Assassins at Large. Hugo Dewar 1951
The two men entered the study. The one with the manuscript in his hand sat down at the desk and began to read through it. The other placed his raincoat over a chair in such a way that the right-hand pocket could be easily and quickly reached. A minute passed... Two minutes... The man reading was absorbed... He did not notice the hand steal towards the pocket in which lay the short-handled mountaineer’s ice-pick. The assassin raised his weapon and struck with all his force at the bent head.
There was a heart-stopping scream. Blood spattered over the manuscript as the wounded man staggered to his feet. Half paralysed by that cry, the assassin made an indecisive movement, as if to strike again, and as he did so the wounded man seized the hand holding the pick and bit it. The weapon fell to the floor. Outside in the patio feet pounded...
Although armed with a fully-loaded revolver and having a dagger in the other pocket of his raincoat, the assassin made no resistance when the guards burst into the room and fell on him. He had not believed it possible that a man could still retain consciousness after such a blow. That scream had made escape impossible. He had hoped to do his work in silence; before entering the house he had turned his car round in the lane; there had just been a chance that he could have made it...
Was it the enormity of his deed that now unnerved him? Or the sudden snapping of the extreme nervous tension under which he had been living for so many months, playing the role of friend while all the time preparing to kill? Or was it simply the furious onslaught of the guards and the fear of his own death that paralysed him?
Somehow the wounded man had summoned up enough strength to stagger away from the assassin towards the door leading from the study to the dining room. Here, supporting himself against the door jamb, his wife found him. Sobbing, ‘What’s happened? What’s happened?’ she held him in her arms. Together they made a few steps into the room. Calmly, without anger or bitterness, he pronounced the assassin’s name – ‘Jacson’. She helped him to lie on the floor, placed a cushion under his head, tried to wipe some of the blood from his face. He looked at her. Gravely, almost severely, he said: ‘Natasha, I love you.’
A while later he turned to one of the guards kneeling beside him with blanched face. ‘He must not be killed, he must be made to talk.’ He spoke slowly and with difficulty, but his brain was clear. The assassin must be made to talk!
Inside the study the guards menaced ‘Jacson’, striking him with the butts of their revolvers.
‘It was the GPU that sent you! Admit it!’
Desperately, the assassin denied it. No! No! It was they! Who – they? It was a man, I don’t know him! But he made me do it! How – made you?
Then, like a sudden glare of light momentarily revealing a glimpse of... what was it? What was the half-seen monstrous shape those words revealed? Words not to be forced from him again throughout the long hours of police interrogation.
‘They have something on me!’ Jacson cried. ‘They are holding my mother in prison!’
Yes. Who were they?
In spite of all efforts to save his life, Leon Trotsky died on 21 August 1940 from the wound inflicted upon him by Jacson.
As has been proved, the mass attack on 24 May was the work of members of the Mexican Communist Party, inspired and organised by the GPU. This attack having failed, did the GPU resort to another, more subtle method? Did they, in fact, already hold Jacson in reserve in the event of the first attempt failing?
This was the problem facing the Mexican police. Jacson had been caught literally red-handed; his guilt was not in question. But had he accomplices? And, if so, who were they?
The only person coming under suspicion as a direct accomplice was Sylvia Ageloff, a member of the New York Trotskyist organisation. It was she who had introduced him into the Trotsky household in Mexico. How and in what circumstances did she first meet Jacson?
Held by the police for investigation, Ageloff appeared to be genuinely broken-up by the tragedy, blaming herself in the bitterest terms for having been instrumental in introducing Jacson to Trotsky. She had first met Jacson in July 1938 in Paris; had accepted him at his face value, believing him to be a supporter of the Trotskyist movement. The manner in which she had been brought into contact with Jacson is revealing. A former high-ranking member of the Communist Party of the United States, Louis Budenz, relates (This is My Story, McGraw-Hill Book Co Inc, 1947) that a GPU agent named ‘Roberts’, then operating in the United States, displayed considerable interest in Sylvia Ageloff. Roberts got Budenz to put him in contact with a ‘Miss Y’, a close friend of Ageloff. Under Roberts’ instructions this Miss Y travelled with Ageloff to Paris and there introduced her to Jacson. According to Budenz, Miss Y was told that the purpose of her undercover work on behalf of the GPU was to check up on people who were trying to get visas for the USSR. It was only after Trotsky’s assassination, says Budenz, that both he and Miss Y, another dupe like Renée Steiner, realised the true reason for Roberts’ interest in Ageloff.
