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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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Sunday
Jul222012

At a Convention of Hypnotists

This past weekend, The Guardian of London published an excellent article by Vaughan Bell on the resurgence of hypnotism in the treatment of a variety of behavioral disorders. The report reminded me of an article I wrote six years ago on assignment for Harper’s magazine about the conflicts between clinicians who practice therapeutic hypnosis, lay hypnotists who cover some of the same ground, and stage hypnotists interested only in entertaining audiences. I attended a hypnotism convention, interviewed several hypnotists of different stripes, and underwent hypnosis myself.Poster advertising a hypnotism stage show, circa 1900 

Harper’s did not publish my story, so over the next several weeks I will post parts of it here. 

* * *

I saw my first stage hypnotism show seven years ago at the annual convention of the National Guild of Hypnotists, and the presenter was the world’s most famous hypnotist-entertainer, Ormond McGill. The author of many books, including The New Encyclopedia of Hypnotism, McGill at 92 may have slowed a few steps on the stage, but he had not lost his ability to charm a crowd. [He died a few months after this convention.] Wizened, balding, and wearing prominent eyeglasses, he was dressed in a velvet suit with a bowtie and vest. He sat on a stool and told the audience that his show’s objective was to teach how to control the mind. Then he got down to business and took volunteers from the audience.

To induce a hypnotic state in his volunteers, he ordered the lights dimmed, evoked Oriental mysticism, and chanted phrases about “the abyss of the inner self.” It all seemed theatrical and old-fashioned, but McGill soon seemed to have his group in a trance. The volunteers complied with his suggestions to move to hula music, pretend to guzzle champagne and get drunk, and dance to the Blue Danube Waltz. He singled out one volunteer and told her to return to the audience and fall asleep in her chair. She slumped as soon as she took her seat.

At this convention, which was held in Marlborough, Mass., the lobby of the host hotel teemed with hundreds of hypnotists, mostly middle-aged people. Some wore suits and tailored outfits that they clearly found uncomfortable, and others gave up any pretense of formality and dressed casually in denim, plain cotton shirts, and sandals. Among both men and women there were many wearers of crystal amulets on necklace chains; the men seemed predisposed to goatees. One of the most devilish goatees was attached to the chin of the late Dr. Rexford North, a founder of the National Guild of Hypnotists, whose portraits filled an exhibit on the organization’s history at one end of the lobby.

Many in attendance were mid-life career switchers: people working in counseling, sales, teaching, and other professions, who saw hypnotism as a skill that could carry them along more exciting paths. I also met clinical psychologists, holders of Ph.D.s, college drop-outs, stage entertainers, psychics, scientists, law enforcement officers, people who perform past-life regressions, physicians, and one woman who brought with her a small dog that she pushed around in a stroller and fed with a baby bottle.

Some of the conventioneers possessed undeniable hypnotic skills. The convention workshops featured repeated instances of participants employing highly creative inductions — the patter and techniques by which a hypnotist places a client into a suggestible state that bypasses the barriers of the conscious mind — that sometimes made the recipients drop into somnambulism within seconds. In controlled studies, hypnosis has helped patients suffering from a wide variety of maladies, including allergies, chronic pain, irritable bowel syndrome, peptic ulcers, hemophilia, headaches, the adverse effects of cancer treatment, tinnitus, asthma, fibromyalgia, and impotence — not to mention a range of psychological problems.

Other presenters put their hypnotic talents to questionable purposes.  In one ballroom, a well-known hypnotherapist related her experiences in pulling clients back to past lives as noblewomen, poets, and military leaders. (None apparently had been a peasant, slave, criminal, or common soldier.) Another workshop leader offered techniques to persuade skeptical clients that they had really indeed been hypnotized. But there was little discussion of the hypnotists’ biggest chronic problem, a sense that practitioners with few scruples were harming clients and damaging the reputations of everyone else. Degreed healthcare providers who use hypnotism in their practices — licensed psychologists, social workers, and physicians — feared that uncredentialed hypnotists were treating ailments that required professional care. 

