Monday, April 14, 2008

The Strange Case of Catherine Winters by Robert A. Waters


Nine-year-old Catherine Winters was last seen around noon on March 20, 1913. A family friend named Dan Monroe spoke to her as she walked along the town square toward her Newcastle, Indiana home. On that day, the schools had closed due to an outbreak of measles and Catherine had spent the morning playing with her pal Helen Stretch. As she skipped toward home, she wore a “red sweater coat,” a white straw hat, and a black and white checked gingham dress. She had brown eyes and light brown hair.

When the child didn’t return home that afternoon, her mother, Byrd Winters, called her husband at his dental office. Dr. W. A. Winters rushed home and began searching for Catherine. He immediately concluded that “gypsies” had snatched his little girl. “That night was the first night of the great floods of 1913,” he later wrote. “Our machines [i.e., automobiles] went in headlong pursuit of that band of gypsy wagons. It was after daylight when we suddenly blundered onto their camp. I thought my quest was over but in all the camp never a sign of my little girl did we find.” Winters later learned that one wagon had already left the camp--this strengthened his belief that the band had stolen Catherine.

The Winters’ did not contact police until the following day.

The case was a media sensation from the start. Abductions just did not occur in small-town America in 1913. Cars were just beginning to replace the horse and buggy. Electricity was a new phenomenon still scarce in rural areas. The invention of the radio had begun to bring music and news into the homes of those who lived in cities but newspapers were still the most popular way for people to get the news of the day. The Winters case was so strange it held readers captive day after day.

The Newcastle police seemed at a loss. As their efforts foundered, the Mayor and city council hired Robert H. Abel, a private detective who claimed to be a former New York City policeman. He made a splash when he arrived in town wearing a Sherlock Holmes cap and brandishing a spyglass. He also lugged a dictograph around with him, presumably to surreptitiously listen to conversations of suspects. The mayor told Abel that there was a $ 3,000 reward for him if he solved the case.

There were absolutely no clues. (In that day and age, it seemed that no one thought of the possibility that a sexual predator might have snatched the girl.) Dr. Winters’ obsession with gypsies grew as the police investigation lost momentum.

What he didn’t know was that police had begun to turn their focus on him and his wife. It turned out that Winters’ first wife had died and left $ 3,000 to Catherine and her brother Frank. This raised the suspicions of Sherlock Abel. Searching the Winters’ home, he found a red ribbon, a red sweater, and a partially-burned undergarment behind a block in the basement. This, he declared, was the smoking gun, particularly since the undergarments appeared to have “blood-colored” stains on them.

Dr. Winters and his wife were immediately arrested, along with a former boarder in the home. They were, according to a newspaper account, “given a severe cross-examination.” Abel confided to investigators that one of the three would break down under intense questioning. That’s how it happened in New York, he claimed. Mrs. Winters, however, calmly explained that the sweater belonged to a nephew and had been thrown away by Dr. Winters’ former mother-in-law who also resided in the house. The ribbon was part of the trimming on a hat which had been lost and the undergarment had “outlived its usefulness.”

The Winters’ immediately made bail. Dr. Winters then began a remarkable and ingenious campaign to get his daughter back. In fact, he was so far ahead of his time that these techniques are still used today by parents of missing children. First, he wrote letters to every newspaper in the country pleading with them to keep the story alive. Then he made appearances at movie houses all over the country where he and his wife would present a slide show of his daughter between movies. Dr. Winters also wrote President Woodrow Wilson and asked him to intervene in the case. Finally, he sent personal letters to all Knights of Pythias lodges requesting that they help a fellow Knight to find his daughter.

A popular song entitled “What Happened to Catherine Winters?” described the case in music.

A few months after his arrest, charges against Winters, his wife, and his boarder were dropped for lack of evidence. PI Abel, seeing his fee evaporating, used the newspaper pulpit to slam the local district attorney, then fled to Chicago when Dr. Winters threatened to sue him for defamation and false arrest.

