A few months ago I wrote about Joe Keller who disappeared in the mountains of Colorado in 2015 and whose body was recently found.
Another guy called Joe also disappeared in the mountains of Colorado over 80 years before and was never found, alive or dead, despite many unproven claims. Let’s take a few moments to analyze all the facts together…
Joseph Lawrence Halpern was born on 11 September 1910. In the summer of 1933 he set off from Illinois on a road trip in the company of his parents and a college friend named Samuel Garrick. Not quite 23, young Joe was a keen and highly gifted astronomer, mathematician and scientist. His father was an electrical engineer; his mother was an artist and teacher.
On the way to Colorado they visited the Black Hills of South Dakota as well as Yellowstone National Park.
They arrived at the Rocky Mountain National Park and set up camp at the Glacier Basin campground.
On 14 August Joe packed a few sandwiches, two bananas, an orange and a small, up to date Rocky Mountain National Park Guide Map into a small rucksack and set off by car with Samuel for the Bear Lake parking area from where they began a day hike on the Flattop Mountain Trail, leaving his parents at the campsite.
Joe was dressed in a white shirt with blue stripes, a pair of light khaki trousers and heavy walking boots.
When they reached the crest of Flattop Mountain Joe expressed his wish to carry on to Taylor’s Peak but Samuel was tired of walking and returned by himself to the car park, leaving Joe to carry on alone. Probably Sam expected his buddy to turn around when it began to get late. Sam got back to the car in mid afternoon and waited for Joe.
A short time after the two friends parted company two hikers spotted him walking alone west of Hallett’s Peak. This seems to be the last time anyone saw him and confirms Sam’s version of events.
When Joseph failed to return that evening the alarm was raised. Apart from park rangers, the search beginning the next day was eventually joined by over 150 volunteers including a contingent from the Civil Conservation Corps. The park route registers were checked in vain: Joe hadn’t filled in any of them.
Park officials considered using bloodhounds but couldn’t source any of these locally. Diligent searches yielded no clues to Joe’s whereabouts.
Apart from Taylor’s Peak Samuel named two other places which Joe may have headed for. These were Chief’s Head Peak, at 13 579 ft (4139 m) the third highest peak in the Park, or the Andrews Glacier.
Either of these has numerous possible hazards, especially after dark. Chief’s Head Peak has vertical cliffs on the northwest side.
Trail description link here:
It’s abundantly clear that these high trails at an elevation of over 12000 ft are not meant to be travelled alone and equipped with just a light pack and light snacks, with no warm clothes. Nights can get bitterly cold even in summer.
The trails aren’t always obvious and one can easily get lost. Disorientation could easy follow a blow on the head from a fall.
It’s also clear from photos of the area how easy it would be for someone to disappear never to be found – numerous rocks, crevices, lakes and other possible hazards abound. I have a wide knowledge of wilderness areas and can assure you how difficult it can be to locate someone in the vast wastes. Even a group of two or three can feel dwarfed and somehow intimidated by the vast emptiness around them, where nothing can be heard but the moaning of the wind and the occasional trickle of a stream.
On 19 August Joe’s father wrote to his other son who had remained in Chicago, stating “Four days of helpless agony and no end to it”
Though fit, he was an inexperienced hiker. But being young and optimistic he may have decided he could reach whatever destination he wanted to reach. Perhaps he even wanted to wait until nightfall in order to observe the panorama of stars from the peak, but this would have been risky, and unfair to Samuel without telling him.
Of course, there’s always a possibility that Joe had high functioning Aspergers, which would explain some or all of the following:
- his astronomical brilliance and absolute dedication to his “special interests” – in his case maths, science and astronomy
- he was also fluent in French and German and could read and write Cyrillic;
- His tendency to be pedantic, causing him to earn the nickname Teacher;
- impractical ideals such as stargazing from a lonely mountain while not adequately preparing for such an expedition – in other words, impulsiveness;
- being rather a loner;
- lack of effective communication skills – not telling Sam his intentions;
- Idealism, as reflected in his strong social and political views.
Many of us can identify with one of more of the above traits, as he did. It would still be eleven years before Hans Asperger published his theories in his native country, so no one will ever know for sure.
Although a native of Chicago, Illinois, at the time of his disappearance Joseph was on summer break from the Yerkes Observatory in Williiams Bay, Wisconsin. He was doing his doctoral thesis on meteors and “shooting stars”. Joseph was quite an achiever at his tender age. He had been chosen to compute the precise moment for the opening of the Chicago World’s Fair (A Century of Progress) on 27 May 1933. Four large observatories including Yerkes had aimed their telescopes at Arcturus to capture its light rays on photo-electric cells. They then converted the signals into energy, amplified them and sued them to switch on the lighting and machinery at the Fair.
