Interview with Allen M. Hornblum, Journalist and Activist

Interviewer: Anna Faktorovich, PhD

Hornblum

Allen M. Hornblum is a Philadelphia based author who tackles controversial, historically under-covered topics in the areas of organized crime, Soviet espionage, and medical ethics. Prior to becoming an author, Hornblum had a varied career that included political organizing, college teaching, and many years in various facets of the criminal justice system. He has served in the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office, Philadelphia Prison System, and the Pennsylvania Crime Commission. Hornblum’s research and books have been widely covered by the media and have been featured on Good Morning America, the CBS Evening News, CNN, the BBC, numerous radio shows, and just about every newspaper in the country including the front pages of the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Hornblum is often asked to lecture on his research and has presented his work to a diverse group including; the National Institutes of Health, the British Medical Association, the FBI, numerous medical schools, as well as Brown, Columbia, and Penn State Universities.

Hornblum - Cover

American Colossus: Big Bill Tilden and the Creation of Modern Tennis: The indisputable force behind the emergence of professional tennis as a popular and lucrative sport, Bill Tilden’s on-court accomplishments are nothing short of staggering. The first American‑born player to win Wimbledon and a seven‑time winner of the U.S. singles championship, he was the number 1 ranked player for ten straight years. He appeared in numerous comedies and dramas on both stage and screen and was a Renaissance man who wrote more than two dozen fiction and nonfiction books, including several successful tennis instructions books. But Tilden had a secret—one he didn’t fully understand himself. After he left competitive tennis in the late 1940s, he faced a lurid fall from grace when he was arrested after an incident involving an underage boy in his car. Tilden served seven months in prison and later attempted to explain his questionable behavior to the public, only to be ostracized from the tennis circuit. Despite his glorious career in tennis, his final years were much constrained and lived amid considerable public shunning. Tilden’s athletic accomplishments remain, as he is arguably the best American player ever. American Colossus is a thorough account of his life, bringing a much-needed look back at one of the world’s greatest athletes and a person whose story is as relevant as ever.

Faktorovich: Your books have been on topics that seem to have nothing in common, for example, organized crime, Soviet espionage, and medical ethics. How do you decide which topic you are going to focus on next? Have you considered choosing a single topic and zooming into it (as most academics or specialists do)? If not, why not? Your first two publications followed this more common pattern. First you wrote about human medical experiments in Holmesburg Prison (Acres of Skin), and then followed it with a book about a single African American inmate who lived in this prison (Sentenced to Science). The press attention on the first study, must have inspired a second book contract from your publisher? Was the second book equally successful? Did you discover that you prefer to vary topics to make them more surprising or interesting for you to research?

Hornblum: It is true, my interests are quite eclectic. I’m certainly not your typical academic who focuses on one area of interest during his entire career. I’d find such a strategy quite boring though it might enhance one’s academic career and authority on a subject. In addition to diverse interests, there are many interesting people, groups, and events that have been completely overlooked or in some cases forgotten. On many occasions when curious about someone—be it a gangster, spy, or athlete—its been disillusioning to discover that despite the person’s significance nothing has been written about him. Many of these forgotten people or events are quite book worthy, but no one had taken the time to flesh out the story, do the hard historical digging, and write an accurate account of the individual or event.

That was the genesis of my first and probably most important book, Acres of Skin. When I first started working in the Philadelphia Prison System in 1971, I was stunned to see scores of prisoners strapped and wrapped in gauze pads and adhesive tape. Rather than a knife fight on the cellblock or a gang war in the exercise yard, the medical dressing was part of a vast and long running clinical trial program. In short, a prominent dermatologist and an Ivy League university had taken over the city jail and turned it into the nation’s largest human research program testing everything from hair dyes and athletes foot medication to Phase I drug trials, dioxin experiments, and chemical warfare agents. Though it proved extremely difficult to acquire a publisher due to the controversial nature of the material, Acres of Skin on publication received a tremendous publicity around the world and is now considered a classic in the field of medical ethics.

Similarly, I’ve taken on research challenges regarding espionage agents and organized crime figures, and great but much forgotten sports figures. Granted, the investigation of little known historical figures demands considerable passion and time, but the satisfaction at the end of the process is all the greater. In other words, we already have 300 biographies of Ben Franklin, how about a good book about Harry Gold, a significant spy who gave the Soviets the secret of the Atomic Bomb.

Faktorovich: Most of your previous books have explored crimes (corruption, medical malpractice), but your latest one avoids controversy and focuses instead on Bill Tilden’s successes. You mention that there was a homosexual secret in his closet, but you do not look into the case that sent him to jail as you might have if you were writing about corruption in sports, or malpractice in Russian prisons. You seem to side with him, and you do not present too much evidence on the young man he was caught with. Why did you take this more scholarly, detached and less controversial approach with this book? Did you set out to make it hard-hitting, but discover that you sympathized with your subject?

