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Harrisburg: The Politics of Salvation

Although guarded at first, now, toward the end of the trial, Lynch banters occasionally with the press. One learns that he is a lector at his parish. That he sees Pope John XXIII as the destroyer of his Roman Catholic Church. That his favorite reading is naval history. Also, he and Mrs. Lynch are dedicated cyclists, and Mrs. Lynch is totally preoccupied, down in Virginia, with her own Movement—the Movement to build a continuous bicycle path from Alexandria to Washington. William Lynch likes to joke. “Were you involved in the Yablonski case, Mr. Lynch?” “In the murder, no. In the prosecution, yes.” “What kind of a job did Boyd Douglas have while in FBI custody?” “Vice-President of ITT.”

Lynch seems a man straight out of the Fifties, totally untouched by the events of the past decade. When he occasionally bumps into a reporter at one of the modest diners he frequents to avoid the press, he raises the index and pinky of his hand in that old fraternity sign that used to communicate “up yours.” Prosecuting Catholics transformed by the turbulence of the Sixties, he appears determined to remain untainted by their contact, refusing throughout the trial to even acknowledge the defendants’ greetings. In this encounter with nuns and priests freeing themselves from traditional molds of Church authority, Lynch remains an entrenched example of the autocratic, disciplinarian Catholic ethos. Anthony Scoblick has an interesting view of the prosecutor: “He hates us for not behaving like priests,” Tony says. “He hates us because he can’t look up to us and be dominated by us.” Lynch, Scoblick tells me, exemplifies a new stage of the Grand Inquisitor theme: he is the oppressed who hates the oppressor for ceasing to fulfill his need for authority.

Lynch’s Catholicism even seeps into his conversations about the Justice Department, whose Organized Crime Section he joined in 1961, and whose internecine affairs he enjoys discussing. I once asked him how former Attorney General Mitchell would enjoy returning to private practice. Didn’t a man of that mettle wish for power rather than money? The question interested Lynch. “Well, what about the Jesuits,” he replied, “they used to renounce power in order to reband. The provincial general used to resign, become one of the boys, work behind the scenes….” Lynch’s four assistant prosecutors at Harrisburg are Catholics—two Irishmen, one Italian, one Pole—just as the Rosenbergs’ prosecutors were all Jewish.

Lynch was well remembered for his statement, during a pretrial motion in 1970, that the defendants were “more dangerous than the mafia.” A few days before his appointment as prosecutor of the Harrisburg case was announced, the Justice Department had shrewdly switched Lynch from its Organized Crime Section—of which he was the head—to its Internal Security Division. A matter of image. He would express, both in and out of court, his fervent belief that he was prosecuting dangerous and common criminals, and defending not only his nation but his Church against the infidel. To someone challenging his assertion that the chief government witness, the informer Boyd Douglas, had a “sterling character”: “Boyd Douglas,” Lynch countered with unaccustomed softness in his voice, “is a man of compassion and growth.” “There’s cancerous growth, too,” someone quipped. “Yes,” Lynch said, his complexion rising, “as in the case of Philip Berrigan.” “What do you mean, Mr. Lynch?” “Philip Berrigan is an example of growth in violence.”


When I first watched Boyd Douglas walk into court, he gave the impression of great confidence and surliness. His chest was thrust rigorously forward, his mouth twisted into a defiant pout. He is about five feet nine and solidly built, has a strong rectangular face, medium-cut, neatly parted, glossy dark brown hair, the beginning of sideburns. He has a slightly jutting chin, heavy-lidded chestnut brown eyes, an unusually handsome nose, sharp and fine. He emanates a powerful all-American-boy sexuality. He favors flamboyant clothes, and my most vivid recollection of him is in a Chagall-blue hunting style jacket, an orange shirt, a purple-lozenged tie.

He has gained some thirty pounds since entering FBI custody in January, 1970, when some of the defendants had last seen him. Stripped of this new corpulence he could be a very handsome man. His expression remains predominantly arrogant and scowling throughout the trial, although it occasionally becomes coquettish: when he is not being questioned, when the lawyers read some document and his eyes are free to roam the room, he scrutinizes the jurors with a sly, flirtatious look.

Boyd Douglas is a high-school dropout whose mother committed suicide by drowning when he was eight years old. He enlisted in the US Army in 1959, at the age of eighteen. His father, a restless, itinerant pipeline worker with whom Boyd traveled until he joined the army, and whom he never saw again after that time, once commented that his son had never told the truth in his life. As the facts of this informer’s astonishing record of crime, fraud, and impersonation were revealed in the Harrisburg courtroom, I could only see his life as the pathological story of a child who had never been loved by anyone, a man too estranged from reality to know the difference between truth and lying, who did not have enough self-knowledge to experience guilt.