Wednesday
Jul182012

The Power of Narratives: A Tale of Lobotomist and Patient

Sometimes I find that a tale does not belong in a book or article I am writing, but it is too good to forget. This is one such example.

On March 19, 1945, Walter J. Freeman, M.D., the subject of my book The Lobotomist who popularized and developed the psychosurgical procedure known as the lobotomy, paged open the medical record of a schizophrenic patient named Alfred Weaver and wrote down a story:

St. Elizabeths Hospital, Washington, D.C., c. 1930

"This man was admitted to St. Elizabeths Hospital [in Washington, D.C.] about 1938. Some years ago he gave the appearance of holding up some heavy object. When asked what it was, he said it was the men’s receiving building. Later he began holding up the Statue of Liberty, and when he stopped doing this he started holding up the Empire State Building. At the present time he is supporting the world. He usually holds it with both hands, but when he eats and his appetite is good (although he has lost some 40 lbs. recently), he supports the world with one hand. His arm was extended, his fingers were tightly clinched. The fingers are distorted by long, continued pressure. He was sweating profusely and his tongue is out between his teeth like one who is exerting himself to his utmost."

Freeman didn’t stop there — he had more story to tell. When a physician pressed down upon Weaver’s arm, the patient declared, “Oh, God! Don’t you think I am holding up enough already?” Another patient entered the room by crawling on the floor, and Weaver told a nurse that “someone should explain to that man that he really can walk — he just imagines he can’t.” Freeman detailed the quick retaliation of the crawling patient, who pointed out to the same nurse that “someone ought to tell Mr. Weaver the he is really not holding up the world — he just imagines he is.” Finally Freeman concluded: “The burden which Mr. Weaver is carrying seemed almost too much, so we decided to try and relieve him of this; therefore, a prefrontal lobotomy was decided upon.”

Statue of Atlas at Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain; photo by Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez, via Wikimedia CommonsThe outcome of this unfortunate patient’s lobotomy, one of some 3,500 psychosurgical operations Freeman directed during his career, is unknown. All that survives is the story. Say what you may about Freeman — that he was arrogant, quick to judge, unethical, misguided, or blind to his failings — he could tell a story. His narrative of patient Weaver combines irony, comedy, sharp observation, and rhythmic nuance to create a portrait. Something a bit superior and mean-spirited also flavors this story, and it tells us about Freeman. 

One story less than 200 words long illuminates the personalities of two men, the subject and the narrator. That is a demonstration of the power of storytelling. Freeman’s story is scientifically unproductive, telling little of value about the patient’s medical condition, the cause of his illness, or how a lobotomy or any other treatment might help. Yet it conveys a great deal about the patient’s discomfort, social position in the hospital, and relationship to his caregivers. These are personal aspects of Alfred Weaver’s experience, the facets of his life that a scientific examination might ignore. Nothing delivers those human qualities more forcefully and convincingly than a story.

Monday
Jul162012

The Story of Max Weisberg, Savant Sports Bookie

A few months ago I published a short Kindle ebook about Max Weisberg, a remarkable mentally disabled savant I met during the 1990s. Max could barely read and didn’t know how to pay his monthly electric bill, but he was mysteriously gifted at setting odds and point spreads for football and basketball games. He grew notorious as a skilled bookie who did little to conceal his illegal activities or the huge amounts of cash he often carried.  

I first wrote about Max in 2001 for The Atlantic. I offer that article here, with apologies for its length as well as for the caveat that in the years that followed, my thoughts about Max changed as I considered the paradoxes and legal conflicts this gentle man presented us. Max died in 2003 and was buried in a memorial ceremony attended by characters that even Damon Runyon lacked the imagination to invent. The following year, I used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain Max’s FBI file — a collection of documents filled with evidence of federal agents’ doubts that such a criminal as Max Weisberg could really exist. I incorporated it all into the research for my Kindle ebook.

