William Morgan: Comandante of the Carnival

I stumbled across the crazy story of William Morgan (1928-61) because he was once a carnival sword swallower and married a snake charmer named Terese Bethel. And as a teenager he had run away from home and joined the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus as an elephant minder. These are enough to make anybody interesting in my book. But it turns out these relatively mild illustrations of Morgan’s taste for adventure are the tip of the ice berg.

Morgan was from an affluent suburb of Toledo, Ohio and boasted of being a descendent of the murdered anti-Freemason activist with the same name. He was thrown out of several high schools, and eventually dropped out, taking a succession of odd jobs, and getting nabbed for armed robbery at age 16. At 18 he joined the army and was stationed in Japan, where he went AWOL, was caught and put under guard, then escaped, and was subsequently sent to federal prison and dishonorably discharged.

In the ’50s, Morgan became a gun runner, a line of work which eventually drew him into the Cuban Revolution. He was one of only two dozen American nationals to fight for Fidel Castro. By 1957 he was leading the Second National Front of the Escambray and had attained the coveted rank of Comandante. He achieved many military victories and was known as “El Americano” and the Yankee Commmando. In public statements to American press he painted himself as a freedom fighter and insisted that Castro was not a communist. Once the Revolution was successful, he settled down and (this is quite true) started a frog farm, shipping frozen frog legs to the U.S. But when Castro began to show his true colors, nationalizing industries, seizing private property, curbing human rights, and alligning with the Soviet Union, this natural rebel was vocally defiant. In 1961, Castro responded by having him put against a wall and shot. It was one month prior to the Bay of Pigs debacle, which he could well have been useful in on the counterrevolutionary side.

Morgan was one of those shady soldiers of fortune, much like Lee Harvey Oswald, whom it is impossible to categorize, in league sometimes with gangsters, sometimes with leftists. (In fact, Oswald cited Morgan as a personal hero). Some speculate that Morgan was CIA the whole time, since there are large stretches of his life, dating back to his army days, that can’t be accounted for. He married and discarded several wives all over the world throughout his adulthood, including the snake charmer we mentioned above.

Coincidentally, today also happens to be the day that 89 year old Raoul Castro is stepping down from power after 20 years, ending 62 years of Castro rule in that troubled country. This year also marks 60 years since Morgan’s political execution. May the freedom Morgan thought he was fighting for finally come to pass!