For Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey to expose Harvey Weinstein as a serial sexual predator was a feat in itself, one that reporters had been attempting for years. But the culture-bending force of these stories was their dissection of how sexual harassment works, psychologically and operationally. Ronan Farrow’s raw, complex account of the experiences of women like Annabella Sciorra and Asia Argento, among many others,created a deeper, truer understanding of why women don’t come forward after an assault, or why some women may even maintain a relationship with their abuser in an effort to recover some sense of agency. That these women were willing to tell their stories in such intimate, unsparing detail is a testament to their courage — more than that, to their generosity — and Farrow’s exceptional care and sensitivity in gaining their trust. Read more…
Until the tide started to turn toward Doug Jones on Tuesday night, it looked as though the quintessential Alabama Moment of its bizarro special election would come courtesy of Jim Ziegler, the Republican state auditor. After candidate Roy Moore was revealed to be a serial mall-stalker of teenage girls, Ziegler was among the many fine Christian citizens to rally to the Republican nominee’s defense. The news, he said, had put him in mind of the inspiring story of Our Lord and Savior. “Take Joseph and Mary,” he said. “Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became the parents of Jesus. There’s nothing immoral or illegal here.”
Nothing to see here, folks! has not only been the rallying cry of conservative Southerners since the build-up to the Civil War, but of the region’s put-upon liberals as well. As soon as Moore secured the Republican nomination, the familiar sense of dread began to creep in. “Good lord, here we go again,” one of my former neighbors in Montgomery, a longtime civil-rights activist, sighed over the phone. “You know exactly what it’ll be. Magnolias and guns and grits and moonlight and poverty and NASCAR and Selma and Bible-thumping imbeciles and poverty statistics, and oh yeah, don’t forget the cousin-fucking jokes on late night TV. ” (She had no idea how right she’d be about the latter.)
The last time the rest of America had found a reason to tune into news from the state of Alabama, the footage had been black-and-white: The Alabama State Police showed off their baton-wielding and hose-shooting skills, big dogs snarled, and George Wallace demagogued about “segregation now, segregation to-morrah, segregation forever.” The images didn’t just stick in Americans’ heads — they became Alabama.
“This is an election to tell the world who we are,” Doug Jones said on the campaign trail. It’s exactly what so many Alabamians were dreading like the plague.
While Northeastern liberals were getting the first look at Alabama in Technicolor, Roy Moore’s backers did their damnedest to make it appear that time had actually stood still. State Representative Ed Henry told the Cullman Times that the women who accused Moore of molesting them should be locked up. “You can’t be a victim 40 years later, in my opinion,” he said. Besides, said Geneva County GOP chairman Riley Seibenhener, you couldn’t blame a man in his thirties for things that happen: “I know that 14-year-olds don’t make good decisions,” he said. John Archibald, a columnist for Al.com, put it pretty aptly: “Thinking of the world watching Alabama now is like hearing an unexpected knock on the door when you haven’t done the dishes.”
They knew perfectly well that most white Christian folk in Alabama did not really believe that Roy Moore was another holy spirit come down to Earth to impregnate holy virgins. They also knew that Alabama’s ornery streak was about to kick in as soon as the national newspapers started to dig into Moore. “If the Washington Post ran a banner headline tomorrow saying ‘Antifreeze is poison, don’t drink it,’ a sizeable number of Alabamians would be dead tomorrow,” cracked Kyle Whitmire, a local political columnist.
But lo and behold, decency prevailed over orneriness and bigotry on Election Day — by a narrow margin, maybe, but still. All of a sudden, the generations of sneering and stereotypes gave way to gratitude and surprise from celebrity liberals. “I love you Alabama!” tweeted Cyndi Lauper; “Alabama gives us all hope tonight,” said Maria Shriver. “Never give up on this gorgeous mystery called Life,” commented Ava DuVernay. “A Democrat from Alabama? Hope lives.” Alyssa Milano found her inspiration in a whole new place: “Thank you for restoring my faith in humanity, Alabama,” she tweeted.
Granted, it might seem like a pyrrhic kind of victory when 48 percent of the state, and 68 percent its white people, voted to send a probable pedophile and certified theocrat to Washington. At Vox, Dylan Matthews noted that “a glib commentator might conclude that all the election shows it that a Democrat can win a special election in Alabama if his opponent has been fired from the state Supreme Court twice for misconduct and faces multiple credible accusations of preying on teenage girls.”
True enough. But un-crazy Alabamians and long-slandered Southerners will take what credit we can get. While the Roy Moore episode dredged up and reinforced a million hoary old clichés about the Deep South, the ultimate takeaway was something else altogether: Alabama, it turns out, isn’t an American outlier after all. “Looking back at George Wallace, we thought he was a fading and terrible relic,” says Diane McWhorter, the great civil-rights historian from Birmingham. “After Trump, we’re all Alabamians now.”
During the civil rights era, populist historian Howard Zinn wrote the truest thing ever said about the South — and the rest of America. The South, he said, “is racist, violent, hypocritically pious, xenophobic, false in its elevation of women, nationalistic, conservative, and it harbors extreme poverty in the midst of ostentatious wealth. The only point I have to add is that the United States, as a civilization, embodies all of these same qualities.”
After Tuesday, perhaps, Alabama can become a state rather than a symbol. Put to the test by Roy Moore, its voters showed they aren’t really the American exemplars of intractable ignorance and intolerance. At the same time, they’re hardly what Jones wanted to claim in his victory speech — sudden proof that the universe’s moral arc keeps bending toward justice. Charles Barkley, one of the great Alabamians of our time, nailed the real truth as he celebrated Jones’s victory with the homefolk on Tuesday: “Yeah, we got a bunch of rednecks and a bunch of ignorant people. But we got some amazing people and they rose up today.”
On Tuesday, precisely because of that wild mixture of ignorance and amazingness, of smallness and big-heartedness, of bigotry and brotherhood, Alabama finally became a widely recognized part of the United States of America. Whether that’s a compliment or not, of course, depends on your perspective.
Bob Moser is a contributing editor at The New Republic, former editor of the Texas Observer, and author of Blue Dixie: Awakening the South’s Democratic Majority.
If it’s a Sunday, my mother is probably tucked into her bed, the stillness of the time between rest and the week’s unrelenting pace hanging heavy in the air, late afternoon light filtering through the half-drawn lavender curtains. She is probably reading, or maybe dozing and waking to the sounds of frantic sirens from the latest crime drama she has been engrossed in. The next morning, she will collect herself into the polished package she presents at work, just enough foundation to accentuate her cheekbones, dressed in a black suit with thin white pinstripes, her silver jewelry angular and slightly threatening like the point of her chin, eyes glaring above her glasses frames as if to say, “Don’t try me.” She has spent years building and defending her independence, interrupting a supposedly comfortable solitude only occasionally with relationships with men who eventually show themselves to be unworthy of her time. Still, her single motherhood never looks tragic to me, in spite of backhanded compliments that are supposed to affirm her strength: “Ah, in fact! You Mama Essie, you’re not a woman, ooh! You’re a man! Look at all the things you have done!” Working twelve-hour days, giving her family stern, frills-free advice, laughing with such unrestraint that it’s almost possible to see the fillings in her molars, she is single-minded in her mission to be excellent in every way. I can’t quite remember the exact moment she started to say, “Dzifa, I just want you to be happy. I don’t want you to end up like me.”
It may have been after I left home to go to college, after she began measuring my absence in the number of weekends she spends alone or how long it has been since I last called, but it is always distressing to hear, and I never let her continue long enough to give an explanation for this lament. I snap at her, “Why would you say that? Don’t talk like that!” Most of the time she sighs, or repeats in a resigned near-whisper, “I just want you to be happy, that’s all.” I’m only now growing to understand why being like her is supposedly an undesirable state in which to “end up.” She has spent a whole lifetime masking profound loneliness as self-sufficiency, and I have been her unknowing apprentice.
* * *
I’ve been engaged in the slow, careful process of constructing my own solitary fortress for the past five years — four in the unhealthily competitive atmosphere of an elite private college, one at a graduate program in the cold of Boston that feels unhealthy in a different way, as I’m constantly picking through my pain for the most exquisite parts to exploit for a story, or to bring the heavy black woman perspective, coded as “nuance,” to certain classroom discussions. I’ve learned how to carve bricks for the boundary around myself out of intricate excuses to explain away the obvious strain in my tight smiles: “Oh, nothing, I’m just tired.” “Yeah, I have so much shit to do, but it’s cool.” “You know, I’m a writer, so I’m always in my feelings.” Or my default reply, also inherited from my mother, “It’ll be fine. I just have to get on with it.”
I’ve developed great skill at stacking these platitudes between myself and anyone who may see me often enough to notice the cracks in my poor performance of strength. My aesthetic is always adapting to sustain the deceit. There are days when the hyper-feminine and form-fitting serve as the perfect costume: black skirt with slits on either side, paired with a black top making up for the modesty of its high neck and long sleeves with its slightly see-through material. On other occasions, I put on my tomboy disguise, still silhouetted in black but this time in the form of jeans and round-neck sweatshirts a few sizes too big, hiding a body that still feels uncomfortable at times with its dips and curves that I don’t always want to display. Each compliment is more than a validation of personal style; it is a warning to never let the mask slip: You always look so good. Always on point. Honestly, how do you do it?
Every word is a confirmation of what I’m convinced will happen if I choose to deviate from the customary gracious smile, responding instead with “Actually, I’m not okay. I’m scared and alone. Can you please talk to me?” As far as I’m concerned, the trick of “not looking how I feel,” another coping mechanism I’ve modeled after my mother’s never-ending capacity to keep going even on her most sorrowful of days, has succeeded to the point where no one will know how to react to my crumbling before them. There’s never an appropriate time to reveal the extreme isolation of harboring feelings you don’t quite understand, and every attempt lands clumsily in the space between myself and the other person, unashamed in its messiness but too frightening for either of us to touch any further beyond prodding the issue tentatively with a few ill-placed jokes.
She has spent a whole lifetime masking profound loneliness as self-sufficiency, and I have been her unknowing apprentice.
I tentatively crack open the door on a subject that I almost never speak out loud for fear it would swallow me with its terrifying reality. I drop vague references to how much I’m “going through it” at inappropriate times, like on the walk to the train station with a friend after class. I’m held back in my lonely place by the fear that I’ll expose the ugliness of my perfect farce. No formulation feels right or reasonable: I don’t know what this is. Every month since the spring of 2014, without fail, a smothering fog settles over me, before the premenstrual bloating and the pimples set in. Every month, seven to ten days before my period, every month with no exceptions. I think about ending myself for seven to ten days, every month, for two years. I flinch when my train rushes to a stop in front of me, only a short platform and a stripe of yellow paint between myself and its force. Every month, seven to ten days before my period, tears threaten to flood me in a too-hot shower, right before classes, in the middle of weekly check-in meetings at work.
It has taken this long to even allow these thoughts to whisper in my mind, because the training offered by my mother’s example has helped me to erase these grim blotches from the gleam of my effortless presentation, because for a part of those two years I dated someone I was always nervous would dismiss this horror as one of my “emotional excuses” for being a bad girlfriend, because if I don’t “get on with it,” there are friends who would find their calls unanswered at 4 a.m. when they have boy-related anxiety, or job-related anxiety, or what-am-I-doing-with-my-life anxiety. A heavy hand with the concealer hides the puffy eyes I get from going to sleep in tears I can’t explain, and I can get on with the lonely business of faking a life.
* * *
I recognize a similar show of flawlessness — albeit without the morbid subtext that stalks me — in Molly, the successful, gorgeous counterpart to Issa’s slightly inept persona on the HBO series Insecure. I can see traces of my mother’s charm in Molly’s relaxed laugh in front of a room full of colleagues as she makes a presentation, the ease with which she plays a game of dominoes with three men in the parking garage, spotless outfits in variations of ivory and cream standing out against her dark skin because she knows how striking that combination can be, and also that we, her admiring audience, won’t be able to ignore its stunning effect. It only takes the quick fade-out announcing a new scene for me to begin to see the unraveling of Molly’s perfection, so familiar and expected that I feel as though I’m the one pulling at its increasingly fraying edges.
In one scene, Molly gets a text, a simple “Hey” from Hassan the engineer, the latest man she’s seeing, or “the Arab guy,” as another character refers to him. Molly seems almost wistful as she reflects on how “different” he is, and the fact that she never imagined ending up with someone who wasn’t black — which seems a rather permanent statement to be making after only three dates. Of course, Hassan inevitably lets her down, and when Molly later recounts the story to Issa over dinner, she ends with a resigned “That’s my life” before lamenting the futility of navigating a dating scene which almost always seems to play out against her no matter whether she’s smothering, aloof, demure, or any combination of approaches to letting men know that she is interested in pursuing a relationship. The brilliance of the show lies in lifelike moments like these, when I see two black women using humor to avoid hitting too close to the heartbreaking center of the moment they’ve just shared: Issa offers a “broken pussy” as the explanation for Molly’s dating woes. “I think your pussy is sad,” she says. “It’s had enough. If your pussy could talk, it would make that sad Marge Simpson groan.”
