Eighty years ago today, a four-year-old girl vanished into the Pennsylvania woods. The search captivated people across the nation — and some have never stopped looking.
On a damp Thursday morning in May 1938, hundreds of workers from Western Pennsylvania oil fields, given the day off to look for a missing girl, walked through the Allegheny Forest at arms’ length. They traversed the tangled underbrush alongside police with bloodhounds, World War I veterans, Cornplanter Indians, coal miners, and assorted others who’d responded to the local mayor’s call for 1,000 volunteers. They killed rattlesnakes and were careful not to drop a foot down into one of the hundreds of oil wells dug during the area’s petroleum boom in the 1870s.
But by nightfall, the “haggard, sleep-robbed faces of scores of men,” as the Bradford Era newspaper described them, told onlookers the grim truth: another day had passed without finding the little red-haired four-year-old, Marjorie West.
Eighty years ago today, Marjorie vanished while at a Mother’s Day picnic in the forest with her family. To this day she is the subject of one of the oldest unsolved cases recorded by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Her search was one of the largest for a child since the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping six years earlier. Residents of Western Pennsylvania and Marjorie’s surviving relatives still hold out hope she’s alive. If she is, she may yet celebrate her 85th birthday next month.
“She could still be living,” said Marjorie’s cousin, Jack Covert, in an interview shortly before he passed away in March. “But she’s probably not around here.”
Marjorie was lost four decades before the nationwide “stranger danger” panic over kidnappings, set off when the son of eventual “America’s Most Wanted” host John Walsh disappeared from a Florida mall in 1981. After the much-publicized Adam Walsh abduction, parents became more fearful about where their children went and who they were with, and government agencies instituted safety programs including taking fingerprints of kids to keep on file. More recently, the hit Netflix series “Stranger Things,” about a fictional 12-year-old named Will Byers who’s snatched into another dimension, prompted renewed discussion about the idyllic times when children roamed free and parents rarely worried. In a New York Times op-ed, Ana North wrote, “‘Stranger Things’ is a reminder of a kind of unstructured childhood wandering that [now] seems less possible.”
But the Marjorie West case reminds us that decades before mass media coverage of child kidnappings, there were hazards that terrified parents. The dangers (Depression-era vagrants, illicit adoption rings) were just different. How free children should be to roam, and how cautious parents should be about young children’s activities, is a debate that still rages today.
* * *
On Sunday, May 8, 1938, the West family – father Shirley; mother Cecilia; and children Dorothea, 11, Allan, 7, and Marjorie – attended church in Bradford, a small city 90 minutes south of Buffalo, New York, and 90 minutes east of Titusville, Pennsylvania, the site of the country’s first oil boom in 1859. Bradford enjoyed its own rush for liquid gold a dozen years later, providing a steady living for families like the Wests – Shirley was an assistant engineer at Kendall Refining, located just a few blocks from his home.
After church, the Wests drove 13 miles along Highway 219 to a clearing in the Allegheny Forest that was popular with hunters and fishermen. They joined family friends, Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd Akerlind.
Around three p.m. Cecilia headed to the road to rest in the car. Her husband, Shirley, prepared to go trout fishing in the stream with Lloyd. The girls, Dorothea and Marjorie, wanted to pick wildflowers. Shirley warned them to watch for rattlesnakes behind the boulder nearby.
The girls gathered a bouquet of violets. Dorothea headed to the car to deliver them to their mother. When she turned around, her sister was gone.
The family drove to the nearest phone seven miles away to contact police in the town of Kane.
What followed was a grueling search that spanned months and saw more than 3,000 local people hunting for Marjorie, with countless others locked into the national newspaper coverage.
When police couldn’t find Marjorie that Sunday afternoon, 200 men joined in, including the Citizen Conservation Corps and the Moose and Elks lodges. As darkness fell, oilmen brought headlamps. “All available flash-lights in the city were pressed into service,” noted the Era. The effort slowed when a cold rain fell at one a.m.
On Monday, the search party grew to 500. They waded through the stream and stood 25 yards apart in a mile-long line, ultimately combing four square miles. Police interviewed motorists across an area spanning 300 square miles.
By Tuesday, May 10, police brought bloodhounds from New York State. That evening, they found clues, but accounts vary.
Two newspaper articles say the dogs followed Marjorie’s trail “half a mile up a mountain” to a cabin with its door nailed shut. Nothing of interest was found inside. Other media accounts, as well as those from Marjorie’s descendants in online blogs and discussion threads, say the dogs followed Marjorie’s scent to the road alongside the clearing.
