The recurring tropes of the long-lost-wallet story.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
May 4 2010 10:11 AM

Long-Lost Wallets

They turn up more often than you think.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer. Click to see expanded view.

The mayor of Tulsa, Okla., lost his wallet. It happened 50 years ago, when the mayor, Dewey Bartlett, was about 13. Mayor Bartlett doesn't remember exactly when, or how, he lost the wallet, but he knows that he was at the house of his boyhood best friend, Ricky Mahan. He knows this only because recently, while that house was being renovated, the wallet fell out from behind a ceiling panel in an upstairs closet and, this past February, the house's new owner showed up at the mayor's office to return it.

Everything was still inside: a photo of the pubescent mayor with a lick of hair sticking up, a hunting and fishing license, his membership card for the Coca-Cola Hi Fi Club. Bartlett immediately recognized where the family's collie had once gnawed on the genuine cowhide interior. "God, look at that. I'll be damned," Bartlett told the Associated Press, which had sent a reporter to cover the reunion. It was the kind of once-in-a-lifetime cosmic occurrence which seemed to demand a wire story.

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Then again, only a few days earlier, Henry Leland's wallet—stolen back in 1949—had been returned to him. It was found in the rafters of a house in a Cleveland suburb. (The AP covered that wallet resurrection also.) And a few days before that, a wallet lost 28 years earlier tumbled out of a hospital ceiling in Oregon and was returned to its owner.

Apparently, it happens all the time. And each time, it seems to kindle a kind of existential awe. Last summer, for example, a wallet stolen from a woman at a bar in 1968 turned up behind the duct work in a house in Eau Claire, Wis.—a house that had caught fire, flooded, and been picked up and moved to a new address in the intervening four decades. This was one of at least three wallets reclaimed that June to make news around the country: There was also Bill Fulton's brown leather billfold, lost in 1946 and found while contractors were tearing out bleachers at a middle-school gym in Oregon. (Fulton: "My gosh, it stayed in good shape!") And there was Ruth Bendik's blue leather wallet, lost while she was watching the New York City Marathon in 1982, which a city arborist found deep inside the trunk of a 50-foot-tall black cherry tree in Central Park. "Twenty dollars was a lot of money then," Bendik told CNN, marveling that the cash was still inside—and also just generally marveling, one imagines, at the mind-boggling, life-affirming wondrousness of the whole thing. Because—trust me on this—that's what long-lost-wallet owners always do when they get their wallets back.

I've been collecting long-lost-wallet stories since the summer of 2007. That was when I read online that the wayward wallet of James Bryant had been returned to his family in rural Minnesota. Bryant had lost his wallet in July 1863; it fell out of his pants pocket when he was shot in the thigh, fighting for the Union at the Battle of Gettysburg. A Confederate soldier picked it up on the battlefield, and more than 140 years later, that soldier's great-great granddaughter discovered the wallet in a shoebox in her attic. Small-town historians got involved and, ultimately, the wallet was returned to Bryant's descendants in a little ceremony in a town near the Canadian border. * It featured Civil War re-enactors and remarks by local lawmakers. "It's a healing between the South and the North," one man exclaimed. "It's one of those battlefield miracles."

It did feel like a miracle—even to me. Then I did some Google searches and set up a news alert for "wallet found." It's been pumping headlines about these extraordinary, but actually very ordinary occurrences into my inbox ever since. Sometimes, the news I get is a gruesome downer. (One of the main places "wallets" seem to be "found" is on murder victims.) But occasionally, it's the cheeriest and most welcome e-mail I get all day—a kind of real-time Chicken Soup for the Soul.

