The Tragedy Boston Wants To Forget

**Warning for Graphic Pictures**

“We’ll meet again
Don’t know where, don’t know when
But I know we’ll meet again, some sunny day.
Keep smiling through, Just like you always do
‘Til the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away
So will you please say hello to the folks that I know?
Tell them it won’t be long. They’ll be happy to know 
That as you saw me go, I was singin’ this song…”

Vera Lynn, 1939

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Taken in the Cocoanut Grove the night of the fire

 

The year was 1942, and on a frigid November night, the Film District of Boston was bustling with life. Everyone wanted to spend the Saturday night out on the town, whether it was eating out with family or dancing the night away with a date. The Boston clubs were hopping with big band and lounge singers, filled to the brim with young military men in full regalia (WWII was the headlines of all newspapers), and none was more packed than the Cocoanut grove.

The Cocoanut Grove was filled far beyond capacity with revelers having a wonderful time, but by the end of the night nearly half of the them would be dead, and the city would be reeling from one of the most horrific events in Boston’s history.

An event that seems to have been lost with time.

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The Grove’s maître d’ who would announce famous guests to an excited crowd.

 

As I walked down Stuart street past the Wang and Wilbur theatres, I marveled at how busy this area was even on a frigid November weeknight. It was November 29th, and seventy five years and one day since one of the single greatest losses of life in a fire in US history. I was on my way to stand in the spot where it had happened. As I walked around the large Revere Hotel and onto Piedmont street, I marveled at how suddenly the sound of city life passed.

In this quiet Bay Village neighborhood, you would never know you were in the heart of Boston. There was not a soul around as I found the only markers to commemorate one of Boston’s most horrific tragedies.

 

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The first I noticed was a street sign for Cocoanut Grove Lane, formerly Shawmut Extension and renamed in 2013. The small street did not exist in 1942, as after the Grove was demolished the area was reconfigured.

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Map from before the condos were built and the street renamed

 

Currently, the majority of the Grove’s footprint rests beneath the Revere Hotel (formerly Raddison). Most of the rest is now covered by condominiums, but one can still stand on Cocoanut Grove Lane and be within the spot where the club once stood. I stood there myself.

There was significant controversy during the construction of the condominiums in 2014, regarding the second marker of the fire.

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The Cocoanut Grove. Erected by the Bay Village Neighborhood Association, 1993. In memory of the more than 490 people who died in the Cocoanut Grove fire on November 28, 1942. As a result of that terrible tragedy, major changes were made in the fire codes, and improvements in the treatment of burn victims, not only in Boston but across the nation. “Phoenix out of the Ashes” “This plaque crafted by Anthony P. Marra, youngest survivor of the Cocoanut Grove fire”

 

The memorial plaque was installed in 1993, and stood at approximately the spot where the infamous revolving door once was. For years it was the only reminder of the tragedy, despite the scope of its impact.

In 2014 the lot near the plaque, which had stood empty since the Grove was demolished, was purchased to erect luxury condominiums. The plaque was removed to keep it safe during construction, with the promise it would be reinterred afterward. However after only a few weeks, rumors of complaints from the new residents arose. According to some, they felt the plaque was too “sad” and was a constant reminder of a tragedy they wanted no part of. They also feared tourists seeking the plaque would loiter.

After a lot of back and forth, the plaque was eventually moved a short way down the street so it was no longer in front of the condos. The move hurt many who had intimate connections to the fire, but the urge to forget won out over the duty to remember.

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The Cocoanut Grove started its life in 1927 as a speakeasy, pioneered by gangland bosses and bootleggers. In the early thirties it was run by Charles “King” Solomon, until he was gunned down by members of a rival gang. Ownership passed to Solomon’s lawyer, Barney Welanskey, who saw great opportunity in the club scene when prohibition ended in 1933. He reimagined the club, modeling it after the well known Cocoanut Grove club in LA, hoping to to bring some Hollywood flair to the east coast. His vision paid off, and the Cocoanut Grove became one of the poshest places to be seen in Boston. Its legal occupancy was 460, but on nights like the 28th, the number of guests soared into the 1000 range.

Only 11 days previously Barney had unveiled the newest addition to the Grove, the Broadway Lounge, after annexing the building next door.

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In the VIP section of the Grove on the evening of the 28th sat cowboy movie star Buck Jones, feeling ill but urged to come out to a celebration by his manager. He was touring to promote a flick, and guests of the Grove craned their necks and chattered in excitement to get a glimpse of a real life celebrity.

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Buck Jones

 

The basement of the building was the cramped and dimly lit. Called the Melody Lounge, it was a favorite spot for young couples. Cooing singer and pianist Goody Goodelle was their entertainment for the evening. At about 10:15pm she was a few songs into her set when a small commotion broke out in the back corner of the lounge. There was a fire.

A few frequent guests and employees let out nervous laughter at the flames creeping up the paper palm tree decorations. This was far from the first time this had happened, and the tiny fires were always snuffed out quickly.

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Melody Lounge

 

Don Lauer, a Marine Private, sat enjoying the evening with friends when he realized this would not be like those other times. The fire shot quickly up to the ceiling, which was draped loosely with fabric. Recognizing the precarious situation, Don leapt up and pulled out his pocket knife, slashing and cutting at the fabric in an attempt to separate the burning bit from the rest and stop the spread.

In another world, Don could have been successful, and the patrons of the Melody Lounge could have laughed and cheered as the handsome marine saved the day. Goody would have begun singing once again, and upstairs, no one would have even known about the tiny, inconsequential fire.

But that was not what happened in our world.

Don worked hard but it wasn’t enough, and flames rushed in a wave across the ceiling of the lounge, sending the guests into panic. chairs were overturned and screams rang out as people flooded to the only exit they knew; the staircase from which they’d entered. Goody Goodelle and a few others dropped to the floor of the lounge to escape the intense heat above them.

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Goody Goodelle

 

As people flooded the staircase, panicked and shoving, they were met with an exit door. The only trouble was, it was welded shut.

Barney Welanskey had sealed off nearly every exit of the club in some way, as he felt people had been skipping out on their bills. Some had bars across them, some were hidden behind decorations and drapes, and one was even bricked up.

