The Man Who Forgot Himself: How Presumed-Dead Lawrence Bader Invented a New Life

AlexLinch/iStock via Getty Images
AlexLinch/iStock via Getty Images

Suzanne Peika could not quite believe what she was seeing. It was February 2, 1965, and Peika was standing in front of an archery booth at a sporting goods convention in Chicago. A man with brown hair, a thin mustache, and an eyepatch was holding court for retailers. Aside from the patch and the facial hair, he looked exactly like her uncle Lawrence Bader.

There was just one problem: Her uncle was supposed to be dead.

In 1957, Coast Guard authorities had discovered Bader's rented boat washed ashore on Lake Erie after a storm. There was no sign of Bader, and no clues as to what had happened to him. Bader’s wife, Mary Lou, was effectively widowed, and his four children were left without a father. Eventually, he was declared legally dead.

Now, nearly eight years later, Peika had been summoned by a man from Akron, who told her to rush over to the sports convention. He had seen something there she would not believe.

After staring at a man who was almost certainly her uncle, she approached the booth. "Aren't you my Uncle Larry?" she asked.

The man laughed and seemed confused. No, he was not anyone’s Uncle Larry. His name was John Johnson, though he went by the nickname “Fritz.” He lived in Omaha, Nebraska, where he was a sports director for a local television station. He was polite but firm. It was nothing more, he said, than a misunderstanding.

Peika rushed to a phone and called her family. Lawrence’s two brothers jumped on a plane from Ohio to Chicago, where Johnson was again confronted. No, he said. He was not their brother, this man named Larry Joseph Bader, who had disappeared in 1957. Finally, he agreed to accompany them to a police station to be fingerprinted. The brothers explained that Bader had been in the Navy and his fingerprints would be on file. That would settle the matter once and for all.

The next day, they all received a call from police. The fingerprints matched: The man known as Fritz was Lawrence Bader. After disappearing during a storm on on Lake Erie, he wound up over 700 miles away, with a new job, a new face, a new wife, new children, and a completely different set of memories about the first 30 years of his life.

 

Bader was born December 2, 1926, in Akron, Ohio. His father, Stephen, was a dentist, and Bader considered following him into the practice. After a stint in the Navy from 1944 to 1946, Bader enrolled at the University of Akron, but his grades were mediocre, and he flunked out after just one semester. During his brief enrollment, Bader met Mary Lou Knapp, and the two were married on April 19, 1952.

To support their growing brood of children, Bader took on a job as a cookware salesman for Lifetime Distributors. Though he was an affable man and well-liked by colleagues and clients, the earning potential of the job was limited. He carried debts and fell behind on his taxes. It was later estimated that Bader failed to file tax returns from 1951 to 1957.

A wooden oar is pictured in the water
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On May 15, 1957, Bader announced to Mary Lou that he needed to drive to Cleveland on business. Afterward, he planned on going fishing and would be late. Mary Lou, pregnant with their fourth child, suggested that he might want to come directly home instead.

“Maybe I will and maybe I won’t,” Bader said, and left.

Bader did drive to Cleveland. He also cashed a check for $400 and paid some outstanding bills, including an installment premium for his life insurance policy. Then he headed for Eddie’s Boat House, a boat rental operation on the Rocky River, which empties into Lake Erie. It was late afternoon, and the proprietor, a man named Lawrence Cotleur, warned him that a storm was coming. Bader seemed unconcerned. He paid a $15 deposit and asked for the boat to be equipped with lights. When Cotleur told him it wouldn’t get dark for hours, he insisted. Cotleur noticed he was carrying a suitcase.

Bader went out on the motorboat, which was also equipped with oars, and began making his way along the water. The Coast Guard spotted him and reiterated Cotleur’s warning, advising him it wouldn’t be safe when the storm hit.

That was almost certainly the last time anyone interacted with a man answering to the name Lawrence Bader.

