The Frank Olson Legacy Project

“Only The Shadow Knows”:

Notes on my meeting with Dr. Robert Gibson

 

Dec. 20, 1999

Eric Olson

 

 


When last-minute plans were being made on the afternoon of November 27, 1953 to hospitalize Frank Olson a call was placed to a young admitting psychiatrist in Maryland named Robert Gibson. (Gibson went on to a very distinguished career in medicine: he became director of Shepherd-Pratt Hospital in Baltimore, and President of the American Psychiatric Association.) The Olson family had never heard this name, and would not learn of Dr. Gibson’s role until 1994. When Dr. Gibson read about the exhumation of Frank Olson’s body he contacted Professor James Starrs, director of the forensic team, to tell his side of the story. This was reported in a January 19, 1995 AP story by reporter Deb Riechmann, the same reporter who had also found a mysterious document in Olson’s personnel file.
James Starrs interviewed Dr. Gibson in 1994, and in 1999 I finally decided I should meet him too. The AP story appears below, followed by my notes on that meeting.

 

 

 

I met Dr. Gibson at his home north of Baltimore just after 2:00 p.m. on a rainy Monday afternoon, Dec 20, 1999. Dr. Gibson greeted me at the door together with his two large brown dogs. He then showed me around the ground floor of his large wooden house, which is set in the woods overlooking a large reservoir. Then we settled down, Dr. Gibson on the sofa and me in a large comfortable chair, to begin what became a five-hour conversation.

I told Dr. Gibson that I had re-read the transcript of the conversation he had had with Jim Starrs almost exactly five years earlier, on Dec 21, 1994. {As I mentioned this I was aware for a moment of the almost Proustian expanse of time that has been devoted to solving my father's murder.] On the low table facing us Dr. Gibson had spread out the materials I had sent him, which included the chronology of this long affair. He directed my attention to an ambiguity in the way I had described what he had said during the meeting he had had with Jim Starrs Gibson pointed out that my description could be read as implying that he had had some sort of affiliation or relation with the CIA, or had access to special information from that source. Dr. Gibson wanted me to understand that this was not and had never been the case.

Dr. Gibson has had a remarkably distinguished career. He was director of Shepherd Pratt Hospital for twenty years, where a building there bears his name. As we turned toward the matter of the CIA Dr. Gibson began by telling me about an event that had occurred when he was president of the American Psychiatric Association. A letter he had sent to the CIA declining cooperation with a study had turned up in the hands of the Scientology Church. How had this occurred? The explanation turned out to be that a member of the Scientology Church had gotten a short term job in Dr. Gibson's organization just prior to this affair and had had access to office files. I said that I had heard that the Scientology Church reputedly has large files on the CIA's mind control projects. Dr. Gibson said he found this very believable.

I gave Dr. Gibson a copy of Paul Robeson Jr.'s Nation article, in which Robeson links his father’s drug-manipulated suicide-attempt to my father’s murder, which was disguised as an LSD suicide. Dr. Gibson said he remembered having seen Paul Robeson Jr. play football for Cornell in a game against Penn, where Dr. Gibson had studied.

We then turned to a detailed discussion of the contact that Dr. Gibson had had with one of my father’s caretakers, the “caretaker” who apparently was Robert Lashbrook though Gibson does not remember the name.

In November 1953 Dr. Gibson, then a young doctor of twenty-five, was working as an admitting psychiatrist at Chestnut Lodge Hospital in Rockville, Maryland. He said he received a call late one afternoon—about four P.M. he thinks— inquiring about the possibility of an admission for Dr. Olson. This call was received the day before a second call on the day of Olson’s death informing Gibson that Dr. Olson would not be coming. This means that the first call was received on Nov. 27, 1953, at about 4:00 P.M.

The caller identified himself as a doctor, and Gibson took this to mean that he was a medical doctor. [I do not know whether Dr. Gibson is able to be specific as to whether names were given, either of the caller or the friend. I must ask about this.] The caller said that he was calling from New York where he was with “a friend” who had “been acting strangely” and appeared to require hospitalization. This terse description of Olson’s condition was apparently the only explanation given for requiring hospitalization. Dr. Gibson is certain that he then asked whether the friend to be admitted was currently under the care of a physician, or was receiving any sort of treatment. Dr. Gibson says he can be certain that he asked these questions both because he remembers having done so, and also because he would have routinely asked this.

