Searching for Mr. X

For eight years, a man without a memory lived among strangers at a hospital in Mississippi. But was recovering his identity the happy ending he was looking for?

The Atavist Magazine, No. 119


Laura Todd Carns is a writer based in suburban Maryland. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Quartz, and Electric Literature, among other publications. Find her on Twitter at @lauratoddcarns. Listen to Carns talk about reporting “Searching for Mr. X” on the Creative Nonfiction podcast.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Adam Przybyl
Illustrator: Ben Jones

Published in September 2021.


On a summer day in 1931, a man was found wandering South State Street in Jackson, Mississippi. He appeared to be lost. He was white, with gray hair and a thin, angular face. His clothes were worn and rumpled, but on his feet were a pair of tan Borden low-quarter dress shoes, the kind that sold for more than ten dollars at S. P. McRae’s department store on West Capitol Street. He had shell-rimmed eyeglasses and a belt buckle with the letter L on it. In his pocket was a cheap watch and a single penny.

When police questioned him, the man seemed dazed. He was unable to supply his name, his address, or an explanation for why he was in Jackson. He was arrested for vagrancy. After a few days, he was placed in the custody of Dr. C. D. Mitchell, superintendent of the Mississippi State Hospital. Upon his arrival at the facility, the man, who was estimated to be about sixty, was entered into the patient ledger as “Mr. X.”

Who was he? Where had he come from? How did he wind up alone on a street in the Deep South, at the beginning of the Great Depression, without his memory? Months passed, then years. Mr. X remained at the hospital, and the mystery of his identity lingered. For reasons no one could discern, his past was beyond his reach.

Formerly known as the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum, in 1931 the hospital was a warren of overcrowded barracks so decrepit that patients kept getting injured by pieces of plaster that fell from crumbling ceilings. Worse yet, the hospital was a firetrap—its buildings were full of mattresses, linens, and other combustible material. One blaze after another destroyed parts of the facility, necessitating reconstruction.

In 1935, four years after Mr. X’s arrival, the institution moved to a brand-new campus about 15 miles outside Jackson. It was built on the site of a former penal farm and dubbed Whitfield, in honor of the governor—Henry L. Whitfield—who approved the construction. Over the course of several days, patients in Jackson were loaded onto buses in groups. They traveled along Highway 80 before turning onto a long gravel drive lined with young trees and freshly planted flower beds. Some 70 redbrick buildings with white columns were nestled on Whitfield’s green lawns and connected by paved walking paths. A visitor, taking in the manmade lake and the wide porches on the buildings, might have thought the place a summer camp or a university.

Over the previous century, patients in mental hospitals were often written off as subhuman and kept in barbaric conditions; by the 1940s, mental health care began shifting toward new treatment models, some with real potential to help people (psychiatric pharmacology), and some that could only do harm (lobotomy). Mr. X’s time in state care fell between these two eras, at an institution flush with the spirit in which it was built. Whitfield’s superintendent, Dr. Mitchell, designed the campus in line with the latest scientific understanding of psychiatry. The physical environs were intended to be peaceful and pleasing to the eye. Patients attended weekly dances and movie nights. On Sundays, patients and staff alike worshipped in the campus chapel. Orchards, fields, and a dairy farm provided Whitfield’s food. Able-bodied patients sewed overalls in the occupational therapy workshop; others milked cows or repaired fences. Mitchell believed in giving residents the opportunity to contribute to their community, because the dignity of honest work could be a salve to a troubled spirit. It also helped stretch the institution’s meager budget.

For some patients weathering a temporary crisis, the restful environment was all the treatment they needed, and they left after a short stay. For those suffering from more severe or chronic disorders, the hospital offered comfort and stability. The focus of treatment was on easing symptoms and providing structures that kept patients safe.

By all accounts, Mr. X thrived at Whitfield. He worked in the hospital’s greenhouse, tending to plants and flowers, and he revealed a surprising store of botanical knowledge. In his downtime he played cards with other patients and with staff. He had a knack for complicated games like bridge.

Knowing the names of things is semantic knowledge; knowing how to do things is procedural knowledge. These parts of Mr. X’s mental functioning were intact. What was missing were his autobiographical memories. And without them, who was he? A skilled bridge player who couldn’t remember how or when he’d learned the game; a gardener with no recollection of who’d taught him the names of flowers or which varieties grew in his mother’s yard.

Mr. X spent hours in the hospital’s library, reading every newspaper and magazine he could get his hands on. He told his doctors that he was looking for something that might jog his memory, something that felt familiar. Nothing ever did. He spoke with a genteel Southern accent, which suggested that he’d had some education in his life, or at least had grown up among educated people. Those people—his people—could tell Mr. X who he was. But no one came to Whitfield to claim him.

We’re not the only ones who carry our memories. The people around us, who share in our experiences, have their own version of events saved away. And when we tell a story to a loved one, we’re giving them a piece of our lives. We scatter memories like seeds, letting them take root in the people who care enough to listen.

One day in the late 1990s, I sat cross-legged on the cool tile floor of my grandmother’s sunroom in Florida, listening. I had a cheap spiral notebook in my lap where I scribbled down the scraps of memory she shared. My grandmother had always been reticent to talk about her upbringing in Mississippi, but as she spoke, her initial hesitance burned away like a fog dissolving in sunshine.

As she described her childhood, she dwelled for a while on a woman named Ligon Smith Forbes, her aunt on her mother’s side. Ligon—pronounced with a short i and a hard g—died well before I was born, but as my grandmother spoke, a lively, unconventional woman took shape in my mind. “She was a feminist divorcée suffragette journalist alcoholic lesbian rabble-rouser,” my grandmother said, tapping a manicured finger against her ultra-slim cigarette. “You would have loved her!”

