Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Another Unsolved Nashville Kidnapping by Robert A. Waters

For more than thirty years, the infamous kidnapping and murder of Marsha Trimble went unsolved. Finally, in 2007, a suspect was identified through DNA. It has been five years since the disappearance and probable abduction of Tabitha Tuders [pictured]. But long before these crimes, a six-year-old Nashville girl disappeared as she walked home from kindergarten.

On September 19, 1934, newspapers were trumpeting the indictment of Bruno Hauptman for the abduction and murder of Colonel Lindbergh’s son. Kidnapping was quickly becoming a stain on the psyche of America.

In the early afternoon, Dorothy Ann Distelhurst left kindergarten to walk the three blocks to her home in a sparsely populated section of east Nashville, Tennessee. She wore a blue and white checkered dress and carried school-books and a pink lunchbox. When she didn’t arrive at her usual time, her mother called police.

Dorothy Ann’s father, Alfred E. Distelhurst was, in the jargon of the day, “a moderately salaried printing house employee.” If his daughter had been kidnapped for ransom, he could afford to pay only a modest amount.

A massive search ensued. For days, police and volunteers combed the area. Investigators interrogated “perverts” and known “sex fiends.”

The national media, stirred by the Lindbergh case, descended on Nashville. Once news of the abduction was published, ransom letters began arriving in the mail. A postcard from Augusta, Georgia threatened that the abductor would burn out the child’s eyes with acid if a ransom of $ 175,000 was not paid. While police were skeptical of the ransom demands, calling the writers “cranks,” Alfred took them seriously. In fact, he flew to New York City to meet with one man who demanded that he pay $ 5,000 for the return of Dorothy Ann. The man, Alfred Otto Wagner, had never been to Nashville and was later arrested for attempted extortion.

Almost a month later, on November 13, two employees of the Davidson County Tuberculosis Hospital were digging flower beds. An Associated Press report stated: “Under scarcely two inches of earth, [the body] had been buried in a remote corner of the hospital grounds where trees and bushes shielded the grave from sight.” About twenty feet away, Dorothy Ann’s clothing, books, and lunchbox were discovered.

Dr. Herman Spitz, the Medical Examiner, stated that Dorothy Ann’s face had indeed been burned away with acid. He theorized that this was probably done to destroy identification. The child had been killed by one or more blows to the head, possibly with a hammer. Spitz theorized that the body “had been stored in a corrugated cardboard box for several weeks before burial.”

There was no indication that the child had been sexually molested.

Police released the following statement: “The nude body found on the Davidson county tuberculosis hospital grounds late Tuesday afternoon is that of Dorothy Ann Distelhurst. While the corpse is in such a state of decomposition as to render identification by those who knew the child impossible, every other fact in connection with the matter points to the conclusion that the body is that of the Distelhurst child.

“Doctors Herman Spitz, pathologist, and Leonard F. Pogue, the child’s dentist and orthodontist, specialists in their respective professions, after a careful examination of the teeth report that the identification is certain and positive. The child was murdered. Her skull at the left side was crushed by a hammer or other blunt instrument. A rag was found in her mouth, possibly used as a gag to prevent her outcry...”

Both parents, devastated by the news, collapsed as funeral services were being held at the Belmont Methodist Church.

Federal agents and state investigators joined Davidson County and Nashville detectives to begin what newspapers called a “relentless” search for the killer.

A week later, an eighteen-year-old boy found an iron spike 25 feet from where the body had been located. According to a news report, the spike had strands of hair adhering to it and was thought to be the murder weapon.

From the beginning, there were no real clues. The Feds quickly faded away and state investigators went on to more solvable cases. Detectives theorized that the kidnapper was local since an outsider would not have known of the hidden location. But no viable suspect ever surfaced.

The search lasted for decades. One private investigator maintained that an automobile accidentally struck the girl as she was walking home and the driver buried her to cover up the crime. Most investigators ridiculed that theory. In the 1950s, another private detective claimed he would be able to solve the case if only the wife of the perpetrator, whom he had identified, would speak with him.

What was the motive for Dorothy Ann’s murder?

The accident theory is far-fetched. Having worked for several years at funeral homes, I’ve seen numerous bodies that were hit by automobiles. The injuries are massive. Any cop would have been able to tell if the death was from a car accident.