The answer given by the caller was that Dr. Olson was not currently in treatment and was not under the care of a doctor.

Dr. Gibson then explained that based on this limited information he could not arrange for an admission immediately, but that the patient could be brought in for an examination and that then a recommendation (which might be either an admission or a referral) could be made. The caller then inquired about bringing the patient in that same night. In the discussion that ensued, however, it became clear that the time required to travel from New York to Washington by train and then to come all the way to Rockville would make the arrival very late at night. It would be difficult even to find Chestnut Lodge. It was agreed that the trip should be made the following day.

[I now recall that this explanation for the delay based upon the lateness of the hour contradicts the explanation given in the Colby documents, I think by Lashbrook. There the explanation for coming on Saturday is that the weather in New York was bad and that flights were not departing, the assumption being that Lashbrook and Olson would travel by plane, not by train. I must check this. I have checked the weather for the 27th and 28th, and found that in fact, contarary to what was claimed, the weather was good for flying.]

Dr. Gibson said that normally an immediate hospitalization at Chestnut Lodge would have been impossible, due to the long waiting list which usually required a one year wait. However, on this particular day Dr. Gibson checked the waiting list and found that all those on it had removed their names, so that one bed was in fact available.

The next morning Dr. Gibson arrived about 8:00 a.m. He explained to me that he sometimes did work on Saturdays, so that it is plausible that he would have been at the hospital on Saturday November 28. On his arrival the secretary informed him that a call had just come in concerning the admission he had discussed the previous day. Dr. Gibson then went into his office to take the call.

The caller was the same man with whom Gibson has spoken the day before. The caller said that his friend would not be coming. Hearing this, Dr. Gibson inquired about the reason, asking whether the plans had been changed. The caller explained that the reason was that his friend had died during the night. He then described what had happened. Dr. Gibson said he cannot remember all the words that were used in the explanation, but that was what was told to him had formed an image in his mind of what the situation had been, and this image he remembers very clearly.

The caller said that he had awakened in the middle of the night, whereupon he saw his friend standing in the middle of the room. The caller tried to speak to his friend, but this apparently startled the friend, who then started running and hurled himself through the window. Crashing glass was part of the image that Dr. Gibson remembers. The caller said he had known his friend was dead because "the window was on a high floor of the hotel."

Dr. Gibson remembers being concerned for the caller, who had apparently witnessed the horrifying death of a friend. Gibson made some inquiries along these lines but doesn’t remember eliciting any particular response.

After recounting this story Dr. Gibson and I discussed a number of questions that naturally arise. One question is why Lashbrook (or Abramson if that was who the caller was) would have called to arrange hospitalization, possibly to begin as early as that same night, if the intention was to kill the patient. A second question is whether, if the hospitalization had occurred, it would have been possible to guarantee a level of security adequate to the concerns of the Agency. A third question is why in 1994, when he was informed of Dr. Gibson’s version of these events, Lashbrook would have responded by saying, “Dr. Gibson must be dreaming.”

As for the first question—why would hospitalization have been arranged for a patient who was slated to be killed?—two answers occurred to us. The first is that some event or chain of events might have occurred after the call was made that resulted in a new decision about what to do with Frank. One element in this may have been the realization that security at the hospital would indeed have posed unsolvable problems. Dr. Abramson, for example, would inevitably have been drawn into the situation, either during the admission process or during treatment. Dr. Abramson makes clear in the Colby documents that he wanted “to be kept out of it.” This is merely the first of a whole series of security problems that would have arisen. Dr. Gibson explained that Chestnut Lodge did not have security-cleared psychiatrists on its staff at that time, and that security would indeed have been a problem had psychotherapeutic treatment begun at Chestnut Lodge.

But, if security was a concern, as it would have had to have been, then the question arises as to why the Agency’s secure mental health facility in Massachusetts was not considered. The obvious answer is that termination, not a secured facility was the course chose. This answer also explains why Lashbrook and Olson stayed in the Statler Hotel, rather than in the safehouse that was available to them in Greenwich Village, ten minutes away by taxi.

