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1890, December 24: Oliver Lerch’s Disappearance

The Legend:

It was December 24, 1890, and the Christmas festivities were in full swing at the farm of Tom Lerch in South Bend, Indiana. Friends had come to participate in the annual celebration; even the local methodist minister, Rev. Samuel Mallelieu had come for the evening. Outside the snowfall had stopped and the clouds had drifted away, leaving a beautiful landscape of fresh white snow lit by a bright moon.

        Lerch's sons, 20-year-old Oliver and 23-year-old Jim, were each paying attention to a young lady. Oliver was singing songs with his girl, Lillian Hirsh, who was the daughter of a Chicago attorney who was also in attendance at the party. Around 10PM, Oliver's mother asked him to fetch some more drinking water from the well and, after throwing on a good coat, he took two buckets and headed outside to fetch the water as the festivities continued.

        About five minutes later the mood of the event was shattered when Oliver started screaming.

Lerch in the skyOliver's fate? [Larger version here]

        Tom Lerch and a host of the party goers ran outside to help Oliver, only to discover they could hear his cries coming from somewhere in the night sky above them. "Help, help! It's got me!" The yelps and screams from Oliver seemed to be moving around above them sometimes closer, sometimes farther... but no one could see him in the moonlit sky. Soon, the cries stopped altogether, and the Lerchs feared the worst.

        Neighbors were called in, and the entire farm was searched from the top of every roof, to the bottom of the well, to the end of every field. It was during this search, around 10PM, that Oliver's voice pleaded for help from above one more time, to the horror of the eight or nine people standing in the yard of the house who heard it... then Oliver was heard from no more.

        The search turned up no signs of the missing young man, but it did reveal another strange detail: Olver's footprints in the snow stopped just 225 feet from the house, only about halfway to the well. Where the trail ended, one of the two buckets was found. There was no sign of a struggle, or of Oliver turning back... just his normal footprints stopping in the middle of an open space with no place for a person to go. But gone he was.

        The search continued all night and well into Christmas Day, but no further evidence could be found. There was simply no sign of where Oliver Lerch, or his missing bucket, could have gone. He was never heard or seen again.

        The strange details of the case are noted in the police records of South Bend, Indiana, in the United States, and the sheer number of witnesses and the high credibility of many of them make the strange event one hard to ignore. But what could have happened to Oliver Lerch? He was too big for an eagle or other known bird to carry, and no balloons were flying that night. Some people suggested that maybe he was killed by another party guest who was jealous of the attention he was getting from Lillian Hirsh, who then used ventriliquism to project a voice into the sky... but even if such a strange explanation was to be considered, how was a body not found in the two day search of the farm?

        The only other clue may be in a disagreement among the witnesses of the event: while most agreed that Oliver had cried "It's got me," a small number of people reported he had screamed "They've got me!"... but who?

        Where did Oliver Lerch go?

The Twice-Told Tale

        Did you notice a major inconsistency in the story? The fact that Oliver is sent to get water at 10PM, but that 10PM is also the last time Oliver's voice was heard overhead? Believe it or not, that's exactly how the story was reported by Josef Rosenberger in his article called "What Happened to Oliver Lerch?," published in the September 1950 issue of the American publication FATE Magazine [which is also the source for the illustration above]. Most modern versions of this particular tale stem from Rosenberger's 1950 article (but also carefully trim out the timing error), which is one reason I present his version of the story above.

        Rosenberger didn't list his source for the story in his FATE article, so for a long time I thought he was the first person to present the tale; but it turns out it appeared much earlier in an 1906 newspaper article, from which Rosenberger likely picked the tale up. This earlier article, imaginatively entitled "Stories of Strange Disappearances," appeared in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser for November 4, 1906, and details out several accounts that I will have to add to my 'Supernatural Disappearances' section someday... and the last of these accounts is that of Oliver Lerch's strange fate.

        The 1906 version of the story is essentially the same as Rosenberger later presented, with a few differences. It's clear that Rosenberger added many details to the account -- creating a brother for Oliver and giving the two of them sweethearts at the party, for examples -- which expanded the 1906 version from about one newspaper column's worth to the four-page long version Rosenberger printed in FATE. The only real detail difference worth mentioning is that the 1906 version of the story sets the year for this event happening in 1889 rather than in 1890, as Rosenberger claims. Not that the differences matter too much in this case... and here's why.

        The facts in the Oliver Lerch account have been checked by previous researchers [say thanks to Joe Nickell on that one], and it's well established that no Tom Lerch or Lerch farm existed in South Bend; and a report of this incident most certainly was never recorded in the police records of the town. The main reason no record exists of the incident is that Oliver Lerch's disappearance never actually happened; and, in fact, it is simply a new version of an older, and fictional, story of a similar disappearance.

        Said older story, "Charles Ashmore's Trail," was written and published in 1888 by the notorious American author Ambroise Bierce. Bierce's tale told the supposedly true story of 16-year-old Charles Ashmore who was sent to fetch water from the well by his family one snowy November night in 1878, only to scream and disappear. Upon investigation, Charles' footprints in the snow were found to lead about halfway to the well and then end... with no signs of struggle or clue where he went. Days later, the boy's mother walked past the spot his trail ended and heard his voice calling as if from some great distance; this effect continued sporadically for some months before fading away forever.

        The 1906 account simply took the premise of Bierce's short story, set it in a different time and place, and added false credible witnesses -- a reverend and a lawyer -- along with lots of unnecessary details to make it sound more real. Two key differences appeared in the 1906 version of the tale though.

        First, that Oliver Lerch's pleas for help were heard immediately after his disappearance by many people, and that they came from somewhere up in the night sky. Second, the choice to set the events as happening on Christmas Eve, which therefore combined a joyous family holiday with a tragic event... that's good drama, that is. Both of these new details appeared later on in two more variations of Bierce's "disappearance in the snow" story, the next being a version created by popular 1950's radio personality Frank Edwards [check the 1889 story in the 'See Also' links below for more on that].

        So, for the simple reason that the events didn't actually happen and that the account itself is based on another false story, I'm marking this account as a 'False Lead.'

Acknowledgements

        Credit where credit is due; I own a lot of FATE magazines, but the September 1950 issue with Rosenberger's article is not one of them... so I give a big 'Thank You' out to Steve Klein for taking the time and effort to email me a copy of the article from his own collection!

        A big 'Thank You' also goes out to Christopher Saunders for sending me a copy of the 1906 article from the Honolulu Star-Advertiser... knowing is half the battle!