john lansing

John Lansing, Jr. was one of America’s “Founding Fathers”–or perhaps not, depending on your point of view. From New York State, he was a distinguished lawyer, Congressman (in the Confederation Congress) and one of New York’s delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787. Although he took many notes at the convention, he didn’t like the direction the convention was going, so he quit and went home after six weeks. When the Constitution was completed he advocated that it be defeated.

More than forty years later, on December 12, 1829, when he was 75 years old, Lansing left his New York City hotel to mail a letter down at the docks, He vanished into thin air and was never seen again. His disappearance was one of the great mysteries of early New York history, but despite its great notoriety at the time, it’s virtually forgotten today.

Searching for missing persons was a far sight harder in 1829 than it is today. Police did not have the same institutionalized investigative procedures that we now have. Naturally they did not use fingerprints to identify people, and DNA matching was not even science fiction then. There were certainly some questions asked, but the police concluded that Lansing was probably murdered by some ruffians down by the waterfront. Manhattan was an extremely dangerous place in the early 19th century. Disposing of a body, even a famous one, would have been quite easy.

There have been some clues as to Lansing’s disappearance. The Wikipedia page on him has this to say:

After his death in 1882 the memoirs of Thurlow Weed, former Republican political leader in New York State, were published by Weed’s grandson T.W. Barnes. Weed wrote that Lansing had been murdered by several prominent political and social figures who found he was in the way of their projects.

Weed was told this by an unnamed individual, who showed him papers to prove it, but begged Weed not to publish these until all the individuals had died. Weed said they were all dead by 1870, but he found that their families were all highly respected, and upon advice of two friends he decided not to reveal the truth because it would hurt innocent people.

Oh really? Sounds like a great story, but where are these “papers” and how come they’ve never surfaced? I have my doubts about this. People usually don’t write down evidence that they murdered someone or ordered a person to be killed. If they did, certainly they wouldn’t keep the papers in a drawer and pass them on to the next generation. This story just doesn’t ring true, either in our time or in 1829. Given all the rumors that swirled in New York about Lansing’s disappearance, I think Thurlow Weed heard one of them and may have written it down, but whether it bears any relationship to the truth is another matter.

The vagueness of the story is also suspicious. An “unnamed individual,” eh? Who, exactly? And Lansing was “in the way of their projects?” What, did he lay down in front of the bulldozers or something? Oh, that’s right, they didn’t have bulldozers in 1829. My bad. So far as I can tell the only public office Lansing held in 1829 was on the Board of Regents of the University of New York. Why would someone murder a retired politician, especially one as advanced in years as Lansing was?

I don’t buy the Thurlow Weed story for a single moment. The most likely explanation is the simplest one: on his way to mail that letter, or the way back, Lansing was ambushed by one or more criminals. Either he died accidentally during the assault or his assailant(s) murdered him. One shallow grave or a quick splash in the East River later, and we have a 184-year-old mystery with virtually no hope of ever being solved.