You may not have been there when they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, but chances are you’ve heard tell of that unbearably hot summer and the most infamous couple of spies in American history. What you may not have considered — what no one seems to consider, really — is that even those who are executed leave something behind, and in this case, the Rosenbergs left behind two little boys.
The Rosenberg kids were forced to pick up the pieces scattered by their parents’ notorious deaths, and what they discovered as adults sheds new light on the case everyone thinks has already been solved. Even a long-dead captured spy can have secrets.
On the radio, the Lone Ranger was surrounded by a posse of goons when the door to Michael’s apartment burst open. In a matter of seconds, the 1950 radio program turned to static, the police rushed into the living room, and Michael Rosenberg’s childhood was unceremoniously ended.
Like the Lone Ranger, Michael and Robert Rosenbergs’ parents were surrounded, but not by law-breaking goons. The radio program was over, but the boys’ bizarre new life was just beginning…and they had no idea just how weird it would get.
Theo Welling/Riverfront Times
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were accused of being Russian spies in the early days of the Cold War. Back then, everyone was a suspect: Your boss, your neighbor, even your best friend were feared as traitors in disguise.
Bridge of Spies/Walt Disney Studios/20th Century Fox
This paranoia was palpable, but not to everyone. As far as Michael and Robert knew, their parents were happy, normal people who drank coffee in the morning and listened to the radio in the evenings. Nothing about them said “Soviet spy.”
But the government didn’t agree. Julius and Ethel were indicted for 11 acts of espionage, and though they pleaded not guilty, they eventually found themselves strapped into the infamous electric chair in the summer of 1953.
The Arizona Daily Star
Whether they were truly guilty of their said-crimes didn’t matter. As soon as the possibility of Russian spies in New York was established, most of the public’s minds were made up: Julius and Ethel were guilty, yes, but so were the two people closest to them.
Michael and Robert’s only crime was that of association. “[It] was almost like being Osama bin Laden’s kids here after 9/11,” Robert claimed. No one, not even their own relatives, wanted to take the boys in. At seven and three years old, they were on their own.
So the boys were taken to the Hebrew Children’s Home in the Bronx as a last resort. Essentially an orphanage, it was a far cry from the coffee-scented apartment they knew. The only glimmer of hope the boys had was the orphanage’s mailbox.
Annual Report 1914 Hebrew Infant Asylum of New York
Every so often, Michael and Robert would receive letters from their parents in prison. “I’m sure that it won’t be long before you’ll get used to your new home,” Julius wrote Michael during the boys’ time in the orphanage. “Darling, don’t worry about a thing.”
But Michael had a lot to worry about. With his parents in Sing Sing prison and the news blasting condemning theories about his family every day, the next three years were filled with unsatisfying letters, glares from suspicious neighbors, and one unanswerable question.
Whenever they visited their parents in prison, the boys asked the same question: “Are you really innocent?” The Rosenbergs told them what they told everyone else: “Yes.” This assertion didn’t mean much then, however, and the boys always left the prison very much alone.
Roger Higgins/New York World-Telegram and the Sun/Library of Congress
But they wouldn’t be alone for long. Despite becoming social pariahs that even their own relatives avoided, the boys unknowingly had a small group of supporters on their side, and it wasn’t long before these supporters made themselves known.
Abel Meeropol, a public school English teacher and poet, was at a party in W.E.B. De Bois’s home when he saw Michael and Robert. He and his wife, Anne, obviously knew about the Rosenbergs, but unlike most people, they didn’t see them as traitors.
While many lived in fear of the Rosenbergs, others felt that the trial was just an easy way for the government to discourage progressive thinking and stoke the Red Scare. As one of this theory’s biggest supporters, Abel had a pretty big secret himself.
Aside from being the poet/songwriter behind one of the century’s biggest songs, “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday, Abel had another secret about his past that he chose to keep under wraps…and for good reason.
He was a former member of the Communist party, and knew very well that even a whisper of his one-time affiliation with the party could be deadly. But when he saw Michael and Robert, he and Anne knew they had to throw caution to the wind.
