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.
- 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)
- Middletown Journal
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?