If there is one name that’s come to be closely associated with the Ronald Tammen story, it would be that of Joe Cella. Cella was the reporter for the Hamilton Journal-News who’d written some of the more substantive pieces about Tammen’s disappearance. So obsessed was he about the case that he carried Tammen’s photo around with him in his wallet for decades—a photo that Richard Tammen had given him. If you’ve been following this blog for even a short while, you probably already know that the amount of respect I have for him is pretty much off the charts. He’s my idol. Maybe even a borderline crush.
Joseph Anthony Cella was born on this day in 1920 in Bisaccia, Italy, an ancient town in the southern part of the boot, approximately where the ankle would be if the boot was for real. He and his parents immigrated to the U.S. before he was one year of age and settled in Hamilton, Ohio, which is where he lived for most of his life. Sadly, he didn’t live long by today’s standards, passing away during the summer of 1980 at the age of 59, right after I graduated from college. (If only I’d thought to give him a call to discuss the Tammen case when I was a student at Miami. I’m still kicking myself for that missed opportunity.) Nevertheless, his impact was significant.
My admiration for Cella grew as I studied every line of every article he wrote on Ronald Tammen. As the years rolled by, he didn’t give up on Tammen. He didn’t recycle and rehash the same-old, same-old for anniversary stories that he wrote. And he didn’t settle for what university officials or the Oxford police were telling him. Sure, he’d write down whatever information they were doling out, but he had other sources too. Even 23 years after the fact, he was unearthing new information, much of which investigators had known but had opted to keep from the public.
Thanks to Cella, we learned:
That “a psychology book which Ronald was reported to have been reading was found on his desk.” (HJN, 4-22-1954)
That the psychology book on Ron’s desk had been opened to “Habits.” (HJN, 4-18-1976)
That Ron had stopped in at the office of Garret Boone, M.D., in Hamilton, OH, to have his blood typed on November 19, 1952, five months before Ron disappeared. Cella also revealed that Boone felt that he’d been given the “brush-off” by university officials, who, according to Boone, “didn’t want to discuss the case” when he came forward with his information. (HJN, 4-23-1973)
That on Friday, April 17, the weekend of his disappearance, Ron had stopped by the home of Glenn Dennison on Contreras Road at around 8:00 p.m. to pay his car insurance. They talked a little about the Campus Owls, but then he was on his way. (HJN, 4-18-1976)
That H.H. Stephenson, a housing official who’d given Ron his permit to have a car on campus, thought he’d seen Ron with a group of young men in a restaurant in Wellsville, NY, on August 5, 1953. (HJN, 4-18-1976)
At least three of those findings, and possibly four, factor prominently in the solution of this case, I believe.
“He was always a skeptic,” said one of his sons. “And the reporter that he was, he was always trying to find the answer to the truth…He was always digging to find the answer. It was one of those things where he didn’t really trust anything completely. He was going to find out for himself definitively what the answer was. He did that with a number of stories, and this one, in particular, which lasted, you know, to the day he died.”
“He’s out there,” he used to say about Tammen.
Like Tammen, Cella had movie-star looks. His wife June, who met Joe when he was an usher at the Paramount Theater in Hamilton, often said that he reminded her of Tyrone Power, the dashing leading man of Zorro fame who happened to be from nearby Cincinnati. After serving in WWII, Cella thought he might give Hollywood a try, but it didn’t pan out for him. He and June returned to Hamilton where they would raise a family and Joe would work the rest of his days in news reporting and communications.
He probably was feeling let down about this turn of events, but I consider it to be a good thing. Hollywood has enough beautiful people. Joe Cella had a gift for journalism. He had an inquisitive mind and a thirst for truth, which, in my book, the world can always use more of.
According to his obituary, Cella’s first job in journalism was with the Hamilton Journal-News, where he worked for five years, before moving on to various stints around Cincinnati. These included TV Guide magazine (regional editor), Crosley Broadcasting Corporation (promotion and publicity director), and Avco Broadcasting and WLW radio and television (public relations director). He was an avid golfer and, in 1962, he worked alongside Bob Hope to help organize an annual celebrity golf tournament at a Cincinnati country club, with proceeds benefiting a local charity. He also opened his own advertising and public relations firm.
In 1966, Cella rejoined the Hamilton Journal-News, where he worked as a reporter for the next decade, and, as we now know, where he churned out some of his best work on the Tammen case. (I sometimes wondered why I hadn’t seen anything from him on Tammen between 1954 and 1973, and now I know the answer. For much of that time, he was in PR and hanging with the likes of Bob Hope!) Cella received several accolades for the reporting he’d done on other topics during this period. He received two awards from the Associated Press of Ohio—one for his story about Robert Hatton, a young man from Hamilton who could have easily requested a medical deferment from the Vietnam War, but who, instead, fought and died there, and the other for his coverage of the discovery of an unidentified woman’s body in an industrial sludge pit near Hamilton. His third award was from the American Bar Association for his coverage of a mass murder on Easter in 1975 by James Ruppert.
In 1976, Cella assisted with the documentary “The Phantom of Oxford,” produced by WLWD-TV2, in Dayton, which told the story of Ronald Tammen’s disappearance and included on-camera interviews of some of the major players. I’m sure that documentary, for which its producers received regional Emmy Awards, would have never happened without Cella’s zealousness for keeping the case alive, knowledge of every last detail of the story, and well-worn Rolodex.
That same year, Cella stepped down from his job with the Journal-News to run for Butler County commissioner. His platform was to provide “better service to the public” and he proposed to accomplish this through his expertise in communications and public relations. He was a big believer in improving a citizen’s accessibility to the people in charge and having those people in charge engage in a lot less talking and a lot more listening. He won the Democratic primary but, in the main election, he lost to a more seasoned politician named Donald Schirmer, which was devastating for him. I have no idea how Schirmer fared at the job, but I know that Cella would have poured every ounce of himself into it.
Not long afterward, Cella’s health began to decline. He was in and out of the hospital with gastrointestinal issues, which became an ongoing burden for him. Still, he went back to reporting, this time with the Hamilton Sun. On August 13, 1980, while he was covering a Hamilton City Council meeting, Cella slumped over in his chair, unresponsive. He was pronounced dead of a heart attack later that night.
“He died doing what he loved,” his son told me.
Some additional thoughts on Joe Cella in the words of one of his sons:
I guess I wanted to fill in a bit more about my father. I mentioned he was a quiet, gentle person. This is something my girlfriend, now wife, had said she noticed and which in turn, attracted her to me more! He was the opposite of the male Italian head of household stereotype, much different from his father.
He was proud of his Italian heritage and was bilingual. My brothers and I all gravitated to him and his side of the family more because they were a different kind of people from most everyone else in our town. It made us feel kind of special, I guess you’d say.
My father was, as I had said, always interested in finding answers. If something happened, he wanted to know why it happened. He had run for county commissioner back in ’76 and lost pretty badly to an experienced politician. He was in disbelief when the results came in and he kept trying to find out how and why he lost, going over the printouts. I think he took it personally. I had a feeling, though, during the campaigning that he was up against some formidable odds.
I watched him change with the times. He sold off the family station wagon in 1970 and bought two Fiat sport cars, grew his hair longer with sideburns and a moustache (I never cared for it—thought it made him look sinister). His opponent in the election was the clean-cut type. I had been at [Miami University] during some of the upheavals on campus during the Vietnam War and I remember him saying, “This isn’t right,” when comparing it to his experience in the Army Air Corps during WWII. He was against me being drafted after finding out I had a low number (I wound up getting a 4-F medical deferment my senior year). He became more vocal politically and was influenced by the number of young kids killed in action during that war. As I mentioned, he wrote a story about one soldier who was from Hamilton and his life there. Dad received an AP award for that story.
He was a creative, artistic person, too. I have a few sketches he did of a mockup for an ad for the long gone Surf Club, a popular jazz spot in Cincinnati where he booked talent. He was big into the jazz scene in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, maybe because he had played trumpet in a band while at Hamilton Catholic High. I recall him taking me, as a preteen, to a hole-in-the-wall jazz bar in Mt. Adams called The Blind Lemon. A trio was playing on the patio that day. I would go back there later on, whenever I could while in town. He turned me on to WNOP, a tiny AM station out of Newport, KY, that was on the air with jazz programming from sun up to dusk. Hardly any kids my age back then were listening to a station like that. His appreciation of that form of music stayed with me.
He was always wanting to be unique, I think, which is why he made several attempts to make a break from Hamilton for the bright lights, big city, but my mother was too tied to her family to move away. I was told once that he did a screen test for Warner Bros. after he came back from the War, having gone to school at Shuster Martin Drama School in Cinci. Through his job in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s as publicity and promotion manager at Crosley Broadcasting, he was finally able to be around the movie and TV personalities, a crowd he had always wanted to be in.
His sudden death from a heart attack while covering a meeting in the Hamilton City Council chambers was a shock, of course, but he had been ill for several years and had been showing it. Still, losing him at age 59 was tragic for us all.
Happy birthday, Joe. Thanks to your healthy skepticism and top-notch reporting, we may finally be able to solve this mystery.
A big thank you to members of the Cella family for sharing the above photos with me and for telling me stories about your dad. It’s obvious how important he was in your lives.
(or…how I came to learn about a little-known, upper-tier CIA official through a run-of-the-mill FOIA request)
So guys…I’ve been blogging for a little over a year and a half on Ron Tammen, and I think by now most readers would agree that, even though there’s still more information to be revealed, we know a lot more than when we did at the get-go. I think most readers also have a fairly decent idea of how tough it can be to get ahold of some of this information, since not everyone has been forthcoming. Sometimes an embarrassing amount of chutzpah has been required to pry certain bits of info from certain entities’ filing cabinets.
Take the FBI, for example. I’ve already posted several updates that let you know about the kinds of tactics that are employed by their Freedom of Information/Privacy Act (FOIPA) Office. Alas, I’m sorry to say that I’ve developed a hard-shelled cynicism through it all and have come to view many of their responses to my inquiries on Tammen (or Tammen-related topics) as bluffs, smokescreens, or flat-out, um, departures from the truth. My forever goal is to find the crack in whatever tale they’re telling.
Case in point #1: the 1631 pages of documents that they somehow forgot about during my initial FOIA request for the Richard Cox files.
When I first submitted my request for everything the FBI had on Richard Cox’s disappearance, they sent me 24 pages of documents and left it at that. Only when I realized two years later that two other researchers had received tons more documents than I had, and pointed that fact out to them, did the Department of Justice send me three CDs filled with 1631 pages. There was no letter of apology or explanation for their error—just a here-ya-go, I-guess-you-caught-us sort of response. This leads me to ask: If you happen to be a plain old taxpaying citizen on the outside looking in, who doesn’t have a hefty slush fund for the sole purpose of hiring FOIA lawyers, how do you know if what they’re sending you is all that they have? Answer: you don’t (#alwaysappeal).
Case in point #2: their shifting reasons for sending me Ron Tammen’s documents.
As you may recall, a supposedly hard and fast rule of the FBI is that they won’t send you documents concerning another person without proof of death or authorization from that third party. (They do mention a “public interest” caveat, but it’s hard to tell how they define that category, and they never agree with my assertions that anything I’m doing holds any interest for the public.) For some reason, they’d sent me Ron Tammen’s documents without either a proof of death or third-party authorization. When I tried to find out why, a representative of the FBI first conveyed to me through a liaison that they’d sent me Tammen’s documents because “…over the years the FBI had contact with his family who indicated that they believed Mr. Tammen to be deceased given some suspicious facts, namely, that after his disappearance a fish was found in his college bed.” When I pursued that dubious explanation further with the FBI rep by phone, he said it was just a poor attempt at humor and that he’d been referring to a famous scene from The Godfather. I knew I’d caught him in a lie, so my lawyer pressed them on that issue during my lawsuit’s settlement process. We were informed in writing that “The FBI inadvertently accepted plaintiff’s third-party request despite the fact that it is the FBI’s policy not to process third party requests in the absence of a policy waiver, proof of death or a showing of sufficient public notoriety. Based on the administrative records available to us, we have determined that the reason [the Record/Information Dissemination Section] proceeded with this request, despite its deficiencies, is that it treated the request as a request for a missing person investigation.”
I’ll admit that that excuse got by me in 2012, but as I was going through all of the back-and-forth with them in seeking an answer to whether or not they’d already confirmed Tammen to be dead, I revisited their settlement declaration. Not having any idea what a “request for a missing person investigation” was and how that differed from my FOIA request, I asked my lawyer about it. He suggested I do some online research and, if I found nothing, to submit a FOIA request on that question. In September 2016, I submitted a FOIA request seeking “policy documents that describe the FBI’s Records/Information Dissemination Section’s protocol when handling requests from the public pertaining to a ‘missing person investigation.’” Just to make sure we were discussing the same timeframe, I then added: “If the protocol has changed in the recent past, I am interested in the protocol that was in place in 2010.” I didn’t refer to my lawsuit, because I knew what they’d say: We don’t have to address any more questions about your silly little lawsuit. Several weeks later, I received their response: “Based on the information you provided, we conducted a search of the Central Records System. We were unable to identify main file records responsive to the FOIA.” Yeah, I didn’t think they would.
Yet, the FBI has been a cup of honey-sweetened chamomile tea when compared to dealing with the CIA. Many of you who have predicted some sort of CIA connection in Tammen’s disappearance will be pleased to know that I’ve been submitting FOIA requests to them since I began my research, and more earnestly beginning in 2014. I get it—they have a lot of secrets they need to keep to protect our national security. But I also think that they tend to overdo it in the classification department, long after everyone involved has died and programs have been shelved. I mean, if it takes them 50 years to declassify a high school student’s praline recipe, that just tells me that their rule of thumb with FOIA is to turn over as little as humanly possible.
Occasionally, however, they will send something your way, which brings me to our topic for today’s blog: a little-known CIA employee during the late 1940s and early ’50s by the name of Cmdr. Robert J. Williams. What I’m about to share with you is breaking news. As far as I can tell, the internet has not yet had access to this information. He’s not even mentioned in the CIA’s FOIA Reading Room. However, Williams’ name was provided to me courtesy of the CIA in response to one of my FOIA requests. It carries some degree of intrigue for the Tammen case, particularly given the department he represented, which was the Office of Scientific Intelligence, or OSI. (Fyi, “Cmdr.” is an abbreviation for commander in the U.S. Navy. The Air Force also has a commander rank, but the abbreviation they use is CC.)
I’m posting this information now so that you can see what I’ve been up against for the past several years. The way I view things is: If I can contribute to the greater good by offering up a bit of background information for the Google algorithms to chew on so that this blog post will pop up whenever someone runs a search for Cmdr. Robert J. Williams, then it will be well worth it. Cmdr. Robert J. Williams. Cmdr. Robert J. Williams. Cmdr. Robert J. Williams. (The more a term is mentioned on a website, the higher the ranking Google will give it in a keyword search, right?) Cmdr. Robert J. Williams!
So what does this stealth commander have to do with Ronald Tammen? Back in July 2014, I found a CIA memo that I consider pivotal to the Tammen case. On that document are three names—all blacked out—that I would even call the smoking gun regarding what happened to Tammen (or as close to a smoking gun as I’m going to get). I am 100 percent certain of the identity of one of the persons on that memo and 99 percent sure of the second person. (I’ve changed my mind about the third person, but he really doesn’t pertain to our story anyway.) In August of that year, I filed a FOIA request asking that those names be released to the public because the men were deceased, and I sent some obituaries along as proof. They came back and said (and I paraphrase here), no. They did so on the basis of Section 6 of the Central Intelligence Agency Act of 1949, as amended, and Section 102A(i)(l) of the National Security Act of 1947, as amended. The latter statute doesn’t say much of anything except for establishing the Central Intelligence Agency. The former statute, however, says this (bold added):
SEC. 6. [50 U.S.C. 403g] In the interests of the security of the foreign intelligence activities of the United States and in order further to implement section 102A(i) of the National Security Act of 1947 that the Director of National Intelligence shall be responsible for protecting intelligence sources and methods from unauthorized disclosure, the Agency shall be exempted from the provisions of sections 1 and 2, chapter 795 of the Act of August 28, 1935 1 (49 Stat. 956, 957; 5 U.S.C. 654), and the provisions of any other laws which require the publication or disclosure of the organization, functions, names, official titles, salaries, or numbers of personnel employed by the Agency: Provided, That in furtherance of this section, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget shall make no reports to the Congress in connection with the Agency under section 607, title VI, chapter 212 of the Act of June 30, 1945, as amended 1 (5 U.S.C. 947(b)).
I’m no lawyer, but this seems to tell me that all three individuals whose names were redacted in the memo had worked for the CIA at some point in their lives. The CIA’s FOIA Office did offer up a consolation prize. They lifted the black bar off of the person in the “To” line of the memo to reveal our friend Cmdr. Robert J. Williams, OSI.
Seriously bummed at my failed attempt, I decided to follow the new lead and submitted a FOIA request to the CIA for Commander Williams’ personal bio plus any personnel/human resources files they had on him. As back-up, I referred to the memo and how I’d recently learned that he was the memo’s recipient. When I received their response—from the same person who sent me the memo with Cmdr. Robert J. Williams’ name unredacted—I had to laugh. Here’s what he said:
“Although you have provided some of the identifying information required, before we can effectively search our files on an individual, we still need additional data before we can begin processing your request. Specifically, we require the individual’s full name, date and place of birth, and date and place of death. Without this data, we may be unable to distinguish between individuals with the same or similar names.”
