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Fascinating True Stories from the Flip Side of History

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Podcast # 139 – The Fight for Hildy McCoy

 

Imagine you are in this situation: It is the early 1950s and you are a young woman in your early twenties. You are unmarried and suddenly you find out that you are pregnant. What would you do?  

Well, this was the exact situation that a young Boston resident named Marjorie McCoy found herself in.   At the time, she was a student at the Children’s Hospital School of Nursing and when she learned that she was pregnant, her mom took her to see the family doctor, Dr. Herman Sands. He suggested that the best solution would be to place the child up for adoption and they agreed.

Dr. Sands referred them to Salem, Massachusetts attorney Philip Strome, who could “handle the whole matter and keep things quiet.” Strome found the perfect couple to adopt the baby: 39-year-old Melvin Ellis and his 31-year-old wife Frances.  Melvin owned Bentley’s Cleansers, a dry-cleaning plant in Boston, and was reported to have had an annual income in excess of $10,000 ($97,000 adjusted for inflation).  The two had married in 1946 but soon learned that they would be unable to have a child of their own. Desperate to adopt, they offered to pay all of Marjorie’s medical costs plus any legal fees incurred. 

Marjorie and her mom agreed to the terms of the deal. To avoid the embarrassment of being pregnant out of wedlock, Marjorie headed out to California to stay with her married sister.  As the birth approached, she returned back east and waited out her time in a rented room located on Beacon Street in the Back Bay section of Boston.

It was on February 23, 1951, in Boston’s Kenmore Hospital, that Marjorie would deliver a healthy six-pound girl. The baby was whisked away without Marjorie ever laying sight on the newborn. Ten days later, in attorney Strome’s office, Mr. and Mrs. Ellis would sign the papers to adopt their new daughter, who was now named Hildy. Next, Dr. Sands took the papers to Marjorie and she added her signature. It was a double-blind signing so that Marjorie would not learn the names of the adoptive parents and vice versa.

And with that, if this were the typical adoption, everyone involved would have gone on to happily live their lives. But that was not to be the case.

A few weeks later, Hildy’s adoption would be thrown into chaos. Marjorie was informed by attorney Philip Strome that there had been a technical glitch in the adoption proceedings because her first signature had not been notarized and dated. So, Marjorie went to Strome’s office on March 27, 1951 to sign a new set of documents. While doing so, Marjorie, who was Catholic, learned that the Ellises were not. In fact, they were Jewish. This greatly disturbed Marjorie. She desired that her daughter be placed in a Catholic home. Marjorie became apprehensive at signing the new documents, but Strome assured her that the adoption would not be finalized for another year and that she would “have time to think it over and change her mind.” So, she signed the papers and left his office.

Hildy McCoy. Image appeared on page 1 of the March 17, 1957 publication of the Miami News.

At some point in April, Marjorie once again went to see Dr. Sands and informed him that she didn’t approve of Hildy being raised in a Jewish household by parents who had both been previously divorced and wished to have the adoption reversed. What’s interesting here is that Marjorie still had no desire to keep Hildy. She wanted another couple to adopt the child and raise her as a Catholic. As a result, Marjorie requested that the court allow her to withdraw her consent.

Coincidentally, just months before, the Massachusetts legislature had enacted a statute that read, in part: “In making orders for adoption the judge, when practicable, must give custody only to persons of the same religious faith as that of the child.” And, let’s face it, what were the chances of there not being a single Catholic couple in the entire state of Massachusetts who would be willing to adopt a newborn blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl? At the time of Hildy’s birth, neither Marjorie nor the Ellises knew of this new legislation, but the law was clearly on Marjorie’s side.

Marjorie and the Ellises met for the first time in May 1951. What exactly happened during this meeting depends on whose side seemed more plausible. Marjorie’s attorney insisted that they requested the child be returned but the Ellises refused and the meeting ended with both sides angrily in complete disagreement. Yet, Mrs. Ellis told the press, “It was all quite friendly. We discussed the petition, and when we left, Marjorie said to me, ‘I hope you can keep the child. I can’t go on paying for this all my life.’”

In early 1952, the Ellises sought court intervention to resolve the problem, but the judge advised the couple to await the outcome of a similar case involving a Catholic mother and Protestant foster parents that had been winding its way through the Massachusetts courts. In June, this particular case was decided in favor of the adoptive couple. The Ellises took this as a good sign that they would prevail in court. Sidentoe: Hildy’s real father was a Protestant, but Marjorie had no interest in marrying him.

It would not be until June 1953 that the case would be heard by Dedham Probate Judge James F. Reynolds. This would be the first time that Marjorie McCoy would see her daughter Hildy. After a 4-1/2 day hearing, Judge Reynolds ruled against the Ellises. He determined that it would be in Hildy’s best interest if the adoption was nullified and the child returned to Marjorie McCoy so that she could place her with the Catholic Charitable Bureau. 

