Friday, September 12, 2008

The Disappearance of Oliver Lerch-Larch-Lurch-Thomas

I first became aware of the story of Oliver Lerch as I was studying the strange case of the Allende Letters. These documents, or letters, including an annotated copy of Morris K. Jessup’s The Case for the UFO, arrived at the Office of Naval Research in the mid-1950s. The letters were thought, once, to explain some of the mysteries of the UFO phenomena, and, according to legend, were taken seriously by the Naval officers who saw them. Later investigations, and an admission by the man who sent them that they were a hoax, have rendered them nearly useless today, but that’s another story.

Such is not exactly the case for Jessup’s book about UFOs. Jessup was trained as an astronomer and wrote one of the many books about UFOs that entered into national distribution in the mid-1950s. In that book, he discussed strange disappearances, and one of those he wrote about was that of Oliver Lerch. He claimed it was real and the details of the disappearance were written down in the records of the South Bend, Indiana, Police Department for anyone who cared to check. With that sort of documentation this is one of the best of the mysterious disappearances that have been reported over the years.

According to Jessup’s version, Oliver Lerch, the twenty-year-old son of Thomas Lerch, had been sent out to draw water from the well because “throats were parched from singing” on that Christmas Eve, 1890. Around ten, Oliver’s mother asked him to go out to the well for water.

The day had been overcast with a light snow, according to the legend, but in the late afternoon, or early evening, the snow had ended and the clouds had blown away. All that was left was the new, white, unbroken snow to the well.

About five minutes later, the party was interrupted by the screaming of Oliver, shouting for help and that, “It’s got me.”

Of course they all ran out, and short of the well, Oliver’s footprints stopped. One of the two buckets he had been carrying was lying off to the side. All that was left of Oliver now was his voice, quieted by distance, still yelling for help. Some claimed it came from above, suggesting that whatever it was, it could fly. Later, some would report that “they” had him, but we don’t know who “they” were either.

This isn’t, however, the only version of the story that has been told over the years and I, for one, wanted to verify it. Using techniques that I had learned in college, I made a literature search, looking for anything that related to this report. I found that the boy was variously identified as Oliver Lerch, Oliver Larch, Oliver Lurch or Oliver Thomas. He was twelve, twenty, or twenty-two. The disappearance took place on Christmas Eve 1889, Christmas Day 1889, Christmas Day 1890 or Christmas Day 1909. He managed to walk through the new snow a distance of 50, 75, 90, or 225 feet before it, or they, captured him. He lived either in South Bend, Indiana or somewhere in Wales.

At this point I’d done no real investigation. I’d merely completed a literature search, though I confess that the discrepancies in the various accounts were worrisome. Not of overwhelming importance at this point, but certainly suggesting that something was wrong with the tale.

Since Jessup said wrote that everything was written down in the records of the South Bend Police Department, I called them. They told me that their records didn’t go back that far. There had been a fire and many of the police documents had been destroyed. They didn’t have anything prior to 1920.

I called the local newspaper. Elaine Stevens of the South Bend Tribune was kind enough to search the files for me. She sent a number of articles, all of which seemed to have been generated by the publication of Jessup’s book.

Francis K. Czyzewski had written a couple of articles in the 1960s about his attempts to verify the report. He said that neither he nor the local library could find any evidence that the incident had happened. He wrote, “Not a single paragraph about the disappearance of Oliver Lerch was printed anywhere. An independent investigating team from the South Bend Public Library had searched the old files of the South Bend News-Times as well as The Tribune. Not even an inkling of a story that could have shaken the nation. Police records dating back to 1890 were then said to be non-existent.”

Sarah Lockerbie, also of the South Bend Tribune, in the 1960s, wrote an article for their Sunday magazine about the disappearance. She spoke to members of a Lerch family who still lived in South Bend hoping there might be a family tradition she could tap into. Sherman Lerch, who had lived in the area all his life, told anyone who asked, including Lockerbie that the story wasn’t true.

I suppose it should be noted here that Lerch was giving this interview in the 1960s, and his father, who was also a resident of the area would have been alive at the time of the disappearance.

And there were a number of other witnesses named in the various books and articles about the disappearance which allowed for additional investigation. A Methodist pastor, Samuel Mallelieu, for example, was identified as having attended the ill-fated Christmas party, but a check with various churches failed to reveal anyone by that name living in South Bend in 1889 or 1890.

Another problem is that weather records for both December 1889 and December 1890 reveal that the weather was warm, with highs in the fifties and sixties. In other words, the weather was warm enough that there would be no freshly fallen snow for young Oliver and his footprints.

I found nothing to suggest the story, in this form, existed prior to the publication of Jessup’s book. Joe Nickell, however, writing in Fate, contacted an earlier contributor to that magazine, Joseph Rosenberger, who had published one version of the Lerch story in September 1950. Rosenberger said that there was no truth to the story. “It was all fiction for a buck,” implying that he had invented it.

Jerry Clark noted that the story actually pre-dated that when Rudolf H. Horst, who was the managing editor of the South Bend Tribune told British writer Harold T. Wilkins that the story was imaginary. Horst suggested that the story was known long before 1932, which, of course, makes you wonder about Rosenberger’s claim.

