• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Harrisburg: The Politics of Salvation

Dear Molly,

Thank the bureau for the reward and thank you. This will be used for a new car soon. I have never owned a car. Can you get me some expense money this month.

After my cover is gone, I will need an honorable discharge from the army so that I can settle out west and it will look as though I just returned from Asia, etc. I will obtain a transcript of my grades here at Bucknell at the end of this semester, should I wish to continue at some university out west. I may either continue at a university or go into a small business out west.

Considering what I will go through before and after the trial or trials, I request a minimum reward of $50,000 (tax free). $5,000 be paid me the first week in December, 1970, and the rest at the start of the trial or when things are blown wide open. With this I could start a small business or continue at college. This figure may sound a little high, but considering everything, I feel it is worth it to the government and it will make a life for me. I will do all I can to help the government obtain enough evidence to prosecute these people concerned. However, I don’t want to feel that I am just being used. I know these people may not bother me, but the only way I will be able to feel comfortable, is to take some precaution as they are the cream of the Catholic left. This figure doesn’t account for expenses between now and the time for trial….

Boyd douglas was not always told what specific disclosure he was being paid for. The government’s financial niggardliness toward its informer came out most clearly when court testimony revealed that he had been awarded only $200 for enabling the FBI to capture Daniel Berrigan through a hint dropped in one of Elizabeth McAlister’s apprehended letters. A small pittance, since the capture of Daniel Berrigan had been the principal target of the FBI’s surveillance system at Lewisburg throughout the spring and summer of 1970, and since all information compiled by Douglas had been placed in a “Daniel Berrigan file” at FBI headquarters.

This is the first time officially I had any knowledge that I led to his capture,” Douglas announced on the stand when he learned of this fact. And his voice had that ambivalence of pride and petulance which seemed characteristic of him, the fantasy of self-importance mingled with anger toward the authorities who had duped him once again. Indeed, the way the government and Boyd Douglas conned each other is one of the most interesting and least revealed stories of the Harrisburg case—one that we may expect to read when Boyd writes his memoirs.

To what extent was the government aware that Boyd Douglas was not only an informer but a provocateur? This remains another one of the mysteries of the Harrisburg trial. Molly Mayfield mournfully claimed under oath that the FBI did not know the following facts:

Boyd offered a gun to Elizabeth McAlister when he heard of the alleged kidnaping project.

In an attempt to resurrect his Catholic friends’ dormant or rejected plans, Boyd initiated most of the telephone conversations he had with the defendants from the Lewisburg laundromat where he conducted much of his business.

He wrote Professor Richard Drinnon a letter suggesting that he stage a destruction of Bucknell’s ROTC building, and verbally incited many other Bucknell persons to civil disobedience. The defense implied in cross-examination that Boyd had even suggested to a Bucknell coed that she blow up the state capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Nor did the FBI know—according to Molly Mayfield—that Boyd had submitted as his own, for publication in The Bucknellian, an article about the Movement which had actually been written by Philip Berrigan. (Boyd had asked that it be signed anonymously, “By a Revolutionary,” yet with characteristic panache he had also asked that it be broadcast about campus that he was its author.)

Boyd’s most serious act as a provocateur was handing two ROTC manuals on explosives to Joseph Wenderoth, whose few fingerprints on these volumes became the principal material evidence for the alleged tunnel plot. In accordance with Douglas’s wish to pose to the Berrigan milieu as an expert on explosives, Molly Mayfield had non-chalantly acquired the manuals for the informer from the Bucknell ROTC office, an interesting instance of the government’s uses of university facilities. According to Molly, Douglas did not confess this act to the FBI until March of 1971, when, in preparation for the second indictment, Molly and Boyd talked for five weeks in Phoenix, Arizona, to “straighten out discrepancies” in Boyd’s testimony.

The FBI’s indifference, its lack of control over Douglas’s acts, is appalling even if it had not been aware that he was also a provocateur. This use of a man with a pathological record of lying and violence, let loose upon a sheltered campus, offering guns, explosives manuals, and advice for the destruction of buildings to students, teachers, and visiting priests, seems to me one of the shoddiest chapters to date in the annals of government infiltration.

As for Boyd’s conduct, it remains singularly interesting even if the government had not been apprised of the ways he tried to incite people to take violent action. It reveals the psychology of the informer who, not sharing the language or values of the infiltrated group, and threatened by mistrust, may become a provocateur to prove his commitment. It also expresses that simultaneous drive toward power and self-defeat peculiar to Boyd. For nothing more greatly weakened his credibility as a government witness—and his future as an informer—than his admissions that he worked behind the FBI’s back. Given a blank check on freedom for the first time in his life, Boyd again lapsed into fantasies of future power. He again ran grave risks by raising the ante too fast, too high.

