Key False Document in the Thomas Merton Death Case
In the paper that we presented to the Thomas Merton Symposium in Rome, ŌWhat We Know about Thomas MertonÕs Death,Ķ we noted that on the subject of MertonÕs death, Michael MottÕs authorized biography, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton has been treated as the ultimate authority, that is, up until we published The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton: An Investigation in March of 2018. Unfortunately, the International Thomas Merton Society (ITMS), which has 45 U.S. chapters, conducts four-day conferences biennially, and publishes the quarterly Merton Seasonal and the Merton Annual jointly with the Thomas Merton Center of Bellarmine University, in a most benighted fashion, still seems to be treating MottÕs flawed and dishonest work as definitive. In one vital part of his narrative, Mott relies upon information contained in a document that we have determined must surely be fraudulent. Worse than that, he fails to reference the document, as though he is aware of its fraudulence. We know that is where he must have gotten his information because it is found nowhere else in the record, and it is directly at odds with much more reliable information that is on the record. We hardly have to guess about this, because the document is among his archived papers at the library of Northwestern University.
We are speaking of MottÕs assertion that Father Odo Haas, one of the three witnesses who found MertonÕs body in his room with a defective fan lying across his pelvic area, attempted to remove it and suffered a strong shock, finding himself stuck to the fan until another witness, Father Celestine Say, was able to unplug it. That is not at all what happened, according to Fr. Say. Mott also writes that there were four initial witnesses, including Father Franois de Grunne, a ŌfactĶ which only could have come from the suspect document. We know that according to the testimony of several others that Fr. de Grunne was not there.
Phony Documents and Cover-Ups
In the case of government cover-ups, made up or misrepresented documents are almost standard fare. A notable example is Vincent FosterÕs somewhat gloomy memorandum to himself, belatedly found in his briefcase days after it had apparently been emptied out in the presence of several people, torn into 28 pieces with no fingerprints on it, and with one piece missing where a signature might have been. That document served for the press as FosterÕs suicide note, though it isnÕt addressed to surviving loved ones and gives no indication that anything in it is serious enough that the writer might be even considering taking his own life. Furthermore, three notable handwriting examiners have declared it to be a forgery.
A similar document played a central role, from the very first day, in the press and government declarations that recently resigned Secretary of Defense James Forrestal had taken his own life on May 22, 1949, when he fell from a 16th floor window of the main tower of the Bethesda Naval Hospital where he had been confined. In this case the surrogate suicide note was the supposed transcription by Forrestal of a morbid poem by Sophocles, ŌChorus from Ajax,Ķ in which the main character in despondence apparently contemplates suicide. That transcription turned out not to be even an attempt at a forgery. Perhaps the writer was confident that it would never see the light of day, because the handwriting doesnÕt begin to resemble ForrestalÕs.
A more common type of phony document is a falsified witness statement. Sylvia MeagherÕs seminal 1967 examination of the Warren Commission Report on the John F. Kennedy assassination, Accessories after the Fact, is replete with examples (pp. 323-326) of misrepresentation of witness statements by the FBI interviewers. A clear example of an FBI-falsified statement in the Foster case is that of the witness, Patrick Knowlton. Knowlton described to the FBI a car parked at Fort Marcy Park, where FosterÕs body was found, that was older and of a distinctly different color from FosterÕs car, but the FBI interview report stated blandly that Knowlton saw FosterÕs car.
We have encountered a document in the Merton case that appears to be a combination of the two types of falsifications that we have described. It is apparently not a misrepresentation of what a witness told interviewers; rather, it looks very much like a witness statement that has been entirely manufactured. It has not been as central to the Merton case as the two notes were to the Forrestal and Foster cases, but it is important. It provides the only ŌevidenceĶ that the bad wiring of the fan might have been such that a person touching it might possibly have been killed on the spot.
