History is rife with mysterious people who have seemingly vanished into thin air, often with strange circumstances and clues surrounding them. Yet just as mysterious are those cases that go the opposite way, with people seeming to appear out of nowhere to baffle and puzzle all who would try and figure them out. These mysterious strangers come out of the blue into our reality to evade us and elude understanding, and they are every bit as weird as anyone who has stepped off the face of the earth. Where did these people come from and who are they? The answers continue to hide in the shadows.
The earliest of the cases we will look at here, and also one of the weirdest and most mysterious of them, concerns an 8-year-old boy who in September of 1863 was walking along a beach near the village of Digby Neck, in Nova Scotia, Canada, when he came across a man just lying there, seemingly dead, but not. What made things odd indeed was that this man had no legs, and he was just sprawled out there on the beach with no hint as to how he had gotten there. When the boy tried to talk to him, the man seemed to be dazed, confused, and not able to understand. The boy told his parents, who retrieved the mysterious legless man and found that he was suffering from exposure and did not seem to speak English or any other recognizable language for that matter, instead communicating through a series of grunts, whimpers, and growls like an animal.
Before long the strange legless stranger was known throughout the village, and he gained the nickname Jerome, although no one had any idea at all of what his real name might be. His legs were examined by a doctor and it was found that the amputations had been quite recent, indeed still bloody and not fully healed yet, but they were found to be skillfully done, as if by a professional, meaning that Jerome’s legs had been intentionally and carefully removed for some inscrutable purpose. As to why the legs had been removed no one could say, and Jerome wasn’t able to explain it for himself.
After some time, Jerome was moved off to the town of Meteghan, where he came under the care of a linguist named Jean Nicola and his family, who tried to teach him to speak unsuccessfully. Jerome spent several years with Nicola’s family before being moved once more, this time to the Comeau family in the nearby town of St. Alphonse, where he would spend the rest of his life up to his death in 1912. At no point during his life did he ever learn to speak, not even a word, and he became almost a legendary curiosity in the region, drawing people in droves who came to gawk at him as he growled and groaned like some feral beast.
Jerome’s identity has never been determined, although there are theories, of course. A historian of Nova Scotia named Frasier Mooney Jr. thinks that he was a mentally disabled immigrant who had been living in the town of New Brunswick. The theory is that the mystery man had gotten gangrene and his legs had been amputated, after which the townspeople simply dumped him out on that beach to wash their hands of the responsibility and burden of taking care of him. Another idea is that Jerome might have been a sailor on a passing ship from who knows where, who had attempted a mutiny and been punished by having his legs chopped off and being banished, and yet another idea is that he was actually an heir to a fortune but had been taken out of the picture so that a rival could get the money instead. Despite all of these disparate theories no one knows who Jerome was except for Jerome himself, and he never did say.
Another case from Canada comes to us from 1931, and revolves around the mysterious man who would be known only as the rather amusing name of “The Mad Trapper of Rat River.” One day the stranger suddenly appeared at the remote village of Fort McPherson, in the frigid, snow swept Northwest Territories of Canada, where he proceeded to build a modest cabin on the Rat River on the outskirts of town. The man made a living as a trapper, and kept to himself mostly, rarely speaking with anyone, and no one had a clue as to who he was or where he came from.
Before long other trappers in the area began to notice that someone was stealing their game and sabotaging their traps, and it was suspected that the mysterious “Mad Trapper” had had something to do with it. The authorities were notified, and when the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) arrived to question the mysterious stranger on New Year’s Eve, things got out of hand quite quickly. The Mad Trapper allegedly opened fire immediately on the police, seriously injuring a Constable Alfred King in the ensuing firefight. Taken off guard by the sudden, escalating violence the RCMP retreated, sending a larger armed group back 9 days later.
To everyone’s surprise, the Mad Trapper was still living in the cabin going about his life as if nothing had happened. When he was confronted by the police, he once again fought back, and the situation devolved into a standoff that would last for the next 15 hours. The RCMP eventually resorted to using dynamite to blow the cabin up, but unbelievably the Mad Trapper survived this onslaught and scampered off into the wilderness to vanish. A posse managed to catch up with him, but a Constable Edgar Millen was killed by the tough and rugged stranger in a gun fight, and he managed to escape again, this time heading straight towards an incoming blizzard into the Richardson Mountains, in the Yukon Territory.
Considering the seemingly un-killable nature of the Mad Trapper, his mysterious identity, and the fact that shootouts with police were relatively rare in the region, the media jumped all over the manhunt for the Mad Trapper of Rat River, and indeed this is where his colorful nickname was first used. It would not be until February 17, 1932, after an intensive search mission, that police would finally find him, this time at the Eagle River, where yet another firefight would break out. This time the Mad Trapper was not so lucky, and he was shot and killed right there on the frozen river. Interestingly, his identity and real name have never been determined, only an alias he used, Albert Johnson, which was a fake name. DNA tests carried out in 2007 have shown that he was likely from either Scandinavia or the American Midwest, but other than that we know nothing at all about this colorful, tenacious character. He remains a complete specter.
