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The Miss Stone Affair: America's First Modern Hostage Crisis

The Miss Stone Affair: America's First Modern Hostage Crisis

by Teresa Carpenter

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On September 3, 1901, a Protestant missionary named Ellen Stone set out on horseback across the mountainous hinterlands of Balkan Macedonia and was ambushed by a band of armed revolutionaries.

In The Miss Stone Affair, Teresa Carpenter re-creates an event that captured the attention of the world and posed a dilemma for incoming president Theodore Roosevelt. Should


On September 3, 1901, a Protestant missionary named Ellen Stone set out on horseback across the mountainous hinterlands of Balkan Macedonia and was ambushed by a band of armed revolutionaries.

In The Miss Stone Affair, Teresa Carpenter re-creates an event that captured the attention of the world and posed a dilemma for incoming president Theodore Roosevelt. Should he send in the Navy or not? And, if so, send it where? Drawing upon a wealth of contemporary correspondence and documents, Carpenter constructs a narrative that is suspenseful, harrowing, and at times even comical. It is a story for our time.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
Carpenter is earnest and meticulous, and one senses beneath her sobriety an urge to let herself go and fully indulge in the human drama. There is the occasional breathy passage, but for the most part, like her heroine, she maintains an impressively stiff upper lip. This leaves the impression of two books in one: a worthy account of politics and diplomacy, with a more emotional tale beneath it, itching to break free. — Ben Macintyre
Publishers Weekly
Zooming in on a historical footnote, the kidnapping of an American missionary by Macedonian revolutionaries in 1901, Carpenter discovers a Byronic adventure and an early lesson in the perils of international power for the U.S. Ellen Stone was a committed evangelical missionary and an indomitable adventurer who became, says Carpenter, "a law unto herself" in the unstable and newly autonomous Bulgaria, which Carpenter describes as "a nominal Ottoman principality, an American-style democracy, and a Russian client state." In Macedonia, ethnic Bulgarians still ruled by Turks formed a guerrilla resistance, partly financed by brigandage. A rogue band of these revolutionaries seized Stone and another hostage, a local Protestant convert, who was five months pregnant. American involvement was delayed by William McKinley's assassination, just days after the abduction. But Stone's predicament naturally lent itself to sensational media coverage and soon became a cause c l bre, prompting a fund-raising drive to collect the hefty ransom demanded by her captors. With America's limited diplomatic presence in the Balkans, the tangled political agendas of the regional leaders, and the secrecy of the Macedonian guerrillas, the negotiations involved murky, back-channel dealings and hidden subtexts, which Carpenter skillfully delineates. Carpenter-a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, former senior editor of the Village Voice, and author of Mob Girl-might have deepened her exploration of the historical issues at stake: the consequences of Ottoman decline and American ascendance. She might even have indulged the melodramatic potential of the tale more. Still, it's a gripping yarn, even in her straightforward account. Photos, map. Agent, Esther Newberg. (June) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
A Pulitzer Prize winner on the taking of an U.S. missionary in 1901 Macedonia. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
In which mustachioed brigands, having stolen away a virtuous American schoolmarm, set off a diplomatic incident that threatens to bring Teddy Roosevelt’s warships to the gates of the Dardanelles. In 1901, writes Carpenter (Mob Girl, 1992), the missionary schoolteacher Ellen Stone was kidnapped "by a band of unidentified revolutionaries" in the Balkan hinterlands of the Ottoman Empire. Stone had done nothing in particular to bring the event about; the Macedonian nationalists who took her, by Carpenter’s account, had been casting about for a target for quite some time, having considered but then ruled out stealing away a six-year-old Bulgarian prince and assorted other local dignitaries. But Americans, the revolutionaries reasoned, had cash, and the ransom would enable them to buy plenty of guns to turn on their Turkish oppressors. The price for her freedom and that of her fellow missionary Katerina Tsilka, they told Stone, would be 25,000 lira, or $110,000--and "if it is not paid," they warned, "there will be a bullet for you and a bullet for her." Long episodes of diplomatic wrangling and haggling, to say nothing of bullying and blustering from the Roosevelt White House, follow, until Stone is finally allowed to go free, slipping into Austria and obscurity. Carpenter does a competent enough job of dusting off this little-remembered tale and of filling in the gaps in the crumbled newsprint, and in her hands the villainous Macedonian rebels of the headlines turn out to have had a point, if not much strategic sense. She gives a fair account, too, of the complex politics of the Balkans, through which an evidently simple kidnapping becomes a matter of honor, revenge, and interethnic rivalry.Still, there’s not much drama in this tale, for all the chest-beating involved. One supposes that the retiring Miss Stone--who gently remarked that her kidnappers "had worked hard for their booty"--would be embarrassed by all the attention. Agent: Esther Newberg/ICM
From the Publisher
New York Daily News Marvelously exotic...the sensuous atmosphere of Salonica at dawn....A wild beautiful landscape is contested by scholarly anarchists and harem-bred militias...no one was completely guilty, no one completely innocent.

