Mysterious vanishings come in a variety of flavors, or "species," if you will. There are those people who just simply disappear into thin air, never to be seen again, more rarely those who spontaneously cease to exist in practically full view of others, those who leave perplexing clues in their wake, and sometimes those who actually seem to come back, often with decidedly strange or puzzling stories to tell. Yet there are others still, which merge facets of all of these into a twisted hybrid of the weird; those who vanished without a trace, wove a web of mystery around them, and then suddenly reappeared only to deepen the unexplained quality to it all. These are the people who walked off the face of the earth, walked back, but all was not what it seemed, creating a complicated tapestry of mystery, deceit, strange imposters, and just plain weirdness.
In April of 1922, little 2-year-old Pauline Picard was playing on her family’s farm in the rural area of Goas Al Ludu, near Chautelin, in the Brest district of Brittany, France, when she mysteriously and abruptly went missing without a trace. When authorities were notified and the farm and surrounding vicinity thoroughly searched, there was turned up no sign of the vanished girl or where she could have possibly gone, and more extensive searches branching further out equally got nowhere. Frustrated authorities were forced to conclude that she had been kidnapped, but there was no evidence at all as to what had become of her. Pauline had just seemingly blinked out of existence.
As the days went by with no trace of Pauline and no leads to go on, any hope of ever finding her slowly began to fade. Then, a few weeks after the baffling vanishing, a young girl matching Pauline’s description was found wandering about out on her own in the village of Cherbourg, located around 300 miles away. The mysterious mute girl was placed in the care of a local hospice and considering the uncanny physical resemblance and lack of any apparent parents, authorities became convinced that they had found the missing Pauline Picard. Police contacted the girl’s parents and showed her a picture of the girl they had found, causing Pauline’s mother to break down in tears and proclaim that it was indeed her lost daughter.
The overjoyed parents made the trip out to Cherbourg in order to be reunited with their vanished daughter, but this meeting would prove to be rather odd indeed. Although the girl at the hospice looked exactly like Pauline, she seemed to not recognize her own parents in the slightest, and seemed somewhat uncomfortable and even scared in their presence. On top of this, she also allegedly had an entirely different personality, mannerisms, and remained mute throughout, not saying a word to anyone. Although it was all rather weird, everyone present attributed it to mental trauma over whatever had brought her all the way out there and what had happened since her disappearance, and she was at this point still assumed to be Pauline. Her parents would bring her home, upon which neighbors also recognized the girl as Pauline. Numerous newspapers at the time reported of this fortunate reunion and it was all considered a success story. However, the girl’s return would only set off a new series of bizarre events and mysteries.
The girl’s arrival at the home saw her stubborn inability to speak continue, and this was still at first thought to be merely because of shock and trauma, but she also still showed many differences in personality and continued to seem to have no memory at all of the house she was in or the people she was now amongst. It also almost seemed to the family as if she did not even understand the Breton dialect they were speaking to her. Just as Pauline’s parents were beginning to suspect something was truly off about their daughter, things began to rocket further into the realm of the strange.
At around this point, a local farmer named Yves Martin allegedly approached the Picards to ask if they really thought that the girl they had taken home was their daughter, before apparently lamenting “God help me, I am guilty,” and shambling off with a crazy look on his face. The not surprisingly unsettled parents contacted authorities and Martin would later be admitted to a mental asylum. Even more disturbing was a gruesome discovery made not long after, when a local came across the severely decomposed naked body of a little girl with a neatly folded pile of clothes next to her not far from the Picard farm. The corpse was in quite a dire state, missing its hands, feet, and head, which coupled with the advanced state of decomposition made it difficult to identify, and it would later be found that there were stab wounds present on the body as well, indicating that the girl had been brutally murdered.
Adding to the whole mystery was that the ravaged body was found in a place that had been searched before, and locals claimed that they had passed by there frequently without anyone ever noticing anything amiss, leading to the idea that the body had been placed there rather recently. Meanwhile, Pauline’s parents were baffled that the clothes folded next to the body seemed to be those of their daughter, in fact the ones she had been wearing the day she had gone missing, even though they thought that she was alive and well in their home, adding a further sheen of weirdness to everything. There was also purportedly found the skull of an unidentified man lying nearby the corpse, although it could not be ascertained who it belonged to or what connection it had to the grisly find of the girl’s body, if any.
