The fish in Ron’s bed

michael-weidner-565728-unsplash
Photo credit: Michael Weidner on Unsplash

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.

***********************************

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

 

 

 

The REAL phantoms of Oxford, Ohio

(Spoiler alert: they have nothing to do with Ronald Tammen)

Fisher Hall
Historic American Buildings Survey, C. (1933) Oxford Female College, Fisher Hall, Miami University Campus, Oxford, Butler County, OH. Butler County Ohio Oxford, 1933. Documentation Compiled After. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/oh0082/.
It’s almost October 31, just another day in our search for Ron Tammen. Over the years, Halloween has become an alternative anniversary for the Ron Tammen saga, when news articles have recounted his tale in a spooky sort of way. It’s odd, really. A stand-up guy disappears from his dormitory one snowy night in April, and, all too soon, people start spreading rumors that he was haunting the place he stepped away from. Thousands of people disappear every year and they aren’t accused of being phantoms. Why Ron Tammen?

Normally, I’d suggest that it was the naiveté of the time, or the immaturity of the college crowd back then, but Richard Cox, from Mansfield, Ohio, disappeared from his dorm several years before Ron did, and no one was suggesting that he was the phantom of West Point. (On the other hand, Ruth Baumgardner, who went missing in 1937 from Ohio Wesleyan, had the misfortune of disappearing from a dorm that some feel is haunted. We’ll save our discussion of Richard and Ruth’s disappearances for another day.)

Why did the phantom stories start? When did they start?

One key reason behind the rumors is that Ron couldn’t have selected a more noteworthy building on campus from which to disappear. A once-regal brick structure with pillared porticos at the south, east, and west entrances and a cupola on top, Fisher Hall had been in a crumbling state even when Ron and his fellow residents lived there. Put another way, if Miami’s dorms at that time were played by iconic 1940s actresses, Bette Davis would be Fisher Hall, a building whose glory days were in the past as the university added more Anne Baxters to its fold.

The building that would eventually be named Fisher Hall was built in 1856 to serve as a women’s college. (U.S. President Benjamin Harrison, who graduated from Miami University, was the son-in-law of Oxford Female College’s first president.) The building had originally possessed the grandeur and amenities that the administrators and architect felt befitted its inhabitants, including a ballroom, chapel, and bathing rooms that offered both warm and cold water. In 1882, after years of financial hardship at the college and the death of its second president, the property was sold. For more than four decades, Fisher Hall would then serve as the main building of the Oxford Retreat, a private institution that treated people with psychiatric disorders and alcohol and opium addictions. Although advertisements for the Oxford Retreat described its environs as homelike, beautiful, and salubrious, news articles from that period tell of the tragic acts of its less-satisfied clients who attempted an escape or committed suicide, most often by noose, razor, or window, and, in at least one instance, jumping in front of a westbound train.

In 1925, Miami University purchased the 69-acre property as part of a $2 million dollar expansion effort. (Another building that was part of Oxford Retreat, The Pines, was purchased by Miami in 1936.) Officials remodeled the main building into a men’s residence hall and named it after 1870 Miami graduate Judge Elam Fisher. For a brief stint during WWII, the building became the U.S.S. Fisher Hall as part of the Naval Radio Training School, where sailors and WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) came to learn Morse code. When the war ended, it went back to being a residence hall—first for women, then back to men—but in 1958, a mere five years after Ron disappeared, it was shut down for that purpose because the upper floors were considered unsafe. For the next ten years, Miami’s Department of Theatre occupied the first floor, where the dining area had been converted to an auditorium. The rest of the building was used for storage or boarded up entirely. So, over the years, Fisher Hall had developed a certain level of creepiness about it that was no doubt a contributing factor to the phantom stories. In short, the place had a past and it looked haunted.

The second unfortunate factor was that, well, Fisher Hall may have actually been haunted. Before the building was torn down in 1978, stories had made their way around campus of mysteriously lit rooms and eerie noises emanating from somewhere within. In a 1972 article in the Cincinnati Enquirer, reporter Irene Wright described some of the phenomena that people in the theatre department had experienced while they were housed there. One former professor had told his colleagues that, while he was working in his office one night, he heard footsteps descending the staircase from the upper floors, beyond the barricaded area. The worrisome sound followed him all the way to the basement, where, totally freaked out, he’d locked himself in a men’s bathroom. After it finally stopped, he grabbed his briefcase and got the hell out.

Another professor told how lights would appear in the third floor of Fisher Hall on every opening night of a production even though that area was inaccessible and the electrical wires had supposedly been cut, or how lights would dim and brighten in the auditorium for no apparent reason when he was there alone. Once, when he was teaching a class, a rope dropped from the ceiling and began swinging hypnotically, however, when he glanced in the rope’s direction again, it was gone.

The professor also relayed a story told to him by a part-time maintenance person: over a period of nine days, a 300-pound bust of Judge Fisher had been moved from its location outside the theatre office to various points on the first floor. On the tenth day, it appeared to have vanished, until it was later found on the third floor, which seemed a near impossibility to the building’s occupants. (The article doesn’t say who the brave souls were who ventured to the third floor to make that discovery, or, for that matter, why they even felt the need to chase down the 300-pound bust.) When individuals who studied ESP were brought in, they mapped out the locations from which the judge had been hop-scotching, and found that they formed two letters: E and F. Elam Fisher, they decided. A stray set of data points in the shape of a diamond seemed inexplicable, until they learned that ol’ Elam was nicknamed the “Diamond Judge” because of a stickpin he used to wear. The professor who shared the story in 1972 concluded that, if there were a ghost in Fisher Hall, it was probably the building’s namesake. The bust eventually vanished entirely. (Side note: a quick search on eBay didn’t yield the bust either, however, someone was selling an Elam Fisher duck call. Apparently, Elam Fisher of Detroit, MI, had developed the first-ever patented duck call in 1870, which he named the “tongue pincher.” I’m thinking that has to be our guy since Judge Fisher got his law degree from the University of Michigan. Read about the patent here.)

“…If students were involved in moving the bust, no one ever confessed to the incident,” the professor said at the time.

In later years, Fisher Hall was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and, even though the structure was eventually demolished, the Library of Congress still has photos. The Marcum Hotel & Conference Center now stands in its former location.

The third possible reason that Ron’s name became associated with anything phantom-related had to do with rumors of a life form that appeared in Miami’s Formal Gardens, near Fisher Hall, the November after Ron disappeared. The visitor first came to students’ attention on Sunday, November 15, at roughly 7:45 p.m., and was described as roughly six feet tall with long black hair, a soprano’s singing voice, and superhuman athletic ability. At one witness’s insistence, the phantom was bounding at a height of 10 feet. The so-called phantom obviously recognized the importance of bundling up, for he/she remembered to wear a coat (it was black) as protection against the chilly November temperatures. Several more appearances were made that week, but, as the crowds of students continued to grow each night (a time when they really should have been studying), the visits abruptly came to a halt (phantoms need to study too). One of the students admitted that he nearly overtook the phantom at one point, but slowed up at the last moment out of fear of actually catching it. The human imagination is a powerful thing.

