Authors: Bob Nelson,Kenneth Bly,PhD Sally Magaña
Freezing People Is (Not) Easy
My Adventures in Cryonics
Bob Nelson with Kenneth Bly and Sally MagaÃ±a, PhD
Copyright Â© 2014 by Bob Nelson
The events described in this book are based on the author's recollections. Dialogue has been re-created and names and identifying characteristics have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, except as may be expressly permitted in writing from the publisher. Requests for permission should be addressed to Globe Pequot Press, Attn: Rights and Permissions Department, PO Box 480, Guilford, CT 06437.
Lyons Press is an imprint of Globe Pequot Press.
All photos courtesy of the author.
Project editor: Meredith Dias
Layout: Maggie Peterson
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Nelson, Robert F., 1936-
Freezing people is (not) easy : my adventures in cryonics / Bob Nelson, with Kenneth Bly and Sally MagaÃ±a, PhD.
1. Nelson, Robert F., 1936- 2. Cryonics. 3. Undertakers and undertakingâUnited States. I. Bly, Kenneth. II. MagaÃ±a, Sally. III. Title.
This book is dedicated to Genevieve De La Poterie, a seven-year-old â¨French Canadian child, beautiful beyond words. Genevieve was the world's first child frozen upon clinical death with the hope of future reanimation. In 1970 her Wilms tumor had no treatment and was usually fatal within three months. Today no child dies from a Wilms tumor, and it is completely curable. One week before her cryonic suspension, Genevieve, her mom, my daughter, and I went to Disneyland in Anaheim, California. On this occasion Genevieve spoke to me in French, through her mother's translation. She asked me, “Mr. Robert, would you please learn to speak French so I can explain to you directly why I didn't want to die so young and leave my beautiful family behind?”
This dedication also extends to Joseph Klockgether, owner of Rennaker Mortuary and the first California mortician to offer cryonics suspension services to his clientele. He's always believed that however a person chooses to be interred should be honored, be it cremation, burial at sea, or even placed into orbit like Gene Roddenberry, who is now circling our globe every ninety minutes. This is simply every person's right of choice and must be honored by those entrusted to carry out this final act of interment.
Last, but far from least, are Sandra Stanley and Shelby Dzilsky. This couple allowed the frozen body of our first cryonics pioneer, Dr. James Bedford, to be stored in the garage of their Topanga Canyon home in dry ice for ten days while plans for his long-term encapsulation in liquid nitrogen could be arranged. Sandra also coauthored with Bob Nelson the book
We Froze the First Man
and acted as his attorney â¨during the appeal of one of the darkest times of his life. Sandra was a powerful force when introducing this new science of cryonics to humanity in the 1960s, the world and I especially owe her an enormous amount of gratitude for her contribution in the struggle to greatly extend the human life span.
“Please, God, don't take me away from my family.” The one and only time Genevieve spoke directly to me.
It calls for a change in perspective.
The Treasure Chest
by Kenneth Bly
Bob stood in the shadows of the garage,
debating between fight and flight. I glimpsed the hurt and betrayal in his darkened eyes. He had locked away the memories in his mind with an even larger padlock than the one now sealing the crate.
He was anxious, looking away, his eyes distant and vacant. A lone lightbulb sent sharp shadows across the floor. Outside, an uncharacteristic Southern California rain pooled at the base of the wooden garage door.
The chest had remained sheltered in Bob Nelson's garage for twenty-five years. He had no desire to open it. Within its plywood walls, darkness shrouded the artifacts of a past life he had intended to shut away forever.
Moeurth, Bob's wife, rubbed his arm and said, “We don't have to do this.”
I nodded but inwardly yearned to discover this hidden life. “Bob, we can do this another day.”
“No,” Bob replied, inching forward. “Too many years have passed. It's time to face my demons.” He took the key from my waiting palm and bent down before the chest. He wiped a thick layer of dust from a section of the top lid, revealing the gnarled wood pattern beneath. A curious sort of magnetism permeated the air when he touched the crate. Like the telltale heart in Edgar Allan Poe's story, the contents of the treasure chest had their own story that needed to be told. Slowly, the key turned in the lock.
Bob was a pioneer; in the sixties he was the first to freeze a man and later several others, hoping they might one day be revived. He was one of cryonics' most prolific spokesmen until fate turned on him; he became reviled and retreated from his greatest passion for decades. I wondered what mementos from this past life could be inside the chestâcertainly not a thawed bodyâbut still I felt electric with curiosity.
Moeurth read my thoughts and spoke up, her sweet Cambodian accent soothing the tense atmosphere. “I had no idea either, Ken. We were married a year before Bob was able to tell me that he froze the first man, about his fame, and about how it all went bad.”
