Sons and mothers
In 19 pages of unvarnished prose excerpted from a longer memoir he wrote while at sea on the NOAA research vessel David Starr Jordan, Penn describes a troubled relationship with his own mother, “a tall slender blue-eyed blonde with a classically beautiful face who was witty like Dorothy Parker but unlike her, not mean.”
On the agricultural West Coast, Jean Sewell Penn (left) was a financially beleaguered housewife who worked in a bomber factory trying to support herself and her son after Penn’s father, Hugh Scott, (below, with Jean, Gareth) was drafted into overseas duty as a U.S. Army Air Corps cryptographer during the Second World War.
But on the cultural East Coast, Jean Sewell Standish—her name after divorce and remarriage—was a noted poet, writing from a prune-planted backwater called Campbell, California for the day’s finest periodicals: The New Yorker, Harpers, and The Atlantic Monthly, including a May 1958 edition devoted to the philosopher Albert Camus (pictured below).
Unpredictable, delicate, flippant, traditional, groundbreaking, heartbreaking, and almost blithely fatalistic—if there is such a thing—Standish’s verse routinely appeared in best-poem anthologies alongside poetry’s giants: Sylvia Plath, Robert Frost, Dylan Thomas, Theodore Roethke, W.H. Auden, and W.S. Merwin.
When she met him, Jean Sewell’s soon-to-be second husband—a dull-witted but stably-employed railroad worker named Miles Archibald Standish—lived with his widower father Archie Miles Standish in a house “where they sealed off the living room so they wouldn’t have to clean it,” Penn writes. Moving into this dark place, “the first thing my mother did was to open up the living room. It was full of dead bats” that “had come down the chimney…starved to death…and then dried up like little mummies….The dead bats kind of set the tone for the next eleven years.”
Eleven years with a man Penn describes as a classic boor, a Steinbeckian-Dickensian hybrid, perfectly lethal to Jean Sewell’s artistic disposition—and her son’s emotional well-being.
“One day, I was playing with the cocker spaniel, and I guess Miles thought I was being too rough,” Penn writes. “Suddenly, I was on my back, and he was pounding me in the face with his fists, yelling ‘See how you like it!’ I got a bloody nose, a split lip, and the inside of my mouth was bleeding where it had been pounded into a tooth. For the next eleven years, he and I were at swords’ point every waking minute.”
At 18, Penn left for college, but life back home got worse. His mother ran away to Monterrey and into the arms of an inner demon—“a disembodied spirit named Ace,” Penn explains, “who talked to her though a Ouija board.”
Ace encouraged his mistress to send out “lengthy handwritten letters exposing Miles as the ringleader of a homosexual conspiracy whose purpose was world domination,” Penn explains. “My [half]-sister and I drove to Monterey and managed to trick her into getting into the car; we drove her to a mental health center in San Jose, where we all had a conversation with a doctor, who after listening to Mother rant for a while, concluded, ‘Jean, you have what we call a thought problem.’ She spent thirty days there, making ashtrays in occupational therapy, before being released with a trank prescription.”
But pills didn’t help. His mother's letters became “more and more vile,” Penn writes. Eventually, Jean turned on almost everyone. “My father had murdered his third wife by beating her to death with a length of pipe; my brother-in-law, his friends, and the minister who had officiated at my sister’s wedding were implicated in the homosexual conspiracy.”
Public records show Jean Standish divorcing Miles twice, in 1971 and 1973. She lived alone for 9 years in a Tenderloin district flophouse, where her estranged husband would arrive every month with a check, insert it under her door, and wait, Penn says, until she pulled it in from the other side.
Circumstances went from tragic to comic when Miles himself went dotty, building a fort in his driveway and sitting guard with a loaded Mauser rifle he brought back after his own wartime European tour.
“He was protecting his home from the Germans,” Penn writes “The most colorful thing that ever happened to him in his whole life was being in northern France with a war on. So when his mind went, he snapped back to 1944.”
Jean Standish finally returned home, but lived with her husband “like two ghosts haunting the same Scottish castle…When one spoke, the other one seemed not to hear,” Penn writes. “Eventually, after the police had come four or five times to confiscate Miles’ firearms, my sister put him away in a home for the bewildered, and Mother continued to hold forth on her own.”
“With no help from Gareth,” a family friend told me. “When I last saw Jean, she was living in squalor, managing on Wonder bread, wine, chocolate and cigarettes. Gareth hated her for abandoning him.”
As if to explain everything, Jean Standish wrote a poem to her son, reflecting on a life of incomplete promise.
I would be a beacon
on the shore to light your path
safely through every peril of the sea.
But “hidden reefs” and “sudden storms” intervened.
I have been tossed by tempests,
nearly wrecked and often lost and cast upon the barren sands of grief.
The dignity of men
As an only child himself, Michael O’Hare would be the only living witness to his family’s troubles, if not for the small community of O’Hare scholars that studies the reams of letters and notes his father, grandparents, and other family members left behind.
With chapters in his book like Family Martyrdom, A Tragic Four Years, and Hard Times, Peter Buckingham recalls that Frank O’Hare’s father abandoned him at age four to life in the Kerry Patch, an Irish slum in St. Louis.
