Narratively

The Underground Inferno that Created a Ghost Town

Fifty years ago, this prosperous Pennsylvania coal town was ripped apart by a devastating subterranean mine fire. Today, the flames still burn in Centralia.

The road is dark, sharp and slippery, winding through naked trees and into the wintry Pennsylvanian mist. Thick layers of clouds are concealing the hills, black rocks and silver birches lingering in the morning’s dim blue haze. The stillness of the early hours hasn’t broken yet. Lonely headlights are striking the highway’s glassy surface when I enter the borough of Centralia.

Rusted street signs are the only hint that a city was ever here. Overgrown curbs run along decaying alleys. Dead shrubs and brown weeds have cracked the blacktop, with snow patches and litter scattered everywhere the eye can see.

Centralia is the ghost of a ghost town.

Almost nothing is left of this former community of 1,400. A few buildings remain, most of them old row houses deprived of their neighbors, needing brick retainers to help them stand up without adjoining structures. The total population here was six people in 2014. Everyone else left after a long-lasting mine fire rendered the place uninhabitable, resulting in a government-mandated evacuation.

I stop the car at the corner of Locust Avenue and South Street, near the Saint Ignatius Cemetery, steps from the landfill where it all started.

I walk to the end of the street in the damp and cold air. An acrid smell drifts with the slight breeze. Sulfurous, it comes from the bowels of the earth – the pungent smell of burning coal. Steam is rising over the bare ground, freezing the grass in thin layers of brittle ice. Smoke wafts are growing between small cracks in the bedrock and I can feel the heat under my feet when I climb up the rubble to get a better view of the place.

Discarded tires and metal parts are mixed with cinder blocks and charred branches, making for an eerie mood in the silent morning. I lift a small rock from the ground and it’s so hot I have to drop it. Heat waves from the fire are clearly noticeable. Vapor seems to stick to everything.

A sign for Savitski Brothers Coal Company in Mt. Carmel, near Centralia.
A sign for Savitski Brothers Coal Company in Mt. Carmel, near Centralia.

I soon head back east to what was once Centralia’s main avenue, taking a look at the house of the town’s last mayor, Carl Womer, who died in May 2014. The house still stands on a recessed side street, but with its deed held by the state since it was taken by eminent domain in 1992, the property is bound to be destroyed in the near future.

I think of the lost history and forgotten memories as I walk by a long-dead tree, a sign reading FIRE nailed to its bark, pointing at nowhere in particular, as if the FIRE had engulfed the whole land and the world along with it, leaving nothing behind but ashes.

* * *

Pennsylvania has always been a leading anthracite coal provider, with more than sixty-eight million tons mined in 2013. Despite the growth of natural gas and renewable power, coal has endured, still accounting for thirty-nine percent of national electricity production and representing one of the largest employment sources in Pennsylvania, with 49,100 jobs and more than $700 million netted in tax revenue last year – even while the industry had to comply with ever-stricter regulations promoting clean energy.

Pennsylvania is also the state that is most plagued by mine fires, with at least thirty-eight recorded cases. Whether sparked naturally or human-induced, those blazes are well-known for being virtually impossible to extinguish. Most of the landscapes of the American West are actually the result of large-scale, ancient underground coal fires. Some, like Australia’s Burning Mountain, are thought to have been burning for 6,000 years.

A home on Troutwine Street in Centralia.
A home on Troutwine Street in Centralia.

Coal consumption was already in decline when Centralia’s underground fire started back in 1962. Mining operators were struggling to keep profits up, fearing a looming economic crash and slowly downsizing their labor force. Small towns had been steadily shrinking for quite some time, their residents either moving to bigger cities or finding new jobs in different fields. In spite of this, Centralia was doing relatively well.

Then all hell broke loose.

* * *

It’s slightly past eight a.m. when I reach May’s Drive In Restaurant in Ashland, less than two miles south of Centralia. Ed Fuller is a seventy-four-year-old technician recently retired from the mining industry. He is also a former Centralian. He sees me first and waves at me from his table. We shake hands and I’m soon sipping a warm cup of coffee, the waitress scribbling my order on her notepad.

“You should try the French toast,” Fuller suggests.

I follow his advice and we quickly start eating, the windows fogging up as the room fills with regular customers – ladies with walkers, white-haired men in gym slacks, old couples sharing breakfast together.

“Every now and then I see people coming here after they’ve visited the town,” Fuller declares. “Most of them are disappointed. They’re expecting more of it.”

“Ghost towns are popular,” I say.

“I can understand why for some of them. Because you can still see the history. Like abandoned places in the West, with the gold rush and the river dams and whatnot. Those I can understand,” Fuller says. “But Centralia, I don’t. It’s just trees and empty roads.”

Ed Fuller is a man of few words. He gets straight to the point, a habit he acquired during his years in the Army. His stern look and tall build give him the stance of someone who’s lived enough not to care about being judged.

“I was twenty-two when the fire started. I was living with my parents on Park Street. My mother was growing vegetables in the garden — potatoes, cabbage and such.”

“How did everything happen?” I ask.

“You will hear different stories about it. Everyone has his own version. Kids played with fireworks. A truck unloaded live embers. The government secretly did it. But in the end, it probably all came down to one simple thing: The Borough Council didn’t want the town to stink for a Memorial Day ceremony.”

Even though many theories were brought up throughout the years to explain the disaster, the Department of Environmental Protection today officially admits the most likely cause was the willful lighting of the fire by local authorities.

A Plymouth Fury sits in front of an active body repair shop in Centralia.
A Plymouth Fury sits in front of an active body repair shop in Centralia.

“May 1962,” Fuller continues. “The dump had been nasty for a while and needed a good cleaning, so the Council hired firemen to set it on fire. Of course, dump fires were illegal in Pennsylvania and no one would ever agree to having anything to do with it, but it was how it went back then. All was fine until they tried to put the fire out. Nothing was working, even after flushing and dousing the place several times. The reason, you see, is that the dump was sitting on top of an old coal mine, and the fire had somehow spread to it.”

Outside, a fine rain has begun falling from the low rolling clouds. A delivery truck turns the corner and disappears in the fog.

“Nobody acted on it until the year after,” Ed continues. “Firefighters knew they wouldn’t be able to contain the fire so they asked the DMMI [Department of Mines and Mineral Industries] for help. The DMMI designed a trench to block the fire from expanding, but their administration was in bad shape at the time because of the recession and it took them a long time to dig the trench.”

The waitress fills our cups with fresh coffee. Fuller continues.

“In 1967 the USBM [United States Bureau of Mines] proposed a new trench design that would have worked far better than the first one…It was a good plan,” Ed states, his hands slowly clenching into fists. “It was a good plan.”

“Why didn’t it work?”

“Centralia was a small town. People had already started moving out, jobs were scarce, don’t you know. We were maybe 1,200 living there, almost all of us working in the mining industry. Not especially rich folks. The government had estimated the town’s value at $500,000. The whole town. The shops, the garages, the churches, the schools, all of it. $500,000. I’m not kidding. “The cost of the USBM trenches was $4.5 million. You can guess what happened next.”

