Missing children make headlines: Madeleine McCann, Ben Needham, Jaycee Lee Dugard, Mary Boyle. They also line our bookshelves: The Girl in the Red Coat; What She Knew; Local Girl, Missing; Then She Was Gone.
While we often think of the preoccupation with lost children as being a modern phenomenon, it is in fact an age-old fear, one that is reflected in the lost and abandoned children in fairy tales and myths – Persephone, Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, The Snow Queen.
Here I look at some of the infamous cases of missing children throughout history, focussing on cases that remain unsolved or shrouded in mystery.
1. The Lost Children of Hamelin
|1592 painting of Pied Piper copied from the glass window of Marktkirche in Hamelin
Many of us remember the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Few are aware that the legend came from a true story, one that is one recorded on the walls of a 16th century building in Hamelin now called The House of the Piper: ‘In the year of 1284, on the day of Saints John and Paul, the 26th of June, 130 children born in Hamelin were seduced by a piper, dressed in all kinds of colours, and lost at the calvary near the koppen.’
The earliest mention of the Pied Piper, in the 1300s, was on a stained-glass window in the Church of Hamelin, which showed a man dressed in colourful clothing leading away a line of children. The earliest written record is from the town chronicles in an entry from 1384 which states: ‘It is 100 years since our children left.’
Although much research has been conducted over the years, there is no agreed explanation as to what happened to the children. Some believe they died of natural causes, were drowned in the nearby river, or were killed in a landslide, with the Pied Piper representing the figure of death. Others say the children may have died of the Black Plague (though the Black Plague didn’t reach Germany until later) or that the story represents mass emigration. Maria J. Pérez Cuervo explores the various theories in her excellent blog piece here.
What is clear is that there were no rats in the original story. They were first added into the story in a 16th century version, and are absent from earlier accounts.
2. The Princes in the Tower
Edward V of England and Richard of Shrewsbury were 12 and 9 when their uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, had them locked up in the Tower of London in 1483. This was supposedly in preparation for Edward's forthcoming coronation as king. However, they were taken into the ‘inner apartments of the Tower’ and then were seen less and less frequently. In July 1483 an attempt to rescue them failed. Then they disappeared altogether.
In 1674, workmen at the Tower dug up a wooden box containing two small human skeletons. King Charles II had the bones buried in Westminster Abbey, where they remain, untested. In 1789, workmen carrying out repairs in St. George's Chapel, Windsor, rediscovered and accidentally broke into the vault of Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth Woodville (the parents of the lost princes) discovering a small adjoining vault. This vault was found to contain the coffins of two unidentified children. However, no inspection or examination was carried out and the tomb was resealed. The fate of the princes remains unknown.
3. Virginia Dare and the Lost Colony
Virginia Dare was born in 1587, the first English child born in the New World. Her family was part of a group of 120 Englishmen and women who settled on Roanoke Island, off the coast of what is now Dare County, North Carolina. A few days after Virginia was born, her grandfather, Governor John White, left for England to obtain more provisions. When he finally returned three years later, Virginia and the entire colony had vanished. Only one clue remained: the word ‘CROATAN’ had been carved on one of the settlement's posts, leading many to believe that the Croatan tribe had kidnapped or killed the settlers.
Governor White and his men continued to search but never found any trace of Virginia or the other settlers. Roanoke Island became known as the Lost Colony.
4. The West Ham Vanishings
During the 1880s and 1890s a series of children and young adults disappeared from the East End of London. The first to vanish was Mary Seward, 14. The second was Eliza Carter, 12, who was reported to have been terrified of a man, or of returning home. The blue dress she had been wearing was recovered from West Ham Park, all of the buttons sliced off, but she was never seen again. The third to disappear was her friend, Clara Sutton. The fourth was Amelia Jeffs, 15, who lived on the same street as Mary Seward. However, Amelia, or “Millie” was found, violated and strangled.
In a 2016 book, Rivals of the Ripper, author Dr Jan Bondeson put forward the theory that a builder named Joseph Roberts, a key suspect in the murder of Amelia Jeffs, was responsible for both the West Ham vanishings and another series of horrible crimes against young girls in Walthamstow in the 1890s.
Others have suggested that, given reports of several strange individuals, including women, in the West Ham vanishings, the abductors may have been human traffickers. No one, however, was ever convicted, and most of the girls were never found. The story was partly the inspiration for my novel, The Story Keeper.
