils, the men sang of the desolate beauty of the Sahara, the joys of companionship, and the loneliness of exile. To the sound of their call-and-response vocals and hypnotically repetitive guitars, ecstatic spectators rushed the small stage, surrounding Kaedi. Ansar danced among them, swept up by the music.

Soon after my visit to the Festival on the Niger, Malian and Algerian journalists reported that Iyad Ag Ghali’s whereabouts were known to security forces in the region. He was said to be hiding in the oasis of Tinzouatine, the no-man’s-land between Algeria and Mali. In exchange for immunity, Ghali had offered to negotiate for the release of Western hostages seized by Al Qaeda. The U.S. State Department had named Ghali a Specially Designated Global Terrorist and rejected any possibility of a deal with him. But the French and Algerian security forces seemed to have little interest in pursuing him. Ghali’s influence among the Tuareg remained considerable, and it was widely believed that no final agreement between the armed nomads and the government could be achieved without his approval. “Iyad has lived many lives,” Ansar told me, predicting that he would eventually resurface as a major political player in Mali. 

As for Ansar, he was forced to cancel the Festival in the Desert for the third consecutive year, and he had little hope that it would come together for 2016. Despite the presence of French and U.N. peacekeepers, the radical Islamists were resurgent. In February 2015, they launched a deadly attack in Kidal. In March, terrorists struck Bamako for the first time, firing on a café popular with expatriates. Five people, including a Frenchman and a Belgian, were killed. No place in Mali seemed safe, and the possibility of reconciliation between the north and the south seemed remote. The musicians of Tinariwen, who had been forced to flee into exile, now traveled throughout the West, still singing about their dream—the nation of Azawad.

Operation Red Falcon

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Operation Red Falcon

He was one of the greatest spies the Mossad had ever seen. Then he brought his own country to the brink of war.

By Ronen Bergman

The Atavist Magazine, No. 47


Ronen Bergman is a senior correspondent for military and intelligence affairs atYedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s largest-circulation daily newspaper, and a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine. He is the author of five bestselling Hebrew-language books; his third book, The Secret War with Iran, was published in English by Simon & Schuster. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, Newsweek, the Times, the Guardian, Der Spiegel and GQ. He is currently writing a history of the Mossad for Random House. Bergman lives in Tel Aviv.

Editor: Joel Lovell
Designer: Gray Beltran
Producer: Megan Detrie
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Danny Kopp
Other images: AP Photo, Corbis Images, Getty Images, Yehuda Gil, Library of Congress, Eldad Rafaeli

Published in March 2015. Design updated in 2021.

One

Early on the morning of September 1, 1996, the Israeli military began moving troops to the Syrian border in preparation for a war they were convinced was imminent. The military’s actions were based on top-secret intelligence—that Syria was about to launch a surprise attack—passed on by an informant, a general at the center of Syria’s Supreme Military Council, code-named Red Falcon. Red Falcon’s information had caused panic at the highest reaches of the Israeli Defense Forces, and senior military officials and Mossad officers were urging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to issue an order to the IDF to launch its own offensive before the Syrians could launch theirs.

The attack never materialized, and the people of Syria and Israel never knew how close their countries had come to a devastating war. More than a year after that tense alert, in November 1997, I met in secret with a senior member of the Israeli intelligence community, who told me a story I found nearly impossible to believe at the time. It would soon become one of the most infamous spy stories in modern history. A legendary Mossad operative, he said, had been arrested on suspicion of fabricating the intelligence that had brought Israel to the brink of war.

The operative, Yehuda Gil, had been widely celebrated within the Israeli intelligence community for years. In the aftermath of the massacre at the Munich Olympics, in 1972, Gil had been among the operatives who’d hunted down and executed members of the terrorist group Black September. He had collected operational intelligence on Iraq’s nuclear facility, which was later destroyed by Israel’s Air Force. He had laid the foundation for intelligence networks in Sudan and had played a key role in a covert operation, known publicly as Operation Moses and within the Mossad by the code name Brothers, that brought 7,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

And it was Gil who had recruited and handled Red Falcon, who for over two decades was Israel’s most valuable agent in the Arab world.

On March 24, 1999, Yehuda Gil was found guilty of espionage and theft in a secret trial—though he was released not long after, in December 2000, when his term was reduced for good behavior. For the next ten years, Gil refused to tell his story.

During that period, I spoke with many others in the Israeli intelligence community about why such a revered operative would so profoundly endanger his own country. Their theories varied. According to some, Gil was a sociopathic “evil genius.” Others suspected he had been undercover for too long and confused the good guys with the bad. Still others said he was driven by an inexplicable, egomaniacal desire to turn his unique gift—the ability to lie to and manipulate others—against his own side.

But no one could be sure why Gil had committed the crimes he’d committed. Or even what, exactly, those crimes were, though their consequences were severe. He had profoundly damaged the international credibility of the Mossad, whose false information—going back how long, no one was quite sure—had been shared with the major intelligence agencies of the Western world. He had put Israeli lives at terrible risk. He had even endangered his own family. One of Gil’s colleagues told me that Gil’s son was a paratrooper stationed at the Syrian front on that September day when the Israeli military prepared for war. “What kind of person is he,” the man said, “that he would risk the life of his own child?”

Two

It’s impossible to appreciate the enormity of the Yehuda Gil affair without first understanding the mythic place that the Mossad occupies in the collective Israeli consciousness. As with the CIA, the agency functions opaquely and is protected by a number of draconian laws; but the adulation it receives in Israel, the way in which the country’s survival is, in the minds of many Israeli citizens and leaders, due to and forever dependent upon the heroic and secretive operations of the Mossad, is unlike the experience of any other foreign intelligence agency in the world. For every operative who joins its ranks, there are a thousand turned away. And so for one of them—not just an agent, but one whose exploits were as legendary as Gil’s were—to deceive his own country was nearly impossible for Israelis to comprehend (as it was for me when I first heard about it).

Like many other reporters, I tried for years to arrange an interview with Gil. I spoke several times with his wife, Noa, but she was unable or unwilling to persuade him to meet with me. After Gil was released, he and Noa withdrew to their home in Gedera, a community 20 miles southeast of Tel Aviv, where they lived a very private life.

I tried other leads, none of which worked out. And then, in the course of working on another investigation, I met a man named Pierre Lavi, who had served in Israeli intelligence in Lebanon and was still in touch with Gil. Gil trusted him, Lavi told me, and he agreed to pass on my request. After two weeks, Lavi called to say Gil was willing to meet and that I should go on the appointed day to a busy café near a Trappist monastery on Highway 1, the main road between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Gil and Lavi arrived first. It was crowded and noisy, and the two of them sat in a far corner, facing the door. Gil had a heavy gray mustache that stood out across the room. He was noticeably uncomfortable when I sat down. Just before I arrived, they told me, Gil had seen two ex-colleagues and feared that either he or I was being tailed. I found the possibility far-fetched and tried to reassure him.

He was confrontational from the start, trying to control the conversation by saying, “So here’s the journalist who thinks he knows everything about the Mossad.” I appealed to the various motivations he might have to tell his story—to clear his reputation in the eyes of his family and friends and country, and to go on the record regarding the injustice he claimed Danny Yatom, the chief of the Mossad, had perpetrated against him. Yatom had just published a memoir that contained a searing attack on Gil, including an allegation that Gil had never recruited Red Falcon at all, that the whole thing—the agent, all the intelligence passed on over 23 years—was an elaborate lie.

“For the first time, someone who is supposed to know everything has spoken,” Gil said bitterly. “He knows how this operation fit in with the big picture, what it contributed and what it didn’t contribute. This man comes and says in the bluntest possible way, unequivocally, that Yehuda Gil never handled this source. That blows my fuses.” He didn’t know why Yatom would write what he did, he said, whether it was out of “arrogance, or a desire to harm me, or simply ignoring the facts.”

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Yehuda Gil near his home in Gedera, Israel, 2010. Photo: Eldad Rafaeli

Eventually, Gil agreed to let me interview him in his home. I was joined by a young woman who was familiar with the world of Israeli espionage and who, I hoped, would help Gil feel less defensive and contentious than he might if he was speaking only to me. The two of us met five times with Gil and his wife in their modest single-story home. The walls were lined with books; objects from their former lives in Africa and Europe sat on the shelves. On the walls were framed certificates and shields that Gil had been awarded in recognition of the high-level training courses he had conducted for various intelligence units. He pointed out that some of them had been presented to him after his trial and his time in prison, as evidence that the public story being told by the Mossad was not the real one. “I was released from prison on the 20th of December 2000,” he said. “Three weeks later, I was training classified IDF units. Tell me that’s not peculiar.”

Our meetings generally began in the early afternoon and continued until 7 p.m., when Noa would serve an evening meal, during which we agreed that all talk of espionage would stop. After dinner, the interviews carried on late into the night. Taken together, our conversations yielded a transcript nearly 60,000 words long; in the months since those initial meetings, we have met again on several occasions and spoken by phone many times. In all these conversations, Gil has maintained that he is innocent of deceiving his country and that he is a victim of the agency to which he dedicated his life.

“He was called ‘the man with a thousand faces.’ He could persuade anyone to do almost anything.”

Three

According to a senior Mossad member who investigated the Gil affair and has access to the agency’s personnel files, Gil was born in June 1934 in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, to Jewish parents of Italian and Greek origin. His grandfather was the chief rabbi of the Jewish community there. At home he spoke Spanish, Italian, and French; in the street he learned Arabic. Early in our conversations, Gil recounted his most formative experience as a young child, witnessing a pogrom against Libyan Jews carried out by his Muslim neighbors. “When you see with your own eyes how a pregnant woman is cut open and her baby is tossed onto a bonfire,” he said, “you don’t forget it.” 

When he was 12, his father taught him how to use a handgun and told him that it was better to commit suicide than to give himself up to the mercy of the Arabs. This background may explain his decision, years later, to join the radical (now defunct) nationalist Moledet movement, which advocated the “voluntary transfer” of Israel’s Arab citizens. “I have seen what bastards they are, what scum,” Gil said of Arabs. “A goy can’t be trusted, even after he’s been buried for forty years.” We sat in silence, listening to his tirade. I have heard these opinions many times, in many places, of course; there are plenty of Israelis, especially those who emigrated from Arab lands, who hold extreme hawkish views. It shouldn’t have surprised me that even a man as erudite as Gil is could be so unnuanced in his opinions. Still, I found myself wanting him to demonstrate the charm that others had said he was so famous for. As if he, too, was aware that he’d gone too far, Gil finally said, “I don’t hate Arabs. I truly do not hate Arabs. But I’m explaining to you that I am not capable of trusting them.” 

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Tel Aviv, 1948. Photo: Dmitri Kessel/Getty Images

In September 1948, in the midst of Israel’s War of Independence, 14-year-old Yehuda immigrated with his family to Israel. They were welcomed in the new country by Gil’s uncle, a former member of Etzel, the extremist guerrilla militia that fought against the British Mandate and the Arabs before the State of Israel was established. New immigrants were being given homes abandoned by the Arabs who had fled or were expelled from areas conquered by Israeli forces. Gil’s family was allocated a house in Jaffa, but not long after moving in he left for a kibbutz, where he stayed until he was conscripted into the army at age 18.

In 1964, the IDF sent Gil to train military forces in Chad and Cameroon. The training of African military and intelligence forces was part of a strategy known as the periphery doctrine, instituted by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. The idea was to foster alliances with the countries just beyond the hostile Arab states encircling Israel. In exchange for weaponry and military and intelligence training, Israel received permission to use those countries as covert bases to act against the Arabs. 

When a Mossad operative working in Chad learned that Gil spoke several languages, he suggested that Gil apply to join the organization when he returned to Israel. “We got back in July 1970,” Gil said. “I called and began the screening process.” Gil takes pains to present a dignified, unemotional front when discussing his career, but it was clear how meaningful an invitation from the Mossad must have been to him at that point in his life. Recruitment into the organization, especially for someone with Gil’s background, meant not only getting a respected job and the chance to do exciting work, but also that he, an immigrant from Libya, had penetrated the very heart of the Israeli establishment. “To be in the Mossad,” Gil said, “was to give expression to the ability of a Jew not to be a willing slave, not to be a second- or third-rate citizen, but rather a person with the ability and the right to live free.”

After six months of security vetting and physical and psychological testing, Gil entered the agency’s cadets course, held in an academy named after Eli Cohen, an Israeli spy who was caught and hanged in Syria. The course prepares a core, elite group of Mossad operatives. They are not expert assassins. They can’t fly planes or captain submarines. They are more George Smiley than James Bond. Their main weapon is not a silenced handgun but, in most cases, something far more necessary and effective—the ability to take on a false identity and to manipulate others.

The recruitment and handling of foreign agents is carried out by the Mossad’s Tsomet division. Tsomet, Hebrew for “junction,” is a code name given to the section in the 1960s. Today, the Mossad uses a different code name in its internal correspondence, but its employees still refer to the division as Tsomet. It is the largest department within the Mossad, employing many hundreds of personnel who populate a large part of the hexagonal building in Tel Aviv that is Mossad headquarters. Most of those who work in this wing are staff officers, either at the headquarters or in the Mossad’s secret stations across the globe. Those in Tsomet who are responsible for recruiting and controlling agents are known as katsa, a Hebrew acronym for “collection officer,” or case officer.

Regarded as the elite of the elite, case officers are experts in the types of deceit necessary to exploit a target’s weak points—whether greed, pride, or loneliness. They are able to live under assumed identities for extended periods, fully inhabiting the roles they take on in order to extract information without raising alarms in the minds of their agents. Within the Mossad, case officers are granted nearly complete operational autonomy and are often the sole conduit through which information flows from a target back to the agency and to the highest members of the Israeli military and government. 

Until the Gil affair, the Mossad’s faith in its case officers was absolute. As a former head of Tsomet put it to me, “You can’t work unless you trust them 100 percent.” 

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Gil, second in line, in military school, 1955. Photo: Courtesy of Yehuda Gil

It was clear early on that Gil had a remarkable aptitude for recruiting, running, and debriefing foreign agents. Several people who served with him described Gil as a man who possessed unique, preternatural skills and whose talent was matched only by his arrogance. One former commander, who ran a course for senior officers in the intelligence community, told me, “He complained all the time that we didn’t appreciate him enough, and he asked provocatively if I knew what operations he had executed. In the end, he was the only participant who appealed against the grade and evaluation we gave him.”

During one of our early conversations, Gil said of himself, “I passed every course the Mossad offered within a couple of days. I would begin a course, and two days later the instructor would say, ‘I have nothing to teach you.’” He claimed that in his 27 years with the Mossad, he never had a single operational mishap, even though most of that time was spent acting undercover as a foreign citizen. “Not because I am a genius,” he said. “Because I am a coward. Before I executed anything, I checked it out from all angles and I prepared. They used to laugh at me, ‘Why do you immerse yourself so deeply in your cover?’”

Recruiting agents is a complex, all-encompassing craft. The Mossad divides the process into three discrete stages, each one performed by a different member. The first stage, “spotting,” is when the initial contact is made with a target. It is a casual contact, an acquaintanceship, and its purpose is to provide a pretext for the spotter to introduce the target to the case officer who will carry out the next stage. The “attack” is when the case officer attempts over time to deepen the relationship in such a way that the source feels sufficient trust to begin to reveal valuable information. The last phase is the “handling” of a subject who has agreed, for any number of possible reasons, to give over state secrets—to extend and nurture the relationship for as long as possible.

From the beginning of his career, Gil was assigned as an attacking case officer. In each mission, it was up to him to decide how and where to approach a target, what cover to use, and how to induce the target—be it a Libyan diplomat, a Syrian officer, a PLO functionary, or an Iraqi nuclear scientist—to want to meet again. Retired general Danny Yatom, the Mossad chief who ultimately ordered the investigation against Gil, described him to me in the kinds of terms one would use to talk about an artist. Gil was “a charismatic, colorful, astute man, with an almost hypnotic presence and a phenomenal ability to improvise and change identities. He was called ‘the man with a thousand faces,’” Yatom said. “He could persuade anyone to do almost anything. We used to say Gil could get a telephone pole to talk.”

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An Israeli soldier surveilling the Golan Heights, February 1996. Photo: David Rubinger/Getty Images

“I didn’t even ask her. I came home and said, ‘Listen, in two weeks I’ll be going away for some time.’”

“I was released from prison on the 20th of December. Three weeks later, I was training classified IDF units. Tell me that’s not peculiar.”

Four

Gil nurtured his legendary status within the organization. In the courses he taught in the Mossad’s training academy, he made a point of leaving a dramatic, lasting impression on his young trainees. He once faked a heart attack in the classroom, leading his horrified students to call an ambulance. Another time he drew a pistol on a trainee, who burst into tears, fearing that Gil had lost his mind and was about to pull the trigger.

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Gil in the early 1960s. Photo: Courtesy of Yehuda Gil

In 1984, according to Gil, the future director of the Mossad, Ephraim Halevy, summoned him to his office to review Gil’s cover story before he left on a mission to Sudan. Gil was planning to pose as a thoroughly corrupt businessman, “a real slave trader,” in his words, engaged in human trafficking—a cover story that made sense in this case because the “slaves” were Ethiopian Jews purportedly being transported to Europe via Israel.

Halevy was from the Tevel (or “world”) division—the part of the Mossad that serves as a liaison with foreign intelligence agencies. “This man who has never worked undercover is examining me?” Gil said, recounting the event. “What does he know about cover stories?”

As Gil described it, Halevy arrives at his office half an hour before their meeting to find a phone-company technician in overalls working on the wires. In a “peculiar” accent, the technician explains that he is there to check out a complaint that the office’s phones had been tapped. Halevy begins to panic and tries to shield the top-secret papers on his desk, all the while shouting for his secretary to call the Mossad’s chief security officer. As the secretary runs into the room and tries to calm Halevy, the technician mutters to himself and goes back to work. Then, after a few minutes have passed, the technician stands up straight, drops the accent, and says, “So, do you think I’m ready to go on my mission, Ephraim?”

When I contacted Halevy, who was the director of the Mossad from 1998 until 2002, I asked him about Gil’s story. His reply: “As a rule, I do not respond to such requests. However, in this case, I have decided to answer. The episode concerning Mr. Gil’s entry into my office in the disguise of a telephone technician is a figment of his imagination—it never happened. The comments concerning my operational career indicate to me that Mr. Gil knows nothing about it, and that is the way it should be.”

Gil served for prolonged periods in European countries where most of the Mossad’s operations take place, involving potential marks from enemy states traveling outside the Arab world. But he was also among the select few operatives who went undercover in “target countries”—hostile Arab and Muslim nations where the risk of torture, imprisonment, or execution was high if he was to be exposed.

“There were some case officers who wriggled out of such assignments,” Gil said. “When they were looking for someone to go to certain Arab countries, there were two men who agreed: Yehuda and Gil”—meaning only himself. “I was then a department head, with a nice armchair,” he went on, “with future promotion possibilities, air-conditioned rooms, and so forth. They would come to me and say, ‘We need someone to go to a certain country and do a certain job. Is there anyone?’ And I would say, ‘Why are you messing around? You’ve got the man. I’m right here.’ Within 24 hours I was being briefed, and within two weeks I was where I had to be.”

He paused and looked at Noa. “I didn’t even ask her. I came home and said, ‘Listen, in two weeks I’ll be going away for some time.’”

“You didn’t ask because the answer was self-evident.” Noa replied. “When you have to do a job, you do it.”

After the Munich massacre in 1972, Gil was among the team of operatives chosen to eliminate the Palestinian terrorists responsible for the attacks. Their first target was Adel Wael Zuaiter, whom the Mossad learned was working part-time as an interpreter for the Libyan embassy in Rome. Undercover as an Italian businessman, Gil managed to befriend an acquaintance of Zuaiter’s, who over time supplied Gil with many details about Zuaiter—his home phone number, his work hours, even descriptions of his personal habits and how he spent his free time. Gil took painstaking notes of these details and then transmitted them to Tsomet headquarters.

Once Gil had gathered sufficient intelligence, the Mossad’s special-operations division, known as the Caesarea, went into action. An assassination unit arrived in Rome and, using information supplied by Gil, shadowed Zuaiter for several days. On September 16, they followed him from the Libyan embassy to a nearby café, then to the city bus that took him home. When Zuaiter got off at his stop, the operatives who’d followed him signaled to a waiting team—two Caesarea members hiding in a dark stairwell—that the target was approaching. As Zuaiter called the elevator, the two men stepped out, drew their Beretta pistols with silencers, and shot him 11 times. Within hours all the team members had left Italy and were on their way back to Israel.

At the end of 1973, Gil was ordered to report to Paris for a new mission. “I didn’t see what could be more important than killing Palestinian terrorists,” he said. “But you don’t argue with orders. That night I headed for Paris.”

His new target was a general in the Syrian military who the Israelis had discovered was stationed for several months in Europe. The presence of a Syrian officer of that rank in a location so accessible to Mossad operatives was a rare opportunity. The general was given the code name Red Falcon.

There was no reason to believe Red Falcon would be sympathetic to Israel, quite the opposite. The general had fought in the Golan Heights in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and his fierce hatred of Israel was well-known to the Israeli Defense Forces. On November 23, 1973, the Israeli government received a secret report stating that 42 Israeli soldiers who had been captured by the Syrians were murdered before reaching prison, where two others were also killed. According to intelligence information gathered by the IDF, some of those soldiers were killed in a zone where Red Falcon was commanding Syrian troops. The murder of the POWs was perpetrated, at the least, with his knowledge, and quite possibly on his orders. Other Israeli soldiers who’d been taken prisoner but spared during the monthlong war came home after their negotiated release and described torture sessions that Red Falcon had taken part in.

The surprise attack by Syria and Egypt that launched the Yom Kippur War in October 1973 was catastrophic for the Israeli intelligence community. Israeli Military Intelligence (AMAN) had failed to correctly evaluate the intentions of Syria and Egypt as the two countries amassed troops on the Golan Heights and the West Bank of the Suez Canal, believing they were engaged in war games and not planning an invasion. When those troops attacked, the IDF was caught completely unawares, and its losses were crushing. October 1973 is AMAN’s deepest scar. To prevent such an attack from happening again, the Mossad was put under intense pressure to recruit agents who not only could supply secret information, but would also have access to what those in the agency referred to as the ”intent echelon”—the high-ranking inner circle who were involved in making strategic plans.

“There was a doleful atmosphere in the Mossad,” Gil said, recalling the effect that war had throughout the agency. He told the story of a young case officer who had worked with him in the Rome station and left to fight with his army unit when the war broke out. “He predicted that he wouldn’t come back, and he was killed on the Suez Canal. Many of the case officers, and that includes me, had a powerful need for revenge, a desire to do something out of the ordinary.”

I asked him if he distinguished at all between the Egyptians and the Syrians. For whom did he feel more rage? “There’s a proverb in Italian,” he said. “‘They’re all the same breed—kill them all.’ What difference is it to me if he’s a Syrian or an Egyptian? It doesn’t matter. I don’t like them. I don’t hate them, but I don’t like them. It’s because I know their mission is the exact opposite of mine.”

“Nobody knows who’s who at these meetings. You just have to know how to play the game.”

Five

Prior to Gil’s arrival in Paris, a female Arab spotter working for the Mossad had made initial contact with the general in Paris. “The orders she got were to develop a superficial relationship with him,” Gil explained. “He invites you to dinner, make eyes at him and so on. The aim is that at a certain stage he’ll accept your invitation to a party, and there he’ll meet someone who will execute the operational moves. That’s all she was supposed to do, but she went further and gave him sexual favors.” Despite her efforts, Red Falcon refused to meet any of the spotter’s acquaintances, and a second operative (to protect his identity, I will refer to him as Gabriel) was brought in to befriend him. That relationship also failed to develop as hoped, and so with three months left before the general was scheduled to return to Syria, Gil was called in.

As soon as he arrived in Paris, Gil joined the surveillance team already in place and began closely observing his target. Red Falcon came from an affluent family in Syria, but in Paris he lived frugally in a cheap hotel. Gil noted that he took great pains to put on a smart front—his suits were impeccably pressed, his shoes always freshly shined—but he usually caught the Metro or walked to his destination rather than spend money on a taxi. There were three possible “hooks,” Gil said, in the recruitment of agents—money, emotion, or sex—and based on his surveillance (and the failure of the female spotter to manipulate her mark), it appeared that money would be the key to convincing Red Falcon to betray his country.

Gil determined that the best way to approach his target would be through Gabriel, whose friendship with the general seemed to be taking hold. And so a plan was developed: Gabriel would invite the general to join him at an upcoming international convention on construction and development, and there they would meet Gil, working undercover as a prosperous and influential Italian businessman. For a few days prior to their visit, Gil attended the convention alone, deliberately cultivating ties to the staff and attendees. Within two days, exhibitors and waiters assumed that he was one of the event’s organizers, addressing him as Monsieur le directeur. “Everyone was coming up to ask me, ‘Mr. Director, we have a problem here and a problem there,’ and I would solve the problems for them,” Gil recalled. “I would scold some of them if it seemed to me they weren’t carrying out their duties.”

When Gabriel arrived with Red Falcon, he introduced Gil as an old friend of his father’s. Gil distractedly greeted Gabriel and his friend, making it clear that he was very busy. As Gil recalled the moment: “[Red Falcon] says, ‘Why’s he brushing us off like this?’ And Gabriel says, ‘Listen, he’s an important man. You see, everyone calls him le directeur.’ So the impression we created was that I was powerful. He sees everyone running around with name tags, and I haven’t got a tag or anything, but I’m telling them what to do.”

He quickly seized an opportunity to demonstrate his influence to Red Falcon, Gil said, by stopping a young woman walking past with a stack of brochures. “So I say, ‘Mademoiselle, what’s this? Show me.’ I open a brochure. ‘OK. It’s nice. What I asked for. Give a couple to these gentlemen here’—and I point at Gabriel and Red Falcon. She’s certain that it’s my job. Nobody knows who’s who at these meetings. You just have to know how to play the game.”

Gil took Red Falcon to a three-star restaurant that evening, and the next day escorted him to several presentations that he claimed to be overseeing. Throughout these meetings, and for all the years that they knew each other, Gil kept the fact that he spoke fluent Arabic a secret from the general, so that he could eavesdrop on the man’s conversations.

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Gil with his daughter in Chad, 1966. Photo: Courtesy of Yehuda Gil

As is typical of the Mossad’s recruitment operations, the female spotter, Gabriel, and Gil all went undercover as Europeans, in what is known as a “false flag” operation. The reason for this is obvious: like most Arabs, Red Falcon could hardly be expected to cooperate directly with the Zionist enemy. The hope, though, was that if there was enough in it for him, he might be open to the possibility of working with an influential Westerner.

Gabriel urged Red Falcon to get to know Gil, suggesting that they might be able to do business together. He shared his friend’s life story with the Syrian: Gil was from an Italian Fascist family that supported the Nazis, Gabriel said. After the war ended, his father, who backed the Italian Christian Democratic Party, had collaborated with the Americans to undermine local Communist sympathizers. “And then the game begins,” Gil said. “That same day, [Red Falcon] tells me he is a military man, that he has a lot of land and his family is very rich, and that he’s a prince—all kinds of stories. Of course, in order to show how important he is, he too embellishes reality.”

The next stage was to set up a direct connection between Gil and Red Falcon, without Gabriel as the mediator. They told the Syrian that Gil knew Gabriel’s father when Gabriel was still a young roughneck and that Gil had promised to take care of him. “That way,” Gil said, “the officer and I suddenly became serious types, and he, Gabriel, was a little scamp we could boss around.”

To deepen the impression that Gil was a wealthy and powerful businessman, Gabriel showed up at one meeting with a sheaf of documents that were supposedly from a deal Gil was about to close. “We sat there for about an hour,” Gil said, “with papers that I had prepared and given Gabriel in advance. In the end I tell Gabriel, ‘Drop it. At most you’ll make half a million a year. Is it worth putting so much effort into this for half a million bucks?’ Red Falcon heard us tossing these sums around and, you know, his ears began perking up like an elephant in the savanna who catches a whiff of some female in heat.”

When the convention was over, Gil arranged to meet the Syrian alone. “Before we parted he said to me, ‘Tell me, do you think that in a country like ours it would be possible to do this kind of business?”’ It was then, Gil said, that he knew Red Falcon had swallowed the bait. Or, as he put it: “The elephant had lost his sense of direction and was charging after the female.”

“He has important information to convey to me and he expresses his readiness to supply whatever I ask for.”

Six

Gil’s initial meetings with Red Falcon were conducted under Mossad surveillance. Two of the agency’s operatives had recently been shot—one fatally—by double agents from the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the Mossad had instituted a number of precautionary measures that are still in use today. It was determined that targets should always be followed on their way to meetings with case officers and that these meetings never be held at the predetermined venue; instead, the foreign agents should always be “jumped” to a different location, to prevent the possibility of the case officer being ambushed.

As he became more acquainted with Red Falcon, Gil said, he grew more disdainful of him. He described the general as “a peasant, a respectable peasant from a respectable family. But he looked at everything in terms of respect—the external image.” The general drank a lot of alcohol, Gil said, and the Mossad had proof that he was an adulterer, but in conversation he was offended by open talk about sex and found Western-style advertising, with its half-naked models, distasteful. He despised the rampant nepotism in Syrian society and, despite his high military rank, felt that some of his colleagues looked down on him.

In the course of their first lengthy conversation, Red Falcon told Gil that he hated Israel but was in awe of its military capabilities. He told him, too, about his treatment of Israeli POWs. “I encouraged him,” Gil said. “I said, ‘That’s what you need to do to those shitty Jews’ and so on and so forth. It’s not easy. It’s not easy.”

Despite the general’s criticism of Syrian president Hafez al-Assad and his cronies, Gil said, “he believed that with a leader like Assad and an army like the IDF, any objective could be met. To his great regret, the Syrian army was significantly inferior to the Israeli army.” In the first reports Gil submitted on Red Falcon, he noted that the general hoped to see Syria become an integral part of the West—allied with Europe and the U.S. and the developed world—rather than being part of a united Arab front or a nation that cooperated with the Soviet Bloc.

Gil focused during that first meeting on forming a more personal bond with his target, proving that he was sympathetic to the general’s anxieties and desires and could possibly help him. In response to Red Falcon’s financial concerns, Gil suggested that there were business opportunities for the Syrian and that he could introduce him to the kind of people who were working in very lucrative areas.

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Israel and neighboring states as of 1982. Photo: Courtesy of Library of Congress

Over months’ worth of conversations, Gil emphasized the ways in which he could provide connections that would bring Red Falcon economic security and searched for reasons that would justify Red Falcon’s frequent trips to Europe in the eyes of his superiors. The general told Gil that he hoped to send his eldest daughter to study in Europe but didn’t know how to raise the money necessary to afford it. “He could have applied to the French Foreign Ministry, and they would have arranged it,” Gil said. “But he didn’t know this, and I wasn’t about to tell him.” Gil explained to Red Falcon that he had an excellent solution, one that would not require filling out forms or dealing with government bureaucracy: “I told him that I’d found a company that was ready to finance talented and promising students in exchange for their signing on to work for the company for a few years.” When Red Falcon expressed interest, Gil and his colleagues in the Mossad hastily created a “scholarship” for the girl.

Before he left for Syria, Red Falcon had one final request: He wanted to return home with the ultimate Western status symbols—a large refrigerator and a washing machine manufactured in America. Gil immediately contacted Mossad colleagues stationed in Washington, who purchased Westinghouse appliances and shipped them to Paris. When they arrived, Gil recalled, the Syrian “gave me a strange look. ‘What’s going on?’ he says. And I see what’s going through his mind at that moment. He’s thinking, ‘What happened here? All of a sudden, the world is opening up before me. I want an education for my daughter, and bingo! I want an American refrigerator, and it’s all arranged.’ He says to me, ‘I don’t get it. Do you have friends everywhere?”’

This was the opening Gil had been waiting for, the most crucial point in the attack phase, when the relationship morphs from the sharing of opinions and common interests to the handing over of sensitive, secret information. The main problem Gil faced was how to deftly prepare Red Falcon for the questions and requests for information that he was about to start presenting. To make it all sound logical, even inevitable, he told Red Falcon more about his father’s intelligence work for Italy’s National Fascist Party and the relationships he’d formed with influential Americans working in Europe who were bent on rooting out Communists. According to Gil, Red Falcon said, “‘Your father was wise. Look what he made of you.’ I saw that I was on the right track and that I could press on. I explained that from time to time I was sent by Western intelligence services to all sorts of places in the world to look into sensitive matters, to speak to people, to do deals of one kind or another.” Global business and global intelligence went hand in hand, Gil suggested, and great opportunities existed for the few savvy people who understood that the truly rich and powerful were not overly constrained by national interests or ideology, who know how to move in these shadowy international networks and take advantage of them.

Red Falcon asked him how much money he made doing this work.

“A lot,” Gil said. “Working for this intelligence service gives me access to certain business opportunities. For example, when one of the countries in Western Europe renews its emergency stockpiles, which it does every three years, I get first opportunity to buy up the old stock cheap and resell it. Buy low, sell high to Third World countries, and make millions along the way.”

Gil swore Red Falcon to secrecy, expounding on the importance of loyalty among friends. This was meant to condition the Syrian to the security procedures he would soon be implementing with him, Gil said. It was important to teach him “what secrecy is, how secrets are kept, how loyalty is maintained, and how to avoid indicating to anyone that you are in touch with foreigners. Things like, if you ever have a lot of money, don’t start squandering it. Or if, for example, you are asked how your daughter has an apartment in Europe, you have to be ready with an answer.”

Gil saw Red Falcon off on his trip back to Damascus, then immediately headed to an office in a Parisian apartment operated by the Mossad. He wrote up his report and handed it to a waiting courier, who delivered it to headquarters in Tel Aviv. His superiors were elated, Gil said, but Red Falcon’s initial agreement to cooperate wasn’t enough. In countless other cases, a fresh recruit might have been happy about the money and gifts he received, but would then return to his own country and cut off the relationship.

Gil and his superiors waited tensely to see what would happen in the weeks following Red Falcon’s return to Damascus. Then the signal came in. The first letter from Red Falcon arrived at an address Gil had given him. A summary, written by Gil and filed with the letter, stated: “The letter contains a mention of and a demand for the sums that we promised him. He reiterates his agreement to cooperate.”

The Mossad began transferring money to a Middle Eastern bank account that it had opened in Red Falcon’s name. It was only a few thousand dollars, not a huge amount in Western eyes, but a great deal for a Syrian. A few weeks later another letter arrived, which Gil summarized: “[Red Falcon] claims he has important information to convey to me and he expresses his readiness to supply whatever I ask for.”

A month later, Red Falcon returned to Europe with his daughter, who was about to begin her studies, thanks to a Mossad contact within a prestigious French academy. “We introduced Red Falcon to a local collaborator,” Gil said. The collaborator posed as the chairman of a society “dedicated to encouraging promising youngsters from French-speaking countries.” The Mossad’s network in Paris provided an apartment for the girl and paid all her bills. Once the details of his daughter’s “scholarship” and living arrangements were finalized, Red Falcon returned to his high-level post in Syria.

“There was no other handling of a human source that occupied us more than Red Falcon.”

Seven

According to Gil’s reports to the Mossad’s chiefs, Red Falcon began sharing documents and military secrets with his Italian benefactor out of gratitude for the favors being heaped on him. In 1976, after two years of groundwork, the general handed over information of such high value that the heads of Israel’s intelligence community refused to believe it was true. “At first the Research Division of Military Intelligence laughed at me and at my source,” Gil said. “When it turned out that he was right, they had to eat their hats.”

The Research Division of AMAN is responsible for analyzing and evaluating all the information collected by the entire Israeli intelligence community—the Mossad, Military Intelligence, and the Shin Bet, as well as the intelligence branch of the Israeli police and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Hundreds of experts serve in the division, sifting through vast amounts of data and intelligence of various sorts to compile Israel’s National Intelligence Estimates, which serve as the bible for the assessment of threats and determination of military policy. The Mossad is engaged in the collection of information, mostly through human intelligence sources, but it is the analytical experts in the Research Division of AMAN who evaluate the information and decide upon its credibility. The intelligence community has far greater influence in Israel than the Foreign Ministry, and AMAN research has a critical influence not only on questions of war, but also on diplomatic decisions with hostile countries and all of Israel’s foreign policy.

Various members within the Mossad and the IDF whom I spoke with—and who were familiar with the affair—agreed that at this point the information Gil was providing was reliable and was coming directly from Red Falcon. It’s likely that the general wasn’t aware that he was betraying his country, they said, because Gil, a master at managing the questions and misgivings of his targets, was able to assuage any doubts Red Falcon may have expressed by assuring him that the secrets he was passing on would never be used against Syria.

With each new benefit, too, the general was less likely to question or end the arrangement. Aside from his daughter’s apartment and tuition, and the regular “bonuses” he was now receiving from “European intelligence employers,” Red Falcon was treated to seductive tastes of Western privilege. After he revealed to Gil that he dreamed of traveling around Europe, Gil took him on a grand European tour, covertly accompanied by a team of security and logistics personnel.

I spoke with a Mossad operative who acted as one of the unseen escorts on this trip. “I was young and not yet really sure of myself,” he told me. “When the trip was over, I learned that Gil had complained that Red Falcon had pointed me out and said, ‘That man looks like an Israeli commando.’ My boss said he wasn’t firing me only because Gil requested leniency on my behalf. Looking back, I realize how unlikely that story was. I come from a European background and don’t look at all like an Israeli. In the investigation following his arrest, it came to light that Gil used this tactic with lots of young guys, in order to make them indebted to him, as if it was thanks to him we weren’t kicked out of the Mossad.”

Everyone who served in the highest reaches of Military Intelligence between the mid-’70s and the late ’90s knew of Red Falcon (only by code name, not his real identity), and it was widely understood that the information he provided was precious. There are a very limited number of sources—the cardinal sources, as they are called—who are deemed to be so strategically significant that the raw material from meetings with them is sent directly to the prime minister and the Research Division is intimately involved in their handling. With these sources, the division’s experts are in direct contact with Mossad case officers, and analysts accompany Mossad handlers to the foreign cities where their meetings take place. They brief the handlers before the meetings and immediately debrief them afterward. Red Falcon was considered a cardinal source from early on—and, over time, was assumed to be Israel’s most important cardinal source.

Gil said that he held his first meetings “in the presence of members of AMAN Research” as early as 1976. “Amos Gilboa”—then head of the Syria desk and later commander of the Research Division—“came to Paris. In AMAN’s eyes, everything that [Red Falcon] said was not only serious but the word of God. They were agog [at what Red Falcon was saying]. The agent not only supplied them with information, but also described for them the strategic doctrines of the Syrian military.”

To suggest that Red Falcon outlined these things “for them”—meaning the AMAN members—is not entirely accurate, however. In each of his meetings, Gil refused to allow direct contact between anyone else on the team and his source, claiming that Red Falcon would be scared off. At most he would allow the AMAN analysts to sit in the same café in which he was meeting with his source or to watch from a distance as they took a morning stroll down the Champs-Elysées. This refusal to let anyone other than himself interact with Red Falcon was later used against Gil in his trial, but at the time, AMAN members went along. “I do not know how to work undercover,” Gilboa told me. “Gil’s refusal to allow me to meet the source seemed absolutely reasonable. We sat in the café and watched him meeting with the source, who we knew from photographs. Everything seemed logical to me. I didn’t suspect a thing. We were grateful to Gil for this amazing recruitment.”

The one aspect of his handling of Red Falcon that caused him the most concern, Gil said, was that the general’s daughter seemed to sense something. “She was very suspicious,” Gil said. “She knew there was something she couldn’t explain.” The question was, would she be able to convince her father that she was right.

On the one hand, the Syrian treated her harshly. “Once, I was dining at their home,” Gil said. “My fork fell, and I began to bend down to pick it up. When she, the daughter, didn’t hurry to bring me a clean fork, he slapped her, just like that, in the face.” But he also knew that the daughter loved her father and worried over him. She was suspicious of Gil’s motives and would often warn her father—in Arabic, which she didn’t realize Gil understood—that he was speaking too freely in the presence of his friend. “One time the girl told her mother: ‘Speak to father. Why is he telling him these things? These aren’t things you tell just anyone.’ The mother told her, ‘But he isn’t just anyone. He’s one of us. He’s family. Have you forgotten what he did for you?’”

Despite such warnings, Gil said, by this point in their relationship, Red Falcon was openly discussing military and political topics. “He believed that I was reporting on our conversations to NATO intelligence,” Gil said, “and that he was serving as a NATO adviser, through me, and getting paid for it.”

The intelligence coming in from Red Falcon was staggering. Gil reported back on the operations and training exercises of Syrian commandos, on structural changes within the Syrian army, on the purchase and allocation of new arms and electronic-warfare systems, and on redeployments along Syria’s borders. He was also learning about Syria’s internal politics, he said, including the news that President Assad intended to change Syrian law to enable him to continue in power despite his advanced age.

In March 1984, now over a decade into his handling of Red Falcon, Gil reported back information on a top-secret Syrian storage facility for chemical weapons. As the years passed, he expanded on this subject, filling his reports with more refined details. Each time Red Falcon indicated that he could meet Gil in Europe, a vast operation, involving dozens or sometimes hundreds of people, was set in motion. AMAN analysts exhaustively briefed Gil in advance of his meetings, prepping him on what questions to ask and what to follow up with after the Syrian’s replies. The Mossad planned all operational aspects of the meetings: security, logistics, safe houses, escape and surveillance routes, accommodations for everyone involved, transfer of funds to be paid directly to Red Falcon, along with depositing money in another account to satisfy his family’s various domestic needs.

“We used to hold meetings day and night, arguing about what questions Gil should ask Red Falcon about which topics during their limited time together,” an AMAN officer who served during those years told me. “These became real fights, with every individual sure that his question was more important and more vital to the security of the state.”

One top Mossad official put it this way: “There was no other handling of a human source that occupied us more than Red Falcon during those decades.”

“The Mossad called me a traitor, an enemy of the state. It was a very difficult time.”

Eight

In the spring of 1981, tensions mounted between Israel and Syria after the Syrians attacked Israeli allies, the Christian Falangists, in Lebanon. In response, Israeli warplanes downed Syrian helicopters ferrying troops in that country and flew warning flights over Beirut and Damascus. Syria countered by sending large numbers of forces and anti-aircraft missiles into Lebanon, far greater than had been stationed there before.

The Israelis were desperate to know what the Syrians were planning, and Gil called Red Falcon, who was once again visiting Paris. “I bought some wonderful grouper in the market today,” Gil said—using the code for “I need an urgent meeting.”

Danny Yatom told me that after that meeting, “Gil reported that the Syrian army’s moves were the first steps toward an offensive against Israel.”

The Mossad director at the time was Yitzhak Hofi, who had been a top IDF commander on the northern front during the surprise Syrian attack in October 1973. Like other senior commanders at that time, Hofi bore the psychic scars of the attack, and he immediately conveyed Gil’s report to the military’s high command and to Israel’s political leadership, where it was greeted with equal alarm. For the chief of the general staff, Rafael “Raful” Eitan, and the northern region commander, Avigdor “Yanosh” Ben-Gal, the Yom Kippur War also remained an open wound. Both had fought on the front lines, had lost comrades, and had nearly been killed themselves—and each was now eager to act on Gil’s intelligence.

The head of AMAN’s Syria desk at the time, Eli Halahmi, told me, “Raful and Yanosh wanted to call up all the reserves. I said that’s absurd. If we mobilize, the Syrians will see we’re mobilizing and think we’re going to attack them. Very quickly the situation will get out of control.” Halahmi said that he was suspicious of the information in Gil’s report but that the Mossad gave Gil its full backing. “Red Falcon was their flagship,” he said. “Everyone was pushing to call up the reserves. I moved into my office. For three months I slept there, so I would be the first to see new information, because I knew it was the only way to prevent war. The Mossad called me a traitor, an enemy of the state. It was a very difficult time.”

I asked Amos Gilboa why there weren’t others who shared Halahmi’s skepticism of Gil—and why he didn’t suspect Gil at the time. “Are you insane?” he replied. “Suspect one of our own? Would you suspect your own mother?”

Ultimately, Halahmi’s predictions were borne out. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin accepted the chief of staff’s recommendation and approved a call-up of military reserves. The Syrians noted the developments, feared an Israeli offensive, and began preparing for a preemptive attack.

According to various sources, Israel kept the United States informed of the crisis as it developed. Fearing further escalation, President Reagan sent Robert Ames, the CIA’s Middle East expert, to mediate the situation. Ames traveled between Israel, Syria, and Lebanon, urgently seeking and providing assurances on all sides that no one was planning an attack. Eventually, it was Ames’s information gathering and diplomacy that convinced both Syria and Israel to back down. (Three years later, Ames would be killed in a suicide bombing in Beirut.)

“It turned out that Syria had no intention at all of attacking,” Danny Yatom said. “That call-up not only cost the country a fortune, but also nearly brought about a military confrontation.”

When I raised Yatom’s claims with Gil, he flatly denied that he had suggested that a Syrian attempt to recapture the Golan Heights was imminent. It was one of the first moments of direct confrontation in our conversations. I knew the history, and I had spoken to several people who were close to the events. I pointed out to Gil that, from what I understood, he had said the Syrians were going to launch an offensive immediately.

He erupted in anger. “That is not true,” he said. He claimed there was nothing in his reports that gave a specific window for the attack. He said that I should try to get the actual reports, originally written in Italian as he took notes from his source, and investigate the question myself. “If you are capable of it,” he said. “If you have the strength to make [the Mossad] relinquish the dictations.”

“You know I can’t make them do that,” I said.

“So I’m telling you, word for word, what was written in Italian. There was no date.”

According to Gil, what Red Falcon had told him, and what he conveyed, was that Syria was engaged in “strategic thinking, training. He described down to the last detail how the maneuvers would take place, where the blocking forces would be deployed, where the chopper-borne commando raids would be, and so on and so forth. But he didn’t say they were doing it today and he didn’t say it would be tomorrow.”

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An Israeli tank in the Yom Kippur War, 1973. Photo: Corbis Images

A year after the 1981 scare, Israel invaded Lebanon, with the stated purpose of destroying PLO bases in that country. In fact, the assault also served as a pretext for striking at Syrian forces there, another attempt to bring closure to the lasting trauma of the Yom Kippur War. The Syrian forces in Lebanon were devastated in the attack, and in its wake the prevailing opinion in Israeli intelligence was that Syria, having just suffered from the overwhelming force of the IDF, would now be very unlikely to engage in another conflict with Israel.

According to Gil’s reports, however, Red Falcon was saying the opposite. The intelligence Gil passed on was that Assad was preparing a secret plan to regain the Golan Heights territory that Israel had occupied since 1967. A source who served in the Mossad’s Research Division at the time told me that Red Falcon “began reporting on something that he called the ‘limited-attack theory.’” The thinking went like this, he said: “[The Syrians] wanted to do to Israel the same thing the Egyptians had succeeded so well at in October 1973—a limited ground attack to conquer a narrow strip inside Israeli-held territory, where they would enjoy the protection of their anti-aircraft missiles and artillery. Special forces would then be flown in by choppers and take Mount Hermon. The intention,” he said, “was to shock Israel and the world and to force Israel, this time in an inferior position, to begin negotiating the return of the Golan Heights to Syria.”

Red Falcon had not given a date for the offensive, but the limited-attack theory gradually acquired supporters in the intelligence community, and the pressure on Gil to get as much intelligence as possible from his source intensified. In order to facilitate that, Mossad directors allowed Gil to forgo a whole host of procedures normally employed to assure the veracity of intelligence, including recording conversations with his source, introducing a second case officer into the relationship, and facilitating face-to-face debriefings of the source with agency experts.

When the Mossad directorate ordered Gil to take another case officer along with him, he told them that Red Falcon refused to talk to him. Attempts to send in a female case officer posing as Gil’s wife also failed. And when his bosses insisted that Gil record his meetings, the machine didn’t work properly.

“Yehuda would spot a trick like that. He’s a million times smarter than they are. They’d break in a moment.”

Nine

In 1989, Red Falcon retired from his position in the Syrian army. Around the same time, Gil was passed over for a promotion. It’s unclear exactly why. Some people who served in the Mossad at the time told me that while Gil was regarded as one of the greatest case officers the Mossad had ever known, he was less esteemed as a commander. He had run a small station in Europe, and held intermediate command positions in Israel, but there was a sense that he wasn’t cut out for the teamwork and communication necessary to lead large groups of people.

Gil briefly left the Mossad to go into private business, but both his and Red Falcon’s retirements were mere formalities. Red Falcon remained involved in Syrian military affairs and participated in secret military discussions. And Gil continued to serve as an instructor within the intelligence community and was occasionally called up by the Mossad for various missions.

Gil’s brief life as a businessman was significantly less glorious than his life as a spy had been. A relative of his, who worked in the Israeli defense establishment and had tried to help Gil enter the business world after his retirement, told me: “I witnessed him in action posing as a rich businessman, and he was great. Ordered everyone around, managing a ‘successful import-export business.’ It was obvious to anyone that he was a major tycoon. In real business, in the real world, he wasn’t that good, and he was really disappointed. It’s almost as if he thought that acting as a businessman should be the same as being one.”

Gil’s lack of success in the civilian world was the opposite of the status he still commanded within the agency. He continued to meet frequently with Red Falcon, and the general remained the focus of Israel’s intelligence activity concerning Syria. “Gil had a tremendous talent for putting himself at the center of the action,” a former Mossad colleague told me. “When the big bosses come to us, or an AMAN representative, they listened to all of us politely, but it was clear whose words they were waiting for.”

It was during this period, though, that doubts about the credibility of Gil’s source began to spread. When a group of intelligence experts within the Mossad decided to take a closer look at Red Falcon’s voluminous file, they came upon the caustic comments Eli Halahmi had written during the scare with Syria back in 1981. “What we suspected,” one of the experts told me, “was not that Gil was fabricating, but that this was a classic case of over-identification between a handler and a source. And that the handler, in order to boost both his source and himself, was cutting corners a little in his reports.”

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Gil in Paris, 1985. Photo: Courtesy of Yehuda Gil

At the same time, Yehiam Mart, who was then head of Mossad’s Paris station, also began to have concerns. After a series of meetings between Gil and Red Falcon in July 1990, Mart ran a number of side operations to investigate some of the information Gil was reporting. He then sent a for-your-eyes-only memo to the agency’s director, Shabtai Shavit, saying that he believed there were problems with the Red Falcon operation. Shavit immediately summoned him to Israel for a meeting with the Mossad’s top officials. Mart was not the first to raise suspicions about Red Falcon, but he was the first to say the problem lay not with the source but with the handler. In his opinion, Gil was taking material from AMAN research experts, modifying it slightly to make it seem credible, then reporting it as intelligence he had obtained from his source. It was even possible, Mart said, that the entire Red Falcon operation was no more than a sophisticated disinformation project by Syrian intelligence, that it was the general who had recruited Gil and not the other way around.

A source who was present at that meeting recalled Mart’s words striking the high-ranking members who were gathered there like a thunderbolt. “It had never happened before that someone cast this kind of doubt on one of us,” the source said. “And not just any one of us but a legend who had recruited our most important agent.”

Mart’s plan for ferreting out the truth was something the Mossad had never done before. He proposed that they plant a false item, one that purportedly came from another source in Syria, within the information conveyed by the Mossad to AMAN’s Research Division. This item, about a new kind of weapon that Syria was receiving from Russia, would be sufficiently significant that AMAN’s Syria experts would pass it on to Gil before his next round of meetings with Red Falcon.

 One of the participants in the meeting suggested that they go straight to the AMAN analysts and tell them of the plan. “Why lie to them, too?” he said.

“Because Yehuda would spot a trick like that,” Mart replied. “He’s a million times smarter than they are, and he’d sense they were hiding something. They’d break in a moment.”

Shavit, who had long been offended by Gil’s arrogance, was in favor of the proposal, and a decision was made to inform only the head of AMAN’s Research Division, Brigadier General Yaakov Amidror, that the item was part of a plot to deceive Gil. At the last moment, however, Shavit gave in to heavy pressure exerted on him from high-ranking members of Tsomet, the division of the Mossad that oversees the case officers. “This is no more than a circumstantial theory,” a source inside the meeting told me one of them said. “There’s no real evidence against Gil, and if it comes out that we’ve played a trick on one of our own men, it will bring down the whole structure of mutual confidence in the organization.”

Shavit gave in, and Gil’s meetings with Red Falcon continued.

Shortly thereafter, however, Gil himself made the case that the Red Falcon operation should be terminated. “His access to material has become very restricted,” Gil wrote at the time. His request was granted, and for a year and a half—from early 1994 until the middle of 1995—no meetings were held with the source. According to information obtained by other intelligence units, though, it was apparent that Red Falcon still had access to highly placed members of the military and government, including excellent ties with Syria’s deputy chief of staff, Ali Aslan.

Why, then, had Gil suddenly tried to belittle his value? Some sources in the Mossad theorized that while Red Falcon may still have been closely connected to the so-called intent echelon, the burden of lies that Gil had peddled over the years was becoming too heavy for him to bear.

Whatever the explanation, the break did not last long. By mid-1995, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was engaged in intensive negotiations with the Syrians, under American mediation, and had guaranteed Secretary of State Warren Christopher that Israel would be prepared to withdraw from the Golan in exchange for a full peace accord with Syria. In the midst of these negotiations, Israel was desperate to ascertain whether the Syrians were sincere in their commitment to sign such a historic agreement. Amidror, the chief of the AMAN Research Division, exerted tremendous pressure on the Mossad to keep the Red Falcon operation alive. He took this demand to Rabin, who ordered Shavit to reactivate Red Falcon. “They told me to go back to him on all fours,” Gil said. “Just get him to agree.”

Gil once again met Red Falcon in Europe, where he was joined by the AMAN officer in charge of Syria at the time, who due to secrecy concerns I will refer to as Noam. Gil would meet Red Falcon in cafés or in a suite rented by the Mossad, then Noam would debrief him immediately afterward.

Lieutenant Colonel Udi Dekel of AMAN’s Research Division was also present at some of these meetings. He was amazed, Dekel told me, when he received from Gil information that was identical to intelligence assessments he had written himself several months before. “Verification like this, when a high-ranking human source confirms what you’ve deduced from other sources, ” he said, “is nothing short of orgasmic for an intelligence officer. Only later, when it all blew up, did I learn that Yehuda used to read our memoranda and files before he went for a round of meetings with Red Falcon. It never occurred to me to suspect him. They told us he was the greatest of all.”

In a précis sent back to the Research Division, Noam wrote, “The Syrian military has gone back to busying itself with the idea of a limited offensive. The aim of the offensive is to extricate the political process from deadlock, if and when it reaches a dead end. ‘Limited’ means limited in time to no more than 48 hours, to occupy as much territory as possible within this time frame.… This will be a surprise offensive.… The attacking forces will leave their training grounds and permanent bases while an inspection is under way to serve as cover for the plan.

 “There is no date for implementation.… The Syrian army needs two months to complete preparations for the war.”

In other words, as long as there was a political process and hope that Israel would retreat peacefully from the Golan Heights, there would be no Syrian action. If the peace process broke down, the Syrians would consider launching the limited offensive.

A dispute broke out within AMAN in reaction to this information. Northern Command intelligence argued that they saw no signs that supported Red Falcon’s claim that the Syrians were engaged in military preparations. Syria experts in AMAN’s Tel Aviv headquarters insisted that Red Falcon’s intelligence supported their sense of “hubs of activity in the Syrian army” and suggested that Assad was indeed preparing for war.

On November 4, 1995, Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli ultranationalist named Yigal Amir, who was virulently opposed, as many on the Israeli right were, to the ongoing peace process and any discussion of ceding territory. Rabin’s successor, Shimon Peres, continued negotiations with Syria.

“Someone would have fired the first shot, thousands would have died, Yehuda Gil would have come out of it a national hero.”

Ten

Amid this intense tumult, Gil traveled again to Paris to meet with Red Falcon. It was at this meeting that Gil claimed to have received a detailed report on the preparations for war: “The limited-offensive plan is the only plan that the Syrian military has today,” Noam reported. “The breakthrough will be at dawn, carried out by two armored brigades, one from each division, while special forces, some landed by helicopters in the rear and the others on foot, will attack Mt. Hermon. All the preparations … will be implemented on the eve of the attack—ammunition, engineering equipment, and spare parts will be brought up to the front the day before the attack.”

This information was conveyed directly to the new prime minister. But Peres, who was determined to reach an agreement with Syria before the approaching election, minimized the information. According to other intelligence, the Syrians were convinced that they would soon get the Golan back and there would be no need for a military assault.

With a comfortable lead in the polls over his right-wing opponent, Benjamin Netanyahu, Peres called for an election in May 1996. In the intervening months, however, a wave of suicide attacks in Israel by Hamas extremists caused a spike in support for a more hardline government. On May 29, Netanyahu stunned the world when he was elected prime minister. He quickly appointed a number of former generals and outspoken hawks, all veterans of the 1973 war, to his government and made it clear that he was not bound by any of the guarantees Rabin had given to Secretary of State Christopher.

The Syrians sensed that their hope for the return of the Golan was disappearing, and it is within this context that Gil’s reports from his most recent meetings with Red Falcon were considered. “Syria will soon have the technical ability to carry out a surprise attack against Israel,” an AMAN report based on Gil’s intelligence stated. The Syrians are likely to launch an offensive, it suggested, “if [they are] disappointed with the political process.” And a Syrian attack would receive “Arab political backing and … meet with less international opposition … if Israel is blamed for the collapse in the talks.”

On August 14, 1996, AMAN received a dramatic report from one of its sources that Syria’s 14th Commando Division, based inside Lebanon for many years, was preparing to move from the Beirut-Damascus highway to the area of Katana in Syria, at the foot of Mount Hermon. It appeared to many that Red Falcon’s warnings were beginning to materialize, and a fierce argument erupted over how Israel should respond.

According to one of the experts who briefed Netanyahu on the movements, the prevailing feeling was, “It cannot be that all of the events and steps, mainly the recent significant move of the 14th Division, are coincidental. There must be a guiding hand behind it all.”

Under intense pressure, Gil reached out to Red Falcon, using a previously agreed-upon code that meant “come to Paris immediately.” He returned in a matter of days with information that the Syrian military’s movements were indeed a cover for Assad’s plan to retake part of the Golan Heights. A senior source in Military Intelligence recalled the morning that Gil’s intelligence was circulated: “Panic took hold. It seemed as though the nightmare scenario of October 1973 was about to recur. The nation was on high alert, and military forces were moved to the forward lines on the border, which caused an immediate increase in the Syrians’ state of alert.”

At the same time, other intelligence was coming in that appeared to support the sense that Syria was preparing for battle. Another division deployed along the border with Israel began to conduct war-games exercises, and Syrian reserves were mobilized in response to tension with Turkey in the north. The Israelis even learned that the Syrian military had refreshed the atropine syringes its troops carried as protection against chemical weapons.

Shortly after Gil’s information was received, someone leaked to the Israeli media that Syrian forces were massing and there were fears of an attack on the Golan. Panic swept through the populace.

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Poster in the Golan Heights of Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, 1996. Photo: Scott Peterson/Getty Images

As these events were unfolding, Amos Gilad was preparing to assume his new role as head of AMAN’s Research Division. Gilad, who currently serves as head of the Ministry of Defense’s security cabinet, has been at the center of some of the most tumultuous events in the Middle East for the past three decades. His reputation for focusing purely on the work and for bluntly standing his ground in times of intense disagreement is known throughout the Israeli intelligence community.

“I had never taken leave,” Gilad told me as we sat in his office in the Defense Ministry. “I was due to get my first month’s leave, before taking up my post as head of the Research Division. But then Yehuda Gil’s reports began coming in, and I realized, there goes my leave.”

Gil filed “beautiful reports in superb Hebrew,” Gilad said, “which included not only a warning of war, but also the diplomatic rationale behind it: Syria would attack on the Golan Heights just before the American elections. The attack would cause a shock, following which Israel would have to launch a diplomatic move [to avoid all-out war], all this before the American president could seriously settle into his next term.”

