On a rainy Thursday morning in May 1938, hundreds of employees from Western Pennsylvania were given the day off to look for a missing girl. They walked through the tangled underbrush alongside police, bloodhounds, WWI veterans, Native Americans, coal miners, and hundreds of others who responded to the call to look for four-year-old Marjorie West.
Marjorie was on a picnic with her family on Mother’s Day 1938 when she disappeared without a trace. For decades, her disappearance captivated the nation. Although the case went cold, many people have their theories about what happened all those years ago. “She could still be living,” Marjorie’s cousin said in 2018. But there’s one theory that seems to outweigh the rest.
This is the story of Marjorie West’s disappearance.
The “Stranger Danger” Panic
Marjorie went missing over 40 years before the young son of the host of America’s Most Wanted, John Walsh, was kidnapped from a mall in Florida in 1981. The highly publicized abduction of Adam Walsh fueled the “stranger danger” panic that took over the United States. Every parent became fearful about the whereabouts of their children.
Government agencies began instituting new safety programs, including taking the fingerprints of children to keep on file just in case they were ever kidnapped in the future. There has been a renewed discussion among parents about the idyllic times when children roamed free, and parents rarely worried. But the Marjorie West case is a reminder that long before the mass media coverage of kidnappings, there were still dangers that frightened parents.
Mother’s Day 1938
These hazards, like depression-era wanderers and illegal adoption rings, were just different than the dangers of today. But that doesn’t mean that the fear wasn’t there. How cautious parents should be about their children’s whereabouts and how free kids should be free to roam about is a discussion that still rages on today.
On May 8, 1938, the West family attended church in Bradford, a small town about 90 minutes south of Buffalo, New York. The city was the site of America’s first oil boom in 1859, which provided a steady income for families like the Wests. In fact, Marjorie’s father, Shirley, was an assistant engineer at Kendall Refining, which was located just a couple blocks from the West’s home.
Like Any Ordinary Day
After services, Shirley, his wife Cecilia, and their three children, 11-year-old Dorothea, 7-year-old Allan, and almost 5-year-old Marjorie, drove 13 miles to a clearing in the Allegheny Forest. The clearing was right off Highway 219 and was popular with fishermen and hunters. The Wests joined their family friends, Lloyd Akerlind and his wife.
At around three in the afternoon, Cecilia headed towards the car so she could take a nap while Shirley prepared to go fishing in the nearby stream with Lloyd. With the adults busy, Dorothea and Marjorie went to pick wildflowers. As they ran off, Shirley warned his daughters to watch out for rattlesnakes hiding behind a nearby boulder.
Gone Without a Trace
The two young girls ventured off, picking violets as they walked. As soon as they had a full bouquet, Dorothea walked towards the car to present them to her mother. But when she turned around, Marjorie was gone. Panicked, the Wests and the Akerlinds began to frantically call out for Marjorie, but their desperate calls were unanswered.
After searching the nearby creek and the surrounding forest for what seemed like hours, they realized that the unthinkable had just happened: Marjorie was missing. The group then piled into their cars and drove for seven miles until they found a bar in the small town of Kent that had a phone they could use.
The Search Begins
Distraught, Shirley phoned the police to tell them that his daughter had gone missing. When investigators first arrived at the scene, they believed that Marjorie could have fallen into one of the 80-year-old wells that had been dug during the oil boom. But when police searched the wells and the nearby woods that Sunday afternoon, they didn’t find Marjorie.
Soon, news began to spread about the little girl’s disappearance, and before the Wests knew it, 200 men joined in the search, including the Citizen Conservation Corps and the Moose and Elks lodges. Even as darkness began to fall, the men kept searching. Oilmen brought their headlamps and all available flashlights in the city were pressed into service.
Coming Up Empty-Handed
As the rain began to fall at one o’clock in the morning, the search efforts began to slow down but were quickly picked up the next morning. Some of the men in the 500-man search party waded through the nearby stream to look for evidence of a drowning.
