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Of Bobby Greenlease and malignant thoughtlessness

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 14, 2009 - Robert Cosgrove Greenlease Jr. was 6 years old n the early days of autumn, 1953. I was 8. Called Bobby, the little Greenlease boy was kidnapped and almost immediately thereafter killed by distinctly repulsive couple named Carl Hall and Bonnie Brown Heady. They demanded, and eventually received, a ransom of $600,000 in return for promises to return Bobby to his distraught parents.

Kansas City is not such a long way from Little Rock, Ark., where I was brought up, either in distance or culture. Wolves at the door were feared more by us than kidnappings in those days because of lingering memories of the Depression's effects on our household's finances. But all that changed with the Greenlease case, and around our breakfast table in the autumn and early winter of '53, talk shifted to the horror of this crime and how, as far as it concerned me, we couldn't be too careful. As I remember it, not a day went by that I was warned not to talk to strangers and if anyone should bother me, I was to scream bloody murder and to run away as fast as I could.

This reflected a swift and dramatic shift in attitudes about safety. Boys and girls of elementary school age in the 1950s had freedom almost unimaginable nowadays to middle class parents and children. The leash of parental control shortened smartly after Bobby Greenlease was snatched, and my supposition is such action was taken in not only at our house but also in much the same fashion in similar households all over the country.

What is so strange is that Bobby was rich, cosseted, sheltered, a naif, and he hadn't been snatched by someone driving by or a creep in a bathroom at the picture show. He was driven back and forth to school, and that school was a small Roman Catholic institute for young children. From it, he walked willingly out holding the hand of Bonnie Brown Heady, who went to the school in a taxicab to kidnap him. After taking the boy, Carl Hall and Heady murdered him and buried him in a shallow grave in Heady's backyard.

Both Hall and Heady were repulsive indeed. He was an ex-con who'd run through an inheritance and she was a barfly and a prostitute, and although those characteristics do not necessarily demand a person's being totally written off, Bonnie's and Carl's behavior went far beyond such shortcomings. What is so damnably appalling about them is neither ever seemed to understand, on a conscious level anyway, the gravity of their crime, the horror of it, the devastation caused by it, and they cruised together to the double-wide gas chamber prepared especially for them, evidencing neither remorse nor any particular regret at being the perpetrators of such a deed.

Because of my memories of 1953 - the fear of being snatched, the loss of independence and the coincidence of being a Bobby - I have always taken a keen interest in this crime.

Unless one's parents were truly asleep at the switch or genuinely feckless, the abduction of Bobby Greenlease from the French Institute of Notre Dame de Sion in Kansas City and his subsequent murder are etched indelibly on the psyches of men and women my age, so much so we continue, as adults, even as old people, to think twice about speaking to a stranger.

More compelling perhaps is the fact that as parents and grandparents we know the brand of quiet terror that grips you when your child is not where she or he is supposed to be at the moment he or she is supposed to be there. It is Greenleasean. The coincidences and connections and instinctual reactions are deeply affecting - and automatic.

Thus I am drawn to reading about Bobby Greenlease and the monstrous Heady and Hall, and when I heard that former St. Louisan John Heidenry had written a book about them I was delighted, and looked forward to reading it, not with pleasure so much as fascination. Its title is "Zero at the Bone," a reference to Emily Dickenson's "A Narrow Fellow in the Grass."

One particular strength of the book is the double portrait of Heady and Hall, limned literarily with every immoral crease, every hairy wart and every human psychopathological open wound described with macabre eloquence.

For those of us who live in St. Louis, other aspects of the book are tantalizing. The old Coral Court motel walks on from the preservationists' graveyard in a cameo role. The Congress West apartments are there, and mention is made of other landmark places such as Tower Grove Park. The Central West End of town is particularly prominent, because that is where the first part of the story concluded.

Brown and Heady, once arrested, were taken to the old Mounted Police station on the east side of Newstead, in the block between Laclede and West Pine. The ransom went in with them, or so it was reported, but half of it never came out. I had friends who lived in an apartment upstairs in this building, and another friend has a business on the first floor today. There are ghosts, some people say: No fooling.

I walk by this building often, and always think of Bobby Greenlease, and what a horrible thing it was that happened to him, and that by walking by this building and remembering all that, I am connected to his kidnapping and death even now, more than a half a century later.

Heidenry's book does much to remind me of the crime and the 1950s, but doesn't stir up old fears particularly. Most of us who lived through the Greenlease era, in spite of parental warnings,  are not afraid of strangers and speak to them, perhaps more than necessary, and kidnapping seems to be something that happens, but not to us.

The book's achievement is in its reinforcing a suspicion that evil may be, as Hannah Arendt supposed, a product of a malignant thoughtlessness. Certainly, in the cases of Brown and Heady, the description applies, "who cares" taken to felony. They seemed clueless, unacquainted with the basics of morality or even simple  human kindness.

Although the facts are pretty well known, and the FBI file is literate and sharp, and while the mystery of what happened to half the money has been settled, pretty much, Heidenry's account urges the reader to reflect on the more timeless issues and pungent issues, such as instances, local and epic, of malignant thoughtlessness and the power of anger and greed to drive us to kill other people, singular innocents named Bobby, or entire populations, innocent as well.