Something about the logic in Gil’s report struck Gilad as wrong. “This was Western reasoning,” he said, “which is the exact opposite of Assad’s. Anyone familiar with Assad knew that it could not be so. He would never launch a military operation to get a diplomatic process moving, especially when it depended upon political developments in the United States.”

Gilad’s interpretation met with scorn. “I was in a pretty miserable position here,” he said. “The officers under me thought that Gil was right and I was wrong. There were officers who told me, ‘Amos, you’re nuts. There’s going to be a war. We have to deploy forces, we have to mobilize reserves.’ Those were very difficult days for me.”

Even now, nearly 20 years later, Gilad’s temper flared as he discussed the way events unfolded over those few days. “Our supreme test as intelligence officers is to save blood,” he said. “And that works in two directions. After all, the easiest thing for me would have been to say Gil’s right and issue a war alert. And then we would have mobilized reserves, and the Syrians, whose intelligence is very weak and who have no sources inside Israel, would have seen that we were mobilizing, interpreted it as preparation for a surprise attack, and issued their own war alert. Someone would have fired the first shot, thousands would have died, Yehuda Gil would have come out of it a national hero, and I would have been seen as a saboteur and traitor.”

Gilad’s opinion was in direct conflict with that of his superior, AMAN chief Moshe Ya’alon (who today is Israel’s minister of defense). On the morning of August 30, Ya’alon did what none of his predecessors had ever done: sent an urgent, top-secret message to the prime minister, the defense minister, the chief of staff, and the head of the Mossad, under the heading “Warning of war with Syria.” The warning read:

As I and my personnel stated in evaluations that we voiced this week, I find it necessary to emphasize that the likelihood of an offensive Syrian move is increasing as it becomes clear to the Syrian president that his prospects for regaining the Golan by agreement are decreasing. As of mid-September 1996, the likelihood of such a move will increase, in the light of the steps the Syrians intend to take in the course of the next two weeks to improve their readiness. Even though I cannot yet point at a concrete time for an offensive Syrian move, it is clear to me that the likelihood of such a move is increasing and I shall recommend drawing all conclusions and preparing for a new situation.

Upon reading this message, Netanyahu summoned Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin Shahak and ordered him to prepare for war. Shahak, who agreed with Gilad that Syria was not on the verge of attacking, tried but failed to persuade Netanyahu to reconsider. Acting on firm orders from the prime minister, he began preparing the army for combat.

At an urgent cabinet meeting on the morning of September 1, many of the ministers demanded that elite army forces be deployed in the north, that a division of reserves be mobilized, and that the IDF prepare for a preemptive strike against Syria.

Yitzhak Mordechai, then the newly appointed Israeli defense minister, found himself in a predicament: “When I was head of Northern Command,” Mordechai told me recently, “the whole limited-warfare theory that came from Red Falcon seemed strange to me, because I didn’t see any actual preparations on the ground. And now he was reporting on an imminent war, and the head of AMAN takes his information as the living word of God. I said in the cabinet that, in my opinion, the information is groundless. The Syrians are far from being ready to open fire. Moreover, I have studied President Assad well. He is not an adventurer. A move like this is simply not his style. True, he did it in the Yom Kippur War, but then the situation was completely different. Then they were ready to go to war.”

Mordechai met with stiff opposition in the cabinet, especially from his former army colleagues Ariel Sharon and Raful Eitan. “They had been my superior officers,” Mordechai said. “They were saying that I don’t get it. Sharon was saying, ‘War will break out soon and we have to get ready.’ Raful, who saw with his own eyes how Mount Hermon fell in the Yom Kippur War, thundered at me that I didn’t realize the price we would pay in blood to drive the Syrians out if we allowed them to invade now. The two of them pointed their fingers at me and said, ‘Know that you’re responsible! The blame will all be yours!’”

We were sitting in his apartment in north Tel Aviv, overlooking the sea, as Mordechai recalled the meeting. “I’m not bragging,” he said, “but in emergency situations like these, I turn into a block of ice. One should not let pressure decide for him.”

Mordechai is a tough, unemotional man, but when I said that it was difficult to imagine anyone not being affected by the strain of that situation, he softened. “Don’t think it was easy,” he said. “I went through ten days without sleeping. I realized I was taking enormous responsibility on myself.”

Ilan Mizrahi, who was the head of the Mossad’s Tsomet division at the time, told me: “If it had not been for Yitzhak Mordechai, who stood his ground in the cabinet, there would have been an outbreak of war. He saved Israel.”

With Mordechai refusing to budge, a compromise was reached: Steps would be taken to reinforce the border and quietly prepare for the mobilization of reserves. All female personnel would be evacuated from the border area, to prevent them from being taken captive during an invasion. At the same time, Netanyahu, who remained of the opinion that war was imminent, would convey the gravity of the situation to President Clinton and ask him to intervene immediately with Assad.

On September 7, Netanyahu flew to Washington, accompanied by his diplomatic adviser, Dore Gold, and the head of Mossad’s research division, Uzzi Arad. Dennis Ross, who was Clinton’s special coordinator in the Middle East, traveled with the Israelis, who briefed him en route about the gravity of the situation with Syria.

Immediately upon landing, the party headed for a meeting at a CIA facility near the Pentagon. John Deutsch, then director of the CIA, arrived with members of his staff, and Arad briefed them on the latest intelligence. “Deutsch and his experts listened to us attentively but said the CIA had no information to support the idea that Syria intended to go to war,” Arad told me.

In meetings with Deutsch, as well as at the Pentagon and the White House, Netanyahu made his plea that the Americans intervene urgently with the Syrians.

Clinton issued an order that a letter from him to Assad be drawn up, and it was formulated in a lengthy meeting at the State Department attended by Gold and Arad. The letter read in part:

The United States is committed to the achievement of peace.… In order to do this, the two sides are obliged to refrain from actions that place a question mark over their commitment to peace, or worse, that attest to their readiness to resort to the use of force. On this occasion we wish to raise with Syria the matter of its military force movements.… Some of these movements are unprecedented and cause instability in the region.… It is incumbent upon us to clarify that neither side will derive benefit from any military measure or from the negotiations that will begin in its wake.… Such an act will have the gravest repercussions on relations with the United States.… I implore you to take steps to reduce the tension.…

[Signed] William Jefferson Clinton, President of the United States of America

Clinton’s letter was delivered to Assad by Christopher Ross, the American ambassador in Damascus. After his meeting with Assad, Ross immediately sent a memo to Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, who conveyed the message to Dore Gold. According to the minutes of the Assad meeting sent by Ross (which have been translated here back to English from the Hebrew translation received by the Israelis), the following exchange occurred.

Assad read the message in Arabic.… He replied thus: Will you have a problem if Israel is the party that initiates military action?

Ross: The message is addressed to you. We do not want any action or any initiative from either side.

Assad: Our movements are not meant to start a war. They are technical and similar to movements that every army executes.… What the forces are doing is routine.… This state of alert and readiness at which they are at now are different from those required in war. We have moved them to the places where they were in the past. Israel is used to this, just as we are used to the IDF’s exercises on the Golan Heights. We also keep on training, like the American army. This is our reply to President Clinton’s message: We have no plans for war. The Israelis should know this. Netanyahu certainly gets intelligence reports from his intelligence services. He should know that our movements are not hostile.… But we do not see Israel making progress in this direction. I wonder if Netanyahu is really honest when he expresses his fears or, what seems more reasonable, that he is preparing justification for carrying out a military action himself.

“At that moment, two guys from the Shin Bet burst in. ‘Here’s the proof that you lied,’ they said. ‘Here’s the proof that you stole.’”

Eleven

Beyond the stark warnings about the Syrian military’s movements, the notes from Yehuda Gil’s meetings with Red Falcon in September 1996 contained another bombshell. According to Gil, Red Falcon had told him that Syria had placed a mole at the highest levels of the Israeli military. The general had access to the intelligence the mole was providing, and although he could not name who it was, Gil said he had supplied him with a number of clues that could help Israel identify the spy.

This news, too, was immediately conveyed all the way up to Netanyahu, who ordered Israel’s internal security service, the Shin Bet, to set up a special squad whose mission was to root out the traitor. After intense investigation, a number of senior officers, including two generals, were found to fit the profile Gil had provided. For weeks their every move was carefully observed and documented, and highly invasive probes of their private lives were carried out, but nothing conclusive was discovered.

In the aftermath of the tense scare with Syria—and as the Shin Bet investigation came to its inconclusive end—suspicions that Gil was fabricating intelligence were now impossible to explain away. Danny Yatom, who by that point was serving as director of the Mossad, told me that the newly appointed head of Tsomet, Ilan Mizrahi, came to him with his concerns. “‘Vigorous steps must be taken to find out if the suspicions against Yehuda are correct,’” Yatom recalled Mizrahi telling him. Mizrahi said that the agency needed to begin a secret surveillance of one of its own. “If it turns out that I’m wrong,” Mizrahi told him, “I’ll immediately hand you my resignation. I won’t be able to continue after breaking the Mossad’s code of trust like this. Will you go all the way with me on this? If no, then better not to begin.”

When Gil next left for Europe, in March 1997, Yatom went to the head of the Shin Bet and asked that a team be sent to follow him. He could not use Mossad personnel, Yatom reasoned, because of the possibility that someone would leak the plan to Gil. A Shin Bet team followed Gil to Paris and was able to confirm that he did indeed meet with his source, but because the meeting took place in a crowded Parisian café, it was impossible to record the conversation. Gil would report that this meeting with Red Falcon lasted seven hours; in my interviews with Yatom, he said that the Shin Bet team observed that Gil met him for only 40 minutes.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Mossad director Danny Yatom, October 1997. Photo: AP

In October 1997, Mizrahi told Gil that he would not be going to the next round of meetings with Red Falcon and that another case officer would be replacing him. Gil protested but could no longer convince his bosses that he alone must handle the source. The replacement operative went to Paris and, after meeting with Red Falcon, reported back news that was stunning even in light of Mizrahi’s and Yatom’s already grave suspicions. According to Gil’s replacement, the Syrian general had never been recruited by Gil to be an informant; he had never provided intelligence regarding the workings of the Syrian military or government. All of it, all 23 years, was a lie. Red Falcon was invested in the relationship, the case officer said, because he enjoyed his Italian friend’s generosity.

Yatom immediately took the case to Israel’s state prosecutor. Mizrahi asked for a chance to persuade Gil to confess and to handle the problem internally, in part because of his undeniable contributions to the Mossad, and in part to avoid the tremendous damage he knew would be done to the agency’s image. Mizrahi summoned Gil to a meeting at Mossad headquarters, which took place in a room in which the Shin Bet and the Israeli police had installed hidden cameras and microphones.

According to Gil and to others who’d observed the meeting on a monitor in an adjacent room, Mizrahi greeted Gil with a stern face as he entered and asked him to sit down. He talked to Gil about all that they’d done together, the good that they’d accomplished for the state of Israel, and then Mizrahi said, “But I have grounds to believe that your handling of Red Falcon was not in accordance with accepted norms.”

Gill said he had no idea what Mizrahi was talking about.

“We know everything,” Mizrahi said. “Yehuda, do me a favor, do all of us a favor—the Mossad and yourself—tell us everything.”

“I really don’t know what’s going on here,” Gil said again.

“If you do not cooperate with me,” Mizrahi said, “I will have no other choice but to have the matter investigated.”

Gil remained implacable. Mizrahi clapped his hands together in sorrow and left the room. Moments later two men entered, one a police officer and the other the head of the Shin Bet’s interrogation unit, a man nicknamed Sheriff.

The men carried three cardboard boxes each. “Here’s the proof that you lied,” they said. “Here’s the proof that you stole.” (In the course of investigating whether Gil had fabricated intelligence, suspicions were also raised that he was stealing money that had been earmarked for Red Falcon.)

“Gil kept a poker face,” Danny Yatom told me. “With a stoical tranquility he replied, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’”

At one point in the interrogation, Sheriff compared Gil to an Arab terrorist. Gil’s voice trembled as he described that moment. “I wondered if I should get up, knock him down, and kill him,” he said. “We were alone in the room, and I am, after all, an expert at hand-to-hand combat. I know what I am capable of. Later on I said to myself, I can’t sink any lower. If a schmuck like this talks to me like that and I don’t respond, what have I come to? But cold calculation told me not to get up.”

Devorah Chen was the director of the Department of Security Matters and Special Affairs at the time. She was assigned to the case and was also present in the adjacent room full of Mossad chiefs watching the interrogation. “One must realize that the strength of the evidence they had before the interrogation was very weak indeed,” Chen told me. “I told them that if this was all they had, we couldn’t indict him.”

 As the interrogation continued, though, “Sheriff broke him,” Chen recalled. “He repeated the same question over and over again. He mentioned details that Gil had faked in his bio. That’s how he undermined his stability. Gil knows that it was there that he lost his cool, and that’s why he hates Sheriff so much.”

Gil maintains to this day that he did not, in fact, confess to anything, and that he never believed there would be a trial because he didn’t commit any crimes. “I was sure it would be over in a day or two,” he said. “I never imagined that a story like this, this hell, would explode in my face.”

When I pressed him to talk more about the interrogation, he said dismissively that it was he who was controlling the outcome, not Sheriff. “They did not break me or anything like that,” he insisted. “I said, ‘Ask me whatever you like, and I’ll answer you.’”

Gil allowed during the interrogation that “at certain stages there were things that I didn’t handle exactly as I should. But by no means, in no event, did I invent things that [Red Falcon] did not say.” Then, and in my conversations with him all these years later, he placed the blame instead at the feet of the AMAN researchers with whom he worked for so many years. On every trip, he said, he was accompanied by a number of experts, and each night they would intensely debrief him on what he’d learned. He blames any inaccuracies in his reports on the way these debriefings were handled.

“Their mania for getting real-time reporting did not allow me to sit down and write up my notes,” he said. “I said, ‘Guys, I can’t do it. I sit with you from five or six in the evening until nine or eleven at night, going over and translating from Italian the notes I took during the meeting. If after that I have to write them up, I won’t be able to get up in the morning.’ So they said, ‘You know what? You tell us, we’ll write the articles in your name.’” (“Articles” is Mossad jargon for the written reports submitted after meetings with agents.) Would it really have been possible to fool so many experts for so many years, Gil said, under such intense pressure?

When the interrogation was over, investigators from the Shin Bet and the Israeli police escorted him from Mossad headquarters to his home in Gedera. They searched his home and discovered a large amount of cash—$39,000, which Gil had reported he’d handed over to Red Falcon, kept in an envelope labeled “Office Money.” (“Office” is the term Mossad employees use when talking about the organization.)

A Mossad official who was involved in the affair told me, “It’s clear to us that Gil was prepared for the possibility of an investigation and had therefore written ‘Office Money’ on the envelope. Why else would he write this on an envelope that only he and his wife had access to, and that in any case he should have handed over to the agent? On the other hand,” he conceded, “Gil could have stolen a lot more money from us. He was very modest in this.”

Gil contended that keeping money at home was standard procedure in the Mossad and that he wasn’t using it for anything other than the mission. Danny Yatom disputes this. “Gil was a man of the world who knew a thing or two about the good life,” Yatom said. “That’s why he arranged all his meetings in Paris.”

To this Gil responded, “That’s absolute nonsense. The meetings were arranged where they could be held without arousing the suspicions of Syrian internal security.” As soon as the search was completed, Gil was taken to a secret Shin Bet holding facility south of Tel Aviv. He spent a week there before being allowed to go home and explain what he was being accused of to his wife and children. When he arrived home, he gathered his family around him. “If you think what they are saying about me is true,” he said to them, “you can leave me alone without any qualms. You do not have to back me up if you don’t believe that I’m innocent.”

His wife, Noa, told me that the repercussions have been hardest on her children, one of whom is a senior officer in the IDF. “They have suffered a great deal,” she said. “I don’t want to tell you what happened after that night, how each one of them fell to pieces.” I asked her how the accusations have affected her, and she said only, “I was born under the sign of Leo. I protect him like a lioness.”

“I heard the word ‘espionage,’ and it was the most humiliating moment of my life. To be accused of spying against the State of Israel.”

Twelve

The trial, which was held in secret, ended with Gil being convicted of espionage and theft by a panel of three judges and sentenced to five years in prison.

When the charges were read out, Gil recalled, “I heard the word ‘espionage,’ and it was the most humiliating moment of my life. To be accused of spying against the State of Israel.” 

Over the dozens of hours we spent talking about his career, Gil rarely appeared fragile or vulnerable. He is an intensely proud man, and occasionally bombastic, and secure, it seems, in the rightness of his actions. But now it was possible to glimpse something else beneath the guise of righteous indignation. “I erred,” he said. “Perhaps I embellished a little. Perhaps I rounded off corners. But I never willfully fabricated anything. I acted only on behalf of the security of the state.” After the ruling, Gil appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court, but to no avail. In their rejection of the appeal, the court’s justices wrote: 

By virtue of his training and his occupation and because of the special information that he possessed, the appellant knew that conveying false information was liable to harm the State’s security. The Syrian source to whom the appellant attributed the information was of high rank.… The information that [Gil] delivered was distributed even in raw form to the Chief of Staff, the Prime Minister and the Defense Minister. It was written up in a convincing manner. Some of it arrived at a time when there was tension in relations between Israel and Syria and as such it was liable to have grave consequences. The appellant was aware of this danger.

The court also refused to reduce Gil’s sentence, although it acknowledged that “for long years he served in a responsible and important position; sometimes he found himself in grave situations and risked his life. He controlled dozens of agents in different countries and in so doing brought great benefit to the security of Israel. Even after retiring he took upon himself the execution of important missions, before he stumbled and committed the crimes he is accused of.” 

I asked several of the roughly 60 sources I spoke to for this story why, in their estimation, someone as skilled and revered as Gil would do the things that he was found guilty of doing. What could his motive possibly be? 

 “That is a question for psychologists,” Devorah Chen, the state prosecutor, told me. “I think that his motive had to do more with his ego than with financial gain. This was the pinnacle of his work with the Mossad, and I think he was obsessed with feeling that he was still a key factor in the organization.” 

Many people, including Danny Yatom, agreed. “Part of the makeup of his personality is expressed in the bottomless need to be the center of attention,” Yatom told me. “Always to feel that he is needed.”

Others spoke of him as a man who, through relentless devotion to his work, had sacrificed his own identity. I met one day with Gad Shomron, a former Mossad operative who testified on Gil’s behalf at his trial. Shomron seemed pained, even now, talking about the affair. “This is a very sad story,” Shomron said. “Gil did great things for the sake of Israel’s security, but it may be that he never quite came back from there, from the land of illusions and lies in which he lived on behalf of us all.” He contemplated for a moment the pressure that Gil must have been under during all those years when Israel’s security seemed to hinge on his handling of an informant. “For a while he soared along with Red Falcon,” he said. “But for reasons many of us can understand, he simply forgot to come back to earth.”

Another Mossad operative, a man who was among those tasked with gathering evidence against Gil when suspicions inside the agency became too great to deny, was far less sympathetic. He suggested that there was a kind of intense sociopathology at work in Gil, one that found perfect expression in a job that required deceit and manipulation. When I first spoke with him, early in my relationship with Gil, the officer warned me, “Beware of him. He’ll recruit you and run you, and you won’t be aware of it.” I responded somewhat arrogantly that in this case I thought the opposite had happened, that I had been able to get him to open up. “Really?” he asked. “Tell me what he told you.” I briefly recounted some of what Gil had said in those initial interviews, including his description of his childhood in Libya, his Italian father, his military service.

The man chuckled. “That’s what he told the organization when he was recruited,” he said. “The details were seriously checked only when suspicions against him arose in 1996.” As far as he was concerned, nothing about Gil’s story could be trusted—where he was from, the prominence of his family, that his grandfather was a rabbi and his father was Italian. He questioned all of it, even details of Gil’s military career. “Because of his feelings of inferiority,” this man suggested, “Gil built a whole dream life and simply turned it into his cover story. It happens sometimes, that we introduce our fantasies or things that we lack into our cover stories. My wife, for example, will never forgive me for the time my cover story called for me to pass as a widower.”

I doubted his theory, but he waved me off. “These are the less important details,” he said. “Gil played you for a fool, just as he did all of us. The Mossad has clearcut, indubitable evidence that he fabricated the information almost right from the start.”

I’ve since heard the same from others, that the lies go all the way back, that nothing Gil reported from Red Falcon was true. And I’ve heard the opposite, and not just from Gil, that he reported information that was accurate. It’s impossible to know, of course. This is the hazard of reporting on an agency that in its obsessive search for secrets is so protective of its own. This man, after all, is a longtime recruiter and handler of agents, whose name is also connected to legendary intelligence feats. You can never fully know what personal or institutional arrogance, what image management, is at work. 

Shortly before this story was to be published, I met one more time with Gil at his home. Netanyahu had recently been elected again. There was a feeling that for all the drama and turbulence, little in Israel ever changes. All the old narratives and enmities insist on themselves. I had often wondered to myself if Gil could ever see that he and Red Falcon were driven, in some way, by the same raw, tribal grievances. He had spoken often of Red Falcon’s primitive anti-Semitism, and yet he had all but acknowledged his own searing hatred, even if he was unequivocal that it was necessary for survival. 

At one point in our conversations he offered that he had, over time, developed a kind of fondness for Red Falcon, or kinship maybe. “I feel sorry for the guy, for Red Falcon.” He was a decent man, Gil said, “in his own conception. He was not deceptive.” The investigation had certainly exposed him, Gil said. “They did him a terrible injustice, because the consequences could not have been pleasant. I sat in prison for three years, but I’m sure he lost much more, he and his family. The quarrels between the Jews shouldn’t have caused him damage. It doesn’t matter that I’d been prepared, if need be, to shoot a bullet between his eyes. It wouldn’t bother me. But the one thing has nothing to do with the other. The respect that he deserves, he should receive.”

On the last day I visited him, Gil looked older to me than when I’d seen him last. He and Noa were about to leave the country, he said. They were on their way to southern Italy, to the town he and his family had gone to when they left Libya, before coming to Israel in 1948. He seemed eager to go there, to this formative place of his youth, where his father had come from.

The Zombie King

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The writer who introduced zombies to America.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 45


Emily Matchar is the author of Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Salon, The Washington Post, Time, The New Republic, Gourmet, and Outside, among others. She splits her time between Hong Kong and Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Editor: Joel Lovell
Designer: Gray Beltran
Producer: Megan Detrie
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Riley Blanton
Illustrations: Wesley Allsbrook
Other images: Courtesy of William K. Seabrook, Getty Images, AP Images, Carl Van Vechten/The Van Vechten Trust, Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY/ADAGP


Published in January 2015. Design updated in 2021.

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William Seabrook, 1933. Photo: Carl Van Vechten/The Van Vechten Trust

Intro

Last summer I drove to Westminster, Maryland, in search of anything I could find related to the life of a man named William Seabrook. I’d become fascinated with Seabrook one night during an insomniac crawl through ever narrowing passages of the Internet, when I stumbled upon a description of him as a member of the Lost Generation who, in the late 1920s and ’30s, was a household name in America—an adventurer and travel writer and occultist who smoked opium with princesses and drove an ambulance during World War I and flew a four-seater Farman from Paris to Timbuktu. He rode the Arabian Desert with Bedouin horse thieves and was friendly with Aldous Huxley and Jean Cocteau and Sinclair Lewis and Thomas Mann. When he returned from his reporting trips, crowds of journalists would greet him on the tarmac, eager to report the details of his journeys. Gertrude Stein wrote about him. He tasted human flesh. He introduced zombies to America.

And yet no one remembers him now. Not even, it turns out, in the town where he was born and raised. There are no first-edition copies of Seabrook’s half-dozen books behind glass in the Westminster Branch Library, no National Register plaque beside the door to his gingerbread house on East Green Street. At the Historical Society of Carroll County, in downtown Westminster, an elderly woman at the front desk tells me she has never heard of Seabrook, then sends me down to the basement to dig through the archives. There’s no record of him there, either. In the hometown of William Seabrook—without whom we would not have The Walking Dead or Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead or Shaun of the Dead—nobody knows who he is.

And yet the reason that zombies shuffle through every corner of our popular culture is because in 1928, on the desolate Haitian island of La Gonave, William Seabrook came face-to-face with one.

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Venus in Chains

Seabrook was born in Westminster in 1884. His father, William L. Seabrook, was a lawyer; his mother, Myra, the beautiful daughter of a prominent Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, family. His paternal grandfather, William L.W. Seabrook, was the editor of Westminster’s American Sentinel newspaper, a powerful local Republican, and reportedly a onetime friend of Abraham Lincoln.

When Seabrook was eight, his father, having felt the call to the ministry, gave up his law practice and entered a Lutheran seminary, taking Seabrook’s mother and younger brother with him and leaving William behind in the care of his paternal grandparents. Years later Seabrook would describe his father as a man with a mediocre mind who dragged his family into the genteel poverty of the ministry in the name of a silly mythology. His resentment against his mother ran even deeper. After giving birth to his younger brother and, later, his sister, she’d gone from being Seabrook’s slender, laughing “girl-mother” to a stout, bossy, chronically dissatisfied minister’s wife.

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William Seabrook, age 11. Photo: Courtesy of William K. Seabrook

The only adult figure for whom Seabrook had any affection was his grandmother, Piny, who raised him in Westminster. As Seabrook described her in his writing, Piny was barely of this world. She was born on a Maryland plantation, he wrote, in the caul (the amniotic sac unbroken around her, which was said to impart on a child a supernatural aura), and nursed by an Obeah slave girl. Piny possessed “visions and powers” since childhood but was married off as a teen to Seabrook’s “white-bearded” grandfather, who brought her to Westminster and forced her to live an unhappy life among the tedious bourgeoisie. To feed her opium addiction, she hid a bottle of laudanum in the crook of a backyard tree.

Seabrook believed Piny saw in her odd, morose grandson a kindred spirit: “Another little soul which, like herself, found normal, ordinary life unbearable.” And it was through her that he had his first experience with the “unexplained,” a subject that would occupy him for the rest of his life. He and Piny would often walk together in Shreiver’s Woods, just outside Westminster. Seabrook knew the woods well; he would often go there to gather chinquapin nuts or fish for minnows in the stream. But one day, Seabrook wrote, while he was strolling with Piny, the woods became strange. They arrived at a clearing he didn’t recognize. Suddenly, the trees surrounding him were not trees but the legs of “beautiful bright-plumaged roosters, which were as tall as houses.” Taking him by the hand, Piny led him beneath the legs of the roosters as the enormous birds shuffled and crowed.

On another occasion, Piny took Seabrook up a hill with an ancient stone tower on its summit. Seabrook entered the tower and found a woman sitting on a throne. She wore green robes, golden clogs, and had red-gold braided hair. Her wrists, ankles, and waist were bound by gleaming metal circlets joined by a chain. Seabrook wrote:

Piny let go my hand and I went forward alone to sit by the leather foot-stool and put my arms around the lady’s knees. She pressed my head against her knees and stroked my hair. She led my hands down the soft silk folds to her chained feet and pressed them tightly there until my own hands held and drew the chains tighter. I was trembling with happiness.

Throughout his childhood, Seabrook had been preoccupied by the image of what he called the “girl in chains.” He would spend hours looking through the many art and mythology books in his family’s library, fantasizing over pictures of Venus hanging by her wrists from a tree. He even sent away for an Ivory Soap calendar featuring Queen Zenobia, aware that she’d be pictured in chains. How could Piny have known, he later wrote, that this was his greatest fantasy?

I Was a Dog Running in Circles

Seabrook began his writing career shortly after college, as a reporter at the Augusta Chronicle. After a short time on the job, though, a habitual sense of restlessness took over, and he left to travel through Europe. He found himself one day sitting on a park bench in Geneva, intently watching a well-dressed young couple as they strolled nearby. He admired the man’s fashionably pointy beard and velvet-collar coat, the woman’s slender ankles and golden hair. He coveted the man’s expensive car, gleaming behind them in the afternoon sun. “Would I ever want a car like that, a girl like that?” he asked himself.

He soon returned to the U.S. and set out to shape a life of normalcy and privilege. He married Katie Edmondson, the daughter of a Coca-Cola executive, and settled in Atlanta, where he founded an ad agency and joined the Rotary Club. It didn’t take long, though, for Seabrook to be overwhelmed by urges his new life could never satisfy. In the middle of one workday, he called Katie and a close friend named Ed and insisted they join him at a local park. When they arrived, he had them pose together, trying to recapture the sense of envy and desire he’d felt that day in Geneva. “There it all was,” he would later write. “The automobile, the girl, the silk, the fur, caught in the afternoon sun’s highlights—and I kept saying to myself, ‘I’m Ed there. I’ve got all that, as Ed has. All that belongs to me, and I can keep it all my life if I want to.’”

 But Seabrook couldn’t force himself to fit into that life. In 1916, he the American Field Service as an ambulance driver and left to serve in the war. He was 31, older by a decade or more than many of the war’s other notable volunteers—Ernest Hemingway, Malcolm Cowley, E.E. Cummings, and John Dos Passos, all in their teens or early twenties. For Seabrook, the war was more a means of escape than a fight for an ideal. “I was a dog running in circles,” he wrote, “running away from myself.”

In France, his job was to pick up wounded men at the trenches and drive them back to a field hospital. He often worked while German shells fell around him, sometimes going days without sleep. He saw horribly wounded men, some of them burned beyond recognition, writhing in agony in the mud. He later described the experience of handling these maimed soldiers with a slightly chilling remove. Once, he forgot to unload a grievously wounded patient from the back of the ambulance before falling asleep in his tent. When he awoke and remembered, the man was dead. He confessed what had happened to his commander and an Army doctor. They conferred and decided that the man had certainly died en route and the whole incident should be forgotten. Relieved, Seabrook went back to sleep.

His main interest seems to have been using his commander’s typewriter to write a “diary” of the war, which the The Atlantic Monthly agreed to publish in installments. Seabrook was ecstatic when he heard the news—this was his first big break—but the Field Service decided that the material should instead be published as a booklet that could be used to raise funds for the service, a decision that infuriated him.

In 1916, in the midst of the ten-month-long Battle of Verdun, Seabrook was off duty and playing cards in a cowshed when he was struck by a chlorine-gas attack. The experience, he wrote, was as “dull as catching influenza,” but he and the men around him were taken away in a mule cart and sent home. The war would rage on for another two years, but it was over for Seabrook, who would later describe it as “the only adventure I have ever had that was not disappointing.”

Back in the U.S., Seabrook’s father-in-law gave him and Katie a large farm outside Atlanta, where Seabrook could focus on his writing. He tried short stories, war sketches, essays, he sketched out the beginnings of various novels. Mostly, though, he spent his time drinking corn whiskey with the farm’s caretaker, and he grew increasingly preoccupied with thoughts of his “girl in chains.” Socializing at a neighbor’s antebellum mansion, he became fixated on a fluted Corinthian pillar in the library alcove and imagined how a woman would look chained to it. But who would agree to such a thing?

Some months earlier, after a long, alcohol-fueled lunch with friends in New York, he visited the studio of the famous German-American puppeteer Tony Sarg. He met a young woman there, also a puppeteer, whom later in his writings he would refer to as “Deborah Luris.” Her real identity is unknown, though there’s some reason to believe that she had been the mistress of the occultist Aleister Crowley, who was a fixture in the Greenwich Village bohemian scene of the time. Seabrook was drawn to Luris’s frank sexuality and her “broad, animal face,” and now, on a whim, he wrote an agonized letter to her to ask if she’d be interested in taking part in kinky games with him.

“Sure, why not?” Luris wrote back. “Come on up. But why be so solemn and self-conscious about it? It might be fun.”

Seabrook explained all this to Katie, with whom he had what he later said was a largely platonic relationship. With her blessing he took the train up north, purchased locks and chains at Hammacher Schlemmer, and spent a week in the city, during which he barely left Luris’s apartment. “When people uncork parallel or complimentary chimeric wish-fantasies,” he wrote, “sparks generally fly. And so they did.”

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Katie Seabrook (center right) with members of the Druse sect in Syria, 1925. Photo: AP Images

A Horse Thief in Silk Pajamas

Not long after that trip, Seabrook wrangled a job as a reporter for William Randolph Hearst’s empire. He and Katie moved to New York, and Katie opened a coffee house on Waverly Place that soon became popular with Village artists and writers: Marcel Duchamp, Malcolm Cowley, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Sinclair Lewis, among many others. Seabrook, increasingly insecure about his literary talent, took to introducing himself as a “short-story writer,” having sold one piece to H.L. Mencken’s The Smart Set for $17.50. He also cultivated a cartoonish eccentricity, strolling through the Village wearing chamois gloves and carrying a walking stick.

Though he was embarrassed to be thought of as a hack, he’d found a niche writing feature stories about the lurid and the supernatural, and he ghostwrote the memoir of a criminal named Celia Cooney, dubbed “the bobbed-hair bandit” after she stuck up several shops in Brooklyn in the winter of 1924. He was making more money than he’d ever made before, but if anyone called him out on his purple prose, it devastated him.

Among the many writers Seabrook came to know through the coffee house was Theodore Dreiser, a hero of his, who once, while holding court in his vast apartment, muttered something about “yellow journalism” and pointedly ignored Seabrook. He later wrote that the humiliation he felt at Dreiser’s withering dismissal helped catalyze his desire to transform himself into a more serious writer.

The opportunity for transformation came in the form of a Columbia University student named Daoud Izzedin, who liked to linger in the coffee house, telling tales of slaves with jeweled scimitars and descriptions of lava-rock palaces back home in Lebanon. When Izzedin said that his father would welcome any friend of his to Beirut, Seabrook jumped at the chance.

Six weeks later, he was traveling across Transjordan with a letter of introduction to a Bedouin sheik of sheiks. In the Middle East, he remade himself as a gentleman adventurer, with silk pajamas and a case full of aspirin, rare in that part of the world, which he dispensed as favors to the wives of Bedouin warriors. He became an honorary member of the Beni Sakhr tribe and was invited to ride along on their horse-stealing raids. He converted to Islam to please a host. He watched Turkish dervishes whirl themselves into a trance and was offered the services of a bangled slave girl.

Seabrook’s first book, Adventures in Arabia: Among the Bedouins, Druses, Whirling Dervishes, and Yezidee Devil Worshipers, was published by Harcourt, Brace and Company in 1927. Primed by earlier accounts of Arabian adventures, especially those of T.E. Lawrence, the public devoured the book. Critics were less enthusiastic. One reviewer remarked that there was something “Elizabethan” in Seabrook’s lyricism over long-haired warriors and white-veiled harem beauties. Another noted his “melodramatic flair.”

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William Seabrook, likely taken near Iraq, circa 1926. Photo: Courtesy of William K. Seabrook

The book established a formula that Seabrook would return to again and again over the next several years: 1) Arrive at impossibly exotic locale. 2) Seek out forbidden location/mysterious ritual/strange cult. 3) Receive warning not to dare go there/do that/talk to them or risk being killed/being cursed/going mad. 4) Defy warning. 5) Find location/ritual/cult fascinating and wonderful, and suggest that, while he of course is capable of debunking the phonily supernatural, the universe is also full of strange and mystical things we don’t understand.

This kind of florid orientalism, retrograde as it appears now, was a sign of progressive thinking at the time. Seabrook saw himself as anti-racist, a son of the South happy to break bread with savages, and this was the persona he’d cultivate over the next several books: the bold white traveler venturing with open heart and mind into the lands of mystery and “darkness.”

“I have a warm feeling toward Negroes,” he told his publisher shortly after the publication of Adventures in Arabia. “They’re perhaps by and large less intelligent than whites—or perhaps only less well educated—inferior intellectually in general if you choose, but I often think they’re superior to us emotionally and spiritually, perhaps superior in kindness and capacity for happiness. I’d like to go down to Haiti or somewhere and turn Negro, if I can.”

This idea, that the “primitive,” nonwhite world was a corrective to sterilized Western culture, was also a product of the time. The 20th century had dawned cold and mechanical, bringing machine guns and mustard gas and shiny metropolises full of dead-eyed worker-drones. To many intellectuals, primitive man had a connection to something more authentic, more spiritual—hot-blooded vitality as an antidote to the Lost Generation’s postwar malaise.

For the past half-century, French colonial expansion into West Africa and the Caribbean had brought a flood of tribal art and artifacts to Parisian markets and given rise to an explosion of primitive-themed art, music, clothing, dance, and writing. Surrealists like André Breton and Man Ray were making works inspired by “negro art.” Josephine Baker, born in Missouri, was doing the banana dance before the likes of Hemingway. Everyone was reading Freud’s work on the “primordial mind.”

By the late 1920s, interest in primitivism had trickled down to the masses. Seabrook’s idea earned him a $15,000 book advance from Harcourt, Brace—over $200,000 in today’s dollars—and in 1928, in the midst of the U.S. occupation of Haiti, he sailed for Cap Haïtien.

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Illustrations: Wesley Allsbrook

Old Magic Was Here at Work

Thirteen years earlier, in July 1915, U.S. Marines had invaded Haiti with the aim of restoring order and protecting America’s corporate interests after a series of coups and assassinations had destabilized the country. The U.S. installed a puppet president, Philippe Sudré Dartiguenave, and tried to strong-arm the Haitian legislature into creating a new, pro-American constitution. When the legislature refused, it was dissolved. Over the years that followed, the occupying forces instituted new policies of segregation between light- and dark-skinned blacks, and between light-skinned blacks and whites, infuriating Haiti’s Creole elites. The military also instituted a system of forced labor—essentially slavery—to build new roads and infrastructure.

By 1928, even those Haitians who initially supported U.S. involvement had turned bitterly against the occupation. For a wealthy blan like Seabrook, though, Port-au-Prince, despite the tensions, was a city of possibilities and pleasures. With Katie in tow, he rented a house with “adequate gardens” and filled it with servants—a cook, a butler, a laundress, and a houseboy named Louis.

As Seabrook described him, Louis was a sort of primitive saint who would disappear for days and reappear bearing exotic fruits or armfuls of flowers for Katie, and would stay up late with Seabrook telling him strange stories—about a man who lay dying because an old woman in Léogâne had made a wooden doll in his image, about trees that spoke, about the dead who walked.

Eventually, Seabrook and Louis began venturing into the mountains. In a tiny village of thatch-roofed huts where no white man had been seen in years, Seabrook met Maman Célie, a spiritual leader who treated his voodoo fascination with fond tolerance. “Petit, petit,” she crooned to him. Little by little. Be patient and the mysteries will be revealed. Seabrook lived with Maman Célie for several weeks. She called him her son, a “black man with a white face,” and prepared for him a bag of charms called an ouanga, which he prayed over and which would protect him as long as he did not betray those prayers.

The first mystery she allowed Seabrook to see was a petro, a blood rite in which a small black bull was sacrificed to the sound of pounding drums while villagers threw themselves into ecstatic dance. As Seabrook described it: “In the red light of torches which made the moon turn pale, leaping, screaming, writhing black bodies, blood-maddened, sex-maddened, god-maddened, drunken, whirled and danced their dark saturnalia.”

He next witnessed a young girl turned into a goat. Dressed in a scarlet robe and ostrich-feather headdress, Maman Célie brought forth the animal into the houmfort, the voodoo temple. Then she brought out her youngest daughter, a girl in her teens, anointing her with oil and wine. The girl kneeled at the altar and faced the goat, and the two stared at one another like “marble figures on the frieze of some ancient phallic temple.”

Seabrook watched as the girl’s lips became goat-like and she began to nibble the leaves around her. Her eyes grew wide and glassy and staring. When a priest plunged a knife into the goat’s neck, the girl bleated, leaped, and fell senseless to the ground. The goat was bled into a bowl, the blood used to draw a cross on Seabrook’s forehead. The bowl was then held to his lips and Seabrook drank the “clean, warm, salty” blood. Later, he would recount the incident with his characteristically deliberate ambiguity:

I have earned a deserved reputation for being not too credulous in the face of marvels. But I was in the presence now of a thing that could not be denied. Old magic was here at work, and it worked appallingly. What difference does it make whether we call it supernatural or merely supernormal. What difference does it make if we say that the girl was drugged—as I suspect she was—or that both were hypnotized? … We live surrounded by mysteries and imagine that by inventing names we explain them.

The Magic Island, published in 1929, included all this—the petro, the goat sacrifice, scenes of a hermaphroditic oracle holding a skull and peasants moaning before an altar of human bones. But nothing was more outrageous, or received more attention, than Seabrook’s depiction of his encounter with the walking dead.

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If It Is True, It Upsets Everything

No one knows for certain the origins of the word “zombie.” It may come from the Bantu for “fetish,” zumbi, or “spirit,” nzumbi. It may come from a Creole word for “ghost,” jumbie, which likely derives from the Spanish or French word for “shadows,” sombra/ombre. It may be a corruption of the French sans vie, “lifeless.”

In the colonial Caribbean, the zombie was thought to take many forms. It was a disembodied soul trapped in a jar by a sorcerer. It was a person transformed into an animal—a three-legged horse or a dog that stood five feet high. It was a tiny, fairy-like being that hid under the bed to scare naughty children. It was also a corpse raised from the dead—a zombi cadavre.

Seabrook had heard of zombies from Louis and Maman Célie, but it was a man named Constant Polynice, a mixed-race tax collector and local operator on the parched, desolate island of La Gonave, who insisted to Seabrook that they were not just another Haitian legend like fire hags and goat-eating werewolves. They were real, he said. He’d seen them with his own eyes.

Ten years earlier, in 1918, Polynice told Seabrook, Haiti’s largest and oldest sugar operation, the Haitian American Sugar Company, offered bonuses to any employee who brought in new workers to help them harvest the bumper crop. One morning an old farm foreman named Ti Joseph and his wife, Croyance, appeared with a ragged group of men and women they claimed were from the mountains and didn’t speak lowland Creole. They registered them and put them to work. These workers were actually zombies, Polynice explained, recently buried dead that the couple had pulled from their graves.

The zombies worked tirelessly, day after day, as the sun bore down on them. They ate only unseasoned food, as tasting salt or meat, it was believed, would cause them to realize that they were dead. But Croyance took pity on the zombies and decided one day to bring them to a street festival, where she bought them pistachio candies that had been cooked with salt. Awakened to their terrible reality, the zombies set off for their mountain village, moaning and shuffling in a single-file line. When their families saw the animated corpses of their loved ones, they chased and caught Ti Joseph and, Polynice said, “hacked off his head with a machete.”

“You are not a peasant,” Seabrook told him after hearing the story. “How much of that story, honestly, do you believe?”

“Why should I not believe them when I myself have also seen zombies?” Polynice replied.

Some days later the two men rode on horseback across the Plaine des Mapous, a high plateau on La Gonave dotted with stands of mapous, the silvery, wide-canopied tree sacred to voodoo adherents. After several hours, they came to a sugarcane field and dismounted. It was midday, the sun scorching and white overhead. At the far edge of a field, three laborers were hacking at a stony, terraced slope with machetes. Polynice went to speak with the overseer, a “big-boned, hard-faced black girl” named Lamercie, who insisted that “negroes’ affairs are not for whites.” Seabrook stepped forward anyway. Polynice tapped one of the workers on the shoulder and bid him to stand.

The man stood, and Seabrook looked into his eyes. He reached out and grabbed one of the man’s dangling hands. He shook it and said, “Bonjour, compère.” The man stared without replying, his eyes fixed on some distant horizon.

Seabrook scrambled for an explanation for what he was seeing. The man’s eyes reminded him of a lobotomized dog he once saw in a lab at Columbia University. The “zombies” were likely mentally deficient people who had been forced into servitude, he reasoned, but of course he could not be sure.

“The eyes were the worst,” Seabrook wrote. “It was not my imagination. They were in truth like the eyes of a dead man, not blind, but staring unfocused, unseeing. … I had a sickening, almost panicky lapse in which I thought, or rather felt, ‘Great God, maybe this stuff is really true, and if it is true, it is rather awful, for it upsets everything.’”

Over half a million copies of The Magic Island were sold, and Seabrook’s descriptions forever shaped the Western idea of zombies and voodoo. Religious practices involving multiple deities and spirits existed throughout the Caribbean and Latin America; every country had its mythical demons. But after The Magic Island, Haiti would always be viewed as the land of tom-toms pounding in the night and corpses staggering down the road, shaking off dirt from their graves. From the book’s publication forward, the white world would hear almost nothing of the helpful chore-doing zombie, the giant dog zombie, the playful spirit zombie. The only zombie that now existed in the Western imagination was the zombi cadavre.

The Magic Island was packaged to titillate. A 1929 ad for the book in The New Yorker featured a drawing of a shifty-eyed, pipe-smoking Constant Polynice, along with a quote from The Evening Post’s review of the book: “The steam-heated and incomplete orgies of New York’s night clubs usually leave their patrons foolishly futile and with a sense of gyp. … I would recommend to them a session with some real frenzy in this amazing work.”

Reviews were largely gushing, especially in the dailies and in middlebrow magazines. “It is not a twice-told tale, but a vivid record of things seen; it is no ladylike book, but a man’s story written for adult minds,” reported The Bookman, a New York literary journal published by Seward Bishop Collins, a man with the distinction of being both a self-proclaimed fascist and a onetime lover of Dorothy Parker.

Critics praised Seabrook’s willingness to investigate Haiti’s strange rituals with an open mind. “He has penetrated as few white men have done … to the soul of Haiti,” R.L. Duffus wrote in The New York Times.

Black American critics praised the book, as well. The review in Harlem’s Amsterdam News proclaimed it to be “the best book of the year on a negro subject.”

There were a handful of naysayers in the progressive media, especially among those who had a deep understanding of Haitian culture. “Although Mr. Seabrook has seen a great deal more than the average white man sees in the island, he has become so excited about it all that he cannot hope to be taken as an altogether credible witness,” wrote the socialist-leaning British weekly the New Statesman.

The anthropologist and Haitian-studies scholar Melville Herskovits wrote in The Nation: “This book, like others of its kind, is a work of injustice.” Seabrook, Herskovitz argued, had given a shallow and credulous account of Haitian culture, focusing on the grotesque without investigating context or significance. What was Maman Célie’s day-to-day life like? What was the purpose of the goat slaughter? He accused Seabrook of repeating folk tales as fact and argued that The Magic Island’s sensationalism only served to lend credence to the view that Haitians were childlike primitives in need of American protection.

In his memoir, Seabrook described how badly the criticisms wounded his pride. “I had very few things to be proud of,” he wrote, “and one of them was that I knew I was an honest, if sensational reporter.” He even claimed to have refused a $15,000 syndication deal with a magazine that wanted to alter his descriptions of voodoo to make it appear more sinister and provocative. He couldn’t do that to Maman Célie, he said. “Between us was the same bond which bound and binds me still to my long-dead white witch-grandmother Piny,” he wrote.

A decade later, Seabrook would feel vindicated by the publication of Zora Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse, her account of Jamaican and Haitian voodoo practices, which included supposed firsthand accounts of meeting zombies—though critics would say that Hurston simply recounted certain Seabrook tales. Hurston herself said she was inspired by Seabrook’s work.

The Taste of Human Flesh

Almost immediately after the release of The Magic Island, producers in New York and Hollywood began cashing in on the new obsession with the walking dead. The book’s first offspring was a play—Zombie—written by the vaudeville writer Kenneth Webb, which opened in New York in February 1932. It starred the fading silent-film actress Pauline Starke as an American plantation owner in Haiti whose husband was turned into a zombie. The action revolved around Starke and two scholars trying to find the zombie masters and win her husband’s release.

Zombie was an extraordinary flop. Time called it “wretchedly acted” and “beset with deplorably written dialog.” Audiences found the play more funny than terrifying, and while its New York run lasted only 20 performances, it reopened later that year in Chicago, where it was billed as a comedy.

While Zombie the stage play was still in preproduction, two film directors, the brothers Victor and Edward Halperin, leased space at Universal Studios and began making White Zombie, starring a mono-browed Bela Lugosi, fresh off his turn as Dracula, as the wicked Haitian sugar-plantation owner Murder Legendre. A man of ambiguous racial and national background, Legendre lords over the zombies who toil in his fields. “They work faithfully, and they are not worried about long hours,” he says. He also keeps a crew of zombie servants, each one a former enemy now turned dead-eyed and compliant.

Madge Bellamy, a scandal-plagued B-movie actress, plays Madeline, the young white American woman freshly arrived in Haiti, where her fiancé has been working. Driving through the Haitian backwoods in a carriage, she passes a funeral that is taking place in the middle of the road, replete with drums and strange wailings, a scene lifted directly from The Magic Island.

The opening scene from White Zombie, 1932. Video: Archive.org

On her wedding night, Legendre hexes Madeline with a cup of poisoned wine and a wax voodoo doll, “killing” her in the middle of her celebration dinner. She is buried, then dug up and whisked away to Legendre’s seaside castle to become his pliant zombie bride.

Though the movie never credits The Magic Island, its influence is everywhere, from the description of zombies to specific scenes taken from the book to uncredited Seabrook quotes that were used in the film’s press release.

Seabrook seems to have been unconcerned that his stories, his depiction of zombies, even his notoriety was being used without credit or compensation. It may be that he didn’t need or care about the money. Or it may be that the doubts raised about his credibility (including letters from his mother accusing him of embarrassing the family with his made-up tales) so wounded him that he felt he had to distance himself from the schlock culture being produced as a result of his book.

Whatever high-minded criticisms were being lodged against him, Seabrook was now popularly considered to be the premier white chronicler of the world’s dark cultures. The pressing question for him became: What next? How to outdo the scenes he’d witnessed and written about in Haiti?

The idea for his next book came over lunch at the Waldorf Hotel with the French writer and diplomat Paul Morand. In the late 1920s and early ’30s, Morand, too, was at the height of his fame. He’d just returned from an around-the-world trip and had published a book, Black Magic, that exalted the childlike primitivism of the negro. Morand told Seabrook that he must go to West Africa. There are cannibals there, he said, real cannibals, not the nonsense kind who eat flesh only because they’re starving.

A few months later, Seabrook was trekking through the jungle of the Ivory Coast in search of man-eating tribes. He traveled to Liberia with a young “sorceress” named Wamba, meeting witch doctors and panther-tooth-wearing tribesmen along the way. He witnessed rituals in which babies appeared to be impaled upon swords, only to reappear hours later unharmed. He met an old French priest in Timbuktu who had married a native woman and fathered 30 children. He acquired a pet monkey.

And, yes, he ate human flesh. The meat in question, he wrote, was that of “a freshly killed man, who seemed to be about thirty years old.” It tasted like “good, fully developed veal.”

When Jungle Ways was published in 1930, the chapter containing these descriptions scandalized readers across America. “So repellant is the subject that we hesitate to speak of it,” read a typically disgusted editorial, this one in the Montgomery Advertiser. “It is not agreeable to think that an intelligent, educated member of the white race and of the American nation, has voluntarily descended to a scale lower than that observed by these lowly people.”

Seabrook claimed his detractors were more upset by the fact of his dining with blacks than dining upon them.

The truth, however, was that he never actually ate human flesh in Africa. The tribal chief wouldn’t allow an outsider to partake in ritualistic cannibalism, which was rarely practiced anyway, and tried to trick Seabrook by serving him gorilla meat. Seabrook was shown the body of a slain enemy warrior but told that for reasons having to do with the ritual, he couldn’t observe the cooking process.

Years later he claimed to have figured out the deception during the meal, but he had gone to darkest Africa to dine with cannibals, he wrote, and one way or another he was going to have the experience of tasting human flesh. His solution was to go to Paris and convince a friend who had access to a hospital morgue to slip him a piece of thigh from a “healthy human carcass killed by accident.” He then held a dinner party. “I ate it in the presence of witnesses and liked it, no more or less than any other edible meat,” he wrote. (One of the guests at the party would later claim Seabrook didn’t tell them what the main course was, passing it off as a piece of rare game while they chewed unsuspectingly.)

In any case, Seabrook described in Jungle Ways the experience of eating the flesh of another human being, and he later argued that, since he had in fact done it, he didn’t really see why it mattered whether it was in an African jungle or at a dinner party in Paris.

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Lee Miller and William Seabrook, 1930. Photo: Man Ray/Man Ray Trust

The Fantasies of Mr. Seabrook

As Seabrook tells it, he and Katie realized early in their marriage that they weren’t suited for each other romantically—she had no interest in his fantasies—but they had stayed together as affectionate companions. She ignored his sexual exploits with other women, he wrote, and she enjoyed coming along on his adventures. When the arrangement finally came to an end, neither was surprised.

At a bridge game in the winter of 1929, Seabrook met an aspiring writer named Marjorie Worthington. Worthington would later recall that even though she was with her husband that night, Seabrook stared at her all evening with a “peculiar” sideways look that made her fumble her cards. The next morning, he sent her a dozen roses with a note that read: “If these are indiscreet, press them against you and throw them away.”

Worthington was tall and angular, with grave almond eyes and a high forehead accentuated by severely parted dark hair. She was as shy as Seabrook was boisterous. Sybille Bedford, Aldous Huxley’s biographer, who knew Seabrook and Worthington in the 1930s, described her as “a stiff, gentle woman with a soft voice and an unhappy face.”

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From left: The former Katie Seabrook, 1934; Marjorie Worthington, 1933. Photo: Carl Van Vechten/The Van Vechten Trust

Shortly after beginning their affair, Seabrook left for Africa to research Jungle Ways. When his travels there came to an end, he headed to Paris to work on his manuscript and invited Worthington to join him. She sailed for France with the blessing of her husband, a young advertising executive who held the open attitude toward marriage then in vogue in the Greenwich Village counterculture. When Worthington and Seabrook returned to New York a year later, they discovered that their respective spouses had taken up with one another. They each filed for divorce and then almost immediately sailed off for Timbuktu to research a book about Père Yakouba, the ex-priest Seabrook had met while researching Jungle Ways.

Like the previous trip, this one was arranged by Paul Morand, who had secured a pilot from the French Desert Air Corps to fly them across the Sahara in a four-seater plane with wicker seats. Early on in the trip, while camping in the desert, Seabrook and Worthington took a walk far away from their site. The night was cold and clear, and Seabrook held Worthington’s hand and pointed out the Southern Cross. “This was as beautiful a moment as I have known in my life,” Worthington would later write.

Later in the trip, however, Seabrook impulsively flew off to join a search for a lost French pilot, leaving Worthington to travel for days in a truck belonging to the Trans-Saharan Company. At night, shivering from dysentery, she’d wrap herself in a burnoose and sleep in the sand. 

As Seabrook’s literary star rose, he also became aggressively open about his sexual proclivities. He’d been playing S&M games with Deborah Luris in private for years; now, in Paris, he threw an afternoon cocktail party featuring a seminude Montparnasse call girl shackled by her wrists to a post. Worthington tolerated all this but found it humiliating.

“We were physically drawn to each other, and yet I was totally unsympathetic to the business of chains and leather masks and the rest of the fantasies that were so important to him,” she wrote in her memoir, The Strange World of Willie Seabrook, published in 1966.

Undeterred by her reluctance, Seabrook had a studded silver collar designed for Worthington, which she wore in a photograph taken by Man Ray in 1930. She looks miserable in the photo, her eyes hollow and her head held at an unnatural angle.

In Man Ray’s autobiography, the photographer describes an evening in which Seabrook asked him to watch over a prostitute whom he’d hired to act as a submissive slave. She was chained to the stairs in his Paris duplex, Seabrook explained. When Man Ray demurred, saying that he had a date with the photographer Lee Miller, Seabrook told him to bring her along. As Man Ray wrote:

She was nude except for a soiled, ragged loincloth, with her hands behind her back chained to the post with a padlock. Seabrook produced a key and informed me that I was to release the girl only in case of an emergency—a fire, or for a short visit to the bathroom. She was being paid to do this for a few days, was very docile and willing. I was to order dinner from the dining room, anything we liked: wines, champagne, but under no circumstances have the girl eat with us. She was to be served on a plate with the food cut up and placed on the floor near her, as for a dogget down on her knees to eat. The chain was long enough.

As soon as Seabrook left, Man Ray unchained the woman and invited her to eat. Over dinner she explained that Seabrook never hurt her but simply stood by her for hours, drinking Scotch and staring.

Later, Man Ray would shoot a series of S&M photos called “The Fantasies of Mr. Seabrook,” as well as several portraits of Seabrook and Miller, his own onetime lover, as master and slave. 

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Like One of My Own Zombies

In the early 1930s, Seabrook and Worthington began spending much of their time in the South of France, in the village of Sanary-sur-Mer, which had become a bohemian outpost between the wars and a refuge for escaped and self-exiled German intellectuals like Bertolt Brecht and Arnold Zweig and Thomas Mann, as well as international literary stars like Aldous Huxley, Jean Cocteau, and D.H. Lawrence.

In Sanary, Seabrook dressed like a French fisherman. He bought a castle. He kept the pet monkey he had acquired in Africa. At his request, Worthington dressed like a local market girl, in a bright, tight-bodiced cotton dress, a bandanna, and arms full of cheap, tinkling metal bracelets. The Riviera boatmen and coral fishermen had a nickname for Worthington, a woman so regal yet so silent and unhappy seeming: La belle esclave. The beautiful slave.

“Sanary is full of the usual Lesbian baronesses,” Aldous Huxley wrote in a letter to Charles de Noailles, the French nobleman and art patron, “all of them in a flutter of excitement to know Mr. Seabrook, because the rumour has gone round the village that he beats his lady friend.”

Huxley and his wife, Maria, were closer with Seabrook and Worthington than anyone else in Sanary. The couples spent many evenings together, picnicking on the peninsula overlooking the sea or listening to Mozart at Huxley’s villa. Seabrook had money and notoriety and famous literary friends, but he didn’t have Huxley’s talent, and the constant reminder of that corroded him. Sybille Bedford described Seabrook at the time as “a man in the clutches of self-doubt and success.” He would boast about his exploits among the savages of Africa and Haiti, Bedford said, then in an instant turn maudlin and self-pitying. “He would lament his lack of intellectual and literary refinement,” she wrote. “He was a craftsman, he would say, a cobbler, and he wanted to write like Tolstoy and like Aldous Huxley.”

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Aldous Huxley, right, visits with Seabrook at his home in Rhinebeck, New York, circa 1932. Photo: Courtesy of William K. Seabrook

Seabrook was supposed to be working on a biography of Père Yakouba, the White Monk of Timbuctoo, but he was unable to write in Sanary. Nights of wild parties gave way to mornings drinking brandy alone in the garden. At some point he stopped seeing people altogether, then stopped speaking much. He went through his housebound days with “automaton motions,” he said, drinking until he passed out.

“I had seen Willie set out deliberately to get drunk, to celebrate a job of work finished. But this was different,” Worthington later wrote. “This was to deaden some inner anguish that lay so deep a whole ocean of brandy couldn’t touch it.”

Worthington tried everything she could to bring back the old Seabrook. She tried drinking with him. She tried not drinking. She tried to amuse him with stories, to drag him to dinners, to fill him with nourishing food. Nothing worked.

“I’m told I’d become like one of my own zombies,” Seabrook wrote.

One morning, in a fit of alcoholic distortion or inspiration, he decided that Gertrude Stein, the patron saint of all expat artists, would know what he should do. It didn’t matter that he had never met her. “When I wanted to do something as violently as I wanted to do that, I could still lay off the brandy until I got it done,” he wrote. He found his way to Stein’s house in the Rhône-Alpes and invited himself in. The two spent the next evening talking, a strange interlude Stein later wrote about in her memoir Everybody’s Autobiography:

After all preachers’ sons will when they begin drink a lot and it wears them out. … It is funny about drinking. Seabrook told me about the white magic of Lourdes and how he wanted to go there and be a stretcher bearer. … He and I sat next to one another and gradually I told him all about myself.

Stein suggested Seabrook quit his life of dissipation and head home to a more rigid, more disciplined life in the U.S. He knew she was right, but he drove home and drank himself unconscious anyway.

