My copy of the quarterly Merton Seasonal, published jointly by the International Thomas Merton Society and the Thomas Merton Center of Bellarmine University, has arrived, and I see that they have finally stopped ignoring The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton: An Investigation, written by Hugh Turley and yours truly and published in March of 2018. The Winter 2018 edition upon the 50th anniversary of Merton’s untimely and mysterious death in Thailand on December 10, 1968, is on the general theme of Merton’s demise. On the cover is a photograph of Merton’s grave marker at his home Gethsemani Abbey near Bardstown, Kentucky. The modest black and white magazine, 43 pages in length, contains six articles and two poems. The last three of the articles are book reviews, and the final one is of our book entitled, “A Challenge to the Standard Account.” Unfortunately, it appears that they did not choose a member of the varsity team for the job.
Here are the reviewer’s bona fides as they appear at the bottom of the review’s first page:
Paul R. Dekar, Professor Emeritus of Evangelism and Mission at Memphis Theological Seminary, is a Canadian Friends Service Committee member and long-time contributor to ITMS conferences and publications. He is the author of Thomas Merton: Twentieth-Century Wisdom for Twenty-First Century Living (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011) and most recently of Dangerous People: The Fellowship of Reconciliation Building a Nonviolent World of Justice, Peace, and Freedom (Virginia Beach: Downing Publishers, 2016).
Professor Dekar appears qualified enough for his assignment, but as you look at the work he has done, you really have to wonder if he is even qualified to serve on a standard American jury, as bad as they can be. His bottom-line assessment of the book’s general thesis is his third from the last paragraph, repeated here in its entirety:
However, the authors fail, for me, to satisfy a criterion operating when I have served on juries, namely, to establish beyond reasonable doubt that Merton was murdered. Barring access to CIA documents, I am not clear what new evidence may strengthen the authors’ case. More disconcerting is the author’s claim that Brother Patrick Hart and Abbot Flavian Burns played a crucial role in a cover-up. In effect the authors charge that Merton’s brothers were complicit in concealing the facts of his death. Over the years, during visits to the Abbey of Gethsemani, I have talked with many of Merton’s fellow monks, including Patrick Hart, and I have heard nothing inconsistent with understanding that Merton could have died by accidental electrocution, per the generally accepted account of his death.
The first thing at issue, as we make very clear in the book, is what Dekar calls the “standard account,” that is that Merton died from accidental electrocution by a defective (Hitachi) floor fan in which, according to the only Thai police report known to exist, a defective cord had at some point “been installed.” The fan had been running perfectly well for the first two days of the monastic conference that Merton was attending just outside Bangkok, not known to have shocked anyone touching it. Dekar uses the terms “standard account” and “generally accepted account” instead of “official account” because the only official cause of Merton’s death is the one of the police report, the doctor’s certificate, and the death certificate. They agree that Merton died of the natural cause of heart failure and that he was already dead when he came into contact with the defective fan. You can see them all at http://www.themartyrdomofthomasmerton.com/documents.html. The U.S. Embassy’s December 13, 1968, Report of the Death of an American Citizen on the line for cause of death states, “Sudden Heart Failure (according to official Death Certificate).” You can see that document at http://www.themartyrdomofthomasmerton.com/index.html.
Mendacious Defendants as Expert Witnesses
With such an official conclusion on the record, the ones who have the tall order are those who would argue that the cause of death was accidental electrocution, instead. Since there was no autopsy, how can Dekar possibly conclude “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the official conclusion is wrong? In his wisdom, he apparently thinks that that has been done, but how so? Since he’s on the “generally accepted” side he seems to think that all he has to do is to resort to the invocation of nos. 2 and 7 of my Seventeen Techniques for Truth Suppression, which are “Wax indignant” and “Invoke authority.” Worse than that, the authority that he invokes is that of those that we show should be regarded as defendants, at least in the cover-up. If he actually read our book and scored anywhere above the lowest quartile in the reading-comprehension part of the Scholastic Aptitude Test, he should know that Hart in particular has repeatedly borne false witness about the most important things. If you have only read our article, “New Directions’ Misdirection on Thomas Merton’s Death” you know that Hart completely made up the story, published almost five years after the death in 1973, that Merton had showered and was therefore wet when he encountered the faulty fan. That was in his postscript to The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton. In that volume, which Hart co-edited, was a letter, widely published for the first time, purported to be from six Trappist monks who were in attendance at the conference where Merton died. That letter described Merton’s body as lying on its back on the floor “in his pajamas,” with the fan lying across him. No doubt to support the claim that Merton had taken a shower, the editors removed “in his pajamas” from the letter. The juror Dekar appears not to realize that these egregious falsehoods invalidate Hart as an expert witness. Rather, they implicate him in the cover-up.
