On May 10, 1941 36-year-old Leila Lewis Bryan and her four-year-old daughter Mary Rachel left their Raleigh Avenue address in Carolina Beach around 9:00 p.m. on a shopping trip. They never arrived at their destination and to this day no trace of the pair or the family’s 1935 Ford Coupe has ever been found.
Leila Bryan (also spelled Lelia/Lee), a trained nurse formerly of Bladenboro, North Carolina resided in Carolina Beach with her husband, Edison (E.C./Edis/Eddie) Bryan and daughter Mary Rachel in 1941. E.C. was an employee of the Atlantic Coast Line in the freight office and some accounts claim Leila also took an office job with the same company at some point after the marriage.
May 10, 1941
Leila and Mary Rachel returned home from an afternoon on the beach around 6:30 in the evening to prepare supper. E.C. had been preparing concrete forms in the basement with plans to pour concrete later.
Around 9:00 p.m. Leila told her husband she wanted to drive two blocks away to a dime store to purchase a new bra and took the child only because she insisted on joining her. The last time Leila was seen she wore casual dress: a green turban, a summer print frock, and brown and white shoes with no stockings. She left her rings on the sink.
E.C. went to bed and was awakened at some point later in the evening by Leila’s brother Berry/Barry Lewis and one of his friends. When Leila’s brother learned she wasn’t home he and the companion drove around the area for about an hour looking for Leila and Mary Rachel. When they went back to Raleigh Street there was still no sign of the mother and child.
Within hours E.C. reported the disappearance and soon police, State Highway patrol officers, and the community were involved in the search which included beaches, waterways, wooded areas, and gas stations between Carolina Beach and Bladenboro. The car was low on gas when she left, so it made sense that she would’ve needed to fill up the tank if she had headed for her hometown.
A Third Street filling station attendant claimed that he was “pretty sure” he’d seen Leila around 10:00 p.m. on May 10, but that lead was a dead end.
Within five days E.C. offered a $100 reward for information about Leila and Mary Rachel, an amount which would roughly amount to 1,677.48 in 2016.
Six weeks later the State Bureau of Investigation’s director Frederick Handy announced that foul play was suspected in the Bryans’ disappeareance and requested at least 200 soldiers from Camp Davis to comb nearby swamps for bodies. What prompted authorities to believe they were in that area was not divulged to the media.
According to The Charley Project, in addition to looking at this as a homicide they investigated the theory that Leila killed her daughter and committed suicide, but this theory was dropped due to lack of evidence.
Searches from air, on land, and in the water proved fruitless aside from the discovery of pane of glass in the Snow’s Cut canal that “could have” come from the windshield of a 1935 Ford Coupe. In the decades after the glass went to the SBI headquarters in Raleigh it was lost.
National publicity triggered possible sightings of the pair along the East Coast but again, none of the leads checked out.
The mother and daughter were declared dead in 1948. E.C. moved to Hollywood, Florida, remarried, and died in 1976.
In August 1949 Daniel Webster, an individual from Wilmington serving time in Florida confessed to murdering the two but within a month he admitted that he’d lied in order to leave Florida’s prison system.
A zoo worker chasing a pony in 1956 found two skeletons in the Carolina Beach area. While many thought these were the remains of the Leila and Mary Rachel, an anthropological examination by UNC’s Dr. Joffre Coe determined that the remains were not those of the Bryans.
Coastal NC suggested in a 2011 article that Karl Ponzer, an engineer supervising work on a sewer line, told police that he saw someone being buried in the construction. His claim was never substantiated and eighteen months after the disappearances Ponzer died from an accidental gun shot.
Authorities reopened the file in 2008 with hopes that modern technology could shed light on a particular detail about the evening of May 10, 1941: E.C.’s concrete pouring activities. Geological surveyors found three areas in the basement where bodies could’ve been deposited, but after excavation they found nothing but an animal bone and glass. According to that article posted on ABC-11 E.C. was originally a suspect but was never charged in connection with the disappearances.
Lewis Smith, Leila’s nephew, had been a leading advocate for reopening the case but after the search of the Raleigh Avenue basement decided that it was time to give up. There are already markers in the Bladenboro family cemetery for both Leila and Mary Rachel.
There are many theories on forums such as WebSleuths and Reddit, but I tried to take any ideasthat sounded too fantastical with a grain of salt.
For example, in The Incredible Disappearance Pat Clausen wrote that a drug store owner told the police he sold bichloride of mercury to Leila Bryan on May 10. During the transaction she signed for the poison using the name Cora Hollis, the pseudonym of another character in Clausen’s publication who said she knew nothing about the mercury.
I don’t believe that this purchase ever happened. An eyewitness sighting would certainly have made it into the papers, especially since she was reportedly buying a substance which was used at one time to treat syphilis or as a poison. That doesn’t mean the pharmacy incident didn’t happen, but I couldn’t find any record that it did.
Leila’s mother was rumored to disapprove of E.C.’s status as a divorcee but whether or not there was current marital discord is unknown. An alleged relative of the Lewis family started a thread on Reddit suggesting that Leila had planned on returning to Bladenboro the weekend she disappeared but because there were issues between her mother and E.C., he would have stayed at home.
If Leila were packing and suddenly realized that she needed another bra the decision to go shopping at 9:00 p.m. makes more sense. Being unfamiliar with Leila’s normal habits I can’t say whether or not this behavior was unusual. This is also true for leaving her rings by the sink. Some people believe this indicated an intent to leave behind her life with E.C. and start over elsewhere but in reality maybe she simply removed them to wash dishes.
It’s also possible that Leila and Mary Rachel disappeared earlier in the day or even before May 10. The statement that she’d left at 9:00 p.m. was relayed to the police by the husband. Did anyone else see the mother and daughter at the beach or around town on May 10? If E.C. had something to cover up (and I’m not saying that he did), a phony timeline would be a clever way to throw off the investigation. It also seems odd that Leila’s brother, who was reportedly in town purchasing lumber, would show up at the Bryan home that late at night, particularly if his sister already had plans to visit them over the weekend.
Of course, without knowing much else about the nature of this drop-in I can only speculate. Perhaps he needed a place to stay for the night since they were a fair distance from Bladenboro. Maybe his sister was supposed to arrive earlier and her brother came to check in on a hunch. Did Barry/Berry come enter calmly or was the situation already tense upon his arrival?
Another possibility is that Leila drove into one of the surrounding bodies of water, either accidentally or on purpose. Authorities dragged the waterways and searched the marshes in the 1940s, but those investigators didn’t have access to equipment, technology, and know-how available today. The mental image of the pair entombed in their Ford Coupe after all these decades under water is haunting.
If Leila and Mary Rachel were murdered were they buried in a sewer line, deposited into a swamp, washed out to sea, or disposed of in another manner? If so, who killed them and why? Is there any credence to the notion that the mother and daughter fled North Carolina and went on to live elsewhere under new identities?
There are so many unanswered questions in this case and unfortunately we may never know what really happened.