The village of Bennington, Vermont is an idyllic corner of New England that would have no particular 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 seen again.
The mystery began on December 1, 1946. Paula worked a double shift in the college dining hall, spent some time with her roommate, Elizabeth Johnson, and then decided to go out for a while. According to Johnson, Paula was dressed in a distinctive 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 remembered 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 weather, and Paula’s outfit, suggested that Paula hadn’t planned on being out longer than a few hours.
Shortly after, Paula (or a girl in similar clothing with the same physical description) was spotted by Danny Fager. Fager owned a gas station across the street from the college gates, and alleged that he’d seen the girl run up and then down the side of a gravel pit near the college entrance. This would have occurred just after Paula’s departure from her room, around 2:45 p.m.
Fifteen minutes later, a man named Louis Knapp claimed to have picked up a young girl hitchhiking on Route 67A near the college. Knapp remembered her appearance as being consistent with Paula’s, and also recalled a seemingly insignificant exchange between himself and the girl. While climbing into his truck, the girl lost her footing; Knapp told 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 several people in Bickford Hollow—where she appeared to be heading toward the trail. One of those people, Ernie Whitman, warned Paula against traveling into the mountains without heavier clothing; she reportedly ignored him and continued on her way.
By the time night fell, Paula’s roommate started to worry.
Not wanting to arouse any unnecessary panic, Johnson said nothing to College President Lewis Webster Jones until the next morning. Jones phoned Paula’s parents to ask if she’d gone home for the weekend.
Paula’s mother collapsed with worry and was confined to her bed; Paula’s father, engineer W. Archibald Welden, immediately left his Stamford, Connecticut home for Bennington. Upon arriving, Mr. Welden sprang into action by organizing a massive search party, which included local residents as well as students from Bennington and nearby Williams College. After a full day had passed with no results, 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 involvement only served to raise a $5,000 reward for information.
Days passed with no resolution. Bizarre leads surfaced in different areas, including one from a waitress in Fall River, Massachusetts, who claimed to have served dinner to a disturbed woman fitting Paula’s description. Oddly, this struck a chord with Mr. Welden; he vanished for 36 hours to pursue the lead. However, no one knew where Mr. Welden had gone until he returned to Bennington. This made some people believe that Mr. Welden was somehow connected to his daughter’s disappearance.
When other facts began to surface, Mr. Welden looked even guiltier. Paula and her father reportedly had a falling out over a male suitor, of whom her father disapproved. Mr. Welden soon theorized that Paula’s boyfriend must be the responsible party, but could offer no proof to substantiate his claims other than to say a clairvoyant from Pownal, Vermont told him so.
On December 16, Mr. Welden admonished the police for their lack of professionalism and returned to Connecticut. He was particularly aghast that no records had been kept for the first 10 days of the investigation. Once reporters caught wind of this, they descended on Bennington and jotted down everything they could find. The negative press eventually led to the creation of the Vermont State Police in July 1947.
Search parties continued on the Long Trail, but poor weather eventually forced the last willing participants to turn away, feeling 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 claimed that he had been in Bickford Hollow when Paula went missing, and he also claimed to know where her body was buried. Attorney Reuben Levin questioned the man incessantly, until the man admitted to making it all up for publicity. Then in 1968, a skeleton was found. Investigators scrambled excitedly, hoping to finally bring closure to the aging cold case. But again, their hopes were dashed; it was determined that the remains were far too old to be Paula.
Independent analyses of the Paula Jean Welden case have led 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, a notorious section of southwestern Vermont where five people (including Paula) vanished between 1945 and 1950. Individuals such as New England author Joseph Citro believe that Paula’s disappearance has an otherworldly explanation.
Officially, the unsolved case of Paula Jean Welden remains open, though it is unlikely that it will ever be solved.
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Feature photo: Bettmann / Getty Images