For me the container was a treasure chest, but I could tell that for Bob it was something far more ominous. With the padlock discarded on the garage floor, he opened the lid, casting fresh light on long-obscured memories. The three of us leaned forward and peered into the crate. Looking back at us was a picture of a much younger Bob, shrouded in a cloud of dry-ice fog, newspaper articles, and the lead article in
magazine. There were also audiotapes, reels of film, photos with Regis Philbin and Phil Donohue, and court documents from the cryonics trialâstack after stack of court documents.
Words jumped out at me from the newspaper clippings.
Pioneer. Swindler. Expert. Charlatan. Vanguard. Liar.
“Jesus Christ,” I said.
Morosely, Bob replied, “I know.”
“No, I mean that's what's written here from the court case: âBob Nelson pretended to be Jesus Christ with the power to raise the deadâall he needed was your money.'”
A flurry of thoughts tumbled through my mind as I delved into the depths of the treasure chest and into this mysterious and long-buried past. This wasn't just some embellished story that old-timers regurgitate at a bar; I was glimpsing the veneer of a complicated and painful odyssey. What an epic tale Bob had lived in those years!
I studied photo after photo in the treasure chest. Each fog-filled picture of his frozen heroes was permeated with the heady and optimistic belief that a doctor's pronouncement of clinical death was merely an interruptionânot an ending. The cryogenic containers looked both crude and innovative, much like the old space capsules from the Mercury and Apollo programs.
That evening, I collapsed at home and pondered everything I had witnessed. I felt astonished again that, in our years working together, I never knew his true passions and heartache. It had always existed, buried deep by necessity but still inevitably influencing him every day since. I felt amazed that such extraordinary experiences could be locked in a dusty steamer trunk and stored for decades in a garage beneath boxes of old toys and unused kitchen appliances. We can never truly know what lurks in the hearts of people.
I had worked with Bob at his electronics repair center for seven years. He once mentioned that he had orchestrated the first cryonic suspension and written a book about the notoriety. I was dutifully impressed, but I wondered how he could have gone from scientific pioneer to TV repairman.
My mental image of cryonics was at once futuristic and sterile. I envisioned rows of stainless-steel tanks awash in bright, imitation light spilling from overhead fluorescents. Serious men with serious faces would mill about in white lab coats, busily fussing over the tanks. The people would be as interesting as the flat white paint adorning the walls of these subzero mausoleums. My exploration proved me wrong.
In the subsequent months, I spent hundreds of hours pawing through the contents of the treasure chest. I felt like a kid digging through my grandparents' attic. There was a letter from Peter Sellers, audiotapes of early cryonics conferences, boxes of court documents, and pictures and slides that were absolutely fascinating. I couldn't get enough!
I went online and searched for more about him, hoping I'd find more pictures and articles. What I found shocked and appalled me. I knew that Bob's organization had funding problems and that he was sued by family members of some of his frozen patients. In article after article he was described as a swindler. According to the stories, he had taken people's money and abandoned the vault where the bodies were stored, allowing them to rot. He had lied about his facilities and capabilities, claiming to have the world's first “cryotorium,” but he had actually just dug a hole in the ground. He was given credit for freezing the first man, Dr. James Bedford, but that was all.
The mystery deepened. That description wasn't the Bob Nelson I knew. When I confronted him with the allegations one day in his living room, he only denied that he ran off with people's money. The rest was essentially true, but the intent was misrepresented, along with some of the details.
Bob was pensive. “For a quarter of a century, I've abandoned all my cryonics hopes. I was silent and allowed others to vilify me, fairly or not. I haven't given my full account to correct history.” Bob stopped, twisting an old newspaper. “For me, the Wright brothers' struggle to fly has a special poignancy. Most of their contemporaries rejected their experiments. The audacity of these mere bicycle mechanics, without even high school diplomas, thinking they could teach the world how to fly. I was a TV repairman; I wasn't a doctor or a scientist. Was it mere pride to consider myself qualified to freeze the first man?”
To answer that question, I went on a mission to find out everything, as much as possible anyway. I pored through court documents. I grilled Bob when I found inconsistencies in his story. His memory of the events was understandably less than perfect, and there were many holes to fill. To his credit, he was willing to accept information that conflicted with his recollections, and we were able to piece together a sincere accounting of what happened. I discovered such a fascinating, bizarre, and compelling story.
Bob Nelson didn't just coordinate the first cryonic suspension; he lit a fire under the cryonics movement. Although populated by intellectuals, scientists, cryobiologists, and doctors, it lacked a good front man. Cryonics was like the rock band Van Halen without David Lee Roth. Bob was slick, confident, and a little cocky. He was charismatic, and people naturally wanted to follow him. He brought an infectious enthusiasm for cryonics that bordered on lust. He was cryonics' first and, as far as I can tell, only rock star.
Bob's passion for cryonics and his drive to make it a success endured even when it was doomed. He just didn't know when to give up. After Dr. Bedford, there were more freezings, failures, and friends lost. His misguided actions led to a lawsuit that put not just him but all of cryonics on trial and gave the entire movement a black eye. Nevertheless, I hope that history eventually judges that what happened at Chatsworth was not a scandal but a tragedy.