Uncovered: FDR's Secret Plot to Kill Civilians

Five American civilians were fired on by a Navy warplane in 1921. Was FDR responsible for the attack?

August 8, 1921, started as a beautiful day for five civilians boating on Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay after a blueberry picking trip to Hope Island.  However, in a matter of seconds, the peaceful afternoon turned into a day of terror when an unidentified aircraft swooped down and opened machine gun fire without warning.  A torrent of hot lead rained down upon the unsuspecting civilians, effortlessly piercing the boat's wooden hull.  As the stunned seafarers huddled for safety, the plane circled and made a second pass at the vessel, with machine guns chattering once again.  Just as quickly as the mysterious plane appeared, it was gone.  Four of the boat's passengers miraculously escaped without serious injury while the fifth passenger, a 21 year-old girl from nearby Oakland Beach named Grace Buxton, was shot through both legs. 

A report which appeared the following day in the Wilkes-Barre (PA) Times Leader read:


Unknown Craft Seriously Wounds Girl and Damages Launch

Providence, R. I., August 9.---Army officers, urged on by civil authorities, sought today for an armed airplane which yesterday sprayed Narragansett Bay with machine gun bullets, wounding a girl seriously and nearly sinking a launch.

The plane, marked with what appeared to be the figures "92" and a blurred letter, dived toward the launch as it lay at anchor. Five persons lounged in the boat.

As the plane came on, the sharp rattle of a machine gun was heard above the roar of the engine. The water was splashed by the hail of lead. The boat was directly in line with the fire and before the passengers could move, it had been sprayed, bullets tearing through its sides, letting the water rush through.

Four of the passengers escaped unharmed, but one of them, Grace Buxton, was shot through both legs. The boat nearly sank several times during the eight mile run, despite frantic bailing by the occupants.

Earl Blakestaff, owner of the launch, said he believed the plane was a government machine. (1)

The military was reluctant to address the matter until John J. Richards, the U.S. Marshal for Rhode Island, demanded an investigation.  The official explanation raised as many questions as it answered, however.  The investigation, which was completed by the following day, revealed that the plane belonged to the Navy and had been assigned to a destroyer fleet conducting maneuvers off Newport, over ten miles away.  The plane's six-man crew claimed that the machine guns had been malfunctioning and the discharge of bullets had been accidental.  Rear Admiral Ashley H. Robertson, a close friend of Franklin D. Roosevelt, referred to the incident as "plain stupidity" before adding that the plane was not supposed to have been flying over Narragansett Bay in the first place.(2)

Admiral Robertson: a key figure in the Narragansett cover up.

To this day, no satisfactory explanation of the bizarre attack has ever been offered.  The August 10 edition of the New-York Tribune provided a summary of the Navy's hurried investigation.  It was revealed that the pilot of the seaplane was Junior Lieutenant Edward T. Garvey, a Navy Cross recipient who was a member of the squadron attached to Rear Admiral Robertson's Atlantic destroyer force.  Rather than disgracing the Junior Lieutenant for nearly killing five civilians, the Tribune seemed to portray Garvey as a hero:

Lieutenant Garvey bears the reputation of being an expert flier and skilled in the operation of a machine gun.  Naval officers said it is customary on the part of the army and navy fliers to try out the machine guns attached to their planes by directing a few shots in the air before actually engaging in target practice.  According to the stories detailing the accident, Garvey did not see the motor launch in the harbor below him, despite frantic signaling. (3)  

Target practice?  The Tribune's coverage of the naval investigation made the incident seem like a light-hearted blunder- but it also raises a few red flags.  If Lt. Garvey was such an expert pilot and machine-gunner, what was he doing miles off course?  If the seaplane was manned by six crewmen, how is it that not one of them had been able to see the frantic signaling from the five passengers in the boat? 

The "malfunctioning gun" theory seems suspicious since the victims stated that the plane dove at their vessel before opening fire.  If the "malfunctioning gun" explanation was correct, why didn't the pilot pull up on the throttle and point the nose of the plane away from the water's surface once the guns began to discharge?  And why was there no mention of any disciplinary action? 

