March 12, 2013
The plot they hatched was as audacious as it was impossible—a 19th-century raid as elaborate and preposterous as any Ocean’s Eleven script. It was driven by two men—a guilt-ridden Irish Catholic nationalist, who’d been convicted and jailed for treason in England before being exiled to America, and a Yankee whaling captain—a Protestant from New Bedford, Massachusetts—with no attachment to the former’s cause, but a firm belief that it was “the right thing to do.” Along with a third man—an Irish secret agent posing as an American millionaire—they devised a plan to sail halfway around the world to Fremantle, Australia, with a heavily armed crew to rescue a half-dozen condemned Irishmen from one of the most remote and impregnable prison fortresses ever built.
To succeed, the plan required precision timing, a months-long con and more than a little luck of the Irish. The slightest slip-up, they knew, could be catastrophic for all involved. By the time the Fremantle Six sailed into New York Harbor in August, 1876, more than a year had passed since the plot had been put into action. Their mythic escape resonated around the world and emboldened the Irish Republican Brotherhood for decades in its struggle for independence from the British Empire.
The tale began with a letter sent in 1874 to John Devoy, a former senior leader with the Irish Republican Brotherhood, known as the Fenians. Devoy, who was born in County Kildare in 1842, had been recruiting thousands of Irish-born soldiers who were serving in British regiments in Ireland, where the Fenians hoped to turn the British army against itself. By 1866, estimates put the number of Fenian recruits at 80,000—but informers alerted the British to an impending rebellion, and Devoy was exposed, convicted of treason and sentenced to 15 years’ labor on the Isle of Portland in England.
After serving nearly five years in prison, Devoy was exiled to America, became a journalist for the New York Herald and soon became active with clan na gael, the secret society of Fenians in the United States.
Devoy was in New York City in 1874 when he received a letter from an inmate named James Wilson. “Remember this is a voice from the tomb,” Wilson wrote, reminding Devoy that his old Irish recruits had been rotting away in prison for the past eight years, and were now at Fremantle, facing “the death of a felon in a British dungeon.”
Among the hundreds of Irish republican prisoners in Australia, Wilson was one of seven high-profile Fenians who had been convicted of treason and sentenced to death by hanging until Queen Victoria commuted their sentences to a life of hard labor. After being branded with the letter “D” for “deserter” on their chests, the Fenians were assigned backbreaking work building roads and quarrying limestone beneath an unforgiving sun. “Most of us are beginning to show symptom of disease,” Wilson wrote. “In fact, we can’t expect to hold out much longer.”
Devoy was also feeling pressure from another Fenian—John Boyle O’Reilly, who had arrived at Fremantle with Wilson and the others, only to be transferred to Bunbury, another prison in Western Australia. O’Reilly grew despondent there and attempted suicide by slitting his wrists, but another convict saved him. A few months later, with help from a local Catholic priest, O’Reilly escaped from Bunbury by rowing out to sea and persuading an American whaling ship to take him on. He sailed to the United States and eventually became a poet, journalist and editor of the Catholic newspaper the Boston Pilot.
But it wasn’t long before O’Reilly began to feel pangs of guilt over his fellow Fenians’ continued imprisonment in Fremantle. He implored his fellow exile John Devoy to rally the clan na gael and mount a rescue attempt.
It was all Devoy needed to hear. Escape was entirely possible, as O’Reilly had proved. And he couldn’t ignore Wilson’s letter, imploring him not to forget the other Fenians that he had recruited. “Most of the evidence on which the men were convicted related to meetings with me,” Devoy later wrote. “I felt that I, more than any other man then living, ought to do my utmost for these Fenian soldiers.”
At a clan na gael meeting in New York, Devoy read Wilson’s “voice from the tomb” letter aloud, with its conclusion, “We think if you forsake us, then we are friendless indeed.”
Devoy put the letter down and in his most persuasive voice, shouted, “These men are our brothers!” Thousands of dollars were quickly raised to mount a rescue. The original plan was to charter a boat and sail for Australia, where more than a dozen armed men would spring the Fenians out of prison. But as the planning progressed, Devoy decided their odds would be better using stealth rather than force.
He convinced George Smith Anthony, a Protestant sea captain with whaling experience, that the rescue mission was one of universal freedom and liberty. Before long, Anthony concluded that the imprisoned Fenians were “not criminals,” and when Devoy offered the captain a “hefty cut” of any whaling profits they would make, Anthony signed on. He was told to set out to sea on the whaler Catalpa as if on a routine whaling voyage, keeping the rescue plans a secret from his crew; Devoy had decided that it was the only way to keep the British from discovering the mission. Besides, they were going to need to return with a full load of whale oil to recoup expenses. The cost of the mission was approaching $20,000 (it would later reach $30,000), and one clan na gael member had already mortgaged his house to finance the rescue.
Devoy also knew he needed help on the ground in Australia, so he arranged for John James Breslin—a bushy-bearded Fenian secret agent—to arrive in Fremantle in advance of the Catalpa and pose as an American millionaire named James Collins, and learn what he could about the place they called the “Convict Establishment.”
What Breslin soon saw with his own eyes was that the medieval-looking Establishment was surrounded by unforgiving terrain. To the east there was desert and bare stone as far as the eye could see. To the west, were shark-infested waters. But Breslin also saw that security around the Establishment was fairly lax, no doubt due to the daunting environment. Pretending to be looking for investment opportunities, Breslin arranged several visits to the Establishment, where he asked questions about hiring cheap prison labor. On one such visit, he managed to convey a message to the Fenians: a rescue was in the works; avoid trouble and the possibility of solitary confinement so you don’t miss the opportunity; there would be only one.
Nine months passed before the Catalpa made it to Bunbury. Captain Anthony had run into all sorts of problems, from bad weather to faulty navigational devices. A restocking trip to the Azores saw six crew members desert, and Anthony had to replace them before continuing on. He found the waters mostly fished out, so the whaling season was a disaster. Very little money would be recouped on this trip, but financial losses were the least of their worries.
Once Breslin met up with Captain Anthony, they made a plan. The Fenians they had come for had been continually shifted in their assignments, and for Breslin’s plan to work, all six needed to be outside the walls of the Establishment. Anyone stuck inside at the planned time of escape would be left behind. There was no way around it.
To complicate matters, two Irishmen turned up in Fremantle. Breslin immediately suspected that they were British spies, but he recruited them after learning that they had come in response to a letter the Fenians had written home, asking for help. On the day of the escape, they would cut the telegraph from Fremantle to Perth.
On Sunday, April 15, 1876, Breslin got a message to the Fenians: They would make for the Catalpa the next morning. “We have money, arms, and clothes,” he wrote. “Let no man’s heart fail him.”