I see myself in Molly’s wavering smile, in her attempts to keep herself together for colleagues and a larger anonymous public, in the possibility that this could be who I am becoming — this woman who thinks she has figured out how to measure herself in appropriate proportions, to always be more than enough for every situation, incredibly qualified for her job, head-turning from board meetings to restaurants, only to discover that her sole reward could be the yawning void where a life partner and peace of mind should reside.
For every shred of fear of a loveless, lonely future I feel, there seems to be an infinite number of reminders that I should be ashamed to crave romantic companionship to the same extent that I’m working toward academic and professional success. Gloria Naylor’s Ophelia seems to be pointing fingers at my weakness when she says, “I was never in that camp of a night out with someone is better than a night alone. I was someone, and there was always something to do with me.” My favorite poet, Warsan Shire, appears to echo this accusation of low self-worth on my part, “My alone feels so good, I’ll only have you if you’re sweeter than my solitude.” It is as if these women’s affirmations of being enough for themselves, of loving their own company so wholly that they would not let anyone interfere with their serenity just for the sake of doing so, is some sort of indictment against my half-baked self, acting out a self-reliance I do not feel.
Listening to the two black women hosts of the official podcast for the TV show, Insecuritea: The Insecure Aftershow, deepens the embarrassment that I think I should feel for empathizing with Molly, for seeing in her the reflection of the same act my mother and I, and many other black women, fictional and otherwise, have been putting on for our entire adult lives. The hosts laugh about how “pressed” Molly feels to find a man:
“I wasn’t expecting to see a woman in 2016 who’s willing to openly say, ‘I just want to be married,’ cuz I feel like I don’t see that a lot anymore.”
“Right, I think for us we tend to be either/or . . . like either you’re heavily career-based and you’re just going hard in that direction, or you’re more family oriented and you’re just focused on building that side.”
Even as the radio hosts slip in the disclaimer that they are speaking only from their own experiences and those of women they know personally, the archetype of the no-nonsense black boss lady stands in plain view, complete with shoulder pads à la Teri Joseph from Soul Food in the early 2000s, or immaculate white suit and precise side part like Molly. I feel as though I am hearing the retelling of a myth that predates my existence — the independent black woman who doesn’t need anybody. I am drinking in the idea that longing for a love connection was a trivial concern, and that personal ambition and the gleaming summit of career success should suffice until such time as a woman decides to shed her professional sheen in favor of the muted tones of motherhood, marriage, and all the accompanying trappings. Being anything less than enough — yearning for another person outside of oneself, for the chance to be seen without the masks, to be cared for in the way one cares for others — then becomes off-brand for an unstoppable black woman™.
* * *
As I try, and fail, to fully understand what it means to revel in being alone, Toni Morrison writes to me through Sula on her deathbed, Sula who has truly lived life rather than plodding through it at a gentle pace. Her estranged friend Nel challenges Sula’s last boast that she is “going down like one of those redwoods,” majestically, and not “dying like a stump” like everyone else. Nel’s skepticism demands a deeper explanation: what does Sula have to show for this supposedly grand life of hers?
“Show? To who? Girl, I got my mind. And what goes on in it. Which is to say, I got me.”
“Lonely, ain’t it?” Nel’s question sticks out in my mind like the point of an index finger toward a shameful secret unfurled before a judgmental public. Lonely, ain’t it.
“Yes. But my lonely is mine. Now your lonely is somebody else’s. Made by somebody else and handed to you. Ain’t that something? A secondhand lonely.”
Sula gives me the language to describe my loneliness, to hold it away from myself and dissect it, tackling its complex mesh and dissecting it piece by piece in the hope of finding some fulfillment on the other side of its demise.
It is as if these women’s affirmations of being enough for themselves, of loving their own company so wholly that they would not let anyone interfere with their serenity just for the sake of doing so, is some sort of indictment against my half-baked self, acting out a self-reliance I do not feel.
Loneliness may exist for me as a craving for romantic love, as a hope that a partner may be able to help me untangle the web of reasons why I feel alone with my emotional turmoil, but it also moves far beyond the presence and potential abandonment of a lover. It lives in the moments after a strenuous day, when my monthly distress threatens to destroy the titanium resolve I have bolted down firmly over any hints of softness that may betray me. It is in my trembling lips pressed tightly together, but not hard enough to stem the outburst of sorrowful isolation that eventually spills over the edges of heavily made-up eyes, streaking jet-black down my face. I’ve cried the full length of the ride on a red-line train and onto the bus. In public I crumple into myself and wallow in the awareness that no one will be waiting at home or on the phone to listen to me cry, no one will turn away from their own worries to listen to mine. I’ve cried staring directly into the faces of strangers shut tight with lack of concern, or with apprehension that my tears may open a gateway to some erratic and potentially dangerous behavior that could affect them. All this lonely isn’t mine. Even after I get home, I imagine it still clinging tightly to my hair and clothes, smelling like the man in the faded navy hoodie sitting next to me on the train, who didn’t seem to care that I don’t want to chat.
Loneliness rests in the soft tap on my shoulder, clad in my favorite wax-print outfit, a wrinkled hand, a quiet smile leading to the question, “You’re from Nigeria? Or Ghana? I saw your dress and I knew.” Every African woman of a certain age on the train could be my great-aunt or grandmother, with the same manner of folding their arms in front of their chests, the same gold-framed glasses with perfectly round lenses. We are looking for relatives, long left behind and hardly spoken to, in each other’s faces.
Yet, I can’t afford to immerse myself in the sentimentality of being lonely, to make sweeping statements about the nostalgia that immigrants face, miles and temperature points too far from the Equator’s reassuring heat, to address it as a uniquely urban plague that defines the landscape as much as skyscrapers like glass cages and an anonymity that crushes those who are unable to fend for themselves and bolsters those who have come to escape a dull elsewhere they used to call home. This lonely I’ve been carting around every month for the past two years is sinister. My lonely is life-threatening, as it grows more and more difficult to convince myself that anyone would notice the space I left behind if I were to cease to exist. My lonely is my mother’s, but it’s also a secondhand acquisition that could be hormonal or psychological, one that scares me into concealing what could be a very serious mental health condition whose dimensions I haven’t been fully able to grasp. My lonely is also that of Ahine, my best friend, who moves from work to home and back again amidst London’s eternal dreariness, isolated in the exhaustion of striding forward in her career while helping her mother through illness, who sends me a tearful voice message after months of unusual silence to explain how her loneliness felt so insurmountable that it seemed easier to retreat further into herself than to reach out to anyone. It is also Bre’s, when we pass each other on the street, and at the exact same moment we are screaming private crises but somehow cannot topple the boundary of expectations and break down to each other. We make eye contact, and she smiles. “Where are you off to?” the single cowrie shell in her locs flashing back and forth as she shakes her head slightly to the rhythm of her waving hands. Later I’ll explain to her that I was marching as fast as I could to disappear onto a crowded train before someone caught me out of character, drinking back the lumps of sobs forming in my throat, and she’ll already know.
“Girl, I was going through it too!” So why didn’t we stop for each other?
There must be some unfortunate birthright we have inherited, my black girlfriends and I, that traps us beneath its weight, some powerful entity that widens the distance between ourselves and any source of comfort and support. We take care of ourselves only to the extent that we can paste on a cheerful face and keep showing out and showing up for others to feel at ease, keeping our hurt and our fear tucked away in the desolate, uncharted territories of the hours in the early morning when sleep is replaced by a depression that appears impossible to chase away. Twenty-five years after Sula’s death, Nel visits her grave and mourns not only the loss of her friend, nor the betrayal of the affair between Nel’s husband and Sula, nor the secret the two women shared of the day a little boy drowned after slipping from Sula’s grasp and into the river. “Sula?” Nel calls into the emptiness, with only the leaves and the ground beneath her feet answering her call. “All that time, all that time, I thought I was missing Jude.” Nel’s cries descend into an endless loop, “circles and circles of sorrow,” as she realizes that the source of her loneliness had roots deeper than the absence of her husband. “Girl, girl, girlgirlgirl.” The gaps between myself and the women in my life grow wider and more impassable the more we hide our difficulties from each other under the guise of being, or at least appearing, strong.
* * *
I finally speak my agony out loud one Wednesday in September of 2016, because my mother’s training has not prepared me adequately for a time when private suffering becomes unbearable and spills out into the open no matter how much I try to halt its flow. I’m standing in front of the full-length mirror in my bedroom, my reflection framed by its glossy black border. I’m about fifteen minutes away from the arrival of my bus but unable to keep putting on my face because I’m not confident that my wobbly hands won’t stab my eye with the mascara brush I’m holding. There is the familiar tightening in my chest and my throat, and I try to steady my shaky breath by inhaling and exhaling deeply. Panic is winning a silent war against me, and I whimper as quietly as possible so as not to alert my two roommates. It wouldn’t do to bother them while they’re also getting ready for school and work. Instead I call my mother in Accra, hoping she can hold some of this chaos for me.
There must be some unfortunate birthright we have inherited, my black girlfriends and I, that traps us beneath its weight, some powerful entity that widens the distance between ourselves and any source of comfort and support.
“Baby, just try to calm down. Take deep breaths. Oh, baby, I’m so worried about you . . .”
I cry to her with my head tilted back so I don’t damage the mask I’ve just painted on. I’m not terrified because my morbid thoughts have intensified but because they are now beginning to overpower my desire and ability to just get on with it. I make it to the bus stop right as the bus pulls up, and I’m even twenty minutes early for work. I look good, always stylish, as my supervisor says, my hair at its hugest and fluffiest, the way I like it, because the humidity hasn’t started to shrink it yet. Later that day, the distance across the desk between myself and my favorite professor doesn’t seem quite as vast because I blurt out a summary of the monthly struggle I’ve been navigating, sharing with her my fear of conceding defeat to loneliness by even considering seeking the advice of a therapist.
“I don’t know, it’s just such a lonely feeling to know there’s no one who can listen the way I listen to them, so that I have to go and talk to a stranger.”
Her eyes widen behind the smudged lenses of her glasses with a concern that I know isn’t pity, but still makes me anxious.
“Zoë, it’s one thing if your friends are a safety net that you can fall back on, but if you don’t have that . . .”
* * *
There was a time when I controlled my lonely, when I would have been glad to claim ownership over it, to take it by the hand and along with me on adventures only I could see or appreciate. Being an only child meant that I was a self-contained source of my own joy. I climbed the twisted trunk of the same forget-me-not tree almost every day of the long vacation between July and late September, most of its velvety yellow flowers stuck in the red gravel at its base. Sometimes I was brave enough to jump back down from among the branches, following the path of descent back to solid ground that one of my slippers invariably took; other times I would have to wait for my mother to come back from work to help me down, my grandma’s arms unable, or more like unwilling, to get me out of my self-made predicament. I grew up always carrying a place for myself where the only other invited guest was my imagination, which allowed me to twist life’s mundaneness into whichever shape intrigued me the most. It seems fitting that the process of reclaiming my lonely as a place of satisfaction with myself, rather than a haunting jail that I’m too scared to escape, is a solitary one. I want to feel motivated to keep living for my own sake and not solely because giving up would alter the lives of people around me, to be “on point” for myself and not to be just a symbol of “black girl magic” for other people to cling to. I’m throwing away these secondhand burdens to avoid handing them to the daughter I may have in the future. I don’t want her to think it’s her duty to hold the fractured pieces of herself together long enough to fool others into thinking that her strength is unmatched. I’m prying open the vicious clamp of my lonely trap and pointing it out to other people in my effort to rid it of its power. No, I’m not okay. Can you please talk to me?
* * *
This essay first was first published appeared in the Spring/Summer issue of Slice. Our thanks to Zoë Gadegbeku and the staff at Slice for allowing us to reprint this essay.
As the disaster preparedness phenomenon spreads from the rich and eccentric into mainstream America, survivalism is becoming big business. One leader in this sector is Wise Co., a manufacturer of shelf-stable food packed in Mylar pouches. In Bloomberg Businessweek, Amanda Little examines how Wise Co. CEO Aaron Jackson is steadily growing the business by targeting who he calls Mr. and Mrs. Smith in everyday America.
Rather than focusing on niche survivalists and evangelicals who believe in end times, Jackson is focusing on Target, Home Depot and Walmart, where survival foods are positioned as purchases just as practical as fire extinguishers and bottled water, and consumer habits are shaped by mounting global paranoia about natural disasters, terrorism and climate change. So far only 2% of Americans buy survival foods. He intends to change that. The whole approach seems a bit strange, though, since as a CEO who wants what he calls “stable customers” and “predictability,” his success has everything to do with global instability. Also, he doesn’t really believe the world will end, because if he did, why would he work so hard to make money he won’t be able to spend?
