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The Thomas Merton Autopsy That Wasn’t by David Martin

Did the prominent monk, writer, social critic, and opponent of the American role in the Vietnam War, Thomas Merton, strangely succumb to a faulty fan while attending a monastic conference in Bangkok, Thailand? That’s what Associated Press reporter, John T. Wheeler, reported with a dateline of Bangkok on the day of the death, December 10, 1968. One can read that same characterization of the event even today on the web site of Merton’s home Abbey of Gethsemani, near Bardstown, Kentucky.
Thailand was in the thick of the Vietnam War theater of operations at the time. Some 80% of the air attacks on North Vietnam and virtually all of those on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos originated there. America’s war wounded were treated there and many who succumbed from their wounds were flown back to the States from Thailand. On one such flight, they were accompanied, ironically, by the dead Merton, who had been one of the war’s most influential opponents. Along with Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, he was the third major Vietnam War opponent to die under suspicious circumstances in 1968. Although Richard Nixon was the president-elect at the time, we might be reminded that Lyndon Johnson was still the president.
Had the public information situation then been what it is today, very likely lots of people would have been weighing in with the question in that lead sentence. Who’s ever heard of anyone being killed from being shocked to death by a household appliance, much less a fan? The only time this writer has ever heard of it was when a radio fell into a bathtub, but I suppose something like a hair dryer might also produce the same fatal result. (In fact, in the actual 1997 keynote address to the biennial meeting of the International Thomas Merton Society [ITMS], not in the formal transcription here, James W. Douglass reported that his friend Andrew Young had told him that Merton had died when a hair dryer had fallen into his bathtub, and Douglass joked about it because Merton was bald.)

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