Columns > Published on August 11th, 2016

LURID: Last Seen Wearing - Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains Databases

There’s a story familiar to all of us, across cultures and through history, the story of someone who was there and then was not, of the person who relinquished their lifetime role as lover, sister, husband, grandpa, neighbor, colleague, or daughter and joined the always-swelling ranks of the Missing.

She popped out to the liquor store for a packet of cigarettes, didn’t take a coat, never came back.

He left as usual for school, but went to the bank instead and withdrew all his savings. He was caught on CCTV boarding a bus to the city.

Her car was found in a Walmart parking lot, keys in the ignition, purse and phone on the front seat.

He took his regular morning train but never made it to work.  All bank account and cell phone activity ceased the same day.

She said she was going to a friend’s house on the next street to study for a test.  She never showed up.

His neighbors got concerned when the mail began to pile up. When they broke down the front door they found his bed unmade and his wallet on the coffee table.

There’s a distinctive subculture of the Missing within both fiction and reality.  They’re often referred to as the great silent mass disaster of the modern age: more people vanish each year than are killed in any tsunami or earthquake or hurricane.  While they might start out as ordinary people, going about their day, the fact of their disappearance confers an automatic mystique. To go missing is to become a narrative. Readers of news reports, detective stories and true crime, plus viewers addicted to procedurals, are all drawn to the same, repeating, essential mystery: where do these people go? Is their vanishing the cold open or the final reel?

The Missing

To go missing is to become a narrative...Where do these people go? Is their vanishing the cold open or the final reel?

They haunt us, the Missing, for years, even decades after they disappear. Like the dead, their absence is a specific type of presence, constructed from pain, memory and regret.  Unlike the dead, whose extinction is a certified fact, their absence is abstract.  We can’t articulate where, or even what, they are. They could reappear at any time, in hours, days, months or years, in any condition, from unharmed to fully decomposed.  The Missing agitate – and, yes, titillate – us in a way the simply dead do not.

Is this because the label ‘Missing’ represents such a change in classification, an alteration in human condition? The Missing metamorphose upon departure. Their last witnessed act, slipping through a door, turning a corner, getting on a train, is transformative. In the blink of an unwatchful eye they flip from a self-actualizing, active subject to a passive object interpreted by others.  Everything about them is given over to the custody of their nearest and dearest. What were they wearing? Where did they like to go? What was their state of mind? Did they have any bad news recently? Have they done this before?  Did anyone really know who they were?  None of this is up to them any more. Their identity from here on in will be shaped by those they leave behind, especially by the near and dear one who picks the prom/school/graduation/holiday photo that will henceforth represent their smiling face to the world.

The Found

There are the Missing and then there are their shadow selves, the Found, the bundles of unidentified human remains that show up on hillsides, in ditches, at the bottom of ponds, or poking out of shallow graves.  There are more than 40,000 sets of unidentified remains stored in the evidence rooms of medical examiners across the USA. They’ve faded into literal facelessness – no lips, eyes or nose to aid easy facial recognition.  All that’s left are teeth and bones, and there is, as yet, no national searchable database for dental records, no way of connecting the scattered teeth with a human who once made regular trips to the orthodontist’s office.  If investigators are lucky, there might be remains more durable than flesh – hair clips, jewelry, a belt buckle, shoes, lingerie wires, nail polish, a clutched, favorite toy — items that can be matched against descriptions circulated on the wire.  Philip Larkin was wrong, what will survive of us is petrochemical tat, if we’re unlucky enough to end up as a John or Jane Doe.

By themselves, the Missing and the Found are story fragments, isolated scraps of information.  They only begin to make sense – or to form a narrative structure – when they are given a context.  Only then does their story become recognizable, with a beginning, middle and end. For most of human history, the Missing and the Found have lacked a connective framework.  Physical remains, unless discovered within the same jurisdiction, even by the same investigative team, were almost impossible to match to missing person reports.  However, over the last twenty years, technology has changed the situation dramatically. The humble online database is proving to be a highly successful tool for connecting cases and corpses, constructing timelines and thus creating recognizable narratives out of the Missing and the Found.


The sheer volume of cases means we need computers to take on the task. More than 600,000 people are reported missing in the USA each year, although most of those cases are closed in short order – the FBI crunch the numbers in their mandated annual report.  While the teenage runaways, abducted (usually by a non-custodial parent) children, seniors with dementia, lost hikers and murder victims are soon rounded up, one way or another, at every accounting there is a stubborn rump of a few thousand individuals who disappear without a trace.  The FBI maintains a database of 80-90,000 Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains open cases that persist from year to year – these are just the ones that are reported at a federal level.  Many more languish in the files of state, county and city police.  These overstretched agencies lack the resources necessary for sharing all their data.