Ligon was a tall, striking woman, and by the time she was in her fifties, her lined face had a rosy glow—the complexion of a heavy drinker. She was married briefly, retaining nothing from the union but the title “Mrs.” and a new last name. Ligon worked all her life, and she held a wide variety of jobs. She tried teaching, then managed a stationery and newspaper shop. She dabbled in real estate and in the insurance business. She got into journalism and road-tripped with Eleanor Roosevelt to report on conditions in the rural South for the Emergency Relief Administration. She also started the first advertising agency in Mississippi. Her cofounder was her longtime “companion,” a woman named Earlene White.

“When I was turning 13, Mama let me take the train to visit Aunt Ligon in the city, to celebrate my birthday,” my grandmother told me, her eyes shining at the glamour of it all. The year was 1931, and the city was Jackson—for a girl from a small, dusty town, the state capital was the height of sophistication. She stayed with Ligon and Earlene in their suite at the Robert E. Lee Hotel.

“Of course, they were lovers,” my grandmother said in a casual aside, “but we didn’t talk about things like that back then.”

Her mother—my great-grandmother, Ligon’s sister—had given her five dollars to buy a dress. “Five dollars was a lot of money,” my grandmother said solemnly, as if she could still feel the weight of it in her patent-leather purse. “Ligon took me shopping, and well….” My grandmother shrugged. “Instead of a dress, I came home with my first pair of high heels.” She grinned with the mischief of a rebellious teenager.

“She worked for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans for a while,” my grandmother said of Ligon, narrowing her eyes in concentration. “Wrote for a bunch of newspapers. Sometimes she sent me cuttings, but I don’t think I saved them. Maybe you could look”—at this my grandmother gestured vaguely toward the sky, indicating technology and its mysteries—“find out something about her work.”

I tried, but searching through old newspapers on library microfiche was a formidable task, and the earliest databases for genealogy research, such as Ancestry.com, were just coming online. The notebook where I’d scribbled my grandmother’s memories soon slid to the bottom of a box. It sat there, unopened, and moved as I did, to new homes, half a dozen times over the years.

When I discovered the notebook again, my grandmother had been dead for a decade. But there were her words on the page, transcribed in my ballpoint-scrawled hand. Outlandish stories of feuds with her older brothers, of the small-town telephone operator who eavesdropped on everyone’s conversations, of the house her lumberman father built, hand-picking every board. And memories of her beloved Aunt Ligon.

I took the fragments my grandmother had given me—the Robert E. Lee Hotel, the Times-Picayune, Earlene—and fed them into search engines. There she was: Ligon Smith Forbes. I discovered facts about my aunt’s life that my grandmother hadn’t shared, perhaps hadn’t even known. Ligon filed a patent in 1920. She worked with Near East Relief, famously the first charity to let donors “adopt” a child by supporting them financially from afar. And at the time of the 1940 census, her residence was listed as the Mississippi State Hospital in Whitfield.

At first I thought Ligon had been a patient. Perhaps she was being treated for alcoholism. But no—I soon learned that Whitfield was another career shift. Ligon was hired in July 1938 as the institution’s public relations director. Previously, administrators or the occasional contractor had handled publicity. But someone convinced the hospital that it could use a dedicated staff member to liaise with the press. In all likelihood that someone was Ligon herself. Creating jobs out of whole cloth was one of her specialties.

Ligon moved into the female staff dorm at Whitfield. Her commute to work was a stroll down landscaped paths, first to the dining hall for breakfast at communal tables, then to the cupola-topped administration building. She had a Rolodex full of contacts at regional newspapers and magazines. She had experience writing copy she knew papers would run. Now all she had to do was scour the hospital for story ideas.

Ligon reached out to the Commercial Appeal, a newspaper in Memphis, Tennessee, that had wide circulation in the South. It was always seeking content for its weekly photo supplement, referred to in the newspaper business as rotogravure. Ligon suggested that the paper do a two-page spread on the state-of-the-art mental hospital where she’d recently started working. She said she would travel to Memphis herself and hand-deliver the photographs. The newspaper, presumably eager for an easy way to fill a couple of pages, agreed.

On the day she would board the train for Memphis, Ligon came across a patient file that roused her journalistic instincts. As topics went, it was far meatier than images of Whitfield, however lovely the campus was. It was the sort of thing the public was hungry for. The stuff of radio melodrama and matinee movies. The kind of story a writer stumbles upon only a handful of times, if ever.

She had discovered Mr. X.

During her visit to the Commercial Appeal’s office, Ligon casually mentioned that she might have a lead on a story. There was an elderly man who’d lived at the hospital for more than seven years, a victim of amnesia. He never had visitors. In fact, he didn’t have a name. He was known only as Mr. X. Was the paper interested in an article about him?

Of course it was. The editors told Ligon they’d print whatever she could send them.

When she got back to Mississippi, she set about interviewing Mr. X. As she later told a colleague, “He had on overalls, furnished by the state, but the moment he came into my presence I knew that he was ‘somebody,’ a gentleman of refinement and culture.” She either took photos of him herself or had them taken. They showed Mr. X engaged in various activities: playing cards with one of the hospital attendants, reading in an Adirondack chair, working in the greenhouse. He stood about five feet seven inches and was so slender, his clothes seemed to hang from his shoulders. He had a prominent brow that cast a shadow over his deep-set eyes.

Ligon interviewed various hospital officials about Mr. X’s case. She wrote “cutlines,” or captions, for the photographs of him, based on what she learned. She also obtained a sample of Mr. X’s handwriting. Eventually she bundled all the materials together and sent them off to Memphis.

On Sunday, December 4, 1938, the words “Who Is Mr. X?” were splashed across a page of the Commercial Appeal. “Growing deeper, more impenetrable every year is the baffling mystery of Mississippi’s strange ‘Mr. X,’ the ‘man who lost himself,’” the paper declared. “‘Mr. X’ is lost in the gray haze of amnesia. Seven and a half years of almost constant search and inquiry have failed to reveal even the slightest trace that might lead to his identity.”

