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The Hot Potato of Thomas Merton’s Death


David Martin

March 5, 2018     


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The Hot Potato of Thomas Merton's Death


We had almost finished our book on Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s mysterious 1968 death at the age of 53 at a monastic conference outside Bangkok, Thailand, when my co-writer, Hugh Turley, made the discovery that logician D.Q. McInerny was something of a Merton expert. McInerny wrote his doctoral dissertation on Thomas Merton, completing it in the year after Merton’s death, and in 1974 had his first book published, Thomas Merton: The Man and His Work.


That really hit close to home. For the last few years Turley and I had both looked forward each month to McInerny’s column on religious and philosophical topics in the newsletter for the seminary at which McInerny taught philosophy until his retirement at the end of the last academic year. We often discussed his latest article on the phone. My son took philosophy courses under McInerny at that seminary some years ago, before dropping out midway through the seven-year program, and McInerny previously taught at the College of St. Thomas (now the University of St. Thomas), from which Turley had previously graduated with a degree in philosophy.


We discovered that McInerny had briefly touched on Merton’s death in his book, but he was writing at a time when it was really very difficult to get information on the subject and we felt that it was our obligation to find out what McInerny had learned and how he had learned it. That quest began by my writing the following message into the “Contact” box on the seminary’s home page:


I am the father of one of your previous seminarians, xxxx, and a regular contributor to [your seminary]. I'm working on another book on Thomas Merton and would like to talk to D.Q. McInerny about him. Do you have contact information? Too bad he retired. I really looked forward each month to his great articles in the newsletter.


Here is the response I received from a person whom I shall identify only as a seminary functionary (SF):


Dr. McInerny retired at the end of last school year. He moved to xxxx, xxxx. His telephone numbers are xxxx and xxxx. He does not have email, to my knowledge, otherwise I would be writing to him often. I am using postal mail at this time! I am sure he will be pleased to hear from you. Incidentally, xxxx's name pops up from time to time around here, so he is not forgotten!


SF seems to be fond of exclamation points. I decided to lay my cards on the table in hopes of having the most productive exchange possible with Dr. McInerny, and I did so with this follow-up email to SF:


Thank you very much for the telephone numbers for Dr. McInerny.  I think it would be better to wait to call him until after he has read my most recent article, in which I quote him extensively and take some issue with some of the things he says in his 1974 book on Thomas Merton.  That would give him some preparation for the conversation that I would like to have with him.  I am particularly interested in his conversations with the people at Merton's home abbey of Gethsemani and what they revealed to him concerning Merton's death.  I am certain that he would be interested in all the things that my co-author, Hugh Turley, and I have learned about the death that I am sure he does not know and have never been made public.  Our upcoming book is The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton: An Investigation, and we have a tentative publication date of March 1. *
I would very much appreciate it if you would mail a copy of my article to Dr. McInerny and at least the gist of this email to prepare him for our telephone conversation.  I would also be quite willing to answer any questions you might have about our project.  My home telephone number is xxxx and my cell phone is xxxx.  

Potato Burns

I had heard nothing in a week, which prompted me to write a brief follow-up email asking SF when and if he had mailed my article to McInerny. He quickly responded that I must not have seen his previous email, suggesting that he had no intention of sending the article to McInerny.

Indeed, I had overlooked the earlier email among the flood of those that come in each day, and I promptly found it. Maybe it’s because I’m a born-and-bred Southerner of the old school, but I must say that SF’s email struck me as flat-out rude. What on earth could make a person respond to me in such a combative and uncooperative way as this?

I have read your article, and I am disappointed in what I thought was to be a fair assessment of Dr. McInerny’s work.  Instead, you have demeaned him in order to apparently promote your own work on the subject, and to infer that he wrote out of ignorance and with a lack of factual evidence.

Dr. McInerny has never claimed to be a champion of conspiracy theories, but has been an astute and insightful witness to rational thinking on numerous subjects.  I am confident he did not consider himself an expert on Thomas Merton, but a reasoned observer.

I do not want him to be mistreated, and hence I request you destroy the telephone numbers I gave to you.  It appears I acted in naïve haste without considering what was intended by your request to contact him.

My, my! I had no idea that I was such a reprehensible human being. The missive virtually drips with raw contempt and hostility towards me, and SF is saying it directly to me, a longtime benefactor of his institution!

Had I really been so abusive and unfair toward McInerny without realizing it? Here is how I began my section, “D.Q. McInerny on Merton and the Press,” in the article in question: “In his short 1974 book, Thomas Merton: The Man and His Work, a very thoughtful and honest man whom I greatly respect, D. Q. McInerny, took issue with Merton concerning his observations about the press.” I then proceeded to give a long quote from his book in which McInerny objects to Merton’s position that the national press and the worst elements of the government are in league with one another. McInerny offers in rebuttal the role that the press played in opposing the Vietnam War.

