Narratively

Hidden History

One Man’s Daring Escape from Mao’s Darkest Prison

In 1958, thousands of Chinese citizens were sent to brutal labor camps where escape was impossible—but that didn't stop one man from trying. Now, his story is finally told.

In 1958, as part of China’s Anti-Rightist Campaign, 550,000 Chinese citizens were convicted of crimes against the state. One of them was Xu Hongci, a medical student arrested for speaking out against the Soviet Union, who was sentenced to a camp called White Grass Ridge. For eight months, Xu worked up to nineteen hours a day on a starvation ration, each day growing closer to death. Finally, he and his young friend Chen Xiangzai attempted the impossible: escape. More than one thousand miles from the nearest land border, in a country as tightly controlled as any prison, it was an impossible journey, and one they had no choice but to make.

Xu, who died in 2008, told his story in an unpublished manuscript that was discovered in 2012 by journalist Erling Hoh. This month, “No Wall Too High” was published in English by Sarah Crichton books. The following is an excerpt.

* * *

On December 14, 1958, before dawn, Xiangzai and I packed our knapsacks and dropped them through the small window behind his bunk, then washed ourselves and ate breakfast as usual.

When the team leader blew his whistle for the morning assembly, we exited the barrack first, turned to the rear of it, picked up our knapsacks, and ran as fast as our legs would carry us.

It took us two minutes to reach the farm’s tobacco-curing house. We continued sprinting toward the Ouyang Ford at Sand River. We crossed a bridge and came to a village where bent, famished peasants were queuing up for the day’s work. Keeping our heads down, we walked toward the main road from Hangzhou to Wuhu.

Xu Hongci as a young man. (Photo courtesy Xu Hongci’s family)
Xu Hongci as a young man. (Photo courtesy Xu Hongci’s family)

This was a dangerous move, because we hadn’t gotten far, and it would have been easy for the patrols dispatched by [camp commandant] Mao Kourong to catch us. But they didn’t, perhaps unable to imagine that we would take the easiest, straightest route.

According to our plan, we turned east on the main road and arrived at the county seat of Guangde, twenty miles southeast of the camp, by nightfall. There, we bought some food and rested for a while, before continuing our escape through the night by the light of the moon and stars, heading east over the border into Zhejiang Province.

Walking another twenty miles, we reached the town of Si’an at 5:00 a.m., took a bus to Jiaxing, and then boarded a train to Shanghai, arriving at the North Station in the evening. The escape had given us our strength back, and we felt no fatigue despite not having slept. From a general store on Baoshan Road, I made an operator-assisted telephone call to Mother and asked her to meet us at the North Station. She arrived there with my sister Hongming and took us to the Old Zhengxing restaurant on Zhejiang Middle Road.

“What are your plans?” she asked us.

I told her we had no future in China. Our only hope was to escape abroad. Mother and Hongming were worried. They wanted to tell us to give ourselves up but knew we wouldn’t listen. On the other hand, if they helped us with money and we were captured, we would be severely punished, and they would be implicated. It was already late, and the restaurant was otherwise empty. We had to speak quietly and make our decisions quickly.

“What route will you take?” Mother asked.

“We plan to go to India via Tibet and then make our way to Hong Kong and find Uncle Lu,” I replied.

Mother said it was a long journey, that our chances of success were slim, and hesitated whether or not to help us. Finally, she relented before our entreaties and gave me five hundred yuan, which in those days was a lot of money.

As we parted, she asked to see us one last time the next evening. Having said goodbye, we were suddenly overcome with fatigue. Because we didn’t have any papers, we couldn’t stay in a hostel and had no choice but to return to the train station, where we each found a bench to lie down on.

Before I had fallen asleep, a public security officer walked over and asked to see our documents. Unable to produce any, we were taken to the police office at the train station. There were many other people there, waiting to be questioned. Xiangzai and I were separated, but I could see him. The police had taken our knapsacks from us but not the money, which I had hidden in my pants. As soon as we were interrogated, the game would be over.

The road to Duomei is a stretch of Xu Hongci's final escape route in 1972. (Photo by Erling Hoh)
The road to Duomei is a stretch of Xu Hongci’s final escape route in 1972. (Photo by Erling Hoh)

At this moment, I was filled with a powerful determination and, taking advantage of a short lapse in the attention of the police, stood up and fled the station out to the road, disappearing among the pedestrians. I crossed Sichuan Road and came to the Bund. By this time, it was around midnight, and there were no police in sight. I walked back and forth, feeling bad about leaving Xiangzai behind. There was no way I could return and rescue him.

Suddenly I ran into Xiangzai at the corner of the Bund and Nanjing Road. We hugged each other with joy.

“How did you escape?”

“The police didn’t see you sneak out. I just followed you,” he said.

“But how did you know I was on the Bund?”

“I don’t know. I just had a feeling you would come here.”

It was a miracle, one of the strangest things in my life. The winter night was damp and cold, and we had nowhere to go. All we could do was saunter about on the Bund. In 1958, with Shanghai engulfed in the Great Leap Forward, this famous, elegant boulevard looked like a construction site. In front of the municipal building, there was a row of small blast furnaces, and the sidewalk was cluttered with piles of ore, pig iron, coke, and slag.

Of course, we should have left Shanghai right away. But I was young and ignorant in the ways of the Public Security Bureau and wanted to see Mother one last time.

That morning, I telephoned Father’s cousin Auntie Bai and asked her to go to my house and tell Mother to meet me at 6:00 p.m. at the Grand Theatre. At around 5:30 p.m., as dusk fell, Xiangzai and I sat down in the coffeehouse just west of the cinema and ordered some food. I told Xiangzai to stay put and went alone to meet Mother.

Because it was dark, I couldn’t see that she was shooting warning glances to me and rushed to greet her. A big sturdy man popped out of a corner and grabbed me. Several other men stepped forward. I realized they were plainclothes policemen and that I had walked straight into a trap. I will never forget the torment on Mother’s face. The policemen asked me where Xiangzai was.

“He won’t make it by himself. Return to the camp together!” Mother shouted.

I was about to accuse Mother of betraying us there and then but, tempering myself, realized that the problem probably lay with our arrest the previous evening. Without money, Xiangzai wouldn’t survive. Having decided to return to the camp and plan another escape, I brought the policemen with me to the coffeehouse.

“The game’s over; we have to go back,” I said to Xiangzai.

When he saw Mother surrounded by the plainclothes policemen, his face turned ashen white. The officers wanted to take us away immediately, but I protested, “We are hungry. Let us eat before we go.”

Mother also insisted on eating first, and the policemen relented. I told the waiter to bring another bowl and pair of chopsticks and asked Mother to sit down with us. The policemen sat down at another table, keeping an eye on us. I quickly slipped the five hundred yuan back to Mother.

With her head lowered to the rice bowl, she whispered, “There was a letter from me in your knapsack. The police at the train station knew that you had escaped and returned home. This morning, officers from the Public Security Bureau came to ask for you. In the afternoon, Auntie Bai came over, and they forced her to tell them where you were.”

A crowd had gathered at the entrance to the coffeehouse, and the waiters and guests thronged around our table, staring at us. It was chaotic. A few of the policemen stood up and dispersed the crowd and told us to finish our meal.

While the policemen were busy dealing with the onlookers, Mother gave me a few bills from the money I had returned to her and said in a low voice, “Take this. You’ll need it.”

I took the money and stuck it under the inner sole of my shoe. Xiangzai and I ate until we were stuffed. Mother followed us out of the coffeehouse and watched us as we boarded the police jeep.

“I’ll come and see you soon!” she shouted.

The jeep drove on with screaming sirens and shortly arrived at the infamous Tilanqiao Prison. After being body searched, Xiangzai and I were separated. In my cell, there were some thirty people locked up in a space of 160 square feet, fitted with a flush toilet. The prisoners were of all descriptions, but they were friendly and made space by the wall for me to lie down. We slept lying on our sides, head to foot, packed like sardines, the foul, moldy air reeking of urine and sweat.

We were given two meals a day: a bowl with three liang of rice with a spoonful of vegetables on top. For New Year’s Eve, everybody dreamed of a piece of meat—in vain. Our biggest problem were the fleas that hid in our underwear. The adult bugs were white and fat; the older ones turned black. When you squeezed them between your nails, there was a crisp popping sound as the blood squirted from their engorged bodies. With nothing else to do, we took off our clothes and scoured them for flea eggs, but you could never get rid of them.

Around New Year’s Day 1959, we heard on the radio that Castro had led his guerrilla troops into Havana and that the Cuban Revolution had been won. I was glad, because I had always thought Latin America was the best place for a revolution. “As soon as I get out of China, that’s where I’ll go,” I told myself. Looking back, I realize how unrealistic this idea was and how full of romantic illusions my head was in those days.

On January 6, a policeman arrived from the White Grass Ridge labor camp, shouted my name and Xiangzai’s, and handcuffed us together. The night we arrived back at the camp, we were denounced at a big douzhenghui. The other convicts shouted slogans at us, cursed us with the foulest language, and rained their spittle upon us. All we could do was keep our heads down and endure the humiliation in silence.

The struggle meeting continued for more than two hours. To our surprise, Mao Kourong was gone, replaced by Commandant Song, who gave a speech demanding our confession in return for leniency. Afterward, we were locked up in the storehouse together with two other convicts, Leng Xiaohua and Wu Miaoxin, and guarded by four militiamen from a neighboring village. The men worked in pairs in twelve-hour shifts, each of them armed with a rifle.

Used as a confinement cell for disciplinary punishment, the storehouse was made up of three rooms, with us convicts to the right and the guards in the middle. We slept on beds of hay, which were warm and comfortable, and used a latrine just beside the outer door.

We guessed that Mao Kourong had been blamed for our escape and transferred somewhere else. Commandant Song took a liking to Xiangzai; I had a feeling he would soon be let out of the storehouse. Sure enough, two days later, Xiangzai was sent back to work with our team. My fate was different. Considered the mastermind of our escape, I had to stay in the storehouse and was interrogated by a short, fat, dusky officer from Shandong.

“Tell me about your plans to escape abroad,” he demanded.

When I refused to confess, he told me, “We will have to let you taste the iron fist of the proletariat.”

By now, I was starving and never felt full no matter how much bulk I ate. In the evenings, we sat in the dark, eating from the mountain of raw peanuts in the storehouse. They tasted like raw fish in the beginning, but the more I ate, the better I liked them; however, as a result, all three of us suffered from chronic diarrhea. Night and day, we asked the guards for permission to go to the toilet, pestering them to the limit of their patience.

After two weeks, my case had still not been decided. I reckoned with four possibilities: arrest and a criminal conviction; transfer to another farm; transfer to another squadron; or confinement for three to six months, then further disciplinary action.

At midday on January 27, my cellmate Miaoxin returned from the kitchen and handed me a note from Xiangzai: “You go first. I’ll come after you. Go to my aunt in Hangtou. I’ll meet you there.”

I discussed the matter with Miaoxin. He agreed it would be dangerous to try another escape. If things went wrong, I would be shot dead on the spot. Miaoxin told me to think carefully. I was afraid, but the fear evaporated before the thought of spending the rest of my life in prison.

That night I put everything I needed into my knapsack and went to bed in my clothes, without taking my shoes off. The duty guards were playing chess in the outer room by the light of a kerosene lamp. At around 4:00 a.m., I threw off my blanket, stood up, and asked to go to the toilet. Having received the guard’s permission, I stepped out through the door, pulled down my pants, squatted over the latrine, and released my spluttering diarrhea. One minute later, I hastily cleaned myself, fastened my trousers, and then, under the cover of darkness, leaped down the terrace with long strides and ran toward the main road by the boiler room, darting from the cover of one manure pile to another. Luckily, there was no moon that night. Two minutes later, I was gone without a trace.

I followed the same route as in the previous escape, crossing the Ouyang Ford and continuing south. As the day broke, I walked toward a distant mountain in the southwest. Someone had told me I would find the town of Shijie in that direction, and to prevent the search patrols from intercepting me at Guangde, I decided to make a big detour fifty miles west to the river town of Wuhu and then catch a Yangtze ferry or a train to Shanghai.

I reached Shijie, twelve miles from the camp, at 8:00 a.m. This is a famous place, but at the time it was run-down, a scene of bleak desolation. I walked into a restaurant looking for breakfast. The attendant replied that he had nothing but Shaoxing rice wine and sugar. I was so hungry I could hardly move and asked for four liang of the wine and half a pound of sugar, washing the sugar down with the wine as the attendant looked on in disbelief.

I continued six miles west toward Shizipu, jumped on a bus, and arrived in Wuhu at five in the afternoon. The train to Shanghai had already left, and there were no more departures that day. At the pier, they told me the ferry to Shanghai would arrive at 2:00 a.m. I found a restaurant serving food, ate, and returned to the pier to wait for the ferry.

A map detailing the escapes. (Image courtesy Erling Hoh)
A map detailing the escapes. (Image courtesy Jeffrey Ward)

I was in a fourth-class cabin with eight other people. There was a restaurant at the stern of the ship, which actually served rice and hot dishes. I must have eaten too much and too fast, gulping the food down without even chewing, because when I went to the toilet, I shat undigested, discolored rice. The ferry chugged along the mighty Yangtze toward Shanghai, docking at Pier 16 at about midnight, January 30.

I walked north along the Bund toward my home on Xi’an Road. The iron gate in front of our house had been removed, probably to be melted down in one of the “backyard blast furnaces” for the Great Steel-Making Campaign. I entered the courtyard. The light in Mother’s room was on. I moved close to the window, stood on tiptoe, looked in, and saw Mother knitting in bed, Wang Ou sleeping by her side. I wanted to knock on the window and ask her to let me in. But reason overcame my emotions, and I drew my hand back.

I needed documents. Suddenly I had an idea and headed straight toward the medical college. It took me almost three hours to get there. I snuck in through a hole in the bamboo fence by the soccer field and made my way toward the library. There was an open window, protected by an iron grille. I managed to squeeze myself between the bars and entered the familiar old reading room.

