This article in its original form appeared in the For The Record column in Cryonics, February 1992. Last updated June 2010.
Lessons from the Early Years
By R. Michael Perry
[Note: This article mainly concerns failures in early cryonics organizations that are unrelated to the Alcor Life Extension Foundation.]
In highlighting the history of any movement, one expects to find the good, the bad, and the outrageous: heroism, stupidity, perseverance, malfeasance, setbacks, suffering, and triumph. Cryonics is no exception, and if you are looking for a darker side you will not be disappointed. In fact a fair amount of early cryonics history is tragic, shocking, and gruesome. This is for the simple reason that patients can thaw out and have. It was not easy to get people frozen and keep them that way, particularly when cryonics organizations were first starting up and people didn’t know just what they were getting into. A body that is not kept frozen is not a pleasant thing, even by non-cryonics standards, and the early failures were many.
Nevertheless these disasters need to be documented, if for no other reason than to make it less likely that such mistakes will happen again. The subject is complex and difficult to approach, and only a brief summary is possible. I will concentrate most on what happened — who was thawed, where, and when. Other issues such as who was at fault and by how much have their place but are not the main focus here. Another important issue is whether a suspension was viable in the sense of offering a realistic hope of eventual reanimation. Some of the early cases were done under adverse circumstances such as only after a long period of storage at above-freezing temperature. A suspension that was not viable from the start could not “fail” in the same sense as one that was, something which must temper our judgment on what happened. The issue of viability is another of those difficult matters that cannot be adequately addressed here, important though it is. (Critics of cryonics, of course, may doubt that any suspension even today could be “viable.”) It should be kept in mind too that accurate information on suspension failures is often hard to come by. I have talked with most of the people who were involved and have studied records, but more research is needed. What follows is the best reconstruction I am able to make of basic events, and I believe the dates are accurate within a year or two at worst.
There were three public organizations in the early days (starting in the 1960s) that handled or sponsored freezings and patient storage. Cryo-Care Equipment Corporation in Phoenix, Arizona (not the same as a more recent organization with similar name) was headed by Ed Hope and, unlike the others, built their own capsules, horizontal units on wheels for easy transport. Cryonics Society of New York (CSNY), New York City area, was headed by Curtis Henderson (and incidentally has the distinction of coining the term cryonics). Finally, there was Cryonics Society of California (CSC), Los Angeles area, a West-Coast imitator of CSNY that was headed by Robert Nelson, which actually did the first human freezing under cryonics-controlled (non-mortuary) conditions. Strictly speaking, CSNY and CSC, both non-profits, did not do freezings and patient storage directly, but handled these operations through sister for-profit organizations: Cryospan for CSNY and Cryonic Interment for CSC. (Late in CSC’s life its cryonics services were handled through another company, General Fluidics.)
Cryo-Care did not use cryoprotectants or perfusion with their patients but only did straight freezes to liquid nitrogen temperature. These freezings were advertised as being for cosmetic purposes rather than eventual reanimation , though the cryonics issue did naturally arise. Their first case, in April 1966, was the first instance of a human being frozen with at least some thought of the cryonics premise of eventual reanimation, though conditions were adverse and prospects discouraging, as was admitted. The patient, a still-unidentified, middle-aged woman from the Los Angeles area, was placed in liquid nitrogen some two months after being embalmed and stored at slightly above-freezing temperature in a mortuary refrigerator . Within a year she was thawed and buried by relatives . But Cryo-Care would also store a person suspended elsewhere, as they did with James Bedford, who was frozen in January 1967 by Nelson’s newly-formed organization and transferred by relatives. (Frozen quickly after death without embalming, with at least a crude attempt at cryoprotection by injections of perfusate and external heart massage, Bedford is often regarded as the first true cryonics case. Bedford also is still frozen today, unlike all the others frozen before 1974.)
