The Mysterious Death of Thomas Merton

A Review of The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton: An Investigation, By Hugh Turley and David Martin

For five decades, the circumstances of the sudden death of the famed pacifist monk Thomas Merton have remained cloaked in the confusion of assorted stories having very little commonality, except for the most basic facts of date and place.  The date, December 10, 1968, and place, in a cottage located at a Red Cross conference center near Bangkok, Thailand are about the only undisputed points of yet another death of a hero in that very violent year.  Even the time of death, approximately 2 P.M. local time was disputed by the police report, a fake witness statement and the biographer Michael Mott—all stating the time was one hour later.

Everything else about the circumstances of Merton’s death depends upon the version told by those who had any familiarity with it, a result of the absence of an autopsy and the rapidity of how his body was removed by the U.S. Army, embalmed and flown back to the United States on a military aircraft also transporting other casualties of the Vietnam War being fought nearby.  Father Louis’s, as Merton was known in the monastery, presence on that plane, among the bodies of soldiers, sailors and marines killed in a war which he had long opposed, added even more irony to the mystery surrounding his death.

For a single example of one version of his death, Merton’s last secretary, Brother Patrick Hart, O.C.S.O., wrote, in The Other Side of the Mountain: The Journals of Thomas Merton (Vol. 7, 1967-1968) HarperOne (1999) [p. xiv], that:

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Merton returned to his cottage about one-thirty and proceeded to take a shower before retiring for a rest.  While barefoot on the terrazzo floor, he apparently had reached for the large standing fan (to either turn it on or pull it closer to the bed) when he received the full 220 volts of direct current. (This is normal voltage for Bangkok.)  He collapsed, and the large fan tumbled over on top of him.  When he was discovered about an hour later by two of the monks who shared his cottage, the fan, still running, lay across his body . . . One of the abbots tried to remove the fan at once from the body, but though he wore shoes, he also received a slight electrical shock. Fortunately, someone rushed over to the outlet and pulled the cord from the socket. Later examination revealed defective wiring in the fan.

Authors Hugh Turley and David Martin, in their new book The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton, have effectively deconstructed nearly all of the assertions of Brother Patrick Hart noted above. Not only was there no evidence that Merton had taken a shower, or collapsed into a disheveled pile onto the floor, a large cut and contusion on the back of his head was not noted at all, and photographs taken immediately after his death—which had been kept virtually hidden for forty-nine years—show that his body was lying perfectly straight, with his arms lying beside his body, just as it might be placed into a coffin.

Furthermore, their own intensive investigation into the matter—it soon becomes clear that indeed, it was the only such honest and thorough examination ever done, even though limited to the few remaining artifacts—led them to make the following series of assertions [p. 267]:

  • “The best evidence indicates beyond any serious doubt that Merton was murdered.
  • “The story that a fan killed Merton is so preposterous that a series of fantastic stories have had to be invented to make it believable.
  • [Despite being unable to solve the crime completely without having the requisite powers they state]: “We can point a finger at the most likely suspect in Merton’s murder cover-up, Brother Patrick Hart notwithstanding, and that is the CIA. The CIA had the motive and they had the means.  When Penn Jones and others would make a connection between Merton’s death and that of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King they were not just blowing smoke. All four of those people were obstacles to the CIA’s war ambitions in Southeast Asia, a war that was raging right next door to the scene of Merton’s death.”

Only a full reading of the book, as Turley and Martin untangle the points noted above and many more fragmented pieces of a puzzle purposefully muddled from the start—and the subsequent intervening machinations of many officials in Thailand and even within Merton’s home monastery—will lead to a full understanding of how thoroughly his death had been mishandled.  That undeniable fact is yet another marker for how the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Thomas Merton are inexorably linked:  In every case, their murders and the cover-ups were characterized with replicated patterns of deceit, including fabricated or missing evidence, fundamental inconsistencies in witness testimonies, faked documents and even—in Merton’s case—a Thai police report that is undated and unsigned.

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As the authors also point out, among the strongest evidence that Merton’s death was a CIA hit was the failure of the American news media to perform their constitutional function of ferreting out what should be obvious cases of governmental misconduct.  The MSM have conformed to the stories set forth by John Howard Griffin (to be examined at length below) and the journalists John Moffitt in his book about the conference, A New Charter for Monasticism, and the “official” biography The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, by Michael Mott.   In all cases, they called the death an accidental electrocution, caused by a faulty fan.  In their book, authors Turley and Martin categorically reject that and provide detailed explanations for why they view it as impossible, which for our purposes will be summarized without going into the detail uniquely provided by their book.