A few weeks later, the boys were living with Abel and Anne full time. “[Abel] was a real jokester,” Robert recalled. “He would put on these comedy shows that would leave me rolling.” They learned as Meeropols, sang as Meeropols, grew as Meeropols…
As the years went on, Michael and Robert started to shed the stereotypes brought on by the Rosenberg name. Even their parents’ execution day was a memory they were able to leave behind…until they were adults, that is.
As Meeropols, the boys were able to live in hiding. That changed as they got older, became college professors, and realized that their traumatizing past was too important to bury completely. That one question kept coming to the surface…
Were their parents innocent victims? Answering this question once and for all would mean revisiting the memories they tried so hard to bury. Were the Meeropols brothers ready to once again accept their Rosenberg lineage?
They had to know the truth, so together the brothers sued the CIA and FBI under the Freedom of Information Act. The truth, it turned out, lied within numerous heavy files…and the story wasn’t as simple as the boys had hoped it would be.
James Estrin/The New York Times
Julius Rosenberg was, in fact, a Soviet spy hidden in New York. Evidence showed that Julius was actually a recruiter of Soviet spies, and that the information they stole was directly related to American military technology. However, that’s where the story gets a little murky.
Michael and Robert strongly believe that though their father was guilty of espionage, the information he stole wasn’t vital. Jail time, sure, but the death sentence? That seemed like a stretch to them, and it only got worse when they investigated Ethel’s involvement.
The brothers don’t believe that Ethel did any spying or information-passing at all, and that the extent of her involvement was knowing small details about her husband’s job. The reason Ethel was also implicated went down to her own family.
Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, was an atomic spy for the Soviet Union who worked on the Manhattan Project. He was arrested along with Julius and Ethel, and he eventually claimed that Ethel typed up her husband’s notes, all but cementing his own sister’s fate.
Greenglass was never put to death, and decades later he took back the claims he made against the Rosenbergs. The damage was already done, but Michael and Robert are determined to reverse some of the damage, even if it won’t bring their parents back…
So in 2015, after years of trying to be heard, Michael and Robert called on President Obama to formally exonerate their mother of all charges. Her conviction and execution was wrong, they claim, and they have some pretty impressive people on their side.
Alan Heath/Rosenberg Fund for Children
In 2017, Senator Elizabeth Warren requested the White House to formally pardon Ethel Rosenberg. For now, the Rosenbergs are still villains in American history books, but who knows what could unfold. After all, Michael and Robert have seen stranger things happen before…
Alan Heath/Rosenberg Fund for Children
If the Rosenbergs are the most famous couple to be executed, then Jimmy Hoffa is the most famous man to vanish altogether. But before he was America’s most famous missing person, he was James Riddle Hoffa, an average kid who dropped out of school to support his family.
At 14, Hoffa got his first taste of union life, as the grocery chain he worked for paid little and subjected him to poor working conditions. Hoffa and his coworkers attempted to form a union, and, despite his age, he rose to a leadership position.
Conditions did not improve, however, and in 1932 he left the chain to pursue other union activities. Soon after, he was invited to become an organizer with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters’ Local 299 in Detroit.
From the start, Hoffa proved effective in consolidating local union trucker groups into regional sections, growing membership from 75,000 to 170,000 by 1936 and then to 420,000 in ’39. By 1951, the Teamsters union had topped one million members.
Jimmy Ellis / The Tennessean
Using such tactics a “quickie strikes” and solitary action amongst boycotting workers, Hoffa secured valuable contracts and grew the Teamsters into one of the most powerful unions in the country. Unfortunately, he wasn’t only relying on his business acumen to get the job done.
Library of Congress
To expand the Teamsters’ influence, Hoffa made accommodations and arrangements with several organized crime families, beginning with those in the Detroit area. As the union grew, so too did the mafia’s role in Teamster affairs.
Fred A. Plofchan / Detroit Free Press
Hoffa became president of Local 299 in December 1946, and after leading the combined group of Detroit-area locals for a time he was named head of the Michigan Teamsters. He then went on to become national vice-president of the Teamsters, further expanding his hold over the union.