My counter argument in defense of Merton’s thesis is that the press knew a lot more than it ever told about the full horror of our prosecution of the Vietnam War, and then I excuse McInerny for not knowing that because the national molders of public opinion made it very difficult to know. I probably would have thought as he did, I say, if I had not gained my special knowledge working in a veterans’ anti-war organization. Yes, I said in so many words that he was ignorant, but it’s hardly an accusation; rather, I used it in his defense, because it was an understandable and defensible ignorance.


McInerny’s remarks about Merton’s death, I suspected, were also founded in ignorance, as difficult as it was to learn anything about the subject at the time, but in this case it was clear that they were also based upon some very poor thinking, and I had said as much. So here is how I responded to SF, and we have had no further communication:

I am sorry that I happened to overlook your email when it came in.  I must say that I find it astonishing.  As I noted in the introduction to the section, I have nothing but the highest respect for Dr. McInerny.  I could very much imagine writing at the time something little different from what he wrote about the press, based upon what each of us knew at the time. 
On the other hand, it is a simple fact that McInerny was wrong to state categorically that no one was with Merton when he died and that it is impossible to know the cause of his death.  I am generally impressed with Dr. McInerny's very rational thinking, but it was not on display in this instance. 
You have no idea how much we have learned about Merton's death that nobody else knows at this point, and that would certainly include Dr. McInerny.  If he's the man that I think he is, he will be delighted to learn what we have uncovered, just out of the pure joy for learning and truth. I must say, though, that I have discovered that such people are a lot rarer than I once thought they were.

Sincerely,  David Martin


Reflecting on SF’s emotional outburst, I’m sorry to say that I can see all too clearly what set the poor deluded fellow off. It is to be found in this passage: “Dr. McInerny has never claimed to be a champion of conspiracy theories, but has been an astute and insightful witness to rational thinking on numerous subjects.”


There it is, the dreaded “conspiracy theories” expression. SF has worked himself up into such a state of high dudgeon that he is unable to think clearly, over the mere intimation that the official explanation for the death of the great spiritual and anti-war writer, Thomas Merton, might not be true.


Talk about ignorant! One can be virtually certain that he does not know that the official U.S. Embassy Report on the Death of an American Citizen repeated the official conclusion of the Thai investigative authorities that Merton died of “sudden heart failure” and that that conclusion was reached in the absence of an autopsy, which was never conducted. What SF no doubt believes about Merton’s death is that a faulty fan electrocuted Merton when he touched it, as he emerged wet from a shower. The Thai authorities concluded, to the contrary, that Merton was already dead before he came into contact with the fan.


Because there never was any investigation of Merton’s death worthy of the name, any conclusion about how Merton died is really just a theory. As we show in our book, the theory that a fan electrocuted him is extraordinarily weak. It is so weak, in fact, that it has had to be buttressed by a number of falsehoods.


But why do so many people believe it? That’s where the “conspiracy” part of “conspiracy theory” comes in. America’s opinion-molding community—including Merton’s authorized biographer, who had been a professional journalist—has told them that it is so.


One can take it to the bank that SF is unaware of any of these things. We have seen, as well, that he prefers to remain in his benighted state, because I gave him my telephone number and offered to share with him some of the important things that we have learned, and it is hardly an exaggeration to say that his response was an email version of a spit in the face.


His sort, unfortunately, is legion in the country. Since he is ostensibly of a religious nature, one can imagine him reciting daily with his fellows this paraphrase of the Apostles’ Creed that I penned almost 20 years ago:


The Creed of the Credulous


          I believe in the almighty American press; and in our political leaders, chosen through the system conceived by our Founding Fathers, suffered under Watergate, and rose again from the experience more trustworthy than ever.


          I believe the Watergate lesson is that our freedom is protected by the anointed who stand in watch on our behalf, the only exception being those fired with an excess of zeal to see another president brought low at their hands. **


          I believe our leaders incapable of sin that would not be exposed by the media.


          I believe that those who would deny these revelations are not human. They are creatures. They are conspiracy theorists. Amen


Et Tu, D.Q.