Other volunteers stood 25 yards apart in a mile-line, ultimately combing through four square miles. Police also interviewed anyone with a car across an area that spanned 300 square miles. Unfortunately, everyone came up empty-handed. By Tuesday, the police brought several bloodhounds from New York, hoping they could sniff out Marjorie’s scent.
Clues Leading No Where
That evening, May 10, the police found some clues, however, accounts of the search dog’s findings vary. Two local newspapers reported that the bloodhounds followed Marjorie’s scent “half a mile up a mountain” to a small cabin that had its doors nailed shut. When police broke open the door, they found nothing of interest inside.
Other media outlets, including online blogs and discussion threads from Marjorie’s relatives, say that search dogs followed the little girl’s scent to a road alongside the clearing where the Wests were picnicking. According to the daughter of Marjorie’s cousin, the search party found a crushed bouquet of violets lying on the ground not far from the clearing.
An Identified Vehicle
Many people believed as they do today, that Marjorie was picked up by the side of the road. Witnesses reported that three cars had passed through the area around three in the afternoon. Two of the drivers were identified by Tuesday night.
The third, however, was seen fleeing in his sedan so fast that an oncoming driver told police that he had to pull into a ditch to avoid a head-on collision. Could this have been Marjorie’s kidnapper? By Wednesday afternoon, the mayor of Bradford issued a plea for 1,000 volunteers to aid in Thursday’s search for Marjorie.
To his surprise, 2,500 people showed up eager to help. The volunteers searched for hours, repeatedly combing through the same area, just in case they accidentally missed a clue. The search party was praised for its organization, which was mainly due to men like Marjorie’s father, who had served in World War One.
At five-thirty in the morning, surveys mapped out the area, and by eight, men were already standing shoulder to shoulder in a line that ran miles long. The men came from all different backgrounds and classes but were united by the same goal: to find Marjorie.
The women handed out 1,600 cups of coffee, which were prepared in “wash boilers” that were meant for hot laundry. By the end of the first week, the search party had covered around 35 square miles. However, Marjorie was still nowhere to be found. But there were some new some discoveries.
The search party found a piece of lace fabric near the boulder, as well as a freshly dug hole a few miles away from the clearing. However, these discoveries were quickly debunked. Marjorie’s aunt told investigators that her niece wasn’t wearing lace the day she disappeared, and two men admitted to digging the hole to hide small casks of cherry wine.
The Search Continues
Engineers pumped out muddy wells, and Native Americans even tracked what they called “she bears”—mother bears who they thought could carry off small children. But these efforts were fruitless. Shirley refused to leave the forest for a week. Only on May 16th did the worried father agree to come home to eat a hot meal.
Police printed off a poster describing the missing girl’s curly red hair, freckles, red “Shirley Temple” hat, and leather shoes. With her husband spending every waking minute in the forest, Cecilia stayed home glued to the phone, hoping that someone would call with information about her missing daughter.
A Game of Hide and Seek?
On May 13, the State Police Commissioner told the Associated Press that they believed Marjorie’s disappearance most likely began with her liking to play hide and seek. This widens the time frame of when Marjorie was possibly abducted. Maybe she wasn’t snatched until her parents drove off to call the police?
For five months, a police detail of four men searched the area, but they never found any clues. Reporters covering Marjorie’s disappearance liked it to an unsolved case back on April 16, 1910, in which two boys vanished near the Allegheny forest within hours of each other.
The Disappearance of Edward Adam
The first boy to disappear was nine-year-old Edward Adams. The young boy was out fishing with his friends about a half a mile from his home in Lamont, Pennsylvania when they heard a “wild man” cursing in the woods.
He and his friends made a run for it, but when they stopped to catch their breath, they realized that both Edward and the “wild man” were gone. The boys called out for Edwards, but their calls went unanswered. After searching the woods for their friend, they ran back to tell his parents what had just happened.
The Second Missing Boy
In the town of Ludlow, thirteen miles away, seven-year-old Michael Steffan was also out fishing with a friend. When the two boys headed home at around noon, the other boy looked back, but Michael was nowhere to be seen. The parents of both boys, along with the police department, launched extensive search parties, but no traces of the boys were ever found.
