Chapter Four: Diplomacy
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 Café 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 café 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 chargé 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. He had interviewed Stoyan Danev, the Bulgarian foreign minister, whom he suspected of having planted the "Turkish deserter" story in the Sofia Evening Post. Danev had admitted to McGregor that the principal suspect, Boris Sarafov, was indeed involved with the Macedonian "secret committee." General Sarafov had applied for a passport and intended to leave soon for England. McGregor asked that he be detained; Danev declined to do this without a specific accusation. It was McGregor's private opinion that Sarafov had nothing to do with the kidnapping. Since he had fallen out with Ferdinand, the loss of prestige had probably "ruined him" with the Macedonians.
Dickinson himself wanted to meet with the foreign minister, but Danev, who had received advance warning, avoided him. Undeterred, Dickinson found the minister's address and went straight to his home. He was turned away but was so persistent that Danev sent a note to his hotel that he would agree to meet him at his office the following morning, a Sunday.
Despite his instructions to tiptoe around the question of responsibility, Dickinson came directly to the point. The kidnapping, he charged, was the work of a secret committee led by Boris Sarafov. He demanded that all known members of this subversive organization living near the frontier be arrested and jailed. Danev was ready with a reply.
After learning about the kidnapping from the British, he told Dickinson, the princely government had taken vigorous measures to guard the frontier and arrest the perpetrators before they could cross into Bulgaria. Military posts had been reinforced under the command of new chiefs, and fresh troops were sent to the frontier.
Danev was telling the truth -- though perhaps not the entire truth. Internal government memos of the period indicate that the Stone kidnapping had taken Bulgaria by surprise. The foreign minister and the Ministry of the Interior had moved quickly to evacuate all woodcutters, shepherds, or anyone else who might assist the kidnappers from border areas. These had been replaced by soldiers who had been ordered to conduct a manhunt to rule out the possibility that the kidnappers crossed into the principality. These measures would exclude the possibility of subversives' lurking on the border. Mr. Dickinson could put his mind to rest about that.
On Tuesday, October 8, the ransom deadline, there was silence. No word from the kidnappers. No letter from Miss Stone. Dickinson, McGregor, and Bulgarian politicians scanned the columns of the Sofia Evening Post for news. The Post, whose editor was a reputed familiar of Boris Sarafov, seemed to be getting information directly from Miss Stone's captors. It had, for instance, published the amount of the ransom even before the letter containing that demand reached Dr. Haskell. But the Post that day carried no news about the missing women.
In Washington, Roosevelt had decided to "strengthen Mr. Dickinson's hand." At the President's request, Adee drafted a communiqué to Dickinson, which the consul general could then pass to Danev with the knowledge that it would find its way to Prince Ferdinand.
"In view of emerging evidence of complicity of Bulgarians," it read, "the President directs you to say to the Bulgarian Government with all earnestness that if harm come to Miss Stone the American people will be satisfied with nothing less than unhesitating ascertainment of responsibility and due redress." The last phrase, Adee observed sensibly to the President, was "sufficiently elastic" to be interpreted as anything from a verbal dressing down to the appearance of U.S. warships in the Black Sea.
For the next few days, according to his diary, Dickinson worked late into the night collecting evidence and sifting through clues. The Ottoman commissar in Sofia, with whom he seemed to enjoy good relations, passed along reports that Miss Stone had been taken to the Rila Monastery near the Turkish border. Rila had long been a sanctuary for revolutionaries. The redrawing of frontiers had left it inside Bulgarian territory and out of reach of Ottoman troops. Dickinson shared this intelligence with the Bulgarian minister of the interior, who had dispatched a patrol to check it out. The women were nowhere to be found.
The Bulgarians, meanwhile, had received a copy of the President's cable, and they were incensed. Where did the United States find the audacity to blame Bulgaria? The kidnapping had occurred indisputably in Turkish territory. Even if Bulgarians were involved, they were acting as individuals, not on behalf of their government. If the tables were turned, no one would think of trying to hold America responsible for the misdeeds of its own citizens abroad -- for instance, the assassination of King Umberto of Italy the previous year by an American anarchist named Gaetano Bresci. Nor would anyone suggest that the United States arrest all anarchists living within its borders on mere suspicion. That would be as unconstitutional in Bulgaria as it would be in the United States. Sensitive to any hint of slander against their new republic, ministers of the princely government took the cable as proof that the Americans, British, and Turks were conspiring to discredit them.
