Grace Muriel Earhart Morrissey, Amelia’s favorite childhood companion and her only sibling, is an often-overlooked character in the Earhart saga. Unlike Amelia, Muriel was blessed to live out a long, productive life, dying at 98 at her West Medford, Mass., home. She was a unique individual in her own right, and deserves to be remembered.
“Muriel Morrissey was a charter member of the Medford Zonta Club, a worldwide service organization of executive women in business and the professions, founded in 1919,” wrote Carol L. Osborne, who, with Muriel, co-wrote Amelia: My Courageous Sister, self-published by Osborne in 1987.
“During Muriel’s long teaching career,” Osborne continued in her tribute to Muriel that appears on the website of the Ninety-Nines, the elite women’s pilot group that Amelia co-founded with Louise Thaden in 1929, “she published numerous articles in professional education magazines, was a member of the Massachusetts Poetry Society and the author of several poems, including ‘First Day,’ ‘To AE,’ and ‘Labor-in Vain No More.’
“In 1976, her ‘Bicentennial Reverie’ received a Freedom Foundation Award. She wrote a poem which was read at the dedication of a new school named for her sister Amelia, and a narrative poem, ‘By the Gentle Flowing Mystic’ as a feature of the celebration of Medford’s 350th anniversary.”
Muriel wrote an earlier biography of Amelia, Courage is the Price, in 1963, and in 1983 she wrote and self-published The Quest of A Prince of Mystic Henry Albert Morrissey “The Chief,” the biography of her beloved husband.
Muriel could never have dreamed the way her life would change after Amelia’s tragic loss, and we can only imagine how she agonized over her sister’s disappearance. The massive publicity, unwanted attention, false leads and dead ends that the never-ending search for her famous sister created must have brought her to the brink on many occasions. At least, this is the “conventional wisdom” about Muriel, as well as her mother, Amy Otis Earhart; George Putnam, Amelia’s husband; and Mary Bea Noonan, Fred’s widow.
It could well have been that way, but some researchers, including this one, have wondered whether Muriel, Amy, Putnam and Mary Bea could have been let in on the truth about Amelia’s Saipan fate by the feds and sworn to secrecy and silence in exchange for the kind of closure that families of missing loved ones long and pray for.
Telling the Earhart and Noonan families the sad truth would have made sense for the feds from a practical standpoint: With the Earhart and Noonan families fully informed, the government wouldn’t have to deal with the messy and noisy distractions they could have created in the media had they been kept on the outside of the establishment stonewalls that Fred Goerner nearly broke though during his early 1960s investigations.
We have Amy Otis Earhart’s statement to the Los Angeles Times in July 1949, in which she revealed that she knew almost precisely what had happened to Amelia: “I am sure there was a Government mission involved in the flight, because Amelia explained there were some things she could not tell me. I am equally sure she did not make a forced landing in the sea,” Amy said. “She landed on a tiny atoll – one of many in that general area of the Pacific – and was picked up by a Japanese fishing boat that took her to the Marshall Islands, under Japanese control.”
And five years earlier, writing to Neta Snook, Amelia’s first flight instructor, Amy left no doubt that she was quite well informed about her daughter’s fate, and we discussed this in our Dec. 9, 2014 post, Amy Earhart’s stunning 1944 letter to Neta Snook, which included this from Amy:
You know, Neta, up to the time the Japs tortured and murdered our brave flyers, I hoped for Amelia’s return; even Pearl Harbor didn’t take it all away, though it might have, had I been there as some of my dear friends were, for I thought of them as civilized.
Amy lived with Muriel in West Medford from 1946 until her death in 1962 at age 93, so it’s safe to assume that Muriel knew everything that Amy did. Thus, for the government to have officially shared the truth with the Earharts would not have been surprising.
After all, despite the media’s insistence that Amelia’s fate has been a “great aviation mystery” from the first moments of her loss, the truth about her Marshalls and Saipan presence and death has been an open secret since Goerner presented it for all to see in his 1966 bestseller, The Search for Amelia Earhart. Since Goerner’s book, 50 years of investigations have added a mountain of witness testimony that has illuminated the obvious for all but the most obtuse or agenda-driven.
Just when this may have occurred is anyone’s guess; they might have even been allowed to quietly bury Amelia and Fred in unmarked graves. No probative evidence has surfaced that supports this idea, but nothing we know precludes it, either. In fact, Muriel’s public statements to Fred Goerner, Thomas E. Devine and others in later years that she endorsed the Navy’s conclusions are far more surprising, in light of her mother Amy’s famous statements.
