Using a combination of interviews with key figures and scenes recreated by actors, Netflix's new series Wormwood promises to tell a tense, compelling story that may not provide as many answers as its viewers hope for. It explores the events that led to the death of Frank Olson (portrayed by Peter Sarsgaard) and his connection to the CIA. But was Frank Olson from Wormwood based on a real person, or has the show managed to create some very convincing fiction?
Though the show is hardly a documentary, Frank Olson was indeed a real person. He was a bacteriologist for the United States Army, but worked with the CIA in the 1950s while they were in the midst of a project called MKUltra. In official testimony from 1977 excerpted by Smithsonian Magazine, CIA director Stansfield Turner described MKUltra as a study of "the use of biological and chemical materials in altering human behavior." It became popularly known as an attempt to achieve mind control through drugs (specifically LSD) that were allegedly tested on human subjects unknowingly.
According to an agency officer quoted in The New York Times obituary of Sidney Gottlieb (the man who brought LSD to the CIA in the first place), most of those subjects were "people who could not fight back." Patients, prisoners, addicts, and sex workers were reportedly targeted, but Olson was believed to be another of those unwitting subjects and given a dose of LSD without his prior knowledge or consent. Just over a week later, he had plunged through a hotel window in New York and fallen to his death.
Though Olson's death was originally ruled a suicide, once his connection with the CIA and MKUltra became public knowledge in the 1970s, people began to suspect something else might have occurred. Olson's wife Alice and son Eric, in particular, sought answers, and in 1975, a commission headed by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller led to revelations about illicit CIA behavior. According to The New York Times, an article in The Washington Post revealed that "a civilian employee of the Department of the Army unwittingly took LSD as part of a Central Intelligence Agency test" and later "developed serious side effects."
Eric and his mother confirmed that the account was indeed about his Frank Olson, according to The Observer. His family sued the government for wrongful death, for which they were awarded a $750k settlement. They also received an apology from President Ford and an invitation to the White House, as well as CIA documents intended to illuminate what happened. But despite that, they were not satisfied with the explanations for Olson's strange death.
In the 1980s, Eric returned to his father's room in the Statler Hotel and had what was described in an interview with The New York Times as a "revelation." He believed that the room was too small and the window too high for Olson to have been able to take a running jump through the glass. When his doubts persisted for another decade, Eric had his father's body exhumed. The examinations that followed indicated that Olson had sustained injuries before his fall that included a blow to the head.
Some believed that that may have been caused by Olson's head hitting the window frame as he jumped, but others were less sure. One of the theories that emerged was that Olson was murdered, perhaps because of what he may have witnessed on a visit to biological and chemical weapons research facilities in Europe. According to another article in The New York Times, a 2012 lawsuit filed by the Olson family alleged that Frank Olson "witnessed extreme interrogations, some resulting in deaths, in which the CIA experimented with biological agents that he had helped develop."
When Olson seemed to have doubts about this and expressed a desire to leave his job, it may have put him in a dangerous position — at least according to the lawsuit. Others speculate that it was the aftereffects of the LSD that altered his mindset and contributed to a decision to jump. There is no way to know the truth of what happened to Olson that night in his hotel room, but Wormwood seeks to explore the possibilities.
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