Needless to say, the Ellises were in deep shock. Hildy was now two years old and the couple was the only parents she had ever known. Regarding Marjorie, Mrs. Ellis stated, “If she has said to me at our first meeting, ‘I will fight for my baby – for myself,’ I would have had to give her back.”

It was shortly after this decision, on July 21, 1953, that Marjorie McCoy married Gerald Doherty, who was not Hildy’s father. They would soon start a family of their own, but Hildy was not to factor into that equation.

The Ellises’ battle to adopt Hildy did not end with Judge Reynolds’ decision. They appealed the case to the Massachusetts Supreme Court. It was on October 6, 1954, when Hildy was 3-1/2 years old, that the story finally broke in the newspapers. Soon, the adoption of Hildy McCoy would become front-page headlines not for days, weeks, or months, but for years. It would become the most controversial and most widely reported adoption story of the 1950s.

Mrs. Ellis stated, “Hildy is our whole life. It will be cruel and inhuman to take her away. This is the only family she has ever known.”

Hildy with Melvin and Frances Ellis. Image appeared on page 1 of the October 7, 1954 publication of the Boston Globe.

The full bench of the Massachusetts Supreme Court handed down their decision on February 14, 1955. They upheld Judge Reynolds’ ruling and ordered that the Ellises return Hildy to her natural mother. Keep in mind that the judges were strictly focused on the law, which did allow the natural mother of the child to withdraw her petition for adoption for a period of one year. All of the justices involved, although deemed heartless by the press, were simply interpreting the regulations as written.

On April 26, Marjorie McCoy Doherty and two social workers arrived at 231 St. Paul Street in Brookline, Massachusetts to remove Hildy from the Ellises’ home. Marjorie told Mrs. Ellis, “I’ve come for the child.” Mrs. Ellis refused their request as Hildy, dressed for bed, held on to her adoptive mother’s skirt. The three women soon left, only to return a short time later with a police officer. He made no attempt to take the child and told Mrs. Ellis that he was only there to inform the Ellises that the court had ordered the return of Hildy to her natural mother. Shortly after the four left, Mrs. Ellis wrapped Hildy in blankets and drove 68 miles (110 km) to her brother’s home in Newport, Rhode Island.

Two weeks later, on May 11, the Ellises’ attorney, James Zisman, requested that the Massachusetts Supreme Court issue a stay of execution on Judge Reynolds decision. Zisman stated, “It would be a sad situation, a tragedy, to uproot this child from its present surroundings and send her to an institution.” He continued, “Mr. and Mrs. Ellis will take this child to the Catholic Church and bring her up in the Catholic faith. Their love for this child is so great that they would bring her up under the supervision of the local Catholic priest, send her to a parochial school, even place her in a convent school where she would come home only on weekends.” The court declined this request.

The Ellises may have lost the case but they were not about to turn over Hildy without a fight. They continued to ignore the court order requiring them to return Hildy to her natural mother, so on Wednesday, June 15th, Judge Reynolds had finally had enough. He set a deadline for that Friday at 2 PM for the Ellises to turn over Hildy McCoy. If they failed to do so, the couple would be placed in jail. He stated, “The mother has been trying to get the child back into her possession since the child was six weeks old. If these people had turned the child over to the mother then they would not have become so attached to her.”

The next day, June 16, 1955, Supreme Court Justice Harold B. Williams issued a stay of execution of Judge Reynolds’ court order and scheduled a hearing for June 22. On June 28, the Supreme Court dismissed the couple’s petition and ordered that Hildy be turned over to her natural mother within 24 hours or they would “go to jail.”

Well, that day came and went. The Ellises were nowhere to be found. They had gone into hiding. In a phone interview with a reporter, Mr. Ellis stated, “I’m scared stiff of jail, but I’m like any other father when they take his child away.” He added, “We’ll fight to the finish, hoping that we can have Hildy, or at least that the mother will take her into her own home instead of a foster home. I don’t know what we’ll do.”

Melvin Ellis. Image appeared on page 1 of the March 17, 1957 publication of the Miami News.

In the meantime, attorney Zisman once again approached the Massachusetts Supreme Court arguing that Judge Reynolds had acted improperly by ordering the arrest of the Ellises without a proper hearing. The couple was granted a two-week delay while the lower court’s ruling was reviewed.

Hildy McCoy. Image appeared on page 1 of the May 24, 1957 publication of the Tampa Bay Times.

This wasn’t about to stop Judge Reynolds. He was growing tired of all of the stalling. While his order to have the Ellises arrested may have been placed on hold for two weeks, that decision had nothing to do with Hildy herself. On July 9, he ordered that sheriffs in all Massachusetts counties find Mr. and Mrs. Ellis and take Hildy into custody. “We command you that the body of female McCoy, also known as Hildy C. Ellis, of Brookline, minor child of Marjorie McCoy Doherty, you take and have before the judge of the Probate Cord at Dedham immediately after receipt of the writ to do and receive what the judge shall then and there consider concerning her in this behalf.”

