No, Ira Einhorn Is Not the Founder of Earth Day

There's ample evidence convicted murderer Ira Einhorn did not found Earth Day, but don't expect the story to go away anytime soon.

Ira Einhorn at the April 1970 celebration of EarthDay in Philadelphia.

Ira Einhorn at the April 1970 celebration of EarthDay in Philadelphia.

Today is Earth Day, which means it’s time once again for an old story to make the rounds. Multiple news sources today have reported that Ira Einhorn founded Earth Day. Einhorn, convicted twice (once in absentia) for the 1977 murder of Holly Maddux, is serving a life sentence for his horrific crime. But he was not the founder of Earth Day.

Time, in 1970, cited Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson as the founder of the event1. He “casually suggested that all Americans set aside April 22nd as a day for serious discussion of environmental problems” in 1969, and the idea went viral. (Or however ideas spread in the late ’60s and early ’70s.) Large observations were held around the country — 1,500 college campuses and 10,000 schools planned events, per Time — 45 years ago, with notable rallies in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park and in New York City. 

Daily News - Ira Einhorn cover

The cover of the Daily News the day after Ira Einhorn was convicted of murder.

The first reference to Ira Einhorn inventing Earth Day I could find on Lexis-Nexis came in 1988, when Newsday interviewed Steven Levy about his book on Einhorn, The Unicorn’s Secret. It called Einhorn the “organizer of its 1970 Earth Day.” In 1989, both the Associated Press (“he organized the city’s Earth Day observance”) and the Boston Globe (“Earth Day in 1970 … was one of the Unicorn’s proudest accomplishments”). The 1979 AP dispatch on the discovery of Maddux’s body and Einhorn’s arrest calls him a “burly philosopher,” mentions his time at Penn and his 1971 run for mayor but does not say anything about Earth Day. A Google News archive search turns up empty.

Einhorn was involved in Philadelphia’s Earth Day, but the organizers say he alienated everyone involved. A 1998 op-ed in the Inquirer, by Edward W. Furia (project director of Earth Day and Earth Week in Philadelphia in 1970) and Austan S. Librach (chairman of the Earth Week Committee of Philadelphia), disputes the Einhorn-invented-Earth Day story:

Much to our dismay, we now find that Einhorn, the self-styled hippie guru and alleged murderer of Holly Maddux, has been taking credit for initiating or organizing Earth Day. He is not telling the truth. A group of very dedicated young people worked very hard to organize Earth Day, but Einhorn was not one of them. In fact, Einhorn was asked to leave several meetings of the organizing committee that he attempted to disrupt. He was not welcome there, nor did he contribute in any material way to the committee’s activities.

Einhorn, given a small role on the stage at Earth Day, grabbed the microphone and refused to give up the podium for 30 minutes, thinking he would get some free television publicity. We just waited until he had completed his “act” and then got on to the serious business at hand: the keynote speech of U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie, author of the landmark Clean Air Act of 1970. […]

Einhorn is a fraud.

A photo of Einhorn at the first Earth Day identifies him as the “Master of Ceremonies.” In 2001, the Inquirer’s Jennifer Lin recounted his stage show:

For more than 30 minutes, the organizers of Earth Day cooled their heels, waiting for him to wrap it up. But the attention had intoxicated him. And before he gave up the stage, Einhorn planted a kiss on Muskie’s lips with signature flamboyance.

“Ira had suddenly captured this thing that we had done and taken over the whole thing,” said Austan Librach, chairman of that first Earth Week in Philadelphia. “He was interested in the publicity, how to make Ira better. He was going to play it for all it was worth.”

“Just for the record, again, he did not start Earth Day,” Mary Maddux, Holly’s sister, told CNN in 1999. “He walked up on — he was an opportunist. He took every moment he could to say: Look at me, I’m the great Ira. I’m here to save the earth. I’m here to make sure that the students don’t get too rowdy in this sit-in, but remember it’s me, Ira Einhorn, doing all of this.”

Most recent stories about Einhorn’s supposed founding of the event, including Wikipedia, cite this 2011 repost of an article from a site called Life’s Little Mysteries.

And it does make for a good story: Earth Day was founded — sometimes co-founded — by a horrible murderer. It gives a lurid, true crime angle to the founding of a seemingly innocuous celebration. But it also makes for good politics. This news story generally makes the rounds in conservative media as a way to discredit environmental activists. Rush Limbaugh pushes it. Sometimes the stories are quite clever: By far the best headline on any of the conservative pieces is, “More people died in Ira Einhorn’s apartment than at Three Mile Island.”

Einhorn has, indeed, claimed to have founded Earth Day. During his 2002 trial, then-Assistant District Attorney Joel Rosen told the Daily News of Einhorn’s testimony: “The one thing he loved to do was talk about all his important stuff. ‘I was involved in Earth Day. I founded Earth Day. I’m Mr. Earth Day.'” During his testimony, Rosen got in Einhorn’s face and said, “Fraudulent, phony, false, fake!”

At this trial where he said he founded Earth Day, Einhorn also said CIA agents were behind Maddux’s death. That’s quite the tale — and so is the story of Ira Einhorn founding Earth Day.

Follow @dhm on Twitter.

1 The history is even more muddled than that. Nelson tapped Denis Hayes, a student at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, to organize the first Earth Day. John McConnell proposed a similar Earth Day celebration at the 1969 UNESCO Conference on the Environment. That Earth Day is held on the day of the spring equinox. (Return to text)