Although he is now long-forgotten, Samuel Stillman Conant was one of 19th century New York’s leading literary figures. His father was a professor of languages; his mother a successful magazine editor and author. Young Samuel was given an extensive education worthy of two such erudite parents. He became a successful magazinist, achieving his best-known position as editor of “Harper’s Weekly.”
By the start of 1885, the fifty-three year old Conant was enjoying the happy fruits of a long and distinguished career. He had been editor of “Harper’s” for sixteen years, and, for all anyone knew, would be at the popular journal’s helm for sixteen more. He was happily married, proud of his young son, and comfortably well-to-do. He had no known enemies, or serious troubles of any kind.
On January 15, Conant spent a pleasantly uneventful evening at the Authors’ Club. The next day--a Friday--he went to work as usual, and towards evening, left his offices cheerfully telling his colleagues he would see them all on Monday. He and his son were about to go to Albany to spend the weekend with a fellow editor.
He never made it to his Brooklyn home. His wife and son, knowing he had always been punctilious about appointments and keeping them apprised of his activities, became understandably frantic, and immediately suspected foul play. However, they were unable to find any sign of what had happened to him.
Conant’s whereabouts remained a mystery until the following Wednesday, when a man matching the missing editor’s description pawned a watch in a shop in Coney Island. Conant’s son later identified the watch. The receipt for the transaction was signed “T. P. Stevens.” “T. P.” happened to be the initials of Samuel's son Thomas Peters, and “Stevens,” the maiden name of his wife Helen.
Investigation revealed that the man who pawned this watch spent the night on the beach at Coney Island. He then struck up an acquaintance with a storekeeper, who invited the stranger to stay for dinner. The guest gave his name as Conant, the editor of “Harper’s Weekly.” He then went on his way, saying he was going to catch the seven o’clock train for Brooklyn.
A week after Conant—or this man claiming to be Conant—appeared in Coney Island, a friend saw the editor leaving a Fulton Street hotel. When the man tried to detain him, Conant evaded his grasp, snapping, “Don’t you see, I’m going down the street!”
A man matching the description of the wandering editor was traced to a hotel in Long Island, but he checked out only an hour before the arrival of the detectives who had been put on his trail.
And he has never been seen or heard from since. Some contemporary news stories gave the unverified claim that Conant had bought a train ticket to Florida, but that ticket was never used.
Conant’s desolate wife remained in their home, hoping against hope that one day he would return. Thomas Conant spent the rest of his life following leads all over the globe to find his father, but these clues were all fruitless. When he died twelve years after his father’s disappearance, Helen Conant was left completely unknown to suffer all the agonizing pains of uncertainty felt by anyone who has experienced the unexplained absence of a loved one. She died in 1899.
It is hard to know what to make of all this. It seems most likely that Conant disappeared voluntarily, but if so, why? It is certainly true that he might have had troubles or dissatisfactions unknown to us, or even to his intimates, but it is still difficult to picture a man with a successful, congenial career and a loving family giving it all up for an uncertain future on his own. And if he did choose to abandon his life, why did he volunteer his name to that Coney Island shopkeeper, and continue to hang around New York, where he was almost certain to eventually be recognized? Also, he had no significant amount of money on him when he vanished, and there is no record of him having withdrawn anything from the bank either just before or after his disappearance.
If Agatha Christie wrote this story, the solution to the mystery would probably be that the editor was murdered, with a lookalike staging “sightings” to give the impression Conant was still alive. But that sort of thing is unlikely in real life.