The case of Ira Einhorn must be unique. Surely no one else has had a billboard with his face on it put up by the local newspaper for citizens to hurl tomatoes at. And there must be very few people who, after murdering a lover, have asked a local bookstore owner for a how-to book on mummification.
The billboard was put up while Einhorn — dubbed "the hippie guru" by the media — was living a life of ease in southern France after jumping bail in Philadelphia, charged with the murder of his girlfriend. But on October 10 he was convicted of first degree murder by a jury of 12 Philadelphia citizens and sentenced to life in prison.
At the sentencing, Common Pleas Court Judge William J. Mazzola described Ira as
...an intellectual dilettante who preyed on uninitiated, uninformed, unsuspecting, inexperienced people. . . . someone who would buy a book and read the first and last chapters of the book and feign a special understanding — the type who would, for example, buy a hardbound version of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time and put it on the coffee table and give everyone the impression not only that he had read it but that he was, to use a metaphor, drowning in insight as to what was expressed.
That sums up Ira Einhorn wonderfully, and today no one is coming forward to disagree. But when he was first arrested in the spring of 1979, he could call on a wide array of people as his friends and character witnesses.
It was twenty-five years ago that Ira's girlfriend, Holly Maddux, disappeared, just as she was about to leave him for another man. Eighteen months later, at the instigation of a detective hired by Holly's family, Philadelphia police opened a trunk in Ira's apartment and found her mummified body, weighing 37 pounds. Ira was arrested. Let out on bail, he fled the country and disappeared. Nine years ago he was tried in absentia, convicted of first degree murder, and sentenced to life in prison. Four years ago he was tracked down in southern France. Finally he was extradited and put on trial.
The evidence against Ira was so strong that the outcome seemed preordained. But behind the conviction were years of effort by determined city and state officials who followed lead after lead to find him, and then had to extricate him from the French, who had made him into a sort of human rights hero.
Ira's story has been marked by his ability to impress some people with his seemingly brilliant mind, his higher consciousness, and the force of his personality — while impressing others as a psychopathic nut. The first group has included, over the years, Philadelphia society figures such as blueblood and onetime mayoral candidate Thacher Longstreth, Bell Telephone executives, entertainment personalities, and assorted others like Alan Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, a lot of French citizens, and a string of impressionable young women.
The second group included most of the population of Philadelphia, of whom I was one. I lived down the hall from Ira for a year in the mid-1960s in an apartment house in Powelton Village — a Philadelphia neighborhood near the University of Pennsylvania. Ira wasn't a hippie then because the word and the concept hadn't been invented yet. He was a beatnik who used his considerable intellect and pretentious manner to intimidate men and seduce impressionable college girls.
It was a time when the counterculture was just beginning, and many people were attracted to the idea of defying the tired old conventions that held back the expression of their individuality and kept society so repressive. Or so the line went. It's easy to see from the vantage point of 2002 that a lot of people just wanted to take drugs, have sex, and postpone growing up for as long as possible. Ira was the natural leader of these people because he gave them a voice that seemed to make these childish pretensions intellectually respectable. He claimed to be leading the way into a new world and a new consciousness, and he found plenty of followers.
But to me and my friends — red diaper babies and assorted misfits who already knew how to postpone growing up — he was just a smelly old goat who unaccountably managed to have a different girl in his apartment every night. We laughed at his pretentiousness and told each other stories about his brazen hypocrisy — like the time he waxed eloquent about the joys of a macrobiotic diet, and was seen wolfing down a cheesesteak at the corner dive that very night.
Ira's fame and fortune grew in the next decade, as widening circles of people wanted to get in on the pleasures of the counterculture, or at least get a clue about what it all meant. He took on the job of explaining the new culture to benighted citizens of the mainstream, calling himself a planetary enzyme, a catalyst for change. Bell Telephone paid him $100 a month (almost enough to rent a cheap apartment in those days) to be their advisor on the counterculture. He knew how to get media attention, and with their help he made himself into the voice of Philadelphia's counterculture. As Harry Jay Katz, Ira's old buddy, recently told a Philadelphia Daily News reporter,
"You guys created Ira. The press wrote that Ira invented Earth Day. Ira didn't invent Earth Day. Ira would hug a tree, the press would go, 'Look at that! A Jewish guy hugging a tree! That's fabulous!' Next thing you know, Ira invented Earth Day.
"We'd all hang out together," Katz went on. "Ira, myself, Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, once in a while Isaac Asimov. Wearing our dashikis. Talking about transcendental meditation. I didn't understand transcendental meditation. I had no idea what they were talking about. And Ira didn't know s---. All Ira wanted to do is get his photo in the paper and get laid."
Ira was also in touch with people worldwide who were interested in the paranormal. He claimed to be researching mind control techniques, and to be discovering the innermost secrets of the CIA. At the time, I knew other people who had worked out the labyrinthine mysteries of the CIA; all of them counted LSD as one of their major food groups. But for Ira, this bizarre construction of reality came in handy. It provided him with a defense when Holly's body was found in his trunk in his closet in his apartment, months after a downstairs neighbor complained of a horrible stench. How did the body get there? Why, the CIA planted it there, of course! Ira was becoming a threat to the CIA, he claimed, so it hatched this plot to get rid of him.
As many people have observed, if the CIA was so worried, why didn't they just kill Ira and be done with it?
