Long May They Reign

Long May
They Reign

A butterfly named Flamingo, an epic migration, and the crusade to save one of America’s most iconic species.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 103



Nora Caplan-Bricker is a journalist, essayist, and critic whose work has appeared in Slate, Harper’s, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Magazine, among other publications. She teaches creative writing in Boston.

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

Published in May 2020.

One

The phenomenon that some people in Brookings, Oregon, would later call a miracle began in early July 2019, when the same monarch butterfly appeared in Holly Beyer’s yard almost every day for two weeks. Beyer recognized it by a scratch on one wing. She and a friend named it Ovaltine, inspired by ovum, for the way it encrusted the milkweed in Beyer’s garden with eggs. Each off-white bump was no larger than the tip of a sharpened pencil. Clustered together on the green leaves, they looked like blemishes, as if the milkweed had sprouted a case of adolescent acne.

Brookings sits on Oregon’s rugged coast, and squarely within the monarch’s habitat. Every spring and summer, several generations of butterflies breed, lay eggs, and die, each in the span of about a month. The last generation of the year is different. Come fall, rather than produce offspring, it migrates south. Beyer, a petite retiree with a trace of red in her gray hair, is part of a local group who promote butterfly-friendly gardening practices—planting native flowers, for instance, and forgoing pesticides.

Most female monarchs disperse their eggs as widely as possible, but for unknowable reasons, Ovaltine laid almost 600 in Beyer’s yard. Under normal conditions, fewer than 5 percent of monarch eggs survive to adulthood. Beyer wanted the marvel she had witnessed from her deck to have a happier ending. She snipped the laden leaves and brought them inside, to shield the eggs from wind, rain, and predators. Before long she had hundreds of caterpillars, then hundreds of butterflies. She released them into the wild, and Brookings, with a human population of just 6,500, was suddenly ablaze with orange wings. A person could be taking the trash out or crossing a parking lot and see a flash, like a struck match, from the corner of their eye.

Soon the monarchs had blanketed Brookings in “the second eggsplosion,” as Beyer put it. “Every milkweed plant”—the only flora that monarch caterpillars eat upon hatching—“got egg-bombed.” Over the next several weeks, Beyer counted nearly 2,700 eggs in her yard. Based on other people’s reports from their own gardens, she estimates that there were 5,000 more across Brookings.

Beyer dutifully gathered the eggs laid on her property and put them in a maze of mesh crates she’d set up on the small deck of her 400-square-foot apartment. As the caterpillars hatched, she gave her life over to their care. The tiny creatures do nothing but eat and evacuate, and Beyer spent every day harvesting milkweed to go in one end and sweeping away the droppings that came out the other. “I would start at 10 a.m. and wouldn’t finish feeding them until six at night,” she told me. “I lost 15 pounds because I forgot to feed myself.”

A friend of Beyer’s sent out a grassroots SOS, begging anyone in Oregon with experience hand-rearing monarchs to come and take some of the remaining eggs off her hands. That’s how Amanda Egertson heard about the eggsplosion. A trained ecologist, Egertson is the stewardship director of a land trust in central Oregon. She lives in the city of Bend, almost 300 miles away from Brookings. She called her husband and asked if he could skip work for a day or two. They packed their kids into the car and started driving.

Waiting for them in Brookings was a makeshift incubator for 110 monarch eggs: a foil lasagna pan lined with damp paper towels to keep the milkweed leaves placed inside it from wilting. It would be up to Egertson to usher the butterflies into life. If she succeeded, the monarchs hatched under her care would be the first she’d seen that year. In the weeks leading up to her trip to Brookings, she’d scouted for flickers of orange as she traversed the land trust. For the first time she could remember, she hadn’t seen a single one.

A paperclip weighs a gram; a monarch weighs about half that.

While Egertson was retrieving the lasagna pan, I was a continent away, sitting for hours every day on my in-laws’ porch in Massachusetts. From there I could see thick patches of butterfly weed, a variety of milkweed that grows wild on their hilltop property. It was waist high in places, and covered in starburst bunches of brilliant orange flowers. Each tiny blossom had one row of tangerine petals stretching down and another row stretching up, like little dancers with raised arms. The plant is sometimes called orange glory, which suits it. When my husband’s father cut the field, he mowed carefully around the flowers. Once, he motioned me off the porch swing where I was reading to show me a monarch feeding on the blossoms.

The monarch (Danaus plexippus) is a large butterfly, and among the slowest moving in North America. It takes no special skill to spot one or to identify what you’ve seen. If you went to an American elementary school, you probably learned in science class how a monarch egg becomes a caterpillar becomes a chrysalis becomes a butterfly. Some lepidopterists (butterfly experts) disdain monarchs in the way that anyone with esoteric tastes looks down on what’s popular. “People call them the cockroaches of butterflies,” one scientist told me.

But the world has dulled your capacity for wonder if you cannot be awed by monarchs, which undertake one of the longest annual migrations of any insect on earth. A paperclip weighs a gram; a monarch weighs about half that. The thickness of a piece of paper is one-tenth of one-thousandth of a meter; the thickness of the monarch’s distinctive orange wings—veined in black and dappled with white spots at the edges—is measured in microns, or millionths of a meter. Monarchs can travel even on wings that appear too torn for flight, and scientists estimate that in good weather they can cover 30 miles or more in a single day. East of the Rockies, millions of butterflies migrate thousands of miles, from southern Canada to central Mexico, where oral traditions suggest that the incandescent insects have blanketed forests every winter for centuries. West of the Rockies, a smaller number of monarchs fly south as the weather cools and spend the winter huddled in trees on the central coast of California. No one knows how they find the groves to which they return every year.

The monarch was once as common as it is beautiful—the most ordinary of extraordinary things. As a child, I saw them all the time in the warm months, drinking from weedy flowers at the edges of cornfields. Now, though, the population is in precipitous decline. This is true all over North America, but especially out west, in places like Oregon and California. In 2018, a count of western monarchs turned up only 27,218, fewer than 1 percent of the number recorded in the mid-1980s. Worse still, that figure failed to clear an existential threshold of sorts: Ecologists had recently warned that the western monarch’s risk of extinction could intensify if the population fell below 30,000.

The causes of the decline are many and manmade: loss of habitat, increased use of pesticides, the acceleration of climate change. On the broadest scale, these forces overlap with the reasons that the island where my in-laws live floods more severely with every passing year. Visiting them last summer, I spent more time outside than I had since my childhood, but the pleasure of sunny days was darkened by dread. The monarchs in particular brought me back to a time before I knew about climate change or lived with the awareness that I might someday witness a mass extinction. The idea of a future without them started to represent everything I was frightened to live through.

The world has dulled your capacity for wonder if you cannot be awed by monarchs, which undertake one of the longest annual migrations of any insect on earth.

It’s not news that our impending environmental cataclysm requires urgent action, especially by world leaders and fossil-fuel companies—people and entities with the power to fundamentally change the way we use our planet’s resources. The steps we can take as individuals won’t be sufficient; they won’t even be significant unless millions of people follow suit. For me at least, this made it hard to commit to even small forms of environmental action. I would attempt something—composting, or taking the bus more, or cutting meat out of my diet—only to find that it didn’t allay my sense that I was doing nothing. It was like trying to ride a bike when the gears wouldn’t catch. I wanted to push the pedal down and feel myself move.

I envied my father-in-law’s steady sense of purpose as he mowed around butterfly weed so that monarchs could feed on the flowers. It was a modest act of stewardship that brought him great satisfaction when butterflies landed on the patches of growth he’d conserved. I, too, wanted to do something that mattered in ways I could see and feel.

Near summer’s end, I read a news article in which a biologist made a case for monarch conservation that went beyond butterflies. Karen Oberhauser of the University of Wisconsin–Madison described monarchs as a flagship species, an animal that captures imaginations and induces people to care about its fate. “We’ve surveyed people and asked, ‘How much would you pay to save monarchs?’” Oberhauser said when I called her. “It’s up there with whooping cranes, polar bears, and wolves—all these charismatic vertebrates.” When people like my in-laws protect monarch habitat, they assist other species they may never have heard of. By extension, they support entire ecosystems. “On some days, I feel like maybe we won’t save monarchs, but if we try to save them, we’re going to do good for the world,” Oberhauser said.

Was this what I had been looking for—an animal to lend its shape to my formless sense of environmental grief? In the book What I Don’t Know About Animals, novelist and essayist Jenny Diski observes that humans have been turning animals into symbols ever since the beginning of language, employing them as tools “to think about anything and everything.” Maybe I could make monarchs my personal shorthand for something otherwise too large to grasp. I didn’t yet know about Beyer and Egertson, who were upending their lives with a feverish energy that comes from believing you can make a difference, but I had arrived at a similar idea: I hoped that, if I trained my attention on a single creature, I would figure out what it meant to do my part. Maybe fear of a loss specific enough to imagine would impel me to act. And once I started, maybe I wouldn’t stop.

Two

Back home with the eggs, Egertson cut air holes in giant Tupperware bins, which covered the floor of her son’s bedroom. “He gets the best morning sunlight,” she explained. After the eggs hatched, the caterpillars grew quickly, sometimes doubling in length in the span of 48 hours. They molted their striped skin five times in two weeks. Egertson returned to the store for more bins, then more again. When she and her family ran out of milkweed to feed the caterpillars, they called on neighbors to harvest it from their yards.

Eventually, Egertson carried the Tupperware condominiums upstairs to the master bedroom and opened the doors to the deck to expose her charges to fresh air and light. At night, when the temperature dropped into the forties, she and her husband piled their bed high with blankets. During the day, when the sun heated the room to 90 degrees, they stripped down to tank tops.

After two weeks, the caterpillars started to crawl to the roofs of their enclosures and hang upside down in a J shape, like a collection of fishhooks. One by one, each creature began to pulse, and its skin went translucent. Slowly, its striped outer layer peeled back from its head, revealing a sticky, twisting green mass whose gyrations gradually stilled. Over the next day, it inflated and hardened into a perfect jade pendant adorned with gold flecks. This was the chrysalis, a shell that looks like a sarcophagus but is really a womb. Inside, a butterfly was taking shape.

Egertson tried to stay close to home so she wouldn’t miss the moment when a monarch emerged. She swims at 4 a.m. every morning, and she perched her cell phone on the edge of the pool so she could check it after each lap. One morning she got the text she’d been waiting for and “flew out of the pool,” she told me. She raced home, “wet suit and all,” and made it in time.

In the hours before a monarch “ecloses,” or emerges from its chrysalis, its wings become visible through the shell. The lacquer splits, and the butterfly pushes itself out on long black legs. It pumps fluid from its abdomen through the veins of its wrinkled, misshapen wings, which slowly unfurl into four fiery orange and black fans. Within a few hours, they harden and dry. If the process is interrupted and the wings remain crumpled, the monarch won’t be able fly.

Handling the new butterflies with great care, Egertson and her family affixed tags to their wings—lightweight but durable stickers bearing serial numbers that scientists use to track the insects’ journey if they are spotted again. Researchers have been tagging butterflies since the 1940s, when the zoologist Fred Urquhart decided to trace the until then unknown route of the eastern migration. The organization he founded, now called Monarch Watch, remains the largest tagging project east of the Rockies. Egertson had requested stickers from a lab at Washington State University that hosts one of several tracking operations out west. When she applied the tags to the butterflies, her fingers came away dusted with glittering scales.

Egertson’s family gave each insect a name along with a serial number: Michael Phelps, for the Olympic swimmer’s butterfly stroke; Chopin, for one of Egertson’s favorite composers. Egertson’s 11-year-old son, who had shared his room with the caterpillars, named one monarch Flamingo, after the species for which he had dyed his own hair neon pink.

Egertson and her kids released Flamingo in a park in Bend on a sunny day in September. Afterward, Egertson went to a tattoo artist to have butterflies inked onto her foot and ankle. They were a 50th birthday gift to herself, a reward for making it through what she told me was a difficult decade. “I’ve been smitten with butterflies my whole life,” she said. “At first glance they seem so fragile, like the wind can just blow them any which way. Like they don’t have a lot of say about where they end up. But in fact they do. They’re incredibly resilient, powerful creatures.”

As Egertson gritted her teeth against the sharp scratch of the tattooist’s needle, she hoped that Flamingo was drifting southward—borne, at least that day, on a light breeze.

Monarchs migrate to the same groves year after year. 

It’s not strictly rational to devote one’s excess energy to protecting a species loved mostly for being beautiful, especially when so much of the world is dying. Insect populations in particular are in free-fall, and monarchs are far from the hardest-hit species among those that scientists are able to monitor. Entomologists estimate that humans have identified as few as 20 percent of all insect species, meaning that millions of unique creatures could be swept off the planet without our knowing that they existed in the first place. No one can make a case for ensuring the butterflies’ survival based on particular usefulness. Though they get lumped in with pollinators, they are bad at the job. They don’t even come close to rivaling bees, without which farmers would need to hire human workers to pollinate fruit trees.

Karen Oberhauser’s argument about flagship species helps explain a recent burst of interest in monarchs. Many conservationists choose to focus their efforts on keystone species, which anchor ecosystems (starfish, for example, keep tide pools from being overrun by mussels), or indicator species, which reflect the health of a landscape (dragonflies can’t live on polluted streams). But prioritizing flagship species like monarchs is a practical choice for advocates competing for the public’s attention. It helps that, unlike some endangered species, monarchs don’t require governments to set aside large tracts of land for them. They don’t need pristine conditions or continuous wilderness. What they need are options: milkweed on which to lay eggs, and nectar plants on which to feed all along their migratory path. An ecologist I interviewed estimated that monarchs might be able to pass through a landscape that is just 1 percent habitat—that is, it might be enough for an urban neighborhood to offer up a pot of milkweed or a flowering window box for every few hundred feet of concrete.

This fact—call it the allure of tangibility—has helped spur tens of thousands of people across North America to get involved in conservation efforts on the monarch’s behalf: people like Beyer, Egertson, and my in-laws. “Pretty much anyone can help,” said Emma Pelton of the Xerces Society, the leading advocacy organization for insect conservation. “This is an area where individuals can have an impact.” One activist I spoke to, a former fourth-grade teacher in Illinois, had converted an old school bus into a traveling classroom that she drove around the corn belt proselytizing about planting milkweed for monarchs. “It’s like Ms. Frizzle’s Magic School Bus,” she told me.

Hand-rearing, however, is a part of the crusade to save monarchs that most scientists reject. For starters, it can sow confusion among researchers. A bonanza of butterflies in a place like Brookings, where monarchs might have been scarce but for human interference, foil attempts to track—and thus support—the shrinking western population. “We can’t trust the sightings we have,” Pelton said. “In such a critical year, after the population collapses, it’s really frustrating. It’s a huge loss to our ability to understand where the population is so that we can help it.” Some experts also fear that butterflies hatched in captivity may be inferior navigators, making them less likely to survive their long migration. Other studies suggest they may be at higher risk of spreading disease. Most concerning, monarchs have evolved to produce hundreds of progeny that don’t make it, employing a different biological strategy than large mammals that lavish energy on each individual offspring. By protecting eggs and caterpillars that might have been picked off in the wild because of an inherent weakness—and by encouraging inbreeding, which reduces genetic diversity—the people hand-rearing monarchs almost certainly introduce inferior genes into a struggling population. “You need to be a really fit monarch to make it,” Pelton explained. “The last thing we want to do is make them weaker.”

Experts consider mass rearing a misdirection of energy: To save a species you must protect its habitat, not keep a few creatures alive on your porch or in your bedroom. Egertson, who oversees the planting of native flowers on her land trust, understands these concerns—to the point that she hesitated before taking the trip to see Beyer. Though she had raised a few butterflies in the past, just for the joy of it, she had qualms about hatching more than 100 in captivity. “Any time you tamper with nature, you have to wonder if you’re doing the right thing,” she told me. “But if you were to ask me, do I regret participating in captive rearing, the answer is absolutely not.” The severity of the crisis made her want to do something that felt more immediate. “The numbers are so low that, if we can boost them at all, maybe that will make a difference,” she said.

Pelton told me that she worries about quashing the energy of volunteers who are just trying to help. It makes sense that adding individual lives to a plummeting total seems like the best, most direct thing a person can do. “It’s hard for people to grasp whole ecosystems—that’s hard for me even in my backyard,” Pelton said. “We all pivot toward something we can grasp, like an animal. But the question is if we can look a little wider. People spend hours every day rearing caterpillars. If you spend hours every day doing anything, you could be a fantastic community organizer working to reduce pesticides, or have an amazing garden that helps lots of animals, not just monarchs.”

To avoid becoming paralyzed by the number and scope of the environmental problems we face, it’s often necessary to narrow our focus. How do we also keep a view broad enough to see how our actions fit into, and sometimes work against, a larger effort? It’s a difficult balance. To avoid losing hope, people need to experience their individual power to change things. But with the fight to save monarchs, as with so many crises, little of the work that needs doing can be done alone.

Three

Monarchs migrate solo. The first challenge facing the butterfly that Egertson’s son named Flamingo was likely crossing the Cascade mountains running from southern Canada to northern California. Clearing a 10,000-foot peak is well within a monarch’s capability; although the eastern and western migrations rarely mix, butterflies have even been known to cross the Rockies. On cool nights, finding shelter from the wind and other elements would have been imperative. Once the sun set and the temperature dropped below 55 degrees, Flamingo’s powerful wing muscles would become paralyzed; another 15 degrees and he would no longer be able to crawl. If he were knocked to the ground in the night, he could become prey for mice or voles. They would eat his narrow body and leave his wings in the dirt like a discarded costume.

There were also human dangers to contend with, starting with busy highways. Along the eastern migratory route, millions of Flamingo’s kind become roadkill every year; according to one study, collisions with cars in Oklahoma, Texas, and northern Mexico deplete the monarch’s numbers by as much as 4 percent. Out west, researchers see less evidence of significant losses along highways, but the smaller population can little afford any at all. It complicates the picture that one promising initiative to restore monarch habitat is to plant flowers on roadsides, since the land there has few other uses.

After a few weeks, Flamingo probably reached the wide, flat floor of California’s Central Valley. Most western monarchs are funneled through this corridor, which some 40 years ago was an inviting place: a rich patchwork of grasslands, dotted with bright blooms in all but deepest winter, threaded with streams and rivers, and soaked with sun almost 300 days of the year. John Muir famously described the Central Valley as “the floweriest piece of world I ever walked, one vast level, even flower bed.” But in recent decades, industrial farming has ironed out all but the last inches of wild land, replacing ungoverned prairies with perfect rows of produce. Roughly a quarter of America’s food comes from the Central Valley, including 40 percent of our fruit and nuts. The region is also California’s fastest growing in terms of population. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates that more than 99 percent of the valley’s standing grass consists of green lawns and cereal crops. Cultivation has crowded out native grasslands, with their goldenrod, milkweed, and thistle.

Water is also a scarce commodity. Vast wetlands once fed by the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers shrank by more than 90 percent in the past century as the water was diverted to irrigate fields. A seven-year drought, which ended in 2019, dried up even more marshlands, endangering birds as well as butterflies. The northern end of the valley is famous for vernal pools unlike any on earth: Rain fills them in winter, and they evaporate slowly in summer, leaving rings of wildflowers each time the water level drops. The WWF estimates that more than two-thirds of these unique ecosystems have disappeared, either drained for agricultural use or leveled to make way for pastures and fields.

Where Flamingo once would have found water and nectar there were instead gleaming cattle and tidy crops treated with pesticides. Crops like strawberries and almonds are rendered unsellable by even the slightest damage, so farmers make liberal use of chemicals to keep them pristine. When the Xerces Society tested milkweed across the valley, it found pesticide in every sample, including plants grown in private gardens by people who claimed they had never sprayed. Even if Flamingo managed to find food, he risked consuming poison along with his meal.

Monarchs migrate hundreds or thousands of miles every year.

Art Shapiro knows all about poison. He started counting butterflies in 1972. He was new to the West Coast back then—he’d moved for a job in the zoology department at the University of California, Davis, not long after finishing his doctorate at Cornell—but he was accustomed to spending long days searching for insects. Growing up in an unhappy home on the outskirts of Philadelphia, he would slip out the door with a field guide in his pocket and lose himself looking for flashes of color in an undeveloped expanse of land across the street from his house. As a college student in the 1960s, he studied phenology, the scientific term for biological seasonality: how subtle cues such as temperature and sunlight tell fruit trees when to bloom, insects when to hatch, and birds when to migrate. Shapiro began to dream of creating an enormous data set. If he could track many butterfly species over many years—wet years and dry ones, hot years and cold ones—he would be able to see which aspects of a climate exerted the most control over the life cycle.

In California, he selected five sites at various elevations, each with its own diverse ecosystem, and made the rounds every two weeks, weather permitting. He compiled a list of 160 species of native butterflies to monitor, monarchs among them. Unlike scientists who tag monarchs to track their migration, Shapiro’s goal was to compare the size of butterfly populations from one year to the next. The methodology could hardly have been simpler: He visited the same sites on the same schedule and noted the number of butterflies he saw. Since Shapiro didn’t drive, each location had to be accessible by public transportation; he sometimes hiked several miles from a bus stop to get where he needed to go. In those early days, he rarely failed to find his quarry. At a single stop, he would frequently see as many as 30 species. Along with monarchs, there were skippers and sulfurs, swallowtails and painted ladies, henna-colored lustrous coppers and periwinkle Melissa blues.

He planned to do the project for five years, since that was all the time he’d have if he didn’t get tenure. When he was offered a permanent place at the university, he decided to keep going. Gradually, Shapiro added five more sites, until his study covered a large swath of the Central Valley. As local bus systems grew less reliable, he asked graduate students for rides. He became a fixture at gas stations and dive bars all over his route, his annual arrival a welcome sign of spring. We spoke over the phone for this story, but in pictures Shapiro looks like a hermit in a Georgian-era painting—weathered face, wild hair, enormous white beard—except that he’s often wearing a Southwestern-patterned shirt.

After a few decades, he realized that he had inadvertently conducted what might have become the world’s longest continuous butterfly study, rivaled only by one of similar vintage in the United Kingdom. He soon noticed something else: The number of butterflies at his locations was declining. At first, Shapiro wasn’t too worried. Insect populations are naturally “bouncy,” meaning that numbers can dip in years with unfavorable weather and rebound quickly in good years, since each female lays hundreds of eggs. But in 1999, the populations of multiple butterfly species crashed simultaneously, their totals plummeting well below any natural ebb that Shapiro had witnessed before.   

Shapiro strongly suspected that the butterflies were suffering the effects of neonicotinoids, a class of insecticides that were introduced in the early 1990s and entered wide usage toward the end of the decade. Neonics, as they’re called, are systemic, meaning that plants absorb them into every cell from bud to stem, and they can be long-lasting, building up year after year and persisting in water and soil even if a farmer stops using them. A growing body of research would ultimately support Shapiro’s hypothesis, showing that even in doses too small to kill outright, neonics shorten the life spans of insects and make them weaker fliers and foragers. Because the pesticides attack a creature’s nervous system, they interfere with navigation, which matters for species like bees, which must find their way back to their hives. The major varieties of neonics are now banned for outdoor use in the European Union but remain popular in the United States, where they have been connected to the widespread collapse of bee colonies.

Art Shapiro became a fixture at gas stations and dive bars all over his route, his annual arrival a welcome sign of spring.

They also have especially pernicious effects on migratory species like monarchs. Karen Oberhauser of the University of Wisconsin remembers the world before butterflies began disappearing. In 1997, a boom year, she flew to Mexico to see eastern monarchs in their overwintering grounds. She witnessed millions of roosting insects, clustered on every inch of oyamel fir trees, their combined weight bending the boughs. Seeing them gathered together, Oberhauser felt a shiver of fear: They seemed so vulnerable, as if a single blow could erase them from the earth. In the years that followed, she noticed how much habitat monarchs had lost in the agricultural fields that form a large part of their summer breeding grounds. She realized that crops genetically engineered to be resistant to herbicides allowed farmers to blanket their land with chemicals, which eradicated millions of acres of milkweed that once flourished between the soybean plants and cornstalks. Monarch numbers had fallen in tandem. Oberhauser began raising money and advocating for conservation efforts. “A lot of what’s driving monarch loss is changing agricultural practices. Addressing that is going to require policy changes,” she told me.

In California, Shapiro continued to see worrying signs. Monarchs’ seasonal behavior seemed to be shifting. The last generation of butterflies that hatches each fall is called a super generation. During their migration, they enter a state known as reproductive diapause, conserving the energy that other generations expend breeding so they can live six months or more—enough time to make it through winter and breed first thing the following spring. But Shapiro started to hear stories of winter roosts breaking up earlier and earlier. Whereas they used to stay put until March, now they were disbanding in late January or early February. Were they taking their cue from the ever milder weather? Where would they find nectar and milkweed, when most native plants break ground in March at the earliest? Would a freak storm batter them to death or a cold snap freeze them? No one could guess how many migrators might be surviving the winter only to die without finding somewhere to lay their eggs in the spring.

As Shapiro described it, 2018 was the year when “everything went in the toilet.” He witnessed the worst butterfly season he’d ever seen. He counted only 12 monarchs in all of his stops, and for the first time ever he didn’t see a single monarch caterpillar. The once common species had become so rare so abruptly that every individual insect seemed to matter. Would the next year be the one when Shapiro finally saw no monarchs at all?

Four

By October 2019, if he survived that long, Flamingo might have faced fire. In Sonoma County, along the Central Valley’s western edge, the season’s worst wildfire consumed almost 80,000 acres. Acrid smoke blanketed much of the Bay Area. What does a monarch make of a forest fire? Does it waste precious energy flying around it, or risk getting caught in the conflagration? Still heading south, Flamingo might have ridden the same winds that carried embers across the landscape, wisps of fire that shone even more brightly than his vivid wings.

A few weeks after the Sonoma fire died down, I was preparing to fly to California, too. I had arranged to join an annual effort, organized by the Xerces Society, to monitor western monarchs in their winter habitat—groves where butterflies, in an unsolved mystery of migration, return to the same roosts year after year. Some coastal cities have built around these stands of trees, even if they’re in the middle of town. The first scheduled stop on my itinerary was Ellwood Mesa, a sandy bluff of eucalyptus groves just west of Santa Barbara. But by Thanksgiving morning, it too was in the path of a wildfire. Thousands of people in the surrounding county had evacuated. “There’s no way anyone can take you there,” a municipal employee told me when I called from my home in Boston. Ellwood Mesa was vulnerable to stray embers and to mudslides. When I asked if I could go alone, there was silence on the other end. “There are signs telling people to enter at their own risk,” the employee said finally.

I hung up feeling thwarted. My husband tried to comfort me: Even if the fire interfered with my plan to see a species imperiled by climate change, didn’t that only prove my story’s point? I packed a bag and boarded my flight. I landed in Los Angeles and turned on my phone to find a text from another city employee: A snowstorm had dampened the blaze. I could go to Ellwood Mesa after all.

Xerces calls its annual monitoring effort the Thanksgiving count because it takes place over three weeks in November and early December. More than 100 volunteers visit upwards of 240 sites where monarchs are known to roost. The count is not unlike Art Shapiro’s work—volunteers note every butterfly they can find, then tally the numbers into a single snapshot of the total population that made it to the coast for the winter. If they see any with tags—a rare, exciting event—they can compare the serial number with an online database and determine where the butterfly came from.

In 1997, its first year, the count recorded more than 1.2 million monarchs. Two years later, that figure fell to fewer than 250,000, despite an increase in the number of sites being monitored. Though the population still fluctuates, it hasn’t broken 300,000 since 2000. It plunged to the historic low of 27,218 in 2018. Volunteers visit most count sites only once; if a site is subject to more frequent monitoring, Xerces uses the highest number observed in a single day. Between this and the fact that some butterflies might be spotted twice if they move between neighboring groves, the final tally is more likely to overestimate the monarch population than to underrepresent it.

Once upon a time, Ellwood Mesa attracted more than 100,000 butterflies each year. When I pulled into the site’s parking lot on a Tuesday morning, the sky was overcast. The clean, sweet smell of eucalyptus washed over me. Ellwood Cooper, who once owned this land and for whom the site is named, was a rancher and horticulturalist who helped introduce eucalyptus to the United States. He raised his first trees here in the 1870s. Cooper envisioned the quick-growing eucalyptus as an invaluable source of lumber. It turned out to be brittle and prone to decay, but it did provide an ideal winter home for monarchs, which were observed on the West Coast in growing numbers as eucalyptus spread in the late 19th century. Today, the tree is widely considered a scourge on the landscape. With its shaggy bark and fragrant oil, it is quick to catch fire. But it is also monarchs’ preferred home for the winter; though the insects roost in other trees, such as cypress, they choose eucalyptus groves over forests with exclusively native species. This has put monarch advocates in the odd position of trying to protect a beloved native butterfly by fighting to plant a despised invasive tree. 

What does a monarch make of a forest fire? Does it waste precious energy flying around it, or risk getting caught in the conflagration? 

The volunteer coordinator for the monarch count in Santa Barbara County was a woman named Charis van der Heide, a monarch biologist and environmental consultant for the city of Goleta. She wore a straw hat and hiking boots, and the rest of her attire was dotted with images and emblems of butterflies: a patterned scarf at the neck of her purple parka, a crocheted keychain dangling from her backpack. I followed her down a sandy path into a grove of trees, where the light grew dimmer and the smell heavier and loamier as we followed a muddy streambed. The ground was blanketed with strips of gray bark—“eucalyptus are messy,” Van der Heide said—but many of the branches above us were bare. According to Goleta officials, one in five trees here died during California’s long drought. Of those that remained, many were ailing. Giants 180 feet tall leaned against their neighbors or bent into archways over the path.

Changes in the grove have profound consequences for monarchs. Butterflies choose where to roost with extreme sensitivity. New generations not only go to the same groves and trees as the previous year’s butterflies—they alight on the same branches. They seek a precise microclimate, a perfect alchemy of humidity, temperature, wind speed, wind direction, and light. Every time a tree falls, the delicate balance shifts.

We entered a clearing. Van der Heide, who is in her late thirties, with wavy chestnut hair and a broad, friendly face, pointed out the features that once drew monarchs here. Perhaps because they are meandering fliers—they flap-flap and glide, flap-flap and glide—they choose groves with high, vaulted ceilings that are “cathedral-like,” Van der Heide explained, gesturing upward. The natural architecture gives them space to flit and float. But a thinning canopy may not provide sufficient protection from winter storms. The grove we stood in was once enclosed on three sides by thick walls of trees; now trunks crisscrossed the forest floor, leaving openings everywhere.

Van der Heide told me that she wanted to plant more eucalyptus where we stood. The controversy surrounding that approach didn’t bother her. “We conserve what we love,” she said—even if a favorite natural phenomenon might not exist as we know it without human influence. She echoed Oberhauser’s point about flagship species, arguing that fighting for monarchs could help a wide array of pollinators that share their habitat. “Having a little pragmatism about what people can get behind can serve you in a larger way,” she said.

But even with new eucalyptus to draw them, would the butterflies return in large numbers? As the climate changes, many species are expected to shift their habitat ranges northward and upward, to higher elevations, chasing the conditions for which they’ve evolved. Monarchs might soon abandon the known groves altogether. Maybe they already have. Some count volunteers told me that, in their most optimistic moments, they imagine the butterflies aren’t declining—they’re hiding, and we just have to find them. But it’s not clear where exactly they could have gone. “If you look in the hills, we don’t have trees up there,” Van der Heide told me. “They’ve all burned.”  

 Charis van der Heide

Van der Heide scanned the trees around us, looking for monarchs. “OK, so we have a few,” she said, handing me her binoculars. I looked and looked, but I couldn’t see them. Van der Heide set up a scope and showed me a cluster of 27. The outsides of their folded wings were tawnier than I expected, muted enough to blend in with dead leaves. Somehow they all knew to hang at the same angle, so that their identical wings formed an intricate pattern. Occasionally, a pair of wings opened, looking almost red in the deep gloom of the grove, then closed back into the tessellation.

We followed a path deeper into the woods. Two weeks earlier, Van der Heide had counted 250 butterflies on the mesa, most of them concentrated in the single grove we were now headed to. That wasn’t many for a site where she, along with other volunteers, had counted 47,500 butterflies in 2011. But it beat finding only 27. Van der Heide seemed optimistic that she could show me more.

We reached a small overlook. In past years, volunteer docents brought tours here to gaze into the grove below, as if it were an amphitheater. Van der Heide opened her backpack and pulled out a binder, opening it to a picture taken on this spot in 1975. The photographer had aimed a lens up the trunk of a tree entirely concealed beneath thousands of butterflies, a carpet of orange wings that led straight to the sky. People who rode horses here decades ago have described similar scenes—of sitting, frozen in awe, as butterflies descended on their mounts, drawn by the smell of sweat. Imagine a horse that looked for an instant as if it were made of butterflies, at risk of dissolving into a flurry of wings.

Van der Heide raked the branches with her binoculars. We stood there for a long time. She didn’t move to take out her scope or fill the silence with effusive talk. She just looked, swung around, and looked again. “Wow, I’m not seeing any right now,” she said. “That’s really hard.” The hundreds she’d seen here before the snowstorm that put out the fire were gone, possibly washed away. She turned from the empty grove. “That’s really hard,” I heard her repeat under her breath.

As we emerged from the woods, we ran into a group of teenagers on a field trip, led by members of the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, one of whom conducts the Xerces monarch count in nearby Ventura County. “Did you see any?” the group asked as we drew level.

“I saw 27,” Van der Heide told them.

“How have your numbers been?”

“So low.” “So low,” the woman from Ventura echoed sadly.

“Two weeks ago, I saw 250 across Ellwood Mesa,” Van der Heide said.

One of the Fish and Wildlife employees whistled. “That’s crazy,” he said. “Two years ago, there were literally thousands.”

As the kids started down the path, Van der Heide’s Ventura counterpart lingered with us to talk about her cadre of volunteers, who were finding so few butterflies that their work took almost no time. To keep them engaged, she kept sending them to reconfirm what they’d seen, or rather what they hadn’t. “I feel like I should do something,” she said as she took off after her group. “But I don’t know what to do.”

Five

I was struck by the strangeness of the assignment I’d made for myself: I’d come to observe an absence, to look at the lack of what used to be. In Pismo Beach, another count site, people described the nadir of 2018 in anguished terms. “It was like, uh-oh, where are they?” count coordinator Jessica Griffiths recalled. Sites that had hosted thousands of monarchs the year before had only a few hundred, or a few dozen. So far in 2019, Griffiths had seen more than she did the year prior, but nothing approaching what, until recently, she’d considered normal. “I’m surfing the line between relieved and bummed,” she told me.

As we spoke, we walked a serpentine path through a eucalyptus grove where she had seen a cluster of monarchs two weeks earlier. Now all we found were pairs of wings, left behind by whatever had eaten their owners. None of the wings had tags. None of them had flown here from a makeshift nursery in Oregon.

I did see a tag in another part of Pismo Beach, on a tree blanketed with more than 1,000 butterflies, a big cluster by California’s new standards of scarcity. I was visiting the city’s monarch sanctuary, a tiny park in the dunes where tourists stroll around a viewing area smaller than a city block, sturdy fences separating them from the trees. My guide at the site, a California State Parks employee, beckoned me under a barrier to see the monarchs huddled on the leeward side of a cypress tree.

I willed myself to feel wonder and failed. I couldn’t help but compare what I saw before me with the images I’d seen in photographs, of the same site shrouded in more than 100,000 butterflies. It’s the abundance—the mysterious gathering of monarchs that flew hundreds of miles alone—that makes the migration astounding. One butterfly can make your breath catch; a roost of 100,000 can transport you into a dream. For me the diminished cluster did neither. The monarchs looked drab and windblown. They reminded me of a tattered piece of cloth torn from a quilt, a sign of the undamaged thing that should have been.      

Then I saw a flash of orange too bright to be natural. I squinted and found it again, a neon spot on a wing at the heart of the cluster. I shouted for the State Parks employee. “Look, I found a tag,” I said, too excited to care that I was being pushy. My heart was suddenly beating very fast. “I’m pretty sure it’s a tag.” We took turns pressing an eye to the lens of a scope, struggling to find the right butterfly. When we did, neither of us could make out the minuscule numbers that would tell us where the monarch had come from—who had tagged it and sent it on its way.

It started to rain, first a few drops, then harder. The wind picked up, ruffling the branches so that the monarch swayed in and out of the scope’s view. My guide warned me that we didn’t have much time; the equipment could be damaged if it got too wet. I wanted to stay. I told myself I would stand there as long as it took—never mind the equipment, or interviews, or getting soaked. I felt a wild excitement at the chance to be part of something, to finish what whoever had tagged the butterfly started, to add a data point to the store of common knowledge. I wanted this creature, which had worked so hard to sustain a dying migration, to accomplish something more than its own survival.

Eventually, we made out most of the number, through the zoom lens of a camera. We climbed into a State Parks truck, wet and shivering. Back at her office, my guide checked the tag’s digits and discovered that the butterfly had already been sighted a few weeks before. So much for my contribution.

Sitting in my rental car with the heat on blast, I asked myself why I had crossed the country, trailing my invisible cloud of carbon emissions. For a moment, I’d been sure that my presence mattered—that I’d landed in the right place at the right time. As my sense of significance ebbed, I thought of Emma Pelton, urging me to think about western monarchs as a whole population, not to fixate on particular butterflies. Was there a corollary, one having to do with accepting that my individual impact might be beyond my reckoning or take place outside my view?

I had assumed that monarch advocates found motivation in seeing the imprint of their efforts, but that turned out not to be entirely true. During our time together, Van der Heide brought up her anxieties about climate change, her uncertainty about the world her young children would live in as adults. I asked if devoting her days to butterfly conservation made her feel that, in some way, she was helping stave off that dark future. Not really, she replied. “I feel like I’m at the tail end of something amazing,” she said of the monarchs’ migration to California. “I feel like I’m recording the end of something, and in twenty years people won’t even know that there used to be monarchs here.” 

Volunteers count monarchs at sites along California’s central coast.

