In the summer of 1933, twenty-two-year-old Cook County, Illinois, resident Joseph Halpern was vacationing in Rocky Mountain National Park with his parents and Samuel Garrick, a college friend. The motorists had driven Joseph’s Ford sedan and had stopped in the Black Hills and at Yellowstone National Park on their way west. Even though the country was in the midst of the Great Depression, the early 1930s was a good time for automobile tourism.
As part of United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s promise of a New Deal, Roosevelt had put young men to work in the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC). A year before Halpern’s arrival in Colorado, CCC workers had completed Trail Ridge Road from Estes Park to its intersection with the Fall River Road, crossing a high point of 12,183 feet. There was a lot for visitors from the Midwest to see.
On August 15, 1933, Joseph put on a white shirt with blue stripes, khaki trousers, and heavy shoes. He packed four or five sandwiches, one orange, two bananas, and a recent Rocky Mountain National Park Motorists Guide map into a small grey knapsack and left his parents at the Glacier Basin Campground. Joseph and Samuel drove to the Bear Lake parking area and set off on a day hike via the Flattop Mountain trail. By mid-afternoon, Samuel returned to the campsite saying that Joseph had headed off alone. Joseph, an inexperienced hiker who did not take a jacket, never returned, and no trace of him has ever been found. The young graduate student from the University of Chicago appeared to have disappeared into thin air.
Did Joseph die on the mountaintop? Did he suffer a head injury and wander off, a victim of amnesia? Or, did he choose to walk away and start a new life? And what of Samuel Garrick––perhaps the last person to see him alive––did he know of Joseph’s plans? Or, could he have murdered him and buried him under a pile of rocks? Seventy-nine years later, these questions remain unanswered.
At the time, Joseph was employed at the Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, and was working on his doctoral thesis on meteors and shooting stars. He was quite gifted, as correspondence from a family friend stated that Joseph “was singled out for the distinction of astronomically computing the precise moment for the opening of the [Chicago] World’s Fair.” Before the Fair opened, on May 27, 1933 (less than three months before Joseph went missing), four large astronomical observatories, including Yerkes, had aimed their telescopes on the star Arcturus to capture the star’s light rays on photo-electric cells. The light signals then were converted into energy, amplified, and used to turn on the machinery and lighting at the grounds of the fair.
Not knowing if Joseph was lost, injured, or had plunged to his death off a cliff, park rangers and at least 150 volunteer searchers, including CCC workers, combed the mountainous terrain by foot and on horseback. The park rangers questioned Samuel Garrick and fellow hikers and learned that Joseph had inquired about climbing Taylor Peak, but he may have, instead, headed toward Chief’s Head Peak. At 13,579-feet, Chief’s Head is the third highest peak in the Park. Its northwest wall is a sheer granite cliff that plunges from its summit for more than 1,000 feet. Samuel also stated that it was possible that Joseph may have headed toward Andrews Glacier. According to the Chief Ranger’s report––which contained the above conflicting statements––no one could really say which way the missing hiker had gone. Midway into the search, Joseph’s father Solomon Halpern wrote to his other son, Bernard Halpern (who had remained at the family’s home in Chicago), “Four days of helpless agony and no end to it.”
Joseph Halpern’s case is the oldest missing person case entered into the NamUs System of dual databases that match missing persons and unidentified remains. See here for more information on Halpern.
[This guest blog post has excerpts from the book, Cold Case Research: Resources for Unidentified, Missing, and Cold Homicide Cases, to be released by CRC Press in July 2012]