Searching for James Shelby Downard
by Adam Gorightly
Dr. Richard B. Spence is a Professor of History at the University of Idaho and past department chair. His specialties include Russian, military and espionage history and one of his most popular courses deals with the role of conspiracies and secret societies in history. His major published works include Boris Savinkov: Renegade on the Left (East European Monographs/Columbia Univ. Press, 1991), Trust No One: The Secret World of Sidney Reilly (Feral House, 2002) and Secret Agent 666: Aleister Crowley, British Intelligence and the Occult (Feral House, 2008). He also co-authored with Walter Bosley, Empire of the Wheel: Espionage, The Occult and Murder in Southern California (Corvos, 2011). In addition, he is the author of many articles in Revolutionary Russia, Intelligence and National Security, International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence, American Communist History, The Historian, New Dawn and other publications. He has been interviewed in Coast to Coast AM and various other programs and has been a commentator/consultant for the History Channel, the International Spy Museum, Radio Liberty, and the Russian Cultural Foundation.
To follow is some ace detective work, courtesy of Dr. Spence, as he traces the enigmatic and controversial background of gonzo conspiracy theorist and lifelong adversary of Freemasonry, James Shelby Downard. For those unfamiliar with the man, Downard co-authored the infamous underground classic, King Kill 33, which contends that JFK’s assassination was an orchestrated Freemasonic conspiracy conducted on the 33rd latitude as a ritual sacrifice.
According to certain sources, Downard died in Memphis, TN in 1998, although there are those who suspect he never actually existed, a mere literary invention of those who claimed to be his colleagues: Michael Anthony Hoffman (co-author of King Kill 33), William Grimstad (aka Jim Brandon) and Feral House publisher, Adam Parfrey.
In the course of researching my book James Shelby Downard’s Mystical War, I eventually arrived at the conclusion that Mr. Downard was most likely constructed of flesh and bone -- or at least as far as I could determine. However, in the deep, dark recesses of my mind, I’ll probably never be completely convinced about Mr. Downard, just because he cut such a surreal swath in his 80 something years on this planet…or at least that’s what his literary inventors would want us to believe!
With these conundrums stuck naggingly in his craw, Dr. Spence lunges boldly forward in an attempt to tackle these questions and take us closer to unraveling the mystery that was James Shelby Downard’s life.
Anyone who has dipped a foot into the murky waters of conspiracy theory has more than likely encountered a reference to James Shelby Downard. In a realm where the bizarro-meter is usually set pretty high, Downard goes straight to “11.” For the uninitiated, suffice it to say that Downard’s writings, most notably his autobiographical The Carnivals of Life and Death (hereafter, Carnivals), purport to unveil a nightmarish nexus of Masonic Sorcery, mystical toponomy, Call to Chaos sexual depravity and the Eternal Pagan Psycho-Drama lurking just beneath the surface of simple, homespun American reality. i If Downard’s world was a movie, it could only be directed by David Lynch.
It’s easy, and comforting, to dismiss James Shelby Downard as a charlatan or a nut or some amalgam of both. His claims and stories are often so improbable, or just ludicrously absurd, that one is stunned as much by their audacity as their improbability. I’ll confess that Carnivals was probably the only book I’ve actually thrown against a wall out of sheer disgust that anyone would expect me to swallow such a pile of horseshit. Yet I always picked it up again. Maybe I was hoping he would reveal it was all a bad dream, but mostly it was just weirdly fascinating, and more than a little disturbing; a bad acid-trip blending of Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland.
But I’ll also confess that Downard awakened dim memories of things in my own home town that I’d heard my parents and grandparents whisper about. As crazy as Downard seemed, I was left with the nagging question: how much of what he said or hinted at could be true? What is undeniable is that Downard’s writings are larded with real people, places and events, often ones that fall well outside the realm of common knowledge. If Downard was crazy, he was a knowledgeable crazy.
Some have argued that James Shelby Downard never existed, that he is a literary hoax concocted to advance some peculiar agenda.ii And at first glance, there does seem reason to wonder. An actual record of his 1913 birth does not seem to exist, but then his natal state of Oklahoma didn’t even require birth registration until 1917. I can vouch that my own mom, born a couple of years after Downard in a neighboring county had no genuine birth certificate. I can also vouch that she definitely existed. Harder to explain is the apparent absence of his 1996 death from the Social Security Death Index. So, in some respects, Downard is the Man Who Wasn’t There. However, as this article will detail, the larger public record not only verifies his physical existence but also substantiates many of the basic details he gave about himself and others. And it reveals a few other things besides.
