Project MKUltra: Did CIA Scientist Frank Olson Jump or Was He Pushed? 

The death of US scientist Frank Olson on Thanksgiving weekend in 1953 is one of the most enduring mysteries of the CIA mind-control project MKUltra.

Scientist Frank Olson was a biological warfare expert, a CIA officer, and a married father of three when he 'fell' from the window of his Manhattan hotel room in 1953. He died on the sidewalk in his undershirt and shorts at about 2am. The official verdict was suicide, but a second autopsy raised questions - although not proof - of a possible homicide. Olson’s family and many others have been searching for answers in a hall of mirrors ever since.

 

MKUltra and Frank Olson
Frank Olson was a WWII US Army Chemical Corps captain and later a CIA officer


MKUltra

Frank Olson was 43 when he died on Nov. 28, 1953. He was a scientist at the top of his profession, a CIA officer, and one of about two dozen men who knew the true nature of the Agency’s Project MKUltra. The project involved mind control experiments, including tests to see if LSD could be weaponized against US enemies. The US was concerned that the Soviet Union had developed their own mind-control methods and America was falling behind.

Project MKUltra: Did CIA Scientist Frank Olson Jump or Was He Pushed? 

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The death of US scientist Frank Olson on Thanksgiving weekend in 1953 is one of the most enduring mysteries of the CIA mind-control project MKUltra.

Scientist Frank Olson was a biological warfare expert, a CIA officer, and a married father of three when he 'fell' from the window of his Manhattan hotel room in 1953. He died on the sidewalk in his undershirt and shorts at about 2am. The official verdict was suicide, but a second autopsy raised questions - although not proof - of a possible homicide. Olson’s family and many others have been searching for answers in a hall of mirrors ever since.

 

MKUltra and Frank Olson
Frank Olson was a WWII US Army Chemical Corps captain and later a CIA officer


MKUltra

Frank Olson was 43 when he died on Nov. 28, 1953. He was a scientist at the top of his profession, a CIA officer, and one of about two dozen men who knew the true nature of the Agency’s Project MKUltra. The project involved mind control experiments, including tests to see if LSD could be weaponized against US enemies. The US was concerned that the Soviet Union had developed their own mind-control methods and America was falling behind.

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Olson was a key insider. He knew the CIA’s darkest secrets, which made him both a privileged member of an elite group and a security threat should he expose the top-secret US project.  

Curiously, about a week before Olson’s death, he’d also been unwittingly drugged with LSD during a retreat in Maryland with colleagues from the CIA and Army. His drink was spiked, along with several others at the meeting, but Olson’s reaction was much more severe than most. He was jittery and distracted afterward. He had trouble sleeping and concentrating. He forgot how to spell. At some point between the drugging and his death, Olson blurted to his wife: "I've made a terrible mistake." Exactly what mistake, Alice Olson would never know.

Was Olson pushed or did he jump?

Olson’s family didn’t discover any other details about the scientist’s mysterious death until June 1975, more than 20 years later. Buried on page 37, deep inside The Rockefeller Commission’s 1975 report investigating illegal CIA activity - was a mention of an unnamed Army scientist who had been given LSD without his consent and died.

"As part of a program to test the influence of drugs on humans, research included the administration of LSD to persons who were unaware they were being tested. This was clearly illegal. One person died in 1953, apparently as a result,” the report concluded.

There was no other information. The brief mention of a 1953 death was a red flag, however. After consulting the CIA, the US Army confirmed that the ‘one person‘ was indeed Frank Olson. Within 10 days - and after many newspaper headlines - the Olson family found themselves seated in the Oval Office receiving a personal apology from President Gerald Ford for Olson’s wrongful death.

Within a year, the family accepted a $750,000 settlement and promised not to file a claim against the US government.

 

Project MKUltra and Frank Olson
President Gerald Ford apologized to the Olson family in 1975 


The second autopsy 

The agonizing questions may have ended then and there if Frank Olson’s sons, Eric and Nils, accepted the official version of events. Instead, they decided to exhume their father’s body in 1994 and organize a second autopsy. James E. Starrs, a professor of law and forensic science at George Washington University, found no evidence of murder during his investigation, however.

“We didn’t find any smoking gun,” Starrs said in November 1994. But he also didn’t find the ‘multiple cuts’ he’d anticipated if Frank Olson had - as the official version of events held - crashed through a closed hotel room window before plunging to his death.

"It's not inconceivable that someone could have broken the window after he went through to make it appear as if he had gone through a window as a crazy person would,” Starrs told the Associated Press, adding, "I'm skeptical that anyone could clear a radiator, a 31-inch high window sill, pass through a 3-by-5-foot window opening obscured by a drawn shade, all in the darkness of a hotel room at night.”

Project MKUltra and Frank Olson

Even more mysteriously, Olson wasn’t alone that evening in Manhattan's Statler Hilton Hotel (later renamed Hotel Pennsylvania). He’d been accompanied to New York by another CIA agent who police reportedly found in the room after Olson’s death, seated on the toilet with his head buried in his hands. The intelligence again told police he’d been sleeping and woke up when he heard a noise, according to The Guardian newspaper. 

“In all my years in the hotel business,” the Statler’s night manager later said, “I never encountered a case where someone got up in the middle of the night, ran across a dark room in his underwear, avoiding two beds, and dove through a closed window with the shade and curtains drawn.” 

Olson’s intelligence work

In the years that followed, there has been a slow drip of intelligence about the nature of Olson’s work. He was Acting Chief, Special Operations Division at Fort Detrick and liaison to the CIA’s Technical Services Staff, which was the CIA’s Research & Development unit. With his high-security clearance, Olson would have been aware of top-secret projects like Artichoke, another mind control program that involved extreme interrogation techniques.  

But why would anyone drug a trusted work colleague? The answer has remained elusive for six decades.

The evening in question was reportedly a get-together on 18 November, 1953 - a retreat at a cabin on Maryland’s Deep Creek Lake where CIA scientists from the technical services staff, which ran MKUltra, and Army scientists from the special operations division of the chemical corps, met in an informal setting, according to Stephen Kinzer, author of Poisoner and Chief.

A bottle of spiked Cointreau was produced and glasses were poured. After 20 minutes, it was apparent that the men were drugged with LSD. Olson appeared to be more deeply affected than most, however, to the extent that he was in New York seeking medical help when he plummeted out of the hotel window in the dead of night some 10 days later.

The Olson family were later told that Olson and others were given LSD as part of an experiment to see what would happen if a scientist were taken prisoner and drugged. Would he divulge secret research and information?

Project MKUltra and Frank Olson
Netflix's Wormwood is a six-part miniseries about the death of Frank Olson



Eric Olson never accepted that explanation, however. On August 8, 2002, Eric called reporters to his home to announce that he had reached a new conclusion about what had happened to his father.

“The death of Frank Olson on 28 November 1953 was a murder, not a suicide,” he declared. “Frank Olson did not die because he was an experimental guinea pig who experienced a ‘bad trip’. He died because of concern that he would divulge information concerning a highly classified CIA interrogation program in the early 1950s, and concerning the use of biological weapons.”

Without proof, however, Eric Olson’s suspicions will forever remain just that.

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