The (STILL) unsolved mystery of a little girl who vanished in 1938
A year after I published a story about Marjorie West’s disappearance on Mother’s Day, questions remain
Over a decade ago, I started reading old heartbreaking stories around the web about a 4-year-old girl who had disappeared during a Mother’s Day picnic in the Allegheny Forest in 1938, while she and her sister were picking violets for their mom. While any unsolved disappearance is tragic, it seemed sadder that it happened on that holiday. For the family of Marjorie West, what should have been an opportunity for celebration each year afterward instead became a cruel reminder.
On the morning of May 8, 1938, parents Shirley and Cecilia West took kids Dorothea, 11, Allan, 9, and Marjorie, 4, to church. They lived in the oil town of Bradford, Pa., in a house a few blocks from the refinery where Shirley worked. After church they drove to a clearing in the Allegheny Forest for a picnic and some fishing. They met up with a couple from town, Mr. and Mrs. Akerlind.
If Marjorie West is alive, she turns 86 this month.
After lunch, the two men and young Allan went to the nearby creek to fish. Mother Cecilia rested in her car near the clearing. Dorothea and Marjorie, a red-haired girl who was dressed like Shirley Temple (in the style of the time), picked violets together. Dorothea headed to the car to deliver the flowers to her mom. When she looked back, her sister was gone.
The family called out to Marjorie. They searched around a nearby boulder and in the creek, but could not find her. The family had to drive several miles to a nearby bar just to find a phone to call the state police.
No trace of Marjorie was ever found — not even a shred of clothing.
If she’s alive, she turns 86 this month.
Since so many unanswered questions remain to this day about the case — and because of the advent of new technology to examine them — a year ago I pitched a story on Marjorie’s disappearance to a great website for articles and essays. The story was published on Narratively around Mother’s Day of 2018 and ultimately became their fourth most-read story that year. It was summarized on Longreads and republished internationally in the Guardian. I hoped since this was the first extensive story in recent history, I might receive new tips about where Marjorie is.
Alas, I did not — but the story did clear up some misconceptions. Perhaps with a followup story, more questions will be answered.
So what happened?
Theories have abounded over the years on what happened to Marjorie: Perhaps she fell into one of the many wells that had been dug in the area since the local oil boom of the 1870s. Or maybe she was carried off by a bear. Perhaps a woodsman grabbed her. Some believed she was kidnapped and sold as part of an illegal adoption ring.
After her disappearance, hundreds of oilmen and other area workers took days off work to search the forest, standing shoulder to shoulder, using strategies they’d learned in World War I.
Last year, I talked to a local teacher in Bradford whose students had done a project about the disappearance. The teacher said she spoken with an elderly man who had volunteered in the search when he was young. Like many who had searched, the man was sure that Marjorie was nowhere in the woods, that she had been kidnapped.
But there are many misconceptions about the case.
Not spotted in West Virginia
Several accounts of the disappearance have included a statement like this one, currently on the Charley Project website for missing kids:
“A taxi driver in Thomas, West Virginia claimed that he saw a weeping girl matching Marjorie’s description and wearing similar clothes riding in a dark green sedan with an unidentified man in his thirties. The sighting took place at 11:38 p.m. on the night of her disappearance…Investigators determined that the approximate travel time along U. S. Route 219 between the White Gravel area and Thomas, West Virginia was eight hours. If the individual abducted Marjorie around 3:00 p.m., they would have arrived in Thomas by 11:00 and 11:30 p.m. that evening. Authorities were unable to confirm the child’s identity.”
Over the years, many people concluded that the man was bringing Marjorie to Georgia Tann, a woman based in Tennessee who notoriously sold children to wealthy families for adoption. She died within days of her indictment becoming public in 1950.
However, it’s not true that authorities “were unable to confirm the child’s identity” who was spotted that night.
In fact, the police did eventually determine who the child was, through old-fashioned police work: asking questions and fanning out for hundreds of miles. According to newspaper stories in fall of 1938 (which have been unavailable online until recently), Conrad Fridley, a merchant, was returning home from a sales trip that night with his little girl, Lois, 6. They were both tired. They stopped at a hotel until the fog lifted. The police met Fridley and his daughter and were satisfied that she was not Marjorie, although she did resemble the missing girl. The Wests soon traveled to meet Conrad and his daughter as well.
There are also accounts of Marjorie’s disappearance that claim that on the same day she disappeared, two boys disappeared in that park as well — so perhaps there was a serial kidnapper on the loose.
However, this is misinformation as well.
Hopefully, the story a year ago cleared up several misconceptions.
The two boys in question disappeared on the same day as each other, not on the same day as Marjorie. And it was 28 years earlier.
