1906: Missing For 35 Years

Runaway Got Just Twenty-Five Miles From Home.

Funeral Held 32 Years Ago.

Old Man, Whose Relatives Thought He Died at Sea, Shows Up at Middletown, Conn., and Says He Just Went Over to Coventry, Twenty-Five Miles Distant, Bought a Farm, and Settled Down.

Special to The Washington Post.

Middletown, Conn., Dec. 25.– Joseph Grover Southmayd, who disappeared from his home, near here, thirty-five years ago and who was long since given up as dead, returned to-day, to the amusement of such of his relatives as are living.

The old man–for he is an old man now, though he was only twenty-two when he left–stamped into town early this morning, carrying a stick and looking weary. He did not in the least resemble Rip Van Winkle, for he is short, and Rip was tall, and Southmayd wears no beard. He looked about at the signs over the stores, however, until his evident curiosity and uncertainty attracted the attention of every one on the street. Not a soul who saw him recognized him.

Finally the old fellow went into a grocery store and asked where Jim Hatch’s place was.

“Never heard of him,” responded the busy clerk.

“Gosh! Guess you’re a stranger here, ain’t yer?” asked Southmayd.

“Oh, I guess not, not by ten years.” The clerk smiled.

“Do you know Bud Olmstead or Harry Cheney?”

“There’s an old fellow named Cheney runs a blacksmith’s shop,” said the clerk, still smiling. “Maybe that’s your friend.”

Old Friend Didn’t Know Him.

The next seen of Southmayd was at Cheney’s blacksmith shop, a little way from the main portion of the town. He walked in as if he had been there every day of his life.

“Hullo, Harry,” he said to the man at the bellows.

Mr. Cheney did not recognize Southmayd and went on with his work. The other man stood still a moment, and then he said:

“You don’t know me, do you? Well, I’m Joe Southmayd.”

Cheney dropped the bellows handle as if it was a hot coal and walked over to Southmayd. He looked at him long and earnestly.

“By jimps, that’s who you are, all right. How are you, Joe?”

“I’m all right,” said Southmayd, pleased at having found some one who knew him.

“You’ve been gone quite a while,” said Cheney going back to his bellows.

Southmayd seated himself on a box full of old horse shoes and asked questions at a great rate. He learned that fully two-thirds of the people he had known were either dead or had moved. At each bit of information he seemed downcast, but recovered as soon as he thought of another person to ask about. Those who were in the blacksmith’s shop and Mr. Cheney say that he talked for an hour without volunteering any account of his wanderings. Finally he asked about his relatives.

Relatives Held His Funeral.

He was told that when he disappeared a search was instituted in New York city for him, but no trace was discovered. He had always expressed a desire to go to sea, and for a long time his relatives believed that he had shipped aboard some vessel in New York harbor. Three years passed without any tidings from him, and then, in an account of a ship wreck, there was a report of the drowning of a young man who exactly answered his description. His relatives felt convinced that he was the man referred to, and funeral services were held for him here. All hope of his return was abandoned.

Southmayd took the news of the death of many of his relatives very badly, and finally left the shop without saying where he had been. He went at once to the home of the only relatives he had left.

Southmayd this evening looked up two or three other old friends, and with Cheney they got together. The returned wanderer kept asking questions all the time until Cheney broke off the conversation suddenly and asked Southmayd point blank where he had been all the time.

“Kind o’ Fraid to Come Back,” He Says.

“Well,” said Southmayd, “I ain’t been very far. Didn’t have any intentions of going far when I set out. I went over to Coventry and went to work, saved, and bought a little farm. Got a nice place over there now, and a wife and two children.”

Coventry is twenty-five miles from Middletown! Southmayd’s listeners looked at him in astonishment and with some appearance of disgust.

“That’s the honest truth,” went on Southmayd. “Been in Coventry all the time, ‘cept once when I went down to New York for a trip. Made good money over there and liked the place and–”

“Why in thunder didn’t you let your folks know where you was?” asked Cheney.

“Didn’t want to. I just thought at first that I’d stay away a little while and come back. Then I thought it would be fun to meet some of ’em by chance, walking along the street or in a store. Got so after a while that I put off coming back again and I was prosperous and I didn’t see any use in coming back anyhow. When I bought my farm just outside Coventry I thought I’d come over and get the old folks and show them my place, but I met a girl and was pretty busy, and first thing you know I was married. Then I was kind of ‘fraid to come back and tell folks who’d know me, and pretty soon I got in the habit of not thinking about Middletown much.”

Nobody asked any more questions, and the party soon broke up. Southmayd went out to his relatives for the night. He offered to take Cheney and the others over to see his farm, and promised to give them a good dinner, but no one accepted.

From The Washington Post (Washington, D.C.), Wednesday, December 26, 1906.
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