Narratively

The Wondrous Lives of Julius Shapiro

He was a jovial Lower East Side gangster, wartime chemical researcher and secretive color television pioneer. An inquisitive daughter wants the full story, but this ninety-three-year-old would rather drink his coffee and read his book in peace.

Share:

Julius Shapiro wants no real dialogue about the Manhattan Project, but not for the reasons you might think. He is simply way too familiar with our long-running battle over what he’ll release from the past.

It’s October, a few days before Dad’s ninety-third birthday, and no, he doesn’t want a party. I have decided to gift him a biographical essay, but he has made it well known he doesn’t want that, either. His afternoon goals are to download a book on Kindle and have me get him a Devil Dog and a cup of tea.

The heat has not yet come on in my building. I’m fine, hot even, walking around in a tee and shorts while Dad is swaddled in front of his computer desk, in the discarded Dora comforter my sixth-grade daughter was all too happy to hand up to her grandfather.

“They found me through the American Chemical Society, and Columbia’s alumni office,” he finally says. “All that happened was that they asked me to come in and interview for the program, and it was way too mysterious. I guessed mostly correctly, and said ‘no way.’ They sent a small amount of radioactive material down to the lab I was already working at anyway, to be handled by a woman I was going to ask out. She worked down the hall, a nice-looking redhead, a bit flat-chested maybe, but I lost interest after that. Who wants to date a woman that’s radioactive?”

“You guessed the Manhattan Project was about the radioactivity? How could you not share this story before?” I ask.

“If I worked on it, that would be something, but not working on it is nothing. Okay, that’s good-bye already.”

“Wait! There were women scientists in your lab?”

“In the war people made exceptions. Women and Jews were hired. There was even a black man on our team, which was unheard of before that.”

“What did you do? Where was this?” I ask.

“Ore analysis. Ledoux & Company, 100 Spring Street.”

“What kind of ore were you analyzing? For who?”

“You get a boatload of tungsten in from China from a client, you analyze it to see if they made a good deal. Stuff like that.”

“Spell tungsten.”

“You’re bothering me! Stop talking and let me buy my book.” I lay back on his bed and use my phone to look up the long history of Ledoux, indeed once located on Spring Street and now located in Teaneck, New Jersey. The firm’s website says they assayed gold during the Gold Rush and copper during the Statue of Liberty’s construction, and were “involved in a small way with the Manhattan Project.” Fact-checking done, I stare at the ceiling until it’s the floor. Now instead of Play-Doh and craft glue, my childhood room smells like Brut aftershave, the most Proustian scent for me: If I smell Brut, my father is near and I am happy.

My dad Julius Shapiro at his desk where he reads, codes and practices Ping Pong.
My dad Julius Shapiro at his desk where he reads, codes and practices Ping Pong.

Walter Matthau, with his cranky-lovable cadence and demeanor, would have been perfectly cast as the man who is currently ignoring me. No coincidence: Julius was a year ahead in high school from Walter—two men from the same time and place, the good old Lower East Side, that below-14th-Street Camelot where boys went to elementary school in news caps and knickerbockers, played stickball and handball, swam in the East River’s Central Lanes on summer days, went sledding in Seward Park on winter days, and ate penny candy and schtickles of pickles for nickels all year round.

My father has outlived Walter Matthau; he has outlived almost everybody he was friends with or dated, as well as two younger wives. His older brother, Sol the Professor, a heavy smoker, died in 1979 of a heart attack. The bright exceptions are his three younger sisters: Paula, ninety; Eva, eighty-five; and baby Esther, eighty-two. They love each other, talk every day, yet squabble as much as they did when they were close-but-competitive girls given the East Broadway railroad flat living room for their bedroom; each daughter was allotted a pullout bed. Occasionally my father gets successive teary calls on his cellphone, and refs who wronged who. He rolls his eyes at me, but on his face is a foxy grin—he still matters.

Dad has been handicapped since he was twenty, when he became partially paralyzed, yet he’s glossed over the details of how it happened for as long as I remember. Even my mother was hazy on what happened. He will talk, if just a bit, about the after: that by working hard in rehab, he recovered agility that astounded his doctors. When I was a child he dragged his left foot and could never piggyback me to my bedroom to tuck me in, but he taught me tennis in East River Park, where he also played basketball with my brother. Even as late as 1997, aided by my brother, he snorkeled in the Great Barrier Reef.

Dad on his way to the senior center for a final physical therapy session before he leaves for Florida for six months.
Dad on his way to the senior center for a final physical therapy session before he leaves for Florida for six months.
En route to the center, Dad looks at the Williamsburg Bridge. The apartment building is a few yards off of the FDR Drive.
En route to the center, Dad looks at the Williamsburg Bridge. The apartment building is a few yards off of the FDR Drive.

With age, he’s atrophied. With each year that he got wobblier, everyone screamed louder at him to use a cane, but he balked, fearing dependence on it. In 1998, after a bad fall that happened while he was standing still hitting tennis balls served by a robot, my mother bought him one anyway, and then a walker. In 2013, he can hardly walk two steps, and needs a wheelchair or scooter. His arms are super-muscular; at the local court he even throws his newest Paragon basketball from his scooter, but his legs buckle.

Recently I discovered a box in the storage closet with mysterious 8mm film in it, and had the thirty-two three-minute films inside digitally transferred. I set up a screening for Dad in the kitchen. Most of the films are from the late ‘50s, around the time he met my mother, and he’s remarkably fit for a man who had been deemed paralyzed. Mom’s in Etsy-worthy boat-neck sheath dresses and culottes, as buoyant on film as she was until just days before her death. Dad swims, plays tennis and handball, and even runs around the Central Park Reservoir with my mother. “Jean saved me,” he said, popping open a Pepsi. “Her older brother was handicapped, so she knew how to be around me.”

My mother died in 2007 from ovarian cancer, diagnosed too late.

Since then, Dad has been living half the year with me, my husband Paul and our young daughter. Paul and I sleep in a cordoned-off section of our large living room, having a few months ago given our daughter the master bedroom so Violet, now a tween, can close the door on us.

Florida’s hurricane season is months long, and although Dad used to reside there year-round with my mother in a retirement community, now he’s down South from November to June, months generally free of hurricanes. Daphne and Pearl, the Jamaican sisters who share the job as Dad’s part-time winter attendants, are unflappable ladies. Pearl often drives him to Publix Supermarket with reggae music blasting. It cracks me up watching my father bob his head to “Get Up, Stand Up!”

As reliable as the sisters are, they might not be able to get to him in a severe storm. Last year the grand safety plan didn’t work out so well—the dangerous weather was in New York City, not Broward County. We live near the East River, ten feet from Hurricane Sandy’s mandatory evacuation Zone A. Given the option, most residents of my sturdy building chose to stay put. We soon rued that decision—in addition to the severe flooding on the ground floor, like all of Lower Manhattan, we lost power too. Without use of elevators, it was too risky to attempt to get Dad down twenty-one flights of stairs. So we ate Red Cross rations and talked in the dark.

Dad swimming and playing tennis, handball, and basketball, circa 1957. (Videos courtesy Laurie Gwen Shapiro)

As Dad watched his younger self on the kitchen iMac, he counted his blessings. He’s disease free, and his lungs are clear because he is the hypochondriac-who-never-went-to war-who-therefore-never-smoked. What ninety-three-year-old man has never had a cigarette?