The next morning, the boat was found washed up on shore at Perkins Beach in Lakewood, more than five miles away from Eddie’s Boat House. One of the propellers on the motor was bent and the hull was scratched, but there was no sign the boat itself had capsized or had tipped over. A single oar was missing. The life jackets were accounted for. The gas can was empty. Bader and his suitcase were nowhere to be found.

The Coast Guard made a thorough search of the water but discovered nothing. It was impossible, they said, to survive the choppy current without a life jacket, and certainly not for hours at a stretch. After two months, law enforcement had little choice but to effectively give up hope Bader would ever be found, alive or dead.

Obviously, no one thought to look in Omaha.

 

It was between three and five days later, depending on the account, when a man named John Johnson materialized at a restaurant and bar named Ross’s Steak House in Omaha. He was there looking for a bartending job, a drink guide stuffed under his arm. He carried a suitcase and a heavy canvas bag along with a Navy-issued driver’s license. He explained to his would-be employer, Mike Chiodo, that he had just gotten out of the Navy after a 14-year stretch. A bad back had led to his discharge, and he decided to travel the country a little. He was staying at the Farnam Hotel near the bus station. He’d be a good hire, he told Chiodo, because he used to tend bar at clubs in the service.

He got the job and was soon holding court among the regulars. When people remarked on his unusual name, he said he was originally reared at an orphanage in Boston. Of the 22 babies found on doorsteps, they were given the same generic name but a different nickname. His was Fritz, he explained, because he reminded people of a character in the Katzenjammer Kids comic strip popular in the 1920s and 1930s. Sometimes, that story would change, and he would say the nickname came from a short haircut he got in the service that made him look like a German soldier.

Two glasses filled with ice are pictured
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He insisted on being called Fritz and used his full name infrequently. Checks were signed Fritz. He had his bills made out to Fritz. He also had the curious habit of dating his checks by season, not month, day, and year. If a bill came due in July, he would write “summer” on it.

Yet no one seemed to think he was unusual at all. They found Fritz to be a joy to be around, and Fritz found joy in virtually everything. He was a determined bachelor who went out on frequent dates, sometimes playfully showing up in an old hearse that had a place to lounge in the back. He listened to classical music and proved to be adept at archery, winning several regional championships. It was a life, one Akron resident later said, that would never have been welcome in a more conservative town like the one back in Ohio.

He also had ambitions beyond bartending. After his shift and late at night, he would visit local radio station KBON to use the recording equipment and practice his broadcasting skills. In 1959, he was hired by the station and became something of a local celebrity. Fritz was game for stunts like sitting in a box on top of a 50-foot flagpole to raise money and awareness for polio. He didn’t come down for 15 days, an endurance challenge that added to his local legend.

Around 1961, he met and married a former model named Nancy Zimmer. Nancy had been married once before and had a daughter. Soon, they’d welcome a son and he would begin a prosperous career on KETV, a local television affiliate.

Between his social life, marriage, and career, Fritz was very much alive. Back in Akron, Lawrence Joseph Bader had been declared legally dead.

 

When he was discovered by his niece in 1965, Fritz was a broadcaster working part-time as an advisor for archery companies. The eyepatch was from the excision of a malignant tumor, which had taken his eye in 1964. Now cornered by his family, the new life he had built for himself began to crumble.

Though he insisted he had no memory of being Bader, whom he called “that other fellow,” his reappearance led to a number of legal and ethical quandaries. There were the insurance policies worth roughly $40,000, which had been paid out to Mary Lou and which now seemed to be null and void. Social Security payments sent to Mary Lou and calculated based on his demise would have to be addressed. Even Cotleur, the boat house owner, was looking for restitution. Bader had left behind a damaged rental that needed replacement. “He owes us a boat,” Cotleur said.

There was also the matter of the marriage. Because Bader was alive, he was still legally married to Mary Lou and could be considered a bigamist. At minimum, he had a financial responsibility to the family he had left behind in Akron. Fritz hired a lawyer, Harry Farnham, who recommended he undergo a battery of psychological testing at an area hospital. After several days of intense evaluation, doctors could not say he was willfully deceiving anyone. It truly appeared as though he had no recollection of ever being Lawrence Bader.

