|Dr. Mary's Monkey||Source|
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Did inoculating millions of trusting schoolchildren with polio vaccines contaminated by monkey viruses trigger an epidemic of soft-tissue cancers?
Was a desperate effort to develop an anti-cancer vaccine diverted secretly into biological weapons?
Is there a link between these covert experiments and AIDS? And do the answers to these vexing questions connect to the intrigues swirling around the assassination of President Kennedy?
More than a spirited page-turner, this riveting fresh look at a cold-case murder mystery is bound to make its own headlines. Here is a book of profound importance that helps us fathom what has really happened in our country. The grisly homicide of a nationally-known surgeon in 1964 New Orleans set the stage for a chilling exposé of scientists and spooks in shadowy hidden laboratories.
What they did then… affects our world today!
When New Orleans native Ed Haslam began his modest investigation into the curious life and shocking death of the brilliant Tulane medical professor Dr. Mary Sherman, he couldn't have imagined that this inquiry would connect some of the city's most prominent citizens to "lone-nut" Lee Harvey Oswald, the Mafia, and to forces high inside the U.S. Government — nor that these new discoveries would ultimately change our understanding of a fateful November day in Dallas. But they have!
Edward T. Haslam is an advertising executive who has represented some of the largest corporations in America. Originally from New Orleans, he has lived in Florida since 2000.
By Jim Marrs
A Bishop in His Heart
The Cure for Communism
That Other Epidemic
The Perfect Patsy
Dedicated to my father:
Edward T. Haslam, M. D.
Commander, United States Navy
Professor of Orthopedic Surgery
Tulane University, New Orleans
A doctor committed to upholding medical ethics.
There is nothing new to learn about the assassination of JFK.
WORDS LIKE THESE HAVE BE COME ALMOST a mantra among sanctimonious media pundits and complacent publishers. The problem is that they’re not true.
In this book, Ed Haslam takes our knowledge of the dark underpinnings of the 1960s to a new level by offering a whole new look at events surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He focuses on activities in New Orleans during 1963, reaching far beyond Lee Harvey Oswald’s leafleting or his contacts with anti-Castro Cubans, government agents and mobsters.
Anyone who has seen the Oliver Stone film JFK or has read one of the many books on the assassination knows of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison’s ill-fated prosecution of International Trade Mart Director Clay Shaw.
We know of Guy Banister, the ex-FBI agent who was connected to the CIA, anti-Castro Cubans and the accused assassin Oswald. We know of David Ferrie, a defrocked priest who was connected to the Mafia, the CIA and Oswald.
Shaw was able to successfully argue that he had never met Ferrie or Oswald. Today, we know that claim is simply untrue.
It is now well-accepted that officials within the federal government of the United States of America took steps to effectively block and derail Garrison’s probe. It seemed the New Orleans investigation was at an end.
But what if all that activity in New Orleans had nothing to do with the assassination? What if there was some other reason for sabotaging Garrison’s investigation?
After all, there is not one hard piece of evidence linking the Shaw-Ferrie axis to the events in Dealey Plaza. Ferrie, the man connected to Oswald, the Mob and the CIA, never got closer to Dallas than a Houston phone booth, and there was never any serious accusation that Clay Shaw went to Dallas.
Could there have been a deeper secret reason why the Garrison investigation had to be shut off? And could that reason have had more to do with contaminated polio vaccines and the secrecy of a deadly biological weapon experiment than any plotting against President Kennedy?
In his 1995 book Mary, Ferrie & the Monkey Virus, Haslam opened a whole new can of worms when he revealed the medical experiments that had taken place in David Ferrie’s apartment in 1963.
He was one of the first to bring to the public the now well-documented story of how the polio vaccines of the 1950s was adulterated with a cancer-causing virus derived from monkey glands. Federal certification officers were aware of the possibility of the polio vaccine being defective but were pressured into approving the vaccine by powerful medical interests, including Dr. Alton Ochsner of New Orleans.
Once the magnitude of the cancer-causing viruses in the polio vaccines became known, a massive covert effort was undertaken in an attempt to find a cure or preventative. All this was clandestine work, very hush-hush. No one wanted the American public to know that the polio vaccines inoculated into millions of our citizens were contaminated with dangerous monkey viruses, perhaps causing the cancer epidemic of recent years.
But then the story took an even darker turn: the CIA began to take an interest in the work. After all, this was a time when documented efforts were under way to find a subtle way of assassinating Fidel Castro. Military and intelligence eyes sparkled at the prospect of somehow injecting Castro with cancer. His death would appear natural, and there would be no accusations from the Soviet Union.
But what was Oswald’s role in all this activity? The evidence of Oswald’s intelligence work for the U.S. Government is overwhelming. Did he become involved in a biological weapons experiment so monstrous that its secret had to be maintained at all costs?
Diligent researchers know that Oswald was playing intelligence games in New Orleans in the summer of 1963. One day he was handing out pro-Castro literature on street corners, some of it stamped with the same address as Banister’s anti-Castro office at 544 Camp Street. Another day, Oswald was offering his services to anti-Castro militant Carlos Bringuier. Oswald’s duplicity resulted in what appeared to authorities as a staged fight between Oswald and Bringuier on a New Orleans street.
Oswald was arrested for disturbing the peace. While in jail, he did not ask to see a lawyer but instead someone from the FBI. Despite being outside normal business hours, FBI Agent John Quigley arrived and spent more than an hour with Oswald, who commenced to detail his activities since arriving in New Orleans, almost as though he was making a report to superiors. Yet Oswald made no public mention of David Ferrie or his work at Ferrie’s cancer lab.
According to information gathered by Haslam, Oswald also was much more closely connected to his uncle, Charles “Dutz” Murret, and New Orleans crime lord Carlos Marcello than previously suspected.
But Haslam’s primary focus is on the strange and horrible death of Dr. Mary Sherman, whose charred body was found in her home in July 1964. She had been stabbed multiple times. Her body exhibited the effects of extreme scorching and heat, yet there was only superficial fire damage to her bed and home.
He also delves into Oswald’s work with Ferrie in the covert cancer lab and its fatal results. His research provides a plausible explanation for the caged white mice reported in Ferrie’s apartment, Oswald’s missing time at the Reily Coffee Company, and for the never fully understood trip to Clinton, LA, by Oswald, Ferrie and Shaw.
Readers of Haslam’s previous book, Mary, Ferrie & the Monkey Virus, will recall the author’s suspicion that Dr. Sherman’s death may have been the result of an accident involving a linear particle accelerator used in the cancer research. In this updated account, Haslam lays out strong evidence that just such a device was in use on the U.S. Public Health Service Hospital grounds near Tulane in the 1960s.
His previous work was embraced by the late Mary Ferrell, that indefatigable Dallas JFK assassination researcher. When asked her opinion of Haslam’s research, Mary replied, “Based on what we know today, I think it’s totally accurate.”
In this new volume, Haslam brings the one thing missing from his earlier work — a living witness.
The importance of this new testimony was summed up by consummate conspiracy debunker John McAdams, who stated, “If Judyth Vary Baker is telling the truth, it will change the way we think about the Kennedy assassination.”
Ed Haslam’s research may indeed change the way we think about the assassination, about Lee Harvey Oswald and about the greatest health scandal in history.
The tragic assassination of President John F. Kennedy may come to be seen as a mere bump in the road of a series of national scandals and conspiracies which have plagued the United States right up to today.
JIM MARRS, SPRING 2007
ON ONE LEVEL THIS BOOK is a cold-case investigation into the 1964 murder of Dr. Mary Sherman in New Orleans — a murder which remains unsolved and is remembered as one of the most mysterious ever committed in a city that has known so much mystery and so many murders. But there is more to this story than murder and mystery.
Understanding the death of this one woman unravels much of our nation’s secret history. It illuminates the darkness. It connects great medical disasters of our time to important political events of the day. It unveils the contamination of hundreds of millions of doses of the polio vaccine with dozens of monkey viruses. It spotlights the epidemic of soft tissue cancers that swept our country. And it exposes dangerous secret experiments which used radiation to mutate cancer-causing monkey viruses. It connects leaders of American medicine to the accused assassin of the President of the United States. This one murder helps us understand why we have been lied to with such conviction for so many years — and why those lies are likely to continue.
But this is not a murder mystery: fascinating perhaps, but hardly entertainment. For me, writing this book was difficult, stressful and dangerous. What began as an investigation into this single murder morphed into consideration of epidemics which killed millions of people and which cost billions of dollars. It became an investigation into an underground medical laboratory that was accidentally discovered during an investigation into the JFK assassination — a laboratory which secretly irradiated cancer-causing monkey viruses to develop a biological weapon.
This story seems to have followed me throughout my life, and its recurring pattern is eerie indeed. Had I realized its importance, I would have paid closer attention. What I do remember are fragments that I pieced together later in life: a name here, an incident there, pieces of a puzzle often separated by years of unrelated distractions. I even remember sitting on Mary Sherman’s lap once as a child. She and my father worked together at Tulane Medical School in New Orleans. They had taken a British doctor out to dinner and then to our family’s home for an after-dinner drink.
When she died in the summer of 1964, I saw my father cry for the first time. As a Navy doctor during World War II, my father had seen more than his share of burned and broken bodies. Someone (I don’t know who) had asked him to go to the morgue to look at Mary Sherman’s body to get a second opinion on her unusual death. He came home from the morgue that day, fixed himself a drink, sat down in his chair, and cried silently. I wondered what was wrong. My mother told me that a woman he knew from the office had died. It was only later that I learned it was Mary Sherman.
Seeing my father cry was memorable for me — a once in a lifetime experience. Having spent his career amputating limbs and standing in an Emergency Room making life-or-death decisions about people pulled from mangled vehicles, he was not prone to show much emotion. I mention this incident here because it is important to our story. It is how I learned about the evidence that unraveled the mystery of Mary Sherman’s murder. My father told my mother, and my mother later told me: Mary Sherman’s right arm was missing.
This key fact in the case was never told to the press. Why not? Can you imagine the O.J. Simpson trial without “the glove”? Why was the press not told the most obvious fact in this case? Who was trying to protect whom? Were there powerful forces controlling the story from the beginning? If so, what did they not want us to know? And why did they not want us to know it?
That same summer, I overheard my father complain bitterly when he learned about certain activities going on at the U.S. Public Health Service Hospital. His anger and frustration seemed out of character for this deep-keeled man. I remember his words: “We fought wars to keep people from doing things like this.”
IN THE SUMMER OF 1964 my father learned something about what had been going on at the USPHS hospital. I do not recall if this was before or after Mary Sherman’s death, but it was around that time. He was particularly insulted by the idea that it was taking place on the grounds of the U.S. Public Health Service Hospital, a facility that was supposed to protect the American public from deadly diseases.
When he vented his frustration to my mother, she reminded him that there was probably nothing he could do about it “at this point.” His response: “It's just that I gave up so much to keep stuff like this from happening.” I have always understood this comment to be about leaving the Navy and ending his admiral-track career. Despite this high price, he remained dedicated to the idea of medical ethics, a commitment he acquired from his father — a bio-chemist, veterinarian, and medical doctor who helped develop the first anthrax vaccine. Thus he was not only not a part of these secret radiation experiments, but was also disturbed to learn about them.
In the late 1960s, I heard about Mary Sherman’s connection to an underground medical laboratory run by a suspect in the murder of President Kennedy. I was told they were using monkey viruses to create cancer. The possibility of this being used as a biological weapon was clear. The dark specter of unleashing a designer virus on the world haunted me. I even offered a sarcastic comment at the time: “The good news is if there’s a bizarre global epidemic involving cancer and a monkey virus thirty years from now, at least we’ll know where it came from.”
IN 1971, during what might be described as a deathbed conversation, I confronted my father about Mary Sherman. He was getting ready to go to the hospital. For the first time in his life, he was going as a patient. His cancerous lung was scheduled to be surgically removed in the morning. We both knew that, due to his fragile health, he would probably not survive the surgery. We discussed it. We both realized that this would probably be the last conversation we would ever have with each other. He stoically gave me instructions about caring for my mother. I listened and pondered the strength of this quiet man who had seen so much death in his professional life. I studied the courage with which he faced his own.
When he finished, I acknowledged his requests and confirmed my willingness to carry out his instructions. Then I said that I had a few questions of my own. Questions that I would never be able to ask him again. Questions that I thought were important for him to answer, so that the truth would not die with him. I asked him to tell me about Mary Sherman and about all that spooky stuff that was going on at the U.S. Public Health Service Hospital. “Wasn’t she some kind of cancer expert?” I ventured.
He shook his head slowly from side to side, to let me know that he would not tell me.
I persisted. I wanted to know why he would not tell me. Solemnly he said, “There might be repercussions. I have to think about the family first. I have to protect them.”
“What if I figure it out myself?” I challenged. “I’m hardly in a position to stop you,” he said with the casual resignation of a man who never expected to see another football game. Then he collected his thoughts and, in a grave voice, he gave me this warning: “Ed, I need you to listen to me carefully. I will not be able to say this to you again. If you do figure out what happened down there and decide to tell the world what you found, I need you to realize that you will be crossing swords with the most powerful people in our country. And you should think twice before crossing them.”
THE 1980S USHERED IN THE EPIDEMICS that I had feared in the 1960s. The mainstream scientific community stated that AIDS was caused by the unexplained mutation of a monkey virus. They estimated the date of the mutation to be around 1960. The logical question (who had been mutating monkey viruses around 1960) was not even asked in the press. And, yes, I was concerned about what I had heard in New Orleans. It all sounded so similar. Could there be a connection? And if there was, was there any point in speaking up about it? Trade places with me for a moment: If you were in my shoes, would you have?
I went to medical libraries and read scientific articles hoping to find facts that would make my fears unfounded. I was anxious to find a flaw in my own argument, which would enable me to walk away from a project that was starting to consume all of my free time. I did not find the flaw, but I did find something else.
As I poured over the official cancer statistics from the National Cancer Institute, I saw the dimensions of the massive epidemic of soft-tissue cancers that had swept our country. An epidemic that had been all but ignored by our watchdog press. An epidemic that could reasonably be explained by the cancer-causing monkey viruses that had contaminated the polio vaccine of my youth. Whatever I felt my options were prior to that moment, they suddenly narrowed.
I also noticed that names connected to the polio vaccine were names connected to Mary Sherman and to the investigation of the JFK assassination. I began to suspect that these secrets were somehow intertwined. A web of secrecy surrounding our national health. Interlocking secrets that protected each other. Secrets which presented serious accountability problems for the people in power. I remembered the warning my father had given me. I could see how unwelcome this news would be in many circles.
IN THE 1990S I FOUND DOCUMENTATION and witnesses to support much of what I had heard as a child. My fears were now based in facts. I met highly-credentialed scientists who understood both the history and the science behind these events clearly, and they took my concerns seriously. Some quietly helped me find people who knew things that I needed to know. They helped me connect the dots.
Finally, I found evidence of the radioactive machine used to mutate the monkey viruses. I now had motive, opportunity and what detectives call propinquity (right people, right place, right time). I decided it was time to speak out — even if I did not have all the information in hand at the moment.
In July 1995 I self-published my story as Mary, Ferrie & the Monkey Virus: The Story of an Underground Medical Laboratory. I could only afford to print 1,000 copies, but I hoped that getting the story out might attract a publisher. After the first thousand books were gone, I could not afford a reprint. Still without a publisher, I switched tactics and started photocopying comb-bound manuscripts in batches of ten. This new technique enabled me to update the book with new information as I found it and kept me in print for years. A handful of orders trickled in each week. By the end of 1999, a second thousand books had been shipped. With copies in all fifty states and five foreign countries, I felt that “the cat” was now “out of the bag,” and I could finally go back to my advertising career and try to make a living — which I did in 2000.
It was at this exquisitely inconvenient moment that 60 Minutes, the CBS News TV show, contacted me. They were investigating a woman who said that she had been in the underground medical laboratory that I had written about in my book. That she knew Mary Sherman. That she had been trained to handle cancer-causing viruses. That she had been part of the effort to develop a biological weapon. That she knew Lee Harvey Oswald. Would I meet with them for an off-camera interview? I accepted.
By the time 60 Minutes interviewed me in November 2000, they had already interviewed their witness for hours. They got additional input from other researchers and journalists. Finally, they decided not to air her story.
Three years later, in November 2003, the History Channel aired a story about this same underground medical laboratory. It mentioned Dr. Mary Sherman, David Ferrie, and Lee Oswald, but not my book. The episode, featuring a young woman who had handled the cancer-causing monkey viruses for the secret project, was part of their series The Men Who Killed Kennedy. A week later the History Channel reversed course. The episode was withdrawn from circulation, and has not been aired again.
OUR STORY COMES FROM A FERMENTING MASH of science, secrecy, patriotism, power, paranoia and extremism. It is not a pretty picture. It involves death, disease, covert wars, and the quiet hand of power. In our path sit innocent people whom I am sure would prefer not to be involved. I apologize to them in advance. Then there are others who claim to have forgotten everything they know about this matter or who know but refuse to talk. To them I offer no apology.
This story casts a shadow that is so dark and so long that I have chosen to tell it simply. Some have said that it has the nightmarish quality of an anxiety dream. I prefer to see it in a different light. It is, as songwriter Jackson Browne once said, “the fitful dream of some greater awakening.” We are just beginning to wake up to the responsibilities of being a free society. It is much more complicated than dropping bombs on an obvious enemy. It is time we began to question what the people of power did with the trust and money we gave them.
I doubt we will ever hear the Surgeon General stand up at a press conference and acknowledge this operation. This one still possesses serious accountability problems for those who hold positions of power. Further, it comes from the land of unvouchered expenditures, where the trails of accountability were obscured by professionals decades ago.
There are reasons for such secrecy. Powerful reasons. Reasons capable of destroying careers and toppling governments. A full exposure here would threaten the treasure of our nation’s wealthiest corporations, the reputations of some of the powerful political figures of the day, and the precious confidence we give our national institutions. While we can understand why they kept these matters secret, we have a different goal.
Our task is to unmask these secrets because they were hidden from us for reasons. Powerful reasons. Reasons that affect decisions being made today. Reasons that involve politics and medicine. Reasons that affect our health and ultimately our freedom.
To investigate such secrecy is a formidable task. We tread lightly for we walk upon tender ground, over the bones of children, through sour rooms of tumor-bearing mice, and into the blood-stained bedroom of one of our nation’s most respected cancer researchers. It is here we search for knowledge that was not meant to be known. We will use published sources and official records as best we can. At times we examine these more closely and in greater detail than anyone before us. But we must be prepared to look beyond the official paper trail and to use less certain methods to find our way. Methods like oral history, personal testimony, feeble press accounts, censored government documents, and our own capable and curious intellects.
Complicating our task further is the catastrophic flood of 2005 that followed Hurricane Katrina. Irreplaceable documents (like the crime-scene photos) and precious physical evidence (like the blood-soaked gloves found in Mary Sherman’s apartment, which could still yield DNA or other clues) may have been lost forever when the waters of Lake Pontchartrain engulfed the city of New Orleans. Yet we can proceed with what we do know. As you will see, plenty of evidence had been collected previously.
You will find this book as much of a personal odyssey as a journalistic work. But that’s what happens when you investigate a murder only to discover an epidemic. Either way the destination is the same. I will tell you why I am deeply suspicious of certain activities that occurred in New Orleans in the 1960s, and why you should be too. We will begin with what I personally saw and heard over the years. To that we add years of research.
Then we get questions. Fair and honorable questions. Questions which deserve answers. Questions which have their own purpose, their own energy, even their own dignity. Questions which will eventually help us coax this Orwellian monster out of its swamp of secrecy.
EDWARD T. HASLAM, SPRING 2007
DR. MARY’s MONKEY: HOW THE UNSOLVED MURDER OF A DOCTOR, A SECRET LABORATORY IN NEW ORLEANS AND CANCER-CAUSING MONKEY VIRUSES ARE LINKED TO LEE HARVEY OSWALD, THE JFK ASSASSINATION AND EMERGING GLOBAL EPIDEMICS
Copyright © 2007 Edward T. Haslam. All rights reserved.
Book layout and cover by Ed Bishop
PO Box 577
Walterville, OR 97489
Library of Congress Control Number: 2006911309
Haslam, Edward T.
Dr. Mary’s Monkey: How the Unsolved Murder of a Doctor, a Secret Laboratory in New Orleans and Cancer-Causing Monkey Viruses are Linked to Lee Harvey Oswald, the JFK Assassination and Emerging Global Epidemics / Edward T. Haslam; with forward by Jim Marrs — 1st ed.
Epub ISBN 978-1-936296-65-1
Mobi ISBN 978-1-936296-66-8
Print ISBN 978-0-9777953-0-6 (acid-free paper)
1. Kennedy, John F. (John Fitzgerald), 1917-1963—Assassination. 2. Oswald, Lee Harvey. 3. Poliomyelitis vaccine—Contamination—History—Popular works. 4. Political Corruption—United States. 1. Title 364.1’524—dc20
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Printed in the USA
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IN THE SPRING OF 1962 I WAS A CHILD OF TEN YEARS. Those innocent, sun-filled days were spent swimming and sailing on Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans.
This particular day, my father and I had been sailing on his boat, the Interlude, a modest double-ended wooden sloop whose leaky hull showed its age. The Interlude was a noticeable step down the status ladder from the larger, newer, more glamorous boats which flanked it on the pier. Boats tend to be metaphors of their owners, and this was no exception. It was an unpretentious boat for an unpretentious man.
My father was dressed in his habitual sailing clothes, baggy khaki pants, a blue cotton shirt, and a dark blue baseball cap that covered his short-cropped head of completely grey hair. This attire was as close as he could get to his old Navy uniform, and he wore it whenever he sailed. With his omnipresent cigarette in hand, he shuffled down the concrete pier in a casual gait with me at his side. This quiet man honored simplicity and enjoyed the peace that followed a long, terrible war.
This rumpled façade concealed a complex and accomplished man who had witnessed more than his share of human suffering. The son of a country doctor, he graduated from Harvard Medical School in the late 1930s and then served as an officer in the U.S. Navy, in both the Atlantic and the Pacific, during World War II. By the end of the war, he was planning medical support for an invasion of Japan, where they anticipated one million American casualties. In 1946-47, he was stationed (with his wife and infant daughter) in the smoldering Philippines. Upon returning to the states, he left the Navy and specialized in orthopedic surgery. After several moves, he settled in New Orleans in 1952. Now he made his living teaching at Tulane Medical School, performing surgery, and working with crippled children. He sailed to relax.1
As we walked, we approached a section of the pier referred to as the Visitor’s Dock, where sailors from around the world occasionally stopped on their travels. Since New Orleans was the northern port of the Gulf of Mexico, salty boats and weathered crews frequently came straight from the Caribbean and Central America. Some of these boats were remarkably picturesque, more reminiscent of ships from “the great age of sail” than the sleek modern designs which populated yacht club harbors. This day, an exceptionally nautical-looking boat had slipped into the Visitor’s Dock while we were out sailing.
“Look, Dad! It’s a pirate ship,” I said with great excitement. The boat was a gaff-rigged schooner about fifty feet long with a carved wooden figurehead on the bow. A live parrot was perched on a cross beam in the rigging. Freshly-washed clothes were hung out to dry.
“And there’s the pirate,” I whispered, letting my wide eyes announce the importance of the news. Coming down the pier towards us was the boat’s skipper, a bare-chested barefoot gypsy, looking every bit like the Ancient Mariner himself. Never before had I seen such a character in person. His leathery skin held a deep brown tan set off sharply by his tattered sun-bleached pants cut below the knee. Long curls of grey hair haphazardly fell from under the bandanna tied around his head. On his shoulder sat a small, mischievous monkey about twelve inches tall, tethered on a leash. As we passed, the pirate smiled at us; his eyes sparkled. The monkey studied us with his small round head and big brown eyes. Despite my intrigue, I gave them a wide berth and tried not to stare, but it was difficult. My thoughts were now focused on the monkey.
I had seen plenty of monkeys before, mostly in the zoo, but I had never thought about having a monkey as a pet. We had a dog. Why not a monkey? It would be much more interesting. So I asked my father, “Dad, can I get a monkey for a pet?”
“No,” was his immediate answer. After a pause, he anticipated my next question by adding, “They carry diseases.”
I had heard my mother mention that monkeys occasionally carried rabies. I reasoned to myself for a moment: Dogs could carry rabies, but we had a dog. A vet could tell you if your dog carried rabies, so a vet should be able to tell you if your monkey carried rabies. And nothing (to my ten-year-old mind) could possibly be worse than rabies! I decided to give the monkey pet idea a second try. “Like rabies?” I countered.
“Yes,” he answered in a fat tone. “They can carry rabies, but they carry a lot of other diseases, too. Some are weird viruses that we don’t understand yet. Some of them can kill you.”
I was puzzled by his comment. I wondered how my father, an orthopedic surgeon whom the children in my family jokingly referred to as “old sawbones,” knew about weird monkey viruses which were still being researched at the leading edge of medical science. So I asked him, “Where did you learn about that?” He paused to take a long drag off his cigarette and seemed to be thinking about the question. In the interim I decided to speculate: “Did you learn about that in the Philippines?”
“No,” he said, blowing out his cigarette smoke in a short breath. “I don’t suppose there’s any harm in telling my ten-year-old son” as if talking to a cloud. Then he turned to me and said, “They’re researching monkey viruses down at the med school. Some of the more deadly ones are coming in from Africa.”
Africa?!!! I may have been ten years old, but I did not need Joseph Conrad to tell me that Africa was mysterious. From what I had seen in school and on television, Africa was a wild, poverty-stricken continent riddled with starvation and horrifying diseases. It was also full of bizarre forms of life which defied your imagination, like ants the size of your foot and snakes as long as your car. I was not interested in catching any weird fatal virus from Africa, no matter how cute the monkey. I wondered if the pirate knew the danger he was in.
The fact that these diseases obviously concerned my father more than rabies made a huge impression upon me. His comments ended my desire for a pet monkey, but they were the beginning of my curiosity about the monkey virus research being conducted in New Orleans. My first real question arose from my dad’s cautiousness: Why were Tulane’s doctors not supposed to talk about the monkey virus research program?
1 My father was a limb surgeon whose specialties were reconstructive surgery and the rehabilitation of amputees. He was President of the Crippled Children’s Hospital and Medical Director of the Physical Rehabilitation Center at Delgado College. He knew Mary Sherman because they both taught orthopedic surgery at Tulane Medical School in the 1950s and early ‘60s. He never worked at Ochsner’s clinic or hospital. He was not a virus researcher and was not involved in the underground medical laboratory in any way.
