Who Was Paula?
Paula Jean Welden was born in 1928 to well-known engineer, architect, and designer William Walden. He was a very influential man, which will come into play later. Paula was the oldest of four children. By all accounts, she was a typical young woman – well liked and dealing with navigating life the best she could. She was a sophomore at Bennington College when she disappeared, and she had a job at the dining hall there. By all accounts, she was a responsible student, majoring in art. It has been reported that she was dissatisfied with this major, however, as she attempted to discover what she actually wanted to do with her life. She disappeared prior to making any changes, though many peers stated she was interested in botany. Friends have stated that Paula may have been feeling depressed prior to her disappearance, though not startlingly or worryingly so.
On December 1, 1946, Paula returned to her dorm after working two shifts at her dining hall job. She spent some time studying before telling her roommate she was going to take a break and go for a hike, though she did not mention her destination. She left wearing a red coat that was not suitable for the cold weather, and carried no money with her. She also left an uncashed check from her parents behind. It was clear that Paula had intended to return after her short hike.
Paula was seen hitchhiking around 2;45 PM, when a driver picked her up from the side of the road. She told the driver that she intended to hike the Long Trail near Glastenbury Mountain. The driver dropped her off about three miles from her destination. After this, several people reported seeing Paula walking on the Long Trail. The final sighting was reported by a man who said Paula had asked him about how long the trail actually was. This was around 4 PM. The sunset occured at 5 PM that day, and it began snowing after night fell.
There were no records of Paula leaving campus, despite a rule that students had to sign themselves out if they were going to be off campus later than 11:00 PM. They were also required to check back in upon their return with the Bennington security office. Paula had neither signed out nor checked in with the security office. However, her disappearance was not looked into until Paula failed to attend her classes the following Monday. The college president phoned her parents to inquire whether she had gone home for a visit – this call sounded the alarm that something was deeply wrong, and Paula’s father traveled to Bennington to begin the search for his daughter.
Searches of the Long Trail began almost immediately after it was established that Paula was missing. Students from Bennington College were given time off to help with the searches organized by Paula’s father. Frustrated by the lack of movement in the case led to her father reaching out to the New York state police. Eventually, Connecticut state police joined in the search as well.
Shortly after the search for Paula began, a sighting of her was reported to the police. A waitress in Fall River, Massachusetts allegedly served a “disturbed” young woman that she swore looked like Paula. No sources I have found have explained what “disturbed” means, though I assume it means agitated – possibly fearful, maybe even disruptive. After hearing of this theory, Paula’s father disappeared for 36 hours, ostensibly to investigate this sighting. I have to say it is very strange to disappear while investigating a disappearance. It doesn’t sit right with me at all.
Paula’s father thought her boyfriend may have had something to do with her disappearance. He did not have any qualms about voicing this theory, as he did not approve of the relationship. This theory was not taken seriously, however, as the only proof that surfaced supporting it came from a psychic. This led to the relationship between Paula’s father and the police souring, as he felt that they were not taking the investigation seriously and were acting unprofessionally. For what it’s worth, his disappearance after the Fall River sighting and his vehemence in suggesting that Paula’s boyfriend was responsible for her disappearance has led some people to speculate that he was involved in his own daughter’s disappearance.
Inclement weather eventually led to the search parties disbanding, but it was not the end of the investigation. For nearly two decades, Fred Gadette was a person of interest in the case. He lived in a shack near the Long Trail and had been interviewed as a witness, though each interview resulted in changes in his story. In 1955, Gadette came forward and confessed to knowing where Paula’s body was buried. After intense questioning, however, the lumberjack admitted to making the whole story up to get attention. However, after claiming the confession was false, Gadette apparently drunkenly boasted about killing Paula and hiding her body. He was never arrested or formally accused, though. The last actual discovery in the case took place in 1968, when skeletal remains were found near the site of Paula’s disappearance. Upon further investigation into the find, it was ruled as too old to be Paula, however. The case has remained cold since then, though the details are still shared widely around the internet.
The way I see it, there are four theories. Most of them are viable. The last one we will look at is…not so much so. Let’s look at the theories from most likely to least. The first theory is that Paula went off the trail, got lost and succumbed to the elements. This is the most viable theory to me. Paula was not dressed properly for the weather or the terrain. It seems likely to me that she wandered from the trail and got lost. She could have misstepped and got injured, limited her mobility. And because it was so cold and began snowing after sundown, she likely succumbed to hypothermia. The fact that her body has not been found could easily be explained. Paula could have sought out some hidey-hole to shield her from the elements, making discovery of her body all the more difficult. And it’s gruesome, but animal activity could have scattered her remains as well.
The second theory is that Paula was murdered. This can be broken down into two sub-categories: Paula was murdered by someone she knew and Paula was murdered by a stranger. I personally don’t see any evidence that anyone in Paula’s life had a motive for wanting her dead, and there was no evidence that anyone she knew was on the Long Trail that day. That means for this theory to work, Paula had to encounter someone that killed her in a crime of opportunity. Paul Gadette is the strongest suspect in this theory, having lived so close to where she went missing, coupled with his behaviors during the investigation. Maybe she was killed because she was alone and pretty. Maybe she saw something she shouldn’t have, like a smuggling operation. After all, the Long Trail went all the way to the Canadian border. Is it likely? No. Is it possible? Yes.
The third theory is that Paula left to start a new life. I rank this as unlikely for a few reasons. First, Paula left money and an uncashed check behind. Unless she was working with someone else (which is something that there is no evidence of), she would be starting from square one, which is incredibly difficult to do. Second, if Paula was running away to start over, wouldn’t she have dressed warmly enough to ensure her survival? Again, this could be explained away if she was working with someone else but, again, we have no evidence of that. I can understand why this is a theory, though. She was struggling with her identity as she figured out what she truly wanted from life. She was a little down, but she was dealing with it by looking for ways to change her situation.Why would she throw that all away to start over with a blank slate?
Our final theory is that the Bennington Triangle caused Paula to disappear. We’ve taken an extensive look at the Bridgewater Triangle before, so you kind of get the gist of the idea. The difference between the Bridgewater and Bennington Triangles is that the one in Bennington does not have the overt supernatural aspects to its mystery. The Bennington Triangle is known for its disappearances. Between 1945 and 1950, five people went missing within its confines. This theory revolves around the idea that there’s something about the Triangle that lures people in and vanishes them. Whether that means they’re killed by some malevolent force or slip between dimensions depends on the individual doing the theorizing. However, I don’t find these disappearances so outrageous, which makes me discredit this theory.
Paula’s disappearance was one of the main catalysts for Vermont to establish their own state police force. The governor effectively used her as a way to shame legislature for their greediness – they had previously voted the idea of a state police force down because they did not save the money. This is what led to the New York and other nearby state police forces becoming involved in the investigation. Vermont’s state police force was formed a year after Paula disappeared, in 1947.
Another event in the aftermath of Paula’s disappearance involved legendary horror writer Shirley Jackson. Jackson was living in North Bennington at the time of the disappearance, and her husband worked at Bennington College. The disappearance affected everyone in the area, and Jackson was no exception. The experience of witnessing the aftermath inspired her to write Hangsaman, her second novel, which is about a young woman going off to college and losing touch with reality.