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