Wednesday, February 17, 2021

When College Students Go Missing....

If you Google "college student disappears," search results will identify more than 7 million hits. Of course, many of the hits reproduce the same disappearance, but the total is nevertheless alarming. It's clear that the disappearance of students is not a rarity. Some cases go back quite far, the subject of the search still undiscovered. Lauren Spierer, for example, a student at Indiana University who disappeared June 3, 2011 when she was twenty years old, remains unaccounted for. Other cases date back even further. More recently, Jason Landry, a twenty-one-year-old student at Texas State University, disappeared last December. His crashed automobile was found in a remote area, but, as of this writing, Jason remains undiscovered. Occasionally, the fog of absence abruptly lifts when someone discovers a body, as happened in 1992 when Tammy Zywicki disappeared en route back to Grinnell College.

Was it always like this? Did college and university students of yesteryear go missing like Jason Landry or Lauren Spierer did? Or is the phenomenon a modern happening without precedent?

Today's post examines two cases from the early history of Grinnell College to help us compare the past with more recent experience. These early disappearances indicate that, although the past is often very different from the present, sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between then and now.


Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, October 24, 1899

In the last years of the nineteenth century, Grinnell College—including its preparatory academy and the Music School—enrolled on average about 500 students, the great majority of them from Iowa. Therefore, the September 1899 arrival in Grinnell of Wayne Bagley (b. 1881) from State Center, Iowa provoked little attention. An older brother had attended Grinnell in the late 1880s when the family was living in Melbourne, Iowa, so young Wayne—eighteen years old when he enrolled—was no doubt familiar with the college. Moreover, like most of his classmates, his home was nearby. 

Details of Wayne's previous schooling remain unclear, but evidently college officials did not deem him sufficiently prepared for the rigors of the college curriculum. Instead, according to the 1899-1900 college catalog, Wayne enrolled not in the college itself, but rather as a senior in the Academy, a sort of preparatory school. The college catalog, in enumerating schools whose curriculum the college recognized as satisfactory, lists the State Center schools in a second, lower category than the preferred, recognized schools, which probably explains Bagley's placement in the Academy.

1899-1900 Iowa College Catalog, p. 99

The Academy offered three years of preparatory work, and it is to Bagley's credit that Iowa College officials deemed him sufficiently well-schooled to enter the third, senior year in the Academy. As a review of the catalog confirms, the senior-year curriculum was no pushover, demanding competencies not easily attained in today's secondary schools. For example, all students in Bagley's Academy cohort were obliged to take Latin, English, and Physics five times a week, along with one additional language, choosing among Greek, German, or French. A catalog footnote pointed out that anyone wishing to continue toward the bachelor's degree had to have Greek, an indication of the high expectations the Academy held for its students.

Main Street, State Center, Iowa (before 1910)

Happily for Bagley, he entered the Academy with two other students from State Center—John Gaffield Capron (1876-1918) and Wilbur H. Schilling (1881-1951). State Center was not then (and is not now) a large community: the 1900 US Census counted just over 1000 residents, so it is not unreasonable to think that the three young men were acquainted. In fact, the 1900 US Census for State Center lists the Capron and Schilling families next to one another, so they must have been neighbors. Moreover, Capron's mother (Clara Bagley Capron [1841-1901]) was a Bagley relative. It seems likely, therefore, that the three shared an acquaintance and may well have arrived in Grinnell together.

View of Grinnell College Campus; Goodnow Hall, Chicago Hall, Blair Hall, all built in 1880s

But if the three young men were close, their friendship seems not to have helped Wayne Bagley adjust to the academic and social rigors of Grinnell. Barely a month after arriving in Grinnell, Bagley vanished. The Scarlet and Black, reporting the "mysterious disappearance," noted that Bagley was last seen "Friday evening [October 20th] directly after prayer meeting..." (October 25, 1899), only about five weeks after his arrival in Grinnell. "What makes the case more singular," the Marshalltown newspaper observed, "is [that] the young man has no bad habits, and there is no known reason for his absence" (Evening Times-Republican, October 24, 1899). Inquiries made in State Center, on the assumption that Bagley might have simply gone home, yielded no help; no one at home had heard from him and no one had a clue about where Bagley might have gone. So, the newspaper said, the boy's father would travel to Grinnell.

