August 30, 2012
On March 16, 1925, in the muted morning light of a hotel room in Hammond, Indiana, 29-year-old Madge Oberholtzer reached into the pocket of the man sleeping next to her. She found the grip of his revolver and slid it out, inch by inch, praying he wouldn’t stir. The man was D.C. Stephenson, political power broker and Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in 23 Northern states. With shaking hands she aimed the gun between his closed eyes. What passed for a lucid thought came to mind: She would disgrace her family if she were to commit murder; instead, she would kill herself.
She crept into an adjoining room and faced a full-length mirror. Beneath her dress chunks of her were missing. Bite marks covered her face, neck, breasts, back, legs and ankles, a macabre pattern of polka dots etched along her skin. She was bleeding from the mouth; he had even chewed her tongue. Her hand was steadier this time, lifting the gun to her temple, when she heard a step outside the door and the squeak of a turning knob. It was one of Stephenson’s associates. She buried the gun into the fold of her dress and slipped it back into the sleeping man’s pocket. She would find another way to kill herself, if he didn’t kill her first.
It was the beginning of the end, in different ways, for both Madge Oberholtzer and D.C. Stephenson, although the politician had long believed himself infallible. “I am the law in Indiana,” he famously declared, and with reason. At age 33, Stephenson was one of the most powerful men in the state, having controlled the governor’s election and the movements of several state legislators, influencing bills on nutrition, steam pollution, fire insurance, highways and even oleomargarine, all of which would line his pockets with graft. His hand-picked candidate for mayor of Indianapolis seemed certain to win election, and Stephenson himself dreamed of running for the U.S. Senate, even president.
Stephenson’s political success was directly tied to his leadership within the Klan, which by 1925 had a quarter-million members in Indiana alone, accounting for more than 30 percent of the state’s white male population. At the height of its popularity, the Klan was a mainstream organization whose roster included lawyers, doctors, college professors, ministers and politicians at every level, most of them middle- and upper-middle-class white Protestants who performed community service and supported Prohibition. The Klan exploited nativist fears of foreign ethnic groups and religions, Catholicism in particular. (Prejudice against African-Americans was not as much of a motivating factor to join the Klan in Indiana as it was in the South.) “Out in Indiana everybody seems to belong,” reported the New York Times in 1923. “Easterners have been surprised at the ready conquest by the Klan of a state which seemed of all our forty-eight the least imperiled by any kind of menace.”
The rise of Davis Curtis Stephenson seemed equally perplexing, especially since no one—not even those who professed to be his closest friends—knew much about him. “I’m a nobody from nowhere, really—but I’ve got the biggest brains,” he boasted. “I’m going to be the biggest man in the United States!” Stephenson told them his father was a wealthy businessman from South Bend who had sent him to college, but he quit to work in the coal business in Evansville, in the southwest tip of the state. When America entered World War I war in 1917, Stephenson said, he volunteered for the Army and was decorated for fighting the Germans in France. Upon his return, he learned that he was a millionaire; stocks he had purchased before the war had skyrocketed in value. He did well wholesaling coal and running an automobile-accessory business, and joined the Klan in 1921. Knights in Atlanta were impressed with his leadership ability and appointed him to head the organization in the Hoosier State.
In reality, Stephenson was born in 1891 in Houston, Texas, the son of a sharecropper. The family moved to Maysville, Oklahoma, where he attended school in a Methodist Church. He was an avid reader, especially interested in politics and history, and graduated from the eighth grade at age 16. That was the end of his formal education. He got a job with a Socialist newspaper and studied the party’s leaders, particularly Oscar Ameringer, who would go on to advocate for African-American enfranchisement and help elect an anti-Klan governor. Stephenson admired Ameringer’s style, the way he sold his politics as if he were a vaudeville pitchman, and he would later implement the Socialist’s techniques at rallies for the Klan.
In 1915, the blond, blue-eyed Stephenson courted a local girl named Nettie Hamilton, placing her picture in the newspaper under the headline: “THE MOST BEAUTIFUL GIRL IN OKLAHOMA.” They married and moved to Madill, where he worked at the local newspaper. But Stephenson, in what would become a pattern, got into a fight with his publisher after a bout of drinking and lost his job. He abandoned his pregnant wife and drifted to Cushing. In 1917, Nettie tracked him down and filed for a divorce, after which Stephenson volunteered for the Army. Instead of fighting bravely on the battlefields of Europe, as he liked to boast, he was sent to Boone, Iowa, to work as a recruiter. After the war he took a job as a traveling salesman, and in Akron, Ohio, met his next wife, Violet Carroll. The couple moved to Evansville, Indiana, where Stephenson worked as a stock salesman for the Citizens Coal Company, and where a newly revitalized Ku Klux Klan was taking root.
