What It Took To Get Ted Williams's Head Off His Body

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Adapted from The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams (Little, Brown and Company).

The Kid appeared in the small room on the night of July 5, 2002.

Video cameras rolled, and the flashbulbs popped—just as if he were making another star turn of the sort he had made so many times throughout his celebrated life. About 30 people were anxiously awaiting the arrival of Ted Williams—the great Teddy Ballgame himself: American icon, last of the .400 hitters, war hero, world class fisherman, enfant terrible with the perfectionist persona. Yet, this was no press conference, no card show, no charity event or meet-and-greet where Ted would wave and say a few words to his faithful.

For he was dead, after all. Quite dead.

Williams had passed away some 12 hours earlier in Florida, at 83, and then been secretly flown on a small chartered jet to Scottsdale, Ariz., outside Phoenix. There his body had been loaded on to an ambulance and taken, in a motorcade, to where this small crowd awaited him, in an operating room at a company called the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, located in a gray stucco building just a mile from the Scottsdale airport.

Founded as a nonprofit in 1972, Alcor is the leading practitioner of cryonics, a fringe movement that freezes people after they die, in the hope that medical technology will someday advance to the point where it will be possible to stop or reverse the aging process and cure now-incurable diseases. At that point, cryonics aspires to thaw out its frozen charges and bring them back to life. Alcor froze its first "patient," as it calls its customers, in 1976. By the time Ted arrived 26 years later, the group said it had frozen 49 people, and had 590 living "members"—those who had signed up to undergo the procedure when they die, and who paid $400 in annual dues in the meantime, while they waited.

On Alcor's macabre menu, people have two basic options. The first is called a "whole body" procedure, where the entire body is frozen. The second is known as the "neuro," where only the head is frozen and preserved after being severed from the torso, which is then cremated or buried. A third variation provides for freezing both the torso and the head separately. Alcor stores both the bodies and the heads in huge, thermos bottle-like tanks known as "Dewars," which are filled with liquid nitrogen cooled to minus 321 degrees Fahrenheit.

In 2002, the whole body procedure cost $120,000, the neuro $50,000. Among cryonicists, the neuro was becoming the preferred option. It was cheaper, for one thing, though Alcor liked to say that both procedures were easily affordable through life insurance. Most importantly, for Alcorians, the head contained the brain, which they considered by far the most important organ in the body because it holds the memory. When the patient comes back to life, or is "reanimated" in cryospeak, he (the believers are overwhelmingly male) will want to remember from whence he came. Furthermore, the brain is the hardest organ to replace. With stem cell research and other advances on the horizon, it would be possible to regenerate tissue, and therefore simply grow a new body beneath your old head. Or so the hope went.

Inside the Alcor operating room, it took five or six people to lift Ted out of the Zigler Box—the airtight, metal container that airlines require for shipping bodies—in which he'd arrived. Under instructions from Alcor, a Florida mortician had filled the box with ice, a cryonics staple applied to the body immediately after death in order to keep it as cool as possible, and to help preserve vital organs.

Ted's body was placed on the operating table, face up. Attendants quickly pressed fresh bags of ice against his skin, especially around the head, neck and groin. The table was surrounded by a custom made, six-inch-high, white plastic wall to contain the ice and to keep excess fluids from spilling onto the floor during the upcoming operation that would last about four hours. Technicians began connecting the major blood vessels to a perfusion machine that would replace the blood with so-called cryoprotectant solutions. These chemicals, similar to antifreeze, were designed to help prevent the formation of ice crystals which could cause further cell damage before the intense cooling process began.

The technicians then started to drain blood and water from Ted's body in what Alcor called a "washout," replacing them with glycerol and another cryoprotectant known as B2C, which was used for the head only. Then, using a perforator, a standard neurological tool that looks like an electric drill, a surgeon and his assistant bored two small holes on either side of Ted's skull so that the surface of the brain could be examined during the perfusion process to guard against swelling. Small wire sensors were inserted into each hole to be used to detect cracking of the skull during the freezing process later.

