By Nancy J. Farrier
It was the summer of 1931 in Jackson, Mississippi. A man was wandering along State Street, disoriented and lost. He appeared to be homeless with his tattered and rumpled clothing, but his shoes were quality. He had a belt on with an L on the belt buckle. He carried an inexpensive watch and had a penny in his pocket. He had no other identifying marks or papers on him.
When questioned, he couldn’t remember his name or where he came from. He seemed confused, unable to tell the police anything of his background. They arrested him for vagrancy since he had no home and couldn’t afford lodging.
|Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum|
Three days later he was remanded into the custody of Dr. C.D. Mitchell, superintendent of the Mississippi State Hospital, formerly known as the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum, a dreadful place to be held. He was entered in the ledger as Mr. X, a patient of about sixty years of age.
For four years Mr. X endured life at the horrific asylum. Then in 1935, the asylum closed and the patients were moved to a new facility, Whitfield, where there were grounds to walk and places to work that could help the patient recover. Mr. X did well at Whitfield. He worked in the greenhouse and had a surprising knowledge of plants and botanical information. He also played games with other inmates and had a knack for complicated games like bridge.
Mr. X did everything he could to jog his memory. He scoured the papers in the library and read books, trying to find something that would bring his former life back to him. They could tell he’d had a good education and he hoped immersing himself in literature would bring back memories he’d lost.
In July 1938, a woman was hired by Whitfield to be the public relations director. The new director had experience in journalism and wanted to bring some of the hospital’s stories to light to give them a better name. She discovered Mr. X and his unique story. She gathered information on Mr. X, including samples of his handwriting and sent the information to a contact at a Memphis periodical, Commercial Appeal. On December 4th, 1938, the paper ran the article with the heading, “Who is Mr. X?”
Not long after the article published, a national radio show became aware of the story. The director arranged for Mr. X and an attendant to travel to Chicago to be on We the People. Their interview with Mr. X was heard across the country. The public was fascinated by Mr. X’s story. People came to the hospital claiming to be relatives and the hospital had to try to find a connection.
Mr. X might have remained anonymous except for a doctor in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Dr. Conwill had been in an accident and was in the hospital. He happened to hear the We the People broadcast and interview with Mr. X. Dr. Conwill recognized Mr. X’s voice, or thought he did. When he left the hospital, he contacted the man’s nephew, who looked up the stories and pictures. The nephew took those to his aunt, Mrs. J. P. Haley of Alabama.
|Mr. Lawrence and Mrs. Haley|
Mrs. Haley realized Mr. X was her brother. She traveled to Mississippi with another brother, Ben Lawrence. They were granted an audience with Mr. X. and knew him immediately. However, Mr. X did not recognize them. They showed him photographs of their childhood and family to no avail.
The doctors tried something new. They gave Mr. X sodium amytal, a strong barbiturate that was considered a truth serum at the time. While he was under the influence of the drug, doctors fed him information about his family and his background. This seemed to work and he was able to recall parts of his past including his name, William Henry Lawrence. They were not sure what he would retain when he woke up.
Mr. Lawrence did remember bits and pieces, but also recalled his Mr. X persona. He concentrated on accepting his siblings for who they said they were and gradually came to believe them to be his brother and sister. After a short time, he was released from the hospital and they were allowed to take him home.
About a week later, William Lawrence and his sister were once again on We the People radio show. His sister told the listening audience about her brother’s job as a traveling insurance agent and that he didn’t write home as often as he should. He did tell them he was leaving Jackson, Mississippi and that was the last they heard from him. They tried to find him but eventually had to assume he was dead.
Although Mr. Lawrence was restored to health and to his family, there is no mention of how he might have ended up with the amnesia. For eight years, his family thought him dead and he had no idea of his true identity. What an amazing set of circumstances that brought him back home.
Have you ever heard of this story? I was fascinated by what happened to Mr. X and so glad he was able to be reconnected with his family. I’d love to hear your thoughts about Mr. X and maybe what you think might have caused the amnesia.
Nancy J Farrier is an award-winning, best-selling author who lives in Southern Arizona in the Sonoran Desert. She loves the Southwest with its interesting historical past. When Nancy isn’t writing, she loves to read, do needlecraft, play with her cats and dog, and spend time with her family. You can read more about Nancy and her books on her website: nancyjfarrier.com.