Eventually, he sent a cable to Alfred Harcourt, his publisher and friend, in which he confessed to having become a “habitual drunkard” and suggested a “radical and fantastic” plan to cure himself. He would sail back to America and have Harcourt transport him directly to a locked psychiatric ward, a “place which is not comedy, but which has got bars on the windows and locks on the doors, and a competent hospital orderly to sock you on the jaw if you try to smuggle whiskey in.”

Huxley drove Seabrook to the Sanary train station, and he sailed from Cherbourg to New York, where he signed a voluntary commitment order and entered a locked ward at Bloomingdale Asylum (now part of New York–Presbyterian Hospital) in White Plains. He would remain there for the next seven months.

Left alone in Paris, Worthington was so deadened with sadness that she described herself as “one of the zombies Willie had introduced to the world.”

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Members of the “hexing party” with an effigy of Adolf Hitler, 1941. Photo: Thomas D. McAvoy/The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images

You Are Hitler, Hitler Is You!

Bloomingdale Asylum had both clay and grass tennis courts. Its gymnasium was as fine as the one at the Racquet & Tennis Club on Park Avenue. Dinner tables were set with linens and fresh flowers. If someone pulled her skirt up over her head during the salad course and ran around the dining room, that was the only difference between Bloomingdale and the Ritz.

Seabrook entered the asylum on December 5, 1933, the day Prohibition was repealed. The hospital did not normally take drunks, but his powerful friends had pulled strings. After a few days in withdrawal, he underwent a regimen of psychoanalysis, hydrotherapy, and rest, lounging on the lawn in his free time, tinkering in the woodshop, and receiving Swedish massages.

After his release he wrote a memoir, Asylum, which was serialized in The Atlantic Monthly. It could be described as the first celebrity rehab memoir. And while he was a petulant and demanding patient, Seabrook also appeared to have developed at least some psychological self-awareness at Bloomingdale. As he wrote at the end of Asylum:

I had run away ineffectually at six to be a pirate as all children do, and instead of getting mature powers of adjustment as I grew older, I had been running away ever since. … Now I knew that all the time I had been running away from something, and that the thing had always been myself. And now I was locked up where I couldn’t run away, either by boat or bottle. I had to stay with myself and look at myself and it wasn’t pleasant.

Seabrook moved to the village of Rhinebeck in upstate New York, where Worthington joined him, and the two were finally married. He spent his days there soberly writing and responding to the hundreds of letters he received from Asylum readers, most of them desperate to find out how they could commit an inebriate loved one.

The book was more influential than Seabrook could have imagined. Bill Wilson, who cofounded Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935, the same year Asylum was released, was known to have read it. How much it influenced him is difficult to say, but the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, the “AA bible” written by Wilson in 1939, features similar epiphanies and conclusions as those Seabrook arrived at in Asylum. These may be universal truths about the nature of alcoholism and its treatment—the sense of lifelong restlessness common to the afflicted, the loss of control that distinguishes alcoholics from heavy drinkers, the pseudo-religious epiphany that sometimes accompanies recovery—but early editions of the Big Book reference Seabrook by name, and it appears that he had a not insignificant influence over this, too, one of the best-selling books of all time.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, who knew a thing or two about drinking, referenced the book derisively in the series of essays, “The Crack-Up,” that he wrote for Esquire about his own alcohol-fueled breakdown. “William Seabrook in an unsympathetic book tells, with some pride and a movie ending, of how he became a public charge.”

The ending Fitzgerald refers to is Seabrook’s philosophy, stated in the book’s final chapter, that alcoholics shouldn’t necessarily remain abstinent forever. “To go out and never be able to touch a cocktail, glass of wine, or highball again would be a poor sort of cure, if it could indeed be termed a cure at all,” Seabrook wrote. The staff at Bloomingdale convinced him to go an additional six months after his discharge without drinking, which Seabrook did, and then:

A fortnight or so after the six months had elapsed, somebody brought out a bottle of Spanish sherry. It occurred to me that it would be a good thing to try first, after so long an abstinence. I had a glass and liked it very much. It brought a pleasant glow. We were soon at dinner. It didn’t occur to me to want more of it. … Months have passed now since I first took those rare drinks, and I still drink rarely. I don’t think I worry much about it. I have other worries. But I am less unhappy than I used to be when I tried to drown them. I seem to be cured of drunkenness, which is as may be.

Marjorie Worthington tells a very different story. After several happy, productive sober years, she says, Seabrook became insecure about his latest book, These Foreigners, a compilation of essays about immigrant groups in America. Critics described the book as tame and boring. One quipped that it should have been called Pollyanna Among the Poles. Seabrook had gone “respectable,” they said, and his writing had much more verve when he was a degenerate.

Seabrook was in his fifties by now, but despite all he’d done and lived through, he still could be brought to his knees by criticism of his writing. Worthington recalled a day when he came home with several bottles of whiskey in a brown paper bag. He put the bottles on the kitchen table and said, “I’m sick of being a cripple. From now on I’m going to prove that I can take a drink or leave it alone, like any other man.”

Bored and aging and far from the limelight, Seabrook grew obsessed with the idea of alternate realities. He wanted to show, in a materialist way, he said, the unknown places the human mind could wander. His scientific exploration consisted of recruiting a succession of young women as volunteers for experiments that he conducted in a barn on his property in Rhinebeck. He dressed the women in bondage hoods and hung them by their wrists from the rafters for hours, their feet barely touching the ground, watching and waiting to see if the sensory deprivation and fatigue would induce their minds to “slip through the door of time.”

Some of these experiments became fodder for a book, Witchcraft: Its Power in the World Today, published in 1940. Possibly written in part by a ghostwriter (likely Maya Deren, then Seabrook’s assistant and later a notable avant-garde filmmaker), the book is a disjointed compilation of Haitian voodoo stories, reporting about Duke University’s ESP lab, and an improbable number of bizarre firsthand tales in which Seabrook meets a young American artist stricken with a craving for human blood (turns out she has pernicious anemia) or helps a London socialite free herself from a voodoo-doll curse (which seems not the least bit credible).

By then readers had tired of the Seabrook formula. The claims of rationalism, undermined by recognitions of doubt, felt disingenuous.

“Willie has always sort of side-whispered that he is hep to an all-fired lot of secrets which he doesn’t tell about because he has sworn not to in his own red blood and might be turned, if he tattled, into a Gila monster or something,” wrote Burton Rascoe in The American Mercury.

Seabrook seemed beyond caring. He’d started writing syndicated newspaper stories again, presumably to pay the bills. The subjects were more lurid than ever. Ghost ships. Mexican caves full of human sacrifices. Sex murders. Dangerous occultist rings and white African rain queens.

On a cold night in January 1941, Seabrook even set out to put a hex on Adolph Hitler, a strange event that was documented by a Life magazine photographer who followed him and a small group of young journalists and recent co-eds to a cabin in the western Maryland woods. The men wore overcoats and trilbies, the women stockings and victory-roll hairdos. Then there was Seabrook, bringing up the back with a parcel the size of a beef shank wrapped in a length of canvas.

Once inside the cabin, he revealed a shiny, flesh-colored dressmaker’s dummy. It wore a military shirt and a peaked cap, both emblazoned with swastikas. On the dummy’s upper lip was drawn the familiar toothbrush-style mustache.

Seabrook, acting as master of ceremonies, instructed the group to chant: “You are Hitler, Hitler is you! We curse you by every tear and drop of blood you have caused to flow. We curse you with the curses of all who have cursed you!”

Then they pounded nails into the dummy and decapitated it with an ax.

The Year’s Weirdest Autobiography

Back in Rhinebeck, Worthington grew increasingly despondent over Seabrook’s obsessions. “I tried to keep things running smoothly, while knowing that in the barn studio some rather nice girl had been persuaded to let herself be hung by a chain from the ceiling until she was so tired she hardly knew what she was doing or saying,” she wrote. She referred to the girls as “Lizzies in chains” and did her best to ignore them.

But then Seabrook brought home a red-headed artist in her early thirties named Constance Kuhr, whom he had met during a brief drying-out period at a farm in Woodstock. While Worthington had looked the other way during Seabrook’s many dalliances, even at times allowing mistresses to live with them, she could tell that this woman was different. “I don’t know much about the ‘feminine mystique,’” Worthington wrote. “But I am sure there is some sense a woman has that lets her know when another woman means trouble.” 

Unlike the Lizzies, Kuhr was older, was tough-minded, and had her own ideas about how things should be done. To Worthington’s great dismay, she moved into the Rhinebeck house and then decided that she would cure Seabrook of his alcoholism. On a day when Worthington was out of town, Kuhr told Seabrook to roll up his sleeves. She then plunged his elbows into a pot of boiling water, burning him terribly. If you can’t bend your arms, she said, you can’t take a drink.

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Constance Kuhr, left, with Seabrook and a friend in Rhinebeck, 1941. Photo: Courtesy of William K. Seabrook

When Worthington returned home to the scene, she was filled with rage at what Kuhr had done. “Although I have never been able to bring myself to kill a fly or a spider,” she wrote, “I was quite capable of killing her.”

Seabrook suggested that Worthington live in the garden cottage on the property, to be away from Kuhr but still near him. He said his affair with Kuhr might not last. For a while Worthington agreed, cooking stews and sending them to Seabrook in the barn. But finally, wracked with misery, she filed for . She signed the papers alone in a lawyer’s office in Poughkeepsie. “I felt as if I had died,” she wrote, “as if my ghost walked out of that office and got on a bus to nowhere.”

Seabrook published his final book, No Hiding Place, in 1942. The title of the autobiography comes from the old spiritual based on the Book of Revelations, in which sinners are trying to hide from the wrath of God in the mountains, but the rocks give them no quarter. I went to the rock to hide my face / And the rock cried out no hiding place / There’s no hiding place down here.

Time described No Hiding Place as “the year’s weirdest autobiography.” It is by turns pitiful and grandiose, with paragraphs of relentless name-dropping followed by monologues of intense self-denigration. There are several things in the book that are demonstrably untrue (for instance, Seabrook lies about his age throughout, shaving off two years), but it is also unsparing in its depiction of Seabrook’s sadism and his insatiable desire for more.

Grudgingly, he acknowledges that after everything, after all his desire to be taken seriously as a man of letters, it is the zombies that will be his most lasting legacy. “The word is now a part of the American language,” he writes. “It flames in neon lights for names for bars, and drinks, is applied to starved surrendering soldiers, replaces robot, and runs the pulps ragged for new plots in which the principal zombie instead of being a black man is a white girl—preferably blond.”

No Hiding Place ends on a note of melodramatic self-pity. In his late fifties and childless, Seabrook reflects on the cessation of his family name: “And now the book is nearly ended, and so is the male line in which the old brassbound family Bible shows I was the seventh William.”

By the time the book was published, however, Constance Kuhr became pregnant with a son, who they would also name William. In September 1945, when the boy was two years old, Seabrook swallowed several handfuls of sleeping pills and died in his bed.

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Seabrook holds his son, 1943. Photo: Courtesy of William K. Seabrook

Why Wasn’t He a Fitzgerald?

William Seabrook VIII goes by Bill. He’s a 71-year-old retired elementary school teacher who lives with his wife, Lib, in the old mill town of Burlington, North Carolina. I met him there last summer, after calling him out of the blue and explaining that I’d become somewhat fixated on the life of his father and asking if he’d be willing to talk with me about him.

Bill met me at the door of his modest house and led me into his living room. He offered me tea and asked polite questions about my life. We settled into comfortable, worn chairs and began to talk about his father. He doesn’t remember him, Bill told me, but he’s thought a lot about him over the years. 

I asked if he’d read his father’s books, and Bill said that he enjoyed some of the early ones—Adventures in Arabia, especially—but he didn’t much like the occult stuff. “It’s the opposite of Upworthy,” he said, referring to the website that aggregates affirming news and positive messages. “Do you read Upworthy?”

As for the zombies, Bill said, “I could not be less interested in that as a general subject.”

His childhood after his father’s death was not particularly uplifting. His mother was a temperamental artist—“bigger than life,” he said— who didn’t provide much stability. When Bill was a child, she had a baby with a live-in boyfriend, then gave the child up for adoption. Later, when Bill was eight, she dropped him off with guardians and moved to Mexico to marry a Spanish count.

Still, he said, he loved and admired his mother for her sharp mind and survival instinct. She always talked to Bill like he was an adult, telling stories about Seabrook and their bohemian friends. She married twice after Seabrook’s death, first to the count, then to a diesel mechanic. She lived into her late seventies and died in North Carolina, not far from where he lives.

Bill showed me the tarnished, leather-sheathed Bedouin swords his father brought back from the Middle East, which now hang over the doorway in Bill’s dining room. After his father died, he said, Constance sold off most of Seabrook’s possessions—his African masks, his oriental tapestries, the works he’d accumulated from his many artist friends. All that’s left of Seabrook’s years traveling the globe are the swords and a tattered Persian rug.

When I asked him about his father’s darker instincts, the girl-in-chains fantasy, the addiction that ultimately took his life, Bill couldn’t offer much explanation. There have always been drinkers in the family, he said. “As for the bondage stuff, I’m not really interested in that.”

He referred to his father as a “PK”—a preacher’s kid—and that explained his need to rebel. “I think my father was very caught up in the idea of being a writer, with the idea of being different,” he said.

It’s a theory that, in reverse, might also explain Bill, who grew up in fairly extreme, unstable circumstances and turned out about as straight as a man can be. He dotes on his two children and refers to his wife of 46 years as his “best friend.”

The person in his family that he really wishes he’d known is his grandfather, the minister for whom Seabrook had so much disdain. The details of William L. Seabrook’s life suggest that he was a good-hearted, community-minded man. He was president of the local volunteer fire department; when he and his wife married, the fire department paraded down Main Street. He was a member of Maryland’s first bicycle club. He also wrote a book about biblical immortality, which Bill, while admiring the impulse, described as “soporific.”

“He was a person who loved his fellow man and woman,” Bill said. “I would have given the world to have a grandfather like that.”

He dismissed Seabrook’s description of his childhood in Westminster, the fantastical things that happened, his relationship to Grandma Piny and her connection to the occult. “Where he’s coming up with all this esoteric stuff about her is a mystery to us,” Bill said.

According to historical records, Piny, Seabrook’s “little girl goddess,” turns out to be Harriet Philipina Thomas, born in 1837, not on a plantation but on a farm near Frederick, Maryland. She was indeed a teen bride, 18 at the time of her wedding, but she was less than four years younger than Seabrook’s grandfather, not at all, it seems, the ethereal little girl married off to a bearded old man that Seabrook had described. “She was as straight-up and straightforward a person as there ever was,” Bill said.

He rocked back in his chair. “Of all the people in the story, I feel the most for Marjorie,” he went on. “I think she caught the worst of his bizarre side.” He met her once, and she was a “lovely lady.”

Worthington lived until 1976. She had various love affairs, including one with the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Walter Duranty, who was later exposed as a Communist propagandist for lying about his knowledge of famine in the Soviet Union. But she never got over Seabrook. She hoped her own memoir, published nine years before she died, might revive interest in his work, and one reviewer described it as “something Zelda Fitzgerald might have written if she had outlived Scott and kept her sanity.” But Seabrook wasn’t F. Scott, and few readers were compelled to seek out his books.

“He really wanted to be among the big writers,” Bill said. “Why wasn’t he great? Why wasn’t he a Hemingway? Why wasn’t he a Fitzgerald? Did he hold himself back?”

The Seabrook line doesn’t end with Bill. His son, Seabrook’s grandson, William Seabrook IX (he prefers Wil), is a singer-songwriter in Los Angeles who founded Rock for Human Rights, a nonprofit that raises awareness about human-rights issues through music. Wil is 37, and he too has a son, though not named William.

“He does not seem to me like a particularly admirable person,” Wil said about Seabrook when I reached him by phone. “He strikes me as a bit of a victim about his life.”

At one point in the conversation, Wil told me that he practices Scientology. He came to it, he said, after years of searching for “workable truths, and a way to understand the world in a way that made sense to me.”

I mentioned that he didn’t sound so unlike his grandfather when he said that. “I think he was also a seeker of truth,” Wil said. “But I don’t know how much of it he found.”

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The Final Spell

A few years before he died, when Worthington was still with him, Seabrook received a gift from his old editor at Harcourt, who had just been on vacation to Haiti. It was an ouanga, a cloth packet filled with charms meant for casting a spell. Ouangas could be used for good or ill. You could send a love ouanga to a friend or a cursed ouanga to an enemy. In Haiti all those years back, Maman Célie had made an ouanga for Seabrook and filled it with balsam leaves, lime tree roots, a crucifix, a lock of his hair, and a paring of his fingernail. She had instructed him to say a prayer over the packet before she wrapped it. He’d prayed: “Protect me from misrepresenting these people, and give me power to write honestly of their mysterious religion, for all living faiths are sacred.”

The U.S. military occupation was now long over, and Haiti had become a popular tourist destination. Cruise passengers and honeymooners would come home from Port-au-Prince with souvenir ouangas made of cheap red satin. That’s all this was.

And yet it set Seabrook on edge.

Did he feel that he had betrayed Maman Célie with his sensationalist writing? Did he fear that a curse had finally caught up with him? Or was it simply a reminder of what his life once was and where it had led, the impossibility of escaping ourselves?

Whatever the case, after receiving the package, Seabrook remained anxious and agitated until Worthington finally took the ouanga behind the barn and burned it.

When she returned and told him it was gone, Seabrook was greatly relieved.

Company Eight

The true story of one man’s quest to reform firefighting in America.

In Memory of Adam Myers, Middlebury (Vt.) Fire Department

The Atavist Magazine, No. 44


Matthew Pearl is the author of the novels The Dante Club, The Poe Shadow, The Last Dickens, The Technologists, and The Last Bookaneer (published in April 2015). His nonfiction pieces have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe,and Slate. He lives in the Boston area.


Editor: Charles Homans and Evan Ratliff
Designer: Gray Beltran
Producer: Megan Detrie
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Riley Blanton
Illustrator: Greg Coulton
Other Images: The American Antiquarian Society, The Bostonian Society, Christie’s Auctions, City of Boston Archives, Harvard Map Collection, Keno Auctions, Library of Congress.

Published in January 2015. Design updated in 2021.

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Map of Boston, 1832. Photo: Courtesy of Harvard Map Collection.

The sun’s first rays were slipping between the brick buildings, and already a sizable crowd, coats pulled tight over dressing gowns, had gathered on the balconies and sidewalks to watch for the firemen. The church bells, doing their usual double-duty as fire alarms, clanged at an urgent pace. Twenty-eight-year-old Willard Sears ran ahead of the fire engine as it rounded the corner toward State Street. He and the other firemen pulled Number Eight by a long double rope, known as a drag rope, into the physical center of Boston, the heart of the city’s commercial and governmental district.

“Fire! Fire!” the men called in order to clear the way ahead, the rumble of the engine’s wheels and the men’s boots on the stone streets drowning out the warning bell dangling from the top of the machine. Turning onto State, Sears could see another fire engine ahead of them in the middle of the street, surrounded by men in long dark coats and black trousers—a mirror image of his own crew. An elaborate glittering painting of a bird adorned the side of the vehicle. This was Number Twelve, known as the Eagle Engine. But the firemen of Company Twelve were not rushing toward the blaze. Their attention was on the approaching crew. Sears realized what this was: an ambush.

Sears—a physically imposing man, square of jaw and shoulders—drew out the speaking trumpet that was holstered in his belt. He hailed the other commander: “Give me a chance to get through.”

Joseph Wheeler, Company Twelve’s foreman, stared down his counterpart from beneath the wide brim of his badge-adorned leather cap. “Go to hell!” he shouted.

Ash drifted in the late autumn air, and looking above him, Sears could finally see exactly where the thick smoke was coming from. City Hall was burning.

“I am going through there to the fire,” Sears called out.

“Go to hell!” Wheeler repeated.

“I shall run you down if you don’t give me room,” Sears warned.

“Go to hell!”

As the crowd of spectators grew, Sears considered his options. He came from a long line of fighters. One of his ancestors, an original Cape Cod settler named Richard Sears, was said to have lost an arm in a battle with Indians. Sears’s father marched more than a hundred miles to fight against the British in the American Revolution. His brother had trained recruits, again to oppose the British, in the War of 1812. When he had taken command of Company Eight a year earlier, Sears didn’t realize he was signing up for a war of his own, but it was clear now—he had found his battleground in the streets of Boston. He turned his back to the Eagle Engine and faced the forty-odd men of his company, their chests heaving for breath. He raised the speaking trumpet back to his lips and gave his command.

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Lithograph of a fireman with his speaking trumpet. Photo: Louis Maurer, the Bostonian Society.

The stately granite neoclassical building that housed Faneuil Hall Market was divided by an airy, arched passageway, with doors and windows opening onto the streets. All the small touches, like the delicately fluted columns and the Grecian cornice, marked the esteemed priority the new city of Boston granted its business community. The throng that surrounded the vendors’ stalls swelled with tourists who flocked to the newly finished showstopper of a building. A plaque under the cornerstone noted not only the year ground was broken, but also that it happened “in the forty-ninth year of American Independence.”

Willard Sears picked his way between the lines of people waiting for vegetables, fish, mutton, pork, poultry, beef, butter, and cheese. The noises and smells were invigorating. He was on his way through the marketplace, across Merchants’ Row, and into venerable Faneuil Hall to meet with the mayor, Josiah Quincy III.

Raised in Cape Cod to work hard and believe in a kind of personal manifest destiny, Sears had moved to Boston six years earlier, in 1822, the same year the town of Boston incorporated as a city. The rapidly growing seat of commerce now counted 50,000 inhabitants and boasted every conceivable kind of enterprise. To a born entrepreneur like Sears, Boston’s growth offered irresistible opportunities, but the influx of people also brought vice and squalor. Witnessing this side of the city, he’d later tell people, turned him into a teetotaler. He was also a blustery abolitionist, and being against slavery was no more popular in Boston than opposing consumption of alcohol. Sears sought out socially conscious churches and joined the Young Men’s Moral Association, a group dedicated to discouraging drinking, gambling, and other behavior that disrupted a city’s moral compass. As Sears prospered in his fast-growing construction business, he became stubbornly convinced that moral virtue begat success, and he spread his gospel to anyone who would listen.

Sears and Quincy had met shortly after Sears moved to Boston, and they discovered that they shared a reformer’s spirit and preference for unconventional thinking. At 56, the lanky, handsome Quincy had been in politics almost half his life, serving in the Massachusetts legislature and the U.S. Congress before he was elected mayor—Boston’s second—in 1823. He was a native Bostonian who had grown up watching the city expand, together with the challenges it faced. The image he honed was of a politician who solved problems using every means at his disposal.

When Sears and Quincy first crossed paths, the newly elected mayor had been wanting to do something about the infamous, secretive gambling dens and unlicensed dance halls that played host to thieves and prostitution rings and had been the sites of several murders. At the time, law enforcement was in its infancy; a small number of constables and watchmen patrolled the city, but Boston would not have a branch of detectives with investigation skills for another 18 years. The police superintendent told Quincy that there was nothing to be done about these criminal haunts—and that trying to shut them down would be a fool’s errand. “A man’s life would not be safe who should attempt it,” he said.

The mayor, unsatisfied, turned to Sears: Would he be willing to go undercover to gather intelligence? “There shall be at least an attempt,” Quincy said, “to execute the laws.” Twenty-year-old Sears agreed. Posing as a sailor on shore leave—a typical customer who ventured from the nearby docks—he explored the notorious establishments of west Boston and Ann Street, collecting names and details about the building layouts. Warrants were issued soon after, and Sears became the unofficial “mayor’s detective.”

Five years later, as Sears took a seat in the mayor’s office at Faneuil Hall, Quincy told him he had a new target to investigate: the Boston fire department.

At the time, firefighting already had a long history, but the techniques had barely changed since the early 17th century. Then, households had kept ladders and leather buckets on hand so that neighbors could help fight fires. The members of these “bucket brigades,” organized by fire wardens, did not have the skills or the inclination to risk their lives extinguishing complex blazes. (One fire warden was known to knock reluctant citizens on the head with a pole to compel service.) The most useful innovation came from England late in the 17th century. It was the water engine, a kind of tub on four wheels that was filled with buckets of water and then transported to a fire. Clubs of firefighting volunteers—one of the earliest of which formed in Boston when Company One, “Old North,” took charge of the city’s first imported English engine in 1678—organized regular shifts and trained on the new equipment. When a new engine was acquired, another company would form around it and take up a post in a new neighborhood.

Companies had to be authorized by the city, but once formed each lived by its own rules, complete with its own constitution, and this unstable situation continued into the 19th century. The city paid for the engines, equipment, and repairs. But the men were strictly volunteers and were proud that they received no salary for their work as firemen. That did not mean money was not at stake. The city paid bounties to the first fire companies to reach a fire, and it was common for the companies—made up as they were of competitive and athletic young men—to break out into brawls when they met in the street while trying to beat each other to the blaze. There was a sense that men who engaged in fighting violent, dangerous forces would be inclined toward violent and dangerous behavior themselves. They even taunted each other in song while they worked to put out a fire:

There is an engine house not far away Where they are last at fires three times a day.

The newest fire engines, built by top engineers in New England, had suction systems that allowed firefighters to use hand pumps instead of buckets to draw water into the tubs from municipal reservoirs or fire plugs (early versions of the hydrant). But because the engines and the hoses attached to them were not yet powerful enough to pump water back out at a great distance, engines would often have to form a chain from the water supply to the fire, pumping water from one to the next until the hoses could reach the flames. Many firemen scoffed at this kind of cooperation. Sometimes they would arrange for an ally to cover a fire plug with a barrel and sit on it, to prevent other engines from using it. Certain companies refused to accept water from particularly hated rivals, or purposely pumped too much water into the next engine in order to flood it. For desperate citizens fearing their lives could go up in smoke, it was hard to know which to worry about more, the fires or the firefighters.

Even though the term fire department was in use by the time Sears and Quincy deliberated on the subject in 1828, it was largely a misnomer. A department implies a unified operation, but these fire companies—collectively totaling about 1,000 men—were a loose collection of quasi-sovereign societies. Dealing with them proved uniquely trying for Quincy. Even after he’d replaced the old neighborhood fire wardens with a citywide chief engineer and board of engineers in charge of all the fire companies, oversight proved elusive. The companies clung to their independence, and their leaders considered any government action to regulate them to be tantamount to oppression. As the city’s reliance on them grew along with its own size and density, the firefighters became more difficult to control.

Quincy lacked leverage and knew it. The mayor would push new oversight measures through the City Council only to have them ridiculed and resisted by the firemen, who would pass out broadsides that called for the public to crush the anti-liberty “monster” that was city government. Specific firemen could be dismissed, companies could be disbanded, but finding competent substitutes was not easy. The dispute became a major test for City Hall, which was still trying to gain the trust of a populace unaccustomed to centralized authority and still unsure whether a mayor “was a four-legged beast or some other kind of animal,” as one reporter later recalled. If Sears could secure a place for himself in one of the 17 engine houses, Quincy figured, he could feed the mayor information that would allow him to craft more potent initiatives, even if the firefighters themselves might never be won over.

Photo: Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society
Photo: Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society

Sears had reasons for taking part in the scheme beyond his relationship with the mayor. He and his brother, Ebenezer, had become prolific builders. They put up whole neighborhoods and specialized in building churches—a holy mission for Sears, who signed his letters “your brother in Christ.” They prided themselves on quality construction, but even the best buildings of the era were firetraps. A single clogged chimney, a handful of wooden shavings left too near a hearth, or a drunk nodding off with a cigar in hand was all it took. Newly fashionable architectural features such as high ceilings and taller buildings increased risks, and with older wooden structures such as barns, stables, and outhouses crowded together throughout the city, all of Boston was a tinderbox. Fires wiped out dozens—sometimes hundreds—of homes and businesses in the city each year. Some 349 buildings had gone up in smoke in 1760, the worst year on record. The following year, Faneuil Hall itself burned down. A few years before Sears moved to Boston, the magnificent seven-story Exchange Coffee House, which took three years to build, caught fire and collapsed in a horrifying spectacle that would be remembered as the moment the city seemed to be punished for its sins. If the problems in the fire department weren’t fixed, it seemed inevitable that a fire would one day rage so far out of control that it would permanently cripple Boston. Who better than a builder like Sears to help stave off such a disaster?

Sears assured the mayor that he could win over the members of a fire company—that he could make them believe he was one of them, just as he had the criminal denizens on his earlier undercover assignment. Sears had jet black hair and a strong and stoic face that beamed with confidence, with a glimmer of slyness in his flinty, dark eyes. One local paper described him as “sturdy” and “spirited.” His combative and overconfident style could push as many people away as he inspired. Still, after years of managing construction sites, he was used to dealing with the kind of young, rowdy men who filled the rolls of the fire companies. Most valuable, perhaps, was his age: 24 was young enough to convincingly blend in with them.

One Sunday morning, Sears, while making the rounds to study all the fire companies, approached a small wooden building on Warren Street, the temporary home of Company Eight in the energetic South End of Boston. Eight, also known as Cumberland, was ranked among the worst of the worst for its misconduct and had the highest number of members under the age of 21. (Companies like Eight also had even younger followers who rooted for and assisted certain engines without joining—fire roadies, so to speak, who could get hurt or killed when they got in the way.) And a paper trail suggested some profiteering. Eight’s former engine house needed repairs, so the city built the new structure on Warren Street and paid a $130 annual lease to the property’s owner, Thomas Emmons—who happened to be a member of Company Eight.

Sears slipped through the open doors and found nearly two dozen firemen sprawled out on the sparse collection of furniture and on the floor—on the Sabbath, too, the avid churchgoer and church builder noted. The members, along with a group of young women, appeared to be recovering from a decadent night. The sight appalled the temperance fanatic, but Sears also saw an opportunity. “For when I am weak,” taught the Book of Corinthians, “then I am strong.” Sears had found the weakness he had been hunting for.

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Boston’s Exchange Coffee House Burning, by John Ritto Penniman, 1824. The fire depicted occurred in 1818. Photo: Courtesy of Keno Auctions.

Sears handed his fee to Company Eight’s treasurer and received the accessories that distinguished him as an official member: a leather cap, a number eight badge, and a personal copy of the company’s bylaws. Despite the fact that he was smuggling ulterior motives into the engine house, it would be hard for Sears not to feel a few inches taller suited up in firefighting gear. Part of a generation that felt simultaneously blessed and wronged by living in a time without a major war, the young man of action now had his uniform.

Sears had been forced to wait far longer than he had anticipated for his initiation. You couldn’t show up and expect to enroll in a fire company; most required a standing committee to accept an application for nomination and then, once there was an opening on the roll, three-fourths of the members’ votes to approve a new member. It called for the kind of glad-handing and maneuvering for which a man like Sears had little patience.

By the time Sears became a member of Eight, the engine had been moved from Thomas Emmons’s property on Warren Street to a now renovated, city-owned building known as the old Franklin Schoolhouse near neighboring Tremont Street. Sears, due to his standing as a businessman rather than any experience as a fireman, was made an assistant foreman. He might have been a spy, but he couldn’t repress his reformer’s instincts, and he was soon announcing his opposition to the men’s drinking and boisterous public behavior.

This made Sears less than popular in the engine house. The fire companies had spent years battling attempts to change their culture; back in 1825, Company Eight’s members had resigned en masse in response to Mayor Quincy’s creation of the board of supervising fire engineers. One of the company’s first slogans had been “Don’t tread on us.” When Sears’s beliefs became clear, he lost his place in Company Eight.

Sears, flustered with the quick failure, tried to join other companies, but the firemen had ways of warning each other about agitators, with names of personae non grata distributed and posted at each engine house. “We know you, you are a reformer,” Sears later remembered being told. “And we don’t want any such tomfoolery in the company.” He was refused wherever he went.

By now, Sears’s benefactor was long gone from City Hall. Boston’s 1828 mayoral election—at the time, they were held every year—was hotly contested, and the fire companies organized against Quincy, mobilizing their men, encouraging (or compelling) others to vote, and distributing broadsides throughout the city. More than 40 years later, Quincy’s family still blamed the firemen for forcing his withdrawal from the race after it became clear he could not prevail. The ousted mayor had a soft landing as president of Harvard University, but his bitterness lingered. His farewell address included a blunt reminder that, just as when he arrived in office, “the element which chiefly endangers cities is that of Fire” (with a capital F).

But by then, Quincy’s mission had become Sears’s. Perhaps Sears’s quest turned to an obsession the moment his fingers gripped the leather brim of the fire cap in one hand and the cold metal badge in the other. He would have to find his way back into an engine house.


On August 2, 1831, the members of Company Eight, fed up with the city’s meddling, voted unanimously to quit, sending a note.

to the city’s newly appointed chief engineer, Thomas Amory, that “we would have nothing to do with the Engine after 9 o’clock a.m. this day. Therefore the Engine will have no Company after that time.” The company surrendered their engine, their apparatus, and the keys to their engine house, and marched out.

It was a bold act of brinkmanship that could force the city to beg them to come back—but the firefighters had miscalculated. The timing was perfect for Sears. He quickly secured permission from City Hall to form a new company and take over the abandoned engine. He had gone far beyond Quincy’s undercover assignment. He now had a fire company of his own.

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Company Eight’s fire engine, 1750s. Photo: Courtesy of the Bostonian Society.

The company headquarters Sears inherited was nondescript and unadorned, part of a three-story building that was split between the engine house, a watch house, and a primary school. The floors and walls were thin, allowing noise to carry in every direction. Wandering through the empty engine house, Sears could hear the grammar recitations from the school. It was far from ideal. But it was Sears’s style to build success from humble beginnings. When he was listed years later in a book called The Rich Men of Massachusetts, his entry included the note that he “began poor.” Humble beginnings described the origins of the fire company, too, which in 1755 had salvaged its first engine from a Dutch vessel that wrecked off the coast of Boston. (The source of the company’s nickname, Cumberland, was lost to history, but may have come from this doomed ship.)

Alone in the engine house, Sears studied the fire engine. She—a fire engine was always a “she”—had been rebuilt in 1828 by Stephen Thayer, an established engineer who was once the captain of Eight. She wasn’t of the newest style, and she was heavier to pull than those made by rival builders. The base, with its four waist-high wheels, looked something like a working-class chariot, with a copper tub rising up in the middle. This was attached to an arachnid-like array of rods, which the firemen pumped up and down to draw water from a reservoir or fire plug, into the tub, and out segmented hoses. (Charles Dickens once described the American style of fire engine as resembling a “musical snuff box.”) The men dragged the whole contraption through the streets by ropes. Engines could be modified for horses to pull, but that risked bringing unwanted hostility from other firemen, who considered using anything but manpower a sign of weakness. Forget steam, too; in London, a prototype steam-powered fire engine was torn apart by a mob, presumably prodded by the fire brigades.

Sears envisioned himself as a fireman in the tradition of Benjamin Franklin, who in 1736 became one of the country’s first when he helped form Philadelphia’s Union Fire Company. Sears was another entrepreneur trying to overturn a broken system. He was a budding tycoon who preferred to be called a mechanic. (Franklin, too, had found a certain sublimity in the term.) Differentiating his fire company from the others, Sears felt, would be a matter of recruitment. He picked men who shared his moral values and brought with them useful skills, the sort that might be overlooked by companies focused on simply amassing the brute strength they needed to outdo adversaries.

Sears recruited Prescott Fisk, a 23-year-old grocer who refused to sell liquor in his store. Thomas Blasland Jr. came from a family of druggists and could mix the latest tonics and medicinal preparations he believed would keep up the firemen’s strength. Forty-four-year-old Marcus Howe was much older than the typical fireman, but as a shoemaker he could patch boots worn out from pulling the heavy engine back and forth across the city.

As the new members were settling in and trying out their equipment, a 29-year-old man walked through the door. Even the greenest of the recruits would have recognized him as William Willet, the man who had previously been the company’s highly experienced captain before disbandment. But the battle-tested ex-captain was not there to cause trouble, as Sears’s crew might well have feared. Willet, a clerk for his family lumber business, had been through enough power shifts and regime changes at the company not to take Sears’s ascension as a personal affront. He wanted to come back home.

Sears, for his part, had reached out with an olive branch to former members of Company Eight interested in rejoining. He wanted nothing to do with troublemakers, but he could benefit from having veterans such as Willet who knew their way around the engine house. Bringing former members back into the fold might also quell hostility from other ex-members.

Indeed, joining Willet in returning was George Veazie, one of his top protégés in the old Company Eight, a promising young carpenter who had moved to Boston from Quincy. But Willet and Veazie were exceptions. Of the more than 50 firemen who had walked away from Company Eight before Sears took over, only seven rejoined. Most former members wanted nothing to do with an interloper, much less one rumored to have radical reforms in mind. Their arrogant certainty that Sears would fall flat on his face was matched only by his own arrogant certainty that he was going to prove them wrong.

There was one man Sears wanted to recruit above all others: his older brother, Ebenezer. The only two boys among eight siblings, Sears and Eben shared a tight bond despite an eight-year difference in age. When he was 19, Sears left the salt mines and farms of their family homestead in Brewster, Massachusetts, to follow Eben to Boston.

After a series of apprenticeships, the Sears brothers hung their own shingle as builders in 1825. They were working on some brick houses on Haymarket Place one day in July of 1826 when the construction-site scaffolding collapsed; some members of the crew had been drinking and hadn’t properly secured it. When the wreckage was cleared away, lying in the debris was a seriously injured Eben.

The social pressure for men to drink was strong in Sears’s day, and alcoholic consumption was reaching historic highs without being curbed by education—or, too often, by common sense—about the effects of inebriation during dangerous tasks. This time Sears’s hero, his brother, was a casualty. The accident broke Eben’s collarbone and left him housebound for weeks. Sears, as he typically did, looked to pull redemption from failure. He offered ten cents more each day to the workers who gave up their customary eleven and four o’clock liquor breaks. About half of the men took him up on his offer. The idea stuck with Sears: that creating a more virtuous workforce would lead to a safer and more profitable business.

Although Sears had followed Eben’s footsteps as a child, as adults it was increasingly the younger brother who drove their plans and ambitions. Now 36 years old, Eben had adopted his brother’s vow against drinking, but he did not share Sears’s quick passion for taking on causes like reforming the firefighters. Sears badly wanted to recruit him to Company Eight, but unlike the bachelor Sears, Eben had a family to think about. He and his wife, Eliza Crease, had three children—eight-year-old Eliza, three-year-old Mary Jane, and two-year-old Eben—and a fourth on the way.

Sears lived in one of the Crease family’s houses, and he felt as close to his nieces and nephews as if they were his own children. They were the only family he had in Boston. So he was as devastated as Eben and Eliza were in the fall of 1831 when their eldest daughter came down with scarlet fever.

On a morning in late November, the Sears brothers carried Eliza’s body to plot number 24 in the Charter Street Cemetery. Sears was heartbroken to feel the lightness of the child’s coffin; in her final days, the sore throat and fever had kept Eliza from eating, and she’d wasted away. The Sears brothers came from a family that had been extraordinarily fortunate in its children’s health. At a time when it was common for a family to lose one or even several children to an early grave, their parents, Willard and Hannah, had raised six girls and two boys without any stillbirths or young deaths. On top of Sears’s own grief over his niece, witnessing the outward despair of the more introspective, reserved Eben was unbearable.

In early 1832, Eben told Sears that he would join his brother’s fire company. It presented one way to keep his mind off his loss—and for Eben to keep an eye on his irrepressible brother. Eben had a hair-trigger temper, not unlike his younger brother, but was proud of his self-control. Between the raging fires and the bitter ex-firemen running around, Sears would need someone to help keep him in check.

Sears’s meticulous investigations into the culture and practices of the companies had revealed that firemen often expected gifts, such as refreshments and liquor, from the people whose homes and businesses they saved—merchants and families who might have suffered thousands of dollars in damages minutes before. The prospects for such bonuses might influence whether or not the firemen responded to a call. (One particular Saturday night blaze at a barroom brought almost all the fire companies in the city out to help.)

Some fire companies expected more than wine. They waited after a fire for donations of cash—sometimes hundreds of dollars—from the owners of the properties they had saved from destruction. Such demands were not likely to be explicit; the sight of 30 or 40 strapping men in ash- and soot-stained uniforms who had just risked their lives, lingering, would be a hint. If the firemen did not get what they wanted, what would happen if another fire broke out and the same company answered the alarm? Public opinion was that firemen, as the ex-mayor Quincy later summed it up, formed “a class of citizens whose claims it was unsafe to deny.”

Sears prohibited this kind of extortionate muscle flexing and all other unseemly excesses. While his new crew members were still learning each other’s names, Sears put up a tablet in the engine house. Its three columns were headed “No drinking of liquor,” “No use of tobacco,” and “No profanity while on duty.” All of his firemen had to sign their names below the first column, while the other two pledges were voluntary—though most signed their names to all three.

As the company trained, Sears allowed one of the experienced firefighters to take on the role of foreman. The Quincy-born George Veazie, who had come to Boston the previous year, was not physically imposing. Twenty-two years old, with blue eyes that were in striking contrast to his dark complexion, he stood just shy of five foot five. But his skills and knack for leadership had impressed Company Eight’s previous regime, and the reputation carried over. Sears might have been the captain, but he would defer to Foreman Veazie when it came to the firefighting.

The week after three people died in a fire in Duxbury (too far from Boston for the city’s engine crews to reach), Company Eight responded to an alarm in Roxbury at the Chemical and Color Manufacturing Company—about as dangerous a setting for a fire as one can imagine; the facility’s 210-foot-high chimney expelled fumes from the acids and sulfates that the firm supplied to Boston’s growing industry. The blaze had started in a wooden building and quickly spread throughout the complex. Dragging its engine three miles from the South End, Company Eight worked with Roxbury firemen and another engine from Boston to contain the fire before it did serious damage or injured anyone. Fire companies could be penalized for leaving city limits; there were issues of jurisdiction to consider. But Sears was more than willing to take on fines if it meant being of use.

Hauling a fire engine through the streets was an exhausting business—and more than half the time there wasn’t any fire to be found. During the first half of 1832, there were 25 false alarms in Boston compared with 22 fires. Observers worried that this pattern would result in fire companies failing to respond to alarms—especially after a member of Company Fourteen was crushed by the group’s engine while rushing to a false alarm. The seeds for alarms could even be planted hours in advance, as when an anonymous letter writer sent a note to City Hall that read “there will be a fire in Boston to night.”

Ex-members of fire companies were known to exact revenge on their successors in any number of ways: setting off alarms in order to follow the company and start fights or disrupt firefighting, vandalizing or torching engine houses, and sabotaging engines by taking the screws out of the water pump or cutting the leather hoses, which could go undetected until they were needed. In addition to former members, active firemen could start false alarms to wear down or flush out rivals. The authorities rarely caught the culprits. There were too many suspects—including former members of Company Eight who couldn’t stand the “weak” (as some of them would later put it) temperance men running with their engine.

Sears cautioned his men to keep their heads down and concentrate on their duties. When the city celebrated George Washington’s birthday, the fire department held an elaborate parade. Engine Eleven marched under a banner reading SEMPER PARATUS: “Always ready.” (As bells rang and a gun salute fired, one bystander grumbled that Company Eleven’s motto should be translated as “Parades forever.”) Company Eight, in contrast, held up its plain and slightly archaic icon of fire ax, lantern, and fire bucket. Both Company Eleven and Company Seven—known as the aristocratic or “silk stocking” company—illuminated their engine houses with elaborate, expensive light displays. (In Eleven’s, lights shone through a transparency depicting Washington and the current president, Andrew Jackson.) Sears, despite enviably deep pockets, declined to decorate his engine house with flashy evidence of his patriotism and refused to host one of the celebrations that lasted through the night. The rest of the department began to notice that Eight was straying from the program.

Sears may not have cared about adding fancy decor to the engine house—a pastime for some companies that spruced up their headquarters with “an utter disregard of expense,” as one fire department chief later remembered. But when it came to the safety of the firemen and civilians, he spent hundreds of dollars at a time on the latest advancements. The “smoke cap,” invented locally at Lowell, was an early gas mask, giving what one newspaper described as “the semblance of a man with the head of a monster” and allowing a fireman to remain in a smoke-filled environment five times longer than usual without harm. Trained dogs could run ahead of the engine and clear the streets of pedestrians with warning barks—forerunners of the famous Dalmatians that would become familiar mascots of firehouses. Eight went from being one of the worst-behaved fire companies in the city to among the most efficient and best equipped.

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An 1832 portait of Company Thirteen in uniform. The artist is unknown. Photo: Courtesy of the Bostonian Society.

The rash of fires on Independence Day 1832 started late the night before, when a four-story building housing a grocer and a furniture dealer (neither of which was covered by any fire insurance) was set ablaze by thieves. In the middle of the night, a ramshackle two-story Cambridgeport house—the dwelling of what one newspaper called “loose people of color”—burned down, possibly at the hands of another arsonist. In the morning, near Spears’ Wharf, a carelessly tossed cigar hit a kettle of tar in an engraving shop. The blaze traveled to the Vulcan, a docked brig known for being found two years prior adrift at sea with its crew murdered by pirates. The Vulcan in turn ignited the rest of the wharf, and soon two nearby schooners were aflame, the scent of their cargoes of mackerel, molasses, salt, and sugar choking the air.

Boston was the second-wealthiest commercial center in the country, and a stalwart businessman like Sears knew how crucial it was to protect the infrastructure of the busy harbor. Company Eight arrived, along with Companies Two and Thirteen, both of which had cleaner records than many of the city’s other companies. The press later lavished praise on the companies’ performance and cooperation. “They were at their posts and every man seemed to know his place and perform his duty,” reported the Daily Columbian Centinel. “There was no confusion, no interfering with each other’s duties: in the midst of the greatest activity, there was perfect order and harmony of action.”

But even with the buildings saved, the ordeal was not over. The ships in port continued to burn, and Boston had no fireboats to reach them. The entire wharf, including many other wooden buildings storing flammable materials such as tar and coal, was threatened with conflagration—and once Two and Thirteen had returned to their engine houses, the only firefighters on hand were the men of Company Eight. The July Fourth holiday meant that many smoke eaters were off to celebrate or already in no condition to work. As one newspaper would euphemistically put it, “Many of the firemen were absent from the .”

One of the city’s fire engineers was on the scene to supervise. “Captain Sears!” he called out. “I want your company to guard the fire.”

Sears hesitated. His men were exhausted and had been in danger long enough. He insisted that, according to city ordinances, another fire company should be assigned to keep watch on the fire.

“I can’t help it,” the engineer replied, alluding to the fact that the companies that had been on the scene had already left. “The other engines are all broken.”

“The other engines all broken?” Sears asked. “It won’t take me long to break my engine. It is not my duty to stay, and I shall go home.”

“I command you to stay and guard this fire!”

“If you will admit to me in the presence of witnesses that all of the fire companies of Boston except Number Eight are drunk, I will stay and guard this fire.”

“That’s damned impudent,” the engineer said.

“It’s the truth, and if you won’t admit it, this company goes home.” Sears turned to his men and put his lips to his speaking trumpet. “Limber up, men!”

The engineer gave in. “Look here,” he said before Sears and his men could finish gathering their gear to depart from the scene. “Let me tell you, just you stay and guard this fire. About the other companies being drunk, between us two, they’re damned near it, I’ll admit.”

Sears, having provided an object lesson to his crew, was satisfied. Turning his attention to the flaming sea, he gave the signal to Veazie, who ordered the men to station themselves along the harbor and snuff out any flames that licked the docks.

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Robert Salmon’s A Fire in Boston by Moonlight, dated 1830–1835. Photo: Courtesy Christie’s Auctions.

Splitting the leadership of Company Eight with George Veazie had been a shrewd decision on Sears’s part. With Veazie handling the day-to-day business of firefighting, Sears was freed up to concentrate on charting their overall course. Veazie, having come from Quincy in 1831, was new enough to the city and the department not to be tainted by corruption or competitiveness. Sears could see much of his younger self in the hard-working carpenter, the go-getter who came from an outlying area of the commonwealth to find his calling and fortune in Boston.

Veazie, likewise, saw a vision of his future in the successful and enterprising Sears. If he had stayed in Quincy, he would have had to bide his time behind his uncle, an established carpenter—now in the midst of renovating former President John Quincy Adams’s house—who, like Sears, preached integrity and industriousness. Boston, on the other hand, presented a wealth of opportunities for a young man to earn respect and money, just as Sears had done ten years earlier. And joining a volunteer fire company in the city was a networking opportunity; it offered a rare chance to socialize with people from every rung on the social and professional ladder, from day laborers to wealthy engineers, cabinetmakers to bookkeepers.

But in the summer of 1832, there was little time for conversation in the engine house. Just three days after the Fourth of July fire, Boston suffered one of its worst blazes in years. An arsonist set a carpenter’s shop on fire in Merrimac Street, near the Charles River. The flames spread to a three-story brick stable—which collapsed into the street shortly after all 90 horses were safely outside—and then to several adjacent buildings before consuming the Warren Hotel. In a throwback to the bucket brigades of the colonial era, citizens were sent to nearby roofs with pails of water in case burning cinders were taken by the northeast wind. To make matters worse, the wells near the hotel were nearly dry because of drought and overuse by a cluster of nearby distillers—especially maddening to Sears and the true believers, like the temperate grocer Fisk, in his reformers’ squad.

That fire was massive enough that, according to a reporter for the Transcript, in the dark of night you were able to read a newspaper by the light of the flames in any street of the city. As people crowded around at a distance to watch the spectacular inferno, petty criminals saw a chance. A wallet and a gold watch were reported stolen. Another man was nabbed by two thieves and thrown to the ground before a bystander intervened. Thieves were known to set additional, smaller fires during a big blaze to add to the distraction. It was a perfect example of why men like Sears and Quincy saw fire not just as a destructive power in its own right but as a portal to moral disorder.

Companies from around the city rotated shifts on the July 7 fire for more than 12 hours before it was fully extinguished. Just a week later, another arsonist—or perhaps the same one—struck, burning down a stable and killing five horses on Leverett Street. Sears’s company answered the alarm for two other arson fires in Dedham on October 30 and in Dorchester a few days later—fires that together killed 60 horses and a Revolutionary War veteran who had been asleep in the Dedham stable’s loft. Sears continued to risk fines by venturing beyond the city limits with his squad. Company Eight was beginning to have the impact he had envisioned.

Sears refused to play games with lives on the line, ordering his men to take no part in the competitiveness among companies that was often on display at the scene of a fire. But the refusal was not mutual. Other companies often tried to block Eight’s routes to fires. Racing to respond to the Dedham blaze that October, Eight found itself neck and neck with Company Twelve and Company One. The scramble got out of hand, and a member of One broke his leg in two places when it was crushed under the company’s engine. The infighting came at great cost; before any of the engines made it to Dedham, the fire had already done its damage.

On the night of November 3, as the men recovered from their exertions at the Dorchester fire the day before, Sears noticed something amiss at Eight’s engine house: George Veazie was nowhere to be found. Perhaps something had come up with the 23-year-old’s new wife, Julia.

When there was still no trace of the foreman later, Sears could take his pick of what to worry about. Company Twelve, their most aggressive competitor, could have committed some mischief against the young man, or he could have fallen into the hands of a revenge squad of Eight’s own ex-members. They considered Veazie a traitor, a friend whom they had helped train upon his arrival in Boston, only to watch him become an interloper’s right-hand man.

Then Sears heard the news. Veazie had been .

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Lithograph of fireman dragging the engine, 1858. Photo: Louis Maurer, Library of Congress.

Charged with passing counterfeit currency, Veazie swore innocence. The whole thing, he insisted, stemmed from a misunderstanding when he’d paid for new boots with a fraudulent bank note that someone had given to him. But even if Veazie wasn’t guilty, for the moment he was stuck in jail. Sears would have to pick up his duties as the coordinator of Company Eight’s day-to-day firefighting activities—at a time when Eight was under mounting scrutiny.

Charles Wells, Boston’s mayor at the time, was a former builder, which might have given him and Sears some common ground. But the two men were near opposites. In contrast to his reform-minded predecessors, Wells prided himself on his lack of civic ambition. He was out to cut costs. A former member of the city council, he was more interested in protecting the status quo than he was in innovative ideas. The other fire companies complained to Wells about Number Eight. “If Sears and his men weren’t such reformers, if they would only take a little with the rest of the boys and be one with us, we wouldn’t find any fault,” other firefighters told the mayor.

Things came to a head on November 21, 1832. It was about four in the morning when a young man, a newspaper deliverer, was on his way through the city to deliver the Advertiser to Roxbury. While still in Boston, he noticed light reflected onto the wall of the Second United States Bank; flames were bursting from the windows of the first and second floors of a brick building on State Street. The young man and others who were passing heard a dog’s howl. Some went to find a watchman to raise an alarm while others worked on breaking a window to free the terrified animal.

Company Five—which had recently been reconstituted after a fracas with the board of engineers led to its dissolution—was based close by in an engine house at Dock Square. The men fought the flames for hours, unaware that a canister in one of the ground-floor offices contained four pounds of gunpowder—more than regulations permitted to be on the premises. When the fire reached the canister, a massive explosion shattered windows in adjoining buildings and hurled the firemen to the ground. Ten members of Company Five were injured in the blast, two of them severely.

When the fire on State Street was finally extinguished, the city fire engineer dismissed the companies from the scene. Only upon closer inspection did the engineer notice that the blaze wasn’t actually out. The flames had spread to the roof of the building opposite the offices: the Old State House, which for the past two years had been used as City Hall. Cinders drifted into the attic through the cupola, and soon the building was aflame.

The church bells sounded again. Sears and Engine Eight were trying to chase down the location of the fire, following the shouts of bystanders and watching the sky for smoke, when they came upon the engine of Company Twelve—the same squad that shadowed their movements at consecutive fires the previous month—blocking the way in the middle of the street.

Company Twelve, led by a candlemaker named Joseph Wheeler, had one of the closest engine houses to Eight’s, based a few blocks south on Washington Street—and in the Boston fire department, proximity usually begot rivalry. What was more, seven members of the earlier incarnation of Company Eight, men who had quit before Sears took the reins, were now part of Twelve, including Alfred Dow, William Willet’s former assistant foreman. Twelve’s members had designs on the old Franklin Schoolhouse—Eight’s station house—which, while cramped, provided access to both Tremont and Washington Streets, two main thoroughfares that could be used to travel rapidly north and south, almost the entire length of the city, and beat other companies to a fire.

But if Sears was about to meet his match, it might not have been in Wheeler but in one of the men who flanked him. Company Twelve’s assistant foreman, 24-year-old Joseph Drew, was a goldsmith by trade, and like Sears he proudly traced his ancestors to the founding of the American colonies. Like Sears, Drew wanted to command his own fire company. He had no interest in reforming the department, but sought to place himself in a position of power to help fulfill his political aspirations.

With Twelve’s squadron standing in his way, Sears had a choice to make. If he recharted his own company’s course—not an easy thing, with the bulky engine—he risked overexerting his men before they reached the fire and giving the flames more time to spread. If he sent his men to challenge the blockade, it could lead to a violent confrontation—the sort of disorder that had created a need for a reform company in the first place.

The dense black smoke on the horizon came from the gilded cupola that capped the Old State House’s tower and at one point had made it the tallest building in the city. Below the tower, the building stood three stories tall, and at 110 feet long it was more spacious than it first appeared. The offices of the mayor, the city council, and the board of fire engineers were inside the building. Sears knew this was his chance to show Eight’s worth to the city authorities in the most dramatic fashion possible. He could demonstrate once and for all that the old guard of firefighters were no longer in charge.

“Forward, men!” Sears cried into his speaking trumpet. Eight’s crew took their places around the engine, checking their grips on the drag ropes. “Close up, run them down, smash their crane’s neck, and never mind breaking legs.”

Company Eight charged. The Eagle’s men leaped out of the way, and Eight rammed the front of their engine. The base of Eagle’s engine snapped. Wheeler’s enraged men, threatening to “clean out” their enemies, chased after Sears’s squad as Eight continued its course to the fire. “Fire out!” shouted men from other companies who were aligned with Twelve, hoping to confuse Eight’s firefighters. When Eight stopped in front of the burning City Hall, Wheeler’s men, unencumbered by their engine, had them surrounded.

Fights between fire companies could be brutal. Clubs, wrenches, and axes were popular weapons, along with whatever else was handy. Mose Humphreys, a printer in New York who spawned Paul Bunyan–like folk legends about his time as a fireman, was said to have his shoes fitted with spikes for such occasions. Sears might have abhorred the foolish feuding between fire companies, but as the saying went, he wasn’t brought up in the woods to be scared of an owl. Once, when he’d rented the only hall in Boston that would allow the English abolitionist George Thompson to lecture against slavery (with a more than $1,000 deposit out of Sears’s own pocket), he personally stood guard outside the door in the face of an angry mob.

Now Sears counted 18 firemen from the rival company who had made it as far as City Hall—but those men were struggling to catch their breath, while Sears’s better-conditioned firefighters, 40 in number, remained ready for anything. Of course, Eben would be at his side, as usual, but so too would this other kind of family that had formed around the engine and its charismatic, unwavering captain. Sears ordered them to hold their position. Wheeler and Drew, seeing that they were outmatched—and knowing that the political ramifications of a burned City Hall would be too far-reaching for any fire company to contain—finally called off their men.

Fire crews were arriving from around the city, and Company Eight jumped into the precarious state of affairs. The men had to tie ladders together to reach the upper windows and clamber on top of the building. Scaling City Hall, they surrounded the cupola and lowered themselves into the attic, where the worst of the fire was concentrated. After a three-hour struggle, the flames were successfully confined to the attic floor, which was destroyed. The rest of the building was “saved almost by a miracle,” as the Boston Statesman put it three days later. An engraving by British painter Robert Salmon of the fire companies battling the blaze was adopted a few months later as the background for a certificate of service given by the city to firemen.


The year after Josiah Quincy had left the mayor’s office, fire companies negotiated an exemption from serving on juries and in the military after seven years of firefighting. Had there been a war going on, Sears surely would have volunteered regardless of how long he had been a fireman; even when he was nine years old, watching Eben suit up to fight in the War of 1812, he and other boys of Brewster formed a guard patrol along the shore to watch for British ships. If some firemen saw the benefit of their roles primarily in replacing other civic duties, for Sears it was civic duty.

But Sears knew enough about the current administration not to expect commendations for his dedication. Interrupting the elation that followed the extinguishing of the City Hall fire, Mayor Wells called Sears in for a meeting, which quickly became an interrogation about the incident with Company Twelve.

“Why did you run into Number Twelve?” Wells demanded.

“Because they obstructed our way to the fire,” Sears replied.

Damaging another company’s engine was as serious a charge as there was among firemen. Wells threatened to discharge Sears and disband Company Eight altogether. “You broke their machine,” he said.

Sears was incredulous. “We did,” he said, “and the next time they purposely get in our way, we will smash their machine into pieces.”

“You might have broken their legs.”

“We don’t want to break any legs, but we may next time. What is the fire ordinance? What are our orders?” Sears wondered if this mayor—unlike Quincy—even knew the answer. “‘You will proceed at once to the fire, and break down all obstructions.’ There, Mr. Mayor, is the law, and we only obeyed it.”

The irony was thick as smoke: Here they were, sitting in the very building that could have burned to the ground, which had already happened once since it was rebuilt in 1713 after a fire. “And now I will resign and you can have the engine,” Sears said. “I will have nothing more to do with it.”

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Old State House in Flames, 1832, by Robert Salmon. Photo: Courtesy of the Bostonian Society.

Mayor Wells might not have liked Sears, but he was pragmatic. He knew that Sears had turned Company Eight into a powerful model of efficiency. Losing one of the best fire companies in Boston could lead to hikes in fire-insurance rates, which wasn’t good for Wells’s political position. Besides, the mayor had enough problems to deal with as it was. The city struggled with debt—caused by dreamers like Quincy with big projects like the Faneuil Hall Market (also known as Quincy Market)—and was in the midst of a serious cholera outbreak. He walked back his reprimand. But Sears was too proud a man to forgive easily, and before he finally agreed to stay on Wells practically had to beg.

