Sunday, March 9, 2008

Mysterious Disappearances -- David Lang and Oliver Laurch


Of the few persons who have popped out of existence like a burst human soap bubble, one of the most famous was Tennessee farmer, David Lang. On September 23, 1880, on the day of his wife’s 32nd birthday, Lang disappeared in sparkling daylight before astonished witnesses as he crossed a flat, obstruction-free field.

The fame of Lang's disappearance is based on the number of credible eyewitnesses to the strange event. There were six adult witnesses in all. Five out of the six were of sharp mind, and in excellent health. The five had impeccable standing in the surrounding Gallatin community. The one exception to this reputable group of witnesses was a David Ryder, a sickly, ill-tempered drunk and liar, who dodged the Civil War draft when a youth, and who continued dodging life’s responsibilities until his end. Some authorities report Ryder died fitfully at age 87 while sleeping off a drunk in his adopted daughter’s barn loft. Other authorities report Ryder died in his mid-seventies from massive hemorrhaging when his abused dachshund, Rusty, finally turned on Ryder as he slept. Regardless the manner of Ryder's death, and how despicable his life, even Ryder’s story matched that of the other witnesses.

For the skeptical among us, it is significant that each witness was well positioned and had a clear, unobstructed view of Lang's disappearance. Further each was situated in a different location and so by mere coincidence all angles of the disappearance were covered. All witnesses from their different perspectives were dead certain as to what their eyes had shown them of David’s last physical steps on earth.

Later, over the years when the witnesses recounted their tales, the witnesses remained dead earnest and unwaveringly consistent. Twice the witnesses told their stories under the pains and penalties of perjury. The first time the witnesses told their stories under oath was seven months after the event during a long, ultimately inconclusive criminal inquest into the circumstances of Lang’s disappearance. Each witness willingly and without hesitation gave affidavit to Lang’s sudden, and permanent physical disappearance. Three years later, in a lawsuit for life insurance proceeds brought by Lang’s estate against Chicago Mutual Life & Fire, each witness had walked up to the stand, and under a sworn oath to God, testified impeccably consistent with their very first statements. The newspapers of the time reported the trial. The insurance company had hired a Chicago attorney, a dyspeptic and perpetually testy Jonathan House, to put the witnesses into the crucible by subjecting them to long hours of painstaking, sometimes cold blooded-murderous cross-examination. With a sympathetic judge to House's cause, Attorney House had free rein to test the witnesses and he used that freedom to the borders of abuse. However, after five days of giving the witnesses the worse that cross-examination could offer, the Chicago lawyer collapsed into his chair defeated, his silk shirt drenched in sweat and clinging to his bulbous flesh: the witnesses could not be budged from their stories.

Now the facts.

The day and time: September 23, 1880 at about noon.

Location: the Lang farm, a poor, fitfully surviving family farm located a few miles outside of Gallatin, Tennessee.

It had been a harsh summer for the Langs. Indeed, it had been a harsh summer for all in the area. The summer had been unusual in many ways. Normally the mid-summer season for the thumb sized, biting blue horse flies was short—three weeks, at most. This season the hungry, flies swarmed man and animal, cutting and licking salty blood well into late summer. Further, despite the almanac’s prediction of heavy rains all summer, it had hardly rained at all. Most farmers saw their crops die off, their wells run dry and bank foreclosure notices nailed on their doors. Most strangely, the county had been struck by a series of childhood fevers which raised purple-blue welts and cooked the internal organs of stricken children with its heat. Twenty-five children had been killed. One of them was a three day old newborn named Ethel Reed. She was the child of Lang’s cousin, Brenda.

At the time of Lang’s disappearance, the Lang farm was occupied by thirty-three year old farmer David Lang and his family: his just-turned thirty-two year old wife, Emma, and their three children: three year old Arthur George, eight-year-old George Arthur, and eleven-year-old Sarah Leigh. In addition, an unknown number of household servants lived with them. History does not record their names. Most authorities report the servants were absent when Lang disappeared.