 

One Smart Bookie

MAX WEISBERG: See, I don't have the education other people have.

JUDGE: That's right, but you are better with numbers than I am.

WEISBERG: What?

JUDGE: But you are better with numbers than I am.

WEISBERG: Well, I try my best anyway. That is all I know, is numbers. I don't know the other stuff.

 —Ramsey County, Minnesota, District Court, April 19, 2000

 

Ramsey County Courthouse, St. Paul, MinnesotaOn the morning of February 5, 1999, agents from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety invited themselves into Max Weisberg's house, on Iglehart Avenue in St. Paul, showed a search warrant, and began picking the place apart. They found cash everywhere, including $7,028 in a garbage bag in a bedroom; $2,000 in a dresser drawer; $5,521 in the pockets of pants tossed across the dresser; $10,930 in two grocery bags; and $2,090 in a flannel jacket. They also discovered a skeleton key that opened a locked front-entry closet. The closet held an additional $37,420. The agents hauled away the money, a total of $126,989, along with notebooks containing gambling information, betting sheets, and scorebooks.

Weisberg, then seventy-five, did not read the receipt the agents left him. Written documents are difficult for him to understand. He cannot do his laundry or figure out his electric bill without help. One of the most celebrated sports bookmakers in the Midwest, he is mentally disabled, with an IQ that has at various times been measured in the mid-50s to the low 70s. Although Weisberg's speaking skills, as reflected in court records, appear roughly normal, he is not, in fact, an articulate speaker, and he has a sharply limited conversational range. But few people can approach Weisberg at calculating odds and handicapping games. A St. Paul pool-hall owner whose establishment regularly filled with bettors and bookies testified in court in 1990 that Weisberg has "probably the greatest gambling mind in the world."

Weisberg is a man with savant syndrome — "someone who has special abilities that stand in stark contrast to his overall handicap," according to Darold Treffert, a Wisconsin psychiatrist whose book Extraordinary People  examines the cases of mentally disabled and autistic people with unusual talents. These savants, whose special abilities come in several varieties, usually excel in calendar calculating, music, art, or numerical ability. Weisberg is the only savant Treffert has ever heard of whose gift has run him afoul of the law. In repeated raids the police have seized betting records and about $700,000 from Weisberg's house and safe-deposit boxes. Three times in 1989-1994 Weisberg faced felony charges of sports bookmaking. The first time he pleaded guilty and received five years' probation. Since then judges, a jury, psychologists, and psychiatrists have determined that Weisberg is not responsible for his actions because his mental disability prevents him from distinguishing between right and wrong.

Despite all the evidence of bookmaking seized in that 1999 raid, Weisberg faced no charges afterward. "It was a sure bet that we were going to lose if we charged him again," says Susan Gaertner, Ramsey County's chief prosecuting attorney. "He would obviously again raise a defense of mental disability. Based on his previous [psychological] examinations, I didn't see how to go against that." Law-enforcement agents feel similarly stymied. Norm Pint, a special agent at the Department of Public Safety, says that his agency will no longer target Weisberg. "The courts have spoken," Pint says. "It would be foolish for us to pursue any investigation" of him. Weisberg remains free, a bookmaker with a license to take bets.

* * *

 

LAWYER: Now, after they found that money, they found the money and took it from your house. Did they leave you at the house?

WEISBERG: Yes, they did.

LAWYER: What did you do next?

WEISBERG: What could I do? I ate my supper.

 —Ramsey County District Court, April 19, 2000

 

Weisberg lives in a corner-lot house that his parents bought half a century ago. He conducts his business in the kitchen, seated at a table that holds a TV set, usually tuned to a football or a basketball game; the day's sports pages; sheets of paper listing wagers in crooked columns; the remnants of meals past; and a battered telephone. The rest of the house is dark, even during the day, with only the glow of a space heater illuminating a bedroom. Bars cover the windows, and a stout two-by-four secures the back door. Most of the furnishings, decorations, and floor coverings remain as they were in the 1950s.