Cryo-Care president Ed Hope was a wigmaker whose main interest in human freezing was financial. After some two years in the freezing business he saw it wasn’t going to turn a profit and opted out, turning any remaining patients over to other organizations or to relatives. One individual who had been briefly stored by him was Eva Schulman who was autopsied prior to being frozen early in 1968, and whose son hauled her around in a truck for a time, on dry ice. (Dry ice—solid carbon dioxide—is a far colder coolant than water ice but considerably warmer than liquid nitrogen which is commonly used for long-term storage of cryogenic specimens.) She was soon turned over to a mortuary by the son and buried. Another of his patients, Louis Nisco, was frozen in September 1967 after some damaging delay, and ended up at CSC because they offered the lowest storage rates. A third patient was Donald Kester, Sr., who committed suicide in July 1968. He was thawed and buried by his son a year or so later .
Robert Nelson meanwhile had frozen Bedford, who was promptly turned over to relatives, this being the reason he escaped eventual thawing (though relatives generally made poor prospects for long-term patient maintenance; Bedford’s case was exceptional. His very devoted son stored him at a succession of locations over some two decades before transferring both his care and custody to Alcor , where he remains today.) Over the next year and a half Nelson froze three others: Marie Phelps-Sweet, Helen Kline, and Russ Stanley, who were kept in dry ice at a mortuary.
By March 1969 the mortician who assisted Nelson, Joseph Klockgether, was very uncomfortable having the three bodies in dry ice on his premises, and Nisco’s capsule from Cryo-Care was on hand. So he and Nelson had the capsule cut open, removed Nisco and an interior support, then put Nisco and the other three back inside. I was told some were put in head first, some feet first, and “it was like putting together a Chinese puzzle.” The placement took most of a night. The bodies were not deliberately thawed but must have suffered substantial warming, though according to Klockgether they were still frozen . Then a welder resealed the capsule, which required a wait of several more hours, and it was refilled with liquid nitrogen. It remained at the mortuary another 14 months, tended by Klockgether, who refilled it periodically. This caused increasing problems, however, because of the liquid nitrogen delivery trucks which showed up frequently (a very unusual occurrence at a mortuary).
Nelson meanwhile purchased an underground vault at a cemetery in Chatsworth, a suburb on the northwest side of Los Angeles. The lid of the vault could be opened for placement of human cryogenic capsules; a smaller hatch allowed more limited access for periodic maintenance, including refilling with liquid nitrogen. Both the earlier-style, horizontal capsules and the later uprights could be accommodated. On May 15, 1970, the horizontal Nisco capsule with the four inside was lowered into the vault . Nelson, in a court document, stated that despite the fact that funds to maintain the capsule were no longer being supplied by relatives, he maintained it “for an additional one-and-a-half years” . It appears then that he quietly let the four bodies thaw, not later than around the end of 1971.
CSNY froze their first patient, Steven Mandell, in July 1968. His capsule, a horizontal, Cryo-Care unit like Nisco’s, was eventually removed by his mother, who wanted to pay lower rates, and sent to Nelson. Their next, Andrew Mihok in November 1968, only remained frozen (at dry ice temperature) for two weeks before relatives refused to pay and instead had him thawed [9, 10]. Their third freezing was of Ann DeBlasio in January 1969. Eventually (August 1971 ) she was removed from CSNY by her husband, Nicholas, and placed in an underground vault in New Jersey, which Nelson helped set up.
CSNY’s fourth case, Paul Hurst (March 1969), would be terminated when his son who was funding it moved to Australia and no longer wanted to make payments. Before this another patient, Herman Greenberg (May 1970), would be stored in the same capsule.