SEVERAL DAYS AFTER THE PIRATE INCIDENT we had a substitute teacher at school. In the middle of the day she turned her attention to science and started talking about germs and diseases. She reviewed the basics about how germs caused diseases and how our bodies fought back. She went on to explain the differences among bacteria, fungi, and viruses. As her lecture continued, she confidently explained how modern medicine had triumphed over bacteria and fungi with medicines and antibiotics. Then she moved the discussion to the frontier of medicine, where researchers were battling the mysterious world of viruses.
I raised my hand to make a contribution to the discussion: They were researching viruses down at Tulane Medical School. (I knew the monkey subject was taboo, so I did not mention it.) “No,” she said immediately, and turning toward the entire class, she said, “That’s wrong,” in a definitive voice. “Tulane is just a college and its purpose is to teach students, not to do research. Virus research,” she continued, “is a very complex subject and is only done by very intelligent specialists at faraway places like Harvard and Johns Hopkins universities and at special government research centers which have special equipment.”
I was embarrassed by her response, but there was nothing I could do about it. I knew she was both right and wrong. Tulane’s faculty was full of people from Harvard and Hopkins. My father was one of them. Many of them were doing research. For over 100 years the reputation of Tulane had been based on battling tropical diseases like yellow fever and malaria.
It was true that the names Harvard and Johns Hopkins were in the news more often than Tulane, each time announcing some medical breakthrough or at least updating the public on their progress in fighting some dreaded disease. Other than announcing its pathetic football scores, Tulane’s name hardly ever appeared in the local press. Public news about Tulane Medical School was basically non-existent in the 1960s.2 The teacher had stated the public’s perception accurately enough. More importantly, I knew that nothing I could say would change her mind. More than likely she just could not grasp that idea that something “local” might be important. Beaten for the moment, I held my tongue.
2 Tulane did publish the Bulletin of the Tulane Medical School, but it was an industry relations piece sent to other medical schools.
THE NEXT TIME I HAD A CHANCE to talk to my father I asked him why it was that we always heard on the news about the medical research being done at faraway places like Harvard and Johns Hopkins, but we never heard about the research being conducted at Tulane.
“Not everybody wants publicity,” he patiently explained. “Yes, some people do research because they want to be famous and tell the world how great they are; but other people are not interested in publicity, and they do research to get information and knowledge. It’s just part of being involved in academic medicine.”
While I understood that he was trying to communicate the nobility of quiet scholarship, his answer did not make sense to me. Such an explanation might explain the bragging of an upstart school, but it did not explain why we heard about research from first-class schools like Harvard and Hopkins, but not Tulane. I thought about his comment for a minute and asked, “What sort of people wouldn’t want the public to know about their research?”
He hid his exasperation with my relentless questioning in his quiet bedside manner, and said that much of the research at Tulane was financed by money from drug companies and from the U.S. government. These grants were frequently for experiments with drugs that were not yet ready for the public. Therefore, there was no reason to tell the public about them.
That still did not answer the question to my satisfaction. Sooner or later those drugs would be ready, but somehow I knew we still would not hear about them. The not-ready-yet argument was as true for Harvard and Hopkins as for Tulane. But I did understand his main points clearly. First, Tulane did not have enough money to fund its own research and was dependent upon others, like drug companies and the U.S. government, who consequently dictated what was to be researched and what was to be talked about. And secondly, Tulane Medical School did not get publicity because it did not want publicity. While this was not much of a victory for me, at least I understood why the teacher and the public did not know about Tulane’s virus research programs.
Actually there were some very good reasons to keep subjects like researching monkey viruses quiet. The main ones were (1) potential public panic over an accidental epidemic, (2) growing public pressure from the animal rights movement, and (3) the secrecy demanded by covert operations.
The possibility of public panic over an accidental epidemic was a real and present danger to both researchers and their financial backers. One bad incident might trigger a public outcry that would effectively shut down all such research for years. The possibility of such an accidental epidemic was very real, and the scientists knew it.3
During the early 1960s there were numerous outbreaks of infectious diseases among the animal handlers in monkey labs around the country.4 Waterborne diseases were transferred through saliva, moisture in the breath, and urine. They could be caught just by being around the primates. Cleaning out animal cages was dangerous. Feeding a monkey was dangerous. Taking a monkey out of a cage was dangerous. Holding a monkey was dangerous. Primates are intelligent mammals, and they quickly figured out that a trip with a handler often meant getting stuck with needles, or having the top of the skull chopped off with a power saw, or being injected with psychoactive drugs. The monkeys fought back. They bit their handlers. They urinated on them. They tried to escape. Monkey handlers who drew blood from one cancerous monkey to inject it into another occasionally stabbed themselves with needles full of blood laced with carcinogenic monkey viruses.5 The dangers were enormous, and the controls were feeble by today’s standards. The generality of all this is well documented in medical libraries around the country. One book published during the 1960s made the point clearly in its title, The Hazards of Handling Simians, and listed the numerous outbreaks of diseases in the primate research facilities during the previous two decades.6
Then, the monkey handlers would go home and resume their normal lives, including sexual activities. The potential for zoonoses (diseases jumping from animal to man) was very real, and the medical community knew it.
Consider these comments written in the 1960s by Richard Fiennes, Britain’s leading primate researcher, about the dangers of primate research:
There is … a serious danger that viruses from such closely related groups as the simian primates could show an altered pathogenesis in man, of which malignancy could be a feature. The dangers of such happening are enhanced by man’s exposure in crowded cities to oncogenic agents and increased radiation hazards …
The danger of transmitting simian viruses in vaccines is a real and alarming one …
The further danger is that simian viruses might become adapted to human populations, and spread with appalling rapidity, and under circumstances in which there were no possible immediate means of control …
Knowledge of prophylaxis against viral diseases is in its infancy, and time must elapse before any effective vaccine could be prepared, tested, and manufactured in bulk to protect populations against a pandemic caused by a new virus …
Plainly, it is in the realms of virology that primate zoonoses present the greatest danger …
Far too little is known of the virology of simians …7
Does this sound familiar? Does it not predict the current AIDS epidemic? Speaking further of this danger, Fiennes discussed O’nyong-nyong, a mildly lethal virus that swept Africa:
Had O’nyong-nyong been attended by a high death-rate… the human population of a large part of East and Central Africa would have virtually ceased to exist. To such an extent, in spite of twentieth-century medicine, is man still vulnerable to attack from new viruses.8
The danger was real. The fear of public panic was real. With experimental animals, unpredictable viruses and exposed animal handlers intermingled in a sweltering tropical city of nearly a million people (like New Orleans), the opportunity for a biological disaster was ripe.
The idea of an epidemic suddenly sweeping the streets of an American city was not foreign to the public. In fact, a movie called Panic in the Streets won the Academy Award for best screenplay in 1952. Panic in the Streets depicted a U.S. Public Health Service officer battling a modern day outbreak of bubonic plague on the streets of New Orleans. But the press of the 1950s and 1960s either did not consider the public’s interest in medical matters substantial enough to warrant coverage, or they felt they had a higher duty to prevent public panic. Either way, the press did a poor job of covering the issue then. But, they do a better job of covering it today.
For example, an accident occurred at a Yale laboratory in the 1990s. The headline in Time shouted, “A Deadly Virus Escapes.” The sub-headline continued, “Concerns about lab security arise as a mysterious disease from Brazil strikes a Yale researcher.”9 The researcher worked at a Biohazard-3 lab and was studying a rare, potentially lethal virus when he broke a test tube. He failed to report the incident, which sprayed this virus into his nostrils. Instead, he went to visit friends in Boston. When the incident was discovered, the researcher was quarantined, and his friends were put under medical surveillance. The article concluded, “If researchers do not tighten some of their procedures, the next outbreak might not be so benign.” All of which makes one wonder: What safety procedures were enforced in the monkey labs of the 1960s? And what procedures would have been followed in an underground medical laboratory with no visible sponsor?
3 An outbreak of infectious hepatitis was reported in New Orleans in 1962 by A. Riopelle and J.F. Molloy: “Infectious Hepatitis at Yerkes Laboratories of Primate Biology,” Laboratory Primate Newsletter, 1962, Vol. 1 (4), p. 12. See also Fiennes, Zoonoses of Primates as related to Human Disease (Cornell, 1965), p. 146.
4 Fiennes, Zoonoses of Primates, p. 142, plus Hazards of Handling Simians (International Association of Microbiological Associations, 1969).
5 Allison, A.C., “Simian Oncogenic Viruses,” Hazards of Handling Simians, p. 172.
6 Hazards of Handling Simians (International Association of Microbiological Associations, 1969), table.
7 Fiennes, Zoonoses of Primates, pp. 144-150.
8 Ibid., p. 149
9 Lemonick, Michael D., “A Deadly Virus Escapes,” Time magazine, September 5, 1994, p. 63.
To understand the type and extent of monkey virus research being done in medical schools in the 1950s and 1960s, I went to medical libraries and started reading the history of virology. While even an overview of these activities is beyond our scope at the moment, there are a few points worth mentioning. First is that it was well established in these medical research circles around the world prior to 1960 that certain monkey viruses caused various types of cancer, including cancers of the skin, lungs, and bones.10
Secondly, experimentation with carcinogenic viruses was widespread throughout the network of primate research centers, from the U.S., to Europe, to the U.S.S.R. Blood, tumor cells, and viral extracts were routinely taken from a variety of animals and injected into monkeys like a game of viral roulette. One lab created tumors in as little as eight days.11 Another lab injected human volunteers with the known cancer-causing monkey viruses to observe the effects.12
New diseases started to appear — diseases which were unknown in the wild. One such disease that first appeared in the lab is now called SAIDS or Simian AIDS.13 It occurred when African monkey viruses were given to Asian monkeys. SIV, the retrovirus that collapsed the immune systems of Asian monkeys, did not cause disease in its natural host, the African Green monkey.14
In addition to viral roulette, researchers experimented with radiation therapy, beaming x-rays and gamma rays directly into tumors to encourage remission. The medical researchers of the 1960s irradiated tumors in laboratory animals, including primates, and shot radiation directly into the tumors of human patients.15 Think this one through before we proceed. When you shoot a radioactive beam at a tumor, you not only hit the tumor, but you also hit the blood and viruses in and around the tumor. Was the type of radiation used to dissolve cancer tumors strong enough and focused enough to damage the DNA and RNA of the viruses floating in the patient’s blood?
At this point, the medically sophisticated reader might say, “Wait a minute! The radiation exposure of a clinical x-ray machine does minimal damage to DNA or RNA, and very many people receive very many x-rays without getting cancer.” And this is true where we are talking about the exposure and energy levels associated with common clinical use, which have been clinically established as relatively safe for humans.
However, in the late 1950s a powerful new device emerged from the physics lab and quietly began to be distributed to selected medical research facilities. It was called a linear particle accelerator.16 Never before had a machine of this magnitude been put into the commercial workplace. You might think of it as a poor-man’s atom-smasher. These high-voltage scientific machines were capable of doing things never done before, and they spawned new ultra-hi-tech applications that stretched the imagination. Their basic capabilities included producing high-energy radiation and hurling sub-atomic particles near the speed of light into whatever object one desired.17 To illustrate their ability to change things generally considered to be unchangeable, let’s look at a commercial application of a linear accelerator in South Africa. Shooting subatomic particles through imperfect yellow diamonds stripped the impurities out of the yellow diamonds and turned them into clear marketable white diamonds. These linear accelerators were capable of destroying anything in their path. There is nothing they could not cut, if directed to do so.
This particular point was dramatically demonstrated by a man named Jack Nygard, an engineer at a company in Boston which manufactured linear accelerators.18 Nygard developed ingenious new commercial applications for linear accelerators, from preserving bananas to cross-bonding wood. By shooting particles laterally through plastic-laminated wood, Nygard created a new structural matrix inside the wood. The result was an ultra-hard super-wood that would never warp. It was the perfect low-maintenance solution for the bowling industry. Nygard turned entrepreneur and set up shop in the heart of the lumber industry near Seattle, Washington, where he began producing his super-wood on a commercial scale. His success continued until the day the technician running his accelerator did not notice that Jack had stepped into the wood-processing area. When the technician flipped the switch on the 5,000,000 volt machine, it was the last anyone ever saw of Jack Nygard.19 The beam of electro-magnetic radiation burned him to the point of disintegration. They swept up his ashes. (Or so the story goes.)
The medical applications of linear particle accelerators included destroying cancer tissue and conducting various types of viral and genetic research. These machines were quite capable of either killing viruses or simply mangling the molecules in the genome necessary for reproduction.
In the field of virus research, radioactive medical experiments greatly increased the danger of an already dangerous scenario. They introduced the capability of mutating viruses already known to be deadly, and raised the possibility of creating both new vaccines and new super-diseases.
Some of the scientists involved in the field of monkey virus experiments got extremely nervous about the dangers of such experiments, and warned their colleagues in the mid-1960s that if one of these monkey viruses mutated into a more lethal form and got into the human blood supply, there could be a global epidemic which would be unstoppable, given the current level of medical knowledge!20
In 1959, the U.S. Congress finally took the danger of an accidental monkey virus epidemic seriously, and financed seven regional primate centers in order to get the experiments out of the cities.21
In Louisiana, the Delta Regional Primate Center opened its doors in November 1964 with Tulane University serving as the host institution.22 This took the monkey virus research out of downtown New Orleans and put it in 500 wooded acres near Covington, Louisiana, across Lake Pontchartrain. Today that laboratory has over 4,000 primates, thirty scientists, and 130 support workers, plus a public relations director whose job it is to boast of the center’s virus research, especially on AIDS, and to point to the improvements in lab security, such as the high-security zone, where researchers and staff shower and change clothes before approaching or leaving the 500 monkeys infected with simian AIDS. Despite these security measures, Delta was back in the headlines in 1994, when eighty-three monkeys escaped. The public was told to call Delta to report any monkeys seen swinging through the trees,23 the center having claimed the week before that nearly all of them had been captured.24
The Delta primate lab’s $4,000,000 per year operating budget comes directly from the U.S. government’s National Institutes of Health, as it has for the past forty years. One critic of animal research, Dr. Peggy Carlson of the Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine, claimed that animal research is big business, and said, “They are taking money away from other areas and dumping it into a sinkhole.”25 Other critics opposed animal research on humanitarian grounds, many believing that animal research actually contributes more to advancing professional careers than to advancing human medicine.
A case in point involved ten monkeys, which were transferred to the Delta Regional Primate Center from Silver Springs laboratory after their infamous experiments triggered a national animal-rights debate in the 1980s. Delta terminated eight of the monkeys following heavy-handed experiments. The other two monkeys which had their spinal cords deliberately severed at Silver Springs in the mid-1980s were kept alive at the Delta Regional Primate Center until the early-1990s.26
Dana Dorson, an activist from a group called Legislation in Support of Animals, saw little improvement in the new experimental oversight procedures: “Those committees just rubber stamp whatever is presented to them.”27 Attempting to counter the animal rights critics, Delta Regional Primate Center’s director Peter Gerone said, “Sometimes the public perception is that we do anything we want to monkeys, but that’s a myth. Maybe it was like that thirty years ago, but it’s not like that now.”28
OK, so just what was it like then? Gerone surely knew. A virologist, Gerone had been director of the Delta Primate Center for twenty-three years before making that statement in 1994. Appointed in 1971, he had left the U.S. Army’s Biological Warfare Center at Fort Detrick, where he had been one of their experts on airborne transmission of diseases.29 In 1975 he collaborated with representatives of the Defense Nuclear Agency, the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, and the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases to attend an NCI-sponsored symposium on “Biohazards and Zoonotic Problems of Primate Procurement, Quarantine, and Research.” There he presented his paper on “Biohazards of Experimentally Infected Primates.”30
10 Petrov, a Soviet scientist, used viruses to produce bone cancer in monkeys in 1951: Lapin, B.A., et al., “Use of Non-Human Primates in Medical Research, Especially in the Study of Cardiovascular Pathology and Oncology,” Institute of Experimental Pathology and Therapy, U.S.S.R., in Some Recent Developments in Comparative Medicine (London: 1966), ed. Richard Fiennes, p. 204. In the U.S., in 1957, Stewart and Eddy discovered “polyoma,” a virus that caused a variety of cancers in various animals; reported in Edward Shorter, The Health Century (New York, 1987), p. 198. By 1959, polyoma was considered to be essentially the same as SV-40, a monkey virus that caused various cancers in a variety of animals: Ibid., p. 201.
11 Lapin, “The Use of Non-Human Primates…,” Some Recent Developments in Comparative Medicine, ed. Fiennes, p. 206; also Spencer Munroe, “Viral Oncogenesis in the Rhesus Monkey,” Ibid., p. 229; also J.S. Munroe & W.F. Windle, “Tumors induced in Primates by a Chicken Sarcoma Virus,” Science (1963), vol. 140, p. 1415.
12 Grace, J. T. Jr. & E. A. Mirand, “Human Susceptibility to a Simian Tumor Virus,” Annals of the N.Y. Academy of Science (1963), vol. 108, p.1123.
13 Essex, Max & Phyllis J. Kanki, “The Origins of the AIDS Virus,” Science of AIDS: A Scientific American Reader (New York, 1989), p. 30.
14 Ibid., p. 32.
15 Three references to the use of radiation on tumors can be found in Tumors of Bone and Soft Tissue (Chicago: 1964). In “Histogenesis of Bone Tumors,” p. 16, Mary Sherman discusses genetic damage inflicted on cells by irradiation. In “Giant Cell Tumor of Bone,” p. 166, Sherman questions the claim that x-ray therapy turns benign tumors into deadly sarcomas. On p. 10 R. Lee Clark says, “X-ray therapy in the management of soft tissue of tumors is almost limited to Kaposi’s sarcoma.”
16 “The New War on Cancer via Virus Research and Chemotherapy,” Time, July 27, 1959, p. 54.
17 Dr. John Roberts, surgeon and president of the Medical Legal Foundation, interviewed by author, October 3, 1994. Roberts was one of the doctors who used linear particle accelerators to destroy cancer tissue, preferring it to Cobalt-60 because it could be controlled more precisely, minimizing destruction of healthy tissue.
18 Roberts interview.
19 Roberts interview.
20 Fiennes, Zoonoses of Primates, p. 149.
21 Eyestone, Willard H., “Scientific and Administrative Concepts Behind the Establishment of the U.S. Primate Centers,” Some Recent Developments in Comparative Medicine, ed. Fiennes, p. 2.
22 Ibid., p. 6.
23 Willits, Stacy, “Escapees Swinging Through Trees,” Times-Picayune/States-Item (New Orleans), September 1, 1994, Metro News
24 Willits, Stacy, “Primate Center Back in Spotlight,” Times-Picayune (New Orleans), September 8, 1994, p. B-1.
25 Ibid.,” p. B-2.
26 Guillermo, Kathy Snow, Monkey Business (Washington, 1993). This book chronicles the decade-long battle between two tenacious whistleblowers and the federal government over extreme animal cruelty in the name of science. The level of animal cruelty described in this book can only be described with words like “mutilation” and “torture.” Criminal charges resulted. In the process, the whistleblowers founded PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and took their battle to both the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court ruled in their favor, but not soon enough to save 60% of the monkeys from further experimentation and death. Scientific experimentation on monkeys continues today and is financed annually by $20,000,000 of U.S. taxpayer dollars.
27 Willits, “Escapees Swinging Through Trees.” Times-Picayune (New Orleans) September 1, 1994, Metro News
28 Willits, “Primate Center Back in Spotlight.” Times-Picayune (New Orleans) September 8, 1994, p. B-1
29 Guillermo, Monkey Business, p. 173.
30 Richard Hatch, “Cancer Warfare,” Covert Action, Winter 1991-92, p.18.
I CAN SAY FROM PERSONAL EXPERIENCE THAT despite the establishment of the Delta Regional Primate Center in 1964, other primate research continued at Tulane Medical School in downtown New Orleans for years to come.
One day in the spring of 1970 I had gone down to the Tulane Medical School to help my father with a clerical project. After several hours I took a break and, as a distraction, set out to explore the mysteries of the medical school. Near the elevator on one floor, I found an incredible display of mutated human fetuses stored in glass jars. This mind-boggling collection of genetic malfunctions featured two-headed babies, Mongoloid fetuses, and Siamese twins. I decided to explore the other floors to see what else they had.
At the end of one hall I found an open door and a room full of cages. Inside there were monkeys. Each appeared to be wearing a flat-topped organ grinder’s hat. But a closer look revealed these were not hats.
A voice came from inside the room. “Come in. Come in. Who are you? And what can I do for you?” A professor sat in his chair looking at me, his head cocked to one side. He was dressed casually, a plaid shirt, no coat, no tie, no medical jacket. I introduced myself saying that I was visiting my father who was a professor in orthopedics. He invited me to come in and see the monkeys. He explained that the tops of their skulls had been removed with a bone saw and electrodes had been placed deep inside their brains. He held a sample electrode up for me to see.
It was a copper wire with a silver ball on the end which acted like a microphone inside the monkey’s brain, sensing and amplifying electrical signals. Once fifteen or so of these electrodes were implanted in the monkey’s brain, they were soldered to a data plug which was then glued to the monkey’s skull. Once everything was in place, the monkeys would be plugged into a electronic data-collection machine, similar to an EEG, and then injected with experimental psychoactive drugs. The machine measured the reaction of the various parts of their brains to the drugs. The professor held up a haphazardly folded scroll of paper full of squiggly lines to show me how the raw data was collected. “It’s amazing work,” I commented gesturing to the monkeys.
“Putting in the plugs is nothing,” he said in a tone that could only be described as arrogant. “The technicians do that. The hard part is figuring out what’s happening inside their brains.” I thanked him and left. I had to get back to my task.
FROM WHAT I CAN FIND IN THE MEDICAL LIBRARIES, the history of primate research in America started with psychology experiments. An American psychologist named Robert Yerkes originally became famous for developing and administering the first large-scale intelligence test to American soldiers during World War I. Later, as a professor at Yale, Yerkes started exploring the biological basis for intelligence by comparing the brain functions of a wide variety of animals. He called this niche “psycho-biology.” In the 1920s Yerkes went further still, getting as close to the human brain as he could, by dissecting and analyzing the brains of gorillas and other high primates. His 1924 book The Mind of the Gorilla catapulted him to become the world’s leading authority on brain function. In 1928 he established the first large-scale scientific primate laboratory for Yale University, not in Connecticut, but in the warmer suburbs of Jacksonville, Florida.31 There they used lobotomies and other techniques to isolate brain function further. In 1942 the laboratory was renamed in his honor. The Yerkes lab was eventually moved to Emory University in Atlanta, nearer the Center for Disease Control. Today it is one of the seven federally funded primate research centers. Only seven, if you do not count the U.S. military’s primate laboratories.
For some reason, before the Delta Regional Primate Center was established, the Tulane/LSU monkey lab was unofficially referred to as the “Yerkes lab.” I say this mostly from personal experience. Growing up I repeatedly heard the New Orleans lab referred to as “ Yerkes.” As my seventh grade teacher put it, “It’s not the famous Yerkes lab, but it’s like the Yerkes lab.” During the course of researching and writing this book, I heard three separate people refer to the Delta primate lab as “Yerkes.” Further, I found a reference in a 1967 medical book to “an outbreak of hepatitis at Yerkes in New Orleans,”32 reported by Dr. Arthur Riopelle in 1963, a year before the Delta Regional Primate Center opened.
Dr. Riopelle was a psychologist specializing in brain function at the LSU Medical School in New Orleans, and he soon became the first director of the Delta Regional Primate Center. I wrote him a letter asking for clarification on the Yerkes name. He did not write back. The use of the Yerkes name for a lab in New Orleans remains somewhat of a mystery to me. But it certainly would have helped deflect any reports of misconduct in a lab if one circulated the name of another lab hundreds of miles away. When confronted with an accusation, one could say, “What are you talking about? The Yerkes lab is in Florida. You must be confused.”
Monkey research in the 1930s and 1940s was by no means confined to psychology. Monkeys were the primary means of studying many viruses, including polio. Then in the late 1940s John F. Enders, a microbiologist from Harvard, and several students figured out how to grow viruses in a test tube full of human cells. At the time, the breakthrough was hailed as the end of the monkey era.33 Today, however, there are approximately 20,000 monkeys sitting in cages in scientific laboratories across the country who might disagree with that prediction.
The second reason for maintaining a low profile was that the animal rights movement was just starting to grow. Anti-vivisectionists groups were protesting the treatment of experimental animals, and were distributing literature which showed the horrors of life and death in the animal labs. Keeping a low profile prevented such publicity from creating negative pressures on researchers and their employers.
The third reason for keeping a low profile was the secrecy demanded by covert Cold War operations. Simply said, Tulane was conducting sensitive research for the U.S. government, some of which was for the CIA. This was as much a matter of political pork as national security. Louisiana had one of the most powerful delegations in Washington, and much of that power was concentrated in the hands of legislators who controlled the military budgets. Congress works on the seniority system, and very few people had been in Washington longer than Louisiana’s most powerful members:
F. EDWARD EBERT, Chairman of Armed Services Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. Taxes start in the House, and budgets start in Committee. As Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, the entire U.S. military budget and the vast majority of the CIA budget started on Hebert’s desk. One of his jobs was to hide most of the CIA budget in the U.S. military budget. He was known as “the military’s best friend.”34
ALLEN ELLENDER had been in the U.S. Senate for over 40 years. He was the senior senator when Huey Long was the junior senator in 1930s. Ellender sat on the Armed Services Committee of the U.S. Senate and got Hebert’s budget through the Senate. Between the two, they made sure that Louisiana received its fair share of military and space contracts.35
RUSSELL LONG, the son of Huey Long, was Majority Whip of the U.S. Senate, Chairman of the Senate’s powerful Ways and Means Committee, and a member of the Senate Banking Committee.
HALE BOGGS, Majority Whip of the U.S. House of Representatives, was the 3rd most powerful man in that body, and was considered by many to be LBJ’s “man-in-the-House.”
TULANE WAS A MAJOR WATERING HOLE for the Louisiana delegation, and it got “pork” whenever they could dish it out. Hebert and Ellender were in terrific position to assure that Tulane received pork in the form of CIA research contracts. CIA projects were hidden from both Soviet and American scrutiny by placing them in other agencies’ budgets, such as the National Institutes of Health, in the various military branches, or in private foundations.36 From what I heard through Tulane’s student grapevine over the years, I must conclude that Tulane was definitely involved in both NIH- and CIA-sponsored projects, especially research with psychoactive drugs.