Now, they knew darn well which Robert J. Williams I was referring to. The one who was a commander in the Navy. The one who was high up in the CIA’s Office of Scientific Intelligence. The one whom they’d just been discussing regarding whether they should release his name or not, and ultimately determined the answer to be OK. But no. They wanted me to try to figure out when and where the guy with the extraordinarily ordinary name of Robert Williams was born and when and where he died. For all I knew, his name wasn’t even real. The CIA gives its undercover operatives fake names, so why not its higher-ups? It even refers to itself as a cryptonym on occasion. (See KUBARK, WOFACT, BKCROWN, PALP, etc.)
I made use of my genealogy resources to find out who this guy might be. The biggest and best clue was a 1948 declassified document that had originally been posted on the website of the nonprofit organization National Security Archive. (Because it was taken down at some point, I’ve made a copy for this site.) The document told me that his middle name wasn’t John or James or any of the typical “J” names I was trying out in my searches. It was Jay, which, thank heavens, isn’t as common. I now knew that his name was Commander Robert Jay Williams.
And with that, I eventually landed on this little gem of an obit in the Danville (VA) Bee:
The obituary listed him as a captain, which would mean that he’d been promoted from commander. It also didn’t provide his birthplace, but that would be easy enough to find now that I had all of the other information. Funny how the CIA wasn’t mentioned anywhere, but that’s probably institutional policy.
That same month, I let the CIA folks know that the Cmdr. Robert J. Williams about whom I was inquiring was the one who was born in Spokane, WA, in 1913 and who died in Bethesda, MD, in 1969, just shy of his 56th birthday.
Here are the specifics:
Name: Robert Jay Williams
Date of birth: 11/12/1913
Place of birth: Spokane, Washington
Date of death: 10/25/1969
Place of death: Bethesda Naval Hospital, Bethesda, Md.
By then, I’d also discovered that Commander Williams, who also went by R.J. Williams, was one of a handful of individuals who attended an infamous high-level meeting in Montreal in June of 1951. The meeting concerned a “top-secret” CIA program having to do with “all aspects of special interrogation.” A paper by Alfred W. McCoy, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, mentions Williams on page 404, in the first paragraph under “Our Man in Montreal.” The entire manuscript is worth devoting some time to, but at the very least, we know that a memo that I believe contains a name that is relevant to the Tammen case is addressed to a high-level CIA official who is interested in “all aspects of special interrogation.” That’s not nothing, right?
And what of the memo? I was told by one of the best lawyers on intelligence matters that it wouldn’t do any good for me to sue the CIA based on the specific exemptions they’re claiming. I had virtually zero chance of winning. Fortunately, as back-up, I’ve found another memo in which I’m relatively certain—probably a 50/50 mix of confidence and hope—that my person of interest’s name is on it, though it’s also heavily redacted. I’m currently seeking the release of his and another person’s name, although this time, I’m employing a different mechanism than FOIA. FOIA has failed me far too many times. We’ll discuss the alternative mechanism on another day.
In the meantime, for researchers who have landed on this page because you’re interested in learning more about Commander Robert Jay Williams, here are some newly released documents for you to peruse.
Also, I’m including a link to this article from The Onion once again, because I think it’s hilarious and totally apropos.
The floor is now open for comments. Please be aware that comments will be reviewed and posted as soon as I’m able, though there may be a wait.
Also, if you’d like to comment on the preceding post on Ron Tammen’s sexual orientation, here are my ground rules: I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on the evidence I presented or other related musings you’ve had that pertain to the topic. But please, no divisive language and no grandstanding on religion, your views on morality, and the like. Oh, and let’s not get into a nature/nurture debate, OK? Let’s keep comments focused on Ron. Lastly, please try to use terminology that doesn’t offend. Just fyi, here’s the latest guidance from GLAAD. Thanks!
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! As families and friends gather round the Thanksgiving table, maintaining the peace by avoiding whatever elephant happens to be occupying the room in which you’re seated, I’d like to acknowledge a topic I’ve been tiptoeing around since I started this blog. It’s a question that has been raised every so often online, but with little back-up information, other than the fact that Ronald Tammen was a good-looking guy who didn’t date much. That question is: Was Ronald Tammen gay? (For those of you who are wondering why I would choose this topic for today, I guess you could say that I’m thankful that we now live in a time when we can talk openly on this subject without having people get all judgy and weird. So…let’s go there, and please pass the wine.)
But first, I feel the need to out myself, of sorts. I’m the proud sister of a 58-year-old gay man. In fact, at this very moment, he and I are together once again for our annual celebration of turkey and his stupendous “stuffin’ muffins.” (What’s so stupendous about them? He adds artichoke hearts to Stove Top stuffing and bakes them in a muffin tin to create single-sized portions with uniformly crispy tops. You’re welcome, Good Man readers!) So, I know a little bit about this topic from a close-up perspective. More on that in a few.
Another thing you should know: I count myself among the nature (versus nurture) crowd regarding a person’s sexual orientation, which means that I believe that biology plays a major role. Recent studies suggest that epigenetics may be involved, meaning that it’s not just our genes that are responsible—there’s probably no “gay gene” per se—but some other biological X factor—scientists call it an epi-mark—that can be inherited or acquired in utero. An epi-mark won’t alter a developing human’s DNA sequence but may switch a gene or genes on or off in such a way that influences his or her sexual orientation. Also, it’s been shown that a mother’s immune response can influence sexual orientation in some males based on their fraternal birth order. I mean, if animals in the wild engage in same-sex relationships (and they do), why not people? There’s no shame. No blame. It’s all in how a person is wired. Cool? Cool.
And third: To be perfectly honest, I wouldn’t want to live in a world without people who are L, G, B, T, or Q. My life is richer and more vibrant thanks to my gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transsexual friends, family, and associates. I’ll just leave it at that.
Now that you have a better sense of where I’m coming from, let’s dive into some of my evidence and musings regarding Ronald Tammen’s sex life.
The girls Ronald Tammen dated
Ronald Tammen was no player, to be sure, but he was known to date girls on occasion. We’re already acquainted with Grace, the friend he took to the Maple Heights High School prom, when he was a senior and she was a sophomore. Having had the privilege to get to know Grace as I have makes me admire Ron even more than I did at the outset of my research. She’s a warm, kind, beautiful, salt-of-the-earth sort of person, and his association with her gives his character added depth and dimension.
After Ron was in college, there were supposedly two other girls whom he was said to have dated on a relatively regular basis. One girl was named Joan and I learned about her through the Miami University Archives. I heard about the other girl from Frank Smith, Butler County’s former cold case detective. Unfortunately, I can only refer to her as “the girl from Indiana University.”
Let’s start with Joan, who pronounced her name Joanne—spoken like Woodward, spelled like Crawford. I learned this from her brother when I was trying to track her down in 2010 after reviewing the documents in Miami’s archives. A Western Union telegram from Carl Knox to Joan asks if she’s heard from or seen Ron and to let him know if she has. The telegram, dated April 27, 1953, carries this address:
1624 Vine Street
(At Children’s Hospital, Denver).
In his notes, Carl Knox had written this about Joan: “Last year had a girl friend; left school after one semester (maybe).” (That was true. On the same day that I called Joan’s brother, I called Miami’s Registrar’s Office, and they confirmed that she indeed had dropped out after the fall semester of her freshman year.) Knox then wrote her name and where she was from, misspelling the town of Fairborn, Ohio. He added: “Since last fall she has moved out west. She broke off with Him.” Additional background information includes the name of an older sister as well as their father, who was an engineering inspector. In the 1952 Recensio, Joan is listed as being a member of Sigma Kappa, which was a sorority on Miami’s campus at that time, though it isn’t anymore.
In an April 1956 Cleveland Plain Dealer article, Murray Seeger reported that “Tammen had broken off with his girl friend in the fall, and she went to Denver for nurses’ training. He has never contacted her, Dean Knox said.” That’s a little misleading, since it was the fall of 1951-52, not the fall of 1952-53, in which they’d broken up, and, according to Dean Knox, it was she who’d done the breaking. The last sentence leads me to conclude that Joan had followed up with Dean Knox to tell him that she indeed hadn’t heard from Ron after he went missing.
So, to sum up the little we know: Ron dated Joan in the fall of his freshman year. She broke things off with him (I’ll go with Dean Knox’s version over Murray Seeger’s), for whatever reason, and then moved to Denver to start nursing school at the Children’s Hospital. That seems pretty clear cut, but, as with everything else in this case, there are discrepancies. First, the address of 1624 Vine Street isn’t associated with the Children’s Hospital but a home in Denver that, I would later learn, was owned in 1953 by a woman in her 50s named Lillian Dunn. Also, I learned from a representative of Children’s Hospital Colorado that the nursing program had been discontinued in 1953, “but it did offer a place for students from other schools to train either in a diploma program or an associate degree program.” Another Children’s Hospital source said that they have no student records on Joan. When I asked if their records might be incomplete because too much time had passed, the reference librarian responded, “I do think the school of nursing register is reliable.”
I was never able to connect with Joan, who passed away in 2011. Likewise, attempts at contacting other family members have been unsuccessful. I’d love to know what happened in Denver. I’d also be interested in hearing more about her relationship with Ron and why she broke things off with him. If I ever hear anything on that front, I’ll let you know. But I think it bears repeating that the one girl whom Carl Knox identified as a girlfriend had left Miami more than one year before Ron disappeared. That alone tells us how little he dated.
I know even less about the girl from Indiana University. When Frank Smith first told me about her in 2010, he mentioned that she and Ron had dated during the summer of 1952, and that she supposedly ended the relationship with him. He also said this: “She was supposed to be pregnant, and that was the reason for the blood test here. But that didn’t go anywhere either.”
Smith declined to give me her name in 2010. However, after he retired in 2012, I obtained all of his files from the Tammen case (or so I was told by the Butler County Sheriff’s Department) and discovered that there was no mention of a girl from Indiana there. I emailed him and asked him about his records on her and other potentially missing documents—even going so far as to send him a copy of the entire stack of materials to see if he felt there was anything missing. Unfortunately, he responded that it looked as if everything was there. I wondered if she might have been someone from high school whom he dated during the summer, but, so far, I haven’t been able to turn up anyone among his Maple Heights friends who went to IU.
But the question about the blood test and a possible pregnancy is interesting. I’d wondered the same thing about Joan. Back then, if a girl became pregnant—if she were “in trouble,” so to speak—she might relocate somewhere to ride out a pregnancy until the baby was born and then perhaps put the child up for adoption. Could that have been the real reason Joan moved to Denver?
I really don’t think so. As you’ll recall in the post on Ron’s blood type test, a paternity test wouldn’t have been conducted until a child was at least six months of age. If we count backwards, we find that a prospective child would have to have been conceived immediately after Ron graduated from high school, in the August of 1951, which doesn’t match the timeline for when he was seeing Joan (fall of 1951-52) or the girl from Indiana University (summer of 1952).
The good news is that, if Ronald Tammen did father a child, whether before or after he disappeared, and that person is still walking among us, we may still be able to find him or her if they took one of the DNA tests that are now commercially available. Ron’s sister Marcia has submitted her DNA to the two main commercial entities who conduct genealogical testing, and, although no one has turned up to date, she will be alerted if someone does (if the person agrees to be listed as a match, that is). Also, if the person should wind up in the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) database because of a crime he or she committed or as an unidentified body, we’ll find him or her that way too, since Marcia’s DNA is on file there as well (after she was tested to see if the dead body in Georgia was Ron). So I think our bases are now covered as much as possible in this department.
There’s one last girl I’m aware of whom Ronald Tammen asked out, though that date never came to be. We’ll discuss her a little later in this post.
Was Ron gay?
Let’s discuss for a moment what it would have been like to be gay in 1953. First, sodomy was illegal in every state, and you risked being imprisoned if you were caught. In addition, these were the days of the Lavender Scare, when the federal government had determined that, for national security purposes, it needed to invade people’s bedrooms and obtain a full accounting of what took place between two consenting adults behind closed doors. In October 1949, the Department of Defense had issued a memorandum stating: “Homosexual personnel, irrespective of sex, should not be permitted to serve in any branch of the Armed Services in any capacity, and prompt separation of known homosexuals from the Armed Forces be made mandatory.” (See Rand Corporation’s Sexual Orientation and U.S. Military Personnel Policy,Chapter 1, page 6.) Consequently, servicemen and women who were identified as being gay or lesbian were commonly issued what was known as a “blue discharge,” a humiliating blotch on a person’s record that left them without veterans’ benefits and usually any hope of finding meaningful employment. To be identified was to be outed and to be outed was to be labeled as such for the rest of their lives—not just in the military but by anyone who requested their records, including prospective employers.
On April 27, 1953, what was being practiced in the military was extended to civilian federal workers when President Eisenhower signed an executive order authorizing the federal government to fire anyone who was gay or lesbian. That’s right—the infamous Executive Order 10450 that stripped an estimated 10,000 American citizens of their government jobs for being gay or lesbian was signed a week after Ron disappeared. The take-home message was clear: to be outed in 1953 would have been cataclysmic. It was the single piece of information that could ruin someone forever.
I can imagine how bad it was in the 1950s because, even in the 1960s and ‘70s, when my brother was coming of age, things were really bad. He couldn’t hide his “differentness” very well—he was much too small and sensitive in comparison to other boys his age, and the pain they inflicted on him, both mentally and physically, for that supposed infraction was indelible. Even some of his teachers were brutal. Thankfully, things are infinitely better now, and he has been living an awesome life in New York City with his partner of 23 years.
There’s no direct evidence that I can point to that proves that Ronald Tammen was gay. No love interest, partner, or one-night hook-up has ever come forward, and the male friends whom I’ve interviewed have said that he never hit on them. (Incidentally, whenever I ask Ron’s former friends—male or female—if they ever had the feeling Ron might have been gay, not one has responded derisively. A typical response is “Well, no, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t. We just didn’t think about it back then.” Is it just me, or have octogenarians gotten way cooler than they used to be?) Likewise, no document has surfaced that alleges any “perverted,” “sexually deviant,” “degenerate,” or “immoral” behavior on Ron’s part, the unbelievably offensive language they used back then when referring to people who were gay, lesbian, or bisexual.
A gay man in the 1950s did everything in his power not to leave a trail, and for good reason. Yet subtle behaviors—some calculated, others impromptu—could possibly be interpreted as a sign that a person might be gay. Here are several of the possible signs Ron left, beginning with a few you already know:
Ron didn’t date many girls.
As we’ve already discussed, Ron was no ladies’ man in high school or in college, even though he was, by all accounts, a total catch. Younger brother Robert doesn’t remember Ron ever bringing a girl home. In 1954, Mrs. Tammen was quoted as saying that Ron didn’t have a girlfriend but “simply played the field.” Ron’s older brother John also couldn’t name a girlfriend in Ron’s past, though he didn’t think it was at all strange. Ron didn’t date much, he said, since he needed to put himself through college, and he didn’t want to ruin his academic career over a girl. There would be plenty of time for women later. John told me that he—John—was living proof of what not to do, which was to throw away a scholarship to Princeton because he was head over heels in love with a girl named Joyce. This infuriated Ron.
In the Miami University Archives is a letter written to John that basically reads him the riot act over how foolish he was being to give up so much for love. Though the letter indicates on a couple of its pages that it was “Ron Tammen’s last English paper,” a member of the Tammen family feels strongly that the letter was, in fact, written by mother Marjorie. The date at the top of the letter is also confusing, since Ron was still in high school in April 1951. Regardless of the letter’s origin, it’s pretty clear how vexed Ron and the rest of the family felt about John’s choices. Here’s one telling paragraph, with typos and misspellings corrected:
“Whether you realize it or not, John, or will admit it, you are not the first person who has been separated from someone of whom you are fond. Death has severed associations that have survived for years; army inductions separate engaged couples and even disrupt families with children; and then there are those who love and are not loved in return. No matter how deep the sorrow, each person has a task to perform and he does his best to adapt himself to a separation, bereavement, or temporary parting. The world has never been won or lost by love, but by the individual who has been able to make his compromise with life. I have known people close to me who have had disappointments of magnitude [sic] but who have been able to turn them to an advantage. We mourn for a few days, but when we lose one we care for, we go about our days not forgetting but doing what is expected of us. After all, we have to live with ourselves and it is up to us to try to make a decent job of it.” [Read the original letter here.]
When Ron did date, he wasn’t all roving hands and raging hormones, at least from one girl’s perspective. Grace, Ron’s date to the 1951 Maple Heights High School prom, considered Ron to be the ultimate gentleman. Their relationship was vastly more friendly than physical. When I asked her if she and Ron had ever made out in a car, she said they probably had, though it wasn’t memorable. She added:
“In the next couple of years, I came to find out what aggressive was. He was not aggressive. He was nice. He was comfortable. He was my friend. And, you know, there’s not any adjective that I could find to describe him that wasn’t a good thing.”
Ron didn’t sleep in his bed the night before he disappeared.
Thanks to Richard Titus and his dead fish, it appeared that Ron hadn’t slept in his bed on the Saturday night before he disappeared and possibly both Friday and Saturday nights. If he was with another person or persons—a likely prospect—no one had come forward after he’d disappeared. Why not? Wouldn’t he, she, or they have wanted to give the authorities whatever information might help them find Ron? To not do so could mean that whomever Ron was with may have had too much to lose by coming forward, especially if his or her identity would cause an uproar. Whereas a college coed would have raised eyebrows back then, I’m sure the cops would have kept her name out of the papers in return for whatever information she might be able to provide. But if it were a man? That would have been the most scandalous possibility one could imagine.
