1880, September 23: The Mystery of David Lang

The Legend: 

On the afternoon of September 23, 1880, on a farm just a few miles outside of Gallatin, Tennessee, a remarkable event was witnessed by five people.

        The farm was occupied by farmer David Lang and his family -- his wife, Emma, his two children, eight-year-old George and eleven-year-old Sarah, and their household servants. On that afternoon, the children were playing in the front yard, when Mr. and Mrs. Lang came out of their house and Mr. Lang started across the pasture toward his quarter horses.

        As Lang was crossing the pasture, the horse and buggy of the family's friend, Judge August Peck, came into view on the lane in front of the house; the children stopped playing, as Peck always brought them presents when he visited. Both Mr. and Mrs. Lang saw the buggy, and Mr. Lang waved to the judge as he turned to walk back towards the house.

        Then David Lang completely disappeared in mid-step.

        Fully witnessed by his two children, his wife, Judge August Peck, and the Judge's traveling companion (the Judge's brother-in-law), David Lang had just suddenly ceased to exist; understandably, Mrs. Lang screamed. All five witnesses ran to the spot they had last seen Mr. Lang, but there was nothing to hide behind or under; the field contained just grass. The adults quickly searched the field to no effect. By this time, Mrs. Lang was becoming hysterical, and was taken back into the house as neighbors were called with an alarm bell. By nightfall, all the neighbors were involved in the search and, by lantern, they checked every foot of the field, stamping their feet to try to detect any holes that Mr. Lang might have fallen into. Nothing was found.

        In the following weeks, Mrs. Lang was bedridden with shock; all the family servants except the cook, Sukie, left; and curiosity seekers were chased away from the farm by the local authorities. The county surveyor confirmed that the field was on perfectly solid ground, with no caves or sink holes.

        Months after the occurrence, in 1881, Lang's children noticed that the grass at the site of their father's disappearance had grown strange and yellow, and formed a circle with a fifteen-foot diameter. Sarah called to her father and, seemingly as a result, both the children heard him faintly calling for help, over and over, until his voice faded away.

        Mrs. Lang never fully recovered, and there was never a funeral or memorial service for Mr. Lang. Mrs. Lang eventually left the farm and allowed Judge Peck to rent it out, with the exception of the field in the front of the house. That pasture was left untouched as long as she lived.

Starting Points

        The legend of David Lang presented above is essentially as it appeared in Harold T. Wilkins' Strange Mysteries of Time and Space and Frank Edwards' Stranger Than Science, printed in 1958 and 1959, respectively. I chose to assess the legend from just these two books because pretty much every account of this legend told since has been based on one or both of these versions of the story... which is primarily important because both authors failed to tell the whole story!

        The earliest version of the David Lang mystery I have found is in the FATE Magazine for July 1953. FATE was the source for strange stories in America in the 40's and 50's, and a magazine that Edwards had previously published stories in, as well as borrowed most of the stories for his book Stranger Than Science from. The FATE article in the July 1953 issue was called "How Lost Was My Father?", by Stuart Palmer... and both Wilkins' and Edwards' versions of the mystery only include part of that original story. The FATE version of the legend, though written by Palmer, was claimed by him to just be a trans-literation of the story as told to him by Sarah Lang -- daughter of the vanished man -- in 1931, fifty years after the events would have taken place.

        First, a brief re-cap and some variation: In this version, on that afternoon of September 23, 1880, Mr. Lang had just arrived back from a business trip to Nashville, and, when he vanished, both children were busy arguing over the toys he had brought them from that trip; so the two children didn't witness the actual disappearance, only looking up after their mother started screaming. So there were only three witnesses; Emma Lang, Judge Peck, and Peck's brother-in-law, identified here as a Mr. Wade from Ackron, Ohio. After the immediate search of the field, the children were taken to the kitchen by 'Mammy Sukie' -- "our colored cook and friend" -- and confined to the house.