On July 18, Attorney Zisman filed six new petitions with the Norfolk Probate Court claiming that Marjorie had given false testimony and that she had “deliberately imposed a fraud upon the court.” Basically, two nurses who had spoken with her at the time of Hildy’s birth signed affidavits claiming that Marjorie was aware from the very beginning that the Ellises were Jewish. 

Nurse Jessie C. Santoro said that Marjorie had asked her to go check out the couple and “let me know what they’re like.” When Santoro returned, she reported that they were “a lovely Jewish couple.” She added, “You know the baby is going to a Jewish home. Are you going to have her baptized?” To this Marjorie replied, “My only concern is to get this thing over with and get my own life straightened out.”

Frances Ellis helping Hildy with her hair. Image appeared on page 104 of the April 8, 1957 publication of the Life Magazine.

The other nurse was Dorothy H. Ingersoll. She told of how she took the baby to Marjorie’s bedside the day after Hildy was born. Marjorie quickly turned her head away and would not look at the newborn. Ms. Ingersoll then stated, “Your baby is going to Jewish people,” to which Marjorie replied, “What’s wrong with that?”

Judge Reynolds informed attorney Zisman that he would hear no new motions concerning the case until the Ellises and Hildy appeared before him. “I want the Ellises brought before the court, and the baby before the court. I will hear all matters when everyone is before the court.”

As you can probably guess, the Ellises were no-shows. As a result, on November 3, 1955 Judge Reynolds dismissed all six of those newly filed petitions and noted that “The petitioners have not been deprived of their day in court.” After this, the Ellises filed another appeal with the state Supreme Court.

This game of ricocheting back and forth between Judge Reynolds and the Massachusetts Supreme Court would continue, so I won’t bore you with the details. In total, twenty-two different appeals were filed and then denied by the state Supreme Court. Their last decision was handed down on September 28, 1956. The final legal door had been shut on the Ellises.

The couple now legally had no choice but to turn 5 ½-year-old Hildy over to her natural mother, who would, in turn, put her up for adoption. The only problem was that the Ellises had not been spotted since that day when Marjorie and the two social workers showed up at the Ellis home. Seventeen months had since elapsed.  Were they still in Massachusetts?  Were the Ellises still even within the United States? Just where were they?

A big legal change occurred in March 1957. That was when Massachusetts Associate Justice Edward A. Counihan concluded that the Ellises had committed the crime of kidnapping and an indictment was handed down.

Not long after this, Melvin Ellis made the mistake of trying to purchase a new car in Miami Beach, Florida. Since he was trading in his old vehicle, the dealer made a routine check to confirm that there were no liens on the car. That’s when the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles informed the dealer that the couple was wanted on a kidnapping charge.

At approximately 2 PM on Friday, March 15, 1957, Ellis arrived at the dealer to pick up his new car, unaware that a trap had been set. Shortly after walking into the dealership’s showroom, he was approached by two officers and taken into custody. Ellis was escorted to Miami police headquarters where he was fingerprinted, mugshot taken and placed into a cell. A short time later, a detective went to the Ellises’ Normandy Isle apartment and arrested Mrs. Ellis. Neither would have to spend very long in custody. Their Florida attorney, Benjamin Cohen, quickly arranged for their release without bail. A hearing was set for the following Monday.

Attorney Ben Cohen (left) with Melvin and Frances Ellis. Image appeared on page 3 of the March 19, 1957 publication of the Boston Globe.

At the hearing on March 18, 1957, Massachusetts State Police Detective Lieutenant William H. Delay requested that the Ellises be held on a $5,000 bond, but the magistrate opted to once again release the couple into the custody of attorney Cohen.

Mr. Ellis told the press, “Never once during all the courtroom proceedings in Massachusetts did the court ever consider Hildy’s welfare. I don’t care if I go to jail. The main thing is the girl’s happiness and she wouldn’t be happy in a Catholic orphanage and any other kind of orphanage.” He continued, “We are not criminals. We have not done anything wrong. We just want our girl. We are not running any more. This is a last stand – a final battleground for Hildy’s life and her future. We do not want this sword hanging over us.”

Melvin Ellis. Image appeared on page 3 of the March 18, 1957 publication of the Boston Globe.

The couple had been in hiding for nearly two years. So, just where were they all this time? First, as previously mentioned, after Marjorie and the two social workers arrived at the Ellises’ home on April 26, 1955, Mrs. Ellis and Hildy went to Newport, Rhode Island, where they stayed for three weeks. After that, they went to stay with friends in Sharon, Massachusetts. The couple did return back to their home in Brookline for a short period, but went back into hiding when the couple was ordered to turn over Hildy or risk going to jail. From there, they proceeded to Tuckahoe, New York and then moved on to a five-week stay with relatives in Levittown, Pennsylvania. Next was White Plains, New York, followed by a six-month stint in Manhattan, and finally a short stay in Scarsdale, New York. Finally, in April 1956, the couple decided that they needed to move out of the northeastern United States. It was at that point that the couple headed to Florida. They moved into their Normandy Isle apartment in May.