Other newspaper accounts provide a few missing details, indicating that there was much more to the story than what the Navy admitted.  One account which appeared on the front page of the Lethbridge Daily Herald (4) described the pilot of the plane as being on a "rampage", while the Lowell Sun (5) of Massachusetts claimed that the boaters had frantically attempted to signal to the diving aircraft, to no avail.  A more disturbing report appeared on the front page of the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette.  According to the Evening Gazette's story, the aircraft strafed the boat, hitting Ms. Buxton in the legs, and then circled back and began firing upon the boaters a second time: "After passing overhead the party says the seaplane returned and the pilot once more centered his gun on them shooting in several more bursts as the occupants of the launch crouched helpless." (6)

All of these details give the impression that the attack was not accidental.

Admiral Ashley H. Robertson, it seems, wasn't too concerned about the near-slaughter of civilians by pilots under his command.  Robertson was a social butterfly, and perhaps the reason why his investigation into the Narragansett attack was completed in such short order was so that he could resume his active social life rubbing elbows with the Astors and Roosevelts and other members of America's upper crust.  In May, Robertson was personally invited by Franklin D. Roosevelt to attend a shindig at the Navy Club in New York City. The admiral was the toast of the town at a swank reception at a sprawling Newport estate on July 19, a fete heralded by the Tribune as "one of the most important social events of the season".  On August 12, Robertson was a guest of honor at the Newport Hospital's lavish soiree, and on September 19 the admiral hosted a gala aboard the U.S.S. Rochester which made the New York papers' society pages.  The following April, the admiral was seen at the Hotel Astor in New York, dancing the night away with the likes of Lady Astor, Governor Miller, and President Harding.  Meanwhile, in the Providence suburb of Oakland Beach, Grace Buxton was learning how to walk again.

The August 8, 1921 attack on unarmed civilians occurred during period of time when the U.S. Navy was trying to recover from a major black eye.  In 1919, the Newport Sex Scandal rocked the Navy, culminating in a highly-publicized trial which ultimately led to the court-martialing of seventeen sailors who were charged with sodomy and scandalous conduct.  Most of the disgraced sailors were sent to the Portsmouth naval prison in New Hampshire.  Less than three weeks before the Narragansett airplane attack, a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Naval Affairs denounced both Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels and Franklin D. Roosevelt (who was Assistant Secretary at the time) for the methods used in the Newport investigations; the New York Times issued a scathing report of the Navy the following day and it wasn't long before every other paper in the country followed suit, urged on by a zealous newspaper editor named John Revelstoke Rathom.

Could it be possible that the Narragansett attack was carried out as an act of revenge?

If so, this would explain why the aircraft had inexplicably departed from its scheduled maneuvers near Newport, and it would also explain why the formal investigation carried out by Admiral Robertson wrapped up only one day later, resulting in no punishment for those involved.  Had the U.S. Navy hatched a secret plot to assassinate the seafaring civilians, intending to make it look like an accident?  Did one or more of the five civilians nearly gunned down by Lt. Edward T. Garvey play a role in the scandal which led to the court-martialing of 17 sailors?

The Newport Sex Scandal

Before scoffing at this notion, take into consideration the insanity of the scandal itself.  It all began one cold day in the February of 1919 when a sailor in a Navy hospital told another patient, Ervin Arnold, about his homosexual escapades around Newport.  Arnold, a former detective from Connecticut, pressed the sailor for more information about Newport's underground gay sex scene, gathering "incriminating" information and bringing it to the attention of his superiors.  Arnold was eventually given permission to carry out a veritable homosexual witchhunt by Commander of the Second Naval District, Admiral Spencer S. Wood.  Arnold infiltrated the gay community with the aid of thirteen undercover agents, all chosen for their good looks and solid physiques.  These agents presented Arnold with their findings, which included lurid descriptions of sex acts between sailors and civilians.  Josephus Daniels, Secretary of the Navy, did not hold a high opinion of homosexuals in the military and turned a blind eye to Ervin Arnold's investigative techniques, giving him free reign to conduct his investigation as he saw fit.