Edmonton Journal Wow. This book is amazing — part adventure tale, part cautionary parable. It is proof that first-rate nonfiction need be neither boring nor pedantic. It can, in the hands of a brilliant writer, take even the most obscure and forgotten of events as its subject and still fascinate and educate.

Publishers Weekly A Byronic adventure and an early lesson in the perils of international power for the U.S....It's a gripping yarn.

Product Details

Simon & Schuster
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.40(h) x 0.89(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Miss Stone Affair

America's First Modern Hostage Crisis
By Teresa Carpenter

Simon & Schuster

Copyright © 2004 Teresa Carpenter
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0743258053

Chapter One


This has been a peculiarly hard week for me, and my mind is black and blue all over with the coming of the blessed Saturday afternoon. I have been worse off than (Saint) Stephen, - I have been Stoned all the time with a continuous but unfatal result." Second Assistant Secretary of State Alvah Adee to Secretary of State John Hay, October 5, 1901

By the time the American consul general, Charles Dickinson, reached Sofia, the Bulgarian capital was full of foreign journalists. Six thousand miles and an ocean to the west, the American public had awakened from its trance of mourning. Leon Czolgosz, the President's assassin, had been found to be acting alone, quieting fears that anarchists were about to seize the levers of government. The press was now fully alive to the possibilities of Miss Stone.

Pulitzer's World wanted an exclusive - pending a happy outcome. Should Miss Stone agree to couch her memoirs in the form of a long telegram containing 10,000 words or so of "interesting matter," the paper was prepared to pay a large, though as yet unspecified, sum. Hearst's New York Journal had dispatched its own man to Sofia. He too was reputed to be carrying a fat purse - largesse that would doubtless find its way into the palms of telegraph operators and bellboys in exchange for information.

Correspondents congregated next door to the hotel at the Grand Cafe de Bulgarie, to drink raki and trade gossip. One, from Paris's Le Figaro, claimed to have visited the American missionary in a remote mountain canyon, where she was being treated in "queenly fashion." Two of her captors had been assigned to her as servants. They had, in fact, made a long trip to Constantinople to buy her Kodak film. A less sanguine account of Miss Stone's captivity found its way into the New York Journal. "Bulgarian Clergymen" had visited a brigands' camp where they found the captive "semi-mesmerized and in danger of losing her mind."

The consul general refused requests for interviews, grumbling about the danger that this feverish interest posed to his mission. In fact, Charles Dickinson was perfectly confident in his ability to handle gentlemen from the press.

Dickinson had, as publisher of the Binghamton Republican in upstate New York, helped to turn an ineffectual handful of small news organizations into what would become the Associated Press. He was also a published poet. One of his verses, "The Children," was widely anthologized, although its fame seems to have rested in part upon an early misconception, due to a compositor's error, that its author was Charles Dickens. Dickinson had spent much of his life trying to get the credit due him. This had happened only after Dickens's son wrote a letter saying the poem was assuredly not his father's.

In the spring of 1875, Dickinson had suffered a nervous collapse after losing his only child, a son, to diphtheria and for several years had confined himself to landscaping his Binghamton, New York, estate. He regained his health, thanks to the outdoor work, which directed his thoughts into "health-giving channels." He then set off on a world tour, which left him with a lasting appreciation for the charms of the Old World. It also convinced him that the American diplomatic service was run inefficiently. What it needed was a businessman's touch - naturally, his own. Through his connections with the New York Republican corrupt political machine of bosses Thomas C. Platt and Roscoe Conkling, he landed the U.S. consulship in Constantinople.

When Dickinson arrived in January 1898 at the Palazzo Corpi, the small Italianate mansion that housed the American Legation on La Grande Rue de Pera, he received an icy reception. The U.S. Minister and his staff had a long-standing suspicion of arriving consuls, fearful that the latter might be tempted to overstep their prerogatives and meddle in foreign policy matters. Dickinson asssured his new colleagues that he had "no desire for a ministry and the social functions that would go with it." His sole ambition, he declared, was to promote American business.