“I am John (Fritz) Johnson and I have never heard of this Bader man until this matter came up,” he told the Akron Beacon Journal. He seemed more bemused than upset by the situation, admitting that, yes, he did look like Bader and that both shared a love of archery. Beyond that, he didn’t care to explore his memories with anyone, citing doctors who told him that examining his past could be psychologically damaging.

A white mask is pictured
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“My God, don’t you understand?” he told a reporter. “All of a sudden, I find out that 30 years of my life never happened. You see, I really do have 30 years of memory as Fritz Johnson. What am I supposed to do with those 30 years? Throw them out the door?”

For a time, the situation seemed precarious. If it could be proven Bader committed fraud, he was looking at legal consequences. But no one could prove that. Instead, his lawyer argued the surgery to remove a cancerous lesion may have affected his memory. Perhaps he once knew why Bader disappeared and Fritz appeared, but there was little hope of finding answers now.

Struck by the peculiar nature of their employee’s double life, KETV terminated him. Nancy left him, their marriage essentially erased in light of the fact that he was already married. She seemed bewildered. "I just don't know what to think," she told a reporter.

Quickly, Fritz found himself back to work as a bartender, earning $100 a week. Of that, $50 went to Mary Lou for child support and $20 went to Nancy. He was left with $30 and moved into an Omaha YMCA.

 

Mary Lou spent several months in seclusion, shying away from curious reporters and from Fritz. Eventually, she decided to meet him in Chicago, with their four children in tow. That meeting, which took place in August 1965, was described as amicable, though Fritz insisted he had no recollection of meeting, marrying, or having a family with her. Because he insisted they were strangers, there was little choice but to consider him a stranger, as well. Mary Lou voiced hope that maybe one day he would come around.

"I am hopeful he will eventually remember," she said. "He's convinced himself that he doesn't recognize anybody." Learning he was alive was "unreal," she said. "It was sort of like a numbness. It wasn't like an emptiness when I thought he was drowned."

It turned out that there would be no time for Fritz to come around. In 1966, his cancer reappeared, this time in his liver. He died on September 16 of that year.

His passing posed the question of how to pay respects to a man who appeared to have lived two distinctly different lives. In Omaha, a service was held at First Methodist Church for John “Fritz” Johnson. The next day, his body was transported to Akron so he could be buried in a family plot at Holy Cross Cemetery as Lawrence Joseph Bader.

The question of whether Bader suffered some kind of injury during the storm or had some kind of neurological disorder has never been fully answered. Given the circumstances of his disappearance—his timely insurance premium payment, his mounting debts, and his wildly different and unencumbered lifestyle in Omaha—it seems likely that Lawrence Bader decided he was trapped in the life he was leading and saw only one way out.

If he was telling the truth about having 30 years of memories as Fritz, then it’s possible Bader experienced dissociative amnesia, a rare condition where a person has no memory of their life owing to trauma or stress. In a dissociative fugue state, they have an urge to travel and may invent a new personality, settling in a new area with no recollection of how they got there.

In one such case, in 2005, a lawyer and father of two in New York disappeared. He was found six months later living in a homeless shelter in Chicago under a new name. Once discovered, his wife revealed he had been overcome by stress relating to his experience in Vietnam as well as being near the World Trade Center on 9/11.

Only neuropsychological tests can sift out cases of true dissociative fugue from people simply hiding from their problems. It’s unlikely, however, that Bader would have suffered from amnesia for nearly a decade. In such cases, memories are not lost but are misplaced. They eventually return.

If he did experience a total erasure of his previous existence, at least some remnants lingered. He managed to retain his ability in archery. And while he may have believed his nickname came from an orphanage his psyche invented out of whole cloth, it’s far more plausible that a conscious memory of his previous life had inspired it. As a cookware salesman, his boss was a man named Mr. Zepht. His first name was Fritz.

