Was Ron being blackmailed?

Our recent discussions about Ron’s finances, loans, and faculty co-signers on those loans reminded me of something this morning: a letter that Ron’s father had written to Ron back in the fall of Ron’s sophomore year. Mr. Tammen wrote the letter on September 19, 1952—a Friday. Although his handwriting is beautifully legible, a remnant of days gone by, I’ve typed it out for you here:

19 Sept. 1952

Dear Ron: —

We have been waiting more or less to hear from you, but realize that you must be extremely busy not only with your studies, but also with your other activities: — such as, counselor and the Owls.

Mom picked up your checks today so we thought we would forward them as quickly as possible so you could get your “Savings Account” started. We are going along with you on this deal as we feel you are old enough and should have the experience of handling your own money. We hope you will be wise and remember that practically all of it will have to be used for next semester.

I am retaining your check stubs for your tax purposes, but will put down exactly what the stub shows:

All in all, it was slightly more than you expected and you were paid for that day.

When you do find time to write, please give us a brief on expenses and expenditures.



Mr. Tammen seemed to have a question concerning the dates of Ron’s bus-washing services. In addition, written in pencil at the bottom in the left-hand column is the following:

When I first read his letter, I was struck by how parental it sounded, but not in a warm way. It felt formal. The sentence that stood out most was the one about Ron being paid for that day, underlined twice. What could have happened at his city job that was so terrible, Mr. Tammen didn’t even want to put it in writing? Did Ron roll a truck? Did he get into a fistfight with another bus washer? The mind reeled. I tried to find out—I really did. I asked Ron’s siblings if they remembered some incident that happened to Ron at work that summer, and no one had any idea. I contacted the City of Maple Heights to see if they still had an employment record for Ron, but they didn’t. I visited the city’s museum where they store boxes of old books and city papers to see if his employment record might have been there. It wasn’t. 

The rest of the letter didn’t interest me that much. It sounded like Ron was just trying to become more independent by handling his own finances, which only seemed fair. Ron was responsible for putting himself through college, just like his two brothers, John and Richard. Mr. Tammen wasn’t contributing a dime to his education. I filed the letter and didn’t think much more about it. 

Until today.

Several things stand out for me in light of what we now know:

First, the “Savings Account” that Mr. Tammen alludes to in the letter wasn’t mentioned by Mr. Shera of the Oxford National Bank when he wrote to Carl Knox about the $87.25 balance he’d mailed to Miami’s bursar. Mr. Shera calls it a “commercial account,” singular, and we already know that Ron was writing checks. I don’t think Ron had a savings account—I think it was just checking. In addition, a “commercial account” is defined as a business account where funds are readily accessible, as with a checking account. According to his brother John, in addition to playing with the Campus Owls, Ron was known to manage gigs on the side. Perhaps this is the reason his account is referred to as commercial? Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer.

Second, Mr. Tammen’s last sentence, where he’s requesting a “brief on expenses and expenditures” is telling. He seems like a micromanager and, I’ll say it, a bit of a pain. With Ron taking over his own finances, perhaps he thought he could somehow avoid his father’s scrutinizing every little expenditure. This could be Ron’s way of making sure that Mr. Tammen didn’t know about every single check he wrote.

And that’s when it occurred to me. Perhaps Ron wasn’t seeking to manage his own finances so that he could expedite adulthood. Maybe he wanted to keep some expenses hidden from his father. 

But what expenses? Ron was so busy working, he barely had time to spend his money. Nevertheless, he was always in need of money.

Here’s where my head is right now: blackmail.

Several of you have suggested this possibility and I think you may be right. Think about it: Ron’s freshman year at Miami went fairly well, but his sophomore year was pretty much a bust from the get-go. Even beginning that first semester, he started to drop courses and was no longer considered full-time. He was always working and his grades were slipping.

During the summer of 1952, Ron was working for the City of Maple Heights doing a number of assorted jobs. Could it be that sometime during that summer, Ron and another male were caught in a tryst and the witness decided to make it lucrative? Maybe the blackmailer said that he could be paid on the installment plan.

So how might this have played out: At the beginning of the fall semester, Ron asks his father to let him handle his own finances. That way, his dad wouldn’t know about any checks Ron might have written to his newfound “friend.”

He struggles to make it work, again taking on jobs and securing loans. Perhaps he even volunteered for the Psychology Department’s hypnosis study, both to make some money as well as to see if they could change him somehow, to prevent this situation from happening again.

