Larry Bader appeared to have it all – a good career, a beautiful wife, three children and another child on the way. But appearances were deceptive, with Bader accruing a large debt which his salary could not pay. On May 15, 1957 the 30 year old Akron, Ohio kitchen appliance salesmen and amateur archer went on a short fishing trip. He never returned-leading to one of the more bizarre disappearances of recent memory.
Bader rented a boat at the Rocky River near Cleveland that afternoon, and was warned about an upcoming storm. The deteriorating weather didn’t seem to faze Bader – at 4:30p.m. he shoved off in the rented motor boat.
The storm came up three hours later. The next morning, Bader’s boat was found on the rocks at Perkins Beach. Bader was not in it. The Coast Guard said the lake had been so rough no man could have survived overboard.
Four days later, a fascinating, debonair and well-dressed man entered the Roundtable Bar on the corner of 19th and Harney Streets in Omaha, Nebraska. He gave his name as John “Fritz” Johnson. He became a radio station announcer, sports director of a television station, and one of the best known, best liked and most flamboyant personalities in Omaha.
He told friends and acquaintances that he took up archery “to strengthen his back muscles after an injury”. With his background of hunting in Ohio, it is no surprise that he won the Nebraska state championship. Bader enthralled his friends with vivid stories of a boyhood in a Boston orphanage and 13 years in the Navy. He kept tropical fish — especially the Siamese fighting variety, the kind that devour each other. He wore an eyepatch after surgery to remove a cancerous tumour from his left eye, which added to his large than life character.
In 1961, Bader married pretty Nancy Zimmer, a 20-year-old divorcee and photographer’s model. He adopted Nancy’s daughter by her previous marriage and in 1963 they had a son of their own.
Larry Bader was declared legally dead in an Akron court in 1960. By this time Mary lou Bader had settled down to the business of trying to rear four children alone.
In 1964 a Nebraska archery firm sent Bader to a sports show at Chicago’s McCormick Place to show off its equipment. One of the visitors at the show was from Akron, and he did a double take when he saw the Nebraska archery champion. He had, he was sure, just seen a dead ringer for the missing Larry Bader. The man called Bader’s brothers from Akron. They flew into Chicago, took a look at Fritz and said he was their long lost brother. Johnson’s fingerprints were sent to the FBI, who compared them with the fingerprints Bader gave when he joined the US navy as an 18 year old – they matched. Johnson claimed to have no memory of his life as Lawrence Bader, probably due to the eye surgery.
Now that Johnson’s true identity had been discovered, several quandries now appeared:
* Were the insurance policies worth roughly $40,000, which had been paid out to Mary Lou null and void?
* As Bader/Johnson had not legally divorced Mary Lou before marrying Nancy, was he a bigamist?
Johnson lost his job and his marriage to Nancy, and was reduced to working in a bar in Omaha, with most of his money going to support Mary Lou and Nancy. He and Mary Lou met in Chicago in August 1965, although Johnson insisted he had no recollection of meeting, marrying, or having a family with her. In 1966, the cancer reappeared, this time in his liver, and Bader/Johnson died on the 16th of September, aged just 39.
So what was the real story behind the disappearance of Lawrence Bader and the appearance of John Johnson? Did Bader decide he was trapped in the life he was leading and saw only one way out – fake his own death and set up a new life somewhere else? Or was Bader suffering from dissociative amnesia, a rare condition where a person has no memory of their life owing to trauma or stress. In a dissociative fugue state, they have an urge to travel and may invent a new personality, settling in a new area with no recollection of how they got there.
The article by Chris Lilles “Man With Two Wives – Amnesia or Hoax? ” in LIFE Magazine 5 March 1965 was used the main source for this blog post.
The article can be read in full here.