As for employment, Melvin Ellis was forced to sell his lucrative dry-cleaning business. At the time of his arrest, he was working as a traveling salesman for a New York clothing firm, selling both sportswear and lingerie. Hildy was enrolled as a first-grader in the private Lear School in Miami Beach.

Hildy (left) and her friend, Susie Ellis, playing with a pair of slacks from Melvin Ellis’ sample bag. Image appeared on page 104 of the April 8, 1957 publication of the Life Magazine.

The battle to return Hildy, Frances, and Melvin Ellis back to the state of Massachusetts had begun. In one corner, you had the public opinion which overwhelmingly supported allowing the Ellises to adopt Hildy. In the opposing corner, there was the state of Massachusetts, which sought their immediate return so that the various court decisions could be executed.

It was estimated that the Governor of Florida’s office received 10,000 letters, telegrams, or signed petitions from people opposing the extradition of the Ellises. In comparison, an estimated 100 letters were received expressing their belief that they should be returned to Massachusetts and that Hildy should be returned to her natural mother.

Many others expressed their opinions by writing to their local newspapers. Here is just a sampling of those letters to editors:

  • April 5, 1957 – Miami Herald – “Evidently you didn’t bother trying to find the facts in this case or you deliberately withheld them in order to create sympathy toward the Ellises.”  “…the Ellises illegally obtained the child from Dr. Herman Sand and also paid him a large sum of money for the favor, in spite of the fact that Dr. Sand promised Marjorie McCoy, the child’s real mother, he would make sure the child will be placed in a Catholic home.” Anthony Cook
  • April 8, 1957 – Miami Herald – “Think of the scars that would be inflicted permanently if Hildy were separated suddenly from all the love and security she has known for years. There is more to motherhood than the act of conceiving.” The letter continues, “We are all talking tolerance: why don’t we practice it? Let this Jewish couple bring up their child as a Catholic. I cannot believe in my heart that any religion would willfully gamble a helpless child’s chance for happiness.” A Mother.
  • May 3, 1957 – Brooklyn Daily – “After the passing of these past years of Hildy’s life, the unwed mother who bore her, now married, decides to have this little one return, – not to her but, instead, – to a home for children and to be adopted, all over again, by a couple of her own Faith. To make of this little one an actual pawn, a chess piece to be moved [hither and yon] on the board-of-living is not a sporting or good game but, it is a crooked and, an absolute STEAL.” L. M. K.

Of course, public opinion does not always predict the outcome of legal matters. Almost immediately after the arrest of the Ellises, the State of Massachusetts had rendition papers drawn up seeking the couple’s return to face kidnapping charges. Under Florida law at the time, Massachusetts had until midnight on April 17 to submit the signed extradition documents. Foster Furcolo, who was the Massachusetts governor at the time, made it clear that he would sign the papers, but that process did not go smoothly. The first set of papers drawn up was rejected on March 27 on technical grounds. The second set was rejected on April 16 due to an incorrect date. Finally, on April 17 Governor Furcolo signed the third revision and it was flown to Florida and submitted just prior to the midnight deadline.

Florida Governor LeRoy Collins set a hearing on the extradition for May 23 in Tallahassee. The million-dollar question was whether Governor Collins would give in to public pressure or, instead, side with the state of Massachusetts and send the Ellises back to face the music.

Just prior to the hearing, Melvin Ellis told the press, “If by serving a couple of years in prison I might settle the thing I would not mind so much. But the thought of giving her up is more than I can bear. We are pinning our faith on the Lord and Governor Collins.”

Mrs. Ellises’ biggest fear wasn’t the kidnapping charge. Instead, she was concerned that the hearing would drag on and she would be unable to return in time to see and hear Hildy perform her part in the Lear’s School presentation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which was part of her 1st grade moving up ceremony. “Hildy will feel terrible if we’re both not there, but even if Melvin has to stay in Tallahassee I’ve got to get back for the exercises.”

Mr. & Mrs. Ellis (top of stairs), their attorney Ben Cohen (far right) and others boarding an airplane to attend the extradition hearing in Tallahassee. Image appeared on page 2 of the May 22, 1957 publication of the Miami News.

And then the day came. Thursday, May 23, 1957. Governor Collins began the hearing before a standing-room-only crowd of approximately 125 people. Lawyers for both sides presented their case. The session was surprisingly short, clocking in at two hours in length. Governor Collins said that he based his decision on both legal and humanitarian grounds: he granted the Ellises Florida sanctuary and refused to honor the extradition request from Massachusetts.

Reporters questioned Mrs. Ellis shortly after the decision. When asked how she felt, she replied a “little numb.” Mrs. Ellis added, “Now I can sleep tonight.” When asked about attending Hildy’s first-grade graduation, she replied, “I was going to make it if I had to walk back to Miami.”

