The archivist and the Unabomber, featuring Julie Herrada
Listen in Michigan — Episode 57 — The archivist and ‘the Unabomber,’ featuring Jullie Herrada
WHIT JOHNSON: ABC NEWS REPORT re: Death of Ted Kaczynski…
DEBORAH HOLDSHIP: Hi, I’m Deborah Holdship, editor of Michigan Today
You just heard the voice of ABC News’ Whit Johnson on a June 10, 2023, broadcast announcing the death of Ted Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber. He was 81.
Kaczynski died while serving overlapping life sentences for a 17-year bombing campaign. He often targeted academics, including a Michigan psychology professor in 1985. An academic himself, Kaczynski had completed his master’s and his PhD right here in Ann Arbor and in 1971 was on an upward trajectory on the UC-Berkeley faculty, before dropping out of society and into the Montana woods.
His first bomb arrived at Northwestern University in 1978, and by 1995, Kaczynski had killed three people and maimed or injured 23 others in 16 explosions.
He eluded authorities for almost 20 years, but in 1996, the Unabomber finally explained himself by sending a 35,000-word manifesto titled “Society and its Future,” to the FBI. The angry diatribe is strangely prescient – warning about the dangers of technology on modern society. He told the feds he would end the bombings if the manifesto were published in a national news outlet. Once Kaczynski’s brother read the news, he called the FBI. The editorial voice – not to mention the anti-technology screed – had struck a familiar chord.
Well, the brother wasn’t the only one who heard something familiar in that manifesto. Julie Herrada, curator of the Joseph Antoine Labadie Collection in the U-M Library’s Special Collections, identified themes she often pursues for her work: leftwing political movements, social protest movements, primitivist movements, anarchism, and more. Labadie was a Detroit labor organizer who donated his materials to U-M in 1911 and Kaczynski’s work fit into the scope of the collection.
It took two years of correspondence, but by 1999, Herrada had secured a signed gift agreement. For as heinous as his acts were, Kaczynski made a wise choice in trusting her. It doesn’t take long to understand how trustworthy, how patient, and how committed this historian is to preserving and protecting knowledge – however controversial — for future scholars.
JULIE HERRADA: Well. It started with the manifesto, of course. That’s the kind of thing that I would collect for the Labad Collection. If it had just been anybody’s manifesto, the the ideas that it discussed in that paper and then all of the other people that were talking about that in other radical presses and conversations that I would hear. There was a lot of interest in it.
DH: And at this point, we knew it was his, right?
JH: At this point, we knew it was his. I think shortly after it was published, they did, you know, figure it out. Yeah.
DH: And then you just decided to start reaching out to him like…?
JH: Well, he got arrested and then we knew who he was. He had a name and. But I didn’t quite know how to approach him because he was in jail. He was in the Sacramento County Jail at that time. But I did know his lawyer ‘s name because she was in the paper all the time about this case and she’s pretty famous lawyer too. So I just found her address and I sent her a letter. And that’s how it started.
DH: And then were you keen to the fact that he was replying? Or was it a surprise when you received an envelope back from him?
JH: It was a surprise because I didn’t hear from her first, I heard from him first, so she had passed my letter on to him and he responded.
DH: What goes through your mind when you see that?
JH: I was like Uh-oh
DH: Uh-oh, because….?
JH: What have I started? You know, what is, what is this letter? What is what is he sending me?
My supervisor at that time was really supportive and helpful through this process and so she helped me. We sat down and formulated a letter.
And he kept everything down to like, the basic this is the this is what I need to say to you. Yes. And I need to hear back from you about this. And that was easy enough. Yeah. You know, no chit chat, no, no talking about his case in any way. No questions. Except for the basic ones that he needed to know from me. Yeah. So yeah, it wasn’t that hard.
DH: I think it’s interesting, like sometimes when you have ephemera from someone long gone. A letter perhaps, and you’re holding it going, wow, this person really wrote this like I’m holding the actual paper. Well, how is that when the person is still alive?
JH: I mean, I was kind of used to things like that at that point, but this was very, very relevant and current.
DH: Yes, and that’s unusual probably, isn’t it for you?
JH: Yeah, most of the things I handle are, you know, from people long dead. But, you know, not necessarily. People do still write letters and yeah, send me materials for the collection.
