The docudrama series Wormwood takes on the kind of true crime mystery that will make a conspiracy theorist out of anyone. What happened to Frank Olson? Wormwood details the death of the scientist working for the Central Intelligence Agency, played by actor Peter Sarsgaard in the Netflix series. A death which has remained complicated and mysterious for decades, which the series explores at length.
“I’m a great believer in truth and meaning,” said Wormwood director Errol Morris in an interview with The Observer. “Because I’m an investigator, investigators have to believe in truth — real investigators — or why would you be doing it in the first place? You have to believe there’s a world out there where things can be uncovered.”
In real life, Olson was a military scientist working out of Camp Detrick in Maryland at the height of the Cold War. According to The Telegraph, in November 1953, he was found dead on the sidewalk in front of the Hotel Statler after presumably falling 13 flights out of the window of his room. According to The Telegraph, "The CIA initially claimed his death was an accident, but, in the 1970s ... admitted that Olson had been drugged and said that his death was a suicide." Olson's son believes that his father was allegedly murdered for knowing too much. and it's all of these differing stories that Wormwood seeks to explore.
In the immediate aftermath of Olson's death, the family was told that Olson had suffered a fatal nervous breakdown, and they accepted that for quite some time. According to The New York Times, it wasn't until a Washington Post article in 1975 revealed ''a civilian employee of the Department of the Army unwittingly took LSD as part of a Central Intelligence Agency test,'' developing serious side effects, that the family started to look into what really happened to Olson.
The family felt that the unnamed person in the article had to have been Olson, and the government eventually confirmed this, according to the NYT. They were then invited to the White House, where President Ford apologized to them on behalf of the United States government, and the family received a monetary settlement.
According to the Times, the family also met with the director of the CIA and were handed declassified documents that allegedly detailed how Olson was slipped the psychiatric drug. The day before he died, the documents reported that Olson was reportedly wandering the streets and discarding the contents of his wallet — though on the phone with his wife the next day seemed to be doing much better. He died shortly after. According to a separate New York Times article, "In the 1990s, the family had Mr. Olson’s body exhumed and an autopsy performed, and the New York district attorney’s office later conducted an inconclusive investigation into the death."
Olson's son Eric went particularly far down the rabbit hole trying to find answers to his father's death, and, according to The New York Times, was investigating what exactly his father was doing for the CIA, or rather what he may have allegedly saw and witnessed. According to The Telegraph, Olson's sons claimed that he allegedly "discovered that his biological research was being used to torture and kill suspects in Norway and West Germany." The family sued the government in 2012 for what they claim allegedly happened, according to The Telegraph, that "after raising concerns about the killings, Dr. Olson was allegedly given LSD in a glass of brandy and then executed by the CIA."
According to the New York Times, a CIA spokesperson "noted that the CIA’s most controversial episodes from the early cold war years, like Mr. Olson’s death, 'have been thoroughly investigated over the years, and the agency cooperated with each of those investigations.'" The CIA declined to comment on the then-pending court case. The Frederik News-Post reported in 2013 that the case had been dismissed, due in part to the 1976 settlement the family got.
We'll never know for sure what happened in that hotel room in the moments leading up to Olson plummeting to the ground, but Wormwood certainly does its best to figure that out.