Ever since the death of his older brother, Solly, in 1998, Weisberg has lived here alone. "Solly was like my right arm," he says, in the thick and moist voice that signals his mental disability. His blue eyes and sagging face are composed now when he remembers his brother, but the loss of Solly depressed Weisberg for months. That face, along with Weisberg's waddling gait and the baggy pants that puddle at his feet, are well known to anyone who has spent much time in Minnesota's capital city during the past six decades. Weisberg began his working life in the 1930s, helping his father sell junk and vegetables door to door. Later he joined Solly in a newsstand at Seventh and Wabasha. Eventually Weisberg became a highly visible flower vendor whose stakeouts of prominent intersections and sales expeditions into bars earned him the nickname "Maxie Flowers." Everyone, from bankers to cops to politicians, bought flowers from Weisberg.

Flower selling proved a great cover for taking bets. Weisberg attended school only through the fourth grade, but the streets gave him an education in gambling. In St. Paul's saloons and alleys, which had provided a haven for such crooks as John Dillinger and Ma Barker, Weisberg absorbed the fine points of bookmaking. A successful bookie weighs a team's strengths and weaknesses, judges the home-field advantage, and senses the enthusiasm of bettors, all with the aim of "setting the line." The "line" — the Vikings over the Giants by four points, for example — establishes the point spread that the bookie believes will attract gamblers in equal numbers to each side of the bet. On this delicate balance, divined by psychological as well as mathematical art, the bookmaker's financial success hangs. Ron Rosenbaum is an attorney who frequently ran into Weisberg and other bookies in St. Paul pool halls in the 1960s. Back before Las Vegas odds makers supplied the whole country with computer-generated point spreads, Rosenbaum says, "Max was considered the best at setting the number." Working in his head, Weisberg could perform the calculations necessary to set odds on complex parlays and wagers based on the total number of points opposing teams would score.

Weisberg's slow speech becomes even more hesitant when he tries to explain how he arrives at his odds and point spreads. "I look at a line and find this game five to six points off," he says. "[Other bookmakers] are mad at me because I look at a line and don't see how the points they gave are right." He maintains that he works with only half a dozen customers now — guys whose bets he has taken for decades, and whose fondness for him allows them to forgive those occasions on which the legal forfeitures of money have kept him from paying off clients. "I don't want any more [customers]," he says. "I don't take any more."

Now Weisberg's legs are in a bad state, and he can no longer go out and sell flowers. He awaits calls from his customers with greater eagerness than ever. It's not that he likes sports—he doesn't. "I get tired of watching all those millionaire owners and players," he says. If he didn't have a financial stake in a game, "I wouldn't give a damn what they do."

* * *

 

JUDGE: Now, I want you to look me in the eyes, Mr. Weisberg, just so you understand and know this: Bookmaking is over unless you choose to go to prison for 15 months. I don't think that our prison system is a place for a sweet and nice man like yourself, but that's where you will go. The first time you make book and you are brought into court, Mr. Weisberg, you are the person calling the shot as to where you will live for 15 months. It won't be me, it won't be anybody else, it will be yourself making that decision. Do you understand me, sir?

WEISBERG: Yes, I do.

—Ramsey County District Court, November 16, 1989

 

In 1966 the police arrested Weisberg on suspicion of sports bookmaking, but the charge was dropped. Seven years later he served four months at Sandstone Federal Prison after he was arrested in a gambling raid, and he paid several hundred dollars in fines for two other gambling convictions. But his real adventures with the law began on December 4, 1988, when police officers made the first of many searches of Weisberg's house and safe-deposit boxes. Max and Solly lost $437,000 that day—the most money seized in the St. Paul Police Department's history, according to the chief of police. Seven years later a judge divided the money among the city, the police, and Weisberg's lawyers.