For inexplicable, but perhaps understandable, reasons (such as the possibility that a key official of the monastery had become exposed to blackmail by “the powers that be”) the leadership of Merton’s home base, The Abbey of Gethsemani, in Trappist, Kentucky, picked the famed Texas journalist John Howard Griffin to write Merton’s biography.[*]  As described by authors Turley and Martin, that narrative included “its intentionally deceptive section on his death” [p. 270].   Evidently, desperate to bring finality to an official, albeit false, narrative of Merton’s death being a freak accident by electrocution caused by a Hitachi fan that had suddenly become mis-wired, Griffin called on his old friend, newspaper man Penn Jones of Midlothian, Texas to come to Thailand to investigate the incident and pronounce his findings.  Using Jones’ contemporary reputation as a harsh critic of the Warren Commission’s findings of “no conspiracy” in the JFK assassination, Griffin’s apparent presumption was that Jones’ finding that Merton’s death was accidental would help finalize the “verdict” of accidental death.

While it is true that Penn Jones was long known as a maverick news reporter—a lone liberal voice in a Texas prairie-town populated by right-wing conservatives—generally well respected for his honesty and independence, that reputation is not necessarily as true today as it was in the 1960s, when such CIA-created phenomena as “fake opposition” were not so well known.   An ulterior motive was also advanced by authors Turley and Martin, that of fleshing out the attitudes of two other key attendees of the Thailand conference, Fr. Celestine Say, O.S.B. (Order of Saint Benedict) and Fr. Bernardo Perez, O.S.B., both from the Philippines, to determine whether they might want to aggressively challenge a finding of “accidental death.”  That would explain the appearance of Penn Jones in the Philippines six months after Merton’s death, an intermediate stop on his way to Bangkok.  Ultimately, it was determined that they would not attempt such a challenge.

That sudden trip, in and of itself, is most curious, considering that Jones was not a wealthy man and most reports indicated that he ran his weekly newspaper on a very small budget.  Why he would suddenly decide to fly off to the Philippines and Thailand and then agree with Griffin’s decision that the death was merely a “freak accident”—but not bother to report that formally, or even write a column about it in his newspaper, or, evidently, anywhere else, simply adds more to the mystery.  That enigma overwraps even more riddles when one considers that Penn Jones was closely connected to numerous people who did not share his purported views on the subject of JFK’s assassination being the product of a highly-placed conspiracy.

The person Jones was arguably closest to was Gary Mack (born Lawrence Alan Dunkel) who had started out as conspiracy theorist but eventually became a “debunker” of some theories, finally settling in as a “conspiracy-light” advocate who believed that Lee Harvey Oswald was the assassin but believed that he did not act alone.  Yet, after that conversion, he would spend the rest of his life refuting any and all suggestions of evidence pointing toward conspiracy.   That movement was cemented when he joined the staff of the Sixth Floor Museum, located in the Texas School Book Depository Building in the early 1990s, eventually becoming the director of the museum.

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Among Penn Jones’ other close friends or associates were Hugh Aynesworth, a Dallas reporter and strong supporter of the Warren Commission’s most ludicrous findings, and many other similarly-deluded researchers including Dave Perry, also a close associate of Gary Mack, who tried, unconvincingly, to discredit Dr. Charles Crenshaw’s testimony about having received a telephone call from the new president Lyndon Johnson while attempting to save Lee Harvey Oswald’s life.[†]  Jones was also similarly connected to Bud Fensterwald, who many truth-seeking researchers believe was a CIA operative.  Another associate of Jones was Gordon McLendon, a Dallas-based wealthy owner of major radio stations in some of the largest cities in the country, whom many researchers have connected to CIA operative David Atlee Phillips and wealthy oilman (and suspected financier behind JFK’s assassination) Clint Murchison and Bobby Baker, Lyndon Johnson’s conduit to Mafioso throughout the country.  McLendon had also known and associated with Jack Ruby.

Moreover, Jones was also very closely connected to Mary Ferrell, whom researcher Harrison Edward Livingstone described at length in his 1993 book Killing the Truth: Deceit and Deception in the JFK Case. Livingstone summarized his opinions (with which many other long-time researchers agree) by calling her the “gatekeeper” and the head of a “sophisticated private intelligence operation . . . a de facto secret society in Texas, run by powerful people there, to protect the name and reputation of Texas and to protect those who were involved in the murder of John Kennedy.” [Livingstone, pp. 386–396].

The Penn Jones – John Howard Griffin friendship began as near-neighbors living only twelve miles apart (Jones in Midlothian, Griffin in Mansfield, Texas).  How each of them apparently became connected to the CIA is entirely speculative of course since that is not addressed in their obituaries or any other publicly available documents.  However, Jones had a long history with the Texas National Guard, including service during World War II, by some accounts in Army intelligence.  When he retired from the Guard in 1963, according to Wikipedia, then-Governor John Connally promoted him to Brigadier General, possibly as a favor to maximize his pension.  Jones had known Connally (a well-known associate/sycophant to Lyndon B. Johnson for decades) and Henry Wade (later the District Attorney in Dallas, also closely connected to Johnson) since their days in law classes at the University of Texas, also documented at the Wikipedia website for Penn Jones.

