Blowing the Whistle When Things Go Wrong

During the Reagan administration, CIA Director William Casey and Robert Gates, who held several key positions at the agency, were the “Gepetto and Pinocchio” of U.S. intelligence, according to former CIA senior analyst Mel Goodman. To Goodman, Casey and Gates oversaw a politicization of the intelligence process that was detrimental to U.S. interests and was merely a rationalization for Reagan’s massive military buildup, at a time when the CIA knew, even before glasnost and perestroika, that the Soviet Union could not compete with the US in the arms race.

That was just one of Goodman’s insights as he discussed his new book, Whistleblower at the CIA: An Insider’s Account of the Politics of Intelligence, at Santa Fe’s Collected Works bookstore. Joining him in front of a standing-room-only crowd was Valerie Plame, a recent transplant to our fair city and the victim of intelligence politicization herself. You might recall that during the George W. Bush presidency, she was “outed” as a CIA operative by the Bush administration for having the misfortune of being married to a former US diplomat who spoke out against some of Bush’s rationale for the war in Iraq.

IMG_8719 (2)_1Plame began by asking Goodman, why this book now. He said he was concerned about the ongoing political damage caused by ideologues running the country’s intelligence apparatus. He had seen firsthand how they “prostitute the intelligence process” by shaping their reports to fit a president’s desired political outcome.

During the 1980s, Goodman was a Soviet analyst who watched Gates and Casey play loose with the facts to satisfy Reagan. Goodman eventually quit the CIA in 1990 and turned whistleblower the next year. He spoke out against Gates’s nomination to lead the CIA and detailed the many ways the agency, under his and Casey’s direction, had cooked the books when it came to intelligence reports. One example, which Goodman did not discuss at Collected Works, was the assertion that the Soviet Union was behind the plot to assassinate Pope John Paul II. Gates and Casey were convinced from the outset that the KGB had arranged it, even as CIA analysts could not find clear evidence of this. In 1985, Casey ordered Gates to prepare a new report on the assassination attempt, and Goodman testified to Congress that Gates did not want analysts to include any information that might show the Soviets were not involved. Gates later rewrote some of the report to suit his interpretation of events.

Plame asked Goodman about more recent whistleblower cases, including Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and Thomas Drake. The last name might not be familiar to many readers, but he was charged with violating the 1917 Espionage Act after the Obama administration accused him of passing along classified information to the media.  As Goodman noted, Drake tried to follow established procedures for alerting his superiors about illegal activities at the National Security Agency, where Drake worked. Only when he was ignored did he become a whistleblower.

As far as Snowden and Manning, Goodman said he thought they had released more information than was germane to their concerns, but he still supported their actions. Asked why Barack Obama was so aggressive in pursuing these and other whistleblower cases, Goodman said that he thought the president might have felt intimidated by the military and intelligence communities for his lack of experience in their realms, so he wanted to appear tough.

Most of the discussion focused on a range of foreign policy and intelligence issues, and the challenges the country faces in those areas under Donald Trump. The president, Goodman said, is “the symptom of a much larger crisis,” and Goodman does not share the faith some media outlets seem to have in the strength of our democratic institutions in the face of the Trump onslaught. “The guardrails of democracy have been compromised,” Goodman said. While not challenging the intelligence community’s assessment of Russian involvement, in some form, in the 2016 election, he doesn’t see an impeachment coming out of the Mueller investigations. He didn’t rule out, however, some indictments over money laundering tied to the Trumps and the Russians.

IMG_8715 (2)_1Going further into the previous election, Goodman noted that Vladimir Putin, in his KGB days, often collected information on Western elections. And as far as Hillary Clinton, Putin had a “real contempt” for her, after the way the United States handled the overthrow of Muammar Qaddfi in Libya. Russia abstained on a UN measure to send military forces there, because Clinton assured the Russians that regime change was not part of the plan. While Putin hated Hillary, he also thought he could work with—or manipulate—Trump, hence the Russians’ clear preference in the race.