Quickly, I found the desk where the book borrowers’ IDs were kept in a wooden box, put four of the IDs in my pocket, then lept through the open window. Walking north, I passed the party committee office, jumped over the campus wall, and hurried along East Temple Bridge Road.

The first rays of dawn appeared on the horizon. Without stopping, I walked to Beijing West Road and knocked on the door of my uncle Wang Bing’s mistress Xi Junfang. We didn’t know each other very well, but she knew that Uncle Wang thought highly of me. She was surprised to see me and closed the door behind me quickly so that her sister’s family next door wouldn’t hear us talking. I asked her to go see Mother and get the five hundred yuan I’d returned to her; I told Xi Junfang I would come back the next day to pick up the money. Having heard the story of my escape, she said she admired my courage and agreed to help.

After leaving her apartment, I crossed the Huangpu River and boarded a bus to Hangtou Town in Nanhui County, where Xiangzai’s aunt lived. A peasant, about fifty years old, she was cooking when I arrived at her house around noon. I told her I was Xiangzai’s friend and that he had asked me to wait for him there. She examined me, didn’t say anything, and gave me some food. The rice was steaming hot and fragrant, but there were no vegetables or meat.

She continued with her housework in silence. I sat by the table looking out through the door, hoping Xiangzai would arrive soon. I figured that if he didn’t show up by nightfall, he would have either lost faith or been arrested, and I would have to return to Shanghai alone. But at 2:00 p.m., Xiangzai appeared. I jumped to my feet with joy and gave him a big hug. His auntie, however, was very cool, as if she had something on her mind.

“The camp leadership sent search patrols to look for you everywhere, with orders to shoot you on sight,” Xiangzai said. “I escaped the same evening and took the same route as last time.”

February 1 was New Year’s Eve in the Chinese lunar calendar. [Editor’s note: In 1959, Chinese New Year’s Eve actually fell on February 7.] Early that morning, we returned to Shanghai. I asked Xiangzai to wait for me in the People’s Park while I went to Xi Junfang to pick up the money.

“Your mother asked you to meet her at 9:00 tomorrow morning at the secondhand shop on Huaihai Middle Road,” she said, handing me the five hundred yuan.

“It’s too dangerous. Tell her we can’t see each other this time.” 
To make the stolen IDs our own, Xiangzai and I had our pictures taken at a studio and asked to have them ready the next day. In the afternoon, we returned to Hangtou, where we helped Xiangzai’s auntie harvest turnips.

“She knows we have run away and told me we should give ourselves up and return to the camp,” Xiangzai said in a low voice.

“Do you think she’ll report us?”

“No. I’ll just tell her that we’re going back to the camp.”

There was no special food for New Year’s Eve. Xiangzai’s auntie simply asked him to catch a couple of fish in the river, and she prepared them for us. On the morning of February 2, we returned to Shanghai, picked up our photos, found a deserted room in a Western restaurant close to the Bund, and replaced the photos from the stolen IDs with our own.

The hardest part was to copy the seal embossed on the original photo. I showed Xiangzai how to create an embossment by pressing a blunt pencil against the back side of his photo. He was skillful and finished the job in a few minutes. When we had glued our photos to the IDs, you couldn’t tell the difference from the original. We then faded the owners’ names with bleach and replaced them with our new pseudonyms. In one of the student IDs, there was a special student discount travel card for the New Year’s holiday, which we used to buy tickets at half price to Chengdu in Sichuan Province. On February 3, we left Shanghai and set out to seek a new life.

Having learned a lesson from our arrest at the Grand Theatre, I gave Xiangzai half of my money in case we were separated or caught. We helped and trusted each other like brothers and, inspired by the lines of the Hungarian revolutionary poet Sándor Petőfi prepared to risk our lives for freedom:

All other things above


Are liberty and love;


Life I would gladly tender

For love: yet joyfully

Would love itself surrender

For liberty

[My girlfriend] Ximeng had cast me aside. [Xiangzai’s girlfriend] Zhou Xiaoying had left Xiangzai. Now our lives were on the line. Xiangzai probably never forgot the note I had written to him in confinement: “For freedom, we must not let the ‘law’ intimidate us. We must scorn it and be ready to struggle until death. Life is nothing but a brief episode in the endless recycling of matter. WE are eternal!”

We talked a lot on the train, about our families, studies, love, friendship, dreams, setbacks, and uncertain futures. We railed at the darkness of Chinese politics and the people’s ignorance and blindness and felt a great sadness regarding the future of our country. We criticized Mao harshly for his treachery, arrogance, and hypocrisy. Sometimes, when our discussions became particularly loud and heated, we left our seats and continued talking at the end of the wagon.

We arrived in Chengdu on February 5 and checked into the Shandong Hotel. The room was simple and clean. In a hurry to get to Tibet, I went straight to the bus station to make inquiries. There were no direct buses to Lhasa, and the route was divided into several sections, with a total price for the entire fourteen-hundred-mile journey of 110 yuan per person. With only a bit more than 400 yuan between us, we would have to be careful with our money and keep moving in order to minimize the cost of food and lodging.

But our two escapes in two months had taken their toll on Xiangzai, who said he needed a rest. He was like a little brother to me, and to make him feel better, I agreed to take it easy for a few days. We walked the streets of Chengdu, ate at restaurants, and went to several movies.

After three days, I told Xiangzai we had to get going, but he said he wanted to stay put a little bit longer. One week passed, and he still didn’t want to move. Even worse, he kept going to expensive restaurants and seemed determined to spend his last penny. I grew nervous and angry and insisted that we leave right away, unable to see that Xiangzai had somehow lost his will to fight.

“Honestly, Hongci,” he said, “you know we’ll never make it. The Communist Party is everywhere, and the people are its eyes and ears. There are only three choices left for us: suicide, [escape to far-away] Xinjiang, or surrender.”

“Have we come this far just to kill ourselves?” I said angrily. “Do you think we could find a place to hide in Xinjiang? You know Russian and want to escape to the Soviet Union, but do you know if the Soviets will take you in? And if we give ourselves up, the Public Security Bureau will send us straight back to [the labor camp at] White Grass Ridge. Do you think we can expect leniency from them?”

I was about to say that this escape had been his idea but bit my tongue. In any case, Xiangzai refused to move, and our separation became inevitable. I decided not to waste any more money on food and drink. I had already given him half of the five hundred yuan and didn’t know if the money I had left would be enough to get me to Tibet and India. From now on, I would have to save every last penny.

Each time Xiangzai stumbled into our room in a stupor of gluttony and drunkenness, I would boil inside with fury, but the friendship we had established in these past few months of adversity held me back, and I clung to the hope that he would regain his senses.

After twelve days, Xiangzai was still eating and drinking as if there were no tomorrow. Finally, I made the painful decision to proceed alone. At noon on February 19, when Xiangzai was napping, I left a goodbye note for him on the table and bought a bus ticket to the town of Ya’an in western Sichuan.

The six-hundred-mile journey to the Golden Sand River,* traversing a majestic landscape of soaring peaks and deep valleys, opened a new world for me. Just out of Chengdu, the bus entered the West Sichuan Plains, which resembled the fertile, abundant Jiangnan region back home. After the Qionglai Mountains, the terrain grew steeper. By the time we reached the ancient town of Mingshan, dusk was falling. That fairy-tale scene, with smoke rising wistfully from rows of black brick houses, will always remain with me. Continuing west, we entered a range of colossal mountains, and the bus wound its way along perpendicular cliffs and emerald-green creeks to our destination for the evening: Ya’an, the capital of the Xikang.

Once again, I used my fake ID to get a room at the People’s Hostel. The streets of Ya’an were lined with bustling markets, and the people appeared to be simple and honest. The next day, I boarded a bus to Kangding. Chugging up the dirt road, the bus stopped for a break at the highest vantage point. In the southwest, we could see Mount Gongga, twenty-five thousand feet, awesome in its grandeur. As the bus descended into the Dadu River valley, the river at the valley floor grew from a fluttering silver ribbon to a tempestuous beast.

Standing on the famous Luding Chain Bridge, I thought about the dreams and ideals of the Red Army in the early days of the revolution and the bleak, tyrannical country Mao had created. Having shed its blood to liberate the toiling, oppressed peasants of China, the Communist Party had immediately set about securing its grip on power and depriving its enemies, imaginary or not, of their freedom. Revolutions, it seems, are destined to devour themselves.

After Kangding, we climbed steadily to a vast, windswept high plateau, where the temperature fell far below freezing. Although I was wearing a cat-fur coat, I only had a pair of miserable PLA cloth shoes with no lining, and my feet were numb with cold. I had been told I would develop altitude sickness at thirteen thousand feet, but the Que’er mountain pass was eighteen thousand feet, and I was still feeling okay.

We made it to another plateau and shook our way to Garzê, the capital of the Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Region. The town itself was sparsely inhabited, but there were PLA camps everywhere, and the roads were filled with soldiers and army trucks.

I stayed in a hostel close to the bus station. An old man told me about the Tibetan uprising that had broken out recently and said it would be dangerous to proceed to Lhasa. This news both worried and encouraged me, because while the fighting posed a definite risk, the confusion would also provide cover and might improve my chances for a successful escape. Disregarding the old man’s advice, I decided to press forward.

Out of Garzê, the endless, glum high plateau was covered in deep snow, with only a few forsaken yaks huddling about here and there. At noon, the bus arrived in Manigango, where we were stopped by a group of party cadres.

A leader boarded the bus: “Last night, we were attacked by Tibetan bandits, and lost two comrades. We want to transport them to Dege on the roof of the bus. Okay?”

Naturally, we said nothing. The cadres hoisted the two corpses onto the roof and then squeezed themselves in among us. The atmosphere of war grew heavy, and I began to fear that the bus would come under attack.

Dege lay by a creek between two high mountains, with a few scattered houses on their slopes. The population was probably not even a thousand. I stayed at a hostel together with the others. One of the travelers told me the fighting up ahead was fierce and that the roads were blocked. He said the only open approach to Lhasa was from the north and that I would have to go to Dunhuang and enter Tibet through Qinghai Province.

The food was much more expensive than in Chengdu. A bowl of soup with tofu and vegetables cost seven jiao [ten Chinese cents]. I counted the money in my pocket and discovered that I only had a little bit more than one hundred yuan left. If things continued like this, I would soon be stone broke.

As I was deciding what to do, I met some people who had been stranded in Dege for a long time. They were getting ready to walk to Jomda on the other side of the Golden Sand River. I asked if I could join them. Many of them were road workers and knew the area well, and they agreed to help me.

One day, a convoy of trucks loaded with Tibetan POWs drove into town. I went to the Public Security Bureau’s detention center to see what was going on. Disheveled, haggard, and frightened, the POWs were brought down from the trucks and lined up. A policeman counted them. Two corpses were thrown down from a truck. I inspected the two young dead bodies carefully. Filing into their cells, the POWs bowed before them. In low spirits, I returned to the hostel to find out about our departure.

“The soldiers guarding the bridge say there is heavy fighting ahead and that we will be killed if we cross over. They won’t let us do it,” an older man said.

“Tomorrow, a truck carrying charcoal will return to Garzê together with the POW convoy,” a man from the hostel announced. “Anybody who wishes to go with them may do so.”

I had been stuck in Dege for a week and was running out of money. With no hope of making it to Lhasa, I decided to return to Chengdu, take stock of the situation, and make new plans. I took a seat on the charcoal truck, leaving Dege with the POW convoy. The Tibetan fighters were disciplined and seemed to have good relations with their captors. Some of the lamas even offered cigarettes to the guards, who accepted them gladly.

The People’s Liberation Army protected all Han Chinese, even the hoodlums and scoundrels. As long as you were a Han, you were a good person in their eyes, and they never asked you for any documents. I didn’t have to pay for the ride and sat inside the cabin protected from the wind, which was a lot better than what the POWs had to endure.

“These men are all murderers and will be severely punished,” a policeman said. “We are establishing a labor camp in Dawu and will send them to be reformed there.”

We passed through Garzê and returned to Kangding. There, I ran into Pan Changsheng, a student I had befriended on my last visit to the town. He took me to his friend Zhou Tianzhu, who gave me a place to sleep. Changsheng hadn’t been able to find work in Kangding and wanted to return to Chengdu but didn’t have money for the bus ticket. I thought that if I paid for his ticket, perhaps he would let me stay in his house in Chengdu.

At Zhou Tianzhu’s house, I drank Tibetan butter tea for the first time. After boiling pieces of brick tea in water for a long time, he poured the strong reddish-brown infusion into a bamboo churn, added butter and salt, pumped the handle rapidly until the butter had melted and been mixed with the tea, and poured us the milky white drink, which tasted delicious. They also treated me to tsampa, or roasted barley, the Tibetan staple food.

Because I needed to cut my expenses as much as possible, I said I wanted to take some butter and tsampa with me back home to Shanghai. They helped me buy fifteen jin of tsampa and five jin of butter and wrapped them into an oilcloth backpack.

Around March 10, Changsheng and I returned to his house in Chengdu. Changsheng told his parents I was a university student from Shanghai traveling around China and would be staying in their house for a while. I had only sixty yuan left. I considered several options but couldn’t make up my mind and spent my days walking around the city, killing time. Passing the Shandong Hotel, I had to peek through the entrance at the room where Xiangzai and I had stayed, even though I knew he was gone.

The fleas I had caught at the Tilanqiao Prison began breeding like crazy, and I had to clean my underwear in boiling water at Changsheng’s house. Although his family saw there was something amiss, they didn’t report me to the police. I realized I had to get going again and sent a telegram to Xi Junfang, asking her to tell Mother to telegram a hundred yuan to me at Changsheng’s address.

The money arrived the following day. To keep one step ahead of the Public Security Bureau, I bought a bus ticket to Kunming and then took Changsheng for a farewell meal at a Western restaurant in the Guanshengyuan Hotel. I was carrying Father’s pocket atlas of China.

