Lincoln Assassinated!! The Firsthand Story of the Murder, Manhunt, Trial and Mourning: A Library of America Special Publication – Harol Holzer

LincolnThe assassination of President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), remains a pivotal moment in American history when the nation was truly at a crossroads.  A brutal civil war had just ended and millions of former slaves found themselves unsure of their future post-bondage.  The former Confederacy was left in shambles and the Radical Republicans were intent on reconstructing the south in the model of the Union as a whole.  Lincoln, was either loved or hated depending on who you asked. In the Confederacy, there was no love lost when he was murdered and as Jefferson Davis (1809-1889) bluntly stated: “Well, General, I don’t know; if it were to be done at all, it were better that it were well done; and if the same had been done to Andy Johnson, the beast, and to Secretary Stanton, the job would then be complete.”  Investigators had tried to link Davis to the assassination but the former Confederate leader was never tried or convicted for Lincoln’s murder. The crime cast a dark cloud over the nation and millions of American went into mourning at the loss of the fallen leader.  Author Harold Holzer takes us back in time as we re-live the murder and events that followed as they happened in 1865. 

The author opens with a brief description of events at Ford’s Theater as Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882) watched the play Our American Cousin. Around 10:15 p.m, a stage actor named John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865) fired a single shot sending a derringer bullet barreling into the back of Lincoln’s head, mortally wounding him and changing American history. The assassin made a quick escape as he jumped down to the stage and uttered the infamous words “sic semper tyrannus”. Pandemonium ensued as doctors and guards rushed to Lincoln’s side. But doctors quickly realized that the president was beyond help. He was moved to the dwelling of William A. Petersen and at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865, Lincoln succumbed to his wounds. The shocking murder of the president sent shockwaves across the city and nation but before long, authorities knew the identity of the man they were looking forward and his conspirators including Lewis Powell (1844-1865) who had also attacked Secretary of State William Seward (1801-1872). The chain of events comes roaring back to life through cables to Washington, newspaper articles and statements from witnesses and the even the officer who shot and fatally wounded Booth, Sgt. Boston Corbett (1832-1894), whose own life story is beyond puzzling.

At the beginning of the chapter’s the author provides relevant information to help the reader keep things in context but lets the writer of the letter or article presented do the talking. A majority of the statements are from those who knew Lincoln and loved him while at least who are from Southern sympatizers who rejoiced at the news of his death. Their statements are also included and some readers may find themselves filling with anger at the words. Remarkably, even those who had once mocked Lincoln, found the appropriate words of endearment for the fallen president. Journalists and politicians alike make amends in the book while offering their words to Lincoln’s memory. Today it may be hard for some to appreciate how loved Lincoln was by many during his time even in spite of his detractors. Included in the book is this statement by historian George Bancroft (1800-1891) that truly captures the majority of opinions at the time:

How shall the nation most completely show its sorrow at Mr. Lincoln’s death? How shall it best honor his memory? There can be but one answer. He was struck down when he was highest in its service, and in strict conformity with duty was engaged in carrying out principles affecting its life, its good name, and its relations to the cause of freedom and the progress of mankind. Grief must take the character of action, and breathe itself forth in the assertion of the policy to which he fell a victim. The standard which he held in his hand must be uplifted again higher and more firmly than before, and must be carried on to triumph. – George Bancroft (1800-1891)

What I did notice in many of the statements provided is that the issue of slavery always remained prevalent. Some speakers addressed it head on while others included as an addition to their main point. But what is clear in the book is that the issue continued to be a hot topic of discussion with many wondering how the United States would move forward with millions of freed black men and women. Reconstruction was the goal of Lincoln and his associates in Congress but their efforts would be undermined by Lincoln’s successor Andrew Johnson (1808-1865) who narrowly escaped impeachment in 1868.

The constitution was weighing heavily on the hearts and minds of prominent figures who sought to carry on Lincoln’s legacy and make America’s black population a legitimate part of the American experience. But first, Lincoln’s funeral needed to be held and sadly, even with him lying in state and on his way to the grave, blacks would feel the wrath of discrimination as they were initially barred from the funeral procession. It truly is mind-boggling but did actually happen and the criticism leveled at the Common Council in New York City is included as well. The order was defied and reversed but left a sour taste in the mouths of blacks who had already experienced their share of indignations at the hands of bigots. Outrage ran so high that even the Secretary of War Edward Stanton (1814-1869) stepped in and personally ordered that blacks be permitted to march in the funeral procession. As I read this part of the book, I shook my head in disbelief. But this was America in 1865.

The amount of speakers who appear in the book is extensive and include Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) and Confederate Vice-President Alexander H. Stephens (1812-1883) whose statements in tribute to Lincoln may surprise some readers. As to how sincere Stephens was in his words regarding slavery, we shall never truly know. However, he did show Lincoln the utmost respect in death even if they were at odds during the war and made the following proclamation:

Indulge me a moment upon this subject of the institution of slavery, so called, in the Southern States. Well, Mr. President and Mr. Speaker, it was not an unmitigated evil. It was not, thus much I can say, without its compensations. It is my purpose now, however, to bury, not to praise, to laud, “nor aught extenuate.” – Alexander H. Stephens (1812-1883)

The above quote is just a sample of the extensive amount of statements in the book that are crucial in American history. They are voices in history who were guiding the republic as America split in half and nearly destroyed itself. Lincoln sought to preserve the Union and had preferred to avoid conflict but was left with no choice but to wage war. The conflict had been a long and brutal campaign but the president had his eyes set on the future and how to move America forward. But on April 14, 1865, an assassin’s bullet put an end to his goals. The world would see a similar event take place in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. Old Abe as he was sometimes called is fondly remember as the first Republican President and an astute politician who came from a simple background in Kentucky. And at the time of his death, he stood ready to move America forward. His death was a profound loss to the nation and that sorrow is captured here perfectly. As I read the book I felt as if I stepped back in time and had been provided with a ring side seat as a president was mourned and the hunt for an assassin was on.

The focus remains mostly on Lincoln but Holzer does discuss the arrests and fates of the conspirators Lewis Powell, David Herold (1842-1865), George Azterodt (1835-1965), John Surratt (1844-1916), Mary Surratt (1823-1865) and Dr. Samuel Mudd (1833-1883). Of the group, Powell, Herold, Atzerodt and Mary Surratt were sentenced to death and she became the first woman in American history to be executed. The group mounted their defenses and the statements by their attorneys are included as part of the author’s discussion on the investigation and convictions that followed. The attempts by defense lawyers were admirable if not also quite ludicrous. Authorities had the guilty parties and left no stone unturned as they hunted Lincoln’s killers. It was a conspiracy in the making from the beginning and the trail of evidence is presented out in the book. However, neither at that time or in the years that followed, has there been any evidence conclusively linking anyone in the Confederacy’s highest level of government to the crime.