Then again, it’s the fear behind the idea that you should be prepared, just in case, that nags at you as a potential consumer. It can’t hurt, right? Because what if you’re wrong? Maybe it won’t matter. When the world has been devastated by warlords and ecological disaster, and you’re hiding in a bunker in the burned out woods, eating shelf-stable beef stroganoff mixed with radioactive rainwater, the flavor will probably make you feel like the rest of the world can’t end fast enough.
Jackson first connected with Wise in 2012, when a headhunter tried to recruit him from Post to run the fast-growing startup. He declined the offer, but commenced some research. “My aha! came in mid-2012 when I read that more than half of American homes have first-aid kits on hand, along with fire extinguishers and flashlights. I realized then they haven’t added the food component. I saw incredible growth potential.” When the headhunter extended the offer again a few months later, Jackson accepted the job of CEO and cautiously started to shift the marketing focus to his ideal customer, one who looks less like Ted Kaczynski and more like himself, his wife, who’s an attorney, and their two tweens: someone who isn’t entirely convinced that humanity is hurtling toward annihilation but who’s willing to stock the pantry with a Mylar-fortified food supply just in case. “This is the food equivalent of life insurance—staples that every American household in this age of uncertainty should have,” he says.
Jackson hired a young designer who’d been at the surf company Quiksilver to revamp the packaging. “We’d been selling our products in large, black plastic tubs. We needed something that doesn’t scream doomsday, so we moved to clean white boxes, contemporary fonts, high-quality food images—packaging that makes sense on a Target shelf,” Jackson says. As orders came in from big-box stores, he added a manufacturing facility a 15-minute drive from the office (production had previously been outsourced) that can produce 25 million pouches a year.
In the past four months, the spate of natural disasters combined with the specter of nuclear war with North Korea has pushed up Wise’s total sales 40 percent from the previous four-month period. Concerned suburbanites as well as disaster responders have contributed to the increase. The factory has made it possible for Jackson to meet both sudden surges and steady growth in demand. He ultimately managed to ship the 2 million servings to FEMA in a matter of weeks, with only a brief disruption to his regular customers’ supply.
Incoming Vanity Fair editor Radhika Jones at the 2016 gala for Time Magazine's Most Influential People In The World. (Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Time)
Did you know that generations of writers at other publishers have referred to Conde Nast as “Condescending and Nasty”?
I learned of this in the wake of Women’s Wear Daily publishing what appeared to be a gossip item gleaned through eavesdropping, about Condé Nastfashion editors being catty about incoming editor-in-chief Radhika Jones. According to WWD, “one of the company’s fashion editors in candid conversation with industry peers” said some pretty predictable and mean things about the outfit Jones wore to her first meeting.
Let me pause here to acknowledge a few things. First, my love of Vanity Fair is well-documented in the hallowed pages of this website that you are reading. It is a magazine for rich people, which is a thing I will never be, and yet they cannot stop me reading it! Even though he never responds to my emails, I am Graydon Carter’s biggest fan, and not just because he made my ex-boyfriend cry. I love Vanity Fair and I am so excited Radhika Jones is going to lead it.
Everyone is excited about Jones. I mean, I guess besides this one Condescending and Nasty fashion person. Even the tone of the WWD gossip item was Team Radhika. WWD, arguably a women’s fashion publication (it’s in the name, please don’t actually argue with me), thought it was eye-roll-inducing for this fashion person to be mean at the water cooler about Jones’ cartoon-fox-printed tights and “navy shiftdress strewn with zippers.”
I’m sure many of you disagree. I have had way more conversations than I anticipated about this piece this morning already and lots of people are mad at WWD for publishing the piece at all, and for not calling out the cattiness more overtly. Jones’ New York Times colleague Jodi Kantor tweeted, “So this is the way our brilliant colleague who just shot the moon gets written about.”
I understand that. It’s frustrating. I anticipate being called whatever the media equivalent of a Nazi apologist is for this, but: the WWD is actually a pretty mild introduction to what Jones will receive going forward, particularly as the first female (and non-white) Graydon Carter, and it’s not much different than what you could find in the pages of Vanity Fair for years. If Jones changes that, great. If not, the WWD is a relatively light taste of what she’ll be approving in that magazine going forward.
Why do I dare call it mild? Because the WWD piece is on her side. It is very, very obviously Team Radhika. Lots of people have told me they think it should be more overt, less subtle. I have a strong, steadfast love for subtlety. When I wrote recently about my time at DNAinfo, I told you all that one of the things we believed was that you didn’t have to talk down to readers, you could give them the facts, and some good quotes, and they didn’t need to be explicitly told something, or someone was bad. You could show, instead of tell, that the Manhattan Community Board 2 liquor license committee frequently operated in a way that was arbitrary and capricious, for example.
I undersold the fact that there’s a little bit of an art to that, to how the facts and the quotes are laid out. So let’s look at the WWD piece.
I would argue that even the headline’s specifying “personal” style is already a point for Jones, signaling that the critics to come are picking at something that has nothing to do with Jones’ new job. The sub-headline is solely about Jones’ “extensive literary and editorial experience.”
The second paragraph immediately lays out Jones’ credentials — and does so in a way that signals great disdain for what the Condescending and Nasties chose to pay attention to:
But while Jones may have been editorial director of the books department at The New York Times, an alum of Time magazine and The Paris Review, a graduate of Harvard and holds a doctorate in English and comparative literature from Columbia — none of this impressed Condé Nast-ers. They, instead, were aghast over her sense of style.
The next paragraph reinforces that, noting that Jones’ critic was “remarking not on the context of Jones’ first visit, but rather the outfit she wore.” PRIORITIES, WWD is silently screaming here.
And the next one employs em-dashes to emphasize that point:
According to the fashion editor — who omitted Jones’ admirable literary accomplishments from conversation — the incoming editor wore a navy shiftdress strewn with zippers, a garment deemed as “iffy” at best.
The closing paragraph, to me, is the prizewinner:
The fashion editor did not remark on Carter’s outfit for the occasion. After 25 years at Vanity Fair’s helm, he walks away from the job with a vibrant legacy that is noted, not for his signature wonk hairstyle, but rather his wrangling of A-list celebrities and publishing of writers including Christopher Hitchens and Dominick Dunne.
A friend of mine said that while she is Team Radhika, it might be fair for the Condé Nasties to judge Jones’ outfit, since the magazine is very much part of the “high fashion” world. I understand this point, but would note that Vanity Fair‘s pages have long been filled with ball gowns, and to my (expert) knowledge, Graydon Carter never wore one to a meeting. We can trust that Jones, with her years of editorial experience and impressive education, knows her strengths and less-strengths. Ideally, somewhere in the dark, catty world of fashion, she will be able to find someone to lead that part of the magazine who has savvy, creativity and heart.
In the meantime: Radhika, please email me and tell me where you got the dress and tights WWD described because I desperately want them.
In many cases, dying young grants many artists a type of sainthood, forever shrouding them in mystery, and protecting their profile from the inevitable creative and stylistic ravages of age. Some famous examples are Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Belushi, Kurt Cobain, and poet Frank Stanford.
For the Poetry Foundation, writer Ben Ehrenreich sifts through Stanford’s papers at Yale, gives his work a close read and travels to Arkansas where Stanford grew up and eventually met his end in 1978. Best known for the 500-page poetic magnum opus The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, unanswered questions still swirl around the young poet, questions about what parts of his mythology were self-made or true. Called “a swamprat Rimbaud,” Stanford had a strong relationship with death, both on and off the page, and the pages he left behind continue to inspire and tantalize readers, as new generations discover his dense, singular, ethereal work.
Death is everywhere in Stanford’s poetry, and it often drives a Cadillac. It’s there—he’s there, I should say—in the first lines of The Battlefield, which begins with the funeral of young Francis’ nanny: “well that black Cadillac drove right up to your front door / and the chauffeur was death / he knocked on the screen he said come on woman let’s take a ride.”
In much of the work Stanford published in the mid-1970s—presumably written in the poet’s early and mid-20s, around the time he bid academia goodbye—death took center stage. As time passed, death gradually pushed everything else to the sidelines, everything but love, which grew more pained and brittle as the years went by. Stanford’s “biggest love affair,” C.D. Wright told me with a tired smile, “was with death.” And he was not a man known for being stingy with love.
Alex Mar’s cover story for Wired‘s November issue, “Love in the Time of Robots” is an epic look at the life and work of Hiroshi Ishiguro, director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory, who has spent his life and career in pursuit of a more perfect android. He has made copies of his friends, family, and himself with his “Geminoid” project, and he delights in the moment when a human confronts its twin. What could have been a simple profile of Ishiguro goes much, much deeper — at nearly 12,000 words, it is one of the longest features that Wired has run in print — as Mar explores the origins of human nature and intimacy, and the desire to turn to a robot for comfort or companionship. “Most of us already allow technology to mediate what was once simple, direct human interaction,” Mar writes, “what really is the difference?” I spoke with Mar via email about her experience with Ishiguro and the freedom of writing at a length far beyond the typical magazine feature.
How many times did you meet with Hiroshi Ishiguro? How did your understanding of him and his work change with each meeting?
I’ve been in touch with Hiroshi for over two years and we spent about three weeks in each other’s constant company in Japan, between Osaka and Tokyo. He was immediately forthcoming with me, very open and direct. We had a great, natural rapport from our first Skype chat, and that was a big part of why I decided to pursue the story. Almost immediately he announced himself as less of a roboticist and more of an artist, which I could relate to more than an engineer’s perspective — he was turned on by big concepts and risk-taking.
Over time he did become more open about his family, a subject that’s pretty verboten for him, as he’s always been a firm believer in keeping his family life separate from his public, professional life. (Ironic, considering his first major experiment was an android copy of his then 5-year-old daughter.) He’s a charismatic figure, and he and his work have gotten plenty of press coverage internationally over the years. It took a moment for him to realize I was also interested in very minute details about his life — his childhood, his personal habits — things that he at first dismissed as too boring to discuss. It’s funny how often people assume that the kind of minutia that really makes a story, the intimate stuff, isn’t worth mentioning.
Ishiguro closely studies the small physical cues involved in human interaction in order to build a better android. (He notices, for example, that people never sit completely still.) But you seem to think his understanding of humanity is lacking. How did your understanding of his work change over time?
I don’t know if Hiroshi’s understanding of humanity is lacking any more than yours or mine. It’s more that his project is immense and requires a lot of hubris. He’s studying, measuring, and trying to replicate something that remains pretty intangible: the human presence, which the Japanese call sonzai-kan. The ineffable thing that signals to us that we’re sitting across from a living, breathing, thinking, feeling person. Plenty of people would call that a soul — something that, by definition, is impossible to replicate. So I think the bigger question here is: Do you think that human-ness is something that we can measure and weigh and build from scratch? Hiroshi’s answer to that, at least in public, is a resounding yes. But in private, I think that Hiroshi is conflicted. Personally, he seems to be struggling with his own deep desire for human connection — he spoke to me repeatedly of his feelings of loneliness — and I don’t know if he’ll ever be able to reconcile that with his work.
When did you suspect you would have to be a part of this story? How did you decide how much of yourself to put in?
I consider myself a “literary” non-fiction writer, but not a particularly confessional one. I believe in using the first person sparingly in journalism; in my longform stories I’ve tended to use it more as a light-handed framing device. But with my first book, Witches of America, about the present-day witchcraft movement around the country, I was surprised and a little bit horrified when I realized I needed to go all-in and insert myself as a character. I needed to be honest with myself and the reader about my curiosity about witchcraft, and to be frank about how subjective my experience of these Pagan rituals was — there’s no “objective” way to take part in a religious ceremony. My approach to the book became very personal and immersive, and any other approach would have felt dishonest.
When I returned from my first reporting trip to Japan, I had that feeling again: The subject of the story required a writer who was also a stand-in for the audience. I had to be able to describe in a very immediate way the experience of being around those androids, of being immersed in Hiroshi’s world and his way of thinking about humanity. When events in my personal life began to get all tangled up with the ideas I was absorbing in Hiroshi’s labs, I felt the only honest way to write this story was to weave that in.
Do you think that inventors who work at the edge of what is technically possible — with artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and so on — lose sight of what humans actually want, what we actually need? It seems like much of what Silicon Valley provides serves the interests of a narrow subset of people in the name of helping humanity.
It seems to me that the goal of a lot of research and development is to anticipate a need, or perhaps to create a desire where previously there was none. Android development is less about a concrete need — a robot doesn’t have to have a human face to perform surgery, or rescue someone from a war zone — but it does seem like an extension of the parts of our lives technology has already colonized. So many of our relationships are already virtual or text-based: entire friendships with people we almost never see in person, interactions with avatars people have created to stand in for themselves online. I’m willing to bet that internet porn, for those who are more or less addicted to it, is rewiring their sexual instincts and, to a degree, eliminating the need for actual human contact. And what about the constant need for affirmation that Instagram or Facebook satisfies? Are we really interacting with humans when we’re interacting on social media, or would that shot of cortisol to the brain be just as satisfying coming from a bot? If you go down this rabbit hole, it becomes possible to imagine a market for android companions, whether platonic or sexual, that goes beyond a “narrow subset” of people.