14 True Crime Songs About Murder and Mayhem

Bob Dylan performs a concert at the Warfield in San Francisco, California, in 1979.
Bob Dylan performs a concert at the Warfield in San Francisco, California, in 1979.
George Rose/Getty Images

The phrase “ripped from the headlines” doesn’t just apply to Law & Order episodes and Lifetime movies. Songwriters throughout the history of popular music have drawn inspiration from real-life tales of murder and mayhem to craft their tunes. From old-timey folk ballads to modern-day trap bangers, true crime songs shock and excite us while forcing us to consider the darkness lurking all around. Here are 14 of the best examples.

1. “Nebraska” // Bruce Springsteen

In January 1958, a 19-year-old Nebraska teenager named Charles Starkweather went on an interstate killing spree that left 11 people dead. Along for the ride was his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, whose role in the slayings remains a point of debate. On the title track of his 1982 album Nebraska, Bruce Springsteen sings from the perspective of Starkweather on the electric chair, offering a chilling explanation for his crimes: “Well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”

2. “Georgia Lee” // Tom Waits

“Why wasn’t god watching?” asks Tom Waits in this 1999 ballad about Georgia Lee Moses, a 12-year-old black girl who was abducted and murdered in Petaluma, California, in 1997. Moses was a middle school dropout from a troubled home, and barely anyone noticed when she went missing. “Georgia Lee did not get any real attention,” Waits told LA Weekly in 1999. “And I wanted to write a song about it.”

3. “Annie Christian” // Prince

Over disorienting synths and a clipped beat, Prince references a handful of true crimes in this 1981 parable about evil in society, which was included on his Controversy album. The titular character—whose name is a play on “antichrist”—is apparently responsible for a string of child murders in Atlanta, the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, the killing of John Lennon, and even the high-level government corruption unearthed by the FBI’s Abscam investigation.

4. “Stagger Lee” // Lloyd Price

On December 25, 1895, William “Billy” Lyons and his buddy “Stack” Lee Sheldon were knocking back drinks in a St. Louis bar. They began arguing about politics, and Billy snatched the white Stetson off Stack’s head. When Billy refused to give the hat back, Stack shot him dead. The murder made Stack (alternately known as “Stagolee,” “Stack-O-Lee,” “Stack O’Lee,” and “Stagger Lee”) an American folk antihero. He’s been immortalized in hundreds of songs by artists ranging from Ma Rainey to Nick Cave. R&B singer Lloyd Price reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with 1959’s “Stagger Lee,” the most famous telling of this timeless story.

5. “1913 Massacre” // Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie penned this plaintive 1941 folk ballad about the “Italian Hall Disaster” of 1913, which took place at a Christmas party for striking miners and their families in Calumet, Michigan. Someone yelled “Fire!” in the crowded hall, and the resulting stampede killed 73 people, most of them children. It’s unknown who gave the false fire call, but many people—Guthrie included—believe it was an anti-union operative looking to spoil the party.

6. “Suffer Little Children” // The Smiths

Growing up in Manchester, England, in the ‘60s, Steven Patrick Morrissey was haunted by the “Moors Murders,” a gruesome series of child murders perpetrated by couple Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. Morrissey name-checks three of the five victims in “Suffer Little Children,” a song about the case featured on the 1984 self-titled debut album by his band The Smiths. Morrissey’s lyrics created a great deal of controversy, but the singer claimed he meant no harm. He even became friendly with Ann West, mother of Lesley Ann Downey, one of the slain children.

7. “Darkness” // Eminem

Depending on your point of view, Eminem either denounces or glorifies gun violence on 2020’s instantly controversial “Darkness.” Eminem raps this novelistic song from the perspective of Stephen Paddock, the mass shooter who killed 58 people at the 2017 Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas, before reportedly turning the gun on himself. “You’ll never find a motive, truth is I have no idea,” Em raps. “I am just as stumped, no signs of mental illness.” The music video ends with a message urging fans to vote and help change America’s gun laws.

8. “Brenda’s Got a Baby” // 2Pac

2Pac was moved to write this harrowing 1991 hip-hop classic after reading a newspaper article about a 12-year-old Brooklyn girl who threw her newborn baby into a trash compactor. (Miraculously, the child survived.) In a 1997 interview with The New Yorker, Pac said he considered the song a political statement about poverty, child abuse, drugs, and other issues. “It talked about how the innocent are the ones that get hurt,” he said.