Although the body could ultimately not be identified, with the location being so close to where Pauline had gone missing, the presence of her clothes at the site, and the strange behavior of the girl from Cherbourg, there was the rumor that the corpse was actually that of the missing girl, and that the one now in the Picard household was someone else. Indeed, even Pauline’s parents began to believe this, and the girl who had been staying with them was relocated to an orphanage, with uncertainty still hanging over who she really was.
The case leaves many questions in its wake, such as who was the girl with such a strong resemblance to Pauline found wandering about in Cherbourg and why had she been alone? Why had she never been reported missing? Was she really Pauline all along, perhaps suffering from some sort of amnesia, and if so how had she ended up in a town so far away? Who did the body of the girl that was found belong to and was it really that of Pauline or someone else? If she was someone else, then who was she and where did she come from? What connection did the skull have to the case and who did it belong to? What did Martin’s cryptic admission mean, if anything? These are questions which remain unanswered, and the girl who had reappeared to the family has never been identified one way or the other.
Another case which occurred even earlier than that of Pauline Picard is also weird in many respects. On August 23, 1912, a family named the Dunbars, consisting of Father Percy, mother Lessie, and two children Bobby and Alonzo, went on a fishing trip to Louisiana’s Swayze Lake, around 25 miles from their home in Opelousas, Louisiana. At some point 4-year-old Bobby Dunbar wandered away from his family, who were having lunch at their cabin, after which he proceeded to vanish off the face of the earth. Police immediately launched a large scale search for the missing boy, but all that was found was a set of footprints leading towards a railway, after which they stopped. It was largely assumed at the time that Bobby had been abducted, but it was never found just who had done it or where he had been taken.
Months later, in April of 1913, a man named William Walters was found in Mississippi with a boy matching the description of the missing Bobby Dunbar, and when apprehended he maintained that the name of the boy who he was with was actually Charles Bruce Anderson, and that he was on his way to meet the boy’s mother, Julia Anderson. Police were nevertheless suspicious, and when Bobby’s parents arrived to take a look at the boy they were immediately convinced it was their missing son, even though he seemed to have no idea who they were. Amazingly, the boy was released to them anyway, and the mother would later claim that as she bathed him she recognized his distinctive moles and a scar that he had had, further cementing the certainty that he was indeed her thought to be lost son.
In the meantime, Julia Anderson showed up to dispute this, insisting that the boy was her own son, but she was shown to demonstrate a profound lack of sense of what her own boy even looked like, unable to pick him out of a line-up of 5 other boys, and this was seen to be rather suspicious. Not to mention, Anderson had apparently had 3 children out of wedlock, which was quite the taboo in those days, making her look all the worse. Adding to the whole mess even more was that she had let her son go off with Walters for so long. The court eventually ruled that the boy was Bobby Dunbar and he was sent to live his parents, who were ecstatic that their lost son was home, while Walters was charged with kidnapping.
The whole thing became quite the sensational court case at the time, and many witnesses actually came out of the woodwork to support Walters. Many of these were citizens of the town of Poplarville, Mississippi, where Walters had spent a lot of time, and they claimed that the boy had been around since before Bobby Dunbar had even gone missing. Of course Anderson was there as well, still fiercely adamant that it was her own son. In the end, after a highly publicized courtroom drama unfolded, the court ruled that custody was to be given to the Dunbars, and Walter was convicted of kidnapping and slapped with a life sentence, which would be appealed 2 years later by the efforts of his lawyer but would not go to trial again. Walters would spend the rest of his life telling anyone who would listen of his innocence. Anderson would move to Poplarville and become a nurse there, all the while insisting that her son had been stolen away from her by the Dunbars.
The boy in question went on to be raised to adulthood as Bobby Dunbar, eventually getting married, having four kids of his own, and dying in 1966 having lived a full life. In later years it was claimed that throughout his life “Bobby Dunbar” had on occasion reached out to and met with the Anderson family, although it is uncertain if this is true or what his reasons might have been. Then, in 2004, the whole debate would be put to rest by a DNA test requested by Bobby’s own granddaughter, Margaret Dunbar Cutright, who was sure that he had been a true Dunbar and wanted to prove it once and for all. The DNA from Bobby Dunbar was compared to that of his cousin, and the results shocked everyone. The boy who they had raised as their own was shown to have had no blood relation to them at all.
