Monday, August 5, 2013

An 1891 Missing Person - Using Library Resources to Learn More

The Dick Smith Library serves as a Regional Historical Resources Depository for original and microfilmed records for a number of Texas counties, including Coleman.  Recently, another library transferred to us a fascinating Coleman County Sheriff's ledger from 1887 to 1892 that contained notices about stolen and stray animals, and wanted and missing persons.  This one caught my eye:

I decided to use library resources to try to find out what happened.  First, I used the Archive of Americana database to search old newspapers for articles on Hanchette from 1891 or later. 

Mr. Hanchette arrived in Chicago from Los Angeles by March 31, 1891, to organize an exhibit of California fruit in the Windy City.  After the exposition closed in May, Hanchette was supposed to return home via train, but instead disappeared.  About the time the missing person notice went out, articles started appearing in Chicago and other newspapers:

from The Chicago Herald, May 19, 1891, page 3, via Archive of Americana database 
This was followed by speculation and supposed sightings. Hanchette was spotted at the end of May 1891 in Kalamazoo, Michigan, on a "big spree;" and near Flandreau, South Dakota, in June 1891, "selling organs for a Chicago firm." Speculations included that he'd sailed for South America in late June 1891, and that he'd been located with another woman (not his wife) in July 1891.

The story resurfaced in August 1897 in Chicago, when Los Angeles newspaperman Robert J. Farrell "said Hanchette told him he [Hanchette] had concluded to drop out of sight and cautioned him [Farrell] to say nothing of having met him [Hanchette]."

Thirteen months later, Hanchette's wife Emma died, and nine months after that, his son Earl, and newspaper articles on those deaths mentioned Hanchette's disappearance.  He still had not turned up.

I wondered if anyone else had tried to solve this mystery, so I also searched another library database, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, Full-Text for "Hanchette."  A promising result out of 116 was Charles Dwight Willard: Los Angeles City Booster and Professional Reformer, 1888-1914, written by Donald Ray Culton at the University of Southern California in 1971. The Los Angeles city booster part made me think Willard might have a connection with Hanchette, and I was right (pages 44-47).

Willard was on the staff of the Los Angeles Herald while Hanchette was its city editor in 1888, and he later joined Hanchette on the staff of the Chamber of Commerce.  The two were good friends. When Hanchette disappeared, Willard took over his duties as Chamber secretary, and was later elected to the post.  According to Culton, Willard had to deal with snarled financial records, careless meeting minutes, an overdrawn bank account, uncollected membership dues, and a debt of $2,300.

Although publicly Willard spoke positively of Hanchette, in private (a letter to his father in June 1891), he said, "He was not a bad man, but he was hopelessly weak," and that some of Hanchette's actions had been "dishonorable."

My research mentioned another book about Willard that mentioned Hanchette, Suffering in the Land of Sunshine, by Emily Abel.  I requested this 2006 book through interlibrary loan and found it supported Culton's findings.  Another letter Willard wrote to his father in July 1891 stated that Hanchette had been "in secret a spend thrift, and a fool about money matters...When he went away things were in a hopeless snarl with him and he had not the courage to come back and face them" (page 49).

By the way - Hanchette was on the board of directors for the Los Angeles Public Library from 1889 until his disappearance.

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