Despite his intensely private nature—“It’s no one’s business where I was born or who my folks were,” he once snapped—Stephenson made friends easily, developing a gregarious, slap-shoulder bonhomie, careful to never patronize or condescend. Despite his limited education, his speech was fluent and polished. When a local Klan organizer asked him to get involved, Stephenson initially demurred. “They kept after me,” he told the New York World, “and explained to me than the Klan was not an organization which took Negroes out, cut off their noses, and threw them into the fire.… I was told that the Klan was a strictly patriotic organization.… They finally convinced me the Klan was a good thing and I joined.”
As Stephenson’s career took off his marriage began to flounder. He drank heavily and succumbed to wild rages, once blackening his wife’s eye and another time scratching her face and kicking her. After their divorce in 1922, Stephenson began dating his 22-year-old secretary, frequently bringing her on work trips to Ohio, where he was establishing new offices for the Klan. During one such excursion the couple was parked in Stephenson’s Cadillac, lights off, on a country road in the outskirts of Columbus. Deputy Sheriff Charles M. Hoff stopped to investigate. “What are you doing there with your pants unbuttoned?” he asked.
Stephenson grabbed the girl’s left hand and thrust it toward the window.
“My God, would you insult this girl?” he said. “Did you see that ring, that diamond ring? I am going to marry this girl; we are engaged.” He added that he was “an official” and “couldn’t afford to have all this notoriety and publicity.” He pleaded guilty to a parking citation and indecent exposure.
Stephenson soon had another brush with notoriety. Joseph Cleary, a security officer for the Deschler Hotel in Columbus, was called to check on a report of a disturbance in Stephenson’s room on the upper floor. Cleary found a shattered mirror, smashed chairs, empty bottles of booze strewn about the floor. The hotel’s manicurist reported that when she arrived for Stephenson’s appointment, “there were three full quarts of whiskey and when I told him that I didn’t want any, he came over and grabbed me. He said that he would give me a hundred dollars if I would allow him to have intercourse with me. Of course, he was more rude than I care to be in expressing it… I told him that I was not in the habit of being insulted by anyone like that, and he said… ‘You will or I’ll kill you.’” She fled and ran into two of his associates outside, who tried to console her. “Don’t pay any attention to him,” one said. “He is a good fellow; he is drunk; he is all right when he is sober. You go downstairs and don’t bother about it.”
Stephenson met Madge Oberholtzer on January 12, 1925, at the inauguration gala for Governor Ed Jackson, who, with Stephenson’s help, had earned a reputation as the candidate most loathed by the “papists.” She was there at the invitation of a member of the inaugural committee, and busied herself making name tags and running errands. During dinner she sat across from Stephenson, who inquired about her background with flattering persistence.
She grew up in Indianapolis, where her father worked as a postal clerk and her family belonged to the Irvington Methodist Church. She was, a friend would later say, “an independent soul, yet timid. I don’t think anybody disliked Madge, but she didn’t make a great effort to make people like her, either.” She studied English, mathematics, zoology and logic at Butler College in Irvington, but dropped out, without explanation, at the end of her junior year. Currently she was the manager of the Indiana Young People’s Reading Circle, a special section of the Indiana Department of Public Instruction. She’d heard the rumors, though, that the Reading Circle program—and her job—were about to be eliminated due to budget cuts. She was 28 years old and still living with her parents. Stephenson asked her to dance.
The two began seeing each other frequently. She acted as his aide during the 1925 session of the General Assembly, carrying messages from his office down to his friends, and helped him write a nutrition book, One Hundred Years of Health. Using her Reading Circle connections, she planned to help sell the books to schools throughout the state.
Around 10 p.m. on March 15, 1925, Oberholtzer returned home from an evening with a friend. Her mother told her that Stephenson’s secretary had called and said he was leaving for Chicago and needed to see her at once. Oberholtzer changed into a black velvet dress and was met at her front door by one of Stephenson’s bodyguards. Eight hours later, her mother was on the phone with lawyer Ada J. Smith, frantic that Madge had never come home.