31 Eyestone, Willard H., “Scientific and Administrative Concepts Behind the Establishment of the U.S. Primate Centers,” Some Recent Developments in Comparative Medicine, ed. Fiennes., p. 6.
32 Fiennes, Zoonoses of Primates, p. 142; A. Riopelle and J.F. Molloy, “Infectious Hepatitis at Yerkes Laboratories of Primate Biology,” Laboratory Primate Newsletter, 1962, vol. 1-4, p. 12.
33 Shorter, Health Century, p. 65.
34 Word-of-mouth description of Congressman Hebert which this author personally heard in his district in the 1960s.
35 Not the least of which was the NASA facility that builds the huge fuel tank for the space shuttle. Vice-President Lyndon Johnson was head of NASA when this facility was announced, and President when it was built.
36 Marks, John, Search for the Manchurian Candidate (New York, 1980).
See footnote 37
Why would the CIA be interested in doing medical research? There were three main reasons: (1) mind control, (2) to get rid of Castro or other foreign leaders, and (3) to keep up with the Soviets.
First, mind control. The CIA’s much-publicized LSD experiments were just the beginning of their efforts to get people to talk when they wanted, to sleep when they wanted, and to kill when they wanted. Their general mind-control project was called OPERATION ARTICHOKE.38
Secondly, the CIA was trying to get rid of Fidel Castro and Communism in the Western Hemisphere. They tried to use their mind-altering resources and other medical tactics to discredit Castro. The project was called MKULTRA.39 One specific plan was to spray a hallucinogenic drug in Castro’s personal radio studio, so that he would make a fool out of himself during a national radio broadcast. Then they decided to kill him. Their new team was called ZR-RIFLE, and its job was to explore exotic ways of advancing the date of his death.40 The CIA’s medical director for these projects was brain-function expert Dr. Sidney Gottlieb.41
(The name “ Gottlieb” shows up frequently in AIDS literature. Dr. Michael S. Gottlieb is an immunologist at UCLA Medical School who “discovered AIDS” in 1981. Dr. A. Arthur Gottlieb is also an immunologist and is a professor at Tulane Medical School, as is his wife. In 1972 A. Arthur Gottlieb was chosen by the U.S. Army’s Biological Warfare Laboratory at Fort Detrick, Maryland to edit its book on infectious diseases.42 Please note that I have no information to suggest whether or not there is any relationship between Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, Dr. Michael S. Gottlieb, or Dr. A. Arthur Gottlieb, so the reader should be cautious about any such conclusions.)
One of the best sources of information on “The Secret War Against Cuba” is a book called Deadly Secrets: The CIA-Mafia War Against Castro and the Assassination of J.F.K., written by Warren Hinckle and William Turner. Turner is an ex-FBI agent who specialized in the political right. He worked with Jim Garrison on his JFK probe and was inside David Ferrie’s apartment. His writing partner Warren Hinckle was editor of Ramparts magazine. In Deadly Secrets they made numerous references to the fact that the CIA was getting the best minds in America, and particularly from the universities, involved in figuring out exotic ways to eliminate Castro and his government from Cuba.43
Hinckle and Turner explained the frustration of the Kennedy White House. After spending hundreds of millions of dollars and recruiting thousands of Cuban exiles for OPERATION Mongoose (a free Cuba paramilitary operation based on the campus of the University of Miami), the Kennedy brothers wanted to see some action. They pressured the CIA for more tangible and immediate results and encouraged the use of alternative means to remove Castro and Communism from Cuba. Consider this passage:
… The pressure for more spectacular results was on Lansdale (CIA), who was in almost daily contact with the attorney general (Bobby Kennedy). He passed the pressure on to an interagency group formulating plans for approval by the SGA (Special Group Augmented — a CIA/White House task force focused on Cuba), saying that “it is our job to put the American genius to work on this project, quickly and effectively. This demands a change from the business as usual and a hard facing of the fact that we are in a combat situation — where we have been given full command.”
Lansdale hinted that “we might uncork the touchdown play independently of the institutional program we are spurring.”44
Other than naming the University of Miami, Deadly Secrets does not say which universities were involved. Was Tulane one of the universities asked “to put the American genius to work”? It certainly would have fit into the economic interests and anti-Communist sentiment of the New Orleans business community. It would have fit into the tradition of close cooperation between CIA officials and certain members of the Tulane Board, most notably Sam Zemurray (who was chairman of both the United Fruit Company and the Tulane University Board of Directors in 1954, when the CIA produced a coup d’etat in Guatemala to reclaim 250,000 acres of United Fruit land which had been nationalized by Guatemala’s democratically elected government).45 And the project would have been considered “pork” by the elected political officials who were in a position to approve the budget.
And what of Lansdale’s proposal to “uncork the touchdown play independently of the institutional program”? Does this not suggest that there were some back channels open which were not officially or overtly connected to institutions? Was he referring to the CIA’s much-publicized use of the Mafia to try to kill Castro? Or might he have been referring to an underground medical laboratory run by politically sympathetic scientists who might develop a biological means of eliminating the entire Cuban leadership?
Thirdly, the CIA would have been interested in medical research for political reasons. In the 1950s and 1960s, Soviet scientists were ahead of U.S. scientists in certain areas of medical research, one of which was the investigation of cancer-causing monkey viruses. The Soviets were explicit, as early as 1951, about their demonstration that certain simian viruses caused a variety of cancers.46 This was six to eight years before American government researchers produced the same results. This Soviet edge was a concern for American Cold War planners, who monitored Soviet scientific journals.
From their perspective, this was just another Soviet threat. Either the Soviets might use this information to develop a sexually-transmitted biological weapon to undermine freedom in the promiscuous West, or they might develop a cure for cancer before the U.S. did and thereby cause a major American political embarrassment. Either could provide sufficient reason for the CIA not to want the U.S. to fall behind the Soviets in this important area.47
Whatever the motive, the U.S. government wanted the work done. The money was provided for researching monkey viruses through convenient channels, but the doctors were not supposed to talk about it. In the process, New Orleans became one of the leading centers of knowledge about immunology and retroviruses. The doctors at Tulane who specialized in cancer and pathology had access to this knowledge, to these monkeys, and to their viruses.
37 “Un-identified white female between the age of 8 and 10 years old. Subject underwent 6 months of treatment using heavy doses of LSD, electroshock and sensory deprivation. Experiments under codename: MKULTRA about early ’60s. Subjects memory was erased and her brain is that of a newborn baby.”
38 Russell, Dick, The Man Who Knew Too Much (New York, 1992), p.380-381.
39 Ibid., p. 380., and Project MKULTRA, the CIA’s Program of Research in Behavioral Modification, U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, August 3, 1977
40 Russell, The Man Who Knew Too Much, p. 381.
41 Ibid., p. 380.
42 Gottlieb, A. Arthur, et al., Transfer Factor (New York, 1976).
43 Hinckle, Warren and Turner, William, Deadly Secrets (New York, 1992), p. 122.
44 Ibid., p. 135. Caution: James DiEugenio told me that the source of these statements is ultimately CIA officer Howard Hunt, and that he may have fabricated them to make his anti-Castro activities to appear to have been authorized by the White House. If so, we should remember that fabricating the authorization does not equal fabricating the activity. In fact, there is little reason to fabricate the authorization unless one was trying to legitimatize an otherwise illegal activity. Or to put it bluntly, it is unlikely that someone would try to legitimatize an activity that did not exist.
45 Ibid., p. 40.
46 B.A. Lapin et al., “Use of Non-Human Primates in Medical Research, Especially in the Study of Cardiovascular Pathology and Oncology,” Institute of Experimental Pathology and Therapy, U.S.S.R., Some Recent Developments in Comparative Medicine, ed. Fiennes, p. 204.
47 Who would synthesize a disease for which there is no cure? Consider the Defense Appropriations Hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1970: “Within the next 5 to 10 years, it would probably be possible to make a new infective microorganism which would differ in certain important aspects from any known disease-causing organisms. Most important of these is that it might be refractory to the immunological and therapeutic processes upon which we depend to maintain our relative freedom from infectious disease.” While I personally do not think that this conversation led to HIV-1, it does show the thinking of a biological weapons developer. Of course, the rationale was defensive: we’d better do it before some bad guy does.
CARROLLTON AVENUE is a wide, tree-lined boulevard which runs north and south, bisecting New Orleans and connecting the Mississippi River to Lake Pontchartrain. At its mid-point, in a residential neighborhood near the corner of Canal Street, stands a huge four-story brick building resembling a fortress. It covers an entire city block. This is Jesuit High School, where the Jesuit priests have been educating the future leaders of New Orleans for over 100 years. The Jesuits are famous, even notorious, for demanding academic excellence. Therefore, the economic and power elite of this predominantly Catholic city send their male children to the Jesuits to be educated. Admission is highly competitive. Discipline is strict. Military uniforms are worn. High performance is required. And nobility is expected. The students are trained for success and for leadership roles in tomorrow’s society. Above all else, they are expected to carry the militant social conscience and uncompromising values of their Jesuit educators with them into their future roles.
I attended Jesuit High School from 1966 to 1969. During this time, New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison was investigating the assassination of President Kennedy. This investigation culminated in the trial of New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw in early 1969. The amount of press coverage this received in New Orleans was staggering. And much of this was a contrived media smog, aggressively negative toward Garrison. The national press had been particularly vicious, with anti-Garrison articles like “Jolly Green Giant in Wonderland.”1 They basically claimed that the New Orleans District Attorney had completely lost his marbles, was recklessly prosecuting homosexuals for spite, and suffered from paranoid delusions of grandeur.
Jim Garrison announcing
the arrest of Clay Shaw
Garrison, in turn, appeared on national television and stated in unambiguous language that a faction within the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency had murdered the President of the United States. Gesturing to the camera, he waved sworn statements from witnesses who claimed that their testimony to the Warren Commission had been altered to distort important information. If that was not enough, he went further, reminding the American people that the order to hide the hard evidence (Kennedy’s x-rays and the autopsy photos) from the American people came directly from the Oval Office in the White House. Garrison said bluntly that there had been a “coup d’etat” right here in the United States and that the press had ignored it.
This was a difficult time for people whose families were connected to the Garrison investigation. Several of my close friends had family members involved, and I saw their dilemma first-hand. The basic situation was this: If Kennedy’s murder had been planned in New Orleans, then something should be done about it. Many people supported Garrison’s efforts. He was, after all, a legally-elected law enforcement official investigating a murder within his jurisdiction.
On the other hand, Garrison was investigating some sensitive issues and some very important people. On the national front, he had discovered the U.S. government’s secret war against Cuba, uncovering in the process that elements of the CIA were involved with the Mafia and were trying to kill Castro. (Today we know that this is true, since it was established beyond any reasonable doubt in 1975 by the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, but back in the 1960s it was political heresy.) On the local front, Garrison was investigating, and in some cases arresting, some of New Orleans’ most prominent citizens.
1 “Jolly Green Giant in Wonderland,” Time, August 2, 1968, p. 56.
For example, Clay Shaw, whom Garrison arrested and charged with conspiring to murder John Kennedy, was former General Manager of the International Trade Mart, one of the city’s most important business institutions. Garrison claimed that Shaw had personally been associated with Lee Harvey Oswald and had helped Kennedy’s killers by setting up Oswald to take the fall for Kennedy’s death. Shaw, of course, claimed he never knew Oswald and had never worked for the CIA. (Today, both Shaw’s association with Oswald and his association with the CIA have been established.”2 But at the time both Shaw and the CIA denied it.)
Particularly baffling was Garrison’s inability to get the press on his side, especially the local press. The whole situation was very confusing, even embarrassing at times. Garrison was under a gag order. We all waited for the trial. On Sunday, March 1, 1969, the jury acquitted Clay Shaw of all charges in less than one hour. Everyone was stunned. After two solid years of heavy publicity and waiting for the evidence to come out in the trial, it seemed like it should have taken more than one hour for the jury to decide the verdict. What was going on? Was Garrison really crazy as his critics claimed, or had he been successfully shut down by forces inside the federal government?
In the days following the announcement of the “not guilty” verdict, I went to school as usual. There was a remarkable silence. From Monday morning to Friday afternoon, I did not hear the names Kennedy, Garrison, or Shaw once from any student or teacher! Then on Friday afternoon all that changed.
In one of my classes there was a student named Nicky. His father was Dr. Nicolas Chetta, the Coroner of Orleans Parish (an officer known as the Medical Examiner in many locales) who was involved with Garrison’s investigation. Dr. Chetta was somewhat of a local celebrity for us. Not only was he an elected politician whose name was frequently in the press, but he was the team physician for our football team. Once he even took our class on a memorable field trip to the city morgue.
Nicky, the son, was well liked. He was a friendly, modest, boy-next-door who was well-intentioned and sincere. He did not strive for any “star” position and certainly did not trade on his father’s reputation. I never knew anybody that did not like him. He and I were friends, but we were not what you would call “close.” We went to the same school, lived in the same neighborhood, and both had fathers who were doctors.
So, I was sitting in class at Jesuit High School in early March of 1969. The lesson finished early, and the teacher asked the class if anyone had any thoughts on the Clay Shaw verdict.
Nicky erupted, saying in a loud, tense voice that Garrison had gotten a “raw deal.” We all knew Nicky to be quiet and even-keeled. This outburst seemed quite out of character. But we all respected his sincerity. We knew who his father was, and we all saw the same ridiculous news coverage night after night. We were all confused, and we wanted to hear what he had to say. No one counterattacked. The room was quiet. We waited to see what would happen next. The teacher said patiently, “What do you mean?”
Then Nicky started talking. He held the class spellbound for fifteen minutes with information about the investigation, much of which had either not been revealed to the press or which they had basically ignored. We all listened carefully. His points included:
- that someone, presumably the FBI or the CIA, had bugged Garrison’s office and conference rooms, had stolen and/or photocopied his files concerning Clay Shaw, and had turned them over to Shaw’s attorneys;
- that all of Garrison’s extradition requests for witnesses from other states had been turned down, as had all of his requests to subpoena former federal officials, preventing him from assembling the pieces of his puzzle in a court of law;
- that an ex-airline pilot named David Ferrie and a former high-ranking FBI official named Guy Banister had been training anti-Castro Cubans for paramilitary assaults against Cuba at a secret training camp across Lake Pontchartrain; and
- that Ferrie and Banister had stolen weapons for this operation from a company in Houma, Louisiana which was operating as a CIA front. Nicky said he couldn’t pronounce the name of the company but said that the name “looked German, but sounded French.” (It turns out that he was referring to the Schlumberger Tool Company pronounced locally “Slum-ber-jay.”)
Someone asked Nicky why we had not heard all this in the press.3 It was a fair question. We had all been taught that the press was the “Watchdog of Government.” How could they have overlooked these obvious and important points. Nicky paused and repeated Garrison’s favorite saying: “Treason never prospers, for if it prospers, none dare call it treason.” This was just the sort of riddle that made it hard for the public to understand what Garrison was up to.
2 Davy, Bill, “License & Registration Please,” Probe, June 1994, p. 5 & July 1994, p. 1. The Clinton incident is discussed in detail later. Probe is the newsletter from the CTKA, Citizens for the Truth about the Kennedy Assassination.
3 Actually, much of the information which Nicky discussed had been disclosed by Garrison in Playboy in October 1967. It was startling to us because most of it had been systematically ignored by the press.
Then Nicky turned his attention to David Ferrie and started talking about him in more detail. (Today Ferrie is considered a central character in several assassination theories, but back then he had been little more than a blip on the television screen during the first year of Garrison’s investigation.) His sudden death on the eve of his arrest for conspiracy to murder the President was considered by many to be a very suspicious coincidence, even though his death had officially been ruled to be from “natural causes.”
Ferrie was an unusual man in many respects. Professionally, he was a pilot. Politically, he was a notorious right-wing extremist.4 Personally, he was completely bald from head to toe, and was a homosexual who favored teenage boys. Ferrie’s bizarre appearance and personal history was one of the things that earned six-foot six-inch Jim Garrison the nickname “Jolly Green Giant,” because “he put fruits and nuts in the can.” Ferrie died several days after Garrison’s investigation was made public. Garrison, who was about to arrest Ferrie for conspiring to murder President Kennedy, thought that either Ferrie had been murdered to silence him or that Ferrie had silenced himself. But it was the Coroner’s job, not the District Attorney’s, to rule on the cause of death. Dr. Chetta, Nicky’s father, was the Coroner, and said that he found no evidence of foul play. Therefore, he ruled that Ferrie died of natural causes (a ruptured blood vessel in the brain), and noted that Ferrie had been under enormous stress.
Nicky continued: Ferrie had known Lee Harvey Oswald when he was a cadet at the Civil Air Patrol and had been seen with him that summer. Ferrie’s role in the assassination was as a get-away pilot. He reportedly spent the two weeks before the assassination at Mafia boss Carlos Marcello’s hunting camp across the Mississippi River. He may have been flying people and supplies around to position them for the assassination.
Now all this seemed pretty wild, but it got even wilder. Nicky said that the day they announced Ferrie’s death, Bobby Kennedy had called his house to discuss the cause of death with his father.”5 A murmur shot through the room. Nicky countered by saying he had answered the phone himself. Thinking it was a prank, he hung up on the then-Senator. But Kennedy called back. This time Nicky’s father answered the phone himself.
Then Nicky started talking about Ferrie’s apartment, which his father had seen the day Ferrie died. Ferrie lived alone. But in his closets they had found both women’s clothing and priest’s robes. They also found a small medical laboratory with a dozen mice in cages which he used for medical experiments. His medical equipment included microscopes, syringes, surgical tools, and a medical library. When they talked to Ferrie’s other landlords, they were told of a full-scale laboratory in his apartment with thousands of mice in cages. It seemed clear that he was inducing cancer in the mice! Ferrie claimed that he was looking for a cure for cancer, but Garrison’s investigators thought that he was trying to figure out a way to use cancer as an assassination weapon, presumably against Castro and his followers. Nicky added, almost as an aside, that Garrison’s investigative team thought that this may have been how Jack Ruby died, murdered by induced cancer to silence him.
By this point, you could have heard a pin drop in the room. Back in 1969, we (and presumably the public) were taught that cancer was “a spontaneous disease,” meaning it could not be created, transferred, caught or induced. Words like “carcinogenic” and “cancer-causing chemicals” were not yet part of the popular American vocabulary. Viral cancers were not discussed. The idea of “inducing cancer” was very strange indeed, and, scientifically, we (the students) considered it somewhere between “questionable” and “impossible.”
A student asked, “How could they induce cancer?” The question was sincere, but doubting. I remember hoping, for both Nicky’s sake and Garrison’s, that the answer made some kind of common sense. Garrison’s case already looked like Mardi Gras to the rest of the country. It did not need another bald, right-wing, counter-revolutionary, contraband pilot wearing a wig and a dress and saying the Catholic mass in Latin. And this particular claim, about inducing cancer, was not only out of John Q. Public’s experience, it was also over the edge of what we understood to be scientific reality. Nicky sensed the doubt. You could see he felt it. He remained calm. Slowly and cautiously, he said that they had been “injecting mice with monkey viruses.”
Monkey viruses! The room groaned. I rolled my eyes and dropped my forehead into my hand. Why did it have to be monkey viruses? Garrison was already misunderstood because his plot was stranger than jazz — too complex, too subtle, and too bizarre for the American TV audience. Why couldn’t it have been something simpler, like injecting rats with radiation. Cancer from plutonium! The public might follow that. But cancer from monkey viruses? The rest of the country would never buy it. The very words conjured up a dark collage of alienating images — diseases imported from tropical jungles in the bellies of insects and mixed with monkey heads boiled in voodoo rituals on the edge of the Louisiana swamp at midnight. It was all “so New Orleans.”
You could feel that everyone in the room wanted to believe Nicky, but it was hard to know what to say. Then somebody said, “I don’t get it. How could a monkey virus cause cancer?” Nicky said he didn’t understand that part either. My brain was about to bust, but I wasn’t about to bring Tulane into the conversation.
Then another student blurted out that there was a “kid” down at Tulane Medical School who was dying from the total collapse of his immune system. They couldn’t figure out what was causing it. They gave him every antibiotic they had and nothing worked. He would get better for a while, and then he would get worse. While this comment was interesting, it sounded “off the wall.” Two thoughts raced through my head. First, what did the uncontrollable collapse of an immune system have to do with our discussion about monkey viruses? And I also said to myself, I’m obviously not the only student at Jesuit that has a family member working at Tulane Medical School. I was certain that this was “insider information.” It was the first time I had ever heard it. (But not the last!)
Then another student jumped into the exchange: “That means they were developing a biological weapon! What happens if it escapes into the human population?”
The room fell to a new level of silence. Let’s call it fear. No one breathed. The Jesuits drilled social responsibility into us until it came out of our ears. Everybody knew that developing a biological weapon was high taboo. Twenty teenagers sat in dead silence pondering this mind-boggling question for a moment that hung like an hour. Then the bell rang.
In a routine voice, the teacher thanked Nicky for sharing his thoughts and dismissed the class. As I gathered my books together, I turned to the student next to me and made that nervous remark:, “Well, the good news is if there’s a bizarre global epidemic involving cancer and a monkey virus thirty years from now, at least we’ll know where it came from.”
4 How extreme is extreme? In the Playboy interview Garrison said Ferrie had belonged to the Minutemen, an ultra-right-wing paramilitary group. Ferrie claimed that he left the group because they were too moderate. On the other hand, the Minutemen may have simply objected to Ferrie’s mental instability, or his personal life, and kicked him out.
5 Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy was President John F. Kennedy’s younger brother, and served as U.S. Attorney General during his presidency. After the JFK assassination, Bobby was elected U.S. Senator from New York, and was then himself assassinated in 1968 as he sought the Democratic nomination for President.
I left the class and went back to my homeroom. I didn’t talk to anyone else for the rest of the day. All I could think about were the monkey viruses, and I wasn’t about to try to explain that to anyone.
When I got home that afternoon, I put my books away and called to my mother who was in the other end of the house. I said, “Do you have time for some useless information?” These were code words we frequently used for discussing things of interest. “Useless information” was one step above gossip. It could be anything from a new scientific theory about how the dinosaurs died, to speculation on who was going to get indicted next in the growing grain scandal. Her voice rang back down the hall. She would be right there.
When she came into the room, I told her that Dr. Chetta’s son was in one of my classes and that he told us an amazing story about Garrison’s investigation. “Oh, yes,” she said. “I know who he is.” I recapped Nicky’s comments and ploughed through the stories of Ferrie’s wigs, his dresses, and his religious vestments. She listened attentively, acknowledging each point as I went, but exhibiting no surprise whatsoever. Frankly, I was expecting a little bit more of a reaction, but New Orleans is a very tolerant place. If the transvestite stuff didn’t get a reaction out of her, I was sure the medical stuff would. So I told her about the medical experiments and the laboratory with the thousands of white mice and waited for a response. Nothing. She was unfazed. I was getting frustrated. So I told her about the monkey viruses, expecting it to fall on her like a bombshell, like it had on me. Still nothing.
“But Mom,” I said in an exasperated and serious tone, “weren’t they researching monkey viruses down at Tulane Medical School? Do you think there could be a connection?”
“Well,” she said, “one of the doctors from Tulane was involved in that lab.”
Now, I was stunned. “Wait a second,” I countered and tried to get my bearings. “Are you telling me that a professor from Tulane Medical School was involved in David Ferrie’s underground medical laboratory? The one with the thousands of mice?”
“Oh, yes,” she said matter-of-factly. “Everybody down at the medical school was talking about it. It was in that Playboy interview with Garrison that you had around here a couple of years ago. I took it to Boston with me that Christmas to see your sister.”
“Who was the doctor?” I muttered. I could barely get the question out.
“Her name was Mary Sherman. Daddy knew her. He had a lot of respect for her. I think she was a pathologist. You know, she was more of a researcher than a physician. A cancer researcher, I think.”
“What happened to her?” I asked, resigning myself to the fact that some terrible fate must have befallen her.
“She was killed. Murdered. A terrible thing. Slashed with a knife, dismembered, and set on fire. It looked like a sexual killing, you know. But the grapevine said that whoever killed her knew what they were doing with a knife … maybe they even had a high level of medical knowledge, just judging by the way the cuts were done. What a terrible way to go!”
“Did they figure out who did it?” I queried hopefully.
“No. The investigation was shut down all of a sudden. It was all very hush-hush, like it had been shut down from above. But they think she knew her murderer and probably let them into her apartment.”
“You said Daddy knew her?”
“Oh, yes. They worked together for years. She was older and considerably higher up the ladder than he was, but Daddy always said that she was one of the top people in her field. He had a lot of respect for her. Professional respect, I mean.”
“Did you ever meet her?”
“Yes, we had dinner at her apartment one night. A strange woman, but very sophisticated and very well travelled. And very into theatre and literature. I felt very out of place. All I could talk about was my children. I remember that her friends were very strange.”
“What do you mean by strange?”
“Oh, they were not the type of people we were used to associating with. They lived in the French Quarter and were involved in the theatre and all that. Mary was somewhat of an outcast at the medical school. Most of the doctors we knew had wives and children. Everyone respected Mary professionally, but she ran in different social circles. I remember driving home after the dinner. The normal protocol, like we used to do in the Navy, said the next step would have been for us to invite her over to our house for dinner. So I asked your father if he wanted to do that. He thought about it for a while and said, ‘No,’ adding that Mary’s social circle was a little weirder than he wanted to be associated with. That was the last time we discussed it.”
Suddenly I felt exhausted. I shook my head in dismay and breathed deeply. This was stranger and more disturbing than even Nicky’s story had been. It’s one thing for a crackpot to be doing home-brewed cancer experiments in his apartment, but it’s something else to have the involvement of a highly respected and professionally competent cancer researcher working in the crackpot’s lab. What was going on here? And to have it all so close to my family! I didn’t know what else to say. I thought again about my wise-crack: “If there’s a bizarre global epidemic … at least we’ll know where it came from” I was depressed. We were silent. My mother went back to her task down the hall. I changed clothes and walked over to a friend’s house, trying to forget about it.
JIM GARRISON WAS ONE OF THE MOST CONTROVERSIAL figures in modern American history. Attitudes about him tend to be polarized. To his supporters, he was a hero, the only public official to have the courage to dig for the truth about President Kennedy’s assassination and to confront the American government and the American people with it. To his critics, he was a politically ambitious tyrant whose ruthless use of power was driven by his wild imagination. We do not need to judge Garrison, but we do need to understand him, because his statement recorded in an interview with a national magazine was for a long time the only documentary evidence we had in hand connecting Dr. Mary Sherman to David Ferrie’s underground medical laboratory. So who was he?
