Column: The curious case of John West
I'm really starting to enjoy digging into back archives of the New York Mills Herald or the Perham Enterprise Bulletin. Every time I start searching for something specific, I come across something far more interesting.
Most recently, a search for articles about a lumberyard in the 1920s brought me to the curious case of John T. West, former editor of the New York Mills Herald.
West's story is as follows: According to an article in the August 19, 1926 issue of the Perham Enterprise Bulletin, West, 28, disappeared from his home in New York Mills on July 29. A notice explained that West had left his house at 11 p.m. in his "Ford touring car, 1923 body on 1915 make."
West left his family a note that, according to the article, said little more than the fact that he was leaving. He had been editor of the Herald for nearly a year, and had a wife and two children.
Due to poor health and apparent business problems, West's family became worried when authorities could find no trace of the man.
Three months passed before West was mentioned in the papers again.
In the Nov. 4, 1926 issue of the Enterprise Bulletin, a headline read: "West located." The man, it seems, had simply gone 99.1 miles (according to Google maps) to Bemidji.
When it was discovered where he was living, West was arrested on charges of 'abandonment' and 'desertion' (I really hope that these aren't still legitimate charges).
West was only discovered because he returned to NY Mills "presumably to learn what disposition Mrs. West had made of the West property there," the article said.
According to the article, West was "not at all alarmed over the charges against him and is included to treat the matter lightly."
What's more, he "admitted that he read about his disappearance in the newspapers, but made no attempt to communicate with his wife and friends."
There's a lot about this story that's interesting to me, particularly that West was able to up and leave and disappear so effectively. Though he may eventually have been spotted in Bemidji, it's entirely possible he might never have been discovered if he hadn't driven back to NY Mills.
Obviously, 1926 was a different time. No Twitter. No Facebook. No iPhones. It was an age when, as West showed, if you wanted to disappear, you could.
It's impossible to speculate on his motivations or intentions in leaving his job, wife and children behind. Maybe he was stressed and needed a vacation, or maybe he had a secret double life in Bemidji. Anything's possible, I suppose, even at 28.
Can you imagine trying to do in 2011 what West did in 1926? If you left your friends, family or significant other a note saying, "I'm leaving. See ya," what would happen?
Needless to say, probably a lot more than what happened in West's case. Social media campaigns would be mounted through Facebook. TV and newspapers would display your picture and give your name, and you'd be talked about on the radio. Police would likely try to check to see if they could track you down by seeing if you've used your credit card lately, or your cell phone.
Sure, you could try to lay low for a little while. In fact, some people have turned 'living off the grid' into a contest of sorts lately. Evan Ratliff, a writer for Wired Magazine, made it his project in 2009 to disappear altogether, and see if readers could find him for a $5,000 reward.
Ratliff shut himself off from social media, purchased a few prepaid cell phones and disguises and carried plenty of extra cash and gift cards to stay off the grid as long as he could.
Even with all that, Ratliff was tracked down by readers in just three weeks.
Of course, the reality is that it's not always that easy to track somebody down if you don't have the right resources, and that people simply disappearing on their own is not that uncommon.
Whether or not they are found depends largely on their ability to stay off the grid, which, for me, is easier said than done (I sometimes have trouble giving up my social media).
The irony of John West's story, for me, is that in 1926, newspapers were the social media. In that time, newspapers were where people would find out about the comings and goings of people - who visited who, who was seen where. It was, in a way, a predecessor of our Facebook status updates. For example:
Then: "Jean Ramage of St. Paul will spend the Memorial Day weekend with her parents."
Now: "Heading home for Memorial Day weekend. Anything fun going on around Bemidji?"
That sort of thing.
West, a newspaperman, effectively did in 1926 what Evan Ratliff did in 2009 - he disappeared by not using social media. That, prior to escaping, it was West's job to create that media is perhaps the most intriguing part of this tale.
I tried following up in the archives to see what became of West following his trial, but wasn't able to find much. As is custom of my columns these days, if you're able to add anything to this story, email or call me and let me know. I would like to know if the curious case of John West has an ending.