Blasts from the past

Theo Pai­j­mans ex­am­ines the case of a 21-year-old Min­nesotan woman who ‘de­ma­te­ri­alised’ one day in 1902

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The Van­ish­ing of Gertrude Strass­burger THEO PAI­J­MANS

Not a trace of the young woman could be found... only a glove, still warm, lay on the log where she had been sit­ting.

Fort writes in Lo! about the baf­fling case of wealthy 24-year-old New York so­cialite Dorothy Arnold, who, one day in De­cem­ber 1910, van­ished from the heart of one of the most bustling cities on the planet. To this day, the mys­tery re­mains un­solved: “It looks as if she had no in­ten­tion of dis­ap­pear­ing; she was ar­rang­ing for a party, a tea, what­ever those things are, for about sixty of her former school­mates…” When last seen, Arnold said that she in­tended to walk through Cen­tral Park, on her way to her home. Fort con­cludes: “No more is known of Dorothy Arnold.” 1 He might as well have writ­ten about Gertrude Strass­burger, another young woman of good stand­ing who had also dis­ap­peared un­der equally baf­fling cir­cum­stances eight years pre­vi­ously. This case par­al­lels that of Arnold in many re­spects: Strass­burger also van­ished on a De­cem­ber day, and also amidst a crowd. Her van­ish­ing was so abrupt, with­out trace or clue, that no one could of­fer a bet­ter ex­pla­na­tion than that she had “de­ma­te­ri­alised”. 2 The sec­ond of De­cem­ber 1902 should have been as un­event­ful as any other cold win­ter’s day. The 21-yearold woman had left home in Crook­ston, Min­nesota, to skate with a party of her close friends, young men and women, on the nearby Red Lake River.

Ar­riv­ing there, Strass­burger and her friends en­joyed them­selves on the ice for half an hour or more. Some­one in the party sug­gested a race to a bend in the river, about a quar­ter of a mile down­stream. All ex­cept Strass­burger joined the con­test. She had be­come a bit tired, she said, so would sit on a log by the river­side and act as the judge.

One of the young men gath­ered a few small branches and made her a fire near the log. The com­pany then raced to­wards the bend. When the win­ner of the race re­turned, she was gone. He called to the oth­ers and to­gether they searched for the miss­ing Strass­burger, but not a trace of her could be found. Only a glove, still warm, lay on the log where she had been sit­ting. Lead­ing to the log were her foot­prints and those of the young man who had made the fire. The only trail lead­ing to the river was that made by the young man when he had left her to join the other skaters. Al­most im­me­di­ately the search be­gan. She could not have drowned, as it was quickly es­tab­lished that there was no open wa­ter nor any holes in the ice for miles around. She had not fled from the spot, as de­tec­tives found no traces in the snow. The snow in the woods at the edge of the river was like­wise undis­turbed. They con­cluded that Strass­burger could not have left that par­tic­u­lar spot. Her friends had heard no out­cry or scream for help. All that could be said with cer­tainty was that the young woman had dropped mo­men­tar­ily out of sight af­ter her friends had left her alone and were skat­ing on the river – a to­tal of less than five min­utes. She had been last seen sit­ting near the fire warm­ing her hands, while her friends skated away. “She was sit­ting on the pil­ing un­der the bridge. The

ice is a foot thick and there is no place where she could have fallen through. More­over, none of her party skated out­side the cir­cle of elec­tric light. Just be­fore her dis­ap­pear­ance she had spo­ken about go­ing home”, a news­pa­per added. 3

The party raced back to Crook­ston, and when the news broke, hun­dreds joined the search up and down the river, but not a trace of the miss­ing woman was found. Her fa­ther, Emil H Strass­burger, was a well-known ar­chi­tect. He was born in Ger­many in 1853, and along with his wife Amalia and their daugh­ter had em­i­grated to Amer­ica, liv­ing in Texas for a while, then mov­ing to Min­nesota. The fam­ily now con­sisted of the par­ents, two sons Richard and Henry and a sec­ond daugh­ter Ella. They had fi­nally set­tled in Crook­ston in 1899. With the town’s pop­u­la­tion hav­ing grown to about 7,000 peo­ple, a new city hall was needed and Strass­burger was ap­pointed to de­sign it that same year. The ar­chi­tect was well con­nected and the city coun­cil im­me­di­ately of­fered a re­ward of 250 dol­lars for his miss­ing daugh­ter. Con­cerned cit­i­zens dou­bled the amount, but no­body came for­ward. Gertrude’s dis­ap­pear­ance had be­come a mys­tery. In the ab­sence of an of­fi­cial ex­pla­na­tion, var­i­ous the­o­ries sprang up, but each had its short­com­ings. An elope­ment was sug­gested, but oth­ers pointed out that while Miss Strass­burger was an at­trac­tive woman she had no male friends to whom she was par­tic­u­larly at­tached. Be­sides, it would have been im­pos­si­ble for her to leave in this man­ner, since her friends had been away no more than five min­utes and not a trace of her foot­steps could be found. The ab­duc­tion the­ory was in­ad­e­quate for the same rea­sons. No signs of a strug­gle were found and no cry for help had been heard. She was a strong, ath­letic girl, so she would surely have put up some re­sis­tance to any wouldbe ab­duc­tor, it was rea­soned. She had not in­tended to leave home; she had made plans for the hol­i­days and had counted on at­tend­ing sev­eral par­ties and other so­cial events.

