Little girl lostOn March 20, 1913, a 9-year-old girl named Catherine Winters left home wearing a red sweater and a straw hat with blue forget-me-nots, intending to sell sewing needles door to door for a church fundraiser. She walked the length of her Indiana town that morning, through the bustling business district, under the window of her father’s dentist office. She played with a friend who had a dollhouse. She greeted or was seen by a dozen or more acquaintances. Then—suddenly and forever—she disappeared.
The search continuesWriter Colleen Steffen has spent more than five years researching Catherine's story, unearthing a vast cache of newspaper articles and historical records devoted to her brief reign as the most famous missing child in America and the devastating consequences of her unsolved mystery on her family and town. Steffen—a newspaper feature writer and editor for 13 years and a journalism instructor at Ball State University—has written a historical nonfiction book about Catherine's life and times and is currently represented by the Sara Camilli Literary Agency.
Cast of Characters
Briefly the most famous missing child in America. Born on Feb. 10, 1904, in Henry County to W.A. and Etta Winters, she is 9 years old when she disappears on March 20, 1913, while selling sewing needles door to door for a church fundraiser. The fourth-grader at Holland School has a beloved doll, a favorite spot in a certain window seat at home, an independent streak—but press and relatives mostly describe her in glowing, generic terms, making her something of a blank spot at the center of her own mystery. Her body is never found.
Dr. William Asa Winters
Catherine’s father. Born in Illinois in 1877, he is 36 when his daughter disappears. The New Castle dentist marries twice, first Etta Whistler Winters, Catherine’s mother, who dies of tuberculosis, then to Byrd Ritter Winters, Catherine’s controversial stepmother. The press of the time describes him variously as a heartbroken and devoted father who travels thousands of miles and impoverishes himself chasing leads, and as an alcoholic who gets in frequent tussles with reporters and town officials. He and his wife will be charged briefly with Catherine’s murder, but the case never goes to trial. He dies in 1940, his last words, “Now I’ll find out what happened to Catherine.” He is buried next to his second wife in Miller Cemetery near Mooreland.
Etta Whistler Winters
Catherine’s mother. She is born in Arlington, Wisconsin, in 1881 and grows up in nearby Poynette. It is not known how she meets W.A. Winters, but they marry in 1904 in Chicago, where he has been in dental school, and move to New Castle. They have two children, Catherine and Frank, who are 5 and 3 respectively when she dies, aged 28, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, a city believed to benefit sufferers of tuberculosis. She is buried in a family plot in Poynette, Wisconsin.
Catherine’s little brother. He is born June 22, 1906, in Henry County to W.A. and Etta Winters, and is 7 when his sister disappears. The press calls the siblings “great playmates” and often describes scenes of his desolation after her loss—for example, refusing to eat his dinner the night she vanishes, saving a special Easter egg for her for more than a year. He graduates from New Castle High School in 1925, leaves home and is believed never to have visited again, working as a ward attendant in a hospital in Compton, Calif. He dies in 1955 of cirrhosis and is cremated.
Byrd Ritter Winters
Catherine’s stepmother. She is born in Henry County, Indiana, in 1880, and works in her mother’s boarding house, at the Bundy Hotel and in downtown department stores. She marries Dr. Winters in Indianapolis in 1910. The press of the time describes her variously as a devoted stepmother who sews beautiful clothes for Catherine in anticipation of her return and as an adulterous murderer who conspired to kill the girl. Along with her husband and a boarder in their home, she will be briefly charged with murder. Though the case never goes to trial, she bears the majority of suspicion and blame in the case, up to the present day.
William Ross Cooper
A boarder in the Winters home. Born in Maxwell, Indiana, in 1883, he loses one of his arms in a serious hunting accident. He goes on to become a telegraph operator for the Big Four Railroad Company, living as a paying boarder with the Winters family until shortly before Catherine’s disappearance. When he and his former landlords are charged with the child’s murder in 1914, the press accuses him of having an affair with Byrd that was discovered by Catherine. After his release, he moves to Maxwell, then Greenfield, marrying and continuing his work with the railroad.
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.