PHILADELPHIA — People who knew a man during his 15 years as a short-order cook here expressed astonishment at his story of suddenly regaining his memory of earlier life in New York state but said they did not doubt his story.
However, some questions have been raised by vague references that James McDonnell, 65, occasionally had made to his past.
McDonnell, a former mail carrier, showed up at the home of his wife, Anne, in Larchmont, N.Y., on Christmas Day for the first time since 1971. His wife had him declared legally dead after he was missing for seven years.
Two Traffic Accidents
He told authorities that he had lost his memory after a head injury in two traffic accidents and two falls down stairs 15 years ago but that his amnesia had been cured when he bumped his head in Philadelphia the night before.
But skeptical neurologists say it is only a myth that memory can be restored by a jolt to the head.
"One day I was telling him about problems my mailman was having with dogs, and he said: 'When I was a mailman, the dogs always liked me,' " said Eleanor Kaupp, who knew McDonnell for a decade as a regular patron at the Philadelphia luncheonette where he worked for 14 years.
Despite such vague statements, which McDonnell made usually in good humor but never in any detail, Kaupp said she did not believe that he was concealing his past. "He was a fun guy. I think he was just making conversation," she said.
Bill Noble, 52, a truck driver, said McDonnell once told him that he had lived "somewhere in New York" and told "different stories about different places that he worked."
Beverly Elliott, a waitress at the luncheonette, said he talked about his father and brother. Retired state worker Kenneth Dougherty, 64, said McDonnell told him about serving as a Marine in the Pacific.
"He was like a man of mystery," Dougherty said. "We really adored him. But he was very, very secretive."
McDonnell's neighbors said he never gave them any indication he was faking his identity.
"In the 14 years I knew him, he never gave that impression," said Bruce Kashow, a bus driver who was one of McDonnell's many friends in the neighborhood.
McDonnell told police that he had been in two accidents 15 years ago and had gotten out of a borrowed car to walk, saying that his head hurt and that he thought the fresh air might help. He said the next thing he knew he was in Philadelphia.