In June of 1989 Weisberg pleaded guilty to the bookmaking charge stemming from the previous year's raid. He was sentenced to five years' probation and a stayed fifteen-month prison term. The following year another police search turned up $4,500 and more betting slips. This time Weisberg had a new lawyer, Ron Meshbesher, who requested a jury trial and developed a new defense strategy: documenting his client's mental retardation. He presented evidence that Weisberg had spent more than a year in a state institution for the retarded, where the staff measured his IQ at 55 and described his condition as "mental deficiency: moron, cause undiagnosed." Kenneth Perkins, a psychologist, testified that Weisberg's general reasoning and comprehension skills fell within the range of the mentally retarded. Meshbesher argued that Weisberg was incompetent to know right from wrong. He called Weisberg a Rain Man-like savant with a miraculous ability to make book. The jury found that Weisberg had indeed taken bets on sporting events, but it acquitted him of bookmaking on the grounds of mental deficiency. Probably no other bookmaker in American legal history has been acquitted on those grounds.

Despite the acquittal, the Ramsey County Attorney's Office used the jury's finding that Weisberg had made book as evidence that he had violated the terms of his probation. After a lower court agreed, Meshbesher took the matter to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, which determined that Weisberg had not violated his probation; but Weisberg had already served twenty days in the county workhouse, a sentence that District Court Judge Lawrence Cohen had shrewdly staggered to include the dates of the Super Bowl and the boys' state high school hockey and basketball tournaments. "There is no doubt in my mind that Max knew what he was doing, and that he knew it was wrong," says Cohen, who is now the chief judge on the county bench. "And he tried to do it in a secretive way, which indicated it was wrong."

The county's continuing pursuit of an elderly and mentally disabled man outraged many in the Twin Cities, including Kenneth Perkins. Perkins had measured Weisberg's IQ in the low 70s but had found that Weisberg had remarkable numerical skills. "My position all along has been that Max was not competent or capable of understanding what was going on," Perkins says. "He firmly believed that he was doing absolutely nothing wrong. He believed that taking bets was just as legal as what goes on in Las Vegas or the Minnesota lottery." In Perkins's opinion, Weisberg should be left alone: "At what point do you get to harassing him? I don't feel he's hurting anybody, and considering who he is and his history, he's not a threat or a menace to society in any way."

All was then quiet until October of 1993, when the police returned to Weisberg's house and took away $47,000 and the usual collection of betting slips and gambling records. Tried on bookmaking charges the following summer, Weisberg won another acquittal, this time from a district court judge. Meshbesher says that when he was celebrating this latest finding of mental deficiency with his client in a tavern, he said, "Max, you are the only bookie in the United States who has a free pass."

Since then, despite the 1999 raid, Weisberg has not been charged with any crime. Although he acknowledges that much of the seized money came from gambling, he insists that he has done nothing wrong. "A bookmaker is someone who has thirty or fifty customers," he says. "I'm not bookmaking. I just want something going. If I turn the TV on, it gives me something to watch." Meshbesher, who has now been representing Weisberg for twelve years, smiles at the mention of his client's name. "I love the guy," he says. "I've made a few bucks on him too."

"I don't think the law envisioned this," says Darold Treffert, the expert on savants. "It would need to be more creative to deal fairly with a circumstance like this."

* * *

 

LAWYER: What kinds of things do you not understand that other people do?

WEISBERG: What is that, ma'am?

LAWYER: You just said ... you don't understand those things that other people do. What do you mean?

WEISBERG: That means I try my best to do everything I can and some things I understand and some things I don't understand.

LAWYER: Okay. And are legal papers one thing that you have a hard time understanding?

WEISBERG: Yeah, right.

LAWYER: Okay.

WEISBERG: If you didn't have the education, you probably would be the same way.