Of course, Russian distrust of the United States began soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Bill Clinton broke the US promise not to expand NATO into any former Soviet republics. Other promises were broken as well. Goodman said, “We need a better relationship with Russia,” so we can work with them on issues where we have similar interests, such as terrorism. But anti-Russian/Soviet feelings here have 100-year-old roots, and the recent charges of collusion have only fanned them. Goodman said Putin wants Russia to be seen as an equal of the United States  in international affairs, and some of the moves he makes that upset Americans are really done out a sense of weakness—and the memory of the broken promises since 1991.

Other random observations Goodman shared: Current UN ambassador Nikki Haley is “incompetent,” and he had nothing positive to say about CIA director Mike Pompeo or the recent push, under both Obama and Trump, to have former military men holding so many national security positions. Goodman said the left wing can be as bad as the right in accepting conspiracy theories, and he doesn’t believe there is a “deep state” trying to undermine Trump or any other president. The CIA in particular, he said, “is in no position to hold back any president.” Asked to cite some past intelligence successes, he said the various departments provided good information on Soviet weapons programs and had the tools to successfully monitor and verify SALT and other arms limitation pacts. And Richard Nixon’s ability to improve relations with the Soviet Union and China rested in part on good intel. In general, Goodman said, our country’s intelligence-gathering capabilities are supreme. The problems have come with how the information has been used or misused, or with ill-conceived covert missions. One intelligence failure, though was 9/11. Then the commission that studied the attacks protected the CIA and President Bush in its final report.

Asked for good sources of information on what is happening in the world, Goodman singled out the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the Economist (a lineup sure to raise the hackles of some sectors of both the Left and the Right). In general, though, he said journalists are lazy, and they need to look deeper at something he sees as a bigger problem than Russian meddling in the 2016 election: Republican Election Day shenanigans and ongoing efforts at voter suppression. Another of his takes on the previous election: Hillary Clinton was a flawed candidate, in part because of her decision to use a private email server while secretary of state. She compounded her problems by ignoring advice to campaign in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and other states she thought she had wrapped up—and then lost by small margins. And the Democrats as a whole underestimated the anger of the middle class and largely ignored its concerns.

In the midst of all the recent political chaos, Goodman singled out one person for praise: “Sally Yates is a hero of mine.” The former assistant attorney general is a model public servant, he said, because she spoke up when she saw something illegal—which of course is what any good whistleblower should do.

On the Rocks

After spending too much time at my computer and not enough exploring the expanses of the Land of Enchantment, I finally set off on road trip this past weekend, to the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site, north of Tularosa in the southern part of the state. I went as part of a Meetup group that explores historical and cultural sites around New Mexico, with an emphasis on being outdoors and hiking as much as possible. It was a bit of a crapshoot, committing to spend almost 12 hours with three total strangers, but the conversation flowed easily and Charles, the leader of the group, is a dedicated hiker with a lot of knowledge about the history and geography of the areas he selects for the group to explore. I’m looking forward to another adventure with this crew.

On this trip, we headed south on back roads (at least compared to the interstate), and I saw a lot of terrain I had never seen before. The landscape changed several times, moving through grasslands and patches of juniper. We went through the town of Encino, which, if not officially classified as a ghost town, could be. The Census Bureau says it has fewer than 100 people, but I don’t think we spotted any of them as we passed through. Nearby Vaughn (population 446) showed more signs of life, but it also had a lot of empty and dilapidated buildings along the main road. If I had been alone, I would have stopped to take pictures of some of the derelict structures; I’m thinking of a return photo expedition around sunset someday soon.

After a slight navigational error, we backtracked a bit and headed south toward Tularosa, passing through “historic” Carrizozo. The claim to historic fame seems to rest on the region’s ties to Billy the Kid (Carrizozo is the county seat of Lincoln County, where the Kid took part in the Lincoln County Wars and achieved his notoriety as an outlaw) and to Albert Fall, who played a significant part in the Teapot Dome scandal and owned a ranch in the area. (As you’ll see through the link, he has the dubious distinction of being the first presidential cabinet member ever convicted of a crime while in office.)