On the afternoon of Lang’s disappearance, the oldest children were playing a Mid-western game called Peek-a-Pose in the front yard. The youngest, Arthur George, was curled-up and napping on a wooden porch swing. Mr. and Mrs. Lang, who had been arguing about household finances indoors, finally came out of the house’s stifling heat for a breathe of open air. Mrs. Lang decided to stay on the porch,. She sat on the porch swing with her sleeping youngest child. With one hand, she lazily curled and stroked his blonde hair damp with sweat and clinging to his unusually high forehead. With the other hand, she fanned herself using an old church hymnal sheet. Mr. Lang, upset with his wife, decided to cross the sun-burnt yellow pasture to check on three sickly horses he was reluctantly keeping for his wife's detested Ohio cousins.

As Lang was crossed the pasture, he bit on a dry stalk. He looked distracted, perhaps still simmering with anger at his spouse whom he had just accused of being an unholy spendthrift. Suddenly and unexpectedly, the horse and buggy of a family' friend came into view. With the friend were two other visitors. They were coming up the lane which ran by the pasture and which then lazily curved to the front of the house. Some sources identify the family friend as Judge August Peck, others identify him simply as Attorney Peck, with no mention of the title judge or even of his first name. Accompanying Peck were the other visitors Reverend Frank Wild and his sister, Emily Wild. At the arrival of this group, the children stopped playing. The Lang children were always attentive to Peck's arrival. While Peck did not always bring toys or trinkets, he almost always remembered to bring them candy.

Both Mr. and Mrs. Lang wordlessly waved to the visitors. Lang turned to lightly jog back across the open field towards the house. At this time, also looking towards Mr. Lang were Ryder and his companion, Gerard Lesiuer. Lesiuer was a French-Canadian transplant who was to later sired two boys who grew to become representatives in the state legislature. Lang and Lesiuer were carting two barrels of supplies towards the Lang house which had been purchased on credit by Mrs Lang the day before.

All eyes happened upon Lang. The witnesses saw him stride hurriedly to reach his house in time to met the visitors as they pulled up at his house. All witnesses agree that half-way across the field, Lang suddenly seemed to trip. On what, none could say, for none of the witnesses saw anything to explain Lang’s fall. As Lang fell forward, he stretched his arms before him, the fingers of his callous farmer's hands spread wide, and his mouth agape. Despite the piecing glare of sunlight, and the distance between them, Mrs. Lang swore she saw her husband’s pale blue eyes open wide in terror. The witnesses winced and braced for Lang’s hard landing. However, Lang never came to touch the earth, for without any sound, except the gasping of the shocked witnesses, Lang disappeared in mid-fall.

Fully witnessed, without a sound, David Lang had just suddenly ceased to exist as if someone had snapped off the switch powering his existence. Understandably, Mrs. Lang screamed and fainted. The other five adult witnesses, once they recovered out of their shock, ran to the spot where they witnessed Lang's last moments on earth. Coming to the spot, they all reflexively stopped abruptly. None of them were willing to enter the actual spot, as if fearful of encountering its diabolical power. When their courage and senses partially returned, they tactilely examined the spot, first by delicately touching the earth with their feet, and then by crouching down and using their bare hands to feel the earth beneath the straw-dry grass. Beneath the trampled dead grass , there was nothing but good solid Tennessee soil. No disguised sinkholes; no hidden caves or crevices; no softness or give at all. Like the rest of the burnt field, the area contained just dead yellow-white straw-grass over a hard chalky soil.

The witnesses quickly agreed to search the field. Perhaps, they thought, they mistook David’s location. He might have fallen elsewhere, and laid unconscious injured. They tried to ignore the undisputable fact that there was no tall obscuring grass, and the entire field could be examined very easily from where they stood. But they agreed to a search to give them time to further alleviate their shock, and to think things through. Haphazardly they walked the entire field. There was, of course, nothing. By this time, Mrs. Lang had aroused from her faint, and instantly became hysterical. Peck broke off his search of the field, went to her, calmed her and escorted her and the crying children back into the house. Soon, the neighbors were called with the local authorities following after. By nightfall, there was a full lantern-lit search of the field, which search was then was expanded to the surrounding woods, and then even to a nearby shallow river. Still there was nothing. After the fruitless weeks, the search efforts were ended.