This was laying it on a bit thick. Certainly, there had been efforts prior to 1938 to uncover Mr. X’s identity. He underwent hypnosis, for example, to no avail. In 1934, he was driven to the local police station, where he had photographs and fingerprints taken. The police even made a record of his Bertillon measurements, a system of identification based on one’s physical dimensions, such as the length of the middle finger and the circumference of the head. These were filed with federal authorities and sent to police across the South. Various law enforcement officials investigated a flurry of leads, but none of them panned out. After a few months of interest, the case was more or less forgotten.

The Commercial Appeal feature explained how Mr. X had been found in Jackson with no memory of his life before. The captions on the photographs enumerated the few clues to his identity that doctors had been able to glean: His intelligence and rich vocabulary. His familiarity with financial statements. His sophisticated understanding of card games. His extensive knowledge of plants and flowers.

The Appeal also printed the handwriting sample Ligon furnished. On Mississippi State Hospital stationery, Mr. X had written:

While this is a beautiful place, and life here is not without its compensations, and I sincerely appreciate the kindness of Dr. Mitchell and everyone connected with the institution, I would so much like to know if I have friends or family somewhere—and it would indeed be a glorious “Christmas” day for me if I could sign myself something instead of—

                                                                        X—

The article concluded with a simple plea: “Do you know him?”

It was the sort of thing the public was hungry for. The stuff of radio melodrama and matinee movies. The kind of story a writer stumbles upon only a handful of times, if ever.

When I discovered the chapter about Mr. X in Ligon’s life story, I was sucked in by the obvious drama. Amnesia! Mystery! A quest for truth! And at the center of it all, my spirit ancestor. Like me, Ligon had been a writer. She had defied convention. She had built a life for herself outside of the models she was offered. She was everything I aspired to be.

But she was also a mess. For all her accomplishments, Ligon’s life was peppered with dark episodes and grave failures. By the late 1930s, her road-tripping-with-Roosevelt days were behind her. Earlene had moved to Washington, D.C., to work for the government, and though Ligon initially followed her, she soon returned to Mississippi, alone. She lost her father and a sister in quick succession. The advertising business was pinched by the Great Depression, and freelance jobs were hard to find. She went from living in a suite at the Robert E. Lee Hotel to renting a room at her cousin’s shabby boardinghouse. In March 1938, she was arrested for public drunkenness.

My grandmother had told me that Ligon was the type of alcoholic prone to occasional benders lasting weeks. “Then someone would have to go and rescue her,” she said. In the fifty-odd years of her working life, Ligon rarely held a job for more than two. She may merely have been restless, but chances are she was fired a lot. In an archive, I found some correspondence between Ligon and her supervisor in the Federal Writers’ Project. Among story ideas and a draft of an article about a small-town dairy show were letters in which she made excuses for her erratic work hours, apologized for rough copy and missed deadlines, and complained about the requirement of submitting accurate time sheets. She was sick, she had a headache, the heat and exhaustion had her laid up in bed. Reading these letters I cringed, wondering at the truth.

I imagined that the job at Whitfield was a life raft. It wasn’t just a steady paycheck; it came with room and board. Ligon could structure a new life around the role if she wanted. The hospital offered her a chance to regroup, just as it did for patients like Mr. X.

Ligon’s encounter with the mystery man let me think of her as a heroine, the person I needed her to be. It seemed like an instance when she did something truly decent—no excuses, no apologies. Her peripatetic career had prepared her for this moment. She knew the right people and had the right experience. She could do more than promote Mississippi agriculture and Whitfield’s lovely campus. If she succeeded, she could help restore a man’s life.

Soon after the newspaper story about Mr. X was published, someone alerted the national radio program We the People. “And then,” Ligon later told a colleague, “things began to pop.”

We the People was a human-interest variety show hosted by Gabriel Heatter, who later became famous for the catchphrase “There’s good news tonight,” which he used on air during World War II. The show was broadcast from New York over the CBS radio network. Airing at 9 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday nights, the half-hour program had a reputation for hosting oddball characters, minor celebrities, and ordinary Americans with tales of saccharine sentimentality. Now it wanted Mr. X to be a guest.

Ligon arranged for Mr. X and a hospital attendant to make the journey to New York City by train. They stayed at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, near the CBS studios. On Tuesday, January 17, 1939, Heatter introduced the story of Mr. X to a national audience with what Time magazine described as “a foggy sob in his voice.” Radio actors staged a fictional account of Mr. X’s arrival at the state hospital. Here’s how the transcript appears in a 1947 book about radio journalism, entitled News on the Air:

Heatter. On the afternoon of June 25, 1931… to a hospital in Jackson, Mississippi… police brought a well-dressed man who had collapsed on a city street. For weeks he lay in a coma… hovering between life and death. Then one morning the patient regained consciousness, and Dr. Hunt of the hospital staff stood at his bedside… happy to see his patient coming back to life…

Doctor (cheerful). Well… you’re feeling better this morning, aren’t you!

Man (weakly). Yes… doctor.

Doctor. That’s fine… Well, now, the first thing I’d like to know is your name. You see, there was no identification in your clothes. We’d like to get in touch with your relatives. Let them know you’re all right.

Man. My name? Why, yes… it’s… er… (disturbed) Why… I… I…

Doctor. What is it? Is there something wrong?

Man (struggling). Doctor… that’s funny… I… I can’t seem to remember. But… I know where I live. My address is… it’s…

Doctor. Yes?

Man (it hits him). Doctor… I can’t remember that either.

Doctor (concerned). There, there, now take it easy. You’re… you’re sure you can’t remember?