Greenberg’s daughter Beverly, who used the stage name Gillian Cummings, was only in her teens when he suddenly died but fought vigorously to arrange his cryopreservation, which involved digging his newly-buried body out of the ground with the help of a backhoe. Beverly pursued a career in filmmaking as far as her meager finances allowed, while working at odd jobs and living frugally to make ends meet. Her free-lance lifestyle came to a tragic end in November 1973 when she died under mysterious circumstances at the CSNY facility, possibly a victim of hypothermia. She had been sleeping in her truck in the unheated building only a few feet from her father’s capsule. At the time she had not made suspension arrangements, even though she was the vice president of CSNY and clearly wanted the procedure for herself. But none of her living relatives were interested in cryonics or making the payments; her father was reburied and she for her trouble was cremated .
CSNY's sixth case, Clara Dostal (December 1972), was maintained on dry ice for nearly a year. There were some overtures to Nelson during this time to arrange for permanent storage in liquid nitrogen; these came to naught. She was then transferred to the capsule that had been occupied by Hurst and Greenberg, where she remained for a few more months in liquid nitrogen, but her two children were unhappy with the cost and the emotional burden, and had her buried.. Finally, in April 1974 CSNY suspended Michael Baburka, Sr., who was then stored privately by his son for a few months before being thawed and, still in his capsule, buried .
CSNY stored their patients above ground and they were reasonably well-cared-for. Moreover, although relatives funded the suspensions, they were also required to furnish the storage capsules, and would receive these capsules back if funding terminated. CSNY did not take direct responsibility for thawing a patient, but physical custody would be transferred first, usually to a relative, a policy that protected against the sort of legal action that would later be brought against CSC.
Robert Nelson meanwhile had frozen two individuals, Mildred Harris (September 1970), and an 8-year-old girl, Genevieve de la Poterie (January 1972).
Genevieve de la Poterie
Both were kept on dry ice for awhile. When Steven Mandell arrived (see above), his capsule was opened and these two were placed inside along with the original patient. (Possibly the capsule arrived before the freezing of the little girl.) The capsule was then stored in the Chatsworth crypt with the now-abandoned Nisco capsule. As was generally true with these early capsules, this one had problems with the vacuum insulation; frequent pumping was needed to harden the vacuum and keep the boiloff of liquid nitrogen to a reasonable rate. Evidently the capsule was not checked nearly as often as it should have been. Sometime around mid-1974 it was found to have failed and been without liquid nitrogen for “a long interval” . I would date the termination of its three suspensions from this time (or possibly earlier, if there were earlier failures of this sort), although the capsule was refilled and maintained, according to Nelson’s testimony, for several more years .
In October 1974 Nelson froze a six-year-old boy (name withheld), who had died of leukemia. Nelson handled the maintenance at first, then turned the task over to the boy’s father, who dealt directly with the liquid nitrogen supplier . When the capsule was opened it was still functional and in good condition. The body overall was in a good state of preservation but showed cracking damage which has been reported as evidence it was thawed and refrozen; instead the cause was likely the rapid quenching with LN2 that occurred initially, at the time of suspension . The body was placed in a casket and prepared for viewing by the family prior to burial .
In July 1976 Nelson froze a man, Pedro Ledesma, who had died the previous year and been kept by a relative in a mortuary refrigerator. Some ten months elapsed between death and freezing, so clearly the suspension was severely compromised from the start. Ledesma, however, was placed in the capsule in the crypt with the boy, and removed from suspension at the same time. (This capsule stood upright, with a removable lid; the two other, horizontal units were welded shut when in use.)
Nelson’s freezing operations ended with the thawing of Ledesma and the boy in April 1979. The local press became interested, and, it was said, forced open the crypt and, though finding no bodies in the areas they were able to access, made much of the general ruin and offensive conditions. “The stench near the crypt is disarming,” wrote one reporter, “strips away all defenses, spins the stomach into a thousand dizzying somersaults” . Nelson defended his actions, however. “I haven’t done anything criminal, anything wrong other than a lot of bad decisions. It didn’t work. It failed. There was no money. Who can guarantee that you’re going to be suspended for 10 or 15 years” .