DH: So, interacting with the person themselves versus their representatives or their estate or something must be interesting too. And he had very specific ideas about how he wanted it to be used or what he needed from you.
JH: Well, it was. It took about two years for the final gift agreement to be signed and put into effect.
DH: And had he been talking to other libraries as well? Or were you?
JH: No. Nobody was going to touch that.
DH: So why were you willing to touch it? It’s interesting.
JH: I just thought that there is nothing about his collection that was out of scope for our archive for the Labadie collection. It was the perfect fit. At least as far as what I knew was in the collection that he had. I didn’t know everything at that point.
DH: Like you said, nobody was gonna touch that. So the tricky part a yes, he’s still alive. So like who wants to talk to that guy? But also, your whole collection rides that fine line between glorifying a radical person who may have committed violence and/or respecting their dignity or respecting their movement, whatever their movement happened to be, I don’t know.
JH: Yeah, I guess I don’t see it as glorifying their acts of violence. I I don’t look at at it that way at all. It’s preserving history. It’s preserving knowledge for the future. And knowing how people use that material and what they’re interested in is part of my job.
DH: He talks a lot about being burned by the media or being mistrusting the media and you’ve experienced it a little yourself around this particular collection. So what have you learned about how people interact with this or what people are interested in it? Just human nature in general.
JH: Well, it’s a very sensational topic. People are interested in it for all kinds of reasons. Good ones and bad ones and I have learned to just carefully navigate all of those inquiries and I don’t like to talk to the media because they’re always looking to sell a story in a sensational way and I don’t trust that. I don’t trust where they’re coming from. I’ve seen bad results come out of that, so I tend not to talk to the media.
DH: What did you think when you read that manifesto first of all? I mean, I know some people like, oh, it’s you can read it and then it just goes off the rails and you just lose your patience with it.
JH: Well, it definitely needed an editor. But the ideas in it were familiar to me and we had been collecting materials like that in the Labadie Collection for, you know, more than a decade already. The anti-technology movement the kind of back to the land movement and also the primitivist movements, you know, they’re all coalesced somehow in different various forms of anarchism.
And anarchism, of course, is one of the foundations of the Labadie collection, what we’ve had from the very beginning, since 1911, since Joel Labadie first donated his collection, he was an anarchist as well. So everything about that idea was what I was interested in for the Labadie collection and just adding more to it.
DH: Yeah, and there are many, I guess, obviously iterations and shades and variations of anarchism, clearly as demonstrated by the collection, What do people, what should people understand about the Labadie Collection and what a lot of your holdings like, represent?
JH: So we collect social protest movements from across the world and every time period, every era. But the foundation is left wing political movements: anarchism, socialism and communism, civil liberties movements, a lot of civil rights materials, environmental movements, women’s liberation movements, LGBT movements. We’re very strong in those. And also youth and student protests, pacifist movements, anti war movements.
DH: Anarchy I’m not into anarchy, I’ll just put it that way.
JH: Yeah, that’s a general understanding of it, that it’s a bad thing, but. And let me say for the record that Ted Kaczynski never considered himself an anarchist. It’s other people that identified with some of the ideas who are anarchists and call themselves anarchists. So there was that kind of, there was a kind of barrier there.
DH: So what? How did he describe himself?
JH: He didn’t. The major threat that he was worried about was technology and that was going to kill everything. And most people, you know, a lot of people are into various, you know, movements and they’re not necessarily, they’re all connected somehow, but they’re, they’re all different movements of feminism, LGBT movement, antiwar movement, all of those things, ecology, all that.
His main when he when he would say to those people are. That’s the wrong, that’s the wrong direction you’re going in. A technology is going to be.
DH: What Takes us all down.
JH: Yeah. What takes everything down … So all those things are not going to matter.
DH: Wow, so much of his archive was letters from other people and what a conundrum that placed you in. So can you talk a little bit about that? He started sending you stuff, right, that he was afraid of. They’re going to confiscate or something.
JH: The very first letter I got from him was a package of letters that he received, and he wasn’t allowed to keep more than 20 letters in his cell at any given time, and if he did, he had to throw them away or…. and he didn’t know where to send them, so when he got my letter he just started sending them to me.