Man (terrified). No… doctor. I can’t remember. But I must know my name! My name is… it’s… it’s… No, doctor, I can’t remember! I can’t remember anything!

After this prologue, Heatter introduced Mr. X and invited him to speak directly to the American people. Based on the show’s reputation for theatrics and the wording of Mr. X’s monologue, it’s unlikely that he was speaking off the cuff. In a quivering voice, he recounted the basics of his situation—that he was found in Jackson and had lived at the state hospital ever since. He also revealed a few new traces of the life he’d once led:

Gradually, I have recalled several places where I have been … but I do not know when or with whom. I remember best Pensacola, Florida. I remember a man there who took me to the Osceola Club. He used to have a special brand of cigars, and I used to joke with him about it. My doctors have checked my description of Pensacola and have decided I was there about thirty years ago. I remember distinctly playing cards with some friends … a druggist and his wife … but I cannot recall their names.

He appealed to the listening public to help him find his family. “I do not want to die nameless and alone,” Mr. X said.

Heatter’s voice concluded the segment with customary mawkishness: “Ladies and gentlemen, if you have any clue to the identity of Mr. X, no matter how insignificant it may seem, We the People asks that you let us know at once—please.”

Almost immediately, the calls and letters began pouring in.

By 1938, the federal unemployment rate had improved since its staggering 24.9 percent peak in 1933, but it was still a dismal 19 percent. And even before the stock market crash, the South had struggled with tumbling prices of commodity crops. Millions of people were unemployed, or were scraping by doing odd jobs and subsistence farming. Men from rural communities went to cities in search of work, only to find that there was none. Vagrants became the subject of much hand-wringing in the editorial pages of Jackson’s Clarion-Ledger—a local judge was quoted as telling some men who appeared before his bench, “If you can’t find work at home, don’t come to Jackson, because if the people who know you can’t find anything for you to do, the people of Jackson certainly cannot.” Other men traveled farther afield, often by train; this was the era of hobos and tramps. Then there were those who simply disappeared—the ones who left home, never to be heard from again. If the calls and letters CBS received after airing the segment about Mr. X were any indicator, these men were legion.

Hope distorted becomes desperation: Even when the years of disappearance didn’t line up or the physical differences were drastic, people contacted CBS to suggest that their missing loved one was Mr. X. Early on, a promising prospect was James Andrew Phillips, a man from Memphis who was last seen in Jackson in 1931. Phillips’s brother boarded Mr. X’s train back from New York while it was stopped in Memphis, and the two men met in a Pullman car. But Mr. X didn’t have Phillips’s prominent scar or the correct shoe size, so the train continued on, and Mr. X returned to Whitfield.

By then, Ligon was hearing from families, too. All told, more than 5,000 letters and telegrams arrived at the hospital in a matter of weeks; Ligon had to deputize staff from other departments to go through them all. Soon there were credible leads, and hopeful wives and heartsick friends began arriving at Whitfield to meet Mr. X. The local papers kept the story front and center, providing updates on leads nearly every day. Could Mr. X be a missing North Carolina optometrist? What about the lumberman from Pennsylvania who’d disappeared on his way to a boxing match in Miami? But one by one, the possibilities were disproved.

Mr. X might have remained a mystery forever were it not for Gratton B. Conwill, a 42-year-old doctor in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Conwill grew up on a farm in a place called Pinetucky and then lived in Birmingham as a young bachelor, working as a pipe fitter before attending medical school. In Birmingham, he befriended an insurance salesman about thirty years his senior. On paper they didn’t have much in common, but the older man had also once lived in Pinetucky; he, too, had grown up on a farm and left to build a career. The men shared a love of cards, particularly bridge. Conwill’s friend had often traveled for work, but at the onset of the Depression he’d lost his job. He moved in with a nephew and his wife, also friends of Conwill’s, and Conwill attended bridge parties at their home. At some point, the man left Birmingham in search of opportunities elsewhere, and Conwill lost track of him.

The night of the We the People broadcast, Conwill was in a hospital bed in Tuscaloosa; the previous week, he and his brother Clyde had been in a car wreck. Conwill thought he recognized the voice crackling through the radio: Mr. X sounded like his old friend the insurance salesman. All the facts lined up, from the timeline of the man’s story to his personal interests. Because he was recuperating, Conwill wasn’t immediately able to get in touch with his friend’s nephew to share his theory. In the interim, Time published an article about the We the People segment and included a picture of Mr. X. When Conwill saw it, his conviction was absolute.

Eventually, Conwill was released from the hospital and contacted the man’s nephew, who hadn’t heard the broadcast or read the articles about Mr. X. Based on Conwill’s information, the nephew got hold of the Time piece and the Commercial Appeal pictorial. He showed them to his aunt, Mrs. J. P. Haley of Marion, Alabama. She immediately recognized Mr. X as her brother, who’d been missing since 1931.

When Mrs. Haley and another brother, Ben Lawrence, arrived at Whitfield for a visit, they seemed like one more family in a parade of hopefuls. Ligon and the doctor in charge of Mr. X’s care sat them down in a reception room and wearily told them not to get their hopes up. But when Mr. X was led into the room, Mrs. Haley burst into tears. Ben Lawrence leaped to his feet. “Will!” they both cried out.

But Mr. X didn’t recognize them.

Mrs. Haley pulled out a family photograph, a group shot of her and seven of her brothers, taken at a family reunion in 1929. She pointed to herself seated in the front row, and to Ben seated to her right. Immediately to her left was a man with a thin, angular face. Mr. X examined the photograph. “That looks like me all right,” he admitted.

It was an extraordinary likeness, that much was clear. There was another piece of information suggesting that the visitors had found their missing loved one: the belt buckle Mr. X was wearing when he was picked up by police in Jackson, the one bearing the letter L. Apparently, it stood for Lawrence.

