Clara Josephine Coffin of East Orange, New Jersey had been agitated all day, her mother said. So when the 17-year-old daughter of Edward W. Coffin, an executive with Standard Oil and securities trader said she was going to a friend’s house to study, Mrs. Coffin told her that she should. It might help lighten her spirits. So Clara left her home at 55 Burnett Street to head to the home of Jessie Houston, a neighbor. But when Clara failed to return home that evening, Mr. and Mrs. Coffin spoke to Jessie Houston – Clara had not gone there, and in fact, she hadn’t seen her since earlier that afternoon.
The police began an investigation, discovering that Clara took $12 with her when she left (approximately $250 in 2016). Speaking further with Houston, they determined that Clara was in all respects a quite lackadaisical student with average grades, excelling in no particular subject with no boyfriend and mildly athletic. She was considered somewhat of “a plodder” by her teachers at East Orange High School. She was in her senior year at East Orange and was hoping to attend Bryn Mawr, where her sister was a student, but other than that had no real ambitions.
No real progress was made, however for a few days. Clara seemed a very average student, no ransom demands were made, and no leads presented themselves. On November 7, Joseph Crowe, postmaster of Omaha, Nebraska, contacted Mr. Coffin. Crowe, the husband of Clara’s cousin Hazel, said that Clara had appeared at their home. The two cousins had met at a family function in Newcastle, Indiana in 1902 and had since corresponded. The possibility that Clara had run off to stay with the Crowes had occurred to the Coffins but was deemed unlikely since they didn’t think she had enough money.
So the story seems an open-and-shut case of a senior who got cold feet about their future and ran away to decompress and relax. But such was not to be.
For the past month, Clara claimed, she had seen a mysterious woman loitering around the high school. On November 3, she was approached by this woman, who had “piercing black eyes,” and was mesmerized. Under the influence of hypnosis, she went home, packed clothing and money, and left to meet the mysterious woman at a prearranged place. When she got there, the woman was in the company of a mysterious man. Clara and these two took a journey to Newark, New Jersey, and thence to New York City. From New York they boarded a train bound for Chicago. Where they were bound for after that Clara didn’t know, but somewhere around Cedar Rapids, Iowa she broke from her hypnotic spell and escaped the train. She telegrammed Joseph Crowe, and he took her to his home, where she was bedridden in a state of “nervous prostration.”
Her friends from East Orange and her family doubted the story. A maid at the Coffins’ home was quoted by the New York World as having said that, in her opinion, “Clara just got tired and went away.” She also disputed the claim that Clara had only $12 with her. “To tell the truth, Mrs. Coffin doesn’t know how much money Clara took. There’s always money lying around the house.” But the Coffins never got to really question Clara about the “woman with awful eyes,” since, as her father said, “whenever the subject was broached it affected my daughter and injured her condition.”
After this, however, the story vanishes from the press and I’m not certain whether there was ever any real conclusion. Was Clara indeed making her cross-country journey under the influence of some “woman with awful eyes”? Or was she merely another teenager who ran away from home to escape the stresses of her life?
Update (2/16/2017): In 1910, Clara was engaged to Dr. Selskar M. Gunn, an English microbiologist and later employee of the Rockefeller Foundation. The two married in 1911.
- “Clara Coffin’s Story Doubted,” New York World, November 7, 1903.
- “Clara Coffin Coming Home,” New York Times, November 13, 1903.
- “Girl Hypnotized,” Maysville (KY) Evening Bulletin, November 7, 1903.
- “Girl Tells Queer Story,” New York Times, November 7, 1903.
- “Gunn’s Early Years in America,” http://socrates.litsios.org/site/the-life-of-selskar-gunn/gunns-early-years-in-america/.
- “Miss Coffin Tells Mysterious Story of Abduction,” St. Louis Republic, November 7, 1903.
- “Oil Magnate’s Daughter Lost,” New York World, November 4, 1903.
- The Technology Review Vol. 12. Boston: Alumni Association of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1910.