J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, July 09, 2011

John Lansing: “His place on earth had been made vacant”

In December 1829, more than four decades after John Lansing served as a Constitutional Convention delegate from New York, he disappeared in New York City.

In March 1869, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine published an article titled “Missing” by E. Crapsey. It was a round-up of stories about people who had mysteriously vanished, and included this passage:
The case of Chancellor Lansing is now preserved only in the traditions of a generation that in a few years will be unrepresented among men. It is full forty years since he left a New York hotel one afternoon to take the Albany boat for his home. He left carrying a small carpet-bag; and the porter who handed it to him at the door was long remembered as the last person who had seen him, knowing who he was. He never reached the boat, for he was perfectly well known to all of its officers; but notwithstanding the most strenuous efforts, no knowledge of his fate was ever obtained.

He was a man full of years and honors, and of great wealth and high official and social position. There was nothing in his character, temperament, or antecedents to warrant the belief that he had been guilty of self-destruction, or had unwittingly fallen a victim to metropolitan snares. His place on earth had been made vacant, but there is not, and can never be, any record of how, or when, or where.

He may have died that day; he may have lived for years afterward. He may have become food for the fishes of Hudson River; he may have been buried under the sands of Sahara. The lapse of time since his disappearance has only brought to his descendants the consoling knowledge that he is dead. If they have been robbed of the priceless memory of having watched over his last hours, they are no longer haunted by a sense of the miseries of earth he may be enduring, and that is something worth waiting forty years for.
On 20 August, a writer at the New York Times responded in an editorial column:
We speak under authority when we say that every incident connected with the disappearance of Chancellor LANSING is well known to a gentleman now living. The secret was confided to him by a distinguished citizen of this State, now deceased, whose name always commanded and does still command respect. The survivor was enjoined to publish all the circumstances when certain persons specified were dead. This condition has been fulfilled, and it is probable that a narrative calculated to startle the public will yet be given to the world. There will then no longer be room left for a single doubt in reference to Chancellor LANSING’s fate. We do not fool ourselves at liberty to hint at the nature of the revelation to be made, but this we may say, that it will be well authenticated, and that it will form one of the most remarkable pages in the history of the public men of this country.
New Yorkers waited for the revelation. And waited. Months went by.

TOMORROW: And then one of the state’s top political leaders came forward…

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