How much do we really know about Townsend Brown? Even after a 100,000 word biography, what do we really know?
Near the end of the introduction to the 2023 Edition of The Man Who Mastered Gravity, I wrote:
In the past week, I’ve had occasion to reconsider that thesis.
As Jan Lunquist infers in her post this week, some recent insights have challenged the provenance of the material in the book that has been attributed to ‘Morgan’ and ‘O’Riley (who was introduced to me, and whom I corresponded with as ‘Boston’ and later contributed to the forums as ‘Twigsnapper’).
Now it strikes me that the Venn diagram thesis is more valid than ever – with one additional component: This is a dynamic Venn diagram. Its three elements rotate periodically in their relative dominance. For one period, the science dominates the story; for another period, it’s the psuedo science. The Townsend Brown story is a moving picture, not a snapshot.
In light of recent revelations, I’m wondering if ‘science fiction’ hasn’t taken over the screen for a while.
To get a better grasp of the latest twists, I’ve revisited a chapter of the 2008 manuscrpt that was excised from the edition published in 2023. I’ve rewritten it slightly from the original, and I think it offers some effective insight into what it’s like to make a movie when you haven’t got a script – or to write a book when you haven’t got the story.
Originally: Chapter 37: Notes from the Rabbit Hole #7:
The previous chapters illustrate the sort of challenges that face a writer who wants to compile a ‘factual biography’ when there is less than a lifetime’s worth of ‘reliable’ facts to work with.
This might be a good place to take a closer look at the actual process that is at work here.
A common expression in modern journalism is ‘reliable sources.’ Investigative reporter types use the phrase to protect the identities of confidential sources. You know, “reliable sources tell us…”
To get this far, I have had to rely on quasi-anonymous sources that I (maybe just wanted to) believe to were ‘reliable.’ I have alluded to these sources, deliberately vaguely, because I am not at liberty to divulge their number, their gender, or how they come by the knowledge that they have shared with me.1
The Missing Finger
I have recently encountered a dilemma where a reliable source whose identity I do know has turned to another source that I do not know. This leaves me with the quandary of assessing information that is coming from an unknown third party – what any good trial lawyer would object to as ‘hearsay.’ It’s “something somebody I don’t know told somebody I do know.” And while I have come to trust and rely on the information from my primary source, I have no way of determining the reliability of my source’s source.
The conundrum becomes acute in the course of trying to sort out Townsend Brown’s life in the mid 1930s.
The character of Brown’s life changed the moment he stepped off the yacht Caroline in March 1933. That’s when the genuine, first-hand ‘source material’ gets scarcer and thinner. That’s when Brown begins to fade behind the curtain, and the narrative becomes more dependent on the testimony of others who profess to have first hand knowledge2.
In previous chapters, I left out certain details because I just didn’t know how they fit in – and because I doubted the reliability of some of the information.
There is, for example, the matter of Townsend Brown’s missing finger.
Starting in the mid-1940s, photos of Townsend Brown show that the middle finger of his left hand is missing. Apparently he was self-conscious about this missing digit; In photos of Brown from 1950 onward, his right hand covers his left or his hands are just stuffed into his pockets.
When I did ask, Linda Brown could only tell me that in the forty-some years they co-habited this planet, her father never divulged what became of his missing finger – until about two years ago  when one of our ‘reliable sources’ told us the ‘true story’ of how Townsend Brown lost his finger.
Behind Enemy Lines
This account began with the covert action behind enemy lines in Germany in the closing weeks of World War II3 . There was no time or place in the entire 20th century that was more dangerous than the anarchy that engulfed the ruins of Third Reich in the spring of 1945. And that, we were told, was where Townsend Brown lost his finger.
Germany was not the only place experiencing a power vacuum in the spring of 1945. In America, the sudden death of Franklin Roosevelt on April 12 created its own scramble in the halls of power. There were many highly placed individuals who took exception to the way Roosevelt had cozied up Josef Stalin. When Roosevelt suddenly left the stage, those interests knew who the Allies’ next adversary was going to be. Commando teams were sent into Germany to locate the equipment and personnel that the Germans had used to crack Russian codes.
Trying to be both obtuse and informative at the same time, my source on this subject (‘Morgan’) described how an “American commander,” organized a squad to investigate a cryptography installation somewhere in the German countryside:
Folded into the squad was a scientist who was familiar with such a machine. They took him so that he could identify what they were looking for. However, ‘cipher machines’ were not the only things on this scientist’s laundry list. Most of these embedded scientists were rocketry specialists; others had their background in radar. The push was on to find things the Germans had that we didn’t.
