Articles & Essays

Jack has written more than 500 articles and essays for The Atlantic, Scientific American Mind, Wired, American Heritage, The History Channel Magazine, The Washington Post Magazine, Minnesota Monthly, and many other publications.

Read his articles and essays here.

Jack El-Hai's Books
  • The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness
    The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness
  • Non-Stop: A Turbulent History of Northwest Airlines
    Non-Stop: A Turbulent History of Northwest Airlines
  • Lost Minnesota: Stories of Vanished Places
    Lost Minnesota: Stories of Vanished Places
  • The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Göring, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, and a Fatal Meeting of Minds at the End of WWII
    The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Göring, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, and a Fatal Meeting of Minds at the End of WWII
Follow Jack on Twitter


Getting Started as a Writer of History

Journalism is the first rough draft of history, Alan Barth declared. Or is it the reverse, that history is just journalism, as Joseph Campbell mischievously asserted? Either way, there’s much in common between writing journalism and chronicling history, and I’ve spent my career exploring the overlap of those two great disciplines.

 I’m always surprised to see that few of my fellow journalists try writing about history. It could be that some writers find history intimidating, they’re afraid of making factual errors, or they mistakenly believe there's no market for historical writing. But many journalists who overcome these fears and reservations — including such people as David McCullough, Rebecca Skloot, Erik Larson, Candice Millard, Deborah Blum, and Sarah Vowell — have been well rewarded for focusing on the past. Their books have become best sellers and they have discovered the excitement of digging up the secrets of the dead by researching in archives, diving deeply into primary sources, and prying memories from living people.

I haven’t become a best-selling author of the stature of Skloot and Larson, but I have seen my history-driven books, articles, and presentations move, transport, and intrigue audiences. I’ve discovered astonishing collections of historical materials, written histories of multi-billion-dollar companies, and had my work published in eleven languages and optioned for film and TV. Many of my history-writer colleagues have become valued friends. What could be better?

If you are considering writing journalistic treatments of historical events, here are some tips:

  • Start local, with what’s around you. I sold my first history article after hearing that the sale of tobacco cigarettes had been illegal in my state for several years at the start of the twentieth century. My investigations proved it true. I did not have to travel to research the piece or search hard to find a publisher in my local city magazine. Is there some historical figure, story, statue, building, crime, or disaster from your region that intrigues you? Begin there.
  • Make connections across time. Trace a contemporary event or person’s experience to its historical source. When I found out that an elderly couple in my area was still searching for their three boys who had mysteriously disappeared decades earlier, I learned that their sons represented the oldest active case of missing children in the U.S. and that the parents’ search had fascinating historical roots. Alternatively, identify a historical event and follow its ripples to the present.
  • Give talks and presentations on your historical interests. You can speak at libraries, before community groups, and in academic and institutional settings. It will help you build a history-writing specialty, and attendees will bring more history stories your way. I love speaking to audiences, and I offer tips specifically for history speakers here.
  • Read inspiring history-focused nonfiction work. In addition to the authors mentioned above, seek out the work of such writers as Tim Brady, Marian Calabro, Beverly Gray, Bruce Henderson, Robin Marantz Henig, Ben Kamin, Steve Kemper, Nancy Kriplen, Pat McNees, John Rosengren, and Pamela Toler.

The attack of the leopard frogs

My new Discover Magazine article about the massive Oconto frog invasion of 1952 is currently behind a paywall, but here's a teaser.


Screening police officers before they shoot

When the police shoot unarmed citizens, we can’t help asking about the judgment, communication abilities, and emotional health of the involved law enforcement officers. Would other people in uniform have handled these volatile situations without loss of life? How well are police officers screened to ensure that they are psychologically suitable for their very difficult duties?

