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Discovery of Poster Rekindles Mystery of Lost Student

On a Saturday afternoon in November 1937, 1L Frederick William Burgess left his Perkins Hall dorm room to attend a Harvard football game. Twelve hours later, his discarded gray hat, watch, and neatly folded overcoat appeared on the Longfellow Bridge over the Charles River.

reward posterSometime in between, Burgess vanished.

William Burgess, a 21-year-old Cincinnati native, soon became the target of a nearly three-month nationwide search ordered by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and the subject of sightings as far away as West Virginia.

Yet Burgess' disappearance was long forgotten on campus until last June, when Harvard Law librarian Steven Smith logged onto eBay, the Internet auction site. There, Smith bid for a 1938 flyer offering a $500 reward for information about the missing student.

Within days, the slightly torn poster arrived in Smith's Langdell library mailbox. It provided Burgess' photograph, a handwriting sample, and a diagram of his teeth, but Smith had no hint of his fate.

* * *

As emergency floodlights illuminated the pre-dawn sky, Boston police power boats began dredging the Charles River for Burgess' body less than an hour after his belongings were discovered.

Police at first suspected that Burgess, who came to HLS after graduating from the University of Cincinnati the previous spring, simply jumped or fell 40 feet into the river.

Witness accounts supported both theories.

One woman claimed she saw a man through the mist and fog drowning in the Charles. Two others--including the night watchman at the Charles Street Jail--said they heard someone shouting for help that night.

Detectives thought they had a break in the case a week after the student vanished, when another person came forward and said a coworker saw a fight on the bridge around the same time as Burgess allegedly disappeared.

For days, police kept dredging the river with grappling hooks. But when Burgess' body didn't surface after two weeks, and the witness accounts unraveled, detectives began to wonder whether Burgess had fallen in the water after all.

The cries turned out to have come from a woman who was intoxicated. Detectives couldn't find the alleged witness to the fight, and they didn't believe Burgess would have neatly folded his coat during a scuffle or robbery.

* * *

From the outset, relatives and friends rejected suggestions that Burgess, whom they called Bill, committed suicide or purposely disappeared.

Foul play perhaps. Or even amnesia, they said.

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