Sears now had some leverage over the mayor. But internal problems were multiplying at the South End engine house. George Veazie, it turned out, was being accused of more than accidentally using a fraudulent bank note. He was being charged with intentionally passing counterfeit bills to multiple businesses—and records indicated that he had tried to do the same thing on a visit to New York earlier that year.

His case went to trial in December. Veazie, prosecutors claimed, went into three stores trying to pass two $10 notes—promissory documents from the Suffolk Bank—in exchange for boots and a few dollars’ change in bills. One of the storekeepers was suspicious of the bank note Veazie showed him and left to warn the neighboring stores and fetch a constable. Veazie was cornered. Although he pleaded not guilty, he had already admitted to the arresting constable that the bank notes were counterfeit, a fact the bank officers confirmed at trial (while also marveling at the counterfeit notes’ high quality).

Even the prosecutors seemed to accept Veazie’s explanation that he received the counterfeit notes from his father-in-law, who promptly disappeared and apparently was never found by the authorities. But Veazie’s family members never disputed that he knowingly committed the crime. His family and friends in Quincy assured the court that Veazie was honest and hardworking but acknowledged that living in Boston may have changed him; he had thrown himself wholeheartedly into his role as foreman of Sears’s groundbreaking company, but time spent in the engine house and at fires naturally took away from his work and steady income as a carpenter. In the end, Veazie was sentenced to four years imprisonment with hard labor. “Look out! Look out!” ran the headline in the Transcript, warning Bostonians of the criminal in their midst.

Veazie was taken to the State Prison in Charlestown—a structure that Sears had worked on as a builder—on December 22, 1832 to serve his sentence. Sears had lost a foreman, a firefighting mentor, and a potential protégé for his construction business. At the next monthly meeting of Eight, Sears and his men reluctantly voted to give Veazie a dishonorable discharge—the first and only time that would happen on Sears’s watch. The incident was enough to make Sears question his own famously decisive judgment, especially in an endeavor where faith in one’s comrades was a matter of life and death. It also shattered the naive idea that he had created a shining city—or at least a shining engine house—that would be a bulwark against moral weakness. Perhaps the young men Sears had judged harshly from afar, rather than being deficient in character, were overwhelmed by a system that not only tolerated rash, impulsive action but counted on it to keep the men primed for their death-defying duties. Sears had been set on fixing the failures of the men to protect the public, while in fact the young men needed protection from a system lacking any stability.

Sears’s enemies took advantage of his distraction. With Veazie’s case going to trial, a faction of discontented members of Eight held a secret meeting to enroll a new contingent of 26 men as members of the company—which would provide them with enough votes to force Sears out. The new recruits included eight embittered ex-members whom Sears had replaced, among them William Weston, John Anderson, Thomas Emmons, and Company Twelve’s Alfred Dow. (It was now clear that the malcontents had been feeding intelligence on Eight’s whereabouts to Twelve—probably through Dow—which had allowed the rival company to shadow its movements.)

The breakaway faction and the new members made a scene at the next general meeting of Company Eight and threatened Sears and those loyal to him. Chief Engineer Amory intervened, using the authority of the city government to expel the new members. Sears had come full circle: Officials now recognized that he had built something that was worth protecting. The coup attempt ultimately failed, but with every step Sears took, he felt his company grow more brittle.

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Boston firemen cleaning the machine, 1851. Photo: John Prince, Library of Congress.

When Eben Sears told his brother that he wanted out of Company Eight, the writing was on the engine-house wall: Sears’s experiment was coming to an end. Over the course of a few months, between January and May 1833, Sears watched the pile of returned badges grow as men resigned in the face of harassment and obstructions—their furniture vanishing, the rival companies breathing down their necks, the mutineers and ex-members trying to gain control, the government officials flip-flopping about regulating the department or loosening the reins, and George Veazie’s embarrassing conviction.

Even Sears grew exhausted from the disruption and disappointment. He craved a settled life. On January 24, 1833, he had married Mary Eastabrooks Crease, the younger sister of Eben’s wife, Eliza. He had a new project to throw himself into: starting a family.

Sears’s Company Eight finally disbanded altogether in the early summer of 1833. The engine was taken over by a new group that included former members—as well as key alumni of archrival Company Twelve, whose ambitious assistant foreman, Joseph Drew, became the new captain of Eight. The tablet admonishing “No drinking of liquor” was probably the first thing to come down as Eight returned to its old habits. Almost immediately, the new Eight challenged Company Thirteen to a public competition between their engines in the Boston Common on July 4. Company Thirteen, likely the most sympathetic among the other fire crews to Sears’s reform push, declined the challenge, citing its experience of the “evil arising out of such meetings.”

Six months later, the old Franklin Schoolhouse caught fire, incurring thousands of dollars’ worth of damage. The incident came only a few months after the new officers of Company Eight the city for upgrades to the engine house. Whether the fire was a message to the slow-moving government bureaucracy to comply with their demands, an arson committed by a rival company, or an accidental fire that started in the building’s furnace (as the Boston Post reported), it remained a startling image: the epicenter of Sears’s reform movement, engulfed in flames. To add insult to injury, a thief braved the fire in order to steal a writing desk and some ammunition.

Misfortune followed Sears, too, after his departure from Company Eight. His and Mary’s first child, Willard, died at birth in the fall of 1833, exactly two years to the day after his niece Eliza died. Two years later, Mary died during the birth of a second son, Samuel—who also died—barely two and a half years after she and Sears had married.

After the loss of his family, Sears threw himself into his business dealings and social causes with even greater ardor. He bought Boston’s Marlboro Hotel, which had been famous for its tavern at the terminal of a stagecoach line. Sears did what only Sears would even try to do, turning an establishment known for raucous drinking into a temperance hotel. It was not only a complete break with the Marlboro’s history but an entirely new concept: There was no drinking, smoking, or profanity permitted. The landlord said grace before meals, and a Bible passage was read and hymns sung in the lobby twice a day. The transformation proved unexpectedly savvy from a business standpoint. The Marlboro soon became the go-to accommodation for the many devout Christians who passed through Boston.

When no venue in Boston would lease a room to the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society for its annual meeting, Sears had his employees put in studwork and platforms in the hotel stable and provided seating for the audience. He soon razed the stable and replaced it with a chapel, where hotel guests were expected to attend services and which Sears leased out for meetings and lectures.

Some of these events were abolitionist or otherwise related to Sears’s personal crusades, but giving a platform to speakers whom nobody else would host became its own cause. The devout Christian Sears liked to say that, given the opportunity, he would welcome Abner Kneeland, the radical preacher who declared churchgoers’ traditional view of God “a chimera of their imagination” and was about to become the last person in America convicted of blasphemy. In addition to political reformers and advocates, the chapel played an important role in literary and cultural history; it was the first venue for the Lowell Lectures, a famed speaking series that brought James Russell Lowell, Louis Agassiz, and William James to the Marlboro.

The city marshal of Boston—a forerunner to police chief, which the city did not yet have—warned Sears in the spring of 1837 not to allow Sylvester Graham to hold a meeting at the Marlboro chapel for a women’s group. Graham was controversial for advocating vegetarianism and a new kind of flour that would later give rise to the graham cracker. A mob of bakers and brewers had already prevented Graham from delivering his lecture once, at Amory Hall on Washington Street, a block away from the Common, by threatening a riot. “I am in favor of freedom of speech,” Sears said to the city marshal. “If the time has come to decide the question whether that freedom can be maintained, I am as ready to meet it on the subject of Grahamism as on any other reform.”

“We can do nothing to stop a mob,” the marshal said. “Your building will most likely be torn down.”

“Let it be done,” Sears replied. He was not particularly interested in Graham’s diet. With typical grandiosity, he assured the marshal that he was ready to offer himself “as a sacrifice on the altar of freedom.”

Boston’s new mayor, Samuel Atkins Eliot, reiterated the city marshal’s warnings and again urged Sears to cancel the lecture. “Our police is nothing, nor can we depend upon the military.”

“It is said by some that public opinion is human omnipotence,” Sears told Eliot. “But when it is going wrong, it should be made right.” To Sears, giving in to what he called “mobocracy”—rule by those who seemed most dangerous—would flip the correct social order of things, allowing the powerful to deprive the downtrodden of their rights on a whim and, conversely, permitting the poor to demand that those who had earned wealth and power yield it.

The mob descended on the Marlboro as predicted. Sears had been directing one of his construction crews to pull down some plaster for a repair project, and knowing that he would have no protection from city officials, he told his workmen to place the stripped plaster and some chemical lime near the windows. When Sears could not persuade the anti-Graham mob to go away peacefully, he went back inside the hotel, climbed to an upper floor, and gave a signal, at which point he and the workers shoveled the mixture of mortar and lime into the air. The cloud of noxious dust temporarily blinded the crowd, and it dispersed without causing further trouble. Sears’s heady days with the fire department had taught him that however lofty his ideals, brawlers were to be met on their own terms.

A few weeks after his victory over the rioters, Sears, now 33, took a trip to New York and married for the second time, to a 23-year-old Vermont antislavery activist named Susan Hatch. It was during this stage of his renewed domestic contentment, four years since his brief career as a fireman, that Sears returned to their home near the entrance to the Boston Common one afternoon to find a group of unexpected visitors waiting for him.

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A circa 1837 cartoon depicting a group of wealthy blue bloods on Boston Common, trying hard (but mostly failing) to learn how to be firefighters. Photo: David Claypoole Johnston, Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

Sitting in the Searses’ parlor were representatives from eight of Boston’s fire-insurance companies. While the fear of fire had for years been a boon to the city’s insurance industry, the worsening performance of the city’s firefighters meant the firms regularly paid out big settlements. The city had been forced to disband or accept resignations from six more fire companies for misconduct. The latest delinquent edition of Company Eight had just abandoned its engine in angry protest against another new city ordinance. The successes and ambitions of Sears’s squad might have been short-lived, but they had not been forgotten.

“Mr. Sears,” pleaded one of his guests. “The city government is helpless, and what are we to do?”

Sears wasn’t eager to relive the ignominious end of his Company Eight experiment. “Really, gentlemen,” he said, “I have no advice to offer.”

“Mr. Sears, we have organized an impromptu company and have taken one of the engines. We are trying to do something so that the city may not be entirely unprotected. We want you to come and help us out of difficulty.”

Sears sensed an opportunity, though it was not the one the visitors had in mind. He agreed to take the Boston Brahmins (as Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes years later would famously brand the city’s elite) out to the Common and train them in basic firefighting techniques. In the new company were leaders in various fields in Boston, including George Hayward, a prominent surgeon who lived in Beacon Hill, and Deacon Charles Scudder. It was surreal for Sears to once again be called captain, to pull on a fire cap and adjust it over his now receding widow’s peak.

Sears had brought along some of the members of his old team of firemen, who put the blue bloods through the ringer. “Man the hose!” yelled one of his assistants as the aspiring volunteers tried haplessly to screw the sludge-filled segments together. “Get down on your knees, take that hose between your legs, pinch it between your knees and get it together.” With a crowd gathered, the aristocratic executives in fine coats and neckcloths sprayed themselves with water and grease as they tried shooting water up a flagpole, a scene memorialized with glee by a local cartoonist.

“Gentlemen,” Sears told them when it was over, “I will have nothing to do with a volunteer fire department. I will not do anything unless you organize a paid force.” He had made his point. Instead of a new fire company, a committee was put together to pressure the mayor and the city council to consider Sears’s idea.

Momentum slowly began to pick up. Then, a few months into the campaign, a group of fire companies got into an altercation with a large Irish funeral procession—it started with an apparently accidental collision between a fireman and a funeral-goer—that turned into a nearly citywide brawl. The fight, which came to be known as the Great Broad Street Riot, was brutal and bloody, though somehow no one was killed. It was one of the ugliest incidents the fire department had ever been involved in, and Company Eight was right in the middle of it.

Between the political pressure and the riot, Mayor Eliot and the City Council were compelled to act. They passed legislation reorganizing the entire department, replacing the volunteer system with a paid (though not yet full-time) professional force. This experiment created the first professional fire department in the country. People joked that only free blacks and the Irish would make up the companies—the implication being that no one else would be low enough on the professional ladder to consider being a fireman a paid occupation. But the new Boston model would be followed in every city in the United States. Sears’s Company Eight, as one newspaper put it later, had been “the entering wedge that finally split, and broke up the existing system.”

The men who had come together to join and challenge Sears’s Company Eight went their separate ways over the years. William Willet, who had commanded Engine Eight in the days when it refused to accept Quincy’s implementation of a board of engineers, joined the board himself shortly after the company’s disbandment. Eben and Eliza’s family continued to expand, adding four more children in the years after little Eliza’s death, and Eben had more time for his busy household; he was still involved in some of his younger brother’s construction projects but was content to let Sears tackle the most ambitious ones without him. Sears and his second wife had no children, but he remained close throughout his life with his nieces and nephews. One of the ringleaders of the attempted takeover of Company Eight in 1832, carpenter William Weston, died a few years later at 29, from heavy drinking, while Joseph Drew, who inherited Sears’s captain’s badge, had to testify his way out of a scandal when caught at the scene of the burning of a Catholic convent.

George Veazie, whose arrest for counterfeiting helped push Sears’s project off the rails, received a pardon more than halfway into his four-year sentence. His family had petitioned the governor on the basis of Julia Veazie’s poor health, and the fact that Veazie’s father had died shortly after Veazie’s conviction, leaving his younger children in precarious positions. Veazie’s uncle promised that his nephew would “live in future an exemplary and honest life” and be “a useful and industrious citizen.” In 1843, Veazie reportedly went west to follow the gold rush, only to return to Quincy defeated, unsuccessful at another shortcut to wealth.

Sears accumulated more businesses and causes, always happy to defy the conventional wisdom of the establishment. He helped to charter the Female Medical College in Boston, with a mission to train women doctors, to make childbirth safer—a legacy of his sorrow over losing his first wife and sons. He was also a patron and original board member of a new evangelical Christian college in Ohio called Oberlin, one of the first colleges to be coeducational and to admit African-American students. He helped guide the formation of the Northern Pacific Railroad and built some of the first major buildings in San Francisco (later destroyed, ironically, by fire).

He also kept his promise to the executives who had visited his home that if Boston’s fire department was professionalized, he would be involved. With the new department in place, Sears helped restructure Company Nine, known as Despatch. Sears was briefly a member, and he brought in Jonas Fitch, a trusted employee at his construction company, as the captain.

With the revamped department in place, Boston developed a kind of nostalgic curiosity about the freewheeling days of the volunteer department. Stories of Sears’s exploits as the head of Company Eight were passed down within his family and among his contemporaries at the fire company. But aside from a few obscure newspaper articles, his legacy was never preserved, and he appears to have been forgotten long ago. With all the literati and reporters he encountered, Sears could have ensured that a definitive chronicle was written, but that wouldn’t fit the style of a “true-hearted mechanic,” as the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator called him.

Besides, Sears preferred looking forward to looking back. Once the fire department was in place, he added another title to his résumé, taking advantage of the safer new order he’d helped forge. He started his own fire-insurance company and installed himself as its president.

A Note on Sources

The most recent mention I can find of Willard Sears’s Company Eight is a three-sentence summary in a 1967 book about the Boston police by Roger Lane called Policing the City. Earlier, in addition to references to his time in the fire department in obituaries of Sears in 1890, there was an article in the Boston Herald in 1884, for which at least one former member (and, I suspect, Sears) shared memories of Company Eight with an unnamed journalist. But because the records of the Boston Fire Department from the 1830s are so fragmented, the full story has never been told.

I pieced together that story from what survives of the early fire department records, including correspondence, membership lists, city council communications, broadsides, fire-company constitutions and bylaws, and the minutes of meetings of Company Thirteen and Company Six, the only ones I have found that survived from the years Sears was involved in Company Eight. I also reviewed many Boston newspapers from the time. There was indispensable material in the Boston City Archives, the Bostonian Society, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the American Antiquarian Society, and the Boston Public Library Special Collections, where Kimberly Reynolds was a great help. Elizabeth Bouvier of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court archives and the staff of the State Archives of Massachusetts helped me unearth the material about George Veazie’s arrest and trial.

Secondary sources contextualized Sears’s fire-company experiment, including Samuel Pearce May’s The Descendants of Richard Sares (Sears) of Yarmouth, Mass., 1638 – 1888, Josiah Quincy’s A Municipal History of the Town and City of Boston, Edmund Quincy’s Life of Josiah Quincy, Arthur Wellington Brayley’s A Complete History of the Boston Fire Department, Amy Greenberg’s Cause for Alarm: The Volunteer Fire Department in the Nineteenth-Century City, Robert S. Holzman’s Romance of Firefighting, Stephanie Schorow’s Boston on Fire: A History of Fires and Firefighting in Boston, Mark Tebeau’s Eating Smoke: Fire in Urban America 1800–1950, and the Bostonian Society’s collection guide prepared by Phil Hunt. I also consulted Daniel Cohen’s enlightening “Passing the Torch: Boston Firemen, ‘Tea Party’ Patriots, and the Burning of the Charlestown Convent,” from the Journal of the Early Republic, and I benefited from personal correspondence with Cohen, James Teed of the Boston Fire Historical Society, and Eben Sears’s descendants Willard May, Susan May, and Wendy Eakin.

On an unexpected personal note, at the time I was finishing my work on this article, my wife was finishing research on the Cape Cod side of her family and found that she descends from Richard Sears, placing her and my children—and, less directly, me—in the same family tree as Willard Sears.

The Fort of Young Saplings

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The Fort of Young Saplings

A writer’s quest to understand her connection to a distant people and their history.

By Vanessa Veselka

The Atavist Magazine, No. 43


Vanessa Veselka is the author of the novel Zazen, which won the 2012 PEN/Robert W. Bingham prize for fiction. Her short stories have appeared inTin House, Yeti, and Zyzzyva. Her nonfiction can be found in The American Reader, The Atlantic, GQ, and Medium, and was included in the 2013 Best American Essays anthology.


Editor: Charles Homans
Designer: Gray Beltran
Producer: Megan Detrie
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Riley Blanton
Illustrator: Andrea Dezsö
Audio: Emily Kwong and Richard Nelson
Other Images: The Alaska State Library Historical Collections, the Alaska State Museum, the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley, and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University

Published in November 2014. Design updated in 2021.

One

In 1972, in Juneau, Alaska, my father was adopted into the Kiks.ádi clan of a native Alaskan people called the Tlingit. This made me a clan child of the Kiks.ádi, a relationship that would bewilder me for years.

To be clear, the Kiks.ádi didn’t take me home to live with them. I was tangential to an honor conferred on my father, a community organizer for the Model Cities program—one of Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty initiatives—who had built friendships among the Tlingit while working alongside them on the Citizens Participation Committee in Juneau. None of this would be my story to tell except that when they adopted him they also got me, and all my earliest memories are of totem poles and Native faces, of wandering in the constant rain at beach picnics listening to the Tlingit language, and of the Raven and the Eagle, icons of the primary cultural divisions of the Tlingit, which I saw everywhere—on coffee mugs and ritual drums, on tourist T-shirts and the regalia of Tlingit dancers at the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall—and were the first representations I knew of a larger, ineffable world.

There was never a reality, though, in which I would be Kiks.ádi. Tlingit are matrilineal, and my mother was not adopted. My parents split up, and my mom took my brother and me back to Houston. Whereas my Tlingit grandmother’s house had been full of bric-a-brac and stuffed frogs, my maternal grandmother’s house was full of plastic-covered furniture and large wooden lamps shaped like pineapples. Nana had a three-inch-thick harvest gold rug that she raked in one direction daily. I lay in the shag like it was a field of wheat and watched Ultraman. While I might have been recognized as Kiks.ádi yadi—child of the Kiks.ádi—by my father’s clan, my own clan was the Rug Raking Plastic Sofa Bridge Players. We had locusts instead of ravens.

The year my dad left Alaska, my mom moved to New York. By then I was nine and had already lived in seven different states. I knew what kids who move a lot know: try to be invisible or try to be impressive, which is why on day one of my new fourth grade class I loudly proclaimed myself the sort-of-daughter of a proud Tlingit warrior tribe that no one ever beat. Sadly, we did not move again.

By now it was the late Seventies in Greenwich Village. Boys at my school were grabbing girls and pulling them into unseen corners of the playground, pushing them down and dry-humping them in a game called “rape.” Half our parents were dealing or doing cocaine. The rest seemed to be drunk. The vigil flame of syndicated television burned, for many of us, around the clock.

But I could not let the Tlingit go. Even though I was mercilessly teased as an “Indian princess,” even though my father had stopped talking about the Tlingit and my mother got uncomfortable when I spoke of the adoption, I remained faithful in the belief that I belonged to a family of great and unbeaten warriors who would someday welcome my return. In the summers, when my brother and I went back to Alaska and he played with friends, I attended adult-education classes at the Alaska State Museum. I was not the only white person in the Intro to Tlingit Culture and Language course, but I was the only eight-year-old. I had been imprinted at just the right age. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, I wanted to be real.

Still, eventually I had to admit that I probably was a delusional liar and a troubled child. Even at 11, I could see the telltale signs. I was living amid the wreckage of a fourth marriage and a fifth school. My classmates were right. Real Indians rode horses, and we had already killed them all. If there were any left, I wasn’t one of them.

Two

The Tlingit don’t fit stereotypes of Native Americans. They’re more like Vikings. Or maybe they’re more like Maori. A fiercely martial people, terrifying in their samurai-like slat armor, their bird-beak helmets, and their raven masks, they never surrendered to a colonial power, never ceded territory. When Russia sold Alaska to the United States in 1867, the Tlingit argued that the Russians held only trading posts and that the rest was not theirs to sell. The protest was unsuccessful, but it was the beginning of a narrative: The Tlingit had never signed away their land, had never sold it, had never moved.

It was an argument the Tlingit would make, nearly a century later, in the courtroom. In 1959, the Tlingit sued the federal government in Tlingit and Haida Indians of Alaska v. United States and demanded fair compensation for their stolen land. The Tlingit turned out to be as strategically brilliant in the courtroom as they were on the battlefield. They won a pittance but kept their claims alive, navigating difficult legislative waters and, in the 1960s, joining a statewide native movement seeking a settlement. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 would award the state’s indigenous people nearly $1 billion and recognize native ownership of 44 million acres of prime forest, 22 millions acres of mineral rights, and 16 million acres of subsurface mineral rights. At the time it was signed, the bill was the gold standard of indigenous settlements.

The huge infusion of cash lessened the economic pressure for Alaska Natives to abandon tribal lands. As a result, Tlingit still live today where they lived before European contact and make decisions with little or no interference from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. A friend of mine told me once of a Tlingit elder no more than five feet tall who was unpopular at powwows because she liked to walk up to the biggest Lakota or Crow she saw, jab her fingers in his or her chest, and say, “You lost! We won!” It was terrible diplomacy—the Tlingit are not famous among other tribes for their modesty—but she was not necessarily wrong.

It was true, of course, that the Tlingit could not escape the profound suffering that came from European colonialism. Epidemics devastated the population, and those who remained suffered from all too familiar oppression. But economically and culturally, one could argue that no tribe fared better. If, as historian Shelby Foote once said, the psychology of the American South holds within itself the identity of a defeated nation, then perhaps the Tlingit psyche holds within it the opposite—faith in its ability to fight and win. It was easy to see why my dad was drawn to them.

My father shared a rural sensibility with his Tlingit friends. They certainly shared a distaste for pacifism. A former Marine from Texas, he had spent time in Brazil and cowboyed in the Texas panhandle. After taking a job with Model Cities, he was sent to a small border town populated by Mexicans and run by whites, and after that to Alaska.

The Citizens Participation Committee, which advised on funding for War on Poverty initiatives, was fighting to get federal money flowing to the poorer Tlingit neighborhoods of Juneau. My father was not the first white man hired to work with the CPC; another had been hired several months earlier, causing uproar among Tlingit activists. But at least he had been an Alaskan. My father was a different story. Not only was he a white man, but he was a Southern white man—and, rumor had it, some kind of cowboy who had never even been to Alaska before. The job he took effectively made him chief operating officer of the committee, a position many in the community felt should have gone to a Tlingit.

A year later, for reasons I’m not sure I fully understand—such things are always shaded by time and relationship—Andy Ebona, the Kiks.ádi executive director of the CPC, went to his mother, Amy Nelson, clan mother of the Kiks.ádi, and asked her to adopt my father. She agreed but didn’t say when. Then one day my father got a call from Andy saying he should get down to the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall right away—that Amy was going to do it. He rushed over there, but nothing happened. Later he found out that he hadn’t been dressed right. He was in jeans.

In the end, the ceremony was simple and quick. Amy asked him to stand. In front of witnesses, she held a dollar bill to his head and gave him his name, Aak’wtaatseen, which means “swimming or moving frog” and comes from a story about a man from another culture who brings something needed to the people. Like all great honors, the name was part recognition, part threat. Promise that you will live up to this, it said. But it did not make clear how.

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Three

In 1991, as a young adult, I returned to Juneau—something I had always said I would do. I hadn’t been there since third grade, but my own sense of relation to the Tlingit never fully left. Sometimes I was comforted by the thought of the adoption and other times ashamed to have believed in it at all. Still, one of the first things I did when I got to Juneau was look up my Tlingit uncle Andy Ebona.

Waiting on the corner where we agreed to meet, I half-expected a Miyazaki-like apparition, a giant frog with garnet eyes and pockets full of gold nuggets and salmonberries—so vivid and unsorted were my childhood memories, and so disorienting was it to be back among them again as an adult. Instead, Andy turned out to be a middle-aged man, roughly my height, with a cook’s build, a little round but solid, with thick black hair and a broad face. One of the first things he said to me was to tell my father, “Our mother wants to know why her son doesn’t write.” I wanted to be that letter, but I wasn’t. Neither of us seemed to know what to do with the other.

I ate grilled salmon in Andy’s apartment. I had planned all along to make a grand statement of loyalty—I never forgot about the family, I wanted to say, and I never took off my frog ring, it just vanished in a lake when I was ten, and I can still say “raven” and “shaman” and “thank you” in Tlingit, just in case you were wondering—but I didn’t want to appear entitled. Nor did I want to make him think I thought the experience was exotic. Lost in a fog of cultural sensitivity, I said nothing.

Later we went to a family gathering out on Douglas Island, and that evening I ate herring roe on hemlock and gumboot for the first time and saw my Tlingit grandmother, Amy, for the last time. She was small and gracious, but I don’t think she remembered me. After a few hours I slipped out, convinced I’d done everything wrong. At this point in my life, I know that’s the way 22-year-olds often leave parties, under a shroud of inarticulate failure, but at the time I assigned it to other things. I assigned it to being a collateral relative.

That afternoon I had asked Andy about the Kiks.ádi, and he had spoken of the Battle of Sitka. Going to a bookshelf, he’d handed me a book on the Tlingit written in the 1850s by a German explorer. There weren’t any good books yet, he said, but one was on the way. The Kiks.ádi had beaten the Russians twice, once in 1802 and then again in 1804 at the Battle of Sitka. The battle came up again later that night in passing. It was, I learned, a subject quickly raised once in the company of Kiks.ádi, so bonded were they to those events. The battle belonged to them and they belonged to it. These things are inextricable.

Four

I didn’t see Andy again for over 20 years. Then, in 2011, he sent me a Facebook friend request. There was no message, and it wasn’t a particularly intimate gesture, but it was the first gesture I had received from him that was meant for me directly. Over the following months, a few more requests trickled in from people who knew me as a child, and soon a stream of images began to appear onscreen: snapshots of the Citizens Participation Committee meetings, of my parents and me as a two-year-old, of Andy and other friends picnicking on a rocky beach.

I decided to go to Juneau again. My trip had one purpose only: to connect with my Tlingit family. I wouldn’t tell this to any of them, though; it would be too pathetic. I would be casual. I would pretend I was dropping by the coastal mountain range 1,500 miles to the north of my home.

Wanting to be prepared, I returned to my fallback: study. I started with the Kiks.ádi victory at the Battle of Sitka. I went first to Wikipedia, our era’s greatest repository of received wisdom, where I was stunned to find an account that confidently stated that the Russians, not the Tlingit, had won:

Though the Russians’ initial assault (in which Alexandr Baranov, head of the Russian expedition, sustained serious injuries) was repelled, their naval escorts bombarded the Tlingit fort Shís’gi Noow mercilessly, driving the natives into the surrounding forest after only a few days. The Russian victory was decisive, and resulted in the Sheet’ká Kwáan being permanently displaced from their ancestral lands. They fled north and reestablished an old settlement on the neighboring Chichagof Island to enforce a trade embargo against the Russians.

The word “fled” hit me first, then “decisive.” If the battle was such a clear-cut Russian victory, why had the Kiks.ádi been bragging about it for the past two centuries? I paused for a moment between the two stories. Then, like any thinker with the slightest leaning toward postcolonial critique, I set aside the dead old white man account. If the Kiks.ádi claimed to have beaten the Russians, I would take it as gospel. Instead of asking if it was true, I would ask how it was true. I would prove my loyalty.

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The Tlingit settlement at Sitka, 1793. Painting: Sigismund Bacstrom, Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Five

On the afternoon of September 19, 1804, Alexandr Baranov, chief manager of the Russian-American Company, sailed into the Sitka Sound on his ship the Ermak. With him were three smaller armed ships, a flotilla of several hundred sea kayaks, and the Russian Imperial Navy’s sloop-of-war, the Neva. The 1,200 men Baranov brought with him were mostly mercenaries—former Navy sailors and fur traders moonlighting as hired guns—some Aleuts, and a handful of company employees. They were there to send a message to the Tlingit: Sitka belongs to Russia.

Russia first began claiming territory in present-day Alaska in the 1740s, following Vitus Bering’s exploration of the Alaskan coast. Like other colonial powers, Russia wanted to expand its sphere of influence, but its main interest in Alaska was whale oil and fur. Over the next four decades, the Russians hunted along the Aleutian Islands and eastward into the gulf, colonizing as they went. 

The most successful of the colonial-commercial ventures was the Shelikhov-Golikov Company, of which the young Baranov was manager. In 1799, Tsar Paul I, seeking to consolidate his power in the colonies, turned his attention to the SGC. He created from the old enterprise a new, larger company and, after granting it a trade monopoly, invested his and his brother’s personal money in it. The aristocracy soon followed, displacing the merchant investors of the venture’s earlier iteration, and the Russian-American Company was born. 

Modeled after the Dutch East India Company, the RAC was meant to be an empire-building machine. At this point, it was sea otter that the Russians needed, that remarkable mammal whose fur so efficiently warmed the wealthy of Moscow and St. Petersburg. It drew them deeper into what is now the Alaskan panhandle, and the ancestral home of the Tlingit.

The Tlingit had always been a problem for the Russians. Letters between SGC managers warned that they weren’t like the other native tribes. Fifty years before Baranov’s arrival in the region, the Russians lost two landing parties to the Tlingit, the second in search of the first. No more were sent.

In 1792, in the Prince William Sound, Baranov himself had been caught up in a Tlingit attack targeting Chugach and Alutiiq natives with whom he was trading, and most of the men with him were killed. In a letter to his employer, Baranov described his Tlingit assailants as “outstanding warriors” who moved with perfect coordination and discipline. “On their heads they had thick helmets with figures of monsters on them, and neither our buckshot nor our bullets could pierce their armor,” he wrote. “In the dark, they seemed to us worse than devils.”

This experience must certainly have been on Baranov’s mind six years later when he arrived in Sitka Sound for the first time. A dark and dense rainforest of cedar, spruce, and hemlock rose up from the water, trees over 200 feet tall with crowns disappearing into the mist (which was everywhere) and the drizzle (ever present).

Sounds of the forest.

As he sailed into the sound, Baranov passed beneath the shadow of Noow Tlein, an ancient fortified settlement, which had been inhabited by the Tlingit for at least a thousand years. Built atop an outcrop of rock that rose 60 feet from shore to shoulder, Noow Tlein was surrounded on three sides by water. Baranov, upon seeing it, wisely chose to sail on. Shipwrecking (something he did a lot) seven miles north, however, he was forced to trade his prized chain-mail shirt to the Tlingit in exchange for his life.

The Kiks.ádi, smart middlemen that they were, struck a deal allowing Baranov to build a trading post. But three years later, in 1802, the Tlingit rose up. K’alyaán, a great Kiks.ádi warrior, struck the initial blow, killing a blacksmith and taking his hammer. (Later he would wield it in the Battle of Sitka.)

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K’alyaán, a great Kiks.ádi warrior, with his blacksmith’s hammer. Photo: David Rickman, courtesy of the National Park Service.

Baranov was away in Kodiak when he got the news that his fort was gone. It took him two years to return to Sitka. It’s easy enough to wonder why he would have bothered to reclaim such a remote colonial outpost. But the Russian-American Company was funded by the aristocracy back in St. Petersburg and backed by the Russian Navy. The geopolitical jockeying for the Pacific Northwest was intensifying; British and American ships were trading in the area, and Spanish ships weren’t far to the south. Sitka was Russia’s most promising foothold in North America, and now it was lost.

Now, imagine you’re a rube like Baranov, a former Siberian glass-factory manager turned company man. You’ve been hacking away in the bloody business of colonization for years. Suddenly, you land a job as the head of Russia’s first joint-stock entity. It’s going to be big, the tsar and his brothers have put their personal funds into the venture, sea otter is going through the roof, and you’re no longer in the sticks but on the vanguard of imperial expansion.

And now you, Baranov, have lost Sitka—the only harbor in southeast Alaska with access to both the sea and the straits leading to the Inside Passage. And your former business partners are now trading their precious fur pelts to the Americans for arms and gunpowder, which they intend to use against you. As Lenin would later say, what is to be done?

If you are the tsar, you send Imperial Navy warships. If you are the Russian-American Company, you send mercenaries and slaves to fight. If you are Alexandr Baranov, you muster your backwoods gumption, put on a fresh chain-mail shirt—because nothing says fealty like chafing beneath 20 pounds of wrought-iron rings—and get yourself down to Sitka and take that post from the Tlingit however you can. 

Six

Baranov himself never wrote of the Battle of Sitka. Many years later, he told the story to a financial auditor for the company; that was the extent of it. Company documents refer to the halo effect of the battle on trade but little else. The only written eyewitness account of the battle comes from the journals of a Russian naval officer, Lieutenant Commander Yury Lisiansky.

At the time of the battle, Lisiansky was only 31 years old but already enjoying an illustrious career. A veteran of the Russo-Swedish War, he had served in the Baltic and had connections to some of Russia’s older aristocratic houses. In 1802, while the Tlingit were busy destroying Baranov’s first fort, Lisiansky was sent by the tsar to England to buy ships for the Russian-American Company. In a precursor of private sector–state alliances to come, he used corporate credit and imperial gold to make a shady deal for two overpriced secondhand vessels, the Leander (rechristened the Nadezhda) and the Thames (the Neva).

Taking command of the Neva, a square-rigged tall ship with 200 feet of deck length and 14 cannons, Lisiansky set out to circumnavigate the globe on what became known as the Krusenstern Expedition. The Neva and the Nadezhda had already rounded Cape Horn, visited the Galápagos, and completed their circuit of the oceans when, in Hawaii, Lisiansky received new orders: Leave the Nadezhda. Forget going to Canton. Forget going to Japan. Head straight to Sitka. Help Baranov win back his fort.

Sounds of the harbor.

“From the moment we entered Sitka Sound and until we dropped anchor,” Lisiansky later wrote in A Voyage Around the World in the Years 1803-1806, “not a human being was to be seen anywhere, nay not even any sign that hereabouts was any settlement. Before our eyes were forests, covering the shores totally everywhere. How many uninhabited places have I seen, but none can compare in wilderness and emptiness with these.”

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A map of the Tlingit fortress at Sitka, drawn by Yury Lisiansky, 1805. Image: Courtesy of the Alaska State Library Historical Collections.

Lisiansky hated Sitka and complained of its weather and general gloom. Forced to wait in the bay for a month for Baranov to come, he was ecstatic when the manager arrived. Now they could engage and get it done. But on the first day of combat, the Russians were soundly defeated. Caught in a pincer move on the beach by Tlingit warriors led by K’alyaán with his blacksmith’s hammer, the Russians took casualties, broke ranks, and ran for the woods and water. They lost five cannons, and Baranov himself was seriously wounded.

For the next four days, the Tlingit fort was bombarded from the sea by the Neva as emissaries went back and forth. Both sides raised white flags, sometimes simultaneously. At the end of the sixth day, the Russians were in the fort and the Tlingit were in the forest. On these facts everyone agrees.

But the more I learned of the battle, the shakier the claim of a decisive Russian victory seemed. The battle was not followed by an influx of Russian trading posts. The Tlingit did not become slaves, as had other tribes. Although the Kiks.ádi abandoned their position, they did not exactly flee, but instead made an organized retreat, covering their people with a rear guard and taking up a new position on the straits. From there they launched an effective trade embargo to cut off the transport of fur to Russia. The following year another Russian trading post fell to the Tlingit in Yakutat and was permanently abandoned.

The retrospective logic seems to be that since the Kiks.ádi do not run the United States today, they must have lost to the Russians in 1804. Native wins are irrelevant. Native defeats are final. The Russians would inevitably prevail, and if not, it didn’t matter anyway. The Battle of Sitka, the lost posts, the embargo on the straits—these were details.

For almost 200 years, there was no published Tlingit account of what happened in Sitka. The Tlingit refused to speak publicly of the battle. Doing so ran against deeply held beliefs. First, talking about a conflict where peace now exists was considered rude and dangerous. Second, stories were considered property, tied to certain places and certain people. If it wasn’t your dead, it wasn’t your story.

There is almost no way to describe the Tlingit concept of ownership without distorting or reducing its complexities. Clans “own” their regalia and their crests, but they also own their ancestral relationships to a place, their songs and dances, their stories and the images that came from those stories. If branding and intellectual property rights were taken to an extreme and merged with the Marxist ideal that people must not be alienated from the objects of their labor—nor from the collective identity arising from that labor—then we might approach the Tlingit sense of ownership. The word for this is at.óow, which has been translated as “a purchased thing.” The Battle of Sitka was a purchased thing. It was paid for by the Kiks.ádi, and it could not be sold out.

Seven

“Even those who bought us, should hear what happened.” —Sally Hopkins

For many years the Kiks.ádi, though reluctant to make their stories public, had been recording their elders telling them for the clan’s own purposes. Sometimes it was little more than a tape machine brought down to the ANB Hall, turned on at a potlatch. Other times the recordings were more formal. In 1958, a Tlingit man recorded a retelling of the events of 1802–1804 for the National Park Service, including an account of the Battle of Sitka.

The woman he recorded was Shxaastí,a Kiks.ádi tradition bearer. Her English name was Sally Hopkins. One of 12 daughters, Hopkins was born in Sitka in 1877. She’d heard the stories as a girl, from elders who were contemporaries of Baranov. Her dialect alone was a treasure for linguistic anthropologists, containing within it the transition markers between ancient and modern Tlingit, an echo of pre-contact speech. She had the sound of ghosts in her voice. Her telling of the Battle of Sitka included over 60 names that otherwise would have been lost to history. Hopkins herself believed passionately in documenting and publishing the stories before they vanished, a belief she passed on to her Kiks.ádi children.

Her story, recorded in 1958, covers the altercations of both 1802 and 1804, but the sequence of events isn’t always clear. Tlingit oral histories are often organized by genealogy, following paths of relationship instead of chronological time. Other Kiks.ádi accounts preserve the 1802 debates between clan leaders, complete with colorful accusations that the sons of the Wolf clan are “sucking on the Russians.” In 1804, though, such debates were either nonexistent or left out of the story by its original tellers; perhaps the stakes were just too high to inflect with humor.

It took 30 years for the Kiks.ádi community to approve the release of these and other elders’ recordings. Finally, in 2008, the University of Washington Press published Russians in Tlingit America: The Battles of Sitka, 1802 and 1804. This was the “good book” my Uncle Andy had said would come all those years ago. In it were new translations of Lisiansky’s memoir by Lydia Black—a noted scholar and translator—along with Russian-American Company documents, Baranov’s personal letters, and, for the first time, a translation of multiple Kiks.ádi accounts of the Battle of Sitka.

My copy of Russians in Tlingit America arrived several weeks before I was scheduled to leave for Juneau. Somewhere between the size of a hotel Bible and Jung’s Red Book, it was 500 pages of dense type. Wanting to be better prepared, I postponed my trip and began to read. No one was waiting for me anyway.

Although the Russian and Tlingit versions diverged in perspective, they agreed on much of the basic flow of events. The battle had never gone as planned for the Russians. They expected to meet the Kiks.ádi at Noow Tlein, the ancient fort overlooking the harbor. According to the commander of the Neva, it was a near impregnable redoubt. But when Baranov and his men arrived, they were met by only a small party of Tlingit. The settlement had been abandoned.

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Yury Lisiansky’s drawings of Tlingit masks and other artifacts. Image: Courtesy of the Alaska State Library Historical Collection.

Baranov’s men raised Russian flags inside the empty village. They slept in Kiks.ádi houses. Noow Tlein, where Tlingit had lived for over a thousand years, was occupied without fight or ceremony. This alone must have given the Russians pause. If nothing else, Tlingit are a people of ritual. Their social etiquette rivals the DSM-5 for coding and complexity; they make geisha look slovenly. If they were really intending to give up the fort, they would have danced for days; they would have exchanged gifts and sung. Instead, there was only silence.

According to the Tlingit account, the Kiks.ádi were using Noow Tlein as a decoy. They wanted to draw the enemy out of their ships so they could see how many men they had and how serious they were. They knew all along that the Russians would rely on naval power, so they had spent the interim years building a new fort, Shís’ghi Noow—“fort of young saplings”—specifically designed to withstand naval bombardment. Shís’ghi Noow was built at the high-water line of a gently sloping beach seven miles from Noow Tlein. Gunships could barely get near it, and only during certain tides. If a ship did get in range, the fort’s structure was designed to deflect cannon fire.

These details are corroborated by the Russian version of the story. In Lisiansky’s journal, Baranov complains that the shallows are preventing his ships from getting within firing range of Shís’ghi Noow. He later laments that when they do, his cannonballs keep bouncing off the Tlingit fort. It was a mystery to the Russians, but not to the Kiks.ádi. They had watched the way a cannonball’s direct hit shattered seasoned wood. For this reason, Shís’ghi Noow’s walls had been built of saplings whose green and pliant wood offered a certain amount of give. The timbers were also angled and braced to disperse shock down and away, redirecting balls into pits dug to catch them. Coming ashore after the battle, Lisiansky writes that he gathered at least 150 cannonballs from around the fort walls.

It was never a given that the Russians would win the battle; Lisiansky acknowledges this himself at various points in his account. What neither Baranov nor Lisiansky knew, however, was that the Tlingit had already lost the fort before the Russians ever fired on it. 

On the eve of the battle, a Tlingit canoe was blown up as it passed between islands just off the coast. Both sides record the event, though with discrepancies. Some say it was a Russian shot that caused the explosion, others that it was carelessness among the young Tlingit men in the boat. Some say there were survivors, others that the entire crew was killed. The incident earns only a few lines from Lisiansky. Later, however, the Russian commander would come to realize its importance: The canoe carried the entire stockpile of Tlingit gunpowder.

The explosion was the moment the Tlingit lost the fort. All of their deft evasions and defensive tactics had been in the service of an offensive, prepared over the course of years, which the Kiks.ádi now knew would never come. And the canoe held more than gunpowder. Also inside were the future clan leaders of each Kiks.ádi house. All of them were killed.

The story became a song, “Sooxsaan,” which is one of the two anthems of the Kiks.ádi. The story in “Sooxsaan” is told through the eyes of a mother who loses her child when the canoe he is sleeping in drifts away. She sings out her grief for him to his uncles, those who were lost in that other canoe. It is a song that marks the passing of different futures. Even reading about it, I worried that I was treading on forbidden terrain. This, more than anything, was a purchased thing.

Eight

The Fort of Young Saplings was empty when the Russians walked in. They had expected people, negotiations, but there was no one. It was not the victory they had imagined. It didn’t say: You’ve won. It said: We are not done yet.

That winter in Sitka, without goods to trade—or anyone to trade with—and afraid to hunt in the forest, the Russians sent delegations across the snow to the Tlingit asking them to make peace and come back. The emissaries were turned away.

The Russians eventually abandoned the Fort of Young Saplings, decamping to Noow Tlein, which was vulnerable from the sea but less so from the land. Obviously, it was not the ships of rival colonial powers the Russians feared but Tlingit incursions by land and longboat. In Glorious Misadventures: Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America, Owen Matthews describes the colony at Noow Tlein as having two towers and a stockade “ringed with cannon—pointing not at the sea, but towards the endless threatening forest around.”

Nothing in the details of the battle and its aftermath showed it to be anything but a strategic withdrawal by the Tlingit. The Kiks.ádi tested the Russians at one fort while they moved their people to another; when the munitions were blown, they dragged out the surrender, faked a chain-of-command breakdown to create diplomatic chaos, and got their people safely into the woods. The Russians couldn’t follow because the Tlingit rear guard kept them engaged near the fort. Over time, they were effectively trapped behind the palisade of Noow Tlein, sending envoys out into the snow.

The story of the Battle of Sitka in Russians in Tlingit America struck me as curiously familiar. It took me a few days before I realized what it was. It was Napoleon. It was Moscow. Perhaps, if I hadn’t read so much Tolstoy in my early twenties—particularly if I hadn’t read War and Peace five times—I wouldn’t even have looked at the Battle of Sitka and thought about the burning of Moscow. But I had and I did. The Tlingit strategy was really no different than what the tsar’s forces would do eight years later when facing Napoleon on Russian soil.

After the Battle of Borodino in September 1812—that valiant last stand where the Russian army suffered horrendous losses—Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov did the unimaginable, the un-European thing, stepping aside and letting Napoleon have Moscow. Moscow! The Russians had been there almost as long as the Tlingit had lived at Noow Tlein. How could they abandon it? Yet in the era of saber rattling and charges, amid emerging virulent nationalism, this is exactly what Kutuzov did. And what did he say as Napoleon marched toward Moscow? “I aim not to defeat, but I’m hoping to deceive him.” What deception could he have meant?

L’Empereur marched into the metropolis expecting dignitaries, expecting rituals. He got none. Despite wanting to be gracious, he could find no object for his magnanimity. Napoleon in Moscow, like Baranov in Sitka, alone and far from home on the edge of winter, waited on a surrender that would never come. I have Russia, said Napoleon. No, said the tsar from St. Petersburg, you have Moscow. I have Sitka, said Baranov. No, the Tlingit said, you have the fort.

Both the Tlingit in 1804 and the Russians in 1812 had withdrawn from the field when they were unable to defeat the invaders, and they had regrouped elsewhere. Both created confusion through diplomacy and sent mixed messages to stall the enemy’s approach. Both evacuated their people without surrender, leaving the enemy no one to negotiate with. And, to this day, both the Tlingit and the Russians inhabit their ancestral homelands. Yet somehow, what Kutuzov did is remembered as a brilliant strategy that saved a nation, while what the Tlingit did is considered, by nearly everyone but the Tlingit, an unequivocal defeat.

I began to wonder how Russian Kutuzov’s strategy really was. How great was the psychological distance between 1804 and 1812, between St. Petersburg and Sitka, Kutuzov and the Kiks.ádi? And in the periphery of my mind was also the drumbeat, the unvoiced thought: What a gift to bring.

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An 1805 drawing of the Russian-American Company outpost at Sitka. Image: Courtesy of the Alaska State Library Historical Collection.

Nine

The line between passionate curiosity and total fixation is thin. At first I had hoped simply to acquire some conversational fluency on the Battle of Sitka, but now I could think of little else. It seemed at first like historical heresy, but really, why couldn’t Kutuzov’s response to Napoleon have been inspired by a battle in the colonies? I knew I couldn’t prove a connection between the strategies. I was after the possibility.

The obvious first thing to establish was how Kutuzov could have heard about the Battle of Sitka. Lisiansky had published a memoir. I looked up its publication date: 1812, the same year that Kutuzov abandoned Moscow. But both men lived in St. Petersburg; their social circles could easily have overlapped. I considered it equally likely that there was some connection through the Russian-American Company. The tsar and the aristocracy had all invested in the venture, and it seemed plausible that Kutuzov—who had served three successive Romanov monarchs—would have as well. That would have given him a direct interest in the happenings in Sitka, if nothing else. A list of early investors in the Russian-American Company should show his name. 

What I needed was a Russian-speaking researcher I could afford. Impoverished, unemployed, and with time on their hands, it turns out they’re not so hard to find. Since I needed someone who knew how to do academic research, I contacted the Russian department at my former college. Given a list, I chose a young man named Auden and sent him out onto the Internet to dig up everything he could for $200. He was to look for social ties between Kutuzov, Lisiansky, and Baranov—anything that would make a conversation about the Battle of Sitka a reasonable proposition.

Soon he began sending updates. While he wasn’t able to find a list of investors, he had come across some kind of company lady’s auxiliary, of which both Kutuzov’s wife and her half-sister were members. The company also had a ship called the Kutuzov. Ships, like buildings, are often named for war heroes—but just as often for investors. Perhaps the field marshal was both.

Finding a reputable military historian willing to entertain the notion was much harder. The idea that the Tlingit might have saved Russia from Napoleon didn’t exactly open doors; it was more the kind of wild postulation used by middle-aged professors to pick up undergrad girls at coffee shops. But I didn’t care. I was opening the imagination to new possibilities, and the imperial myopia surrounding the Battle of Sitka deserved to be corrected. Didn’t it?

In an attempt at rigor, I refined my questions. How unusual was what Kutuzov did? Were there examples of native tactics making there way back into European warfare? What exactly constitutes a victory? These were safe questions. My real theories I kept to myself.

Growing inside, though, was another uneasiness. The more I spoke of the Battle of Sitka, the less sure I was that I had a right to the story in which I was entangling myself. We tend to think of a story as personal property. I own it because I heard it. This strikes me now as a very colonial way to view the world, though also a human one. And as much as I promised myself I would confine my speech on the subject to what the Kiks.ádi allowed to be published, I found I couldn’t stop my imagination. I could not help but explore the story and open it up. When I did, it changed. Something I read in Russians in Tlingit America echoed—“An unauthorized telling constitutes stealing.”

Ten

After some searching, I found my way to a military historian named Niall Barr. A senior reader in European military history at King’s College London, Barr had been engaged by the British Ministry of Defense to teach tactical history to officers. The Joint Services Command and Staff College where Barr teaches is an hour outside London by rail. By sheer random luck, I was to be in England the following week.

It was Armistice Day, and at 11 a.m. sharp the train car fell silent. Texting stopped, pens were laid down, and the cart coming through the aisle with juice and coffee paused to commemorate the dead. In contrast to Veteran’s Day in the United States, there wasn’t a flag in sight, only red poppies pinned to coats and collars.

I was nervous about meeting Barr. I had not told him of my theories regarding Kutuzov, only that I was doing some work on the Battle of Sitka and needed help understanding Napoleonic-era field tactics. There were many ways to eviscerate my idea—I was coming up with quite a list on my own—and I didn’t want to chase him away before the conversation even began.

We met at the train station and walked to a nearby pub. A tall man in his forties with a poppy affixed to his black wool coat, Barr had gentle manners and an elegant mind. He had looked into the Battle of Sitka and was intrigued by the construction of the Fort of Young Saplings, something I hadn’t thought too much about. “Artillery fortification is a highly skilled business,” he said. “You’re working out the angles. People train for years. It’s all about math and geometry, but you really can’t discount native intelligence.”

I told him what I knew of the battle, the abandonment of the fort, and accounts of the peace ceremonies. I asked Barr if that sounded like a victory.

“There are laws of war,” he said, “conventions, some formal and some informal. Professional soldiers know that. By 1812, these conventions in Europe are well understood. When you place a fort under siege, you have certain rights and responsibilities, and the besieged have certain rights and responsibilities. Once a practicable breach has been made—meaning that soldiers can actually get through your fortifications—the governor of the town or fort is to surrender. If he doesn’t, the breach will be stormed. If it is stormed, the assaulting troops are at liberty to offer no quarter. They can kill everybody. So once there’s a practicable breach, that’s when you surrender.”

“But the Tlingit didn’t surrender.”

Barr paused. “It’s a powerful idea, how wars end. Who decides who has won and lost? These are eternal questions. You see”—he leaned in— “it’s this absurd situation. If a garrison commander surrenders, it’s all lovely and nice and everybody marches off. But if the garrison refuses to surrender, it leads to bloodshed and brutality. The very act of surrendering tells you which code is going to be active.”

But the Tlingit didn’t surrender, I repeated. The Russians had to ask for the deal, bring gifts, and go through a four-day ceremony wearing Tlingit adornments. How was that a Russian victory?

“Baranov sued for peace?” Barr considered a moment. “Still, the fort was vacated, and that would have meant victory.”

At this point I rolled out some of my more subversive ideas about Kutuzov and the defense of Moscow. Barr didn’t scoff. Rather, he seemed a little delighted. I asked him how atypical the field marshal’s strategy had been. “At the time, if you occupied somebody’s capital, then it was game over,” Barr said. “You can’t protect your capital, therefore you should surrender. This is where the Russians did something different—something traumatic, because due to the Orthodox Church, there is something special about Moscow in the Russian psyche. They consider it to be the new Rome. The idea that Moscow would be occupied by a heretic like Bonaparte was beyond the pale.”

I asked Barr if he knew of European commanders using tactics in Europe learned in the course of colonial warfare. He did. During the French and Indian War of the 1750s, he explained, the British general Edward Braddock was attacked in the woods near what is now Pittsburgh. As usual, he kept his men in tight formation and had them fire carefully timed volleys at their opponents—a disastrous tactic for wilderness combat. Most of Braddock’s expedition was slaughtered, and the remaining troops were routed. Yet over the years, the regiment that emerged from the experience, called the 60th Royal American, employed the Native skirmish tactics learned in America and used them to great effect in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

So maybe Baranov did consider himself victorious when he inherited his empty fort. Everyone has the prerogative to be wrong. But here was a concrete example of native tactics finding their way onto European battlefields. Barr also confirmed my sense that the abandonment of Moscow was a radical move. On these two rails, I traveled closer to all possibilities.

On my way back to London, I got another message from my researcher, Auden. He had found a possible social tie between Kutuzov and Lisiansky: a naval officer who was close to both men. It was a complex net of relationships, said my researcher, but he had sketched out a kind of diagram and had attached a scan.

Excited and unable to wind down as the landscape streamed by outside, I slipped a DVD lecture on the Greco-Persian Wars into my laptop. Maybe this would put most people to sleep, but for me it’s a minor obsession: I have watched all 48 episodes the Great Courses has to offer on ancient Egypt, their 36 lectures on Medieval Europe and the Tudor Conquest, and 24 lectures on the Age of Pericles. By now I was on to the Persian Empire, and as the train rolled through suburban London I listened as the professor dissected the ancient Battle of Cunaxa.

Eleven

“Be brave, my son. This is where things fail.” —Sally Hopkins

My father didn’t talk much about the Tlingit adoption after he left Alaska. He didn’t know how to handle it. He said he never did anything to earn it, and he wasn’t sure what was expected of him afterward. Not wanting to be yet another white man claiming what wasn’t his, he waited for a signal nobody knew he was waiting for—and, over time, the adoption, which was meant to create a bond, carved out a gap instead.

When he left Alaska, he let the relationships slip. He didn’t bring up the adoption back in the Lower 48 because he didn’t want to get lumped in with all the Dances With Wolves New Agers. Recently, he admitted to me that he’d missed the point entirely. “It’s not whether you deserve it,” he said. “It’s what you make of it.”

For my stay in Juneau, I booked a room through Airbnb on Starr Hill, a place I knew well as a child. The neighborhood’s clapboard houses and metal stairs negotiating steep hillsides had not changed. I had once seen a salmon fall from the sky there and hit the ground a few feet away from me. The eagles fighting for it overhead had let it slip, and one swooped down, snatched the fish in its talons, and climbed, leaving behind just a few silver scales.

Now, under a bank of mist moving down Mount Robert, was the grim little playground next to what was once my school. On the other side of the governor’s mansion was the neighborhood where my Tlingit grandmother had lived. Not far from there was the Alaska State Museum, where I took classes as a child, and the State Office Building, near where my father once worked—a tombstone for urban renewal, square as a child’s building block.

In the little rented room, I spread out my papers. Since I wouldn’t be meeting my uncle until the next day, I had some time. I covered the floor with my notes, legal pads, and printouts with circles and arrows highlighting connections. It didn’t look like historical research. It looked like the hotel scene from The Wall.

Baranov had turned out to be a dead end. My researcher had found nothing to connect the lowly company man with anyone in the aristocracy, much less the illustrious Kutuzov. It wasn’t unthinkable that a man like the field marshal, with a deep financial interest in the fur trade and a military strategist’s mind, would have had enough curiosity to ask, if given the chance—“What happened in Sitka, anyway? Open another bottle of vodka, and bring me a fresh cigar!”—but there was no evidence that such a chance had ever arisen. Baranov was simply too low on the food chain, and his family had no meaningful power to bridge that gap. In Russia, he was a nobody. Even the Order of St. Vladimir medal presented to him got his name wrong.

Kutuzov, however, did seem to have a connection with Lisiansky. As a young man, Kutuzov had grown up in and around the house of his relative Ivan Golenishev-Kutuzov, whose son Loggin Ivanovich was in the Navy and fought in the Russo-Swedish War like Lisiansky. Loggin wrote a book on circumnavigation and is mentioned in a biography of Lisiansky. As Navy men with such shared interests, proximity, and experiences, they probably knew each other well, and Loggin was close with his father, who was close with Kutuzov. It was a plausible social avenue.

But something else had begun to trouble me. My problem was proving that what Kutuzov did was special at all. My problem was Cunaxa.

In 401 BC, a Greek mercenary force invaded Persia. The armies clashed near Cunaxa (now the city of Hillah in Iraq), where the Greeks routed their opponents—but their leader, Cyrus the Younger, who had intended to claim the Persian throne, was killed. Even worse, the army was now deep in enemy territory, with dwindling supplies and no means of getting home. They headed north, hoping to reach the Black Sea and build a fleet. And since the Persians were unable to defeat the Greeks in a frontal assault, they drew them into the snowy mountains as winter set in, harassing them without ever making a direct attack. What the Persians had done—redefining victory and fighting on—was no different than what Kutuzov would do.

“If you occupied somebody’s capital, then it was game over,” Barr had told me. “This is where the Russians did something different.” I clung to that. But it was only the first half of his statement. The second was, “But it’s also about the conditions you find yourself in.” What bound the strategies in Sitka and Moscow was desperation. These were people fighting for their ancestral homeland, and they did what people in that position do. They changed their definition of victory so they could fight on. Who lets their capital burn while their army still stands? The answer is: anyone who must. We did. In the War of 1812, Americans at Bladensburg let the British raze Washington so they could come back against them in Baltimore.

Cunaxa was the spoon tap that cracked the egg. Over the next 12 hours, sitting in my Juneau Airbnb, my whole theory fell apart. I hadn’t wanted to arrive empty-handed. I had wanted to bring victory. And beneath the debris was only my desire to belong.

Something I had dismissed as ephemeral now came to mind. The Neva was one of two Russian ships that circumnavigated the globe. The other was the Nadezhda. Aboard the Nadezhda was a man named Fyodor Ivanovich Tolstoy, Leo Tolstoy’s older cousin. Leo grew up listening to Fyodor Ivanovich’s stories of duels and sailing around the world, and many believe he was the basis for the character of Dolokhov in War and Peace. And who can say if Fyodor Ivanovich then repeated a tale told to him by his compatriots on the Neva, a story about a great tribe of warriors in the colonies. And who can say if the way he told that story seeded in the child Leo ideas that would surface years later when he imagined the invasion of his own country? It is impossible to gauge what children make of what they hear. Often things come to mean much more than ever intended. 