When the Xerces Society tallied the final numbers, it found that the 2019 monarch count had barely improved from the year before. Volunteers had seen 29,418 butterflies, still below the estimated extinction threshold of 30,000. When I spoke with Pelton, she told me that she and her colleagues were focused on figuring out where monarchs go if they are indeed leaving their winter roosts early, and how to get milkweed and nectar plants into the ground in those places. The size of each year’s first generation of monarchs matters exponentially for the number of butterflies that will set off on the migration come fall.

A familiar monarch might have been among those that emerged from the roosts. In late fall, a researcher in Santa Cruz spotted a monarch with a white sticker—a Washington State University tag—on its wing. It was perched on a twig of a Monterey cypress tree. The serial number indicated that the butterfly had flown roughly 500 miles, all the way from Bend, Oregon. It was Flamingo—he’d survived the migration.

Egertson indulged in a moment of pure joy when she heard the news, jumping up and down in her office. “For me, that was one of the most profound experiences,” she said. She compared the feeling to giving birth to her children, or to the rush that comes from doing things that scare her. “If this tiny creature that weighs no more than a paperclip can fly from Bend to Santa Cruz, then I most certainly can do whatever it is that I’m facing,” she told me. Recently, she’d been trying to overcome a lifelong fear of public speaking. She agreed to address a room of 500 people about monarch conservation. To get through it, she made hundreds of pairs of antennae and asked the audience members to wear them. She told me it was the hardest thing she’d ever done.

By February, 22 of Ovaltine’s descendants had been sighted in California. Holly Beyer, in whose yard all this began, hoped that the number of survivors was evidence that hand-rearing doesn’t necessarily produce monarchs with diminished navigation instincts. For Pelton, the news didn’t allay her concerns. If the monarchs raised in Brookings were genetically inferior, and enough of them survived the winter to pass their weaker traits to a new generation, that could make matters worse for the species in the long run. What looked on its face like a small success could pose a danger to the entire monarch population out west.

For the time being, Egertson was avoiding the controversy, devoting her energy instead to interventions she felt sure about. When we spoke, she’d recently placed an order for thousands of native flowers and plants, including milkweed, to brighten her land trust. She described with relish the exhaustion that descends during a day of hard work outside. “I love that feeling,” she told me. “When your back is sore, and you’re looking at an old roadbed that has now come to life as a meadow. It feels really good.”

Six

By the time I sat down to write this story, the world was facing a faster-moving disaster than the monarchs’ decline. People everywhere were sheltering in their homes to avoid catching the novel coronavirus or spreading it to anyone else. Some environmentalists saw cause for hope in the speed with which ordinary people took action and in the vivid illustrations of our interdependence across the planet. The question seemed to be whether we would succeed in maintaining a sense of urgency once the present danger had passed.

The response to the COVID-19 crisis suggests that we are capable of the kind of collective action that could slow the advance of climate change and repair other forms of ecological devastation. But it also illustrates the limits of what we can do as long as our leaders keep denying reality—as do most politicians, on both sides of the aisle, when it comes to the enormity of the environmental catastrophe before us. Without political action and economic reforms, the world will keep growing warmer, until monarch butterflies, like so much else, disappear for good.  

Karen Oberhauser has provided input for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as it considers whether to list the monarch as a threatened species, which would expand the regulatory protections and funding sources available for its conservation under the Endangered Species Act. A decision, now several years in the making, is expected by the end of 2020. “We can try to get as many people as possible doing things that will support monarch conservation, but I believe, in the long run, it’s going to take regulation,” Oberhauser told me. She wouldn’t share her opinion on the specific matter before the government, but she talked about reversing the fortunes of monarchs by limiting herbicide and insecticide use and by paying farmers to devote parcels of land to conservation instead of agriculture. Meanwhile, the Xerces Society has helped at least 30 local governments pass policies protecting insects from neonics and other pesticides—a modest start, but perhaps a model for the future.  

As long as the coronavirus traps us at home, the only environmental actions within reach for most people may be the smallest ones. In March, I got a message from an ecologist via an email list of monarch enthusiasts. “We appear to have entered a new era of uncertain duration,” Chip Taylor wrote of the lockdowns beginning in many U.S. states. “Yet, we must carry on with monarch conservation—somehow.” He urged everyone to order flats of milkweed and flowers.

“Gardening gets you out of the house,” he wrote. “Social distancing and quarantines will ground many of us, confining us to our properties yet giving us time to garden for monarchs.” I forwarded the email to my in-laws, who were hunkered down on their hilltop, and called local hardware stores to find flower seeds that I could plant in pots on my fire escape.

I knew that I could faithfully water my flowers and still the summer could pass without a single monarch finding them. Maybe, if that happened, I would once again feel like I had done nothing. But it felt like doing something to cover my face with the cloth mask a friend had made me and walk to the store in a light April drizzle. Maybe, like Egertson, I had looked to the monarchs for courage—a sense of steadiness that would permit me to act without knowing whether what I did would matter, or how.

I bought seeds to grow dusky purple lavender, mauve coneflowers with glaring red eyes, and pom-pom-shaped Lilliput zinnias in orange, yellow, and pink. And even though the packet said they would take at least a year to bloom, I bought the seeds for orange glory. At home, in the closet, I had a stack of clay pots. I would fill them with soil as soon as the weather turned.

Maybe I had looked to the monarchs for courage—a sense of steadiness that would permit me to act without knowing whether what I did would matter, or how.

How long did Flamingo live? There were no sightings to tell us that he made it through the winter. If he survived long enough to find a mate, the female butterfly would have had to locate milkweed on which to lay her eggs. As I write this in early May, it’s possible that Flamingo’s descendants are retracing the path of his migration, fanning north and east in successive generations. If they are sufficiently numerous, maybe a few will survive to reach Oregon.

I’m still chasing a sense of satisfaction in the small things I can do. It feels like the only way to face the possibility of their futility. In California, I tried to find pleasure in wending through forests, scanning patches of sky for flying monarchs, even as I braced myself to see empty blue. I noticed myself getting better at looking for butterflies. At Ellwood Mesa, I’d struggled to pick them out of the gloom, but in the groves of Santa Cruz—my last stop, like Flamingo’s—my eyes went right to them. At the very least, I was learning how to bear better witness. And what I saw was not entirely absence.

I didn’t see Flamingo, but I did see a cluster of perhaps 2,500 monarchs on a towering cypress tree. I was in a field near Lighthouse State Beach, and the air smelled of salt and rang with the cries of seagulls. At first the tree was in shadow, and every monarch sat folded. But then a cloud moved. When sunlight slanted across the upper branches, the monarchs opened their dazzling wings one by one. They blazed like little lanterns. I watched one drift up into the sky, weightless, and I felt it: the joy of living on this damaged planet, and a will to witness whatever comes next.


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Revive

Revive

A fatal overdose, a stunning coincidence, and a mother’s long quest to heal.

Joy Fishman
The Atavist Magazine, No. 101


Max Blau’s work has appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Bitter Southerner, The New York Times, and Politico. He holds an MFA from the University of Georgia and lives in Atlanta. This story was supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems. It was a finalist for the 2021 Dart Awards for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma.

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Designer: Ed Johnson
Fact Checker: Adam Przybyl
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Illustrator: Kate Copeland

Published in March 2020

The phone rang, piercing the lonely quiet of Joy Fishman’s Manhattan apartment. It was October 2003, and Joy was watching TV and waiting for her husband to come home. She glanced at the caller ID. 305. Miami-Dade County. Her heart raced. At this hour, after 9 p.m. on a Tuesday, it had to be about her son, Jonathan.

Jonathan was 32 and had struggled to quit using heroin for nearly a decade. He had been arrested some two dozen times and gone to rehab more often than Joy could count. She had tried everything she could think of to help her son. She had issued stern warnings, staged interventions, accompanied him to detox, paid for inpatient care, and searched for experimental therapies. She had received so many calls about Jonathan that they’d become a way of marking time, like tracking a child’s height with pencil marks on the frame of the kitchen door.

Still, in the months leading up to this particular call, Joy had allowed herself to feel hope. Jonathan had moved in with his girlfriend, Ashley, and even introduced her to Joy. He had a job at a treatment facility helping other people stay sober. In the past, Jonathan’s drug-free stretches lasted only days or weeks, but now he hadn’t used in roughly two years—his longest stint without heroin since his early twenties. Joy had let a sliver of optimism into her life, a faint belief that this time Jonathan’s sobriety would last.

But when the phone echoed through the apartment, Joy knew it meant bad news. She always knew. She picked up the receiver. Her daughter, Julie, was on the line. A suburban Miami hospital had called her. The doctor had spoken tersely, with an urgency reserved for news of the dead and dying: Jonathan’s family should hurry.

The next morning, Joy and her husband, Jack, arrived in Miami on an early flight and raced to the Hialeah Hospital intensive care unit. Joy greeted Julie with a hug, a long one, like those Jonathan often gave the people he loved. She glanced at her son on the bed. His hefty frame—six foot two and 250 pounds—was a commanding presence even in stillness. She kissed his forehead, leaning around the breathing tube that obscured most of his face, and placed a hand on his tattooed arm. It seemed cool to the touch. “I knew this was going to happen one day,” Joy said. “I knew.”

The day before, Jonathan had been dumped outside the hospital, unconscious and weakly gasping for air. A nurse rushed outside and observed the pinpoint size of his pupils—a telltale sign of an overdose. Hospital personnel hoisted him onto a stretcher and raced him inside. A doctor ordered a drip of naloxone, a clear, odorless drug that can reverse the effects of an overdose. But the drug didn’t work—its efficacy depended on being administered as soon as possible after an overdose, and that narrow window had closed as Jonathan lay sprawled alone outside Hialeah’s doors.

Moments after receiving the naloxone drip, Jonathan stopped breathing, and his heart went into overdrive. A doctor ripped open his shirt, slapped two pads onto his chest, and powered up a defibrillator. “Clear!” they shouted. And again. “Clear!” The electrical shocks jolted through Jonathan’s body, resetting his heart to a steady rhythm. Hialeah’s doctors called his next of kin to tell them that Jonathan was in critical condition.

After Joy’s arrival, at the family’s request, the doctors agreed to send Jonathan to Jackson Memorial Hospital, one of America’s best-resourced medical facilities, located in the heart of Miami. Joy had been there before with Jonathan and knew it had more specialists, more advanced treatment options, and more hope to offer. Paramedics loaded Jonathan into an ambulance for the seven-mile trip. As the ambulance neared Jackson, seizures violently shook Jonathan’s body, and he had to be sedated. Jonathan went into a coma. For the next two days, doctors ran a battery of tests looking for any sign that he would recover. They found none.

Joy had always thought that the worst day of her life would be the one when she attended Jonathan’s funeral. She had never considered that she might have to make the decision for him to die. One night as Joy was leaving the hospital, she passed a young man in a motorized wheelchair; he was hooked up to tubes that assisted his breathing. She thought, I can’t let Jonathan live like that.

Before she could tell the doctors that she wanted to take her son off life support, however, the hospital staff informed Joy that Jonathan had died. It was as if he had spared his mother one final agony. A decade later, Joy would find a way to do the same for other parents in her position, thanks to a remarkable coincidence and some unlikely allies.

Hialeah Hospital 

Jonathan was born in 1970, two weeks before the new year. When New Year’s Eve arrived, Joy held a flute of champagne and thought about how sweet the rest of her life would be. She had left suburban Long Island, where she was raised, and traveled the country selling Italian-made clothes. She’d married Dan Stampler, the tall, dapper owner of the Steak Joint, a Greenwich Village fixture that served portions so big Stampler was credited with inventing the doggie bag. As midnight approached, Joy checked on baby Jonathan and gazed out the window to watch fireworks explode over a snow-covered Central Park. This is as good as it gets, she thought.

The family soon moved to Miami Beach, where Joy would have a house, a yard, and a slower pace of life. There, Stampler’s heavy drinking worsened. At home, when his tumbler ran dry, Stampler sometimes screamed at her and hurled the empty glass at the wall. He ignored her pleas to seek treatment. So Joy left him, abandoning her dreams of an easy life, to protect her children.

Divorced by age 30, Joy worked odd jobs and attended psychology classes in the evening to become a therapist. A professor advised Joy not to get a job that involved seeing patients—he felt that she was too direct and dismissive. She began working for a 30-bed drug-treatment program run by Catholic Charities, a faith-based organization that oversaw a network of social services. Her take-charge attitude and talent for tackling laundry lists of tasks led her up the ranks. Before long, she was running the program.

When it came to recovery, Joy clung to a philosophy of abstinence, which fit with national opinion. In the 1970s and ’80s, the war on drugs was in full swing. Politicians spoke about illegal drugs and those who used them as threats to America’s moral fabric. The country had moved from an era of hippies and hallucinogens to one of Just Say No and D.A.R.E. A fundamental misunderstanding of dependency flourished—that it was a personal weakness, a failing. The American Medical Association wouldn’t formally recognize drug addiction as a disease until 1987.

Joy understood that addiction could be passed down from, say, father to son. But she didn’t view it as a chronic condition like, say, heart disease or diabetes that required regular care and treatment. She thought it was best countered with strict rules, not coddling.“Mothers were dragging their sons in,” Joy recalled of the Catholic Charities center where she worked. “The first thing I would say is, ‘Mother, get lost!’ That was the philosophy: ‘Get out. He’s going into the program; he’s not holding on to your apron strings.’”

As Jonathan grew into a tall, lanky teenager, early signs of depression appeared. Joy worried that his severe acne, along with what she suspected to be an undiagnosed learning disability, had stymied his self-confidence. She tried to help. She enrolled him in therapy and performed small acts of love; on rough days, she made him his favorite food—tuna salad on a toasted bagel. The family moved to New Orleans in the mid-1980s to be with Joy’s new husband, Norman, and then back to Miami when the marriage fell apart. Joy sent Jonathan to a boarding school in Vicksburg, Mississippi, hoping that the structure would help. But he was soon kicked out for using drugs and moved back to south Florida. There, Joy caught Jonathan smoking pot, stuffing towels under his bedroom door to hide the smell. She took a hard-line approach: Joy warned Jonathan not to use drugs, grounded him when he did, and threatened rehab when the behavior persisted.

None of it helped. In Miami, Jonathan was part of what Julie called the “burnout crew” at Miami Beach Senior High School. “Seven o’clock in the morning, someone would pick us up, and we’d get high on the way to school,” Julie recalled. She remembered walking in on Jonathan in their apartment building’s storage room, where he was hanging out with friends and holding what appeared to be a crack pipe. Julie figured that he was just experimenting.

Joy moved Jonathan to an alternative school, where he eventually earned his GED. When he was 17, she staged an intervention in their living room. Julie was there. So were Jonathan’s grandparents and a recovery specialist who urged him to enroll in a rehab center called the Village. Jonathan walked out that day, upset, but he enrolled at the center shortly after. He stayed for over a year and eventually took a job there, making sure other people in recovery showed up to their meetings. In 1993, he moved to New Haven, Connecticut, to attend Southern Connecticut State University and be closer to a girlfriend. After a year, though, they split up and Jonathan moved back to Miami.

At first, Joy was relieved to have her son nearby. But soon she noticed signs that Jonathan was using again. He started stealing things to pawn for drug money. Not just for pot, but for heroin, too. When he stole a sterling-silver set that had been passed down through the family for generations, Joy decided to cut him out of her life. She even took out a restraining order, vowing to keep it in place until he got his act together. “I didn’t know what else to do,” she said. “Tough love was the prescription.”

One day in 1996, Joy got a call informing her that Jonathan was going through withdrawal. She rushed to his side. Sitting in the emergency room at Jackson Memorial, waiting for a bed to become available, she wondered if her strict approach had driven Jonathan deeper into drug use. She had acted with what she believed were the best intentions, but in doing so she’d limited her ability to step in as his addiction worsened. Now she watched Jonathan as pain coursed through his body—every ounce of him seemed to be screaming for more heroin. She made a silent promise to do whatever it took to help him.

After Jonathan got out of the hospital, Joy attended a meeting for family members of addicts, held in a church recreation room. She’d been there before and found comfort. She sat in the circle and listened to other parents talk about how they had distanced themselves from their children. “If you told the group you didn’t answer a phone call from your son, everyone applauded,” Joy recalled. For the first time, that approach seemed cold, even spiteful. The more she scrutinized the abstinence model—the didactic embrace of sobriety, the callous treatment of those who used—the more uncomfortable she became.

When other people in her life got sick, she offered help. Why should she treat someone with addiction any differently?

 Joy began trying to meet Jonathan’s needs, whether that meant giving him money, cooking him a meal, or intervening in dangerous situations. One night at 3 a.m., Joy awoke to the sound of the phone ringing. “He was with a girl,” Joy said, “and they were having a fight in a motel.” Joy drove to where they were staying. She calmed Jonathan down enough to defuse things before the police arrived.

She had no textbook, no support group, no friends who understood the complexities of her situation. “It wasn’t something that you talked about,” Joy said. “I was alone.”

She watched Jonathan as pain coursed through his body—every ounce of him seemed to be screaming for more heroin. 

Joy had always been a social butterfly, someone who loved cocktail hours and dinner parties. When Jonathan was using, she needed a release more than ever, experiences in which she didn’t have to think about her son. One night, Joy went with friends to Williams Island, an enclave of luxury condos and spas that caters to rich Floridians. With short blond hair that emphasized her prominent cheekbones, Joy, by then in her early fifties, commanded attention. The event she attended happened to be singles night. After some mingling, two of her friends approached her with a question: Did she want to meet a man in the crowd who was lovely and rich? Joy said yes. A few minutes later, a fellow in his mid-sixties, wearing a sport jacket and jeans, approached her. His name was Jack Fishman, and he asked her to dance.

The next evening, they dined at an Italian restaurant. Joy found Jack charming, and the two quickly became an item. To some people, Jack seemed aloof, his wry humor lost under a heavy Polish accent. But Joy enjoyed his insatiable curiosity for the world. They took walks on the beach and traveled everywhere from the Florida Keys to the English countryside. Jack adored her. He was known to say to friends and family, “Isn’t she beautiful?”

Jack’s family was Jewish. They had escaped Poland after the Nazis invaded, securing forged Nicaraguan passports and fleeing over 7,000 miles east to Shanghai when Jack was eight. The Chinese city, occupied by Japanese forces, was known as the Port of Last Resort for providing Jews with safe harbor. Still, under pressure from their allies, Japan forced some 20,000 Jewish refugees into a crowded ghetto. After the war, Jack moved to New York to become a rabbi, but once he arrived at Yeshiva College, he was drawn to chemistry instead of the Torah. He pursued this new love in graduate school, studying under Carl Djerassi, the inventor of the birth-control pill. Over the next three decades, Jack became a widely admired cancer researcher—he was described by one peer as a “scientist’s scientist.”

By the time Jack met Joy, he was an executive for a pharmaceutical company called Ivax, which manufactured and distributed generic drugs. Joy tried to keep track of Jack’s accomplishments in the field—there seemed to be many—but he offered up few details. He had studied estrogen’s link to breast cancer, producing papers that would be cited thousands of times. He had consulted with the world’s top government health agencies. And he had created a variety of chemical compounds and medicines, including one that he called a “miracle drug” for the way it interacted with opioids. Joy was intrigued but didn’t ask him to talk more about his work. Who wanted to discuss the past when they could focus on their golden years together?

Jack kept at a certain remove from Jonathan. He listened when Joy vented to him about her son, but he never became involved in the hard work of parenting a child battling addiction. “He was supportive of me, but he wasn’t warm and fuzzy with Jonathan,” Joy said. “He wasn’t warm and fuzzy with his kids.” (Jack had four sons from previous marriages.)

Joy was the one who took all the phone calls from Jonathan. Mostly they were about his arrests—for petty theft of AA batteries, deodorant sticks, or the occasional bottle of champagne—or something that he needed from her. When days went by without a call, she grew worried that Jonathan was locked up or, worse, that he had died. She would go to Overtown, a neighborhood widely considered to be the epicenter of Miami’s opioid crisis, and show Jonathan’s photo to store clerks and drug dealers. “Have you seen my son?” she would ask.

Joy scoured magazines and academic journals for information about addiction. The more she read, the more confused she became. There seemed to be no consensus about how best to help someone using opioids. “I was heartbroken not knowing what to do,” Joy said. Sometimes, when she felt particularly directionless, she fell into spells of tough love. In May 1998, Jonathan called her while in the grip of withdrawal. Joy asked what he needed. “Some drugs,” he told her. Though saddened and frustrated, she nevertheless offered to help by contacting friends. “I called everybody asking, ‘Do you have any OxyContin?’ Nobody did,” Joy said. Jonathan then asked Joy to buy him heroin. She picked him up and, following his directions, drove to a gas station parking lot. She gave Jonathan $30, he bought the drugs, and then Joy drove him back to her home. A police car was waiting.

Before Joy had left the house, she’d asked Jack to call the authorities. Not wanting to be arrested for helping Jonathan buy drugs, she told the responding officer that she and Jonathan had gotten into a “verbal altercation,” according to the police report. The officer then asked Jonathan if he had a drug problem. Jonathan said he did and that he needed help. Joy watched as Jonathan pulled the heroin her money had paid for out of his pocket. The officer slipped Jonathan’s hands into wrist ties and walked him to the squad car. “I put my kid in jail because I thought it was safer,” Joy said. Better locked up than dead.

In 2000, Jonathan drifted further out of touch as he cycled in and out of jail on a string of felony theft charges. Joy’s life became hectic—she married Jack, then she contracted Rocky Mountain spotted fever from a tick and spent time in the hospital. “Jonathan just wasn’t around,” Julie recalled. “We didn’t know how to get the news to him.” During that period, drug use pushed Jonathan into homelessness. When Joy finally recovered from her illness, she rented Jonathan an apartment in the Miami area and furnished it with second-hand items from Goodwill. She bought him a guitar so he could play music. “I hoped to establish a state of normalcy,” Joy said, “something familiar, something like home.”

Jonathan participated in two offshore trials of ibogaine, a psychoactive drug derived from a West African plant root that some experts consider effective in treating addiction. (It has been fatal in certain instances and is classified as a controlled substance by the Drug Enforcement Administration.) He stayed sober for more than a year after the first trial. After the second, he worked as a driver for a treatment facility and moved in with Ashley, whom he’d met at the trial. Joy invited Ashley’s parents up to New York City, where she and Jack had a second home. They drank champagne and fantasized about a wedding date for Jonathan and Ashley.

Still, Joy knew that with her son, nothing good ever lasted long. “There was no peace,” she said. “You were always waiting for the other shoe to drop.” In October 2003, it finally did, with Jonathan’s death at Jackson Memorial.

Jonathan

Back then, silence seemed like a shield against stigma. Obituaries rarely mentioned that someone had died of an overdose. People chose vague language to describe their tragedies, or attributed the loss of a child, sibling, or spouse to an unspecified illness or a car accident. Joy, though, decided against that: In the obituary she published in the Miami Herald, she was honest about Jonathan’s addiction.

After the funeral, Joy attended a group meeting for parents who had lost their children to overdose. She noticed pictures of the deceased lining a stage. There was a tissue box under each participant’s chair. The sadness of those other parents, and the group identity they’d built around it, was jarring. It seemed to Joy that grief consumed their lives. She didn’t want to end up like that.

Instead, she poured herself into a relationship with Ashley. She treated the young woman like a daughter-in-law, calling her on the phone, catching up during visits to the home she and Jack kept in Miami, urging her to spend time in New York. Then, exactly one year to the day after Jonathan’s death, Joy’s cell rang as she was walking her dogs with Julie in Manhattan. Ashley had died of a heroin overdose. “I hit the ground,” Joy said. “I literally fell down.”

The back-to-back losses left her feeling twisted to the point of snapping. She now understood the impulse some people felt to keep grief private, to never talk about the loved ones who had died. It was too painful, too risky. Her pain surfaced in other ways. She asked Julie to consider naming her third child after Jonathan, but Julie declined—she didn’t want to pass along the weight of her brother’s traumatic life. In conversations with friends and family, Joy criticized President George W. Bush, who she felt prioritized sustaining the war on drugs over funding for addiction research.

In 2006, Israeli pharmaceutical giant Teva purchased Ivax, the company where Jack once worked and now sat on the board. The deal was worth $7.4 billion, in part because the previous year Ivax had formed a partnership with Purdue Pharma to distribute a generic form of OxyContin. It would be prescribed to and abused by untold numbers of people. According to Joy, at the time she was unaware of Ivax’s connection to the unfolding opioid crisis.

The Fishmans cashed in their stock in Ivax—combined, it was worth more than $100 million. They went from well-off to fabulously wealthy. The money couldn’t take away Joy’s sadness, but it provided a distraction—at least for a while.

By year’s end, though, Joy was staring down a new crisis: Jack was diagnosed with prefrontal dementia. Joy found herself back in the role of caregiver. She decided that, every day, she would allow herself to mourn Jonathan for exactly 15 minutes, while she showered in the morning. She could cry, but once she was out and had dried off, she would turn her attention to Jack. When he forgot an important detail about his life, she reminded him of it. When he repeated stories, she listened as if hearing them for the first time.

One day in 2012, a reporter from The New York Times visited the Fishmans’ posh apartment building—the San Remo, on the Upper West Side—to write a story about how much money its wealthy residents poured into politics. The conversation veered into Jack’s career as a scientist. A detail about Jack’s past made it into the story as a parenthetical: “Jack Fishman, along with his colleagues, invented and patented in the 1960s the drug Naloxone, which is given to people who have overdosed on opioids like morphine and heroin.”

Naloxone was the compound that Jack had told Joy was his “miracle drug,” the same medication that doctors had administered to Jonathan in a failed attempt to reverse his overdose. Those 29 words in parentheses would change the course of Joy’s life.

She decided that, every day, she would allow herself to mourn Jonathan for exactly 15 minutes, while she showered in the morning.

In the spring of 2013, Joy received a letter from a stranger. His name was Ethan Nadelmann, and he lived a few blocks away from her in New York City. He’d read the article in the Times and wanted to speak to Jack about naloxone. Joy called Nadelmann and arranged a time for him to come over.

Nadelmann was uniquely positioned to understand naloxone’s potential. As the founder of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), a progressive organization working to end the war on drugs, Nadelmann was evangelical about harm reduction, a philosophy that encouraged medical professionals, governments, and others to help people facing addiction become as healthy as possible, even if they continued to use. During the AIDS crisis, harm reduction inspired activists to distribute sterile syringes and bleach kits that could be used to disinfect dirty needles. Introducing naloxone to America was another step in the crusade to assist, not punish, drug users.

Better known by the brand name Narcan, naloxone prevents opioids from interacting with the brain’s receptors. If the compound is delivered by injection or sprayed into a person’s nose shortly after an overdose, the blue of a user’s lips will disappear. Pale cheeks will redden. Shallow breaths will deepen. Jack Fishman and his colleagues patented naloxone in 1961, and the Food and Drug Administration approved it for treating overdose a decade later. But it could be administered only by medical professionals, which limited its impact to hospitals and ambulances. By the time a person who had overdosed received treatment from a paramedic or doctor—if they got any care at all—it was often too late for the drug to work.

In the mid-1990s, harm-reduction experts began advocating for the antidote’s wide distribution, so that those closest to drug users could help save their lives. Dan Bigg, cofounder of the Chicago Recovery Alliance, convinced some doctors to quietly prescribe naloxone to heroin users and the friends of people who were at risk of overdosing. In January 2000, Bigg lugged black duffel bags full of naloxone to Seattle for a first-of-its-kind overdose-prevention conference, organized by Nadelmann.

Nadelmann saw naloxone as being to opioid users what an EpiPen was to people with life-threatening allergies—something that should be nearby at all times, just in case. He began lobbying state officials to decriminalize the antidote’s use outside hospitals. The DPA also urged police chiefs around the country to equip their officers with it. Yet opponents in many states, including Florida, were resistant to expanding naloxone’s availability. They believed it would encourage illegal drug use.

Without strong backing from government officials, Nadelmann went looking for private funding. Again he encountered resistance. Many health foundations, steeped in the gospel of abstinence, also worried that naloxone would spur drug use. Nadelmann pitched an oil scion and a rock star who had lost loved ones to overdoses. Neither wrote checks for naloxone advocacy, Nadelmann said—what had happened to them was “so painful, they wanted to run away from it.”

Nadelmann was eager to meet the drug’s inventor and perhaps win over Jack as a patron. But as Nadelmann entered the Fishmans’ apartment, Joy tempered his expectations. She explained that Jack, now 82, could barely remember the names of family members. “Jack’s dementia was far enough along where he couldn’t hold a conversation for more than two minutes,” Nadelmann said. The men briefly connected over the fact that Nadelmann’s father, a rabbi, had also fled the Nazis, but that was as lucid as Jack got during their meeting.

Still, when Joy invited Nadelmann to talk with her afterward he stayed. Feeling unusually comfortable, Joy began to talk about Jonathan. It was the first time she’d done so with a stranger. She described the havoc all those phone calls had wreaked on her life, the nights that stretched on and on with worry, the many attempts she’d made to help her son get drug-free. “Everything I mentioned, even things like ibogaine, he knew about,” Joy said. “He was the first person I knew that had deep knowledge about addiction. I respected him.”

Between 1999 and 2012, opioids had killed more than 220,000 Americans. Nadelmann was stunned that one of them was the stepson of naloxone’s inventor. “It was extraordinary,” he said. Nadelmann took the opportunity to draw back the curtain on the drug that Joy somehow knew so little about. He described the DPA’s campaign to get it from hospitals into the streets. He talked about how deaths could be prevented, how police officers and drug users could revive people before paramedics even arrived at the scene of an overdose. Parents who had lost children to drugs had recently testified at a federal meeting about making naloxone available over the counter, like allergy medicine. Slowly, doctors were more freely prescribing the drug to those who needed it. Florida, however, was not among the early adopters of progressive naloxone policies.

Quietly, as was her way, Joy was filled with anger and sadness. She knew that Jack had long kept a single vial of naloxone in their medicine cabinet, a memento from his life in the lab. She didn’t know that she could have used it—or, better yet, given it to Jonathan and Ashley to use if either of them overdosed. She already blamed herself for not doing more for her son. Now, as she pieced together the full irony of her family’s story, she marveled at the unfairness of it all, not least that she was realizing the truth at a time when Jack could no longer help her make sense of it.

As she and Nadelmann continued to talk over the following weeks, he encouraged her to help him grow the harm-reduction movement. She could share her story and help spread a lifesaving philosophy. They could get naloxone into the hands of people like Jonathan before it was too late. Few people were better positioned to push that message than Jack Fishman’s wife—the mother of a child who’d died of an opioid overdose and a person immersed in some of America’s wealthiest communities. 

Joy saw the merits of Nadelmann’s pitch. Still, she was a private person with a patrician demeanor, someone who had decided to cope with her loss alone, for 15 minutes a day. She wasn’t sure she had the strength to talk about Jonathan often, much less to strangers. She was hesitant about her personal tragedy being the thing people knew about her. “I didn’t want to be a professional victim who was constantly referring to their child, holding a photo of him at age five, saying, ‘My poor son,’” Joy explained.

Nadelmann told her there were thousands of Jonathans across the country, young people tempting fate every time they used. Many of them would wind up dead at the end of a needle unless naloxone and other harm-reduction measures reached them first. “You have a responsibility,” Nadelmann told Joy. “You have to talk about Jonathan.”

Jack Fishman, circa 1974.

Joy spent the following weeks processing the gravity of Nadelmann’s visit and his request. She desperately wanted to talk to Jack about it, to ask the thousand questions racing through her mind. But even if she asked them, he couldn’t answer. In December 2013, Jack passed away.

As Joy descended into grief yet again, it was Julie who took up the banner of harm reduction. She had learned how to administer naloxone, and in 2014, she attended a conference of the Harm Reduction Coalition in Baltimore. She texted photos to her mother of people wearing T-shirts that said, “Keep Calm, Carry Naloxone.” She told Joy about meeting grown men who cried as they talked about how naloxone had saved their lives. When she returned home, Julie told her three boys about Grandpa Jack’s miracle drug. She gifted the youngest a “Got Naloxone?” shirt. “It became part of our everyday lives,” Julie said. “Hearing people express gratitude for Jack’s invention made it more positive than just talking about the loss of Jonathan.”

Joy realized that Julie was right—that she should be cementing Jack’s legacy in the history of harm reduction. She and Jack’s biological children directed money from a family trust to the DPA, which helped Nadelmann cover the cost of training people to use naloxone. The prospect of turning knowledge into action energized Joy. It made her feel like she was doing something for her son. “Jonathan was a victim of an intolerant, prudish, and judgmental society,” Joy said. “I didn’t have the right words before, but I was giving my son his humanity back.”

One day she wrote Nadelmann an email. “I have this feeling I belong with all of you,” she said. Harm reduction was taking on greater national urgency. The government had tightened the flow of prescription opioids, forcing drug users to seek out more dangerous substances like heroin, fentanyl, and carfentanil. Researchers predicted that if nothing was done to stem the crisis, by the mid-2010s some 200 people would die of overdoses every day. Joy wanted to do more. Nadelmann said she should meet Hansel Tookes. He worked at the very hospital where Jonathan had died.

Julie texted photos to her mother of people wearing T-shirts that said, “Keep Calm, Carry Naloxone.”

A 34-year-old medical resident at Jackson Memorial, Tookes was leading a campaign to lift Florida’s ban on syringe exchanges. He had come of age as a gay black man in Miami at the peak of the HIV epidemic and had dedicated his career to studying the virus and its impact. He did so first as a public-health researcher, collecting dirty syringes from sidewalks and under freeway overpasses. He finished medical school at the University of Miami. Now he wanted to open the state’s first syringe exchange, a place where drug users could come for supplies and care, free of judgment.

In late 2015, Joy went to a swanky restaurant in Miami to meet the young doctor. As waiters carried shrimp ceviche and chicken liver crostini to other tables, she waited—Tookes was late. When he finally arrived, the tall, bearded resident was in sea-green hospital scrubs.

Over the meal, Tookes explained that Florida’s opioid death rate had doubled since the early 2000s, due to a crackdown on pain doctors who churned out opioid prescriptions for cash. Miami-Dade County led the nation in new HIV cases, in part because more drug users, unable to get pills, were transitioning to heroin. In some cities, including Miami, a gay black man had a 50 percent chance of contracting HIV at some point in his life. Still, Florida lawmakers had ignored the evidence showing that other states were able to reduce infectious-disease rates and deaths by legalizing syringe distribution. Joy understood what Tookes was talking about: Jonathan had contracted hepatitis C likely through sharing dirty needles.

Tookes knew that stemming the tide of infectious disease went hand in hand with reducing opioid overdoses. The safer drug use became, through sterile needles, naloxone, and other means, the fewer the deaths and the lower the health-care costs.

Joy told Tookes about Jonathan, about how her tough love had evolved into a strategy of supporting him the best she could, how none of it had stopped her son from getting dumped outside a hospital. Tookes was struck by Joy’s candor, the power of her story, and the grace with which she talked about her son. “I’m not easily intimidated or impressed,” Tookes said. “But I was intimidated and impressed by Joy. She had a powerful aura.”

Tookes broached the topic of his push to have Florida’s ban on syringe exchanges lifted. He asked if Joy would be one of the faces of the campaign, if she would tell Jonathan’s story to a wider audience. She wanted to know if he was willing to have his staff and volunteers distribute naloxone. Tookes said he was open to the idea.

Joy left the meeting knowing she wanted to help Tookes—the question was how. She spent the next few weeks thinking about Jonathan. On his best days, her son had been in the trenches, helping fellow users cobble together stretches of sobriety. “There comes a time when you can’t just write a check, where it doesn’t mean anything,” Joy said. “You have to be hands-on.” She contacted Tookes and said as much. Tookes knew exactly where she could start.

Hansel Tookes

Tookes had been lobbying the Florida legislature to eliminate the syringe-exchange ban since 2012, but his opponents had routinely dismissed or outmaneuvered him. Most recently, in 2015, a conservative lawmaker who chaired a subcommittee in the Florida House of Representatives had refused to grant a hearing on a bill legalizing statewide needle exchanges that Tookes helped craft. In response, Tookes narrowed the bill’s scope: The new version called only for a privately funded pilot exchange in Miami. If he started small and showed that sterile needles worked, maybe it would pave the way for more exchanges. And if the pilot program was funded with private donations, including a substantial check from Joy, the bill would be heard by the health and human services committee. Tookes hoped it would be an ideal venue, given that some of the legislators seated on it were medical professionals.

Tookes considered Joy, and the power of her family’s story, to be his ace in the hole. He asked her to speak before the committee, hoping she could secure approval for the bill to go up for a vote in the Florida house. With matters less personal, Joy had little problem speaking before an audience. But this would require the kind of public soul bearing she had long feared. She would have to talk about Jonathan. And what about Jack—would she need to say that her husband could have done more to make naloxone available to everyone who needed it, including her son? Many of her closest friends, had they been in her shoes, would have left those stones unturned. “I was petrified,” Joy said.

One day in February 2015, Joy walked down the halls of the Florida State Capitol, the sparkles on her navy blue blouse glistening in the fluorescent lighting. When she entered the room where the committee hearing took place, it was packed with lobbyists and concerned citizens, there to debate the needle-exchange bill and other measures. As she waited her turn to speak, lawmakers and speakers spent two hours debating the merits of everything from medical marijuana to insurance reform. Finally, the committee took up the Infectious Disease Elimination Act and called Joy’s name.

She gripped the dais with her right hand, stood up straight, and glanced toward the lawmakers. She hadn’t prepared a speech, but she knew what Tookes needed from her. That didn’t include talking about Jack if she didn’t want to, if she wasn’t ready. She just needed to tell Jonathan’s story and emphasize how a program like the one Tookes envisioned would have helped her son, how it could help others.

Leaning slightly toward the microphone, she said, “My son, Jonathan, died of a heroin overdose.” Digging her left thumbnail into the tip of her finger, she looked ahead, trying to appear confident, as if she’d done this before. She tripped over a few words but quickly recovered, explaining how Jonathan had stolen needles, not because he was a bad kid but to take care of himself. “To get needles, you need a doctor to write the prescription,” she explained. “You need money to pay for the needles.” She noticed some of the lawmakers nodding their heads.

“I know that all of you know someone—a relative, a friend—who is an addict. This is going to be a program where not only will they get clean needles, but they’ll be educated [about] opportunities for rehab,” Joy said. To close her remarks, she referred back to the key tenets she’d learned from Nadelmann and Tookes. “It’s called harm reduction,” she said “We want to see less overdoses, less cases of AIDS, less cases of hepatitis C. Thank you.”