Danev fired back a challenge: "If the Government of the United States should [persist to affirm] that such a secret committee exists in our country and that it considers it to be the moral author of this odious act...I...beg of you, instantly, Monsieur le Consul General, to be so kind as to furnish me with all the evidence and information that you possess."
Dickinson considered this outburst encouraging. "The resolute character of the President is well-known," he wrote to the State Department. "I think the Bulgarian Government fully realizes at last the gravity of the situation."
DIckinson, meanwhile, had received a letter from an Englishman who taught at the American school in Samokov. The Reverend Robert Thomson had gotten word from a trustworthy messenger that Miss Stone and Mrs. Tsilka had been spotted by villagers as recently as the previous Saturday on Gul-tepe, a low mountain whose thickly wooded summit straddled the border between Turkey and Bulgaria. The women looked well, he reported, although Mrs. Tsilka was far advanced in her pregnancy. The band, apparently feeling pressure from patrols on both sides of the border, was threatening to resist to the death if surrounded by Turks.
Dickinson pondered this information and concluded it had the ring of truth. If one accepted the premise, as he did, that the princely government was sympathetic to the Macedonian cause, then the rebels must know they would be safe from prosecution in Bulgarian hands.
Dickinson was anxious for results to report to his superiors at the State Department. The news of a purported sighting of the prisoners increased his sense of urgency, and he began making plans for a military rescue. It was a daring move, but one he probably felt would appeal to the reckless temperament of President Roosevelt. He envisioned sending a detachment of Bulgarian troops onto the Turkish side of the ridge and having them push the band north over the border, where they would be arrested by Bulgarian authorities. He posed this scenario to Danev's lieutenant, a Monsieur Vernazza, who found Dickinson and his plan both strange and ludicrously naive. He doubted very much, he said, whether the Turks would allow Bulgarian troops onto their territory.
Dickinson, however, had a contingency plan; one that involved military action by the Turks alone. Ottoman troops would push the band over the hill into the waiting hands of Bulgarians. It is possible that Dickinson had even gotten some kind of verbal agreement of cooperation from the Ottoman military. At any rate, the consul general gave the impression that he had military forces at his disposal when he wrote to the State Department on October 11 asking, "Shall I move troops?"
Word of possible military activity along the frontier reached Constantinople where the young American chargé d'affaires, Spencer Eddy, was nervous. During the week or so that Dickinson had been in Sofia, he had not bothered to keep in touch. The excuse Dickinson offered was that the legation had never given him its code, so he had been forced to send encrypted messages through the American ambassador to Russia, who then relayed them from St. Petersburg to Washington. (Dickinson may have deliberately avoided getting the code as a ploy to cut the relatively inexperienced Eddy out of the loop, thus ensuring direct access to the State Department.)
Spencer Eddy was alarmed at the idea of Ottoman roughriders galloping up the slopes of Gul-tepe. He cabled Washington that such hostile movement might bring about the captives' instant death. He suspected that Dickinson had surreptitiously telegraphed the Vali of Salonica asking him to send out the troops that would drive the kidnappers over the border. For nearly thirty-six hours, Eddy attempted to reach the Vali before he satisfied himself that Turkish troops were not on the move.
Secretary John Hay tried to restore harmony between his fractious envoys. To Dickinson, he cabled instructions to stand down. The department, he wrote, "deems it too hazardous to ask that troops move on either side of the frontier against the brigands. This should not be done without the understanding and concurrence of chargé d'affaires to Turkey." To young Eddy, he wrote assurances that the department fully approved of his actions so far and had advised Dickinson to suspend his rescue efforts. As for a ransom, he added that he had information from an informer that the Comitate hoped to get 25,000 liras but would settle for 2,000.
It was the first time the State Department had officially mentioned the possibility of paying a ransom. Getting the kidnappers to settle for eight cents on the dollar, however, would require delicate and persuasive negotiation.
That would be extremely difficult now that Miss Stone was a cause célèbre. Her family's appeal had moved the nation. Sunday school children from coast to coast were emptying their piggy banks into collection plates. Western Union and the Postal Telegraph Company had donated their services to The Christian Herald, which sent telegraphs to devout families throughout the country soliciting contributions. In New York City, an "army of messengers" brought pleas to wealthy merchants; $2,000 was raised within six hours. In Washington, D.C., the envoy of the Empress of China gave $100 to demonstrate her majesty's gratitude for American help to her people during the recent famine and floods.
