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
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A Murderer Trapped by Truth Serum

I recently wrote a post in the Wonders & Marvels blog about the history of truth serum. I didn't have space in that post to mention an interesting article from the February 1960 issue of Popular Science that gave some accounts of various truth serum drugs in use.

I especially liked the magazine's anecdote of Chicago criminal William Heirens, who police incapacitated with dropped flower pots during his arrest for burglary in 1946. While he lay in a presumed coma, investigators matched his fingerprints to those found at the scene of a pair of unsolved murders.William Heirens in 2004

Curious whether Heirens' coma was genuine, the police gave him a shot of sodium pentothal, a truth serum drug. Heirens immediately began talking and soon confessed to the murders, plus a killing that the police had not known about. They could not use the drug-generated confession in court, but when they later repeated to Heirens what he had said, he confirmed all of it, and he was convicted of the murders.

A postscript: Heirens became known as "The Lipstick Killer" because of messages he wrote in lipstick at the scenes of the murders. Still incarcerated, he lived until March 2012 and had possibly been the world's longest serving prisoner. Fritz Lang's 1956 film While the City Sleeps is loosely based on Heirens' crimes.


There's Gold in That Medicine

Gold has real medicinal value. It is used in implanted devices like pacemakers, and of course in dental work. Some people believe a controversial liquid suspension called colloidal gold may have uses in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and in the delivery of tiny amounts of medications.

But of all the medical uses involving gold and the fortunes built from them, perhaps the strangest belonged to Leslie M. Keeley, a nineteenth-century physician who convinced countless desperate people to take gold as a remedy for addictions. Keeley’s supposed gold-based therapy for alcoholism and drug dependency launched dozens of treatment centers around the U.S. and made him rich.

Keeley, who had previously doctored Civil War troops as a member of the Union Army medical corps, first combined the special ingredients of his “Bichloride of Gold” nostrum in 1880 and declared it a cure for chemical addictions of all kinds. Over the next 11 years, he developed a marketing scheme for the compound and opened the first Keeley Institute in Dwight, Illinois. By 1900, the year of Keeley’s death, there were Keeley Institutes in every state. Keeley hit upon his claimed cure at an opportune time when other treatment choices for alcohol and drug addicts offered little genuine chance for recovery. Some quack potions were actually loaded with as much as 48 percent alcohol — that’s 96 proof.Leslie Keeley, M.D.

Keeley’s cure thrived for a time because it offered the credibility of a pseudoscientific explanation for addiction. He declared that alcoholism resulted from damage to nerve cells that weakened the victim’s will power. Patients could lose their craving for alcohol and drugs only if they underwent treatment to purge their cells of poisons and restore them to proper functioning. Teamed with rest, exercise, and healthy food, draughts and injections of Keeley’s gold formulation could eliminate the addiction, he said.

Scientists responded that there was no such thing as “Bichloride of Gold.” Skilled marketing and testimonials drowned out the objectors. Patients typically spent four weeks in residence at one of the Institutes, resting, eating, and receiving daily doses of Keeley’s medicine. Anyone who completed treatment was called a “graduate” and could join one of the Keeley Leagues that sprang up around the country. 

Over the years, an estimated 400,000 people underwent the gold treatment at a Keeley Institute. Keeley’s staff claimed a cure rate of 95 percent but acknowledged that a few people resisted healing. “Such a case no more affects the merits of the Keeley treatment than does a spiritual backslider affect the power and good of religion,” promotional literature pointed out. 

Although the Keeley Institute in Dwight remained open until 1966, the credibility of the treatment faded long before that. A 1907 lawsuit had exposed the actual ingredients of the Gold Cure compound: strychnine, atropine (the drug ophthalmologists use to dilate pupils), boric acid, water — and no gold, in “bichloride” form or otherwise. Keeley was not only a quack — though he deserves some credit for treating alcoholism as a disease instead of a moral failing — but also a purveyor of fool’s gold.

[I have adapted this post from an article I previously wrote for The Saturday Evening Post.]


