by Robert A. Waters
On August 18, 1923, three-month-old Lillian McKenzie was abducted from a baby carriage on the streets of New York City. Lillian lay asleep in her “perambulator,” or carriage, as her mother, Ella McKenzie, left the child outside a department store in Manhattan. She shopped for ten minutes before returning to find Lillian gone. (While today we would find this unconscionable, in that era it was common practice.)
Mrs. McKenzie's screams quickly brought police and soon more than a hundred officers began a systematic search of nearby businesses and alleys and homes. They found no sign of the infant. For the next two days, police enlisted the aid of hundreds of Boy Scouts, Girl Guides, and even the Salvation Army in their unsuccessful attempts to locate Baby Lillian.
The case quickly became national news. An article in the Masillon (OH) Evening Independent explained that after two days, investigators began to fear the child was dead. “She was a delicate infant in whom the spark of life had been kept only by careful administration of a complicated food formula,” the article read. Police published the unique formula in the newspapers hoping that the kidnapper would learn how to correctly feed her. In fact, newspapers began calling Lillian the “crying baby” because she “is sickly and cries incessantly.”
A week later, a baby was found floating in the North River in New York City. At first, police thought the body was Lillian, but Peter McKenzie, her father, went to the morgue and told investigators it wasn’t his daughter. The child was never identified.
Shortly after the first infant was discovered, another baby, a girl estimated to be three months old, was found in the marshes of the Schuylkill River near Philadelphia. It had a note pinned to its clothing that read: “Give Baby A Home.” It had been there for two days and had died of exposure. New York police quickly determined that this was not Lillian.
In yet another tragic case, a baby left in a hospital in Morgantown, West Virginia died of malnutrition. She'd been abandoned by a man and woman traveling in an “automobile home” bearing New York license plates. NYPD also checked this lead and found the baby was not Lillian.
As the case wore on, investigators developed several theories or profiles as to what kind of person might have snatched the child. Some thought it might be a “female mendicant,” or beggar, who could get more alms if she had a child with her. Another theory was that a childless wife, whose husband refused to live with her unless a child was in the home, had kidnapped Lillian.
But the most prevalent theory was that the person who snatched the baby was “a demented woman who stole Lillian to satisfy the mother-craving of her diseased mind.” Psychologists of the day named the so-called craving “mother mania” and looked to the Bible for an example. A story published by Newspaper Feature Articles read: “You may never have heard of it by that name, but it is an abnormality as old as the Bible story of Moses found in the bulrushes and adopted by Pharoah’s daughter. She, from the viewpoint of the psychoanalyst, was smitten with the same ‘mother mania’ that, in an intense degree, probably inspired the kidnapper of Lillian McKenzie.” The psychologist also stated that “a demon of longing seems to possess some women” who abduct babies.
After the initial flurry of leads, the case stalled. Then, nearly two years later, out of the blue, a child thought to be Lillian was found.
In Englewood, New Jersey, Dr. Bernard Gottlieb remembered a strange woman who had visited his office nine days after the abduction of Lillian. On April 9, 1925, he contacted local police and told them his story. (It was never revealed why he waited nearly two years.) The woman who'd visited his office, he said, carried a frail, malnourished infant whom she called Mildred Grofe. The woman said she was the wife of F. V. Grofe. The child’s face was covered by a veil and when he lifted it, Dr. Gottlieb saw that the child’s head was shaven bald and she was dehydrated and puny. When asked why the child hadn’t been properly cared for, Mrs. Grofe informed the doctor that she and her husband had been visiting Europe for several weeks and that her hired babysitter knew little about babies.
Dr. Gottlieb told police that he had to take “extreme measures” to save the baby.
Detectives who interrogated Mr. and Mrs. Grofe were informed that the couple had adopted Mildred from a doctor and mid-wife. The doctor, whose name was H. L. Green, had told the couple that Mildred was the child of a teenage girl who got pregnant and didn’t want to keep the baby.
Peter and Ella McKenzie were called to the station where they tentatively identified the child as being their daughter. The child’s “mannerisms” and “facial characteristics” were the determining factors in the identification, they said.
On the same day, investigators went to the offices of chiropractor Henry Lee Mottard, alias Dr. Harry L. Green. He was questioned about “the crying baby” and a 44-year-old woman, Annie Allison, who had died in his care. Mottard stated that the baby the Grofes adopted had been born in his office by a teenage girl from Connecticut named Mary Sullivan.
Allison's death was suspicious. According to Mottard, she'd fallen down the steps in his office and died. New York State Police had the body exhumed and it was determined that Allison had died from a botched abortion. A second woman in his care also died of suspicious circumstances and it was suspected that she also had succumbed while having an abortion. In yet another case, an infant born in Mottard's office was unaccounted for. Even though police dug up the doctor's back yard, that baby was never found.
By this time, Mr. and Mrs. McKenzie had backed off their claim that the girl found in the Grofe home was their daughter. It was later determined that the child was older than Lillian would have been and definitely was not the kidnapped girl.
What happened to Lillian McKenzie? Was she snatched by a woman who was afflicted with "Mother Mania" or by someone who wished to sell her? Or was there some other reason the child was kidnapped?
Whatever happened to the shady chiropractor, Dr. Henry Lee Mottard? In all my research, I never found out if he was tried for any of his alleged crimes. If anyone has additional infomation on this case, please email me.
[NOTE: I'm currently working on a book about kidnapping in the 1920s and 1930s and would enjoy corresponding with anyone who has information about child abductions in that era.]