When the Stone brothers began their subscription drive on October 5, only three days had remained before the ransom deadline. They were certain, however, that God would work a miracle of loaves and fishes. By Tuesday morning, October 8, American Christians had managed to raise $35,000, a small fortune. Still, it was only a third of the amount demanded. There simply wasn't enough time. The Associated Press wire carried a hopeful bit of news that Mr. Dickinson had succeeded in contacting the kidnappers and extending the deadline. But this story, like so many others, was nothing but smoke.
The State Department now cautioned the bankers, Miss Stone's family, and the American Board to keep silent as to the amount raised. But the drive had taken on a life of its own. Even after the deadline passed, the fund continued to grow: $64,000...$66,000...$77,000. The amounts were posted and carried along by the wire services, thanks in large part to Dickinson's journalistic innovations, to every European capital, including Sofia. The Evening Post carried the running totals, making them readily available to Miss Stone's kidnappers. What incentive, after all, did they have to release captives whose value appreciated daily?
William Peet, the American Board's treasurer in Constantinople, sent a cable to America asking that the collections cease. There were recriminations all around. The government blamed the American Board for slipping the amounts to the press; the American Board blamed the government for coming up with this ill-considered scheme to begin with. Of course, the government had opposed the subscription scheme from the start, but it would have been tactless to lay the blame where it actually belonged: on the victim's family. Charles and Perley Stone had organized the fund campaign with the best of intentions. They had not foreseen how their appeal to Christian sympathy might have far-reaching political consequences.
The subscription drive gave an already irresistible human interest story the moral dimension of a crusade. A maiden lady at the mercy of assassins. How would she be killed? Shot in the head? Hanged? Decapitated? And her virtue? Wasn't the violation of this woman an affront to American manhood? The kidnappers, whoever they were, had thrown down the gauntlet. At stake was national pride, as Consul-General Dickinson explained in a letter to Minister Danev:
The Bulgarian Government can hardly understand the intense feeling which exists in the United States over this most deplorable affair....This, as I believe, is the first instance in our national history in which an American citizen has been seized and carried off by brigands. And when to this is added the fact that the American thus seized and carried off and subjected, it is believed, to untold hardships and indignities, is a woman of refined and beautiful character, engaged in the work of an American Society of commanding influence, it is easy to understand how powerfully those facts appeal to the chivalric and outraged feeling of the American people and with what irresistible force that feeling is impressed upon the highest officials of the Government.
For Americans, the Stone kidnapping was a bewildering blow. One of the consequences of world power was obviously increased vulnerability, something the English, French, Germans, and Italians had felt for years. Until the victory over the Spaniards, no American had apparently been considered valuable enough to kidnap. Now an American abroad was, as one columnist put it, "a pigeon to be plucked."
How did one strike back?
In Boston, one Congregationalist pastor longed openly for "a first-class battleship with decks cleared for action." In New York, the Evening World picked up the refrain, and other editorial columns followed suit, wondering when Teddy Roosevelt, hero of San Juan Hill, would call out the fleet.
The new European Squadron of the American fleet was still at Genoa at the time the first ransom deadline came and went. A week later the U.S.S. Chicago put out onto the Mediterranean to practice firing its big guns. At the time, it was three days' cruising distance from the Dardanelles.
The situation along the Bulgarian border, meanwhile, grew increasingly dangerous. Danev had told Dickinson the truth when he reported that troops had been sent to the frontier. The Bulgarians had strengthened border troops with two additional companies of infantry and additional cavalry. These were intended, only in part however, to hunt for Miss Stone's kidnappers. The Bulgarians had watched the increased activity of Turkish patrols south of the border with alarm. They were afraid that the Ottomans might try to use the Stone kidnapping as an opportunity to mount an invasion.
The Westernization of the Ottoman Empire in the early 1800s had left the Sultan with a fully modern European-style military, uniformed and equipped by his new friends, the Germans. His infantry was supplied with Mausers and supported by Krupp field guns. He was desperate to keep what remained of his disintegrating domain and would have liked to strengthen his toehold in Europe by retaking Bulgaria.
