Is This Amelia Earhart?

Amelia Earhart Survived

by Colonel Rollin Reineck, USAF (ret.)
The Paragon Agency Publishers, 2003
230 pages, $35.00

“The case of the missing person Amelia Earhart, surely has been solved by virtue of forensic science.”
— Rollin Reineck

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
— Carl Sagan

After nearly 67 years of controversy, any claimed solution to the Earhart mystery qualifies as extraordinary, but this latest of the conspiracy-theory books raises the bar for extraordinary claims. Much of Col. Reineck’s book is a recitation of articles of faith held by those who believe that Amelia Earhart was captured by the Japanese – she landed in the Marshall Islands, witnesses saw her in Japanese custody, the Roosevelt administration knew what happened, etc. The evidence offered is the usual mix of selected anecdotes and imaginative interpretations of a few documents, but where Col. Reineck has broken new ground is in his re-examination of the charge that a woman by the name of Irene Bolam who died in New Jersey in 1982 was, in fact, Amelia Earhart, secretly repatriated to the U.S. from Japan after World War Two.

The Earhart-as-Bolam speculation should have died after the 1970 book Amelia Earhart Lives! by Joe Klaas was pulled from the market by the publisher, McGraw-Hill, shortly after its release. Mrs. Bolam sued Klaas, his associate Joe Gervais, and McGraw-Hill for defamation. Reineck now resurrects the controversy by repeating and embellishing the old allegations and citing film maker Todd Swindell’s photographic comparisons of Earhart’s and Bolam’s physical features as evidence that they were the same person. To bolster the illusion that his case is supported by forensic science, he implies the endorsement of two respected forensic anthropologists. Reineck also presents a computerized age-progression impression of what Earhart might have looked like at age 75 displayed beside a photo of Irene Bolam at age 74.

While cautioning that the full story of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance may never be learned, Col. Reineck states in bold-face type that “[T]he case of the missing person Amelia Earhart, surely has been solved by virtue of forensic science.” It most certainly has not.

In the book’s Introduction the author acknowledges that, because he presents new information, there are bound to be skeptics. He cautions that challenges will come from those who have their own agenda but he welcomes critiques that are “based upon logic and facts.”

TIGHAR’s only agenda is to discover the truth about the Earhart disappearance so we accepted Col. Reineck’s invitation. We engaged him in an open discussion about the allegations he makes in his book and gave him every opportunity to provide evidence to support them. In the course of our inquiry we found that, time and again, assertions made by the author are at odds with the documented record but, when challenged, Col. Reineck proved unable or unwilling to support his claims and soon refused to continue his dialogue with TIGHAR.

Eventually we came to realize that we had erred in approaching the Earhart/Bolam controversy as if it were a serious hypothesis. We had made the assumption that those who espouse the theory were making a good faith effort to present well-researched facts to support their position, but – as Col. Reineck showed us – Earhart/Bolam devotees operate by a different set of rules that stands the scientific method of inquiry on its head.

LEGEND VS. REALITY

The originator of the theory is a retired USAF major named Joe Gervais who, while attending a social event on Long Island in 1965 , saw Mrs. Bolam and “just knew” that she had to be Amelia Earhart. Neither Gervais nor his disciples, Reineck among them, accepts evidence that argues against this fundamental revelation. Any allegation or interpretation that fits the desired conclusion is embraced without question, while inconvenient facts are either explained away by adding additional layers of conspiracy, or simply ignored. The result, over the years, has been the growth of a body of folklore that presents an incriminating, but almost entirely fictitious, case against the late Irene Bolam.

The Legend:

Reineck reports that when Gervais first met Irene Bolam he thought she was wearing decorations that had been presented to Amelia Earhart – specifically, a medallion “similar” to one presented to Earhart by President Hoover in 1932, a miniature major's gold-leaf rank insignia (Earhart had been made an Honorary Commander of an Air Corps reserve squadron in San Francisco in 1928) and an enameled miniature red-white-and-blue ribbon signifying the Distinguished Flying Cross (awarded to Earhart after her 1932 transatlantic flight).

The Reality:

The photo of Bolam taken by Gervais at that same event shows that the medallion’s only similarity to the one awarded to Earhart is that both are round. There is no record of Earhart having received a major’s insignia from the reserve squadron; she received silver wings and a scroll. No DFC ribbon is visible in the photo taken by Gervais.

The Legend:

According to Reineck, photographs of Amelia Earhart and Irene Bolam show a remarkable physical resemblance.

The Reality:

Bolam and Earhart look no more alike than do thousands of other women of similar northern European descent. Reineck’s description of Swindell’s attempt to draw conclusions using photos of Earhart taken in the 1930s and photos of Bolam taken in the 1970s demonstrates a fundamental ignorance of the limitations of photo-to-photo comparisons. As cautioned by Dr. Karen T. Taylor in Forensic Art and Illustration (CRC Press, 2001, page 288) “This approach is not appropriate or legally valid for determination of a positive identification.” The forensic anthropologists cited by Reineck are well aware of these limitations. When contacted by TIGHAR, one of the scientists stressed that they had offered no endorsement of the Bolam/Earhart hypothesis, despite the book's misleading implication that they had.