The FBI's File on Carole Lombard

Last month I wrote about the FBI's file on the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, a post that attracted many readers. Now I'm putting up my notes on the FBI's file on the movie actress Carole Lombard, a contemporary of Wright's who — owing to a mysterious airplane accident — enjoyed a much shorter life.  Carole Lombard in Nothing Sacred

Carole Lombard
Name at birth: Jane Alice Peters
Born: October 6, 1908, Fort Wayne, Indiana
Occupation: Actress
Accomplishments: Acclaimed performances in Twentieth Century (1934), My Man Godfrey (1936), Nothing Sacred (1937), To Be or Not to Be (1942), with appearances in 45 other films
Died: January 16, 1942
FBI file thickness: one-half inch

Background to the file

At the time of America’s entry into World War II, Carole Lombard was one of the country’s best-known and most popular movie stars. Married to the actor Clark Gable, she represented romance, sass, and brains.  

All those qualities made Lombard a natural promoter of United States Defense Bonds (later called U.S. War Bonds) when the war effort was underway. On January 15, 1942, she launched the·nation’s first full-scale bond drive in her home state of Indiana. At the state capitol in Indianapolis, she led a daytime bond rally in which she signed autographs and urged the crowd to buy bonds. That night she appeared on stage with Governor Henry Schricker before a crowd of 12,000, sang the national anthem a capella, and roused the audience to a frenzy.
Her quota for bond sales was $500,000, but Lombard inspired Indianans to contribute an astounding $2,017,513.

After her successes that day, Lombard wanted to immediately return home to Southern California because she was soon scheduled to appear at a preview screening of To Be or Not To Be, and production was about to begin on her next film, He Kissed the Bride. She declined an invitation to lead another bond rally on January 16 at a department store in Indianapolis and booked passage for herself, her mother Bess Peters, and MGM press agent Otto Winkler on Transcontinental and Western Airlines Flight 3 to Los Angeles, departing early on the morning of January 16.  Her mother had never flown before, was apprehensive, and pleaded to take the train, but Lombard won a coin toss that settled the matter.Lombard in Vigil in the Night

At Indianapolis Municipal Airport, Lombard and her party boarded the 21-seat Douglas Transport that was scheduled to bring them to Los Angeles 17 hours later. Many of the other passengers were military personnel, fliers in the Army Ferry Command. At a scheduled stop in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a group of additional fliers with military orders to board awaited the plane — which meant that several civilian passengers had to surrender their seats. Lombard raised a fuss and protected the seats of her party, but the Hungarian-born concert violinist Joseph Szigeti, en route to Hollywood to perform in the film Holiday Inn, was bumped, along with three other passengers.  

Later that day, Flight 3 made an unscheduled fueling stop in Las Vegas. The plane took off again at about 7 p.m. for Los Angeles.  After a short time in the air, the plane slammed into the peak of Double Up Mountain, about 11 miles north of Goodsprings, Nevada.  Everyone on board — 19 passengers and three crew members — died.

Lombard's FBI File

The first entries in Lombard’s file merely mention her in connection with the FBI’s brushes with Hollywood. A memo from the FBI’s Los Angeles bureau to J. Edgar Hoover, refreshes the director’s memory on a visit he paid to Paramount Studios on September 13, 1937. There he met several Hollywood celebrities, including Lombard, Cecil B. DeMille, Frederic March, Edgar Kennedy, director Wesley Ruggles, and producer Albert Lewen. An entry dated April 9, 1940, is a letter from L.A. bureau special agent R.B. Hood to Hoover, describing the bureau’s efforts to establish contacts and informants in the movie industry. Hood notes that the bureau built a relationship with Russell Birdwell, a publicist for Lombard and Clark Gable, who in several investigations was “most cooperative with this office...and he has rendered every assistance to the Agents.”

Most of Lombard’s file, however, concerns the investigation of the plane crash that killed her and the FBI’s attempts to determine whether sabotage caused the accident. Agents researched the background of the pilot, Wayne C. Williams, and the co-pilot, Morgan A. Gilette. They interviewed an eye-witness to the crash (name redacted) who said he saw flames streaking out of one of the motors. A Clark County, Nevada, deputy sheriff [name redacted] who had been among the first people to reach the crash site on January 17, told agents that “the passengers had been literally thrown through the side of the cabin, which had practically disintegrated after the crash. It appeared to [name redacted] that the nose of the ship had gone up after the crash, but the rest of the ship had fallen back down several hundred feet after the crash into a small ravine.... Further, there were parts of bodies, mail, luggage, and parts of the plane scattered over a wide area.”