Not vain about his wrinkle-free face, Dad does like to show off his spot-free hands. And, you have to give it to him, there’s no denying my dad has young hands.

When he’s sitting, you’d think he was in his early seventies, partly because he has significant hair left that he gets dyed salt-n-pepper by Sonja, the saintly tempered chesty Dominican hairdresser who comes to my house for her oldest client. She wheels him to the bathroom, his head emerging from a hole in a Hefty garbage bag so she can get down to business: a rinse in the sink, a clip of the bushy eyebrows and caterpillars that keep growing back on the ears. How he convinced her to come to the house regularly is still a mystery—all I know is that since a year or so after my mother’s death he has never met a pretty Latina he has not flirted with, and the most buxom crossing guards on his electric scooter route always ask after him.

Mental agility is a non-issue. Dad has ferocious online chess partners he has never met, and recently coded a ping pong video game from scratch because he couldn’t find any existing program that offered what he wanted. We both read an article I spotted on Twitter about mentally stimulating a 600-pound, 100-year-old Aldabra tortoise named Ralph; he was given a specially designed soccer ball by an Oakland zookeeper to keep him happy. Greatly empathizing with the tortoise, my father decided he needed a new game too, and a day later he started listing the names of every person he had ever worked with, as a chemist in the ’40s, a color television engineer in the ’50s and a computer operations specialist from the time man walked on the moon until his reluctant retirement at the age of 71. His Excel chart for this project is astonishingly long.

After the successful Kindle download, Dad looks up, surprised and slightly annoyed, I’m still there.

“What did you buy?”

“Stephen Grosz. The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves. Got great reviews.”

“So examine the Manhattan Project some more,” I prod.

“I told you all I want you to know.”

“Give me more about Columbia in the ’40s.”

“Summa Cum Laude on a scholarship! That’s all you need to know! Stop stealing my material from my autobiography.”

This back room I grew up in, shared with my brother, is the only room suitable for a senior who needs to be close to a bathroom. When I walk to the window I can see the newly attached spire on the almost-ready Freedom Tower, which is a symbolic 1,776 feet high; I’ll be able to take my daughter to the new observation deck next year. In the same spot in which I’m standing, my brother and I saw the World Trade Center towers going up as young kids, and our born-in-the-19th-century grandmother (who was also our babysitter because Mom worked) caught us zinging frozen frankfurters out the 21st-floor window. We only wanted to see whose would go farthest but then the shit hit the fan; Grandma Ida called Dad’s office in the Municipal Building screaming something really scary in Yiddish.

*   *   *

My parents had children very late, in their forties; my dad was nearing fifty. Privately envious of her siblings, with their multiplying kin, Mom was eager to have her own grandkids to dote on. She was so anxious to have this happen that on my last day of pregnancy she was invited into the hospital room to help with the birth, and saw my only child before I did. Julius and Jean raised their two kids to believe in science and Jewish guilt, but my atheist Mom called participating in Violet’s birth a true miracle. I never saw her so happy in my life, except when my brother’s high-spirited toddler, Kal, came to visit her post-operation. She never met her delectable self-possessed third grandchild, Delancey, now almost five.

Dad and my mother, Jean Shapiro, in Central Park and at a family BBQ, circa 1957.

The true miracle, a religious person might argue, is that this older couple had two kids without turning to adoption in the first place.

My phenomenally energetic mother was bored out of her mind during her last weeks alive, stuck in her bed, and after trouncing me in Scrabble and refusing a rematch because she was going out a winner, she was willing to spill the beans on some final secrets. The biggest reveal was that when my father was bedridden himself in Beth Israel Hospital for six months after his spinal operation, the intern making the night rounds who glibly told him he would never walk again, also declared he would not have kids. For the next twenty-three years, my father didn’t think he could have any children. They didn’t even think about birth control. “When David was born, your father still had ridiculous doubts he was his,” my mom said. “But look at their faces—and of course you were born with your father’s feet.”

It’s the day after the non-conversation about the Manhattan Project, and after years of dancing around the topic, I refuse to exit my father’s room until I get a full explanation of what actually happened before he entered Columbia, that blurry time in 1940 shortly after his twentieth birthday.

Dad breathes hard. “I’m doing this so you’ll leave me alone. I’m not a good person for this essay. I’m a tight person. You need an open person.”

“Were you in an accident? Is it something you don’t want to relive?”

Finally, after extended silence: “A pustule on my back turned into a staph infection. The outer spine got infected and they didn’t have penicillin available because of the war we were entering.” He seems relieved to have begun, and it is a long story now about how his mother took him to Beth Israel in a cab with a 104-degree fever, and as the night progressed he got more and more paralyzed. Eventually the team at Beth Israel decided on a laminectomy, a surgical procedure to remove a portion of the vertebral bone called the lamina. “They took a spinal tap and I always blame Beth Israel for that. People didn’t sue for malpractice back then.”

He frowns when I read my laminectomy notes back to him.

“Recovery depended on never giving up. I was sick but I survived. The main thing is, don’t make me a sob story. Truth is, I never feel handicapped. I see a man who can’t walk and I feel for him—okay, that’s enough.”

*   *   *

Dad and his siblings grew up with a cat named Cat. (Any of the five little Shapiros who played with Cat too long was called a katzisher kop, a cat-brain.) Their parents, Sidney and Ida, were tiny kids when uprooted from Vilna and Grodno to Jerusalem in the 1880s. When my grandparents married in 1912, they had their first son, Sol, and then my grandfather traveled alone to New York in 1913, partly to escape conscription into the Turkish army during the Balkan War. Over the next few years, Ida worked in Jerusalem to send money to New York, while this grandfather I never met, whom my father always calls “the Abba,” searched for work.

Dad during a physical therapy session.
Dad during a physical therapy session.

According to my Aunt Paula, who remembers everything, Ida and seven-year-old Sol made their way from Jerusalem to the French port city of Le Havre, and sailed to Ellis Island on the S.S. La Touraine in 1919; a year later my father was born. It was not just the war that made the Abba leave. Aunt Paula says my grandfather, eager to be a pharmacist, was born into a prestigious rabbinical family; poor but supposedly directly descended from the Gaon of Vilna, a leader who held considerable sway over Russian Jews in the 1700s. The idea of a yeshiva boy yearning to become a pharmacist is not as dramatic as the plot of The Jazz Singer, but his growing tilt towards atheism caused much fury.

The Abba lived with the Ima in my once socialist (now very New Lower East Side capitalist) cooperative apartment complex at FDR Drive and Grand Street before my parents did; Dad bought my current apartment for them from the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union in 1955 with his earnings as an engineer. His parents were eligible to live in the then-bargain-priced co-ops that replaced nasty tenements because they were Union.

I find a box of my grandfather’s wide-ranging books in a big storage closet cleanup, with the Abba’s given name on the inside covers in Yiddish. (Sidney “Zundel” Shapiro was the first son born into a family of all girls, so in Yiddish they named him Little Son—Zundel is a corruption of Söhnlein.) Calculus and chemistry textbooks from the Great War era emerge, as well as dusty books of verse by Cowper and Tennyson and Keats, some editions from the late 1800s. My father and I inspect what the Abba underlined together. Is there any faster way to time travel than to pull a book and see what you or a loved one marked up years earlier, to reconsider what was thought was important?

