Unsolved: Fairview John Doe

Fairview Cemetery, Renovo

Note: Throughout this article, I refer to the unidentified man as Fairview John Doe due to the location where his remains were buried.

Scanning the field of stone I knew the person for whom I was searching did not have a recorded burial location. If there had been a stone at one time, it had long ago vanished, but I doubt he ever had a stone. If anything, he might have had a marker placed in the immediate aftermath of his burial. However, I doubt that this even happened because no one could identify Fairview John Doe. Who he was, where he came from, and what actually happened to him remains a mystery to this day.

The hardest part of researching unsolved murders and unidentified victims from the pre-1940 time period is knowing they most likely will never be identified. Sadder yet is many of these victims have been completely forgotten in the modern era. Their deaths barely made the local newspapers at the time they happened. Unidentified bodies making an appearance in newspapers outside the local town or county at the time was rare.

Fairview John Doe is one of those unfortunate deaths that leaves more questions than answers. The brief mention of his death never made it beyond the immediate town newspaper.

If I had not accidentally stumbled upon a brief mention of the unidentified victim recovered from the West Branch of the Susquehanna in 1933, Fairview John Doe would have disappeared into the midst of time.

The first mention I came across Fairview John Doe was in a message board that provided the following information – an unidentified man had been discovered in the West Branch in May 1933. With very little to go on from the start, I contacted two good friends – Dave and Lou – in an attempt to find more about Fairview John Doe. While neither had heard about it before, they both sent ideas and thoughts about the man’s identity and burial location. To my surprise Lou was able to discover two brief references of the discovery in the Renovo Record.

The story of Fairview John Doe begins on May 16, 1933, when Ben Peters and Howard Smith were walking along the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks at Drocton, near the mouth of Paddy Run. Something in the water caught their attention and they were shocked to discover a body floating about ten feet from the shore. The two men waded into the river to retrieve the body before going to the nearby Pennsylvania Railroad tower and reporting their discovery to the towerman.

Soon Clinton County’s coroner arrived to investigate the death. The man was not wearing a coat or vest, but the remainder of his clothing implied he was “a working man.” It was believed he had been dead for several weeks and had drifted downstream in the high waters of the West Branch. Nothing that may have been used to identify the man was reported to have been recovered.

The description of the Fairview John Doe provided by the Renovo Record is very vague. The front page of the May 17, 1933 Renovo Record states “the man weighed about 175 pounds and was about  five foot ten inches tall. He had gray hair.” The Lock Haven Express adds a little more description in their May 17, 1933 article describing the man as an African American between sixty and sixty-five years old.

The undertaker from Renovo held the body until the following day when he received word from the County Coroner to bury it. That afternoon, the man was buried in Fairview Cemetery and forgotten about.

Where the man had come from remains a mystery, and so does where his body entered the water. He could have come down not only the West Branch, but any number of streams including Kettle Creek, the Sinnemahoning, and the Benezette Branch of the Sinnemahoning. It was impossible to determine where the man came from as the flowing waters could have brought him from any valley or hollow in Central Pennsylvania.

As I was pondering which valley Fairview John Doe was from when my mother suggested another possibility – maybe Fairview John Doe was not from Central Pennsylvania. Her theory was Fairview John Doe could have been riding a train to search for work and either fell off or was tossed off into the river. If this was the case, Fairview John Doe could have been from anywhere in the United States. Note: I was not able to find anybody being reported missing in regional newspapers around this time, so he could have possibly come from somewhere else to meet his fate in the waters of the West Branch.

Fairview John Doe’s cause of death was not revealed in any of the brief mentions of the discovery and burial. Nothing in the Renovo Record articles imply he was murdered. However, his body had been in the water for a couple weeks before discovery, so any possible clues hinting at murder could have been destroyed.

Most likely Fairview John Doe was a victim of an accident when he fell into the river and the current pulled him to his death. Having no mention of obvious wounds, it does appear his death was an accident.

But if he was riding on a train, he may have either been tossed off or fell off it and into the river. His hitting the cold waters may have been shock to his system and he drowned before he could recover.

Another possibility to be considered is he committed suicide by jumping off a bridge into the river.

The exact burial of Fairview John Doe has been lost to the elements of time. Seasons change and the gruesome discovery was forgotten. While I understand I will probably never know the answer to what exactly happened to Fairview John Doe and where he rests within the Fairview Cemetery, I have peace knowing he has not faded from memory.

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