America continues to grapple with race and equality but we have the tools and the will to continue the goal of improvement life for all. And as we embark on our path for true equality we can look back at the life and death Abraham Lincoln as a reminder of just how far we have come as a nation and where we should want to go. Old Abe’s ghost will always be with us and he will continue to be lauded as one of the greatest presidents in Unites States history. Great book.

ASIN : B00SW8BNVM

He Was My Chief: The Memoirs of Adolf Hitler’s Secretary – Christa Schroeder

Christa Recently, I reviewed the memoir of Traudl Junge (1920-2002) who served as one of Adolf Hitler’s (1889-1945) secretaries during World War II.  Her book, Hitler’s Last Secretary is highly regarded as an intimate account of what Hitler was like behind closed doors. Hers is not the only book written by those who knew Hitler personally but it is undoubtedly one of the most interesting. Another secretary, Christa Schroeder (1908-1984), compiled this memoir about her life under Hitler during the war.  And although the book does not reveal anything groundbreaking, it is interesting in its own right. 

In comparison to Junge’s account, Schroeder’s also focuses on Hitler but takes a slightly different path in discussions about his association with various women whether friends or more intimate such as the case with Eva Braun (1912-1945). Some may be tempted to write off what she says about Braun as irrelevant gossip but I think she included it because of how Braun eventually became part of Hitler’s story. Schroeder points out in the book that before the end of the war, most people had no idea who Braun was. Hitler never publicly acknowledge being acquainted with any woman and always said that he belonged to Germany. His destiny as he saw it, was to lead the nation on a path of domination over Europe and if possible, the rest of the world. However, even Hitler had a softer side and it is clearly evident here. One subject that does come up which is still not completely understood is the suicide of his niece Angela Maria “Geli” Raubal (1908-1931). Her death just might be the critical piece of the puzzle in understanding Hitler’s future interactions with the opposite sex.

We do learn from Schroeder, that Hitler had a quite unusual relationship with his family. Today we would call it estranged and the author elaborates on the matter as follows:

Hitler had no sense of family. His sister Paula was quite a few years younger than he was. She was a quiet, shy child and he had no great opinion of her. It may have been for the difference in their ages that he shut her out of his life. Paula lived in Vienna until the end of the Second World War, and then in Berchtesgaden until her death.

I took notice of the irony that the most powerful man in Nazi Germany who professed never ending love for the fatherland, barely associated with his own family members. The revelation sets the stage for a Wizard of Oz type scenario in which we see the man behind the curtain. And the picture that is formed is of a person who was often at odds with nearly everything in society except his dog Blondie, beloved apple pie desserts and world domination.

Traudl Junge’s memoir is far more extensive mainly for the reason that she decided to include her life before Hitler in the book. Schroeder takes a different approach and makes no mention of childhood or life in Germany prior to joining Hitler. Readers that might be expecting a discussion of the rise of the Nazi party and Germany life prior to 1933, will not find much of it here. However, she does keep the narrative streamlined and the focus remains of the man who was her chief. She points of notable descriptions of his physique and mannerisms, some of which have been discusses elsewhere. Hitler’s trembling left hand enters the story as well as the role of the physician Theodor Morell (1886-1948). High-ranking members of the Reich and physicians were leery of Morrell and even went as far to advise Hitler of his physician’s ineptitude. Schroeder points out that:

Dr. Brandt and Dr. Hasselbach explained to Hitler that the trembling of his left hand and gradual loss of vision were the result of the poisons in the anti-flatulence pills and that it was irresponsible of Dr. Morell to have made them freely available to be eaten like sweets.

The subject of Hitler’s reliance on drugs is well-documented and it is widely known that before his famous meeting with Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) on July 20, 1944, Hitler had received one of Morrell’s “cocktails”. It is reported that Hitler raved non-stop for several hours. The chief was a physical and nervous wreck but remained determined to see a German victory even in the face of a clear defeat. Schroeder makes note of his changing mood and the atmosphere as the tide of the war changed and the Allies made steady progress towards Berlin. And in what could be described as surreal, the band played on.

Schroeder was given orders by Hitler to leave the bunker on April 20, 1945, and did not see what transpired in the bunker as the situation became dire and those who could leave did. Hitler refused to leave and Schroeder recalls Hitler phoning the secretaries as they were packing to depart. In the twelve years she worked for him, this was the only time that she recalled him ever using the phone to contact his secretaries. It was clear at this point that Berlin was beyond hope. Schroeder did not make it out of Germany but was instead taken into custody by Allied forces in May, 1945. On May 22, 1945, she was interviewed by Erich Albrecht, an officer of the US Counter-Intelligence Corp and the transcript is provided at the end of the book. There are no smoking guns in her answers but what I did notice was missing from the entire book was a discussion about the infamous Final Solution.

Christa Schroeder makes no mention of the Final Solution. There are no references to any camps. Unlike Traudl Junge who does acknowledge that they should have known what happening to the Jews, Schroeder says nothing. I do find it incredibly hard to believe that as Hitler’s secretary, she was unaware of what was happening to the Jews across Germany. While her position at one of Hitler’s secretaries would have isolated her from many things, the Final Solution was not a state secret. There were those who knew and many of them indeed. We will never know exactly how much she knew as she took with her to the grave, all knowledge she had about her years working for Hitler. Had she made a statement on the Final Solution and showed remorse, I believe that this book would be of more value. Sure, the book reveals a lot about Hitler but it stays completely away from his darkest fantasy, the idea of racial purity and the removal of all non-Aryan people from German society. It seems as if Germany’s darkest deed during the war was not important enough to merit even a comment in the author’s words. Schroeder is long gone but I am inclined to believe that she knew far more than she was willing to admit to and preferred to keep things close to the chest.

The number of books written about Adolf Hitler are numerous with some having much higher value than others naturally. Christa Schroeder’s account joins that group and while there is much value in what she says, there are also many questions regarding what she did not say.

ASIN : B00CBJXZA0

Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis With a Foreword by Authur Schlesinger, Jr. – Robert F. Kennedy

rfkI have had many discussions with my father wherein he recalled his memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962.  He explained with vivid detail how he and his classmates had to take part in daily air raid drills due to the increasing threat of a nuclear holocaust.  The discovery by U.S. intelligence of Soviet missiles on Cuban soil, accelerated what was already a tense conflict. Today we refer to it as the Cold War but there were many things taking place that were anything but cold. And as former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara remarked in Errol Morris’ Fog of War,  “hell it was a hot war!”.  The stakes for the survival of the human race had been raised as high as possible and the very possibility of extinction by nuclear weapons became hauntingly real.  The public story is that at the last minute, the Soviets gave orders for naval vessels to reverse course away from Cuba and the U.S. weapons ready to be used. However, behind the scenes on both sides, there was much taking place that remained hidden from public light for years to come. Former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968) kept a journal of the thirteen days that gripped the world as his brother, President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963,) navigated a crisis that the world had never before seen.  Presented here are the portions he completed up to 1967.  In June, 1968, Robert Kennedy would himself be assassinated and never had the chance to revise and add on to what is written here.  