It is represented as the written statement of Fr. Odo Haas. It would appear to be what he submitted to the Thai police on the day of the death, and that was how it has been characterized in correspondence between those responsible for constructing the narrative approved for public consumption. The documentÕs legibility is poor, so we transcribe it here so that readers might join us in evaluating its authenticity:
Report on the Discovery of the Corpse of R.Fr. Thomas-Louis Merton
About 4 p.m. In Bangkok- Swanganivas on Sukhumvit Rd. –Thai Red Cross Haus No. ii
Reporter: Odo Haas, osb, Abbot of Waegevan [sic]
About 4 pm I went by Haus no. 2 together with Rt. Rev. Archabbot E. Donovan/Vincent-Latrobe (USA-Penn.) where Rev. Louis-Thomas Merton was living. There were living with him in the same house: Rev. Celestine Say, om[sic]/Prior of Manila
Rev. Francois de Grunne/St. Andr-Belgium
MR.Moffitt/Editor of America Magazine
We met Rev. Fr. Grunne [sic] and he told us that about 3 pm he had heard a cry and the fall of a heavy object in or nearby the house. After some time he wanted to go look in the room where Fr. Merton was, off on the right. He saw Fr. Merton lying on the floor as he looked through the screen. The door was locked. He took off immediately to get a key.
The three of us immediately hastened to the door of the room. There we met Fr. Say.
I was going to break the door-window open and it gave way right off so that we could easily open the door.
Fr. Merton lay on the floor before us. He was dressed only in his shorts. He lay between the bed and a stand where his habit was hanging to dry. The feet lay about 40 inches from the feet-end of the bed with the head in the corner of the room in front of the clothes-stand. On his body lay a fan (made in Japan), about 45 inches high. The feet of the fan lay between the legs of Fr. Merton, with the switch on the top seam of the shorts and the fan itself on the face or the head of Fr. Merton.
The toes of both feet seemed to be cramped.
At the point where the switch touched the shorts and the body a wound, a hands-breath [sic] in width, gaped open. The raw flesh was visible and the base of the wound was blood-shot.
The face was deep blue. The eyes were half open. He was the mouth.[sic] On the left side between the body and the arm I observed a pool of fluid. It was not water. I thought it was fluid from the wound or from the body. (Fr. Say advised me to take a picture of the scene. It is doubtful whether it took since it was too dark.) An odor filled the room which, from earlier experience, I had learned to recognize as burnt human flesh.
The fan was still going. And so I wanted to take it off the body right away. In doing so I got a strong electric shock. It kept me from getting free of the fan. Fr. Say pulled the plug of the fan out of the socket as quickly as he could (it was behind the bed in the other corner of the room).
We four together verified the death of Fr. Merton. And so Rt. Rev. Donovan gave him the blessing (presumably general absolution). I did the same.
Immediately I hastened to Rt. Rev. Abbot Primat [sic] R. Weakland who appeared at the scene about 3 minutes later. About 4:10 p.m. the Abbot Primate gave Fr. Merton extreme unction.
(signed) Eyewitness; Odo Haas, osb
Abbot of Waegwan/S. Korea.
(The typewritten document was not signed. ed.)
Considering the fact that this statement was supposedly given within a few hours after the actual event, its clear errors can hardly be explained away on account of the witnessÕs faulty memory. The most obvious error is that de Grunne joined Haas and Donovan after he had informed them of MertonÕs plight: ŌThe three of us hastened to the door of MertonÕs room.Ķ
We know for certain that that is not true. Everyone else said that the three people who first entered MertonÕs room were Haas, Donovan, and Say and that de Grunne had gone on to the main building. De Grunne, himself, in a letter to John Moffitt said that he went quickly to the main building after informing Haas and Donovan of the Merton emergency. Say also wrote to Moffitt that he had noticed that de Grunne did not return after going for help, and reflected that de Grunne must have been hit hard emotionally by what had happened to Merton.
We can also see that this misstatement is not just a slip-up, because near the end of the document the writer says quite definitely, ŌWe four together verified the death of Fr. Merton.Ķ The four that he is clearly referring to at that point are Say, Donovan, de Grunne, and himself. One of them could not be Dr. Edeltrud Weist, whom he does not mention in his statement, and it could not be Weakland, who didnÕt get there until a few minutes later, almost simultaneously with Dr. Weist.
The error looks very much like the sort of inadvertent one that a person would make who was not actually there at the scene. It is very difficult to believe that Haas would have made such a major mistake. Another error of that type concerns the matter of the key that de Grunne supposedly left the death scene to pursue. The door to MertonÕs room was not secured by a lock that required a key, but by an internal latch. And if getting the key were so important in de GrunneÕs mind, why would he not have continued on to the main building to try to get it?
The DocumentÕs Poison Pill
Such inadvertent mistakes may be contrasted with the statementÕs central inaccuracy, which appears to be the main reason that the statement was concocted. We are talking about the Ōstrong electric shockĶ that the writer says he got that Ōkept [him] from getting free of the fanĶ when he attempted to lift it off MertonÕs body.