Secretary of Navy Josephus Daniels

Was FDR the mastermind of a failed assassination attempt?
"You know I am a juggler, and I never let my right hand know what my left hand does. I'm perfectly willing to mislead and tell untruths." -Franklin D. Roosevelt, May 1941

The Newport Sex Scandal was covered extensively by the Providence Journal, which smeared both Secretary of the Navy Daniels and Assistant Secretary Roosevelt.  Things got so ugly that Roosevelt filed a lawsuit against the paper's publisher, John R. Rathom.  Roosevelt resigned his Navy post at the height of the scandal in July of 1920 and accepted the nomination of the Democratic party for Vice President.

Rathom waited until ten days before the election to smear Roosevelt in his paper, going so far as to allege that Roosevelt destroyed important documents pertaining to the Newport investigation (7).  Many people credit Rathom's smear campaign the reason why the Cox-Roosevelt ticket lost the 1920 election in a landslide to Warren Harding.  Adding insult to injury, less than three weeks before the Narragansett airplane attack, the New York Times printed their own condemnation of Roosevelt after a Senate subcommittee called the future president's actions "reprehensible"      

It doesn't take a leap of imagination to implicate FDR in the mysterious Narragansett attack.  Roosevelt came from a powerful family, was a 32nd degree Freemason, and a member of a secret society called the Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystics Shrine, which claimed to be an offshoot of the Illuminati.  When one factors in FDR's Navy connections and Masonic heritage- and John Rathom's claims that FDR had a penchant for destroying documents- suddenly the possibility of his involvement of the Narragansett attack doesn't seem so far-fetched.

Could it be possible that one or more of the five civilians who were shot at by a diving airplane with a "malfunctioning gun" were linked to Rathom and the Providence Journal?  Interestingly, Grace Buxton was related to one Providence Journal editor who died very suddenly not long after a hotel room meeting with FDR.
"In politics, nothing happens by accident. If it happens, you can bet it was planned that way."
(President Franklin D. Roosevelt)

If the Narragansett incident was a planned attack, it would've been orchestrated by someone with an intimate knowledge of Naval operations, personal friendships with folks like Admiral Robertson, a verifiable track record of shady behavior, a disregard for human suffering, and a questionable sense of morality.  Roosevelt's numerous affairs have been common knowledge for decades; books have been published detailing FDR's trysts with Lucy Rutherford, Marguerite LeHand, and even his own cousin, Margaret Suckley.  It has been alleged that, in 1941, he blackmailed Princess Martha of Norway into having sex with him in exchange for war-time aid to her husband, Crown Prince Olav.  Questionable sense of morality?  Check.

In July of 1915, when Roosevelt was Assistant Secretary of the Navy, he spearheaded the Marine invasion of Haiti which resulted in bad press for FDR after allegations of atrocities began to surface.  During the 1920 election, President Harding stated in a campaign speech, "Practically all we know is that thousands of native Haitians have been killed by American Marines, and that many of our own gallant men have sacrificed their lives at the behest of an Executive department in order to establish laws drafted by the Assistant Secretary of the Navy."  Disregard for human suffering?  Check.

Of course, these character traits do not present any irrefutable evidence that Roosevelt had a hand in planning the Narragansett attack which severely wounded Grace Buxton.  Yet, by looking for clues among the words and actions of FDR, it may be possible to find a few incidents which seem to shine the spotlight of guilt upon the man who would become the 32nd President of the United States.  One such incident took place on the first day of February in 1920.  Speaking before an audience of over one thousand at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Roosevelt boasted that, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, he had committed "enough illegal acts to put me in jail for 999 years." (8)

The time frame of this statement is very interesting.  By February of 1920, the Newport scandal had been been taking place for a year and, just five months after Roosevelt's boastful flaunting of his Navy power to a Brooklyn audience, he resigned his position in order to become James Cox's running mate.  Had Roosevelt not made this decision, he never would have been exposed to Rathom's smear campaign.  He never would have faced a Congressional rebuke which resulted in the New York Times printing their own condemnation of Roosevelt and Daniels, and he certainly would not have experienced the crushing defeat in the November elections.

