Mysterious Disappearances

"Unless the police lines are drawn closer around the inhabitants of our large cities, the number of those who mysteriously disappear from one cause or another will become still more alarming than it is at present."

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.

An old police officer recently acquainted the writer with a remarkable case which came under his notice some years ago, the sequel of which has never before been made public. One day, he said, a man pretty well on in years came into the police head-quarters, and asked to have the officers take down a description of his wife and children, who had disappeared from their home. The man told his story in such a simple, unaffected way that he made a deep impression upon those who heard it. He lived in a small town in Connecticut, and had been married five or six years to a woman considerably younger than himself, and by whom be had had two children. On returning from his daily business, a few nights before, he found his home deserted: wife and children had evidently gone out, dressed in their best clothes, leaving no word of explanation. It struck him as being very strange; but, although disturbed, he was not seriously alarmed, as he concluded they must have gone to a friend's house. He got his own tea, and then smoked his pipe, expecting momentarily to hear them at the door. It was late in the evening before his anxiety drove him out to look for them among the neighbors. The next day be learned that they had been seen in the railway station at the next village, and that they had taken the cars going East. That was all he knew about it. He and his wife, he said, had got on pretty well together. He was perhaps too old to be much society for her, but she never complained. Since she had gone off, he remembered that she bad been rather melancholy and moping for some time past. He thought that she had "sort of dwelt on things, bein' so much alone;" that she had become "crazy-like," and had started off with the idea of going to see some people in New Hampshire whom she had known before she was married. But the New Hampshire folks had not seen her or heard of her; and some of the neighbors said "more like she'd gone off with a younger man." "But you see," said the deserted husband, "that ain't likely, as she would n't have taken the children if she was that wicked."

The police gave a good deal of attention to the case, as it was a peculiar one and they had a feeling of sympathy for the man who had suffered such a terrible loss. The wife and children were traced to a town a short distance from Portland, Maine. There a woman and two little children, answering to the description given by the police, were seen by the local station-master to leave a through train and walk off in the direction of the village. It was just at dusk, and snowing heavily at the time. The road led along the banks of a river. Passing out of the station-master's sight into the storm they were seen no more. The inquirers of the police never got beyond that. Those who had been at work upon the case settled down to the belief that the woman had left home during a fit of temporary insanity; that the storm she encountered on leaving the cars increased the confusion of her mind; and that she had either thrown her children and herself into the river, or had wandered out of the road and fallen in with them.

One evening, after this conclusion had been reached, an officer who had worked on the case was asked by a young woman who was visiting at his house to tell her an interesting police case. He told her the story of the deserted husband. The young woman afterwards married, and went to live in a Western city. Some years passed, when, on meeting the officer again, she reminded him of the story he had told her, and asked if anything had been heard of the wife and children. He said the case remained as profound a mystery as ever.

"Now," she said, "I will go on with the story where you ended. The woman got off the train at B—— for the purpose pose of misleading those who might search for her. She had through tickets to Portland; and after going some distance towards the village, as testified by the station-master, she retraced her steps. Eluding observation at the railway station, she got on a way train that came along presently, and proceeded to Portland. There she was met by a man, who took her to the Grand Trunk Railway; and the next train bore them to a city in the far West, where they found a home which had been carefully prepared for them. She appeared as the wife of the man who accompanied her and who had recently established the home to which, as he had told the neighbors, he was going to bring his wife and two children from the East. The children were too young to know what it all meant, and were soon taught to believe that they had always known their new father. In Western communities they are not so curious about one's antecedents as they are in New England, and the new family was accepted as a valuable acquisition to the neighborhood. How did I learn all that? Well, soon after I settled in —— I formed a very pleasant acquaintance with the lady who lived next door,—a quiet, attractive woman, who seemed to be uncommonly happy in her married life. One day, when her husband was absent, she was taken very ill. I was sent for; and while under the fear of death she told me her story. When she was a school-girl she became engaged to the man she now lived with. He went away to seek his fortune, and not long after she heard he had married. Then, in her despair, she married a man old enough to be her father. After she had been married some three years she heard that her early love had been true to her. She wrote imploring him to forgive her. A correspondence had followed, and by and by she was wrought up to the point of leaving her husband. All the details of the elopement had been arranged by letter, and when she joined her lover in Portland she saw him for the first time after a separation of ten years."

A great many cases of mysterious disappearance are never reported to the police, or made public in any way except through accident. The friends or relatives are afraid of having their private affairs paraded before the public if they give any information; and they either wait in tearful silence for the absent one to return or make some sign, or they grope cautiously in the dark, as it were, by sending out peculiarly worded advertisements through the public press. In some cases the person who disappears from among those who know him has no relatives or friends who feel any responsibility for him, or any desire to know whether he has fallen into the dock or gone to the "diggings."

