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Bump on Head Restores Memories of Wife, Home : After 15 Years of Amnesia, Man Returns on Christmas

Associated Press

A man declared legally dead after he suffered amnesia and vanished 15 years ago hits his head, recovers his memory, returns home and embraces his faithful wife on Christmas Day.

How corny can you get? Ask James and Anne McDonnell, who played that script in real life this week.

“It’s like a fairy tale,” Mrs. McDonnell said Friday in the thick brogue of her native County Cork, Ireland. “I’m still realizing it.”

Ever since her husband vanished on March 29, 1971, and even though she had him declared dead in 1976 to get on with her life, she says she kept “hoping, hoping, hoping, maybe someday,” he would return. She stayed in the same house in this New York City suburb and kept her telephone listing under his name.

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On Christmas morning, Mrs. McDonnell had returned from church and was fixing a late breakfast when the doorbell rang.

“Hello, Anne,” the 64-year-old man said at the door.

‘Looked Like Santa Claus’

“It was something out of the blue,” Mrs. McDonnell said. “He had a beard and looked like Santa Claus. I thought it was a joke, then I recognized him. . . . He’s so thin now. He’s been neglected, I know.”

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McDonnell told his wife he had spent the last 15 years in Philadelphia as Jim Peters, short-order cook, bartender and seasonal Santa for kids in an orphanage. He lived quietly in a house he bought and occasionally played poker with friends.

On Christmas Eve, he said, he bumped his head in the cellar of the luncheonette where he worked. The lost memories of his life in Larchmont flooded back and he came home on the next train.

“I’ve always felt right from the beginning that he had to be a victim of amnesia,” said George Mulcahy, a former detective who had investigated McDonnell’s disappearance.

Mrs. McDonnell said she also thought of amnesia as a possibility through the years she waited, supporting herself as a nurses’ aide.

Suffered Head Injuries

“He had two accidents and had head injuries. I thought, maybe, that was it,” she said.

The McDonnells, who are childless, had been married 11 years when, on Feb. 24, 1971, McDonnell fell down the stairs at home.

The next day, in a violent fit of sneezing, he lost control of his car and crashed into a pole.

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A day later he complained of a headache at work and fell down a flight of stairs after a dizzy spell.

On March 11, he suffered a mild concussion and brief unconsciousness in another car accident.

Then, on March 29, McDonnell recalled, he began walking home from an errand because he had a headache and thought some fresh air would fix it.

Suddenly in Philadelphia

“The next thing I knew I was in Philadelphia,” he said. “I don’t know how I got there.”

He didn’t know anything about himself, either, except that his first name was Jim. He took the name Peters from a storefront.

“When people asked me where I was born or where I came from, I would say: ‘Oh, somewhere, someplace,’ ” McDonnell said.

He said it didn’t occur to him to go to police or see a doctor.

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Now that he’s home, McDonnell would like to get his old job back as chief letter carrier in the Larchmont post office.

There’s also a lot of paper work: getting himself restored officially to the ranks of the living and working out something with the insurance company that paid benefits to his wife.


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