Jim Garrison was born in Iowa in 1921.1 His father abandoned his family when he was three. His mother moved him to Chicago and then to New Orleans. His original name was Earling Carothers Garrison. He changed it to “Jim” in 1946. His nickname “Jimbo” was a friendly corruption of the words “Jim” and “jumbo,” based on his enormous size, six-feet six-inches. His other nickname, “The Jolly Green Giant,”2 was also based upon his size, but was intended to ridicule him in the press.
In 1940 Garrison joined the U.S. Army at the age of nineteen and became a pilot. During World War II he few missions over France and Germany, acting as a forward observer for artillery units. At the end of the war, his unit liberated the infamous Dachau Concentration Camp, where he witnessed the horrors of Nazi incarceration first hand. It was there that he came to understand what one human being was capable of inflicting upon another in the name of a fag. It solidified his hatred of fascism, and his fear of autocratic governments.
After the war, he returned to New Orleans and earned a law degree from Tulane University. Soon he started working for the FBI, knocking on doors for background checks in the Northwest. Preferring combat to boredom, he re-enlisted in the army for the Korean War and, when that was over, returned to New Orleans. There he joined the National Guard and, like many young attorneys in New Orleans, became an assistant DA for a few years before starting a private practice.
In 1960, Garrison mounted his first political campaign: to become a judge in Criminal District Court; he lost. In 1961, he mounted a second political campaign, for the District Attorney of Orleans Parish, and surprised the political establishment by winning. Re-elected twice, he held that position for twelve years, until 1974 when he was defeated by Harry Connick, father of the popular singer/musician Harry Connick, Jr.
As District Attorney, Garrison positioned himself as “a tough-on-crime enforcer.” He cracked down on prostitution and gambling in the French Quarter. Self-righteous and outspoken, he criticized police for being soft on crime and criminal court judges for refusing to finance his investigations into organized crime. His moralistic stance made him popular with some groups and unpopular with others. (The drummer in Jack Ruby’s nightclub told me, “Garrison was a terrible man who ruined a lot of people.”)
Perhaps his most important contribution to American law was a landmark victory in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1964. The New Orleans criminal court judges he criticized for being soft on crime had sued him for defamation. Garrison counter-sued on the grounds that he, as a citizen, had the right to criticize public officials. It was, as he called it, “the essence of self-government.” The high court agreed.
A second indication of Garrison’s penchant for rights of the individual against the state was his intervention in a racial-integration crisis on behalf of a New Orleans merchant who had been arrested for selling books by black author James Baldwin. The New Orleans Police Department felt the book, Another Country, violated the prevailing political and racial sensibilities, and should not be sold. To Garrison, it was just another book burning. Politically, this event solidified his support among the black population in New Orleans, since they had never seen anyone from the District Attorney’s office intervene on their behalf before.
These actions gave Garrison strong political viability across all Louisiana. He was a potential candidate for any statewide office, such as State Attorney General, Governor, or U.S. Senator.
1 Most of Garrison’s biography is from James DiEugenio, Destiny Betrayed: JFK, Cuba, and the Garrison Case (New York, 1992), p. 126 and Jim Garrison, On the Trail of the Assassins: My investigation and Prosecution of the Murder of President Kennedy (New York, 1988).
2 “Jolly Green Giant in Wonderland,” Time, August 2, 1968, p. 56. (Time was owned by Henry Luce, an active arch anti-Communist who personally financed raids by Cuban exiles against Cuba, in violation of the Neutrality Act, but with the tacit approval of the CIA: see Hinckle and Turner, Deadly Secrets, p. 186. Therefore, Time’s reporting cannot be assumed to be objective on related issues.
Garrison moved swiftly into the JFK probe. The day after Kennedy’s death, the press announced that Lee Harvey Oswald had spent the summer before the assassination in New Orleans. Before Oswald was even buried, Garrison was tracking down New Orleanian David Ferrie on a tip that Ferrie was a getaway pilot in a larger assassination plot. Garrison’s office raided David Ferrie’s apartment, picked up Ferrie for questioning, and turned him over to the FBI. The FBI promptly released Ferrie, and Garrison dropped the matter.
Three years later, in November 1966, Garrison was persuaded to re-open his investigation into the JFK assassination by U.S. Senator Russell Long. Senator Long arranged to finance Garrison’s inquiry secretly through an organization called Truth and Consequences, formed specifically for that purpose at Long’s request by New Orleans oil man Joe Rault. In February 1967, a press leak concerning Garrison’s secret investigation into the JFK assassination, followed immediately by the death of his prime suspect David Ferrie, catapulted Jim Garrison into the world media spotlight overnight. If it was fame he sought, he got it. And with it, the focus of assassination speculation shifted from Dallas to New Orleans.
In March 1967 Garrison arrested New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw for conspiring to assassinate President Kennedy. At first Garrison called the assassination a crime organized by extremist elements of the anti-Castro community, and to prevent any misinterpretation, he specifically pointed out that his team had not found any evidence of involvement by the CIA itself. But in May 1967, all that changed.
Garrison upped the stakes by announcing on national television that Kennedy’s death was a coup d’etat organized by elements inside the CIA, particularly in its Plans Division.3 What followed was two years of heavy character assault on Garrison.
The heart of Garrison’s case was that he had associated Clay Shaw with Lee Harvey Oswald during the summer of 1963. Garrison believed Shaw’s contact with Oswald was part of a deliberate attempt to set up Oswald to take the blame for Kennedy’s impending assassination.4 In particular, Garrison claimed that Shaw tried to help Oswald get a job at a mental hospital in Jackson, Louisiana, near the town of Clinton. According to Garrison, Shaw drove Oswald to Clinton so Oswald could register to vote in hopes of improving his chances of getting the job at the hospital.
As luck would have it, the Congress for Racial Equality was sponsoring a voter registration for black voters that day. When a black Cadillac drove into the center of the small Louisiana town, folks watched closely and curiously. Were these FBI agents? The press? Outside agitators? A young white man emerged from the back of the Cadillac and got in line to register. He made a memorable impression, since he was the only white person in the line and since he was not a resident of the area. Numerous eyewitnesses identified the person who got out of the Cadillac as Oswald, and, of course, the man had given his name to the registrar of voters as Lee Harvey Oswald.
The more difficult question: Who was driving the car? Witnesses said he looked like Clay Shaw, a white male in his fifties with wavy gray hair and a stern face. This described Shaw well enough, but it also described other people equally well. There was less difficulty identifying the other passenger in the car. His orange hair and painted-on eyebrows made seeing David Ferrie a truly unforgettable experience for anyone. Since it was already established that Ferrie knew Guy Banister and Oswald (all of whom were dead by ‘69), it was difficult for Garrison to prove that the man driving the car was actually Clay Shaw and not someone else, like Banister. Shaw, of course, claimed he never knew Oswald or Ferrie and had never been to Clinton. Garrison failed to prove the connection to the satisfaction of the jury. Shaw was acquitted.
Garrison counterattacked, claiming that Shaw had lied under oath and charged him with thirteen counts of perjury, confident that he would win the perjury conviction in the next trial. The federal government intervened, however, and dismissed the perjury charges; thus with the acquittal of Clay Shaw in 1969, Garrison was neutralized as a political force.
A decade later, the U.S. Congress’s House Select Committee on Assassinations took a second look at the Clinton incident. On March 14, 1978, they took the testimony of Clinton town marshal John Manchester in Washington.5 Manchester said that he approached the black Cadillac from which Oswald had emerged that summer day in 1963 and, acting as the town’s law enforcement officer, instructed the driver to identify himself and to produce his driver’s license. The driver gave his name as “Clay Shaw from the International Trade Mart” and produced a driver’s license which matched. For some reason, the HSCA took his testimony in “Executive Session” and kept this information secret from the American public for sixteen years.
We only know about it today because of documents released through the JFK Assassination Materials Act of 1992.6 With information of this magnitude continuing to come to light, it will be tomorrow’s historians, and not yesterday’s press, who will have to judge Jim Garrison and his assassination theory. To call him “discredited” is extremely premature, despite the numerous attempts to make him appear so. We may owe Garrison an apology before it’s all over.
In 1971, Garrison’s life grew still more entangled. Based on information from a disgruntled former DA-office employee named Pershing Gervais, attorneys for the federal government charged Garrison with accepting kickbacks in exchange for not prosecuting illegal pinball operations. The trial lingered until August of 1973. Garrison defended himself, arguing that the charges against him were fabricated and that the evidence had been tampered with. The jury found him not guilty.7
The federal attorneys immediately struck back, charging Garrison with failing to pay income taxes on the same alleged kickbacks. Again, Garrison defended himself and was found not guilty. But the years of negative publicity had been too much for any publicly elected official to survive. He was now politically destroyed, and subsequently lost the 1974 election.
After four years of low visibility in private practice, he ran for a prestigious (yet lower profile) office, a judgeship on Louisiana’s 4th Circuit Court of Appeal. He won the ten-year term and was re-elected in 1988.
During these post-investigation years, he wrote several books about the JFK assassination, the last of which was On the Trail of the Assassins, which Oliver Stone used as one basis for his movie JFK. Garrison even made a cameo appearance in JFK, ironically playing the role of U.S. Chief Justice Earl Warren.
Jim Garrison died in 1992 after a long illness, at the age of seventy-one.
3 The Federal Communications Commission found NBC’s coverage of Garrison biased and ordered NBC to give Garrison 1/2 hour of national TV time to respond. Portions of this broadcast were included in a video called The Garrison Tapes, which aired on cable in the 1990s.
4 Garrison, On the Trail of the Assassins, p. 126. Garrison thought Shaw was an accessory to Guy Banister, and believed Banister to be primarily responsible for “sheep-dipping” Oswald, a deliberate attempt to associate the patsy with the evidence before the crime.
5 Davy, Bill, “License & Registration Please,” Probe, June 1994, p. 5, and July 1994, p. 1.
6 Ibid., June 1994, p. 7,
7 Garrison, On the Trail of the Assassins, p. 298-306 & 318. Also see DiEugenio, Destiny Betrayed, p. 268-269.
At the height of his media visibility in 1967, Playboy magazine offered Garrison an interview.8 Distrustful of the press and their motives, Garrison accepted the interview on the condition that Playboy present his whole story unedited. The 12 hour interview covered 25 pages, and presented his complex case to the American public for the first time. Playboy cannot be accused of being sympathetic. They began their interview with a series of questions, not about the assassination, but about the accusations that Garrison had bribed, drugged, and threatened witnesses. Even the title of the interview referred to him as “the embattled district attorney” [italics and lower case in original].
We find the first mention of the Ferrie-Sherman cancer experiments in this interview, in the midst of a barrage of questions about Jack Ruby.9 Garrison was busy baffling his interviewer with answers like: “In Jack Ruby’s case, his murder of Lee Harvey Oswald was the sanest act he ever committed.” We pick up the interview there, right before the critical section:
GARRISON:… and he (Ruby) became the prisoner of the Dallas police, forced over a year later to beg Earl Warren to take him back to Washington, because he wanted to tell the truth about “Why my act was committed, but it can’t be said here … my life is in danger here.” But Ruby never got to Washington, and he’s joined the long list of witnesses with vital information who have shuffled off this mortal coil.
PLAYBOY: Penn Jones, Norman Mailer and others have charged that Ruby was injected with live cancer cells in order to silence him. Do you agree?
GARRISON: I can’t agree or disagree, since I have no evidence one way or the other. But we have discovered that David Ferrie had a rather curious hobby in addition to his study of cartridge trajectories: cancer research. He filled his apartment with white mice — at one point he had almost 2,000, and neighbors complained — wrote a medical treatise on the subject and worked with a number of New Orleans doctors on means of inducing cancer in mice. After the assassination, one of these physicians, Dr. Mary Sherman, was found hacked to death with a kitchen knife in her New Orleans apartment. Her murder is listed as unsolved. Ferrie’s experiments may have been purely theoretical and Dr. Sherman’s death completely unrelated to her association with Ferrie; but I do find it interesting that Jack Ruby died of cancer a few weeks after his conviction for murder had been overruled in appeals court and he was ordered to stand trial outside of Dallas — thus allowing him to speak freely if he so desired. I would also note that there was little hesitancy in killing Lee Harvey Oswald in order to prevent him from talking, so there is no reason to suspect that any more consideration would have been shown Jack Ruby if he had posed a threat to the architects of the conspiracy.
Let’s go back through this passage carefully. First, who are Penn Jones and Norman Mailer?
William Penn Jones, Jr. was a retired U.S. Army officer who became an editor of a local newspaper in a small town outside of Dallas. He was famous for his “stir-the-shit” editorial style, particularly when it came to the JFK assassination. I asked two people who worked for him over the years if they knew anything about this claim. They said they did not, adding that Penn frequently said things that he could not back up. I tried to contact him, but was told that, due to his frail health, his wife no longer let people interview him. He died in 1998.
Norman Mailer is a New York-based writer whose strand of credibility traces back to a Pulitzer Prize he won for his World War II combat novel, The Naked and the Dead. He is a colorful character who is as famous for his personal behavior as for his stunning prose style.
I did contact Mailer and asked him what was behind his comment about Ruby’s cancer. He emphatically, thoroughly, and completely denied ever having made any such comment about Jack Ruby or his cancer. So either Playboy’s interviewer was operating from bad information, or perhaps Mailer forgot what he had said. Either way, I was not able to gain any helpful information by tracking down Penn Jones and Norman Mailer.
Back to the interview:
GARRISON: But we have discovered that David Ferrie had a rather curious hobby in addition to his study of cartridge trajectories: cancer research.
Cartridge trajectories? Isn’t a cartridge the part of the bullet that stays in the gun after the slug flies out of the barrel? Yes, it is. And doesn’t trajectory mean the fight path of the projectile? Yes, it does. And when you pull back the bolt to clear the chamber before inserting another bullet, the empty cartridge flies out of the rife, to the right and to the rear. So what was Garrison talking about?
Earlier in the same interview, Garrison discussed some of the materials they found in Ferrie’s apartment. His investigators found unusual notations in the margins of one of his books, a reference manual on high-powered rifles. It showed that Ferrie had measured exactly how many feet an empty cartridge few when ejected from that rife and at what angle.10 Hence the apparent oxymoron “cartridge trajectory.”
Why would someone want to measure cartridge trajectories? One reason is it would facilitate removing undesired evidence from a sniper’s nest. On the other hand, if you wanted to construct a phony sniper’s nest, you would know exactly where to place the cartridges.
But for this investigation the important words in that sentence are the last two: “cancer research.” It is widely reported by people who knew Ferrie personally that he was actively involved in cancer research. For example, one of Ferrie’s friends said, “Ferrie was going to fix everything. Find a cure for cancer. Get rid of Communism.”11 This activity stretched from his days as an airline pilot (late 1950s) until his death in 1967.
Continuing with the interview, Garrison states that Ferrie wrote a medical treatise. Ferrie wrote a medical treatise? What did it say about viral cancer experiments? Did it talk about using x-rays? Where is it today?
When I started this investigation, we did not know the answer to any of hese questions. But today we do, and it is an important link in the chain of evidence, as we shall see.
It is also clear from his interview that Garrison thought that there was more than one doctor working with David Ferrie. Who were the other doctors? What was this claim based upon? If a group of doctors were working with Ferrie, it might be safe to assume that it was really their lab and not Ferrie’s. This is an important point. If Ferrie was simply an executor, instead of the main instigator, the dimensions of the project change dramatically. It also means that the lab may have continued operating after Ferrie’s death in 1967.
It should be noted that, in the summer of 1967, Garrison was talking about arresting one particular New Orleans doctor: Dr. Alton Ochsner.12 (William Gurvich, one of Garrison’s staff who resigned from the case, is said to have disclosed this fact to Ochsner.) Was Ochsner one of the other doctors Garrison was referring to in this interview when he said “a number of New Orleans doctors”? And if so, was Garrison saying this as a threat to get Ochsner, a political enemy, to stop his anti-Garrison activities? Or did he have information that he could not (or would not) disclose about Ochsner? I will say, speaking as a political observer, that if Garrison had attacked Ochsner openly in 1967, it would have been very bad for him. He needed all the support he could get from the people of New Orleans. Attacking the city’s most famous doctor would have cost him significant political support. He did not need to open up another front in his war.
The most incredible thing about this interview from our current perspective is the reaction from the press. Or should we call it “the non-reaction from the press”? First, after being told that a District Attorney of a major American city who was investigating a murder in his jurisdiction had accidentally discovered an underground medical laboratory which was inducing cancer, and which was run by a known political extremist with a history of violent political activities and with no formal medical training, the interviewer did not even ask a follow-up question! Then, the members of our national press, the so-called Watchdogs of Democracy, simply continued to bash Garrison from coast to coast.
Had they bothered to read what Garrison had to say for himself? Had they read it and then somehow discredited it without bothering to tell anyone? Or did they think, “What’s wrong with having a couple of thousand mice full of cancer viruses in your apartment?” Or perhaps, “This is too weird for my audience”? Whatever the reason, the press did nothing. Now Garrison is dead, and we cannot ask him any more questions.
8 Garrison, “Playboy Interview,” Playboy, October 1967, p. 59.
9 Ibid., p. 175. Jack Ruby (Jacob Rubenstein) was the Dallas nightclub owner who murdered Lee Harvey Oswald “live” on national television. Ruby had a long history of Mafia contact dating back to Al Capone in Chicago.
10 Garrison, Playboy, p. 165.
11 Perry Russo, interview with author, January 1993.
12 Carpenter, Arthur, “Social Origins of Anti-Communism: The Information Council of the Americas,” Louisiana History, Spring 1989, p. 117. His source: Letters, Ochsner to Butler, June 29 and July 12, 1967, Ochsner Papers, Historic New Orleans Collection.
BUT TWO IMPORTANT QUESTIONS REMAIN: Who was Dr. Mary Sherman? And what was she doing in David Ferrie’s underground medical laboratory?
The few JFK researchers who remembered the cancer passage in Garrison’s Playboy interview assumed that Dr. Mary Sherman was a local doctor and, therefore, that she was not significant. This was based on the assumption that no one of any measure would be associated with David Ferrie’s cancer research, since Ferrie had no formal medical training. But this was not the case.
Dr. Mary Sherman was one of America’s leading cancer experts and had all the credentials to prove it. The newspaper articles about her death refer to her as “an internationally-known bone specialist.”13 She was an
This question is so vexing that it puts enormous importance on the credibility of this one passage. What other evidence of the Ferrie-Sherman experiments do we have? Unfortunately, for many years, this interview was the single document connecting Sherman to Ferrie’s cancer experiments. Perhaps even more unfortunately, however, this link has now been corroborated.
But back in the early stages of my investigation, I tried to find out what Garrison’s claim was based upon. I succeeded in talking to a number of people who knew Garrison personally, but they did not know anything about the matter. In the process, I determined that the person most likely to know the answer was Lou Ivon, Garrison’s Chief Investigator, who personally handled Ferrie. What did Lou Ivon know about the Ferrie-Sherman connection?
I wrote Lou Ivon letters, explaining the questions I wanted to ask, called his house, donated to his political campaign, even offered him royalties on this book, but I could not get Ivon to talk to me about the Ferrie-Sherman cancer experiments.14 I finally gave up.
Therefore, I have never known what Lou Ivon knows (or does not know) about the Ferrie-Sherman cancer experiments, but my guess is that he probably knows more than anybody else about the basis for Garrison’s claim that Dr. Mary Sherman worked with David Ferrie in his underground medical laboratory. I hope he will talk about it on the record one day. In the meantime, all I can say is that the investigator who probably knows the most about this important subject would not discuss it with me. He may also know who the other doctors were that Garrison had linked with Ferrie.
13 “Police Check Ex-Patients of Slain Medic,” New Orleans States-Item, July 22, 1964, p. 1.
14 Ivon did call me back once. He thanked me for the donation to his political campaign, and said he would take me “through Ferrie’s cancer research” sometime, but it never happened.
IN THE FALL OF 1969 I WENT AWAY TO COLLEGE. What a turbulent period! Each night the news brought fresh frustrations. Daily footage from Vietnam showed the bleeding and the dead. Body bags of mounting American casualties swept the screen. The smog of an incomprehensible and undeclared war settled over our land. Its endless drifting nature, its unbelievable cost, and its potential for expansion fared anger throughout the country. College campuses rioted. ROTC buildings burned. Congress revoked the student draft deferment, exposing all male college students to potential slaughter.
Each night the drama was played out on television. Police beat demonstrators with night sticks and dragged them through the streets by their hair. Some applauded the protestors, some the police. Angry words divided friends and families. The generation gap widened. Boomer disillusionment jelled into a sense of national betrayal and challenged the loyalty of the pre-Watergate generation. In return, the Boomer’s parents pondered their questions: “What’s wrong with this new generation? Where is their patriotism? Why don’t they rush to support our war?” The Supreme Court sat and watched as 58,000 Americans died in an undeclared war.
Then Nixon ordered the bombing of Cambodia. The shock wave of this news rushed across the country. Campuses erupted. In Ohio, soldiers gunned down four college students at a demonstration on the Kent State campus. The second shock wave: “They’ve started killing us.” Mass demonstrations broke out spontaneously, shutting down college campuses all across America. The protestors converged on Washington for a showdown demonstration. Tear gas flowed through the streets of our capitol.
Those were crazy and bitter days, which were made even more difficult for me personally by the death of my father. I dropped out of college and waited for them to pass. And when they were over, I was anxious to forget them. Completely free of any responsibilities, I hitchhiked around the country just to see what was out there. During the summer of 1971, I returned to my home in New Orleans to re-group and to plan my next steps.
On my travels I had developed an interest in writing, and started working on a book about my hitchhiking experiences. As the summer wore on, the publicity about the trial of the Manson murders in California took root, and the image of hitchhiking changed. Charles Manson and his companions had hitchhiked their way to one of the most grotesque multiple murders in American history. Everyone became aware of the real and present danger that lurked on the shoulders of our highways. Jack Kerouac’s romantic vision of hitchhiking from On the Road was replaced by Jim Morrison’s stark warning: “There’s a killer on the road.” My “hitchhiking for the fun of it” perspective suffocated, and my book project died. I started looking for something else to write about.
Mary Sherman’s murder still intrigued me, and I thought it might have good potential for a screenplay. So I decided to track down the real facts. My first call was to the public library to see if there were any newspaper articles. I was informed that the indexing system stopped in 1963. If I wanted a newspaper, I would need to have the exact date. But I did not know the date, so I decided to try to get a copy of the police report. Based on what I knew about Sherman’s murder and her connection to Ferrie, I figured this might be difficult. So instead of calling the police department myself, I decided to call someone “on the inside” who might be able to help me get a copy of the report quietly. I called Big Mike.1
He was known as “Big Mike” due to his enormous size. He stood six-feet five-inches and weighed close to 300 pounds. Big Mike worked in the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office and was an investigator for the Grand Jury. I knew him socially, but not well. We lived in the same neighborhood, and his daughter had been a friend of mine during high school. It had been several years since I had been to his house, and I wasn’t sure if he would remember me. It was a Wednesday evening when I picked up the telephone to call him. His wife answered. Yes, she remembered me, and promptly called him to the phone.
When Big Mike came to the phone, I introduced myself and reminded him who I was. He was friendly, and greeted me with “Yeah, kid, I remember you.” Then he proudly detailed his daughter’s recent accomplishments at college. When he was finished, I told him the purpose of my call: I was doing research for a screenplay and wanted to know how I could get a copy of the police report on the Mary Sherman murder. He was accommodating and in a casual voice said, “That seems easy enough. I’ll see if I can get a copy for you. What was that name again?”
I repeated the name and spelled it for him. It was clear that he did not recognize it. This concerned me, because it meant that he was not completely aware of what he was agreeing to. If the rumors I had heard about political heat and suppression of the investigation were true, it could mean trouble for him. But I did not know how to tell a gun-toting ex-linebacker like Big Mike that he should keep his head down in his own office. Anyway, I had only asked “how” I could get a copy of the report. He had volunteered to get it for me. I offered to call him back in a week, but he said that it wouldn’t take that long. He told me to call him in two days. I thanked him and hung up.
Two days later, I called back. It was Friday about 3:30 in the afternoon. My plan was to call early and leave a message with his wife and then call back later that evening. I was surprised when he answered the phone himself. The stress and tension in his voice was immediately obvious. He was home early for a reason: It had been a bad day. He began with: “What the hell did you get me into?”
I asked naively, “Was there a problem getting the report?” “A problem?” he said with gigantic sarcasm. “I have never seen such a shit storm in my entire life. I have done nothing for two days except field flack and try to explain why I wanted to see that file.”
“I guess that means I can’t get a copy of the report,” I tendered.
“No, you can’t! It’s an open murder case, and I’m not allowed to discuss it. Don’t ask again.” His voice was cold. His tone was final.
I said, “Thanks for trying,” waited for the click, and then slowly put the receiver down. Whatever was going on, it was clear to me that the rumors about “the heat” on this case were true. I knew that if Big Mike couldn’t get a copy of the police report himself, then I wouldn’t be able to through any other channel. I would have to wait for another day to find out what happened to Mary Sherman.
1 I have omitted Big Mike’s last name to protect his privacy.
IN 1972 I ENTERED TULANE UNIVERSITY It was late August of that year, and the campus was buzzing with activity of another semester preparing to begin. I went to the University Center to buy books and to register for my courses. The matriculation was held in a large cavernous room filled with folding tables stacked with boxes of computer cards. Behind the tables sat graduate students who answered questions, gave advice on professors, and signed up undergraduates for classes. I was interested in taking an anthropology course and located the right table. There I met a brilliant and beautiful young woman named Barbara.2 She had just completed her undergraduate work at the University of Chicago and had accepted a fellowship from Tulane to get her Ph.D. Intrigued by her warmth, and her waist-length brown hair, I invited her to go to a concert being held on campus that evening. She accepted the invitation, and we discussed plans. She did not have a car, and mine was in the shop. We agreed on a convenient place and time to meet and went our separate ways.
That night Barbara and I met as planned and walked to the concert. The performance was by the New Leviathan Oriental Fox Trot Orchestra, a camp revival troupe that played dance music of the 1890-1920 period. We had a lot of fun, and I felt very comfortable with her. This was a relationship that I wanted to pursue.
After the concert she told me she lived near Louisiana Avenue. I knew the area well. While it was not far from campus, it was in a marginal area near a high-crime zone known as the Louisiana Avenue Housing Project. I did not think it was safe for a woman to be walking on the streets of that neighborhood alone at midnight, so I escorted her home on the bus.