Joy sat back down. “I had a feeling of accomplishment,” she recalled, “that I did my job. I hoped it would mean something.” A few other guests offered their support for the bill. There was little opposition, in part because of how lean the bill had become through Tookes’s effort to appease conservative lawmakers. Then the committee members debated among themselves.

When the vote happened, it was so quick and simple that Joy could hardly believe it. The bill passed and was sent to the legislature. A few weeks later, Tookes called her. He was ecstatic. After years of opposition and excuses, the bill was becoming a law. Governor Rick Scott had signed it, and it would be in effect by the beginning of the summer. Joy, Tookes said, had broken the logjam.

Digging her left thumbnail into the tip of her finger, she looked ahead, trying to appear confident, as if she’d done this before.

Joy and Tookes worked together to open the exchange, becoming friends and confidants in the process. They were an odd couple—a gay black millennial who did yoga and traveled the country to see Mariah Carey concerts, and a Jewish grandmother with multiple homes who loved rescue dogs. When Tookes’s mother passed away, Joy took him and his partner out for dinner on difficult, lonely nights. When Joy posted on Facebook about missing Jonathan, Tookes reminded her that she was loved. When they weren’t swapping stories over crab legs or glasses of champagne, they were calling or texting each other.

Tookes handled the logistics of opening the exchange, which would be housed in two renovated shipping containers set up near Jackson Memorial. Joy drummed up support. She wrote a personal check for $50,000 and helped raise another $150,000—enough to fund the exchange’s first year of operations. She told a Miami Herald reporter that she missed Jonathan’s bear hugs and that the exchange would allow other mothers to keep hugging their sons. In the interview, she pulled out a single-dose, nasal-spray bottle of naloxone. “I always have it,” she told the reporter. “Everyone should.”

Tookes sent mothers who had lost their children to speak to Joy. “They would be desperately searching for catharsis,” Joy said. She listened, comforted them, and encouraged them to channel their grief into supporting harm reduction.

The exchange opened on December 1, 2016, World AIDS Day. Things were so busy from the beginning that it wasn’t until the following March that Tookes was able to hold a press conference announcing the program. A gaggle of reporters, doctors, and police officers were there. Standing behind the podium, Tookes said that his team would offer free naloxone to anyone who needed it. He had another announcement, too, something he hadn’t yet discussed with Joy—the exchange’s mobile unit, which traveled the city helping people in need, would be named after Jonathan.

Joy was floored. Tookes thanked her for her support and urged her to speak to the crowd. “I’m sorry [Jack] is not with us today to see what a miracle drug he created,” she said. When she mentioned Jonathan, her voice trembled and cracked slightly. She vowed to be a “spiritual mother” to people who came to the exchange. “This is a place where a drug-addicted person can come, not be judged, not be called slang names, and be accepted as a human in need,” Joy said. “We welcome them here. We look at them as full human beings.”

After years of feeling alone with her grief, Joy had found her tribe. She locked eyes with Tookes and hugged him. He’d helped her turn Jonathan’s life into more than a tragedy. “You can’t live with that sadness all the time,” Joy said later. “Holding on to that pain is destructive.”

Joy returned every few weeks to volunteer at the exchange. As wary visitors entered the shipping containers, she greeted them warmly at the front desk. She was direct but never dismissive—that old psychology professor of hers had been wrong. She instructed people to count off the number of dirty needles they had brought in and to throw each one into the trash. She took them to a corkboard affixed with various gauges of needles. After people chose their preferred size, Joy filled their orders. In brown paper bags, she assembled sterile syringes and cookers, tourniquets, lighters, and condoms. She directed anyone who wanted to be tested for infectious diseases or to seek treatment for addiction to Tookes’s office. And she told everyone who’d listen about naloxone, urging them to take doses of Jack’s drug wherever they went.

Her work was a far cry from what she once did with Catholic Charities, telling mothers not to coddle kids struggling with addiction. She insisted that regular patients stop referring to her as Mrs. Fishman. To them she became Mama Joy.

A naloxone dispenser.

The Fishman family does not receive any profits from sales of naloxone. Jack developed the drug for a commercial firm and never renewed the patent. Today, his antidote is available from pharmacists—without a doctor’s prescription—across the country, and it’s covered by most health-insurance plans. Yet access to naloxone isn’t where harm-reduction advocates want it to be. They criticize politicians who still preach abstinence and drug companies that have raised the price of the antidote. They continue to ask the FDA to approve naloxone for over-the-counter purchase, which the agency has failed to do despite publicly acknowledging the good it would do. As a member of the DPA’s national board, Joy is involved in pushing for greater naloxone availability nationwide.

When policymakers aren’t standing in the way, harm reduction works. One day in September 2019, Joy sat behind the exchange’s front desk, waiting to hand Jack’s drug to anyone who needed it. Since opening, the exchange had collected 360,000 dirty syringes, provided medical treatment to 1,200 people, and helped 200 patients detox. An estimated 1,450 overdoses had been reversed. Earlier that day, the drug had saved a patient found splayed out on the sidewalk near the exchange.

According to the most recent data available, opioid-related fatalities dropped in Miami-Dade County in 2017 for the first time in five years; in other Florida counties, death tolls continued to rise. Those statistics are among the evidence that’s helped convince state lawmakers once skeptical of harm reduction to support the cause. In the spring of 2019, the Florida legislature voted to allow any county that wanted a syringe exchange to open one. By early 2020, officials in five additional Florida counties had lifted local exchange bans, clearing the way for future harm-reduction services from Tampa to Tallahassee. Still, most counties have yet to follow suit, and the ban on using public funds for exchanges remains intact. For her part, Joy continues to donate money to Tookes’s exchange.

There’s a whiteboard at the exchange that, on the September day when Joy was volunteering, had a message scribbled on it: “It’s important to meet people where they’re at, but not leave them where they’re at.” She knows the mantra well. In her life, it applies to more than just Jonathan, Ashley, and the patients at the exchange. She has a boyfriend, a man named Ken Peters. In December 2018, one of his two sons fatally overdosed. Rather than leave him where he was, consumed with grief, Joy offered support and guidance. She remembered how hard it was after Jonathan died when someone would ask how many kids she had. She urged Peters to always make space for both of his boys. “Just say, ‘I have a son, and I lost another son to overdose,’” she told him.

Peters carries those words wherever he goes, along with a dose of naloxone that Joy gave him.


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The Ghost Hunter

The Ghost Hunter

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

By Leah Sottile

The Atavist Magazine, No. 99


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

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

Published in January 2020.

Prologue: The End

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

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

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

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

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

It’s almost too much to resist.

Chapter 1: Rich Stuff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She came, of all places, from the desert.

Chapter 2: The Obsession

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 3: Our Captain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I hope not,” she replied quickly.

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 4: The Gyres

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They were dreamers, like her.

Epilogue: The Beginning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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Lost in Summerland

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Lost in Summerland

At the world’s largest gathering of psychics and mediums, two brothers confront a painful secret.

By Barrett Swanson

The Atavist Magazine, No. 98


Barrett Swanson is a writer whose work has appeared in Harper’s, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The New York Times Magazine, among other publications. He is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and the Halls Emerging Artist Fellowship at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. His essay collection Lost Causes (Counterpoint Press) will be published in 2021. 

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kate Wheeling
Illustrator: Emanuel Polanco

Published in December 2019. Design updated in 2021.

As best we can tell, the hauntings began after Andy’s traumatic brain injury. On Christmas Eve 2005, outside a scuzzy bar on the east side of Milwaukee, a drunk man sucker-punched my elder brother, bashing his head against the wall of a brick alcove and leaving him splayed on the snow-confected sidewalk, unconscious with seven brain contusions. For several days, my family sat vigil around Andy’s bed in the ICU, whispering prayers into clasped palms, wincing at the doctors’ ambiguous status updates. At first the prognosis was fatal. So extensive was the bleeding, the hospital felt sure it was only a matter of time before Andy slipped irrevocably into a coma. But he woke fortuitously on the morning of the 30th, wide-eyed and cogent, requesting, of all things, a meal from Boston Market.

After a nine-month-long odyssey of dizzy spells and aphasic episodes, my brother, then 22, regained most of his memory and, as we liked to joke, the better parts of his personality. He bought his own apartment and finished a bachelor’s degree, got married and took a corporate sales position. But something strange started to happen over the next couple of years. At night he heard creaky footsteps in the hallway and stray voices in the closet. Initially, we feared the worst and believed the head injury had jostled his brain into psychosis—a grim but not altogether unreasonable conclusion. Eventually, my dad flew out from Milwaukee to visit Andy at his new home in Houston, and when he arrived, he found my brother sitting meditatively cross-legged on the kitchen floor, with the lights of the chandelier above him flickering of their own accord. Without even the most cursory acknowledgment of my father’s arrival, Andy said, with a kind of holy calm, “There’s someone in the room with us.”

In time my brother began to insist that he could speak to the dead and receive dispatches from the spiritual realm. Whenever I visited him on the West Coast, where he had eventually taken a job in the tech industry, his friends would pull me aside at bars to confide that Andy had “summoned” their dead relatives, battering me with questions about what it was like to grow up with him. Most of my family grew convinced of his paranormal talents. (Bear in mind that up until that point my parents had been lapsed Catholics and flinty-eyed midwesterners, with little tolerance for the supernatural.) My father once gawked at water glasses that slid across the breakfast island—presumably the work of spirits—while Andy stood transfixed at the kitchen’s threshold. When my grandmother passed away, my sister-in-law reported seeing a green orb floating over Andy’s bedside, and upon shaking him awake, they both watched, dumbfounded, as the glinting emerald sphere drifted toward the ceiling and vanished. “Your brother,” my mother once said to me, in a solemn whisper, “has powers.” Things reached some sort of apogee when Andy said he was stopped for a traffic violation and, just as the cop began scribbling a ticket, he channeled the ghost of the officer’s mother, who had recently died from congestive heart failure. The cop let Andy off with a warning.

Naturally, I tended to regard these stories with smirks and sidelong glances. Andy, who is three years older than me, has long had a weakness for showmanship—his coworkers nicknamed him the Bull for his ability to B.S. his way through corporate presentations—and to those who know him well, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to suggest that he has coasted through life on the wind of his own charisma. I have seen him make barrooms come to life with karaoke renditions of “November Rain.” I have seen him dicker with car salesmen, performing such adroit campaigns of ingratiation that he invariably rolls out of the lot in a vehicle for which he has paid several thousand dollars below sticker. I once joined, very briefly, a rave at a club in Milwaukee, a victim of my brother’s coaxing. And so it was precisely this capacity for stagecraft and sweet talk that made me doubtful of—and amused by—his claims of paranormal élan.

But soon these “visitations,” as Andy likes to call them, began happening with a fervor and frequency that made his wife scared. Whenever he went on business trips to places like Amsterdam or Beijing, she’d receive odd transcontinental phone calls during the wee hours, with Andy sounding rattled and nonplussed, muttering darkly about spirits in the bathroom or unattributed thudding on the hotel room walls. Hoping to leaven the issue when I learned of it, I waggishly ventured that perhaps the noises were merely the clamor of some netherworldly tryst, lost souls reuniting in the honeymoon suite. But he dodged my attempt at humor and said, with absolutely zero irony, “You know, you might be right about that.”

I worry my tone will seem to gainsay what I mentioned before about maintaining a dose of utmost skepticism. But if you could only hear the earnestness of my brother’s testimony, then you too might entertain a squirm of doubt. You too might suspend your disbelief. Could it be that my brother, by fluke of grievous brain injury, had somehow become a maître d’ to the underworld, summoning wraiths to ease suffering and evade misdemeanor tickets? Was he some kind of a modern-day Charon, straddling the river between the living and the dead?

In the spring of 2018, he called out of the blue and asked whether I’d ever heard of a place called Lily Dale, a quaint hamlet an hour south of Buffalo, New York. It is home to about 275 residents, many of them registered psychics and mediums. Each summer, some 22,000 tourists descend upon the town for séances and drum circles, hoping to reunite with departed loved ones. “Imagine Wet Hot American Summer,” Andy said. “But with dead people.”

Initially, I begged off, claiming a busy summer of yard work and university teaching. “Oh, come on. It could be a bros’ trip,” he said. “Plus, you could watch me do my thing. By the end of the week, I guarantee you won’t think I’m full of shit.”

“I don’t think you’re full of shit,” I said.

A silence came over the line. Truth be told, I sensed that his bluster was Andy’s cover, that perhaps he was trekking to Lily Dale because he’d grown frightened by what was happening to him and was now desperate for an explanation.

Cursory groundwork on the Internet would later yield several reports of marquee figures who’d be heading to the camp that summer. There was the feral-eyed Michelle Whitedove, a fifty-something “angelic channeler” and “forensic medium” with a mane of autumn-colored hair, a woman who had been named America’s Number One Psychic by a reality TV show in 2007. On YouTube, I found a clip of the show, called America’s Psychic Challenge, in which Whitedove roams a ten-acre swath of desert and divines the exact location of a man buried six feet underground with a small tank of oxygen. Also in attendance would be Reverend Anne Gehman, a pearl-wearing, lid-fluttering medium who taught classes on bending spoons and whose clairvoyant abilities had allegedly helped investigators catch the serial killer Ted Bundy.

“Well, what do you think?” Andy said. “Do you want to come with me?”

Was my brother some kind of a modern-day Charon, straddling the river between the living and the dead?

Over the next few months, whenever I mentioned my impending trip to “Silly Dale,” as online wags have rechristened it, colleagues at various universities would barrage me with paranormal tales. In the interest of leaving their reputations unbesmirched, I will refrain from uttering their names in print, but rest assured: These were highly credentialed members of their fields. In hushed tones, they told of dalliances with clairvoyance, about sourceless bumps in the night. One colleague, a poetry professor, regularly consulted psychics and mediums; another put her faith in the portents of Tarot card readings. All this seemed of a piece with the broader resurgence of heterodox traditions, for in the days leading up to our trip, it seemed like I couldn’t hop on the Internet without stumbling across stories about millennials turning to astrology, or CEOs embracing eastern religions, or covens of young witches casting spells in New York City. Even the renewed interest in psychedelics—see Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind or Tao Lin’s Trip—felt like a quest to open up the doors of perception.

It’s telling that Spiritualism, the creed of Lily Dale, was born in the middle of the 19th century, a time when many Americans were suffering, in real ways, from a welter of epistemological disruptions—the Civil War and Darwinian theory, the death of God and the birth of capitalism. Spiritualism’s nativity scene took place in upstate New York in the 1840s, when a trio of adolescent sisters—Leah, Kate, and Margaret Fox—reportedly heard mysterious rappings on the walls of their parents’ house. Once news spread of their ethereal activities, the Fox sisters launched a whirlwind tour of New England and the Midwest, holding séances in town halls and hotel parlors, drawing audiences of all classes and backgrounds. What emerged over the next four years was a national craze for paranormal communication, with spirit circles—clubs for channeling the dead—forming in almost every city that the girls had visited. One newspaperman in Cincinnati claimed that some 1,200 local mediums came out of the woodwork in the wake of the Fox sisters’ performance.

The notion that spirits could intervene in worldly affairs was, of course, not new, but there had never been a formal religion based exclusively on the premise that humans could receive communiqués from the dead, particularly their dead loved ones. While the movement’s various sects quibbled over doctrinal differences, Spiritualists were united in the belief that a brigade of so-called spirit guides helped each individual find their way toward Summerland, a term that eventually became the religion’s sobriquet for heaven. And while we might expect modern science to have rinsed such thinking from the American imagination, the movement remained surprisingly durable, as evidenced by the political tumult of the 1960s—another period of narrative breakdown—when many people turned to New Ageism for balmy existential comfort.

Once again the center was not holding. By 2018, the country lacked a workable epistemology, and even our most cherished pieties were wobbling or already lay in smithereens. I’m not sure how many examples I should provide. Need I mention that The New York Times was running page-one stories about the existence of UFOs? Would it suffice to say that scientists were alleging, in peer-reviewed journals, that octopuses were aliens, that reality was nothing more than a pixelated shell game? Meanwhile, our nuclear codes were in the hands of a buffoonish real estate mogul, and millions of Americans had fallen under the sway of fake news and conspiracy theories. Perhaps this was why members of the commentariat began sounding the death knell, contending that, with the 2016 election, America had at last fulfilled John Adams’s 1814 disclaimer about the fate of any democracy. “It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself,” he wrote in a letter. “There never was a democracy yet, that did not commit suicide.”

It seemed that we had passed on to some bleak, dusky afterlife, a mist-swarmed purgatory of facts and alternative facts out of which emerged such fearsome ghouls as InfoWars, Stephen Miller, and Space Force. Given that our lives had essentially become posthumous, could you really blame me for wondering if my brother could summon ghosts?

It seemed that we had passed on to some bleak, dusky afterlife, a mist-swarmed purgatory of facts and alternative facts out of which emerged such fearsome ghouls as InfoWars, Stephen Miller, and the Space Force. 

The route to Lily Dale wended through a swath of upstate New York that once served as the fertile crescent of American utopian thinking—John Humphrey Noyes’s Oneida community, Frederick Douglass’s abolitionist newspaper—and yet the scenery itself was hardly so auspicious. Much of this area was waylaid by the 2008 recession, and husks of mills and factories still dotted the wearisome landscape. As Andy and I drove, we glimpsed remnants of the old Bethlehem Steel plant, and the Concord grape vineyards south of Buffalo looked like a postapocalyptic Napa Valley. So godforsaken was this neck of the country that Donald Trump, in the waning days of the 2016 election, had condemned it, not unfairly, as “a death zone.”

Hunched at the wheel, I snuck glances at my brother, whose face was sallow and draggy with fatigue. Most days he resembles a bald and musclebound Elijah Wood, but his flight the previous night was delayed by several hours, so both of us were running on no sleep and looked a bit like revenants.

“Here are just a few of the workshops on deck this summer,” Andy said, thumbing his smartphone and scanning the agenda from the Lily Dale website. “There’s ‘Fairyology: Finding Fairies 101.’ There’s ‘Orb Phenom—Orbs Are Among Us!’ Or we could check out ‘Getting to Know Your Spirit Guides.’ Plus, there’s a drum circle on Friday, and a séance tomorrow night.”

“You sure you’re up for this?” I asked.

“Yeah, man,” he said. “Let’s get weird.”

Mercifully, things brightened as we veered toward our destination. A sign read “Lily Dale 1 Mile Ahead.” We flew past three lakes rimmed with cottages, and when the clouds parted, the sky unleashed a bucolic, life-affirming blue. Nevertheless, I felt a burgeoning unease about our whole larkish adventure. Not only was this the first trip I’d ever taken with my brother, but I also wasn’t sure if I was prepared—emotionally, spiritually—for the week ahead. What if our cavortings with mediums caused Andy to have a psychotic break and I had to commit him to some remote upstate hospital? There were historical precedents for such crack-ups. In 1852, some 90 individuals from around the country were said to lose their minds and enter asylums after partaking in spirit rappings. Or what if I discovered that Andy had been lying about his abilities and this effected some irrevocable schism in our relationship, sundering our bond for all time? Then there was the possibility that he’d prove himself a bona fide medium, which would mean what, exactly, I had no idea. Yet for reasons I struggle to explain, I secretly hoped that my brother was the real deal, that he’d prove me wrong by the end of our voyage. Something lodged deep in our past—a moment long banished and left unspoken—seemed crucially to depend on it.

At the end of a secluded road, Lily Dale came into view.

“Look at my forearms,” Andy said. His skin was brailled with goosebumps. “The energy here is ridiculous.”

Threading through a warren of elm-studded streets lined with pastel Victorians, we saw a battalion of stone angels guarding the porch of one gothic-looking home, and a couple of blocks later, a bay window had been plastered campily with a decal of a cartoon ghost. Was it possible that I heard, from somewhere far off, a group of people singing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”? Soon we passed a hillock near the main auditorium where a scrum of aging tourists was performing the languorous waltz of tai chi. Near the pet cemetery, we made a wrong turn and had to swerve past an open field, which was already filling up with tents and RVs. My first thought was that Lily Dale looked like an old-fashioned summer camp, except that instead of trust falls and archery class, there were astrology walks and confabs with ghosts.

When it was our turn at the parking gate, the attendant met our eyes, then pressed his fingers to his temples, as though receiving a radio dispatch via dental fillings. “Welcome, welcome,” he said with an impish grin. “We’ve been expecting you two.”

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Our first day on the grounds was a derby of occult activities. After meditating in something called the Healing Temple, we met a septuagenarian Reiki instructor named Pilar who had tufts of peacock feathers superglued to her spectacles. She called them her “eyeglashes” and explained that she was slowly transforming into a blackbird. On the patio of a coffee shop, Andy befriended an affable blond man named Jayson, who professed to be a medium in training from Brooklyn and whose first coup as a psychic came when he divined the future spouse for one of his clients. (The couple’s subsequent gratitude was noted in the Vows section of The New York Times.) He and Andy hit it off by making fun of my skepticism—God, he’s so emotionally closed off, isn’t he?—at which point Jayson scrolled through his phone, showing me grainy nocturnal photos of Lily Dale’s enchanted Leolyn Woods, an apparent hot spot for nymphs and orbs.

“OK, so these you could argue are bugs or whatever. But this,” he said, pointing to the relevant photo, in which a cricket was frozen wing-spread in the flash of a smartphone camera. “I mean, come on. That’s a fucking fairy.”

Throughout the day, people kept sharing their photos. A gray-haired pilgrim named Susan accosted us on a veranda. “Can I show you guys something?” she asked. Before we could answer, she riffled through her purse and unearthed a dozen photos, each of which she laid on the surface of a wicker end table. “I have a lot of activity in my house,” she said. One image showed a mishmash of Scrabble letters in which I slowly perceived the relevant message. “MOTHER LOVES SUSAN,” it said, “WHO IS MY DAUGHTER.”

“Automatic Drawing with Miss Bonnie” took place in the Octagon Building, not far from the Lily Dale museum. After a short prayer and some guided breathing, we were paired off and asked to close our eyes before “surrendering to spirit.” From across the room, I watched Andy blindly sketch a tableau of what looked, frankly, like a thicket of penises, which I was worried would offend his partner, a medium in training from Pennsylvania. When time was up, Andy relayed his message. “I know it’s strange,” he said, “but I keep seeing the name ‘Tom’ among all these phallic symbols.”

The woman gasped. “Tom is my husband’s name,” she said. “And that’s just his issue. I’m going through menopause right now, so let’s just say that he’s been frustrated with certain aspects of our marriage.” I watched as she and Andy erupted with guffaws, whereupon Andy turned to me and raised his eyebrows, simpering triumphantly. Yet it was hard for me to take this as ironclad evidence. Show anyone a hodgepodge of random images, and if they’ve thrown off the tethers of logic and good judgment, doubtless they’ll be able to conjure associations to their own interpersonal dilemmas. Still, that Andy had intuited the husband’s name did leave me somewhat dazzled.

Things on my side of the classroom were hardly so jovial. I was partnered with a rawboned blond woman named Ashley who looked to be in her late thirties and who had come to Lily Dale with her parents. Gravel-voiced and sullen, she worked full-time in a Walgreens warehouse, and while there was an Amazon distribution center down the road, it was hard to land a gig there. So far at Lily Dale, the messages she’d received “from spirit” had been spot-on and uplifting—exhortations to stop stressing. I asked what sorts of things she fretted about.

“Sometimes I wish I had gone to college and actually done something with my life,” Ashley said. “The problem was, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. So I never ended up doing anything.”

In the face of her weary candor, I couldn’t seem to muster the journalistic moxie needed to ask a follow-up question. But what I would discover in the coming days was that Ashley’s story chimed with many testimonies of the Lily Dale pilgrims. Hailing from beleaguered rural towns across New England and the Midwest, they were suffering from all manner of emotional or financial disaster and were desperate for a more hopeful story—that their lives were being guided by cadres of benevolent spirits, that though present circumstances were bleak, they shouldn’t give up the ghost.

“This,” Jayson said, pointing to the relevant photo, in which a cricket was frozen wing-spread in the flash of a smartphone camera. “I mean, come on. That’s a fucking fairy.”

That evening at the Maplewood Hotel, I unpacked my suitcase while Andy lounged on his bed, swiping languidly at his smartphone. Between responding to what appeared to be a deluge of work emails, he told me, with a baffling nonchalance, that he’d been having a recurring vision of a kidnapped midwestern girl whose face had colonized network news that summer. He was vague about what exactly these visions entailed, though the images he disclosed were not especially promising (cornfield, head injury). Then, without prompting, he said, “Whenever you travel, it’s always important to unpack. That’s what makes it feel like home.”

I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to any of this—the visions, the unsolicited travel advice—and so our conversation was full of awkward lapses and long moments of silence.

Not since childhood had Andy and I shared such close quarters, and even then, the propinquity usually resulted in a verbal skirmish or an all-out fracas. I suppose our relationship in those days could be best described as Cain and Abel–ish. This was owing, more than anything else, to our wildly divergent temperaments. Whereas he spent most nights hunkered in the basement and pummeling a Stratocaster, I would toil under the glow of a desk lamp, trying to make honor roll for another semester. Whereas he wore earrings and a leather jacket, I jogged across town in ankle weights, hoping to make varsity as a freshman. Our mother often explained the variance in our personalities this way: “Aren’t genes amazing?”

Still, as adults, we somehow managed to construct a passable relationship as brothers, even if, at times, it could feel performative and falsely nostalgic. For instance, whenever our family got together for birthdays or Christmas celebrations, a preening one-upmanship tended to infuse our interactions such that, within minutes of him picking me up from the airport, we’d be quoting lines from old movies, doing our bad Al Pacino impressions, or making fun of each other’s hairlines, all of it delivered with the snappy banter of brothers on a network sitcom. Rarely did we spend much time alone, however. And while we had joked over the years about his psychic abilities, we had never once hazarded an earnest discussion about them.

Which was why it was so unsettling to find ourselves inside the cramped precinct of our hotel room, brushing our teeth or changing clothes only a few feet away from each other. Almost by reflex, I found myself curious about his habits of being—his shaving techniques, his pre-bed calisthenics—rather the same way I would creep into his room as a child to marvel at his possessions. I’d flip through his CDs—Nine Inch Nails, Spiritualized—or try on his flannels, occasionally summoning the courage to pluck out a few notes on his Fender. And so, even though I was a man in his thirties—a husband, a university professor—I somehow found myself becoming again my brother’s little brother.

Perhaps this was why I found it so gratifying that the merry denizens of Lily Dale kept referring to us as a unit. As we shuffled from one psychic appointment to another, or traversed campus on our way to a séance, they’d bellow at us from across the road, “Hey, hey, it’s the brothers!” One medium traipsed over while Andy and I were eating dinner at a picnic table and said, “Well, are we making any progress with this guy?” I assumed he was referring to my glacial incredulity, and I was curious to hear what my brother might say. “I think he’s weakening,” Andy said. “But I’m not sure he buys it.”

“Bah,” the medium said, waving his hand at me, like a Dickens character. Then he slapped Andy’s back with affectionate gusto and stomped off toward the Healing Temple. We chewed for some time in silence. Then Andy gave me a styptic look. “I know you think this place is nutty,” he said.

I reminded him that we’d just seen a man barf up jewels that he claimed were relics from the spirit world. This was at a demonstration of something called “apportations,” in which a medium will brusquely produce supernatural objects through a transdimensional portico (in this case, his mouth).

“It’s just, I was really hoping to get some answers here,” Andy said. He explained that his wife had become increasingly worried about him. Before he left for Lily Dale, there’d been a scene. They feuded in the car outside the airport, with finger-pointing and furrowed brows. Perhaps she doubted him, called him crazy, something like that. His prognostications had grown darker over the years, more unsettling, and she didn’t want to believe what he had to say.

“Things have gotten pretty grim, so I know that she wants me to get it under control,” he said.

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In the mid-19th century, Spiritualism’s earliest practitioners were inclined to believe that technological advances like electrical wires could be divine portals to the spiritual realm. It was for this reason that Benjamin Franklin became the movement’s patron saint and that its flagship periodical was dubbed The Spiritual Telegraph. One early adherent believed that electricity was “the vehicle of divine mentality,” which could be harnessed to communicate with “all parts and particles of the universe.” At a distance of two centuries, it’s easy to malign these Americans for their naiveté, but we must remember that, within the span of two decades, they’d gone from waiting months to get a letter in the mail to somehow receiving a cross-country dispatch by telegraph within minutes. From there it was only a short leap of logic before supposing you could commune with ghosts.

Part of me wondered whether my brother’s job in the tech industry had made him susceptible to precisely this delusion. An evangelist for cloud software, he had decked out his house over the years with a whole flotilla of smart technologies: thermostats that respond to voice commands, a refrigerator that alerts him whenever the eggs are running low. Even Amazon’s Alexa had become a frequent interlocutor at family dinners, telling knock-knock jokes to his children or dispensing Jeopardy-grade trivia to him and his wife. To be ensconced in such an environment—one so seamlessly attuned to your whims and predilections—perhaps it was only a matter of time before you regarded yourself as similarly omniscient.

The reigning consensus at Lily Dale, however, suggested otherwise, because virtually all the mediums to whom I spoke insisted that my brother’s premonitions were likely caused by a cerebral hemorrhage. “That or a high fever can trigger it,” said fifth-generation Spiritualist Gretchen Clark. Lauren Thibodeau, a Lily Dale medium with a PhD in psychology, explained that it’s not uncommon with near-death experiences. “Depending on the study,” she said, “you find that between three-quarters to 100 percent of people who almost died will tell you that they became psychic, they became healers, they became mediumistic.”

This supposition is more or less in keeping with the findings of Diane Hennacy Powell, a neuroscientist trained at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Powell has written a book called The ESP Enigma: The Scientific Case for Psychic Phenomena, which I brought with me to Lily Dale and had been reading surreptitiously whenever Andy went on jogs or bedded down for the evening. Though derided by critics as wholesale bunkum, the book is interesting in places, particularly when it conjectures a direct correlation between brain trauma and clairvoyant prowess. While some mediums are genetically predisposed to their gifts, Powell has said, “There are also cases where people haven’t had psychic abilities until they’ve suffered head traumas. What’s common is that these people who’ve had this head trauma, the structure and function of their brain has changed.”

Ordinarily, I would not be willing to lend these theories much credence. After all, as a dutiful child of poststructuralism, I’m well aware that science suffers from a dastardly case of confirmation bias, and one needn’t wander far to locate rigged experiments or cherry-picked data. But it turns out that modern researchers can replicate the results of parapsychological studies—those that supposedly prove the existence of clairvoyance and telepathy. Shortly before our trip to Lily Dale, I had dredged up an article from American Psychologist by Lund University professor Etzel Cardeña, who suggests that the most cogent and persuasive explanations for these phenomena involve fringe physics and quantum entanglement, which conceive of objects not as isolated and entropic but threaded together in a vast tapestry, where every movement is connected via gorgeously reticulated spindles, even across time and space. It gets weirder. Calling upon the research of Princeton physics philosopher Hans Halvorson, Cardeña has suggested that this “superentanglement” explains why an individual can sense, even across great distances, the abrupt death of a loved one. It was this theory, in particular, that I kept returning to in the days and weeks that followed. Was it possible that family members could be quantumly entangled?

About a year before our trip to Lily Dale, in the midst of an unremitting depression, I began to contemplate suicide. I will resist the sentimentality of describing the causes. Enough to say that I had been plagued by a neurochemical glitch since childhood, and some periods of my life were worse than others. I had tried everything: Prozac and CrossFit, yoga and therapy. Routine occurrences prickled my thoughts like wind against a burn scar, and most days were less endured than climbed. For the first time in two decades, I found myself down on my knees, my hands threaded in unstudied prayer, whispering pleas and apologies to the God-shaped hole in my mind. I told no one—not even my wife—of my plans, that the escape offered by leather belts and ceiling beams had begun to strike me as inordinately appealing.  

Then I awoke one morning to a voice mail from my mom, telling me to call as soon as I got up. Naturally, I worried that someone had died, that our family had been visited by yet another disaster. But it turned out that Andy had called her in the middle of the night, terrified and inconsolable. There were tears in his voice. Out on the West Coast, he’d been barhopping with friends when he got the most unnerving presentiment.

“What did he say?” I asked.

“He—” my mom started, her voice wounded with concern. “Oh,” she said. “He just drank too much. I’ll tell him you’re fine, honey.”

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On our second afternoon at Lily Dale, Andy and I wandered to the Forest Temple for one of two daily “message” services. It featured a round-robin of seven or eight mediums standing at the front of an outdoor amphitheater and haphazardly beckoning spirits. We sat below a sun-dappled canopy of hemlock and elm, amid roughly 200 other tourists, and watched as, one by one, the mediums did their thing.

Like all niche communities, the Spiritualists at Lily Dale have evolved their own extensive lingua franca, rife with daffy euphemisms for the brute facts of life, the most representative of which are their various phrases for death. These include “passing over,” “in spirit,” “going from the earth plane,” and “departing for Summerland.” So much of the ethereal argot is gooey and granola crunching, but at times its poetics attain a distinctly erotic mood, especially when a medium approaches a member of the audience and asks, “May I come to you?” Other idiomatic expressions amplify the carnal entendres with shades of penetration. “May I step into your vibrations?” or “May I touch in with you, my friend?”

This consent seeking seems proper. After all, the communiqués can get fairly intense. Toward the end of the service we attended, one of the mediums brought forth a message for a shaggy-haired twentysomething named Bobby, who was sitting in the back pews with his friends, a cluster of raffish-looking bohemians. The medium described the spirit of a gaunt, pallid man who’d been pacing across his apartment in the moments before he died and over whom “a river of tears had been shed.” After the service, Andy caught up with Bobby and asked whether the medium’s description had meant something to him.

“Yeah, man, that’s my cousin, who OD’d on heroin,” Bobby said. “The last couple days, he’s been following me around.”

That evening we met up with Bobby and his friends under the gazebo of Lily Dale’s dock, which jutted into the moon-glazed shallows of Cassadaga Lake and offered us shelter from a pinprick drizzle. Soon cans of Budweiser were slugged and packs of American Spirits were torn open. There were seven friends altogether, gregarious and in their early twenties, wearing hemp fibers and various configurations of tie-dye. One got the sense that their Birkenstocks had treaded the grounds of many outdoor music festivals. Each introduced themselves with a fun fact and their astrological sign, as was their special custom whenever meeting new people. Bobby was a Taurus who was slogging through a master’s degree, penning a thesis on agricultural-reform movements in postcolonial West Africa. His girlfriend, Erica, was a grad student with a pixie haircut whose fun fact was that she was a rabid fan of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. But the obvious ringleader of the group was Mekenna, a big-eyed, fast-talking hairstylist with a Harry Potter tattoo. A Pisces, naturally, she said, and everyone laughed.

It turned out that Mekenna and her cousin Meredith came from seven generations of Spiritualists, and their distant ancestors helped found Lily Dale at the crack of the 20th century. They grew up coming here every summer, studying the Fox sisters and playing tag among the crystal-clutching tourists who thronged the streets from June to August. Mekenna’s grandmother is a longtime Lily Dale resident, and her mom is a practicing medium in Milwaukee. For a moment, I tried to imagine a childhood where your parents routinely nattered with spirits—where nightly prayers might involve the ectoplasmic manifestation of your dead grandpa. Reckoning with such phenomena as a digital native must have been a trip. Consider the impulse to post about family séances as a sullen, irascible teen: FML, Mom is channeling grandpa again. He says I’m too boy-crazy for my age. LOLZ. But growing up, Mekenna and Meredith tried to keep the theology under wraps. Turned out their peers weren’t exactly accepting. Often recess featured a hail of vicious schoolyard epithets: Demon! Satanist!

Of course, now that nearly every strain of American occultism had experienced a sudden renascence, the group didn’t much witness this kind of opprobrium anymore. If anything, they said, there’d been a growing consumer market for all things esoteric: jade stones for Kegel exercises, crystals for off-kilter chakras. Even a mainstream lifestyle brand like Goop could get rich by peddling New Age curios. It was enough for me to wonder why occultism had come into vogue again.

“Look at what’s going on in the planetary alignment,” Meredith said. “That would help explain things. The outer planets are generational, so when we think about big movements or certain decades as having unique characteristics, it’s probably because Pluto was in Libra then.” Pluto in Libra turns out to be a quintessential astrological formation among stargazers, who believe it to be responsible for the upswell of divorce throughout the 1970s.

Despite whatever coldhearted materialism I professed to endorse before our trip, I nevertheless found myself enthralled by a worldview that could so neatly explain massive social disruptions. Part of me worried that the group would think I was baiting them, but I asked anyway: “So why is Trump happening?”

The gazebo resounded with their collective groans. But Meredith had an answer at the ready: “So, last year’s solar eclipse lined up with his chart exactly, in countless ways.”

“But astrology is not determinist, so it didn’t make Trump happen,” Bobby cut in. “There’s plenty of socio-political underpinnings to our societal problems.” Unlike Meredith, who had been raised in the cradle of Spiritualism, Bobby became interested in this theology as an adult, and I got the sense that he was worried I might see them as witless yahoos, clutching maladaptively to backward explanations.

Again Meredith countered, looking toward the stars. “You can do charts of countries or events—anything that has a time and place—and the birth chart of America is, like, very, very Cancer,” she said. “So why is the United States so concerned about defense? Why are we about protecting the homeland?”

“Well,” Bobby said, “whomever we elect is a symptom of a larger disease—that being our economic system of capitalistic exploitation. Obama was a symptom of this larger disease as well. He came at his particular time and his particular place. And we didn’t get a whole lot different from Obama.” He quickly sketched the last decade of geopolitical woes—Syria, Libya, Turkey—before eventually concluding with syllogistic finality: “So all of this is part of a larger disease that exists in the United States.”

“But that’s been going on way before Obama,” Meredith said.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “That’s how we’ve been operating since this country’s inception.”

“Obama’s a Leo,” Mekenna said, “in case anybody’s curious.”

