Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Unsolved Mystery of Joe Wilcher

As customers go to and from the Ice Cream Palace on the street level of the once notorious, now ever developing Over-The-Rhine neighborhood, many of them are unaware of the secret two stories above the store which produces their ice cold deserts.

Often times when exploring abandoned buildings or forgotten places, relics are left behind. Relics that give an insight as to the location's former use, former tenants and history. In a day and age where abandoned buildings are mostly visited for their scrap metal, it's rare to find personal items left behind after the vandalism has passed. When these personal items are how found however, they often give a deeper meaning to the location at hand, lending you some sense of the person or persons who once were there. Never has this been more true than when I explored the former apartment of a man named Joe Wilcher.

My friend Ali called me up one day to tell me about this place. The building is in the process of being completely renovated by her boyfriend Chap, of Pinstripes fame. After discovering the attic apartment and it's contents, Ali contacted me, thinking I might find it interesting. Not only was this place interesting to photograph, but you could easily spend hours taking a look into the life of the man who no longer resides there.

Who was Joe Wilcher? Joe Wilcher was a decorated Korean War combat veteran. Joe Wilcher was a Metro bus rider. Joe Wilcher was well organized. Joe Wilcher was resourceful. Joe Wilcher liked to smoke hand rolled cigarettes. Joe Wilcher suffered from some sort of disability affecting his mobility. The most obvious thing about Joe Wilcher's personality though; Joe Wilcher loved to read or at least collect books.

- A calendar left on the wall shows June 2001 as the last time Joe was in the apartment.

According the information Chap could gather from the building's owner, Joe paid his last month's worth of rent and left, never to be heard from again. No one knows what he took with him or where he went, but a glimpse of his personality can be found in what he left behind. According to the calendar on the wall: Rent was paid on June 12, 2001 with a letter having been sent to Jim (the landlord) on June 14, 2001. Joe left some time shortly after that, leaving behind a one room apartment modified in a resourceful manner and an amazing collection of literature.

Joe used almost anything and everything he had. A lot of his supplies went to building bookcases for his expansive collection, yet it was apparent he let nothing go to waste. Shelves and cabinets were constructed out of cardboard, while stickers and cut outs from magazines were used to provide decorative details on Joe's handywork.

-"War as I Knew it" by General George S. Patton was one of many books on warfare in Joe's collection. Joe himself was a decorated Korean War veteran.

Judging by the multiple handles around the room, it seems Joe suffered from lower mobility issues in his legs that didn't allow him to walk or stand up properly. With little use for it, his stand up shower was even converted into a bookshelf as seen below:

Despite the room obviously having been ransacked over the years, many very personal and sensitive documents still remained tucked away in a drawer in the apartment's "kitchen" area. Social security cards, medicare information, military and medical records as well as a Bronze Star Medal awarded during the Korean War were among many things tucked away.

- Social security cards and piles of other personal information were left behind.

- Joe's letter of discharge from the Army.

- This homemade cabinet was decorated with cut outs from a magazine depicting local Cincinnati landmarks.
- Even the bathroom area was modified to include bookshelves and a cut out window where the door could be in full view.

It was obvious that when Joe was living here, he wanted to keep uninvited visitors out. The door to the apartment had been rigged and fitted with various homemade deadbolts and locks. Cut away windows in the bathroom area and kitchen area allowed Joe to keep an eye on the door at all times.

- The apartment door.

One area of the small room seemed to be Joe's "desk." Adjacent to the "kitchen," this area featured receipts, mail, supplies of rubber bands, pens, writing materials and other office supplies in addition to even more bookshelves.

One of the most interesting artifacts found in Joe's apartment though was a single shot glass:

The shot glass bears the seal of Ohio University, the school I transferred away from this year. Upon realizing this, I was reminded of my one room dorm that I had stayed in at OU. Roughly the same size as Joe's apartment, I wondered if he had been a graduate of or attended Ohio University at some point after being released from the army in 1953. Maybe he just had the shot glass?

When I lived in a one room dorm at Ohio University I had a few good friends, photography and this website as an outlet for the frustration I felt of being in a place I wasn't totally happy with. I wonder who, if anyone, Joe Wilcher had and what his motivation was for just up and leaving.

- A hand drawn map of Ohio counties on the wall.
- One of many pairs of reading glasses.
- A 1995 copy of the "Guinness Book of World Records."

According to Chap, Joe relayed to his landlord that he "couldn't take it anymore" and requested no help in moving out. Joe left behind no clues as to where he went or any sort of journal or writings.

- The view from Joe's fire escape window.

