The Thomas Merton Autopsy that Wasn’t

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Did the prominent monk, writer, social critic, and opponent of the American role in the Vietnam War, Thomas Merton, strangely succumb to a faulty fan while attending a monastic conference in Bangkok, Thailand?  That’s what Associated Press reporter, John T. Wheeler, reported with a dateline of Bangkok on the day of the death, December 10, 1968.  One can read that same characterization of the event even today on the web site of Merton’s home Abbey of Gethsemani, near Bardstown, Kentucky.

Thailand was in the thick of the Vietnam War theater of operations at the time.  Some 80% of the air attacks on North Vietnam and virtually all of those on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos originated there.  America’s war wounded were treated there and many who succumbed from their wounds were flown back to the States from Thailand.  On one such flight, they were accompanied, ironically, by the dead Merton, who had been one of the war’s most influential opponents.  Along with Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, he was the third major Vietnam War opponent to die under suspicious circumstances in 1968.  Although Richard Nixon was the president-elect at the time, we might be reminded that Lyndon Johnson was still the president.

Had the public information situation then been what it is today, very likely lots of people would have been weighing in with the question in that lead sentence.  Who’s ever heard of anyone being killed from being shocked to death by a household appliance, much less a fan?  The only time this writer has ever heard of it was when a radio fell into a bathtub, but I suppose something like a hair dryer might also produce the same fatal result.  (In fact, in the actual 1997 keynote address to the biennial meeting of the International Thomas Merton Society [ITMS], not in the formal transcription here, James W. Douglass reported that his friend Andrew Young had told him that Merton had died when a hair dryer had fallen into his bathtub, and Douglass joked about it because Merton was bald.)

The very first question that any skeptics of the day would have wanted to ask would have been, “What did the autopsy show?”  After all, that’s what autopsies are for, to determine the cause of death.  How do we know that the faulty fan that was found lying across his supine body that was clad only in boxer shorts or the bottom half of summer pajamas actually killed Merton?  Without an autopsy, all speculation about cause of death is nothing more than that.  It’s just so much blowing of smoke.  An early such smoke blower, currently cited on Merton’s Wikipedia page, was the French Benedictine monk, Jean Leclercq, who was one of the conference’s organizers, writing on February 26, 1969:

How exactly did [Merton’s] death come about? We will never know exactly and with certitude. There are already a number ofscenarios circulating—the sort of thing you expect when an extraordinary person dies. Some have begun spreading the rumor that the last moments of his life were in the presence of a statue of the Buddha. Others have suggested that he was assassinated like Martin Luther King had been. On the evening of his death two different versions were already being put forth by the media of Thailand and the United States. Papers in the United States only made mention of electrocution; those in Thailand spoke only of a heart attack. On both sides there was a desire to explain his death in such a way as to forestall certain hypotheses, none of which are all that significant. In all probability the death of Thomas Merton was due in part to heart failure, in part to an electric shock. Neither one nor the other alone would normally be fatal. (Emphasis added)

We should hardly be surprised that a person capable of such muddy thinking would neglect to raise the question of whether there had been an autopsy.

We wouldn’t learn it from the AP or from the mainstream American press either at the time or later, but the attendees of the conference knew that the local Thai authorities, who sent the police accompanied by a medical doctor to do a hasty investigation, didn’t do any autopsy in one of their hospitals because within a few hours U.S. military personnel showed up and whisked the body away, or, as Dom Jean Leclercq put it, “[Merton’s] body was taken away during the night,” without telling us who did the taking.  Since the press never told us that the U.S. military quickly took possession of the civilian Thomas Merton’s body, thereby short-circuiting usual Thai investigative procedures, they didn’t have to address the question of why it was done and who authorized this departure from the standard protocol.  Apart from their quick decision to take such unorthodox action, one might even wonder how the U.S. military had learned so quickly of Merton’s death.

The Other French Observer

So, if there had been an autopsy in Thailand it would have to have been at that U.S. military hospital.  In fact, one of the earliest reports to come out of the conference, also written in French by a native French speaker by another attendee of the conference, Mother Marie de la Croix, said an autopsy had been conducted.  Here is a translation of the key passage of de la Croix’s article that appeared some years later in The Merton Seasonal, published by the ITMS:

The next day, our Fathers told us that the army had come to take the body at 1:30 in the morning. At the same time, the Abbot of Gethsemani, finally contacted, refused to believe it was a heart problem and asked for an autopsy by doctors of the American army; this was done. But the conference was over before we could learn the results, if in fact it turned out that they could reach any definitive conclusion.