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Twelve

Down the hill from the house where I stayed in Juneau is the pretty little blue-and-white Russian Orthodox church that appears in so many paintings and postcards of the city. Dedicated to St. Nicholas, it was built in 1894 to serve the Tlingit, who were converting in large numbers, just as their relatives in Sitka had done.

The parish is poor, and as I approached the building I saw that it was in disrepair. There was scaffolding on one side, but the work looked abandoned, and the twine securing a tarp had come loose, allowing it to whip in the wind. I entered late and without a headscarf into the small octagonal room, its vermillion-and-gold icons lit by candlelight. The heat was off and it was cold. A young Russian woman wearing a leopard-print scarf and white knee-high boots ushered her children past me, genuflected, and stepped out of my way. The man leading the service, a tonsured reader in a floor-length black robe, was my uncle Andy.

The Ebonas have been Russian Orthodox for many generations, something they take great pride in. I wasn’t sure if Andy would recognize me, but he did. During a momentary pause in the liturgy, he came over and gave me a big hug—I was touched that he had slipped out of the ceremony to do that. “I’ll make us dinner tonight,” he whispered, then returned to his place near the icons.

Listening to the service, which alternated between Russian and Tlingit, I saw something else I had missed in my postcolonial analysis. I’d left no room for the potential graciousness of peacemaking and its role in the cessation of violence. My assumption had been that if the fighting stopped, either the Tlingit or the Russians had to be subjugated. Nowhere in this narrative was the possibility of a peace that recognized equality rather than domination.

Andy lives in his mother’s house, which he and his siblings inherited in 2002 when Amy Nelson, clan mother of the Sitka Kiks.ádi, “walked into the woods,” as the Tlingit say. Amy had been taught songs and dances by her mother, and she embraced the culture and passed it on to her children with steadfast commitment. Her obituary said she had been a cannery worker, a housekeeper, and a nurse’s aide—and Andy, who is known to be a fantastic cook, told me she taught him how to use the kitchen so he could take care of the other kids while she worked.

Walking into Amy’s living room for the first time in many years, I was pleased to see stuffed frogs still hiding in various places. Over the sofa in the sitting room was a print showing the first day of the Battle of Sitka. It captures the moment when K’alyaán, brandishing his blacksmith’s hammer, led his warriors to the beachhead and took the enemy by surprise. In the picture, Baranov is gravely wounded, and the remaining Russians are fleeing toward their ships. It is a day of victory.

In the kitchen, Andy had a large pot of venison marinara going on the stove. He added some spices, then turned it to simmer. Standing by while he stirred the sauce and set water to boil, I talked about the Battle of Sitka and told him my crazy theory about Kutuzov and the Tlingit.

Andy smiled patiently. “That’s interesting,” he said. “Maybe.”

I waited for more, but he just kept stirring.

“Don’t you think it’s good to question these things?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said and handed me a plate of venison pasta.

In the living room we set up TV trays and ate. I asked him about “Sooxsaan,” the traditional lament for the lost canoe. I wasn’t sure if it was polite to ask to hear something like that—the exact nature of at.óow is still beyond my grasp—but Andy was kind enough to find a recording from a Kiks.ádi party in the 1940s. He put the CD on, and a few seconds later a woman began to sing. The song was profoundly sad, but the woman’s voice was astonishingly sweet and agile. It was high but also warm, without a hint of shrillness. She sounded like a young Ella Fitzgerald.

“That’s my grandmother,” Andy said quietly.

The singer was Sally Hopkins, whose vanished dialect had so fascinated the linguists. When “Sooxsaan” ended, another song began, and Hopkins’s voice, which had been full of sorrow, turned darting and honeyed. She started to skip around the melody like she was only flirting with each of the notes.

“What is that?” I asked with a laugh.

“That,” said Andy, “is a love song.”

We finished listening, and then Andy suggested we watch something on TV. We settled on an episode of Game of Thrones, both of us marveling at King Joffrey’s atrocities, and an hour later I went home with homemade bilberry jelly and smoked salmon in a mason jar. The last thing I saw was Andy in the doorway with the print of K’alyaán and his hammer behind him.

The Kiks.ádi cannot be separated from the Battle of Sitka. In some ways, I will never be separate from the Kiks.ádi. I had heard Sally Hopkins sing because my father was adopted. It was not something I earned. It was more than enough.

Thirteen

My father was not the only man Amy Nelson adopted. She also adopted a man named Peter. Peter, an old family friend, is well known and respected within the community, and 85-year-old Tlingit women sometimes call him Uncle, but more often he is known by a nickname they gave him, Bushkaa.

I asked Peter how he saw his adoption. “Well, a lot of people are adopted, from friends to officials at the highest levels,” he told me. “It’s what you do with it. I’m in pretty deep, but I know where I stand. You know how they say everything can be brought back to The Godfather? I’m like Tom Hagen—a loyal and trusted servant. Of the family, not of the blood. There is a difference. You can see the people who take it too far and go around calling everybody brother.”

I’d been taught to say Uncle and Grandmother. Maybe I was someone who took it too far. All along I’d wondered if I was really following my father’s story and not mine. Yet I had been there, too. Does that make it mine? The Kiks.ádi wrestled with these same ideas, because if the Battle of Sitka was a Kiks.ádi story exclusively, then what about their Eagle and Wolf wives and children, their husbands? And what about the Russians? They had also been there. They, too, had paid with their ancestors.

Accounts of the Peace of 1805 say that the Tlingit “made the Russians their relatives,” which probably means they adopted them. It’s reasonable to assume that Baranov, too, was at some point adopted. He never made it back to Russia but died at sea in 1819 from an illness and was thrown overboard somewhere near the Philippines. In an odd coincidence, he died on the same day as General Kutuzov, though several years apart. Stranger still, the Russian-American Company ship Baranov died on was the Kutuzov. It was as close as the two men ever got. 


asmiiir15-1416935591-33.jpg
A bronze crest reportedly given by the Russians to the Kiks.ádi to restore peace after the battle of 1804. Photo: Alaska State Museum.

In 2003, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act returned ownership of K’alyaán’s blacksmith hammer—then on display at a Sitka visitors center—to the Kiks.ádi. The claim states that although the hammer is a Western object, it “took on ceremonial significance in Kiks.ádi memory, symbolizing their loss of life and resistance to domination,” making it at.óow.

The following year, exactly two centuries after the Battle of Sitka, the Kiks.ádi invited a descendant of Baranov to participate in a Cry Ceremony—a ritual laying away any remaining grief regarding a conflict. The ceremony was held on Castle Hill, where Noow Tlein once stood and which is now a state park. It is also the site where, in 1867, the Russian flag was lowered and the U.S. flag was raised for the first time over Sitka.

The forts are gone now, the site grown over with grass. These four acres comprise the only land the Tlingit ever agreed to forfeit. The Russians had a right to sell Castle Hill but nothing else. This was the inextinguishable claim the Tlingit would push through the courts until the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which was, perhaps, the true end of the Battle of Sitka.

It’s unclear exactly how long the Tlingit have been in the Alaskan panhandle. Unromantic evidence like fish traps and basket-weaving techniques place the Tlingit on Baranov Island alone for at least 6,000 years and at Noow Tlein for at least a millennium. The earliest dates put their appearance at 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, and most clans have very specific stories about rising waters and where they went to avoid them. These stories appear to match the sea-level rise in the rock record and, much to the excitement of anthropologists, new discoveries based on paleo-shoreline models. The stories cannot be truly collected or cataloged, though. They are not extinct, just unavailable. They are at.óow.

On the Forest Service tape from 1958, just before Sally Hopkins begins to speak, is the voice of her son. He is inviting her in the proper Tlingit way to tell the story of “how we became human.” And she recounts the Battle of Sitka. It is not the story of a lost homeland but the story of lost ancestors. The Sitka in her story is larger than the fort on the hill or at the river’s mouth. It is the ancestral Sitka, which emanates deep into the woods and well out to sea. This is an idea strangely reflected in modern Sitka, which is the largest incorporated city borough in the United States. At 4,800 square miles in size, it includes all of Baranov Island, as well as Chichagof Island, where the Kiks.ádi spent the winter of 1804. It also includes a large swath of ocean, which, though typically part of the domain in Tlingit consciousness, is somewhat rare in the definition of city boroughs.

In this vast Sitka, Castle Hill is a dot. The town is a small circle. The Russians are the blink of an eyelash in light of 10,000 years upon the land. Along the Southeast coastline, the names—Yakutat, Klukwan, Hoonah, Auke Bay, Klawock, Angoon, Kake, Sitka—are as they were when Baranov first shipwrecked on those shores. Turning again to the definition Barr gave me of European victory, that whosoever vacates the fort at the end of the day has lost, I wondered: How big is that fort? And how long is that day?

A Thousand Pounds of Dynamite

A Thousand Pounds of Dynamite

The race to stop one of history’s most bizarre extortion plots.

By Adam Higginbotham

The Atavist Magazine, No. 39


Adam Higginbotham began his career in magazines and newspapers in London, where he was the editor in chief of The Face and a contributing editor at The Sunday Telegraph. Based in New York, he has written for GQMen’s JournalThe New Yorker, and Wired.


Editor: Charles Homans
Designer: Gray Beltran
Producer: Megan Detrie
Research and Production: Natalie Rahhal
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Riley Blanton
Animation: Damien Scogin
Images: Courtesy of John Birges, Bill O’Reilly, Chris Ronay, Bill Jonkey, Tahoe Daily Tribune, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Cover Photo: Courtesy of Bill Jonkey
Video:
Courtesy of KOLO-TV

Published in July 2014. Design updated in 2021.

Wednesday, August 27, 1980. 12:30 a.m.

The helicopter thundered over the darkened forest, heading west, rising into the mountains beneath an almost full moon. Even for FBI special agent Dell Rowley, a slight five foot nine, the narrow cargo space behind the two front seats was a tight fit. The helmet and Kevlar vest he wore over his black fatigues, and the weapons he carried, did not make it any more comfortable. But the pilot was supposed to be alone, so Rowley had to stay where he was. Besides, the copilot’s seat was occupied by three canvas money bags, stuffed with cut-and-bound bundles of newsprint calculated to match the weight and volume of almost $3 million in $100 bills—and $1,000 in cash, to complete the effect.

By the ambient glow of the instrument panel, Rowley read the second letter from the extortionists whose giant bomb currently sat in the second-floor offices of Harvey’s Wagon Wheel Casino, 20 miles away, back in Stateline, Nevada. The bomb was silently counting down to an explosion that the nation’s best technicians still had no idea how to prevent. The author of the letters was given to grandiose turns of phrase and idiosyncratic language and had provided complex instructions for the ransom drop: a helicopter, a lone pilot, a flight along Highway 50 into the mountains, a signal from a strobe light, a clearing for a landing zone, the $3 million in used bills. No weapons, no one riding shotgun. The first note had concluded with an ironic flourish. “Happy landing,” it read, a subtly misaligned row of letters banged out on an electric typewriter.

But the FBI agents had no patience for such arrangements. They knew that the money drop was the weak point in any extortion attempt. Up in the night sky above Rowley, high enough for the wind to carry away the telltale throb of its rotors until it was too late, was a Huey carrying a six-man SWAT team from the bureau’s Sacramento office. In Rowley’s hands was an MP5 submachine gun fitted with a silencer. In his head was a simple plan.

As the skids of the Bell Ranger touched down on the mountainside, the pilot would douse the lights and kick open the door, and Rowley would roll unseen to the ground. He would scuttle into the trees, switch on his night-vision goggles, and locate the extortionists.

Then, if necessary, he would kill them.

One

Six months earlier.

Jimmy Birges walked up the steps to the front porch of his older brother’s house in Fresno, California, and rang the doorbell. Then he rang it again, and again. On the fifth ring, Johnny Birges reluctantly opened the door. He was high.

John Birges Jr. was 19 years old. He liked weed, beer, girls, and the Stones. Decades later, the brassy disco strut of “Miss You” would still remind him of the day he finally dropped out of high school, packed his gear and his motocross trophies, and turned his back on the family home and the father he detested. Two months past his 16th birthday, he’d started busing tables at Tiny’s Olive Branch, a 24-hour diner out on Highway 99, and sleeping on couches. Now he shared a place with two friends from school, made good money working as a roofer, and grew a little pot on the side. He sold some and smoked the rest.

A diligent anthropologist seeking the embodiment of a certain kind of California lifestyle at the end of the 1970s would be hard-pressed to find one more potent than Johnny Birges. He was blond and tan—the result of nailing shingles six days a week in the fierce Central Valley sun—with narrow green eyes, a wispy mustache, and shaggy hair down to his shoulders. He moved his tools from job to job in the back of his snub-nosed Dodge Tradesman cargo van, which on Saturday nights he still used to take his bike to races. The van was plain white, but Johnny had fitted it with mag wheels and wide tires. On the driver-side door was a sticker that read, “When the van’s A-rockin’, don’t come A-knockin’.” On the dashboard was another: “Ass, grass or cash—nobody rides for free.” Johnny was high every waking moment of the day. His brother couldn’t stand him.

As smart and composed as his brother was hazy and unkempt, Jimmy Birges was 18 but skinnier and taller than Johnny, and a student in a high school program for gifted kids. He had grown his dark hair long, too, but it was neatly parted in the middle, and he favored button-down shirts and Top-Siders. He had a smooth charm, which he would later put to use as a car salesman at Fresno Toyota. The stoner and the straight arrow were predictably at odds. After his brother had left home, Jimmy tried sharing an apartment with him, but they couldn’t get along. In the end, he moved back in with his father, in the family’s house on North Fowler Avenue in Clovis, a quiet northeastern suburb of Fresno. The two boys had barely seen each other in three years.

“How did you know where I live?” Johnny asked.

“I don’t want anything from you,” Jimmy said. “Big John sent me to tell you he needs your help.”

The Birges boys were still bound together by at least one thing: a terror of their father, a cantankerous Hungarian émigré whom they and everyone else called Big John. Johnny hated his father but still yearned for his approval. He waved Jimmy into the house, where he was cooking breakfast for his girlfriend, Kelli Cooper.

Then Jimmy told his brother what their father had in mind.

Big John was going to extort a million dollars from Harvey’s Wagon Wheel Casino in Lake Tahoe, and he planned to do it by building a bomb.

The two boys had a good laugh about that. Kelli laughed, too. Another of Big John’s crazy schemes. It would never happen. Then again, it wouldn’t be the strangest thing their father had ever been mixed up in.  

Two

Janos Birges arrived in the United States in May 1957 a penniless 35-year-old political refugee. He was dark and handsome then, with an intense gaze, a high forehead, and an aquiline nose; beneath his shirt, a tattooed eagle spread its wings across his chest. He had fled Hungary six months earlier, when Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest, crushing the popular uprising against the country’s Communist government.

Born in 1922 in Jászberény, an agricultural town in central Hungary, Janos was the only child of a landowning and farming family; he’d say later that he considered himself upper middle class. But his father was a ferocious drinker and hated having the boy around. He sent Janos to live with his grandparents at the age of three, and Janos spent nine happy years with them. In 1933, they sent him back, and several years later, at 15, Janos ran away for good. He went to Budapest, where he was taken in by a butcher and his family.

The stories he told his sons about what happened next are hard to verify. He was always secretive about his past, and the boys never asked too many questions. Knowledge is power, he often said; the more people know about you, the weaker you are. But the account he gave them was by no means unlikely. At first, he told Johnny, he worked as the butcher’s apprentice, and was soon running the shop. Then, in 1941, Hungary entered World War II on the German side and sent troops to support the invasion of Russia. That was the year Janos enrolled in the Royal Hungarian Air Force Military Academy.

By the time he graduated and entered the Royal Hungarian Army Air Force as a pilot, in 1944, the tide of the war had turned: The Nazis had formally occupied Hungary, and the Red Army was approaching its eastern borders. Janos was put at the controls of an Me 109 fighter plane and sent up to fight the Russians. He liked to tell his son that he shot down 13 Allied planes before being hit by anti-aircraft fire over Italy and captured by Allied troops. U.S. records show only that in 1945, a month after the Hungarian capital fell to the Soviets, Birges was arrested by the Gestapo in Austria. He was charged with disobeying orders but escaped; he was arrested again in 1946, by Hungarian military authorities, but released without charge.

Hungary was now entirely under the control of the Soviet Union. It was around this time, Birges would later claim, that he began working for U.S. military intelligence in Austria—though decades later a search of the files of the U.S. Army’s 306th Counter Intelligence Corps in Salzburg revealed no mention of a Janos Birges. But in April 1948, he was arrested by Soviet secret police in Hungary and charged with espionage. The trial lasted seven minutes. He was sentenced to 25 years of hard labor and sent to a gulag in Siberia. He spent almost eight years there, cutting down trees to make railroad ties and twice contracting jaundice, before he was released—at the same time as thousands of Axis prisoners of war were repatriated from captivity in the Soviet Union—and finally returned to Hungary.

Then, one night in 1955, he met Elizabet Nyul in a Jászberény restaurant. A petite 27-year-old with an elfin face and brooding eyes, she was waiting for her husband, who worked there as a waiter. Janos invited her to dance. They danced together twice, and he asked her to marry him.

Elizabet was the second-youngest of a dozen siblings, impulsive and headstrong. The divorce came through quickly and, in January 1956, Elizabet and Janos were married. The early days of the marriage were a brief period of tranquility for Birges. Less than a year later, the Soviet Union moved to suppress the revolution in Budapest, and Janos and Elizabet found themselves among the 200,000 refugees who fled the Soviet crackdown, which left 2,500 Hungarians dead. Birges later said that as soon as the uprising began, he’d joined in—he used a jackhammer to help a friend escape from prison—but was arrested when Soviet troops crossed the border. Released and provided with a passport by a sympathetic Soviet officer, he and Elizabet escaped into Austria. There, Janos worked as a German-Hungarian interpreter for the Red Cross, until, months later, he was granted political asylum in the United States.


At first, the new lives of John and Elizabeth followed the steep trajectory of immigrant cliché. According to John’s account, on arriving in New Jersey they were given $3 by the Red Cross. His new wife wanted sunglasses, so they spent all the money buying a pair. They made their way to California and got work on a farm, John as a carpenter and Elizabeth in the packing house. Later, John found work with the metal-fabrication company PDM Steel. He spent five years there, learning welding and pipefitting. Johnny was born in 1960, Jimmy in 1962.

Two years later, Big John put $500 into starting his own landscaping outfit. He worked around the clock seven days a week and never took a vacation. He dressed in work clothes or outfits from the Salvation Army. He was non-union, and a fighter. Johnny once saw him put two men down at once. He was five-eleven, fit and powerful, and an imposing presence; other men were afraid of him. He could be charming, but his sense of humor was sometimes cruel. He was often reckless, inclined to cut corners. Years of blasting wells and trenches out of the California hardpan had made him pretty comfortable around dynamite.

By 1972, Big John was a millionaire, with three separate businesses, 26 employees, and lucrative contracts with California municipalities and golf courses. He bought three Mercedeses and, when he lost his license after picking up one too many tickets for speeding, his own plane, a Beechcraft. He used it to fly to job sites and liked to pull terrifying low-altitude stunts, sometimes with his sons on board: buzzing water-skiers on a lake to watch them scatter or flying under a freeway overpass. Elizabeth handled the accounts, and eventually Big John bought her a business she could call her own, a restaurant. The Villa Basque, on North Blackstone in Fresno, had two candlelit dining rooms with red-and-white tablecloths and a banquet hall, and it was packed every night with families attacking a ten-course prix fixe menu few of them could finish.

At home, Big John was a tinkerer and a would-be inventor, always soldering and wiring. When the family moved to a modest wood-framed ranch house on the rural outskirts of Clovis, with 15 acres of vineyards, he set up a large workshop out back. His ideas could be inspired, but he often lacked the patience for details and was unlucky with those he did perfect. The labor-saving meatball-making gizmo he built for the Villa Basque never worked quite right; he built his own electric irrigation timer, and developed an automated ditchdigger for laying pipes more quickly, but was beaten to the patents by other inventors.

And money did not make Big John and Elizabeth happy. They drank and fought, and he suspected her of having affairs. He called her a nymphomaniac and claimed she used the restaurant as a wellspring of sexual encounters. She took to disappearing for days at a time; he always brought her back. Once, they argued so furiously that she fell to the kitchen floor and had a seizure right in front of him. They took her away in an ambulance—said she’d had a nervous breakdown.

Johnny and Jimmy enjoyed the trappings of a comfortable life. Their parents bought them motorbikes, go-karts, and three-wheelers with balloon tires. Elizabeth liked to dress them in identical outfits. One summer she took them on a road trip across Europe. But Big John made them work nights in the restaurant and summers for the landscaping business. They labored at job sites up and down the state, sleeping in trailers with Big John’s crew. The only haircuts they were given came once a year, at the start of summer vacation, when Big John would take a pair of clippers and shave their heads. Their scalps would blister as they dug ditches in the searing valley heat.

Big John also beat them relentlessly—with belts, electric cables, boots, and coat hangers. At night he would come into their room, pull back the covers, and whale on Johnny while Jimmy lay mute and motionless in bed. When Jimmy was six, his father caught him with his elbow on the table at dinner and punched out four of his teeth to teach him better manners. Johnny hated school, and in first or second grade he was caught jamming glue and toothpicks into the locks so no one could open the doors. At 12, he began drinking beer; he smoked pot for the first time two years later. Johnny tormented his younger brother, and Jimmy would run to his mother and father. Big John would beat Johnny some more, then turn around and berate his younger son for telling tales—he couldn’t stomach a stool pigeon.

When Elizabeth finally filed for divorce, in November 1973, she moved into a travel trailer behind the house, where she could keep an eye on her sons. By that time Big John was making plans to retire, and he sold off the landscaping business to his foreman. He began flying up to Lake Tahoe in his plane to gamble. Elizabeth had a boyfriend, but the arguments and her disappearances continued.

At the end of July 1975, Elizabeth vanished again. This time she left behind her Mazda pickup, parked outside the kitchen door with the keys in the ignition, her pocketbook on the passenger seat. Big John didn’t seem to notice. Three days later, her body was found in a field behind the house. An autopsy showed a lethal combination of alcohol and Valium in her bloodstream; she had choked on her own vomit. The coroner ruled it a suicide, but something never seemed quite right about that. Her stomach was full of whiskey. Jimmy knew that she only ever drank vodka. And they never found the bottle.

Big John changed after Elizabeth died. Not long after the funeral, he went around the house cutting her out of the family photographs with a pair of scissors. He took the urn that held her ashes and emptied it in the yard, in front of his sons. He began spending money like never before. He started dressing well for the first time in his life, in suits and turtlenecks. He wore a pencil moustache, drank mai tais, and dated the waitresses at the Villa Basque. And he began gambling more heavily in the casinos up in Lake Tahoe. His favorite was Harvey’s Wagon Wheel in Stateline, Nevada.  

Jimmy, left, and John Birges with their mother, Elizabeth, date unknown. Photo: Courtesy of John Birges
Jimmy, left, and John Birges with their mother, Elizabeth, date unknown. Photo: Courtesy of John Birges

Three

Harvey’s Wagon Wheel was one of the first casinos built in Stateline, an isolated resort town nestled among the pines and incense-cedars at the foot of the mountains on the southeastern shore of Lake Tahoe. Harvey Gross was a wholesale butcher from Sacramento who first arrived in Stateline in 1937, when the place was a handful of buildings without power, water, or telephone lines. What it did have was recently legalized gambling.

In 1944, Gross and his wife, Llewellyn, opened the Wagon Wheel Saloon and Gambling Hall, a single-room casino with three slot machines, two blackjack tables, and a six-stool lunch counter. The Western theme—log-cabin decor, the wagon wheel and steer’s head on the sign—was Llewellyn’s idea. The Wagon Wheel sat hard against the Nevada border, which cut east-west across Highway 50, dividing Stateline from the California town of South Lake Tahoe. Outside the casino was the only 24-hour gas pump for 60 miles. Business was strictly seasonal. In the winter, when snow fell on the pass at Echo Summit, blocking the highway west to Sacramento, the place would be closed for months at a time. Only after Gross went up there and helped clear the pass himself one winter did the state finally build a maintenance station to keep it open.

By the 1950s, the Wagon Wheel was attracting a fashionable, wealthy crowd up from Sacramento and San Francisco every summer, and Gross had found a local rival in Bill Harrah, who had opened his own casino directly across the street. In 1963, Gross redeveloped his place into the first modern high-rise hotel casino on the South Shore, a concrete monolith with 11 stories, 197 rooms, and his name up on the roof, curling across a giant wagon wheel and longhorn skull in red neon.

With the renamed Harvey’s Wagon Wheel Resort and Casino, Gross made a killing and catalyzed a gaming boom in Tahoe. But after Llewellyn died unexpectedly, in 1964, he began to withdraw from the garrulous front-of-house role she had created for them. He still liked to walk the floor of the casino and oversaw the major decisions himself. But he spent more and more time on his ranch over the mountain in the Carson Valley or at his winter place in Indian Wells, California.

By 1980, Bill Harrah was dead, but Harvey still faced competition from the suits who ran an expanded Harrah’s in his rival’s name and from the new local outposts of corporate gaming, the Sahara Tahoe and Caesar’s. In the shadow of these sleek new towers, Harvey’s was beginning to show its age. But Gross still had his giant highway billboards, his multistory gaming floor, his miniskirted cocktail waitresses delivering cheap drinks. Harvey’s Wagon Wheel remained a multimillion-dollar enterprise: a winking, jingling money factory by the lake.


Like all gambling towns, Stateline was a magnet for crime, and Bill Jonkey, one of the two agents in the FBI office in nearby Carson City, was a frequent visitor. In 1980, Jonkey was 35 years old, a burly outdoorsman with a thick mustache and the easy confidence of a movie cowboy. He had been in the FBI for nine years and law enforcement for most of his life. Born and raised in Glendale, California, he was a surfer who had traded his longboard for a badge before he had even graduated college. As a 21year-old officer for the Long Beach Police Department, he patrolled downtown and the west side: the docks and the port, the sailors and the riffraff. It was active. Very active. Getting into fights was a good education.

Being a cop gave Jonkey a deferment from the draft, but he volunteered all the same. Things were heating up in Vietnam, and he hated to see a war go by and not get involved. He was on his way into Special Forces when the recruiter learned that he’d recently contracted hepatitis; that meant he’d have to sit it out in Long Beach for another three years. His quarantine was almost up when he got shot.

It was June 25, 1969, his last day in uniform; he’d been promoted from patrolman to detective. He and his partner were just heading out for night patrol when the call came in: a 211 silent at the Daisy Bar—a dirtbag place, only four or five blocks away. The guy came running out of the back with a gun in his hand, then everyone started shooting. One round hit Jonkey in the chest, knocked him back against the wall. Jonkey had three rounds left. He fired them all. The guy died right there.

They gave him a medal for that. He was off duty for three and a half months. The bullet had punctured every lobe of his right lung, broken a rib, severed an artery, and finally lodged near his spine. When he came around after the surgery, his wife was standing by the bed. “Well, I guess you’ve got that out of your system, now don’t you?” she said.

“I don’t think so,” he said. It didn’t work out too well with that wife.

The FBI took him in 1971. At first he was assigned to the Denver office, then Vegas, where he immediately started making plans to get up to the resident agency in Carson City. It was a small office, with only two agents, and most of the time you worked alone. Jonkey’s supervisor was all the way back in Vegas. He went to work in jeans and cowboy boots, had a horse and an acre of land. He was a western guy; he didn’t do humidity or cities. The place was perfect.

His jurisdiction included the gambling towns around Lake Tahoe, which kept him pretty busy: tracking fugitives, handling some organized crime, the odd phony check. The extortion calls came in once or twice a year. Bomb threats, usually. Always the big casinos: the Sahara, Caesar’s, Harvey’s. A pipe bomb, a paper bag left between two slot machines. Or someone would call security at Harrah’s and say they’d left devices everywhere: Check in the trash in the men’s restroom if you don’t think I’m serious. Some wires, no explosives: bullshit stuff. The guy would call back and say, Did you find it? Well, there’s 20 more of those. I want $500,000.

The feds always got them at the money drop. Jonkey and the other agents would stake out the location in advance. Once, they drove out to the desert and spent three days disguised as hunters—camping gear, rifles, dead rabbits, beer—before they saw a guy come sauntering up the track looking for the old water heater where the money was supposed to be hidden. Another time, the drop was in a trash can down on the Tahoe shore, miles from anywhere. At ten at night, two men came out of the lake in diving gear. They thought that was pretty clever. The agents got them just like they got everyone else. They could make the plans as complicated as they liked, but in the end they always had to come for the money.

In 1974, the FBI sent Jonkey to a two-week bomb investigator’s course in Quantico, where he learned to read the evidence left behind by an explosion. By the summer of 1980, he’d been out to two or three bomb scenes. But nothing big. 

Stateline, Nevada, early 1980s. Photo: Courtesy of Chris Ronay
Stateline, Nevada, early 1980s. Photo: Courtesy of Chris Ronay

Four

Big John liked Harvey’s Wagon Wheel. They treated him the way he felt he deserved to be treated: as if he was someone. Blackjack was his game, and pretty soon he was playing often enough that he was regarded as a high roller. He’d come home to Clovis waving stacks of $100 bills and bragging about how easily he could beat the dealers. At Harvey’s they put him up for free, gave him the best rooms, often his favorite, Suite 1017. He got to know his way around the place, befriended the staff. In 1976, he was invited to spend three days at Harvey Gross’s ranch in the Carson Valley. Over there you could hunt pheasant and partridge, walk in the hills. One of the pilots who worked for Gross even took him on a trip up to the lake in the boss’s helicopter. When the pilot heard Big John was a flier, he let him take the controls for a while. Big John had never flown a helicopter before but took to it quickly; hovering was tricky, but level flight was simple. The pilot let him try a takeoff. It wasn’t exactly smooth, but Birges had the machine in the air without much difficulty.

Big John began spending more and more of his time in Tahoe. The boys were left to look after themselves back at the house in Clovis. One day a truck pulled up with a delivery from the Nugget grocery store: $8,000 worth of canned food, everything from Campbell’s soup to tuna. The groceries filled the shelves in the garage, floor to ceiling, 20 feet wide and two feet deep. Next came meat and seafood: 2,100 pounds of beef—three whole steers—plus four lambs, pork, lobster, ham, and 200 pounds of hot dogs. Big John stacked all of it in the walk-in freezer at the back of the house and told the boys they had enough food to keep them going for three years. Then he took off to gamble in Tahoe again. He said he’d be back in a month.

In April 1976, Big John married an 18-year-old waitress from the Villa Basque. It lasted barely a year. In 1978, he started seeing another woman from the restaurant, Joan Williams. Williams was a dark-haired forty-something mother of four, a university graduate with a degree in Spanish literature who liked to bowl and play golf in her spare time. Separated from her husband and children, she worked weekends at the Villa Basque. During the week, she had a job with the Fresno County Probation Department, where she mostly handled DUI cases and misdemeanors.

Joan’s parents didn’t much like her new boyfriend—they thought he was a slick talker—but that didn’t stop her. Within the year, she had moved into the house on North Fowler Avenue. It was just them and Jimmy there now; Johnny had taken his high school proficiency test, quit school, and moved out of the house for good.

It was around that time that Big John first heard from Harvey Gross’s debt collector. He came by the restaurant and told Big John that a couple of his checks had bounced. Big John owed Gross $1,000. He settled up quickly. That same year, the Villa Basque burned to the ground. The police suspected it wasn’t an accident. Big John took the insurance money—all $300,000 of it—and lost it at blackjack. With everything else gone, he sold the house in Clovis to Joan for a fraction of its true value to help pay off his debts. But it wasn’t enough.

In 1979, Big John bounced another $15,000 worth of checks at Harvey’s. That September, the debt collector came to visit him at the house in Clovis. Big John promised he’d be up in Tahoe within a month and that he’d pay off $1,000 of what he owed then.

But he didn’t. Instead, the next month he signed a lease on a condo near Harvey’s and went straight back to the tables.

By then, Big John’s health was coming apart, along with the rest of his life. He’d had stomach trouble for years and had two separate ulcer surgeries. He drank Maalox and buttermilk like water. In the spring of 1979, complaining of fatigue, he was diagnosed with abdominal cancer. Later that year, he was admitted to the hospital with acute gastrointestinal bleeding. Even that didn’t stop him gambling. He spent two or three weeks of every month at the Tahoe condo, trying to make back his losses at the Harvey’s blackjack tables. But whatever edge he once felt he had over the dealers there, it had vanished, along with his money.

At the end of the year, Big John showed up unexpectedly at Harvey’s Wagon Wheel and demanded a room for the New Year weekend. He had a girl with him. The manager put him in Suite 1017, his old favorite. But before the celebrations could begin, the manager was back, apologetically informing him that another guest needed the suite. Big John protested, but it was no use. He and the girl spent the last night of the 1970s in a room so small they could barely get around the bed. “I thought you were a big shot,” she told him.

The next morning, John Birges woke up to face the new decade. He was nearly 58 years old, terminally ill, broke, twice divorced, and humiliated. He had nothing left to lose. 

Five

Johnny Birges didn’t hear any more about his father’s bomb until one day in June 1980, when Jimmy called to tell him that Big John had found the dynamite he wanted. Now all he had to do was take it. The boys agreed to help.

The prospect of breaking and entering didn’t bother Johnny at all. He’d been stealing for years—car stereos, van parts, a couple of motorcycles—without ever getting caught. The extortion plot itself was an idiotic idea, but Johnny thought it might give the old man some hope: He had received a letter from the IRS in March demanding $30,000 in back taxes and had begun to talk of suicide. And besides, Johnny and Jimmy figured the plan would never come to anything: Big John would be caught as soon as he tried to get his bomb into the casino. 

So late one Friday night, Johnny drove his Dodge van over to the house on Fowler Avenue to pick up Jimmy and Big John. They headed east into the mountains, toward the Helms Creek hydroelectric construction project. A colossal underground engineering scheme to create a new reservoir and build a pumping station in vaults beneath a granite mountain in the Sierra Nevada, the project would ultimately require the excavation of more than a million cubic yards of rock and earth and the blasting of almost four miles of tunnels, each 38 feet in diameter. It called for an extremely large quantity of explosives.

Big John had already been up to the Helms site two or three times by himself. Construction work was scheduled around the clock, but he had managed to wander in past an unmanned guard shack, take a good look at the site’s powder magazines, and walk right back out again undetected. When the three men arrived in Johnny’s van, close to midnight on June 6, the Helms site loomed out of the night like a movie set, a column of white light blazing skyward amid the darkened pines. But even before the Birgeses reached the gate, they could see a crew nearby pouring concrete. Someone was sure to spot them. They drove back to Clovis. Exactly one week later, they tried again.

Turning onto the access road to the site, Johnny stopped the van to cover the license plates with fake ones he’d made from blue and yellow construction paper. He drove on through the front gate, then parked in the shadows behind a mound of dirt. Next to the batch machine—a giant concrete mixer that turned constantly—was a small red wooden shack hung with a sign that read DANGER EXPLOSIVES. The three men pulled on gloves.

Big John crept around the back of the shack, carrying a portable oxyacetylene torch in a backpack. He forced open a window, and he and Johnny climbed inside. With the torch, Big John cut the padlocks off the steel door of the powder magazine. Inside was case after case of Hercules Unigel dynamite and blasting caps. Each case weighed 50 pounds and measured two feet by one foot. Johnny passed them out the window. Big John and Jimmy stacked them in the dirt. The boys got nervous. But Big John kept wanting more.

It took an hour, and by the time they’d finished, the back of the van was almost completely filled with dynamite. Johnny turned the van around, and Big John used a tree branch to scuff out their tire tracks. They pulled through the gates and headed west. No one saw a thing.

The van rolled back into Clovis at around three in the morning. They had stolen 18 cardboard cases filled with dynamite and blasting caps to go with it—more than 1,000 pounds of explosives in all. The dynamite was formed into sticks 18 inches long and two inches around, wrapped in yellow wax paper, and stamped with the manufacturer’s name. Used correctly, it was enough to reduce a large building to a pile of rubble. They stacked the boxes in the walk-in freezer, surrounded by the remains of the beef, lamb, and lobster ordered years earlier. Then Big John padlocked it shut.

The following day, the Fresno Bee ran a brief news story concerning the mysterious theft of $50,000 worth of dynamite from the hydroelectric project up at Wishon Lake. “Whoever took the explosives left no prints, tracks or clues behind,” the paper reported. The county sheriff’s office had no suspects.

Johnny was at home when the phone rang.

“You did it, didn’t you?” Kelli said.

“What?”

“The dynamite. You stole it.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Johnny said. “What dynamite?”

Johnny and Kelli broke up soon after that. 

Six

The freezer full of dynamite gave Big John a new sense of purpose. In the machine shop behind the house, he did a little work each day, welding and soldering. Slowly, his most ingenious invention began to take shape.

Two weeks after the raid on Helms Creek, Johnny went over to Fowler Avenue to see what his father had been up to. The workshop was well equipped but chaotic. It was scattered with the makings of half-finished projects: irrigation line, a tower for solar panels, and the greenhouse Joan had been trying to get Big John to build for her. In the middle of it all, covered with a blanket, were two rectangular boxes welded together from sections of quarter-inch steel plate.

Even empty, the larger of the two boxes—26 inches high, 24 inches wide, and 45 inches long—was too heavy to lift. Fitted with recessed casters and a second set of wheels with rubber tires, it was large enough to contain nearly all the dynamite they had taken from Helms Creek. The second box was smaller—just over a foot square and 22.5 inches long—and was designed to be welded to the top of the first. This would house the brain of Big John’s bomb: the nerve center for a nest of booby traps and triggers he had devised with the aim of thwarting even the most sophisticated attempts to defuse it.

The bomb, Big John explained to Johnny and Jimmy, had eight separate electromechanical fusing mechanisms. If any one of them was triggered, it would complete a circuit between a battery and detonators attached to the dynamite, and the bomb would explode.

First, the two boxes were lined with aluminum foil sandwiched between two layers of neoprene; if anyone attempted to drill through the outside of the box, the drill bit would make an electrical contact between the steel box and the foil, completing a circuit and detonating the device. Second, Big John had used spring-loaded contacts to booby-trap the screws holding the tops of the boxes in place. Unscrew any of them and the contacts would close, completing a circuit. Third, the lids of both boxes were rigged with pressure switches like those used in car doors to operate dome lights. If either lid was removed, the switches would open, completing a circuit.

Fourth, inside the top box Big John rigged a float from a toilet cistern. If the box was flooded with water or foam, the float would rise, completing a circuit. Fifth, beside the float was a tilt mechanism built from a length of PVC pipe lined with more aluminum foil; inside hung a metal pendulum held under tension from below with a rubber band. Big John took a circuit tester and demonstrated to Johnny: Once this was armed, if the bomb was moved in any way, the end of the pendulum would make contact with the foil, completing a circuit. Sixth was a layer of foil running around the seam connecting the two boxes; if a metal object was inserted between the top and bottom boxes to lever them apart, this would complete a circuit.

Finally, Big John had installed a solid-state irrigation timer—designed for greenhouses and sprinkler systems—connected to a six-volt battery. This could be set in time increments from 45 minutes to eight days. But once it had been activated and all the booby traps had been armed, it would no longer be possible to get inside the bomb to turn it off. As soon as the timer reached zero, it would detonate the device.

Johnny realized what this meant: His father’s bomb was impossible to disarm. Big John did not plan to provide Harvey’s with instructions on how to turn off the device in exchange for the ransom. Instead, what he would offer was a guide to making the pendulum mechanism safe, so that the bomb could be moved from the casino to another location, where it could be detonated without incident—though even this wouldn’t be without its hazards. On the side of the top box, Big John built a panel of 28 steel toggle switches, neatly numbered and arranged in five rows. He told Johnny that three—or perhaps five—of the 28 could be used to switch the pendulum circuit on and off. Many of the others were dummies—but some of them weren’t. Flip any one of the live switches and it would complete a circuit. Then the device would explode instantly.

Seven

Throughout the summer, Big John kept working on the bomb. He wired in the firing mechanisms and spot-welded the boxes together. He built a dolly to move it around. Johnny gave the casing a slick finish. He covered the screws with Bondo and gave the boxes a coat of flat gray paint. He and Jimmy were in agreement that they wanted nothing to do with Big John’s extortion plot. But—like Joan, who was terrified by her boyfriend’s repeated threats to commit suicide—they were too frightened to argue. Still, they wondered, how would he get his contraption inside a busy casino without arousing suspicion? 

Big John had already thought of that. One day in early August, with the bomb nearly finished, he laid out the plan to Johnny and Jimmy. They were going to disguise the bomb as a piece of new computer equipment and deliver it to Harvey’s right through the front door. Big John and his sons would drive it over to Tahoe in Johnny’s van. They’d put on overalls just like the ones worn by Harvey’s staff. The bomb would be hidden beneath a fabric cover with “IBM” printed on the side in iron-on lettering.

At around 5:30 in the morning, they’d roll it through the lobby, into the elevator, and up to the second floor, where they’d find the casino’s administrative offices and the computers that controlled the slot machines. Big John would then arm the bomb and leave it there, along with an extortion note. While working on the bomb, Big John had decided that a million dollars wasn’t a large enough ransom for a plan like this. No: Three million sounded about right.

When Jimmy asked his father how he planned to pick up the extortion money, Big John refused to say. Jimmy had heard him mention a helicopter, and he knew Big John had stolen two strobe lights from airplanes parked at Lake Tahoe Airport. But he wouldn’t be drawn out on the details. “Don’t worry,” he told Jimmy. “You’ll see.”

Two weeks later, Big John unlocked the door of the walk-in freezer. Outside, in the sun, he and Joan removed the sticks of dynamite from their paper wrapping and laid them out on the ground. The explosives reeked of turpentine; the fumes gave them both headaches and made them nauseous. They packed the sticks tightly into Hefty bags and put them inside the bomb casing. Eventually, with all the dynamite in place, Big John and Jimmy rigged the explosives with bundles of blasting caps and wired them into the fusing circuitry. The bomb was now complete.

A week after that, Jimmy came into the kitchen to find that the extortion note was finished, too. It was sitting there on the table in a clean white envelope. Joan had typed it up on her electric typewriter, the one she used for the business and creative-writing classes she was taking at night. She told Jimmy he could read it if he liked. But he couldn’t pick it up unless he was wearing gloves.

On Saturday, August 23, Big John summoned his sons to help him practice rolling the device onto the cart he’d built to move it across the Harvey’s parking lot. Big John pulled the half-ton bomb up with a block and tackle while Johnny guided it into position. Then the rope snapped and the bomb rolled back. Johnny, who couldn’t move fast enough, yelped in agony as the wheel rolled over his left hand. Somehow nothing was broken, but it gave him a way out. “I don’t want nothing more to do with it!” he shouted. “I’m out!”

He climbed into his van and left. Jimmy turned to his father: “Well,” he said, “if he’s not going to do it, I’m not going to do it.”

On Sunday, Big John called Johnny. He asked if he could use his son’s van again. “OK,” Johnny said. “As long as I don’t have nothing to do with it.” Out at the house, Big John told the boys that if they wouldn’t help with the delivery, they had to help him with the ransom drop.

Inside the bomb, the timer was already running. 

Eight

Terry Hall and Bill Brown were sitting around the house drinking beer at around one in the afternoon when Big John called. Bill was a redneck pipe fitter from Arkansas. He had a hard-luck past, jailhouse tattoos, and a record to match: car theft, drunk and disorderly, battery, reckless driving, assault with a deadly weapon. At 59, he was a hard man running to fat, with an ulcer, an ex-wife, and four children to support.

Terry was 24. Muscular. Swarthy. Dark hair set in a close perm. He had a kid with Bill’s daughter Juanita, and the four of them lived together in a house on North Jackson Avenue. Bill and Terry were both out of work. Terry had a felony conviction for forgery and had been in and out of trouble since he was a kid. The cops had picked him up a few times for sniffing paint, and around 14 or 15 he used to shoot heroin pretty often, maybe do a little acid, smoke some weed. But mostly he liked to drink. He and Bill were both hard drinkers. They’d get loaded six days a week. Beer, usually. Once in a while, vodka and orange juice.

Bill had worked for Big John for maybe ten or fifteen years but hadn’t done anything for him since he sold the landscaping business. Now, on the phone, Big John said he had a job for him, $2,000 for a day’s work. “Who I got to kill?” Bill said.

Big John told him he wanted the two of them over at the house right away. Bill and Terry finished their beers and got into Bill’s ’71 Matador, a great swaying boat of a car with rust spots stippling the blue paint. When they arrived, Bill and Big John went around the back of the house to talk. A couple of minutes later, Bill called Terry over. Beside the garage, Bill told him that Big John wanted them to deliver a machine to Harvey’s. He didn’t say why, and Terry didn’t ask. Terry didn’t think there was anything odd about it. The way Big John explained everything, it was just so easy, like they were expected to be there. Big John gave them directions on exactly where to take the machine and handed Bill $50.

They left for Tahoe at dusk. Big John drove the van north up Highway 99. He took it very carefully. They had the radio on and cracked some beers. Big John and Bill talked, mostly about the work they’d done together in the past. They drove all night.

When they got to Harvey’s, it was around five in the morning. It was still dark. They walked over to the back door of the casino. Terry went in and looked at the elevator, to check the route. But Big John wanted to wait and get some sleep before delivering the machine. They drove south for a few miles and found a place called the Balahoe Motel, ten rooms set back from the highway in the trees. They went for breakfast—Big John paid—and then checked in at the Balahoe at around 11:15. Big John gave Terry some money and told him to get a room.

But Terry was on parole in California for burglary and probation for a hit-and-run. He told Big John he couldn’t register under his own name. He wasn’t supposed to be out of the state. So he wrote down “Joey Evetts” on the registration card. Terry’s handwriting was small and neat, with copperplate curls. His s could look like an o. Under the address he wrote “Van Ness Street” and made up a number. Then the desk clerk asked him to read her the license number off the van. She wrote it down on the card.

They stayed in the room all day and most of the night, drinking and watching TV. At 2:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Big John went out. He was carrying a briefcase. He told Terry and Bill to pick him up at Lake Tahoe Airport, a five-minute drive down the highway. They waited until four, and then went out to the van, but it wouldn’t start. They called on the manager’s intercom to ask for jumper cables, but he didn’t have any. When Big John finally came walking back, he said he’d call a tow truck. Bill and Terry put on the blue overalls Big John gave them. The tow-truck driver arrived and got the van started. Big John gave him a $100 bill and told him to keep the change.

On the way to Harvey’s, they pulled over in a nearby parking lot and took the license plate off another van. With some rubber bands, Big John used it to cover the plate on the Dodge. They reached the parking lot at Harvey’s at around 5 a.m. It was still dark, but the lights on the outside of the building lit the scene right up. They unloaded the machine and towed it across the parking lot behind the van. Bill and Terry took it over to the front doors of Harvey’s, under the canopy.

Terry pushed the dolly while Bill pulled. It was hard going. From outside the double doors, Terry could see a man in a cap sitting behind a desk. As they came in, the man got up from behind the desk and walked away. Through the double doors, past the desk, and then to the elevator, no more than 50 feet away. Bill helped get the machine off the dolly and into the elevator. Then he went back to the van. Terry went on alone.

On the second floor, out of the elevator, left and left again. A Harvey’s employee passed Terry but paid him no attention. He pushed the machine into a small waiting area outside the casino’s telephone exchange and pulled the cover off. It was the first time he had seen it. He removed his overalls and stuffed them and the cover into a plastic Harvey’s bag that Big John had given him, just like he had been told. Then he left, taking the stairs, and went out the front of the building. It had taken no more than two minutes. Afterward, Terry would be hazy on the details. He wasn’t drunk, exactly. But he had drunk a lot of beer.

Outside, the sun had come up. Terry went around the corner toward a stoplight between Harvey’s and Harrah’s. He was standing there waiting for the light to change when Big John came up behind him. They walked together across the Harvey’s parking lot, got in the van, and drove away toward California. It was only a couple of minutes before they made a stop at a bait shop. Terry bought some more beer. Then they stopped at a creek to take a piss. While Bill and Terry were relieving themselves, Big John took the dolly out of the back of the van and threw the pieces into the creek.

Bill and Terry looked at Big John. Bill asked him why he was getting rid of it. Big John told them they’d just delivered a bomb. Nobody was going to get hurt. He’d left a note telling them to get everybody out.

Back in the van, Bill and Terry just sat there looking stunned. Terry couldn’t think of anything to say. The plan sounded hopeless. He figured all he could do was sit back and hope he didn’t get arrested.

On the way back to Fresno, Bill and Terry started drinking pretty good. 

Nine

It was about 5:30 a.m. on Tuesday when Bob Vinson, who supervised the graveyard shift at Harvey’s, realized he was out of cigarettes. He was on his way down from his second-floor office to the gift shop to buy a pack when he noticed something odd. The accordion door leading through to the room that housed the casino’s internal telephone exchange was half open. It was usually closed, and he hadn’t seen anyone else around. He was curious. He stepped around the door and looked inside.

There was a big gray metal object sitting there, right outside the phone exchange. It hadn’t been there 20 minutes earlier. It was on metal legs. The legs were all balanced on pieces of plywood. They were pressing into the thick orange carpet. Whatever it was, it was heavy, and he was pretty sure it didn’t belong there.

Vinson’s first thought was to call security. But then he noticed that the door leading out to the elevator was closed. That wasn’t right, either. When he opened the door and felt the knob on the other side, his palm came away glistening with something sticky. Vinson and the building maintenance supervisor examined the door lock. It smelled of glue, and the keyhole had been jammed with pieces of wood—matches or toothpicks or something. Vinson told the maintenance supervisor to keep an eye on the machine and went downstairs to get security.

The security supervisor that morning was Simon Caban, a big man who had been a helicopter door gunner in Vietnam. By the time Caban arrived on the second floor, a few janitors and security guards had gathered around the phone exchange; calls had already gone out to the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department and the fire department. When he saw the strange machine, but especially the envelope lying on the carpet next to it, he was alarmed. He’d just taken a training course on letter bombs. “Everybody step back,” he said.

Caban and a sheriff’s deputy grabbed a pair of the janitors’ broomsticks and, taking cover behind the big gray box, used them to poke at the suspect envelope. It was lying face up. It wasn’t sealed. It didn’t look dangerous. Inside were three pages of type. Caban picked up the one with the least amount of writing on it. The deputy grabbed the other two. They started reading at the same time.

Caban didn’t have his glasses with him and found it hard to focus on the page. He was leaning on the box. The deputy was squatting on the floor at his feet. Caban was about to tell the deputy to give him the rest of the letter when he pointed up at the box. “That’s a bomb,” he said. Slowly, Caban lifted his weight off the contraption and backed away.


Bill Jonkey was still at home when the sheriff’s dispatcher called. He hit the top of Spooner Summit just after sunrise, and as the highway dropped over the crest of the Carson Range, the eastern shore of the lake was still cool in the shadows. The deputies met him in the parking lot at Harvey’s, where the evacuation had already started. The hotel was full to capacity with vacationers in town for Labor Day weekend, and as Jonkey went up to the second floor, guests were milling around in the parking lot—elderly couples still in their pajamas, kids without shoes—waiting for buses to drive them over to the high school. On the casino floor, Harvey’s security guards were emptying the cage of the $2 million or $3 million in cash held there and figuring out how to lock the doors of a building that had been open 24 hours a day for 17 years.

Jonkey met Danny Danihel, captain of the Douglas County fire department’s bomb squad, outside the phone exchange. Danihel, a former explosive ordnance disposal specialist in the U.S. Army who had served in Vietnam, was supposed to be off for three days starting that morning. He was packing for a camping trip with his family when he got the call.

The fire department team was still bringing equipment up from the parking lot when Jonkey arrived. Jonkey’s first thought was how well made the bomb was. The welding, the seams, the paint job—the thing was beautiful. None of the bomb-squad guys had seen anything like it. And there didn’t seem to be any way into it. Then they showed Jonkey the letter.

“Stern warning to the management and bomb squad,” it began. 

Do not move or tilt this bomb, because the mechanism controlling the detonators will set it off at a movement of less than .01 of the open end Ricter scale. Don’t try to flood or gas the bomb. There is a float switch and an atmospheric pressure switch set at 26.00-33.00. Both are attached to detonators. Do not try to take it apart. The flathead screws are also attached to triggers…

WARNING:

I repeat do not try to move, disarm, or enter the bomb. It will explode.

This mixture of stentorian threats and technical minutiae continued for three pages. The bomb was filled with 1,000 pounds of TNT, the letter explained, enough to not just obliterate Harvey’s but also to severely damage Harrah’s across the street. It was equipped with three separate timers. The letter advised cordoning off a minimum of 1,200 feet around the building and evacuating the area. “This bomb can never be dismantled or disarmed without causing an explosion,” it said. “Not even by the creator.”

The letter’s author was demanding $3 million in used $100 bills, delivered by helicopter to intermediaries, with further details to follow. In exchange, instructions would be provided for how to disconnect two of the automatic timers so the device could be moved to a location where it would explode harmlessly. Once the ransom was paid, five sets of the instructions would be sent by general delivery to the Kingsbury Post Office in Stateline. There was a tight deadline: “There will be no extension or renegotiation. The transaction has to take place within 24 hours.”

The note concluded with a message for the helicopter pilot making the ransom drop. “We don’t want any trouble but we won’t run away if you bring it,” it said. “Happy landing.”

The extortion note left at Harvey’s Wagon Wheel Casino. Photo: Courtesy of Bill O'Reilly
The extortion note left at Harvey’s Wagon Wheel Casino. Photo: Courtesy of Bill O’Reilly

The , like the device itself, was unlike anything Jonkey had seen before. Some of the claims were ridiculous; that stuff about the “Ricter scale” was obviously bullshit. And when Danihel’s bomb squad took measurements of the device, they concluded that it wasn’t quite big enough to contain 1,000 pounds of TNT. But when Danihel began shooting X-rays of the box, Jonkey saw evidence of a chilling complexity within.

There were wires connected to the 28 toggle switches and to the screws, just as the letter said. There were also triggers that weren’t mentioned in the note: a possible collapsing circuit, a relay and the outline of pressure-release switches, triggers with what looked like crude metal paddles on the lids of the boxes. And whatever was in the bottom box, there was so much of it that it almost filled the space inside, and it was so dense that Danihel’s portable X-ray machine couldn’t penetrate it. Nobody would go to all the trouble of building a device of such sophistication just to give it a payload of kitty litter. Jonkey and Danihel couldn’t be certain, but it seemed entirely possible that they were looking at the largest improvised bomb in U.S. history. 

Nevada State Fire Marshal Tom Huddleston examines the bomb in Harvey’s Wagon Wheel Casino. Photo: Federal Bureau of Investigation
Nevada State Fire Marshal Tom Huddleston examines the bomb in Harvey’s Wagon Wheel Casino. Photo: Federal Bureau of Investigation

Ten

Jonkey set up a command post in a conference room on the second floor of the Sahara Tahoe, a few hundred yards away across Harvey’s parking lot. By 8 a.m., the hotel had brought up 20 or 30 telephones, desks and copy machines—everything he needed to coordinate the operation. Jonkey sent detectives from the South Lake Tahoe Police Department off to locate witnesses, to find out how these guys got the thing into the casino. The Douglas County sheriff’s office handled the perimeter, setting up a cordon and assisting with the evacuation of Harvey’s. More FBI agents arrived from Reno. It would be their job to try to identify the suspects and handle the potential extortion payment.

At around 8:15 a.m., Jonkey called his boss, Joe Yablonsky. The head of the FBI’s Las Vegas division, Yablonsky had come from a successful run as an undercover man, mixing with mobsters in New York and Florida. He wore yawning open-necked shirts, amber sunglasses, heavy gold rings, and a medallion. He never met a TV camera he didn’t like. Behind his back, his men called him Broadway Joe. He was not Jonkey’s kind of guy.

“Boss, I’ve got this extortion going up here,” Jonkey told him. “Stateline, Nevada.”

“Oh, OK. Good,” Yablonsky said. “You got a handle?”

“It’s a huge bomb. They’re asking for $3 million. I’m gonna need some help up here.”

“Well, I can probably send you up…” Yablonsky paused. “Three guys.”

“Well, that would be helpful. Is that all?”

“Yeah, that’s all I can spare. We got a lot of things going on down here.”

Within two hours, word of the bomb had spread across the country. Rubbernecking crowds filled the Sahara parking lot. News trucks from Reno gathered along Highway 50. Explosives experts were on their way into Tahoe from specialist facilities throughout the United States: an Army EOD squad from the nearby depot in Herlong, California; scientists from the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Indian Head, Maryland, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Northern California; and the Nuclear Emergency Support Team, recently created by the Department of Energy to respond to incidents of nuclear terrorism. At ten, Jonkey’s phone rang. “What the hell are you doing up there, Bill?” Yablonsky said. “I’m watching television. This is on every major news network. This is huge.”

“Well, boss, that’s what I tried to tell you.”

“You need some people up there!”

“Yeah. Sacramento division has been in touch with me, and they’re sending up about 60 guys.”

“You’ll have 65 more by tomorrow morning,” Yablonsky told him and promptly got on a plane to Tahoe.

By three in the afternoon on Tuesday, the Nevada National Guard was enforcing a quarter-mile cordon around Harvey’s. Highway 50 was blocked in both directions. Inside the deserted hotel, Danny Danihel and his men were alone with the bomb. On the casino floor, the ranks of slot machines silently winked their lights. Hands of cards, stacks of chips, and cash lay abandoned on the tables. The food in the buffet was congealing.

The bomb team examined the device every way they could. They photographed it and dusted it for fingerprints, X-rayed it and scraped it for paint samples. They scanned it for radiation with a Geiger counter. And, using electronic listening devices and stethoscopes, they strained again and again to hear any sound coming from inside it.

At first the task was almost impossible. The humming of the air-conditioning, the Muzak piped into every room of the building—even the offices—was just too loud, and the bomb technicians didn’t know how to turn it off. They couldn’t hear a damned thing. But late that night, it was quiet enough that, for the first time, they were able to pick up something coming from the lower box: an intermittent whirring noise. You had to listen for a minute to hear it, but it was definitely there. Somewhere inside the bomb, something was happening.

At around nine or ten that night, Jonkey and Herb Hawkins, his supervisor from the Vegas FBI office, went to see Harvey Gross up in the temporary office he’d been given at the Sahara Tahoe. They needed him to make a decision about the ransom.

Gross asked them what they thought. They told him that according to the letter, if he paid $3 million, the instructions on moving the device would arrive via general delivery at the post office. They didn’t need to explain that that could be a long time coming. And who would risk moving the thing, based on what the extortionist had told them? It would take a minimum of four men. All of them would be killed if something went wrong. No, they told Gross, it was impossible to move. The best place to have it explode was right where it was.

Once he understood all that, Harvey Gross made his decision. “There’s no way I’m paying these sons of bitches any money,” he said. 

Photo: Courtesy of Tahoe Daily Tribune and Bill Jonkey

Eleven

Big John arrived back at the house in Clovis late on Tuesday afternoon and told his boys to get ready for the payoff. Johnny and Jimmy tried to back out again, but Big John got angry. He told them they had to do it. Eventually, they gave in.

Big John ran through the list of equipment they’d need: the two strobe lights he’d stolen from Lake Tahoe Airport, two large green canvas bags for the money, ski masks and jackets, a .357 revolver, a .22 and a .303 rifle, a box of ammunition for the .303, and a 12-volt motorcycle battery Jimmy had brought from work, which would power one of the strobes. They loaded the gear into the back of Big John’s gold Volvo.

Big John and Joan took her car, a little Toyota Celica hatchback. The boys followed in the Volvo. It was early evening. They stayed together, driving north on Highway 99 and then east onto 50. They dropped Joan and her car off near Cameron Park Airport, outside Sacramento. Then the boys went on with their father in the Volvo. Johnny drove. From the back seat, Big John gave directions and finally revealed the rest of the plan.

