When Arthur Kingsley Porter vanished from the remote island of Inishbofin off Ireland’s Atlantic coast in 1933 it made the front page of the New York Times. “Archaeologist lost from boat in storm,” said the headline.
The inquest – the first in Ireland without a body – concluded the prominent Harvard university academic had in fact stumbled from a cliff while out walking and been washed away in a freak accident.
Many islanders had another theory, however, and passed it to children and grandchildren. When the island erected a memorial last year to those lost at sea off its shores, Porter’s name was omitted because there is a belief he did not drown – that he faked his death and slipped away to a new life.
It is a mystery that has entered folklore in this part of County Donegal, on Ireland’s north-western tip. The story entwines sexual scandal, mental health, the Great Depression and a purported curse from a medieval tomb.
There will be a fresh attempt to unravel the truth next week when the Irish language channel TG4 airs a documentary titled Ar Iarraidh (Missing). “I combine facts that are known and new facts we discovered. You take away from it what your own feeling is,” said the presenter, Kevin Magee. “If you’re an optimist you think he faked his own death. If you’re a pessimist you think he took his own life. If a pragmatist you think it was an accident.”
The latest investigation comes in the wake of an RTÉ radio documentary last year and a 2012 book, Glenveagh Mystery: the Life, Work and Disappearance of Arthur Kingsley Porter, by Lucy Costigan.
Each depict a man who outwardly had it all. Scion of a wealthy New England family, Porter owned Glenveagh Castle, a spectacular estate on the Irish mainland, plus a cottage on Inishbofin. He was chair of Harvard’s art history department and a renowned scholar of romanesque architecture. He had a devoted wife, Lucy, who accompanied him on research trips around Europe.
But Porter was troubled. He was secretly gay. Lucy knew, and accepted his taking of a young lover, Alan Campbell. Even so Porter agonised that Harvard would discover his sexuality, ruining his career and scandalising New England. In 1933 the 50-year-old had additional anxieties: the economic depression was depleting his fortune, and Campbell left him.
What, then, really happened after he left his island cottage on the morning of 8 July 1933, never to be seen again?
“The romantic version is that Porter continued with his travels,” said Costigan, the author. “He would be free of Harvard and his marriage, that constrained him in some ways.
“It would be lovely to think he got away and escaped it all and continued with his archaeology work under an assumed name, that he did find some peace.”
The TG4 documentary includes interviews with islanders who relate alleged sightings of Porter in Paris. There were other purported sightings on a quay in Marseille, a town in northern Spain and a monastery in India.
The wildest theory is of supernatural punishment. In 1926 Porter removed a sarcophagus lid from the 11th-century Spanish tomb of Alfonso Ansúrez, a nobleman’s son, and took it to Harvard, where it was displayed in the Fogg Museum as an example of medieval sepulchral scripture. Spanish authorities protested and eventually the lid was returned – on 8 July 1933.
Costigan inclines towards a more conventional explanation: suicide.
When Porter was a boy his mother died and his widower father shocked upper-crust Connecticut society by pursuing much younger women. “Sexual scandal was something Porter was absolutely terrified of,” said the author. “He became quite shy and introverted and would feel very unsure of himself in a lot of ways.”
Marriage to Lucy shielded his homosexuality but suspicion grew when he hired the outwardly gay Campbell as an assistant at Harvard, which had a history of outing and expelling gay people. Porter confided in a letter that he was “absorbed with anxiety”. Fear of ostracism combined with worry over finances and his relationship with Campbell. “He was facing an awful lot of dilemmas,” said Costigan, who also co-authored a book on understanding suicide.
Few seem to believe the official version of an accident. Inishbofin’s so-called cliffs are gentle slopes – a stumble is unlikely to be fatal.
The TG4 documentary leans towards a clandestine getaway, noting that three months before his disappearance Porter amended his will making Lucy his sole beneficiary, that no thorough search was made of the island after he vanished, and that Lucy behaved oddly in the immediate aftermath. After just a few hours she started to write letters – never sent – declaring her husband vanished. That evening she returned to the mainland and told a friend: “Kingsley will not return tonight. Kingsley will never return.”
There was a fishing boat on the island – not mentioned at the inquest – the night before the vanishing. The documentary highlights Porter’s fascination with the Irish medieval monk Saint Columba, or Colmcille, who sailed to exile in Scotland, and a poem by Porter which uses the word “free” 21 times.
The academic’s grand-nephew, Scott Arneill, has little doubt: “What I believe happened, to put it simply as possible, is that he faked his own death.”