This scene of devastation was similarly described by an inspector for the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA), who told agents that “he had viewed numerous airplane accidents but he felt that this was the most complete wreckage that he had ever viewed.”

Espionage was foremost in the minds of the FBI agents investigating the crash. The file contains a letter that the agency received, dated January 24, from a citizen who speculated that the pilot of Flight 3 may have been slipped “dope or knockout drops” in a drink before the departure from Las Vegas. Another letter, postmarked in Cincinnati, Ohio, on January 27, offered an apparently imagined scenario for the downing of Lombard’s flight by a German agent. “There was a fight in the cockpit,” the letter writer narrates.  “He made threats to some men at airport[;] that’s why they put pilots [aboard], to stop him but he carried out his threats.”

The FBI could hardly take these speculations seriously, but the file also includes a report dated February 2, 1942, describing statements from an unnamed communist informant that “investigators should concentrate their attention on the Hungarian violinist who gave up his seat on the plane to the soldiers. He probably left something on the plane, probably a violin case which contained something which affected the plane’s instruments. He is a member of the ‘Peteci,’ Hungarian Gestapo and previously gave up his seat under similar circumstances to soldiers who were also killed in a plane crash.” Several file letters from citizens echo the suspicion that Joseph Szigeti could have caused the crash.1930 concert poster for Szigeti

The FBI did investigate this possibility.  It checked out rumors that Szigeti relinquished a seat on Pennsylvania Central Airlines Flight 19 on August 31, 1940, before that flight crashed near Lovettesville, Virginia, after takeoff from Washington.  Killed in that accident were U.S. Senator Ernest Lundeen (R-Minn.), an FBI agent, and others. Agents in Richmond, Virginia, found no evidence that Szigeti ever had a seat reserved on that flight, however.  In a report titled “Undeveloped Leads,” agents in the El Paso Field Division were directed to determine if Szigeti was forced to surrender his space or did so voluntarily, and whether he might have left any baggage on the plane. The file does not reveal what, if anything, the agents learned.
But the file tells how agents did follow up on another lead: UFOs, reported by several eye-witnesses, that may have played a role in the crash. One of those witnesses (name redacted), a CAA employee, explained in a letter dated February 23, 1942, that he saw “a strange light” on the night of January 12 or 13.  At about 7 p.m. that evening, he and another employee were driving a CAA truck towards Baker, California, on the Death Valley Highway.  “I glanced to the west and we both noted a light above the crestline of the mountains, which was about 15 miles distant,” he wrote.  “This light was a white bright light similar to an 18 inch course light, stationary and suspended against the sky as a background, and never moved or varied as long as we could see.... It looked round, more like a ball.  I am satisfied it was not a star because we drove back to the station approximately an hour later and the light was gone.”  In addition, the light was much larger and brighter than any star.  “We dismissed it from [our] minds because we could give no reasonable explanation for it.”

The letter goes on to explain that a few days later, while helping in the search for the plane wreck, the CAA employee recalled the sighting when he met a local rancher named Willard H. George, who described a similar light he saw just a few minutes before the crash. The file contains a copy of a long letter George wrote to a CAA panel that was investigating the cause of the accident.  George, a native of Las Vegas, had owned a cattle ranch in the nearby hills for 15 years. “[I] have ridden this territory [on] horseback both when I was a boy and in later years...and know the territory in which this plane fell probably as well as anyone in that country,” he wrote.

On the evening of January 16, the letter explains, George and his wife were driving home from the El Rancho Hotel in Las Vegas. About six miles west of the city, they saw above a mountain ridge “a reddish-yellow glowing light which seemed suspended in the air.” The Georges continued to see the light as they drove west.  “We first thought it was a big bonfire in the mountains, but looking more closely at it saw that there was no flicker to it. As we drove along watching it, I made the remark that if it were forty years back, I would say that it was the Indians building fires in the mountains gathering pine nuts which was their custom in those days.”

