By Meagan McChesney, PhD
Curator, Winnetka Historical Society
October 12, 2021
“In a great city, accounts of actual events sometimes beggar flights of a fiction writer’s wildest fancy. This is such an account.”
-“Corns Case! Strange As Any Fiction,” in Chicago Tribune, January 16, 1949
An Idyllic Upbringing
Orja Glenwood Corns was born on January 3, 1914 in Chicago. His father, once an orphan, became a wealthy investment banker, enabling him to move his family to a large house in Wilmette when Orja was very young. Growing up on the North Shore, Orja’s life was typical and comfortable. He attended private school, was an accomplished athlete (despite his small stature), and had many friends. After high school, he went to Georgetown University to study law, but dropped out after his father lost much of his fortune in the stock market crash.
Back in the Chicago area, Orja briefly worked as a stock broker. He married Betsy Johnson in 1938 and had their first child, Betty Lynn, a year later. While Orja found consistent work as a broker, the Depression years were tough for the investment business. In 1942, he shifted his career path and went to work as a clerk for toolmaking company Skilsaw, Inc. Within two years, Orja was promoted to a salesman position and by 1946, he was named the Chicago-area district manager. His colleagues at the time referred to him as “a perfect salesman.” That same year, Orja and his wife purchased the large, historic white frame house at 421 Linden in Winnetka.
Trouble in Paradise?
While it seemed to his friends and neighbors that Orja had done well for himself, in reality, he barely made ends meet. The mortgage on his house, coupled with a lien on his car and the high cost of living in Winnetka, ate up his entire pay check each month. At the time, Chicago police captain Thomas Harrison explained that while the Corns family “lived well” in Winnetka, they were “living up to the limit of his income.” Betsy Corns agreed, stating simply “our ordinary expenses took it all.” With a $50,000 life insurance policy and no money in his savings, perhaps Orja believed that dead – or presumed dead – he was financially worth more to his wife and daughter than alive.
Disagreements at work may have compounded Orja’s money worries. As a salesman, Orja made most of his money in bonuses, which were held by the company and released to him at the end of the year. Some business associates reported that Orja found this quite worrisome, as some of his superiors felt he was gunning for their jobs. He struggled to deal with the simultaneous antagonism from his bosses and pressure to continue to increase his sales.
In addition, although reports are conflicting, there has been much speculation that there was trouble at home. Orja was a drinker and, according to some friends, would occasionally become belligerent after a night out. Additionally, while his wife maintained that their marriage was happy, investigators wondered if that was truly the case. Betsy frequently took Betty Lynn to visit her parents for weeks on end, leaving Orja alone in Winnetka. Many wondered why, if their marriage was happy, the couple spent so much time apart.
That Fateful Day
In the middle of June 1948, Orja’s wife and daughter left on one of their frequent, long trips to visit her parents in Virginia. With his wife and daughter gone, Orja left on a business trip to Wisconsin alone on Monday, June 28. After working in Madison and Milwaukee during the week, he left Milwaukee to make the short drive home that Friday afternoon.
At about 5:00 pm, Orja stopped at the Willow Inn in Northfield, a bar and restaurant he frequented both with Betsy and alone. According to the bartender, Dick Gipp, Orja was exhausted from the trip and the unusually hot weather. Although he only stayed for an hour or so, Orja consumed several cocktails. He told Gipp his wife was out of town and that he’d be spending the holiday weekend alone. They made plans to go to the Arlington Race Track together that Monday. After his 4th or 5th drink, Orja paid his tab and got up to leave.
Whether it was the number of drinks or Orja’s subdued behavior, something gave Gipp pause. He asked Orja if he was okay. “Oh, sure. You know me,” he responded, and walked out of the bar. Gipp told police that he watched out the bar’s window as Orja drove his green 1947 Oldsmobile sedan down Willow Road towards his house.
Once home, Orja reportedly opened all the windows and doors and took a shower. He got dressed, left $80 on his dresser, and went out at about 7:30 pm. The neighbor across the street later reported that when Orja left, all the lights were on and the doors and windows were still open.
Suspiciously, that same neighbor also reported that she looked out her window right as Orja was leaving his house. She told police that she saw him close the passenger side door before walking around the front of the car and getting in the driver’s seat. Was there a passenger in the car with him? That is one of many mysterious elements of this case.
Several hours later, around midnight, Orja arrived at the Parody Club, a seedy nightclub located at 6067 North Clark Street in Chicago. This was not his first visit to the club. In fact, Orja’s wife admitted she had visited the club him in the past. While he spent most nights at home in Winnetka, he visited the Parody Club frequently enough that both the owner and “dice girl” (known as Dirty Neck Marie) knew him well.
According to the “dice girl,” Orja left the club alone around 3 am. She reported to police that she remembered asking him if he was okay to drive. He’d told her he was. He left the club, presumably got in his car, and drove away. Orja Corns was never seen or heard from again.
Or was he?
For several days, Orja’s disappearance was casually noted but did not raise alarms. He failed to show up for a golf outing with a friend on Sunday, but this had happened before. Dick Gipp thought little of it when he didn’t follow up on their plans to go to the races Monday – he had, after all, been several drinks deep when the plan was made. That Tuesday, however, when Orja failed to show up to work, his secretary became concerned. She called his family in Wilmette to let them know.
On Wednesday morning, Orja’s parents drove over to his house to check on him. They became increasingly concerned when they found the house empty, yet all the windows and doors open and lights still on. “Nothing was missing,” the Saturday Evening Post later wrote, “nothing but Orja and his car.” They notified the police.
For days, the police and family members searched extensively for any trace of Orja. They checked garages, railroad stations, airports, and even had the Coast Guard drag the Chicago River, parts of Lake Michigan, and the Skokie Lagoons.
After a frustrating period with no leads, the police decided to check the gas station Orja frequently stopped at on Sheridan Road. There, they found what they hoped would be a break in the case. Al Plass, the station owner, told police that Orja had visited the station at about 5 pm on July 6 – four days after he had disappeared. Plass said that he remembered the interaction well, and that he was positive that he had seen Orja at the station that exact day. Police investigated further, eventually finding two other men who remembered seeing Orja at the gas station on July 6 as well. Despite their initial hope, however, the gas station lead failed to produce any additional information about Orja’s whereabouts.
This was not the only suspicious incident in the investigation. On July 17, Betsy Corns received a series of three phone calls from an unknown caller stating that if she wanted to see her husband again, she would need to bring $500 to a bar in the Bronzeville neighborhood in Chicago. With undercover police at her side, she did as directed, but no one ever approached her at the bar for the money. While police shrugged off the incident as a hoax, the ransom ploy may have been legitimate – Orja’s address book was found at a gas station near the Bronzeville bar months later.
Missing person fliers also produced some leads, but none amounted to anything substantial. Over the next several decades, Chicago and Winnetka police followed over 1,000 leads in the Orja Corns case, none of which lead to anything concrete.
What happened to Orja Corns?
Several theories have circulated over time. Orja’s parents, for example, told the media that they believed he was murdered. His wife, Betsy, initially believed that he suffered from amnesia related to chronic headaches and was lost as a result. Some of the investigators on the case thought he may have run away to escape money woes or an unhappy marriage. Others believed he was intoxicated and accidentally drove his car into the lake or river.
In 1953, an article in the Chicago Tribune declared this case “one of Chicago’s most baffling missing persons mysteries.” Almost 75 years later, Orja Corns’ disappearance remains just as baffling.