According to Craig Loftin, an expert on gay culture in the 1950s and ‘60s, and a lecturer on American Studies at California State University, Fullerton, “…Going forward to the police with info would not only likely land you in jail, but it would also likely result in a massive police crackdown against whatever fragile gay social networks existed in that area. For gay people in the 1950s, dealing with the police was a nightmare.”
Ron was seen reading the Bible shortly before he disappeared.
After Ron returned from spring break, shortly before he disappeared, he was spotted reading the Bible five or six times. When I asked Chuck Findlay about that passage in Dean Knox’s notes, he was flummoxed. He’d never seen Ron reading a Bible. Didn’t even recall their ever having one in the room.
Ron was known to attend church, but reading the Bible on one’s own time is different—more personal, more devout than what a typical college guy would likely do. The fact that Bible reading was even mentioned in Dean Knox’s notes seems to indicate that this behavior was considered out of the ordinary for Ron.
“I don’t think he was, quote, any kind of reborn Christian or any of that stuff,” John told me when I asked him if he remembered Ron as being religious. “He just didn’t go in for that at all.”
What personal crisis might have driven a young man who normally didn’t read a Bible to consult one five or six times within a short period? It could simply mean that he was tapping into his spiritual side. But it also reminds me of something I used to do as a kid when I was faced with a life dilemma and I wanted a divine answer pronto. I’d close my eyes, crack open a Bible, and drop my index finger onto a random verse, hoping it would apply. (It didn’t.) It seems to me that Ron was trying to find an answer to a question that could only come from a supreme being—a being who could help him address his own personal dilemma. And from what I’ve read, there was no greater personal dilemma than being gay in 1953 America.
There were rumors.
If Ronald Tammen was gay, he was able to fool nearly everyone around him. However, I know of at least a couple people who heard or sensed something about Ron that led them to wonder if he might be gay. Someone’s 1950s version of gaydar had been tripped.
According to Frank Smith, a woman who’d worked in the laundry in Fisher Hall had caught a certain vibe during her interactions with Ron, which she told Smith about decades later.
“She actually called us and said she was a young woman and she was doing the laundry up there and she remembered Tammen very well,” he told me in 2010.
“She said he was always ‘yes, maam, no maam,’ very polite, very good looking. He had everything. And then she laid something on us that was sort of, she said, ‘but I think that he was bisexual.’ And I said ‘what do you mean by that?’ And she said, ‘well, just the way that he carried himself at times, his demeanor. I really believe that there were some homosexual tendencies there.’”
Unfortunately, Smith wouldn’t provide the woman’s name to me in 2010 when he was still on the case, and, as with the girl from Indiana University, there were no notes about their conversation in the file I obtained after he retired. Now, after his retirement, he isn’t able to recall her name. Trust me, I’ve tried everything to locate her with no success.
One other person with whom I spoke also mentioned to me that there may have been some buzzing about Ron among the residents of Fisher Hall.
This person lived in Ron’s corridor, and was one of the freshman students that Ron counseled. He didn’t know Ron very well—no one really did, he told me. When I told him about the woman who used to work in the laundry, however, it sparked a memory.
“You know that’s an interesting conversation,” he said. “It seems to me that there was some conversation about that in the dormitory.”
“Oh really? After he disappeared?” I asked.
“No, I think even while he was there. And, you know, most of us would just put it off and say, ‘Oh, you’re crazy.’ You know? But now that you mention it, I think there was a little conversation going around the dormitory.”
I’ve followed up with as many former residents of Fisher Hall as I can locate—on all three floors—and haven’t found anyone else to confirm the rumor. However, Craig Loftin had this to say on the matter: “The fact that someone assumed he was gay at the time is significant.”
Ron used to carry cigarettes with him even though he didn’t smoke.
Ronald Tammen had a curious habit. Even though he didn’t smoke, he used to carry cigarettes around with him all the time. Robert had told me about this during our first sit-down in 2012. When I asked Marcia about it later, she said that she remembered it too and thought Ron mainly did it as a way of making friends.
Of course, smoking was viewed differently back then. It was a sign of budding adulthood, an emblem of sophistication and sociability. But it seems strange to me that a cash-conscious young man such as Tammen would throw away his hard-earned money on something like cigarettes, which he didn’t even smoke. Even though they were only 25 cents a pack in 1950, that translates to roughly $2.50 today—nothing to scoff at if he was buying them frequently. Besides, were Tammen’s friends often in the position of needing to bum a cigarette? Why did Ron consider this a necessary expenditure?
It was when I read a passage from Craig Loftin’s book Masked Voices: Gay Men and Lesbians in Cold War America that I thought I’d landed on the answer. In researching his book, Loftin had pored over letters that had been mailed to the editors of ONE Magazine, the first periodical in the United States to provide an authentic perspective of gay culture in the 1950s and ‘60s.
“Gay cruising in densely traveled spaces was highly ritualized and generally imperceptible to nonparticipants,” Loftin wrote. “Men used eye contact, body language, or small talk, such as asking for a cigarette or the time, to connect with each other; one person would then follow the other to a more private place.”
It made a lot more sense to me that Ron might have carried a pack of cigarettes as a way to meet other guys. During an email exchange, I raised the question with Loftin, who offered some additional perspective:
“I would say that a gay man in the 1950s would certainly be more likely to carry cigarettes around for ‘making friends,’ but I’ve heard of this in non-gay contexts as well—so many people smoked back then that having a pack to give others wasn’t completely unusual. But for gay men, the exchange of a cigarette provided a very useful opportunity to gauge potential sexual interest from the other person. Gay men cruising for sex partners in the 1950s had to be very careful. You didn’t want to try to pick up the wrong person (especially an undercover vice cop)…During the cigarette exchange and lighting, there is the matter of voice and vocal inflections (which can signify gayness), eye contact (the key to gay cruising—a sustained friendly stare was usually enough to signify interest), and, most compellingly, physical contact during the actual lighting (think old Bette Davis movies here). Within a few seconds, sexual interest (or disinterest) could be made very clear.”
John Tammen provided an alternative explanation for the cigarettes, however. According to John, their father had encouraged his sons to smoke to help them be successful in society. I’m sure Mr. Tammen changed his outlook in the ensuing decades, but during those early years, he viewed smoking as a way for his sons to climb the social ladder. John was repulsed by smoking and his father used to scold him for it. Maybe Ron reasoned that keeping a pack of cigarettes on hand would prove useful as a workaround on a couple issues. First, the cigarettes would help appease his father even though Ron had no intention of smoking them, and second—and, again, I really don’t know—perhaps they provided a way for him to meet guys in the way that Loftin described. As long as he was doing what was expected of him by his father, who’s to say that his motives had to be the same?
Ron asked a girl who was practically a relative to a dance nine months away.
Speaking of John Tammen, we need to come back to Ron’s feelings about John’s relationship with Joyce, and their decision to get married in July 1952. According to John, Ron was so livid with him when he married Joyce that he cut off all ties with him. He’d be John’s best man, Ron told him. But once the wedding was over, so was their relationship.
“He was very disappointed that I had allowed myself to flunk, literally, flunk out of Princeton, and he did promise to go ahead and be my best man at our wedding,” John explained. “He carried through on his promise, but he also said, ‘Hey, that’s it. We’re through. My hands are washed of everything from now on. I don’t want to talk to either one of you,’ and he was a man of his word. We didn’t talk after that at all.”
John and Joyce were divorced in 1974, but Joyce’s story backs up John’s—the couple hadn’t seen Ron since their wedding day on July 29, 1952. However, Joyce had something new to add.
“There was [to be] a big dance down there on the campus, and he asked my sister to go to this dance,” Joyce told me. “But of course she never went because he disappeared.“
That’s right. Ron had cut off his brother and brand new sister-in-law from all communication but saw fit to ask Joyce’s sister to a dance.
In February 2017, I tracked down Joyce’s sister, who, because of a severe hearing loss, agreed to a phone conversation with her daughter serving as go-between. The woman said that she had known Ron, though not very well, and, indeed, he had asked her to a dance that was scheduled for the spring in which he’d disappeared. They never dated, she said, rarely spoke even.
“Does she remember whenhe asked her to the dance?” I asked her daughter. “How far in advance did he ask her?”
“During the summer,” her daughter reported back. I’d heard her mother say this loud and clear in the background as well. Whereas other details were a little iffy after so many years, on that fine point she was sure. He asked her during the summer of 1952.
Why would Ron ask the younger sister of an extended family member with whom he was supposedly incommunicado? And why so far in advance? Not only were they not dating, they were barely even friends, and he was doing nothing to upgrade their status in the interim. The dance Ron had on his mind for all those months was likely the Interfraternity Ball. Attended by members of all of the fraternities on campus and their guests, the ball was the culmination of Greek Week, and, for the second year in a row, featured Count Basie and his orchestra. As fate would have it, the dance was held the Saturday after Ron disappeared.
Based on his looks alone, Ron probably could have taken anyone he wanted to the dance. In fact, I’ve spoken with several acquaintances who would have gladly accompanied him. In my mind, to go to a dance with his brother’s sister-in-law would likely have seemed safe to Ron—almost like going with a cousin.
Connecting a few dots
Again, I have no direct proof whether or not Ronald Tammen was gay. However, if he were gay, it would help explain a few details that have been left dangling for a while on this blog site. First, the fact that Ronald Tammen disappeared at all is a clue to the mystery. In an article on the Richard Cox disappearance that appeared in the April 14, 1952, issue of LIFE magazine, authors Herbert Brean and Luther Conant discussed the relatively few reasons that a typical adult might have for running away at that time. Men mainly leave for “business difficulties or domestic problems (money or sex),” they said, while the reason for a woman leaving is “usually an emotional problem involving husband or lover.” (Yeah, we women can do some nutty things on account of our womanly emotions and all.) More significantly, they also wrote that “homosexuality underlies far more vanishments than is suspected by a loving wife or husband.” There are no statistics available regarding how many gay people ran away from their lives back in the 1950s, however, it’s generally presumed that many did, often moving to large, more culturally diverse cities, where they could get lost in the crowd.
If Ron were gay, that also might have been a reason for him to seek help from the hypnosis experts in Miami’s psychology department. In those days, hypnosis was sometimes sought out as a possible treatment for homosexuality, a term that was defined broadly as a mental disorder and, more narrowly, as a sociopathic personality disturbance in the 1952 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-I) of the American Psychiatric Association. Perhaps Ron wanted to “fix” this so-called disorder which he otherwise had no control over.
In addition, although he was carrying a “B” average, Tammen’s transcripts reveal that he had been dropping his required courses to such a degree that he was no longer carrying a full load. This likely put him in jeopardy of losing his deferment from military service. If Ron happened to be gay, being drafted would have created a full-blown crisis for him. As mentioned earlier, the military was weeding out gay men and lesbians at an unparalleled rate, and their methods for identifying individuals whom they suspected were both systematic and sneaky. If Ron were gay and outed by the military, his long-held dream of finding his place in society would have been destroyed. There wasno place in American society at that time for someone who was gay.
Finally, the possibility that Ron was gay also helps answer the perplexing question of why he might have voluntarily left his family forever, without ever contacting them. If Ron were gay, he might have thought he was doing the people he loved most a favor. Perhaps he reasoned that they’d be better off thinking him dead than as a gay man in 1950s America.
I realize there’s a lot to ponder here. I also realize that not everyone is going to agree with my point of view, in whole or in part. Due to the sensitivity of this topic, let’s discuss it on another day, after I’ve established a few guidelines for comments. In the meantime, have a wonderful Thanksgiving, everyone! I’m thankful to have you as part of the Good Man community.
If you’d like to read more on the topic of what it was like to be gay during the Cold War years, here are several resources that I highly recommend:
Clara Josephine Spivey lived with her husband, Carl, in a two-story home on North Main Street in Seven Mile, Ohio. Carl, who was once the mayor of that small town, was an electrician by trade and Clara’s second husband. Her first husband had been tragically killed when, in 1918, a mere five months into their marriage, the delivery truck he was driving collided with a train in nearby Hamilton. Clara married Carl two years later.
By the spring of 1953, Clara was 54 years of age with two grown children. Son Jearl was 32 years old and married. The best I can tell, he was also an electrician living about 20 miles from his parents, in Lebanon, Ohio. Daughter Barbara was 28 and married to a man named Donald Ries. (They would divorce in 1963.) From what I can tell, the couple was also living in Seven Mile.
Late on Sunday, April 19, 1953, reportedly at about midnight, there was a knock on the Spiveys’ front door. Clara was apparently still up at that hour, along with Barbara and at least one other person whom we’ll discuss a little later in this post. Perhaps Clara was emboldened by the presence of the other night owls sitting up with her—safety in numbers, and all that. Or maybe it was just the innocence of the times. Whatever her reason, she went ahead and opened the door.
Thankfully, there was nothing to fear. Standing on her porch was a well-mannered young man with a smudge on his cheek—probably from fixing a flat tire, she presumed—and an embarrassed look on his face. The jacket he had on didn’t seem at all sufficient for the chilly temperatures, in her viewpoint, and he wasn’t wearing a hat either. He had dark, deep-set eyes and close-cropped hair—his most distinguishing characteristics in her mind’s eye. He asked for nothing except some direction.
“What town am I in?” the youth had asked her, according to the earliest news accounts. And then: “Where will I be if I go in that direction?”, pointing northeastward, toward Middletown.
Clara recalled telling the youth that he could catch the bus to Middletown, which just so happened to stop at the nearby corner at that time of night. It wasn’t until the next day that she realized the information she’d given him was in error. The bus schedule for the Oxford Coach Lines had been changed that very day, April 19, and the last run from Oxford to Middletown, which passed through Seven Mile, had been suspended.
Other than perhaps a twinge of regret for having led her visitor astray, Clara didn’t think much about the incident afterward. Then, that June, she learned about Ronald Tammen. She’d somehow missed all the ballyhoo about Tammen when he’d first disappeared, and only became aware of the story by way of a follow-up news article that, in essence, reported that A) he’d been gone for two months, and B) there were no new leads. The article, which featured a large photo of Tammen, appeared in the June 20 issue of the Hamilton Journal-News, Clara’s most likely preferred news source. The same article also appeared in the June 22 issue of the Cincinnati Enquirer. Sometime after seeing the article, she notified the Oxford police, and by June 29, her story was being reported across the Miami Valley as the first real clue in the case. Clara Spivey was convinced that the young man at her doorstep had been Tammen. That photo, which had immediately whisked her back to the night in question, served as proof.
Oscar Decker, Oxford’s police chief, welcomed the potential sighting with a great big bear hug. If it happened to be Ron Tammen, he reasoned, that would bolster the amnesia theory very nicely.
“Tammen disappeared about 8:30 or 9 o’clock from his room in Fisher Hall,” Decker was quoted as saying in one of the June 29th articles. (Based on the font and layout, I think it was the Cincinnati Enquirer, though my clipping doesn’t contain a reference.) “If he wandered away, it would have taken him about three hours to walk to Seven Mile.”
Sure, it was cold, it was hilly, it was late, but it was totally doable in his opinion.
Also convincing to Decker was Clara’s description of what Tammen was wearing that night. The June 29th Hamilton Journal-News article said this: “Mrs. Spivey described the youth’s wearing apparel almost perfectly, according to the chief.” Also, the September 18, 1953, issue of the Miami Student said: “Although she could not see under the dim porch light what the man was wearing, Mrs. Spivey declared that he seemed to have on a light-weight coat with a checked pattern and dark trousers.” Investigators had described Tammen as wearing a blue and tan checked or plaid wool jacket (sometimes referred to as a mackinaw) and blue pants when he disappeared.
An article in the July 3, 1953, Hamilton Journal-News stated that Henry Ciesicki, who was identified as president of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity, had interviewed Mrs. Spivey and found that she was indeed positive that the young man she saw was Tammen after looking at photographs of him. However, the article continued, “There were certain discrepancies as to the type of clothing the missing student was wearing and that of the man whom Mrs. Spivey saw, Ciesicki said.” The discrepancies were brought up again in an article by Joe Cella in the April 22, 1954, issue of the Hamilton Journal-News: “[Tammen’s] brother, Richard, maintains that there are some discrepancies in Mrs. Spivey’s story. The type of clothing worn and missing has come up for considerable discussion throughout the investigation.”
Was the visitor on Mrs. Spivey’s porch Ronald Tammen? Before placing your vote, here are some additional points to consider:
If it was Ron who showed up on Mrs. Spivey’s doorstep, he would have most likely traveled State Route 73 East to 127 South, which leads directly into Seven Mile. The terrain is hilly, and it seems as if it would require some fairly purposeful trekking as opposed to the wanderings of someone with amnesia. Moreover, if Ron had been on foot, he would have passed by numerous homes along Main Street on his way to Mrs. Spivey’s. An atlas from 1930, which shows the number of properties that existed in northern Seven Mile at that time and, presumably, a corresponding number of houses, can be viewed below. (Mrs. Spivey’s property is along Hamilton & Eaton Road, aka Main Street, near High Street.)
An atlas of the northern part of Seven Mile from 1958 is here.
But don’t just take the Butler Co. cartographers’ word for it. Follow the route for yourself in this video, and try to picture a totally out-of-it Ronald Tammen walking these roads on a chilly, snowy night in unsuitable outerwear. Are you as convinced as Oscar Decker that it was Ron? (Uncopyrighted traveling music provided by the YouTube Audio Library. Apologies in advance for my knack for driving over every possible bump in the road.)