If a letter Goerner wrote to Muriel in 1966 is any indication, it’s clear the KCBS radio newsman didn’t believe that Muriel was privy to any inside information, at least at that time. That doesn’t mean Muriel hadn’t already been told about her sister’s sad end, only that Goerner didn’t think so. Below is his 1966 letter to Muriel, courtesy of Bill Prymak’s Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters, where it first appeared in the March 1998 edition
“An Eminent Researcher’s Poignant Letter to Amelia’s Sister”
Mrs. Albert Morrissey
One Vernon Street
West Medford, Massachusetts
August 31, 1966
Dear Mrs. Morrissey:
Your letter of the 27th meant a great deal to me. I can’t begin to tell you how I have agonized over continuing the investigation into Amelia’s disappearance and writing the book which Doubleday is just now publishing. I know how all of you have been tortured by the rumors and conjectures and sensationalism of the past years.
I want you to know that I decided to go ahead with the book last December at the advice of the late Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz who had become my friend and helped me with the investigation for several years. He said, “it (the book) may help produce the justice Earhart and Noonan deserve.“
The Admiral told me without equivocation that Amelia and Fred had gone down in the Marshalls and were taken by the Japanese and that this knowledge was documented in Washington. He also said that several departments of government have strong reasons for not wanting the information to be made public.
Mrs. Morrissey, regardless of what the State and Navy Departments may have told you in the past, classified files do exist. I and several other people, including Mr. Ross Game, the Editor of Napa, California REGISTER and Secretary of The Associated Press, actually have seen portions of these files and have made notes from their contents.
This material is detailed in the book. I am sure that we have not yet been shown the complete files, and General Wallace M. Greene, Jr., Commandant of the Marine Corps in Washington, refuses to confirm or deny the testimony of many former marines that the personal effects of Amelia and Fred and their earthly remains were recovered in 1944.
Please believe what I am saying. If justice is to be achieved, it may require your assistance. You know I have the deepest respect for Amelia and Fred. My admiration for their courage has no limits. They should receive their proper place in the history of this country. A San Francisco newspaper editor wrote the other day that Amelia and Fred should be awarded the Congressional Medals of Honor for their service to this country. I completely concur.
I shall be in Boston sometime toward the end of September or early October. I hope that I can meet with you at that time and bring you up to date on all of our efforts.
My very best wishes to you and “Chief.”
CBS News, KCBS Radio
San Francisco 94105
Goerner had known Muriel since October 1961, when he traveled to West Medford, Mass., to ask her for permission to submit the remains he had recovered on Saipan during his second visit there, about a month earlier, for anthropological analysis. For a time, Goerner thought it possible that the bones and teeth he excavated during his second Saipan visit, in September 1961, might have been those of the fliers, but he was soon disabused of that idea when Dr. Theodore McCown determined that the remains were those of several Asians.
Before he engaged with Muriel and her husband, Albert, better known as “Chief,” Muriel told Goerner she believed that Amelia “was lost at sea,” and that “a crash-landing on the ocean was more likely than capture by the Japanese.” But after her meeting with the charismatic newsman, Muriel changed her mind, and sent letters to officials granting Goerner permission to have the remains evaluated.
Thomas E. Devine, the late author of Eyewitness: The Amelia Earhart Incident, one of the most important Earhart disappearance books ever, had his own ideas about where Amelia was buried, and he visited Muriel in West Medford in mid-July 1961 to appeal to her for information she might have had about Amelia’s dental charts.
Devine described his visit with Muriel as pleasant, and before he left, she even gave him a portrait of Amelia. On the back of the photograph, Muriel wrote: “To Thomas Devine, who is genuinely and unselfishly interested in Amelia’s fate, I am happy to give this photograph of her.”
Otherwise, she told him that many years of false and irresponsible claims had taken their toll on the family, and she had resigned herself to accepting the Navy’s version that Amelia and Fred were lost at sea near Howland Island. Muriel’s generosity to Devine was short-lived; two years later, in 1963, she refused to grant him permission to exhume what he was convinced was the true gravesite on Saipan.
Devine’s visit with Amelia’s sister was memorable nonetheless, for reasons that could very well be directly related to the possible scenario suggested earlier. In a day filled with strange and unnerving occurrences, Devine only later realized he had been trailed — actually escorted — by ONI agents throughout his entire trip to West Medford.
In a scene oddly reminiscent of the day on Saipan in August 1945, when he was approached out of the blue and told to return to the states by airplane — an order he wisely refused to obey — Devine was picked out of a large crowd at the Boston train station by a cabby who told him he’d take him to West Medford for free. Without asking for Devine’s destination, the cabby deposited him within a block of Mrs. Morrissey’s house, saying, “This is as far as I go.”
