The remarkable true Jewish history linking St. Louis and the hit podcast “My Fugitive”

The+remarkable+true+Jewish+history+linking+St.+Louis+and+the+hit+podcast+%22My+Fugitive%22

JORDAN PALMER

Nina Gilden Seavey grew up the daughter of a prominent Jewish civil rights attorney here in St. Louis.

She was 12-years old when on May 4, 1970, the Air Force building on the campus of Washington University burned to the ground. Her father, Louis Gilden, represented the young man accused of the crime: Howard Mechanic. That night would literally change the course of the rest of Seavey’s life.

My Fugitive

Seavey is an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker and a nearly 30-year veteran of the documentary world. Her films can be seen in theaters, on television, and accessed on digital media, and in museum exhibitions across the globe. On March 30, 2021, the podcast My Fugitive, hosted by Seavey from Pineapple Street Studios launched featuring 8 episodes.

The podcast tells the tangled story of her search for answers—fueled by hundreds of Freedom of Information requests, hundreds of thousands of pages of documents, what she discovered about FBI surveillance and confidential informants around the case—and how this journey shines new light on historical events from the Cold War and the controversial FBI surveillance program known as COINTELPRO to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  And how it all started when she was 12, back on that night in 1970.

“On that night in 1970, we were living at 7347 Maryland Avenue, which is right on the line between University City and Clayton.  We lived on the U. City side and I went to Jackson Park Elementary, Hanley Jr. High, and U. City High School,” said Seavey.  “In the scene in Episode 3 in which I describe my first recollection of an FBI agent protecting our house when I was six, that was at our previous home at 834 Warder in U. City, just off Delmar.”

The Backstory

Howard Mechanic, the 30-year fugitive entered Seavey’s life through her father, a Jewish immigrant who was born in Cherbourg, France.  His parents had escaped the pogroms in Ukraine and were able to get to France. In 1927 they were finally able to secure passage on the Cunard Line that was taking refugees to the US. The rest of the family stayed back in Russia/Ukraine and did not survive the Holocaust.

When they arrived in the US they went straight to St. Louis where the Gilchenok, now Gilden family opened a Kosher grocery store on Debaliviere. The family lived above the store and lived in significant poverty in what was then St. Louis’ Jewish ghetto. Louis Gilden attended Soldan High School and then after WWII, went to law school on the GI Bill.

“This is all to say that while a lot of Jews sought wealth and tried to forget their refugee/impoverished circumstances, my father always felt like an outsider, the “other” and embraced those whom he saw as similar to himself,” remembers Seavey. “He identified with the plight of people who were struggling and wanted to be part of that struggle because it was his own as well.”

Howard Mechanic  

Through her stellar investigative skills, coupled with her personal connection to this fascinating story, Seavey makes My Fugitive a potent mix of history, politics, and government secrets. She weaves a tale with such notable characters as Dr. Martin Luther King, Robert F. Kennedy, J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI, James Earl Ray, and lastly Howard Mechanic.

In My Fugitive, Seavey describes Mechanic as a young, Jewish Washington University college student from Cleveland, Ohio, who attended a protest rally the night the Air Force building was destroyed. He was identified by police and the FBI as the person responsible. He was arrested and charged under an arcane provision of the Civil Rights Act, that participating in a riot, was grounds for arrest and imprisonment.

“So why Howard Mechanic?” said Seavey. “I think he came to be a symbol of all that had gone wrong.  He certainly was that for my father and then for me. I think people think the ’70s was all ‘sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and while some of that is true, it’s easy to forget about the extraordinary turbulence of the era – the assassinations, the political bombings. I mention in the podcast there were 3000 political bombings in 1970 – can you imagine that today?”

Mechanic was convicted and sentenced to five years in federal prison. But, instead of turning himself over to authorities, he fled, thus becoming a fugitive for more than 30 years.

The St. Louis Connection

Howard Mechanic is Seavey’s protagonist, and she tells his story so gracefully by introducing her long list of antagonists, which includes the city of St. Louis itself.

In My Fugitive, you will discover connections about St. Louis as a crucible in the legacy of Dr. King that no one has given light to.  These aren’t really new revelations, but they have been buried for so long, they feel brand new. The Rays were a St. Louis family and their bar, the Grapevine Tavern, on Arsenal Street became a hotbed for the ultra-rightwing machinations of the John Birch Society, the White Citizen’s Council, and the George Wallace for President Campaign.  Add to that the criminal element for which the Grapevine Tavern was legend (the name of the bar comes from the prison “Grapevine” which is the way inmates communicate) and you have a circumstance rife with criminal and political intrigue.

“The worrisome part for me of bringing these connections of St. Louis and the Ray family to the assassination investigation of Dr. Martin Luther King, would be the perception that somehow this is a “crazy tin hat” conspiracy theory,” said Seavey. “So my team and I were assiduously careful not to draw any conclusions ourselves but to quote from documents and allow the investigators in Congress who uncovered these connections (who are thankfully still alive) to reveal this material themselves. Included in this list of notable Congressional investigators is Vice President Walter Mondale who recently passed away, but not before he provided me with one of his last, and most insightful, interviews.

Listen to My Fugitive

That’s about all we can tell you. We don’t want to give too much away. You can listen to all 8 episodes right here.  My Fugitive on Audacy.