It gets worse. In our book, we reveal that we have an earlier draft of his postscript that Hart had shared with America magazine poetry editor, John Moffitt, who had been in the cottage where Merton died. The draft and letters of exchange with Hart were in the late Moffitt’s papers at the library of the University of Virginia. Moffitt had suggested to Hart that he could not say that Merton had showered because there was no evidence for it. Hart did it anyway. Hart did take Moffitt’s advice on another matter. Hart had written that the U.S. Embassy in Thailand had informed the Gethsemani Abbey that Merton had died at about 3:00 p.m. Moffitt had examined the matter carefully and told Hart that the time of death was about 2:00 p.m. So Hart changed his text to say that the U.S. Embassy had told the Abbey that Merton had died at about 2:00 p.m. We also reveal in our book and in our most recent article, “Key False Document in the Thomas Merton Death Case,” that in that 1973 postscript Hart wrote that one of the witnesses who attempted to remove the fan from Merton’s body suffered a “strong shock,” but in his foreword to another volume of Merton’s papers in 1998, Hart wrote that it was a “slight shock,” with no reference for either claim.
One must read the book in which we show the letters exchanged between key people that reveal Abbott Flavian Burns as a key orchestrator of the cover-up, but a couple of examples, which we haven’t mentioned so far in our articles, capture the flavor of it. The reason that Burns gives for no autopsy being performed was that he had been informed by the U.S. Embassy that Thai law required that anyone autopsied in Thailand must be buried in Thailand, and that it was more important to them that Merton be buried there at his home abbey (so The Merton Seasonal could display that cross with the inscription on it on its Winter 2018 cover, I suppose). Think of it. The notion is preposterous on its face. What does one thing have to do with the other? We checked with the Embassy, and, of course, no such law exists currently and it’s almost certain that there never was such a ridiculous law. Furthermore, the U.S. military quickly took possession of Merton’s body and embalmed it at a U.S. military hospital. They could easily have autopsied it first, and surely there is nothing the Thai government could have done to prevent them from transporting the body back to the United States. There’s no reason why the Thais would have even known of such an autopsy. Even after embalmment, Abbott Flavian could have requested an autopsy once the body was back home, but he did not do so. We also show in our book, and the documents that one can access at the book’s web site, given above, that the Thai authorities falsely indicated that an autopsy had been performed in a Thai hospital in accordance with law, as an apparent prerequisite for permitting the body to leave the country.
Also, in our book, we show from our reading of letters exchanged by those we indict as parties to the cover-up that Burns floated the idea of claiming that the retreat center did not have fuses in the cottages. The others didn’t go for it, and it was dropped. We realize, now, that we made less of that little aborted gambit by Burns than we should have. In the standard or generally accepted account, it was a “short-circuited fan” that caused Merton’s death. But before it was able to do that, it should have caused a fuse to blow and there would have been no current at all coming out of the wall receptacle into which the cord of the fan was plugged. An electrician who has written a review of our book on Amazon has brought that point home. This suggests that the fan was likely carefully rigged in such a way that someone touching it would experience a shock, and lying across Merton’s body for a period of time it would cause a burn, but it was not short-circuited. That is to say, it was rigged to be a prop suggesting that electrocution had been the cause of death.
Professor Dekar professes to find it disconcerting that we should conclude from what we discovered that Brother Hart and Abbott Flavian played crucial roles in the cover-up of Merton’s apparent murder. We have to say that we were very much disconcerted as well. We were disconcerted at finding out what these men of the cloth had done, just as the public these days, particularly members of the Roman Catholic community, are disconcerted at discovering what many other members of the Catholic clergy have done under the cover of religious piety. I should think that most people now are well past the “How dare you?” stage, when it comes to allegations about criminal behavior by members of the clergy, particularly when those allegations are as well-buttressed by the facts as the ones that we are making.
The other thoroughly discredited authority that Dekar invokes is the celebrated biographer Michael Mott:
In his authorized biography, Michael Mott wrote that the evidence overwhelmingly pointed to accidental electrocution as the cause of Merton’s death. Mott offered a “most likely reconstruction of events” according to which, after a shower, Merton may have slipped while gripping a faulty fan that gave Merton a shock sufficient in itself to kill him as he cried out, or which induced a massive heart attack. Mott acknowledged that there were a number of unanswered questions and that it was a matter of “real regret” that Merton’s death was investigated in a bungled and amateurish fashion and that there was no autopsy. Mott discounted suicide or murder.
