Missing for 84 years: The case of Ruth Baumgardner



The 1930’s were a very different time, something I’m always reminded of when I research cases from this era. Today’s case concerns a young woman who went missing during this decade, which already means details in her case will be hard to find. But this case is also mysterious due to the fact that she seems to have vanished almost without a trace. Let’s talk about Ruth Baumgardner.


disappearance


In 1937, Ruth Elizabeth Baumgardner seemed to be living a relatively normal life. She technically lived with her parents in Lakewood, Ohio, but spent most of her time on the campus of Ohio Wesleyan University, in Delaware (about 130 miles south), where she was a senior. Ruth was set to graduate that spring and had just gotten engaged to a man named Harry Moore (page 2). But Ruth would never get to see her graduation or her wedding.


By April Ruth was extremely stressed and reportedly afraid she wouldn’t have enough credits to graduate on time. I don’t know if she was on the cusp of failing a required class, didn’t plan far enough ahead to take all the classes she needed or if there was something else going on.


On May 4, Ruth got three calls from an unknown man. I couldn’t find any information about what she was overheard saying this man, if anything, or how anyone even knew the person she was talking to was male. Ruth had her own private room, so I don’t know how likely it would be for someone else in the dorm to pick up her phone.


But other than this, nothing seemed too out of the ordinary. Around 11 pm, Ruth said good night to her sorority sisters, rollers in her hair. She presumably went to bed and nobody thought anything else of it.


It wasn’t until the next morning that her sorority sisters realized she hadn’t gone to any of her classes and contacted campus police. In the ensuing investigation, Ruth’s room key was found in a staircase in the dorm. Her car was still parked it its usual spot and the key was in the ignition. Her alarm had gone off at 6 am, the time it had been set for. Her curlers (presumably the ones she’d been wearing the night before) were found in her room, which was unusually neat and tidy. Someone who lived close to campus later said they’d heard screams between 2 and 3 am in the early morning hours of the 5th, but that was about it as far as evidence.



investigation/early sightings


At first, the general theory was that Ruth had amnesia and had wandered off. Over the next few days, there were some alleged sightings of her. A few witnesses said they’d seen her with a man — presumably one who couldn’t be identified as her fiancé. According to The Charley Project, people with amnesia are usually found eventually, and this theory isn’t widely believed today.


Later that year, a woman in Boston claimed to be Ruth, (page 15) saying she ran away because college was too stressful and the pressure had finally gotten to her. But this sighting wasn’t reliable. The woman claimed to be at least two other people as well, and her dental records didn’t match Ruth’s. She was eventually identified and was, of course, not Ruth.


Ruth’s case was closed at her parents’ request in 1939 but the alleged sightings didn’t stop. There was another one in 1941 in Steubenville, about 170 miles east of Delaware. During the investigation, police interviewed a man who claimed he’d seen Ruth in Campbell, about 60 miles north of Delaware.


I couldn’t find anything else about these sightings and, since Ruth is still missing, I don’t think they lead anywhere.


There was also early speculation that Ruth’s disappearance was connected to the murder of a highway patrolman named George Conn in September 1937. George Ford, the man who confessed to killing him, reportedly had a woman matching Ruth’s description, bound and gagged in his car at the time. However, there was no evidence ever found to link the two cases.



theories


So what happened to Ruth Baumgardner? There aren’t that many clues in the case but there is a lot of speculation and plenty of theories.


Most people I came across speculating about this case think Ruth ran away or left voluntarily. A lot of them wondered if her parents had the case closed so quickly because they found out what happened to her but wanted to keep it quiet. But why might they have done that?


One theory is that the unknown man Ruth got calls from the day she disappeared was a secret boyfriend and she’d gotten pregnant unexpectedly. From here, there are one of two major possibilities. The first is that she had an illegal abortion which was botched, killing her. Then whoever performed the abortion hid her body. The second is that she kept her baby and ran off with this supposed secret boyfriend to start a family — and a new life. At least one person noted that if she married this man, her last name probably would have changed, which would make her that much harder to track.


There’s another theory that she was sex trafficked or sold into sex slavery and her parents found out about this but didn’t want to go public due to a stigma against this line of work, even though she would have been a victim. Both the sex trafficking and unplanned pregnancy scenarios have been discussed as things that could have happened to Ruth that her parents might not have wanted to go public with.


Another online speculator suggested Ruth’s parents had less nefarious reasons for keeping her whereabouts unknown. Maybe they found her living a new life and she wanted privacy, so they honored her wishes. If this happened in 2021, they’d probably at least let police know the person was okay, but I have no idea how common that was in the 1930’s.


A couple of people on Websleuths said they’d tried to contact Ruth’s family members but they all seemed reluctant to talk about the case. This could be perfectly normal, of course, and they have every right to maintain their privacy. But these people did think it was a bit strange and wondered if there really was some scandal being covered up.

I also saw someone speculating that Ruth had been recruited to be a Soviet spy. This is obviously pretty different from the other theories, and I didn’t see it discussed anywhere else, but I thought it was interesting enough to share.


But a few people did wonder if Ruth had met with foul play. One person suggested she did have a secret boyfriend who asked her to meet up with him, then killed her to cover up the fact that she was (possibly) carrying his child. Another wondered if she’d been a victim of the Cleveland Torso Murderer, who killed and dismembered at least 12 people in the Cleveland area between 1935 and 1938. The killer was never caught. Only two of their victims were ever identified — could Ruth have been one of the many who wasn’t? Cleveland is about 120 miles north of Delaware; did Ruth really run away, for whatever reason, only to later cross paths with a killer?


There’s one other bit of speculation I thought was worth mentioning. A Reddit user said the keys in the ignition might not be that weird. According to them, this was pretty common in the 1930’s because people weren’t as worried about car theft as we are today.



final details


Ruth Elizabeth Baumgardner was 22 years old when she was last seen in Delaware, Ohio on the evening of May 4, 1937. She is classified as endangered missing.


Ruth is a white female who was 5 feet 5 finches tall and 110 pounds, with blonde hair and blue gray eyes. She had alight streak in the left side of her hair and a dimple on her chin. She’d had work done on her teeth in the past and went by the nickname Ruthie. She might have taken an overnight bag with her and was thought to be last seen wearing a brown suit, a hat and brown suede shoes. Ruth’s case is no longer being investigated due to how long she’s been missing, and she would be over 100 years old if she were alive today.



conclusion


It doesn’t seem likely that we’ll ever find out what happened to Ruth, especially if she really did run off and start a new life in secret. If she didn’t tell anyone who she really was, she easily could have taken her secret to the grave. I can only hope that she really did leave on her own, led a good life and died peacefully at an old age.

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