by Robert A. Waters
In the last two months of 1945, several Nazi war criminals were hanged. General George Patton, lying in an Army hospital, was slowly dying. Closer to home, the “lost squadron” of five World War II Avenger torpedo bombers disappeared off Florida’s coast in the Bermuda Triangle. Those planes, on a training mission, have never been found, and the case remains one of America’s great unexplained mysteries.
At the same time those momentous deeds were taking place, another mystery seemed destined to go unsolved.
On November 28, 1945, the Associated Press reported that “a six months old baby was snatched from his carriage early tonight a short time after his mother placed him within 50 yards of her home. The baby is the son of Mrs. Rose Carlan, 23, and MM 1-C James J. Carlan, serving with the Navy in Oakland, Calif.
“Police said the entire night force and all available inspectors, in addition to hundreds of neighbors, were rallied in the hunt for the missing child. [The] only clue to the child’s disappearance was furnished by [a] seven-year-old…neighbor, who told police she saw an elderly woman, dressed in a black coat and hat, stoop over the carriage and dash off with the baby, Ronald Carlan. The mother told police she discovered the child missing shortly after she placed him in the carriage.”
James, a U. S. Navy machinist’s mate, had been scheduled to ship out to Japan but quickly returned home to help hunt for the son he’d never seen.
By the end of the day, the Chelsea Police Department had checked every vacant house in the city, as well as nearby homes, cellars, and alleyways. Next day, schools released students to help with the search, which soon branched out to include not only Chelsea, but surrounding towns and villages.
Rose, described by newspapers as “distraught,” pleaded with the kidnapper to “keep on giving [Ronald] cough medicine because he has a bad cold and I think it may turn to whooping cough.” Interviewed by several local radio stations, she pleaded for her son’s return.
Soon Rose began receiving calls for ransom. Before the search reached its macabre end, Ronald’s mother would claim to have taken a dozen calls demanding anywhere from $1,000 to $30,000. Police spent hundreds of hours chasing down these leads, eventually arresting two hoaxers.
James, back home in Chelsea, was placed under a doctor’s care, suffering from shock. At times, he seemed disoriented, as if he could not believe what was happening.
For sixteen long days, the search continued. Its net widened to Boston, with cops raiding several “underworld” haunts. Newspaper headlines across the country trumpeted the widening mystery.
Then, on December 2, a detective who had long been suspicious of Rose Carlan’s story made a shocking discovery. Special Officer Matthew J. Flaherty found the body of Ronald stuffed in the bottom of a built-in China cabinet in the Carlan’s bedroom. The United Press described this scene: “The baby, wrapped in his bright blue bunting, was crammed under the bottom drawer of the closet, less than arm’s reach from the bed where for 14 nights James Carlan comforted his ‘distraught’ wife, his vows of love assuring her the child would be found alive.
“Flaherty, a father himself, had become suspicious of the story told by Mrs. Carlan—the high ransom and varying tales about the baby’s milk bottles. He began a search of the home, smiling, and attempting to put the Carlans at ease with his good humor. Flaherty strode into the bedroom of the four-room flat. A smile that had flickered across Mrs. Carlan’s face froze as he walked to the closet against which a bureau had been moved. He pushed the bureau aside. Flaherty yanked out one drawer. Then another. Mrs. Carlan gasped as he pulled the bottom drawer free. It stuck for an instant, then slid out, revealing the edge of the blue bunting in which the baby had been wrapped. Flaherty pushed aside a shawl and some household tools.
“Carlan and his wife screamed simultaneously when the baby’s body was uncovered. ‘I did not murder my baby,’ sobbed Mrs. Carlan, and fainted.
“‘My God,’ Carlan said, ‘There’s the baby.’
“He turned and started toward his wife. ‘I’ll kill you,’ he shouted.
“Two policemen grabbed the stunned sailor, and led him from the room.”
The child’s body was in good condition considering that he’d been dead for more than two weeks.
Police arrested Rose and charged her with murder. A judge ordered that she be admitted to a psychiatric hospital for an evaluation. James, after first threatening to kill his wife, now promised to stand by her.
The Associated Press reported that Rose “had admitted she invented the kidnap story because she did not want anyone to think she had neglected the baby who Medical Examiner William J. Brickley reported died of asphyxiation following a fourth attack of pneumonia. She said she found the baby dead when she came downstairs to her flat from a party in her mother-in-law’s apartment.” Instead of calling for help, she went back to the party and acted as if nothing happened. Two days later, she placed his carriage outside her home and concocted the kidnap story.
The case was referred to a grand jury. On February 19, 1946, newspapers reported that jurors refused to indict Rose when it was determined that Ronald had died of pneumonia.
James and Rose exited the courthouse, strolling through a gauntlet of reporters. In a bizarre twist, the two held hands and beamed with delight.
After the hearing, Rose and James Carlan disappeared from the news, their fate swallowed up by history.