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The Miss Stone Affair

July 2024
11min read

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.

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.

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.”

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.

After convincing himself that the Bulgarian government had done all in its power to secure Miss Stone’s release, Washburn in consultation with the United States Chargé d’Affaires in Constantinople, Spencer Eddy, took it upon himself to appoint two “trusty men”—W. W. Peet and Alexander Garguilo, first dragoman (interpreter) at the American legation—to handle the ransom transfer. Peet and Garguilo were to proceed to Salonika where, armed with letters from the Turkish minister of the interior, they would secure the full assistance of the governor. From Salonika they were to proceed to Djumabala near the Bulgarian border, there to make contact with the brigands and convince them to accept the $66,000 that had so far been raised. The two men left Constantinople the evening of December 16, 1901.

The Peet-Garguilo mission turned out to be a dramatic cloak-and-dagger affair. The Turks, while pretending to cooperate, were determined to prevent payment of the ransom and hoped to use the ransoming committee to locate and destroy the brigands. As a result, for nearly a month Peet and Garguilo wandered around Macedonia followed by a large contingent of Turkish troops. Eventually the two men, using a third-party intermediary, not only established contact with Miss Stone’s abductors but actually conducted negotiations. On February 2, in the Macedonian village of Bansko and under the noses of two hundred Turkish troops, the committee turned over 230 pounds ($66,000) of gold to the brigands in return for a promise to release Stone and Tsilka within ten days. Peet deceived the Turks by smuggling the ransom out of his closely watched hut sixty pounds at a time, then replacing it with an equal weight of lead shot.

Although the committee had no guarantee whatever that the brigands would fulfill their part of the bargain, they need not have worried: Sandanski and Tchernopeef had been anxious to release their captives for months. Mrs. Tsilka had given birth to a baby girl in November, and as a result the brigands were forced not only to deal with the unspeakable Turks, the treacherous Bulgarian nationalists, and a group of seemingly indecisive American negotiators but also to care for the needs of an infant as well. Moreover, Stone and Tsilka were hardly the helpless, breathless creatures depicted by the newspapers. As Tchernopeef put it several years later during an interview with an American reporter: “Have you ever found yourself in a position of strong opposition to a middle-aged woman with a determined will all her own? She assuming the attitude that you are a brute and you feeling it?” The revolutionaries, moreover, had to endure almost daily attempts to convert them to Christianity. Nevertheless, because of the intensity of Turkish patrol activity, three weeks passed before the brigands felt it was safe to part with their captives. Finally, to the relief of both captives and captors, Tchernopeef and Sandanski deposited Miss Stone, Mrs. Tsilka, and infant beneath a pear tree near the Macedonian town of Strumica. It was 4:00 A.M. on February 23, 1902.

Aside from its obvious melodramatic qualities, the Stone Affair is noteworthy for a number of reasons. The 66,000 Miss-Stonki , as the revolutionaries called the ransom money, helped finance the Macedonian uprising of 1903. As far as the United States was concerned, the Miss Stone Affair constituted a particularly thorny introduction to one of the burdens of major power status. The honor of the nation demanded that Miss Stone be released immediately and that the guilty parties be apprehended and punished and the responsible government chastised. The fact that the victim was a missionary and a woman heightened the challenge to America’s nationhood. Yet, as in all such situations, there was the possibility that hasty action might bring about the death of the prisoners. Also serving to hold the Big Stick in check was the fact that the brigands were Macedonians struggling against the hated Turks, freedom fighters who had enjoyed widespread sympathy in the United States for a number of years. Thus, it was particularly difficult in this case to differentiate between good and evil. Nearly everyone wanted to blame Turkey, and some did, despite the facts of the case, but in the end there was no clear consensus about what course the authorities should take.

In short, the Stone Affair served to introduce twentiethcentury America to international political terrorism. While all too familiar to contemporary governments, the complicated negotiations that inevitably follow such kidnapings were novel to President Roosevelt and his advisers. Alvey Adee, the career diplomat who had been in the State Department for nearly a generation, summed up the administration’s reaction to the Stone Affair. “This has been a hard week for me,” he wrote John Hay after a particularly harrowing round of negotiations, “and my mind is black and blue all over.…I have been worse off than [Saint] Stephen—I have been Stoned all the time with a continuous but unfatal result.”

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