Although small, it was detailed, and during my time at Changsheng’s house I studied it time and again, trying to find a new escape route.

Remembering the verdict I had seen posted in Si’an, Zhejiang Province, sentencing a man to twenty years of hard labor for attempting to escape to Hong Kong across the land border, I knew that route would be dangerous. The population in southern Yunnan Province was dense, and it would be easy to catch me there, too. The only alternative, it seemed, was to cross over the border into Burma from western Yunnan.

The journey from Chengdu to Zhanyi in Yunnan took three days. We spent the first night in Heishitou Township of Guizhou Province. Standing there at dusk, gazing at the distant peaks on the horizon, I was seized by a delusion that beyond these mountains lay a foreign land and that if only I could reach it, I would be free.

In Kunming, I bought a bus ticket to Xiaguan, two days’ journey west along the Burma Road. The lush, mountainous landscape was beautiful, and everything seemed at peace. When we reached Xiaguan, I counted my money and realized that I must have lost some of it along the way. I decided to walk, heading north along the western shore of Erhai Lake, enjoying the scenery. When I got hungry, I ate tsampa and butter, washing it down with spring water from the mountains.

My goal was Gongshan County, in the sparsely populated northwestern corner of Yunnan, where I planned to cross over the border into Burma. But when I reached the village of Shaxi, I was told there was no road leading where I wanted to go and that I would have to return to Xiaguan.

Once I was back there, I headed west. The road climbed sharply. Up ahead, I could see Black Dragon Mountain, its winding ridge covered in snow and ice. In Yangbi County, I walked into the local hostel. The receptionist, who was nursing a baby, put down her child, and as she raised her head, I saw the most beautiful woman I have ever met. I thought of Ximeng and wondered how she was. By now, [her fiancé] Bao Yougen had returned from East Germany. Perhaps they were already married. That night, I lay awake a long time, unable to fall asleep, my mind clouded with bitter memories.

The next day, I came to the famous Yaquan, “Dumb Spring,” which Zhuge Liang had drunk from in Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Dying of thirst, I didn’t have time to worry whether the water would make me lose my voice. I was young and strong and could walk forty miles from dawn to dusk. After Yongping, the road descended into the Lancang River valley, where the imposing Gongguo Chain Bridge appeared up ahead. As I passed the sentries, my heart pounded madly from fear that I would be stopped and questioned, but luckily they ignored me.

At Wayao, the road split, with the wider Burma Road continuing in a southwesterly direction and the other, narrower road heading northwest. There were many small blast furnaces around Wayao, and the place was busy. I continued on the narrow road. That night, I found a dry, flat place to lie down, but the shrieks of owls in the forest kept me awake. In the distance, I could hear other mysterious sounds, which unsettled me even more.

At the first glimpse of dawn, I got back on the road. That baffling sound kept growing until it was as loud as thunder. I felt a strange fear but pressed forward. After a sharp turn in the road, I stood before a wide, roaring, mighty, foaming, swirling river: the Nujiang, “Angry River.”

I washed my face in the ice-cold water. The road ran north along the river. After the village of Liuku, I reached a suspension bridge at about 9:00 a.m. It was even larger than the Gongguo Bridge, with sentry guards at both ends. Emboldened by my previous success, I passed them without batting an eye and continued north on the western side of the river.

The landscape grew menacing. The mountains here run in transversal ridges, with perpendicular cliffs thousands of feet high. I took out the atlas and studied it carefully. Gongshan County was 300 miles to the north, and the China-Burma border 125 miles to the west. If I continued north along the Angry River, I would be entering the Himalayas and have to start mountain climbing.

I decided to cross the border at Lushui instead and took a risk by asking some people I met along the road for directions. They told me I had walked too far and would have to head back toward the bridge. There, I found the mountain path leading to Lushui.

After walking uphill for about an hour, I came to a stretch of open land on the side of a mountain. There were some government buildings on the slope above the road. In the distance, I could see a path disappearing into the mountains. I said to myself, “That must be the way to Burma.”

According to Father’s pocket atlas, Lushui lay outside the restricted border zone, and I felt quite safe. Casually, I walked into the county government’s canteen and asked a cook if I could buy a meal. A brisk fellow, he gave me a big bowl of rice and a bowl of soup with salted meat for only two jiao. When I had eaten my fill and was leaving, I passed a wall pasted with verdicts from the local court but, having seen many such notices along the way, ignored them.

Xu Hongci's drawing of the Lushui prison. His original manuscript, which was handwritten, included many drawings. (Image courtesy Xu Hongci’s family)
Xu Hongci’s drawing of the Lushui prison. His original manuscript, which was handwritten, included many drawings. (Image courtesy Xu Hongci’s family)

From the canteen, I walked toward the walled compound on the slope below the road, saw a barbershop, and, stroking my hair and beard, decided to have a haircut. I stepped inside and put down my knapsack. While one of the barbers seated me in his chair, the other one left the shop. Just as we were finishing up, he returned with a group of men, who stood round me and asked to see my documents.

I showed them my fake ID and a forged certificate from my college, stamped with a chop I had carved from a bar of soap, which said that I was in western Yunnan to do epidemiological research. After examining my documents, they told me to come with them.

I was taken to a white two-story building. They asked me to sit down in an office, keeping a close eye on me. There were two cadres among them. The first one was thin and tall, in his twenties, dressed in a blue khaki Mao suit. His insidious smile unsettled me. The other cadre was shorter, about thirty, and dressed in a bleached gray Mao suit. After about half an hour, a leader entered the room.

“This is Secretary Shi of the Lushui County party committee, who has come to speak with you in person,” the shorter cadre introduced him.

Secretary Shi sat down in front of me, looked at my fake ID and forged certificate, and examined me from top to toe with suspicion.

“What is your real reason for coming to Lushui?” he asked.

Xu Hongci and his wife, Oyunbileg, on a return trip to Mongolia. (Photo courtesy Xu Hongci’s family)
Xu Hongci and his wife, Oyunbileg, on a return trip to Mongolia. (Photo courtesy Xu Hongci’s family)

I stuck to my story and requested his assistance in carrying out my scientific research. An old hand, Secretary Shi didn’t believe a word of my pretty lies. He insisted on detaining me in order to make further inquiries and said I would not be released until all matters had been clarified.

I was taken to the county prison. Except for an enamel mug and a steel spoon, all my possessions were confiscated, and I was locked into cell number ten at the northern end of the prison, with another prisoner assigned to guard me temporarily.

Later, I learned that Lushui actually lay inside the restricted border zone. Ever since the British army’s occupation of Pianma in 1900, the de facto border between China and Burma had been the Gaoligong Mountains, parallel to and just west of the Angry River. But because neither the Qing nor the KMT nor the Communist government had recognized this demarcation officially, all Chinese atlases drew the line at the Kachin Hills a hundred miles farther west. Unaware, I had walked into a restricted border town in broad daylight. It was April 10, nine weeks since I’d left Shanghai.

As the old saying goes, “A gambler who has lost his shirt will continue gambling, even if he has to bankrupt his whole family.” Risking my life, I had traversed half of China and made it to the Burmese border, only to be caught on the brink of freedom. How could I give up now? As the turnkey locked my cell, I was already making plans for another escape.

* * *

Excerpted from No Wall Too High: One Man’s Daring Escape From Mao’s Darkest Prison, translated from Chinese and edited by Erling Hoh. Published by Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  Copyright © 2008 by Sukh Oyunbileg, Oyunbileg Anjir, Oyunbileg Buyant, Oyunbileg Esenya. Translation and condensation copyright © 2017 by Erling Hoh. Map copyright © 2017 by Jeff rey L. Ward. All rights reserved.

Users are warned that the Work appearing herein is protected under copyright laws and reproduction of the text, in any form for distribution is strictly prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the Work via any medium must be secured with the copyright owner.

The Book Thief of Monastery Mountain

When priceless texts began disappearing from a seventh-century hilltop abbey, the police were mystified. They were even more befuddled when they finally caught the culprit.

Tourists are a most common sight at the abbey of Mont Sainte-Odile in the summer. So, when a somewhat hefty, tall man walked down the marble stairs leading to the first floor of the guesthouse, hardly anyone noticed. His backpack contained a Bible, which is normal in a place where people come for religious pilgrimages, but this Bible was more than 500 years old. Along with it, the man carried a 15th-century incunabulum, works by Cicero and the eighth-century theologian Alcuin, and three more dusty, priceless books.

He’d gotten them from the abbey library. The door had been open, and he’d slipped right in. He picked six books from one of the oak bookcases standing against the walls, and walked right out through the Saint-Pierre chapel, briefly glancing at the marble tomb of Saint Odile — the revered saint who founded this mountaintop abbey in the seventh century — on his way out.

Now, the square-jawed, long-legged man sauntered through a swarm of tourists near the parapet enclosing the religious site. It was a warm, sunny day in August 2000, and he had just stolen from one of the holiest sites in Alsace, a historical region in northeastern France. On countless occasions, he had soaked up the views of the hillsides, blanketed with pines, and the sprawling Rhine Valley. He made himself a promise not to steal from the library anymore, he would later tell police investigators. Then he strolled by the church Notre-Dame de l’Assomption and, walking under the entrance porch, left the site.

When Véronique Buntz, a housekeeper, entered the library a few days later and set about dusting the bookcases, as she had every Friday since her first day at Mont Sainte-Odile, over a decade earlier, she knew something was amiss.

Of the site’s myriad rooms, the library was the one where Buntz, 33, a blue-eyed woman with natural gray hair, felt most at peace. A small, vaulted room, it had once been known as Calvary, a place where canons and nuns meditated on the Passion of Christ. In the mid-19th century, a canon had turned it into a library, amassing more than 3,000 books donated by seminaries and monasteries from the region.

In the 1990s, an amateur historian started drawing an inventory and had found ancient editions of works by Aristotle, Homer, and the Roman playwright Terence. Especially valuable were 10 incunabula — rare books printed before 1501, during the earliest years of the printing press. Sermons by Augustine, bound in sow skin, from 1489. Three Latin Bibles, printed in Basel and Strasbourg. Works by the Roman poet Virgil, printed in 1492 in Nuremberg. A Bible commentary by Peter Lombard, a 12th-century Italian scholar.

Now one was missing. On the lower shelf where they were supposed to line up, there was an empty space.

Buntz scurried out of the room. She bumped into Charles Diss, 61, the director of Mont Sainte-Odile, a short man with an affable face and protruding ears. “I think books in the library are missing,” she whispered, as if uttering blasphemy. Diss was rattled. The library was accessible to some of the 60 employees, as well as to groups of 30 worshippers taking turns in adoration of the Eucharist, a tradition going back to the years following World War I.

The Notre-Dame de l’Assomption church next to the hotel at Mont Sainte-Odile. (All photos by the author.)

Buntz and Diss drove the weaving road downhill to file a complaint with the local police station. For a moment, they thought that things would be left at that. The door was often left unlocked, after all. It appeared that only one book had been stolen, or simply borrowed by a fervent but dreamy pilgrim, and not returned. No additional security measures were taken.

But when Buntz entered the library one day in November, just a few months later, the remaining incunabula were gone. The empty shelf stared grimly at her like an open wound. The gendarmes began an investigation and soon roamed the area. License plate numbers were noted; tourists spending a night in one of the guesthouse’s 110 rooms, scrutinized; personnel, screened. “It was like looking for a needle in a haystack,” says Jean-Pierre Schackis, the main investigator on the case, 51 at the time. More than one million people visit Mont Sainte-Odile every year, and the surveillance cameras at the site entrance didn’t even work properly.

A few days prior, the cameras had stared blankly at a white Citroën parking late in the evening, and at the 6-foot-2-inch-tall man who had come out of it. He had walked back to the car two hours later, carrying two bags full of nine heavy incunabula, according to previously undisclosed police records.

The lock on the library door was replaced with a sturdier one, and access to the room restricted. For months, there was no further pilfering. It was a relief. The thief hadn’t been caught, but at least the books would stay where they belonged. Life continued. In the fall of 2001, Diss, the head of the site for 23 years, was succeeded by Alain Donius, a bespectacled, disheveled priest of 51. No one told him about the thefts. The matter was considered closed.

While the monks breathed easy, the thief enjoyed his new books. At night, in his tiny flat in Illkirch-Graffenstaden, in the suburbs of Strasbourg, 32-year-old bachelor Stanislas Gosse tapped into his knowledge of Latin to read the stolen texts. There were sermons by Bernard of Clairvaux, the “honey-tongued” 12th-century Cistercian reformer. There was a 19th-century volume reproducing plates from the Hortus Deliciarum, a 12th-century encyclopedia that had been lost in a fire. Flipping through the pages, one saw the seeds of Christianity sprout and unfold. Miniatures showed Jonah crawling out of the jaws of the monster, a giant fish with its head a glowing red. The Three Kings followed the Star of Bethlehem, and a bearded King David sat on his throne musing, a harp tucked between his hands. Did reading these books produce the same joy Gosse felt playing the organ at church?

He had found them covered with dust and bird droppings. “I know it can seem selfish, but I was under the impression that those books had been abandoned,” Gosse said at his trial, according to news outlets covering it at the time. He had found himself a mission. He would save the texts from decay and oblivion. “I wanted to have my own personal library,” the teacher later told the police. He stressed that he hadn’t stolen the books out of greed: He earned about 20,000 francs a month, or 4,000 euros today, and he spent little other than his monthly rent of 6,000, or €1,200.

Inside the library at the monastery.

Gosse had a “devouring passion” for ancient books, he told investigators. In ninth grade, his Latin teacher, a bibliophile, had taken his class to the library of the Grand Seminary of Strasbourg, where the spines of 5,000 ancient books glowed under the artificial light in countless shades of dull yellow, pearl-gray and purplish red. Equally bewitching was Mont Sainte-Odile. Gosse was 3 years old when he had first laid eyes on the secluded mount and scampered around the Pagan Wall enclosing it, a 10-kilometer long wall made of large stones covered with moss. His father, a military officer, took him there often, and as an adult Gosse visited the site every year. He was raised Catholic, and Alain Donius, the priest who became the head of Sainte-Odile in 2001, had taught him catechism as a boy. When Gosse first peered inside the library in 1997, he was enchanted. He would come back.

