(Editor’s note: In early 2007 I wrote “Irene Bolam and the Decline of the Amelia Earhart Society,” conceived as an additional chapter for the second edition of With Our Own Eyes: Eyewitnesses to the Final Days of Amelia Earhart. When the revised edition’s publication was cancelled, I began work on an entirely new book, Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last, though its original title was The Earhart Deception. The Bolam chapter never quite fit in a work that was entirely focused on establishing the Marshall Islands-Saipan truth in the Earhart case, but I’ve finally dusted off one man’s chronicle of the internal unrest that bedeviled the Amelia Earhart Society in the years between 2002 and 2006, effectively ending its existence as a viable entity — if it ever was such. Today I present part one of “Irene Bolam and the Decline of the Amelia Earhart Society.” Your comments are welcome.)
“What is the hardest task in the world? To think.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
The Amelia Earhart Society of researchers was launched in 1989 by longtime Earhart devotee Bill Prymak in his Bloomfield, Colorado study, to “seek the truth regarding the disappearance of Amelia Earhart,” according to Prymak. Its original members numbered less than 20, but included some of the leading lights in the Earhart community: Joe Gervais, still considered the greatest Earhart researcher by a few misguided souls, who passed away in January 2005; Joe Klaas, Gervais’ close friend and author of the 1970 book, Amelia Earhart Lives: A Trip Through Intrigue to Find America’s First Lady of Mystery, still with us in his 90s; the late Rollin Reineck, retired Air Force colonel and navigator who served on Saipan shortly after the 1944 invasion; and Ron Reuther, who founded the Oakland (California) Aviation Museum in 1981, directed the San Francisco Zoo from 1966 to 1973 and died within a few weeks of Reineck in 2007.
For many years, thanks to his networking skills and Earhart expertise, Prymak collected, gathered, evaluated and disseminated an impressive volume of information in an entertaining and enlightening format to the AES membership. Prymak’s Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters, which he diligently compiled and mailed every few months from December 1989 to March 2000, are extraordinary in their variety and wealth of content – true collectors items that will never be duplicated.
Prymak ceased writing the newsletters shortly before the Yahoo! Earhart Group forum went online on August 9, 2000, and though this enhanced communications among the widely scattered membership, his newsletters were sorely missed and often requested. In 2003, bowing to the demands of new AES members clamoring for the unique information contained in the old newsletters, Prymak recompiled the entire collection into two nicely bound volumes titled, “An Assemblage of Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters,” and offered them at basic cost to AES members only, which makes the two-volume set a rare commodity.
The AES, which never had a strong public presence due to the many different beliefs of its members, is now virtually invisible and of infinitely less consequence than the largely forgotten American icon whose true fate the organization was chartered to discover. With the exception of the annual Amelia Earhart Festival at her Atchison, Kansas, birthplace, where AES members have occasionally made statements or presented books, the group’s public profile has been nonexistent.
But within the closed confines of this international group of about 75 Earhart aficionados, the years between 2002 and 2006 were anything but uneventful. In fact, the re-emergence of the most preposterous notion ever conceived about the fate of Amelia Earhart, and the bitter internecine conflict that ensued, reduced the AES to little more than a shadowy parody of its former self.
The source of contention was Rollin Reineck’s 2003 book, Amelia Earhart Survived. Incredibly, what Joe Klaas and Joe Gervais had strongly suggested in Amelia Earhart Lives, pulled from circulation 33 years earlier – that Amelia Earhart, having been held captive by the Japanese since July 1937, had returned to the United States sometime after World War II and assumed the identity of a New Jersey woman named Irene Bolam – Kailua, Hawaii’s Reineck stated as unequivocal fact. “An objective look at all the evidence seemed to point to the one conclusion that Major Joe Gervais had been right, Irene Bolam was in fact Amelia Earhart,” Reineck wrote in Survived. Reineck’s problem, never acknowledged by neither he nor his supporters, was that nobody has ever provided the slighted shred of credible evidence to support this fantastic claim.
The intellectual bankruptcy of the Amelia Earhart-as-Irene Bolam theory (henceforth the “IB theory”) did not dampen the enthusiasm of its devotees. Although few in number, these true believers loved to preach their gospel at every opportunity, and were equally willing to heap all manner of invective upon those with the temerity to question their false doxies. This hostility toward non-believers is characteristic of behavior commonly found in religious cults, so it wasn’t surprising that the IB zealots within the AES came to be known as Bolamites by their non-subscribing brethren, and as its biblical tone suggests, the term was not one of endearment.