More than 60 years ago, an American psychiatrist grew obsessed by these questions. Douglas M. Kelley, M.D., was uniquely qualified to investigate the psychological traits of people in positions of authority. During the months immediately after World War II, Kelley, then a U.S. Army captain, had been sent to the jail in Nuremberg, Germany, to evaluate the sanity of the top 22 captured Nazi leaders awaiting trial on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. He studied a group of men widely believed to be the cruelest villains of the 20th century: Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess, Alfred Rosenberg, and Joachim von Ribbentrop, among others.

His shocking findings — that the surviving overseers of the Third Reich suffered from no psychiatric illnesses and shared no personality disorders — led Kelley to conclude that many of us, many so-called normal people, possess traits that under certain circumstances will inspire us to act criminally in our own interests. Not everyone will follow this dark path with social prompting, Kelley believed, but a significant percentage will.Some of the German leaders examined by Kelley

Soon after Kelley returned to the U.S., he turned his attention to the psychological evaluation of law enforcement officers, a topic previously given little attention. Working with the police department in Berkeley, California, he examined a group of officer recruits. He judged 23 percent of them “sufficiently unstable to be considered potential hazards in these positions.” Further studies convinced him that one-third to one-half of America’s police officers were psychologically unqualified to protect citizens or enforce laws. 

Alarmed, the Berkeley police chief allowed Kelley to undertake regular psychiatric evaluations of all recruits, and Kelley became a pioneering advocate of the thorough psychological screening of prospective police officers.

Now, nearly a lifetime later, Kelley’s dream of spreading and standardizing the rigorous psychological evaluation of police officers remains a fantasy. Some 20 states still fail to require psychological screening, evaluations are inconsistently conducted, and many smaller police forces forego the screenings entirely. A Rorschach inkblot image

Many people, police officers and chiefs included, are misinformed about the intent of psychological screening. The purpose is not to identify mentally ill applicants and “psychos” — no police department has the resources to conduct such medically in-depth and costly assessments — but to flag prospective officers who may perform poorly in a high-stress profession that requires quick decision-making, emotional control, sound judgment in dangerous situations, honesty, teamwork, and strong communications.

A vast swath of the public, including me and probably you, would fail as police officers. We simply don’t have the qualities that the best people in law enforcement need, which includes the ability to know when to use, and not use, violent force to subdue suspects. Well-designed psychological assessments, competently conducted, help identify applicants whose personalities and ways of thinking will prove barriers to their effective performance of police duties.

Douglas Kelley relied on the Rorschach inkblot test — the same assessment involving the interpretation of abstract ink-splattered images that he had used to appraise the Nazi defendants — in his examination of prospective police officers. Today’s examiners use such tools as interviews and multiple-choice personality assessments. But the tests and methods vary greatly between police departments, as do the qualifications and experience of the examiners. There are no national standards for the assessments or the level of competency of the examiners. As a result, candidates judged unsuitable for police work in one department could be found perfectly suitable in another. 

We need national standards for screenings, which could prevent the entry of unfit officers in all American police jurisdictions. In decades past, there have been barriers. Many police administrators actively opposed Kelley in his advocacy of psychological evaluations. Records obtained from the FBI disclose that in 1954 the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police complained to Hoover’s G-men about Kelley’s articles on psychologically unfit cops and urged the FBI to investigate him. 

Sound psychological assessments don’t come cheap. Police psychologists frequently conduct their examinations in a low-cost rush, making conscientious examinations costly and hard to find. But we clearly need to improve the quality of the psychological screenings of aspiring police officers and to set national standards. No one yet knows whether unfit officers are responsible for recent police shootings of unarmed citizens. It’s certain, though, that if psychological screenings remain inconsistently and cursorily applied, more shootings await us.




Geneticists have long argued about the effects of having an extra male chromosome, a condition found in 1 of 1,000 men


A battered paperback entitled The XYY Man, by Kenneth Royce, leans in a corner of my bookshelf. It’s a spy novel that chronicles the adventures of “Spider” Scott, an ex-felon who wants to become law-abiding, but finds that he is genetically predisposed to criminality because he has an extra chromosome. Unlike most men whose XY sex karyotype imparts their maleness, Scott has been endowed with an XYY karyotype by his novelist creator.