The time of the encounter
As discussed earlier, the first time anyone had heard about the potential Spivey sighting was on Monday, June 29, 1953, when at least two news articles were published. The article that I believe was in the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that the visitor had arrived on Mrs. Spivey’s doorstep at “about midnight,” while the Hamilton Journal-News reported that the time of night was “about 11 o’clock.” The time discrepancy is intriguing, because the author of both articles was Gilson Wright, a Miami journalism professor who was also an on-call correspondent for a number of area papers. (I’m certain that Wright wrote both articles because, even though there isn’t a byline for either article, the Journal-News identifies Wright as the correspondent for its Oxford section on that date, and the two articles, though not identical, have the same phrasing throughout.) That the same reporter would publish conflicting times for the encounter on the same news day is kind of, um, bizarre, considering the significance of the hour to the overall timeline. “About midnight” was the most frequently reported time over the years, including later issues of the Journal-News, which is why I repeated it in the third paragraph of this post. Also, Oscar Decker is quoted directly in the September 18, 1953, article of the Miami Student, saying that the time was “about midnight.” On the other hand, the 11 p.m. time was attributed to Mrs. Spivey (who, after all, would have been the best source), though not as a direct quote. “Mrs. Spivey said the youth came to her door about 11 o’clock…,” Wright stated in that article.
If the June 29th Hamilton Journal-News version is closer to the truth, Ron wouldn’t have had the full three hours that Oscar Decker estimated a walk to Seven Mile would have required. According to this September 2018 fitness article and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a brisk walking pace is considered to be 3 miles per hour or 20 minutes per mile. If the time was midnight, Tammen would have had 180 minutes to walk approximately 11 miles, or a little over 16 minutes per mile. That would have been a pretty good clip, but still doable. But if the time was 11 p.m.? Ron would have needed to be in a full-on run. The latter scenario wouldn’t exactly fit the storyline that everyone was selling, would it? What’s more, if Ron had been at the Delta Tau Delta song practice until around 10:30 p.m., as has been claimed by at least one person, there was no way Ron could have made it to Seven Mile by either 11 p.m. ormidnight if he was walking.
But what if Ron Tammen had actually been driven to Seven Mile? If a car was involved, there are a few possible scenarios to consider:
Ron was known to hitchhike from place to place, especially when he didn’t have a car on campus. Granted, it would have been odd for him to choose to hitchhike out of Oxford as opposed to driving his own car. However, if, for some reason, he did so and someone picked him up somewhere between Fisher Hall and Seven Mile, chances are that person would have reported it when the media began publicizing his disappearance. If Oscar Decker had received such a call, you better believe that he would have announced it to the press. From what I can tell, there were no phone calls from anyone who either picked up a hitchhiker or who spotted someone walking alongside that stretch of road on April 19, 1953. One caller did think he’d spotted Tammen in Middletown the week after the Spivey article was published, though that obviously didn’t check out.
He was “kidnapped” and left in Seven Mile as a prank.
As we’ve discussed elsewhere on this site, fraternities back then used to kidnap pledges and drop them off in the middle of nowhere so they would have to find their way home. Many people, including yours truly at one point, have wondered if that might have been what happened to Ron—the whole fraternity-prank-gone-awry theory. But several factors have led me to rule this theory out. First, the men in Ron’s fraternity are wonderful people and they don’t act all weird when I ask them about Ron Tammen. They really would love to know what happened to him. Second, Ron wasn’t a pledge. He was an active member of Delta Tau Delta, which means that he wouldn’t have been a target for such antics. Third, he didn’t live in the fraternity house, which, according to one of his fraternity brothers, was home base from which a guy would have been kidnapped ifhe were being kidnapped.
Fourth (and perhaps foremost), instead of asking Mrs. Spivey for directions, wouldn’t Ron’s more obvious first question be “Can I use your phone?” According to Carl Knox’s notes, the door to his dorm room was left open and his car keys were in his desk. He could have asked someone from Fisher Hall to pick him up. His roommate, Chuck Findlay, would have been back by then. Also, the questions the visitor asked didn’t pertain to finding his way back to Oxford. In April 1954, Mrs. Spivey would embellish her conversation with the young man to include her pointing the way to Hamilton, Middletown, and Oxford. But that wasn’t the case in June 1953. As described above, the youth asked her what town he was in and where he would be if he went in “that direction,” which was toward Middletown. She’d told him how to catch the bus to Middletown, the crucial detail that enabled her to date stamp the night he’d appeared at her door, since the bus route had ended on April 19. Based on her earliest recollection and, in my view, the one that would have probably been most accurate, there was no mention of Oxford.
Someone who knew him drove him there.
Perhaps someone else could have driven Ron to Seven Mile—someone like the mysterious woman from Hamilton, for example. If that’s true, why he would have gotten out of the car at Mrs. Spivey’s residence isn’t clear, unless, perhaps, he’d tried to escape as the car had slowed down on Main Street. But if he did escape, why (again) wouldn’t he have asked Mrs. Spivey if he could use her telephone to call for help? And where did he go after he left Mrs. Spivey’s? Perhaps someone overpowered him and pushed him back in the car. Still, the young man’s questions for Mrs. Spivey don’t exactly jive with those that might have been asked by someone who was being taken somewhere against his will. At least, they aren’t the sorts of questions that someone would have asked had he been thinking clearly.
The other people in the room
In Joe Cella’s 1976 article in the Hamilton Journal-News, we learned that Clara’s daughter Barbara, whose last name was now Jewell after a second marriage, was also present when the visitor showed up at the door. Though Clara had died in 1975, Barbara stood by her mother’s story. Here’s what Cella wrote:
“Mrs. Spivey has since died but her daughter, Mrs. Barbara Jewell of Seven Mile, remembers the night well. She was there when the knock was answered.
‘I still believe it was him,’ said Mrs. Jewell. When her mother viewed a photograph of Tammen at the time, she said, ‘That’s him. I know I’m not mistaken.’”
Barbara Jewell passed away in 1999. However, in 2012, Frank Smith, Butler County’s former cold case detective, informed me of someone else who was present when the visitor showed up at the door. Smith had stopped by a United Dairy Farmers store for a cup of coffee around the time that the Butler County Sheriff’s Office was getting a lot of local press for their work regarding the dead body in Georgia. According to Smith, a guy came out of the store and said he’d been reading in the paper about the Tammen case.
Recounted Smith, “He said, ‘I was there that night when the door was opened too.’”
Smith then added, “And he told me, he said that he absolutely was confident that that was not Tammen that knocked on the door that night. He thought it was one of the local ruffians that lived down the road. But he was absolutely confident.”
According to Smith, the man who approached him—as he recalled, it was Mrs. Spivey’s son—had been in the military and was battling cancer. He also said that he’d passed away shortly after they talked. I accepted this information at face value and didn’t delve further, which turned out to be a mistake. Memories, as I’ve come to learn time and again, aren’t 100 percent foolproof. If I’d done my fact checking a little sooner, I might have been able to speak with the man myself.
Several years ago, as I was doing some online research, I discovered that the man who’d approached Frank Smith couldn’t have been Clara Spivey’s son. Jearl Spivey had died in 1980, long before Smith had gotten involved in the case. Donald Ries, who, along with Carl Spivey, had passed away in the 1970s, could also be ruled out. However, another possible candidate did pop up—Paul Jewell, Barbara’s second husband. Jewell died in 2014, two years after my conversation with Smith. According to his obituary, Jewell had worked at the Champion Paper Company and, later, The Workingman’s Store, a beloved clothing and shoe store for everyday working people that his parents had opened in Hamilton and where he eventually became owner. The obit also said that he’d served in the U.S. Army from 1958 to 1960, and suggested that memorials be given to the American Cancer Society, among other charities. My guess is that Paul Jewell was the man who approached Frank Smith.
There is one puzzling aspect to placing Jewell in Mrs. Spivey’s home late at night on April 19, 1953. Paul Jewell was 13 years younger than Barbara, born in September 1937. In April 1953, Barbara was still married to Donald Ries, whereas Paul would have been 15 years of age and a sophomore at McGuffey High School in Oxford. (He graduated in 1955.) From what I can tell from old city directories, Paul and Barbara were married in the mid-1960s. So one question I have is, if it was Jewell, why would he have been at the Spiveys so late on a Sunday night when the next day was a school day for him? Another big question I have is: again, if it was Paul Jewell who spoke with Frank Smith, did he and Barbara actually see the visitor or did they just hear Clara’s account, like the rest of us, and form their own opinions? Unfortunately, I’m not sure we’ll ever know the answer.
So what do you think? Was it Ronald Tammen at Mrs. Spivey’s door or merely one of Seven Mile’s local ruffians? Feel free to register your vote here:
And now, for all you readers in the U.S., please be sure to vote for real if you haven’t already. It’s our right, our privilege, and our obligation and probably way more important than anything else we may have on our plates these days.
Let’s also open up the floor. Feel free to weigh in on anything Tammen-related, especially your thoughts on Mrs. Spivey’s story and why you voted one way or the other in our poll.
By now, I think you should have a pretty good indication of how (in my opinion) the city of Oxford, Ohio, and Miami University conducted their investigations into Tammen’s disappearance. I’ll say it here plainly, just so there’s no confusion: They did a really bad job.
Time and again, investigators would lament in the news about what few clues they had to go on after Tammen disappeared. Sure, they’d received some early tips about several area hitchhikers and an apartment dweller in Cincinnati, but none of those panned out. Then, Clara Spivey came forward with her alleged late-night Ron sighting in Seven Mile, and they finally felt as if they had a true lead. (In response to one reader’s request, we’ll be discussing Mrs. Spivey’s story in more detail in another post that I’m planning for Tuesday, November 6. You’ll have a chance to vote on whether you believe the person who appeared at her door was Ron or not.**)
After Mrs. Spivey’s call in late June 1953, investigators hit another dry spell clue-wise, which supposedly lasted 20 long years. In 1973, the drought ended, at least for the interested public, when reporter Joe Cella revealed that Ronald Tammen had visited Dr. Garret Boone’s office five months before he disappeared to have his blood type tested. We also learned that university officials had already known about the doctor’s visit shortly after Tammen went missing. They just didn’t view it as a clue.
So, Mrs. Spivey’s story? Definite clue.
Dr. Boone’s? Not so much.
When it came to determining whether something was a potential clue or not, these guys were (again, my opinion) clueless.
We’ve already covered some additional details about Tammen’s disappearance that I would categorize as clues. Some of the most significant ones include:
Song practiceRon is alleged to have been to song practice at the Delt house the night he disappeared and had walked back to the dorms with two other guys at around 10:30 p.m. If true, Ron disappeared more than two hours later than what was widely reported.
The fightRon allegedly had a fight with his younger brother Richard in the third-floor bathroom of Fisher Hall the night he disappeared.
The woman from HamiltonRon was supposedly seen seated in a car with a woman from Hamilton for a long time and then driving away with her late that night.
The psych bookRon had been reported reading his psychology book the afternoon that he disappeared, and his psychology book was left open on his desk, even though he’d dropped his psychology course earlier that semester.
The things in Ron’s backgroundRon Tammen might have had “things in his background” that were consistent with his having experienced dissociation (amnesia).
The dead fish Ron likely hadn’t slept in his bed at least one night, and possibly two, before his disappearance. We know this because Dick Titus had put the fish in Ron’s bed after class on Saturday or perhaps even Friday.
All of the above (and probably more) were known by university officials and Oxford police. If they viewed these details as clues, they chose not to make them public. But from what I can tell, they didn’t do much more than the most perfunctory of probes either. In particular, they could have pursued the rumor about the woman from Hamilton more enthusiastically, enlisting the news media for help. The Journal-News could have run the headline “Tammen allegedly last seen in car with woman from Hamilton,” and the accompanying article could have closed with “Anyone with information is asked to call this number.” But, nah.
And, let’s not forget Heber Hiram (H.H.) Stephenson, the housing official who swore up and down that he’d seen Tammen sitting in a hotel restaurant with a small group of men in Wellsville, NY, on Wednesday, August 5, 1953. Stephenson had shared this information with university officials immediately upon his return—the next day, he said—and we see the cryptic “H.H.S., Aug. 5, 1953, Wellsville, New York” in Knox’s notes to confirm that a conversation had indeed taken place. Again, if it hadn’t been for Joe Cella revealing the detail in 1976, we probably wouldn’t be talking about it now.
So I have to ask: If the potential sighting by Mrs. Spivey was such a promising clue back on June 29, 1953, when it was first reported in the news, why wouldn’t H.H. Stephenson’s potential sighting have been considered just as promising when he reported it on August 6, about five weeks later? Hi Stephenson knew Ron. Clara Spivey didn’t.
And I have to follow with this question: Did university officials even think to alert the FBI about Stephenson’s story? On May 26, 1953, the FBI had a missing person file on Tammen, and roughly one week earlier, Carl Knox had informed Tammen’s parents that the FBI had been attending faculty conferences. Also, by July 27, 1953, Ron was listed as delinquent for his draft board physical, and therefore, in violation of the Selective Service Act. Carl Knox should have called them—immediately—and reported that an acquaintance of Ronald Tammen’s was quite sure he’d spotted him at a hotel restaurant in Wellsville, NY, the previous day. The FBI could have summoned their Buffalo office to check things out, and the Buffalo agents, in turn, could have shown the proprietor Ron’s picture and asked if anyone had seen him. They could have checked the hotel’s registry for the names of the young men. They could have asked if anyone had spoken with them, and if so, why were they there? Where were they going? Heck, if Knox had told them soon enough, the FBI could have possibly even dusted the lookalike’s chair for fingerprints, or, if he’d stayed overnight, the furniture in his room. But judging from the Stephenson quote in Joe Cella’s article, he was never approached again. Here’s what he told Cella: “I was under the impression all these years that my story was generally known by everyone, since Dr. Knox knew about it and was handling the investigation for the university. I am amazed to hear that this information was not known until now.” There’s nothing in the FBI files to indicate such a report was called in either.
So, again, Mrs. Spivey? Clue!
H.H. Stephenson? Better luck next time!
Which brings us to the spring of 1955, two years after Ronald Tammen’s disappearance, when Miami University received yet another potential clue in the Tammen case. Again, by all indications, officials promptly chose to sweep it under the rug.
The clue came in the form of a letter dated May 10, 1955, and addressed to: “Dean of Miami University, Oxford, Ohio.” As vaguely worded as that was, it must have found its way to Carl Knox, who was still dean of men at that time, and several copies can be found in the Tammen materials at University Archives. The letter was signed by Major Delmar Jones, director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI). Major Jones told of a dead body that had been found near LaFayette, Georgia, on June 24, 1953. The GBI, having received a news clipping about Tammen, was wondering if the body might have been Ron’s.
Here’s what the letter said:
A newspaper clipping was turned over to this Bureau several days ago by Mr. Hill Pope, the coroner of Walker County, Georgia. We do not know from whom this clipping came but it has reference to a young man by the name of RONALD TAMMEN, a nineteen year old sophomore who disappeared from your institution approximately two years ago.
Someone had evidently secured knowledge whereby we were trying to identify a badly decomposed body that was found on the outskirts of LaFayette, Georgia, on June 24, 1953.
This investigation is still pending, and we are still endeavoring to ascertain the identification of this body.
It will be appreciated very much if you will give us the full details and complete description of Ronald Tammen so that we may compare them with the identification of the unidentified body.
Your response to this communication will be appreciated very much and we will do everything in our power to assist in locating the subject Ronald Tammen if he should be in our territory.
Delmar Jones was Georgia’s number one law enforcement official from 1948 to 1962, and not someone to be taken lightly. (In 1962, he was demoted to trooper by the governor for campaigning for the former governor in a primary election, which, I suppose, was a risk he’d been willing to take.) Granted, H.H. Stephenson and Garret Boone weren’t slouches either. But you’d have to think that a letter from Georgia’s version of J. Edgar Hoover would have elicited some sort of response from the university.
I have no idea if Carl Knox or anyone else got back to Major Jones. In Miami’s archives, there are no carbon copies of letters mailed in reply. Perhaps Dean Knox placed a phone call to Major Jones, suggesting that the GBI contact the FBI, although no surviving FOIA documents indicate that contact had been made. (As a side note, Ron’s Selective Service case with the FBI was closed on April 29, 1955, 11 days before the GBI letter was written.) Or maybe officials called Major Jones and provided a full accounting of the case over the phone, but the GBI ruled Ron out for some reason and didn’t follow up with anyone. By all accounts, no one seemed to mention the letter to Joe Cella, Gil Wright, or Murray Seeger, since there are no news reports about a dead body in Georgia being possibly tied to Tammen’s case. I don’t even think the university bothered to tell the Oxford police. When I asked my friend Ralph (not his real name), the former cop who was still with the Oxford PD that year and several years after, he was surprised—stunned, actually—to hear about the letter.
So, once more: Confused guy on Mrs. Spivey’s doorstep on the night Tammen disappeared?
Dead body found in ditch 400 miles south of Oxford two months later?
Here’s what we can safely assume: no one went to the lengths that officials went to in late 2007 and early 2008 when, on their own, without even initially knowing about Delmar Jones’ letter, the Walker County, Georgia’s, Sheriff’s Office hypothesized that the two cold cases might be related.
It happened like this:
Mike Freeman, the cold case detective for Walker County, was conducting an end-of-the-year review of unsolved cases in his portfolio when his boss, Sheriff Steve Wilson, posed a question to him.
“What about that dead body found in a ravine back in 1953?” Wilson asked him (or something along those lines). Wilson wasn’t around when the dead body was discovered—he was born several years later—but his dad used to tell him about it, and he can point out the location to anyone who asks. To this day, people in the area refer to the site as Dead Man’s Hollow.
Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson stands next to the site where the dead body was found in 1953.