In August 2000, he walked up the stairs to the library and found the door open. He came back a few days later, riding his bicycle in the summer heat. He made his way to the library. “I found myself alone,” Gosse recounted to investigators. His hand felt for a latch through the loose chicken wire covering the bookcase doors. He picked six books, including a 15th-century Bible, and one incunabulum. “He stole in no logical order,” recalls investigator Schackis. Later, Gosse went to the national library in Strasbourg to read about what he had appropriated. After that, “I was tempted to steal incunabula,” he told the police.

He didn’t go back until November 2000, this time driving his car. He found the library door open. One golden plate affixed to a lower bookcase simply read: “Incunabula.” He had already stolen one during his previous theft, and now the remaining nine ended up in the two bags he’d brought with him. Gosse, who declined to be interviewed for this story, described the thefts to the investigators with a wealth of details, but the interrogation records fail to mention how he felt perpetrating them. By his own account, he left around midnight, driving away in the cold night.

For several months, it seems, Gosse was content with the books he had collected. In the summer of 2001, however, he went back again. This time, he found the door closed and locked. Would it stop him? He returned the next day with a hand drill. How thick was the door, he wondered, and could he pick the lock? After drilling a 3-millimeter hole, he gave up. He was no professional thief, after all. He had to find another way in.

On a Friday in April 2002, Véronique Buntz entered the library to find the massive bookcases standing solemnly, bathed in shafts of light streaming through the windows. This time, it hit her like a blow. Hundreds of books were missing.

Library rack with books locked away at the monastery.

The door and the windows showed no signs of forced entry. Some mysterious force had found a way into the very heart of the holy site. Unless it was an inside job. One of the two priests, perhaps? One of the 10 nuns? One of the employees? Could it possibly have been the work of Donius, the new director? After all, not everyone had welcomed him with open arms. Everyone was a suspect.

“It was particularly disturbing,” says Donius.

“The atmosphere was tense,” recalls Gabriel Dietrich, a janitor, now retired, 52 at the time.

“It was surreal,” remembers Buntz. “One thinks: It’s impossible! How can books disappear when the windows aren’t broken, when there’s no sign of break-in?”

There wasn’t much more the police could do to prevent additional books from vanishing into thin air. Access to the library had already been restricted to a handful of people. Dietrich had changed the lock for a stronger one. Buntz had even relinquished her key, to prove her good faith. More than her probity being questioned, however, it was the books’ fate that kept her awake at night. Would they ever be found? Had they already been thrown into the Rhine, or sold to art smugglers in the Netherlands or Belgium? This was the lead pursued by the investigators, and art dealers across Europe had been asked to keep an eye out for specific books. They could only hope for a miracle.

On May 19, near 7 p.m., Stanislas Gosse drove his Citroën to Mont Sainte-Odile. He brought ropes, three suitcases, gray plastic bags and a flashlight. Once inside the main courtyard, he headed straight to the second floor of the Sainte-Odile aisle of the guesthouse. He walked down a corridor, opened a door using a key pinched during a previous trip, and found himself in the church’s bell tower.

He tied the ropes to a wooden beam above a trapdoor in the floor and climbed down into a dark, windowless room of about 10 feet by 10 feet with a short 7-foot ceiling. Through an opening in the wall, he slipped into a second, narrow room. A dim light filtered through cracks in the lower part of a wall. The thief gently slid two wooden panels open, revealing rows of neatly lined up books on two shelves inside a cupboard. He took the books off, then one shelf, before sneaking inside the library. At the library in Strasbourg, he had found what he had been looking for in an article from a local history journal that mentioned a secret passage, unknown to anyone currently working at the abbey, except Dietrich, the janitor. It had probably once been used as a hiding place for the monks or as an ossuary — a place to store bones.

Gosse selected a few books, wrapped them in plastic bags, then crawled back inside the cupboard. In the second room, he flipped a wooden crate, climbed on it and hauled the bags through the hatch onto the attic. He climbed up the rope, moved the books to a nearby table to clear the hatch, and climbed back down. He repeated the operation eight times throughout the evening. By the time he was done, more than a hundred books were stacked up in the attic. Around 2 a.m., he stuffed the suitcases with books and left them behind, planning to pick them up later.

View from Mont Sainte-Odile down to the Rhine plain.

He came back the following evening. For all his savvy as a thief, he didn’t spot the hidden surveillance camera in the attic, placed there by the gendarmes. They had poked around the library for hours, eventually chancing upon the secret passage. They saw the suitcases Gosse had left and were waiting for him to come back. Around 9 p.m. he emerged from the bell tower. The gendarmes wrestled him to the floor. He barely said a word.

At his apartment, they found about 1,400 books wrapped in plastic bags. There was no official estimation of the total value of the loot, but each incunabula was estimated to be worth around €2,000. On most of the books, Gosse had glued a custom ex libris bookplate stamp bearing his name in Gothic letters, as well as a drawing of a heart. He confessed to the thefts. “I have a consuming passion for ancient books,” he told the investigators. He had gone as far as recreating entire tomes he couldn’t find at Mont Sainte-Odile, photocopying archives from the Strasbourg library. He offered to donate them to the library he had so heartily pillaged.

He apologized to the director, who gave him absolution. At his trial a year later, he was given an 18-month suspended prison sentence and a €6,000 fine. He had to pay €10,000 to Mont Saint-Odile, and €1,000 to the archbishopric of Strasbourg. A slap on the wrist, his lawyer says. He was even able to keep teaching.

Close to 20 years after the thefts, the investigators still speak about Gosse with awe. He was no ordinary thief, after all. He stole out of passion, and the books were safely returned to the library in 22 boxes (it took two volunteers six months to sort them out).

“He was our Arsène Lupin,” says Shackis, referring to a fictional thief of the early 1900s who terrorized well-heeled Parisians in popular short stories and novels of the day.

Former colleagues at the engineering school where Gosse still teaches are more guarded. What kind of example had he set for the students? They described an aloof, reclusive man with no appetite for social activities whatsoever. He is now 48, single, and lives with his mother. Sometimes, Donius, who has since left Mont Sainte-Odile, bumps into Gosse on the streets of Illkirch. They exchange a quick salute and walk on.

Hidden History

Year of the Mad Bomber

Fifty years ago, a left-wing radical planted bombs across New York, launching a desperate manhunt—and an explosive new strain of political extremism.

Throughout much of 1968, Sam Melville, an unemployed 34-year-old with an estranged wife and 5-year-old son, frequently sat at his desk in a squalid apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, contemplating how he could destroy America.

Smoking a pipe, the towering man with long, stringy black hair thinning at the top and two different-colored eyes — one blue, one green — reflected on that turbulent year’s assassinations, the escalating war in Vietnam, and the constant battles between police and protestors. Two years earlier, Melville had left behind a well-paying job as a draftsman, a spacious apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and his family. His father, a former member of the Communist Labor Party, whom Melville once greatly admired, had recently given up the socialist cause, remarried, and opened a hamburger stand in an upscale section of Long Island. Fearing that he might follow his father on a similar path led Melville down an existential rabbit hole. In and around his neighborhood that year, he took part in marches and sit-ins, but by 1969, as his anger toward the government grew, he secretly set off a series of bombs across Manhattan. To many in the counterculture underground, he was their equivalent of a masked avenger. To the local media, he was known as “the Mad Bomber.”

Melville set off bombs in the offices of General Motors, Standard Oil and Chase Bank. He also hit the warehouse of United Fruit, a company that was exploiting its Cuban workers and had even assisted in the Bay of Pigs invasion; the banking institution Marine Midland; the Federal Office Building at Foley Square; an Army induction center on Whitehall Street; and the Manhattan Criminal Court Building. A communiqué delivered to the press stated that the bombings were a protest against “The giant corporations of America [that] have now spread themselves all over the world, forcing entire foreign economies into total dependence on American money and goods.” Members of New York City’s bomb squad were flummoxed by the sophistication of these electrically charged contraptions, which often brimmed over with 20 or more sticks of high-grade dynamite. There was no way some doped-up college kid was making them. When asked by the New York Post who the Mad Bomber could be, according to a book about Melville by Leslie James Pickering, one team member replied, “It looks like the job of a demolition expert.”

For Melville’s son, Josh, who remembers his father best as a loving, folk-singing vegetarian, the sudden burst of violence still baffles him. “I understand my father’s stated reasons, but I guess I am of the belief that the stated reasons are just the brochure,” he says while relaxing at a cigar bar in Manhattan’s Financial District. “I understand he was against imperialism and was a Marxist, but so what? You can be all those things and still not want to blow up buildings.”

The aftermath of the Weather Underground bomb factory explosion in the basement of the West Village townhouse, March 6, 1970. Three people died in the blast. (Photo courtesy New York City Department Of Records And Information Services)

Yet in the flashpoint of just four months, Sam Melville and a small group of followers took the American radical left on a hard turn into armed struggle. In his book Days of Rage, about terrorism in America in the ’60s and ’70s, Bryan Burrough called Melville and his corps “the essential blueprint for almost every radical organization” in the 1970s. Melville was one of the first to turn to this kind of violence, but the country would soon witness the kidnapping of Patty Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army, the bombings of the Pentagon and NYPD headquarters by the Weather Underground, and more.

“Between ’68 and ’69, there was this crescendo of an apocalyptic feeling and the circumstances made us crazy,” says Jonathan Lerner, a co-founder of the Weather Underground, the militant offshoot of the socialist group Students for a Democratic Society. “You’re out there marching peacefully to stop the war and the war is getting worse and you’re marching for civil rights and it didn’t stop police harassment of black people or the assassination of Martin Luther King. You begin to think people don’t care, and it makes you feel all that’s left to do are these provocative, attention-grabbing things.”

But the fresh-out-of-college kids of the Weather Underground didn’t have the type of domestic baggage Sam Melville had. Josh Melville recalls something one of his father’s accomplices once told him: “I think your father felt he had to be self-destructive after he left you and your mother. What else would make a person act that way other than knowing they damaged their family?”

“THIS RELEASE IS FOR THE UNDERGROUND MEDIA ONLY. THERE WILL BE NO COMMUNICATION WITH THE PIG MEDIA.” Those words were emblazoned across the top of the communiqué that followed the bombing of the Marine Midland Bank Building on August 20, 1969. Composed by his then girlfriend, Jane Alpert, and others who would later be christened by the FBI as “the Melville Collective,” the statement was sent around to local underground weeklies, including the one where Alpert held a staff writer position, Rat Subterranean News. The communiqué explained that the reason behind the massive explosion was the banking institution’s links to the oppression of sugarcane field workers in Latin America. But in Alpert’s 1981 autobiography, Growing Up Underground, in which she chronicles her transformation from Swarthmore honor student to radical fugitive, Alpert claims the action was bereft of any political thought on Melville’s part. The communiqué had to be cooked up afterward to cover up the real excuse for the bombing: his anger over Alpert seeing other men.

When I bring this up to Josh Melville, who’s working on a book of his own about his father, his disdain for how Sam is portrayed in Alpert’s text is clearly visible. “Jane likes to connect my father’s rogue bombings to their spats as a couple, but the more you learn about him, the more you know that’s fucking ridiculous,” Josh says. “This man wouldn’t destroy a building just because the girl he was living with — who he wasn’t even faithful to — slept around. It was the ’60s, and everyone slept with each other. Her story doesn’t add up.” (Alpert’s book is seen by some as an important statement on the sexism in the radical left at the time; Josh Melville who operates SamMelville.org, disputes much of what has been written about his father, by Alpert, Pickering, and others.)

The one thing nobody can debate is the haphazard manner in which Sam Melville went about bombing Marine Midland. Though his intention was to destroy property and not people, he did not take into account the presence of an evening staff in the building when he set the device for a 10 p.m. detonation. When more than a dozen employees were taken to the hospital — all with minor injuries — it forced him to rethink his future plans of attack. To assure nothing like this would happen again, Melville culled a crew of seven, including Alpert and Robin Palmer, a member of the Downtown Manhattan anarchist group “the Crazies,” to help him scope out potential new targets, craft communiqués, and plant the bombs.

After weeks of meticulous planning, Alpert kicked off the group’s revamped campaign by planting a bomb in the Federal Office Building on Friday, September 19, 1969, targeting offices of the U.S. Army and Selective Services inside. The device went off at 2 a.m., destroying files, damaging the building’s electricity infrastructure, and causing flooding. There were no injuries.

Melville and his cell soon learned that damaging federal property could elicit a furious response. The next day, the FBI went to an apartment Melville had moved out of months earlier, and later they tracked him down at the apartment on East 4th Street where he and Alpert were living. He told them his name was David McCurdy — the pseudonym he had used to rent a nearby apartment where he had set up an explosives workshop — and denied knowing who Sam Melville was.

Unfazed by this close call, the collective went to work plotting their most ambitious statement on American tyranny yet: a trio of simultaneous bomb blasts across the city on Veterans Day. Meanwhile, Melville opted for his version of laying low: skipping town and going on a bombing spree of U.S. Army facilities across the Midwest. According to a book by Christopher Hewitt, Political Violence and Terrorism in Modern America, the explosions in Chicago; Madison, Wisconsin; and Milwaukee caused a total of $125,000 in damages — with Melville’s goal of zero injuries. Melville also participated in a guerilla warfare workshop in North Dakota, hosted by the black nationalist H. Rap Brown.

Soon after Melville’s return to New York on the afternoon of November 10, Jane Alpert and two other members of the Melville Collective, Patricia Swinton and John David Hughey III, left their bomb-making factory on East 2nd Street in intervals to disperse one bomb apiece in the offices of Standard Oil, Chase Bank and General Motors. At 1 o’clock the next morning, the concurrent string of explosions did their expected damage to both the offices and the nerves of the already taut city, with the events receiving national news coverage and a new communiqué. Penned by Alpert again, the message ended with the declaration: “The empire is breaking down as people all over the world are rising up to challenge its power. From the inside, black people have been fighting a revolution for years. And finally, white Americans too are striking blows for liberation.”