Business and family failures would later leave him “completely busted and flattened out, as ever Job was,” Frank (right, with Eugene V. Debs, center) wrote. After a long, chilly separation, Kate told him she could not return. “You have a warped, sick soul and mind,” she wrote, later initiating divorce proceedings on the trumped up charge that he had tried to murder her in St. Louis.
The failing relationship between Frank and Kate took its toll on their children. Daughter Kathleen moved away and didn’t speak to her father for nearly a decade. Trying to encourage him, son Eugene belittled Frank instead. “You are bouncy, trenchant, brilliant!” Eugene wrote. “But everything you do reeks of infernal sloppiness.”
Frank’s crumbled marriage, his children’s hostility, and the previous suicides of three business associates had left him contemplating “pistol, cyanide, or high window.” It wouldn't be until he was an old man near death that he would tell his son Richard, “It was no little thing, that your mother spoke to millions of people, stirring them to realize the dignity of being men.”
If sexual abuse was ever part of the family dysfunction, as Penn alleges, O’Hare scholars have yet to see evidence. Sally Miller recalls non-specific rumors at best. “There was supposedly a son, or a brother, who was traumatized and institutionalized,” she said. “But that wasn’t much interest to us. Any evidence of it, if it exists, is probably buried away with Neil Basen.”
A taxi driver from Madison, Wisconsin and author of Kate Richards O'Hare: The First Lady of American Socialism, “Neil probably knows more about the O’Hare family than they know about themselves,” Buckingham told me.
A committed O’Hare-ophile, Basen (right) supposedly came into a correspondence mother lode rescued from a fire that destroyed Frank O’Hare’s St. Louis home. For his almost microscopic knowledge and willingness to share authentic documents, Basen is acknowledged in dozens of papers, presentations, and books on the O’Hare legacy.
“He was a huge help to me,” Buckingham said. “But he can be hard to reach.”
True enough. This writer hasn’t had any luck and uncharacteristically, Gareth Penn has never heard of Basen.
Sleuths and subcultures
With Zodiac, a compendium of reports and evidence so well-known it simply goes by “The Yellow Book,” Robert Graysmith birthed a subculture of amateur gumshoes, each with his or her own pet suspect. For Graysmith, the Zodiac Killer was Arthur Leigh Allen, (right) a lonely drifter once convicted of child molesting that police investigated and—with DNA—ultimately cleared.
Tom Voigt has championed and dismissed half a dozen or so Zodiacs over the past decade.
Last year, the FBI announced an investigation of Jack Tarrance (below), another drifter whose primary guilt-advocate is his Sacramento-based stepson, Dennis Kaufman. Like Voigt, Kaufman has built a thriving online community around his stepfather’s presumed guilt.
This year, three more names joined the suspect roster: Guy Ward Hendrickson, a nomadic carpenter (pix here) so incapable of Zodiac-style writings that his daughter/accuser Deborah Perez (below left) says she had to help him; and an un-named merchant seaman that retired Las Vegas attorney Bob Tarbox said confessed to him thirty years ago (below right).
Finally, Steve Hodel, who earlier accused his father of being the Black Dahlia killer now accuses him of
the Zodiac crimes. In both cases, Hodel has hawked books supporting his theories.
Like Graysmith, Kaufman, Perez, Tarbox and Hodel claim enough circumstantial evidence to make their suspects intriguing possibilities.
Intriguing, but hardly convincing. The cunning, culturally-literate impresario who staged a murder spree with unbreakable ciphers and darkly taunting lines from The Mikado is absent from Tarrance, Hendrickson and virtually ever other suspect.
“The Zodiac case may have been the most cerebral murder case of all time,” said Northeastern University criminology professor Jack Levin. “What appears to have been unprovoked catharsis may actually indicate a premeditated, cold-blooded act of instrumental aggression. Or does it? What passes for craziness may really have been a well-planned scheme to accomplish what the killer wanted. Or was it?”
The legend calls for canny ambiguity and Gareth Penn has responded accordingly. He’s even joined the suspect roster himself a few times, most recently at the hands of criminologist Christopher Farmer.
A graduate of the University of New Haven’s Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences, Farmer runs a private Connecticut-based consulting company, OPORD Analytical. Basing his claim on what he considers a mountain of circumstantial evidence, mostly from the public record and Penn’s own writings, Farmer says Penn “fits the Zodiac profile perfectly.”
Where Zodiac failed to find the intellectual audience he so desperately sought, instead foiling cops and journalists he considered his gross inferiors, Gareth Penn went straight for the brainy crowd, Farmer explained. With the radian theory, binary math, and articles for Mensa, he approached the case with a first-ever, hyper-intellectual narrative that showed he had finally learned how to sell his story.
Less a viable suspect than a conduit to an “intelligent audience,” the professorial Michael O'Hare is merely an actor on the killer's new stage. “By pointing the finger at a worthy surrogate, Mr. Penn has simply been calling attention to his own crimes,” Farmer told me.
Calling his latest accuser “morally, ethically, and financially bankrupt,” Penn dismisses the claim as a “vile libel.” But even though his accusation was widely reported almost two years ago and remains heavily debated on the Internet, Farmer says that Penn has never contacted him with complaints, corrections, or legal challenges. He also sees in Penn’s condemnation a supreme irony.
“He’s calling my charges a vile libel?”