E. 2nd and N. Oak Streets in Mt. Carmel, where many residents moved after the fire began.
E. 2nd and N. Oak Streets in Mt. Carmel, where many residents moved after the fire began.

Fuller pauses and looks at me, his eyes piercing mine like he wants to make sure I fully understand the implications of what he’s telling me.

“Do you know how much they ended up spending for the relocation of everyone after the town was evacuated?” he asks with a chuckle. “$42 million.”

We finish our plates, leave money on the table and walk outside. A storm has been forecasted in the afternoon and the air feels like it.

“How was it, living there?” I question.

“Before the fire, it was a quaint place,” Fuller replies, smiling. “Nothing special. Nothing fancy. Lots of Polish immigrants there. My mother herself was a Catholic Polish. There was a farmer’s market she dragged me at every Sunday after the mass at Saint Ignatius Church. I’d help her set the stand and she’d sold produce there. Sometimes I’d go up the hilltop to pick huckleberries with my younger sister…My father was a miner and we didn’t see him much, so families often helped us with our chores. The community was tight-knit. Everyone supported each other.”

Fuller greets a man watching us from his porch, his hands in his pockets and his gray hair flying in the wind.

“The hardest part is having nothing left to help me remember. People, when they get older, they like to reminisce…they go back to where they used to live and all. Me, I don’t have that anymore. There’s nothing left.”

The street dives down the hill, opening on the mountains. I stop a moment to glance around.

“What happened after the USBM decided to let the fire burn?” I ask.

“At this point things were becoming harder to ignore. Residents were having constant headaches and nausea from the fumes and the fire was getting close to their properties. Vegetables were burning in the gardens. Basements were warm enough to stop using heaters.

“Then in 1969 the government decided to build a fly ash barrier to seal the fire. Boreholes were drilled across town to monitor the underground temperatures and CO2 detectors were installed everywhere. That’s when people began moving out.

“In late 1979, ground temperature was measured at over 135 degrees near the mayor’s gas station,” Fuller continues. “It was so hot, steam was coming out, mind you. Obviously the gas was removed straight away from the tanks. The station became useless and got demolished shortly after. This was the first real casualty from the fire, come to think of it.”

Then Todd Domboski fell into a sinkhole.

Domboski was a twelve-year-old boy living on Wood Street, not far from the cemetery. As he was running toward a group of officials talking near the closed gas station, the boy’s attention was drawn by a wisp of smoke coming from a small hole at the feet of an ash tree. He got closer to the smoke. And the ground gave way.

Domboksi found himself crawling and pushing and yelling as he fell deeper into the 150-foot hole, clouds of foul-smelling steam spraying from below, the mud collapsing even further under him and the roaring sound of flames rising to his ears.

“The fire had weakened an old mine shaft structure and made the ground collapse where the kid was standing,” says Fuller. “The exhaust fumes and the heat would have killed him if his cousin hadn’t pulled him out.”

The swift reaction of Domboksi’s sixteen-year-old cousin, Eric Wolfgang, who ran to help him out of the hole, and the fortunate presence of tree roots, were the only things that prevented his death. One hundred and thirty-five degrees temperatures were later measured in the sinkhole, with enough CO2 concentration to kill anyone in mere minutes.

“This caught attention from television and newspapers and forced the governor to finally act on it,” says Fuller. “He came with a lousy buyout proposal to relocate the town elsewhere and offered owners as little as $25,000 for their houses. What can you buy for that sum of money? There were protests. We were all pissed because nobody was giving a damn.

“My wife Jodi and I had already purchased our home here in Ashland. You couldn’t have made her stay in Centralia for the world. She hated it. The smell alone made her sick.”

Fuller’s parents, however, were among those who opted to stay in Centralia.

Route 61 running through Ashland, another nearby town that former Centralia residents relocated to. The main streets of Centralia closely resembled these before the fire.
Route 61 running through Ashland, another nearby town that former Centralia residents relocated to. The main streets of Centralia closely resembled these before the fire.

“My wife didn’t understand my parents for staying there,” he says. “She often tried to reason with them to make them leave.

“My father had built this house with his hands, you see. It was something they had worked all their lives for. They were proud of living there in spite of all that happened. They belonged here and they couldn’t afford to move anyway.”

* * *

At Ed Fuller’s house in Ashland, I sit at the kitchen table while he pours me a glass of water. Photos of his granddaughters hang on the walls. There is a tangy smell of varnish emanating from the wood paneling of the entrance hall.

“Two solutions were submitted: either excavating the fire for more than $600 million, or evacuating the city at the government’s expense,” Fuller says. “The outcome of the vote was maybe 350 to 200 in favor of the buyout.

“My parents and the folks who stayed after the buyout believed it was all a plot from the state to get the coal for free. They believed the government had started the fire on purpose so they could expropriate everyone in Centralia and access the coal underground.”

Ed Fuller’s not one for conspiracy theories himself. “I just think the government left us to ourselves and did nothing to help. It’s worse than if they had tried to steal the coal from us, after all. It’s just they didn’t care.”

Fuller’s parents stayed until the state used eminent domain laws to take control of most of Centralia in 1992. “They were too old to keep fighting, so they eventually accepted the expropriation,” Ed says. “They got a little money from it and went straight to a nursing home. My father passed at seventy-seven, a month before our house got torn down. It killed him. It really did.

“I’m glad he wasn’t there to see the demolition. I watched the wrecker crush the roof and the walls. It was one of the saddest moments in my life, seeing the place I grew up in getting flattened in a matter of minutes.”

“My mother joined him in ’96. They both went through this ordeal to end up dying in a nursing home. It’s so damn cruel.” There is palpable sadness in Ed’s voice. Anger, too. A helpless anger lamenting all that could have been done to save a part of his existence from vanishing.

Sunset at Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church in Centralia. This is the only remaining church in the town, and it still has a congregation.
Sunset at Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church in Centralia. This is the only remaining church in the town, and it still has a congregation.

Fuller’s parents were not the last residents of Centralia. A few who still refused to leave, even after the eminent domain action, finally won a lawsuit in 2013, allowing them to stay in their homes now that the fire was no longer considered a threat.

“Centralia would still exist if politicians had handled things right in the beginning,” says Fuller. “The fire would have been contained. Nobody would have had to go. And I would probably still live there.”

* * *

On a sunny afternoon, the remains of Centralia look like an ordinary piece of countryside, with streams twisting through hilly woodlands and deer racing from trail to trail. But on a foggy morning like this one, the area becomes much more dramatic, frightening even, a lonely Orthodox church overlooking the valley like a godsend, holding tight before the apocalypse.

Cast in the Appalachian ridges and valleys, roughly in the middle of Pennsylvania and about eighty miles northwest of Philadelphia, the town was originally built on a grid plan, divided from east to west by Locust Avenue and north to south by Center Street. Classic miner’s houses were the most common type of dwellings, townhouses attached to each other, with front porches and pointy roofs.