Finally we reached the petroglyph site, which is administered by the Bureau of Land Management. The rock carvings were the work of the Jornada Mogollon, who came to the region around 900 CE. The Mogollon, whose name comes from a Spanish governor of colonial New Mexico, lived along what is now the U.S.-Mexico border from southeastern Arizona across New Mexico. They first settled in the region a little more than 2,000 years ago. In the Three Rivers areas, the Jornada left behind some 21,000 petroglyphs, depicting animals, crops, human features, and abstract symbols.

IMG_6329 (2)_1_1IMG_6347 (2)_1_1IMG_6349 (2)_1_1IMG_6370 (2)_1_1IMG_6377 (2)_1_1IMG_6391 (2)_1_1

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Another guest at the site that day.

At the site, with the Sacramento Mountains to the east and the San Andres Mountains to the west, a short hike up to the rocks revealed carvings of different sizes. From the higher points, we could see in the distance what looked like snow, but was actually the White Sands National Monument (another trip for another day). We climbed over the rocks, took lots of pictures, then sat in the shade and talked about other sights to see in the future and trips the other members of the group had already taken together.

We took a different route back, which led us through the town of San Antonio, where signs indicated that the road could be closed, because of missile testing at the White Sands Missile Range. No tests that day, thankfully, and we reached I-25 just south of Albuquerque to begin the trip back to Santa Fe. It was a day of lovely weather, history, and good company; what more could you ask for?

Exploring Chaco

As I’ve written before, it was a work project on the Taos Pueblo that first spurred my curiosity about New Mexico and led to my first visit in 1996, which led to the obsession—a healthy one, for a change—to someday move there. Writing about New Mexico several times after that first assignment, including for Scholastic’s America the Beautiful series, introduced me to other parts of the state’s diverse, sometimes awe-inspiring geography and rich history.

Fajada Butte, near the entrance to the canyon.

Fajada Butte, near the entrance to the canyon.

One place that I wrote about several times was Chaco Culture National Historical Park, more commonly known as Chaco Canyon. This remote spot west of Santa Fe was once the center of a thriving Native American culture, whose residents are the ancestors of today’s Puebloan people, many of whom consider it sacred land, as do some Navajo.

IMG_4792 (2)_1Not a city per se, Chaco was more of an administrative, commercial, and ceremonial center for different peoples of the regions. They traded with Indians all over the Southwest and into Mexico and communicated over vast distances using signal fires. The ancestral Puebloans also built roads into the canyon that linked Chaco with other communities; they oriented buildings to the seasonal positons of the sun and moon; and they erected massive “great houses” of unprecedented size for the region using only simple stone tools. The remains of the great houses are what attract most visitors today. I went as part of a tour sponsored by the University of New Mexico and so learned a lot about the archaeology and history while exploring the ruins.

Part of Pueblo Bonito

Part of Pueblo Bonito

The largest of the great houses was Pueblo Bonito, with some 600 rooms, though not all of them were inhabited at once. Construction on Bonito began some time during the 800s. The building process there and at other Chaco great houses sometimes went on for several centuries. Exploring the lives of the people who lived there continues today, though at times it can take archaeologists decades to process what they learn from the artifacts and offer explanations for how and why the Chacoans lived as they did. As to why they left the canyon: drought may have played a role, compounded by internal political conflict or invasions by hostile tribes. But it seems clear that by 1200 the Chacoans had mostly abandoned their great houses and moved on.

