The Mysterious disappearance of William Ashton Shaw in 1923.

There is a rural town called Tilbury that sits on the western edge of the municipality of Chatham-Kent in the heart of south-west Ontario, Canada. Placed between the Great Lakes of Erie, St. Clair and Huron, Tilbury is about 60 kilometres or 37 miles from Detroit in Michigan USA.

One Tuesday afternoon in August 1923, on the 7th to be exact, a loving and caring father and brother, well known in the Tilbury and the wider community of the Kent- Essex district, suddenly disappeared. He had been home for lunch at noon with his family and, according to the newspaper reports, he returned to work afterwards. His wife, Elizabeth, or Lizzie as she was known, called sometime later to inform him that she was expecting guests from Windsor for tea and she requested he be home early to join them. A couple of hours later he left work dressed in his dark grey checkered suit, black shoes and his brown cap. His shirt was striped with no collar and he did not wear a tie. On his wedding finger he wore a large gold ring with a red stone in claw setting.[i]

After leaving his office, William “went to a Tilbury drug store and asked for notepaper, envelopes and ink, and in the store he wrote a missive, which, it is believed he never posted. He also bought a newspaper.”[ii]

The next day, the Windsor Star also reported:

When he failed to arrive home for tea his family became nervous, and made inquiries as to his whereabouts. A search party was organized, and it was learned that he started out into the country on foot, about the hour he was missing from his office, but he evidently failed to inform anyone as to his intended destination. Mr. Shaw is essentially a home man, and very attentive and considerate to his family, and the fact that he did not tell his wife that he was going away, and the additional fact that no word was received from him at the tea hour, or during the night is causing his family considerable alarm. Mr. Shaw is one of the most prominent and respected residents of the town of Tilbury. He has a host of friends and those best acquainted with him are unable to conceive of any circumstance which might account for his mysterious disappearance.[iii]

Understandably Elizabeth and William’s two sisters, Isabella and Maude were quite distraught wondering if he had been in an accident or come to some other kind of harm. On the 13th August Elizabeth published the following appeal:

“Will, dear, as we have received no word from you since Tuesday, your sisters and I beg you to communicate with us at once. We are suffering under a dark cloud of agony and suspense. If you would only send us a few words, so that we might know where you are, and help you in the time of your trouble. We can think of no reason for your leaving. It is so unlike the kind and loving husband which you have always been to me. My arms are outstretched awaiting your return. Please come back to me.

LIZZIE”[iv]

Born on Lloydtown in 1862, William was the editor and proprietor of the town’s newspaper Tilbury Times that he had established in 1884 at the age of 21. The Tilbury Times still exists today.[v] His father was Pringle Shaw an early pioneer who settled in Tilbury sometime before 1881 with his family. William’s mother, Sarah Ashton had passed away around 1870 and his father had then married Ellen Eales. William had married Lizzie (Elizabeth Ann Powell) in Tilbury in 1888 and they had no children.[vi]

Newspapers from all around published the story. The Buffalo Times in New York on 15th August also gave a physical description to its readers that William “is 61 years old, height 5 feet 8 inches, weight 160 pounds, light hair, bald head, blue eyes, fair complexion, clean shaven, slightly stooped shoulders, somewhat halting walk.”[vii]

 The Victoria Daily Times published a photo of William on 24th August. [viii]

Victoria Daily Times, William A Shaw

It was now 17 days since William disappeared. The weeks continued to pass by without a word. I wonder how his wife, Lizzie and sisters were holding up. It must have been a very harrowing time for them.

Then, after several more weeks of worrying and waiting, a breakthrough finally came with some extremely good news:

SHAW FOUND IN ST. LOUIS

Editor of Tilbury Paper Suffers Loss of Memory

Special to the Star

TILBURY, Oct 1 – Loss of memory is said to have been the cause of the mysterious disappearance of William A. Shaw, editor of the Tilbury Times, who was found in St. Louis, Mo., Sunday, after a search of eight weeks in which relatives, local, county and provincial police took part.