—Ramsey County District Court, April 19, 2000

 

People who knew Weisberg as a child recall a disheveled and awkward boy who habitually chewed on his shirt collar. "Maxie always failed," says Leon Frankel, a classmate of Weisberg's at Franklin Elementary School in St. Paul. "They kept him behind in school—he was kind of dull." Poorly equipped for book learning, Weisberg left school and hustled candy bars, peanuts, newspapers, or whatever he could sell to earn some money for his family. Weisberg's sister, Helen Finesilver, remembers, "He had a habit of running away from home. He would ride freight trains, and when he was good and ready he would come home."

In 1939 Weisberg, then fifteen, was committed to the Faribault School for the Feeble-Minded, a state institution in Faribault, Minnesota. For the next fifteen months he desperately wanted to get out. He says he was frightened by the staff's threats to sterilize him, and he escaped from the school. After that he stayed out of institutions, living with his parents and Solly, and he never even came close to marrying. "I didn't want nobody nagging me," he explains. Only since Solly's death has he lived alone.

Today Weisberg lives off his Social Security checks and the small sums he earns making book. He receives assistance and affection from an assortment of Good Samaritans, social workers, and friends who drive him around, clear his walk of snow, help him shop, and regularly check on him. "He can remember which sixteen teams are playing over the weekend, where they're playing, and the odds on each game, but he cannot remember my name," says Bettyann Pappenfus, a telecommunications analyst who for two years has volunteered to clean Weisberg's house and do his laundry.

In April of last year a Ramsey County judge presided over what may have been Weisberg's final court appearance. At issue was what should be done with the $126,989 that the police had seized the year before from Weisberg's house. In the end $51,687 went to the Internal Revenue Service and a similar amount went to his lawyers. But for once a little bit returned to Weisberg—at least indirectly. In a moment of compassion the judge ordered that nearly $13,000 be spent to bring the electrical system of Weisberg's old house up to code and to add air-conditioners.

There he sits in the kitchen every day, dressed in layers, taking bets from his customers over the phone, and scrawling the wagers on yellow legal pads. His reputation for paying off is excellent—except after police raids. His payouts are fairer than the state lottery's. Most important to Weisberg, his honesty is rarely questioned. ("Sure, everything I say will be true, 'cause I always tell the truth," he once told a startled court clerk who was administering the oath.) For Weisberg, now seventy-seven, it is enough to run his business, live independently, and stay healthy. "My parents always told me, 'Your name is Weisberg, you can be a person with dignity,'" he says.

Wednesday
Jul112012

Amateur Historians in the News

While I was researching my book The Lobotomist, one of my most valuable resources was a lanky and slow-moving man who granted me interviews in the book-filled living room of his apartment in San Carlos, California. He was Franklin Freeman, a son of the subject of my book, the lobotomy advocate and developer Walter Freeman. In his seventies at the time and not a physician by training, Frank knew much about his family's past as well as the history of surgery, neurology, and the study of the brain. He loved following historical leads and telling tales from the past. He could talk history for hours, and his expressive voice and intelligence filled the room.

I think of Frank, who died a couple of years ago, whenever I read of the work of some amateur historian in the news. Douglas Brinkley, who teaches history at Rice University, is not an amateur historian. Photo by Rachel0057 at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia CommonsThe amateurs are lovers of history who don't look into the past to make a living. And they rarely make it into the news. Many people consider them dabblers, folks with too much time on their hands, or obsessives. They labor in anonymity on history projects that often concern other people very little.

But amateur historians sometimes have fresh insights and bring history to light for the first time. They deserve more recognition.

So here I present some brief accounts of amateur historians who have done important things in recent months. These amateurs done good work as they've made the news.

• Howard Marshall of Cheltenham, England, identified the writer of graffiti in the underground dungeon of a World War II-era POW camp in Poland. He's now trying to track down what happened to Private J. Ireland, a fighter in the 5th Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment, who scratched messages in the wall in 1940.

• Garrett Peck published a guidebook to the Potomac River based on his own explorations and research.

• The late Bernard Morris of South Wales, United Kingdom, was an expert on the history of Swansea and Gower and intimately knew the castles of the region.

