The Serial podcast about Adnan Syed’s murder conviction sparked a profusion of so-called “true crime” podcasts, many focusing on unsolved murders or assessing whether particular deaths were the result of foul play. While several of those are worth listening to, The Murder of Sonny Liston displays the advantage of the written word.
The question of whether boxer Sonny Liston’s heroin overdose was actually a murder has been a subject of speculation for decades. While author Shaun Assael’s The Murder of Sonny Liston: Las Vegas, Heroin, and Heavyweights can’t settle that question, the book portrays a Las Vegas on the verge of its heydays. There’s the wealthy casino investors, such as Howard Hughes, and the mob influence in the city. There’s the office run by Clark County Sheriff Ralph Lamb, one of the most powerful men in Vegas, if not Nevada. There’s the seedy underside of the Las Vegas Police Department in a jurisdictional muddle of the city’s explosive growth. There’s the de facto segregation of the community. And while Liston spent much of his time in African-American West Las Vegas, the man considered by many to be the angriest black man in America lived in an exclusive area of the city in a home once owned by Debby Reynolds.
Given the poverty in which he grew up, the fact he came into boxing while serving time in the Missouri State Prison and his later addiction to heroin, gentrification wasn’t something that fit Liston. The home and opportunities his celebrity brought didn’t cast out the variety of shady characters who were regular elements of and influences on his professional and personal life.
Assael clearly portrays these elements of the story. Unfortunately, while there are several candidates who may well have wanted Liston dead, that theme often seems to get lost in the emphasis on Vegas itself. Although Liston’s story makes the book a satisfactory read for those interested in him, the book is as much a history of 1960s Las Vegas as a thorough analysis of whether Liston was murdered. In fact, the latter focuses in large part on a police informant’s claims some 12 years after Liston’s death. At least the detail Assael provides elevates his exploration above the cursory views taken in most genre-related podcasts.
For all the distance he’d traveled, he was still fighting for chump change
The Murder of Sonny Liston, Shaun Assael
Today is my 60th birthday so I declare myself officially OLD.
While I’m far from the brightest bulb, I’ve not been oblivious over the six decades. Particularly over the last couple years, hindsight’s allowed me to assess what is important in life. It amounts to four things: family, dogs, books and music — in that order. Anything else — status, money, possessions, etc. — is essentially insignificant.
Family is somewhat self-evident. I’d never be where or who I am today had I not married well (although marrying wealthy would have been a bonus). Anyone who can put up with me over 36 years is a saint or crazy — actually a bit of both. Whenever and whatever I needed — support, solace, castigation — my wife provided. If anything, we’re more in love today than ever. (“All that I am/All that I ever was/Is here in your perfect eyes/They’re all I can see”).
My wife was also the moving force behind us having children. I grew up an only child so have never been accustomed to sharing space with siblings or even having other kids around for an extended period of time. I’ve even told my kids that if it had been up to me we’d only have had dogs. They listen better and are less trouble. What’s interesting, though, is that my daughters helped me discover my purpose in life. I won awards as a journalist and unquestionably significant cases as an attorney, such as this or this (although I’ve probably made just as much bad law). But if you ask me why I am here or about legacies, the answer has become very plain. I helped shape three strong, independent women who love each other more than anything. While no one is perfect (“You’re so much like me/I’m sorry”), each has her own unique talents and skills and they will undoubtedly do a better job of improving the world than I.
Some may be surprised to see dogs as second on my list. But to me, dogs are
virtually family. I grew up with them and they taught me how to care for another living being as well as the grief that comes with death. Dogs provide both joy and comfort, asking little in return, a little food and water and some attention. Dogs perceive when you’re down or ill and commiserate with you. The adage “be the person your dog thinks you are” is more than simply aspirational.
Books should come as no surprise. Books go beyond entertaining; they are powerful and transformational. My daughters learned early that reading and books give you the power to learn and do almost anything. They also learned not only that a bookstore stop is a must in any city but that I was a sucker for “Can I have this book?” But it isn’t just what you can learn from books. They introduce you to people you’d never know and places you’ll never see. As Joyce Carol Oates said, “Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.”