Two days later, while her parents were conferring with Smith at his office, a car pulled up outside the Oberholtzer home. Eunice Schultz, a boarder, heard someone groaning and saw Oberholzer being carried upstairs by a large man, who said the girl had been hurt in a car accident. Schultz called the family doctor, John Kingsbury, who hurried to Oberholzer’s bedside. “She was in a state of shock,” Kingsbury later recalled. “Her body was cold.” She told him that she didn’t expect, or want, to get well—that she wanted to die. He pressed her until she told him the whole story.
When she’d arrived at Stephenson’s, she said, she realized that he was drunker than she’d ever seen him. He forced her to start drinking and ordered her to accompany him to Chicago. Someone shoved her into a car, drove her to Union Station, and dragged her onto a train, where she was pushed into a lower berth in a private compartment with Stephenson. She was “bitten, chewed and pummeled,” she said. They never reached Chicago, stopping at Hammond, Indiana, where they checked into a hotel. She was lowered onto a bed next to Stephenson, who soon fell asleep.
Later that morning, she asked him for money to buy a hat and some makeup. Instead, she went to a drugstore and bought a box of mercury bichloride tablets. Back at the hotel, she intended to take the entire box but could choke down only three. When Stephenson discovered what she had done, he panicked and ordered his driver to take them back to Indianapolis. He forced her to drink ginger ale and milk, which she vomited all over the inside of the car. He worried she might die in the back seat. All the while she cried and screamed and begged to be thrown from the car and left on the side of the road. “You will stay right here until you marry me,” she recalled him saying. “You must forget this, what is done has been done, I am the law and the power.”
She died on April 14, nearly a month later, with her parents and nurse by her bedside. The official cause was mercury poisoning. Marion County prosecutor William Remy—one of the few officials Stephenson could not control—had him charged with rape, kidnapping, conspiracy and second-degree murder. His former political cronies, including Governor Jackson, swiftly abandoned him, and the Indiana Kourier called him an “enemy of the order.” Stephenson’s lawyers argued that Klan forces loyal to a political rival had set him up and questioned whether he could be held responsible for what was ultimately a suicide. “If this so-called dying declaration declares anything, it is a dying declaration of suicide, not homicide,” defense attorney Ephraim Inman said. “… Has everybody lost his head? Pray, are we all insane?”
The citizens of Indiana also expressed some skepticism about Oberholzer’s deathbed statement. “That was a gruesome trial,” one woman recalled. “This girl might have been a party girl, I supposed she was or she wouldn’t have been on that train, but even back in those days you know, murder wasn’t very pretty.” On November 14, 1925, Stephenson was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. By 1928, the Indiana Klan, once the strongest in the Invisible Empire, had collapsed, with membership totaling only 4,000, down from a high of half a million. Stephenson was paroled in 1950 on the condition that he take a job in Illinois and settle in that state. Instead he went to Minnesota, where he was arrested and sent back to prison in Indiana. Six years later he was discharged by Governor George Craig, who reasoned, “I don’t see why Stephenson won’t be able to cope with life. He’s mentally all right.”
Stephenson moved to Seymour, Indiana, where he married his third wife, Martha Dickinson. They separated in 1962, after Stephenson was arrested and accused of trying to force a 16-year-old girl into his car. The judge issued a $300 fine, which Stephenson paid out of pocket. Next he wandered to Jonesboro, Tennessee, where he met a widowed Sunday school teacher named Martha Murray Sutton. She was 55; he was 74. They wed, although he had never officially divorced the previous Martha. He suffered a heart attack on June 28, 1966, while bringing her a basket of fruit. She held him as he died. ”I knew nothing of his background,” his widow said. “Except that I loved him very much and we were married. He was a very wonderful person.”
M. William Lutholtz, Grand Dragon: D.C. Stephenson and the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1991; Richard K. Tucker, The Dragon and the Cross: The Rise and Fall of the Ku Klux Klan in Middle America. Hamden, CT: The Shoe String Press, 1991; David H. Bennett: The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.
“Stephenson Fights Murder Testimony.” New York Times, November 6, 1925; “Indiana Swayed Entirely By Klan.” New York Times, November 7, 1923; “Holds Ex-Klansman on Assault Charge.” New York Times, April 4, 1925; “Stephenson Held for Death of Girl.” New York Times, April 21, 1925; “Finds Ex-Klan Head Murdered Woman.” New York Times, November 15, 1925.