        An extensive search turned up nothing, and the county surveyor stated that bedrock started just a few feet below the surface, so no cave-in could have occurred. Local papers supposedly hinted that Mr. Lang had merely run away. Mammy Sukie prayed for the children's father nightly, gave the children charm bags to wear, and distinctly warned the children to never go into that field again.

        Despite that, the children snuck out one evening to visit the field -- no date is given -- and found an irregular circle of "rank and tall" meadow grass with an odd yellowish-green color. The circle was about fifteen feet in diameter; and the boy, George, claimed that horses refused to even walk across it... he had been watching them. the circle contained no living creatures, no mice or bugs of any kind, even though it was surrounded by such activity. George caught and threw a loud cricket into the circle, with the result that it stopped making noise and hopped out of the circle immediately... then sat down and began to chirp again.

        Sarah suggested they call for their father. After several minutes, they heard his voice feebly calling back... but by the time Sarah related the story to Palmer, she had long forgotten what her father might have actually said. At the sound of the disembodied voice, both children ran screaming back to the house and told Mammy Sukie what had happened; the next day, all servants but Mammy Sukie left the house. When the children told their mother the next day, she admitted that she had heard him too on her frequent visits to the field, growing fainter each time she heard. Shortly after, their mother died, the house was sold, and the children went to Virginia to live with their grandparents. As an afterthought, Sarah added that she had heard that a later owner of the house tried to plow up the field, but the strange circle just kept growing back; and she said she had returned to the farm once when she was old enough, but makes no statement as to whether or not the circle was still there.

        In her later years, Sarah turned to Spiritualism for answers. For years, she expended time and money trying to contact both of her parents through "the most famous mediums" -- people who claimed to communicate with the dead. Eventually, a medium in Philadelphia gave her a message from her mother: "She says that she is seeking as you are seeking... and that she is waiting as you are waiting. And she says that you can come to her directly..." Sarah interpreted this to mean that she, herself, could learn to communicate with her dead family without the help of an outside medium, and thus spent a long time learning how to contact the hereafter. She eventually found she could used a planchette -- a piece of wood with a pencil attached -- to receive messages written by the dead using her hand.

        For years afterwards, she regularly received messages from her dead mother which, unfortunately, showed that her mother was still searching for the missing Mr. Lang also. Sarah slowly stopped trying to contact her mother, but on a day in April, 1929, at ten o'clock in the morning, she was suddenly impelled to try one last time.

        The pencil danced uncontrollably across the paper at first, but soon produced a message written in a style completely different from her mother's handwriting; it read, "Together now and forever... after many years... God bless you." Although she waited, no further writing appeared. Sarah then followed a hunch, and located a copy of Charles Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare which her father had given her. The hand-written inscription on the flyleaf of the book, written by her missing father, matched the handwriting in the strange message from beyond (and, careful lady that she was, Sarah says she had a handwriting expert confirm this for her).

        And so Sarah was at last at peace; she told her story to Stuart Palmer, who wrote it down, and then both signed an affidavit dated October 30, 1929, stating "that in every detail this story is true." The story was run in FATE accompanied by re-productions of David Lang's handwriting from the flyleaf of the book, the mysterious message from beyond, and the affidavit; and Stuart Palmer added at the end of the account that a student of Clark Sellers, "perhaps the nation's foremost expert in handwriting and the study of questioned documents," confirmed that the handwriting on the flyleaf and in the message belong to one and the same person.

        And so ends the earliest version I can find of the Mystery of David Lang.

And Now, the Rest of the Story...

        That Stuart Palmer's story in the 1953 FATE Magazine is the original source of both Wilkins' and Edwards' versions of the David Lang mystery, there can be no doubt1... but there appears to have been some form of outside editing done even before either of these two authors penned their versions.

        Both authors' versions have details that agree and disagree with each other and the FATE account. For instance, the FATE account describes the grass circle as tall and yellow with a fifteen-foot diameter... Edwards says it was short and yellow, but agrees with the diameter, while Wilkins says it was a twenty foot diameter, but agrees it was tall and yellow. In other places, Wilkins and Edwards both seem to be adding details with a distinctly similar pattern: the FATE article gives no date whatsoever for the children's visit to the circle, but both Wilkins and Edwards do... Wilkins stating it as August 1881, and Edwards calling it April 1881. Notably, both Wilkins' and Edwards' accounts omit the section of the story dealing with Spiritualism.