By 1921, Roosevelt's future prospects looked very grim.  He had long since resigned his Navy position, yet was still being lambasted in the press for his involvement in the Newport scandal.  Across America, in polite conversation, the scandal was referred to as "Roosevelt's Embarrassment".  His failed vice presidential bid had left Roosevelt without a job, so he returned to his native New York to practice law.  This was a bitter pill to swallow for the man who bragged while campaigning for Cox (in reference to the military occupation of Haiti): "The facts are that I wrote Haiti's constitution myself, and if I do say so, I think it is a pretty good constitution."  He added that he "had something to do with running a couple of little republics."  For a well-heeled egomaniac like Roosevelt, becoming a courtroom litigator after being a behind-the-scenes dictator was the equivalent of flipping burgers for a living after spending years as an executive chef at a five-star restaurant.

As a lawyer, Roosevelt was a failure.  Although he had passed the New York State bar exam, he had dropped out of Columbia Law School in 1907.  Roosevelt's tenure as a lawyer was as unremarkable as his tenure as a student; he never earned more than $25,000 a year as a lawyer.

Failure and public humiliation had left a bitter taste in Roosevelt's mouth and  Newport, Rhode Island, seemed to be the wellspring of all of his troubles.  If Roosevelt felt compelled to seek revenge, his enemies in Rhode Island would be the logical target, and his cronies in the Navy would be the logical co-conspirators.

Roosevelt's Revenge

Tensions between FDR and Rathom had been heated since the early days of the Newport scandal, but things boiled over when the Providence Journal editor made the outrageous claim that Roosevelt himself was a homosexual (9).  Roosevelt responded by suing Rathom for libel.  Although Roosevelt's $500,000 lawsuit was later dropped, he utilized his powerful political connections in order to cause permanent damage to Rathom's reputation.  Through his friend, a U.S. District Attorney named John Spellacy, Roosevelt illegally gained access to Rathom's file in the Department of Justice.  Roosevelt used this information to expose Rathom as an adulterer and to discredit the claims Rathom had made in his autobiography about his role in the apprehension of German spies during the First World War.

Murdered by FDR?

Although Rathom's reputation had been severely damaged by Roosevelt, the newsman still presented a danger to FDR.  In 1917, Rathom was elected as director of the Associated Press, a position which he held during the time of the Narragansett incident.  Rathom was also president of the New England Daily Newspapers Association.  Rathom's stature within the newspaper industry was an affront to Roosevelt for several reasons.  James Cox, the presidential candidate who had chosen his friend as a running mate in 1920, was the owner of a budding newspaper empire himself.  Today, Cox Enterprises owns 86 radio stations, fifteen radio stations and numerous newspapers, but in 1921 Cox's empire barely extended beyond his native Ohio.  Another friend of Roosevelt with a budding newspaper empire was Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.  After leaving government service in March of 1921, just months before the Narragansett attack, Daniels resumed his career as publisher and editor of the Raleigh News and Observer.  Daniels first acquired a controlling interest in the News and Observer in 1894, and his other holdings included the Kinston Free Press, Rocky Mount Observer, Daily State Chronicle, and the Wilson Advance newspapers.  How could Roosevelt's friends prosper in the newspaper business as long as Rathom called the shots for the Associated Press?

Coincidentally, both Rathom and another Providence Journal staffer died under mysterious circumstances not long after the Narragansett incident.  In August of 1922, Rathom underwent a routine surgical procedure from which he never recovered.  He died on December 11, 1923, at the age of fifty-five as the result of an "unidentified illness".  For reasons unknown, Rathom chose to be buried in an unmarked grave at Swan Point Cemetery in Providence.