This in some sense exonerated Anderson and Walters of any wrongdoing, but it still did not prove that it was Anderson’s own son, as she had long claimed. Indeed, the whole thing only deepened the mystery. Although we now know that the man who died in 1966, who everyone had thought to be Bobby Dunbar, was actually not him at all, it has left us with multiple questions, such as if he was not Bobby, then who was he? Was he Anderson's son as she had claimed all along? Also, if he was not who he was thought to be, then what became of the real Bobby Dunbar, who vanished back in 1912? Did he die or was he kidnapped and still alive somewhere? How did the courts and authorities get everything so mixed up, and how had no one in Dunbar’s family ever caught on to the fact that he was not really their son? These are questions with answers we may never know.
Another creepy and rather unsettling case of vanishings and imposters is that of 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay, who on June 13, 1994, went missing after going off to play basketball with some friends in San Antonio, Texas, in the United States. Shortly before this vanishing, he had called his brother Jason from a payphone to ask him to come pick him up, but had hung up when his brother refused. That would be the last anyone heard from him, and despite intensive searches it seemed as if Nicholas Barclay had simply stepped off the face of the earth.
At the time it was first thought that he had simply run away from home. Nicholas was well known for being an aggressive and troubled boy, often accused of shoplifting, frequently violent towards his own mother, and always making general drama around town, which had landed him in trouble with the law on more than one occasion. Indeed, right before his disappearance he had been scheduled to appear before a juvenile court on charges that he had not only broken into a convenience store, but had physically menaced one of his teachers. One private investigator on the case named Charlie Parker sums up Nicholas’ bad behavior nicely, saying:
The teachers were having a great deal of trouble with him. He was erratic, he wasn't going to school he was fighting back he had hit one of the teachers. The neighbors told us that they wouldn't allow their children to play with him. He cursed his mother, he struck out at his mother.
He had also frequently run away from home before for short stints, and it was thought that he would drift back eventually, especially with no money and not having packed anything to bring with him, but this was not meant to be. Barclay would remain missing, and various ideas swirled at the time, including that he had run away for good or even been attacked and possibly killed by his own brother, but there was no evidence of any of this. Then, in October of 1997, a full 3 years after the mysterious vanishing, Barclay’s mother, Beverly Dollarhide, was contacted by authorities notifying her that her missing son had possibly been found in Linares, Spain, of all places, after a young man matching her son’s description had been found huddled in a phone booth. He had then managed to convince authorities that he was the missing Nicholas Barclay and they had been holding him ever since.
The boy was identified by his sister, Carol Gibson, also called Carey, who had flown out to Spain to see him, despite some glaring oddities. For instance, he now spoke with a thick French accent, which he attributed to the years he had spent around Europe. He was nevertheless moved back to his family, proceeding to apparently assimilate back into his old life, and although he acted quite differently from before and had missing memories, this was just blamed on his traumatic experience. Indeed, he had quite the dramatic story to tell regarding his long disappearance and reappearance in Spain, claiming that he had been kidnapped and forced into a child pornography ring where he had been abused and imprisoned before managing to escape. Some physical anomalies that he displayed since being found was that his eye and hair color were different than before, which he explained as chemicals that had been poured into his hair and eyes by his captors to torture him and render him unrecognizable.
Despite the physical and personality differences, he was accepted as the family’s lost son, and over the next few months Nicholas continued to assimilate and even seemed to be regaining some of his lost memories. However, there were those who sensed that something was not quite as it seemed, including Nicholas’ brother, Jason, and private investigator named Charlie Parker, who first heard of the case after being called in to check it out by the producer of a documentary program looking into the family. It would be Parker who would eventually start to peel back the layers to get to the whole creepy truth about what was going on when he looked at pictures of Nicholas Barclay and the boy found in Spain and realized that they did not have the same ears. This was seen as quite a profound discovery, as the ears are said to be a good indicator of a person’s true identity. Parker would say of this find:
I had not heard about this story. It had not been in the paper. This producer just told me they wanted me to check it out. Well, I went right on over to the house.It just so happened there was an old picture of Nicholas Barclay on the wall. I looked at the picture and saw blue eyes, but this boy’s eyes were brown. Then I went over and asked the cameraman to zoom in on his ears. You see, I remembered Scotland Yard had used that method to trace the man who killed Martin Luther King.