Freeman didn’t know anything about the case, but the story intrigued him. The department no longer had a file, so, for starters, he headed to the local library (which, conveniently, is just a few buildings away from the sheriff’s department) and found news articles that ran at the time the body was found. Based on information found in the articles, he learned that an autopsy was conducted by the state medical examiner’s office, which, thankfully, he was able to obtain. [Read the full autopsy report here.]
The details, provided in news accounts and the autopsy, aren’t pretty. The body was found in a highly decomposed state in a wooded ravine off Rogers Road, five miles south of LaFayette, on June 24, 1953. According to Dr. Herman Jones, director of the GBI crime lab (and probably no relation to Delmar, but who really knows?), it was “heavily infested from head to foot with maggots and other worms,” a sure sign that the man had been dead for a while. What was left of his face (which, by that point, was devoid of soft tissue and therefore any recognizable features) was angled upward, toward the sky, and his arms and legs were fully extended, kind of like da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.
Some features were still discernible. His hair was dark brown to black, his height was 5’9,” and, when he was alive, and still had all of his internal organs and tissues in place, his weight would have been around 150 pounds. He had long arms and long slender fingers from which extended nails that were also long and “apparently well kept,” according to Dr. Jones, who’d conducted the autopsy on the same day the body was found. The decedent’s teeth weren’t as well cared for as his nails. Two lower back molars had large cavities in them and several teeth had been extracted. “No dental work done,” Dr. Jones reported, which could be interpreted to mean that he didn’t have any fillings or crowns. There was no evidence that any of the bones in his body had been broken, either recently or in the past. He was estimated to be between 25 and 30 years of age.
The man was wearing only a white T-shirt, size 38, with four round holes in it, and boxer shorts, size 32, the kind with buttons up the fly and a drawstring around the waist. Two khaki-colored wool socks lay at his feet. One sock lay near where his left foot should have been—it was missing, as were the toes on his right foot—and the other sock lay between his straddled legs. (Dr. Jones blamed an animal for the missing foot.) The shorts and socks were military-issue—U.S. Army. A quarter-inch-wide rubber band encircled each ankle, most likely to blouse the bottom of each pant leg, a common practice of G.I.s so that the full boot shows underneath. As for the man’s boots and pants, they were nowhere to be found, but, based on the items that had been left behind, it was clear that he was probably a soldier. What wasn’t clear was how the man died, though officials presumed it was a homicide. According to the sheriff at that time, the holes in his T-shirt were about the size of .38-caliber bullets, however Dr. Jones found no broken bones or skull damage and no evidence of foreign bodies.
The GBI also conducted an investigation (hence Delmar Jones’ letter), and they exhumed the body a second time after the autopsy for additional analysis, including obtaining fingerprints. The Army conducted an investigation as well. Unfortunately, neither have been able to produce records on the case.
Freeman went on the internet—something they obviously didn’t have in 1953—and searched for missing persons from that year. He immediately discovered the treasure trove of websites discussing the Tammen case (except, alas, for this one, which obviously came later). Freeman noted that both LaFayette and Oxford were on U.S. Route 27, and, in fact, the dead soldier was discovered only about 200 yards away from the highway. If Ron had been hitchhiking to Florida, he thought, it was the best possible route to take, since there was no interstate system back then. Ron’s height, weight, and hair color seemed to be in the ballpark too, and his age wasn’t too far off. Ron wasn’t in the Army, but who’s to say that he didn’t enlist after he left Miami? It was worth a shot.
Freeman contacted Frank Smith, Butler County’s cold case detective at that time, and the two decided to make use of another new technology—DNA testing—to determine if the dead man was Tammen. On February 8, 2008, Freeman, Wilson, and Smith, along with Georgia’s chief medical examiner, GBI’s forensic anthropologist, Walker County’s coroner, members of the media, and curious onlookers witnessed the exhumation of remains buried in an unmarked grave in Lot 206 , Block A, in LaFayette Cemetery. The few bone remnants they obtained were forwarded to the FBI and other facilities for DNA testing. The results would be compared with a DNA sample that had been submitted a couple weeks prior by Tammen’s sister Marcia.
The following June, they got their answer: there was no match. The soldier wasn’t Tammen. It was a big disappointment, but cold case detectives probably get used to these sorts of let-downs. Interestingly, I arrived at the same conclusion in another, more roundabout way. In August 1958, human bones had been found in a gravel pit in Preble County, Ohio, which is about 25 miles north of Oxford. Authorities there had sent bone and teeth samples to Ohio’s Bureau of Identification and Investigation, in New London, for analysis to see if the remains might be Ron’s. (Before DNA testing, dental records were the primary method for identifying unknown victims and they’re still valuable today.)
According to an article in the August 17, 1958, Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Preble County sheriff had said that no dental work had been performed on the teeth that they’d unearthed, though, admittedly, the set was incomplete.
The article continued:
Ronald’s mother, when informed of the find, said that her son had several teeth filled.
“Also, his upper teeth lapped,” she continued, “and he had planned to have them straightened.”
“Furthermore, he had a couple of broken bones that could be identified. When he was three, he got a broken collarbone jumping off a bed. Later, playing football in the street, he broke one of the small bones in one of his hands.”
As you’ll recall, the dead soldier in Georgia appeared to have had no dental work and no evidence of having broken any bones. Plus, there was no mention of an overlap of the front teeth. Based on the fact that Ron had had several fillings plus the overlap plus a couple broken bones, it’s obvious that, even before the DNA test, the person buried in Walker County, Georgia, wasn’t Tammen. The DNA evidence sealed the deal.
Miami and Oxford officials couldn’t have stated the above so unequivocally. In fact, it almost seems as if they’d given up looking for Tammen not long after he disappeared. Did someone in a position of authority tell them to stop their investigation? I wonder.
Oh, and P.S. As for the dead guy in Georgia, could it have been Richard Cox? I wonder about that sometimes too…
Let’s take a breather from the whole hypnosis/amnesia/psych book question right now. Rest assured, things are happening in that arena as we speak—things having to do with (fingers crossed) the possible declassification of key names on significant documents. But these things take time, and I need to chill for a little while and let some important people make their pivotal decisions in peace. We’ll jump right back over to that topic as soon as there’s a new development.
In the meantime, let’s talk about the fish in Ron’s bed a little more. Why? Because there’s something intriguing about that fish story that I haven’t shared with you yet.
We already know that the fish was a prank, not a message from the Mafia. We also know who put it there. It was Richard (Dick) Titus, the guy who lived down the hall from Ron in room 212. The same guy who’d been studying with Ron at around 7 p.m. on April 19, 1953. In 2010, he confessed to me that he was the culprit behind the fish prank and, in 2013, he elaborated a little more on the incident. So, what more can that fish—that cold, slimy, disgusting, long-dead fish—teach us about Ronald Tammen?
Think of it this way: in these emotionally charged and divisive times, when no one seems to agree on much of anything, I present to you one shining example of a core belief with which all of humanity can surely agree. And that time-honored value is this: no one in his or her right mind would ever knowingly sleep with a dead fish in their bed.
Keeping that singular uniting principle in mind—that people of all stripes are inherently averse to sleeping with rotting fish—isn’t it just a little bit odd that Ronald Tammen would wait to change his sheets until Sunday night, when the fish had been there since at least one day prior, and possibly two?
That’s right. During our second or perhaps third conversation, Dick Titus and I had moved beyond his surprise revelation of being the person behind the fish in Ron’s bed and conducted a deep dive into the question of when he put it there. Walking me through the incident with what seemed to be the clarity of his adolescent self, Dick told me that it happened on the way home from class. He didn’t have retaliation on his mind, he told me. In their ongoing game of prank/counterprank, Ron had most recently short-sheeted Dick’s bed, throwing in some Rice Krispies for added crunch. In this telling, Dick told me that their back-and-forth had been going on for about a month and that Dick had allowed some time to go by after Ron’s latest stunt. (This version differs from our 2010 conversation, when his timeline was a little more condensed. In that interview, he’d said that Ron had pulled the sheet trick the day before he disappeared. I allowed the slight variation and continued listening.)
It was on Dick’s walk home that he spotted the dead fish in the pond outside of Fisher Hall, and a lightbulb had gone off. “Perfect,” his 18-year-old brain told him. He managed to bring the fish ashore and then carried it upstairs (by the tail? under his arm? I forgot to ask him for those specifics, but I’m sure it was gross) and placed the fish in Ron Tammen’s bed. It could have been a Saturday, because classes were held on Saturday mornings in those days. It might have even been as early as Friday. But, in his mind, it was most definitely not on Sunday.
Here’s a paraphrased snippet from our conversation that I typed up after we spoke:
Dick: I remember I was coming back from class, so it had to be a Friday or Saturday.
Me: Did you take the fish up to Ron’s bed right away?
Dick (sounding a little perplexed): Yes…so I don’t understand why he didn’t change his bed until that Sunday. Unless he didn’t come back to his room until Sunday.
In 1953, they didn’t have security cameras to track everyone’s comings and goings. There were no towers registering the pings of nearby cell phones. There was no such thing as GPS. However, thanks to Dick Titus, there was a fairly foolproof tracking device in Ronald Tammen’s room the weekend that he disappeared. Because of that foul little fish, we can reasonably conclude that Ron hadn’t slept in his bed on Saturday, the 18th, and he might not have been there the preceding Friday night either.
I know what you’re thinking. Can we trust the memory of someone 60 years after an event had taken place? I’d wondered about that too. Maybe Dick Titus hadn’t spotted the fish while returning from a class. Maybe he’d been walking back to Fisher Hall after some Sunday activity—a baseball game, a fraternity function, a trip to the library—and that’s how his brain had edited the scene. We already know that his 2013 timeline was a little different from the one in 2010. Could he have gotten things scrambled?
Fortunately, Murray Seeger, a nationally renowned reporter who was employed by the Cleveland Plain Dealer in the 1950s, published an article on May 4, 1956, that supports the story Dick told in 2013. The article said this:
“At about 8 p.m., [Tammen] went downstairs and asked the house manager for clean linen. Some freshmen pranksters had put a dead fish in his bed the night before.” [emphasis added]
It wasn’t some pranksters, it was one prankster. And, according to Titus, it happened during the day, not the night. But Seeger places the fish in Ron’s bed at least on the Saturday before Ron went missing. I’d call that corroborating evidence.
A two-day-old fish in Ron’s bed also helps clear up one minor mystery I’d been grappling with for a while. Namely, if Ron wasn’t planning to go to bed early Sunday evening—if he were still planning to attend song practice, for example—what would have motivated him to change his sheets at 8 p.m.? In other words, how would he even know about the fish unless he’d turned down the covers? But after at least two days, I’d think that the fish would have made its presence known even before Ron observed the visual evidence. Put simply, I’m sure it was smelling up the room.
The fish was probably one of several topics university investigators spoke about with Dick, whose name is included in Dean Knox’s notes, though the fish isn’t mentioned. The feds were well aware of the fish. Dick described to me a time in which two men from the FBI paid a visit to Mr. and Mrs. Titus at their home in Rocky River to discuss the fish incident, scaring poor Dick to death. [View Carl Knox’s note by clicking here.]
Even though we can deduce that Tammen wasn’t in his bed that Saturday night, we still don’t know where he went. It had to have been late when he arrived, however. He was said to have been playing with the Campus Owls at the Omicron Delta Kappa carnival that evening and then reportedly at a bull session at the Delt house. His brother Richard had said that he was with Ron until between 11 and 11:30 p.m. on Saturday.
Perhaps Ron was involved with someone whom none of his friends or family knew about. Maybe he was out with a group of people, although that wasn’t exactly like him. I doubt very much that he was alone. Other than stalkers, serial killers, and the occasional cat burglar, who goes out by himself all night?**
If Ronald Tammen was with one or more people on the night of Saturday, April 18, 1953, no one appears to have come forward after he went missing. Were they too embarrassed or afraid? Were they somehow responsible for his disappearance? It’s all just a little…fishy.
(** Note: Stargazers, late-night wayfarers, sometimes insomniacs, etc., excepted, though I don’t think these describe Ron very well either.)
Gilson Wright was a dedicated journalist—a consummate newsman’s newsman—who taught his students at Miami the whos, whats, whens, wheres, and whys of getting to the heart of every story. (You can read his memorial here.) His daughter has spoken with high regard for her father’s impartial reporting and nose for news. So committed was he to chasing after a story, he was willing to put fact-gathering above even friends, and she recalled a time when an article he’d written about a close colleague wasn’t received very well and may have inflicted some permanent damage to that friendship. During her growing-up years, she worried that if she did anything wrong, her dad wouldn’t hesitate to write an article about her too.
Wright was so much the model journalist that, if asked, he probably would have agreed that his part-time gig with the local papers—filing occasional news stories about the institution that employed him full-time—probably wouldn’t pass the smell test anywhere else. Imagine if Kenneth Lay had said to the Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine (the two news outlets credited with first uncovering Enron’s misdeeds), “Don’t bother assigning a reporter to this story. We’ll conduct our own investigation, and send updates your way.” The folks from the Hamilton Journal-News probably recognized Wright’s potential conflict of interest, which may be why they double-teamed the Tammen story with the intrepid Joe Cella.
On the other hand, there were obvious benefits for the area newspapers to hire Wright as an on-call correspondent, or stringer. Being an insider at Miami, he was in prime position to hear the scuttlebutt of whatever was happening at one of Ohio’s larger public universities. Also, if a topic was political or sensitive in nature, Miami’s faculty and administrators might have been more inclined to open up to him, at least more than they would have with Cella.
I think one of those occasions may have taken place during the first week after Tammen disappeared in one of the earliest stories to be printed about the case. I stumbled on the article in question as a news clipping in the Miami University Archives. Its dateline is April 26, 1953—seven days after Tammen’s disappearance—and it likely ran that day (a Sunday) or perhaps the following day. We don’t know. We also don’t know precisely which newspaper it ran in, and trust me, I’ve checked all of them. Whoever clipped it didn’t write the source in the margin, as was done for other articles. The article doesn’t even have a byline, so one might wonder who the reporter was, though I’m quite confident that it was Wright. I’ll tell you why in a minute.
But first: why would I care so much about the origin of an old newspaper clipping? Or, to be more specific, why would I seek the help of more than a half dozen reference librarians and archivists in Butler and Hamilton Counties, one researcher at the State Library of Ohio, and another at the Library of Congress, not to mention paying a special visit to the latter, to try to identify the outlet that carried it? Because, in it, the author reveals a detail that has never appeared in any other news article on the Tammen case. Because that detail generates a slew of follow-up questions, yet, instead, it was left to languish, ignored for decades. And finally, because that strange, surreal detail, buried in the second paragraph of the second column, might be an honest-to-goodness clue to the case.
In parts 1 and 2 of this series, we discussed three possible reasons why investigators were so quick to suspect that Tammen’s disappearance was due to amnesia. To recap, they were:
Why else would a responsible guy like Tammen go missing, leaving everything behind?
Tammen’s psychology book was open on his desk, possibly to a section on posthypnotic suggestion, even though he had dropped his course. Also, Carl Knox had jotted down the names of two psych professors in his notes, one of whom was a hypnosis expert.
According to a conversation someone had with Dr. Patten, chair of Miami’s psychology department at the time, there were things in Tammen’s background that would be consistent with his having experienced dissociation.
Reason #4: The three Ohio youths
Before we consider my fourth and final reason, I should probably let you know that I have both good news and bad news. The bad news is that, despite the assistance I received from all of those librarians, I’m still unable to identify with 100% certainty the source of the article in question. The papers that were examined—digitally, on microfilm, or both—are as follows, with the letters GW next to the papers in which Gilson Wright was a stringer or, in the case of Miami’s student newspaper, the adviser:
Miami Student (GW – adviser)
Hamilton Journal-News (GW)
Cincinnati Enquirer (GW)
Cincinnati Post (GW)
Cincinnati Times-Star (GW)
Dayton Daily News (GW)
Dayton Journal Herald (GW)
Because posting copyrighted material without obtaining permission is generally frowned upon (and by “frowned upon,” I mean that it’s not allowed and puts me at risk of being sued for copyright infringement), I don’t feel comfortable posting the article in question on this website. Our only evidence that the article existed at all is that two incredibly awesome people—scissor-wielding superheroes, actually—clipped it and socked it away for safe keeping, so that, eventually, it found its way into the Miami University Archives (clipping #1) and the Smith Library of Regional History, on the second floor of the Lane Public Library in Oxford (clipping #2). Its title, with the first letter of every word in caps, is: “Searchers At Oxford Fail To Find Missing Student; Amnesia Theory Stronger.” If you should find yourself in one of those two places, you can access it there.
But, as promised, I also have good news. The story—or at least a shorter version of it—ran in a second newspaper! A clever researcher at the State Library of Ohio, in Columbus, discovered that a truncated version was printed in the Dayton Journal Herald on Monday, April 27, 1953. He managed to find it by searching for phrases other than what was in the first article’s headline, since the two headlines are vastly different. In addition, the sentence with the outlandish detail (which I’ll be divulging momentarily) isn’t included in the Dayton Journal Herald article. That version includes everything up to the point where the sentence would have appeared and ends there.
But that’s OK, because I can post the Dayton Journal Herald’s version of the article on this website, having obtained permission. Here it is:
And here, without further ado, is the sentence that appeared in the first article but not the second:
“Parents of three other Ohio youths who have disappeared in recent years but who recovered from their loss of memory have telephoned to Tammen’s parents to encourage them, it was learned here.”
Now do you see why I’ve been so obsessed with this article? That one loaded sentence has generated quite a few follow-up questions for me. However, because none of the A-listers are available for an interview (due to their being deceased and all), let’s unpeel this onion ourselves, layer by layer, and do a little speculating, shall we?
Who wrote the article?
