The man without a name

Part of the Escape Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

Phil Nichols doesn’t get a lot of unannounced visitors at the long-term sober-living house in Cincinnati where he lives. The two US marshals waiting at the door on a March afternoon in 2018 told Nichols they had information for him. And questions. They wore plainclothes —and smiles — and assured Nichols that he wasn’t in trouble.

He invited them in.

It was all very cordial, very polite, very Midwestern. It was early afternoon, the equivalent of morning for Nichols, who doesn’t wake before noon. Although he was surprised by the visit, Nichols didn’t seem unsettled by it. Then the marshals mentioned an address: 1823 Center Street.

Nichols recognized it immediately. It was his grandmother’s address in New Albany, Indiana. That was where his father was raised, and where Nichols spent time as a child.

It was also the address that Joseph Newton Chandler III, a mysterious dead man that the marshals were investigating, had listed on a rental application in Mentor, Ohio. Only Chandler had listed the city as Columbus, and the resident as Mary R. Wilson, his sister.

Neither the woman nor the address existed — at least not in Columbus.

The marshals then showed Nichols pictures of Chandler and asked whether Nichols recognized the man in the photos.

He did.

In one photo, the man is caught unaware. He wears a wide-brimmed hat and pinstripe suit and stands in front of a cluster of balloons.

“That’s my father,” Nichols said. Except the man in the photo wasn’t Joseph Chandler, he told them. He was Robert Ivan Nichols.

The last time Phil Nichols had seen his father was in the early 1960s. He heard from him once after that, when the elder Nichols sent his teenage son a letter. Inside was a single penny.

That was in 1965. The family reported Robert Nichols missing the same year. They never heard from him again.