When I asked Ron’s contemporaries if they remembered hearing any rumors about Ron after he disappeared, many would chuckle, and bring up the long-haired soprano who could clear ten-foot hurdles. “Well, there were those crazy appearances of the phantom in the Formal Gardens…,” they’d say, and I’d laugh and move on to the next question.

It’s not that I don’t believe in things we can’t see, or things that may be part of another dimension (except for the Formal Gardens phantom—I most definitely don’t believe in the Formal Gardens phantom). It’s just that I don’t think any of the above had anything to do with Ronald Tammen. The reason is that I believe Ron Tammen was very much alive when he walked out of his room in Fisher Hall on April 19, 1953. And, at this stage of my research, I also think that he went on living for a long, long time.

Chuck Findlay’s story

There are moments in some people’s lives that prove to be pivotal. They’re rolling along, minding their own business, steady as they go on a plotted trajectory, and then a metaphorical meteor strikes and their life takes an abrupt left turn. In Charles Findlay’s case, that moment arrived on Sunday, April 19, 1953, at around 10:30 p.m., when he walked into his room in Miami University’s Fisher Hall after having spent the weekend in Dayton with his family.

At first glance, Chuck didn’t know that everything was about to change for him. By all appearances, his roommate, Ron Tammen, would be walking in at any minute and they’d be recounting to one another how they’d spent their weekends. Ron had left a light on, an open book on his desk, and his wallet, keys, and pretty much everything else he owned in the room, and his car was still parked outside. When, after some time, there was still no Ron, Chuck decided he was probably staying at the fraternity house that night and went to bed. He didn’t think much else about it.

The next day, when Ron still hadn’t shown up, Chuck grew a little more concerned. According to one knowledgeable source, Chuck had bumped into Richard, Ron’s younger brother and a freshman at Miami, while walking to class. He told him that Ron hadn’t come home the night before and asked if he knew where he might be. Richard responded that he didn’t know. Later that day, Chuck stopped by the Delt house and asked if Ron had been there the night before. Whoever he spoke with also told him no. We already know how the story ends—Ron never returned and, from that point on, Charles L. Findlay would be remembered as the roommate of the guy in the center of Miami’s most baffling mystery.

The first time I spoke with Chuck was in 2010. I was practically giddy at the prospect of talking with someone whom I’d hoped could finally answer all my questions about Ron Tammen. But, like everyone else, Chuck didn’t feel that he knew Ron very well. They might have been roommates, but they didn’t see each other much. “He was busy,” Chuck told me.

Chuck and I spoke several more times, the last being in the spring of 2015. My notes and transcripts reveal a pattern in which I was doing most of the talking, posing to him a string of questions or filling him in on the latest developments. “Do you remember anything about this (or that) detail?” I’d ask him. And he’d say, “Somewhat,” or “Maybe,” or, his favorite response, “No, I’m sorry, I don’t. It was so long ago.” To his credit, he didn’t want to send me on a wild goose chase based on a potentially faulty recollection. Nevertheless, by that time, I’d come to appreciate what a kind and gentle man Chuck Findlay was—always willing to return my call, always happy to listen to my latest hypothesis about what happened to his former roommate.

This past summer, I had reason to contact Chuck again. I wanted to ask him about my recent discoveries, namely about Ron’s possible participation in the Delts’ song practice, the woman from Hamilton, the Campus Owls’ recording session in Cincinnati, and whether he’d heard about a fight between Ron and his brother Richard in the third-floor bathroom. I also wanted to ask him if he remembered walking up to the third floor that night to find out if anyone had seen Ron, an effort to corroborate Hal’s (not his real name) story.

I left a voicemail message suggesting I come to visit him in person. Several days later, I received a call from Chuck’s son David. Knowing that couldn’t be a good sign, I braced myself for the sad news: Chuck Findlay had passed away May 26, 2017, at the age of 85. David also let me know that, in Chuck’s later years, the two had talked at length about Ron Tammen. “Would you be interested in meeting with me instead?” he asked. “Absolutely,” I replied.

We met in a Panera, in Farmington Hills, Michigan, and it was there that I more fully began to grasp the toll that Ron Tammen’s disappearance had taken on Chuck Findlay and how it impacted the life he led.

“Ronald Tammen’s disappearance is partly responsible for the person that’s sitting in front of you today,” David Findlay said to me mere minutes into our conversation. David is warm and energetic and he’s a big believer in the interconnectedness of the universe. Plus, he looked so much like his father, it wasn’t funny. We hit it off instantly.

Chuck Findlay was a little older than Ron Tammen. Born on April 1, 1932, he had just turned 21 when Tammen went missing. (Ron was still 19.) Although they didn’t know each other well, they were a good match, because they were similar people: quiet, introspective, and studious.

“The two of them liked each other, got along famously, but they weren’t close,” David said. “They weren’t close. They were roommates and they got along fine.”

After Ron disappeared, Chuck was left to fend for himself for the remainder of the school year—he was never provided with a replacement roommate, which, as David points out, couldn’t have been good psychologically. During Chuck’s junior year, he was once again assigned to Fisher Hall, and this time, his roommate was kicked out during the first semester for stealing tests. Again, Chuck was provided with no replacement. On top of all that, he became ill with mono during the latter part of 1953. He was struggling.

According to David, Chuck internalized Ron’s disappearance in the years that followed. He may have been silently marking off the anniversaries, but he would never raise the subject with anyone.

”He did not talk about it. I mean, it had that much of an effect on him,” David said.

A 1960 anniversary article in the Dayton Daily News, which included comments from Chuck’s mother, supported this observation. Although Mrs. Findlay claimed that Chuck and Ron had been “very, very close,” a point both David and his father would have disputed, she also mentioned that Chuck had been seeing a doctor for a nervous disorder he’d developed after Ron disappeared.

“He still can’t talk about it,” she’d said at the time.

During the summers when Chuck was still at Miami, he’d worked in sales for a hardware store and, later, a furniture store, both in his hometown of Dayton. However, when he graduated in the winter of 1956, he needed a break. He moved to Wooster, a small college town in northeast Ohio, and taught roller skating at the local skating rink. In the 1950s, this might have been comparable to a college grad today moving to Colorado to wait tables or teach downhill skiing. It was a chance for Chuck to get away and clear his head before diving into the lifelong responsibilities of adulthood.