Frances and Melvin Ellis with Hildy shortly after Governor Collins granted the couple sanctuary in Florida. Image appeared on page 1 of the May 24, 1957 publication of the Miami News.

And she did make it. And so did the press. Here’s a bit of a story that appeared on May 24, 1957 in the Miami News: “Hildy McCoy Ellis ‘graduated’ today from the first to second grade at the Lear School, Miami Beach, in probably the world’s most widely publicized kiddie baccalaureate.” The article continues, “Some of the children marveled at the presence of newsreel and television cameras and blinked in the strong lights. But most of them thought it was part of the coverage of the Lear School annual event.”

This may have been a great day of celebration, but the Ellises’ legal problems were not over. They may have avoided being extradited to face the kidnapping charges, but the issue of Hildy’s legal adoption had not been settled. The Boston Roman Catholic archdiocese strongly opposed the adoption. On June 11, 1957, the Massachusetts Public Welfare Department submitted to the state of Florida twelve objections to the adoption and recommended that Mr. and Mrs. Ellis not be permitted to adopt Hildy. 

Both sides would get to present their cases before Circuit Judge John W. Prunty on July 8, 1957, as Hildy remained in the judge’s chambers playing with her 12-year-old next-door neighbor, Vicki Miller. Hildy was totally oblivious to what was going on outside in the courtroom. Two days later, Judge Prunty decreed that Hildy “shall hereafter be known as Hildy Ellis.” After more than six years of fighting for and fearing the loss of Hildy, she was now the legal daughter of Frances and Melvin Ellis.

Frances and Melvin Ellis kissing Hildy goodnight. Image appeared on page 109 of the April 8, 1957 publication of the Life Magazine.

On July 11, 1957, Hildy’s natural mother Marjorie broke her silence for the first time. “I am grateful to Massachusetts justice for upholding my right to provide for my baby in accordance with conscience. She is now a growing girl. I would not wish to see her further hurt by more of the publicity that was threatened to her and to me six years ago. Some day she will learn the facts about her mother’s desire to protect her with the privacy that others were willing to destroy. Meanwhile, with prayers I hope many will share, I entrust her to [the] loving protection of God. The rest is in the hands of my attorneys.”

After this, the press would follow up on Hildy’s story on special occasions like her birthday and the anniversary of her adoption. Yet, there was little to report. Everything seemed to be going well before the story faded into history.

Melvin Ellis told reporters that the fight to adopt Hildy had cost him over $60,000, which would be nearly $600,000 today. He added, “But you can bet it was worth it.”

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide. 

1966 colorized Montgomery Blair High School yearbook photo of Hildy Ellis.
1968 colorized Montgomery Blair High School yearbook photo of Hildy Ellis.

Podcast #132 – In the Blink of an Eye

 

Did you ever stop to think about how your life could change in the blink of eye? Every morning each of us gets up and assumes that each day will turn out just fine, but then something happens that changes the course of our lives forever. It could be the birth of a child, being diagnosed with a dreadful disease, or simply losing your job.

Take, for example, the story of Sigel Castle. He was born in Albia, Iowa on November 27, 1862. At 24 years of age, he married Ida Chedester, after which the newlyweds moved to South Dakota. Between 1888 and 1900, the couple would have six children. In order, they were Roy, William, Rena, Earl, Eva, and Laura, who was born on April 7, 1900. Just two months later, Mrs. Castle would pass away. While neither her exact dates of birth or death are known, she was approximately 32 years of age. This left Sigel to care for their six children, all under the age of twelve.

Five years later, on January 24, 1905, Sigel would marry his late wife’s younger sister Edith Mary Chedester. He was 42 and she was 27 years old at the time of their union. Together the couple would have three additional children: Bertha Irene, Sylvia Mae, and the youngest, Evelyn Helen, who was born on May 21, 1916. At the time of Evelyn’s birth, all but one of Sigel’s six children from his first marriage were adults.

Nebraska marriage certificate between Mary Edith Chedester and Sigel Wylie Castle.

Many years later, Evelyn would write, “Papa was a kind and loving father to me. I remember him most as a quiet man, who sat by the table at night and read by lamplight. He worked hard.”

She had equally kind words to say regarding her mother: “It is hard to write of my Mama, my whole world revolved around her and no one has ever taken her place. She was a small woman, with dark red hair piled high on her head. She wore long skirts down to her ankles. She walked with a limp as she had been hurt when she was young. She had fallen from a horse and hurt her hip it had not healed right. I remember picking sweet wild strawberries with her, of being caught in a hailstorm and running with her as they came down ‘big as hen eggs.’ The memories are endless.”

On June 2, 1925, Sigel Castle would once again face the loss of a loved one. His second youngest daughter from his first marriage, 28-year-old Eva Amanda Castle Harvey, died of cancer. She was survived by her husband Clarence and their four young children.

