Vanished: The Unsolved Disappearance of Paula Jean Welden: She hiked into the woods one winter afternoon and was never noticed again.
The village of Bennington, Vermont is an idyllic corner of New England that would have no specific notoriety were it not for Paula Jean Welden. One chilly December afternoon in 1946, the 18-year-old sophomore left her room at Bennington College to go on a hike and was never noticed again.
The mystery started on December 1, 1946. Paula worked a double shift in the college dining hall, expended some time with her roommate, Elizabeth Johnson, and then decided to go out for a while. According to Johnson, Paula was outfitted in a unique red parka coat with a fur-lined hood, blue jeans, Top-Sider shoes with thick soles, and a gold Elgin wristwatch with a black band. She also recalled Paula’s last words:
“I’m all through with studies; I’m taking a long walk.”
Paula’s “long walk” was to be along part of Vermont’s Long Trail, which in total runs 272 miles from the Massachusetts state line to the Canadian border. The cold climate, and Paula’s dress, indicated that Paula hadn’t planned on being out longer than a few hours.
Paula was sighted
Soon after, Paula (or a girl in similar clothes with the same physical description) was sighted by Danny Fager. Fager owned a gas station across the street from the college gates and contended that he’d noticed the girl run up and then down the side of a gravel pit near the college door. This would have happened just after Paula departed from her room, around 2:45 p.m.
Fifteen minutes later, a man named Louis Knapp contended to have picked up a young girl hitchhiking on Route 67A near the college. Knapp recalled her appearance as being consistent with Paula’s, and also remembered an insignificant exchange between himself and the girl. While climbing into his truck, the girl lost her footing; Knapp said her to be careful, but said nothing else until letting her out on Route 9, near the Long Trail.
Just before 4 p.m., Paula was again seen—this time by numerous people in Bickford Hollow—where she seemed to be heading toward the trail. One of those people, Ernie Whitman, warned Paula against traveling into the cliffs without heavier clothing; she reportedly disobeyed him and proceeded on her way.
By the time night fell, Paula’s roommate began to worry.
Not wanting to provoke any unnecessary panic, Johnson told nothing to College President Lewis Webster Jones until the following morning. Jones called Paula’s parents to inquire if she’d gone home for the weekend.
Paula’s mama fell with worry and was confined to her bed; Paula’s dad, engineer W. Archibald Welden, instantly left his Stamford, Connecticut house for Bennington. Upon reaching, Mr. Welden sprang into action by organizing a big search party, which comprised inhabitants as well as students from Bennington and nearby Williams College. After a full day had passed with no outcomes, most of the students gave up in frustration. Mr. Welden called in both the New York and Connecticut State Police to help. Vermont had no state police force at the time, but it did have a State Investigator named Almo Franzoni, whose interest-only served to raise a $5,000 reward for information.
Days passed with no finding. Ridiculous leads surfaced in different regions, including one from a waitress in Fall River, Massachusetts, who contended to have served dinner to a disturbed woman matching Paula’s description. Oddly, this struck a chord with Mr. Welden; he disappeared for 36 hours to follow the lead. Nonetheless, no one knew where Mr. Welden had gone until he came back to Bennington. This made some people think that Mr. Welden was somehow connected to his daughter’s disappearance.
When other facts started to surface, Mr. Welden looked even guiltier. Paula and her dad reportedly had a falling out over a male suitor, of whom her dad disapproved. Mr. Welden quickly theorized that Paula’s boyfriend must be the responsible party, but could give no proof to verify his claims other than to say a clairvoyant from Pownal, Vermont told him so.
On December 16, Mr. Welden scolded the police for their absence of professionalism and returned to Connecticut. He was extremely aghast that no records had been kept for the first 10 days of the inquiry. Once reporters caught wind of this, they tumbled on Bennington and jotted down everything they could discover. The negative press ultimately led to the creation of the Vermont State Police in July 1947.
Search parties proceeded on the Long Trail, but poor climate ultimately forced the last willing participants to turn away, thinking that any last remains of Paula Jean Welden would most likely be covered and undetectable.
Nine years after Paula’s disappearance, a lumberjack came forward. He contended that he had been in Bickford Hollow when Paula went missing, and he also contended to know where her corpse was buried. Attorney Reuben Levin queried the man incessantly until the man confessed to making it all up for publicity. Then in 1968, a skeleton was discovered. Investigators scrambled excitedly, hoping to eventually bring closure to the aging cold case. But again, their hopes were dashed; it was assumed that the remains were far too old to be Paula.
Related: Murder in the Red Barn: the Killing of Maria Marten
Independent analyses of the Paula Jean Welden case have directed to the usual conclusions. She became lost and died in the elements or she ran off with a boyfriend. One of the eerier theories points to the Bennington Triangle, an infamous section of southwestern Vermont where five people (including Paula) disappeared between 1945 and 1950. Individuals such as New England author Joseph Citro believe that Paula’s disappearance has a ghostly explanation.
Officially, the unsolved case of Paula Jean Welden stays open, though it is uncertain that it will ever be solved.