Anthony ordered his ship to wait miles out at sea—outside Australian waters. He would have a rowboat waiting 20 miles up the coast from the prison. Breslin was to deliver the Fenians there, and the crew would row them to the ship.
On Monday morning, April 16, the newly arrived Irishmen did their part by severing the telegraph wire. Breslin got horses, wagons and guns to a rendezvous point near the prison—and waited. He had no idea which prisoners, if any, would make their way outside the walls that day.
But in the first stroke of good luck that morning, Breslin soon had his answer.
Thomas Darragh was out digging potatoes, unsupervised.
Thomas Hassett and Robert Cranston talked their way outside the walls.
Martin Hogan was painting a superintendent’s house.
And Michael Harrington and James Wilson concocted a tale about being needed for a job at the warden’s house.
Moments later, Breslin saw the six Fenians heading toward him. (It might have been seven, but James Jeffrey Roche “was purposely left behind because of an act of treachery which he had attempted against his fellows ten long years before,” when he sought a lighter sentence in exchange for cooperating with the British, Anthony later wrote. The deal was ultimately rejected, but the Fenians held a grudge.) Once on the carriages, the escapees made a frantic 20-mile horse-drawn dash for the rowboat.
They hadn’t been gone for an hour before the guards became aware that the Irishmen had escaped. Breslin and the Fenians made it to the shore where Anthony was waiting with his crew and the boat. The Catalpa was waiting far out at sea. They’d need to row for hours to reach it. They were about half a mile from shore when Breslin spotted mounted police arriving with a number of trackers. Not long after that, he saw a coast guard cutter and a steamer that had been commandeered by the Royal Navy to intercept the rowboat.
The race was on. The men rowed desperately, with the authorities and the British, armed with carbines, in hot pursuit. To spur on the men, Breslin pulled from his pocket a copy of a letter he had just mailed to the British Governor of Western Australia:
This is to certify that I have this day released
from the clemency of Her Most Gracious Majesty
Victoria, Queen of Great Britain, etc., etc., six Irishmen,
condemned to imprisonment for life by the
enlightened and magnanimous government of Great
Britain for having been guilty of the atrocious and
unpardonable crimes known to the unenlightened
portion of mankind as “love of country” and
“hatred of tyranny;” for this act of “Irish assur-
ance” my birth and blood being my full and
sufficient warrant. Allow me to add that in taking
my leave now, I’ve only to say a few cells I’ve emptied;
I’ve the honor and pleasure to bid yon good-day,
from all future acquaintance, excuse me, I pray.
In the service of my country,
John J. Breslin.
The Fenians let out a cry and the crew kept rowing for the Catalpa, which they could now see looming in the distance. But the steamer Georgette was bearing down, and the wind was rising—the beginnings of a gale. Darkness fell and waves came crashing down on the overloaded boat as it was blown out to sea. Captain Anthony was the picture of confidence, giving orders to bail, but even he doubted they’d make it through the night.
By morning, the Georgette reappeared and went straight for the Catalpa. The Georgette‘s captain asked if he could come aboard the whaler.
Sam Smith, minding the Catalpa, replied: “Not by a damned sight.”
The Georgette, running low on fuel, then had to return to shore. Anthony saw his chance, and the Fenians made a dash for the whaler, this time with a cutter joining the race. They barely made it to Catalpa before the British, and the ship got under way. Anthony quickly turned it away from Australia, but the luck of the Irish seemed to run out. The wind went dead, the Catalpa was becalmed, and by morning, the Georgette, armed with a 12-pound cannon, pulled alongside. The Fenians, seeing the armed militia aboard the British ship, grabbed rifles and revolvers and prepared for battle.
Captain Anthony told the Fenians the choice was theirs—they could die on his ship or back at Fremantle. Though they were outmanned and outgunned, even the Catalpa’s crew stood with the Fenians and their captain, grabbing harpoons for the fight.
The Georgette then fired across Catalpa’s bow. “Heave to,” came the command from the British ship.
“What for?” Anthony shouted back.
“You have escaped prisoners aboard that ship.”
“You’re mistaken,” Anthony snapped. “There are no prisoners aboard this ship. They’re all free men.”
The British gave Anthony 15 minutes to come to rest before they’d “blow your masts out.”
The Catalpa was also perilously close to being nudged back into Australian waters, with no wind to prevent that from happening. It was then that Anthony gave his reply, pointing at the Stars and Stripes. “This ship is sailing under the American flag and she is on the high seas. If you fire on me, I warn you that you are firing on the American flag.”
Suddenly, the wind kicked up. Anthony ordered up the mainsail and swung the ship straight for the Georgette. The Catalpa’s “flying jibboom just cleared the steamer’s rigging” as the ship with the Fenians aboard headed out to sea. The Georgette followed for another hour or so, but it was clear the British were reluctant to fire on an American ship sailing in international waters.
Finally, the British commander peeled the steamer back toward the coast. The Fenians were free.
The Catalpa arrived in New York four months later, as a cheering crowd of thousands met the ship for a Fenian procession up Broadway. John Devoy, John Breslin and George Anthony were hailed as heroes, and news of the Fremantle Six prison break quickly spread around the world.
The British press, however, accused the United States government of “fermenting terrorism,” citing Anthony’s refusing to turn over the Fenians, and noted that the captain and his crew were only “laughing at our scrupulous obedience to international law.” But eventually, the British would say that Anthony had “done us a good turn; he has rid us of an expensive nuisance. The United States are welcome to any number of disloyal, turbulent, plotting conspirators, to all their silly machinations.”
The Fremantle Six still carried the torment from their ordeals at the Convict Establishment, and despite their escape, the men remained broken, Devoy noted. He’d known them as soldiers, and he was not prepared for the changes that ten years under the “iron discipline of England’s prison system had wrought in some of them.”
Still, the Fenians had reinvigorated the spirits of their fellow Irish nationalists at home and abroad, and the tale of their escape inspired generations to come through both song and story.
So come you screw warders and jailers
Remember Perth regatta day
Take care of the rest of your Fenians
Or the Yankees will steal them away.
* The Real McKenzies “The Catalpa,” 10,000 Shots, 2005, Fat Wreck Chords
Books: Zephaniah Walter Pease, Capt. George S. Anthony, Commander of the Catalpa: The Catalpa Expedition, New Bedford, Mass, G. S. Anthony Publication, 1897. Peter F. Stevens, The Voyage of the Catalpa: A Perilous Journey and Six Irish Rebels’ Escape to Freedom, Carrol & Graf Publishers, 2002. John DeVoy, Edited by Philip Fennell and Marie King, John Devoy’s Catalpa Expedition, New York University Press, 2006. Joseph Cummins, History’s Great Untold Stories: Larger Than Life Characters & Dramatic Events that Changed the World, National Geographic Society, 2006.