Music is akin to books in that it can be inspiring, escapist or comforting. It’s actually more mood- or attitude-setting than reading. (“You’re never alone, ’cause you can put on the ‘phones/And let the drummer tell your heart what to do”). Undoubtedly, everyone has songs that expressed just what they were thinking or feeling. This helps make music unique as a soundtrack for our lives. I couldn’t count the number of times songs will trigger a memory or a particular person, place or event. Music can even create a certain consciousness. Albums and songs have accompanied the highs and lows of life in ways I greatly appreciate.
Hopefully, this isn’t too mawkish. But not only does 60 bring home being old, it has an underlying connotation. There’s an adage that people hate birthdays but they’re better than the alternative. Given I had a heart attack at 35, I long doubted I would see this birthday. So while I bitch about the aches, pains and other physical manifestations of age, they reinforce that I’m still here. And they remind me of the important things in my life.
Is that really me in the mirror, is that me in this picture?
Could it be I’ve lived through all those years?
”Is That Me?”, The Uninvited
For a variety of reasons, I don’t follow or even watch NFL football. I didn’t even watch the last Super Bowl. So I paid no attention to items on the internet about some football player not standing during the national anthem. But a piece on the CBS Evening News Thursday reminded me of the cognitive dissonance of some “patriotic” Americans.
For any who, like me, may not know the background, Colin Kaepernick is a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. Although he’d done the same at two prior preseason games, he drew national attention when he sat during the national anthem at a preseason game on August 26. Kaepernick, who is biracial, said after the game, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” During a preseason game in San Diego last night, he was on one knee during the anthem, joined by another teammate.
Naturally, the story blew up with people on both sides. But last night’s game was the Chargers’s annual Salute to the Military night. This, of course, drew more attention. One thing jumped out at me in the CBS story about the game. “If he’s not for our country and the United States flag, get out of my country,” one veteran said on camera. While this clearly hearkens back to the old “love it or leave it” that arose during the Vietnam War, it is most striking that it is a veteran who said it.
We always praise the military and veterans for “defending our freedoms.” Yet a core freedom is the right to protest; it stems from something called the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has long recognized this when it comes to the U.S. flag:
- 1943 — “A person gets from a symbol the meaning he puts into it, and what is one man’s comfort and inspiration is another’s jest and scorn.” (Compulsory pledge of allegiance to flag unconstitutional).
- 1969 — “We have no doubt that the constitutionally guaranteed ‘freedom to be intellectually . . . diverse or even contrary,’ and the ‘right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order,’ encompass the freedom to express publicly one’s opinions about our flag, including those opinions which are defiant or contemptuous.” (Conviction for verbal remarks disparaging the flag unconstitutional).
- 1974 — Displaying an upside down American flag with a peace symbol taped on it, “was not an act of mindless nihilism. Rather, it was a pointed expression of anguish by appellant about the then-current domestic and foreign affairs of his government.”
- 1989 — The unconstitutionality of convicting someone for the expressive act of burning the flag “is a reaffirmation of the principles of freedom and inclusiveness that the flag best reflects, and of the conviction that our toleration of criticism such as [the defendant’s] is a sign and source of our strength.”
- 1990 — “[T]he mere destruction or disfigurement of a particular physical manifestation of the symbol, without more, does not diminish or otherwise affect the symbol itself in any way.” (Holding federal Flag Protection Act unconstitutional.)
People are entitled to announce they are offended by or object to Kaepernick’s actions. They are simply exercising the same right he does. But it is antithetical to claim the NFL or anyone else should punish Kaepernick for his actions because they insult what the flag or military stands for. “Love it or leave it” is fallacious. Americans tend to criticize their country because they want to correct its failings, to see it realize its aspirations. And Kaepernick says his actions came about because “this country stands for freedom, liberty, justice for all. And it’s not happening for all right now.” Seems like he’s trying to champion the same rights veterans and the military seek to protect.
[F]reedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.
West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 642 (1943)
As an initial aside, this post embodies what one can learn learn from just one sentence in a book.