Many urban legends have been inspired by the town’s story, even if you’d be ill-advised to call it haunted in front of its current residents. Yet, with the 1,500 graves spread among three cemeteries making up the largest part of the local population, Centralia’s withering grounds can certainly feel ghostly. This image wasn’t helped by the popular “Silent Hill” video game series and horror movie, loosely based on the local events and attracting lots of visitors in the past year— to the displeasure of the last six people living there. “If you’re a reporter, please hang up, we don’t do interviews,” a recorded phone message announced until recently when calling Bonnie Hynoski, a fifty-seven-year-old fourth-generation Centralian and the wife of the borough’s current Fire Chief.

The abandoned stretch of Route 61 that used to lead to Centralia is today covered in graffiti, crude inscriptions and explicit drawings. WELCOME TO HELL, one reads at the southern entrance of the blocked-off highway, right in front of a large crack snaking through the asphalt in which it was at times possible to get a glimpse of the devouring red inferno below.

The road was found to be a safety concern in 1982 after it was determined that the fire burned directly under it. The coal pillars supporting its structure were gradually consumed by the heat, making the asphalt buckle and sink. In 1983, temperatures exceeding 850 degrees were measured in the crack that had opened between the traffic lanes and the DOT finally closed the road.

The warnings reminding that the ground is prone to sudden collapse don’t deter bikers and off roaders who come here to practice obstacle crossing or ramp jumping. “I pretend zombies are chasing me,” says Justin, twenty-five, a Geisinger Services clerk who rides his motorcycle in every weekend from Kulpmont.

The 4,000 feet of abandoned highway end on Locust Avenue near where John Coddington’s gas station once stood. A few months before the closing of the station, David Lamb, a motorcycle shop owner living on the same block as Coddington’s, learned his house’s cellar was the entrance of a bootleg mine shaft diving right to the bedrock, allowing toxic fumes to infiltrate everywhere in a 100-yard radius. The fire was moving south. This was the beginning of the end for Centralia.

A windmill farm is visible from the end of South Street in Centralia.
A windmill farm is visible from the end of South Street in Centralia.

I try to locate Lamb’s house but cannot find anything but rumble and weeds, so I decide to walk to the eastern side of Locust Avenue to see the Odd Fellows Cemetery. The grass is browned and the tombs hidden behind untrimmed hedges. I’m alone in the world, keeping company to the dead.

A toy horse is tangled between the branches of a tree. I cannot help shivering as the fog gets thicker in the woods. I stumble on a rusted borehole enclosed in wire netting, emerging straight from the ground, still and dark in the back of the cemetery.

More than 2,000 of those boreholes were drilled across the town to monitor the fire temperatures and let the pressure evacuate from underground tunnels, despite the indication that they could actually supply oxygen to the fire and worsen the air quality. Joan Girolami, an East Park Street resident and mother of two, had one drilled near her swimming pool in 1978. The temperature measured by the Bureau of Mines was 746 degrees. This was three years before the Centralia: HELL ON EARTH bumper stickers were made. Three years before Girolami asked “do we have to have a tragedy […] before we get any help?” during a General Assembly meeting.

I leave the cemetery to see where the tragedy almost did happen on Valentine’s Day, 1981. I look at the snowy ground where Todd Domboksi was almost swallowed. I try not to think too much about the void underneath me.

A few steps north on Park Street used to stand a green bench, set near a former war memorial adjoining Locust Avenue and enclosed by a dry stone wall. The bench, along with several lawns and vacant lots, was maintained by a resident named John Lokitis until 2009, when he received an eviction notice for his 108 West Park Street home. When the town’s ZIP code was revoked in 2002, Lokitis painted it on a bench at the corner of Railroad and Locust: 17927 in white stenciled letters. Lokitis took care of his birthplace. He didn’t want it gone.

Today, forty feet of concrete curb is all that’s left of his house, demolished in 2010. Lokitis has since moved to nearby Milton but still doesn’t understand why he had to leave his home, inherited from his grandfather and completely spared by the fire.

Even though almost nothing remains of Centralia, every street is steeped in history. Here is where the Welsh’s candy store was. Here a beauty shop. Here the Zimbo’s Hotel. This was the Speed Stop, the motorcycle shop owned by David Lamb.

When the fire was confirmed in 1983 to have spread so much that it was impossible to put out, the dead zone, as it was called, was already easily visible from the sky at the southern end of town. The forest here was completely burned out. Bleached white trees were frozen in brown foliage and scorched ground – a black and white trail in the middle of the greenery. The earth had cracked, opening long crevices through the scrubs.

A complete excavation would now cost a staggering $660 million when a similar plan proposed in 1963 would have only been $277,000. Since putting out the fire was out of the question, a government buyout program was presented as the only viable solution for Centralians. The market value of their homes was very low and the $42 million help from the local administration wasn’t enough to pay a fair price for everyone’s relocation. But in the August 8, 1983 referendum, residents voted in favor of a relocation, considered the safest and fastest way to deal with the situation.

Appraisers roamed the streets with notepads, knocking on doors and meeting with the owners, writing notes about the locations, in or out of the 300-degree zone, east or west, near or far from other amenities. Widespread demolitions started. Houses were boarded up and codes were painted on each one of them. Bulldozers came and wrecked everything as fire hoses poured water over the dust. The fog and the smokes were still there.

The Odd Fellows Cemetery in Centralia. The landfill that was ignited is located directly behind the cemetery – ground zero for the fire.
The Odd Fellows Cemetery in Centralia. The landfill that was ignited is located directly behind the cemetery – ground zero for the fire.

In 1986, only fifty households were remaining, all belonging to people who refused to let their homes be sold for a pittance.

When Governor Bob Casey invoked eminent domain in 1992, he made sure the legal system would leave the eviction order active, even after the land takeover dispute was brought to the Supreme Court.

The remaining Centralians were now essentially squatters in their own homes, their titles transferred to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Authorities didn’t bother enforcing the evictions though. “That would [have been] very bad publicity,” explained eighty-nine-year-old Mayor Lamar Mervine in 2005 to the Smithsonian Magazine, adding that no one would have risked another Waco-like siege.

By this time, the only indication of the fire burning underneath was a light sulfurous odor from time to time when the wind blew right. The only indication that a thriving town had been there were the twenty or so houses standing in a desolate field made of yellowed grass, torn down sheds, dead trees and anthracite rocks.

All were lost in the mist.

* * *

Teens are slowly gathering in Mount Carmel’s Vine Street Sandwich Shop, talking of school and social network apps as I finish my cheesesteak. Mark Sawicki is waiting for me outside, finishing a phone call with his brother. Sawicki is fifty-seven. He used to work as a coal picker in the nearby Harmony Mine. until a few years ago when health issues prevented him from going underground anymore.

“I can’t say I was sad,” he says with a smile, opening the door to his townhouse down the street. “It was probably the best thing that happened to me back then.”

