Monday, June 15, 2015

The Mystery Behind The Babes In The Woods, 1934

Norma, Cordelia, Dewilla
As a parent, I would do anything to protect my children by any means, no matter what. Most parents would agree with me when I say that loving parents would walk through fire to keep our babies safe. I think that is why this story really punched me in the gut when I came across it, leaving my mind still trying to understand what really happened that day in November in the woods of the Blue Mountains of Pennsylvania.

One of the saddest of deaths I would say are the ones that involve children. Children are the symbol of innocence, purity and hope. The death of a child is a death unwarranted. They haven't grown up to make mistakes yet, they haven't even lived.  So anytime I come across a story about the deaths of innocent children, I think it affects me even more. This case would be no exception.

On November 24, 1934, John Clark and Clark Jardine were out in the woods on their way to chop some firewood, when they discovered a green blanket in the thicket. At first they believed that a hunter had killed a deer and covered it, planning to come back later to get it. As the two woodsmen approached the blanket covering a large mass, they lifted the fabric to reveal three little girls who appeared to be sleeping.  One of the men told the newspaper that he didn't realize at first that the girls were dead, and it took a few seconds for them to realize it. Quickly they rushed to town to call the authorities and news spread like wildfire of this horrendous discovery.

The identities of the girls eluded the people of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and for a time being, the rest of the country as well. Newspapers reported the horrific finding all over the nation, drawing people from all over to come to view the bodies, hoping to identify the children. Miss Mary Parker, the superintendent of the Children's Home of Baltimore County, Maryland flew to Carlisle to see if the three bodies found were some of the girls who had went missing from her orphanage, but no one could identify the children. Who were these three little girls? Where did they come from? And how did they die?

As mysterious as this was, things got even stranger when just about 135 miles away, the discovery of the bodies of the girls' father and his niece were found in a shanty near the railroad. They had both been shot in an apparent murder-suicide. This only added to the puzzling case that continues to baffle investigators to this day.

The Beginnings

The real story begins long before this tragic event. In fact, it begins with a young lady named Mary Isabel Hayford.  It was March 28, 1921, when Mary Hayford married Roland Sedgwick of Bountiful, Utah. Soon after their marriage she gave birth to a daughter, Norma. Somewhere down the line the marriage didn’t work out, and Mary filed for divorce in 1922, taking Norma with her.

By 1924, Mary had remarried, this time to Mr. Elmo Noakes, of Thistle, Utah, later having two children of their own, Cordelia and Dewilla. Before marrying Mary, Elmo had enlisted in the Marines at Mare Island on April 20, 1920 and was honorably discharged by April 19, 1922. He apparently traveled back to Utah prior to his marriage to Mary. During their marriage the couple moved around a lot, as seen in public records, going from Utah to Indian Valley, Plumas County, California and then back to Salt Lake City again living at  69 West 1st Street, which interestingly appears to be where the huge property of the Church of Latter Day Saints buildings are now.

Mary Noake's Death Certificate
On July 10th, 1932, Mary Noakes passed away at Salt Lake General Hospital after suffering from "Septicemia Hemolytic." The doctor who performed the autopsy concluded that her death was caused from a self-induced abortion. Mary Isabel Noakes was only 28 years old.

I had to wonder why she wanted to abort the unborn child? Maybe Mary reasoned with herself that she was sparing the child a life during the Great Depression. Maybe she thought that it was putting her other three children first, or maybe she was afraid of upsetting Elmo because it was speculated that he didn't want to have any more children. Those are questions we will never be certain to know the answers to.

After the death of his wife, Elmo decided yet again to move, this time back to California. Mary's first husband Roland attempted to gain custody of Norma from Elmo, but was not successful. Conflicting stories claim that because Elmo left the state, little could be done. While the other story claimed that the judge allowed Elmo to keep Norma, given the fact that he had physically raised her for the last 10 years and that he was more or less her "father." Little did Roland know that only two years later he would truly lose his little girl, forever. (Some articles claim that Mary was a widow when she met Elmo, but records prove that isn't true. Roland, Mary's first husband and Norma's biological father, died in 1969.)