The search lasted all night, and as it grew darker there were one or two in the party who imag­ined that they heard soft, low voices in the trees be­hind them. The next day the search con­tin­ued. De­tec­tives vis­ited the place where Gertrude was last seen and combed her neigh­bour­hood in search of clues. At one time it was thought that she might have taken the night train away from the city, but this was dis­proved. To­wards the end of De­cem­ber, Emil Strass­burger re­ceived a cu­ri­ous tele­gram. It said that his daugh­ter was seen at Culbertson, Mon­tana, a ham­let con­sist­ing of only a few houses. But then the com­mu­ni­ca­tion ceased, so the fa­ther was con­vinced that the sender of the tele­gram had made a mis­take and was “ashamed to an­swer fur­ther in­quiries”. 4

The weeks went by, but still not a trace of the van­ished girl had been found. A young man named Ed­ward Chase, who claimed to be clair­voy­ant, be­gan search­ing for her. Af­ter a week and sev­eral trances, he de­clared that her body was some­where un­der the ice. 5 Another clair­voy­ant, a French­man named DeBeau, came for­ward. “He looks the clair­voy­ant, hav­ing long hair, a full black beard and a bead fig­ure worked on his over­shoes. He is re­ported to have found var­i­ous miss­ing things like stray horses and stolen money, and to be very clever in lo­cat­ing hid­den things.” Ap­par­ently he was able to ac­cu­rately de­scribe the Strass­burg­ers, their house and “many other things about which he seemed to have no way of know­ing”. DeBeau be­lieved that Gertrude had left the river, gone to the neigh­bour­hood of Ho­tel Crook­ston where, he thought, she was forcibly de­tained by a man in a room nearby. Un­for­tu­nately, the psy­chics were not able to suc­cess­fully as­sist the po­lice in the mat­ter. DeBeau went home, “his mind very much tan­gled up over the af­fair”. Chase stayed awhile, oc­ca­sion­ally fall­ing into his trances, but noth­ing came of it. “He suc­ceeded, in his own mind per­haps, in lo­cat­ing her in the river near the South Crook­ston bridge,” a news­pa­per wryly noted. 6

As the months went by and the young woman re­mained miss­ing, the fo­cus of at­ten­tion shifted. Who ex­actly was Gertrude Strass­burger, and what was her story, some be­gan to ask. While the first ac­counts de­scribed her as an ath­letic, merry woman sur­rounded by friends, a sad­der, more mys­te­ri­ous side was re­vealed. “Miss Strass­burger had a dark com­plex­ion and dark eyes. She had al­ways been a deep thinker, and at var­i­ous times in her life paid more or less at­ten­tion to spir­i­tu­al­ism, theos­o­phy and the oc­cult sciences.” 7 Her dis­ap­pear­ance was a “dark and im­pen­e­tra­ble mys­tery” and “the weird­est and most puz­zling event Crook­ston has ever known. Was the young woman de­ma­te­ri­alised? Many be­lieve she was. They shud­der, and in whis­pers de­clare her fad­ing away was a trans­la­tion to the spirit world with­out the agency of death. Spir­i­tu­al­ists say Miss Strass­burger de­parted by a ghostly flight through the aerial re­gions. Some be­lieve she was lured into the spirit land by the shade of a former lover, who died years ago.”

The ar­ti­cle also claimed that, shortly be­fore she van­ished, she talked of ‘spirit mes­sages’: “Do you know, said she to one of her girl­friends, I feel so queer. I have been hear­ing mu­sic and voices, it seems to me, and they seem to come from a dis­tance. Just a lit­tle while ago I heard Will call for me, and it seemed for a mo­ment as if I must go to him.” Will was the name of her dead fi­ancé, whom she was to have mar­ried. When he died, she was in­con­solable for a time and since then was of­ten heard to re­mark to her girl­friends that “it was only a ques­tion of time when she would join him”. The fi­nal so­lu­tion to her mys­te­ri­ous dis­ap­pear­ance was there­fore sim­ple. “To some of her friends she has con­fided at var­i­ous times that she was in­clined to be­lieve in the rein­car­na­tion the­ory, and that it would not sur­prise her to any day fade away in thin air, with­out leav­ing a trace be­hind.” 8

Foot­steps sud­denly stop­ping or miss­ing in the snow; a party; a sud­den dis­ap­pear­ance; the­o­ries of de­ma­te­ri­al­i­sa­tion and su­per­nat­u­ral ab­duc­tion through the air; dis­em­bod­ied voices heard in the dis­tance: we find these nar­ra­tive el­e­ments else­where as well. Not only in Am­brose Bierce’s tales of dis­ap­pear­ances (see

FT194:43-44, 269:30-31), but also in what is per­haps the most fa­mous of all sto­ries of weird van­ish­ings, that of Oliver Lerch (see FT335:42

47), pub­lished two years af­ter Strass­burger’s. 9 Hers might have been a baf­fling mys­tery equalling those of Arnold and Bierce – but it seems there is a post­script to the Strass­burger af­fair. Six years af­ter she van­ished from a frozen riverbed, an in­con­spic­u­ous an­nounce­ment ap­peared in a Ger­man lan­guage news­pa­per in Mis­souri. “Fi­nally the mys­tery is solved that sur­rounded the dis­ap­pear­ance of daugh­ter Ger­tie of the ar­chi­tect E Strass­burger,” it claimed. “It has been es­tab­lished that the young girl re­sides in Spokane, Wash­ing­ton, and works in a millinery. What moved her to not an­nounce any­thing about her stay and to re­main hid­den for her fam­ily and friends must still be clar­i­fied.”

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