In fact, however, as the Marshalltown paper announced a few days later, it was Harlow Bagley (presumably meaning James Harlow Bagley [1868-1946], Wayne's oldest brother) who came to Grinnell, "doing everything in his power to trace his brother Wayne." If today searchers might send faxes, emails, or texts, in 1899 officials prepared and mailed post cards bearing Bagley's description to "all towns and villages in central Iowa." The newspaper, in an attempt to explain the young man's disappearance, opined that academics was not the problem, as young Wayne "was well up in his studies and there was absolutely no friction with teachers, students or anyone else" (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, October 27, 1899). An editorial in the college newspaper asserted that "Mr. Bagley had proved himself a faithful and diligent student and a young man of fine character," leading the editor to conclude that "we cannot but believe that some harm has befallen him" (Scarlet and Black, November 1, 1899). Perhaps the editor was not alone, as Grinnell officials set about dragging local ponds in search of a body (Daily Iowa Capital, October 30, 1899); none was found.

Des Moines Daily News, November 11, 1899

As often happens in cases like this, soon there were reports of bodies being found elsewhere—in a coal house, in the basement of the Methodist church, and in the baptistry of the Baptist church—"but the reports were unfounded" (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, October 31, 1899). The range of possible explanations gradually expanded, spurring still more speculation. In early November, almost two weeks after Bagley disappeared, someone raised the possibility that Wayne had "skipped away and enlisted in the army under an assumed name," but there was no evidence to confirm the supposition (ibid., November 2, 1899). A $200 reward for "information leading to his discovery" also failed to generate any solid leads (Des Moines Daily News, November 11, 1899). 

Months passed with no more light being shed on the mystery. When another Bagley brother visited the area in March, five months after the young man vanished, the newspaper could report that "nothing whatever has been learned as to [Wayne's] whereabouts" (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, March 31, 1900). One month later the discovery of a body near Oxford, Iowa led some to think that the missing student had at last been found; but the body was not Bagley's, and again the paper had to observe that "not a syllable of information concerning Bagley has been received since the evening last fall that he was seen in Grinnell" (ibid, April 30, 1900). The college newspaper marked the anniversary of Bagley's disappearance, observing that "all investigations proved unavailing, and his case is yet shrouded in mystery" (Scarlet and Black, October 31, 1900). 

Extract from Obituary of J. H. Bagley
(State Center Enterprise, March 31, 1904)

When Wayne's father, J. H. Bagley (1827-1904), died in 1904 without having seen his youngest son since he set off for Grinnell five years earlier, the obituary omitted mention of Wayne. The text noted that the deceased was father to five sons, but identified only four, making no mention of Wayne  (State Center Enterprise, March 31, 1904). Similarly, when Bagley's mother died many years later (1940), the death notice made no reference to Wayne (Marshalltown Times-Republican, June 6, 1940). Clearly the trail had gone cold. In what might have been the family's final acknowledgment of the missing Wayne, his brother, John Heman Bagley (1871-1929), gave the name Wayne to his fourth and final chid—Wayne R. Bagley (1909-1986). So far as I could learn, no other news of the missing young man has ever surfaced.


1132 Broad Street (2016 photo), Campus Residence of Roy McNamara '05

While his family and Grinnell classmates were still wondering about the fate of Wayne Bagley, news of the disappearance of another Grinnell student rocked the community. In late March 1902 the campus newspaper reported that Roy McNamara '05, like Bagley, an Academy student, was missing. Last seen Tuesday morning, March 18th, McNamara failed to return to his room at 1132 Broad Street where he was a boarder in the home of Mrs. Maria Hibbard (1841-1903).  At widow Hibbard's place McNamara earned his keep by monitoring the furnace and waiting table, but that Tuesday the young man left the house with a package that searchers suspected held a change of clothes (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, March 20, 1902).