Wildflowers abounded

Wildflowers abounded

And some members of the group found pottery shards

And some members of the group found pottery shards

Just as the Chacoans looked to the sky for celestial markings, today’s nighttime visitors can enjoy a beautiful panorama of stars and planets. Chaco has earned the Dark Sky Place designation from the International Dark-Sky Association, which educates about light pollution and the need to preserve dark skies. But Chaco Canyon is also facing a threat from companies seeking to extract oil and natural gas from the surrounding countryside. Driving out there, I could see new wells and roads popping up all over the area. The Bureau of Land Management said at the end of 2014 that it would hold off on issuing more leases for extraction—for now. But in a state starved for jobs, the battle to limit fracking and other activities near Chaco is most likely not over.

For now, though, visitors can explore the park by day and star gaze at night and still have a sense that they’re experiencing a great part of New Mexico’s past.

A Death in Selma

David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr. in the movie Selma.

David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr. in the movie Selma.

The movie Selma has won strong reviews from critics. At least one defender of Lyndon B. Johnson, however, says the filmmakers got some of the facts wrong (as if that’s a surprise when Hollywood does history), particularly in the movie’s portrayal of Johnson’s relationship with Martin Luther King Jr. and the president’s support of the Voting Rights Act, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this summer (though not without undergoing frequent legal challenges of late).

I have not seen Selma so can’t weigh in on either its cinematic qualities or historical accuracy. But someone who has definite thoughts on the latter is Joseph Califano, a Johnson staffer in 1965. In an op-ed piece for the Washington Post, Califano wrote that LBJ considered the VRA one of his greatest accomplishments. Califano also said that the march on Selma was the president’s idea. I doubt that, but from the research I did for a recent You Choose book on the VRA, there seems little doubt that King and Johnson were working toward the same end before the violence in Selma and the later Selma-to-Montgomery march that did take place.

Here’s how David J. Garrow paints the picture in his 1979 book Protest at Selma: On February 9, 1965, King met with LBJ at the White House—not their first time together to discuss civil rights—and King emerged to tell reporters, “The president made it very clear to me that he was determined…to see all remaining obstacles removed to the right of Negroes to vote.” This was after the Justice Department had already drafted language for legislation to protect voting rights. King praised Johnson for his “deep commitment to obtaining the right to vote for all Americans.”

Garrow’s depiction of the story seems to back Califano, so if Selma suggests there was some basic disagreement between LBJ and Johnson, then it’s bad history. But films and facts aside, what caught my eye in the Califano piece was his reference to an incident in the days of Selma 1965 that is little known today—but that played a major part in one of the threads in my book on the Voting Rights Act.

James  J. Reeb

James J. Reeb

Califano mentioned that “a white minister from Boston was killed” after the initial violence in Selma on March 7. That white minister was James J. Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist who had moved from Philadelphia to Boston in 1964 to work for the American Friends Service Committee. The Quakers were working to improve housing for poor African Americans in the notoriously racist “Athens of America,” and Reeb, who was committed to civil rights, took over their program there. Reeb remained active with his denomination’s ministers’ association and a committee on race, though he did not have a congregation of his own.

A scene of the violence from March 7.

A scene of the violence from March 7.

On March 7, 1965, civil rights marchers in Selma attempted to march to Montgomery and were brutally attacked by Alabama state police, county sheriffs, and horse-riding local vigilantes known as possemen. Reverend King quickly put out a call to religious organizations across the country. He wanted both blacks and whites to converge on Selma and protest the state-sanctioned violence and continue the fight for voting rights for all. “In this way,” his telegram read, “all America will testify that that the struggle in Selma is for the survival of democracy in our land.” Reeb answered the call, joining about 60 other Boston-area Unitarians in traveling to Selma.

Reeb knew he was entering a violent arena, and his wife did not want him to go. But on March 9, he found himself marching through Selma with hundreds of other whites and many more blacks, as the civil rights activists once again tried to head to Montgomery. King, who had not participated in the first march, led the peaceful protesters. Alabama state troopers once again halted them, but this time without violence.