As patrons scrambled against the sealed door, those in front were crushed beneath the weight of the crowd. Falling one by one, others atop them, they became a writhing pile of bodies suffocating in thick black smoke.

As smoke funneled upstairs into the main room of the club, patrons in the dining room and seated at the Caricature Bar looked up in confusion. Before they had time to react, the fire below hit the main source of power for the Cocoanut Grove, and everyone was plunged into darkness.

Tables were overturned and dishes smashed as people ran for the exits they could no longer see. The obvious choice was the set of revolving doors at the front of the club, the way most had entered. As the mass of panicked people flooded against it, it became immovable. When some managed to slip out, the next few became trapped, squished in the doors and soon buried beneath others. The pile of bodies in front of the main entrance reached chest high.

Some people ran for a back exit, and some were chased by smoke around a corner into the Broadway Lounge, where 21 year old Coast Guardsman Clifford Johnson was seated with his date for the evening when panic ensued.

Once more, before most could react in any way to the chaos, another twist of fate occurred. In the main dining room, some patrons had managed to bust the back door open, and the sudden influx of oxygen to the starved fire led to an explosive fireball that rocketed through the club and into the Broadway Lounge. Now the entire Grove was engulfed in flames. Since the fire’s start, only five minutes had passed.

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In the chaos, Clifford lost his dates hand. He searched for her desperately, and in the process helped countless others out of the inferno. He ran back into the Grove nearly half a dozen times by some accounts, and on his final exit he collapsed to the ground outside with third degree burns over 50% of his body, some down to the bone. He later found out his date had already escaped.

Downstairs in the Melody Lounge, Goody and a few others, mostly employees, used rags soaked in water or urine to survive, as the smoke and fire was so intense it was nearly impossible to breath and would burn the inside of ones lungs. Those few who had not run to the stairs to escape the basement lounge would be some of the only ones from the Melody to survive. The rest lay in a charred pile in the staircase nearly waist deep. Don Lauer was among those that died.

Upstairs, sickly Buck Jones was overcome by smoke so fast he collapsed in own seat, laying against the table.

Employees of the Grove used their knowledge of the building’s layout to find alternative back exits. Some escaped through windows into a back alley, and some even hid inside the walk in fridges.

A few blocks away, several firefighters were responding to a car fire when they smelled smoke. Only two weeks previously, a horrific fire known as the Maverick Square Fire had claimed the lives of six of their own. As they hurried toward the source, they encountered a crowd of screaming and begging people, and the most popular club in Boston burning.

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The firemen worked as fast as they could, but the scene was chaos. As they tried to break open the revolving door, the second influx of oxygen led to a second fireball which incinerated the bodies jammed in the door, and killed anyone still alive within the mass. As the rescuers desperately tried to pull bodies out, limbs broke off in their hands.

Other rescue workers went around the other side of the building. Some encountered a man trapped in a small window he had broken partway through. They tried to pull him out but were unable, and soon the man was screaming in agony as he burned alive in front of them. The helpless men tried spraying him with hoses, but to no avail.

As the firemen fought the intense fire, their hoses were freezing to the ground, as the outside temperature dropped.

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As “survivors” were helped out of the fire, many gasped and collapsed to the ground. The intense shift between the immense heat inside and the freezing cold outside sent their bodies into shock. Many who had appeared uninjured died of pulmonary edemas before they even arrived at the hospital, or soon after. Most of those who were severely burned did not live long, but Clifford arrived at Boston City Hospital and was worked upon fast, receiving an experimental new antibiotic called Penicillin. He received many skin grafts, the first few sloughed back off of him, but they finally took and he survived.

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At the Grove, the fire was finally brought under control. The entire ordeal had lasted only 15 minutes.

Once the rescue workers got inside, they were met with a sight akin to hell on earth.

Dead bodies lay in piles everywhere, some burned so badly that there was nothing left but a blackened trunk. One woman was found dead in an interior phonebooth, with a phone still clutched in her hand. At the bar, the fire and fumes had overtook people so fast they hadn’t had time to leave their seats and still had drinks in their hands. In the VIP section, Buck Jones was found severely burned, barely alive. He was taken to the hospital where he lingered for days before he died.

In the wreckage, some survivors were recovered. They had only survived because they were buried under dead bodies which shielded them.

Fireman John Collins would recall years later, being one of the first into the Melody Lounge that night. He was shocked to see a beautiful woman sitting serenely at a table.

“W-what are you doing here?” He questioned, but the words had scarcely left him when he realized the woman was dead.

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Children lost their parents, and parents lost their children that night. Entire families were destroyed. As the hours passed, the death toll climbed to a staggering amount. The final agreed total was 492 lives.

The number was 32 more than the allowed occupancy of the building.

The youngest victim was 15 year old Elenor Chiampa.

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Bodies lined the street that first night. Local morgues were filled beyond capacity, and bodies were stored in nearby warehouses as a result.

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Military hats found within the burnt club

 

At the hospital as he recovered, hero Clifford Johnson and one of his nurses fell in love, and were later married. They moved to Missouri. In a cruel twist of fate, Clifford Johnson was in a terrible car wreck in 1957 and was trapped inside his jeep, where he burned to death. In some ways he was yet another victim of the Grove.

One of the other collateral victims of the Grove was Francis Gotterina. He lost his wife in the flames, and jumped to his death six weeks later.

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As the city reeled from the tragedy, the people began to seek answers. How could something like this have happened? How could it have been prevented? Who was to blame?

16 year old Stanley Tomaszewski told his story the next day. He was a busboy working in the Melody Lounge the previous night. A waiter had noticed that one of the lightbulbs over a booth had been unscrewed (perhaps to give the couple seated there more privacy) and Stanley had been ordered to go fix it. Stanley had difficulty seeing in the dark, so he lit a match to screw the bulb back in. He did so, then put out the match. According to him, he did not start the fire. But he hoped his story would help.

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The trouble was, other eyewitnesses confirmed that the fire had started in that same back corner, and the first flames had raced up the palm tree that Stanley had been under only moments before.

The press caught wind of the story, and someone to blame had been found.