Reporters at the time wrote that a man by the name of Mr. Arrowsmith reported that his 32-year-old “mentally unbalanced” son, Harry, had wandered off the same day that Edward and Michael disappeared. But when the man returned home a week later, he told police that he had no knowledge of the boys.
The “Postcard Killer”
Then, 13 days after the two boys’ disappearances, a mailman discovered a handwritten note on a trestle bridge near Lamont. The note read: “Will return boy for $10,000.” That was the last clue that police found. Investigators never discovered who wrote the note, and the case went cold.
Then two years later, the Buffalo police department arrested J. Frank Hickey, whom they called the “Postcard Killer.” Hickey admitted to killing two other young boys in Buffalo and Manhattan. The killings occurred nine years apart, leading many people to believe that he had killed other boys in the region.
Are They Linked?
Edward Adam’s mother contacted the Buffalo police to ask if Hickey had ever mentioned her son. He never did. Police received tips from people who claimed to see Michael and Edward traveling with a group of wanderers, but the tips never panned out.
When Edward’s mother died in 1933, the Associated Press reported that she had kept a small light in her window for 23 years, hoping that her son would one day return home. Edward and Michael’s disappearances happened 11 and 19 miles from the area where Marjorie also disappeared.
The “Wild Men” of Chappel Fork
While it’s hard to believe that the same “wild man” was lurking in the forest 28 years later, the young boys’ cases are a testament to the fact that just about anyone could have been in the forest when Marjorie went missing.
In fact, newspapers reported that on September 14, 1938, just four months after Marjorie’s disappearance, a 55-year-old “woodsman” was arrested for assaulting another man with a double-bladed ax. The two had gotten into an argument while working on a project in the Chappel Fork area, which is right near where Marjorie went missing.
Some Other Theories
The man was reportedly questioned about the young girl’s disappearance, but he knew nothing of Marjorie and was released from police custody. Based on these stories, it is clear that some strange and dangerous people were lurking in the woods, leading some people to believe that one of these people came into contact with the little girl on that fateful day.
However, there are some other theories. If Marjorie was kidnapped, it could have been a way to make a profit. Child kidnappings were sadly a popular and “easy” way to make some extra cash during the Great Depression.
Sweeping the Nation
“Kidnapping wave sweeps the nation,” a New York Times headline read on March 3, 1932, two days after Charles Lindberg’s son was snatched from his crib in the middle of the night. Many people feared that cars, which were still relatively new, were going to cause an uptick in kidnappings.
Unfortunately, they were right. The number of abductions did increase with the use of cars and newly built roads. Many people believed, and still believe, that Marjorie was kidnapped not for ransom but for a different type of moneymaking scheme.
Illegal Adoption Ring
In September 1950, the authorities in Tennessee informed the public of a case they had against Georgia Tann, the executive director of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in Memphis. Investigators found that Tann facilitated the adoption of at least 1,000 babies that were, in every essence of the word, stolen from poor families.
These families were tricked into giving their children up, earning Tann $1 million since the early 1930s. Many of these children never knew their birth parents, including professional wrestler Ric Flair who wrote of his circumstances in his autobiography.
The wealthy parents who adopted through the orphanage had no clue that Tann was running a child-trafficking unit. The orphanage was used by many Hollywood celebrities looking to adopt, including actress Joan Crawford. The theory that Marjorie was adopted out through Tann’s orphanage was bolstered by a single clue.
A few days after Marjorie went missing, a taxi driver in West Virginia told police that he saw a man and a crying young girl check into the Imperial Hotel on Mother’s Day. Is it possible that this man was stopping on his way to Tennessee to sell Marjorie to Tann?
An Eerie Coincidence?
However, this theory was debunked five months after the young girl’s disappearance. In October 1938, the Pennsylvania State Police tracked down the man who checked into the Imperial Hotel on the night of Marjorie’s disappearance.
During his interrogation, the man, Conrad Fridley, told the police his story. He said that on the evening of Mother’s Day that year, he and his 5-year-old daughter, Lois, were returning home from a trip. The fog, however, was so bad that he had to stop for the night. While they were checking into the hotel, Lois became frustrated and began to cry.
