Sunday, February 27, 2011

“Disorganized Wartime Living” Syndrome

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Baby snatched from Ohio hospital
by Robert A. Waters

On July 8, 1945, it had been two months since Germany surrendered, ending the European phase of World War II. In the Pacific, American bombers were preparing to attack Tokyo for the first time. Two months later, after a rain of allied destruction that included the use of two atomic bombs, Japan would finally surrender.

But on the home front, an unspeakable crime turned attention away from the war for a few days.

On that Sunday, six-day-old Jean Eileen Creviston was stolen from her crib in the maternity ward of Marion City Hospital in Marion, Ohio. No one saw the kidnapper steal into the area reserved for nurses only. No one saw her take the baby and vanish without a trace.

Jean Eileen, as newspapers referred to the victim, was the daughter of Tech. Sgt. John L. Creviston and Helen Elizabeth Creviston, referred to as a “Marion Society matron.” Sergeant Creviston was stationed at Lockbourne Army Air Base near Columbus.

As soon as he learned of the abduction, Marion Police Chief William E. Marks launched a massive search for the child. Helicopters flew over a wooded area near the hospital while local police, aided by the state highway patrol, began questioning all hospital workers and residents in nearby neighborhoods.

Mrs. Creviston addressed the kidnapper directly. “Whoever took my baby,” she said, “be kind to her.”

A flurry of excitement was caused when someone discovered a baby diaper in a 400 acre field on the west side of town. Chief Marks recruited 42 boys on bicycles to search the field but they found nothing.

Sergeant Creviston quickly became the focus of the investigation. He was an Air Force gunner whose plane had been shot down over Germany. He was captured and remained in a prisoner-of-war camp until being liberated and returned to the United States.

After enduring hours of interrogation, he was eliminated from suspicion.

Then, on July 12, Chief Marks announced an arrest. Phyllis Ann Webster, 30, was taken into custody when someone reported that she was showing off a child who may not have been her own. After the baby’s footprints were compared with those of Jean Eileen Creviston and found to match, Webster broke down and admitted that she had feigned pregnancy for three months before snatching Jean. She told investigators that for a three-month period she "stuffed her clothing with cotton batting and bought baby clothes and a bassinet." Then she went to the hospital with the specific intention of taking a baby.

Her husband was also in the military. Stationed overseas at the time of the abduction, Sgt. Ernest Webster was quickly given an emergency furlough and flown back to Ohio.

It seemed to be an open-and-shut case. Then her attorney, Paul Michael, came up with an ingenious strategy. As the trial began in September, the lawyer argued that Mrs. Webster was not guilty by reason of insanity as the result of “disorganized wartime living.” With soldiers being stationed in bases away from home and sent to fight all over the world, he argued, many women on the home front lost control of their senses and did strange things--like abduct babies from hospitals.

Attorney Michael knew that juries have always been reluctant to convict pretty women of serious crimes. And Mrs. Webster was beautiful. Her husband, being a serviceman fighting for freedom overseas, was also viewed in a sympathetic light by the jury.

Sgt. Webster testified that he was partially to blame for the abduction because he’d made it clear to his wife that he didn’t want children. Even so, she’d gotten pregnant twice and had two miscarriages. The trauma caused by the miscarriages as well as his wife's knowledge that a baby was unwanted by the father, he said, may have contributed to her stealing the Creviston baby.

Sgt. Webster told the jury that now, after seeng how much his wife wanted kids, he'd changed his mind. While overseas, he testified, he’d seen other soldiers receive letters from their wives with photographs of their babies. This, along with Mrs. Webter's burning desire to have children, made him reconsider the matter. If his wife was acquitted, he implied, he would welcome children.

It also helped Mrs. Webster’s case when it became known that the victim’s mother stated that she didn’t want the defendant to be “punished any more than she had been.”

Much to the chagrin of the prosecutor, Mrs. Webster was acquitted. According to the jury, she was not guilty by reason of insanity.

A few days after the trial, Phyllis Ann Webster was released from custody.

Within two months, World War II was over. In the euphoria of victory, the case faded from the headlines and the abduction of little Jean Eileen Creviston became just a footnote in history.

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