When Lawrence Joseph Bader disappeared on a solo fishing trip on Lake Erie on May 15, 1957, the Coast Guard and Bader's own family feared the worst.
The 30-year-old Bader, an appliance salesman who had lived in Akron, Ohio, all his life, was known to be an avid fisherman and it hardly seemed out of character for him to skip work and go on a fishing trip instead. His wife, Mary Lou, suggested that he forego the fishing given her concerns about the weather and, as she would recall later, heard her husband reply that "maybe I will and maybe I won't."
But Mary Lou wasn't the only one to be concerned. The proprietor at the place where Bader rented his boat also suggested that he skip the fishing and even threw in an extra life jacket when Bader refused. Later, when the Coast Guard approached Bader's boat while he was out on the lake and suggested that the man head back, all that Bader would say that that he was planning to head to his favourite fishing spot which was only a short distance away.
When the boat was later found drifting by the Coast Guard, they soon determined that it was still in good shape. The only things missing besides Bader himself were a life jacket and a small suitcase Bader had been carrying. Given that he had no reason to disappear, the general consensus was that Bader had been swept off the boat by a rogue wave (for which Lake Erie was notorious). There were a few odd details, including the fact that Bader had been heavily in debt with a large mortgage on his house that he would have had trouble paying off with his modest income. Not to mention the fact that he had cashed a cheque for $400 on the day of his disappearance. Still, given the large life insurance policy he had on himself and his having a wife and three children he adored, there seemed no question that his death was just a tragic accident.
And so it might have remained except for the chance encounter one of Bader's friends from Akron had at a sporting goods show in Chicago five years later. Though the man selling archery equipment at one of the booths was wearing a black eyepatch and a pencil thin mustache, he otherwise bore an amazing resemblance to Lawrence Bader. Going in for a closer look, the man in question showed no sign of recognizing his neighbour and introduced himself as John F. "Fritz" Johnson. Despite this lack of recognition, the neighbour did manage to get additional information about "Johnson", including the fact that he lived in Omaha, Nebraska where he was a well-known television personality.
Armed with this information, the neighbour then called John Bader, Lawrence's brother. Though John was skeptical, he also knew his twenty-one-year old niece Suzanne lived in Chicago so he phoned her to go to the show and see for herself. It was Suzanne who confronted Johnson about whether he was Larry Bader, something that he laughed off at once. Despite this reaction, and his not recognizing her at all, she persuaded him to telephone John and his brother Richard in Akron. Recognizing Lawrence's voice over the telephone, both brothers immediately flew to Chicago to solve the mystery. Bader's wife, Mary Lou (who had never remarried), refused to go.
As for Fritz Johnson, he seemed amused about the whole business though he denied recognizing any of Lawrence Bader's family members. As he pointed out, he was a well-known figure in Columbus due to his career in radio and television, not to mention being a champion archer. He even volunteered to have police check his fingerprints to prove he wasn't Bader. Not surprisingly, the story made the newspapers as Chicago police reported that Johnson had been "positively identified" as Bader. They even went so far as to send the fingerprints to the FBI for independent verification.
To Johnson's astonishment, the prints matched perfectly. He was definitely Lawrence Bader though he had no memory of being anyone else but Fritz Johnson. Given the various legal issues surrounding his bizarre death and resurrection (including the hefty insurance benefit paid out after his supposed death), police began to probe Johnson's history which, as you might expect, began almost to the day that Lawrence Bader disappeared.
All that anyone remembered about Johnson was that he first appeared in 1957 in Omaha, Nebraska. Giving his new name as John Francis Johnson, a.k.a. "Fritz", all that he said about himself was that he had served in the Navy where he had been invalided out after being injured in combat. Though "Fritz" had no family, he soon became popular due to his easy-going manner and quickly landed a job as a bartender before establishing himself as a disc jockey for station KBON.