It is unlikely that Budenz should wish to concoct a story of this nature. Moreover, the Miss Y in question has since been identified as a woman who at one time acted as his secretary. However, there is in addition other evidence connecting Jacson with the GPU.
When Jacson was arrested he handed to the police a letter purporting to explain his motives for committing the crime. In this letter he claimed to be a disillusioned member of the Trotskyist organisation. In the circumstances the difficulties of supporting such a claim by evidence will be apparent. But had he been a member he could at least have referred to some names or to some meetings he had attended in Paris, or to some activity in which he had taken part. The only name he was able to mention from among the French Trotskyists was that of Rudolph Klement, whom he claimed to have known well. Klement – who had been assassinated. Strangely enough both the letter allegedly written by Klement, and Jacson’s letter had been typed without date, the date having afterwards been filled in by hand. And, as we shall see, the two letters had the same basic political content.
Jacson, however, did not maintain his claims to have been a member of the Trotskyist organisation.
He asserted in his letter that he had met a member of the ‘Committee’ of the Fourth International in Paris and this person had, after ‘many conversations’, suggested that he take a trip to Mexico to see Trotsky, who expected of him ‘something more than could be expected of a simple militant’. He was not, he wrote, told what this ‘something’ was. He was not given a letter of introduction to Trotsky. He did not know the name of this alleged member of the ‘Committee’, although he claimed to have seen him fifteen or twenty times.
How would it be possible for him to get to see Trotsky when he arrived in Mexico? He was an unknown; he had no record of political struggle behind him; he had no document to prove his bona fides. It is clear that Sylvia Ageloff was the person destined to serve the purpose of getting him accepted by Trotsky as a genuine supporter. If he had really been commissioned by the ‘Committee’ of the Fourth International he would undoubtedly have had some document establishing his identity and vouching for his reliability. Why should a raw recruit be selected for the performance of some mysterious mission, ‘something more than could be expected of a simple militant’? Jacson does not answer this vital question.
When he arrived in Mexico, says Jacson, ‘he was told’ not to approach Trotsky for some months, ‘in order to avoid drawing attention to himself’. Who told him? Who gave him these instructions? Could it have been ‘they’?
He did not, in fact, visit the Trotsky household until nine months after his arrival in Mexico; not, that is, until after Sylvia Ageloff arrived there. She was the only person who knew him. As the friend of Ageloff, a trusted member of long standing, he would be accepted.
When at last he did see Trotsky he was told what was expected of him. He was to go to Russia and ‘organise a series of attentats against different persons, and in the first place against Stalin’. He was to ‘disorganise’ the Red Army and carry out industrial wrecking and sabotage. In other words, Jacson in his letter simply repeats the charges made against the accused ‘Trotskyists’ in the Moscow Trials; using precisely the words used by the accused Fritz David and Berman-Yurin. 
This proposal, wrote Jacson, was ‘contrary to all the principles of a struggle which up to then I had considered as frank and loyal, and destroyed all my principles’. So, all his principles were destroyed in an instant by this alleged conversation in which he was asked to do something against all his principles. And where had he in the first place acquired his principles? According to his first testimony, as a member of the Trotskyist organisation; according to later testimony, through Sylvia Ageloff.
What was his reaction to this surprising proposal of Trotsky’s? He would have us believe that, with all that he had up to that time been taught by the Trotskyists suddenly overthrown by their leader; with ‘all his principles destroyed’ and himself ‘morally ruined’, he kept silent and did not allow it to be seen that this was the end of all his hopes. He did not scornfully reject Trotsky’s ‘proposals’; did not break off the conversation and go forth and denounce him; did not even venture to suggest that such ‘instructions’ were contrary to all his writings and speeches over a lifetime. No, he just kept quiet – because he wanted to see ‘just how far the baseness and hatred of this man would go’.
