Sunday, December 26, 2010

Century-old mystery forgotten

Richmond Byers vanished from Seeleyville, Indiana

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The Disappearance of Little Richmond Byers
by Robert A. Waters

Shortly after the turn of the century, the presumed abduction of Richmond Byers made national headlines. Before Catherine Winters and Charles Lindbergh, the inexplicable vanishing of the child horrified Americans. The boy’s father searched for years, bankrupting the family in a vain attempt to find his son. In the end, it was futile. He went to his grave wondering what had become of the six-year-old boy he and his family called “Rich.”

As time went on, Dr. L. S. Byers wrote to newspapers across the country explaining what had happened in the small town of Seeleyville, Indiana and urging editors to publicize the case. I’ve published one of his letters below. (Although Dr. Byers doesn’t use the term in his letter, it’s clear that he thought a group of “gypsies” had taken his son.)

The letter, published in the Fort Wayne News in 1906, reads:

“After coming to the ball ground at about 3:15 p.m. Sunday, the 29th of May, 1904, bringing home his tricycle, [Rich] immediately left, we supposing he expected to return to the company of children at the game. It has not been definitely settled that he got back there, but he was seen by Mrs. Coffy [a resident of the town], who called him back and asked him what he had said to a man to whom he was talking. He told her that he said to the man: ‘You have a blackened eye, where did you get it? At the saloon?’

“The man was in his shirt sleeves. Now, he had a coat somewhere. He would not have been dressed like that had he been a resident of any town near here, as everybody was dressed up, it being the first really fine Sunday that spring, which makes me believe he had a wagon somewhere near the town. Besides, five wagons passed through the town that afternoon and six wagons were together when they passed through Terre Haute, eight miles west of here.

“One of them came back next day. Four were overhauled the next night [and searched], but the sixth one has never been overtaken.

“A doctor of Clinton, sixteen miles from Terre Haute, wrote me that a covered wagon went into a lane four miles from his home that Sunday night. Now it is the custom for these rovers to go into camp before sundown, as they depend on the children to beg their food and let their emaciated horses graze. It is useless to try and convince me that that wagon did not have my boy in it. And then a covered wagon was seen over 100 miles north, near the state line, making good headway.”

Richmond Byers was described as having a light complexion, and gray eyes. His left eye was noticeably crossed. He had a V-shaped scar on the edge of his left ear. He was said to be small for his age, and very bright.

Shortly after the child vanished, citizens of Seeleyville turned out en masse to search the area. There were many deserted coal mines nearby and each was thoroughly searched. The fields and woods and ponds surrounding the town yielded no clues, nor did the abandoned houses in the vicinity. An article in the Logansport Journal described the search and concluded: “There was then only one solution to the mystery--that the boy had been kidnapped by a band of gypsies who had been camping in the vicinity and who left on the night of his disappearance.”

Later in the article, the editor wrote: “Persons who were near the camp of the gypsy band south of this city last week say they saw a boy fitting the description of Richmond Byers playing around the wagons. His face, they say, was scarcely tanned and it was believed that he had been with the band only a short time. While playing around the camp, he was reprimanded several times by the women and told to get back into one of the wagons.”

Dr. Byers and his wife Maggie began the long search for their child by visiting local law enforcement officials in cities surrounding Seeleyville. As reports of children who resembled their son came in, Dr. Byers would rush to another town, only to be disappointed to learn that the boy was some other child. He visited cities in Tennessee, Ohio, Kentucky, Arkansas and numerous other states. A $2,500 reward was established by friends of the family as Dr. Byers’ practice suffered because he was gone for so much of the time.

For years, the doctor and his wife had high hopes of locating his long-lost son. But it never happened. Richmond Byers was as lost as yesterday.

What happened to the boy?

Today, when a child goes missing, law enforcement officials always investigate the family first. Simultaneously, they track down sex predators and try to eliminate or include each in the investigation.

At the turn of the century, “gypsies” were always a convenient scapegoat when a child went missing. While there are few documented cases of these groups actually abducting a child in America, it’s always possible. But the more likely scenario is that the stranger seen talking to Richmond Byers abducted him for sexual gratification, then murdered him and hid his body.

While articles about the vanishing of Richmond Byers can still be found in the old newspapers of the time, the case has largely been forgotten today.

If anyone has additional information about this case, please contact me.

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