At Melville’s urging, Robin Palmer was sent to plant a device the very next day at the Criminal Court Building on Centre Street, in response to the trial taking place there of a group of Black Panthers charged with attempts to bomb police stations. Another blast was planned to follow at the Lexington Armory on 26th Street, with Melville delivering the bomb himself with help from George Demmerle, a newer member Melville had befriended on the Lower East Side. Demmerle, an overly rambunctious radical who not only was a member of the Crazies but also held rank as the only Caucasian member of the Black Panthers, greatly impressed Melville.

The only thing stopping Melville from meeting up with Demmerle to execute the bombing, according to Alpert’s book, was the white sedan parked out front of his and Alpert’s apartment — the same one he’d seen there earlier in the week. Could his clumsy blurt of the name David McCurdy to the FBI agents have tipped them off? Had they found his bomb factory? He couldn’t sit and ponder what the answer might be. He had to mobilize. The revolution was in full swing.

Not long after the explosive on Centre Street, Demmerle and Melville made their way uptown, to 26th Street. The plan was to chuck the timed bombs onto the large Army trucks parked in front of the 69th Regiment Armory, knowing they would later be brought inside the building. But as Melville approached, he noticed something different than the numerous times they had cased the building. The trucks were now parked on the opposite side of the street, near people’s homes. His son, Josh, believes he didn’t want to risk hurting any more innocent people. Figuring the action would have to wait for another day, Melville was just about to turn away when he was bombarded from all angles by FBI agents pointing pistols and ordering him to freeze.

Concurrently, Jane Alpert and John David Hughey III were rounded up at the already staked-out apartment on East 4th Street. The feds’ biggest tipoff came from the person assisting Melville with the botched Armory bombing itself: George Demmerle.

Just like Melville, Demmerle was a man who had left his wife and child looking for purpose in life, but instead of becoming a self-appointed revolutionary, he found it as a low-level mole for the government, beginning in 1966. To many on the scene, Demmerle’s attempts to nudge members of the counterculture into outrageous acts like blowing up the Brooklyn Bridge seemed suspicious. But to Melville, Demmerle was just another comrade in the struggle.

Jane Alpert exiting the courthouse with John D. Hughey III, another member of the Weather Underground Collective, after pleading guilty to a conspiracy to bomb federal buildings along with Samuel Melville, January 15, 1970. (Photo by Louis Liotta/New York Post via Getty Images)

Two months into the new decade, Sam Melville stood broken in the Federal Courthouse on Pearl Street. While Alpert and, later, Hughey walked on a $20,000 bond, Melville watched his bail climb higher and higher, and when Judge Milton Pollack raised it to $500,000, an anxious Melville rose to his feet and, according to The New York Times, bellowed, “I don’t have half a million dollars! How the hell am I going to get out of jail, jackass?” Although his remark did not amuse Judge Pollack, it garnered a chuckle from the radicals looking on.

A month after his outburst in court, Melville pulled another act of desperation. He attempted an escape by restraining a marshal in the courthouse with the marshal’s own belt and making a run for it. After racing down two flights of stairs, he was apprehended.

On May 8, 1970, Melville pled guilty to three charges: conspiring to and destroying federal property, and assaulting the marshal. He was sentenced to a consecutive run of 31 years. Hughey ended up serving two years, while Alpert absconded. While harbored by members of the Weather Underground, she circulated the feminist manifesto Mother Right to much praise and criticism from the radical left, before surrendering in 1974.

Mugshots of the Weather Underground members Samuel Melville, George Demmerle, Jane Alpert, and John Hughey circulated by newspapers after being released on bail. (Photo courtesy Joshua Melville)

Melville ended up at the Attica Correctional Facility, in Western New York, in late 1970. There, abusive guards were the norm, as were ludicrously sparse rations such as a single bar of soap every other month and one roll of toilet paper given out only once a month. The lone bright spot for Melville was finding prisoners to connect with from the Black Panthers and a likeminded Puerto Rican civil rights group called the Young Lords. Over the course of the next year, Melville sent out a storm of letters decrying the conditions at Attica to lawyers, outside supporters and the New York Commissioner of Corrections, Russell Oswald, while also publishing a handmade newsletter distributed to prisoners on the sly called The Iced Pig.

For many both inside and outside of prison walls, this new awareness of incarceration conditions came from George Jackson, the San Quentin inmate who authored the best-selling book Soledad Brother. Jackson’s lyrical, vengeful writing style resonated with fellow prisoners, while enticing the romantic radicals of the New Left. When word got out that Jackson had been shot dead during a bungled uprising on August 21, 1971, it set off a brooding fury in Attica. In an act of solidarity, Melville led a multiracial phalanx of prisoners wearing black armbands into the mess hall for a very solemn hunger strike. For months after Melville’s arrival to Attica, an obvious resentment had smoldered between inmates and guards, but the death of George Jackson ignited the spark.

The prisoners’ overtaking of Attica, orchestrated by Herbert X. Blyden, Elliott “L.D.” Barkley and Melville, began two weeks after Jackson’s death, on the morning of September 9, when several portions of the prison were set ablaze. One guard was singled out for a beating so bad he died a few days later. The prisoners drew up a 15-point list of “practical proposals,” including freedom of religion, a healthier diet, improved medical treatment, and educating the correctional officers about the needs of inmates — and asking for “understanding rather than punishment.”

Over the next four days, negotiations were volleyed in and out of the prison walls by journalists, senators and the well-known civil rights lawyer William Kunstler. He came out of the prison saying it resembled a “sloppy boy scout camp,” due to the makeshift tents in the yard and trenches Melville and other inmates had dug for protection. New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller refused to buckle to the inmates’ demands, and on September 13 he sent armed state police in to take back control of the prison by any means necessary. At the end of the sudden and bloody debacle, nine guards and 29 inmates were dead, with Melville reportedly being one of the first to get picked off. Legend says Melville was in mid-throw of a Molotov cocktail when he was gunned down. As much as that would make for a great dramatic ending to this made-for-TV story, evidence brought up in a civil suit during the 1990s revealed this to be a mistruth, as no such item was found near his body.

Coverage of the Attica Prison riot by the Albany Times Union, September 14, 1971. (Photo courtesy New York State Library)

At Melville’s funeral, William Kunstler delivered a riveting eulogy, while various Black Panthers icily stood guard around Melville’s casket. A few days later, the Weather Underground bombed the offices of the Commissioner of Corrections to protest Melville’s slaying.

For an almost 10-year stretch starting in 1975, a group that initially called themselves the Sam Melville Unit carried out a series of bank robberies and bombings across the Eastern Seaboard and the Midwest.

Last year, former New York City Police commissioner Bernard Kerik summoned the name of the Melville-inspired group when arguing that the left-wing protest group Antifa should be considered a domestic terrorist group. “Back in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, we had to deal with the Weather Underground, the Black Panther Party, the Black Liberation Army, the Sam Melville–Jonathan Jackson Unit,” Kerik recalled. “There were a number of these anti-American leftist communist socialist groups … doing exactly what Antifa is doing today, and those groups were doing more, which is what I’m afraid of.”

While Josh Melville may have some differences with the former police commissioner, he doesn’t disagree with this parallel. “The present political climate we are in today is virtually identical to what we were experiencing in the late 1960s, and the amount of millennials percentage-wise in the U.S. population is bigger,” declares Josh Melville. “My father’s story is extremely significant today, and if I did my job correctly with my book, people will say, ‘Holy shit, this is all going to happen again!’”

Arching back in his chair to lend further significance to his statement, he puffs on his cigar and continues. “We have a populist conservative president who is infuriating the left similar to the way Nixon did. … When he won that second term in ’72, it was a symbol to the left that all hope was gone.”

After dispensing of a copious amount of ash, Josh Melville straightens his brow and sternly says, “If Trump wins another term — which I think there’s a strong likelihood he will — who knows how this is going to escalate.”

Memoir

My Teenage Rebellion Was Fundamentalist Christianity

While other girls my age were sneaking off with boys and getting drunk, I was becoming a zealot—and trying to convert my parents.

On a summer Thursday evening, shortly after my 16th birthday, my face was pressed into the maroon carpet again. Mildew filled my nostrils and I coughed. My youth pastor’s wife, Jessa, was playing piano, and my youth group friends and I had spread out and each found our own nook on the floor to meet God.

“The only thing holding us back from being in the Secret Place is our own sin,” Jessa shouted, her neck held high. I was mesmerized by the way God moved through her.

The Secret Place of the Lord was the place we could dwell if we lived holy lives. In the Secret Place, God would whisper divine revelations to us and show us miracles. I dug my face harder into the floor — lying prostrate was how we humbled ourselves before the Lord. I sang, improvising a new melody to the Lord. I felt something release as I sang, something like the warmth of God. I kept singing and the tears started flowing, as they always did when I prayed long enough. They dripped off my face and darkened the carpet underneath.

I’d joined the fundamentalist Pentecostal church when I was 13. I was a homeschooled girl with only a smattering of friends. My best friend, Siena, lived just down the road from me, on the pine-speckled canyon seven dusty miles from town. I adored her, but Siena was a public-school jock by then and had way cooler friends than me. I was lonely, and this Pentecostal church had the only youth group in town.

I wanted a group to belong to. Didn’t we all?

At least that’s how it began. Not long after joining, I was all in. I prayed in my room for hours every day. I spoke in tongues and believed I was slaying demons as I prayed in my spiritual language. I threw out all of my secular music. I went on mission trips to spread the Gospel. I cut out my non-Christian friends. I signed a contract promising that I would protect my virginity for my wedding night. I dreamed of becoming a pastor’s wife or a missionary.

My parents were nominal Christians, but not churchgoers. After I joined the Pentecostal church, Jessa and her husband, Jacob, the youth pastor, suggested that, while lovely people, my parents weren’t the Godly authority I needed. I deserved parents who would guide me into the Things of the Lord. They told me that sin could be passed down for generations and that people born into a spiritual legacy — generations of people who were believers — had a leg up on people like me from heathen families.

This came at just the right moment, developmentally speaking: I was leaving behind the childhood fantasy that my parents were perfect and coming to the realization that they were actually just winging this whole parenting thing, and that they sucked at it sometimes. This is a very normal realization for a child, but at the time, it felt irrevocable and huge.

Jessa offered to be my spiritual mentor, and I excitedly agreed. I may not have had a spiritual legacy from my birth parents, but I could be adopted into my pastor’s. I spent many hours in their living room, talking about my hopes and dreams. Jessa stroked her frizzy hair and told me all about the incredible destiny God had for me if I surrendered everything to Him. I clung to every word she said. Although she was not more than a few years older than me, Jessa held herself with the natural authority of a third-generation pastor’s wife, as if her every word mattered. I wanted to be just like her.

“I see something special in you, Carly,” she would tell me over the bowls of chicken Alfredo she’d make us during our afternoons together.

When I was with my family, I forced myself to put on “the full armor of Christ” — a Bible passage we talked about in church about spending time with unbelievers. Normal family gatherings became tense because I couldn’t let my guard down, and because I began to see my parents as my mission field — it was my job to lead them to God.

“You are brainwashed,” my mother said to me once.

“Mom, you don’t know anything about this stuff.” I felt the tears coming. “Do you know how long I’ve had to pray against your generational sin just to stay alive? You are demonic.”

The angry flicker in Mom’s eyes faded to cold, empty pupils. “Oh, now isn’t that special. Well, why don’t you go live with your new family then?”

We celebrated my dad’s birthday at the river the summer I was 16. We ate a meal of corn on the cob, cherries and grilled chicken, on a wooden picnic table a few yards from the water. We didn’t pray before eating like the people from church did, and I made a note to speak up to them about this later. I pushed the food on my plate around, sulking. I was thinking of ways I could convert them to my faith. Next to us, the river rushed constantly, filling the spaces between words.

As the sun set, we played cards by lantern light. My pastors didn’t allow anyone to play cards because they said it could open doors to the Spirit of Gambling. I wanted to mention this, but I thought that it would only stir up trouble. My heart hurt thinking about what my Jacob and Jessa were up to that night. I imagined them praying together, or worshipping around a bonfire, or dissecting passages of the Bible around the dinner table. I longed to be with them.

When my childhood home burned down in a forest fire the summer I was 17, my faith leaders hinted that it could have been because of my family’s generational sin. I tried to comfort myself with reassurances that God was both all-powerful and all good and that human suffering was all part of His Plan. But for the first time since I joined the church, those answers came up short.

Just 10 days after the fire, I left my hometown to go to a nearby Christian university. I spent that first semester in a fog, trying to make sense of my life. I remember lying on the top bunk in my new dorm room a few weeks into my college career, wondering if my faith made sense anymore, while my roommate used our dorm phone to talk to one of the boys who wanted to date her.

“That’s pretty gross, but your roommate can’t possibly be weirder than mine,” she said in a hushed voice. I held still and listened. “All she ever does is cry.” I stared and the ceiling, mortified and trying not to move as I sobbed.

The next day, my Grandma brought me a box of classic Disney movies on VHS, my favorites from my childhood — Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Bambi, The Little Mermaid, and a dozen more.

“I know this is a hard time for you. You don’t have to pretend it’s not,” she said, handing over the box. “I hope these movies remind you of happier times.”

I watched Snow White on the 10-inch TV screen that somebody had donated to me, under a fort of blankets and pillows on the floor. When Snow White was over, I watched Aladdin, and then The Jungle Book. I allowed myself to be whisked away to a time before. A time before the altar calls, before the revivals, before the fire, before the fog. I hid for days in the fantasy of enchanted forests and fairy dust and singing fish, while my peers went to prayer meetings. I stopped trying to read the Bible. None of it made sense anymore.

