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The Bank Robbery Behind Stockholm Syndrome

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BBC

Most people associate Stockholm Syndrome, a situation in which people being held captive feel sympathy toward their captors, with Patty Hearst and her ordeal with the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974. But the term Stockholm Syndrome was actually coined a year before in—you guessed it—Sweden.

The Robbery

The whole thing went down over a period of six days, from August 23 through August 28, 1973. On the first day, Jan-Erik Olsson strolled into Kreditbanken in central Stockholm, Sweden, and single-handedly held the place up. Of the two policemen who responded to the call, Olsson shot one in the hand and made the other sit in a chair, ordering him to sing something. (The policeman chose “Lonesome Cowboy,” in case you’re interested.) Olsson then took four hostages and started making demands: He wanted his friend and expert bank robber Clark Olofsson brought to the bank. He wanted 3 million Swedish Kronor. And he wanted a couple of guns, some bulletproof vests, some helmets, and a fast car.

His friend was delivered. While they waited for the other items and planned their escape over the course of the next few days, the bank-robbing duo kept their captives locked inside of the bank vault. They had a few phone exchanges with Prime Minister Olof Palme, including one where they allowed hostage Kristin Ehnemark to speak. It was during this phone call that it became clear that the hostages were starting to sympathize with their captors. Ehnemark told the Prime Minister, “I think you are sitting there playing chequers with our lives. I fully trust Clark and the robber. I am not desperate. They haven't done a thing to us. On the contrary, they have been very nice. But you know, Olof, what I'm scared of is that the police will attack and cause us to die."

Other hostages turned sympathetic as well, later saying that they thought Olofsson and Olsson were perfectly lovely. One claustrophobic expressed gratitude that the men allowed her to leave the vault as long as she had a rope tied around her neck like a dog, and another hostage who was told he was going to be shot was grateful that Olsson was going to let him get drunk first.

On August 28, police finally decided to gas everyone out via a hole they had drilled through the ceiling of the bank vault. The ploy worked, and everyone eventually left the bank unharmed. Both Olofsson and Olsson were captured.

The Aftermath

Olsson received 10 years in prison and has had a spotless record ever since. Olofsson, on the other hand, was released after appealing his sentence, managing to convince a judge that he had only showed up at the scene of the crime to help ensure the safety of the hostages. He became friendly with his captives over the years, even getting chummy with Ehnemark’s whole family when he wasn’t in and out of prison on various charges for the next few decades.

Some reports say that each captor even eventually married two of their hostages. While that’s not true, Olsson did marry one of the many women he corresponded with while in prison—apparently his hostages weren’t the only ones in whom he inspired sympathy.

Why would such a thing happen, though? How could anyone feel sympathy for their would-be murderers to the point that they would befriend them? There are a lot of steps in the process, but one of them is a psychological survival tactic: To make the situation less stressful and more manageable, the captive comes to believe that the captor is their friend, that he or she is a good person deep down, and they can get out of this predicament together.

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Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism
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The POW Olympics of World War II
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism

With the outbreak of World War II prompting a somber and divisive mood across the globe, it seemed impossible civility could be introduced in time for the 1940 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan to be held.

So they weren’t. Neither were the 1944 Games, which were scheduled for London. But one Polish Prisoner of War camp was determined to keep the tradition alive. The Woldenberg Olympics were made up entirely of war captives who wanted—and needed—to feel a sense of camaraderie and normalcy in their most desperate hours.

In a 2004 NBC mini-documentary that aired during their broadcast of the Games, it was reported that Polish officers under German control in the Oflag II-C camp wanted to maintain their physical conditioning as a tribute to Polish athlete Janusz Kusocinski. Unlike another Polish POW camp that held unofficial Games under a veil of secrecy in 1940, the guards of Woldenberg allowed the ’44 event to proceed with the provision that no fencing, archery, javelin, or pole-vaulting competitions took place. (Perhaps the temptation to impale their captors would have proven too much for the men.)

Music, art, and sculptures were put on display. Detainees were also granted permission to make their own program and even commemorative postage stamps of the event courtesy of the camp’s homegrown “post office.” An Olympic flag was crafted out of spare bed sheets, which the German officers, in a show of contagious sportsman’s spirit, actually saluted.

The hand-made Olympic flag from Woldenberg.

Roughly 369 of the 7000 prisoners participated. Most of the men competed in multiple contests, which ranged from handball and basketball to chess. Boxing was included—but owing to the fragile state of prisoners, broken bones resulted in a premature end to the combat.

Almost simultaneously, another Polish POW camp in Gross Born (pop: 3000) was holding their own ceremony. Winners received medals made of cardboard. Both were Oflag sites, which were primarily for officers; it’s been speculated the Games were allowed because German forces had respect for prisoners who held military titles.

A gymnastics demonstration in the camp.

The grass-roots Olympics in both camps took place in July and August 1944. By January 1945, prisoners from each were evacuated. An unknown number perished during these “death marches,” but one of the flags remained in the possession of survivor Antoni Grzesik. The Lieutenant donated it to the Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism in 1974, where it joined a flag recovered from the 1940 Games. Both remain there today—symbols of a sporting life that kept hope alive for thousands of men who, for a brief time, could celebrate life instead of lamenting its loss.

Additional Sources: “The Olympic Idea Transcending War [PDF],” Olympic Review, 1996; “The Olympic Movement Remembered in the Polish Prisoner of War Camps in 1944 [PDF],” Journal of Olympic History, Spring 1995; "Olympics Behind Barbed Wire," Journal of Olympic History, March 2014.

 All images courtesy of Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism. 

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President John Tyler's Grandsons Are Still Alive
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Getty Images

Here's the most amazing thing you'll ever read about our 10th president:

John Tyler was born in 1790. He took office in 1841, after William Henry Harrison died. And he has two living grandchildren.

Not great-great-great-grandchildren. Their dad was Tyler’s son.

How is this possible?

The Tyler men have a habit of having kids very late in life. Lyon Gardiner Tyler, one of President Tyler’s 15 kids, was born in 1853. He fathered Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr. in 1924, and Harrison Ruffin Tyler in 1928.

We placed a somewhat awkward call to the Charles City County History Center in Virginia to check in on the Tylers.

After we shared this fact on Twitter in 2012, Dan Amira interviewed Harrison Tyler for New York Magazine. Lyon Tyler spoke to the Daughters of the American Revolution a while back. They were profiled by The Times of London. And Snopes is also in on the fact.

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