Soon, the surgeon announced that he was ready to perform the "cephalic isolation." This meant Ted Williams's head was now ready to be cut off. The surgeon took out a carving knife and began to cut—starting below Ted's neck, slicing through tissue and bone, working his way down through the sixth cervical vertebrae, at the top of the spine. At one point, the going slow, the surgeon remarked that he wished he had an electric knife. Finally, he switched to a bone saw to finish the job, and at 9:17 p.m., Mountain time, the head of the greatest hitter who ever lived had been sliced off.

One of the first things a visitor notices in the Alcor lobby is a photo of Robert Ettinger hanging over a plaque that reads, "FATHER OF CRYONICS." Ettinger, a physics teacher and science-fiction writer, was the author of the 1964 book The Prospect of Immortality, which caused a media sensation at the time and launched the cryonics movement. Ettinger's credo was that "life is better than death, healthy is better than sick, smart is better than stupid, and immortality might be worth the trouble!" His surmise was that death is only a transit station and that quick-freezing a corpse and preserving it that way offered the hope of resuscitation sometime in the future, when rapidly advancing science and medicine could cure whatever disease the person died from, and when cell damage now deemed irreparable might be fixed.

Ettinger went on to found the Cryonics Institute in Michigan and the related Immortalist Society, an education and research group. Soon most cryonics followers paid homage to Ettinger by calling themselves "immortalists." Alcor displayed Ettinger's picture to acknowledge his status as a cryonics pioneer, even though his Cryonics Institute was the Arizona company's main competitor. Ettinger conceded in an interview, however, that Alcor was better organized, better funded, and further along in research than his group, thanks to the contributions of two wealthy benefactors: Saul Kent and Bill Faloon.

Kent and Faloon, both multimillionaires, were Alcor leaders assigned to recruit John-Henry Williams, Ted's only son, with the goal of landing his commitment to deliver his father when the time came. The pursuit began in earnest in 2001, not long after Ted underwent open-heart surgery, but John-Henry had been intrigued by cryonics since 1997. He had watched a documentary on the Discovery Channel, conducted some research on his own, and was mindful that cryonics, while still widely viewed as a highly improbable theory subscribed to by several hundred eccentrics, had nonetheless seeped into popular culture through numerous science fiction stories and movies like Woody Allen's Sleeper, and Forever Young, starring Mel Gibson.

John-Henry's suitors were deeply involved in the cryonics movement. Saul Kent became infamous in 1987 for presiding over the beheading of his eighty-three-year-old mother, Dora, and having her head frozen at Alcor. The procedure took place two days after Kent took his mother out of a Riverside, California, nursing home and brought her to Alcor—ailing but quite alive. The case garnered international attention after Riverside County coroner's investigators questioned whether Mrs. Kent was still alive when the "neuro" procedure began. A death certificate, signed by a procryonics doctor who was not present when Mrs. Kent was said to have died, listed the cause of death as heart disease and pneumonia. The local district attorney's office ultimately decided not to file any charges, and Saul Kent denied any wrongdoing, saying his mother had been a cryonics supporter and had died shortly before the procedure began. This episode would later be memorialized in a short, not unsympathetic documentary by the filmmaker Errol Morris entitled I Dismember Mama. Adding to Kent's allure for cryonicists was the fact that he had a dog named Franklin whom he had experimentally frozen then successfully revived after a few hours.

Kent and Faloon's Life Extension Foundation took most of its name from the Alcor Life Extension Foundation. Kent was on the Alcor board, and the groups had other interlocking ties though no official corporate relationship. Life Extension also funded various companies doing cryonics-related research, including Suspended Animation, Inc., in Florida, and 21st Century Medicine, in California. The eccentric Kent was also deeply involved in finding a site for a construction project he called Timeship, which would be a mecca for cryonics research and the long-term storage of people who choose to be frozen after they die.

It was the Life Extension Foundation through which John-Henry obtained the various vitamin and herbal concoctions that he insisted his father take, and his dealings with the foundation provided a catalyst for his interest in cryonics generally and Alcor specifically, according to John-Henry's sister, Claudia Williams. Dr. Jerry Lemler, Alcor's CEO, was another aggressive suitor of John-Henry's. An ardent baseball fan whose motto is "You only live twice," Lemler, in conducting a tour of the facility for a Denver Post reporter, pointed to the huge cylinders known as Dewars that contain four bodies and up to five heads and said: "These people aren't dead. They are only at a point where contemporary medicine has given up on them. We're not about raising the dead. ... We're about extending life further into the future than ever before."

