239 Days in America

A Social Media Documentary following 'Abdu'l-Bahá in 1912

August 20, 1912
Eliot, ME
Storify Feature

Fred Mortensen Rides the Rails

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.

“There I was at the Gate of Paradise,” Fred later wrote. But after his grimy voyage he looked like something out of the gutter. He cleaned up as best he could, rose the next morning at 6 a.m., and headed to the Inn to add his name to a very long list of visitors waiting to meet ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Fred’s was the second name called. “Why, I nearly wilted,” he wrote.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá welcomed Fred with a smile and a warm handclasp. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá asked him if he had a pleasant journey. “Of all the questions I wished to avoid this was the one!” Fred recalled. Then ‘Abdu’l-Bahá asked again. “I lifted my eyes to his and his were as two black, sparkling jewels, which seemed to look into my very depth. I knew he knew. . .”

“I did not come as people generally do, who come to see you,” Fred told ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.

“How did you come?”

“Riding under and on top of the railway trains.”

“Explain how.”

“Now,” Fred wrote years later, “as I looked into the eyes of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, I saw they had changed and a wondrous light seemed to pour out. It was the light of love and I felt relieved and very much happier. I explained to him how I rode on the trains. After which he kissed both my cheeks, gave me much fruit, and kissed the dirty hat I wore.”

The next day, as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was about to leave Green Acre for Malden, Massachusetts, Fred waited among the crowd waving goodbye. Then, “to my astonishment he ordered me to get into the automobile with him,” Fred wrote. Fred was ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s guest for an entire week.

Fred’s life changed. He moved to Atlanta, hoping to combat the racial injustices there by spreading Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings of unity and equality. He raised four children and campaigned for the labor movement, fighting for age limitations, the minimum wage, and safer working conditions.

Fred Mortensen died on June 13, 1946. At Fred’s funeral his family read, at his request, the account of the time he spent with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.


  • http://www.facebook.com/enrique.cantu.16 Enrique Cantu

    I think it would greatly help to eliminate all forms of prejudice, hire and promote based on merit, and ensure that everyone has education.

    • http://twitter.com/MasterCopyWrite Karridine

      You advocate a ‘meritocracy’, where people get what they justly, actually MERIT… which ‘Abdu-l Baha himself implied when speaking to ‘womens rights’ and equality of opportunity… that they should be allowed and encouraged WHEN they have (individually, person by person) SHOWN THEMSELVES educated, informed and capable. Yup, ‘based on merit’ seems a VERY fair way to deal with prejudice and bias.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Candace-Moore-Hill/736896802 Candace Moore Hill

    Fred’s story has always inspired me. Today I made a memorial for him and you can leave a “virtual” flower on his grave. http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=95650133

  • Loie Mead

    We as individuals can help eliminate prejudice by encircling the children and convening the neighborhood children’s classes wherever we live. The need has become so very urgent. Answering this need is a priority for every one of us. If we rally around this need, whoever we are, there is some thing that each of us can contribute to the spiritual education of children. In the process we will be carrying forward the work that ‘Abdu’l-Baha asked us to continue for Him.

  • Dawn

    One way individuals can help close the gap between rich and poor is to actively practice generosity and compassion in our relationships, especially with people in our community who are in need. I’m not talking about charity (although that’s a part of it too). But I mean that it can be generous and compassionate to give a job to someone, or to help with someone’s education. Another way too is to befriend those who are less wealthy than we are. This simple act of true friendship and care to those who less fortunate can go a long way.

  • Sandra B

    One way is to make eye contact with every human we encounter in the course of our lives–the homeless, the wait staff in a restaurant, those who clean rooms where we lodge during travel. My husband always pays attention to the name tag of whoever is serving us and addresses that person by name. Long ago, I waited tables in a restaurant in the south, and remember the invisibility, pains, and indignities of at least that form of low-wage labor. Another Baha’i in our community can express a greeting in 40 different languages–imagine how welcome that makes the person feel who hears her/his own language spoken by a foreigner in a foreign land.

  • David Bulman

    This story of Fred Mortenson is so rich. I only knew a little piece of it before. Today i looked up the reference and read from Fred’s great grandson’s thesis–thank you Justin for this–and have shared it with several other people. Fred went through a very dramatic transformation, and not only a momentary discomfort in front of ‘Abdu’l-Baha as i had thought.
    Interestingly the incidents when he was treated badly, people refusing to talk to him, and even those wanting to cast him out, apparently primarily out of jealousy because of how the Master received him. That jealousy pushed those people to think that ‘Abdu’l-Baha was wrong in his evaluation of Fred.