The way she tells it, the part about the autopsy sounds plausible.  She was right there at the conference (not in Bangkok as reported by the AP and by the Gethsemani Abbey to this day, but at a Red Cross conference center in Samut Prakan some 15 miles south of Bangkok) and she sat across the table from Merton and conversed with him at lunch after his morning presentation to the group on the day of his death.  She is also more accurate than the AP reporter Wheeler, who not only said that they were in Bangkok, but also, according to his anonymous “Catholic sources,” said that Merton was missed when he didn’t show up for lunch.  Furthermore, what she says about the autopsy is largely consistent with what Abbot Flavian Burns wrote on page 109 in 1984 in a compendium entitled Merton by Those Who Knew Him Best.  Here I quote from page 51 of our recently published Thomas Merton’s Betrayers: The Case against Abbot James Fox and Author John Howard Griffin:

Flavian wrote that he called the [U.S.] embassy in Bangkok and was told “there had been an accidental death; no more than that.”  Flavian added, “I asked for an autopsy because I wanted answers to questions I knew would be coming.”

But, returning to the translation of Sr. de la Croix’s article, we find this note by the ITMS publishers right at the top: “While some of its details are not completely accurate (there was never an autopsy performed on Merton’s body, for example, and one of the ‘priests’ in his bungalow was in fact a layman, John Moffitt), this previously unpublished account provides another precious witness to Merton’s final days.”

In fact, the year in which Abbot Flavian Burns wrote that he ordered an autopsy was the same year that Michael Mott’s authorized biography, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, came out, in which Mott states emphatically that there was no autopsy and offers some clumsy excuses for it, but we’re getting ahead of our story.

Sr. de la Croix got more things wrong than the translator tells us—or probably even knew at the time the ITMS published her article. She writes, for instance, that after returning to his cottage from lunch in the main building, Merton took a shower.  When the Gethsemani Abbey’s Br. Patrick Hart in his postscript to the 1973 book, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton introduced to the public the claim—which Hugh Turley and I completely debunk in our 2018 book, The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton: An Investigationthat Merton was wet from a shower when he encountered the faulty fan, he made no mention of de la Croix’s previous statement that Merton had taken a shower.  That is doubtless because she also wrote that after the shower Merton took a nap, which would have done nothing to buttress Brother Patrick’s suggestion that the shock from the fan was lethal because Merton was wet from having just emerged from a shower.

She has a great deal of company, right up to the present, in the case of that crucial error-filled paragraph in her article:

When we came back at 4 o’clock from the visit to Bangkok, we were told, “Thomas Merton is dead.” The details are easily told. He had taken a shower before having a nap and then had turned on his fan, a large standing fan that was in poor condition. He was immediately electrocuted. On the floor above him, a Benedictine priest whose name I don’t know, Father de Grunne, I think, heard a loud cry, then the noise of a fall. He didn’t investigate. Only two hours later, when the same priest needed some document or other, did he go to knock on the door of Father Louis Merton.  Getting no response, he became uneasy, went out, and through the large open window he saw Father lying on the ground with the fan on top of him.  But it was too late to do anything.  Later on they tried to say that he had had a heart attack, even though a Korean sister who was a doctor had examined him and concluded that it was death by electrocution, pure and simple; all this was to avoid the serious consequences that this would have entailed for the Thai Red Cross as well as for others. This also explains why the I.C.I. would also give this explanation even though no one believed it.

Sr. de la Croix had been on the same afternoon sightseeing excursion into Bangkok as Moffitt, the poetry editor of the Jesuit-published America magazine out of New York City.  She got the last name of that Belgian Benedictine monk right, Fr. François de Grunne, but virtually everything else she has to say is off the mark, much of which is because she relied upon the veracity of de Grunne, who appears to have been a central figure in the murder plot, as we explain in detail in The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton.  There was a thoroughly reliable witness who was the fourth occupant of the cottage, and his room was on the first floor with Merton.  We are speaking of the Benedictine monk from the Philippines, Fr. Celestine Say, who was about five minutes behind Merton and de Grunne as they returned to the cottage from the main building after lunch.

That was approaching 2 p.m.  The temporary rooms were separated only by screens at the top, so as far as the transmission of sound is concerned it was like one big room.  Say reported that for the two hours before de Grunne eventually saw Merton in his room lying on his back under the fan and alerted Say, he had heard no sound from Merton.  The first thing that Say did upon arriving was to go to the bathroom off the hallway between his room and Merton’s and brush his teeth.  While Say was brushing his teeth, de Grunne came down from his room, which was directly over Say’s, not Merton’s room, knocked on the closed bathroom door, and when Say opened it, de Grunne asked him if he had heard a shout.