• Retired judge Bob Perkins led an effort to end the misspelling of a historic street name in Austin, Texas. 

• Dennis Ranny discovered many misidentified graves of U.S. soldiers in Columbus, Ohio.

• David and Ean Parsons found out who was the first casualty of World War I from Newfoundland and Labrador.

• Burlington, Iowa, police officer Mike Bloomer is working to restore sections of a neglected cemetery that contain the graves of U.S. soldiers.

Please let me know about other amateur historians who are making news for future posts I'll write on the topic. I'd like to include some women!

Sunday
Jul082012

The FBI’s File on Frank Lloyd Wright

When I researched a project years ago with Freedom of Information Act expert Michael Ravnitzky, he showed me a copy he had acquired of the FBI’s file on the famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. It included a wealth of detail on several themes (real or imagined by the FBI) in Wright’s life that I found fascinating. So here, for what it’s worth, are some of my notes from that FBI file on a couple of the investigations that the FBI initiated against Wright. 

First, though, a bit of background. In 1923, Wright married Miriam Noel, an actress and artist. They proved to be a wretched match. Just three months after their wedding, Noel left Taliesin, Wright’s home in Spring Green, Wisconsin, and refused to return.

Wright in 1926, when the FBI was dogging him for Mann Act violationsWright sued for divorce. Soon he struck up a relationship with Olga Milanov, a 28-year-old Montenegrin mystical dancer and the mother of a 7-year-old girl. Milanov moved in with Wright at Taliesin in 1924 and bore him a daughter, Iovanna, the following year. Noel heard stories about this new woman in her husband’s life, ended their divorce negotiations, and vowed never to free Wright. Throughout 1926, she harassed Milanov, tried to break her way into Taliesin, and finally swore out a warrant of adultery against Wright at the courthouse in Baraboo, Wisconsin. 

Wright told the press: “Legally, I am wrong, but morally I am right, just as right as Jesus Christ ever was.”

The charge of adultery led Wright to flee Taliesin with Milanov and the children. They headed for Minneapolis. Using false names, they briefly stayed in that city before renting a cabin on the shore of nearby Lake Minnetonka. Two months passed peacefully, but on the night of October 20, 1926, county deputies appeared at the cabin and took the entire family into custody. Wright spent two nights in the Hennepin County Jail and was charged with violating the Mann Act, a federal statute prohibiting the transport of women across state lines for “immoral purposes.” Wright told the press: “Legally, I am wrong, but morally I am right, just as right as Jesus Christ ever was.”

From Wright’s FBI File

Investigating adultery

After federal officials charged Wright with violating the Mann Act, Bureau agents attempted to track Wright’s movements from Wisconsin to Minnesota to establish that he crossed state lines with Milanov. At the Nicollet Hotel in Minneapolis the agents obtained testimony from the staff that Wright and Milanov had spent a night in adjoining rooms after registering as F.W. Wilson and Anna Richardson of Madison, Wisconsin. Continuing to follow the trail, agents found that the pair had spent the next night at the Old Orchard Hotel near Lake Minnetonka before renting their lakefront cabin. 

During the November 1926 federal hearings in which Wright was charged with the crime, an enterprising Bureau agent attempted to interrogate Wright at his temporary residence in the Minneapolis Athletic Club. Notes the case report: “Agent asked him whether or not he cared to talk. Subject replied, ‘Sure, I will; what kind of questions are you going to ask me? The only thing I have done is to bring [name redacted by FBI] over from Wisconsin, to earn them a living.’” After phoning his lawyer, Wright refused to say more.

Finally, says a later case report, United States District Attorney LaFayette French, Jr., ultimately declined to continue the Mann Act prosecution, deeming the evidence insufficient to warrant further action. 

Postscript

Frank Lloyd Wright married Olga Milanov in 1928, and they remained married until Wright’s death 31 years later. “You know, in 1926 I landed in jail here,” he said during a public appearance in Minneapolis in 1956. “Nothing came of it, though. It was just meant to embarrass me — and it did.”