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Stanley, who had been working to fund care for his sick mother, had become an easy villain to the story, a careless teen who had essentially murdered nearly 500 people.

Stanley conceded that it was possible his match was the culprit (What else could it have been?) and for years he was an outcast, literally spat on and harassed.

The authorities took pity on him and tried to clear his name, but Stanley’s life was never really the same.

Over the years, scientists and firemen would work together to try to discover the possible cause of the fire. Some felt the cause was a short circuit in the wall, based on the scorch marks behind Stanley’s palm tree. Others suggested that the fires cause was less important than the explanation as to ‘why’ it was so intense. One explanation was the use of flammable methyl chloride in the cooling units. The gas had replaced freon due to wartime shortage. Another culprit was the highly flammable and toxic decorations in the club. While burning they had released poisonous gases or melted and fell upon victims, intensifyini the death toll. And the most obvious safety concern of all was surely the six different exits to the club that had in some way been blocked or hidden by Barney Welansky.

Though the fire raised awareness and increased fire safety laws, the fact was it was already in violation of many laws already in place. Welansky had many important connections, all the way up to Boston’s Mayor Tobin who was a friend. These connections allowed him to run the club however he wanted, and thus put hundreds of people in danger.

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Welansky was tried and convicted of 19 counts of manslaughter, and sentenced to up to 15 years in prison. He was pardoned 4 years into the sentence by the now Governor Tobin, due in part to his advance stage of cancer. He died only 9 weeks later, and was quoted as saying “I wish I’d died with the others in the fire.”

As far as settlements for the victims and their families, they only got about $150 when all was said and done.

In the years that followed the tragedy, many improvements were made in fire safety. Exit doors could no longer swing inward, revolving doors had to be flanked by regular doors and/or collapsible, exit signs had to be clearly visible and on a separate power source from the building so they stayed lit, and decorations had to be fire retardant.

Along with safety improvements, another positive outcome from the tragedy was the advancements it paved the way for in healthcare. Doctors learned much about burn treatment and successfully tested penicillin. This knowledge would be indispensable during the War years that followed. Added to this was studies and awareness in the fields of psychology, as the disorder PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) was rampant among Grove survivors. The first ever paper written on PTSD was on one such survivor.

Many of the children of survivors and rescue workers alike recalled severe repercussions from the fire. Some were never the same. Some developed phobias of crowds or cramped interiors. Some refused to talk about that night at all.

But despite all that was learned and all of the ripples outward from the tragedy, years later it lay nearly forgotten in Boston’s past.

The Titanic disaster got an award winning Hollywood movie and taught so many about the subject that it became a household name. But the Cocoanut Grove only got a plaque on the ground.

Some felt that it was because we did not respect and learn from history that 100 more innocent lives were needlessly lost in the Rhode Island Station Club fire of 2003. It was nearly a carbon copy of the Grove, 60 years later.

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When I visited the site, it was impossible to imagine the human suffering that had taken place there so long ago. But the most troubling part of it all seems to be the public’s willingness and eagerness to forget it ever happened.

Cocoanut Grove deserves a statue, it deserves a documentary, it deserves a Hollywood movie. It deserves to be taught, and remembered. Doing so is the only way to prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again.

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For more photos, click here 

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ESA’s: The Emotional Support Argument

ESA’s (Emotional Support Animals) have been in the news a lot lately, after one woman tried to unsuccessfully bring her “comfort” peacock on a plane and another flushed her hamster down an airport toilet when it wasn’t allowed on her flight. While these newsworthy examples are a bit extreme, ESA’s have been a point of contention for several years now, and the problem seems to be getting worse.

So what IS an ESA?

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An ESA is not the same thing as a Service Animal. Service Animals are specifically trained to assist a disabled person in some way ( for example a Seeing Eye Dog or a Seizure Alert Dog). They have special licenses which grant them privileges far beyond a normal house pet, because they are vital to their handlers. They are given access to places like restaurants and offices, and often accompany their handler everywhere in their daily routines. Service Animals (usually dogs) are a right protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

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ESA’s on the other hand do not require any special training or licenses (Sites that claim to sell said licenses with a nifty little ID badge and pet vest are SCAMS). Legally, all that is needed to qualify a pet as an ESA is a letter from a doctor stating that the person in question has an emotional or mental disorder which is benefited by having said animal. In turn, ESA’s are NOT given the same privileges as certified service animals, however. Normal pet rules apply to ESA’s, typically at the discretion of individual establishments, in all cases except for housing and flying. This means that the only real difference between a regular pet and an ESA is that a landlord may not discriminate against a renter for having an ESA even if they have a no pets policy in place, and that airlines must accommodate for ESA’s flying in the cabin with their owner. Both of these have some restrictions, but that is the gist.

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The rules as to what constitutes the need for an ESA are almost non-existent, and left to the discretion of the doctors asked to write the letter, and there are virtually no limits as to what animals can be ESA’s.

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Because of the laxness given to ESA’s there has been a fair amount of ESA fraud in the last few years. There seem to be few benefits to having an ESA unless you need one, except in the instance of flying. ESA’s are counted as a carry on item, and fly free. They fly with their owner in the cabin, and are generally not required to be kenneled or caged.

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When the alternative to flying a beloved pet is expensive and very often unsafe, it’s little wonder that so many people are tempted to cheat the system. The system is broken.

The only problem is, not everyone who is trying to safely and cheaply fly their pets is using the beautiful thing colloquially known as common sense. Airlines are becoming fed up with supposed ESA’s misbehaving on flights, and even attacking other passengers. As a result, some airlines have considerably tightened their policies on in flight animals, and that has unfortunately begun to impact people who have legitimate ESA’s and even Service Animals. Fraud ESA’s that wreak havoc are giving all ESA’s a bad name, and setting up an environment of judgement and contempt for their owners and handlers, many of whom are now being treated with increased animosity and mocking.

As you can imagine, this is a very unfortunate and damaging side effect. The stigma forming around ESA’s is that their owners are liars, fakers, snowflake-crybaby-millenials, etc. And while this may be true of some with ESA’s, many use ESA’s as a significant, positive part of their lives. They can help soldiers with PTSD, people with agoraphobia and panic disorders, and even people suffering from chronic depression and suicidal tendency. Allowing them on planes is a huge benefit for those whose disorders may be triggered in that environment.