So much for SF, but what about D.Q.? Looking back at what I wrote I think that I really might have been too generous to him on account of my prior disposition to regard him favorably. If Merton could penetrate the fog of propaganda from his cloistered vantage point in a Kentucky monastery, I really shouldn’t be making excuses for McInerny’s failure to do so. By the time he wrote his book, the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. had all occurred, and enough had been written about them, particularly JFK’s assassination, for any thoughtful, right thinking person to have recognized the sort of cozy relationship between the press and the worst elements of the government that Merton posited. As a Merton scholar, McInerny should have been aware of the Merton essay, “The Vietnam War: An Overwhelming Atrocity,” that was published in the Catholic Worker in March 1968. McInerny could well have learned from that article a lot of the things that I had learned only through my participation in the North Carolina Veterans for Peace. Anyone reading that essay could readily see the degree to which the press was pulling its punches in its criticism of our Vietnam War policy. Perhaps McInerny did not realize how much he depended for his information upon the same people whose credibility was at issue. It amounts to assuming what you are trying to prove, the sort of logical failure that I would imagine McInerny has often pointed out to his students.


Moreover, what McInerny wrote about Merton’s death is really so much worse as to be indefensible. He declared authoritatively, “…all indications seem to point to the conclusion that he was killed accidentally, electrocuted by a defective electric fan.”


In an attempt to excuse McInerny’s errors, SF writes, “I am confident he did not consider himself an expert on Thomas Merton, but a reasoned observer.” But if the writer of a doctoral dissertation and a book on Merton is not to be considered an expert, who would be? It was certainly with the air of an expert that McInerny penned the words “all indications,” giving readers the clear impression that he was a master of the subject. Compared to almost anyone reading his book, McInerny certainly was an expert, and he certainly did nothing to disabuse the reader of the notion.


Did he not know that there was no autopsy? If not, why didn’t he? In his acknowledgments he credits key people at Merton’s home monastery for their assistance. He could have easily learned from them that there was no autopsy. Knowing that, he definitely should have hedged in his statement about the cause of Merton’s death.   But learning that there was no autopsy raises the vexing question of why no autopsy was performed, especially when one considers the fact that the investigating authorities concluded that Merton died of sudden heart failure, unrelated to the supposedly lethal fan. Was McInerny ignorant of that fact, one wonders? Did the abbey leadership keep McInerny in the dark? Was this a subject that the young McInerny, mindful of his career aspirations, knew was unsafe to pursue?


Pusillanimous Professors


To be sure, primary blame for misinformation about Merton’s death lies with the propagandists in the press and their playing of the old “first impressions” trick, but just as with the James Forrestal case and the Vincent Foster case, our professorial class bears its share of the blame for cementing the false impression in the public mind.


Readers should not be surprised to learn that I did not accede to SF’s admonition to destroy the telephone numbers that he supplied me. Rather, I attempted to give McInerny a call. Unfortunately, one of the numbers was not functional and the other, on several occasions over a number of days, rang endlessly with no one picking up. I didn’t even get a recording asking me to leave a message.


Fortunately, my co-author Turley had previously corresponded with McInerny by mail, and he sent a letter with some of the questions that we had for him. McInerny responded promptly and politely. We shall have more to say about that exchange in a future article. The book now has a section on McInerny. Suffice it to say, from what he said in his letter, McInerny could hardly be less qualified to tell people what “all indications” were with respect to the cause of Merton’s death. In fact, he revealed a truly shocking lack of knowledge about the most basic facts of the case.  The truth be told, rather than to begin his statement with, “all indications seem to point to…,” he should have said, “the safe thing for me to say is....”


At this point, I am reminded of a very important article by the late Catholic writer Joseph Sobran that appeared in the December 2, 1997, Washington Times entitled “Up to Speed on Conformity” that I quote extensively in Part 4 of “America’s Dreyfus Affair: The Case of the Death of Vincent Foster.” Here are some key passages:


When I was a schoolboy, back in the sunny 1950s, we used to get solemn lectures on the dangers of “conformity.” Many intellectuals thought Americans were becoming intellectually timid. They were right, but for the wrong reasons.


Most intellectuals are themselves conformists.


...the natural result is a population that sets great store by conformity to the mass. In public controversies, most people are chiefly concerned to play it safe. Before they take any position, they ask themselves not “Is it true?” but “What will happen to me if I say this?”


H.L. Mencken was talking about academicians who “posture as American historians” when he hung the “timorous eunuchs” label on them. Unfortunately, the historians seem to have a lot of company these days in the halls of ivy.


* The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton: An Investigation, was actually published on March 7.

** When this was written, recall, Bill Clinton was president. Any suggestion at that time that anyone in the press was really serious about bringing him down was absurd. That is clearly not the case with the media’s behavior toward the current president.


David Martin

March 5.2018                                                                                                                                      





Thomas Merton


Thomas Merton, O.C.S.O., was an American Catholic writer, theologian and mystic. A Trappist monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani, Kentucky, he was a poet, social activist, and student of comparative religion. Wikipedia

Born: January 31, 1915, Prades, France

Died: December 10, 1968, Bangkok, Thailand

Buried: Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, Kentucky, United States

Parents: Owen Merton, Ruth Jenkins


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