The book is short and to be fair, we will never know if Kennedy had intended on adding more to his memoir. But I do feel that there is enough material here to give readers and play-by-play recap of how things developed and the why the Kennedy Administration did or did take certain actions. As a bonus, there is beautiful foreword by Author Schlesinger, Jr., (1917-2007). I do believe that it might be necessary to read the view with the understanding that we have the benefit of hindsight, something unavailable as Moscow kept up its intentions to test the young Irish Catholic American President. However, Jack Kennedy kept cool and leaned heavily on his advisors but he was not prone to blindly following advice and knew fully just how much was at stake. On both the American side and the Soviet side, hardliners were pushing for a first strike which would have set off a chain reaction and led to nuclear Armageddon. Robert understood the pressure his brother faced from Cold War warriors who hated anything Soviet and wanted to see the downfall on the U.S.S.R. Jack had come to vet his military advisors more closely after the Bay of Pigs disaster and when contemplating the advice of the joint chiefs, he makes this telling remark as relayed by Robert:

During the missile crisis Kennedy courteously and consistently rejected the Joint Chiefs’ bellicose recommendations. “These brass hats have one great advantage in their favor,” he said. “If we…do what they want us to do, none of us will be alive later to tell them that they were wrong.

Page 12 | Location 117-120

Throughout history, the Soviets have been portrayed as the aggressors in the conflict, who were determined to get as close to U.S. soil as possible. The installation of the missiles in Cuba with the blessing of Prime Minister Fidel Castro (1926-2016), set off a diplomatic fury and the gears at the Pentagon began to grind hard. In response to the growing Soviet threat, President Kennedy opted for a blockade over direct military action out of concerns for a chain reaction series of events that would quickly spiral out of control. On the Soviet side, there were people who wanted to avert nuclear war, primarily former Premier Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971). The channels of communication between Jack Kennedy and Khrushchev show two men determined to avoid the unthinkable. And each was facing backlash from his own administration. The two were literally pulling at each end of the same rope. They were aided in their efforts by skilled diplomats who were eager to meet the Americans halfway. Bobby’s meeting with Anatoly Dobrynin (1919-2010) on October 27 might have been the final act that helped two nations avoid the apocalypse. There are several accounts as to the whole discussion that took place. Undoubtedly some of it is lost to history and both Kennedy and Dobrynin are deceased. However, regardless of what exactly was said, we do know that the removal of U.S. missiles from Turkey was a key component in keeping the dialogue open between the two nations.

When Soviet ships reversed course, the world breathed a sigh of relief. In Washington, President Kennedy was adamant that no word of the back channel agreements be made public nor should there be any gloating about the resolution of the crisis. However, it was in fact a masterful display of diplomacy on both sides and continues to serve as a case study for the threat of nuclear war. I do wish that Robert Kennedy had lived to revise and add to his memoir of the crisis. His position as attorney general as Jack Kennedy’s younger brother, placed him in a very unique position with regards to the development of the crisis. His recollections here lay everything out for the reader to follow as the Kennedy Administration handled a crisis that threatened the planet. There are possibly many other secrets that remain hidden from the official narrative but we do have enough material to form a very significant picture of what did happen and why. Robert Kennedy’s memoir is an invaluable piece of the puzzle. Good read.

ASIN : B004W9CWAQ

Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present – Harriet A. Washington

20200907_235936It is not often that I need a moment to myself after finishing a book but alas, it has happened once again.  Prior to reading this breathtaking and riveting book by author Harriet A. Washington, I last found myself at a loss for words after finishing David E. Stannard’s  American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World.  As I explained in that posting, the book was so unsettling that I needed a drink and a moment of silence afterwards.  That process was repeated upon completion of this book which is bound to jolt anyone who decides to voyeur within.  The title alone is enough to catch a person’s attention but I believe it only tells part of the story that is to be found within the pages of this book. Quite frankly, the full story is far darker and disturbing.  However, it is history as it was in all of its ugliest and rawest form.  When viewed in that context, the requirement of facing it head on becomes readily apparent if we are truly intent on fixing the disparities in health care between people of different ethnic backgrounds. In fact, in the epilogue, the author makes it clear that although the book does not paint a flattering picture of history, it is still necessary for blacks to seek medical care and participate in the health care industry as their lives depend on it. 

Washington opens the story with a discussion of Dr. James Marion Sims (1813-1883) whose attempts to treat the condition of vesicovaginal fistula set the theme for the story to follow. I warn readers that the first half of book will sound like something out of a horror film.  The issue of slavery does come up and is directly relevant to the story at hand. Furthermore, what the author reveals, should put an end to any discussion of one slave having a better life than the other.  The full barbarity of the system of slavery is on full display, supported by physicians who were supposed to preserve life.  Readers who are sensitive to this subject matter may want to use discretion when deciding whether or not to read this book.  Once you begin the story, it is ride that moves full speed ahead and the author pulls no punches.  Sims emerges quickly as a controversial figure whose legacy is summed up by Washington clearly when she states:

James Marion Sims is an important figure in the history of experimentation with African Americans because he so well embodies the dual face of American medicine to which racial health disparities owe so much.

The doctor is only one of a long list of physicians remembered as pioneers. But as can be seen in the book, they also had a darker side which led to them committing even darker acts at the expense of blacks and others considered to be inferior or undesirable. Racial ideology cloaked under the banner of eugenics, resulted in some of the most atrocious events I have ever read about. Washington does not mince words and some of what she reveals might be hard to take even for the most stoic readers. Some of the darkest components of racism come back to life, showing American history without the glory. This truth is ugly and upsetting, and is bound to anger and appall. Today, such actions would be unthinkable and rightly subject to criminal prosecution but in the 1800s, this did not happen and the we can see in the book must how widespread the belief in black inferiority truly was, which allowed doctors to put into practice thoughts that are completely insane.

Any discussion of American medical experiments would be incomplete without commenting on the Tuskegee Experiment. The story is included here and Washington does an excellent job of summarizing what did happen and clearing up misconceptions that have festered for too many years. It is an honest and thorough discussion of a medical experiment that went terribly wrong and carefully hid the truth for those taking part as test subjects. It remains one of the darkest chapters in American history but it far from the only one. In fact, there were others and Washington takes us down memory lane so that we can see just how disturbing these events truly were. As I read through the book, I found myself aghast not only at the bizarre thoughts of physicians such as being able to negroes white, but at the unnecessary procedures that were carried out under the guise of black patients not feeling pain the way whites do. These parts of the book are a reminder of how primitive medicine was less than two hundred years ago. They are also a reminder of how far we still have to go in eliminating the disparities that exist in our health care system that have been fueled by bias for far too long.