Several days later I called her up, told her I had gotten my car out of the shop, and that I was itching to show her “my city.” It was a Monday, but classes had not started. It was still early in the morning, and the weather was beautiful, so I invited her sailing. (Despite my penniless student status, I still had access to a sailboat which my older brother had left in my care when he moved out of town.) She accepted the offer and gave me her address again. I said I would be there in half an hour.
It was about ten o’clock in the morning when I turned off Claiborne Avenue into Louisiana Avenue Parkway. I remember my surprise at seeing this intriguing street for the first time in daylight. Unlike Louisiana Avenue itself, which was a broad bustling boulevard, Louisiana Avenue Parkway was a quiet oasis, isolated from the activity and noise of city life. Only three blocks long and leading nowhere, this narrow, bumpy street was shaded by massive oak trees which grew together at their tops, creating a canopy over the street and providing welcome protection from the oppressive August sun. The houses were modest, mostly two story rental units whose stucco façades made it easy to confuse one house with another. I pulled over and dug the slip of paper from my jeans to check the address: 3225 Louisiana Avenue Parkway.
When I found the faded yellow building, I made a point of memorizing some detail so I could find it more easily in the future. I settled on the two unusual columns flanking the front door, which were twisted like licorice sticks. I approached the building, found the door bell, and rang it.
Barbara came down the stairs, opened the door, and greeted me. She was dressed appropriately for sailing, in cut-of blue jeans and a baggy shirt. As I entered the stairwell, I noticed a door to my immediate left which led to a basement. It was ajar, opened about one inch. But it closed suddenly when I looked at it, and then the sound of several locks clicked away, one after another. “Who was that?” I asked.
“Oh, that’s the old woman who lives in the basement,” she responded as we started walking up the stairs. “I met her yesterday. She seemed like she had a really tough life.” I asked her what she meant. She continued, “It’s hard to describe. She looks like she might have been a stripper or maybe even a prostitute. She wears lots of make-up and has a real hard edge to her.” I laughed a little and said it sounded very New Orleans, pointing out that a club owner might take care of one of his ladies after she had grown too old to be useful to his business by letting her live in a place rent-free, even if it was a basement.
One flight up we entered Barbara’s apartment. Despite the weather-worn exterior of the building, it was a nice apartment and the lack of furniture emphasized its space. In fact, the only furniture in it was a waterbed mattress which lay on the floor of one of the front rooms.
I complimented her on the apartment and noted the great condition it was in. The walls were all freshly plastered and painted. The floors had been stripped and varnished. I had been in plenty of student apartments, but I had never seen one that was in such good condition. Since it was larger and in better condition that the apartment I lived in, I asked her about the rent. The rent seemed well below market value. I would have guessed about fifty percent higher based on what I had seen. So I asked her where she found it. (Good apartments were hard to find and were hardly ever advertised in New Orleans, because landlords did not want to invite inquiries from blacks.) She said it was on a bulletin board at Tulane. “In the University Center?” I asked.
“No, in Social Sciences,” she responded, referring to the building where the anthropology, sociology, and political science departments were located.
“Hmm, do you know who owns it?” I asked.
“No,” she said, “I only deal with an attorney.”
My thoughts now turned to the sweet smell of freshly baked bread. I had noticed it when I first came in, but had not said anything about it yet. If you have ever been in New Orleans in August, you will understand that people without air-conditioning just do not bake bread then. It is much too hot. It was, indeed, a curious activity for a hot summer morning.
“Baking bread?” I inquired.
“Yes,” she said, explaining that the apartment had a “residual odor” in it and that she had heard that baking bread would help take the odor away. Then she asked if I thought it was safe to leave the windows open so the place could air out while we were sailing. I said, “Yes.” As she continued to talk about the apartment, it became clear that it had an unusual history to it. It had been vacant and off the market for several years before she rented it, and during that time it had been thoroughly re-conditioned. Yet despite the fresh paint and varnish, and after years of vacancy, a musty smell remained. I asked, due to the odor, if the previous tenant had cats.
She said, somewhat mysteriously, that “they had animals.”
I noticed the shift in the language from “cats” to “animals” and asked her, “What kind of animals?” Then her expression changed. The moment before she was a positive upbeat young woman about to go on a date; now she was suddenly serious and concerned.
“She didn’t say what kind of animals.”
I just looked at her for a minute, waiting for more. Then she started talking about the old woman who lived in the basement. She had been down to see her yesterday. She was stuck for words for a moment, and then releasing a tense breath, said, “It was so weird.”
Something was obviously bothering her, and we weren’t going to get to the bottom with generalities like “weird.” So I asked her to be more specific. I offered, “Was the furniture weird?”
She laughed, breaking the tension for a moment. “Yes, the furniture was weird all right, but that wasn’t the problem.” Then she described how the old woman talked to her in a tense suspicious voice and how she was genuinely frightened of something or someone. Her fear had obviously transferred to Barbara.
Then Barbara said, “Ed, I got the feeling that something really bad happened here. Something terribly wrong, like maybe someone had been killed. You are from here, do you know what she might be talking about?” She acted like it was something big, something everyone knew about. “Maybe it was even on the news.”
“What did she say about the animals?” I asked quietly.
Barbara continued, “She was really upset about them and kept saying ‘those terrible men and the horrible things they did to those animals’ over and over.”
The sentence hung in the air. I took it apart in my head and studied the words. “Terrible men” do “horrible things.” My mind flooded with images of laboratory animals I had seen — sad, sick, mice and monkeys suffering from horrifying diseases, their bodies covered with lesions and harboring tumors larger than their natural bodies. I was silent.
Then she asked the question again, “Do you know what she might be talking about?”
I shrugged and said, “The only thing that comes to mind is a secret laboratory that was discovered during the Garrison investigation. There was this political wacko and this woman doctor who had thousands of mice in cages. They were using monkey viruses to induce cancer in mice. Garrison thought they were trying to develop a biological weapon.”
“What happened to the doctor?” she asked systematically in a serious voice devoid of any emotion.
My answer was reluctant but straightforward. I had not planned on getting into this. “She was murdered,” I said as simply as I could.
“How?” she countered, knowing I was holding out.
“Cut up with a knife and set on fire,” I admitted.
Her fear was now visible. She crossed her arms upon her chest and leaned up against the wall. By this point I realized that she was really frightened, and rightfully so. Her parents had warned her about living in New Orleans alone, and I had expressed my concerns about her neighborhood. And who is going to get a good night’s sleep in a place if you know the previous tenant was butchered in her bed. I realized our conversation was only making matters worse for her. She broke the silence by blowing out a short breath and said, “What part of town did that happen in?”
At the time I did not know and, more importantly, I wanted to change the subject. I was getting frightened too, both for her and with her. I said that I did not know where these people had lived, but I had assumed that it was in the French Quarter, since that was where all “the weird stuff seemed to happen.” It would be years before I found out where we were standing.
Our date was not going well. I had offered to take her sailing on Lake Pontchartrain, but we were standing around talking about brutal murders and monkey viruses. Knowing she was quietly wondering if her apartment was infected with a flotilla of bizarre diseases, I pointed out that viruses could not survive more than a couple of hours in the air. She shook her head in cautious agreement. It was time to shift tactics. I switched my tone to confident and our conversation to sailboats. She accepted my lead, and we left the apartment within minutes to go sailing. (How was I to know we were standing in David Ferrie’s shadow?)
Classes started the next day, and we saw each other daily, exchanging comments about our classes and the people we had met. After about two weeks, we met for lunch at our usual spot in the cafeteria. Barbara said that she was really upset about something she had heard concerning Tulane’s “right-wing political orientation.” Specifically, she asked me if I had ever heard of Dr. Alton Ochsner. Of course, I had heard of Ochsner. Everybody in New Orleans had. An enormous hospital in town was named after him. Then she asked me what I knew about him. At the time all I knew was the standard pitch: He was one of the most respected people in New Orleans and was founder of the Ochsner Clinic, which took care of a lot of important people from Latin America. Then I added a personal comment: He was also an aggressive antismoking activist, which was something that I liked about him. On the other hand, rumor had it he was a Victorian moralist who held some controversial views about sex causing cancer.
Then she told me what was bothering her. A fellow graduate student who had lived in South America had told her that Ochsner was part of an international fascist group and had been very close to Nazi scientists who fed to South America at the end of World War II, particularly in Paraguay.3 I did not think much of the story, quietly considering it to be a hysterical liberal rant. Yes, I had heard that he was very conservative. In fact, he was occasionally referred to as a “right-wing crackpot,” but I had never heard him referred to as a fascist, and had never heard anything about his helping Nazi scientists in South America. To my ears, it all sounded like overstatement.
Anyway, it was widely known that Nazis had gone to South America at the end of the war and that the American military debriefed both German and Japanese scientists at the end of the war to find out what they were working on. Who would they ask to do that? Some Army doctor? Wouldn’t they get the best scientists in America to review what Germany’s top scientists were up to? I did not know if Ochsner spoke German fluently, but that would seem to be a prerequisite for the job. It’s hard enough to know what scientists are saying in your own language. Who knows? Maybe the U.S. government did get Ochsner to go to South America to debrief Nazi scientists. If so, that made him an important American scientist, not a Nazi sympathizer.
She was defused. But I was curious about what she said, and made a mental note of it.
2 I have omitted Barbara’s last name to protect her privacy.
3 My research showed that many of Dr. Ochsner’s financial backers were Jewish. Therefore, I believe the claim of his association with Nazis was untrue, unless he was debriefing them for the U.S. government. The comment is, however, an example of a Latin American perception of Ochsner’s politics.
WE CONTINUED TO SEE EACH OTHER throughout the fall. Before long there emerged the subject of her other neighbor, the man who lived in the apartment above her. He was a Hispanic who spoke Spanish as his first language. I think his name was Miguel, and I do remember two incidents clearly.
In the first one, Barbara and I were at her apartment when she said she had met the man who lived upstairs. So I asked her what he was like?
“He’s a Latin,” she said. I shrugged a “so what” in her direction. “I mean really, really Latin.” So I asked her where he was from.
She laughed a little and said, “Funny you should ask. I asked him that same question, but never got a straight answer out of him. But he did say he spent a lot of time in Honduras.”
I suggested to her that his evasiveness might be a sign he was a Cuban exile. There were many of them in New Orleans, and most found it convenient to keep the word “Cuba” out of the conversation. Then I asked her what he did for a living. She said Miguel claimed he was a mechanic, but that he only occasionally worked at a gas station out in Jefferson Parish. Most of his time was spent at one particular bar. I was not surprised to hear that he invited Barbara to go to the bar with him one evening “just to see what it was like.”4 She turned him down, saying she already had a boyfriend.
Several things about Miguel did not add up. One is that it took money to pay rent and to hang out at a bar, and he did not have what you would call a visible means of support. Secondly, there were many service stations in New Orleans that could have used a good mechanic, and these were much closer to his apartment. Why would he only work occasionally at a service station in Jefferson Parish, a suburb thirty minutes away (and a cultural world apart) from uptown New Orleans?
Then I asked her if Miguel was married. “No, he’s not,” she said with a smirk on her face. “He’s widowed.” She saw me notice her half-hidden smile and turned away to hide it. “What’s so funny about being widowed?” I asked.
“It’s just something he said,” she tentatively admitted. After a pause she added, “He said he had not been able to come since his wife died.”
“What a great line!” I roared.
“What do you mean?” She asked, trying for an innocent voice.
“Let me ask you a question,” I asked in a slow, counseling voice. “When he said that to you, did it make you wonder if you could make him come?”
She blushed. “Yes, as a matter of fact, it did.”
“There it is. It’s a line and a good one at that. The man is a cad. I’d stay away from him.”
The second incident occurred several days later. Miguel knocked on Barbara’s back door and called out her name in his accented voice. She motioned for me to come with her to the door, whispering, “I want him to see that I have a boyfriend.” When she opened it, he stepped inside confidently. When he realized I was standing there looking at him, he was embarrassed. Barbara introduced me with, “Have you met my boyfriend?” Actually our relationship seemed new and tentative at the time, but I didn’t argue with her. It sounded good to me.
Miguel stood about five-feet eight-inches with black hair and a stocky build. He was in his mid-thirties and was common looking. His shifty personality glistened. It was an awkward moment. Another rooster in the hen house. And to be caught coming in the back door! He was obviously uncomfortable with the situation, but that was where I wanted him. I kept my tone polite and somewhat formal. My unspoken message to him was, “I don’t blame you for trying, but let’s not have this happen again.” His unspoken message to me was, “You lucky devil, you beat me to it.” He mumbled through a couple of social courtesies trying to portray his presence as a concerned neighbor just stopping by to see if she was all right. Then as quickly as he had appeared, he said good-bye and went on his way. I never saw him again, but we heard his footsteps coming and going down the back stairwell for months.
As the fall semester progressed, Barbara and I saw a lot of each other. I was in and out of her apartment repeatedly, though we spent less and less time there and more time over at my place. Shortly after Thanksgiving, I forced myself to begin writing a term paper that I had been ignoring. It was for my Pre-Columbian Art course, and I had chosen a comparison of two Mayan carvings from Guatemala as the subject. Much of the information I needed was in the Middle American Research Institute, located on the fourth floor of the Tulane’s main library. I ate an early lunch and headed to the library about noon. Little did I know what lay ahead?
As I entered the glass doors of the Middle American Research Institute, I was greeted with the unmistakable look of terror on the faces of two women.5 Both were staring wide-eyed and slack-jawed out the window. One mumbled “My God” as she shook her head in disbelief. I turned to see what they were looking at. Out the window and across the tree tops there was an unobstructed view of the downtown skyline seven miles away. One of the tall buildings had just exploded into fames. Enormous fames were shooting out of the windows. A thick plume of dense black smoke had not yet reached more than a couple of hundred feet above the roof, indicating the fire had just started. But the forty foot fames indicated a massive sudden explosion, probably a firebomb. I recognized the building immediately, it was the Rault Center. The top three floors of the building were the Lamplighter Club, where I had worked in the summer of 1968. The building was owned by Joseph M. Rault, Jr., an independent oil man and real estate entrepreneur. Rault was very close to U.S. Senator Russell Long, and was sitting in an airplane next to both Senator Long and New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison when Long originally proposed the JFK investigation to Garrison. To facilitate the secret investigation, Long asked Rault to form an organization, now known as “Truth and Consequences,” to finance trips so Garrison and his staff could investigate the murder of the President quietly.
I grabbed the phone and called my friend Claire, who lived around the corner from the library.6 Her husband worked in the Lamplighter Club. Yes, she knew about the fire. Someone just called. Did she need a ride down there? Yes, she did. I ran to my car, rushed to her house, and drove her downtown.
Down at the Rault Center all hell was breaking loose. Rault had been at his normal post on the sixteenth floor, meeting and greeting local dignitaries who had come to the club for lunch. Congressman Hale Boggs, Senator Russell Long, and New Orleans Mayor Vic Schiro were just a few who frequented this club, though none were there that day.7 Local bankers and developers congregated around this seat of power to be close to the pulse and to see the right people. At noon, the club was packed with its normal lunch crowd from the Central Business District.
Suddenly, there was a loud explosion from down below. The building shook violently. A firebomb had exploded on the fifteenth floor. Flames leapt out the window. The crowd panicked and stampeded for the exits. For some reason Rault headed for the roof. Others headed for the ground. Seven people followed Rault to the roof. As the forty-foot fames leapt up above the roofline of the building, Rault must have wondered if he made the right decision. He must have also wondered what happened to the three floors of “fireproof” paneling that he had bought for the Lamplighter Club, which was now burning like a blowtorch.8 The concrete and steel stairwells quickly became ovens. No one could pass now. The eight people trapped on the roof knew that unless someone descended from the sky, they would either be burned alive or would have to jump to their deaths from the seventeenth-floor roof. The seven women trapped in a window on the fifteenth floor faced the same situation. I got as close to the building as I could, but the roads were blocked off. Claire jumped out of the car and ran the final few blocks. I turned my car around and headed for a television set.
It was the greatest of fortunes that a helicopter carrying an oil executive happened to be flying over downtown New Orleans at the moment of the explosion. The pilot dropped his passenger on the grassy field in front of the Louisiana Supreme Court building and headed for the roof of the faming building. Nine people were trapped there, but his small helicopter could only carry three passengers at a time. Some would have to wait for the next trip. The rest would have to wait for the third trip. So three separate times, this determined pilot landed on the roof surrounded by onyx smoke and orange fames. Rault was the last person to leave the roof. He was lucky. The women who were trapped in their beauty salon on the fifteenth floor were not. Fire investigators estimated the bomb contained five gallons of gasoline, and had exploded in the utility closet right outside the door of the salon. The hallway was immediately filled with fames, blocking the women’s exit. The helicopter could not help them. Faced with certain death by fire, or jumping to their deaths, seven women jumped. There was no net. No air bag. Six died on impact. The camera crews were there. They filmed it all. That night veteran broadcaster Walter Cronkite warned his viewers that he was about to show the “grimmest footage” of his career. The nation watched helplessly. I turned off the television and went back to the library, trying to concentrate on thousand year-old hieroglyphs buried in a Mayan grave. One question has smoldered since the fire: Was the Rault Center firebombing the result of Rault’s financing of Garrison’s JFK investigation?9
When Christmas break came, Barbara gave me a key to her apartment and asked me to keep an eye on it while she few home to see her family. A couple of days after she left, I dropped by for a routine check and found that her waterbed mattress, which was resting on the hardwood floor without a frame, had started to leak. I quickly went outside, borrowed a hose from a neighbor’s lawn, and drained the mattress. But the damage had already been done. The wooden floors were severely buckled. It was hundreds of dollars of damage. The landlord would certainly flip. That night I called her at her family’s farm and told her about the leak. She said that she would call the landlord in the morning and tell him.
Several days later, New Orleans woke up to yet another incredible event: Someone had set fire to the Howard Johnson Motel.10 It was directly across the street from the Rault Center, but these arsonists were not experts. And the fire was small in comparison, one smoky hotel room. But in light of what happened at the Rault Center, the hotel guests panicked and ran to the street. And having recently been humiliated in the national news by their inability to do anything to help the seven women who jumped, the New Orleans Fire Department rushed to the scene, hoping to redeem its reputation. The longest ladder was raised to reach the fifth floor window. The bravest firemen rushed up the ladder with no other thought than trying to save someone’s life. As they approached the window, a rifle barrel slid through the opening. The sniper squeezed off round after round, murdering the very men who had come to save him.
The police department broke into a fit of rage. Nearly 600 policemen swarmed to the building in pre-SWAT chaos. Two snipers were reported. The Deputy Chief of Police grabbed several men and led them into a stairwell to find the snipers. Somebody thought he saw something. Somebody fired a high powered rifle in the concrete and steel stairway. When the bullet finished ricocheting, the Deputy Chief of Police was dead.
On the roof, one of the snipers rushed to get a better position. A police rifle team in the Rault Center overlooking the roof shot him with a high-powered rifle and killed him. The second sniper was believed to be at large in the building.
Police sealed the building. As the situation developed, a police spotter thought he saw something in the blockhouse on the roof. Twelve police fanned out and approached the blockhouse like they were going to a western shootout. Standing in a semi-circle in front of a steel door cemented into a concrete wall, they opened fire. As one might expect, the bullets ricocheted off the concrete wall and steel door, right back at the very men who fired them. Yes, live on national television, they shot themselves. Several policemen fell wounded on the building’s roof. One officer charged the blockhouse. It was empty.
They never found the second sniper. Some believe he walked out the front door before the building was sealed. Others think there was only one sniper. The FBI seemed to know all about these guys, and had apparently been tracking them since Kansas City. Militant black radicals they claimed.
I turned off the TV and drove to the airport to pick up Barbara, who was returning from Christmas break. It seemed like she had been gone a long time. Her flight was early and I found her entering the terminal. Knowing that I had worked at the Rault Center, she asked if I had heard anything new about the fire. I told her I had heard it was a bomb. Somebody was trying to kill somebody. As we rode the escalator leading down to the baggage claim, she noticed a big lighted sign advertising the Howard Johnson’s Motel rising above our heads. She had been traveling most of the day but had heard rumors of something happening at Howard Johnson’s in New Orleans.
I filled her in as quickly as possible, and then asked her if she had called her lawyer landlord about the floor damaged by her leaky waterbed. Yes, she had, but he said it was not a problem. “In fact,” she continued in an astonished voice, “he didn’t seem concerned about it at all.”
I had seen a lot of strange things in the past months. But it all made some kind of twisted sense. In the Rault Center fire, somebody was mad. They were either mad at Rault for some reason and were trying to destroy him, or they were mad at society and chose his building and his success as a target. In the Ho-Jo Massacre, an angry and frustrated black man (or men) decided to strike back at a white racist society. He died venting his anger. Others died with him.
But this? A lawyer holding a damage deposit did not care about hundreds of dollars of damage done by a tenant to his client’s building? It didn’t make sense. Whatever was going on, it was clear that this was no ordinary apartment. All I could think of was “those terrible men and the horrible things they did to those animals.” One month later, when she moved out of the apartment, Barbara got her full security deposit back. The person or persons pulling the strings on this building had succeeded in their objective, and that was a lot bigger than Barbara’s security deposit. They got a real live human being to live in a virtually haunted apartment.
And not just any human being. They had placed a naive and studious graduate student from out of town, who would not know any of the local history and who would not have the time or inclination to find it out. Now that the apartment was warmed up, they could put it back on the market for real.
4 Miguel told her the bar was in the vicinity of Washington Avenue and Magazine Street. I assured her that she did not want to go to any bar in that neighborhood.
5 The date of the Rault Center Fire was November 29,1972.
6 Claire was Claire de la Vergne Rault, wife of the building’s owner Joseph M. Rault, Jr. Born Claire de la Vergne, she was a member of the de la Vergnes, one of the families that founded New Orleans. Claire died of cancer in 1999.
7 Congressman Hale Boggs disappeared on Oct. 16,1972 when his plane went down in the Gulf of Alaska, so he was presumed to be dead at the time of the Rault Center fire. U.S. Senator Russell Long was scheduled to be at the Rault Center for a meeting later that afternoon, but had not yet arrived by the time the fire started.
8 The only place that this particular synthetic paneling proved to be “fireproof” was in the laboratory where the test conditions required the paneling to be horizontal. On walls, where it is installed vertically, it proved to be extremely flammable. Rault had no way of knowing this when he purchased the paneling, and certainly would not have headed to the roof if he had.
9 The last time I spoke to Congressman Boggs was when he visited Rault in the Lamplighter Club shortly before his death on Oct. 16,1972. It should be mentioned that Congressman Hale Boggs who was very close to Rault had been on the Warren Commission in 1964. But by 1972 Boggs had grown increasingly uncomfortable with its conclusions and was starting to claim the J. Edgar Hoover had lied to the Commission about Oswald, the rife, and other things. As previously stated Rault helped finance Jim Garrison’s investigation into the Kennedy assassination.
10 The date of the incident at the Howard Johnson’s Motel happened on the morning of January 7,1973.
I SCRATCHED MY HEAD about this apartment for years. Frankly, I was afraid to understand it. It was so close and so strange that it scared me. I could have gone back and talked to the old woman who lived in the basement, but I didn’t. I was afraid of what she might tell me. I was afraid of what I might learn. I denied it. I didn’t go find out where Mary Sherman lived, or where David Ferrie lived. I just went sailing, played music, and worried about things like Mayan hieroglyphs from Guatemala.
It was not until 1992, when I realized the possibility that the Ferrie and Sherman cancer experiments might have something to do with the most deadly epidemic in history, that I finally woke up. At that point my choices narrowed. It was time to find out everything I could. I started by reading everything on the shelf about AIDS and then everything that was written by or about Jim Garrison. It was then that I realized that David Ferrie had lived on Louisiana Avenue Parkway. A sick feeling came over me as Garrison described the smell of white mice in Ferrie’s apartment: “The special fetid smell of hundreds of unattended white mice in the dining room added to the unique rank odor of the dwelling, making it difficult for visitors to enter.”11 Then he described Ferrie’s medical books and laboratory equipment and the medical treatise he had written on the viral theory of cancer.
But Garrison did not give the exact address. For a brief time, I pondered the possibility that my girlfriend had lived in David Ferrie’s apartment, perhaps on the spot where the plot to kill Jack Kennedy was hatched. It was more than I wanted to wonder about. I had to find out the exact address. So I called the library in New Orleans. Ferrie was not listed in the phone book, but they found the address in his obituary, 3330 Louisiana Avenue Parkway. For a brief moment I was relieved. That must be a block away from 3225. But what to make of everything I had seen and heard myself. What about the smell in Barbara’s apartment? What about the old lady in the basement? What about “those terrible men and the horrible things they did to those animals?” What about Garrison’s estimate of nearly 2,000 mice?
Now, that was worth thinking about! Nearly 2,000 mice! Say five mice per cage. That’s 400 cages of mice. What would an apartment look like with 400 cages of mice in it? It would be wall-to-wall cages! And consider the mice. Consider the food. Consider the excrement. Consider the smell. Consider the diseases! No one could live in such a place. Let me repeat that: “No one could live in such a place.” Four hundred cages would take a dedicated facility.
Then it hit me: Ferrie’s underground medical laboratory was not in his apartment, and he did not live in the lab! No one could. He lived near the lab, so he could manage its day-to-day operations, and kept a small number of mice back at his apartment for convenience. No, I had not been in Ferrie’s apartment: I had been in his laboratory!
11 Garrison, A Heritage of Stone, p. 121.
DAVID FERRIE HAS BECOME A CHARACTER of almost comic book proportions. A brilliant man rejected by society, he was a collection of contradictions. A man of high moral aspirations who was compromised by personal cravings. A respected airline pilot who became a tattered Bohemian rebel. The son of a police captain who helped defend a Mafia boss against prosecution. From his orange wig haphazardly glued to his head to his grease-paint eyebrows, to his wardrobe full of religious vestments, to his home-brewed cancer experiments, to his burning desire to help teenage boys, to his ability to land planes in jungle clearings at night, to his violent schemes against Castro, to his friendship with Lee Harvey Oswald, to his unrewarded genius, he was the most colorful figure dredged up during the JFK investigations. Today, Ferrie has emerged as the keystone in several JFK assassination theories, including:
THE GARRISON CASE. Ferries trip to Texas on the afternoon of November 22, 1963 triggered Garrison’s suspicion that Ferrie was involved in the JFK assassination, perhaps as a getaway pilot. Next, based on additional evidence, Garrison suspected Ferrie may have been a prime organizer of the plot. Garrison finally concluded that a high-level faction within the CIA was ultimately responsible for Kennedy’s death, and that Ferrie had played a lesser role. Ferrie’s relationship with the CIA is well known. He trained pilots for the CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion, and flew covert missions into Cuba.
