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This story was completely unexpected, involving a McLaughlin whose name was missing from most lists of family members. I found it accidentally while looking on a truly remarkable website, www.fultonhistory.com, for stories about a different William McLaughlin.

This is one of several fascinating tales I have found on the pages of old newspapers in an era when reporters freely exercised dramatic license to add flair to stories that often were short on facts, long on unanswered questions and read like dime store novels. Yet I have no doubt this story is essentially true. Unfortunately, I have found no subsequent story that might have filled the many holes that exist in the newspaper account that follows.

Syracuse Post-Standard, February 23, 1910
William McLaughlin, who disappeared nineteen years ago, when he was foreman of the Glenside Woolen Mills at Glenside, four miles from Skaneateles village, was found recently by his brother, James McLaughlin, at Gold, a hamlet in the heart of the Allegheny Mountains in Pennsylvania. McLaughlin left Skaneateles yesterday after a visit with his brothers to live in Fulton.

The story of McLaughlin’s disappearance while heartbroken over the deaths of his children, his loss of memory after leaving Skaneateles, his wanderings and seclusion for many years on the highest range of the Allegheny mountains and the long search by his brother, which was finally successful, is the principal topic of conversation in Skaneateles.

Most of the village residents remembered the man’s disappearance. From time to time persons came back from trips in this country and abroad with stories of having seen William McLaughlin. The stories were all investigated by James McLaughlin, who was determined to find his brother. All of them proved without foundation.

This did not discourage him. He enlisted the postal authorities in his aid, and it was finally through the postmaster of the little town in Pennsylvania that the man was located.

The McLaughlin family is one of the wealthiest and best known in Skaneateles. They own the Glenside Woolen Mills that employs hundreds of men, a teasel factory in the village and a similar factory in Leeds, England.

William McLaughlin was 30 years old and had four children. The family occupied one of the beautiful residences of Skaneateles in 1891. He was an expert mechanic and had been in charge of the woolen mills owned by his father, James McLaughlin Sr., for three years. Late in that year, his oldest child was stricken with diphtheria. She died after the other babies had contracted the disease. The deaths of the boy and girl followed, and finally the youngest, Arthur, 3 years old, who used to toddle down every noon to the factory to walk home with his father, was laid in a grave beside the others in the village cemetery.

Mrs. McLaughlin awoke one morning after the funeral of her last child to find her husband gone. A search for him was begun in the village. This was unsuccessful and finally his picture and description were sent out to every police headquarters in the United States and Canada.

After a few months had passed and nothing had been heard from the missing man, James began his long search. He traveled all over the country, asking at every city the police, postmaster, anybody who would be likely to know if they had seen or ever met a man of the name of William McLaughlin who answered the description he gave them. The answer was invariably no.

He went to England where most of the relatives of the family live and where the principal property of the family, the Leeds factory, is located. It was his idea that possibly the missing brother in a fit of mental aberration, had crossed the ocean and gone back to his old home. His investigation was as fruitless there as it had been in this country. Despite all these failures, the Skaneateles man never gave up hope and always said he was sure that some day the news would come to him that the wanderer had been found.

The word came to him a little over two weeks ago. It was on a postal from Henry Everett, postmaster at Gold, Potter county, Pa. It said there was a mechanic and carpenter living in the hamlet who answered the description of the missing man. James McLaughlin packed his trunks at once and accompanied by his wife went to Gold. There a joyful reunion took place. The brother consented to return to his old home and told them the story of his wanderings. These may never been known because James McLaughlin will say nothing about them, neither will his brother. All the former will say is:

"The story of William McLaughlin’s absence from home for 19 years rivals fiction.”

The village residents have learned, however, that the former mill former had many adventures and that he had traveled and had been seen in many parts of the country with his memory gone and the past an absolute blank to him before fate brought him to the part of the Alleghenies that is called “The roof of the world.” Here he became another “Charley Steele” for in Gold, which has a population of 200 people, he got work as a carpenter. He worked there for 15 years, but no one ever learned his past. The man’s memory came back to him, but he decided that it would be best to let the folks at home think he was dead because he thought his return would do no good.

His brother convinced him of the mistake and when the three arrived in Skaneateles two weeks ago there was a hearty greeting for William McLaughlin from his old friends. His wife was waiting for him, too. Their meeting was one of the affecting scenes of his return. They are now living together again at No. 213 West Second street, Fulton.

 

This strange tale became even stranger, in my mind, at least, when I came across William McLaughlin's obituary in the Syracuse Journal of Friday, October 23, 1914:

McLaughlin Buried at Skaneateles
The funeral of William McLaughlin, aged 61, formerly of Skaneateles, but recently of Fulton, who died yesterday at the Hornell Hospital at Hornell, where he was engaged in the contracting business, will be held from the undertaking parlors of Meagher & Mooney at Skaneateles at a time to be announced later.

Mr. McLaughlin had been ill three weeks. Besides his widow, Mrs. Anna Conroy McLaughlin of Fulton, he leaves two sons, William and James, and four brothers – John and Cornelius of Skaneateles, Dennis of this city [Syracuse] and Hugh McLaughlin of Missouri.

 

What jumps out is that William McLaughlin and his wife, Anna Conroy, had other children, two of whom are mentioned in the obituary, though they were (I think) conspicuously absent in the 1910 story about their father's return.

In all, William and Ann McLaughlin had seven children. Whether Mrs. McLaughlin was pregnant with the seventh child when her husband disappeared is an unanswered question. But for sure son James and a daughter, Genevieve, were alive when their father left. Son William supposedly was born in 1891, the year his father left. Perhaps his wife's pregnancy hadn't yet been discovered. Still, the couple had at least two children at home when William McLaughlin deserted his family.

As far as I can tell, their four children who died were all daughters – Ellen, Mary, Louise and Sara. (Genevieve would die at age 19 in 1907, three years before her father's return.)

The 1910 newspaper article says William and Ann McLaughlin also lost a boy named Arthur, but the only Arthur McLaughlin I have found so far with Skaneateles connections was William's nephew, the son of Dennis McLaughlin. It's possible William also had a son named Arthur who died at the age of three, but his name is not listed among those buried in the family plot.

Another slight complication: daughter Genevieve was three years old in 1891. So unless Genevieve and Arthur were twins ...

Contrary to what was reported in the newspaper article, it's extremely unlikely that Mrs. James McLaughlin Jr. accompanied her husband to Pennsylvania to find the missing brother. By 1910, James McLaughlin Jr. and his wife, the former Mary Jane O'Neil, had been separated for many years. She, in fact, had been declared incompetent and was subject of a long, unpleasant legal battle over the terms of a separation agreement her husband had signed.

The idea attributed to James McLaughlin Jr. in the 1910 article that his brother might have gone to England also seems incredibly far-fetched. The Skaneateles Press seemed to mention the comings and goings of every resident in the late 1800s; I've seen nothing about William McLaughlin traveling to England on company business, though others in the family made the trip a few times.

Also, I can't help but wonder how William's wife and sons felt. They had moved from Skaneateles to Fulton before 1900. At that point, Mrs. McLaughlin and everyone who knew her (with the possible exception of her brother-in-law James) considered her a widow. She apparently lived an active, independent life afterward, which makes me think her reunion with her long-lost husband was awkward and strained, to say the least. Their reunion in Fulton lasted four years before William McLaughlin died.

— JACK MAJOR

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