The Strange True Tale of ‘Castro’s No. 1 Killer’

Herman Marks, a drifter from Milwaukee, took a boat to Cuba with nothing but a Colt .45 revolver and $400 in cash. His plan? To join the revolution.

Tony PerrottetThe Atavist Magazine | October 2021 | 9 minutes (2,476 words)

This is an excerpt from The Atavist‘s issue no. 120, “The Butcher of Havana,” written by Tony Perrottet and illustrated by Patrick Leger.

Part One

On the balmy night of April 9, 1959, a little over three months after Fidel Castro and Che Guevara seized power in Cuba, a group of famous international writers gathered in El Floridita, a popular restaurant in Old Havana. They were an urbane set—Tennessee Williams, George Plimpton, Elaine Dundy, and her husband, Kenneth Tynan—and they were expecting to carouse with Cuba’s most beloved yanqui, Ernest Hemingway. Instead, they encountered another Midwestern expatriate, wearing a wide military belt and a hulking .45 service revolver.

The Atavist, our sister publication, publishes one deeply reported, elegantly designed story each month. Support The Atavist by becoming a member.

Burly and tattooed, the man had rough-hewn good looks. He was in his late thirties—more than two decades younger than Hemingway—and stood five-foot-ten, with thick brown hair and, in the words of his draft card, a “ruddy” complexion. An English journalist later described him as “tall, straight and meanly friendly,” with striking blue eyes that, “yellowing after only a few beers, suggested company dangerous to keep when drunk.” The American’s words tumbled out in the distinctively nasal accent of someone from blue-collar Milwaukee. He pronounced “that” as “dat” and dropped his g’s. He was the uneducated son of Polish immigrants, the type of man one of Williams’s own fictional snobs might have called a redneck.

But if his origins were humble, at El Floridita the man needed no introduction. His image had appeared on the front pages of newspapers across the United States. In fact, after Hemingway, he was probably the most notorious American in the Caribbean. His name was Herman Marks, and he had risen through the ranks of Castro’s rebel army to command the revolution’s firing squads. Around Havana, there were rumors that he had a sadistic streak; his version of a coup de grâce, it was said, was to empty his pistol into a condemned man’s face, so relatives could not recognize the corpse. Marks’s brutal work had earned him a nickname: He was El Carnicero—the Butcher.

The literati peppered him with questions, and Marks responded with pride. He boasted of being second-in-command to Che himself at La Cabaña prison, and declared that he was so busy, he conducted nightly executions until 2 a.m., and sometimes until dawn. He called the proceedings “festivities” and showed off his cuff links made from spent bullet shells.

Marks knew what the gathered writers were really after. It was an open secret in Havana that he invited select visitors to the executions, which were conducted in the empty stone moat around La Cabaña, beneath a giant floodlit statue of Christ with outstretched arms. American politicians, journalists, starlets, and socialites had all made discreet inquiries about watching a firing squad do its work. Williams, whose grandfather had been a minister, forlornly felt that he might comfort a condemned man by offering “a small encouraging smile” before he was shot.

On this particular night, Marks told the group at El Floridita, he had a busy schedule. The prisoners awaiting execution included a German mercenary. “He made the invitation as easily as he might have offered a round of cocktails at his home,” Plimpton later recalled. Marks counted the visitors out: “Let’s see… five of you… quite easy… we’ll drive over by car… tight squeeze…”

Unnoticed by the others, Tynan had been listening to Marks with growing horror, and now the Englishman leapt to his feet and began shouting. According to Plimpton, the red-faced theater critic squinted his eyes and flapped his arms like an enormous bird while denouncing Marks. He didn’t want to be in the same room as an executioner, Tynan gasped, let alone witness his handiwork. He would attend the execution only to run in front of the firing squad to protect the condemned. Tynan then stormed out of the bar, followed by Dundy.

“What the hell was that?” asked Marks. He told the remaining writers to meet him in the lobby of a nearby hotel at 8 p.m.

* * *

Almost nothing about Herman Marks’s early life suggested that he would someday play a pivotal role in a Latin American revolution. He was born in Milwaukee in 1921, and raised in a neighborhood of shoddy brick houses and bare streets. His father, Frederick, was an unemployed alcoholic who beat him; his mother, Martha Yelich, barely kept the family afloat by working as a short-order cook in a diner. He does not appear to have been close with his elder sister, Elsie, or his younger one, Dorothy; but he remained devoted to his mother throughout his life, in his own eccentric fashion.

