- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 12, 2003


By Teresa Carpenter

Simon & Schuster, $24, 238 pages, illus.


For 2,000 years bringing salvation to the unsaved has been hard, often thankless and sometimes dangerous work for Christian missionaries. They’ve been kidnapped, arrested, tortured, killed, mocked, derided for their faith and for attempting to spread it throughout the world.

The apostle Paul experienced it from both sides. As a Jewish zealot named Saul he was responsible or the deaths and imprisonment of numerous persons whose only crime was to embrace Christianity. As a missionary sent by Christ to bring the Gospel to the gentiles he was mocked, beaten, imprisoned and eventually executed.

But things had improved down through the ages, at least in that part of Europe and Asia Minor where Paul had traveled.

And so it was that the new missionary lady from Boston, Miss Ellen Maria Stone, was in no immediate danger when she arrive in Bulgaria in 1878. American Protestant missionaries during that period were common in the part of Europe known as the Balkans that lay just across the Dardanelles from Constantinople. They were there not only to convert the Muslims of the area but also the Orthodox Christians whom they looked on as only a little better than the Muslims.

Miss Stone was to spend 13 years in that part of Europe before anyone got around to kidnapping her.

“The Miss Stone Affair” by Teresa Carpenter is the story of her kidnapping, the travails she and her fellow kidnappee, Katerina Tsilka, underwent for the nearly six months of their captivity, and the attempts that were made to obtain their release.

Miss Stone was kidnapped on Sept. 1, 1901 and by the time official Washington received word of her abduction it was Sept. 5, the same day a nut named Leon Franz Czolgosz shot President McKinley twice. For understandable reasons the kidnapping of MIss Stone took second billing to the assassination attempt and McKinley’s subsequent fight for life. He died on Sept. 14 and Vice President Theodore Roosevelt succeeded to the presidency and to the question of what to do about Miss Stone’s kidnapping.

Though the lady was eventually freed and for a while was somewhat of a celebrity her fame faded, due as much as anything to another kidnapping. More than two and a half years later a man named Ion Perdicarus, thought at the time to be an American citizen, was kidnapped in Morocco by Berber tribesmen led by one Ahmed al-Aziz Mohammed al Raisuli. His kidnapping gave rise to Roosevelt’s famous threat, “Perdicarus alive or Raisuli dead” and the release of Perdicarus, who, it turned out, had renounced his American citizenship during the Civil War.

Thanks to Roosevelt’s threat, actually issued by Secretary of State John Hay, Perdicarus lives in American folklore while, until resurrected by Teresa Carpenter the kidnapping of Miss Stone has been all but forgotten.

But at the time the lady missionary was kidnapped, despite McKinley’s assassination and the resultant governmental turmoil, her abduction was front page news largely because she was the first American to be kidnapped and held for ransom on foreign soil. Nevertheless, when Roosevelt became president two weeks later, while obtaining her release was important it was not — and really could not be — at the top of his or the nation’s list of priorities.

In any event, the efforts to free the lady, were bumbling at best. Among other things, in America it could not be decided who would pay her ransom or if it would be paid at all. And over in the Balkans, then largely controlled by the Turkish Ottoman Empire, it wasn’t certain who had kidnapped her or even who was in charge of the effort to free the lady or how best it should be done.

Teresa Carpenter, a Pulitzer Prize winner who probably will not win a second one with this effort, likely spent more time than it was worth researching what after all is a minor incident in American history. In the end she leads us through all the confused and confusing efforts to obtain Miss Stone’s release in excruciating detail, made the more confusing not only by the wealth of characters involved, many with unpronounceable names, but also by the politics and the political geography of that area in that era.

In 1901 much but not all of the lands comprising the Balkans states were still controlled by Muslims through the rapidly fading Ottoman Empire and Miss Carpenter writes about the area as the borders were then drawn, not as they are today. For that reason her book could use a map showing Bulgaria, Albania, Macedonia, Greece and Turkey as they were then. It wouldn’t hurt, either, if she could tell us how to pronounce some of those names —if she knows.

Having said all this, “The Miss Stone Affair” in many ways is a fascinating tale that, were some of the major characters delineated more fully, has the makings of a first-class adventure novel. Or a movie. The kidnappers were a rag-tag bunch of revolutionaries who, depending on where the border was drawn were Macedonians or Bulgarians or maybe Albanians striving futilely to free one more segment of the Balkans from the clutches of the Ottoman Turks. They needed the ransom money to buy arms.

In many respects the heroine of the story is not Ellen Stone, but rather her fellow kidnappee Katerina Tsilka. Miss Stone gets top billing only because she is the kidnapped American for whose release the kidnappers want what amounts to a million dollars.

But Katerina Tsilka who was kidnapped by the strangely chivalrous revolutionaries to serve as Miss Stone’s chaperone, is the more interesting character. Though a native of the Balkans she was educated in the United States. Married to an Albanian man who had been educated in an Americans seminary, she was five months pregnant at the time of the kidnapping.

The baby was born while the women were prisoners and Ellen Stone apparently was of no help except that after the baby was born Miss Stone made her a hot drink of boiled barley. But Tsilka delivered the baby by herself in a tiny hut on a bed of straw and leaves. It was winter and the hut was heated by an open fire laid on the dirt floor. There was no running water, no sanitary facilities. There was, however a ragged, unwashed crone whose mid-wifery consisted of sprinkling sacred water on the mother and having her blow into a tin box.

But the baby lived anyway.

The ordeal continued for another two months after the baby was born with the little band of revolutionaries constantly on the move from one mountain hideaway to another. Although the kidnappers had initially threatened to kill their captives if their demands were not met Ms. Carpenter appears to have found no indication that they ever came close to doing so. Indeed, far from murdering them, the chief of the kidnappers once vowed to hold them for five years if necessary.

As for the women, over their months of captivity they appear to have developed a certain fondness for their captors. Indeed, Ms. Carpenter discloses, after they were freed neither would identify or even blame their captors. More than half a century later they would have been classified as victims of the Stockholm Syndrome. Instead, living as they did in a less sophisticated era, both were rumored to have taken part in the kidnapping plot. As was Ms. Tsilka’s husband, Grigor.

Nothing was ever proved but at least partly because of the rumors Miss Stone was never able to return to her missionary work in the area. Unfortunately, for the sake of the story, there was no dramatic rescue of the two women. No shooting. No sword play. Instead, after much haggling a lesser ransom was paid four and a half months after the kidnapping. Three weeks later the women were released. They had been held prisoner nearly six months.

But that isn’t the end of their story. Each woman was paid to go on the Chautauqua lecture circuit with her story. Miss Stone, dull and spinsterish, was a flop as were the articles she wrote. Following in Miss Stone’s wake, Mrs. Tsilka, apparently both attractive and vivacious, did much better.

Later she spent considerable time in America attempting to raise money for the revolutionaries.

Both, however, in a relatively short time faded from the limelight, Miss Stone retreating to her native New England and Mrs. Tsilka to Albania where they have remained in obscurity until now. And I suspect that, unless someone makes a movie, they will return there in the not too distant future.

Lyn Nofziger, a Washington writer, was a political adviser to President Ronald Reagan.

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