Articles: “The Escaped Fenians,” New York Times, June 11, 1876. “The Rescued Irishmen,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 27, 1876. “The Fenian Escape,” by J. O’Reilly, Chicago Daily Tribune, June 23, 1876. “The Arrival,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 20, 1876. “Irish Escape,” Secrets of the Dead, PBS.org, Thirteen/WNET New York, 2007, http://video.pbs.org/video/1282032064/ “Devoy: Recollections of an Irish Rebel,” Ask About Ireland, (John Devoy: Recollections of an Irish Rebel: A Personal Narrative by John Devoy, Chase D. Young Company, 1929.) http://www.askaboutireland.ie/aai-files/assets/ebooks/ebooks-2011/Recollections-of-an-Irish-rebel/DEVOY_RECOLLECTIONS%20OF%20AN%20IRISH%20REBEL.pdf ”Over the Sea and Far Away: The Catalpa and Fenians,” by J.G. Burdette, September 13, 2012, http://jgburdette.wordpress.com/2012/09/13/over-the-sea-and-far-away-the-catalpa-and-fenians/ “Catalpa (The Rescue) A Brief Compilation of the Major Points of the Catalpa Rescue Story,” by Paul T. Meagher, Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick, http://friendlysonsofsaintpatrick.com/2010/09/catalpa-the-rescue/.
February 25, 2013
Besides her killers, the elevator operator was the last person to see Vivian Gordon alive late on the evening of February 25, 1931. A petite redhead about 40 years old, Gordon was wearing an ankle-length mink coat, a platinum watch and a two-carat diamond ring when she left her posh, three-room apartment at 156 East 37th Street in Manhattan around 11 p.m. and got into a Cadillac.
As the toxicologist would discover, at around 1 a.m. she probably ate some sauerkraut, raisins, “the white of egg, onions and celery” and had enough to drink so that her blood alcohol was 0.2 percent. Shortly after that, Gordon was beaten on the head, strangled with a piece of rope and possibly dragged from the car for an indeterminate amount of time. Her body was dumped in Van Cortland Park, near the cemetery and the golf course, where an oil company worker discovered it on his way to the office at 8:20 a.m.
According to the police report, Gordon was wearing a black velvet dress with lace trim and one white kid glove. The other glove lay nearby. A black straw hat and a black suede pump with a rhinestone buckle were found not far away. She was coatless, and her ring, watch and pocketbook were missing.
The case of Vivian Gordon obsessed New York City for weeks. It was on page one of every newspaper and on the covers of magazines. Herald Tribune columnist Heywood Broun covered it, and the Evening Post began “The New School of Murder,” a series about the rise of “the smartest” professional killings. Fictionalizations were sold. Several newspapers, including the Post, compared Gordon’s murder with that of Herman Rosenthal, who in 1912 had been slaughtered in cold blood for threatening to expose police corruption. The difference was that Gordon’s murder would lead to a real investigation into police practices.
Reading about the case in the newspapers in Albany, Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt immediately telegrammed Charles McLaughlin, the Bronx district attorney, to ask for the police report. He suspected there was a connection between Gordon’s murder and police “frame-ups,” and he was determined to get to the bottom of it. He had already empowered former judge Samuel Seabury, a crusader against Tammany Hall, to investigate corruption in the magistrates’ courts, where police and judges framed innocent women as prostitutes. But Gordon’s death would inspire Roosevelt to give Seabury broader powers still, one result of which would be that in 1932, New York City’s good-time Mayor Jimmy Walker would be indicted on charges of corruption.
Gordon was born as Benita Franklin in 1891 in Joliet, Illinois. Her father, a prison warden, sent her to the Ladies of Loretto Convent nearby, where she was described as “insubordinate” and tried to kill herself. After running away from the convent, Benita worked as a chorus girl for a while. In Charleston in 1912, she met a man named John Bischoff and became his common-law wife. Three years later, Gordon gave birth to a daughter, whom she named Benita. She fled to New York in 1920.
It is not clear when or why she took the name Gordon or what happened from the time she moved to New York to the moment she was arrested in 1923. But when Vice Patrolman Andrew J. McLaughlin nabbed Gordon at the Langwell Hotel in the arms of her lover, Al Marks, a lingerie salesman and ex-con from Long Branch, New Jersey, Bischoff was filing for divorce. Gordon was convicted of prostitution and sentenced to two years in the Bedford Reformatory, and Bischoff got custody of Benita. The desperate mother would contest the custody decision three times, without success.
Meanwhile, she became what the police would describe as “a woman of many acquaintances” and a scam artist. Or, as the New York Times put it, she was in “the blackmail business” and lent money to gangsters.
By 1931, Gordon had reason to be afraid of many people. Perhaps emboldened by reading about Seabury’s investigations in the paper, in January she wrote her ex-husband—who was by then living in Philadelphia—threatening to reveal his “dirty frame-up” to her daughter and anyone else who would listen. She wrote a similar letter to Officer McLaughlin. On February 7, she wrote to the Seabury Commission to say she wanted to testify that McLaughlin and Bischoff had conspired to frame her eight years earlier in order to seize custody of her daughter.
On February 20, five days before she was strangled, Gordon appeared at 80 Centre Street to tell Seabury lawyer Irving Ben Cooper her story. She left promising to seek corroborating evidence.
Besides squealing, Gordon had other reasons to be afraid. Searching her apartment, the police found diaries mentioning over 300 names—nearly every major gangland figure in New York and prominent businessmen, like the philanthropist Henry Joralemon and John Hoagland, the baking-powder emperor. The notorious madam Polly Adler was there as well. “[Gordon’s] just another woman out to feather her nest quickly,” Adler said.
One way Gordon feathered was by blackmailing wealthy men. A number of gangsters owed her money. She owned buildings in Queens that seemed to be gambling dens. But her diaries named John Radeloff —her lawyer and once her boyfriend—as the “only man I fear.”
Hundreds of police officers were put on the case, and a grand jury was convened. The first people to be interviewed were Radeloff and his associate Sam Cohen, aka Sam Harris aka Chowderhead Cohen, an ex-con Gordon also mentioned in the diaries. The grand jury concluded that the men were hiding something, and they were each held on $100,000 bail.
As the police continued to read the diaries, they discovered another candidate for Gordon’s murder: Joseph Radelow, another ex-boyfriend, her partner in a stock swindle and Radeloff’s cousin. In 1930, the duo fell out after he declined to pay Gordon some money he owed and she testified against him, revealing their “immoral” relationship in front of a grand jury. But the police could find no record of this hearing.
