Young Haslam's pondering on the subject might have ended there had talk of monkey viruses not kept popping up periodically over the 35 years he lived in New Orleans. He learned that millions of Americans had been inoculated with a polio vaccine inadvertently adulterated with monkey viruses, that cancer-causing viruses had contaminated the blood supply and that experiments at a secret laboratory in New Orleans had used monkey viruses to develop a biological weapon aimed at killing Cuba's Fidel Castro.
All these things were supposed to be secrets, but New Orleans is a city where secrets are served as cocktail hors d'oeuvres and rumors fly more freely than Mardi Gras beads.
One reason Haslam had access to such information was his connection to New Orleans' medical community through his father, Edward Sr., who was a professor of orthopedic surgery at Tulane Medical School. The parents of many of young Haslam's friends also were in the medical field. A dropped comment here, an overheard conversation there -- all of it convinced him that monkey viruses were nothing to mess with. The problem was that they had been messed with for so long -- and on such a large scale -- that America and the world might now be paying the price in the form of AIDS, an epidemic of soft-tissue cancers, and even biological weapons developed from ramped-up cancer-causing simian viruses.
Haslam didn't follow in his father's medical footsteps; he is an advertising executive living in Florida. When he decided to write a book about the bizarre death of noted cancer researcher Dr. Mary Sherman, whose charred and stabbed body was found in her New Orleans apartment in 1964, he had no idea where the story might lead. To this day her murder remains unsolved; the case is still officially open and the files closely guarded.
What Haslam thought would be a straightforward murder mystery became a meticulously researched story that took him on a 20-year sojourn into political intrigue, a secret laboratory, a parade of nationally recognized names and, ultimately, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The story unfolds in Dr. Mary's Monkey: How the Unsolved Murder of a Doctor, a Secret Laboratory in New Orleans and Cancer-causing Monkey Viruses Are Linked to Lee Harvey Oswald, the JFK Assasination and Emerging Global Epidemics (Trine Day, 2007, $19.95).
"I didn't even really want to do a book," Haslam says. "I wanted someone else to investigate it, but it just kept coming back to me like a bad penny. I was trying to get people who were interested in the JFK/(Jim) Garrison thing to look into it, and they kept saying, 'That's interesting. Why don't you write something about it?'"
From the beginning, Haslam knew there was something nefarious about Sherman's death. He vividly remembers seeing his father, who had been a Navy doctor in World War II, cry for the first and only time in his life after returning from the morgue, where he had viewed the body of Sherman, who had been a friend and colleague at Tulane. In the book he wrote:
Seeing my father cry was memorable for me — a once in a lifetime experience. Having spent his career amputating limbs and standing in an Emergency Room making life-or-death decisions about people pulled from mangled vehicles, he was not prone to show much emotion. I mention this incident here because it is important to our story. It is how I learned about the evidence that unraveled the mystery of Mary Sherman's murder. My father told my mother, and my mother later told me: Mary Sherman's right arm was missing.
This key fact in the case was never told to the press. Why not? Can you imagine the O.J. Simpson trial without "the glove?" Why was the press not told the most obvious fact in this case? Who was trying to protect whom? Were there powerful forces controlling the story from the beginning? If so, what did they not want us to know? And why did they not want us to know it?
That same summer, I overheard my father complain bitterly when he learned about certain activities going on at the U.S. Public Health Service Hospital. His anger and frustration seemed out of character for this deep-keeled man. I remember his words: "We fought wars to keep people from doing things like this."
Over the next three decades, Haslam discovered what had so upset his father. The author believes the murder scene at Sherman's apartment was set up to disguise the real cause of her death. Plus, a police investigation into her murder had been shut down, presumably by the federal government, and information about it locked up tight. Even 30 years after the murder, Haslam's request for the official police report caused a firestorm of concern in the local district attorney's office.
Official reports about the murder pointed to stab marks on her body that indicated a link to an alternative lifestyle -- and an apartment fire. The problem, Haslam says, is that one of her arms and rib cage had been incinerated, which could not have occurred in an apartment fire that did little damage to the room. He also learned that the degree of damage could only have been caused by extremely intense heat -- even higher than the 3,000 degrees used in cremation. He believes it was caused by a device called a linear particle accelerator. Such a device was being used to radiate monkey viruses to help develop a vaccine for soft-tissue cancers that could result from the contaminated polio vaccine administered to millions of school children in the 1950s and '60s and/or to develop a super cancer-causing virus that could be used to assassinate Fidel Castro. Haslam found evidence that such an accelerator existed at the U.S. Public Health Services (USPHS) hospital in New Orleans in the 1950s. He even found a witness who claims to have worked there.
Here the story takes a wild turn.
Haslam says Sherman actually worked on a monkey virus project at the secret, government-funded USPHS laboratory under the direction of famed New Orleans doctor Alton Ochsner. She worked alongside David Ferrie, one of the main characters in former New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison's ill-fated investigation into the JFK assassination, and Lee Harvey Oswald, named by the Warren Commission as the lone gunman who killed Kennedy. The author believes Sherman's arm and ribcage were incinerated during an accident at the lab and that she later was stabbed in the heart, a wound that actually killed her, then stabbed in other places post-mortem to establish a cover story.