Parker became quite obsessed with the whole affair after this odd discovery, and he doggedly pursued the theory that the boy the family had taken in was not their son, although they steadfastly insisted it was. Eventually, Parker managed to get a court order out to take DNA and fingerprints tests on the boy after he admitted he was not Nicholas when confronted, and these tests turned out just about as he expected. This was indeed not Nicholas Barclay, and even more bizarre, it turned out to be a notorious serial impersonator named Frédéric Bourdin, who had a career of having taken the identities of over 500 children all over the world and was known by his criminal nickname “The Chameleon.” Bourdin had heard of the Barclay case, read up on it, and made his move, managing to trick everyone in the process.
The findings led to a 6 year prison stint for Bourdin on charges of passport fraud and perjury, but he would go back to his old ways soon after being released, including taking the identities of at least two more missing boys, before finally dropping out of the game to settle down and have kids of his own. Oddly, throughout it all the Barclay family chose to hang on to the idea that Bourdin had really been their son, even when faced with incontrovertible evidence that he wasn’t, going so far as to try and keep Bourdin with them even as he was tried for being a proven imposter. This has actually led to one of the most persistent theories as to what became of the real Nicholas Barclay; that he was killed by his brother Jason and his death covered up by the family.
Nicholas and Jason had purportedly always been at odds with each other, not getting along and often arguing or fighting, and it has been speculated that one such fight had ended with Jason killing his brother in a rage. Since Jason was a known drug user and his family feared losing both of their sons, it is surmised that they had kept the death secret. When they had the amazing stroke of luck of some con man trying to impersonate their dead son, they had then jumped on it as a chance to weave a charade that Nicholas was still alive and further cover the death up. This would explain why they were so willing to wholeheartedly accept Bourdin’s story hook, line and sinker, despite all of the anomalies and inconsistencies, as well as why they would so strongly stick to the fraud even in the face of such overwhelming evidence against it. In fact, Bourdin himself has further fueled this theory by offering insights into the way the family had treated him during his life as Nicholas Barclay, saying:
They knew I was not Nicholas. They didn't believe a word that I said. But they were good at not showing it. I remember in Spain, Carey did everything for me. When I didn't know something, she told me. That's the house we used to live in. That's my daughter, your niece. Do you remember that? Remember that, remember that, remember that, over and over again. She wanted to put it in my head so I would never forget. She couldn't say that I wasn't her brother. Did she believe it or not? If you ask me, no. She did not believe for a second that I was her brother. She decided that I was going to be her brother. They killed him. Some of them did it, some of them knew about it, and some of them choose to ignore it. I wasn't worried about Nicholas coming back no more.
Jason was considered a suspect in the disappearance of Nicholas for a time, but his death by cocaine overdose put an end to this line of questioning and obliterated that lead. The family always denied any of this, of course, saying that they had fallen for Bourdin’s story simply because they were so overjoyed by getting their son back that they had blindly accepted him as their own. What happened to Nicholas Barclay and why did his family take in a boy as their own despite the fact that he was 6 years older than their son and didn’t look or act like him? In the end there have been no further leads or evidence as to what became of Nicholas Barclay, and the true reasons behind his vanishing or what happened to him have remained an impenetrable mystery. The whole bizarre and riveting story has been made into a 2010 film called The Chameleon, by French director and screenwriter Jean-Paul Salomé, and a 2012 documentary on Bourdin’s involvement in the case titled The Imposter, directed by Bart Layton.
What are we to make of these cases? While it may seem in some of these accounts the imposter is clear, in others not so much. In all of them it remains unknown what happened to the real vanished people or what became of them. These cases serve to bring up just another facet of the bizarre world of unexplainable vanishings. These are the people who seemingly evaporated from existence and may or may not have come back from their mysterious journey, only to leave further enigmas in their wake. These accounts are sure to remain cloaked in mystery and creepiness.