Even though neither article has a byline, I’m sure that the author was Gilson Wright because he was a stringer for the Dayton Journal Herald, in addition to all of the other papers indicated above. For the article to show up in at least two area papers convinces me that Wright was responsible.
Who were the Ohio youths?
At the very least, we know that the individuals concerned weren’t full-fledged adults. They also weren’t children, otherwise the writer would have probably chosen that term instead. On the global stage, “youth” is defined as someone between 15 and 24 years of age. In the United States, the term is broader, incorporating early adolescence up to age 25. I would guess, then, that anyone from the seventh grade on up to the mid-20s would have fit the description. Ron Tammen was frequently identified in news accounts as a youth. Richard Cox, the West Point cadet who disappeared in January 1950 at the age of 21, was too.
Attempting to figure out who the three youths might have been, I searched two archival news databases for articles about young people from Ohio who’d gone missing due to amnesia from 1948 to 1953. I had to draw the line somewhere to define “in recent years,” so I cut it off at around five.
In addition, I had two hard-and-fast rules:
The youths had to be single. As the article implies, these particular youths were still accountable to their parents as opposed to a spouse. If a missing person was married, I automatically disqualified him, since no newspaper that I came across ever referred to a married person as a youth. If he was married with children, he was doubly disqualified. If, on the other hand, the person was a little older than 25—maybe 26 or 27, for example—and still single, he (or she) was still in the running.
They had to have returned, safe and sound. That was the point behind the phone call to Ron’s parents—that they’d recovered their memories and returned. Obviously, anyone found dead or who was reported to be still missing after April 1953 was disqualified.
Two additional assumptions that I had, but that I didn’t enforce as strictly as the above, were:
Preferably, the memory loss had to be “real,” or at least had to have some sort of backing or proof. If it was just a theory put forth by a parent searching for some explanation behind their son or daughter’s disappearance, it carried a lot less weight.
Preferably, the youths recovered their memories all by themselves.The way the article reads, it implies to me that, for the most part, the youths had managed to regain their memories with little to no assistance. Therefore, I considered any major effort put forth by third parties, such as the use of hypnosis or truth serum to bring the person back to the here and now, as less likely to have occurred with our gang of three.
Based on the above, my list of potential contenders can be viewed here. (Note: People who were too old and/or who were known to be married were immediately disqualified and aren’t included. People who were a contender but who were subsequently disqualified because of one of the hard-and-fast rules are marked with a red “X.” People who didn’t conform to one or both of the lesser-two assumptions are marked with an orange “?”.)
What I’ve learned from this rather arduous, unscientific exercise is that amnesia was being blamed for a whole lot of missing persons cases back then. When people in their late teens and twenties with Ohio roots occasionally went missing, as sure as night follows day, some distraught parent or a law enforcement official would propose the big A as the cause. The more likely reason was that they’d run away voluntarily, with their memories intact, because they wanted to get married, or they didn’t want to get married, or they’d grown tired of school, or they were experiencing some other unseen stress or desire to reinvent themselves. When one or more of these cases was later solved, amnesia was the perfect face-saving cover story. In 1948, one missing persons bureau chief from another state, obviously fed up with the amnesia excuse, had this advice for would-be fakers: “Phoney [sic] amnesia is fairly easy to spot and real amnesia is as rare as a picture of Joseph Stalin without a mustache.”
Do I think Roger Robinson, Rita Sater, Richard Resseger or anyone else with an orange question mark in front of his or her name were among the three who were alluded to in the April 26th article? (No one passed all four criteria.) No, I really don’t. Unlike today, investigators back then didn’t have digitized articles that they could scan by plugging in a few keywords. They had only their own memory banks to comb through. Also, the identities of the three Ohio youths seemed to be held in confidence for some reason. If investigators had reached out to someone who’d famously gone missing several years prior, I’d think that they would have simply named them. Lastly, there was the time element. I don’t think investigators could have come up with the names of the three Ohio youths so quickly if they didn’t already have that information at their fingertips, including how to go about contacting them.
Where in Ohio were they from?
If the youths happened to be from a particular town, such as Dayton or Cincinnati, or from a specific region, such as southwest Ohio, Wright would have likely written that. But by saying they were “Ohio youths,” it sounds as if they were from all over the state, doesn’t it? But, again, how would investigators have known about amnesia cases from all over the state of Ohio, and so quickly? I have a theory on this, which I’ll talk about a little later in this post.
How did they lose their memories?
As we discussed in parts 1 and 2 in this series, the type of amnesia that causes someone to forget his or her identity and wander off is called dissociative fugue, which is considered a type of psychogenic or dissociative amnesia. It’s the type of amnesia that one might get from severe emotional trauma. But, as we’ve also previously discussed, it’s also rare. According to the American Psychiatric Association, dissociative fugue is estimated to occur in just 0.2% of the general population. Jason Brandt, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and neurology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, says that the prevalence of psychogenic amnesia is unknown, since no one’s conducted a definitive study. However, in his entire career, which, at the time of our conversation in 2015, spanned roughly 34 years of diagnosing and treating individuals with memory loss, Brandt guesstimated that he’d probably seen only 12 people with psychogenic amnesia.
In 34 years.
Knowing this, how was it possible that, in 1953, the good folks of rural, southwest Ohio were aware of such an abundance of amnesia cases that they were able to locate three cases—again, all conveniently from Ohio—within one week of Ron’s disappearance? I have a theory on this too—keep reading.
How long did it take the youths to recover their memories?
I don’t think the three Ohio youths had amnesia for very long. The longer the duration, the more likely the news media would have caught wind of their disappearances (from their parents, no doubt) and we would have seen a few articles. But, as I’ve already discussed, I’ve found nothing in the press that might be applicable. I’m thinking that they were gone for no more than a day or two, but that’s just a guess.
Who coordinated the telephone call between the youths’ parents and Mr. and Mrs. Tammen?
In my view, the person (or persons) who had known about the three Ohio youths who went missing is the most likely coordinator of the phone call. This also may have been the person who Gilson Wright spoke with for his April 26th article. Alternatively, it might have been Dean Knox, as the university’s investigator and chief spokesperson, who coordinated the phone call after hearing about the youths from his original source.
Who was the source of origin concerning the three Ohio youths?
While Wright’s immediate source about the three Ohio youths may well have been Dean Carl Knox, Knox wasn’t an amnesia expert. Neither was Oscar Decker, the Oxford police chief. They wouldn’t have been able to locate three young people who’d recently lost their memories on such short notice on their own. As we learned in part 1, one of the university’s experts on amnesia was Dr. Everett Patten, chairman of the psychology department at Miami. In fact, Dr. Patten had spoken directly with Wright for an in-depth article on amnesia that appeared two days later in the Dayton Daily News, on April 28, 1953. If I were a betting person, I’d bet that the information about the three Ohio youths originated with Dr. Patten.
You can read the article in its entirety here:
How was it possible for investigators to locate three Ohio youths who had recently lost their memories so soon after Ron went missing?
This, in my mind, is the most compelling question of all. If it had happened today, police could check online for names of people who had recently disappeared from Ohio and were later found. But, again, this was before computers. There was no centralized recordkeeping system, such as NamUs. There were no grassroots websites tracking missing persons, such as the Doe Network, Websleuths, and the Charley Project. It would have been extremely tough for law enforcement units of differing jurisdictions to keep track of each other’s cases, and even more so for those in towns with paltry police forces such as Oxford, Ohio. Furthermore, this happened before the FBI became involved, so there was no help available on a national level.
Again, if I had to place bets, I’d say that whoever first informed Dean Knox and/or Gilson Wright about the three missing youths had prior knowledge of those young people. They may have even known them personally, and experienced anxiety first-hand when the youths had gone missing and great relief when they returned.
Because of its rarity, I don’t think that psychogenic amnesia was what caused the three Ohio youths to wander. Instead, I wonder if they’d had a different type of memory loss—the kind one might experience after being hypnotized. That would explain why investigators would be made aware of the three other amnesia cases so quickly after Ron’s disappearance. It could also be why the youths were described as being from Ohio in general. Maybe they came from various parts of Ohio but they happened to be attending a university that drew students from all over the state. Somewhere like, I don’t know, Miami?
Why didn’t Gilson Wright seek more information about the Ohio youths?
Honestly, I don’t know why Wright wouldn’t have pursued the Ohio youths lead further. Maybe he tried to. But herein lies that squishy zone between his role as reporter and university employee. If Wright’s source was a dean or department head who said, “That’s all I’m able to say on this subject—the rest is strictly confidential,” would he have pushed back? Would he have tried to dig up another source who could have told him more? And if they had told him more, would he have put that information into print, undoubtedly burning a few bridges in the process or maybe even putting his job in jeopardy? All I know is that no further details about the three amnesiac youths were included in any other article written by Wright. In fact he never mentioned the three Ohio youths again.
Why didn’t anyone else cover this story?
It seems to me that another reporter—Joe Cella, for example—would have loved following up with those three Ohio youths, especially if they happened to be students around Ron’s age who’d lost their memories in recent years. “How did you lose your memory?” he would have certainly asked them, upon which, if it was hypnosis, a cascade of additional questions would have sprung forth. (E.g., Who hypnotized you?, Why were you being hypnotized?, Was Ron Tammen being hypnotized too?, etc.)
But Cella (or any other reporter) may not have even seen Wright’s article. My reasoning has to do with the more obvious question that has been bugging me ever since I stumbled onto the newspaper clipping: why haven’t I been able to find a digital or microfilm version of that article?
I’d always thought that, once an article was printed in a newspaper, it would live on into perpetuity, thanks to microfilm and those hulking viewers housed in the dark corners of libraries. Countless news pages are also being systematically digitized as we speak for online viewing. For these reasons, at least for the major local newspapers, I thought that any article that had ever been written would be accessible in one form or another decades hence.
But one of my reference librarian friends quickly torpedoed my naïve, Pollyanna-ish view. As you may know, even today, newspapers usually produce multiple editions in a single day, beginning with an early edition, which is typically trucked to points farthest away, and ending with a final edition, for those living closest to the city center. Usually (and ideally), the final edition is the one that’s archived. Also, you might have editions that are geared to a neighboring state, just as the Cincinnati Enquirer produces a Kentucky edition and the Washington Post publishes editions for Maryland and Virginia. (The Newseum describes the process for the Washington Post in this fact sheet, under Edition.)
The front pages of the assorted editions can be very different. For example, the same reference librarian sent me the front page of a final edition from the Cincinnati Enquirer for June 22, 1953, that differed dramatically from an earlier edition from that day. Although the earlier edition carried an update about Ronald Tammen, that article never made it to the final.
A few weeks ago, a representative of the Cincinnati History Library and Archives emailed me saying that she’d run my “Ohio youths” article by a retired editor of the Cincinnati Enquirer who was acquainted with how they did things back then, and he’d sent her some thoughts. The man guessed (and he emphasized that it was just that—a guess) that the article had appeared in the “state” edition of the Enquirer. The state edition was distributed to subscribers in communities outside Cincinnati—towns like Oxford and Hamilton and Middletown. It was printed after the street edition (which appeared in newsstands at around 8:00 p.m. the preceding night), but before the Kentucky and final editions. What was different about the state edition was that it featured a page that included news from the surrounding counties. If an article in the state edition was significant enough, it might make its way to the local page in the final edition, which was distributed to Cincinnati and the rest of Hamilton County.
The editor based his guess on the following observations:
He recognized the font as Cheltenham, which he said was frequently referred to as just Chelt.
The headline format was standard for the paper back then. In news parlance, they referred to it as “2/36/3,” which meant that it was two columns wide, with 36-point type, and three lines deep.
The subject matter was more appropriate for the surrounding communities as opposed to downtown subscribers.
The dateline is consistent with what the Enquirer used in those days when someone from a bureau (he guessed it was probably Hamilton) submitted a story about another community.
The occasional bolding of paragraphs was also a practice of the Enquirer’s. Every fifth or sixth paragraph would be bolded for no obvious reason other than, probably, to break up the sea of grey, he suggested.
Interestingly, I’d arrived at the same conclusion—that the article had appeared in an early edition of the Cincinnati Enquirer—for pretty much the same reasons, except I didn’t know the insider lingo. I’d just noticed that the font and dateline looked similar to other Enquirer articles and that the headlines were lengthy with semicolons separating the clauses. I also noticed that the headline writer tended to refer to Miami University as “Oxford.” That was because they liked to include a local town’s name in the headline as an attention-grabber, the editor explained to me in a follow-up meeting.
What does all of this mean to those of us interested in the Tammen case? It means that, assuming the Enquirer had been the source of the article, it’s entirely possible (and maybe even probable) that a story could have run in the newspaper’s state edition but didn’t make it into the final version. As mentioned earlier, on June 22, 1953, a story about Tammen that was on the front page of an earlier edition doesn’t appear on the front page or anywhere else in the final edition. If not for the news clipping that my librarian friend had found, not only would people from the future (aka you and I) not have discovered the article, but people who read a later edition that day wouldn’t have known what they’d missed. Is that what happened on April 26, 1953, as well? Was the article dropped, for whatever reason, after it was run in an earlier issue?
Granted, the June 22 article about Tammen was simply a rehash of old info, and, for that reason alone, the editor probably decided to replace it with a more relevant article in the final. Their reason for pulling the April 26th article may have been just as innocuous. However, April 26 was much earlier in the case, and I would think that reader interest would have been high for even the most minuscule of details. At first, I wondered if perhaps someone—a university official perhaps—was uncomfortable with the “Ohio youths” detail he’d read in the state edition and asked Wright to pull the article from the final. But my Enquirer friend assured me that articles in the state edition frequently didn’t make it to the final edition, and, moreover, no reporter had the power to stop an article from being printed. In addition, the production schedule for the three Ohio editions during that period, which he was able to recite to me by heart, was as follows:
According to this schedule, even if a person were standing at the front door of the Enquirer at 11:15 p.m. and snagged one of the first available copies of the state edition, they would have had only 15 minutes in which to convince the editor to pull the article from the final edition. A less frantic timeline would have been to pick up the street edition at 8:00 p.m. and to request the article be pulled in time for the state (10:30 p.m.) or final (11:30 p.m.) editions. However, my editor friend told me that, for the most part, there was no state news in the street edition, and, again (it bears repeating), no reporter had the power to pull an article. Based on all these factors, I’m convinced that it didn’t happen that way. But what if Wright had submitted his article earlier in the day and his editors told him that they would consider putting his article into the final edition but they’d first need more detail on the three Ohio youths. Gil would have gone back to his source, who might have responded with “Sorry, the rest is confidential,” and the story would die with the state edition.
To be sure, it’s just a hypothesis, but it also helps explain two indisputable truths: the Dayton Journal Herald printed the article the next day minus the offending sentence and Wright never raised the matter of the three youths again. Somehow, someway, Wright seemed to have gotten the message not to push that detail any further.
As additional supporting evidence, Wright used to repurpose his articles in other papers all the time. Although the front-page Tammen story from an early edition of the June 22, 1953, Cincinnati Enquirer is nowhere to be found online, the same story with a different headline had appeared in the June 20, 1953, issue of the Hamilton Journal-News. And on April 27, 1953, the same day in which the Dayton Journal Herald article ran its shortened version of Wright’s April 26th article, a different Wright article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, with the headline “Still No Leads In Case of Missing Miami Boy.” That same article, again, with a different headline, also appeared in the Hamilton Journal-News on the same date.
So with all of that recycling and repurposing, why wouldn’t the Hamilton Journal-News have published Wright’s April 26th article that mentioned the three Ohio youths? One possible reason was simply that the Hamilton Journal-News didn’t have a Sunday paper, though, in my view, that’s no excuse. As we’ve already seen, the same article could run in different newspapers on different days. Wright’s April 26th article contained all the new information found in the article that ran on April 27th plus the tidbit about the three Ohio youths. If I were editor, I’d have chosen to run it on Monday instead. No, with all this in mind, I can’t help but wonder if the problematic detail was left to die in the Enquirer’s state edition for a reason. And if that’s the case, then none of us would have ever known about the three Ohio youths if it hadn’t been for those two incredibly heroic people—scissor-brandishing badasses, actually—who saw fit to clip the article just in case someone might need it someday.
What do you think?
This is probably a good time to open up the floor. What are your thoughts on the topic of amnesia as it applies to the Tammen case?
Artwork developed using WordArt.com. Not for reproduction.
In May 2011, I was conversing by email with a Miami alum, let’s call him Peter, who was a psychology major at Miami when Ronald Tammen disappeared. Like many students, Peter was curious about Ron’s disappearance and read whatever stories he could find on it. Peter also had a friendly acquaintance with Dr. Patten, then-chair of Miami’s psychology department, and looked up to him as a mentor, which wasn’t unusual. Dr. Patten was highly respected in the psych department—knowledgeable, yet warm and grandfatherly.
Here’s a remembrance Peter shared with me that provides yet another reason why investigators likely thought Ronald Tammen had amnesia. I’ve copied the email directly, typos and parenthetical asides included. I have, however, inserted a missing word or two in brackets for clarity or correction.
Reason #3: There were ‘things in his background’
“Now, when Ron ‘vanished’ the university formed a committee of facility [sic] and administrators (I don’t really know who was on the committee). Patten was the chair, and there was a short article in The [Miami] Student saying the committee had met (I don’t know if it was more than once) and had concluded that Ron’s disappearance was most likely due to a dissociation (forgetting who he was, where he belonged, wandering, etc.)…
“When I saw Patten I said I’d seen the article in The Student, and that the committee felt the best explanation was the dissociation hypothesis. He commented, and I believe this is exactly what he [said], ‘Yes. There are things in his background that would be consistent with that.’ Naturally, I asked ‘Really? What kind of things?’ (or words to that effect). Unfortunately, Dr. Patten said, ‘Well, I can’t comment on that.’ (I’m sure that is exactly what he said.) So…I never heard what things in Ron’s background had been considered to be ‘consistent’ with proneness to a dissociative disorder.”
