“Old soldiers never die; they just fade away” – Douglas MacArthur
Before Neil Young sang Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black), and frankly before Rock ‘n Roll even existed, the question of whether it is better to burn out than to fade away had existential significance. Now, Neil had probably read up on his Camus, who famously concluded in The Stranger, “It is better to burn than to disappear”, but let’s keep in mind that Camus was obsessed with the conflict between our tendency to seek meaning in human life and our inherent inability to find any. Camus probably didn’t get invited to a lot of parties, for while he sounded pretty punk, and wrote all about shooting people on the beach for no particular reason, he was also consumed with thoughts on our mortality and the fleeting nature of happiness. You know, the sort of guy who starts off the evening wearing a lampshade like a party hat, but gets increasingly maudlin and eventually inconsolable as the evening progresses. In short, a kindred spirit to your average anomalist. And with good reason, as no matter what a raucous and rebellious a life you’ve lived, you must always keep in mind that the universe is a lot bigger than you are, and if it feels you are not fading away with the proper amount of decorum, it might just make you disappear. Case in point, one Owen Parfitt, an 18th Century James Dean, who found himself enfeebled in his Golden Years, and one day in 1768, vanished in full view of witnesses, never to be seen again.
By most standards, Owen Parfitt had lived a life of high adventure. The Parfitts of Shepton Mallet, England made a modest living as tailors, and Owen was apprenticed to his father at an early age, rumored to be quite adept at sewing, but he was a rambunctious youth, and the quiet life as a tradesman held no appeal. One day, Owen disappeared. Rumor had it that he enlisted in the King’s service, and reports tapered in that he had been seen at this battle or that in America and Africa, fighting pirates on the high seas, romancing many a lady in far flung colonies, and generally leading the exciting life of a dashing young mercenary rogue. After many years, Owen’s parents had passed, his sole remaining relative in Shepton Mallet was his aged sister Mary, and few remembered the son of the tailor who set up to make his fortune in the world. It was then, that the aging and infirm Owen Parfitt reappeared in Shepton Mallet.
Then suddenly he appeared amongst them, bent and crippled with wounds and rheumatism, and unrecognisable by anyone but Mary. Together they set up house, and Owen again got out the board and the big scissors and the chalk and the wax which his sister had carefully kept, and announced to the town of Shepton Mallet that he was going to become a tailor once more. However, the cottage which the brother’ and sister had taken proved inconvenient in many ways, and after a time they moved to another, near the high road, with the main street lying at the end of the garden. Here he used to sit in the evening when his work was done, and talk with some of his old friends who would lean over the gate and tell him all the news. As time went on, Owen’s rheumatism grew worse and worse, till at length he was too crippled to move without help, and by and bye he became unable to stir hand or foot. Mary had grown very old also, for her eightieth birthday had long been past, and though no cottage in Shepton Mallet was cleaner than hers, she was very feeble, and Owen looked forward with terror to the day when she would certainly break down. But Mary was not the woman to give in while there was any strength left in her, and when she found that she could not get her brother outside the door by herself, she engaged a girl called Susannah Snook, living about fifty yards away, to come and assist her. Between them they carried him along the passage to a chair placed, if the weather was fine, outside the house door, and there they left him, warmly wrapped up, while his bed was made and his room put tidy (Lang, 1913, p146-147).
This was a rather sedate end for a man of the world such as Owen Parfitt. He labored as a tailor until the rheumatism got the better of him, and ultimately he was so disabled as to be unable to move any significant distance without assistance. And then he inexplicably vanished without a trace.
He had no annuity or property, “but might have had a little money by him.” He was looked after when he grew old and infirm by a sister, older than himself, who lived with him and was allowed a trifle by the parish for her trouble. He worked at his trade when he could, but on becoming more infirm “, was supported in great measure by the gentlemen of the town.” He had been ill some time before his disappearance, and asked one witness’s father “to partake of the sacrament with him, which he did.” At the time of his disappearance, in May 1768, he was “about seventy,” “grey-haired,” “some five feet seven inches in height, and stout grown.” He had been “a complete cripple for six months or so before his disappearance.” Again, “he had been a cripple many years, but especially for nearly half a year before his disappearance, and could not walk during that time without a stick and the assistance of some other person.” Again, “he had been a cripple for half a year or more before his disappearance, but was still able to walk a little, not enough, however, to enable him to get away by himself.” All the foregoing is from the deposition of Joanna Mills, who is the most reliable of all the deponents. He was generally considered “of a fair character,” “neither a very good man nor a very bad man,” but one witness had heard that he was “occasionally violent” (Butler, 1896, p95).
On a warm evening in 1768, Owen Parfitt was taking the air on his front porch. His sister Mary popped into town, and upon her return found him where she had left him, appreciating the sunset on a fine summer evening. Across the road, and in full view, a number of farmworkers were laboring in a field. An idyllic scene in Shepton Mallet, until Mary, who suspected a storm was approaching, asked the young lady who helped her named Susannah Snook to wheel Owen’s chair into the house. Owen’s chair and coat remained, but Owen had vanished.
The helpless man had completely vanished, leaving the great coat hanging on the back of his chair. The general opinion was that he had been spirited away by supernatural means, and to add to the terror of the superstitious neighbours, a terrible storm with lightning and thunder suddenly burst over Board Cross. A most exhaustive search was made for him, living or dead. Every wood, ditch, pond, and well for miles around was searched, but in vain (Somerset County Herald, 1920, p217).
Owen Parfitt was incapable of walking away. Had someone wished to spirit him away, they could not easily have done so in full view of the neighboring farmhands or in the small amount of time between when Mary had seen him and she asked Susannah Snook to bring him inside. No trace of Owen was ever found. The universe simply seems to have decided that fading into obscurity did not befit an intrepid adventurer such as Mr. Parfitt, or perhaps determined that he had burned bright enough for lo these many years and it was simply time for him to disappear. So while it may be better to burn out than to fade away, allow me to suggest that you might not actually have a choice in the matter.
Butler, Samuel, 1835-1902. The Life and Letters of Dr. Samuel Butler: Head-master of Shrewsbury School 1798-1836, And Afterwards Bishop of Lichfield, In So Far As They Illustrate the Scholastic Religious, And Social Life of England, 1790-1840. London: J. Murray, 1896.
Lang, Mrs. The Strange Story Book. New York: Longmans, Green, and co., 1913.
Somerset County Herald. Calendar of Customs, Superstitions, Weather-lore, Popular Sayings, And Important Events Connected With the County of Somerset. [n.p.], 1920.
Interesting that Owen Parfitt disappeared twice during his life.