Mr. Shaw, a highly respected citizen left his home here August 7, to go to his office. He failed to reach the place and all trace of him was lost for several weeks, with the exception of a report that he had been in Chatham. This report was followed up and it was learned that he had been in Chatham but where he went from there was not known.

A couple of days ago the wife of the missing man received a letter from the editor’s brother, Pringle Shaw, from the West, which stated that her husband had written him from St. Lois, Missouri, asking him for money.

It appears that faulty memory had brough back a glimpse of Mr. Shaw’s past and brought to mind the name and address of the brother in the West.

On receipt of the letter the family asked Rev. Rural Dean Dobson, Anglican clergyman of Tilbury, to go to St. Louis to see if the author of the letter was the missing Mr. Shaw. Mr Dobson went to St. Louis and this morning brough Mr. Shaw back to his home.

Mr. Shaw does not remember how he got to St. Louis or anything that happened when he left home.[ix]

Over 500 miles from home, William was apparently safe! How did he survive I wonder? Did he have money for food and accommodation until he wrote to Pringle, his brother, living nearly 2000 miles away in Oregon on the other side of the continent? Was that where he was trying to make his way intending to visit? What caused his memory lapse?

Whatever happened, we will never know but William seemed to fully recover from this unfortunate episode. His stayed active in the community and his newspaper flourished. It is said that his favourite saying was “we must go to press”. He went on to be Mayor of Tilbury for 4 years from 1926 to 1929. He was a public school trustee, president of the Lake Erie, St Clair and Lambton Weekly Newspaper Association, a member of the Canadian Weekly Press Association, chairman of the Tilbury Public Library Board, a member of the Lions club, the Masonic Lodge, the Eastern Star and an Odd Fellow. He also assisted in the building of the new St Andrew’s church of England and was a church warden for 38 years. In 1936 the position of Warden Emeritus was an honour he received in recognition of his service to the church.[x] A very busy man!

William passed away from a stroke on 28th January, 1938. His sisters were still alive but his devoted wife, Lizzie had predeceased him four years earlier. William was 76 years old and, along with his other family members, is buried in the St George’s Cemetery in Tilbury.[xi]


[i] Buffalo Times, “William A. Shaw Reported Missing”, Buffalo New York, 15 August 1923 p. 6.

[ii] The Windsor Star, “NEWSPAPER MAN OF TILBURY VANISHES”, Windsor Ontario Canada, 8 August 1923 p. 7.

[iii] Ibid.,

[iv] Buffalo Morning Express and Illustrated Express, “WIFE’S GRIEF APPEAL”, New York 13 August 1923.

[v] Duqette, Scott R. and others, The Tilbury Story – Celebration of a Century, 1887 – 1987, “William Ashton Shaw”Corporation of the Town of Tilbury, Ontario Canada, 1987, pp. 305- 306.

[vi] The Windsor Star, “W.A. Shaw, Editor, Dies”, Windsor Ontario Canada, 29 Jan 1938 pg. 5.

[vii] Buffalo Times, “William A. Shaw Reported Missing” Buffalo New York, 15 August 1923 p. 6.

[viii] Victoria Daily Times, “William A Shaw”, Victoria, B.C. Canada, p. 12.

[ix] The Windsor Star, “SHAW FOUND IN ST. LOUIS”, Windsor Ontario Canada, 1 October 1923 p. 6.

[x] Duqette, Scott R. and others, The Tilbury Story – Celebration of a Century, 1887 – 1987, “William Ashton Shaw”Corporation of the Town of Tilbury, 1987, pp. 305- 306 and The Windsor Star, “W.A. Shaw, Editor, Dies”, Windsor Ontario Canada, 29 Jan 1938 p. 5.

[xi] The Windsor Star, “W.A. Shaw, Editor, Dies”, Windsor Ontario Canada, 29 Jan 1938 pg. 5.

Featured image W.A.Shaw, The Windsor Star, 29 Jan 1928, p.5

William was part of my extended Belfast Shaw family. My 1st cousin 3 times removed.