Monday, 17 June 2019

Dr Mary's Monkey by Edward T Haslam

I have just read one of the most extraordinary books I have ever read, if not the most extraordinary.

It all starts when a young boy, a native of New Orleans, becomes fascinated by the unsolved murder of one of his doctor father's colleagues, a high ranking cancer specialist called Dr Mary Sherman, a woman who once bounced him on her knee.

She is discovered one morning in July 1964 after reports of smoke emanating from her apartment. Naked, a pile of smouldering underwear has been placed upon her and set alight. She has stab wounds to her heart and genitals suggestive of a sexual motive.

But strangest and most horrifying of all, her right arm is missing and part of her ribcage is burned through where she is lying. How could a minor fire cause this level of damage? Moreover her neighbours had heard nothing overnight through the thin walls of the apartment block. His father is sent to identify the body and is clearly traumatised by what he sees, but won't go into detail with young Ed.

It is only as he grows up that Ed learns these details and starts to be party to various clues and rumours in the community, making sporadic notes. His father dies of cancer when Ed is scarcely out of his teens, but his last words are to warn him to be careful, knowing of his curiosity.

Decades pass and Ed lives a normal life, but every so often a new clue or new piece of the story presents itself and Ed duly writes it down. A pivotal moment comes when he gets a job at a local newspaper office and is sent to meet some men who wish to know if the newspaper might be interested in their files. He feigns innocence and disinterest, but what he sees is dynamite, including pro-Cuban tape recordings featuring Lee Harvey Oswald, the prime suspect in JFK's assassination.

Bit by bit Ed uncovers the fact that New Orleans has been a secret centre for monkey research since the 1950s involving the mutation of viruses, possibly with the aim of causing a quick-acting cancer to assassinate President Castro during the Kennedy era.  Simultaneously these viruses play a part in the development of the polio vaccine, in the early batch, with disastrous results, and latterly in a sense that could have given rise to the modern cancer epidemic, and even AIDS, as they manipulated viruses creating retroviruses far beyond their understanding, or ability to fully contain, using the new secret particle accelerator machine, a machine Ed comes to suspect of having electrocuted Dr Sherman, either accidentally or deliberately, leaving her colleagues with the horrifying task of having to finish her off and deposit her body at her apartment, making it look like a random murder to hide their top secret medical experiments.

The CIA, the FBI and the Mafia all play a part in this story and all turn out to have nationally-significant roots in New Orleans, including Lee Harvey Oswald, who was also a resident. However the central character appearing to bind everything together is the shadowy Alton Ochsner, founder of the biggest medical clinic in Louisiana, former president of the American Cancer Society and able to boast friends in the highest political spheres, and not just statewide.  He has also been granted special national security clearance for a project of national importance, but what?

There are times in Ed's life when he tries to turn his back on the story, which has now grown to gargantuan proportions from the unsolved murder of a scientist, to secret government laboratories, monkey viruses, a unique plot to kill Castro, a worldwide cancer epidemic, AIDS, the CIA, the FBI and the Mafia and now Lee Harvey Oswald and the assassination of President John F Kennedy.

It all sounds far too incredible to be true and yet the more you read, the more monsters begin to emerge from the sultry Louisiana swamps.

The first version of the book came out in homespun form in 1995, but has grown ever since as new pieces of information come to light and new witnesses come forward. This is no slick production by a seasoned hack or a journalist out for a quick buck, but one man's reluctant life's work on a story he felt deserved to be shared with the world, and at no small risk to himself. Many of the central characters have died before their time after all. It is even suspected that nightclub owner Jack Ruby (who shot Lee Harvey Oswald before he could testify) was injected with quick acting cancer cells to ensure his own death (and thus silence) shortly after. Certainly the researchers who worked on the secret cancer project seemed to be as expendable as their lab animals.

Interestingly 60 Minutes made a documentary on Dr Mary's Monkey, but it was pulled at the last minute with no explanation.

Ed Haslam doesn't ask the reader to believe his book but to join him in asking the questions contained therein. Starting off with questioning the bizarre murder of a renowned scientist which was quickly shut down and never investigated, no suspects, no arrests, no credible explanations.

That said, he provides an impressive array of evidence for many of his suppositions and demonstrates that the official version of events can be just as unbelievable when held up to the light as any alternative version of events we might not wish to believe.

This book has been unputdownable - akin to several thrillers rolled into one. If just one part of it is true, it would still be an incredible story.

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