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Interestingly enough, before I ever witnessed all this ESA fallout, I had been considering getting an ESA myself. I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Depression, as well as an intense phobia of flying which I need to be heavily medicated for while on planes. An ESA seemed like a good option for me, and after recently adopting a very sweet ferret and finding out they make good ESA’s (they are small, hardy, don’t scare easily, don’t mind being handled, and can be litter box trained), I started to research. That was where I began to see the extent of negativity and misinformation that is out there.

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Many airlines do not allow ferrets on airplanes, even if they are an ESA. Some states, as well as New York City and Washington DC, don’t allow ferrets at all. In fact, it seems like there is an additional stigma placed on ESA’s that happen to be ferrets. I’m not totally sure where the mistrust of ferrets came from ( I admit they can be smelly, but I have met far smellier humans in my daily life!) but much like the negativity toward ESA’s in general, it is very dissapointing. As it stands, it seems I would get little to no benefit by having a letter saying my sweet boy Taako is an ESA, so it hardly seems worth the effort. For now I will just stay in a medicated stupor on planes and leave the ferret at home.
But there are many people who benefit immensely every day from having an ESA, and whose lives would be severely affected if they lost that assistance. A person with agoraphobia for instance, would be devastated by losing an animal that gave them the confidence just to leave the house.

It’s always disappointing when a few bad eggs ruin it for everyone, but in the case of ESA’s, it’s not just disappointing, it’s debilitating.

So how do we sop this from continuing?

First off, airlines must be held to higher standards in ensuring the safety of the animals they transport. As it stands, unless I was allowed an in cabin pet, I would never fly an animal. I’d sooner drive cross country.

Next, ESA’s need stricter regulation, primarily for the doctors writing the letters. Some doctors simply don’t care and are quick to write a note for an ESA that they may very well know is not needed.

Thirdly and most importantly, people need to be more aware of, and responsible for, their actions. Animals are not just cute accessories that are fun to bring with you everywhere for attention. Do not EVER buy a vest to pass off a fake service animal. Do not try to take a pet that is not trained into establishments where they may be a nuisance. In fact, consider leaving your pet home if possible when going out, especially if they are easily stressed or if you intend to leave them in a car for any amount of time. If you are lucky enough to not actually have a mental illness, you probably shouldn’t try to register your pet as an ESA at all, but if you do, at least have the decency to insure your fake ESA doesn’t in some way ruin it for everyone else.

Shadows Over Waltham

I’ve always got my eyes open looking for interesting places to go urban exploring. I love abandoned, decaying places, as well as their history. So when I stumbled upon info about the Metropolitan State Hospital in Waltham, so close to where I live, I knew I had to go.

I took the journey with my usual spooky companions (my mother and my nana) and we headed to Waltham armed with comfy sneakers and cameras. As we drove past the gated entrance on Trapelo Rd. we realized we needed to find parking, and we happened to turn onto a road with several old buildings.

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“Is…this place abandoned too?” I raised an intrigued brow and looked to my mom, then hopped out of the car. We both walked around the building, casually trying doors and peering into windows. Then we saw the black SUV driving up…a State Police plate on the front.

We had only been exploring two minutes and already the cops had found us.

The officer stepped out, and we walked up, trying to seem nonchalant. “Oh hi! We were just driving by and saw this building…” My mother smiled sweetly. Luckily the officer seemed to be in a good mood.

“I don’t blame you.” He put his hands in his belt loops. “Do you know what this place is?”

“No.” We admitted. “Was it a school?”

“Sort of. It was called the Fernald School for the Feeble Minded. Lot of history here. You should look it up.” He shook his head gravely. “A disappearance of history…” He trailed off looking over at the brick building.

The name certainly sounded familiar. We nodded and replied “Thank you. We will”

“Alright, unfortunately this is state property and I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

We bashfully conceded and headed out, driving out of the lot as I furiously began to google.

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The Fernald School was built in 1888, and at its peak housed over 2000 young boys. Like most mental asylums of the early 20th century, it was overcrowded and underfunded, and reports of bad conditions and abuse of the children were frequent. Though the Fernald was supposed to be a care center, a large portion of its occupants were not disabled at all, but were instead orphans or the poor/homeless. The boys there had almost no rights, and were treated as “sub human” according to reports from former ‘patients’.

In the 20’s the school became best known for leading in Eugenics research and advocation. For those not in the know, eugenics is the attempt to genetically create more “perfect” people, and was a foundation of Adolph Hitler’s beliefs.

In the 40’s the school partnered with Harvard and MIT and was funded by none other than Quaker Oats to do more experiments on children, this time by feeding them doses of radiated cereal. The children who had parents got permission slips to join a “science club” and were bribed with trips and toys.

Despite all of the this, Fernald existed and continued to house patients all the way up until 2014, with most living there for their entire lives. According to most the conditions greatly improved after the 70’s. Part of the reason for this was because Judge Joseph Tauro heard reports of the conditions, and made an unannounced trip to the institution. He described the school as being the realization of ones “worst horrors”. He found a ‘hospital’ that reeked of urine and patients covered in bugbites.

After learning all of this we were rather amazed, and I’ll admit, REALLY wanted to go back and explore more. Unfortunately the grounds were heavily patrolled by police, and each subsequent time we passed the road we could see a patrol car stationed up the road, watching. Further exploration there was simply not possible. Instead we headed onward to Metropolitan state. We parked in an old ball field and walked to the gate, past several abandoned houses we assume were part of the staff housing of the facilities, and had been abandoned around the same time as the hospital.

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I was shocked to notice a familiar sight…the same small white figure I had seen painted on the Clinton Tunnel in Western Mass. The coincidence was eerie, but I had to assume now that it was some kind of tag, perhaps from a fellow lover of urban exploration but with a slightly more destructive tone. Nonetheless, something about the figure gave me a positive feeling, like it was some sort of guide.

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We weren’t sure where exactly the asylums buildings were located, or if any even still stood. As we walked up the cracked paved road we saw our little friends once again.

