A Genuine Hero

Did you catch the story some time back about the life of Dr. John Edlund? He was, in my mind, a genuine hero—the kind you rarely read about. Dr. Edlund was the respected medical examiner of Monroe County, New York during the late 60’s and early 70’s. He was on duty that day in 1971 when inmates took control of the Attica Correctional Facility. The inmates had taken guards hostage, but had harmed none of them. 

After a four-day standoff, more than 200 state police and corrections officers stormed the prison in an effort to retake it. When it was over, 19 prisoners and 10 hostages had been killed. When the dead were brought out, state corrections officials claimed that the prisoners had slashed the throats of the hostages. The bodies of the 19 inmates and 8 of the hostages were brought to Dr. Edlund at the Medical Examiner’s Office. It was there that Dr. Edlund learned the truth—a truth that would haunt him the rest of his life. The hostages-like the 19 inmates—had been shot by the authorities trying to retake the prison. Edlund became a target. 

He received death threats. His career was demolished. The reaction toward him was relentless. How could he “side with the prisoners” over against the police? Edlund would only be able to say over and over again that that was the truth and he was only reporting what he knew to be true. He grew dark in this barrage of criticism and backlash. Eventually, Dr. Edlund moved to Nashville and joined the faculty at Vanderbilt. Later he would be named Dean at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. From that point, he refused to serve as an expert witness in court saying, “I’m no longer interested in the state’s case because they have so much power and the poor little guy, even though he may be guilty, seems to have not much.” He died in 1991. 

This year is the 45th anniversary of the Attica Uprising. John Edlund is a hero to me for having the courage to stand up in the midst of withering attacks and never once backing down. Because of it, he was also one of the victims of the uprising, albeit an unintentional one. You and I may never have to face the kind of onslaught John Edlund did, but every one of us DOES have to face moments in which our integrity is challenged. What would you do? What WILL you do? Jesus once said, “You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.” That is right—but it will cost you. Here’s to John Edlund.