Sometimes the archives just aren’t enough. As I research my new book, I’m working this week in the archives of beautiful Gordon College just north of Boston. As is usual in this sort of primary archival research, I’m stumbling across mysteries that I just can’t figure out.
Some of them are curious, but fairly predictable. For example, as was the norm with this sort of conservative evangelical school, parents complained when they heard rumors of student hijinx. Whenever there was a whiff of unchaperoned boy-girl time, parents grew alarmed.
One mother wrote the school’s president in the mid-1960s. This parent was worried about the moral state of Gordon College. Her daughter’s dorm, she complained, had been “raided” by boys. The details of the “raid” were extremely hazy, which makes me think there was some sort of hanky-panky going on. All I can tell from the archival record is that the raiders climbed in through a bathroom window, left “obscene signs,” and did not respect the girls’ repeated disinvitations. At least, that’s what the girl told her mother.
The scanty correspondence leaves many key questions unanswered. What were the “obscene signs?” Were the boys really so unwelcome? How, for instance, would a boy just happen to notice that one particular bathroom window would be unlocked? Didn’t the “raiders” need some inside help?
There’s no way to find out from the archives. All the writers mentioned the “obscene signs,” but decorum prevented them from giving a detailed description. And no administrator suggested even a hint of doubt to the girl’s mother that these boys had been assisted or even encouraged to make their “raid.” No whisper of doubt sullied the stalwart moral righteousness of the girls.
All these questions are tricky, but not utterly confounding. We will never know exactly what transpired in this case, but we can make reasonable guesses that connections between boys and girls went on outside the supervisory gaze of parents and school administrators. It can be tricky to nail down the details from the sketchy and overly polite archival record, but we can distill the basic contours of student life.
Every once in a while, though, I come across a true oddball artifact. One that goes beyond this sort of archival mystery. In 1969, a guy from Pennsylvania wrote to the president of Gordon College with a truly bizarre request. I’ll leave out the guy’s name and address to be polite, but I can’t leave out the rest of his puzzling letter. “I am writing this,” our strange correspondent opened,
in request of your help in locating a girl that I beleive [sic] may be at your college.
I do not know her name. All I can tell you about her is that she has two mechanical hands, an artificial leg, brown hair, and, except for the mentioned physical detractions, she is quite attractive. I have reason to beleive [sic again] she lives in Cleveland, Ohio, or further west.
The information I need is her name, address, and if possible, her picture for positive identification. I will pay for any valid information leading to her.
For personal reasons, I cannot tell why I need this information, but I can assure you that there is absolutely no intention of harm for her or anyone concerning her.
I would appreciate it if you would answer my letter if you do or do not have her. I am presently writing to seventy-one other colleges and would like to be able to check yours off my list.
If you do have this girl, please do not let this get around, for I feel that she would be deeply hurt if it did, which is something I do not want.
What was going on here? The questions pile up the more we try to knock them down. If the girl was in Cleveland, why was he writing to a school in Boston? What happened to the girl to make her lose her hands and leg? Was the writer in love with her? Or, despite his protestations, did he have some nefarious purpose in mind? Of course, we can’t ignore the obvious explanation that this is all some sort of kooky joke…but to what end?
To their credit, the leaders of Gordon College did not offer any help to this woebegone writer. I think they were just as puzzled as I am. Someone at Gordon took a moment to write a single elegant question mark at the top of the page. That says it all: ?