August 28, 2012
What is it that makes us human? The question is as old as man, and has had many answers. For quite a while, we were told that our uniqueness lay in using tools; today, some seek to define humanity in terms of an innate spirituality, or a creativity that cannot (yet) be aped by a computer. For the historian, however, another possible response suggests itself. That’s because our history can be defined, surprisingly helpfully, as the study of a struggle against fear and want—and where these conditions exist, it seems to me, there is always that most human of responses to them: hope.
The ancient Greeks knew it; that’s what the legend of Pandora’s box is all about. And Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians speaks of the enduring power of faith, hope and charity, a trio whose appearance in the skies over Malta during the darkest days of World War II is worthy of telling of some other day. But it is also possible to trace a history of hope. It emerges time and again as a response to the intolerable burdens of existence, beginning when (in Thomas Hobbes’s famous words) life in the “state of nature” before government was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” and running like a thread on through the ancient and medieval periods until the present day.
I want to look at one unusually enduring manifestation of this hope: the idea that somewhere far beyond the toil and pain of mere survival there lies an earthly paradise, which, if reached, will grant the traveler an easy life. This utopia is not to be confused with the political or economic Shangri-las that have also been believed to exist somewhere “out there” in a world that was not yet fully explored (the kingdom of Prester John, for instance–a Christian realm waiting to intervene in the war between crusaders and Muslims in the Middle East–or the golden city of El Dorado, concealing its treasure deep amidst South American jungle). It is a place that’s altogether earthier—the paradise of peasants, for whom heaven was simply not having to do physical labor all day, every day.
August 22, 2012
On a Sunday night in May 1935, Victor Lustig was strolling down Broadway on New York’s Upper West Side. At first, the Secret Service agents couldn’t be sure it was him. They’d been shadowing him for seven months, painstakingly trying to learn more about this mysterious and dapper man, but his newly grown mustache had thrown them off momentarily. As he turned up the velvet collar on his Chesterfield coat and quickened his pace, the agents swooped in.
Surrounded, Lustig smiled and calmly handed over his suitcase. “Smooth,” was how one of the agents described him, noting a “livid scar” on his left cheekbone and “dark, burning eyes.” After chasing him for years, they’d gotten a close-up view of the man known as “the Count,” a nicknamed he’d earned for his suave and worldly demeanor. He had long sideburns, agents observed, and “perfectly manicured nails.” Under questioning he was serene and poised. Agents expected the suitcase to contain freshly printed bank notes from various Federal
Reserve series, or perhaps other tools of Lustig’s million-dollar counterfeiting trade. But all they found were expensive clothes.
At last, they pulled a wallet from his coat and found a key. They tried to get Lustig to say what it was for, but the Count shrugged and shook his head. The key led agents to the Times Square subway station, where it opened a dusty locker, and inside it agents found $51,000 in counterfeit bills and the plates from which they had been printed. It was the beginning of the end for the man described by the New York Times as an “E. Phillips Oppenheim character in the flesh,” a nod to the popular English novelist best known for The Great Impersonation.
Secret Service agents finally had one of the world’s greatest imposters, wanted throughout Europe as well as in the United States. He’d amassed a fortune in schemes that were so grand and outlandish, few thought any of his victims could ever be so gullible. He’d sold the Eiffel Tower to a French scrap-metal dealer. He’d sold a “money box” to countless greedy victims who believed that Lustig’s contraption was capable of printing perfectly replicated $100 bills. (Police noted that some “smart” New York gamblers had paid $46,000 for one.) He had even duped some of the wealthiest and most dangerous mobsters—men like Al Capone, who never knew he’d been swindled.
Now the authorities were eager to question him about all of these activities, plus his possible role in several recent murders in New York and the shooting of Jack “Legs” Diamond, who was staying in a hotel room down the hall from Lustig’s on the night he was attacked.
“Count,” one of the Secret Service agents said, “you’re the smoothest con man that ever lived.”
The Count politely demurred with a smile. “I wouldn’t say that,” he replied. “After all, you have conned me.”
Despite being charged with multiple counts of possession of counterfeit currency and plates, Victor Lustig wasn’t done with the con game quite yet. He was held at the Federal Detention Headquarters in New York, believed to be “escape proof” at the time, and scheduled to stand trial on September 2, 1935. But prison officials arrived at his cell on the third floor that day and were stunned. The Count had vanished in broad daylight.