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Though tempted to veer down the path we wanted to check the paved road first, and it snaked up the hill and let off at several other dirt paths headed toward an old water tank.

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Though interesting, it wasn’t exactly what we were looking for. Our break came in the form of two dogs speeding past us after a rabbit, their owners coming up behind.

We made small talk, (easy to do as dog lovers) and then I probed. “Do you come here a lot?”

“Almost every day.”

“Do you know if any of the buildings are still here?”

The woman launched into explanation, a wealth of knowledge on the area and a goldmine for us. She told us that only one building still stood, and we would have to head down Metropolitan Parkway toward the Avalon condos. She also talked to us about the old incinerator, the secret tunnels, and more. I could tell immediately we would never find the mythical tunnels, but within reach was the cemetery. She told us it was down the path through the woods we had passed earlier.

We thanked her and said farewell to her dogs, then headed for the cemetery. It was down a steep hill in the woods, but the graves were in a small clearing surrounded by a stone wall.

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The graves were mostly stone blocks with numbers carved into them. The patients were from both Metropolitan and Fernald.

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According to our local guide, the cemetery had closer to 350 souls buried in it, and only a few with more dignified memorials.

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The graveyard was a humbling place, dotted with annual flowers that had been planted there in years past by loved ones of the deceased, or just those who pitied them.

On out way out we nearly stepped on one of the cemetery’s few living inhabitants; an extremely feisty snake who lunged at us.

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We headed back to our car and drove down the road to Metropolitan Parkway.  It wasn’t long before we found what we were looking for.

Metropolitan State Hospital was built around 1927, but the only building that we could still experience, the Administration Building, had it’s cornerstone laid in 1928. We were thrilled to see it, beautiful in its decay.

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Metropolitan State had once been a busy hospital for the mentally ill, housing thousands of patients. It was laid out like many asylums of the time using the Kirkbride  model, but it was comprised of many different buildings that gave it a colony effect.

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For some beautiful photos of the buildings pre-demolition click here

The conditions at the hospital slowly decreased as time progressed. In 1978, a patient named Anne Marie Davee went missing. Her disappearance wasn’t formally investigated until 19 negligence complaints against the hospital had been filed and two entire years had passed. It was then that they learned that another patient, Melvin Wilson, had murdered and dismembered Anne with a hatchet and buried her body on the grounds. He had kept some of her teeth as souvenirs.

The horrific crime was likely not the only dark event in Metropolitan’s past.

Other accusations included the attempt to ‘cure’ mentally ill children by adding chemicals to their milk, resulting in multiple deaths.

For 25 years Metropolitan State’s Admin building has stood, slowly crumbling. When I found it, boards firmly covered all the windows but one, where a hole had been dug out just big enough for a person to slip through. I strongly considered it, but my mother had some objections. As we drove away I felt both complete and yet hollow, not unlike the skeletal building I had left behind.

Some More Thoughts on Zachary Marr

“Empty handed I entered the world and barefoot will I leave it”

The words were scrawled on yellow columns, one word to each, which were lining the walkway I traveled down. The graffiti seemed particularly fitting for the occasion. I was walking down a path to the place where Zachary Marr had died.

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The quote was a shortened, bastardization of a quote by a Japanese Monk, Kozan Ichikyo. He wrote it the day that he died in 1360. The full version is

“Empty-handed I entered the world
Barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going —
Two simple happenings
That got entangled.”

The winding path sandwiched between TD Garden and the Zakim bridge was presumably the same as the one Zach had walked just a few weeks before. I tried to imagine what he was thinking or seeing on that bitterly cold February night. Had he also read the words along the posts? Or were those written sometime after he had gone into the water? The sidewalk, if one followed it, led to a wide area directly beneath the Zakim, where the Charles River’s salty water lapped quietly at the cement footings.

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It was an almost pleasant area by the light of day, a secret seeming place. Across the water to the right, one of the State Police buildings abutted the water, their patrol boats docked about only a few hundred feet from where Zach Marr had been that night. Despite the location, no one except the cameras attached to the bridges underbelly had seen what happened. Or at least, no one that we know of. For a reason we still cannot understand, Zack seemingly walked to this place, then along a catwalk under the bridge that runs parallel to the train tracks, separated by a fence.

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The catwalk ends in a dead end, while the train tracks continue across a steel beam bridge.

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Zach then apparently (according to reports of the cctv footage which has not been released) climbed up onto the railings by the water, and stepped off into the darkness.

I would give nearly anything to see that footage. Not for any sick pleasure or macabre entertainment; I suffered from nightmares for some time about Zach. In fact, the idea of seeing the video fills me with a sense of unrivaled dread. But something in me needs to see it, in some strange way. Maybe I feel like I will learn something I couldn’t understand before? Maybe I believe I will feel somehow vindicated? What was he wearing when he went over that railing? Was he moving clumsily, drunkenly? Or in the same surefooted, trancelike state I had seen on so many other eerie cctv videos of similar cases? Did it look like a simple accidental slip? Did it look like a resolute suicide? And even if I had these answers, what would they mean?

As I walked along the length of the catwalk I noticed the signs of homeless people’s camps; beds made of old blankets and cardboard, snack wrappers and cups, even some articles of clothing that could have been anyones. (Zach’s? Someone who was there that night? If he was somehow murdered, a suspect?)

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The weather was warmer now, more bearable, survivable. There was probably no one else around the night Zach was here. It had been the coldest night of the year in Boston in recent memory; hypothermia could happen in only a short time and most of the cities homeless population would have had to seek shelter in more protected places. Still, I wondered if the police had tried talking to any of the regulars around North Station. I doubted it.

For most people Zach’s death was quickly accepted as just another accident. Just another drunk college age boy who wandered off into the water. I of course have difficulty accepting that. That theory leaves too many unanswered questions, and is simply too similar to the hundreds of other cases like it. I feel in my gut that something else happened that night, that there are still more puzzle pieces that need to be collected and fitted together before we can understand what.

Did you know any of these people?

I am reaching out to the public for information on a list of people who have either gone missing or died in Massachusetts. If you knew any of them and can give me any info, even if it’s just to tell me you do not want them included in my investigations, please reach out to me. The list is comprised of people that might fit with my previous investigated cases, and most I could find very little info about.

