|Russell Palmer in the "New York Daily News," Dec. 17, 1950, via Newspapers.com|
In some missing-persons cases, the man or woman returns home alive and well, to be greeted with great joy. Occasionally, however, it turns out that the returnee had a darn good reason for wanting to disappear, and the reason is rarely something anyone wants to hear. In such instances, everyone--particularly the formerly vanished--comes to wish he or she had stayed lost. An outstanding example is a once-notorious case from Ohio.
In 1920s Akron, Russell Palmer was among its most prominent and respectable citizens. His father, Thomas J. Palmer, had been a state senator. Russell himself was a veteran of WWI and held two well-paying jobs: employee in a real estate firm and secretary-treasurer of the Meadowbrook Country Club. He was married, with a seven-month old daughter. He could have passed for a character in Sinclair Lewis’ “Babbitt.”
On the night of February 4, 1922, Palmer’s club held a charity dance, which kept him working late. Around 2:30 a.m., he called Helen, his wife of four years, to tell her he was heading home and would see her soon. He carried with him the proceeds from the dance, about $60.
He never arrived.
No one had any idea what had happened to Palmer until a few hours after he left the club. A milkman spotted the missing man’s crashed car on the Gorge Bridge, over the Cuyahoga River. When police were summoned to the scene, they immediately realized that something terrible had happened. Someone had hurled a brick through the windshield. Palmer’s ripped overcoat, crumpled hat, and empty billfold were on the front seat. Outside the car were found his car keys and some other personal effects. A man-sized hole could be seen in the frozen river below. It did not take Sherlock Holmes to piece together the dreadful scenario: some criminal had been waiting by the bridge to rob the first car that came by. He threw the brick through the windshield, causing Palmer’s auto to crash. He then robbed the unfortunate man, killed him, and dumped the body in the river.
The river was searched for the corpse, but nothing was found. It was speculated that Palmer’s body was caught in the debris of a steel bridge which had collapsed into the water years earlier.
Investigators did find one clue which would possibly identify the perpetrator of this heinous deed: underneath Palmer’s car was a pair of driving gloves with scratches on them which could have been made by someone holding a brick. The gloves were not in Palmer’s size. After doing a bit of sleuthing, investigators learned that one Herbert Weinstein, the bartender at Palmer’s club, had bought an identical pair of gloves on February 1. Police, of course, joyfully hightailed it to Meadowbrook Country Club, only to be told that Weinstein had quit his job on February 4. He and Palmer, they were told, had a falling out.
Police learned that a man matching Weinstein’s description had caught a freight train out of Akron at about the time Palmer’s crashed car was discovered. A nationwide dragnet was launched for this murder suspect, but they only succeeded in tracing Weinstein to Denver, after which he vanished just as thoroughly as his presumed victim.
Palmer’s body was never discovered, but he was declared dead in 1929, and his widow received $8,500 in life insurance. She eventually fell in love again and happily remarried, and life, as it always does, went on.
One night in 1925, a hobo sought a bed for the night in the police station at Tacoma, Washington. Although shabbily dressed, the man had clearly seen better days. He had the manner of a gentleman and his white, soft hands displayed his unfamiliarity with manual labor. The stranger told Cliff Osborne, the officer on duty, that his name was Ross T. Cartier. He had just come from the East in the hope of finding work. A few days later, Osborne saw Cartier working at a malt shop.
Cartier flowered in his new surroundings. Within two years, he was comfortably well-off, and belonged to Tacoma’s leading service clubs, becoming renowned for his civic work. In 1927, he married Helen Dower, the daughter of a rich lumberman. Among the guests was Cliff Osborne, who had become a close friend of the bridegroom. Cartier’s new father-in-law helped him purchase a successful drugstore, which also served as the local post office.
There was, however, a private dark side to all this public happiness and prosperity. Cartier’s wife confided to Osborne that her new husband could be very moody, suffering from bouts of depression that he refused to discuss with her. And he would get so angry when she’d suggest that they go East to visit his family. It was starting to trouble her that she knew absolutely nothing about Ross' life before he came to Tacoma. She added, “Sometimes I think he’s got a terrible secret--that he just lives from day to day.” Osborne told her soothingly that Cartier merely suffered from “nerves.”