The Detroit News
In 1957, Hoffa was named Teamster president, though his corrupt dealings and ongoing criminal investigations wound up costing the union a place in the greater AFL-CIO union federation. Still, Hoffa was reelected and eventually united all over-the-road truck drivers in North America under the National Master Freight Agreement.
Yet this wasn’t enough to save Hoffa from jail time, as in 1967 he was sentenced to 13 years in prison on charges of bribery, fraud, and conspiracy. Hoffa attempted to then control the Teamsters from prison, though his successor, Frank Fitzsimmons, soon cut off contact.
Jim Avellis / The Tribune Star
After just four years behind bars, Hoffa was commuted by President Richard Nixon under the condition that he could not pursue leadership of any union organization. Hoffa shirked this ruling, however, and by 1973 he was already planning to retake control of the Teamsters.
Unfortunately, Hoffa’s criminal indictments lost him much of his earlier support, and there was intense resistance from union heads against his new campaign. Yet his former union associates would prove to be the least of his worries.
Tony Spina / Detroit Free Press
Hoffa’s reassertion of power was viewed as a threat to many of his mob allies, as they believed his presence would interfere with the mafia’s control of the Teamster’s pension fund. And when rumors began spreading that he was cooperating with investigations against organized crime, his fate was sealed.
On July 30, 1975, Hoffa went missing after failing to return from a meeting with Anthony Provenzano and Anthony Giacalone, two known mafioso. State police and the FBI were called in to investigate the disappearance, and soon, Hoffa’s scent turned up in a car belonging to Giacalone’s brother.
Ira Rosenberg / Detroit Free Press
However, Provenzano and Giacalone denied ever meeting with Hoffa, and both men were found to be outside of the area that afternoon. Even after bugging and surveilling a number of high-ranking mobsters, authorities could find no significant proof that the mafia had been involved in Hoffa’s disappearance.
Wikimedia Commons / New York Post Archives
After seven years of searching, Hoffa was officially declared dead as of July 30, 1982. Since then, countless reports have surfaced to explain Hoffa’s fate, though experts believe that only a small handful have any real credibility.
It’s generally agreed upon that Hoffa was killed by the mob, though how, by whom, and the whereabouts of his remains are a subject of debate. One theory claimed that Hoffa was buried beneath the old Giants Stadium, though a ground-penetrating radar proved this to be a myth.
Another theory put forth by mob hitman Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski was that Hoffa’s body was placed in a 50-gallon drum, which was then set on fire, buried, dug up, compacted in a junkyard, and shipped to Japan as scrap metal. This belief is generally considered dubious by experts.
The most popular theory, which served as the plot of 2019’s The Irishman, is that Hoffa was murdered by Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, a mob hitman and longtime friend of Hoffa’s. His body was then cremated, leaving no traces behind.
Sheeran himself actually confessed to murdering Hoffa, claiming to have shot him twice in the head after bringing him to a house in Detroit. However, later DNA testing showed that the blood stains found in the home did not belong to Hoffa.
For now, Hoffa’s disappearance remains one of America’s most infamous cold cases, one that’s likely never to be solved. But while Hoffa’s mob connections likely cost him his life, he wasn’t the only 20th-century celebrity in way too deep with the criminal underworld.
NY Daily News
Hailed as one of the greatest entertainers of all time, Frank Sinatra was the kind of man every woman wanted and every man wanted to be (at least, that’s what they say). But behind his sharp style and million-dollar smile, some believed “Ol’ Blue Eyes” was actually more dangerous than he led on.
It all began in the 1940s when “Sinatramania” was running wild across America. Teenage girls flocked to the young crooner like moths to a flame, and in the midst of the hysteria, another group of individuals began following him just as closely: the FBI.
In the bureau’s mind, the kind of influence Sinatra could exert over an audience was dangerous, comparable to the blind devotion that WWII had made them all too familiar with. But this was just paranoia — after all, how dangerous could a singer really be?
