Tales from a Banana Republic

The birth of a banana republic
Author William Sydney Porter, who used the pen name O Henry, first used the expression “Banana Republic”

There are many interesting tales from a Banana Republic that are worth sharing. American novelist Sydney Porter, better known after his pen name O Henry lived in Trujillo, Honduras at the turn of the century. Porter arrived in Honduras fleeing from a charge for embezzlement in the United States. His relatively short time in Honduras produced some magnificent short stories about life in Honduras. Porter takes the credit for creating the term “Banana Republic” His longest story, of Cabbages and Kings is a portrait of life in north coast of Honduras.[themify_hr border_width=”1″ width=”1″ color=”light-gray”]

Back in those days, the Trujillo Railroad Company ran the show in Trujillo. They built a banana empire and the backbone was a railroad that extended east and west out of Trujillo. To the West, it went as far as the Town of Saba, in the Aguan Valley. Here it connected with the Standard Fruit Railroad Company that had its headquarters in La Ceiba. To the east, it went as far as the town of Sico, in what today is part of the Moskitia in Honduras.

Today, our tales from a Banana Republic go back to the early twentieth century. Frederick William Hahneman was one of the executives at the Trujillo Railroad company. On July 5th, 1922, Frederick William and his Honduran wife, Delia Pastor Ordoñez saw their son, Frederick William Hahneman born in the city of Trujillo. Bill, as the child was called, eventually made in the United States and became a US Citizen. He settled in Easton, Pennsylvania where he married and had two children.

The Unlikely Story Begins.

Tales from a Banana Republic
Page 1 of the original Bill Hahneman Honduras ID

Bill Hahneman checked into the Americus Hotel in Allentown, Pennsylvania on the eve of May 2, 1972. According to reports he then went to a local travel agency and bought an airplane ticket from the Lehigh Valley Airport to Washington National Airport on Eastern Airlines flight 175. The ticket was for flight on May 5, 1972. Once on board, Hahnemann quickly took over the airplane and diverted it to Washington Dulles International Airport. He demanded $303,000 US Cash, 6 parachutes, 2 jumpsuits, 2 crash helmets, two bush knives, two cartons of Benson and Hedges cigarettes, plus of course, fuel and food for the trip.[themify_hr border_width=”1″ width=”1″ color=”light-gray”]

Tales from a Banana Republic
Page 2 of Bill Hahneman’s original Honduras ID

Once he had the items requested, he proceeded to allow the remaining 47 passengers and one stewardess to disembark. He kept a crew of 6 on board the Boeing 727 and demanded to fly to Honduras, his country of birth. The aircraft had a mechanical and had to land in New Orleans. There, Frederick William Hahnemann negotiated a replacement aircraft, switched planes and continued his trip towards the north coast of Honduras.[themify_hr border_width=”1″ width=”1″ color=”light-gray”]

Once in this general area, he demanded that the pilot reduce speed and the crew stay inside the cockpit. He put on one of the parachutes, opened the aft staircase and jumped into the dark night. This took place at around 4 am on May 6. Frederick William Hahnemann had hijacked an aircraft, obtained ransom money and escaped from the airplane over the tropical jungles of northern Honduras!

As a result, there are many different stories about what happened. This is where the tales from a Banana Republic get interesting! According to one of the more reliable stories, he landed somewhere between the departments of Yoro and Atlantida. There are reports that his parachute was found in the middle of a tomato plantation in Atlantida. From there he walked until he got to the village of Siempre Viva. The village is the CA13 highway, about 40 kilometers east of Tela, towards the City of La Ceiba. There he bought a soft drink and got his bearings straight.

His next stop was in Tela, where he got a haircut. Reports from witnesses say that he looked tired and was muddy. He paid for the haircut in US dollars which was a common currency in Tela because of the Tela Railroad Company, one of the banana companies operating in Honduras. Afterwards he took a bus to El Progreso and San Pedro Sula. His first stop was to visit his mother, who was a resident in San Pedro Sula. By then, the Honduran police and the FBI were on his trail. They found his parachute half buried in the tomato field. The Honduras police also spoke with witnesses that saw a stranger in Siempre Viva and at the Barber shop in Tela. His face was on the local papers and a reward was being offered to information that led to his capture.

Tales from a Banana Republic
Bill Hahneman escorted by Federal Authorities

Bill Hahneman decided to hide in the caves at Taulabe. These caves are a massive limestone cavern system that is just off the main road between San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa. Although today you can visit the caves and there is some infrastructure, there was nothing back then. Hahneman sought help from an old friend in Honduras: Jose Gomez Rovelo. Gomez Rovelo convinced Frederick William Hahnemann that he was to old to live on the run. On the morning of June 2 they both walked into the United States Embassy in Tegucigalpa and Hahneman surrendered.[themify_hr border_width=”1″ width=”1″ color=”light-gray”]

He was quickly sent back to the USA, and the FBI had his hands on him. However, they did not have the money. When asked about it, he claimed he had deposited it in a Communist Bank in Hong Kong. To this day, the tales from a Banana Republic still bring up the fact that the money is somewhere deep within the Taulabe Caves in Honduras.

Taulabe Caves
The Taulabe Caves. Photo Courtesy of Lizandro May Photography

Locals do not know that the money was eventually recovered. According to an unclassified cable from the FBI, the Eastern Airlines Ransom money was recovered on May 13, 1972. This was just over a year after the $303,000 USA dollars after Bill Hahneman first got his hands on it. There are scant details about where the ransom money was. Hahneman pleaded guilty in court, was sentenced to life in prison and paroled on March 13, 1984, having spent almost 12 years in prison. His definite discharge was on August 17, 1984 and he died on December 17, 1991. Thus, one of the most interesting tales from a Banana Republic comes to an end![themify_hr border_width=”1″ width=”1″ color=”light-gray”]

Next time you visit the Taulabe Caves near Siguatepeque in Honduras, do not waste time trying to find Hahnemans money. Despite this fact, I do encourage you to visit the Taulabe Caves. You can do so as a short-day tour from Lake Yojoa or Siguatepeque. If you are driving between San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa, you can also make a stop and explore the caves. The guides will probably tell you that there is a cache of money in there somewhere. It makes for a good story, certainly an appropriate tale from a Banana Republic!