Despite these occasional troubles, Cartier’s life continued to seem a quiet and fortunate one. And then on the night of May 13, 1935, his affairs unraveled with a startling speed. Mart Parnell, a private security guard making his rounds, spotted Cartier’s car outside his drugstore. A light was on in the back of the shop. When Parnell touched the front doorknob, he found the door was unlocked. When he entered, he was relieved to find, not a burglar, but Cartier himself, in the process of locking the safe kept at the back of the store. The druggist did not seem happy to see him. After a brief chit-chat, Cartier all but ordered his visitor out.
Parnell shrugged and continued his rounds. A few minutes later, Cartier’s car sped by him. The druggist and another man were in the front seats. Towards dawn, Parnell’s route again brought him to the vicinity of Cartier’s drugstore. The back light was still on and the door was still unlocked. When Parnell entered, he found that the safe was wide open, and empty. On top of the safe was a loaded revolver. The narcotics drawer was also empty.
It was all looking very fishy, and very bad for Ross Cartier. Parnell phoned the police. A quiet search was launched, but Cartier and his car were nowhere to be found. It was discovered that $1,500 in postal receipts had vanished with him. Unpleasant rumors began to circulate throughout Tacoma about Mr. Cartier. The druggist’s wife and father-in-law, however, insisted that he must have been kidnapped.
Two days after Cartier disappeared, a garage owner in Vancouver, Washington reported that Cartier’s car had been driven into his place by two men--neither of which matched Cartier’s description--and a woman. They never came back for it.
Meanwhile, postal inspectors discovered that three money orders issued by Cartier’s post office substation carried different names, but were written in the same handwriting--the handwriting of Ross T. Cartier. A federal warrant was issued charging the druggist with embezzlement.
Authorities ran into an odd problem. They naturally wanted to circulate a photograph of the wanted man, but they found that there didn’t seem to be any in existence. His wife explained that “Ross hated to have his picture taken.”
Newspaper stories about Cartier’s disappearance caught the eye of a former Akron resident now living in Tacoma. It reminded him of the old Palmer/Weinstein mystery. He went to police with the suggestion that “Ross Cartier” might be one of the two missing Akron men. Authorities pooh-poohed it as “far-fetched.”
Two months after Cartier vanished, his wife and father-in-law, acting on a tip from an anonymous woman, flew to a remote ranch in Arizona. A guest there, “Ross Smith,” was immediately recognized by them as the man they knew as “Ross Cartier.”
“Why did you do it, Ross?” his wife sobbed.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said sullenly. “Maybe I got tired of living without any excitement.”
His father-in-law repaid the Government for the postal funds Cartier had stolen, and the now black-sheep son-in-law surrendered to the authorities. He was asked if he was really Russell Palmer or Herbert Weinstein. He replied that he had never heard of either man, and had never been in Akron in his life.
Nobody was convinced by his denial. It was discovered that there was absolutely no record of Cartier before 1923. It was dawning on everyone that Ross Cartier--or whoever he was--was a man capable of doing a lot of very curious things. The Tacoma chief of police contacted his counterpart in Akron. He received in return an old newspaper story about the Palmer mystery, a photograph of Palmer, and Palmer’s WWI War Department fingerprints.
The man in the photograph was either Ross Cartier or his identical twin. When Cartier was fingerprinted, those proved to be an exact match, as well.
“Cartier” was now forced to admit his true identity. When he was asked about Weinstein, he replied, “I didn’t kill him. He robbed me of club receipts. I never saw him again. I knew it would take a lot of explaining after I said I’d been robbed on my new job. So I just went down to the station and caught a train west.” He added with a shrug, “Well, that’s all in the past.”
Few believed him. It was widely suspected that Palmer had enlisted Weinstein to help him fake his own death, after which he murdered his cohort to ensure he kept his mouth shut, but unfortunately the police had no way to prove it.
In 1936, Palmer was sentenced to two years in the federal penitentiary for embezzlement. After he was released in May 1938, he again disappeared, this time for good, much to the relief of his former loved ones. It was rumored that Palmer settled in California, but that was never proven. It’s anyone’s guess what Palmer did with the rest of his life, but judging by his previous form, I presume his subsequent history would have provided me with a whole series of blog posts.
A tragic footnote to this sordid saga is the fact that Palmer’s father, aghast at the realization that his son was a thief, a fraud, a bigamist, and a possible murderer, committed suicide. The only person to mourn Russell was his mother, who went to her grave many years later hoping in vain that her errant son would contact her.
[Note: many thanks to Chris Woodyard for bringing this story to my attention.]