One may find it a little strange that Jacson, visiting Trotsky in the guise of a friend, yet armed with a dagger, a revolver and an alpine pick for the purpose of assassinating him, should also carry on his person a letter accusing his victim of ‘baseness’ and denouncing him as a terrorist! Yet is this not the selfsame theme that runs like a red thread through all the denunciations of the GPU?
Wrecking, sabotage and assassination were not enough for Jacson. He wanted Trotsky to confess, like the ‘defendants’ in the Moscow and other ‘confessional trials’, that he was acting on the orders of a ‘great nation’, a ‘certain foreign parliamentary committee’. And sure enough Trotsky is made to confess, in Jacson’s letter, that he relies ‘not only on the support of a great nation, but also on the support of a certain parliamentary committee’. Is this not again exactly in accordance with the stage directions of all the ‘trials’ instigated and organised by the GPU?
For Jacson this ‘admission’ was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Up to then he had only lost all his principles, but after this he ‘arrived at the conclusion that the Stalinists were perhaps not so far from the truth when they accused Trotsky of using the working class as he would his première chemise’. This phrase is particularly revealing. It is an admission – guarded, but still plain enough – that he is writing the letter as a Stalinist; it is confirmation of what we have already argued from the style of the letter and the content of the charges against Trotsky. The view that this letter was written in defence of a known political line is further strengthened by its assertion that Trotsky is certainly involved in some plot to assassinate Lombardo Toledano, the Stalinist leader of the Mexican trade-union movement; by the statement that Trotsky is ‘naturally’ in favour of General Almazán (at that time widely considered as the would-be-Hitler of Mexican politics); and by references to the consul of a great foreign nation who could ‘say something about the source of Trotsky’s finances’, etc, etc. No one who is at all familiar with GPU tactics can avoid noticing that the technique is identical.
It may be suggested that the writer of this letter was mentally deranged. But Jacson’s subsequent behaviour during his imprisonment has shown not the slightest sign of mental instability. The question has never been raised. Jacson is and was completely sane. And, after all, a precisely similar mishmash of fantastic nonsense, in very much greater volume, had already been presented to the world in the Hall of Justice in Moscow. No one has so far suggested that the stage-managers of these dramas were insane. On the contrary, large numbers of normally intelligent people have been prepared to risk their own reputations, to bring in question their own mental state, by trying to justify those parodies of justice. If Jacson was insane when he wrote the letter, then so were those who framed the charges of the Moscow Trials and later trials: for the charges in both cases are in essence identical.
Jacson’s letter was a statement of the GPU. But apart from the manifest absurdity of the charges made in it, it reveals a vital contradiction between his alleged reason for coming to Mexico and his actions when he got there. His peculiar excuse for not trying to see Trotsky until nine months had elapsed has been noted. But he made absolutely no attempt to obtain a private interview with Trotsky, even after he had already been accepted as a regular visitor, until his penultimate visit. It was only then that he asked for a private interview, in order that Trotsky could look over the draft of an article he had written. The blood-stained manuscript itself is proof enough that he needed a definite reason for such an interview. But why? – if Trotsky had already told him what his ‘mission’ was, a ‘mission’ of such scope and magnitude that it would necessarily require lengthy working-out and discussion. If Jacson’s story was true, he would have had access to Trotsky at almost any time, he would not need the excuse of a political article. This clue of the blood-stained manuscript destroys the whole fabric of his story.
But who exactly was this Frank Jacson? The Mexican police were satisfied that Sylvia Ageloff had been no more than an unwilling instrument. They rejected Jacson’s tale of the Fourth International ‘Committee’ member. But how then had he come to Mexico? Who had provided the passport? Had Jacson any connection with the 24 May attack?
Jacson said that he had destroyed all his personal papers, including his passport, while on the way to commit the murder. He alleged that Trotsky had made him travel on a false passport so that he would ‘become a terrorist in his service’. This passport would therefore have been a most valuable piece of evidence in support of his charge. But he had destroyed it. And the reason, of course, is not far to seek. Passports can be traced to their rightful owners. The original owner of the passport used by Jacson might lead to the people behind him.