    • David Bulman

      I would love to be able to read this: Mortensen, Fred. “When a Soul Meets The Master.” Star of the West 12, No. 14 (March 1924): 365-367. Is there any way it could be shared? If possible, pls let me know at bulmandavid@yahoo.com — unfortunately there is no copy of Star of the West available to me where I live in N’Djaména.

      • 239Days

        David, there’s a full archive of Star of the West online at: http://starofthewest.info.

        To locate “When a Soul Meets a Master” use the drop-down menu at the middle of the main page, and select “Volume 14, 1923 – 1924.” When you’re at that volume, look to the top right side of the interface and type “365” in the page number field, and it will take you directly to Fred’s article.

        • David Bulman

          Thank you. It is a wonderful article. I am really mesmerized by this man. I think it is perhaps because of what Charles D. Boyle wrote above: “There is a little bit of Fred Mortensen in every one of us whether by choice or by chance, and each yearns simply for acceptance.” I see resemblances between Fred’s story, and the stories of Badi and Anis, both of whom were rebellious in nature, natures which were transformed.

  • David Bulman

    About closing the gap between the poor and the wealthy, I applaud what others have already said, and I am a firm believer that efforts by individuals need to be in the here and now with people in their lives, and not some distant, impersonal charity giving.
    I am convinced though, that this question is primarily one of governance. “Robin Hood” taxes, that redistribute wealth, leaving prosperous people with a degree of prosperity, would provide the less prosperous with the minimum for a decent life. This is pretty controversial in current economic thought, even when limited to nation states that have a well-functioning taxation infrastructure. And in those wealthier countries with stronger taxation mechanisms, the only income transfer systems to the poor in poorer countries in through some UN agencies, NGOs and international organizations (red cross, etc.).
    Given that governance systems are insufficient to address these matters in a comprehensive manner, some have advocated meals in primary school for children everywhere in the world. Others have advocated initially putting in place minimal cash transfers to the elderly in the world’s poorest countries — $1 or $2 per day. These two simple ideas are in fact highly strategic. Both of these together would go a tremendously long way to helping the poorest, to reducing the number of people living in extreme poverty, and to reducing the terrible scourge of hunger.

    • http://twitter.com/MasterCopyWrite Karridine

      It has been my understanding, that we are encouraged to strive to eliminate ‘…the EXTREMES of wealth and poverty…’, not wealth and poverty themselves.

      That said, I am all in favor of the material minimum fixings stipulated in Peter Diamandis’ great book, “Abundance – The Future Is Brighter Than You Think” (Free Press, 2012 CE)

  • http://www.facebook.com/barbara.mclellan.10 Barbara McLellan

    Jack Kerourac wrote “On the road” not Jack London. Other than that, I love the Fred Mortensen story.

    • 239Days

      Barbara… yes Jack Kerourac wrote “On The Road” but Jack London also wrote a book by that title in 1907, which is the book we refer to in the caption to the photograph in this article. The photograph is taken from Mr. London’s book. Glad you enjoyed the feature. Keep reading!

  • http://www.facebook.com/charles.d.boyle Charles David Boyle

    We don’t all wear fancy suits and spruce up good when we have to. ‘Abdu’l-Baha accepted people as they were and encouraged them to become all they could be. There is a little bit of Fred Mortensen in every one of us whether by choice or by chance, and each yearns simply for acceptance.

  • http://twitter.com/MasterCopyWrite Karridine

    Barbara, Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ was MUCH later than Jack London’s ‘On the Road’… and yes, Jack DID write a book of that name, published in 1907. As an even later songwriter wrote, ‘You can’t jump a jet plane, like you can a freight train, so I’d best be on my way, in the Early Morning Rain…’

    Railroad ‘bulls’ hired to beat the hobos, slips, dis-memberments, deaths… yes, but also camaraderie, sharing and true affection for the other displaced and wandering souls…

    Fred had the wondrous bounty of wandering off the path, into jail, into ‘exile’ as a fugitive, then finding that his ‘…long, strange trip…’ had led him to the ‘Mr Natural’ of our reality…

    • http://twitter.com/MasterCopyWrite Karridine

      I beg your pardon… Jack London wrote ‘The Road’. Not really similar to Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ (Dharma Bums)

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