De la Croix has the time right for de Grunne’s report of that purported shout, but he did not mention anything about the noise of a fall, as Say reported what de Grunne told him.  At that, de Grunne had simply gone back to his room over Say’s.  He seemed to be inviting Say to check on Merton, but he didn’t do it himself, and Say didn’t do it out of respect for Merton’s privacy.  According to Say, who was unable to take a planned nap because of de Grunne’s constant pacing of the floor over him, de Grunne came down again sometime later and left the cottage briefly before his third trip downstairs when he made his fateful discovery, near 4 p.m.

Michael Mott has a different account of the time of the perceived “shout” and the reason for de Grunne’s final trip down the stairs: “At some time before three o’clock Father de Grunne heard what he thought was a cry and the sound of something falling…An hour later, a few minutes before four, Father de Grunne descended the stairs again to get the key of the cottage from Merton and to reassure himself that the monk was only a sound sleeper.”

De Grunne couldn’t have come down to get the key—as the Thai police also reported—because he had already left the cottage once around 3 p.m. and come back in shortly afterward according to Say.  Say reported that de Grunne said he had come down later to ask Merton if he would like to go for a swim, but since the conference was set to resume at 4:30, that seems implausible as well.  After telling Say what he had seen in Merton’s room, de Grunne immediately left for the main building.  He quickly encountered two Benedictine abbots, Fr. Odo Haas and Fr. Egbert Donovan, who were returning from a swim in the pool.  He told them of seeing Merton lying inert in his room with the fan on top of him, but he also told them that the reason that he had come down from his upstairs room was because of the shout he had heard from down below, which would have been a delayed reaction on his part of close to an hour by the timing of the purported shout or the “loud noise” as the Thai police report had it.

If any doubt remains as to de Grunne’s unreliability as a witness—or worse—as we report on page 96 of The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton, in a July 6, 1969, letter to John Moffitt, de Grunne said that the noise he first thought had come from down below he realized had actually come from one of the other nearby houses.

Back to Sr. de la Croix’s account, the Thai police did not “try to say” that Merton died of a heart attack; they concluded that he died of “heart failure,” which is not the same thing medically.   The Benedictine nun, Sr. Edeltrud Weist, the medical doctor who pronounced Merton dead, as one can see from her name, was not Korean.  She was German, based in a convent in Taegu, Korea.  There is some irony in this mistake, since de la Croix was hardly Japanese, though living in a convent in Japan.   She was not nearly so definite about the cause of death as de la Croix says she was, either.  As we discuss in Thomas Merton’s Betrayers (pp. 188-189), she said in her written witness statement that the best she could do was to declare that Merton was dead.  Though leaning strongly toward electric shock as the death cause, she admitted to being thoroughly puzzled by the scene that she encountered, as were the other witnesses.

That brings us back to the subject of this essay.  In the absence of a formal autopsy, medical doctor or not, Sr. Weist was in no position to conclude that it was “death by electrocution, pure and simple,” as de la Croix has it.  And the crucial fact that no autopsy had been performed would remain a secret to the general public for years.  John Moffitt would write an article, “New Charter for Monasticism” for America (January 18, 1969) that briefly touched on Merton’s death and another for The Catholic World, “Thomas Merton the Last Three Days” (July 1969) and neither broached the subject of an autopsy.  Neither did his book with the same title as the America article, published in January of 1970.  Through most of 1969, as we recount in Thomas Merton’s Betrayers, Moffitt was exchanging letters with Merton’s first authorized biographer, John Howard Griffin, expressing his great skepticism over the accidental electrocution while, at least in the letters that have survived, avoiding the essential subject of an autopsy.

Other False Reports of an Autopsy

Sr. de la Croix was not alone among those saying, early in the game, that an autopsy had been conducted.  Bardstown, Kentucky, has a small daily newspaper called The Kentucky Standard.  Although the town is only 12 miles from the Gethsemani Abbey, the newspaper was a day behind the national media in reporting on Merton’s death, and when it did in a very brief article with no byline it misspelled the abbey’s name as “Gethsemane,” using the common Biblical spelling.  Their next article was two days after Merton’s December 17 funeral at the abbey.  In contrast to the first article, it was long and detailed.  One of the “facts” it furnished in the article was that at a stop-off in Oakland, California, on the long trip back to Kentucky, an autopsy had been performed on Merton’s body.  It also said that a monk from Gethsemani flew out to California and accompanied the body home from there.  No such “facts” were ever reported anywhere else, to our knowledge.  Like the first one, this article also had no byline, but as we explain in Thomas Merton’s Betrayers (pp. 45-46), it was almost certainly written for the newspaper by someone at the Gethsemani Abbey.