The Markses’ volatile marriage crumbled during the Great Depression, when Herman was 12. After his mother remarried, Herman began getting into trouble. He skipped classes and was expelled from every school he attended; at 14, he was sent to a reformatory, where he ran away on three occasions and was once caught stealing a car. Over the next two decades, he was arrested 32 times in ten states, from Hawaii to Maine, mostly for drunkenness, petty theft, and disorderly conduct.

He never stayed more than three months in any one place, working odd jobs in factories, on docks, and at horse ranches. In April 1939, he joined the merchant marine, and he served in the Pacific during World War II. (He later claimed in court that he “had been in jails all over” the region, including while on shore leave in Australia.) After the war, Marks floated aimlessly around the United States, Mexico, and Canada, adding to his rap sheet: vagrancy in Texas, public drunkenness in Ohio and North Dakota, attempted grand larceny in New York City, and “prowling” in Las Vegas, a crime for which he was given 30 days in jail and then told to leave town. In Los Angeles in 1949, he robbed an elderly woman, drunkenly grabbing her by the throat. According to the police report, he only made away with naphthalene mothballs “to the value of 29 cents.” He got six months for assault but escaped from jail with two friends. While fleeing, all three seriously hurt their ankles after jumping from a dangerous height; Marks and one of the other men limped on for weeks, until they were caught in Galveston, Texas, and sent back to California to finish their sentences.

Back home in Milwaukee, at age 27, Marks brawled with his mother’s third husband and physically threw him out of the house. (Yelich took her son’s side; he was fined five dollars by local authorities for his actions.) Later that same year, he was arrested and convicted of carnal knowledge with a 16-year-old girl. According to the police report, Marks was working as a stable hand and met the girl at a bar, where, the police conceded, she had shown the bartender a birth certificate that said she was an adult. The pair then attended a riotous celebration in a barn where, an investigator noted, “drinking and sex parties went on almost nightly.” Marks was sentenced to three and a half years in prison.

His niece, Penlo Hobbs, remembered her relatives being frightened of Uncle Herman well before he entered the state penitentiary in Waupun. “He was the bogeyman,” she said. “We weren’t allowed to have anything to do with him.” Even Marks’s mother had reservations about her son. “I don’t know what happened to him,” she once told the Milwaukee Sentinel. “Whatever he did was not my fault. I sent him to parochial school and raised him good.”

She said Marks was generous when he wasn’t broke, lavishing her with bouquets of flowers, but mainly he spent his money on girls and booze. And he had an explosive temper. “He was always drinking and fighting,” his mother said. “As soon as somebody said anything wrong, he was up and mad.” Marks’s erratic personality was symbolized by his tattoos. His left arm bore a double heart inscribed with the words “Love, Nellie.” (There is no record of who Nellie was.) On his right arm was a skull pierced with a dagger, alongside the military motto “Death Before Dishonor.”

His mother took Marks in after he was released from Waupun penitentiary in 1955. A few months later he left home again. “He kissed me one day and said he was going,” his mother recalled. Somebody took a photo of him looking bronzed and fit, which Yelich carried in her purse until the day she died. “I don’t think he knew where he was going,” she said. “He was looking for something.”

He found it on a shrimp boat in Florida. While hauling nets in late 1957, he ran into some men he knew from his days in the merchant marine. They were from Cuba, an island Marks had visited several times in the service, and once as a tourist. It was now embroiled in a civil war between leftist revolutionary guerrillas, led by a young lawyer named Fidel Castro, and the military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. That Christmas, Marks learned that one of his Cuban friends had been murdered in Havana by military police; they purportedly broke into the man’s house one night and shot him dead at his kitchen table. Soon after hearing the news, Marks went to an army surplus store in Key West and bought olive drab fatigues and paratrooper boots. With a Colt .45 revolver, $400 in cash, and “about ten words in Spanish,” as he later put it, Marks took a boat to Cuba. His plan was as audacious as it was simple: He would join the revolution.

