A case of amnesia, part 3: Three youths from Ohio

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Photo credit: Pexels, CC0 License

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)
  • 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:

The Journal Herald (Dayton, Ohio) · 27 Apr 1953
Reprint courtesy of Cox Media Group Ohio. Article from April 27, 1953 in the Dayton Journal Herald.

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.

Twelve.

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:

DDN -- 4-28-53 -- scan
Reprint courtesy of Cox Media Group Ohio; for closer view, click on article.

 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 agoa 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 thenand 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:

Production Schedule
Click on schedule for a closer view.

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?

A case of amnesia, part 2: Things in Ron’s background

who am I?
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 …?! 

And then:

  1. What could be in Ronald Tammen’s background that would be consistent with dissociation?
  2. 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?
  3. What faculty panel? I don’t remember reading about a faculty panel.
  4. 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:

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Friday, April 24, 1953, Miami Sophomore Missing, page 1, near bottom

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

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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.

A case of amnesia, part 1

andrew-worley-299600-unsplash
Photo by Andrew Worley on Unsplash

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’

Carl Knox notes -- 3 profs
Among his other notes, Carl Knox wrote down the names of three professors in his notebook–Ron’s sophomore adviser plus two psychology professors.

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:

Prof. Dennison

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.

Prof. Delp

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.

Prof. Switzer

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.

Carl Knox notes--Tammen's schedule
Ronald Tammen’s schedule the semester that he disappeared, along with the names of his professors. Among this group, Dr. Switzer, Ron’s psychology professor, and Prof. Dennison, penciled in at the top righthand corner, were listed on a separate page in Carl Knox’s notes.

To be continued–A case of amnesia, part 2: Things in Ron’s background

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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!