News articles—especially articles written shortly after the incident occurred—can provide new insights to someone who is taking a second look at a cold case. Information that may have seemed trivial when the news was still fresh can jump out at you decades later. Details that have drifted into obscurity from one anniversary article to the next are newly disclosed. Sources, named and unnamed, take on new significance. And the quotes—I love the quotes. They’re my one opportunity to hear the thoughts of people who died long ago, people such as Oscar Decker or Mr. and Mrs. Tammen. Direct quotes are the next best thing to time travel.
The most important articles, in my view, are the ones written by the newsmen of the past—the Gilson Wrights, the Joe Cellas, the Murray Seegers—for the hard-nose reporting they did in the months and years that followed Tammen’s disappearance.
Wright was touted as Miami’s “one-man journalism department,” serving as both a faculty member and Miami’s news bureau director when Tammen disappeared. In his spare time, Wright was a stringer for the Hamilton Journal-News, Dayton Daily News, Cincinnati Enquirer, and other area papers. According to Wright’s daughter, Wright was particularly affected by the story of Ronald Tammen. The case had reminded him of another student disappearance that he’d written about involving a senior art major who’d gone missing from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1937, the same university from which Wright had graduated. That person’s name was Ruth Baumgardner. Another disappearance that Wright had written about was that of Richard Colvin Cox, formerly of Mansfield, Ohio, who disappeared from West Point Academy in January 1950. Their disappearances, like Tammen’s, have never been solved, which had led some people to wonder what was up with the state of Ohio?
Joe Cella, a reporter for the Hamilton Journal-News, was so obsessed with Tammen’s disappearance that he carried a photo of him around in his wallet for more than 20 years, just in case he saw Tammen on the street. In 1973, Cella was responsible for bringing to light the fact that, five months before he disappeared, Ron had visited Butler County coroner Dr. Garret Boone to have his blood typed. Boone, who felt this information might be related to the case, said that university officials showed little interest in what he had to tell them.
Cella was also the first to report the discovery that H.H. Stephenson, a housing official who had known Tammen personally and had granted him a permit to have his car on campus, could have sworn he saw Tammen while on a stopover in Wellsville, N.Y., less than four months after Tammen disappeared. According to Cella, Stephenson had told Miami administrators about the sighting immediately upon his return to campus and was surprised that this detail hadn’t been made public until 1976, courtesy of Cella. Both the Boone and Stephenson stories are described in detail in one of the best anniversary articles on the case, titled “Why Did Tammen Disappear Forever?”
Murray Seeger was primarily a political reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer before he moved on to write for the New York Times, Newsweek, and Los Angeles Times. In 1956, he broke the story that a fish had been placed in Tammen’s bed, which is why Tammen had walked downstairs to pick up clean sheets before his disappearance. Seeger passed away in 2011 at the age of 82, which means that, had I been aware that he was still living when I began my research, I could have asked him about his memories of the Tammen investigation. This missed opportunity bums me to no end.
Over the years, some inaccuracies have crept into news accounts of the Tammen story, which is to be expected as primary sources die and memories get hazier. When that happens, I typically consult other information sources and, if a primary source or a majority of sources support a given detail, that’s the one I hang my hat on. For example, I’ve recently read articles stating Tammen was from a wealthy family or that he had been a member of Miami’s Naval ROTC. On the contrary, family members have told me that they had very little money, and, according to the handwritten notes of Carl Knox, the dean of men who took the lead in the university’s investigation, Tammen had passed the written part of the ROTC exam, but failed the physical. Family members have verified this as well, and attributed the latter to a “cast” in Ron’s eye, an inward turn that was more noticeable when Ron was fatigued. These could be minor points, but perhaps not.
Another important resource is a 1976 documentary that Cella had assisted with, The Phantom of Oxford, which can be found online (Part 1, and Part 2). The documentary was written and produced by Ed Hart, a news director at the former WLWD-TV2 in Dayton, Ohio. In it, Cella, Mr. Tammen, Carl Knox, Dr. Boone, Charles Findlay (Ron’s sophomore roommate), H.H. Stephenson, and others discuss the case and their thoughts about what might have happened to Tammen. Many of those interviewed believed strongly that Tammen was still alive at that time.
Last of the news sources are the various missing persons sites, such as Charleyproject.org, as well as internet sleuthing forums, such as those found on Websleuths.com. The people who frequent these sites have an insatiable interest in cold cases such as Tammen’s and they frequently post links to the latest updates.
After consulting the Tammen-related newspaper articles and documentaries, my next step is to dig deep into life in the 1940s and early 1950s, when Tammen was coming of age. These include magazines, journals, books, and other materials that help provide context to the scenes I imagine in my mind. In others, however, I might stumble upon a hidden nugget buried deep in the text that appears to ring true to Tammen’s situation. When that happens, my research gets a sudden jolt as journals and books provide new citations, propelling me to more sources in search of more clues.