For six days in August 1933, park authorities searched drainages and followed all possible trails for the missing 22-year-old hiker, Joseph Halpern. Authorities also checked the registers on Taylor and nearby peaks, but none showed Joseph’s signature––a customary procedure for climbers, once they reach a summit. Perhaps trying to be encouraging, a writer for the Estes Park newspaper mentioned that during the previous year, a trail reconnaissance crew had stumbled upon the remains of a Texas theologian who had been missing for seventeen years.
On September 18, 1933, the Park’s superintendent wrote that he believed Joseph may have been killed in a fall or in a rock avalanche while attempting a short cut. In agreement was one of the park rangers who participated in the first search––the late Jack C. Moomaw, author of Recollections of a Rocky Mountain Ranger. Of Joseph, Moomaw stated, “Some people, including the parents, are think that the missing boy may have lost his mind and wandered away, but I believe that, somewhere up there on the barrens, the wind is moaning through his bones.”
Another possibility––that Joseph walked away––was hinted at in excerpts of his letters that the family reread after he vanished. In 1930, Joseph wrote, “And so I stare face out at a cruel harsh economically depressed world and am waiting for the day when I’ll be a hobo.” In another letter, written at Yerkes Observatory, in 1933, he wrote of his work in capturing the rays of Arcturus prior to the opening of the Chicago World’s Fair.
In the letter from Yerkes Observatory, Joseph wrote: “The sun falls in the deep northwest, and soon again the stars will be free to shine on me as I harness their feeble rays for the benefit of science. Patiently, I will hold them, minute after minute, hours and hours, and their impression will be preserved for the perpetual future. Enormous volumes of imperfect observations for the use of imperfect observers. Happy is the life of an astronomer! Away, far away, from the banalities of men, detached in the beautiful soliloquies of comprehensiveness and unity. The mortal cares, worries, being, loves––vanish into insignificance before this formidability of nature.”
The family forwarded three of Joseph’s fingerprints—obtained from a postal savings account––to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), but the federal agency told Joseph’s parents that it could not start an investigation since the young man’s disappearance had not been in violation of any federal laws. In 1950, after continued correspondence that even included the private secretary of United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the parents went to probate court and filed notice of “legal presumption of death.”
Ten years later, in 1960, Joseph’s brother Bernard wrote to the FBI: “When I visited my parents recently, my father mentioned for the first time a circumstance that could lead to some information about the disappearance of my brother. He [the father] stated that forest rangers were think that my brother’s companion (Samuel Garrick) knew more about the disappearance than he would admit at that time. Since he was a friend of my brother’s, my father asked the rangers to cease questioning him as he was obviously in an agitated state of mind.”
After Joseph Halpern’s parents died, Bernard was left in charge of the family’s mystery. Then, after Bernard’s death, his son picked up the threads of the search. At first, Bernard’s son (Joseph’s nephew), sent copies of his family’s correspondence to the National Park Service and asked for any advice or help it could offer. In the summer of 2010, a few months before Joseph’s 100th birthday, the nephew took his then-eleven-year-old son on a hike of the Taylor Peak area––extending the search into the fourth generation.
Something else, in addition to Joseph, was still missing––the facts surrounding the mystery about what had happened. The Perseids meteor shower had reached a peak of fifty-to-eighty meteors per hour only two or three days before Joseph went missing. Did he wait for the sun to go down and revel in the night sky, then linger too long on a mountaintop? 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. For more on the book, see here]