Born in Austria-Hungary in 1890, Lustig, became fluent in several languages, and when he decided to see the world he thought: Where better to make money than aboard ocean liners packed with wealthy travelers? Charming and poised at a young age, Lustig spent time making small talk with successful businessmen—and sizing up potential marks. Eventually, talk turned to the source of the Austrian’s wealth, and reluctantly he would reveal—in the utmost confidence—that he had been using a “money box.” Eventually, he would agree to show the contraption privately. He just happened to be traveling with it. It resembled a steamer trunk, crafted of mahogany but fitted with sophisticated-looking printing machinery within.
Lustig would demonstrate the money box by inserting an authentic hundred-dollar bill, and after a few hours of “chemical processing,” he’d extract two seemingly authentic hundred-dollar bills. He had no trouble passing them aboard the ship. It wasn’t long before his wealthy new friends would inquire as to how they too might be able to come into possession of a money box.
Reluctantly again, the Count would consider parting with it if the price was right, and it wasn’t uncommon for several potential buyers to bid against one another over several days at sea. Lustig was, if nothing else, patient and cautious. He would usually end up parting (at the end of the voyages) with the device for the sum of $10,000—sometimes two and three times that amount. He would pack the machine with several hundred-dollar bills, and after any last-minute suspicions had been allayed through successful test runs, the Count would disappear.
By 1925, however, Victor Lustig had set his sights on grander things. After he arrived in Paris, he read a newspaper story about the rusting Eiffel Tower and the high cost of its maintenance and repairs. Parisians were divided in their opinion of the structure, built in 1889 for the Paris Exposition and already a decade past its projected lifespan. Many felt the unsightly tower should be taken down.
Lustig devised the plan that would make him a legend in the history of con men. He researched the largest metal-scrap dealers in Paris. Then he sent out letters on fake stationery, claiming to be the Deputy Director of the Ministere de Postes et Telegraphes and requesting meetings that, he told them, might prove lucrative. In exchange for such meetings, he demanded absolute discretion.
He took a room at the Hotel de Crillon, one of the city’s most upscale hotels, where he conducted meetings with the scrap dealers, telling them that a decision had been made to take bids for the right to demolish the tower and take possession of 7,000 tons of metal. Lustig rented limousines and gave tours of the tower—all to discern which dealer would make the ideal mark.
Andre Poisson was fairly new to the city, and Lustig quickly decided to focus on him. When Poisson began peppering him with questions, Lustig baited his lure. As a public official, he said, he didn’t earn much money, and finding a buyer for the Eiffel Tower was a very big decision. Poisson bit. He’d been in Paris long enough to know what Lustig was getting at: The bureaucrat must be legitimate; who else would dare seek a bribe? Poisson would pay the phony deputy director $20,000 in cash, plus an additional $50,000 if Lustig could see to it that his was the winning bid.
Lustig secured the $70,000 and in less than an hour, he was on his way back to Austria. He waited for the story to break, with, possibly, a description and sketch of himself, but it never did. Poisson, fearful of the embarrassment such a disclosure would bring upon him, chose not to report Lustig’s scam.
For Lustig, no news was good news: He soon returned to Paris to give the scheme another try. But, ever cautious, the Count came to suspect that one of the new scrap dealers he contacted had notified the police, so he fled to the United States.
In America, Lustig returned to the easy pickings of the money box. He assumed dozens of aliases and endured his share of arrests. In more than 40 cases he beat the rap or escaped from jail while waiting trial (including the same Lake County, Indiana, jail from which John Dillinger had bolted). He swindled a Texas sheriff and a county tax collector out of $123,000 in tax receipts with the money-box gambit, and after the sheriff tracked him down in Chicago, the Count talked his way out of trouble by blaming the sheriff for his inexperience in operating the machine (and returning a large sum of cash, which would come back to haunt the sheriff).
In Chicago, the Count told Al Capone he needed $50,000 to finance a scam and promised to repay the gangster double his money in just two months. Capone was suspicious, but handed his money over. Lustig stuffed it in a safe in his room and returned it two months later; the scam had gone horribly wrong, he said, but he had come to repay the gangster’s loan. Capone, relieved that Lustig’s scam wasn’t a complete disaster and impressed with his “honesty,” handed him $5,000.
Lustig never intended to use the money for anything other than to gain Capone’s trust.