Twenty years ago, this meant that once a case dropped out of the local news cycle (if it was ever deemed newsworthy in the first place), it froze, quickly. There was little hope of further investigation, other than particularly dogged detectives revisiting their cold files every once in a while.  However, the Internet changed all that. These days, there is a lot of information available, online, to the public. The US Department of Justice has run NamUS (National Missing and Unidentified Person’s System) since 2006.  This is a nationwide reporting system for cops (missing persons) and coroners (human remains), as well as opening up the cross-checking and search functions so families can keep plugging in the details of their lost loved one long after the case is in cold storage.  Parents, children, cousins, lovers spend their sleepless nights operating as dogged detectives, using key personal attributes (piercings, footwear, tattoos, bracelets, scars) to search for matches between the Missing and the Found.  They can scroll through cases dating back to January 1902 (Elijah G. Cravens of Okmulgee, OK, who “left on horseback to attend a 'Woodmen of the World' meeting and was never seen again”).  Closure is closure, even if it’s more than a century in coming.

NamUs isn’t the only online database – and, unfortunately, it’s not the biggest or even the best. It’s currently optional for law enforcement and medical examiners to submit cases and many choose not to do so. Chris Murphy, Senator for Connecticut, has been trying to push ‘Billy’s Law’ (which will make case submission to NamUs compulsory) through Congress for years, most recently this summer, without success.  Meanwhile, the work of matching the Missing to the Found is left to a patchwork of online citizen sleuths.

Civic Duty

The Doe Network has been around in its present form since 1999. Founder Todd Matthews was a teenage factory worker in 1987 when he first heard stories of ‘Tent Girl’, the name given to the decomposed remains of a young woman found inside a tent bag in Scott County, Kentucky, in 1968.  Todd, who lost two siblings at an early age, couldn’t get this Jane Doe out of his head.  Who was she? Was anyone still searching for her?  Did the people who cared for her even know she was dead?  How did she end up moldering on a hillside, lost to the sentient world?  By the mid 1990s he was spending his nights surfing the web in the full grip of an obsession, fueled by the new technology that allowed him to explore sites that might throw up a connection to Tent Girl. In January 1998 he found a classified ad posted by a woman looking for her long lost sister, Barbara Ann Hackman Taylor.  Matthews was able to connect her to law enforcement in Scott County, who verified through a DNA test that the remains were indeed Barbara’s. Although the circumstances of Tent Girl’s death remained a mystery, after thirty years in limbo she could finally return home.

Heartened by his success, Matthews gathered a crew of volunteers and set up the Doe Network, two databases, one for Missing Persons and one for Unidentified Remains.  That was the kind of thing people did on the Internet in those days, constructing a glorified bulletin board where civic-minded citizens uploaded descriptions, news stories and police bulletins about the Missing and the Found and then spent hours searching for matches.  Matthews also persuaded a number of forensic artists to volunteer their skills with composite sketches and clay modeling and to create facial reconstructions of many of the Found.  Project Edan (Everyone Deserves A Name) provides images that not only help jog the memories of the living but also restore a unique identity to the otherwise faceless remains.

The Doe Network is still going strong seventeen years later, with 501c status and hundreds of trained volunteer researchers across three continents. Matthews was one of the experts consulted by the Department of Justice when setting up NamUs, and he has been their Director of Case Management and Communications since 2011.  Some of the cases may be familiar to true crime aficionados, such as Case File: 1377UMWI, a young boy who was found floating in the O’Laughlin Quarry in Waukesha, WI, in March 1921. Investigators dubbed him ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’, and a local woman raised the money for a respectable burial. Despite his smart clothing (and the $1000 reward) no one ever identified him – although local legend tells of a heavily veiled woman who used to lay flowers on his grave.

There are more online databases accessible to the public, some concentrating on one country or state, others on a specific category of missing person (e.g. the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children).  They provide a vital service supporting the families of the Missing.


Others, like the Charley Project, are run by their creators as a hobby, and deal mainly in historical cold cases.  Speculation abounds in the case files – there’s plenty of scandal surrounding the disappearance of heiress Dorothy Harriet Camille Arnold in Manhattan in 1912, for instance.  Did she die after a botched abortion, or did she commit suicide when her short story was rejected by a magazine?  Everyone who knew Dorothy is long dead themselves, and it’s unlikely her disappearance will ever be explained. It won’t be forgotten, however.  Her mystical ‘Missing’ status means she lives on as a database entry, and the fragments of her story will continue to be repeated and interpreted, begetting more conjecture, new fictions in media she never dreamed would come to exist.  You don’t have to be born a digital native to have a digital afterlife.