A remark of Douglas’s quoted by the defense at the trial, that he “wanted to get even with the United States,” is one of the clearest windows into his soul. For, as his record of the decade shows, he was a man who needed to beat the system every minute of the day, and in the most menial of ways. According to one of the Lewisburg residents who saw him frequently at Bucknell, he poured himself a tumbler of neat Scotch every day a few hours before returning to the prison, a flagrant violation of student release privileges. “You’re mad,” she once said, “they’ll smell it on your breath.” “Never mind,” Boyd replied, “I chew Sen-Sen.”

Boyd Douglas disappeared from Bucknell overnight in early January, a few weeks after he was released from prison: upon leaving jail he had bought a $4,000 light blue javelin sports car, and was carried out blind drunk from the “coming out party” he had given himself at the apartment of a Bucknell librarian. A few days after the party he went to Washington, DC, with Betsy Sandel to attend a demonstration at the Justice Department protesting Hoover’s charges against the Berrigans—charges overwhelmingly based on his own work. Shortly after that event, unbeknown to his acquaintances, he entered FBI custody and began to testify before the Harrisburg Grand Jury.

One wonders to what extent Boyd Douglas had been touched by the Movement people who had offered him affection and warmth, perhaps for the first time of his life. Bucknell’s head librarian, Zoia Horn, says that he had always talked of Philip and Elizabeth, Joe and Neil, with tears in his eyes. Was this simply brilliant acting? Or is Joe Wenderoth accurate in estimating that Boyd had a strong and equal need to form friendships and to destroy them? On February 15 he called Betsy Sandel, a Bucknell girl he’d offered to marry, and talked for forty-five minutes about the “patriotic duty” that had compelled him to disclose the Lewisburg events. He grew violently angry, Betsy reports, at her suggestion that he had acted for money, and hung up.

Four weeks later—after a brief FBI-managed stay in Omaha, where he was discovered by the press—Boyd Douglas was married and living in Phoenix, Arizona, where the FBI had provided him with a job at Motorola and a Master Charge Credit Card. Joseph Wenderoth, who knew Boyd as intimately as any of the defendants, believes that the FBI also suggested that he get married, to keep him out of scrapes and improve his image. Boyd’s new alias was Robert Dunne, and he had grown a mustache. The FBI took him next to Des Moines, where it got him a job as a men’s wear salesman in a department store. In December, 1970, the government started paying him a $36 a day witness fee in preparation for the trial. In his next role, that of government witness, Boyd Douglas seemed to enjoy impersonating the conservative, law and order young American for the benefit of the stolid Harrisburg jury. “What do you mean by the Movement?” he was once asked in court. “Panthers, SDS,…all the nuts in this country,” he answered.


In his opening statement, William Lynch argued, with gestures curiously reminiscent of a priest at the pulpit—his hands first clasped, then opened out in “orate Fratres” gestures—that there was a “unitarian” character to the three objects of his indictment’s first count. The old draft board raids, he claimed, were “training grounds” for the escalation of tactics to the tunnel and kidnapping plots. He then brought witnesses to testify that the draft board raids had indeed existed, that the Berrigan-McAlister correspondence had in fact been apprehended at Lewisburg, and other witnesses who testified that they remembered hearing Joseph Wenderoth discuss something about tunnels.

Out of court, one learned of some of the desperate methods the government had used to approach such witnesses. Kenneth Filarski, a student and track star at Catholic University, who later testified he had attended an antiwar meeting with Wenderoth, was confronted right on the college track, during practice, by William Connelly and J. Philip Krajewski, Lynch’s bland young assistant prosecutors. Filarski at first refused to talk to them, saying he wanted to consult his own lawyers. They advised him he had better talk to his parents. The student received a tearful call two hours later from his mother, a federal employee in Cleveland who had been called in the interim by the FBI to urge her son to cooperate.

One further sensed the government’s quandary when it offered as surprise witness a young blond housewife—acquired overnight in Harrisburg—who came to testify that she had once heard Elizabeth McAlister talking about civil disobedience at a women’s antiwar meeting in a Westchester branch of Schrafft’s. One wondered why the government had taken such pains to call these witnesses at all, for they mostly sounded like witnesses for the defense, testifying to the existence of meandering discussions—more often than not held at open public gatherings—that had never jelled into concrete plans or solid agreements.