The Bolamites’ dogmatic insistence upon the reality of the Earhart-as-Bolam fiction violently conflicted with the inconvenient fact that none of the theory’s wobbly underpinnings could stand up to even the slightest scrutiny, and ignited the explosions that drove some longtime members over the edge and out of the AES, some permanently. Bill Prymak was among them, and though the organization had lost its moorings long before Prymak decided to leave, his departure was a milestone that marked finis to the AES as a viable entity.
As conspiracy theories rank, Amelia Earhart as Irene Bolam stands among the all-time whoppers, calling its supporters to extremes of credulousness that make the tenets of the Flat Earth Society seem reasonable. As a book, Amelia Earhart Survived was a resounding failure – a nonselling, badly written, poorly edited presentation of a slanderous series of allegations against one of the greatest American women of the 20th century. This may seem harsh, but how else should we characterize the charge, made of whole cloth, that Amelia Earhart, well known for her loyalty and integrity, would forsake her husband, mother, family, friends and country, as well as her own past, to assume the identity of another woman for a reason that remains unknown?
To credit this idea as even remotely possible boggles the rational mind. Consider the logistical and security nightmare of returning Earhart to the United States from either Japan or China, depending on the myth’s latest iteration, and all that would entail. Once in the states, establishing her new identity, home, job and circle of friends would have required a conspiracy of hundreds, if not more, sworn to eternal secrecy – an oath no one has yet violated.
Unlike most fables handed down from murky, indistinct origins in the distant past, the IB theory can trace its lineage to one specific event in fairly recent times. Had Joe Gervais not been in East Hampton, Long Island on August 8, 1965, he would not have met Irene Bolam at the Sea Spray Inn, and Earhart researchers would have been spared the onerous task of attempting to undo the grave mistake Gervais made that day. But Gervais, who had been invited to address several hundred members of the Early Fliers Club, saw Bolam wearing what he mistakenly thought was a Distinguished Flying Cross ribbon and miniature major’s oak leaf (which Gervais erroneously believed was presented to Earhart), and became so sure Irene Bolam was Amelia Earhart that two years later he wrote Bolam a letter begging her to prove she was not the lost aviatrix.
Bolam’s written denial to Gervais and Klaas, “I am not she,” was apparently too short and unassertive to convince them of her veracity. For the record, Irene Craigmile Bolam (October 1, 1904 – July 7, 1982) was a New York banker and resident of Monroe Township, Middlesex County, New Jersey, no more, no less, but this prosaic fact seemed always to evade the Earhart-addled Gervais, who never accepted it, at least publicly.
Thus the Earhart-as-Bolam heresy was born, and persists, like a mutating virus, to this day, though currently it seems relatively dormant. In fact, the countless transformations the IB theory has undergone since the day Joe Gervais met Irene Bolam are its only constants – other than its pure whimsy – as its proponents have been forced to fabricate new and ever more bizarre scenarios to explain the unending contradictions and overwhelming illogic of their theory.
Shortly after publication of Amelia Earhart Lives in 1970, Irene Bolam held a well-attended but brief news conference in which she spoke only a few sentences, although these were most emphatic, according to observers. Holding an upside-down copy of the source of her consternation, she labeled it a “cruel hoax,” slammed the book on a table and roared, “I AM NOT AMELIA EARHART!” and left the room. Seven weeks later, McGraw-Hill ceased sales of Amelia Earhart Lives and pulled it from shelves nationwide; no official explanation was ever given.
On May 26, 1971, Irene Bolam and attorney Benedict Ginsberg filed suit against McGraw-Hill, Joe Klaas and Joe Gervais for defamation. The suit quoted extensively from Amelia Earhart Lives, saying it was false and defamatory, and requested $500,000 in actual damages and $1 million in punitive damages. Researchers Ron Bright and Patrick Gaston traced the official record of the lawsuit to the New York County Courthouse in New York City. TIGHAR’s Richard Gillespie visited the courthouse, copied the file and posted a brief synopsis of the suit’s highlights on TIGHAR’s public Website on February 15, 2004. Gillespie’s review of Bolam v. McGraw-Hill was among the final entries of what he then titled “An Ongoing Discussion with Col. Reineck,” an online exchange of e-mail messages between Reineck and Gillespie “in the interest of open-minded consideration of all theories regarding the fate of Amelia Earhart.”