A lawsuit, meanwhile, had been started by children of Mrs. Dostal. They had incurred expenses of over $2,000 for maintaining their mother on dry ice for what was to be the transfer to Nelson’s facility. When this didn’t occur they terminated the freezing and demanded reimbursement; Nelson’s offer to pay back the greater part in small monthly installments was rejected . At this point relatives of some of the patients that were stored in the crypt joined in the suit. In the five-week trial that followed, the court found against Nelson for fraud and against both Klockgether and Nelson for intentional infliction of emotional distress; a fine of nearly a million dollars was assessed . Klockgether’s insurance paid his share, amounting to $400,000. Nelson, who lacked insurance or substantial wealth, was able to negotiate the judgment based on procedural irregularities, and never paid anything  beyond attorney fees amounting to about $18,000. Some others, however, were peripherally involved and had nothing to do with the loss of the patients, yet also paid thousands of dollars in attorney fees.
In all there were nine frozen people stored—and thawed—at the Chatsworth site. Chatsworth became a byword for disaster in cryonics, and Nelson was excoriated as a liar, cheat, and even mass-murderer by some in cryonics, though others viewed him and his meagerly-funded operation more sympathetically. The kindly Klockgether, hurt by and rejecting the claim he had intentionally caused distress, was seen as mainly a victim of circumstance and did, in fact, provide valuable services in later cryonics cases not connected with Nelson.
Nicholas DeBlasio was living in the vicinity of New York City when his wife Ann died in January 1969. I understand his being a gun-toting policeman helped in prodding reluctant hospital officials to cooperate quickly in her freezing, which was carried out under sponsorship of CSNY. His wife was stored for a time on their New York premises, but Nelson convinced DeBlasio she could be maintained at a self-constructed facility more economically, and helped him set one up, a Chatsworth-style vault on a smaller scale, in a cemetery in Butler, New Jersey. The site, which became operational in August 1971, was tended by DeBlasio himself under an arrangement with CSC which allowed them to claim this East Coast location as an additional facility .
In November 1972 CSC froze a middle-aged, California woman (name withheld) who was transferred to the New Jersey site. She and Mrs. DeBlasio were stored for several years in an upright capsule which was checked only at intervals of seven weeks, when the previously filled capsule would have been nearly empty and in need of a major fill. The capsule had a two-piece, removable lid or neck plug, but an arrangement of steel fill pipes allowed liquid nitrogen to be added without opening the capsule, to facilitate the large volume of high-pressure, bulk-delivered liquid nitrogen that was required to complete filling the unit in a reasonable time. The uninsulated fill pipes had a drawback, however, in that heat conduction from the outside to the interior was greatly increased. One consequence besides increasing the boiloff of liquid nitrogen was icing of the lid which made it difficult to open the capsule for periodic inspections of the interior. These in turn were needed since the capsule had no instrumentation to indicate liquid nitrogen levels or interior temperature. (DeBlasio also had a personal motive to look inside since the patients were stored upright so he was able to see his frozen wife in an approximately lifelike pose.) CSC meanwhile folded and DeBlasio continued alone.
On one occasion around summer 1979 he used force of some kind on the lid, perhaps with a hammer or a heavy board, to break the ice so half of the lid could be removed. Unfortunately the rough handling caused a leak in the vacuum jacket of the capsule, and it soon boiled off its liquid nitrogen. Before the problem was recognized the bodies inside thawed and began to decompose. Despite the grim prospects the decision was made to continue the suspensions.
The capsule was recooled, either with liquid nitrogen or dry ice, refreezing the bodies, but the loss of the vacuum insulation caused a serious problem with water vapor condensation and further icing up which had to be addressed. Hasty repairs to the capsule were made which required removal of the bodies. It was found that, due to the ice buildup in the capsule and other causes this could only be accomplished by again thawing them out. After this they were refrozen and, when the repairs were complete, returned to the capsule. But in July 1980, after a second capsule failure with further decomposition, it was decided to terminate the suspensions and bury the patients. Mike Darwin, Joe Allen and personnel from a nearby mortuary were called in to dispose of the bodies and also reclaim the still-valuable capsule. Many hours were needed; a breathing apparatus was used when the capsule on its side had to be entered to remove the remains which had fallen to the bottom and frozen in place in a plug of body fluids .