“The searches found the crushed bouquet of violets, picked for her mother for Mother’s Day, lying on the ground not far from the rock,” close to where the flowers were pulled, wrote Catherine, the daughter of Marjorie’s cousin Joyce, on her genealogy blog in 2006.
Many people believed in 1938, as they do now, that Marjorie was picked up at the road. Witnesses told police of three cars that had passed through the area around three p.m. The drivers of two were identified by Tuesday night. The third – whom witnesses said was a man – was seen fleeing in his Plymouth sedan so fast an oncoming motorist told police he had to pull into a ditch.
On Wednesday afternoon, Bradford’s mayor Hugh Ryan issued his plea for 1,000 volunteers for the next day’s search. He got 2,500.
The search was praised for its organization, thanks in part to the men who, like Shirley, had served in the Great War. At 5:30 a.m., surveyors mapped out the land, and by eight a.m. a “line of men, standing shoulder to shoulder several miles long, grew impatient in the Chappel Fork road until leaders gave the [bugle] signal for them to enter the forest,” recounted the Era. “Refinery workers rubbed elbows with professional men.” Women doled out 1,600 cups of coffee, prepared in “wash boilers” for hot laundry.
By the end of the week, the search had covered 35 square miles with Marjorie still out of sight. There were discoveries: a swath of lace near the boulder, and a fresh hole a few miles away. But Marjorie’s aunt told police she hadn’t worn lace that day, and two men admitted using the hole to hide casks of cherry wine.
Engineers pumped out a muddy well and Native Americans tracked “she bears” – mother bears they believed were prone to carrying off small children – to no avail.
Shirley did not leave the forest for a week until, according to the May 16th Era, he “consented to come to Bradford. He ate his evening meal at home and then returned.”
Police began circulating a poster describing Marjorie’s “curley” red hair, freckles, red Shirley Temple hat, and patent leather shoes. Cecilia West stayed at home so as not to miss a phone call.
On May 13, 1938, State Police Commissioner P.W. Foote told the Associated Press that West’s disappearance probably began with her liking to “play hide and seek.”
A detail of four police searched the area for five months.
* * *
Snakes and “she bears” were not the only dangers in the woods.
Newspapers covering the disappearance linked it with a 1910 mystery in which two boys vanished near the forest within a few hours of each other. On April 16 of that year, Edward Adams, nine, was fishing with buddies near Lamont, Pennsylvania, and heard a “wild man” cursing in the woods. The boys ran, but when the group stopped, Eddie was gone. Thirteen miles away, in the town of Ludlow, Michael Steffan, seven, fished with a friend. Walking home, the other boy looked back and Michael had vanished. Newspapers at the time reported that a Mr. Arrowsmith said his “mentally unbalanced” son, Harry, 32, had wandered off the same day, near Lamont. But Harry returned a week later with no knowledge of the boys, police said. Thirteen days after the disappearances, a mail carrier discovered a handwritten note on a Lamont railroad trestle: “Will return boy for $10,000.” That was the last clue found.
Two years later, Buffalo police captured the “Postcard Killer,” J. Frank Hickey, who admitted to murdering two other boys in Buffalo and Manhattan, nine years apart. Many suspected he’d killed other boys in the region, and Edward Adams’s mother wrote to Buffalo police to ask whether Hickey ever mentioned her son. When Mrs. Adams passed away in 1933, the Associated Press reported that she’d kept a light in her window for 23 years, waiting for Eddie.
Those disappearances were 11 and 19 miles from Marjorie’s picnic, respectively. It’s hard to believe the same “wildman” could have been lurking in the woods 28 years later, but the cases were a testament to the fact that anyone could have been in the forest. In fact, The Era reported on Sept. 14, 1938 that a 55-year-old “woodsman” was arrested for assaulting another man “with a double-bladed ax during an argument while they were working on a woods operation in the Chappel Fork area,” near where Marjorie disappeared. The story said the woodsman had been questioned about Marjorie at one point, but was released.
If Marjorie was snatched, it could have been for profit. During the Great Depression, child kidnappings became a popular, low-tech way to make a buck. “Kidnapping wave sweeps the nation,” blared a New York Times headline on March 3, 1932, two days after the abduction of the son of aviator Charles Lindbergh. At the time, some feared that cars, still a relatively new technology, were going to cause an increase in kidnappings, and they weren’t wrong. Abductions did increase with the use of automobiles and with greater highway usage. Still, many of those who believed Marjorie was abducted thought it was not for ransom, but for a different type of moneymaking enterprise.