In 1945 there was also the strange case of who has come to be simply known as “John Doe No.24,” who was found as a deaf and mute African American teenager wandering around aimlessly in Jacksonville, Illinois in October of 1945. When he was brought off the street it was found that he could not even write, except to scrawl the word “Lewis,” and he communicated mostly through wild gesticulations, often pantomiming what appeared to be some sort of parade or musical event he had attended. He was not even able to use sign language. Authorities tried to find any friends or relatives of the boy, all without success, and he was eventually put in a state mental institution.
John Doe No. 24 was notable for never being far from his backpack full of rings, glasses and silverware, as well as for his cheerful, smiley demeanor, sense of humor, and readiness to try and communicate through gestures, and he was said to be quite intelligent and fond of dancing and feeling the vibrations of music. The institution even gave him a harmonica, which he would often try to play and took with him everywhere he went. He seemed to keep a positive outlook on life over the years, even as he got older and his health deteriorated, developing diabetes and colon cancer and eventually losing his eyesight as well. One case worker by the name of Kim Cornwell said of John Doe No. 24’s demeanor thus:
It was so obvious from what he pantomimed that he had quite a life at one time. Like a grandfather, he could probably tell funny stories. We just couldn’t reach out enough to get them.
After being transferred around several times, John Doe No. 24 would live out the rest of his years at a home in Peoria until he died of a stroke on November 28, 1993 at the estimated age of 64. At no time during his life did anyone come forward to claim him and neither his true identity nor even his true age was ever discovered. It is as if he just dropped from the sky out of nowhere, and Glenn W. Miller, the nursing home administrator, would lament:
It’s just sad to think that you could disappear, and no one would miss you.You wonder how often it happens.
Not all mysterious people who have appeared from nowhere are so relegated to the elusive, shadowy background, and there is one enigmatic individual who for years was a well-respected teacher all while no one had any idea of who he was. After World War II, a rabbi known as Monsieur Chouchani, or also by the name Shushani, began teaching at organizations around Europe, with his stable of distinguished students eventually including Nobel Peace Prize author Elie Wiesel and French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, and he is credited with influencing countless others with his teachings.
Known for his unorthodox, disheveled demeanor, with Wiesel once saying that he “looked like a hobo turned clown, or a clown playing hobo,” M. Chouchani was nevertheless known to most as a genius and master of philosophy, science, mathematics, and the Talmud, and was largely highly respected by his students, many of whom credited him as being the most influential person in their lives. Yet despite this high standing amongst his peers and students, next to nothing is actually known about who he actually was. M. Chouchani was highly secretive about his real name, and it is thought that both “Chouchani” and “Shushani” were just nicknames, puns even, although no one even knows why he would choose them or when he began to answer to them. It was also not known where he came from or where he was born, or pretty much anything about his life at all. Wiesel claimed to have once seen his passport, and that it had held the name “Mordekhai ben Shushan Rosenbaum,” and Hebrew University professor Shalom Rosenberg says Chouchani’s actual name was Hillel Perlmann, but not much is known about this or which is perhaps correct, if any.
What is known is that he was likely born in around 1895, that he lived in Paris from between the post-war years of 1947 to 1952, and that he then vanished for awhile only to reappear in Israel before moving back to Paris and then on to South America, where he would apparently spend the rest of his life. He also at various times pretended to be a Muslim refugee or other aliases, although for what reasons no one knows. We also know that he died in 1968, and that he was buried in Montevideo, Uruguay with a headstone that reads, “The wise Rabbi Chouchani of blessed memory. His birth and his life are sealed in enigma.” Other than that, his true identity and life are a complete enigma, and what little we do know comes to us mostly through accounts and anecdotes given by his students and colleagues, and although he was indeed a real person M. Chouchani has taken on an almost legendary and mythical quality. Who was he and where did he come from? We will probably never know.
Moving on to later years, in 1965 there was the mysterious case of Scott McKinley. On July 2, 1965, a stroller was found abandoned outside of a store in Newark, New Jersey, in the United States. Within this stroller was a young boy of only around 15 months of age, but a thorough search of the premises and numerous pleas to the public for the parents to come forward produced nothing. The toddler was placed in foster care, where he was given the name Scott McKinley.
Things got stranger when it was found that there was a possible connection between the mystery boy and a child abduction case that had occurred at about the same time he was found, when a Paul Fronczak was born at Michael Reese Hospital and was kidnapped by someone posing as a nurse. The FBI and Paul’s parents became so convinced that “Scott” was actually their missing son that they successfully gained custody of him and raised him as Paul Fronczak, despite the fact that blood tests were inconclusive on the true identity of the boy. In light of this reunion, the case seemed closed. Or at least so they thought.
