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The disappearance of Marvin Clark: America's oldest active missing persons case?

Updated: Jan 25, 2022

I cover a lot of cold cases, some of which have gone unsolved for decades. But I think this is the oldest case I’ve ever covered; in fact, I found out about it when I went in search of the oldest cold cases I could possibly find. Let’s talk about Marvin Clark, who hasn’t been seen or heard from in almost a century.

Because this case is so old, some of the details are fuzzy. We do know he was born Marvin Alvin Clark, but even his birthdate has been disputed. Some sources said he was born in 1857, others said 1851. We do know he married a woman named Mary and had four children.

Marvin had several different jobs throughout the course of his life. He was a farmer at one point, as well as a town marshal, once in Nebraska and later in Linnton, Oregon.

The word ‘marshal’ has several different definitions. It can be used to describe the chief of police or of a fire department, a military officer, a court officer or several other things. However, another source said Clark was a retired sheriff, so I assume that’s what it meant in his case.

By 1926, Marvin and Mary Clark had settled in Tigard, Oregon, about 10 miles south of Portland. They’d lived there for about 15 years, and at least Marvin was pretty well known. He was either in his late 60’s or early 70’s, the time when a lot of people today would be preparing for retirement, if they weren’t there already. But this didn’t seem to be in the cards for Marvin Clark.

On October 30, 1926, Marvin left his home in Tigard and set off for Portland. Again, sources vary on exactly what his intentions were. Most said he took a stagecoach and went to visit his daughter, Sidney McDougall. Either the next day or two days later, his wife, Mary, contacted Sidney only to find out that not only had Marvin never arrived at his daughter’s house, but Sidney had no idea he was even coming.

Other sources give a different story, saying Marvin was going to the doctor and/or actually travelled by bus. (One source also said he disappeared in June, but I think this was an error.) One genealogy website said his movements could be traced to the Yamill street terminal in Portland.

I don’t know exactly how all these details got jumbled up, or what the real story is. But Marvin’s doctor was reportedly in Portland, so I do wonder if some of these supposed contradictions are actually true at the time same. He could have gone to Portland for a doctor visit, but also planned to stay with his daughter overnight. Maybe he thought this would be easier than traveling the 10 miles back home the same day, which might have taken longer in 1926 than it would now. But, of course, that is just a guess.

The search for Marvin started pretty quickly. His family and police actively looked for him, and “police in all northwest cities” were asked to keep an eye out. By November 11, a $100 reward had been set up for information that might lead to his whereabouts.

But it was difficult to figure out just what happened to him. Early on, his family was afraid he’d been hurt or killed by someone he’d made enemies with during his time as marshal. There was also the possibility he’d left on his own, but unintentionally.

In early November, Marvin’s son, Grover, received a letter from his father. It was postmarked from Bellingham, Washington, over 200 miles away from Portland.* Whatever was in the letter, it led Grover and his wife to believe Marvin’s mind wasn’t what it used to be. Marvin also didn’t take a coat with him when he set out, even though it was probably cold in Oregon at the end of October. Had something happened to him due to his mental state? Or had someone done something to him?

Then, in 1986, a new theory surfaced. On May 10, loggers found a skeleton near Scappose, Oregon, about 20 miles north of Portland. Several items were found near the body, but the most notable here were an 1888 nickel and a 1919 penny. A corroded revolver was also found near the body, and the man who had died had a single gunshot wound through his skull. His death was ruled a suicide.

A few days later, a woman named Dorothy Willoughby said the body might belong to her grandfather, Marvin Clark. Based on what she’d heard from family members, Marvin had been depressed due to health problems that left him partially paralyzed. She knew he hadn’t been heard from in years, so it’s easy to put the pieces together here and form this theory. The body was also found close to Linnton, where Marvin used to serve as town marshal. (Linnton was later annexed by Portland as is now considered part of it.)

The medical examiner said the body appeared to be of a man younger than Marvin would have been when he went missing. But there didn’t seem to be much progress on identification at the time, presumably because of a lack of modern technologies like DNA testing.

Then, in 2004, Dr. Nici Vance entered the picture. Vance was a forensic anthropologist at the Oregon state medical examiner’s office; I’m not sure if she still is. That year, she began looking through the office’s unidentified remains. Around 2011, she came across the files both for Marvin Clark and the John Doe from 1986. Wondering if they were the same person, she sent a DNA profile from the John Doe to the Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas. Don’t ask me exactly how this works, but they were able to get a full DNA profile from this.

Now investigators worked to get DNA for Marvin Clark. They went through genealogy databases and found some of his relatives from his paternal side who were able to provide DNA. Then they had to get DNA from his maternal side for as full of a profile as possible. However, about 6 months later, the remains were confirmed to not be those of Marvin Clark.

So, is Marvin Clark’s case the oldest active missing persons case in the United States? Several sources said it is. Another said it was one of the oldest. Others said something similar and listed a few older cases.

Wikipedia says the oldest active case is that of Alice Corbett. Alice was a student at Smith College in Massachusetts and was last seen in her dorm on the morning of November 13, 1925. I know Wikipedia isn’t the most reliable source, and I couldn’t find information on whether this case is still active, but I thought it was interesting enough to share.

Another source said the oldest was that of Eljiah Cravens, who disappeared from Oklahoma in 1902. His case is still on NamUs, so I assume it’s still active — but, of course, I could be wrong.

Marvin Clark has been missing for 94 years, and would be over 160 years old today. So investigators aren’t hoping to find him alive, but I will give some details that might help in his case.

Marvin Alvin Clark disappeared from Tigard, Oregon on Saturday, October 30, 1926, when he was between 69 and 75 years old. He was headed to Portland, presumably either to visit his daughter or his doctor.

Marvin had either white or gray hair and blue eyes. He was about 5 feet 8 inches tall and 170 pounds. He was paralyzed on his right side, walked with a limp and might have used a cane. He was last seen wearing a dark suit and hat.

So that’s all I have for you today on Marvin Clark. It kind of blows my mind that there are people out there who have been missing for this long. This case might be one of the oldest active ones, but there are a lot more inactive ones that are even older and will probably never be solved. I know that’s kind of a depressing note to end on. But with newer technologies, I think there’s hope that Marvin Clark’s remains can be found someday and his descendants can have answers.

What do you think happened to Marvin Clark? Let me know in the comments.

If you have any information about the disappearance of Marvin Clark, you can contact the Multonomah County Sheriff’s Office at (503) 988-4300.

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