The 50ish, bearded Lemler, who liked to quote Robert Frost and Woody Allen and smoke a cigar, saw himself as an adventurer. "I've pushed limits and mostly been better for doing so," he said. "So the future offers virtually limitless possibilities."

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In the spring of 2001, John-Henry also met two Alcor lifers so devoted to the organization that they lived in the building: Hugh Hixon and Michael Perry. Hixon, a former Air Force captain, started working for Alcor in 1982 and had attended virtually every cryopreservation procedure since then, including that of his own father. Perry is a computer science PhD who has worked at Alcor since 1987 as a computer programmer and writer. He also is an ordained minister in the Society for Venturism, an obscure quasi church based in Arizona that touts cryonics while practicing its "immortalist" philosophy.

John-Henry learned more about the demographics of the cryonics movement: the average cryonicist is a middle-aged white male, generally from an engineering or technical background, college educated, fairly affluent, and the kind of person who recognizes and admires the impact that technology has had in his life. Of the people frozen at Alcor, the ratio of men to women is four to one; a third are gay, and a third are Jewish. About 90 percent of Alcor's clients—those who have signed up to be frozen when they die—are concentrated in Florida, California, and New York.

Returning to California, John-Henry continued his research and met with several other cryonics activists and researchers. Then, several weeks later, when Alcor's next client was about to die, Alcor called John-Henry and asked if he'd be interested in watching a cryonics procedure. This was virtually unheard of and indicative of the lengths to which Alcor was going to woo the young Williams.

John-Henry not only made the trip but filmed the procedure. He returned to San Diego, where Ted was recuperating, and asked Claudia if she wanted to see his film. She didn't.

John-Henry, now wildly enthused with cryonics and with Alcor specifically, was ready to tell some of Ted's old friends, including Bob Breitbard and Eddie Barry, the former Boston Bruin and Ted pal who wintered in Citrus Hills, about his plan. Both men told him they thought he was mad.

Undaunted, John-Henry was comforted by the fact that he had Claudia in his corner on the cryonics plan for Ted. He thought it would be even better if he could win the support of his half-sister, Bobby-Jo, so that all three of the Williams children might be on board.

In early June, John-Henry called Bobby-Jo from San Diego. She was in the garage of her new house in Citrus Hills having a cigarette when the call came through. There was some brief chitchat before John-Henry asked her if she'd ever heard of cryonics. In fact, Bobby‑Jo, having recently seen a documentary on the subject, knew quite a bit about it. Furthermore, her mother's side of the family had been in the funeral business. She knew about death and its attendant rituals. John-Henry told her that he was impressed—and then dropped his bombshell: "How would you like this for Dad?"

Bobby-Jo exclaimed that her father had wanted to be cremated, but John-Henry confidently told her everything could be worked out. He also let her know that he had witnessed a cryonics procedure and could arrange for her to do the same.

Bobby-Jo was shocked. "Where?" she asked.

"In Scottsdale. And I want you to come out here, and they'll show you one."

This was too much for Bobby-Jo to absorb. She told John-Henry she had to go to the bathroom. She got her husband, Mark Ferrell, instead. "I said, 'You've got to come out here now!' I said, 'John-Henry's talking about cryonically freezing Daddy!' " They went back to the phone, and Bobby-Jo angled the receiver so that Mark could hear what her brother was saying. John-Henry excitedly explained that they wouldn't even need to freeze Ted's entire body but could simply cut off his head.

"'Think about this,'" Bobby-Jo said he added. "'The way the science is going, we can make a whole lot of money. If we can get them to take Dad's DNA, think about it. How many people would buy Ted Williams's DNA to have little Ted Williamses running around?'"

In January of 2002, John-Henry excitedly went to see Vanilla Sky, a new movie starring Tom Cruise in which cryonics plays a significant role. He knew the power of the arts, especially film, to shape public perception, and he was curious to see how Hollywood would treat the controversial practice to which he was now committed. He was also curious to see how the young woman he was taking to the movie would react.