While reading The Romanovs, a nearly 800 page tome on the dynasty that ruled Russia for four centuries, there was a paragraph on page 465 about the head of the Narodnaya Volyaan (“People’s Will”), a terrorist group that assassinated Tsar Alexander II in 1861, being a secret police informant. When the group learned that Sergei Degaev had betrayed it, the only way he could save his life was to kill Georgii Sudeikin, the head of the Tsar’s secret police, to whom Degaev had been reporting. On December 16, 1883, he invited Sudeikin to his apartment where he shot him from behind.
Degaev wanted poster
So far, not much more than a brief mention of a relatively incidental historical event. But there was a footnote at the bottom of the page: “Astonishingly, Degaev escaped from Russia and vanished, changing his name to become Alexander Pell, professor of mathematics at the University of South Dakota
[.]” (Emphasis added.) Two questions sprang to mind. Is this a misprint? If not, how come I’d never heard of this?
It isn’t a mistake. The USD mathematics professor was indeed Degaev. Somehow, after the assassination, Degaev made it to Paris, where his wife had gone a couple weeks before — on a passport supplied by Sudeikin. The Narodnaya Volyaan expelled him from the movement and barred him from returning to Russia. The latter probably wasn’t much of a penalty. He was being fiercely hunted by Russian authorities, who offered a 10,000 ruble reward (equal to about $200,000 today). Degaev and his wife ended up in St. Louis in 1886. He worked at a chemical plant while she was a laundress and cook. Somewhere along the line they became Alexander and Emma Pell, the names used when they became naturalized citizens in 1891. No one knows why they chose the name Pell.
Pell had earned an engineering degree in Russia. In 1895, he enrolled in a graduate program in mathematics at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He was awarded his doctorate in June 1897. At the time, USD, which held its first classes only 17 years earlier, needed a mathematics professor. By chance, one of Pell’s professors at Johns Hopkins, Lorrain Hulburt, taught at USD from 1887-1891. When USD asked if Hulburt knew of any good candidates, he recommended Pell, although warning of Pell’s “Russian brogue.”
Alexander Pell 1904
Pell began teaching at USD in the fall of 1897 and quickly became popular among the students. In 1901, the student newspaper described him as the “class father” and “Jolly Little Pell.” It’s been reported several times that when a fight broke out between USD students and fans of an opposing team at a football game in Mitchell the following year, Pell waded into the melee to help the outnumbered USD students. While they triumphed, Pell emerged with a torn shirt and bloodied face. When Emma died in 1904, the students dedicated the yearbook to them.
Pell published three academic papers during his first four years at USD but didn’t limit his efforts to mathematics. He urged the school’s board of trustees to start an engineering program. An engineering department was approved in 1903 and opened in 1905. In 1907 the department became the College of Engineering and Pell was its first dean. And while Pell is reported to have said that women didn’t belong in mathematics, he encouraged and supported one of his students, Anna Johnson of Akron, Iowa. After obtaining her USD degree in 1903, Pell helped her pursue graduate studies at the University of Iowa and Radcliffe. In the summer of 1907, Pell traveled to Germany, where Anna was completing a fellowship at the University of Göttingen, and the two were married. She was 24; he was 50.
Pell resigned from USD in 1908, moving to Chicago, where Anna completed her Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. She was the first woman and only the second USD graduate to earn a doctoral degree. She became an extremely well known mathematician. In fact, her biography at a history of mathematics website is longer than his. In 1911, Pell suffered a stroke. She obtained a position at Mount Holyoke College, where they lived until she started teaching at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania in 1918. She ell died in 1921. Anna established a fund for a scholarship at USD and the Dr. Alexander Pell Scholarship is still awarded to mathematics undergrads.
During and after his years at USD, students and faculty were well aware of his work and contributions. Yet they had no clue that “Jolly Little Pell” had been a terrorist assassin. Thus, Degaev/Pell presents an interesting dichotomy. Who was he at heart? Terrorist assassin or respected college professor?
It was not impossible for him to be both. Who wants to be judged solely by certain of their past actions? Moreover, if changes in our lives don’t produce seeming discrepancies then it’s doubtful there’s been real change. Degaev may be a bigger footnote in Russian history than Pell in American history but it’s hard to imagine having experienced such a far-reaching metamorphosis.
Send your Russian mathematician along, brogue and all.
USD wire to Lorrain Hulburt, in Richard Pipes,
The Degaev Affair: Terror and Treason in Tsarist Russia