By Joe Hansen
81 years since the assassination of León Trotsky, we published a first hand account by Joe Hansen, personal secretary of the Russian revolutionary in Mexico, who captured and interrogated the GPU assassin Ramón Mercader before he was apprehended by the Mexican police.
Since the May 24 machine-gun attack by the GPU on Trotsky’s bedroom, the house at Coyoacan had been converted into a virtual fortress. The guard was increased, more heavily armed. Bullet proof doors and windows were installed. A redoubt was constructed with bomb-proof ceilings and floors. Double steel doors, controlled by electric switches, replaced the old wooden entrance where Robert Sheldon Harte had been surprised and kidnapped by the GPU assailants. Three new bullet-proof towers dominated not only the patio but the surrounding neighborhood. Barbed wire entanglements and bomb-proof nets were being prepared.
All this construction had been made possible through the sacrifices of the sympathizers and members of the Fourth International, who did their utmost to protect Trotsky, knowing that it was absolutely certain that Stalin would attempt another and more desperate assault after the failure of the May 24 attack. The Mexican government, which alone of all the nations on the earth had offered asylum to Trotsky in 1937, tripled the number of police guards on duty outside the house, doing everything in its power to safeguard the life of the world’s most noted exile.
Only the form of the coming attack was unknown. Another machine gun assault with an increased number of assailants? Bombs? Sapping? Poisoning?
August 20, 1940
I was on the roof near the main guard tower with Charles Cornell and Melquiades Benitez. We were connecting a powerful siren with the alarm system for use when the GPU attacked again. Late in the afternoon, between 5:20 and 5:30, Jacson, known to us as a sympathizer of the Fourth International and as the husband of Sylvia Ageloff, former member of the Socialist Workers Party, drove up in his Buick sedan. Instead of parking it with the radiator facing the house, as was his usual custom, he made a complete turn in the street, parking the car parallel to the wall, nose pointed towards Coyoacan. When he got out of the car, he waved to us on the roof and shouted, “Has Sylvia arrived yet?”
We were somewhat surprised. We did not know that Trotsky had made an appointment with Sylvia and Jacson, but ascribed our lack of knowledge of such an appointment to an oversight by Trotsky, something not uncommon on his part in such matters.
“No.” I responded to Jacson: “wait a moment.” Cornell then operated the electrical controls on the double doors and Harold Robins received the visitor in the patio. Jacson won a raincoat across his arm. It was the rainy season, and although the sun was shining, heavy clouds massed over the mountains to the southwest threatened a downpour.
Trotsky was in the patio feeding the rabbits and chickens – his way of obtaining light exercise in the confined life he was forced to follow. We expected that as was his usual custom, Trotsky would not enter the house until he had finished with the feeding or until Sylvia had arrived. Robins was in the patio. Trotsky was not in the habit of seeing Jacson alone.
Melquiades, Cornell and I continued with our work. During the next ten or fifteen minutes I sat in the main tower writing the names of the guards on white labels to be affixed to the switches connecting their rooms with the alarm system.
A fearful cry wrent the afternoon calm – a cry prolonged and agonized, half scream, half sob. It dragged me to my feet, chilled to the bone. I ran from the guard-house out onto the roof. An accident to one of the ten workers who were remodeling the house? Sounds of violent struggle came from the Old Man’s study, and Melquiades was pointing a rifle at the window below. Trotsky, in his blue work jacket became visible there for a moment, fighting body to body with someone.
“Don’t shoot!” I shouted to Melquiades, “you might hit the Old Man!” Melquiades and Cornell stayed on the roof, covering the exits from the study. Switching on the general alarm, I slid down the ladder into the library. As I entered the door connecting the library with the dining room the Old Man stumbled out of his study a few feet away blood streaming down his face.
“See what they have done to me!” he said.
At the same moment Harold Robins came through the north door of the dining room with Natalia following. Throwing her arms frantically about him, Natalia took Trotsky out on to the balcony. Harold and I had made for Jacson, who stood in the study gasping, face knotted, arms limp, automatic pistol dangling in his hand. Harold was closer to him. “You take care of him,” I said, “I’ll see what’s happened to the Old Man.” Even as I turned, Robins brought the assassin down to the floor.