Jacson and his accomplices slipped up badly here. For the number of this passport had been notified by the authorities when Jacson entered the country. And this passport, No 31 377, had been issued in March 1937 to a Canadian citizen, Tony Babich, born in Yugoslavia and naturalised in 1929. Babich had used this passport to go to Spain as a combatant in Stalin’s International Brigade. And what happened to the passports of such volunteers has been related by Krivitsky as follows:
All the volunteers’ passports were taken up when they arrived in Spain, and very rarely was a passport returned. Even when a man was discharged, he was told that his passport had been lost. From the United States alone about 2000 volunteers came over, and genuine American passports are highly prized at GPU headquarters in Moscow. Nearly every diplomatic pouch from Spain that arrived at the Lubianka contained a batch of passports from members of the International Brigade. (I Was Stalin’s Agent, Right Book Club, 1940, p 113)
This allegation was completely substantiated later by the Canadian Government’s Royal Commission already referred to in Chapter VII of this book. The case of a certain Ignacy Witczak was investigated. Witczak came to Canada from Poland, became a naturalised Canadian, and when the Spanish Civil War broke out went to fight in the International Brigade. His passport was taken from him but not returned when he was discharged; he was informed that it had been destroyed when a truck containing supplies had been bombed. However, it had not been destroyed. It turned up again in the possession of a mysterious couple going under the name of Witczak. ‘Ignacy’ and ‘Bunia Witczak’ landed in New York from Cologne on 13 September 1938. This phoney Ignacy Witczak and his wife were traced by the police investigating the GPU spy ring in Canada to the University of Southern California, where the man was taking a course of study in the social sciences. Discreet enquiries disclosed little of his past or his present activities. He occasionally spoke of life in Paris and Shanghai, was fluent in both Chinese and Japanese, and was plentifully supplied with cash, although the source of this could not be discovered. One day the couple left the city and did not return. They had apparently got wind of the enquiries being made about them. From that point on all trace of them was lost.
Witczak’s passport was used by the GPU. And so was Babich’s. There was no other way through which Jacson could have got this passport except the GPU. That is why Jacson destroyed the passport which, in his own words, ‘would have corroborated my declaration in all its details’. The destruction of this material evidence by Jacson, or some other interested person, does not make sense if, as he asserted, it demonstrated a connection with Trotsky; it does make sense if the passport was furnished by the GPU. And the presence of a strong force of the GPU in Spain during the Civil War is a matter of history; its control over the International Brigade is known; its appropriation and criminal misuse of the volunteers’ passports has been demonstrated. Small wonder that Jacson preserved a singular reticence about the passport, claiming that although he knew it was a false one he never even so much as looked at it!
Sylvia Ageloff returned from Paris to New York in February 1939. Jacson arrived there unexpectedly in September. He told her that he had to go to Mexico on business. He left for Mexico with the understanding that she should follow later. Sylvia went to Mexico in January 1940. He was extremely vague about the business he said he was engaged in, but did go so far as to give her a phone number and an address. Both of these proved later to be false. The phone number he probably made up, but it is surely more than a coincidence that he should have given, as the building in which his ‘office’ was situated, the Edificio Ermita. For in this same building were the headquarters of David Alfaro Siqueiros, the leader of the 24 May assault! If he had connections with Siqueiros the name of this building would be the first to spring to his mind. Moreover, he would know the building well enough to know that the number he gave, 820, did not exist. In the unlikely event of Sylvia bothering to investigate no harm would have been done; he could make up some other story. And at that time the 24 May assault had not taken place. He could not know it would fail and, worse, that the participants would be traced, and traced to that building.