As the evening unraveled and the lake boiled with rain, our talk shifted, and the group became curious about the origins of my brother’s mediumship. “I would hear stuff,” Andy said. “And I would be like, I’m going fucking insane. I’m losing my mind.” A few years ago, when his wife’s uncle died, freakish things started happening in their house. Furniture would move. They were lying in bed one night when a picture frame skated across the dresser. “Every time we fought, something would intervene,” Andy said. “We would walk into a room screaming at each other—two Scorpios, right?—and the lights would start flickering, or the volume on the TV would go wildly up and down.” One night he woke up and saw the apparition of his wife’s uncle loitering in the bedroom’s corner.

“I didn’t understand any of it. I didn’t know what the fuck was going on,” he said. “But eventually I got to a point where I was like: I get it. And I could start hearing the messages. I would pray, and I would actually hear responses.”

I had heard bits and pieces of this story before, but always in the elusive, half-joking manner in which Andy tended to relay them. To hear him speak so earnestly now was a little unnerving, and I glanced at the kids to see whether they might roll their eyes or snicker at him. But they never did.

He started transmitting dispatches from his wife’s dead relatives, which was difficult, he said, because they were Dutch and only spoke broken English. (At this point, my skepticism flared—what, they can break through the time-space continuum but have no access to Google Translate?) He began doing readings for his wife, predicting that certain events would happen on a given timeline, and to her astonishment, they consistently panned out. Soon she was dragging friends home on girls night—“when they were all hammered at two o’clock in the morning”—so he could do readings for them, too. Sometimes he’d find himself wandering out of the house and driving to the grocery store for no apparent reason. It wasn’t until he saw a particular shopper that he’d realize why he was there: “I’d be walking the aisles and find myself saying, ‘Is your name Mandy?’ And I’d be like, ‘Uh, your mom’s here.’”

“That’s some Long Island Medium shit,” Mekenna said.

Andy turned to me and, seeming to register my skepticism, remarked, “Barrett thinks I’m full of shit, because he’s never seen it before.”

“Analytical Aquarius,” a girl named Fargus said, rather wearily.  

“All weekend, I think he’s been googling ‘How to test your psychic brother,’” Andy said.

I felt, for the first time, somewhat ashamed of my hidebound incredulity, perhaps because I was newly aware of how desperately my brother needed this story—an Iliad in which his injury wasn’t random misfortune but a godsend that endowed him with spiritual purpose. Perhaps this was related to the wider cultural appeal of a worldview like astrology. After all, at least some of these millennials were professing to read our worldly turmoil by the stars, which offered the tantalizing prospect that if I could understand such celestial oscillations, then maybe I could rest assured in knowing that Saturn would soon be in retrograde, that Trump would be ousted, that words like truth and facts might one day mean something again. Given the grief we’ve endured at the hands of this administration, to say nothing of the head-swiveling instability caused by our most recent recession, one could be forgiven for pursuing such a totalizing narrative, with the reassuring plot twists of conflict, climax, and feel-good denouement. What united my brother and these kids was that they were looking for a benign, large-hearted way of being in the world, a story that could cleanly explain what was happening and why, and I couldn’t help admiring the sheer blamelessness of that.

As the rain slowed to a drizzle, we headed back to the encampment, where the air was flavored with bonfires and lights were still glowing in the Maplewood Hotel. Perhaps a séance or two was yet underway? Our farewell was full of hugs and promises to hang out tomorrow. Maybe it was owing to the day’s marathon of activities, but I found myself weirdly enamored of these Spiritualist kids, who were now somewhat adorably counseling my brother on finding a New Age community. Mekenna offered to put Andy in touch with her mom. Fargus and Meredith were confident that there were Spiritualist churches in California. But Andy confessed that he was scared to come out publicly as a medium. “The energy here is really safe,” he said. “But back home I’m just a freak at 2 a.m. for drunk friends who want to talk to dead relatives.”  

They were looking for a benign, large-hearted way of being in the world, a story that could cleanly explain what was happening and why.

The next morning, I woke at dawn to tunnels of sunshine blaring through the window. Songbirds chirped metallically in the trees. My sleep had been scanty and thin, not only because of Andy’s prodigious snoring, which resembled the flatulent-sounding horn of a sea freighter, but also because our accommodations were decidedly rustic. Our narrow room boasted two twin beds, each monastically appointed with scratchy blankets and crick-inducing pillows. Indeed, the bedding seemed to have been last updated during the Reagan administration.

Likely, part of my sleeplessness could be attributed to our upcoming class with Reverend Mychael Shane, a medium who offered an eight-hour(!) workshop on enhancing your mediumistic skills. If ever there were a test that could prove my brother’s claims, this would be it, which was why I hurried us across campus, admonishing Andy, who was still dripping from a brisk shower, as we veered toward the Assembly Hall.

Soon we made our way toward the rostrum, over which a large stained-glass window read “Church of the Living Spirit.” There sat Reverend Shane, a beefy heap of a man with wisps of silver hair and soft, bearish eyes, wearing a lavender polo and ecru slacks. Sitting in a horseshoe of folding chairs around him were our fellow classmates. There were Mark and Allen, a couple from a Spiritualist church in Florida; Karen, a local medium who served in the Healing Temple; Reverend Jane, an “international medium” with feathered bangs and disco-era makeup; and Margaret, a self-avowed “Mychael Shane groupie.” Over the subsequent eight hours, we were offered a whirlwind tour of physical mediumship, including things like apportations and “trance channelings.”

During introductions, Andy told the group the story about his brain injury, at which point Shane launched into a personalized sermon.

“You know, there’s nothing wrong with you,” he said.

Andy laughed. “Can I get that in writing, please?”

“I’m really trying to be serious here, OK?” Shane said, noticeably peeved. “There’s really nothing wrong with you. Who has a right to say even that there is? Who can say that you have a problem or something’s not working right? Maybe you’re thinking, Why did these things happen to me? Only you are gonna find out the answer. Luckily, you have the support of your family. I mean, your brother is sitting right there.”

Andy looked at me. The rest of the group looked at me. I gave a little sheepish wave. Suddenly, I felt like some scurrilous gate-crasher, here only to poke fun at some downtrodden individuals, my own brother among them. Soon I had a memory of Andy splayed on his hospital cot, his forehead gashed and bleeding, a nest of IV tubes snarling up his arms.

Then, almost as an afterthought, Shane advised Andy to invest in PepsiCo and Aflac.

My brother turned to me, his eyes throttle-popped and spooked. Later he would tell me that he’d just closed deals with both of those companies.

“You’re always going to appear off to others,” Shane continued. “That’s never going to change, but that’s OK. Because you are a divine, beautiful entity that has purpose and is necessary and needed in this world.”

The next segment of class involved billet readings. Shane explained that, one by one, each of us would come to the front and have silver dollars duct-taped over our eyes, which would then be covered by an eye mask and a bandana. Everyone else in the room would jot a question on a note card, and on the other side we’d scribble a number. “Could be 11, could be 10,043. Doesn’t matter,” Shane said. Everyone’s note cards would be placed in a wicker basket, which would then be handed to the blindfolded medium, who in turn would “read” both sides of the cards. Feats like these, Shane told us, can be “the worm on the hook to get people interested in this stuff.”

The early results were pitiful. Reverend Jane went zero for six. Mark and Allen batted about .300. I got two of the numbers right and felt momentarily cocky—do psychic abilities perhaps run in the family?—but then flubbed every subsequent card.

“Can you see through there?” Shane asked Andy after I’d blindfolded him. There was something ceremonial, if not eerily religious, about this tableau, with Andy sitting before me, eyes closed, humble as a monk, waiting to be tested.

“No,” Andy said. “I wish I could. I actually have a fair amount of anxiety in claustrophobic spaces. Ever since my injury, I don’t do well with tight spots.”

I returned to my seat and watched as Andy began shrugging in a jerky, vaguely Tourettic way, and when he reached for the first card, his hand quavered noticeably, reminding me of the spasms he’d suffered from cerebral edema during those long, anguished nights in the ICU. For a moment, I wanted to call this whole thing off, but then he placed the first note card against his forehead and inhaled deeply, audibly. “Nine,” he said. “And uh, I’m not sure if it’s my claustrophobia or something I’m picking up, but the number nine and a question about space.”

He handed the card to Reverend Shane. “The number is a nine. And the question is: ‘What is a sacred space for me to go to?’”

“Good job,” said Karen, the healer.

“Not bad,” Shane said. “Well, my job is done. See you all later.”

Everyone laughed.

Andy rummaged through the basket before extracting the next card. “I see a one and a seven, so maybe 71, but I’m not getting the question.” He passed the card to Shane. “Seventeen,” the reverend said. “So that’s what’s called spiritual dyslexia. The question is: ‘Where are my shoes from?’”

For the next card, my brother said, “I don’t know if it’s the answer to the question or the number, but there’s only ‘one.’”

“There is a circle with a one in it,” Shane said. “Not bad. OK, a couple more.”

Even with the blindfold, I could tell my brother was distressed. His cheeks were flushed, a paddled crimson, and his forehead was a geyser of sweat. Shane’s assistant, Cynthia, noticed this, too. “You’re almost there,” she said. He bungled the next one, which was my card, but I didn’t reveal this. Then, unbidden, he said, “Well, that was my brother’s card.”

I shook my head, happily perplexed, but before I could unleash a cynical rejoinder, he was plucking another card from the basket. “I see the number 2019. And I see my tattoo”—inked on his left arm was the symbol for infinity.

“Your tattoo is on there,” Shane said. “And the question is, ‘What will be the big news story for 2019?’”

At this point, people in the room were shaking their heads, their eyes mirthful and guileless, astonished in a childlike way. I turned around to gauge the reactions of two Lily Dale facilitators, who had been hovering in the back throughout the proceedings and who now gave Shane a covert thumbs-up, as if to certify that my brother was the real deal, the genuine article. The next afternoon, one of these women would suggest that Andy give readings at the 4 p.m. message service. Another would urge him to get certified by the Lily Dale board. Even Reverend Shane would offer to be Andy’s mentor at the end of the night.

Andy couldn’t read the last card, but even with a couple of blunders, the room was still full of swift converts to his cause. Karen the healer said, “Could you tell me your last name again, so that when you’re rich and famous I can say I met you?”

“That made me really uncomfortable,” Andy said.

“You got every number right,” Mark said. (And most of the questions, too, I think.)

“That’s one for the records,” Allen said.

There was something ceremonial, if not eerily religious, about this tableau, with Andy sitting before me, eyes closed, humble as a monk, waiting to be tested.

By the time the workshop had ended, it was midnight, and a big moon loomed overhead, washing the campus lawns with a thin ethereal light. Somewhat predictably, our walk back to the hotel was punctuated by sprees of unmitigated fraternal boasting (“So, bro, how do you like them apples?”—that sort of thing), and I was worried that my brother’s laughter, as it ricocheted across the courtyard, would rouse some angry spirits or perhaps a few pilgrims trying to catch some post-séance shut-eye.

I asked Andy what he felt as he was blindfolded, how he was able to identify so many cards.

“I could feel these different energies approaching me,” he said. “So I just asked them to make it go fast.”

A silence fell between us as we shuffled under a vault of wind-hissed elm trees, and without really thinking it over, I found myself asking the question that had been grating at me all week and that, I realize now, was the whole reason we came.

“A year ago, Mom called me in the middle of the night and said you were worried about me. Do you remember that?”

“Yeah,” he said.

“Do you remember why you were worried?” I asked.

As soon as I posed the question, I regretted it. The truth was, I didn’t know what to make of what I’d witnessed that night, and suddenly, I was leery of what he might say.

“I kept seeing visions of you killing yourself.”

I stopped and looked at my brother, who kept walking and peering around. Even in the twilight, I could see that his eyes were darkened with stress and little sleep, the oncoming erosion of middle age, and on the other side of the continent, there was a whole other life waiting for him. It was a minor cruelty to remember that this week wouldn’t last, that somehow we had become men in our mid-thirties, duty-bound to jobs and the burdens of our own families. The next day, we’d drive back to Buffalo, and at some point that night, he’d vanish without a trace, taking an Uber to the airport, leaving me to wake alone in the pre-dawn stillness of a sullen July morning.

But right then, in the dark of the Spiritualist campus, I was ready to believe my brother knew something that I simply could not fathom. If he intuited my past struggles—if he could divine the place in my life where the narrative began to break down, where the plot took a swerve—then maybe he could also foresee the future, which had come to seem ever more uncertain, a monstrous void of flux and foreboding. Given what I’d just seen him do, I wanted to believe my brother knew the ending to this story. I wanted to believe that I would listen. But all I could manage was a blithering acknowledgment, a little brother’s sheepish confession.  

“That was a really lonely time for me,” I said.

He was quiet for a moment. Then he shrugged. “Well, you weren’t alone,” he said.

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The next morning, pilgrims were queuing up at the doors of the Healing Temple. There were elderly people inching toward the entrance with the help of metal walkers, plus a posse of young women with slovenly topknots, their tote bags emblazoned with “Feminist Witches.” A maroon-haired woman from Cleveland rapped with me about LeBron James’s recent move to the Lakers, then offered to balance my chakras with the swings of her pendulum necklace. The line moved slowly. And eventually, the early parishioners who were already inside the temple emerged from its heavy oaken doors—their faces were radiant and changed.

Next to the temple’s walkway was Lily Dale’s gnarled and stunted prayer tree, whose crown of spired branches had been tessellated with thousands of ribbons in every possible shade of teal and magenta, orange and pink. On them, lonesome Americans had scribbled abridged prayers, hopeful bulletins, little valentines to the dead. “Mom, I miss you every day. Enjoy Heaven!” and “Love + Light to Those in Need” and “Unify My Family.”

Back home this effusion of wishful thinking would’ve struck me as saccharine and pathetic. But here, under gentle wind chimes and blue sky, I found myself shorn of cynicism, earnestly moved by these barefaced gestures of pathos and heartache. When future historians try to understand how we reckoned with our cultural and political disasters, they’ll need only to comb through these variegated streamers to see how desperate and mournful we’d become. I thought of Susan, waiting for more Scrabble-letter dispatches from her mom. I thought of Ashley, back home in Connecticut, stocking product for Walgreens. And I thought of those bright-eyed millennials, our spirit guides—Erica and Mekenna, Kate and Fargus, Meredith and Bobby. Six of the colored tassels I affixed to the prayer tree were for them. Then my mind turned to my own mom and dad, to the rest of my family, all of whom were worried about me and Andy, hoping against hope that, despite everything, we’d be OK.

Inside the temple, nine healers stood at the altar. They wore bright white smocks, like special envoys from heaven. Seated before each of them, in a wooden chair, was a congregant with upturned palms and shuttered eyes. The healers waved their hands over each congregant’s body, their movements mime-like and untouching, a silent legerdemain. A tall man with a gray ponytail stood at the back of the room and played a wooden flute whose soulful, dirgy tones were both solacing and elegiac. Piquant incense perfumed the air, and eventually, the temple commandant pointed me toward the altar. I took a seat in front of a soft-voiced, bespectacled man who directed me to close my eyes. Put at the front of your mind, he told me, all your dead, all those who’ve passed into spirit. “We believe in everlasting life,” he said, “so know that those people are with you right now.”

You’ll think I’m exaggerating, but something started happening to me. As the man performed his arcane ministrations, some trapdoor on the left side of my brow flew open, and ages of stratified blackness were leaking out. Soon there were tears running from my eyes.

Somehow I was transported to a moment from 20 years ago, when I was standing at the edge of a river in the midst of my first adult-grade depression. Twelve years old, with a dark, spinning brain, I had wandered away from our family’s camp and was peering into the depths of a river, watching the brunette water froth and churn over a herd of jagged stones. I cannot tell you what came over me next, but in a moment I was there, disappearing into the violence of a brown crystalline burst.

The current was alive, a man’s hands, and almost immediately I was regretting my decision. But when I managed to breach the river’s surface, I could see my brother appear on shore, a blur of dark jeans and red T-shirt, entering the water just as soon as I went under. Somehow I was being tillered toward a raft of downed branches, where my brother had pulled us to refuge, where I had a moment to calm down and wipe the water from my eyes. I found that I was crying, still terrified, still boyishly confused about what I had done and what I still might do. How near that story of total obliteration had been, of following my dead to the other side of the river, of wanting so desperately a final and irrevocable exit.

My brother said nothing. His face was full of a terrible understanding. Always, even across time and distance, his face has been full of this terrible understanding. Then he was telling me it was time to go, and with our heads barely above the surface, he reached out to me, and I held on to him, and he ferried me back across the water.

The Wild Ones

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The Wild Ones

People said that women had no place in the Grand Canyon and would likely die trying to run the Colorado River. In 1938, two female scientists set out to prove them wrong.

By Melissa Sevigny

The Atavist Magazine, No. 96


Melissa Sevigny is a science writer based in Flagstaff, Arizona, and the author of two books, Mythical River and Under Desert Skies (both 2016).

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Adam Przybyl
Images: Norman D. and Doris Nevills Photograph Collection, courtesy of Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah

Acknowledgements: The narrative is primarily informed by the Lois Jotter Cutter Papers, Cline Library Special Collections and Archives, Northern Arizona University. Special thanks to Peter Runge for access to material not yet curated for research, and to Ted Melis and Victor Cutter III.

Published in October 2019. Design updated in 2021.

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Prologue

The river had cut into the plateau, or else the plateau had risen around the river. No one could say for sure in 1938. But what did it matter how it formed? It was there, this sunset-hued cleft of stone in the high country of Arizona. A warning. A challenge.

An Englishman who toured northern Arizona that year declared, “Out here is a country almost without a history,” a fantastical landscape of weird pinnacles, sheer cliffs, and menacing canyons. He was wrong, of course. The Grand Canyon had a history, printed in lines of pink and beige down its mile-deep walls, with trilobites as punctuation. Generations of Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Havasupai, Hualapai, Southern Paiute, and Yavapai-Apache had called this place sacred and considered it home. For some of them it was the place of origin, where all humankind arose.

Tourists at Grand Canyon National Park—numbering more than 300,000 annually by the end of the 1930s—did not think of it that way. They came to the South Rim to lean over the low stone walls and gape at the Colorado River far below, a loose silver thread in a tapestry of stone. They gasped, they marveled. The river was a wild place, maybe the last wild place in America. Tourists thought of it as untrammeled, untouched, and nearly impossible to explore. And after they saw it, they went away.

Dams, though, had begun to tame the river, especially since the Boulder Dam (renamed the Hoover Dam in 1947) slammed shut its gates in 1936 and knotted the river into Lake Mead along the Arizona and Nevada border. River runners had begun to float the Colorado, but not many, and not very often. Only a dozen expeditions—just over 50 men, all told—had traversed the Grand Canyon by boat since John Wesley Powell led a government-funded expedition to map the river in 1869, during which boats were destroyed and three men vanished. Those who ventured into the canyon emerged with stories of wreckage flung along the rocks and skeletons tucked into stony alcoves clutching withered cactus pads in their bony fingers. The Colorado was considered one of the most dangerous rivers in the world.

When an expedition arrived in the town of Green River, Utah, in the summer of 1938 with an ambitious itinerary in hand, local residents and veteran river runners were quick to shake their heads. The group planned to row the Green River 120 miles to its confluence with the Colorado, then drift through Cataract Canyon, the fabled graveyard of the Colorado, where whitewater and hidden rocks conspired to smash boats to smithereens. They would resupply at a landing site called Lees Ferry, near the Utah-Arizona border, and then enter the Grand Canyon, where the only way to communicate with the outside world would involve a long, grueling hike to the rim. Ninety miles downstream, they’d have one last chance to break—abandon the river—at Phantom Ranch. After that, there’d be no choice but to make the harrowing descent downstream to Lake Mead. If they did, they’d have traveled more than 600 miles by river.

“You couldn’t pay me to join them,” declared one river rat.

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It was high summer, a season when broiling heat gave way to black, booming thunderstorms. The Green River was already muddy and swollen with rainwater. The Colorado ran at nearly full flood stage. In addition to terrifying rapids, the expedition’s members would face heat, hunger, and fatigue.

Not least among the journey’s many dangers, according to “experienced river men” who refused to give their names to the national newspapers covering the expedition, was the presence of women in the party. Only one woman had ever attempted the trip through the Grand Canyon. Her name was Bessie Hyde, and she’d vanished with her husband, Glen, on their honeymoon in 1928. Their boat was found empty. Their bodies were never recovered.

Unnamed sources told reporters that the two women in the crew were “one of the hazards, as they are ‘so much baggage’ and would probably need help in an emergency.” They were scientists—botanists, to be precise. “So they’re looking for flowers and Indian caves,” a river runner said. “Well, I don’t know about that, but I do know they’ll find a peck of trouble before they get through.”

In fact, Elzada Clover and Lois Jotter had come from Michigan with much hardier plants in mind. Tucked into side canyons, braving what Jotter called “barren and hellish” conditions, were tough, spiny things: species of cactus that no one had ever catalogued before. Clover and Jotter would become the first people to do so—if they survived.

But the newspapers didn’t much care about that. Journalists crowed that the women had come to “conquer” the Colorado, and they fixated on the likelihood of failure. In the privacy of her journal, 24-year-old Jotter had a one-word reply: “Hooey.”

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Lois Jotter on the banks of a placid stretch of river.

1.

On her birth certificate she was Mary Lois Jotter, except that a clerk had transposed the a and r and given her a mangled first name—Mraythat no one could pronounce. The state of California was not particularly concerned with correcting the mistake. It took her parents some two decades to amend the spelling on official records. No matter: She preferred to go by Lois anyway.

Jotter spent her teenage years in Michigan, roaming the woods on Sunday afternoons, delighting in the exotic plants of a botanical garden near her home. Her father, E.V. Jotter, was a forester from a German Mennonite family. Her mother, Artie May Lomb, had come from a lineage of distinguished engineers. They encouraged, even expected, their daughter to love science. She could trace her desire to be a botanist back to a particular moment, when her father pointed out Acer negundo, the box elder maple. She was seven.

She studied biology and botany at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and plowed ahead with her Ph.D. work in a department that had only two female faculty members. Jotter’s focus was the cytogenetics of Oenothera, the evening primrose. She spent summers as a camp counselor in Michigan, and she learned to row a boat so she could rescue any kids who toppled into the lake. In 1937, while still in graduate school, she worked in Yosemite as a National Park Service naturalist.

As much as Jotter loved the outdoors, she thought of herself as bookish and a bit of a klutz. She wasn’t particularly adventurous—certainly not as much as her mentor, Elzada Clover, a professor at the university. The two women shared an apartment in Michigan for two years and were friends as well as colleagues. Born on a Nebraska farm, Clover was drawn to the open spaces and fierce beauty of the desert. She spent the summer of 1937 collecting plants in a lonely corner of Utah. There she met a river runner named Norman Nevills in a dusty town called Mexican Hat. Clover suggested that they take mules into the Grand Canyon to collect plant specimens for research. Nevills was enthusiastic. But, he said, why not take boats instead?

Each agreed to invite two more people on the expedition. Nevills found Don Harris, a young engineer with the U.S. Geological Survey, and William Gibson, an artist and photographer from San Francisco. Clover invited Gene Atkinson, a 25-year-old zoologist at the University of Michigan. The final slot needed to be filled by a woman, for the sake of propriety: It wouldn’t look right for Clover to be the only female in the group.

At first, Clover hesitated to invite Jotter. As Jotter put it, “She knew my parents had no spare daughter.” But Jotter jumped at the chance to go; what botanist could resist the lure of collecting material from a place as remote and mysterious as the Grand Canyon? The prospect caught her imagination. Jotter had to request time off from her thesis work, and she needed her father’s permission to go, written up in a formal letter to show the head of the botany department at the University of Michigan. She also needed $200 to cover her share of the cost of the expedition’s boats and supplies. She wrote her family a flurry of letters in the months before the trip. 

“If I weren’t almost certain (cheerful thought) that we would get thru OK I wouldn’t go,” she wrote to her father, though she admitted that she’d probably be “scared pink” most of the time.

Jotter filled her letters with reassuring details: a careful accounting of the costs involved, her confidence in Clover to protect her from the “familiarities” of men, the river experience of the rest of the crew, and the greatly improved maps of the Grand Canyon. She even listed the clothes she’d wear: long-sleeved shirts, fitted overalls, cork helmet, wool socks. “This is carefully planned,” she wrote. “I know that I’m not getting into any lark, but you know, that it will be something I’ll always regret not doing, if I don’t.”

Her father gave his blessing and sent the $200. When the spring semester ended, Jotter told a friend about her summer plans. The friend’s mother overheard the conversation and was aghast. “Have you seen that river?” she asked.

“Yes,” Jotter lied. She hadn’t seen the Colorado, but she’d read everything about it she could get her hands on. The title alone of Clyde Eddy’s 1929 book Down the World’s Most Dangerous River might have scared her off. But there were also the tales of Powell’s footsore crew eating handfuls of moldy flour. Or the drawings she’d seen of ominous rock spires blotting out the sun. Jotter felt she’d done her homework: She knew what to expect.

The friend whose mother had been aghast mentioned Jotter’s summer plans to journalist at the student newspaper, the Michigan Daily. The story made the front page, with the headline: “Faculty Women to Face Danger on Stormy Colorado for Science.” Cameramen from The Detroit News were in the parking lot on June 7 when Jotter, Clover, and Atkinson loaded up their gear. The trio agreed to a last-minute photo shoot—perhaps, though nobody said it aloud, a final photo shoot.

Then the three scientists piled into Atkinson’s car for the weeklong drive to Utah. Even that comparatively tame adventure had moments of foreboding. Clover admired a long black car that passed them on the road before realizing it was a hearse. Jotter woke in her hotel room one night to wailing sirens as a bakery across the street went up in flames. “I am saved for the Colorado,” Jotter noted in her diary as firefighters doused the blaze.

Only her roommate back in Michigan, Kay Hussey, knew that Jotter had boxed and labeled her possessions for distribution before she’d left for Utah. Just in case.

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Norm Nevills’s father, William, building a cataract boat.

2.

The town of Mexican Hat, Utah, named for a rock formation that looked like a jaunty stone sombrero, had no electricity. Nevills, his father, William E. Nevills, and Harris used hand tools to build the three boats that would carry the expedition down the river, working out of the little hotel that Nevills ran in town. Each boat measured 16 feet long and was held together by some 2,000 screws, with watertight compartments at either end and a hull reinforced by oak ribs. They were newfangled vessels of Nevills’s own design—he called them cataract boats. They had a shallow draft and eight-foot-long wooden oars thrust through eye hooks on each side. The boatman sat in the center and faced downstream. Though the cataracts were wider than the boats traditionally used on the Colorado, there wasn’t much room for passengers. They had to cling to the front or rear deck or get out and walk in rough water.

Each boat had its name printed on the side—the Botany, the WEN (Nevills’s father’s initials), and the Mexican Hat—along with big block letters reading “Nevills Expedition.” The sight dismayed Jotter. She had envisioned the trip as a scientific voyage under Clover’s direction, during which their collected plant specimens would be carefully transported to the University of Michigan for study. Nevills had a different idea entirely: This was a business venture with paying passengers. He hoped to make a name for himself as the Grand Canyon’s first commercial river guide—though he’d never run the Colorado River before. (No one on the trip had.) Nevills’s experience included floating the San Juan, a tributary of the Colorado that passed through Mexican Hat. The journey ahead could make or break his career. He needed publicity, as much as he could muster. It helped that the two women brought a frenzy of news coverage with them from Michigan. When he got the chance to talk to reporters, Nevills emphasized the care and precautions he’d taken preparing for the expedition. It was as safe as any journey downriver in nearly unknown territory could be.

They were risking their lives—everyone in the group was clear about that. They just weren’t in agreement on why. Was it for publicity or for plants? News wires picked up the Michigan Daily story, and each retelling was more sensationalized than the last. The “relic flora” and “important cacti” mentioned in the original article became “botanical freaks” in an Associated Press story. Eventually, nothing much was said about science at all. One reporter noted, “The women, besides their scientific work, will do the cooking.” Articles described “Miss” Clover as a 40-year-old college professor, plump and bespectacled, while Jotter was thin, freckle-faced, and nearly six feet tall. Indignant, Jotter corrected that description whenever she could: She was five feet seven and a half inches.

On June 19, a caravan of cars left Mexican Hat pulling the three boats on trailers. The six expedition members drove to Green River, where they were mobbed by reporters and autograph hunters. Clover and Jotter, hot and dusty from the drive, were dressed in practical brown overalls.

“Do you think women can do anything a man can do?” an Associated Press newsman wanted to know.

No, the women replied emphatically. The question annoyed Jotter. In terms of strength, she probably couldn’t do the same work as a man. But her mind, her abilities, and (she hoped) her endurance in the rough country ahead were just as good. Or better.

“What do you think of the riverman’s statement in the Saturday Evening Post?” came the next question.

They’d seen the article, of course. Everyone had. The riverman was Buzz Holmstrom, a 29-year-old from Oregon who’d run the Grand Canyon solo the year before—the only person on record to achieve that feat. The Post had printed a seven-page, blow-by-blow account of his thousand-mile journey from the Colorado River’s headwaters in Wyoming all the way to Lake Mead. Holmstrom was speaking of the vanished honeymooner Bessie Hyde when he said, “Women have their place in the world, but they do not belong in the Canyon of the Colorado.”

Jotter smiled at the journalist who asked the question. “Just because the only other woman who ever attempted this trip was drowned,” she replied, “is no reason women have any more to fear than men.”

At least that’s what the newspapers reported. In her diary that night, Jotter scribbled wearily that she’d tried to speak as little as possible, knowing how easily her comments could be misconstrued. “My dear, don’t believe anything you do see that is supposed to be something we said,” she wrote in a letter to Kay Hussey, her roommate, “because we’ve been beautifully misquoted out here.” Jotter also enclosed a schedule of the journey in the short letter to her friend: “Lees Ferry, Arizona, July 4. Grand Canyon, July 14. Boulder Dam, July 30,” she wrote. “Please do not be worried if we don’t get there on the exact date, as we may lay over for a week for high water.”

The two botanists stayed up late that night creating makeshift plant presses—strips of newspaper layered with blotting paper to absorb moisture, held between cardboard and cinched tight with leather straps. They’d insert plants and squeeze them flat to preserve them, a tricky proposition with cactus, and send them back to Michigan in three shipments: one at the start of the Grand Canyon, one halfway down, and one from Lake Mead. The presses would be stuffed into the boat hatches along with the food, life preservers, and Clover’s sewing kit. Other supplies included Jotter’s bedroll: a mammoth creation of overlapping blankets around an air mattress—a gift from her parents—wrapped in heavy canvas ground cloth. Most of the food was canned, even the potatoes, the fruit, and a brand of dried milk called Klim.

Early the next morning, the party put into the Green River. “Two flora-minded women from Michigan join four equally adventurous men today in a daring boat trip down the restless Colorado river’s mile-deep gorge in quest of nature’s secrets,” began the adjective-riddled Associated Press story. For all her bravado in letters to her parents, Jotter felt relieved when the three boats floated just fine in the water.

On the placid river, sliding in the shade of cottonwood trees, the memory of dire predictions began to fade. Everything seemed planned, predictable, safe. “Much singing and sitting on sundeck,” Jotter wrote in her logbook of those early days. On the third night of the trip, Nevills gave the group a lecture on how to run the rapids ahead. Jotter recorded his advice: “If you do get sucked in, hit stern first and square, current not too strong at cliff walls, quarter up-stream, row against, always hang on to boat, etc. etc. Finally and so to bed.”

Later, Jotter added a wry note to that entry, “I guess I really must not have listened to all this with any sense of responsibility.”

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3.

They reached the Colorado River on June 23. That’s when the trouble began. 

Here, at the confluence with the Green River, they’d enter Cataract Canyon—with its 63 rapids, the most treacherous stretch of river they’d encounter. The group pulled their boats ashore to scout the rapids and search the canyon walls for an inscription left by Powell. The river was a churning white maelstrom, crunching logs and trapping boulders in its maw. While the men plotted their course, Clover took the opportunity to snatch up a few plant specimens and Jotter rested on the shore. The character of the river had changed, it seemed—it was now deep, swift, and powerful. Then Gibson shouted: “My God! There goes the Mexican Hat!” Jotter’s boat had tugged free from its mooring on shore, empty except for much-needed supplies. She dashed to the river’s edge. Her rowing partner, Don Harris, ran past her, calling for Jotter to follow him. They both climbed into the WEN.

“We’re going right through, so hang on!” Harris shouted.

Jotter bailed water with an empty coffee can while Harris put his back into the oars. In no time, the river had swept them around a bend, out of sight of their companions. Somewhere between terrified and exhilarated, they rode out four rapids before Harris pulled into an eddy to rest.

“Do you want to stay here while I go on?” he asked between heaving gasps. 

“No,” Jotter said.

Back into the main current they went. Waves crashed as the sun went down. Soaked and chilled, they beached again—there was still no sign of the Mexican Hat. But Jotter thought she glimpsed a sandy patch of land ahead, the kind of spot where a boat might run ashore. They continued along the riverbank until they saw a flash of white paint and a curved prow. The boat had indeed run aground, with all its food, clothing, and blankets still safely stowed. It had traveled five miles.

Harris left Jotter and walked back upriver to deliver the news to the rest of the crew. He promised to return as quickly as he could. He found his companions waiting around a little campfire on the opposite bank, cooking a dreary dinner of canned peas. Harris shouted to get their attention.

Clover, Nevills, Gibson, and Atkinson quickly climbed into the Botany and crossed the choppy water, fighting to hold a straight line. In giddy relief, they shook Harris’s hand and clapped him on the back. He and Atkinson decided to walk back to Jotter, taking the only flashlight. The rest of the group resigned themselves to a miserable night. The Botany had no cooking utensils and hardly any bedding among its cargo. They had to “chuck conventions”—Clover’s words—and huddle together for warmth. “What a night for the first one on the Colorado!” she wrote in her journal.

Harris and Atkinson didn’t make it back to Jotter straight away. The boulder-strewn terrain proved too difficult to navigate in darkness, and they lay shivering on a rock in wet clothes until dawn. Jotter spent the night alone. She dried out the food and bedding on the Mexican Hat and collected driftwood for a fire. She put her back against a stone and kept her face toward the flames. She toasted some bread and ate it. The river was rising, and soon Jotter had to move the fire back from its encroaching edge. Stars bloomed in the night sky above the canyon’s close walls—a great river of stars, perfectly echoing the real river below.

Jotter should have been afraid. Almost no one believed that she belonged on the expedition, let alone out on her own in the treacherous wilderness. The journey had barely begun—500 dangerous miles stretched ahead. Cataract Canyon was the expedition’s first test, and it seemed they were failing it. They were cut off from any hope of help if someone was injured, a boat was damaged by the rocks, or their food supply spoiled.

The noises of the night rose around Jotter—water rushing amid the roots of willow trees, the susurration of the river, small creatures rustling in the brush. She wrote in her logbook, “Felt quite alone.” But the solitude didn’t frighten her. She confessed, “I had a lovely time.”


Morning dawned pink and gold. Jotter woke early, washed her face in the river, and carefully applied her makeup, just as she and Clover did every morning in the early days of the expedition, before Jotter gave it up as “useless.” Then she waited. Harris and Atkinson arrived first, relieved to find her safe, and the rest came down in the Botany not long after, hungry for breakfast. 

Reunited, they continued downriver. Nevills and Harris, who had the most rowing experience, sometimes took the boats through the rapids one at a time, walking back between each run. It gave Gibson a chance to film with his 45-pound movie camera as the boatmen ran the rapids. But the arrangement also meant long periods of separation and nerve-fraying waits. Once, Gibson announced that he would abandon the river and walk to Moab, Utah, if Nevills turned up dead.

The mishap in Cataract Canyon had shaken the expedition. Sometimes Nevills didn’t want to plow through the whitewater before them. Instead, the group “lined” the boats—guiding them by rope from the shore—or dragged them overland on skids. Or they unloaded and carried them. Everyone pitched in when a portage was required; it was grueling work in the heat, with loose stones to dodge and pink rattlesnakes coiled in the sand. Nevills fretted that the women were taking on too much of the physical labor.

They drank river water that left their mouths lined with clay and grit in their teeth. A week into the trip, everyone grew nauseous. Prescription: a shot of whiskey. Gibson awoke one night in terror, yelling about the river closing over his head. After a while, even the rocks seemed to ripple and heave.

Like the river, Jotter’s journal took on a different character. During the wearisome drive from Michigan to Utah, she had delighted in plants—or, in her words, “botanized lots.” She noted the sinuous tracks of cottonwoods, recorded goatsbeard, white larkspur, and evening primrose, and lamented a “rather barren stretch as far as flowers go.” Now, on the Colorado, she and Clover rose every morning before the rest of the crew to gather plants, make notes, and cook breakfast for everyone. In the evening, one of them would press the specimens collected that day while the other made dinner. Jotter had little to say about their findings in her logbook. The botanists’ collection, she believed, would speak for itself once it was back in Michigan.

Jotter’s writing focused instead on the novelty of river life: cooking food over a campfire, washing clothes (her own and sometimes those of “the boys”), trying to bathe in the river or change in the privacy of her bedroll—all the daily domestic concerns of making and breaking camp. Only one topic consumed her more, and that was running the rapids.

On June 29, the group awoke to a landslide in the distance raising a cloud of white dust. The river was still high, muddy and red with runoff from the rain. Gypsum Creek Rapid lay ahead. The water seemed smooth, and Nevills decided to run it without stopping first to scout. Nevills and Clover went first in the WEN, then Gibson and Atkinson in the Botany. Without warning, the boats plunged over a steep drop. The Botany was tossed up, then overturned. Atkinson clung to the hull, but Gibson was gone, swept into the river—his nightmare come true.

Clover wrote that the little boat caught in the curl of the wave would have been a “beautiful sight if it had not been so dangerous.” Nevills bent to the oars of the WEN, heading to intercept Atkinson and the overturned boat. Atkinson clambered aboard while Clover grabbed the Botany’s trailing rope and hung on. Six feet from the shore, Nevills jumped out, intending to tie up the boats, but the slick rope ran through his fingers. He went into the river, too, while the boats swept on without him.

Some ways behind, Jotter and Harris made the run safely in the Mexican Hat, though they nearly lost the oars as the waves pummeled their boat. They found an exhausted Gibson struggling to keep his head above the water and pulled him aboard. Downstream they picked up Nevills, who had managed to swim to the riverbank. But the WEN and capsized Botany were gone from sight, lost to the raging river.