Trotsky staggered back into the dining room, Natalia sobbing, trying to help him. “See what they have done.” she said. As I put my arm about him, the Old Man collapsed near the dining room table.
The wound on his head appeared at first glance to be superficial. I had heard no shot. Jacson must have struck with some instrument. “What happened?” I asked the Old Man.
“Jackson shot me with a revolver; I am seriously wounded … I feel that this time it is the end.” “It’s only a surface wound. You will recover,” I tried to reassure him.
“We talked about French statistics,” responded the Old Man.
“Did he hit you from behind?” I asked.
Trotsky did not answer.
“No he did not shoot you,” I said; “we didn’t hear any shot. He struck you with something.”
Trotsky looked doubtful; pressed my hand. Between the sentences we exchanged, he talked with Natalia in Russian. He touched her hand continually to his lips.
I scrambled back up to the roof, shouted to the police across the wall; “Get an ambulance!” I told Cornell and Melquiades: “it’s an assault – Jacson …” MY wrist watch read at that moment ten minutes to six.
Again I was at the Old Man’s side, Cornell with me. Without waiting for the ambulance from the city, we decided that Cornell should go for Dr. Dutren, who lived nearby, and who had attended the family on previous occasions. Since our car was locked up in the garage behind double doors, Cornell decided to take Jacson’s car standing in the street.
As Cornell left the room, sounds of renewed struggle came from the study where Robins was holding Jacson.
“Tell the boys not to kill him,” the Old Man said, “he must talk”.
I left Trotsky with Natalia, and entered the study. Jacson was trying desperately to escape from Robins. His automatic pistol lay on the table nearby. On the floor was a bloodspattered instrument which looked to me like a prospector’s pick, but with the backside hammered out like a pick-axe. I joined in the struggle with Jacson, hitting him in the mouth and on the jaw below the ear, breaking my hand.
As Jacson regained consciousness, he moaned; “They have imprisoned my mother … Sylvia Ageloff had nothing to do with this … No, it was NOT the GPU; I have NOTHING to do with the GPU …” He placed heavy stress on the words which would separate him from the GPU, as if he had suddenly remembered that the script of his role called here for a loud voice. But he had already betrayed himself. When Robins brought the assassin down, Jacson had evidently believed it was his last moment. He had writhed in terror; words he could not control had escaped from his lips: “They MADE me do it.” He had told the truth. The GPU had made him do it.
Cornell burst into the study. “The keys aren’t in his car.” He tried to find the keys in Jacson’s clothing but without success. While he searched, I ran out to open the garage doors. In a few seconds Cornell was on his way with our car.
We waited for Cornell to return – Natalia and I kneeling at the Old Man’s side, holding his hands. Natalia had wiped the blood from his face and placed a block of ice against his head, which was already swelling.
“He hit you with a pick,” I told the Old Man. “He did not shoot you. I am sure it is only a surface wound.”
“No,” he responded, “I feel here ”(indicating his heart) “that this time they have succeeded.”
I tried to reassure him, “No, it’s only a surface wound; you’ll get better.
But the Old Man only smiled faintly with his eyes. He understood …
“Take care of Natalia. She has been with me many, many years.” He pressed my hand as he gazed at her. He seemed to be drinking in what her features were like, as if he were leaving her forever – in these fleeting seconds compressing all the past into a last glance.
“We will,” I promised. My voice seemed to flash among the three of us the understanding that this was really the end. The Old Man pressed our hands convulsively, tears suddenly in his eyes. Natalia cried brokenly, bending over him, kissing his hand.
When Dr. Dutren arrived, the reflexes on the Old Man’s left side were already failing. A few moments later the ambulance came and the police entered the study to drag out the assassin.
Natalia did not wish to let the Old Man be taken to a hospital – it was in a hospital in Paris that their son, Leon Sedov, was killed only two years ago. For a moment or two Trotsky himself, lying stricken on the floor, felt doubtful.
“We will go with you,” I told him.