Mrs. Lang took to a sickbed with shock. After a few weeks, it was decided that she would best recover in the care of her Ohio cousins. The children remained in the area, and were bundled into the care of an Aunt Sukie, a Gallatin native, and then, when Aunt Sukie died of childbirth fever, to the Reverend Wild’s family. Except for Mrs Lang short return to Gallatin to testify in the Chicago Mutual trial, Mrs Lang remained with her Ohio relatives.. Still mostly bed ridden, she died a few years later from an unknown wasting disease.

But this does not end this strange story. Months after the occurrence, in the early spring 1881, while the Lang children were still in her Aunt Sukie’s care, Lang's children and a few friends secreted back to the site. They noticed that the grass at the site of their father's disappearance had grown in yellow and covered a circle five feet in diameter. During a second, night time visit, the children and some friends returned to the site for a impromptu memorial service. They clasped hands and circled the yellowed area which, even in face of dares and challenges, none were brave enough to enter. They read some gospel verses and sang hymns. At the conclusion, Sarah said a prayer she had written just for her father. Her prayer finished, Sarah squeezed her blue eyes tight --- she had her father’s eyes --- and quietly walked into the center of the spot. When all appeared well, she opened one eye at a time. With nothing amiss, and finding herself still safe and well on earth, she called out for her father. Slowly she repeated her call three times. As Sarah’s voice faded with her last call, the children stood quietly. The braver of them waited and hoped for a response. The more nervous of them fidgeted anxiously, hoping for continued silence.

Now, the identities of the children present that night are not known. Neither is known of what they recalled of this strange night. But according to Sarah, in an interview she gave in her fifties to an unidentified writer for the Gallatin Gazzette, this is what occurred. After she had waited a moment or two for her father to reply to her calls, finally out of black starless sky above, came the half-strangled voice of her father, faintly perceptible over the boisterous crickets of the field, pleading for help, over and over. Finally, as the children stood frozen in their fear and astonishment, Lang's weakening voice faded away into the noisy bedlam of the crickets. It was the last time his voice was ever heard. The children fled in fear. According to Sarah, when the adults heard their story, the children were strictly confined to their homes and were told they were never to return to the spot.

As for the Lange farm, it was left vacant. With the Lang farm all but abandoned, curiosity seekers came, looked, and finally looted. Ultimately the town took action against the curiosity seekers, including writer Ambrose Peirce. They were all escorted away with firm instructions not to return. Repeat offenders were given the punishment of nightstick, jail time and confiscatory fines. At some point, the town newspaper the Gallatin Gazzette posted a sizable reward for information. It went uncollected. Over the years, at various points, the field was thoroughly examined by experts. In the end, these experts ceremoniously concluded what could have been easily discovered by a mere hard stamp of a foot on the ground: the field was firm, solid earth. There were no caves, crevices, no sinkholes. And no David Lang.

When the Lang children were grown, they held a formal memorial service for their father. They put a tombstone of Vermont granite over the spot to honor their father. Vermont granite was chosen because Vermont was the home of Lang’s paternal ancestors. Almost immediately the tombstone was stolen. Replacement stones were similarly taken. Defeated, the children gave up their effort to maintain a memorial maker. Over the years, the Lang farm was condemned and taken by the county which then sold the farm to Peck for pennies on the dollar. Peck never lived there, but rented the farm out to tenement farmers. Ultimately, after Peck died from throat cancer, the farm was sold for development. To discourage curiosity seekers, references in the county records to its location were discretely deleted. Its exact location has now become lost, but some authorities claim that the general spot of Lang's disappearance is located near what is now the sixteenth hole of the Long Hollow Golf Course.


Oliver Laurch was another person whose sudden popping out of existence was eyewitnessed, though in this case by a single person. His disappearance occurred Christmas Eve of 1889. While some authorities mistakenly place the disappearance in South Bend, the actual locus was Milford, Indiana.