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

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

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

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4.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“We’re in for it!” he replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

9.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epilogue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The First Responders

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

By Kevin Hazzard

The Atavist Magazine, No. 92


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

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

Published in June 2019. Design updated in 2021.

Part I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Peter Safar

Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A paramedic,” the operations manager replied.

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

The man cut him off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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John Moon

Part III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” Moon asked, incredulous.

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

“For what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s Freedom House?” she asked.

“They’re a group of EMTs.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nancy Caroline

Part IV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Blood?” Caroline asked.

Moon nodded. “Looks like it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Part V

Moon was wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caroline started the engine and hit the gas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Minnesota Murderess

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The Minnesota Murderess

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

By Christine Seifert

The Atavist Magazine, No. 88


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

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

Published in February 2019. Design updated in 2021.

1. A Death Most Foul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

2. Scandal in Saint Paul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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3. Beware the Arsenic Assassins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Since calomel’s become their boast,

How many patients have they lost,

How many thousands they make ill,

Of poison, with their calomel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Not to Soothe but to Destroy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucinda replied, “I decline answering.”

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

“I am not prepared to answer this question.”

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

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

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

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

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

5. The Bird Had Flown

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

6. The Last Days of a Pettifogger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She stepped off the platform.

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7. The Legend of Ann Bilansky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Note on Sourcing

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

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

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

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

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

Barbearians at the Gate

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Barbearians at the Gate

A journey through a quixotic New Hampshire town teeming with libertarians, fake news, guns, and—possibly—furry invaders.

by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

The Atavist Magazine, No. 79


Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling is a Vermont-based investigative journalist. He is a grantee of the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting whose work has appeared in Popular Science and Foreign Policy, among other publications, and through the Weather Channel’s longform-journalism project. He is a recipient of the George Polk Award, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and a Maine Journalist of the Year.

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

Published in May 2018. Design updated in 2021.

In the summer of 2017, the survivalists began to worry—really worry—about the bears.

The problem wasn’t the animals’ nighttime behavior; that was just a nuisance. The survivalists were used to catching sight of the hulking intruders emerging from the darkened woods of rural New Hampshire to damage property, steal food, and deposit huge piles of excrement. Recently, though, the bears had started showing up in broad daylight, and not just at the survivalists’ encampment. Throughout Grafton, the tiny town on the outskirts of which the camp sat, residents told stories of furry forest dwellers pushing through porch windows, chasing house pets, getting drunk on fermented apples, and capering on rooftops. One bear had cleaned out a chicken coop by lying on its belly, reaching inside the structure’s tunneled entrance, and scrabbling around with an extended paw. The bleakest anecdotes told of bears swiping their claws through human skin as if it were tissue paper.

The survivalists agreed that something had to be done to defend their makeshift home. But no one suggested calling law enforcement. This was Tent City, a place people came to avoid government. The messy jumble of cabins, trailers, and tarps, anchored by an old carport that served as a communal lounge, was a crucible of self-reliance. Residents believed in untethering themselves from institutions, foraging for food, and hunting game with guns, arrows, and knives. When society inevitably collapsed under the weight of bureaucracy and corruption, they would be ready. Their lodestar was freedom.

Tent City, where the population swelled to 30 or more on any given night, was an extreme manifestation of cherished local norms. Reachable by one paved road and policed by one full-time cop, Grafton has no stoplights, zoning laws, or building codes. Personal freedom springs eternal, so much so that don’t-tread-on-me types from across America have moved there in search of a laissez-faire utopia. People live where and how they please: in ramshackle homes, solitary yurts, old cars, or shared camps.

The survivalists sketched out a multifaceted plan to protect themselves from the bears. Adam Franz, a bearded, restless man in his late thirties, managed the land that Tent City sat on. In his younger days, Franz had studied economics, designed computer programs, become an ordained minister, and played professional poker. Now he was the closest thing Tent City had to a mayor—which is to say that when he talked, people listened. This included both cohorts of the unregulated idyll: left and right. When I remarked on a Confederate flag slung across the front of a cabin, Franz directed my attention to a Bernie Sanders sign attached to another. “If you’re an anarchist of any stripe,” said Franz, who tends toward the left end of the spectrum, “this is a good place to be.”

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Franz’s anti-bear arsenal included firecrackers. “I also think we should get bottle rockets,” he said one day, talking loudly to be heard over the constant buzz of a generator. Guns were a given; they were as much a staple in Grafton as picket fences are in the suburbs. Franz had recently traded his .357 Magnum for a Taurus Judge .410. The Magnum was more accurate, the owner of his favorite gun store had told him, but if a bear got too close for comfort, the Judge would do more damage. Though it looked like a six-shooter, its bullets were so big that it held only five.

The residents of Tent City decided they needed a barrier of some sort. One man scrounged several cheap metal posts and scrap rolls of chain-link netting from local suppliers, and a small crew of volunteers got to work. They inched along Tent City’s winding perimeter, methodically erecting sections of a fence. They adorned it with bells, beer cans, and bottles filled with BB-gun pellets. This would be the alarm system.

One day the workers were hammering posts into the rocky earth when they heard a woman who lived in the camp call out. Urgently. Scanning the area around them, they saw why: A black bear was swaggering along a finished portion of the fence, not 30 feet away. It was as if the bear had appointed itself foreman and was inspecting the men’s progress.

What a goddamned insult, thought Franz, who was working on the fence that day. He shouted at the bear like someone trying to get a kid off his lawn: “Go away!”

The creature paused, as if calculating risk versus reward. Then, on heavy paws that doubled as lethal weapons, it lumbered toward the men. Still shouting, Franz held a lighter to a pack of firecrackers he’d stashed in his pocket. Flick, flick, flick—the fuse caught. He hurled the explosives toward the incoming enemy.

Popping and sizzling, the firecrackers hit the ground between the foes. Startled, the bear reversed course and galloped clumsily away from the men. When the clamor ceased, however, the animal stopped short of the forest. “He started watching us,” Franz recalled.

Several tense seconds dragged by. Finally, the creature slunk into the undergrowth and disappeared from sight. The humans took a gulp of air. They’d won the latest skirmish in Grafton’s escalating bear war.


“In my opinion, there is nothing out of the ordinary going on in Grafton.” So said Andrew Timmins, a wildlife biologist employed by the state of New Hampshire. Timmins is tall and muscled, with grizzled hair that he often wears tucked beneath his Fish and Game Department cap. He showed me a spreadsheet that documented the annual intake of “bear complaints,” his department’s name for reports of human encounters with the 6,000 or so black bears that roam New Hampshire. There was Grafton, a community of about 1,000 people in the state’s central region, with 50 complaints over the previous decade. It ranked 29 out of 227 towns, which placed it in the top 13 percent of bear-afflicted places. But was that really so surprising, given its forested location? Timmins insisted it was not.

He diagnosed a kind of xenophobia: People are often frightened of black bears for no good reason. Sure, the creatures are big—they can grow to 500 pounds or more—and they’ve got sharp teeth and claws. But according to Fish and Game’s public-education campaign, “Something’s Bruin in New Hampshire,” which is intended to “enhance public tolerance towards bears,” the animals “do not typically exhibit aggressive behavior.”

That was the opposite of what I’d been told in Grafton. I’d first visited the town for an assignment that had nothing to do with bears. It was bears, though, that kept me coming back. I was lured by tales told over kitchen tables, in gardens, and on front stoops about an unprecedented conflict between man and beast.

People in Grafton said that, year after year, the bears were getting bolder. The same anti-authority ethos that gave rise to Tent City convinced locals that the threat needed to be dealt with, no matter what any government data said. It’s illegal to kill a bear in New Hampshire without a special hunting license, yet I heard whispers that a vigilante posse had embarked on a clandestine hunt. Meanwhile, here was Adam Franz, flinging firecrackers and pledging to use his new Judge on a moment’s notice. “This is my baby,” he said when he let me hold the firearm, placing the weight of his trust in my palm. “I fuckin’ love that thing.”

I visited Grafton several times over two years to determine if, to poach Timmins’s words, “anything out of the ordinary” was happening there. When it came to bears, where did truth end and myth begin? What I found was more revealing than I expected: a parable of liberty, disinformation, and fear. A parable, really, of America.


Grafton’s unruliness and disdain for authority dates back centuries. Fittingly, when the town incorporated in the late 1700s, it took its name from the third Duke of Grafton, who’d served as England’s prime minister and scandalized his constituents by divorcing his wife because she was pregnant with the child of a lover, no doubt taken while her husband engaged in a very public affair with a courtesan. By then colonists in Grafton had long ignored the native Abenaki people’s respect for nature, divvying up and then clear-cutting vast tracts of forest. Eventually the settlers decided that royal laws were also impediments to their freedom and joined the revolutionary fight against colonial oppression. At every stage of this history, they turned their muskets against black bears, a species they’d decided was better off dead. They delivered the carcasses for bounties.

Over the century following the American Revolution, Grafton residents demonstrated mastery of their domain by transforming it into New Hampshire’s most intensively farmed region. They denuded hills and covered them with sweeping grasslands, hordes of sheep, and miles of stone walls. In 1868, they banded together to protect their livestock from a bushy-tailed black wolf described in the local newspaper as four feet tall and seven feet long. People built homes, mills, two churches, 12 schoolhouses, and several mines, including one that, in 1887, produced a 2,900-pound aquamarine crystal, the biggest ever found in the nation at that point. Three years later, about 15 miles from town, a wealthy, eccentric land speculator named Austin Corbin built a game reserve for species imported from out of state, including bighorn sheep, Russian boar, bison, and elk.

Then came a seismic change. As the U.S. economy shifted toward industry, farmers abandoned their livelihoods in droves. Over the course of the 20th century, Grafton lost nearly all its agricultural land. Neatly cultivated fields reverted to impenetrable thickets, stagnant bogs, and tangles of young trees. Clearings shrank until they were tiny islands, adrift in an inexorable sylvan tide.

The new forest had a strange, ominous flavor. In 1938, a hurricane breached the fences of Corbin’s reserve, releasing hundreds of animals into the wild, and Grafton residents described frequent encounters with the creatures’ startling descendants. Packs of coyote-wolf hybrids, once unheard of in the area, trailed people who were out walking their dogs. There were taller tales, too, of a Bigfoot-like creature, dragonflies as big as hawks, and birds with claw prints larger than a human hand.  

For a long time, Ursus americanus didn’t rank on locals’ list of worrisome fauna. Though the black bears’ habitat included some 90 percent of New Hampshire, they gave humans a wide berth. Attacks were exceedingly rare; the most recent was in the mid-20th century, and the last fatal one in 1784. Statistically speaking, and not only in New Hampshire, a person was (and still is) much more likely to suffocate in a giant vat of corn than be killed by a bear.

All was well until 1999. That’s when the cat massacre happened.


I heard about it when I first visited Grafton, in the fall of 2016. I was there to interview 62-year-old veteran Jessica Soule about her difficulties accessing support from the Department of Veterans Affairs. As I drove into town on Route 4, I observed that the town had no medical services or grocery store; one of its two gas stations had shut down.

Soule lived in an area of Grafton known as Bungtown, which received that name after an incident in the mid-1800s when bungs—a type of cork—came loose from barrels while they were in transit, allowing the liquid inside to spill out. Soule’s house had white siding and a creaky metal wheelchair ramp leading to the front entrance. When she answered the door, she wore a button-up shirt under two sweaters. A long, neat braid hanging over one shoulder softened her face.

Inside her house, the smell of cats hung in the stale air, trapped by tightly sealed windows. Several felines jockeyed for Soule’s attention. I sat on a lumpy couch with a quilt spread over it and was startled when one of the mounds beneath me began to move. “He’s hiding,” Soule said.

As we meandered through the usual small talk that precedes an interview, I noticed that Soule used a striking phrase: before the bears came. As in, “I used to let my cats outdoors, but that was before the bears came.” I asked her to explain.

One fine July night in 1999, Soule sat down at the picnic table in her backyard to enjoy the cool air. The moon had already risen. It looked like liquid silver—what the Abenaki called temaskikos, or the grass-cutter moon. Soule’s only companions that night were three cats, all less than a year old, wrestling near her feet.

As Soule relaxed, she heard footfalls behind her, quick and heavy. Before she could react, the bear was within a few feet of the picnic table. But instead of snatching her, it scooped up another feast: two of her kittens, whose mewling Soule could hear as the bear blew past her and disappeared into the woods.

It reemerged just beyond the tree line behind Soule’s house, near a small creek. The animal cut a bulky silhouette in the moonlight. Smaller shadows joined it: hungry bear cubs. All Soule could do was watch, horrified, as the creatures finished off their dinner and sauntered away.

Soule hunted desperately for her third cat, named Amber, in the woods. It wasn’t until morning, when the sun was up, that she found the tiny feline, huddled beneath a carpet of leaves. The cat was terrified but alive.

I asked what happened to Amber after that. “She’s right here,” Soule said, pointing to a cat nestled in the center of her lap like pet royalty. The milky-eyed feline, now 17 years old, was so rough coated that she looked taxidermic, and so decrepit that she could no longer retract her claws. Like her owner she was a veteran, a survivor.

“That,” Soule said, “was the beginning.”

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In Soule’s telling, the bears that ate her kittens developed a keen taste for felines. When other cats in Bungtown went missing, locals knew why. Soule said that a bear approached her front door one day. Perhaps it was the same mama bear, she thought, back for more. By then she’d gotten wise; she kept her cats inside, no longer left food scraps in the backyard for birds, and opened doors and windows only when she absolutely had to.

Andrew Timmins told me that he’d never received a bear complaint involving a cat, from Grafton or anywhere else. Plus, the idea that wild bears could acquire a taste for felines seemed dubious to him. When a Grafton resident told me about a bear that drained his biodiesel supply—a five-gallon container of two-year-old French-fry grease—I was reminded that bears will devour even the most loathsome fare, so long as it adds to their winter stores of fat. They’re after calories, not cuisine. Despite local perception, the cats of Bungtown probably weren’t the bears’ preferred target; they were just there.

Perception, though, matters a great deal when people craft stories about how they overcome obstacles and cope with conflict. Once the seed of the purported bear hazard was planted, stories nourished it. Often the light of reality was refracted such that it transformed an animal into a totemic version of itself: bandit or strongman, noble savage or mythic monster, bumbling idiot or cunning predator.

Alongside the stories, a few key ingredients influenced people’s assessment of the bears in their midst. First was a quantifiable increase in New Hampshire’s ursine population. In 1990, the state had some 3,000 bears. Steady annual growth, which peaked at 10 percent around the time that a bear got clawsy with Soule’s kittens, nearly doubled the population in the next quarter-century. During that same period, New Hampshire got serious about bear monitoring. Based on what wildlife experts deemed prudent preservation goals, the state designated population targets and bear-management strategies: how many annual hunting licenses to grant, how long hunting season should last, and even what hunters could use as bait. Chocolate, for example, was banned, because it could be toxic to bears. If a human wanted to kill a bear, they’d have to shoot it, not feed it a brownie. Fair’s fair.

The edicts and regulations didn’t sit well in Grafton, particularly with the town’s newest colonists, who started showing up in 2004. It sounds like the start of a bad joke: A lawyer, a firearms instructor, and the owner of a mail-order-bride business walk into a fire station. The three men were Tim Condon, Tony Lekas, and Larry Pendarvis, respectively, and they were avowed libertarians with the Free Town Project, a splinter group of a national initiative founded in 2001 to convince some 20,000 liberty-loving Americans to move to a chosen place, where they could concentrate their voting power and rid the political landscape of pesky rules. On the anything-goes frontier that Free Towners envisioned, people would be able to keep as many junk cars on their property as they wished, buy and sell sex without shame, gamble at will, consume drugs of all kinds, and educate their kids however they liked. Hell, they could even debate the merits of incest and cannibalism if they wanted.

If a human wanted to kill a bear, he’d have to shoot it, not feed it a brownie. Fair’s fair.

Condon, Lekas, and Pendarvis were scouts, tasked with looking for the right spot to pioneer the project. They focused on low-population states, including New Hampshire. An added bonus of the “Live Free or Die” state was that it didn’t impose income and sales taxes. The trio drove from town to town; some places were too far north—excessively cold and isolated—while others had strict zoning laws or a tight real estate market. Finally, the men came to Grafton, situated on a rugged stretch of 42 square miles. They met up with local volunteer firefighter John Babiarz, who had recently run for governor on the Libertarian ticket and won 3 percent of the vote. Now he and his wife, Rosalie, welcomed the three men around a folding table in Grafton’s firehouse, because there were no coffee shops or restaurants in town. They discussed their shared pet peeves, namely busybody bureaucrats and onerous laws.   

Grafton was the mecca the scouts had been looking for. The town had more land than people and virtually no statutes governing property. There were fewer than 800 registered voters, most of whom didn’t bother showing up at the polls, and because Babiarz already had a base of support, he could help tip the political scales in the project’s favor. What’s more, natives loved their guns as much as they despised meddling government. The scouts stopped their search and sent word to their fellow Free Towners, along with the phone number and email address of a local realtor.

How many people answered the call to move to Grafton is hard to say. Libertarians aren’t exactly known for keeping records. According to the federal census, between 2000 and 2010, the town’s population swelled by more than 200 residents. Soon after the project was launched, Free Towners began purchasing hundreds of acres of land, which they made available, at their discretion, to like-minded people who wanted to establish permanent homesteads or temporary encampments. Tent City, then in its early days as a home base for Grafton’s most extreme natives, served as a model of the type of loosely organized community that might work for the newcomers.

Grafton’s newest denizens infused its relaxed culture with impudence. At the annual apple festival, they encouraged children to dip homemade United Nations flags into a bonfire. At town meetings, which were usually sleepy affairs, they emphatically insisted that Grafton withdraw from the regional school district, condemn The Communist Manifesto, and eliminate funding for the local library. None of those proposals gained any traction; for all the ideological DNA they shared with the new arrivals, longtime Grafton residents thought some of the Free Towners’ ideas crossed the line of common sense. Still, the settlers managed to pass measures to slash the town’s budget by 30 percent (later rescinded on a procedural technicality) and to deny funding to the county’s senior-citizens council.  

Babiarz, who went on to become Grafton’s fire chief, gradually distanced himself from the project’s purists, deciding that he preferred a less evangelical brand of liberty. Yet he maintained common ground with Free Towners on plenty of things, including the threat of bears.


The same year the Free Town scouts came to Grafton, a bear stole onto Babiarz’s farm on Slab City Road, where he and Rosalie live in a converted 19th-century schoolhouse, and eviscerated one of his rams. By the time I visited Babiarz in 2017, bears had infiltrated his property numerous times, making off with chickens sleeping in their coop, sheep locked in their paddock, and apples swinging from tree branches. Babiarz, a tall, lean 60-year-old who has now run unsuccessfully for governor four times, became convinced that one bear in particular watched him from somewhere in the forest. It waited for him to run an errand or visit the fire station, and then it struck. This damn bear was a seasoned criminal, Babiarz told me in his small kitchen, where amid potted plants and household clutter an old sign urged me to elect Libertarian Harry Browne president in 1996.

Babiarz and the bear had a fundamental disagreement over how many of the farm’s livestock were there for the taking. His starting position was zero. The bear’s was all of them. “It had no fear,” Babiarz said. “Which is a problem.” He decided that pain-based deterrence was called for. He loaded an electric fence with strips of bacon, hoping to zap any hungry bears in the mouth. On the ground outside his chicken coops, he laid down boards with nails or screws sticking skyward to puncture the soles of bear paws. One board I saw had claw marks on it and a screw was missing. “Yep, it went right through,” Babiarz said, referring to the unlucky bear that had stepped on the board. “There was blood pouring. There was nice red all over.”

Babiarz and the bear had a fundamental disagreement over how many of the farm’s livestock were there for the taking. His starting position was zero. The bear’s was all of them.

One September morning, he came home from town to find a bear—the bear, Babiarz claimed—sitting on its rump and feasting on a chicken. “Like a human at a campfire, munching,” Babiarz recalled with dismay. How had it gotten past every line of defense? Babiarz sprinted into his house and grabbed a Ruger .44 Magnum from his closet, but by the time he got back outside, the bear was galumphing toward the refuge of the forest. Panting, Babiarz took aim and pulled the trigger. The Magnum bucked in his hand, exploding with sound.

“Apparently, I missed him,” Babiarz said. A concerned look crept over his face as he told this part of the story. He gestured toward the woods, adding, “He was a moving target against a black background.”

I realized that Babiarz felt he had to defend his marksmanship. Competition was everywhere, after all. In 2012, New Hampshire had attained America’s highest per capita rate of machine-gun ownership; federal data showed nearly 10,000 of the weapons registered in the state.

“There’s a lot of trees here,” Babiarz continued. “Hitting it would have been a miracle.”

I squinted in the direction the bear had gone. After a pause that felt sufficient for reflecting on a deep knowledge of firearms—which I by no means had—I replied in solidarity.

“That’s a really tough shot.”

Babiarz looked relieved. He went back to talking about the bear. It was out there still, his Moby Dick. He was sure of it.


Can bears be calculating? Babiarz and other Grafton residents I spoke to sure seemed to think so. Dave Thurber, a Vietnam War veteran who lives up the road from Jessica Soule, recounted how, one dark winter night, he had a feeling that something wasn’t right. He peeled back a corner of the curtains covering his living room windows and peered out at the front lawn, where he spotted a bear delicately licking sunflower seeds from a bird feeder. When a car approached, the bear flattened itself against a snow bank like an escaping prisoner evading a watchtower spotlight. After the car passed, the bear resumed eating.

Rumors of the bears’ cunning had planted unsettling questions in the minds of Grafton residents: How close are we to a bear right now? Could one be just beyond someone’s front door or hiding behind a nearby tree, casing a pet or, worse, someone’s child?

I put the question of bear intelligence to Ben Kilham, a wildlife biologist and leading expert in ursine behavior, who happens to live about 20 miles from Grafton. Before he became interested in bears, Kilham designed guns. Now his personal website features a photograph of his head and upper torso protruding from the entrance to a bear’s den. He has adopted and raised dozens of orphan cubs, which he releases into the wild and tracks for thousands of hours apiece. He has been bitten and scratched more times than he can count, but never seriously. State wildlife officials speak of him reverently, and his fame has gone global. In an Imax documentary released in April 2018, he’s featured as a bear whisperer helping China reintroduce pandas into the wild.  

Kilham suggested that if I really wanted to learn the truth, I should read a book he wrote entitled In the Company of Bears. The book paints a picture of bears—worrying or inspiring, depending on your priors—as the Einsteins of the wild. According to Kilham, bears have a highly developed sense of self. They can also count to 12 (higher than chimpanzees), transport and use tools, observe societal bonds that include a rudimentary sense of justice, remember the distant past, calculate the likelihood of future events, and, if necessary, ask other bears to care for their offspring. Kilham also asserts that bears can screen foods for palatability by mouthing them and inhaling their scent. He came to the idea after noticing cubs gently manipulating leaves, mushrooms, and frogs with their snouts. Kilham developed a working theory that bears have a special sensory organ about the size of a jellybean embedded in their palate, which he dubbed the Kilham organ. He finally proved its function when, he told me, he “boiled a half-rotted bear head and found what I was looking for.”

Kilham comes across as the Jane Goodall of bears, uniquely positioned to understand the species. Also like Goodall, his insights aren’t always backed up by hard data or laboratory tests, leaving him vulnerable to academic criticism. In his book, the only evidence he cites that a bear can out-count a chimp is his experience with one bear, named Squirty, who always seemed to know when Kilham had shorted her one or two cookies from a sleeve of Oreos. Yet formal studies measuring bear intelligence generally support Kilham’s conclusions. Bears in captivity have been observed solving problems—moving stumps to use as stepladders in order to access high-hanging fruit, for instance—and distinguishing between different numbers of dots on a screen.

A more enduring critique of animal behaviorists is their tendency to anthropomorphize, or assign human characteristics to the species they study. Here the question is one of intent: why animals do what they do. If a bear lingers in the presence of a screaming survivalist, is it calculating its odds of getting fed or shot, or processing a more basic fight-or-flight reaction? It’s hard to answer these questions definitively, because we can’t read animals’ minds. That doesn’t stop Kilham from trying, however, nor has it stopped Babiarz and other Grafton residents from ascribing human motivations to the bears prowling around town.

Maybe they do so because it’s easier to think you know an enemy than it is to admit that you don’t and never will. Or perhaps, as scholars have suggested, anthropomorphism is an evolved trait, a kind of shorthand that allowed primitive humans to interpret animal behavior and protect themselves accordingly. Millions of years later, we still feel the urge to think of animals as basically like us, even if we live an infinitely safer existence; we don’t hunt to survive, and we’re not hunted. Tested only rarely in high-stakes circumstances, our assessment of creatures as friend or foe can be exaggerated or ill applied—sometimes to comic effect.


One night in the spring of 2009, in a house on a hill overlooking Grafton’s somnolent downtown, a sheep farmer named Dianne Burrington was awoken by frantic bleating. She reacted instinctively, throwing back her covers, leaping from bed, and racing to the kitchen for her rifle. Burrington, then in her fifties, grabbed a pistol from a drawer for good measure before bursting out the front door “half-assed dressed” in her nightgown and a coat.

Burrington wasn’t a shit taker—she was a shit kicker. If you were casting her in a movie, you’d want Kathy Bates: someone solid, assertive, and able to project a down-home friendliness. Whatever was out there, Burrington would deal with it. A coyote? No problem; she’d shot one before. As for bears, she’d installed an electric fence to keep them out. It hadn’t failed her yet.

She sprinted through tufted pasture toward her barn. As she got closer, she realized that most of the braying was coming from Hurricane, her llama. Standing five feet nine inches tall and weighing 400 pounds, Hurricane was the farm’s guard animal. Burrington claimed that he patrolled the fence line and kept an eye on the smallest sheep, ushering stragglers into their pens at the end of the day. He was a noisy animal; when a potential danger stressed him out, he hummed. But the sound he was making that night was more like honking, as if he was sounding an alarm.

Burrington rounded a corner of the barn and saw what had Hurricane upset: a bear, which must have slipped through the electric fence wires like a boxer entering the ring. In the ensuing chaos, as sheep stampeded away in fear, a portion of the fence had been torn from its support on the barn. Now a ewe was tangled in the wreckage, panicking. Juggling her firearms in one hand, Burrington reached into her coat pocket and pulled out a pair of scissors. A few snips and the ewe was free.

By then the bear had fled, with the llama hot on its heels. “Hurricane!” Burrington bellowed. “No!” She took off running, too, a distant third in a race toward the fence line separating pasture from forest.

Burrington feared that if the bear turned around, Hurricane would be done for. As she ran, she cocked her pistol. But the bear, flustered no doubt by the llama and the farmer, seemed not to see the thin, electrified wires he was barreling toward. He ran into them full force; their tension bowed and rebounded. The bear caromed back at an angle, spinning across the ground. When it regained its feet, the bear turned to face Hurricane. Burrington looked on helplessly.

She learned something surprising that night: Despite their cartoonish appearance, llamas can fight like hell. They have six pronounced, razor-sharp “fighting teeth” at the front of their mouths for that purpose. In a whir of gnashing incisors and pummeling hooves, Hurricane assaulted the prone bear until it managed to pull itself away, slip through the fence, and disappear from sight. The llama snorted and stamped the ground and brayed some more—this time, Burrington was sure, with pride.

Of the clashes in Grafton’s bear war, Hurricane’s triumph was an instant classic among dinner-table tales. It elicited gasps of horror and laughs of delight in equal measure. Another attack, though, prompted only frowns and solemn vows of retaliation.

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Tracey Colburn lived in a little yellow house in the middle of the woods. She was used to seeing bears in her yard, up in her trees, and raiding her compost pile, where they chucked aside cabbage in what she could only interpret as disgust. Colburn was in her forties, with long brown hair and a youthful face. She’d had a tough go of it; a breast-cancer diagnosis cut her college career short, and a long string of clerical and municipal jobs were unfulfilling. In 2012, she was in and out of work, but she had enough savings to care for her dog, Kai, a Husky-Labrador mix she’d rescued from a shelter. Kai had developed allergies to wheat and corn, two of the main ingredients in cheap dog food, so she was trying not to give him the stuff.

One muggy weekend, the kind where you leave the windows open to welcome even the slightest breeze, Colburn sliced up a cold pot roast and fed it to Kai. Then she let him out to pee. She was startled to see that her small porch, eight by ten feet, was “just full of bear.” Two of the animals, young ones, were down on all fours sniffing the deck. A bigger, older bear stood right in front of Colburn. Kai rocketed at it, and Colburn screamed. The bear lunged at the sound. “They move like lightning,” she told me.

The bear raked Colburn’s face and torso with its left paw. Its claws dug into one forearm, thrown up in self-defense, and then the other. Colburn, who’d fallen onto her back, tried to push herself inside but realized she’d accidentally closed the door when her head thumped glass. “She was going to frickin’ kill me, I just knew it, because her face was right here,” Tracey said, holding her hand about eight inches in front of her nose. “I was looking right into her eyes.”

Kai must have bitten the bear’s rear legs then, because it jerked away from Colburn. The two animals started snarling and fighting in the yard. Colburn regained her feet and scrambled inside the house, shaking from adrenaline. She looked at her right hand. It didn’t hurt, but it made her stomach turn. The bear had unwrapped the skin from the back of her hand like it was a Christmas present. The gaping hole showed ligaments, muscles, and blood. Colburn looked around her kitchen and picked up a clean dishcloth to wrap the wound.

Kai, only slightly injured, came trotting back toward the house; the bear was nowhere in sight. “Huskies prance. He come prancing out of the shadows, big grin on his face,” Colburn recalled. “Like it was the most wonderful thing he’d ever done.” But she was worried that the bear and its cubs were still out there, waiting for her. It was a terrifying prospect, because she needed to go outside. She didn’t get cell reception in her house, and she couldn’t afford a landline, so there was no way to get in touch with anyone to help her stanch the blood pouring from her injuries.

Carrying a lead pipe to defend herself, Colburn made a desperate run for her white Subaru, only to realize, once she was safely inside, that her mangled right hand couldn’t move the stick shift. Reaching across her body with her left hand, she got the car into gear and puttered down the driveway. She rolled along until she got to the home of a neighbor named Bob. When she rang his doorbell, he stuck his head out an upstairs window.

“I’ve just been attacked by a bear,” Colburn said, breathing heavily.

“Hold on,” Bob replied, and he ducked back inside. A few seconds later, his head popped back out.

“Uh, you’re kidding, right?” he asked.

Colburn conveyed, in painful shouts, that she was most certainly not kidding, and Bob quickly gave her a ride to the fire station. John Babiarz happened to be on duty. “Those goddamn bears!” he kept repeating. He called emergency responders, who whisked Colburn in an ambulance to the nearest hospital, then he phoned the Fish and Game Department. The person on the line was incredulous, like Bob before him. “It’s been a century since we’ve had a bear attack on a person,” the man said, referring to the whole of New Hampshire.

“I’m here!” Babiarz yelled back. “I see the blood!”

Doctors told Colburn that her body would heal. When she was released from the hospital, a warden from Fish and Game showed up at her house to erect a box trap in her yard. After he left, Colburn peeked at the single pink doughnut resting inside. That night she heard a bear banging on the side of the trap, but the next day the doughnut was still there. A few days later, the warden decided that the trap was useless, packed it up, and took it away.

Colburn thought about the bear all the time. She wondered how often it had ventured into her yard, onto her porch, and up to her windows without her knowing. Not like a Peeping Tom. Peeping Toms were people, and bears, she now knew for sure, were nothing like people. “If you look at their eyes,” she told me, “you understand that they are completely alien to us.”


At least one theory of aggressive ursine behavior supports the takeaway that bears are monstrous. Jaroslav Flegr, a biologist at Charles University in the Czech Republic, studies Toxoplasma gondii, a protozoan parasite that lives inside warm-blooded animals and reproduces inside cats. (T. gondii is the reason pregnant women are told to steer clear of litter boxes.) When the parasite gets into an animal’s brain, the effects can ramify through the central nervous system. Flegr explained that infected people can become less risk averse. Men with T. gondii, for instance, have higher levels of testosterone and less regard for authority than they otherwise would.

Homo sapiens aren’t the only species that T. gondii can cause to act strangely—black bears are at risk, too. A study from the Journal of Wildlife Diseases found that 80 percent of black bears examined in a lab tested positive for the parasite.

It’s compelling to imagine that a horde of bears, zombified by a brain bug that triggers risky behavior, is terrorizing a small American town. But that’s more likely the stuff of science fiction than of good science. A more probable explanation for bold bear behavior is bold human behavior—which, in Grafton, means people embracing individual liberty. And one person’s freedom, it turns out, can be another’s burden.

It’s compelling to imagine that a horde of bears, zombified by a brain bug that triggers risky behavior, is terrorizing a small American town.

Take the case of two women I’ll call Doughnut Lady and Beretta, for reasons that will soon be clear. (Neither wanted to be named in this story.) They both live deep in Grafton’s forest, and Beretta’s house is just down the hill from Doughnut Lady’s. When I met her, Beretta spoke in a sharp, clipped way, and she favored pronouncements like “My handyman is such a leftist” and “Do not write a story glorifying it.” The “it” in this case was her neighbor’s behavior. Beretta suggested that Doughnut Lady was treating a serious threat like it was all “fun and games.”

For some 20 years, dating back to around the time that Jessica Soule’s kittens were gobbled up, Doughnut Lady had been feeding Grafton’s bears. She was now in her seventies and owlish, with glasses and a no-nonsense demeanor. She told me that she started feeding the bears accidentally; they stole grub from her two cows, Princess and Buttercup. Then, several years ago, she felt sorry for the bears and got into the habit of feeding them directly. The ritual was this: Every day at sunrise, and again in the late afternoon, she tottered outside with two buckets of grain. Up to eight bears at a time waited for her at the edge of the forest, where she poured the grain into two piles and topped each one with six sugared doughnuts. The animals ate in an orderly fashion, side by side on the ground, and then the cubs would clamber up nearby trees or Doughnut Lady’s satellite dish.

The number of bears grew, and food costs ballooned. Doughnut Lady didn’t want to admit how much the enterprise cost her—“I’m embarrassed, I really am,” she admitted to me—except to say that it represented a significant portion of her monthly budget. But the bears were darn cute, and they never once bothered her cows. Doughnut Lady showed me a homemade calendar she’d compiled featuring pictures of the bears.  

Hadn’t she been worried that she might fall down in the midst of her unusual chore, leaving her vulnerable to animals the size of sumo wrestlers? In a tone that suggested I was being silly, Doughnut Lady said that the thought hadn’t fazed her. Not because she was sure-footed. Indeed, she told me that she fell frequently in winter, when the ground was slick with ice.

I soon learned that there were four or five other families in Grafton who fed the bears, in defiance of state recommendations. Fish and Game was intolerant of such generosity: If you fed one bear, the department said, more bears will want to be fed, and once a bunch of bears get accustomed to food and its human sources, they’ll keep coming back whether you like it or not. Fish and Game recommended that, in addition to not deliberately offering bears tasty snacks, people should use airtight trash cans, keep meat scraps out of compost piles, and take down bird-feeders in early spring, when bears emerge from their dens.

Late one night in 2017, the long-simmering debate about bear feeding took on added urgency when Beretta heard noises outside her house. She grabbed her gun, the brand of which you can guess, and went to investigate. Paw prints littered the ground, and she was sure she knew which doughnut-fattened creatures had left them. This wasn’t the first time the bears from up the hill—a “sleuth” of them, to use the correct collective nomenclature—had gotten too close for comfort. Once, when she was preparing to leave the house for a shift at a volunteer job, she’d been stymied by several bears prowling in her yard, blocking the route to her car. Beretta had called her boss to say that she’d be late, due to unforeseen bear. On more than one occasion, she’d seriously considered shooting a bear and turning it into a rug, but she never acted on the impulse; fashioning the style she really wanted, with the bear’s head intact, would be too expensive.

After discovering the paw prints, Beretta called Grafton’s police officer to complain about her neighbor’s feeding habits. He said he couldn’t help, so Beretta called Fish and Game, which agreed to look into the matter. That’s how a uniformed warden wound up on Doughnut Lady’s doorstep.

Like many Grafton residents, Doughnut Lady referred to Fish and Game as “F and G,” but she put her own spin on the name, so that it sounded like “effin’ G”—as in, “The effin’ G came to attack me.” The warden showed her a printed copy of the state’s public-nuisance laws and told her that her daily feedings could lead to prosecution.

“You deserve a budget cut,” Doughnut Lady told him before slamming the door.

Angry, she called a lawyer, who said that while a legal case against her wouldn’t be airtight—the state would have to prove that her actions, not some other cause, were clearly the root of a defined problem or danger—she should probably stop feeding the bears. What if they hurt someone? She was sure they wouldn’t, but she wanted to avoid further scrutiny. The next morning, she didn’t go outside for the morning grain dump. She felt terrible. Doughnut Lady couldn’t look out her window for fear of making eye contact with the hungry bears waiting for her.

“So that was it,” she said, her eyes moist.

Then, brightening, Doughnut Lady suggested that she could try a new strategy. She could plant blueberries and other calorie-rich flora that bears enjoy. She hinted, too, that she could stretch the definition of planted. Take sunflower seeds, for instance: Bears loved them, and she could scatter them on her property however she wanted. “I could just put them on the ground,” she mused, “and they’re planted.”


Fish and Game contends that “the majority of human/bear conflicts can be avoided,” to the tune of 86 percent, if people act responsibly with their grub. It was no surprise to learn that, in 2012, the year Tracey Colburn was attacked, New Hampshire suffered a drought that limited the animals’ usual fare of bushes, berries, and bugs. Fish and Game got more than 1,000 bear complaints that year, many of them describing animals anxious to get their paws on human food.

Regardless of the reasons for the attack, some locals saw it as a breaking point, a violation of the line between man and nature that demanded recompense. The day after the incident made local news, Colburn stood on her porch and watched as a pickup truck bumped up the dirt road past her house. Inside the cab were several men. The bed held a large wooden box containing hunting dogs, whose acute sense of smell and loud baying would lead the men to their prey. The men didn’t acknowledge Colburn, and she never saw them again. She was fine with that; if an illegal bear hunt was happening, she didn’t want to know about it.