THE MAFIA HIT. In his book Mafia Kingfish, John Davis presented the theory that the Mafia killed John Kennedy in an effort to neutralize Bobby Kennedy, the president’s brother and U.S. Attorney General. Bobby was prosecuting certain Mafia leaders, particularly Carlos Marcello, reportedly the head of the Mafia in Louisiana, and some say the entire nation. Davis proposed that Ferrie planned and organized the plot to kill the President on Marcello’s instructions. That Ferrie had some form of relationship with Carlos Marcello is beyond question, but the extent of that relationship is still unclear. Ferrie was sitting with Marcello in federal court at the moment JFK was assassinated.
Descriptions of Ferrie from those who knew him personally range from “a living god”1 to “a sexual deviant capable of any form of crime.”2 Unfortunately, most books which reference Ferrie devote little time to examining who he was and what made him that way. What do we really know about him today? What made him tick? Why was he experimenting with cancer? And who was he really mad at? Castro? Kennedy? Or God?
Much of what I am about to describe comes from a report none of us were supposed to see. It was a private investigation on David William Ferrie prepared by Southern Research Company Inc. of New Orleans, beginning in the winter of 1963,3 six months before Oswald arrived in New Orleans, nine months before the raid on the anti-Castro guerilla training camp, and eleven months before the JFK assassination. I do not know who authorized it or why, but I am told it was Eastern Airlines, which was building a case in order to dismiss Ferrie. An advertisement at the bottom of the report describes the Southern Research Company as “A firm principally staffed by former agents of the FBI.”
1 Southern Research Company, “Background on David William Ferrie,” March 6, 1963, p. 12.
2 Comment by Jack Martin, an employee of Guy Banister and an associate of David Ferrie.
3 Southern Research Company, Inc., “Background on David William Ferrie,” January 31, 1963 and March 6, 1963.
DAVID FERRIE BEGAN HIS LONG, TWISTED JOURNEY in the middle class suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, in 1918. His father was James H. Ferrie, a captain in the Cleveland Police Department and later an attorney. Young David was baptized, confirmed, and raised as Catholic, and he was educated in a string of Catholic schools. First, he graduated from St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland in 1935. Readers familiar with Catholicism will recognize the name St. Ignatius as referring to “St. Ignatius of Loyola,” the militant crusader who founded the Society of Jesus, more commonly known as “the Jesuits.” Then Ferrie enrolled at John Carroll University from 1935 to 1938, a college also run by the Jesuits. There he studied Greek, Latin, history, and government, getting A’s or B’s in all subjects. Despite his scholastic success, other forces were obviously churning within him, and he dropped out during his senior year to begin his quest for the priesthood.
In 1938, he entered St. Mary’s Seminary in Cleveland, where he studied for the priesthood for three years. Then, in 1940, just prior to graduating, he had a nervous breakdown.4 This was his first failure in a long series of attempts to become a priest. Later, when he applied for re-admission, he was rejected. Having known him for three years, St. Mary’s did not want him back. He seemed to have a problem with authority.
In 1940, Ferrie’s objective changed from becoming a priest to becoming a teacher. He entered Baldwin-Wallace College, and did student teaching at Rocky River High School from 1940 to 1941. A department chairman summarized his performance with a tongue-in-cheek statement: “His interest in teaching students is very closely tied up with his religious faith.”5 When questioned years later about her evaluation, she remembered Ferrie clearly, but this time she was less charitable. She quickly portrayed him as having an inflated self-image when, in fact, he was “the poorest teacher they ever had.” From there, she went straight after his personality describing him as “tricky, a bluffer, shrewd, and probably a liar.” She added that she received “complaints about his psychoanalyzing his students,” but never had “complaints involving moral problems.” However, she expressed her own doubts about his moral character, advising that he be kept away from both girls and young boys. He seemed to have “a particular interest in the younger students, more than a teacher should have.”
In August 1941, Ferrie made a second attempt to become a Catholic priest and entered St. Charles Seminary in Carthagena, Ohio. There he stayed for three years. During this time his father bought him a plane, and he learned to fly. In 1944, on the eve of ecclesiastical accomplishment, the faculty refused to allow him to continue his religious studies. Having spent six years of his life in seminaries studying for the priesthood, he was again formally rejected from a life of prayer. Ferrie was shattered.
An unsigned memo found in Ferrie’s file at the St. Charles Seminary told the faculty’s side of the story. It began, “We had serious misgivings about admitting him to our seminary after learning he had been refused re-admittance to Saint Mary’s in Cleveland.” Attempting to give a balanced portrayal, they described Ferrie as “a paradox,” saying “many of his ways were likable.” They even assumed some responsibility for their part in Ferrie’s tragedy by pointing out that they had renewed his relationship for over three years, but alas “there was surely an element of instability in his character somewhere.” Then they described what became a familiar pattern in Ferrie’s life, initial success both socially and scholastically, the achievement of a leadership position amongst his peers, growing conflict and jealousy, back-stabbing, self-pity, exaggeration, manipulation, misuse of leadership and trust, excessive criticism, threats, and contempt of authority.
In a tone that approached apology, the anonymous author said there was no single event of magnitude, but rather a pattern of minor infractions, mostly of the rules of the house, but also “emotional instability,” especially “his inclination to suspicion and rash judgement and uncharitable conclusions” that indicated “he would not fit into a religious community.”
The final stroke: “When corrected, his attitude seemed to be that the rule should be changed rather than that he should be forced to observe it.” On November 27, 1944, the Faculty of St. Charles Seminary refused to allow him to continue his quest for priesthood “due to the questionableness of his disposition.” He was unfit for the Society of the Precious Blood.
4 The fact that Ferrie, both physically able and very intelligent, did not participate in World War II supports the nervous breakdown story.
5 Mrs. Frances M. McKee, Rocky River High School, quoted by Southern Research, January 31, 1963.
In 1945, Ferrie was treated by a psychiatrist and began a period of relative stability. He lived at home, worked teaching English and Aeronautics at Benedictine High School, and began his long relationship with the Civil Air Patrol. This calm lasted through 1948, though the seven traffic violations from this stretch showed he was still having some trouble with “the rules of the house.”
In 1948, he became involved in a series of serious misconduct incidents at the Civil Air Patrol which eventually drove him from Ohio. In the first case, he appropriated a squadron airplane which had been grounded by the U.S. Air Force and flew it, after dark and without landing lights, from Columbus to Cleveland. Identifying himself as a lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force during the incident got him into even hotter water. The CAP commander tried to have Ferrie dismissed from CAP, but the paperwork was “lost.” So Ferrie was still on their books in 1950, when two CAP cadets signed papers reporting that Ferrie, their instructor, had taken them to a house of prostitution in a nearby town. Ferrie was not charged with a crime, but his dismissal from CAP became imminent. Ferrie negotiated his disastrous situation into a transfer to Louisiana. When the Louisiana branch asked for his personnel file, the Cleveland office found it missing, but could not prove it was stolen.
Ferrie did have his friends and allies along the way. One was a well-known female pilot who hired Ferrie to fly her ex-husband’s twin-engine plane on business trips down to Texas.6 She considered Ferrie a near-genius whose piloting skills were above reproach. She personally felt he did much for the Civil Air Patrol, building up their squadron to one of the largest in Ohio. She blamed his problems at CAP on jealousy from other instructors and blamed them for stealing his personnel files to remove his many letters of recommendation.
In 1951, David Ferrie finally bailed out of Ohio and headed for his new home in New Orleans. There he moved into the French Quarter and before long was living on Bourbon Street. It must have been quite a change for someone who spent six years in a seminary!
Ferrie’s life in New Orleans was successful for most of the 1950s. He landed a good job with Eastern Airlines and learned to fly big jets. He wore the Eastern uniform, and was eventually promoted to the rank of Captain.
The life of a pilot is an unusual one. Hours of boredom punctuated by moments of fear and stress. When they are traveling, pilots are required to rest a certain number hours for each hour of flying time. This creates long layovers which are full of idle hours.
Ferrie appears to have made good use of his time. His ability to teach himself intellectually complex subjects proved to be his major strength. He began his study of bio-chemistry and took a correspondence course in psychology and hypnotism, albeit from an un-accredited medical school in Italy. He listed himself in the phone book as Dr. David Ferrie.
He continued his involvement with the Civi Air Patrol and reached the rank of Captain. There he met a cadet named Lee Harvey Oswald.7
Towards the end of the 1950s another personal tragedy entangled Ferrie. His hair started falling out in clumps. Before long all of the hair on his body, including his eyebrows and eyelashes, was gone. He compensated for this by wearing a crude homemade wig glued to his head and false eyebrows painted on his face. It is unclear whether his study of bio-chemistry was related to his hair loss, as some have suggested. But what is clear is that something happened in the 1950s that set his beast of unrest in motion again. With it came the awakening of a violent and intolerant political temperament. A glimpse of this can be seen in a letter that he wrote to the U.S. Secretary of Defense, “There is nothing I would enjoy better than blowing the hell out of every damn Russian, Communist, Red, or what-have-you. Between my friends and I, we can cook up a crew [sic] that can really blow them to hell … I want to train killers. …”8
6 According to Southern Research, the female pilot was Jean Naatz.
7 “Who was Lee Harvey Oswald?” Frontline, a television documentary, PBS, November 1993.
8 Davis, John H., Mafia Kingfish: Carlos Marcello and the Assassination of John F Kennedy (New York, 1989), p. 145; also Hinckle and Turner, Deadly Secrets, p. 232.
Someone in the government must have seen the value in an airline pilot who wanted to train killers, because Ferrie started moonlighting as a pilot for the CIA.9 The precise extent of Ferrie’s relationship with the CIA is not fully known. Many of the documents are still classified. But it is widely reported that he few numerous missions in and out of Cuba, first supplying Castro with arms to fight Batista and later supplying the anti-Castro underground with weapons.
Castro came to power on January 1, 1959. Within a year he had seized American assets (casinos, factories, and oil refineries), openly embraced Communism, and militarily allied himself with the Soviet Union. Ferrie felt personally betrayed, and set out with a vengeance to destroy Castro and his Communist dictatorship. This hatred led Ferrie into a long and complex relationship with the anti-Castro Cuban underground here in the United States. He firebombed targets inside Cuba,10 and traveled to Guatemala to train Cuban exiles to fly planes in support of the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Back in Washington, D.C., events were unfolding that would greatly impact Ferrie’s life.11 Kennedy’s White House and the CIA had very different ideas about how to stop Communism, especially the expansion of Soviet influence in the Western Hemisphere. This policy dispute erupted into open conflict between the two camps. Many of the CIA’s activities were untraceable even by the CIA inspector general. These “unvouchered expenditures” essentially meant that the CIA was refusing to be controlled by the White House. The situation oscillated between insubordination and treason. In 1975 when the Senate Intelligence Committee finally looked into these activities, Chairman Frank Church likened the CIA’s activities to “a rogue elephant rampaging out of control.”12 Actually, the problem was even deeper. The question: Who is running the government?
The stakes were enormous. The pressures unbelievable. The players believed nothing less than the destiny of the planet was at stake. The CIA’s plan for keeping the Soviets at bay was to put a gun to their head. Batteries of American missiles armed with nuclear warheads sat in Turkey on the U.S.S.R.’s southern border. All major Soviet cities, including Moscow, were now ready to burst into the flames of a nuclear nightmare within thirty minutes of an order from Washington. Kennedy ordered them removed, but the Pentagon did not comply. The Soviets were very unhappy about such intimidation and were anxious for an opportunity to show the Americans just what it felt like to have someone point a nuclear missile at them. Castro gave them the opportunity.
Castro was determined to break America’s grip on his island. In his words, “It is time to tell the Yankees that we are not your plantation, your gambling casino, or your whorehouse.”13 In order to discourage an American military overthrow of his government, Castro offered his island to the Soviets as launching pad for their nuclear missiles. The Soviets wasted little time in moving them into position.
In early April of 1961 American intelligence started picking up unusual radio signals from the Camaguey Mountains in central Cuba.14 But the radio signals were too weak to analyze properly. They were simultaneously receiving reports from the anti-Castro guerillas inside Cuba that some large facility was under construction in a deep ravine in the jungle in the Camagueys. Were the Soviets moving nuclear missiles into Cuba? The CIA needed better intelligence. They needed hard evidence. The CIA decided to send a team into Cuba to collect radio signals from a mountain top in the Camagueys.
Ferrie was ordered to come to Washington, where he met with General Charles Cabell, one of the top people at the CIA. The general explained the mission to Ferrie and a young aeronautic electronics expert named Robert Morrow. They would leave from the west coast of Florida at night on April 16, 1961. Ferrie would fly the plane, with Morrow as copilot, and land in a clearing in the jungles. Guerillas would meet the plane and take them to a location to record the radio signals. At last, Ferrie was doing something really important.
The mission went as planned, until their party was discovered by Cuban army troops, who strafed the plane as it was taking off. Ferrie was wounded in the incident. The intelligence they collected did get back to Washington, just in time for the biggest debacle in the history of the CIA.
9 Garrison, “Playboy Interview,” Playboy, October 1967, p. 160.
10 Hinckle and Turner, Deadly Secrets, p. 233.
11 The story of Ferrie’s flight to Cuba is from Robert Morrow, First Hand Knowledge (New York, 1992). Morrow was the electronics expert who flew with Ferrie on the mission.
12 Baltimore Sun, July 16, 1975.
13 I saw a film clip of this speech on network television in the mid-1970s. Unfortunately, I cannot cite the exact program. Check newsreel services for Castro speeches.
14 Morrow, First Hand Knowledge, p. 35-45.
The Bay of Pigs invasion was a disaster. At the last moment President Kennedy had refused to supply U.S. military air support for the invasion, which landed at dawn on April 17, 1961. Castro won the day and solidified his control of Cuba. Hundreds of invading Cuban exiles were killed on the beach. Over 1,200 were captured. Kennedy was furious at the CIA, believing they were trying to manipulate him into an act of war. He fired Dulles, Cabell, and Bissell, the top brass at the CIA, and ordered his brother Bobby, the U.S. Attorney General, to oversee the CIA, and to dismantle its system of unaccountable expenditures.
These events led Ferrie into a very complex world of covert operations where the lines between official and unofficial, between legal and illegal, became increasingly unclear.
By 1961, Ferrie lived in a three-level house near New Orleans International Airport, where he worked. Ferrie said his mother lived on the main floor, which looked like a normal middle-class house with sofas, paintings, books, and the like. Here Ferrie held air patrol meetings. The entire top floor was David’s personal territory, and was strictly for his medical interests. It contained a medical library with various diplomas hung on the walls, a psychiatric couch, medical equipment like microscopes and test tubes, and about twenty caged mice for his medical experiments. In the basement sat the sawed-off remains of a World War II fighter plane, which he used as a primitive flight simulator to teach flying.15
This was, frankly, as good as life ever got for David Ferrie. From here we follow a descent that can only be described as tragic.
As the story was told to me by ex-CAP cadets, one night Ferrie got drunk and, in an attempt to impress a young boy, borrowed a plane and went for a joyride, buzzing the sleeping city of New Orleans at tree-top level. Some say he had sex with the boy during the flight. FAA officials were waiting at the airport when he returned. They set in motion an effort to pull his commercial license. He was also booked on “decency charges” concerning his relationship with the teenage boy.16 About the same time, he lost his position with the Civil Air Patrol through insubordination and misconduct. Again, the basic ingredients were young boys. Ferrie insisted on sleeping in the cabin with the teenage cadets, and threw a beer party for them on the beach, both violations of CAP rules. Ferrie left the CAP and started his own flying club for teenage boys, called the Falcons, and held meetings in his home.
Ferrie’s religious ambitions also re-surfaced in 1961. He became a member of the clergy of the Apostolic Orthodox Old Catholic Church of North America, an independent offshoot of the Roman Catholic Church headquartered in a house in Louisville, Kentucky. It was from this fountain of legitimacy that Ferrie sought to attain his rank as Bishop.
On November 30, 1961, wearing a wig Scotch-taped to his head and accompanied by sidekick Jack Martin, Ferrie arrived in Louisville expecting to be consecrated as a Bishop of the Church. It was not to be. The Archbishop who was supposed to perform the ceremony had heard of Ferrie’s dismissal from Eastern Airlines, refused to consecrate him, and chastised him for the reports of his unnatural sexual behavior. The Archbishop’s criticism went further still, telling Ferrie he intended to excommunicate him from the Church for behavior unbecoming to a Church official. Ferrie was furious and departed in anger. In January 1962, the Archbishop officially excommunicated Ferrie from the Church, advising him by letter that he had been “degraded and cast out of the clergy and Church in America.”
Ferrie’s battle with Eastern Airlines had lasted for several years. A doctor who examined him for Eastern Airlines described him as having a “psychotic personality and no sense of responsibility.”17 He eventually lost his job. His life fell into a spiral. He moved from his tri-level house by the airport to a small apartment in town. His hair had now fallen out completely, and he began wearing a homemade orange wig which some said was made of monkey hair.18 He replaced his natural eyebrows with dark grease paint. When combined with his newly purchased wardrobe of second-hand clothes, his appearance created an unforgettable impression on those he met.
15 Perry Russo, interview by author, January 1993.
16 A newspaper article on file in the New Orleans Public Library confirms the fact that “decency charges” were filed against Ferrie regarding a teenage boy prior to 1963.
17 Southern Research, March 6, 1963.
18 Davis, Mafia Kingfish: Carlos Marcello and the Assassination of John F Kennedy (New York, 1989), p. 145.
WE ENTER 1963. Ferrie made one final try at getting someone to recognize his religious talents, his fourth attempt at the clergy. This time it was from the Orthodox Catholic Church, another offshoot Catholic sect, which split from the Church over a doctrinal dispute in 1709. The worldwide head of this church was reported to be an Archbishop in Geneva, Switzerland, who was identified in the Southern Research report as a translator at a disarmament conference.
The Chancellor of the North American Province was Bishop George A. Hyde, who lived in Washington, D.C. and ran a small seminary out of his house. Hyde had three young male novices and expected another three shortly. Each person in the house held an outside job and contributed his income to Hyde to run his house. Using the title Friar Hyde, he offered his services to the Washington D.C. Juvenile Court, which responded by placing a young boy in his home. Hyde said, “If I am successful, I would like to take in other boys like him.”
Early that summer Ferrie told Hyde of his desire to become a priest and asked Hyde to ordain him. After considerable discussion, Hyde agreed to the request saying the next opportunity would be at the Bishop’s conference in Kankake, Illinois. Hyde recommended David Ferrie as a candidate for ordination, but requested the hosting Bishop to ordain him, since he could not attend. Ferrie was scheduled to be ordained a priest of this church on July 19, 1963.
Just two days before Ferrie’s scheduled ordination, Jack Martin, Ferrie’s old sidekick in New Orleans, arrived at the Bishop’s Rectory in Kankake, Illinois, and told the Bishop that David Ferrie had been arrested several times on charges of homosexuality and that he was presently appealing one such allegation in the Louisiana Court of Appeals. Martin picked up the phone, called the Clerk of Court in New Orleans, and handed the phone to one of the priests to verify the information. The Bishop refused to ordain Ferrie.
Back in New Orleans, Ferrie’s involvement with the increasingly desperate anti-Castro Cuban underground was escalating. His main employment was working as a “private investigator” for a right-wing extremist named Guy Banister, who was heavily involved in covert anti-communist activities throughout Latin America.19 Ferrie also served as a private investigator and personal pilot for accused Mafia boss Carlos Marcello (and others). By July of 1963, Ferrie’s assistance to the anti-Castro Cuban underground included the military training of a dozen Cuban exiles at a rural camp located about forty miles from New Orleans. Their target was Castro himsel.20 By this time, Kennedy had explicitly prohibited paramilitary raids on Cuba by desperate exile groups. On July 31, 1963, the FBI raided this training camp, arrested and/or detained eleven people (mostly Cubans and a few mobsters), and confiscated a large quantity of military weapons. The military weaponry included over a ton of dynamite, aerial bomb casings, detonators, and the ingredients to make napalm. It is believed that the mission of this group was the assassination of Fidel Castro and that it was one of many projects organized by the Cuban exile, Dr. Orlando Bosch, a fanatical terrorist and saboteur who began his career as a medical doctor.21
While there is no evidence that Ferrie was present when the FBI raided the camp, he is believed to have been closely involved and to have procured the explosives and military hardware for the operation from an explosives bunker at the Schlumberger Tool Company.
Had ordinary people been caught with that same equipment and in those same circumstances, they would have been sent to jail for years. For some reason, the FBI released these eleven saboteurs and attempted to cover up their detainment.22 It should be noted that Ferrie-employer Guy Banister had run the FBI’s Chicago office and was a close professional associate of J. Edgar Hoover.
Into this caldron walked one of Ferrie’s old Civil Air Patrol cadets, who had just returned to New Orleans with his pregnant wife and baby daughter. Lee Harvey Oswald had been off in the Marines for several years, and had lived for several more years in the Soviet Union, where he had met his young bride. In New Orleans, Oswald got a job at the Reily Coffee Company, located around the corner from Guy Banister’s office where Ferrie worked. Oswald was seen with Ferrie several times that summer:
- Oswald and Ferrie were seen together at Banister’s office at 544 Camp St.
- Ferrie and Clay Shaw took Oswald up to Jackson, Louisiana to try to get him a job in the Southeastern Louisiana State Hospital, a mental hospital staffed with doctors from both Tulane and LSU medical schools. As part of that effort, Shaw and Ferrie brought Oswald to nearby Clinton, Louisiana, to register to vote.
- Ferrie had a party at his apartment. His guests included Clay Shaw, Lee Oswald, Perry Russo, and several Cuban exiles. Ferrie got drunk and discussed how President Kennedy could be killed if he was caught in a crossfire of high-powered rifles.
19 Garrison, “Playboy Interview”, p. 161-162.
20 Ibid., p. 156.
21 Hinckle and Turner, Deadly Secrets, p. 229.
22 For a more detailed description of this training camp incident, and other covert activities against Castro and Cuba, see Hinckle and Turner, Deadly Secrets (1992), previously published as The Fish Is Red; also see Garrison, On the Trail of the Assassins, p. 44.
IN THE MONTHS THAT FOLLOWED, Ferrie spent his time helping Carlos Marcello defend himself against racketeering charges brought by Robert Kennedy and the U.S. Justice Department. On November 22, 1963, at the moment of President Kennedy’s assassination, Ferrie was sitting in federal court in New Orleans with Marcello as the judge prepared to read the jury’s “not guilty” verdict.
Later that afternoon, Ferrie made a sudden trip to Texas. Jack Martin (who had just been pistol whipped that afternoon by his employer Guy Banister) called the DA’s office to say that Ferrie may have been involved in Kennedy’s assassination. In response, the New Orleans District Attorney’s office raided Ferrie’s apartment on Louisiana Avenue Parkway. There they found aerial bomb casings, maps of Cuba, a small portion of his medical equipment and a dozen or so mice in cages. Ferrie was picked up for questioning by the DA’s office when he returned to New Orleans. The New Orleans DAs found the circumstances of his trip suspicious, and Ferrie’s explanation of the trip unbelievable. They turned Ferrie over to the FBI for further questioning. The FBI promptly released Ferrie with what amounted to a public apology.
At this point let me state that I cannot say if David Ferrie was involved in the assassination of President Kennedy. And more importantly, it is not critical to the issue we are discussing.
However, we are exploring the life and activities of a man who was running an underground medical laboratory which was said to have been using monkey viruses to develop a biological weapon. The fact that Ferrie was suspected of being involved in the Kennedy assassination is why we know as much about him as we do, and is how we know of his involvement in covert medical experiments with Dr. Mary Sherman and others. Later, in 1966, New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison re-opened his investigation into the Kennedy assassination at the suggestion of U.S. Senator Russell Long. Garrison found Ferrie to be central to his investigation.
Here are some comments about Ferrie from Garrison’s 1967 Playboy interview:
After the assassination, as a matter of fact, something psychologically curious happened to Ferrie: He dropped out of anti-Castro exile activities, left the pay of the CIA, and drifted aimlessly while his emotional problems increased to the point where he was totally dependent on huge doses of tranquilizers and barbiturates. I don’t know if Ferrie ever experienced any guilt about the assassination itself, but in his last months, he was a tortured man.23
I had nothing but pity for Dave Ferrie while he was alive, and I have nothing but pity for him now that he’s dead. Ferrie was a pathetic and tortured creature, a genuinely brilliant man whose twisted drives locked him into his own private hell. If I had been able to help Ferrie, I would have; but he was in too deep and he was terrified.24
For a long time afterward, Ferrie kept the remaining mice in hutches in his dining room, nursing plans for attaching small incendiary flares to them and parachuting them into Cuba’s sugarcane fields.25
David Ferrie perennially was being defrocked, first of his priesthood, then of his hair, then of his Civil Air Patrol captaincy and then of his position as an Eastern Air Lines pilot. It is unlikely that he was unaffected by this accumulation of bitter experience. This man with a brilliant mind and a face like a clown was a dangerous man.26
In February of 1967, only a few days after Garrison’s investigation was made public, David Ferrie was found dead in his disheveled apartment. The Coroner ruled that Ferrie died of natural causes. To this day, speculation continues about the cause of his death: Some argue that he was murdered; some argue that he took his own life. The only three names mentioned in Ferrie’s handwritten will are his brother, his friend Alvin Beauboeuf, and Rev. George A. Hyde.
Considering all the things he lost during his life, it is interesting to note that his religious garments hung in his closet until the end.
23 Garrison, “Playboy Interview,” p. 176.
24 Ibid., p. 176.
25 Garrison, A Heritage of Stone (New York, 1970), p. 122.
26 Ibid., p. 122.
IN JANUARY 1993, I FLEW TO NEW ORLEANS to assist Gus Russo in his investigation of Lee Harvey Oswald for the PBS television show Frontline. Before I left for New Orleans, I called Perry Russo.27 Perry had been Garrison’s key witness, who testified that he was in Ferrie’s apartment when Ferrie plotted to kill Kennedy. In 1993 Perry was a cab driver in New Orleans, so I asked him to pick me up at the airport. Once in the cab I asked him to tell me everything he knew about Ferrie, starting with the first time he met him.