Years later, when “Paul Fronczak” was a grown man, he became obsessively curious about his real past and who he really was. He wanted to know the truth, and so he bought a home DNA test kit and convinced his parents to take it. With the more modern techniques involved, DNA testing had come a long way over the decades, and this time there was no mistake at all. He was not remotely related to the people he had thought of as his parents his whole life. He was not their abducted baby after all. He would himself say of this startling and crushing revelation:
I feel kind of like an imposter because I am still using his birth certificate. Paul is out there. I have his birth certificate. … I want to give it to him, and I want to find mine. My parents raised me, and they did a great job. I feel that if I don’t do everything I can to help find the real child, then I’m not doing my job as a son.I don’t know anything about myself. I don’t know how old I am, my heritage, my birthday … all these things that people take for granted.
The case has subsequently been reopened, but Paul/Scott’s true identity remain unknown, as does what happened to the real Paul Fronczak. In more recent years there has been the case of a wealthy elderly hermit named Joseph Newton Chandler III, who lived his whole life quietly keeping to himself at Eastlake, Ohio. On July 30, 2002, he committed suicide with a gunshot to the head, which is thought to have been because he had recently discovered that he had terminal colon cancer. In the wake of his death, the courts began the process of dealing with inheritance and his estate, and this is when things got weird.
It turned out that Joseph Newton Chandler III was actually a 9-year-old boy who had died in a car crash in Texas way back in 1945, and that the man who had shot himself was an imposter who had put on this identity like someone might put on a suit. None of the relatives of the real, deceased Joseph Newton Chandler III had any idea of who the dead man was, and they had been completely unaware that someone had been assuming the identity of their long dead relative. As to who the imposter was, no one had a clue, and an investigation turned up no useful leads at all, making him a phantom. Theories as to who “Joseph Chandler” really was have included that he was actually the Zodiac Killer or that he was a fugitive named Stephen Craig Campbell, but the truth has never been uncovered, and likely will remain that way.
In 2004 we have the bizarre case of “Benjamin Kyle,” a middle-age Caucasian man who was found naked and unconscious by some dumpsters behind a Burger King in Richmond Hill, Georgia, in the United states, on August 31, 2004. When the mystery man was brought in it was found that he had received severe blunt force damage to his head, as if someone had beaten him, and when he was revived it quickly became apparent that he was suffering some form of amnesia. He had no idea where he was or who he was, and apparently did not even recognize his own face in the mirror. Not helping matters one bit was the fact that he had been carrying no ID of any kind, and the media quickly took to calling him “BK,” short for Burger King, although he would later name himself Benjamin Kyle.
All efforts to find out who he is have failed, and not a single person has come forward claiming to know him, despite an intensive campaign of sending his pictures out all over the country and numerous appearances on TV shows. His fingerprints were run through every database there is, and have turned up nothing. Virtually nothing is known of who Benjamin Kyle is or what chain of events brought him to be crumpled up at that dumpster. He is thought to be in his mid-60s, but even that is not sure, and DNA tests have suggested he might be of Scottish ancestry, but that is just about all we know. Kyle himself has demonstrated a good knowledge of the restaurant industry and claims to have vague memories of perhaps living in Colorado, but this has not been very helpful in determining who he is, and he is the only American citizen who lives his life right out in the open while still being officially listed as a missing person.
Also in 2010 is the weird case of 41-year-old Lori Erica Kennedy, who on Christmas Eve of that year drove to her in-laws’ house and proceeded to kill herself with a gunshot on their driveway. Kennedy had been having a lot of family problems at the time, and had been going through a messy divorce from husband Blake Ruff. Although tragic, it did not seem particularly mysterious at first, until the ensuing investigation showed that Lori was not exactly who she had always claimed to be, and that she had been living a lie.
It turned out that in 1988, she had managed to acquire the birth certificate of a girl named Becky Sue Turner, a girl who died in a house fire in Fife, Washington, in 1971. She used this name for awhile and then used it to get a government ID and then change her name to Lori Erica Kennedy and get a new Social Security Number. Practically everything her husband, daughter, and relatives knew about her turned out to be fabricated, and the person they had loved and thought they knew had just been a fiction. In retrospect it seemed to fit, as Lori had always been secretive and closed about her past and refusing to answer personal questions, simply saying that she had had a rough childhood and didn’t want to discuss it, but no one had suspected that her entire life had been a charade. Social Security investigator Joseph Velling has said of the odd case:
She created a false identity for the sole purpose of getting lost in America. It must have been for some horrific reason … either she was running away from a crime or an abusive family or relationship.
As to who the woman who had been a wife and mother really was, no one knows. It is not clear what Lori’s real name is, where she came from, or even how old she really was. Neither do we know who she was running from or why she had decided to live a lie as a fake person. Again, fingerprint searches have led nowhere and facial recognition databases have been of absolutely no help either. Indeed, so fully was she able to assume this fraudulent identity that it is widely believed that she had hired a professional “identity broker” to help her do it. Who was “Lori Erica Kennedy?” No one knows, not even the people closest to her.
It seems as though people can materialize out of nowhere just as easily as they can fade into nothingness, and we are often left with no clues or useful leads in either case. Here we have seen that the world of mysterious vanishings is not without its mirror of equally bizarre cases of people who have popped into existence from seemingly nowhere. Who were these people and what stories did they have to tell? Will we ever know? For now such cases remain yet another inscrutable landmark upon the landscape of the world of the weird.