Jenna Bernreuter was a 29-year-old critical-care nurse from Mississippi who was giving dialysis to Ted at night in his house. She had started in October of 2001, and she and John-Henry began dating in December, after which Jenna resigned her position because she felt she had a conflict of interest. John-Henry's girlfriend, Anita Lovely, was shattered by his betrayal and returned to Massachusetts.

After the film, John-Henry started telling Jenna about cryonics. "I'm from a nursing background," she recalled. "I'm thinking, 'Dead meat doesn't beat.' I watch people die every day. But in John-Henry's mind, cryonics meant you'd never be apart and still be together someday. He said he wanted to do it for himself, that his father was very interested in it, and they'd talked about it. He said Ted didn't believe in God. John-Henry didn't, either, so the only thing they could believe in was science. His philosophy was: 'I'm not going to heaven—I'm going to Alcor.'" John-Henry later took Jenna to meet Saul Kent and Bill Faloon, the leading cryonicists and Alcor figures. And after that, she met Jerry Lemler, the Alcor CEO.

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Meanwhile, Alcor was shifting into high-alert mode for Ted's death. John-Henry had told officials at the company that it was a done deal: they were getting the Kid. So Alcor hired a public relations strategist to deal with the anticipated flood of media attention when the news broke. The company also began to make logistical arrangements for a team of specialists to race to Citrus Hills when the time came to pack Ted's body in ice.

The PR man was Bill Haworth from Los Angeles. Haworth had worked on the 1992 and 1996 Clinton presidential campaigns before easing into the cryo milieu by working with Saul Kent on his project to build Timeship, a cryonics megafacility.

"It was a closely held secret that Ted was coming to Alcor," Haworth said. "Board members and some of the key staff knew. What I'd been told by Jerry Lemler and Saul Kent and John-Henry was that under the right circumstances and at the proper time, there would be a news conference in Boston to announce that Alcor had Ted Williams. I knew Ted was the man of the hour, that everyone thought he could change Alcor's fate. I'd get reports in the spring of 2002 that Williams's health was failing. There was discussion that we could make hay with this. That this was an ideal opportunity if it was handled right."

Haworth drafted a five-page statement for Lemler to read at the anticipated Boston press conference. "Jerry Lemler was the most ardent baseball fan I've ever met," Haworth said. "I can't describe how clearly delighted Jerry was at the prospect of Alcor attracting not only a true celebrity but a celebrity from his pastime. Jerry was a PR man's dream. He wanted to do anything and everything to promote the case for cryonics. I was given a blank check to do whatever I needed to do to bring the media in line with cryonics, to spin the thing out."

As Haworth contemplated how best to manage the PR, Alcor hired Suspended Animation Inc., of Florida to see to it that Williams's body was as well preserved as possible when it arrived in Scottsdale to be dismembered and frozen. Suspended Animation, then based in Boca Raton, worked to develop equipment and techniques to minimize cell damage after death.

John-Henry would give Alcor frequent updates on Ted's condition, and Alcor would relay the information to Suspended Animation's chief operating officer, David Hayes. "We were given certain parameters we had to prepare for," Hayes said. "If Ted got sick or ill, we'd go into different levels of standby. We'd be prepared to get on the road, bags packed; or the other level of standby was to go to Citrus Hills and sit where the patient was for weeks on end. Crews went to wait near his house. There were many discussions about where to park the ambulance so it wouldn't draw attention."

Shortly after 9/11, Ted told an old friend that while he still wished to be cremated after he died, he knew that John-Henry wanted him to be cryonically preserved and that whatever his son wanted was okay by him. But several months later, in the spring of 2002, Williams told one of his caretakers that he did not want cryonics.

In his final months, Ted began to feel a general sense of foreboding, of disquiet and unease. He told five friends—including Isabel Gilmore, an old flame to whom Williams had once unsuccessfully proposed—that he was unhappy with his isolation and that he wanted to see a lawyer. He also said he was concerned that John-Henry had made a mess of his finances, and he was worried that his wishes were not being carried out.

Ted spoke to Isabel in person about his fears during her visits. "He begged me the last three or four times I was down there that he needed a lawyer," Isabel recalled. "He said, 'I need a lawyer. Things aren't going right.' Ted could hardly talk." But she was unsure how seriously to take what he said. "I didn't know whether it was just his being sick, and also I knew if I did anything I'd be sued by John-Henry and Claudia for interfering." She consulted her son, a lawyer, and he advised her to stay out of it—this was a family problem, and she wasn't part of the family.