As we point out in the book and in “What We Know about Thomas Merton’s Death,” Mott had to have known for certain that, far from it having any part in a “likely reconstruction of events,” Merton had not taken a shower. Mott had in his possession one of the two photographs that we discovered that the witness Fr. Celestine Say had taken of the body as they found it, with shorts on and a fan lying diagonally across the pelvis. Neither hand was near the fan. Mott also had Say’s letter in which Say said that he took the photographs that he did because they found the scene so peculiar. Yet in his various possible reconstructions, Mott speculates about the possibility of the body having been wet and naked and the witnesses having put shorts on the body for modesty’s sake. A careful reader of what he has written, even, can see that that is not true, because he quotes from the police report, “There was a burn…on the underwear on the right side which was assumed to have been caused by electrical shock from the fan.” (p. 566)
Mott has no source for Merton having taken a shower. We know that as far as the “standard” or “generally accepted” account goes, Brother Patrick Hart is the source, but Mott could hardly cite him, because people would see that Hart didn’t come out with it until 1973. Mott in his account also tells us that the witness Fr. Odo Haas was “jerked sideways” and “held to the shaft of the fan until Father Celestine managed to unplug the fan at the outlet” when he tried to lift the fan off Merton’s body. (p. 565) As we explain in “Key False Document in the Thomas Merton Death Case,” Mott’s only source for that assertion had to have been that very questionable unsigned statement by Fr. Haas, which contradicts much more credible testimony on that point and a number of other points by a number of other credible witnesses. Mott ignored everything that contradicted the dubious Haas document, and he could not cite it as his source because of its questionable nature and because it states explicitly, consistent with the clear implication of the police report, that Merton was wearing shorts when he was found and that there was no water in evidence.
In case you still think that there might be at least an ounce of honesty in Mott’s dominant contribution to the “standard account,” you need to know that Mott tells us that Say photographed the scene after it had been disturbed in a number of ways. He had to have known that that was not true, because he had in his possession Say’s letter that accompanied his photograph and negatives, saying exactly when and why he took the photographs.
Who’s Not Qualified?
It’s not very hard to see how someone like Professor Dekar could be taken in by Mott’s razzle-dazzle. Check out what he writes in back-to-back sentences in the second paragraph of his review, “A local doctor concluded that Merton died of cardiac failure from electrical shock. Without reason to suspect criminal cause, authorities deemed Merton’s death was from ‘a natural cause’…”
What, one might ask, is “natural” about such an ultimate cause of death as an electrical shock? Dekar is wrong both in fact and in logic. As we have noted, the doctor did say that Merton died of cardiac failure, but that it had nothing to do with the shock administered by the fan and was therefore a natural cause. This is an absolutely basic fact in the case, and Dekar gets it completely wrong.
He even starts off getting things wrong with his opening sentence, ”Hugh Turley, volunteer columnist for the Hyattsville Life and Times, and David Martin, who works for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, argue in their new book that Thomas Merton did not die by accidental electrocution.”
We certainly do argue that Merton did not die from accidental electrocution, but Turley is not a volunteer columnist for that small monthly newspaper and I am not an employee of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those are both former occupations of ours, from a few years in the past. We mention those jobs in order to cite the notable writing awards we received in our respective capacities in the “About the Authors” part of the book at the end, but Dekar leaves the awards part out. We make it clear that Turley’s dabbling in journalism was voluntary because we are consistently hard on America’s professional journalists in the book.
The impression Dekar apparently intends to leave is that we are not qualified for the task that we have taken upon ourselves. To create that impression, not only does he cut out the awards, but he ignores the book’s foreword. There one learns that far from being unqualified, we might well be the two most qualified people in the world to look into Merton’s demise critically and objectively. We explain how we met through our mutual curiosity about the supposed suicide of Deputy White House Counsel Vincent Foster and Turley ended up collaborating with the dissident witness in the case, Patrick Knowlton, and his lawyer, John Clarke, to write a letter destroying the suicide thesis that the appointing judges ordered Special Counsel Kenneth Starr to include in his report on Foster’s death, a part of the report that has been blacked out by America’s press. We also write of the book about the case, Failure of the Public Trust, that Turley co-wrote with Knowlton and Clarke and the 75 articles that I have written about the Foster case and say where our writings can be found, at http://www.fbicover-up.com and at http://www.dcdave.com.
Seeing ourselves described as Dekar does, I am reminded of nothing so much as Al Franken’s Stuart Smalley character on Saturday Night Live introducing Michael Jordan, after looking down at his notes, as “a basketball player.”
Dekar does manage to make some amends for his attempt at a review with his concluding sentence, “The authors of the book under review do raise important questions that should engender more-than-usual comment and further research.”
I think that it is safe to say that no such research will be done by the scholarly or religious community of which Professor Dekar is a comfortable, card-carrying part. They sat on their hands for a half-century, after all.
David Martin’s website is dcdave.com.