In ancient times it was sufficient designation of an unbeliever, a worshiper of false gods, to call him a countryman; pagan, or dweller in the Latin pagus; a heathen, or dweller on the open heath, the Gothic haithi. The dweller in the city (urbs) was not only urbane, but he, and he alone, heard and comprehended God's word. The times are changed. The unbeliever, the child of darkness who threatens the institutions of civilization, is a member of the civitas. To the countryman (paganus) we now look to preserve the faith and furnish the police to keep in check the wild man of the city. In the ancient days, if a man wanted to avoid his obligations to society, or to escape the penalty of a crime committed against society, he fled to the wilderness; now he finds his safest retreat in the most densely populated part of a great city. He buries himself in a tenement house, filled to overflowing with his urbane fellow-men of the clan Kearney, who care less for his incomings and outgoings than the beasts of the field cared for those of the malefactor of old who hid himself in a cave.
There is something at once fascinating and terrible in the idea of being lost in a crowd, of being with the crowd but not of it. The feeling of loneliness which takes possession of one surrounded by his fellow-beings, who know him not and who take no note of him, is comparable only to the sense of desolation which one might experience if left in solitude and darkness on a wide-stretching heath at midnight. The dishonored man and the dishonored woman, the broken in heart and the broken in fortune, those who seek to be alone, and those who seek to escape detection, alike fly to the public haunt where they may pass unnoted in the crowd.
In every large city there are thousands of men, women, and children whose past history and whose present means of living are unknown to those with whom they come most closely in contact. It is only when some crime, at once frightful and mysterious, has been committed, and the newspaper reporters tell us of the inability of the police to identify the victim, or to find an adequate motive for the crime, that we fully appreciate the conditions of our modern city life. In American cities especially, where police surveillance is slight, and where an asylum is afforded to immigrants of all nations and all classes, and no questions are asked, the possibilities of passing unrecognized are much better than in any European city, except, perhaps, London. That city, says Mr. John Timbs (who has a pretty intimate knowledge of it), is the only place in all Europe where a man can find a secure retreat, or remain, if he pleases, many years unknown. If he pays regularly for his lodgings and for what he has to eat and drink, nobody will inquire whence he comes or whither he goes.
A curious case illustrative of this is related in Dr. King's anecdotes of his own times, an entertaining book printed some sixty years ago.
In the beginning of the previous century (about 1706), a man who possessed a good income, and was to all appearances happily married, told his wife, one morning, that he was obliged to go to the Tower to transact some business. Later in the day she received a note from him stating that he was under the necessity of going to Holland, and should probably be absent about three weeks. Seventeen years passed before he was either seen or heard from by any one who knew him; and during the whole of that time he was living in disguise only a few rods distant from his home. His wife was obliged to obtain an act of Parliament giving her authority to settle the estate; and the proceedings consequent thereon were watched by him with much interest. His two children dying not long after his mysterious disappearance, his wife moved to another and less expensive house than the one in which she had been left. He then made the acquaintance of her next-door neighbor, and while dining there, as he managed to do once or twice a week, he could look into the room where his wife sat and received company. He was supposed to be a bachelor; and as he showed some interest in the deserted lady he was seriously advised by his new acquaintances to marry her.
One evening, seventeen years after he went to transact a little business at the Tower, his wife was sitting at supper with some friends, when she received a note, in which the writer, who did not give his name, requested the favor of an interview with her, and for that purpose asked her to meet him the following evening, on a certain walk in the neighboring park. She laughingly showed it to the company, with the remark that old as she was it appeared she had got a gallant. One of the persons present, who had known her husband well, declared, on looking at the writing, that the note was from him. On recovering from the swoon into which this statement threw her, it was arranged that the ladies and gentlemen present should attend her to the place of meeting. At the time named in the note the wife went to the rendez-vous in company with her friends. In a few minutes the husband came up quietly, embraced his wife, saluted his friends, and went home, where, as the story goes, the husband and wife lived together in great harmony from that time unfit death parted them. The man never confessed, even to his most intimate friends, the cause of his singular conduct. There was no discoverable cause. He led a perfectly correct life while in hiding, and was obliged to stint himself in his daily expenses, as be had only a small sum of money when he disappeared, and he received nothing from the estate while absent. Probably it was the freak of an unsound mind,—an unsoundness which might never have betrayed itself so as to attract attention in any other action of his life.
A similar condition of mind caused a young girl, a few weeks since, to disappear mysteriously from her home in Vermont. She was supposed to have been murdered, and the police far and near instituted a search for the body. It was not long before she was discovered, in boys' clothes, at work on a canal boat. When taken in charge, she disowned her parents, and stoutly maintained that she was a boy, and that she had never known any different life from the one she was then leading. Subsequently, when her mind had been partially restored, she was unable to recollect where she went or what she did after leaving home.
How many of the mysterious disappearances of which we read, and which are attributed to foul play, or to a weak or criminal desire to escape the obligations to one's family or to society, are prompted by the cunning of insanity cannot be known. The number of mysterious disappearances coming under the notice of the police in the course of a single year is almost startling. In Boston alone, last year, there were five hundred and fifty-five cases of missing persons reported to the police, of which about one third were females. Many of these missing persons were of course soon discovered. But a considerable number still remain deaf to the entreaties of "agonized" relatives or friends, and respond neither to the generous offer of being "entirely forgiven," nor to the alluring assurance that they "will hear of something to their advantage." Every issue of the London Times and the New York Herald contains more or less of these pathetic appeals to the absent,—many of the absences being as mysterious and purposeless as that of the London gentleman.