Adlai Stevenson Shooting A Girl: Tragedy Shapes A Personality
Adlai Stevenson is almost inevitably referred to as an “apostle of peace.”
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, he was one of the leading voices of those who were trying to avoid war. So great was his cautious desire for peace that he seemed weak to many contemporaries.
Hidden very deep in the Stevenson family history – and deep in the recesses of his mind – was a secret so stark, a tragedy so terrible, that he almost never spoke of it. He was shocked when he found out years later that his wife had heard of it. He never discussed it with his children. One member of his family told me the only way he really learned of it was through Jean Baker’s excellent book “The Stevensons.”
Adlai Stevenson shot and killed a 16 year old girl. He was a boy of 12. The incident haunted him forever.
Some of the details of that horrible night are clear. Others were shrouded in denial and self protection. What we do know is that on the evening of December 30, 1912, Adlai’s sister, Buffie, had invited guests to a supper party. Adlai, being younger, had eaten earlier and gone to his room.
He watched the party for a time from the periphery. The teens enjoyed music, dancing and games.
At one point, a popular fellow named Robert Whitmer offered to demonstrate the manual of arms he had learned at military school. Adlai scurried to find a gun and watched the demonstration with fascination. Whitmer carefully checked to make sure the gun was not loaded and proceeded – to applause and admiration – to show the skills he had mastered. When he finished, young Adlai went to put the gun away. It was then that he shot and killed Ruth Merwin, a guest and close friend of his sister.
Despite a roomful of witnesses, exactly what happened next is unclear. This is understandable on two levels. First, very few (if any) of the guests would have been paying attention to Adlai as he left the room. They would have been distracted by their resumed conversations, the food and music. Second, Adlai never spoke about it nor was he called as a witness at the inquest. All agree it was completely accidental. Ruth Merwin’s mother responded in a gracious, compassionate manner, insisting that two lives not be lost.
Some accounts state that Adlai was mimicking the manual of arms when an undetected round was dislodged by the handling of the gun and was discharged when a rusty spring moved it into the chamber. Other accounts had Adlai aiming the gun (which he believed to be empty and safe) from the balcony. A formal inquest was held. The jury found the incident to be a horrible accident.
Ruth Merwin was buried.
Adlai, too consumed by grief, did not attend the funeral. His sister did. His mother whisked him away, out of town.
Since he was the grandson of a former Vice President, the New York Times reported the story.
His family simply never spoke of it. Within a short time, Adlai was writing a letter to his father which, at least superficially, reflected a happy mind. Was it denial or sublimation?
What affect did Adlai Stevenson shooting Ruth Merwin have on his personality and his psychological development? The question is tantalizing. Because he almost never spoke of it, it is hard to determine a conclusive answer. When William Glascow, a reporter for Time Magazine, asked Stevenson about it some forty years later, Stevenson reported: “You know, you are the first person who has ever asked me about that since it happened-and this is the first time I have ever spoken of it to anyone.”
Stevenson spent a lifetime consumed with feelings of unworthiness, was known to be self deprecating to a fault, was extremely cautious and did all he could to avoid violence or bloodshed. Some of these patterns were visible before the death of Ruth Merwin. However, such a tragic event as Adlai Stevenson shooting a girl would no doubt deeply affect an adolescent mind.
Editors note: Do you know what Presidents have killed someone? Click here for the answer.