The Mysterious Disappearance of Catherine Winters


I hadn’t planned on another post tonight. Then in a last look at some Feb. 25, 1914 newspapers I happened on the now little-known story of Catherine Winters. This image caught my interest:

The Tacoma Times, 2/25/1914
The Tacoma Times, 2/25/1914

The story was about how an abandoned girl who called herself Rosie Davis was thought by some to be a missing child, Catherine Winters. According to the news brief, Catherine’s father, Dr. William A. Winters, had come to see the girl. He had confirmed she was not his daughter. The girl cried when he denied it was her.

This part of the article set me off on a search for more information: “… his missing daughter Catherine, for whom a nationwide search is being made…”

I’ve long been interested in missing persons cases and read a great deal about them. I’d never heard of Catherine Winters, who long ago vanished from the town of New Castle, Indiana. As the video at the beginning of this post may indicate, Catherine’s was perhaps one of the first cases to truly go nationwide.

Writer Colleen Steffen runs a website about Catherine’s disappearance, The following is from Steffen’s timeline of the case:


March 14: Eight-year-old Helen Millikan is abducted by an unidentified man in a rented buggy, driven out of the city, assaulted, then set free. The man is never found.

March 20: Nine-year-old Catherine Winters disappears sometime in the early afternoon. She had been selling sewing needles door to door to raise money for a church missionary society and was seen by many witnesses around New Castle. Her family raises the alarm that evening when she fails to come home for dinner and the search begins. Gypsies are the first suspects.

March 21: Catherine shares headlines with an overnight storm that wrecked buildings around the city. It’s the first of a historic system of storms that will cripple the Midwest for weeks to come, flooding entire cities and killing hundreds of people.

March 22: Dr. Winters is forced by doctors to rest after 60 straight hours of searching.

March 23: On Easter Sunday, churches across New Castle fill with prayerful petitioners for Catherine’s safe return. Afterward, “City Councilmen, business men, professional men, mechanics and laborers worked side by side all day Sunday, in the fields, woods, cemeteries, railroad and mill yards. All were devoting their best efforts, with but a single object in view—that being to locate the body of the missing girl, for it is feared she is dead” (New Castle Daily Times).

March 24: New Castle’s city council calls for the first town-wide meeting concerning the disappearance, and a far-reaching, highly organized and publicly funded search begins.

According to a newspaper quote later in the timeline, by June 6, 1913, “Pictures of the little girl have been published in newspapers and magazines from coast to coast. The telegraph and telephone lines have been burdened with stories of the Winters case for weeks.”

I don’t know if milk came in cartons yet (I suspect it was still delivered each morning in bottles) but it seems that the effort to find Catherine went almost that far. As the video indicates–as the fact the film in the video was even made indicates–attention to the case at the time was intense.

The story grows more tragic. Eventually, Catherine’s father, Dr. Winters, her stepmother and a one-armed man who boarded at their home were arrested. They were charged with “conspiracy to commit a felony by conspiring to kill the child by strangling or otherwise, and to destroy the body by burning.” Evidence found by investigators included, according to Steffen, “a hair ribbon, a child’s red sweater with what appear to be burn holes, and a man’s blood-stained undershirt behind a concrete block.”

In the end, that wasn’t enough. Charges were dropped in July, 1914, for lack of evidence. People would claim to be Catherine over the years, but the case ultimately faded from the news, unsolved.

As for the video, which is a fascinating and perhaps unusual document for the time, Steffen writes that it was kept by the Winters family, one of whom eventually rediscovered it in 1990.

Catherine Winters is the coldest kind of case. Her disappearance will remain unsolved. At least whenever someone grabs hold of the thread anew and brings light to the story, she’s never completely forgotten.