Still, Mr. X had no recollection of the people who claimed to be his kin. And what good was it to have a name or be reunited with family if he couldn’t remember them?

At that point, Mr. X was given sodium amytal, a strong barbiturate that put him in a kind of twilit, semiconscious state. Doctors at the time considered the drug a truth serum, though this notion has since been discredited. (A person might share information under the drug’s influence, but there’s no guarantee of its veracity—indeed, sodium amytal is a possible means of manipulation if, say, police want to coax a false confession out of a suspect.) While he was sedated, doctors fed Mr. X pieces of information supplied by Mrs. Haley and Ben Lawrence. They thought that, if he heard his mother’s name, his birthdate, the name of his hometown, it might free the decades’ worth of memories that had become trapped in the recesses of his brain. The doctors said they hadn’t been able to try the treatment before, because it relied on Mr. X’s unconscious mind recognizing details from his life—details only loved ones could provide.

The treatment seemed to work. While under the influence of sodium amytal, he recalled various details of his identity, including, finally, his name. Mr. X acknowledged that he was William Henry Lawrence.

His siblings were overjoyed, but Ligon and the doctors braced themselves. They didn’t know how he’d react when he woke up. Would his amnesia return? Or would he pick up where his memory had left off back in 1931, with no memory of the eight intervening years at the hospital? The Whitfield staff had grown fond of Mr. X. They didn’t wish to be forgotten.

Initially, everything was strange to him. But as his delirium faded, he slowly remembered where he was and how he had come to be there. He still wasn’t quite clear on who his siblings were—Ligon later said he didn’t recognize them right away, but that he “kept accepting them a little bit more every few minutes, until finally he was overcome with emotion.”

The man remembered both of his identities: William Henry Lawrence, insurance salesman, and Mr. X, beloved hospital resident. It seemed like a complete cure.

A few days later, Will Lawrence was discharged into the care of his relatives. He went home with his sister, and the following week he appeared on We the People again, this time from a studio in Birmingham. Mrs. Haley joined him, and she recalled the events leading up to her brother’s disappearance. A listener twisting the dial at home might have thought they’d tuned in to a radio play instead of a news program:

My brother Will was a single man, a traveling insurance salesman. He was often away from home for months at a time. On May 24, 1931, he left to go on one of his trips. During the first few months we got several letters. The last one was postmarked Jackson, Mississippi. In it, Will said he was leaving Jackson. He did not say where he was going. We did not hear from him again. At first we didn’t worry, because Will had always been a poor letter writer. But as months passed without a word, our alarm grew…. Will had apparently vanished from the face of the earth. Month after month we prayed, hoped we would hear something, anything that would give us a clue. But after a year and a half, we had to admit what seemed to be the terrible truth: Will was dead. Eight years passed. Time helped to soften our grief… a little.

She went on to describe being told of the first We the People broadcast and seeing the pictures of Mr. X in the media, of rushing to the hospital and being elated when she saw her brother. Then Will Lawrence spoke:

Four weeks ago when I spoke on We the People, I was a lonely unhappy old man. My life stretched ahead of me, a long, weary road. And I believed that broadcast was my last chance to find out who I was. Tonight my happiness is complete.

It was the ultimate feel-good story: a man down on his luck, torn from the warmth of hearth and home, who thanks to the generosity of the American people, the power of the media, and the abiding faith of family and friends, was restored to the warm embrace of his loved ones. It was the version of events people wanted to believe—even if it wasn’t exactly true.

The man remembered both of his identities: William Henry Lawrence, insurance salesman, and Mr. X, beloved hospital resident. It seemed like a complete cure.

As I researched the story of Mr. X, I was struck by the resonances between Will Lawrence’s life and Ligon’s. They were two single people without children making their way in the world. They were both professionals in the urban South, but obliged to rely on their families—brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces—when times were tough. Their paths ran parallel to such a degree that they may well have brushed shoulders before Will lost his memory. His uncle lived in the same small town in Mississippi where Ligon’s mother grew up. Both Ligon and Will sold insurance in Birmingham. And when my grandmother celebrated her 13th birthday with Ligon and Earlene at the Robert E. Lee Hotel in April 1931, they were just a few blocks away from where Will was found one month later.

I decided to write a novel about Mr. X and Ligon, two lonely souls who meet in a mental hospital and change one another’s lives. Whatever rough edges or narrative gaps there were, I used my imagination to patch over them—for example, I had Ligon travel to New York with Mr. X for the radio segment, so she could witness the recording firsthand. I wrote about friendship and healing and finding yourself in the unlikeliest places. Almost a year to the day after I found the notebook where I’d first transcribed my grandmother’s memories, I typed “The end.”

But soon I realized it wasn’t.

My fictional version contained only bits of the truth, and the questions that remained gnawed at me. In the real story, no one seemed to know—or cared to know—why Mr. X lost his memory in the first place, what sickness, accident, or whim of fate had taken it from him. Nor did anyone question the rosy depiction of his family. I pursued the unknowns, the shades of gray, and found that the Lawrences, like all families, were more complicated than they appeared. Beneath the surface lurked a history of tragedy. There was more to come.

The media heralded Mr. X’s reunion with his family as nothing short of a miracle. “What is left of my life I shall spend rich in their love,” Will read from his script on We the People. But that’s not how things turned out for him.

Not at all. 

William Henry Lawrence was born May 24, 1868. He was one of 15 children, 12 of whom survived to adulthood. He was a middle child, with five elder and six younger siblings. His father was a farmer and a physician, and the family moved to Pinetucky when Will was a teenager. His father wrote dispatches about rural life that were published in the newspaper in Marion, the county seat. The lively accounts paint a picture of a large, close-knit family. In between reports on the peanut harvest and the weather are stories of rolling back parlor rugs for an evening of dancing, of grandchildren playing in the summer sun, of teenage boys returning triumphant from hunting trips.