I very much wanted to know about it, so I asked around. As soon as I did, I got what I learned to be a mainstay of small talk in Grafton: friendly advice. It came in various forms, like “I’m a proud gun owner” slipped with a smile between someone’s descriptions of their pets. Tom Ploszaj, a scruffy guy who lives in a trailer in an encampment where the preferred method of keeping bears away is pouring cayenne pepper all over the garbage, explained the subtext to me. “There’s a lot of places around here where they’ll never put a shovel into the dirt,” Ploszaj said. “You don’t want to find one of those places.” I had no idea what he meant, so he clarified: “If you ask too many questions, you might be in a hole in the woods, and no one’s going to find you.”

“It’s like being a German in Nazi Germany and not wanting to kill the Jews. You hear about it, and you know it’s happening, but you just don’t want to think about it.”

It never came to that, but getting answers was still like pulling teeth. During one of my trips to town, a pair of men standing on the wooden porch of the Grafton Country Store told me that an illegal posse had hunted and killed 13 bears in one day. When I pressed for details, the men clammed up, as if suddenly remembering that they shouldn’t brag to a journalist about breaking the law. Another resident said he knew about the vigilante hunt and opposed it, but would never have put up any resistance. “It’s like being a German in Nazi Germany and not wanting to kill the Jews,” he said. “You hear about it, and you know it’s happening, but you just don’t want to think about it.”

I asked the town’s police officer, Russell Poitras, about the posse, and he said he didn’t know anything about it. Would it have been possible to hear the bear hunt, I asked—all those gunshots fired in the woods? Sure, Poitras said, but gunfire was to Grafton what traffic is to a big city: background noise.

Another local resident, who asked not to be named because she feared repercussions, was more helpful. She told me that one day, in the middle of winter, when hibernating bears were easier targets than they were during legal hunting season, she answered a knock at her door. Standing there was John Dodge. He spoke of “us,” and the woman understood that Dodge was there with a few other men. They were probably behind him on the road, bundled up inside their trucks and away from the freezing air.

Dodge told the woman that the group wanted to kill a bear whose den was inside a hill on her land.

“I got nothing to do with it,” she replied.

“We need to know if we can get on your property,” Dodge explained.

“What I don’t know won’t hurt me,” she told him with a shrug. “I won’t look out my window.”

After that she heard gunfire in fits and starts. She stayed inside and didn’t peek out, as she’d promised. A few days later, Dodge told her that the posse had finished its work, which had included much more than shooting the single bear on her property. “He said they got them, emptied them out,” the woman told me. “He said it was 13.”

Would Dodge or the other men talk to me? I wondered. “They agreed that they’re not going to,” the woman said. Word had gotten around about the questions I was asking, and an omerta was in effect. This surprised me less than the revelation that I’d already spoken to Dodge some months prior. His door was one of many I’d knocked on while first sussing out tales of Grafton’s bears, before I knew about the posse.

“I just moved here,” he’d said. “I haven’t seen any bears.” Then he’d shut the door.

In fact, I learned, Dodge was raised in Grafton and had lived alongside bears his whole life. Armed with this knowledge, I drove to his house, parked across the road, and approached him when he came into his yard. Rangy, with a sun-browned forehead, skullcap of white hair, and mouth that cut a straight line across his skeptical face, Dodge listened while I explained that I wasn’t trying to get him in any trouble—I just wanted to know the story.

“I still ain’t going to talk to anybody. I don’t want nothing to do with it,” he said. “You can explain it, but I don’t want to get involved with it.”

Dodge denied taking part in any posse. He added that he’s part Cherokee, and killing bears was a violation of that heritage. Then he offered me some friendly advice: “If you find out about this bear hunt that you keep mentioning, you’re going to have a problem.” I took him to mean that the members of the posse would wield some brand of street (forest?) justice at me and anyone who snitched. I thanked him for his time and walked toward my car.

“Just leave me out of it,” he called after me. “Because a war’s going to come, and I’m going to be right in the middle of it.” What role he’d play exactly he didn’t say.


It’s easy to see locals like Dodge as foolhardy and eager to use the bear threat, whether real, imagined, or embellished, as an excuse to live out action-movie fantasies. But when I looked under the hood of New Hampshire’s law and order, I found deficiencies—the kind that people might take as evidence that they needed to act on their own.

Budget troubles in recent years have forced Fish and Game to reduce its staff size. Wardens, of which there are 32 statewide, are stretched thin. They handle upwards of 600 bears complaints annually, among thousands of other calls, and Andrew Timmins admitted that it can be hard to do much more than keep track of the number and type of reports. When I asked him if I could review the department’s paperwork on the Colburn attack, he said that none existed. “Given the magnitude of the work, sometimes details slip through the cracks,” Timmins wrote in an email, speculating on why a responding warden didn’t write the incident up. “I can tell you from experience that there are times when I would not have time to do the same.”

To a journalist, it was a frustrating answer. I imagined it might be the same for people who prefer that bears not devour pets, destroy property, or get violent with innocents like Colburn. “If the government won’t do its job, the people will,” Babiarz told me one day.

But what is the government’s job in the eyes of a citizenry that exists on a political spectrum from lightly libertarian to all-out anarchist? Only a well-funded, organized state agency can efficiently safeguard communities from bears, and Grafton is full of people who tend to support the depletion of government coffers. Babiarz, I realized, probably didn’t want a state agent coming to his farm to capture or kill the chicken-eating bear. More likely, he wanted New Hampshire to lift restrictions on his right to shoot the animal or, if he felt like it, to feed it chocolate. That was the state’s job: to protect his freedom.

“I feel, on my property, I have the right to defend and protect,” Babiarz told me. “If I see a problem bear, I will deal with it. We can argue about it in court later on.”  

What is the government’s job in the eyes of a citizenry that exists on a political spectrum from lightly libertarian to all-out anarchist?

Driving around Grafton, I passed dilapidated houses that stood like rotting teeth against a yawning green mouth of New England forest. Other fossils of town history were submerged in the intruding wilderness: platforms that once held church revivals, cemeteries in various states of senescence, foundations of long-abandoned homesteads. This, nature’s relentless fecundity, molded the town’s Great Bear Drama—a mix of luring, feeding, shouting, shooting, and storytelling. History also played a part, as did politics and culture. Vital, too, was the prism of individual experience.

One day I found myself thinking of C.I. Lewis, a New England–based philosopher who wrote a book called Mind and the World Order in 1929. At the time, his college-age daughter was dying of leukemia. Lewis used the term qualia to describe the unique properties that someone senses during a life event. His daughter, for instance, likely felt pain, the weight of her body, and the speed of time in ways that he, at her bedside, could not. What did qualia mean, Lewis wondered, for the concept of shared reality and objective truth?

Perhaps Grafton’s relationship with bears was a huge bundle of qualia, stacked like cords of wood. Every resident’s experience looked awfully like the one next to it, as if cut from the same tree, and they were all bound by the ties of a communal existence. Yet up close, each one was distinct, shaped in various ways by ferality and freedom.

Late in the spring of 2018, I visited Grafton one last time. At the end of the day, in a deepening dusk, I steered my car up a rocky dirt road and around tall, twisting trees toward Tent City. I wanted to talk to the survivalists again, to see whether their bear troubles had faded or intensified in recent months. I got there later than I’d intended and could barely see the camp in the gloom. I made out the finished barrier, more motley than originally conceived: a crude network of chain-link, metal gates, and picket-fence sections, all of it trussed together in a common function.  

I reached the road’s end; I would have to walk from there. Rolling down the window of my car, I squinted at an indistinct shape moving in the woods. Was it a survivalist, foraging for mushrooms or firewood? Or was it a bear, foraging for something else? If I couldn’t tell what it was, would the survivalists know I was human when they saw my figure approaching their camp in the creeping darkness? If not, would firecrackers or worse come flying my way?

I spent a long moment considering unwanted consequences, whether wrought by man or by beast, and the fact that danger, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Then I rolled up my window and drove back the way I came, leaving Tent City to another restless night.

Losing Conner’s Mind

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Losing Conner’s Mind

The race to save a child from a genetic death sentence.

By Amitha Kalaichandran

The Atavist Magazine, No. 74


Amitha Kalaichandran is a resident physician and a health and science writer in Ottawa. Her work has been featured in The New York TimesThe Boston GlobeNew York magazine, and Stat News, among other publications.

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

Published in December 2017. Design updated in 2021.

Chapter One

The lightning hit on a sweltering and stormy June afternoon. It thrashed through the chimney of the Beishes’ two-story home in Denton, Maryland, a rural community, before ripping into the basement. There it arced into the gas line, setting off an explosion that shook the walls of the house.

Jeff Beish, a truck driver, was often away for extended stretches of time. That day in 2016, however, he was in the living room with his three-year-old son watching television. “It was the loudest boom I’d ever heard. Then I saw smoke spring up through the wall,” Jeff said. “I grabbed Conner, booked it, and called 911.” While they stood outside in the yard, the fire surged through the living room floor.

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“Thank God it happened during the day and not while we were asleep,” Hollie, Jeff’s wife, added. She and the Beishes’ other son, seven-year-old Jaxon, had been out running errands. By the time they got home, firefighters had extinguished the flames. The house was salvageable, but electrical wiring needed to be rerouted, and floors and walls required structural repairs. The Beishes spent the next month at a nearby hotel.

Which would have been fine, except that Conner was sick. He had been for months, and the cause was a mystery. He got worse at the hotel. The Beishes hoped that the elusive condition wasn’t serious and they’d find the right treatment soon. Certainly, they reassured themselves, it was nothing catastrophic. After all, the cliché is that lightning never strikes the same place twice.


Born in August 2012, Conner had been a healthy infant. He was prone to colds and had “baby asthma,” but the doctors said that would go away. By the time he turned one, he had a full head of wavy blond hair that Hollie kept long. Sometimes it fell down his forehead, meeting the long brown eyelashes that framed his blue eyes. He had a wide, mischievous smile. He started walking at 13 months and two months later was chasing Jaxon around the house dressed as a lobster for Halloween.

Words came slowly to Conner. By his second birthday, he’d mastered about ten of them; at that age, the number should have been at least 50. “I assumed it was because Jaxon would always speak for him,” Hollie said, something big brothers often do. “Sometimes I thought maybe he was just shy.” The Beishes’ pediatrician said not to worry, that some children gain words in bursts. Family and friends were also reassuring. “They would joke that once he started talking, he wouldn’t stop,” Jeff recalled. Months passed and Conner’s progress was still glacial. The Beishes took him to a speech pathologist.  

Hollie was in her late twenties then, five-foot-three with green eyes and a silver hoop through the inner cartilage of one ear. Jeff was a few years older, was much taller, and liked to wear baseball caps backward. They’d met ten years prior at a Walgreens, where she’d worked as a clerk and he’d made regular drop-offs driving a Coca-Cola delivery truck. Hollie had decided to be a full-time mom, which suited her “strict and structured” personality, she told me. It also meant that she was the person who adapted the most to Conner’s limited communication.

“Eat! Eat!” he would yell when he was hungry. Hollie would take him to the pantry or fridge and point to various food items. He would nod or gesture at what he wanted. “It was a bit like negotiating,” Hollie explained. If Conner didn’t know a word, he would make a sound instead—imitating the sucking of liquid through a straw if he was thirsty, for instance. Some words he understood but couldn’t quite say: Jaxon was “Bubba,” Jeff was “Da,” and Hollie was “Me.”

Conner started preschool at three. When picture day rolled around, on October 1, 2015, Hollie dressed him in khaki pants and an OshKosh collared shirt with white and beige stripes. She noticed that he seemed tired. At school, Conner sat for his picture against a blue background that matched his eyes, offering the photographer a measured, close-lipped smile.

Then, as he made his way across the classroom to return to his seat, Conner suddenly went limp. He crumpled onto the carpet. His teacher rushed him to the nurse’s office. His forehead felt warm, and soon he began convulsing. Conner’s seizure, his first, lasted six minutes.

When the school called Hollie, she jumped in her dark purple Ford SUV and resisted the urge to speed. “I even put the car on cruise control,” she said. She also forced herself to stop crying, because the tears were blurring her vision. She didn’t want to get into an accident.

At the hospital where Conner had been rushed in an ambulance, doctors ruled out an infection like meningitis. Then they sent him home. “It could happen again, or it might not happen again,” one of them told Hollie. If it did, she shouldn’t worry. About 470,000 children in the United States have epilepsy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but an underlying medical condition isn’t the only cause of seizures. High temperatures can also trigger an episode in a developing brain. The doctor told Hollie that Conner had likely experienced one of these so-called febrile seizures and instructed her to give him Tylenol.

Jeff was “scared to death” when Hollie called to tell him what had happened. He thought back on their families’ medical histories and couldn’t remember anyone who’d experienced seizures. Hollie, though, was comforted by what the doctors had said. When Conner had more seizures—after his nighttime bath, while playing in his room—she imagined that she and Jeff would one day look back on these episodes as they did Conner’s baby asthma: They would remember them as part of a passing phase.


Two months later, the Beishes took Conner to a clinic in Baltimore for an electroencephalogram, which measures brain activity through electrodes attached to the scalp. The results were abnormal: He endured multiple seizures during the procedure, some so small that his body never visibly moved. Conner was prescribed a low dose of an anti-seizure medication, which seemed to work. By the time of his follow-up appointment in February 2016, he’d been seizure-free for three months. He was even able to ride a scooter, a Christmas present from his parents, in the backyard with Jaxon.

The good news didn’t last long, however. During the February appointment, Conner had an MRI. The test revealed that his cerebellum, the part of the brain responsible for balance and coordination, was unusually small. “Some doctors said it could be a normal thing, like some people just are born with a small cerebellum,” Hollie said. “Another doctor said it could mean it had changed and had become smaller as he got older.” They would need to run more tests.

That night, after her family went to sleep, Hollie poured herself a glass of soda, sat down with her iPad, and Googled “small cerebellum.” The conditions that popped up were terrifying. There was Alzheimer’s, which she knew Conner couldn’t have, and fatal childhood brain disorders, which she couldn’t stand to think about. Then Hollie saw cerebral palsy listed. “I always thought that was something that happened at birth,” she said. “But one article I read said it’s hard to tell in some kids until they’re older.” If Conner had cerebral palsy, the Beishes could handle it. They knew a few kids with the condition. Her eyelids heavy, Hollie clicked off her tablet and went to bed feeling hopeful.

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Conner didn’t have cerebral palsy. His doctors were able to figure out that much—but little else. By May 2016, the seizures were back and worse than ever. “He was standing beside his wooden train table and fell and smashed his face on it,” Hollie said of one attack. Then he threw up. His doctors increased his medication. It didn’t work.

By then the costs of Conner’s prescriptions, procedures, and visits to specialists tallied into the tens of thousands of dollars. The Beishes had private insurance that covered most of it; not every American family could say the same. Still, Hollie and Jeff were exhausted and frustrated. Conner’s life, and theirs, had been upended by a medical riddle.

The Beishes didn’t think the seizures had anything to do with Conner’s speech delay, which had remained static for months. He still had his small arsenal of vocabulary, and he could parrot what his parents and speech therapist said. He would answer his mom when she pointed at things, even if the words he used for them weren’t exactly right: “Moo” was cow, for example, and “meow” was cat. He knew his colors, too, especially red, green, and blue.

One day in August, a few weeks after lightning struck the Beishes’ house, Hollie and Conner were working on a puzzle. “What color is this?” Hollie asked, holding up a blue piece. Her son was silent. She asked again, this time more slowly. Conner stared at her and still said nothing. “He was looking at me like, What do you want me to do?” Hollie recalled.

Blue was the first word Conner lost.

Chapter Two

Emily de los Reyes had two career choices. “All the women in my family were teachers or doctors,” she said. De los Reyes was born in 1963 and grew up in Manila. Her family was well off, so they didn’t feel the most acute effects of the Philippines’ widespread corruption and privation, the fallout of President Ferdinand Marcos’s dictatorship. When de los Reyes went to medical school, however, she witnessed social ills firsthand. On Sunday afternoons, following church, she sometimes assisted health workers caring for children in poor parts of the city. Hundreds of kids would queue up—some with parents, some on their own—and wait to be seen. The experience stayed with de los Reyes as she pursued a career in pediatrics.

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Emily de los Reyes (Photo: Courtesy Nationwide Hospital)

Toward the end of medical school, in the mid-1980s, she joined her classmates in protesting the waning Marcos regime. When I met her at a busy Starbucks in Columbus, Ohio, more than 30 years later, it was hard for me to imagine her as a firebrand. At 54, she was the picture of precision. Her hair had been blow-dried into a neat black bob and showed a few streaks of gray. Nearly everything she had with her was a shade of pink: her laptop cover, her iPhone case, her zip-up sweater. Before I arrived, she’d been carefully finalizing a PowerPoint presentation. “I was so idealistic back then,” she said of her youth, a smile creeping across her face.

After graduating she decided to work in the United States, because its democracy was strong and medical care first-rate. She moved to San Francisco, where there was a large Filipino community, then to Charleston, West Virginia, where there was not. One day, while completing her residency at a local hospital, she rode in a helicopter to pick up a sick infant from a farm. When the mother saw de los Reyes’s dark skin, she hesitated before handing over the baby. Still, the young doctor found a community. Her residency class had several other foreigners—not uncommon in underserved parts of the United States—and she met an American doctor who soon became her husband.

In the early 1990s, West Virginia became a relative hotbed of an infectious brain disease called La Crosse encephalitis. Like Zika, the virus is spread by mosquitoes, and most cases occur in children. Dozens of patients came to the Charleston hospital where de los Reyes worked. Some presented with nothing more than a fever. Others arrived comatose, with terrified parents. “A day or two before, their child was fine,” de los Reyes said, “just running around in the woods.” Then the kid would struggle to wake up, have seizures, and become delirious before passing out. “We would give them anti-seizure medications and make sure they were ventilated,” de los Reyes said. “Most would do fine.” But some would not: They left the hospital with permanent neurological deficits.

De los Reyes decided to specialize in pediatric neurology, a field rife with harrowing conditions that degrade young brains. Many of those ailments are rare diseases, a legal designation that in the United States is generally reserved for illnesses afflicting fewer than 200,000 people. Nearly 7,000 maladies fall into the category. Most are complicated genetic conditions that pharmaceutical companies have never been inclined to gamble on. The industry prefers to focus its resources on widespread ailments with identifiable causes, an approach that requires less research investment and offers a larger stable of patients who will eventually pay for the pills, injections, and devices that companies invent. A U.S. law called the Orphan Drug Act, signed in 1983, offers tax breaks, subsidies, expedited approval, and exclusive manufacturing rights to companies that develop treatments for uncommon conditions. The law led to the creation of hundreds of new drugs in its first three decades on the books. Still, when de los Reyes entered pediatric neurology, 95 percent of rare diseases had no cure. Over the course of her career, that number would hardly budge.

When de los Reyes entered pediatric neurology, 95 percent of rare diseases had no cure. Over the course of her career, that number would hardly budge.

After finishing her residency and a fellowship, de los Reyes was recruited to work as a neurodevelopmental specialist at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. It was there, in 2001, that she saw a case unlike anything she’d ever treated. The patient, referred by an ophthalmologist, was a nine-year-old girl who’d been born healthy but was now losing her eyesight. Her family was from Guam. They’d traveled more than 7,000 miles for the appointment at the Little Rock hospital, which through word of mouth they’d learned had excellent eye specialists.

De los Reyes examined the little girl, who had a chubby, tamarind-colored face and short black hair—not so different from her own appearance when she was a child in the Philippines. The parents described a bizarre constellation of symptoms on top of progressive blindness: speech delay, seizures, and difficult walking. Together with the ophthalmologist, de los Reyes began testing for various illnesses. The doctors ruled out macular dystrophy, a genetic condition that destroys cells in the retina, and keratomalacia, a chronic deficiency of vitamin A that causes blindness. Could it be a problem with the little girl’s brain, like a tumor? Imaging came back negative for suspicious masses.

Stumped, de los Reyes called her mentor, Paul Dyken, one of the country’s foremost experts in childhood brain disorders. She spelled out everything she’d learned and asked if he’d ever seen anything like it. “Oh Emily…,” Dyken replied with a heavy sigh before delivering the news.

The little girl had a condition so rare that most pediatricians hadn’t heard of it. But Dyken had. He’d treated several patients with, and coauthored scientific papers about, the disease. He was one of the few doctors in the world who could say “I see this all the time” about the condition, because afflicted families sought him out. If she was lucky, Dyken said, the girl would live to be 20. De los Reyes could help her die a slow, inevitable death as painlessly as possible—nothing more.

Chapter Three

Soon after the Beishes moved back into their home after the lightning strike, Conner was hospitalized twice for tonic-clonic seizures, marked by a loss of consciousness and violent limb contractions. Doctors diagnosed him with Doose syndrome, a form of childhood epilepsy that more often affects boys. “It was comforting to have an answer,” Hollie said. They told their worried families; everyone relaxed.

Conner had just turned four. As he headed into his second year of preschool, he took various combinations of anti-seizure medications as his doctors tried to find a cocktail that worked. Hollie and Jeff had never heard of the prescriptions, which had names like Keppra, Depakote, and Onfi. Sometimes Conner would scream when he couldn’t remember a word for something he’d once been able to name, which seemed to happen more and more often. His legs began trembling when he walked.

That fall, a blood panel came back with surprising results. Conner had two genetic markers indicating that he might be missing an essential enzyme called tripeptidyl-peptidase1 (TPP1). A second blood test would be necessary to confirm the discovery. If it came back positive, that meant Conner had a rare genetic disorder. “The doctor advised me not to look anything up on the internet,” Hollie said, “which of course I did as soon as I hung up.”

What she saw on her iPad was horrifying. Being born without TPP1 was a slow death sentence. There was no cure and no treatment. Hollie saw videos of kindergarten-age children in wheelchairs, unable to speak or control their limbs. She began to sob.

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More blood was sent off to the lab, and for what felt like the millionth time, Hollie and Jeff waited for the results. As fall turned to winter, Conner stopped running around with his brother, and he could barely speak. “It was like he wanted to say things and would open his mouth, but nothing came out,” Hollie recalled. He developed tremors in both hands, like an elderly man with Parkinson’s. He had trouble feeding himself, taking longer to use a fork and struggling to bring the utensil to his mouth. Hollie had to hold his cup when he drank.

Grasping for any shred of comfort, the Beishes kept reading about TPP1 deficiencies and looking for differences between the doomed children who appeared on their computer screens and their own son. They realized that in each case they read about, the afflicted kid was blind. Conner’s vision was fine. It was something to hold on to.

That December was mild in Maryland. On days when snow fell, it melted as soon as it hit the pavement. Conner had to grasp one of his parent’s hands in order to walk. Otherwise he crawled. Hollie emailed the doctors and requested, if the news from the blood test was bad, that they not deliver it before Christmas. She wanted the holidays to be happy. As a gift for Conner, the Beishes adopted a golden Labrador retriever, whom they named Joy. Jeff hid the puppy in the garage until Christmas morning, when Hollie put reindeer antlers on Joy’s head for the big reveal. Conner shrieked with glee when he saw the puppy, then stroked her back as she lay curled up next to him on the floor. His parents imagined a similar scene repeating itself as Conner and Joy got bigger. “It would be his dog that he would grow up with,” Jeff said.  

When the doctors didn’t call after Christmas, Hollie thought they might have forgotten about Conner. Or maybe the news was good, so not a high priority. The Beishes didn’t nag, preferring instead to preserve a semblance of normalcy. “I wanted to know, but at the same time I didn’t want to know,” Hollie admitted.

Then, on January 19, 2017, she called to ask for an update. It turned out there had been an error: Someone had put Conner’s test results in the wrong part of his chart. A doctor would call with answers the next day, the Beishes were told, which happened to be the date of Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration. Jeff and Hollie had voted for Trump. “I didn’t like either candidate, but I picked the one whose policies lined up with me more,” Hollie explained. She and Jeff hoped that the ceremonies on TV would distract them while they waited for the call.

Hours passed. As the sun was setting, they turned off the inauguration feed. They sat side by side on the staircase in the foyer, Hollie’s iPhone clenched in her hand. Finally it rang.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t call earlier,” the doctor said. “But…” She paused before continuing. “The test results confirm things.” Conner was missing TPP1. “He has Batten disease,” the doctor said.

Hollie was standing on the steps, the phone to her ear. “OK,” she said weakly, the only word she could manage. Jeff was on the other side of the banister, unable to hear the doctor. He held his hands suspended in the air, palms up, in a gesture that seemed to plead, Tell me what’s happening.

Chapter Four

Frederick Eustace Batten, a British physician of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was one of the founders of the field of pediatric neurology. A “brisk, lithe figure” with “bubbling humor,” according to one medical historian, Batten was “practical and purposeful,” and “children loved him.” In 1903, he published research on two young siblings suffering from the same undiagnosed condition, in which their brain function and eyesight deteriorated rapidly. The disease was given the name juvenile amaurotic idiocy, which endured in the medical lexicon until the 1970s.

Idiocy is no longer considered appropriate terminology, and Batten disease is now known by the name of the man who identified it. Still, Alfried Kohlschütter, a pediatrics researcher at the University of Hamburg and an authority on the condition, uses another controversial label. “I always say it’s a form of childhood dementia, though people don’t like me using that term,” he told me recently. Dissenters claim that it oversimplifies the condition and suggests a link to adult memory loss, which has different underlying causes. To Kohlschütter, though, the progression of the diseases is strikingly similar. “It’s like these children are melting in front of you,” he said.

Batten disease is a glitch in the body’s nervous system. Whenever the brain completes basic cellular and metabolic processes, its cells produce waste. Batten disease sufferers lack certain enzymes or proteins required to process this waste. As a result, brain cells are forced to store it internally. (See figure below.) Eventually, the cells become clogged and die. One parent of a child with Batten disease compared the condition to “your kitchen filling up with garbage” because no one ever takes it out, to the point that the room is no longer usable. Along the way, patients’ motor, verbal, and emotional capacities diminish.

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In the United States, according to the National Institutes of Health, between two and four of every 100,000 children are born with Batten disease. They can get it if both their parents are genetic carriers. There are 14 subtypes of the disease, each affecting a different gene, involving a different deficiency, and decreeing a different life span. Conner was diagnosed with subtype CLN2, distinguished by the absence of TPP1. Symptoms initially appear around the age of two; a speech delay is often the first noticeable sign of disease. After that come seizures, language regression, motor dysfunction, and blindness. Patients die between the ages of eight and twelve.

The first Batten disease case that de los Reyes saw was the little girl from Guam. Her subtype was CLN3, indicated by a protein missing from cellular membranes. Her family was stoic when de los Reyes delivered the diagnosis. By then she had young children of her own. Explaining a fatal illness to parents who’d come thousands of miles to Little Rock, armed with faith in doctors’ abilities to help their daughter, “was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” de los Reyes recalled.

The family flew home a few days later. De los Reyes communicated with the girl’s local doctors for about two years. But eventually the calls from Guam stopped. “We lost touch,” de los Reyes said. “I have no idea how long the girl lived.”

Like her mentor, de los Reyes fashioned herself into one of the world’s few experts in Batten disease. She diagnosed several more cases in Arkansas before being recruited to Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. As the head of the neurodevelopmental department, she took on the project of turning Nationwide into a hub of Batten disease research and patient care. Families traveled from around the world for appointments with her.

De los Reyes was proud of her work, but the script she was forced to recite to parents was excruciating: There is no cure. Your child will die. People reacted in different ways. Some turned numb and silent, like the parents from Guam, dumbstruck by the futility of feeling or doing anything else. Others put the blame on de los Reyes, because she was the messenger of the devastating news. Or they lashed out at loved ones, their disappointment channeled into anger.

De los Reyes advised parents to spend as much time as they could with their sick kids. She promised to support them while they did, with medication, physical therapy, and walking aids. “I can’t tell you how many funerals I’ve been to,” she said in the Starbucks, her gaze shifting to the floor. She hoped that things would be different one day.


Science is almost never done in a vacuum. Given Big Pharma’s historical indifference to rare-disease research, finding a treatment or cure almost always requires a scrappy army of academic researchers, patient advocates, and bold financiers. Collectively they must be willing to endure years of painstaking, costly investigation and the litany of failures that typically precede even marginal gains. The quest to unravel Batten disease was no exception.

While de los Reyes was delivering tough news in Little Rock and Columbus, Peter Lobel and David Sleat were hard at work in a lab at Rutgers University in New Jersey. During the late 1990s, the scientists isolated TPP1 and demonstrated its role in processing cellular waste, a breakthrough in knowledge of CLN2. Their research led to a new hypothesis: If children with CLN2 are sick because they’re missing TPP1, they should get better when given the enzyme. The proposition was straightforward enough, but testing it wasn’t.

Lobel and Sleat’s first step was replicating CLN2 in mice, so that the animals could be used as experiment subjects. “This part was really, really hard,” Sleat told me in a mildly accented voice, a remnant of his native England, which he left 30 years ago to work in the United States. It took about two years to genetically engineer the TPP1-deficient stem cells needed to produce a mouse that showed signs of Batten disease at around seven weeks old. “You could pick them up and feel them shaking,” Sleat said. “As they got older, the shaking got worse, and they would have difficulty walking, dying at around four months.” (Healthy lab mice live two or three years.)

Given Big Pharma’s historical indifference to rare-disease research, finding a treatment or cure almost always requires a scrappy army of academic researchers, patient advocates, and bold financiers.

The next phase of research involved administering lab-made TPP1 to the mice through the spine. Remarkably, at just a fraction of normal TPP1 levels, young mice didn’t develop signs of Batten disease. Older subjects with severe symptoms experienced only mild gains. Early treatment, the research confirmed, was crucial.

Other labs around the world began using mice that had been genetically altered using Sleat and Lobel’s method. Some researchers experimented with cerebral shunts, which worked at least as well as the spinal route in terms of reducing seizures and cellular waste. But inserting a device into the brain left severe scarring, and the subjects died within a few months.

Meanwhile, at the University of Missouri, ophthalmology professor Martin Katz was studying dogs’ brains for clues to help solve neurodevelopmental problems in humans. In 2005, a man in Pennsylvania had grown worried about his longhaired dachshund, Frodo, who at a few months old had started having seizures, then ceased walking and eating on his own. His owner took him to several vets, none of whom had any idea what was wrong. When Frodo died at just one year old, the owner offered his body to the veterinary lab at the University of Pennsylvania, which packed it in ice and sent it to Katz, widely known for his research.

Katz was intrigued. He extracted tissue samples from Frodo’s brain and examined them under a microscope. He compared the samples to research texts, which led to a surprising match: Cellular waste that had accumulated in Frodo’s brain was essentially identical to that found in autopsies of human subjects who’d died of CLN2. Both had a distinctive curvilinear pattern. “If you imagine a bowl of alphabet soup with all C’s and very little liquid, that’s what it looked like,” Katz told me.

Unlike the Rutgers mice, Frodo was a natural subject for Batten disease research. If there were more dogs like him, they could be used to test treatments. Katz quickly traced him to a breeder, to whom he explained that Frodo’s parents could produce puppies that might help sick children get better. The breeder agreed to let Katz adopt the two adult dachshunds, Captain and Autumn. “Captain and Autumn were very attached to each other,” said Katz, who has a soft voice and a head of thick, wavy chestnut hair, not unlike the coat of some dachshunds. “It was nice to have them around.” Both dogs were perfectly healthy; the genetic mutation that causes CLN2 was recessive in their DNA. They produced several litters in Katz’s lab, each bearing a few puppies with Batten disease.


Here an unusual player in rare-disease research entered the scene. BioMarin is a Northern California pharmaceutical company that develops treatments for uncommon genetic disorders. Founded in 1997, it has a risky business model: Pour money into research for orphan drugs, then profit from large price margins and limited competition. Relying on a handful of willing investors and the provisions of the Orphan Drug Act, the company’s path has been anything but smooth. After posting disappointing revenues, BioMarin laid off a third of its staff in 2005, the same year its second rare-disease drug went to market. That proved to be a turning point: Within a few years, the company’s first two proprietary treatments would reap more than $500 million annually through licensing and medical coverage of just a few thousand patients. By 2017, the company would finally reach the edge of profitability.

Around 2009, building on Lobel and Sleat’s research at Rutgers, BioMarin began producing purified TPP1 in vats. When it heard about Katz’s dachshunds, the company suggested collaborating on trials to determine how enzyme injections affected dogs. Katz agreed, and together they launched a pilot study. Three dogs with CLN2 received injections at the base of the spine, a procedure that lasted a few minutes. After only the second round of treatment, they mounted an allergic response. After the third, they went into anaphylactic shock. Ultimately, they were euthanized.

Rather than declare failure, Katz brainstormed new approaches. “I always tell my students that it wouldn’t be called research if it worked out all the time,” he explained. His team spaced out the injections and tried administering the enzyme to the dogs’ brains through the cranium, even though complications with that approach had previously killed lab mice. Finally, Katz hit on a method that worked. Two puppies named Waylon and Lulu had shunts surgically inserted into their brains. (A pathologist would later find no scarring as a result of the procedure.) Compared with injections, the shunts gave researchers more control over the rate at which TPP1 entered the dogs’ bodies—and slower delivery minimized the risk of allergic reaction.

Waylon and Lulu received infusions every other week for a few hours at a time, then were observed alongside sick subjects that weren’t given treatments. For a couple of months, Waylon and Lulu behaved like healthy dogs. They were attentive and playful with the scientists, they didn’t wobble when they walked, and they didn’t have seizures. When Batten disease symptoms finally appeared, they progressed slowly. Ultimately, Waylon and Lulu lived 50 percent longer than the dogs that didn’t receive TPP1 infusions.

A BioMarin researcher presented the study’s results in the summer of 2012, at a meeting in Charlotte hosted by the Batten Disease Support and Research Association, a network for families affected by the condition. De los Reyes, who by then sat on the BDSRA’s medical advisory board, perched in a chair at a table in the dimly lit room, absorbing Katz’s PowerPoint presentation. Katz ended the slideshow with split-screen video footage. On one side, Waylon and Lulu were running; on the other, two dogs of the same age struggled to walk.

“The whole room gasped,” de los Reyes said. No one had ever seen anything like it. Accustomed to brutal disappointment when it came to Batten disease, de los Reyes initially considered Katz’s findings too good to be true. When her skepticism subsided, however, her thoughts turned to the obvious question: When can we give this to kids?

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Conner resting on the living room floor. (Photo: Shan Wallace) 

Chapter Five

Standing on the stairs, Hollie could barely hear what the doctor on the phone said next about Conner’s diagnosis. Shock had quickly morphed into anger. First it had been febrile seizures, then Doose syndrome, now Batten disease. Why had it taken so long—nearly 16 months since Conner’s first seizure, even more since the onset of his speech delay—to get the right answer?

“We’d like for you to come into the office to discuss it further, and moving forward we’d like…”

“That’s OK,” Hollie interrupted the physician. “I’m not interested. I’d like to find a new doctor.” She demanded that Conner’s medical records be sent to their house. Then she hung up and told Jeff everything. Together they cried at the bottom of the stairs.

The next day, Hollie found herself strangely invigorated. “I felt a weight had lifted. All of our questions and the wondering were just gone,” she said. “Now it became, What can we do to help Conner?” The clock was ticking. The longer it took the Beishes to find their son the right care, the more muted his short life would be. And maybe—just maybe—there was something out there that might save him: a medicine, or a miracle.

The Beishes read about various hospitals and specialists. “It was time to find a doctor who knew what this disease was,” Hollie said, “someone who could give us answers.” She kept careful notes about everything she learned. The Beishes told their families, who began doing research, too. Jeff’s mother read about the BDSRA and called its director. “Please speak with my daughter-in-law,” she begged.

The director phoned Hollie soon after. “You should give Dr. Emily at Nationwide a call,” she said, referring to de los Reyes. “She’s the Batten disease guru.” Not only that, but Nationwide had a clinical trial under way that Conner might be able to enroll in.


Delivering an enzyme directly to a child’s delicate brain had never been done before, and it was a scary prospect. “The knowledge translation is difficult,” de los Reyes said. “We know mice are not men.” Nor are dachshunds. BioMarin tested the infusion method on monkeys, which are genetically more akin to humans, to screen for complications and determine the safest dosage level (300 milligrams every two weeks). Then, in 2013, the company launched human trials of the treatment, cerliponase alfa, which it gave the trade name Brineura.

Twenty-one children were enrolled to receive infusions at one of three participating hospitals in Italy, Germany, and England. BioMarin also wanted a small research cohort in America. Nationwide was a natural fit, and de los Reyes was adamant that the hospital participate. “I’m an impatient person,” she told me with a smile, the same one I’d seen when she talked about her time as a student protester in Manila. The hospital’s ethics board and research coordinators were concerned that the treatment might expose children to infection or cause injury. “Even with rare diseases where children are dying, we don’t want to hasten their death,” de los Reyes explained.

She had a plan: De los Reyes invited the hospital’s decision-makers to her clinic to meet children with Batten disease. Some of the top brass had never seen an afflicted patient; they’d only read about what the illness did to young bodies. By the end of the tour, one of the research directors was crying. “Emily, we want to help,” she said. “Let’s do this.” Need was weighed against risk, and Nationwide’s participation in the trial was approved.

Due to funding limits and the trial’s protocol, which capped the number of participants at 24, only three children could be enrolled at the Ohio site. They came from various locations, referred by physicians in their home states. The plan was for them to fly into Columbus every other week for treatment. “They had no alternative,” de los Reyes said. “The alternative for them was death.” One by one, starting in December 2014, the participants had catheters and ports inserted into their skulls by neurosurgeons at Nationwide. No infections or injuries occurred. After that, de los Reyes used the surgical implants to administer the enzyme infusions. (See figure below.)

Weeks passed, then months. None of the three children got sicker. They maintained their motor skills or even made gains. Some saw their speech improve. “They didn’t go from single words to sentences, but they were acquiring new words, which is so important,” de los Reyes said. “They could tell their family what they wanted.” Juice, snacks, a hug.

