|Ambrose Bierce in 1892.|
AL.com writer Leada Gore posted a strange story online on April 29 that has generated a lot of conversation in our neck of the woods. Under the headline, “Alabama’s strangest unsolved mystery you’ve probably never heard of,” she related the story of the mysterious disappearance of Orion Williams (most sources say his name was Williamson).
According to her version of this weird tale, Williamson was a farmer in Selma who vanished in 1854 while walking across his property in broad daylight. He did so supposedly in full view of two relatives and several neighbors. A search of the area where Williamson disappeared showed no holes that he might have fallen into and no soft spots where he may have sank beneath the surface.
“He was just gone,” Gore wrote. “Poof.”
Gore went on to say that townspeople joined the search, but they couldn’t find a trace of Williamson, and he was eventually declared dead.
I’d honestly never heard of Williamson’s disappearance before reading Gore’s article, and I was surprised to learn that there was a lot more to the story. Most sources say that the incident happened on a sunny July afternoon in 1854, but I wasn’t able to track down the exact date that it supposedly occurred.
One version of the tale says he was sitting on his front porch with his family. As his neighbors, Amour Wren, and his son, James Wren, passed down a road on the far side of the field in a buggy, Williamson stood up to move some grazing horses into the shade. Williamson briefly stopped to pick up a small stick, and he began to swish the stick back and forth as he walked in the field’s ankle-deep grass.
Orion waved at his neighbors, took one step and supposedly vanished into thin air. Unable to believe their eyes, and probably thinking that he’d fallen into a hole, the Williamsons and Wrens ran to the spot and began to look for him. They also noticed that most of the grass in the spot had vanished as well.
It’s said that the Williamsons and Wrens searched for hours and then went to get help. Mrs. Williamson collapsed in shock and was taken to a Selma hospital. When news spread of the incident, a search party of 300 men eventually arrived at the farm and carefully and repeatedly searched every inch of the field. It’s said that they formed three hand-to-hand lines and slowly moved across the field a few inches at a time.
They stopped every few feet, knelt down and searched for holes or openings. It’s said that they searched the field dozens of times and when the sun went down they used torches and lanterns to continue their search. Later, bloodhounds were called in, but as the search continued well on into the night, no trace of Williamson was ever found.
News of Williamson’s disappearance spread, and more volunteers, including a team of geologists, arrived to join in the search. They supposedly dug up the field to see if the ground was unstable or unusual only to learn that there was only solid rock a few feet below the spot where Williamson vanished. Expecting to find holes, cracks, crevices or a cave-in, they found nothing – or so the story goes.
The story takes another weird turn when, supposedly, Williamson’s wife and son began to hear Orion’s voice calling for help. Every time they heard his cries for help, they’d run out into the field, but couldn’t find the source of the cries. This went on for weeks after his disappearance, but his voice grew fainter and fainter until it became a mere whisper and eventually stopped.
A local judge eventually declared Orion dead after continued searches turned up no trace of the missing man. Supposedly, in the spring of 1855, a circle of dead grass appeared on the same spot where Williamson vanished the previous July.
The story of Williamson’s disappearance attracted newspapermen from across the South, including famous writer Ambrose Bierce, who interviewed individuals involved in the actual search. Thanks to Bierce, who himself disappeared in Mexico in 1914, Williamson’s story was reported across the country, and Bierce is credited with keeping Williamson’s story alive.
While researching this unusual story, I was unable to answer a few questions that I had about Williamson’s disappearance. What was the exact date in July 1854 that it occurred? What were Williamson’s wife and child’s names? Where exactly did Williamson live? What’s located on his old farm property today?
In the end, if anyone in the reading audience has any more information about this story, I’d love to hear it. You can contact me at the paper by writing The Evergreen Courant, ATTN: Lee Peacock, P.O. Box 440, Evergreen, AL 36401. You can also e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or give me a call at 251-578-1492.