Following Highway 50 as it wound up into the wooded crags of Eldorado National Forest, they were headed for a remote clearing high in the mountains above Lake Tahoe. There, at 4,000 feet, Johnny would drop his father and brother. Big John and Jimmy would take the guns, one of the strobes, and the bags, and settle in to wait for the sound of a helicopter sent from Harvey’s, less than 50 miles away. When they heard the aircraft approaching, they would turn on the strobe. This would be the signal for the pilot to land.

When the pilot touched down, Big John and Jimmy would overpower him at gunpoint. Big John would take the controls and fly Jimmy and the money to a second clearing he had found, near Ham’s Station, 40 miles away on the other side of the valley, where Johnny would be waiting with the Volvo. Jimmy and the money would go with Johnny, while Big John landed the helicopter at Cameron Park Airport, where Joan would pick him up. The four would then rendezvous back in Clovis. Then Big John and Joan would escape to Europe to launder the cash.

Things started to go wrong almost immediately. The three men were already high in the mountains, on the serpentine stretch of blacktop between Placerville and Kyburz, when Big John realized they had left the battery back in Clovis. When they reached Kyburz, a handful of wooden buildings scattered down the incline between the highway and the American River, it was around 11 p.m. 

The door at the one-pump gas station was locked and the night bell was taped over. Big John pushed on it anyway. Nothing. He tried it again. Just the sound of water bubbling through the rocks in the river below. He walked over to a wrecked VW parked in front of the gas station; maybe there was a battery in there. He started rummaging around beneath the hood. Inside the station, a couple of dogs began barking. Then their owner, a skinny old man, burst through the door, shouting and cursing and waving a pistol. Big John and the boys dived into the Volvo and fled.

Now Big John was desperate. They turned the Volvo around and headed back the way they had come, toward Placerville, 30 miles down the mountain. At the Placerville Shell station, they found an attendant named Ken Dooley. “I want a battery,” Big John told him.

“For what car?”

“It doesn’t matter. Any kind of battery.”

Working the night shift behind a pane of bulletproof glass, Dooley was used to trouble. He was also diligent about his work. He didn’t want to sell this man with the heavy accent just any kind of battery. He wanted to sell him one that would fit his car: Was it a Volvo? Maybe it was an Audi? He wasn’t sure he had that kind. He’d have to check in the back. Big John insisted he didn’t care. He just wanted a battery, quickly. Finally, the kid sold him a 12-volt Easycare 40 for $45, in cash.

Big John got back in the car, and he and his sons set off up the mountain once again. Along the river, back through Kyburz. Johnny took a sharp left onto Ice House Road. The Volvo rattled over a cattle guard. The road climbed fast for two or three miles, narrow and switchbacked, hugging the side of the mountain. The turnoff to the drop point was marked with a fluorescent orange cross spray-painted on a tree. It was late. By the time Johnny finally left his father and brother in the clearing with the strobe, the battery, and the guns and took off again in the Volvo, it was approaching midnight. There wasn’t much time.

Five more minutes down the highway, Johnny pulled off onto a short gravel frontage road. He saw a restaurant with a neon cocktail glass glowing overhead and a phone booth outside. He dialed the number Big John had given him. It rang once, twice. 

Twelve

The Bell Ranger was running on fumes when FBI agent Joe Cook touched down on the runway at Lake Tahoe airport. The extortion note was very specific: Land at 23:00 hours, wait under the light by the gate in the chain-link fence; further instructions would arrive via taxi or the pay phone near the fence at exactly 00:10.

But Cook was late. Getting hold of a helicopter to deliver a multimillion-dollar ransom to potentially armed extortionists had proved difficult, even for the FBI. The local agencies had all refused to help. In the end, Cook had flown up that night from the FBI office in Los Angeles, navigating for 400 miles using a Texaco road map. When he landed, he radioed the tower for a gas truck and walked to the fence. The phone rang almost immediately. Cook answered on the second ring. It was eight minutes past midnight.

“Hello,” said a young man with a Southern accent.

“Hello.”

“Who’s this?”

“Who’s this?”

“OK. Your instructions are under the table in front of you,” the caller said. His Southern accent had vanished. “You have three minutes.”

Cook felt something taped to the underside of the phone booth: a thin sheet of aluminum and, under that, an envelope.

“To the Pilot,” the note said. “I remind you again to strictly follow orders.” Cook hurried back to the helicopter. He handed the piece of paper to Dell Rowley, hunched out of sight behind the seats with his submachine gun. As Cook prepared for takeoff, Rowley read him the instructions: Follow Highway 50 west in a straight line. Stay below 500 feet. After 15 minutes, start looking for a strobe light on your right. Land facing south. Two hundred feet away, you’ll find further instructions nailed to the trunk of a tree. Cook took the helicopter up and flew along the highway, following the curves as it wound through the forest. When he reached the 15-minute mark, he began circling.

Rowley’s orders were simple: Protect the pilot. Rowley was a SWAT team leader who had come to the FBI after serving in the U.S. Army and then the Border Patrol down in El Paso, Texas. He was an excellent shot, and he wasn’t going to take any chances. If he saw someone raise a weapon, he wouldn’t give him the chance to fire.

Down in the moonlit clearing, a breeze sighed in the treetops. Big John and Jimmy listened for the chop of rotor blades. Once, Big John thought he heard something, took the cables, and turned the strobe on for half a minute. But it wasn’t a helicopter. No one came. It was cold; the ski jackets weren’t warm enough. Big John emptied gunpowder from some shells and started a fire. Miles away, in entirely the wrong place, Joe Cook scanned the darkened landscape for more than an hour. He circled wider and wider. Nothing. Eventually, he and Rowley gave up and flew back to Tahoe with the three bags of scrap paper and the thousand dollars. The SWAT team stood down.

KOLO-TV (Reno) Eyewitness News broadcast, August 27, 1980. Video: Courtesy of KOLO-TV

On the other side of the valley, Johnny waited for four or five hours in the dark. He kept the car window open, listening for the sound of his father and brother flying in with the money. Finally, he decided something must have gone wrong. He drove the Volvo back to where Joan was waiting, in Cameron Park. She was sitting in her car beside the airport fence, on the right side of the road. She’d heard the governor on the radio. He said there had been some confusion. It sounded like they still intended to pay the ransom.

Johnny drove back up the mountain to find Big John. Joan was close behind him in her Celica. On a right-hand hairpin at the bottom of Ice House Road, Johnny took the bend too fast. In his rear-view mirror, he watched Joan skid across the road and slam into the embankment. The car was wrecked. Johnny went back and found Joan bleeding from her nose and head. Together, they drove up the road a short distance in the Volvo. Jimmy and Big John were walking down toward him. It was around 6 a.m. on Wednesday, August 27, 1980. It was light out. They were empty-handed.

Johnny, Jimmy, Big John, and Joan picked up the guns from the drop site, then drove Joan down to the hospital in Placerville. Johnny took her in; he told the receptionist he had just been driving by and saw that she’d crashed. Then the three men took the Volvo down the street to the public phone at a Beacon gas station. Big John told Johnny to call the Douglas County sheriff’s office: Tell them to flip switch number five on the bomb and await further instructions. Five was a dummy switch, Big John said. But it would buy them some more time.

It was almost seven when they began the three-hour drive back to Fresno. Jimmy was asleep in the passenger seat, Big John passed out in the back. Johnny was already late for work with the roofing company. As the landscape flattened out and the two-lane highway split into freeway, he put his foot down: 40, 50, 65 miles an hour. Then he saw lights in his rear-view mirror.

Officer Jim Bergenholtz of the California Highway Patrol was a stickler for details. He had paced Johnny for two miles before finally pulling him over. After he issued him a speeding ticket, he took careful note of the number of men he saw in the gold Volvo and exactly where they were sitting. 

Thirteen

For the first 24 hours, Danny Danihel had felt pretty comfortable with the bomb. A device that big could easily bring the entire building down, but he knew that no sensible extortionist would blow up his target before he’d gotten his money. Since the midnight deadline had come and gone, the situation was different. Now the thing could go off at any moment.

And despite his listening devices and photographs and the patchwork of X-rays stitched together across the wall of the command post across the street, Danihel had no real idea what was inside the device. By Wednesday morning, he still had dozens of questions: When did the timer start running? How accurate was it? How reliable were the batteries? How good was this guy’s wiring? Was he really an expert or just some nut job who wanted people to think he was?

By the time word came over about flipping switch five, neither Danihel nor the other two members of the bomb squad, Carl Paulson and Larry Chapman, had slept since Monday night. Over in the Sahara Tahoe, explosives experts were poring over the X-rays, trying to figure out how to defeat the device. Danihel built a rig to flip switch five remotely, but the experts advised against acting on the call. The description of the 28 toggle switches on the box had been all over the TV and newspapers. Hoax claims and crank calls were coming in all the time. It was probably meaningless.

At 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday, the experts gathered in the Sahara command post for a roundtable meeting. They threw out every idea they could come up with. Flood the bomb with liquid nitrogen. Encase it in concrete. Pick it up and carry it to a nearby golf course. Finally, Leonard Wolfson, a civilian consultant to the Navy, suggested using more explosives to defeat the bomb, with a linear shaped charge. A precisely formed piece of plastic explosive encased in a brass jacket, it would create two explosive planes of hot gas collapsing on one another to form a fine jet: a pyrotechnic cutting tool. This could disable the bomb by severing the fusing mechanisms the technicians could see in the top box from the explosives they believed filled the lower box. Wolfson explained that the time between the detonation of the charge and the gas jet striking the box would be half a millisecond. If the bomb contained only low-voltage circuitry, it would be decapitated before the electrical impulses from the battery could reach the detonators and trigger the dynamite. It was risky, but it was the best idea they had.

At noon, the men around the table took a vote. It was unanimous: They would follow Wolfson’s plan. Using a computer terminal set up in the Sahara to communicate with Lawrence Livermore, Wolfson began making calculations. A defense contractor down in Las Vegas machined the brass components for the shaped charge, which were then flown up to Tahoe by helicopter.

At 3:10 p.m., Danihel walked up to the bomb carrying the shaped charge taped to a two-by-four. He had been awake for 30 hours. He was very tired and very scared.

Standing beside the bomb, he positioned the charge against a stack of Tahoe phone books and a Formica-topped table at the precise angle dictated by the scientists at Lawrence Livermore. He checked the angles using a tape measure and a piece of string. He primed the charge and checked the detonators. He checked the continuity of the firing leads with a galvanometer. He had only one shot. He didn’t want to have to come back up on this thing. He made the connection to the firing leads. Then he checked everything again. 


At that moment back in Fresno, Johnny Birges was just leaving work. Big John and Jimmy were on the road again, making the long trip up from Clovis to Placerville in Jimmy’s pickup, on their way to collect Joan from the hospital. As they headed north on Highway 88, Big John told Jimmy that it was time for another phone call.

Despite what he had claimed in the extortion note, the irrigation timer in the bomb would run for at least three more days before detonating the explosives. Big John wanted the governor to make good on his promise of a second attempt at the ransom exchange. The highway through the Gold Country plains toward Placerville was remote and deserted. As they approached the old mining town of Ione, Big John told Jimmy to pull over at the pay phone outside Antonio’s Italian Restaurant. It was a little after 3:30 in the afternoon.


In Stateline, the sheriff’s office announced a 15-minute warning. Crowds of gawking tourists and reporters craned their necks from behind the barricades. Some of them were already wearing “I Was Bombed at Harvey’s” T-shirts. Word went around that gamblers were placing bets on what would happen next.

Danny Danihel walked down the frozen escalator, past the blinking slots, and out into the afternoon sun. Around the corner he met up with Carl Paulson, who was waiting beside his truck outside Harvey’s Pancake Parlor. The empty street rang with the sound of a deputy calling out a final warning over the PA of his patrol car. Then silence, save for the clicking of the stop lights on Stateline Avenue. Danihel’s radio crackled with the final OK. Under the hood of Paulson’s truck, he touched one of the two strands of firing lead against the truck battery. “Fire in the hole,” he said. He touched the second strand to the battery. It was 3:46 p.m.

“Holy shit,” Danihel said. But nobody heard him over the roar of the explosion.   

Fourteen

Danihel and Paulsen scrambled beneath the truck. Fragments of concrete and pieces of plaster rained from the sky. On the roof of the Sahara Tahoe, Bill Jonkey sheltered behind a shallow parapet. Fragments of wood, metal, and glass sprayed out from both sides of Harvey’s as Big John’s bomb vaporized in a flash of superheated expanding gases. A pressure wave radiating outward at more than 14,000 feet per second tore through the second floor, bursting through doorways, flattening walls, and shattering windows. A curtain of brown smoke fell across the facade. A cloud of white dust blossomed from the second floor, enveloping the building and rolling across the parking lot. Behind the barricades, a ragged whoop went up from the crowd.

Danihel and Paulson lay on the warm asphalt, waiting for the patter of debris falling on the roof of the truck to subside. From within the building came sounds of rending and crashing as floors and ceilings collapsed. When they finally stood, the damage wrought by nearly 1,000 pounds of dynamite was clear. A jagged five-story hole yawned in the middle of the casino. “We lost it,” Danihel said. “The whole thing went up.”

Five minutes later, Wilma Hoppe, answering phones at the Douglas County Sheriff substation just north of Stateline in Zephyr Cove, received an operator-assisted call from a pay phone in Ione, California. The operator’s voice said, “A dollar seventy-five. There must be some confusion.” Then another voice came on the line. Hoppe thought it sounded like a white man of around 30.

“If you still want the exchange, I’ll call back in one hour,” he said. Then he hung up.


Big John and Jimmy were back on Highway 88, headed for Placerville, when they heard the news on the radio. “Well, I don’t have anything to live for now,” Big John said.

Half an hour later, they arrived at the hospital to collect Joan. She had a Band-Aid across her nose. They watched as footage of the explosion replayed on a TV in the waiting room. The sight of what he had done—the white dust and the brown smoke, the hurtling debris, the gaping hole in the facade of the casino—briefly lifted Big John’s spirits. “It worked pretty good,” he said.

Joan said they still had to report the accident to the Highway Patrol. They drove up to Ice House Road to get her car. A tow truck was waiting; Joan had locked the keys inside, and Big John had to force the window open. They followed the tow truck back down Highway 50. It was really quiet all the way back to Clovis. Nobody said anything about the bomb. 


When the charge went off, Chris Ronay was standing next to Carl Paulson’s truck, right there on Stateline Avenue. He was still in his suit and tie. He had come straight from the FBI Explosives Operations Center in Washington, where he worked as a bomb analyst. That afternoon, the local agents had pulled him off the plane before it had even reached the gate at Sacramento Airport and flown him to Tahoe by helicopter.

Ronay heard two explosions in close succession: a hiccup and then a boom. The concussion knocked him to the ground. Beside him the state fire marshal shouted “C’mon!” and took off running toward the hotel lobby entrance. Ronay followed. Plaster dust was still drifting in the air.

The explosion had torn a giant spherical hole through the middle of the hotel. Where the bomb had once sat on the second floor, a hole 60 feet in diameter gaped in the foot-thick concrete. There was a matching hole 50 feet across in the floor above and another 30 feet across in the floor above that. The void reached up to the fifth floor and all the way down into the basement. Around it, webs of twisted rebar were tangled with broken drywall, bedclothes, and pieces of metal window frame. Toilets teetered on the edges of newly calved precipices. TV sets dangled by their cables over the abyss. Water poured from broken pipes, soaking everything. From somewhere deep inside the darkened carcass of the building came the distant sound of whirring machinery, still drawing power from an auxiliary generator no one had thought to shut off.

Ronay looked down at the dust carpeting the parking lot. His job was just beginning. 

Fifteen

Once Highway 50 reopened, the investigation—a Bureau Special, Major Case No. 28, designated Wheelbomb—began in earnest. Fifty agents from the FBI’s Sacramento and Las Vegas divisions were now installed in Stateline and devoted full-time to the hunt for the Harvey’s bombers. Bill Jonkey was made the case agent for Nevada, charged with coordinating the investigation on his side of the line until the culprits were found. Joe Yablonsky held a press conference announcing that the bureau was setting up a national information hotline. Tips started pouring in from around the world, hundreds of possible suspects and dozens of suspicious vehicles. A bellman at Harvey’s described two white men pushing the bomb on a cart across the lobby at around 5:45 a.m. on Tuesday. A blackjack dealer recalled seeing a man standing with the device by the elevator at around the same time. Several other witnesses said they had seen a white van in the parking lot of the hotel that morning, though nobody could recall a license plate.

Late on Friday afternoon, two days after the explosion, enough debris had been cleared from around the hotel for Harvey’s to reopen part of the casino for gambling. The old Lake Room was small and shopworn, but the symbolism was important—and so was the money. Yablonsky gave another press conference there, on a red-curtained stage behind the bar. He admitted to the press that the FBI had not yet developed a significant lead and had no detailed descriptions of the suspects. He announced a reward for information: $175,000—soon raised to $200,000—put together by Harvey Gross and the management of three other casinos in Stateline. It was the largest bounty Yablonsky had ever heard of in a criminal case.

By Monday, Yablonsky was still waiting in vain for a solid lead. “There is not anything I can say I’m panting over,” he told reporters. Agents had recovered fingerprints from the bomb and were checking them against their records. More eyewitnesses came forward, including a musician and two friends who had been crossing the street from Harrah’s at 5:30 a.m. on Tuesday and had gotten a good look at the two men wheeling the cart across the Harvey’s parking lot. But none of the witnesses could agree on what the suspects looked like.

Among the hundreds of tips the bureau had received was a call from Gerald Diminico, the manager of the Balahoe Motel on Emerald Bay Road near the airport. He said that two men driving a white van had checked in there the day before the bomb was discovered. They had made a nuisance of themselves asking for jumper cables at four in the morning and checked out soon afterward.

In Fresno, FBI agents checked over the details from the registration card at the Balahoe Motel: Joey Evetto, of 4423 Van Ness, Fresno; a white Dodge van, license plate 1A65819. The Fresno Police Department could find no record of that name in their files or those of the sheriff’s office, and there was no 4423 Van Ness in the city. A call to the California DMV from an agent in Sacramento revealed that no license had ever been issued to a Joey Evetto. It did, however, return a hit on the license plate. The department had an application for a title transfer on file, but the clerks would have to search the transfer applications by hand. It would take some time.

In front of Harvey’s, Bill Jonkey and Chris Ronay worked on the crime scene with a team of 50 men. They searched the mountain of rubble one shovelful at a time, looking for pieces of the bomb. They set up sifting tables outside the casino. Each one was hung with two bags: one for evidence, the other for any of the million dollars in cash and chips left on the felt when the bomb went off. Harvey Gross put one of his guys with a shotgun beside each sifting station, just in case.

Within ten days of the bombing, the FBI team in Stateline had its first break. Based on the composite pictures and some telephone tips, the agents had assembled a short list of prime suspects. The focus of the Wheelbomb investigation now settled on five electronic engineers employed at two aircraft factories: the Gates Lear plant in Tucson, Arizona, and the Lear Avia plant in Stead, near Reno. They resembled the men in the composite pictures. They were new to the area, they had a van, and they had been in Tahoe at the time the device was delivered to Harvey’s. At least one of them had recently shaved his mustache and obtained a new work ID. They had access to strobe lights and had technical and aviation experience. The FBI put them under 24-hour surveillance, including wiretaps on their phones. What the agents heard on the wire only confirmed their suspicions.

Finally, confident that they had the bombers, 20 agents drove up to Reno from Stateline to confront the suspects with the evidence. Yablonsky expected arrests and was ready to give a triumphant announcement to the press. The interview team was led by Bill O’Reilly, a stocky Angeleno with a mustache and an afro, who had come to the FBI from the LAPD bomb squad. As the bureau’s case agent coordinating the Wheelbomb investigation in California, O’Reilly was Bill Jonkey’s counterpart on the other side of the state line. 

Once O’Reilly and his team arrived in Stead, the agents divided into pairs to take each of the suspects to separate rooms at the plant for interrogation. Five minutes in, O’Reilly and another agent, Carl Larsen, stepped out to take a break. Something about this felt very wrong. They glanced down the hallway at one another and shook their heads.

They had the same sinking feeling: Shit. These weren’t the guys.


On September 17, Joe Yablonsky held another press conference and finally released composite pictures of two of the men they were looking for. They were both white. One was said to be five feet seven inches, about 20 years old, with sandy blond hair and a mustache. The other had short dark hair and protruding ears. “A hayseed,” Yablonsky said. “A goober type.”

Two weeks later, there had still been no takers for the reward. “Under normal conditions, a person would sell his mother down the river for $200,000,” Yablonsky told the press in Stateline. The bombers must be part of a particularly tight-knit group, he figured—perhaps a family. It was the only logical explanation.

Jonkey and Ronay were still sifting through the debris in the Harvey’s parking lot. Their team recovered casters, twisted fragments of the leveling bolts, and hundreds of pieces of mangled steel plate, the biggest no more than two inches across, folded and deformed by the force of the explosion. Every day, they sent packages of what they’d gathered back to the FBI explosives lab in Washington. Blast damage experts surveyed the wreckage, measured evidence of the overpressure wave and scorching. They proved what Jonkey and Ronay already suspected: The concussion of the linear shaped charge had set off the pendulum mechanism in the bomb, which had then detonated as designed.

But the forensics provided them with no clearer picture of the bomb makers. The world was not short of suspicious characters with a grievance, access to explosives, and a use for $3 million in cash; the investigators now had a list of several hundred suspects. They considered the IRA, Iranian students, the Mafia. They interviewed two boys on vacation in Tahoe whose neighbors had heard them shout “We did it!” when the bomb went off. They hypnotized witnesses to try to recover details from their subconscious, including one who had seen a Toyota pickup stopped on Highway 50 at the time the “flip switch five” call was made. They interviewed Harvey Gross a dozen times, asking for the names of anyone with a grudge strong enough to warrant destroying his life’s work. But Harvey was 76 years old. They could ask all they liked. He just couldn’t remember.

In the meantime, the FBI office in Sacramento had heard back from the California DMV. The van they had been asking about, the one that had been spotted at the Balahoe Motel, was a white 1975 Dodge Tradesman registered to one John Birges, doing business under the name of the Villa Basque Restaurant in Fresno. The registration renewal had been held up because of unpaid parking tickets. The DMV provided a copy of a driver’s license in the name of John Waldo Birges, with the address 5265 North Fowler Avenue, Clovis, California.

One day in October, a Fresno FBI agent came to the door of Big John’s house asking about the van. Not me, Big John told him: You want my son. 

Sixteen

In the weeks after the bombing, Johnny had gone back to his routine. Monday to Saturday with General Roofing, 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. High all the time. A few days after the failure of the ransom handoff, he sold his van, trading it in at Fresno Toyota for a brand new 4×4. Other than that, he acted normally. He didn’t feel that bad about what had happened. Nobody got hurt. Nobody got killed. And in spite of everything that had gone wrong already, he still had faith in his father. Big John knew what he was doing.

But when Johnny came home from work one day to find an FBI agent’s business card wedged into the jamb of his front door, he freaked out. He had sold the van, but he had no alibi to explain why it might have been seen in South Tahoe while the bomb was being delivered. Johnny, Jimmy, and Big John got together in the kitchen on Fowler Avenue that night. They came up with a story.

Johnny would tell the FBI that he’d gone up to the mountains around Placerville by himself, early on the morning of Sunday, August 24, two days before the bomb was delivered. He was looking for a place to grow marijuana. He drove south to Highway 88 and turned off onto a gravel road near Ham’s Station. He arrived at nine or ten in the morning, parked the van, and walked around for a few hours looking for a good, secluded place to cultivate pot. When he got back to the van it was early evening and the battery was dead; he’d left the stereo on. He’d had to ditch the van and hitchhike back to Fresno. When he got home, he called his brother and arranged to use his pickup to get to work on Monday and Tuesday. Then, in the middle of the night on Tuesday, he and Jimmy drove over to Ham’s Station, where they jump-started the van and drove it back to Fresno.

Big John assured Johnny that the investigators had no evidence. All he had to do was stick to his story and he’d be fine. So when the federal agents came around again, one afternoon after work in late October, that’s exactly what Johnny did. No, he said, he’d never been to South Lake Tahoe. He hadn’t let anyone borrow the van. He had no idea how it could have been spotted outside the motel on Emerald Road early Tuesday. No, he’d never heard of Joe Evetto. No, when he came back to jump-start the van, he didn’t think it had been moved or tampered with—although, now that they mentioned it, one of the door locks was open, and maybe some of those tapes in the snack tray had been moved around a bit.

When he’d finished, the agents told him his story was ridiculous and unbelievable. He was clearly lying to protect whomever he had allowed to use the van. They asked him to take a polygraph. It was entirely voluntary; they just wanted to eliminate him from the investigation. He said he’d think about it. They said they’d be back. They added John Waldo Birges to their list of suspects.


By the beginning of November, the Wheelbomb operation had ballooned into one of the largest and most expensive criminal investigations the FBI had ever conducted—and it still hadn’t produced any results. The investigators hadn’t even figured out where the bomb makers had gotten their dynamite. At the end of the month, a teletype went out from the Las Vegas division to the FBI director’s office and eight other agency offices around the country, offering a blunt and bleak summary: “Investigation in this case still has not realized even the slightest information which would lead to the perpetrators of this crime, despite thousands of interviews and review of over 123,000 records.”

On December 1, the Wheelbomb investigation was scaled back sharply. The command post was relocated to Jonkey’s small office in Carson City, reducing the bureau’s presence in Stateline to a single room with one telephone line in Harvey’s Inn, the motel Gross had built down the street from the main casino. Back in Fresno, the local agents still believed Johnny’s alibi was riddled with inconsistencies, but they had no way of proving that he wasn’t telling the truth. They interviewed Jimmy twice, but he gave them the same elaborate explanation about the marijuana patch and the dead battery. He, too, told them he had mixed feelings about taking a polygraph test. Big John also backed up Johnny’s story and said he had never borrowed the van himself, nor could he ever recall it being parked at his house.

Special Agent Norm Lane couldn’t help liking Big John. Fresno was a bad town, and Lane and the other agents in the bureau’s office there spent most of their time going after bank robbers and gang bangers from the Aryan Nation or the Mexican Mafia. But this guy was something different: clever, funny, charismatic—always had a little smile on his face, an air about him that suggested he thought he was smarter than you. Big John told Lane his whole life story. He said that Johnny used marijuana; that was partly why he threw him out of the house. He said that Johnny certainly didn’t have anything to do with the Harvey’s bombing.

He said that he himself had been a regular at Harvey’s and had become friendly with the staff and with Harvey Gross. He admitted that he had been a heavy gambler at times but said that over the years his winnings and losses had pretty much balanced out. The last time he had been up in Tahoe was back in July sometime. He’d slept in his car, in a sleeping bag. He said he’d heard about the bombing, either on TV or in the Fresno newspaper. He said he thought organized crime was behind it.

By the beginning of the new year, four months after the bombing, only Bill O’Reilly, Bill Jonkey, Jonkey’s supervisor Herb Hawkins, and three other agents working out of the resident agency in Carson City were still assigned to the investigation full-time. By then the bureau had compiled a list of 486 individual suspects worldwide and eliminated 233 of them. If they were lucky, the names of the men they were looking for were somewhere among the remaining 253.

Seventeen

In January 1981, the FBI agents in Fresno, still trying to eliminate Johnny Birges from their investigation, served him with a subpoena. He was called to testify before a grand jury in Reno. Once again, Big John told him to just stick to his story. Everything would be fine.

Johnny went alone. It was a five-hour drive up from Fresno, through the mountains and the forest. There was still snow on the road. When he arrived at the federal courthouse in Reno, he was surprised to find that there wasn’t a judge. It was just a regular room with some chairs and some ordinary-looking citizens in it. The whole thing took an hour, maybe an hour and a half. The assistant U.S. Attorney asked Johnny about the van and the Balahoe Motel. The jurors listened to him, watched his face. Johnny felt pretty nonchalant. He didn’t think they could prove he was lying. Still, on the long drive home he began to wonder what he had gotten himself into.

Four months later, the Wheelbomb investigation was staggering to a standstill. The investigators had no suspects and were running out of leads. One group of FBI agents, hunting a former Harvey’s employee who they’d heard held a grudge against his old boss, were chasing him fruitlessly from one port to another along Mexico’s Pacific coast. In the Fresno office, the agents were trying to locate Johnny’s old roommate, in the hope of having him verify or disprove the story Birges had told the grand jury. But they still hadn’t found him.

On May 13, 1981, Harvey’s Wagon Wheel held a ribbon-cutting ceremony and formally reopened for business, after repairs and security improvements totaling some $18 million. By then, the reward offered for information on the bombers had swollen to $500,000. Half a million dollars—enough to set someone up for life. Harvey and the other gaming kingpins in Stateline were determined to make sure whoever had destroyed his hotel didn’t get away with it.

It was a month before the call finally came in. At first the kid was scared shitless that they were going to kill him or something. He called the FBI’s Fresno office a couple of times but wouldn’t give his name. Eventually, in early June, he agreed to meet a Fresno FBI agent face-to-face. His name was Danny DiPierri. He was the night foreman at the Glacier Brothers’ candy and tobacco warehouse in town. He said he knew who had bombed Harvey’s. He’d dated a girl who had told him all about it before it ever happened. Her name was Kelli Cooper.

After that, things started moving quickly. The agents took Danny out to the Holiday Inn by the Fresno Air Terminal and hypnotized him. They wired him and put him on the phone with Kelli. They gave him envelopes stuffed with $100 bills; he couldn’t believe his luck. A full background investigation began into John Birges Sr. By late June, the Wheelbomb team in Carson City knew a great deal about Big John, and none of it was good. They’d heard about his gambling debts. They’d heard he had once been a high roller at Harvey’s and a guest at Gross’s ranch. They’d heard he lost half a million dollars. They’d heard about how he’d been moved out of that suite on New Year’s Eve, how he’d felt belittled and humiliated in front of his girlfriend. They’d heard that he’d torched his own restaurant for the insurance money.

Agents from Fresno were sent out to locate the new owner of Johnny’s van. Chris Ronay and his team flew back from Washington to conduct a microscopic examination of the Dodge, searching for old fingerprints, paint chips from the bomb, and explosive residue. Agents from the Sacramento office went to question personnel at the Helms Creek hydroelectric project about the theft of explosives reported the previous year. By the end of the month, one agent had found a witness placing Big John at the scene of Joan’s accident on Ice House Road. Another had tracked down Officer Jim Bergenholtz of the California Highway Patrol and his meticulously kept notebook. By early July, 44 agents were back on the case full-time. The Birgeses were designated prime suspects.


Johnny and Jimmy had known something was up for weeks. All summer, agents followed the boys everywhere they went, from morning until midnight. They followed them to work and home again. If Jimmy went on a date, they waited until he had picked the girl up from her house, then they went in and braced her parents. They put a pen register on Johnny’s phone, which logged every number he called, then paid a visit to everyone on the list. Sometimes the agents just sat outside his house, waiting. Johnny had nicknames for them all: Hair Bear, he called O’Reilly; the lone woman, Sherry Harris, with her auburn hair, was known as Grapehead. They even had a name for him: Kickback. They all knew he liked to get high. Sometimes, Johnny wouldn’t see them watching him at all, but they’d call him later and tell him where he’d been and what he’d been wearing, who he’d seen and what he’d been doing: Up at the lake with that girl, Johnny? Nice.

Of course he got paranoid. The pot didn’t help. One day he took mushrooms, more than he should have, and tripped so hard that he saw a devil and an angel right there in the room with him. He knew then that he had to make it all stop. He got into the pickup and drove over to Fowler Avenue. He pleaded with Big John to leave, to get out of the country before it was too late. But Big John wasn’t going anywhere. He knew they didn’t have a damned thing on him.

Throughout July, Bill Jonkey visited Big John almost every day. He’d go out to the house on Fowler Avenue with one of the agents from the Fresno office—Norm Lane or Tom Oswald. Jonkey just wanted to get Big John talking—sometimes about how his sons were doing, sometimes about nothing much at all. Sometimes he wouldn’t even mention Harvey’s. Other times he’d take along some of those glossy color eight-by-tens he had of the bomb before the explosion, feet pressing down into the bright orange carpet outside the telephone exchange.

Sometimes Big John would yell and scream at them through the locked door. Maybe he’d heard that they’d been talking to his neighbors; that could really get him going. Then he’d start yelling about Jonkey and Lane, about the FBI, about all the motherfucking cops out there. They knew Big John kept a loaded .22 rifle beside that door. Jonkey would stand outside in his polo shirt and jeans, turned away just so, his sidearm out of sight behind his right leg. Then sometimes the door would open abruptly and there he’d be, Big John, ready to talk again. He couldn’t help himself. Jonkey would discreetly holster his gun and they’d start in.

“What the hell do you want to talk to me about today?”

“Well, Mr. Birges, can you help us?” Polite. Plaintive, even. “Here’s a picture. Why would a guy put switches on the front like that? And what do you think you could have used to cover up the screw holes in there?”

“Well… can I keep this?”

“No, Mr. Birges, you can’t keep it, but you can look at it.”

“Well, there probably were screw holes. You can use Bondo or something.…”

He wanted to ask them questions. He was interested in the payoff—what had gone wrong? And the explosion—why had they blown it up themselves? He wanted badly to show them how clever he was, how much he knew about everything. About electronics. About fabrication. About bombs.

By that time, the bureau’s investigators knew more about Big John than he could ever have imagined. They knew about Elizabeth’s strange death, about his experience with explosives, his temper, and his recklessness. They knew about the flying stunts; the FAA had taken his pilot’s license away. And they’d been out to the turkey farm his brother-in-law Ferenc Schmidt had, on the outskirts of Fresno.

Ferenc, who was married to Elizabeth’s younger sister, Jolan, was only too happy to help the FBI. He and Big John had never liked one another. Ferenc had thousands of birds out there in three open-sided sheds, each 100 yards long, tin roofs with dozens of automatic feeders beneath them: giant galvanized drums with a mechanism to drop feed into the trays a little at a time. Jonkey was especially interested in the feeders. They were Big John’s work. After Harvey’s cut off his credit, Big John hadn’t had anything to do, and Ferenc had agreed to give him a few hundred dollars for some work. Big John had built an electric bird-feeding mechanism and a pigpen for him from scratch. The feeding system was operated by electrical pressure plates. When the turkeys ate all the feed in a tray, the release of the weight closed a switch and more food tumbled out.

The mechanism wasn’t sophisticated, but it was clever, built from plexiglass and black neoprene, with a big brass paddle to make a contact. Jonkey and Chris Ronay agreed that they had both seen this kind of technology before: the ghostly shadows inside the box outside the telephone exchange.

Still, they had not yet found a single piece of conclusive evidence placing Big John or the boys at the scene of the explosion. Examining the registration card from the Balahoe Motel for prints, scouring Johnny’s van for explosive residue, reading the Birgeses’ mail, comparing stationery from Joan’s desk at the Fresno County probation office to the paper used for the extortion note—it all came to nothing. They had tracked down a steel supplier in Fresno that stocked all the materials necessary to build the bomb and who counted Big John among his customers. But Big John always paid in cash, and the supplier kept no receipts. The switches at the turkey farm and the ones Jonkey had seen in the X-rays at Harvey’s shared an unusual mechanical signature, nothing more.

The agents’ best hope of finding the evidence they needed was to prove that Big John might be planning something new. Then they could legally put a wiretap on the house on Fowler Avenue and listen in to everything that happened there. But although they had the paperwork for microphone surveillance ready to go, they could find no one who could conclusively state that Big John was discussing plans for another bomb.

And yet: He was.

Ferenc Schmidt’s turkey farm. Photo: Courtesy of Chris Ronay
Ferenc Schmidt’s turkey farm. Photo: Courtesy of Chris Ronay

Eighteen

Big John had started talking about putting a second bomb in Harvey’s almost as soon as the dust from the first one had settled. The day after the explosion, he had called Bill Brown and Terry Hall again and told them to come over to the house. They didn’t want to—they were afraid of what might happen—but they went anyway. When Big John started to tell them what he had in mind, Terry just stopped listening. He had a wife and a son; he didn’t want anything to do with this. Then Big John said that if they told anyone about what they’d done, he’d have them killed.

After they left, Bill told Terry that Big John meant what he said. He remembered what had happened to Big John’s wife. One minute she was fine. The next she was lying in a field, dead. It was best if they never talked about what had happened ever again.

A little less than a month after the explosion, Jimmy Birges was asleep on the couch when a noise woke him in the middle of the night. It was around 4 a.m. Big John had just come home. He’d taken Jimmy’s new pickup an hour north to Wishon. He said he’d stolen another dozen cases of dynamite and put them in the freezer.

A few days later, Jimmy was in the garage and Big John brought a stick of it out to show him. It was red jelly wrapped in white plastic, crimped at the ends. Big John asked him if he’d help him move it somewhere else. Big John put the dynamite in the back of Elizabeth’s old pickup. Jimmy followed in his Toyota. They drove a few miles out into the blank farmland at the edge of town, near Ferenc’s turkey ranch. There, beside two large trees, Big John had already dug a hole. It was big enough for the whole haul of dynamite, around 700 pounds in all.

Throughout the winter and spring of 1981, as Johnny testified before the grand jury in Reno and the FBI agents in Carson City and Fresno searched desperately for any scrap of incriminating evidence against the Birges family, the dynamite sat there, buried at the bottom of a flood control ditch. Then Big John got into some kind of fight with Ferenc and his wife. They wouldn’t pay him for the work he’d done; they told him his turkey feeders were no good and the gate on the pigpen opened the wrong way. By then, the FBI agents were all over Johnny, but Big John didn’t care. He was angry. He dug up the dynamite. He rigged a little of it under the wooden bridge Ferenc had over there. The bridge was the only way he had to get in or out of the farm. Johnny heard the explosion all the way across town.

Big John carefully clipped every story printed in the Fresno Bee about the theft of the dynamite and the bombing at Harvey’s. After the Harvey’s explosion, he went back to Tahoe with Joan and dropped by the casino. He might have been casing the place—or he might just have been playing the tables again. Because he also had another target in mind. Early in the summer of 1981, he went over to San Francisco to have a look at the Bank of America building, the monolithic high-rise on California Street. He told Jimmy that maybe he could get a bomb in there.

Whether he chose the bank or the casino, he’d figured out a way of making it easier. The new device would be remote controlled and would drive itself in. At the beginning of August, Big John went to an electrical supply store north of Fresno and bought 20 switches. This time, he told Jimmy, Harvey Gross wouldn’t pay three million. He’d pay five.


On August 12, 1981, a typically infernal summer afternoon in the Central Valley, Bill Jonkey knocked on Johnny Birges’s door. He asked him yet again to explain his whereabouts on August 26 and 27 the year before. Again, Johnny told his story, but this time Jonkey poked holes in it, and Johnny struggled to fill them. Yes, he said, he had taken an unusually roundabout route home that day, because he didn’t know there was a shorter one. Yes, he had gotten a speeding ticket on the way back, and there were two other men in the car with him. They were hitchhikers. Both were young, white men of average build; no, he probably couldn’t identify them if he saw them again.

That same day, Norm Lane and agent Carl Curtis visited Big John in Clovis. They asked him where he had been those same nights the year before. He wasn’t sure, he said, but he was probably right here at home. Then why, the agents asked, had several witnesses seen him on the afternoon of August 27, at the scene of a car accident on Ice House Road, up in the Eldorado National Forest?

Ah, now he remembered—that must have been the day he and his son went up there to collect Joan from the hospital, he told them. She’d wrecked her car. She called and asked them to pick her up. What was she doing up there? Well, she’d driven up to South Tahoe to go gambling the night before. But when she got there she found some of the casinos were roped off. There was a bomb scare or something. So she’d driven to Reno instead. She’d been studying astrology, and a reading of her stars had determined that it was an auspicious night for gambling.

Big John readily admitted that he’d been up to Harvey’s a lot himself over the years. In fact, he said, he still owed the casino $15,000. He’d probably lost about $700,000 since he started playing the tables there. The agents suggested that would provide ample motive for wanting to extort money from Harvey’s by, say, planting a giant bomb in the hotel.

Big John said that he would never do such a thing. He’d once made a lot of money in the landscaping business. But then he’d discovered that his wife was not only having an affair but paying the man for his services, at a rate of $946 a session. It was then that he’d realized that money wasn’t a source of happiness. He decided to get rid of all the money he had—by gambling at Harvey’s. Now that he’d succeeded, money no longer had any meaning for him. He was much happier.

The agents said they knew that he had all of the welding, electronics, and explosives skills necessary to build a bomb like the one that blew up Harvey’s. They’d been told he had a lot of dynamite. Big John said he was flattered that the FBI believed he could pull off such a crime. He said that they were probably right; he was skillful enough to build such a complex device. But he certainly didn’t have the courage you’d need. He showed them a letter from his 81-year-old mother in Hungary. She wrote that she’d like him to visit her one last time before she died. He said he wasn’t quite ready to make the trip yet, but when he was about to leave the country, of course he would notify the Fresno office of the FBI.

Big John gave Lane and Curtis a tour of the new greenhouse he’d built. Before they left, the agents had one last question. Had he ever had occasion to drive a white Dodge van, one that had once been owned by his son Johnny? Yes, Big John said. A few times. But that would have been years back.

The next day, Lane and Curtis dropped in on Big John again, this time with Bill Jonkey. They gave him a form to sign to consent to a search of the house. Big John said he couldn’t sign, because the house was technically Joan’s. But he was more than happy to show them around the workshop. On the way to the garage, he pointed out a big walk-in freezer. He said he used it for food storage. In the workshop, the agents noticed cans of gray spray paint and a small can of White Knight Auto Body Repair Putty. They saw a piece of sheet metal of about the same thickness as the piece found taped beneath the phone booth at Lake Tahoe Airport. They saw a drill press, an arc welder, and an oxy-acetylene welding-tank set. And they saw a homemade cart with casters for wheels and a T-handle made of welded angle iron.

Big John told the agents that he could never have used his workshop to build a bomb like the one in Harvey’s. It was just too exposed; the neighbors would see everything. No, he said, a sensible technician would need an entirely secret location known only to the individual building the bomb—whoever he was.

Nineteen

Later on the same day Big John gave him a tour of his workshop, Bill Jonkey put on a jacket and tie and drove over to Reno. The Wheelbomb team was almost out of options, but they had one remaining card to play: It was time to get a warrant for Johnny Birges’s arrest.

At the federal courthouse, Jonkey told the grand jury that everything Johnny had told them eight months earlier had been a lie. Here’s what really happened, he said: Johnny was up in the mountains the day the bomb went off; the traffic citation proved as much. He was there with his father. Birges senior’s girlfriend had been in an accident nearby; there were witnesses placing them both at the scene. That afternoon, the jury returned its decision. John Waldo Birges was indicted for perjury. Jonkey was back in Fresno that night with a warrant.

The next day, Jonkey and Carl Larsen drove over to Johnny’s house. They found him hiding in the bathroom, holding the door shut from inside, and pulled him out at gunpoint. “This is the big time now, Johnny,” Jonkey said. “We’ve got a federal warrant for your arrest.” They cuffed him and put him in the car.

Jimmy came over to the Fresno FBI office on O Street voluntarily; the investigators had nothing on him. Inside, the boys were taken to separate rooms for questioning. They both held tight to their story. The agents were tense. If the boys called their bluff—if they simply asked for a lawyer and stuck to their alibis—the district attorney would never be able to make the case against Big John. Everyone, even Johnny, would walk. In the interrogation rooms on the fourth floor, hours passed. Jonkey, Larsen, and a third agent went to work on Johnny. They showed him the warrant, told him he’d be going to prison. Larsen worked the mother angle: She didn’t raise you to be a liar. She wanted you to be better than this.

That did it. Johnny didn’t want to be the only one going to jail. He knew if he didn’t talk, someone else would. He said he’d tell them everything. But first he wanted to speak to his kid brother.

Jimmy had been stonewalling his interrogators for three hours by then. Wouldn’t say anything. But then he saw Johnny coming down the hall. The agents had set the scene perfectly: Johnny was shuffling in cuffs and ankle chains. Jimmy turned to one of the FBI men. “We are not going to jail for our father,” he said.

He said he wanted to talk to Johnny.

“Did you tell them?” asked Jimmy.

“Yes,” said Johnny.

Jimmy came back to the table with tears in his eyes. He said he was ready to tell the truth. Bill O’Reilly read him his Miranda rights.

That was the end of it. After that, you couldn’t shut them up.


Around three o’clock in the afternoon on Saturday, August 15, Big John and Joan left the house on Fowler Avenue in the gold Volvo. They hadn’t heard from Jimmy since he’d left for work at the Toyota showroom the previous morning. That meant trouble. They’d driven only a few hundred yards down the block when they were cut off by a pair of unmarked sedans with whip antennas. Four FBI agents, including Norm Lane and Carl Curtis, pulled them out of the Volvo and cuffed them at gunpoint.

The Harvey’s bombing suspects appear in federal court for the first time. Video: Courtesy of KOLO-TV

Down in an interview room on O Street, Big John refused to say anything before he’d talked to a lawyer. He asked to speak to Jimmy. When his younger son came in, he told Big John that the FBI knew everything. The agents even knew about Bill Brown and Terry Hall. Big John was furious. It was all down to Johnny, he said. He had shot off his mouth once too often. If it hadn’t been for Johnny, the government would never have found out. If it hadn’t been for Johnny, they wouldn’t have been able to prove anything in 4,000 years.

Joe Yablonsky held a press conference the next day. The FBI kept the boys in protective custody for a while after that, put them up in the Fresno Hilton, told them to order what they liked. Johnny had a blast. It was like an adventure. Later, O’Reilly took them on a road trip through California so they could show the agents each of the locations used in the botched ransom drop. On September 9, 1981, Johnny turned 21. The FBI agents gave him a card and signed it with the nicknames he had given them.

From left: FBI Special Agent Bill O’Reilly, Jim Birges, John Birges, and FBI Special Agent Bob Price. Photo: Courtesy of Bill O’Reilly
From left: FBI Special Agent Bill O’Reilly, Jim Birges, John Birges, and FBI Special Agent Bob Price. Photo: Courtesy of Bill O’Reilly

There were two trials in the end: a federal proceeding in Las Vegas and a state trial in Minden, just a few miles from the ranch where Harvey Gross’s pilot had shown Big John how to fly a helicopter. The boys were phenomenal; they had great memories. Back in Washington, Chris Ronay and the explosives lab built a replica of the bomb in a plexiglass box to use in court. It took three men almost a month to finish it.

Big John never did come clean. For four years he went through lawyer after lawyer until, finally, he defended himself. He told the prosecutors he’d built the bomb; they were never going to take that away from him. But he said he’d been made to do it. Organized crime: a mysterious hood named Charlie, who told him that if he blew up Harvey’s, his debts would be forgiven—and if he didn’t do it, they’d cripple him for life.

Big John cross-examined his sons, speaking to them like strangers. He suggested Jimmy put him up to it, because he needed money for college. He said the bomb was never supposed to hurt anybody. When Chris Ronay took the stand, Big John pointed out errors in his model of the bomb. He took a car headlamp out of a briefcase and told him they could have used one to drain the battery and make the bomb safe. He suggested Danny Danihel, the leader of the Douglas County fire department bomb squad, had deliberately blown the whole thing up.

The state’s prosecutor didn’t buy a word of it. “Everything is covered, but it doesn’t make sense,” he told the jury. “He didn’t care what happened to whom or to what. He was getting even, and he was going to get money if it all worked right, and he didn’t particularly care about anyone else, the employees, the guests, the players. They could all have been blown up for all he cared.”

Jimmy Birges testifies against his father in state court. Video: Courtesy of KOLO-TV

On March 7, 1985, the jury filed into the state courthouse in Minden and announced that they had found Janos Birges guilty on eight of nine counts, including extortion, making a bomb threat, unlawful possession of an explosive device, and interstate transportation of an explosive device. The judge sentenced him to life in prison. In return for giving evidence against their father, John Waldo and James Birges pleaded guilty and were granted complete immunity. They never served a day behind bars for their involvement in the bombing.

Bill Brown and Terry Hall had remained so terrified of their former employer that even the prospect of a half-million-dollar reward wasn’t temptation enough to get them to talk. Bill Jonkey was amazed. They got seven years each. Ella Joan Williams was found guilty of conspiracy and sentenced to seven years in prison, but her conviction was later overturned on appeal.

They locked Big John up in the federal penitentiary in Lompoc, California. After the second trial, the boys never saw him again. But before his final conviction, Jimmy wrote his father a three-page letter. In it, he apologized for what he and his brother had done and asked for his forgiveness. He explained that he had no work and no money. He said that now he and Johnny would have to do whatever they could to stay out of jail. “Dear Big John,” he wrote.

You are the smartest and most remarkable person in the world. I respect you more than anything and I will try to be worthy of you.… I often lie awake at night thinking of what I have done to you. I cry often at the thought of what I did. I wish we could have been a happy family from the start. I am glad that you brought me up the way you did because it made me realize how hard life was early on.… I will love you always. Your son, Jimmy.

Epilogue

Janos Birges finally succumbed to liver cancer in the medical facility at the Federal Correctional Center in Jean, Nevada, on August 27, 1996, almost 16 years to the day after the device he had built exploded in Harvey’s casino. He was 74.

Bill Brown and Terry Hall were released from federal prison in 1986. They both eventually returned to Fresno, where Brown died in 1994. Hall, not yet 50, followed him in 2005.

Bill Jonkey stayed in touch with the Birges boys for a few years after Big John went to prison. He thought they were basically good kids. Chris Ronay and Jonkey went on to be involved in the FBI’s investigations of later bombings, including Lockerbie, Oklahoma City, and the first World Trade Center attack in 1993, but they never encountered another case like the one at Harvey’s Wagon Wheel. The plexiglass model of the bomb is still used to train the bureau’s explosives technicians in Quantico.

Jonkey retired from the bureau in 2000 but sometimes still lectures on what happened at Harvey’s. When I met him recently, he said that if he saw Big John’s bomb again today, he still wouldn’t know how to defuse it. His team never saw the inside of the box, and to this day he can’t be certain exactly what was in it. There were things in there that the boys may not have known about. And he could never be certain that Big John was telling the truth.

Jimmy Birges never left Fresno. He settled down, eventually started a welding and fabrication business, had three children and began coaching Little League. He did pretty well for himself, well enough to start racing cars in his spare time. Things didn’t work out so smoothly for Johnny. Having the same name as his father made life difficult. People didn’t want the son of a bomber working on their roofs. He moved to Bakersfield and started his own contracting business. He made a lot of money, but he also acquired a cocaine habit.

In 1986, his fiancée was driving back from Avila Beach one day and fell asleep at the wheel. The car left the road, and she was killed instantly. Her death seemed to sap Johnny of all motivation; he moved to Santa Barbara with nothing but a box of clothes, his truck, and a little coke. He drifted for a while, started surfing, and eventually opened his own board-shaping shop down the coast in Ventura. But he was a short-tempered drunk and a fighter, and he’d end up in jail for a few months at a time.

In 2008, after one DUI too many, he was sentenced to 240 days in the Ventura County Jail, where he got into a fight in the yard and ended up with a broken jaw. He used the rest of his time inside to write a book about the bombing. He changed a few things around, embellished the story here and there, and ended up publishing it himself, as a novel. When he called his publishers a year later, they told him they hadn’t sold a single copy. 


A Note on Sources: The events in this story were reconstructed using documents from the criminal investigation and court proceedings; interviews and written recollections of those involved; news reports, video, and photographs; and visits to the locations where the events took place. Direct quotes were taken either from official documents or from recollections of at least one of the individuals involved.

Thanks to: Jim Birges, John Birges, Danny Danihel, Dan DiPierri, Sherry Hancock, Bill Jonkey, Ed Kane, Dave Knowlton, Carl Larsen, Norm Lane, Bill O’Reilly, Chris Ronay, Dell Rowley, and Jolan Schmidt.

Love for My Enemies

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Love For My Enemies

A story of friendship and forgiveness in Rwanda.

By Lukas Augustin and Niklas Schenck

WITH SUPPORT FROM THE PULITZER CENTER ON CRISIS REPORTING

The Atavist Magazine, No. 38


Lukas Augustin is a film director and multimedia journalist based in Berlin. He has produced feature-length documentaries for German public television and PBS and his short films and multimedia work have appeared in Süddeutsche-Zeitung MagazinSpiegel OnlineThe Atlantic, MediaStorm, and others publications. He is a winner of the CNN Journalist Award.

Niklas Schenck is a writer and filmmaker from Germany. He was trained at the Henri-Nannen journalism school and his work has appeared inStern magazine and Süddeutsche Zeitung and on the German public television network ARD. His last film, Geheimer Krieg (“Secret Wars”), about Germany’s role in the global war on terror, was nominated for a Grimme Award. He is currently working on a documentary film in Afghanistan.

This project was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Most of the film footage in this story also appears in Unforgiven: Rwanda, a feature-length documentary produced by Augustin Pictures and distributed internationally by Global Screen. For more information, visit www.lukasaugustin.com/unforgiven.


Editor: Charles Homans

Film Editors: Mechthild Barth and Lukas Augustin

Designer: Gray Beltran

Producer: Megan Detrie

Additional Video Footage: Daniel T. Halsall

Photos: Nicole Swinton

Research and Production: Natalie Rahhal

Copy Editor: Sean Cooper



Published in June 2014. Design updated in 2021.

When the Rwandan genocide began, Innocent Gakwerere was living in Kigali. A 24-year-old member of the Tutsi ethnic group, Innocent had grown up in a small village not far from the capital, but his father had left the family when he was a teenager, and Innocent moved to the city in hopes of making a living there. He worked as a milk seller and was taking driving lessons to qualify for odd jobs as a driver.

Then, on April 6, 1994, Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana, a member of Rwanda’s ethnic Hutu majority, was killed when his airplane was shot down as it approached Kigali. To this day, it is not clear who was responsible, but Hutu extremists blamed the Tutsi.

Rwanda’s ethnic divisions are largely a relic of the country’s colonial past. In precolonial Rwanda, the terms Hutu and Tutsi had referred to farmers and herdsmen, respectively, but the boundary was a porous one. It was Belgian colonists who turned them into fixed categories, instituting ethnic identity cards and treating the Tutsi as a preferred elite. The Hutu majority chafed at the Tutsi’s privileged status. A Hutu-led revolution in 1959 sent thousands of Tutsi into exile in neighboring countries, where some of them began plotting insurgencies against the new Hutu-led republican government.

Habyarimana was the Republic of Rwanda’s third president and had been in power since 1973. In the early nineties, with a Tutsi insurgency under way across the border in Uganda, he turned to radio propaganda to stir up Hutu anger toward the Tutsi. It has long been suspected that Hutu extremists, in fact, were responsible for shooting down his plane, creating a pretext for a wave of revenge killings that had been plotted in advance. (Lists of Hutu opposition members and moderates had been drawn up before Habyarimana’s death, and many of the people on them were murdered in the early days of the genocide—including prime minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana, herself a Hutu.)

Within hours of Habyarimana’s death, Hutu mobs roamed the streets of Kigali with retribution on their minds. The next day, fearing for his life, Innocent Gakwerere fled the city, walking some 25 miles back to his home village of Mugina.

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Mugina is a string of hamlets stretched along one of Rwanda’s countless forested ridges. Hillside plots of sorghum, beans, and corn descend toward the streams in the valleys below; patches of bright green banana groves dot the earth. The mayor of Mugina was a Hutu, but he had promised that Tutsi would be safe in the village’s Catholic church, on the road leading to Mugina’s main market. As the violence escalated, the church rapidly became a destination for refugees fleeing the killing elsewhere—and, soon, in Mugina itself.

When Innocent arrived on the night of April 7, his family had already abandoned their house and, he later learned, sought refuge in the church. He spent one night in the house, then fled into the banana groves. That was where a mob of local Hutu found him nine days later.

The man who tipped them off to his whereabouts was a Hutu named Wellars Uwihoreye. He was Innocent’s childhood friend.

Badly wounded by the mob that Wellars had sent after him, Innocent dragged himself to the church. Tens of thousands of Tutsi had already crowded into and around the building, including many of Innocent’s friends and family.

Then, on April 20, two weeks after the beginning of the genocide, members of the Hutu Interahamwe, a paramilitary group, killed Mugina’s mayor. The militiamen swiftly moved on to the church, and what had been a refuge suddenly became a deathtrap. Over the course of several waves of assaults with guns, grenades, and machetes, at least 20,000 Tutsi—and possibly as many as 45,000—were murdered.

Innocent was one of only a few survivors. During the attack, he was again hacked with machetes, and grenade shrapnel tore into his legs. He passed out between mounds of corpses in the church courtyard.

The Rwandan genocide lasted just over three months and left 800,000 Rwandans dead. At the peak of the bloodshed, nearly six people were killed every minute, often by their neighbors. In the aftermath, in cities like Kigali, victims and offenders could avoid facing one another, but in villages like Mugina they met every day: at the well, in the fields, in the market, at the church. People who had just tried to kill one another had to learn how to live as neighbors again.

Wellars Uwihoreye was born in Mugina in 1966. He left school after third grade, when he was 12, to become a metalworker. He quickly excelled, forging engine parts, ploughs, axes, and knives.

The first inkling Wellars heard of the genocide came from friends who talked about Hutu propaganda they had encountered on the radio. “I heard that some Tutsi were buying cisterns to throw us Hutu into boiling oil to fry us alive,” he says. “I remember the Tutsi suddenly appeared like hypocrites to me, that although they seemed to be friends, they didn’t tell me any of this.” Still, when his Hutu neighbors started torching houses in Mugina, Wellars was so afraid that he considered fleeing to the church grounds along with the Tutsi. “Then someone told me, ‘Watch carefully! Don’t you see that not all houses are in flames? Only the first, the third, then the fifth house. Those are Tutsi houses being burned. Please, there is no reason to flee.’”

So Wellars stayed.

After the genocide, everywhere Innocent went he saw perpetrators. “They had fields and land and cattle,” he says, “and I had nothing. When we didn’t have soap in the house I got angry, because I knew that before, I had been able to work and earn money. I wanted thunder to come down and strike them dead.”

Wellars, meanwhile, spent 13 years in prison before he appeared before a village court, where he admitted to his role in the killings and was sentenced to time served and released; the government, overwhelmed with hundreds of thousands of perpetrators, had eventually opted for a policy of forgiveness. Many Tutsi were appalled by this, including Innocent. “If they had asked us to kill the perpetrators,” he says, “we would have done so immediately.” But when he saw how hard it was for Wellars to confess in court, he didn’t know what to say.

One day after Wellars’s release, Innocent spotted him among a group of men working on a construction site. Although he had seen Wellars in court, he was unaware that he had been among the Hutu who had chased him through the banana grove. He approached him to chat.

“I could not speak to him,” Wellars says. After leaving prison, Wellars had returned to Mugina but lived in fear of his neighbors. “I came thinking the Tutsi will immediately kill me,” he says. But one day in 2011, he got up the courage to go to Innocent’s house and confess what he had done.

Weeks later, Innocent invited Wellars to join him in a program run by a man named Christophe Mbonyingabo. Christophe was a Rwandan and a Tutsi, but he had grown up across the border in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; his family had fled Rwanda before he was born because of Hutu persecution. Still, Christophe had never made much of his ethnic identity until, in the waning days of the genocide, Hutu militias were driven out of Rwanda and into his village, where they threatened him and his family. “I felt so much pain and hatred that I wanted to join a rebel movement,” Christophe says. “But later I wondered where all this hatred had come from.” And most of all, he wondered if it would ever go away.

Later, Christophe moved to Kigali to study sociology. By then, the UN—whose blue-helmeted troops had stood by and even withdrawn during the genocide—had convened an international court in Arusha, Tanzania, to try the genocide’s perpetrators. The idea struck Christophe as futile, even infuriating. The UN troops, he says, “should have been the first to answer to these courts. They had all the means to stop the genocide, and they didn’t. It was hard for Rwandans to listen to their advice. You left us to die and now you want to teach us?”

