Review: The Vanishing Messiah by David N. Wetzel

The Vanishing Messiah by David N. Wetzel (University of Iowa Press) is as good as it gets when it comes to historical crime: a story of devout faith, deception, body snatching, and the remarkable lengths one man will go to pursue what he believes is his calling.

In the summer of 1895, a charismatic healer arrived in the American West to begin his traveling ministry. By the time he secretly leaves Denver under the cover of darkness in November Francis Schlatter, who bore a striking physical resemblance to the American depiction of Jesus Christ, “was seeing 450 to 600 people an hour.”

When his followers learned of his disappearance, they were distraught. And angry. When a perfectly preserved skeleton is found in Mexico, surrounded by Schlatter’s belongings, it seemed his story reached its conclusion.

But was he really dead? His followers quoted his prediction that he would return to them in three years, that their faith would be tested. Schlatter had quoted the prophecies in book of Daniel, that “the time was at hand for God to cleanse the earth of evil and greed, and to establish an earthly kingdom of peace, righteousness, and well-being.” Surely he would return to them when the time was right?

In order to uncover the truth about his disappearance, Wetzel, a dogged historian, pieces together evidence from years of study in various archives as well as on-the-ground investigations, following Schlatter’s footsteps through the southwest, into Mexico.

The Vanishing Messiah would have been an intriguing book if Wetzel had stopped there, with his discoveries in the Mexican graveyard. But, like Schlatter himself, Wetzel wasn’t satisfied with just one act. He continues his quest, following the bizarre and, at times, heartbreaking path Schlatter takes throughout the rest of his life, driven by faith, madness, and pride.

A few passages of The Vanishing Messiah steer into overly academic territory, but Wetzel does his best to pull readers quickly back into the larger story with human insights into Schlatter’s personal life, and remarkable period details.

It’s a hot, dirty, slightly blurry world at the turn of the century: photographs and other identification methods are not common, so it’s easy for charlatans and imposters to take advantage of the unsuspecting public.  

But the truth, as Wetzel shows, wins out – even if it takes many years, and a few strokes of luck.