Lost and not found
This week I wrote about the D. B. Cooper case for the Washington Post. (I’ve written about another airborne mystery before, that of Amelia Earhart).
I’ve long had a fixation on missing people. One of the first news stories I remember being aware of as a child was the disappearance of a girl my age. It was a big deal at the time, with the police putting a mannequin in the same clothes by the bus stop in case it jogged the memories of passers-by. I remember wondering if they would do that if I vanished. Despite their efforts, her loss remained unsolved for years, with occasional reminders in newspapers on anniversaries—the same photo in which she remained 9, while I grew up. I thought about her now and then, and know her name, while I would struggle to recall the names of my classmates from that year.
Long absences, apparent stasis—they seem to run against the current. But by staying lost, and unchanging, the missing become talismanic of our own nostalgia. I remember the names of missing persons—why them rather than murder victims or details of other crimes on the news? We all have a level of fascination about these mysteries. Not only what actually happened to these individuals, but what it means to vanish, and what it could be to return. Some famous cases have the air of gothic mystery—the Flannan lighthouse, the Marie Celeste—and thus have been remembered. The Bermuda Triangle, with its long roster of attributed disappearances, and bizarre occurrences, has made it a household term. To the rest of us, these remain question marks. What happens when you leave the map?
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, private detectives like the Pinkertons often worked missing persons cases, for which police at the time were not really equipped. After all, at least in common-law tradition, simply wandering off is not in itself a crime—and therefore was not considered to be a priority issue for the criminal justice system. The idea of missing persons as a police concern only became prominent in the second half of the nineteenth century. In 1857, a London newspaper also felt that “missing persons” were or scam artists and insurance cheats:
“We do no believe in the alleged multitude of ‘missing’ persons. Much more reasonable it is to suspect a stupid, morbid love of hoaxing, which sends persons to the police courts to inquire after fictitious friends and relations, than to persuade ourselves that at any given moment there are always ten or a dozen missing individuals, lost without the slightest possible reason for their alleged disappearance”.
In 1868, Harpers magazine shared some of this skepticism, and sought to reassure families of the missing:
“The chances are only as one in a thousand that murder has been done, and only as one in one hundredthat the missing person has met death by accident or suicide, and there is, therefore, abundant room for hope that he is alive. He may be sick, or destitute, or driveling in some lunatic asylum; but there is almost a surety of life, and no occasion for despair”.
Small comfort it may have been to assume a loved one was stuck in an insane asylum, this piece still reflected the widely held assumption that people generally went missing of their own free will.
"This earth has a broad surface, and it is within the power of any one to straggle off into one of its by-ways, out of the ken of his people, and hundreds do it for the same reason. Young girls are sped by their passions into the abysses of sin; boys are led away by the unbridled love of adventure, or snap the reins of parental authority when injudiciously tightened; husbands flee from hen-peckery, and wives desert bearish husbands; men are called suddenly away by business, and persons wander off under the guidance of unsuspected and suddenly developed insanity; some seek to leave a grief too heavy to bear, and others basely skulk from responsibilities and embarrassments."
Given this natural human tendency to “straggle off”, they felt it was a waste of police time to bother with such cases:
“The search for missing persons, then, is detective business only in name; but the Police Commissioners have done what they could to aid the bereaved. They have selected a most capable listener to sit at a desk and listen patiently to all the searchers have to say, and take voluminous and useless notes of their talk.”
A Missing Persons Bureau had been established in New York in November 1867, but abolished in 1871 by Superintendent Jourdan, “who thought it was of no use”. The dedicated involvement of police came later, in our bureaucratic age.
It was not until 1914 that a revived Missing Persons Bureau was established in New York, with the job of finding the missing, and also identifying bodies that arrived nameless in the city’s morgues. Their archives still hold the details and photographs of unidentified bodies going back to the civil war.
In the 1930s, detective John Ayers wrote his memoir of working in that department. Missing Men takes a fairly cavalier attitude to child runaways, and assumes most people have disappeared voluntarily. Boys will be ok, girls are at somewhat more risk, but the spectre of the kidnapper, the child molester, seems not yet to have been on the police’s radar.