Jerald Gelb (40) Aug. 16 2001

David W. Crockett (45) April 3 2004

Daniel Mun (20) Dec. 5 2004

John Pike (23) June 2nd 2007

Charles M. Allen Jr. (22) Oct. 13 2007

Justin Marshall (30) June 6 2010

Christopher Martin (24) Dec. 17 2011

D’Anthony Green (23) July 30th 2012

Joseph A. Gage (32) Jan. 1 2013

Shilo Morgado (36) Aug. 30 2015

If you can tell me about any of these men, or if you knew someone else that you feel might have been a victim of the Boston Drownings, please comment or message/contact me. I will keep any info you want private. Thank you.

The Mysterious Death of Kendrick Johnson

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On Thursday, January 10 2013, 17 year old Kendrick Johnson went to school like any other day. Kendrick was a student at Lowndes High School in Valdosta, Georgia. It was the first week back after winter break for students. Kendrick was a decent athlete with a close group of friends who called him KJ.

At about 1:09 pm according to a motion activated camera in the school, Kendrick entered the older and lesser used of the school’s two gymnasiums. He may have been going to fetch a pair of sneakers that he co-owned with a friend, and stored in the gym corner to avoid locker room fees. What happened next will probably never be known for certain. But Kendrick never left that gym alive. Though other student’s came in moments later, they did not remember seeing Kendrick anywhere. Kendrick was marked absent for his next class of the day. That evening a color guard practice took place in the same gym, and still no one saw or heard anything.

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When Kendrick did not come home that day his mother began to worry immediately. She recalled having a bad feeling in her gut. Jacquelyn Johnson called around asking about her son Kendrick, but no one had seen him. At about 11pm she got in her car and drove around desperately searching for him. Kenneth Johnson, Kendrick’s father, was out of town and could not assist or comfort her. By 12:30 am the distressed mother finally did what she had been dreading; she called the police and reported her son missing.

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The next morning Jackie headed to the school. It was the last place anyone had recalled seeing Kendrick, and her only lead. At 8:30am she met with several member of the administration, who helped her make and print missing persons flyers. At around 10:30 am Jackie witnessed a flurry of activity around the school. She overheard a conversation she was never meant to, and words that would change her life forever: they had found a body in the gym. In the following hours a parade of police, investigators, and the county coroner Bill Watson would descend upon the school.

But Bill Watson wasn’t called to the scene until late that evening, long after the body had been found. Upon arriving he was confused about other aspects of the handling of the case as well; the crime seen was being processed incorrectly and thus contaminated. People on scene were not wearing foot coverings. Not all evidence was being bagged or even considered. And Johnson’s body had been sitting and decomposing for hours without being examined.

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The scene that greeted Bill Watson was disturbing to say the last. Kendrick Johnson’s body was in the back corner of the old gym, hanging halfway out of a rolled up wrestling mat. The body was covered in blood and vomit. His face was swollen and he had clearly been dead almost 24 hours, the smell of death hanging heavy in the gym. Despite all this the Sheriff, Chris Prine, was already ready to make a statement that evening: “Foul play is not suspected.”

“I definitely would not have ruled it an accident” Watson recalled of the scene. Or perhaps at least not so soon. (Footage of that scene can be easily found online, but I will not be including a link as it is graphic.)

When questioned about the discovery, witnesses said they had been near a grouping of mats when they noticed socked feet in one of them near the center. After alerting a teacher who helped move the mats and tip the one in question over, it became very clear the student inside was deceased.

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Johnson’s feet can just be made out in the rolled up blue mat. This image gives an idea of the set up before the mat was laid on its side.

Johnson’s body and personal affects were bagged and sent to the Valdosta Crime Lab. There they awaited positive identification by Kenneth Johnson. When Kendrick’s father arrived he recalled being concerned about the temperature in the drawer where his son’s body was stored. According to him warm air wafted from the supposedly refrigerated unit. This was to be just the first in a long list of contested facts about Kendrick Johnson’s death and the following investigation, a back and forth shouting match between dozens of Valdosta citizens about the ‘truth’, and series of seemingly endless examples of “he said” “she said”.

Barry Funck, director of the Valdosta Crime Lab, refutes Kenneth’s claims. He assured everyone that body storage is always kept to temperature, and alarms would sound if it ever got too high. This was pointed out to NAACP representative of Valdosta, Leigh Touchton, who visited Funck some time later to get a better idea and left feeling reassured.

Leigh Touchton had been the Lowndes/Valdosta NAACP president several times despite being a white woman, and initially worked with the Johnson family to get answers on the case. She would eventually side with authorities however that the death was a freak accident. But more on that later.

Johnson’s body was next transported to Medical Examiner Maryanne Gaffney-Kraft, who would preform the autopsy. However at some point along the journey, Kendrick’s clothes and other belongings went missing; all he arrived to Maryanne with was a pair of headphones clutched tightly in his hand. No one seemed to be able to explain where the clothes had gone. Funck, Maryanne, and even the driver of the transport vehicle blamed one of the others for the loss.

After the autopsy was completed, Kendrick’s body was sent next to the funeral home of Antonio Harrington, who had offered the family a free service due to their tragedy.

Police meanwhile requested the surveillance video surrounding the gym from the high school. Rather than having one of their people retrieve it, they left the school to their own devices, and received a copy of the videos five days later. The video was from 35 motion activated cameras, and after going through the hours of footage, police were satisfied that it showed no evidence of a crime.

Results of the autopsy were released on May 2nd 2013: Kendrick Johnson had died of “accidental positional asphyxia” after becoming stuck in an upside position inside the gym mat.

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Though certainly bizarre, the death made sense. Johnson would have suffocated fairly fast, and the mat and the pressure on his chest would have muffled any cries for help. The investigation was closed, perhaps not tidily, but satisfactorily for police.

Not satisfied, however, were Kendrick’s parents. They hired attorney Benjamin Crump, a high profile lawyer who had worked previously for both Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown’s families. What they felt was a lack of a thorough investigation by police in a southern town with a long history of racial discrimination and lynchings was enough for them to decide to reexamine the case.