The first trial results weren’t released until March 2016. By then de los Reyes was bursting with excitement over what she knew: On average, participants’ clinical decline was 80 percent slower than expected during the first 48 weeks of treatment. In nearly two-thirds of cases, the disease stabilized. The most common side effects—hypersensitivity, fever, vomiting—were generally tolerated. Batten disease effectively had been halted in its tracks. That the stalling had happened so quickly was all the more remarkable.

News of the clinical trial’s early results spread quickly through the tightly knit community of families coping with Batten disease. It reached the Beishes, through the BDSRA director, in late January 2017. Hollie immediately called de los Reyes and left a message. Her request was simple: She wanted Conner in the trial.

When de los Reyes called Hollie back, she offered to evaluate Conner as soon as the Beishes could get him from Maryland to Ohio. While she could talk to them about Brineura, however, the trial was limited to its original participants. De los Reyes hoped the treatment might be available to more children soon.

Hollie looked at her son. He seemed both too young and too old, his mind and body slipping away before they could really develop. How could anyone deny him help? “I thought maybe if the doctor met us and Conner, she might get us into the trial faster,” Hollie told me—an idea similar to the one that de los Reyes had acted on to convince Nationwide to study Brineura.

Hollie made an appointment for March 13. That day friends and family in Denton wore T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Fighting for Conner.” Jaxon had one, too; he wore it to school while Hollie, Jeff, and Conner piled into the family’s SUV. It was an eight-hour drive through snow and slush to Columbus.


The Beishes had never explained Conner’s condition to him. He was too young to understand. All he knew as his parents led him into the huge glass building that is Nationwide Hospital was that he was going to see another doctor. In the exam room, he sat on a narrow green table, a sippy cup in one hand. When de los Reyes came in, Hollie was struck by how tiny she was—scarcely five feet tall.

“Hi, Conner,” de los Reyes said. “You’re holding that cup very well!”

She was soon joined by several specialists: an occupational therapist, two physiotherapists, and a speech pathologist. They examined Conner, watching him take a few assisted steps and listening to his strained speech. They peppered Hollie with questions about his medical history. The entire process took more than four hours, much longer than the Beishes had expected.

When the examination ended, de los Reyes repeated what she’d said on the phone: The trial was closed. Hollie’s heart sank. De los Reyes explained that the Beishes would have to wait for the treatment to get approval from the Food and Drug Administration. Then Brineura would be available commercially. The doctor was hopeful that that would happen soon, but there were no guarantees.

Normally, drug approval moves at a sluggish bureaucratic pace. But in 2016, BioMarin had filed for a rapid assessment of Brineura. On one hand, the enzyme-replacement study had a small number of participants and a limited time frame. No one had any idea how TPP1 infusions would affect a child two or five or ten years into treatment. The FDA was tasked with avoiding a nightmare scenario in which a drug is approved too early and adverse side effects appear down the road, requiring a recall and possibly leading to lawsuits. On the other hand, the FDA might agree to fast-track Brineura, given that it targeted a fatal disease and had positive early results. The BDSRA was pushing hard for that to happen, providing the agency with families’ testimonials. Some of them had children who would never benefit from Brineura—kids who’d already died or were nearing the age when they would. Still, their parents felt compelled to speak up.

The FDA would weigh all these factors in its ruling, de los Reyes told the Beishes. “It’s a horrible feeling having to ask a family to wait,” she told me. “They know their child is dying, and I’m sitting there saying, ‘I don’t have access to the medicine.’” In the meantime, she prescribed Conner leg braces, a gait trainer, and adjustments to his seizure medications. The Beishes went home to wait and hope for good news—yet again.

“It’s a horrible feeling having to ask a family to wait. They know their child is dying, and I’m sitting there saying, ‘I don’t have access to the medicine.’”

Hollie kept de los Reyes updated on Conner’s condition. She shot videos on her phone, including one recorded in April at a party themed around the Star Wars movies, some of Conner’s favorites, thrown by the Make-A-Wish Foundation at his school, where he’d been able to return since the appointment in Columbus. Flanked by volunteers dressed as stormtroopers and Darth Vader, Conner stood in the frame of his customized walker, equipped with a saddle that held him upright. He was able to move haltingly, with a plastic red light saber in one hand. Jeff wore a black shirt that read, “I am your father.”  

But happy moments were sporadic. Conner struggled to react emotionally to external stimuli like smiles and friends saying his name. Before long he would lose one of the last words his brain had managed to hold on to. “We had this routine where, when I picked him up from school, he would say, ‘Me! Me! Me!’” Hollie explained. As his disease worsened, he had stopped repeating his word for her so many times. Then he got to the point where he would chirp it only once. Finally, in the spring of 2017, he stopped entirely.

“I picked him up, and he smiled. But he didn’t say ‘Me.’ He was just silent,” Hollie recalled. “He never said it again.”

Chapter Six

On the morning of April 27, Hollie was in her car, getting ready to pull out of the parking lot of a deli in Denton, when her phone rang. It was de los Reyes. “I have some really good news,” the doctor said. “Brineura was just granted approval.”

It was the first time the FDA had given its blessing to any sort of Batten disease care. The rapid decision was based largely on trial data showing improved ambulation—that is, kids with CLN2 who received Brineura were able to walk better. The agency said that it couldn’t make a call on how the treatment affected children’s emotional or verbal development. But the motor-skills gains, coupled with minimal side effects, was enough. If the Beishes wanted, de los Reyes said, she could treat Conner in Columbus, following the same protocol as her earlier trial participants: surgery, then infusions every two weeks. He would be part of an expanded research cohort, monitored for long-term safety implications.

“Tell us when we need to be there and we’ll be there,” Hollie replied.  

Then she called Jeff, who was driving a tractor-trailer and didn’t immediately pick up. When he noticed several urgent notifications on his screen, he pulled over and called his wife back. “I cried my eyes out,” Jeff recalled. “You have no hope. Then you get the call.”

That night, sitting at their kitchen island, the Beishes plotted a plan of action. Money wouldn’t be an issue, they hoped. As part of the trial, Conner would be eligible for 90 days of Brineura infusions, after which Jeff’s insurance would be responsible for coverage. (According to BioMarin, the wholesale cost of a single Brineura infusion comes to $27,000.) Then there were the logistics: driving to Ohio every other week, for instance, because flying was too expensive. But what if they got in a car accident? “My mind went into overdrive,” Hollie said. “Anything could happen.” After airing out every worry they could think of, they contacted de los Reyes and scheduled Conner’s surgery for May 22.

In Columbus, the Beishes stayed at the Ronald McDonald House, a fixture at most children’s hospitals that offers families of sick kids free or low-cost lodging. The morning of the procedure, Hollie reassured Conner, who seemed scared of going into a big, cold room without his parents, even though he couldn’t say so. “You’re going to go to sleep, and when you wake up, you’ll see us,” Hollie said, giving her son a kiss. “Everything will be OK.”


A surgeon used a blue permanent marker to make a cross on the right side of Conner’s forehead, just above the hairline. Conner didn’t feel the marker; he was already under anesthesia. Around the cross, the surgeon clipped away the little boy’s soft, caramel-colored hair, then used a scalpel to make a shallow, crescent-shaped slice through the first layer of skin. Next came antiseptic, followed by a local anesthetic, and the surgeon made a second, deeper cut—this one through muscle. There was a lot of blood. The scalp is incredibly vascular; arteries, veins, and arterioles crisscross it like spiderwebs. The surgeon called for suction.

Once the blood was cleared away, the surgeon saw bone. He drilled through it, then penetrated the dura, the thin gray layer of tissue that envelops the brain. An errant cut could prove fatal. The surgeon double-checked anatomical landmarks, making sure he was in the right place. Then he picked up the device he would insert into Conner’s brain.

It was shorter than a No. 2 pencil and looked like a spindly mushroom, with a small ivory-colored dome made of plastic attached to a thin tube containing a catheter. The surgeon guided the tube into Conner’s brain, threading it like a needle until it neared his third ventricle, the midline cavity that sits between the brain’s hemispheres. At that point, the plastic dome was flush with Conner’s skull. This was the port where TPP1 would be injected every other week. From there the enzyme would flow through the catheter and soak Conner’s brain.

When the procedure was done, a doctor stitched Conner’s scalp back together. Slowly, the little boy was brought out of anesthesia. Hollie and Jeff were allowed to see him. “Hi, buddy,” Jeff said softly at his bedside. Then the Beishes climbed up on either side of their son, where they stayed while he slept. Jeff stroked Conner’s head carefully, so as not to disturb the incision. In the coming weeks, hair would grow back over the surgical site.

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Conner at an infusion appointment. (Photo: Courtesy Beish family)

Conner was discharged three days later and went home to Denton. After less than two weeks of rest, during which a fever sparked fears of infection—it turned out to be a stomach bug—Hollie bundled him back into the car to ferry him to Columbus for his first infusion. Her father, Bruce, went with them. Jeff stayed behind to throw Jaxon his eighth birthday party. As ever, the Beishes tried to keep their lives normal.

The infusion was supposed to take three and a half hours, followed by a 45-minute saline flush to minimize risk of infection. When the medical staff attempted to access the reservoir in Conner’s scalp with a needle, there was still swelling from the surgery. The little boy began to cry. Finally, they got a needle into the port, then wrapped his head in gauze to hold everything in place. TPP1 began to flow through an IV drip. Conner settled down, intermittently napping and watching movies. First it was Frozen, then Moana. His legs were covered with his favorite Star Wars blanket. Occasionally, he sipped a vanilla-flavored nutrition drink.

Two weeks later he did it again. And again two weeks after that. Conner tolerated the long trips and infusions well, but nothing about his health seemed to improve: His mobility, his speech, and his emotional intelligence stayed the same. “It was frustrating and hard,” Hollie said. “I had to tell myself to keep going.” De los Reyes explained that the enzyme could take a while to have an effect. If it were the garbage truck pulling up to the metaphorical kitchen overflowing with trash, it would need to haul out a couple of loads before the space became usable again. Or it might not work at all. Failure was always a possibility.

It became part of Conner’s routine at every infusion to watch The Lorax, the movie based on the beloved Dr. Seuss story of the same name. The plot is a fable about the dangers of environmental destruction and humans’ responsibility to prevent it. “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,” the main character says at one point, “nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” In de los Reyes’s clinic, it was a familiar mantra.


Around his fifth birthday, in August 2017, Conner was in a Maryland doctor’s office with Hollie and Jaxon. He’d been through about half a dozen infusions by then. The doctor he was seeing would be adjusting the prosthetics in his shoes, which helped him maneuver better with his walker.

The doctor was running behind schedule, so Hollie pulled out a book and began reading Conner a story. She pointed at various objects on the pages, naming them slowly. The method was supposed to help Conner gain words, but that hadn’t happened in almost two years. Hollie did it anyway.

On one page was a star, a word Conner had once been able to say but had lost. Hollie placed her finger on the yellow symbol and named it. She was about to move on when Conner raised his right hand and placed his own index finger on the page. There was a long pause. Then Conner spoke.

“Star,” he repeated.

Chapter Seven

The Beishes’ home is located in a quiet residential neighborhood in Denton. When I visited in October 2017, two pumpkins sat on the stoop, waiting to be carved, and the windows on either side of the front door were adorned with ghost and haunted-house decals. A wreath made of orange and red leaves hung on the door. “We’re all set for Halloween,” Hollie acknowledged with a smile when she greeted me.

She wore a sweater and sweatpants, with her hair pulled into a bun. We’d met once before, at an infusion appointment in Columbus, right after Conner started saying words again. Since then he’d made more progress. Hollie was eager to show me what he could do.

We settled onto a sofa in the living room. Nearby, above the doorway to the kitchen, I noticed a decorative sign that read, “Family… where life begins and love never ends.” Joy, the now huge golden Lab, lay across my lap. Conner was on the floor playing. At one point, he crawled across the room and hoisted himself up to stroke Joy, making eye contact with me before tumbling back down. He was more responsive, more interactive, and more deliberate than I remembered. At one point, after finishing a smoothie, he gestured to the flatscreen TV mounted on the wall. He wanted to watch cartoons.

In the coming weeks, Conner would learn to feed himself—yogurt was his first solo snack—and say “Bee,” his name for his grandmother. He would regain “choo-choo,” his word for train, when Hollie showed him a treasured family Christmas ornament in the shape of a locomotive. Then came “Da,” for Jeff. And the Beishes would soon stop traveling to Columbus every other week. A hospital in Washington, D.C., began offering Brineura treatments, so Conner could get his infusions there. Hollie said she would miss seeing de los Reyes, but staying close to home would be a relief.

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The Beishes had found themselves on a lifeboat, along with the handful of other U.S. families with kids who’d started Brineura infusions. They didn’t know how long they could bob in the ocean—maybe forever, more likely not. No one had ever survived Batten disease. The Beishes would need to be cautiously optimistic. They shared stories with other families in their position and tried to think like scientists: incrementally, with judicious notions of progress. “I’ve heard of kids who can now walk 30 steps and kids that couldn’t sit up who can now sit up,” Hollie told me.

In our conversations, de los Reyes had described Brineura as “a treatment until we find a cure.” She told me that she was starting an extension study of the trial to examine the long-term safety and effectiveness of Brineura in children under three. The goal was to determine whether toddlers could be treated before they ever showed symptoms of CLN2. At Rush University in Chicago, researchers have been investigating therapies that could treat TPP1 deficiencies with pills already approved for addressing other medical conditions. For its part, BioMarin is hedging bets by scaling up production of Brineura. It’s also considering the treatment as a model for other direct-to-brain care, which could lead to breakthroughs for patients suffering from other rare neurological diseases.

There may be political hurdles. Congressional Republicans recently slashed the orphan-drug tax credit in half as part of the tax-reform package supported by the Trump administration. Meanwhile, legislators failed to renew the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which expands and supplements Medicaid for some nine million kids whose families otherwise don’t qualify. After short-term funding—a bandage, basically—for the program expires in March 2018, Batten disease experts worry that the CHIP lapse could hurt some families that need Brineura.

When I was in Denton, Hollie told me that her views on health care had changed drastically since her son’s diagnosis. “I used to think Obamacare should just be repealed, but there are things that come from Obamacare, like no lifetime maximum for insurance companies, that make a difference,” she said. “I wish [legislators] could see children like Conner and the impact these policies could have.” (As it happened, Conner would visit the White House in December 2017, as part of a holiday event for sick local children. Trump was in Florida playing golf at the time.)

Hollie said that she’d been using her trusty iPad less lately, resisting the urge to read about new data and prognoses for kids like Conner. She knew that uncertainty about his future was more terrifying than his current reality. She wanted to stay in the now. But sitting on the couch, she grabbed the device to show me some old home videos. There was Conner at age two running around the backyard, at three eating a cupcake and giggling as Jeff teased him. There he was at four hugging Jaxon. Then Hollie showed me a video from June 2016, when Conner was having seizures almost every day. When it was shot, he seemed to be doing well and was playing outside. “This was just before the lightning hit,” Hollie said.

I noticed just how much of the living room was new: the walls, the curtains, the TV on which cartoons were playing. Hollie, smiling with nostalgia, was already moving on to another video of Conner in a diaper. Then she looked up for a moment. “You know, sometimes, when the air-conditioning is on,” she told me, “it will blow, and for a few minutes the room will smell like a campfire.”

Promethea Unbound

Promethea Unbound

A child genius raised in poverty, she wanted to change the world. A horrific act of violence nearly destroyed her.

By Mike Mariani

The Atavist Magazine, No. 72


Mike Mariani is a writer and journalist based in Lake Tahoe, California. His features and essays have appeared in Vanity Fair, Mother Jones, The Guardian, Slate, Newsweek, and TheAtlantic.com. You can see more of his work at mikemariani.contently.com


Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Tekendra Parmar
Photographer: Lynn Donaldsonr
Cover Image: Courtesy of Promethea Pythaitha

Published in October 2017. Design updated in 2021.

One

For Georgia Smith, home was a beat-up red Plymouth Voyager minivan with a bad engine block. A Greek immigrant in her early forties, she had been evicted from her San Francisco apartment in the fall of 1996. Georgia didn’t want anyone to alert social services that she and her daughter Jasmine were destitute, so for several months they’d been living as nomads. She shuttled the five-year-old around the city by day before finding a parking lot where they could spend the night. They never stayed in one place for very long.

To Jasmine, a little girl with olive skin and dark eyes prone to faraway expressions, it felt like camping. She wasn’t enrolled in school, so her mother took her to the zoo, the botanical gardens, and the beach. They had a favorite park overlooking the bay where they would take long walks, watch people fishing on the pier, and wash their hair—they both had long, thick black tresses—in a public fountain.

One night in the summer of 1997, Georgia decided to surprise Jasmine with the next day’s activity. While driving around, she pretended they were lost. After Jasmine fell asleep, Georgia headed to the campus of Stanford University, 35 miles south of San Francisco, where she parked the Voyager in a dormitory lot. Throughout the night, whenever someone drove past, she grabbed a flashlight and map to look like she’d pulled over for directions.

Her plan was to take her daughter on a morning tour of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, one of the world’s premier scientific laboratories.  SLAC had produced three Nobel Prizes in physics and hosted the first website in North America. Jasmine had been dying to visit the accelerator since she had first read about it in a book. “You know how some kids want to go to Disneyland, because that’s where all the magic happens?” she would later explain. For her that was SLAC. Jasmine wasn’t an ordinary five-year-old.

When she woke up in the van, it was to the oak trees and manicured lawns of Stanford’s sun-dappled campus. “You have a gift coming your way,” Georgia said. The little girl’s eyes lit up with excitement. They joined the first tour of the day, which was otherwise filled with college students and older science enthusiasts. A guide led them through halls lined with framed photographs, plaques, and awards. Jasmine, wearing a drooping T-shirt, blue jeans, a white headband, and Velcro sneakers, was rapt by talk of electrons, X-rays, and lasers.

Find hundreds of hours’ worth of longform stories read by audiobook narrators in the Audm app for iPhone.

The tour ended with a question and answer session in an auditorium. Because Jasmine was so short, she and Georgia sat in the front row to make sure she could see the speaker, a physicist. At one point, Jasmine whispered to her mother, “Is it OK to ask a question?” When Georgia approved, the little girl raised her hand, and the physicist called on her.

“How do you prevent the accelerator from melting down because of all the heat created by the particle collisions?” Jasmine asked.

A hush fell over the audience. The physicist took a long pause, his eyes fixed on the little girl. Then he described SLAC’s sophisticated cooling system, satisfying Jasmine’s curiosity, before moving on to other questions.

When the session ended and visitors began filing out, the physicist walked briskly over to Georgia. “I think you should go see Dr. Yearian,” he said, referring to Mason Yearian, a professor who led one of the Stanford physics department’s labs. With the speaker’s help, Georgia scheduled a meeting for that day.

Yearian was tall and thin, with gray and white hair carefully combed to one side of his forehead. When Georgia and Jasmine arrived at his office, he asked to see the young girl alone. He wanted to make sure that what had happened in the auditorium wasn’t orchestrated by her mother. Yearian led Jasmine into a spacious room lined with textbooks and file boxes, then picked her up and set her in a chair opposite his desk. She swung her legs up and down, her feet nowhere close to touching the floor, before settling with her knees pulled up to her chest. As Yearian talked, Jasmine kept looking at a pink slinky perched on a shelf.

Why, he asked, had she inquired about the accelerator melting down? Jasmine answered matter-of-factly: Particles moving nearly at the speed of light create an enormous amount of thermal energy that must be contained. The professor followed up by asking her about the physics principles behind a pendulum. Jasmine described oscillation, conservation of energy, and frictional damping. This is the real deal, Yearian thought.

He called Georgia into the office. “You have an extremely bright child,” he said. “How did she learn so much?” Everything Jasmine knew, Georgia explained, she had taught herself.


Back then, Georgia didn’t consider her daughter a prodigy so much as a miracle. Georgia had been 36 and pursuing a literature degree at Montana State University, in the city of Bozeman, when she became pregnant with her third child; she already had a son, Apollo, and a daughter, Vanessa, from a short-lived marriage in her twenties. Georgia was poor and single, and due to a preexisting medical condition, a doctor warned her that carrying to term would come at great risk for her (hemorrhage) and the baby (death). But Georgia said, “If God has put it in, then I’ll let God take it out.”

On March 13, 1991, she went into labor in her one-floor clapboard house. Her midwife, who was dating a veterinarian, came straight from helping her partner deliver a calf. As predicted, Georgia lost a lot of blood. When Jasmine Li Lysistrata was delivered, according to her mother, the midwife clamped the umbilical cord with an instrument used to birth the calf. “It’s perfectly safe,” she assured Georgia. In the following days, Jasmine developed an infection, and her mother suspected that the device hadn’t been sterilized properly. Gradually, though, the pair recovered from their first shared brush with death.  

It didn’t take long for Georgia to recognize that Jasmine was unusual. At six months she started speaking; at around nine she was reading. As a full-time student and single parent, Georgia didn’t have time to homeschool Jasmine, so she checked out piles of books, including illustrated novels and science texts, from the MSU library. By the time Jasmine was two, she could write. Even the way she carried herself—head up and back arched, like an adult with good posture—was uncanny.

Georgia, whose maiden name was Kotsaki, had grown up in Greece hearing cultural myths steeped in prophecy: futures handed down from the gods, people tormented by fates only they could see. She’d often wondered about her own fortunes. Most of her youth had been spent in an all-female orphanage, or paedopoli, Greek for “child town.” It was housed in converted military barracks surrounded by stone walls and barbed wire, situated near the sandy cliffs and sapphire lagoons of the Ionian Sea. Each orphan was identified by a number inscribed on her bed frame; Georgia’s was 788. The girls ate slices of bread with tea for breakfast and watery soup with rice for dinner, after which they prayed next to their bunks dressed in matching white nightgowns. Sometimes they would sneak into the garden and steal vegetables, and they weren’t the only scavengers. Hulking mastiffs, local sheepherding dogs, ransacked the orphanage’s garbage for food. The girls were terrified of the slobbering beasts, preferring the frogs and turtles they caught and kept as pets in shoe-polish cans they poked with holes.

At 16, Georgia moved to New Jersey to live with an aunt. A few years later, she married and had Vanessa. When her marriage turned abusive, she left her husband and moved across the country while pregnant with Apollo, winding up in Bozeman. It hadn’t been easy raising two kids alone, being a foreigner in a remote place, or returning to school in her thirties, but Georgia felt liberated. Montana was her third act in life, and the one most firmly in her control.

Now, as her third child began to flourish, her speculations turned to Jasmine’s future. She wondered if she had something truly rare on her hands and felt guilty for not being able to give her daughter more. She was also worried. Apollo had shown similar acumen in his first year, picking up English and Greek at marvelous speed. Then he went dark, becoming nonverbal and irretrievably drawn into himself because of a developmental disability. When Jasmine’s intelligence continued accelerating past the point where Apollo’s had faltered, Georgia was still scared. She agonized over the notion that her daughter might be singled out or persecuted for her uniqueness, or that she might “attract attention that wasn’t healthy.” With time that dread would morph into a harrowing question: Was Jasmine’s remarkable mind a blessing or a curse?

Georgia Smith with Jasmine as a toddler. (Photo: Lynn Donaldson)

Two

In Far from the Tree, a book about parents with exceptional children, writer Andrew Solomon punctures the beguiling myth that raising a prodigy is like winning the lottery or finding a golden ticket in a candy wrapper. While the odds might be comparable, the lived reality is more complicated. Solomon refers to the “mainstreaming dilemma,” the question of whether to enroll brilliant children in age-level classes or to find ones that suit their intellectual abilities. “You can damage prodigies by nurturing their talent at the expense of personal growth,” Solomon writes, “or by cultivating general development at the expense of the special skill that might have given them the deepest fulfillment.”

Monumental decisions like these come fast and furious for parents of geniuses, a taxing amplification of the stress all mothers and fathers feel about the potential long-term consequences of the choices they make for their kids. Pressure on time and finances can also be unyielding. There are musical instruments, private lessons, and gifted programs to pay for, and parents often relinquish careers to support a child’s abilities and aspirations. Families discover that a genius’s talents are prodigious in more than one sense of the word, as there seems to be little room for much else.

Solomon posits that “being gifted and being disabled are surprisingly similar: isolating, mystifying, petrifying.” The Americans with Disabilities Act doesn’t cover prodigies, and the rationale seems obvious: These children are overequipped for normal achievement. Yet their unique requirements for learning and the extraordinary burdens placed on their families make prodigies resplendent doppelgängers to developmentally challenged children. They can be just as ill-suited to systems meticulously constructed for normalcy, misfits forced to invent their own vermiculate paths to accommodate the demands of brilliance.

Jasmine proved no exception, and Georgia’s circumstances only magnified the challenges of raising her. In 1993, Montana’s Department of Child and Family Services wanted to take Apollo away because it didn’t think Georgia, a single mom on welfare, could provide the attention and resources he required. Rather than be forced to give him up, Georgia rented a U-Haul, packed her belongings, and left for California, just five credits shy of her degree. Vanessa, 18 and recently married, stayed behind.

Georgia, Jasmine, and Apollo settled in San Francisco, in a cramped basement apartment with a warped ceiling. The only entrance was through the landlord’s garage. Georgia and Jasmine slept in one room, while Apollo stayed in another, tucked inside a sleeping bag on the floor. The apartment was dingy, with mice and a septic tank that overflowed, causing brown wastewater to gush from a drain in the floor.   

Georgia got a job working 12-hour graveyard shifts at a post office for seven dollars an hour, seven days a week. She’d leave in the late afternoon and return around 6 a.m. Unable to afford child care, she left Jasmine and Apollo, 16 and still unable to communicate fully, home alone. Jasmine, a toddler, had trouble sleeping with her mother away, so she often stayed up reading books. On Georgia’s lunch break, around midnight, she would call to find out what her daughter was studying.

Jasmine’s mind was voracious, but she particularly loved math. Georgia had introduced her to the subject by way of a set of counting beads picked up at a Montessori school. Sitting in their living room one day, she demonstrated subtraction by removing a few beads from the set. “Simple,” two-year-old Jasmine replied. Georgia asked her to subtract four-, five-, and six-digit numbers from others just as big, and Jasmine solved each problem easily. Before long she shed her training wheels and started solving large problems using a pen and paper. By the time she turned three, she had mastered fractions, decimals, and multiplication.

Next came geography, history, and literature, including Greek epic poems and plays such as Antigone and Orestes, the works of Romantic poets, and Charles Dickens’s novels, whose waifs led hard-luck lives not so different from Jasmine’s. She devoured them all before she was old enough to enter kindergarten. She also showed exceptional ability on the piano. Her blossoming aptitude for math, though, is what kept inspiring nerve-jangling awe in her mother. By age four, Jasmine was doing algebra.

When Jasmine turned five, in March 1996, Georgia scrambled to fit her into the public education system. Elementary, middle, and even high schools told Georgia that they couldn’t accommodate her daughter. Then she heard about the Nueva School, a private academy for gifted children. The tuition was beyond her means, but she hoped that, by demonstrating Jasmine’s intelligence, she could secure her daughter a scholarship.

Georgia paid around $200 for Jasmine to take an IQ test. The building where it was administered was buzzing with activity; a construction project was under way, and workers shuffled in and out constantly. Georgia feared that the clamor might distract Jasmine. Nervous, she waited outside the testing room. The exam took less than an hour.

When the results arrived in the mail, Georgia was stunned: Jasmine had scored in the 99.9th percentile. Although IQ tests are now seen as flawed, measuring only certain variables of a person’s intelligence, Jasmine’s score left little doubt that the girl living in a fleabag apartment was a prodigy.

Plans to jump-start Jasmine’s academic career halted, however, when tragedy struck that summer. Back in Bozeman, Vanessa was on her way to Big Timber Waterslide Park with her husband, two-year-old daughter, and brother-in-law when their car overturned on a highway. Her husband suffered a heavy blow to the head and was pronounced brain-dead by the time he reached the hospital; he was pulled off life support soon after. Vanessa was paralyzed from the chest down, leaving her to face the prospect of single motherhood—her daughter and brother-in-law had emerged relatively unscathed—as a disabled widow. Georgia explained the situation to her landlord and, with Jasmine and Apollo in tow, drove to Montana.

They stayed at the Lutheran Center in Billings, a residence for the families of medical patients. Georgia did laundry, cooked, and cleaned for Vanessa and helped her acclimate to her wheelchair. Jasmine played with her little niece, Cassy, and planted acorns in Dixie cups to watch seedlings sprout. When Vanessa was assigned a health aide by the state, Georgia took Jasmine and Apollo back to San Francisco. She expected to find her apartment and job waiting for her. But her landlord, who had told her not worry about rent in the midst of family tragedy, had evicted them. The post office wouldn’t let her work because she didn’t have a permanent address, and other potential employers made the same stipulation. In a vicious cycle, Georgia’s lack of employment kept her from finding a new place to rent.

So the era of living in the Voyager began. Given his circumstances, Apollo was sent back to Montana to stay with Vanessa, and then on to New Jersey to be cared for by extended family members. For Jasmine, who didn’t have much social interaction with other kids, her brother’s departure was hard. Georgia, the minivan, and books became her whole world.   


When I first heard the story of the SLAC tour, I assumed that Georgia’s plan was to get Jasmine discovered, so to speak. If Stanford faculty saw her kindergarten-age child grasping the nuances of particle physics, they might be willing to support her beleaguered quest to find Jasmine a suitable education. Her goal, however, was much simpler than that: Georgia wanted to make Jasmine happy, to see the gleeful look on her face when she laid eyes on the linear accelerator.

Jasmine was discovered on the tour, though. Professor Yearian’s conversation with her impressed him enough that he suggested Georgia enroll her in Stanford’s Education Program for Gifted Youth, a series of distance-learning classes developed for children with exceptional academic ability. Around the same time, Georgia won a settlement from her old landlord—not only was the 1996 eviction deemed unlawful, but the court also found the sewage-plagued basement to be uninhabitable. With the money, she and Jasmine finally had options. Georgia asked her daughter where she wanted to live, and Jasmine said, “I want to go where I was born.” The pair relocated permanently to Montana, where Jasmine began taking EPGY classes on a clunky desktop computer in their Bozeman apartment.

In successive three-month semesters, Jasmine completed courses in algebra and calculus, all before her eighth birthday. Even in a program for brilliant kids, her performance raised eyebrows. “When Jasmine Lysistrata first came to the attention of the experts on gifted children at Stanford University, they wondered if she might be a hoax,” read an article published at the time in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. “Never had the calculus course on the Internet been taken by a child as young.” EPGY officials were so skeptical that they had Jasmine’s math teacher, Janet Glosup, travel to Montana to confirm that the little girl was doing her own coursework. Glosup and Jasmine already had an online rapport about various subjects; in one email exchange about GMOs, Glosup had signed off, “Yuck, Janet.” In Bozeman, Glosup gave Jasmine math problems to solve and took her to Hyalite Canyon, a popular hiking destination. She later told a reporter that the girl was “at least ten times brighter than the brightest student I’ve had.”

In 1998, the CBS documentary series 48 Hours was looking for subjects for an episode entitled “Whiz Kids!” The producers heard about Jasmine through the Stanford faculty and sent a crew to Montana in the late fall. To capture a day in the life, the team, led by a young auburn-haired reporter named Maggie Cooper, arrived at Georgia and Jasmine’s apartment, the bottom level of a fourplex, at 6:30 a.m. They filmed mother and daughter as they ate hard-boiled eggs and cereal and reviewed a calculus lesson plan. Cooper then joined Jasmine in her study, a small room where a long desk and white bookcases sat atop maroon carpeting. A fake Christmas tree adorned with lights blinked in the corner. After Jasmine solved a calculus problem on a whiteboard, Cooper suggested, “You look like you’re having a good time.” Leaning against the desk, Jasmine replied shyly, “Yes, that’s very true.”

Jasmine’s segment on “Whiz Kids!” (Recording: Courtesy Promethea Pythaitha) 

While still photographs from that time show a serious child, her thick eyebrows slightly furrowed at the center of a face defined by wide, flat planes, Jasmine was effervescent on camera. Her full cheeks were red, her inflection lively. She delivered a hammy reading of Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Later in the day, the show’s producers started a snowball fight while filming Jasmine and Georgia walking home from a pond near their apartment. Slipping and sliding in slushy snow, Jasmine squealed wildly. The walk was the happiest Georgia had ever seen her daughter, “laughing her little heart out.”

Not everything that 48 Hours captured was so rosy. The crew sat in on a calculus course Jasmine was auditing at MSU, part of a trial period before the school would allow her to enroll as an official student. In an awkward scenario no doubt staged for the show, she volunteered to solve a problem in front of the class. As she filled multiple blackboards, the other students, all much older than she was, looked on with a mixture of languor and annoyance. When the class let out, Jasmine waved goodbye to one student, who quickly acknowledged her before rushing out. The chasm between Jasmine and her classmates was wide.    

Before the taping ended, Cooper sat down with Georgia in her living room, decorated with white lace, small Greek busts, and framed pictures. A portrait of Jasmine wearing a yellow dress, which Georgia had painted, hung on the wall. Georgia sat atop a stack of books in sneakers and sweatpants. Still living off the San Francisco settlement, she’d dedicated herself full-time to helping Jasmine study.

“She should graduate with her bachelor’s at about the age of 11,” Georgia told the reporter.

“She could have her master’s degree and then Ph.D. by, what, 15?” Cooper asked.

“Sixteen at the latest,” Georgia said.


After the “Whiz Kids!” episode aired in December 1998, people stopped Georgia in public to say that they recognized her from the show, including during a trip to New Jersey to visit family. There was also media coverage from Montana outlets that previously had no idea a child genius sat under their noses. MSU president Mike Malone decided to let Jasmine take courses for credit. At age eight, she became a college student.

When she was allowed to declare a major, she chose math. Because Jasmine was a minor, Georgia went to class with her every day. “It was the greatest time of our lives,” Georgia would say later. “All she cared about was learning. And as long as she learned, she was a thriving child.”

Circumstances outside the classroom continued to bedevil mother and daughter, though. A wealthy Bozeman family had offered to cover Jasmine’s tuition, but the cost of textbooks, supplies, and transportation strained Georgia’s limited finances. Going to school with her daughter made steady employment impossible. She eked out a living as best she could by cleaning faculty houses and student dormitories, sometimes in exchange for used textbooks. When the Voyager broke down, Georgia couldn’t afford to replace it, so she and Jasmine walked the 16 blocks to MSU each day.

Jasmine struggled socially. Local kids ganged up on her in the Bozeman trailer park where Vanessa lived with her daughter. One day, Jasmine made the mistake of trying to explain a math problem to one of them. From then on when she visited her sister, kids would chase her and try to bait her into answering questions so that they could ridicule the way she talked—with big words and sober mannerisms. “They would start pretty viciously mocking me,” she recalled. “It was profoundly unrewarding, every single time.”

Students at MSU could also be malicious. One told her to go home and play with Barbie dolls. Others complained about having to partner with “a baby” in labs. In the brief moments when she and her mother were separated—a bathroom break, a dash to retrieve a misplaced textbook—Jasmine was sometimes pushed around in the halls. She took to using her arms as a shield, keeping them crossed loosely in front of her chest with her elbows sticking out.

Despite having to knuckle through social crucibles, in December 2004, at age 13, Jasmine completed the coursework for her degree. She graduated the following May, becoming the youngest person in MSU history ever to do so. Her GPA was 3.81. “It isn’t perfect,” she admitted to a local reporter.

Wearing a black graduation gown and a cap with a gold tassel, the symbol of highest honors, Jasmine told the journalist that she wanted to get another four or five bachelor’s degrees. A doctorate could wait. In her mind, there was a lucid pathway between academic fields, a way to connect solutions to disease, pollution, and other global problems, so she wanted to study as many subjects as she could. “I can’t feel well accomplished, because I have so much to learn,” Jasmine said.

Except she was no longer Jasmine, legally speaking. In anticipation of her graduation, she had decided to change her name. She spent a lot of time thinking about the one she wanted, how it could offer a window into her bracing idealism and ethical vision. She settled on a four-part Greek moniker: Promethea Olympia Kyrene Pythaitha.

Promethea is a feminization of Prometheus, the Greek titan who gave fire to humankind. It also comes from the Greek word for forethought. Olympia is the region on the Peloponnesian peninsula where the Olympic games originated. (“One of the ancient Greeks’ big contributions to the world,” in the teenager’s opinion, was “the idea of putting aside people’s petty conflicts to compete for betterment, peacefully, without it being about politics and gaining power.”) Kyrene was a daughter of the god Hermes and a feminist prototype, participating in men’s sporting competitions and founding her own colony.

Finally, the inspiration behind Pythaitha was twofold: It was the name of the mother of Greek mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras, and it sounded a lot like Pythia, the name of the high priestess at Delphi who foretold the future. The girl who was now Promethea believed her life, and its work, would have meaning.


Psychologist Martha J. Morelock, who has studied prodigies for much of her career, has observed what she calls their “rage to learn.” Promethea had it. At 15, she returned to MSU for her next bachelor’s degree, this one in physics. Ever since watching Carl Sagan’s documentaries as a little girl in San Francisco, she’d been spellbound by the field. She loved how consequential physics was, how its laws governed everything in the universe. To a mind hardwired to see the intricate ways one subject might unlock the secrets of another, physics was a skeleton key.

In a jarring sequence of events, Georgia’s sister passed away and left her some money that, under the terms of the estate, had to be spent on a home within 30 days of receipt. Georgia quickly bought a shabby house on 20 acres of land near Livingston, a rural, mountainous town about 24 miles from MSU. She got a car, too, so that she could drive Promethea to classes. “The worst decision we ever made,” Georgia said later, “was to move out of Bozeman.”

The ranch was located in the Wineglass, an area whose name comes from the shape of a path carved by the timber industry in the 1890s to haul timber down from higher elevations. The area was made up of rambling homesteads scattered over a network of hills and valleys, connected by unpaved roads covered in loose rocks and prairie bunchgrass as high as a car’s hood. As soon as they moved there, Georgia and Promethea felt isolated. They butted heads with their neighbors, whom they found to be cold and surly. Georgia became embroiled in several legal disputes regarding property boundaries and other land matters. Already eccentric outsiders by nature, mother and daughter suddenly found themselves deeper than ever in the social margins.