The Thai investigation authorities also got in on the act.  The official doctor’s certificate, signed by the doctor on the scene, Luksana Nakvachara, states near the bottom in the English translation that we found in the National Archives:

Remarks:  The patient died outside Samutprakarn Hospital.  The remains were brought to the Hospital for the purpose of a post mortem by medical doctors and investigation as prescribed by law.

The back side of the translation of the death certificate that we found at the National Archives has this inscription:

(Reverse Page):  The remains may be removed through the area of Amphurmuang, Samutprakan Province and they may be allowed to pass through other areas as a post-mortem examination has already been made in accordance with the law.

(Signed) Pol Lt. Boonchob Cheongvichit, Investigator

December 11, 1968

What they are describing sounds for all the world like an autopsy, but the doctor and the police lieutenant had to have known that what they were writing was not true, because the body went directly from the Red Cross conference center to the U.S. military hospital, never seeing the inside of Samutprakarn Hospital or any other medical facility controlled by the Thais.

No-Autopsy Story Dribbles Out

Brother Patrick Hart might well have been the first to divulge that no autopsy had been conducted.  He did it in 1973, in that postscript to The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton in which he introduced the false shower story.  But he hardly gave the subject the attention it deserved, brushing it aside as simply having been prevented by “international red tape.”

In 1976 Cornelia and Irving Sussman wrote a short 1976 biography entitled Thomas Merton: The Daring Young Man on the Flying BelltowerThey ran with Brother Patrick’s shower story, adding embellishments of their own that represent both poor scholarship and an energetic attempt to further promote the notion of the killer fan, while avoiding the autopsy question completely.  Most interestingly, in their acknowledgments they single out Brother Patrick as someone who had read their manuscript and even suggested changes, and they also thank John Howard Griffin for his assistance.  Later, as we learned from his archives, Griffin wrote them with glowing praise for their book, telling them as well that he did not think the book had any factual errors.  As we point out, it was replete with them when it came to the subject of Merton’s death. (The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton, pp. 133-135.)

On August 3, 1980, in a Louisville Courier Journal front-page article by John C. Long entitled “Revival of Theory about Monk’s Death Distresses Friend,” Brother Patrick is cited for a curious explanation for what that “international red tape” was that prevented an autopsy from taking place.  He told Long that there was a Thai law that required anyone autopsied in Thailand to be buried in Thailand.

The story is absurd on its face, demonstrating more than anything the abbey’s sensitivity to the question of the lack of an autopsy.  The fact that the Thai fabricators would say that they did an autopsy and let the body go back to the States is sufficient to give the lie to Brother Patrick’s claim.  In fact, they make it sound almost like an autopsy was a prerequisite for permitting the body to leave the country.

Michael Mott devoted seven pages of his 1984 authorized biography to Merton’s death and burial.  It represented the biggest exposure of the public at large to the news that, although the American public had been told with great assurance from the very beginning that Merton had been killed by a rogue fan, there had never been any autopsy to confirm that extremely rare occurrence.  In his extensive treatment of the subject, Mott also revealed a couple of other important things that the news media, the Gethsemani Abbey, and other people who had written about the death had kept a virtual secret.  He revealed that the Thai police “investigators” had concluded that Merton was already dead from “heart failure” before encountering the electrified fan found lying across his supine body.  Only The New York Times in its December 11, 1968, report, upon the authority of a cable from Thailand that the Gethsemani Abbey had received, had reported that heart failure was the official cause of death.  But then in the wire service report it sent out it dropped mention of the heart-failure conclusion.  For its part, the abbey told other inquiring news agencies for the first few days that it had not been told the cause of death.

Mott’s third big revelation was that there was a wound in the back of Merton’s head that had “bled considerably.”  That wound had been mentioned by Sr. Weist in her written witness statement and by other witnesses in correspondence to the abbey, to which Mott had access, but this was the first public mention of it that we have been able to find.

