On the long slog

For most of the past year I’ve been reconstructing the search for Catherine Winters day by day on Facebook and Twitter.

Every day I scroll down the giant timeline I spent five years making and find today’s date a hundred years ago. Sometimes something exciting happened—a big lead, an arrest, a juicy quote in one of the papers. More often, though, it’s mundane.

That’s the worst part. The most terrible things became mundane in Catherine’s case. Searches of Gypsy camps, unsettling letters from anonymous members of the public, farm fields dug up in search of skeletons. These things eventually earned only passing comment in the press, they happened so often and always with the same, disappointing conclusion. No Catherine.

At the same time I’ve been following developments in real time, and appreciating in a much more visceral way the horrible, maddening suspense of the search, I’ve been doing another kind of waiting. I’m a writer, with a writer’s dream of having my words on real paper on a bookshelf somewhere. But the search for a publisher in this economic climate who wants to take a risk on a little-known case and a less-known writer drags on.

Of course the stakes are nothing like the same, but still, to me, after all those hours at a microfiche machine—they’re not without their toll. I wonder, when is it time to give up? How do you know? And what would life look like afterward? But maybe this too serves my understanding of my story.

The waiting, the monotony, the glimmers of terrible hope—they push me further in that imaginative leap. They bring me a little closer to how it felt to search and search and search, and not just for a professional prize. For a precious daughter.


Posted on December 31, 2013 .

Catherine Winters and new-mom anxiety

People ask me how I came to write a book. It's not like anyone asked me to. Do people ever go out and ask other people to write books on subjects no one has heard of? Maybe somewhere. Not here. My answer is this: I was having a baby and I thought I needed a project.

Clearly a major mistake. Anyone already in possession of an infant would have known, not the ideal time for major undertakings, unless that undertaking is keeping a tiny human being alive. And yet, by accident or design, months after I was barely fitting behind the university microfilm machine, my daughter was born on the 95th anniversary of Catherine Winters' disappearance. 

Weird, right? Soon that other little girl was claiming my attention during those first precious Mommy's Day Out programs. She was the other child I turned to when my own had gone to sleep. Because of her I learned how expensive good daycares are. Because of her I learned how to juggle, be distracted, feel torn, do two things badly, do one thing at a time pretty well (or at least significantly faster).

I have to have been exercising some maternal anxiety in the choosing of this topic at this time—in the choosing of a topic at all. I've spent all my free time from parenting minutely examining the absolute worst thing a parent can imagine. But somehow I don't think it has made me a more anxious mother.

In some ways 2013 is scarier than 1913, but in other ways it's not. People a century ago were not more innocent—they were more blessedly ignorant, at least when it comes to a certain kind of danger to children. They didn't give a moment's thought to the possibility of a stranger stealing one of their children, just as I haven't sat up a single night worrying about my daughter catching measles—the disease that had closed Catherine's school and threatened to kill her classmates in March 1913.

It's an old cliche, but we have more in common than not. Two weeks ago I took that stereotypical front-porch photograph, my girl in her new first-day-of-school outfit and pink backpack, squinting into the early-morning light. Our children are borrowed, and there's never enough time. As if I needed the lesson, Catherine taught me that too. 



Posted on September 3, 2013 .

This week: The anniversary

On Wednesday I'll be meeting my friend Eldon in New Castle to drink coffee and go to the cemetery. It's our regular routine, and a weird thing to do, but how else to mark such a strange anniversary as the disappearance of a little girl we never knew?

And yet who knows her better? Like me, Eldon is a former reporter who's spent years of his life at library microfilm machines, peering into the dim past. Catherine's sordid story drew us first—the thing that draws everybody, the murder and mayhem— but something else kept us coming back, some whisper of a real, half-formed little person underneath all those screaming headlines. 

It's a sad fact of Catherine's story that if she hadn't disappeared in 1913, she would never be thought of in 2013. Her tragedy made her famous in her time, and the failure of her family and town to find her keep her remembered in ours, to the poor extent she is remembered. For Catherine, happier outcomes would have meant oblivion in an entirely different way.

There is no body buried at the gravesite we'll be visiting. If there were, we would not be leaving flowers there. We'll do so knowing what small recompense that is.

Posted on March 18, 2013 .