The Legend:

Reineck’s book offers as evidence a computerized age-progression image of Earhart at age 75 that resembles a photo of Bolam at age 74.

The Reality:

The apparent resemblance is caused primarily by the artist’s decision to put 75 year-old Earhart in dark clothes, give her the same hair color and style as Bolam, and adorn her, like Bolam, with necklace and earrings. Closer examination reveals that the facial features in the two images are actually quite different. Bolam’s nose is larger with nostrils that are more flared than Earhart’s. Bolam's upper lip is straight across the top whereas Earhart’s has a distinct dip in the center. Bolam does not have a mole on the lower left-hand side of her face. Bolam's teeth are evenly spaced. Earhart had a rather large gap between her front teeth (there is no evidence that Bolam wore dentures).

The Legend:

Reineck reports that, in 1981, a retired prominent Roman Catholic clergyman, Monsignor James Francis Kelley, told acquaintances of having been instrumental in Earhart’s repatriation from Japan and the establishment of her new identity as Irene Bolam.

The Reality:

Monsignor Kelley’s memoirs, published in 1987 when he was 85 years old, contain many outrageous and demonstrably fictitious stories about his encounters with famous personalities but make no mention of Amelia Earhart. He tells of accompanying New Jersey Governor Harold Hoffman on a visit to convicted Lindbergh kidnapper Bruno Hauptmann on the night before his execution to offer the condemned man clemency if he would reveal the names of his accomplices. Kelley claims he gave Hauptmann his blessing an hour before the man was electrocuted. Hauptmann’s final hours on April 3, 1936 are, of course, extensively documented. Hoffman did not go to the prison that day and there is no record of Kelley having been there. Two German-speaking pastors, Werner and Matthiesen, attended Hauptman in his final hours. Monsignor Kelley also tells of witnessing a wartime incident involving actor Clark Gable who served as an Army Air Force officer during World War II. According to Kelley, Gable, acting without orders, took off in a Northrop P-61 “Black Widow” to test a newly installed ejection seat, allowing the airplane to then crash into the water off Newark, New Jersey. P-61s were, in fact, used for early ejection seat tests but neither Clark Gable nor Monsignor Kelley was involved. Gable was not a pilot and left active duty long before the tests were conducted. Kelley’s allegations about his secret association with Amelia Earhart are similarly fantastic and unsupported by available documentation. It seems apparent that in later life Monsignor Kelly suffered from dementia.

The Legend:

According to Reineck, after the publication of the 1970 book by Gervais and Klass revealing her “true identity,” Irene Bolam sued the authors and the publisher for approximately two million dollars, but when the defendants offered to pay if Bolam would comply with a judge’s request that she appear in court and consent to be fingerprinted, Mrs. Bolam instead dropped the lawsuit.

The Reality:

Unlike Reineck, TIGHAR examined the court records which are publicly available for inspection at the New York County Courthouse in Manhattan. The court records document that on May 26, 1971 Bolam sued for $500,000 in actual damages and $1,000,000 in punitive damages. There is nothing in the file about a judge asking Bolam for her fingerprints. The file does show that the defendants moved for summary judgment. In other words, they filed a motion with the court enumerating all the reasons that Bolam’s lawsuit was without merit (in essence, listing all the reasons why they felt it was reasonable to conclude that Irene Bolam was really Amelia Earhart) and asking the judge to dismiss the case. On August 26, 1975 the court denied the motion. The defendants appealed the decision and on May 4, 1976 the appellate court affirmed the decision of the lower court. The court records end at this point, suggesting that the parties then reached a private settlement.

By their own admission, neither Gervais nor Klaas is familiar with the terms of the settlement that ended the case except that each of them was paid $10 for his agreement not to countersue (a standard condition of most settlements). From what can be documented about the case it is almost certain that, having failed to win a summary judgment and also losing the appeal, McGraw-Hill Publishing (the only deep pocket among the defendants) wisely decided not to go to trial and reached a private settlement with Bolam for some undisclosed sum. Gervais and Klaas never paid for their nonsense.

In summary, there is not now, nor was there ever, cause to suspect that Irene Bolam was Amelia Earhart. Those who originally concocted the chimera had their book withdrawn, were sued, and failed to convince two judges of their claims. Reineck’s book attempts to breath new life into discredited allegations by repeating folklore and falsehood as fact. As such, Amelia Earhart Survived joins the ranks of a dozen or more conspiracy books that mislead the unwary and perpetuate the mythology that surround the Earhart mystery.

Richard Gillespie
Executive Director
TIGHAR

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