On Sept. 12, 1950, Tennessee authorities announced allegations that Georgia Tann, executive director of the Memphis branch of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, had adopted out more than 1,000 babies for $1 million since the 1930s, tricking poor couples into giving them up. Tann died three days after the investigation became public. Many of the children never knew their birth parents (including famed professional wrestler Ric Flair, born in 1949, who wrote of the circumstance in his autobiography). And presumably, the wealthy clients who adopted through Tann’s agency (including actress Joan “Mommie Dearest” Crawford) never knew of her methods.
The Tann theory was bolstered by a clue. A few days after Marjorie disappeared, a taxi driver in Thomas, West Virginia, told police that late at night on Mother’s Day, a man and weeping young girl checked into the town’s Imperial Hotel. Could they have been stopping midway to Tennessee?
But news stories from five months later render the Tann theory unlikely. In October 1938, Pennsylvania state police tracked down merchant Conrad Fridley of Ridgely, West Virginia. He said that on that evening, he and daughter Lois, five, were returning home from a visit to Parsons, West Virginia, and had to stop because of fog. Lois became frustrated and cried. They left the hotel early the next morning to open his shop.
Census records from 1940 show a Conrad Fridley, 31, of Ridgeley, who in 1940 had a daughter, eight.
As spring turned to summer, national media focused on Hitler’s annexation of Austria and the suffering United States economy. But Western Pennsylvania press continued following Marjorie’s case.
“The state police investigation continued off and on for six years,” reported the Era in 1955, noting that Shirley and Cecilia West had separated around 1953.
Family members say Marjorie’s closest relatives went to their grave believing she was alive.
* * *
Tammy Dittman, a longtime teacher in Bradford, took a class of hers to the Allegheny Forest in 2008 to learn about archeology. During the trip, two men from the Civil Conservation Corps discussed their search, as youths, for Marjorie.
“They talked about how hard they searched,” Dittman says. “They searched shoulder to shoulder constantly.”
The class undertook a project to research the case and speak with young kids about safety.
After the Olean, New York, Times Herald covered the project, Dittman got a call from another elderly man, now blind, who had searched as well.
The man told Dittman, “‘There was no way the little girl could have been in the woods,’” she says. “The fact that he contacted me practically on his deathbed shows how sad it was. Maybe he had a little hope we’d find out more.”
Dittman, who has hiked near Chappel Fork, acknowledged the hazards nearby, including hundreds of old wells that are hard to notice. “You can step right into them and go down,” she says. Yet she believes the most likely explanation is that Marjorie was kidnapped.
“I hope she was at least in a good family,” Dittman says.
* * *
Two of Marjorie’s descendants have written online about the case.
Catherine, the daughter of Marjorie’s first cousin, Joyce, explained on her family genealogy blog: “My grandfather searched for weeks, long after the manhunt was called off, returning home late into the night. Three small children sat on the porch steps waiting for him, but they knew each night from the slope of his shoulders, he didn’t find the little girl with the bouncing red curls.”
The granddaughter of Dorothea West, Angel, wrote in 2009: “I remember listening to my grandmother tell me stories about Marjorie and the sadness she felt for leaving her sister alone for those few moments. My grandmother held on to her feeling of responsibility until her passing two years ago.”
These three descendants of Marjorie did not respond to requests for interviews, so out of respect for their privacy we’ve opted to only use their first names. However, they did reach out to authorities back in 2010, compelling the state police, unable to find old records, to start a new case file. State Police Corporal Mary Gausman says that in 2012 police took cheek swabs for DNA from two cousins in Bradford, sending them to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Unfortunately, they produced no clues.
But both agencies get tips. Gausman says that in 2014, an employee of a hospital in Rochester, New York, read about the case online and called to say they had a patient named Marjorie who rarely had visitors. But the woman’s niece had seen immigration records and confirmed she’d been born in 1922.
However, one Bradford native believes he knows the answer to the mystery.
* * *
Harold Thomas “Bud” Beck, a writer, raconteur, and college professor with a Ph.D. in linguistics, researched the case after he heard about it in a bar he used to run. Around 1998, when internet access was becoming more widespread, he posted a $10,000 reward for information about Marjorie. He included up-to-date photos of Dorothea, figuring Marjorie would resemble her.
One woman contacted him to say she’d worked at a company in Florida with a nurse who looked similar.
Beck took a trip south to meet several people about whom he’d gotten tips. The nurse did look like Dorothea, but denied being Marjorie.