After arriving home, George saw an airplane approaching — presumably the plane carrying Lombard.  He observed that it “went into dives known perhaps as the movements of a [porpoise] leaping in and out of the water. These dives and climbs I would judge were at least two hundred feet and each time that one of those dives and climbs were made, the plane seemed to gain a little altitude.” After recovering from a flat spin, the plane proceeded southwest in the direction of the Portasee Mountains. "Being an American boy, raised on a ranch and having a great deal of experience in hunting and killing of hawks, the plane appeared to me like a hawk that might be shot while soaring in the air — he hesitates and flutters around, then gains strength and flies off, then ducks and dives in the air and gains his strength and sails off somewhere to die,” George wrote.

The Szigeti and UFO leads never yielded any useful information.  The FBI’s field report on the crash, dated January 21, contains the opinions of a CAA official who said “there had been no evidence of sabotage as yet, and it did not appear as though there was going to be any such evidence to appear, although the [CAA’s] investigation had not been completed.”  Apparently, the FBI eventually agreed with the verdict of no sabotage.


President Franklin Delano Roosevelt publicly mourned Lombard’s crash by declaring her “the first woman to be killed in action in the defense of her country in its war against the Axis powers.”  

Joseph Szigeti (whose birth name was Josef Singer) seems in retrospect a highly unlikely suspect of pro-Nazi sabotage. A Jewish refugee from Europe, he had been prevented from giving a live performance of Brahms’ Violin Concerto on German radio May 7, 1933, a month after Joseph Goebbels took control of the country’s broadcasts. Szigeti did not again perform in Germany until after the war. His providential departure from Flight 3 had a strong effect on the violinist. In his autobiography With Strings Attached he described how he had been en route to his new house in California when he lost his seat on the flight. Szigeti called the day of the crash his “second birthday” and noted that giving up his seat on the plane “made a deep mark on me and heightened the feeling of Bindung [connection] between the soil and myself.”  He outlived Lombard by 29 years.Spring Mountains, near Las Vegas. Photo by Stan Shebs

Williard H. George was a well-known Hollywood furrier who lived at Spring Mountain Ranch for fifteen years.  He long championed the chinchilla fur industry and died in 1956. His son, Hampton George of Carpenteria, California, was only three years old when Lombard’s plane crashed, but he remembered his father’s stories about the tragedy. “He didn’t embellish much when he told stories,” George recalls. “He was from the old school.” His home at Spring Mountain Ranch later passed through the hands of several different owners before becoming a Nevada state park in 1974.



The Forgotten Highlander: A Book That Slipped between the Cracks

Nearly two years ago, I reviewed The Forgotten Highlander, a World War II POW survival narrative by Alistair Urquhart. I expected the book to receive much more attention than it did, and I'm at a loss to explain why the book dropped out of sight in the U.S.

To encourage history-minded readers to give the book another look, I'm republishing my review, which originally appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Despite the reservations I expressed about The Forgotten Highlander, I find that I fondly remember it.  

* * *

The Forgotten Highlander: An Incredible WWII Story of Survival in the Pacific

By Alistair Urquhart

Skyhorse Publishing, 312 pages, $15.95 (paperback)

Capsule review: An unforgettable memoir of endurance against all odds is oddly colored by the author’s emotional elusiveness.


We all have moments when we're in the wrong place at the wrong time. Alistair Urquhart, a Scotsman who served in the Pacific Theater of World War II, experienced a stretch of unfortunate geographic placement that staggers the imagination.

He was stationed in Singapore in 1942 when the British stronghold fell to Japanese forces. As a prisoner of war, he landed in notorious camps where starving and enslaved workers built the Death Railway through Malaysia and Thailand (including the famed Bridge on the River Kwai) in deplorable conditions. Barely surviving, Urquhart then fought for his life among hundreds of frantic prisoners in the crowded and airless hold of the Kachidoki Maru, a "hellship" bound for Japan that sank after a torpedo attack by a U.S. submarine. Enduring sharks, thirst and exposure after days in the ocean, he was picked up by Japanese fishermen and completed his unlucky journey, ending up in Nagasaki in time for the atomic attack that destroyed the city.