In 1930, Lustig went into partnership with a Nebraska chemist named Tom Shaw, and the two men began a real counterfeiting operation, using plates, paper and ink that emulated the tiny red and green threads in real bills. They set up an elaborate distribution system to push out more than $100,000 per month, using couriers who didn’t even know they were dealing with counterfeit cash. Later that year, as well-circulated bills of every denomination were turning up across the country, the Secret Service arrested the same Texas sheriff Lustig had swindled; they accused him of passing counterfeit bills in New Orleans. The lawman was so enraged that Lustig had passed him bogus money that he gave agents a description of the Count. But it wasn’t enough to keep the sheriff out of prison.
As the months passed and more phony bills—millions of dollars’ worth—kept turning up at banks and racetracks, the Secret Service tried to track Lustig down. They referred to the bills as “Lustig money” and worried that they might disrupt the monetary system. Then Lustig’s girlfriend, Billy May, found out he was having an affair with Tom Shaw’s mistress. In a fit of jealousy, she made an anonymous call to the police and told them where the Count was staying in New York. Federal agents finally found him in the spring of 1935.
As he awaited trial, Lustig playfully bragged that no prison could hold him. On the day before his trial was to begin, dressed in prison-issue dungarees and slippers, he fashioned several bedsheets into a rope and slipped out the window of the Federal Detention Headquarters in lower Manhattan. Pretending to be a window washer, he casually wiped at windows as he shimmied down the building. Dozens of passersby saw him, and they apparently thought nothing of it.
The Count was captured in Pittsburgh a month later and pleaded guilty to the original charges. He was sentenced to 20 years in Alcatraz. On August 31, 1949, the New York Times reported that Emil Lustig, the brother of Victor Lustig, had told a judge in a Camden, New jersey, court that the infamous Count had died at Alcatraz two years before. It was most fitting: Victor Lustig, one of the most outrageously colorful con men in history, was able to pass from this earth without attracting any attention.
Articles: ” ‘Count’ Seizure Bares Spurious Money Cache,” Washington Post, May 14, 1935. “‘Count Seized Here with Bogus $51,000″ New York Times, May 14, 1935. “Federal Men Arrest Count, Get Fake Cash,” Chicago Tribune, May 14, 1935. “‘The Count’ Escapes Jail on Sheet Rope,” New York Times, September 2, 1935. “The Count Made His Own Money,” by Edward Radin, St. Petersburg Times, February 20, 1949.”How to Sell the Eiffel Tower (Twice)” by Eric J. Pittman, weirdworm.com. “Count Lustig,” American Numismatic Society, Funny Money, http://numismatics.org/Exhibits/FunnyMoney2d. ”Robert Miller, Swindler, Flees Federal Prison,” Chicago Tribune, September 2, 1935. “Knew 40 Jails, ‘Count’ Again Falls in Toils,” Washington Post, September 26, 1935. “Lustig, ‘Con Man,’ Dead Since 1947,” New York Times, August 31, 1949.
Books: PhD Philip H. Melanson, The Secret Service: The Hidden History of an Enigmantic Agency, Carroll & Graf, 2002.
August 15, 2012
The summer of 2012 will be remembered as a time when people around the world were caught up in events in the skies above Mars, where the rover Curiosity eventually touched down onto the red planet. Fifty years ago this summer there were strange doings in the skies above earth as well. In July 1962, eight airplanes, including five commercial flights, plummeted to the ground in separate crashes that killed hundreds. In a ninth incident that month, a vulture smashed through the cockpit window of an Indian Airlines cargo plane, killing the co-pilot. Higher in the atmosphere, cameras mounted in U-2 spy planes soaring above the Carribean captured images of Soviet ships that, unbeknownst to the U.S. at the time, were carrying missiles to Cuba.
In gray skies over Cape Cod, a 20-year-old telephone operator named Lois Ann Frotten decided to join her new fiancé in a celebratory jump from an airplane at 2,500 feet. It was her first attempt at skydiving. While her fiancé landed safely, Frotten’s chute got tangled and failed to open fully. She tumbled end over end and landed feet-first in Mystic Lake with a terrific splash—and survived the half-mile free fall with a cut nose and two small cracked vertebrae. “I’ll never jump again,” she told rescuers as she was pulled from the lake.
