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 HarperOne (1999) [p. xiv], that:

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 , 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.

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.
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