Mountain Mystery: The 1933 disappearance of Joseph Halpern

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Joseph “Joe” Halpern was born on Sept. 11, 1910, to Solomon and Fanny Halpern. The family resided in Chicago.

Joe graduated from the University of Chicago. He was a brilliant, highly-skilled astronomer and mathematician who could read and write in Cyrillic and was fluent in French and German.

Joe worked as a human-computer for the U.S. Army at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in 1932. Human computers performed scientific calculations by hand. David Alan Grier, author of “When Computers Were Human,” writes, “These workers were neither calculating geniuses nor idiot savants but knowledgeable people who, in other circumstances, might have become scientists in their own right.”

During the summer of 1933, Joe, 22, worked at Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin. In August of that year, he and his best friend’s brother, Sam Garrick, traveled to Colorado with Joe’s parents. Garrick’s brother, Isador, had been invited on the trip but could not go. 

The group left Chicago in Joe’s Ford sedan, with Joe doing the bulk of the driving. The group drove through South Dakota’s the Black Hills, then into Wyoming to Yellowstone National Park before reaching their final destination, Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. They planned to camp at Glacier Basin Campground.

Joe did not have any hiking experience other than what he trekked in the Black Hills.

Rocky Mountian National Park has more than 300 miles of hiking trails. Joe and Garrick planned to hike up the Flattop Mountain Trail, a round trip distance of 8.8 miles and roughly six hours to complete.

On Aug. 15, 1933, Joe parked his Ford sedan in the parking lot at Bear Lake Trailhead. He and Garrick then began the trek to Flattop Mountain, reaching the summit in the early afternoon.

Joe wanted to continue hiking toward Taylor Peak, but Garrick was tired. Sam later told the Park Service the men had stopped west of the summit of Hallet Peak and about one-half mile south of Flattop Mountain Trail.

An unnamed witness told officials that he saw Joe and Garrick bickering over whether to continue hiking or return to Bear Lake. Garrick decided to return.

The men parted ways around 2:30 p.m., intending to meet up later at Bear Lake Trailhead at 6:30 p.m. When Garrick arrived, Joe was not there. Garrick waited for three hours, and when Joe never showed, he called for a park ranger.

The search for Joe began that night around 10 p.m. with rangers using electric lights to see in the dark. More than 100 people continued searching over the next six days but never found any trace of Joe.

The missing man was dressed in a white and blue striped shirt, khaki pants, and heavy boots. He carried a small backpack filled with a few sandwiches, some fruit, and a guide to the park. 

Temperatures at night dipped to around 40 degrees, and there had been raining and windstorms. A snowstorm hit on Aug. 19, 1933, but the search continued. Joe was not dressed for the rough weather but might have been able to seek shelter.

However, as the search ended without finding Joe, it seemed more likely that he became lost and succumbed to the elements, or he slipped and fell into a crevice. Some feared he had been buried under a rock slide at Flattop Mountain.  

The park rangers believed that Garrick knew more about Joe’s disappearance than he said. But Solomon Halpern told them to cease questioning him because he was Joe’s friend and distraught.

This is the last-known photograph of Joe taken in Rocky Mountain National Park shortly before he disappeared. (Photo credit: Doe Network)

Decades later, a relative of Joe’s was reading through his old letters that he had written to Isador Garrick in the early 1930s. He wrote one letter about being tired of college and worried about money. He desired a nomadic lifestyle, either as a sailor or transient.

There were a few sightings of him after his disappearance.

In 1934, an acquaintance visited Joe’s parents and saw a picture of Joe. The person did not know who he was or that he was missing, but the person claimed to have seen Joe in December 1933, begging for a meal outside of a Phoenix restaurant.

The Halperns sent a picture of Joe to the owner of the restaurant, who turned it over to the Phoenix police. Officers took the image to a local transient camp and showed it to its inhabitants. They said that Joe had lived there months earlier under an alias. He stayed three weeks and then left.

