It was June, 1884, a muggy, hot Missouri summer day in the small town of Dexter, near the Mississippi River. Reynard Beck, 27 years old, had spent the day before as usual with chores around the farm, and had gone to bed tired. He awoke the next morning feeling strangely energetic. He could hear his mother calling him downstairs to breakfast. Reynard wasn’t what you’d call a morning person, but, growing up on a farm, he was accustomed to rising early. This morning, though, he couldn’t wait to get out of bed and start the day. He swung his two long legs over the bed and expected to thump his feet on the floor. But an odd thing happened. He floated right out of the bed and hovered in midair! Terrified, Reynard grabbed the bedpost and eased himself down, forcing his feet to the floor as if he were underwater.
Well! Reynard sat for a good while on the bed, thinking. Once or twice, he hesitatingly had a look in the mirror, to see if maybe he’d become some sort of monster, but no, just same old Reynard. Of course he slapped himself quite a few times, but he wasn’t dreaming, either.
After a few minutes, he tried standing up, to see if he could walk around the room, but as soon as he put his full weight on his legs they flipped out from under him, and, there he was, just floating in midair as if tied to invisible strings. His thoughts began to race. “I can’t go out like this,” he thought, “I’m likely to end up becoming abducted by some secret government agency and they’ll perform terrible experiments on me, or worse yet, people will say I’m in league with the devil and have me lynched!”
Reynard decided that there was only one thing he could do now, and that was to hide his peculiarity from everyone, and maybe it would just go away on its own. So he swam through the air over to his chest of drawers and grabbed his belt. Then he tied some lead fishing weights on it until he was weighted enough to stay on the floor. And so Reynard began another day on the farm, working alongside his brother, pitching hay, chopping wood, feeding the chickens, pulling weeds, and everything else a farm boy would do. Reynard eventually got comfortable with the lead weights he hid on his belt, and after a few weeks, began to forget about his strange tendency to float. At night he simply tied himself to his bed.
All was going well when one evening, his brother Samuel ran into his room while he was floating around. Reynard quickly grabbed the headboard of his bed. “What’s with the acrobatics?” Sam asked, but Reynard just asked him to hand him his weighted belt, which he promptly put back on. Back on the floor, Reynard explained things to Sam, and his brother had an idea that had never occurred to Reynard before.
“Reynard, this is our fortune! We don’t have to worry about eking out a living on this little farm no more, trying to support our poor widow mother. No! All we have to do is take you to the county fair and charge people to see you!”
Reynard protested, “They’ll think it’s a trick! I’ll be accused of fakery!”
“But you aren’t,” Sam insisted. “They can never prove you a fraud because you’re real! It’s the perfect act!”
Convinced, the brothers toured the halls and fairgrounds of the Midwest for five years. Billed as “The Floating Wonder,” all Reynard had to do was float above a stage and read a book. The boys made a fortune and hired other people to work the farm for them. They even bought their mother a fancy townhouse in St. Louis.
Many skeptics tried to prove that Reynard was a fake, as he feared. But not only could no one ever prove any trickery, friends who knew Reynard testified that he always wore his belt of lead weights, even at home, and while sleeping in his bed he had to be tied down. He had to be strapped to a chair to eat a meal, or else he’d float to the ceiling and someone would have to pull him down. In fact, his perfect act of levitation enraged so many rationalists, not to mention wonder workers and stage men, that he frequently received death threats and acts of sabotage were made against his stage.
Perhaps it was the pressure of all that hostility, or perhaps Reynard and Sam finally decided they had had enough of public life and more than enough money (they had already accumulated over one million dollars), but one day they simply shut down the act. A rumor began to spread that Reynard’s mysterious gift had departed from him as suddenly as it had appeared, five years before.
Crowds of curiosity seekers made regular trips to the Beck farm to try to catch a glimpse of Reynard, but he was never seen. Eventually Sam and his mother admitted to the press that Reynard’s weighted belt had been found in a field near the Tennessee border, leading to rumors that Reynard had committed suicide by floating off into the sky. Other people said Reynard was on the farm somewhere, just keeping out of the limelight. In any case, Reynard was missing and was never seen again.
His last statement to the press had been in August 1890, when he quipped,
Once a man has floated in the air, he can never be quite the same man again.
I love a good mystery, and a good story, so I reserve judgment on whether Reynard Beck had supernatural talent or not. What’s clear is that two impoverished country boys were able to become fantastically rich in five years and no one was ever able to figure out how it was done.
The only written account I have in my possession of this tale is from the comic book “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” Gold Key series No. 79 published July of 1978 (also the source of the pictures on this post). I have found other sources on the internet, which provided some other details, but these were secondary sources at best. I think the original story on Reynard Beck must have come from newspapers in the Midwest region at the time the Beck brothers had their stage act. It would be interesting to find those, just to see how much of the information we have now was journalistic hyperbole or just invention.
The tone of down-to-earth honesty the story has, though, is what makes the mystery so compelling. It’s the story of a lonely young man who discovers he is unique, tries to be understood and appreciated, and in the end is left lonelier than ever, like Kafka’s Gregor. Reynard’s parting statement has that quality of fortune-cookie wisdom that travels far beyond his own story, and into our own stories, our own lives.