For many kids, the first day of school is exciting. They get to learn new things, meet new friends and get a little bit of independence from mom and dad. But for one family in the 1940’s, this day turned tragic. Let’s talk about Jackie Theel, who was last seen on his first day of school over 75 years ago.
The Theel siblings grew up in Paynesville, Minnesota about 95 miles northwest of Minneapolis. In 2021, Paynesville has a population of about 2,300 people, and from what I’ve gathered in my research, it was about that size in the 1930’s and 40’s as well.
Jackie’s siblings were told that he was “slow.” It’s not clear just what this means — whether he had some sort of developmental disability or how severe it would have been if he did. He wasn’t allowed to run errands or do chores around the house like his brothers and sisters. His sister Annabelle said Jackie was quiet and a homebody.
On Monday, September 4, 1944, the United States celebrated Labor Day. The next day — September 5 — 6-year-old Jackie, along with many other children across the country, prepared for the first day of school. Jackie was reportedly so excited to start first grade that he couldn’t eat breakfast that morning.
Before her kids left, Bernice Theel gave Jackie a letter for his teacher, Mrs. Gladke, saying one of Jackie’s older brothers would pick him up after school. (Another source said two of his brothers, Tom and Denton, would be walking him home.) It’s not clear if Mrs. Gladke ever saw this letter, and when the half day was over at 11:30 am, Jackie was escorted out of school in a group with all the other students. The group walked together for awhile, during which time Mrs. Gladke asked Jackie twice if he knew his way home. He said yes both times and pointed — but, as it would later be discovered, he pointed in the wrong direction. When the group split up, Jackie made his way to what I’m sure his teacher presumed was his house — but he never arrived.
Jackie was supposed to be home by noon, but when noon came and went, Bernice Theel started to get worried. She called a few neighbors and friends to ask if they’d seen Jackie, but none of them had. Then she called the sheriff.
Jackie’s sister Annabelle, who was 16 at the time, thought her brother would be found quickly. After all, Paynesville was a small town — how many places could he possibly go? And there were a few alleged sightings of the first grader that day.
Two witnesses - a married couple — reported seeing him on the side of a highway around 1 pm. Then, two local teenagers claimed they saw a boy matching Jackie’s description getting into a car on the same highway around 4:45 pm. Other witnesses reported seeing a young boy crying on the side of the road and near a church.
Police were able to track down the driver of the car Jackie reportedly got into that afternoon. He turned out to be a solider who was traveling with his brother, but it’s not clear who the brother was or if anything else came of this lead.
I’ve also seen speculation that the teenage witnesses who reported this sighting actually saw it much earlier in the day. If it was early afternoon and they were still supposed to be in school at that point, they might have lied about when they saw the car to avoid getting in trouble. (Remember, Jackie got out of school at 11:30 am because it was a half day for him, but I don’t know if the older kids would have had a half day as well or if they didn’t get out until later.)
In the following days, over 300 people turned up to search for Jackie — at least one source said the entire town was basically shut down as they looked. Bloodhounds and the Civil Air Patrol were also brought in to help, and a sceptic tank near Jackie’s school was drained to see if he’d fallen in, but he wasn’t there.
The bloodhounds offered what’s possibly the most solid evidence. They traced Jackie’s scent from the school to a nearby river (I believe it was the Crow River); then his scent led away to a ditch. The scent they picked up indicated Jackie wasn’t walking toward his house. His scent ended at the ditch. By September 15, about a week and a half after Jackie was last seen, police no longer believed he was in the area and asked for help from other authorities across the state.
later (alleged) sightings
At some point in the 1960’s, Annabelle got a letter from her brother’s former teacher. According to this letter, Mrs. Gladke had met a man on a Navy ship in California who gave his name as Jackie Theel and said he’d been adopted. The man reportedly resembled the missing Jackie Theel — at least what he might have looked like as an adult — but was never confirmed that it was him.
About twenty years later, there was another alleged sighting. A man entered a cafe in Paynesville, saying his last name was Theel and that he was looking for other family members in the area, reportedly unable to find any in the phone book. However, Annabelle and her younger brother, Fay, are skeptical of this story. There were still Theels in the area at the time; according to them, this many should have been able to find them pretty easily.