But putting that longer-term apocalyptic talk aside, here’s something else to consider: AI, android science, VR, etc. — these are clearly male-dominated fields, whether we’re talking about Japan or the U.S. Therefore the needs and desires research and development is addressing are, for the most part, the needs and desires of men — the fantasies of men projected onto the not-so-distant future. When I learned that Hiroshi had produced some two dozen attractive female androids, I thought, of course they were female, young-looking, and pretty. He may be a radical, independent thinker, but he’s ultimately following the dictates of an industry built by men.
This is one of the longest features Wired has ever run in print, over 12,000 words. Was having that kind of length helpful for this subject, or was it unwieldy at times to tell a story of that length?
My very first draft of the story was close to this length, and it felt natural. I’m very grateful that Wired was willing to give it that space, about twice their typical feature length. I think there was a consensus that this story needed that kind of room because of how it continues to evolve all the way to the last page. Hiroshi’s work has a breadth of scope that requires that much space if you’re going to push beyond “man who creates good-looking androids” terrain to get to something deeper. My editor Mark Robinson was a real believer in the piece and wanted to avoid any cuts that might subtract from what he thought made it different and strange and intimate.
There’s also the fact that, for whatever reason, 12,000 words is a sweet spot for me with magazine features. I like to hurl myself into the subject and write my way out of it, and it seems to land at that length nearly every time. But I believe that every story has a length that it naturally wants to land at, once you’re plugged into the writing process. That’s why it’s so valuable to have magazines that are willing to take this kind of risk and go long. This kind of freedom is the greatest gift an editor can give you.
I met a priest in northern Japan who exorcised the spirits of people who had drowned in the tsunami. The ghosts did not appear in large numbers until autumn of that year, but Reverend Kaneta’s first case of possession came to him after less than a fortnight. He was the chief priest at a Zen temple in the inland town of Kurihara. The earthquake on March 11 was the most violent that he or anyone he knew had ever experienced. The great wooden beams of the temple’s halls had flexed and groaned with the strain. Power, water, and telephone lines were fractured for days; deprived of electricity, people in Kurihara, thirty miles from the coast, had a dimmer idea of what was going on there than television viewers on the other side of the world. But it became clear enough when first a handful of families, and then a mass of them, began arriving at Reverend Kaneta’s temple with corpses to bury.
More than eighteen thousand people had died at a stroke. In the space of a month, Reverend Kaneta performed funeral services for two hundred of them. More appalling than the scale of death was the spectacle of the bereaved survivors. “They cry,” Kaneta said. “There was no emotion at all. The loss was so profound, and death had come so suddenly. They understood the facts of their situation individually — that they had lost their homes, lost their livelihoods, and lost their families. They understood each piece, but they couldn’t see it as a whole, and they couldn’t understand what they should do, or sometimes even where they were. I couldn’t really talk to them, to be honest. All I could do was stay with them, and read the sutras and conduct the ceremonies. That was the thing I could do.”
Amid this numbness and horror, Reverend Kaneta received a visit from a man he knew, a local builder whom I will call Takeshi Ono.
Ono was ashamed of what had happened, and didn’t want his real name to be published. It was difficult at first to understand the reason for this shame. He was a strong, stocky man in his late thirties, the kind of man most comfortable in blue overalls, with a head of youthfully dense and tousled hair. “He’s such an innocent person,” Reverend Kaneta said to me. “He takes everything at face value. You’re from England, aren’t you? He’s like your Mr. Bean.” I wouldn’t have gone so far because there was nothing ridiculous about Ono. But there was a dreamy ingenuousness about him, which made the story he told all the more believable.
He had been at work on a house when the earthquake struck. He clung to the ground for as long as it lasted; even his truck shook as if it was about to topple over. The drive home, along roads without traffic lights, was alarming, but the physical damage was remarkably slight: a few telegraph poles lolling at an angle, toppled garden walls. As the owner of a small building firm, he was perfectly equipped to deal with the practical inconveniences inflicted by the earthquake. Ono spent the next few days busying himself with camping stoves, generators, and jerrycans, and paying little attention to the news.
But once television was restored, it was impossible to be unaware of what had happened. Ono watched the endlessly replayed image of the explosive plume above the nuclear reactor, and the mobile-phone films of the black wave crunching up ports, houses, shopping centers, cars, and human figures. These were places he had known all his life, fishing towns and beaches just over the hills, an hour’s drive away. And the spectacle of their destruction produced in Ono a sensation of glassy detachment, a feeling common at that time, even among those most directly stricken by displacement and bereavement.
“My life had returned to normal,” he told me. “I had gasoline, I had an electricity generator, no one I knew was dead or hurt. I hadn’t seen the tsunami myself, not with my own eyes, so I felt as if I was in a kind of dream.”
Ten days after the disaster, Ono, his wife, and his widowed mother drove over the mountains to see for themselves.
They left in the morning in good spirits, stopped on the way to go shopping, and reached the coast in time for lunch. For most of the way, the scene was familiar: brown rice fields, villages of wood and tile, bridges over wide, slow rivers. Once they had climbed into the hills, they passed more and more emergency vehicles, not only those of the police and fire services, but the green trucks of the Self-Defense Forces. As the road descended towards the coast, their jaunty mood began to evaporate. Suddenly, before they understood where they were, they had entered the tsunami zone.
There was no advance warning, no marginal area of incremental damage. The wave had come in with full force, spent itself, and stopped at a point as clearly defined as the reach of a high tide. Above it, nothing had been touched; below it, everything was changed.
This was the point at which shame entered Ono’s narrative, and he became reluctant to describe in detail what he did or where he went. “I saw the rubble, I saw the sea,” he said. “I saw buildings damaged by the tsunami. It wasn’t just the things themselves, but the atmosphere. It was a place I used to go so often. It was such a shock to see it. And all the police and soldiers there. It’s difficult to describe. It felt dangerous. My first thought was that this is terrible. My next feeling was ‘Is it real?’”
Ono, his wife, and his mother sat down for dinner as usual that evening. He remembered that he drank two small cans of beer with the meal. Afterward, and for no obvious reason, he began calling friends on his mobile phone. “I’d just ring and say, ‘Hi, how are you?’ — that kind of thing,” he told me. “It wasn’t that I had much to say. I don’t know why, but I was starting to feel very lonely.”
His wife had already left the house when he woke the next morning. Ono had no particular work of his own and passed an idle day at home. His mother bustled in and out, but she seemed mysteriously upset, even angry. When his wife returned from her office, she was similarly tense.
“Is something wrong?” Ono asked.
“I’m divorcing you!” she replied.
“Divorce? But why? Why?”
And so his wife and mother described the events of the night before, after the round of needy phone calls. How Ono had jumped down onto all fours and begun licking the tatami mats and futon and squirmed on them like a beast. How at first they had nervously laughed at his tomfoolery, but had been silenced when he began snarling, “You must die. You must die. Everyone must die. Everything must die and be lost.” In front of the house was an unsown field, and Ono had run out into it and rolled over and over in the mud, as if he was being tumbled by a wave, shouting, “There, over there! They’re all over there — look!” Then he had stood up and walked out into the field, calling, “I’m coming to you. I’m coming over to that side,” before his wife physically wrestled him back into the house. The writhing and bellowing went on all night until, around five in the morning, Ono cried out, “There’s something on top of me,” collapsed, and fell asleep.
“My wife and my mother were so anxious and upset,” he said. “Of course, I told them how sorry I was. But I had no memory of what I did or why.”
It went on for three nights.
The next evening, as darkness fell, he saw figures walking past the house: parents and children, a group of young friends, a grandfather and a child. “The people were covered in mud,” he said. “They were no more than twenty feet away, and they stared at me, but I wasn’t afraid. I just thought, ‘Why are they in those muddy things? Why don’t they change their clothes? Perhaps their washing machine’s broken.’ They were like people I might have known once or seen before somewhere. The scene was flickering, like a film. But I felt perfectly normal, and I thought that they were just ordinary people.”
The next day, Ono was lethargic and inert. At night, he would lie down, sleep heavily for ten minutes, then wake up as lively and refreshed as if eight hours had passed. He staggered when he walked, glared at his wife and mother, and even waved a knife. “Drop dead!” he would snarl. “Everyone else is dead, so die!”
After three days of pleading by his family, he went to Reverend Kaneta at the temple. “His eyes were dull,” Kaneta said. “Like a person with depression after taking their medication. I knew at a glance that something was wrong.” Ono recounted the visit to the coast, and his wife and mother described his behavior in the days since. “The Reverend was looking hard at me as I spoke,” Ono said, “and in part of my mind, I was saying, ‘Don’t look at me like that, you bastard. I hate your guts! Why are you looking at me?’”
Kaneta took Ono by the hand and led him, tottering, into the main hall of the temple. “He told me to sit down. I was not myself. I still remember that strong feeling of resistance. But part of me was also relieved — I wanted to be helped and to believe in the priest. The part of me that was still me wanted to be saved.”
Kaneta beat the temple drum as he chanted the Heart Sutra:
There are no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, mind; no color, sound, or smell; no taste, no touch, no thing; no realm of sight, no realm of thoughts; no ignorance, no end to ignorance; no old age and no death; no end to age and death; no suffering, nor any cause of suffering, nor end to suffering, no path, no wisdom and no fulfillment.
Ono’s wife told him later how he pressed his hands together in prayer and how, as the priest’s recitation continued, they rose high above his head as if being pulled from above.
gone gone gone beyond gone altogether beyond O what an awakening — all hail!
The priest splashed him with holy water, and then abruptly Ono returned to his senses and found himself with wet hair and shirt, filled with a sensation of tranquility and release. “My head was light,” he said. “In a moment, the thing that had been there had gone. I felt fine physically, but my nose was blocked as if I’d come down with a heavy cold.”
Kaneta spoke sternly to him; both understood what had happened. “Ono told me that he’d walked along the beach in that devastated area, eating an ice cream,” the priest said. “He even put up a sign in the car against the windshield saying disaster relief, so that no one would stop him. He went there flippantly, without giving it any thought at all. I told him, ‘You fool. If you go to a place like that where many people have died, you must go with a feeling of respect. That’s common sense. You have suffered a kind of punishment for what you did. Something got hold of you, perhaps the dead who cannot accept yet that they are dead. They have been trying to express their regret and their resentment through you.’” Kaneta suddenly smiled as he remembered it. “Mr. Bean!” he said indulgently. “He’s so innocent and open. That’s another reason why they were able to possess him.”
Ono recognized all of this and more. It was not just the spirits of men and women that had possessed him, he saw now, but also animals — cats and dogs and other beasts that had drowned with their masters.
He thanked the priest and drove home. His nose was streaming as if with catarrh, but what came out was not mucus, but a pink jelly-like nothing he had seen before.
The wave penetrated no more than a few miles inland, but over the hills in Kurihara it transformed the life of Reverend Taio Kaneta. He had inherited the temple from his father, and the task of dealing with the survivors of the tsunami tested him in ways for which he was unprepared. It had been the greatest disaster of postwar Japan. And yet the pain did not announce itself; it dug underground and burrowed deep. Once the immediate emergency had abated, once the bodies were cremated, the memorial services held, and the homeless sheltered, Reverend Kaneta set about trying to gain entry into the dungeon of silence in which he saw so many of the survivors languishing.
He began traveling around the coast with a group of fellow priests, organizing a mobile event that he called “Café de Monku” — a bilingual pun. As well as being the Japanese pronunciation of the English word “monk,” monku means “complaint.” “We think it will take a long time to get back to a calm, quiet, ordinary life,” read the flyer that he distributed. “Why don’t you come and join us — take a break and have a little moan? The monks will listen to your complaint — and have a monku of their own too.”
Under this pretext — a casual cup of tea and a friendly chat — people came to the temples and community centers where Café de Monku was held. Many were living in “temporary residences,” the grim prefabricated huts, freezing in winter and sweltering in summer, where those who could afford nothing better ended up. The priests listened sympathetically and made a point of not asking too many questions. “People don’t like to cry,” said Kaneta. “They see it as selfish. Among those who are living in the temporary homes, there’s hardly anyone who has not lost a member of their family. Everyone’s in the same boat, so they don’t like to seem self-indulgent. But when they start talking, and when you listen to them, and sense their gritted teeth and their suffering, all the suffering they can’t and won’t express, in time the tears come, and they flow without end.”
Haltingly, apologetically, then with increasing fluency, the survivors spoke of the terror of the wave, the pain of bereavement, and their fears for the future. They also talked about encounters with the supernatural.
They described sightings of ghostly strangers, friends and neighbors, and dead loved ones. They reported hauntings at home, at work, in offices and public places, on the beaches and in the ruined towns. The experiences ranged from eerie dreams and feelings of vague unease to cases, like that of Takeshi Ono, of outright possession.
It was not just the spirits of men and women that had possessed him, but also animals — cats and dogs and other beasts that had drowned with their masters.