Havana was under military curfew, with Batista’s menacing, blue-uniformed intelligence officers patrolling the streets. Loitering in the city’s bars, Marks failed to find any agents of M-26-7, Castro’s underground 26th of July Movement, named for the date of the group’s first armed uprising. So Marks took a bus east to the sleepy town of Manzanillo, in the tropical foothills of the Sierra Maestra, where he met two young Cubans also hoping to join the guerrillas. The trio hiked for three nights before reaching a jungle outpost of some 40 rebels under the command of Captain Paco Cabrera. An English-speaking officer interrogated Marks. Like many of the roughly two dozen yanquis who ultimately joined Cuba’s rebellion, Marks rewrote his personal history. According to one guerrilla, he claimed that he was a Korean War veteran; to others, he explained that his facility with weapons was born of a childhood enthusiasm for guns. He was accepted into the group with a meal of beef and celebratory rum.

Marks’s profile among the guerrillas rose when he saw three teenagers fumbling with a U.S. Army .30-caliber machine gun and stepped in to show them how to disassemble and clean it. By the time he was finished, a crowd had gathered around him, with men holding up rusted and broken weapons, wordlessly appealing for help. He was soon tasked with fixing the array of firearms used by rebel forces, everything from sport rifles to shotguns to carbines dating back to Cuba’s colonial days.

Marks was assigned to the unit led by Che Guevara, which suffered the highest casualties in the rebel army—one of its cohorts was dubbed the suicide squad. Marks quickly rose through the ranks to become a captain. In the spring of 1958, Che transferred him to Minas del Frío, a rebel stronghold, where Marks helped establish a military school and train recruits to repel the impending Operation Finish Fidel, a mass invasion of the Sierra Maestra by Batista’s army, which outnumbered the guerrillas 100 to 1. By May, Marks was on the front lines of combat. In one skirmish, he broke three teeth on a rock when he tripped leading a charge; in another, he led a group of 18 rebels who disabled a 250-man convoy in an ambush.

By August, Batista’s generals had to admit that they could not dislodge the guerrillas, and the army withdrew from the Sierra Maestra. The following month, Marks volunteered to join Che on a harrowing 350-mile mission across the mosquito-filled swamps of the eastern lowlands. The rebels hoped to establish a new base in the Escambray Mountains of central Cuba and use it to seize enough ground to effectively cut the island in half. In a biography of Castro, journalist Tad Szulc observed that the expedition, where the men would abandon the known terrain of the Sierra to trudge across exposed, unknown, and hostile territory, “must have seemed like a demented plan.” Che warned volunteers that conditions would be miserable, food short, and casualties likely close to 50 percent. Marks signed up anyway.

Although most of the mission’s men survived the trek, it was universally agreed to be the most grueling campaign of the entire war. Che’s column walked mostly at night to avoid army patrols and strafing airplanes. They forded rivers naked and once traversed a shallow lagoon filled with razor-sharp plants. They suffered from dire hunger and endured hurricane-fueled rain. “I’ve been through enough mud and water to last me the rest of my life,” Che wrote to Castro. “Hunger, thirst, weariness, the feeling of impotence against the enemy forces that were increasingly closing in on us, and above all, the terrible foot disease that the peasants called mazamorra—which turned each step our soldiers took into an intolerable torment—had made us an army of shadows.”

During a skirmish, Marks was wounded in the knee and ankle. Infection set in. “Pus and blood was continuously running, and I couldn’t get a shoe on my foot,” he later said. He had trudged with Che for over a month to get to the Escambray Mountains, but the possibility of fatal gangrene now threatened. Che decided to get the yanqui to safety. In early November, supporters of M-26-7 smuggled Marks from a farm into the city of Santa Clara, where he was dispatched by plane to Key West for medical care.

Although he had gone to great lengths to make sure Marks did not succumb to his injury, privately Che was not unhappy to see him go, writing in his war journal that the American “fundamentally … didn’t fit into the troop.” One of Che’s close aides, Enrique Acevedo, told biographer Jon Lee Anderson that Marks was “brave and crazy in combat, tyrannical and arbitrary in the peace of camp.” According to Acevedo, the American’s ruthless nature had disturbed the Cuban recruits—particularly his readiness to volunteer for execution duty, which he did with “an enthusiasm that was unseemly.”

The Cubans’ reaction to Marks echoed that of a reform-school psychiatrist who’d encountered him when he was 16. The psychiatrist reported that Marks was oddly detached—“a very stolid emotionless person when not excited” who “shows almost a lack of adequate feeling in respect to situations he finds himself in.” Later, when Marks was in Waupun prison, the facility’s psychiatrist found that he was “amoral rather than immoral,” and was “narcissistic in his makeup.”

These assessments would resonate throughout Marks’s peculiar career in Cuba.

Read the full story at The Atavist