It was not clear, however, how much longer his depleted treasury would support the military. At border crossings, Turks in their handsome blue uniforms with red braid often had buttons missing. How daunting it must have been for them to look across the bridge into the eyes of Bulgarian guards in their crisp new Russian uniforms, carrying Mannlichers of recent issue.
Although Prince Ferdinand had no taste for the military life, he took an intellectual interest in military organization and modern armaments. "No nation but France," according to one British intelligence report, "has sacrificed more in military preparedness than the Bulgarians. They have had more shooting practice than the Turks and could be mobilized in eight days to full war status." Indeed, after beating back a Serb invasion in 1885, the young Bulgarian Republic had set about modernizing its own army -- with the help of Russia, it was assumed in the West -- still hoping to use it offensively to push the Turks out of Europe. Among the top echelon of Bulgarian officers were a large number of former Macedonian refugees who hoped to use this new military machine to cross the border and recapture Macedonia. This possibility was very much on the mind of the Ottomans. A private communiqué from the Turkish foreign minister to the grand vizier described the call-up of Bulgarian reinforcements as an "excuse for a military buildup."
There were 150 miles of border, Bulgarians on one side, Turks on the other, and five hundred years of grievances between them. Any spark could have set the mountainous frontier aflame. If the Bulgarians and Turks went to war, would they not draw in their patrons, Russia and Germany? And England, historical protector of Turkey against Russia. Could it stand by? And France, which was currently bullying the Sultan over petty fiscal matters with a show of naval force. And America? The United States had no stake, save Christian sympathy, in the historical quarrels between the Bulgarians and the Turks, but the issue on the table was the life of one of its citizens. This improbable Ellen of Troy stood to send the Chicago and its escorts streaming toward the Dardanelles.
TR was quiet. So were his advisers. Due to the lack of a coherent intelligence-gathering operation, they probably never comprehended the full danger of an impending clash on the Bulgarian border. And yet they had recognized the Stone situation as potentially explosive. It was also clear that continuing to pursue a diplomatic solution threatened to pull the country into a web of Old World alliances. A better choice was to find a well-connected, back-door negotiator.
This required going hat in hand to the Russians.
Teddy Roosevelt did not particularly like the Russians. Their high birthrate struck him as menacing, particularly as his own countrymen weren't reproducing rapidly enough to suit him. He boasted privately that he and Edith at least were winning "the warfare of the cradle." Later, in 1905, when he would be called to mediate a peace between the Russians and the Japanese, he felt America had more in common with the latter.
Under ordinary circumstances, the Russians wouldn't have put themselves out locating a missing American missionary. The Russian Orthodox church disdained Protestants as much as or more than did their Bulgarian Orthodox counterparts. Miss Stone was the odd exception. Her twenty years in Bulgaria had left her with a wide range of social connections. Among these was Mrs. Ivan B. Kasurov, Bulgaria's most influential businesswoman.
Kasurova had been a pupil of Miss Stone's at the Girls' Boarding School in Samokov. She had married a Sofia bookstore owner who died without heirs. This was 1876, when Bulgaria was still under Turkish rule. Oriental custom made it almost impossible for women to inherit a business, let alone run it. The plucky Kasurova, however, braved censure by picking up where her husband left off, and she made a success of the store. As years went by, men who had first scorned her now greeted her courteously in the street. Many young women followed her example. Madame Kasurova was lauded by one contemporary commentator as a "typical example of what an American education and American ideas introduced by the missionaries can do for a Bulgarian woman, and illustrates the advancement women have made in the East under missionary influence."
At the time of Miss Stone's disappearance. Kasurova's business, the Court Book Store, stood across the square from the royal palace. As official stationer to the princely government, she had influential friends at court. One of these was Mary Bakhmetieva, wife of the Russian envoy.
Charles Stone was perhaps aware of friendship between Kasurova and his sister when he sent a letter to the secretary of state early in October begging him to seek Russian intervention. His pleas fell on the sympathetic ears of undersecretary Adee, who, as it turned out, was himself an old friend of Madame Bakhmetieva. He had known her as the former Miss Mary Beale, an American from California. Her father, General Edward "Ned" Beale, had been President Ulysses S. Grant's roommate at West Point and had remained one of his closest friends.
After Mary's marriage to the Russian, Adee had socialized with the couple for nearly twenty years in Washington, D.C., before Bakhmetiev's posting to Sofia.
