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1889, December 24: Oliver Larch’s Disappearance

The Legend:

It was Christmas Eve, 1889, and the holiday festivities were in full tilt at the Larch farm just outside of South Bend, Indiana, the jolly mood helped along by the scenic landscape freshly coated by five or six inches of new fallen, soft snow. Along with the Larch family, the family's minister and his wife were in attendance, as well as a circuit judge from South Bend and an attorney from Chicago, both old friends of the family.

        The group had finished dinner, and were singing carols accompanied by Mrs. Larch on an organ in the parlor; she had been the church organist for several years, and played very well. Eleven-year-old Oliver Larch was sharing popcorn he had just popped on the range in the kitchen.

        It was just a little before 11 o'clock when Oliver's father asked him to run out back to the well and bring in a bucket of fresh water, as the available drinking water for the party was almost gone. Oliver slipped on shoes overshoes, and took the bucket out the side door; about ten seconds later, he screamed.

        The adults poured out the side door Oliver had taken, Mr. Larch holding a kerosene lamp to light the way, as Oliver's screams continued: "Help! Help! They've got me! Help! Help!" The cries were coming from somewhere overhead... and they grew fainter and fainter, until they could no longer be heard.

        The lamp revealed Oliver's path to the well, his footprints standing out in the fresh coat of snow. He had walked seventy-five feet, about halfway to the well; at this point, his tracks simply ended in the snow. About fifteen feet to one side of this trail end, the water bucket was lying in the snow. There were no other prints, tracks, or traces... just Oliver's prints, ending abruptly with no indication of where he went.

        Investigators, faced with the evidence, had only one impossible conclusion; somehow, Oliver Larch had gone up... and, judging by his fadingvoice, he'd been carried away. At seventy-five pounds, Oliver weighed too much for an eagle -- or two eagles, for that matter -- to simply carry away. Official records showed that no one had been in the area with a balloon that night; and airplanes didn't exist. What or who took Oliver Larch that night, and where did they go?

Sounds Familiar...

        The story above was first published, as far as I can tell, in Frank Edwards' 1956 book Strangest Of All. In said book the story was, of course, claimed to be a true story... but the orgins of this tale are more complicated than that. It's actually a variation on a supposedly true (but totally not) story first published in 1888 by the notorious American author Ambrose Bierce.

        Bierce's 1888 story told of a 16-year-old boy named Charles Ashmore who went out into a snowy night in November 1878 to fetch a pail of water and then disappeared, leaving a trail of prints that simply stopped in the middle of the snow. Days later, his mother walked past the spot where the trail ended and could hear his voice as if it was calling from a great distance, an effect that continued sporadically for a few months afterwards until Charles was heard no more. This short story was one of a group written by Bierce that told of people who disappeareed instantly into nothing, and the originally intended impact of the story was to create a creepy sort of 'what if' feeling in readers.

        In September 1950, a writer named Joseph Rosenberger re-wrote Bierce's story of Charles Ashmore's disappearance and presented it as a new "true" tale in FATE, an American magazine devoted to supposedly true anomalous and paranormal events. In Rosenberger's version of the story the victim was named Oliver Lerch, was 20 years old, and supposedly disappeared in the snow of South Bend, Indiana, on December 24, 1890... but most importantly, Lerch was heard calling for help from overhead by a large group of friends and family, with reverends and lawyers among them (i.e. "credible witnesses"). Six years later, Frank Edwards appears to have re-wrote the story of Oliver Lerch to create his own tale of Oliver Larch.

        Frank Edwards was a well-known radio personality in the 1950's who hosted a show about strange and paranormal events; he was also a regular contributor to FATE magazine, and many of the stories Edwards told on his radio show and published in his books originally came from the magazine. It's undoubtable, therefore, that Edwards had read Rosenberger's "account" of Oliver Lerch's strange disappearance; but it's less clear why Edwards changed details when he then published his version of the story, changing Oliver's last name to Larch, making him 11 years old instead of 20, and changing the year the event supposedly happened to 1889. Edwards' books of strange stories were incredibly popular [some still turn up in reprints to this day], and largely transformed the story of Oliver Larch's disappearance into what is now often considered a known 'true' account of the weird... but popularity isn't everything. Since Bierce's original story was a 'False Lead' -- a story that was never true to begin with -- and since Edwards' tale of Oliver Larch is based on Rosenberger's false story which was based on Bierce's false story, it makes the tale of Oliver Larch a False Lead as well.

        Edwards' tale of Oliver Larch's 1889 disappearance inspired one more variation on Bierce's "disappeared into the snow" idea: the 1909 disappearance of Oliver Thomas, available in the 'See Also' links below.