“He and my uncle ran the teaching program through Wooster Skateland for several years, but that wouldn’t have happened if Ron Tammen hadn’t disappeared,” said David. “And that’s where he met my mom. So there’s this cause and effect thing—this ripple, cause, and effect thing.”

After Chuck and his wife married, the two moved to Dayton, where he managed a furniture store, and later, to Michigan, where they ran a roller rink of their own for 25 years. After leaving the skating world, he worked for a local car dealership, driving cars from state to state until Parkinson’s disease made it impossible for him to drive any longer. When he was 82, he finally decided to retire for good, though the owners told him that he was welcome to work for them for as long as he wanted. He was that loved.

Chuck was a sentimental dad, and he wasn’t ashamed to show it. He was the sort of father who said a prayer and kissed his sons on the forehead at night, whether they were grown adults or not. When the family was younger, he would help his wife hang cookies on the tree on Christmas Eve so the boys could munch on them the whole next day. He would tape record family gatherings so he could capture each word that was said for posterity.

In 1976, when a Dayton television station was producing The Phantom of Oxford, they called Chuck repeatedly, begging him to talk on camera with them. After two months, he finally agreed.

“They had to bring in big cameras and lighting and everything, and I sat in my pajamas, cross-legged, at the entrance to our living room, and sat there and listened to the story,” said David. “And that’s the first time I ever heard it. It gives me chills to this day. And then, the book closed and he didn’t speak of it for decades.”

That would change some 38 years later as David was helping his father become more accustomed to life in the digital world.

“About three years ago, I discovered that video online. Dad was asking me, ‘What’s the difference between Netflix and YouTube?’ And I was explaining the difference, and I said, ‘Everything and everyone is on YouTube.’ So I Googled him on YouTube, and that came up, and we have a Smart TV, and I said, ‘Dad, you want to know what’s on YouTube? Here.’ And I started playing his interview, and he was like, ‘That’s me!’ And I said, ‘Yeah, you’re on YouTube.’”

After watching the video, Chuck started opening up more about his time at Miami: about Fisher Hall’s wobbly plywood floors that made funny sounds when they walked; or the dropped ceilings that would rattle with falling plaster; or how food would be transported by dumbwaiter from the kitchen in the basement to the dining area above; or how he used to carry a bow tie in his pocket so that he’d be able to clip it on for dinner (an occasion for which ties were required) without having to run to his room to change—his own little 1950s life hack.

Chuck also took to keeping a notebook during those years at Miami after Ron disappeared—daily affirmations to help him cope. They were simple sayings, many clichés. Things like: Don’t sweat the small stuff, or The past can only be used to reflect on. It should not be used as a guideline for the future.

David treasures that notebook as an opportunity to see into the psyche of his father after he’d withstood one of the biggest jolts imaginable—perhaps even bigger than death itself. In death, there’s grieving. There’s closure. In a disappearance, there’s a hole, and endless unanswered questions, and the off chance that you might run into that person 30 or 40 years later. Chuck never stopped looking for Ron in crowds or on the street.

“He was 21. And so much of [what’s in the notebook] is who I knew to be my father my whole lifetime. And I think that was the start of it,” said David. “So it was really amazing that this tragedy, for my father, in the end, gave him a deep love for life and a passion for living life to the fullest that may not have been if not for that fateful night so very long ago.”

Hats
David and Charles Findlay, August 2015. David is wearing his grandfather’s cap, while Chuck is wearing a cap he purchased in 1953 in Oxford, Ohio. Credit: Photo used with permission of Findlay family. Not for reproduction.

Ronald Tammen’s hectic, demanding, difficult, jam-packed, very busy day, part 2

(Featured photo credit: David Cohen at Unsplash)

In the last post, we discussed how busy Ronald Tammen was on his final official day on the grid. Our big revelation was that, in the morning and early afternoon of April 19, 1953, Ron was allegedly in Cincinnati making three 78 records—six recordings in all—with the Campus Owls for their competition entry for DownBeat magazine.

So King Records now takes the #1 spot in Ron’s itinerary for that day. Before I make the next reveal, here’s a brief synopsis of what we know (or think we know) about his actions from that point on:

Reconstructed Itinerary for April 19, 1953

(click on link)

With this timeline in mind, we now have one more impromptu brush with Ronald Tammen that supposedly happened on April 19. This information comes to us by way of a former resident of Fisher Hall—let’s call him Hal—who lived on the third floor. Although I haven’t yet been able to corroborate his story with anyone else, I wanted to share it because it’s so compelling and because Hal is so confident that it happened. (Several of Ronald Tammen’s family members have reviewed this post in advance, and I’ve included a couple observations from one of them below, where applicable.)

From the Fisher Hall resident: Ron was in Fisher Hall’s third-floor bathroom when he got into a fight with his younger brother Richard.

To say that Hal is an extrovert is an understatement. Hal was known as the guy who had his finger on the pulse of Fisher Hall. He pretty much knew everyone in the dorm, in addition to what the day-to-day goings-on were as well as what was churning in the rumor mill. Today, he’s a retired businessman who has enjoyed great success in the construction field, but back in 1953, he was the ringleader of a group of guys who would play hearts from early evening until well into the night. When they weren’t playing cards, they occasionally broke rules and ignored boundaries, but only in a harmless sort of way. If they got hungry, they’d been known to try to sneak food from the kitchen. If they wondered where an unmarked door might lead, they’d open it and go exploring.

Hal explained to me that on the evening that Ronald Tammen disappeared, he and some of the guys had been playing cards in one of the rooms on the third floor. And then, ever so nonchalantly, he dropped this little bombshell:

“Now the two Tammen brothers fought in the bathroom. And both of them were husky guys, not big, but quite husky…and that night they had a real bang-up in the third-floor bathroom.”

Upon reflection, Hal isn’t exactly sure what time the fight happened and he has no idea why it happened. He wasn’t there. He’d only heard about the fight after the fact. He also isn’t sure if there had been yelling or fists flying—just that the Tammens were in a fight, and someone broke it up. It wasn’t the first time that Ron and Richard had fought, he said, though it wasn’t out of the ordinary for fights to break out in the dorm either, usually between roommates. He just recalls hearing that Ron and Richard Tammen had fought in the third-floor bathroom sometime on the day Ron disappeared. (A Tammen family member questions the description of the brothers as husky, noting that they were slim to medium in build.)

Why Ron and Richard would be on the third floor of Fisher Hall at all is anyone’s guess, since Ron’s room was on the second floor and Richard, who was a freshman that year, lived in nearby Symmes Hall. When I asked Hal that question, he said that Ron often took showers on the third floor. (To find out why Ron did that, I suppose we’d have to ask him directly. Maybe it was so he could have some privacy and a little distance from the freshman guys he oversaw. Maybe the water pressure was better. Alas, we’ll never know.)