Some readers may be triggered by this book for it pulls back the curtain on what we have been told was a storied medical history that placed America at the forefront of scientific advancement. In prior years, Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) was seen as a champton of reproductive responsibility as the founder of Planned Parenthood. Yet Sanger also had a dark side and her true goals were left out of official narratives. Washington takes another look at Sanger and readers will either be surprised or vindicated in their beliefs about her. What is adamantly clear is that the times in which she lived , certainly contributed to her views which today seems nothing short of draconian. She was part of a growing eugenics movement, perfected in Nazi Germany and nearly replicated many times over after World War II. Concentration camps were replaced by medical laboratories and covert plans enacted by intelligence agencies including American’s own Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Operation Big City is a name I was unfamiliar with but its purpose which has never been confirmed by the CIA, should make the hair stand up on the back of anyone’s neck. If it really did happen, then it speaks volumes about America’s darkest secrets. And for readers who cannot imagine the U.S. Government being involved in anything nefarious domestically, I do recommend that research Operation Northwoods, which was presented to President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) by the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a pretext for an invasion of Cuba.

To say that there is a wealth of information in this book would be a severe understatement. Readers should be prepared to have their minds blown. Just when you think that the story might be winding down it picks up even more of a pace as the revelations keep coming. And as they do, it should be perfectly clear why Black Americans are distrustful of the medical field and tend to received less medical care than their white counterparts. And that is really Washington’s goal. She is showing us how and why blacks came to view the medical field as harbingers of death and destruction. Civil rights and basic human decency were nowhere to be found as doctors were left to their own devices with free reign to wreak havoc on the bodies and minds of black people.

I want to reiterate that this book is not an easy read and there is no happy ending. Much of it is haunting and reveals a very dark side of human nature that some of us may be shocked to learn of. These are the events in history that were never included in history books. It is America’s history and a legacy of medicine gone horribly wrong. The endless number of victims is staggering and some are still alive today. This book is a testament to their struggles and the long road out of the darkness upon which we are still traveling. And may Washington’s work stand as compendium of a key component of the African-American experience in America.

“I challenge us to change, because as Charles Darwin once observed, “It is not the strongest species that will survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” – Harriet A. Washington

ISBN-10 : 076791547X
ISBN-13 : 978-0767915472

To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace – Jeffrey D. Sachs

jfkPeace is a state of being that mankind constantly seeks to achieve even as tensions flare between nations making the threat of armed and nuclear conflict a very real possibility.  The detonation of the bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945, changed modern warfare permanently.  Man had entered the nuclear weapon era and the fear of complete annihilation reached even the most hardened leaders of the free world.  In the wake of World War II, the United States and Soviet Union took center stage in the battle for global supremacy.  The Cold War ushered in a new level of caution as Washington and Moscow became increasing distrustful of each other.  In January, 1960, John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917-1963) was elected over Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994) in one the slimmest election margins in United States history.  The young Irish-Catholic president had pulled off a stunning victory in a race that seemed destined to be decided in Nixon’s favor. Upon assuming office, Kennedy inherited the successes and failures of his predecessor, retired General Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969).  Moscow watched the election with keen interest and tested the new president in ways he could have never imagined. Under the command of Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971), the Soviet Union became determined to continue the spread of its communist ideology and confront American whenever and wherever necessary.  In October, 1962, tensions reached an all-time high when the world came to the brink of nuclear war. For thirteen days, the world watched with fear as the two superpowers threatened the planet with extinction.   Crisis was averted by back-channel communication between the two nations and the commitment of both Khrushchev and Kennedy to avoid total destruction.  The Cuban-Missile Crisis changed Kennedy’s view on U.S. foreign policy and he became determined to avoid a similar situation in the future.  And he had begun to visualize his quest for peace. Author Jeffrey Sachs takes a close look at Kennedy’s in this short yet remarkable account of a time in world history that will be studied for years to come. 

Kennedy constantly walked a tight rope in dealing with foreign powers and satisfying domestic opponents as home. His determination not to be seen as a dovish president, had taken him down a path in which Cold War warriors exerted their influence with the final objective of refuting Soviet expansion by force if necessary. It should be noted that the book is not an examination of the Cold War but rather it places its focus on Kennedy himself and the decisions he made when faced with the threat of catastrophe. Of course, the author addresses the most important events during his short time in office which came to a tragic conclusion on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas. The assassination itself is not discussed in detail for obvious reasons. The focus here remains throughout on Kennedy’s plan for peace which he put into action through a series of events that were quite bold for his time. And although he did not live to see many of his ideas come to pass, he did lay the groundwork for many things, most importantly the Civil Rights Act which would signed into law by his successor Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) on July 2, 1964. Kennedy was not only concerned about world peace but was highly aware of domestic issues at home that centered on the issue of race in America. In recalling Kennedy’s words, Sachs writes:

The heart of the question, said Kennedy, was this: If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?

Peace became Kennedy’s dominant focus and his actions n the later half of his administration showed his commitment to seeing the world truly change. Whether through his appeals to the United Nations or the creation of the Alliance for Progress, Kennedy was putting his plan into action to see change materialize. But he also understood that peace does not happen overnight. In fact, Sachs explains Kennedy’s vision perfectly in this statement:

Kennedy’s third precept was that peace is a process, a series of step-by-step confidence-building measures. He recognized that moves by one side lead to moves by the other. A situation of high distrust necessitated a series of confidence-building steps.

Had he lived, I believe that President Kennedy would have continued his plan of peace and that America would not have remained in Vietnam. He fully understood that the world was heading down a dangerous path and sought to reverse course before mankind destroyed itself. His assasination changed America and to this day, his murder haunts this nation as a reminder of what could have been. However, in just a few short years, he set into a motion a number of events. His commitment to true peace is sometimes overlooked or not fully understood. Here, Jeffrey Sachs explains it all perfectly so that readers can see what Kennedy wanted to accomplish and how he planned to do it. And as a bonus, the author includes text from Kennedy’s speech at American University on July 10, 1963 which is considered by many, including myself, to be his finest. And the fact that he was murdered only five months later, speaks volumes about how much of a threat the young president was to what Eisenhower called the military industrial complex.

I do admit that Kenney’s administration as not perfect and at the beginning of his tenure, he made a series of missteps that increased tensions between America and opponents abroad. But his removal of holdovers from previous administrations, finally allowed him to chart his true course. And by the time he was ready to speak at American University, he had become a seasoned leader who understood that not everyone can be pleased. There are times when being president means doing what is best even if it may be unpopular. And to fully drive home where Kennedy’s thoughts lay in the months before his death, we can turn to this snippet of his speech before that graduation class:

What kind of a peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, and the kind that enables men and nations to grow, and to hope, and build a better life for their children—not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women, not merely peace in our time but peace in all time.

John F. Kennedy has been dead for more than fifty years but his legacy remains with us. There are many what if questions surrounding his death and what it meant to the United States. However, he left behind quite a bit of ideas and material for us to study, understand and learn from. One of the most important was his desire to move the world in his quest for peace.