Gravestone of Eva Amanda Castle Harvey at New Underwood Cemetery in New Underwood, South Dakota. Image is from Find-A-Grave.

I spoke with Perry Reeder, Jr., Evelyn’s son and Sigel’s grandson, and he told me the following:

Perry Reeder: Well, one of his favorite daughters from that older family died of cancer. And it made him so he didn’t want to be around there anymore and he wanted to kind of get a new life. So he sold everything and they moved.

Evelyn, who is no longer with us, wrote about what happened next: “After her death Papa decided to move out to Oregon. He bought a car and since he didn’t know how to drive and (wasn’t about to learn). He asked Otis Angle (my sister Bertha’s boyfriend) to drive us out. We left South Dakota in late July 1925. We stopped first at my brother Earl Castle in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, for a short visit with him and his family. We then went through Wyoming to Yellowstone Park to see Old Faithful. How that model T Ford made it over those high passes is a miracle.”

She continues, “Later, coming down the Columbia River in Oregon we stopped at Multnomah Falls. There was a small store there and Sylvia Mae and I were allowed to buy some cup cakes. This was my first experience with store-bought cup cakes. So I started to take a bite out of mine and Mama said, “Don’t eat the paper Evelyn!

“We went to Portland, Oregon to visit my uncle Emmett Jay Castle and his son Merwyn. Otis Angle stayed in Portland to get work. On August 13, 1925 we started to our new home in Eugene, Oregon.”

It was at this point that 16-year-old Merwyn Castle was recruited to drive the car to their final destination. He was an inexperienced driver who had obtained his license just three weeks earlier.

Perry Reeder: I don’t know in them days if they had to even apply for a license. All they had to do is to be able to drive.

Merwyn was at the wheel as he drove the jalopy southward from Portland. Mrs. Castle sat beside him in the front seat while Sigel and the couple’s three children were in the back. As the sun was setting on Thursday, August 13, 1925, Merwyn came upon a portion of the road just north of Harrisburg that was being paved. This forced him to make a detour across the railroad tracks that ran parallel to the road.

Without looking, Merwyn turned the car up a short grade to cross the tracks. What he didn’t see was that the southbound No. 33 Southern Pacific train was coming up from behind at an estimated 50 mph (80.5 km/h).

Perry Reeder: The detour run parallel to the tracks for a couple of hundred feet or maybe more. Merwyn probably was, was not looking behind him, you know, the train would be coming from behind. And he would be turning to his left and going across the tracks. I’ve been to that crossing and that crossing is a raised, you know, like six or seven feet off of the level ground and it raises up for gravel for the train tracks and they were probably on that and, the way I would see it, and he and he probably never even noticed the train coming from behind him.

The occupants of a car waiting to cross from the opposite side of the track yelled out a warning to Merwyn, but he could not hear them over the deafening sound of the approaching train and its whistle. Engineer Harvey Carpenter was at the throttle when he spotted the car just as it was crossing over the tracks. He didn’t see it until the last second because the car did not have its headlights on. There was little that Harvey could do. He immediately jammed on the locomotive’s emergency brakes while blasting its whistle in a last-second attempt to get the car cleared from the tracks.

The Number 33 Southern Pacific locomotive and tender. Image courtesy of Perry Reeder, Jr. and Sarah MacDonald.

It was too late. The train rammed into the car nearly dead-center. Harvey Carpenter watched in horror as his locomotive pushed the automobile along the tracks for several rail lengths before it was finally pushed off to the left of the train.

As awful as you can imagine that this accident was, it was far worse because the car was open-topped. The scene can only be described as gruesome with body parts scattered along the tracks.

62-year-old Sigel Castle, his 47-year-old wife Edith, and their two daughters, 18-year-old Bertha and 15-year-old Sylvia all lost their lives in the accident. Their bodies were taken to a local undertaker and Uncle Emmett Castle arrived the next morning to arrange for their burial.

Perry Reeder: Yeah, they were all so badly beat up, you know, that they just buried them in one grave that I know.

A quick check on the Find-A-Grave website confirms that the four are buried under one gravestone. It simply reads

CASTLE
BERTHA SYLVIA EDITH SIGEL
AUGUST 14, 1925

Perry Reeder: Well, we’ve been down to the grave. And this is like, you know, 40 years later or even longer, maybe 50 years later, and the track is still in the same place and the graveyard is relatively close. But about five miles from where the accident happened. The graveyard is north of where the accident happened. And the train still goes down through there and when that train comes thundering down through there and you’re standing at the graves… You know how trains are: they make a lot of noise and bump and bang the cars together as they go and you can kind of feel the vibration and if you’re standing there in the evening it kind of was a little bit spooky if it’s a still day. It’s spooky if you know the people who are buried there and the accident happened just a little ways away from there.

Castle gravestone in the Alford Cemetery in Harrisburg, Oregon. The image appears on Find-A-Grave.

At the time of the accident, newspapers were quick to report that the Castles were on their way to the Harrisburg hop yards to help in the harvest before heading off to Eugene where Sigel had accepted a position on a dairy farm, but Perry said that this was not true.