A young man complained of pressure on his chest at night, as if some creature was straddling him as he slept. A teenage girl spoke of a fearful figure who squatted in her house. A middle-aged man hated to go out in the rain, because of the eyes of the dead, which stared out at him from puddles.
A civil servant in Soma visited a devastated stretch of coast and saw a solitary woman in a scarlet dress far from the nearest road or house, with no means of transport in sight. When he looked for her again, she had disappeared.
A fire station in Tagajo received calls to places where all the houses had been destroyed by the tsunami. The crews went out to the ruins anyway, prayed for the spirits of those who had died — and the ghostly calls ceased.
A taxi in the city of Sendai picked up a sad-faced man who asked to be taken to an address that no longer existed. Halfway through the journey, the driver looked into his mirror to see that the rear seat was empty. He drove on anyway, stopped in front of the leveled foundations of a destroyed house, and politely opened the door to allow the invisible passenger out at his former home.
At a refugee community in Onagawa, an old neighbor would appear in the living rooms of the temporary houses and sit down for a cup of tea with their startled occupants. No one had the heart to tell her that she was dead; the cushion on which she had sat was wet with seawater.
Such stories came from all over the devastated area. Priests — Christian and Shinto, as well as Buddhist — found themselves called on repeatedly to quell unhappy spirits. A Buddhist monk wrote an article in a learned journal about “the ghost problem,” and academics at Tohoku University began to catalog the stories. In Kyoto, the matter was debated at a scholarly symposium.
“Religious people all argue about whether these are really the spirits of the dead,” Kaneta told me. “I don’t get into it, because what matters is that people are seeing them, and in these circumstances, after this disaster, it is perfectly natural. So many died, and all at once. At home, at work, at school — the wave came in and they were gone. The dead had no time to prepare themselves. The people left behind had no time to say goodbye. Those who lost their families, and those who died — they have strong feelings of attachment. The dead are attached to the living, and those who have lost them are attached to the dead. It’s inevitable that there are ghosts.”
He said: “So many people are having these experiences. It’s impossible to identify who and where they all are. But there are countless such people, and their number is going to increase. And all we do is treat the symptoms.”
When opinion polls put the question “How religious are you?,” Japanese rank among the most ungodly people in the world. It took a catastrophe for me to understand how misleading this self-assessment is. It is true that the organized religions, Buddhism and Shinto, have little influence on private or national life. But over the centuries both have been pressed into the service of the true faith of Japan: the cult of the ancestors.
I knew about the household altars, or butsudan, which are still seen in most homes and on which the memorial tablets of dead ancestors — the ihai — are displayed. The butsudan are cabinets of lacquer and gilt, with openwork carvings of flowers and trees; the ihai are upright tablets of black lacquered wood, vertically inscribed in gold. Offerings of flowers, incense, food, fruit, and drinks are placed before them; at the summer Festival of the Dead, families light lanterns to welcome home the ancestral spirits. I had taken these picturesque practices to be matters of symbolism and custom, attended to in the same way that people in the West will participate in a Christian funeral without any literal belief in the words of the liturgy. But in Japan spiritual beliefs are regarded less as expressions of faith than as simple common sense, so lightly and casually worn that it is easy to miss them altogether. “The dead are not as dead there as they are in our own society,” wrote the religious scholar Herman Ooms. “It has always made perfect sense in Japan as far back as history goes to treat the dead as more alive than we do . . . even to the extent that death becomes a variant, not a negation of life.”
At the heart of ancestor worship is a contract. The food, drink, prayers, and rituals offered by their descendants gratify the dead, who in turn bestow good fortune on the living. Families vary in how seriously they take these ceremonies, but even for the unobservant, the dead play a continuing part in domestic life. For much of the time, their status is something like that of beloved, deaf, and slightly batty old folk who cannot expect to be at the center of the family, but who are made to feel included on important occasions. Young people who have passed important entrance examinations, gotten a job, or made a good marriage kneel before the butsudan to report their success. Victory or defeat in an important legal case, for example, is shared with the ancestors in the same way.
When grief is raw, the presence of the deceased is overwhelming. In households that had lost children in the tsunami, it became routine, after half an hour of tea and chat, to be asked if I would like to “meet” the dead sons and daughters. I would be led to a shrine covered with framed photographs, with toys, favorite drinks and snacks, letters, drawings, and school exercise books. One mother commissioned carefully Photoshopped portraits of her children, showing them as they would have been had they lived — a boy who died in elementary school smiling proudly in high-school uniform, an eighteen-year-old girl as she should have looked in kimono at her coming-of-age ceremony. Another decked the altar with makeup and acrylic fingernails that her daughter would have worn if she had lived to become a teenager. Here, every morning, they began the day by talking to their dead children, weeping love and apology, as unselfconsciously as if they were speaking over a long-distance telephone line.
The tsunami did appalling violence to the religion of the ancestors.
Along with walls, roofs, and people, the water carried away household altars, memorial tablets, and family photographs. Cemetery vaults were ripped open by the wave, and the bones of the dead scattered. Temples were destroyed, along with memorial books, listing the names of ancestors over generations. “The memorial tablets — it’s difficult to exaggerate their importance,” Yozo Taniyama, a priest friend of Kaneta’s, told me. “When there’s a fire or an earthquake, the ihai are the first thing that many people will save, before money or documents. I think that people died in the tsunami because they went home for the ihai. It’s life, the life of the ancestors. It’s like saving your late father’s life.”
When people die violently or prematurely, in anger or anguish, they are at risk of becoming gaki: “hungry ghosts,” who wander between worlds, propagating curses and mischief. There are rituals for placating unhappy spirits, but in the aftermath of the disaster, few families were in a position to perform these. And then there were those ancestors who lost all their living descendants to the wave. Their well-being in the afterlife depended entirely on the reverence of living families, which was permanently and irrevocably cut off: their situation was as helpless as that of orphaned children.
Tsunamis anywhere destroy property and kill the living, but in Japan they inflict a third kind of injury, unique and invisible, on the dead. At a stroke, thousands of spirits had passed from life to death; countless others were cut loose from their moorings in the afterlife. How could they all be cared for? Who was to honor the compact between the living and the dead? In such circumstances, how could there fail to be a swarm of ghosts?
It was in the summer after the tsunami that Naomi Hiratsuka began to speak to her dead daughter, Koharu. At first, and unlike most people she knew, she had hesitated. Shamanism, and varieties of mediumship, were deeply established in Tohoku, and many of the bereaved were turning to those who practiced them. Naomi had her doubts about the existence of such gifts, but above all she detested the way in which some people, especially in the media, treated the subject, in an effort to squeeze spooky entertainment out of tragedy. She had been especially sickened by an article in a Japanese magazine about teenagers daring one another to make nighttime visits to the site of Okawa Elementary School, in the hope of encountering its ghosts.
But the search for Koharu and the other missing children was going so badly, bogged down both in the literal mud and in a morass of bureaucratic complication. Naomi was in close touch with the police unit, which was carrying out its own search, and got to know its commanders. One day they made a suggestion that surprised her at the time — that if she knew of any mediums or psychics who had advice to offer, particularly about specific places to direct the search, she should pass it on.
A friend introduced her to a young man in his twenties who was known to have the ability to see and hear the dead. Recently, people said, he had heard a voice in a dense bamboo thicket by the Fuji lake — and when it was searched, bones were indeed found, and identified as the remains of a missing woman. Naomi arranged to meet the young psychic late one evening at the ruin of the school. It was the summer festival of Tanabata, the star festival, when people hang trees with handwritten poems and prayers, and with delicate paper decorations: streamers, purses, birds, dolls. They walked side by side in the humid darkness, between the shell of the school and the hill behind it. At a small shrine on the hill, Naomi tied decorations of her own around the bamboo and prayed for Koharu’s return. It was a hot, windless night, but the colored paper danced and shivered strangely in the motionless air. “It is the children who are moving the decorations,” the psychic said. “They are delighted with them.”
They walked past a long line of rubble, roughly heaped up into great mounds. Hundreds of people had died in this small area. It was possible that bodies were still contained within the heaps. The psychic said, “I can hear a voice. I think it is the voice of a woman, not a child.” And Naomi, straining, also heard it, although too faintly for the words to be distinguishable. “It was just an ordinary voice,” she said. “It sounded as if she was having an ordinary conversation. But when I looked around, there was nobody there.”
Naomi said, “I didn’t used to believe in such things, and I’d never had an experience like that before. But having lived through the disaster, having been through what I had, perhaps it’s quite natural that I would hear such a voice.”
She spent a lot of time with the young man. They walked together for hours through the wide environs of the school — around the Fuji lake, and as far in the other direction as the Nagatsuura lagoon. He gave Naomi a crystal on a length of cord, which she would hold suspended over a large-scale map in the hope of divining Koharu’s whereabouts. She told the police about the voice she had heard at the rubble mounds, and they were thoroughly sifted. But no human remains were found.
During their long walks, the young psychic would describe to Naomi the invisible scene surrounding them. One might have expected a consoling picture of life after death, but the vision he described was appalling. Naomi compared it to a famous Japanese horror film, Ring, which itself drew on the hell imagery of medieval art. “He said that there were pale figures like the ghosts in that film, many, many of them crawling on the ground. Some of them were stuck in the water, covered in mud, and swallowing the dirty water in terrible suffering. Some of them were trapped and trying to get out. But he couldn’t tell which of them were the spirits of people who had already been found, and which of them were those like my daughter, who were still missing.”
Naomi began to seek out other means of reaching the dead. The introductions were easily made — many of the Okawa mothers were consulting one psychic or another. Having started out a skeptic, she found herself holding conversations with Koharu herself.
The medium, whose name was Sumi, ran a small coffee shop in the city. Sometimes Naomi and Shinichiro went to see her in person; sometimes Koharu’s utterances were conveyed over the telephone, and even by e-mail and text message. But Naomi was quickly persuaded of their authenticity. Sumi conveyed so perfectly the tone and character of the Koharu that her family remembered — the chattiness, bossiness, and sweetness of a girl about to become a teenager. Through Sumi, Koharu dictated a detailed list of presents that were to be given in her name to members of the family — a particular kind of drawing pad and pencils for her brother, a pink bag for her little sister. She instructed Naomi to serve the family with powdered green-tea sweets, which she had always loved. But apart from the convincing childishness, there was an unexpected maturity in much of what she said, which might have been that of the medium, but which seemed at times to be the authority acquired by those, even in their young years, who have passed through death.
Koharu asked in detail about the well-being of her family, especially her siblings, and showed great concern about her mother’s career. “She seemed to think that Sae, the baby, would be okay,” Naomi said. “But she wanted me to give a lot more attention to Toma, who was older. And she told me to finish my maternity leave and go back to work. All of this helped, it helped us so much to carry on with an ordinary life, even after death. It was so welcome.”
What neither the medium nor the spirit ever seemed able to say was the thing Naomi most wanted to know: the resting place of Koharu, or her bodily remnant. “Sumi told us that finding the remains is not everything. She said, ‘You might think that the kids want their parents to find them, that they are desperate to go back home. But they are already home. They are already in a very good place. And the more you bury yourselves in the search, the more desperate you will become.’”
Naomi’s friend Miho visited another medium and drew the deepest consolation from her conversations with her missing daughter, Hana. “It was just like talking to her,” Miho said. “It was just as if Hana was standing there, at my side. She said that she was in heaven and that she was very happy. The woman knew all about our daily life, how Hana talked, the kinds of expressions she used. If she said that she was suffering, if she’d been crying for help, and saying, ‘Mum, get me out of here!’ I wouldn’t have been able to bear it. But the words I heard always made me feel calmer.”
Sometimes the messages from the dead contradicted one another. One of the first things Hana told her mother, Miho, was that she should not harbor any blame or resentment towards the teachers at the school. “The teachers are crying in heaven, and that is hard for us,” she said through the medium. “They are suffering, and watching them makes us children feel sad.” But another psychic, at another time, told Miho the opposite: that the children were bitter and angry towards the teachers for letting them die so needlessly, for failing to lead them to the obvious places of safety and survival.
Below is an excerpt fromThe Death of an Heir, Philip Jett’s absorbing new book of true crime, about the botched kidnapping of Adolph Coors III, the Coors brewery CEO, which launched one of the largest manhunts in US history and seems to have taken its cues from the Hollywood playbook. Our thanks to Jett and St. Martin’s Press for letting us share this story with the Longreads community.
* * *
At barely half a rod wide and three hands deep, Turkey Creek was not unlike hundreds of tributaries snaking their way through Colorado canyons. That would soon change. The creek flowed only a few miles, spanned here and there by rough-hewn lumber bridges like the one in Turkey Creek Canyon, with its crude railings and two wooden tracks burrowed in gravel, wide enough for a single car to cross. Fewer than half a dozen vehicles crossed Turkey Creek Bridge each morning. That included the local school bus and a milk delivery truck—and for the last month, the white-over-turquoise International Harvester Travelall driven by Adolph Herman Joseph Coors III.