This condition is not fanciful. XYY syndrome first appeared in the medical literature in 1962, eight years before Royce published his book. A team of researchers from Roswell Park Medical Institute in Buffalo, N.Y., described the first XYY person on record, a 44-year-old man who had undergone genetic testing because one of his children had Down syndrome. Though never before reported, this extra-chromosome condition produced during early cell division has turned out to be not tremendously rare, affecting about 1 in 1,000 boys. In most men who have it, the 47th chromosome causes no problems whatsoever, and more than 95 percent of XYY guys don’t realize they are specially endowed.

For decades, however, geneticists argued over the reputed social hazards of XYY syndrome. Did the extra chromosome make its bearers “supermales,” men who behaved as if they were amped up on too much testosterone? Some believed that XYY men, like “Spider” Scott, were inherently violent and prone to committing criminal acts. The dispute captured the public’s imagination, spawning several sequels to Royce’s novel along with numerous movies and TV shows (such as Law and Order) featuring dangerous and socially conflicted XYY characters.

During the late 1960s, geneticists, sociologists, and others began looking at prison populations to see if XYY men were disproportionately represented. Many people asserted that not only did XYY men commonly have violent criminal tendencies — the biochemist Mary Telfer characterized them as “perhaps too highly sexually motivated” — but that such males could be diagnosed by physical and mental traits, which included tall stature, long limbs, facial acne, mild mental retardation, and aggressive behavior.

In 1970 geneticist H. Bentley Glass advocated the relaxation of abortion laws to allow women to end pregnancies if the fetus was XYY. Speculation even ran that Richard Speck, the infamous murderer of eight student nurses in Chicago in 1966, owed his propensity to violence to an extra Y chromosome. That proved untrue. In one notorious case of the mid-1970s, a British court wrongfully convicted Stefan Kiszko of the murder of an 11-year-old girl largely because of his XYY karyotype, and it took more than 15 years for him to win release from prison.

In recent years, geneticists have learned more about the actual effects of the XYY condition. XYY boys may be delayed in maturation, are taller on average and more physically active, and sometimes display learning and behavioral problems. Their intelligence, testosterone levels, aggressiveness, sexual development, and fertility typically fall within the normal range. They grow into men who are unrecognizable to the general public.

In the mid-1970s, a Danish study showed that XYY men were not more likely to commit violent crimes, although they did have more convictions for other crimes. A long-running follow-up study published this year confirmed those findings and attributed the higher conviction rate for such crimes as sexual abuse, arson, and burglary to “unfavorable living conditions” — poverty, joblessness, and other disadvantages resulting from a lack of childhood support that many XYY men experience.

Slowly, as the suppositions of the 1960s have given way to current research, the public is changing its thinking on XYY syndrome. Few people today believe that an extra Y chromosome condemns its owner to a life of violent crime. Genetic counselors explain the condition to families and teach ways to nurture XYY boys. Men like the fictional “Spider” Scott can exercise their free will without fear that a sex chromosome has turned them bad.


America's first suicide bombing

Few people know that the first suicide bombing in U.S. history — and perhaps only the second such attack in world history — took place in New York City 110 years before the terrorist attacks of 9/11. I recently wrote about that first U.S. bombing in an article titled "The Bomb in the Bag" for Longreads, a wonderful organization and publisher that promotes longform journalism.

Image by Kjell Reigstad

I first learned about the 1891 attack on Russell Sage by bomber Henry L. Norcross several years ago while writing about the wave of anarchist bombings that made Americans anxious in the years after World War I. This earlier bombing did not have obvious political motivation, but the target was a prominent financier and one of the baddest of the robber barons of the Gilded Age.

What's unusual about this story is the good that came out of the tragic event: the redistribution of Sage's wealth to benefit countless Americans. And the hero of the tale is Olivia Slocum Sage, the wife of the financier.