DH: So, you became the archive right off the bat.
JH: Yeah, but with the understanding that we didn’t have an agreement as to what I was going to do with the letters, so. He was basically saying if you want him, keep them and if you don’t. You know you can’t send them back to me because I can’t keep them. But I did keep them. I kept them and then they just kept coming and coming and coming to the point where I, you know, had twenty boxes, pretty soon, and we still didn’t have a gift agreement because there was a hold up with the university.
DH: So eventually. So you’ve started this correspondence with him. He’s sending you these letters. Your boss knows about it. But then we have to tell the university, like, look, we’ve kind of started this process. Are you OK with it?
JH: Yeah, well, normally I don’t have to get any anybody involved in my collecting decisions. So that was new to me. Like, why do I have to ask permission for this? But the problem was that the normal standard “Deed of Gift agreement” that we have for everybody wasn’t going to work in this case. So, he had a lawyer that was helping him devise a gift agreement on his end. So when the university administration found out that he had a lawyer, well, we have to have our lawyers too. So we’re not going to have you talking to a lawyer. So our counsel got involved too in writing that deed of gift agreement and it. Wasn’t that involved really? We we had it down to a pretty basic level, but the Provost didn’t want to sign off on it, no.
DH: Just sort of feeling like, do we want to be? I have our name attached to this. Is that kind of how it?
JH: Right. Well, I guess, you know, because there were still some of his victims living in the area and there was a little bit of backlash, not much. People didn’t really know about it yet, but she was kind of thinking ahead, like, how is this going to affect us?
JH: The president of the university at that time was Lee Bollinger, and he’s a free speech/First Amendment scholar. As you probably know, He was very much in support of it. So that’s good. Yeah. Yeah.
DH: So now things he’s sending you these letters. Are they opened? Has he read them?
JH: He has read them, OK. Yeah. They’re opened.
DH: And you were not reading them? Because they were not addressed to yu.
JH: I wasn’t reading them. No.
DH: But once you would have an official agreement, would you feel comfortable reading them?
DH: OK, but not necessarily showing them to anyone yet, right?
DH: So is this the first time you’ve kind of had a collection like this? It’s not necessarily his papers, their papers that other people have sent to him, right? Did he have a huge collection of documents and notebooks and things like another person, maybe a Tom Hayden would have had or was the majority written by other people?
JH: Well, this is all he had in jail. He obviously couldn’t bring all his stuff with him, so this is not unusual. A lot of archival collections, especially 20th century come to us with letters from all kinds of people in them. Didn’t necessarily know that their stuff was gonna end up in an archive. Yeah, but most times those people are long dead.
DH: So now you’ve got this conundrum
JH: Of nobody being dead. Everybody’s alive.
DH: What? So, like, how did you navigate this?
JH: Yeah, well, it all became clear to me why he was so concerned with privacy in the beginning. And once I started reading those letters, I understood and I talked to many, many of my colleagues in the archival profession about it. I talked to my colleagues in the Special Collections library, where I work in the bigger department.
We decided to redact all of the names and identifying information out of every single letter. And that’s a project. Keep the original as is, make a copy and blackout the copy. And because the agreement with with Kaczynski was that we would keep these original letters sealed for 50 years and that really goes against everything, everything in the archival profession. It does as far as mission for Open Access and everything but knowing that a lot of the writers were quite young, and some of them teenagers or in their 20s or 30s, I knew that a lesser closure time would not protect them.
JH: And we couldn’t go through and try to date every person, so we just decided to close that whole collection but still keeping the text of the letters open.
DH: That seems like a really good compromise.
JH: I thought it was a good compromise. It took a lot of work and we don’t do that for other collections, certainly not to that level, but we felt it was important to make the collection open as quickly as possible.
DH: It must have been intriguing to see, like the kinds of things people are writing to him
JH: Well, he appealed to so many different kinds of people with so many different ideas and. Sometimes you just didn’t know why they picked Ted Kaczinsky to to write to, but a lot of them were just imagined in their in their imagined lives. There was some connection with him. The way he lived his life, you know, off the grid and a remote place. He loved nature and beauty and so those kinds of things they they identified with. And then his brilliant mathematician brain. Some people wrote to him and they wrote him like algebraic questions and some people just were young, you know, trying to find their way in the world and trying to see which way they wanted to go. What do you think about this? Just really random things, Yeah.