Perry began at the beginning and talked for nearly an hour. His descriptions were detailed and insightful. His story began back in high school, when he coached a neighborhood basketball team. One of the boys on his team was the object of David Ferrie’s affection. The boy had moved in with Ferrie. As a favor to the boy’s parents, Perry Russo infiltrated Ferrie’s group with the intention of bringing his friend home. To do this, he had to break Ferrie’s considerable psychological grip on the youngster.28 Throughout his tale, Perry Russo told me of both his successes and his failures in a balanced manner. I asked questions as we went along. He was quick to say “I don’t know” when he did not know, and he struggled to remember details about the things he could. It was clear to me that Perry never really liked Ferrie, but he came to respect him. His descriptions were particularly helpful.
THE DAVE FERRIE THAT PERRY RUSSO talked about first was Captain Dave Ferrie, the successful commercial airline pilot. It was Perry who described Ferrie’s house near the airport room-by-room: the middle class apartment on the main floor, the fighter plane in the basement, and his medical suite above. It was here that Ferrie was most at home, among his diplomas, reclining couches, microscopes, test tubes, medical books, and mice. It was here he plotted to cure cancer and to rid the world of Communism.
When Ferrie lost his airline job in 1961, he also lost his affluent lifestyle. Perry’s before-and-after descriptions contrasted a proud man who meticulously wore uniforms with a broken man who shopped exclusively at thrift stores. As Perry described Ferrie’s small apartment on Louisiana Avenue Parkway, it became clear that the bulk of Ferrie’s furniture, his medical equipment and his airplane-related paraphernalia did not make the transition to 3330 Louisiana Avenue Parkway. So I asked Perry about this. He said he remembered asking, “What happened to all Dave’s stuff?” to either Ferrie himself or to one of the boys who hung out at his apartment. Perry was told Ferrie had stashed his extra “stuff” in another apartment nearby.29
TWO DAYS LATER Perry Russo picked up Gus Russo and me, and drove us over to Ferrie’s apartment on Louisiana Avenue Parkway. While Gus asked Perry questions about Garrison and the Kennedy assassination, I got out of the car and walked around, checking the distance between that building and the one I knew, checking the angles, and taking pictures. When I got back in the car, Perry mentioned that Ferrie’s apartment had been vacant for four or five years after his death in 1967.
Those were the same years that my girlfriend Barbara’s apartment had been vacant!30 Two rental apartments, both on the same street within a dozen houses yards of each other, both with the lingering smell of animals, and both voluntarily taken off the market (without rent) for years at a time! There had to be a connection! My conclusion could only be that Ferrie had been involved in both apartments, and used 3225 Louisiana Avenue Parkway as his underground medical laboratory.
Having placed Barbara across the street from David Ferrie’s known rental, let’s revisit the subject of her upstairs neighbor Miguel. I do not want to make too much of him. It is possible he was a real “nobody,” but there are a few points worth noting.
First, consider his claim that he worked occasionally “at a service station in Jefferson Parish.” From 1964 to his death in 1967, David Ferrie operated a service station in Jefferson Parish.
Secondly, Miguel had said he worked as “a mechanic.” Within the covert operations circles in which David Ferrie ran, the word “mechanic” was a commonly used euphemism for “assassin.”
Thirdly, Perry Russo testified in court that, in September 1963, he heard David Ferrie, Clay Shaw, and several Cubans discuss shooting President Kennedy with high-powered rifles. The location of this incident was David Ferrie’s apartment at 3330 Louisiana Avenue Parkway. When I interviewed Perry Russo about David Ferrie, he said the Cubans frequently showed up at Ferrie’s apartment. They just appeared. No phone calls. No cars. Always late at night. Always in groups. Always from the back staircase.
Ferrie’s address sounds like it’s in the next block from Barbara’s 3225 Louisiana Avenue Parkway abode, but the numbers are misleading. There is no cross street, and both are on the same block.
How did the Cubans know when to show up? Were they staying in Miguel’s apartment down the block? Was Miguel one of them? It is clearly stated by both Garrison in On the Trail of the Assassins, and by Turner and Hinckle in Deadly Secrets (and many other books), that Ferrie was part of the secret war against Cuba, and that these activities included an underground railroad which transported militant Cuban exiles to guerrilla-warfare training at places like Banister’s camp outside New Orleans.
Now, where would you lodge a group of guerillas who had just come from a week of combat training in the swamps? At your mother’s house? No, you would need to have a safe house. A secure place that was basically empty so it could be used as needed for a stopover. A place just like the apartment across the street from Ferrie, close to the operation, but far from high-traffic areas where it might attract unwanted attention. All of which made me wonder if our neighbor Miguel might not have been “part of the scenery,” an artifact of the underground Cuban railroad left in position to keep an eye on things, and to make sure no one got too curious about the apartment building where those terrible men did horrible things to those animals.
27 Perry Russo is not related to Gus Russo.
28 Perry Russo, interview by author, January 1993.
30 This point about both apartments being vacant has been made by several people, including Barbara, who told me within days of renting her apartment in 1972 that her landlord had two properties which had been vacant, and had just rented the other unit across the street. She pointed the building out to me. It was memorable because of the arched window in the façade, which lit the stairwell by day but made it look like an aquarium at night. I am positive that this was Ferrie’s apartment at 3330 Louisiana Avenue Parkway.
TTHE WOMAN ENTERS OUR STORY as an enigma. Considered “absolutely brilliant” by her medical colleagues, Mary Sherman rose rapidly to the very top ranks of the male-dominated hierarchy of American medicine in bone and joint surgery, a field that to this day has extremely few female physicians. Self-made, financially successful, and professionally respected, Dr. Sherman was a sophisticated and powerful woman during an era when the future feminists of the 1960s were still sitting at home watching Leave it to Beaver. Yet the glimpses we see of her very private personal life show a complex and sensitive woman who loved theater, literature, music, wine, flowers, and international travel, and who carried with her some terrible personal burdens. But we see no discernible political interest.1 None of this seems to explain, or even hint at, her involvement with a politically violent, emotionally unstable, drug-addicted social outcast like David Ferrie, who had no formal medical training.
Most of what we know about Mary Sherman comes from newspaper articles, an unusual police report, and her will. To that we add insights from a few medical articles, and a handful of interviews with people who knew her, to produce a sketch of an unusually talented woman who met an unusually horrible end.
Born “Mary Stults” in Evanston, Illinois in 1913, she was one of several daughters of a musical voice teacher.2 At the age of sixteen, Mary went to France for two years to study at L’ecole de M. Collnot, and later taught French while working on a masters at the University of Illinois. Marrying Thomas Sherman, she became Mary Sherman.3
The pattern of an academic superstar is immediately obvious from her Phi Beta Kappa membership to her graduate work at the University of Chicago. For those unfamiliar with this institution, please note that within academic circles, the University of Chicago is an intellectual powerhouse which rivals Harvard, Stanford, and any other famous university one might name. It was founded by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, and was designed on the model of the European research university, rather than the American teaching college. This was done at a time when the Rockefeller fortune was heavily involved in the drug companies, and their sponsorship of biochemical research helped develop new commercial drugs. Today, the University of Chicago continues on the leading edge of genetics and cancer research.
As an outgrowth of this biochemical medical research, the University of Chicago became one of the first major centers of nuclear research. The landmark event of this nuclear effort was the construction of the first “atom smasher,” a huge nuclear accelerator hidden in the bowels of UC’s sports stadium. In 1937, it produced the first sustained nuclear reaction for UC physicist Enrico Fermi. This is where Mary Sherman did her post-graduate work. She was trained at the headwaters of nuclear, biochemical, and genetic research in America.
Before she became involved in human medicine, Mary did ground-breaking research into botanical viruses which lived in soil. Her early articles were so profound and so insightful that they were frequently quoted in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Though she had been dead for thirty years, the Scientific Citation Index shows ten medical articles published in 1993 which contained references to her scientific writings published between 1947 and 1965. The names of the journals tell the story of her state-of-the-art use of radiation for the treatment of bone cancers:
From this, we can see the evidence of her breakthrough thinking. This young woman, who studied in France at the time when Madame Curie’s name was at the top of the scientific heap, was one of America’s most promising minds. With the proper training, encouragement and opportunities, she could be within striking distance of the legendary Curie herself, and could possibly become the most important woman in science. Maybe it would be Mary, who at such a young age had understood the basic life of viruses better than anyone before her, who would break through “the cancer barrier.” The great minds at UC saw her potential and brought her along. During the 1940s she became Associate Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, and practiced medicine at UC’s Billings Hospital.4
In the early 1950s, Mary Sherman’s life changed. Her cancer work at the University of Chicago had attracted the attention of a famous and wealthy doctor who was president of the American Cancer Society, president of a famous medical clinic which bore his name, and Chief of Surgery at Tulane Medical School, one of the most respected medical schools of the day. The doctor was Alton Ochsner, M.D., of New Orleans.
Ochsner’s offer to Dr. Sherman was considerable. She would be a partner in Ochsner’s clinic, the head of her own cancer laboratory, and, to keep her place in the academic side of medicine, she would be an Associate Professor at Tulane Medical School. Additionally, she would also have the personal support of one of the most politically powerful and well-connected doctors in America, a conduit for a constant flow of research funds.
Again single, Mary moved to New Orleans in 1952, and took up residence on historic St. Charles Avenue, near the corner of Louisiana Avenue. There she lived until her death in 1964, juggling her jobs at Tulane and Ochsner’s, doing surgery at Charity Hospital, and working on the medical staff of several children’s hospitals. But as doctors went, she was always more comfortable in a laboratory than an operating room.
Mary’s career prospered. One of the clear marks of professional success for an orthopedic surgeon is to be elected to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. It takes years, if not decades. Some never make it. Once in the academy, the ladder continues. The bright stars get put on Committees which make the rules about science and ethics. They establish what is acceptable and who is accepted. The brightest of the stars chair these Committees. One of the most prestigious is the Pathology Committee, which reviews the state of the art on disease itself, particularly bone cancers.
Mary Sherman was Chairman of the Pathology Committee of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. Her position took her around the world. When the great wizards of medicine realized the very language which they used to describe and categorize cancers of the bone and soft tissue needed to be reexamined, they chose six of the nation’s leading experts to tackle the task, including Dr. Mary Sherman.5 When the front page of the newspaper had the sad task of announcing her death, it described her as “an internationally known bone specialist” whose main area of interest was “bone cancer treatment and research.”6
So our question remains: What would motivate an accomplished medical professional to risk her reputation by getting involved in an underground medical laboratory with a violent political zealot owning a criminal record of sexual misconduct and with no medical credentials? Was she led there by her own ambition? Was there a dark side to her concealed from public view? Was she simply manipulated by more powerful forces? Or was there a medical problem brewing that was so serious that it was worth the risk?
1 Letter from William Turner (author of Deadly Secrets) to Carol Hewett, April 16, 1994. Turner worked with Jim Garrison’s investigators and reported the opinion of the Garrison camp on Sherman’s apolitical perspective. She was not right-wing.
2 Sherman’s biography was mostly compounded from several articles which ran in New Orleans’ Times-Picayune and States-Item newspapers, July 21, 1964.
3 Probate Record, Mary S. Sherman, deceased July 21, 1964, State of Louisiana, New Orleans. The husband is somewhat of an enigma; after her death, friends told investigators that she had told them he had committed suicide during the 1940s, but there is no independent corroboration of this.
4 Billings Hospital in Chicago was one of the few hospitals that participated in the covert plutonium experiments of the 1940s and 1950s. Three patients were injected with plutonium without their knowledge; Welsome, “The Plutonium Experiments.”
5 Tumors of the Bone and Soft Tissue, edited by R. Lee Clark, contains two articles by Mary Sherman, “Histogenesis of Bone Tumors” and “Giant Cell Bone Tumor.”
6 “Cancer Work Slain Doctor’s Main Interest,” New Orleans States-Item, July 21, 1964, s.1 p.1.
The Press Reports
IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO DESCRIBE THE DEATH of Dr. Sherman without appearing both sensational and mysterious. This is because it was a sensational event, and much of it is still shrouded in mystery.
For nearly thirty years, the only information the world would see concerning her murder were articles published by two New Orleans newspapers, the New Orleans States-Item and the Times-Picayune.
Both papers covered the story for several weeks with overlapping reports and language, each with a slightly different editorial perspective. The coverage began with a banner headline on the front page on July 21, 1964. The States-Item announced:
Orleans Woman Surgeon Slain by Intruder; Body Set Afire
Clues Lacking in Killing of Dr. Sherman
The lead article read,
An intruder forced his way into a fashionable St. Charles Ave. apartment early today, stabbed a prominent woman orthopedic surgeon to death and set fire to her body. Police apparently had virtually no clues to the identity of the slayer of Dr. Mary Stults Sherman …
The basic storyline went like this: At approximately four o’clock in the morning a neighbor smelled smoke and called the police. His name was Juan Valdez. The police checked the building and found one apartment filled with smoke. The police called the fire department. When the firefighters arrived, they removed a smoking mattress from the apartment. Within minutes the police searched the apartment and found the badly burned body of a woman that had been stabbed repeatedly. An investigator from the Coroner’s office arrived and checked the scene. Then the NOPD homicide team arrived. No murder weapon was found, but a large knife was missing from the knife rack in the kitchen. Her body was removed to the Coroner’s office, where it was identified by another doctor.
The States-Item reported,
Homicide detectives said the front door to her apartment had been forced open, her wallet was empty, and her 1961 automobile was missing … Sam Moran, Special Investigator for the Orleans Parish Coroner’s office, said the front door had been forced open and an unsuccessful attempt had been made to open a jewelry box.
Between the two papers, each of which ran three articles on their first day of coverage, the burglary motive was stated or referenced about twenty times, including several references to the fact that Dr. Sherman’s apartment had been burglarized before. The burglary angle is so strong that the NOPD precinct captain complained to the press about “the departmental manpower shortage” in response to criticisms of “inadequate police protection in the neighborhood.” It would not be until the next day, after a horrified city had literally millions of word-of-mouth discussions about the sensational murder/burglary, before the newspapers stated that the front door had not been forced open and her burglar alarm had been turned off. The press now reported that the homicide department, impressed by these facts, and the facts that “the intruder” knew which car belonged to Dr. Sherman and that a box full of jewelry which could have easily been carried off was left behind, ruled out burglary as a motive.
The first-day coverage continued with the standard biographical information about education and employment. Additionally, we learn that Dr. Sherman was a widow living alone, that she loved flowers, that her neighbors described her as “wonderful” and “thoughtful,” and that her housekeeper said she was expecting a lady friend for a visit that evening.
Both papers take time to describe an unusual painting hanging in her living room:
The most striking thing about the living room, however, is a pastel painting hung in a prominent position. In the foreground of the painting is the fear-gripped face of a woman clutching her throat. A series of smaller sketches in the background depict a Roman warrior stabbing a woman with his sword.
Deeper into this first-day coverage, we also learn that none of the neighbors, including those who were used to hearing even casual sounds from her apartment, heard a thing that night.
Mrs. Levy [a neighbor who lived beneath Dr. Sherman for 12 years] … usually heard Dr. Sherman when [she] came in at night, but last night she went to bed early and didn’t hear anything…. “If there had been a loud commotion, I know I would have heard it,” Mrs. Levy said. “The doctor was quiet, but I always heard her come in and take off her shoes, then padding around in her slippers. Sometimes I remarked to my husband, ‘Doc’s home again.’”
That day Dr. Sherman had come home early and washed her hair. She was seen by the building maintenance man about 4:00 P.M., and was last seen by her housekeeper at 4:30 P.M.
On the second press day the case was referred to as “a mutilation slaying,” to which NOPD Captain Stevens added, “Obviously some perverted mind was involved.” The police were looking for a psychopath, perhaps one of her patients. The newspapers reported a “mysterious telephone caller” who had called several of Dr. Sherman’s close friends to say, “You’re next.” The voice was male. Other developments were reported: Her car was found eight blocks away. A palm print was recovered from the car, but could not be identified. The car key was recovered from a neighboring lawn. Partial results of the autopsy leaked to the press: “Though Dr. Sherman’s body had been mutilated, there was no evidence that she had been raped.” Her body was held for ten days at the morgue and was then sent out of town for cremation.
Having now ruled out burglary as a motive, homicide officers proceeded “on the presumption that the killer was an acquaintance of the fifty-one-year-old widow.” The press said, “Neighbors, relatives, and friends are being questioned, and police are ruling out no possibility as to the identity of the killer, the motive, or his method of entering the apartment.” Police told reporters they suspected “Everybody and nobody.” Over the next two weeks, “professional associates and social acquaintances” were interviewed by the police. The reported number grew to over 100 by August 3 and topped off at 150. On August 5, the Times-Picayune announced,
No Leads Found in Slaying Case
… and dropped the story.
The States-Item continued coverage with eight more articles. On August 11, the front page of the States-Item announced a press blackout by police:
Information in Sherman Case Halted
Information on the status of the police investigation of the mutilation-murder of Dr. Mary Stults Sherman was shut off today, as all questions on the probe were referred to Chief of Detectives Lawrence J. Cassanova, who is out of town.
Police say questioning scores of the bone specialist’s professional associates and social acquaintances has turned up no lead to her killer.
The following day the front page story explained:
Blackout Continues On Murder
Police say they have no clue on the murder …
Detective Chief Cassanova was still out of town, at a homicide seminar at LSU in Baton Rouge.
An exasperated police department responded by presenting the newspaper with an “if-it’s-murders-you-want-it’s-murders-we’ve-got” portfolio of unsolved murders, four male and four female, which the States-Item published on August 15 under the headline:
Medic Slaying Still Baffles N.O. Police:
One in 10 Murders Unsolved.
The papers had used a lot of colorful language to describe the murder:
charred and mutilated
hacked to death
partially burned body
But it is only in two sentences from the last column of the last article that we find any detail of the fire itself, or of the burns to Mary Sherman’s body. We read,
The murderer set fire to her bed and piled underclothing on her body, setting it afire. The fire smoldered for some time — long enough to denude an innerspring mattress and burn away the flesh from one of the doctor’s arms.
This article also tells us that:
Dr. Sherman had been away for two weeks prior to the weekend before the murder.
This raises another question: “Where was she?” I am told she was in Boston. Why was she there?
It would be nearly thirty years before anyone, other than the tight circle of people involved in the autopsy and the investigation, would know what the police and autopsy reports really said about Mary Sherman’s murder.
Concurrent with the newspaper articles, rumors spread likely influenced the public’s perception of Mary Sherman’s murder. By nine o’clock on the morning of the murder, the word had already spread throughout the offices of the New Orleans newspapers that there had been a lesbian sex killing in the uptown area. This is interesting, since the autopsy, which determined the cause of death and which discovered the laceration to her sexual organs, did not even begin until 9:15 A.M.7
Six weeks after the murder, in early September 1964, I personally heard another rumor about a female orthopedic surgeon killed over the summer. The source of this was a teacher welcoming our class back from summer holiday. In his version, she had been murdered by Communists. This was a head-scratcher, even in 1964. “What is the world coming to?” he asked us.
I couldn’t understand why the Communists would want to kill an orthopedic surgeon. And since my father was an orthopedic surgeon, I wondered if the Communists had any interest in killing him, too. While researching this book, I wrote that teacher a letter about his comments made decades ago. He remembered the incident, and talked about the doctor’s “dark side” and her association with “gay Mexicanos.” Such was the word-of-mouth on the streets of New Orleans in 1964.
In 1992, I set out to get copies of the police reports. With the help of the NOPD item number (G-12994-64), I found them in the City Archives of the New Orleans Public Library. There were two reports. One was the Precinct Report, promptly written and filed by the street cops who first arrived at her apartment that July morning; the other was a Supplementary Report written by the Homicide Department months after the investigation had subsided. The Precinct Report was signed and approved by all parties. The Homicide Report was not. It was only signed by the officer who prepared it and was then filed without being co-signed or approved. I consider this violation of basic procedure extremely unusual for such a high-profile case.
7 Keith, Don Lee “A Matter of Motives,” Gambit, August 3, 1993.
The Precinct Report
FROM THE PRECINCT REPORT we get a straightforward view of the post-call events at the crime scene. The police arrived and were met by Juan Valdez, who told them he thought the smoke was coming through the ventilation ducts from another apartment. A search of the various apartments found the door to the patio of Apartment J ajar, and the sliding door entrance to the apartment open one to two inches. Inside, the living room was full of smoke. The police called the fire department. Valdez told the police it was Mary Sherman’s apartment, and brought them a wet towel to use as a gas mask, but they were unable to penetrate the smoke of the apartment. They waited for the fire department to arrive, and to remove the smoldering mattress using oxygen masks. When the smoke cleared, they found a body lying on the floor next to the bed. Their report said,
The feet of the white female’s body was pointed towards the head of the bed …
Soon the coroner’s team and the homicide team arrived. The scene was photographed. Certain items were confiscated. The Assistant Coroner pronounced the body dead and made comments about the victim:
A preliminary examination by Dr. LoCascio on the scene determined that there were several possible stab wounds of the left arm of the body, which had not been deteriorated by the fire There also appeared to be several stab wounds in the torso. There was also a large wound of the inside of the right thigh just above the knee. From further examination of the body, it was noted by the coroner that the right arm and a portion of the right side of the body extending from the right hip to the right shoulder was completely burned away exposing various vital organs.
The body was removed from the apartment and taken to the Coroner’s office. The other residents in the building were all questioned. None heard anything between the time they retired and the time the police arrived, except one who heard Juan Valdez walking around his apartment before the police arrived.
From Elmener Peterson, Mary’s housekeeper, police learned that the burglar alarm was in the “off” position, that Dr. Sherman was “expecting visitors from out of town,” and that she had laid out a polka dot dress, which they found lying on a chair in the bedroom. As to the issue of whether the intruder had forced the door open, the report says,
The officers could find no signs of the door leading to the apartment patio or sliding glass door having been forced open.
It is mentioned that the body was positively identified by Dr. Carolyn Talley, and that their police captain had summarized the results of the autopsy for them.
The cause of death was also given to Patn. Knight by Capt. Stevens as follows: 1. Stab wound of the chest, penetrating the heart, hemopericardium and left hemithorax [sic] 2. Multiple stab wounds of the abdomen, with incid wound of the liver. 3. Multiple stab wounds of the left upper extremity and the right leg. 4. Laceration of Labia Minora. 5. Extreme burns of right side of body with complete destruction of right upper extremity and right side of thorax and abdomen.
The Homicide Report
NOW WE LOOK AT THE HOMICIDE REPORT, a baffling document written in two parts. The first half, covering the crime scene, was completed on October 29, 1964, approximately ten weeks after the police stopped their investigation. The second half was dated several days later, on November 3, 1964. The report should have been signed by both investigators, Detective Frank Hayward and Detective Robert Townsend, Jr., and their supervisor, Lt. James Kruebbe. But there is only one signature, that of Detective Robert Townsend, Jr. The extreme delay in preparing this report and this unusual violation of a basic procedure show that, for some reason, this was not an ordinary report. My guess is that it was not signed by his co-investigator and supervisor for a reason. Perhaps they refused to sign it in protest. Perhaps they filed it without signing it so they could say they never saw it. Perhaps Townsend filed it himself, just to put something in the file. Who knows? I tried to contact Townsend to find out, but he did not return the calls.
This report begins with recounting the same events as the Precinct Report, except told from the perspective of the homicide team. As they arrived, they found the firemen cleaning up debris. They instructed them to stop and to leave all debris where they had placed it, so that the homicide team could inspect it and see what was being removed from the crime scene. (This is an important detail.) Then they described what they saw:
The undersigned entered Apt. J. from the patio, the only entrance to said apartment, into the living room area. Said apartment was composed of a living room, kitchen, bathroom, study, and a bedroom…. Located in the bedroom, was the body of a white female, apparently dead, later learned to be one Dr. Mary Stults Sherman, WF, 51 yrs., formerly residing 3101 St. Charles Ave., Apt. J., who lived alone…. The body was in a supine position, the head in the direction of the river, the feet in the direction of the lake, and both legs were outstretched and parallel to each other… The left arm was outstretched and parallel to the left side of the body. The right side of the body from the waist to where the right shoulder would be, including the whole right arm, was apparently disintegrated from the fire, yielding the inside organs of the body. There was what appeared to be a stab wound in the left arm and also in the inner side of the right leg near the knee. The body was nude; however, there was clothing which had apparently been placed on top of the body, mostly covering the body from just above the pubic area to the neck. Some of the mentioned clothes had been burned completely, while others were still intact, but scorched.
The condition of the apartment did not support the idea of a violent crime:
It appeared that no scuffle took place inside of said bedroom, and nothing appeared to be disarranged in the bedroom or throughout the apartment.
Soot covered the apartment and made fingerprinting nearly impossible. Part of one print was recovered from the sherry bottle near her bed. Two burnt wooden matches were found on the cedar chest. From the soot prints, the detectives were sure these matches were there prior to the fire, though no other wooden matches of any kind could be found within the apartment, the inference being that the murderer must have brought the matches.
Sam Moran, the investigator from the Coroner’s office who later erroneously told the press that the front door had been forced open and that the burglar had unsuccessfully tried to open the jewelry box, arrived, looked around, and then left with Mary’s jewelry box, purse, check book and other personal items, including thirteen keys on a key ring found in the kitchen.
At the morgue, the autopsy was performed by Dr. Samuels, a pathologist, who told police (1) the victim died prior to the fire, (2) the victim had not been raped, and (3) the victim was dead before the laceration to the labia minora was inflicted. When the Coroner’s officials examined the clothing piled on Dr. Sherman’s body, they noted, “Most of the clothes were still neatly folded when placed on top of the body.” The criminologist observed that these clothes were composed of a synthetic material which would ignite into a fame at 500 degrees Fahrenheit. At lower temperatures they would have only smoldered.
Back at the apartment, police removed approximately forty items, including two passports, two address books, one pair of white gloves with “apparent blood stains” found in the laundry hamper in the bathroom, and a copy of “Our Marriage Vows.”
When Dr. Sherman’s car was found, they searched a 350-foot radius of the car, and recovered numerous items common to women’s handbags, none of which could be proved to be Dr. Sherman’s. The key to her car, however, had been thrown over a nearby wall, and was found separately by a neighbor.
The remainder of the report (the 11/3/64 section) takes a bizarre turn. You recall the 150 professional associates and social acquaintances that the press said the police had interviewed concerning the murder? Look what we find instead!
Seven percent of the homicide report discussed John, a “Peeping Tom” who had ogled a twenty-six-year-old woman in Dr. Sherman’s apartment complex six months earlier. He had since moved across town. His activities on the evening of July 20 were accounted for and supported by credible witnesses. The report clearly stated where he was employed, at a local vending machine company. The objective of this section seems to be to imply that sex crimes did occur in Mary’s neighborhood.