The name fit for a crown prince belonged to the forty-four-year-old chairman of the board and CEO of the multimillion-dollar Adolph Coors Company in Golden, Colorado, and first-born grandson of the brewery’s founder. Known simply as “Ad” to most who knew him, he was well-liked by associates and employees for his friendliness and reserve. And despite being the eldest successor to the giant Colorado beer empire and an accomplished man, Ad preferred the simple life on his horse ranch southwest of Denver, where he lived contently with his wife, Mary, and their four young children.
On the crisp, windy morning of Tuesday, February 9, 1960, Ad rose before sunrise and began his daily exercise regime. After showering, he dressed for work and joined Mary at the kitchen table for coffee. They talked as they did every morning.
Before leaving for the brewery, Ad headed outside to check his horses, pitching hay and breaking ice in their troughs. He soon returned to kiss Mary and his children goodbye, but his children had boarded a school bus minutes earlier. Grabbing a tan baseball cap and slipping on his favorite navy-blue nylon jacket, he stepped out onto the carport, started his Travelall, and headed down the driveway. He waved to his ranch manager as he passed. It was 7:55 a.m.
Ad’s normal route to the brewery, twelve miles away, would have carried him less than a mile to paved US Highway 285, but a section of the highway had been closed for construction since January. The closure forced him to detour along a winding, lonely stretch of gravel road for four miles to Turkey Creek Canyon, where it connected to a state road that led back to Highway 285.
As Ad drove along the secluded road that morning, his Travelall rambled around the last bend before reaching Turkey Creek Bridge, just out of view. Waiting on the bridge was thirty-one-year-old Joseph Corbett Jr., who had stalked Ad for many months awaiting the chance to carry out his scheme. The road closure and detour across Turkey Creek Bridge gave him that chance.
Corbett backed his canary-yellow Mercury sedan onto the one-lane bridge just minutes before Ad’s arrival. Handcuffs and leg irons lay on the back seat. A ransom note in an envelope ready for mailing later that day lay in the glove box. Concealing a pistol in his coat pocket, he exited the four-door car, leaving the driver’s door open. He opened a rear door and raised the hood, signaling engine trouble, and stood by the car, waiting for his victim. All he had to do was lure Ad away from his Travelall. Then the Coors CEO and heir wouldn’t be so rich and powerful. Instead, he’d be a hostage worth many times his weight in gold and, if all went according to plan, would make Corbett a very rich man by week’s end.
Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.
As Ad drove around that last bend, he spotted the yellow Mercury stranded on the narrow bridge. It was 8:00 a.m. Just as Corbett had planned, Ad pulled onto the bridge behind the Mercury. He shouted through a rolled-down window, asking if he could help. Corbett shouted back his rehearsed reply. Eager to get going, Ad stepped out of the Travelall and shut the door, leaving the engine running and radio playing. He didn’t expect to be long. He figured he’d help push the stranded car out of the way and give its driver a ride to the nearest filling station.
But as Ad approached, Corbett stepped forward and drew his pistol, taking the beer magnate by surprise. Ad was an intelligent but stubborn man, not the kind to don shackles and meekly slide into an assailant’s car. As Corbett drew nearer, the six-foot-one, 185-pound Ad Coors seized his abductor’s hand that gripped the gun. The two, almost identical in height and weight, struggled. Ad shoved his younger assailant backward, and they slammed against the crude bridge railing. Ad’s baseball cap along with Corbett’s fedora flew into the creek. Ad’s eyeglasses fell, too, cracking the left lens on impact. Ad pushed his antagonist away and made a break for the Travelall. But Corbett, seeing his ransom trying to escape, extended the pistol and fired. The sound of shots echoed up the canyon.
Those two shots set off the largest US manhunt since the Lindbergh kidnapping.
“It was about eight o’clock,” Rosemary Stitt would later testify in the First District Court of Colorado. “Right after I sent my kids off to school, about twenty minutes after. First, it sounded like somebody hollered down at the bridge. I was sittin’ in front of my sewing machine by the window. It sounded like one or two words is all. It was two different people, I think. Then I heard a crackling noise like lightnin’ striking a tree. I looked out the kitchen window to see if a tree fell down out back but didn’t see nothing. So it was then I got to thinking it might be a gunshot. Just one shot. Or, it coulda been two really close together.”
Those two shots set off the largest US manhunt since the Lindbergh kidnapping. State and local authorities, along with the FBI, burst into action, attempting to locate Ad Coors and arrest his kidnapper. Ad’s influential father demanded that the perpetrator be caught and his son returned, and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover gave assurances that he would make it his top priority domestically. Once the evidence pointed to Corbett, Hoover backed up his promises by placing Corbett on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, describing him as the most hunted suspect since John Dillinger. The manhunt would span the continent and involve hundreds of law enforcement officers. Yet as months passed with little success, Ad’s tormented wife and children clutched tenuously to their hopes. Like them, everyone wondered where Colorado’s favorite son and his abductor could be.
The ranch home of Adolph Coors III (AP Photo)
Snow swirled past the windows outside Ad’s barn at eight o’clock on the night of Monday, February 8. Ad wanted to confer with his ranch manager about when they would auction the cattle. They decided to wait a bit, when the market was up. He also asked if his manager could accompany him Saturday to size up some horses in La Junta, and he agreed.
Mary called Ad to dinner. Afterward, Ad sat at the kitchen table near sweat-streaked windows, reviewing some of the ranch accounts. He was bushed and hoped to turn in soon. He’d been back from Miami for forty-eight hours, and his first day at the brewery had been a busy one, with more meetings and telephone conferences scheduled for Tuesday. At least his father was on vacation in Hawaii with his mother and wouldn’t return for another two weeks. Things wouldn’t be as tense with Mr. Coors away.
Cecily was seated across the kitchen table from her father with Spike seated beside her, both doing homework. The youngest of the Coors children, Jim, lay on the den floor in front of the fireplace with a toy truck and horse trailer he’d gotten for Christmas. Mary sat watching television with the volume low so not to disturb those at the table. She’d finished putting the dishes away earlier with the help of Brooke, who now stretched out in the hallway floor with the telephone.
Mary couldn’t help thinking how nice it was to be home with the kids and Ad and her fireplace and her favorite chair and everything feeling like it should. She wished she could freeze the moment and keep things just the way they were forever. She knew things at home were changing and the kids were growing up. What Mary didn’t realize was that night would be the best it would be, forever more.
“Three dollars—regular,” Corbett told gas attendant Lynn Westerbuhr at the Conoco Service Station on East Fourteenth Avenue, around the corner from Corbett’s apartment.
It was a cold night, and the young attendant inserted the hose nozzle into the automobile and turned the pump lever. He stomped his feet on the icy concrete and cupped his gloved hands, blowing on them to provide a little warmth.
“He stopped by regularly, usually once a week. He asked for three dollars’ worth of gas every time,” said Westerbuhr. “Never told me his name. Always paid cash.”
The attendant removed the hose and hooked it on the side of the pump. “That’s three dollars,” said Westerbuhr, waiting for Corbett to slip three bills through the sliver of open window. “Whatcha got back there? Moving?”
“A sleeping bag and tent.”
“You going camping in this weather?” asked the attendant, just like the clerk had at the Sears department store.
“Here’s your money,” said Corbett. He detested snoops.
“He was driving a dark maroon Dodge, ’tween a ’46 to ’49 year model, I think,” Westerbuhr soon would tell authorities. “Around Christmas, I seen him in a bright-yellow Mercury and again in January, ’bout through the second week of January, I’d say. I seen him in several cars over the last year, though—a light blue Ford wagon, gray-and-white Ford sedan. He liked cars. Most times, he was by himself. Sometimes with another man. A big fella, about thirty-five, usually in dirty work clothes, might ’ave been an Indian or an Italian, I don’t know.”
After leaving the station that Monday night, Corbett returned to his Perlmor apartment. Soon, metallic sounds filled the air. Gun chambers snapped, shackles clanked, and handcuffs clattered eerily in the sparse room. Corbett was making ready for the following day. He brushed his coat and spit-shined his shoes, like preparing for a job interview, a compulsion he’d picked up in prison. He’d gotten a haircut earlier in the day. A freshly dry-cleaned suit hung on a doorknob.
Later that evening, Corbett hurried down the back stairs to the first-floor hallway and out the back door. A pistol, a rifle, cuffs, and leg irons draped in a blanket filled his arms. A sedan waited for him across the alley behind his apartment with its trunk raised and front-and rear-passenger doors open on the passenger side. He’d already loaded blankets, canned food, water in glass jugs, and his Coleman stove, lantern, and other camping equipment in the trunk. He checked for anyone who might be watching him before stretching out the blanket and removing the pistol and placing it in the glove compartment.
“He seemed like he was in a hurry,” said Terrence Smith, a tenant in room 106. “I saw blankets on the back seat, two rifle cases, a telescopic case, and a pistol case, all zipped up along the side.”
Corbett slammed the trunk closed, removed his hat, and wiped his forehead, running his fingers through his hair that was soaked with sweat despite the cold night’s sleet pelting down. Scaling flights of stairs half a dozen times made him perspire, but he was also suffering from nervousness, anxiety, and fear of detection. He was afraid, all right, even though he’d spent months, almost thirty of them, planning this job. Despite being proud of his intellect (he’d been tested as having an IQ of 148) and his methodical, almost obsessive analytical approach to things, he knew he wasn’t infallible. After all, he had been captured for shooting a man and imprisoned in California a decade earlier.
To calm himself, he sat in his apartment and turned on the television to Peter Gunn. Soon, he pulled open a drawer and stuffed the letter he’d perfected into the pocket of his coat hanging in the closet. He planned to mail it the next day.
Corbett hadn’t seen his family for ages, and if the letter procured him what he expected, he doubted he’d have a chance to see them for a long time to come. He didn’t have a family of his own, not yet, only a father, stepmother, and stepbrother.
“It says here that he’s got a wife—name’s Marion,” said one of Corbett’s former bosses reviewing his unemployment records with an FBI agent later. “Some of the boys said Walt told ’em he was married. But later he said he was married to ‘Anne’ and listed her as his wife on his company health insurance policy. Seems to me a man should know the name of his wife, and polygamy is frowned on in Colorado.”
His female neighbors, however, never saw a wife or a girlfriend or any woman visiting, for that matter. If any woman said hello, she was lucky to receive eye contact from Corbett, much less a response. Many of his female neighbors who’d been rebuffed by Corbett’s shyness and abrupt exits referred to him as “Mystery Boy.”
“When we’d go to the city café to eat, which we did a lot, he’d never talk to the waitresses,” said one of Corbett’s coworkers. “Some were interested, but he’d never say as much as a how-do-you-do. He’d just order his food.”
“Women aren’t to be trusted,” Corbett would say. “They’re dirty, disagreeable, expensive, and worst of all, can’t keep confidential information to themselves.”
Corbett clicked off the television set. He had things to do tomorrow—confidential things. He stretched out on his sleeper sofa. It was dark, but trails of light passing through the metal venetian blinds laid stripes across a portion of the ceiling and one wall. He stared at the faint luminescent strands above him. It was late. His preparations had taken longer than he’d planned. But he wasn’t sleepy. Adrenaline pumped through his veins. Soon, his mind raced through the details of his plan. It was a good plan.
* * *
Golden is located on the Colorado Front Range, the first upwelling of the Rocky Mountains from the Great Plains. Founded in 1859 as part of the Colorado gold rush, the mining town became the first capital of the Colorado Territory and the seat of Jefferson County. After the gold panned out, German, Swedish, Italian, and Chinese immigrants stayed to make Golden their home. From 1860 to the 1950s, the population seesawed between 1,000 and 2,500 before swelling to more than 8,000 residents by 1960.
Residents of Golden enjoyed a traditional Western way of life. Men and women in boots and cowboys hats walked along sidewalks shared by those in suits and fashionable dresses. On Washington Avenue, the main thoroughfare, automobiles shared the road with horses and an electric trolley. Few communities can boast the picturesque scenery that surrounds the valley town—a river rushing through the middle called Clear Creek. Lookout Mountain to the southwest (where Buffalo Bill is buried), North Table Mountain on the north side, and to the south, South Table Mountain with its Castle Rock casting a crown above the Coors brewing and porcelain companies. And if its citizens wanted a change of pace from the serenity, Denver awaited only fifteen miles to the east.
On the morning of Wednesday, February 10, the citizens of Golden awoke to headlines on the front page of Rocky Mountain News: ADOLPH COORS III FEARED KIDNAPED! and TheDenver Post: ADOLPH COORS III DISAPPEARS; FBI ENTERS SEARCH. They were stunned. It seemed unfathomable to them. The outpouring of concern and kindhearted remarks by the townspeople filled the airwaves and print.
“I don’t know of anybody who didn’t like Ad Coors,” said Walter G. Brown, Golden city manager.