In my research, I spend a good deal of time trolling passenger lists, census records, investigation files and similar databases trying to piece together the movements and associations of spies and other shady types. It can be tedious and frustrating work, but frequently rewarding and sometimes revelatory. Using the same techniques, I decided to see what I could turn up on Downard.iii This is what I found.
It seems appropriate to start with Downard’s roots. If nothing else, his memoir reveals a very curious relationship with his parents. His mother seems to be continually setting him up to be abused or worse while dad lurks as a rather mysterious, almost furtive, figure on the margins of the story. The implication is that the continuous assaults on little James Shelby were some sort of payback or debt stemming from Papa Downard’s dealings with malevolent freemasons and other “sinister forces.” Despite this, young Downard seems unwaveringly and bewilderingly devoted to both parents.
Downard’s paternal grandfather was William James Downard who was born in Pennsylvania around 1844. The 1850 Census shows him living in Salt Creek, Ohio, a small township west of Canton, with his mother, Rebecca Downard and two older sisters. No Mr. Downard is indicated, nor does one show up in the 1860 Census where Mrs. Downard and her now teenage son are residing in Cardington Township north of Columbus. While it’s not explicitly indicated, the logical assumption is that Mrs. Downard was a widow which means, of course, that William was a widow’s son. That gives him something in common with the Widow’s Son of Masonic legendry, Hiram Abif. A mere coincidence, maybe, but one has to wonder what William’s grandson would make of it.
Move ahead another ten years and the now 26 year old William Downard has served in the Union Army’s 3rd Ohio Cavalry during the Civil War and continued the slow migration across Ohio by settling in Wapakoneta, yet another small town just south of Lima. He has become a dentist, a rather prosperous one, and acquired a wife, Harriet and a one year old son, James Shelby Downard. This original version of the boy’s name is worth noting because in the 1880 Census it shifts to Shelby J. Downard. We can be sure that it’s the identical youngster because his parents and address are exactly the same. This is the Grandpa Downard mentioned in Carnivals and the man whose hand-me-down pistol would get his grandson out of real or imagined predicaments.
The Downard family is absent from the 1890 count, but both father and son featured prominently in the local press in the years following. On 21 July 1892, for instance, the Lima Daily News reported that Dr. Downard had assumed half ownership in the Wapakoneta Times and that his son, Shelby, would serve as its editor-in-chief.iv Almost exactly two years later, the Lima paper thought it worthy of note that Shelby Downard was leaving on a month’s sojourn in the mountains of Tennessee and Virginia. Similar items during the 90s mention his trips to Detroit and the Great Lakes. Clearly he was considered a person of some importance. On Christmas Day 1896 the Lima Times Democrat noted that young Mr. Downard was offering a public “Discourse on Philosophy,” and on 23 March 1897 the paper recounted his debate with the Rev. R. J. Thomsen on the question “Has England’s Foreign Policy Advanced Civilization?” Shelby Downard argued the negative. So, he was important, and opinionated. Perhaps most intriguing, though, is a 15 October 1895 item in the Times Democrat that notes Shelby’s delivery of a paper to the local Philosophical Society on the theme of “Occult Philosophy.” His aim seems to have been to attack and “totally explode” Theosophist and kindred beliefs. One has to wonder who this might have antagonized.
By 1900, the whole family had relocated to Ottawa, Ohio where Shelby listed his occupation as “literary writer.” He was evidently a young man with artistic and intellectual pretensions and some education. He also seems to have become miraculously younger. His age is listed as 29 when he really should have been at least 31. In any case, this thirty-ish fellow was unmarried and living with his parents which was not exactly the norm of the day. But over the next few years there was a major shift in Shelby’s direction. The would-be intellectual and writer somehow became an expert on asphalt and opened a mining and paving business in southern Oklahoma. Did some personal crisis or tragedy lay behind the move? If so, did it have anything to do with the harassment that would seem to dog Shelby and his family for years to come?