ASIN: B00BVJG3C8

Into The Blast – The True Story of D.B. Cooper – Skipp Porteous, Robert Blevins and Geoff Nelder (Editor)

PorteousOn November 24, 1971, Northwest Airlines Flight 305 departed from Portland International Airport with a destination of Seattle, Washington. Among the passengers was a middle man who gave the ticket agent the name “Dan Cooper”.  Minutes after takeoff he handed a note to a stewardess Flo Schaffner a note that he had a bomb in his briefcase.   To prove his point, he had the suspicious flight attendant sit down next to him and opened the case for her viewing.  Upon realizing that Cooper could in fact destroy the aircraft, authorities were alerted that a hijacking was taking place.  After refueling in Seattle, the plane took off again but with $200,000 aboard as per Cooper’s instructions. Once airborne, Cooper had flight attendant Tina Mucklow show him how to operate the aft stairwell on the Boeing 727.   Shortly after 8:00 p.m., the warning light went off in the cabin indicating that the aft stairwell had been deployed.  When the plane landed in Reno, Nevada, Cooper was nowhere to be found.  And to this day, his whereabouts are unknown. Or are they? And had D.B. Cooper been hiding in plain sight while the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) struggled to solve the case?  Authors Skipp Porteous and Robert Blevins decided to examine the D.B. Cooper mystery and what they found is sure to catch the eye of even the most ardent supporters of the theory that the hijacker died after jumping from the aircraft.  

The premise of the book is set early: the authors feel that they have solid reasons to believe that D.B. Cooper was Northwest Airlines employee Kenneth Peter Christiansen (1926-1994). And while they stop short of saying conclusively that Christiansen was in fact Cooper, they provide a significant amount of information about Christiansen and the investigation itself that leaves us with even more questions about what really did happen to Dan Cooper. It should be noted that there are no conspiracy theories here, just old fashioned investigative work, filled with sleeping in cars, long miles on the road aided by coffee and the tenacity to keep moving forward several decades after the hijacking. The authors make every attempt to cross-reference what they learn as their investigation moves forward. It is an incredible story that is certainly not over.

A biography of Christiansen is included but contains only the most relevant facts about his life as they relate to the investigation. In particular, focus is placed on his employment with Northwest Airlines and just how unpredictable a steady salary was for a flight attendant in small airline in the 1970s. The precarious nature of his choice of occupation surely is not enough for confirmation of guilt. However, his background in the military and as a mechanic should have made him a person of interest at the least. Curiously, the FBI never interviewed any employees of the airline. And as can be seen in the book, at least one of the people interviewed had suspicions that Christiansen might have been involved.

The similarities between Cooper and Christiansen are striking and the authors sum up their belief with this simple yet direct statement:

“If Kenny Christiansen were alive today, he would have difficulty explaining to a jury where he got all the money to do the things he did in the months following the taking of Flight 305. Christiansen, I discovered, had one life before the hijacking and another one afterward.” 

In addition to Christiansen there are several people who enter the story that knew him personally. The FBI agent who was assigned to the case also gives his thoughts on the case but makes it clear that he is no longer involved. But of all of the figures in the book, none is as shadowy as Mike Watson (real name Bernie Geestman). And the information provided by his former wife Katy (real name Margie Geestman) reveal some very dark actions by Geestman whom the authors believe was Cooper’s accomplice. Added to the mix are the interviews of Dawn Androsko (Bernie Geestman’s sister) and Helen Jones. And what each has to say about Christiansen actually leads more credence to the authors’ theory. And while they always stop short of declaring for a fact that Christiansen is D.B. Cooper, the more they uncover, the more it seems that it most certainly was the case.

In January, 2011, the History Channel premiered Episode 6, Season 1 of Brad Meltzer’s Decoded which explored the Christiansen story. The episode is based largely on the book and can be found on YouTube here. It is a good episode and brings the crux of the book to light. The authors discuss the filming of the show and all that goes into a television production. We also see that the History Channel does not slack when it comes to fact finding. And while the show does not find concrete proof of the two men being one in the same, it is highly convincing and a great watch.

Undoubtedly there are many mysterious surrounding Dan Cooper that are lost to history. But the authors here make a compelling case against the man they believed pulled off on the history’s greatest capers that has earned a permanent place in American pop culture. This is the story of Dan Cooper, Kenneth Christiansen and an aircraft passenger’s jump into the blast.

ASIN : B004JF4JRM

Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own – Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.

s-l640Within the past several years I have found myself becoming more and more familiar with the life and legacy of James Baldwin (1924-1987).  And I have come to realize that while he is widely appreciated as an author, he is at the same time, underrated as a voice of reason with regards to the country he called home.  Curiously, Baldwin spent many years of his life in Europe, finding solace and residency in France and Turkey.  However, his life outside of the United States allowed him to view America from the eyes of a foreigner.  That position gave him a unique opportunity to view America through the lens of a microscope where all of its social ills were readily visible.  In his time he was seen as a trouble maker and rabble rouser due to his outspokenness and sadly because of his sexual orientation.  But to focus on his frank dialogue and homosexuality would be misjudgment of his true genius.  Baldwin possessed an uncanny ability to dissect American society and highlight where the nation was going wrong.  Today America is at a crossroads with a looming presidential election in a nation fiercely divided and deeply polarized.   Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. takes another look at James Baldwin, who comes back to life as a voice of reason during which are certainly difficult times. 

While the book is about Baldwin, it is not a biography of his life. Readers who are in search of a thorough account of his from start to finish might enjoy David Leeming’s David Leeming: A Biography,  which is an excellent read and a fitting biography.  Glaude takes a different approach to Baldwin’s legacy and although the book is shorter than I would have like, contained within is a thought provoking discussion of race in America.  A possible knee-jerk reaction might be to write Baldwin off as a race baiter who always complained about America.  However, Baldwin always made it clear that he loved his home country.  In fact, one of his more famous quotes is:   

I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually

To be fair, Baldwin never said at any time that he held any hatred towards America. And even when he died in December, 1987 while in France, the United States was still his home. Glaude’s goal here is take a look at Baldwin’s thoughts and apply them to the current day social and political climate in America. If we pay close attention, we can see clearly that Baldwin was ahead of his time and warned America repeatedly of what we are seeing today. While reading the book, a section regarding Malcolm X (1925-1965) jumped out at me and caused me to sit in deep thought. Malcolm who was a close friend of Baldwin and is buried at the same cemetery remarked: “Malcolm X, in town by happenstance, dropped in to hear Jimmy hold forth. “Whenever I hear that this little brother is going to speak in any town where I am,” he said, “I always make a point of going to listen, because I learn something”. As far as I know, there were very few people for whom Malcolm X would put off all prior engagements to see at a speaker’s podium. The quote shows the influence Baldwin had over even the most prominent of civil rights figures.