Unless Rwandans themselves came to terms with the genocide, Christophe believed, the slaughter could start again at any time. So in 2002, he founded Christian Action for Reconciliation and Social Assistance (CARSA), a nonprofit organization that would bring together victims and perpetrators of the genocide. In workshops, village meetings, and other carefully arranged encounters, they would ask each other for forgiveness.

When Wellars again asked Innocent to forgive him, in front of the group at Christophe’s workshop, Innocent gave him a hug and told him, “Let’s go to the bar and have a drink.” Step by step, Innocent had lost his anger toward Wellars. He had learned that Wellars had not planned the killings and had given back the land he stole during the genocide. He had also helped Innocent discover the identity of the man who had killed one of his brothers.

Over time, something deeper evolved: The two men became friends again. When Innocent’s wife fell ill, Wellars bought her medicine. When Wellars moved houses, Innocent helped him. When one has money, he buys Fanta—or, at night, beers—for both. “Before the genocide, our friendship was about childhood,” Innocent says. “Now it is more focused, it is stronger. I can call upon him when I am in trouble.”

In late 2011, CARSA gave Innocent and Wellars a cow to care for together, as part of the organization’s reconciliation program. Cattle are an important indicator of wealth in Rwanda, and before the genocide they were a source of tension between the Hutu and Tutsi: Tutsi had traditionally owned cattle, while the Hutu had not. During the genocide, Hutu propaganda used this disparity to incite would-be killers: Kill the Tutsi, the Hutu were told, and you will get their cows. Some Tutsi say they escaped being killed only because the perpetrators were so focused on catching their cattle.

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After the April 1994 massacre at the church in Mugina, as Innocent was drifting in and out of consciousness, he remembers waking up at one point and seeing a woman creeping toward him on her knees. She, too, had survived the attack, but the Hutu militiamen had cut her Achilles tendons, and she could no longer walk. Her name was Claudine Murebwayire, and as she and Innocent spent time together in the hospital recovering from their injuries, they became friends.

Claudine had a husband and a baby, and two of her brothers had sought refuge in the church with her. At one point her baby began crying, and the militiamen hacked the child to death in her arms. Claudine passed out. Her brothers, who had managed to hide during the killings, found her alive that night amid the thousands of dead bodies in the church. They found her husband, who took her to a hospital. She and her husband were soon separated, however, and he was killed soon after.

The brothers who had saved Claudine at the church would be killed, too, on one of the last days of the genocide. They were caught by a group of local Hutu, who beat them and then buried them alive in a banana grove; they died, three days later, of suffocation. Among the Hutu who buried them and then watched them to make sure they didn’t escape was a man named Ananias Ndahayo.

Altogether, Ananias Ndahayo committed or was an accomplice to eight murders during the genocide. But it was the death of Claudine’s brothers, he says, that led him to set down his machete and walk away from the killing. “When I saw the blood,” he says, “it looked like mine.”

Ananias lives near Claudine in Mugina. Although they had seen each other around the village for nearly two decades, when Christophe and CARSA first approached Claudine about meeting Ananias, she angrily refused. Months later, in September 2013, she finally agreed to talk to him, for the first time since her brothers were murdered.

One morning five months later, in February, Innocent went to pick up Claudine from her house. Together they walked to the place where they had first met: the church where the massacre had taken place. Innocent hoped he might be able to help Claudine find peace.

Four months after the last reporting trip for this story, Claudine and Ananias took part in a CARSA workshop. Although it had seemed that the history they shared was too much to overcome, Christophe Mbonyingabo had arranged another meeting. Afterward, he sent out a message including a photo of the two of them smiling.

Claudine had told Ananias that she forgave him. That was the first step; their path toward reconciliation has only just started.

Cloud Racers

The story of two rival pilots chasing a dream during the golden age of aviation.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 37


Adam L. Penenberg is a journalism professor at New York University. He has written for a wide array of publications, including Fast Company, Forbes,The New York Times, Slate, The Washington Post, and Wired.


Editor: Charles Homans

Designer: Gray Beltran

Producer: Megan Detrie

Cover Illustration: Chris Gall

Fact Checker: Riley Blanton

Copy Editor: Sean Cooper

Images: Corbis, Associated Press, Lockheed Martin, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Alaska State Library, University of Wyoming, Wikimedia Commons, Facebook, Library of Congress

Video: Critical Past, Universal Newsreels, National Archives

A Note on Sources:

All events described and dialogue quoted in Cloud Racers are drawn from contemporaneous newspaper and magazine accounts, newsreel footage, and books. For Wiley Post’s story, these include Forgotten Eagle and Will Rogers & Wiley Post: Death at Barrow, both by Bryan B. Sterling and Frances S. Sterling; Around the World in Eight Days, by Wiley Post; From Oklahoma to Eternity: The Life of Wiley Post and the Winnie Mae, by Kenny Arthur Franks, Gini Moore Campbell, and Bob Burke; and Wiley Post, His Winnie Mae, and the World’s First Pressure Suit, by Bobby H. Johnson, Stanley R. Mohler, and Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. For Jimmie Mattern, I relied on an unpublished autobiography he wrote toward the end of his life, which resides in the collection of the McDermott Library at the University of Texas at Dallas, as well as Around-the-World Flights: A History, by Patrick M. Stinson. In addition, thousands of newspaper column inches were devoted to the exploits of both pilots in the early 1930s, and both men published firsthand accounts of their round-the-world exploits in The New York Times.



Published in May 2014. Design updated in 2021.

Prologue

July 1, 1931

By 7 p.m., the crowd milling around Roosevelt Field on Long Island had swelled to 5,000. When dusk fell an hour later, twice that many were crowding the half mile of fence edging the runway. The police had organized a cordon, complete with a small battalion of motorcycle cops. A dozen planes buzzed back and forth overhead, carrying sightseers and photographers. Every once in a while, one of them would catch the attention of the onlookers, who would burst into cheers before realizing that this was not the plane they were waiting for—that it was not the Winnie Mae.

On June 23, the one-eyed Oklahoman pilot Wiley Post and his navigator, a spindly Australian named Harold Gatty, had set out from Roosevelt Field in hopes of breaking the record for the fastest flight around the world. For eight days radio broadcasts, newsreels, and newspaper headlines heralded the Winnie Mae’s approach: “AVIATORS OVER SEA, TRYING TO GIRDLE WORLD,” “WORLD FLIERS FACING PERILS IN TODAY’S HOP,” “FLIERS’ WIVES HOPE THIS IS LAST STUNT.” As the Winnie Mae crossed continents and oceans, newspaper editorials lauded Post’s and Gatty’s pluck, and churchgoers prayed for their safe return. Schoolteachers based geography lessons on the aviators’ route as they skimmed the northern latitudes over Europe, Siberia, Alaska, and the Yukon. The only people not glued to the latest developments, it seemed, were Post’s parents, busy cutting hay back on their 90-acre farm in Maysville, Oklahoma. “He didn’t have our blessing when he started out in this flying business,” his father groused to a reporter.

Now the duo were completing the 14th and final leg of their 15,474-mile journey, cruising over Ontario, Canada, at 150 miles per hour. There had been times when they thought they might not see Roosevelt Field again—rainstorms so violent that Post wondered if animals might be gathering in twos below, lightning that crackled at their wingtips, crosswinds that threatened to hurl the Winnie Mae into mountainsides, wing-icing cold, clouds so thick that the mist seeped through cracks in the plane’s canvas skin.

A few hundred feet off the runway, Colonel Charles Lindbergh was parked in a limousine. Four years earlier, Lindbergh had crossed the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis, single-handedly ushering in the era of aerial conquest and, in the process, becoming the world’s most famous celebrity. Fans had snapped up Lindbergh china, towels, paperweights, pillowcases, and Spirit of St. Louis weather vanes. A doll bearing his likeness was a big seller at Christmas. Lindbergh had transcended being a man; he had become a tchotchke. Now he looked out at the crowd eagerly awaiting his heirs, two of the many daredevils who had taken to the sky in hopes of outdoing Lucky Lindy.

By 1931, airplane pilots were claiming all sorts of aerial achievements: the first to cross the Atlantic east to west, to traverse the Pacific, to fly from Europe to Australia, to pass over the North and South Poles, to travel to Ireland from America, to zip across the U.S. nonstop from New York to California. But the record for the fastest circumnavigation of the globe didn’t belong to an airplane pilot at all. It belonged to Dr. Hugo Eckener, who had accomplished it two years earlier in an airship, the Graf Zeppelin, in a journey that took 21 days. The two men winging their way toward New York in a Lockheed Vega that evening hoped to beat “the balloon.”

Post and Gatty were a study in opposites. Thirty-two-year-old Post was short—barely five foot five—and thick, built like a piston, with untamable dark hair framing a moon face, a mustache, caterpillar eyebrows, and a gap between his front teeth. A farm boy with an eighth-grade education, he wore a white eye patch, the legacy of an injury he had sustained seven years earlier while working on an oilfield. He had a glass eye he would pop in for photographs, but otherwise he didn’t bother with it, especially while flying—at high altitudes it froze and gave him headaches. Gatty, by contrast, was a spit-polished wisp of a man who could emerge from the other side of a rainstorm as dapper as he’d entered it. A 28-year-old veteran of the Australian navy, he was, according to Lindbergh, “the best navigator in the country, if not the world,” so gifted that he could mark his location by studying the flight patterns of birds.

Unlike Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, who donned leather jackets and scarves while flying, Post and Gatty wore business suits, though by now theirs were rumpled and stained with oil, mud, and sweat. More than a week into their journey, they were running on little more than adrenaline, lightheaded from gas fumes and the unwavering drone of the engine. Post’s leg was sore from kicking the wooden pedals he used to steer the plane, and his one good eye was bloodshot from sleeping only 15 hours in eight days. Gatty’s shoulder was stiff and purple from a whacking dished out by the Winnie Mae’s propeller in Alaska.

From the cockpit, Post could see the Manhattan skyline. The Empire State Building, completed just two months earlier, nosed up into the clouds, the lights coming on as day retreated into evening. “We had gone all the way around the world,” Post would later recall, “for a glimpse of it from the west.”

Brooklyn, Queens, Mineola blurred into one long run-on sentence before Post’s lone bleary eye. He was coming in over the Roosevelt Field hangars when he saw the crowd massing to greet them. Planes crowded the airspace above the runway, the photographers on board snapping away. Post was anxious to land before one of them smashed into the Winnie Mae. “Make a turn and give them a chance,” Gatty shouted through the vacuum tube they used to communicate, barely audible over the engine’s rasp. “I would rather let them have it up here than be made to walk the plank afterward.”

Post marveled at his navigator’s naïveté. They had been dogged by reporters, photographers, and curiosity seekers at every step of their journey, even in remote parts of Siberia. The closer to New York, the more intense the reception they received. In Cleveland, well-wishers ripped Gatty’s jacket pocket.

Post took a wide, triumphant turn for the benefit of posterity, then, against a southeasterly wind, eased in for the final approach. The Winnie Mae dipped her left wing, and, tail down, landed in a cloud of dust against a sky streaked pink by the sunset. “It was as if messengers had come out of the skies to the earth dwellers with promise of greater victories,” The New York Times gushed, “for man has not yet come to the limit of his striving with the forces of sea and air and land.”

As Post taxied up the dirt runway, he was blinded by lights. Thirty policemen on motorcycles chugged through the dust to form a chain around the plane. Motion-picture trucks gunned their engines and sped toward the Winnie Mae. Radio announcers dragged skeins of wire; cameramen sprinted across the field. Then they came, from the far side of the field: hundreds of people, tumbling over the fence that divided the runway from the old Westbury golf course, running toward the plane.

The spectators cut through the line of motorcycle cops, scrambled up the Winnie Mae’s undercarriage, banged on the windshields, shoved, elbowed, and punched one another. Afraid the propeller might decapitate some unfortunate soul, Post cut the engine, and the blades came to a rest. His ears still ringing, Post called back to Gatty, “Well, here we are, kid.”

Unable to quell the riot, Nassau County police resorted to their billy clubs. The vice president of an airfield-services company was dragged from his car and beaten. A photographer was clubbed unconscious. In the heart of the melee was 21-year-old Mae Post, afraid for her life. She had been separated from her husband for six weeks and cried as her beloved “Weeley” jumped to the ground and swept her up into his arms. Before leaving her hotel to greet the plane that evening, she had told reporters, “I hope he never does anything like this again.”

The airmen were ushered to a waiting automobile and driven to a nearby hangar for an interview with Pathé News, which had paid them for an exclusive. “Do you feel tired?” the reporter asked.

“Oh, not very tired,” Post said. In fact, he was exhausted, his ears still ringing with the roar of the engine. It would take days to get his hearing back.

“What was the worst part of the trip?” a reporter shouted.

“This,” Gatty replied, “is the worst part.”

The men in the Winnie Mae were heroes of a sort that would vanish by the close of the decade, as aviation became normalized with the spread of commercial air travel. In 1931, however, the world was not yet thirty years removed from Kitty Hawk; the sky remained a largely untamed frontier, and long-distance flight remained a dangerous, perhaps foolhardy, endeavor. Navigational instruments were just beginning to evolve beyond the compass and sextant, and the steel fuselage was still a rarity. Planes like the Lockheed Vega were little more than canvas stretched over plywood, powered by a single 420-horsepower engine (about the power you’d get in a present-day sports car). Breakdowns were common, radios had limited range, maps were unreliable, and bad weather could be a death sentence.

But each new boundary-pushing, attention-grabbing flight had the quixotic effect of making the world feel a little smaller, a little less boundless—you could read a lot into the way newspapers described Post and Gatty’s endeavor as a race to “girdle the globe.” Every new first claimed by an aviator focused attention on how few firsts there were left to claim—and by the time the Winnie Mae touched down at Roosevelt Field, there was really only one that mattered. Even as the crowds rained ticker tape upon Post and Gatty in their car rolling through Manhattan the day after they landed, the world’s pilots were wondering who would be the first to do what Post had done, but without a Gatty seated behind him in the cockpit—who would be the first to circle the world alone.

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Wiley Post, left, and Harold Gatty ride through Manhattan on July 2, 1931, the day after completing their record-breaking round-the-world flight. (Photo: Corbis)

Part I: Getting Off the Ground

One

1923

Near Pearl Harbor, a Curtiss Jenny open-cockpit biplane descended from the sky and crash-landed in a sugarcane field. A crowd gathered; the pilot, a U.S. Army second lieutenant, was alive but still trapped in the plane, and a few good Samaritans tried to pull him from the wreckage. “There were two fellows in that plane,” someone said. “Where is the other guy? He must be tangled in the wreckage and probably dead now.”

A teenager on the edge of the crowd, a rail-thin 18-year-old boy, spoke up. “I’m the other one who was in that plane,” Jimmie Mattern said, and promptly fainted.

It figures that the first time Mattern flew, the plane crashed. Later he would become one of the greatest pilots of his generation, and equally famous for walking away from crashes that would have maimed or killed others. Once, after engine trouble forced him down in the wilds of Alaska, he lived off the land for three days until he was rescued. Another time he vanished over the Texas prairie, where he was discovered a couple of days later munching on fried chicken in a farmhouse. Then there was the time he received a telegram in Chicago inviting him to be a judge at an air race in Florida. Borrowing a plane, he started south but plowed into an Indiana cornfield. He scrounged up another plane, making it as far as Georgia before he flopped down into some sand hills. A pair of pilot pals heading in the same direction offered him a lift to Florida, where he arrived the night before the race. Then a friend invited Mattern to tag along to a party on a yacht, which broke down at sea. He didn’t get back to shore for two days and missed the judging.

Mattern was born in Freeport, Illinois, the fourth of four children of a German émigré who owned a small chain of shoe stores. His family enjoyed a modest middle-class existence until he was 15, when his father died. The shoe stores were liquidated, and his mother found herself with no means of support and barely enough money to make it through the year.

The family moved to Calgary, where Mattern was taken out of school and worked variously as a cowboy, limousine driver, window washer, and bus boy before finding his way to Seattle, where he met an Army recruiting sergeant. A hearty meal and one night in a real bed at the local armory was all the convincing Mattern needed. A few days shy of his 17th birthday, he lied about his age and enlisted.

Following boot camp, he heard about an opening in the bugle corps for a drummer and got himself transferred to Hawaii. He was passing the time near Pearl Harbor one afternoon, watching aircraft take off and land, when he met the second lieutenant, who pointed to an approaching biplane and told Mattern, “When that plane up there comes down, I am going to take it up and wring it out.”

“Can I go with you?” Mattern asked.

In those days, plane-crash survivors were rushed back to the air so they wouldn’t develop a fear of flying. That night, Mattern flew in an old bomber, up front in the plane’s transparent nose, peering down on the lights of Oahu. There and then, Mattern decided he wanted to become a pilot.

Three years later, in 1925, he was honorably discharged and given $300. After a hitch with a cruise-ship jazz band, he returned to Seattle and married his girlfriend, Delia, a pretty, curly-haired blonde from Walla Walla, Washington. But Mattern didn’t stick around long after the honeymoon. In 1926, he traveled to San Diego, where Ryan Aircraft kept its headquarters. The place was fast becoming a hotbed of aviation, where would-be pilots like Mattern flocked to learn to fly. The factory had just received an order for a plane from a young pilot named Charles Lindbergh who was preparing for a nonstop solo flight from New York to Paris.

Aviation was so young then that the 500 flying hours that Mattern’s instructor had logged made him a grizzled veteran. (Today, a flight instructor might rack up four times that many hours and a commercial pilot could log 20,000 hours in a career.) The instructor took Mattern up in a surplus Jenny and showed him the basics over Dutch Flats, a dirt airstrip near the Ryan factory. After three hours and 20 minutes, Mattern was soloing. “The biggest thrill of all is the first time you find yourself up there all alone,” he later wrote. “It’s a once in a lifetime feeling. You never had it before but you have it now.”

It wasn’t long before Mattern hopped a train to Troy, Ohio, and plunked down his savings for a Waco 10, a three-seat open-cockpit biplane similar to the Jenny. When the Waco factory representative found out how inexperienced Mattern was, he refused to let him fly it home and arranged for a pilot named Freddie Lund to chauffer him back west. “Fearless Freddie” Lund was a legendary silent-movie stunt pilot and wing walker for the renowned Gates Flying Circus, who was famous for his loop-the-loops. With Mattern as his passenger, he navigated over the Midwest and through New Mexico to California by following railroad tracks—what he called the iron compass. Lund and Mattern both stuck around Los Angeles, and Lund showed his young charge his arsenal of tricks. A couple hundred hours of practice later, Mattern officially became a pilot. His license, only the 576th ever issued by the International Aeronautical Federation, was signed by Orville Wright.

Around this time, Mattern learned that a motion picture called Lilac Time, a romance between an American aviator—played by Gary Cooper—and a French farmer’s daughter during World War I, was about to start shooting. The next day, Mattern flew to the set in Santa Ana and put on a show, auditioning with a few moves Lund had shown him. He uncorked a series of snap rolls, power dives, wingovers, loops, and barrel rolls, the power of the engine urging him on to wilder and wilder acrobatics. Mattern was offered a job on the spot.

His first scene was particularly dangerous: a power dive from 5,000 feet, descending from above the clouds down through a bomber formation of more than 50 planes, a tactic made famous by the Red Baron. His motor running full throttle, Mattern plunged through a narrow space in the formation, struggling with the controls as he battled the wash of the other planes’ propellers. He felt sick when he finally pulled out of the dive, the ground rushing toward him. But when he landed, the other pilots congratulated him; in his first on-camera flight, he had pulled off a rare one-take stunt. Mattern felt like he had aged ten years in ten minutes. Still, he knew he would like this line of work.

A few weeks later, he was hired for another film: Hell’s Angels, produced by Howard Hughes, himself an avid pilot, although Mattern was skeptical of his flying ability; the enigmatic millionaire had even fewer hours in the air than Mattern. One day, near the set, he watched Hughes climb into the cockpit of a plane that Mattern had just test-flown, a Thomas Morris Scout with a rotating engine. Less than 200 feet up, Hughes banked steeply to the right—a maneuver Mattern had specifically warned him against. The plane spun in and went into free fall. Mattern was over the runway fence as soon as Hughes hit the ground, pulling him out of the wreckage. Hughes emerged with only a gash on his forehead. An hour later he was back on the set, a bandage wrapped around his head, yelling, “On with the show!”

As much as he enjoyed the adrenaline rush, Mattern was ambivalent about courting danger. Life was cheap for stunt pilots, he knew. He couldn’t think of anyone who walked away from the job with a bankroll stuffed in his pocket and his body in one piece. One of the pilots on the set tore the wings off an old Fokker and barely got out alive—then had to do it again, because the first take had been marred by glare on the camera lens. Three pilots died during the filming of Hell’s Angels, and Mattern wondered if he would be next.

On the ground, however, life was good. Chumming up to a millionaire had its advantages. Jimmie Mattern and Howard Hughes became fast friends and often went on double dates with starlets Hughes cast in his movies. (Mattern neglected to tell Hughes about his wife back in Seattle. Then again, Hughes was married, too.) Mattern once surreptitiously borrowed a Rolls-Royce from the back lot of a movie set and drove it around Hollywood for months. “It wasn’t the most comfortable for making love,” Mattern recounted later, “but what car is?” When Hughes found out he made him return it, and “the Hollymoon,” as Mattern called it, was over.

Less than a year later, the Depression struck. Money for death-defying aerial stunts was in short supply, and Mattern, until recently one of the most in-demand pilots in show business, found himself barely able to eke out a living. He flew as a bush pilot in Alaska, carted frozen seafood over the Gulf of Mexico, worked for a rich wildcatter on the Texas oilfields, and eventually became chief pilot for Cromwell Airlines, which operated in Texas and Oklahoma. When Carl Cromwell, the airline’s oilman founder, died in a car accident in the fall of 1931, the company went belly-up and Mattern was out of a job again.

The bankruptcy had a silver lining: Mattern inherited one of the company’s planes. As luck would have it, it was a Lockheed Vega, perhaps the most iconic airplane of its time. Amelia Earhart had flown a Vega 5B across the Atlantic, and Wiley Post and Harold Gatty had used the subsequent model, the 5C, to circumnavigate the globe.

The Vega was built for speed and distance, but it was also beautiful to behold. Its outward look was influenced by the curvilinear forms and geometric motifs of art deco. The fuselage was composed of plywood sheets wrapped around a wooden skeleton and covered in canvas. The propeller sported rounded tips and the fenders were shaped like guitar picks. The paint job was tasteful and minimalist, all white except for accents in two shades of blue. In a few years, wooden planes would be obsolete. But in the early 1930s, the Vega was the epitome of technological progress. Mattern wanted to see what it was capable of.


Mattern had keenly followed Post and Gatty’s progress in 1931 as they circumnavigated the world. He dreamed of claiming his own place among the world’s highest fliers, but at the time he was too busy hopping from one Southwestern dust trap to another, ferrying packages and people, trying to make ends meet. Now, suddenly, he was free of responsibilities and in possession of a plane that was up to the task.

But smashing aviation records took money—lots of it. Mattern lost his savings along with everyone else after the 1929 stock-market crash, and he had no way to cover the fuel and maintenance costs that a major aerial expedition would entail. Until he could come up with a plan, he stashed his Vega in a hangar in Fort Worth and joined the Air Corps Reserve—not only to keep his flying skills sharp but also for the three square meals a day.

As it happened, Mattern’s roommate at the Air Corps’s Randolph Field barracks near San Antonio was Bennett H. Griffin, a former World War I flying ace. Once Mattern showed him his Lockheed Vega, the two began hatching plans. “Benny,” Mattern asked, “how would you like to be my partner in an attempt to break the around-the-world speed record?”

It took them ten minutes to agree and ten months to raise the money and overhaul the plane. They installed ice detectors, a new compass, and what were then state-of-the-art communications systems: an internal telephone connection and a tube through which they could pass notes in a small aluminum bucket. In all, it cost them $50,000—a small fortune in 1932.

Mattern and Griffin spent a week at the training center at Randolph Field in Texas learning to fly by instruments—so they could fly blind, if need be—while Mattern tried to work out the logistical challenges. The plane would need to carry 450 gallons of fuel, he figured, which would weigh more than a ton. That easily exceeded what the Vega could hold in its fuselage. Much of it would have to be stored in wing-mounted barrels, which Mattern didn’t yet have. The man who sold him a set of the tanks was none other than the man whose record he aimed to beat: Wiley Post.

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Wiley Post with the Winnie Mae. (Photo: Smithsonian Institution)

Two

1932

The earthbound life had never treated Wiley Post well. Born in 1898 on a farm in West Texas, he had moved with his family to Oklahoma when he was eight. Life there was precarious—Post’s father was barely able to keep the homestead afloat—and the family treated Post as an afterthought. He was short for his age, shy and unassuming, and did poorly in school, unlike his eldest brother, Jim. But he did have an independent streak and a way with a wrench. By the time he was 11, he was earning money as a door-to-door mechanic, repairing sewing machines and lubricating farm equipment, tweaking gas generators and sharpening reaper blades. At 13, he dropped out of school.

One summer day in 1913, Post convinced his father to allow him to travel with Jim to a county fair in Lawton, Oklahoma, a 50-mile journey from Maysville. They set out after dusk in the family’s horse and buggy and arrived at the fairgrounds the following morning. Post was making a beeline for the farm machinery when he spotted the oddest-looking contraption he had ever seen sitting alone in a field. He figured it must be that “aeroplane” he had been hearing about. “To this day,” he would later recall, “I have never seen a bit of machinery for land, sea, or sky that has taken my breath away as did that old pusher.” Mesmerized, he measured its height in hands, just like he had seen his father do with horses. When his brother found him that evening, he was still sitting in the rickety cockpit.

Post was a teenager when the United States entered World War I, and he joined the Students’ Army Training Corps, where he studied radio, math, and chemistry. His brothers were fighting in Europe, and Post expected to join them. He hoped the Army would train him to fly, and in his spare time he hung around the local military airport, watching the planes come and go. Just as he was set to graduate, however, the war ended, and instead of Europe, Post found himself in Walters, Oklahoma, earning $7 a day as a handyman on the oil patch. He tried his hand at drilling and wildcatting himself, but the price of oil dipped, and soon he was broke, his savings evaporated, without a job in sight.

Desperate, he resorted to armed robbery. He set up a barricade on a quiet country road, and when a car stopped he pulled a gun on the driver. A spate of similar thefts followed for months, until Post stopped the wrong car and was overpowered by four men. He was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to ten years in the State Reformatory in Granite, Oklahoma. There he fell into a deep depression, refusing to speak or eat. A prison doctor diagnosed him with a “melancholic” state that “was steadily growing worse.”

Post was paroled on June 5, 1922, after serving 13 months, and set about distancing himself from the criminal he had become; years later, when he was famous, he lived in fear of his fans learning of his secret past. He returned to the oil fields. But one day, on a drilling job near Holdenville, he saw a plane overhead, and the urge to fly swept over him again. He quit on the spot and headed for Wewoka, Oklahoma, where Burrell Tibbs’s Flying Circus, a troupe of stunt pilots, had decamped.

The three men in charge possessed two beaten, battered planes. The parachutist had taken three successful jumps that week but injured himself on the fourth. Post volunteered to make the next jump. The fact that he had never before been in a plane, let alone thrown himself out of one, seemed of little consequence.

The moment Post stepped onto the wing he forgot the few cursory instructions he had received that morning. When the pilot cut the throttle and shouted, “OK, get ready!” Post just stared at him. The pilot glared back. Post threw a leg over the side and inched his way to the wing’s edge. He buckled his harness to the snap rings of the parachute and dropped to his knees. The pilot turned the plane into position over the drop zone, pointed to his right, and yelled, “Let’s go!”

Post backed off the wing, then found himself swinging helplessly underneath. He hung there for several seconds before he remembered to pull the release cord. Then he was falling, the quilted expanse of central Oklahoma wheeling beneath him. He felt a sharp tug as the chute opened. Off course, he was heading for a field instead of the fairgrounds. When he finally hit, his knees buckled. He tried to run the way he had been told and fell flat on his face. By then, he already knew: the sky was where he belonged.

Within a week, Post became a regular jumper with the flying circus. But the business soon stagnated; airplanes weren’t the rarity they had once been, and fewer and fewer people were willing to pay to see them. If he wanted to live his life in the sky, Post realized, he had to become a pilot himself. To do that, he needed to buy his own plane.

On October 1, 1926, Post was working on the Seminole oil field in central Oklahoma, trying to put together the money, when a roughneck pounding a bolt with a sledgehammer launched a shard of metal in Post’s direction, striking him in the eye. Post lay in the hospital, in complete darkness, for several days. When the bandages were removed, he could make out shapes and light with his right eye but nothing with his left.

After doctors removed his eyeball, Post stayed with an uncle in southwest Texas to convalesce. As the sight in his right eye gradually returned, Post worked on depth perception. He would look at a hill or tree and estimate how far he stood from it, then step off the distance, his four-mile-per-hour gait acting as a guide. Little by little his calculations improved, until he realized he was better at judging distances with one eye than most people were with two. Meanwhile, the Oklahoma State Industrial Court awarded him $1,800 in workman’s compensation, which he spent on a used Canuck open-cockpit airplane. “I bought a plane,” Post said later, “but it cost me an eye.”


Years later, when he had obtained some measure of fame, people would remark that Post seemed more at ease around machinery than men. Machines he could fix—one look at a wheat thresher or car engine and he knew exactly how it worked or why it didn’t. With people, though, he never knew what they wanted. When he addressed a crowd, the best he could do was mumble a few platitudes and skulk away. Reporters did their best to get him to say something, anything, interesting; he rarely obliged. He flew planes and tinkered with cars. What other hobbies he had tended toward mechanical obsession, like synchronizing his collection of wristwatches.

In the clouds, however, Post was transformed. As one of his peers later put it, “He didn’t just fly an airplane; he put it on.” In the air, Post was bold, a daredevil and a speed demon; a pilot, it was said, who could land on a mountain peak. “He apparently didn’t have a nerve in his body,” a businessman who often flew with him later recalled. “When other people were scared, Wiley just grinned.” His takeoffs were a sight: From a near standing start he would shoot up vertiginously and then bank right. It was a risky move, but one born more out of pragmatism than anything else. It helped the one-eyed pilot better orient himself in the sky.

By late 1927, in spite of his natural gifts as an aviator, Post once again fell on hard times. He was living in Oklahoma City, sharing a small apartment with his 18-year-old wife, Mae, whom he’d met and married earlier that year, and barely eking out a living as a pilot. Unable to afford necessary repairs to the Canuck after a minor crash, a desperate Post approached F. C. Hall, a wealthy Oklahoman oilman he had flown for in the past, to see if he’d be interested in employing a full-time pilot.

Hall, a onetime drugstore owner, had demonstrated an almost supernatural ability to strike oil where others hit bedrock. Over a decade, he drilled 300 gushers and only two dusters. When Post made his offer, Hall didn’t need much convincing. His business depended on staying one step ahead of the other oilmen in Oklahoma, and he had recently missed out on a deal because he couldn’t get to the other side of the state fast enough. He offered Post a salary of $200 a month and bought a new airplane, a three-seat Travel Air. There was only one condition: Post had to earn his pilot’s license.

At the time, flight was just starting to become civilized, and there was talk that all pilots would be required to hold licenses. Post feared that his ocular disability would disqualify him, so instead of pursuing a license, he’d confined himself to out-of-the-way airfields where no one would check his credentials, or he’d deplane after dusk in the hopes that airport officials would have gone home by then. But Hall was able to help Post wrangle a waiver for his disability, and eight months and 700 flying hours later, Post received license number 3259 from the Aeronautics Branch of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Like Jimmie Mattern’s, it was signed by Orville Wright.

Post quickly proved his mettle as a pilot. One day he was flying Hall over the Texas Panhandle when the open-cockpit Travel Air got caught up in a storm; Post was able to make a smooth landing in spite of the conditions. The experience convinced Hall to invest in a new craft that would protect him from the elements. Post flew to California to pick up a Lockheed Vega—one of the first to roll out of the factory in Burbank. Hall named it Winnie Mae, after his daughter.

When the Depression hit, Hall was forced to cut his payroll and sell the Winnie Mae back to Lockheed, where the newly unemployed Post secured a job as a test pilot. The change turned out to be a blessing for Post, who itched to venture into the more glamorous precincts of aviation and had tried without success to persuade Hall to let him try his hand at air races and transcontinental speed-record-setting flights. Now he was rubbing elbows with famous aviators like Amelia Earhart, for whom he tested a used Lockheed plane. (She called it “third-hand clunk”; he called it dangerous and convinced the company to sell her a different one.)

Months later, Hall phoned to tell him that times were better and offered Post his old job back. Sweetening the deal, he told Post he could buy a new plane—“and,” Hall added, “I’ll let you make some of those flights you were figuring on last year.” Post agreed, and Hall asked him to order a new Vega and to make any improvements to it he wanted.

Post later described the day the Vega came off the assembly line as one of the greatest of his life. It was “about the last word in airplanes,” he wrote to his wife. The new Winnie Mae cost $22,000 and could seat seven, with a 420-horsepower Pratt & Whitney Wasp engine. He had Lockheed set the wing at a slightly lower angle to lessen wind drag at high speeds and took four inches off the tail to prevent it from bouncing on rough landings. The design tweaks made the plane ten miles per hour faster than the factory models, and with an extra 350 gallons’ capacity in its additional fuel tanks, it could travel farther, too.

Post entered his first race in 1930, an air derby between Los Angeles and Chicago that, with a purse of $7,500, had attracted the world’s top pilots. Looking for an edge over the competition, Post sought out Harold Gatty, a navigational savant who Will Rogers once wrote could  “take a $1.00 Ingersoll watch, a Woolworth compass, and a lantern, and at twelve o’clock at night tell you just how many miles the American farmer is away from the poorhouse.” Gatty stayed up all night before the race and handed Post his charts and maps just prior to takeoff. This was Post’s first attempt at flying with navigational tools; until then he had flown strictly by feel. When Post hit Chicago on August 27, beating the second-place pilot—who, as it happened, was flying the original Winnie Mae—by 11 seconds, his victory was so unexpected that race officials didn’t even know who he was. And in Gatty he had found an accomplice for his next great venture.

Hall, who bankrolled Post and Gatty’s around-the-world expedition the following year, predicted that Post would become a rich man if he succeeded. But when they hit the promotional circuit upon their return, Post and Gatty—neither of them known for loquaciousness—had trouble drawing a crowd amid the deprivations of the Depression. The ghostwritten book Around the World in Eight Days, which detailed Post and Gatty’s historic flight, was far from a bestseller. Post and Hall, meanwhile, were arguing over Post’s insistence on using the plane for personal appearances. Post finally demanded that Hall sell it to him, and Hall drew up a bill of sale on hotel stationary. By September, Post had scraped together the agreed-upon $3,000 down payment. The Winnie Mae was his, but it had cost almost every penny he had.

Once again, he scrambled to earn a living. Flying jobs were difficult to come by; people found it hard to trust a one-eyed pilot, even one with Post’s impressive résumé. Post was famous, but not famous enough—not like Charles Lindbergh, with his movie-star looks, or Earhart, with her well-oiled publicity machine, lecture tours, and merchandizing empire that now included everything from books to a line of clothing. Post was still a country boy with rough-hewn manners and a cotton-mouthed drawl. Some newspapermen even suggested that Gatty was the brains of the operation. Meanwhile, F. C. Hall, perhaps out of spite, bought yet another Vega, which he christened The Winnie Mae of Oklahoma, and hired another pilot to undertake a round-the-world flight in it. (The plan never got off the ground.)

By the winter of 1931, Post was downright morose. Sitting on the edge of the bed in a Chicago hotel room, he told a reporter for the North American Newspaper Alliance, “Our flight didn’t prove a thing. No stunt flying does.” The reporter asked if Post would retire. “That’s a good one!” Post scoffed. “Lindbergh is the only guy who made enough off his flight to retire. The day of moneymaking flights is past.”

When he sold the Winnie Mae’s wing tanks to Jimmie Mattern, Post didn’t have much use for them himself. By 1932, he was so broke he couldn’t afford fuel. Between March and September of that year, he spent just 14 hours in the air. He wasn’t the only struggling airman. That year there would be just five trans-Atlantic flight attempts. When Mattern and Griffin set out on July 5 to break Post and Gatty’s record in Mattern’s own Vega, called the Century of Progress, the skies were virtually empty.


Mattern and Griffin’s journey began less than promisingly. Flying beneath a bank of fog hanging over the Atlantic, they almost plowed into an ocean liner, then got lost over Newfoundland and again outside Berlin, where a crowd of people organized themselves into an arrow pointing toward Templehof Airport. Nevertheless, they managed to break the trans-Atlantic record set earlier that year by Amelia Earhart and were well ahead of Post and Gatty’s time as they crossed into the Soviet Union from Poland.

Fifty miles from Minsk, disaster struck. The entry hatch broke loose and hurtled back into Mattern’s section of the cockpit, shredding the control panel and nearly decapitating Mattern, then flew back against the plane’s tail, clipping off the vertical fin. Mattern struggled to keep the craft level as gasoline sloshed back and forth in the tanks. With so much fuel aboard, he knew, he was piloting a flying bomb. Below, a field dotted with haystacks was visible in the moonlight. He throttled down, gently dropping the plane onto the edge of the field. Mattern was congratulating himself on a perfect landing when the wheels sank into the earth. What had looked like solid ground was, in fact, a peat bog. The plane’s nose hit the ground, propeller spinning, and the fuselage pirouetted in the air.

Mattern revved the engine and the plane flipped over on its roof. Upside down, he was trapped in his seat, straddling the red-hot motor, which seared his knees. A fuel tank had ruptured and gas was streaming down his neck. He could hear Griffin outside the wreck. “Well, Jimmie,” his copilot drawled, “what ocean is this?”

With Griffin’s help, Mattern dug his way through the earth beneath the plane, until Griffin could pull him out by his ankles. Mattern emerged covered from his face to his knees in mud and lacerated by the twisted metal and sharp rocks. Griffin looked worse; a five-gallon fuel can had left a deep gash on his forehead. Griffin screamed obscenities as Mattern poured iodine over the wound. The sun was rising, and Mattern could see that the plane was not just upside down but also broken in two.

After the engines cooled and the threat of fire passed, the two men crawled onto the upside-down wing and lay there. Before long they found themselves surrounded by a platoon of armed soldiers, who poked bayonets into their chests and shouted at them in Russian. For several hours, Mattern and Griffin remained prisoners on the wing of the wrecked plane, unable to communicate with their captors. Eventually, an officer appeared, trailed by a pack of reporters who had been waiting for the fliers at the airport in Moscow. The two Americans were placed under house arrest. Before a military tribunal in the Kremlin, they were accused of spying, questioned for a day and a half, and then suddenly freed. When they returned to the United States, an invitation awaited from President Herbert Hoover to visit the White House.

Mattern’s mother told a niece that when “your Uncle Jimmie gets back this time, we’re going to tie a ball and chain to him so he can’t ever get away again.” But Mattern was already trying to recover his plane so he could prepare for an even more daring adventure. He would try the same route again, but this time he would fly it like no pilot had flown it before—all by himself.

Part II: Lost

Three

June 3, 1933

Jimmie Mattern felt as if he had been asleep about five minutes when he heard the knock. “C’mon, Jimmie!” said the muffled voice behind the door. “This is your big day.”

The 28-year-old hadn’t even undressed from the night before. He had returned to Coney Island’s Half Moon Hotel at 7 p.m., hoping to make it an early night, but a pack of reporters chased him across the lobby and all the way to his room. He tried to clear them out, but they kept pushing for one more question, the room filling with popping flashbulbs and cigarette smoke. After what happened on his last expedition, who knew if they’d get another chance at an interview? When Mattern ordered dinner from room service, a few of them cracked Last Supper jokes.

Finally, Mattern switched off the lights, but he was too jittery to sleep, tossing and turning until his sheets twirled in knots around his ankles. Just as he was dozing off, the phone rang. It was his meteorologist, Dr. James H. Kimball, who informed him that he would have clear skies for the first 1,200 miles. Then, midway across the Atlantic, the weather would turn cold and possibly overcast, and there would be storms the rest of the way to Europe. On the bright side, Kimball said there was a strong chance of westerly winds all the way across the Atlantic.

“That’s good enough for me,” Mattern said. He would fly blind through snow, rain, or molasses if it meant a steady tailwind. He telephoned the field to order his plane made ready and went back to bed while mechanics began fueling. Three and a half hours of sleep, he figured, was better than nothing. He rose and slipped his flight suit on over the same leather windbreaker and knickerbockers he wore on his flight with Griffin the year before. An hour later he arrived at Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field, where a completely retooled Century of Progress was waiting.

The plane had come back from the Soviet Union in two crates a year earlier, and Mattern had set out to rebuild it. An engineer at Standard Oil, Ed Aldrin, whom Mattern had befriended, offered up three spare Vegas he had in a hangar for parts. (Aldrin had a son named Buzz, whom Mattern would bounce on his knee; when the younger Aldrin traveled to the moon 36 years later, he had Mattern’s pilot’s license with him aboard Apollo 11.)

Mattern refurbished the engine and pulled the tanks from his plane while salvaging a fuselage, wings, and a tail from another that had once made a record flight to Buenos Aires. He visited Vincent Bendix, of the Bendix Corporation, and arranged to have everything on his console overhauled. Mattern lowered his landing gear and added shock cords to handle the weight of 702 gallons of fuel—enough to stay aloft for 28 hours—and aid in rough landings. He installed a controllable pitch propeller, which not only enabled him to start the engine from inside the cockpit without help but also improved fuel efficiency and speed. The final touch on the new Century of Progress was a patriotic paint job: red, white, and blue, with a menacing eagle running the length of the fuselage.

There were things that Mattern would’ve liked to have added and didn’t: a radio, deicers, an automatic pilot. His Vega was a single-engine monoplane, so if the motor—well, he didn’t want to think about it. But Mattern considered technology less important than the man behind the throttle. Sheer force of will, he believed, would make all the difference.


After the Soviets released Mattern in 1931, he wasn’t home more than a few days before his marriage unraveled. Delia was tired of being married to an absentee husband, and she was especially leery of his new venture. The way Mattern saw it, it was either his wife or his airplane. He chose the plane. Delia moved back to Walla Walla to live with her sister, though she would continue to play the dutiful wife whenever reporters came knocking.

Mattern had plenty to worry about beyond his personal life. He had to find financing for his solo round-the-world expedition, and he had to do it quickly. Rumors abounded that Wiley Post was also mulling a solo circumnavigation. Whoever could raise money first would take off first.

Mattern’s failed circumnavigation with Griffin might have been a disaster, but it granted him enough minor celebrity to open doors. Once he got people face-to-face, his natural charm took over. Even at the nadir of the Depression he was able to sell his new expedition idea to Hayden R. Mills, of the Mills Novelty Company, a manufacturer of slot machines, jukeboxes, and player pianos, and Harry B. Jameson, a partner in the Arrow Mill Co., a maker of wooden plates for storage batteries. Together they put in the lion’s share of the $50,000 Mattern needed to get off the ground.

His plan was to fly across the Atlantic and beat Lindbergh’s solo record to Paris—the technology had improved enough in the past six years that he was sure he could do it—then continue around the world to Moscow, make a few stops in Siberia, and cross the Bering Sea to Alaska and arrive home by way of Canada. Even if he didn’t break Post and Gatty’s speed record, he would still be the first to circumnavigate the world alone. And since he had heard that Post had pegged July 1 as his departure date, he hoped to beat him to the air by a month.

The reporters gathered at Bennett Airfield to see him off. “I’ll see you in about a week, I hope,” Mattern told them. Pathé News was paying Mattern to shoot exclusive photos for the agency during his flight, and as he made preparations to leave, a representative handed him a 35-millimeter box camera. In a small storage bin built in his cramped cabin, he also packed six oranges, some Japanese green tea, and two thermoses holding hot and cold water, one labeled “Happy” and the other marked “Landings”—gifts from the artist George Luks, a fan of his.

Mattern’s mechanic had warmed the engine and parked the Century of Progress at the far edge of the runway, its tail resting on the grass so that every possible inch would be available for takeoff. The plane held almost double its weight in fuel, and Mattern wanted to be sure he could clear the expressway. Glancing around the airfield, he half expected his one-eyed rival to sidle up next to him, but last he heard Post was still in Oklahoma City, struggling to retrofit his plane with finicky new technology. Mattern, who had kept the fact that he was flying solo secret until the last minute, had won this stage of the race.

He revved the engine and nodded to the mechanics, who pulled away the wheel chocks. At 5:21 a.m., the Century of Progress started down the runway. At 60 miles per hour, the wings bit into the westerly headwind and the tail came up. The plane lifted clear of the runway. Mattern pulled back on the stick as hard as he could, and the plane struggled to clear Flatbush Avenue by 30 feet. By the time he was over Jamaica Bay, he was at 1,000 feet. He banked a wide left turn and flew back over the airport, above the cheering spectators, who watched the Century of Progress disappear into the Long Island haze as the sunrise bled across the horizon.


On his way north, Mattern hugged the Eastern Seaboard, reveling in the clear weather and 15 mile-per-hour tailwind. By the time he hit Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, he was ten minutes off Post and Gatty’s pace from two years before—but since he didn’t need to refuel, he was actually a couple hours ahead. Seven hours and 49 minutes after leaving New York, Mattern’s plane was heard near Lewisporte, Newfoundland, then over Fogo Island, in Notre Dame Bay, where his engine’s roar startled several fishermen. By late afternoon, he was sighted over the tiny Wadham Islands, off the extreme northeastern coast of Newfoundland, the last scrap of land Mattern would see before the Continent.

Airfields in Europe eagerly awaited news of his whereabouts. Finally, at 8:15 a.m. the following morning, Western Union operators on Valentia, an island off the southwestern coast of Ireland, claimed to have seen the Century of Progress overhead. At 9:30 a.m., the steamship Hastings reported an eastbound plane overhead in the English Channel; another report from Ireland’s County Kerry had the plane flying in the opposite direction. But as one claimed sighting after another receded into ambiguity, the truth became harder and harder to ignore: Mattern, it seemed, was nowhere to be found.

Crowds maintained a ceaseless vigil at Le Bourget Field in Paris. As the hours ticked away, anticipation turned to fear, and fear turned to despair. The Le Bourget dispatcher reluctantly switched off the floodlights that had burned through the night. Weary newsmen at Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport dragged themselves off to bed. English telephone operators made last efforts to raise remote stations.

MATTERN MISSING ON WORLD FLIGHT,” cried a June 5 New York Times headline. “Eighteen hours overdue on the first stage of his world flight, James Mattern is feared to have been lost somewhere in the Atlantic.” “MOSCOW HAS NO WORD FROM AMERICAN FLIER,” read the Boston Globe’s headline; “SILENCE SWALLOWS AMERICAN AVIATOR HEADED FOR PARIS,” declared the Spartanburg Herald Journal. Mattern’s manager, Jack Clark, ventured that his exhausted client might have landed in a remote corner of Ireland or France and fallen asleep in his plane, but when almost 48 hours had passed, even he began to fear the worst.

“I never give up hope and I won’t,” Delia Mattern told an Associated Press reporter, her “light brown eyes showing just a hint of anxiety.” Her husband had landed in rough places before. She had never understood his daring air escapades. She would ask if he was afraid and Mattern would reply, “Of course I’m not afraid. If I were I wouldn’t be going.” He didn’t seek her counsel. He did things his own way.

Four

June 3, 1933

As long as land was near, Mattern didn’t bother to mark his position on the map; he had flown the same route less than a year earlier. Now that he was over open sea, however, his compass informed him that he was several degrees off course. Sipping green tea, he realized that the thermoses might be magnetized, drawing the iron compass needles toward them. He smashed both containers and stuffed the shards through one of the plane’s tiny windows. Still, the compass remained off kilter.

Then Mattern remembered the Pathé News camera. He snatched it up and passed it from his left hand to his right, watching the compass needle follow the camera’s path. He rapped the heavy camera body with his knuckles: Metal! But the windows were too small to ditch the camera. He was stuck with it. All he could do was move it from one side of the cockpit to the other every 15 minutes and hope he didn’t veer too far off course. Forget Paris, he thought. He would be lucky to find the Continent.

Less than a third of the way across the Atlantic, the Century of Progress smacked into whiplash turbulence, gale-force winds, and pelting rain. Trying to evade the storm, Mattern climbed higher, but that soon proved equally untenable. The temperature in the cockpit plummeted. With ice forming on the wings, slowing and weighing down the plane, he veered south and then north in search of calmer, warmer air. He dove back into the heart of the storm, close enough to the water that he worried he might plow into the surf.

Then there was a bolt of lightning and a sickening noise from outside. From the sound of it, Mattern assumed his wing had cracked. Heart racing, he thought: I guess I’m going to join all of the others who tried and didn’t make it. He thought of his mother, sitting by the radio, waiting for word of her son, and his father, long gone from this earth. But miraculously, the wing held. The wooden frame complained but didn’t break, and the Century of Progress flew on.

For ten hours he battled the swirling North Atlantic storm, struggling to keep the plane on course as he hurtled through rain, sleet, snow, and wind. Soon darkness enveloped him. He was flying blind, relying solely on his instruments, and cursing himself every time he was a minute or two late repositioning the camera. The night felt like a year.

Sleep deprivation posed as great a danger to Mattern as any lightning storm. It could lead a good pilot to make bad decisions. Lack of sleep had almost been Charles Lindbergh’s undoing on his trans-Atlantic flight six years earlier. Seventeen hours after leaving New York, he began to hallucinate. “My back is stiff; my shoulders ache; my face burns; my eyes smart,” Lindbergh wrote in The Spirit of St. Louis, his account of the journey. “It seems impossible to go on longer. All I want in life is to throw myself down flat, stretch out—and sleep.”

The Washington Post, in its coverage leading up to Mattern’s flight, reported that he did not fear falling asleep: “If he dozes off, and the plane falls, a gadget fastened on to an altimeter squirts water when the plane tumbles down to a minimum altitude of safety.” Perhaps this was Mattern having fun at the expense of a gullible reporter. In reality, his system was much more prosaic. When he needed to sleep, he attached rubber bands to the stick from his console, so the plane would list slightly to the right, and then he crossed his legs and pushed down on the left rudder with his right foot to equalize the drift. This kept the Century of Progress on an even course while Mattern took quick catnaps—but he couldn’t risk it in weather like this.

Twenty hours after takeoff, Mattern finally made it to the other side of the storm, but now a new problem presented itself. Fighting his way through the squall had cost him precious fuel, and he knew he would be cutting it close with what was left in his five main tanks. He still had the reserve 70-gallon tank Amelia Earhart had given him as a going-away present. But when he tested it, the engine quit—something was blocking the fuel from injecting into the motor. He switched back to one of the main tanks until it ran dry and tried again. Still the engine couldn’t draw the fuel from the reserve. Mattern was going to need that tank, and it wasn’t like he could pull off to the side of the road to repair it.

Leaning into the rising sun, Mattern finally spotted land on the horizon. His last main fuel tank was almost dry, and in desperation he flipped the switch to the reserve. The engine coughed, stopped, and, this time, kicked on again. Later he would learn that a small piece of felt had lodged in the line. When he turned on the gas this time, it was finally forced out. As sea gave way to land, Mattern looked down at the landscape of mountains and glaciers and wondered how far north he had ventured.

With no airfields in sight and only a few minutes’ worth of fuel left in his emergency tank, he searched for a place to land. He spotted a small island with a sandy beach where sunbathers frolicked and cut the engine to bring the Century of Progress down in a glide. As he approached, he saw too late that he was coming down on a patch of pebbles and large stones. It was a bumpy, teeth-chattering ride; Mattern thanked his foresight in installing shock cords. Even so, the rough landing knocked the tail out of alignment and blew one of his tires.

Mattern checked his watch. He had shaved ten hours off the 33 Lindbergh had taken to cross the Atlantic. Elated, he squeezed through the hatch and sank to his knees on the beach. “I just flew nonstop from New York,” Mattern told the first people to arrive to greet him, two boys and two fishermen. “I need your help.”

None of them spoke English, so the boys ran to fetch someone who did. They returned with a man who introduced himself as Jens Søre, a mechanic who had lived in the United States, who informed Mattern that he was in Jomfruland, Norway—80 miles from Oslo and 1,000 miles north of Paris. Mattern told Søre that all he needed was some gas and oil and he would be on his way, but Søre urged him to rest while he dispatched a message to Oslo. While Mattern napped, a seaplane arrived with the chief of the airport in the nearby town of Horten, who was astonished that anyone could have set a plane down on that beach without wrecking it. In addition to the misaligned landing gear and blown tire, one of the Century of Progress’s wingtips had been damaged by flying stones. There was also a more serious gash in one of the wings—caused, Mattern surmised, by the lightning strike.

The airport chief had brought along a couple of mechanics and supplies of fuel and oil. It took them four hours to mend the plane and fill it with enough gas to make Oslo, where Mattern could refuel for the long haul to Moscow. Mattern was determined to return to the sky, but his hosts convinced him to grab a little more sleep and wait for dawn.

When the sun rose, Mattern made his way back to his plane, which had been pulled by horses up onto a grassy hillock so the mechanics could make their repairs. Overnight the wings had been covered with graffiti: the scrawled names of female admirers in Jomfruland.

Mattern revved the engine, the airport chief and the mechanics pulled the rocks they had used as makeshift blocks away from the wheels, and the Century of Progress started rolling. The beach was too rough for a takeoff, so Mattern taxied down the knoll. The improvised runway was pocked with sandpits large enough to swallow a wheel. As the plane picked up speed, however, Mattern saw them: A handful of Norwegians were waist deep in the holes, waving their arms frantically, operating as human traffic cones. Brave people, Mattern thought as he climbed into the sky.

Five

June 5, 1933

It wasn’t until Mattern swooped out of the clouds over Moscow’s muddy airfield that the world—save for a handful of Norwegian sunbathers and a few airport personnel in Oslo—learned of his whereabouts. It had been a short hop from Jomfruland to Oslo, where Mattern had handed his troublemaking camera to the airport manager to ship to New York. At 6:40 a.m., he started on his 1,100-mile flight to Moscow, over Sweden, the Baltic Sea, Estonia, and Latvia. He had completed the first third of his journey in 51 hours and 31 minutes, three hours faster than Post and Gatty’s record time.   

A reporter told him that many feared he had been lost. Mattern grinned. “Fooled ’em, didn’t I?”

In the reception room at the Moscow airdrome, a physician took his pulse and told him he needed to rest. Mattern brushed him off, promising to take a two-hour nap before taking off again. He ate sparingly from the spread of caviar and steak laid out in his honor. After a shower, a shave, and a nap, he joined the Soviet mechanics who were working on his plane. Later, back in the airdrome, a group of Soviet pilots advised him on the best route over Siberia; his maps—which showed only a few lakes, mountains, and settlements—were almost useless.

At one point, Mattern looked outside and saw people swarming over the Century of Progress; a guard was supposed to be watching the plane but was nowhere to be seen. The fans seemed particularly enamored with the metal propeller. Mattern ran out, gunned the engine, and took off shortly after midnight, bound for Omsk—a large city in southwestern Siberia, just east of the Ural Mountains, about a third of the way across the Soviet Union.

Over the Urals, the Century of Progress got caught up in a lightning storm. Once he was in the clear again and dawn broke, Mattern followed the tracks of the Trans-Siberian railway as Post and Gatty had two years before, battling stiff headwinds. At full throttle, he managed only 120 miles per hour, at least 40 miles per hour below his usual cruising speed. It took 12 and a half hours to cover 1,400 miles. Dropping out of the sky in Omsk, he was too tired to realize that he was coming down harder than he should have. The plane hit the runway with a jolt, cracking the right landing strut.

On solid ground again, Mattern took a sauna, then fell asleep for three hours while mechanics fixed the strut and refueled the plane. When he awoke, he called a New York Times reporter in Moscow, who informed him that he was only a few hours behind Post and Gatty’s time. “That’s great!” Mattern shouted through the static, his voice hoarse. “I’ll beat ’em yet.”

But the pace was wearing on him and his plane. A third of the way to Irkutsk, a smaller city 1,600 miles east, just north of the Mongolian border, his eyelids began to droop. He was having trouble breathing, too. His head was spinning. He caught a whiff of gasoline and began to retch. His last conscious thought was that a fuel line had broken, but he couldn’t let go of the controls. The Century of Progress plummeted to earth as its pilot blacked out.


Mattern regained consciousness as the ground rushed at him. He pulled back on the stick as hard as he could, and the plane nosed laboriously up from its free fall. Below, the landscape was an unbroken expanse of trees. Mattern opened his window, then turned the plane on its side to let in more air, trying to keep himself from vomiting all over the cockpit.

Finally, Mattern spotted a field that looked smooth enough for landing and coaxed the Century of Progress down onto the dirt. By the time the plane rolled to a stop, he was unconscious again. The next thing he knew, Russian peasants had climbed into the plane and were trying to yank him out of his safety harness.

Coughing from the fumes and shouting obscenities, Mattern staggered from the plane, but once his feet touched earth his legs buckled. One of the peasants, about Mattern’s height and twice as wide, caught him. “You keep those boys from jumping all over that plane, see,” Mattern told him, “and don’t let them take any souvenirs.”

The man seemed to understand. He tapped another man to guard the plane and dragged the wobbly flier into a small wooden shack. Lying down on a bunk there, Mattern once again felt his world whirl out of control. He retched until there was nothing left in his stomach, then retched some more. Finally, toward evening, he felt well enough to stand.

Outside, he found his plane where he had left it, in the middle of a cow pasture, surrounded by dozens of people marveling at the machine. One of them was a short, stocky man who looked about 50; with his gray beard, he reminded Mattern of General Ulysses S. Grant. He was a foreman at a metal-refining plant in the town of Belovo, a few miles from where Mattern had landed, but he had spent time in the United States and spoke fluent English. When Mattern told the General what he needed, the man enlisted members of the crowd to pull the airplane out of the mud.

Mattern could see that the Century of Progress, especially its tail, was in bad shape. With tools and materials from a nearby factory, the newly deputized ground crew tacked sheet metal to the tail until early the next morning, when a plane arrived with the chief engineer from the airport in Novosibirsk, 140 miles away, and his assistant.

The two mechanics worked in pouring rain inside a roped-off square. Soldiers with bayonets on their rifles arrived to guard the plane while a crowd of locals watched. Toward dusk the rain stopped; the crew continued working by the light of torches made from cotton waste soaked in oil. The crowd grew, as if this was their evening entertainment. Mattern tried to eat but nothing would stay down; he could still feel the gas fumes sweating out of his system.

When the repairs were complete, the Century of Progress looked two-thirds airplane and one-third junkyard heap. Mattern figured it would fly lopsided but hold together long enough to get to a city where more-professional repairs could be made. The rain-sodden field, however, was another matter. Mattern walked a couple hundred yards with the General and the mechanics from Novosibirsk shaking their heads.

After unloading as much gas as he could, Mattern started the motor, but the wheels wouldn’t bite. His ad hoc crew laid down ashes and sacking, mobilizing the entire crowd. Still, he couldn’t pull the plane out of the slop.

Mattern suggested they move the plane to higher, drier ground. It would be a very short runway, terminating in a copse of tall trees, but it was better than nothing. “Nyet,” grunted a Russian pilot—not for a plane of the Century of Progress’s size. But Mattern insisted. After they towed the craft uphill, Mattern hopped in and started the motor. With no brakes, he would either get aloft or crash into the trees; there were no other options. He picked up speed and pulled back on the stick. The Century of Progress left the ground just in time, the landing gear brushing the tops of the trees. Six days after leaving New York, Mattern was back in the air.

As he gained altitude, Mattern’s plane flew steadier than the pilot himself felt. Four hours out of Belovo, the rain and fog abated and he saw sunshine for the first time in practically a week. He slid open the window for fresh air and saw a large sugar-loaf-shaped mountain, which he had been told was near where he was headed. Mountains looked awfully good to Mattern after thousands of miles of plains.

