- Historic Sites
The Miss Stone Affair
American citizens held hostage by nationalist terrorists in a distant land. An aroused public calls for action. A cautious President seeks to avert violence. In 1901.
October/november 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 6
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the United States was still a third-rate power, American diplomats, missionaries, and traders lived and worked abroad relatively free from the threat of revolutionary terrorism. By the turn of the century, however, the United States was actively seeking the international limelight. When the McKinley administration declared war on Spain in 1898 and a year later forced that thoroughly defeated nation to hand over Guam and the Philippines in the Pacific and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, it was clear that America had arrived as a world power. Unfortunately, America’s newly won prestige attracted the attention not only of the international establishment but of themilitant, have-not groups as well.
In September, 1901, one of those groups, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization, or IMRO, seized and held for ransom Ellen M. Stone, a Congregationalist missionary. During the six months of her captivity, the Theodore Roosevelt administration, the American public, and her superiors on the American Board Commissioners for Foreign Missions struggled with the now-familiar issues connected with acts of international terrorism. The “Miss Stone Affair,” as the incident came to be called, provided America with one of its first lessons in the limitations of great power status.
Miss Stone was seized in Macedonia, then one of the most volatile areas in the world. Lying just south of the Balkan Mountains, Macedonia in 1901 was the sole remaining European possession of the Ottoman Empire. It commanded the mountain corridor route leading from Central Europe to the Mediterranean and consequently had been subjected over the centuries to countless invasions. As of 1900 the threat of war hung over the province once again as Bulgarian and Macedonian nationalists sought to overthrow Turkish rule. Several of IMRO’s leaders had come to the conclusion that the winning of Macedonian independence would require not only continued direct action but foreign intervention as well. Although Western Europeans were sympathetic to the cause of Macedonian freedom, the chances in 1900 that one or more of the powers would force the Turks to relinquish Macedonia appeared remote. Therefore, the revolutionaries looked increasingly to the New World for sympathy and aid. In cities from Boston to Oakland, hundreds of Macedonian immigrants-turned-propagandists publicized Turkish atrocities in an effort to persuade the United States to intervene in the Balkans and oust Turkey from her last European stronghold. “American interference,” one IMRO circular told Americans, “is the only effective measure against the present slaughter and the only means of producing peace, order, and good government.” Actually, American public opinion was sympathetic to the victims of Turkish oppression, but the republic’s tradition of noninvolvement in European affairs proved stronger, and the support given Macedonia by the United States continued to be largely verbal and moral.
Then, in 1901, two IMRO leaders decided to seek American aid by more direct means. Yani Sandanski, a former schoolteacher, a socialist, and a veteran revolutionary, and Hristo Tchernopeef, a rugged Chetnik (“militia”) chieftain, were charter members of IMRO and fanatical autonomists. They lit on the idea of capturing an American living in Macedonia, collecting a large ransom from the United States, and blaming the whole affair on Turkey. Such a bold stroke, they believed, would provoke the United States into demanding an end to Turkish misrule in Macedonia and at the same time provide them with the cash necessary to defeat the Bulgarian annexationists who were competing for the province.
In searching for a victim, IMRO inevitably turned to the American missionary community in the Balkans. The Protestant evangelists living in Bulgaria and Macedonia constituted one of the largest and most active proselytizing bodies in the world and composed America’s most important link to European Turkey.
Between 1878 and 1903 the missionaries became more and more openly sympathetic to Macedonian liberation. The Turkish government, which viewed representatives of the American Board Commissioners for Foreign Missions—or ABCFM—as purveyors of such dangerous concepts as democracy and nationalism, and Moslem religious leaders, who saw the missionaries as spiritual threats to Islam, vied with each other in harassing Protestant clergy and lay workers in Macedonia. In addition, the missionaries absorbed antiestablishment ideas from the people among whom they lived and worked. Dozens of high-ranking Macedonian-Bulgarian officials were graduates of Robert College in Constantinople, and many members of IMRO were graduates of local missionary schools. It was not difficult for the missionaries to view the Macedonian leaders as Christian soldiers fighting against tyranny and heathenism.
Ironically, one factor that persuaded Sandanski and Tchernopeef to pick an American missionary for their victim was the sympathy of the American religious community for their cause. The revolutionaries hoped the missionaries might even be cooperative during the course of the kidnaping.