I first remember hearing the name Marjorie when I was around eight years old. I was in the car with my grandparents, taking a day trip to Allegheny National Forest while visiting family in Bradford, Pennsylvania. My Grandpa Charles pointed out the window, “It was over there that my cousin Marjorie went missing on Mother’s Day at a picnic in 1938 when I was six years old.”
Eighty-five years later, the disappearance of Marjorie West remains the third oldest unsolved child abduction case in American history recorded by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. At the time, her search was one of the largest for a child since the Lindbergh baby kidnapping six years earlier. She would have celebrated her 90th birthday this past June if she were still alive.
If you were to visit Bradford, Pennsylvania today, a small town with an estimated population of 7,500 people and located about 90 miles south of Buffalo, New York, residents would instantly know the case. It remains a terrifying reminder that abductions can happen anywhere — even in a small town like Bradford.
Marjorie was lost four decades before the nationwide “stranger danger” panic over kidnappings and six decades before the “Amber Alert” system came into effect in 2003 after the kidnapping and murder of Amber Hagerman. However, the Marjorie West case serves as a reminder that even well before mass media coverage of child kidnappings, there were still perils that instilled fear in parents. These dangers, which included Depression-era wanderers and illicit adoption rings, were merely different.
On Sunday, 8 May 1938, the West family — father Shirley West (my great-great uncle); mother Cecilia Charles-West (my great-great Aunt); and their children Dorothea, 11, Allan, 7, and Marjorie, 4– attended church in Bradford. After church, they drove 13 miles along Highway 219 to a clearing in the Allegheny Forest to have a picnic with family and friends for Mother’s Day. Even to this day, the area is vast and endless, and if you are not sure where you are going, you would easily lose your sense of direction, and in the same regard, if you were trying to find someone and were not sure where to look first, the number of possibilities would be endless.
Around 3 p.m., my Aunt Cecilia headed to the road to rest in the car while my Uncle Shirley prepared to go trout fishing. Dorothea and Marjorie then decided to pick wildflowers for their mother. The girls gathered a bouquet of violets, and Dorothea headed to the car to deliver them to their mother; however, when she turned around, Marjorie was gone. The family drove to the nearest phone seven miles away to contact police in the town of Kane. By this time, hours had already begun to pass. What followed was a search that spanned months and saw more than 3,000 local people searching for Marjorie. When police failed to find Marjorie that Sunday afternoon, 200 men joined in, including the Citizen Conservation Corps and the Moose and Elks lodges. The following day, the search party grew to 500 as they checked streams, old mines, caves, and wells, standing only 25 yards apart in a mile-long line, ultimately searching through 35 square miles by the end of the week. Additionally, police interviewed motorists across an area spanning 300 square miles.
By Tuesday, May 10th, police brought bloodhounds from New York State, which followed Marjorie’s scent to the road. Additionally, the searches found the crushed bouquet of violets that Marjorie had picked for her mother for Mother’s Day, lying on the ground not far from the road.
In terms of motorists that passed through the area that day, there were only three. Witnesses told police of three cars that had passed through the area around 3 p.m. The drivers of two of the vehicles were identified by Tuesday night. The third, however, who witnesses said was a male, was seen speeding in his Plymouth sedan so fast that an oncoming vehicle had to pull into a ditch.
Her disappearance received a great deal of publicity across the nation. A taxi driver in Thomas, West Virginia, claimed that he saw a girl crying and who was 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.
The driver stated that the individual said the girl was his daughter and asked the taxi driver where the nearest motel was located. The driver directed him to an establishment across the street. The man left the child in the car and went inside the hotel, but there were no vacancies. The man returned and inquired about a local liquor store. The driver told him to stop at a bar down the road. The taxi driver later identified Marjorie as the man’s passenger several days later. A man matching the description of the unidentified individual refueled at a gas station outside of Thomas, and an attendant reported seeing a bundle wrapped in a gray blanket in the backseat of the car.
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 11:30 p.m. that evening. It has been reported that authorities were never able to confirm the identity of the man or the child. However, on May 12, 1938, the Hutchinson News quoted City of Bradford Police Chief Edward Edmonds as saying that this theory was discounted as the West Virginia State Police indicated the man was a “motorist accompanied by an adopted daughter.”
There was plenty of other speculation about what happened to Marjorie. Some believed she was taken to Canada by other family members, while some people theorized that she may have been abducted and taken somewhere else. Additional speculation pointed towards the Tennessee Children’s Home Society near Memphis, Tennessee. The facility was operated by Georgia Tann, who was initially lauded for placing at-risk children in adoptive homes. Authorities eventually learned that Tann had kidnapped over 1,200 young children during the years 1932 through 1951. The majority of victims were abducted from states bordering Tennessee, although some children resided in Connecticut. Judge Camille Kelly approved Tann’s custody bids for the majority of the victims. Tann placed most of the children with childless couples in New York City and Los Angeles.
Additionally, in the late nineties, a local professor conducted research on the case and was contacted by a woman who believed a woman she knew resembled up-to-date pictures of Dorothea, (Marjorie’s sister). Beck took a trip south to meet several people about whom he had received tips regarding the case. Upon meeting the nurse, while Beck did think she looked like Dorothea, the woman denied being Marjorie.
However, around 2005, Beck stated he was contacted by her, and they met again at her childhood farm in North Carolina. When he spoke with her again, according to Beck, the woman told a story that her mother had told her when she was nearing the end of her life. In 1938, the nurse’s father left their farm and drove north to work in Bradford’s refinery for the winter and spring. While driving south past the Allegheny Forest on Mother’s Day, he hit a little girl. He was going to take her to the hospital, but as he was driving with the unconscious girl in the car, she woke up, seemingly unharmed. He and his wife had lost their only daughter the year before, so the man brought Marjorie to his farm in North Carolina and raised her there.
At the time, the nurse only told Beck the story after he made two promises: one, he could not tell anyone about her identity except for Dorothea, whom she wanted to meet, and two, Beck could only publish her story after she died. By then, however, Dorothea was too fragile and sick to make the trip to meet “Marjorie.” The nurse died in 2009, and Beck released his self-published book, Finding Marjorie West, in 2010. While Beck insists that the woman he spoke to was Marjorie West, local authorities and family members, including myself, who have read Beck’s self-published book, question the validity of its conclusion. Additionally, Beck has never formally brought his findings to authorities.
Even in the final years of his life, my Grandpa Charles still spoke about the case from time to time, recounting my Uncle Shirley’s refusal to leave the forest for a week, and how my Aunt Cecilia wept to the authorities and begged them to bring her daughter home. So grief-stricken, she could hardly speak a month later on what would have been Marjorie’s fifth birthday, and how she never recovered for the remainder of her life.
While I was born nearly fifty years after her disappearance, her story has always stayed with me, as I still think of what happened every time I visit the area and drive by the very woods she disappeared, always remembering how sad my grandfather looked every time he spoke of that day, as everyone continued to feel like the answers were always sitting right in front of them but somehow never found. Even though my great-great Aunt Cecilia Charles-West and Uncle Shirley West have long since passed, as a parent now myself, I still hope that one day we are finally able to find the answers they spent the rest of their lives searching for. As of August 2023, Marjorie West’s abduction remains unsolved and is the third oldest recorded case of a missing child. Although a five-month search of Allegheny National Forest was conducted, no additional clues were ever discovered.
My Great- Great Aunt Cecilia Charles-West (Marjorie’s mother).