As Over-The-Rhine continues to be rapidly redeveloped and improved, hidden treasures within the walls of the neighborhood's old buildings will be found. Some will be explored, others lost and forgotten. While Chap and his crew press on with the building's renovations and improvements, Joe Wilcher's belongings remain. Many of them have been packed up and moved for sanitary reasons and to prepare for work on the building. Since Joe never returned for anything after leaving in 2001 and there is a good chance many of these items will be lost, I took the shot glass with me. I've collected them since I was a kid and attended Ohio University at one point. If Joe or someone from his family could ever be found or contacted, I'll gladly return the shot glass and help them retrieve most of these belongings if they so desired. It would also be nice to have some closure in finding out where Joe went, why he left and possibly meeting him if he's still alive. Until then, the shot glass sits on a shelf in my room amongst similar glasses from various tourist attractions and amusement parks throughout the nation, yet this one has a special story behind it. A story that preserves some memory of Joe Wilcher, whether anyone else remembers him or not.

- The only picture of Joe that could be found.

Updates | Sept. 29, 2017:
  • According to a commenter below, it looks like Joe passed away in 2008 with his last known address being across the river in Covington. 
  • The Ice Cream Palace has since closed. 


  1. Unbelievable. It's fascinating, but also a bit embarrassing, to get this intimate glimpse into a stranger's home. Thanks for sharing these photos.

    BTW, I really like the Ice Cream Palace and hope it doesn't get renovated out of existence.

  2. What an interesting post about Joe's prior existence. I am left wondering why someone would just walk away from everything he owned and not return. And yet, I find myself intrigued with how he lived. He loved reading and enjoyed making bookshelves. He made his small, one room apartment his own. My hope is that someday you'll be able to find out what happened to him and maybe even meet him or some of his family. With so much information readily available I would think one could do a little research on him.

    Side note: I love your blog. I have been reading some past posts and enjoying your pictures. Thanks for sharing so much with us. Have a nice day.

  3. Is this your guy?

    Birth: 06 Apr 1931
    Death: 31 Oct 2008
    Issued: Michigan
    Last address: Covington, KY 41012


  4. What a fantastic write up Ronny. I too wonder what happens to a lot of our war veterans. Many come back suffering from PTSD or other traumatic disorders that can permanently modify a person's personality, decorum and habits. It's great to know he served our country during the Korean War, but I wonder what happened to him -- if he is on the streets...

  5. I hope Ice Cream Palace stays as part of the rehab plans. We go there a lot in the summer.

  6. I love this story about Joe. Thanks so much for sharing it. As a nurse, I've had the opportunity to meet veterans, often with some form of PTSD which affects some of their judgment but the essence of who they are still remains. Great story! Maybe the Joe Wilcher who died in 2008 was him. I just wonder why a man who obviously loved books and reading would leave all of that. Very thought-provoking.

  7. If you liked that story, check out this one

    It's an episode of the radio show This American Life about a very similar set of circumstances.

  8. awesome post. i love your blog. i feel like joe may have killed himself based on the sudden and total disappearance, not taking his things w/ him, and the comment about how he "can't take it anymore." also the locks and windows seem to indicate that he doesn't really have much of a connection with other people.

  9. @Visual Lingual: Rest easy, don't think the Ice Cream Palace is going anywhere. Also looks like the renovation might fall through...will post an update when I get more details.

    @Michelle: Thanks for reading, glad you like the blog. Everytime I've moved I've been so careful to make sure I have everything and hate getting ride of stuff. I just can't imagine leaving everything behind like Joe did.

    @Buckeye1: Thanks for posting that, looks like that is him. Doing some more research, details will be posted soon.

    @Sherman: Thanks for the kind words, it's amazing how little today's generation knows about the Korean War.

    @Donna: Thanks for sharing your insight about PTSD!

    @liz: Thanks for reading. Not sure how he died, but it looks like Joe has passed on...

  10. Thanks for posting this story and photos. It's fascinating.

    Love your blog!

  11. So, could I possibly purchase some of those books in his collection from the property owner, or is this to be an unofficial preservation site?

  12. UCstudent, shoot me an email at and I'll see what I can do for you.

  13. Sunday, November 2, 2008 – Advocate-Messenger

    WILCHER, Gene “Joe”
    April 06, 1931- October 31, 2008

    MORELAND - Joe Wilcher, 77, of Covington died Friday, Oct. 31, 2008.

    Born April 6, 1931, he was the son of the late Rue and Opal Helen Helm Wilcher.

    Survivors include two sisters, Virginia Keller and Mildred Robertson, both of California; and one brother, Jim Wilcher of Manchester, Mich.

    A graveside memorial service will be held 1 p.m. Monday at Hustonville Cemetery. W.L. Pruitt Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.

    -- from

  14. thanks for telling this story.. - i found it very fascinating and compelling.. - again, thank you..

  15. I still have his Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and I think of this day every time I see it on my shelf. I saw your note about the hosting, but I hope these pictures are recovered and back up eventually!