"The fire in the apartment could not possibly have done that to her body," Haslam says of damage to her arm and ribcage. "I had always heard [the murder investigation] was covered up and shut down. The rumors were so gargantuan. The rumors tended to go toward kinky angles, and that wasn't really the issue. Neighbors who would routinely hear her walking around in her slippers didn't hear anything (although they were home). There was hardly evidence of violence. One of the neighbors smelled smoke and called the police department."
Sherman's autopsy report shows the stab wound to her heart was inflicted with a very slim instrument, while the other wounds were made with a large butcher knife, Haslam reports. In addition, 1,200ccs of blood hemorrhaged around her heart but none around her liver, which also was stabbed. "You hemorrhage when you're alive," Haslam says, "but there was no hemorrhaging around the liver, so the stab wounds were made at different times." He also learned there was a high level of morphine in Sherman's blood, a typical part of treating a patient with severe burns.
"I had a number of friends whose parents were connected and could tell me things, just not in a public forum," Haslam says. "It was background noise but it was all on key. Here's one: They had found hard narcotics in Mary Sherman's blood. If you are inclined to think of it in a psycho-social aspect, you would think she was a drug addict ... but if you think of it from a medical perspective ... you would be more inclined to believe she received medical treatment. There are people in New Orleans who know."
The story gets even more complicated. In his research about Sherman's murder, Haslam turned up information that led him to believe Garrison's investigation was on the mark. He also believes that Garrison's probe, and consequently his reputation, were sullied by federal officials, including then-U.S. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy. According to the author, the secret lab, plans to kill Castro and even JFK's assassination linked such seemingly disparate characters as mafia kingpin Carlos Marcello, Dr. Ochsner, Clay Shaw (whom Garrison unsuccessfully prosecuted as a conspirator in Kennedy's assassination), David Ferrie, the Reily Coffee Company, the FBI and CIA. Additionally, Haslam posits the theory that Oswald did not assassinate Kennedy but was actually an operative for the CIA. This claim is backed up by Judyth Vary, who worked in the lab with Sherman and Oswald and was romantically involved with Oswald. Vary, who is married and lives in Florida under the name Judyth Vary Baker, has tried repeatedly over the years to clear Oswald's name but has been largely ignored by the media and government investigators. She has been interviewed by Haslam, as well as a crew from 60 Minutes, which decided not to air her story. During the interview with 60 Minutes, Haslam says, Vary Baker spoke freely about the bioweapons lab in New Orleans.
Links between Ferrie, Garrison and monkey viruses were not new to Haslam. He remembers an afternoon in one of his classes at Jesuit High School in March 1969 when his friend Nicky Chetta, son of the Orleans Parish coroner at the time, told the class Garrison had received a "raw deal" in his investigation of the assassination and that the district attorney had discovered a cancer lab in David Ferrie's apartment. He also said Bobby Kennedy had called his father the day of Ferrie's death to discuss what killed him. (Ferrie died after a blood vessel in his head hemorrhaged.) Haslam wrote:
Nicky started talking about Ferrie's apartment, which his father had seen the day Ferrie died. Ferrie lived alone. But in his closets they had found both women's clothing and priest's robes. They also found a small medical laboratory with a dozen mice in cages which he used for medical experiments. His medical equipment included microscopes, syringes, surgical tools and a medical library. When they talked to Ferrie's other landlords they were told of a full-scale laboratory in his apartment with thousands of mice in cages. It seemed clear he was inducing cancer in the mice! Ferrie claimed he was looking for a cure for cancer, but Garrison's investigators thought he was trying to figure out a way to use cancer as an assassination weapon, presumably against Castro and his followers. Nicky added, almost as an aside, that Garrison's investigative team thought that this may have been how Jack Ruby died, murdered by induced cancer to silence him. (Note: Ruby died of cancer shortly after he won a new trial for the slaying of Oswald and was working to get his trial moved outside Dallas.)
By this point, you could have heard a pin drop in the room. Back in 1969, we (and presumably the public) were taught that cancer was "a spontaneous disease," meaning it could not be created, transferred, caught or induced. Words like "carcinogenic" and "cancer-causing chemicals" were not yet part of the popular American vocabulary. Viral cancers were not discussed. The idea of "inducing cancer" was very strange indeed, and, scientifically, we (the students) considered it somewhere between "questionable" and "impossible."
A student asked, "How could they induce cancer?" The question was sincere, but doubting. I remember hoping, for both Nicky's sake and Garrison's, that the answer made some kind of common sense. Garrison's case already looked like Mardi Gras to the rest of the country. É Nicky sensed the doubt. You could see he felt it. He remained calm. Slowly and cautiously, he said that they had been "injecting mice with monkey viruses."