Having let those three cats out of the bag, Mott then scrambled to put them back in, and so powerful is the “first-impression effect,” and so monolithic has the national opinion molding apparatus (NOMA) been in adhering to that first faulty AP story, he has been largely successful.  Here is how he pulled off that tricky maneuver, taking the last one first:

Little attention seems to have been given to a wound on the back of Merton’s head that had bled considerably.  The obvious solution appears to be that it was caused when his head struck the floor. (p. 567)

That’s it.  Notice the passive voice.  Dr. Weist, the first medical person to examine the body gave it some attention, but the Thai authorities, their examining doctor and the police made no mention of it, and they were joined by the American news media and everyone else who had written about Merton’s death heretofore.  And what a fall backward it would have to have been upon a level floor to produce a wound that had “bled considerably!”  Boxers get such wounds over the eye, but that’s because of the skin being cut by the edge of the eye socket behind it.  There’s no such edge on the back of the skull.

Here is how Mott explains away the Thai authorities’ heart-failure conclusion:

The immediate question at the conference was confined to the cause of death, where there appeared to be two causes, electrocution and heart failure.  The police investigation had not inspired much confidence.  Many felt electrocution was deliberately played down to protect the reputation of the conference center.  It may have been so.  One thing argues for electrocution, especially since Merton had no history of heart condition. (p. 566)

Mott then proceeds to make the case that the shock caused the heart failure, but that’s not what the police report said.  It said that Merton was dead from heart failure before he touched the fan.  In case you doubt it, Mott has the key quote from the police report right there on the same page, “…Reverend Thomas Merton died because of 1. Heart failure.  2. And that the cause mentioned in 1. caused the dead priest to faint and collide with the stand fan located in the room.  The fan had fallen onto the body of Reverend Thomas Merton.  The head had hit the floor.”

Mott didn’t need to guess about the police motivation to protect the reputation of the conference center.  The Thai doctor told the witness Fr. Celestine Say precisely that, and he relayed that information to the abbey in a letter to which Mott had access.

What’s important here is what’s missing.  What about the reputation of the International Red Cross in charge of the conference center, and, most importantly, the maker of the fan, the Japanese giant Hitachi, as reported by several witnesses.  Why wouldn’t the abbey have wanted there to be an autopsy to nail down the fact that the fan killed Merton so they could bring suit against one or both of these deep-pocket organizations? (Never mind that the creation of the Merton Legacy Trust that Merton signed shortly before his trip to Thailand ensured that the income from his writings up to that point and all that they might milk out of his unpublished journals and writings in the future would go to the abbey, which was a much surer source of income than a living Merton, a constant threat to leave and take the income with him, would have been.)

That brings us to Mott’s excuse for the lack of an autopsy.  He is at his creative best in explaining it with endnote 466 on page 654:

On the vexed question of why no autopsy was performed, there have been a number of answers.  Abbot [Rembert] Weakland[the Benedictine abbot primate who presided over the conference] has said he was satisfied the cause of death seemed clear, the facilities in Bangkok for an autopsy were few, and he lacked the authority to order one.  Dom Flavian Burns understood that if an autopsy was performed in Thailand, either the body would be greatly delayed in getting to the United States or Merton might have to be buried in Thailand.

Mott can get by with this lame excuse by carefully failing to tell his readers in all his seven pages that the U.S. military had taken the body directly from the conference center to its own hospital.  That fact also makes moot Brother Patrick’s claims that “international red tape” or some ridiculous Thai law requiring someone autopsied in Thailand to be buried in Thailand.  It wasn’t an international question; it was an intra-national one.  There was nothing to stop the U.S. military hospital from doing an autopsy on Merton.  They only embalmed him instead.

Finally, on the biographer Michael Mott’s “definitive” account of Merton’s death, look at his last word virtually ruling out the very idea that there was a plausible motive for the man’s assassination:

In 1968, Merton’s death would have furthered the political ends of no group.  Those who felt animosity toward the stands he had taken on various issues were not in Bangkok.  Only the letters of 1967 in which he spoke of his desire to become an intermediary for peace remain to trouble an absolute certainty.  By December 1968, at any rate, Merton was not an obvious target in Bangkok for either reasoning or unreasonable assassins. (p. 568)

The inability to reason would appear to be all Mott’s at that point.

What would an honest autopsy have shown?  We believe that we have made the case beyond serious contradiction with The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton and most recently with Thomas Merton’s Betrayers that it would have revealed a hole in the back of Merton’s skull, caused either by a bullet or by some sharp murder weapon.  If our conclusions are correct, the exhumed body would still show that, but we’re not holding our breath waiting for someone with the courage to order such an exhumation or with the honesty to tell us what they have found.

David Martin

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