When Ron went home during spring break, however, something happened. Maybe he saw his blackmailer and the person upped his amount. Whatever happened, when Ron returned to school the following week, people noticed a change in Ron’s behavior. According to Carl Knox’s notes, he was seen reading the Bible 5 or 6 times, and, he “spoke of being ‘tired lately’ since vacation.”

He was in a crisis. Someone may have been threatening to out him if he didn’t pay up, and he was way over his head in debt. Crazy as it sounds, this could have been what brought the CIA to his rescue.

A couple other thoughts:

I’m not sure who penciled in the calculations at the bottom of Mr. Tammen’s letter. It may have been Ron, though, based on another note page, the numbers appear to match those made by Carl Knox. 

It amazes me that Ron had held onto his father’s letter for so long and that the university was able to obtain it. In addition, Carl Knox’s penciled-in notes asking “Did he owe Univ any money?” or telling himself to “Follow up re Check Book” clearly show that the university found Ron’s money issues to be as interesting as we do. 

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1 year ago

I was recently thinking about this letter and wondered of it may be a bit of a red herring. Blackmail is certainly a possibility, but then I thought about what all people, especially those who desperately needs money, are prone to – scams. Maybe not even a scam per say, but a really bad “investment opportunity”. So suppose he was approached by some entrepreneurial sort who convinces him they have a great business opportunity. Maybe when he told his manager or whomever it was he didn’t have any money they suggested he work for a day and they’d take it out of his pay.

My own dad almost went ballistic when I went to what was supposed to be a summer job interview in college and turned out to be a cattle call for that knife MLM Cutco, so I imagine Mr. Tammen would be exceptionally displeased if Ron did something like this, but perhaps also realize the only way he’d learn to be fiscally responsible was to start managing his own money. But I’m also thinking college kids can be kind of stupid, no matter how responsible they also are. I was pissed externally that my father forbid me from selling knives when I couldn’t get any other job, but internally I was mad actually upset at myself for almost falling for the scam. Maybe Ron doubled down on his scam trying to prove it was legit. That, plus all his jobs and classes, extracurricular activities, and probably trying to pass for straight, not to mention the general atmosphere of the United States in 1952-53, made him ripe pickings for whomever.

1 year ago
Reply to  jwenger

Yeah, it seems like the part of the 5000 piece puzzle your dog ate but you didn’t know it was gone until it’s almost done- nice to have, frustrating to look for, but doesn’t change anything overall.

And you know I love me some podcasts; one I enjoy occasionally is Scam Goddess, and the host makes a point of saying everyone is vulnerable to some kind of con at some point in time. I also recently listened to a Behind the Bastards podcast 6-parter on Henry Kissinger, whom one could argue is the greatest political conman of the 20th century, and even he was scammed by Elizabeth Holmes. Which got me to thinking of the guy who invested in Mark Zuckerburg’s first misogynistic iteration of FB and whose dad told him not to involve himself with Mark after they got in trouble, and well….

Also no point in overly complicating the whole disappearance, which is extraordinary in itself, by adding blackmail. Definitely a possibility, since there are so many moving parts to the whole saga, but blackmail’s a risky venture since you have no guarantees the victim will comply with demands. And again, it may not even have been a scam necessarily, but maybe an earnest person with no business plan needing capitol.

Stevie J
Stevie J
3 years ago

Yes, there was no question of the blackmail possibilities. If a person doesn’t appreciate that, look into how the British Intelligence agencies in the 50’s were obsessed with worries about it.

Not a bad point about Richard. I’ll take that under advisement.

Stevie J
Stevie J
3 years ago

Wow, “that” day…..the imagination runs wild. Alas, we’ll never know.

As for blackmail, it sort of fits, although I lean toward no. Can you imagine trying to blackmail a struggling college student with no money? The payoff ain’t worth the risk. A few dollars hardly seems worth the cost of committing a federal crime, making yourself a target for violent reprisal, all the complications. I’m selling. But maybe.

As for how it fits in the big picture, it would seem if it happened, it would make Ron desperate to find any way out. While if Ron was all in with the CIA and/or MK Ultra, it’d make sense to leave everything behind, it doesn’t seem reasonable to leave everything behind when you’ve been a victim of someone trying to take every extra penny/possession you have. I don’t know. In the big picture, I’m a lot skeptical.