That is not what Say reported that he witnessed at the time, saying only that Haas ŌrecoiledĶ from the shock and that Haas told him that the shock was Ōnot too strong.Ķ There is an absolutely fundamental difference between these two descriptions, representing the difference between a would-be killer fan and a fan that one would jerk back from in the manner in which one jerks back from an electric fence. It is extremely hard to believe that a witness like Say, who has proved to be so consistent and reliable in every other way, could possibly have been so wrong about what he saw when Haas touched the defective fan and in what Haas told him about the nature of the shock. Surely Say would not have found such an episode so forgettable that he would never tell anyone else about it, that is, that he had to rush to unplug the fan so that Haas could free himself from it. It is also quite difficult to believe that Haas would describe such an extremely painful and, indeed, life-threatening experience in such a matter-of-fact way.
Whoever wrote this statement—which tellingly lacks HaasÕs signature and dating at the bottom where a signature is supposed to be—must have realized that reinforcement was needed for the notion that Merton had been killed by a defective fan. The idea had to be planted that the fan might have killed Haas, too, but for the quick thinking of Say to rush to unplug it.
The short statement has other anomalies, likely errors of both the intentional and inadvertent type. In that latter category, the writer has the fan lying on MertonÕs body with its base between his legs and the blades of the fan on MertonÕs head. Since the diagonal placement of the fan across MertonÕs body was so radically different from this, one can hardly believe that this could be the writing of an actual witness.
The document also describes a wide, open wound on MertonÕs body mentioned by no other witnesses or the police report and not apparent in the two photographs of the scene that we have.
The writer also says that Say suggested that he take a picture of the scene, but we know that it was Say who actually took photographs, and, according to Say, it was Haas who suggested that he do so. Say, we know, after observing the conduct of the Thai police, became wary of them and decided not to reveal to the police that he had taken photographs of the body for fear that they would confiscate his film. Haas is likely to have shared SayÕs wariness of the police and would not have divulged that he had taken any photograph for the same reason.
Another likely inadvertent mistake in the statement is that the fan was still running, suggesting that the blades of the fan were still turning. Donovan, however, wrote in a letter to Moffitt, that the blades of the fan were still when they entered MertonÕs room. It is a good deal more likely that a short-circuited fan would not be running, so DonovanÕs observation seems more believable.
It is highly unlikely that Haas would have begun his statement by misspelling the hometown of his abbey in Korea. It is equally unlikely that he would have written the initials for the Order of St. Benedict that follows his name in lower case letters. This is never done.
In the intentional misinformation category, the writer reports that de Grunne, as soon as he encountered Haas and Donovan, told them that he had heard Ōa cry and the fall of a heavy objectĶ at about 3:00 p.m., but, curiously, he hadnÕt gone to check on it until about an hour later. This fits very well with the Ōloud noiseĶ that the police report says that de Grunne heard at about that time, but itÕs very strange that Haas would report such a thing so routinely. WouldnÕt he have found it odd that de Grunne would have waited so long to check on such alarming sounds?
It also fits with Dr. Weist writing that she had been told that de Grunne heard a shout at about 3:00 p.m., causing her to speculate that this could have been the time of MertonÕs death. (M. Edeltrud Weist, Report on the first impressions after Rev. F. Thomas MertonÕs tragic death given by an eyewitness, handwritten note, Bangkok, Dec. 11, 1968, the Merton Center.) De Grunne very likely did tell others what the police say in their report that he told them. For the record, John Moffitt, after studying the evidence, had concluded by 1970 that de Grunne could not have heard any shout or sound of an object falling–never mind the time–because de Grunne was upstairs on the opposite side of the cottage with a door closed between the two floors. MertonÕs body falling onto the terrazzo floor would hardly have made any noise. Neither would the fan falling on top of MertonÕs body have made much noise. (John Moffitt, letter to Brother Patrick Hart, February 8, 1970, Moffitt papers.)
In fact, in a letter to Moffitt, thatÕs not at all how Donovan remembered the encounter. The thing that stood out in his mind was how de Grunne first oddly asked them if they had had a good swim, and only then told them that he had heard a thump, and when he promptly checked he saw Merton on the floor of his locked room. Donovan said that on hearing this from de Grunne, he and Haas quickly went to MertonÕs cottage. Not only does that account have a greater ring of truth, but it also correctly reports, in agreement with de Grunne and Say, that only Haas and Donovan rushed to look about Merton.
