Guide to SKOPJE

The case of Miss Stone


Strumica region is embraced by two mountains, the harsh Ograzden and temperate Belasica where there is a triple border between Macedonia, Greece and Bulgaria. It has a riveting history as well as intact nature, crystal clear spring waters, a colourful carnival, bright red tomatoes and the famous Kurtova Kapija peppers that make the delicious Macedonian ajvar.  It has always been a place where you can feel positive vibes starting from Trebichino which is the centre of rural tourism, Kolesino a village of fourteen different religions, and the lavish waterfalls of Smolari. On both sides of the road to Strumica the greenhouses cherishing delicious vegetables can be seen, and when looked upon from a higher ground the nylon covers seem like a sea shimmering in the shy autumn sun. There is busyness around here that is rarely seen anywhere else in Macedonia. A place which has for long been the stage of various dramatic plots.

Miss Stone, Katerina & Elena Cilka

The story of the kidnapping of an American Protestant missionary Ellen M. Stone began in the summer of 1901. The first kidnapping of modern times, or, as many would call it, an echo of the Macedonian five centuries long outcry to the world, has a seemingly precise and clear dramatic plot.

The American Protestant Church in Thessaloniki was preparing to send the prominent doctor House to Bansko in order to promote and expand their mission. Voivoda Yane Sandanski, the Macedonian revolutionary leader, came up with a plan to kidnap him, after having failed in several other attempts of kidnapping important people. He intended to lure doctor House to his territory with the help of local protestants from Bansko. One version of the story says that doctor House gave up on the journey and Miss Stone, who had just arrived in Thessaloniki, went in his place. However, another says it was voivoda Sandanski who found out that there was a Protestant missionary staying in the region of Razlog and decided to change plans and kidnap her instead.

History records that the action took place on September 3rd in the late night hours and the kidnappers were masked as Turkish soldiers. Several days later Miss Stone and her companion Katerina Stefanova Cilka, who was also Protestant, were told they were in the hands of Macedonian freedom fighters.

The news of the kidnapping spread fast and world press showed great interest in the sensational events in Macedonia, which was unknown at that time and considered to be part of the Ottoman Empire. An additional burden was the delicate condition of Ellen Stone’s friend Katerina who was pregnant and later gave birth to a baby girl right in the midst of the hostage drama. Yet this event and the behavior of the the voivodas towards little Elena was the turning point in the women’s perception of the Macedonian freedom fighters. Ellen Stone came to understand and support the komitas and the Organisation in their struggle for freedom and the need for the Macedonian issue to be heard in the world by means of a spectacular kidnapping of an American citizen.

Negotiations for ransom for were held for months. The komitas asked for 25 thousand lira worth 100 thousand dollars at the time, in exchange for the release of the two women. Unfortunately, due to a persistent pursuit for the “bandits”, they were forced to lower the price and accept 14.500 lira. Eventually, after many ordeals, the story ends with payment of the demanded amount of money on January 20th 1902 in the region of Bansko and the women were released on February 10th near the village of Vasilevo, Strumica.


As it usually happens, where one story ends another one begins. The other side of the events that was only seen by a few, took place in Vasilevo. This peaceful rural municipality with population of 12 thousand, has carefully and proudly kept the secret of the events in Miss Stone’s last days in captivity, her guard Atanas Conev the Beard from the village of Nivichino and his role in the kidnapping.

Atanas Conev, a great-grandson of Atanas the Beard and owner of the motel Miss Stone

– The truth is that there are scarce written documents about this part of the story of the abduction of Miss Stone, says Georgi Conev a great-grandson of of the Ograzden revolutionary leader Atanas Conev the Beard also known as Nivichanski among the people. My great-grandfather received orders from Yane Sandanski to make sure the captives were well and unharmed in any way. He says that nobody in Nivichino knew that the woman the whole world was talking about was kept hidden in Atanas’s house built of stone. Everybody behaved irreproachably and Miss Stone confirmed that later in her memoires, and by setting up a foundation with the aim to help Macedonian people. She was a strong and independent woman, yet reasonable and adaptable. Komitas provided cornmeal mush, sour milk, kaymak, bread and rice for food. By the time they were brought to Nivichino things had much improved, because they were more relaxed and started believing in the revolution, says emotionally overwhelmed Conev.

– A proof of this is found in one of Miss Stone’s writings where she wrote a prayer for Macedonian people, right after she was released in Strumica. When the Beard turned her over to the local authorities they had a touching farewell moment. I am deeply convinced in the truthfulness of this story that I was told by my father Nikola Mitkov, states Conev.


– Interestingly enough, the USA treated the komitas as terrorists before the kidnapping, but after Miss Stone shared her experience with the world an American – Macedonian friendship developed, says Atanas Conev, a great-grandson of Atanas the Beard and owner of a motel in Vasilevo municipality, named after the missionary.

He continues to tell that komitas asked for 25 thousand gold lira, the amount they needed to provide weapons from America. According to him, the funds collected for the liberation of the missionary were far more than the sum they asked for, but they refused to take the whole amount of money raised.

They used the 25 thousand lira to buy Winchester guns and Colt revolvers that were later used during the Ilinden Uprising. Legend says that the Americans used the remaining funds to build wooden houses for homeless people in the southern part of Thessaloniki and named the settlement Miss Stone. “Unfortunately, we are unable to confirm this.”- says Conev ending the story of his famous ancestor.

After the saga had ended, Miss Stone made great efforts in resolving the Macedonian issue. She even wrote a book which, to our great disappointment, was never published. Just before they were due to be printed, the writings were burned in a fire in her hometown Chelsea. Miss Stone died in Chelsea in 1927 and her grave was only recently discovered.

Strumica is a destination a true hedonist must simply not miss. A town of beautiful women, crazy parties and historical events, is reputed for its warm welcome to all its visitors.

The mornings in Vasilevo are an extraordinary experience. The air is filled with mixed fragrances of fresh tomatoes, peppers, cabbage and watermelons. The majority of the population are farmers but there are stockbreeders too. They live their lives with faith in better future just as their ancestors did a century ago. Vasilevo municipality is a gateway of the Strumica region. Ranging from Dobrasinci at the entrance and Piperevo at the exit, there are 18 villages that cherish the meek and tolerant spirit of these people.

Nivichino has long been forgotten and the house of Atanas Conev raided by thieves. Nobody knows if the central weapons storeroom of the glorious VMRO still exists. In their place we only find tall grass, ivy and poppies. The sole building still standing is the dilapidated church dedicated to St Elijah, as a witness to the great deeds of the insubordinate Macedonians, their ideals for freedom, and a somewhat different story of Miss Stone. A story that has not been told, until now.

Goran Igic

photo by: Galina Strachkova