“My family left Centralia back in ’72,” Sawicki declares. “We were living on Center Street. I don’t remember much of it, to be fair. Just the basketball field.”

“Why did you leave so early on?” I ask.

“My dad was a miner. It runs in the family, as you can see. He knew about mine fires. He knew something was up from the moment we learned the DMMI had trouble with the trenches.”

“Had he experienced an underground fire before?”

“You could say that. He started bootlegging coal in the 1930s. He was there when the Bast Colliery exploded a mile or so from Centralia in 1932. The word was someone had pitched a lit butt into a tunnel and the whole drift had caught on fire. The mine was flooded and blasted shut, but my dad often told us he could still see glowing embers burning at night in the 1960s, thirty years later.”

“Was this fire related to the one in Centralia?”

“It could have been. The Bast fire could have moved under Centralia with the time. I believe so. The coal seams are all linked under there,” says Mark, kicking the floor with his foot. “It’s possible that the fire went from vein to vein until it reached Centralia. It’s too late to tell anyway. It would make sense, though.”

The Bast Colliery theory has been discarded several times during ecological assessments of the situation and is today mostly considered a local legend. However, many are the miners who still believe the legend has some truth in it, even if none of them can really prove it.

Snow is beginning to fall outside, quickly piling up against walls and hedges. Sawicki coughs a lot. I can hear him wheeze as he offers me a cup of coffee.

“Was it hard for your family to leave?” I ask.

“You know, people come and go in places like this one. It’s all about the mines. Every city around here works the same. If the mines do well, people stay. If the mines don’t do well, people leave.”

Sawicki’s rasping voice is echoing in the house, the surrounding silence only broken by the refrigerator’s compressor starting and stopping in the kitchen.

“Would you have wished to stay?” I inquire.

“Not really. It’s where I lived for a part of my life, but that’s all,” Mark replies, but then adds: “I guess that without Centralia I probably wouldn’t have worked in the mines. I found [the fire] fascinating, you know. The idea of a fire burning right under a city, right under my street. Everyone compared it to hell and I was very intrigued by this…I wanted to know more about that. I wanted to see it… to understand it.”

“So the fire made you follow your father’s steps?”

“In a way. I never wanted to be a coal picker. I was just curious. My dad got me hired, I passed my miner certificate and there I went…It paid well but if you ask me, the money isn’t worth the risks you take down there.”

“Were you ever injured?”

Sawicki laughs and coughs again.

“Sure I was,” he says. “Broke my leg when a rock fell on me. Got smashed by a chariot. I couldn’t even count the minor injuries. In ’94 one of the guys I was working with died. The roof collapsed on him and he was trapped under a boulder with no oxygen. Accidents are part of the deal. That’s why the money’s good.

“I see young folks like you trying themselves at it almost every week. They never last. They put a little money aside and get the hell out of there as soon as they can. They’re the smart ones. The ones who keep at it are those who don’t really have a choice. Until they’re fired because there ain’t no work anymore, that is.”

Mark Sawicki himself was laid off from the mines twice.

“The first time was in the early eighties. The boss just gave me a pink slip on his way to his locker like it was nothing. The second time the poor guy was half my age and I had to show him how to do it. Both times were for economic reasons. The company didn’t really have a choice. They eventually hired me back.”

We watch a neighbor brushing snow off his car. We chuckle when a draft blasts the snow right back where it was. The rest of the town is at a standstill.

“Traditional mining is dead,” Sawicki says as he turns to his side and clears his throat. “My dad picked for maybe forty years. Back when he started, coal was the main source of energy in America…They were providing electricity for the whole goddamn country. It was all thanks to them. The radios, the TVs, the lights of course, the heating, everything. It was them. Guys like my dad, they worked like crazies and risked their lives every single day for everyone else to get those things…And yet as soon as those guys weren’t needed anymore, they just got tossed away like nobodies.”

Sawicki finishes his coffee and grins.

“You would think that when your town catches on fire someone would help you. Especially if you’re one of the people who helped build this country. Right? Well, it turns out you’d be wrong! You’re a coal picker, what do you think? You’re not important. Your house ain’t important. Your life ain’t important. You just get to work and die like a rat.”

Cough, again. Cough and ache as he goes to the bathroom, with the snow still falling and the wind still howling outside.

“What did you do after you were laid off?” I ask when he comes back.

“I was drinking pretty heavily back then. Almost cost me a divorce.” Now eleven years sober, Sawicki goes to AA meetings every other Saturday.

“After so many years in the mines, you come to miss it,” he says. “There’s a real brotherhood. You practically live together. When you lose that you kind of lose everything. From the ten or eleven people I knew that got axed back then, three of them were dead in a year. One crashed his car in a tree after drinking a bottle of vodka. Another one went into a coma and never recovered. Another one got into a fight and was beaten to death.”

“Working in a mine is a one-way business,” he continues.” You go down there and you never really go out. Even in your free time you’re there underground with your face all black and limestone in your lungs. Drugs and alcohol make you skip that.”

I think of the burned cans and broken bottles piling up near the Odd Fellows cemetery, of the empty cellophane balls and the old campfire traces.

“Centralia hasn’t helped the world to see coal mining as a good thing,” Mark Sawicki declares. “Explosions and mine fires are pretty common, but this was a real ecological disaster… It showed that coal picking was an ugly business and that everyone was only concerned about profit. The people, the land, who cares?”

He pauses and pulls a gray oxygen bottle from behind his armchair, apologizing as he puts a mask on his face and takes long, deep breathes of air from it.

“Myself, I thought of moving away from here. Countless times,” Sawicki adds. “Florida, maybe. Never had the heart to do it, though. Everyone I know lives here. I was born in Columbia County. It’s my home. I know it doesn’t mean much, but it means something to me.”

“It’s too late for me anyways,” he continues. “Working in the mines takes a toll sooner or later. You know you’ll die young the moment you start on the job. When my doctor told me I had the black lung, I wasn’t even surprised. Sometimes I feel good and then I start coughing and it doesn’t stop until I’m in the ER.”

We finish the pot of coffee and comment on a recent Pittsburgh Penguins hockey game to lighten the mood. I listen to Mark recount the story of how he met his wife. There is so much pride in his eyes when he points out his youngest grandson has said his first word.

The valley is cold and cast in white when I leave Mount Carmel.

* * *

A couple is walking in front of Centralia’s Municipal Building, a brown-tiled warehouse still used to store a thirty-year-old fire truck and an ambulance in case an emergency occurs in nearby Aristes. “It’s so sad,” the man, a German tourist named Rudi, says. “It’s like the city never existed.” We take pictures of the garage doors and talk about what it must be to live here today before parting ways.

One of the original vents installed in the area surrounding Odd Fellows Cemetery. These vents were installed in hopes that dangerous gases would be released here, and not into the homes of nearby residents.
One of the original vents installed in the area surrounding Odd Fellows Cemetery. These vents were installed in hopes that dangerous gases would be released here, and not into the homes of nearby residents.