Soon after Dr. Lawrence’s death in 1892, his widow, Louise, and the children who were still at home, including Will, moved to nearby Plantersville. Louise bought a farm, and several of her grown sons helped her run it. The 1900 census shows Louise as head of household and her profession as farmer. Her sons Samuel, Will, Charlie, Oscar, and Benjamin are listed as laborers. Will was 32.

By then the Lawrences had encountered their share of misfortune. In addition to Dr. Lawrence’s passing, Martha, the eldest sibling, had died in 1879, at the age of 25, of what doctors called “womb disease.” She left behind a husband and four children. In 1889, John, one of Will’s brothers, was murdered when he interrupted a burglary at the shop where he worked in Montevallo, Alabama. It was 2:30 in the morning, and John, who was 24, suffered a gunshot through the heart, which killed him instantly. His assailants fled the scene. A group of outraged white citizens searched the area, and two black men were rounded up. Before they could be questioned by authorities, the mob hung them from a tree. The event is known as the Montevallo lynching. A historical marker was installed in 2020 to memorialize the horrific event. It describes what occurred but says little about the victims. “Their names,” the marker reads, “are unknown.”

In 1905, Will’s younger brother Walter was put on trial for the murder of his employer, Harris Beiman. In addition to working in Beiman’s dry goods store, Walter boarded at his house. Walter admitted to shooting Beiman, but he claimed it was an accident. Eyewitnesses, however, recalled the dying man saying to Walter, “You shot me! I know you want to marry my wife!” Walter was found not guilty, and he returned to his position at the store, which Beiman’s widow had taken over. They soon married, and Walter began running the business.

The same year as the murder trial, Will’s younger sister Effie died from an unknown health problem that required several surgeries, the last of which she never recovered from. She was in her early twenties and had been married for only a year. In 1909, Clay Lawrence, the four-year-old son of Will’s brother Dawson, shot and killed his nurse while playing with a parlor rifle. Several more Lawrence siblings lost children or spouses before their time. Fannie, also known as Mrs. J. P. Haley, the woman who eventually identified Will at Whitfield, lost a two-year-old daughter. Sam, the eldest Lawrence brother, became a widower at 41 and never remarried. And a niece, Minnie Thompson, died by suicide in 1922.

When Will went missing in 1931, it may have seemed like just one more dreadful event in the family’s catalog of woe. Still, Fannie told We the People that Will’s relatives had tried everything they could think of to find him. “We notified police and missing persons bureaus,” she said on the air. “Every possible agency joined in the search.”

I considered how this search might have unfolded, logistically speaking. Prior to Will’s disappearance, he was living with George, his nephew, in Birmingham. George’s house, where Gratton B. Conwill played bridge with Will and other friends, was a modest single-story Craftsman bungalow with a poured-concrete porch. George and his wife, Ethel, didn’t have any children; nevertheless, the three-bedroom, 1,800-square-foot house was full—in addition to Will, two other boarders lived there. In April 1930, when a census taker came to the door, Will was unemployed. Sometime between then and May 1931, he decided to leave Birmingham. Reports from family members varied, but he may first have gone to Atlanta and then to Monroe, Louisiana. The last anyone heard from him was a letter he wrote to Ethel in which he said that he was going to Jackson. (On We the People, Fannie said that the letter was postmarked Jackson, and that Will wrote of leaving the city—both errors on Fannie’s part, or whoever wrote the segment’s script.)

If the family had notified the authorities about Will’s disappearance, it would have made sense to start in Jackson. In that case, the city’s police department would have been among the Lawrences’ first calls—the same department that had detained Mr. X and put him in the state hospital, and that eventually took his fingerprints and photographs to file with federal authorities. If those materials were subsequently distributed to police departments across the South, as newspapers later reported that they were, it’s possible they made it to West Palm Beach, Florida, where the sheriff at the time was William Hiram “Hi” Lawrence—Will’s nephew, who was named after him.

Why, then, had Will’s family been unable to find him?

A series of missed connections might explain it. The 1930s were a time of immense national precariousness, with economic conditions breaking families apart and hardship consuming many people’s mental resources. It was also well before the advent of technologies—Google and cell phones, for instance—that today allow the average person to track someone down. Perhaps the Lawrence family spoke to police officers in Jackson who happened to have no knowledge of Mr. X, or had forgotten about him. Maybe Sheriff Hi Lawrence didn’t see the identifying information about Mr. X that circulated among law enforcement. Indeed, it’s possible that outsiders had to get involved for Will Lawrence to be identified—that Ligon Smith Forbes had to put his story in the press, that Gabriel Heatter had to interview him on the radio, that Gratton B. Conwill had to recognize his voice.

But there’s another possibility: that what Fannie said on the radio wasn’t true. What if Will’s family didn’t try very hard to find him, or for very long? What if they didn’t search for him at all?

When Will went missing in 1931, it may have seemed like just one more dreadful event in the family’s catalog of woe.

Amnesia is a complicated thing. Memories are formed and stored across various parts of the brain, but of particular importance is the hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped section situated deep in the temporal lobe. The hippocampus is crucial to the formation of long-term memories. From a physiological perspective, anything that impairs the functioning of this region can affect memory, and the results can be either temporary or permanent. A temporary loss of memory might be caused by a traumatic brain injury, a stroke, or an infection such as encephalitis. As the brain heals, memories are gradually restored, a process that can take weeks or months. If there’s permanent damage, memories can be lost forever.

Diseases that affect memory, such as Alzheimer’s and dementia, are progressive. A person loses cognitive function, including short-term memory, over the course of many years. The effects generally cannot be undone. Similarly, Korsakoff’s syndrome, a memory disorder caused by alcoholism or dietary deficiencies, is chronic and rarely reversible. Like a stroke, Korsakoff’s is usually accompanied by other physical problems, such as diminished motor skills.

