The fish in Ron’s bed

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Photo credit: Michael Weidner onUnsplash

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.

Bingo.

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.

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(** Note: Stargazers, late-night wayfarers, sometimes insomniacs, etc., excepted, though I don’t think these describe Ron very well either.)

5 thoughts on “The fish in Ron’s bed

  1. I am now thinking about this:

    “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.”

    Assuming Dick told the FBI that he had put the fish in Ron’s bed on Saturday, or even Friday, wouldn’t they have realized Ron had spent a night or two away from his dorm? And would they not have looked into that?

    1. Yes, absolutely. They would have known–and presumably looked into it. But (supposedly) they have no records to show for it.

      By the way, my FOIA appeal was partly based on those visits/interviews–with Dick Titus and his parents, with Mr. and Mrs. Tammen, with Chuck Findlay, and with whomever else. The FBI (supposedly) has no documentation of any of that. As I’m thinking about this, I wonder if those records would have been kept in the Missing Person File Room…

      Also, not sure if you saw my comment to Scott Renfro in the Dec. 30 post? The FOIA rep had used the dead fish as the FBI’s excuse for sending me FOIA documents on Ron when I was required to send proof of death or third-party approval for other missing persons. The FBI knew that the fish was meaningless because of their conversation with Titus, yet the FOIA rep tried to make the incident more sinister.

      1. I just read that reply to Scott Renfro. That’s so weird what the guy said about the fish. It’s just not accurate. The fish was not found after he disappeared. It was found before and is well established on record as such. And he seems to be taking it upon himself to speak for the family, though I don’t know what their thoughts are/were about that.

        Also, I’m intrigued by the 9/11 stuff. I need to think about that.

      2. Exactly. I caught him in a lie and he knew it. When I mentioned that conversation in my lawsuit asking for an explanation of where the FOIPA rep had learned about the fish, the chief of the FBI’s Record/Information Dissemination Section wrote this: “Several media accounts available on the internet reported that after the disappearance of Ronald Tammen in 1953, a dead fish was found in Tammen’s college dormitory bed. It is likely that Mr. [BLANK] made the comment to plaintiff regarding the ‘fish in the bed’ based on media reporting he had seen at that time, rather than from FBI-originated documents he would have reviewed at that time. I have been advised that Mr. [BLANK] did not learn of the information involving the fish in Tammen’s bed from any FBI document located in the search conducted by the FBI prior to or up until this date.”

        Of course, I knew there was info online about the fish. And I thought that the FOIPA rep would tell me that’s where he got the info about the fish when I asked him. (Although, truth be told, I thought it would be strange for a FOIPA person to do background research on Google instead of straight from FBI records.) But he didn’t. He told me that he didn’t know about the fish–that it was just a poor attempt at humor.

        I wasn’t satisfied with their explanation at that time, and when I revisit it now, in light of the other things we now know that they knew at that time, well…I find it all very…interesting.

  2. Reader Deena B messaged me today about the fish that Dick Titus had put in Ron’s bed a day or two before Ron disappeared, and I believe she’s figured out a possible explanation to a key part of our timeline.

    Titus, who lived down the hall from Ron, was the same guy who Ron had helped study the night of his disappearance. Deena was wondering how the scene would have played out when Ron showed up in Dick’s room to help him study, in light of the fish prank and all.

    Think of it: you’re an 18-year-old prankster and you’ve put a dead fish in your RA’s bed a day or two ago. Then your RA stops by that Sunday night at 7 p.m. to help you study. Don’t you think that fish would have come up in conversation at some point?

    As Deena put it: “Seems like Titus would not have been able to contain his curiosity about Ron not indicating he’d seen it or reacting at all and would have given the whole thing away. He either had the world’s greatest poker face. Or Ron did. Or Titus thought Ron did and seemingly played along. But I don’t know if I could have kept up the ruse long enough to have a whole study session.”

    Great point. I think Titus did say something. Although he’s now deceased, I spoke with him a few times about the fish. He was a talker. And I think this scenario helps explain a key question I’ve had about the whole fish episode.

    For a long time, I’ve wondered why Ron would decide to change his sheets at 8 p.m., especially if he was going to song practice later that night. How would he have known that the fish was there unless he was actually planning to go to bed? When I found out that the fish had been there at least since Saturday, and possibly Friday, then I thought that perhaps it was the smell that caused him to check his sheets. But I didn’t love that theory either.

    But if Dick Titus told Ron about the fish, or at least hinted at it, then that would explain Ron’s behavior a lot better.

    Perhaps Dick didn’t admit outright to putting a fish in Ron’s bed. Maybe he just said something like “Hey, Ron, how’d you sleep last night?” nudge nudge. Or, “Have you discovered anything interesting in your bed recently?” or something like that. Ron would have thought about the prank that he’d played on Titus, where he’d short-sheeted his bed and threw in Rice Krispies.

    I can picture Ron leaving Titus’s room and immediately looking in his bed. There’d be the fish. And that’s when he’d walk downstairs to get the sheets.

    And that, by the way, is apparently what happened. Ron was in Titus’s room at 7 p.m., they studied, he walked back to his room, and at roughly 8 p.m., he was walking downstairs to get some new sheets.

    This makes so much more sense—a basic case of cause and effect as opposed to Ron randomly yanking down his covers at 8 p.m. to find a fish in his bed. What’s been missing in the story is the part where Dick Titus gave Ron a reason to look.

    Great work, Deena!

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