Back in April of 1910, both boys were out with groups of friends 13 miles apart in the Allegheny Forest, fishing and having fun. One group of boys saw a “wild man” and ran. When they looked back, their friend had disappeared. Another boy in a group of friends met the same fate the same day. It’s suspected that one or both boys were victims of serial killer J. Frank Hickey, who could have been traveling in the area by train. (If you want to sleep tonight, don’t start reading about Frank and the other serial killers of the era). Hickey was sentenced to the electric chair in 1912.
When Marjorie disappeared, it made newspapers across the nation, and the story was told in film reels. But there were still many people who remained unaware of the disappearance. It’s hard not to wonder what could have happened if modern technology had been available to spread the word quickly and help find Marjorie. Still, authorities used the low-tech methods they could: Walking through the woods over and over, bringing in bloodhounds from other states, requesting thousands of volunteers, distributing flyers in nearby states, asking local Native American “trackers” for help.
The man who says he has the answers
One man thinks he has the answers to the mystery. Area raconteur and former bar owner Harold “Bud” beck self-published a book nine years ago saying he had found Marjorie. At a bar he owned in Marshburg, patrons told stories about the search for the lost girl, and he became committed to finding her. In the 1990s, he used the power of the newly-available internet to search. He posted a $10,000 reward for information, then traveled around the South checking out tips.
He said that a nurse he met in South Carolina claimed to be Marjorie. She told him her story and asked him to keep some of her information secret.
But Marjorie’s surviving relatives and police tend to doubt his findings.
He said that a nurse he met in South Carolina claimed to be Marjorie.
As Beck tells it, Marjorie was indeed the little girl spotted in West Virginia the night of the disappearance. The man in the driver’s seat was bringing her to South Carolina.
The man, Beck says, was a temporarily oil worker who had labored in Pennsylvania all winter, then headed home to South Carolina in May to tend to his crops. He accidentally hit Marjorie with his car on Sunday afternoon, and loaded her into the back seat to bring her to the hospital in Kane. She suddenly regained consciousness. He kept driving and took her home to his grieving wife — who’d lost their own daughter to illness while he was away.
In 2015, a relative of the West family wrote a negative review of Beck’s book on Amazon, referring to a “wild goose chase.”
In any case, Beck says the woman he spoke with passed away several years ago.
What became of the family
Last March, I interviewed Jack Covert, Marjorie’s cousin and one of her few surviving contemporary relatives. Like others in the West family, he held out hope that she was alive.
“She could still be living,” he told me, when reached by phone at his home in the Bradford area. “But she’s probably not around here.”
He was fun to talk to and quite sharp. Sadly, a week after he talked to me, he passed away.
But Marjorie’s younger descendants have blogged about her disappearance in the last dozen years, noting that the family held out hope for a long time. “My grandfather searched for weeks, long after the man hunt was called off, returning home late into the night,” wrote one relative.
Eighty-one years ago, on Marjorie’s fifth birthday in June of 1938, her mother Cecilia made a plea though the press: If someone took Marjorie, could that person please send her into a pharmacy with a note?
If only that had happened.
If only someone had taken her, then had second thoughts.
The police maintained, in newspaper stories for years afterward, that they were no closer to solving the case than right afterward. It’s true that sometimes the police know (or strongly suspect) who’s behind a crime and just can’t prove it — so they can’t say anything. In fact, there was a case in which a “woodsman” was arrested near the site of the disappearance, four months later, in connection with an unrelated incident. The 55-year-old man was “alleged to have attacked Swanson with a double-bladed ax during an argument while the men were working on a woods operation in the Chappel Forks area, near where Marjorie West, 4, of Bradford, disappeared on last Mother’s Day,” says an article (below). That story noted that the state police had questioned that man in connection with the West disappearance as well, but didn’t find a link.
I was unable to find the police records on the disappearance, as they were apparently destroyed after 75 years.
Is it possible that, despite their careful search, a clue eluded police and searchers in the park? There have been cases of missing people who were found years later in the woods even though police checked the area thoroughly, such as the cases of Chandra Levy and Jeffrey Ben. (It’s possible both had been moved from the original site of their death, though.)
If I had to guess about Marjorie, I’d say she never made it out of the woods, but it’s hard to know for sure.
Is it possible that, despite their careful search, a clue eluded police in the park?
Some say stranger kidnappings are rare, but they still occur nationally at a rate of one every two to three days. Because they’re not as frequent as some believe, people tend to pooh-pooh parents’ fears — but they shouldn’t. Life can change in the blink of an eye, as the Wests unfortunately found out. If only Marjorie had been hiding nearby. If only their story had had a happy ending.
Shirley and Cecilia West ended up separating by the 1950s, but eventually got back together. Dorothea, Marjorie’s older sister, passed away in 2007.
“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,” wrote Dorothea’s granddaughter in comment on a blog entry in 2009. “My grandmother held on to her feeling of responsibility until her passing two years ago.”
Allan “Salty Dog” West, Marjorie’s older brother, drank heavily into his later years and died in his sixties.
To look at urgent cases of children who disappeared just recently, click HERE.