Additional research showed that a story about Oliver Morton Lerch was published in 1906 in The Scrap Book. It was in this version that rather than just disappearing and his disembodied voice being heard coming from the ground, it was suggested that his voice came from above saying that “It’s got me.” It is never identified.

This also seems to suggest that Rosenberger’s claim of having invented the tale for the money is not accurate.

There is a similar tale in a science fiction story by Ambrose Bierce published in 1893 which might be the basis for the Lerch-Larch-Lurch-Thomas tale. In this story the victim was Charles Ashmore who lived in Quincy, Illinois and is set in November 1878. Ashmore was making a trip to the well, his tracks stopped abruptly in the fresh snow, and the family could hear him calling for help from a long distance. It was altered later, with Ashmore given a new name and moved to South Bend for some unexplained reason.

Brad Steiger, in one of his many books, wrote about a variation of the tale in which Oliver Thomas, a young man living in Wales disappeared under circumstances that are remarkably similar to the American story. I called Brad to ask him about it and he told me that he had long since learned that the story was a hoax. When he learned the truth, he had tried to alert people, but sometimes they just wouldn’t listen.

All this suggests to me that the story, in all its various forms is a hoax. There was no Oliver Lerch, Larch, Lurch or Thomas to leave footprints in fresh snow or to be grabbed by it. Writers just accepted that others had checked the story. Jessup claimed it was all there in South Bend for anyone who wanted to check implying that Jessup himself had checked, but Jessup was wrong. There was nothing in South Bend, other than stories of others attempting to verify the story.

This is another of those tales that we can remove from our lists of the strange. I know that I sometimes wish these things were true, simply because I, like most everyone else, love a good mystery. This, however, is not one of them.


Jerry Clark said...

It's more precise to characterize the Oliver Lerch yarn as folktale as opposed to hoax. Hoaxes, after all, are conscious lies and thus more dire social transgressions. As with any folktale, versions in this instance differ as the story travels through a range of oral and printed sources. In any event, it's surely been a long time since anybody thought any such weird vanishing actually happened.

It's always amused me, though, that Joseph Rosenberger actually recalled making it up himself. Surely that demonstrates how the vagaries of memory apply as much to bogus claims as to real experiences.

KRandle said...

Jerry -

Of course, you're right. The tale is folklore and not a hoax. I suppose I could say that some of it comes from the Allende Letter hoax, but since the Lerch story pre-dates that, it certainly is a folktale.


Sarah said...

I just read an article in a popular Spanish magazine- Mas Allá de la Ciencia- telling the Welsh version of the Oliver Thomas story. If what you have written is correct, it seems people really don't do their research.

Ördög said...

Excellent post! We all know that the WWW has made the spreading of all kinds of legends, rumours and hoaxes much easier - but on the other hand, it also enables a systematic researcher of these phenomena to present his or her discoveries to the world. "Never check a good story" they say... but when you dare to do that, you sometimes end up with a new story that's even better!

I first came across this story in its Oliver Thomas version, set in Rhayader in Wales on Christmas Eve, 1909. I read it in 1983 in "Phenomena - A Book of Wonders" by John Michell and Robert Rickard, originally published in 1977. The source was Brad Steiger's book "Strangers from the Skies"(1966), but according to Michell and Rickard, Steiger gives no information on where he found the story in the first place. Now we know why...

Some years later, I found both the Ashmore, Larch and Thomas versions quoted in "Reader's Digest Mysteries of the Unexplained" (1982). In a comment, researcher Paul Begg says it's difficult to determine which one of the stories - if any - is the original.

And still some years later, in the book "Strange Comings and Goings from the Bermuda Triangle to the Mary Celeste", edited by Peter Brookesmith (1989), the same Paul Begg can refute it all: Charles Ashmore had simply been invented by Ambrose Bierce for a short story; there had been no snow in South Bend in December 1889 for the non-existent Lerch or Larch to leave footprints in; and a careful search through all copies of the Brecon County Times from 1909 and 1910 had not yielded the slightest mention of any disappearing Oliver Thomas from Rhayader.

Thus, the truth has already been known in the pre-WWW era. Yet we can read about the grim fate of all these Olivers om countless web pages dealing with "real" mysteries.

Thanks a lot, and a happy and TRUTHFUL New Year from Helsinki, Finland!

Terry the Censor said...

Marian Kensler has gathered up some of these stories and their many retellings.

Cassandra Morrison said...

It's similar to the David Lang story invented by mystery writer Stuart Palmer complete with fake affidavits all in Palmer's own handwriting that he fobbed off on FATE MAGAZINE.

Yet Frank Edwards, John Keel (who quotes both it AND the Oliver Larch stories as true in his book OUR HAUNTED PLANET, and many others just retell them without checking,

Gullible bunch, aren't we?

R.A. said...

I don't think it's as simple as that.

Read the Missing 411 material. It doesn't take long to realize that the Oliver L. story is extremely similar to hundreds of cases in those books...cases which do come directly from police records, newspaper accounts, and NPS documents. How can this be?

Maybe because that is what folklore is. So what if it isn't a "true story"? It is conveying the truth. It is some kind of collective expression of something that has happened to a lot of kids.

Perhaps this also leads toward an interesting explanation for why Rosenberger thought he made it up. Where do our fiction stories come from, anyway?