Kriss Barnes, assistant vice president of Golden’s First National Bank, told reporters, “I can’t understand how anybody in the world would have anything against Ad Coors. He’s reassuring, mild-mannered, and considerate.”
“Ad is kind and generous,” said Pete Puck, who worked at the Coors Porcelain plant and helped out on Ad’s ranch. “This disappearance is a terrible thing, a terrible thing.”
Ad’s ranch manager, Bill Hosler, agreed. “He’s just as nice as can be.”
Many people in town knew Ad. They’d gone to school with him, hunted, skied, or transacted business with him. Many had a genuine affinity for the eldest Coors brother.
“He’d always smile and call me by my first name. Just a real nice guy,” said Louis Kubat, who played softball with Ad in the Arvada League when Ad played first base for Golden years earlier.
Almost anyone asked would say he was a good man. Good, despite the fact he was rich. But Goldenites couldn’t begrudge him that. He wore his wealth humbly. That was one of the things people liked most about the Coors family: their humility.
“Nicest guy you’d ever meet,” said Arthur Jensen, the chief brewer in the Coors kettle room. “Always wore a smile and said hello and called you by your first name, and let you call him Ad, not Mr. Coors or whatever. He always seemed interested in what I was doing, and I liked that about him.”
“Everyone in town knew my father,” Spike recounted as an adult. “He was just like Grandpa and Great-Grandpa, a complete workaholic, a financial success, active in the town, and respected by everyone.”
That’s why townspeople were in disbelief. At gas stations, taverns, and beauty and barbershops all around town, everyone was talking about the disappearance. To many, an attack on a Coors was an attack on Golden and everyone in it. Coors was Golden, and Golden was Coors.
Who would do such a thing? That was the question of the day at establishments all around town. Anyone who dared denounce a Coors now did so at his peril. Even a person who had no beef with a Coors could become a suspect just because he was peculiar. For instance, Jack Peters, in charge of Coors plant security, heard from a guard that a man named Robert Everhart should be checked out. Peters telephoned Captain Bray and told him that although he couldn’t put his finger on anything specific, there were “suspicious and odd circumstances surrounding Everhart, too numerable to mention.” He was investigated and eliminated as a suspect.
Others were more specific in their charges. Anyone who’d ever harbored ill feelings toward a Coors was suspected. Anyone in a dispute over property rights years earlier, or someone Ad may have cut off in traffic, or an employee that had been fired by a Coors, any kind of run-in was enough to raise suspicion. The theories and suspects abounded that morning and throughout the day. One possibility in particular made everyone in town a bit nervous: could it be a union man?
“Both major Coors industries have been embroiled in labor strife during the past few years,” reported Rocky Mountain News that day. “Colorado unions, in recent months, have placed an unofficial boycott on Coors products because of what they term unfair labor practices at Coors. . . . Bill Coors, however, did say Tuesday night that he discounted any beliefs his brother’s disappearance stemmed from labor difficulties at the Coors firms.”
“Ad was never a part of the difficulty at the brewery,” Walter Brown said.
Union leaders especially hoped a member hadn’t committed this crime. If he had, the news would drive a stake through Local 366 once and for all.
When asked about the possibility, Joe Coors scoffed. “All we want, all the whole family wants, is Ad’s safe return.” When pressed by a reporter, Joe said, “Ad’s received no threats from anyone, particularly labor. We are completely baffled. Bill and I are very strong in the feeling, however, that this has nothing to do with the labor movement.”
That same morning, a motorcade of four dark, unmarked sedans drove down Washington Avenue, passing beneath the famous banner that stretched across the street:
WELCOME TO GOLDEN
WHERE THE WEST REMAINS
The FBI was officially on the case. Code name: COORNAP. Each sedan carried FBI field agents as unmarked as their cars—dark suits, ties, starched white shirts, fedoras, trench coats, trimmed hair, shaven faces, and sunglasses or eyeglasses. That was the directive from J. Edgar Hoover in Washington, D.C., the agency’s director since 1924. Another fifty officers of the FBI Western Kidnap Squad were combing a thirty-mile radius. Hoover stamped the case top priority. He’d given Mr. Coors his private assurances. A quick resolution of the high-profile case would also give the agency a gold star just as the motion picture The FBI Story was playing in theaters around the country.
One of the bureau-issued sedans dropped two agents at Mr. Coors’s house and Joe’s home to man the telephone surveillance and recording devices that had been set up by Denver undersheriff A. S. Reider and Denver Police chief Walter Nelson, with the help of Golden Telephone Company employee Carl Horblett. Other agents stopped in Golden to question persons in town. The remaining agents stopped at the Adolph Coors Company to question anyone who might have useful information, particularly Bill and Joe Coors, who had returned to work that day.
Similar cars with agents headed to Bill Coors’s house in Denver to operate the telephone recorder and to Ad’s home near Morrison to question Mary and relieve the county deputies who were conducting surveillance inside and outside her home, watching for kidnappers who might be staking out the ranch to drop off a ransom note. One agent joined deputies standing on the road in front of Ad and Mary’s house, stopping all passing cars and trucks and questioning their occupants. Other agents drove to the sheriff’s office to question deputies and investigators, and to Turkey Creek Bridge to question anyone who lived nearby who might have seen or heard anything Tuesday morning.
Agents arriving at the bridge site were met by newsmen from Denver, Golden, and other Colorado towns, and by correspondents from national news services who’d flown into Denver the night before. Reporters in turn were met with a curt “No comment.” All questions were referred to Special Agent in Charge Scott Werner at the FBI office in Denver. “The FBI will maintain complete silence until the release of the victim,” said FBI special agent Edward Kemper. “Our interest is the safe return of Mr. Coors.” The FBI also instructed members of the Coors family not to speak to reporters.
County investigators had completed their collection of evidence at the bridge the day before the FBI’s arrival. The remaining task for the sheriff’s office at Turkey Creek Canyon was to find Ad Coors. Volunteers arrived early that morning and set up tables near the bridge with pots of hot coffee, doughnuts, sandwiches, and water for those men in the mounted posse and jeep patrol who had spent the entire night searching and for those who’d arrived at sunup to join or relieve them.
An H-19 helicopter sent from Lowry Air Force Base outside Denver hovered above the lifting fog, trying to spot a man stranded or hurt, or anything that appeared out of the ordinary among the rocky hills and ravines. US Air Force C-45 and C-47 airplanes and Civil Air Patrol Piper Super Cubs were standing by to take off if needed.
Despite all the manpower, horses, jeeps, and aircraft, there was no sign of Ad Coors. “We haven’t been able to find a thing,” said Captain Morris of the sheriff’s office. “We’re as baffled now as we were yesterday.”
Coors was Golden, and Golden was Coors.
The FBI took a different tactic. Agents, along with some county investigators, visited all houses in the Turkey Creek Canyon area and interviewed their residents.
“It was about eight o’clock,” Mrs. Rosemary Stitt said. “Right after I sent my kids off to school, about twenty minutes after. The bus picks them up around twenty till every morning. First, it sounded like somebody hollered down at the bridge. I can hear people talkin’ down there pretty plain most times. Hear their cars crossing over. I live only ’bout a quarter mile away. But yesterday the wind was blowing really hard so I couldn’t hear so plain. I was sittin’ in front of my sewing machine by the window. It sounded like one or two words is all. It was two different people, I think. Then I heard a cracklin’ noise like lightnin’ striking a tree. As a little girl, I heard lightnin’ split a tree in half right next to the house. That’s what it sounded like. I looked out the kitchen window to see if a tree fell down out back but didn’t see nothin’. So it was then I got to thinkin’ it might be a gunshot. Just one shot. Or, it coulda been two really close together.”
“What type of shot was it? Pistol, rifle, shotgun? Any idea of caliber?” an agent asked Mrs. Stitt.
“I talked to Bill about it last night, that’s my husband, and he asked if it sounded like a .22 that him and my son shoot at rabbits or like a .38 they shoot ever once in a while at targets they set up in the hills. I said it sounded more like the .38 ’cause it sounded like lightnin’. The shot came about a minute or two after I heard the hollerin’. I thought it might be poachers shootin’ game on the preserve. We’ve had some trouble with hunters up here. Or maybe some surveyors I seen workin’. I didn’t hear nothin’ else, so I went back to doin’ housework. . . . Later on in the mornin’, though, about ten thirty, eleven o’clock, I heard summore hollerin’ and a horn honkin’. About fifteen, twenty minutes after that, the milkman showed up and told me about a car blockin’ the bridge down yonder. He asked to use the telephone, but we ain’t got one. So he left and said he’d telephone the police at his next stop.”
Mrs. Pauline Moore, who lived with her husband, Cloyce, two and a half miles from Turkey Creek Bridge, told the FBI a similar story:
Right around eight o’clock yesterdee, I was hangin’ the wash on a clothesline out back. The wind was blowin’ real hard. I could barely get a clothespin on ’em. Then I heard a shot in the canyon real clear. I usually work on Tuesdays cleanin’ folks’ houses in Denver, but my boss called the night before and told me not to come in. The shot I heard was a far-off shot, not a close up, but a far off-shot, towards the bridge.
After hours of exhaustive interviews, the FBI learned that no one in the area had actually seen Ad Coors or his abductors on the bridge. No one could tell how many kidnappers there were. No one reported seeing a struggle or a shooting. No one saw the abductors’ car leaving the scene. Several did, however, report seeing suspicious vehicles at or near the bridge during the days before the disappearance. There was only one problem. They saw too many.
Mrs. Stitt told the FBI, “My husband said he seen a 1954 blue-green Ford parked on the bridge the week before, once with the doors open and lights on, but nobody around. Coulda been a 1955 or ’56, he said.”
Ranch hand Bill Hosler and Mary Coors’s maid told the FBI they’d seen a late-model green Dodge with red-and-white license plates parked near the ranch on Monday. Both said they saw at least two men in the car that appeared to be watching the ranch for at least an hour. One was tall and thin, and the other was short and stocky with a dark complexion. Hosler said the same car had been there the week before. They also stated he’d seen a yellow car there on more than one occasion.
Hilton Pace, who leased and worked a uranium mine near Turkey Creek Bridge, said he’d seen a man driving a white-over-gray Ford in the area a few times. He’d even spoken with him one day.
Janette Erickson, who lived less than a mile and a half from the bridge, said she’d seen a yellow car near the bridge on that Sunday. Charlotte Carter and Viola Ranch said the same thing. Other witnesses said they saw a car resembling a 1951 Mercury in the vicinity. Three said it was yellow; one said cream. Two said it was a solid color; two said it had a black top. Viola Ranch said it had a green cloth top.
Former Morrison town constable James Cable, a caretaker at the uranium mine leased by Hilton Pace, said he and his wife, Margaret, saw a yellow 1951 or ’52 Mercury near the bridge several times, including at eight o’clock Monday, the morning before the disappearance, about a hundred feet from the bridge. That was the morning Ad took a different route, driving to Denver before going to the brewery.
Miss Nadene Carder said she’d seen a yellow car parked near the bridge three consecutive days when she was on her way to work at the Colorado School of Mines the week before the disappearance. That was while Ad was in Miami.
Jim Massey said he often saw a yellow Mercury near the bridge. He told the FBI he’d seen it around 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, with a man standing beside it wearing a brown hat and eyeglasses. His wife said she’d seen the car around 1:00 p.m. on Monday, a mere nineteen hours before the disappearance.
The one thing all eyewitnesses did agree on was that none had seen any of the cars since the disappearance.
But James Cable saw something no one else had. When interviewed, he gave the FBI a clue so important that without it the case may never have been solved. He had a partial license plate number. “It was a 1960 Colorado-style plate. Read AT-62,” he said. “It may have been AT-6205. I’m not a hundred percent sure about the last two numbers.” A was the county designation for Denver.
Agents hoped the plates weren’t stolen.
When newspapermen asked about rumors of car sightings the evening after Ad’s disappearance, FBI agents said, “Refer all questions to Special Agent in Charge Scott Werner at the Denver office.” When Bill was asked what he knew, he replied, “The FBI has requested that we make no further statements.” Sheriff Wermuth, however, was happy to oblige.
“We’re looking for two, possibly three assailants in a green Dodge that’s been seen parked near Ad Coors’s home,” the sheriff said to reporters. “That’s the strongest lead we’ve got in the case at the present time. . . . I believe we’ll have a break in the case by noon Saturday. . . . I’m basing that on studies of other kidnap cases. The crucial time in other reported cases is thirty-six hours to four and a half days after the abduction is made. . . . Yes, it’s my belief that Ad Coors is alive and held somewhere in the state. . . . According to a witness, the green Dodge had red-and-white license plates, which means it’s an out-of-state car, possibly Utah, Florida, or Ohio. . . . We believe they’ve split up. One of the three men is a good suspect centered around Denver. We’re anxious to check his movements. . . . I can’t tell you that right now. The other two are believed to be somewhere southeast of Golden.”
Reporters continued barking out their questions to the sheriff.