Trotsky and his wife first met Jacson on 28 May. Sylvia went to say goodbye; she was returning to New York the following day. A short while after, Jacson also left for New York. In his interrogation he insisted that this had nothing to do with the fact that the police investigation on the 24 May affair was getting warm. It was not because he feared arrest but because he simply could not live apart from Sylvia. He was away between twenty-seven and thirty days, when he again arrived in Mexico. There can be little doubt that this trip to New York was made for other reasons than an irrepressible urge to see the woman whose affection was inevitably, as he well knew, to be changed to intense hatred and loathing by his subsequent crime. It is not difficult to deduce from the entire circumstances what the purpose of this visit was. The mass attack had failed; it was necessary to bring into operation the reserve plan. When Jacson returned to Mexico he already carried in his pocket the letter in defence of the assassination – all that it lacked was the date. He had only to fill it in on the day of the crime.
When Sylvia Ageloff came again to Mexico, it was to find a man with a terrible burden on his soul. It was the burden of the horrible deed he had to commit. Had to? What does that mean?
In his letter he set out the political case in justification of the assassination; this followed the well-worn GPU line of argument. But in addition he felt it necessary to add a motivation based upon personal considerations. He had left France on a false passport and since Trotsky had supplied him with this he was completely in Trotsky’s power. The only way out was to kill Trotsky. To give this grossly absurd argument a little more colour, he added that Trotsky wanted to separate him from Sylvia. Thus he piled one absurdity on to another. He had already left Mexico once. Why did he have to return? It was not on account of any legitimate business, for he was not able to show that he had held any position whatever with any business firm. Yet he had apparently unlimited financial resources; he bought himself a car in Mexico; he left three thousand dollars with Sylvia in New York. On the face of things there appears to have been absolutely no reason why he should not have left Mexico at any time he chose and gone back to France. There must, then, have been some strong reason why he did not. His manner before the killing was that of a man obsessed, screwing his courage to the sticking point; he was by no means the calm, cold-blooded killer with nerves of steel. He was paid for the job, and paid handsomely, of that there can be no doubt, but was there not, in addition, some threat over him by those who paid?
When seized by the guards immediately after the murder, he had cried out, ‘They are holding my mother in prison!’
Trotsky’s secretary-bodyguards could have had no interest in inventing these words. They did not know if his mother was alive or dead. It was torn out of him in a moment of desperation, when the consciousness of blood-guilt was strongest, when the psychological defences were at their weakest. These words stand out from all the tangle of lies, half-truths, evasions, contradictions which make up his subsequent testimony. There is a ring of truth in them.
When asked where he obtained his money from, he answered that the mysterious members of the Fourth International had given him two hundred dollars with which to get to Mexico, but in addition his mother had given him five thousand dollars. Why did he have to mention his mother? Why did he not say his father, and thus cover up the slip he had made in referring to his mother’s imprisonment? Or he could simply have said that Trotsky’s representative gave him the money, instead of this obviously inadequate two hundred dollars. This, it is true, would have contradicted the reference in his letter to the poverty of the Trotskyist movement, but it would have been in accord with his statement that Trotsky was financed by a ‘foreign power’. The only feasible explanation for his having made mention of his mother is simply that she must have been alive and that the thought of her must have been uppermost in his mind. This ties in with his exclamation that ‘they’ were holding his mother.
When a man is seeking to cover up his past he either makes up his lies out of the whole cloth or, more often, he mingles truth with falsehood. Jacson’s past life before he met Sylvia Ageloff is still largely a mystery. He told the police that his real name was Jacques Mornard Vandendreschd, that he was born in Teheran, Persia, in 1904, where his father had held a diplomatic post. Walter Lorigan, chargé d’affaires of the Belgian Legation in Mexico City, interviewed Jacson and ‘arrived at the conclusion that he is not of Belgian nationality, nor does he know Belgium, and that all his statements in this respect are false’. Also proved to be false was his claim to have worked as a journalist in Paris. He could not prove that he had at any time in his life held a job of any kind. The little that he was prepared to say about his past appears to have been false from beginning to end, unconnected with any real events in his life. It is possible that he had some connection with Persia, but if this was so, he did not reveal the whole truth. It is known that he visited Brussels in the summer of 1938, ostensibly for the purpose of seeing his mother. However, when Sylvia went to see him in Brussels she could not find him at the address given and returned to Paris without seeing him. It is clear that he deliberately avoided introducing to his mother the woman he had promised to marry, that is, if his mother really had been in Brussels at that time. But one thing seems clear, Jacson’s mother was alive and the thought of her was constantly with him. When he goes to Brussels, it is to see her; when asked where his money came from, it is from her; when threatened by Trotsky’s guards, he cries out that his mother is in danger. This fact of his personal background, trivial as it may appear, is the only one which can be relied upon. And in view of his cry that he had been forced to murder Trotsky in order to ensure her safety, this fact is important.