I called Jessa, hoping for a lifeline. I confided in her that God felt so far away. She asked me if I had been praying and reading the Bible enough. I told her that I often tried, but that it all felt so forced.

“Why don’t you pray out loud with me right now?” she said.

“Maybe later. I have to go right now.” I hung up and turned on Beauty and the Beast.

A few months later, my church leaders summoned me to a humid, tiny upstairs room at church.

“Carly, we need to intervene because you are backsliding,” Jessa said. She wore a scowl on her face, and my stomach filled with dread.

“What’s going on? I don’t get it,” I said, stunned.

“It doesn’t matter what you don’t get,” Jacob responded, standing up and getting his face close to mine. The whites of his eyes swelled, and dark blotches of sweat stained his shirt. “What matters is you have major sin in your life — and until you confess, you are never coming out.” As he screamed, I stared at a yellowed poster on the wall that said “Jesus Heals.”

I gave a pleading look to Jessa, my confidant and friend, but her eyes were cold.

They told me I had the Spirit of Rebellion. They told me my heart was evil. I tried to push back, but they yelled and told me that God would abandon me if I continued to live in sin. I wish I could say I stood up for myself that night, that I ran out of the room and never came back, but the truth is I stayed. I stayed for what felt like hours, crying and letting them pray for my sins.

I finally drove home in a blur, my body spent. I knew in that moment I had lost my faith. It had been slipping from me in small ways since the fire, when I no longer felt like one of God’s chosen ones, but I always thought I’d reclaim my relationship with God from the ashes. Now, I not only felt like I couldn’t trust God but also the people in my life I had given everything to. I didn’t know how I’d recover.

I left the church after that night in the upstairs room, but what I didn’t know is that physically leaving was not enough. I moved on with my life without much talk about those fiery Jesus years, as if pretending they never happened made it so. It was years before I began to talk about my experiences in the church and process them for what they were: abuse.

The more distance I had from the church, the more I could see how brainwashed I had been by fundamentalism. During my teenage years, I lived exactly how Jessa told me to — down to how I dressed and what music I listened to and what friends I was allowed to spend time with and how I spoke and how I approached the world. I believed that by following Jessa and Jacob, I was following God. They had the final word on salvation, eternal life and objective truth. They leveraged my normal human fear of death, and my desire for connection, as power over me. As long as I followed my leaders’ every word, I was beloved and favored, but as soon as I began to step outside of their instructions for my life, even in the subtlest ways, the same people who loved me and treated me like I was special began to verbally attack me, threaten me, and desperately cling to their waning control over me. While it hurt at the time, I now look back at their cruelty with gratitude because it was the catalyst for me to claim my freedom.

I ran into an old friend from youth group while visiting my parents for Christmas, and she asked me if I attended church. No, I said, quietly, shifting my weight from one leg to the other as we stood in the produce section of my childhood grocery store. I saw sadness in her eyes.

Don’t be sad for me, I wanted to say, but I didn’t. I remembered what it was like to be in that world.

For years, I believed that people who walked away from their faith would suffer eternally for it. I used to judge the backsliders, and now I was one. The words of my pastors that night so many years ago had been seared into my mind: You have the Spirit of Rebellion.

Today, I’m friends with many other backsliders. Most of them come from those spiritual legacy families that I used to long for. Often, they are the first to break away from generations of religiously devout people. They talk about how strained their family relationships are now that they’ve left their faith. Some of them have been disowned by their parents, while some are constantly pressured by their family members to come back to the fold, complete with warnings of impending judgment. Compared to their journeys, I had it easy. I didn’t have to risk losing family relationships for leaving the church. My rebellion was church. And now I’m more grateful than ever that that was the case.

Super Subcultures

The Plot Against the Principality of Sealand

How the world’s quirkiest micro-nation got pulled into one of history’s most epic intercontinental frauds.

Michael Bates was caught off guard by a newspaper item he read in late July 1997. He and his parents, a retired couple residing in the seaside county of Essex in southeastern England, were being connected to the murder of Italian fashion icon Gianni Versace.

Prince Michael Bates of the Principality of Sealand

Michael, then 44, is a stocky man with close-cropped hair and a tough demeanor. He runs a business harvesting cockles, an edible mollusk found in the North Sea near where he grew up. He squinted at the paper and continued to read.

It turned out that a passport issued by the Principality of Sealand, a micronation his family founded on an old naval platform, and over which Michael happens to reign as prince, was found on the houseboat where Versace’s murderer had committed suicide.

The newspaper laid out the puzzling circumstances of the case. On July 15, 1997, Versace was leaving his opulent Miami Beach mansion when he was gunned down on his front steps by 27-year-old Andrew Cunanan. Allegedly distraught that a rich benefactor had cut him off, Cunanan embarked on a kill rampage across four states, murdering four people before coming back to Miami and shooting Versace for seemingly no reason. When police finally tracked him down eight days later, Cunanan led them on a chase, broke into a houseboat, and shot himself.

Investigators learned that the owner of the houseboat was a German citizen named Torsten Reineck, described by some acquaintances as well-spoken and polite but by others as “obnoxious, unpleasant, disgusting.” He also owned a Las Vegas health spa where orgies allegedly took place. Reineck was a socialite who loved showing off his Sealand passport and was said to have diplomatic plates from Sealand on his car. Consequently, authorities began looking into the micronation to see what role it may have played in Versace’s murder.

The Principality of Sealand, standing on two massive pillars in the roiling waters of the North Sea, was declared a sovereign nation by Michael’s father, Roy Bates, in 1967. Located in international waters and technically outside of the control of Britain, or any other nation, the country straddles a line between eccentric experiment and legal entity of uncertain definition. Authorities investigating Versace’s murder soon realized that the rulers of Sealand were not joking about their claims of sovereignty and had on many occasions taken up arms to defend their micronation.

Roy Bates, along with his wife, Joan, and children, Penelope and Michael, raise the Principality of Sealand’s flag, 1967.

Formerly called Roughs Tower, Sealand was one of a series of naval forts built seven miles off the coast of southeastern England during the Second World War to shoot down Nazi warplanes. The British government left the forts to the elements following the end of the war, and in the mid-1960s a group of enterprising DJs moved in and set up illegal radio stations. The BBC had a monopoly on the airwaves at the time and pirate radio was the only way to get pop music to the masses.

Roy Bates, who fought with the Royal Fusiliers in World War II, and later said he “rather enjoyed the war,” was a wheeler-dealer businessman who at various points owned a chain of butcher shops, imported rubber, and sold seaweed to New York florists. One day while taking the train to work, Roy had a moment in which he realized he was done with the 9-to-5 routine; instead, he wanted to enter the pirate radio fray.

Roy decided to set up his station, Radio Essex, on Knock John, one of the naval forts. The forts were a hot commodity, and violent struggles for control of them sometimes broke out between competing stations. A decorated soldier who had once had a grenade explode in his face, Roy stepped up to the occasion and resolutely defended his fort.

“Roy was a throwback,” wrote former radio pirate David Sinclair in Making Waves: The Story of Radio Essex on the Knock John Fort. “He should have been born in the time of the first Queen Elizabeth and sailed with Drake. If ever there was a true buccaneer, it was Roy.”

He eventually let Michael drop out of school to help “turf off” rivals (in skirmishes that included gunfire and Molotov cocktails) and the family manhandled its his way into possession of Roughs Tower, another fort farther out at sea. Roughs Tower was at least three miles outside of Britain’s maritime boundaries, and Roy used its extraterritorial location to his advantage. His long-term intention was to turn the fort into some kind of lucrative enterprise, such as an international casino or independent television station. He declared Roughs Tower the Principality of Sealand on September 2, 1967, and installed himself as prince and his wife Joan as princess. In 1968, Michael and Roy Bates appeared in British court after firing across the bow of a Royal Navy vessel that got too close to the fort. The judge ruled that Britain’s firearms laws couldn’t be applied to structures in international waters, which the Bates family took to be confirmation of Sealand’s sovereignty.

The family elected to stay at the fort after the British government green-lit commercial radio and brought pirate radio to an end, and the Principality of Sealand quickly became the foremost micronation in the world, influencing people on every continent who now claim their bedroom, neighborhood or disputed territory as a country of their own. Although they no longer live there, the Bates family has continued its hold on the fort until the present day, successfully upending Crown plots to blow up the platform, warding off more attempts at invasion, and winning bureaucratic victories, such as the time the British government ruled that Roy didn’t have to pay into the national health care system while he lived at the fort.

As they built up the reputation of the concrete-and-metal statelet, the family issued coins, stamps and other trappings of statehood, including passports. The Sealanders had issued around 300 of them over the years, but only to trusted compatriots, and certainly not, Michael Bates was sure, to anyone who would commit cold-blooded murder. His head was spinning when he finished the article.

Authorities would soon determine that the Bates family had nothing to do with Versace’s murder, but as it turned out, this was just the beginning of a series of problems involving bootleg Sealandic documents. The family didn’t realize just how successful they’d been at asserting Sealand’s statehood, and now the tiny nation was being used to facilitate a series of wild scams all over the world.

On April 4, 2000, a trim, handsome 46-year-old man named Francisco Trujillo Ruiz made a few adjustments to the odds and ends in his office at 210 Paseo de la Castellana, a street in a fashionable part of Madrid, before sitting down to speak with a newspaper reporter. Trujillo Ruiz, a flamenco club owner and former police officer who’d been kicked off the force for burglarizing a home, was going to talk to the journalist about his duties as a high-level government official.

The reporter had just turned on her recorder and had her pen poised above her notepad when a klatch of green-uniformed members of Spain’s Guardia Civil came through the office’s door. Trujillo Ruiz jumped up in surprise, and the officers promptly made their way around desks and chairs to where he was standing, boxing him in. He was under arrest, they announced, for allegedly selling more than 2 million gallons of diluted gasoline.

Trujillo Ruiz was momentarily nonplussed, but as the police closed in, he pulled out a diplomatic passport and claimed immunity. The police had no right to be there, he said, as they were actually on territory belonging to another country — his office was the Sealandic consulate in Spain.

An official Principality of Sealand passport

The passport was superficially quite legit, with a rubber coating and foil-stamped seals, and it gave the officers some pause when considering how to handle the arrest. But it was soon confirmed that Sealand was a not a member of Europe’s Schengen Area, which covers passport and visa issues across 26 European countries, and arresting Trujillo Ruiz would not violate any international laws. Far from being a diplomat, Trujillo Ruiz was one of the prime movers and shakers in a gang of scam artists operating throughout the world. He was arrested and taken into custody for fraud, falsification of documents, and “usurpation of functions.”

One of the gang’s primary sources of income was the online sale of Sealandic passports, nationality cards, and degrees from universities supposedly based on the Principality of Sealand. Customers could shell out between $9,000 and $55,000, depending on what document was needed, and they were free to use them for whatever purposes they wanted.

Not long after Trujillo’s arrest, officers crashed two more Sealandic “embassies” in Madrid, one of them located in an office that managed bingo halls. At least 20 fake diplomatic passports, hundreds more blank passports, and 2,000 official documents were seized in the raids, as were two vehicles with Sealand diplomatic license plates that had been escorted through Madrid by Spanish police on more than one occasion.

Sealand’s true prince, Michael Bates, was tipped off to these strange goings-on around the same time, when a friend asked him about the documents for sale through the Sealand website. While the Versace incident in 1997 had alarmed them, the Bates family had been oblivious to the extent of the problem with Sealand passports. “Excuse me?” Michael said to his friend.

“On your website. The diplomas and passports.”

Michael scratched his chin. Sealand did have a website, but it was in its infancy. And it certainly wasn’t selling official paperwork.

He turned on his computer, clicked on the browser icon, and listened to the dial-up connection’s rasp. He typed in Sealand’s then-URL: www.fruitsofthesea.demon.co.uk/Sealand. The site was how he had left it. He then searched around and turned up a Sealand site with a much more manageable domain name: www.principality-sealand.net. Lo and behold, it was a website purporting to be the official mouthpiece of Sealand, and one could indeed buy a number of Sealandic documents.

Spanish investigators unraveled the web and found that the scams associated with the fake Sealand paperwork involved more than 80 people from all over world. The scams were impressively wide-ranging: one “itinerant ambassador” used bootleg Sealandic documents in an attempt to acquire 1,600 cars and secure a €20 million loan to buy two private planes. Sealandic credentials were sold to Moroccan hash smugglers, and the gang reportedly sold more than 4,000 passports in Hong Kong for $1,000 apiece. “We were completely shocked with the information and papers he showed us. We knew nothing at all about it or the people involved. It was all news to us,” Michael recalled.

Even more incredibly, the gang’s leadership had begun negotiating with members of the Russian mafia to buy tanks, helicopters, bombs, missiles and ammunition, through a shell company set up with bootleg Sealandic documents. They intended to sell the arms to Sudan, which was under embargo by many governments of the world for being a terrorist state.

“They’re stealing our name, and they’re stealing from other people. How disgusting can you get?” Princess Joan told the Los Angeles Times.

Trujillo Ruiz reportedly first learned about Sealand while working in Germany for a man named Friedbert Ley, who had launched his own Sealand fan website in 1998 and asked Trujillo Ruiz to set up a Spanish branch office of the Sealandic government. When confronted by investigators about the fake passports, Trujillo Ruiz conceded that they were made in Germany but said he had been appointed acting head of state by the royal family of Sealand and been given authorization to issue Sealandic passports.

“Roy Bates is a vegetable, his son Michael chose me, and I accepted the position,” Trujillo Ruiz told reporters. (Roy Bates was of course fine.)

Meanwhile, Trujillo Ruiz’s father, who shares the same name, told a reporter that it was bad fortune that he had passed his name on to such a numskull. The investigation into his son’s criminal activities resulted in his father’s bank account being frozen, and his overall good-for-nothingness also contributed to his parents’ divorce.

“I knew this Sealand affair was not going to turn out well,” the elder Trujillo Ruiz said. “I’m convinced they used him, because he doesn’t have the ability to pull off something like that. He’s not very intelligent.”