After moving back to California, Elmo settled in the small railroad town known as Roseville, just north of Sacramento. Moving in with his sister, Elmo was able to find a job at the Pacific Fruit Express Company, while she watched the girls for him. Things seemed to be looking up for Elmo and his daughters, and by July of 1934, he moved out of his sisters home and into his own 2-bedroom house with the children at 511 Grove Street. The home was nothing fancy, built in 1916, but good enough for him and his little girls to make a new start. Unfortunately, that would not turn out to be the case.

A New Start Interrupted

After moving into his new home, Elmo's sister was unable to watch the children like she used to, so her 18 year old daughter, Winifred Pierce volunteered to help out. Eventually Winifred quit school to be a full time nanny to the girls during the day, and then would walk back home to her mother's house in the evening.  Winifred was said to be a happy young lady, but extremely self-conscious of her appearance due to a deformity on her foot.

Around the same time that Winifred started watching the children, rumors started to spread around the family that there were improper relations going on between Elmo and his niece. After looking into this story further, my personal opinion is that one of Elmo's sisters may have started this dreadful rumor and persisted at causing troubles for Elmo. It is my belief that one of Elmo's sisters were the ones who either started it, or allowed it to spread. Elmo's oldest sister Pearl, (and mother of Winifred Pierce) was adamant that there was never any sort of sexual or improper relationship between her daughter and her brother and it seems she spent many years trying to clear her daughter's name of further slander.

According to Elmo's brother, Robert, he stated that there had been problems with family for many years, and that he basically didn't hold it against Elmo for just disappearing like he did. In fact, Robert had done the same thing a few years earlier to get away from the grip of his meddling family members.  So it seemed to Robert that Elmo had just enough of someone in the family the day he up and left without a word.

What was strange wasn't the fact he left without telling his family, but the way he left. He didn't pack up his belongings and move, nor did he give a notice at his job. No, Elmo purchased a blue 1929 Pontiac sedan from Sacramento Car Dealer William Sutton on October 31, and then on November 11th he left. The oddest thing about it all was that he left without much money, he even skipped out on picking up his paycheck from the last two weeks work, meaning that he was leaving Roseville basically broke.

Let's stop and think about this whole thing for a second. That doesn't sound like he was moving away, it sounds like he was running from something...but what? 

Well, according to Russell Pierce, Elmo's nephew, not only were the rumors about Winifred and Elmo going around but the question about whether Elmo was fit as a parent came into discussion. Could it have been speculated that he was being abusive or neglectful? I believe that those questions must have arose, because Robert Noakes was adamant in his interview to the papers after this dreadful incident took place, he stated that Elmo "never raised a hand towards the children. I don't think he killed them as they say. He loved them. He was as good to them as any could be."
His statements lead me to believe that someone had questioned Elmo's ability as a parent, and possibly someone told him that they would have the children removed from the home.

Maybe after losing his wife, the thought of losing his kids was too unbearable for him, so he did the one thing that a desperate person would do, he ran. I also think Elmo was suffering from some sort of depression because of his erratic behavior of driving clear across country in just a matter of days with the girls. Personally, I think that Winifred saw Elmo making rash decisions and knew the girls were the ones who would suffer. Perhaps she asked him, "Who will watch the girls when you work? You don't want strangers watching them, do you?"-- and that is where I believe that when he was leaving that day, she decided to join him, not for herself, but for the kids. Maybe she didn't want to leave the kids with him alone for fear of his emotional state.

Yes, the newspapers had a field day unfairly depicting Winifred as this young harlot who had her sights set on Elmo and that the kids were just "in the way." It didn't help matters that her own aunt made such horrid accusations about her in the newspapers only adding more fuel to the fire. One of Elmo's other sisters went on record stating "I warned Elmo not to have anything to do with her. Winnie could make him do about anything she wanted him to do."---

The rest of the family had other opinions, all claiming that Winifred was not that type of girl and that there was absolutely nothing going on between Elmo and his niece. Either Winifred was able to pull the wool over everyone's eyes except her aunt, or the aunt was a trouble-maker looking to ruin several people's reputations. So which was it?