The FBI attempted to shake their suspicions about Sinatra, but shortly after he was declared ineligible for the draft, a rumor spread that Sinatra had allegedly paid a doctor $40,000 to deem him unfit to serve. The bureau couldn’t ignore the whispers.
But after looking further into the tip, the FBI ultimately found that the reason for Sinatra’s exemption – a punctured eardrum and “psychological issues” – was legitimate. Still, something about the singer just didn’t sit right with the agency.
All About History
From very early on in his career, Sinatra associated with some very unsavory individuals, namely high-ranking members of the Mafia. Though Sinatra fervently denied being a mobster himself, his friendships painted an entirely different picture of a man so beloved.
Sam Giancana, the notorious leader of the Chicago Outfit, was one of the singer’s closest friends, and it was Sinatra who supposedly introduced him to then-senator John F. Kennedy in a bid to secure union votes for his presidency. Sinatra then worked gigs at Giancana’s nightclubs as payment for such favors.
Sinatra also introduced Kennedy to Judith Campbell Exner, Giancana’s girlfriend, who allegedly became one of JFK’s mistresses. She allegedly served as a liaison between Kennedy and Giancana during the CIA’s alleged plot to have the Mafia assassinate Cuban president Fidel Castro.
But Sinatra’s mob ties didn’t end there. FBI records give accounts of gifts from Chicago gambling bosses Joseph and Charles Fischetti (below), and Sinatra even performed at an Atlantic City club on behalf of Philadelphia mobster Angelo Bruno. His own godfather, Willie Moretti, exerted pressure to get him out of a 1951 contract.
All the while, the FBI was keeping tabs on Sinatra’s every move, including his frequent rendezvous with Detroit mobsters Anthony and Vito Giacalone. The evidence they collected didn’t look great for the singer.
“It was like clockwork,” recalled retired FBI agent Sam Ruffino. “A few times a year, we’d trail the Giacalones to the airport to pick up Sinatra. They’d spend the weekend together socializing before and after his shows.”
“Almost every night, [the police] shut the place down,” Ruffino continued. “And he didn’t make any apologies for it. Those were his friends. The fact that they were known hoodlums and murderers didn’t matter to him. He didn’t care, he was going to hang around with who he wanted to hang around with.”
Only the FBI seemed to care, however, until word got out that he had attended the infamous Havana Conference in Cuba alongside the Fischettis and Lucky Luciano. Then, newspapers across the country printed headlines condemning the singer and his actions.
Still, Sinatra was never charged with criminal behavior, though his mob ties weren’t the only thing the government perceived as a threat. The FBI’s file on Sinatra is filled with additional accounts of “suspicious activity,” most of which revolved around his political sympathies.
Sinatra was an outspoken supporter of liberal policies and publicly condemned systematic racism and discrimination. His close association with JFK was also viewed as suspicious, and some in Washington even accused Sinatra of having ties to Communism.
Indeed, Sinatra defended individuals accused of being Communist, especially those in Hollywood. He helped found the Committee for the First Amendment, a group that supported writers and directors who were blacklisted during the Red Scare.
But Sinatra’s file didn’t solely serve as a means to build a criminal case against him. The FBI also kept records of the threats of extortion, blackmail, and violence made against him and was integral in advising him after his son, Frank Sinatra Jr., was kidnapped in 1963.
All along, however, Sinatra knew the FBI was watching him, and in both 1979 and 1980, the singer received copies of his file through the Freedom of Information Act. Though nothing ever came of the file, it speaks volumes about the lengths the government was willing to go to put Sinatra behind bars.
“Sinatra’s FBI dossier reveals a dismaying situation,” historian Gerald Meyer wrote in 2002. “At no time does it contain anything that even hints at an activity disallowed by the Bill of Rights.”
Despite this fact, the FBI kept Sinatra’s file open for nearly five decades, closing it only upon his death in 1998. During this time, the bureau amassed a staggering 2,403 pages on every word he spoke and move he made, making him truly famous ’til the end.