That evening, Reeb was walking through Selma with two other Unitarian reverends. Looking for a place to eat, they ended up in a “black” café. Later, four local whites spotted them leaving the black establishment. White Selma residents had no love for Northern whites who supported blacks in their fight for civil rights. One of the men swung a metal pipe that caught Reeb in the head. Clark Olsen, one of the men with Reeb, later said the assailant’s face was “intense and vicious.” The other men attacked Olsen and the third minister with their feet and fists. As the beating went on, one of the white men said, “Here’s how it feels to be a nigger down here.”

Reeb was able to stand and walk away, but his head injury soon left him incoherent. Within two days, he was dead. Not surprisingly, the death of a white minister in Selma drew national attention. On March 15, speaking to Congress to urge passage of the Voting Rights Act he was about to introduce, President Johnson noted Reeb’s violent end (which would go unpunished, despite Olsen’s eyewitness testimony against three men charged with the assault).

Johnson said, “At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama. There, long-suffering men and women peacefully protested the denial of their rights as Americans. Many were brutally assaulted. One good man, a man of God, was killed.”

Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights speaks out against the U.S. Supreme Court's 2013 decision to strike down part of the Voting Rights Act. Click on the pic to read the New York Times story on the decision.

Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights speaks out against the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to strike down part of the Voting Rights Act. Click on the pic to read the New York Times story on the decision.

Reeb has been called a martyr of the civil rights movement. His efforts show, as Johnson’s did, that some whites knew in 1965 that it was time to take action in creating the democracy we claim to cherish. It’s a shame that 50 years later, other whites still want to make it hard for all Americans to exercise their right to vote.

Recycling Research

On April 29, 1862, Timothy Webster prepared to die. He would soon become one of the hundreds of thousands of Americans to perish because of the Civil War. But Webster was not a Union or Confederate soldier or an unfortunate civilian caught in the crossfire. Webster was a spy for the North—and the first spy to be executed during the four-year conflict.

twebsterWebster’s name doesn’t appear in many history books, except perhaps ones devoted to Civil War espionage. I came across his story while researching a You Choose book on spies of the Civil War (due out next year). His exploits provided the background for one of my three story threads, and after finishing that book, I began doing a little more research on Webster for a query I wanted to write for a children’s magazine profiling little-known heroes of the Civil War (you can read about my time at Yale University doing that research here).

Unfortunately, the deadline for submitting the query passed before I could get my act together and write it. But like any historian, I didn’t want my research to go for naught, hence the post you’re now reading.

Most of the information about Webster and his undercover work came from his boss, Allan Pinkerton, of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Pinkerton and his operatives—including several women—formed the core of the Union’s first spy service during the war. Even before the fighting started, Pinkerton was involved in national security issues—more on that in a bit—and after the war he wrote about his and his staff’s deeds of derring-do in The Spy of the Rebellion.

Pinkerton, though, had a habit that has made life hard for historians: he liked to embellish the truth. For more than a century, popular writers took Pinkerton’s words about Webster as gospel and passed them along. It took Corey Recko, with his 2013 book A Spy for the Union, to poke holes in the tall tales with well-researched facts (I’m indebted to Recko’s work both for my You Choose book and this piece).

As it turns out, the truth is intriguing enough, painting a portrait of a calm, brave agent working behind enemy lines. Webster came to America from England when he was 12, and in his early 30s joined the New York Police Department. While on the force, he met Pinkerton, who convinced him to come to Chicago and join his detective agency.

Pinkerton assessed Webster this way: “There was such a decided mixture of sternness and amiability, of innate force and gentle feelings, of frankness and resolution stamped upon his features that he instinctively impressed the beholder at a glance.…Though not a man of great enlightenment, he was gifted with a large amount of natural shrewdness, which enabled him to successfully meet any emergency which might arise. From his association with people in the various walks of life, he had acquired that habit of easy adaptation which made him appear, and feel, perfectly at home in almost any society, whether in the drawing-room or the tavern, in the marts of trade, or laboring at the plow.”