The Germans had once visited the younger Trujillo Ruiz in Spain, and they appeared to be a bad influence on him, the father said. That was a significant understatement, considering that the individuals connected to the passport scams were also connected to Sealand’s shadowy, kidnapping-prone government-in-exile.

In the early 1970s, Roy Bates had prepared to turn the fort into a much larger ministate with a group of Belgians and Germans who had offered to go into business with him. The Germans were led by Alexander Gottfried Achenbach, said to be a former diamond dealer who was planning on a quiet retirement raising rabbits in Belgium until the Sealand opportunity sucked him back in. It was the “last great adventure of the 20th century,” said Achenbach, who would eventually become, among many other titles, Sealand’s minister of foreign affairs.

The Germans were remarkable busybodies, drawing up a constitution and legal decrees and bombarding embassies all over the world with requests for diplomatic recognition. The baffled recipients sent cables to the British government asking what was going on, and the Crown’s exasperation is evident in their replies that it was probably best just to ignore the Sealanders.

Nevertheless, the petitioning continued in earnest and their zeal was infectious. Roy Bates had long intended to make the fort into a profitable business, and the plans he and the Germans cooked up were grandiose. They envisioned creating more maritime forts that would connect to Sealand and host money exchanges, post offices, duty-free shops, a casino, drugstores, heliports, hotels, apartments, an oil refinery, a lounge and “perhaps a coffee shop.”

In August 1978, Roy and Joan Bates drove to Salzburg, Austria, to meet Achenbach and company to finalize some of their plans. Back in Sealand, however, Michael was working on the fort alone when a helicopter landed. Out came some of their German associates, who claimed Roy had given them possession of the fort. Michael was extremely uneasy about the situation — and completely outnumbered.

Roy and Joan were similarly uneasy when a friend back in England alerted them that he had seen a helicopter hovering near Sealand. Their sinking feeling was justified. By this point, Michael had been beaten up and locked in a room during a takeover orchestrated by Achenbach and overseen by a 34-year-old lawyer named Gernot Pütz.

“Tie him up,” Pütz said when he arrived at the fort. Michael tried to wrench himself free, his hair falling in his eyes as he was dragged into the room and shut behind a steel door.

Sealanders keeping guard after the invasion of 1978. Gernot Pütz, seen behind the armed man, was held on treason charges for his role in the invasion.

The only possible way out was a porthole window, but it was far too small for an adult to fit through. Michael was left in the room for three days, keeping himself warm by wrapping himself in a Sealandic flag.

“They did let me out at one point, but I ended up fighting them on deck,” Michael said in a podcast on the BBC. “They tied my hands together, my elbows together, my knees together, and my hands down to my knees, and they picked me up and said, ‘Let’s throw this bastard over the side.’ But they threw me back in the room and left me tied up.”

Eventually, the captors threw Michael onto a boat, which deposited him in the Netherlands, with no money and no passport. A sympathetic skipper helped him get back to England, where he linked back up with his parents. The reception wasn’t necessarily warm.

“How can you throw away our life’s work?” his mother asked him in tears.

“What have you done since you’ve gotten back to resolve the situation?” Roy thundered.

But Michael explained his ordeal. “To this day I can’t sit with my back to a door or a room full of people,” he writes in his memoir, Principality of Sealand: Holding the Fort. The family quickly decided that the only possible response was to recapture the fort. They gathered some rough-and-tumble friends and a few guns, and enlisted the talents of a pilot friend who had flown helicopters in a James Bond film. The plan was to fly to the fort, rappel down ropes, and retake the Principality by force.

“I like a bit of adventure,” Roy said in an interview with NPR. “It’s the old British tradition.”

Attacking at dawn, they descended from the sky, fired a single shot from a sawed-off shotgun, and tossed the captors into the brig.

“We coup de état’d the coup d’état,” Michael proudly told reporters who sailed out to the fort.

“You don’t serve seven years in the Army without learning something,” Roy added.

A tribunal was established to try the invaders. The other conspirators were freed, but because Pütz was a Sealandic national, his actions were considered traitorous and he was held prisoner, fined 75,000 deutsche marks, and made to wash toilets and make coffee.

He’s lucky he got off so easy, Joan said: “In Britain, people can still be shot for treason.”

Britain shrugged its shoulders when asked to intervene, saying the fort was not on its property. The diplomatic crisis ultimately became so serious that, as Michael describes it, a “sallow-complexioned and cadaverous man” from the embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany named Dr. Neimoller came to negotiate the prisoners’ release. Pütz was freed six weeks after he was captured, and the Sealanders counted the direct engagement with a foreign government as another formal action that affirmed Sealand’s sovereignty.

The Germans retreated back home after the failed coup and established the Sealandic government-in-exile, a dark mirror version of the Principality that persists to the present day.

The government-in-exile disavowed any role in the late 1990s Spanish passport scam. In a press release denying involvement, Minister for Special Affairs Hans-Jürgen Sauerbrey also alleged that, instead of investigating the real criminals, German authorities had searched the diplomatic and trade missions of the exile government because they were looking for Nazi documents, information about flying saucers, caches of silver and gold, and a “multitude of cultural goods of immeasurable value … as well as highly sensitive documents from the Stasi files” that the exile government possessed.

Despite Sauerbrey’s disquisition, investigators noted that the circumstantial evidence linking the Germans to the scam was pretty strong. Torsten Reineck, who owned the houseboat where Versace’s murderer turned up dead, was linked to the same Germans who worked with Trujillo Ruiz, and these Germans all lead back to Alexander Achenbach, former prime minister of the government-in-exile and the man who attempted the coup of Sealand in 1978.

In the mid-1990s, Achenbach set up a company called the Sealand Trade Development Authority Limited (STDAL) through the infamous Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, said to be one of the world’s top creators of shell companies. According to information revealed in the Panama Papers leak of 2016, STDAL was set up in the Bahamas using a Sealandic passport and envelopes bearing Sealandic stamps.

Similarly, Achenbach and an Austrian couple named Josef and Eva Baier opened a bank account at Banka Koper in Slovenia in 1996. They caught the attention of Slovenian authorities when €6 million suddenly appeared in the account in March 1997. Officials expected that the money was from laundering, organized crime and/or a pyramid scheme.

Not long afterward, the Baiers came to Banka Koper and withdrew €200,000 from the account, again using Sealandic documents. When the couple attempted to withdraw €4 million more, the bank gave them a smaller amount and sent them on their way. They were arrested when they tried to cross into Italy.

Slovenia had long since put a hold on Achenbach’s account, touching off an eight-year legal battle between Achenbach and the Slovenian state, who struggled to prove that the money had come from an illegal source. Ultimately, the Koper District Court ruled that Banka Koper had to release the €6 million to Achenbach because they couldn’t prove it was related to any criminal racket. The money had in fact come from a gambling enterprise in Poland, but it was an aboveboard operation. A higher court later affirmed the ruling in Achenbach’s favor.

Achenbach had the money transferred to an account in the name of his lawyer; he couldn’t use his own bank account, as it too had been opened with fake documents. Achenbach sued Slovenia in 2010 for preventing access to his money, asking for €1.3 million in compensation for the difficulty the government had caused him over the past eight years.

The saga “presented us with a strange philosophical question,” one Slovenian investigator told a reporter. “It was about territoriality and recognition. Did we recognize these passports or not? Who is to say what is or isn’t a country? For a time in 1991, after Slovenia was briefly caught up in the Bosnian war, many countries refused to recognize our nation.”

Achenbach was 79 when he filed the lawsuit in 2010, and he succumbed to old age in the middle of the litigation at age 80. The strange legal and financial quagmire was a fitting final chapter in the life of someone who had spent his whole life involved in dubious ways to get money.

The Principality of Sealand greatly reduced the number of passports it issued following the scams of the 1990s and stopped the practice altogether after 9/11. Today, however, the Principality does offer a legitimate way to become a citizen of Sealand. The Bates family sells royal titles, an official business whose proceeds go only to funding the honest initiatives of the true Sealandic government. (Costs vary: $44.99 to become a Baroness; $734.99 to become a Duchess.)

Prince Roy and Princess Joan passed into the next realm in 2012 and 2016, respectively, but the country is going strong more than five decades after it was founded. “We’ve been a country longer than Dubai’s been in existence,” Michael pointed out in the BBC podcast. Michael takes only intermittent trips out to the fort these days, but Sealand is always occupied by at least one armed caretaker, lest any of the events of its bellicose history repeat themselves.

The Principality of Sealand, 2018

The government-in-exile is still going strong as well, led by Prime Minister Johannes W.F. Seiger since a constitutional amendment transferred power from Achenbach in 1988. The group has become even more bizarre and sketchy under Seiger’s reign; its philosophies are driven by UFO-infused Aryan mysticism and the quest to harness a Force-like energy called Vril.

Seiger has been investigated for numerous shady financial and land dealings over the years, and he has been suing to get back the nuclear and chemical weapons entrusted to his safekeeping that the “illegitimate” German government took from him. Seiger asked this writer if I could put him in touch with Donald Trump to help him with his quest, canceling further contact when I was unable to do so.

All in all, despite the genuine headaches that came with criminals trafficking on the Principality’s name, the saga makes for a chapter in Sealand’s history no less eventful than those of any of its macronational neighbors.

As Prince Roy put it many times over the years, “I might die young or I might die old, but I will never die of boredom.”

This article has been adapted from a chapter in the author’s forthcoming book about the history of Sealand, which will be published by Diversion Books in early 2020.

Hidden History

The Pirate Radio Broadcaster Who Occupied Alcatraz and Terrified the FBI

Fifty years ago, John Trudell overcame tragedy to become the national voice for Native Americans—and a model for a new generation of activists.

He sat at the same table each evening, sometimes with lighting and sometimes without, a cigarette often in hand, a guest always by his side. In the background, the sound of waves rolling against the rocks and the stuttering of a backup generator were constants. Then, with a crackly yet true radio connection, streaming through the wires from an unthinkable place — Alcatraz Island — he began speaking in a calm, determined voice. The nation was listening.

In the Pacifica Radio Archives, located in a modest brick building in North Hollywood, you can hear what hundreds of thousands of Americans heard on those evenings. File through the cassettes and you will find more than a dozen tapes labeled with a single word: Alcatraz. Each is followed by a date, anywhere from December 1969 to August 1970.

But these were not simply programs about Alcatraz, that island in the notoriously frigid San Francisco Bay that was home to a federal prison until it closed in 1963. Rather, they were broadcast from the former prison building itself, from a small cell without heat and only a lone generator for power rumbling in the background.

The show was called Radio Free Alcatraz, and it was hosted by John Trudell, a Santee Sioux Native American activist and broadcaster.

By the winter of 1969, Trudell could be found in that austere cell, speaking over the rush of waves in a composed Midwestern accent. And by 1973, he had become one of the FBI’s most feared activists, with a file that would eventually run longer than 1,000 pages.

Why would the FBI compose its longest dossier about a broadcaster speaking from a rocky island a mile offshore? What was Trudell saying that frightened them so much?

Trudell was advocating for Native American self-determination, explaining its moral and political importance to all Americans. On air, he often revealed the innumerable ways the government was violating Native American rights: obstructing fishing access in Washington State, setting unfair prices on tribal lands, removing Native American children from local schools. But he didn’t just reveal the cruel contradictions at the heart of American society. He imagined a future in which equality — between different American cultures, and between all people and the earth itself — would become a reality

And for the first time, non–Native American communities were listening. More than 100,000 people tuned in to Pacifica stations in California, Texas and New York to hear his weekly broadcast.

At just 23 years old, with long brown hair and hanging earrings, Trudell had one thing the FBI could not stop: his voice.

In this excerpt from Radio Free Alcatraz, John Trudell documents the government’s brazen violations of Native American rights and explains what changes are necessary before honest negotiations can begin.

Trudell’s story begins in the autumn of 1969, when a group of Native American activists, known as the Indians of All Tribes (IOAT), began contesting centuries of injustice by seeking to reclaim unoccupied lands. The organization pointed to the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, which provided that all surplus federal land be returned to native tribes. IOAT set its eyes on Alcatraz, a symbolic beacon just past the Golden Gate Bridge. It had been unoccupied since President Kennedy closed the federal prison in 1963.

A group of Sioux Indians protesting at Alcatraz, 1964. Photo by Betmann via Getty Images

By inhabiting the 12 acres of Alcatraz, IOAT hoped to set a precedent for the reclamation of hundreds of thousands of unclaimed acres across the United States. But there was an obstacle: a hawkish government. Each time IOAT tried to reach Alcatraz — even making attempts to swim — the Coast Guard blocked their passage.

That all changed on the night of November 20. Under the cover of darkness and a dense blanket of fog, 79 activists from more than 20 tribes sailed from Sausalito across the frigid bay and settled on the island. Over Coast Guard radio, the sole caretaker of Alcatraz could be heard shouting, “Mayday, Mayday. The Indians have landed!” Despite his calls, the government’s response was delayed; the activists, many with their families and children, were safe. A gathering was held that night at 2 a.m., the old prison barracks were set up as homes, and food was lifted in fishing nets. Governing teams were also established.

Onshore allies knew the landing had succeeded when they saw a bright yellow Morse code message blinking through the mist: “Go Indians!” Back on Alcatraz, the children of the activists shrieked with excitement and clambered around the precipices of their new home.

John Trudell was not on those initial voyages. At the time, he had just returned from deployment in Vietnam, enrolled in San Bernardino Valley College, and moved in with his girlfriend, Fenicia Lou Ordonez. When he learned of the landing on Alcatraz, he suggested they join in.

“I get cold feet,” Fenicia protested, according to a scene in director Heather Rae’s 2005 documentary Trudell.

“Well, you’ll have to find socks,” said Trudell.

Expecting to join for only a few weeks, they packed sleeping bags, headed six hours north, and hitched a ride across the emerald bay on one of the IOAT-operated vessels, many of which were typically used for fishing and shipping.

