The never-ending story

Another blustery March, another anniversary. March 20 marks the beginning of spring and the beginning of an obsession for so many people over the last now-104 years.

An alcoholic dentist. A furious prosecutor. Too many self-described clairvoyants and havers of prophetic dreams to count. Boy scouts and school children and factory workers. Ghost hunters. Book writers. Writers of songs. A former nurse, a former hairdresser, and a bunch of former newspaper reporters like me. We've all looked in the attics and rooted through the memories and breathed in the dusty files. We've all failed.

But somehow despite—or perhaps because of?—the lack of an answer, new people pick up the search as others put it down. Come to Catherine's anniversary program at the New Castle Public Library 6 p.m. tomorrow, Monday, March 20, and you'll see the latest searchers step forward with their version of the old story. I'll be there too, and I'm excited to talk to Kandice Coatie and her fellow New Castle film makers, nearing their ending of this story that never ends. 

Where is Catherine Winters? We still don't know. But we still haven't stopped wondering. 

Posted on March 19, 2017 .

Open wide and say ...

In 1914, there were eight dentists serving a population of almost 9,500 in New Castle. The whole state only had 1,300 (in 2012, it could claim more than twice that).

Catherine's father, William Winters, fresh from his Illinois farm, had learned his trade at a respected school in Chicago attempting to standardize dentistry at a time when dental mills basically sold diplomas and unleashed quacks onto a toothsore public. He would have studied microbes and all the latest discoveries concerning dental health.

But sad to say for the people of the period, there was still a lot left to discover.

Winters learned to pull teeth, lance infections and make dental plates at a (to us, nightmarish) moment in history before toothpaste, antibiotics, disposable needles, adequate pain relief or any preventative care to speak of. The X-ray was a brand-new and still rare resource for the dentist of the period.

So most people went to the dentist when they had to—when they were in pain, when their toothache was unbearable or their jaw swollen. They expected more pain once in the dentist’s chair. Using primitive-looking (at least to us today) hand tools, his job required speed, strength and the dread of his fellow citizens. For this he could expect an annual salary of about $2,500—not bad compared with the upwards of $500 a year the average American earned.

Of course it wouldn't be enough to find his daughter. In later years, some patients would complain about Dr. Winters' dirty tools and grim office manner, but it's impossible to say if those stories resulted from the facts, the notoriety of his lost daughter—or his turn-of-the-century dental training.

Posted on April 30, 2014 .

The question of Dr. Winters' ugly temper

Many people have accused Mrs. Winters of hurting her stepdaughter—of abusing her to death, of conspiring to murder her to cover up an affair. But she's not the member of the family most often described as violent in the press.

Long before his daughter disappeared, Dr. Winters faced assault charges for punching his landlord in a dispute over rent. Long after the search sputtered to a halt, he was charged with a drunken hit-and-run accident, a local paper describing him as a "notorious local police character."

Many times during the search, Dr. Winters showed his temper to police and press—both groups attempting to assist him find his daughter—by threatening to hit whoever interfered with him. This odd snippet from February 1914 is typical:

"Dr. Winters denied a story which was sent out from Springdale to the effect that he planned to shoot the man who spoke about his first wife. He said he had a gun with him but he carried it only for his own protection."

While Mrs. Winters would find the evil-stepmother stereotype impossible to shake, Dr. Winters—whether a drunken blusterer or a genuinely dangerous hothead—showed a knack for alienating those who wanted to help him.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted on March 28, 2014 .

"Gee, but I wish I was your girl"

One of the weirder trips in all his thousands of miles of traveling took Dr. Winters to Arkansas, then quickly on to Middleport, Ohio, after a $1,000 reward offer from The Cincinnati Post in February 1914 brought in more than 100 letters.

The little girl he went to identify there was not his Catherine—but she was a kidnap victim. A man, one report said a bank robber, had taken and traveled with her for four years, abusing her along the way. "Gee, but I wish I was your girl," she told Dr. Winters. 

He left her with the authorities and started for home, but not before his train stopped in Columbus, Ohio. There some 700 people waited at the station just to get a glimpse of the sad, dogged father from the newspaper account. 

Posted on February 21, 2014 .

St. Catherine of the flea market

 Looking for that elusive 1915 sheet music ... Denied again.

Looking for that elusive 1915 sheet music ... Denied again.

I grew up "junking," as my family called it—combing the Sunday flea with my grandma as a kid, searching for dance dresses at the second-hand with my high-school friend Mary, furnishing first apartments at the Goodwill. For a poor, semi-migrant newspaper reporter who loved anything faintly scenting of a story, junking met a lot of different needs over the years.

No wonder then that one of the first places I turned when I started looking for Catherine Winters was the local antique shops. And they haven't disappointed. 1913 postcards of New Castle scenes, "Where Did Catherine Winters Go" sheet music, even the high-school yearbook of Catherine's little brother Frankie—these have given me the feeling of coming just that much closer to knowing what her world was really like.

But even in this small sideline of a search, some items have proved impossibly illusive. 

The children of New Castle sold thousands of small pasteboard buttons in May 1913 as a fundraiser. Reading "Catherine Winters Search Fund" and designed to be worn in a buttonhole, it's inconceivable that not a single one got saved, given the nature of people and the notoriety of the case. Yet never has one popped up on eBay or fallen under my gaze in a flea-market case, no matter how often I look.

And while yellowed copies of "Where Did Catherine Winters Go" appear with regularity at local shops and online (and I have trouble not buying every one I see), the Gorbett Brothers issued a second song about the lost child I've never seen. Even the Henry County Historical Society doesn't have a copy of the 1915 "Could We Telephone to Heaven." (The Indiana Historical Society does though—http://images.indianahistory.org/cdm/ref/collection/p16797coll1/id/1653.)

But I keep looking. The longer I'm denied, the more stubbornly I search. That probably says something about the lasting fascination of the Catherine Winters case as a whole.

 

 

Posted on January 31, 2014 .