What Happened to Catherine Winters - by Eldon Pitts

1/20/2013 10:38:00 PM
What happened to Catherine Winters?
New book explores 100-year-old mystery
This photo of Catherine Winters appears on the front of the sheet music to the song
This photo of Catherine Winters appears on the front of the sheet music to the song "Where Did Catherine Winters Go?" by Z.F. and Sylvester Gorbett. Author Colleen Steffen said the Gorbett brothers owned a New Castle grocery store on South 18th Street. Steffen spent five years researching the 100-year-old mystery of what happened to Catherine Winters. She spent another six months writing a book about it.
About the Author: Colleen Steffen
A native of Florence, Ky.

Literary and history studies, Harlaxton College, Grantham, England; bachelor's degree in journalism, Franklin College; master's degree in English literature, University of North Florida.

Worked at the Elizabethown, (Ky.) News-Enterprise; Anderson Herald Bulletin; New Albany Tribune; Jacksonville (Fla.) Times-Union; Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana, editor of Indiana Preservationist; The Muncie Star-Press.

Winner of numerous journalism awards.

Has been an adjunct instructor at Ball State University teaching an introductory journalism course and two graduate-level courses on literary journalism and currently is teaching two introductory journalism courses on media history and beginning storytelling.

By ELDON PITTS
For The Courier-Times

It was a Thursday, the first day of spring in 1913. Catherine Winters, the 9-year-old daughter of New Castle dentist W.A. Winters and stepmother, Byrd (Ritter) Winters, was out of school because of a measles outbreak and had left home that morning to sell packets of sewing needles for a charity.

Catherine supposedly never returned home that day and was never seen again. She vanished, as one private detective who investigated her disappearance said, "as if the earth had opened and swallowed her up."

With the centennial anniversary of the date Catherine disappeared, March 20, approaching, Muncie author Colleen Steffen has combined more than 5 years of extensive research into a book about what is perhaps the most baffling mystery in the history of Henry County.

A northern Kentucky transplant, Steffen said she learned about Catherine Winters while looking through the archives at the Muncie Star-Press, where she was an assistant features editor and feature writer.

"It's been my dream, since literally second grade, to write a book," Steffen said. "So I thought that's the project that I want to try to start."

After more than 5 years of research, and 6 months of writing, Steffen's book is finished. Her agent currently is looking for a publisher.

The Catherine Winters story "is fascinating just for the unsolved mystery aspect of it," Steffen said. "And I don't know anyone who just doesn't love a good old unsolved mystery. There's just something fundamentally interesting about it."

During her research, Steffen said she became more interested in the Rose City at that time.

"That's a really interesting period in not just the city history, but regional, state and national history," Steffen said. "There's this little pause right before the world wars, the influenza epidemic and the Depression.

"You have this little period of optimism and people think "Oh, my God, we're making it, we're on our way.' They have all these aspirations and dreams. And it's just such an optimistic time. I think that plays out in this story quite a bit. How the town reacted to her disappearance and how they handled the news of not being able to solve what happened to her."

Written in a style that Steffen describes as "literary journalism," the book will transport readers back to that time, with vivid descriptions of New Castle, its culture and businesses, and an insightful, never-before-written look into the lives of the people involved in the 100-year-old mystery.

"Since my training was in features writing, I always like it when you can tell a story sort of novelistically," Steffen said. "So I try to set the scenes. I just wanted it to be a good story. I wanted to paint a picture. And I also felt like it was the only way to get at who Catherine was as a person."

There were several theories about Catherine's disappearance - that a band of Gypsies traveling through the city had kidnapped her; that she was abducted by a stranger; that she was kidnapped by relatives hoping to somehow collect an inheritance from her deceased mother. None of those theories were ever proven.

Massive flooding also had swept through the region the night Catherine disappeared.

The Winterses traveled to theaters throughout Indiana showing a film about Catherine, hoping to raise funds for the search and spread the word about her disappearance. The story gained national attention, with at least 70 newspapers, including the Cincinnati Post, Chicago Tribune and Seattle Star, offering rewards for information about the missing girl.

Then, 14 months after Catherine's disappearance, Dr. Winters, his wife, and a boarder at their home, William Ross Cooper, a one-armed railroad telegraph operator, were arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit a felony.

The charging affidavit alleged the trio conspired to murder Catherine by "striking, beating and wounding" her and trying to burn her body.

Although a body was never found, authorities did find a red sweater with a burn hole in the back, a hair ribbon and a bloodstained man's undershirt in a concrete block in the basement of the Winters home. Dirt and concrete had been placed on top of the items.

But Steffen questioned why, if the Winterses were involved, they would have hidden the evidence in their own basement. Although, "they had conflicting stories about what it was," she said. "Another possibility is did they not know it was there? It could have taken them by surprise as well. Did the boarder know it was there?"

The theory of private detective Robert Abel, who found the evidence, was that Byrd Winters and Cooper had an affair and that Catherine found out. The detective claimed the girl was killed to keep her quiet.

The trio was set to stand trial. But the prosecutor dismissed the charges, saying there was insufficient evidence to proceed.

But there is much more to the story that readers will learn in Steffen's book.

"I went into it like everyone does, the prevailing theory that the 'evil stepmother' did it," Steffen said. "That sounded pretty plausible because she didn't help herself. I think the Winterses had a knack for looking guilty. They did a lot of things that just seemed shady on the outside."

Some had questioned why the couple waited several hours after Catherine was supposed to return home before they started to search for her.

"But I was surprised coming to the opinion that I don't think they did it. I don't think they helped themselves. I don't think they looked great. But I don't think they were ultimately responsible," Steffen said, other than perhaps being negligent, if even that.

Steffen noted that Dr. Winters traveled more than 12,000 miles in one year and spent thousands of dollars of his own money in the search for his daughter. "That's incredible," Steffen said. "And if he was covering up for someone, he should win the Oscar."

So what happened to Catherine Winters?

"To me, the thing that makes the most sense is a stranger," Steffen said. "Because at that time, police in New Castle were mostly untrained, paid very little and basically were glorified security guards. They didn't even have their own automobiles."

At the time, Steffen said, mass train and interurban transit had become available. A stranger could have abducted Catherine and taken her to a major city in less than a day.

"You've got a place that still has that naivete of being small, but it's not really that small anymore," Steffen said. "So to me, a stranger is the thing they're not looking for, they can't recognize. And we know people like that existed then.

"If a person like that did exist, it was the perfect time in history. He could move around with impunity, completely undetected," Steffen said. "Also, you've got newspaper reports around the time of (Catherine's) disappearance of little girls being approached on the street."

"The problem is, we're never going to know, because there's just not enough stuff left," Steffen said, "unless it's in some New Castle attic somewhere."

When she began researching the story, Steffen said, "I just loved the mystery of it, the weird details and the creepy coincidences. But in the end, I just felt so sorry for Catherine Winters because I think almost immediately, she was totally forgotten from her own search.

"I think politicians saw it as an opportunity and newspaper reporters and private detectives definitely did," Steffen said. "I think people jostled for position and saw what they could get out of it.

"In the end, I think her parents just had to give up," Steffen said. "I think after they were arrested, they just gave up and there was no one to follow up on it."

While waiting to find a publisher for her book, Steffen plans to get the word out through speaking engagements and providing more details on her website, www.whereiscatherinewin ters.com. Readers also can follow the story on Facebook by searching for "Where is Catherine Winters," and on Twitter @WhereisCW.