Gillespie, of course, has his own erroneous ideas, but he was well prepared, evidence in hand, to systematically expose the falsehoods Reineck championed in Survived. Though it was difficult to muster any sympathy for Reineck and his scandalous ideas about Earhart, the ease with which Gillespie skewered and surely embarrassed him during this spectacle was almost painful to watch. Shortly after Reineck’s last entry, in which he complained that Gillespie had “invalidated our agreement by making statements in the form of questions reflecting pre-conceived answers,” Gillespie focused on Reineck’s patently false statement in Survived that Bolam had dropped her lawsuit when asked to produce her fingerprints by the judge. Gillespie asked Reineck if he knew the case file was available to anyone, implying that Reineck had not even read it, and then proceeded to review the court’s ruling in the suit – that there were “triable issues” in the case – which was later upheld by the appellate court on May 4, 1976. At that point the file ends.
“There is nothing about a settlement offer, nothing about ordering fingerprints, nothing about Bolam dropping the case,” Ron Bright told me in a September 2006 e-mail. “The file ends there, but obviously there was some kind of out-of-court settlement. And I believe IB was awarded a substantial amount. Probably sealed. No one really knows how much she got. Irene Bolam, the sister-in-law [a different Irene Bolam], thinks it was substantial.” Gillespie said much the same thing, and told Reineck, “It’s fine to repeat your friends’ stories but don’t present them as fact without checking them for accuracy first.” Reineck had no response for Gillespie, as he had disappeared from the discussion.
Curious to learn if Reineck had finally accepted the inescapable reality that his fingerprint claim had been exposed as yet another Bolamite myth, I asked him about it in October 2006. His response was unsurprising. “What I say on page 180 is basically and fundamentally accurate,” Reineck told me in an e-mail. “Mrs. Bolam dropped the legal suit and settled out of court when she became aware that she would be required to submit her fingerprints. In other words she was not willing to go ahead with the suit so it was dismissed. There are no inaccuracies in my book.” (Italics mine.)
So, which is it? Was Bolam’s lawsuit settled out court, or dismissed? Reineck, the author and expert, flatly states that his book contains no errors, but can’t seem to elucidate the correct answer to the most basic of questions about the outcome of Bolam versus McGraw-Hill. This incoherence typified the disorder inherent in the IB theory. Contrary to Reineck’s assertions, his entire disquisition comprised one falsehood after another – none more egregious than his reaffirmation of Gervais’ infamous blunder in mistaking Irene Bolam for Amelia Earhart in 1965, the hollow foundation upon which the entire fantasy is built.
In the final chapter of Survived, Reineck unveiled his coup de grace, “forensic science methodology” by way of “transparent photographic overlays” – high-tech sleight-of-hand designed to convince the suggestible that Earhart and the “Gervais Irene” i.e., the Irene Bolam that Gervais met at the Sea Spray Inn, were identical. Reineck then introduced Tod Swindell, his photo technician, whose “tireless efforts have successfully produced outstanding results that are acceptable to the scientific community as proof that Irene Bolam and Amelia Earhart were the same person.” Reineck continued his campaign by invoking the imprimaturs of forensic anthropologists Walker H. Birkby and Todd W. Fenton, who, said Reineck, had evaluated Swindell’s photo overlays, and found it “hard to disagree” with his astounding conclusion: “The case of the missing person Amelia Earhart, surely has been solved by virtue of forensic science,” Reineck wrote.
At this point, readers seeking visual confirmation of the Earhart-Bolam confluence were greatly disappointed, as no trace of these revealing photo overlays could be found in Survived. But even cursory inspection of the many photos of Bolam and Earhart on display in the book leaves no doubt that these were two distinct individuals bearing little resemblance to one another. As for high-tech imagery, Reineck actually presented only a police forensic artist’s imaginary, computer-generated portrait of a seventy-five-year-old Earhart displayed side-by-side with a similarly aged Bolam, leaving us with the same verdict: not even close.
The unconvincing photos spoke for themselves, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Not so the pesky reality soon brought to bear on the colonel’s claims of professional validation for his overlays, when Gillespie, in the final stanza of their online discussion, announced he had cornered Doctor Birkby at a February 2004 forensics association meeting in Dallas. Birkby told Gillespie he wasn’t aware that his name was being invoked to bolster Reineck’s contentions; moreover, Birkby said he wasn’t even familiar with Reineck’s book. “You can’t prove anything from photos,” Gillespie said Birkby told him. “He showed us a bunch of overlays but the photo quality is so poor and they’ve been blown way up – you can almost make anybody look like anybody.”
“Once again, Col. Reineck, the facts appear to be very different from the information presented in your book,” Gillespie told the long-departed colonel in concluding their one-sided conversation. “It’s one thing to present folklore as fact, but falsifying the endorsement of respected professionals is serious business.”