Mattern stayed just long enough in Novosibirsk to fuel up for the long haul to Irkutsk and, 2,000 miles later, Khabarovsk, one of the principal cities in the Soviet Far East, near China, his last major stop before the Pacific Ocean. On the way the weather turned nasty over the Zeya River, northeast of the Mongolian border, and Mattern lost his bearings and set down near the river to spend the night. By the time he arrived in Khaborovsk the next day, he was too tired to talk. He rested for a day at a hotel while mechanics readied his battered plane for the haul across the Bering Sea to Nome, Alaska.

Leaving Khabarovsk the next morning, Mattern ran into more foul weather: a mixture of headwinds, rainstorms, and dense clouds. As night fell and the sky turned dark, he lost his way. He realized that he was running low on oil, too; the Russian product was cruder and burned much faster than what he was used to. Without any idea of how to get back to Khabarovsk, he had no choice but to bring the plane down again, regardless of what lay below. He stacked pillows around his head and began his descent, hoping for the best.

Six

June 12, 1933

It proved to be a surprisingly smooth landing. After shutting off the engine, Mattern climbed out of the hatch and jumped eight feet down to the ground, where he promptly fell asleep. At dawn, he awoke to find his plane teetering on a sandbar overlooking a river, across from a small village.

A boat full of peasants rowed across the river and gave him eggs, fish, and black bread. But Mattern was anxious to get flying again and pantomimed that his plane needed oil. No one spoke English, but one of the peasants turned out to be a former pilot in the Soviet army. He dispatched a couple of men to a nearby collective farm, where they found what Mattern needed. He started his abused Wasp engine, which smoked from the change in diet—the oil was intended for tractors, not airplanes—but turned over all the same, and held out long enough for him to return to Khabarovsk.

At four the next morning, June 12, Mattern tried again. On his first stopoff in Khabarovsk, he had eaten dinner with a group of Soviet pilots, who had advised him to take a more southerly route where he would likely come by better weather, but Mattern had opted for a more direct path. This time he heeded the pilots’ advice, heading southeast over the Sea of Okhotsk. Five hundred miles out over open water, however, ice gathered on his wings. He couldn’t shake it off even after dropping so low that he was practically skimming the water. Worse, the Century of Progress was once again mired in thick fog. Mattern decided to return to Khabarovsk yet again. He had flown 1,400 miles over the past three days but hadn’t gained an inch.

Once more in Khabarovsk, he restored himself with a couple of hearty meals and eight hours’ sleep. He was far behind Post and Gatty’s time now, but he was still on track to be the first pilot to fly solo around the world. All he had to do was make it this last leg across Russia and the 500-mile expanse of the Bering Sea. Once he hit Alaska, he figured, he would be home free. Shortly after his Hollywood stunt-flying days, Mattern had spent several months in Alaska working as a bush pilot. He knew the terrain and the weather there well.

Mattern waited through two more days of dirty weather before revving his engine again. The third time was the charm. Several hours later, he was on the far side of the Sea of Okhotsk, the Kamchatka Peninsula below him. The thumb-shaped peninsula, which separated the Okhotsk from the Bering Sea, resembles Alaska, a sparsely inhabited wilderness of thick boreal forest and mountain ranges. Some of the peaks rise as high as 8,000 feet, and Mattern knew he couldn’t fly over them. At that altitude his wings would ice up, and the Century of Progress would come crashing to earth. Winding his way north and shivering in the high-altitude cold, Mattern warmed himself with the knowledge that once he was out of the mountains, he could turn east. At that point, Nome would be just four hours away.

Then Mattern noticed that his oil pressure was dropping perilously low. The low-grade Russian oil was giving the finely tuned Wasp heartburn. Although he had a reserve oil supply stashed in the back with a bicycle pump jerry-rigged to push it to the engine, the pump had frozen. He was losing engine power, with hundreds of miles of open water ahead of him.

Below lay an almost endless expanse of tundra, most likely uninhabited, certainly inhospitable. Drawing on his bush-pilot experience, Mattern looked for little streams and tried to follow them; streams, he knew, usually led to rivers, and rivers led to settlements. Consulting his maps, he reckoned his best bet would be to get within limping distance of the Arctic outpost of Anadyr—but he was still 80 miles away. He would have to find a safe place to land. During the summer months, the Arctic tundra is in many places a soggy patchwork of marshes, bogs, lakes, and streams—not bad terrain for a crash landing. Still, the crash near Minsk the year before flashed through his mind. If Mattern flipped over this time, there would be no one to dig him out.

There was only one thing he could do. Mattern opened the throttle all the way and accelerated to the Vega’s top speed, 200 miles per hour. Skimming over the tundra, he deliberately sheared off his landing gear, then brought the plane down, belly-flopping on the soft ground. The plane bounced and shook. Mattern heard one of the wings crack; he was afraid that the entire undercarriage would tear apart. Feeling a sharp pain in his ankle, he realized that the impact of the landing had forced the engine back against his body. Finally he came to a complete stop. Somehow the Century of Progress—and Mattern—had held together.

The marooned pilot leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes. He said a quick prayer and freed his wounded ankle. It wasn’t a full break—the bones didn’t look like they had pulled apart—but he was sure it was fractured. After staggering out of the hatch, he looked around: barren tundra, tufts of brush and grass, and rocky soil. His plane was a wreck. Wind whistled by his ears and he shivered. Never had he felt so alone.

Seven

July 15, 1933

Before dawn crept over Jamaica Bay, Wiley Post ambled over to the outgoing-flight register at Floyd Bennett Field and signed his name. In the next box he scribbled “Destination same.”

Post had remained cagey about his plans, but word had leaked out in a February 19 New York Times article that he was considering a second round-the-world journey—this time alone—but that he had to conduct “exhaustive tests” before making up his mind. When the morning of his departure from Floyd Bennett Field finally arrived, he watched the mechanics tend to the Winnie Mae and fingered a medal that another pilot had given him as a good-luck charm. It had once been owned by Count Felix von Luckner, a German naval officer who was famous in World War I for never suffering casualties on the ships under his command.

Mae Post watched him. “Are you about gone?” she asked.

“Pretty soon,” he said.

“Be careful.”

“I will.”

Jimmie Mattern’s disappearance a month earlier had set Mae’s nerves on edge. Post tried to reassure her. His plane had every possible modern innovation. He had delayed his departure to wait in Dayton, Ohio, for Army engineers to install a radio receiver. It would enable him to fix his position from broadcasts on ordinary radio frequencies if he knew the call letters of the station doing the transmitting. Post was also counting on his automatic pilot, affectionately nicknamed Mechanical Mike, to do much of the flying for him—it was the first time a civilian aircraft had been outfitted with one—and his controllable-pitch propeller to shorten takeoff runs and squeeze every last mile out of his fuel. Additional wing tanks increased his range, and he planned to complete the journey with just five stops, starting with a direct flight from New York to Berlin.

All these careful preparations, he believed, were what separated him from Mattern. Post was eager to try new technology; Mattern flew by the seat of his pants. In his rush to take off first, Mattern had not considered the effects that sleep deprivation could have on a man, nor had he properly outfitted his plane to address them. Post reckoned his friend had likely crashed in some remote corner of Siberia before he got to the Bering Strait, his demise accelerated by fatigued decision-making.

Seeking to avoid a similar fate, Post had adopted a rigorous training regimen designed to attune his body to the deprivations of his journey. He took short naps instead of sleeping through the night, sometimes sitting up until dawn in the cockpit of the Winnie Mae with his lone eye open. He restricted himself to one meal a day. He worked to attain a Zen-like state, clearing his mind of all thoughts except flying.

Wearing a natty new gray suit and blue shirt and tie, Post climbed into the cockpit. “I’ll be back as quick as possible,” he shouted. He gave the word and the motor jumped to life, the propeller scattering the gravel on the airfield. On board were 645 gallons of fuel, quart-sized thermoses of water and tomato juice, three packages of chewing gum, a package of zwieback bread, a knife, a hatchet, a raincoat, a cigarette lighter, mosquito netting, a sleeping bag, and a flashlight. He also brought fishing tackle; that way, if he ended up marooned in Siberia, he could always fish for food. He had a suitcase containing a few changes of clothes, including three fresh eye patches that Mae had sewn for him, and a piece of equipment he hadn’t bothered with on his last adventure: a parachute.

Post’s Wasp engine crescendoed, spewing exhaust. The white and blue monoplane picked up speed over the concrete runway and, despite the heavy load, quickly climbed, receding into a silhouette against the dawn, a half-moon gleaming overhead. It was 5:10 a.m.

After settling in at a comfortable altitude, Post turned on the autopilot. Later that day, as he approached the British Isles, he encountered tempestuous weather, just as Mattern had the month before, but he kept his radio on until he heard “a special broadcast for Wiley Post” from station G2L0 in Manchester, England, cutting through the static. Post adjusted his radio-compass needle to get a fix on the station; others popped up on the dial as he flew over the Irish Sea, England, the Continent. He was flying blind, but he had never felt so secure in his location.

By the time Post passed over the Elbe River, the weather had improved, and he could finally see where he was. Ahead was Berlin’s skyline. When he landed at Templehof, 25 hours and 45 minutes after leaving New York, he had not only broken Mattern and Bennett’s time by almost four hours but also completed the first nonstop flight from New York to Berlin. As he taxied up the runway, the American flag and German national colors floated above the field. Steel-helmeted Nazi storm troopers with rifles kept 2,000 cheering Germans at bay. Among those in attendance was the commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring.

Post, assisted by a policeman, climbed down from the plane while a band played “The Star Spangled Banner” and Nazi anthems. He wanted to get his plane gassed up and get going as quickly as possible. His new record notwithstanding, he had hoped that he could make it to Berlin in 22 hours; the weather had added three and a half hours to his time. “I don’t want to eat,” he told the reporters gathered at the airdrome. “I don’t want to shave. I just want to clear out of here. I flew here on tomato juice and chewing gum, and that’s enough for me.”

Post was whisked off to the same room he had rested in on his first flight. He took a cold shower and stretched out on a bunk, trying to clear his mind, but he was restless. A lot of people were depending on him. Earlier that year, Post had inked an agreement with a local Oklahoma City businessman to line up investors in exchange for a 10 percent cut of whatever fees he earned from post-trip appearances. Wary of reliving his troubled relationship with F. C. Hall, he insisted on a pool of investors this time around. That way no single person could amass too much influence. The Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, eager to assist a homegrown celebrity aviator, had eagerly formed a committee. Eventually, 41 businesses and individuals contributed, and several aeronautical companies came through with donations of equipment, support, and supplies.

Too antsy to nap, Post returned to the airfield to supervise the plane’s refueling, vexed by the slow pace and antiquated equipment. The airport maintenance crew in Berlin were using hand pumps, which Post calculated would add an hour to his time, leading The Washington Post to quip:

The Winnie Mae, the Winnie Mae

She flies to Berlin in a day

And then complains of the delay!

Two hours and 15 minutes after landing, Post climbed back into his plane, with weather charts prepared by Lufthansa sticking out of his pocket. He had planned for Novosibirsk, Siberia, to be his next stop. But as he crossed the Soviet border, he couldn’t find his maps. He tore apart the cabin looking for them, but it was no use. He had no idea where they were. Worse, the autopilot had sprung a leak in its oil line.

Frustrated, he turned back and brought the Winnie Mae down to Königsberg, a city in eastern Germany. Sweat streamed down his face as he climbed out of the cockpit. He found another set of maps at the airport, but the mechanics in Königsberg weren’t able to fix the autopilot; the closest place to get it repaired was Moscow. Should he risk flying the 3,000 miles to Novosibirsk without it, or stop in Moscow for repairs? No one believed in Post’s piloting skill more than Post did, but he was afraid he might lose his way over Siberia. With broadcasting towers few and far between, the radio navigator would be useless for vast stretches. He took the safe bet: Moscow.

Then he went to sleep. When he awoke five hours later to a dawn wakeup call, he learned that the weather between him and Moscow was “quite bad”: heavy rain and fog, according to official reports. He slept for a few more hours. By the time the weather cleared, he was so anxious to leave that he forgot his suitcase, leaving him with only the clothes on his back.

The flight to Moscow was mostly uneventful, and soon he was looking down on the Kremlin, sparkling in the sun. Meeting Post at the airport was New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty. Because Moscow had not been on Post’s planned itinerary, no official was on hand to translate for him, so Duranty conveyed his autopilot repair request to the airport director.

Meanwhile, a doctor examined Post and ordered him to get some sleep. Post told the doctor he wasn’t tired and tried to decline the meal offered to him, too; “Being hungry helps me stay awake,” he explained. The doctor later told Duranty, “I have had 12 years of experience as an aviation doctor, but I never met a pilot with such steady, solid nerves and such a regular pulse after an exhausting effort and such balanced control. When I first heard he was trying to fly around the world in four or five days, I thought it was madness—now I believe he will succeed.”

The forecast called for clear skies all the way to Novosibirsk and then cloudy beyond, with a light southeast wind. Radio stations in Kazan, Sverdlosk, Omsk, and Novosibirsk, briefed on Post’s itinerary, would call every ten minutes on a special wavelength and provide weather updates in English. Post climbed back aboard the Winnie Mae, and at 5:10 p.m. he took off down the runway, the plane, Duranty later wrote, “gleaming like a seagull” as it disappeared into the distance.

The weather forecast, however, turned out to be inaccurate. After five hours of clear skies, Post, flying over the Ural Mountains, ran into the thickest clouds he had ever seen. Taking advantage of the deicers he had installed, Post climbed to 21,000 feet—four miles between the Winnie Mae and the ground. Post stayed at that altitude for two hours, but the lack of oxygen made him woozy, and ice was beginning to overwhelm the deicers. He descended into the fog—a dangerous maneuver while crossing the mountains, but he had little choice.

Post knew how fragile life was. He had learned that lesson the moment the sliver of steel pierced his eye. Still, he had taunted death on plenty of occasions. During his wing-walker days, he had made a habit of pulling his rip cord at the last possible second to see how far he could free-fall, basking in the adulation of the crowd. When he flew with passengers, one of his favorite practical jokes was to let his first fuel tank run dry, stalling the engine, and only then switch to the next and restart the propeller, relishing how much it scared his guests.

Now, however, Post took no such chances. Eye trained on the altimeter and compass, he flew by dead reckoning. His plane might have been flush with the latest gadgetry, but at the moment his safest option was to rely on his own piloting skills. Once he was beyond the Urals, he could bring the plane to a lower altitude and once again follow the tracks of the Trans-Siberian railway until they spidered off in divergent directions.

When Post finally descended into Novosibirsk, he was met at the airfield by Fay Gillis, a 24-year-old American aviator and journalist living in Moscow, whose help Post had enlisted in organizing logistics. Three weeks earlier, Gillis had hitched a ride in the back of a mail plane from Moscow, wedged between bales of letters, and had been waiting in Novosibirsk ever since. She had scared up 660 gallons of gasoline and 150 gallons of oil, more than enough to slake the Winnie Mae’s thirst. She made sure that the landing field was mowed every other day and that qualified mechanics were on hand, and she collected maps and arranged for a room, so that Post could rest while his plane was refueled. “I am saving my last piece of American soap for him, which he ought to appreciate,” she said in an interview.

Gillis had her own motives for assisting Post. She was a stringer for the New York Herald Tribune and hoped to secure a scoop for the paper about Post’s arrival. But as Post reclined on a couch at the airport, eating the bouillon and fruit she had provided him, Gillis learned that he had an exclusive contract with The New York Times. Gillis had to wait to file her own story until after she had helped him file his.

Post stayed in Novosibirsk long enough to refuel, then pushed on to Irkutsk. “The chief marvel of Wiley Post’s spectacular flight around the top of the world,” a July 19, 1933 editorial in The Washington Post declared, “is not the endurance of the machine, but the endurance of the man.” But, it warned, “the most dangerous stretch of Post’s route lies between Khabarovsk and Nome. The Sea of Okhotsk, Kamchatka and Bering Sea are rarely clear of storms and fog.”

The truth was that Post was dead tired. Gillis could see the fatigue etched in his face as he left Novosibirsk—and he had almost half a world to go.

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Jimmie Mattern’s and Wiley Post’s progress as of July 18, 1933.

Eight

June 16, 1933

Jimmie Mattern cried a lot the first two days he was marooned. His plane was crushed and broken. He was 100 miles into the Arctic Circle, equipped with only a set of maps, a tool kit, pliers, a hatchet, three chocolate bars, and the clothes he was wearing. He also had a gun, which had been hidden in a secret compartment for emergencies just like this, and a top-of-the-line Wittnauer watch; the company co-sponsored his trip, and the watch was somehow still ticking after the crash.

He axed a hole in the fuselage to create a makeshift shelter, lining the walls with maps to help insulate against the cold, and jerry-rigged a cookstove and heater from a fuel container and engine cylinder. To give himself something to do, he kept a journal. Someday explorers might find his body, he figured, and he wanted them to know what kind of man he was.

The landscape was bleak—the soggy sod and heather of the Arctic tundra in summer—and his prospects bleaker. Each day, Mattern dragged his injured ankle behind him three miles to the Anadyr River and prayed that a boat would pass. Each night, he trekked back to his plane. He was still bruised and sore from his improvised landing, and soon he had blisters on his feet as well.

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The Anadyr lowlands in northeastern Russia. (Photo: F.A. Kondrasho)

He was fortunate, he knew, that he had crashed during summer, when the Arctic weather was reasonably warm and the daylight hours extended well into the night. If it had been autumn, he might already be dead of exposure. Even so, the temperatures dipped into the twenties after dark, and it was only going to get colder. His leather flight suit was a godsend, but it would keep him only so warm. His makeshift heater had its problems, too—there was no ventilation in the back of the plane, and he could only run it briefly before the compartment filled up with smoke.

Game was hard to come by. The animals of the tundra steered clear of Mattern, as if they intuited his desperate intentions. On the third day, however, he managed to shoot a duck. He stashed it in the river to keep it cold, resolving to hold off eating it until the following day, after he finished constructing a raft out of driftwood and baling wire. Anadyr, an outpost for fur traders and explorers en route to the North Pole, was within 100 miles, if his calculations were correct. Without adequate food, he worried that he wouldn’t be able to make it there on foot. But by taking a raft down the river, Mattern figured he could be there in four days, perhaps five, depending on the current.

After another frigid night in the carcass of his plane, he pulled a piece of iron from the Century of Progress’s tail to use as a griddle for roasting the duck, then limped down to the river. He was heartbroken to discover that seagulls had poached his kill; scattered bones and feathers were all that remained.

Glassy and weak from hunger, Mattern was afraid that he was losing his mind. No rational man would have left a dead duck in a stream and expected it to be there the next morning. At six that evening, he returned to the Century of Progress. He thought about making tea but had nothing to boil water in. The wind howled. A storm was brewing.

It rained throughout the night and the following day. Mattern stayed inside, listening to the drops beating against the skin of the plane. He caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror. The ghost that stared back was gaunt, his hair a cubist mess, his face darkened with stubble and grime. The eyes had lost their pilot’s alertness; they were the eyes of a man who might not be long for this earth.

Scrounging around the wreckage of the plane, Mattern found a bag of cookie crumbs. He ate them slowly; it was all he had for the day. Then he wrote in his diary:

I have been thinking about a lot of things lately. I pray every day. I think of my mother and hope that she is not worrying so much that it would affect her health. I, of course, think of so many things. I could have done better with my life. I have always tried to do what is right. I did want to make money. Well, now I realize how useless money is and of no value in the Arctic wastes of Siberia. I have over one hundred dollars in my pocket, and it won’t even make fire to keep me warm… My only hope is to get out of here and back to civilization. That’s all I want. My foolish days of records is over and I want to settle down to a quiet life.

The more he wrote, the more tired he felt. Fog settled over the plane, the air thick and cold. Mattern set out hunting again, his ankles weak and uncertain, his feet cold, wet, and numb. He wasn’t able to bag anything, and the little food he had left—half a chocolate bar, some cookie crumbs—had almost run out. By the river, he lit a fire with green bushes, which smoked and smoldered, hoping someone would see it, either from the air or heading down the river. No one came.

Pilots are taught to stay with their planes in the event of a crash, but Mattern knew his circumstances were different. While he was sure people would be searching for him, the land was so vast and remote that there was little chance they would find him. His only hope was the raft.

The next morning he penned a note, which he left inside the fractured fuselage. He explained how he had crashed and that he was almost out of food, and gave his best guess as to his coordinates: latitude 64’35” west, longitude 175’30” north. I have made a raft and am going down the river, he wrote.

If you locate the airplane and I have not been found, I will be between here and a hundred miles down stream. I will stay to the right bank out of the wind going down… I have a map and a compass so to establish landmarks as I go along. Keep looking, boys, as I want to get out of this mess. I will never give up. Will be looking for you.

The weather was gorgeous, warmer than it had been. Mattern carried his maps, his flight suit, and his gun down to the river. Weak from hunger, he fell several times and had trouble getting back on his feet. He loaded the raft and, after saying a prayer, pushed it into the stream.

It sank.

Mattern jumped into the icy water to save his maps, battling the current as he dragged everything back to shore. Soaked and shivering, he knew he needed to build a fire—a big one, right away. Hovering over the flames, he forgot about the fuel that had soaked his clothes in the plane crash. Suddenly he was on fire, screaming in pain, staggering back into the river.

After he took his clothes off to dry, he crouched in his underwear next to the fire. The burns stung, and his teeth ached from the cold. I am now very discouraged and don’t know how things will turn out, he wrote in his journal. Then he fell asleep, warm for the first time since he’d crashed.

As one week in the wilderness became two, Mattern chronicled his mounting hopelessness in his journal. I have kept the fire going all day and just been looking for a boat, he wrote. I don’t know whether to start walking or not. Really don’t think I should. I would get weak and then if the airplane was located I would not be found. Yesterday I shot a muskrat and ate him. It made me sick but filled my stomach. He camped by the river in the event that a boat floated by, but he was running out of wood for fires—he’d picked clean the entire area.

He set about building another raft. When he was sure it was river-worthy, he piled his few belongings on board and settled facedown on the deck, paddling with his hands, cold water breaking over his head. For several hours he kept at it, until a strong current pushed him back the way he had come. He washed up on a small island across the river from his camp. The tide must have come in from the Anadyr Gulf, he figured. Ten days trying to float his way out of this wilderness and he had barely moved an inch.

On the 15th day, give or take—Mattern had lost count—he was trying to build a fire from grass when two specks a great distance down the river caught his eye—so far away he couldn’t make out what they were. He set his compass on them and went away for a few minutes. When he returned, the specks had moved. Oh God, he wrote in his journal. I hope it is what I think it is. He watched for what seemed an eternity, but this time the specks remained in the same position. Sinking into disappointment, he figured he had been hallucinating.

Then the sky opened up ever so slightly, and a ray of sunlight shone down. Now Mattern could see oars striking water. They were coming straight toward him. He was overcome with excitement. He screamed as loud as he could: “I’m saved! I’m saved!”

Two boats pulled up to shore carrying people who looked to Mattern like Eskimos. In the larger vessel were three men in furs, accompanied by a woman, two teenage girls, a young boy, and two sled dogs. In the other were two adolescent boys rowing a man, a woman, and three small children.

Mattern looked at them. They looked at him. Mattern grabbed a few threadbare possessions and piled into the boys’ boat.

Nine

June 30, 1933

Mattern thought of them as Eskimos, but they were in fact Chukchi: an indigenous people who had come to Siberia after the Eskimos, the largest Native nation (today numbering about 15,000) on the Asian side of the North Pacific. The word Chukchi was derived from chauchu, a Chukchi word meaning “rich in reindeer.”

Not long after Mattern settled into the boat, two ducks floated downstream. One of the men in the other boat imitated their quack and the ducks turned toward the boat, at which point another man shot them. They scooped the carcasses out of the water. Mattern had practically starved for weeks because he couldn’t catch a duck; in half an hour, his new traveling companions had killed two.

The Eskimos never stop rowing, Mattern wrote. How strong they are. They are all dressed in raw furs, the outside of a fox turned inside. The mother is nursing the baby. The boys play with it. They seem very affectionate. The mother makes a noise like a rattlesnake to keep the baby quiet. The dogs sleep all the time. The girls seem bashful. It has started to get cold. I put on my flying suit. You should see them watch me use those zippers. It was wonderful to them, you could tell. They offered Mattern bread, which tasted glorious, especially after his previous meal of half-cooked muskrat.

The two teenage boys paddled until they found a place to pitch camp. The men trudged out onto the tundra looking for geese, while the boys unfurled bearskins and pitched tents made of reindeer hide, and the women built a fire and made biscuit dough from flour and river water. They picked herbs and roots—plants that had surrounded Mattern during his days of starvation but that he had no idea he could eat.

Malnourishment had left his hands clenched and his teeth loose and achy. A woman handed him herbs boiled in water and indicated that Mattern should swallow it; hours later he was feeling better. The children ran up and down the riverbank and played on the damp tundra. Soon the men returned with two of the fattest geese Mattern had ever seen, their necks tied together and draped over one of the men’s neck. The women scooped bear fat out of half a five-gallon fuel can and fried the biscuit dough. They all sat around on their haunches and ate biscuits and honey and drank tea. It was Mattern’s first real meal in weeks.

Later, Mattern would learn that these were actually three families of Chukchi, and he was lucky to have been found by them; they were the only people for miles around. They maintained a trap line 200 miles long, where they collected game, honey, and furs. Once a year they traveled down this river with their furs to trade for flour, guns, and ammunition. They were on their way home when they came upon Mattern.

As Mattern wrote in his journal by the fire, his new companions looked over his shoulder with curiosity.

Mattern produced his map kit and offered two of the boys pliers and another a hunting knife. One was enamored with his Pratt & Whitney tool kit, and Mattern gave that away, too. I feel that God has been great to me, he wrote. My only thoughts of sorrow are my wonderful airplane put to sleep on the frozen tundra north forever.

It took four days and nights before they reached a settlement, a cluster of large reindeer-hide tents. The Chukchi were soon at work in the river, fishing for salmon. They carved out the guts, tossed them in a barrel, and hung the rest of the fish in strips to dry. Mattern slept peacefully that night under furs, with a fire burning in the center of the tent and the smoke drawn up through a small flue in the roof.

The next day he was paddled across the river to meet the tribal chief, who invited Mattern to stay in his tent. They are amazed at seeing me, a white man, dressed in a tanned leather zippered flying suit, he wrote. They gather around as if I were a sideshow attraction. As a matter of fact I am just that. Everyone wants to come to the tent to look at me. If I fall asleep the Eskimo squaws wake me up zipping my flight suit.

When Mattern returned to the other bank of the river days later to visit the families that had rescued him, they were gone. He asked other members of the tribe where they were. Through pantomime he learned that they were traveling to Anadyr, and Mattern grew frantic. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get his point across. Finally, he pulled out the $100 in cash he had. Within a few hours he was bound for Anadyr. I am writing this in the boat with six Eskimos, he wrote that afternoon.

Three rowing, two others and myself in the middle and a very old one steering in the rear with his cape up over his head and the sun setting at his back. What a great feeling to again be moving and what a great picture. The land has sloped gradually to the shore and snow is along the beach with a pink sky, a smooth lake and a boat full of very picaresque people. Every stroke of the oars says, ‘AMERICA.’

Several hours later, they stopped for tea and biscuits and waited until a motorboat pulled in further down the riverbank. Mattern walked down the shoreline to meet it. A few hours after that he arrived in Anadyr, 70 miles north of the Arctic Circle, where Mattern spoke English to another human being for the first time in more than a month. After he took a bath and devoured a meal of canned beef and beans, he went to the telegraph office. His message to his manager consisted of six words: Safe at Anadyr, Siberia. Jimmie Mattern.

Jimmie Mattern’s mother, Caroline, reads a telegram from her son, July 10, 1933. (Video: Universal Newsreels)

Ten

July 5, 1933

From Anadyr, Jimmie Mattern traveled by barge back up the river, accompanied by a score of Chukchi men and two dogsled teams. At the crash site, they salvaged what they could of the Century of Progress. Mattern chopped the motor off the plane’s wooden frame with an ax. He and the other men lifted it onto a platform atop the two dog sleds. There were six ropes and three men to a rope, pulling like mad and bent close to the ground. After half an hour they managed to drag it all the way to the barge, then sailed back to Anadyr, where Mattern boxed up the remains of the plane and sent them to the United States.

All Mattern had to do now was get to Alaska and locate another plane he could pilot to New York. After what he had been through, this didn’t sound impossible. In Anadyr, he waited for an exit visa and a ride to Nome; one of the Soviet Union’s top pilots, Sigizmund Levanevsky, was on his way from Khabarovsk to pick him up. In the meantime, Mattern telegraphed his manager in New York, who set about searching for another plane so that Mattern could complete his flight. The 505-mile hop from Anadyr to Nome aboard another pilot’s plane would mean that Mattern’s accomplishment, if he beat Post, would always carry an asterisk. But at least he could finish the job.

In New York, a group of Mattern’s friends from his time at Floyd Bennett Field were determined to locate a plane for him. While trying to scrape together the money, they met Irving Friedman, the president of Brooklyn’s Kings Brewery. (Prohibition wouldn’t end until December that year, but Kings was doing a brisk business selling low-alcohol “near beer.”) Friedman was not particularly interested in aviation, but Mattern’s friends sounded so sincere that he donated the money to buy the sturdy plane that the pilot Clyde Pangborn had used to fly over the Pacific from Tokyo to the West Coast two years earlier.

The rescue party set out for Alaska in the hopes that they could then leave for Siberia and bring Mattern the plane. But an American plane required Soviet permission to land; Levanevsky, meanwhile, needed U.S. permission to touch down in Alaska. And Moscow and Washington were not on speaking terms. The United States, which cut off diplomatic ties with Russia following the October Revolution 16 years before, did not formally recognize the Soviet Union, so Friedman found himself serving as an informal ambassador, sending and receiving messages that the two countries couldn’t officially exchange with each other. It took a fair amount of wrangling before a deal could be reached that allowed Levanevsky to land in Nome, where Friedman’s rescue plane would be waiting for Mattern. Back in Anadyr, Mattern killed time by taking Russian lessons, learning how to play “Home Sweet Home” on the balalaika, and filing stories about his adventures with The New York Times, which held exclusive rights.

Levanevsky’s plane was delayed by bad weather, and as the days dragged on, Mattern became increasingly agitated. Then he received a devastating message from Nome: Wiley Post was in Siberia, making great time on his way around the world. His rival was in Irkutsk, about to leave for Khabarovsk. Mattern knew he was lucky to be alive, but he was having trouble containing his desire to get back in the race.

Still, there was honor among pilots. If he couldn’t have the record, Mattern figured he might as well assist Post in some small way. He went to the Anadyr wireless station and put his basic Russian to use, working with the operators to translate their weather reports, which were then forwarded to the United States Signal Corps through its station at Nome. Judging by the chatter over the radio, Post was practically overhead.

Eleven

July 20, 1933

Wiley Post motored over eastern Siberia and then turned up toward the Arctic Circle, following a path similar to Mattern’s before he had tumbled out of the sky five weeks earlier. Post was now 3,000 miles east of Novosibirsk. The weather had turned foul, forcing him to fly blind for seven hours. The maps were unreliable and, anyway, were impossible to follow with zero visibility. Post relied on his compass, calculating drift from the way the clouds swirled around mountain peaks, practically the only land he saw.

Piloting a plane under such conditions would have been challenging even for a well-rested pilot, and Post had barely slept since Moscow, 3,700 miles ago. He picked up radio transmissions from WAMCATS—the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System, on the far side of the ocean—while making his way over the Bering Strait. Zeroing in on the signals, he was able to navigate with almost no visibility. When he hit Alaska, he dropped low and edged back toward the coast, following the shoreline around Cape Prince of Wales to Nome, where he buzzed the radio station and airport.

Instead of stopping in Nome, Post decided to keep going to Fairbanks. Although he was dog tired and way ahead of his 1931 time, he felt a tremendous urge to press on. He had heard over the radio that Jimmie Mattern was not only alive but back in the air and on his way to Nome. Post didn’t have a minute to spare. It wasn’t simply man versus machine or man versus nature anymore. It was once again man versus man.

Not long after hitting the Alaskan interior, Post ran into thick fog and his automatic direction finder quit. Radio stations continued to broadcast to him, but he wasn’t receiving any signals. Climbing over the clouds, he expected to pick up Fairbanks, but all he got was static. He was wandering all over the interior now, dodging mountains and following rivers that led nowhere, completely lost.

The husband-and-wife Alaskan bush pilots Noel and Ada Wien happened to be flying to Fairbanks, too, when they spotted the Winnie Mae over the Yukon River. Recognizing the plane, they tried to radio Post with directions to Fairbanks, but Post didn’t respond; he didn’t seem to see them, either. The couple’s Bellanca couldn’t keep pace with Post’s Lockheed, so they continued on to Fairbanks, expecting to see Post there. When they didn’t, they assumed the One-Eyed Wonder must have put his plane in a circling pattern so he could nap. In fact, Post—seven hours after hitting Nome, barely able to keep his eye open and running dangerously low on fuel—was looking for a place, any place, to land.

Midway through the afternoon, he spotted a tiny village with a short, primitive airstrip. He could pick out the wireless masts; wherever this place was, at least he wouldn’t be completely cut off from civilization. Swooping down for a closer look, he estimated that the uneven, pockmarked runway was perhaps 700 feet long, ending in a ditch. He wouldn’t be able to use his brakes; the strip was too bumpy. There really wasn’t enough real estate for him to land safely, but he was desperate. He had been in the air for 22 hours and 42 minutes and hadn’t had a wink of sleep in close to 40 hours.

The Winnie Mae’s wheels bounded over the unpaved surface, and the plane jounced and swerved. Then the right landing-gear support collapsed. The plane’s nose pitched forward, and the propeller dug into the ground. The Winnie Mae tipped forward, tail in the air, and came to a stop.

A man ran over to help the pilot, who miraculously had gotten through the landing unscathed. Recognizing the great Wiley Post, he asked if the Winnie Mae could be repaired.

Post didn’t know. All he knew was that he was a thousand miles from nowhere with a plane that wouldn’t fly, hobbled by a busted propeller and splintered landing gear. He was angry with himself for not stopping in Nome to rest and gather fresh weather reports. If Gatty had been with him, this accident would never have happened. But Post had been impatient, and now he was paying for it.

The man led the exhausted pilot to a nearby shack. Post, almost too tired to care, curled up on a cot and passed out.

Twelve

July 18, 1933

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(Photo: University of Alaska Fairbanks)

After two and a half weeks trapped in Anadyr, Mattern was napping in his room one day when he woke up to the whine of an engine. He put on his boots and raced outside. A two-engine seaplane was circling above him. When the craft landed on its pontoons in Anadyr Bay and pulled up to a boat dock, Mattern went to greet Levanevsky, a lithe, taciturn Soviet war hero and a personal favorite of Joseph Stalin. Levanevsky had set out from Khabarovsk five days before, skirting Japan and flying up over the Pacific to Anadyr. It was supposed to be a one-day journey, but he had run into a typhoon.

Levanevsky didn’t speak English, but he had brought a bottle of whiskey and indicated that Mattern should join him and his small crew. Five hours later, Mattern stumbled back to his room. As he passed out on his bunk, he wondered how Post was doing. He figured he was either right on his tail or perhaps a little ahead. But with a trip like this, a lot could go wrong.

Even if Post got to Alaska first, that didn’t ensure victory. Mattern vowed that just as soon as the room stopped spinning, he and the Russians would leave for Nome.

The next morning, Levanevsky refueled his seaplane—the mosquitoes were so thick that they clogged the funnel his crew was using to change the oil—and, with Mattern aboard, taxied to the center of the bay and opened the throttle. A hundred yards later, however, Mattern knew that they wouldn’t get off the water; there was simply too much weight onboard. Levanevsky dumped 100 gallons of gasoline, and after a few more tries the plane finally staggered into the air. The weather, for once, was all sunshine, and by evening they were over St. Lawrence Island, the westernmost piece of Alaska, directly below the Bering Strait.

As Levanevsky closed in on the final 125-mile leg to Nome, however, fog forced him to turn back to St. Lawrence, where he landed near a remote beach to camp for the night. Mattern was becoming fatalistic, wondering what else could possibly go wrong. He got his answer the next day, when he learned that Levanevsky had dumped too much fuel in Anadyr and didn’t have enough to get to Nome. The nearest land was more than 100 miles off.

Fingers crossed, they took off anyway. To conserve fuel, Levanevsky stayed close to the water, surfing over the waves. Then more fog descended and the Russian pilot struggled to see where he was going. Mattern checked the gas gauges. They had maybe five minutes of gasoline left.

Moments later, Levanevsky spotted land. He followed the beach until he found Nome—an amalgamation of wind-scoured clapboard buildings sprawling along the pebble beach of the Bering Sea coast. The motor quit as he approached, and the plane came down with a splash on its pontoons. They were close to shore, a few miles up the beach from Nome. Mattern almost had to be restrained from jumping in the water to swim the last bit. Levanevsky told his crew to inflate a rubber life raft, and he and Mattern joined him to go ashore, leaving many of the crew aboard. Walking down the beach, they saw several launches heading toward them. A tugboat picked them up and towed the plane to the harbor, where Mattern was greeted as a conquering hero.

A couple of journalists informed him that Wiley Post had crashed in Flat, a gold-mining town 268 miles southeast of Nome. Mattern expressed his condolences, hiding his excitement. He was still in the race. Once he had a plane, he figured, he could be back in New York in two days.

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Jimmie Mattern’s and Wiley Post’s progress as of July 20, 1933.

Thirteen

July 22, 1933

Wiley Post awoke and emerged from the shack to find the Winnie Mae mounted on a wooden derrick, with mechanics working on it. The man who had greeted him as he emerged from the wreck turned out to be the Flat Mining Company’s manager, and he had organized the men from his work crew into a repair team. Being a mining company, it had a full complement of tools.

He told Post he had called over the radio with the news of the crash, and a pilot named Joe Crosson had radioed back. Crosson was famous in the Alaskan bush, highly regarded for his piloting and navigation skills. He was the first pilot ever to land on a glacier, and two years earlier he had flown a shipment of diphtheria serum up to the far northern village of Barrow to head off an outbreak, braving the still-frigid March weather in an open-cockpit biplane. Both Post and Mattern had met him on their travels in Alaska and counted him as a friend.

Crosson told the mine manager that he was bringing a new propeller and tools from Fairbanks and that he’d persuaded the chief mechanic from Pacific Alaska Airways, the regional Pan American subsidiary, to accompany him. By dawn, they had arrived and had gotten the Winnie Mae air-worthy enough to make the short flight to Fairbanks for more significant work. Post followed Crosson’s plane to Weeks Field in Fairbanks, where he asked for “a bath, a shave, a big feed, and some civilian clothes.” While Post slept, Crosson and the mechanics he’d rounded up swarmed over the plane and mended the landing gear, patched the fuselage, replaced a tube in the direction finder, tuned the instruments, and replaced the tires. Post had lost a whole night in Flat and another eight hours in Fairbanks, but at least he was well rested and the Winnie Mae was in fine shape—and he was still ahead of his record.

Out of Fairbanks, at 21,000 feet over the Alaska Range, the temperature in the cockpit plummeted to minus six degrees and ice formed on the wings, the extra weight gradually forcing Post down. He had the motor wide open, but he still couldn’t correct his gradual descent, and soon he was dodging 15,000-foot mountain peaks in the thick clouds. But by Whitehorse Junction in the Yukon, the weather and terrain had improved, and Post needed only nine hours and 22 minutes to make Edmonton.

It was raining when he arrived, as it had been two years earlier when he and Gatty had landed in Edmonton. The runway had been so swamped then that the Winnie Mae was forced to take off from Portage Avenue, a paved road that ran two miles from the airfield to town; Edmonton’s mayor, aware of the international attention, put emergency crews to work pulling down the electric lines strung alongside the road. When Post and Gatty flew over the Hotel MacDonald, where they had stayed, the maître d’ and his platoon of bellhops stood on the roof and offered a salute. This time, Post stopped just long enough to ice his head—it was aching from flying at high altitudes with insufficient oxygen—drink some water, catch a half-hour nap, and refuel. Then it was on to the homestretch, 20 hours and 12 minutes ahead of his record.

Post flew the final 2,000 miles prodded along by a stiff tailwind. He was sighted ten miles northeast of Winnipeg in the late afternoon, and a forest ranger in a fire tower tagged him 28 miles north of Orr, Minnesota, at 5:45 p.m. Post crossed over Marquette, Michigan, on the south shore of Lake Superior, at 7:50 p.m. The next report came from Toronto at 9:47 p.m. By 10:28 p.m., he was coming up on Niagara Falls.

After Toronto, Post dozed off several times, letting the autopilot take over. In his waking moments, the full weight of what he was about to accomplish began to settle on him, and he felt the crush of depression. He was a man more comfortable in motion than sitting still—and after this, what aerial expeditions were left for him? Later he confessed that he had considered landing so he would arrive a day later and miss out on besting his record, just so he could do it again—but better this time.


Tens of thousands of onlookers massed at Floyd Bennett Field early in the day on July 22, 1933. Cars clogged the roads leading to the airport, the worst traffic jam in the city’s history. As night fell, searchlights beamed above the field. At 9:35 p.m., a shrill whistle warned planes to keep clear until Post had landed. Harold Gatty, now an aerial navigation instructor and adviser to the U.S. Army, arrived in a bomber from Washington. “I am tickled to death at the prospect of Wiley beating our record,” he told a newspaper reporter. “After all he’s gone through on this trip, he certainly deserves it.”

The Winnie Mae swung over Newark, across the lower tip of Manhattan, and over the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. Post, arriving on a moonless night, had his motor throttled down so low that he was on top of the airfield before anyone heard him approach. “There’s a plane!” someone yelled.

Lee Trenholm, Post’s manager, sitting in a car with Mae Post and Harold Gatty, cried, “It must be Wiley!”

Earlier that day, Mae Post had posed for pictures, pretending to study a map of North America. “I think,” she said, smiling, “that I would have to kill him if he tried it again.”

Now the floodlights illuminated Post’s white-and-blue plane against the dark sky. There would be no victory lap for posterity like last time. Post set the Winnie Mae down gently in a textbook three-point landing. He was 21 hours ahead of his time with Gatty two years earlier.

A New York deputy police commissioner was the first to reach the plane. As Post sat hunched in the cockpit, he reached up to shake the pilot’s hand. “Where have you been all week?” he asked.

“I couldn’t tell you,” Post replied.

From “Look to Lockheed for Leadership,” a 1940 promotional film. (Video: Lockheed Martin)

Fourteen

July 22, 1933

The Bellanca that Irving Friedman had purchased for Mattern’s rescue group had crashed en route, in Hazelton, British Columbia, near Prince Rupert. Mattern would have to pick it up there, but he had to wait to take off from Nome until the same weather that had vexed Post had cleared. When Mattern finally left Nome aboard a seaplane bound for Fairbanks, Post was in Edmonton, one hop from New York. Just like that, the race was over.

But Mattern was determined to finish his flight, record or no. After three days in Fairbanks, he was flown to Hazelton, where the Bellanca sat on a short field, fixed. The plane’s puny 225-horsepower engine was overmatched by its size, and Mattern unloaded every pound he could do without and still only barely cleared the trees on takeoff. He made it to Prince George, British Columbia—about halfway to Edmonton—and stopped for the night.

Even now, stripped of its world-historical potential, Mattern’s journey seemed to hit every possible obstacle. The Bellanca’s engine stalled as Mattern pulled up from the runway in Prince George. In Edmonton, he picked up another plane, which promptly blew a gasket. After an emergency landing, he was forced to take a car to Toronto and borrow yet another plane. He wondered if, as he later put it, “someone was trying to tell me something.” Relief finally came in Buffalo, where his old friend Ed Aldrin was waiting for him with another Lockheed Vega, an eagle much like the one on the late Century of Progress painted on the side.

When he touched down on Floyd Bennett Field at 4:41 p.m. on Sunday, July 31, Mattern quietly sobbed in his cockpit. Post had arrived ten days before, but it scarcely mattered now—how many times had Mattern wondered if he would ever see this airport again? His sense of humor intact, Mattern quipped to a reporter that his rival might have bested him, “but I beat Magellan by a few days.” The “Robinson Crusoe of the air,” as The New York Times dubbed him, was 15 pounds lighter than when he had taken off from New York nearly two months earlier. He limped gingerly forward to shake hands.

But celebrity is a funny thing. Mattern might have failed in his round-the-world quest, but in the process he had acquired a spectacular story, and he soon found himself to be far more famous than the rival who beat him. Like Post, Mattern was invited to the White House, and he soon signed on for a two-week engagement at New York’s Paramount Theater, where he earned $17,000 a week—roughly $250,000 in today’s dollars—regaling audiences with tales of his ordeal in the Arctic. The following year he starred in a 23-week radio series, sponsored by the Pure Oil Company, that dramatized his life. (There were more than a few embellishments; the radio version had Mattern rescue a woman and her baby from a forest fire.)

It was enough to enable Mattern to ride out the rest of the Depression in style, dating starlets and chorus girls—including a showgirl named Dorothy J. Harvey, who became his second wife. Their courtship was somewhat complicated by the fact that Mattern was technically still married to Delia, who remained in Walla Walla, though they had been separated for almost the entirety of their marriage. Filing for divorce in Chicago in 1937, Mattern charged Delia—not without considerable irony—with abandonment. He rarely if ever talked about her after that; in his unpublished autobiography, which he wrote a few years before he died, in 1988, he scrubbed out any mention of her.

A celebrity in his own right now, Mattern hobnobbed with the rich and famous—including the humorist and actor Will Rogers, the biggest star of his generation. In early 1935, Rogers asked Mattern if he’d fly to Alaska with him. But Mattern was too busy with his radio program and recommended another pilot whom both men knew well.


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Wiley Post in Fairbanks, Alaska, in August 1935. (Photo: Alaska State Library)

Though he had outflown Mattern in his round-the-world expedition, Post fared worse back on solid ground. After returning to Oklahoma, he tried to capitalize on his fame with a cross-country promotional tour sponsored by an oil company. His first stop was Quincy, Illinois, where, immediately after takeoff, the Winnie Mae’s engine cut out 50 feet above the ground. Post lost control, and the plane crashed. The cockpit was a crumpled mess, and Post suffered a fractured skull. Souvenir hunters made off with pieces of the plane while its pilot was taken to a nearby hospital.

After the rest of the tour fell apart due to a lack of interest, Post sank into another depression. He considered other aerial distance records, but none seemed as compelling as the one he had just completed. The only other direction he could go was up, and for a time he focused on setting new altitude records. In 1934, with the assistance of B.F. Goodrich engineers, he designed the first pressurized aviation suit, the direct predecessor of the modern-day spacesuit. With its rubberized fabric exterior and repurposed deep-sea-diver’s helmet, it made Post look like a cross between the Michelin Man and a Cyclops. After one crash landing in the Mojave Desert, he had to calm down a passing motorist he approached for help; the man was convinced he was in the presence of a Martian.

But the Winnie Mae was not built for the high-altitude abuse Post was heaping on it, and in 1935 he was forced to retire the plane, selling it to the Smithsonian Institution. Casting about for work, he approached Pan Am to offer his services as a company pilot. The airline’s executives, however, believed that stunt pilots like Post were good for front-page news but too unreliable for steady commercial work. Lyman Peck, Pan Am’s director of Alaskan development, tried to soften the blow with another suggestion. He pointed Post to a recent weekly column by Will Rogers, in which Rogers mused, “I never been to that Alaska. I am crazy to go up there some time.”

Rogers and Post had met a decade earlier when Post gave him a lift in his plane. They were both Oklahomans who had scrambled up to stardom from nothing, and they became fast friends. Rogers was a strong advocate of aviation at a time when most Americans were still leery of it. Although he got airsick whenever he got in a plane, he flew hundreds of thousands of miles every year and dedicated numerous columns to flight. “Was out at daybreak to see Wiley Post take off,” he wrote in a syndicated column published on February 23, 1935. “Was in the camera plane and we flew along with him for about thirty miles. We left him 8,000 feet over the mountains. He soon after had to land. He brought her down on her stomach. That guy don’t need wheels.”

When Rogers approached Post with his idea for a trip to Alaska, Post grabbed it immediately. Rogers agreed to finance the journey and pay for a new aircraft. Post mixed and matched parts to create his own “bastard” plane, with a wing from a used Lockheed Explorer and the body from a Lockheed Orion 9-E Special, and added pontoons. It was ugly, and it turned out to be nose-heavy, too; Joe Crosson, whose opinion Post generally respected, flatly told him it wasn’t safe and advised him against flying it.

But Post was undaunted, and in August 1935, he and Rogers set off for Alaska, camping, fishing, and hunting whenever the urge struck them. Along the way, Rogers continued to file his weekly columns. Late on the morning of August 15, Post and Rogers climbed into the plane, which was docked on the Chena River, deep in the Alaskan interior. Post taxied to the middle of the river, turned to face the wind, and gunned the engine, climbing rapidly until he disappeared over the trees.

He and Rogers were bound for Barrow, 500 miles north on the Arctic coast. Post hadn’t bothered to check the weather in Barrow. If he had, he would have heard that a thick fog bank had rolled in, obscuring the local airfield. By 7:30 p.m., Post was lost above the clouds and near the end of his fuel supply. He dropped down low enough to spot a family of Alaska Natives camped on the shore of a lake.

The Okpeaha family were surprised when a plane splashed to a stop nearby. Post and Rogers emerged to ask directions, and the father, Clair Okpeaha, pointed to the north and said that Barrow was about 30 miles away. Rogers asked how the hunting had been. It had been good, Okpeaha replied: walrus, seal, caribou, enough food for the winter. Post and Rogers stretched their legs and discussed their situation. The fog made it hard to see where they were going, but Barrow—and a warm bed and hot meal—was only a few minutes away. They decided to go for it.

Post jump-started the engine and took off across the water, rising steeply and banking sharply as he always did. At 400 feet, the engine backfired and the plane stalled in midair. It somersaulted down, hitting the shallow water nose-first, driving the motor halfway up through the cabin. The right wing sheared off, shattering the floats. The plane came to rest upside down. The only sounds were the wind sweeping over the tundra and the hissing of hot steel in the icy water.

Okpeaha ran to the water’s edge. “Halloo, halloo!” he called out. There was no answer.

Fifteen

August 16, 1935

Newsreel report on Wiley Post and Will Rogers in Alaska, August 1935. (Video: Critical Past)

Jimmie Mattern awoke to the sound of a telephone sometime after midnight. A reporter for United Press International was on the line.

“Have you heard the news?” the man asked.

As the reporter told him what had happened in Barrow, Mattern sat on the edge of his bed, numb, and wondering if somehow there could be a mistake. Then another thought came to mind: He had almost taken Rogers on that flight. Would things have ended differently if it had been him in the cockpit?

The nation’s flags flew at half-staff the next day. Charles Lindbergh paid to have the bodies flown back to Oklahoma; Joe Crosson volunteered to do the flying. Crosson’s wife received Post’s and Rogers’s personal effects, which were delivered to her in Fairbanks. Their wallets were still wet, so she placed them by the cookstove where she had prepared their last home-cooked meal two days earlier, when they had stayed overnight. In Rogers’s wallet, she recognized the family photos he had showed her during the visit, and she began to weep.

Post’s funeral was held at the First Baptist Church in Sentinel, Oklahoma. It was a simple service—as simple as Wiley Post the man. In New York City, pilots gathered to pay tribute; a squadron of 24 planes flew over Floyd Bennett Field, into Manhattan, and back to Brooklyn. Rogers’s funeral was the largest in Oklahoma history, and 20,000 people attended a ceremony in Hollywood. “Will Rogers hadn’t a living peer in the affection of millions,” the New York Herald Tribune wrote, “and Wiley Post ranked next to Lindbergh as their hero of the air.”

Two years later, Mattern flew to Alaska for another grim occasion: he was joining the search for Sigizmund Levanevsky, the Soviet pilot who had brought him from Anadyr to Nome, whose plane, it was believed, had gone down somewhere between Barrow and the North Pole. (He was never found and later presumed dead.) In Barrow, Mattern stopped in on Charlie Brower, an Alaskan folk hero whom Post and Rogers were on their way to meet when they crashed.

Known as the King of the Arctic, Brower had lived on Alaska’s northern coast for 50 years as a trader and whaler. He took Mattern to meet Clair Okpeaha, the last man to see Post and Rogers alive. Okpeaha described their final minutes: “We watched from the shore. We heard the motor rev up to a deafening pitch and saw the plane begin moving, faster, faster, pontoons spraying behind as the plane came up on the steps of the floats. Lifting off and starting to climb, it banked to the right, making a turn toward Barrow.”

Of course ol’ Wiley banked to the right, Mattern thought. He only had one eye. Post’s style of banking hard to the right on takeoff was fine in a sleek Lockheed Vega but was precisely the wrong approach to take in a plane like the one he had mashed together from odd parts. His plane was also nose-heavy, and the engine wasn’t fully warmed up. The fog would’ve created condensation in the carburetor. Under those conditions, a steep bank of the sort Post was prone to attempt during takeoff would’ve been a recipe for stalling.

After the plane crashed, Okpeaha went on, “there was a dull explosion, a flash of fire, and then dead silence. Our first instinct was to run away. Then I went a little closer. I went as close as I could and shouted over and over but got no answer.” Okpeaha took off running, 12 miles across the tundra, to find Charlie Brower, who served as the local magistrate. Five hours later, he collapsed at Brower’s feet, so out of breath he could hardly speak. Finally he got out “crash.” One of the men had tall boots, he said; the other had a “sore eye, rag over eye.” Brower knew immediately who he was talking about.

Mattern shook his head. He was confident Post could have handled any situation in any airplane. He believed his friend could have flown to Mars, if he’d wanted to. But the truth was, that “bastard” plane of Wiley’s should have never left the ground.

Charlie Brower gave Mattern the seatbelts that had hugged Post and Rogers when they died, along with the plane’s throttle and some papers Rogers had on him.

That night Mattern opened his journal.

They are not forgotten, he wrote. They were my friends.

Epilogue

Wiley Post’s round-the-world speed record wasn’t broken until 1938, when Howard Hughes—flying a jet with a crew of four—managed to make the trip in three days, 19 hours, and eight minutes. But Hughes maintained that “Wiley Post’s flight remains the most remarkable flight in history. It can never be duplicated. He did it alone! … It’s like pulling a rabbit out of a hat or sawing a woman in half.”

Mae Post used the $25,000 she received from the Smithsonian Institution for the Winnie Mae to buy a small cotton farm in Texas, where she lived for the rest of her life. She never remarried and always wore the wedding band Post gave her.

In 1969 Wiley Post was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame, and ten years later the U.S. Post Office issued two commemorative airmail stamps bearing his likeness. As the years have worn on, however, he largely faded from the public memory, and is now best known as a character who pops up throughout the Broadway revue Will Rogers Follies, with one recurring line: “Let’s go flyin’!” Eventually Rogers does, and the play ends.


Jimmie Mattern joined Lockheed as a test pilot in 1938. In 1946, after developing spasms and shakes, he was diagnosed with a ruptured blood vessel in his brain, which was blamed on his many vertiginous dives from high altitudes. Doctors gave him only a few years to live; they were off by more than 40. But Mattern never flew again. He and his wife, Dorothy, moved to Phoenix, where they worked as real estate brokers and opened a travel agency, while Mattern operated as an aviation consultant. Jimmie Mattern died on December 17, 1988, two days before he was to be the honoree at Texas Aviation Pioneer Day.

Love and Ruin

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Love and Ruin

An exhilarating and heartbreaking tale of lives lived to the fullest in one of the world’s most fascinating and forbidding places.

By James Verini

Winner of the 2015 National Magazine Award for Feature Writing

The Atavist Magazine, No. 34


James Verini is a writer based in Africa. You can see more of his work at jamesverini.com.

Editor: Charles Homans
Designer: Gray Beltran
Producer: Megan Detrie
Research: Laura Smith
Illustrations: Raul Allen
Fact Checker: Riley Blanton
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Soundtrack: “Hope,” written and performed by Quraishi
Video: Excerpts from “Afghan Nomads: The Maldar” and “Afghan Women,” by the AUFS Afghanistan Film Project
Images: Getty Images, Los Angeles Times, and courtesy John Allison
Audio: Passages from Homebody/Kabul, by Tony Kushner, and An Historical Guide to Afghanistan, by Nancy Hatch Dupree, read by Robin Higginbotham

Published in February 2014. Design updated in 2021.

Prologue

It has no official number in the archaeological record, nor an agreed-upon name. Some curators at the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul, where it resides, have called it the Limestone Head. Others call it the Carved Pebble. Still others call it simply the Head, and while there is no question that the artifact they’re talking about depicts a head, the answer to the question of just whose head it depicts—which person or deity its unyielding eyes and screwed mouth reflect—is lost, like so much else in Afghanistan is lost, to some insolently mute vault of time.

The Head is carved into a limestone pebble two and a half inches high by one and a quarter inches wide. It dates from around 10,000 B.C.E., placing it in the Upper Paleolithic and making it one of the oldest pieces of sculpture ever found on the Asian continent. We know that it turned up in a gorge near the village of Aq Kupruk, in the northern foothills of the Hindu Kush. Beyond that we know nothing. The best that the most thorough scholarly paper written about the Head—published by the American Philosophical Society in 1972, seven years after it was discovered—can say for its subject is that it is “apparently humanoid.” Was it devotional, decorative, whimsical? “Was the head made for a onetime limited use or was it intended for long-term retention and repeated use? … Since it will not stand, was it intended to be carried about?” The Head won’t say.

But its dumbness beckons. The Head’s sculptor was far cleverer than an artist living 12,000 years ago had any call to be. The eyes are not crude circles (all you’d really need in the Upper Paleolithic, you’d think), but composed of a series of subtle line strokes, as though they are contemplating us wearily. The nose, the American Philosophical Society paper observes, “begins with a wide angular cleft rather like that of the nose cavity in a skull and seems almost to be intentionally ‘unrealistic,’” while the “deeply engraved line of the mouth itself apparently arcs upward in what seems to be a smile.” The paper concludes that the Head does not come from an “individual or cultural ‘infantilism.’” Yet the overall effect, millennia later, is a kind of infancy. It’s somehow fetal looking, the Head. Some observers see on its face a smile, others a frown, and still others that inscrutable expression, neither frown nor smile, that a wise child makes when he peers into you.

The archaeologist who unearthed the Head, who might have had the most questions about it, had the fewest. Louis Dupree was certain it depicted a woman—and, furthermore, that it had been carved by one. “What else?” Dupree said to a New York Times reporter, rather tauntingly, in 1968, when he brought the relic to the American Museum of Natural History. “Women ruled the hearth and the world then. The men were away hunting.” Of course it was a woman.

That was how Louis Dupree talked—to Times writers, to fellow archeologists, presidents, statesmen, interrogators, spies. He even talked that way to his wife, Nancy, who, when asked whether it was true her husband swore like sailor (and a sailor he had been before becoming an archaeologist), would sometimes sigh longingly and reply, “Worse.”

Dupree’s personal correspondence is full of letters from nervous museum administrators asking after unaccounted-for expenses and unpaid salaries. In the field he worked casually. In 1962, he carried out the first major excavation at Aq Kupruk, an immensely important site, essentially by himself. For the follow-up dig, three years later, when he discovered the Head, he splurged and brought along as diggers and assistants a pair of graduate students, a pair of precocious high schoolers, and his cook.

“We were very, very careful with it,” Charles Kolb, one of the graduate students, recalled of the Head. Except for Dupree, that is. Although it was very possibly the most important find of his career, he never properly catalogued it (thus its lack of a single name or record number). Then, in Kabul, he took it home with him, where Nancy, a writer of guidebooks and an amateur scholar, came to adore it as much as he did. Dupree’s daughter took a shine to it, too, and called it Daddy’s Head. The name stuck.

The Afghan official who granted Dupree permission to take Daddy’s Head to New York told him, “If you lose it, you’ll owe us half a million dollars.” The careful procedure Dupree