That habit of easy adaptation helped Webster gain the trust of Confederate sympathizers in Maryland even before the start of the war. Along with Pinkerton agent Hattie Lewis, Webster went to Perryman, Maryland, shortly after Lincoln’s election. The two were supposed to gather information about rumored plots to blow up railroads in the state. Instead, Webster heard anti-Lincoln men talking about the possibility of the president’s  assassination as he passed through Baltimore on his way to his inauguration. That and information gleaned by other agents convinced Pinkerton that the threat of an assassination was real, even if he didn’t have concrete evidence of a well-conceived plot.

Lincoln's safe arrival in Washington , as depicted in  Pinkerton's book.

Lincoln’s safe arrival in Washington , as depicted in Pinkerton’s book.

When the time came for Lincoln to travel through Baltimore, he did it in disguise, secretly in the dead of night, with Pinkerton and several armed detectives traveling with him. Along the route, Webster stood watch, and as the train passed through Havre de Grace, he used a lantern to signal that all was clear. Lincoln reached the capital safely, though he regretted the clandestine trip. After being ridiculed in the press, he called the trip a “grave mistake,” from a political perspective. But as Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer notes in his book Lincoln President-Elect, given the real assassination plot of 1865, Pinkerton was not unwise to take the earlier rumors and threats seriously.

As for Webster, when the war broke out he found himself in Maryland, posing as a friend of the Confederacy. In that guise, he convinced real pro-South men that he wanted to arm Baltimore residents to battle Union troops. He also traveled into Rebel territory, visiting Tennessee and befriending Confederate officers, who openly talked about troop movements and strength. Everything he learned, Webster sent back to Pinkerton.

Later in 1861, Webster went to Richmond, maintaining his ruse as a Confederate supporter. He carried messages from Confederates in Maryland to the South’s capital, and once again he earned the trust of Confederate officers and government officials—so much so that they asked Webster to carry documents north for them. The South’s Secretary of War, Judah Benjamin, even wrote out passes for Webster so he could safely cross military lines. The Pinkerton operative coolly took on the role of double agent, with Union men copying down the contents of the messages he carried north before they reached their intended recipient.

In Richmond, Webster once again worked with Hattie Lewis; the couple posed as husband and wife. Early in 1862, Webster fell ill, and the pair stopped sending messages north for a while. A concerned Pinkerton sent two other agents to Richmond to check on Webster. Almost immediately, they were identified as Northern detectives by someone who had known them in Washington, D.C. They were arrested and sentenced to hang. To save himself, one of the men, John Scully, confessed his espionage activities and fingered Webster and Lewis as spies. Later the other nabbed agent, Pryce Lewis, followed Scully’s path. Both men avoided execution.

Webster receive his warrant for execution, as depicted in Pinkerton's book.

Webster receive his warrant for execution, also from Pinkerton’s book.

But not Webster. Neither side had executed a spy at this point in the war, but Corey Recko speculates that Confederate leaders were so angry at being duped that they wanted Webster dead. He was executed on April 29. In Pinkerton’s telling, Webster asked to be killed by a firing squad, rather than to be “hanged like a common felon,” but the Southern commander in charge refused. When the time came, Webster stood calmly with the noose around his neck. The trap door swung open, but something went wrong—the noose slipped and Webster did not die. As the Confederates prepared the gallows again, Webster said, “I suffer a double death.” This time the procedure went as planned and Webster was soon dead.

At this point in his narrative, Pinkerton waxed poetic for one of the unsung heroes of the Civil War: “Farewell, brave spirit! I knew thee well. Brave, tender and true; thou hast suffered in a glorious cause, and died a martyr’s death. Thy memory will long be green in the hearts of thy friends. When treason is execrated, and rebellion is scorned and despised, the tears of weeping friends will bedew the sod which rests above the martyred spy of the Rebellion—Timothy Webster.”

A Sterling Experience

Very church-like, as you can see.

Very church-like, as you can see.