Say reported that Haas had told him he thought it most unusual that de Grunne should greet them with a casual query about their swim, but it seems not to have been remarkable enough for mention in this statement that is purportedly by Haas, which is just another reason to doubt its authenticity.
The Shower Story Came Later
Readers may note that the statement says that Merton was found wearing shorts and that whatever liquid was present was not water. This gives the lie to any notion that Merton was wet from showering when he touched the fan. One might wonder why the perpetrators of a cover-up would manufacture a document that is so incriminating on this point. But we must remember that the wet-from-showering scenario was not yet part of the story that the public had been told. It was not in the police report, and it was not in any news reports and would not be for a few years. That would not come until 1973 when, as we reported in ŌNew DirectionsÕ Misdirection on Thomas MertonÕs Death,Ķ MertonÕs secretary at the Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, wrote it in the postscript to The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton.
Even though it did not support the shower story, this ŌHaas statementĶ was still used to support the approved account, even after the wet-from-showering story had become a part of it, though carefully, as we have pointed out, without direct acknowledgment. A major reason why Michael Mott, who was one of the few people even to be aware of this document, could make no direct reference to it was precisely because of what the statement accurately said about MertonÕs body with shorts on it and the absence of water at the scene. By the time Mott published his biography in 1984, the shower story had become thoroughly incorporated into the myth of MertonÕs death.
If this is indeed a statement that Haas made for the Thai police, and it was in possession of the U.S. Embassy at the time that they ostensibly translated the police report, there is no conceivable innocent excuse for either of them to have mangled the spelling of the names of Haas and Say, as they did in the copy of the police report that was supposedly furnished to the abbey. Those names are right there in this statement for them to see.
The statement, in fact, in great contrast to the police report, is downright meticulous about peopleÕs names as well as their proper titles and occupations. In that regard, it seems to reflect more the concerns of a fussy bureaucrat than those of a witness at the scene, which is just one more reason to doubt its authenticity. Since neither the Haas statement nor the police report was signed and neither had the embassyÕs official stamp, as other documents related to MertonÕs death did, it further raises the question of whether either of the documents even came through the embassy.
As we discuss in more detail in Chapter 8 of The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton the typewritten witness statement by Dr. Weist has a big problem of its own, that is, that it omits the concluding two paragraphs of Dr. WeistÕs signed, handwritten version of the statement. The important information thereby left out is that, according to Dr. Weist, Haas told Say that the shock that he had received upon touching the fan was not very strong. It is hard to escape the conclusion that someone realized how damaging to the electrocution story it was that the fan had only mildly shocked Haas, so that part was deleted.
This explanation would be all nice and neat, except for the fact that it was the original handwritten version of WeistÕs statement that was sent to the abbey with the police report. We obtained our typed copy of it from Father Rembert Weakland, Abbot Primate of the Benedictine Order who presided over the conference. Weakland was not even aware of the police report. Perhaps someone just messed up when he or she provided WeistÕs handwritten statement and not the typed one to the abbey. Why would they have even bothered to type it up if it were not designed to be the official one for public consumption?
Finally, Dr. WeistÕs handwritten statement and Fr. SayÕs letter giving his eyewitness account are not the only sources that contradict this Haas account of the Ōstrong electric shockĶ that kept him stuck to the fan until Say could unplug it. The police report itself, which Michael Mott had in his possession, along with the statement of Dr. Weist and the letters of Fr. Celestine Say, when he wrote MertonÕs biography, says that Haas Ōjerked backĶ from the fan, and Brother Patrick Hart in the introduction to The Other Side of the Mountain, Volume 7 of The Journals of Thomas Merton, published in 1998, described the shock to Haas as Ōslight.Ķ He had previously described the shock as Ōstrong,Ķ however, in that postscript in which he introduced the shower story back in 1973. Hardly surprisingly, Brother Patrick has no source for either of these assertions that contradict one another.
Sir Walter ScottÕs famous line, ŌOh what a tangled tale we weave, when first we practice to deceive,Ķ seems particularly appropriate for what we have described in all of the foregoing.
January 3, 2019
Adapted from Chapter 4 of The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton: An Investigation by Hugh Turley and David Martin.