The more the police dug, the more suspects and motives they found. According to a call girl named Helen Dorf, the deceased was a “gold digger.” But Gordon was more like a central bank for criminals. She had advanced the Bronx racketeer Harry Stein funds to commit either bank fraud or start a bootlegging racket in Oslo, of all places. There was speculation that she had been involved with dope and all manner of extortionists and criminals, from Legs Diamond to Arnold Rothstein to the “Long Beach Liquor Mob.”
As the investigation revved up, reformers and educators began to speak out more boldly against corruption in city government than anyone had. John Dewey demanded reform. Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and the Reverend John Haynes Holmes demanded a “swift” investigation and a sweeping examination of corruption in Jimmy Walker’s office. Wise and Holmes were even emboldened to urge Walker to resign, which he declined to do.
In 1931, although Seabury was careful to stay out of the murder investigation and focus on corruption, he personally interviewed some witnesses relevant to the former. He was the first to hear Cassie Clayton, a friend of Gordon’s—and a possible associate of Legs Diamond’s—testify that the victim was obsessed with getting revenge on the men she believed had stolen her daughter.
By March 1, the case had attracted the attention of someone who wished to stop it. Considering that Seabury relied heavily on informants to make his case against the magistrates, it was not surprising that he received several death threats from one “Dr. X,” warning him that Gordon’s fate was evidence of what happened to “squealers.” These threats, written in longhand on telegram forms, immediately were turned over the police, but Dr. X’s identity was never determined.
Officer Andrew McLaughlin was aboard the S.S. California on a six-day Cunard line cruise to Bermuda when Gordon was murdered. After the California docked back in New York, McLaughlin was interviewed by the grand jury. At first he denied remembering anything about her. But the next day, he recalled the dead woman “flirting” with him in 1923.
Roosevelt called Seabury to Albany, probably to discuss the murder investigation, which seemed to have stalled. Asked by the New York Times if he was pursuing any particular persons of interest, Bronx District Attorney Charles McLaughlin (no relation to the patrolman) replied, “Yes, everybody in New York.”
And then on March 4 came a shocking development: Gordon’s 16-year-old daughter killed herself. “I can’t face the world,” she wrote before she turned on the gas.
The outcry from religious figures and reformers surged. Rabbi Wise and Reverend Holmes again spoke out. Two bishops deplored the “wave of lawlessness.” The murder investigation seemed to regain strength. Roosevelt announced that he would launch an investigation of corruption in New York City government. The police, he said, were “on trial.” The Pinkerton Detective Agency was called in to help with the Gordon case; old timers at the police department groused that that had never happened before. Roosevelt named Seabury “special investigator” and launched a parallel investigation into possible misconduct by the ancient Manhattan district attorney, Thomas C. Crain. While the police pursued Gordon’s murderer, special hearings were convened to determine whether there had been judicial misconduct in her 1923 arrest.
It seemed that there had been. Testifying in one of these hearings on March 9, Magistrate H. Stanley Renaud, who had seen Gordon in appellate court that year, was “flushed and nervous.” He said he didn’t remember Gordon. And the minutes of that hearing had been destroyed.
Seabury’s deputy pointed out that Vivian Gordon was a first offender and would not have ordinarily been sentenced. (One thing Seabury focused on was whether judges delivered harsher sentences to first offenders, especially those declining to reveal personal information about themselves.) Renaud evaded the question, instead referring to Bedford Reformatory as a “wonderful school” that anyone would be glad to go to. At the same time, Manhattan D.A. Crain tried to stop Seabury’s investigation into him by offering to cooperate if the judge ceased his special hearings into the magistrates.
And then on March 13, there was a break in the Gordon case. Investigators found that Officer McLaughlin had deposited $35,800 in his bank account over a period of two years when his salary was $3,000 a year. McLaughlin declined to say where he had gotten the money, citing his constitutional rights and accusing Seabury of exceeding his investigation’s authority.
At his hearing, McLaughlin was cavalier, claiming to have made as many as 1,200 vice arrests in ten years, roaming up and down Broadway arresting women, working through his lunch break. He usually worked alone, though he did not want to be called a “lone wolf.” But apparently this lone wolf, while interrogating witnesses, pummeled them with their previous crimes until they confessed to imaginary new ones.
The NYPD speedily released McLaughlin, and he was never charged with framing Vivian Gordon. Nor was the precise source of the $35,800 ever learned. The same morning, Seabury presented H. Stanley Renaud, the magistrate in Gordon’s 1923 arrest, with a table showing that witnesses who protested their innocence in his court fared worse than those who. Renaud confessed that justice had not been served in his court.
On March 18, the City Affairs Committee demanded the removal of Jimmy Walker, who was vacationing in California at the time. Walker dismissed any accusation of police corruption and denied responsibility for corruption in the courts. But the pressure on him was building.
Three weeks later, the police finally dredged up some suspects in the Gordon murder case: The racketeer Harry Stein was indicted. He pleaded not guilty, although the police had collected proof that he had disposed of Gordon’s belongings the day after she died. By May, another indictment followed: Stein’s pal Samuel Greenhauer, a tailor.
And then the police found Harry Schlitten, who was alleged to have driven the murder car. For testifying against Stein, Schlitten was given immunity. Jimmy Walker, having returned from California, applauded the police action and said the arrests proved that there had been no cover-up. Yet even before the trial began, at least some journalists were wondering whether about the convenience of it all. “If by some odd quirk of fate, Mr. Stein should be found not guilty (and what an odd quirk that should be) a good lawyer could make quite a bit of money,” the New Yorker opined.
The trial commenced on June 18. A parade of underworld figures testified. Among the most damning pieces of evidence came when Schlitten told the jury that Stein had pointed out a newspaper photo of Radeloff and identified him as the person who hired him to kill Gordon. Schlitten said Stein told him that Radeloff had threatened a gangland colleague with jail if he didn’t comply. As it turned out, both of the alleged murderers had alibis. Greenhauer was sitting shiva (mourning) for his mother, his family swore. Stein was with his sister at the movies and then a Chinese restaurant. On July 1, after just three hours of deliberation, the men were acquitted.
A representative from the grand jury that had convened in February to investigate Gordon’s death immediately presented the judge with a sworn statement saying that the verdict was a “shock.” The Bronx district attorney would later call the trial “a gross miscarriage of justice.”
The Vivian Gordon case continued to haunt New Yorkers. Seabury was never happy with the verdict. He felt that Stein and Greenhauer had materialized to cover up police corruption. He kept investigating their alibis, but to no avail. As for Walker, he would think about the Vivian Gordon case long after the trial. “There are still more frames than there are pictures,” Walker told his fans in May 1932, only a few months before Roosevelt, aided by Seabury, finally forced him to resign. It could not have happened without the dead woman in Van Cortland Park.
