Transmissions from The Timothy Leary Papers: The "Archival Catastrophe" of 1975
Interview featuring Michael Horowitz.
I touched on the saga of Timothy Leary’s legal problems in my last blog post involving his escape from prison for a drug conviction and his attempt at seeking asylum in Switzerland for the persecution of his writings and ideas. His papers take center stage in this drama: shuttled to secret locations, used for his legal defense, confiscated by the federal authorities, and threats of incrimination, leading to an “archival catastrophe” as described by Leary’s former archivist, Michael Horowitz.
Timothy Leary was first imprisoned in 1970 at which time he gave Michael Horowitz and Robert Barker, founders of the Fitz Hugh Ludlow Memorial Library, custodial care of his papers. Named after the author of The Hasheesh Eater (1857), the Library was established as a resource for psychedelic drug literature. In 1975, Horowitz was subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury investigating Leary’s escape. His involvement provides a fascinating example of the importance of archives and the responsibility of archivists to provide neutral access to said materials.
Fortunately, I had the opportunity to ask Michael Horowitz about these events.
In your statement, you mentioned that you first met Rosemary Leary while Timothy Leary was in prison. Being a book collector specializing in psychedelic drug literature, you offered or were asked to safeguard his “archives” at this time. Did you provide any access to his materials, or were you only storing them?
My partner and I were very secretive about the archives from the time Dr. Leary escaped from prison and became the object of an international manhunt, and moved them from place to place as a precaution, even though government agents showed no interest in them until 1975. However we ourselves used the materials in two ways: by providing documentation to his attorneys filing appeals before his escape in September 1970, and when he was recaptured in January 1973, and secondly to edit manuscripts for publication to raise money for Timothy and Rosemary Leary who had no means of income while living in exile.
We got a section of his prison journal published, the book Jail Notes, and an article on "Hedonic Psychology." We also worked on the manuscript of which the FBI was most interested: Confessions of a Hope Fiend, Leary's account of his prison escape.
How did you become involved in offering grand jury testimony on August 14, 1975?
Being forced to “offer testimony” is a more accurate way of putting it. So little did I want to appear that I spent months avoiding the subpoena.
Tim Leary at 54 was facing many years if not the rest of his life in prison. To give an idea of how seriously the government viewed his case, his bail was set at $5 million, the highest bail ever levied against an American citizen. This was for the crime of escaping from a 10-year prison sentence for possession of a miniscule amount of marijuana. In the summer of 1975 the statute of limitations was running out on his September 1970 escape and the FBI was pressuring him in some unpleasant and even life-threatening ways for his testimony. He believed he had nothing to give them that they didn't already have; that his silence for more than five years had given those involved ample opportunity to prepare their alibis or disappear. He also knew that his testimony alone could not convict anyone.
Thus Leary initiated a cat-and-mouse game with the Feds in hopes of gaining his freedom by appearing to cooperate with their agenda to indict certain persons who aided in his prison escape. Since the testimony of a prisoner is not enough by itself to have credibility, he provided the authorities with the names of two people to question. One was his wife, Rosemary, who had fled the country with him and from whom he had subsequently separated, and the other was me, his archivist. Rosemary was far underground, inaccessible; and I was not knowingly involved in his escape, so he figured I would not be helpful to them. Basically, he was giving them the names of people who would not be findable or useful in backing up his claims. The third thing he offered them was his archives — the big prize, as far as his captors were concerned.
Believing their own hype, the federal authorities labeled Dr. Leary "godfather" of the "LSD mafia" (specifically, the Brotherhood of Eternal Love) and presumed his archives contained evidence to put away the manufacturers and distributors of LSD and other mind-expanding drugs, as well as records pertaining to his prison escape. It was a myth that he was making and distributing LSD, nor would one expect to find details of the prison escape plan in his personal archives — or anywhere else. He was a scientist studying the mind and human consciousness, and a philosopher and advocate of the benefits of psychedelic drugs — that was his role, especially over the years 1960-1975.
