Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), who invented the modern detective story with publication of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841, vanished for nearly a week, thereby creating an actual mystery that remains unsolved today.
Edgar Allan Poe
Bound for New York City, Poe boarded a steamship in Richmond, Virginia, that made a stop at Baltimore on September 28, 1849. Poe disembarked in Baltimore, met with some old friends, and began drinking, but exactly where he went and what he did for six days remains unknown. On October 3, a printer spotted him at a tavern in East Lombard Street and notified another of Poe’s friends that the poet “appears in great distress . . . and I assure you, he is in need of immediate assistance.”
When the friend, Joseph Evans Snodgrass, arrived at the tavern, “I instantly recognized the face of one whom I had often seen and knew well, although it wore an aspect of vacant stupidity which made me shudder. The intellectual flash of his eye had vanished.” The cheaply-made, ill-fitting, rumpled, and dirty clothes he wore were not his own, and no one has been able to explain how he came by them. His condition obviously made it necessary, however, that he receive medical attention. “So insensible was he,” wrote Snodgrass, “that we had to carry him to the carriage as if a corpse. The muscles of articulation seemed paralyzed to speechlessness, and mere incoherent mutterings were all that were heard.”
The attending physician at Washington College Hospital, John Moran, recalled that at the time of admittance, Poe “was unconscious of his condition—who brought him or with whom he had been associating…. To this state succeeded tremor of the limbs, and at first a busy, but not violent or active delirium—constant talking—and vacant converse with spectral and imaginary objects on the walls. His face was pale and his whole person drenched in perspiration.”
Dr. Moran further stated that Poe had “lost all his wardrobe; was clad in tattered garments, and had on, when found, an old straw hat which no one would have picked up in the street. His appearance and condition were pitiable in the extreme, and in that drunken and stupefied state he was brought to my hospital.”
Two days later Poe lapsed for a time into “a violent delirium,” after which, according to Dr. Moran, he became exhausted and quiet, “and seemed to rest for a short time, then gently moving his head he said ‘Lord help my poor Soul’ and expired!”
Various theories have been advanced as to how Poe spent the missing six days and what happened to his clothes. Biographer Jeffrey Meyers suggests that “While in some disreputable flophouse, Poe most likely remained drunk, semiconscious and tormented by frightful visions.”
Joseph Snodgrass, Poe’s Baltimore friend, speculated that his clothes might have been stolen while he lay unconscious somewhere or that he may have sold them, bought cheap replacements, and used the surplus money to buy more liquor. But the mystery of what actually happened during those six days no literary detective has yet been able to unravel. Where is C. Auguste Dupin when you really need him?
Another famous detective fiction writer mysteriously disappeared for nearly two weeks. On Saturday morning, December 4, 1926, an abandoned car was found on a narrow country road near the small town of Newlands Corner, Surrey, England. The car had apparently rolled down a hill in neutral and come to a stop, its headlights still on, in some brush at the side of the road. The night had been cold, with the temperature dropping to near freezing, yet investigators discovered in the car a woman’s fur coat, a suitcase containing additional women’s clothing, and a driver’s license showing that the car belonged to the crime fiction writer Agatha Christie (1890-1976).
Police and volunteers began searching the area, fourteen miles from the Christie home, for it was thought she might have suffered a nervous breakdown from too much literary work and wandered off on foot into the night. Two nearby millponds were dragged in case she had accidentally fallen into one of them in the dark or even committed suicide, but nothing was found.
Soon Colonel Archibald Christie, Agatha’s husband of eleven years, came increasingly under suspicion as police learned that he was having an illicit affair. Archie had disclosed to his wife some weeks earlier that he had fallen in love with a much younger woman, wanted to marry her, and consequently wanted a divorce from Agatha. The married couple had argued heatedly the night before Agatha went missing, and she was known to be agitated and depressed.
The press got wind of the story, and soon newspapers throughout Britain and parts of the United States ran front page articles about the disappearance. Most of them speculated wildly as to what might have happened to the mystery writer. Two other noted writers of detective fiction got involved. Dorothy L. Sayers, besides visiting the site of the abandoned car, told the press, “In any problem of this kind there are four possible solutions: loss of memory, foul play, suicide or voluntary disappearance.” There wasn’t yet enough evidence to determine which scenario appeared most likely, and “one cannot ask all the questions which one’s own ideal detective would instantly put.”
Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, acquired a glove that belonged to Agatha Christie and presented it to a clairvoyant. “I gave him no clue at all as to what I wanted or to whom the article belonged,” reported Doyle. “He at once got the name Agatha. ‘There is trouble connected with this article. The person who owns it is half dazed and half purposeful. She is not dead as many think. She is alive. You will hear of her, I think, next Wednesday.’”
Meanwhile, on the weekend following the disappearance, between 2,000 and 15,000 police officers and volunteers scoured the countryside around Newlands Corner, but nothing turned up. Then, nearly two weeks after her disappearance, Agatha Christie was discovered living in an exclusive hotel in the fashionable spa town of Harrogate, Yorkshire, 230 miles north of where her car had been abandoned. She had registered under the name Mrs. Teresa Neele, the last name being that of her husband’s mistress. She told people at the hotel that she was from Cape Town, South Africa, and had arrived in England only a few days earlier. But two musicians in the hotel’s dance band recognized her from pictures in the papers and notified police.
When the police, along with her husband, arrived in Harrogate and confronted her in the hotel lobby, she claimed to have lost her memory and said that it only just then returned to her upon seeing her husband, Archie. She admitted to Archie privately, however, that she had devised the entire scheme to disrupt his weekend rendezvous with his mistress, figuring the police would suspect him of murder, give him a good grilling, and make his life miserable for a few days. But things got out of hand once the press got hold of the story. The master whodunit story-teller hadn’t counted on the international sensation her disappearance would cause.
The Christies divorced in 1928 with Archie maintaining publicly that Agatha had experienced amnesia, and Agatha, for the remainder of her life, refusing publicly to discuss the matter. In Agatha Christie: An Autobiography, published posthumously in 1977, she never mentions The Case of the Missing Author—the episode in which she mysteriously disappeared for eleven days.
Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914?) is best known for his brilliantly satirical The Devil’s Dictionary and a number of short stories, especially “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” “Chickamauga,” and “The Boarded Window.” Like Poe and Christie, Bierce mysteriously disappeared—but not for just a week or two. He disappeared for good.
In 1913, when he was seventy-one years old, living and working in Washington, D. C., he decided for some undisclosed reason that he wanted to travel through Mexico and South America. This was particularly unusual considering his age and given the fact that Mexico was then in the midst of a violent revolution. Yet on September 10, 1913, Bierce wrote to a friend, “I expect to go to, perhaps cross, South America—possibly via Mexico, if I can get through without being stood up against a wall and shot as a Gringo. But that is better than dying in bed, is it not?”
He left Washington on October 2, and after visiting battlefields in the South where he had seen action during the Civil War, he arrived in Texas late in the month. His last known interview with a newspaper reporter took place in San Antonio in early November. After that, his movements become a matter of conjecture. Some believe that he entered Mexico near El Paso, got caught up in the revolution, and died in the Battle of Ojinaga, just across the border from Presidio, Texas. Some contend that Pancho Villa had him murdered. One writer claims that Bierce never entered Mexico at all, but went on to the Grand Canyon in Arizona where he committed suicide.
But no one knows for certain. All anyone really knows is that Ambrose Bierce vanished without a trace.