The stranger strolled into the north country one summer day on the arm of a tall, willowy beauty with family roots in LaFargeville. At the time, he was not even a curiosity, merely one more summer visitor on a river that draws summer visitors like barbecue draws flies.
A half a head shorter than his escort, Barry Freed came to Fineview to visit, stayed to learn carpentry and use his gardening skills, and eventually was drawn into a contentious proposal to turn the St. Lawrence Seaway — that ribbon of water that flowed so majestically right past Johanna Lawrenson’s family river home — into a year-round shipping waterway.
Ms. Lawrenson and Mr. Freed met in Mexico, found an instant attraction, and ended up as a couple. She brought him to Fineview, and he didn’t leave, at least for good, for nearly a decade. By that time, he had brought the national spotlight down on Wellesley Island and its residents, helped turn Save the River into a long term, effective environmental organization, fought against letting nuclear-waste transport trucks travel across the Thousand Islands bridge and led the opposition to a proposed theme park on Thousand Islands Bridge Authority land at one of the most scenic spots in the region.
If that sounds like shouldering a heavy load for an outsider, it would have been for most. It wasn’t for Barry Freed, however, because he was really Abbie Hoffman, a man who had spent his life in rebellion and rallying against what he saw as injustice.
Along the way, he had been one of the organizers of the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and subsequently was indicted with seven others on charges of inciting to riot. Seven of the eight were tried together in the famous “Chicago Seven” trial, presided over by Judge Julius Hoffman. (The eighth man, Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, was tried separately after his profane outbursts in the group trial compelled the judge to separate him so that the trial could continue.)
Mr. Hoffman also was one of the leaders of a war protest march on the Pentagon, where he proclaimed he could use the minds of 50,000 protesters to levitate the building and end the Vietnam war (it stayed firmly in place, but the stunt was reported around the globe). He led a group of protesters into the New York Stock Exchange, where they threw thousands of real and fake dollars onto the trading floor in an attempt to bring the market to a halt, again drawing significant attention to his cause.
A trail of legal trouble
Mr. Hoffman’s notoriety and penchant for civil protest brought him into frequent contact with the law. It started in his hometown of Worcester, Mass., when he was 17. When a teacher tore up a paper he had written on the improbability of the existence of God, the teenager attacked him and the two scuffled. Although no charges were filed, he was expelled from school.
He underwent a number of subsequent arrests, all connected with his activism. The most notorious was the Chicago riot charges; although he was convicted along with four co-defendants, the convictions later were reversed on the grounds of judicial misconduct.
Then, in 1973 it got serious. Mr. Hoffman found himself in a New York City hotel room with “three pounds of cocaine and an undercover cop.” The drug charges, if he was convicted, would have resulted in a Rockefeller-era sentence of 15 years to life. In early 1974, he skipped bail and disappeared.
During his hiatus from official existence, he went to Canada, then Mexico, to hide out. It was in Guadalajara that he met Ms. Lawrenson; Mr. Hoffman was teaching English in a Mexican school.
In a letter to the editor of the Times, Ms. Lawrenson said that while the pair were in Mexico, a devastating earthquake hit Guatemala to the south.
“We had a van with a bed,” Ms. Lawrenson wrote. “Barry suggested we round up some young Mexican doctors and head down there. God, I was petrified but we went for six days, manned a mobile hospital leaving only when our food ran out.”
Mr. Hoffman was placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, even though others on the list were sought for far more serious crimes. It is likely that his mug shot graced Post Office lobbies all over the north country when he arrived here in 1976.
Hiding in plain sight
For the first couple of years in Fineview, Mr. Hoffman kept the kind of low-profile you could maintain in a rural tourist area in the mid-70s. He plied his considerable gardening skills, he learned carpentry and he cooked to local renown. He was still writing for magazines, but he wasn’t connected to the Thousand Islands through his writing.
The activist in him, however, lurked very near the surface. Ms. Lawrenson said it was a DEC brochure on a pilot program meant to study the effects of year-round navigation on the Seaway that lured the organizer in him out in public.
The decision to take an active role in this effort, being pushed by the Seaway Corp. and ship owners, suddenly exposed Mr. Hoffman, once again, to the risk of a long prison term.
In her letter to the Times, Ms. Lawrenson wrote: “He had put his life on the line many times, but this was different. One recognition, one rumor and he could lose his freedom perhaps forever.”
Despite her misgivings, she said, he decided to join the fledgling Save the River’s fight against winter navigation with two words: “I’m in.”
And when Abbie Hoffman got in, he got all the way in. Save the River’s membership, once they understood his skills, voted him to be the organization’s spokesman. He and other supporters of the cause took small boats from island to island in the river, seeking support from people who would be most affected — because the plan required the blasting away of many small islands to be able to widen and deepen the shipping channel.
He was like a whack-a-mole, popping up everywhere to fight the Seaway Corp. and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He wrote letters to the editor as Barry Freed, he produced news releases and made public appearances. Suddenly, he was a very vocal “one of us” to most residents on the river.