William Lynch struck me throughout as a remarkably skillful technician stuck with an obvious lack of hardcore evidence. His principal technique in the trial—one that could have been brilliantly effective if Douglas had been more believable—was to try to back up the Berrigan-McAlister letters with Boyd’s testimony. Lynch would read the letters in a’ clear, flat monotone, during which time Philip and Elizabeth would look glumly at the floor. Then Douglas, in an equally flat, bored voice, would elaborate on the conversations and activities of the Catholic left that had been mentioned in the letters. Having met with Lynch for some thirty hours previous to the trial, he would deliver in direct examination long, extraordinarily glib and detailed answers, such as the following testimony concerning the alleged tunnel plot:

I asked Joseph Wenderoth if he knew the number of the generator plants in the tunnels. He told me he did not know, but that he thought there were between three and five. I asked Joseph Wenderoth about the entrances to the tunnel system. He told me that there was no problem in going into the tunnel during the day-time. I told Joseph Wenderoth that if it was all right, that we would use primer cord…. I asked Joseph Wenderoth whether ten feet wide and eight feet tall was the correct dimension of the tunnel. Joseph Wenderoth told me that he had no problem in walking down in the tunnel, or walking around in the tunnel.

Lynch: You mentioned that primer cord was discussed. Did you discuss how much would be needed…to effect what you intended to effect in this project?

Douglas: Yes. Joseph Wenderoth told me that we would use primer cord in approximately five locations of the tunnel system.

If the defense had decided to present a case, and Joseph Wenderoth had taken the stand, his testimony in rebuttal would have been somewhat as follows: “Boyd would return and return to the tunnel theme we had discussed and scrapped by mid-summer. I’d tell him, ‘We’ve scrapped the idea, Boyd, forget about it.’ But there was no telling Boyd no. He’d bring it up again and again and after months of persistence when we finally got it into his head that it was scrapped, he said, ‘I’ll do it myself.’ ”

In cross-examination Douglas’s style was vastly, different. He was questioned, in turn, by defense lawyers Ramsey Clark, Terry Lenzner, Thomas Menaker, William Cunningham, S.J., Paul O’Dwyer, and Leonard Boudin. He would cock his head toward the ceiling, and offer interminable pauses before answering—understandably, for he often contradicted himself. Douglas had told the grand jury that he himself offered to carry letters from Berrigan out of the penitentiary: he told the court that it had been Berrigan’s idea. He had told the grand jury that Drinnon had asked him to contact Elizabeth McAlister: he told the court that Berrigan had instructed him to do so.

He contradicted his, own court testimony with equal ease. One day he testified that he had expressed approval for Philip Berrigan’s antiwar position and his philosophy of draft board raids upon first meeting him. A few days later he vehemently denied he had ever talked to the priest about the war in the first month of their acquaintanceship, and said that, although they met daily, they mostly “played handball and went to movies.” He remained cool when faced with his contradictions. “There’s a lot of testimony I’m giving in this courtroom,” he once explained, “that refreshes my memory when I testify.”

Paul O’Dwyer, the most experienced trial lawyer of the defense team, gave Douglas the most grueling cross-examination of his two and a half weeks in the courtroom. Standing by the informer, his great black eyebrows shielding his eyes, he would alternate a demanding, harassing tone with a patient, paternal one. Douglas, his chin thrust forward in an angry pout, would frequently glance toward Lynch. And even in this most skillful of cross-examinations, the truth of Boyd’s intentions—and of the FBI’s—remained shrouded in the shrewd vagueness of his adverbs. A typical example:

O’Dwyer: Did you tell them [the FBI] that you wished to continue working for the FBI after you got out on parole?

Douglas: It’s possible I said that….

O’Dwyer: Did you intend to make a career out of this?

Douglas: Possibly, yes.

O’Dwyer: Was the $1,500 you received for the Rochester disclosure an inspiration for the Molly letter?

Douglas: Partially.

Probably” and “Possibly” were such frequent responses that several times Douglas slipped and said “Prossibly.”

After almost two weeks of cross-examination by some of the country’s most gifted lawyers Douglas grew impertinent and restless, but remained as controlled as ever. One was dazzled by his resilience. I understood at the end of the trial why some former Lewisburg convicts admire him as a cool, accomplished artist. A man, they add, who could no longer remain alive for one hour in any of the nation’s jails.

Some questions remain: how did people outside Lewisburg prison come to trust Boyd Douglas so blindly? How did Philip Berrigan and Elizabeth McAlister become his victims?

(This is the first of two articles on the Harrisburg trial.)

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print