This small raiding party headed off with the scientist in tow. He was not a warrior but he was fit and quick. The rest of the team worried as much about getting him hurt as they did about anything else.
The nasty problem was that the German unit had been warned. They were actually waiting for this ‘American cipher expert’ and the team ran right into an ambush. The scientist was taken hostage. Three of the soldiers were killed. The fourth man was sent back to his unit, carrying with him a finger severed from the hand of the scientist – with a warning that the scientist would be taken apart “piece by piece” unless a previously captured German unit was released.
When I first read that account in June of 2004 I thought I had found the cinematic centerpiece of this entire story. Somebody call Spielberg! This was right out of Saving Private Ryan! – a scene filled with intrigue, danger, and grizzly heroics. Call Central Casting and see if Tom Hanks is available!
That is the version of “how Brown lost his finger” that was waiting on a back burner for nearly two years.
Then I discovered that the story isn’t true. Oh, it may be a true story, but I guess what I really discovered was how cleverly and easily I’d been misled.
* * *
The Printed Record
I am forever indebted for the diligent and generous efforts of Lace Lynch – a Zanesville-based historian and genealogist. Since she first contacted us in 2002, Lace has forwarded dozens of press clippings about Brown and related family. Lace was, for example, the source of the material that we rounded up about Uncle Orville going out of his office window head first in 1932.4 She was also the one who discovered that Townsend and Josephine were divorced for a time in the 1930s.
In May of 2006, Lace sent me an item that she found in the Zanesville Time Recorder from December 24, 1936, under the small headline “Finger Amputated:”
Townsend Brown of 733 Adair Avenue, underwent amputation of the second finger of his left hand Wednesday afternoon in Bethesda Hospital following an accident which occurred at the Wise Foundry, Machine & Supply Co. on North Sixth street. Brown who was having some work done in connection with an experiment. His finger was caught in a lathe operated by another man.He was removed to the hospital in the Dean ambulance.
Well, so much for the grizzly heroics behind enemy lines during the anarchic last days of the Third Reich. No wonder my source had only referred to the individual in that action as “the scientist.” And I fell right into a trap that I could not climb out of for nearly two years.
The Photographic Evidence
Unfortunately, there was also at least one perplexing problem with this far less cinematic version of “how Brown lost his finger.”
Way back in 2003, when Linda Brown and I first embarked on this adventure, she sent me two photographs that depict her father, nattily attired in a spanking white suit, operating — or perhaps demonstrating? — some of his equipment in what appears to be a basement laboratory.
One of the two pictures arrived with a type-written caption adhered to it. The caption reads,
Underground Monitoring Station
Recording equipment and constant temperature oil baths designed and built at the Naval Research Laboratory, Wash. DC.
The problem with these pictures – or, at least, with the caption – is that one of the two pictures clearly shows Townsend Brown’s left hand – with all four fingers you’d expect to see firmly attached.
So, recapping: first we have an account of Brown losing his finger behind enemy lines in Germany in 1945. Then we have an account of a workshop accident in 1936. And then we have a photo from 1937 that shows all the fingers intact.
And people wonder why I ran screaming out of the room with my hair on fire in 2009.
So, which account is wrong? The news article from 1936, or the dating of the pictures from 1937? And, if the photo date is wrong and the newspaper story is correct, then… what are we to make of the 1945 Germany account?
An Undisclosed ‘Source’
At about 8:00 AM on the morning of June 5, 2006, Linda Brown called me.
“I am going to have a very important meeting later this morning,” Linda said, sounding a tad breathless. “If you have any major questions, I might be able to come back with some information.”
“Major questions? That’s a tad broad, don’t you think? I mean, I have a hundred major questions. Where do you want me to start? Who am I even directing them to?
“I can’t tell you,” Linda said.
“Then I don’t know how to come up with any questions,” I sighed.
“Well then, we’re stuck, huh?”
“For a change?”
I tried to explain my dilemma: It’s one thing to have a ‘reliable source’ – in this case Linda. It’s something else entirely to have an anonymous source that only supplies information through an intermediary. There is no reliability when relying on a known reliable source’s unknown source of unknowable reliability or intent.
