Edward Blackwell was very well connected. His father-in-law, Charles Dewey, was the president of the National Life Insurance Company, and his wife’s uncle was none other than the famous Admiral George Dewey. If it had not been for Jennie Blackwell’s pedigree, it’s possible Edward’s disappearance in September 1896 would not have attracted much attention.

Blackwell was born in Buffalo in 1852 but grew to maturity in New York City. He attended Rochester Polytechnic Institute and studied civil engineering. After a stint out west, where he bicycled the length of the Pacific Coast from Canada to Mexico, he came to Montpelier to work as a banker and married Jennie Dewey in 1880. It was in the capital city that he became part-owner in the Consolidated Lighting Company, central Vermont’s first electric utility.

As a young man, Blackwell was slender and pale and, when he applied for life insurance from a Montpelier insurance company, he was refused: The insurance company believed he would soon die of consumption.

On Thursday, Sept. 8, 1896, Mr. Blackwell began a business trip that took him first to Brandon, where he had business interests, and then to Boston, a frequent destination for his commercial travels. Although he was expected home on the following day, his absence caused no immediate alarm {span}—{/span} it was assumed his business may have taken longer than expected. When he still had not returned on Sunday, his wife began to express concern. They had been married 16 years and, with their three daughters, lived at 152 Main Street in Montpelier, a home as handsome today as it was then.

When Jennie Blackwell inquired at the Boston hostelry, she was told her husband had not occupied his room at the Adams Hotel for several nights and that his satchel was left on the bed. An investigation determined that while in Boston, Blackwell attended the theater with his nephew, E.R. Houghton, who was the last person to see him alive. Mr. Houghton confirmed his uncle had planned to return home to Montpelier the next day.

The Montpelier Argus of Sept. 23, 1896, considered Blackwell’s disappearance:

He was a kind and indulgent husband, and extremely happy in his home affairs, and was universally regarded as a shrewd businessman, of unquestioned integrity. The theories which are advanced are that he has either met with foul play or has wandered away in a fit of mental aberration. The latter position seems the most tenable, although he was known to be the treasurer of a corporation, and might reasonably be expected to have a large sum of money on his person, so that it would not be unlikely that he might have been attacked and done away with by thieves.

This theory has few supporters, the second one appearing the most reasonable. Mr. Blackwell has been suffering from neuralgic pains in the head which at times were so severe that they were almost unbearable.

Jennie’s family asked Boston Police to spare no expense in the investigation. “The police,” reported the Argus, “are of the opinion that he has wandered away, his mind having become imbalanced.” The officials had canvassed the area hospitals and other institutions. In the course of their inquiries they discovered Blackwell had been at Faneuil Hall on the morning of September 9 and had purchased a barrel of sweet potatoes, which were delivered to the Blackwell home in Montpelier the very next day. The newspaper concluded its report:

Mr. Blackwell has always occupied responsible positions in Montpelier, and has demonstrated his integrity, so that he has the full confidence of business men. His business affairs are in proper condition, and the case at present seems to be shrouded in mystery.

Henry Fifield, Blackwell’s brother-in-law, offered $100 for any information that would lead to his whereabouts “dead or alive.” The reward was published in the Boston newspapers along with a drawing of the missing man. Inspector Mahoney of the Boston Police Department admitted “he was puzzled about the little pine box Mr. Blackwell had with him when he left home in Montpelier. The box contained an electrical appliance, it is presumed.”

It was reported the box was not with him when he checked in to the Adams House Hotel in Boston. The box, it was thought, might offer a clue.

Circulars with Blackwell’s description were sent to 1,000 different New England towns. The description reads as follows:

He is 44 years old, 5 feet 8 ½ inches tall, weighs 130 pounds: his face is long, thin, and pale, he has brown hair, mustache and chin whiskers: his eyes are dark blue; his figure is spare. He was dressed in a light suit of clothes, and wore a light overcoat, which was somewhat darker than the suit; he wore a seal ring on the third finger of the left hand; he wore a hook for glasses on the right side of his vest; he wore gold-bowed eyeglasses; he had a gold watch, hunter case, with the Montpelier fire alarm signals in the back; he wore tanned shoes, a standing collar, and had a front upper tooth built up with gold. He had prominent cheek bones.

Almost from the onset of his disappearance, sightings were claimed and then discounted. Mrs. Sarah Bixby of Montpelier claimed she saw Blackwell in Montreal in mid-September. Then, an Elmore man thought he saw him in the same city and reported Blackwell seemed “mentally deranged.” When some Masonic regalia was discovered on the banks of the Charles River in Cambridge, police thought they might be clues to his disappearance. They were then disappointed to learn Blackwell owned no Masonic items. The authorities were again hopeful when a corpse was discovered floating offshore in Massachusetts.

The body of a man, apparently 43 years old, with his forehead smashed in, his legs bound tightly together and his pockets full of stones was found floating off Paddocks’ and Sheeps’ Island yesterday and towed to this city.

It is thought the body is that of Edward D. Blackwell, Treasurer of the Consolidated Electric Company of Montpelier, Vermont, who has been missing since September 8.

