“Revenge, the attribute of gods! They stamped it with their great image on our natures” – Thomas Otway
Call it a fear of abandonment, but I’m pretty sure people just disappear. Folks do it all the time, if only to avoid the tax man, go off the grid, dodge the ex-wife, indulge in straight-up fugue states, or simply to start all over with a clean state. Strangely, there is an odd repetitiveness to a particular kind of disappearance, that is, the humble farmer who wanders out into his field and vanishes from the face of the earth, never to be heard from again. Now, the agricultural life is an iffy enough proposition, what with the reliance on the good graces of Mother Nature to ensure that god is willing and the crick don’t rise, but few people bother to discuss the obvious occupational hazard of inexplicable disappearances down on the farm. Recently, the Fortean community has become increasingly alarmed at the lack of attention being paid by the powers that be to the fact that every year, millions of people go missing without a trace, offering explanations that range from alien abduction to time slips to raptures to clandestine mass kidnappings by unsavory secret societies. When it comes to the puzzlingly, but historically common unexplained disappearances of unfortunate farmers (particularly in Tennessee, Indiana, and Alabama) who were doing nothing more that heading out for another day of grueling work in the field or performing other farmerly duties, the answer may be simpler. Payback.
Consider you’re a field. Year in and year out, you are unceremoniously plowed over, planted with seed, and when you are at your peak, flourishing with an abandon that can only be achieved by truly committed foliage, all the fruits of your labors are viciously hacked down and trundled off to be processed and devoured. Imagine the horror, only to be faced with the prospect of the same atrocity the next year, the next decade, and down through the generations. We are an obvious evolutionary threat to plants, and as was pointedly observed in the plant-revenge fantasy movie The Happening, “You know plants have the ability to target specific threats. Tobacco plants when attacked by heliothis caterpillars will send out a chemical attracting wasps to kill just those caterpillars. We don’t know how plants obtain these abilities, they just evolve very rapidly”. Why then, wouldn’t plants institute a subtle insurgency against their oppressors? Revenge is clearly a dish best served with salad dressing. 19th Century Tennessee farmer David Lang is reputed to be a victim of such retribution.
On the afternoon of September 23, 1880, a Tennessee farmer named David Lang stepped off the face of the earth. He walked into his pasture to look at his horses and with his wife and children and friend Judge August Peck looking on, he vanished! The stunned onlookers rushed to the spot where he was last seen, but could not find a trace of him. There was no hole in the ground, no subterranean cave, nothing to explain his disappearance. He was just gone. It was reported that as time passed a circle of stunted yellow grass grew at the spot where David Lang disappeared and sometimes members of the family could hear his voice calling weakly for help from inside the circle (Schadewald, 1977, p54).
But Lang was not alone. Virginia farmer Isaac Martin is rumored to have succumbed to the depredations of his angry fields, as were others in western Virginia at roughly the same time.
Lynchburg, April 24. Isaac Martin, a young farmer near Salem, VA left his home Wednesday and went into the field to work and nothing has been heard of him since. This is the second case of mysterious disappearance in that neighborhood in the last two weeks. The list of such disappearances in the western portion of the state in the past few months, quite a number having occurred during that time and no clue has ever been discovered to any of them (New York Sun, April 25, 1885).
Perhaps the most archetypal of the cases, one often credited as the origin of the folkloric pattern that warned us of the dangers of angry agricultural products was the case of Oliver Lerch.
Perhaps, however, the most celebrated case of the kind in this country was that of Oliver Morton Lerch, “The Man Who Disappeared.” Lerch was literally removed from the face of the earth fifteen years ago, leaving nothing by which his disappearance might be even partially explained. For years a reward of one thousand dollars was offered for any tidings of the missing man, but no one ever appeared to claim the money. On Christmas Eve, 1889, a party of about twenty well-to-do farmers and their families filled the Lerch house near South Bend, Indiana. Among the guests were the Rev. Samuel Mallalieu, a Methodist minister, and a Chicago lawyer. About half past ten Oliver Lerch, a young man of twenty, was told by his father to fill a bucket at a well some seventy-five yards to the rear of the house. Though snow had been falling heavily during the evening, the sky was now cloudless and a full moon made the night almost as clear as day. Five minutes after Oliver had gone out with his bucket, the guests heard him shout for help. They rushed to the back of the house. There they heard again the cries for help, but young Lerch himself was nowhere to be seen. The cries seemed to come from the air above them. “Oliver, where are you?” shouted his father. The answer came from a spot directly over his head and apparently about one hundred feet in the air. “It’s got me. Help me.” At this, most of the guests bolted in terror. The father, the Rev. Mr. Mallalieu, and two others, stood their ground, however, and after a while the others crept back. For an hour they shouted to Oliver and for several minutes they heard answering shouts, each time fainter than before, but of Oliver himself they saw nothing. The cries were those of a person who was being carried farther and farther away—not of one who was growing weaker. Nothing more was ever known of Oliver Lerch (Scrap Book,1907, p366-367).