It is worth noting that in most of the above cases funding was limited and inadequate; usually relatives were expected to meet the continued expenses of maintenance but didn’t. The relatives in turn were not signed up for the procedure themselves. The last suspension failure of this sort was of Samuel Berkowitz, who was frozen in July 1978 and stored at Trans Time’s facility in northern California. I understand that, as the relatives who were funding the suspension (again lacking arrangements themselves) began to lose interest and/or wherewithal, an offer was made to continue the suspension as a neuro (head-only) free of charge, but it was turned down. Instead in October 1983 they had Berkowitz thawed, submerged in formaldehyde, and buried that way . No attempt was made specifically to preserve the brain.
One important lesson to be drawn from this tale of woe is that cryonic suspensions should only be maintained by those who have a strong personal interest in being cryopreserved themselves and have made arrangements. This includes the financial backers as well as those in charge of daily care. Those who are personally committed generally have superior judgment and realize the advisability of the neuro option (head-only preservation) in cases where funds are limited. Such people will fight hard to maintain even someone they hardly knew, who is not a relative, as happened at Alcor during the Dora Kent crisis for instance. They are not afraid to take measures others squeamishly shun, when a patient’s survival is at stake. Neuroconversions carried out by such people have saved several patients whose funding ran out . Not one of the many suspension failures was a neuro.
Of seventeen documented freezings through 1973, all but one ended in failure, while maybe five or six later cases, some of them privately maintained, were later terminated (or were continued under questionable circumstances, such as attempted permafrost interment). In most of these cases, finances were a factor. One notable exception involved a woman frozen in 1990 at Alcor (name withheld), whose will, it was later discovered, stated she did not want to be frozen. Her cryonicist husband fought the case through the (California) courts, arguing that the will, which survived only in photocopy, had been revoked, but the decision went against him, and her body was committed to burial under court order in 1994 .
If there is a silver lining in this, it is shown in overall trends. Suspension failures once were tragically much the rule but now are quite rare. A failure involving a patient stored at a public facility seems unlikely, except in cases where the patient’s last wishes are disputed. (This is a good reason, of course, for those desiring cryopreservation for someone who may have little time left for making arrangements, to at least obtain that person’s informed consent in a clear, documented form.) Cryonics cases in turn have dramatically increased, even though absolute numbers remain small (roughly a dozen cases per year). There are still lessons to be learned, possibly quite painful ones, but cryonics seems to have entered a new era of strength, stability, and continued growth. Let’s hope this trend continues.
- Chicago Daily News Jan. 29, 1968, 4, reprinted in Freeze-Wait-Reanimate, Feb. 1968, 3.
- Freeze-Wait-Reanimate, May 1966, 1-2; Ted Kraver, “Notes on the First Human Freezing,” Cryonics Mar. 1989, 11-21; Robert F. Nelson and Sandra Stanley, We Froze the First Man, New York: Dell, 1968, 14, 17-20.
- Freeze-Wait-Reanimate, Feb. 1967, 4.
- Cryonics Reports Sep. 1968, 166; CFDA Newsbulletin Nov.-Dec. 1969, 2.
- Mike Darwin (Michael Federowicz), “Dear Dr. Bedford (and those who will care for you after I do),” Cryonics Jul. 1991, 15-22.
- Joseph Klockgether, Interview (part 1), Venturist Monthly News, Feb. 1996, 6.
- Los Angeles Superior Court case C-161229, records of Oakwood Memorial Park Cemetery, Chatsworth, Calif.
- Los Angeles Superior Court case C-161229, 2nd civil no. 63721; Appellant Robert F. Nelson’s settled statement ..., 10-12 (20 May 1982).