The younger Downard was already well-situated in Ardmore in October 1904 when he wed Naomi Wilhelm, about a dozen years his junior and a native of Ballinger, Texas.v In 1906, she gave birth to the couple’s first child, daughter Dorothy Ann, and in 1913 to our hero, James Shelby Downard, Jr. By 1910, Dr. Downard had retired from dentistry and was the superintendent of his son’s asphalt mines outside Ardmore. He died sometime prior to 1913 when his wife began collecting a widow’s pension. His son, now about 41, and once more listed as James Shelby Downard, was president of the Shelby Downard Asphalt Co. A letter in the 4 Feb. 1910 Ada Evening News boasted that he was “one of the highest if not the highest on rock asphalt in the country” and noted that he had successfully handled paving contracts, in Ardmore, Ft. Worth, Paris, Texas and Kansas City , Missouri and Kansas. This meshes with the details Downard offers in Carnivals.vi
Curiously, in 1910, the family also hosted a boarder, a 22 year old Hungarian named Jaly Goldsmith or Goldschmidt, a retail jeweler by trade. Goldsmith was likely Jewish, and Downard mentions that his father had at least one Jewish friend in Ardmore, local businessman Max Westheimer. Census data confirms Westheimer’s existence, and that of his married daughter Dorothy (not Doris) Neustadt, also mentioned by Downard. Young Downard latter expressed deep mistrust of Westheimer, even speculating that he might have been the mysterious “Jew who had once paid to have me killed.”vii Or might that have been Goldsmith, if anyone?
The 1920 Census shows the family still in Ardmore. Father’s name is once more Shelby J. Downard and his profession now listed as “asphalt expert.” According to Downard, the mounting threat to himself and his father from the local Klan, which he dubs a “quasi-Masonic criminal fraternity,” soon forced them to pull up stakes.viii By Downard’s chronology, the family fled to Dallas in 1922. However, the 1921 Dallas Directory shows Shelby Downard already residing at 824 Starr St., the same street Downard gives as the later family address. But Downard also notes that daddy left Ardmore some time in advance of the rest of the family, so it makes sense that he would have set up a place in Dallas before they arrived. Again, Downard’s account holds water when it comes to basic facts concerning time and place and people.
Downard is again on the mark when he mentions his father’s Patent #1662377, which was a “Process for producing asphalt paving mixtures.”ix Downard Sr. applied for the patent in 1923 and it was published in 1928.
According to Downard’s recollection, in 1926 the family relocated to Louisville, Kentucky and by the end of the decade had moved again to Ft. Thomas, KY, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. The 1930 Census places them there on South Ft. Thomas Ave. Son “Shelby Downard” (no James or J indicated) is now 16. His birthplace has shifted from Oklahoma to Texas. Mother Naomi seems to have shaved a few years off her age. But Papa Downard has gone through a radical and frankly bizarre transformation. He’s no longer a James or a Shelby at all, but Donald J. Downard. The birthplace of his parents has also shifted from Pennsylvania to Ohio. His age, at least, is consistent and his profession, “Technologist, asphalt” still in the ballpark. Why the change in name; was the elder Downard trying to hide from something, or someone? In any event, the death certificate reproduced in Carnivals affirms that J.S. Downard, born in Wapakoneta Ohio, hanged himself in the Oxford Retreat mental asylum in April 1933.x Son Downard seems uncertain as to whether it was the simple suicide of a tortured soul or an occult murder carried out by the dark forces that had so long tormented his father.
Also peculiar is the behavior of his mother, who right after her husband’s tragic demise decided to take a trip to Europe; to bury her grief, celebrate her freedom, or for some other murky purpose? It was an adventurous move for a middle-aged widow who had, so far as can be told, never set foot outside the US before. Her travel is confirmed by passenger and immigration records which show she return to New York from Boulogne on 28 Aug. 1933.
Downard’s Carnivals describe a couple of incidents in the 1925-31 period that deserve closer attention. The first involves a figure he dubs “Monster Manby.” As told, in 1925 the eleven year-old Downard accompanied his sister’s then fiancé, Charles Schalings, to Taos, New Mexico where Schalings engaged in a “face off” with Manby who was a “Masonic con-man” and “the head of a secret society and everyone was scared of him.”xi Arthur Rochford Manby was absolutely real and even Downard’s imagination would have been hard pressed to conjure up someone more bizarre and menacing.xii Writer Jim Brandon aptly described Manby as an “odd amalgam cultivated English gentleman, secret society adept, and vicious robber baron.”xiii He did, indeed, run his own secret society, the full name of which was the “United States Secret and Civil Service, Self-Supporting Branch” which Manby insisted was a local auxiliary of a (non-existent) U. S. Intelligence Department in D.C.xiv Among other things, he also assured his minions that he was in regular contact with a mysterious airship that brought him vital messages.xv Manby was ruthless, murderous and paranoid, and in 1925 his Secret Service was in full swing and charged with protecting him from the swarms of hired killers he believed or claimed his enemies were launching against him. After his death, or whatever it was, investigators discovered Manby’s private burial ground where he disposed of the decapitated corpses of his victims.xvi What could be more Downardian?
