The story begins

She was the most tragically unlucky of children.

Catherine Winters, at 9 years old, had already lost her mother to tuberculosis, then the daily presence of her much-loved grandmother and aunt. She had a father with a drinking problem. She had a stepmother whose personality, outsiders would say with what passed for authority, matched the unsmiling face captured in newspaper photographs.

From this vantage point, the little girl seems a little lonely. And Catherine was alone when she set off early on March 20, 1913, to wander the town unsupervised, to vanish into thin air at the worst possible time, if there ever is a good one.

Because on March 20, the rain started—the first storms of what would be a historic system of storms churning across the Midwest, flooding cities large and small, washing away roads and train tracks and telephone wires, killing hundreds and stranding many thousands more. The weather bogged down the first search parties, sucking their motor cars into the mud. The weather dominated headlines and distracted everyone from the immediate task of finding Catherine Winters.

And there were other distractions. Gypsies—that much maligned group—by chance had stopped in New Castle to water their horses on March 20. That coincidence got them persecuted for years to come, their traveling bands stopped and searched and harassed by police and overenthusiastic citizens alike. It happened dozens and dozens of times across the state and region, a continual waste of time and energy uncovering not the slightest clue.

Had Catherine disappeared some years earlier, the scope of her search might have proved smaller, more manageable to those town fathers who undertook it. But Catherine's misfortune was to be born in an age of progress, when small Midwest cities like New Castle had flung their doors open to the world. Criss-crossed by new Interurban and rail lines that could deposit a person in Indianapolis or Cincinnati or Chicago within hours—that could rush strangers in and out of town without anyone much noticing—New Castle faced a staggering number of places to look once Catherine needed looking for.

But perhaps no bit of circumstance proved quite so unfortunate to the lost girl as the family she had been born into, with its petty jealousies and guilty-looking secrets that would so disturb newspaper readers once all was spread out in the light. The stepmother's steely silence, the father's impulse to control and bluster—they exhibited the wrong personalities for the wrong situation, and they managed to turn general sympathy into widespread suspicion. 

Meanwhile, Catherine stayed missing. The resources, money, manpower, time and public interest that might have found where she had gone went elsewhere, were drained and, in the end, exhausted —with nothing ever to show for them.

Posted on January 14, 2013 .