Henry Fifield, brother-in-law of Blackwell, made his way to Boston to make identification. The body was not Edward’s.

It was remembered Blackwell had expressed an interest in buying an orange grove, and a telegram was sent to a real estate agent in Florida, but there was no positive outcome. When the Boston Globe reported the disappearance, it was suggested the prominent Montpelier-ite had an episode of mental illness. “Under the protracted strain of business and illness, he suffered a temporary aberration of mind.”

Then, a most unlikely occurrence happened. J. F. Huntun, a granite manufacturer from Barre, was visiting San Francisco on Jan. 1, 1897 and he saw Edward Blackwell on a bicycle. As reported in the Barre Evening Telegram:

Mr. Huntun said that he was walking the streets which were thronged with people, it being a holiday, when in front of the Cliff House, he saw Blackwell wheeling a tandem along the street and accompanied by a woman. Mr. Huntun called Blackwell by name and he replied. Huntun said, “There will be some who will doubt my statement, but I had known Blackwell for a good many years.”

It was almost 18 months after Huntun saw him in San Francisco, that Edward D. Blackwell came home.

Shortly after his arrival in Montpelier in the early hours of May 30, 1898, a reporter for the Argus interviewed him at his home. He remembered almost nothing that transpired after he and his nephew parted after attending the theater in Boston.

When he came back from the abyss to the realization there was a world, he was on board a ship in a very hot climate. How he came there he did not know. He was feeble, weak and listless. His mind was not yet clear.

Blackwell soon learned he was on board a ship sailing in the Caribbean, bound for Colombia, and he was known by a name other than his own. Uncomfortable revealing he had recovered from a bout of insanity, Blackwell allowed the other passengers and the crew to address him by his alias. Upon arrival in Colon, he found he was unsuited for Colombia and returned to Panama where he crossed the isthmus and booked passage on a ship bound for San Francisco. Fortunately, he had $200 with him, equivalent to $5,500 in 2017.

About six weeks after he left Boston, Blackwell found himself in San Francisco. He told the reporter for the Argus:

He looked on himself as a physical wreck. His family believed him dead, he supposed. He was as good as dead to them. His mind was yet in a dazed state. For fully eight months after leaving Boston he was not completely himself.

He regretted that he had not communicated with his family, but his mind before that had refused to act. Now, when he could act he was at a loss how to proceed. He was alone in another world.

Blackwell revisited an earlier and happier time in his life. He bought a bicycle and traveled 4,500 miles by that conveyance in an attempt to restore his strength and sense of wellbeing. Making the acquaintance of a wealthy rancher, Blackwell used his engineering skills to repair an irrigation system for the man who gave him a place to live and helped him find a job as an agent for a magazine.

He rode about from place to place on his wheel, taking orders. He worked like a beaver. He realized that out-of-door work was what he required to rebuild himself, and this was the only occupation he knew of.

Living under an assumed name, Blackwell rode his bicycle throughout Oregon and California and became known as the “bicycle tramp.”

Mr. Blackwell says he worked hard to get news from home. Every man he met who had visited Vermont he inquired of most persistently without revealing his identity or anything about his family and relatives. He says he saw Dr. Dyer of Brandon in San Francisco. He was with his niece. He says he also met George Mann of Barre.

After his decision to return to Montpelier he “was at a loss how to begin to communicate with his relatives.”

One day in May of 1898, James C. Houghton, treasurer of National Life Insurance Company, received an unsigned letter conveying a sense of urgency. It directed Houghton to be at the Van Ness House, a Burlington hotel, the following Saturday evening. James Houghton was married to Blackwell’s sister and was the father of E.R. Houghton who had attended the Boston theater with Blackwell and was the last person to see him. Intrigued by the mysterious nature of the letter, Houghton complied with the request and, when he arrived at the Van Ness House, was surprised to find Blackwell waiting for him. They talked in Blackwell’s hotel room until late into the evening.

”Overwork did it all,” said Mr. Blackwell. “I realize now how the words of warning that were spoken to me by my friends at that time but I did not realize that the brink was so close. There is a limit to everything and the mind is not limitless. Mine was overtaxed.”

Houghton returned to Montpelier that evening and, the next day, he consulted with Charles Dewey, Blackwell’s father-in-law. In the afternoon he informed Jennie Blackwell of the extraordinary turn of events. “She was overcome at first but this changed to a feeling of gladness at the breaking of the great suspense.”

Mr. Blackwell has not decided what he will do. He has made many friends through the West who know him under his new name. He has business interests which must either be closed out or carried along. He will consult with his friends here before deciding definitely.

Edward, Jennie and family moved to Brandon, where Edward had partial ownership of the local electric utility. They continued to live there, without drama, for many years until Jennie’s death in 1913. Edward remarried in 1924 and lived until 1955 when he died, at the age of 102. He walked between seven and eight miles a day and spent his winters in Florida. On his 100th birthday, he received hundreds of cards from well-wishers, including President Eisenhower. He was quoted as saying, “If I felt any better, I’d have to call a doctor to see what ailed me!”

He was also remembered as a man whose constitution was so weak that the insurance companies of Montpelier refused to write him a policy.

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