Until Dickinson arrived in Constantinople, American goods had barely trickled into Turkey. Europeans who controlled shipping in the region shut out all other exporters. The new consul general scored his first triumph by convincing a tramp steamer line to deliver American goods straight into the Golden Horn. When British and German shippers hired the son of the grand vizier to use his father's influence to impound American flour on the docks, an enraged Dickinson asked the secretary of state for permission to threaten "retaliatory measures." In doing so, he ran afoul of Alvah Adee, who was afraid of offending the Turks. The flour incident left relations between Dickinson and Adee permanently strained.

Dickinson was, in fact, more ambitious than he let on. Two years after arriving in Constantinople, he announced his intentions of opening Bulgaria to American business. He wanted an appointment as U.S. Minister to Sofia.

Turn-of-the-century Sofia was not one of the glittering capitals of Europe. It was tiny, muddy, and in transition. The Oriental character of the town - indeed, anything that reminded Bulgarians of the recent Turkish occupation - had been ripped out and replaced piecemeal with Western-style buildings. There was a charming royal palace in the French style. The area around it was paved with cobblestones or brick. Unlike Salonica, still captive to the Sultan's prejudice against "dynamos," Sofia had electricity, which ran an impressive system of streetcars and illuminated public buildings and many private homes. The residential areas, which lay beyond a two-block radius of the palace, however, were a jumble. Every citizen was responsible for the paving in front of his own home. Some did. Sofia reminded one British visitor of an American cow town.

That Sofia had an oddly American air was no accident. Nearly all of its political leaders had been educated at Robert College, a missionary school in Constantinople. After the Treaty of Berlin in 1878, Bulgarians had adopted an American-style democracy, including a popularly elected legislature. Its constitution, the most liberal in Europe except for Switzerland's, guaranteed freedom of religion and press, and right of assembly, and it forbade the rule of monarchs. Strangely, it made provisions for a prince. Alexander of Battenberg was only twenty when he was recruited to the throne. Greatly loved by his own people, he was not favored by Tsar Alexander III, who forced his abdication. A blue-ribbon delegation then made an exhaustive canvass of Europe to find a replacement who would be acceptable to the Russians. They settled on a grandson of Louis Napoleon, the last emperor of France. He was Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.

Republic or not, the Bulgarians felt they needed a royal on the throne, if only to remind themselves of their lost imperial glory. During the Middle Ages, their own Tsar Ivan Asen II had ruled much of the Balkans. His court, according to one British author, was "far more refined, elegant ... and cultivated intellectually than the English king's." More than that, however, the Bulgarians needed a symbolic warrior who could rattle a saber at the Serbs to the west and the Turks to the east. The twenty-six-year-old Ferdinand, however, was no one's idea of a warlord. He was, in the confidential assessment of the committee that acquired him, a "spoilt child ... more fit to lie on a sofa than to sit in the saddle."

At the prodding of his ambitious mother, Princess Clementine, Ferdinand accepted the crown and played his ceremonial role gamely. He had a scientific bent that made him receptive to progress. Still, he was said to despise Sofia, preferring to spend his time at his summer palace in Varna, collecting and classifying insects. During these long absences, a personal representative of Alexander III saw to the Prince's interests in the capital. Russia, as always, was the power behind the Bulgarian throne.

Bulgaria, then, was an odd hybrid: a nominal Ottoman principality, an American-style democracy, and a Russian client state. Doing business in Sofia therefore required all the finesse and politesse that a career diplomat could muster.

Whatever his virtues as a businessman, Dickinson lacked politesse. Neither did he speak French, the universal language of diplomacy. He succeeded, however, in convincing the State Department to appoint him - if not minister, then at least to the lower and more nebulous position of "U.S. diplomatic agent" to Sofia. President McKinley signed the letter of credence, which Dickinson hoped to present personally to Ferdinand in the summer of 1901.

The Prince, while accepting Dickinson in theory, refused to receive him. Ferdinand and his ministers were troubled that Mr. Dickinson proposed to remain consul to Constantinople. Turkey was, after all, Bulgaria's old enemy, and having one man hold both posts was an "incompatible accumulation of functions."

In early August, Dickinson vented his frustrations in a letter to the State Department. There were "influences at work" - Russian, he suspected - to keep Americans out of Bulgaria. Because his presentation at court had been "indefinitely postponed," he proposed to take up his post without formal recognition. "They want our farm machinery," he declared bluntly, assuming that the juggernaut of American commercial imperialism would roll right over this toy prince. The State Department held Dickinson in check - until l'affaire de Miss Stone.