I climb the Paxton Street steep slope at the town’s northernmost point. Life seems to come back here, maybe because of the soothing presence of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Church. Weekly services are still held there under the church’s blue and golden roof. Flowers blossom in spring. People gather and walk up the steep stairs to listen to the local minister’s lectures.

Something moves between the trees and a deer shows his head, careful and alert, steadily watching me as I crouch to the ground. No sound around but the wind.

The deer crosses the road and disappears into the woods.

I think of persistence and stubbornness. The years it took before the remaining residents ended up having the last word when they won their lawsuit in 2013, receiving a cash payout of $349,500 and the permission to stay in their homes for as long as they lived.

I walk down empty Locust Avenue, as cars dash by with their fog lights and their wipers on. Everything has been removed and erased.

Not even the time capsule buried in 1966 for the centennial of the town and opened last year by a group of former Centralians subsisted. The items inside the vault were almost all ruined by water that had leaked into it. One of the only things that survived water damage was a miner’s helmet and lamp signed by the men living there at the time — a cruel reminder of the town’s origins and demise.

Centralia was bound to die like it was born.

While Pennsylvania recently unlocked $1.4 million to put out another mine fire threatening Pittsburgh’s main gas pipeline and airport operations, budgets have been completely cut in Centralia. A few volunteers will help clean the borough from trash on May 16th, 2015, led by the Eastern Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation. Windmills spinning on the horizon line, white and graceful, are a vivid sign that the region has moved on. Down below, the fire still burns.

I get back to my car and start the engine, warming my cold hands against the heat vents. A thin layer of ice is shining on the weeds, the ground sparkling like glitter.

This was a place where people lived.

This was a place people loved, loved so much that some would stay there in spite of the hell that burned below the earth and menaced to spill all over them.

This was a place people had to surrender.

The road is dark and sharp and slippery, streaming by the young twilight as music fills my ears in the coziness of the car. The mist fades away and with it the Borough of Centralia, the fires and the hills and the smokes and the doomed memories.

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.

Secret Lives

Jannie Duncan: “Beautiful Human” or Fugitive Killer?

She was imprisoned for murdering her husband, then escaped and assumed a new identity. Her adoring friends and employers had no idea.

More than 12 years after Jannie Duncan walked off the grounds of a mental hospital and into a new identity, Debbie Carliner opened a newspaper and got the shock of her life. She was lying in bed in her home in Washington, D.C., on a Sunday morning, thumbing through The Washington Post. It was January 5, 1975. Carliner flipped to the Metro section, where the top story was headlined “Fugitive’s Friends Call Her ‘Beautiful Human.’”

Carliner’s eyes widened as she scanned the photos accompanying the article.

“That’s Joan!” she screamed.

Her husband looked over, confused. Carliner showed him the layout, which included five snapshots of a middle-aged black woman looking radiant in various settings. There she was smiling, surrounded by friends in one image, resplendent in a wedding gown in the next.

The woman was Joan Davis, 54, a kindly and beloved former family employee. In the 1960s, when Debbie Carliner was a teenager and her mother decided to go back to work, her parents had hired Joan to make the beds and help with the cleaning. Joan was an excellent worker, and she was warm and unfailingly trustworthy — so much so that when they left on family trips, the Carliners asked her to watch after their home in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Debbie’s mother had often said that Joan was highly intelligent — “too smart to be a maid” was how she put it. All of which made reading the story that much more bewildering.

In a Washington Post article, Jannie Duncan’s friends and co-workers came to her defense following her surprising arrest. (Photo courtesy Washington Post Archives)

The article reported that Joan’s real name was Jannie Duncan. And that was hardly the only revelation: In 1956, Jannie had been arrested for the murder of her husband, Orell Duncan, whose savagely beaten naked body had been buried in a shallow grave near Richmond, Virginia, the story said. She stood trial, was found guilty of murder, and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. After a few years, she was transferred to St. Elizabeths Hospital, a mental institution in Washington.

That’s when the story went from shocking to surreal. In November 1962, Jannie had walked off the hospital grounds and vanished for more than 12 years. After she was finally arrested again, on January 2, 1975, the story that emerged was as straightforward as it was unbelievable: She seemed to have simply melted into the streets of Washington, mere miles from the hospital, taken on a new name, and plunged into a new life.

Over more than a decade, Jannie had populated her new existence with a bustling community of adoring friends and employers who were oblivious to the considerable baggage of her old life. Even more strikingly, when her secret was revealed, every one of these acquaintances stood by her. The Post story was filled with the kinds of adulatory tributes usually reserved for retirement parties. Friends and former employers described her as a “high-class woman” and someone “of the highest character, the most honest person.” In an article in the Washington Evening Star, former employer Lewis Stilson held nothing back: “She’s astute, intelligent, vivacious, sincere, honest, and unquestioningly loyal to her employers.”

Like everyone else, Debbie Carliner was incredulous. Neither she nor her parents could imagine that the woman they knew as Joan could murder anyone. If she had, the Carliners figured there must have been a plausible explanation. “We did not believe the story about Joan,” Debbie told me this summer. “We certainly believed he deserved it, assuming it happened.”

I stumbled across the story of Joan/Jannie earlier this year while researching politics in the 1970s. I was so fascinated that I spontaneously abandoned what I was doing to look for other articles about her. The more I found, the stranger and more interesting the story became. For example, she told authorities that she couldn’t remember anything of her life from before she was Joan Davis — but she believed she had been kidnapped from the mental hospital.

The more I found out about her in the weeks that followed, the more I became consumed by a question: What was the truth about Jannie Duncan?

Her twin narratives diverged so sharply that there seemed to be only two possibilities: She’d been railroaded on a murder charge and slipped free of a punishment she didn’t deserve. Or she had killed her husband, escaped, and fooled everyone, cleverly concealing her status as a fugitive who had engineered a great escape.

She was a model citizen who had been wronged, or she was a con artist. I decided to find out which.

* * *

The woman the Carliners knew as Joan Davis was born Jane Waller on February 9, 1920, in Gravel Hill, Virginia, a tiny unincorporated community outside of Richmond. Public records indicate that she was the fourth of seven children. She dropped out of high school after the 11th grade, and, after turning 19, married Thomas Bowman, her hometown sweetheart.

The marriage was likely an act of heedless teenage passion. She left her husband after a few months, lighting out for Washington. There she worked as a clerk and maid during the day and plunged into the city’s boisterous nightclub scene by night, according to the Post. The divorce became official a few years later when Jane, whose friends called her Jannie, married a comedian named Telfair Washington in 1944. He died of a heart attack in 1946.

“He was the love of my life,” Jannie told Post reporter Maggie Locke decades later. “I think that’s when my problems started; after he died I was trying to find a man with his same beautiful qualities.”

Jannie took over Washington’s 17-room tourist home (essentially a boarding house) at 1622 7th Street NW. In 1950, she married again, this time to a gambler named James Terry. She divorced him about two years later, but the turbulence in her personal life didn’t seem to inhibit her business acumen. Within a few years, she employed a handful of people and owned a full-length mink coat and a 1955 powder-blue two-tone Cadillac Fleetwood.