Peter’s story raised a number of questions in my mind, the first being something along the lines of: What the …?!
What could be in Ronald Tammen’s background that would be consistent with dissociation?
How would Dr. Patten (and a university committee of faculty and administrators) have known about something in Ron’s background that would lead them to such a conclusion?
What faculty panel? I don’t remember reading about a faculty panel.
Oh, and by the way: where was this Miami Student article that Peter referred to?
The first thing I tried to do was locate the article and, guys, I might as well break it to you sooner rather than later: I can’t find it. I asked Peter when it ran, and he said that he thought it was early, before the semester ended. That would make sense, because that’s when the amnesia theory came to the forefront. But, from what I can tell, there were only five articles on Ronald Tammen that appeared in the Miami Student between April 19 and the end of classes for the spring 1953 semester. Here are the titles, with links to the applicable issue:
—Tuesday, April 28, 1953,Missing Youth Baffles Police; Clues Lacking, page 1, upper left
—Friday, May 1, 1953, no article
—Tuesday, May 5, 1953,Police Find No Trace of Tammen, page 1, upper right
—Friday, May 8, 1953,Must Tongues Wag?, page 2, editorial section
—Tuesday, May 12, 1953, no article
—Friday, May 15, 1953, no article
—Tuesday, May 19, 1953, no article
—Friday, May 22, 1953, no article
—Tuesday, May 26, 1953,Name of Tammen Added to Missing Persons by FBI, page 4, upper right
It’s not as if any issues are missing. The Miami Student published every Tuesday and Friday (except for vacation days and the week that followed), and they all appear to be there, online. I also checked for possible articles on the faculty panel that might have run during the next academic year, and nothing turned up. I asked Peter if it could have been in another publication—some internal newsletter that the psych department put out or something. He said no. Still, his memory was unwavering about his conversation with Dr. Patten. We discussed the scenario several times, and the details remained consistent.
Even though the article that Peter recalls reading is nowhere to be found, we do have a few details to help corroborate his story:
Dr. Patten was an early spokesperson on the Tammen story…
As we already know from the preceding post, Dr. Patten became a spokesperson on the Tammen story fairly quickly. As early as April 28, 1953, he was quoted by Gilson Wright for his article that ran in the Dayton Daily News. If Patten had headed up a faculty panel and that information was somehow made public at Miami, that would have put him on Gilson Wright’s radar for an interview request. That’s what reporters do—they call the person who’s in charge. It makes a lot more sense for Wright to approach Dr. Patten about his views on amnesia and overstudy if he knew that Patten was leading a panel that had already declared publicly that Ronald Tammen’s disappearance was probably “due to a dissociation.”
…a spokesperson who seemed to know more than he was saying publicly.
In the communications field, there’s one response that PR flacks far and wide are forever advising subject experts not to say when speaking with a reporter. That response is “no comment.” To say “no comment” implies that you’re hiding something—that you know something that you don’t think should be made public. In his April 28, 1953, Dayton Daily News article, Wright reported this about Patten: “He refused to comment on the Tammen case except to say that it is his ‘guess’ that the Maple Heights, O., youth will be found alive.” Refused to comment. Not even a more subtle “hesitated to” or “didn’t wish to” comment. He flat-out refused.
Here’s why I think that Wright was practically quoting Patten verbatim when he wrote that sentence: it’s because of what Peter said he remembered Patten saying to him about why things in Ron’s background were consistent with dissociation. “Well, I can’t comment on that,” Patten had said, according to Peter.
Think about it. If someone asked you if you knew where Jimmy Hoffa was buried, would you say, “I can’t comment on that”? Only if you were kidding around. The more typical response would be ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Dr. Patten’s response to the reporter hints to me that he had access to additional information about Tammen that, for some reason, he wasn’t ready, willing, or able to discuss publicly, which would be consistent with Peter’s account.
Faculty were meeting about Tammen.
Not long ago, I was revisiting some old news articles and landed on this headline from the May 18, 1953, issue of the Cleveland Plain Dealer: “FBI Joins Hunt for Miami Student.” The article, which was written principally to inform readers that Tammen had been added to the FBI’s missing persons list, includes this sentence that I’d somehow previously overlooked: “Dean Carl Knox told the boy’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Ronald H. Tammen, Sr., that the FBI had been called into faculty conferences.”
It’s one thing for law enforcement to meet with university officials about Tammen. “Officials” generally means administrators, which, in the case of Tammen’s disappearance, usually meant Carl Knox. But if Carl Knox informed the family that there were faculty conferences about Tammen’s disappearance, that has an entirely different connotation—professors. Professors seated around a table. Professors discussing what they knew about Ronald Tammen with a representative of the FBI.
One possible theory worth mulling over is that Ronald Tammen’s psychology textbook—potentially open to a section on posthypnotic suggestion—could very well have inspired Dean Knox to convene a faculty committee to see if they could determine where Ron’s head was when he disappeared. If that’s the case, it would make sense to install the chair of the psychology department, Everett F. Patten, a noted hypnosis expert, as head of the panel. It also would have made sense to ask the three faculty members listed in Carl Knox’s notepad—Professors Dennison, Delp, and Switzer—to take part on the panel as well.
Unfortunately, we’ll never know who was participating on the faculty panel. The article Peter remembers having read no longer seems to be in the public record. Also, no notes from any faculty conferences have turned up—not in the university’s archives, and not in the FBI’s Central Records System either.
Dr. Patten indeed thought that Ron had experienced dissociation.
In an article that ran in the Miami Student on April 20, 1965, Dr. Patten was once again approached about his theories on what happened to Tammen. This time, however, he didn’t refuse to comment. Instead, the newspaper reported the following:
“Consulted at the present time, Dr. Patten added, ‘Tammen’s condition can be labeled as a fugue, which is a species of conversion hysteria, characterized by wandering and other unusual antics of which the individual is not conscious.’”
The word “fugue” is a shortened term for dissociative fugue, which involves forgetting one’s identity and wandering, as Peter described in his email. It’s a subcategory of dissociative (or functional or psychogenic) amnesia. (The term “hysteria” is generally not used to describe this condition anymore.) It’s also rare, estimated to occur in only 0.2 percent of the general population.
Perhaps Dr. Patten felt he could speak more openly by that time—a dozen years after Tammen disappeared and two months before Patten would retire. Also, four years earlier—in 1961—he’d stepped down as department chair and turned the reigns over to Dr. Switzer. Perhaps he felt freer to speak because he was speaking only for himself, and not as the whole department or as the head of a faculty panel.
By that time, Dr. Patten’s opinion wasn’t necessarily the popular viewpoint. In 1960, the Dayton Daily News had printed an article that provided this update: “Two theories—that the youth met with foul play or that he was a victim of amnesia—have long since been discarded. A third theory, that he deliberately planned to leave the campus and to start a new life under an assumed name, is considered ‘most likely’ by authorities.”
Unfortunately, Dr. Patten didn’t have the long, enjoyable retirement that he earned from all his years of teaching and administering. He passed away in September 1966 at the age of 71, taking with him whatever knowledge he had about Tammen’s tendency toward dissociation.
I believe Peter did have that conversation with Dr. Patten all those years ago. But when I asked Ron’s siblings if they were aware of anything in Ron’s background that might make him prone to dissociation, no one had an inkling what it could be. They couldn’t recall any time in their brother’s past when he’d forgotten who he was and wandered off.
Besides, how would Dr. Patten and his fellow professors have found out about Ron’s propensity to forget who he was? Ron was a vigorously private person who strived to present himself to the world in the most positive light. I can’t imagine him volunteering personal details of that nature to a professor or administrator, even if they were true. Also, no such information was included in his student records. His freshman adviser wrote only this about Ron: “Earnest and capable student. Plays in dance bands some. Loyal and well behaved. May have periods of slump in interest.” There was nothing in the realm of “tends to forget who he is and wander.” When I attempted to obtain Ron’s student health records, Miami’s general counsel responded that “medical treatment records are not public records” and “student health records are only maintained for a period of 6 years following attendance.” So, we’re out of luck there too.
Still, it seems unlikely that Ronald Tammen had experienced dissociative fugue, based on its low prevalence and, moreover, how baffled Ron’s family members are by Peter’s story. On the other hand, the similarities between dissociation and hypnosis are well-documented in the scientific literature. In fact, experts in dissociative disorders frequently use hypnosis in the treatment of their patients. For many years, hypnosis had been widely considered to be a dissociative state based on such phenomena as posthypnotic amnesia. According to the 1997 review article “Hypnosis, memory and amnesia” by John F. Kihlstrom (Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences), posthypnotic amnesia “has long been considered to be a laboratory model of the functional amnesias associated with hysteria and dissociation.”
Could it be that Dr. Patten’s references to dissociation and fugue were another way of hypothesizing that Ron may have been experiencing a form of amnesia brought on by hypnosis? If so, was someone from the university tinkering with Tammen’s memory? And for what purpose? And was Ron the only one?
To be continued—A case of amnesia, part 3: Three youths from Ohio
A general note of caution: This story gets complicated. Please keep in mind that my mentioning someone here is not intended to imply that he or she had something to do with Ronald Tammen’s disappearance. I’m simply presenting old details about the case next to new ones and asking a few questions. It’s still early.
When I was in college, my friends and I used to go crazy over a folk-rock band that had what I considered to be the coolest of names: the Pousette-Dart Band. (The band was named for its lead singer/guitarist, Jon Pousette-Dart, whose father, I’ve since learned, was the artist Richard Pousette-Dart, one of the founders of the New York School and a contemporary of Jackson Pollock’s and Mark Rothko’s. Thanks, Wikipedia!) One of their more popular songs back then was titled “Amnesia,” and though, for copyright reasons, I can’t print the lyrics on this website without permission, you can still listen to the song. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
I’ve thought about that song often over the past eight years, because, as every Ronald Tammen aficionado knows, amnesia was one of the earliest theories of why Tammen disappeared. Lots of people bought into that theory, not the least of whom were Carl Knox (the dean of men tasked with investigating Ron’s disappearance) and Oscar Decker (the Oxford police chief). Supposedly, in their minds, the most plausible explanation was that Ronald Tammen had been studying at his desk until, for whatever reason, he forgot who he was and where he was and went wandering off into the night. According to Marcia Tammen, Ron’s mother had also thought Ron had amnesia, though her hypothesis made more sense to me: that Ron had accidentally bumped his head while changing his sheets, causing him to forget who he was and walk away, also into the night. Her explanation was particularly useful because it also supplied a reason why that telltale pillowcase would have been left off of Ron’s pillow.
From what I can tell, the theory of amnesia was first reported in the press on Friday, April 24, 1953. The Hamilton Journal-News said, “Officials believe that he might have suffered an attack of amnesia.” The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported, “The dean [Carl Knox] believed the youth might have suffered an attack of amnesia, but had nothing to back that theory.” According to the Cincinnati Enquirer: “University officials said Tammen might be suffering from amnesia as he took no clothing or personal articles with him.”
Why was amnesia the most immediate explanation? For one thing, it might have been a sign of the times. In the 1950s, amnesia seemed to be a popular explanation for an otherwise inexplicable memory or behavioral issue, in this case, a disappearance. Don’t get me wrong. Amnesia is a real thing. It’s just that the type of amnesia that was often depicted on 1950s television or in movies is said to be quite rare.
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to speak with Jason Brandt, Ph.D., a clinical neuropsychologist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and an expert on memory loss, or amnesia. He boiled the disorder down into two primary categories: organic amnesia and psychogenic amnesia, which is also referred to as functional or dissociative amnesia. Organic amnesia, he explained, is by far the most common form, caused by damage to the parts of the brain involved in logging in new memories before they travel to other parts of the brain for further processing and storage. The damage is tangible, in lesion or lump form, and caused by factors such as disease, stroke, tumors, and severe head injuries. The effect of this damage on memory is that the person generally loses the ability to learn and retain new information. Information from the person’s past or information about the person’s identity, on the other hand, is generally unaffected.
In contrast, forgetting one’s identity or certain information from one’s past would fall into the category of psychogenic amnesia, which typically arises from extreme emotional trauma, though mild head trauma can also be a cause. Here’s what Dr. Brandt had to say about this form of amnesia:
“It’s where somebody experiences a severely emotionally traumatic event or series of events and then develops a kind of memory loss where their past is lost. They have severe retrograde amnesia, while their ability to learn and remember new things is relatively retained. And when people don’t know who they are, lose their identity, lose their knowledge about their own pasts, lose their autobiographical memory, that’s typical of psychogenic amnesia. Those patients don’t have gross neurologic problems. There’s nothing wrong with the hardware. There’s something wrong with the software. It’s a programming issue. It’s not a problem of the structure of the brain, but of the functioning of the mind.”
So with those main differences in mind between organic and psychogenic amnesia—physical vs. emotional trauma, hardware injury vs. software functionality, inability to remember new things vs. inability to recall the past—let’s discuss some of the reasons why people were so quick to hop on the amnesia bandwagon to explain Tammen’s disappearance.
Reason #1: Why else would an otherwise responsible person reading at his desk walk away, leaving his book open, light on, etc.?
To most people who knew Ronald Tammen, the only logical explanation for his walking away from his life and responsibilities was that he could no longer remember who he was. One of the proposed ways in which Ron might have contracted his memory loss was that he had been studying too hard—a condition referred to as “overstudy.” There he was, concentrating excessively on his psychology book—the textbook for a course he’d already dropped—and something must have snapped. In the April 28, 1953, issue of the Dayton Daily News, Everett F. Patten, Ph.D., longtime head of Miami’s psychology department, weighed in on the theory of overstudy as a possible cause of amnesia, effectively shooting it down:
“Overstudy never caused any case of amnesia,” he said. He went even further, stating: “There is no case on record of anyone suffering from amnesia because he has spent too much time in studying.”
The article was written by Gilson Wright, a stringer for several area newspapers who also happened to be a Miami journalism professor as well as head of Miami’s News Bureau. That one person held the responsibility of reporting on the activities of his own employer while, at the same time, handling media requests from competing news outlets would be unheard of today. Do I consider Wright’s many hats a potential conflict of interest? You betcha. While I’ve read nothing but good things about his reporting, there would be an inherent benefit to maintaining a convivial relationship with university sources, which isn’t always a good thing, journalistically speaking. On the other hand, Wright managed to reveal a few zingers of his own about the Tammen case that probably would have never come to light from another reporter. We’ll discuss one such revelation made by Wright in part 3 of this series.
Perhaps one of the reasons Wright sought out Dr. Patten as a resource on amnesia is because, in addition to Patten’s understanding of psychology in general, he had direct knowledge of another type of amnesia, called posthypnotic amnesia. Patten was one of three hypnosis experts on Miami’s campus at the time of Tammen’s disappearance, having studied under renowned psychologist Clark Hull, author of the 1933 seminal book Hypnosis and Suggestibility: An Experimental Approach.
Although posthypnotic amnesia is neither organic nor psychogenic, it has been likened to the latter because certain memories become inaccessible even though nothing is wrong with the brain structurally. The difference is that, instead of emotional trauma being the cause, a hypnotic subject forgets because he or she is instructed to forget.
When a subject is put into a trance, he or she becomes highly receptive to suggestions supplied by the hypnotist. Sometimes, the suggestion is more for demonstration purposes: do five push-ups, take a drink of water, cluck like a chicken, whatever. Sometimes the suggestion has a specific purpose, such as: “Whenever you light up a cigarette, you’ll feel sick to your stomach.” If the subject is instructed to forget what transpired while under hypnosis, that’s where posthypnotic amnesia comes into play. If all goes as intended, the subject, once awakened, will do what was suggested, but will have no recollection of why he or she is doing it. The information is there, it’s just not readily accessible.
“That’s what hypnotic amnesia does,” Dr. Brandt explained. “It makes things not available to conscious recollection…It’s as if it’s suppressed below a level of conscious awareness.”
Dr. Patten didn’t raise the possibility of posthypnotic amnesia in the Dayton Daily News article. Rather, he described how a certain form of amnesia can cause a person to leave his or her surroundings and start a new life as someone else. It’s also worth noting that nowhere in the article does Patten rule out amnesia as a possible explanation for Tammen’s disappearance. He just wasn’t buying the overstudy part. How Tammen might have contracted his potential bout with amnesia, Patten didn’t hazard a guess.
Reason #2: Ronald Tammen’s psychology book may have been open to a section on ‘posthypnotic suggestion’
If Ronald Tammen’s book was open to a section on posthypnotic suggestion when he disappeared, as I have argued, then that, too, could have given investigators pause about a possible amnesia connection. Not wishing to alarm the public, they might have put forth an alternative reason for his amnesia—the overstudy hypothesis, for example—but deep down, they could have been wondering if Ron had wandered off as a result of a hypnotic suggestion he had no memory of.
There’s some indication that Carl Knox took the open psychology book fairly seriously. The reason I say this is that, on one page of his notes, he’s jotted down the names of three men at the university who had something to do with either the subject of psychology or Tammen’s decision to drop his psychology course shortly before he disappeared. Knox underlined each man’s name and set the list apart from the rest of the page’s jottings by placing them beneath a large and uninspired header—“Name.” He provided no further explanation for their being there. In order of appearance, they are:
As we already know, J. Belden Dennison was Tammen’s academic adviser, and it makes sense that his name would be at the top of the list. Carl Knox probably had a lot of questions to ask Dennison concerning his various meetings with Ron over the academic year. He’d want to know if anything had been bothering Ron lately, as well as what was going on with him academically. Moreover, he might have asked Dennison for the reasons Ron gave for dropping his psychology course, which Dennison would have approved in advance.
