6. The Mysterious Death of Frank Olson

Top of the Hotel Pennsylvania

On November 28th, 1953, Frank Olson died after a fall from the window of room 1018a at the Hotel Pennsylvania, then the Hotel Statler. Olson worked as a bacteriologist for the Department of Defense. His death was initially deemed a suicide, but later reports would tie the incident to the CIA’s top secret mind control project MK-Ultra and illicit an apology from President Gerald Ford himself

Olson worked for the Special Operations Division of the Army’s Biological Laboratory at Fort Detrick and was part of the MK-Ultra project, a research operation started in the 1950s. Nine days before his death, Olson attended a Special Operations conference with other members of the CIA at Deep Creek Lake in Garrett County. There, CIA chemist Sidney Gottlieb and his deputy Robert Lashbrook served attendees drinks laced with LSD. The subjects were drugged without consent.

When Olson returned home from the conference, he was changed. He attempted to resign from his position at the CIA. In response to this request, the CIA sent Olson to New York with Gottlieb and Lashbrook to seek care from a doctor with experience in the effects of LSD. The doctor recommended that Olson be sent home for psychiatric treatment. That night, Olson called his wife to say he would be coming back. The next morning was the fateful fall.

Olson’s family was told that the fall was an accident or an intentional jump, but didn’t mention that Olson had been the unwitting participant in a drug experiment. That part of the story came out in 1975 when the Church Committee report released findings from an investigation into the practices of the CIA. That is when Olson’s family received an invitation to the White House where President Ford offered an apology in the oval office. The family also received a $750,000 settlement. Still, Olson’s sons weren’t satisfied with the narrative they were given by the CIA. Frank’s son Eric alleges that his father was murdered. The mysterious case is the subject of the 2017 Netflix documentary series, Wormwood, directed by award-winning filmmaker Errol Morris and starring Peter Sarsgaard, and the book A Terrible Mistake: The Murder of Frank Olson and the CIA’s Secret Cold War Experiments written by Olson’s nephew.