DH: To know you’ll never correspond with him again or you won’t be receiving anything new. What does that kind of feel like? I mean, what were you feelings about him? You said, you know, I just realized I’m still kind of processing that this even had.
JH: Well, it was sudden and unexpected. He was ill. He did have cancer and he was suffering in a medical facility. I don’t believe that he committed suicide. For the record, because that is just not his style at all and he would have sent a million instructions ahead of time, right? Because that is just who he was and how he operated. He would have had it all planned out. And. I don’t believe that that’s what happened.
JH: Oh, he was meticulous about everythin. A lot of his letters to me were instructions about, you know, this package, what to do with these letters, you know, how to handle those, and can you can you send me a copy of this back or, you know, things like that? And also in his archive that’s open to the public the letters, the letters we exchange with each other are not open to the public. Those are donor letters that we keep separate. But the materials in the collection are all the letters that he received from other people and copies of letters that he returned and a lot of the court documents.
JH: A lot of times he was acting as his own attorney through the appeals process, and he would send me copies of his briefs that he filed. And some internal prison materials that he sent me. And a lot of his writing, stories.
DH: Like fiction?
JH: Oh yeah, fiction. He wrote a few essays and short stories, and he also wrote a few books that are out now. Two or three, I think, that are actually published and you can purchase online. And let’s see what else is in there. Oh, he he wrote musical scores as well.
JH: Yeah. Music. He didn’t play an instrument, but he wrote musical scores.
Well, he also could read and write Russian, Spanish and German. And so he would write letters in those languages too. And the manifesto itself has been published into more than a dozen languages.
there there’s been an uptick in interest since his death. But it was before that, one of our most popular collections. Yeah, people would inquire about. Either come and see it, or if they couldn’t come and see it, they’d write and ask questions about it.
DH: And why do you think that is like, what is his mystique or what is it about him?
JH: I think. Some people think that he was right about a lot of the ideas that he had about technology. And they’re intrigued by that. Yeah. Like, how did he know? There’s so much earlier than most people started to understand because there’s all kinds of issues now with technology. There is the social media aspect and what it’s doing to kids. Yeah.
DH: And then privacy, obviously, such a huge concern for him and it’s so it’s such a ubiquitous concern for everyone now, right?
JH: This is a tricky question. Like some people would say, Oh well, he didn’t. He doesn’t deserve, like the the care and the dignity you gave to him, like how he killed people. How can you possibly, you know, respect his wishes or do what he wanted? He didn’t do what they wanted. So how what? What do you say when someone says if anyone would ever say that to you?
I have to put aside. You know my thoughts and my feelings about his actions in order to preserve history. And to further scholarship, because I think knowing how many people are interested in this collection, how can I ignore that? I mean to throw it away or to have never gotten it in the first place. I mean, nobody would ever know the level of interest in him if I had thrown away those letters.
I did wanna go back to an earlier question that you asked me about anarchism and how you would never consider yourself an anarchist.
I think most people do have a bad impression of it. But basically it. People who do not believe in government and that’s because they feel that they can do create a better world without the intrusion of government, so through mutual aid, through learning without the institutions of oppression and just making society in their own way.
Well, there have been instances of it throughout history, a few of them, that it has actually worked for short periods of time, yeah.
DH: Ego and anarchy don’t quite go together and the lust for power that anarchist do not possess, right?
JH: Yeah, the lust for power. The lust for power that anarchists don’t have.
DH: Do you, in your own personal life, like throw stuff away or I don’t want anyone to find this after I’m gone, like continue? Do you look at things the differently because of that?
JH: Sometimes I do, yeah.
DH: And do you get rid of it?
DH: Kaczynski’s recent death is a potent reminder as to how important and contemporary Julie’s work is. If U-M didn’t have these materials, who would? The fact that Julie was able to convince the anti-academic Kaczynski that academia would best serve his archive tells you everything you need to know. OK. That’s it for now. Thanks for listening, and till next time, as always, Go Blue.
‘No one’s going to touch that.’
In June 2023, the world learned that the notorious “Unabomber” Theodore Kaczynski had died in his prison cell. At 81, the domestic terrorist was undergoing cancer treatment while serving multiple life sentences in a high-security North Carolina prison.