For the most part it was a propaganda coup for the FBI. They put out a press release bragging about their seizure of the archives. I countered that with my own press release that no one had anything to fear from any materials in the archives, which was primarily scientific research, correspondence, and memorabilia from his childhood onward. Not surpisingly, their press release, focusing on Leary having turned government informant, saturated the mainstream media as well as the underground press, and caused shock waves throughout the counterculture, while my contrary response was largely ignored.
I used the phrase "archival catastrophe" in my press release and at a press conference I called to indicate that (1) Leary was pressured and threatened to ask me to turn over his archives (2) the archives were swiped from their true archivist by agents in disguise (3) federal authorities lied publicly about the contents of the archives in order to discredit Leary with the counterculture, which they succeeded in doing and (4) the archives — one of the essential repositories of the history of psychedelic research in the 1960s and the resulting social and political fallout — would disappear into the bowels of the government, never to see the light of day.
I was subpoenaed to appear before the grand jury convening in San Francisco to investigate his escape. I decided to hold a press conference to denounce their tactics and garner support. I had a brilliant attorney, Steven Heiser, and used my friendship with Allen Ginsberg to get the American chapter of the International P.E.N. Club to support me. President and poet Muriel Rukeyser spoke for me at my press conference, as did San Francisco literary icon Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the futurist author Robert Anton Wilson. Allen Ginsberg and Ken Kesey sent statements of support. I reaffirmed my statement that an "archival catastrophe" had taken place. My stance drew media attention in the Bay Area, and did not sit well with the federal prosecutor; it probably made him come after me a little harder.
At the last minute — a few days before my appearance — I composed and printed up a fact sheet, announcing the formation of ARCANA (Archival Reality Committee Advocating the Neutrality of Archivists). I was to be the only member of this virtual organization I had founded.
I did my best to stonewall their fishing expedition in the grand jury room. It got pretty tense and I knew I faced contempt charges and jail if I wasn't perceived to cooperate. There were twenty-three questions posed to me by the U.S. prosecutor: I answered the seven that were harmless, and for the others I refused to answer on the grounds that my status as an archivist made me immune to questioning, for the same reason that the lawyer, spouse, and priest, pastor or rabbi is exempt from testifying against a defendant.
This was a conclusion I came to and that I thoroughly believed — and believe to this day. Archivists are the preservers of history and play a neutral role. The prosecutor had no idea how to answer that; I was vilified for not cooperating, but then dismissed from the grand jury without being found in contempt. Afterwards my lawyer told me that I had established a legal "precedent" with my grounds for not testifying: other archivists, should they be called to testify under similar circumstances, could use this in their defense.
The statute of limitations on his prison escape passed without the federal grand jury indicting anyone in connection with the escape. Leary was himself freed about a year later, and his archives returned to him shortly afterwards. Thus my “archival” defense ultimately averted an archival catastrophe in the making.
No archivist to my knowledge has used the ARCANA precedent set that day, but it's still in the records if anyone needs to. And best of all, the Leary Archives are today safely housed in the New York Public Library.
I was always most interested in the Harvard period, 1960-1963. The very first archival paper I examined was a carbon copy of Laura Huxley’s 8-page letter to a small number of friends about the death of her husband Aldous, in which he asked for LSD on his deathbed, which she gave him and read to him from the Leary-Alpert-Metzner manuscript of their version of the Tibetan Book of the Dead (published the following year as The Psychedelic Experience). I was moved beyond words by her account (not published until 1968).
I believe in the epochal importance of psychedelic plants and drugs: their value in many areas of life — and death. The research Timothy spearheaded at Harvard was breathtaking in its range. He applied the scientific rigor he learned as a clinical psychologist in the preceding decade. I think that work will stand as his greatest achievement, although Timothy certainly didn’t rest on those laurels.