In 1954, she met Orell Duncan, 37, a member of a gambling syndicate run by kingpin Henry “Piggy” Leake. In 1952, Orell Duncan had been arrested and convicted of operating a lottery and possession of number slips. Jannie married him in March 1955, but within a few months, they were living at different addresses.

There are conflicting accounts of what happened while she was working at the boarding house on 7th Street during the early-morning hours of March 11, 1956. What’s clear from court records and newspaper reports is that Orell turned up around 12:30 a.m. and a confrontation took place, and she pulled a gun on him. Orell disarmed her and again began struggling with her. Two of Jannie’s friends, Edward James and Calvin Simms, joined the fray on her behalf. Orell was later found dead from multiple contusions to the head.

Within a span of three days, police in Virginia and Washington arrested Jannie Duncan, James and Simms, and introduced a motive: Jannie’s estranged husband was snitching on her to the IRS. That detail became a staple in newspaper reports about the killing.

She was charged with first-degree murder, which carried a mandatory death penalty. At the trial that autumn, the government’s star witness, 25-year-old Carl Winchester, a friend of one of Jannie’s employees, testified that Jannie had pointed a gun at Orell and pulled the trigger several times, but it never fired.

The crux of the trial centered around the post-fight drive in Jannie’s Cadillac. The prosecution claimed that the three defendants finished him off in the car, while Jannie and the others testified that they were talking calmly when the men began arguing and struggling with Orell, and he fell out of the car and died from his injuries.

After a full day of deliberation, the jury found Jannie and James guilty of second-degree murder. Simms was convicted of manslaughter.

Her incarceration at Occoquan women’s prison initially passed without incident. One then-inmate later told the Post that Jannie was quiet and tidy and kept to herself, studying law books. After three and a half years, on November 14, 1960, Jannie was moved to St. Elizabeths. Almost exactly two years later, she walked off the grounds and vanished.

* * *

Reconstructing a life from decades past takes time and effort. To dig deeper than the newspaper stories went, I filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the police, St. Elizabeths and the FBI. I asked a relative who specializes in genealogical research to dig into Jannie’s family history. I wrote letters and called the people connected to the story who were still alive. (There weren’t many.)

Over time, I assembled the jigsaw puzzle that was her life. Once out of St. Elizabeths, Jannie began quietly reinventing herself. She replied to a classified ad in the newspaper for a job as a domestic helper in Potomac, Maryland, then procured a driver’s license and Social Security card under the name Joan Davis. She spent about two years working for that family, according to newspaper accounts.

After she proved herself a solid and reliable worker, she parlayed strong references into subsequent jobs with the Carliners and others. David Carliner, Debbie’s father, was a prominent Washington attorney whose work, according to his New York Times obituary, “helped define modern immigration law.” (He died in 2007.) He described Jannie in the Washington Evening Star as “a lovely, warm, responsible person.”

Jannie never left the Washington area, except for the year she spent in Detroit with her new husband, Wilbert Lassiter, a Michigan native whom she married in 1972. Eight of her friends flew from Washington to attend the wedding. The Lassiters returned to the nation’s capital a year later.

In September 1963, about 10 months after Jannie’s escape, the FBI, frustrated in its attempts to find her, had issued a wanted poster: “Duncan is an escapee from a mental institution. participated in a vicious assault which resulted in victim’s death. Considered dangerous.” The document shows all 10 of her fingerprints and her mugshot. In the photo, her face is tilted just to the right, her mouth slightly downturned; her hair is closely cropped and forms a little wave on the right side of her head. She is listed as 5-foot-6 and 150 pounds.

The FBI wanted poster and fingerprints that ultimately led to Duncan’s arrest. (Photo courtesy the FBI)

Jannie made no attempt to leave the area; rather, she doubled down on Washington, steadily building a community there. Irene Carroll described her friend in the Post as fun-loving and generous. “She was a lover of children,” Carroll said. “She would get us all together and take us on picnics to Lake Fairfax. She’d say, ‘Don’t bring nothing. I’ll take care of the food.’”

But cracks eventually began to show in the foundation of her immaculately rebuilt life. She and Wilbert Lassiter separated around May 1974. By December 1974, he had taken up with another woman named Jannie — Jannie Dodd, according to the Post. That month, Dodd complained to the police that Joan Lassiter had made threatening phone calls and left menacing messages at her house. One such note, Dodd said, read: “Have a merry Christmas. This will be your last.” Dodd filed harassment charges.

Public records show that the Lassiters were officially divorced nearly a year later, after Wilbert learned that his estranged wife had been “convicted of an infamous offense prior to marriage without knowledge of defendant.”

That infamous offense came to light in a remarkable way. Police in Arlington, Virginia, arrested Joan Lassiter on the harassment charge on December 31, 1974. She was fingerprinted, processed, and sent home. As her paperwork was being filed — the sets of prints placed among about 310,000 others — a clerk noticed something surprising: The fingerprints of Joan Lassiter, housewife, perfectly matched the prints on the FBI wanted poster for Jannie W. Duncan, escaped murderer.

On January 2, FBI agent Stanley Niemala drove to Magnolia Gardens, the apartment complex in Arlington where Jannie Duncan lived. She was a convicted murderer on the lam, so he brought along two other agents as backup. They watched the building for a while, and when a light popped on in her second-floor two-bedroom unit, they moved upstairs.

When Agent Niemala told Jannie that she was under arrest, she “kind of froze,” he says. He saw astonishment in her expression; after 12 years of freedom, she clearly hadn’t expected to hear the name Jannie Duncan again. “When you’re out that long and somebody suddenly steps up and puts cuffs on you, it’s not easy,” he says.

She stood stiffly, eyes wide and blank, as Niemala handcuffed her. The now-retired agent describes her as “almost catatonic.”

The other two agents each took a shoulder, gently lifting her, for the walk to the car. She was still so immobilized that when they reached the FBI office in Alexandria, Niemala brought the fingerprinting equipment to the car rather than haul her up to the third floor where she would normally have been processed.

Then Jannie Duncan was returned to St. Elizabeths Hospital. After about three weeks of evaluation, officials there declared that she had no mental issues and shipped her back to prison.

* * *

Con men and women have been around for at least as long as humans have traded currency, and everyone who has received emails from a Nigerian prince promising a share of his just-out-of-reach fortune knows they’re still thriving. As I learned more about Jannie, I began to view her exploits more cynically. Several elements of her story fed into this.

For starters, Jannie’s explanation of leaving the hospital sounded fantastical. She told Margot Hornblower of the Post that she had no memory of anything prior to her life as Joan Davis. She said her mind was “like a blank.”

But during that same interview with the Post, she did recall that rather than having escaped from St. Elizabeths, she was actually kidnapped by Orell’s relatives, who were intent on killing her. “I remember being choked into unconsciousness by a heavyset, light-skinned man,” she told Hornblower. “I remember waking up and this lady told me to call her ‘Mama.’ She said I had been very sick and I didn’t know who or where I was …. She said, ‘I’ll find out who you are and everything will be all right.” (Hornblower, whose name is now Margot Roosevelt, said recently that she didn’t remember any further details about the interview.)