“The Abba probably bought these on Fourth Avenue, in secondhand bookshops,” Dad speculates. “He started out as a door-to-door peddler, then specialized in menswear piping, and look, he read stuff like that. He took a second job as a night watchman. That’s when he would read his books.” Aunt Paula later emails that she thinks it was their mother’s brother, Uncle Willie, who was the night watchman, and the Abba continued to sell encyclopedias or paintbrushes as his second job.

Dad tells me once the Abba left his Talmud scholar past behind in Palestine, he couldn’t afford the time to retrain with the financial obligations of five kids. He explains my grandmother, Ida, could read and write very well, because my great-grandfather Yehuda was a teacher and my great-grandmother Chava had been a letter-writer-for-hire in the 1800s. “Normally they didn’t teach girls to read and write so well, but Ida was sharp, so her father taught her like a boy.” Like her mother, my grandmother also wrote letters for the illiterate for extra dollars, in Jerusalem and then the Lower East Side.

Grandma Ida primarily worked as a dressmaker in a bridal shop on the Lower East Side’s Clinton Street, a now trendy stretch that used to be Manhattan’s bridal district. I still have my early ‘70s Malibu Barbie she re-outfitted in a handmade bridal gown.

The memory of his mother draws a deep sigh from Dad. “She had done the same in Jerusalem when my father was studying Torah, sewed gowns to pay the bills. She was a resilient woman.”

*   *   *

Dad with his trainer, Mark Bartolotta, at the senior center.
Dad with his trainer, Mark Bartolotta, at the senior center.

I’m called away from my computer the next day, after Violet has gone to a friend’s and Paul has gone to work. Dad’s back from an athletic pep talk from Mark, his burly physical therapist who works in a ground-floor office of our building. Revved up, he desperately wants to talk about Nadal, and have me watch some month-old YouTube footage of the U.S. Open final.

“See why he won!”

“Why? I barely know who Nadal is.”

He puts a fist to his mouth. “How is that possible?”

As a fan, Dad is primarily invested in basketball and tennis, but there’s always the moment where he is sickened and cannot watch the last few minutes of big matches or games—especially in which the Miami Heat may or may not lose. He used to bring my brother to Knicks games, and once in a while I would be invited. I have vague memories of sitting next to them screaming on Earl the Pearl, Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley, but mostly I remember Dad handing over the roll of Royal Crown cherry sours in his pocket so he didn’t have to get a hot dog for me with his bad balance.

He has zero guilt about switching first allegiance from the Knicks to the Heat: there is no sentimentality for past team splendor there. “I live in Florida for winter, and LeBron is screwy but he is the best player.” But his true passion as a spectator is tennis, and he’s usually cheering for Roger Federer, because he’s the best. But now he’s re-watching Nadal’s victory because Federer is out and Nadal is the new best.

(Dad’s winners-only allegiance irks my easygoing husband, whose long-suffering Down Under family has barracked for an Aussie Rules football team with just one premiership pennant since 1897. I once overheard Paul catching up with his mother in Melbourne: “If the big asteroid was on its way to Earth, he’d root for the asteroid.”)

Dad looks up from his Nadal video. “You’re pale, let me take your blood pressure,” he says. He takes his own blood pressure repeatedly, and owns three machines his two doctors in New York and Florida have begged him to trash.

If I want to get real info out of my father, I must agree to let him take my blood pressure, which softens him up. But lately he’s onto this tactic. So I pretend to care about the video and let him talk about how great Nadal is and then get my blood pressure taken. I ignore his, “It’s too low!”—I’m pretty sure low blood pressure is a good thing, but I slip in that I want to fill in just a few more gaps for my essay on him.

“What are you asking about?”

I lob him an easy one. “I just heard from Aunt Paula that you were in a 1930s gang.”

He grins with teeth that are all his, if yellowed. “She remembered? The Signets. There were seven of us and later we joined forces with the Mohawks and merged into a more powerful force.”

“Did you actually roam the streets and attack people?”

“This was a Jewish gang. We played chess and handball, and sometimes Ping-Pong. We had jackets with Mohawks on the back.” After he beams at this forgotten recollection pried loose: “Okay, good-bye. I’m going to read the Times online.”

Dad after his session at the senior center.
Dad after his session at the senior center.

“One more topic.”

“What?”

“Irene,” I say.

His first wife’s name punctures the mood. “Laurie, you’re nervy!” He’s royally pissed. “Why? I told you she died.”

“You never really talked about her.”

“You know what I call this stinking essay? My obituary! Why do you have to make me do this? Somebody should send you a schmuckogram.”

“I don’t want to write this when you’re dead. I want you to see this in print, and see how proud I am of you.”

*    *   *

When I was eight either my brother or I found an old guitar in his closet behind a box of Charles Atlas weights. We strummed it around the house and Dad went ballistic. He never hit us once, but man could he yell when we misbehaved. My mother looked like she wanted to tell us something but—very much against her nature—she didn’t. She looked frightened. I put the guitar back, never to touch it again. (It’s still there.) Did my mother play guitar? Did my father? Both of these ideas were unfathomable.

Then in the sixth grade, Roots was on the air and I became convinced that if Alex Haley could trace himself back to Chicken George, I could find a magnificent family past too—the worst past imaginable was Ordinariness. I discovered “Irene” by rifling through a file in his cabinet marked private and found a marriage certificate that indicated he was a widower before he married my mother. I went trembling into my shared room: “Do you think we have other brothers and sisters?”

David demanded I not say a word, but then admitted he didn’t know anything about Dad being married before, either. I obeyed, for a little while. I didn’t say anything for a year, at which point I couldn’t take the mystery anymore and told my mother. Although flabbergasted by my transgression, she explained that his first wife had been a school psychologist and an amateur folk singer, she died in the early 1950s from diabetes, that they had no kids, and that I should stop worrying. She forced me to fess up to Dad. He was motionless. All he would tell me, in a scary low voice, was that the guitar in the closet found a few years earlier was Irene’s.

I never stopped snooping, truth be told. One college summer just before they retired to Florida, I found a file of essays from a creative writing class Dad took at the New School after Irene’s death. He wrote that he met this blond woman at a party, saw her singing with her guitar for the crowd, and that before he worked up the courage to talk to her he thought she had a luminous tone to her voice. She was singing My Lover Was a Logger, and followed up with Jimmy Crack Corn and then Froggie Went a-Courtin’.

In an attempt to whole his fragmentary self after his wife died, he took many writing classes, and enrolled in life drawing at The Art Students League, ballroom dancing at a 57th Street dance studio (there’s excellent 8mm footage of him dancing a night before a live class television appearance—Muriel, his dancing partner and teacher insisted he had to perform too), and etiquette classes with an attractive entrepreneurial woman named Luella Cuming who taught social etiquette for engineers and “made us take her out to dinner”—he had read about her services in The New York Times.

Dad, with dance instructor, circa 1957.

This flurry of group activity seems improbable if you know my autonomous father, but it’s all in the 1950s filing cabinet in my foyer. He even took an acting class with the great Stella Adler through the New School. Stella Adler personally picked out a monologue for him, the role of the Gentleman Caller in Glass Menagerie. Dad said of the woman who taught Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro: “I took one class with her, and she liked me but wasn’t that impressed with my acting—why would anyone care?”

Another story my mother told me from her hospice bed: when she was dating my father she couldn’t figure out what had happened in his first marriage. He never said why he was single. He simply said she left him. Had they divorced? It was a full year before Dad told her Irene had died.