9. “Deep Red Bells” // Neko Case

“He led you to this hiding place,” sings Neko Case to open this 2002 country-noir stunner. The “you,” she explained to The New York Times Magazine in 2009, is one of the young women killed by Gary Ridgway, a.k.a. the “Green River Killer,” throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. Ridgway is said to have murdered at least 49 women, many of them prostitutes and runaways. Case—who grew up in Tacoma, Washington, before Ridgway was apprehended—carried a knife with her to school.

10. “Son of Sam” // Dead Boys

For a yearlong stretch beginning in July 1976, New Yorkers lived in fear of the "Son of Sam," a mysterious figure who murdered six people with a .44 caliber revolver and taunted police with handwritten letters. In August 1977, police apprehended the killer, David Berkowitz, who claimed he was given the murderous orders by his neighbor’s dog. (Berkowitz later admitted that story was bogus.) Cleveland-born, New York City-based punk rockers Dead Boys seem to accept Berkowitz's initial explanation for the slayings on their 1978 tune “Son of Sam,” painting the infamous serial killer as a helpless slave (in his own mind, anyway) to demonic forces.

11. “I Don’t Like Mondays” // The Boomtown Rats

On the morning of Monday, January 29, 1979, a 16-year-old San Diego girl named Brenda Ann Spencer opened fire on Grover Cleveland Elementary School, which was located right across the street from her house. She killed two people and injured nine others, eight of them children. Asked why she did it, Spencer told a reporter, “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day.” Upon hearing this, The Boomtown Rats frontman Bob Geldof—the Live Aid guy—dashed off “I Don’t Like Mondays,” a mournful response to the senselessness of it all. The song reached #1 on the U.K. charts.

12. “Wildside” // Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch

Mark “Marky Mark” Wahlberg followed his 1991 chart-topper “Good Vibrations” with “Wildside,” a series of musical vignettes about the sorry state of the nation. He references two real-life crimes that shook his hometown of Boston. First, the murder of a pregnant woman named Carol Stuart by her husband, Charles, who blamed the killing on a fictitious black man in hopes of pocketing the insurance money. Next, the tragic death of 12-year-old Tiffany Moore, who was gunned down in a drive-by shooting.

13. “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” // Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens’s 2005 concept album Illinoise references many famous figures from the Prairie State, including serial killer John Wayne Gacy Jr., who murdered at least 33 boys and young men in the ‘70s. What’s interesting—and a little unsettling—is how tenderly Stevens sings of the man known as the “Killer Clown.” “I felt insurmountable empathy not with his behavior but with his nature, and there was nothing I could do to get around confessing that, however horrifying that sounds,” Stevens said in a 2005 interview.

14. “Hurricane” // Bob Dylan

In the court of public opinion, Bob Dylan’s epic 1975 song “Hurricane” went a long way toward clearing Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, an African American boxer convicted of killing three white people in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1966. Carter always maintained his innocence, and Dylan’s song blames the racist criminal justice system for jailing a man who “coulda been the champion of the world.” After being released in 1976 and then convicted again in a second trial, Carter was finally freed in 1985, when a federal judge ruled that the prosecution had based its case on “racism rather than reason and concealment rather than disclosure.”

23 Weird Laws You Might Have Broken

Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy hosts "The List Show."
Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy hosts "The List Show."
Mental Floss via YouTube

If you've ever played a game of bingo in North Carolina, you may have been a party to a crime without even knowing it. And if you've ever eavesdropped on a neighbor in Oklahoma and shared any of that juicy gossip, you might just want to go ahead and turn yourself into the police.

From coast to coast, America is full of bizarre laws that you've probably broken at one time or another. Join Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy as she digs into the history of 23 of the strangest of them—like why you can't eat fried chicken with a knife and fork in Gainesville, Georgia. You can watch the full episode below.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here!

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