“No, I haven’t positively identified the blood yet. Lew Hawley telephoned me from Washington to tell me the blood found on the bridge is group A, but we haven’t located any medical records that show Ad Coors’s blood type. . . . No, the blood on Kipling Street was canine. That’s right, just a dog hit by a car. No connection there. . . . The tan cap and eyeglasses have been identified as belonging to Ad Coors. . . . No, we’ll keep the mounted posse and jeep patrol out there through tomorrow and then I’ll decide whether to suspend the search depending on the snowstorm they’re calling for late Thursday. . . . Yes, group A. Okay, that’s all I got for now, fellas.”
Amid the barrage of questions, Wermuth told reporters that Mr. and Mrs. Coors were due to land at Denver’s Stapleton Airfield that night. They had boarded a plane very early that morning to make the long flight home. Despite the earliness, reporters were waiting for them as they boarded.
“Mr. Coors! A few words about your son, sir! Please!” one of the correspondents asked, holding a pad and pencil.
The Hawaiian sun beamed on the tarmac at the Honolulu airport. Mr. Coors had telephoned FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who assured Mr. Coors he would personally oversee the investigation into catching the kidnappers and bringing Ad home safely.
“I am dealing with crooks who are in business,” Mr. Coors replied. A hot gust of wind almost blew the gray fedora from his head. “They have something I want to buy—my son. The price is secondary.”
“So you’ve been told your son’s definitely kidnapped?”
“No, but logic tells me he has been kidnapped. It’s a matter of now waiting for an offer. It’s like any other business transaction at this point.”
“You’re treating the kidnapping of your son like a business deal?”
“That’s what it is. Besides, I cannot be emotional about this.”
“Any idea who’d want to kidnap your son?” asked a different reporter.
“The union?” asked another.
“I don’t know. No, we don’t have any enemies in Golden. Excuse us, we have to board now.”
“Good luck, sir!”
FBI agents assigned to coordinate the exchange of evidence with local law enforcement were about to finish up around the bridge site. They’d walked the creek bank on both sides and in the middle. They’d scoped the typography and investigated a pit silo and a cave directly across the state road from the bridge. They dusted for prints, including inside and outside the Travelall, took additional soil samples and bridge scrapings, and reviewed the deputies’ reports. Dale Ryder had shown the agents where the Travelall was found by the milkman and where the cap and hat, eyeglasses, and blood had been discovered. He showed them sketches that county detectives had etched out using precise measurements that revealed the exact locations of the cap, hat, blood, scuff marks, and tire tracks. The last thing was to view the crime-scene photos. The two agents leaned on the hood of their sedan and observed as Dale Ryder flipped through the crisp black-and-white photos he’d taken the day before, one by one.
“The splash pattern was in that direction? Toward the southeast?” The agent nodded in a southeasterly direction as he asked about the blood spray.
“That’s correct,” said Ryder.
“I don’t know. That’s a—” The agent stopped as he spotted Bill walking up to the bridge. He was on his way back to Mary’s after work and saw the officers standing round and decided to stop.
“Go ahead,” said Bill. “Go ahead with what you were saying. I don’t want to interrupt.”
The agent introduced himself. “Now this is just my opinion, you understand, not the official FBI position.” The agent paused.
“Go on,” said Bill.
Mary held a ransom note in her hands. She put on her glasses, fearful of what the letter might say, but grateful to have it at all. She began to read:
Your husband has been kidnaped. His car is by Turkey Creek.
Call the police or F.B.I.: he dies.
Cooperate: he lives.
Ransom: $200,000 in tens and $300,000 in twenties.
There will be no negotiating.
Bills: used / non-consecutive / unrecorded / unmarked.
Warning: we will know if you call the police or record the serial numbers.
Directions: Place money & this letter & envelope in one suitcase
Have two men with a car ready to make the delivery.
When all set, advertise a tractor for sale in Denver Post section 69. Sign ad King Ranch, Fort Lupton.
Wait at NA 9-4455 for instructions after ad appears.
Deliver immediately after receiving call. Any delay will be regarded as a stall to set up a stake-out.
Understand this: Adolph’s life is in your hands. We have no desire
to commit murder. All we want is that money. If you follow the instructions, he will be released unharmed within 48 hours after
the money is received.
Sitting in her chair in the den she enjoyed so much, Mary rested the letter in her lap, removed her glasses, and looked up at the FBI agents standing round. Her eyes were weak from lack of sleep and the dulling effects of sedatives. “Ad’s still alive,” Mary said. “He’s alive. All they want’s the money.”
FBI agents in their dark suits and ties said nothing. It was Wednesday. Ad had been missing almost two days.
Mary didn’t appreciate their silence. “It says right here,” she said forcefully, holding up the note. “‘We have no desire to commit murder.’”
Bill spoke up. “Sure he’s alive. That’s the only way the lousy kidnappers collect.”
“Of course he is,” said Gerald Phipps, who’d joined Mary with his wife, Janet, to provide comfort and support on that terrible day. Gerald and Janet were close friends with Ad and Mary. They had hosted a wedding shower for Ad and Mary twenty years earlier, and they traveled in the same elevated circle of affluent Coloradans. Gerald Phipps’s father had been a US senator and an executive at Carnegie Steel. Janet’s father was the head of US Rubber. Also visiting were the elder Mrs. Coors’s brother, Erle Kistler, and the well-to-do Kenneth and Sheilagh Malo.
After hours of exhaustive interviews, the FBI learned that no one in the area had actually seen Ad Coors or his abductors on the bridge.
Mary reached for her gin and tonic on the side table and rose from her chair. “We’ve got to get the money ready. Bill? Joe? How do we do that?” Mary said, ignoring the agents. “Will you two deliver it?”
Special Agent Donald Hostetter, special agent in charge of the Detroit field office and head of the Western Kidnap Squad, interrupted. “May I please have the letter, Mrs. Coors? Thank you.” He handed it to another agent. It was a copy. The original was on its way to the FBI Laboratory. “You’re correct, Mrs. Coors. Your family should begin making arrangements to obtain the money immediately. We will assist you and your bank in coordinating the selection of denominations and recording the serial numbers. I’ll have two agents make the delivery. We don’t want anyone else in harm’s way.”
“But the letter,” said Mary. “It says if we call the police or FBI, or if you mark the money, they’ll hurt Ad. I’m sure we can find some friends or someone at the brewery to deliver the ransom.”
“The kidnappers already know the sheriff and FBI are involved,” Joe said. “It was in the papers this morning.”
“But . . .” Mary placed her drink on the table. “Oh, I don’t know what to do.” She lowered her head and shielded her face with one hand.
“Don’t worry, Mrs. Coors. That’s why we’re here. We do know what to do,” said Hostetter. “All kidnappers say don’t contact the authorities. Most victims’ families do because it’s the proper thing to do. The kidnappers had to have known that by leaving your husband’s car on the bridge, law enforcement would become involved. And there’s no way they’ll know we’ve recorded the serial numbers. It’s scare tactics.”
“That’s right,” said Joe. “How would they know something like that?”
“Not possible,” replied Hostetter. “Now, when the time comes, my agents will handle the drop-off. We’ll dress them like ranchers or choose men who resemble your husband’s brothers. I haven’t exactly decided yet, but believe me, we’ll do whatever it takes to procure your husband’s safe return. That’s priority number one. Apprehension is always secondary in these cases.”
“I don’t know. I know you men are professionals at what you do,” began Mary, “but to tell you the truth, I don’t care about the money or if they’re caught. I just want Ad back. What do you think, Bill?”
“I think you have to trust the FBI,” replied Bill. “But I will say this: I agree with Mary that the main thing is getting Ad back. The family doesn’t want anyone, and that includes the FBI, doing anything that jeopardizes Ad’s safe return.”
“We don’t either,” said Hostetter.
Jefferson County investigator William Flint had intercepted the ransom note at the Morrison post office that Wednesday at 9:40 a.m. and immediately turned it over to the FBI, which dusted the envelope and letter for prints and made copies. Postal employee Joe Murphy said, “With the 3:00 p.m. Denver postmark on the envelope, the letter had to have been mailed in Denver on Tuesday, between 1:45 and 2:15 p.m.”
Agents were pleased to have the letter. It represented the first piece of physical evidence, other than the brown felt hat, belonging to the kidnappers. Agents in Denver would receive a report from the FBI Laboratory in Washington two days later detailing the lab’s findings:
In the lower left-hand corner of the envelope was typed the word “PERSONAL”; in the center of the envelope the words “Mrs. Adolph Coors III, Morrison, Colorado,” and on the upper right-hand corner of the envelope were typed the words “SPECIAL DELIVERY.” The envelope bore a postmark “Denver, Colo, 2 1960” on the outer circumference of the circular postmark and in the center of the postmark the letters and numbers “FE 9 3 PM” . . .
The envelope and note were treated for fingerprints by the use of triketohydrindene hydrate and silver nitrate. No latent impressions of value were found . . .
The typist is experienced and made no errors in punctuation or spelling; double spaces after a period, which is taught in typing schools; but does overuse colons and uses only one space after a colon rather than two as is the approved practice in typing.
The author is reasonably well educated; writes well . . .
The letter was typed with either a Hermes or Royalite portable typewriter; both are sold extensively in the United States. The Royalite has been on the market for less than three years. It is an inexpensive machine sold in large drug and department stores. Inquiry was made at the Royal McBee Corporation, manufacturer of Royalite typewriters, to determine retail outlets in the Denver area that sell the Royalite and the serial numbers of typewriters shipped. A representative of the manufacturer advised that two businesses sell the Royalite portable typewriter. They are the Denver Dry Goods Company, 16th & California Streets, and the May-D&F Company, 16th & Tremont. . . . This particular machine has a defect. The letter “s” is defectively applied. It is struck lower than all other type in the letter. . . . The typewriting on the envelope and note were compared with those in the Anonymous Letter File and the National Fraudulent Checks File. No matches were realized . . .
The envelope measures 4.24 inches in width and 9.37 inches in length. The paper has a substance weight of 20, measures 8.42 inches in width and 10.94 inches in length. Both contain the watermark, “EATON’S DIAMOND WHITE BOND BERKSHIRE COTTON FIBER CONTENT,” and are sold by the Eaton Paper Corporation, 75 South Church Street, Pittsfield, Massachusetts. A code mark under the first “E” in “BERKSHIRE” indicates the envelope and paper were manufactured in 1959. A representative from the manufacturer advised subject envelope and paper were shipped in reams and boxes after February 10, 1959, to five businesses in the metropolitan Denver area. Only two stores sell both the paper and the envelopes. These are the Denver Dry Goods Company, 16th & California Streets, and the May-D&F Company, 16th & Tremont. Dates and amounts of purchase have been recorded. Interviews of sales clerks at each store to follow.
As Agent Hostetter left Ad and Mary’s home, he instructed two of his agents to relieve those who’d manned the recorder the night before. “I want to remind everyone not to say anything to reporters. If pressed, tell them the FBI told you to remain silent. Not only do leaks about our evidence, suspects, and theories compromise the investigation, more importantly, they put Mr. Coors in added jeopardy.” He would relay the same message by telephone to the foremost offender, Sheriff Wermuth.
More than a year later, Mary testified in a crowded Jefferson County court, “I felt a little bit relieved because the ransom note gave us hope that Ad could still be alive.”
Joseph Corbett, Jr., the FBI’s most-wanted man in 1960 (AP Photo/Ed Johnson)
In the spring of 1963, James Baldwin was interviewed for the documentary, Take this Hammer, which followed the local African-American community in San Francisco. Seated, wearing a crisp collared shirt, an ascot tie, and smoking a cigarette, the author spoke about the creation of a class of pariahs in America.
Well, I know this. Anyone’s who’s tried to live knows this: That what you say about anyone else reveals you. What I think of you as being is dictated by my own necessities, my own psychology, my own fears and desires. I’m not describing you when I talk about you, I’m describing me. Now, here in this country, we’ve got something called a nigger. We have invented the nigger. I didn’t invent him. White people invented him. I’ve always known. I had to know by the time I was 17 years old, what you were describing was not me, and what you were afraid of was not me, it has to be… Something you were afraid of, you invested me with…
For Trump, it almost seems that the fact of Obama, the fact of a black president, insulted him personally. The insult intensified when Obama and Seth Meyers publicly humiliated him at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2011. But the bloody heirloom ensures the last laugh. Replacing Obama is not enough—Trump has made the negation of Obama’s legacy the foundation of his own. And this too is whiteness. “Race is an idea, not a fact,” the historian Nell Irvin Painter has written, and essential to the construct of a “white race” is the idea of not being a nigger. Before Barack Obama, niggers could be manufactured out of Sister Souljahs, Willie Hortons, and Dusky Sallys. But Donald Trump arrived in the wake of something more potent—an entire nigger presidency with nigger health care, nigger climate accords, and nigger justice reform, all of which could be targeted for destruction or redemption, thus reifying the idea of being white. Trump truly is something new—the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president. And so it will not suffice to say that Trump is a white man like all the others who rose to become president. He must be called by his rightful honorific—America’s first white president.