Hornblum: I have to take argument with your opinion that Tilden is an uncontroversial figure. In fact, he was and remains sixty years after his death persona non grata in the eyes of many. Though unquestionably the Babe Ruth of tennis and one of the greats during the “Golden Age of Sports,” he was also gay and late in his career found guilty of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. The convictions did much to dim his stardom and relegate him to the dustbin of history. Considering Tilden’s impact on the sport of tennis as well as his other more cerebral gifts for writing, the theater, and music, it is amazing that so few people today know of him.

And I would have liked to pursue his criminal case and much speculated on sexual proclivities, but those avenues were closed off to me. Tilden’s criminal files were lost by the LA County court system years ago and no one really knows or is able to document in any substantial way Tilden’s sex life. Many of his closest friends thought he was asexual, and there are no documents or records of any kind illuminating his dalliances and romantic partners, if any. Now there are some journalists and biographers who would have a field day speculating about such matters, but I am not one of them. I base my studies and biographies on the evidence, not speculation. I have little interest in reading or writing fiction, hence I shall stick to the record, solid documentation, and what is provable.

Faktorovich: The reason you were chosen as an expert on the Holmesburg prison study is that you worked there as a literacy instructor for a decade and sat on the board of the Pennsylvania Prison Society during that stretch. You found proof of the experiments first-hand. You were a model employee during your tenure, being appointed to the board of the Philadelphia Board of Prison Trustees in 1986. You were hardly a silent participant, as you unsuccessfully lobbied to allow prisoners access to condoms. Why did you wait for a decade between your time at Holmesburg and writing about the abuses you saw there? The experiments went on between 1951 and 1974, and you say that you saw some prisoners who looked like they had wounds on their skin that seemed to be the results of dermatological experimentation while you were there, but did you arrive after the experiments had ended? Did you file complaints on behalf of inmates while you were employed there? Were you concerned about repercussions if you complained about the abuses while you were still employed at the prison?

Hornblum: From my earliest days in the prison system, I was convinced the medical research was problematic and there was probably quite a story behind such a large medical research operation in a city jail. Prisons, however, are not college campuses where information is shared and folks are encouraged to answer questions. In fact, they’re paramilitary institutions and those who ask too many questions or start snooping around find themselves looking for a new job or worse. My initial inquiries were met with stock answers—the experiments had been going on for years with the blessing of the administration—and further advised to stop asking questions. Of paramount importance is that the entire city prison system had bought into a culture where medical research on prisoners was widely accepted and of long standing. No one to my vantage point raised concerns.

However, I knew something was amiss and expected that one day a medical ethicist, journalist, or historian would write the true story of what had occurred in the Philly Prison System. Years, in fact, decades went by without that book appearing. It was becoming increasingly clear that if I didn’t write the book, if I didn’t research the history of using prisoners as guinea pigs that unsavory aspect of American medical history would never be told. It would not be until the 1990’s and while working in the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office that I began to track down former prisoners, search for doctors, and do a full court press for any documents that illuminated what had taken place in the city jail. After five years of intensive investigation—not to mention giving up my job to pursue the story more aggressively—did Acres of Skin appear on book shelves in 1998.

Faktorovich: Then you worked as the executive director of the Americans for Democratic Action, working on election and other political campaigns. A tie in to your writing on organized crime is your appointment to the Pennsylvania Crime Commission in 1988. Then, you were appointed the chief of staff of the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office. You eventually resigned from this role in 1994 to write the book on prison corruption. Did you intentionally take on these jobs within the establishment to understand how they worked so you could write about them, or did you feel the need to write about the topics you have covered because of your time in these roles (or both)? Why did you move into policing after all those years as a literacy instructor? Did you want the chief job so you could have more power to bring about positive change? What difficulties did you encounter in these attempts?

Hornblum: My career in the criminal justice begins in the early 1970s when I began working in the Philadelphia Prison System. Neither then nor for many years after did I have any interest in writing books. However, the close proximity I had to the clinical research program obviously impacted me and only two decades later did I begin to pursue the true story as to what had occurred. The experience of researching and writing Acres of Skin gave me an appreciation for books and the book writing process, which fostered the many books that followed. Already aware of various characters and stories that I thought were book worthy, I began to pursue subjects that I thought deserving of book length treatment. For example, Philly’s Old Irish Mob and the Soviet spy Harry Gold were extremely interesting subjects who had been overlooked by authors. Their stories were compelling, but no one had ever taken the time or interest to flesh them out. Granted more work is involved in such research endeavors, but for those who like a challenge and the pursuit of interesting people, groups, and events, the extra labor is worth it.

