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The Cold Case of a University of Chicago Professor’s Murder

Remembering — and forgetting — the unsolved killing of Ioan Culianu.

Ioan Culianu and newspaper clippings
Photos: Courtesy of Tereza Petrescu-Culianu

At first, I couldn’t say precisely why the story of Ioan Culianu’s murder intrigued me the way it did. The fact that it had happened at the University of Chicago, where I was a student, was surely part of it, as was the fact that, like Professor Culianu, I was a Romanian immigrant. Perhaps it also had something to do with the long reach of the Old World and its grudges — the notion that ripples from my homeland could be felt here, an ocean away, on the sunny green campus of a prestigious school, in a country that celebrates rootlessness and the capacity for rebirth. The killing, however, suggested there was a limit to that sort of severance. No one could truly run away from history.

Most of what I knew about the 1991 crime, all but forgotten by the time I enrolled at the university, had trickled down from my father, who’d read about the assassination in the Romanian press, which covered it breathlessly — Culianu having been a prominent protégé of Romania’s most famous intellectual (and fellow U. of C. professor), Mircea Eliade. I’d gathered other pieces myself, mostly from local news clippings and a book I’d borrowed from the library. Authored by Ted Anton, an English professor at DePaul University, and published five years after the killing, it was the only volume written about the incident and ended up being as much a biography as an investigative exposé. I was fascinated not only by the aura of mystery surrounding the death of a fellow expat but also by the byzantine skein of threads that spun off it, like some mystical web.

Ioan Petru Culianu was born in Iasi, Romania, in 1950, descended from an old family of Moldavian boyars recently disenfranchised by an empowered Stalinist regime. In the 1970s, after winning a scholarship to study in Italy, he quickly defected. Eventually his academic work, which focused on the role of eroticism, occultism, and magic in religions, brought him to the University of Chicago, where he could teach and work alongside his idol, Eliade.

Just a few years after being appointed to a full professorship, Culianu was found dead, at the age of 41, in a bathroom stall near his office in Swift Hall, killed by a solitary bullet to the head. The Cook County medical examiner determined that the weapon had probably been a .25-caliber Beretta (“of the sort that can fit into a woman’s handbag,” as Anton put it) and that the assailant had likely fired the weapon, quite expertly, from a distance of at least 18 inches while perched on the toilet seat of an adjacent stall. According to investigators, it did not appear to be a crime of passion, as Culianu had been engaged — happily, by all appearances — to Hillary Wiesner, a 27-year-old Harvard graduate student. Nor was the culprit likely to have been a disgruntled pupil or faculty member, as the professor was widely admired (with some innocuous exceptions) by students and colleagues alike. And it was most certainly not a robbery, as his wallet and valuables were found on his person. This striking set of facts, taken together, strongly suggested the work of a professional.

Interviews with Culianu’s personal and professional acquaintances added credence to this theory. Culianu, it seems, had believed himself to be in danger. “Someone could kill me,” he’d told a graduate student several weeks before his death, according to an account published in the Chicago Tribune shortly after the murder. The professor had told those close to him that he’d received threatening phone calls and letters and that his office had been broken into, though he’d never reported any of this to the police.

A political motive began to emerge as a likely explanation. Before his death, Culianu — in an outpouring of essays, editorials, and other writings — had become a vocal critic of Romanian politics in the aftermath of the 1989 revolution, during which the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was hastily tried before a televised kangaroo court and promptly executed by firing squad. Culianu saw the shadowy forces now poised to seize power in his country as a dangerous admixture of Communist holdovers and extreme-right figures, some with ties to the Romanian Iron Guard, one of Europe’s oldest and most fanatically violent fascist groups. His outspoken opinions on these subjects were clearly not appreciated back home, where certain newspapers viciously lambasted his “fermented vision” and “fecal brain.”

What’s more, the Ceausescu regime’s infamously brutal secret police, referred to as the Securitate, were known to have carried out the assassinations of several dissidents on foreign soil. And even though Culianu’s murder had occurred a year and a half after the secret police were officially disbanded, it was plausible, in the eyes of investigators, that the new administration — which was proving more than willing to use despotic methods to suppress dissent — would solicit the services of a former Securitate assassin as a way to dispose of the professor.

Yet another lead surfaced from within Chicago itself. It was well known that Culianu’s friendship with Eliade had cooled dramatically in the years leading up to the mentor’s death in 1986, specifically after Culianu had become aware of Eliade’s links to the Iron Guard prior to the war. Eliade had always had a fraught relationship with the past: Before fleeing his homeland for the West, he had aligned himself with the fascists but had kept this fact hidden throughout his illustrious career. In the wake of discovering Eliade’s secret, Culianu confronted his compatriot and repeatedly urged him to be more forthcoming about the sins of his previous life. When Eliade refused, the younger man publicly exposed him, and the friendship disintegrated.

Perhaps Culianu was unaware that, burrowed quietly among Chicago’s large Romanian émigré community, there existed a nest of Iron Guard sympathizers, disgruntled insurgents who’d fled Eastern Europe following a failed uprising in 1941. It was more than conceivable — in the estimation of Anton, among others — that these aging exiles cherished Eliade, perhaps even saw him as one of their own, and had sought to avenge Culianu’s brazen attacks by dispatching a gunman to Swift Hall.

Old World politics were not the only line of inquiry. The FBI, for one, did not rule out Culianu’s ties to the occult. Given his deep and consuming interest in eroticism and magic, investigators for a time pursued the possibility that the professor had become enmeshed in a secretive and violent cult.

In the end, none of these theories yielded any satisfying proof, and eventually the unsolved mystery was consigned to oblivion, resurfacing only sporadically — mostly in the Romanian press — as a tangled knot of old conspiracies.

My own fascination with the murder, however, only heightened when I began my studies at the university in 2007. One afternoon in the fall of that year, having failed yet another exam (this one in chemistry), I left class crestfallen, haunted by a growing dread that I was disappointing my parents, who’d left Romania for my sake, as well as an invisible host of ancestors and relations who’d shouldered unthinkable adversity in the backwaters of Europe. Because of them, I had now been graced with a chance to let go of the Old World and thrive in the New. But that day, the weight of the past was drawing me backward. Instead of heading to dinner, I cut across the quad and made for Swift Hall.

The interior of the century-old Gothic building was cool and musty, imbued with that stuffy somberness that presupposes the search for knowledge and truth. As I climbed the stairs to the third floor, where Culianu’s office had been, I was stopped by an older man — a faculty member, I assumed, or possibly a dean. Sensing that I wasn’t where I ought to be, he asked if he could help me, and I suddenly found myself at a loss for words, unable to articulate what I had come there to find. This was likely because such a thing did not really exist. After all, what could I have possibly uncovered in that bathroom that I didn’t already know?

At that point, it occurred to me that this elderly man may well have been at the university long enough to have heard the pop of the Beretta, witnessed the rush of police officers and paramedics, and seen the funeral wreaths that students tearfully mounded outside Culianu’s office door. My mission now felt like an act of bad faith. I mumbled an apology, feigning confusion, and hurried back down the stairs and out to the quad. Never during the remainder of my time at the university did I return to Swift Hall.

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