Promethea’s schedule didn’t help. On a typical weekday, she would get up around 5 a.m. to have breakfast and prepare for the one-hour commute to MSU. Georgia still accompanied her everywhere and passed the time reading newspapers and how-to manuals for home repairs. After her classes finished in the afternoon, Promethea went to a lounge in the engineering and physical sciences building to review her notes, which she considered “chicken scratch.” She rewrote them more legibly and with generous annotations, often flashes of insight she’d had connecting one discipline to another. If she was riveted by the way a professor had described a sophisticated concept, she jotted it down. Only when she finished transcribing did she start on her homework. It wasn’t uncommon for her to go from astrophysics to circuit design to code writing in one sitting. Her meticulous approach could keep her on campus past midnight, after which Georgia drove her home and the pair slept two or three hours before waking up and starting all over again.

The days were long at MSU for another reason. Their home in Livingston had plumbing and heating problems, and Georgia struggled to pay contractors to fix them. She and Promethea shivered through frigid winter nights, when temperatures could plummet to minus 30 degrees. To bathe they boiled water. If she had to do homework, Promethea sat at her desk bundled in a heavy jacket and gloves. On campus, at least, there was heat and working bathrooms.

In the physics department, Promethea grew close with two professors, Carla Riedel and Bennett Link, who were married. Riedel taught her in five classes. “She was just a ferocious intellect,” the professor recently told me. “She devoured and sucked the information out of everything that she encountered.” Riedel compared teaching Promethea to trying to throw luggage onto a freight train passing by at full speed. “She was by far the smartest person I’ve ever known in my life,” Riedel said, and also “the most generous, sweetest, most respectful.” Promethea would bring Riedel fresh eggs from chickens she raised on the ranch.

Link, who taught Promethea in graduate-level classes on quantum mechanics and general relativity between 2009 and 2010, was similarly awed. “In terms of raw mental horsepower, she was by far the best I’ve ever seen in 25 years of teaching,” Link said. “Her ability to quickly grasp something and understand it completely was just off-scale.” Promethea would turn in 30 or 40 pages for homework assignments, “tomes” in which she solved a sophisticated physics problem—the transition rates of hydrogen atoms, say—three different ways. “That’s what the absolute best people do to check their work,” Link said, “the finest scientists I know of, especially in theoretical fields.” Promethea emblazoned each solution with a smiley face.

As Link spent more time with Promethea, though, he grew concerned about her future. He felt that one of her most impressive attributes—her appetite for a range of fields—was becoming a hindrance. During one meeting in his office, Link brought up specialization. “It’s great that you’re so inquisitive,” he said, “but at some point you need to decide what you want to do. You need to focus if you want to make an impact.” He asked Promethea what sort of career she wanted, and she couldn’t articulate an answer beyond “research-level science.” When Link encouraged her to apply to graduate programs, Promethea told him that she didn’t want to go anywhere but MSU. “She was worried about finances. She clearly didn’t want to leave the area,” Link recalled. “And she didn’t know what to do with her mother if she went to a big graduate school.”

The professors found Georgia “outrageously protective,” as Riedel put it. Even after Promethea turned 18, her mother insisted on shadowing her everywhere. Instead of diminishing over time, their fears of bullying and physical danger had hardened, and the way mother and daughter operated as a unit had become ritualistic. They were always scanning for threats and vulnerabilities, planning ahead to avoid worst-case scenarios. “There was a real secrecy over their movements around campus,” Riedel said. “Promethea would tell me she wanted to meet with me at a specific time, and then tell me why it had to be at that time, so that she could manage her environment.”

To observers, Promethea and Georgia appeared to be battening the hatches for a storm that existed only in their imaginations. “They struck me as colossally paranoid about the world,” Riedel said. “They went on and on about the awful things that might happen.

“And then,” she added, “the awful things started really happening here in Bozeman.”

Three

Unbeknownst to Riedel, Link, or anyone else at MSU, Promethea and Georgia’s lives had grown increasingly fraught, and not with delusion. It all started at a seemingly benign event. The donor family that had supported Promethea had agreed to cover tuition only for her math degree. For her physics education, she had to look elsewhere for funding. In 2006, she entered and won an essay contest sponsored by the PanHellenic Scholarship Foundation, a nonprofit that helps pay for Greek-American students’ college educations. She was awarded $10,000 and later invited to speak at the Festival of the Three Hierarchs, a banquet held every January in Chicago to commemorate the founders of the Greek Orthodox Church.

In researching the subject of her speech—the relationship between education and the church—Promethea was shocked to learn that the hierarchs, three bishops who lived in the fourth century A.D., were complicit in the vicious tyranny of early Christianity. Or in her own words, “There’s really no way to describe the history of the early Orthodox Church other than religious fascism.” The hierarchs supported leaders who persecuted philosophers, astronomers, and poets; at least one of them participated directly in this oppression. People who spread knowledge that didn’t have to do with the church were charged with heresy or witchcraft, then tortured and killed. The hierarchs also helped expunge any trace of pre-Christian religion and history, burning books and razing temples, libraries, and other landmarks that harked back to ancient Greece. Infuriated by what she’d learned, Promethea wrote a 150-page speech rebuking the church’s history. Delivering it would take several hours, but she didn’t care.

In January 2007, she and Georgia flew to Chicago, all expenses paid, to attend the festival. A car was waiting for them at the airport, along with a representative from the Greek church who was eager to meet the child prodigy her colleagues had been raving about. The woman peppered them with questions on the ride to the hotel. “How could you tell Promethea was so smart?” she asked Georgia. “When did you first discover she was gifted?” When they arrived, the representative showed them around. “We got a very nice room for you,” she said. “Look at the wonderful view.” Peering out the window, Georgia saw only a concrete plaza, which paled in comparison to Montana’s striking vistas.

For her speech, Promethea chose to wear an authentic Greek outfit: a heavily embroidered cotton dress with an ornate flap that hung down like an apron and a black vest with gold stitching. She wanted to celebrate her sartorial heritage, but the handler from the church tried to dissuade her. “You don’t want to dress like that,” the woman said. “You want to dress like a regular kid your age.” She suggested a more contemporary top with a black skirt—what Georgia described as a “bimbo” look. “No, thank you,” Promethea replied.

The festival was held in a large banquet hall. The chair of the event delivered a lofty speech introducing the brilliant teenager, and on her way up to the podium, Promethea received a standing ovation. Flanked by two men in black cassocks, both powerful priests, she began to speak in Greek.

The Chicago speech, with disruptions at minute 30. 

The more she talked, the tenser the room got. Georgia realized that “no one expected to hear the truths that were coming out of her mouth.” About 20 minutes into the speech, a man working the event’s film equipment began yelling, accusing Promethea of blasphemy. When she paused, a cacophony of voices rose from the hall’s tables. Some sounded livid, but not all. “Let her finish!” a burly man roared.

The priests seated on either side of Promethea wore inscrutable expressions. At one point, she was handed a card that read, “You’re finished.” She continued delivering the speech, making her voice louder and louder so as not to be drowned out. When the din finally became too much, she walked off the stage. She’d gotten through only a fraction of what she’d written.

The people running the event were irate, but several guests gathered at Promethea’s table to congratulate her on her display of courage. Women approached her in the bathroom asking for her contact information and sharing theirs. The video of the speech was posted online, where it garnered more notoriety and admiration throughout the Greek diaspora. Promethea received death threats in the mail, but also fan letters.

A few months later, Promethea and Georgia were in a car accident on a mountain pass in Montana. Georgia was rushed to the emergency room, where she pleaded with the triage nurse, “You can’t admit me, I’ve got to take my kid to school tomorrow.” Promethea insisted otherwise, and Georgia was diagnosed with broken ribs and facial bones, and a broken sternum. When news of the accident spread through the Greek community, supporters helped cover Georgia’s medical expenses and chipped in to buy her a new car. One man, 77-year-old Thomas Kyros, who claimed to be a retired physicist, made a peculiar gesture: He offered to pay for the mother and daughter, whose speech had greatly impressed him, to take a vacation to Italy once Georgia was better. They accepted, but decided to go to Greece instead.

When they returned from the vacation, their relationship with Kyros, who lived in New Port Richey, Florida, and whom they’d never met in person, quickly soured. Over email, he asked that Promethea check in with him regularly. He made it clear that he couldn’t stand her being at MSU, which he considered a middling public university in an off-the-radar state compared with the likes of Oxford, Cambridge, Yale, or Columbia, where he said he’d once worked. As Promethea put it, “I had to go to an Ivy League college so that I could became famous and well-known, so that I could in part reflect that fame on him.” If finances were an issue, she could live with him, Kyros said—never mind that his home was nowhere near any of the universities he found worthy of her. He referred to himself as pappoulis, “little grandfather” in Greek, and Promethea as eggonoula, which means “granddaughter.”

From 2007 to 2009, Kyros sent Promethea thousands of dollars intended for her education. Troubled by his overtures, she and Georgia refused them. Promethea also rejected packages he sent in the mail bearing books and other gifts, and she eventually stopped responding to his emails. This only seemed to make Kyros more obsessed, and he grew convinced that Georgia was responsible for the teenager’s disavowal of him. “He kept writing, writing, harassing,” Promethea later told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. “He said, ‘You’re brainwashed, your mother’s this, your mother’s that.’”

Kyros called and wrote to officials at MSU to voice conspiracy theories: There was something scandalous, maybe depraved, going on in the dilapidated brown ranch house in the Wineglass. He also contacted the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. “Promethea is a slave,” he told the newspaper in a 2009 interview, published a few years after. “She’s in bondage.” He provided what he claimed was evidence, including canceled checks that he’d tried to send to Promethea and a copy of the “Whiz Kids!” segment. He’d watched the episode over and over, parsing it for clues that Promethea was afraid of Georgia, a cruel, domineering mother who bent her daughter to her will. “He had created for himself a version of events that he liked, where he could be the hero and my mother could be the villain,” Promethea recalled, “which would give him an excuse to step in and take over my life.”

When neither MSU nor the Bozeman Daily Chronicle found his claims credible—the newspaper looked into the accusations but turned up nothing—Kyros hired a private investigator. He asked her to look into Georgia’s finances, the 2007 car accident, and the mother and daughter’s living situation in Livingston. One day in 2009, the investigator visited the ranch disguised as a special courier carrying a package from Kyros. He wanted to know who, exactly, was rejecting his mail. If Georgia sent the package back on her daughter’s behalf, Kyros would have a slender but precious shard of proof to feed his theories. It was Promethea, however, who met the incognito investigator at the ranch’s gate and turned her away.

For a while, there was radio silence from Kyros. Then, in January 2011, he called the Bozeman Daily Chronicle for the first time in a year. He left a message saying that Promethea and Georgia would be in a Livingston court in the coming days to testify as witnesses in a civil trial pertaining to road use near their home. He’d found out about the case through the private investigator, and he thought the newspaper should cover it. As usual, no one took him seriously.  

What the paper didn’t know was that Kyros was no longer in Florida. He was in Bozeman, and he’d been there for months.


At the end of October 2010, Kyros had left the house where he lived alone on Putnam Circle in New Port Richey, a suburb of Tampa. He’d given his neighbor a key and money for lawn care and newspaper delivery. He told her that he was going to visit friends in Montana, which was also where his favorite grandchild, a brilliant young woman, had attended college. “He thought she was the cat’s meow,” the neighbor, Rosalie Maxey, told a reporter at the time. Then Kyros had flown to Bozeman, where he checked in to a Days Inn.

Kyros, by then 81, was pint-size, walked in a slow shuffle, and wore plaid dress shirts and khakis. Some of the hotel’s employees grew fond of him. Marsha Wardrop, who worked at the front desk, told me that he had a made-to-order breakfast every day because of dietary restrictions. He didn’t hide his reason for being in Bozeman. “He talked about her all the time,” Wardrop recalled. Kyros told the staff that Promethea was in danger. He was certain her mother was exploiting her, and he’d come to save the young prodigy.

Room 238, where Kyros lived, often reeked of vinegar, which he used to clean his urinary catheter. According to court documents, his possessions revealed someone who had whittled his life down to a single purpose. Under his mattress was a zipped-up bag containing his passport, a checkbook, credit cards, and checks made out to his son, Kostas. Attached to the bag was a note with instructions for sending it to his son’s New Jersey address, without further explanation. (I contacted Kostas Kyros several times for an interview, but he didn’t reply.) Next to the bed were records from the Sunshine Travel Agency showing information for a one-way plane ticket to Montana, dated October 28, 2010. Several sets of directions to 50 Outlaw Hill, the address of the ranch, were scattered around the room. The nightstand held a box for a Kel-Tec P-32 semi-automatic pistol, with a sales receipt and a business card from a gun shop in Hudson, Florida.

In a suitcase were copies of the paperwork for an education trust that Kyros had set up for Promethea. The document stipulated, “In no event shall the trustee [a lawyer] provide for any educational costs relating to Promethea’s attending any university, college, program, or other schooling in the state of Montana while her mother, Georgia A. Smith, is living.” A stack of documents contained a copy of a fax written to Kyros’s Florida attorney in shaky scrawl: “This fax is to notify you that Promethea’s address, mailing, as 50 Outlaw Hill must be considered null and void for all purposes. The USPS PO Box No. 388, as well as all telephone numbers, email etc. for as long as Georgia is alive must also [be] considered null and void. For as long as Georgia is alive all communications are blocked.” (The attorney, David Gilmore, declined an interview.) Taped to the bedroom mirror was a scrap of paper with one word written on it: pappoulis.

The fax addressed to Kyros’s attorney. 
The fax addressed to Kyros’s attorney. 
The January 12, 2011 stalking notice.
The January 12, 2011 stalking notice.

On January 12, 2011, Kyros finally made his presence known to Promethea. By then the 19-year-old had finished her second degree and was planning to start a third bachelor’s in computer science while also pursuing a PhD in physics, both at MSU. At the Livingston courthouse, she was perched on a bench in a hallway waiting to testify in the road-use trial when an old man took a seat next to her.

“I’ve got the flu,” she fibbed, hoping to get him to go away. “You probably want to keep your distance.” Instead, he slid closer.

“Do I know you?” she asked.

He handed her a small card that, like the paper stuck on his hotel mirror, read pappoulis. Although she had never seen Kyros in person, the shock of recognition at the Greek word twisted Promethea’s stomach into a knot. “I don’t want to see you ever again,” she said before getting up and hurrying away.

Unnerved, she went straight to the Park County Sheriff’s Office, which had a dispatch window in the courthouse. Kyros followed her. Promethea told Park County sergeant Clay Herbst that she was being harassed. She pointed to Kyros, and Herbst asked him to leave. Kyros refused, arguing that it was a public building and he was entitled to stay.

“You’re upsetting Promethea, giving her unwanted contact, and you need to leave,” Herbst said.

“She’s keeping Promethea in a concentration camp,” Kyros replied, referring to Georgia, who was elsewhere in the courthouse at the time. Promethea asked for a no-stalking order, which Herbst and his supervisor, Tom Totland, issued and had Kyros sign before escorting him from the building.

Over the next few days, Promethea was jumpy. If he hadn’t gone back to Florida, Kyros was likely just a short drive away. It was hard to get to the ranch, at least, to navigate the Wineglass’s steep, winding roads, particularly if someone wasn’t familiar with the area. Between that and the no-stalking order, Promethea hoped she’d be safe.


The following Monday, January 17, was Martin Luther King Day. Daytime temperatures can get down to single digits during a Montana winter, but that day was in the high forties. Promethea and her mother slept in, had their morning coffee, and talked at the kitchen table. Just before noon, Georgia decided to go for a walk. She’d slept fitfully, with terrible nightmares, and she wanted to meditate with a view of the soaring mountains that wreathed the Wineglass like grassy parapets.

No sooner had she left the house than Georgia heard a loud clattering near the front of the property. She went to investigate and saw that someone was ramming the front of a pickup truck into the tall, locked green gate at the head of the driveway. She ran back inside to tell Promethea. “Get the camera,” Georgia yelled, planning to snap photos of the intruder. Instead, feeling a queasy dread rising in her body, Promethea went outside to see who it was.

Behind the wheel of a black Dodge Ram sat Kyros.

“If you don’t leave immediately,” Promethea yelled, “I’m calling the police.” From the driver’s-side window, Kyros told her that if she was so afraid to talk to him, there must be something wrong with her. She went back inside to get the phone and camera.

When Georgia learned who the driver was, she wondered if she could put an end to the whole ordeal by meeting face-to-face with the man who’d viciously disparaged her. She and Kyros were both Greek, with ties to the old country. If they talked, she reasoned, and he saw that she wasn’t evil, perhaps it would be enough to hang a truce on.

Georgia stepped out of the house and walked toward Kyros, who had emerged from the truck and was standing on the far side of the gate. When she was within a few feet of him, she realized he had something in his hand. It was the Kel-Tec. At the sight of it, she screamed and reeled back. Kyros raised the pistol and fired, hitting Georgia in the neck.

When Promethea, who was still inside the house, heard the shot, she dialed 911. Once she was on the phone with the dispatcher, she dashed into the yard. Georgia had collapsed and was curled up on her side in the reedy grass. Kyros had shot her another time, and another, and he was still firing. Promethea sprinted toward the gate and threw herself on top of her mother. Maybe—probably—he wants me alive, she thought.

“Stop!” Promethea screamed. “Stop, you bastard!”

“Why are you weeping?” Kyros asked. “You should be happy she’s going to die.”

Sprawled over her mother, Promethea remained on the phone with 911. She tried to keep an eye on Kyros, who was pacing back and forth on the far side of the gate, looking for another clean shot. Then he stopped. Perhaps he decided that he’d already done what he came to do, and now he had only to wait for Georgia’s heart to stop beating.

Kyros reached into his truck and pulled out a blue bag, which he tossed on the ground near the two women. It contained $720 in cash and a copy of the education trust. Then he got behind the wheel of the Dodge Ram, turned the ignition, and reversed for a few yards before swinging around and backing the truck’s bed up to the green gate. Through the windshield he now faced the gravel driveway, about 100 yards long, leading away from the house. It was the only way in and the only way out. To save Georgia, law enforcement would have to get past him.

“Keep fighting,” Promethea told her mother between heaving sobs. Georgia was slipping into unconsciousness, and her lips were turning blue.

Herbst and Totland, the same officers who’d encountered Kyros at the courthouse, were notified that there’d been shots fired on Outlaw Hill. A victim had been hit, Promethea was on the line, and the suspect was still armed. The officers knew who the shooter had to be.

It took them ten minutes to arrive at the ranch, with an ambulance close behind. When they caught sight of Kyros, they used a squad car’s PA system to order him out of the truck with his hands up. He didn’t respond. The officers couldn’t see Promethea and Georgia, because Kyros had blocked their view of where the women lay crumpled on the ground. Herbst radioed headquarters for a victim status update. Emergency dispatch, still on the phone with Promethea, said that Georgia was losing a lot of blood.

The officers debated their options. They decided that Totland would drive slowly toward Kyros while Herbst approached on foot along the passenger’s side of the vehicle, using it as a shield. It had begun to drizzle. Herbst put on a coat and loaded his rifle. Totland started rolling his car toward the Dodge Ram.

When they got close enough, they could see that Kyros was in the driver’s seat with his right arm resting on the center console. The gun was in that hand, its barrel pointing toward the front of the truck. His finger was on the trigger.

“Drop your gun, sir!” Herbst shouted.

“You put your guns down!” Kyros replied.

Herbst sensed that Kyros was trying to keep the ambulance at bay for as long as possible. “I saw Georgia lying on the ground. I didn’t see Georgia moving, I saw blood on Promethea’s hands,” Herbst said later in an official interview with the Montana Department of Criminal Investigation. “At that point I didn’t know if he had maybe shot Promethea as well.”

Kyros told the officers they would have to shoot him. But however unhinged he was, Kyros hadn’t tried to attack them. In fact, he didn’t budge as they got within a few feet of his truck. Herbst saw the old man fiddling with the buttons on his door, the ones controlling the truck’s windows and locks. The officer decided to make a move.

With the butt of his rifle, Herbst attempted to shatter the driver’s-side window, which was halfway down. The glass only cracked. That was when Kyros finally reacted, swinging his gun up and pointing it directly at Herbst. Both officers opened fire. Each got off nine shots. Kyros was dead in a matter of seconds.

Promethea picked herself up from her mother’s body and unlocked the gate, hands trembling. Herbst radioed the ambulance to drive in. When he got to Georgia, her eyes were open, but she was nonresponsive. Kyros had shot her five times. As paramedics rushed in, Promethea seemed stricken by the scene, at a loss after the furious adrenaline rush of protecting Georgia. “She wasn’t sure what to do,” Herbst recalled. “I told her to get in the ambulance with her mom and go.” He gave her a hug before she went.

The inquest into Thomas Kyros’s death.

Georgia’s wounds ranged from her neck to her torso to her legs. One shot had been devastating, severing her brachial plexus and puncturing a lung before the bullet became embedded near her spine. Another bullet had struck her small intestine, and a third had fractured her hip before putting a hole in her bladder. At Livingston Memorial Hospital, Georgia underwent emergency surgery to remove the slugs. She was then put on life support and airlifted by helicopter to the Billings Clinic, Montana’s largest hospital. She went directly to the ICU, where doctors performed an endoscopy and later removed a portion of her small intestine. She dipped in and out of consciousness as medical staff inserted chest tubes to drain blood collecting in her lungs, checked her wounds, and monitored her internal organs for signs of failure.

Promethea stayed with her mother. She couldn’t sleep, but she wasn’t distraught, exactly—her nerves were so frayed that she could only feel numb. She’d done all she could to save Georgia, but what if it wasn’t enough? Promethea didn’t know her extended family well. There were no aunts, uncles, cousins, or grandparents visiting the hospital, no one offering her support. Her older siblings’ needs far surpassed her own and created emotional distance; Vanessa remained paralyzed, and Apollo, back in Montana and living in Section 8 housing, couldn’t hold a job. She didn’t have close friends. Math and physics were her passions, but they weren’t flesh and blood.

Without Georgia, Promethea would be utterly alone.

Four

I set out to find Promethea six years after the shooting. She hadn’t given a media interview since the immediate aftermath, and she was no longer enrolled at MSU. As far as I knew, she was still on the ranch in Livingston. I could find neither an email address nor a working phone number for her, and she had zero social-media presence. I reached out to a Bozeman Daily Chronicle reporter named Gail Schontzler who’d written several stories about the prodigy. She told me she hadn’t heard from Promethea in years. “I’m not sure Promethea wants national exposure,” Schontzler cautioned me in an email. “That’s what got her mom shot.”

Eventually, I made contact with Promethea’s lawyer, Jason Armstrong, who said that he’d forward my request to his client. When I asked to email her directly, he declined to share her address, citing Promethea’s past experience with unwanted attention. After a month of back and forth with Armstrong, I finally got the message I’d been hoping for. “Dear Mr. Mariani,” it read. “Good evening, and thank you for your correspondence and the interest you have shown in our story. This is Promethea.”

She said she was open to having a conversation. What was she like at 26? I wondered. How did her mind work? And how would she talk about her turbulent life, as riddled with tragedy as it had been rich with gifts?

It took another month of email exchanges to get her to agree to speak with me on the phone. After that, our dialogue toggled between calls and email. We discussed her unconventional education and her upbringing  by her mother. “I got a lot more sleep, and a lot more food, and a lot more everything than she did because she had to provide for us both, and all I had to do was worry about studying,” Promethea said. When we talked science, her mind was kaleidoscopic, shifting fluidly from one subject to another and making seemingly disparate ideas fit together. In one email, she elaborated on why she found interdisciplinary study so vital. She compared quantum entanglement—the spookiest of physics phenomena, according to Einstein, in which manipulating one object affects another one’s state, even from a great distance—to coding and biology:

Quantum Entanglement is one of those things predicted by the math, and verified experimentally. It’s also a bizarre paradox that’s too weird for words, and yet there’s nothing strange about it from an Information theory/Computing perspective. Same goes for Biochemistry and genetics. Whether we’re looking at enzyme design or gene transcription, within the field it is a baffling triumph of nature in building chemical machines, and yet to a programmer it is a triumph of coding design…. Amino acids are literally like program objects (or functions depending on the coder’s specialty). Inserted in a sequence their effect is predictable, but only at the most base level. What makes the field hard is that it’s far too frequently approached from effects down instead of the approach a programmer would take, working through coding from the bottom up to determine the function for each larger structure, then what structures and processes are built on those and so on up and up.

After two months of correspondence, Promethea agreed to let me visit her in Montana. We could talk more about physics. I could see the driveway where a disturbed man on a violent mission had derailed her life. And I could meet her mother.

Georgia had survived. After nearly a month of surgeries and other procedures, in February 2011, she’d been released and had returned to Livingston under Promethea’s care. She was left with a litany of physical issues, including partial paralysis of her left arm, nerve damage to her neck and shoulder, and extensive abdominal problems. She’d been almost entirely housebound ever since. As Georgia once did for her, Promethea put her life on hold to help her mother recover. She was recuperating, too: A clinical psychologist had diagnosed Promethea with severe post-traumatic stress disorder and major depressive disorder as a direct result of Kyros’s attack.

Promethea and Georgia at the ranch on Outlaw Hill. (Photo: Lynn Donaldson)

I flew to Montana in July 2017, rented a car, and drove toward the Wineglass. Past Bozeman’s downtown of warehouse-size coffee shops, independent bookstores, and Yellowstone-themed restaurants were pawn shops, hardware stores, and strip malls. Highways were choked with mammoth pickup trucks—Sierras and Rams and F-150’s—driven by men wearing scruffy beards and weathered overalls. Dirt roads that stretched into the mountains were covered with rocks and thick dust, carving through otherwise uninterrupted miles of sage and bluebunch.

When I’d started researching this story, I hadn’t been able to wrap my head around how Promethea and Georgia fit into the wider picture of the place they called home, but where they’d also been treated as oddities and outcasts. When people who aren’t from there think of Montana, they conjure images of wide-open spaces and taciturn cowboys, or maybe celebrities like Ted Turner and Jeff Bridges living on sprawling, thousand-acre ranches. Like so many representations of seldom-visited places, however, these portrayals are both partially true and wildly misleading—simulacra that throw you off the scent of the real thing.

Montana is the fourth-largest state in America, but it has a population of just over one million. There are around seven people for every square mile; only Wyoming and Alaska have lower population density. The state’s entire northern border runs along Canada at the 49th parallel, a desolate stretch of prairie and badlands. Its southern reaches, including Bozeman, are enveloped by vast mountain ranges. The sweeping, untrammeled terrain cultivates a lifestyle of roughshod, harum-scarum virility and a cultural ethos etched in a very different language—one of grit and self-reliance—than Promethea’s beloved calculus, physics, and computer code. Some people move to Montana looking for anonymity. Infamously, it’s where the Unabomber lived off the grid in a one-room cabin for almost two decades before the FBI caught him. Other people go there for quiet inspiration. Prolific authors like Jim Harrison, who wrote Legends of the Fall, and Thomas McGuane have ensconced themselves in Montana’s lonely hills and valleys, and set their novels among them, too.  

Montana is also a place of guns, construction projects, and belligerent bumper stickers, of skipping work when the fishing is good and patrolling one’s land with righteous territorialism. Its don’t-tread-on-me self-rule is fiercely protected. Even MSU, an intellectual bastion, betrays a cryptic antagonism. Near its entrance is a marble plaque with an inscription from the politician William Jennings Bryan: “Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”

I found Montana to be like a deep canyon you can’t see until you’re just a few feet in front of it. If you’re not careful, it can swallow you up.


Georgia’s property had a breathtaking but desolate view, with beauty of the cold, unforgiving kind. Ragged prairie, its hue faded gold, ran to the lush green peaks of the Bridger Mountains. The closest neighbors were so far away that their homes looked like dollhouses. Georgia’s house, one of the highest in the area, was situated like a windblown bird’s nest on Outlaw Hill.

Promethea greeted me at the green gate. It was secured with multiple locks. On either side were tattered American flags mounted on wooden posts, blowing hectically in the mountain wind like air dancers at a car dealership. Promethea’s black hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and she wore a loose long-sleeve shirt, jeans, and a pair of Merrell sneakers. “It’s great to finally meet you,” she said, opening the gate. Some of her features were recognizable from ­photos of her younger self—the rounded cheekbones, the Mediterranean complexion—but her large hands and boxy figure had a working-class cast I hadn’t expected.

Promethea no longer lived at the ranch. She had a small place in Bozeman, thanks to a work-for-rent arrangement with a local business where she repaired and upgraded computers. She also tutored students for the GRE. She didn’t have a car, so she got up to Livingston by relying on public transportation. I offered to give her rides during my visit.

Initially, when we were one-on-one, Promethea’s disposition disarmed me. Her mood was cheerful but her affect flat, as though something had been stripped from it. I struggled to find my footing in conversation, because the usual notches and grooves weren’t there. At one point she quoted Star Trek’s Spock, and I wondered if she drew inspiration from a character who balanced near perfect intellect with extreme stoicism. I also thought about how socially isolated she’d been all her life: homeless and homeschooled as a young child, taking college classes by age seven, earning two bachelor’s degrees with her mother by her side every day.

Carla Riedel had told me that Promethea “never knew how to end conversations or begin conversations or ratchet herself back.” I experienced this while ferrying her through the Montana landscape. After small talk, which came in fits and starts, Promethea would shift into a high gear I wasn’t ready for. She would talk about her family, then Greek austerity politics, then science, with nary a breath in between. There was no conversational ebb and flow. I didn’t so much participate as try to steer her thoughts now and then with questions.

But while it was clear that I was in the presence of the smartest person I’d ever met, Promethea’s intellect wasn’t the most striking thing about her. She didn’t have the sarcasm, cynicism, or irony many young people use to construct their personalities and establish repartee. She wasn’t quotable in the droll or pithy way that makes a journalist’s job easy; she was earnest and expansive. Our conversations were airless because Promethea had no airs—no hint of attitude, vanity, or ego. Perhaps in missing out on opportunities to develop her social self, she’d eluded artifice altogether.

One day we made plans to drive to Yellowstone National Park. I hoped to use it as an opportunity to broach some of the more sensitive topics in her life. After a week of thunderstorms swooping in and out of Bozeman, the skies were clear and the temperatures were in the low eighties. Promethea wore her hair in a bun under an old green beret and carried an earth-toned knapsack over one shoulder. On the hourlong ride from Livingston through flatlands streaked with yellow and mauve wildflowers, I asked Promethea about her father. She told me that Georgia had loved him, but that his family, which was also Greek, had selected someone else for him to marry. Promethea had never met him—even after she was featured on 48 Hours and profiled in Montana newspapers, and even after the shooting. “It’s kind of hard to be mad at someone you never knew,” she said.

We went hiking in the Lamar Valley, a stretch of wilderness often called the Serengeti of North America because of its dazzling array of big mammals: wolves, grizzlies, and elk, to name a few. Over several hours, picking our way through hilly backcountry past herds of pronghorn and mud-bathing bison, we eased into an idiosyncratic rapport. Promethea spoke less haltingly, but still with bottomless erudition. I began firing whatever questions came to mind, no matter how ludicrous they sounded. Promethea, what genus of flower is this? Promethea, how does the process of decomposition work? Promethea, how did wolves become dogs? It took no time for her to locate an answer in her encyclopedic brain. A few miles in, we stumbled onto a sulfur deposit, an ashy yellow swatch hidden behind a cluster of fir trees. “It must be thousands of years old,” I mused. “Probably much older,” Promethea corrected me. She explained that the sulfur’s likely provenance was volcanic ash spewed half a million years ago.

Joanne Ruthsatz, an expert on virtuosic children, has said that prodigies are exceedingly rare, perhaps only one in five million people. When most of us imagine such an individual, we visualize a gifted specialist who crawls up to a piano as a toddler and plays Beethoven or who outsmarts chess grandmasters while still in junior high school. Promethea, by contrast, seemed like an astounding generalist. She never once struck a false note.


The hardest question of all, lodged inside me like a Zen koan, was one that I wasn’t sure Promethea could answer, at least not easily. Beyond facts and figures, it would require accessing the depths of her emotional intelligence: How had a genius slipped through society’s cracks, and could she ever find her way back aboveground?

One night, Promethea invited me over for dinner at the ranch. We walked up the driveway, past several streetlights installed on the property, and onto a plywood platform leading into the one-story brown house. Georgia was in the living room, waiting to greet me for the first time. “You look just like you do in your picture!” she said, embracing me. She was small, with fierce hazel eyes and silver hair shaved close to her skull. On her face, scars intermingled with smile lines.

Inside, Georgia’s home was like a treasure chest from a bygone era. Miniature Christmas houses crowded wooden shelves, their Victorian roofs flecked with sugary fake snow. Orchids, cactus, and pothos vines spilled from the corners of the living room. Porcelain angels peered out of various nooks and crannies, each one engaged in an act of ethereal grace: holding an infant child, feeding a swan, pirouetting with a silk ribbon in hand. Georgia said that she’d bought the angels to commemorate accomplishments in Promethea’s academic career. Underneath each one was a handwritten congratulatory note to her daughter. One read, “My beloved daughter Jasmine, for acing Linear Algebra 333 at MSU, Bozeman, MT. I love you, Mommy Georgia.”

I sat in the living room talking to Georgia while Promethea flitted to and from the kitchen, where she was preparing dinner. When Georgia told a story Promethea had probably heard a hundred times, she flashed a wry smile. When her mother made a bawdy joke, which she did more than once, Promethea let out a half-stifled laugh. Alongside Georgia, pieces of her personality emerged. Yet she was deferential, happy to let her mother have the spotlight.

Listening to Georgia talk about life in Greece and the star-crossed arc of her time in America, I thought about how, in the mountains of Montana, she had managed to re-create her youth at the orphanage: an existence devoid of comforts but surrounded by natural beauty. Her excruciating history had sharpened Georgia’s edges; her opinions were forward, her tone defiant. When I mentioned that Promethea getting a steady computer-programming job might give them both some financial stability, Georgia gave me a long stare, her head tipped forward and eyebrows raised. “C’mon,” she said. “Life isn’t about having food on the table. It’s about fulfilling your destiny.”

Later, the three of us sat in the kitchen drinking strong, bitter Greek coffee. Animated by the caffeine spike, Promethea began waxing poetic about quantum entanglement. She described the theory as being like “twin souls, bound across time.” She stood and paced around the table, gesturing elaborately with her hands. She looked like a rigorous, romantic professor.

I asked if the transition from intellectual life at MSU, where she had teachers to spar with, to the isolated one she led now had been difficult. She and Bennett Link had discussed the possibility of her attending graduate school in 2011, and again in 2012. But she never applied anywhere, and the two eventually lost touch.

“You need money to go to school,” she told me.

For all her misfortune, indigence had been the most consistent affliction in Promethea’s life, and in many ways her story lays bare the inexorability of class distinctions. In a morbid twist, Kyros had left her two-thirds of his estate. After lawyer fees, a payoff to Kyros’s son (who might otherwise have fought for the inheritance in court), and Georgia’s extensive medical expenses, very little was left. Promethea spent the remainder on an in-home art studio for Georgia, who loves to paint and still sometimes uses her daughter as a subject. Promethea hopes that Georgia might one day show her work in galleries.

I pointed out that graduate programs have fellowships, stipends, and other sources of support, and that many schools would jump at the chance to welcome someone of her caliber. “If you’re doing that, and you’re trying to also, say, pursue computers or the premed program at the same time, you can’t,” she said. In other words, the demands of being a student in one discipline wouldn’t allow her enough time for other pursuits. It was the same impediment Link had observed when she was his student.  

Exasperated, Georgia rolled her eyes. “You’ve been six years on a detour,” she said to her daughter. “When the best is being held back, sure, they will get somewhere, but not where the world needs them to be.”

There was another reason Promethea was on a detour. It became clear when she talked about the shooting, the pain of the memory heavy in her voice. Trauma is always complex, but in her case it is especially insidious. Because Kyros was obsessed with her intelligence, his violence tainted Promethea’s passions and ambitions, sullying the things she wanted most in the world with her own mother’s blood.

“In all the years I went to MSU and all the times I was faced with misogyny and age bias, no matter how bad things were and how isolated sometimes I felt because of the way other students treated me, especially when I was younger, I never regretted being born with the abilities I had,” she told me in the winding way she often speaks. “And then, when I was sitting there in the hospital, with my mother in the ICU, and afterwards knowing that her life would never be normal again, and that she’d be suffering what he caused for the rest of her life, I didn’t wish for anything more than that I had been born perfectly normal.”


The Romantic poets, whom Promethea read as a child, described the sublime as learning to exchange easier for more difficult pleasures. The stunning aberration of prodigies is that they are born with a taste for the latter. Promethea’s fascination with complex mathematics, astrophysics, waves, stars, cells, and the invisible strings that might loop them all together is, and always has been, her natural state. It is also what set her on an unimaginably lonely trajectory, shaped by poverty and pockmarked by violence.

As Gail Schontzler pointed out, Promethea has a rightful claim to a quiet, low-key existence. But those who know her crave more for her future. “She could enter graduate school anywhere, right now, and be top of the class,” Link said. Georgia, who convinced Promethea to participate in this story by suggesting that talented young girls facing difficult odds need to see more positive role models, confided in me that she also hoped the exposure would remind people of her daughter’s dazzling intellect. “I want her to move forward,” Georgia said, “but she needs help.”

After spending several months learning about Promethea’s life and speaking with her dozens of times, I too felt compelled to nudge her toward reclaiming her innate promise and once titanic drive. In the end, though, other people’s wishes and entreaties didn’t matter. They still don’t. The only question is this: What sort of life does the young woman who fell in love with Stanford’s particle accelerator at an age when most children are enamored with The Cat in the Hat imagine for herself? When asked, Promethea will answer ambiguously, as if afraid to name her aspirations lest they be dashed once again. Yet in her rapturous ruminations on esoteric subjects and her cautious agreement to let a reporter into her private domain, perhaps there are glimmers of clarity.

When she got her first bachelor’s degree, Promethea told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, “I kind of think I’ve got something important to do, like fulfilling an oracle.” If such an oracle had existed, like Pythia presiding at Delphi, its prophecy for the young prodigy would have been one of unfathomable brilliance and torment. But there was no high priestess at work in Promethea’s life, only powerful forces of chance and circumstance. They have quieted now, leaving Promethea’s words hanging in the air. She hasn’t finished speaking.