For Julie Herrada, news of Kaczynski’s death was unexpected but not surprising. What was surprising was the “official pronouncement” he died by suicide. Herrada, the longtime curator of the Joseph A. Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan Library, was dubious.
“I do not believe it,” says the archivist, historian, and expert on political activism and social protest movements. “That was not his style at all. He would have sent a million instructions ahead of time. He would have had it all planned out. He was meticulous about everything.”
Herrada speaks from what can only be termed personal experience. The librarian began corresponding with Kaczynski in 1997, about a year after his 1996 arrest for a string of deadly bombings — many of which arrived by mail — that baffled law enforcement for 17 years.
‘Industrial Society and its Future’
Julie Herrada has overseen the Labadie Collection since 2000. (Image courtesy of the U-M Library.)
Most Americans came to “know” the elusive Kaczynski through an iconic police sketch: hoodie, aviator shades, curly hair. And the truly intrigued would have read his infamous 35,000-word manifesto, published in The Washington Post and The New York Times, which ultimately led to his capture. But Herrada had her own unique connection.
Since 2000, she has overseen the archive in U-M’s Special Collections Research Center named for Detroit labor organizer and anarchist Joseph Antoine Labadie (1850-1933). In 1911, Labadie donated his books, pamphlets, newspapers, magazines, manuscripts, and other memorabilia anchored by leftwing political movements to establish the collection. Upon reading Kaczynski’s essay, “Industrial Society and its Future,” Herrada recognized familiar themes.
“It’s the kind of thing I would have pursued had it been anybody’s manifesto,” she says.
Kaczynski introduced eerily prescient concepts about technology, advocating for the destruction of our technological society before it destroyed humanity and nature. His theories aligned with the Labadie’s holdings in back-to-the-land, primitivist, and ecology movements. Herrada heard echoes of civil liberties and civil rights movements, as well as women’s liberation, student protests, anti-war, and LGBTQ+ movements.
“But he would tell those people they were going in the wrong direction,” she says, “because it’s technology that will take us down. Those other things are not going to matter.”
Brilliance gone wrong
Before developing his penchant for domestic terror, Kaczynski used his genius IQ to excel as a mathematician. He completed his undergrad at Harvard and his master’s and PhD in mathematics at U-M by 1967. And though he was on the superstar faculty track at UC Berkeley, he soon developed a distaste for institutions of higher learning. He hated the people disseminating knowledge he deemed destructive to humankind. By 1971, he’d fallen off the grid, a hermit alone with his twisted brilliance in a small plywood cabin in Montana.
Kaczynski often targeted academics, mailing his first bomb to Northwestern University in 1978. In 1985, he targeted Michigan psychology professor James McConnell, an expert in behaviorism. McConnell was spared, but his graduate assistant suffered terrible injuries when the package exploded. Kaczynski killed three people and injured 23 others in 16 explosions between 1978-95. In addition to academics, he also targeted airlines; thus, the FBI tagged his file UNABOM (universities, airlines, and bombs).
Take a letter
Kaczynski’s manifesto ran 35,000 words.
Collecting materials not only about activism but by activists is one of the hallmarks of the Labadie, so Herrada sent an initial query to Kaczynski’s attorney, Judy Clarke, in February 1997. (The late Ed Weber, senior associate librarian and head of the collection at that time, was all for it.) Herrada explained to Clarke how critical the Labadie was to scholars of social protest movements and marginalized political communities.
The lawyer did not reply. But Kaczynski did – in a six-page, neatly printed letter. He also included letters he had received in prison since his 1996 arrest. He feared they’d be confiscated or destroyed, so sending them to Michigan seemed like a good option. Ironically, as much as he detested academia, he seemed amenable to exploring an agreement with U-M.
It took two years of their own letters, but by 1999, Herrada, the University, and Kaczynski had a deal. All the while, Kaczynski continued to send Herrada the correspondence he received because he was only allowed to keep 20 letters at a time in his cell.
“He was basically saying ‘If you want them, keep them. But you can’t send them back to me.’ And then they just kept coming and coming and coming.”
Ethics compelled her to store the unofficial archive without opening a single letter until the 1999 agreement with Kaczynski was signed.