Perry Reeder: We’ve always known that the articles about them being hop-pickers was untrue. That was made up by some reporter. Well, he was a teacher first. Then he did some farming and then he did some logging. You know, part times.

The truth is that Sigel was headed to Eugene to purchase a farm of his own. His descendants believe that Sigel must have had enough money with him to at least make a downpayment. Any money that Sigel may have had on him, which is thought to have been a fairly large sum, disappeared at the time of the wreckage.

So, what happened to the driver of the car, Sigel’s nephew Merwyn Castle? Surprisingly, very little. He was found lying in a daze next to the wrecked car. His only injuries were a few bruises and a cut on his eyebrow.

Perry Reeder: You know he was most likely just flipped right out of the car and he had a bad cut on the eyebrow and that’s about the only injury he had. He walked away from it.

Right after Harvey Carpenter stopped the train, he immediately jumped out to offer any assistance that he could. It’s unclear who made the discovery first, either Harvey Carpenter or the train’s conductor, identified only as Mr. Caffin, but they found an incredible surprise on the cowcatcher; the metal grate on older trains that would push cattle and other objects off of the tracks. There, against all odds, 9-year-old Evelyn Castle was found hanging from the cowcatcher. Badly injured, she had somehow survived the impact with the train.

No one can say with any certainty how she ended up there. Maybe it was due to pure luck, but Evelyn remembered it differently. She had been sitting on her dad’s lap at the moment of impact and as the train was being dragged along, she said that he placed her on the cowcatcher.

Perry Reeder: If you could imagine they were both traveling along side-by-side there for just a second or two and he probably just saw a chance to lay her on it and keep her from the car from; the car was being smashed while he was doing that and then it rolled and flipped.

They say that time slows down during an accident and this may have been no exception. You also need to keep frame of reference in mind: both the car and the train were moving at the same exact speed as basically one unit for several seconds.

Perry Reeder: You can see what he was thinking. He could probably see what was going to happen. And so he just pushed her over there and hoped that she would; all the cars flipping around and things would miss her. But it was his only chance. Because he was probably, I don’t know, but he was probably sitting behind Merwyn. And so he probably just thought, well, here’s her only chance and that was an open-top car so he just lifted her up and pushed her over there.

After Evelyn was removed from the cowcatcher, it was clear that she was in urgent need of medical attention but no physician was available locally. The decision was made to transport both Evelyn and Merwyn to a hospital in Eugene, which lies about twenty miles (32 km) to the south. Both were placed aboard the train – the same train involved in the accident – and Harvey Carpenter opened up the throttle. Upon arrival in Eugene, a waiting ambulance rushed Evelyn to the hospital.

This image of Evelyn Castle was printed in newspapers across the country in 1925. Image courtesy of Perry Reeder, Jr. and Sarah MacDonald.

Years later, Evelyn described her injuries: “I had a broken arm, which they put in a cast from my shoulder to my wrist, some cuts and bruises. I suffered mostly from shock. I was not released from the Hospital until two weeks later. I was unable to walk and had to be in a wheel chair.”

As she recovered, Harvey Carpenter was held blameless for the accident. Unbeknownst to Evelyn at the time, at the end of nearly every run, Harvey Carpenter would go to the hospital and bring her flowers and gifts. But none of those material items could erase his guilt. The thought of Evelyn clinging on to that cowcatcher continued to be a burden on his mind.

Perry Reeder: It bothered Harvey Carpenter because he said when he was driving the train that he would see her constantly. The first time he’d seen her on the front of the train bruised. But, Harvey felt guilty. Even though he was innocent, he felt guilty about it and he was haunted by it.

Upon her release from the hospital, a woman obtained permission from Evelyn’s Uncle Emmett to take her to a local hotel that she owned. The mayor of Harrisburg had presented Evelyn with $10.00 (about $150 today), but when she awoke the next morning, the money was gone. When questioned about it, the proprietor told Evelyn “Someone has to pay for your keep!”

Two days later, Emmett Castle came to get Evelyn and took her back to his Portland home. Since his wife had been previously committed to the Oregon State Mental Hospital, he was unable to care for her. He opted to place Evelyn with another family.

“They took me to church every night. They would put me on a platform and get down on their knees and howl and pray aloud. This frightened me so much, I would cry and beg them not to take me.

“I finally got so bad that they thought I was losing my mind. I had crawled under a stationary table with stationary benches on either side. I wouldn’t come out so they put a blanket in there for me and closed the curtains. They talked in whispers around me. My arm hurt me, the cast was still on it,” Evelyn writes.

Her next memory was that of someone whispering to her, “It is the man who killed your folks!” She described what happened next: “I saw a big, tall man with a look of shocked disbelief on his face. This was the first time to my knowledge that I had ever seen Harvey Carpenter, of course I didn’t know his name at the time.”