February 21, 2013
Lyudmila Pavlichenko arrived in Washington, D.C., in late 1942 as little more than a curiosity to the press, standing awkwardly beside her translator in her Soviet Army uniform. She spoke no English, but her mission was obvious. As a battle-tested and highly decorated lieutenant in the Red Army’s 25th Rifle Division, Pavlichenko had come on behalf of the Soviet High Command to drum up American support for a “second front” in Europe. Joseph Stalin desperately wanted the Western Allies to invade the continent, forcing the Germans to divide their forces and relieve some of the pressure on Soviet troops.
She visited with President Franklin Roosevelt, becoming the first Soviet citizen to be welcomed at the White House. Afterward, Eleanor Roosevelt asked the Ukranian-born officer to accompany her on a tour of the country and tell Americans of her experiences as a woman in combat. Pavlichenko was only 25, but she had been wounded four times in battle. She also happened to be the most successful and feared female sniper in history, with 309 confirmed kills to her credit—the majority German soldiers. She readily accepted the first lady’s offer.
She graciously fielded questions from reporters. One wanted to know if Russian women could wear makeup at the front. Pavlichenko paused; just months before, she’d survived fighting on the front line during the Siege of Sevastopol, where Soviet forces suffered considerable casualties and were forced to surrender after eight months of fighting. “There is no rule against it,” Pavlichenko said, “but who has time to think of her shiny nose when a battle is going on?”
The New York Times dubbed her the “Girl Sniper,” and other newspapers observed that she “wore no lip rouge, or makeup of any kind,” and that “there isn’t much style to her olive-green uniform.”
In New York, she was greeted by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and a representative of the International Fur and Leather Workers Union, C.I.O., who presented her with, as one paper reported, a “full-length raccoon coat of beautifully blended skins, which would be resplendent in an opera setting.” The paper lamented that such a garment would likely “go to the wars on Russia’s bloody steppes when Lyudmila Pavlichenko returns to her homeland.”
But as the tour progressed, Pavlichenko began to bristle at the questions, and her clear, dark eyes found focus. One reporter seemed to criticize the long length of her uniform skirt, implying that it made her look fat. In Boston, another reporter observed that Pavlichenko “attacked her five-course New England breakfast yesterday. American food, she thinks, is O.K.”
Soon, the Soviet sniper had had enough of the press’s sniping. “I wear my uniform with honor,” she told Time magazine. “It has the Order of Lenin on it. It has been covered with blood in battle. It is plain to see that with American women what is important is whether they wear silk underwear under their uniforms. What the uniform stands for, they have yet to learn.”
Still, Malvina Lindsey, “The Gentler Sex” columnist for the Washington Post, wondered why Pavlichenko couldn’t make more of an effort with regard to her style. “Isn’t it a part of military philosophy that an efficient warrior takes pride in his appearance?” Lindsey wrote. “Isn’t Joan of Arc always pictured in beautiful and shining armor?”
Slowly, Pavlichenko began to find her voice, holding people spellbound with stories of her youth, the devastating effect of the German invasion on her homeland, and her career in combat. In speeches across America and often before thousands, the woman sniper made the case for a U.S. commitment to fighting the Nazis in Europe. And in doing so, she drove home the point that women were not only capable, but essential to the fight.
Lyudmila Mykhailvna Pavlichenko was born in 1916 in Balaya Tserkov, a Ukranian town just outside of Kiev. Her father was a St. Petersburg factory worker father, and her mother was a teacher. Pavlichenko described herself as a tomboy who was “unruly in the class room” but athletically competitive, and who would not allow herself to be outdone by boys “in anything.”
“When a neighbor’s boy boasted of his exploits at a shooting range,” she told the crowds, “I set out to show that a girl could do as well. So I practiced a lot.” After taking a job in an arms plant, she continued to practice her marksmanship, then enrolled at Kiev University in 1937, intent on becoming a scholar and teacher. There, she competed on the track team as a sprinter and pole vaulter, and, she said, “to perfect myself in shooting, I took courses at a sniper’s school.”
She was in Odessa when the war broke out and Romanians and Germans invaded. “They wouldn’t take girls in the army, so I had to resort to all kinds of tricks to get in,” Pavlichenko recalled, noting that officials tried to steer her toward becoming a nurse. To prove that she was as skilled with a rifle as she claimed, a Red Army unit held an impromptu audition at a hill they were defending, handing her a rifle and pointing her toward a pair of Romanians who were working with the Germans. “When I picked off the two, I was accepted,” Pavlichenko said, noting that she did not count the Romanians in her tally of kills “because they were test shots.”
The young private was immediately enlisted in the Red Army’s 25th Chapayev Rifle Division, named for Vasily Chapayev, the celebrated Russian soldier and Red Army Commander during the Russian Civil War. Pavlichenko wanted to proceed immediately to the front. “I knew that my task was to shoot human beings,” she said. “In theory that was fine, but I knew that the real thing would be completely different.”
On her first day on the battlefield, she found herself close to the enemy—and paralyzed by fear, unable to raise her weapon, a Mosin-Nagant 7.62 mm rifle with a PE 4x telescope. A young Russian soldier set up his position beside her. But before they had a chance to settle in, a shot rang out and a German bullet took out her comrade. Pavlichenko was shocked into action. “He was such a nice, happy boy,” she recalled. “And he was killed just next to me. After that, nothing could stop me.”
She got the first of her 309 official kills later that day when she picked off two German scouts trying to reconnoiter the area. Pavlichenko fought in both Odessa and Moldavia and racked up the majority of her kills, which included 100 officers, until German advances forced her unit to withdraw, landing them in Sevastopol in the Crimean Peninsula. As her kill count rose, she was given more and more dangerous assignments, including the riskiest of all—countersniping, where she engaged in duels with enemy snipers. Pavlichenko never lost a single duel, notching 36 enemy sniper kills in hunts that could last all day and night (and, in one case, three days). “That was one of the tensest experiences of my life,” she said, noting the endurance and willpower it took to maintain positions for 15 or 20 hours at a stretch. “Finally,” she said of her Nazi stalker, “he made one move too many.”
In Sevastopol, German forces badly outnumbered the Russians, and Pavlichenko spent eight months in heavy fighting. “We mowed down Hitlerites like ripe grain,” she said. In May 1942, she was cited in Sevastopol by the War Council of the Southern Red Army for killing 257 of the enemy. Upon receipt of the citation, Pavlichenko, now a sergeant, promised, “I’ll get more.”