Hundreds of girls go every year from the British provinces, and from Maine and New Hampshire, to the large manufacturing towns, to work in the mills; or to the cities, to serve as domestics or to "tend store." In most cases they have neither friends nor relatives in the places where they go to work; no one to warn them of the character of their associates, or to hold them in check if they are inclined to go astray. The first consideration of the girl who leads an immoral life is to keep the knowledge of that life from her parents, and from any one who would be likely to inform those among whom she grew up. To keep her shame from those who knew her in better days is, in many instances, the all-controlling purpose, for which she is ready to face death, or, what must be to some quite as terrible, a life of dishonor among strangers in a strange city. Girls disappear suddenly and mysteriously from the sight of those to whom their relatives and birthplace are known; and if they hold any communication with their parents—as they often do, for the purpose of sending money where the parents are poor—they resort to many curious fictions to account for their seeming prosperity.

The "Lynn Mystery," as the newspapers called it, led to such revelations in regard to the number of women who had within a short time mysteriously disappeared from their relatives and friends as shocked most persons. On the 27th of February last, two men, at work on a coal wharf on the Saugus River, in Lynn, saw what they supposed, according to their own description, to be a "chunk of wood" resting on a cake of ice which had stranded on the flats near by. One of them, on going to secure it for firewood, found it was an old trunk heavily corded. It was drawn ashore, cut open, and proved to contain the body of a young woman, whose face had been purposely disfigured to prevent recognition. There were several things discovered in the trunk which would seem to make the identification of the body comparatively easy. The police throughout the State were furnished with photographs and minute written descriptions. A vast amount of time and skill was expended in pursuing the investigations, not only by police officers, who were eager to win a reputation, but by the newspaper reporters, who, in these latter days, often do better police work than the regular members of the force. With all this flood of light thrown on the affair, it was not until late in the month of March following that the body was identified. In the mean time it came to the notice of the police that no fewer than fifty girls of about the same age had mysteriously disappeared within a short time, and an effort was made to identify them with the remains found in the trunk.

A Boston detective of long experience says that there are probably two thousand girls in Boston, to-day, whose place of living and whose mode of life are unknown to their parents or friends. And those by whom they are for the time being surrounded are not sufficiently familiar with them, or have not known them long enough, to feel called upon to look them up, or even to give information to the police, in case they should suddenly disappear.

The number of boys who disappear from their homes in the course of a year, and are reported to the police as lost, is quite astonishing. A very large portion are runaways; and a large portion of the runaways are doubtless prompted to set up in business for themselves by the cheap novels, whose heroes almost invariably throw off the parental control at a very early age, and run away to certain fame and fortune. In the ten years from 1861 to 1871, 66,809 lost children, mostly boys, came into the hands of the New York police, and were sent either to their homes or to public institutions. The police estimate that there are at least ten thousand children under fourteen years of age adrift in the streets of New York, four fifths of them being confirmed vagrants. What material is there for recruiting the barbarian horde which, as Macaulay suggested, we may be breeding in our large cities to destroy the modern civilization, as the Goths and Vandals destroyed that of Rome!

In Boston, where the population is supposed to be more homogeneous than in any other large city in the country, the vagrant element has been kept pretty well in hand by the system of licensing minors to ply their vocations in the public streets, on condition that they attend, during certain hours of the day, the schools which have been specially established for their benefit.

Some twenty years ago, when American sailing ships dotted every sea, a great many of the boys who ran away from their country homes in New England made their way to Boston, filled with the inspiring purpose of going to sea. The sailing vessel has been largely superseded in these latter flays by the steamship; and the novelist does not find it possible to fire the imagination of youth by taking a deck hand or a stoker for his hero. The ingenuous country lad who boasts an American parentage is therefore seldom seen nowadays haunting the wharves for a chance to ship before the mast. In the old days there was, too, a spice of romance in every voyage which no longer exists. The means of communication between the different parts of the earth's surface are now so extended that the opportunities for playing the part of Robinson Crusoe have almost wholly passed away. But there is still room for adventure in parts of the world remote from modern civilization, as this little story (given now for the first time) will show:—