The ransom theory is more plausible. Contrary to popular belief, many ransom kidnappings in the 1930s were successful. In one case, a businessman’s family paid one million dollars to ransom him. Even working-class citizens weren’t immune to the “snatch racket.” But these usually occurred in ethnic neighborhoods in large cities. In the Distelhurst case, investigators discounted as hoaxes all the ransom demands that were made.

A more likely scenario is that there was a sexual component to the abduction. It’s possible that an inexperienced teenager kidnapped Dorothy Ann and was unable to consummate the sex act. Maybe the reality didn’t match the fantasy and the teen killed her in order to keep from being identified. (Four years later, Marian Ellis, a twelve-year-old girl, was kidnapped and murdered less than a half-mile from the Distelhurst home. Three local teenagers were convicted of Marian’s murder.)

The most likely theory is that an experienced sexual predator snatched the child. Even though she was not “ravished,” as the newspapers of the day were fond of saying, she may have been molested without penetration. Sexual offenders are notorious for their impotence and for blaming the victim for their inability to get an erection. (Arthur Shawcross is a prime example.) In his rage, the abductor may have murdered the child, then stored her for several weeks before burying her where he thought she would never be found.

In the end, the murderer got away with his crime. No one was ever arrested for the abduction and murder of Dorothy Ann Distelhurst.


Gnossarian said...

I am the would be nephew of Dorothy Distlehurst, my mother was Martha Jean Distlehurst; Dorothy's twin sister. What else do you know about this case?
Thank you in advance...

Robert A. Waters said...


My suggestion to you would be to subscribe to and look up "Dorothy Ann Distelhurst." You'll find lots of newspapers that reported on the case.


Gnossarian said...

Once again upon re-reading this, while your theories are plausible, regarding rape and murder. It was generally believed by my grandmother, as related by my mother, Martha Jean Distelhurst (Dorothy Ann's sister), that the kidnappers got the wrong girl. Once they realized their mistake, they killed Dorothy and moved on. This could also have been a form of denial on my family's part. Kidnap and murder was hard enough to absorb, let alone sexual molestation.

HipsterGuy said...

I know this is
A year later, but this story so haunted me it had me questioning a lot of things. The acid is the scariest part... What monsterous torture occurred? We can only hope it was done after she was dead... But then there's the rag In her mouth. I'm sorry this is a horrible thought to
Think but I want to know more about the distelhursts, can you please reply?

HipsterGuy said...

Hi, I know this reply is a year old, but can you please give me your email or email me? I would just like to know about some things...

Itttt said...

So sad to read about this case. And to think, she was a twin. There is so little about this case online outside of the old newspaper reports, it really is tragic. I tried to find the address of the "Davidson County Tuberculosis Hospital" but only found an archive of pictures that all have that title but multiple buildings, so I'm not sure if there is/was a single such complex or multiple TB hospitals in Davidson County, but it would be interesting to know the address/locations of her home, the school, and the burial site.

As well as how the mail was handled at that time, because there is NO coincidence that the postcard that was postmarked from Augusta, Georgia indicating her eyes would be burned out with acid was sent by the perpetrator(s). 82 years on, if any of the original evidence especially that postcard, the iron spike murder weapon, the rag stuffed in her mouth, and her clothing books and pink lunchbox are still around, perhaps something, anything can be revealed by forensic testing. As well as more information on the case that happened 4 years later mentioned where the 12 year old was raped and murdered with 3 teens convicted.

Unknown said...

Never found anything on Ellis girl. There is for a Marion Parker.
Parkers killer got capitol punishment. Sad things these gurls endured before being killed.

traceyvs said...

The actual name of the hospital was the Middle Tennessee Tuberculosis Hospital, and it was located in Inglewood, but I don't know the specific location. She is buried at Woodlawn on Thompson Lane. I wish I could help with the school location.

Unknown said...

The hospital was located on Hart Street, formerly known as Ben Allen Road, on the hill next to Ellington Parkway. The hospital was torn down a few dozen years ago. Ironically, today the headquarters of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is on the location along with a driver license center. I once lived in the area. Although a life long Nashviile resident, I heard of the murder for the first time today listening to the Pastor J Vernon McGee's Bible Study off the Internet. A policeman in McGee's church invited him to the exhumation in 1934. He said he never forgot it.

currently residing in East TN

Thesestars said...

Does anyone know the name of the school and where it was located from where Dorothy left to walk home that day? ... and what was the name of the street she lived on.

I would like to measure the distance and direction from her point of disappearance to the point of her recovery, and look at a map of her movement from one location to the next.

Any thing anyone could offer would be great.

Thank you.