She was wounded on four separate occasions, suffered from shell shock, but remained in action until her position was bombed and she took shrapnel in her face. From that point on, the Soviets decided they’d use Pavlichenko to train new snipers. “By that time even the Germans knew of me,” she said. They attempted to bribe her, blaring messages over their radio loudspeakers.“Lyudmila Pavlichenko, come over to us. We will give you plenty of chocolate and make you a German officer.”
When the bribes did not work the Germans resorted to threats, vowing to tear her into 309 pieces—a phrase that delighted the young sniper. “They even knew my score!”
Promoted to lieutenant, Pavlichenko was pulled from combat. Just two months after leaving Sevastopol, the young officer found herself in the United States for the first time in 1942, reading press accounts of her sturdy black boots that “have known the grime and blood of battle,” and giving blunt descriptions of her day-to-day life as a sniper. Killing Nazis, she said, aroused no “complicated emotions” in her. “The only feeling I have is the great satisfaction a hunter feels who has killed a beast of prey.”
To another reporter she reiterated what she had seen in battle, and how it affected her on the front line. “Every German who remains alive will kill women, children and old folks,” she said.“Dead Germans are harmless. Therefore, if I kill a German, I am saving lives.”
Her time with Eleanor Roosevelt clearly emboldened her, and by the time they reached Chicago on their way to the West Coast, Pavlichenko had been able to brush aside the “silly questions” from the women press correspondents about “nail polish and do I curl my hair.” By Chicago, she stood before large crowds, chiding the men to support the second front. “Gentlemen,” she said, “I am 25 years old and I have killed 309 fascist occupants by now. Don’t you think, gentlemen, that you have been hiding behind my back for too long?” Her words settled on the crowd, then caused a surging roar of support.
Pavlichenko received gifts from dignitaries and admirers wherever she went—mostly rifles and pistols. The American folk singer Woody Guthrie wrote a song, “Miss Pavlichenko,” about her in 1942. She continued to speak out about the lack of a color line or segregation in the Red Army, and of gender equality, which she aimed at the American women in the crowds. “Now I am looked upon a little as a curiosity,” she said, “a subject for newspaper headlines, for anecdotes. In the Soviet Union I am looked upon as a citizen, as a fighter, as a soldier for my country.”
While women did not regularly serve in the Soviet military, Pavlichenko reminded Americans that “our women were on a basis of complete equality long before the war. From the first day of the Revolution full rights were granted the women of Soviet Russia. One of the most important things is that every woman has her own specialty. That is what actually makes them as independent as men. Soviet women have complete self-respect, because their dignity as human beings is fully recognized. Whatever we do, we are honored not just as women, but as individual personalities, as human beings. That is a very big word. Because we can be fully that, we feel no limitations because of our sex. That is why women have so naturally taken their places beside men in this war.”
On her way back to Russia, Pavlichenko stopped for a brief tour in Great Britain, where she continued to press for a second front. Back home, she was promoted to major, awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union, her country’s highest distinction, and commemorated on a Soviet postage stamp. Despite her calls for a second European front, she and Stalin would have to wait nearly two years. By then, the Soviets had finally gained the upper hand against the Germans, and Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy in June 1944.
Eventually, Pavlichenko finished her education at Kiev University and became a historian. In 1957, 15 years after Eleanor Roosevelt accompanied the young Russian sniper around America, the former first lady was touring Moscow. Because of the Cold War, a Soviet minder restricted Roosevelt’s agenda and watched her every move. Roosevelt persisted until she was granted her wish—a visit with her old friend Lyudmila Pavlichenko. Roosevelt found her living in a two-room apartment in the city, and the two chatted amiably and “with cool formality” for a moment before Pavlichenko made an excuse to pull her guest into the bedroom and shut the door. Out of the minder’s sight, Pavlichenko threw her arms around her visitor, “half-laughing, half-crying, telling her how happy she was to see her.” In whispers, the two old friends recounted their travels together, and the many friends they had met in that unlikeliest of summer tours across America 15 years before.
Articles: “Girl Sniper Calm Over Killing Nazis,” New York Times, August 29., 1942. “Girl Sniper Gets 3 Gifts in Britain,” New York Times, November 23, 1942. “Russian Students Roosevelt Guests,” New York Times, August 28, 1942. “Soviet Girl Sniper Cited For Killing 257 of Foe,” New York Times, June 1, 1942. “Guerilla Heroes Arrive for Rally,” Washington Post, August 28, 1942. Untitled Story by Scott Hart, Washington Post, August 29, 1942. “’We Must Not Cry But Fight,’ Soviet Woman Sniper Says,” Christian Science Monitor, October 21, 1942. “Step-Ins for Amazons,” The Gentler Sex by Malvina Lindsay, Washington Post, September 19, 1942. “No Color Bar in Red Army—Girl Sniper,” Chicago Defender, December 5, 1942. “Only Dead Germans Harmless, Soviet Woman Sniper Declares,” Atlanta Constitution, August 29, 1942. “Russian Heroine Gets a Fur Coat,” New York Times, September 17, 1942. “Mrs. Roosevelt, The Russian Sniper, And Me,” by E.M. Tenney, American Heritage, April 1992, Volume 43, Issue 2. “During WWII, Lyudmila Pavlichenko Sniped a Confirmed 309 Axis Soldiers, Including 36 German Snipers,” By Daven Hiskey, Today I Found Out, June 2, 2012, http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2012/06/during-wwii-lyudmila-pavlichenko-sniped-a-confirmed-309-axis-soldiers-including-36-german-snipers/ “Lieutenant Liudmila Pavlichenko to the American People,” Soviet Russia Today; volume 11, number 6, October 1942. Marxists Internet Archive, http://www.marxists.org/archive/pavlichenko/1942/10/x01.htm
Books: Henry Sakaida, Heroines of the Soviet Union, 1941-45, Osprey Publishing, Ltd., 2003. Andy Gougan, Through the Crosshairs: A History of Snipers, Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2004.
February 4, 2013
By the end of his brilliant and tortured life, the Serbian physicist, engineer and inventor Nikola Tesla was penniless and living in a small New York City hotel room. He spent days in a park surrounded by the creatures that mattered most to him—pigeons—and his sleepless nights working over mathematical equations and scientific problems in his head. That habit would confound scientists and scholars for decades after he died, in 1943. His inventions were designed and perfected in his imagination.
Tesla believed his mind to be without equal, and he wasn’t above chiding his contemporaries, such as Thomas Edison, who once hired him. “If Edison had a needle to find in a haystack,” Tesla once wrote, “he would proceed at once with the diligence of the bee to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search. I was a sorry witness of such doing that a little theory and calculation would have saved him ninety percent of his labor.”