A demolition contractor finds a wallet in the wall of Boston's Paramount Theater 56 years to the day it was stolen from a Navy man on shore leave. ("Maybe it was meant to be found," the contractor's wife says.) In Illinois, a man named Gary Karafiat gets back the wallet he lost while watching a basketball game as a 14-year-old. ("It's like part of your past just shows up 35 years later.") One woman, after being mailed her father's wallet more than 60 years after he lost it—it was found in the crevice of a roof, near where he was stationed in England during World War II—tells a reporter: "My dad passed away in 2002, so I almost feel like I've had some contact with my dad again." She'd been showing its contents to her own daughter, telling the girl stories about her grandfather. Another woman is reunited with the newspaper clipping about the death of her older brother in Vietnam, which she carried in her wallet as a 14-year-old. ("It was all I had of him.")

1966: A man loses his wallet while sailing in Boston's Marblehead Harbor. 2005: A fisherman reels the wallet in.

These stories have become their own journalistic genre, unwittingly conforming to the same conventions and with the same tropes. Again and again, we get descriptions of the "cracked brown leather"; of memories "flooding," "flowing," "flashing," or "jolting" back. The wallet itself is couched as a "history book," "a leather-bound time capsule," or "a time capsule from another life." The wallets' mundane inventories pile up as suddenly poignant measurements of the passage of time: the credit cards from defunct banks. The Pay N Save coupon for a buck fifty off Old Spice. The "holographic 1972 pocket calendar from Stroh's beer." The once cherished autograph that's now impossible to decipher. ("The man's first name is Tom and his last name starts with what looks like a W," Gary Karafiat said, squinting to make it out.) There are draft cards. Laminated instructions for surviving an atomic blast. A picture of the wallet owner's "best girl," who, a half-century later, has been handed that wallet as his widow.

In 2003, 25 wallets stolen decades ago spilled out of a heating duct during the demolition of a Southern California Army barracks. (One insight from all of this seems to be that a surprising number of wallet thieves discard the pillaged things inside walls and ceilings.) It took him a while, but a National Guard officer managed to return all but three, including one wallet whose owner, the guardsman explained, was "a Crocodile Dundee-type, believed to be wandering the desert between Arizona and Mexico."

The owners were old men by then—aloof and rumpled veterans in retirement homes or on oxygen machines. One had recently had a stroke—a quiet guy who never felt he had anything interesting to say to his four grown kids. But now, as he fingered his old Social Security card and dog tag, the stories suddenly started pouring out of him. "This has been a real boost for Bob," his wife told the Los Angeles Times. "It's as though a piece of time has come back to greet him again with memories of the old days, and better times."

In the past, these kinds of oddities occasionally became national news, but they generally stayed local and were eventually forgotten. Within the cloistered little villages of local media, every return of a long-lost wallet could stand unchallenged as a breathtakingly singular event. But in age of the Web, these lesser miracles are now aggregated, archived, and searchable. With a little persistence, you can spend a whole afternoon reading long-lost-wallet stories. But the more long-lost-wallet stories you read—the further your perspective zooms out from that of the people actually living them—the more you see the themes and details repeating themselves. The characters ossify into types—the enterprising good Samaritan, the tickled old recipient. The phenomenon is exposed as not so phenomenal, and you can start to feel deflated, wondering if maybe none of these people are as blessed or as special as they think they are—and, by extension, if maybe none of us are, either.

Sometime last winter, I started to get a little cynical. The news alerts kept coming, but I stopped clicking through to the links. But then I realized: It's ridiculous to let the frequent occurrence of an event make that event feel less miraculous. So I've been trying, instead, to think of all these long-lost-wallet stories as evidence that there are altruistic little miracles happening around us all the time.

The trick is not to think of these stories from the point of view of the wallet owner, but from the point of view of whoever finds the wallet, returns it, and then carries on with their day. Like the person in a town in southern Sweden who somehow recovered the wallet Gulli Wihlborg lost while riding her bicycle as an 18-year-old in 1963, found Wihlborg's current address, and put the wallet in an envelope with an anonymous note. The money—$6.17 in Swedish kronor—was still inside. The note read: "Dear Gulli, you should never give up hope."

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Correction, May 4, 2010: This article originally stated that the wallet had been returned to Bryant's ancestors. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

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