5. The Strange Case of Bobby Dunbar
Four year old Bobby Dunbar went missing on a family fishing trip to Swayze Lake, Louisiana, in 1910. After an eight-month nationwide search, investigators believed that they had found the child in Mississippi, in the hands of man called William Cantwell Walters. Dunbar's parents immediately claimed the boy as their missing son. However, both Walters and a woman named Julia Anderson insisted that the boy was in fact Anderson's son. Julia Anderson could not afford a lawyer and had three children out of wedlock, making her an unworthy witness in the eyes of the court, and they eventually found for the Dunbars. Percy and Lessie Dunbar retained custody of the child, who lived out the remainder of his life as Bobby Dunbar.
However, in 2004, DNA profiling established that the boy found with Walters and ‘returned’ to the Dunbars as Bobby had not been a blood relative of the Dunbar family. The fate of the actual Bobby Dunbar remains unknown.
6. Walter Collins: ‘The Changeling’
Nine-year-old Walter Collins was abducted from his home in Lincoln Heights, Los Angeles, in 1928. His disappearance received nationwide attention and the LAPD came under increasing public pressure to solve the case.
Five months after the disappearance, a boy claiming to be Walter was found in DeKalb, Illinois and the police organised a public reunion. However, at the reunion, Christine stated that the boy was not her son. Despite the fact that dental records proved the boy was not Walter, the police had Christine Collins committed to a psychiatric hospital for her refusal to say that the child was her son. Only after the boy admitted he was Arthur Hutchins Jr., a runaway from Illinois, did the police release Christine. She went on to win a lawsuit against Captain Jones of LAPD, but he refused to pay up.
|Walter Collins, left
Arthur Hutchins Jr, right
The story formed the basis of the 2008 film Changeling.
7. The Sodder Children of 1945
On Christmas Eve, 1945, a fire destroyed the Sodder home in West Virginia. George Sodder, his wife Jennie, and four of their children escaped. However, the bodies of five other children – Maurice, 14; Martha 12; Louis, 9; Jennie, 8; and Betty, 5 – were never found. No remains were located in the ashes the morning after the fire.
Throughout their lives, the Sodders believed that the five children had survived. They disputed the fire department's finding that the blaze was electrical. They believed that they had been the victims of arson, leading to theories that the children had been taken by the Sicilian Mafia, perhaps in retaliation for George's criticism of Mussolini and the Fascist government of his native Italy. There were various alleged sightings of the children, including a woman who claimed to have seen the missing children peering from a passing car while the fire was still raging, and another woman who said she had seen the children a month after the fire ‘accompanied by two women and two men, all of Italian extraction’.
The Sodder family converted the site of the razed house into a memorial garden to their lost children. Until the late 1980s a billboard remained at the site showing pictures of the five dark-eyed children and offering a reward for information. The Sodder’s one surviving daughter, along with their grandchildren, have continued to publicize the case and to search for answers. See Karen Abbott’s fascinating piece in the Smithsonian for more.
8. The Beaumont Children: Australia’s Lost Family
At 10am on January 26, 1966, Nancy Beaumont kissed her three children - Jane, 9, Arnna, 7, and Grant, 4 – before they boarded the bus for a short trip to Glenelg beach near Adelaide. She never saw them again.
Witnesses confirmed the children had made it to the beach and reported seeing them with a ‘tall, blonde, thin-faced’ man in his mid-30s. The last known sighting of the children was at 3pm, when they were seen by a postman they knew, walking up the main road in the general direction of their home. They were holding hands and smiling. They were alone.
The search for the children attracted wide media attention, with various suspects, hoaxes, and theories emerging over the years, and still making headlines over 50 years on.
Neither the children nor any of the items they were carrying have ever been found. For many years, their parents, Jim and Nancy Beaumont, remained at their Somerton Park home, hoping that the children would return. However, they later divorced and are now living separately, away from the public gaze. They still believe that their children may be alive.
9. Megumi Yokata: Kidnapped by North Korea
In November 1977, 13-year-old Megumi Yokota went missing while walking home from her school in Niigata on the Sea of Japan coast. Twenty years later, her family were told she had been kidnapped by North Korean agents. In 2002, North Korea confirmed that it had operated an abduction program, stealing people from Japan and forcing them to teach Japanese language and culture to Pyongyang agents.
Five of the kidnapped were released. However, North Korea claimed that another seven abductees had died of illness or in accidents, and that four others had never entered the country. They said that Megumi had committed suicide in 1994, and been cremated.
However, according to Japanese officials, DNA testing on the cremated remains that were sent to the Yokota family showed that they did not belong to Megumi. Further, her death certificate appears to have been falsified.
To this day, her family, and those of the other abductees, are fighting for answers.
Anna Mazzola is a writer of historical crime fiction. Her second novel, The Story Keeper, will be published on 26 July 2018.