As Glaude tells the story, he also relates his own movements as he researched the book which included a visit to the Deep South and even the ruins of what was Baldwin’s home in France. He also went as far to visit Baldwin’s grave at Ferncliff cemetery. Quite frankly, he left no stone unturned in his quest to understand Baldwin’s evolution as writer and social activist. When he died, James Baldwin left behind many lessons for us to learn from. Glaude has taken these lessons and applied them to his focus on Donald J. Trump and the polarization of America. The truth that he reveals is what we all need to hear but I am afraid that both supporters of Trump and his opponents may overlook the author’s points as the battle between the left and right continues to intensify in all of its ugliness.

The author sets the tone with a simple premise: America is built on a lie. That idea is driven home in a short few words: “the willingness of so many of our fellows to toss aside any semblance of commitment to democracy—to embrace cruel and hateful policies—exposes the idea of America as an outright lie“. However, exactly what that lie is shows how long many of us have been living in denial either intentionally or unwittingly. The idea is certainly disheartening to think about but if we digest Glaude’s words, we can see that he not only makes an excellent point but also that there is truth to his words. Further, his goal is not the destruction or repudiation of America but an honest attempt to allow us as a nation to see how we have reached this point and can “begin again”. Baldwin called it a New Jerusalem. Personally, I do not have a name for it but would simply say that we are in a position to make true change in this country but only if we pay attention to our complicated and sometimes violent past.

One of the beautiful parts of the book is that while we revisit Baldwin’s words, we also revisit crucial times in American history viewed through the late author’s eyes. Undoubtedly, these events helped shaped the thoughts and literary works that Baldwin composed during his life. Even while in France, America was never far from his mind and he would return on occasion to see what was becoming of the country that was his home. He had taken part in and supported the Civil Rights Movement only to see so many friends die early deaths. The elections of Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994) and Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) reaffirmed Baldwin’s view that America was turning its back on true change. And with November right around the corner, Americans now face a similar situation. The question is where do we go from here?

I admit that the book may cause some readers to feel ill at ease but that is exactly the point. Glaude does not want us to feel complacent. In fact, it is the opposite. The warning bells have been sounded and this book is an attempt to catch our attention so that we can see how history is once again attempting to repeat itself. Former President Barack Obama once said that what we see today did not start with Donald Trump. It certainly goes much deeper than that. The author lays much of it at the feet of Reagan, from whom Trump seems to have taken many of his tactics. Of course Reagan had more finesses and was less crass than Trump but equally effective at reaching his desired base of voters. And the “us versus them” mentality continues to erode at our social fabric. One of Glaude’s strongest statements is the following which we should all stop to consider:

In the end, Americans will have to decide whether or not this country will remain racist. To make that decision, we will have to avoid the trap of placing the burden of our national sins on the shoulders of Donald Trump. We need to look inward. Trump is us. Or better, Trump is you.”

I honestly believe that this book should be more widely read before this year’s election. Whether you are Republican, Democrat or even Independent, there are many lessons to be learned here. The goal here is not to shame anyone or “save white people” as Baldwin once said during the turbulent 1960s. Glaude believes as do I that it will take all of us to improve America and correct its ills. However, if we continue to deny its past then we can never correct course. Baldwin was keenly aware of this and for that reason he was constantly reminding America of where it was going wrong with the hope that it would take a new path towards his vision of a New Jerusalem. With his words we can be the change we wish to see in this country and understand how addressing our past can truly improve our future.

ASIN: B07RFVCB11

The Battle for God – Karen Armstrong

armstrong-3

During what are certainly usual times, many of us have turned to faith to cope with the dreadful news surrounding Covid-19. The virus has changed our lives in ways we could have never imagined and in these times, faith is one of the few things that some people have left. Whether it is Jesus, Allah, Yahweh or another God, belief in the higher power has proven to be a clutch as fears of the unknown settle in. Depending on where and to whom you were born, your faith may be Christianity, Islam, Judaism or one of hundreds of religions and denomination. Regardless of what you faith is, we can all agree that next to politics, religion is one of those topics that can bring people together in peace or drive them apart with anger and rage. And even within a culture, disputes about religion are bound to surface as fundamentalism and modernity clash head to head. Author Karen Armstrong has taken a closer look at the passionate struggle between fundamentalist and secular forces in what she appropriately calls the battle for God.

Though there are hundreds if not thousands of religions in the world, the primary focus here is on Christianity, Judaism and Islam, which are considered the world’s largest monotheisitc faiths. Although Hinduism is one of the world’s oldest religions, it is polytheistic and it is not organized in the exact same manner as the others. God, Yahweh and Allah take center stage in a book that it sure to provoke deep thought about how we view the concepts of the supernatural and life after death. I want to point out that at no time does the author degrade any of the religions discussed within. Her goal is not to slander but to show the inner struggles within each as opposing forces battle for the direction of their faith. It is imperative to keep this in mind to see the true value in what she has written.

I do warn readers that the author moves between three religions as the book progresses and the changes may seem abrupt to some. But what is taking place is actually three discussions woven into one main account. Putting that aside, there is a wealth of information in the book and a rock solid presentation of how religion became a battleground between opposing points of view. And to entice us early on, Armstrong does give us a telling clue:

Fundamentalism—whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim—rarely arises as a battle with an external enemy (in the case of Volozhin, this external enemy would have been gentile European culture); it usually begins, instead, as an internal struggle in which traditionalists fight their own coreligionists who, they believe, are making too many concessions to the secular world.

This statement sets the stage for what is to come and it is a roller coaster ride in which we see how widely practice religions have virtually taken two different tracks of development as society continues to evolve. To help us understand the divisions, Armstrong takes us back in time to when fundamentalism was normal and modernity was an unknown concentp. But as humanity moved forward and science became a larger influence in society, the fundamentalist began to feel that their way of belief was in imminent danger of extinction and those who considered themselves true believers were willing to go to whatever lengths necessary to protect their faith, even resorting to acts of violence. The emergence and proclamations by Charles Darwin (1809-1882) only increased the fundamentalists’ paranoia and as we see in the book, they believed that the writing was on the wall.

Readers may find themselves taking a significant amount of notes. As the story moves between the three faiths, it is easy to get sidetracked and I did find myselfpreferring to read the book when I had periods of near absolute silence. Names of historical figures are peppered throughout the story. Some are easily recognizable while others may be known for the first time to the reader. However, they all have a role to play as the West and Middle East become hotbeds for religious extremists. I will refrain from listing too many names here because the amount of figures who enter the story is quite large. But I will say that Armstrong presents deeply interesting discussions of how religion has developed in the United States, home to the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant simply known as a WASP and in the Middle East where Shiite and Sunni Islam became the dominant forms of Islam. And her analysis of events leading up to the assassination of Anwar Sadat (1918-1981) and the Iranian Revolution are just right for anyone seeking a condensed explanation of how radical Islam has gained so much power. And as one would expect, the story of Iran includes an in-depth focus on Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini known to the west as Ayatollah Khomeini (1902-1989). However, I do feel that the most eye-opening part of the book is the discussion of Zionism versus Orthodox Judaism in Israel. I personally found myself glued to this section as I learned more about Zionism and how Israel is actually two belief systems in a nation that also grapples with continuing tensions with its Palestinian neighbors. There is certainly more than meets the eye. In fact, some readers may be surprised to see what Armstrong says about the early relationship between Jews and Muslims.