Tearing Them Apart
While Fridley’s story sounds eerily suspicious, police found that his story checked out. As the months went by, police hit dead end after dead end. Soon, the national media began reporting on the German occupation of Austria and the suffering U.S. economy.
However, the Western Pennsylvania press continued to report on Marjorie’s case. The police investigation continued on and off for around six years, but the leads and theories were dwindling. The press also reported that Shirley and Cecilia West had divorced around 1953. The stress of Marjorie’s disappearance tore their marriage apart.
Recalling Their Experience
Marjorie’s surviving family members say that Shirley and Cecilia went to their graves believing their daughter was still alive somewhere. In 2008, Tammy Dittman, a teacher in Bradford, took her class to the Allegheny Forest.
During the field trip, two men from the Civil Conservation Corps told Dittman’s class about their search for Marjorie when they were just young kids themselves. “They talked about how hard they searched,” Dittman later said. “They searched shoulder to shoulder constantly.” After the press covered the class trip, the teacher received another call from an elderly man, who also helped with the search.
Holding Out Hope
The man, now blind, told Dittman that there was no way that Marjorie could have been in the forest. The search party had uncovered every rock and log they came across. “The fact that he contacted me practically on his deathbed shows how sad it was,” Dittman told reporters.
“Maybe he had a little hope we’d find out more.” The teacher, who hiked near Chappel Fork, says that while the forest is home to many hazards hidden in the woods, including hundreds of hidden old wells, she believes that Marjorie was most likely kidnapped. “I hope she was at least in a good family,” the teacher says.
A Father’s Grief
Two of Marjorie’s relatives have written about her case online. Catherine, the daughter of Marjorie’s first cousin, keeps a family genealogy blog. “My grandfather searched for weeks, long after the manhunt was called off, returning home late into the night,” Catherine wrote.
“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.” Shirley returned home defeated like this day after day. It’s hard to think about what he must have been going through.
A Sister’s Guilt
The granddaughter of Dorothea West, Marjorie’s sister, also wrote about the cold case. “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,” she wrote online in 2009.
“My grandmother held on to her feeling of responsibility until her passing two years ago.” While Marjorie’s relatives have rarely done interviews, they did reach out to police back in 2010, urging them to start a new case file since the old one has since been misplaced.
Is This Marjorie?
Then, in 2012, the Pennsylvania State Police took cheek swabs for DNA from two of Marjorie’s cousins. Unfortunately, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children didn’t have any matches. Today, both agencies are still receiving tips.
State Police Corporal Mary Gausman told reporters that they received a call in 2014 from a nurse at a hospital in Rochester, New York. The nurse said that she had read a lot about the case online and called to say that she had a patient named Marjorie. This lady rarely had any visitors, and the nurse believed that she was the missing girl.
Putting Out a Reward
When police followed up on the lead, they realized it was a dead end. The old woman’s niece had seen her aunt’s immigration papers and confirmed that she was born in 1922. However, one man believes that he knows the answer to this decades-old mystery.
Harold Thomas Beck, a writer and college professor with a Ph.D. in linguistics, extensively researched Marjorie’s case after he heard about it at a bar that he used to run. In 1998, when access to the Internet became more common, Beck posted a $10,000 reward for information that could help solve Marjorie’s case.
In his post, Beck included up-to-date photos of Marjorie’s sister Dorothea, assuming that Marjorie would resemble her. Then, one day, a woman contacted him with a potential lead. The woman told Beck that she worked with a woman in Florida who looked similar.
So, Beck packed his bags and flew down to Florida to meet with this woman. He says that the woman did look like Dorothea; however, she denied being Marjorie. Years went by with little to no leads. Then, in 2005, this same woman contacted Beck again. She wanted to meet with him.
What Really Happened?
By now, she had returned to her family’s farm in North Carolina. When the two met, the woman related a story that her mother told her towards the end of her life. In 1937, the woman’s father left that same farm and drove north to work in the refineries
in Bradford—Marjorie’s hometown— for the winter. By the time spring rolled around, her father had headed back south to tend to his crops. On Mother’s Day 1938, he drove past the Allegheny Forest and hit a little girl standing near the road.