Around 2005, Beck says, he heard from her again and went to meet her. By then she had returned to her childhood farm in North Carolina.
When he caught up with her there, she related a story that her mother told her when she was nearing the end of her life: In 1938, the nurse’s father left that very farm and drove north to work in Bradford’s refineries for the winter. Come spring, it was time to return to his crops. Driving south past the Allegheny Forest on Mother’s Day, he hit a little girl.
“There wasn’t anybody there,” Beck recounts. “He was going to take her to the hospital in Kane. He was afraid she was dead.”
But as he was driving with the unconscious girl in the car, she woke up, seemingly unharmed. He and his wife had lost their only daughter that winter. The delivery had been difficult and they didn’t think they could have more children.
The man brought Marjorie to the farm and raised her there.
A few years later, he lost an arm on board an aircraft carrier in World War II, Beck says. The man told his wife he thought it was “God’s way of punishing him for what he’d done.”
The nurse used to tell her parents that she remembered another family, but they dismissed it. She also remembered a place with “snow way over her head,” Beck says.
After World War II, her parents had four more children, according to Beck.
The nurse only told Beck the story after he made two promises: one, he couldn’t tell anyone about her identity – except for Dorothea, whom she wanted to meet – and two, Beck could only publish her story after she died.
By that time, Dorothea was in ill health and couldn’t meet “Marjorie,” Beck says.
The nurse died about a decade ago. Beck kept his promise and self-published Finding Marjorie West in 2010.
“There’s no question” it’s her, Beck says.
People have pressed him to notify the authorities, Beck adds, but he ponders, “What is it going to accomplish? One family is dead, and the other has been living under a set of circumstances they believe to be true. The mother and father were considered good people in the community.”
Locals who’ve read the book have debated its conclusions on Facebook. Marjorie’s cousin’s daughter Catherine discounted the story on a 2012 discussion thread on Websleuths.com, a site on which people try to solve missing persons cases. Catherine wrote that the state trooper she talked to didn’t take Beck’s narrative seriously.
Beck says he understands why people are frustrated, particularly those involved in the search. But he won’t betray a confidence.
Bob Lowery, a vice president at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, hadn’t heard of Beck’s book, but says Beck or anyone else with information about Marjorie should come forward. He notes the case is the third-oldest in their files. “I would think that anyone alive today who was living at that time would have vivid memories of this,” he says. “When something happens to a child of four, there’s a need to have the truth shared so that everyone knows.”
If Beck’s tale is true, it would explain how Marjorie disappeared so quickly and without a trace, as well as the speeding Plymouth. But the story begs questions: How were two people able to keep the secret so long? Did the sorrow they felt on Mother’s Day drive them to rationalize the act?
Perhaps the tale is just too good to be true. In Beck’s book, the nurse claims she was the sobbing girl spotted in West Virginia on Mother’s Day night. But according to an article from October 1938, the police and Wests went to meet Conrad Fridley, the merchant who said he was there. Police told the press that his daughter resembled Marjorie, but wasn’t her, and the girl spotted that night had different clothes than Marjorie.
Beck dismissed the newspaper accounts, saying he stands by his story.
Relatives remain wary. In 2015, an anonymous reviewer on Amazon, presumably a member of the family, wrote that she was shocked Beck was selling the book after “making false promises and leading my grandmother on wild goose chases for YEARS.”
So what if the nurse wasn’t Marjorie? Where did she go?
One cannot discount the rough terrain in the woods. In 1962, two boys died while exploring an abandoned clay mine in Western Pennsylvania, prompting Bradford officials to finally start closing all old mines, caves, and wells.
* * *
“The effects of that day,” Catherine wrote on her blog, “lasted long into mom’s adulthood, and when she had children, made her extra cautious about where we were and who we were with.”
Marjorie West’s case, like other child disappearances of the time, had a ripple effect on families long before mass media attention was ever trained on Adam Walsh. Responding to recent newspaper essays in the last few years about parents becoming overprotective due to modern media coverage of tragedies, senior citizens have responded that their parents became more protective after the Lindbergh Baby case. There was a similar effect in Western Pennsylvania in 1938. “This [West case] was the very very sad object lesson of my childhood…not to wander away, not to go anywhere with ‘strangers,’” recalled an elderly woman on a Bradford community Facebook group.
Regardless of the statistics of “stranger danger,” parents will always have to negotiate their own comfort level about being protective.
Tammy Dittman, the Bradford teacher, says kids should be wary and vigilant.
“Some [children] need to be scared,” says Dittman. “They think nothing can happen to them.”