At the time of Tammen’s disappearance, Richard Delp held the title of assistant professor in Miami’s psychology department, though he never earned a Ph.D. Eventually, he would move to the Department of Education to teach educational psychology. It seems odd for his name to be on this list, since, again, Tammen was no longer enrolled in psychology when he disappeared and, moreover, Delp wasn’t his instructor. Perhaps Mr. Delp was counseling Tammen to help him with his grades. In a 1956 letter to the provost, Delp claimed to be an “informal personal counselor to a number of students.” There’s also no indication that Delp knew anything about hypnosis. For these reasons, the man in the number two spot on Carl Knox’s list is an obvious outlier and one more question mark in this mystery.
The third person on Carl Knox’s list was St. Clair Switzer, a longtime professor in Miami’s psychology department. It was Dr. Switzer’s course that Tammen had dropped the semester he went missing. Knox might have wanted to ask Switzer a few questions about that as well. Things like: “Why did Ron Tammen drop your course?” and “Why do you suppose he was reading his psychology textbook the night he disappeared?” Or possibly, if he was feeling especially daring: “Was Ron Tammen being hypnotized?” That wouldn’t have been such an off-the-wall question to ask because, as it so happens, Dr. Switzer was also a hypnosis expert at Miami. He’d earned both his master’s and Ph.D. degrees under Clark Hull, and he also assisted with Hull’s book.
Unfortunately, if Dean Knox ever spoke with Drs. Dennison or Switzer, or Mr. Delp, no notes appeared to have been taken, or, if they were, they weren’t retained. But that’s OK, I suppose. Because sometimes clues can turn up in the most typical of places, and in the most casual of conversations. One was disclosed a week after Ron’s disappearance, buried deep in a news article written by Gilson Wright. Another turned up much later, in an email I received from a former Miami psychology student.
To be continued–A case of amnesia, part 2: Things in Ron’s background
Hi all — good to be back, and I have a lot to share in the coming months! I do want to point out one change to the website. I’ve decided to open the floor to questions and comments on an intermittent basis as opposed to a continuous basis. I think that may facilitate our having active and energetic discussions on various topics every so often while enabling me to continue my research and writing activities in earnest. I’ve explained the change on the FAQs page as well. Thanks again for your interest!
I imagine that very few crises happen out of the blue. Most have a build-up period in which everything seems fine on the surface as trouble churns below. Still, there are usually small signs—cracks that appear in an otherwise smooth façade. Even a tsunami produces an eerie ebb tide as its forewarning. Earthquakes are harder to predict, yet they do seem to give some sort of rumbling, quivering clue to animals of the land, sea, air, and (if they’re of the cat or dog variety) living room.
So it was with the crisis that was about to befall Ronald Tammen. This wasn’t something that had happened overnight. It had been festering for a while, his new normal. And even though he appeared to people around him to be the usual Ron, the one of unrivaled responsibility and ambitious optimism, he was showing signs that he knew something big and potentially life altering was about to occur. A few had begun to take note of those signs as well. Someone had told Dean Knox that, after spring break, Ron had been reading the Bible “5 or 6 times” (which wasn’t like him) and had spoken of being “tired lately.” Mrs. Todhunter, Fisher Hall’s manager, had mentioned how exhausted he looked when he picked up the new sheets the night he disappeared.
I’d always suspected that Ron was going through some type of personal crisis at the time of his disappearance, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. Thankfully, it was one day over the past week or two when a lightbulb clicked on.
For a long while, I’ve known about Ron’s grades. I knew that he’d withdrawn from enough courses during his sophomore year that he would have no longer been considered full-time. But I hadn’t given much thought to what the repercussions might have been, because nothing seemed to change for him. He was still living in Fisher Hall and counseling freshman men. He was still active in his fraternity. He was still playing his bass with the Campus Owls. University officials seemed OK with his predicament—in fact, judging by their comments after he disappeared, they didn’t seem to think he was in a predicament at all. I focused instead on why such a smart, studious guy would be having difficulty in the first place, particularly in subjects in which he seemed capable of sailing through with little effort. Why, for example, would a guy with such an abiding appreciation for money have trouble with an introductory economics course?
Recently, while addressing a reader’s question about Ron’s draft status, I began mulling over his situation again. In previous interviews, I’d asked Ron’s friends and family if Ron had been concerned about the draft, and everyone had told me no. This had always made sense to me, since I knew that Ron had a college deferment and I figured that he could have continued renewing it until he graduated.
And that’s when it hit me. The federal government wouldn’t be nearly as nurturing as Miami seemed to be if a male student had slipped from full-time to part-time status and wasn’t keeping pace with his degree program. This became even more evident after I later read that the pool of men available to be called to fight in the war in Korea had reached “a new low.” Was Ronald Tammen about to be drafted because of his academic record?
Before we proceed further, let’s become better acquainted with some dates in Ron’s Selective Service records. (His information is in the fifth row from the bottom of this document, and his registration is here.)
July 26, 1951—Three days after his 18th birthday, Ron registers with the Selective Service System through local draft board 32, Cuyahoga County, Ohio.
December 10, 1951—Ron, a freshman at Miami University, is sent a questionnaire from the Selective Service. On January 23, 1952, he would be 18 1/2 years old, and therefore, of “liable age” for training and service.
March 25, 1952—Ron (or Ron’s parents) is sent a notice saying that Ron has been classified 1-A (available for military service), just like most of the other young men born around his birthday who fell under draft board 32’s purview. This isn’t necessarily a cause for concern, since draft boards considered each registrant 1-A until it had been demonstrated that he qualified for deferment or exemption. There were additional hoops to be jumped through too—it wasn’t as if he could have been immediately called to serve.
July 15, 1952—Roughly a week before Ron’s 19th birthday, in the summer before Ron’s sophomore year at Miami, another notice is mailed to the Tammens, this time saying that Ron had been reclassified as 2-S (registrant deferred because of activity in study). He’d obviously taken the Selective Service College Qualification Test and had received an acceptable score.
June 24, 1953—The Selective Service mails a third classification notice to the Tammens, saying that Ron was back to being 1-A. Of course, this had happened after he’d gone missing and didn’t renew his deferment.
July 27, 1953—Ron failed to report for his physical on this date, which, coincidentally, also happened to be the day that the Korean War ended. He was marked DEL, delinquent, with an induction date of August 25, 1953. In the remarks section, someone had written: “Failed to Report for Physical. Complete File To Hqts 9/8/53. Ordered for Immediate Induction as a delinquent.”
So Ron had been granted his student deferment immediately before his sophomore year, which, as we’ve already established, was when things started to implode for him academically. Because I wanted to see the full picture, I contacted Jacky Johnson, Miami University’s archivist, who emailed me the courses and credit hours required for a business degree at that time.
Here’s what was required of him for his freshman and sophomore years:
If you compare Ron’s transcript during his freshman year with the freshman course requirements for a business degree, you see that everything matches up. During his first semester, all required courses were accounted for: Business 101, English 101, Laboratory Science (he chose Geology), Social Science (he went with American Social and Economic History), and Physical Education. His non-professional elective was Unified Math, a subject in which he performed solidly, and which provided 5 hours instead of the required 3. The second semester was pretty much the same. He was keeping up well. By the time he headed home for the summer, he had earned a 3.205 grade point average (GPA) and 34 credit hours, the upper amount required of him.
At the start of Ron’s sophomore year, he was brimming with good intentions and a full course load. With a schedule totaling 17 credit hours, he was carrying more than what was required of him. But his withdrawal from two required courses quickly landed him on a treadmill that made it nearly impossible to catch up. By the end of the academic year, Ron should have passed both General Psychology (Psych 261) and Business Psychology (Psych 262), yet he still hadn’t made it all the way through the first psychology course. The same is true for Principles of Economics. By the end of his sophomore year, he should have completed two of his economics requirements, but he was still taking EC 201 at the time of his disappearance. According to the 1952-53 course catalog, after the sophomore year, a business major should have accrued between 62 and 66 hours in required courses. Even if Ron hadn’t disappeared, he would have only racked up 57, with his sophomore year supplying only 23 of those hours. Put another way, Ron would have only completed about three-fourths of the lowest number of required credit hours for that year.
I contacted the Selective Service and asked a public affairs officer what the criteria were for a college deferment during the Korean War. I specifically wanted to know if a student had to be enrolled in a certain number of hours of college coursework each semester to be eligible.
Her response was lengthy, so I’ll paraphrase here: There were two types of student deferments at that time. The first type, 1-S, was a one-time-only deferment and only extended until the end of that academic year or until the student’s performance was no longer satisfactory, whichever came first. The second type, 2-S, had no such time limitations and was provided at the discretion of the draft board. They applied to both undergraduate and graduate students and could be renewed. As we already know, Ron was 2-S.
Her last sentence held the key: “The college student had to be a full-time student making satisfactory progress.”
The draft board would have surely noticed that Ron’s hours had taken a nose-dive and, for that reason alone, they would have likely changed Ron’s classification. But what I find most puzzling is, if he were concerned about the draft, why would he drop his psychology class for a second time when we know from this post that Ron was carrying a C? A grade of C generally means fair or average, which in my mind is satisfactory progress. If he’d stuck it out for the whole semester, he would have ended up with 15 credit hours, which was back to being full-time. Draft boards were instructed to treat each case individually. That might have been enough to convince them to allow him to hold on to his deferment.
I checked with the Selective Service again to see if they could tell me what “satisfactory” meant back then, and they responded that it was up to the local draft boards to define that term. Because it’s likely that everyone on the board has passed away, I contacted another man who had received a college deferment from draft board 32. As he recalled—and he reminded me that it was a long time ago—you could have at least a C average and still maintain your deferment.
It turns out that Ron had another worry though. As I’ve noted in prior posts, the Tammens didn’t have much money, and Ron was putting himself through school. Thanks to his years of caddying for the Hawthorne Valley Country Club, he was nominated for, and subsequently received, a scholarship from the Cleveland District Golf Association (CDGA). The CDGA caddie scholarship was a prestigious award that was given annually to caddies who had demonstrated academic ability and leadership potential and who were in financial need. Begun in 1940, it was modeled after the national Evans Scholars scholarship program. In fact, the CDGA scholarship’s founder, Martin Morrison, used to caddie for pro golfer Chick Evans as a youth. The caddie scholarship wasn’t based on how well a person played golf. The applicant had to have the grades, the financial need, and the ability to state his case in a high-stakes interview with the board of trustees. The numbers of recipients varied, as did the amount of the scholarship, which depended on the family’s finances.
There is no CDGA anymore. It’s now the Northern Ohio Golf Association (NOGA). The scholarship arm used to be called the NOGA Charities & Foundation, but today, the foundation is called The Turn, and its mission is “improving the health and wellness of people with physical disabilities.” They’ve graciously offered to peruse old records to see if they might have something on Tammen’s scholarship, though my contact said it could take a while. I’ll keep you posted. But, there’s more than one way to schlep a golf bag. Using old news articles as a starting point, I reached out to other men who had received the caddie scholarship at around the same time that Ron did. I managed to track down two.
Jack had used his CDGA scholarship to attend John Carroll University, and he told me matter-of-factly that the scholarship had changed his life. He described himself as a “welfare kid” who would have never had the opportunity to attend college if it weren’t for that scholarship money. He’d started out with a two-year grant, but because his grades were so good, the organization funded him for two more years.
When I asked him if he had to maintain a certain grade point average to keep the scholarship, he said he didn’t know, because it was never a concern. “I only got A’s,” he said.
After receiving his bachelor’s degree, he went on to earn a Ph.D. in educational administration and he later became the assistant superintendent of the Cleveland Public Schools.
Philip had experienced his share of economic hardship as well. His parents were born to first-generation immigrants from Czechoslovakia, and for a long time, his father raised his family with only an eighth-grade education (though he did eventually earn a high school degree). When Philip was nearing his graduation from high school, he recalls announcing to his parents that he might become a plumber or some other type of tradesman. His father stood up, pounded his fist on the table, and said that Philip would be going to college, throwing in a few expletives for effect.
Thanks to his CDGA caddie scholarship, Philip studied premed at Kent State, and then went on to Ohio State for his medical degree. He became an anesthesiologist and instructor at the Children’s Hospital in Columbus. His specialty was administering anesthesia to infants in preparation for open-heart surgery.
When I asked Philip if he needed to maintain a certain grade point average to keep his scholarship, he couldn’t recall, and said he carried a 3.4 at Kent. Like Jack, he’d only been given a two-year scholarship at first, but he was doing so well, they extended it to four. I was just about to give up on finding an answer to my question, when I asked: Wasn’t there any time that you were on the verge of getting a C and were worried about retaining your scholarship?
Thankfully, a long-ago memory tumbled loose.
“You had to have a B average,” he told me with zero uncertainty in his voice. He remembered this because, one semester, he’d earned all B’s, except for a C in physical education, which caused his GPA to dip to 2.85.
“They were going to take my scholarship away,” he told me. He then recalled marching down to the dean’s office, and letting them know that he was in danger of losing his scholarship, and how unfair it would be for him to lose it “just because I can’t play badminton.”
Philip got to keep his scholarship, and he remembers never allowing himself to get into the precarious position again of carrying all B’s in his major subjects. I’m guessing that Ron needed to maintain a B average too, which is why he was taking the proactive steps he was, however detrimental those steps may have been in the grand scheme of things.
In January 1953, near the end of the first semester of Ron’s sophomore year, the CDGA had requested a copy of his transcripts. Because his grade point average was still fine, 3.178 by my calculations, CDGA representatives may have taken note of the fact that he’d dropped below full-time status. Or perhaps it was just a routine inquiry, though there didn’t seem to be a request during his freshman year. News articles indicate that Morrison was diligent in keeping track of how the scholarship recipients were doing academically.
I don’t know why Ron prioritized keeping his GPA above 3.0 over carrying a full course load, despite the implications. He may have reasoned that if he were to lose his scholarship, he’d have no way to continue his studies at Miami. Perhaps he figured that, whether he had a lower GPA with a full course load or a higher GPA with a lower course load, he was destined for the military either way. He might as well go out with more impressive marks.
If Ron were going to be drafted, would that have constituted a crisis for him? If he wanted to get his degree and start making money ASAP, it would have been a setback. But his deferment was just that—a postponement, a delay. The man I spoke with who also had a college deferment said that, as soon as he graduated, he received notices asking him if he was enlisting in the armed forces or waiting to be drafted. (Enlistment was viewed more favorably because you could choose which branch of the military you signed on with and what your role might be.) Either way, he was expected to serve. And it wasn’t as if Ron was opposed to serving in the military. He’d applied for the Naval ROTC at one point, but was turned down because he’d failed the physical.
Maybe there was something else that was causing Ron so much angst—something that might better explain his sudden impulse to consult the Bible, which doesn’t seem to be the typical response to being drafted. Perhaps it had something to do with why he was having trouble keeping up with his classes to begin with.
I want to address one question that has been raised by a couple people in emails. That (very astute) question is: if Ron failed his physical for the NROTC, why would he be nervous about losing his deferment and being drafted by the Army?
I need to apologize because I now realize that I never delved fully enough into the question of WHY Ron probably failed his NROTC physical. The family has mentioned his having a cast in his eye, which is entirely possible. But my thinking is that it also had to do with Ron’s eyesight in general. Ron did not wear glasses. In Ron’s student records, he said his right eye was 40/20; however, it was likely 20/40 since the first number should always be the test standard of 20 feet. What this means is that his right eye would be able to read from 20 feet what people with so-called normal vision could read from 40 feet away. Ron said his left eye was 20/13, which means that he could read at 13 feet what normal-vision people could read at 20 feet. Perhaps Ron’s better left eye helped compensate for the right eye, which is why Ron didn’t wear glasses? I don’t know that answer. Here’s a link to Ron’s student records: https://ronaldtammen.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/rons-student-records.pdf.
NROTC specs appeared to have been stricter than those for an Army draftee. According to a 1948 pamphlet on the Naval College Training Program, the NROTC physical standards were the same as those for the Naval Academy. The NROTC insisted upon uncorrected 20/20 vision, meaning normal visual acuity without the help of eyeglasses. That standard alone would have probably disqualified Ron then and there due to his right eye.
In comparison, a document for the Army’s Office of Medical History shows that the specs for visual acuity were as follows in the 1940s:
“In 1940 minimum visual acuity for general service was set at 20/100 in each eye without glasses, if correctable to 20/40 bilaterally. This was the second most important cause for rejection, and these requirements were progressively lowered. The lowest visual acuity requirements were reached in April 1944, when 20/200 in each eye, or 20/100 in one eye and 20/400 in the second eye (if correctable to 20/40 in each eye, 20/30 in the right and 20/70 in the left, or 20/20 in the right and 20/400 in the left), was sufficient for general service. The registrant did not have to supply the corrective glasses himself; the Army furnished more than 2 million pairs of glasses.” https://history.amedd.army.mil/booksdocs/wwii/PrsnlHlthMsrs/chapter1.htm
There is no document to consult to tell us why Ron failed his NROTC physical. But, at least in the 1940s, Ron’s 20/40 visual acuity was not good enough for the NROTC while it would have been fine for the Army. But that’s just for the 1940s–I need more data for the 1950s, and will certainly be looking into it further. If anyone has additional thoughts to share on this, please let me know.