Hal’s hypothesis is that something terrible must have happened in relation to that fight. He imagines a scenario in which a second fight broke out, things got out of hand, and Ron died somehow—by accident. He pictures Richard carrying Ron’s body up a ladder to the attic and putting him in one of the large cisterns that Hal had discovered during one of his clandestine expeditions around Fisher Hall. Hal says that he spoke with the Oxford police about it, encouraging them to search the attic, but they had little regard for what he had to say and, at least to his knowledge, no one followed up. (The same Tammen family member finds it difficult to believe that Richard would have been able to carry Ron up a ladder to the attic, since Richard was smaller than Ron. Although they were both roughly 5’9″ in height, Richard was probably no more than 150 pounds in comparison to Ron’s 175 pounds at the time of his disappearance.)

Ron's stats
Click on image to enlarge. A page from Dean Carl Knox’s notes showing Ronald Tammen’s height and weight at the time of his disappearance.

Hal also recalls Chuck Findlay, Ron’s roommate, interrupting their card game the night of Ron’s disappearance and asking the group if anyone had seen Ron. Hal says that he and several others took it upon themselves to check the rooms of everyone in Fisher Hall, to no avail. They also supposedly checked the entrances to the dorm to see if there were any tracks in the snow. It was the absence of footprints that signaled to Hal that Ron had never left the dorm. (Although Hal’s sleuthing instincts were excellent, I’m not sure they were infallible considering the amount of snow that had reportedly fallen that day. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the snowfall appears to have been between .01 and .04 inches per hour for most of the afternoon and early evening for Dayton and Cincinnati, and continued at that level in the early afternoon of April 20. This would be consistent with news accounts that described the weather as chilly with snow flurries. In short, the snow may have been sticking, but it probably hadn’t accumulated very much.)

Snowfall in Oxford, OH region, 4-19-1953
Click on image to enlarge. Hourly precipitation (HPCP) for April 19-20, 1953, in Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio, region. Source: NOAA National Climatic Data Center.

Hal isn’t the first person to suspect Richard. In contrast to his likable older brother, Richard could be a hothead and a bully. John, the oldest Tammen brother, credited Richard’s teachers with bringing out the mean in him by continuously smacking his dominant left hand in school. Some have wondered if Richard might have done something terrible to Ron in true biblical, Cain v. Abel fashion.

I think we should take a few steps back, however. We don’t know what the argument was about. But we might be able to piece a few things together, assuming, again, that it indeed happened:

  • By taking place in Fisher Hall’s third-floor bathroom, it’s pretty clear who the aggressor would have been. Something could have set Richard off, and he came to find his brother to have it out with him.
  • According to Ken McDiffett, the former head resident of nearby Collins Hall who had conducted his own research into the Tammen disappearance, Ronald and Richard supposedly spoke by phone at 8 p.m. That phone call probably had something to do with whatever they were arguing about, irrespective of whether the call took place before or after the fight.
  • If the fight took place after the 8 p.m. phone call, then Hal and his guys would have likely heard the commotion while they were playing cards, since the two bathrooms, which were located across the hall from one another, were nearby.
  • If Ron was in the third-floor bathroom to take a shower, he probably did so at the same time he was seen walking around in a towel. That would put the fight sometime within our 4-7 p.m. window, which is my guess regarding when the fight occurred.
  • As Hal said, the argument in the bathroom didn’t last. Someone broke things up. What’s more, according to Paul, the Delt, Ron attended song practice at around 9 p.m., which means that there would have been a cooling-off period. If the fight had resumed, it would have had to occur sometime after 10:30 p.m., when Ron returned from song practice. And if so, the altercation likely wouldn’t have taken place inside Fisher Hall, since more people would have heard it at that hour. Even if Ron didn’t attend song practice, any possible rematch sometime after 8 p.m. would have had to occur outside, again, because too many people would have noticed it inside Fisher Hall. This makes the cistern theory less plausible.
TIMELINE
Click on image to enlarge. Artwork source: Openclipart.org.

Richard’s behavior after his brother disappeared was all over the map—from reticence to defensiveness to panic. Robert Tammen, the youngest of the Tammen siblings, doesn’t remember Richard ever talking about Ron’s disappearance when he was home on break. A former dorm counselor said that, when he asked Richard if he knew where Ron might be, Richard’s demeanor turned sour, and he said something like, “I’m not my brother’s keeper.” Paul, the Delt, remembers Richard bursting into the fraternity house living room the Saturday after Ron went missing, when a group was watching a baseball game, and asking if anyone had seen his brother. Of course, if Richard had spoken with his brother the day of his disappearance, either by phone or in person, he remained tight-lipped about it when speaking with news reporters. (He’s on record as having last seen Ron at around 11 or 11:30 p.m., Saturday, April 18.) Any of those behaviors could be interpreted in a number of ways, some of which might arouse suspicions about Richard.

Two of Richard’s actions have led me to see things differently, however. First, news accounts had reported that Richard didn’t believe Mrs. Spivey’s claims that Ron had showed up on her doorstep in Seven Mile later that night because Richard had found some discrepancies in her story. If he had put his brother in the attic, or anywhere else, wouldn’t it have been to his advantage to go along with whatever Mrs. Spivey said, to throw people off the trail? Also, many years afterward, when the university had been publishing articles around Halloween that portrayed the Tammen case as a ghost story, Richard contacted Miami’s news bureau to ask them to stop. He didn’t want his brother remembered in that way. Those don’t sound like the actions of a guilty person to me.

I would give anything to talk with Richard, because, in my mind, what took place in that third-floor bathroom might not have begun as a fight at all. Perhaps Richard was pleading—loudly, aggressively—with Ron not to do something that Ron was determined to do, even to the point of throwing some punches at him. Angst and anger can look the same to a casual observer. Unfortunately, in October 2004, Richard died of carbon monoxide poisoning in an apartment fire that was ruled accidental, with the probable cause being “the careless use of smoking materials.”

Did Richard do something drastic? I don’t think so—even though I know he was no angel. I’m not the only person who has come to that conclusion either. The FBI has no records on Richard, and people familiar with the inner workings of the Oxford PD and university investigations have told me that they never heard his name mentioned as a suspect. The cold case detective from the 2008 Butler County Sheriff’s Department investigation also didn’t consider him a suspect.

Did Richard know something about Ron’s whereabouts that he would take to his grave? That’s a possibility I haven’t ruled out.