For a writer, especially a non-fiction writer, a library is an almost-sacred place. Yes, the Internet has made researching at home or on the go much easier, but we can find some books and other important resources only in a library. And on a recent trip back east to visit friends and family, I did research not at just any library, but Yale’s Sterling Library.

I had spent many hours there several years before, when I lived just outside of New Haven. A yearly fee (a hefty yearly fee…) gave me access to the stacks and borrowing privileges. While on campus, I also had the chance to explore the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, an experience I recounted in a previous blog. Beinecke overwhelmed, of course, with its presentation of iconic texts throughout history. And while research goes on there, Sterling is a more nuts-and-bolts kind of place.

Ah, this brings back memories...

Ah, this brings back memories…

On the recent trip, I spent my time at Sterling in the basement in front of a relic of library research, a microfilm machine. As the librarian gave me a quick overview of how theirs worked, I remembered the many hours I had spent in from of them years before (history majors tend to do that, at least in those ancient days). I studied mid-19th century editions of the Hartford Courant to learn about Know Nothing rule in my home state. I poured over documents of all kinds to gather evidence of anti-Italian immigrant feelings. More recently, I loaded up the spools to research a book on famous crimes of Minnesota (enough recounting of macabre dealings to last a lifetime there). At times, ads and articles totally irrelevant to my search dragged my attention from the subject at hand; just a pre-digital version of today’s following link upon link away from the page your reading on the Web, I suppose.

Those pleasant distractions came up again on my recent trip, as I dug for information on Timothy Webster, a Union spy hung for his activities in the South. The Webster research is for a proposal, and I might end up never writing about his service as a double agent during the early days of the Civil War. But the time in front of the microfilm reader gave me a chance to learn more about the plot to assassinate Lincoln before his 1861 inauguration, and of the women who worked as agents alongside Webster for Allan Pinkerton, he of the detective agency, who ran some of the Union’s first efforts at espionage and counterespionage during the war. It all made for fascinating reading. And as usual when I’m in a library, I felt at home.

Ellis Island Adventures

Ellis IslandSelf-promotion is the name of the game in all aspects of publishing today, and while the accolades I’ve accumulated are just few tiers below a Pulitzer (or a Tony), I’m always glad to report when one of my books is recognized. The latest is Ellis Island: An Interactive History Adventure, one of many “You Choose” books I’ve done for Capstone Publishing. Ellis Island just won a Teachers’ Choice Award for 2015, sponsored by Learning magazine.

As many people do, I have a personal tie to Ellis Island, as my grandparents and other relatives passed through there on their way from Italy to various points in the Northeast. I was also fortunate enough to be able to search through the photo archive the National Park Service keeps there, while doing research for a book on immigration. The phrase Ellis Island conjures up images of immigrants reaching their “promised land” and starting a new life, but of course, as my book shows, some were turned back. And by the mid-1920s, restrictive immigration laws kept many “undesirable” immigrants—mostly Catholic, Jewish, and from southern and eastern Europe—from even reaching the island.

Readers of Ellis Island see this reality, that not everyone was welcomed. The book has three main story lines, as readers choose to follow the adventures of a girl leaving Russia for New York; a young Italian man who makes it through Ellis Island and finds himself fighting in World War I; and a German immigrant interned at Ellis Island after that war, as many alleged and admitted Socialists were during the Red Scare. (I returned to the subject of immigrants—and some U.S. citizens—being held at Ellis Island in my latest play, I Killed Mussolini. Still looking for a production, but you can read an excerpt here.)

Each main thread in You Choose books has a number of options for the readers, usually leading to seven or eight possible outcomes. The goal, of course, is to have readers finish one and then read the other two to get the full scope of the topic. I do as much research for these books as any of my “regular” history books (and at times maybe more—exactly what did passengers eat in steerage when crossing the Atlantic?), but I also have the freedom of creating characters and their dialogue. So, not pure history but a technique that seems to resonate with both kids and their teachers, who appreciate that the interactive nature of the books (and I’d like to think some entertaining writing) make the students want to read them.