"I didn't know what it was about. I said, 'Why do you want a lawyer?' He said, 'I just do.' I thought it was something running through his mind. This happened three different times on three different occasions over two months in the spring of 2002. He said something like, 'I need a lawyer. My wishes not carried out.' I didn't know what he was talking about. His wishes. No one had ever mentioned this cryonics to me. I never dreamed of it, never heard of it until I read it in the paper after he'd died. I said, 'What wishes? Can I take care of it? What's the problem? Can I help?' 'No, I need a lawyer. I'm not going home.'

"That's it. He meant he was not going to be cremated. He wanted to be cremated and his ashes put in Islamorada. He'd told me that back when we were dating, and he told me that again in 2002, but now he knew he was not going to be cremated, and it was bothering him as he was getting closer to death. He said this to me as I was holding his hand on one of my visits. I would say it was about a month before he died.

"I never told John-Henry or Claudia what he was saying because they had a family lawyer, and John-Henry had power of attorney. He was doing everything he could to make his father comfortable, so it never dawned on me there would be anything other than what Ted wanted."

After Ted's head was severed, it was put into a small plastic container and taken to an adjoining room known as the "neuro cool-down area." There it was placed into a small Dewar connected to a larger Dewar filled with liquid nitrogen. The larger Dewar then began pumping nitrogen gas cooled to minus 202 degrees at a high velocity into the smaller Dewar containing Ted's head. This went on for about three hours. The goal was to cool all parts of the head below the glass transition temperature of minus 191 degrees as quickly as possible, after which it would be "vitrified," or reach an ice-free state.

Ted's torso was taken to what Alcor called its "whole body cooling bath," a large, thermally insulated, rectangular box filled with silicone oil cooled by dry ice. The torso was wrapped in protective plastic and strapped to a wire-mesh stretcher before being lowered into the oil bath. A lid was placed over the bath, and a pump circulated the oil amidst chunks of dry ice, cooling the torso to minus 110 degrees, at a rate of 32 degrees per minute. Then Ted's body was removed and deposited in a large Dewar where, like his head, it would be cooled further over a period of two weeks.

Each Dewar was 10 feet tall, a little over three feet in diameter, and weighed about 5,400 pounds when full. The capacity was four bodies and five heads. The bodies were wrapped in low-temperature sleeping bags and put inside an aluminum container called a pod. Four pods ringed the sides of a Dewar, and in the middle was the "Neuro Column," which consisted of five large cans about the size of lobster pots, each resting on a shelf, one on top of the other. Each can contained a head.

An Eye Bolt was screwed into the bone below the neck to make it easier to handle the head when necessary. The heads lay upside down, resting on a can of Bumble Bee tuna fish, or if a head was larger than normal, perhaps a can of Dinty Moore beef stew. "They want the heads resting on something, not just setting at the bottom of the stockpot," said Cindy Felix, a former Facilities Operations Manager at Alcor. "It's amazing some of the things they do. They can be so high tech in some areas, but they're almost medieval in others—like the tuna can."

After Ted's long procedure was over, the Alcorians were tired but jubilant. Here was the celebrity who could transform cryonics and give it some legitimacy.

Of course, for the moment at least, the company couldn't say anything because of patient confidentiality rules. And John-Henry Williams, Ted's son, was holding them to that. Holding a sweeping power of attorney and health proxy for his father, John-Henry, 33, had become a cryonics disciple. He'd been in secret talks with Alcor for more than a year about freezing Ted when the time came, and given the company strict instructions not to tell anyone his father was there. Alcor executives hoped they could eventually persuade John-Henry to let them go public—perhaps in return for a price concession. Meanwhile, Ted—his head now in a pot, his torso in a pod—settled in to await what would be his greatest comeback ever.

Ben Bradlee Jr. spent 25 years at the Boston Globe as a reporter and editor. As deputy managing editor, he oversaw many critically acclaimed stories, including the Globe's Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church in 2002. He lives in Cambridge, Mass. Buy The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams on Amazon.

Top image by Jim Cooke. Alcor photo via Getty. Photo of John-Henry and Ted Williams via AP.