...On one evening in early June of 1937, Juliet Stuart Poyntz walked out of her room at the American Woman’s Association Clubhouse at 353 West 57th Street. She was never seen or heard from again. The New York Times, which carried a few stories several months later related to her disappearance, reported that her room looked just as if she had expected to return that same night; she had not taken any extra clothing with her, and all her luggage remained in the room.
It is virtually certain that Poyntz was murdered by the OGPU. The Soviet secret police was prompt in eliminating anyone who knew too much about its workings, especially if that person had shown signs of disillusionment and even intended to reveal its activities to the public. Several rather comprehensive accounts exist of Poyntz’s death, all of them based on the story told by Benjamin Gitlow. According to his version, the OGPU used Poyntz’s former lover, a man named Shachno Epstein, the associate editor of the Yiddish daily newspaper Freiheit and an OGPU agent himself, to lure Poyntz out for a walk in Central Park. “They met at Columbus Circle and proceeded to walk through Central Park,” Gitlow writes. “ [...] Shachno took her by the arm and led her up a side path, where a large black limousine hugged the edge of the walk. [...] Two men jumped out, grabbed Miss Poyntz, shoved her into the car and sped away.” As the assassins supposedly reported later, they took Poyntz to the woods near the Roosevelt estate in Dutchess County, and killed and buried her there. “The body was covered with lime and dirt. On top were placed dead leaves and branches which the three killers trampled down with their feet.”
However, Gitlow’s description of the abduction and murder, like the rest of his book, The Whole of Their Lives (1948), is saturated with flowery and overly dramatic details which make it seem less than perfectly credible. His trustworthiness is further undermined by his obvious lack of knowledge about the basic structure of secret police work. In light of such inaccuracies, we have reason to doubt his account of Juliet Stuart Poyntz’s abduction and murder, especially the details, and therefore the subsequent accounts based upon it, e.g., On a Field of Red (1981) and Women in Espionage (1993).
Nonetheless, New York Times articles from the years immediately after Poyntz’s disappearance at least support Gitlow’s claim that Poyntz was murdered by agents of the OGPU. According to the articles, Carlo Tresca, anarchist and leader of New York’s anti-fascists, voluntarily appeared before Francis A. Mahony, acting chief of the criminal division of the U.S. Attorney General’s office, then before a federal grand jury, in order to provide information in support of his claim that Poyntz “was ‘lured or kidnapped’ to Soviet Russia because she broke with her associates and ‘knew too much’.”
The newspaper never reveals the name of Poyntz’s abductor, which Tresca gave to the legal authorities, but the description which Tresca shared with the correspondents sounds similar to that of Shachno Epstein: the agent is described as having “been an editor of a Communist foreign-language newspaper in this city,” “an intimate friend of Miss Poyntz,” in “the service of the [Russian] secret police,” and a person in whom Poyntz “had absolute confidence.” Tresca knew Poyntz well, and had connections with other OGPU agents in the U.S., and therefore was likely to know or suspect the truth about Poyntz’s disappearance, or at least about the identity of the person used as a lure in her abduction. Therefore, it is grimly unsurprising to read in the Times that Tresca himself was murdered in January 1943.
It seems plausible to this researcher that, when Poyntz was about to give compromising information about them, the OGPU got rid of her, and when Tresca, in turn, exposed the OGPU murderers of Juliet Stuart Poyntz and the details of their plot, the OGPU eliminated him as well.Of all Poyntz’s colleagues in the Communist underworld, undoubtedly the most famous was Whittaker Chambers, who would later shake the nation with his public allegations against Alger Hiss. The murder of Juliet Stuart Poyntz apparently made a deep impression on Chambers just as he was contemplating a break with the Communist Party. In his classic memoir, Witness (1952), Chambers writes that after learning of Poyntz’s murder and several other similar cases, he determined to arrange his flight from the Party with great care, “using against the conspiracy all the conspiratorial method it had taught me.”
On October 26, 1944, over seven years after her disappearance, Poyntz was declared legally dead by Surrogate Judge James A. Foley in New York City. Letters of administration on Poyntz’s $10,500 estate were awarded to her sister, Eulalie Poyntz McClelland of Frederickstown, Ohio, as sole next of kin.
Juliet Stuart Poyntz was a suffragist, a feminist, a trade unionist, a socialist, and a Communist. Her passion for justice led her to renounce the ideology to which that passion had earlier led her--Stalinist Communism. However, it proved impossible for her to extricate herself from the grip of the Stalinist OGPU, who were not as concerned with justice as they were with self-preservation and revenge--which meant ruthlessly punishing those who had expressed dissatisfaction with them and their methods. In the larger historical scheme of things, Juliet Stuart Poyntz was but one of many victims of the Stalinist purges of the 1930’s that liquidated thousands in Russia and around the world, including one of Barnard’s own.
•Cave Brown, Anthony, and Charles Brown MacDonald. On a Field of Red: The Communist International and the Coming of World War II. New York: Putnam, 1981;
•Chambers, Whittaker. Witness. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1952;
•Gitlow, Benjamin. The Whole of Their Lives: Communism in America--A Personal History and Intimate Portrayal of its Leaders. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1971 (originally published 1948);
•Mahoney, M.H. Women in Espionage: A Biographical Dictionary. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1993;
The New York Times, 1937-1949 [many articles];
•Poyntz, Juliet Stuart. “Industrial Peace and War.” The Nation, February 15, 1919, pp. 246-247;
•Poyntz, Juliet Stuart.“The World and the Practical Man.” The Nation, August 17, 1921, p. 164;
•The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, v. 5 (1919-1921);
•Sione, Patrizia, ed. “Relief Work.” The Triangle Factory Fire. Last updated March 3, 2002. Retrieved March 14, 2002 from the World Wide Web: <http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/narrative5.html
•Weinstein, Allen. Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case. New York: Knopf, 1978;
Application for Examination for Admission to Barnard College, submitted by Juliet Stuart Points, September 1903;
•The Barnard Bulletin, January 4, April 4, and May 2, 1904; December 18, 1912; The Mortarboard 1905-1908; ALS, Juliet Stuart Points to Sophie Parsons Woodman, n.d. [ca. 1906]; Woodman, Sophie Parsons, ed. 1907 Class Book, 1907-1912; Points, Juliet Stuart. “Valedictory.” In Woodman, Sophie Parsons, ed. Commencement Week Speeches: Barnard College Class of 1907; Poyntz, Juliet Stuart. “Suffragism and Feminism at Barnard.” The Barnard Bear, April 1914, pp. 3-4; Report and Register of the Associate Alumnae of Barnard College, 1910-1915;
•Woodman, Sophie Parsons, ed., 1907 Class Book, 1912-1917 (Barnard College Archives)
by Irina Vodonos