Thursday, September 18, 2008
Lost...and Never Found - Anita Gustafson
This is a thin volume, perhaps published for children, in 1985, though some of the subject matter might be slightly inappropriate for children. Most notably in the Ambrose Bierce chapter, which is certainly the most fascinating. The book is about ten different people who mysteriously disappeared and were never seen again. That said, you know how ever story is going to end, but there is still a bit of intrigue for the few times that new clues in their cases surface.
The first is Orion Williamson, the oldest, a farmer in Alabama who disappeared in 1854. His wife and son were sitting on their porch, and then Orion walked out into the field to inspect something, and another neighbor and his son rode by on their wagon and waved to Orion, and then they looked away for a second, and he had completely disappeared. This is definitely one of the weirder stories--because most people in this book end up getting lost in New York, or oddly, Des Moines. It is weird because no one could explain where he went, and he was in an open field. Many people are intrigued by his case and come to visit the site. Even stranger, the wife and son of Orion claim that the area in which he suddenly vanished had become a 15 square foot patch of dead grass, and that they had heard his voice calling out from it and believed he had turned invisible. The voice stopped after a while and they supposed he died of starvation. But interestingly enough, Ambrose Bierce came to visit the site (he was about 11 or 12 when this happened, so I take it he showed up long after the fact) and he consulted a German scientist who came to the most original theory presented in the book on any of the cases:
"This young farmer, he suggested, had walked into a 'void spot of universal ether.' He explained that these void spots were short-lived, lasting only a few seconds, but they were immensely strong--able to completely destroy any solid objects such as grass or people that happened to be in them. The searchers who had combed the field had been saved from Williamson's fate because, by the time they got there, the void spot had vanished.
"Another scientist had a different idea. He thought Williamson had walked into a 'magnetic field.' Like void spots, magnetic fields were momentary but powerful; walking into one would completely disintegrate a person. If that's what happened to Williamson, this scientist went on, the very atoms of his body had been rearranged. According to his theory, Orion Williamson had walked into a magnetic field and had been hurled--in a different form--into another dimension." (9)
Ambrose Bierce is the subject of the next chapter, and Ms. Gustafson is clearly most entertained by this persona, as the writing goes beyond the basic elements of incident, short biography, and explanations. She contends that Bierce wanted to disappear and it is not hard to understand why. All of his life, he had been intrigued by the occult and the morbid. His chapter opens up with a description of a dream he had when he was sixteen where he enters into a house, finds a dead corpse inside, and realizes that the dead body is in fact, his own. Gustafson goes on to describe his heroic, fearless efforts in the Civil War as an 18-year-old soldier. Born in 1842, Bierce disappeared in 1913. But before getting to the story of the incident at hand, more hilarious anecdotes (maybe not so funny to some people) are offered up:
"Bierce was a satirist--a comedian with more on his mind than a couple of laughs. A satirist wants to change the world, and on at least one occasion, Bierce's satire worked spectacularly well. Almost single-handedly, he stopped a federal treasury "raid" connived at by one of the "robber baron" railroad owners of the times.
"That probably made Bierce happy for a few minutes, but most of the time he was bitter. In fact, a lot of people called him 'Bitter' Bierce.
"A lot of people also wondered why Bierce behaved the way he did. Sometimes he just wasn't quite nice.
"For example, even though he continually thought about death, he didn't seem to know how a civilized, normal person was supposed to deal with death. He wouldn't allow tombstones to be placed on the graves of his wife and two sons. People thought that was a little peculiar.
"And when Day, one of his sons, killed himself, Bierce went down to the morgue and identified the body lying on the slab. So far, so good. But then he pulled himself erect and shouted at his dead son, 'You're a noble soul, Day--you did just right.' Definitely peculiar!
"And he had the body of his other son, Leigh, cremated. So far, so good. But then he kept the ashes in a cigar box on his desk. A cigar box! To make matters worse, he occasionally tapped his burning cigar into the same box!
"'Why do you act like that?' people asked him.
