1880, September 23: The Mystery of David Lang

According to paranormal experts, during the afternoon of September 23, 1880, on a farm just a few miles outside of Gallatin, Tennessee, a remarkable -- and unexplained -- event was witnessed by five people.

        The farm was occupied by 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.

        David Lang had just suddenly ceased to exist. This was fully witnessed by his two children, his wife, Judge August Peck, and the Judge's traveling companion (the Judge's brother-in-law); 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 short grass. The adults quickly searched the field for other possible clues, but to no effect. Mrs. Lang soon became 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 caves, holes, or cracks that Mr. Lang might have fallen into. Nothing was found.

        In the weeks following the strange disappearance, Mrs. Lang was bedridden with shock. All the family servants except the cook, Sukie, left the house. Curiosity seekers were being 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. No one had any answers for what happened.

        Months after the event, in 1881, Lang's children noticed that the grass at the site of their father's disappearance had grown strange and yellow; it 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. 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.

        What had happened to David Lang? In the years since, many authors have guessed -- possibly Lang was an abduction by fairies or UFOs, perhaps he somehow fell into a different dimension of existence, or perhaps he somehow had the very atoms of his body suddenly break into their component parts and simply ceased to exist -- but all of it are just guesses. In the end, there just isn't any way to ever know for sure where the missing farmer went.

...And now, The Rest of the Story

        The above account of David Lang's supernatural disappearance is largely how the event was described in two books, Harold T. Wilkins' 1958 Strange Mysteries of Time and Space, and Frank Edwards' 1959 Stranger Than Science. I chose to assess the story from just these two books because pretty much every account of this event told since 1959 has been based on one or both of these versions of the account... which is primarily important because both authors failed to tell the whole story!

        The earliest report I've found of the David Lang mystery is in the American magazine FATE for July 1953. FATE was the source for strange stories in America in the 40's, 50's, and 60's; it was also a magazine that Frank Edwards had previously published stories in, as well as borrowed most of the stories for his book Stranger Than Science from. The relevant FATE article in the July 1953 issue was called "How Lost Was My Father?", and was written by Stuart Palmer... and both Wilkins' and Edwards' versions of the mystery, clearly based on this article from FATE, only include part of that original story.

        The FATE version of David Lang's disappearance, though written by Palmer, was said 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.

         Palmer explains that on the 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, as they only looked up after their mother started screaming. So there were only three witnesses: Emma Lang, Judge Peck, and Peck's brother-in-law, identified by Palmer 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 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 George claimed that horses refused to even walk across it... he had been watching them. The circle of odd grass contained no living creatures -- no mice or bugs of any kind -- even though it was surrounded by much animal activity (it was a farm, after all). George caught and threw a loud cricket into the circle, with the result that the cricket 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 Lang 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 of the servants except Mammy Sukie left the house. The children told their mother on the day after as well, and she admitted that she had heard him too on her frequent visits to the field. His voice was growing fainter each time she heard him.

        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.

Forgotten Details

        And this is where Palmer's account of David Lang's disappearance continues past where modern versions of the event end. According to Palmer, in her later years Sarah Lang turned to Spiritualism for answers.

        For those of you who don't know, Spiritualism is a religion that has as its base premise a belief that some living individuals are capable of contacting the dead and acting as a 'medium' for communication between life and death. Sarah Lang, Palmer claims, expended much 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 she 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 as they controlled the movements of her hand.

        For years afterwards, Sarah Lang regularly received messages from her dead mother which, unfortunately, showed that her mother was still searching for the missing Mr. Lang also. Over time, as there was no progress, Sarah slowly stopped contacting 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 Sarah Lang's mother's handwriting, which read: "Together now and forever... after many years... God bless you." Although she waited, no further writing appeared. She 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 Lang also had a handwriting expert confirm this for her.

        And so Sarah Lang was finally at peace with her father's strange end. She related 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 David Lang disappearance.

Did It Happen?

        While both Frank Edwards' and Harold T. Wilkins' accounts clearly start with Stuart Palmer's story in the 1953 FATE Magazine -- despite Wilkins' claims of having newspaper articles from the 1880's (he has lied about this in other accounts as well) -- both Edwards and Wilkins chose to drop the part of the story that dealt with Sarah Lang's attempts to contact her dead parents. Spiritualism was still a known topic in paranormal literature in the 1950's; but by the time Edwards and Wilkins released their books, the popularity of Spiritualism as a topic had dropped off... and so both authors ditched the end, creating a more compact version of the David Lang story.

        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? Palmer apparently claimed in a letter to Curtis Fuller (editor of FATE Magazine) that he had originally published the David lang account in a magazine called "Ghost" sometime in 1936 or 1937. This letter was apparently sent at the time that Palmer submitted his story to FATE... but this previous publication has never been found, despite many people searching for it.

        In October, 1976, Robert Forrest and Bob Rickard were apparently the first people to both investigate the basic facts of the David Lang account 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, as mentioned above, by checking with the public records of libraries in the Gallatin, Tennessee area. His inquiries 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 knowledgeable 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 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 earlier version of the story -- after he had typed up Forrest's research... but since he had no copy of this article, he had no comment on it.

        But soon, another researcher did.

The Man Who Vanished Twice

        Robert Schadewald, the other researcher, had read Palmer's 1953 article; and after reading 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 1953 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, and 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 which had apparently been created by Stuart Palmer.

        Palmer left clues as to where he got the idea for the story initially within the 1953 account. At one point he quotes "Sarah" as having stated:

"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 clear that Palmer was well aware of Ambrose Bierce's short stories about supernatural disappearances, one of which, entitled "The Difficulty of Crossing a Field," tells the story of a farmer named Williamson who disappeared while walking in a field with his wife and two friends as witnesses. The story was obviously Palmer's model for the creation of the David Lang account. Ambrose Bierce didn't steal the story from the Langs; rather, Stuart Palmer stole the story from Bierce.