What was once a treacherous journey with fierce Coast Guard resistance was now readily accessible, but not because the government had become any more benevolent. Rather, the activists’ tactic of establishing a critical mass on the island, and showing the nation why it was deservedly theirs, had succeeded. Fearing a public backlash, federal authorities called off the Coast Guard from intervening in these voyages.

Soon after docking on the island, Trudell attended the daily island meeting of IOAT leaders and tribal heads. He pointed out that if they truly wanted to make a case for the Native American right to reclaim unused land, they urgently needed to reshape the narrative. On his drive to the Bay Area, Trudell had seen national papers like The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle running stories portraying the occupation as a Native American theft — rather than a reclamation of what was stolen from them.

Trudell had spent the previous university semester studying radio and television production, and he felt that it was time, as he said in a 1969 interview, “to put into practice a little of what I had picked up at school.” He returned to San Bernardino for provisions, then returned to live on the island. He asked himself: “How would the tribes communicate best, and make their message known?”

His answer would take the occupiers’ message across the country and change the way Americans thought about the injustices perpetrated against native peoples.

After Buffy Sainte-Marie sings “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone,” Trudell explains the difficulties of living on Alcatraz, then introduces his guest, Jonny BearCub. (December 26, 1969)

If you lived in Northern California and tuned into KPFA-FM at 7:15 p.m. on December 22, 1969, or if you lived in New York City and tuned to WBAI-FM at 10:15 p.m., you would not get standard national news or updates about the moon landing.

Rather, you’d hear twangy guitar chords ushering in the voice of Buffy Sainte-Marie, who crooned a nostalgic ballad for Native American ways: “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone.”

The song was followed by an announcement.

“Good evening, and welcome to Radio Free Alcatraz. This is John Trudell, welcoming you on behalf of the Indians of All Tribes, from Indian Land Alcatraz Island.”

For the next 30 minutes, Trudell led conversations with Native American activists, spiritualists and students — many of whom were living on the island, visiting as volunteers, or ferrying supplies. It was called Radio Free Alcatraz, and Trudell typically began episodes by describing challenges on the island. There were many: Alcatraz had shaky electricity, a dearth of clean water, and it was frequently hit by strong offshore storms.

“It’s been a hassle lately with our electricity,” Trudell said one night at the beginning of a Radio Free Alcatraz show. “We had a power failure on Friday. … We didn’t have any power at all. And Saturday, we were stranded on the island because of bad weather.”

Despite these immediate challenges, Trudell — often clad in a wide-collared button-down underneath an emblazoned leather jacket — spoke both with the equanimity of a captain reporting to headquarters and the kindness of a good friend.

In an interview with KPFA host Al Silbowitz in December 1969, Trudell sketched a portrait of life on the island and outlined the purpose of the occupation. While many watching from the shore had been amazed by the movement’s courage and ability to survive on the rocky island, Trudell wanted the non–Native American audience to know: This struggle was not unique to this moment. It was experienced daily by native tribes everywhere.

But what was unique, and urgent for all people to recognize, was that the activists’ intention with Alcatraz was to reshape the narrative and the oppressive course of history. As Trudell says in the interview, “Alcatraz is more than just a rock to us. It’s a stepping-stone to a better future. We have a chance to unite the American Indian people as they never had the opportunity to do.”

In a conversation with Al Silbowitz, Trudell explains how the difficult conditions on Alcatraz all too closely resemble life on so many Native American reservations. He also asserts, “Alcatraz is nothing but a rock to many people. But it’s our rock.” (December 1969)

More often than not, however, Trudell’s primary role was not that of orator but rather of generous mediator, determined to animate Native American voices and convey a sense of hope born from their struggle. The heart of the program was his intimate voice — masterful at revealing the aspirational humanity that defined the movement, while outlining the enduring goal of activists to construct a university and Native American cultural center.

Trudell was not just a broadcaster: He was one of the unsung American forefathers of what we now call socially impactful publicity, or strategic communications. He already knew that for activists to succeed, it was not enough to campaign. They had to shape national consciousness.

On the night of December 28, his guest was Jonny BearCub, a member of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes. Trudell opened with a question: “How are things on your reservation? Would you explain — what tribe are you with, and where is it at?”

Jonny raised concerns about the unjust allocation of federal funds to her reservation and revealed the low wages factory workers were receiving at a firearm production plant there.

“It happened in Palm Springs too,” said Trudell, drawing a connection, as he so often did, between a local complaint and a national one. “At one point, the Natives there were each worth $329,000 dollars a person. Then the BIA, or Bureau of Indian Affairs, stepped in and determined many of them incompetent to handle their affairs, so they put this money in trust with white people, who got fantastically wealthy.”

As an activist, Trudell’s role was often that of raconteur. He didn’t just tell about injustice. He relayed stories that showed it, and he had faith that Americans everywhere, having heard these stories, would do the right thing.

On January 5, 1970, just six weeks into the occupation, the 13-year-old daughter of Richard Oakes, one of the movement’s founders, fell to her death from a third-story window. Oakes, in immense grief, left the island. The child’s death, and his departure, were a blow to a community that was becoming increasingly disorderly and plagued by internal strife, as rumors mounted that the U.S. Marshals might raid the island at any time. But Trudell did not falter.

His was a voice of constancy, offering a lighthouse for a movement troubled at sea. “This is John Trudell from Radio Free Alcatraz, wishing you all a pleasant evening.”

Tragedy was not new to Trudell. It was a foundational part of his family history.

In the early 1900s, Trudell’s grandmother had been kidnapped by Pancho Villa’s men from her tribe in Chihuahua, Mexico, and brought to the U.S. She eventually settled down in Kansas with Trudell’s grandfather, a man with a price on his head for his involvement in the Mexican Revolution. A few years later, the couple had a daughter, who, after moving to Nebraska, fell in love with a Santee Sioux native, Clifford Trudell. The couple married and had John, born in a hospital close to the reservation in Omaha, on February 15, 1946.

John grew up on and around the Santee reservation in North Dakota. Life felt wholesome; the reservation offered respite from the civil commotion and disarray that characterized U.S. cities, while providing sources of ritual and community. But those rather innocent early years ended abruptly at the age of 6, when Trudell’s mother died in childbirth.

“We visited her, my father and I, in this hospital,” Trudell said in an interview recorded in the early 2000s. “I remember she gave me grapes — green grapes. She hugged me; she kissed me. And then it was time to go. I didn’t see her anymore.”

He paused, and spoke again, his still-powerful voice as soft and singsongy as a child’s.

“Green,” he said. “Time to go.”

In the early 1950s, John enrolled in school off the reservation, where he confronted a Western culture indifferent to his spiritual understandings and offering few answers to his enduring questions. He often asked, literally, “Where had my mother gone?” He learned about the Christian God and heaven from classmates and teachers. But these concepts never resonated with him. How could he trust a religion that was upheld by a culture that was threatening the lives of his tribe and Native American people everywhere?

“You have potential,” Trudell heard one day in the principal’s office. “But you have to work harder if you want to be something.” Trudell didn’t care for the patronizing tone, and he knew he already was something. He longed to escape a school that seemed to stifle, not teach.

He soon found a way, enlisting in the Navy during the early days of the Vietnam War. He spent his deployment far from the jungle battlefields, bobbing in the waters off of Saigon, watching the stunning kaleidoscopic sunsets and meditating on the fate of his people.

Newspaper clipping used as evidence in John Trudell’s FBI file, 1975. (Photo courtesy the FBI)

In 1971, the occupation was more than a year old, and the federal government began plotting to end it. In late May, they shut off electricity and cut off all radio service on the island, ending Trudell’s broadcasts. The population on the island plummeted as water became increasingly difficult to access. Meanwhile, factions and power struggles began emerging within the occupiers; some wanted to hire an attorney to represent their claims. Others, including Trudell, believed self-representation was the only honest way forward.

When government agents raided Alcatraz on June 11, there were only 15 people remaining on the island. It is unknown whether Trudell was among them, but one thing was clear: Though the occupation was officially finished, Trudell was just getting started. His next fight would be with the FBI.

“He’s extremely eloquent, and therefore extremely dangerous,” reads a line in Trudell’s FBI dossier. They had no idea that the even greater danger lay in a deeper kind of power: his power to reveal inequality and injustice while appealing to natural liberty.

After the occupation, Trudell became the chairman and national spokesperson of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and fell in love with a prominent Native American activist, Tina Manning. They married in 1972 and often traveled and gave speeches together. Meanwhile, Trudell galvanized AIM through protests, most notably the 1973 campaign to reclaim Wounded Knee village from tribal chairman Richard Wilson, who was notorious for suppressing political opponents and failing to act in the best interests of the reservation.

Trudell’s oratory prowess transformed the grassroots movement into a national effort. But this time, he used it not to communicate to outsiders, but rather to organize disparate tribes.

It worked. Thousands of activists gathered at Wounded Knee, the site of a massacre of Native Americans by U.S. Calvary in 1890, which now had symbolic power. The FBI and federal marshals soon moved in. Clashes were deadly.

John Trudell burning the U.S. flag during a protest. The image was used as part of a flyer handed out at actions and fundraisers for the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, in the early 1980’s. (Photo courtesy Antoinette Nora Claypoole and Robert Robideau, from their recent book “Ghost Rider Roads: Inside the American Indian Movement.” All rights reserved.)

But Trudell was a pacifist at heart — one of his common rhetorical refrains in the 1970s was, “The natural world has a right to existence, and we are only a small part of it” — but growing injustices against native tribes in the 1970s pushed him to the brink. In 1975, he was arrested for assault after entering a reservation trading post to obtain food for senior residents. And on February 11, 1979, as part of a protest against the Bureau of Indian Affairs, he burned the U.S. flag outside the J. Edgar Hoover Building.

His intentions had been peaceful — “I burned the American flag as an act of protest against the injustice being extended against all of the people,” he said — but his message was lost on the national media, which leaned on racist tropes about disgruntled Native Americans in reporting the story.

The next night, Tina Manning Trudell was asleep at home with their three children on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation in Nevada. She awoke to the smell of smoke and a pounding on the door. Fire filled the house. It was too late to run. Tina, who was pregnant with a boy they intended to name Josiah Hawk, perished, as did all three of their young children — Ricardo Starr, Sunshine Karma and Eli Changing Sun.

From the time that his mother died in 1951 to his first days on Alcatraz, Trudell had turned to language — orations, poetry, rhetoric — as an existential stabilizer, a spiritual compass. But this time was different. He had no words, and he was left only with angry suspicions — suspicions that the FBI had caused the fire, suspicions that they were now on the hunt for him.

“I died then,” Trudell said in the eponymous documentary about his life. “I had to die in order to get through it. And if I can get through it, then maybe I would learn how to live again.”

He disappeared from the national scene and drove, crisscrossing America, alone in despair.

The voice of a chanting woman rings out. Another joins, deeper, complementing the first. A third now, creating a chorus whose song creates an image of the Great Plains of the American West, the mountains of South Dakota at first orange light. Their voices carry pain but build toward hope. Trudell’s unmistakable tenor enters:

I was listening to the voices of life

Chanting in unison

Carry on the struggle

The generations surge together

In resistance

To meet the reality of power

If you walked into a record store in 1983, you’d have seen an LP with JOHN TRUDELL sketched in blood red across the top, and beneath it, a black bald eagle, a dream catcher wrapped around its neck. Produced by Jackson Browne and entitled Tribal Voice, it was the product of years of grieving, mourning, and, eventually, finding the words for his pain, for his hope.

Mother Earth embraces her children

In natural beauty to last beyond

Oppressors’ brutality

As the butterfly floats into life

We are the spirit of natural life

Which is forever

Over the voices of a traditional chant, Trudell recites “Grandmother Moon.”

Long before slam-poetry songwriting became popular, Trudell wrote an album that mixed his love for poetic rhythm with his devotion to justice. He wrote much of it while on the road in the early 1980s, a cigarette between his fingers, a cup of coffee by his side, and a journal on his lap, during a period when he made very few public appearances.

Album cover for Tribal Voices, 1983. (Photo courtesy: John Trudell Archives, Inc.)

The lyrics on Tribal Voice reflect that nomadic lifestyle — dynamic, alive, quaking with power — and they at once inspire us to move our bodies, while also attuning us to the earth, to our connection with the earth.

In lines like “natural beauty to last beyond oppressors’ brutality,” Trudell speaks to his enduring hope: that language, well told and viscerally felt, can carry the seeds of justice, and transmit them to activists, citizens, migrants, parents and children everywhere. Few heard the album at the time of its release, but those who did — including Bob Dylan — praised it for its brilliance, and for its urgency about raising American political consciousness.

Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, and into the early 2000s, Trudell continued to release albums, publish books of poetry, and deliver speeches throughout the United States. But the years of tragedy in the 1970s, including the death of his wife and children, remained deeply with him, and he would never return to the central activist role he once held — perhaps one of the reasons that, of all of the activists of the late 20th century, he is one of the least known to us today.

With a black bandana around his forehead and circular, gold-rimmed glasses framing his stoic face, he spoke at a 2001 event in San Francisco, held in honor of the U’wa tribe and their resistance to oil drilling on ancestral land in Colombia. Trudell delivered one of his final major public speeches, aptly entitled “What It Means to Be a Human Being.”

“Our whole objective as human beings,” he said, “is to stay alive … really alive. Not surviving and existing, I’m talking about alive. Connected to life and all living.”

If there was anything that was eternally human, Trudell believed it was our infinite web of connections. Despite the wars, violence and oppression he witnessed in America, it was his narrative. He stuck to it. On December 8, 2015, Trudell posted a final message on his Facebook page. “My ride showed up. Celebrate Love. Celebrate Life.”

Death, for Trudell, was not the end. It was nothing more and nothing less than a ride a journey back to his origins — the collective human origins he forever encouraged us to remember — of Mother Earth. His voice, one hopes, will continue to drift in swells across the San Francisco Bay, spreading throughout the nation, where it deserves, as urgently today as ever, our embrace.