"'Nothing matters,' Bierce replied, meaning that none of the rules of society really mattered to him. He thought they were silly. His bleak childhood may have inspired his disregard for living 'right,' or it may have grown from his disillusionment at the Civil War's corrupt aftermath. Whatever the reason, the way Bierce behaved wasn't the way polite society expected any normal person to behave." (20-22)
At the age of 71, Bierce informs his friends and family that he is going to tour some old Civil War battlefields and then go on a scenic tour of Mexico. He was never seen again. Apparently, he met Pancho Villa (this is one theory) and then wanted to fight in another war, and ended up dying in battle, though there are crazy theories that he switched sides in the war and was murdered for being a traitor.
The third chapter concerns Dorothy Arnold, who was a 5th Avenue socialite that disappeared December 12, 1910. She had graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1905. She wanted to write stories as a living. Her parents kept her cloistered and away from men, though she had a secret boyfriend named George Griscom, who was actually 42 years old and wanted people to call him Junior. She had told her father that she wanted to move to Greenwich Village and become a writer (this is a bit of a questionable detail as she was living at 108 E. 79th St--incidentally not far from where I worked at the IFA Library). Her father had told her that she could be a writer anywhere. Actually, one day he had found some of her stories underneath her bed, read them, and found them to be rubbish. She had sent two stories titled "Poinsettia Flames" and "Lotus Leaves" into the magazine McClure's and had been met with rejection. A note she wrote to herself appears to be quite the piece of evidence, but again, no answers appear at the end:
"McClure's has turned me down. Failure stares me in the face. All I can see ahead is a long road with no turning. Mother will always think it was an accident." (34)
On her last day, she went to a bookstore, saw a friend on the street, chatted for a while, said goodbye, and disappeared into a crowd, never to be seen again. There were theories that she had settled in a fashionable part of Europe (Florence, Italy) with George Griscom, but once he had been gotten ahold of, insisted he didn't know where she was. There were theories that she had had a back-alley abortion that had failed, or that she had ended up in a small Mexican town, kept captive, drugged, and powerless, or that she had moved to Honolulu with another young lover. There were 100 cases of her being sighted elsewhere and each turned out to be false. Again, the most intriguing story that appears is of a literary reference:
"In England, a twenty-year-old woman read the accounts with much more than casual interest. For more than ten years afterward, this woman was obsessed with the fate of an American girl she felt she understood. They had a lot in common, she thought. And she would herself disappear for a short time before she came home and began to write her own stories. She wrote mysteries--what else?--and her name was Agatha Christie." (36-37)
The most famous person in this book is the subject of the 4th chapter, Amelia Earhart. I will not bore my readers with the details of Earhart's disappearance, as it is well known that she was trying to complete the first circumnavigation of the world by plane, and failed somewhere in between the South Pacific and Hawaii. There are a lot of crazy theories about what happened to her, and this was actually one of the more compelling chapters from a storytelling basis. The last eight hours of Earhart to her radio control team on Howland Island, where she was slated to land, are described in quite precise detail. The most incredible theory holds that Earhart had actually planned to crash her plane near Japan, so that a search and rescue could be called on so that the U.S. Military could survey what preparations the Japanese were making for WWII.
The 5th chapter concerns the disappearance of a Professor Thomas Riha at CU Boulder on March 18, 1969, who was a Czechoslovakian immigrant. This chapter went into huge descriptions of conspiracy and a crazy woman who claimed that she had been a secret agent. This was the most confusing chapter in the book, with the most loose ends, and probably the most possibilities for what could have happened to Riha.
The sixth chapter is about how Alice van Alstine disappeared from Des Moines on March 26, 1976. Apparently she was a sharpshooter. She and her husband lived in an apartment with pockmarked walls from bullet holes, since they held target practice inside their own home. It appears that her being an ex-member of the Minutemen (in this case, not the indie rock band or the Revolutionary war soldiers or the immigration monitoring group, but an anti-communist group who believed they would overthrow the U.S. Government and who planned to fight back in their own manner) had something to do with her disappearance. Some people believed she was an "adult dropout":
" Descriptions of Alice's personality lend some support to that theory. Her sister noted how deeply Alice became involved in whatever she was doing. She seemed to sponge up the personalities of other people and become like them. If the people around her in March, 1976, had talked about dropping out and finding a new life, Alice may have done it.