Along with the honor, I also appreciate a review that Capstone has posted on its website. It’s from the Smart Books for Smart Kids blog, by Debbie Glade:

Michael Burgan writes in a format that is easy for readers to comprehend,
while at the same time engaging them and keeping the topic fascinating at
all times….When I was in elementary school, I dreaded history lessons
because they were incredibly boring…in contrast, the interactive nature of
Ellis Island is more like a real life adventure—both happy and sad—that
teaches without clobbering students over the head with straight facts. Where
was this book when I was growing up?”

Many thanks to Debbie and to the teachers who took part in Learning’s survey.

The City Historical

Astride his horse, Don Diego de Vargas solemnly rides down the street toward the Plaza, with a train of conquistadors behind him, just as he did more than 300 years ago at the first Fiesta de Santa Fe.

Well, not quite.

Conquistadors of today

Conquistadors of today


in Santa Fe

The good don was eight years departed from this earth when the first fiesta was held. And the modern-day de Vargas I was watching will put aside his costume and horse at the day’s end. But the real de Vargas was the inspiration for the procession that paraded by me.

He had promised to honor the Virgin Mary as represented by a wooden statue called La Conquistadora, which had been brought to Santa Fe in 1625. It was her blessing, de Vargas thought, that enabled him to take back Santa Fe in 1692-94, after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 had driven the Spanish from northern New Mexico (you can read more about the revolt and the reconquest in previous posts). While de Vargas was not able to carry out his pledge to build a new throne for the statue, one of his captains suggested the idea of a fiesta to mark the restoration of Spanish rule and the beneficence of La Conquistadora.

As a historian by trade if not by academic degrees, I’m always appreciative of living in a state, and particularly this part of it, that is steeped in history, and which the people with deep familial roots consistently celebrate. And some Santa Feans and Pueblo Indians who surround the city have roots that few Americans today can match. It’s not uncommon to hear the former talk about being the 14th, 17th, 20th generation of their family in the area, and of course the Pueblos go back even further.


One conjecture about how a two-story Palace looked.

To mark Fiesta week, the sponsoring council holds an annual history lecture. I attended this year’s and the hall was packed. Dedie Thomas Snow, an archaeologist who has participated in digs at Santa Fe’s Palace of the Governors (built in 1609), spoke about the palace’s history from 1660-1720, when it often was, as her talk’s title spelled out, “A Palace in Need of Repair.” The one-story building that dominates the plaza today went through structural changes during those years, including gaining additional stories during the years the Pueblos controlled it.

Along with the history of the building, Snow talked a bit about the early social history of Santa Fe and the region. Original settlers who received land grants took part in the encomienda system—they also received Indian labor or tribute in return for military service in the colony, defending mission pueblos. The Spanish colonists established estates near the missions, and many of the villages that eventually grew up around them still exist today.

The Palace today, festooned for Fiesta

The Palace today, festooned for Fiesta

The founding landowners, by law, also spent time in Santa Fe, and the leading citizens lived on small farms near the Plaza, north of the Santa Fe River. On some of the farms, the colonists raised peaches, which Spanish missionaries had earlier brought to North America. South of the river, the Barrio de Analco sprung up to house working-class settlers and Indian laborers.

Much of the Barrio de Analco was destroyed during the Pueblo revolt, though a church built on the foundation of one of the oldest churches in the United States, dating back to the barrio’s founding in 1620, still stands. The barrio is also the site of Santa Fe’s oldest existing house, which dates from the mid-18th century.

Hmm, 1620—I seem to recall some other settlers making news that year about 2,000 miles away. Something about a rock…

The talk was a little slow in places, but I always enjoy learning a little bit more about my adopted home. And I know there will be another talk next year, just as there will be another Fiesta celebration. Tradition and history cling to the City Different, but in a way not stifling, but invigorating. Que viva La Fiesta!