        My initial assumption as I first ran across their two accounts was that either Edwards copied Wilkins, or Wilkins copied Edwards; but the nature of the differences are confusing. At this point, I'm assuming one of two things happened: either one did copy the other, but from memory rather than from print, thus making simple errors from mis-memorization2, or both authors copied their stories from a third source that I have yet to find, which may have had more or less detail than the FATE account. At this point, I don't know which is more likely... but, in the end, it's all really beside the point. Why?

        Some of you may be asking yourselves the same question a few people asked when Palmer's FATE article was first published: why did he wait twenty-three years to publish the story?3 At the time, however, more people were impressed and inspired by the story than were questioning it... so it took a while before someone decided to check.

        In October, 1976, Robert Forrest and Bob Rickard were perhaps the first people to both investigate the basic facts of the story and publish the results, which they did in the British magazine Fortean Times, issue #18. Unaware of the story's earlier origins in FATE Magazine, Forrest set about investigating the facts as put forward in the books by Edwards and Wilkins, mentioned above, by checking with the public records of libraries in the Gallatin, Tennessee area. His enquiries garnered a reply from one Hershal G. Payne of the Public Library of Nashville and Davidson County, who had also been interested in the David Lang story and had already investigated it some.

        Payne had personally checked census records and related materials at his library and had found no evidence for the existence of either David Lang or Judge Peck. He further corresponded with the librarian in charge of the Gallatin Public Library who, together with several other knowledgable people in the area, attested to the story's fictional nature. Payne also contacted the Sumner County historian, who stated that there was no evidence of the supposed Lang family farm in existence; Payne then confirmed this for himself by driving to the supposed location of the farm... it wasn't there. That the story was false was also the consensus opinion of all the newspaper and literary researchers in the area he talked to.

        In the course of his investigation, Payne formed the opinion that the whole story had it's origins in a traveling salesman named Joe Mulhatten, who was legendary for telling amazing stories and lived in the area in the 1880's. Mulhatten participated in local lying contests; and Payne feels that the story of David Lang was one of his best.

        In a postscript to the above findings, Rickard added that he had heard of the existence of an earlier article on the David Lang disappearance in the July 1953 FATE -- the issue with Palmer's original telling of the story -- after he had typed up Forrest's research... but Rickard had no way to get a copy of the magazine, so could not comment on it's contents. But it wasn't long before someone who could get a copy of the FATE article decided to do more investigating.

The Man Who Vanished Twice

        The person who had access to the FATE article by Stuart Palmer was Robert Schadewald. After reading both Palmer's original article and the Fortean Times' de-bunking of the common telling of the story, Schadewald realized that the Fortean Times article directly conflicted with Palmer's story... simply put, if David Lang had never existed, then how could his daughter have told Palmer the story? So Schadewald did the only obvious thing possible; he re-tested Palmer's physical evidence for the story, the handwriting samples and the affidavit presented in the FATE Magazine.

        The affidavit did not have a notary seal, and the notary's name was neither typed nor stamped on it, which is unusual... and the writing on the affidavit looked strangely familiar. With the permission of Jerome Clark, then Associate Editor of FATE, a copy of the 1953 FATE article -- with its illustrations of the documents -- was sent to handwriting expert Ann B. Hooten of Minneapolis, a nationally known Examiner of Questioned Documents. The resulting five-page report came to one simple conclusion: the note on the flyleaf and the sample of automatic writing had been written by the same person... unfortunately, the same person had also written the signatures on the affidavit. All three documents were fake, the production of just one person: Stuart Palmer.