Monkey viruses! The room groaned. I rolled my eyes and dropped my forehead into my hand. Why did it have to be monkey viruses? Garrison was already misunderstood because his plot was stranger than jazz — too complex, too subtle, and too bizarre for the American TV audience. Why couldn't it have been something simpler, like injecting rats with radiation. Cancer from plutonium! The public might follow that. But cancer from monkey viruses? The rest of the country would never buy it. The very words conjured up a dark collage of alienating images — diseases imported from tropical jungles in the bellies of insects and mixed with monkey heads boiled in voodoo rituals on the edge of the Louisiana swamp at midnight. It was all "so New Orleans." ...
Then another student blurted out that there was a "kid" down at Tulane Medical School who was dying from the total collapse of his immune system. They couldn't figure out what was causing it. They gave him every antibiotic they had and nothing worked. He would get better for a while, and then he would get worse. While this comment was interesting, it sounded "off the wall." Two thoughts raced through my head. First, what did the uncontrollable collapse of an immune system have to do with our discussion about monkey viruses? And I also said to myself, I'm obviously not the only student at Jesuit that has a family member working at Tulane Medical School. I was certain this was "insider information." It was the first time I had ever heard it. (But not the last!)
Then another student jumped into the exchange: "That means they were developing a biological weapon! What happens if it escapes into the human population?"
The room fell to a new level of silence. ... Then the bell rang.
As I gathered my books together, I turned to the student next to me and made that nervous remark: "Well, the good news is if there's a bizarre global epidemic involving cancer and a monkey virus thirty years from now, at least we'll know where it came from."
Thirty years later, the remark seems like a premonition to Haslam, who has tracked both the AIDS pandemic and an epidemic of soft-tissue cancers during the past decades.
"I started working on the AIDS angle first, because of the silly thing I said back in the '60s," he says. "I set out to try to disprove it. I started reading things trying to make my fears unfounded. I didn't find it." In the book he also cites statistics from the National Cancer Institute that show a dramatic increase in the incidence of soft-tissue cancers between 1973 and 1988: skin cancer 70 percent, lymphoma 60 percent, prostate cancer 60 percent and breast cancer 34 percent.
Dr. Mary's Monkey is the second book Haslam has written about Sherman's murder, monkey viruses and the secret lab in New Orleans. In 1995 he self-published Mary, Ferrie & the Monkey Virus, which he says lacked the vital component of an eye witness: Judyth Vary Baker. She was the lab worker involved with Oswald and remains an advocate for his innocence.
Many Americans are losing faith in the Warren Commission's account of JFK's assassination, but Haslam says he doesn't expect the multitudes to immediately buy his theory either.
"I'm not sure the country wants to hear it," he says. "They have been measuring public attitudes about the Kennedy assassination since December 1963. In December 1963, 29 percent believed the government. When the Warren Commission report was released, it jumped 7 percent. It's gone down steadily: 10 percent now believe the government, 20 percent say 'I don't know,' and the rest have a problem with it.
"The Warren Commission violates everything we know about the separation of powers," Haslam says. It was recommended by the president of the United States, by a Yale law professor, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court participated in it. It united all three branches of government, which are supposed to be separate, and nobody protested. They (the commission) reported to (Lyndon Johnson) the guy who got the job after Kennedy was killed."
Haslam openly admits he doesn't have all the answers, but certainly enough to bring the official version of Kennedy's assassination into question.
"On one level. I'm not sure what I believe, either," he says. "But it should not be ignored. I'm one man with a word processor. I have no budget and no subpoena authority. My book is the case for an investigation, it's not the investigation itself."
Although many no doubt wanted to keep hidden the facts about Oswald's dealings in New Orleans, Sherman's death and the Kennedy assassination, Haslam says he has received no threats, even after his first book was published.
"I have not received any threats or lawsuit type things," he says. "Personally I don't think anyone wants to give me the opportunity to present evidence it court. It's easier for them to ignore me." He posts any new developments he finds on his Web site www.drmarysmonkey.com.
Although he's spent decades researching this book, Haslam says he's ready to hang it up and devote his professional time to his advertising career. It's a job that started in New Orleans and includes things such as the iconic jingle for the SPCA, "You can find a friend on Japonica Street," which he took to Allen Toussaint to record. As a representative at Fitzgerald Advertising, he developed campaigns for Tabasco and the Treasures of the Vatican exhibit at the 1984 World's Fair. He also produced concerts for Professor Longhair.
"Some days I look back at this project and it seems so obvious to me that I wonder why it took so long for me to figure it out," he says of the book. "I didn't want to believe it myself. I didn't want to believe that these dark dreams were real."
Ed Haslam will sign copies of Dr. Mary's Monkey: How the Unsolved Murder of a Doctor, a Secret Laboratory in New Orleans and Cancer-causing Monkey Viruses Are Linked to Lee Harvey Oswald, the JFK Assasination and Emerging Global Epidemics from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday, July 19, at Octavia Books (513 Octavia St.). He also will hold a news conference about the book at noon on Friday, July 20, at The Whitney (610 Poydras St., Commerce Room), followed by a book signing at 12:30 p.m. at DeVille Books (736 Union St.).