A second explanation for arranging hospitalization is that an alibi would have been needed. If Olson’s death was to be explained as a suicide, and if there were numerous signs that he had in fact been suicidal during the days in New York, then it would have appeared suspicious in the extreme if the death had occurred in the absence of any plans for further treatment. This is especially true given that the alleged reason for being in New York to begin with was to receive treatment from Dr. Abramson (which of course was not acknowledged in the call to Gibson). If at the end of three days of consultation with Abramson the patient killed himself (as the story was to be told) then it had to be as an unfortunate event happening before the hospitalization that had been arranged could be put into effect. The impression given was to be, "We did our best, but unfortunately we didn't quite make it to the hospital." That was the myth with which I grew up as a child. "Yes they tried to take care of our father," my brother and sister and I always thought. "But he fell out the window the night before they could get him to a hospital."

This rationale has the ring of plausibility, and it explains another aspect of the story that otherwise is a gaping hole. This is the question of timing: why were arrangements for hospitalization made so late in the week, and so late in the day? If Abramson’s reports in the Colby documents are to be believed, Abramson had had ample reason to have come to the conclusion early on that Olson required hospitalization. In fact, given his reports the astounding thing is that Olson was permitted to reside on a high floor of a hotel at all during the New York stay.

From the perspective at which we have arrived here, however, one can suspect that a decision to kill Olson would have to have been accompanied by a decision to arrange a spurious hospitalization for him. Both decisions must have been reached some time Friday. By calling Chestnut Lodge so late in the day it was possible to give the impression that immediate care was needed, leaving it to Dr. Gibson to take the responsibility for delaying the arrival for a day. This would create the desired impression of concern, while at the same time avoiding the possibility that Olson would indeed land in a hospital that same night and out of the reach of his CIA “caretakers.” It's a bit like the story my mother used to tell about my father before he was married. When he knew a woman already had a date for a particular night he would call her up and ask her out. That way he could get credit for being interested and for trying without actually having to spend any money.

This interpretation is given support by another anomaly in the story. Just hours after the arrangement was made to take Frank to Chestnut Lodge the following day he had a phone call with my mother in which he said he would be home that same following day. Had Frank himself not been told of the hospitalization plans, or were these plans bogus—made disingenuously, without serious intent to carry them out? The latter seems overwhelmingly likely.

As for the question of whether security could have been guaranteed at Chestnut Lodge, Dr. Gibson gives a clear negative response. He told me that neither he nor his colleagues had clearances to deal with secret information, and said that the process of psychotherapy would have exposed the whole scenario in which my father was caught.

The third question—why did Lashbrook say what he did in 1994—was raised by Dr. Gibson in response to what he considered to be a strange response by Lashbrook to Gibson’s recounting of the call he received. Dr. Gibson said that the more natural response would not have been “Dr. Gibson must be dreaming,” but, rather, a suggestion that either Lashbrook had spoken to someone else (not Gibson) or that someone else (not Lashbrook) had spoken to Gibson. A call from someone was definitely received by Dr. Gibson, and certainly a call from someone in the Agency to someone at Chestnut Lodge would have to have been made. In either case it seems obvious that if hospitalization had been arranged, as is claimed in the Colby documents and as the family was informed after the death in 1953, then someone must have called the hospital to inform them of the new situation. It is curious that nowhere in the Colby documents is there any mention of a call being made by anyone to Chestnut Lodge to arrange hospitalization, or a call by anyone to cancel the arrangements once made.

But here too an explanation suggests itself. Apparently the cover story was changed later on Saturday morning, after the call to Gibson had been made. The idea that Lashbrook saw the exit through the window was clearly problematic. It must have been decided that the story would be that Lashbrook saw nothing, that he was awakened by the sound of crashing glass, and that by the time he opened his eyes Olson was gone. This story is obviously preferable to one in which Lashbrook sees Olson plunge through the window, which must have been a sort of first rough draft of a cover story. Perhaps Lashbrook, Gottlieb, and or Agency the security officers who were called in subsequently checked their own assassination manual and discovered that the best alibi of choice is one in which it is claimed that the assassination/witness saw nothing. When he looked around the subject was gone.