My mother, who was a career woman who had never married, chose a handsome infertile widower over no husband.

*    *    *

Dad recalls the time he practiced to be on a dance show on television.
Dad recalls the time he practiced to be on a dance show on television.

During her morning oatmeal, Violet announces that Grandpa Julie had a car once. What was this? My father has never driven me once, because of his unstable legs. And my mother failed the driver’s exam six times by talking through each test. I grew up with subways, taxis, and livery rides. “His own black car he drove around Manhattan and parked near Tenth Avenue,” declares Violet.

When she’s off to school, I head straight into Dad’s room for the story. “What kind of car was it?”

“C’mon! I just woke up.”

“You c’mon! What’s the big deal?”

“A Chevy. How much money are you getting for this article?”

“It’s not about the money,” I say indignantly.

“It should be about the money, how much per word are you getting? I’ll tell you more if you buy me an iPad Air from my life story.”

“Dad—”

He stews.

Then: “I’m going to write my own unauthorized essay with your dirty laundry. It will haunt you when you run for president.”

Then: “It was Irene’s car that I drove after she died. I was a reckless idiot for driving it. That’s all I’m going to goddamn give you. Good-bye. Get me a coffee by the way.”

A few years after his first wife died is when Dad joined Paramount’s secret color television program, and the race against RCA and Zenith for a viable color picture tube. I first fought him for information when he casually mentioned he had been involved with the invention of Sony’s Trinitron. He regrets ever telling me.

A finger-exercising device and a magnifying glass rest on Dad's desk.
A finger-exercising device and a magnifying glass rest on Dad’s desk.

I have the clearest picture of him at mid-century, as I have been working at this specific story for years, convinced it could be an unknown slice of American history Smithsonian magazine would jump on. The four Jewish men who worked in an almost-secret division called Autometric for Paramount Pictures on the project then called Chromatron—which after a handshake became the Japanese “invention” the Trinitron—are barely a footnote on Wikipedia, while the engineers at Sony live on in glory. Nobutoshi Kihara, who in 2011 died in Tokyo at eighty-four, was as celebrated in Japan for his role in the Trinitron’s invention as he was for inventing the Walkman. The project was sold for a mere one million dollars in a deal cooked up at a cocktail party. Within a few years it made billions, the Trinitron dominating the world market. Sony tweaked five years of research for sure, but in this daughter’s opinion they should share credit. Even if in my father’s opinion: “Who cares? I don’t think about it, only you.”

The story as I have it so far, is that the stores wouldn’t stock color sets because the picture was so unsteady. Engineers were under fire to produce a bankable consumer model. The head office was always breathing down their necks. Someone was going to make a killing. If a man at RCA made the breakthrough, it would reestablish his company as the leader. The big executives visiting the floor would say things like, “That Tokyo fellow put SONY on top of the map with the transistor radio. Out of nowhere, they led the world.” Or: “Think bigggg. New ideas saved Ford, the ’49 Sedan was introduced in ’48 and saved the company from bankruptcy.”

Early on in my research I took the subway to the ziggurat-shaped Paramount Building, still a jewel in Times Square, and later described to my father what I saw: the gilt walls, the grand white marble titles and diamond-shaped polished insets, and the baroque clock.

“Golden elevators,” I said. “Some architect went all out.”

“It was the Paramount Building,” Dad replied, “there’s money in the movies.”

My mother was dating my father around this time and I’ve located several black-and-white photos she took of him at work in the laboratory, a secret “bit of a shithole” room in the otherwise glamorous building.

Dad taking in a game of chess  ("I could have been a contender, had I started earlier," he says.)
Dad taking in a game of chess  (“I could have been a contender, had I started earlier,” he says.)

In one picture, circuit boards and tubes are scattered over a central workbench. In the middle of the bench is a half-built color TV set and an empty Maxwell House coffee can relabeled YOUR BUTTS; Mom rightly thought this hilarity needed to be documented for the ages. Two metal desks with swivel chairs and black rotary phones flank the workbench. My father is a fit, conservatively-dressed man with a cleft chin, jutting nose, dark hair, and horn-rimmed glasses.

After countless interrogations, there are many details I have filled notebooks with: the days the IRT was a mess, the mid-century coffee nooks with jars of Nestlé’s and iceboxes, and the color of safety goggles and where they stored their lab aprons.

I love the thought of engineers kibitzing over commissary coffeecake and discussing the news, like Khrushchev, and Charles Van Doren’s free-fall from quiz show fame, which led to his being sacked from Dad’s graduate school alma mater, Columbia. And conversations about who was getting to the moon first, and if the Russians were determined enough to organize their society to get there first, murder people if they had to.

My favorite tales are about a fast-talking team leader—someone he’ll only let me call “Harv” for print, and who in my mind looked like Alec Baldwin. “He got a lousy raise one year, so he starts taking individual TV parts home, convincing his wife that everyone has to build their own set in lieu of a large bonus. One day he takes an antenna, the next day the tuning knob, you get the picture. Slick guy, and marriage never stopped him from womanizing, I used to hear him in the coffee shops: ‘I work for Paramount Pictures, I can get you in the movies.’”

My other-favorite “Harv” story is the day he grabbed a hold of the line voltage and got knocked over because it touched his wedding band. “Right there and then he had a perfect excuse to tell his wife that a wedding ring is an occupational hazard.”

*   *   *

Dad and I leave the apartment.
Dad and I leave the apartment.

I have to be ready with a pencil when my father releases a tidbit; there’s no telling what will make him talk. When Phillip Roth announced his retirement last year Dad remembered being back in the color TV lab, arguing with three Jewish men over the merits of the controversial young Jewish author of Goodbye, Columbus.

A few days after that he called from Pearl’s car—I heard the telltale Bob Marley. “I just remembered the day Sy (his Paramount coworker) asked, ‘Did you hear Fourth Avenue became Park Avenue South?’ You want write that down that for something?”

I didn’t.

But another time he remembered having Gilbey’s on the rocks with a less-liked coworker at a “titty bar” on Ninth Avenue. (This was more like it!) They both had nowhere to go for the holiday, and he convinced my dad to join him. This man, in his “unfortunate thirties,” tall and gangly, would arrive at the door in military parka and earmuffs. “A sad-sack.” He had a funny voice and a lunatic laugh. The Paramount security guard was on vacation and the substitute thought he was a bum. “Sy had to go down to the lobby and vouch that he knew him.”

“What was his name?”

“It’s gone—but I remember he commuted on the ferry from his house in Staten Island he shared with his mother and her cats. She read Cat Fancy to him sometimes. As far as we could tell that was his life, that and the job.”

I gave him the name Nuttinger, and Dad laughed. “Good enough.”

*    *    *

My first memory is being woken up at midnight to watch 1969 become 1970. I was three-and-a-half.

My dad was working as a civil servant by then, sick of the vagaries of corporate life. He took a pay cut and retrained as a computer programmer at the Municipal Building, eventually working his way up to Director of New York City’s Computer Operations, which gives him a decent monthly pension even today. I can’t forget the massive computers, straight out of a James Bond film. (“Your mother’s laptop has the power of the giant computers on that whole floor,” he told Violet earlier this year.) David and I would visit sometimes and play ring toss with the different colored plastic spools that were used to hold magnetic tape.