With John Hay's approval, Adee telegraphed Mary, hoping to reach her influential husband. The couple happened to be away from the capital, so Adee then cabled the American ambassador to Russia, Charlemagne Tower, requesting him to ask the imperial government to reach out to Bakhmetiev. When the Russian envoy returned to Sofia, he found instructions from his superiors in St. Petersburg to do what he could to help the Americans.
An odd and secretive man, Bakhmetiev was a favorite of the Grandduchess Olga, sister of Tsar Nicholas II, and it was through her influence that he had gotten the appointment to Bulgaria. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarded him as an uncouth palace protégé, but he had found favor with Ferdinand, who respected Bakhmetiev for his ability to close a deal over a cup of coffee. The Russian was, moreover, a staunch supporter of monarchy.
As he read over his instructions from St. Petersburg, Bakhmetiev grasped the subtext. The American woman had been kidnapped by Macedonian revolutionaries or their Bulgarian sympathizers, who doubtless hoped to use the ransom to buy guns. The confidential instructions Bakhmetiev had received from his own government before taking the post were to discourage Bulgaria's territorial ambitions in Macedonia. Russia didn't want trouble there, especially as war with the Japanese loomed as a possibility in the Far East. Bakhmetiev's mission was to find the American woman and stabilize the frontier.
It was the third week in October when Dickinson was invited to Bakhmetiev's home. In the best of worlds, the two men might have come to an understanding over a cup of coffee. Unfortunately, they detested each other on sight. After brief salutations, Dickinson later reported to the State Department, Bakhmetiev launched into a diatribe against American Protestants who, he said, "had no business proselytizing a country that had been Christian for nearly two thousand years."
Had Dickinson possessed the restraint of a career diplomat, he might have held his tongue. But he couldn't let the insults pass. "I should have been a very poor American representative," he explained in a memo to the State Department, "if I could have listened to such attacks without expressing my emphatic dissent."
Monsieur Bakhmetiev insisted to Dickinson that it was pointless for him to continue pressuring the Bulgarian government. It had no control over the Macedonian Comitate. Indeed, the committee was stronger than the government. Officials who dared stand up to it risked assassination. The only way to rescue Miss Stone was to set up immediate negotiations with the revolutionaries for a ransom. How much was Mr. Dickinson prepared to pay?
Dickinson claimed not to know the exact amount in the Stone family subscription fund. (This may or may not have been the case. He did not, in fact, know at this point if it was his to spend.) The State Department had, in the beginning at least, tried to distance itself from the fund-raising campaign, taking the official position that the U.S. government did not "obstruct private charity." At the heart of the matter, however, the very idea of ransom appalled him. A great power like the United States should not capitulate to blackmail. Now this Russian was declaring "only ransom, not force" would free the captives. Dickinson concluded that Bakhmetiev was acting on behalf of the kidnappers.
He stalled. He'd not received orders from his superiors. He must check to see if it was possible to pay a ransom, however small.
Bakhmetiev was disgusted that the American had not come to the table prepared to negotiate. Personally, he doubted that Miss Stone was still alive, but felt it was necessary to find out. Without waiting for Dickinson to cable for further instructions, he set about locating the kidnappers himself.
Bakhmetiev sent his wife to Madame Kasurova, asking her if she would send a letter to Miss Stone. She agreed and wrote tenderly:
My dear Kaka [older sister],
You must think by this time that your friends have forgotten you, but remember that you will find when once you are with us again that your true friends have tried to do all that they can for you, and more than that, God has put it into the hearts of others who have never known you, to work, perhaps, the hardest of all, for you to be saved....God be with you! Please write on the same letter with your own hand [emphasis added] what you have to say, and if possible, of your condition, and send it back by the same man who brought it to you.
Hoping to see you soon, I am with love,
Your Little Sister.
Madame Kasurova passed the letter to a colleague, Konstantin T. Boyadzhiev, who was also a Sofia bookseller as well as a friend of Miss Stone and Mrs. Tsilka. Boyadzhiev then enlisted the help of Lazar Tomov, a student at Sofia University, as his messenger. (Tomov would be identified in the American press as a "reformed brigand.") The young man was dispatched, carrying a letter from Kasurova to the village of Dupnitsa on the Bulgarian-Turkish border. There it would be put into the hands of a reputed revolutionary named Nikola Malashevski, who had been hired, at Bakhmetiev's expense, to take the letter to the kidnappers.
Copyright © 2003 by Teresa Carpenter