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.”