Twenty percent of the report discussed Jane, a young woman from New Jersey with short red hair and toreador pants, who walked past Sherman’s building around midnight, apparently on her way to a lesbian rendezvous in the French Quarter. The girl stopped in to see the night watchman across the street from Mary’s apartment so she could make a phone call. She had nothing to do with the case, but the report clearly said where she was employed, at a theater on Canal Street. The objective of this section seems to be to point out that lesbians did live in (or at least walk through) Mary’s neighborhood.
Ten percent of the report discussed Max, a social acquaintance of Mary Sherman. He was an author, and Max was his pen name. He suffered from arthritis and walked with a cane. Max only knew Mary for a year and had not seen her in nine months. She used to stop by and discuss the theatre and literature with him. Due to his fondness for her, Max became depressed after one of her visits and wrote her a letter asking her not to return. Max described her as a “lesbian who lived in grand fashion.” When the police asked Max how he knew she was a lesbian, he said he “had known a lesbian once in Venice,” but “he did not concern himself with such matters.” Speaking in a “very dramatic” voice to Detective Hayward, Max called her death a “delegated suicide.” He said, “she seemed to be torn within herself; that there was something bothering her; that was destroying her,” and if the investigators “would wait, it would be disclosed because this would be the ‘grand finale’ Mary Sherman would want.”
One has to wonder how much of Max’s description was based upon his own depression rather than on Mary’s. We know that Max was self-employed as an author. The objective of this section seems to be to show that at least one of the 150 people interviewed called her a lesbian, though his grounds for doing so are admittedly weak.
So let’s add them up: 7% + 20% + 10% = 37%. These three sections account for thirty-seven percent of the linage in the entire homicide report … and have absolutely nothing to do with what happened to Mary Sherman between 4:30 P.M. on 7/20/64 and 4:00 A.M. on 7/21/64. Their only purpose appears to be to imply a sexual motive for the killing.
Since the police were careful to explain where each of these essentially irrelevant people were employed, it is interesting to note that this same homicide report did not say where some principal players were employed. Consider these omissions:
|NAME||ROLE IN CASE||EMPLOYED BY|
|Ochsner Clinic; Tulane Med. Sch.
Tulane Medical School
International Trade Mart
Another person was included in the report because he supposedly helped explain Mary’s movements in the hours before her death. Here comes David Gentry, 4919 Magazine St., who sold Mary an ashtray following her dental appointment the afternoon before her murder. (The dentist’s name, however, was not mentioned.) One has to wonder if the police were aware that Mr. Gentry lived next door to, and was acquainted with, Lee Harvey Oswald, when Oswald lived at 4907 Magazine during the summer of 1963.8 But they could not have anticipated that Gentry would become a grand jury witness in 1967, when he was asked by Jim Garrison’s staff to identify photos of people who attended parties at the residence of Clay Shaw, former Director of the International Trade Mart, employer of Juan Valdez.9
The only professional associate of Dr. Sherman that is mentioned in the report is Dr. Carolyn Talley, and that was unavoidable because she identified the body for the police, based on shape and hair color. For some reason Talley called Sherman’s apartment at 5:00 A.M. the morning of the murder. No explanation of this phone call was given in the police report. My guess is that Talley, a pediatrician, was going to drive to the Crippled Children’s Hospital across the lake with Dr. Sherman later that morning, and that she called at 5:00 A.M. to give her a wake-up call so they could get an early start and avoid getting stuck in the morning traffic and the July heat.
8 Garrison, “Playboy Interview,” p. 161.
9 Who was the Juan Valdez that reported the fire in Mary Sherman’s apartment? Researcher Joan Mellen in her book Farewell to Justice said that this same Juan Valdez worked for Clay Shaw at the International Trade Mart. Further, Mellen reports that she was told that Lee Harvey Oswald was well-acquainted with a Cuban named Juan Valdez. Locating a Cuban who knew both Clay Shaw and Lee Oswald, and who lived next to Mary Sherman, might be very important. So New Orleans journalist Don Lee Keith tried to find Juan Valdez to talk to him. Keith told me that he had searched all over the country for Mary Sherman’s neighbor. After interviewing 34 people without success, Keith finally gave up, and questioned whether “Juan Valdez” was really his name.
But the spelling of Juan Valdez’s name has always been in question and may explain why he had been so difficult to locate. While the newspapers referred to him as “Juan Valdez,” the NOPD Homicide Report used another common variation of Valdez and spelled his name as “Juan Valdes” with an “s” instead of a “z”, and said that he was a 34-year-old male who lived in Apt. E. But maybe both spellings were wrong. Maybe the correct spelling was yet another variation of the common Spanish surname: “Valadez” with an “A” in the middle. We don’t know that answer, but we do note that in 2001 the bulletin of The World Trade Center of New Orleans said that “on October 11, Mr. Juan Valadez, an international security consultant and retired U.S. intelligence officer… made a presentation… for international travelers and businesses.”
Later the vigilant Romney Stubbs sent me a newspaper article from New Orleans about this same Juan Valadez, now of New Orleans, which listed the 30 years he worked for the CIA among his many credentials. Did this Juan Valadez work at the International Trade Mart in New Orleans in 1963 and live in the apartment complex with Mary Sherman? If “yes,” it means that the man who called the police to report the fire in Mary Sherman’s apartment was a CIA agent. This is such an important issue that it deserves a better determination than I can provide here. No, I have not contacted the retired CIA officer to ask him about any contact he may have had with Lee Harvey Oswald or Mary Sherman. But I wish HSCA or ARRB had. Due to the importance of this question, it would be best to get the answer under oath. Doing so would minimize speculation about the similar sounding names and the possible role of the CIA.
IN THE SUMMER OF 1993, a friend sent me a copy of a surprising article recalling the mystery of Mary Sherman’s murder that appeared in a small alternative newspaper in New Orleans. It was entitled “A Matter of Motives.”10
In this article, journalist Don Lee Keith challenged the lesbian angle: “From the beginning, the investigation followed but a single direction: the pursuit of a killer who was a lesbian. Police operated on the premise that the dead woman was also a lesbian.”
Unable to find anyone, including gay colleagues who worked with Sherman, who had any knowledge of her sexual preferences before her death, Keith concluded that the lesbian angle was a red herring to draw attention away from the real motive.
Keith’s article pointed out that the sex-murder rumor was well in place before 9:15 A.M. on July 21, when the autopsy began. Keith also considered the word “mutilation” to be “too strong” for the one centimeter cut on the victim’s labia. Forensically speaking, genital mutilation would suggest the killer was a man, not a woman. Quoting from his article, “Instances in which women have mutilated the genitalia of other women are so rare as to practically be unheard of.”
When he presented the murder to four medical examiners from other cities, all four said that it was “obviously a case of overkill,” with all but one suggesting the fire was an attempt to call attention to the crime scene.
From my perspective, the most important point in Keith’s article was calling attention to the fact that the police reports omitted the victim’s place of employment. Why would the police not want to tell us the victim ran a cancer laboratory for Dr. Alton Ochsner? All of which was kind of silly, since that information was on the front page of both newspapers. This omission can only have been intentional.
Keith also observed that Warren Commission investigators started taking their testimony in New Orleans on the morning of July 21, 1964, several hours after Mary Sherman’s murder. Some consider this coincidental timing suspicious, and have speculated that her death may have somehow been related to the Kennedy assassination or to her association with David Ferrie.
A few JFK assassination researchers have mentioned Mary Sherman in their writings. John Davis, author of Mafia Kingfish, called Mary Sherman “David Ferrie’s closest female friend,”11 and raised the possibility that her death might have been related to Ferrie’s death. But Davis had the date of her death wrong, and thought that she had died shortly after Ferrie in 1967.
For a more obvious error, we look at the work of Gerald Posner, who wrote a book called Case Closed, which argued that Oswald was the lone assassin of JFK. Posner ended his book with a chapter called “The Non-Mysterious Mystery Deaths,” to supposedly dismiss a host of ill-conceived theories. There he said,
Dr. Mary Sherman (house fire) had no connection to the case, though she was acquainted with David Ferrie … According to the medical records, she was killed in an accidental fire …12
An accidental house fire? According to the medical records? Please draw your own conclusions about Posner’s “facts.”
10 Keith, “A Matter of Motives.”
11 Davis, Mafia Kingfish, p. 372.
12 Posner, Gerald, Case Closed (New York, 1993), p. 496.
STILL, DESPITE ALL MY RESEARCH, I did not know how to feel about Mary Sherman.
Credentials mean little to me. I have seen terrible people carry impressive diplomas and fancy titles, and I have seen great people with neither. The few clues I had about Mary’s personal life told me little. The suicide of her husband and the painting of suffering on her wall told of her emotional hurt. But how did she manifest this? In malice, or charity, or both? Was she a childless, sadomasochistic lesbian witch who tried to become a goddess by developing her own life form? Or was she a deep, sensitive, honest caring physician who struggled to find a cure for cancer? Or was she a non-judgmental scientist who had simply been manipulated into doing things which finally brought about her own demise? I did not know. But I wanted to find out.
As I studied the 1964 newspaper articles and the police reports, I noticed the name of the maintenance man who had worked in Dr. Sherman’s building. It was Alvin Alcorn, “colored, male, age 51.” He had known Dr. Sherman for twelve years and was one of the last people to see her alive. At 4:00 P.M. he saw her standing on her patio talking to her housekeeper of twelve years, Elmener Peterson, also “colored,” as they insisted on reporting. As Alcorn left, he noticed that Dr. Sherman’s car was in the parking lot as usual, and confirmed such to police once they needed to know. Alvin Alcorn?
Quite by coincidence, I had met a man named Alvin Alcorn in New Orleans about five years before, but I had no idea at the time he was involved in any way with Mary Sherman. He was an elderly trumpet player who led a New Orleans jazz band called the Alvin Alcorn Group. Alvin frequently played at parties and brunches around town. Not a major celebrity by any means, but a well-known musician. I had heard his name for years. In the 1950s and 1960s Alcorn played so many parties for fraternities and faculty at Tulane that many considered him “the house band.”
By the spring of 1987, when we met accidentally at an outdoor function for the New Orleans Museum of Art, he was semi-retired and only played sporadically. His band had just finished performing, but I had missed them. I was waiting outside for my family, and he was walking about in the same area. After a while we started talking. He was warm, sensitive, perceptive, and completely devoid of any sense of “jive.” I knew if this was the same Alvin Alcorn, and if he was still alive, that he could give me a clean read on Mary Sherman, at least the parts he knew about.
I grabbed my old New Orleans phone book, found his number, and called him. Yes, he was alive, now in his eighties, but still quite alert. I confirmed that he was “Alvin Alcorn the musician,” and reminded him that we had met several years before. When he heard I was calling from Detroit, he insisted on reminiscing about his younger days, touring with the big bands and playing at the Graystone Ball Room in downtown Detroit. Then I changed subjects, and asked him if he had ever been to the Patio Apartments on St. Charles Avenue. Yes, he had, adding he had worked there for a real estate company. Then he paused to consider the curious question. I told him I wanted to come see him when I got to town. He agreed.
Soon I was in New Orleans and found his house, a small wooden shotgun design on the edge of town. Inside the low iron gate, six cats slept lazily on an old sofa on the porch. One moved away quietly when I entered. I knocked and knocked, but there was no answer. I had walked through fifteen blocks of low-income housing to find the house and was not anxious to walk back empty handed. After five minutes I resigned myself and started to leave.
As I closed the gate, a faint “Hello” came from the screen door. Alvin was standing at the front door. Bent with age and holding a cane, he softly said, “I was in the back. Come in.” His fragile steps shuffled into the front room. Each step was an effort. He balanced himself with a cane as his slippers slid across the wooden floor three inches at a time. He gestured to the sofa, and I took a seat. He negotiated into position in front of his easy chair and lowered himself into a spot where he was sure to stay for hours. The house, heated like many in New Orleans by open gas flame, was about eighty degrees. The air was stale. He was obviously quite comfortable, but I was about to melt. I figured I’d better start talking while I could. We chatted about his music career. He told his favorite stories in a gentle voice spiced with laughter. Then I asked him if he remembered Mary Sherman.
“Dr. Sherman,” he corrected me with a look that said he would not tolerate any disrespect to her. The old wound was suddenly open.
“Yes, Dr. Sherman,” I confirmed, seeing how difficult this was going to be for him.
“I need to know what she was like?” I said as gently as I could.
“She was a fine woman, a damn fine woman,” he said without hesitation, challenging anyone to disagree. “Good hearted.” That’s what he meant to say the first time. “She was good to people. Good to me and good to Elmener.” His head shook up and down slowly as he considered his words. Yes, they were the right ones. Then he grew still and gave me a quizzical look, asking me without any words, why, after nearly thirty years, was I asking about Dr. Sherman.
“I am trying to figure out why anybody would want to kill her.”
“I don’t know,” he said simply, knowing tha he had asked himself the same question and wished he had a better answer. “But I hope you catch the son-of-a-bitch.” There was no hiding the hatred in his voice. He would have gladly beaten the killer with his cane. He told me all I needed to know about Mary Sherman in a few sentences.
So how does “a damn fine woman” wind up injecting mice with monkey viruses in an underground medical laboratory with a violent political extremist?
BBY THE FALL OF 1979 I found myself in the Graduate School of Tulane University, enrolled in its Latin American Studies Program. My “area of expertise” was Political Science. Our story picks up in a seminar called the “Urbanization of Latin America,” taught by William Bertrand, Ph.D., from the faculty of Tulane University’s School of Public Health.
William “Billy” Bertrand was a great professor by any measure, probably the best I encountered in my years of college and graduate school. He possessed a brilliant analytical mind, a deep commitment, a positive sociable style, and a gift for presenting the most complex subjects in simple language. Professionally, he was an epidemic fighter, thoroughly schooled in the most advanced techniques of statistics, medicine, and sociology in order to battle deadly epidemics around the globe. This ex-Marine personally travelled from continent to continent witnessing the ravages of disease, be they in Africa or Ecuador. A typical summer assignment for Bertrand would be six weeks in remote regions of Zaire trying to sort out the path of transmission of some mind-boggling illness. He occasionally suffered terrible infections from these Third World trips, all of which he seemed to take in stride. In my opinion, there’s not a medical school or university in the world that would not benefit from having a professional of his caliber and character on their staff.
Bertrand came from the simple, common-folk background of south Louisiana. His name “ Bertrand” is a Cajun name, like Boudreaux or Bordelon. (He was not related to the infamous Clay Bertrand from the Warren Commission volumes.) Like his black hair, black eyes, and rounded features, it was proof that he was really from the core of French Acadian settlers of southern Louisiana. Bertrand used to say that he could walk from New Orleans to Houston, staying at a different relative’s house every night, and that he unplugged his telephone for two weeks before Mardi Gras to keep his myriad of country cousins from calling him for a place to stay. These anecdotes were typical of his warm, personable style. He was very popular with the students.
The urbanization seminar was held in Tulane’s main library, directly across the street from the law school. The seminar room itself was on a second or third floor in a windowless room toward the center of the building. It was a graduate-level course, with about eight graduate students and one or two undergraduates. About half of the students in this particular seminar were from Latin America. There were lots of affluent and well-connected Latins at Tulane. I personally knew students from Cuba (exiles), Costa Rica, Columbia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Belize, and Panama. I remember one of the Latins in Bertrand’s seminar particularly clearly. I will call him Freckles, because his face was covered with them. He seemed younger than I, say early twenties at the time, medium height, slender build, quiet, and with a hard edge about him. He was always vague about his national origin, but he was very clear about his politics: He was an avid anti-Communist. Freckles was the only person in class who routinely let his personal political views get in the way of his academic work. Bertrand stopped him on more than one occasion, saying, “That sounds like a personal political opinion.” Admittedly, it’s hard to discuss the urbanization of Latin America or the dynamics of development in the Third World without discussing politics, but efforts were generally made in academic circles to stay as objective as possible.
One day Bertrand was leading the seminar’s discussion on educational challenges in the Third World. He made the point that one of the problems that both socialistic and capitalistic governments faced when trying to educate their population was that education (investment in people) was ultimately “capital intensive,” meaning that the investment (school buildings, books, teachers, etc.) must be paid before the benefit of the education (skilled labor, social services, etc.) can be reaped.
The point that socialists needed capital in order to achieve their objectives sparked a lot of discussion. It defied the black-and-white rhetoric which characterized much of Latin American political debate. As the discussion progressed, Cuba was mentioned repeatedly, since it was the only functioning socialist government in Latin America. And Cuba was a touchy subject.
To many Latins, Castro was an anti-gringo politician, and in their eye that made him a Latin hero, which they liked. But to others, he was a thief, a murderer, and a criminal. The latter group were generally Cubans, since many of them had seen their family fortunes ruined and, in some cases, their families killed at the hands of Castro’s revolutionaries.
Academically, however, the problem with discussing Cuba as a model of social development had always been more of a function of superpower relationships than one of ideology. Cuba’s relationship with the Soviet Union was seen by the United States as posing a military threat to the entire Western Hemisphere, and when combined with Cuba’s confiscation of American assets after the revolution, it triggered the most tenacious economic boycott in American history. This embargo crippled the Cuban economy. Add to that years of U.S.-sponsored covert warfare waged against Cuba (from blowing up Cuban oil refineries to infecting Cuban livestock with viruses), and it is amazing Castro’s government survived at all.
In any event, the discussion in the seminar turned to “It’s really too bad about Castro.” Not only had his relationship with the Soviet Union allied him with a totalitarian Communist state and presented him as a military threat to the United States, but it also tainted his socialism. It was difficult to judge whether socialism was right or wrong for Latin America on the basis of Soviet missiles. It would be much simpler if Castro was not around — or so the discussion went. Then the inevitable discussion of how to assassinate Castro started. No one even suggested that the U.S. had not been trying, despite the fact that assassinating a foreign head of state was explicitly illegal. After all, the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee had already disclosed numerous CIA attempts to assassinate Castro. The conversation covered the predictable escalating path from shoot him, to bomb him, to poison him, to the more exotic methods like blowing up his cigar. It ended with the classic exasperation, “They ought to be able to come up with something to get rid of him!”
At this point, Freckles, who was sitting directly to Bertrand’s right, turned to him and said in a confidential tone, “El Padrino is working on a virus.” Bertrand’s surprise was both immediate and obvious. He was half-appalled and half-confused. Freckles had used this Spanish word for godfather in a manner that assumed Bertrand knew whom he was talking about, even if the rest of us didn’t. But Bertrand did not recognize the name and paused to unravel the comment. Then he said, in an incredulous voice, “Who?”
Freckles continued, “El Padrino. You know, Ochsner. He’s working on a virus to get Castro.”
Bertrand was stunned and went straight into deep thought to calculate the comment. Ochsner was a very powerful man in Tulane circles. A single unthoughtful comment about Tulane’s wealthiest and most powerful medical figure could ruin a career. And what if this student’s comment was accurate? We could see the mood on Bertrand’s face change, as the idea of unleashing a designer virus on the Caribbean took hold in the mind of someone who had witnessed horrible epidemics firsthand. We all waited for him to speak. Then in a voice more serious than any I had ever heard him use, he said to Freckles, “If I were you, I’d be very careful who I said that to.”
Freckles nodded in response to Bertrand’s comment, but did not speak. Dr. Bertrand had given him good advice without questioning his honesty or his source.
Bertrand shifted our attention back to urban migration patterns in Latin America, the decline in breast feeding, the thin-ice of the Latin American middle class, the economic interests of multi-national corporations, and what, if anything, anyone could or should do about any of these things.
To this day, I wonder what mixture of fact, fantasy, and/or proximity lay behind Freckle’s comment. At the time, I had seen no hard evidence which supports the claim that Dr. Alton Ochsner was involved in a medical project attempting to kill Fidel Castro.3 Freckles’ comment was, however, an indication of Latin perceptions of Ochsner’s politics and evidence that a rumor did exist in certain Latin circles that Ochsner was (or had been) involved in a medical project which was trying to kill Castro. But was this rumor really a cover story to conceal something else?
Was there a deeper secret buried beneath the secret war against Cuba?
1 The purchase of the United Fruit land has always been presented in the U.S. media as socialists nationalizing foreign owned assets. To the contrary, the Guatemalan government paid United Fruit exactly what the company had declared the value of the land to be for tax purposes. This was a case of eminent domain, not nationalization. United Fruit felt “cheated” because they had deliberately under-valued the undeveloped land to avoid paying taxes on it.
2 The 1954 coup d’etat in Guatemala was engineered by CIA office Howard Hunt, who later master-minded the Watergate burglary. It has always amused me to read that John McCloy (Chairman of the Chase Manhattan Bank, architect of the Japanese internment program, target selector for the World War II bombing of German cities, and member of the Warren Commission) said, “The Warren Commission must show the American people that we are not a banana republic.” The Dulles brothers’ stock position in United Fruit is discussed by Hinckle and Turner, Deadly Secrets, p. 40.
3 It has been reported that the Ochsner Medical Center treated wounded Contra soldiers for free (Carpenter, “Social Origins,” p. 163) as part of a commitment to fight Communism in Latin America, but that should not be confused with Freckles’ comment, which referred to a deliberate attempt to develop a biological weapon to assassinate a foreign head of state.
NOT LONG AFTER THE FRECKLES INCIDENT, I left Tulane University in search of a career in communications. In March 1980, I began working at Fitzgerald Advertising, Inc. in New Orleans.
Fitzgerald’s offices were on historic St. Charles Avenue between the New Orleans Central Business District and the Garden District. From my sixth-floor window I could see the statue of Robert E. Lee standing on his lonely column, high above Lee Circle. The statue faced north, it was said, because Robert E. Lee would never turn his back on the South. Below, the antique green streetcars clamored down the grass median of St. Charles Avenue, clanking and hissing their way through the perpetual humidity and circling beneath his feet. A few blocks down St. Charles Avenue I could see the leafy green trees of Lafayette Square, a lush urban park flanked by large Greek Revival buildings.
On the northeast corner of Lafayette Square stood the new Hale Boggs Federal Building, towering over an urban street-mall bordered by Camp and Lafayette Streets. This had been the site of the old Newman Building. On the sidewalk in front of the Boggs Building was a bronze plaque removed from the walls of the Newman Building. The plaque commemorated the military and financial support given by the people of New Orleans to the people of Cuba who were struggling for their freedom in the 1800s. But the plaque did not mention the military and financial support given to anti-Castro Cubans from the same building in the 1960s.
In 1963, the Newman building held the offices of “private detective” Guy Banister, former head of the FBI’s Chicago office4 and later Deputy Chief of the New Orleans Police Department. Banister was a staunch segregationist and founded the ultra-right-wing Anti-Communist League of the Caribbean. He claimed to have the largest file system of “‘anti-Communist intelligence” in the South, which he shared routinely with the New Orleans FBI office.5 With help from his employee David Ferrie, he ran a paramilitary training camp near New Orleans to prepare Cuban exiles for covert assaults inside Cuba on Castro’s government.6
In the blocks surrounding Lafayette Square were the local offices of the FBI, the CIA, and the Secret Service. Across the square from Banister sat Chairman Hebert of the Armed Services Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, whose job it was to prepare the U.S. military’s budget for Congress’ approval and to hide the CIA’s budget from both Soviet and American scrutiny.7 One block away was the Reily Coffee Company where Lee Harvey Oswald worked. The address stamped on the famous “Hands Off Cuba” flyers that Oswald handed out that hot August day in 1963 was 544 Camp Street: the Newman Building. Banister’s wife found similar flyers in her husband’s office after his death. Garrison concluded that Oswald was involved with both Banister and Ferrie during the summer of 1963, and that Banister was Oswald’s “handler” who arranged events,8 such as the trip to the mental hospital, to make Oswald later appear to be a convincing political assassin.9
In the early 1980s Fitzgerald was the largest advertising agency in Louisiana, with impressive credentials. Among its long list of well-respected clients was the Reily Coffee Company. Fitzgerald was conservative and “old school” by all definitions of the term. Like many ad agencies, Fitzgerald was occasionally asked by clients or influential citizens to work on pet projects, and they tried to oblige when they could.
4 DiEugenio, Destiny Betrayed, p. 38. Numerous other references in JFK assassination literature point to the FBI’s Chicago office. For example, in Deadly Secrets Hinckle and Turner discussed Robert Maheu (p. 31-32) and William Harvey (p. 136-137), both of whom worked there before joining the CIA. Maheu was the CIA’s contact with the Mafia, and later joined Howard Hughes’ organization. Harvey headed the CIA’s assassination squad. Guy Banister headed that same Chicago FBI office.
5 Hinckle and Turner, Deadly Secrets, p. 231.
6 Ibid., p. 233.
7 The Honorable F. Edward “Eddie” Hebert (last name pronounced A-BEAR). I knew where his New Orleans office was because I went there once in 1968. From his window you could see the line at the unemployment office.
8 Espionage field work is divided into two primary roles, spies and spymasters. The spy-master “handles” the spy, giving him or her assignments, rewards, and/or money.
9 Garrison, On the Trail of the Assassins, p. 40.
ONE DAY, IN THE SUMMER OF 1982, one of my bosses called me to his office shortly before lunch. As I entered, he asked if I knew so-and-so. The name was not familiar to me. He laughed a little and muttered: “You’re one of the lucky ones.” I joined him in a polite laugh, as he made light of his comment. Then he began his solicitation in earnest, explaining that he had received an inquiry from “a friend of the agency” that we had to respond to. He wanted me to check it out. He said that it was “right up my alley,” and wanted me to go see whether the agency should get involved.
He handed me a small yellow slip of paper torn from an office pad with an address, but no name, written on it in pencil. He instructed me to be there at 1:45 that afternoon. “They” would explain what they wanted. He then sent me on my way, reminding me to be “on time” for the meeting. These were very “busy people.” All I could tell by his tone was that he considered this to be an important courtesy call, but that he was not seriously interested in the project. Given that the advertising business depends upon clear and precise instructions, the ones he gave me that day were remarkably vague. I grabbed a quick bite to eat and caught the next streetcar to Canal Street, wondering all the time where I was going.
Canal Street was bleached white hot by the midday sun. A sweaty crowd pushed down the sidewalk into the front door of the street car. Loiterers monopolized the scarce shade. I unfolded my yellow piece of paper to get my bearings. Comparing the address to the nearest storefront, I realized my destination was across the street (on the edge of the French Quarter) and in the next block. Quickly calculating the approximate location, I headed for the