For two weeks the family in Roseville heard nothing. Pearl Pierce waited anxiously to hear from her daughter, or her brother, in hopes that everything was alright. Then the newspapers started to report about the bodies of three little girls being found in the woods in Pennsylvania and the connection that authorities started to make on a murder-suicide within the same state. Immediately relatives started speculating and that was when the feud started.

The Family Feud

When news got to the family of Winifred Pierce and Elmo Noakes, two of Pearl Pierce's sisters showed up to Enid and Harry Daniel's home on Thanksgiving day. According to reports, the police were called to the home and both women were charged with "disturbing the peace" after screaming obscenities to their niece when she refused them entry into her mother's home.

At court, Harry Daniels, Russell Pierce, son of Pearl Pierce, and his sister Enid went before Judge Don. L. Bass explaining that on the evening of Thanksgiving that their aunts showed up “abusing and cursing,” after they were turned away at the door. Enid Daniels stated that her mother was in no condition to receive anyone in the home at that time because of the shock and grief of learning of the tragedy. It was then that the two sisters started causing a scene forcing the police to be called to the home.

After hearing the testimony of family members, the Judge convicted the two women of the disturbing the peace and gave them 90 day suspended sentences. The two women had a fit in the courtroom, one even throwing herself on the floor, pounding the ground with her fists and kicking violently, until the Judge threatened to put her in jail. 

The Investigation 

Meanwhile in Pennsylvania, detectives were still putting the pieces together to try to figure out the details of the case. Fingerprint analysis proved that the man found dead in the railroad shanty outside Duncansville was in fact Elmo Noakes. The rare foot deformity found on the foot of the female found at the scene proved Winifred Pierce's identity as well. Detectives confirmed that Winifred had been shot and that Elmo committed suicide with the same gun.

Earlier, in nearby Altoona, Winifred had sold her coat to purchase the old .22 caliber rifle that was used to take their own lives. Their bodies were eventually brought over to Carlisle, the same place that the three little girls were being held before burial.

The coroner determined the deaths of the three girls was due to “external suffocation.” There was no signs of struggle or attack on any of the children, leaving the authorities to believe that they were either smothered or that they died by accident, while inside the vehicle from carbon monoxide poisoning.

In a recent article by the Pennsylvania Sentinel Newspaper, letters from a resident of Carlisle were mentioned that brought to light several key pieces of information. For one, according to what was published in the newspaper, the letter by Mrs. Mamie Zinn to Pearl Pierce claimed that Winifred Pierce's body was examined by the local doctor in Carlisle prior to being buried, and he confirmed that she died a virgin. This is a big discovery, because it disproves all the rumors of her having some sort of sordid love affair with her uncle, when in fact, she died without having sexual relations.

Mrs. Zinn also mentioned the fact that the way the children were laid out, it was clear that "loving hands" had done it, meaning they took extra care on how they rested the girls on the ground and covered their bodies. The most important information that Mrs. Zinn gave was the one that may have cracked the case. You see, Mrs. Zinn told Pearl Pierce that Elmo and Winifred had been seen going from house to house, knocking on doors asking for food. They had left the kids in the car. Remember this was the end of November in 1934, and it had been cold and rainy. Many speculated that Elmo and Winifred left the girls in the car with the engine running and perhaps the fumes from the car overcame them.

I spoke to a friend who works on classic cars and he told me that in the old days a lot of times if an exhaust pipe had even a small crack, the exhaust could creep up into the floor boards inside of the older model cars. After discussing all the possibilities, he said that it was very likely if there was a crack in the exhaust pipe or even if they had backed into a space and parked where the exhaust pipe was not getting enough space for the fumes to escape, that they could very easily be pushed back toward the inside of the vehicle. This gives me enough reasonable doubt to believe that death by "carbon monoxide poisoning" was very possible.

Back in Roseville, the Chief of Police E.E. York was also convinced that the girls died by carbon monoxide poisoning even going so far as to state that he believed the girls died from fumes inside the car, and that must have been an accident.

Why Did They Leave?

The question on my mind was, if the girls died by accident, then why did they leave them in the woods? Why would they drive the car all the way to McVeytown, ditch it, and then hitchhike another 50 miles to Altoona?

