Silas Trim Bissell, the scion of a carpet sweeper fortune who became a bomb-toting 1960s radical and lived as a fugitive for 17 years, died June 15 of brain cancer at his home in Eugene, Ore. He was 60.
Bissell’s great-grandfather founded the Grand Rapids, Mich., company whose name is synonymous with carpet-cleaning machines. But he turned his back on the family business, as his father had before him. He was a college professor and lauded poet when the social and political convulsions of the 1960s swept him into the revolutionary group known as the Weathermen and a place on the FBI’s most-wanted list.
He had a comfortable childhood as the son of socially conscious parents. His father, Wadsworth, was an artist who was disinherited for refusing to join the family enterprise. His mother, Hillary, was a lifelong civil rights activist who helped start a chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality. She and her husband were honored with a special award from the NAACP in 1960.
Bissell attended the University of Michigan, where he won three prestigious Hopwood Awards for his poetry. He fell in love with Judith Emily Siff, a New Yorker whom he would later marry. But he was the least politically inclined member of his family. When he finally was jailed during his senior year for taking part in a civil rights sit-in, his mother exclaimed, “Thank God! I thought you never were going to get arrested.”
The scholarly life appealed to him more. He graduated in 1964 with a bachelor’s degree in English literature and went on to Syracuse University for a master’s in creative writing in 1965.
He spent the next three years teaching at Wayne State University in Detroit, but the temper of the times made it impossible to avoid politics. Issues of race, authority and the legitimacy of America’s involvement in southeast Asia were turning campuses across the country into smelters of unrest.
During the Detroit riots in 1967, Bissell and his wife decided it was “time to stop being spectators” and take their concern to the streets. Ending the Vietnam war became their mission.
In 1968, he gave up his tenure-track teaching job and the couple moved to Seattle, the center of a vigorous anti-war effort.
Arriving the summer that Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated and protesters stormed Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, they joined a Seattle draft resistance group.
Eventually they were drawn to an organization that borrowed its name from a line by Bob Dylan: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”
As a married couple in a fringe culture that scorned monogamy as too bourgeois, the Bissells were constantly challenged by comrades in the Weathermen collective to prove their dedication to the cause. Their chance came in the early hours of Jan. 17, 1970, after a Weathermen leader asked them to “do a bombing” in conjunction with an appearance by Yippies co-founder Jerry Rubin at the University of Washington.
They placed a paper bag containing a home-made incendiary device under the steps of the campus ROTC building. It did not go off, apparently because of a defective wire. The Bissells were caught by campus police almost immediately, leading them to suspect they had been set up by compatriots.
They posted $50,000 in bonds and planned to face trial in Seattle until, according to Bissell, leading Weatherman Mark Rudd urged them to go underground. Traveling by bus and train, they made their way to San Francisco, but were rebuffed by fellow Weathermen. They wound up in Boston, where the mounting pressures finally destroyed the Bissells’ marriage. They parted at the end of 1970.
Judith Bissell was apprehended first and given a three-year sentence. She was released in 1981.
Alone and on the run, Bissell was desperately unhappy. Surviving on a monthly allowance an intermediary brought from his parents, he moved anonymously from city to city, walking for miles every day because “I didn’t know what do with myself.”
Eventually, he realized that there was “no point in evading arrest if that’s all you do with your life.”
He adopted the most boring name he could think of, Terrence Peter Jackson, and made a new life in Eugene, Ore., a college town where the inside joke is that old hippies never die--they just move to Eugene.
He gradually developed a strategy for his life in hiding, which he once summed up as “wear a red hat if you don’t want to be noticed.”
He worked in food co-ops, painted and learned to play the fiddle. A job as a nurse’s aide sent him back to school: He earned a bachelor’s in biology from North Carolina Central University in 1979 and a master’s in physical therapy from Duke University.
In 1981, he returned to Eugene and went to work as a physical therapist.
On Jan. 29, 1987, a knock at the door ended his charade. FBI agents arrested him, saying they acted on an anonymous tip from someone who saw his picture on a wanted poster. Bissell believed he had been betrayed by a friend.
More than 200 letters were written on his behalf, and four friends put up their homes to cover a $95,000 bond.
He was sentenced to two years in prison by a federal judge who said he did not believe “that a person deserves extra special treatment because he had been a model fugitive.” He served 17 months in the federal penitentiary in Lompoc, Calif., and was released in 1988.
While behind bars, he married schoolteacher Ruth Evan, who had known him in high school in Grand Rapids and corresponded with him in prison. She survives him, along with three stepchildren and two brothers.
As a condition of his release, Bissell performed community service in Cleveland. Then he moved with Evan back to Eugene, where he devoted himself to sculpture and painting in a fauvist style. He achieved some commercial success, showing in several West Coast galleries.
He used most of the proceeds from the sale of his art to fund human rights work. In 1993, he founded the Campaign for Labor Rights, a national organization opposed to sweatshop conditions in factories around the world, and served for several years as national director.
Although partially paralyzed as a result of special chemotherapy for the cancer that was diagnosed in late 2000, he continued to work as an artist until shortly before his death.
Asked some years ago about his previous life as a dangerous radical, he said that he no longer believed in violence. But he was miffed by suggestions that becoming a physical therapist and artist had made him “reformed ... some kind of spiritual person.” He remained unapologetic about the past.
“I did the best I knew how to do to stop a horrible atrocity in southeast Asia,” he told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 1992. “I no longer have strong feelings about whether it was right to use the means I did; I simply don’t know anymore. But I gave it my best shot and I have no apologies for that. I do believe that what I did contributed in a small way to ending the war.”