As you all know, I like to chase footnotes. Sometimes that pans out and you read the results here. Sometimes it goes nowhere and there is no reason to publish it here. And sometimes someone will send me a note that launches a bit of a search that leads to a footnote chase that was initiated by someone else. That is the case here.
But, before we get to that, let me say that I was interested in the disappearance of Oliver Lerch from the moment I read about it. Here was a true mystery and I wanted to learn more. I think it was Morris K. Jessup, in his book, The Case for the UFO that first alerted me to the tale. Jessup had written that the documentation was available for all to see in the South Bend Indiana Police Department. You can read about my search for the data here:
I won’t keep you in suspense. According the information I received from the police department, their records did not go back any further than 1920. There had been a fire that destroyed earlier records, which would have included those about Oliver Lerch, regardless of the date of his disappearance, reported as either 1889 or 1890.
I was able to chase this back to 1906 in something called The Scrapbook. But that isn’t the earliest known telling of the tale. It seems that Theo Paijmans and Chris Aubeck might have chased this to the very end publishing their results in the Christmas 2015 edition of Fortean Times (pages 42 – 47). You can read about their journey at:
Now, I’m going to assume that those of you really interested in this, have read my earlier blog post so that I don’t have to go into great detail here. I will note that according to the legend, Oliver, who was somewhere between 11 and 20, had been sent out to draw water from the well because his father was hosting a Christmas party (I always liked one of the sources telling us that throats were parched from singing but not telling us how he knew that). Anyway, somewhere between the door and the well, he was grabbed a bunch of useless speculation) had got him and his voice came from somewhere above the ground. Oliver was gone forever.
Paijmans and Aubeck tell us that one of those who wrote about the story in Fate in 1950, Joseph Rosenberger, said he had made it up for a quick buck. Jerry Clark said that he had information that the story was told to another writer in 1932 and, of course, we know about the 1906 version, so Rosenberger, who apparently plagiarized the tale thought it better to admit the hoax rather than admit the plagiarism. At any case, Rosenberger wasn’t the original source.
Paijmans and Aubeck found that some rich guy in New Zealand thought so much of the tale, he would spend his entire fortune to finding what had happened to Oliver. This was in 1914 and he might not have found anything, saving him his fortune.
More importantly, they found a story published in the New York Sunday Telegraph in 1904 by a man named Irving Lewis [who is apparently C. I. Lewis] that gave them a ray of hope for the veracity of the tale. Bizarrevictoria, told us that Paijmans and Aubeck had found:
Lewis’s story had stayed much the same after 50 years of retelling. What was different – and extremely important – however, was that Lewis included a sworn statement [ahh, those sworn statements from more than a hundred years ago… are any of them true?]at the end of the story signed by ten people claiming to have witnessed the disappearance of Oliver Lerch.
The authors [Paijmans and Aubeck] then looked into the identities of the witnesses listed in the 1904 article. To my extreme disappointment (because, come on, I know you, too, are holding your breath, hoping the sworn statement was legit [parenthetical statement in original], all of the witnesses were either completely made up, or (assuming census records revealed the existence of people by those names) could not have POSSIBILY been in the area at the time or known the Lurch [sic] family. The sworn statement was a giant load of hooey.
This should drive the final stake through this tale. We’ve chased it to the end or rather Paijmans and Aubeck have chased it to the end. I found many flaws in the tale when I wrote about it on this blog years ago. Others have found other flaws in the reporting of it which suggests it was untrue. Just a tale invented for whatever reason. Now, Paijmans and Aubeck have found additional information which suggests that Ambrose Bierce had inspired the tale. In 1888, Bierce wrote an article that contained three stories of strange disappearances and the Lerch story was just one of them. The end of the trail, or in this case, tale, has been reached.