Boyd Douglas had already stolen money while still of school age, but his first serious conviction occurred while he was stationed in Korea. Charged with committing larceny in Hong Kong, he was sent to the Presidio Stockade for inquiry, and escaped six days later. Within the following two years he escaped from another military stockade, was charged with AWOL, defrauded hotels, and, under a variety of aliases, passed $60,000 worth of bad checks in nine states before skipping to the Acapulco Hilton, where he was caught in December, 1962. Throughout the Sixties Douglas impersonated others and lived out numerous dreams of power. He posed as an army officer. He used forged checks and stolen money to go bear hunting in the Northwest, to charter private planes to fly from Mexico to Canada, to live it up at hotels in Acapulco, Reno, the Caribbean islands, and Miami. Usually he was unmasked and sent back to prison.

Having received an unsuitable discharge from the army, Douglas first arrived at the Federal Penitentiary at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, in April, 1963. While in Lewisburg he volunteered as guinea pig for a National Institutes of Health experiment to study genetic properties of human proteins, which called for several injections of emulsions into his muscles. His reactions were severe, and he was left with long deep scars on his legs and arms. Having sued the government for $2 million in damages, he absconded from the institute illegally a few months before he could have had his freedom. He was again arrested for interstate transportation of some $20,000 worth of forged checks in two states and for pulling a Beretta gun on the FBI agent who apprehended him in Milwaukee.

Douglas received sentences of five years, to run concurrently, on each of three charges. After another attempted escape from the Federal Reformatory in Reno, Nevada, he returned to Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary—known as “The Wall”—in January, 1968. For the previous eight years, he had lived his brief periods of freedom under the aliases of William Cook, Robert Hall, Meredith Dickinson, Charles Gray, Ronald Gray, Bob C. Hill, Jr., Frederick Gordon, David Summerfield, Robert Blake, James Brow, Captain Robert Edward Gray, Donald Rogers, Dr. James Link Shipley, Carl Strand, James Scranton.

The career of this shrewd, handsome swindler who had spent the Sixties shuttling between the American Dream places and prison is a curious mixture of successes and defeats. It seemed easy for Douglas to persuade hotel cashiers or bank clerks that he was a rich playboy, but impossible for him to continue to play the role convincingly for more than a few months. Always living in the fantasy of a still future role, Douglas would overstep his bounds, become too greedy, get arrested and unmasked. One could see Boyd Douglas as a man driven by fantasies of power and self-indulgence which had been tragically lacking in his lonely, motherless childhood; also as someone who perpetually needs to return to jail as if prison offers him the only protection he knows, the sheltering security he never experienced as a child.


In 1970 life suddenly changed for Boyd Douglas, and the prison system seemed to offer him his first chance at rehabilitation. The previous fall, while still in medium security at Lewisburg, he applied for the student release program at Bucknell University, a small liberal arts college by the bank of the Susquehanna River, two miles from the prison. He was admitted there as a “special student” in January, 1970. The privileges conferred upon him were extraordinary for a man with his criminal record: he was allowed out of prison six days a week from 7 A.M. to 6 P.M., and often given dispensation to stay at the college until later hours. He was even allowed to rent an apartment off campus for which he paid with money earned from his suit against the National Insitutes of Health.

Immediately upon his arrival at Bucknell, three months before Philip Berrigan was captured and sent to Lewisburg, Douglas went out of his way to frequent antiwar students and teachers, particularly Professor Richard Drinnon, chairman of Bucknell’s history department, and Professor Gene Chenoweth, head of political science. In his métier of impostor, Douglas had always been most skillful at the first stages of conning—charming and seducing his victims. Introducing himself to Philip Berrigan after chapel the first Sunday after the priest’s arrival at Lewisburg Prison, Douglas posed as a fervent new convert to the peace movement. And he became the courier for the unauthorized and wildly incautious correspondence between Elizabeth McAlister and Philip Berrigan within a week of the priest’s arrival at prison. Berrigan had been placed in maximum security, and denied the right to any correspondence beyond his immediate family. Boyd Douglas, who bicycled between prison and campus, carried the letters out in his college notebook, had them copied by two of his Bucknell girlfriends, and made Xerox copies which he later gave to the FBI.

Quite a witness you have there,” someone says to Lynch at a court recess during Boyd Douglas’s testimony. “We didn’t choose him,” the prosecutor snaps. He points to the defendants. “They did.”

The government at the Harrisburg trial, and Douglas himself, argued that he had frequented antiwar persons at Bucknell because he wanted “freedom of movement.” He said he had copied the Berrigan-McAlister letters for a while out of patriotic duty, because he was alarmed by their implications, with the eventual prospect of turning them over to the FBI when there was enough evidence; and that he was forced to turn informer to avoid prosecution for contraband, after one of the letters he had smuggled was found inside a copy of Time Magazine during a routine shakedown of Philip Berrigan’s cell.

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