A charge of sedition

Wright next fell under the FBI’s scrutiny in December 1942, when federal judge Patrick T. Stone publicly accused him of obstructing America’s effort to fight World War II by persuading his architecture apprentices to apply en masse for conscientious objector status. Judge Stone had sentenced one of those apprentices, Marcus Earl Weston, to prison for refusing to report for induction. In a memo dated December 17, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover asked his Milwaukee bureau to look into the judge’s charges. 

Agents from Milwaukee converged upon Spring Green to examine Wright’s Taliesin Fellowship. 

The FBI already knew about Wright’s sentiments on international affairs. A citizen informant warned Hoover that Wright “has been sounding off in the worst possible fashion and ought to get his knuckles severely rapped. He’s been making speeches to the effect that we ought to let Japan have what she wants in Asia, they’re really nice people, etc.”

Agents from Milwaukee converged upon Spring Green to examine Wright’s Taliesin Fellowship. Taliesin from the air. Photo by Jeff Dean, from Wikimedia CommonsAccording to a clipping from the New York Herald Tribune preserved in the FBI file, 19 young architects were then studying Wright’s concepts of organic architecture as part of the Fellowship, which had been founded in 1932. The apprentices paid $1,100 a year for their experience, and they were also responsible for helping farm Taliesin’s 200 acres, making wine and bread, and maintaining the property. 

An agent noted in a case report dated March 3, 1943, that two years earlier 26 Taliesin fellows had petitioned the draft board in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, for conscientious objector status. “Petitionists claimed their work as architects in a constructive field was more vital to interior defense than service in the army,” the agent wrote. The draft board denied the request.

Interviewed by the agent was a member (name redacted) of the Dodgeville draft board, who observed that Wright “was regarded by members of the fellowship as somewhat of an idol, a tin god, or a master, who could do no wrong. They believed in his ideas of organic architecture and felt that as long as they were together, serving under this master, they could do no wrong and were more or less immune to local restrictions and laws.” 

Finally an FBI agent interviewed Wright. “Subject vehemently denied in any way influencing, counseling, or aiding members of his fellowship to claim conscientious objection and opposition to military service and pointed out that members of his group were serving in the armed forces at the present time,” the agent wrote. “He readily admitted his influence in the environment of the Fellowship necessarily had a great deal to do with the boys in their claims.... [The draft law] was in reality destroying their Fellowship, scattering them throughout the world, and completely destroying the one thing in which they believed most sincerely.” 

Hoover received this report and forwarded it to U.S. Assistant Attorney General Wendell Berge. On April 6, 1943, Berge replied: “It is our view that the facts do not warrant prosecution under the Sedition Statutes and we are requesting no further investigation at this time.” Hoover would not let go of the case, however. On July 17 he received a report from Special Agent in Charge H.T. O’Connor containing new evidence damaging to Wright. An informant (name redacted) had revealed that Wright once declared that “none of ‘his boys’ would have to go to war under the conscription act except over his dead body.” Hoover sent this information to Berge, who again declined to prosecute Wright.

Postscript

Marcus Earl Weston, one of three Taliesin Fellows who received prison terms for refusing conscription into the armed forces, served six months of a three-year sentence at Sandstone Federal Prison in Minnesota and then was assigned to work with conscientious objectors in the hospital kitchen at the University of Michigan. During the 1990s, as a retired architect living in Spring Green, Wisconsin, he acknowledged that many people believed that Wright influenced him to resist the draft. “Mr. Wright was opposed to the war, there was no question on that,” he said. “But he didn’t try to influence the boys to become conscientious objectors. When the draft was first passed, a couple of the boys got together one evening to compose a letter to send to the local draft board, asking that we be left alone. It was passed around and practically all of the fellows signed it, including myself. It went to the draft board, and it was like waving a flag in front of a bull. After war was declared, most of the fellows went into the service. I was the first one who stood by my convictions and refused to go.”