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The Harvard Professor Turned LSD Guru Who Escaped Prison And Became An International Fugitive

Updated September 21, 2017 6.2k views11 items

Few counter-cultural figures are as iconic as Harvard professor turned psychedelic acid pioneer Timothy Leary. Credited with popularizing LSD in the mid 1960s, Leary... a writer, philosopher, psychologist, and scientist... would go on to spearhead an unprecedented odyssey of consciousness-expanding exploration. Timothy Leary and the Beatles, Timothy Leary and the Black Panthers, Timothy Leary the deep-space explorer... all were equally important manifestations of the same proverbially cosmic Self. And in the end, Leary's philosophies became the stuff not only of life imitating art, but of art going way past life and revolutionizing death itself.

All that said, who was Timothy Leary, in the strictly linear and biographical sense? Read on for an overview.


  • He Used Student Volunteers For Psychedelic Research

    In 1960, Leary, then gainfully employed as a lecturer in clinical psychology, co-founded the Harvard Psilocybin Project with his Harvard colleague, Richard Alpert. According to the university's website, the two "sought to document [the drug's] effects on human consciousness by administering it to volunteer subjects and recording their real-time descriptions of the experience."

    Although LSD, being then largely unknown, wasn't illegal at the time Leary embarked on his project, his experiments quickly began to attract controversy. Ultimately, he and Alpert were essentially undone by their own colleagues; as the above-mentioned website explains,

    "By 1962 various faculty members and administrators at Harvard were concerned about the safety of Leary and Alpert’s research subjects, and critiqued the rigor of their unorthodox methodology (in particular, the researchers conducted their investigations when they, too, were under the influence of psilocybin). Editorials printed in the Harvard Crimson accused Alpert and Leary of not merely researching psychotropic drugs but actively promoting their recreational use."

    Leary and Alpert were nevertheless able to legally continue their research until 1963, when Alpert unlawfully administered psilocybin to an undergraduate student off-campus. The two professors were promptly fired, and Leary's great adventure began.


  • He Escaped From Prison

    Leary's escape from the slammer is the stuff of legend.  After being convicted of marijuana possession in 1970 (the total initial sentence was a preposterous 20 years), he was sent to prison where, as legend has it, he was administered some of the very same "psychiatric tests" that he himself had had a hand in designing. 

    Shortly thereafter, Leary managed to escape by surreptitiously climbing over the institution's walls via telephone wire, a dazzling and risky feat that could obviously have easily resulted in death by electrocution. A van driven by members of the Black Panthers-led movement the Weather Underground was waiting for him. Their aid didn't come cheap. It cost an impressive $25,000.00, which was paid for the legendary "hippie mafia" known as The Brotherhood of Eternal Love, which Leary had had a crucial role in founding. The "Weather" radicals subsequently helped both Leary and his girlfriend, Rosemary Woodruff, to escape to Algeria and, once there, the two allegedly joined up with Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver.



  • He Was Caught And Returned To US Authorities... And Promptly Led The FBI On An Epic Wild Goose Chase

    From Algeria, Leary eventually fled to Switzerland. After splitting from Rosemary Woodruff, he took up with socialite Joanna Harcourt-Smith, and the two left Europe for Afghanistan. However, American officials managed to outsmart them: as Count Your Culture explains it, "since the couple traveled on an American airline to Afghanistan, the United States used a legal loophole to circumvent any extradition processes and seize Leary as a fugitive."

    Instead of serving his subsequent 95 year sentence, Leary agreed to work with the FBI by providing them with supposed tips and top-secret information about the Weather Underground. However, he was only bluffing: he subsequently led authorities on an epic wild goose chase. For his "cooperation" he was released from prison in 1976, and no one associated with the Weather Underground was ever caught as a result of their association with him. (Talk about having your cake and eating it, too).

  • Photo: Lynn Goldsmith / Getty Images

    While in Switzerland, Leary was taken in by the wealthy arms dealer Michel Hauchard, a glamorous fugitive figure who would later go on to quip that he had an "obligation as a gentleman to protect philosophers." While taking refuge with Hauchard, Leary applied for Swiss political asylum, a motion that was enthusiastically supported by legendary Beat poet and political activist Allen Ginsberg.

    In 1971, Ginsberg drafted a "Model Statement in Defense of the Philosophers Personal Freedom,"which was supported by many prominent literary figures, including Arthur Miller. According to the New York Public Library, the document "was delivered to Swiss authorities on Bastille Day, July 14." It was signed by members of the San Francisco Bay Area Prose Poets' Phalanx, and read in part,

    "Whatever one's opinions, or natural or national preferences amongst intoxicants, Letters, religions, and political or ecological theory, the Bay Area Prose Poets' Phalanx hereby affirms that Dr. Leary must certainly have the right to publish his own theories. The case of Dr. Leary is outright a case of persecution of ideas and texts—the persecution of his philosophy. Though arrested for grass, he was sentenced for Philosophy. Jailed for grass, he was long prisoned for Opinion. Denied bail for grass possession, he was detained behind barbed wire for Ideological Heresy."

    An "Asylum of Leary Committee" was subsequently established to discuss the matter. Ultimately, Leary was imprisoned in Switzerland after all, but was released on August 1st, AKA National Swiss Day. 


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