1909, December 24: Oliver Thomas’ Disappearance

The Legend:

Five inches of fresh snow had fallen during the day of December 24, 1909, in the county of Powys, Wales. That evening at the farm of Owen Thomas and his family there was a happy Christmas Eve gathering with friends in attendance; everyone was roasting chestnuts and singing carols, and generally enjoying themselves. In attendance was not just the Thomases, but also several friends including the local minister and his wife.

        Around 11:00 PM, Mr. Thomas asked his 11-year-old son Oliver to fetch some more water from the well, as the bucket was getting low and it was a sure bet that the guests would still need more water to drink. Oliver put on his boots and overcoat, took the bucket, and walked out to get the water.

        Less than ten seconds later, the mood of the party was shattered by Oliver's screams for help.

        The minister grabbed a paraffin lantern as the group ran out the door to assist... but Oliver was nowhere to be seen. He could, however, still be heard; from somewhere above the groups' heads, Oliver screamed "They've got me! They've got me!" They flashed the lantern upwards, but could only see the black, starless sky... Oliver kept screaming, but the sound grew fainter and fainter. Eventually, the call faded away altogether.

        The snow in front of the group didn't help explain what happened. The deep new snow clearly displayed Oliver's footprints leading from the house towards the well; but about seventy-five feet away from the house, the tracks simply stopped. The wooden bucket was found about fifteen feet away from the last footprint in the snow. There were no other tracks or signs in the fresh snow to explain what happened.

        The following day saw the arrival of police officials from the nearby town of Rhayader, who formed a search party and scoured the countryside. The well was probed with grappling hooks; all who attended the party were fully interrogated... the simple evidence of Oliver's tracks in the snow told a story the police were not able to believe, so they attempted to find any other possible explanation for the boy's disappearance. But the evidence all pointed to the one impossible conclusion: Oliver had gone up, by means unknown... and that was all that could be said.

        No bird known in Wales -- or anywhere else -- is capable of lifting an eleven-year-old boy; and an airplane, which had only been properly invented about four years earlier, would have been easily heard over the boy's screams. Oliver was never seen again.

        Who, then, were the mysterious 'they' that Oliver screamed about?

False Lead... Big Time

        The tale above first appears, as far as I can track it, in Brad Steiger's 1966 book Strangers from the Sky. As the title suggests, the book's main focus was on the then-popular topic of UFOs as alien spacecraft, and the main theory proposed by Steiger for where Oliver Thomas went was that he was abducted by aliens.

        This account is actually just a variation on a tale told in 1888; in fact, it appears to actually be a variation of a variation of a variation on the 1888 tale (whew!). The 1888 tale was written by the renowned American author, Ambroise Bierce [1842-1914 (ca.)], and told the supposedly true (but totally fictional) tale of a 16-year-old boy named Charles Ashmore in Troy, New York, who mysteriously vanished while walking to a nearby well one snowy night in November 1878. This original tale was simply a supernatural disappearance story, wherein only the boy's prints were left as evidence of his fate, and readers had to speculate as to how he vanished.

        A variation of this story was published in 1950 in FATE, an American magazine specializing in supposedly true weird and paranormal accounts... and because it was the 1950's, the author of this version, Joesph Rosenberger, re-wrote the story so the disappearance could be interpreted as being caused by an alien spacecraft. There was a then-going flap of Unidentified Flying Objects [a.k.a. UFOs] reports throughout the forties, fifties, and sixties in America which meant including an alien spacecraft in the account would help sell the story. Rosenberger's version of the story also changed the boy's name to Oliver Lerch, his age to 20 years old, his home to South Bend, Indiana, and reported the event as happening on December 24, 1890.

        The next variation came in 1956 in Strangest Of All, a book by radio-personality Frank Edwards. Edwards was a frequent contributor to FATE magazine, so it's a sure bet he had read Rosenberger's 1950 article about Oliver Lerch; but in Edwards' book the boy's name became Oliver Larch, his age dropped to 11 years old, and the event happened in the year 1889. Edwards' books on strange and paranormal topics have been unusually popular -- some are still in print -- so he seems to be instrumental in the spread of this supposedly 'true' account.

        Ten years after Edwards' book was published, another author specializing in anomalous topics, the aforementioned Brad Steiger, published the tale of Oliver Thomas' apparent alien abduction that I detailed above. It's painfully clear that Steiger's tale is just the same story as Edwards' account of Oliver Larch's disappearance; the only differences are the boy's last name, the town/country he is claimed to live in, and -- of course -- a different year for the occurrence, this time 1909. So, given that the tale of Oliver Thomas is just the back-end of a chain of re-used stories that started with a false story, I feel pretty safe marking this account as a 'False Lead,' a tale that was just never true to begin with.

        The only aspect of this chain of stories that bothered me was the fact that, despite the high popularity of the topic of Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) as alien spacecraft all through the forties, fifties, and sixties, it wasn't until 1966 that any author decided to claim the vanishing boy was taken by such a spacecraft. I suspect the reason that the two previous versions of the story -- the one by Josef Rosenberger in 1950 and the one by Frank Edwards in 1966 -- didn't make this claim was because speculation about UFOs simply didn't include abduction stories at the time they were writing. The first sensationalized account of the phenomena that would later be labeled as "Alien Abduction" occurred in 1961, when the married couple of Betty and Barney Hill made claims of being taken aboard an alien spacecraft and being experimented on while under hypnosis. It was only after this story became a public sensation -- due to the release of the book The Interrupted Journey in 1966 -- that Brad Steiger put forward the claim that his version of Oliver was adbucted by aliens as the "logical" explanation for the event [which still never happened, mind you].

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