Some twenty-five or thirty years ago, a boy ran away from his home, in the vicinity of Boston, and went to sea. For many years nothing was known of him. Then the relatives heard vaguely that the captain of a Nantucket ship, returning from a voyage to the South Pacific, had seen him in one of the French colonies, and that he was a man of some consequence there. About a year ago, the state department at Washington received from the American consul at Sydney, New South Wales, a communication stating that an American had died recently in New Caledonia, leaving some property and one child, a little girl about seven years of age, who had been placed under the charge of the Sisters of Charity until the relatives, if there were any in this country, could be communicated with. The name of the man, the year that he left home, and the name of the child were given. The papers were sent to the mayor of Boston, with the request that he would ascertain whether any of the relatives were living. The police were set to work to look them up; but for a long time their efforts were unsuccessful. As the name given was one common in Nantucket, the oldest inhabitant of that place was consulted. He recollected that the son of a Nantucket family, living near Boston in the year mentioned, had run away to sea; but he bore a different name from the one given in the consul's letter. The name given to the child, however, was the maiden name of the runaway's mother; and it was found, on examination, that the name of the deceased was the baptismal name of the boy who ran away. It appeared that, in his new home, he had dropped his surname. Both parents had died some years before, and the whereabouts of the brothers and sisters were unknown. But with the true name to work upon, it was not difficult to trace them; and nearly a year after their brother's death the inquirers learned something of his wanderings; of the home be had established among the French convicts in the far Pacific, and of the dark-eyed little girl committed to their love, a child who spoke in an unintelligible tongue and had strange ways. Think of introducing this child, at the age of eight or ten, into a quiet New England family, and teaching it to look at life from the stand-point of the Assembly's catechism,—its father a revolter against the restraints of New England life; its mother, or its mother's parents, a revolter, probably, against the laws of France! Here is a subject for a novelist, offering greater contrasts in the study of character than Black's Daughter of Heth.

There would be fewer mysterious disappearances and fewer mysterious murders in the American cities if greater unity of action prevailed between the police departments in those cities. What is needed in this country is the application of the comparative method of study to the organization of a new police system. If the heads of the principal departments in the several States could meet together occasionally, for the purpose of comparing their present methods of performing police duty and of devising a more efficient system of communication between different sections of the country, they would be able to show much better results for their work. In carrying on their operations the criminals now count upon a certain want of harmony between the police authorities of different localities. It has even been charged that the police of one city would offer facilities for the escape of a great criminal rather than have the credit of his capture awarded to the police of another city.

The establishment of a "national police association" was recently recommended by the Boston police commission; but the recommendation appears to have met with so little favor that it was abandoned. All the heads of departments that expressed an opinion upon the suggestion admitted that such an association would greatly improve the police service throughout the country; but from political or other considerations many of them were unwilling to become members.

A few years ago the English police established what is known as the Habitual Criminal's Record,—a book containing the name of every criminal who has been more than once convicted of a serious crime against the community. In the space of six years and a half the names of nearly one hundred and eighty thousand persons have been registered on its pages. It is printed at her majesty's prison of Brixton by convicts,—"in direct contravention," as a clever writer has said, "of the Levitical precept against seething kids in their mother's milk." It is estimated by the English police, "upon data insuring substantial accuracy," that there are at large in that country about forty thousand individuals who are either known thieves or under suspicion. About three thousand persons are liberated every year from the convict prisons, and are lost in the crowd until returned again to prison. The names given by persons under arrest are generally of little value for purposes of identification; and the English record is by no means confined to that and to such a general description of the person as an American tourist carries on his official passport. The "distinctive marks and peculiarities" of every individual are given. It is a curious fact that every fourth criminal is found to be tattooed with some device. There is an almost endless variety of artistic devices wrought upon the arms and breasts of these habitual criminals,—ships tinder full sail, anchors, whales, mermaids, masonic emblems, implements of war, and sentimental mottoes. The name of Mary, and a heart pierced by Cupid's arrows, figure quite largely. The criminal who does business in a large way is, as a rule, a sentimentalist of the simplest and most unaffected sort. In a great many cases he owes his undoing to his solicitude for the safety or welfare of a sweetheart or a pal.

With the aid of photography and this record, it is claimed that "the criminal population of England is gradually being reduced into the condition of a good head of game on the estate of a keen sportsman." But that it has not yet been reduced to that condition was recently shown by the confession of Charles Peace, who committed murders and burglaries enough to fill a book, and who, while so doing, went in and out for years under the very eyes of the police. While the English have a system which, if far from perfect at present, is in the way of being perfected, we have no police system from which any good results can be anticipated. The first step towards putting the police work upon a proper basis is undoubtedly the formation of a national association such as has been suggested.

Unless the police lines are drawn closer around the inhabitants of our large cities, the number of those who mysteriously disappear from one cause or another will become still more alarming than it is at present.