"One of Alice's friends mentioned another facet of her personality that could fit in with the 'dropout' theory. Alice was intelligent and sensitive, but she also loved intrigue and mystery. When she confided to her flying instructor that a gang was after her, she had added that she was a member of the American Nazi Party. Dropping out and disappearing--especially after delivering murky hints like this--could be very satisfying to someone who loved intrigue and mystery." (80)
Michael Rockefeller, the subject of chapter seven, has one of the shortest and most intriguing stories. He had graduated from Harvard and wanted to have one final adventure before he began his career, so he set off on an expedition to the exotic lands of New Guinea. He was there, in the Aragura Sea, between New Guinea and Australia, on a catamaran he had built, sailing with a 34-year-old, Rene Wassing. During a storm, the boat capsized, and two native guides who had been with them swam to shore. After a night of drifting, Rockefeller figured they were close to 3 miles from shore and he decided he didn't want to wait around for anyone to find them. Wassing believed that the Dutch government, who patrolled the waters, would find them. Rockefeller went off swimming, believing he could make it, and Wassing was rescued 8 hours later. Interestingly enough, Rockefeller's father was the Governor of New York at the time, and he spent $38,000 chartering a private jet to search for his son in the region. John F. Kennedy heard about it and sent in the military to search for him as well. Nobody ever found him, and it seems obvious that he would have drowned, but some theories hold that he made it to shore and was then cannibalized by one of the tribes there.
Dr. Charles Brancati, Chapter 8, is another New Yorker who disappeared, on December 19, 1928. He lived in Pelham and his last words were "Paint the place--the whole house!" which he screamed as he entered the subway station there and was never seen again. It seems as if he was associated with the Italian mob or something and that they may have had something to do with him disappearing. I don't remember many of the specifics of this chapter. Like the one on Professor Thomas Riha, there are tons of loose ends.
Chapter 9 is one of the most epic stories in the book and concerns Judge Crater, who was a very well-respected judge on the New York State Supreme Court, whose ultimate goal in life was to be named to the U.S. Supreme Court, who disappeared on August 6, 1930. He lived in a luxurious apartment at 40 5th Avenue, which incidentally is across the street from where I once lived. Later it turns out he was a crook, and that was how he had become so rich. Something about the Libby Hotel on the Lower East Side, something about buying the building cheap for $75,000, selling it to a private buyer, and then having it sold back to the city of New York for $2,850,000. The post at the Supreme Court of New York only paid $22,500 per year, but he had also been an assistant professor of law at Fordham and NYU. His wife was in Maine at the time of his disappearance. It appears that he was a very crafty individual, but most theories hold that he was murdered by the same people that he had entered into a crooked business dealings with, because they figured with him dead, there would be one less share to distribute out amongst their group. But there were other very strange things that happened, like how the police searched his apartment, found nothing in a secret drawer in the bedroom, and how his wife returned to find a manilla envelope in the secret drawer with checks that had been written by Judge Crater after the date of his disappearance.
The final story is very sad, and it took place not too long ago. Johnny Gosch, a 12-year-old paperboy in, where else, Des Moines, IA was delivering papers on September 5, 1982. He woke up before six o'clock and one of the customers on his route complained at 7:45 that they hadn't received their newspaper. Two cars had passed by Johnny--a dark, blue car, whose driver had pulled aside Johnny asked for directions, and a silver Ford Fairmont with a wide black stripe on its side--and they are of course the prime suspects for his disappearance. Theories are that he was either kidnapped, or become a runaway.
This is a book that is mostly forgotten. Amazon barely lists it, and there are no reviews. So let this blog post suffice as the most comprehensive review of Lost...and Never Found ever done. I have done my own little part. Any of these stories would make for excellent Hollywood films. They are interesting stories, but of course not many people will be exposed to them--unless they happen to have younger sisters who are scared of books they have previously read because they have families that have large collections of obscure books. One wonders what happened to the author, Anita Gustafson, as the series appeared to continue, but with a different author. The mystery deepens...