None of these causes of amnesia seem to fit Mr. X’s profile. From the moment he was found on the street in Jackson, he was able to form new memories and retrieve them without difficulty. He showed no signs of poor health. His memory loss didn’t worsen while at Whitfield.

Memory problems can also be psychological in origin. A stressful event can trigger what’s called a dissociative fugue. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, the catalog of mental disorders used by psychiatric professionals, describes the phenomenon as “apparently purposeful travel or bewildered wandering that is associated with amnesia for identity or for other important autobiographical information.” But a fugue is usually a temporary problem, with the afflicted spontaneously “coming to” and finding themselves away from home, with no memory of how they got there.

The DSM-5 characterizes loss of autobiographical memory as “dissociative amnesia.” This is almost always localized—a person blocks memories from a certain period of time, usually triggered by psychological trauma. Generalized dissociative amnesia of the type Mr. X exhibited, encompassing a total loss of autobiographical memory, is extremely rare.

I spoke with Sonja Blum, the director of memory disorders and cognitive neurology at Marshfield Clinic Health System in Wisconsin. I described Mr. X’s case and asked how many like it that Blum had come across. She said that in twenty years of working in her field, she hadn’t seen or heard of one. She reiterated, for emphasis: “Never.”*

I contacted as many descendants of Will’s brothers and sisters as I could find, and a handful responded. Several of them, avid genealogists like myself, had come across newspaper clippings about Will’s amnesia, but they didn’t have any information besides what was on the internet. Only one remembered hearing stories of her Uncle Will as she was growing up. “I wondered if his amnesia might have been a fake,” she said, “and he was hiding from someone.”

This was an angle I hadn’t considered, that Will had disappeared on purpose. But the idea that he hid in the Mississippi State Hospital to evade someone conflicts with known facts—namely, Will letting law enforcement take his fingerprints and photograph, and his willing participation in the publicity campaign that led to his identification.

Still, that didn’t mean he wasn’t faking. There are other reasons a person might want to abandon their identity and live as though their memories didn’t exist.

Generalized dissociative amnesia of the type Mr. X exhibited, encompassing a total loss of autobiographical memory, is extremely rare.

In April 1939, two months after he was released into the care of his family, Mr. X returned to Whitfield for a visit. He said that he was homesick. He spent the day puttering around the greenhouse, playing cards with his old friends, and visiting the library. He met with Dr. Mitchell, the superintendent, and expressed his gratitude for the treatment he had received during his years at the hospital. “We certainly do miss you around here,” Dr. Mitchell reportedly told him. “But we are glad for your sake that you found your relatives.”

A month later, Will returned to the hospital for his 71st birthday. Since the date of his birth hadn’t been known before, it was the first time he was able to celebrate with his friends at Whitfield. Patients and staff, including Ligon, threw him a party. There was a dance, and the band played “Happy Birthday.” His family didn’t attend.

Decades later, I wanted to see the place that had meant so much to Mr. X. Though mental health paradigms have shifted away from institutionalization, the Mississippi State Hospital is still in operation. Its mission, according to its website, is “to help the individuals we serve achieve mental wellness by encouraging HOPE, promoting SAFETY, and supporting RECOVERY while utilizing RESOURCES efficiently.”

When I visited, a member of the staff kindly gave me a tour. The lobby of the administration building is grand and imposing, with a marble-inlaid floor, intricate crown moldings, and wooden cubbyholes—once the campus post office—nestled in a corner. In the basement of one building is a small museum chronicling Whitfield’s history. Group photos of employees line the walls. I searched for Ligon, but the faces were too small for me to identify her. I found her elsewhere: The rotogravure from the Commercial Appeal, the one about Whitfield that the paper published before it ran the story about Mr. X, was hanging in a frame. The headline read “Mending Broken Minds in Mississippi’s Modern Hospital.”

I wondered if that was what happened with Mr. X—if he was broken by the world and mended at Whitfield. Maybe he was hiding, but not from an enemy. Perhaps he was hiding from himself.

Here’s a theory.

What if, back in 1931, something happened to Will Lawrence that temporarily severed his connection to his past and his sense of self? A small stroke or a case of viral meningitis. A head injury. A dissociative fugue or memory loss from heavy drinking. Whatever happened, when he was found wandering Jackson, he either didn’t know who he was or didn’t want to say.

What if, as he recovered, he kept his memories to himself? Perhaps he felt no motivation to go back to his old life—unemployed and alone, with a family prone to calamity that couldn’t find him or possibly wasn’t trying. At Whitfield, life was pretty fine. He had friends, hobbies, meals, and medical care. As America staggered under the weight of economic catastrophe, he felt safe and loved. He might have felt he was better off as Mr. X.

If so, he remained exactly who he’d chosen to be until Ligon came along, eager to share his story. At that point, perhaps being the center of so much attention was worth the risk of being found. Besides, if his family showed up, Mr. X could always claim he didn’t know them. Surely Whitfield wouldn’t force him to leave with people he thought were strangers.

I put the question to Blum, the memory expert: Could Mr. X have been faking? “Sure,” she said. “Right up until the sodium amytal.” If he’d pretended not to recognize his relatives at first, Mr. X wouldn’t have been able to keep up the ruse when the drug altered his mental state and relaxed his inhibitions. After the sedation wore off, the jig would’ve been up. He’d have been Will Lawrence again, facing the brother and sister who’d finally come for him. He couldn’t have pretended to be a bewildered old man.

Whether he was faking or not, losing his place in the Whitfield community—going from permanent fixture to occasional guest—was surely a blow. Perhaps he wished to weave his two identities together, to be both Mr. X and Will Lawrence, but couldn’t find a way.