Detectives were open to a range of possibilities; most of them not criminal. A missing person may have tripped and fallen into an open man-hole, been snatched off the street by white slavers, gone on a bender, or suffered sudden amnesia. In a case of an absconding husband which Ayers describes, the police who retrieve him from the no-tell motel help him cover his actions by returning him to his wife with an explanation of amnesia: and the book suggests he was not the only reappeared disappearance to use that excuse. This book was the basis for the film Bureau of Missing Persons, (1933), starring Bette Davis and Lewis Stone.
In 1947 another New York detective published a book (The Missing and the Murdered) based on his experiences with the Missing Persons Bureau. By this stage radio station WNYC had daily fifteen minute broadcasts where a detective would give details of current missing persons. This produced varied responses, including sometimes from the missing person, who would call up and explain “their good reasons for leaving home and end with a plea to be left alone”.
The police response, however, reflects our social attitudes to disappearance. Television dramas have made us conscious of the idea of missing persons, and the longrunning Unsolved Mysteries highlighted disappearances. Nonetheless, missing adults with no indications of a crime still remain the province of private investigators, hired by the family. P.I.s doing this work, or “skip tracing” are often tracking people down for creditors, or exes seeking alimony and child support. These people, like those with outstanding warrants, have obvious reasons to make themselves scarce.
Even now, only the biggest police forces have dedicated missing persons units—it is something in which most police receive no formal training. Law enforcement agencies are still regularly castigated by anxious families, for not doing “enough” to find missing adults. However, a case involving a lost adult, with no obvious signs of foul play, is unlikely to get high priority from agencies with limited resources, who have to make choices. If the most recent photo the police have of you is a mugshot, your disappearance might not be their top priority. Thousands of people are reported missing every year, and most reappear within a few days. But our expectations of immediacy have spread to the report and resolution of missing persons cases.
The media has also changed our knowledge of missing persons. How often on social media do you see a missing person alert? A photo saying “my cousin/wife/friend went missing from ThisPlace on Sunday”. (It’s wise not to share those if they don’t come from an official police source: abusers often use this tactic to track down their victims. Wifebeaters reporting their fleeing wives “missing” and getting the police to track them down has a long history).
Through the twentieth century, communications made famous disappearances instant news. While searches for the missing have become part of the immediate response, each lingering absence begets its own mythology: the claimed sightings, the clues, the purported explanations. By disappearing, these people in a sense never die. There is another side—the desire to disappear—a prospect made ever more difficult in a world of CCTV, satellite imagery, DNA, and identity documents. Occasional cases tell us it is possible to disappear into the crowd, vanishing into the cracks of urban space. As it were, in plain sight.
But those who have truly vanished hold our interest partly because of this miracle. The various theories that emerge suggests a desire not to accept the most likely explanation (that the “missing” person has met an unfortunate end). To assume that someone wound up in a shallow grave at the hands of political enemies is rather prosaic compared to the idea that they absconded on purpose; eloped to Tierra del Fuego or Thailand.
Disappearances collapse both time and space. The nature of disappearance allows for us to imagine other fates. We enjoy mysteries, and missing people are among the most emotive stories. We relate to the puzzled search parties, but also to the missing themselves. Did they realize they had vanished? In some theories, they don’t. They have stumbled through a time portal, or are wandering lost with amnesia, unsure of who or where they are. More than those who die young, those who disappear never get old, because they never die.
"Disappearances collapse both time and space" is a great distillation of what uniquely colours these events. As a journalist I had disappearance cases that haunt me long after. Another aspect that is hidden from public awareness is the insane number of leads that come in for high profile cases. I once researched for a documentary about Ben Needham, a toddler who disappeared on Kos. Interpol gave us their sighting reports for, maybe (I can't recall now) 2 or 3 years. Every continent was represented. The awful thing was that one theory held that he'd been taken by travellers. So every sighting was potentially salient. I still think about Ben, who would be 32 now. And his mum, Kerry.