Thomas E. Brown, former director of Region 6 of DEC, was on a panel studying the feasibility of winter navigation. DEC personnel had determined that the science of the project showed it was infeasible from an environmental standpoint.
“Barry (Freed) was instrumental in helping to raise the science profile, point out how damaging winter navigation would be,” Mr. Brown said. “In that, his skills were greater than ours.”
In the end, Mr. Brown said, science ruled the day; DEC staff showed that the project violated the National Environmental Protection Act, which ultimately led to the plan’s demise.
But he recalled the powerful forces facing each other — environmental issues versus economic ones — and Mr. Hoffman, as Mr. Freed, played an important role in the battle.
“I would say Barry was helpful, though not instrumental,” Mr. Brown said. “He was quite a showman, he could really rally an audience.”
Many people remember Mr. Hoffman’s sense of humor, and the way he could use his considerable talent for pranks to the advantage of whatever cause he was promoting.
In a 1989 story about Mr. Hoffman’s final years, published shortly after his suicide death on April 12, People Magazine called him the Clown Prince of the Left.
Former Times Executive Editor Albert E. Gault, who was a Times reporter at the height of the Hoffman hype, characterized Mr. Hoffman as intense, and beyond.
“He was obnoxious. He was also funny,” Mr. Gault recalled. “He was at a meeting on the proposal to allow spent nuclear fuel to cross the Thousand Islands Bridge, and he said ‘There are a lot of experts here. An expert is someone from out of town,’ which brought down the house.”
His sense of humor sometimes disappeared under the mantle of dedication to his cause du jour. He wrote many letters to the Times, many of them complaining vociferously about what he regarded as inaccurate or biased reporting by the paper. And his demeanor was often confrontational — a trait that might be helpful for an activist and organizer.
That wasn’t his only face, however.
“In general, people liked him,” Mr. Gault said. “As in many places, activists rubbed some long-time locals the wrong way. But mostly he was accepted.”
At least as Barry Freed. Abbie Hoffman was a different thing entirely.
Notorious as Freed
In his work with Save the River, he received some level of notoriety, racking up accolades from well-known politicians.
The Times ran a picture of him shaking hands with U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who praised him for his work on environmental issues.
And Gov. Hugh M. Carey wrote him a letter lavishing gratitude on Mr. Freed for his work to save the St. Lawrence River.
His high-profile activism sometimes raised questions. At one meeting, a participant said the organization efforts rivaled the skills of Abbie Hoffman, setting off tremulous alarms in both Mr. Freed and Ms. Lawrenson. It also drove Mr. Hoffman to hitchhike back to New York, although he thought better of it after two weeks and returned to Fineview.
Throughout 1978 and 79, Mr. Freed continued his activism. Along with the winter navigation campaign and the effort to stop the transportation of nuclear waste across the bridge, he also put up a fierce battle, with many river residents, against a theme park proposed for land owned by the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority on Route 12. It would have dominated the view of travelers on the bridge, one of the most compelling viewsheds in the region.
Among the park’s investors was Frank A Augsbury Jr., owner of Halco Inc., one of the major shippers on the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway. Mr. Freed’s opposition to the theme park was the second time an Augsbury interest and Mr. Freed’s activism butted heads. Both times, Mr. Freed’s view prevailed.
That there was bad blood between the two was certain. In an October, 1980 interview with Mr. Augsbury, published about a month after Freed revealed he was Hoffman on national television, Mr. Augsbury was dismissive.
“Why cover Abbie Hoffman? He’s a felon, isn’t he?” Mr. Augsbury griped.
He also had harsh words for Save the River.
“Save the river from what?” Mr. Augsbury said. “The environment isn’t being hurt by the ships.”
He made it clear that he was unhappy with any Save the River successes, aided by Mr. Freed or not.
“It is not the will of the people to have a little group standing in the way of progress,” Mr. Augsbury concluded.
And in that, of course, is the very nature of the clash between the two men. Mr. Hoffman dedicated his life to lifting up the little groups in their fight against “the establishment.”
Ending the charade
In 1980, Mr. Freed and Ms. Lawrenson were hearing more and more rumors about his real identity.
She told a Times reporter that at a dinner party, one guest asked Mr. Freed straight out if he was Abbie Hoffman. The answer: “Yes.” The dinner party continued without missing a beat, but Mr. Freed’s paths were narrowing, and he knew it.
In late summer, he and attorney Gerald B. Lefcourt started negotiating a plea deal that would let Mr. Hoffman put the fugitive and drug charges to bed. While the deal was not apparently consummated, Mr. Hoffman decided to end the deception.
And as the consummate showman, he did it in a big way. He contacted Barbara Walters, then a regular on ABC’s 20/20, and set up a hush-hush exclusive interview. He had it all planned for the Fineview house, but he didn’t tell her that; in a plot worthy of an episode of “Get Smart,” he arranged all transportation for her but didn’t tell her where she was going.