About this peaceful time in his life, he’s matter-of-fact. After his flirtation with TV engineering he thought the computer field was where opportunities would explode. “The public knew something was coming, but they didn’t know how important computers would be. My job at Paramount involved tubes. Computers back then used tubes for memory storage, like the Williamson tube over at MIT.”

“I passed the test at a very high grade. I was a trainee. Jean (my mother) supported my decision. The City of New York paid for my computer classes. They were confident my skills from chemical engineering and color television engineering would transfer over just fine. And it was better job protection. I didn’t want be kicked around by middle management and was tired of corporate politics. With two unexpected kids, I decided to play it safe, I didn’t think things would happen like they did with the whole Paramount team being let go after an executive has one drink with a Sony man. I thought you could hold a job for many years.”

*    *   *

My daughter rarely complains about having to share her home with her grandfather, except when MSNBC is on and Chris Matthews is screaming and Dad is screaming back. She has trained him to be nicer to our cat Cindy, who was terrified of him at first but now loves hanging out in his room because Violet and Dad have rigged a way for Cindy to practice her table tennis skills, by hanging a Ping-Pong ball duct-taped to a string from a press-on hook pushed onto the ceiling. Violet has been learning to code from him, and with this extra project together, lately she even sounds like him: “You don’t need an umbrella, Mom. It’s going to be a spritz maybe.” Unlike many eleven-year-olds, this girl has developed an insatiable craving for pickled herring, pistachio ice cream, seltzer, bialys and pound cake.

Likewise, there are not many ninety-three-year-olds who know the members of One Direction, or have learned to hold their temper when they almost drink a Styrofoam cup full of ladybugs. I have even seen him practicing the tricky fish-lip face she’s been teaching him.

Dad practices ping pong with a ball hanging from the ceiling by a thread.
Dad practices ping pong with a ball hanging from the ceiling by a thread.

This month Violet has been writing a school essay, a “Personal Narrative” about herself, and included my father’s two Big Rules for Living. 1) Lean pastrami is worthless and 2) Be nice to people when they are alive, not dead.

A few days ago my dad told me this Violet story when I got home from a movie: “She ran out of three-holed paper, and asked me if she could borrow some from me. I took some paper out of my printer tray, and reached for my hole punch. She said, ‘What is this?’ I said, ‘A hole punch.’ Can you imagine she never saw a hole punch? She said, ‘How do you use it?’ So I punched three holes in her paper for her. She was amazed.”

He passed me the 1950s hole punch. “Flip it over!”

It said Property of Paramount Pictures on the bottom.

That’s the kind of story my father, a widower at thirty-three and again at eighty-six, likes to tell unprompted.

Dad looking out the window, with a view of One World Trade Center and the Municipal Building where he once worked.
Dad looking out the window, with a view of One World Trade Center and the Municipal Building where he once worked.

Tomorrow I’m going to the funeral of a man I met once, at my bat mitzvah. Aside from my father, Joe T. had been the last surviving member of that terrifying chess-and-handball-playing Jewish gang, the Mohawks. Dad heard about the death from one of Joe’s granddaughters, a woman around my age. He didn’t want to talk about the funeral and quietly said he didn’t see the point of his going—but called me back in his room to add, “You should go and represent me, that would be a good thing. Ask questions.”

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.

Share:

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.

Share:

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.

Share:

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.

Secret Lives

Secret Life of a Leftist Doomsday Prepper

When it comes to preparing for the end of civilization, gun-loving red-staters aren't the only ones taking matters into their own hands.

Share:

Everyone in California is waiting for “The Big One,” an earthquake with a magnitude of 8.0 or greater that will destroy infrastructure and cause mass panic. Yet when I moved to the Bay Area from the East Coast, I discovered that since most of the people I knew were making do with small apartments and ever-increasing rent, having supplies on hand for a natural disaster required a space premium that many couldn’t afford. I began to put together an earthquake kit that would not only serve my household (which over the years fluctuated from one to three other people) but also my neighborhood, if needed. Even with all that work, I didn’t consider myself a prepper, just someone who heeded the Red Cross’s warnings.

When the average person thinks about doomsday preppers, they probably think of paranoid right-leaning wing nuts clinging to a small arsenal of guns and stockpiling toilet paper from Walmart in case their conspiracy theories come true. It’s a fair assumption — many television depictions reflect that mind-set, though the fears vary from group to group. Some are afraid of government collapse, others fear a solar flare, still others are preparing for a race war they think is inevitable. When those are the dominant examples, it’s easy to dismiss the practice as absurd and hysterical.

I am a leftist, anarchist prepper, and while we differ politically, I have to admit, the extreme preppers you see on TV are not completely out of their minds.

Me and my walking stick in the Bay Area.

I used to focus only on preparing for earthquakes and other natural disasters. That changed in 2011 when I went to my first protest, an Occupy Oakland action, with a medic bag. I didn’t know yet that I’d be out there for hours, so I didn’t have supplies I consider basic now — food, caffeine, extra smokes, insoles for my combat boots. I didn’t know how aggressive the police would be, and the handkerchief around my neck was more for a punk look than medical necessity. I hadn’t received formal training to be a street medic; I just happened to know first aid and CPR and wanted to help. I carried a 15-pound bag on my back, full of medical supplies, mainly gauze and tape but also things like tourniquets that I hoped I wouldn’t have to use. I was scared — I’d had rubber bullets shot at me the night before — but I was determined to drop off water to the protesters and make sure that people had sterile supplies.

That night, I tasted tear gas for the first time. You smell it before you taste it, and you taste its strange, bitter sting before it fills your lungs or blinds you. I was alone, and terrified, among a crowd that was shouting and crying and panicked in the streets.

“Disperse!” came the command from the helicopter hovering above us. Every exit point seemed blocked by clouds of tear gas or the loud kapow! of flash-bangs. Every explosion startled me; I felt like I was going to jump out of my skin. Rubber bullets were being shot at us from every direction by cops dressed in SWAT gear, as if this was a war, not a protest. Someone next to me fell to the ground grabbing his face. I saw he was bleeding and scared, and I dropped next to him, telling him he was going to be OK, that I was a medic. It was my first time treating a wound in the street during a fray. Looking down at my hands and seeing a stranger’s blood on my gloves chilled me, but there wasn’t time to feel anything. My legs moved on autopilot, going from person to person to check on them. “Do you need a medic?” I found myself shouting over the noise every time I heard a scream.

I went home, shaken and shaking, all of the adrenaline flooding me at once. I slept uneasily, tossing and turning in my bed. I wanted my partner to sleep next to me, but also couldn’t bear to be touched. I had nightmares that lasted for weeks: dizzying, confusing dreams where I was struggling to breathe or see but could hear pain all around me, and I would wake up panting and sweating.

Despite the trauma, I kept going to protests. I felt grimly determined, and as I kept going, I became more desensitized to the chaos. My medic bag evolved into something more suited for treating the effects of police brutality than simply a place to keep extra snacks and water on hand. I learned from other medics how police often target medics and organizers for arrest in order to destabilize and demoralize the entire group, and I grimly prepared for an inevitable attack or arrest.

I also began to realize that I needed to prep for something that’s increasingly as likely as earthquakes: large-scale civil unrest, which I witnessed a taste of in the streets that night. I began to think of how people act when they’re scared, including and especially law enforcement. I started to think about home security, transportation options if fuel was limited, how to access information without the internet. I studied natural disasters and their repercussions around the world as a way to understand how to keep myself and my community safer.