However, Downard is off-base on a few things. His claim that Manby actually died in 1925 is baseless. He was very much alive and working his tricks and schemes right up to July 1929 when his decomposed, headless body, if it really was his, was discovered in his Taos home. Also, there is no record of any Charles Schalings or, for that matter, of anyone with the surname Schalings at all. Checking out alternatives like Schallings, Schaling, and Shaling yields a few hits, but none really fit the person described by Downard. This is atypical, since most persons mentioned by Downard can be identified.
The second incident occurs in 1931 and is arguably one of the creepiest in the book. Downard is persuaded to recover a stash of “grave goods” from a crypt in St. Stephen Cemetery outside Ft. Thomas. The crypt in question was supposed to be the resting place of Dr. Simon Pendleton Kramer. A not insignificant discrepancy is that St. Stephen is a Catholic graveyard and the good Doctor was Jewish. But the big problem was that Kramer was still very much alive. In fact, there was only Kramer buried in St. Stephen in 1931, a child who died in 1915.xvii
Dr. Simon P. Kramer was a noted neurologist and brain surgeon and a professor at the Cincinnati College of Medicine.xviii As Downard soon discovered, Kramer lived until 1940 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in recognition of his long service to the U.S. Army. According to Downard, he was inveigled to loot the tomb by someone claiming to be Dr. Kramer’s son. Simon Kramer, in fact had two sons, Simon Paul and Vincent H., both, interestingly, almost exactly the same age as Downard. Simon Paul Kramer, for whatever it may be worth, would go on to have a very interesting career as a spy, among other things.xix
The tomb, whosever it was, also contained a strange mechanical device bearing the name “Dayton Witch.” Downard supposed it was some sort coding/decoding machine or a “calculator for Army logistics.”xx In that regard, it’s worth noting that just outside nearby Dayton, Ohio was the then Wilbur Wright Field, which would later become part of today’s massive Wright-Patterson AFB. From 1918, Wright field had been the base of the Army Air Service’s experimental engineering program, and in 1931 it housed the Air Corps’ Materiel Division. Could the “Dayton Witch” have had some connection to this?
However, perhaps the most puzzling aspect of the crypt caper, even to Downard, was his discovery among the grave goods of various books bearing the name “James Shelby Downard” and addressing arcane topics like “telepathy and mind control,” “magnetic lines,” “atomic piles” and codes and ciphers.xxi Downard’s first thought was that his father might have authored them, but the old man denied it and seemed repelled by them—except for one. Assuming Downard isn’t indulging in full-blown fantasy, his initial hunch may have been right. Remember that before he became an asphalt tycoon, the elder J. S. Downard had been a “literary writer” and a man of diverse interests. Could these weird tomes have been his youthful creations, privately printed and long hidden away? Did his aversion to them perhaps stem from the fact that they reminded him of a time and circumstances he’d long tried to forget—or escape?
Downard’s quandary over the tomb books does raise and interesting questions—was there another, that is, third, James Shelby Downard? Based on census and other relevant records, the answer is a definite no. However, there was a plain James Downard born in Jackson, Ohio, about 90 miles due east of Ft Thomas, in 1915 and he was the son of a James R. Downard. Neither appears to have been literarily inclined. Then there is Shelby W. Downard, a contractor who lived in Galveston, Texas. He was, though, born in Kentucky not far from Ft. Thomas. He was roughly the same age as J. S. Downard, Sr. and he too had one son, Alva C. Downard.
Whatever it may mean, Galveston, Texas does show up on Downard’s memoir as the starting point for a very unpleasant voyage on a sulphur freighter. The man who helped him get the job on the ship was a “friend” of his mother, Col. George H. Bunker. Downard correctly connects Col. Bunker with the Interstate Amiesite Co. a firm that controlled his father’s paving patent. Downard also describes the Colonel as someone “who knew a lot of rich, influential and famous people.”xxii This much is certainly true: Bunker was a one-time commander of the American Legion and a collaborator of the FBI which argues that he did indeed have connections in high—and secretive—places.xxiii
Downard’s memoir ends in 1935, but public records yield a few more clues about where he was and what he was doing through and immediately following WWII. The 1942 Chattanooga, TN, City Directory shows J. Shelby Downard as a U.S. Army x-ray technician living at 1005 S. Crest Rd. The only major military installation in the vicinity was nearby Ft. Oglethrope, Georgia, and in 1942 it was home to the 63rd Surgical Hospital. However, just two years later he appears in the St. Petersburg, Florida Directory as a “bacteriologist” and, apparently, a civilian. How did he go from x-ray tech to bacteriologist in such a short time? Moreover, could any of this somehow relate to an earlier connection to Dr. Kramer and the Army hospital in Ft. Thomas?
