March 20 marks the 100th anniversary of an unsolved mystery that once gripped the nation: the disappearance of 9-year-old Catherine Winters from New Castle.
Rushville was a frequent focus of the search, with multiple girls there mistaken for Catherine. A local recluse was accused having a young girl of Catherine’s description with him, but when local police investigated they found nothing. A Gypsy camp was also searched in Rushville, to no avail, and a little girl claiming falsely to be Catherine briefly touched off excitement in the press. The early news film made about Catherine played in Rushville theaters, and Rushville citizens contributed to her search fund.
Writer, journalist and Ball State University instructor Colleen Steffen spent five years researching the once-famous story, which involves a drunken dentist, a stepmother out of a fairy tale, a one-armed telegraph operator, a bloody sweater, a band of Gypsies, a history-making flood, the most corrupt governor in Indiana history and more. She has written a historical nonfiction book, currently being marketed by the Sara Camilli Literary Agency.
Steffen will appear at a March 20 program marking the anniversary at the Henry County Historical Society in New Castle.
Recently Steffen shared insight about the case she has turned into a book writing:
Where our stories intersected
I have a B.A. in journalism and a M.A. in English literature. I teach part-time at Ball State University, instructing aspiring journalism students in everything from media history to literary journalism.
For 13 years I was an award-winning feature writer and editor, working at daily newspapers in Indiana, Kentucky and Florida. And my specialties then—collecting and connecting small and seemingly innocuous details, bringing people and past eras to vivid life, plumbing the deeper meaning of the everyday—have come to bear on my research into Catherine Winters.
I discovered her the way most people did once—in a newspaper. I was working in a newsroom in the small college town of Muncie, Ind., about a 30-minute drive north of New Castle. Rooting through the digital archive one day, I accidentally ran across an anniversary story about the case and, intrigued, made a copy.
I needn’t have bothered. Far from being forgotten, she dogged my thoughts, and when I finally traded in my desk job for motherhood and a long-desired book project, she was the first subject I reached for.
I found the sheer amount of information available in contemporary newspaper accounts about her to be staggering, but since then the media has strangely neglected her. A few volumes of Henry County ghost lore mention her, and the local newspaper replays the case every March and Halloween. The county historical society’s newsletter runs an occasional piece, and an Indianapolis TV station visited for a short segment in the ‘90s. But that is all for this once-national news story, despite the fact that Catherine is so often sought out by the curious that research librarians at the public library have written her name on the boxes of microfilm mentioning her, to save themselves the trip to the cabinet each time someone off the street inquires.
I eagerly joined their ranks, those curious people who just want to know more. When other women might have been reading “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” I spent my afternoons in the Ball State library poring over articles about child murder and Gypsy migration routes. I started hanging out in cemeteries and archives devoted to dental history. I relished the weird coincidences that seem to happen where Catherine Winters is concerned—finding myself three hours from home being introduced to the man who wrote the article that sparked my original interest, having my daughter on the 95th anniversary of Catherine’s disappearance.
I am just one in a long line of people who have come to feel a personal connection to that little, long-ago girl. For a century she has inspired spooky stories, epic sentimentality, heroic gestures, borderline obsession. But as a journalist, I approached the case in a new way and with a new expectation.
I spent five years scouring the best and only record of what happened then—the newspaper accounts. And I negotiated that ocean of information systematically, entering every event into a timeline more than 100 pages long. Every person mentioned by name went into another very long list along with whatever biographical information I could find in other sources. Only then, with minutiae from distant places assembled side by side, did it start to become evident who was important and who was not, where the official stories broke down and differed, what went overlooked by other researchers simply because of the volume of details.
Add this to my more general research on the place and the time, and a picture slowly emerged of a small town on the cusp of being big, a pioneer past being trampled underfoot by a dazzling new technological future, and a web of secret motivations and personal connections that may supply an answer to a second puzzling mystery. A popular song of the day asked, “Where did Catherine Winters go?” I’ve asked, why did New Castle stop looking?
I did not find her. I never had much hope that I would. My goal instead was to remember her—to remember the devastating truth of a real person rather than the sentimental children’s morality tale she became, and to see what her story might have to tell us today
For additional information, please visit www.whereiscatherinewinters.com.
– Rushville Republican