Joseph Labadie established the collection in 1911. (Image courtesy of the Labadie website.)
Once the property belonged to U-M, Herrada started reading. The materials were varied and personal: photographs, scented paper, prayers, and questions about Kaczynski’s life before and after prison.
“He appealed to so many different kinds of people — people like him — who loved nature and beauty and being off the grid,” Herrada says. “Some people wrote him algebraic equations. Others had some imagined connection with him and were trying to find their way in the world.”
Most importantly, the materials were contemporary, and many of the writers – not to mention Kaczynski’s victims — were still alive when Herrada acquired the collection. Most writers likely never imagined their private correspondence would wind up in a public archive of a leading academic institution.
So, while the University agreed to seal the originals for 50 years, Herrada negotiated with Kaczynski to allow her team to photocopy each original letter, put it back under seal, and redact any identifying personal information on the public-facing photocopies.
In 1998, Kaczynski pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty and represented himself in the subsequent legal appeals process. His court filings and other internal prison documents are included in the collection. His personal writing included essays, short fiction, and musical scores — though he did not play an instrument. He also spoke and wrote in Russian, Spanish, and German.
Materials confiscated by the federal government from his Montana cabin were not included in the original agreement but have since been acquired by U-M.
The Kaczynski archive is one of the most “popular” collections Herrada oversees, and interest has increased since his death in June 2023.
“Well, it’s a very sensational topic,” Herrada says with a hint of resignation. The collection has made Kaczynski more accessible than he ever imagined, and she shares his distrust of the media. “He wanted us to close the collection to journalists at first, but I said, ‘We can’t do that, obviously.’ People are interested in him for all kinds of reasons – good ones and bad ones — and I have learned to navigate those inquiries carefully.”
As a historian, Herrada put aside her feelings about Kaczynski to acquire and steward his materials.
“I don’t agree with everyone represented in the Labadie Collection,” she says. “And I don’t see it as glorifying acts of violence. I see it as preserving history and furthering scholarship. It’s preserving knowledge for the future. And knowing how people use that material is part of my job.”
Herrada recently worked with investigative journalist Seymour Hersh on a project about Vietnam. She’s also processing a collection from noted historian and criminologist Tony Platt. He is an expert on the carceral system, which also aligns with the Labadie’s materials on movements regarding prisoners, political prisoners, prison abolition, and prison reform.
1. Gary Witus - 1975, 1978, 20002
George Piranian was Ted Kaczynski’s advisor in graduate school. He was also my advisor and friend. When he learned that Ted was the UniBomber he said “I was so upset that I had to go home and listen to Brahms”. Ted thought that George did not really understand his dissertation, so there was some friction.
I will tell a brief story. One time when I was visiting Utah State University, walking back from supper, the head of the Institute asked me who my Advisor was. When I told him “George Piranian” he almost bowed to me.
George Piranian is a legend. His parents left him as a teenager to go back to Armenia to try to rescue other family members. The parents never returned. George made a living by picking up coal scraps and sweeping floors at the University. One day he saw a problem on the blackboard, then provided the solution and proof.
The next day the professor found him out, and told him to enroll in the graduate program. George said “I never even graduated from High School”. The professor said “It does not matter. We will make all that go away.”
That is the short story of my friend, my advisor, George Piranian. Who happened to be Ted’s advisor. His regret was that he did not discern Ted’s mental state and move to help him redirect it.
I met with George many times over the years. I regret my failure to follow through on my intentions to visit him before his passing
2. Marvin Resnikoff - 1959, 1965
I did not know Kaczynski, but was probably closer than most. I graduated in 1965 with a PhD in high energy theoretical physics. I took a lot of math, particularly a graduate course in group theory and was likely in his class.
3. Kenneth Cassell - 1965 BBA, 1966 MBA, and 1969 JD
My last math class was a bifurcated 4 hour class of analytic geometry/calculus of which the 2 hours of analytic geometry were taught by Ted Kaczynski, who was at that time a teaching fellow.
He was a very peculiar person with peculiarities in his personal appearance and behavior but his most relevant peculiarity, that I vividly recall, was his insistence that we punctuate our math statements as if they were language statements—a notion which I have never heard anyone else ever express and is consistent with your remark about his thoroughness.