Friends were concerned and sounded the alarm. "A searching investigation was made," the newspaper noted, "but absolutely no trace of the young man could be found." As with Bagley, friends and officials could divine no reason for McNamara's disappearance. "His home relations were pleasant and there were no financial reasons for his leaving school at this mental derangement is known of." Similar to the description of Bagley, McNamara was said to be "a quiet young fellow of steady habits, a faithful student, and [he] paid close attention to his work in the college." A student journalist declared the case "an absolute mystery" (Scarlet and Black, March 26, 1902).

Newspaper portrait of Roy McNamara '05
Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, March 20, 1902

Again Grinnell distributed word of the young man's absence to surrounding towns and to police forces "all over the country." The boy's father, a Congregational minister in Onawa, Iowa rushed to Grinnell to try to help, but the Reverend was "at a loss to account for his son's disappearance, and thinks he must have been temporarily deranged" (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, March 20, 1902). 

Undated Photograph of Main Street, Onawa, Iowa
(David Shedlock Iowa Postcard Collection [])

The next day's Marshalltown paper had little news to add, and concentrated instead on McNamara's past. Like Bagley, young McNamara came from a small town where  he was well-known. The 1900 US Census counted just under 2000 residents in Onawa; with his father pastoring one of the larger churches in town, Roy McNamara enjoyed the acquaintance of many. He had met more Onawans by working in a store the summer before coming to Grinnell. And, like Bagley, McNamara came to Grinnell in the company of other hometown youngsters (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, March 21, 1902; Onawa Gazette, September 13, 1901).

The third day of his disappearance brought news that Des Moines detectives were working on the case (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, March 22, 1902), but after another ten days the newspaper reported "No News of McNamara." For the second time, journalists raised the possibility that the missing young man had experienced "a temporary aberration of his mind" (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, April 2, 1902). 

Photograph of Roy T. McNamara, Onawa Gazette, March 28, 1902

As with Wayne Bagley, in McNamara's case, too, false leads occasionally stimulated hope. In late March came word that perhaps Roy had ended up in Sioux City, where Rev. McNamara had once pastored the local Congregational Church. Apparently a Sioux City barber had given a shave to a young man who had expressed interest in the newspaper story about McNamara's disappearance. The barber thought that the young man resembled Roy McNamara's picture. So Rev. McNamara rushed north, hoping to find Roy there. The young man in question had disappeared, but McNamara used his time to print circulars with the boy's description and photograph, and these he "sent to cities and towns all over the west" (Onawa Gazette, March 28, 1902; Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, April 4, 1902). In interviews with journalists, Rev. McNamara betrayed growing pessimism about his absent son's fate. "I am convinced," he said, "that Roy has either become demented and wandered away, or has taken his life." The worried father told newsmen that he had tried to explain his son's flight by worries over his studies at Grinnell, "but this is hard to believe," he said, "because he had expressed no dissatisfaction over being at school." Roy, he said, was looking forward to having his younger brother join him next year at Grinnell, so his absence made no sense (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, April 29, 1902; Onawa Gazette, March 28, 1902).

In the last days of April a report from yet another place raised hopes anew. Rev. McNamara, back home after a disappointing sojourn in Sioux City, received a telegram from Indianapolis, hinting that Roy might be living there. Newspaper stories expressed some confusion, some asserting that Roy had applied to work in a drugstore, others that Roy was working in a railroad shop, having given as reference the name of the man in whose drug store he had worked as a youth (Onawa Democrat, May 1, 1902; Ottumwa Semi-Weekly Courier, May 1, 1902)). His father thought the lead worth pursuing, and hastened to Indianapolis (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, April 29, 1902).