* * *

While I was beginning to explore the art of prepping, I met my partner, a fellow anarchist who specializes in constructing urban shelters and creating makeshift weapons out of random finds from the local dumpster. Ape is many things I am not — slender where I am curvy, tan where I am pale, easygoing where I am exacting. One of the bonds of our relationship is our enjoyment of teaching and learning from each other. Ape teaches me how to handle and care for knives and guns, while I teach him how to recognize medicinal herbs in an urban setting, how to preserve food, and how to stitch up a wound. Rather than depending on each other to do certain tasks, we’ve worked on becoming capable of filling in for each other in a pinch, leading us to learn new skills that we’ve found useful while camping, when the car breaks down, or during any number of other mundane situations. Our shared nerdy interest in preparing for disaster, combined with our complementary skills, has made casual but constant prepping a core part of our relationship. While other couples may prefer a nice candlelit dinner out, I love poring over the most recent articles in Survival Magazine or seeing what new products knife company Cold Steel has this month.

Ape and I had sex at an “End of the World” orgy on the night of Trump’s election. The crowd was mostly sex workers and queer folks. None of us wanted to face this election alone, so we got together at a friend’s loft apartment to handle the news as best we could — with food, alcohol and sex. What was normally a group of boisterous party animals started off with us tentatively nibbling at cheese and crackers, whispering to each other in corners, and halfheartedly making out, one eye always on the votes coming in. The room was increasingly quiet and depressed as the votes were counted and we realized that our worst nightmare, a United States governed by the pinnacle of toxic masculinity, was coming true.

When it became clear that Trump was going to be our next president, silence descended over the mostly naked crowd. Everyone seemed frozen in place. I felt a sinking in my gut and I knew what we needed to do; my boyfriend and I looked at each other and began to dress without a word.

“I’ll grab my medic bag,” I said quietly to him as I pulled my socks on, and he nodded. We knew we were going out into the streets of Oakland that night.

We arrived at the protest in Oakland’s downtown Oscar Grant Plaza while people were still shouting through megaphones at a crowd pulsating with fury and fear. When we took to the streets, I reached for Ape’s hand, both for reassurance and so we wouldn’t lose each other. We interlaced our fingers when we heard the first flash-bang — I flinched but kept walking. It wasn’t long before the police were throwing tear gas canisters into the crowd. While others turned to run and escape, we squeezed each other’s hands and walked into the fray to find people who needed our help. I didn’t know if we were going to be arrested, or injured, or even killed, but I knew I had to be there as long as I was needed.

We were out there for three days straight. Our lungs took weeks to recover from the gas and pepper spray we inhaled, but we took turns making mullein leaf tea to help the process along.

After that, I began to take my prepping a lot more seriously, even going so far as to make connections with similarly minded leftist survivalists to create a local list of resources, both online and off, covering things like who has what skills and who has extra water or food stored away.

* * *

I was on a forum online a couple of months ago looking for suggestions about bugout bags (prepacked bags you grab when escaping a dire situation) for urban environments, particularly if you’re more inclined to “bug in,” or shelter in place. Every sensible idea was accompanied by conspiracy theories about who or what was going to kill us all — a race war, a solar flare, a nuclear blast. Many of the commenters talked frankly, and sometimes cheerfully, about the need to kill other people in order to protect their families. Many of them wore Make America Great Again hats in their profile avatars, or actively supported the police in their forum signatures. They spoke with disgust about those they deemed “un-American,” particularly protesters who participated in Black Lives Matter or Occupy-type actions. Heather Heyer’s death — the woman who was mowed down by a white supremacist’s car during the Charlottesville, Virginia, protest — was seen as hilarious, not traumatizing.

Left, my bug in bag containing the essential medical supplies. Right, my slingshot used for protection.

I leaned back in my chair, my eyes scanning the vitriol on the forum, feeling anxious. The sun slowly set while I sat motionless behind the glowing screen, transfixed and horrified, my tea going from piping hot to ice cold. I forgot it was there. I could feel the tension in my gut clench tighter as I read the words of people threatening to spray bleach in the eyes of protesters at the next action. I was trying to figure out how real the threat was.

It was very clear that if I wanted to learn from the people on this forum, I couldn’t say anything about who I was or what I believed. Realizing that I might be chatting with the same people who were wielding guns at the white supremacy rally in Charlottesville was a startling moment, especially when I felt so safe at home in the Bay Area. Here, in my second-story apartment surrounded by an urban herb garden, my two cats weaving around my feet, I was more concerned about the police than my neighbors. But on this forum, I was brushing shoulders with the alt-right. As they regularly and violently vocalized, they were prepping, in part, to protect themselves from people like me.

Some of the items I keep in my bug in bag in case of any emergency.

This had troubling implications for what might happen locally if “The Big One” did hit. Would the people most prepared for life without the internet, hospital care and city infrastructure be the right-wingers who wanted to Make California Red Again? Would my black, transgender and disabled friends have to beg Trump supporters for supplies? That seemed more dangerous to me than the potential disaster itself.

While MAGA-hat wearers believe strongly that leftists and liberals are weak and ineffective in a survival scenario, I discovered that many of us already engage in activities that could be useful in an apocalypse. Knowing how to sew and mend clothes, reuse trash in creative ways, and fix machinery were all things I found among my artsy friends, for example. My witchy friends knew a lot about herbs and urban foraging. And a surprising amount of my Burning Man community not only knew a lot about filtering and recycling water or using alternative energy but also seemed to own and use guns, contrary to the belief I heard on conservative Twitter that a lack of weapons would be the left’s downfall.

Just last week I was sitting at a worn picnic table in the back of my favorite dive bar, drinking a PBR tall can and debating favorite guns with a group of friends. The air was warm even as the sun started to go down, and Edison lights illuminated our faces while we chatted. The conversation was spirited but friendly, all of us bonded by a love of camping, metalworking, and yes, weapons training. I was about halfway through my beer, eagerly discussing my desire to develop my upper-body strength to have a steadier hand with various pistols. The sun set while my friends, mostly in their late 20s and early 30s, continued to argue about which guns would be best in a zombie apocalypse, a thought experiment we used to discuss end-of-the-world scenarios that involve medical crises, hostile attacks, and the total collapse of city infrastructure all happening at once. For some, this might just be a silly conversation, but for us it offered a chance to work through multiple disaster scenarios at the same time and talk through real plans and theories.

Me putting a bandage on a friend at the my favorite dive bar.

By talking about prepping with more and more friends, I began to discover that many of them were also interested in developing skills that would be useful in a serious crisis situation. Several of them were already doing the same thing my partner and I had done — creating bunkers full of supplies and developing networks that could effectively take care of each other if the shit hit the fan. My community includes urban farmers, people who butcher their own meat, people who can and pickle the fruit and veg they get in their community agriculture boxes.

While the prepper movement may seem very right wing on the internet, offline I’ve found a vibrant survivalist society that is adaptable and stronger than they get credit for. Being a leftist prepper is less rare than I expected. We just don’t talk about it as much on the internet. Which, if you’re concerned that people are going to raid your compound for supplies, is probably sensible when you think about it! I also realized that the prepping I uncovered in my communities was less about individual survival and more about creating an alternative infrastructure, since the ones in place are already failing our marginalized friends and family, even without a disaster looming. Mutual aid is the core of our organizing, instead of pure self-preservation. Knowing this, I’m confident that we will not only survive, but heal, rebuild and thrive.