The threats leveled by Jannie in 1974 suggested that “Joan Davis” was invented to help perpetuate her escape. Those menacing notes offered evidence of her old, true self leaking out.

Most significant was another Post article that focused on Jannie’s connection with Ernestine Delaney, an Occoquan inmate whom she met in 1958. Delaney (who is deceased) relayed that she was contemplating trying to escape, but Jannie talked her out if it, saying she would only end up with a longer sentence. One passage near the end stands out. “She mostly listened to others and never talked about herself — except her plans to get transferred to St. E’s,” Delaney is quoted as saying. Jannie “wanted the transfer to St. Elizabeths Hospital because she thought it would be easier to receive a parole from the mental institution.”

Jannie Duncan sits on her dormitory bed at St. Elizabeths on January 15, 1975. (Photo by Linda Wheeler/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

When I contacted St. Elizabeths, a spokeswoman told me she was permitted only to confirm the dates that Jannie entered and left the facility. The law prohibited her from discussing Jannie’s diagnosis or care.

But the Post passage suggested the possibility that Jannie had planned the whole thing: She had engineered the transfer not because it would be easier to be paroled, but because it would be easier to escape.

* * *

I felt I had a firm handle on Jannie’s exploits by the time I scored my most significant research breakthrough. After calling the federal courthouse in Washington to ask about her murder trial, I learned that the case file is stored in the National Archives. I drove to Washington to see what I might learn.

In the research room, I flipped open the first box, which contained the first few hundred pages of a 3,000-page trial transcript on thin onion-skin-type paper. Though I would eventually read everything, I jumped straight to Jannie’s testimony.

What I read stunned me. It began with a description of her life over the previous year — the entire duration of her marriage to Orell. She said that her husband drank almost daily, and that when he did so, “he would act like a crazy person. He couldn’t remember the things that had happened when he was drinking.”

She testified that a month into their marriage, he came home from a night of partying and “started beating me and picking me up and throwing me back down on the bed and knocking me about,” she said. “He finally knocked me on a table that was sitting beside the bed and it cut me up here with my eye.” She fled to the bathroom and called her mother-in-law, who took her to the hospital.

Soon after that, she was at Russell’s Barber Shop selling tickets to a church event, when Orell “came in and jumped on me and struck me about the head, picked me up and pushed me out of the shop and pushed me into his car …. I had a knot on my head and bruises on my leg.”

Jannie soon moved out but didn’t divorce Orell, and in May 1955 they were in a bar and he wanted to leave just after she’d put a quarter in a jukebox. When she said she wanted to hear the music, he began “striking her about the head.” She fled, but he jumped in their car just after her, pushing her into the passenger seat. After driving a short distance, he reached over, opened her door and pushed her out, then exited and began hitting her while she was on the ground.

The violence escalated. In one instance, he believed that she’d put sugar in his gas tank. When she denied it, “he pulled his gun out and put his gun right up here and he pulled the hammer back on his gun and said, ‘Well, yes, you did put sugar in my car.’”

She escaped that situation, but another time he threatened to stab her to death. She made several hospital visits. At Freedmen’s Hospital, the staff closed a laceration on her left arm with eight stitches; at Farragut, she was treated for a one-inch laceration over the right eye, abrasions on her legs, and multiple contusions to the head.

Then she took his gun one night when he had passed out from drinking, and on February 18, he came into the boarding house at 2:30 a.m. and demanded it back. She said she’d turned it in to the police; he punched and kicked her. This time the district attorney put through an arrest warrant. “I have an open cut on my left knee and bruises all over my body and I am still in pain,” she was quoted as saying in the warrant. “Also my husband has phoned since and said he was going to beat me to death before Monday morning.”

When Orell learned about the warrant, he threatened to have her killed if she didn’t have it withdrawn. She refused, but still, Orell was never once arrested for any of the attacks. (The warrant and hospital reports were introduced at the trial, and other witnesses testified to seeing Orell abuse Jannie.)

All of this culminated with his arrival at the boarding house just after midnight on March 11, 1956. Jannie had finished fixing up Room 7. “Duncan met me in the small little hallway, and he grabbed me by the throat and he started choking me,” she testified. “So he said, ‘I could kill you right now. No one knows I’m in the building.’”

Just then the doorbell rang, and he pushed her back toward the hotel’s entrance. Afterward, he sat her down at the dining room table and said, “I can come up here any time I get ready. You’re still married to me.” He wanted his gun back. When she said she didn’t have it, he “hit me upside the head …. Then he kicked me, and I fell out of the chair. And when I got up, I pulled this gun on him. He said, ‘Oh, so you do have it.’”

She had gone to the bedroom and retrieved the handgun she’d taken from him a month earlier. She held it on him as he walked into the kitchen, then she gave the gun to an employee while she called Edward James. A few minutes later, James and Simms arrived.

Carl Winchester was the key witness against Jannie. In his testimony, he said Orell reached for the gun and struck Jannie — “he lunged at her and almost knocked her down” — when she pulled the trigger. But the employee had removed the bullets when she called James.

James and Simms began scuffling with Orell, but eventually they stopped. Several bystanders broke up the altercation, and the four of them cooled down, settling into a temporary détente. Orell asked Jannie to give him a ride home, and she agreed on the condition that the two other men came along. They headed outside and climbed into Jannie’s car, witnesses said.

A postmortem toxicology report in the file showed that Orell was heavily intoxicated. Given what a sloppy drunk he was, the defendants’ testimony about how he fell out of the car suddenly sounded more plausible: Simms testified that they were arguing and scuffling in the back seat, and at one point Orell said, “Well, I ain’t going to stay in here.”

“And just before I noticed it,” Simms testified, “the door was open and he was out.”

* * *

This was the 1950s, and the nation’s high tolerance for violence in the home at that time has been well documented. While some states began to criminalize domestic violence as early as the 1800s, those laws were rarely enforced, and cases of physical and sexual assault were largely viewed as marital issues best worked out within the domicile. One study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry as late as 1964 posited that a husband beating his wife was a positive development, because it served as “violent, temporary therapy” that “served to release him momentarily from his anxiety about his ineffectiveness as a man.”

Jannie Duncan’s testimony about Orell’s abuse was vivid, detailed and substantiated by witnesses. Yet none of it seemed to register with anyone: not the judge nor the jury nor the reporters covering the drama. There was no mention of it in newspaper coverage. At one point, the prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Frederick Smithson, said of Jannie: “I believe this woman to be that type of individual that … they call accident prone.” He defined that as someone who “make[s] claims against her paramour or husband for the purpose of harassment and to get various pieces of property from him.”

Smithson also questioned whether Orell was capable of beating Jannie in the ways she described, noting that he only weighed marginally more. He wanted the jury to ignore Orell’s obvious physiological advantages—and that in some cases he was wielding weapons.

