OPINION: The mystery of the missing fire chief captivated the city

The disappearance of Fire Chief Burton J. Batty from Port Huron’s Harrington Hotel had police in Canada and the U.S. baffled for weeks. Photo courtesy of Port Huron Museum

On Nov. 6, 1932, a story in the Canadian Observer announced to a startled city that Fire Chief Burton J. Batty was “missing.” Foul play was feared.

Batty had received a telephone call from an unidentified man around midnight, and the caller asked him to come to the Harrington Hotel in Port Huron.

The chief decided, the firemen said, to ignore the call, but the man called again repeatedly between midnight and dawn.

According to Batty’s wife, he had come home on Tuesday morning and decided to cross to Port Huron on the 9:15 a.m. ferry to see what the man wanted. Batty had promised his wife he would be home by noon for lunch.

When he failed to return, Mrs. Batty was concerned, but assumed her husband had simply been detained. But by afternoon she began to worry. She placed a telephone call to the George Street firehall and spoke to Captain Alex Hinks.

It wasn’t like him to leave the firehall unaware of his movements. When evening came with still no word from Batty, Captain Hinks was persuaded by Mrs. Batty to notify police that Sarnia’s fire chief was missing.

Police Chief W.J. Lannin put out a missing person report, alerting the Port Huron and Michigan State Police of the missing man. Family members in New York State were contacted by police, notified of the situation, and asked whether they’d heard from Chief Batty. They hadn’t.

By the time Batty had been missing from Sarnia for 50 hours, Police Chief Lannin expanded the search. He told reporters an investigation at the Harrington Hotel had failed to produce anyone who’d seen either Chief Batty or the mystery man who lured him to the hotel. Chief Lannin admitted the police were inquiring into the private life of the fire chief, no stone being left unturned in the search for something to explain his disappearance.

The mystery of the missing fire chief would finally be resolved days before Christmas when Batty wired his brother in New York for money from Memphis, Tennessee. He had apparently suffered some type of breakdown.

Arrested in Memphis for being in the United States illegally, he wove a tale of being kidnapped from the Harrington and abducted to St. Louis, where he regained consciousness in a “Negro shack.”

Rather than return home or even contact his seriously worried wife, Batty had then hitchhiked farther south, “looking for work.”

Obviously ill, Batty eventually returned to Sarnia, but his days as fire chief were over.

Got an interesting tale? Contact columnist Phil Egan at philegan@cogeco.ca