In Griffin’s case, the fact that he had attained fame as a popular author automatically made him a target for recruitment by the CIA for their Operation Mockingbird; that program, beginning in the early 1950s, had successfully put hundreds of syndicated columnists, news reporters, radio and television broadcasters and popular authors within their orbit (including many authors who may have started in non-fiction but quickly converted to the fictional genre).

Authors Turley and Martin have made an exceptionally strong and compelling argument that the “official” narrative was promulgated through sketchy, fragmented pieces of suspect documents—as more accurate documents were kept hidden.  Among those were long-hidden, highly-revealing photographs (described above) of the body of Thomas Merton as it was found in a position that was completely at odds with all of the false stories of death by either heart attack or electrocution by a defective Hitachi fan.  These photos were so contradictory to the purported “accidental” death that—not only have the authors been forbidden to reproduce them—they’ve also been told that they cannot even publish artist drawings that depict the photos within their book.  Those restrictions only strengthen their conclusion of the real cause of Thomas Merton’s death, as summarized above, and for numerous reasons could only be the result of a very sophisticated assassination, planned, executed and covered up by the CIA, through the assistance of others within Merton’s cloistered abbey.

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In coming to this conclusion, as noted above in reference to the murder of Thomas Merton, they have repeatedly drawn parallels to the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.  A document I recently obtained, from Lyndon Johnson’s White House files—apparently kept in his well-known “mean letters folders/file cabinets”—was a letter dated February 20, 1965 from Rev. Thomas Merton.  I believe it is but one document that might have caused the name of Thomas Merton to be added to other lists, both within the White House and those being maintained farther up, and across the opposite side, of the Potomac River, in Langley, Virginia.  For Merton to have written Johnson, challenging his use of “sheer force” to contain “the spread of Communism in Asia . . . seems to me immoral and unjust, when they are used without wisdom” would be to question not only Johnson’s morality and wisdom, but probably his manhood as well.  There were certain boundaries that could not be crossed with Lyndon B. Johnson, and those three would have represented, to him, three strikes.

As I wrote in my own new book, Who REALLY Killed Martin Luther King, Jr., The Case Against Lyndon B. Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover:”

It should also be clear by now that all three of the major political assassinations of the 1960s were perpetrated by essentially the same men, using related resources, comparable methods of operation, and analogous motives. And they were all executed with the active provocations of the two men at the very head of the hierarchy, Lyndon B. Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover. Only the combined power wielded by them could have reasonably equipped—with the eager assistance of intelligence officials from the military, the CIA, and key members of the Dixie Mafia—the facilitators and street-level operatives with the kinds of resources, and spheres of influence in the local communities involved (Dallas, Memphis and Los Angeles), to have succeeded in accomplishing their multiple missions. The most powerful man in America circa 1963–1968 was Lyndon B. Johnson. That it was he who instigated all of these major treasons should by now be indisputable.

Clearly, the assassination of Thomas Merton in Thailand on December 10, 1968 was one more in that same year intended to put an end to the lives of the most powerful and influential men who he thought might one day expose his treachery and treasons.  Thus, like the other 1968 assassinations, they were primarily directed to Johnson’s personal enemies, only secondarily to so-called larger “National Security” interests.

[*] Griffin was author of numerous works, most famously the book Black Like Me, for which he traveled through the South as a black man, thanks to a mix of drugs, sunlamp treatments, skin creams and his shaved head.  Though Griffin began the biography of Thomas Merton, in 1978 he became too ill to finish it and Michael Mott was commissioned to write Merton’s biography.  According to Wikipedia, “Griffin’s nearly finished portion of the biography, which covered Merton’s later years, was posthumously published in paperback by Latitude Press in 1983 as Follow the Ecstasy: Thomas Merton, the Hermitage Years, 1965–1968.”

[†] He did that by overlooking Johnson’s ability to go into his own office inside the Capitol building and make an unlogged telephone call to whomever he wished in the fifteen (15) minutes between his arrival there and the time of Oswald’s death as JFK’s body was being moved from the hearse into the Capitol Rotunda.  As noted in my book, LBJ: The Mastermind of the JFK Assassination (p. 520): “At 2:00 p.m. Washington time, 1:00 p.m. in Dallas, Oswald had been in the emergency room for one hour and fifteen minutes, which is consistent with Dr. Crenshaw’s statement that the call came at least an hour after the operation had begun; he would die shortly after Crenshaw returned to the operating room, at 1:07 p.m. Dallas time.”

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