I had to go back to the initial reason he left in the first place. If someone had questioned his parenting skills and even threatened him with taking the girls away, can you imagine what sort of fears he must have had once he realized that the girls had died?  I cannot speak for Elmo, because I cannot understand his reasoning.

After reaching Altoona, Winifred sold her coat to purchase the rifle that would ultimately take both their lives. After making their way up to a railroad shack near Duncansville, Elmo shot Winifred and then turned the gun on himself.

So why did Elmo and Winifred end their lives?

If it was an accident, did they believe that they would be blamed for the girls deaths? Did they feel guilty for leaving them in the car?  When looking over the facts of the case, I found so much more than I expected.  Sadly, as much as the evidence points to the possibility that the girls died by accident, it also leaves a possibility that they were smothered. If they were killed, the question is, why?

After the deaths many people came forward pointing the police in all different directions. Some people swore they saw Winifred and the girls on a bus from New York, others claimed they saw them in a restaurant or camp ground. Some leads were dead while others seemed credible. One of the families who came forward said that when they were dining at a restaurant in Philadelphia, they noticed a family matching their description and the father was going to make all three girls share one dinner plate. The mother of the observing family offered to let the youngest daughter eat with them and they accepted. While eating, Cordelia mentioned that her "daddy was looking for work." When leaving the establishment the owner claimed that a man who he later believed to be Elmo, stated that the girls were beginning to be a burden on him.

Could it have been possible that they ran out of money and Elmo, in a desperate and temporary  state of insanity somehow convinced himself that ending their lives was sparing them from a life of poverty? As much as I do not want to believe this alternate scenario, the facts are that this is also a possibility.

If the girls died by accident, more than likely Elmo took his own life and that of Winifred's because of the grief they both may have felt. Had he intentionally killed the girls, the murder-suicide was probably because of remorse or a guilty conscience.


Before the funeral of the three girls, their cousin Junius Pierce and uncle Robert Noakes were said to have attempted to go back to Pennsylvania to retrieve the bodies of all the family members. They wanted to have the three girls buried next to their mother in Salt Lake City, but their attempts were unsuccessful.

The residents of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where the girls bodies were found, buried the three girls in their local cemetery. The girl scouts and the boy scouts acted as pallbearers at the funeral and many residents chipped in to pay for all the costs. The American Legion held the funeral for the three girls in Carlisle, where over 1,000 people showed up to the viewing the day before.  Elmo Noakes was respectfully given a military salute funeral, while Winifred was given a spot in the same cemetery as well, after her family had to pay to have her body brought to Carlisle. The headstone at her grave was also paid for by her family. (Oddly, Elmo's headstone has his death date wrong).

In the end Elmo Noakes’ family seemed clearly divided on their theories of just what happened out there in the woods that day. Some of them believed it was an accident, while one of the aunts was convinced that it was Winifred’s manipulation of Elmo to get rid of the children. Something tells me that those ideas were unfounded, being that evidence showed that Winifred died a virgin.  It's likely that the rumors were just vicious lies used to hurt and embarrass Elmo and Winifred.

I have to wonder if certain people had only minded their own business from the beginning, if this story would not have turned out as it did. Yes, Elmo may have had some underlying mental illness that came out towards the end, and based on his actions leading up to the girls deaths, I would have to say he wasn't making the best choices. We may never know what really happened that day..was it an accident? Or did Elmo just snap? The answers seem to elude us even 80 years later. One thing we do know for sure is that ultimately five people died, and more than likely the entire chain of events started with one rumor.

It seems that only God knows what really happened, and in the end that is all that matters now..."The wages sin pays is death."-Romans 6:23

Rest In Peace,- Norma Sedgwick, Dewilla Noakes, Cordelia Noakes, Elmo Noakes and Winifred Pierce. --

(Copyright 2015- J'aime Rubio)

Interview with family members, Family Search
Census Records, Death Records, Birth and Marriage Records,
Various Newspapers
Lewiston Daily Sun 12/1/ 1934
Deseret News 12/21/1934
Berkeley Daily Gazzette 12/1/1934
Prescott Evening Courier 12/1/1934
Gettysburg Times 11/30/1934
Pittsburgh Post Gazzette 12/1/1934

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