It was clear that Evelyn was not adapting well to her new home, so the court stepped in and ordered that she be placed in the care of the Portland Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society. While there, Harvey Carpenter continued to visit with her.

“Harvey Carpenter, who was the engineer on the fateful train and his wife Alta came to visit me at the Orphanage. They got permission to take me out for a visit to their beautiful home. After having me there for a week or two, they decided to legally adopt me.”

Initially, the court ordered that Evelyn be placed in the care of the Carpenters, but her uncle Emmett Castle contested that decision. A jury decided on November 3, 1925 that full custody of Evelyn should be granted to the Carpenters.

Legal challenges continued until January 11, 1926. That’s when Judge Jacob Kanzler ruled in the Carpenters’ favor. He stated, “The court is glad to decree this adoption because the future welfare of the little girl is now provided for.”

Evelyn writes, “Harvey and Alta Carpenter were in their late 40’s. Both of them had been married and divorced before. They had only been married two years before they adopted me. They took me into their home and gave me everything a little girl could want. Harvey Carpenter became the most wonderful Dad a girl ever had. But even with all this it took me months to get well and I didn’t go to school until the next fall, I had missed a year of school.”

Evelyn Castle Carpenter – Image courtesy of Perry Reeder, Jr. and Sarah MacDonald.

She continued, “After I got well, I took piano lessons, dancing lessons, and learned to roller skate with the kids in the neighborhood.

“In the fall of 1927, we moved from Portland to Dallas, Oregon. In this little town I finished growing up.”

I asked Evelyn’s son Perry what Harvey Carpenter was like:

Perry Reeder: He was real popular person. He was a real nice guy. He became a hero after he adopted my mother and my mother loved him because he just would do anything for her and he was well-liked all his life. My younger brother, Harvey was named after Harvey Carpenter. His name is Harvey Carpenter Reeder. So my mother thought a lot about Harvey Carpenter. She idolized him.

It was on June 30, 1943, after forty-five years of continuous service, that 66-year-old Harvey Carpenter would one last time climb into the cab of the Northbound train headed out of Eugene. In retirement, he took on a number of different jobs. At one point he served as the chief of police in West Salem, Oregon. At the age of seventy, he became the keeper of the Oregon Senate’s north door. He was 83-years-old when he passed away in San Francisco on April 5, 1960. He was survived by his wife Alta, his daughter Annette from his first marriage and, of course, Evelyn.

Colorized image of jockey Willie Shoemaker and Harvey Carpenter. Original image courtesy of Perry Reeder, Jr. and Sarah MacDonald.

She writes, “On August 8, 1936, I married Perry Charles Reeder. We have four children. I didn’t know there was a depression until then, but I soon found out. We had quite a struggle raising our family.”

During the Second World War, the couple decided to leave Portland for a more rural way of life. In 1944, they settled in the failed resort town of Bayocean, Oregon. Perry explains:

Perry Reeder: It was like, it was going to be a boardwalk of the West. That’s what they wanted it to be. So they had rich people lived out there, but they all abandoned it and us poor people could, like mom and dad, could rent a nice place for near nothing. And that’s how we lived.

Evelyn would work different jobs to help support her family, which included being Postmaster of the Bayocean post office from 1950 through 1954.

Evelyn Castle Carpenter Reeder standing in the doorway of the Bayocean post office. Image courtesy of Perry Reeder, Jr. and Sarah MacDonald.

Perry Reeder: We were lived under poor conditions by today’s standards. We were a poor family but everybody else in the whole countryside was poor, lived the same standard we did. So, we didn’t know any different. We just existed from payday to payday. And we would all go to the movie on Friday nights. We had quite an upbringing.

Today Bayocean no longer exists, having long been washed into the sea by coastal erosion.

As we spoke, it was clear that Perry looked back on both Bayocean and his childhood with great fondness. In fact, he penned the book Bayocean: Memories Beneath the Sand with his daughter Sarah MacDonald, which you can find on both the Amazon and Barnes & Noble website

I asked Perry if his mom had suffered any long-term effects from the accident:

Perry Reeder: No. It would just be mental if she had any. But she didn’t manifest anything. She seemed to have left it behind somehow.

Sadly, Evelyn Helen Castle Carpenter Reeder, the proud mother of four children, passed away on June 11, 1985 at the age of sixty-nine.

Evelyn Castle Carpenter Reeder gravestone. Image appears on Find-A-Grave.

Perry Reeder: When she died, she died of cancer, of pancreatic cancer. And when I was at her bedside and she was calling out to daddy. And I think that she only called her real father daddy. I think she called the Carpenters, I think they he she called them in a more formal mama and papa. But she was seeing daddy when she was dying. Right at the very last hours. In fact, an hour before she died she was yelling daddy. So she was always thinking about that accident. I mean it never left her. So you might say that it did have an effect on her. Well, it obviously did.

It clearly did. And to think that one single event, which had lasted but a few seconds, completely changed the course of her entire life.

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.