But what his contemporaries may have been lacking in scientific talent (by Tesla’s estimation), men like Edison and George Westinghouse clearly possessed the one trait that Tesla did not—a mind for business. And in the last days of America’s Gilded Age, Nikola Tesla made a dramatic attempt to change the future of communications and power transmission around the world. He managed to convince J.P. Morgan that he was on the verge of a breakthrough, and the financier gave Tesla more than $150,000 to fund what would become a gigantic, futuristic and startling tower in the middle of Long Island, New York. In 1898, as Tesla’s plans to create a worldwide wireless transmission system became known, Wardenclyffe Tower would be Tesla’s last chance to claim the recognition and wealth that had always escaped him.
Nikola Tesla was born in modern-day Croatia in 1856; his father, Milutin, was a priest of the Serbian Orthodox Church. From an early age, he demonstrated the obsessiveness that would puzzle and amuse those around him. He could memorize entire books and store logarithmic tables in his brain. He picked up languages easily, and he could work through days and nights on only a few hours sleep.
At the age of 19, he was studying electrical engineering at the Polytechnic Institute at Graz in Austria, where he quickly established himself as a star student. He found himself in an ongoing debate with a professor over perceived design flaws in the direct-current (DC) motors that were being demonstrated in class. “In attacking the problem again I almost regretted that the struggle was soon to end,” Tesla later wrote. “I had so much energy to spare. When I undertook the task it was not with a resolve such as men often make. With me it was a sacred vow, a question of life and death. I knew that I would perish if I failed. Now I felt that the battle was won. Back in the deep recesses of the brain was the solution, but I could not yet give it outward expression.”
He would spend the next six years of his life “thinking” about electromagnetic fields and a hypothetical motor powered by alternate-current that would and should work. The thoughts obsessed him, and he was unable to focus on his schoolwork. Professors at the university warned Tesla’s father that the young scholar’s working and sleeping habits were killing him. But rather than finish his studies, Tesla became a gambling addict, lost all his tuition money, dropped out of school and suffered a nervous breakdown. It would not be his last.
In 1881, Tesla moved to Budapest, after recovering from his breakdown, and he was walking through a park with a friend, reciting poetry, when a vision came to him. There in the park, with a stick, Tesla drew a crude diagram in the dirt—a motor using the principle of rotating magnetic fields created by two or more alternating currents. While AC electrification had been employed before, there would never be a practical, working motor run on alternating current until he invented his induction motor several years later.
In June 1884, Tesla sailed for New York City and arrived with four cents in his pocket and a letter of recommendation from Charles Batchelor—a former employer—to Thomas Edison, which was purported to say, “My Dear Edison: I know two great men and you are one of them. The other is this young man!”
A meeting was arranged, and once Tesla described the engineering work he was doing, Edison, though skeptical, hired him. According to Tesla, Edison offered him $50,000 if he could improve upon the DC generation plants Edison favored. Within a few months, Tesla informed the American inventor that he had indeed improved upon Edison’s motors. Edison, Tesla noted, refused to pay up. “When you become a full-fledged American, you will appreciate an American joke,” Edison told him.
Tesla promptly quit and took a job digging ditches. But it wasn’t long before word got out that Tesla’s AC motor was worth investing in, and the Western Union Company put Tesla to work in a lab not far from Edison’s office, where he designed AC power systems that are still used around the world. “The motors I built there,” Tesla said, “were exactly as I imagined them. I made no attempt to improve the design, but merely reproduced the pictures as they appeared to my vision, and the operation was always as I expected.”
Tesla patented his AC motors and power systems, which were said to be the most valuable inventions since the telephone. Soon, George Westinghouse, recognizing that Tesla’s designs might be just what he needed in his efforts to unseat Edison’s DC current, licensed his patents for $60,000 in stocks and cash and royalties based on how much electricity Westinghouse could sell. Ultimately, he won the “War of the Currents,” but at a steep cost in litigation and competition for both Westinghouse and Edison’s General Electric Company.
Fearing ruin, Westinghouse begged Tesla for relief from the royalties Westinghouse agreed to. “Your decision determines the fate of the Westinghouse Company,” he said. Tesla, grateful to the man who had never tried to swindle him, tore up the royalty contract, walking away from millions in royalties that he was already owed and billions that would have accrued in the future. He would have been one of the wealthiest men in the world—a titan of the Gilded Age.
His work with electricity reflected just one facet of his fertile mind. Before the turn of the 20th century, Tesla had invented a powerful coil that was capable of generating high voltages and frequencies, leading to new forms of light, such as neon and fluorescent, as well as X-rays. Tesla also discovered that these coils, soon to be called “Tesla Coils,” made it possible to send and receive radio signals. He quickly filed for American patents in 1897, beating the Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi to the punch.
Tesla continued to work on his ideas for wireless transmissions when he proposed to J.P. Morgan his idea of a wireless globe. After Morgan put up the $150,000 to build the giant transmission tower, Tesla promptly hired the noted architect Stanford White of McKim, Mead, and White in New York. White, too, was smitten with Tesla’s idea. After all, Tesla was the highly acclaimed man behind Westinghouse’s success with alternating current, and when Tesla talked, he was persuasive.
“As soon as completed, it will be possible for a business man in New York to dictate instructions, and have them instantly appear in type at his office in London or elsewhere,” Tesla said at the time. “He will be able to call up, from his desk, and talk to any telephone subscriber on the globe, without any change whatever in the existing equipment. An inexpensive instrument, not bigger than a watch, will enable its bearer to hear anywhere, on sea or land, music or song, the speech of a political leader, the address of an eminent man of science, or the sermon of an eloquent clergyman, delivered in some other place, however distant. In the same manner any picture, character, drawing or print can be transferred from one to another place. Millions of such instruments can be operated from but one plant of this kind.”
White quickly got to work designing Wardenclyffe Tower in 1901, but soon after construction began it became apparent that Tesla was going to run out of money before it was finished. An appeal to Morgan for more money proved fruitless, and in the meantime investors were rushing to throw their money behind Marconi. In December 1901, Marconi successfully sent a signal from England to Newfoundland. Tesla grumbled that the Italian was using 17 of his patents, but litigation eventually favored Marconi and the commercial damage was done. (The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately upheld Tesla’s claims, clarifying Tesla’s role in the invention of the radio—but not until 1943, after he died.) Thus the Italian inventor was credited as the inventor of radio and became rich. Wardenclyffe Tower became a 186-foot-tall relic (it would be razed in 1917), and the defeat—Tesla’s worst—led to another of his breakdowns. ”It is not a dream,” Tesla said, “it is a simple feat of scientific electrical engineering, only expensive—blind, faint-hearted, doubting world!”
