As a professional genealogist and local historian, I have come across some weird things in the forgotten pages of history. I first dove into genealogy because I wanted to know where I came from. Not as in, I wanted to know what countries my ancestors immigrated to America from. Rather, as in, I wanted to know where I as an individual came from. My memory begins fourteen years ago, when I was about eighteen years old. Prior to that point in time is complete amnesia.
I remember awakening in a hospital room that seemed too white. I studied my surroundings—the white walls, white drapes, white tile floor, white bed sheets—all the same shade of white, no less. I felt calm, as though all of this were normal. When a nurse came in and noticed I had woken up, she asked me what my name was, how old I was, and where I lived. I knew none of the answers. With a concerned expression, she asked me if I knew what year it was, or if I knew who the president was, or if I knew what state I was in. I continued to draw blanks.
I asked her why my body was so bandaged up. She explained to me that I was in a hospital in Ohio, and I had been struck by a vehicle in a hit-and-run. There had been no identification on my person. They had been waiting for me to come out of my coma for the last three days, hoping I could tell them who I was. I apologized for not being of any help, and then felt silly—as if I had any control over my lack of memory.
As the nurse turned to leave and fetch the doctor, I found myself blurting out, as if my mouth were controlled by another person: “Bramwell Lindemann!”
The nurse faced me. “Bramwell Lindemann? Is that your name?”
I paused. That didn’t feel right. “No, I am pretty sure that’s not my name. I don’t know why I said that.” I knew the name must have meant something to me before the accident, but I didn’t know what.
The doctor came in and examined me. I heard him say, “Caucasian male, approximately eighteen years of age”. After a litany of tests, the doctor contacted the police department to inform them that I was now conscious and speaking. Two officers came and took a very unhelpful statement from me regarding the accident. When they learned of my amnesia, they searched through countless missing person reports, but no matches were found. Though my story was mentioned two nights in a row on the local news, and the anchors asked anyone who recognized my photo to call the hospital and claim me, no one did.
After recuperating in the hospital for a few more days, the staff declared me fit to leave. I wandered out into the street, with no name, no wallet, no money, no home, and no knowledge of my surroundings. They called me John Doe in the hospital, so that is the name I have stuck with since the year 2000.
I lived on the streets for a couple of weeks, then moved into a shelter and secured part-time employment. I soon found a small apartment. I seemed to have an excellent grasp on math, reading, and science—indicating that I had already attended high school. However, with no identity to prove it, I had to start over. I earned my GED, and then found enough scholarships and student loans to put myself through college. A few years ago, I married the love of my life—Daphne. A true testament to her love for me, she insisted on taking my legal surname, Doe—even at the expense of having a name with goofy alliteration. In climbing the social ladder and building a normal and successful life, I had an advantage over many of the homeless friends I had made in my younger years, in that I didn’t seem to have any addictions or major health problems, other than lingering soreness from the hit-and-run.
While I managed well without knowing my true origins, the question always nagged me in the back of my mind. One day, I saw an Internet ad for Ancestry.com. The first name I searched for on that website was the name I had blurted out in the hospital room: “Bramwell Lindemann”. No exact hits. There were some results for individuals named “B. Lindemann,” but upon further investigation, each of them turned out to be a “Balthasar” or a “Bertha” or a “Bryant”. My heart leapt when I found a record for a “Bram Lindeman,” but I soon found that this individual’s full first name was “Abram”.
Once I started, I could not stop. I expanded my research to the offline world, and found myself at the library studying past issues of local newspapers for any clues as to my origins, and going to area schools and looking through nearby high school yearbooks for any photos that resembled me. I became adept at navigating old records, and friends began to ask me to research their family history for them. This turned into a full-time business for me, but I have never stopped searching for my own origins.
I have even taken DNA tests for Y-DNA, mitochondrial DNA, and ethnicity—these tests matched me up with a handful of other users and claim that, based on our DNA similarities, we are approximately sixth cousins or so (indicating that my 5xgreat grandparents, whoever they were, were probably also the ancestors of the other user). However, these DNA databases have never pinpointed a close cousin of mine. Considering that, barring any inbreeding, every person has one hundred twenty eight 5xgreat grandparents (because you have 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great grandparents, 16 great great grandparents, and so on), determining which of these 128 ancestors is the one I share with each of these other users is impossible.
Every so often throughout the years, I have made a post on this or that Internet genealogy forum, asking that if anyone has ever come across a “Bramwell Lindemann” in their research, would they please get in touch with me. I had never gotten a response. In fits of discouragement, I would go back months later and delete these unnoticed posts of mine from the forums.
The humorous irony of someone who doesn’t know their own name, let alone their ancestry, becoming an expert on other people’s history, has never been lost on my wife, friends, and colleagues.
