Sunday, August 16, 2009

They Never Came Back by Allen Churchill

Despite it's age (it was published in 1960) "They Never Came Back," is a fascinating book that explores eight missing persons cases, all of which remain unsolved to this day. The majority of these cases have not been granted a book of their own, and Mr. Churchill devotes a detailed chapter to each.

The book begins in 1874 with cherubic Charlie Ross. Long before the Lindbergh Baby, this darling little blue-eyed, blonde, curly-haired tot became the victim of the first kidnapping for ransom in America. He was taken by strangers offering kind words, candy, and fireworks for the upcoming Fourth of July celebration, and was never seen again. The two men who abducted him were later shot in the act of burglarizing a wealthy judge's New Island estate, but died without revealing the whereabouts of little Charlie.

Next in this parade of the vanished comes heiress Dorothy Arnold who disappeared from one of the busiest streets in the world, New York's Fifth Avenue, in 1910, and was never seen again. Though born to wealth, Dorothy was discontent and unhappy, she had aspirations to be a writer, which led her family to mock and tease her without mercy, and was in love with a man she could not marry. Did Dorothy simply walk away from a life that had become unbearable in search of something better? Or did her oh so proper scandal-shy parents banish her to Switzerland when she became pregnant out of wedlock or did her life's blood bleed out on a backstreet abortionist's table? Was she abducted, drugged, and sold into white slavery? Or did a despondent Dorothy take her own life? Theories abound, but there are more questions than answers.

Three years later, a morose man whose literary aspirations led to fame followed Dorothy Arnold into the limbo of the lost--bitter Ambrose Bierce, a writer acclaimed for his scathing, caustic wit that always contained a kernel of humour. Seventy-one years old in 1913, with thousands of admirers but no friends, a failure at both matrimony and fatherhood, with both of his sons dead, the victims of alcoholism and a barroom brawl, despising any woman willing to be with him, and suffering from acute asthma after sleeping off a night's drunkenness in a damp, cold cemetery stretched out on top of a tomb, Ambrose Bierce was, despite his talent, and the fame and money it brought him, a failure as a human being. Always nostalgic about his Civil War days, he set off to get a firsthand view of the Mexican Revolution and maybe teach Pancho Villa a thing or two about military strategy, but somewhere along the way, he vanished. Maybe that was the way he wanted it? Did "Bitter" Bierce cheat the undertaker and his enemies of a grave to dance on and for his admirers to festoon with laurels?

In 1931 New York Supreme Court Justice Joseph Force Crater made headlines when he vanished after stepping into a taxi to attend a Broadway show. That afternoon he had behaved most mysteriously, withdrawing most of his money from his bank account and purging his personal files of so many papers he required two briefcases and four portfolios bundled together to transport them to his apartment. Did Tammany Hall, the sleazy underbelly of New York politics, a world of bribe, graft, and pay-offs have a hand in his disappearance, or did virtue triumph over vice and "Good Old Joe" renounce the world for the solitude of a secluded monastery in Mexico as his longtime mistress later implied? But in another theory vice trumps virtue when, according to a notorious Manhattan madame, Judge Crater died of a fatal heart attack while crossing the finish line to ecstasy mounted on top one of her girls. This salacious story ends with "Good Old Joe" being entombed in a cement coffin and consigned to rest in peace amongst the fishes in the Hudson River. But, yet again, theories are all we have, not hard evidence or answers.

An idealistic young woman, bored with her humdrum life as a housewife and mother, is the focus of the next story. Ruth Boerger Braman became enthralled with Communist philosophy at an early age. In 1934, after she met the dashing Adolph Arnold Rubens, a Russian spy masquerading as an author/editor and member of a prestigious Oyster Bay yacht club, she rushed to Reno to procure a quickie divorce so she could become Mrs. Rubens. Though she would afterwards paint herself as a naive young woman who knew next to nothing about Communism and became mixed up in something beyond the realm of her understanding, evidence overwhelmingly proves Ruth was a knowing accomplice who assisted her husband in running his illegal passport operation. When the couple paid a visit to Russia using false passports of Mr. Ruben's manufacture, they ended up in prison. Ruth was set free after eighteen months of imprisonment and diplomatic hassles, during which she was tried in absentia in New York, along with other accomplices in her husband's illegal passport ring, and sentenced to five years imprisonment and a $2,000 fine. Rather than return to New York and be sent immediately to prison, Ruth Rubens rejected her American citizenship and chose to remain in Russia where she vanished from the pages of history.

Pretty Paula Welden looked like the girl next door, petite, blonde, and blue-eyed, but her personality was one of highs and lows. But were the lows low enough to push her over the edge? In 1946, Paula was a sophomore at Bennington College in Vermont, an exclusively female establishment whose students came from good homes. But all was not happy in Paula's home, she had become convinced that her two younger sisters enjoyed the lion's share of her parents' love, so great was her resentment that she refused to go home for the Thanksgiving holiday. She had also had more than one battle with her stern industrial engineer father who believed she was wasting her time and his money at Bennington College. On a gloomy Sunday afternoon in December 1946 Paula impulsively decided to take a hike, though this was not unusual; botany was her favourite subject and provided an excellent excuse for long solitary walks during which she could observe plants and trees. Wearing blue jeans, a bright red parka, and white sneakers, she hitched a ride from Mr. Louis Knapp, 58, a contractor who lived fifteen miles from the college, near the start of Vermont's picturesque and popular Long Trail, an approximately eight mile trail, leading up to Glastonbury Mountain, lined by tourists' cottages, usually deserted in the dead of winter. On that December day, the Long Trail presented a soggy, desolate sight; certainly not an ideal site for a hike on such a drizzly, muddy day. Another resident of the area saw Paula around 5:00 p.m., she spoke briefly with the elderly nightwatchman who worked for the local newspaper, the Bennington Banner, then continued her trek towards the Long Trail...and oblivion. Despite extensive searches of the area, including the tourists' cottages, with dogs, experienced woodsmen, and even planes and helicopters up above, no trace of Paula Welden was ever found.

Marking the midpoint of the 20th century is one of the most perplexing disappearances of all time--West Point Cadet Richard Colvin Cox who, in January 1950, went out to dine with a mysterious visitor known only as "George," and never returned. Finding Richard Cox was a matter of honor and pride to the United States government and army, the massive manhunt covered the whole of the United States and even fanned out into Germany, where the young man had served in an intelligence unit in Occupied Germany during World War II, inquiries were even made in Korea after the outbreak of the Vietnam War, but all efforts to find Cox failed to bear fruit. Even the FBI failed to make a dent in the mystery. To this day, Cadet Cox remains A.W.O.L. (Absent Without Leave).

The book ends with a Halloween tragedy. On October 31, 1955 little Stevie Damman, just three months shy of his third birthday, was abducted from outside the supermarket where his mother had gone to buy a loaf of bread. What cruel trick of fate deprived Marilyn Damman of her little boy? Was another woman driven mad by maternal longings and unable to conceive a child of her own compelled to steal one, or did Stevie fall victim to some perverted monster? If he is still alive, Steven Damman would be in his late fifties now, but, dead or alive, he remains still among the missing, shrouded in the mists of oblivion.

This book is an old friend, packed with several of the cases that haunt me, ones that I've never forgotten since that first intriguing introduction, and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in mysterious disappearances and real-life unsolved mysteries. The only glaring fault is a lack of photographs and illustrations, it would be nice to be able to see a gallery of the missing, and the places associated with them, but this is still the best and most thorough book on historical missing persons cases that I have thus far encountered.