Just 15 years before a case bearing strong similarities to that of the Sandra Bland case occurred in Valdosta. Willie James Williams Sr. was a middle aged african american who died in police custody after ‘falling’ and hitting his head on the pavement. Though his cut lip was stitched, his other injuries were ignored and he had a seizure in his cell later that night.

The Johnson family had come by a picture taken after Kendrick’s first autopsy that they felt proved their son had actually been beaten to death. The gruesome photo (again, easy to find but which I will not share here out of respect for Kendrick and his loved ones) showed Kendrick’s face swollen and disfigured. However the picture was not indicative of how Johnson had actually looked at the time of his death. It was taken long after he had been dead, and the skin of his head pulled back for autopsy. So while horrific, it proves very little.

The family and their attorney got Kendrick’s body exhumed for a second autopsy in June. Medical Examiner William Anderson came to a very different conclusion about Kendrick’s death; the boy had died of heart attack brought on by blunt force trauma to his carotid artery near the back of his neck. The proof, he felt, was in a small 3cm bruise to the area. Further proof would be difficult to come by however, as Anderson also revealed that all of Kendrick Johnson’s organs were missing, and his body stuffed instead with newspapers.

When questioned, Antonio Harrington at first balked. He claimed that he had never received the organs at all, and that they must have been thrown away by the medical examiner. Sherry Lang, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) denied the accusation, assuring that the organs were most definitely in the body before being sent to the funeral home. Finally Harrington changed his story. Yes they had received the organs, but they had been too decomposed to salvage and had been thrown away. As for the newspaper, it had been a practical, albeit insensitive, way to fill the cavities the organs left behind. Many funeral homes use similar methods but with sawdust. Ultimately Harrington’s methods were called inappropriate, but totally legal.

Next Crump wanted a second look at the school surveillance video. An analysis of the videos revealed bizarre facts. There was a period of time between 11-1:30 in which multiple cameras around the gym recorded nothing at all, a blackout period. This was despite other footage showing that several students entered the gym in that time and should have activated the motion cameras. This means that there were other student’s in the gym when Kendrick went into the mat. Yet no one saw anything. Or at least, no one was talking.

In fact, some students had been literally barred from talking. Two such students were the Bell brothers, who had been commanded by their FBI agent father Rick Bell not to make any statements. Perhaps Rick was nervous about how an altercation that had happened in 2011 between Kendrick Johnson and his son Brian would look to the media. The boys had been football teammates and were on a bus at the time. His fears were well founded. Once the story broke suspicions immediately fell on the brothers, who were now being accused of murder. It was up to them to pull together some irrefutable alibis.

A teacher and a classroom full of students confirmed that Brian Bell was in a class on the other side of the school during the time Kendrick was seen entering the gym. Multiple students and Wrestling Coach Spencer Graybeal confirmed that Branden Bell was on a bus trip halfway to Macon for a wrestling meet. It seemed that both brothers could be accounted for during the time period that Kendrick went into the mat. Despite their names being cleared legally of suspicion, the family has not managed to avoid crushing speculation and online threats. Brian even had a football scholarship to Florida State University revoked after Twitter users contacted the school calling him a racist murderer. The Bell family believes they have become scapegoats and were unfairly targeted.

But other Valdosta students and friends of Kendrick’s have suggested that a bullying death, even if not by the Bell’s, is not out of the question. Solomon Arrington, Kendrick’s cousin and friend, reported that he received threatening messages on facebook the day Kendrick was found, implying he would be the next to end up in a body bag. Valdosta Lt. Sheriff Stryde Jones assured the media that the messages were investigated and determined not to to be threats. The names of the senders were never released. But Arrington felt a change in the air after that day. He felt he and other friends of Kendrick’s were outsiders, shunned by the school. He said was disheartened when only three Lowndes High School teachers (one a substitute) attended Kendrick’s funeral.

Other voices have risen up to refute Arrington’s claim. According to them, dozens of Kendrick’s teachers were present, and one of his former coaches even gave a eulogy. (If any of my readers were there and can share their own side to the story I would love to hear.)

20 year old Dalton Ray Chauncey was brought before police after claiming that he had overheard a conversation in which two students were telling a third that they had killed Kendrick Johnson.The students he had spoken of, whom he only knew by first name, could not be located by police. After hours of questioning, Dalton changed his story. He ‘admitted’ he had made up the entire thing, including the students themselves, for attention. His mother doesn’t believe it. She believes her son, who is bipolar, was taken advantage of and coerced by police. He is now being indicted on a felony charge for making “false statements” to investigators.

Meanwhile, some questions were arising about the crime scene itself. Certain aspects of the evidence gathering process were not adding up. One was a rather large spattering of blood on the wall of the gym near the mats.

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According to police the drips were “too old” to have been relative to the case, although how this was determined was not mentioned. The blood was also confirmed not to be Kendrick’s, but testing all 3000 of the Lowndes High students was out of the question.

A shoe was also found nearby which from pictures some theorized had blood on it. However the red was actually just paint. Regardless the shoe was also not bagged as evidence. Kendrick’s own shoes were another issue. Supposedly Kendrick had gone into the mat to reach for a shoe at the bottom, then had died. Over the course of the next 20-ish hours, blood and other fluids had leaked from his body onto the floor beneath him. But somehow his shoe remained pristine, sitting in the pool as if placed there.

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Johnson’s Body was found like this.

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As you can see, the shoes he was wearing that day are kicked off and in the mat beside him. If Kendrick died of suffocation, he was likely thrashing and struggling to get out of the mat, which could explain his kicked off shoes and the socks slipping from his feet. But why during his panic would he bother to continue clutching a pair of headphones? Why wouldn’t he be pushing up on the ground and mat with his arms? And how, if he was struggling so much, could none of the other students that had to have been in the gym at that time have seen him?

In October of 2013 U.S. Attorney Michael Moore ordered a federal review of Kendrick Johnson’s death.

