- 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
On September 3, 1901, Sandanski, Tchernopeef, and twenty IMRO Chetniks captured Ellen Stone as she and several native companions returned from conducting a training school at Bansko. In order to attract plenty of attention, Miss Stone’s abductors made the seizure as dramatic as possible, swooping down on the party as it wound its way through a narrow defile in the rugged Perim Mountains in northern Macedonia. The abductors—whom the missionaries thereafter referred to as “brigands”—were later described by Miss Stone in her ransom letters as “bearded, fierce of face, wild of dress…all athletic and heavily armed.” They spoke only Turkish and were careful to portray themselves as bandits eager only for money. The captives were further terrorized when the revolutionaries brained a Turkish soldier who inadvertently wandered on the scene. On September 4, Sandanski and Tchernopeef released everyone except Miss Stone and Mrs. Katerina Tsilka, a native co-worker of Miss Stone’s whom the brigands decided to retain as “chaperone,” and then fled with the two women northward into the mountains. On September 26, H. C. Haskell, station chief at Samokov (Bulgaria), received a note from Miss Stone indicating that she and Mrs. Tsilka, who was then seven months pregnant, would be shot unless a ransom of 25,000 Turkish pounds ($110,000) was delivered within twenty days.
The kidnaping threw the American missionary community and the State Department into momentary disarray. Despite a half century of missionary activity in the Balkans, no ABCFM representative had ever been held for ransom.
The first reaction in both Boston and Washington was to follow the path of least resistance and seek release of the captives through direct pressure on the Turks. On September 6, Dr. Charles Daniels, one of the corresponding secretaries of the board, notified Secretary of State John Hay of the captives’ plight and requested that United States representatives in Constantinople demand of the Porte (the Ottoman government) that Turkish authorities secure Miss Stone’s immediate release. Both Consul General Charles Dickinson and Minister John G. A. Leishman complied, but the results were hardly what the board had hoped for. On September 20 a Macedonian delivered another beseeching message from Miss Stone to W. W. Peet, Bible House Treasurer at Constantinople. “The men who captured us first showed courtesy…towards us.…But now since Turkish soldiers and Bashi-Bazouks [Moslem irregulars] have begun to pursue us…our condition is altogether changed.…Therefore I beg you to hasten the sending of the sum and that you will insist before the Turkish government that it stop the pursuit of us by the soldiers…otherwise we will be killed.” As a result, Minister Leishman, at the board’s urgent request, reversed himself and requested the Porte to call off its troops.
At this point the board decided to go ahead and pay the ransom, and on September 23 it so directed Treasurer Peet in Constantinople. Its decision was largely the product of pressure applied by the captives’ relatives and friends. Especially vociferous in Miss Stone’s behalf was the Christian Herald , for which she had worked. “No sum of money, be it ever so large, can ever be named as a true standard of value for a human life,” proclaimed the Herald . “There are gradations also of value, some lives ranking far higher than others in the service of their country and in the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ.…We hesitate not to say, Miss Stone must be ransomed with gold, cost what it may! ” Hardheartedness, the board realized, was a label it could ill afford. Boston was also certain that eventually Turkey could be made to pay.
The board’s decision to pay up, however, soon came under attack from field workers in Macedonia and Bulgaria. Whether or not they sympathized with the Macedonian cause, most of Miss Stone’s colleagues were reluctant to support any action that would encourage further terrorism. “What is paid will be a price on our heads,” warned the Reverend J. W. Baird. “If I should be so taken,” declared the Reverend James Clarke, who like Baird, was situated at Samokov, “I do not think I should wish ransom to be paid for me whatsoever the result might be.” Consequently, on September 28, Smith, enclosing a copy of Clarke’s letter, notified Secretary of State Hay that the board would, after all, not ransom Miss Stone; rejection of the brigands’ demands was “indispensable to the security of the American missionaries now resident in European Turkey.”
At the same time, the board was determined to avoid the blame for Miss Stone’s death if it should occur. It therefore resolved to shift management of the affair squarely into the hands of the Roosevelt administration. To this end, the board cabled Washington and arranged an audience with the new President to acquaint him with the position of the missionary community. Shortly after the committee adjourned, Smith wrote Peet: “Tonight Mr. Capen [Dr. Samuel Capen, president of the ABCFM] and I go to Washington to urge the government to do whatever is necessary to secure Stone’s release.…I tremble to think of the alternatives.”