On October 26, 1920, the Auburn (N.Y.) Citizen ran a story about Roosevelt's libel suit against Rathom, telling of an encounter which took place three days earlier between a Providence Journal editor named Arthur Fairbrother and Roosevelt.  Roosevelt was staying at the Hotel Palatine in Newburg when he was visited by Fairbrother, who handed him an envelope and then swiftly departed.  The envelope contained a letter written by Rathom, lashing out at Roosevelt for the way he had handled the court-martialing of a Newport sailor named Parker.  Rathom wrote:

"A few weeks ago you publicly denied the charge previously made by the Providence Journal that you had destroyed or sequestered Navy records.  This charge is true and you know it.  It would be interesting to every officer in the Bureau of Navigation, and to the public generally, to learn the truth concerning the disappearance of the papers in the Parker case." (10)

Rathom also sent a copy of his letter to another Auburn newspaper, provoking Roosevelt to write to New York District Attorney Frank G. Caffey the following day.  The Auburn Citizen published the Caffey letter, which read, in part:

"In view of the fact that circulation of charges of this character would blacken my character as a candidate for the office of Vice President of the United States, I believe that they are not merely libelous, but are criminally so...  It seems clear to me that John R. Rathom of Providence, R.I., should be proceeded against criminally for originating and sending out copies of this letter...  I am taking steps to obtain information as to what papers, if any, actually published this letter."
Arthur Fairbrother, who by all accounts was in excellent health, suddenly dropped dead on January 3, 1922, at the age of forty-eight, just six months before the botched surgical procedure that would ultimately claim the life of his employer, John Rathom.  As if that coincidence isn't strange enough, a genealogy published in 1905 chronicling the descendants of the iconic newspaper editor Horace Greeley indicate that the Fairbrother and Buxton families are related. (11)

The Meeting Between Roosevelt and Admiral Robertson

On Thursday, May 26, 1921, just seventy-four days before the Narragansett incident, the New-York Tribune featured a story about Admiral Robertson's meeting with FDR at the Navy Club on 13 East Forty-first Street (12).  According to the Tribune story, Roosevelt, who served as the president of the Navy Club, had personally invited Robertson, the man who would later oversee the hurried investigation into the Narragansett incident and who would ultimately excuse the pilot responsible from any wrongdoing.  Although Roosevelt had resigned his Navy position eleven months earlier, his position as club president allowed him access to top-ranking Naval commanders.  If the Narragansett airplane attack on five unarmed civilians was masterminded by FDR, this meeting with Robertson would present Roosevelt with the perfect opportunity to hatch his plan.   

The Tribune story also listed the names of other officers who were invited to the Navy Club that day by Roosevelt.  These guests may have played pivotal roles in the Narraganset cover-up.  Commander W.A. Angwin, for instance, was a heavy-hitter within the U.S.N. Medical Corps.  Angwin was a frequent contributor to the United States Naval Medical Bulletin and carried much influence at the Naval Hospital in Newport.  Newspaper details of the Navy investigation into the seaplane attack stated that Robertson hand-picked officers from his U.S.S. Shawmut, along with medical officers from Newport, to visit Miss Buxton at her home in Oakland Beach.  Commander Angwin  was probably one of the investigators who visited Buxton, since he was the top-ranking Medical Corps officer in Newport at the time. 

Another guest invited to the Navy Club by FDR was Lieutenant Commander William Davidson, who was Robertson's personal aide.  It was Davidson who served as the admiral's mouthpiece after the attack, telling the Boston Evening Globe: "The fliers knew nothing of the wounding of the young woman" (13).  Also invited to the club that day was Harris Laning, who would become president of the Naval War College.  Another guest of FDR was Captain Harry Yarnell, who had previously served on the Naval War College staff.  Yarnell was a desk jockey working under Admiral Sims (another key figure in the Newport scandal), at the time of his visit to the Navy Club.  Like Harris Laning, Yarnell would soon land a cushy job after the Narragansett attack as commanding officer of the aircraft carrier, Saratoga.