Over the course of this endeavor, what I often found infuriating is that there are some people out there who know a thing or three about our subject, but they will not communicate directly with me. I can’t ask any follow-ups. And too often when I can pose a direct question, the answer is… another question.
Questions? I’ve got plenty of questions. Answers… not so much.
Linda and I proceeded to engage in a contentious discussion about the dynamics of this entire enterprise. I could feel my frustration building, and did a lousy job of concealing it.
I may as well be trying to undip a sheep.5
Answers? Or Just More Questions?
There is very little trail on Brown’s work after 1933. What else can we learn? What became of his work in 1934, ‘35, ’36? Was there any gravity-related work going on while he was building and operating the Hawthorne swim club in Zanesville?
Assuming the caption on the 1937 photo is right, or at least partially right, then: How did the equipment get from Washington DC to Zanesville? Under whose authority? Was it part of an NRL sanctioned experiment? When did it show up in Zanesville? What was the exact nature of the equipment and what sort of experiments or readings were being conducted with it?
These are the questions I asked Linda to take to her meeting – fully expecting that any answer I might get would be a magic pouch that, when opened, would contain another hundred questions.
The next day, Linda reported back to me:
1) Those photographs from Zanesville, 1937? They were not taken in Zanesville, and they weren’t taken in 1937. They were taken in the middle of the Atlantic, somewhere in Bermuda, in the spring of 1934 (I guess that explains the white suit?);
2) Brown was supposedly in New York City and Cleveland during that period. Evidently, that’s not where he was;
3) The photos were taken as part of some kind of demonstration;
4) Brown stayed at an (unnamed) hotel that later became the headquarters for William Stephenson’s “letter opening” operation, where teams of people opened mail sacks that went through Bermuda from other parts of the world;
5) Bermuda served as an intelligence hub before the start of World War II;
6) There were amphibious airplane (flying boat6) operations out of Bermuda that were also somehow part of the Caroline Group operations there, and later out of Nassau;
7) Among those present during the time when these pictures were taken was one Alfred Loomis, and members of the British Admiralty — also known as ‘Whitehall’ — whose admiration for Townsend Brown’s work was a factor in his naming one of his companies ‘Whitehall Rand’ in the 1950s.
While each one of those points is a pearl of information in its own right, the most intriguing detail is the mention of Alfred Loomis. Anybody who read the 2002 best seller Tuxedo Park will recognize Loomis as the wealthy industrialist and ‘amateur scientist’ who operated an extensive private laboratory out of his estate in upstate New York. Loomis’ operations spanned the highest levels of science, finance, and government. His private lab had a hand in the introduction of radar and the development of the atomic bomb. Though we have always suspected that there might be some connection between Townsend Brown and Alfred Loomis – perhaps through Eldridge Johnson – this is the first time anybody has made a direct link between the two.
Of course, that’s assuming you can believe an anonymous source.
What else Linda had to say about these photos was that “further development of the instruments was… taken over by Alfred Loomis, and that the equipment that Brown demonstrated for the press (Flying Saucers Explained) in Los Angeles in the early 1950s…” also found its way east and into Loomis’ orbit.
This is the first and only time the name of Alfred Loomis shows up in this twisty tale.
And that’s not all that Linda’s source had to say about Townsend Brown in the mid-1930s and early ‘40s. He also had some choice information to share about Josephine7, and some of her activities during this period and the years leading up to the War.
As for the conflicting stories about the missing finger and the accounts of the scenes at the end of World War II, a reasonable narrative eventually evolved – though I can’t remember8 if the source was Morgan or Boston/O’RileyTwigsnapper.
This is just one example of a point in the story where, for better or for worse, I had to decide which version made the most sense and put that in the book. The only documented fact I had was the item that Lace Lynch found in the newspaper.
Now, perhaps, readers have a better idea now just how information swirls here in the Parallel Universe.
1 In fact, I don’t really know…
2 … and is why the book is divided into ‘White’ and ‘Black’ Parts 1 and 2.
3 Starting with Chapter 52: Bombers and Parachutes.
4 Chapter 36: Back to Ohio
5 Chapter 66: Mortally Wounded
6 Apropos of nothing in particular: Jimmy Buffett – who Morgan inferred was a friend – was an afficianado of flying boats. Does that mean he’s a spook, too?
7 Chapter 41: Shadow Trails
8 in 2023