Rotary Club hears tale of intrigue, disguise

Published 4:58 pm Monday, December 13, 2010

Is it possible that one of the most rich and famous men of the 20th century faked his own death and lived in secrecy just north of Goshen?

That’s the theory put forth by Mark Musick, who spoke to the Luverne Rotary Club on Monday.

The story centers around Howard Hughes, an aviator, industrialist and one of the wealthiest people in the world at one time.

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Musick said that most people’s perception of Hughes is that he was a recluse through much of his life, although beginning in the early 1970s, there were conflicting reports about his health and status.

“When he was taken from the Bahamas to Nicaragua, he was described as having long hair and long fingernails, being very thin and addicted to drugs,” Musick said. “Six weeks later, he met the president of Nicaragua, and there was a totally different perception.  He was healthy and commanding.”

This flip-flop in appearance apparently happened several times until Hughes died in 1976.

“There was confusion about all of this until Eva McLelland came forward,” Musick said.

McLelland was a native of Pike County who plays an important role.

“With her story, it all comes together,” Musick said. “It’s just too wild. It has to be the absolute truth.  When I met her in 2002, she was still putting it all together.”

Music said that in 1969, Hughes took the identity of Verner Nicely, a CIA operative from Ohio who was working in Panama.

Panama is where he met McLelland, and the two later married and moved to a small house on Highway 29 west of Troy.

“After 1976, when Hughes ‘died’, he just hid,” Musick said. “He couldn’t have afforded to be found.  He also lived near Grady and Ramer.”

McLelland told Musick that when Nicely spoke about his childhood, the details were more in line with Hughes’ childhood than what was known about Nicely.

The couple never had any children, and after Nicely’s death in 2002, he was cremated, so DNA evidence has hit a roadblock.

McLelland died in December 2009.

“I believe that the richest man in the world lived for 20 years outside Troy, Ala.,” Musick said.

Musick and McLelland collaborated with Douglas Wellman on a book called “Boxes: The Secret Life of Howard Hughes,” which is available on