- Mike Doll, “Vestal Man is 10th 'Frozen' by Cryonics,” The Sun-Bulletin, Binghamton, N.Y. Thurs. Nov. 21, 1968.
- “Family Bars Freezing for Heart Victim,” The Suffolk Sun, Thurs. Dec. 5, 1968.
- “New Storage Facilities,” The Outlook, Sep. 1971, 1; “New East Coast Facility Opened,” Cryonics Review, Sep. 1971, 1.
- R. Michael Perry, “Remembering Beverly Greenberg,” The Venturist 4 Qtr 1998, 3-6; earlier version R. Michael Perry, “For the Record,” Cryonics 2 Qtr 1998, 41-44.
- Los Angeles Superior Court case C-161229, Deposition of Claire Halpert esp. 58, 71-72 (Aug. 4, 1978); Deposition of Richard Dostal esp. 64 (Mar. 22, 1979).
- The Immortalist, Nov. 1977, 2; Cryonics, Jun. 1981, 2; private sources.
- Los Angeles Superior Court case C-161229; Supplemental answers to interrogatories ..., 14 (July 22, 1980).
- Robert Nelson, interview, Physical Immortality 2 Qtr 2004, 18.
- Robert Nelson, private communication Apr. 7, 2008; Joseph Klockgether, private communication Jun. 19, 2009.
- Joseph Klockgether, Interview (part 3), Venturist Monthly News, Apr. 1996, 3.
- David Walker, “Valley Cryonic Crypt Desecrated, Untended,” The Valley News Sun. Jun. 10, 1979, Sec. 1, 11; quoted in Art Quaife, “Cryonic Interment Patients Abandoned,” The Cryonicist! Oct. 1979, 2.
- Quoted in David Walker, “Former Head of Cryonics Society Defends Actions,” The Valley News Wed. Jun. 13, 1979, 1.
- Los Angeles Superior Court case C-161229, promissory note of Robert Nelson and related material. David Walker, “Cryonic Sleep Remains Afloat in a Sea of Mystery,” The Valley News Sun. Jun. 10, 1979, Sec. 1, 1, 10.
- Los Angeles Superior Court case C-161229, Judgment on Verdict in Open Court (Long Form) D-14 (Jun. 5, 1981).
- Robert Nelson, interview, Physical Immortality 2 Qtr 2004, 20. Nelson says he filed an appeal, then dropped it in return for an agreement that the case against him would not be pursued. In the introduction to the interview I reported Nelson “lost” his appeal, but court documents actually show that the appeal was “dismissed,” apparently as part of a voluntary agreement.
- “New East Coast Facility Opened,” Cryonics Review, Sep. 1971, 1.; see also “New Storage Facilities,” The Outlook, Sep. 1971, 1; “Genevieve de la Poterie Suspended in Los Angeles,” Cryonics Review, Feb. 1972, 2; and The Outlook “directory” issues: Jan. 1973, 12; Jan. 1974, 11; Jan. 1975, 8.
- Michael Darwin (Federowicz), “A Question of Time,” Cryonics Mar. 1981, 4-6.
- Michael Darwin (Federowicz) and Stephen Bridge, “Berkowitz Removed from Suspension: Lawsuit Settled,” Cryonics, Dec. 1983, 1-2.
- Michael Federowicz, Hugh Hixon, and Jerry Leaf, “Postmortem Examination of Three Cryonic Suspension Patients,” Cryonics, Sep. 1984, 16-28.
- Carlos Mondragón, “Paperwork Counts!,” Cryonics, 3rd Qtr 1994, 13.
See also R. Michael Perry, “For the Record,” Cryonics, 4th Qtr 1998, 35-39 (includes additional references).
I am also indebted to those who, in one way or another, contributed other verbal or unpublished written material used in this article, mainly: Fred and Linda Chamberlain, Mike Darwin, Paul Genteman, Curtis Henderson, Saul Kent, Joseph Klockgether, Ted Kraver, and Robert Nelson.