I’ll just…

I’m going to try to write something non-work-related every day for the rest of October.

I have sometimes compared my job to technical writing: There is an expected format, a style. Nothing wrong with that. I can easily roll it out. Not too personal but casual, very active voice. Humor is welcome but don’t be too gonzo.

When I write for the magazine it is enough my voice that I don’t feel like I’m faking–at the same time, I’ve grown aware of feeling frustrated at not just being me sometimes.

That’s when I remember I have a blog.

Next up: An expanded and corrected version of a tweet thread I posted on, well, Twitter a week ago. It’s one hell of a story. I don’t plan on confining it to this blog–I think it’s a book-length saga. About opera, the Nazis, Stalin’s NKVD in America, and much more. But it’s worth a more detailed recap, with some corrections (I did the Twitter thread from memory; got some stuff wrong.)

Stay tuned.

Incidentally, I wrote this with a physical keyboard but on my iPhone. That’s not unusual anymore, I guess, but it’s still cool to me.

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, WhereIsCatherineWinters.com. 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.

The Secrets of Allenstown

Screen Shot 2014-01-11 at 1.15.27 PM
Screengrab from Google Street View

Edgewood Drive is a narrow road that cuts a short path through Bear Brook Gardens Mobile Home Park in Allenstown, New Hampshire. Timestamps on the images indicate Google’s Street View car drove down Edgewood in September 2011. The car’s camera turret captured the beautiful slanting light of a dying Fall day in New England, a mellow glow that for a few moments turns everything dreamlike. Even moments in an old trailer park in a small New England town seem beautiful then.

Allenstown is about 90 miles north of where I live, but I haven’t been yet. I’ve been thinking about the place a lot off and on since I moved here. There’s a mystery there.

Screengrab of composites of the mystery victims, from New Hampshire DOJ
Screengrab of composites of the mystery victims, from New Hampshire DOJ

The mystery began in 1985. A hunter in Bear Brook State Park found a 55-gallon barrel off a snowmobile trail. The barrel was on privately-owned property within Bear Brook Gardens. Inside the barrel, wrapped in plastic, were the bodies of a woman and a little girl. The woman was white and between 23 and 33 years old. The girl was between 8 and 10 years old. Fifteen years later, in 2000, someone discovered another barrel. It contained the bodies of two girls. One was between 4 and 8 years of age, the other between 1 and 3. According to a page about the bodies on the State of New Hampshire’s DOJ website, “These two children are biologically related to the adult female and it is possible all four victims are related.”

All the victims died from blunt-force trauma and they were nude, with no personal effects.

On the blog Mystery in Allenstown NH, siblings Scott Maxwell and Ronda Randall have collected a good deal of the publicly available information in the case. They have posted images and a wealth of links and archived articles going back to the 1980s. Below are bits from some of the coverage linked from or copied into the blog.

An article published on CNN’s website in June, 2013:

Evidence indicates the victims were white, but investigators do not know skin tone or eye color. The bones were not in the best condition, given they were exposed to the elements and years of deterioration, says Williamson. They may have died as early as 1977 or 1978.

On Mystery in Allenstown, from a microfilm record of an article published in the New Hampshire Union Leader in November, 1985. The article was titled, “Area Where Bodies Found Not Isolated”:

About 150 yards from the junkyard, the trail curves right and the junkyard is lost from sight. Only trees ahead, only trees behind. The path continues to curve and drop off slightly. A 15-foot tree has blocked the path at the 230-yard mark. No more than 20 feet off to the left was the spot where the hunter discovered the plastic covered remains of a young woman aged 23 to 33 and a young girl aged 8-10. Forensic reports indicate the pair had been killed by severe blows to the head. The bark of the junkyard dog chained up barely 200 yards away echoes loudly through the woods. The bark has been incessant, no pause lasting more than a few seconds.

A little more than 100 yards further down the trail from the spot where the bodies were discovered, the first mobile home of Bear Brook Gardens can be seen through the trees. The trail ends in a sandpit at the top of a small hill overlooking the mobile home park. From Bear Brook Gardens to the junkyard on Deerfield Road, the entire path is approximately 600 yards long and only for a couple hundred yards of that would a traveler be completely hidden by the woods.

Throughout the length of the path, car doors can be heard shutting in Bear Brook Gardens and cars can be heard shuttling down Deerfield Road. The junkyard dog continues to bark as though it had something to bark at.

Also from the Union Leader, February, 2013:

The little girl aged 5 to 11 found in 1985 offers [Kim Fallon, chief forensic investigator at the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner] the most hope that someone will remember her because she may have attended school up to the fifth grade. She had double piercings in both ears, which would have been considered unusual at the time. […] The girl had fine light brown or dirty blond hair and would have stood about 4 feet 3 inches tall, Fallon said. There was some evidence of pneumonia in her left lung.

Later in that same article, Kim Fallon said, “If I had a good friend in elementary school who suddenly left, I would remember.”

That’s true. I still remember a family that briefly lived in a trailer next to our house in the southeast Nashville suburb of Antioch when I was a kid. The son was a blonde kid my age named Bobby. I recall a lot of odd details about him and his mom. She had cats-eye glasses frames, which were by then enough out-of-style to be odd, and Bobby wore heavy, square black frames that are tagged as “hipster-like” today but at that point in the 1970s, they were just old-fashioned.  I can still remember him eating dry white toast for breakfast as he waited for the bus and looking unkempt, even compared to me. I also recall that my parents seemed uncomfortable with me playing with him. It was the first and perhaps only time I perceived a kind of class bias from them–the discomfort of a poor family seeing their kid hang out with a child from even more straitened circumstances.

One day, Bobby and his mom were gone. No warning. He was at school the day before, seeming fine, then he wasn’t.

I didn’t even like the kid much–he seemed kind of humorless–but it’s been over 35 years and at least partly because of the way he seemed to vanish, I remember him as clearly as other kids I knew for much longer periods.

Whether in Canada (it was easier to travel between the US and Canada in the late 70s and 80s) or somewhere here in New England, someone still remembers the woman or one of the kids from the barrels. Someone knew them. Remembers odd facts about them. Yet they remain ciphers, gray computer recreations based on bones.

That’s the upshot of all the information collected on Mystery in Allenstown. The mystery still seems as impenetrable as when the first bodies were found in 1985.

I may contact the folks who run Mystery in Allenstown. May take a trip up the road to see what there is to see, eventually. And write more about it. When cases like this are solved, they’re almost always solved by investigators and scientists. Talk about it here, or in more depth in another publication in the future? That seems like the least I could do.