Sunday, May 3, 2015

An Esperantist on the Lam

Oscar Whitehead
The mad Esperantist
There was an odd overlap of the Esperanto movement and the theosophy movement, and so many early twentieth-century Esperantists were also Theosophists. The Theosophist advertised from time to time in Esperanto journals, and the Esperantists advertised from time to time in theosophy journals. Various Theosophic works were published in Esperanto, and Theosophic groups would have lectures on Esperanto. Despite all this, there is no esoteric aspect to Esperanto.

Most of the news items about the intersection of theosophy and Esperanto don’t have much of interest going for them. However, on May 3, 1914, the San Francisco Chronicle published a story that brought together Esperanto, theosophy, and (for good measure) kidnapping.

The background of the story seems to be that Oscar R. Whitehead, who had been an actor, decided that his half-sister, Helen Burns Whitehead, ought to be an actress, and so spirited her off to California, after her mother had said no. She vanished in late December 1913, when (as the New York Times put it) she was “lured from home by her half brother.” There was quite a difference in ages between the two; Oscar was forty-one years old, and Helen was eleven.

Although the New York Times article raised the issue of whether Oscar was mentally sound, noting that “he had shown indications of religious mania,” the escape was well planned, including a change of clothing for Helen, disguising her as a boy. But it seems that by May 1914, his cunning plans had begun to unravel.

World-Wide Search for Oscar R. Whitehead Now Centers in California.
Dramatist-Theosophist Sent a Letter to Paris and Had It Remailed to Parents.
Following a world-wide search by the police of a dozen nations for Oscar R. Whitehead, of Herkimer, N. Y., dramatist, theosophist and esperantist, who is accused of having kidnaped his eleven-year-old half-sister, Helen Burns Whitehead, last Thanksgiving day, the police of San Francisco and Los Angeles have received information which causes them to believe that the long-sought fugitive is residing with his girl companion in California.

This information has come after a series of perplexing dodges and ruses, by which, it is said, Whitehead has succeeded time after time in eluding his perusers and dragging them to foreign countries in the vain hope of taking him unawares. The chase has led to Paris on a letter dispatched in such a way that it seemed to have come from Paris, whereas in reality it originally was mailed from Colon, Panama.

From time to time his trail has been run across. It led at one time to Los Angeles, but there it disappeared. After this he is supposed to have gone to Panama. Later he is believed to have fled again, this time abroad. Now advices point to his return to California or Los Angeles, under a false name and possibly in disguise.
The article continues, but the sole reference to Esperanto is there in the first paragraph. He was, indeed, an Esperantist, and in 1909 was the treasurer of the Esperanto club of Herkimer, New York. By 1911, he was secretary for the state of New York of the Esperanto Association of North America.

Clearly, while he was on the lam, he was not able to keep up his duties as a officer of the EANA. Nevertheless, they caught him.

On March 27, 1917, more than three years after half-siblings had fled, the Los Angeles police took Mr. H. O. Perline and Suzie or Lucy into custody, after identifying them as Oscar and Helen Whitehead. The Ogden Standard noted that both denied that they were the Whitehead half siblings. He was eventually judged mentally imbalanced and was incarcerated in the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. In 1922, he sought to be released, but his request was denied.

He clearly got out eventually, because when he died in 1941, he was living in Los Angeles. Helen, on the other hand, is buried in the Whitehead family plot. She married about decade after she and her half-brother were found in Los Angeles. She does seem to have become an actress. The report of when she was found says that
Arrest of the man as Whitehead was made following a visit of the missing girl’s parents to a motion picture show. One of the characters shown on the film strangely resembled the missing Whitehead girl—even to a peculiarly shaped thumb. Investigation located the man in a local studio, with the girl going to school here.
Despite the report in the Daily Gate City and Constitution-Democrat of Keokuk, Iowa, it’s not clear what that film might be.

At the time he spirited his half-sister away from her parents, it’s clear that he was active in the Esperanto movement. This, however, seems to have been its end.
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