But who was she? Where was she? Jacson could not or would not say. There could only have been two reasons for his silence: either he did not want to bring disgrace on her, or she was really in the power of those who controlled him through her.
New light on this aspect of the affair has been thrown by the revelations of Julián Gorkin. Gorkin was one of the accused POUM leaders sentenced in the GPU trial in Barcelona. He escaped from imprisonment and went to Mexico and there, in collaboration with the Mexican Chief of Police, General Sánchez Salazar, wrote a detailed, documented account of the Trotsky assassination. In an appendix to this book (Murder in Mexico, Secker and Warburg, 1950), Gorkin affirms that Jacson’s mother was a woman named Caridad Mercader, a Catalan. Caridad Mercader, says Gorkin, lived in France and Belgium for many years and educated her children in those countries. A confirmed and ardent follower of Stalin, she was active in the ‘permeation from within’ tactic of the Comintern towards the Socialist Party in France, in which party she and her daughter worked for some considerable time on behalf of the Stalinists. When the Spanish Civil War broke out she went to Catalonia, where she was active in the Stalinist-controlled PSUC. Gorkin claims to have positive and irrefutable proof that Jacson is one of her sons. Veterans of the Spanish War have confirmed that they knew him as Ramón del Río Mercader, a member of the Catalan Communist militia who was wounded in the right forearm. Jacson bears a scar on his right forearm.
From 1940 to August 1944 Caridad Mercader lived in Moscow together with her youngest son Luis. When she at last left Moscow she left this son behind. She then went to Mexico and lived there under an assumed name from October 1944, to November 1945, when she went to Paris, where she is at present living with another son and her daughter.
All this certainly fits in with the known facts about Jacson. They explain his claim to Belgian citizenship; his perfect knowledge of French; and the hitherto puzzling fact that he also speaks fluent Spanish, so fluent that it was impossible to accept his claim to have learnt it during the time he was in Mexico. The fact that all the leading lights of the 24 May attack had been Stalinist ex-combatants in the Spanish Civil War also has a bearing on the case. What more suitable instrument could there be than one of their ex-comrades-in-arms to serve as reserve in case of their failure? And if his mother was in Moscow the reason for his anxiety about her safety is at once obvious. And the true source of his income, which did not cease after his arrest and imprisonment, and has not ceased today, is made clear.
The judges before whom Jacson stood his trial for murder concluded that he had one purpose and one purpose only in coming to Mexico. His mission was to murder Trotsky. On 16 April 1943, he was sentenced to twenty years’ imprisonment. Jacson has kept his mouth shut. He will continue to do so, unless some entirely new situation forcibly breaks the chains which bind him to the GPU.
When in August 1940 the assassin struck the blow which rid Stalin of his most feared and hated enemy, he was carrying out the following verdict:
Lev Davidovich Trotsky, and his son, Lev Lvovich Sedov, now abroad, convicted by the evidence of the accused... and also by the materials in the present case as having directly prepared and personally directed the organisation in the USSR of terroristic acts against the leaders of the CPSU and the Soviet state, are subject, in the event of their being discovered on the territory of the USSR, to immediate arrest and trial by the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court of the USSR.
These concluding words of the Official Report of the 1936 Moscow Trial were repeated in essence in the trial of the following year. In neither of these reports did the authors apparently think it peculiar to promise to ‘try’ two men already ‘convicted by the evidence’. All that mattered was that the sentence of death should be passed.
And it was Frank Jacson, alias Jacques Mornard Vandendreschd, alias Ramón del Río Mercader, who was chosen to execute this sentence on the person of Leon Trotsky.
1. In particular see The Case of the Trotskyite-Zinovievite Terrorist Centre (Moscow, 1936), pp. 94 and 113.