When Devine asked the driver where Vernon Street was, the cabby pointed and told him, “That’s it, right up the hill. It’s that corner house.” When Devine said he was looking for “number one, Vernon Street,” the driver, as if clairvoyant, replied, “That’s it, the corner house on the hill, where Amelia Earhart’s sister lives.”
After their visit and just before Devine left, Muriel went to a window and raised and lowered a window shade to its full length. Saying she would return soon to say goodbye, she left the room to attend to her mother, who was bedridden and living in the Morrissey home. When Muriel left the room, Devine looked out the window. Standing a short distance from the house, he saw the same cabby who met him at the depot talking to another man.
Upon departing the house, Devine walked down the hill. The two men had disappeared. As he rounded the corner, looking for transportation back to Boston, the cab driver suddenly appeared, and directed him to the nearest stop on the MTA that would shuttle him back to Boston.
Stopping for lunch at the depot restaurant before taking the train for New Haven, Connecticut, Devine watched from the counter as two men and a woman entered and took a table at the near-empty restaurant. The woman then walked behind the counter where he was seated, and went into the kitchen with Devine’s waiter.
Devine said he paid little attention to their whispered conversation, but heard the woman ask the waiter for an apron. She then began serving the two men at the table behind Devine. Suddenly she told Devine, “You’ll have to sit at one of the tables or I can’t serve you.” Devine initially said nothing, but the woman persisted. He then agreed to move, as he wanted a cup of coffee. As he turned, Devine saw the cab driver and the man who had been talking to him outside the Morrissey home. He pretended not to recognize them, and they seemed not to notice him.
“After I was seated, the two men began a real show,” Devine wrote in Eyewitness. “The woman encouraged me to speak to the men about their foul language, but I declined; then they pretended to argue. ‘Here I invite you in for a drink,’ the cab driver roared, ‘but you don’t reciprocate!’ ” At their table, Devine saw three full beers in front of each man. Again the woman insisted that Devine speak up, but he refused. The cab driver then pounded on the table, threatening to beat up the other man. Suddenly, they left the restaurant.
“Amazingly, the woman urged me to go out and intervene, but I had seen enough of this ridiculous charade,” Devine recalled. “I was not about to be relieved of my briefcase. Instead, I left the restaurant by another door. Shortly, who should I spy amidst a group of passengers in the depot but the cab driver! As I looked toward him, he turned his head.
“Finally my train arrived, ” Devine went on, “and I boarded, but there was the cab driver, also boarding. Thoroughly unnerved, I walked to the last car and stepped off just as the train started moving.” While he waited for the next train to New Haven, Devine said he decided to return to the restaurant “to risk a cup of coffee. The same waiter was behind the counter, but the ‘waitress’ was gone.” Devine asked the waiter where the woman was, receiving only, “She left,” in response.
Devine boarded the next train and returned home without further incident. Fast forward to 1963, when he visited the Hartford station of the Office of Naval Intelligence for a second time, to determine if the ONI was still active in its investigation of his Earhart gravesite information. He was taken into an office where two men and a woman were seated. One of the men opened a safe to get the Earhart files, then pointed out passages for the woman to read, as Devine described in Eyewitness:
I was haunted; the woman looked familiar to me. Slowly, I came to the astounding realization that this woman was the “waitress” in the Boston depot! The woman must have sensed that I recognized her, for she immediately excused herself. Hastily the remaining ONI agent informed me that there had been no further investigation of Amelia Earhart’s grave. I left the meeting convinced that the people who had accosted me in Boston were agents of the Office of Naval Intelligence. Why their presence in Boston on the day of my visit with Mrs. Morrissey? I cannot say. Mrs. Morrissey did tell me that she had informed the Navy of my intended visit.
But why would the ONI trail me to West Medford? I don’t know. What was the purpose of the ONI agents’ peculiar antics in Boston? That I do not know, either. Perhaps they were trying to frighten me into curtailing my investigation.
The bizarre fiasco acted out in the Boston train depot restaurant by ONI personnel defied explanation, but it did expose the agency’s awareness and interest in Devine’s meeting with Muriel Morrissey. It also demonstrated that Muriel had a confidential relationship with the Navy, the roots and nature of which were never made public by the Earhart family.
Thus, we can still reasonably ask whether Muriel knew the truth about Amelia’s demise on Saipan, and when she knew it. The answer to that question, of course, will probably never be known.