I was also struck by another aspect of the transcript: It raised serious questions about Jannie’s purported motive for killing Orell. She clearly had issues with the IRS; court records showed that she owed $26,369 in back taxes. But she testified that she’d been on the agency’s radar for years, and her lawyer, James Laughlin, argued vehemently for permission to introduce evidence that “would show an investigation was underway long prior to her marriage or contact with Orell Duncan.” Laughlin, in fact, had represented her during the IRS proceedings.

Independent proof suggests that this was almost certainly true. On April 4, 1956, a few weeks after Orell’s death, the IRS ran a classified ad in the Evening Star announcing an auction for Jannie’s mink coat to recoup unpaid taxes. The IRS typically auctions off property only after expending significant effort, often over the course of several years, to extract back taxes.

But Judge Joseph McGarraghy refused to allow testimony or evidence about Jannie’s IRS history, and the jury apparently accepted the contention — introduced by the police within days of Orell’s death, repeated frequently in newspapers, and advanced by the prosecution — that Jannie was furious at Orell for snitching.

In light of all of this information, it was jarring to see her story so casually dismissed. It was as if the alleged abuse didn’t matter — like it couldn’t possibly have been a factor, even in a crime of passion like Orell’s killing.

But even a casual reading of recent American history reveals that none of it is particularly surprising. The idea that a black woman’s version of events would be ignored in a trial in the 1950s, and that the word of the police and a white prosecutor would prevail: Of everything about this strange story, that was the shortest leap of all.

* * *

Viewed through the lens of the trial transcript and the information the jury never heard, everything about Jannie’s story looks different. Orell died from a result of Jannie’s acts of self-defense during a series of drunken brawls. He could easily have killed her, and probably would have eventually.

Seemingly minor details suddenly take on new significance, like the physical description on Jannie’s wanted poster: “scar in right eyebrow, small scar under left eye … scars on left arm, left shoulder, left side of chest and on right shoulder.” All of them correspond to injuries she described.

The transfer from prison to St. Elizabeths? It could have been her scheming, but one document among the court papers shows that she was moved to St. Elizabeths after being diagnosed with “severe depression, catatonic withdrawal with auditory hallucinations.” Which would be understandable, given what she’d been through.

As for the memory loss, that could potentially be explained by dissociative amnesia. That’s a condition in which a person blocks out certain information, often associated with a stressful or traumatic event, leaving them unable to remember important personal information. A 2007 study published in The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law noted that the disorder “is associated with crimes that are committed in a state of extreme emotional arousal and in which the victim is known intimately by the offender. Frequently, the crime is unplanned and no motive is discernible.”

The alleged threat to kill Jannie Dodd in 1974? That charge was dismissed, and it appeared Dodd had exaggerated or even fabricated their interaction. U.S. Attorney Earl J. Silbert, in responding to Jannie’s parole application, noted that because of the way the charge was abruptly dropped, the incident “could not have been particularly substantial.”

Then there was her public support. Given all of the above, it suddenly seemed far more plausible that she’d simply been a genuinely good person caught up in a horrible situation who had navigated her way out as best she was able. In February 1975, a group of 30-plus people formed the Jannie Duncan Freedom Committee, raising money and circulating a petition seeking her release; they collected 5,000 signatures. Friends recruited the support of D.C. Councilwoman Willie Hardy and Walter Fauntroy, a prominent politician, pastor and civil rights advocate. More than 20 friends and employers offered to provide character statements in court on Jannie’s behalf.

Silbert was the U.S. attorney in Washington then, so he wasn’t necessarily in the business of letting people out of prison early. His response to her parole request is a pitch-perfect coda to Jannie’s uncommon odyssey. It’s obvious, reading between the lines, that he struggled to reconcile the particulars of her story, which he characterized as “a somewhat singular case.” Her interactions in her jobs over her 12 years as Joan Davis “reveal someone in whom these employers have complete trust and confidence and even more — as a person. In addition, this office has had contact with other members of the community who also demonstrate an equally high regard for Ms. Duncan. These comments cannot be lightly ignored. To the contrary, they are most persuasive.”

Jannie was released in April 1977. The Post showed up to cover her departure from prison, taking her picture for a front-page story headlined “The Saga of Jannie.” The subhead is notable for its Martin Luther King Jr. echo: “‘Lady in the Dark’ Is Free at Last.” She said she hoped to one day seek a presidential pardon and write a book about her ordeal. The friend who fetched her from prison suggested a title: “The Case that Rocked the Nation’s Capital.”

A Washington Post article showing Duncan leaving the detention center with her lawyer. (Photo courtesy Washington Post Archives)

But after this brief bit of fanfare, she was never heard from publicly again. It was as if she dissolved into her post-prison life with all the anonymity and quasi-invisibility of her years as Joan Davis.

Her family is content to let her story fade out of memory. Jannie’s sole remaining close relative, a daughter now in her 60s, at first denied that Jannie was her mother. Shown evidence to the contrary, the woman replied that she preferred not to participate in this article. I subsequently sent her a draft of this story. “All I can say is WOW! She had more alias’ [sic] than ‘Mission Impossible,’” the daughter emailed back to me. “All this just explains a lot. I must commend you on the great details you uncovered. However this still does not change my mind. I’d rather remain silent and not open up old wounds.”

But one friend filled in Jannie’s final chapter. Lorraine Sterling, a friend from the Joan Davis years, kept in touch with her by phone after Sterling moved to North Carolina in the early 2000s. Sterling says Jannie lived quietly in Maryland after her release from prison, working and spending time with friends. She evinced no interest in garnering further attention. “She was a very loving and giving person,” Sterling says. “She had friends, but she kind of stayed to herself at times too.”

When Jannie became frail, her daughter moved her into a nursing home. She died in May 2009, at age 89, in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Her relatives held a quiet ceremony at Scott’s Funeral Home in Richmond on a warm May afternoon, then wended their way to the Washington Memorial Park and Mausoleums in Sandston, Virginia, near her birthplace, for the burial. The circle of her life was complete.

I understand her daughter’s impulse to pat down the earth over this complex tale. But as I exhumed Jannie Duncan’s full narrative, two things stood out. The first was that initial assumptions about people are often wrong. Mine were in this case — and in a time when we’re seemingly growing more alienated from each other, I was reminded to look deeper for the complexities inside all of us, our shared humanity.

And second: Jannie’s story is more relevant in 2018 than ever. She was a black woman who lacked power or standing while facing a justice system dominated by white men aligned against her. She was easy to brush aside; her telling was easy to dismiss and distort.

There are some lingering questions that may never be fully answered, but this much is now clear: Jannie was a survivor. And we know, after these last couple of years, that there are countless survivors today facing the same systemic hostility, the same biases, the same obstacles arrayed against them.

Finally, then: This is the story of Jannie Duncan, survivor. For her sake, and the sake of others whose lives were damaged by what happened one night in March 1956, it’s tragic that no one listened then, more than six decades ago. For the rest of us, it’s not too late.