Joe was fluent in French and German and could read and write Cyrillic.
Wild Speculations and Theories
- Some allege that his friend Samuel Garrick murdered him and buried the body under rocks. But I can see no possible motive and there was no reason for any major quarrel to develop. This seems very far fetched. Suspicion so often falls on perfectly innocent people whose only crime was to being the last to see the missing person. (of course, it’s often the case that they were the guilty one…)
- Samuel knew that Joseph wanted to start a new life and so he lied in order to protect his friend who never went further into the mountains but disappeared voluntarily. But then surely he wouldn’t have chosen such an isolated spot so high in the mountains. Plus he would have needed more than the meagre contents of his rucksack.
- He knocked his head, developed amnesia and wandered off. Despite its usefulness in fiction plots, real amnesia is extremely rare. It’s usually used by criminals who allege that their mind was a blank when they committed a crime. Had he been knocked unconscious he would have surely have been found, dead or alive, during the search. A person suffering from concussion couldn’t have survived the situation, especially after darkness fell.
- Not borne out by the facts. All indications are that he really enjoyed life and wanted to make the most of it. He was young, fit and healthy and academically successful, and about to get his doctorate.
Sighting Claims: Spotting Joe, or mistaken identity?
- Begging for food at a diner in Phoenix, Az in December 1933.
- Travelling with the Lewis Brothers Circus in Michigan, summer of 1935
- Travelling with the CCC near Alliance, Nebraska – May 1935
- He joined one of the several CCC camps located in the Rocky Mountain National Park and joined the general crew or became a staff member.
- He travelled with the CCC company NP-4-C from Beaver Mills Camp to Pinal Mountain, Arizona in October 1933.
Unsubstantiated reports say he was using the name Louis (or Lewis) Hollenbeck or Hollenbuck.
His parents found one of his letters in which he wrote: I might become a hobo” and added, “Happy is the life of an astronomer,” noting that “mortal cares, worries, being, [and] loves vanish into insignificance before this formidability of nature.”
Some read this as hinting at disappearing but it appears that he’s marvelling at the wonders of nature as observed through the eyes of an astronomer and that the stars are his passion, more than any family life or mundane worries about money. Being so enamoured of all nature’s secrets he may have forgotten all about time and simply become literally lost in the awe-inspiring grandeur around him.
I really doubt Joe would have disappeared from the height of the mountains to begin a new life as a hobo or fairground attendant, despite his advanced socialist political views and support of the new President’s radical plan to alleviate the plight of the unemployed. He was making great strides in the academic world – would he have thrown all that away for a life of uncertainty, however adventurous? Why would he be begging for food on a street corner when he was one of the fortunate few with an assured scientific career ahead of him? If he indeed wanted to help the less fortunate he would have been in a far better position to do so by remaining in the academic field.
The CCC was established by Roosevelt as a government program for unemployed men, one of the principal arms of the New Deal.
There’s no indication that he was on bad terms with his parents or family. Indeed his family kept up the search until their deaths and his grand-nephew continues to seek clues even today, continuing the family search of over 80 years. It’s not as if he came from a dysfunctional family background.
A brilliant mind such as his wouldn’t have been happy wasting his talents on the open road, however dreamy and enticing such a life may appear to be. Had he survived he would no doubt have made his mark as a famous scientist and astronomer and become as well known as Carl Sagan or Alan Turing.
Perhaps he, just like Joe Keller, encountered a bear or a wolf and may have fallen in an attempt to escape. Twilight would have become dangerous for someone lost in the wilderness and he could easily have disturbed a mother bear with her cubs.
But it’s more likely in Joe Halpern’s case that he got lost and was benighted on the mountain with no suitable warmth or shelter. It was already getting late in the day to proceed in such terrain alone, even equipped as he was with a map. It’s so easy to underestimate the sheer size of the mountains!
It’s always difficult to find a missing person in a huge expanse of untamed wilderness, although Joe Halpern remains the only person missing from Rocky Mountain National Park since 1915 who has never been found.
Only the lonely peaks with their white heads, which have witnessed countless aeons of man’s many follies from their lofty vantage, know what truly happened to the budding scientist.
One of the park rangers who searched for Joe was the late Jack C. Moomaw, author of Recollections of a Rocky Mountain Ranger. Years after the event he had this to say:
“Some people, including the parents, are of the opinion 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.”