- 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
Meanwhile, the Roosevelt administration had had a chance to consider its options and work out its own course of action. Initially, as we have seen, the State Department had acquiesced to Boston’s demands and attempted to secure the captives’ release through pressure on Turkey. By the middle of the month, however, American officials realized that those who had kidnaped Stone and Tsilka were not simple mountain bandits. On September 20, Leishman wrote Hay that Miss Stone’s captors were not Turks but agents of the “Bulgarian Committee” who had seized the two women in hopes of making money for their cause, or provoking foreign intervention, or both.”
As of Smith and Capen’s arrival in Washington, the State Department had decided that a diplomatic approach to the Stone problem, whether through Turkey or Bulgaria, had little chance of success. If the United States allowed the Turks to force a confrontation, there was indeed a good chance the captives would be killed. Indeed, such had been the case in a number of previous incidents involving Europeans held for ransom when the Turks had been allowed a free hand. Nor could the Ottoman government reasonably be expected to pay the ransom to a movement whose sole purpose was to overthrow Turkish rule in Europe.
If government-to-government pressure was not likely to secure Miss Stone’s release, what then? There was always the practical approach; Miss Stone could be left to her own devices. And at one point, Roosevelt favored just such a course. On October 2 the President wrote Second Assistant Secretary of State Alvey Adee that the United States government should not be expected to rescue Miss Stone: “Every missionary, every trader in wild lands should know and is inexcusable for not knowing that the American government had [sic] no power to pay the ransom of anyone who is captured by brigands or savages.”
Yet there were several reasons why the administration could not abandon the beleaguered Bible worker to the wilds of Macedonia. The American Board, the State Department, and the White House were subjected to almost daily pleas and demands from Ellen Stone’s family that the government effect her rescue. As time passed with no apparent progress, her relatives sought to embarrass the administration by giving press interviews in which they pondered the possible dire circumstances of her imprisonment. In addition, if Miss Stone were to meet an untimely end, Roosevelt and Hay feared, the yellow press would demand war with the responsible parties, whoever Hearst, Pulitzer, and other molders of popular opinion decided they might be. But in the end it was Victorian morality that prevented abandonment of Miss Stone. “Women have no earthly business to go out as missionaries in these wild countries,” Roosevelt confided to Adee. “They do very little good but it is impossible not to feel differently about them than men. If a man goes out as a missionary he has no kind of business to venture to wild lands with the expectation that somehow the government will protect him as well as if he stayed at home. If he is fit for his work he has no more right to complain of what may befall him than a soldier has in getting shot. But it is impossible to adopt this standard about women.”
With the diplomatic and “practical” approaches discredited, the only alternative left was payment of the ransom. Roosevelt, however, was reluctant even to consider it, for, if Washington even agreed to direct negotiations with the brigands, it would set a dangerous precedent. Moreover, after all of Roosevelt’s rhetoric about stronger nations displaying firmness and the “right stuff” in their dealings with the “uncivilized,” it would be unseemly, to say the least, for the administration to knuckle under to the terrorists.
After due deliberation, Washington decided the only solution that could even begin to satisfy the multiple exigencies of the situation was for the missionaries themselves to raise and pay the ransom. Thus, when Capen and Smith called at the White House on October 5, Roosevelt declared that under no circumstances could the government finance Miss Stone’s deliverance but also insisted that it was “imperative” that the ransom be raised. When the board members protested that the Prudential Committee had voted unanimously not to pay, the President suggested that the amount be collected through a popular subscription. Capen and Smith reluctantly agreed.
While Miss Stone’s friends and relatives launched a frantic fund-raising drive in her behalf, the ABCFM and the State Department settled on Dr. George Washburn to coordinate negotiations with the brigands. Washburn, who was the head of Robert College in Constantinople, was perhaps the most influential American in the Balkans.