Why did Ron Tammen get his blood typed?

donating blood
Photo credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, Reproduction number LC-USW3- 029978-E, LOT 820

Something I’ve discovered as I’ve been researching the Ronald Tammen disappearance is that there’s never a straightforward route to a solution. Scads of rabbit holes are lying in wait between point A and point Z, and the minute you start tunneling down one of them, there will invariably be an unrelated side burrow needing to be checked out. It’s kind of like driving from Cleveland to Cincinnati and getting caught up in every roundabout and cul-de-sac along the way. It’s a road trip, and road trips are generally awesome, but who really knows when we’ll be hitting I-275, let alone the Skyline Chili at 7th and Vine?

Case in point: For the past two weeks, I’d been placing calls and sending out emails to the former residents of Fisher Hall following up on our “woman from Hamilton” lead. The conversations have been captivating, and I’m amazed by the large number of octogenarians who are able to retrieve obscure college memories on demand. (Seriously, can you recall the name of your resident assistant from your freshman year of college or reel off the number of your dorm room or your class schedule? Some of these guys honestly can.) And then, during one such conversation, another side burrow came into view: a possible clue related to Ron’s blood type test.

Remember that story? On Wednesday, November 19, 1952—five months before he disappeared—Ronald Tammen had stepped into the office of Dr. Garret J. Boone, a family physician in Hamilton, Ohio, who also happened to be the county coroner. The reason for Ron’s visit was to have his blood typed, which seemed odd to Doc Boone. It was so odd, in fact, that, when he later realized that the young man was the same person who disappeared from Miami, he dug up Ron’s medical record and contacted university officials to see if the new information might help in their investigation. But the officials weren’t interested in what Doc Boone had to say. He was angry by the “brush-off” (his word choice) he’d received, and kept that potential lead to himself until 20 years later, in 1973, when he told Hamilton Journal-News reporter Joe Cella.

Doc Boone’s account left readers scratching their heads. Why a blood type test? It’s not exactly a high-priority medical procedure that warrants a full-fledged doctor’s visit. The two most obvious reasons for having one in those days were probably: a) to donate blood or b) to take a paternity test. (I’d originally thought that blood typing was required if a person wanted to get married, but most information sources state that, back then, the required pre-wedding blood test was for detecting sexually transmitted diseases and other health issues, as opposed to determining blood type.)

So what about a paternity test? A couple years ago, I spoke with a person at the DNA Diagnostics Center, a national paternity testing laboratory and affiliate of the American Pregnancy Association. Paternity tests in the 1950s were generally conducted six months after a baby was born, for the baby’s protection. Six months prior to November 19 would have been May 19, 1952, a ballpark guess for a potential baby’s birthday. Nine months before that date—roughly the time when the alleged baby would have been conceived—is August 1951, when Ron was fresh out of high school. Considering how rarely he dated back then, I’m sure Ron would have been free and clear of any worry that he’d fathered a child.

The second possibility is that he wanted to donate blood. In 1952, the American Red Cross was fairly new to its blood program. According to the organization’s timeline, its first national blood collection program began for the military during WWII and the first collection center for civilians was established in 1948 in Rochester, N.Y. The number of collection centers mushroomed to nearly 1600 the following year. But who would make a special trip—on a Wednesday—to a doctor 14 miles away to have his blood typed for the purpose of giving blood on a future date? Normally, if a person had blood donation on his mind, he’d walk into the collection center, they’d conduct a blood type test for him, free-of-charge, and he’d donate the blood then and there. Why visit a doctor in another town who was unknown to him and who certainly charged a fee? Or, as an alternative, why not get his blood typed at the student health center on campus, again likely for free?

According to the 1973 Hamilton Journal-News article, when Doc Boone asked Ron point-blank why he needed to have his blood typed, Ron responded, “I might have to give some blood one of these days,” which always sounded made up to me. If he really meant to give blood, there wouldn’t have been a “might” or “one of these days”—he would have said, “I want to donate blood.” (Granted, we’re working with a quote that was provided 20 years later from memory, so we can’t be sure of its accuracy, but Doc Boone obviously wasn’t very sold on Ron’s excuse either.) To me, that quote sounded way too secretive. Ron was up to something, I decided, and it had nothing to do with blood donation.

And then, last week, I talked to one of Ron’s fellow residents of Fisher Hall.

As I was asking my source, let’s call him Joe, about a possible woman from Hamilton, he said he hadn’t heard any rumor about her nor could he recall ever seeing Ron with a woman. But then he described one memory that did stand out: He remembered Ron asking him one day if he would accompany him to Dayton to a facility where people were paid to donate blood. (Although we can’t know with 100 percent certainty that the facility was operated by the Red Cross, it’s true that the organization sometimes paid donors during this time period.) Joe remembers being apprehensive about it, but Ron pretty much insisted that he join him.

“It was his nature to find something exciting to do,” said Joe. “If he got an idea to do something, he’d put it into effect.”

Joe needed the money for a pending night out with a girl, so he agreed to go along. He hitchhiked with Ron to Dayton—in the snow—and remembers quite clearly thinking, “This is crazy. This is nuts.” But he looked over at Ron, and Ron seemed fine with it. Joe said it was probably December when they made their trip, which would have been a month or so after Ron’s blood type test, though it could have been a little later.

I asked Joe if he needed to make a special trip to a doctor to have his blood typed beforehand, and he said, no, they probably took care of that at the collection center—either that, or he was already aware of his blood type. Joe was O positive, just like Ron.

Ron and Joe received $25 apiece for the pint of blood they’d each donated, and then they hitchhiked back to Oxford. It was the only time Joe had joined Ron for such an excursion. Other than their trip to Dayton, they had very little contact.

“He went his way and I went my way,” Joe said.

It’s important to understand how substantial $25 was back then. Twenty-five dollars in December 1952 was roughly the equivalent of $230 today, which isn’t chicken feed. In an old Honeymooners episode that first aired in the spring of 1956, Ralph Kramden considered putting his bus driver job in jeopardy and becoming a steam iron salesman for a prospective $40 a day. “Imagine that—$40 a day!” he said to Alice. Twenty-five dollars in one afternoon probably seemed just as huge to Ron Tammen. And compared to the amount Ron earned as a Campus Owl, which was also pretty good money, $25 was a tidy sum that only required that he lie down for a short while.

“I think we got paid about $12-15 for one gig,” one of Ron’s bandmates told me in an email. “One weekend I made $40 when we played three. That was a heck of a lot better than 35 cents an hour scraping dishes in a women’s dorm.”

When Ron first heard of this amazing moneymaking opportunity, he might have felt the need to have his ducks in a row before setting off for Dayton. It would be frustrating to show up at a blood bank more than 40 miles away only to be turned back because he didn’t know his blood type. Or, maybe the collection center only paid for a certain blood type, so he’d need to know if he was eligible before he made the trip. That still doesn’t explain why he chose to visit Doc Boone’s office, but not everything going on in a 19-year-old guy’s head back then is going to make perfect sense today. Who knows—maybe he happened to be in the neighborhood. Furthermore, maybe he chose to hitchhike with Joe to Dayton—in the snow, no less—as opposed to driving his own car so that none of his earnings would be wasted on gas.