In the years that followed, "Fritz" Johnson became one of Omaha's most colourful personalities. Well-known for his eccentric ways, Johnson would often share stories about how he was injured in the war by being "blown off a destroyer by an attacking submarine." Explaining that he had taken up archery as part of his therapy, he entered numerous city and state championships and established himself as a local champion. He also had a bizarre flair for self-promotion including one stunt in which he sat on a flagpole for three days while drinking martinis (to raise money for polio research).
After marrying divorcee Nancy Zimmer in 1962, Johnson became a sports director for an Omaha television station. Along with being stepfather to Nancy's young son, the Johnsons had a daughter born in the following year. Even losing an eye to a malignant tumour in 1964 did nothing to slow Fritz down. He simply began wearing a black eyepatch and grew a pencil thin mustache to add to his "look". And he continued to be as zany as ever with his hobby of raising exotic fish, flamboyant manner, and general quirky behaviour that made him one of Omaha's leading citizens. It was this popularity that led the Sanders Archery Company to ask Fritz to represent them at the National Sportings Goods Show in Chicago.
Which was where his strange double life fell apart...
Once fingerprints proved that Fritz Johnson and Lawrence Bader were the same person, his life became a nightmare. The story became nationwide news with doctors openly speculating about whether he was truly suffering from amnesia or faking. Mary Lou Bader was stunned to discover that she was no longer a widow. In an interview with reporerss, she said that "it was something very unreal. I was sort of like a numbness. It wasn't an emptiness I felt when I though he was drowned." His other wife, Nancy Johnson, refused to make any public comments.
As for Fritz Johnson, his life unraveled even further. After being fired by the television station where he worked and becoming legally separated from his wife, he moved into a room at the Omaha YMCA and had to return to his old bartending job to support himself. From this meager salary, he was obliged to pay child support for both sets of children. Despite efforts by Mary Lou to jog her husband's memory, including driving her children to Chicago for a two-day reunion with their supposedly dead father, he continued to have no recollection of any of them. Nancy Johnson seemed less inclined to explore the mystery of his husband's missing memory. Instead, she moved to have their marriage annulled.
After extensive psychological testing and hypnotic sessions, a team of specialists examining Johnson concluded that he wasn't faking. But this was about the only good news for Johnson considering he was still facing criminal charges for fraud, bigamy, and desertion. There was also the emotional trauma of trying to understand what was happening to him. As he told an Akron reporter in a newspaper interview: "My God, don't you understand?" he said. 'All of a sudden I find out that 30 years of my life never happened. You see, I really do have 30 years of life as Fritz Johnson. What am I supposed to do with those 30 years. Throw them out the door?"
He also admitted that he was afraid to go back to Akron. "I think people would keep testing me," he said. "They's always be asking me questions to see what I might remember. And then - I don't know - I'm afraid I'd be some kind of freak back there." What asked about how the entire mess could be straightened out , he openly admitted that there would be no "happy ending" for him.
As it happened, he was quite right about that. In May, 1966, just a few months after his bizarre exposure, Fritz Johnson fell ill with stomach pains. Doctors soon concluded that he was suffering from liver cancer and that his condition was terminal. After deteriorating rapidly, Fritz Johnson/Lawrence Bader died in Omaha's St. Joseph's Hospital on September 16, 1966. He was 39 years old. A memorial service was held for him in Omaha before his body was shipped to Akron for burial in the family plot at Holy Cross Cemetery. The best epitaph for this strange case came from an obituary in Akron's Beacon Journal: "It's all over now," the obituary read. "There is no tomorrow for the man who claims not to remember the past. All that remains is the mystery."
Though there have been similar episodes reported in the clinical literature, Lawrence Badder/Fritz Johnson remains one of the most bizarre amnesia casesof the twentieth century. Was he an extreme example of dissociative fugue or was he, as one of his doctors suggested, a "modern-day schizophrenic"? While it might have been interesting to see how his case might have played out had he lived longer, the mystery Lawrence/Fritz left behind will likely never be solved.