Folklorists have pointed out that the uncanny disappearance of farmers from fields bear a striking resemblance to an 1893 short story by Ambrose Bierce called The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, but Bierce was cribbing notes for his work of fiction from the real story of one Orion Williamson from Alabama.
“The Difficulty of Crossing a Field” tells the incredible story of a “planter named Williamson” who lived in the vicinity of Selma, Alabama. One July morning in 1854, Williamson supposedly strolled down his walk, and, plucking a flower, crossed the road into his pasture. Then—witnessed by his wife and a passing neighbor, Armour Wren—he vanished. To the question asked by Wren’s young son, “What has become of Mr. Williamson?”, Bierce says wryly, “It is not the purpose of this narrative to answer that question. He then “quotes” from “Mr. Wren’s strange account of the matter, given under oath in the course of legal proceedings relating to the Williamson estate.” Supposedly, “Mrs. Williamson had lost her reason,” and finally, “The courts decided that Williamson was dead, and his estate was distributed according to law” (Schadewald, 1977, p116).
As with all things outside our accepted natural order, we tend to go to great lengths to deny the possibility that that all the other elements of the universe find us offensive, off-putting, and unapologetically genocidal, and will even reject the possibility that someone disturbingly vanished by rejecting the very existence of their traumatized children.
Nashville librarian Hershel G. Payne investigated the Lang story and reports that, although he checked census and other records, there was “nothing to indicate that David Lang or Judge Peck were ever in this vicinity.” Payne adds that other knowledgeable persons, including the Sumner County historian, “also attest to the story’s fictitiousness.” But if these findings are correct, that there was no David Lang, how do we explain the existence of his daughter, Sarah Emma Lang? A first-person account by Miss Lang was published in the July 1953 issue of Fate in an article titled “How Lost Was My Father?” and carrying the byline of Stuart Palmer. An accompanying affidavit was signed by Miss Lang and witnessed by Palmer. Additionally, it bore the signature of a New York notary. Sarah Lang deposed that she had been 11 years old when the fantastic incident transpired. She said her mother had collapsed immediately and again that her mother’s hair had soon turned white. Sarah further claimed she and her brother once heard their father calling for help from within the circle of grass. After failed attempts to contact her father through spiritualist mediums, Sarah eventually took up “automatic writing” and finally received a message from her father. She claimed the handwriting was indeed his. But Schadewald was suspicious of the affidavit since he noticed that it did not bear the notary’s seal. Consulting a handwriting expert, Ann B. Hooten of Minneapolis, Schadewald provided her with reproductions of the automatic writing and affidavit. Mrs. Hooten concluded that an analysis of the handwriting revealed it had been disguised but that “all the accumulated writings were authored by one individual.”” In brief then, the Lang disappearance was a hoax and the later writings and affidavit were fraudulent. Sarah Lang, therefore, like her supposed father, was fictitious (Nickell, 1980, p114-115).
The first lesson from this, is of course, stay out of fields should any given field have reason for personal resentment. Since very few of us live on farms these days, this avoidance strategy is not especially onerous. Then again, as we continue to encroach on those few patches of wilderness that remain, it is only prudent to maintain an awareness that nature has and will fight back to maintain its integrity. Your idyllic nature hike could easily turn into a nightmare. As Wellins Calcott warned us, “Revenge, like some poisonous plant, replete with baneful juices, rankles in the breast, and meditates mischief to its neighbor”. Perhaps Ambrose Bierce was simply trying to perform a public service in his fiction and warn us of our impending doom at the hands of the agricultural products we have callously mistreated. Suspiciously, he also vanished without a trace.
“Mysterious Disappearance in Virginia”. The Sun [New York, NY], Saturday, April 25, 1885.
Nickell, Joe. “Ambrose Bierce and Those Mysterious Disappearances Legends”. Indiana University. Research Center for the Language Sciences, and Hoosier Folklore Society. Indiana Folklore 13:1-2. Bloomington: Indiana University Research Center for the Language Sciences, 1980.
Schadewald, Robert. “David Lang Vanishes. . .Forever.” Fate Magazine, December 1977.
“Stories of Strange Disappearances”. The Scrap Book v2. New York: Frank A. Munsey Co, 1907.