At the time Oliver vanished, Oliver was a fourteen year old farm boy being raised by his aunt Bessie and uncle David. He came into the care of his aunt and uncle after his parents’ tragic deaths when Oliver was four. His mother had died of yellow fever, and his father, broken in his grief, had committed suicide by jumping off the Little Miami Bridge into the Ohio River. With no other relatives, this left Oliver to the care of his father’s step-sister and her husband.

The sole existing photograph of Oliver is cracked and faded into light shades of gray. It depicts him at age thirteen. He is shown as short, heavy set, with a mop of greasy black hair, almost connecting eyebrows, and tightly closed caterpillar thick lips through which protrude a set of severely protruding "buck" teeth. If the criminal records of the time are be believed, Oliver’s personal character by age fourteen had become fully entrenched and was uniformly bad. Due to Oliver’s unremittingly sordid behavior, some authorities in re-telling his disappearance omit Oliver’s personal history entirely from their stories. But the truth be told, by age fourteen Oliver had a record of being an incorrigible truant, a frequenter of prostitutes, a petty thief, and, in the weeks just before his disappearance, a suspected look out for a local bank robbery in which three people died, including a three year old child. Despite these immoral and criminal behaviors, Oliver was able to avoid the reformatory and continue to live with his aunt and uncle. Oliver's continued placement there was likely due to his aunt and uncle’s well known devout Christianity. Both were active members of their local evangelistic church: the uncle handled the church books; and the aunt was the chief organist. That Oliver’s uncle had a powerful cousin on the town council perhaps also played no little role in helping Oliver keep his freedom.

Oliver’s disappearance took place on a Christmas eve which was unusually cold. A few snowflakes were falling, and enough stuck to develop a light crust on the ground. Inside a humble home, near a large fire, Oliver and his aunt and uncle sat enjoying a Christmas Eve dinner of roast beef. Awaiting them afterwards was a rare and special after dinner treat of bananas. Joining them for company was a friend of his uncle’s, an attorney from nearby South Bend who had just been elected probate judge upon his reinstatement from a long disbarment. This visitor’s name has been variously recorded as Alan Augustus Smith, Adailaire Smith, or sometimes just as A.A. Smith. As the family and their visitor finished the roast beef, the visitor developed a thirst requiring more water. Young Oliver was asked by his aunt to go out to the water pump near the front lane to the house to fill a water pitcher. Evidently, Oliver gave heated and profane argument against this chore. Perhaps as evidence of the extent of the argument that night, investigators of Oliver’s disappearance later noted broken plates and pottery inside the home. The aunt and uncle claimed these had been broken weeks before during a revival meeting gone unruly with over-spirited glorifying to God; the visitor Smith demurred from any statement on the matter, invoking a poor memory and lack of desire to comment on conversations and events occurring within the family’s privacy. His pending judgeship allowed him the pass.

Whatever the extent of the argument, the aunt and uncle won the sustained, spirited debate. Oliver grabbed a water pitcher, and despite the cold darkness he stalked outside without a coat or even a lantern. While Oliver was away on his errand, visitor Smith took the opportunity to slip away to smoke a cigar on the front porch. The aunt and uncle, being abstentious and devout Christians, demurred from joining him. Instead they stayed inside, near the fire. The aunt softly played carols on her fiddle, and the uncle, as was his wont, whistled along as he flipped through the Book of Lamentations for his favorite verses. Suddenly, a piercing inhuman screech came from outside.

Both aunt and uncle glanced at the other and then jumped towards the door. The fiddle crashed to the floor. The uncle’s stool toppled over and the holy book tumbled out of the uncle’s lap. Only the quick reflexes of the uncle saved the holy book from tumbling sacreligiously to the dirty floor. He put the holy book on a nearby ledge and then the aunt and uncle grabbed lamps on the run. Once out on the porch, the aunt and uncle took quick notice of the prostrate body of Mr. Smith. Stiff as a six hour corpse, Mr. Smith laid out unconscious. Still stuck in a corner of his slack mouth was his lit cigar, curling and whirling white wisps of smoke in a brisk and but frigid breeze. The piercing screams diverted their attention, however. Seeing Oliver’s footprints heading towards the water pump, the uncle followed Oliver's staggered footprints in the dust-light snow, while the aunt attended to Mr. Smith.