But the ‘44 directory includes another, intriguing, detail, the name of a spouse—Ann. This must be a reference to Anne Witwer, a woman Downard claimed to have married in the late 30s and whom he later lamented as “The Great Whore” for her supposed Sex Magic seduction by malevolent Masonic forces.xxiv The only other apparent record pertaining to this union is the Florida Divorce Index, which records a 1945 decree issued in 1945 in Pinellas County to James Shelby Downard and unnamed spouse.
Any additional information about Witwer is elusive. There are several Anne or Ann Witwers who show up in records but all too young or too old to be Downard’s bride. The only one who might possibly fit the bill is an Ann P. Witwer, born 1912, who died in Prescott Arizona in 2000. Curiously, a Deborah Anne Witwer, born 1945, registered marriages in Pinellas County in 1966 and 1971. What would J. Shelby Downard make of that?
So, we come back to where we started. However delusional Downard may have been his fantastic adventures are woven around a framework of real places, people and events. The memories of his childhood, at least so far as where he lived and when, are remarkably accurate. What other truths may lurk in his writing, we are left to wonder.
i James Shelby Downard, The Carnivals of Life and Death, Los Angeles: Feral House, 2006. Downard’s best-known or most notorious work is his rumination on the JFK assassination, “King-Kill/33: Masonic Symbolism in the Assassination of John F. Kennedy.” This is available in various places and forms, including http://www.naderlibrary.com/seldes.kingkilltoc.htm. For a basic introduction to Downard and his ideas, see Adam Gorightly, James Shelby Downard's Mystical War, College Station, TX: Virtualbookworm Publishing, 2008.
ii See, for instance, “Did James Shelby Downard ever really exist?” at http://www.abovetopsecret.com/forum/thread301480/pg1.
iii A wide array of public record databases are available online, including census records (up to 1930), and records for births, deaths and marriage, immigration, passports and draft registrations, among others. This information is digitized, searchable and available through providers such as Ancestry.com who charge a fee for access. Most of the data I cite was derived from Ancestry databases. All records are to some degree incomplete and subject to errors and omissions.
iv This and the other press articles cited are accessible through Ancestry.com.
v Carnivals, 92, includes a wedding announcement from an unidentified Ardmore paper.
vi See in particular page 38.
vii Carnivals, 44.
viii Carnivals, 37.
x Carnivals, 142.
xi Carnivals, 36, 89.
xii The only substantive work on Manby is Frank Waters, To Posses the Land: A Biography of Arthur Rochford Manby, Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1973.
xiv Waters, 192.
xv Waters, 192-193.
xvi Inez Wallace, “The Strange Death of Mysterious Mr. Manby,” The American Weekly, 29 July, 1943.
xviii “DR. SIMON P. KRAMER, CINCINNATI SURGEON; University Professor, Served in World, Spanish-American Wars,” New York Times, 12 April 1940.
xix Joe Holley, “S. Paul Kramer, 93; Writer, Secret Agent, Businessman,” Washington Post, 15 April 2008
xx Carnivals, 145.
xxi Carnivals, 147.
xxii Carnivals, 228.
xxiii FBI file on Claude McKay, #61-34397, Pt. I, p. 15, Report of F.L. Parker and J. C. Meekins, 17 April 1923.
xxiv Gorightly, 20.
Dr. Richard B. Spence is a Professor of History at the University of Idaho and department chair. His specialties include Russian, military and espionage history and one of his most popular courses deals with the role of conspiracies and secret societies in history. His major published works include Boris Savinkov: Renegade on the Left (East European Monographs/Columbia Univ. Press, 1991), Trust No One: The Secret World of Sidney Reilly (Feral House, 2002) and Secret Agent 666: Aleister Crowley, British Intelligence and the Occult (Feral House, 2008). He also co-authored with Walter Bosley, Empire of the Wheel: Espionage, The Occult and Murder in Southern California (Corvos, 2011). In addition, he is the author of many articles in Revolutionary Russia, Intelligence and National Security, International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence, American Communist History, The Historian, New Dawn and other publications. He has been interviewed in Coast to Coast and numerous other programs and has been a commentator/consultant for the History Channel, the International Spy Museum, Radio Liberty, and the Russian Cultural Foundation.