But after a full review of the case himself, Benjamin Crump resigned as the Johnson Family attorney.William Anderson’s autopsy findings were under new scrutiny; he was later fired from other positions for “unethical actions” in other cases. His autopsy results are still contested. The Johnson families’ supporters soon began to drop like flies. Leigh Touchton, who had once worked alongside the Johnson’s, agreed with the findings of Maryanne Gaffney-Kraft, that Kendrick’s death was simply a freak accident. Even Reverend Floyd Rose, once the leader of raising funds for the Johnson’s case (and a man who had even put up his home as collateral to bail out on the Johnson’s after their arrest for protesting outside a courthouse), was now singing a different tune. “You won’t find a person of any reputation in this town who says that boy was murdered.”

In the years since Kendrick Johnson’s death, both Michael Moore and his replacement Steven Dettlebach, have resigned their positions as US Attorney’s overseeing the Johnson case. As of June 2016, no charges have been filed due to insufficient evidence.

But what changed? According to most people the problems lay with the Johnson family themselves. They fought for justice for their son, but at times it verged on irrational. They posted images of his swollen face across social media and on signs at protests, maintaining their baby had been beaten to death; but the evidence just wasn’t there. Even Anderson admitted that Kendrick’s body showed no signs of having been beaten.

The Johnson’s also accused a hefty list of people as being involved in the murder and subsequent coverup, including the police and many school officials. But the amount of people involved in the theoretical conspiracy seems far too large to be sustainable or possible. After a conference call between the family, their attorney, and members of the NAACP, Leigh Touchton resigned. She felt that the family was milking their tragedy for donation money and telling outright lies to gain support.

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The Johnson family denies that they are doing anything except seeking justice for their son. They are still working with a new attorney, Chevenne King Jr., and say they will not rest until they are satisfied they know the truth.

Unfortunately, in a case filled with mishandling of evidence, uncertain witnesses, and red herrings, it’s a truth that might never be known.

As for what I believe happened, there are many possibilities. Bullying or hazing gone wrong could have lead to some students pushing Kendrick into the mat as a prank, thinking he could get out on his own. Perhaps students did see him fall in, but thought it was funny and left without helping. Afraid they could get in trouble, they never came forward with what they saw. But whatever happened, it seems a vast conspiracy to cover up a murder are the most unlikely. Either way, I hope Kendrick and his family can find peace somehow.Regardless of how he died, he shouldn’t have, and the fact that his case was handled so poorly and lightheartedly by authorities must be troubling for his loved ones.

Boston’s Mysterious Vanishing Men (Follow Up)

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I want to start off by thanking everyone for the immense amount of interest and support that they have shown in the days since publishing my Boston’s Mysterious Vanishing Men blog post. I never expected it to go so viral, and the response has been surreal.

I have been contacted in various ways by friends and family of some of the men who’s stories were shared in that post, which was incredibly humbling. That being said, I want to reach out to those loved ones to tell them that if there is anything I have written that they wish me to change or omit, please contact me to do so. I have already been asked to do so and readily obliged. The last thing I want to do is cause more pain for those loved ones. I have NEVER stopped viewing these men as people. They are not just cases or statistics to me. They are individuals with stories, and in researching them for so many hours I have grown attached to them.

I have also been sent hundreds of stories of similar cases from across America, some even begging me to investigate. Unfortunately, I am all too aware of these other cases. The reason I chose to focus on Boston was because it is my home, and the place I am familiar with. But I also stuck to Boston because looking into the rest of the cases across the U.S. would probably consume the rest of my life. If you know of similar cases in your hometowns, I urge you to try to make your city safer in ways similar to my plans, which I will discuss shortly.

I have been asked a couple of times now what my goals or motives for this investigation are. All I have ever wanted to do is highlight cases that I have found interesting, to call them into question in case justice still needs to be sought, and to stop similar events from occurring in the future. I wanted to raise awareness to keep others safe. But I also want to try to relieve the stigma surrounding young men drinking and dying. For the cases in which that may apply, I want to remind people that everyone makes mistakes in their life. But these men should not have died, and their deaths were preventable.

Which leads to my next point: Where do we go from here?

My next goal is a multi-step plan to make the city safer. I am working with Someone who is drafting a letter for local bars along the water, asking them for safer and more conscientious business practices when serving alcohol. I will also be contacting several people in power asking for improvements to safety along the harbor. As it stands, the area near Long Wharf where several of the men went missing or were found dead is considerably unsafe. I want the installation of better guardrails, better lighting, more surveillance cameras, and hopefully even the hiring of several night guards trained in water rescue and CPR.

If these cases truly come down to men falling in the water, why shouldn’t we be doing everything possible to prevent it?

Now, there is the chance that these are not merely coincidences. As many of my readers have postulated, there is a chance that some of these men were killed. I have been overwhelmed by the eagerness to try to get to the bottom of the mystery (encouraging curiosity into the unknown was my intention of this blog!) and by the sleuthing taking place in the comments! I wanted to foster a place where people could discuss freely, so I tried to publish as many of the comments as possible. However, there have been a few which I have not felt comfortable allowing, mostly ones which speculate on personal facts on the individual men. I do not think that such unfounded speculation is helpful at this juncture, and furthermore I don’t want to offend loved ones of these men. The second kind of comment I have not been allowing are ones which try to create a profile of the ‘killer’.

While I appreciate the enthusiasm, I do not think this should be attempted by anyone but professionals, nor do I think we have enough info at this time to create a successful profile. My greatest fear is that this will turn into a witch hunt. I do not want to cause a hysteria that will result in hurting innocent people. So please refrain from trying to pin blame on a certain kind of person (uber drivers, truckers, etc.).

What needs to happen instead is everyone coming together to make Boston, or their own cities, safer! Everyone needs to use the buddy system. No one should drink to excess. If you feel uneasy, trust your gut. If you see something, say something! If you notice an intoxicated person, get them help! If we maintain vigilance, whatever is happening to these men will stop, one way or another.

In the coming weeks there may be petitions to sign and letters to write, so I hope that all of you that have shown such passion for these cases will be there then as well. It is only by working together that we can invoke change, and thanks to all of your sharing and raising awareness, that is now a very real possibility!

So thank you again everyone for helping me share these men’s stories.

-Elias Jaeger (CryptidAntiquarian)