By 1912, Tesla began to withdraw from that doubting world. He was clearly showing signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and was potentially a high-functioning autistic. He became obsessed with cleanliness and fixated on the number three; he began shaking hands with people and washing his hands—all done in sets of three. He had to have 18 napkins on his table during meals, and would count his steps whenever he walked anywhere. He claimed to have an abnormal sensitivity to sounds, as well as an acute sense of sight, and he later wrote that he had “a violent aversion against the earrings of women,” and “the sight of a pearl would almost give me a fit.”
Near the end of his life, Tesla became fixated on pigeons, especially a specific white female, which he claimed to love almost as one would love a human being. One night, Tesla claimed the white pigeon visited him through an open window at his hotel, and he believed the bird had come to tell him she was dying. He saw “two powerful beans of light” in the bird’s eyes, he later said. “Yes, it was a real light, a powerful, dazzling, blinding light, a light more intense than I had ever produced by the most powerful lamps in my laboratory.” The pigeon died in his arms, and the inventor claimed that in that moment, he knew that he had finished his life’s work.
Nikola Tesla would go on to make news from time to time while living on the 33rd floor of the New Yorker Hotel. In 1931 he made the cover of Time magazine, which featured his inventions on his 75th birthday. And in 1934, the New York Times reported that Tesla was working on a “Death Beam” capable of knocking 10,000 enemy airplanes out of the sky. He hoped to fund a prototypical defensive weapon in the interest of world peace, but his appeals to J.P. Morgan Jr. and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain went nowhere. Tesla did, however, receive a $25,000 check from the Soviet Union, but the project languished. He died in 1943, in debt, although Westinghouse had been paying his room and board at the hotel for years.
Books: Nikola Tesla, My Inventions: The Autobiography of Nikola Tesla, Hart Brothers, Pub., 1982. Margaret Cheney, Tesla: Man Out of Time, Touchstone, 1981.
Articles: “The Problem of Increasing Human Energy With Special References to the Harnessing of the Sun’s Energy,” by Nikola Tesla, Century Magazine, June, 1900. “Reflections on the Mind of Nikola Tesla,” by R. (Chandra) Chandrasekhar, Centre for Intelligent Information Processing Systems, School of Electrical, Electronic and Computer Engineering, Augst 27, 2006, http://www.ee.uwa.edu.au/~chandra/Downloads/Tesla/MindOfTesla.html”Tesla: Live and Legacy, Tower of Dreams,” PBS.org, http://www.pbs.org/tesla/ll/ll_todre.html. ”The Cult of Nikola Tesla,” by Brian Dunning, Skeptoid #345, January 15, 2003. http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4345. “Nikola Tesla, History of Technology, The Famous Inventors Worldwide,” by David S. Zondy, Worldwide Independent Inventors Association, http://www.worldwideinvention.com/articles/details/474/Nikola-Tesla-History-of-Technology-The-famous-Inventors-Worldwide.html. “The Future of Wireless Art by Nikola Tesla,” Wireless Telegraphy & Telephony, by Walter W. Massid & Charles R. Underhill, 1908. http://www.tfcbooks.com/tesla/1908-00-00.htm
January 28, 2013
Siberian summers do not last long. The snows linger into May, and the cold weather returns again during September, freezing the taiga into a still life awesome in its desolation: endless miles of straggly pine and birch forests scattered with sleeping bears and hungry wolves; steep-sided mountains; white-water rivers that pour in torrents through the valleys; a hundred thousand icy bogs. This forest is the last and greatest of Earth’s wildernesses. It stretches from the furthest tip of Russia’s arctic regions as far south as Mongolia, and east from the Urals to the Pacific: five million square miles of nothingness, with a population, outside a handful of towns, that amounts to only a few thousand people.
When the warm days do arrive, though, the taiga blooms, and for a few short months it can seem almost welcoming. It is then that man can see most clearly into this hidden world–not on land, for the taiga can swallow whole armies of explorers, but from the air. Siberia is the source of most of Russia’s oil and mineral resources, and, over the years, even its most distant parts have been overflown by oil prospectors and surveyors on their way to backwoods camps where the work of extracting wealth is carried on.
Thus it was in the remote south of the forest in the summer of 1978. A helicopter sent to find a safe spot to land a party of geologists was skimming the treeline a hundred or so miles from the Mongolian border when it dropped into the thickly wooded valley of an unnamed tributary of the Abakan, a seething ribbon of water rushing through dangerous terrain. The valley walls were narrow, with sides that were close to vertical in places, and the skinny pine and birch trees swaying in the rotors’ downdraft were so thickly clustered that there was no chance of finding a spot to set the aircraft down. But, peering intently through his windscreen in search of a landing place, the pilot saw something that should not have been there. It was a clearing, 6,000 feet up a mountainside, wedged between the pine and larch and scored with what looked like long, dark furrows. The baffled helicopter crew made several passes before reluctantly concluding that this was evidence of human habitation—a garden that, from the size and shape of the clearing, must have been there for a long time.
It was an astounding discovery. The mountain was more than 150 miles from the nearest settlement, in a spot that had never been explored. The Soviet authorities had no records of anyone living in the district.
The four scientists sent into the district to prospect for iron ore were told about the pilots’ sighting, and it perplexed and worried them. “It’s less dangerous,” the writer Vasily Peskov notes of this part of the taiga, “to run across a wild animal than a stranger,” and rather than wait at their own temporary base, 10 miles away, the scientists decided to investigate. Led by a geologist named Galina Pismenskaya, they “chose a fine day and put gifts in our packs for our prospective friends”—though, just to be sure, she recalled, “I did check the pistol that hung at my side.”
As the intruders scrambled up the mountain, heading for the spot pinpointed by their pilots, they began to come across signs of human activity: a rough path, a staff, a log laid across a stream, and finally a small shed filled with birch-bark containers of cut-up dried potatoes. Then, Pismenskaya said,
beside a stream there was a dwelling. Blackened by time and rain, the hut was piled up on all sides with taiga rubbish—bark, poles, planks. If it hadn’t been for a window the size of my backpack pocket, it would have been hard to believe that people lived there. But they did, no doubt about it…. Our arrival had been noticed, as we could see.
The low door creaked, and the figure of a very old man emerged into the light of day, straight out of a fairy tale. Barefoot. Wearing a patched and repatched shirt made of sacking. He wore trousers of the same material, also in patches, and had an uncombed beard. His hair was disheveled. He looked frightened and was very attentive…. We had to say something, so I began: ‘Greetings, grandfather! We’ve come to visit!’
The old man did not reply immediately…. Finally, we heard a soft, uncertain voice: ‘Well, since you have traveled this far, you might as well come in.’