Charles Dickinson had met Ellen Stone socially. Few details of that encounter survive, except that it occurred during the year prior to her kidnapping and that she had found him a "sagacious man and earnest Christian." In later correspondence, he refers to her with respect, even affection. Why he displayed such apparent lack of concern for her by ignoring Vice-Consul Lazzaro's pleas for help has never been explained. Dickinson was most likely playing his cards close to the vest, not sharing information with anyone, waiting to be dispatched on a mission of mercy that could, as a fortunate by-product, put the seal on his appointment to Sofia.

When Dickinson arrived at the Bulgarian capital on Friday, October 4, he carried only the vague title of "diplomatic agent" and had no formal authority to negotiate a ransom. The instructions he had received from the State Department were cautious. He was to observe a "strict reticence," avoiding committing himself or his government to any course of action. He was, moreover, to refrain from discussing questions of "ultimate responsibility," although it was the current belief in Washington and Constantinople that the women had been carried over the border by Macedonian revolutionaries.

To the best of the State Department's information, the operational center of the Macedonian revolutionary organization was Sofia. Until recently, it had operated quite openly under the leadership of Lieutenant Boris Sarafov, a reputed familiar of Prince Ferdinand who had a reputation for ruthlessness. He didn't hesitate to collect contributions to the cause at "revolver's mouth." Sarafov was also a man of considerable charm. He had traveled widely in Europe raising funds for a war against the Turks. This included seducing the plain daughters or bored wives of wealthy men and persuading them to make donations to the revolutionary cause. During the Spanish-American War, he'd proposed to rent Macedonian mercenaries to the United States, but his offer was declined. Sarafov had apparently overstepped his prerogatives by plotting the assassination of a Romanian newspaper editor who had published unflattering remarks about the Comitate. The journalist's murder brought Bulgaria and Romania to the brink of war. Sarafov was stripped of his chairmanship. Tried and acquitted in the spring of 1901, he'd dropped out of sight. The Turks were now circulating his photograph on their side of the border.

The missionaries did not seem to favor the Sarafov theory, holding instead that the kidnapping was the work of the local committee in Samokov. Two years earlier, the Reverend James F. Clarke, a teacher at the Boys' Institute, had received an anonymous letter from the Comitate demanding a contribution to the "holy cause" under the pain of death. When he turned the letter over to Bulgarian authorities, his barn was burned.

The missionaries seemed to feel that the mischief, and subsequent kidnapping of Miss Stone, was the work of one Asen Vacilov, chairman of the local revolutionary committee. Young Vacilov was "smart and reckless and a cafe orator," according to one American newspaper, which added, "He has never earned an honest dollar and has lived off contributions to the local revolutionary fund." Vacilov had studied at the Protestant boys' school but had since taken to taunting and persecuting the staff. Miss Mary Haskell had tentatively identified him as the man who thrust the ransom letter into her window the night of September 24. Since then, he'd been taken into custody by local Bulgarian police. No one - not the missionaries nor even the consul general - was allowed to interview him.

The Evangelicals were perfectly aware of an impending showdown between Bulgarians and Turks in Macedonia, and in principle, they were neutral. They were in the business of saving souls, they declared, not playing politics. Certain of the Americans, however, actively despised the Comitate. The Reverend John Baird for one condemned it as "socialist" and "anarchist." And the line between politics and humanitarian aid was often blurred. During the winter of 1879, Clarke, over the objections of his superiors, spent two months distributing relief to Macedonian refugees. His efforts had apparently given the impression of partisan sympathy, and the Comitate, their request for funds rebuffed, now apparently felt betrayed.

Miss Stone had never made a secret of her dislike for the Turks, but neither had she - as far as anyone could recall - expressed any sympathy for the revolutionists. A story, unverified but persistent, now circulated that as recently as July, she had been asked for a "contribution" but had refused. Perhaps the Comitate hoped to make an example of her to force the missionaries into a more generous attitude of giving.

Dickinson deputized the Reverend Baird and sent him to Bansko to find out what he could about the kidnapping. The consul general then paid a call on the British charge d'affaires, James McGregor. Since the "Liberation" in 1879, the British had handled American matters in Sofia. For the past few weeks, McGregor had been quietly gathering intelligence about Miss Stone.



Excerpted from The Miss Stone Affair by Teresa Carpenter Copyright © 2004 by Teresa Carpenter. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

A fifth generation California, Teresa Carpenter lives in San Diego within miles of her extensive family and knows with their help she can accomplish anything. She takes particular joy and pride in her nieces and nephews who are all bright, fit, shining stars of the future. If she’s not at a family event, you’ll usually find her at home reading or writing her next grand romance.

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