But of all the things happening in the skies that summer, nothing would be quite as spectacular, surreal and frightening as the military project code-named Starfish Prime. Just five days after Americans across the country witnessed traditional Fourth of July fireworks displays, the Atomic Energy Commission created the greatest man-made light show in history when it launched a thermonuclear warhead on the nose of a Thor rocket, creating a suborbital nuclear detonation 250 miles above the Pacific Ocean.
In the fifty minutes that followed, witnesses from Hawaii to New Zealand were treated to a carnival of color as the sky was illuminated in magnificent rainbow stripes and an artificial aurora borealis. With a yield of 1.45 megatons, the hydrogen bomb was approximately 100 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima 17 years before. Yet scientists underestimated the effects of the bomb and the resulting radiation.
Knowledge of radiation in space was still fragmentary and new. It was only four years before that James A. Van Allen, a University of Iowa physicist who had been experimenting with Geiger counters on satellites, claimed to have discovered that the planet was encircled by a “deadly band of X-rays,” and that radiation from the sun “hit the satellites so rapidly and furiously” that the devices jammed. Van Allen announced his findings on May 1, 1958, at a joint meeting of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Physical Society, and the following day, the Chicago Tribune bannered the headline, “Radiation Belt Dims Hope of Space Travel.” The story continued: “Death, lurking in a belt of unexpectedly heavy radiation about 700 miles above the earth, today dimmed man’s dreamed of conquering outer space.”
News of the “hot band of peril” immediately cast doubt on whether Laika, the Russian dog, would have been able to survive for a week in space aboard Sputnik II, as the Soviets claimed, in November of 1957. (The Soviets said that after six days, the dog’s oxygen ran out and she was euthanized with poisoned food. It was later learned that Laika, the first live animal to be launched into space, died just hours after the launch from overheating and stress, when a malfunction in the capsule caused the temperature to rise.)
What Van Allen had discovered were the bands of high-energy particles that were held in place by strong magnetic fields, and soon known as the Van Allen Belts. A year later, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine as he opened an entirely new field of research—magnetospheric physics—and catapulted the United States into the race to space with the Soviet Union.
On the same day Van Allen held his press conference in May 1958, he agreed to cooperate with the U.S. military on a top-secret project. The plan: to send atomic bombs into space in an attempt to blow up the Van Allen Belts, or to at least disrupt them with a massive blast of nuclear energy.
At the height of the Cold War, the thinking may have been, as the science historian James Fleming said recently, that “if we don’t do it, the Russians will.” In fact, over the next few years, both the United States and the Soviet Union tested atomic bombs in space, with little or no disruption in the Van Allen Belts. Fleming suspects that the U.S. military may have theorized that the Van Allen belts could be used to attack the enemy. But in July 1962, the United States was ready to test a far more powerful nuclear bomb in space
The first Starfish Prime launch, on June 20, 1962, at Johnston Island in the Pacific, had to be aborted when the Thor launch vehicle failed and the missile began to break apart. The nuclear warhead was destroyed mid-flight, and radioactive contamination rained back down on the island.
Despite protests from Tokyo to London to Moscow citing “the world’s violent opposition” to the July 9 test, the Honolulu Advertiser carried no ominous portent with its headline, “N-Blast Tonight May Be Dazzling; Good View Likely,” and hotels in Hawaii held rooftop parties.
The mood on the other side of the planet was somewhat darker. In London, England, 300 British citizens demonstrated outside the United States Embassy, chanting “No More Tests!” and scuffling with police. Canon L. John Collins of St. Paul’s Cathedral called the test “an evil thing,” and said those responsible were “stupid fools.” Izvestia, the Soviet newspaper, carried the headline, “Crime of American Atom-mongers: United States Carries Out Nuclear Explosion in Space.”
Soviet film director Sergei Yutkevich told the paper, “We know with whom we are dealing: yet we hoped, until the last moment, that the conscience, if not the wisdom, of the American atom-mongers would hear the angry voices of millions and millions of ordinary people of the earth, the voices of mothers and scientists of their own country.” (Just eight months before, the Soviets tested the Tsar Bomba, the most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated—a 50-megaton hydrogen bomb—on an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean in the north of Russia.)
Just after 11 p.m. Honolulu time on July 9, the 1.45-megaton hydrogen bomb was detonated thirteen minutes after launch. Almost immediately, an electromagnetic pulse knocked out electrical service in Hawaii, nearly 1,000 miles away. Telephone service was disrupted, streetlights were down and burglar alarms were set off by a pulse that was much larger than scientists expected.