Where our stories intersected

I have a B.A. in journalism and a M.A. in English literature. I teach part-time at Ball State University, instructing aspiring journalism students in everything from media history to literary journalism.

For 13 years I was an award-winning feature writer and editor, working at daily newspapers in Indiana, Kentucky and Florida. And my specialties then—collecting and connecting small and seemingly innocuous details, bringing people and past eras to vivid life, plumbing the deeper meaning of the everyday—have come to bear on my research into Catherine Winters.

I discovered her the way most people did once—in a newspaper. I was working in a newsroom in the small college town of Muncie, Ind., about a 30-minute drive north of New Castle. Rooting through the digital archive one day, I accidentally ran across an anniversary story about the case and, intrigued, made a copy.

I needn’t have bothered. Far from being forgotten, she dogged my thoughts, and when I finally traded in my desk job for motherhood and a long-desired book project, she was the first subject I reached for.

I found the sheer amount of information available in contemporary newspaper accounts about her to be staggering, but since then the media has strangely neglected her. A few volumes of Henry County ghost lore mention her, and the local newspaper replays the case every March and Halloween. The county historical society’s newsletter runs an occasional piece, and an Indianapolis TV station visited for a short segment in the ‘90s. But that is all for this once-national news story, despite the fact that Catherine is so often sought out by the curious that research librarians at the public library have written her name on the boxes of microfilm mentioning her, to save themselves the trip to the cabinet each time someone off the street inquires.

I eagerly joined their ranks, those curious people who just want to know more. When other women might have been reading “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” I spent my afternoons in the Ball State library poring over articles about child murder and Gypsy migration routes. I started hanging out in cemeteries and archives devoted to dental history. I relished the weird coincidences that seem to happen where Catherine Winters is concerned—finding myself three hours from home being introduced to the man who wrote the article that sparked my original interest, having my daughter on the 95th anniversary of Catherine’s disappearance.

I am just one in a long line of people who have come to feel a personal connection to that little, long-ago girl. For a century she has inspired spooky stories, epic sentimentality, heroic gestures, borderline obsession. But as a journalist, I approached the case in a new way and with a new expectation.

I spent five years scouring the best and only record of what happened then—the newspaper accounts. And I negotiated that ocean of information systematically, entering every event into a timeline more than 100 pages long. Every person mentioned by name went into another very long list along with whatever biographical information I could find in other sources. Only then, with minutiae from distant places assembled side by side, did it start to become evident who was important and who was not, where the official stories broke down and differed, what went overlooked by other researchers simply because of the volume of details.

Add this to my more general research on the place and the time, and a picture slowly emerged of a small town on the cusp of being big, a pioneer past being trampled underfoot by a dazzling new technological future, and a web of secret motivations and personal connections that may supply an answer to a second puzzling mystery. A popular song of the day asked, “Where did Catherine Winters go?” I’ve asked, why did New Castle stop looking?

I did not find her. I never had much hope that I would. My goal instead was to remember her—to remember the devastating truth of a real person rather than the sentimental children’s morality tale she became, and to see what her story might have to tell us today

Posted on February 15, 2013 .

Not the first national news story—and not the last

Another story about another missing child in the news today. And sadly, the AP has one thing wrong: This unexplained case from 1984 is far from being "among the first missing children cases to receive national attention."

The search for Catherine Winters went into 60 different Indiana communities and 22 states. For a year and a half and beyond, she was written about in newspapers from New York City to Los Angeles. William Randolph Hearst offered a reward for her. She was the subject of one of the very early news films, which ran in countless theaters across the country. Her father used personal appearances, constant press interviews and even piano sheet music in an attempt to get the word out and uncover clues.

And he wasn't the first. Nearly 40 years before, the parents of little Charley Ross of Pennsylvania used similar tactics to try to discover who had stolen their son. In both these cases, widespread media attention failed to help searchers arrive at any final answers and even inspired backlash against the parents, who came to be viewed with suspicion by a voraciously interested public.

Why bother to remember these sad old stories? Because they show the disturbing longevity of this problem of missing children. Because they throw some doubt onto the impulse to involve the mass media in the search. Because they reveal that current cases are acting on a precedent, whether they know it or not.

Every case, its successes and failures, its tactics and attempts—for better and worse—affects those that come after. 

Posted on February 7, 2013 .