        So in December, 1977, twenty-four years after the original FATE article about the David Lang mystery had been published and eighteen years after both Harold Wilkins and Frank Edwards re-published it in its more familiar form, FATE Magazine printed an article written by Schadewald entitled "David Lang vanishes... FOREVER"; it was an apology for, and a retraction of, the account of the disappearance of David Lang apparently created by Stuart Palmer.

        So the only real question left is, did Palmer fabricate the story entirely or did it actually originate in the 1880's as a lie told by Joe Mulhatten? Mulhatten had become legendary in the Nashville, Tennessee, area before Payne did his research, and Payne never tried to verify that Mulhatten had actually told the story... or if he existed. In Secrets of the Supernatural, Joe Nickell brings this last point into question, noting that no evidence has been presented to prove Joe Mulhatten was anything more than a legend himself, likely based on stories about a very real person, one Joseph M. Mulholland who is described as "a traveling salesman of Washington, Pennsylvania, who wrote... in the 1880s and '90s and read his semiplausible yarns in many a serious publication..." In any case, it's not unlikely that, had Mulhatten or Mulholland not actually told the story of David Lang, the story would have been attributed to him at a later date anyway simply because it sounded like something he would have come up with. So some research will need to be done to see if Mulhatten or Mulholland was involved or not4; but neither man needs to be, as there is an even simplier answer available.

        In Palmer's original 1953 FATE article, "Sarah" at one point states: "This story is a famous one now. Ambrose Bierce, the writer of stories, was one of the many visitors who came that month after Father went and he wrote several of his most famous works about our mystery, cloaking it under the guise of fiction." Palmer then adds, in a footnote to the account, that Ambrose Bierce wrote three stories based on the Lang event, which he published in a book called Can Such Things Be?, which was first published in 1893; and Palmer even quotes a theory from Bierce's book about what could be causing such disappearances.

        So it's clearly obvious that Palmer was well-aware of Ambrose Bierce's stories about mysterious disappearances, one of which - entitled "The Difficulty of Crossing a Field" - was likely his model for the creation of the basic David Lang story. Ambrose Bierce didn't steal the story from the Langs; rather, Stuart Palmer stole the story from Bierce.

Last Thoughts

        Looking back, it's interesting to note that at least three different authors -- Frank Edwards, Harold Wilkins, and Nandor Fodor -- who all referenced the original Palmer story in the July 1953 FATE also all failed to mention the aspect of the David Lang story that involved Sarah contacting her parents through Spiritualism. If these authors didn't copy each other, and it seems unlikely they did, then why did all three choose to edit out the same part of the story? Here are three thoughts on the matter.

        First possible reason: The story is more mysterious with no closure to it. In offering a solution, the story loses the emotional impact of a loved one being lost and it becomes less convenient for use as an example of various theories about fourth dimensions, UFOs, and fairy circles.

        Second possible reason: Spiritualism - the believed ability of certain sensitive people to allow the dead to communicate through them to the living - was a popular topic both previous to and during both World Wars; but by the late 1950's it was no longer a popular topic, nor one to be caught talking about. By the late 1960's in America, Spiritualism was considered to be full of frauds and hoaxes; so the three authors removed the part of the original story that would also remove this unpopular association from it.

        Third possible reason: The section of the story about Sarah contacting her deceased parents is the only part of the story which offered any physical evidence, evidence which eventually spelled out doom for the account, as we have seen. Perhaps the section was neglected in an effort to divorce the story from the handwritten documents... this, of course, assumes that there were more than a few authors who knew the story was false when they took it from FATE Magazine in the first place.

        In the end, we'll likely never know -- all three authors are dead, now. Strangely, though, the story itself isn't... since the 1976 Fortean Times and the 1977 FATE articles debunking the story, the fact that the David Lang mystery is a falsehood has been mentioned many, many times in books - more times than I've found it treated as a true story5 - but it makes no real difference to it's longevity. In its singular endurance in the folklore of parapsychology, the Mystery of David Lang stands out as a shining example of one of the completely unverified "facts" that are, unfortunately, so commonly still passed on and theorized about by new authors. Be wary.