Suddenly, the sky above the Pacific was illuminated by bright auroral phenomena. “For three minutes after the blast,” one reporter in Honolulu wrote, “the moon was centered in a sky partly blood-red and partly pink. Clouds appeared as dark silhouettes against the lighted sky.” Another witness said, “A brilliant white flash burned through the clouds rapidly changing to an expanding green ball of irradiance extending into the clear sky above the overcast.” Others as far away as the Fiji Islands—2,000 miles from Johnston Island—described the light show as “breathtaking.”
In Maui, a woman observed auroral lights that lasted a half hour in “a steady display, not pulsating or flickering, taking the shape of a gigantic V and shading from yellow at the start to dull red, then to icy blue and finally to white.”
“To our great surprise and dismay, it developed that Starfish added significantly to the electrons in the Van Allen belts,” Atomic Energy Commission Glenn Seaborg wrote in his memoirs. “This result contravened all our predictions.”
More than half a dozen satellites had been victimized by radiation from the blast. Telstar, the AT&T communications satellite launched one day after Starfish, relayed telephone calls, faxes and television signals until its transistors were damaged by Starfish radiation. (The Soviets tested their own high-altitude thermonuclear device in October 1962, which further damaged Telstar’s transistors and rendered it useless.)
Both the Soviets and the United States conducted their last high-altitude nuclear explosions on November 1, 1962. It was also the same day the Soviets began dismantling their missiles in Cuba. Realizing that the two nations had come close to a nuclear war, and prompted by the results of Starfish Prime and continuing atomic tests by the Soviets, President John F. Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty on July 25, 1963, banning atmospheric and exoatmospheric nuclear testing. And while the U.S. and the Soviet Union would continue their race to space at full throttle, for the time being, the treaty significantly slowed the arms race between the two superpowers.
Books: James Clay Moltz, The Politics of Space Security: Strategic Restraint and the Pursuit of National Interests, Stanford University Press, 2008. Rosemary B. Mariner and G. Kurt Piehler, The Atomic Bomb and American Society: New Perspectives, The University of Tennessee Press, 2009.
Articles: “H-Blast Seen 4000 Miles, Triggers Russian Outcry,” Boston Globe, July 10, 1962. “Britons Protest Outside Embassy,” New York Times, July 10, 1962. “Pacific Sky Glows After Space Blast,” Hartford Courant, July 10, 1962. “Blackouts Last Only About Hour,” New York Times, July 10, 1962. “How Not to Test in Space” by Michael Krepon, The Stimson Center, November 7, 2011, http://www.stimson.org/summaries/how-not-to-test-in-space-/ “A Very Scary Light Show: Exploding H-Bombs in Space” Krulwich Wonders, NPR, All Things Considered, July 1, 2010, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128170775 “9 July 1962 ‘Starfish Prime’, Outer Space” The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban-Treaty-Organization Preparatory Commission, http://www.ctbto.org/specials/infamous-anniversaries/9-july-1962starfish-prime-outer-space/ “Nuclear Test Ban Treaty” John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, http://www.jfklibrary.org/JFK/JFK-in-History/Nuclear-Test-Ban-Treaty.aspx
August 10, 2012
Most nations of note have had at least one great female leader. Not the United States, of course, but one thinks readily enough of Hatshepsut of ancient Egypt, Russia’s astonishing Catherine the Great, or Trung Trac of Vietnam.
These women were rarely chosen by their people. They came to power, mostly, by default or stealth; a king had no sons, or an intelligent queen usurped the powers of her useless husband. However they rose, though, it has always been harder for a woman to rule effectively than it was for a man–more so in the earlier periods of history, when monarchs were first and foremost military leaders, and power was often seized by force.
So queens and empresses regnant were forced to rule like men, and yet roundly criticized when they did so. Sweden’s fascinating Queen Christina was nearly as infamous for eschewing her sidesaddle and riding in breeches as she was for the more momentous decision that she took to convert to Catholicism–while mustering her troops in 1588 as the Spanish Armada sailed up the Channel, even Elizabeth I felt constrained to begin a morale-boosting address with a denial of her sex: “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too.”
Of all these female rulers, though, none has aroused so much controversy, or wielded such great power, as a monarch whose real achievements and character remain obscured behind layers of obloquy. Her name was Wu Zetian, and in the seventh century A.D. she became the only woman in more than 3,000 years of Chinese history to rule in her own right.