About five years after Jackie disappeared, his parents welcomed their final child, a daughter named Judy. Judy grew up hearing about her younger brother who went missing, but obviously never got to meet him.
Because Jackie was wearing a sailor suit when he went missing, Bernice Theel wouldn’t let any of her other children wear sailor suits from then on. Both of Jackie’s parents died in the early 1990’s without ever learning what happened to their son. Jackie does still have at least two siblings who are alive and looking for him.
Unfortunately, the police records about Jackie’s case are no longer available. Most sources said their records only go back as far as the 1960’s; another said the records were destroyed in a fire.
So what happened to Jackie Theel? Let’s talk theories.
The first theory is that Jackie succumbed to the elements. There has been speculation that he drowned or got lost in the woods. Some online speculators thought it was strange that Jackie was reportedly spotted so many times around town, yet he was never actually found. Were these boys not actually Jackie? Or was it Jackie but he was never found again because he got lost somewhere and his body has never been located?
The next theory is that Jackie’s parents were involved. There’s not any solid evidence of this, from what I could find, but considering how many children are killed by their parents, it’s not too surprising that people would wonder about this. Bones were found in a well on the family’s property at one point, but they were later proven to be animal bones. There were also rumors that the Theels sold their son, but his siblings don’t believe this. According to them, if their parents really wanted or needed money, they could have sold a lot more of their kids.
The next theory is that Jackie’s teacher, Mrs. Gladke, was involved, or at least knew more than she was letting on. I haven’t seen this brought up in too many places, but I still thought it was interesting enough to share. Websleuths user punklove was extremely skeptical of Mrs. Gladke’s story, and thought it was an awfully big coincidence that the last person to see him also happened to run into someone who might be him 20 years later and hundreds of miles away. This user also found it odd that the teacher found out a stranger’s real name and the fact that he was adopted over the course of a presumably short conversation. They also noted that Mrs. Gladke didn’t try harder to stop this man and probe him further if she thought he might be a missing person. This user believes Mrs. Gladke may have been lying either about the day of Jackie’s disappearance or her alleged sighting of him in the 1960’s.
On a somewhat related note, Annabelle and Fay think their parents blame Mrs. Gladke for Jackie’s disappearance since she let him walk home by himself when he wasn’t supposed to.
The next theory is that Jackie was kidnapped. Weblseuths users have speculated that he was taken by a migrant, a transient or a sexual predator. There was also an early theory that he was kidnapped for ransom, but that was dismissed by the sheriff because the family wasn’t particularly wealthy.
Jackie’s loved ones think he got lost on his way home and was picked up by a stranger. There’s been a lot of speculation that he was taken by a solider, a theory that was likely fueled by things like the alleged Navy ship sighting and soldier driver. At the time, soldiers in the Army could be discharged if they had a dependent. Did a solider want to get out of his duties and used Jackie to do so?
There has also been speculation that, if this theory is true, Jackie might have grown up thinking he really was legally adopted. If he goes by his birth name, he might be easy to find today — but, of course, these are very big ‘ifs.’
Victor John Theel was six years old when he was last seen in Paynesville, Minnesota on September 5, 1944. Jackie is a white male, 3 feet 1 inch tall and 45 pounds at the time of his disappearance, with strawberry blonde hair and blue eyes. He was last seen wearing a a blue navy suit, long pants with a safety pin replacing one of the back buttons, black shoes and brown socks. At the time of his disappearance he had a fresh scratch just below his right eye and a newly healed cut on the inside of one of his thumbs. He also has a scar on the back of his head. He went by the nickname Jackie and would be 83 years old if alive today.
A 2004 article on this case says Jackie was never declared legally dead because he was a child and, therefore, had no assets. To me, this seems to imply that he is presumed dead, but he would be in his 80’s now so there is always that slight possibility.
If you have any information about the disappearance of Jackie Theel, you can contact the Stearns County Sheriff's Office at 320-259-3700.