Part 7: Frank Olson, The Man Who Knew Too Much

A man falls to his death from the window of his hotel room on the 13th floor in New York. It was officially declared a suicide. However, nothing about that settled with the family of a man named Dr. Frank Olson.


To understand how Olson came to find himself plummeting to his death, we need to back up. Frank Olson was born in 1910 in Hurley, WI. For those that aren't from Wisconsin or aren't familiar with Hurley, it is a very small city (population of less than 5,000 people) on the Northern part of the state bordering up with Michigan.

After graduating from high school in Hurley, Olson was accepted into and attended the state university, University of Wisconsin Madison. He went on to earn his PhD in Bacteriology. He was married and went on to start a family with his new wife. By all accounts, it seemed like a fairly ordinary life.


With Olson's Bacteriology degree, he began by working with the US Army, specifically in their Chemical Corps. From this work, he was recruited to come work at Camp Detrick. Once at Camp Detrick, Olson found himself working for a man named Ira Baldwin who had actually been the department advisor at UW while Olson had been attending. Baldwin was the technical director for the US Army Biological Warfare Laboratories.

Within Olson's new job, he was to run experiments involving the use of anthrax in an aerosolized form. He worked side by side with a medical doctor named Harold Abramson. The research they did was important work with biological warfare at the start of WWII.


Through his work with the Army at Camp Detrick, Olson began working as a CIA employee. With the CIA, he was made a part of something called Project Artichoke in the 1950s. Project Artichoke dealt with certain interrogation techniques and was a stepping stone into what would become Project MK Ultra.


While working with Project Artichoke, Olson took a trip to Europe in 1953. According to a lawsuit that Olson's family would much later file, Olson fell witness to some of the most extreme forms of interrogation. Some that were interrogated subsequently died. This had a deep impact on Olson and fellow members of the CIA began to notice the impact this had on him. It seemed that they were keeping an eye on him and the way that he would react to what he had seen. With his adverse reaction, this made him a security threat to the CIA and the work they were doing.


Olson began expressing dissatisfaction with his work and where things were headed. He was uncomfortable with what was taking place in the Korean War with biological weapons. The tipping point for him, however, appeared to be from a sort of work retreat to Deep Creek Lake from November 18-20, 1953. The second night there, there was a scheduled cocktail hour. During that time, however, Olson and a handful of others actually were drugged. One of the men there had laced the drinks with LSD as a part of their MK Ultra experiments.


The next afternoon, Olson returned home. His wife noticed that here was a noticeable change in his behavior. He seemed to shaken up and upset about something. When she inquired what was wrong, he expressed feeling he had made a mistake while at the retreat.


By Monday, November 23, Olson had made a big decision. He didn't want to be doing this work any longer. First thing in the morning, he went to his boss's office to wait for him to come in. Once his boss, Vincent Ruwet, got in for the day, Olson asked to quit the biowarfare program. The two men talked and by the afternoon, Olson called home to his wife to say he didn't make a mistake after all, everything was fine, and he wasn't going to quit. He was going to stick with things.


The very next day, however, Olson was brought back home from work before noon with Dr. Joseph Stubbs. Stubbs was another Camp Detrick employee that was in charge of supervising Olson. Olson explained to his wife that the officials at Camp Detrick felt that they had reason to believe that he may hurt his wife and needed to go through some sort of psychiatric treatment. He agreed to it and by that evening, Olson, Stubbs and Sidney Gottlieb's deputy Robert Lashbrook all made their way to New York City.


Soon after the men arrived in New York, Olson was brought to his former colleague, Harold Abramson. Abramson would be the individual doing Olson's psychiatric treatment, despite the fact that Abramson wasn't a psychiatrist at all. He held a medical degree, but was an allergist rather than a psychiatrist.


That brings us to the morning of November 28, 1953. At approximately 2:00 a.m., Frank Olson goes crashing through his hotel room to fall to his death. The night manager on duty at the time went rushing out to Olson's side. Olson tried to say something to the man, but was only able to get out a slight mumble. By the time that emergency services were able to arrive on the scene to help, Olson had already died.


From there, police began to investigate. They went up to the room where Olson came falling from to find Lashbrook, the man that Olson was sharing a room with, sitting in the bathroom. While investigating, they contacted the operator of the hotel to see if there was a call made from the room. There was in fact a call made, and more than that, the listened in to the entire phone call and was able to explain the short call from beginning to end.