Eighteen months after Survived was published, Birkby and Fenton reportedly issued their report on Swindell’s photo overlays of Earhart and Bolam. Reineck, who had assured AES members he would produce the document in its entirety, never did so, but in May 2005, he acknowledged that the forensic specialists had refused to confirm, officially or unofficially, that any exact similarities exist between photographs of Amelia Earhart and Irene Bolam. It was the only time Reineck would make such an admission, and he soon returned to insisting that Earhart and Bolam were the same person. But it wasn’t only Reineck who remained steadfast in his Bolamite faith when confronted by clinical rulings against its heresies, and despite productive research efforts that further revealed the IB theory’s fraudulence, newly energized and ever-more-devout IB zealots were seeking and gaining admission into this once-respected group of researchers.
In late November 2006, the National Geographic Channel dragged out the Bolam theory as a segment in its Undercover History series, a program simply dubbed Amelia Earhart, which its producers likely believed would be a ratings grabber. After Reineck and Joe Klaas completed their on-camera bloviations, National Geographic presented detective and criminal forensic expert Kevin Richlin, of the Sunnyvale, California Police Department. Richlin, needless to say, doesn’t play in the same high-end league as Doctors Birkby and Fenton, but National Geographic’s budget allotment for forensic specialists may have been more limited than Reineck’s. Salaries notwithstanding, the street-smart Richlin eviscerated the Bolamite deception far more effectively than the doctors had apparently done, and Richland’s report was available to the public, not stashed way in their private office in Hawaii.
“In comparing Bolam and Earhart there are numerous differences,” Richlin began. “The age line on Earhart starts at her nose, proceeds down past the edge of her mouth, and there is a second groove that goes from her mouth down. In Bolam, the age line starts at the nose, but only goes down part way, and stops well short of the edge of her mouth, and there is no second groove.” Richlin went on to show how Earhart has a mole and freckles, whereas Bolam has no mole and no freckles. “Furthermore, their eyebrows are different, their noses are different, and their mouths are different,” he continued, illustrating these distinctions by using a pointer to trace them in the comparison photos. “These are two different people,” Richlin stated emphatically, and completed his brief by saying that if someone came to him with these photos and said they were the same person, “They should find work elsewhere, as this is not where their talents lay.”
“They built the Bolamite stuff up like a straw man, and then cut it down at the very ankles,” said Rob Ellos, whose passionate embrace of the truth presented by Thomas E. Devine, Robert E. Wallack and Earskin J. Nabers earned him an invitation to speak at the annual Midwest Regional Conference of the Ninety-Nines in Duluth, Minnesota, in the fall of 2007. The group later withdrew their offer, citing internal administrative problems, but in early March 2007, Ellos filled a 30-minute, late-night segment on the number one talk-radio station in the Twin Cities with the facts about Earhart’s presence on Saipan, much to the chagrin of the program’s cynical host, who couldn’t accept the idea that the American or Japanese governments would ever withhold this information from their people.
Speaking of reviews, in contrast to what normally could be expected after the home team suffers a severe thrashing, the mood on the AES forum was decidedly upbeat in the days following the National Geographic Channel’s dismantling of the IB theory. Anyone familiar with Bolamite behavior, however, would have been surprised by anything other than the barely controlled glee punctuating the online message traffic. Indeed, for the Bolamites, inclusion of their ideas in a legitimate venue such as the National Geographic Channel, alongside those of approved “mainstream” theorists such as Elgen Long and Richard Gillespie, was a stupendous achievement. In the deluded minds of the Bolamites, it marked their de facto resurrection from the ashes of the McGraw-Hill settlement debacle three decades earlier. Most importantly, this attention from the heretofore esteemed National Geographic Channel filled the Bolamites’ deepest need – it gave them validation.
The fact that their manifesto was exposed as rubbish was merely an insignificant detail. In typical happy talk a day after the program’s premiere, Reineck told one well-wisher, “It was a good show. They presented both sides of the theory.” Several showings of the Earhart special were scheduled in the weeks following its November 29, 2006 debut, and even more potential converts and recruits would be exposed to the Bolamite delusions. The program continues to be aired periodically.
In Part II of “Irene Bolam and the Decline of the Amelia Earhart Society,” we’ll look at some of the most incredible contortions of logic and fact imaginable as the Bolamites build the IB myth into a full-blown travesty, one that dragged many otherwise intelligent people into the Bolamites’ bottomless swamp of delusion.