What became of Lt. Edward Garvey, the pilot of the plane responsible for the attack?  According to Loretta Garvey, a relative, Edward eventually went on to serve on the General Court Martial Boards at Terminal Island, San Pedro, and the Hawaiian Sea Frontier.  He left the Navy in 1946 and retired from the Naval Reserve as a Commander in 1957.  His service records won't be available to the public until 2019. (14) 

It is strange that several figures who may have played a role at Narragansett were later rewarded with promotions while the figures who played a role in the Providence Journal's besmirchment of Roosevelt during the Newport scandal suffered unexpected fatalities.  The untimely deaths of Rathom and Fairbrother, as well as the Narragansett airplane attack, took place very shortly after Roosevelt decided to drop his libel suit.  Perhaps it's possible that Roosevelt's lawyers had convinced him that he had virtually no chance of winning the case.  Seeking damages in the amount of $500,000 was an unheard of sum of money for a libel lawsuit at the time; today, that would translate into just under six million dollars.  Another impediment to the lawsuit was the fact that Rathom's allegations of Roosevelt's destroying of documents were true in the first place.  Since Roosevelt had exhausted legal action as a means of revenge against his Providence enemies, maybe he felt compelled to take matters into his own hands.

The Aftermath

Just seven months after the Narragansett attack the Navy abandoned its aircraft designation system (15), thereby making it impossible to track down the fate of the mystery airplane bearing the number of "92".  Admiral Robertson's U.S.S. Shawmut, which was sent to investigate the incident, underwent a name change in 1928, becoming the U.S.S. Oglala.  The ship also underwent a number of radical cosmetic changes, most noticeably going from two smokestacks to one. (16)  

The Narragansett incident occurred during a transitional time in American naval history, marking a turning point between the imperial navy of the early twentieth century and a new navy which reflected President Harding's isolationist views.  After Narragansett, the puritanical Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels was replaced by the progressive and forward-thinking Edwin Denby.  In 1922, Secretary Denby and the Navy would be wrapped up in the Teapot Dome Scandal, while the bizarre incidents which took place in Rhode Island were soon forgotten by the American public.  

Ironically, Roosevelt's greatest ally in the Narragansett cover-up would prove to be Warren Harding, Roosevelt's nemesis in the election of 1920.  Harding was a strong proponent of naval disarmament.  The Washington Naval Conference took place just three months after Narragansett, and the result of this conference was the wholesale downsizing of the Navy.  Entire fleets of ships were scrapped, hundreds found themselves without jobs, and untold scores of official documents were lost in the shuffle.  Unfortunately, the details surrounding the Navy investigation into the Narragansett attack may be forever lost to history.


(1) Wilkes-Barre Time Leader, August 9, 1921
(2) "Forgotten Tales of Rhode Island" by Jim Ignasher (p.20), 2008, The History Press
(3) New York Tribune, August 10, 1921, p. 6
(4) Lethbridge Daily Herald, (Alberta, Canada) front page, August 9, 1921
(5) Lowell Sun, (Massachusetts), August 9, 1921, p. 21
(6) Evening Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa), front page, August 9, 1921
(7) "Assails Roosevelt on Naval Scandal", New York Times, October 25, 1920
(8) "Eleanor Roosevelt", vol 1, 1992, Blanche Cook, NY:Viking, pp. 265-266
(9) "Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom" by Conrad Black, PublicAffairs (publisher), 2005
(10) Auburn Citizen, October 26, 1920
(11) "Genealogy of the Greely-Greeley Family" by George Hiram Greeley, F. Wood (printer), 1905
(12) New York Tribune, May 26, 1921, p. 11
(13) Boston Evening Globe, front page, August 9, 1921
(14) http://boards.ancestry.com/thread.aspx?o=0&m=3819.
(15) "US Navy Aircraft Since 1911", by Swanborough, Gordon and Peter Bowers, Putnam (publisher), 1990
(16) "United States Naval Institute Proceedings", July 1973, p.97