On my visit to Whitfield, I stood in the greenhouse and imagined him there, with his cuttings and flower pots. The space was overgrown and in disrepair. In fact, most of the buildings on the hospital’s campus had been decommissioned. Whitfield served only a few hundred patients now.

Will Lawrence couldn’t go back, and neither could I. The place he loved wasn’t there anymore.

As America staggered under the weight of economic catastrophe, he felt safe and loved. He might have felt he was better off as Mr. X.

In the end, Ligon was forced to leave Whitfield behind, too. Over the superintendent’s protests, in 1940, the new governor of Mississippi replaced a number of hospital personnel with appointees. Ligon moved in with the family of her sister Kitty, my great-grandmother, in a small town. She worked for the Federal Writers’ Project for a time, reporting on agricultural fairs and the local Choctaw community. Eventually, she wound up in Mobile, Alabama.

She died there in January 1949, of kidney failure. Her death certificate contains so many errors that it’s clear no one in Mobile knew her well. Her remains were transported home by train—just like Will Lawrence’s were a few months later.

After his 71st birthday party, the threads of Will’s life become hard to follow. At the time of the 1940 census, he was living with his brother Oscar. His employment status was “unable to work.” In February 1947, he was listed in his brother Walter’s obituary as a surviving sibling. But in September 1948, when his brother Sam died, Will wasn’t listed. Fannie later said that the family lost track of him. When they found him again, it was only thanks to his fingerprints.

It’s impossible to know what brought Will to Baton Rouge—the promise of work? a friend’s invitation? aimless itinerancy?—but that’s where he was in May 1949, when he was struck by a freight train. It happened on the railroad tracks that hug the eastern bank of the Mississippi River in the city’s downtown. The train was reportedly moving slowly, as trains do when passing through population centers. Will was decapitated.

Police were unable to identify him at first. No documents were found on his body. “I don’t want to die nameless and alone”—that was what Mr. X had said on the radio in 1939. It might have happened if police hadn’t taken time to check his fingerprints, found a match on file from his time at Whitfield, and notified his family in Alabama.

More than 70 years later, I stood on the tracks in Baton Rouge on a bright May day, trying to picture the scene as Will would have seen it. The casino just up the riverbank wouldn’t have been there, but the state capitol would; completed in 1931, the gleaming limestone tower is located close to the tracks. If Will had joined the ranks of unemployed men traveling by freight train, this would have been an odd place to jump out of a car or try to board one. The proximity to the capitol meant that police were likely in the area, and homeless men were easy targets for harassment.

Other questions fleeted through my mind: Why didn’t Will get out of the way? Surely he sensed the train coming—the thunderous sound, the ground trembling beneath his feet. Even at a crawl, a locomotive is a mighty force. But also: How does a slow-moving train decapitate someone, unless they’re already lying on the ground? Maybe Will fell on the tracks, hit his head, couldn’t get up. A tragic accident.

Unless.

Unless the train did exactly what he wanted it to.

Why didn’t Will get out of the way? Surely he sensed the train coming—the thunderous sound, the ground trembling beneath his feet.

Death is where the parallels in Will’s and Ligon’s stories—what inspired me to write about them in the first place—diverge most sharply. Not because of how they died, but because of how they were remembered.

Ligon’s family came from all over Mississippi for her funeral. The pallbearers were direct relations: nephews and cousins. She was buried in Roseland Park Cemetery, in Hattiesburg, next to her sister and her father. Today their headstones sit under a sprawling oak tree: polished stone carved with capital letters in the same crisp serifed font. Stories of Ligon’s life became her legacy, kept her vibrant.

Will was laid to rest in a place called Plantersville, located in the rolling landscape between Birmingham and Selma, where farmland is fringed with longleaf pine, cedar, and hickory trees. Plantersville is scarcely a town; a mini-mart, a high school, and a couple of churches are the only evidence you’ve arrived. The cemetery sits next to a field of grazing cows.

I almost missed Will’s headstone. It was made of concrete and looked like a piece of broken curbstone or a cast-off block. The surface had deteriorated over the years, blurring the letters “W H Lawrence.” The death date was an estimate, but likely accurate—authorities were sure of the day Will’s body was found, and that he hadn’t been dead long. More unsettling was the birth date. I knew when Will was born from various historical documents, including the press write-up about his birthday celebration at Whitfield. But the stone said May 27, 1873. Whoever commissioned it was off by five years and three days.

Nearby cows raised their heads at my presence, then lowered them again. It was a beautiful day, and quiet. I stood in the stillness, irrationally angry at the error before me, chiseled into stone. Didn’t anyone love him enough to remember the basic facts of his life?

Perhaps Will’s full story isn’t mine—or anyone’s—to know. Not now, ninety years after he first appeared on a street in Jackson. Maybe it was never knowable, because he didn’t want it to be. Like a mathematical function that tends toward a limit, it’s possible to approach the truth, but never to touch it.

Still.

Awareness of what we can’t see is a kind of knowledge—a sense of the space between what we comprehend and never will, between the facts of history and the fiction of it, between verity and meaning. And when we are gone, who are we except the knowledge of us that other people hold? We are seeds of memory, to be scattered and nourished, lest we be lost forever.

My grandmother entrusted me with her memories of her aunt, and for years they lay neglected in a spiral notebook. When I finally tended them, I revived not only my grandmother and Ligon, but also a stranger buried in Plantersville, Alabama. With time and attention, he unfurled, becoming familiar. So, too, did his shadows.

I knelt in the patchy grass of the cemetery and laid my palm on the rough face of the headstone. I paid my respects. Then I left Mr. X to his rest in the Alabama sunshine, carrying his memory with me.

*The language in this paragraph has been updated to more accurately reflect Blum’s assessment of the case.


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