The operator explained that tehre was a call connected from room 1018A, the room Olson and Lashbrook were staying in, to a number listed as being the phone number to Dr. Harold Abramson. The operator heard a man staying in 1018A say, "Well, he's gone," to which the man on the other end of the call responded, "Well, that's too bad."


Police officers on the scene noted the similarities between Olson's death and the suspicious 1948 death of Laurence Duggan who also went crashing through a window to plummet to his death. Despite the similarities and suspicious circumstances, Olson's death is officially ruled a suicide. Olson's family is told that Olson had a nervous breakdown and it resulted in him diving through a window.


In 1975, the Rockefeller Commission revealed a variety of what the CIA was up to with MK Ultra. This included admitting to drugging Olson when he was away at the retreat at Deep Creek Lake. Olson's family hadn't been fully satisfied with the ruling of his death being a suicide. The truth about what happened at that retreat gave them the nudge they needed to fight the CIA for the truth about his death and sue them over his "wrongful death."


The CIA wanted nothing more than for this to go away. Not only were they in hot water for MK Ultra, but this would complicate things further. Not to mention that such a lawsuit would force the CIA to disclose documents that they wanted to keep private. So, as most with deep pockets do, they offered an out of court settlement. They initially offered $1,250,000 which was later reduced to $750,000. The Olson family accepted the money and the current president at the time, Gerald Ford, met with the family privately to apologize for everything that had happened to Frank Olson that resulted in his death.


Typically, this would be where a story like this ends. However, not for the Olson family. Frank's oldest son Eric found himself wanting more than just money and an apology. At no point did anyone explain what happened. They still didn't fully admit to what happened and a lot of the details around the time are kept a secret. Eric has devoted his life to getting the answers and justice he feels is appropriate for his father.


In 1994, Frank's wife and Eric's mother died. The plan had been that when she would die, they would exhume Frank's body to have his casket relocated and the couple could be buried side by side. When the time came, Eric and his family made a big decision. They decided to have an autopsy done on Frank's body. There had been an autopsy done when Frank died by someone that the government had chosen. Even at Frank's funeral, his casket had been kept closed so the family was never able to see the state that his body had been in. It had left a lot of room for questions. So the family hired a man named James Starrs that specializes in doing autopsies on exhumed bodies and evaluating them as their death may have been of a mysterious nature.

What Starrs ultimately found was that there was no evidence of Frank plunging through a window. There were no lacerations on his body from going through the glass. More than that, he found that Frank had a large hematoma on his head as well as a large injury on his chest. They did not believe that these were injuries that Frank would have gotten from landing onto the concrete sidewalk. Instead, they speculated that Frank had been hit before he went through the window. In Starr's opinion from his autopsy, he felt it strongly suggested Frank's death to in fact be a homicide.


With Starr's autopsy report, Eric attempted to open a new investigation into his father's death. The courts found reasons to turn him away. But that didn't stop him. In 1997, Eric got his hands on an assassination manual that the CIA would have used the year that his father had died. Reading through it, he found that it was stated that the suggested method of assassination would be to strike a person in the head above the eye and drop them from a height of 75 feet or greater. This method was an exact match for what Starr found in his autopsy.


Moving forward, Eric and his brother Nils continued to try to take the case back to court. Since the Olson family accepted a settlement back in 1976, it becomes very challenging to bring the case to court. Eric has stated that the family didn't realize when they agreed to that settlement that this would prevent them from bringing it up again.


In the end, Eric and his family continue to search for answers. They theorize that on the night that Frank died, Lashbrook locked himself in the bathroom while others came in and killed Frank since Lashbrook wasn't physically capable of taking out Frank on his own.

Over time, Eric has contacted journalist Seymour Hersh a number of times in hopes to get answers. Hersh acknowledged that he had a source that explained to him exactly what happened to Frank Olson that night. However, if he were to openly share what happened, it would put both Hersh and his source in danger. All he could really do was allude to the fact that the Olson family didn't have outlandish theories. But due to the dangerous nature of the investigation, Hersh strongly urged them to let it go. He knew that it would be next to impossible to get the answers they seek, much less in a safe and satisfactory way.


As for Eric, he continues to search and try to find justice for his father. He speaks openly about his father's life and what happened to him. He continues to hope that one day the truth will become public and justice for his father's death can properly be served.


Sources:

Wormwood - mini-series on Netflix

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Olson

https://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/27/us/family-of-frank-olson-man-drugged-by-cia-plans-suit.html

https://www.history.com/topics/us-government/history-of-mk-ultra

https://www.history.com/mkultra-operation-midnight-climax-cia-lsd-experiments

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_MKUltra

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