Faktorovich: Given the current anti-Russian climate in America, your Invisible Harry Gold book about the life of an American spy in Soviet Russia, who turned and gave the secrets of the atomic weapon to the Soviets. Your Wikipedia page says that you “interviewed over 50 people” over the eight years you were writing and researching this project. What type of people did you interview for this project? Since the topic is spying, was it extremely difficult to get most of these subjects to talk (or did you avoid interviewing potential spies, focusing instead on more talkative subjects)? Why did Gold give the Soviets the information on the bomb? Did you research show that he was motivated by money, or was he threatened by the Soviets, or was there another reason? Was most of your research done in Russia or here in the US? What do you think about the current Russian election-hacking crisis? Do you think the Russians are guilty of this hack? What is the strongest evidence of this, if so? Could this recent hack also have been the work of a double-agent like Gold? While it’s easy to see the benefit of an atomic weapon, it’s difficult to understand why the Russians would want a corruptible, barely competent president. If there has been election fraud, isn’t it more likely that the person who won the office and has seen financial gain to himself and his co-conspirators be a more likely fraudster than the Russians? Can the focus on the Russians be a diversion that builds on the innate American fear of Russians that has been brewing since WWII? Stepping back, what is your opinion on the tensions between Russia and America. Now that both of these countries are corrupted and capitalist, what is the philosophical disagreement that might be fueling renewed “hot peace”?

Hornblum: The individuals I tracked down and interviewed for the Harry Gold bio were mostly individuals who knew Harry such as doctors, neighbors, communists, FBI agents, etc. All described a sad, fascinating little man who had the best of intentions, but lost his way and began a long and secret service on behalf of Soviet espionage endeavors. Never motivated by money, Gold just wanted to help people, and was encouraged to assist the people of his parents’ homeland—Russia and the Soviet Union. A sucker for a sob story and willing to give his last dime to someone in need, he refused to join the Communist Party but was willing to steal documents from his employer (industrial espionage) and ultimately, during the war, became involved in military espionage and what J. Edgar Hoover would refer to as “the crime of the century.”

Faktorovich: You wrote an article for Tablet (a Jewish magazine), “How Black Prison Inmates in Philadelphia Were Turned into Human Guinea Pigs: A Memoir” (February 26, 2018). You compare the refusal of treatment to men with diseases such as syphilis in the Philadelphia prison system in the 1960s to the German’s experimentation on Jews in the Holocaust, and yet, as you explain there were few repercussions for these American experimenters (while some Germans were executed for similar experiments). You explain how to-this-day, major companies are benefiting from the research that was performed in the 1960s on mostly unwilling or unknowing prison populations. Why do you think it has been possible for American experimenters to get away with this type of malpractice murder? Has the American public been brainwashed to believe that America is a hero of democracy and that it is incorruptible? For example, statistics show that few Americans believe their government is corrupt, whereas the numbers are higher in most other countries. Is there a difference between watching a prisoner slowly and painfully die of syphilis and the Nazis’ experiments, and if so what is the difference between them? As you have continued writing about these types of inhumanities, have you noticed any shifts in public perception of these problems? If not, why not? Have you seen any policy changes as a result of any of your books or articles? If so, please describe the change.

Hornblum: The wide scale use of vulnerable populations for clinical trials during the 20th century is the underbelly of American medicine. Prisoners, developmentally disabled children, the indigent, asylum patients, and even newborn infants were all incorporated in ethically dubious research efforts. As I point out in Against Their Will, doctors knew where to go when they wanted to test a new elixir, a new treatment, or preventative treatments. Some of our most distinguished doctors and institutions bought into the practice, and all the while the general public paid little interest in this unsavory practice. The doctors who achieved fame and fortune though the test subjects—and there were thousands of them—are lost to history. Little more than human lab rats sacrificed on the altar of advancing science.

Regrettably, few Americans know of this sad chapter in American medical research. They remain convinced such practices only occurred in Nazi Germany. It is true, however, that while American jurists were putting the Nazi doctors on trial for their barbaric crimes, doctors in America were refusing to treat hundreds of syphilitic black sharecroppers, injecting hospital patients with plutonium, and infecting hundreds of Guatemalan soldiers, prisoners, and asylum patients with various sexually transmitted diseases. Not a record we should be proud of.

Faktorovich: Do you suspect Bill Tilden was set up by LAPD when he was stopped with the underage boy on the Sunset Boulevard? What was the reason the officer gave for pulling him over? Was his light broken? Was he speeding? Why would Tilden have let a stranger get behind the wheel of his car? Why would Tilden have kept his arm on the boy’s lap in the time it took the officer to get out of his car approach his window? Does the story seem plausible to you? Did you find any proof as to the events of that night other than the officer’s report? What is Tilden’s version of events?

