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the miss stone affair

13 September 2003

In September 1901, two crimes shook America: the assassination in Buffalo of President William McKinley, and the kidnapping in the Ottoman Balkans of evangelical missionary Ellen Stone. McKinley's death has lived on in history texts, but the kidnapping had longer legs in the contemporary media. Yesterday's sensations are often hard to figure, but the Miss Stone Affair still has power to intrigue. Distinguished journalist Teresa Carpenter brings it to life in a new book.

Miss Stone, then in her mid-50s, had devoted her whole life to Protestant evangelism in Bulgaria. Not the first thing that leaps to mind nowadays as a career choice, but for an independently minded late-Victorian gentlewoman who was not independently wealthy, it offered considerable advantages. She had many acolytes among Bulgarian women, and was a force to be reckoned with in the eastern-Europe branches of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.

Her captors, a motley crew of bandits, slackers, and revolutionaries hoping to fund Macedonian resistance to the Ottomans with her ransom, soon found that Miss Stone had a lot in common with Red Chief. She bossed them around, nagged them to quit smoking, handed out tracts, and proved a better navigator than they in the trackless mountains along the Bulgarian border.

She also played her hole card extremely well. The kidnappers had abducted a "chaperone" for Miss Stone, who needed a chaperone like Teddy Roosevelt needed caffeine. The chaperone was young Katerina Tsilka – who was six months pregnant (and whose husband, bizarrely, knew of and may have been complicit in the kidnapping). Miss Stone relentlessly pointed out to the kidnappers that it would be extremely bad karma for Mrs. Tsilka or her child (born in captivity in January 1902) to come to harm on their watch.

Carpenter makes a crisp story of the literally Byzantine negotiations for the hostages' release. A bewildering cast of semi-competent characters – including official, unofficial, and highly irregular diplomats, clerics, and newspapermen – shuffled paper, gold coins, fake gold coins, and themselves across the Balkans in the winter of 1901-02. At a loss throughout: the U.S. State Department, which had no maps of the region and did not seem to understand that there were several different nationalities in the Balkans.

This incomptence eerily prefigures various American intelligence failures 100 years later, though Carpenter doesn't underline the foreshadowing. Indeed, she sticks to her story throughout, not pressing the larger historical implications of the episode. This makes for an excellent narrative. You can draw your own parallels between a century ago and now: American missionary arrogance (whether religious or secular), gunboat diplomacy (TR, having always wanted to "smash" the Turks, fired up the fleet), and the media's fascination with Oriental villains, coupled with its unwillingness to understand complex contexts of nationalism and religion.

Back in the U.S. after being freed in February 1902, Miss Stone hit the Chautauqua circuit. Let's just say she was no Billy Sunday. Still, her lectures kept the story alive till the more popular Tsilka, with her "brigand baby" Elenchie and her dubious-character of a husband Grigor, launched her own tour of the States in 1903. And then their more-than-fifteen-minutes was up; but Teresa Carpenter makes them celebrities again for a new century.

Carpenter, Teresa. The Miss Stone Affair: America's First Modern Hostage Crisis. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.