The Disappearance of Oliver Lerch

You guys want a good Victorian myth? Well, I found this one in the Christmas 2015 edition of Fortean Times (Paijmans and Aubeck, pp. 42-47). I strongly recommend that you all read the full article, since I’m just loosely summing up  the story and its subsequent investigation.

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The story goes like this: “on Christmas Eve 1889, a party of well-to-do farmers and their families were gathered in the Lerch house near South Bend, Indiana. At about 11.30pm, 20-year-old Oliver Lerch was asked by his father to fetch water from a well some 75 yards to the rear of the house. Snow had been falling all evening, but the night was clear with a full moon.

“Braving the cold, he picked up the bucket and went outside. Five minutes later, the guests heard him shout for help. Led by the boy’s father, they all rushed through the door, where they found his tracks in the snow. Strangely, the young man’s footprints stopped short of the well, as if he had disappeared suddenly. The guests swore they heard a faint voice, far up in the pitch-black night sky, exclaiming: ‘Help, it has got me!‘ Oliver Lerch was never seen again.”

This story was told over and over, legitimized in 20th-century newspapers and magazines, until the line between ‘real event’ and ‘folk tale’ became very difficult to untangle.

The authors of this article did an extensive investigation into the origins of this story. “For a long time, it was assumed the Lerch story originated in the pages of FATE, an American magazine devoted to UFOs and the paranormal, with the publication of ‘What Happened to Oliver Lerch?’ in September 1950.”

The author of that particular 1950 article wrote about it as a real event and hypothesized a few solutions, each more improbable than the last:

1.) The grapnel of a passing hot-air balloon dragged Oliver off.

2.) An eagle carried him away. AN EAGLE.

3.) One of the guests at the party had murdered him and stashed the body (despite the extremely short span of time, the one clear set of footprints that stopped abruptly, and Oliver’s voice clearly being heard by everyone who rushed outside).

4.) Oliver was the first documented UFO abductee.

This story, as written in the 1950 article, was taken very seriously by some people. However, years later, the author confessed that he made up the entire thing. FOR SHAME, SIR.

Except he DIDN’T. He didn’t make it up–he plagiarized it.

This is where authors of the Fortean Times article decided to do some digging, to see if there was any truth at all to the tale. They quickly found that the Oliver Lerch story had been published in 1947 in an Australian newspaper. This newspaper article also claimed it was a true occurrence.

Only the Australian newspaper actually lifted it from a 1939 article in the LA Times.

And the LA Times got it from a 1937 article in the Lancashire Evening Post, which also retold the story as a ‘real-life puzzle’.

They found a few more re-tellings: one in 1921, one in 1914, and then in Australia again in 1913. It appeared in both American and New Zealand newspapers in 1907, and again the year before, in 1906. So, to that author in 1950 I say, ‘made it up’, MY ASS.

But the authors of the Fortean Times article still weren’t sure if this was based on real events, or if it was just a local myth that somehow became global canon. In 1914, one wealthy New Zealand man believed so firmly in the story that he publicized that he would spend his whole fortune on discovering what happened to Oliver Lerch.

Then they discovered an article in the New York Sunday Telegraph in 1904, written by a man named Irving Lewis. 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 at the end of the story signed by 10 people claiming to have witnessed the disappearance of Oliver Lerch.

The authors 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 that the sworn statement was legit), all of the witnesses were either completely made up, or (assuming census records revealed the existence of people by those same names) could not have POSSIBLY been in the area at that time or known the Lurch family. The sworn statement was a giant load of hooey.

Even more significantly, there was no Lerch family living in or near South Bend, Indiana, at that time. So it’s all fiction and we’ve reach the end of the road, yes?

NO. OF COURSE F-ING NOT. THE SAGA CONTINUES.

The authors of the Fortean Times article then began looking at Irving Lewis, the author of the supposedly first version of the story. And what they noticed was that Lewis was generally a shitty writer. So was this one extremely popular story of his just a fluke? His one bit of luck?

Nope. Because he kind of stole it, too. Or was at least significantly inspired by a far more skilled and successful writer: Ambrose Bierce.

At this point in the article, I thought, ‘Jesus Christ, if Bierce stole this from someone, just kill me now. He stole it from Dickens, who stole it from Swift, who stole it from Milton, who stole it from Shakespeare, who stole it from goddamned mother fucking Homer.’

But thankfully the line seems to stop with Bierce. In 1888, Bierce wrote an article for the San Francisco Examiner, rather doofily called ‘Whither? Some Strange Instances of Mysterious Disappearance‘. The Oliver Lerch story was just one of three tales, and all the details of the narrative are almost exactly the same, except the names and locations have changed. The only significant difference is that instead of the guests hearing his disembodied voice disappear into the sky, “his grief-stricken mothers goes to the spring for water where she hears her son calling to her.” His voice was heard regularly by the whole family, until it gradually fades away as spring approaches. And then he’s gone forever.

That’s bleak, yo.

The moral of the story is three-fold:

1.) The authors of the article who did all this research must have the patience of saints.

2.) Early 20th-century authors were a bunch of plagiarizing scallywags,

3.) You should really get indoor plumbing, lest the world’s largest eagle carries you off into the night.

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