The case gradually faded from the headlines. Over the years, dozens of women stepped forward and claimed to be Catherine. In one case, ten years after the disappearance, Mrs. Clyde Taylor of Middleport, Ohio, visited local newspapers and purported to be the long-lost child. She’d visited a fortune-teller, she said, who told her that she had “gone by many names.” This simple statement released a torrent of memories which caused the housewife to think she may have been Catherine. Dr. Winters quickly disabused her of that notion when he saw her photograph.

Dr. Winters’ searches continued throughout the years. He did, in fact, locate a kidnapped girl, but she wasn’t Catherine. A young girl had been abducted in Louisiana and taken to Ohio by an ex-convict. She was reunited with her parents and the ex-con arrested.

What did happen to Catherine Winters? Did her parents murder her, hide her body, and try to throw off investigators by their claims that they thought gypsies had taken her? That was PI Abel’s theory.

Did wandering gypsies take her? (Gypsies were always suspect in missing persons cases although I’ve yet to find a case where they actually abducted someone in America.)

Did Catherine wander out of town and die accidentally? If so, why wasn’t she found?

Or was she taken by a sexual deviant? This seems to have never been explored.

Dr. Winters died in 1940, having spent all of his money searching for his daughter. Byrd Winters died in 1953. According to a local newspaper, she had often complained about her husband “touring the vaudeville circuits with enlarged pictures of the girl” while neglecting his business.

On that cold day in 1940, as Dr. Winters gasped out his final breaths, he turned to his wife and said, “Now I’ll find out what happened to Catherine.”

11 comments:

A said...

Thanks for this post. This is a very interesting mystery. There is another Catherine Winters story and videos, along with other media, at http://www.hcgs.net/catherinewinters.html

teresa said...

this is a very interesting mystery . but i would like to know what happened to this young girl . thank you for the blog .it was very intersting .better than almost al the others i have read tnank you for the facts

kimberly prince said...

my hometown is new castle, indiana... i've never heard of this very sad, tragic case...gosh, i loved my town growing up... this is so sad... was this ever solved?

Robert A. Waters said...

Thanks for reading my blog. Unfortunately, this case was never solved. Someone got away with murder. Robert

Steven said...

MPRS- We are looking into investigating this case, given to us by a client. Hopefully we will be able to find some answers for the current family and the public so that this little girl and finally rest in peace.

Rosehippi said...

My dad told me the story of Catherine Winters. He nearly bought the house she lived in when she disappeared.
Even in the 50's people speculated her disappearance. My dad, who was "Texas Slim" at the Grand Ole Opry before WWII, used to sing and pick the guitar and would sing the song about Catherine. some of the words were;

"Is she far away in bondage, controlled by cruel hands?
Is she resting with the Angels in the promised Land..."

I can't seem to remember all the words any more, but the last verse was;

"where did Catherine Winters go?"

To this day I still want to know, where DID Catherine winters go???

Robert A. Waters said...

Hey Rosehippi,

I've been a huge fan of the Grand Ole Opry all my life. I'd love to get the music and words to that song by Texas Slim. Could you email me at kmmblog at gmail.com?

Robert

KSOL1460 said...

Children certainly were stolen by gypsies (probably Irish Travellers) in those days, although I'm sure a lot of disappearances were conveniently blamed on the gypsies when in truth they'd had nothing to do with it.

Look up Lillian Wulff. Miss Wulff was discovered walking behind a gypsy wagon six days after she disappeared in 1907. Four years later she was assisting police with the Elsie Paroubek case. Elsie's disappearance is very similar to Catherine's except that her parents were working-class Czech immigrants and were unable to keep her story before the public.

if it works... said...

How old was her brother Frank when she disappeared?

Dale Asberry said...

I lived in the Winters' home on 311 N. 16th St. during the 1980s.

Colleen said...

Hi everyone! I'm a Muncie, Ind., writer, journalist and college instructor who researched the Catherine Winters story for five years and wrote a nonfiction book about her last year (I landed an agent and am waiting on a publisher, fingers crossed). To mark the 100th anniversary of Catherine's disappearance this March 20, I created a website that might interest you: www.whereiscatherinewinters.com. I hope you'll check it out. Even after all those hours I spent reading microfilm in dim library corners, Catherine's story still fascinates me, as it seems to do a lot of people. Thanks!