Databases by themselves don’t tell stories. They offer up a selection of facts, and make precise connections between them, but the job of constructing a narrative requires human (for now…) interpreters. There are plenty of those online too, eager armchair detectives who swarm these databases (and news stories, police reports, obituaries, YouTube rants, court transcripts) looking for clues. There’s a thriving subReddit, Unresolved Mysteries (“For every mystery, there is someone, somewhere, who knows the truth”) where Redditors discuss cases from all over the world.  Then there’s Websleuths, a ‘Crime Sleuthing Community’ also founded in 1999 and dedicated to brainstorming cases hot and cold.  And there’s Facebook: it’s now routine to set up a page for a missing or murdered person, part investigative tool, part electronic memorial, part conspiracy clearing house.

The users who frequent the message boards on these sites are often well-placed to share an expert opinion – cell phone engineers (for interpreting that vital tower ping data), lawyers, auto specialists, forensic investigators, cops and ex-cops, private investigators, clerks of the court, entomologists and dentists all throw in their two cents.  In some ways, this is an ideal crowdsourcing scenario, with hundreds of sharp minds sorting through the available evidence and discussing their theories online.  They’re willing and ready to put in the hundreds of hours that law enforcement (and defense attorneys) cannot, disseminating information far and wide, until someone, somewhere has an ‘A-ha moment’.  Their contribution has been instrumental in solving otherwise unworkable cases, such as ‘Grateful Doe’, a young man who died in a car accident in 1995 and was finally identified by Reddit and Facebook users last year.

Darker Places

However, when posting online from the safety of your iPad, it’s all too easy to forget that these stories involve actual people. While the Missing may have been reduced to a single database entry, their family and friends live on IRL, and those real lives can be ruined by doxxing, misinformation, or wild accusations – Redditors notoriously identified the wrong man as the Boston bomber in 2013.  And not everyone seeks truth and justice. While people may have an innocent reason for involving themselves in armchair detective communities – they want to help find a family member, or they thrive on solving puzzles – there can be something a little off about some who insert themselves into the dark drama at the heart of a missing persons case. Are they bleating a warped cry for attention?  Trying to find way of settling old scores? Attempting, misguidedly, to pin the murder of Teresa Halbach on Edward John Edwards? Sometimes the investigators are more complicated than the crimes.

Deborah Halber offers a thoughtful guide to the shadowy world of the Internet sleuth with The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America's Coldest Cases.  Science writer Halber was sucked into the Doe Network after becoming fascinated by the reconstructed image of an unidentified woman published in the Boston Globe in 2010.  She tumbles into the rabbit hole of unsolved cases, and interviews several of the main players (forensic artists, amateur sleuths, law enforcement officials) along the way.  She categorizes most of them as “very, very smart people who like a challenge and like a mystery but their day jobs are not as intellectually challenging as they might be”.

Gillian Flynn is less complimentary in her novel, Dark Places.  Her Kill Club is a shadowy group of like-minded individuals who obsess over old crimes.  They will go to considerable lengths to bolster their theories, including offering disturbed and vulnerable individuals cold hard cash to revisit their bloody history.  They approach Libby Day, who was a small child when her mother and sisters were murdered in their beds around her, and bribe her into confronting the players from her past.  They’re not worried about the danger Libby puts herself in – they’re more concerned with winning the argument about what really happened that night.

Online databases – especially when combined with DNA testing – are wonderful tools for bringing closure to grieving families and laying the disenfranchised dead to rest.  However, modern technology casts more shadows than it illuminates. It’s one thing to make information publicly available. What the public choose to do with it is quite another – with great power comes great responsibility, and, sadly, not all the participants are worthy of that.  Despite the actions of an irresponsible few, however, the subculture of the Missing and the Found retains its mystique and potency.  No matter how cursory the details, how brief the database entry, they rarely fail to transport us to our own darkest places.  There but for the grace of God go I…

Stay safe. And text me when you make it home, OK?

If you want to learn more about my personal obsession with the Missing and the Found, check out my upcoming novel, Exeme.

About the author

Karina Wilson is a British writer based in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter and story consultant she tends to specialize in horror movies and romcoms (it's all genre, right?) but has also made her mark on countless, diverse feature films over the past decade, from indies to the A-list. She is currently polishing off her first novel, Exeme, and you can read more about that endeavor here .

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