“I leave it to your decision,” he told me, as if he were now turning everything over to those about him, as if all the days of making decisions were now gone.
Before we placed the Old Man on a stretcher, he again whispered: “I want everything I own to go to Natalia.” Then with a voice that tugged unendurably at all the deepest and most tender feelings in the friends kneeling at his side … “You will take care of her …”
Natalia and I made the sad ride with him to the hospital. His right hand wandered over the sheets covering him, touched the water basin near his head, found Natalia. Already the streets were jammed with people, all the workers and the poor lining the way as the ambulance sirened behind a squadron of motorcycle police through the traffic on its way to the center of the city. Trotsky whispered, pulling me down insistently near his lips so that I should not fail to hear:
“He was a political assassin. Jacson was a member of the GPU or a fascist. Most likely the GPU.” Impressions of Jacson were going through the Old Man’s mind. In the few words left to him, he was telling me the course he thought should be followed in our analysis of the assault, on the basis of the facts already in our possession: – Stalin’s GPU is guilty but we must leave open the possibility that they were aided by Hitler’s Gestapo. He did not know that Stalin’s calling card in the form of a “confession” was in the assassin’s pocket.
The Last Hours
At the hospital, the most prominent doctors in Mexico gathered in consultation.
The Old Man, exhausted, wounded to death, eyes almost closed, looked in my direction from the narrow hospital bed, moved his right hand feebly. “Joe, you … have … notebook?” How many times he had asked me this same question! – but in vigorous tones, with the subtle innuendo he enjoyed at our expense about “American efficiency.” Now his voice was thick, words scarcely distinguishable. He spoke with great effort, fighting against the encroaching darkness. I leaned against the bed. His eyes seemed to have lost all that quick flash of mobile intelligence so characteristic of the Old Man. His eyes were fixed, Is if no longer aware of the outside world, and yet I felt his enormous will power holding away the extinguishing darkness, refusing to concede to his foe until he had accomplished one last task. Slowly, haltingly, he dictated, choosing the words of his last message to the working class painfully in English, a language that was foreign to him. On his death-bed he did not let himself forget that his secretary spoke no Russian!
“I am close to death from the blow of a political assassin … struck me down in my room. I struggled with him … we … entered … talk about French statistics … he struck me … Please say to our friends … I am sure … of the victory … of the Fourth International … Go forward.”
He tried to talk more; but the words were incomprehensible. His voice died away, the tired eyes closed. He never regained consciousness. This was about two and a half hours after the blow was struck.
An x-ray picture was taken of the wound and the doctors decide that an immediate operation was necessary. The surgeon in charge of the hospital performed the delicate work of trepanning in the presence of leading Mexican specialists and the family doctors. They discovered that the pick-axe had penetrated seven centimeters, destroying considerable brain tissue. Some of these doctors declared the case absolutely hopeless. Others gave the Old Man a fighting chance.
For more than twenty-two hours after the operation, despair alternated with the desperate hope that he would survive. In the United States friends arranged to send a world famous brain specialist, Dr. Walter E. Dandy of Johns Hopkins, by airplane. Hour after agonized hour we listened to the Old Man’s heavy breathing as he lay on the hospital bed. With his head shaved and bandaged he bore a startling resemblance to Lenin. We thought of the days when they had led the first victorious working class revolution. Natalia refused to leave the room, refused food, watched dry-eyed, hands clenched, knuckles white, as the hours passed one by one during that long, horrible night and the endless following day. The reports of the doctors noted favorable signs, an occasional improvement, and up until the very last, we still felt that somehow this man who had survived the Czar’s prisons, exiles, three revolutions, the Moscow trials, would survive this unspeakably treacherous blow of Stalin.
But the Old Man was over sixty years old. He had been in ill health for a number of months. At 7:25 p.m. on August 21, he entered the final crisis. The doctors worked for twenty minutes, utilizing all the scientific methods at their disposal, but not even adrenalin could revive the great heart and mind which Stalin had destroyed with a pick-axe.
Originally published in Fourth International Vol. 1 Num. 5 on octubre of 1940.