Now a nonagenarian living in Dundee, Scotland, Urquhart waited to publish his wartime memoir The Forgotten Highlander until most of his family had died, sparing them his "unsettling tales of unimaginable torments." Despite the passage of 65 years since his liberation from imprisonment, he still feels angry and scarred. "My business with Japan is unfinished, however, and will remain so until the Japanese government fully accepts its guilt and tells its people what was done in their name," he writes in the opening pages.

With that introduction, a reader may expect from Urquhart a bitter memoir roiling with fury. But that's not what he delivers. In restrained language, The Forgotten Highlander casts Urquhart's story at an unusual psychological distance, one that captures gruesome details yet keeps his emotions concealed. Maybe this restraint is habitual. Clearly a loner, he writes that he consciously determined during his ordeal to ensure his own survival by remaining detached from the hardships of his fellow prisoners.

Urquhart grabs our attention with unforgettable stories of horrible beatings, maggots that cleaned ulcers on his foot ("The sensation was of tingling, unearthly yet not altogether unpleasant"), the solitary confinement of "black holes" that the Japanese designed to prevent standing or reclining, food fouled by lice and bed bugs, and the despair of overworked men descending into insanity. Urquhart himself, though, remains elusive. He writes little of his psychological struggles, and it's hard to know what to make of a man who finds no solace in contact with his comrades yet credits the intimacy of ballroom dancing with rehabilitating him upon his return home.

What do we want from the bearers of dark tales of endurance? Hope, rebirth, magnanimity? Urquhart's character is too indistinct to fulfill such expectations. Yet there's a memorable story in the incredible circumstances of his survival despite what he leaves untold.


Four More Top History Blogs

A while back, I wrote about several history blogs that I enjoy reading. I promised to return with the work of more exemplary history bloggers (or in some cases teams of bloggers), and here are the results. All of these blogs share the virtues of delivering unexpected, informative, and entertaining history content.

The Literary Detective. It looks like Paul Collins abandoned this eccentric blog on the history of books, culture,and other inspired nonsense in the fall of 2010, but there's still plenty here to read dating back many years. Even better, his current website archives many of the playful and eye-opening articles he's written for New Scientist, Slate, The Believer, The New York Times, and many other publications. A professor of nonfiction writing at Portland State University, Collins is one of my favorite writers, and his book Not Even Wrong is a moving account of autism in the family. To sample his work, start with this blog post on 19th and 20th century aquatic pedestrianism.

Retronaut. Go here to see startling and often unbelievable images from the history of architecture, fashion, science, medicine, advertising, and a range of other topics. There's usually no text — no problem, because the pictures speak for themselves. Chris Wild heads this entertaining exploration of visual artifacts from our past. A month or two ago I was dumbfounded by these eerie images he published from the unpacking of the Statue of Liberty in 1885.

Beverly in Movieland. Beverly Gray is a biographer, screenwriter, and teacher, and her blog sharply sketches moments and careers from the history of film. A former colleague of B-movie director Roger Corman (the subject of one of Beverly's books), she's especially good on events of the 1950s, '60s, and '70s.  I've known her for several years through the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and I'm always impressed by the depth of her knowledge of films and movie people. Beverly is not one to shy from making controversial judgments, as in her recent post — one of my favorites — on the late movie composer Marvin Hamlisch.

Executed Today. Every day, we learn from this long running blog, is the anniversary of some notable person's execution. The subject matter is not so much capital punishment as it is the varied ways that rebels, heroes, and fools become the victims of governments, fanatics, and law enforcers. These stories illuminate millenia of history. The blog's author, who wants to remain anonymous (and who wouldn't after wading through so many fatal tales of people who went out on a limb) deftly mixes serious scholarship with the gruesome details we all want. Check out the recent post on Josef Jakobs, a German spy who in 1941 became the last person executed in the Tower of London.

Please let me hear your favorites.

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