By the early 1970s, the practice of paying blood donors became controversial as the opportunity to make good money in a physically undemanding way often drew people who were down on their luck and who were at high risk for diseases such as hepatitis. It was at this time that the American Red Cross switched over to a volunteer-only system.

Could it be that, in the end, Ron Tammen had told Doc Boone the truth—that he “might have to give some blood one of these days”?

The solution to this part of the Ronald Tammen puzzle may end up being just that obvious and that irrelevant to Tammen’s disappearance…and, in the words of Joe, also a little crazy and nuts.

The woman from Hamilton

monica-silva-144544 (fn)
Photo credit: Monica Silva at Unsplash

Of all the movie genres that are out there, the one I adore most is the film noir. The shadowy lighting, the 1940s fashions, the witty repartee spoken in clipped sentences between drags on a smoldering cigarette, the monsoon-like levels of rainfall—such are the elements of a truly great mystery. But, perhaps above all, there’s the mysterious woman—the glamorous vixen who knocks on Humphrey Bogart’s office door late at night in need of a P.I., or the femme fatale who fixes Fred MacMurray a drink as the two plot out a new life insurance policy for her husband. Who is she? What’s her story?, we all think. I’d almost contend that no great mystery goes without one.

Well, hold onto your fedoras, Ron Tammen fans, because we have a mysterious woman too.

She sauntered her way into our saga back in 2010, when I was having a phone conversation with Ron Tammen’s freshman roommate. Tammen had resided in Fisher Hall both of his years at Miami—as a freshman and a sophomore—and, just as it was with Tammen’s sophomore roommate, his freshman roommate really didn’t have any stories to share about Tammen. He thought he was a nice guy, but that’s about it. And then he brought up her.

He remembered that Ron had told him that he was dating an older woman, although, to an 18-year-old guy, the term “older” could have meant anything—from someone in her early 20s to way up in her 30s even. She had a car. She wasn’t a student. She was from somewhere like Hamilton or Middletown, he said, and she would pick Ron up, and the two would drive off together. Some of the other Fisher Hall residents used to whisper about her, he told me. He didn’t recall her name, and in a more recent conversation, he said that he didn’t recall Ron ever mentioning her name to him. He’d never seen her before, so he couldn’t describe what she looked like.

While I found the revelation fascinating, I had no idea where to go with it. I couldn’t imagine that there would be any hard evidence I could seek in document form. The phrase “A woman from Hamilton or Middletown” is a tad too vague when searching a database or submitting a FOIA request. (Actually, I did try searching old newspapers to see if a woman from either of those towns might have gone missing at the same time that Ron did, in the event the two had run off together, but nothing turned up.)

I knew that what I was dealing with was the flimsiest form of evidence there is—hearsay—though that’s not to say that hearsay isn’t valuable. If I could find just one other person who remembered the same obscure details, then I’d be getting somewhere. I asked a few Delts and Fisher Hall residents if they’d ever seen or heard about Ron with an older woman, but that’s about all I could think to do.

After hearing so many “Nos” in reply, I began leaving that question off my list. It didn’t seem pertinent to where the story was heading. Besides, even if Ron Tammen was hanging out with an older woman during his freshman year, how would that relate to his disappearance during his sophomore year?

Then, just last month, I met with Ralph Smith (not his real name), the nearly 97-year-old man who’d been on the Oxford police force when Tammen disappeared. Ralph felt that there were two compelling clues in the case. One was public knowledge and one wasn’t.

The first clue, the one that had already been made public, had to do with the fish in Ron’s bed. To Ralph, that fish was the key to the mystery. He felt that Ron had been so startled and outraged by the fish that he confronted the culprit(s) and a fight ensued. He thought Ron was probably killed and thrown into the basement and never found. Ralph believes this theory so fervently that he wasn’t about to change his mind even after I told him who’d put the fish in Ron’s bed and why. It’s hard to abandon something we’ve believed in for so many years, I guess.

The second clue—the one that hadn’t made its way into public discourse (until now)—had to do with a woman.

Ralph mentioned her early in our conversation, when he told me that there was a report that someone had seen Ron “sitting in a car with a lady out front, and they drove off.” At first, I viewed his comment with skepticism, thinking that it sounded a lot like the hitchhiking reports that had been called in to the Oxford police shortly after Ron disappeared but that had been disproved. However, as he continued bringing up his two main talking points—the fish and the woman, the woman and the fish—I started taking his story more seriously. Here’s exchange number 2 (with light edits and extraneous conversation removed for readability):

RS: I thought, when they talked about him sitting in the car with some lady, I thought it might have been a lady friend or a girl that he liked or something. But why would he just drive off with her, unless she had so much money, that he’d leave his billfold, his contact with the bank?…

JW: OK, who saw him in a car with the lady? Do you remember?

RS: I don’t know. I think one of the fraternity members. I think that was made up…It’s possible that it did happen, but she lived in Hamilton, Ohio. I know that much.

JW: Do you know the name?

RS: No. No name was given.

JW: Was she older? Was she an older person?

RS: No, she was about the same age.

Later, with about 20 minutes left in our conversation, the topic of the woman in the car came up one more time, and I tried to extract any additional information about her that I could  (again, transcript lightly edited for readability):

JW: When did you find out about the woman? Of him talking to a woman or sitting in a car?

RS: I think the next day or so.

JW: Somebody said that he saw Ron Tammen. In a car. With a woman.

RS: Yeah. And they never, they haven’t investigated the person. Nobody knows who the person was who said that, whether it was a fake deal to cover up for a cover-up or what. They definitely said that he was in a car. They saw him in a car about 45 minutes or close to an hour and all of a sudden they just drove off.

JW: And they drove off, but we don’t know what time.

RS: No. It was late. It was night, real late.

JW: OK, was this after the fish?

RS: After the fish deal. It was after the fish deal. After the episode with that…

JW: Interesting.

RS: So he had to go down, and either she called him, or he had called her. Why she came up there, that was never expressed. And she wasn’t investigated.

JW: But did they know her name at one point?

RS: They didn’t know her name. They just said she was a lady who drove up in a car and he got in, and they sit there and then all of the sudden they drove off.

JW: Do you remember what kind of car?

RS: There was no further investigation. Who the lady was or…

JW: OK, so Oscar Decker [the police chief in charge of the investigation] couldn’t act on it because there was no name.

