By Jack Downs
Above, at right, John working as a breakman on a Spokane streetcar. Photo courtesy of the King Family Archives.
At first, it seems like the plot of a Twilight Zone episode: a respectable North Idaho salesman, town marshall, and a married father of six children, goes to Spokane to make a round of sales calls. He plans to be gone for only a few days, but instead goes missing for three months and is found wandering the streets of Seattle by a policeman who used to know him in Spokane. The man is reunited with his family, but has no memory of his life before the sales trip to Spokane. This isn’t a plot cooked up by Rod Serling for an eager audience of early TV thrill seekers, though. No, this is the real-life story of John L. Olson, who mysteriously lost his memory in April, 1924, and only rediscovered his identity after wandering across Washington State for three months.
John Olson lived in Kootenai, Idaho, and worked for the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1924, when he took a leave of absence to try his hand at selling fire extinguishers. The reasons for his career shift aren’t clear, though an economic downturn or railroad labor unrest may have prompted the change. But whatever the reason, Olson’s decision to become a salesman required business trips beyond Olson’s small north Idaho community. So in April, Olson went to Spokane to meet with potential clients. He kept an appointment with officials from the telephone company on April 10th, and that night Olson stayed at the Arlington Hotel. He was scheduled to meet with the same telephone company representatives the next day, but he missed the appointment. Then his sample case was found near the river in downtown Spokane, his papers strewn on the riverbank. His wallet was found nearby (at the present-day location of the Looff Carousel), torn in half. But there was no sign of John Olson.
Conjecture ran wild: was he clubbed, mugged, and dumped in the river? Did he elope with a mysterious woman? Did he commit suicide or accidentally fall in the river and drown? The police followed the very few leads they had, but found nothing. John Olson, it seemed, had disappeared.
But Olson had not disappeared. As his absence was being noticed in Spokane, Olson was waking up in a box car outside of Edwall, Washington. He had a splitting headache and no clear idea of who he was or how he came to be in a box car. In his possession was a satchel with some clothes, a shaving kit, pocket knife, matches, and a comb. In his pocket, he found $7.20. But there was nothing in the satchel that could help him identify himself. Olson walked a mile or two to the depot in Edwall, got on the next passenger train, and bought a ticket to Harrington. In Harrington, he checked-in to a hotel under the name J.A. Larkin from Helena, Montana. But Olson, who began keeping a diary as part of his effort to remember his identity, had no idea why he chose the name. His past was a complete blank.
In Harrington, Olson worked as a farm laborer under the name of Larkin. He plowed fields and did odd jobs for a local farmer. But all the while, his diary records his anxiety about his lost identity. Olson wondered endlessly about his past: did he have a family, a wife and children? If so, what was happening to them during his absence? In one particularly poignant journal entry, Olson expresses an overwhelming sense of homesickness. “But homesick for where? And for whom?” he wonders.
At the end of April, Olson left Harrington for Spokane, hoping that in a big city with more people, he might be recognized or see something that jars his memory. On the farm in Harrington, he remembered that he has worked as a railroad man, so when Olson arrived in Spokane he went around to the Hillyard and downtown rail yards. Olson considered going to the police, but he was afraid that his story might sound crazy and land him in a mental institution. Or what if his lost memory possibly hid a criminal past? Olson was unwilling to accidentally turn himself in.
After two weeks in Spokane, Olson decided to head west on the railroad, hoping that someone would recognize him. In Skykomish, Olson took a job in a lumber mill, cleaning the mill floor and learning the machinery. But he couldn’t stop thinking about his lost past, and one day, Olson broke down sobbing at the lunch table, thinking about the possibility of a family, wife, and children. His fear of a less-than-respectable past has prevented him from explaining his situation to anyone, but when a co-worker asked about his distress, Olson explained everything. The co-worker was deeply sympathetic, and Olson’s journal observes that he slept better that night than he had since Harrington because, in his words, “It was a relief to tell my troubles to someone.”
The mill closed down for a while just before the Fourth of July, so Olson and a new acquaintance, Chet Lowry, took the train to Seattle. The two men planned to see some of the sights, but Olson also hoped that in Seattle he might be recognized. He spent a day or two taking in baseball games and picture shows. Then, on July 4th, Olson was recognized. A policeman named Bolin, who had formerly lived in Spokane, spotted Olson walking down 2nd Avenue and called him by name. Olson – who had been going by Frank Fisher since arriving in Skykomish – was stunned. Bolin claimed to have known Olson years before, when both men worked on the streetcars in Spokane. The encounter convinced Olson to go to the Seattle police, who in fact had a missing person bulletin on Olson. The Seattle police contacted the authorities in Spokane, and Olson’s father came to Seattle to pick him up the next day.
Olson was reunited with his family, and even though he recovered some of his memory, much of his life before that fateful April night in Spokane remained a mystery to him. In recent years, Olson’s family has spoken with researchers and psychologists about his strange episode, and the general consensus is that Olson suffered from an instance of dissociative fugue – what we often think of as amnesia. Happily, Olson managed to reintegrate with his family, and learned to love them again. But just what happened to cause his disappearance and memory loss? That mystery remains.