By Eilene Lyon
A Mysterious Disappearance
Emily and Harvey Ransom expected W. C. to return home no later than Thursday, July 19. When he didn’t appear, Harvey and a friend headed to Chicago and began making inquiries. They retrieved the doctor’s bag and mail from the Sherman House.
Thinking the correspondence might contain a clue, Harvey opened it and inspected the contents. Because reporters had already sniffed out the story of Ransom’s disappearance, Harvey told them the letters and telegrams led him to believe his father was visiting an old friend in Louisville, Kentucky. No one believed the story. Rumors flew.
Had the doctor been robbed and murdered for the $500 cash? Did he have a mental breakdown and wander away? Had he committed suicide? One thing no one seemed to believe was that he had done anything crooked. It was inconceivable. Everyone in South Haven knew him as “a thoroughly honest though somewhat eccentric man.”
Harvey wired the Wrenn to see if his father had gone to Detroit already. The company responded in the negative, but they were unconcerned. Capt. Brown told a reporter on July 24, “I have often known him to go away without saying a word as to his destination and turn up several days later, not having written a word in the meantime.” The company indicated as late as July 25 that they intended to pursue the planned course, regardless of Dr. Ransom’s fate.
The Chicago Tribune reported that the day after Dr. Ransom disappeared from the Sherman House, two men had gone there looking for him, asking for a description of the missing man. The Tribune described the men as “stout and well-dressed.” Later, the Palladium described them as “two shabby men.” The men were as mysterious as the doctor’s vanishing act. Reporters suggested that the doctor may have gone to Oregon to visit his married daughters. No one believed that story, either, least of all his family in South Haven.
The doctor’s disappearance was national news. It even made the front page of the Washington Times (D. C.). Michigan citizens and Chicagoans buzzed about the bizarre tale all summer and into the fall.
A Faltering Expedition
On July 26, the company had a change of heart. The magnificent beast of an expedition, minus its head, could not proceed. The crew held an meeting and elected Mr. Loomis, age 58, president pro tem. They voted to return to South Haven.
Lindley Beecher telegraphed his father, who was vacationing in Atlantic City. Mr. Lyman Beecher traveled from New Jersey to Michigan to intervene in the affair. Wanting his son to have the educational experience, he revived hopes for the journey by pledging to re-capitalize the venture. He would get sponsorship from the Smithsonian, as well. Beecher did not keep those promises. So the young travelers decided to make the most of their $500 investment and spent two more months sailing around the lakes, selling off barrels of provisions from the hold.
A break in the case finally came when Dr. Ransom’s attorney, E. P. Townsend, sold the doctor’s share of the clothing store to his partners. Two weeks later, the Palladium reported that the doctor had fled with a widow from Kentucky, whose husband had been one of Dr. Ransom’s patients. They also revealed that only $5,300 worth of stock had been subscribed and paid for. The esteemed, wealthy businessmen from South Haven were just “dummy” shareholders and had not invested a cent.
At first the report was met with skepticism, but then James H. Johnson, attorney for the Trip Around the World Company, took Townsend to court. Under pressure he admitted that Ransom was alive and that he had known the scamp’s whereabouts all along. He had received three letters from the doctor, mailed from Orlando, Oklahoma Territory. In them, Dr. Ransom claimed he’d only taken $500 of his own money and knew the venture was financially doomed. He made no apology.
An early October story about the lawsuit against Townsend revealed that $30,000 had been invested in the boat, remodeling expenses, and supplies. John Mackey, a South Haven hardware dealer, who had likely extended significant credit to the venture, vowed “I’ll chase him to the Sandwich Islands…if necessary to unearth Ransom and his accessories.”
Something that no reporter ever managed to uncover was that the doctor’s fifteen years of sailing around the world as a young man was a complete fabrication. In reality, he’d spent those years farming and ranching in California and Oregon with his first wife and their children. His work in the Hawaiian court was equally fictitious.
The pleasure cruise for the young people aboard the Wrenn finally came to an end in late October. The schooner was sold to pay company debts at a marshal’s sale in Manistee for $1,350. Without fanfare, she resumed her previous occupation: shipping lumber and Christmas trees across the lakes.
On November 2, 1894, a small local news item appeared in an Oregon paper, the Coquille City News: “Dr. Ransom, the venerable father of Mrs. Dan Giles and Mrs. W. E. Rackliff [sic], is visiting his daughters and friends at Myrtle Point.”
Dr. Ransom remained in Oregon the rest of his life, except for four or five years spent in Skagway, Alaska. In 1900, his daughter, Cordelia Rackleff, wrote to her sister that their father “could not stand the climate” in Michigan. One would assume she wasn’t referring to the weather.
Feature image: The schooner George L. Wrenn in South Haven. (Photo courtesy of the Michigan Maritime Museum collection)
William Clark Ransom on Ancestry.com
Note to family historians: Long ago, I read a comment in a letter written by my great-grandmother about Dr. Ransom, her uncle: “Wm was also a Dr. but not a very good man. He collected money from people to take them to Alaska & skipped with the money.”
I always wondered about this story and thought it had to do with his time in Alaska. I stumbled upon the true tale quite by accident. I found over 100 articles in newspapers.com about this crazy scheme for the Trip Around the World. Clara was 17 when these events took place, so I would have expected her to know the truth of it, but perhaps her mother shielded her from the actual events.
Family stories almost always have some germ of truth tucked inside – but the real story may be even wilder than you can imagine!