A month ago, I went out on a limb and made another post to a forum asking about any information on “Bramwell Lindemann”. The next morning, I received an email with the title, “Bramwell Lindemann”. Though I had just gotten out of bed and had not even had my coffee, every one of my senses became alert in an instant.
The body of the message read as follows: “Dear researcher, I saw on [forum name] that you had inquired about Bramwell Lindemann. In my late grandmother’s box of family history documents, there were several photographs with names written on the backs that I have never been able to place. On the back of one of these old photographs is written what seems to be the name ‘Bramwell Lindemann,’ although it is written sloppily. I have scanned the photograph and attached the image file to this email. Perhaps this can be of assistance to you, and perhaps you can tell me more about who this man was. My grandmother was born and raised in Vinton, Iowa, so the fellow in this photograph may have also lived there or nearby. Sincerely, [name redacted to protect his privacy]”
My fingers trembling, I clicked the attachment and loaded up the scanned image of the photograph. As the top rows of pixels loaded, I noticed the aged brownish-yellowness of the photo. By the coloring alone, it was probably a hundred years old. The rows of pixels continued to load downward. The man’s hair was neat and oiled. As his forehead, then his eyes, then his nose, and his chin came into view, my jaw lowered. It was me. Or rather, someone who looked identical to me. This man could be my great grandfather. The resemblance was mind-blowing.
I replied to the sender, lavishing thanks upon him for sending the photograph. Then, I put down everything and booked a flight to Des Moines for the next day. After arriving in Des Moines, I trekked straight to the Iowa State Historical Society Library and set to work looking for Mr. Lindemann. I first searched all the county death records in Benton County (where the town of Vinton is located) and all surrounding counties for Bramwell Lindemann. It seemed to be a common last name in that area, but no Bramwell Lindemann could be found having died in the area.
I then pulled out case after case of microfilm containing issues of newspapers from Vinton and the surrounding area. I spent hours rolling through issue after issue of microfilmed newspaper, and I began to lose hope. Not much time left until the library closed. That’s when I saw it. A small newspaper blurb, buried in a wall of text in a June 1900 edition. The name in the text caught my eye, and wouldn’t let go: “B. Lindemann Kills Wife and Child,” read the tiny headline.
The article stated: “Bramwell Lindemann, local farmer, 23 years of age, walked into the police station Monday to confess to the murder of his wife of 5 years, Catherine, and their 3-year-old son, Quentin. He stated to police that he revived from a daze to find himself covered in blood and digging through his wife’s and son’s entrails with a knife. He claimed not to remember what had happened, and no longer remembered his name or who he was, but said he knew he had done something wicked, and set out to find a police station to confess so that justice might be done. Mr. Lindemann was taken under arrest pending further investigation.”
Chills ran down my spine. This man from over a century ago, who bore a striking resemblance to me, also suffered from an inexplicable case of amnesia. Perhaps this man really is my ancestor. Perhaps there is some genetic trait I inherited from him that causes these strange bouts of amnesia. However, the fact that Bramwell awoke from his amnesia to find himself mutilating the corpses of his loved ones disturbed me.
I pressed onward through the newspaper editions, finding an article a month later stating that Bramwell had been sentenced to 7 years in the Anamosa State Prison. The judge explained the relatively lenient sentencing as being due to the fact that Bramwell seemed to have committed the act in a moment of temporary insanity and appeared genuinely penitent. I jumped ahead seven years in the old newspapers to 1907, when Bramwell would have been released. Sure enough, there was one miniscule mention of him in the “Local Gossip” section of the paper: “B. Lindemann, formerly of this town, was recently released from Anamosa. In order to try to forget his sordid past, he has opted to legally change his name to Lamar Smith and moved northwest to conduct his farming near the town of Mallard.”
I sat back in my chair, stunned for a moment. I had finally found Bramwell Lindemann, and furthermore, discovered what had become of him. I could not stop just yet. I found the town of Mallard in Palo Alto County and set to work researching that county’s records for Lamar Smith. I found him in the 1910 federal census records, his name slightly misspelled. He was a single farmer, and claimed to be only 20 years old. That didn’t seem right. He was said to have been about 23 years old when he was arrested in 1900, meaning he was born about 1877. That means he should be about 33 years old in this 1910 census. I went forward a decade and found Lamar Smith in the same area again in the 1920 census, still single, still a farmer. He still claimed to be 20 years old in this census. By now, he should have been 43—there is no way he could have passed for a mere 20. Why was he giving these reports to the census takers? I did not find Lamar Smith in the area in the 1930 federal census records, but there was no record of him dying and being buried in the region either. Again, I returned to the microfilmed newspapers.
