Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Michael Rockefeller

Like Tom and Huck

Wassink and Rockefeller set out in mid-October, and within a month they had visited dozens of Asmat villages, often using introductions from the many Dutch Catholic priests who worked as missionaries among the Asmat.

New Guinea native with art
New Guinea native with art

Rockefeller wrote enthusiastic letters home about his efforts in collecting Asmat handicrafts, which he called the "imposing remnants of a marvelous past." In some villages he bartered on the spot for arts and handicrafts, including painted heads.

A Dutch colonial official later told author Paul Toohey that he worried that Rockefeller was creating a lucrative new market for heads that would lead to bloodshed.

Rockefeller reportedly paid two steel axes and four rolls of tobacco for the canoe he commissioned. Yet he reportedly offered ten axes for a single painted head.

The Dutch official told the author that he warned Rockefeller "he was creating a demand which could not be met without bloodshed."

If the conversation ever took place, young Rockefeller apparently never mentioned it in his voluminous letters home and journal entries.

He and his partner went methodically about their demanding work.

Rockefeller and Wassink survived on an unchanging diet of Spam, rice and corned beef. They bathed in the river and slept entombed in netting to keep bugs at bay. He hired Asmat teenagers as houseboys and helpers, but they often proved unreliable.

Rockefeller with an Asmat boy
Rockefeller with an Asmat boy

But Rockefeller's correspondence generally ignored his personal travails while focusing on the boat and his growing Asmat art collection.

"The only difference between Mark Twain and me," he wrote, "is that his characters used poles all the time, while we use an outboard engine most of the time and poles part of the time."

On another occasion, he noted the instability of the vessel.

"Strong monsoons sometimes sweep the heavy swell from the Arafura Sea into the estuary, making the crossing a hazardous undertaking in an Asmat dugout canoe, which is not a seagoing craft," he wrote.

By the second week of November, Rockefeller's letters indicated he hoped to be home for Christmas, after several more village visits.

He was ever more enthused about his adventure.

He wrote, "My New Guinea experience will not stop in its intensity."

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