Joe’s parents believed their son was alive and might have had amnesia. Solomon Halper offered a $50 reward for any information leading to his son’s whereabouts.

In a letter to the FBI, a man named Samuel Greenfield, who claimed to have been a childhood friend of Joe, wrote that Joe was traveling with the Civilian Conservation Corps near Alliance, Nebraska, in May 1935. It was “a ‘New Deal’ work relief program that employed men with public work in national parks,” according to The Coloradoan. Greenfield also stated that Joe worked for the Lewis Brothers Circus during the summer of 1935 using the pseudonym Louis Hollenbuck. Decades later, Joe’s nephew tracked down a man by that name at the House of David, a religious commune in Michigan, but his age did not match Joe’s.

Police investigated all sightings of Joe, but none could be confirmed.

After their son disappeared, the Halperns moved to Indiana and then Florida. They had Joe legally declared dead in 1950. Fanny Halpern died in 1963, followed by Joe’s father in 1964.

Joe had a close bond with his best friend, Isador Garrick. Joe’s nephew, Ronald Halpern, told The Coloradoan in 2018 that he believes Joe would have contacted the man if he could, and he never did. Halpern believes Joe never left the park.

Halpern’s father, Bernard Halpern, was Joe’s brother. He died in 1998. He had searched for his brother for years, unbeknownst to his family. After he died, Halpern found all the letters from his uncle to Isador Garrick plus letters his father had written to the park service and then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.

Halpern hopes to find answers someday about Joe, for his father’s sake.

Sam Garrick became a medical doctor in 1937. He married and had a family. Garrick died in August 1976 at age 64. His brother and Joe’s best friend, Isadore Garrick, died in 1981 at age 71.

Nearly 89 years later, police are no longer actively investigating Joe’s disappearance. DNA taken from his relatives is on file if a body is ever found. Ronald Halpern purchased a burial plot next to Joe’s parents’ graves in case Joe’s remains were found.

Suggested reading: Cold Case Chronicles Mysteries, Murders & The Missing by Sylvia Pettem (affiliate link). This book is an excellent read with a chapter on Joe’s disappearance.

Other sources: The Coloradoan, Doe Network, and The Charley Project.

True Crime Diva’s Thoughts

I’m a bit fascinated by people who go missing in national parks, which is why I wrote about Joe and a few others. They probably fell into a crevice, or an animal attacked and killed them. But when there is seemingly no explanation, our minds wander to other reasons.

In this case, I agree with Roland – I don’t think Joe ever left the park. He likely slipped and fell while hiking alone, and his body is still up there near Flattop Mountain.  

Joe did not take any belongings with him on the hike other than what he needed. Sam was with him, and he had asked Sam to go with him to Taylor Peak. 

But Joe was brilliant, and if anyone could figure out how to disappear successfully, it was him. So I do wonder about these sightings.  

It seems as if the people involved in the sightings were sure they saw him. I think he might have planned to flee before arriving in Colorado. When Sam did not want to go further on the hike, Joe saw that as his chance. It sounds far-fetched, I know. But stranger things have happened. It does seem strange to me that Joe wanted to continue hiking after they had been walking for a few hours. He had to be as tired as Garrick.

Would he have started a new life without ever contacting his best friend or family? I don’t know. There is a slim chance that Isador Garrick knew where he was if he did leave voluntarily. They were extremely close, and as Roland said, he would have contacted Isador if he could do it. Maybe Isador kept his secret.

Sam Garrick might have had something to do with his disappearance and likely death. The park rangers thought he was not telling them everything. The unnamed witness saw their bickering, but it was nothing serious from what I understand. However, maybe after the witness passed by, the fighting turned deadly.

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True Crime Diva

True Crime Diva

I've blogged true crime since 2010, happily taking up only a tiny corner of the internet. I'm not here for attention; I'm here to tell you their stories.

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