Only in the last few years have posters of missing young people been wrapped around lampposts in Ireland, accompanied by friends and family handing out leaflets in the street in the sadly wilted hope that some stranger will remember something.
Most of those posters show girls and boys in their late teens or early twenties, whereas, in the US, milk cartons carry photographs of children as young as four, in some cases alongside pictures, computer-enhanced, of some approximation of how they might look today. Which, in turn, hammers home the length of time they have been missing.
Timmothy Pitzen disappeared in 2011, aged six, in Illinois. His mother took him out of kindergarten before closing time, visited a zoo and a water park with him, then killed herself, leaving a note telling the police that her son was in good hands. “You’ll never find him,” the note said.
There has been no sign of Timmothy since. The hopes of his father and of other relatives had faded when, last week, they flared anew with the news that a confused and bruised young man was claiming to have been held captive for seven years and that he was Timmothy Pitzen.
You can imagine the half-controlled hope this set off in the minds of those who remembered the little boy, despite that hope having briefly flared a couple of times before, only to be dashed. Could it be Timmothy?
Well, no, actually, it couldn’t. It took only two days to establish that this was a convict named Brian Michael Rini, released from prison only 10 days before St Patrick’s Day.
He was 23 years of age. A young adult who couldn’t pull off a burglary without being caught and convicted had decided to impersonate a missing child, using his imagination to fill in the years between the child’s disappearance and today.
Quite apart from the mammoth task of convincing the father of Timmothy Pitzen that he was his son, Brian Michael seems not to have thought that he would be DNA-tested. Not the brightest, Brian Michael. Possibly not even the sanest.
And let’s not go near the lack of empathy, the willingness to subject to a hope-lifting fraud a family suffering from the chronic, truncated grief of those who have never been able to lay a body to rest and mourn together.
The FBI, when they speedily announced that they had Brian Michael by the short and curlies, stated their sympathy with the Pitzen family and — perhaps taking a leaf out of the book of the New Zealand premier, Jacinda Ardern — didn’t make Brian Michael more interesting and laid charges against him.
It’s all about timing. Arguably the most successful imposter in history was neither bright nor sane nor credible, but she was pulled out of a river in Berlin long before anybody had ever heard of DNA. In addition, she tapped into and personified a global nostalgia for an era never to return: that of the tzars of Russia.
The last tsar, Nicholas II, had been overthrown in 1917 and he and his family subsequently incarcerated in the Ipatiev house, in Ekaterinburg, in Siberia, while the Bolsheviks worked out what to do with them. The family consisted of the Tzar, his wife, Alexandra, the young haemophiliac, Tzarevitch Alexei, and four daughters, each of whom was a grand duchess, all of whom were closely related to Europe’s royal families, including those in the UK.
Nothing was heard about the Russian royal family, the last of the Romanovs, for a long time. Too long a time for anybody sensible to be optimistic about their survival. And then this woman — an apparent would-be suicide — was pulled out of the Danube and committed to a mental hospital or, as they were called at that time, a lunatic asylum.
She was silent, refusing to explain herself or identify herself. So they named her ‘Fraulein Unbekannt’, meaning ‘Miss Unknown’. That was in 1920.
As time went on, random things happened. Someone thought they saw a look of the Romanovs in ‘Miss Unknown’. Someone vaguely connected with security for the family showed the woman some photographs of them, helpfully naming them as he did. Gradually, a story emerged of this girl escaping the slaughter of her family, becoming the lover of a soldier who had helped her to cross Russia, to whom she had borne a child who died.
The soldier himself was killed, before, in despair, the girl he had rescued ended up in the river in Berlin.
A Romanov relative funded a professional investigation into the claims about the girl, now known as Anna Anderson, and the detective came back to report that Anderson was, in reality, a troubled Polish factory worker named Franziska Schanzkowska.
That should have been the end of it, but it wasn’t, because Anderson, while making no claims on her own behalf, had a phenomenal capacity to persuade others to make them for her. Or perhaps her history speaks, rather, to the varied needs of those pushing the romantic idea of the survival of Arch Duchess Anastasia.
Some saw her as the access point to Romanov money. Some saw her as the link to a revival of the old regime. Some wanted to write books about her and make films about her.
When she eventually ended up in the US, a quite prominent, if eccentric, history professor so wanted to be associated with putative royalty that he married her.
The faith of her supporters managed to surmount repeated attacks of mental illness.
It excused the fact that she had little Russian, and that what she had was not the language of the court, on the basis that she was so traumatised by what had happened to her and her family that her language skills became impaired.
Just when everybody seemed to have lost interest and belief in her, someone would turn up who had once seen Anastasia and was ready to swear Anna Anderson Manahan was the tsar’s heir, and right up to the point she died, in her 80s, in 1984.
Then, the burned bones of the Romanovs were found in a vastly changed Russia, and, assembled, seemed to represent the entire family. Then DNA testing was developed, and clinical material left in a hospital in America, after Ms Manahan had surgery, revealed that she had, indeed, been the Polish factory worker.
She had succeeded because others wanted her to succeed. No evidence exists to suggest that a scatty portrayal of a dead Romanov made her any happier than if she’d been left in her true identity. But the most important thing is that the claims made on her behalf caused nobody any harm.
Nobody close to the real Anastasia ever went through the heart-lifting hope and devastating disappointment Brian Michael Rini caused to those close to Timmothy Pitzen.