RS: No names involved. The person that said it—they didn’t know the woman. And see, most…the only way, he might have been a fraternity brother or a resident of the same dorm, and she might have been at one of the parties that they had. That was the only way that she might have been known. Because, they all have their own woman at the party. You don’t have no two or three women.

JW: OK, and I don’t know what I would do with this, but do you remember what kind of car?

RS: No. It wasn’t even mentioned.

JW: A color of a car?

RS: The color of the car, nothing. The only thing that was mentioned was that somebody saw him in a car. They didn’t say if it was red, blue, or what or what kind of car, and they were sitting there and they saw them drive off. And no check was made on whether that was true or whether it was a make-up deal or some type of cover-up or whether it really happened and where she really lived. She wasn’t a student. She wasn’t a student. She was just a lady.

JW: From Hamilton? Do we know that for sure?

RS: From Hamilton, they said. They thought she was. So she might have been his connection for a party when he had…See, whenever fraternities on weekends, they all have parties.

JW: Right. And did this person who reported it…

RS: We have no idea who that person is and nobody has no idea who said it.

JW: Can I ask who they told? Did they talk to the university and you found out or did they tell the police? Who did the person who saw Ron in the car…

RS: None of that was ever mentioned.

JW: You don’t know who they told.

RS: No. That’s what I say.

JW: Nobody talked to the police.

RS: Word just got out that…

JW: Word got out.

RS: Yeah. Word just got out, just like, “yeah, I saw him in the car and they drove off.”

After my sit-down with Ralph, I touched base with Ron’s freshman roommate again to see if he could provide additional details about the older woman, but he couldn’t think of anything more to add. I’m currently following up with more Delts and Fisher Hall residents to see if anyone remembers seeing or hearing about Ron and a woman from Hamilton, either on the night in question or any other night. Of course, it still isn’t clear if the older woman is the same person as the woman from Hamilton or if there actually was a woman from Hamilton.

It could be something, or it could be nothing, but it’s another clue that was never investigated, which is something in and of itself.

A big thank you to the Miami University Alumni Association, which recently posted a link on its Facebook page that drew more than 1000 Miami alumni to this website.
If you’re a Miami alumnus who was there at the time and who recalls hearing something about Ron Tammen and a woman from Hamilton, I’d love to talk to you. Please write me through the contact form.

8:30, 10:30…does it really matter?

Carl Knox note--jpg
A page from Dean Carl Knox’s notes describing what Charles Findlay had discovered when he walked into their room (see red arrow): “Sunday 10:30 Light on — Door Open, but [Ron] never returned.”

Does it even matter whether Ronald Tammen disappeared two hours later than what we’d all been led to believe? Who cares if it was 8:30 or 10:30 p.m.? We still don’t know what happened to Tammen.

It matters because of what it might mean regarding how Ron went AWOL. Did he walk out of his room voluntarily or was he ushered out by force? One knock against the “foul play” theory with regards to an 8:30 departure time was that, with Ron sticking so close to his room for most of the evening, there would have been little opportunity for someone to catch him off guard and whisk him away. First he was studying with Dick Titus down the hall, then he was supposedly reading in his room, and next he was walking downstairs to pick up some sheets as well as reportedly talking on the phone with his brother Richard. While it’s possible for someone to nab him under those circumstances, it doesn’t seem ideal. My guess is that if he disappeared at around 8:30 p.m., he likely walked out of his room on his own.

If, however, Ron was at song practice, a planned occurrence that occupied a designated block of time, someone would have had nearly two hours in which to prepare for an encounter of some sort. According to a Fisher Hall resident whose room faced Ron and Chuck’s room, Ron frequently left the door to their room open, even if he left the building.

“The only time he closed the door was when he went to bed,” the person told me. “Otherwise, it was open at all times, even when he was studying or out.”

What’s more, there was a fire escape outside their window. If someone knowledgeable about Ron’s schedule and habits wished to ambush him (for whatever reason), that person could have entered through the door or window, stepped into the closet, pillowcase in hand (remember the pillowcase that never made its way onto the pillow?), and waited until Ron returned to his room.

Of course, 10:30 was also the time at which Findlay returned to the room, according to Dean Knox’s notes (see red arrow in image), which means that, whether it was precision planning, uncanny luck, or both, someone would have pulled off a fantastic feat just in the nick of time. Or perhaps someone was hiding outside in the shadows of Fisher Hall at 10:30 p.m. awaiting Ron’s return and he never made it back inside. The latter scenario makes it more difficult to explain why Ron’s wallet and keys were left in the room, but perhaps he’d emptied his pockets before heading to song practice. Either way, whether it happened indoors or outdoors, if Ron had disappeared after 10:30 p.m., it seems more likely that someone else had been involved.

There’s a third option, one recently suggested to me by a reader, that combines a voluntary exit with a forced departure. Suppose Ron walked outside on his own to meet someone—maybe at 10:30 p.m. after song practice, but it could have happened at 8:30 too. Ron might have been leery of the person, so much so that he decided to leave most of his personal effects behind. He might have even brought along the pillowcase to carry something back from a transaction. At some point, the person (or persons) could have thrown Ron into the back of a car and driven him somewhere, perhaps Seven Mile. This is a possibility too, which (sadly) means that the potential discovery of two additional hours doesn’t rule out very much—not without more information.

Perhaps the true implication of whether Ron left at 8:30 or 10:30 is this: for some odd reason, university and law enforcement officials never told reporters about their discussions with Paul. (It still isn’t clear who, in addition to Carl Knox, had interviewed Paul. Although Paul first described him as a member of the police force in Oxford, he later said that he wasn’t entirely sure what operation he was affiliated with since the man was out of uniform.) Investigators publicly discussed other leads that had gone nowhere—a lady in Cincinnati, for example, who’d thought that she’d rented an apartment to someone who looked like Tammen or motorists who’d reported picking up hitchhikers who resembled him—but they never disclosed Paul’s claim that Ron had been to song practice that night. The case was so lacking in clues that, even if investigators had possessed ironclad evidence that ruled out Paul’s story (which, by the way, I haven’t seen any indication of), you’d think that they would have at least mentioned to reporters that they’d chased down that lead but that it, too, was a bust. So the secrecy—the secrecy about song practice—may be what matters most.

Addendum — What about the fraternity pin?

As an addendum to today’s post, it’s interesting how a new discovery can affect how you look at old clues. Just as I was adding the above image to this page, I reread the words Dean Knox had penciled in at the top: “Car Keys in Desk with Fraternity Pin.” It struck me: were the Delts required to wear their fraternity pins to all functions, including song practice? If so, and if we are to believe Paul’s story, then it would appear that Ron did make it back to his room before he disappeared. I asked Paul if he remembered having to wear his pin to all fraternity functions, to which he said, “The House encouraged guys to wear their pin but I don’t recall a fine for not wearing it.” Looks as though I may need to get my hands on the 1953 Delta Tau Delta bylaws.