Hidden History

The Gay Black American Who Stared Down Nazis in the Name of Love

One of the most brilliant minds of the Harvard class of ’35, Reed Edwin Peggram met his soulmate on the eve of World War II and risked everything to stay by his side.

Share:

In Italy at the end of 1944, the Negro 92nd Infantry Division of the United States Army discovered two gaunt men who claimed they had escaped from a Nazi concentration camp. One man was thin and blonde with a “scholarly appearance.” The other had brown skin, a slight build and an erect carriage. After two years behind barbed wire, they said, they had fled the camp and gone on an incredible journey to reach the American lines: swimming in lakes, hiking through the snow-covered Apennines, and taking shelter in barns, caves, woods and the homes of friendly partisan supporters. They claimed they dodged bullets and ate leaves to survive; they said they bore witness to the slaughter of women and babies. Their names were Reed Peggram, an African-American, and Gerdh Hauptmann, his Danish friend, and they were “ragged and near collapse from hunger and fatigue.”

Max Johnson interviewing Reed Peggram and Gerdh Hauftman after their escape from a concentration camp, Dec. 30, 1944. (Photo courtesy The Baltimore Afro-American Archives)

Freelance war correspondent Max Johnson, writing for the Negro newspapers Call and Post, New York Amsterdam News and Baltimore Afro-American, reported this curious find. The headlines that accompanied his stories were purposefully provocative: “Negro Escapes German Camp in Italy,” “Two Scholars Flee Concentration Camp,” “How Boston Lad Studying in Denmark Escaped Nazis” and “Boy Friends Scorn Bombs, Come Out OK.” Although he reported their claims, Johnson was skeptical of Peggram’s tale, not even believing that he was an American citizen, since his “accent was decidedly British.” Another correspondent noted that Peggram claimed to have a bachelor’s and master’s from Harvard, that he spoke English flawlessly, along with four other languages, and that despite his ordeal, it was not his physical suffering that upset him most.

“One of my greatest losses was my diploma from Harvard,” Peggram said. “They don’t issue duplicates. But I still have my Phi Beta Kappa key.”

The two men refused to leave each other’s side, but it was not clear if Hauptmann would be allowed to return to the U.S. with Peggram. Johnson called their story, “a modern version of Damon and Pythias,” referencing the Greek legend of loyalty between friends. Here were “bonds of friendship so strong that even the Nazis were unable to break them.”

“If Peggram’s story proves to be correct,” wrote Johnson, “it will undoubtedly become one of the greatest human interest stories yet revealed in this war.”

* * *

Reed Edwin Peggram was born on July 26, 1914, in Boston, Massachusetts. His father, Harvey Thomas Peggram, worked variously as a shorthand teacher, a self-employed card writer, and, according to his World War I draft card, an artist. Harvey was inducted into the United States Army on November 6, 1917, and served overseas as a private in the medical unit between May 15, 1918, and September 9, 1919. He returned from the war “100 percent disabled,” and became a permanent resident at the Central State Hospital in Petersburg, Virginia, where he was treated for gas poisoning, according to his family. He would remain there until his death in 1956. For all intents and purposes, young Reed no longer had a father.

In the club photographs for the 1931 Boston Latin School literary and drama clubs, Peggram’s face stands out as the only African-American there. In a class of 262 students, Peggram ranked in the first quarter in scholarship. He received several awards and obtained honors on exams in Elementary Latin, Elementary French, Elementary German, and Advanced Latin. As it has been for hundreds of years of Boston Latin graduates, Harvard was the next step.

On his 1931 Harvard application, Peggram said he wanted “to become an accomplished linguist.” He applied for multiple scholarships, stating on financial aid forms that his mother had three additional children with her new husband, “Mr. Farrar,” and that his grandmother was his sole financial supporter. He also listed his father as dead. He was accepted to the college and distinguished himself, not just as a fine student but as one of the few black students at Harvard at the time.

Peggram’s undergraduate Harvard photo, 1935. (Photo courtesy Harvard University Archives.)

In 1934, applying for a Rhodes Scholarship, Peggram asked Dean A. Chester Hanford for a recommendation. “He is one of the highest scholars in his class,” wrote Hanford. “Last November he was elected to membership in Phi Beta Kappa. He is a thorough gentleman.” Hanford shared a copy of the letter with Peggram, who promptly thanked him. But there was another letter Peggram did not see.

“I wish to supplement my letter of May 29th to you about Mr. Reed Peggram by stating that he is a negro [sic],” Hanford wrote in his second letter. “It seemed to me that you should know that fact.”

“Thank you for your testimonial and letter about Reed Peggram,” responded tutor Andrew Sydenham Farrar Gow. “I should like to thank you however for telling me that Peggram is a Negro. I should certainly have been somewhat taken aback if I had admitted a man with such a name unwarned.” Although Gow insisted this information would have no bearing, Peggram did not get the scholarship.

Peggram graduated from Harvard in 1935, magna cum laude, with the thesis, “A comparison of the personal element in Madame Bovary and L’Éducation Sentimentale.” Over the next two years, he would get his master’s from Harvard, study English and comparative literature at Columbia, and return to Harvard to begin work on his Ph.D. It is clear from Peggram’s letters that while there, he became infatuated with Leonard Bernstein, who would later become famous for composing the music for “West Side Story.” Bernstein arrived at Harvard in 1935 and was also a graduate of the Boston Latin School — perhaps the two already knew each other from high school.

One night at Harvard, Peggram and Bernstein sat side by side on a studio couch in a dimly lit room while a quartet played Beethoven. Peggram had asked that the lights be lowered because he believed that it was “more pleasant to listen to music in a room that has been darkened.” Peggram was in “ecstasy and agony at once,” sitting so close to Bernstein. Peggram requested a song from Debussy while Bernstein listened with eyes closed as if he was asleep. In a letter, Peggram would later explain that he felt, “ecstasy because you are here, and agony because I do not dare touch you, even in the dark, for fear of breaking the spell of such exquisite beauty.”

In a series of letters written to Bernstein in October 1937, Peggram referenced T.S. Eliot, Rachmaninoff, Eros and Psyche, Diaghilev’s treatment of Nijinsky, and the speech of Aristophanes in “The Symposium,” a discourse on love that says when a person, “happens on his own particular half, the two of them are wondrously thrilled with affection and intimacy and love, and are hardly to be induced to leave each other’s side for a single moment.” Leonard Bernstein’s archive at the Library of Congress only contains Peggram’s letters. Bernstein’s replies are lost, save for a few brief, devastating quotes that Peggram included in his own letters, which suggest that Bernstein rejected his overtures.

“The revelation of your letter,” wrote Peggram, “was after all, a great shock to me, and your use of the words ‘repulsive’ and ‘shudder’ an insult to the tenets which I hold sacred.” Later Peggram — demonstrating his preference for British spelling — beseeched Bernstein, “May I also request that, as a favour to me, you destroy all my letters and any other material that I have sent or given you during this regrettable incident?”

In 1938, Peggram got a scholarship to study at the Sorbonne: a chance to travel, a fresh start.