Hornblum: As to Tilden, he was obviously very deep in the closet as the times were not particularly supportive of gay men, even ones who held the status of celebrities. There is no reason to believe—at least at that initial arrest—that LA Police stalked Tilden in hopes of catching him with another man, but after that first arrest it is quite possible that Tilden merited special attention. The Hollywood community had garnered headlines for their extravagant lifestyle and rubbed some people the wrong way. Many in the criminal justice community targeted high-profile actors like Charlie Chaplin and Errol Flynn. Tilden was their equal in the international celebrity department and he no doubt came under greater scrutiny. That being said, there are many close observers who argue that if Tilden would have hired a more aggressive attorney, and utilized a more aggressive legal defense he would not have been convicted.

Faktorovich: Am I right in interpreting that you have doubts about Bill Tilden’s homosexuality? You mention that he once said that he might have slipped into something related to the boy-incident when he was “young and stupid”, and you describe Tilden as not “flamboyantly” homosexual. Did you find any proof that might suggest that Tilden had homosexual affairs as a youth or at any point later on? Were you surprised by the lack of such evidence (if you didn’t find it)?

Hornblum: Though there is much speculation about Tilden’s sexuality there is very little hard evidence of his associations. He was so bereft of obvious intimate companionship that some of his friends thought he was asexual. He had many friends—including kings and queens of Europe and Asia as well as Hollywood royalty—but intimate, sexual liaisons cannot be substantiated. Arguably, those closest to him—his many gifted tennis students over the years—all swore that he was the model of decorum and never once showed or expressed any interest in them sexually. And I wasn’t “surprised” by the lack of evidence after all these years, but I was definitely frustrated, especially so by the lost criminal records in Los Angeles County.

Faktorovich: What surprised you the most about how the game of tennis was played at its inception? Were there any shocking, corrupt, or otherwise tainted dealings you uncovered, or was it one of the more wholesome and untouched by scandal fields you have researched thus far?

Hornblum: If one studies the early years of lawn tennis, one can’t help but be impressed by the class and cultural underpinnings of the game. Personal comportment, how one plays the game and carries himself, and the complete and total renouncement of professionalism and commercialism were the pillars the sport was founded on. Tennis more than any other sport was wedded to amateur play. Money and professionalism were vigorously fought against and this is the key reason there were no “open” matches between amateurs and professionals until 1968, which is very late when compared to other sports.

Faktorovich: Can you give us a brief review of the books Tilden wrote, especially his fictional compositions? Are you impressed with them? Do they show linguistic or structural mastery? Do you think publishers accepted them primarily because of Tilden’s fame, or do they have literary merit?

Hornblum: Tilden was a keen observer and very accomplished writer. More than any other player of consequence, he wanted to foster the game. One of the ways he does this is through his articles and books. Many of his how-to tennis books like Match Play and Spin of the Ball are considered classics and still read by tennis players around the world. His fiction was geared to young people and tried to instill the values of hard work, loyalty, patriotism, and bravery in the face of opposition. As a child he had been much influenced by the stories of Frank Merriwell, and he hoped to accomplish the same two decades later by writing stories of young boys struggling to overcome obstacles in their lives. These tomes weren’t meant to be great literature, but they were designed to teach young boys how to be men. As to his hundreds of newspaper articles, they are some of the most perceptive and visionary commentaries ever written on any sport.

Faktorovich: If a young person who is interested in writing journalism that gets to the heart of corruption in America is reading this interview, would you advise them to attempt to find work within the establishment they intend to write about? Why or why not? What advice would you give the young you if you met yourself when you were just out of high school? Should you have taken other roads? Was there a decision you wish you could change? Is there something you should have done earlier?

Hornblum: When I lecture at universities I tell students there are many stories still buried out there waiting for some intrepid soul to discover them. Corruption requires secrecy and the better the participants are at it, the longer the crime goes undiscovered. Some types of corruption are in plain sight and unfortunately becomes widely accepted. The Holmesburg Prison medical experiments are one example of just such activity as was the infamous Tuskegee Syphlis Study. But it’s not just the medical arena that harbors such illicit practices. Government, higher education, sports all have their share of indiscretions just crying out for exposure. But the investigator has to be dedicated, able to do the heavy digging, and shrewd enough to connect the dots. Equally important, one has to be impervious to threats and the many obstacles that will be thrown in his or her way. It’s not a vocation for the light of heart or the weekend warrior. Such challenges demand nerve, commitment, and a modicum of fearlessness that is all too rare today. But once the task is accomplished, one can take pride in a job well done.

Faktorovich: Thank you for participating in this interview. Would you like to comment on anything else?

Hornblum: Thank you for your interest in my books.

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