By the evidence of the footprints, Oliver had laggardly started out to the water pump. The uncle followed the meandering path, his footfalls landing almost landing directly on top of Oliver’s footprints. The closer the uncle came to the pump, the more the screeching cries seem to fade. Suddenly, half-way to the water pump, the tracks stopped. And above, the uncle heard the quickly fading screams of a fourteen boy in great and horrid distress--Oliver.

As the uncle stood listening, the only distinct sentence the uncle could make out of the wailings and screeches coming above him was the cry: "Help! They've got me!" It was a cry of blood icing terror. Just at the moment when the last of the screams above faded away, the uncle jumped. Something had grabbed his elbow. Panting in fright, he relaxed only when he turned and saw it was the aunt, who had come running after him after all. They both looked at each other and then, slowly, to the skies. They saw starless darkness, and no Oliver. Suddenly, their fear for their own safety overwhelmed them. Too frightened to weep yet for Oliver, they quickly retraced their footsteps, crunching the snow with their huried steps, their shoulders hunched down, and the open sky heavy on their backs. They did not dare look up again until they reached the porch. From the safety of that perch, they looked again at the black sky filled with snow and listened. All they saw was the corkscrew fall of snow caught in wild whirlwinds. All they heard was wind puffing in and against their red cold ears.

When visitor Smith was revived, he gave a strange tale. He had been puffing on a newly lit cigar savoring the first few puffs, watching Oliver lollygag his way to the water pump. He had smiled at the boy: his care-free straggling reminded him of his youth spent as a drummer boy for a New York regiment in the recent Civil War. He watched as Oliver's squat figure fade into a barely perceptible slouched-shouldered outline against the dark night. Suddenly Oliver stopped short. His body straightened. He looked directly above. As Oliver did so, he lifted his arms as if to draw the water pitcher up to his shallow chest. He seemed to hug it as he continued glazing above. Suddenly Oliver screamed. Before Smith could react, Smith instantly felt an intense burning but lightless heat. He burst into a sweat, and he felt dizzy. Rather than being able to go to Oliver's aid, he found his legs weakening beneath him, his vision fading, and his body falling backwards. The next thing he knew he was being revived. He recalled nothing more.

Afterwards, when speaking afterward to investigators, the aunt and uncle agreed: the piercing sound of the frightened boy had come from above. Moreover, nothing could be seen in the black sky. There was no balloon, or other device to explain Oliver’s sudden disappearance to the night sky above. Nothing.

Oliver Larch was never seen again.

Or was he?

Decades after, Edward Frank, a researcher of oddities happened to be researching the area newspapers of the day. While Frank was looking for articles on a reported strange rainfall in the area involving blood-colored rain mixed with pieces of frogs and salt water fish, he spotted an article which perked his interest. It was a lengthy article in the South Bend Times regarding an unusual occurrence. The article was dated about three months after Oliver’s disappearance: March 26, 1880. The article reported that in Wellington, a town about three hundred fifty miles north of Milford, a dead body had been found of a young teenage boy. The appearance of the boy’s partially decomposed body was curious. His skin was colored orange; his hair was grey. Moreover, one of his eyeballs was missing from its socket. After a thorough search of his clothing, the dried, collapsed orb was mysteriously found in his back pocket, squashed between a pack of marked cards and a half-empty bottle of hair ointment. All but his two front teeth were missing. Also missing was three-quarters of his tongue. Most strangely, during autopsy, it was discovered that he was missing most of his major organs including his heart, his liver, his kidneys and three quarters of his small intestines. It was as if they had disappeared from within, for there were no cuts or other signs of injury indicating a traumatic removal. As to clues to his identity, there was only one: next to the body was a water pitcher, partially cracked, but otherwise in good shape. The local authorities did not know what to make of it. Their perplexity was not surprising: the news of Oliver’s disappearance evidently had not reached them. The unknown boy was hurriedly buried without ceremony or tombstone. According to the South Bend Times writer, the experts who examined the body refused to speculate as to the cause of death and the experts suggested that the greater public do likewise.