The good news was that Roy McNamara had in fact been found, even if at first the young man declined to return to Iowa (Ottumwa Semi-Weekly Courier, May 1, 1902). The Onawa Weekly Democrat reported that Roy confessed to having suffered

nervous prostration, the result of overstudy in college, the tasks being very severe, and he believed he was well nigh insane, as he has an indistinct recollection of leaving the institution (May 8, 1902).

As he told the story, Roy claimed to have been so disoriented that "his mind failed to grasp the situation, and he did not realize that there had been a great change in his life." The physical work of the railroad yard, the outdoor life, and freedom from mental strain helped buoy the young man, and his memory gradually improved. Even then, he was uncertain about to how to proceed, fearing what family and friends might say if he admitted his flight (ibid.)

Great was the rejoicing, however, when early in May Rev. McNamara returned to Onawa in the company of his missing son. Roy told the local newsman that "he was feeling better and gradually getting stronger, but was not yet well." He told the reporter that he "had no recollection of leaving Grinnell, his mind being a blank for many days." The news story attributed this condition to the fact that McNamara "had been studying very hard for some time before going away... .and his condition is plainly the result of overstudy" (Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, May 7, 1902; Onawa Gazette, May 9, 1902).

As he had promised, Roy took some time to recover, telling Grinnell that he planned to return to campus, but would spend the entire next academic year at home (Scarlet and Black, April 18, 1903). Although Roy's brother, Leo, did in fact enroll at Grinnell that year, Roy never returned to the college. None of the college catalogs of those years name Roy among the college's students, and later news notices indicate that Roy pursued other options. A brief note in 1906, for instance, told readers that until recently Roy had been working with a railroad crew in Mondamin, Iowa (Onawa Sentinel, September 14, 1906). The following year an advertisement for Selleck's pharmacy encouraged customers to visit their new soda fountain, which "our demonstrator, Roy McNamara, will be pleased to show you..." (Onawa Sentinel, May 16, 1907). Sometime later Roy moved to Bliss, Idaho where he joined with others to acquire the Bliss Gazette. "Roy's Onawa friends," the hometown paper commented, "will not only be pleased to know that he has the paper, but even better pleased to know that he is doing well in a business way" (Onawa Weekly Democrat, July 6, 1911). Two years later Onawa newspaper readers learned that Roy had married a "popular Onawa young lady," Miss Jennie Douglas; apparently the pair had been sweethearts all through their schooling, but only decided to marry after both had reached their thirties. The wedding took place in Onawa, and immediately thereafter the couple settled in Bliss, Idaho where Roy was "engaged in the surveying business and is at present water manager of a large irrigation company" (Onawa Weekly Democrat, January 16, 1913). Unfortunately, sorrow soon found Roy McNamara again: in October 1914 the newspaper relayed the sad news that Jennie McNamara had fallen ill, perhaps with typhoid; she was rushed to hospital in Boise (Onawa Sentinel, October 15, 1914), but within a week she was dead. 


Although the 1914 death of his wife must have depressed Roy McNamara, his story is on balance a good one. Unlike many of the missing, McNamara returned alive. He had emerged from that demi-world of the disappeared, and then put together what seems to have been a successful life: he carved out a career in Idaho where, by the time he died in 1948, he was managing a bank. After the death of his first wife in 1914, McNamara remarried, and ended up in a Boise cemetery next to his second wife. No doubt the trauma of his 1902 disappearance left its marks on him and his family, but he revived and survived.

Gravestone of Roy McNamara, Morris Hill Cemetery, Boise, Idaho

The story was less happy for Wayne Bagley and his family; his parents, siblings and all his friends passed the remainder of their lives without ever knowing Wayne's fate. Had he suffered? Had he been murdered, like so many of today's missing? Or did he, perhaps, manage to reinvent himself under another name somewhere, having jettisoned the memory of those heady days of autumn 1899 in Grinnell, Iowa? Did he, like Roy McNamara, feel enervated by the intensity of academics, or did something else drive him out of the world he knew? We are unlikely ever to know, as is regrettably true for so many of the young women and men who in recent years joined their names to the legions of the missing.

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