* * *

In the fall of 1938, Peggram met the person who would change his life. There is no record of how Peggram met Danish scholar Gerdh Hauptmann, who was studying fine art and painting at the Sorbonne, for the same reason that there is no written record of any facet of their relationship: They were gay, in a time when few dared to write such feelings down. Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that this was the definitive romantic relationship of Peggram’s life. Hauptmann taught him Danish; he taught Hauptmann English. Within a year, he would write that they were “inseparable.”

“Recent European events have caused me to leave France for Denmark,” Peggram wrote in September 1939. “I hope you will also join your prayers to mine for humanity, civilization, and culture.”

Peggram spent the early months of the war working with Hauptmann on a 120-page manuscript, “Poems and Sketches,” a translation of the 19th century Danish author Jens Peter Jacobsen. During this time, Peggram’s family and friends implored him to return to the U.S. while he still could. The U.S. State Department had already warned Americans to leave the European continent, but Peggram did not. Unable to declare his love for Hauptmann and explain that he would not leave Europe without the man he loved, Peggram baffled his family by insisting that his need to collaborate with Hauptmann on scholarly projects “richer and more profound than either of us had produced separately” made it impossible to leave Hauptmann behind.

The men left Copenhagen shortly before it was invaded by the Nazis on April 9, 1940. They fled to Paris to retrieve their luggage and made their way to Florence, Italy, where they wrongly assumed they would be safe. They spent the rest of the year stranded and broke, pleading for money from family in the U.S. who could not understand why Peggram would not just come home.

Information about Reed’s European movements are located in letters between him and Dorothy Norman, the editor and publisher of the journal Twice a Year from 1938 – 1948. “I am struggling for my life,” Peggram wrote on January 15, 1941. “If someone does not help me very soon, I shall just simply die.”

“We wish only to live, to write, to create, to say what we have to say as only we know how to say it,” he continued. “It is because we know we must do this together that we are only annoyed, rather than grateful, when people offer me a ticket to N.Y. as some have indeed attempted — without explaining, by the way, how my collaborator could ever be saved through this philanthropy.”

He assured Norman that he was not begging nor pleading. He said was merely making, “a statement of fact.”

“Two young artists of more than ordinary ability need immediate financial help in order not to perish,” he wrote. “In the name of art, of culture, of humanity in their deepest sense, this message must somehow be spread around where it will take effect at once, before it is too late.”

Hope came in the form of an inheritance. In September 1940, Peggram’s friend from Harvard, 25-year-old music student and aspiring concert pianist Montford Schley Variell, was found dead, according to The New York Times, “under mysterious circumstances” in his apartment. Lying face down, neatly wrapped from neck to feet in a blanket and sheet, Variell “had been dead for several days.” The police were not sure if he had committed suicide, died accidentally, or was murdered. Initially, the medical examiner declared his death a suicide by gas — the cause was later changed to carbon monoxide poisoning. Variell had a will and two life insurance policies that totaled $81,000, and he left money to several heirs, including $11,000 — worth approximately $160,000 in 2018 — to Peggram. This, he hoped, would be enough to get them both out of Europe. But the money would not be released to him unless he came home — without Hauptmann — to claim it.

Despite the legal obstacles, Peggram held out hope. In a letter dated April 9, 1941, he wrote to Norman: “Just how long it will take us to reach the U.S.A. still depends upon how soon acquaintances, consuls, attorneys, lawyers, etc. can experience sudden attacks of intelligence forceful enough to make them understand that we have been living here by necessity rather than by choice. But we know that even these will realize themselves in the end.”

After this, there were no more letters. Communications between Peggram and his friends and family stopped as, according to Peggram, he and Hauptmann were taken into a concentration camp at Bagni di Lucca, less than 50 miles from Florence.

* * *

When Peggram and Hauptmann told the story of their arrest to the Baltimore Afro-American, they did not mention homosexuality. They were taken into custody, they said, because the authorities felt “a Dane has no right to be a friend of a Negro.” After several days of interrogation, the Germans decided that Peggram would be permitted to leave German-occupied territory, but that Hauptmann, as the subject of a conquered country, would be compelled to join the German army. But, as the Afro-American put it, Peggram and Hauptmann “swore that whatever came, they would not break up.”

They were held at Bagni di Lucca until January 1944, when Allied planes gunned the camp, forcing the Germans to move their prisoners to another site. Over the next few months, the two men were shifted from camp to camp until they reached Piacenza, where Hauptmann was ordered to a German work camp. He refused to leave Peggram, whom the Germans would not compel to leave because, they said, “You are American.” The scholars were put in solitary confinement as the Germans pondered their fate.

“We didn’t know how long we stayed there, but it was really hell,” said Peggram. “Just enough soup to lead a miserable existence. For months we did not see a single human being. In fact, we saw nothing that was living. Not even bugs. There was no light, no action — nothing but a great deal of time to think about what was in store for us.”

Before their fate was decided, the camp was attacked by Italian partisans, who freed the prisoners and gave them shelter. Hauptmann and Peggram spent the rest of the year with the partisans, before striking out on their own in an attempt to reach the American lines.

“They found that all German-occupied territory was a prison,” wrote Johnson. “Without passports or other identification, their lives were worth less than when they were confined.”

Peggram and Hauptmann spent weeks hiking across country, once being shot at by German machine gunners, hiding with partisan families during the day and sleeping in barns at night. At last, they reached the 92nd Infantry Division, and were safe.

Peggram and Hauftman tell Lt. James Young how they escaped from a German concentration camp, Mar. 17, 1945. (Photo courtesy The Baltimore Afro-American Archives)

“They appeared to be as happy as two kids talking about what Santa Claus had brought them,” wrote Johnson. Although the reporter was initially skeptical of their story, there seems to be no reason to doubt Peggram and Hauptmann’s account of their imprisonment and escape. It is true that there was a camp at Bagni di Lucca, and that 16 miles away was another camp, Colle di Compito, that held citizens from the U.S., Great Britain and Denmark. Prisoners were often transferred between the two camps.

Peggram told Johnson, “We are not principally concerned with going to America. We only want to go some place where we can be assured remaining together to work in peace,” but Peggram returned to the U.S. alone, several months after encountering the 92nd Division. He departed Europe on the hospital ship Algonquin from Naples, Italy, arriving in Charleston, South Carolina, on August 14, 1945. He would not see Hauptmann again.

* * *

Upon his return to the U.S., Peggram was hospitalized for four years, the result, he said in a 1950 alumni newsletter, of a “nervous breakdown.” After his release, he returned to Boston to live in a multiple-family dwelling shared by his mother and half-brother. His existence was mainly solitary.

“My own postgraduate history is no particular triumph,” he wrote in a later class note. “Either I am too lazy or too comfortable (scarcely the latter) to function as a professional translator.”

According to these missives, he spent the rest of his life singing in Episcopal Church choirs, improving the “seven or eight” foreign languages he knew, and failing to convince a publisher to accept his “antique, revised, unpublished doctoral dissertation.” He died on April 20, 1982.

In 1971 Gerdh Hauptmann published a book of poems, Declaration, in English, by a Danish publisher. One poem, “Ante,” appeared to reference his relationship with Peggram. It began:

I remember once —
we were walking together,
perhaps in a year or two, you said,
and we made plans, and discussed
whether it should be in New York
— in Paris — or maybe
somewhere in China.

We did not know then —
although perhaps we did suspect it —
that the apples would not ripen
on the trees
that year
or the next
or ever.

Get your Narratively Neverending Storytelling Swag Bag. Become a Patron today. ×