One of the most popular concepts of American democracy is the separation between church and state. Armstrong touches on this as the religious right that has become a significant force in American culture. it is fascinating and older readers will recall the nearly earth shattering revelations of Tamm Faye and Jim Bakker. And who can forget the video of Jimmy Swaggart crying on national television? Their escapades and the constant battle between Christian fundamentalism and secular society continues to this day as televangelists grace the airwaves reminding us of our need to repent. What Joel Osteen and Crefo Dollar are able to do, follows but also exceeds the prominence of televangelist Oral Roberts (1918-2009). And as technology continues to improve, the battle between opposing forces within Christianity will continue to do battle for the God they believe in.

After finishing the book, I took a moment of silence to sit and digest all that I had read. And while I do know there is far more to the story than could have been included here, the book is simply amazing. I do feel that everyone can find value in it regardless of who God they believe in. Armstrong never attempts to sway anyone from belief. But the value she does provide is that she takes a neutral view at the inner struggle from an analytical standpoint as any good author would. Those who are religious will need to be able to read it with an open mind for it is not so much a challenge to faith but an examination of it. And that examination is needed as fundamentalism shows no sign of going away. But we could ask, should fundamentalism have no place at all in society? A knee-jerk reaction would say no but upon closer inspection, through Armstrong’s words, we see that those in power did not seek to abolish fundamentalism but rather find a way to placate all as reasonably possible. But what we also see is that fundamentalism eventually took a dark and even deadly turn inspite of concessions as adherence to the scripture took priority over liberal freedoms.

ASIN: B005DB6NCA

The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream – Patrick Radden Keefe

RaddenIn the early morning hours of June 6, 1993, a shipping vessel named the Golden Venture ran aground at Rockaway Beach in Queens, New York.  National Park Service officers began to inspect the incident and noticed human figures jumping over the sides of the boat and scurrying out of the light.  It soon became clear that the ship was carrying human cargo, more specifically, Chinese men and women being smuggled into the United States. The next day, my parents, brother and I watched the news broadcasts in shock.  But what none of us realized was that the smuggling of human beings into the country had been taking place right under our noses. However, my father who was undoubtedly the most street savvy out of the group remarked that people have been smuggled into the United States for years.  But looking back, I do not believe that even he knew the scope of the operation.  Patrick Radden Keefe, the author of the phenomenal Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Irelandjourneyed into the Chinese underworld and explored the complicated network of international human smuggling. And what he found is a story that will surely be remembered for years to come.

Readers may be surprised to hear that the Golden Venture incident is only part of the full  story. It is however, the culmination of a series of critical events that take place over the course of the book.  The story begins in Chinatown where a Chinese immigrant from the Shengmei in Fujian Province named Cheng Chui Ping (1949-2014) and her husband Cheung Yick Tak operate a variety story and other small business ventures.  On the street she was known as Big Sister Ping, the woman to whom all went if they also hailed from  Fujian.  As a native New Yorker, I admit that I did have some embarrassment at my lack of knowledge of the importance of Fujian and Chinese immigration to the United States.  Reefe provides some very interesting information and I was surprised to learn that even Chinatown was split and may be split today, between different demographics within the Chinese community itself. Further, he provides a very thorough discussion on the history of Chinese immigration in America, and makes sure to include the good, the bad and the even the regrettable.  Readers who are interested in learning more about the Asian American experience will highly appreciate Roger Daniels’ Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States Since 1850, which is invaluable in understanding Chinese and Japanese immigration to America.

As the book progresses, Sister Ping emerges as a titan in the New York Chinese-American community, providing an invaluable link between new immigrants to America and their native homeland. The money comes pouring and smuggling proves to be a highly lucrative business, with uninterested authorities oblivious to a vast network operating freely across several continents.  With the arrival of Fujianese immigrants also came the darker underworld controlled by the tongs, the gangs that preyed on Chinese businesses and in some cases, turned Lower Manhattan into a shooting gallery.   The central Fuk Ching tong figure is Guo Liang Qi who is known simply as Ah Kay. This simple and unassuming immigrant becomes one of the most important figures in the book and permanently intertwined in the story of Big Sister Ping.

The discovery of the Golden Venture left many Americans scratching their heads.  But surprisingly, not everyone was in shock. In fact, Reefe shows that Washington knew far more about Chinese smuggling than it led the American people to believe.  And in New York City, officials with the Immigration and Naturalization Service were well acquainted with Sister Ping, who surprisingly, had been previously apprehended near Buffalo, New York.  The authorities and Ping engage in a cat and mouse game in which the smugglers know the authorities are watching but unable to make any significant headway.  But all of that changes after the “Beeper Store” murders which placed Ah Kay high on the list of most wanted fugitives.  The grisly fallout from the murders at the store and the inhumane deaths occurring at the hands of smugglers started to awaken the sleeping giant and soon, people in high places within the U.S. Government began to take notice of the growing Chinese underground smuggling ring. And by the time of Ping’s demise, even the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had its hand in the jar.  But incredibly, official policy in Washington seemed to facilitate the very thing that many sought to eliminate.  Actions by the administration of George H. W. Bush (1924-2018) are examined in detail and will leave some readers shaking their heads at what could be described as an incredible lack of foresight.

One part of the story that stands out is the sort or revolving door aspect to the early arrests that take place of Sister Ping, Yick Tak and others.  Few stay in custody for long and eventually make their way back to Chinatown.  The author leaves it up to the readers to decide how they were able to manage such feats but I believe that those closely following the story will quickly put two and two together. Some secrets of Ping’s first arrest and that of her husband are carefully hidden from public light. However, they are only a small part of a story that becomes far more disturbing as the focus moves from New York to the South China Sea and Southeast Asia where Ping is continuing to operate after exiting stage left from New York.  The events that take place in the South China Sea are crucial to the journey of the Golden Venture, originally known as the Tong Sern.  At this point in the book, it becomes clear how the Golden Venture’s final journey began to take shape and the doom that awaited the men and women on board.

After running aground, the passengers aboard the Golden Venture were in for yet another journey, this one through the United States immigration system.  At this point in the book, the story takes yet another turn as Washington finds itself in a tough predicament.  I had always wondered what happened to the people on the Golden Venture and could not recall what became of them.  While I did remember that they were detained as illegal aliens, I was not aware of their ordeal after surviving the journey across the seas.  I am sure that readers may be divided on the Government’s response in this situation.  Some may argue that there was no perfect way to deal with the survivors while others may feel they should have been deported immediately.  What is clear is that they became a political football that landed into the lap of President William Jefferson Clinton.   Ultimately, Clinton makes a final decision that one would assume solved the plight of the passengers.  However, that is not the case and Reefe follows their journeys across America in the country that would become a new home for some of them.   A few of the stories are uplifting and others not so much.  But each highlights the lengths to which people will go for a new life in America. And Reefe does an excellent job of driving home that point.