By the time a satisfactory cover story was decided upon a first draft had apparently already been conveyed to Gibson during the call in which the hospitalization was cancelled. This realization that this was the case must have been an awkward moment. I suspect that Lashbrook and company would have concluded, however that this storm could be weather. If Gibson’s name were kept out of the record nobody would ever hear his version anyway. Nobody would think to call Chestnut Lodge, and Chestnut Lodge would not think to get involved as they would never hear the new version of the story. The contradictions in the cover story would be unlikely to surface.

Were it not for “The Shadow” all that might have been true.

As we were discussing the scenario in New York I mentioned the very strange business involving Frank’s visit to a magician, Dr. Mullholland.
“Oh I met him,” Dr. Gibson said. “My father was a friend of his.”

Stunned by this I pressed Gibson for an explanation.

“My father was a writer and magician,” Dr. Gibson said. He knew all the greatest magicians of the day, Houdini, Blackstone, and Mullholland. He was also a novelist. Have you heard of “The Shadow” novels? He wrote all of those, more than three hundred “Shadow” novels in all.

Then Dr. Gibson’s wife appeared. Turning to her husband she [Diane] said, “If it weren’t for ‘The Shadow’ you might never have contacted Dr. Starrs.”

By this point I was starting to experience a hot flash. Dr. Gibson had met Mullholland! Dr. Gibson’s father the author of “The Shadow”! Not the psychologist Carl Jung’s shadow as the unacknowledged part of the personality, but The Shadow! Had I once again passed through the looking glass? Could the circle of psychiatrists and magicians in this story really be so small that the doctor who was to have admitted my father to the hospital have met the magician who had taught the CIA how to drug my father and whom my father was taken to see during that last fateful week in New York? And, in the context of this endlessly dark story, could the father of the doctor to whom I was now speaking really be the author of the line, “The Shadow knows?” Apparently so.

Dr. Gibson went to the bookshelf and pulled out an an old and cracking volume, a biography of his father William Gibson called “The Man of Magic and Mystery.” Page after page, probably at least sixty pages of this book, were devoted to merely listing the books William Gibson had written, over seven hundred in all. “Yes,” Dr. Gibson said, “my father would go into his study after dinner and start typing on an old Smith Corona typewriter. We would find him in exactly the same position the next morning. By then he would have written over a hundred pages. He never corrected them at all. They went directly to the publisher.”

The rest of the evening with Dr. Gibson was spent discussing the glory days of Chestnut Lodge where in the 1950’s and ’60’s an internationally famous group of psychiatrists was pioneering the treatment of schizophrenia. One of these, Harold Searles, authored a book, “Collected Papers on Schizophrenia and Related Subjects” that is one of the great classics of psychotherapeutic literature, and which I read with enormous profit while treating a schizophrenic patient in Sweden. Dr. Gibson also told me about research he had done using hypnosis to create very precise age regressions in a patient. He also described a book he is currently writing together with a former suicidal patient in which they are exploring the motivations that lead to suicide.

But then the most astounding question occurred to me. Given these connections among LSD, hypnosis schizophrenia, psychiatry, magic, and mystery, could mere chance explain the fact that the Lashbrook-Gottlieb team had somehow contacted Dr. Gibson? Given Gottlieb’s intellectual perspicacity (he had been familiar with the work of the professors with whom I worked in graduate school and even claimed to have financed Robert Lifton’s early work) I found this hard to believe. And yet some things in this tightly woven tale that led to my father’s death must have occurred by mere chance. My old Harvard mentor Henry Murray (who assessed Hitler’s personality for the OSS) used to tell me, “Chance, love, and logic. Can’t be all chance.”

But some of it must be.

Who knows?

“Only The Shadow knows.”


 

The article by Michael Edwards on CIA magic consultant John Mulholland, to whom Frank Olson was taken in New York, draws upon information from Dr. Robert Gibson. It turned out that both Robert Gibson and his father knew Mulholland. See “The Sphinx and the Spy: The Clandestine World of John Mulholland,” by Michael Edwards, Genii Magazine, April 2001.