Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide
One of the most interesting stories in American folklore is that of Oliver Lerch. Like all good tales there are multiple versions of the fable each with slight variations in the details, such as the spelling of his name, location where the event took place, even his age has ranged between eleven and twenty. The purpose of this article is to explore the tale as relatively recent American legend, and not to validate the truthfulness of the story, so I am going to present the most commonly re-told version here.
Oliver Lerch was twenty years old in 1890, and lived with his family on their farm in South Bend Indiana. On Christmas Eve his parents were hosting a party, with many family members and townsfolk in attendance. Oliver’s parents sent him out to fetch water from a near by well. Bundling up for the cold Indiana night, he took two buckets with him. There was already a thick layer of newly fallen snow, and the weather was turning ugly. The party continued on as the boy completed his chore. Back in the house as was a common nineteenth century tradition the family and their guests gathered around the tree and were singing Christmas carols when they heard him shouting from outside. ”Help! Help! It’s got me!”
Franticly the revelers rushed outside, searching for the doomed boy. In the fresh snow they saw Oliver’s tracks go up about half way to the well and then just stop, the boy was gone! One of the two buckets lay as if he had dropped it when he vanished. (1) No other tracks besides Oliver’s were to be found, and his tracks only lead away from the house.
Family members began to desperately look for the lost boy to no avail. They could hear his voice call out from the sky. It became fainter and fainter then, it too vanished. Oliver Lerch was never seen or heard from again. (2)
The story of Oliver Lerch was brought to national attention when it was showcased in Morris K. Jessup’s Book A Case for the UFO. (3) Jessup’s goals were admirable. He wanted to bring scientific techniques and scrutiny to the newly founded study of UFOology. Unfortunately the reality of his work fell short of that lofty goal. Jessup claimed that anyone could look up the reports of the Lerch case with the South Bend police department, proving that this was a long standing case of a mysterious disappearance.
Evidentially he never tried to look the records up himself or he would have found out that a fire in 1920 destroyed most police records in South Bend prior to that date. (4) Now incase you think I am being to hard on Mr. Jessup, I really do see him as a sympathetic and tragic figure in the fledgling UFO research field, a man who wanted to make a coherent argument for his beliefs. He just fell flat in doing so. (More about Jessup in another post.)
More strenuous investigations later on found other problems that create doubt that this incident was an actual event.. The winters from 1880 to 1890, were unusually warm. The temperatures on Christmas Eve those years averaged in the 50’s and 60’s, meaning there would not likely be snow on the ground to highlight Oliver’s foot prints. Surviving members of the Lerch family latter told reporters that the story was not true and originated outside the family.(5)
A version of this story appeared in a 1936 edition of Fate magazine by writer Joseph Rosenberg, who latter said he made the entire story up. But since the earliest known telling of the story was in the magazine The Scrape Book, years before then it is highly unlikely that the story comes from Rosenberg’s imagination. (6)
So if the story isn’t true and Rosenberg didn’t make it up, what are its origins? Stories about farmer’s disappearing are almost as old as farming itself. And the South Bend area is no different. An 1869 St. Joseph Valley Tribune article spoke of a giant eagle swooping down and snatching a child and carrying him for two miles.(7) Now I am not saying this story is any truer than the Oliver Lerch Story, but maybe it was a prototype of Lerch story.
Most researchers have noted that there is a striking resemblance to the Lerch case and Amboise Bierce’s tale Charles Ashmore’s Trail. The protagonist, in that story vanishes fetching water, his tracks heading one way in the snow. And for a time afterward his family could hear his pleas for help.(8) Bierce’s one page story is written as if it was a newspaper article and it is easy to imagine that a badly remembered version of the story would latter become an oral legend.
When I first read the story of Oliver Lerch I felt it was very to close to the pulp writings of Algernon Blackwood’s the Windigo and Argust Derleth’s The Thing That Walked on the Wind, Snow Creature, (AKA Ithaqua) and Beyond the Threshold. All related short stories about people carried off into the sky by supernatural entities. But instead of wondering if they had influence the Lerch story, like it is believed that Bierce’s story did, I wondered if they were inspired by it. Members of what we now call The Lovecraft Circle, where definitely not beyond using local legends for inspiration, much like the modern writers for Law and Order, claim to take their stories from the headlines.
In the introduction of The Ithaaqua Cycle, (9) Robert Price connects the concept of alien godlike intelligences reaching down from the either and grabbing hopeless humans, to the modern phenomena of alien abduction. Skeptic magazine’s Jason Colavito has an entire 398 page book, (10) dedicated to the idea that most of modern UFOolgy is if not based on has been influenced by the writings of the Chulhu Mythos.
And the pages of the pulps from the twenties and thirties are full of strange unexplainable alien intelligences, whisking away helpless humans from dark and deserted back woods for utterly unfathomable reasons. Even farther back we have gods like Zeus, or creatures like ferries that would abscond with a weary traveler.
And that may be the reason why over a hundred and twenty years latter we still remember who Oliver Lerch was supposed to be. That somewhere deep in our reptilian mind, there is a fear of some thing greater than us mortals reaching down from the sky and plucking us up and carrying us away and that these fears manifest in the form of myths. folklore, fictitious stories and the UFO abduction syndrome. But what is the ultimate source of these fears, I for one do not claim to know.
(1) Menouch, Doug The Big Book of the Unexplained, Pgs 42-43 Paradox Press 1997
(3) M. K. Jessup A Case for the UFO Citadel Press New York 1955
(9) Price, Robert Ithsqua Cycle Chaosium, Canada 1998.
(10) Colavito, Jason The Cult of the alien Gods: H.P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture. Prometheus Press Amherst NY, 2005.