Raised Her as Their Own
“There wasn’t anybody there,” the writer later said. “He was going to take her to the hospital in Kane. He was afraid she was dead.” Much to the man’s surprise, the unconscious girl suddenly woke up unharmed.
But instead of driving the girl back home, he decided to take her back to his farm in North Carolina. He and his wife had lost their only daughter that winter. Her delivery had been difficult, and he didn’t think that they could have any more children of their own. So, the couple decided to raise Marjorie as their own.
A few years later, the woman’s father lost his arm while aboard an aircraft carrier in WWII. According to Beck, the man told his wife that this was “God’s way of punishing him for what he’d done.” The woman told Beck that she had some faint memories of a distant childhood.
As a child, she used to tell her parents that she remembered a different family, but they dismissed her comments. The woman also said that she remembered a place with “snow way over her head.” The woman’s parents had four other children when her father came back from the war.
There’s No Question
The woman only agreed to tell Beck her story after he made two promises: one, that he wouldn’t tell anyone about her identity (except for Dorothea, whom she wanted to meet), and two, that Beck could publish the story only after she passed away.
Unfortunately, by that time, Dorothea was sick and couldn’t meet “Marjorie.” The woman passed away a few years after their meeting, and Beck kept his promise. In 2010, he self-published the book Finding Marjorie West. “There’s no question” it’s her, Beck says. While many people are grateful for his findings, they often wonder why he hasn’t notified the authorities.
What Good Will It Do?
But according to Beck, he doesn’t think it’ll do any good. “One family is dead, and the other has been living under a set of circumstances they believe to be true,” Beck said. “The mother and father were considered good people in the community.”
While Beck’s theory is convincing, there are locals who have debated his conclusions on Facebook. Catherine (Marjorie’s first cousin’s daughter) discounted Beck’s story on a discussion thread on websleuths.com in 2012. She wrote that the state trooper she had spoken to didn’t take the story seriously.
Sharing the Truth
Beck understands that people are frustrated, especially those who were involved with the search, but he still refuses to go to the authorities. The vice president at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children hasn’t heard of Beck’s 2010 book.
However, he does believe that Beck or anyone else with important information about Marjorie needs to come forward. “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.”
Keeping a Secret
However, if Beck’s story does carry some weight. Is it possible that Marjorie began a game of hide-and-seek, but when her parents took off to call the police, she followed the car to the road? And that’s when she got hit? It would also explain why she disappeared without a trace and why witnesses saw a speeding car near Plymouth.
But it also begs the question: How were this woman’s “adoptive” parents able to keep this dark secret for so long? Did the grief they felt on their first Mother’s Day without their only child drive them to rationalize the kidnapping?
Maybe the woman’s tale is just too good to be true, especially since there are some discrepancies. In his book, Beck writes that the woman claims to be the sobbing girl that was spotted with her father checking into a hotel in West Virginia.
However, according to a newspaper article from October 1938, police and the West family went to meet Conrad Fridley. The man’s story checked out. Police relayed to the press that although his daughter resembled Marjorie, it wasn’t her. The article also said that the little girl spotted that night had different clothes than Marjorie.
A Wild Goose Chase
However, Beck dismissed the reporters’ articles and still stands by his story. Marjorie’s relatives remain skeptical. In 2015, a reviewer on Amazon wrote that she was shocked that Beck wrote a book after “making false promises and leading my grandmother on wild goose chases for YEARS.”
So, if the woman who spoke to Beck wasn’t Marjorie, then where did the little girl disappear to? Is it possible that she fell into a well or mine? In 1962, two boys were killed while exploring an abandoned clay mine in Pennsylvania, which prompted officials to finally close the old caves, mines, and wells in the area.
A Ripple Effect
Whatever happened to Marjorie that day had a ripple effect on families across the United States, long before the mass media reported on Adam Walsh. “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.”
With each missing child case, parents become more and more protective of their children. Tammy Dittman, the teacher from Bradford, believes that kids should always be wary and alert. “Some [children] need to be scared,” says Dittman. “They think nothing can happen to them.”