Sister Ping figures prominently throughout the book and her final capture is straight out of the playbook of Interpol.  However, how she was eventually captured does provoke deep thought and produces even deeper questions.   Mysteriously, records pertaining to the case of her husband Yick Tak, who was arrested shortly before Ping for the second time, remained sealed.  However, her subsequent trial and conviction are explained by the author and even includes snippets of Ping’s bizarre rants in the courtroom.   The fall of big sister was fast and furious but she was only one in a large network of smugglers who see big money to be made by helping those in achieving their dreams of moving to the United States.  To the very last moment, Ping remained defiant and some statements she makes will cause readers to wonder if one person can be that out of touch with reality.   On August 24, 2014, Ping died at the Federal Medical Center Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas. She was sixty-five years old and left behind a legacy that remains intact to those who have come from Fujian and made a new home in America.  But to authorities, her arrest and downfall was a sweet victory following years of investigative work and tragic discoveries of other failed ventures destined for the shores of America.  She may be gone but to a large number of immigrants she will always be known as Big Sister Ping.  And this is the story of the Snakehead, the underground network that opened the eyes of many to the paths taken by those who risk life and death to live the American dream.

ASIN: B002HMJZAA

Killer Clown: The John Wayne Gacy Murders – Terry Sullivan and Peter T. Maiken

SullivanOn December 11, 1978, Robert Jerome Piest (1963-1978) was finishing up his shift at Nisson Pharmacy when an older man approached him with the offer of a job in his contracting company. Piest told his mother Elizabeth that he would only be a few minutes. That was last time anyone saw Robert Piest alive.  Police would soon learn that the older gentlemen observed conversing with Piest was a local named John Wayne Gacy (1942-1994), a well-respected but peculiar figure who owned a company named PDM Contractors. Gacy initially denied any knowledge of Piest or his whereabouts that night but detectives felt that he was certainly hiding something.  Although he was only a person of interest at that time, none of the detectives could have known then that in only two years, the worst serial killer in American history would be convicted of multiple counts of murder.  Terry Sullivan was Supervisor of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Third District office and here he teamed up with Peter Maiken (1934-2006) to bring us the inside story of the effort to bring John Wayne Gacy to justice.

I believe that it goes without saying but I will say here that readers should use discretion when deciding whether to read this book. The subject is sensitive and anyone who knows even slightest bit of information regarding John Wayne Gacy, knows that the story does not have a happy ending.  In fact, it is dark, disturbing and one of the most extreme true crime stories that you will ever read.  But that is also what makes it so appealing.  However, if you are not able to read descriptions of violent acts that result in death and post-mortem examinations, then you may want to give this book a pass.  But if you prefer true crime and have questions about Gacy’s story, then you have essentially hit pay dirt.  The book is a good as it gets and from start to finish, and is a roller coaster ride that will leave readers speechless.

Similar to most serial killers, Gacy was described as successful, charming and sociable.  His charm is on full display as he engages with a cat and mouse game with the police officers assigned to tail him as a person of interest.  Undoubtedly, much of what she says and does if overly flattering but the seductiveness of his charm when turned on is apparent and gives the book an even darker chill as the descriptions of his crimes come to light.  In an almost Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde routine, John would be friendly, overly helpful and a town role model but the darker John, cruised the streets at night, turning his city into his hunting grounds in which young men were fair game.  And between 1972 and 1978, he engaged in a reign of terror that took the lives of at thirty young men.

The book certainly reads like a true crime story and Sullivan moves us along in chronological order.  But it is interesting to see how the officers on the case and the district attorney’s office worked together to develop their file on Gacy, whom they all suspected of being in involved with the disappearance of Robert Piest.  However, as we see in the book, authorities had no idea at that time, that Gacy was hiding far darker deeds.  As their file grew, detectives began to learn more about Gacy and his criminal past which included a sodomy conviction and prison time at Anamosa State Penitentiary. Detectives began to take note of odd things at Gacy’s house, most importantly personal  items that did not belong to him and a rancid odor emanating from the kitchen and bathroom area.  After obtaining a second search warrant to search Gacy’s house,  detectives and forensic personnel made a grisly discovery that changed American history.  Coincidentally, Gacy had paid a visit to his attorneys’ office and what he would tell them left both men shaking.  The walls were closing in on Gacy and after he was in custody, the true nature of the horror detectives had uncovered became strikingly real.

It was clear to all involved that Gacy had in fact murdered a staggering amount of people, but detectives were also faced with the task of identifying the remains found and finally solving disappearances that had authorities baffled.   And although the crimes are horrific, what is really spine chilling is the casual manner in which Gacy discusses his actions.  He recalls each crime as if it was part of his regular routine and no big deal.  This alone should remove all doubt as to just how cold and calculating Gacy truly was. At some parts of the book, I found myself staring in disbelief at what I was reading.  While I knew of Gacy’s actions, there is a wealth of information that might be new information for some readers.   The story is simply mind-blowing and far better than any documentary I have seen.

After Gacy was firmly in custody, prosecutors then had to come up with a strategy to secure a conviction in a court of law.  Their case was built around Robert Piest but Gacy faced multiple charges of homicide.  And while no one doubted that he had killed, including his own lawyers, the defense’s case rested upon the insanity defense.  This is the crux of the legal action and Sullivan shows the opposing points of view between the prosecution’s experts and the defense’s experts.  As someone who works in the legal field, I am keenly aware of the important of expert witness testimony and how it can make or break a case.  And reading their testimony here, sometimes made the hair on my neck stand up not because of any graphic descriptions but because their words would decide whether Gacy would go to a mental hospital and possibly be released or whether he would meet his maker on death row.  Today we have the hindsight of 20/20 vision and know Gacy’s fate.  But at that time, there was a good possibility that an insanity defense just might work and Sullivan expresses his concern as he discusses the expert testimony.  It is a good analysis of trial procedure in what was unquestionably a high profile case.

Sullivan and his squad of prosecutors eventually prevailed and the final moments in their crusade for justice are captured in the book and show just how much effort went into preparing the case against Gacy.  And for prosecutors, securing a sentence of death was the “icing on the cake”.  On May 10, 1994, John Gacy was executed at the Stateville Correctional Center, near Joliet, Illinois.  But surprisingly, the story was not yet over.  In fact, Sullivan provides a discussion on DNA evidence examined in 2011 that brought even more closure to the families of Gacy’s victims.  Perhaps we may never know the full number of victims and their locations. Gacy took many secrets with him to the grave but he was wrong about one thing, clowns do not always get away with murder.

ASIN: B00BPVV2T6