Fred Mortensen Rides the Rails 1
THE TRACKS WHIZZED BENEATH him, just a few inches from his face, as he clung desperately to the iron rods on the underside of the railcar, amidst the relentless vibrations and unbearable sound. He had made the 750-mile journey from Minneapolis to Cleveland, and was now stealing away on the Nickel Plate Railway bound for Buffalo.
It was no way to travel. Hundreds died each year riding the rails. Hundreds more lost arms or legs. Then there were the thugs hired by railroads to beat the non-paying riders. At midnight Fred Mortensen raced across the tracks in Buffalo and jumped a train bound for Boston. It didn’t help that he had a bad leg, acquired while trying to rob a railroad mail car eight years earlier.
Fred Mortensen was just twenty-five, but had already seen much of life. Raised in the slums of Minneapolis, he was working the streets by the age of ten, robbing local shops to help feed the family after his father walked out. He and his brothers joined a gang and spent their days drinking, brawling, and terrorizing the community. “I violated any law I saw fit, man’s or God’s,” Fred later recalled. He was seventeen when they decided to rob the train. Things went awry. Police descended; bullets flew; Fred leapt off a rail bridge thirty-five feet high and shattered his leg.
Fred’s defense lawyer was Albert Hall, who had a track record of helping the poor. Hall was also a Bahá’í. He spent hours talking to Fred in prison. “Honestly, I often wondered then what Mr. Hall meant when he talked so much about love,” Fred wrote years later. “God’s love, Bahá’u’lláh’s love, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s love . . . I was bewildered.” Then one night Fred grabbed a guard by the neck, strangled him unconscious, and made his escape. He spent the next four years on the run.
During his time as a fugitive, Fred rediscovered some books Albert had given him. He became engrossed in the words of Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Eventually, Fred returned to Minneapolis and sought out Albert Hall. Hall didn’t turn Fred in, and the authorities seemed to have forgotten about him.
That’s how Fred found himself on top of a passenger train on the final leg of an adventure to meet ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. He hopped off at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, took a boat ride across the river to Kittery, then rode the streetcar to Green Acre. …
Green Acre 2
On August 19 ‘Abdu’l-Bahá “gave instructions for the nineteenth day feast for the following day and said, ’The entertainment for tomorrow is with Me.’” On August 20, with Sarah Farmer, He drove around in an automobile to see places of historical interest, giving her flowers, and kissing her as He got out of the car. That afternoon He spoke to three hundred persons under “the Persian pines and cypresses” and then invited all to the Bahá’í home where they were His guests.
16 August 1912, Talk at Green Acre, Eliot, Maine 3
Every subject presented to a thoughtful audience must be supported by rational proofs and logical arguments. Proofs are of four kinds: first, through sense perception; second, through the reasoning faculty; third, from traditional or scriptural authority; fourth, through the medium of inspiration. That is to say, there are four criteria or standards of judgment by which the human mind reaches its conclusions.
Tuesday, August 20, 1912 4
Among the friends visiting the Master was Fred Mortensen, a youth who, prior to embracing the Cause, had been a fugitive from justice but was now very humble and tranquil. Despairing of seeing the Master, who had not made known His plans to visit the West, he traveled from Minneapolis to visit Him. Because he could not afford to pay the price of a ticket from Minneapolis to Green Acre, he had ridden the rods under the train and in this way reached Chicago and Green Acre. He explained everything about his journey to the Master, who then told him, ‘You are my guest.’ Each day the Master bestowed kindness upon him and a few days later He gave him money to pay for his journey home. Unknown to anyone, the Master paid for many such expenses. Twice He sent a speaker from New York to Chicago and adjacent cities and on each occasion, although the person was rich, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá gave him more than enough money to defray the expenses of his journey. In addition, He liberally contributed to the poor and to the churches [in which He spoke] in every city.
After speaking with the friends, He went to Miss Farmer’s temporary residence [in Portsmouth]. When she saw ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, she fell into such a state of rapture that every heart was moved. After comforting her and the others, at Dr LeRoy’s request He went to see places of historic interest, including a yard where battleships were being built [the Navy Yard in Kittery]. This activity did not please the Master. On His return He said:
While the Manifestations of God are still alive, the people do not appreciate their value, they curse and execrate them; but after their ascension they worship them. Such is the case with these tent-dwellers who live outside Green Acre. Even Columbus and some ancient philosophers like Socrates were made to suffer but after a time the people took pride in praising them.
This afternoon, under the Persian pines and cypresses of that lovely plain, three hundred people heard ‘Abdu’l-Bahá draw a picture of the vista of everlasting life, its spiritual stations and eternal blessings. He then went to the ‘Bahá’í House’ where we were all His guests. Following His walk after supper, the Master stood at the front hall of the house and spoke. People were even standing in the street to listen to Him. He spoke so beautifully about the relationship of the East and the West that passersby stopped to hear what He had to say.
In the evening there was musical entertainment and dancing in the hall of the Inn. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said, ‘Such gatherings and practices are the cause of the corruption of morals.’ He also said this evening, ‘My thoughts are wholly absorbed by this journey. I can think of nothing else because the outcome of this journey is so great. Up to now in the Cause of the Blessed Beauty a development as great as this has not occurred.’
’Abdu’l-Bahá in America, 1912-2012: Calling America to It’s Spiritual Destiny
Celebrating the Centenary: The Master in America
Curated by Anne Perry
- Sockett, Robert. “Fred Mortensen Rides the Rails.” 239 Days in America, 20 Aug. 2012, https://239days.com/2012/08/20/fred-mortensen-rides-the-rails/. ↩
- Ward, Allan L. 239 Days: ʻAbdu’l-Bahá’s Journey in America. Wilmette, Ill: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1979, 126-127. ↩
- ʻAbduʼl-Bahá. The Promulgation of Universal Peace: Talks Delivered by ʻAbduʼl-Bahá during His Visit to the United States and Canada in 1912. Edited by Howard MacNutt. 2nd ed. Wilmette, Ill: Baháʼí Publishing Trust, 1982, 253. https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/abdul-baha/promulgation-universal-peace/19#619454904 ↩
- ’Abdu’l-Bahá, and Mirza Mahmud-i-Zarqani. Mahmúd’s Diary: The Diary of Mírzá Mahmúd-i-Zarqání Chronicling ’Abdu’l-Bahá’s Journey to America. Edited by Shirley Macias. Translated by Mohi Sobhani. Oxford: George Ronald, 1998. https://bahai-library.com/zarqani_mahmuds_diary&chapter=6#section149 ↩