When she arrived at tiny Watertown Airport, she and her crew were whisked off in private and rented vehicles, even using a boat to get her to the house.
The Walters episode provided a lot of entertainment for the locals. One person called a Times employee and said “I swear it — I just saw Barbara Walters walking down the road in Thousand Islands Park!” That call was dismissed as highly unlikely.
Then, though, the Daily News and the Washington Post both broke stories about Walters’s mission, and many people accused Mr. Hoffman of issuing strategic leaks to further his cause.
Bolstering that was the discovery that the Walters interview was to air on the same day that Mr. Hoffman’s latest book, “Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture,” was released.
Mr. Hoffman would need money to defend against the charges, and his coming out party was arranged for maximum financial exposure.
What a shock!
Mr. Gault, the former Times editor, said the almost universal reaction by people in the north country was shock.
”Mostly it was ‘how can this happen?’” Mr. Gault said.
He recalled the furor that hit the Times newsroom when the rumor was confirmed.
“We heard a lot that wasn’t true. One reporter heard that the story was that Abbie Hoffman was living in Barry Freed’s house,” Mr. Gault said.
And there were other unpredictable reactions: a Jefferson County Republican Party official, told that Abbie Hoffman was living in Fineview, said “Who’s she?”
Once the news sunk in, there was no discernible backlash, especially for Save the River. Ms. Lawrenson’s letter to the Times said the group enrolled 300 new members between the Sept. 4, 1980 announcement and Oct. 3.
And Mr. Brown, the DEC regional director, told the Times in 2003 that the outing didn’t cause conservationists to abandon Save the River or bolster support for Seaway expansion.
“I don’t think it made any difference,” he said then. “Some people tried to use his identity to lessen opposition, but that was a minority, and the decisions had already been made. By that time, the war had been won.”
Former Times editor and publisher John B. Johnson Jr. said Hoffman, as Freed, had a salubrious influence on the north country.
“He caught a responsive chord with people on the river,” Mr. Johnson said. “He had a reasonable cause that the river residents wanted to embrace.”
Mr. Johnson speculated that was why the Abbie Hoffman of 1980 was so much more accepted by people than the wild rabble rouser of the 1960s.
“He was certainly hyper on his causes,” Mr. Johnson said. “When he started talking about his mission, he talked so fast you could hardly understand him — or get a word in edgewise.”
Throughout his life, People Magazine reported, he suffered through long bouts of depression followed by manic activity, the classic sign of manic-depressive disorder, now more generally known as bipolar disorder; he was diagnosed with that in the early 1980’s, after his Fineview days as Barry Freed, and was reported to be taking lithium to control better the highs and lows.
The September surprise of Mr. Hoffman’s “coming out” in Fineview stirred weeks of local, regional and national reporting. Through it all, Ms. Lawrenson stayed with him; through the trial, the conviction and the very short sentence, she was there.
And as long as she was there, Mr. Hoffman maintained a north country connection. He served only months of a one-to-three year sentence, and after his release, for several years he still came to Fineview in the summertime.
But there were not many causes for him here, and he was contacted by people in Bucks County, Pa., near Philadelphia, to help them fight the diversion of water from the Delaware River to cool a nuclear power plant.
After he announced his move in 1987, Ms. Lawrenson decided she had enough, and refused to follow him.
With her, as with most of his relationships, the pace and amount of work that Mr. Hoffman demanded became too much.
“But it was too much overload working for Abbie,” she told People Magazine. “There was no limit to the amount of work that he could think up for people to do.”
The blazing activist worked against the power company for two more years, telling an interviewer he was happy to “live and die right here fighting the Philadelphia Electric Company — it’s just like the ’60s for me.”
But the rush of fighting for The Cause had abandoned Mr. Hoffman, and on April 12, 1989, according to People Magazine, Ms. Lawrenson called Mr. Hoffman’s landlord and asked him to check in on the aging Yippie because he wasn’t answering his phone.
He was discovered dead in bed, and the county coroner subsequently determined he had ingested the equivalent of 150 phenobarbital pills with alcohol, a deadly combination.
It was an abrupt end to a remarkable life. The work Mr. Hoffman did in the north country, the causes he took over despite being an outsider on the lam, have had a lasting effect on the region’s environment, and most involved with him during that time are more than happy to give him credit due.
Stephen C. Taylor, who worked closely with Hoffman/Freed on the year-round navigation battle, told the Times in 2003 that the activist in hiding provided the group with “an impetus to protest.”
“He was really able to raise public consciousness of the issue,” Mr. Taylor said then. “I wouldn’t know how to make the noise he did.”
His north country legacy lives on; year-round navigation, a theme park and nuclear material crossing the Thousand Islands bridge are all dead issues — largely because of his unique skills, and selfless dedication.
“Abbie always said, democracy is not something you hang your hat on,” Ms. Lawrenson told the Times. “It’s something you participate in.”