At the time, there were actually people who believed his story. At his bail hearing there was no shortage of character witnesses. But times have changed. At the beginning of his October trial, his defense lawyer said he would invite actress Ellen Burstyn and rocker Peter Gabriel as character witnesses. Gabriel made a point of disclaiming any relationship with Ira. I don't know what Burstyn said, but she was not at the trial.
So the defense was left with some pretty strange witnesses. One woman was a "psychic archeologist" who said she worked with Ira and "notable scientists" in the 1970s to research dangerous, top-secret mind-control weapons. Another woman gave such an incoherent account of her stay in Ira's apartment that some of the jurors burst out laughing during her testimony. The prosecutor couldn't keep a straight face as he questioned her. Even Ira laughed.
"To describe her testimony as bizarre is an understatement," the prosecutor said later. "Is she out of her mind? I don't know."
Another witness — a normal one, testifying for the prosecution — was James Jafolla, a physicist who had been Ira's neighbor at the time of the murder. He related that when Ira found out his field of study, he kept trying to engage him in scientific conversations. The Daily News reported:
"What Einhorn wanted to discuss, said Jafolla — who valiantly restrained some major eye rolling — was the theory that Soviets were 'microwaving viruses into embassies.'"
Maybe you can tell from the quotes that the Philadelphia newspapers didn't treat Ira with the respect he surely felt was due him. In fact, while I started reading the accounts of the trial in the Daily News and Inquirer on line every day because of my past association with Ira, I soon became addicted to the hilarious, irreverant reports of Theresa Conroy, Dan Geringer, and their fellow reporters.
I don't know anything about these writers. Maybe some of them were in grade school when Ira murdered Holly. But they wrote as if they were old Ira hands — as if they had been living in Philadelphia when he was first arrested, wished passionately for him to be caught when he was on the run, and rejoiced unceasingly during his trial. They captured the way he was in his glory days — his power, his intellect, his weirdness, and his evil.
I have a new respect for tabloid journalism. The Washington Post or the New York Times would have been utterly incapable of publishing anything that reflected the emotions of the case as well as the Philadelphia Daily News — and the emotions were important. It was cathartic to read them.
One report was headlined: "Alas! Weepy Ira forgot his crying towel." It began, "Oh, boo hoo! Poor Ira Einhorn was so broken up yesterday just thinking about how much he missed murdered girlfriend Holly Maddux that he started crying on the witness stand."
Another began: "We waited 23 years to hear Ira Einhorn's side of the story. Now we can't wait for him to shut up."
And yet another: "The pseudo-ecologist, faux writer and full-time enzyme has been, as far as we can tell, a charlatan from the start. The fact that he bamboozled so many before he skipped bail and fled Philadelphia is both a testament to his evil charm and the squishy thinking of the '60s."
After the jury delivered its guilty verdict, Conroy wrote:
"For the first time in Ira Einhorn's sniveling, self-centered, sorry-excuse-for-a life, he had nothing to say. No whack-job excuses about government conspiracies and crazy mind-control experiments. No fictionalized versions of his oh-so-important life. No lies. No bravado. No twisted, self-serving pronouncements."
Ah, an honest reporter. Somebody nominate her for a Pulitzer.
Contrast that with a report on Ira Einhorn by New York writer Neil Gordon for Salon.com. Gordon finds Ira — "the man Philadelphia loves to hate" — fascinating. In a long article, he tells of his August visit to Ira in prison. Ira has intense eyes; he is charismatic and amazingly intelligent. As they talk, "his blue eyes hold mine hostage." Gordon doesn't question Ira's guilt. In fact, he goes into the story at length, and it's hard to do that without seeing how airtight the case, how twisted Ira is and how much pain he has caused to many people. He comes to dread his visits with Ira. But the story is complicated by Ira's intelligence and wide range of knowledge.
"He wants to tell me about Houellebecq, the French novelist du jour; about Jennifer Egan's new novel; about Hardt and Negri's popular left-wing history, 'Empire,' and Naomi Klein's notoriously dense 'No Logo' — unlike most American progressives, he's read and understood both."
I guess Gordon captures the emotions of the case for some people — those for whom black-and-white thinking is always inappropriate and suspect. But sometimes it's a good thing to be able to just make a punching bag out of evil, and punch it. It's clarifying and satisfying, and that's why I'm grateful to the Philadelphia reporters.
The case is further complicated by the French view that Ira is the victim of human rights abuses. They objected to his being tried in absentia — after he had jumped bail. The Pennsylvania legislature passed a special law to grant him a new trial, and they objected to that too. They objected to the death penalty, so that was ruled out. Then they objected to the American justice system, the high number of blacks incarcerated, and anything else they could think of.
I won't bother to make any clever comments about the French. They've obviously lost touch with reality on more issues than this one. But the happy side of this story is that their attitude was not shared on this side of the Atlantic. There have been no demonstrations to free Ira, no defense of the important work he was doing, no painting him as a peaceful man. The only voice I've been able to find speaking up for him is his brother's.
Those I know on the left are as glad as everyone else that Ira has been brought to justice. Although he wasn't particularly political, he obviously wasn't a man of the right. And in matters of moral judgment the French seem to have rather a lot of sway on the left these days. Yet, when it came down to it, good and evil trumped everything else.
There is a sense of relief and joy that justice has finally been done after all these years, though dampened by bitterness that Ira got to spend 25 years in happy freedom while Holly's family grieved and Holly never got to spend those 25 years at all. In Philadelphia, the case was never let go, never forgotten. Now it may be at an end. Or it may not. Ira promises to appeal.