When memories collide, part 1: The Delts, song practice, and a momentous walk home

david-beale-179723
Photo credit: David Beale on Unsplash

It can be a jolting experience when a highly credible person I’m interviewing reveals information that doesn’t jive with what’s been said or written on Ron Tammen’s disappearance. If my underlying premise is solid, new details can adjust and resettle around the old, and things can return to normal fairly quickly. My understanding of what happened is slightly altered, but stronger. If, however, the premise is more loosely constructed, full of gaps and leaps, I’d know pretty much then and there that I needed to abandon it and start rebuilding from scratch. Such was the test I faced one recent Thursday morning when everything I thought I knew about Ronald Tammen’s last minutes at Miami experienced a tremor measuring about 7.1 on the Richter scale.

I’d been speaking to a former fraternity brother of Ron’s, whose name had been passed along to me by one of his classmates. He’d just celebrated his 84th birthday, but his voice sounded as if he were in his 60s or early 70s, and his memory was strong and sure on the most minuscule of details.

“The only times that I really saw him was at song practices,” my Delt friend told me (let’s call him Paul), when I’d asked him if he ever interacted socially with Ron. Paul explained that on Mother’s Day weekend, an event in May when students’ moms would descend on Miami’s campus in lavender-scented droves, fraternities would hold a singing competition at Withrow Court. (Withrow, a beloved brick building where dances were held and basketball games played, was demolished last summer.) The competition was the high point of the weekend, and an occasion for which the Delts had been preparing for weeks. It was, Paul let me know, a very big deal.

“The only guy who could carry a tune or who knew anything about music in the Delt house was Ron,” Paul said, so Ron was the Delts’ obvious choice for song leader. Paul also remembers the day and time at which they’d scheduled their practices: Sunday evenings at around 10 p.m., after women’s curfew. (That way, a guy could return from a date and still make it to singing practice.) Sometimes, however, they might opt to hold practice an hour earlier, he said.

With respect to the practice on April 19, 1953, Paul is unsure if it was held at 9 or 10 p.m. It was, after all, 64 years ago.

“But you do remember that Ron was at practice?” I asked.

“There’s no question. I walked home with him,” he responded.

What?, I thought. The seismic rumblings had begun.

“So what happened that night was we had the song practice, and Daddio [the house chef] made hamburgers for us, and then we all broke up,” he said.

Paul then proceeded to tell me how he, a guy named Chip Anderson, and Ron walked back to their dorms on a path that ran from the Delt House, between the Natatorium and Withrow Court, and across what is now the baseball field. They ended near Symmes Hall, the freshman dorm where Chip and Paul lived.

“And we said good night to [Ron] and he walked on. And as far as we know, Dean Knox told me we were probably the last ones that he knows that saw him.”

I’m not going to lie—the entire time that I was listening to his story, I was thinking that he must be mistaken. I wondered if it might have been Richard, Ron’s younger brother, who had walked back with them. That would have made more sense to me. Richard had pledged Delta Tau Delta that spring. I could easily imagine how, as the years rolled by, the part of the brain where memories are stored might replace one Tammen with another one. Or maybe it was Ron whom he walked home with but just on a different night.

But his last comment—the one about Carl Knox, the dean of men who headed up the university’s investigation—suddenly gave me pause. That’s a memory that would stick hard and fast.

“This is all new information,” I stammered. I said something about there being no news accounts putting Ron at song practice at 10 p.m—that everything I’d read stated that he returned to his room at about 8 or 8:30 after picking up the sheets.

“It’s possible that he was back in his room at 8:30,” he replied, “but the point is that if he was there at 8:30, he wasn’t in for the night. He had left and come back out to the Delt house for song practice. There’s no question—he wasn’t back before 10:30 p.m.”

Before my conversation with Paul, song practice was one of the more benign details of the case. In 1956, Murray Seeger of the Cleveland Plain Dealer had reported that, about a week before Ron disappeared, he had been asked by the fraternity to step down as song practice leader because his other activities were getting in the way. “But this did not seem to upset him unduly—he took a place in the singing group and let someone else direct it,” wrote Seeger.

Whatever, I thought, after stumbling on that passage for the first time. Ron Tammen was a busy guy. Being the bar-setting overachiever that he was, he was probably a little embarrassed to be asked to step down, but also relieved to give up one of his many obligations. Maybe he was experiencing some stress, but name one college sophomore who hasn’t. In my seven-plus years of research into Ron Tammen’s disappearance, I honestly don’t think I spent more than ten minutes thinking about the Delts’ song practice and how it might have fit into the equation.

Now, all of the sudden, I was being told that Ron was actually at song practice on the night of April 19 and walking back to Fisher Hall at around 10:30 p.m.? That was too much to wrap my head around at that moment.

“There was information in the news saying that Ron led the song practice, but then like a week before he disappeared, he was asked to step down. Do you remember that?” I asked.

“Not at all.”

“…and that somebody else took over?”

“I can’t imagine. We didn’t have another guy that could carry a tune, Jenny. There’s no question. We couldn’t have. That’s not true.”

So here was my predicament: Paul’s story had never before reached the light of day, yet he was crystal clear on the details, many of which were aligned with what I already knew (or thought I knew). He told me that he remembered Ron teaching wrestling moves to a few other guys that night as they waited on their burgers. He recalled a light snow falling, barely covering the ground, yet enough so that he had noticed his footprints as they walked to the dorms.

“I remember it well because I went through all kinds of interrogations on this. Dean Knox talked to me several times. There was a member of the police force in Oxford who also spoke to me about it, so I remember the details pretty well of what happened that night.”

After the call ended, and I had time to fully process what he’d just told me, questions began churning in my brain regarding the implications of this new version of events:

  • If Ron was going to song practice after he changed his sheets, why would he tell Mrs. Todhunter that he was going straight to bed?
  • Why didn’t someone from the fraternity tell Chuck Findlay, Ron’s roommate, that Ron had been at song practice, when he asked them on Monday if anyone had seen him?
  • If Ron had arrived at his room at around 10:30 p.m., how did he not run into Chuck, who also supposedly arrived at the dorm at that time?
  • And finally, how did this fairly explosive detail get past every single reporter who’s ever written about the case, particularly Murray Seeger, who actually had a conversation with someone on the very topic of song practice?

One thing was obvious: if Ronald Tammen had arrived at his dorm room at 10:30 p.m., there was no way that he’d be able to hike the 11 or so miles to Seven Mile and knock on Mrs. Spivey’s door before midnight. Not without a little help.

Coming soon: my search for corroborating evidence