Sure enough, I found an edition of an area newspaper from 1925, which read: “LOCAL FARMER’S FAMILY BRUTALLY MURDERED—Ed Anliker, farmer east of town, awoke to a gruesome sight in his home yesterday morning. His neighbor, Mr. Lamar Smith, had stabbed Mr. Anliker’s wife and four children to death in their sleep. When Mr. Smith was found, he was consuming the blood and innards of his victims. After being taken into custody by the sheriff, Mr. Smith had no explanation for his actions, and furthermore claimed to have forgotten who and where he was. Mr. Smith has no known relatives in the area. He began farming here nearly twenty years ago, and while neighbors say he is a peculiar man who kept to himself, he was always hailed as a kindly and youthful man, who seems as young today as he is remembered being two decades ago. His crimes bring extreme shock and sorrow to the community.”
Below the article was printed a grainy black and white photograph, with the caption, “L. Smith”. The man was definitely Bramwell Lindemann, and indeed, it appeared that he had not aged a day.
Pressing onward through the newspapers, I discovered Lamar Smith having been sentenced to 30 years, once again to be served in Anamosa. By now, the library was closing. I got a hotel room in Des Moines for the night, and the next day took a rental car to Anamosa to investigate their old records.
Lamar Smith, it seems, had been released on good behavior after only 25 years. After leaving prison in 1950, he disappeared from the records. I scoured Ancestry.com and NewspaperArchive.com and other research websites. Countless “Lamar Smiths” flooded my results, but one stood out. A 1950 newspaper from Spokane, Washington said that a young local man named Lamar Smith was seen wallowing in the blood of a homeless man he had murdered. When confronted by a passerby, Lamar took on a blank and confused facial expression and ran away. His whereabouts were not known.
At this point, the trail for Lamar Smith went dead cold. I could find no further reference to a Lamar Smith matching what I knew about this man. I took a flight home, feeling defeated. I spent days trying every research method I could think of in order to locate what had happened to Lamar Smith after fleeing the murder scene in Spokane, but I came up empty.
Earlier this week, inspiration struck. A different angle occurred to me. Using specific keywords, I searched newspapers on NewspaperArchive.com for articles about a man who “murdered” and then suffered “amnesia”. I found one. The article was from a 1975 edition of a Sacramento, California newspaper. The murderer, who gave no name for himself, was described as a transient hippie who had the appearance of being on some kind of drugs, but tested negative for all known drugs. The murderer had wandered into a campground on the outskirts of the city and slaughtered a family of four with his bare hands, then partially devoured some of the remains. He claimed to suffer from amnesia. Next to the newspaper article was a mugshot photograph of the man: bearded, long-haired, shirtless, shoulders draped in stereotypical beaded necklaces…but that face. I pressed my thumb over the beard, and focused on the forehead, eyes, and nose. There was no mistaking it. This man was a twin of Bramwell Lindemann, of Lamar Smith…and of me.
A subsequent issue of the newspaper stated that the hippie killer had been sentenced to 25 years in prison, and had been processed under the temporary name “John Doe,” until his true identity could be ascertained. I contacted the prison and inquired about this John Doe. The institution’s records indicated this man had been released from prison in June of 2000. I requested a copy of the man’s last mug shot, and after much jumping through hoops, finally received it in the mail. John Doe’s last prison mug shot, taken in June of 2000, showed the same man pictured in the 1975 newspaper. He was now clean shaven and had not aged a day. Without the facial hair, he looked even younger than before, if that was possible.
I stared at the photograph. I stared into the mirror. Then back to the photograph. I was looking at a picture not of some random criminal or some ancient ancestor of mine. I was looking at a picture of me, exactly as I looked 14 years ago, at the time of the accident. Exactly as I look right now.
Am I the Sacramento murderer? Am I Lamar Smith? Am I Bramwell Lindemann? If so, then just how goddamn old am I? I had always chalked up my lack of age marks to healthy diet and exercise. What if there is some other power at work? Why can’t I age? What happens to me every 25 years that causes me to commit brutal crimes and then wipe my memory clean? What really transpired before I lost my memory in the year 2000? If I have connected the dots correctly, then what will happen to me in the year 2025? Is my wife safe around me? Do I tell her what I have learned? Am I going crazy?
It seems too surreal to be true, but I have decided I must get to the bottom of this. I must find out where Bramwell Lindemann (where I?) originated. How far can this rabbit hole possibly go? I will keep you updated on what I discover.
When we really see other people as they are without taking it personally, we can never be hurt by what they say or do. Even if others lie to you, it is okay. They are lying to you because they are afraid. They are afraid you will discover that they are not perfect. It is painful to take that social mask off.