Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Babes in the Woods Murders

Memorial to the Noakes Sisters
Westminster Cemetery, Carlisle
I pulled into Westminster Cemetery on the northwestern edge of Carlisle in search of a number of graves relating to a tragic murder that shocked the residents of the Cumberland Valley and grabbed the attention of the nation. While I had the names I sought and the directions to three of the five graves, I had a vague idea where the other two were resting. I knew Zech and I would definitely have another challenge trying to locate those two graves without help, but we did have an extra hour to look around the cemetery grounds.

Heading west on Route 641, known locally as the Newville Road, we passed the first entrance to the sacred grounds and turned right into the cemetery at the next entrance. I only had to drive a very short distance to the first intersection -- the location of the three graves for which I had directions. In the middle of the intersection, beneath a large evergreen, rests the headstone of three girls.

Plaque on the Noakes Memorial
The plaque on the stone gives a brief account of their story:

The Babes in the Woods

Norma Sedgewick Noakes    Aged 14 Years
Dewilla Noakes                     Aged 10 Years
Cordelia Noakes                    Aged 8 Years

Natives of Roseville, California
Found dead in South Mountains near
Pine Grove Furnace, November 24, 1934

The morning of Saturday, November 24, 1934, should have been a normal day for the residents of the Cumberland Valley. However the discovery made by Clark Jarmine and his uncle, John Clark, while cutting firewood on the northern slope of South Mountain would be anything but normal.

The two men noticed a large green blanket spread out roughly twenty feet from the road (present day Centreville Road) with something obviously beneath it. They tossed around ideas what was under the blanket. It could possibly be a deer that had been poached, waiting for the poacher to come back and get it. Another possibility, due to the beer bottles littering the ground was it was somebody from the nearby Civilian Conversation Corps camp who got drunk and was sleeping off their night of drinking.

What they discovered was neither of those two. Lifting up the corner of the blanket they discovered the bodies of three young girls. Dropping the corner of the blanket, the two of them ran to contact the authorities of their grisly discovery.

When the authorities arrived at the scene on South Mountain, they found the bodies of three young girls who they believed were sisters due to all three having similar facial features, light brown hair and grey eyes. The girls were placed side by side and appeared to be peacefully sleeping.  An autopsy revealed that the three girls had been either straggled or suffocated by a soft blanket or pillow and had been dead approximately two to four days before their discovery.

The public’s reaction was unlike anything the area had seen before. Many people viewed the bodies at the crime scene in an attempt to identify them. After the girls were moved to the funeral home in Carlisle, over ten thousand people passed by them in the first twenty-four hours in an attempt to identify the bodies, but nobody recognized the trio. Locals, afraid that they would be discarded in the local Potter’s Field and forgotten about, raised money to have them buried in Westminster Cemetery with a proper marker. Under the guidance of American Legion Post 101, the funds were gathered for their burial.

The same day that the three girls were discovered, authorities near Altoona were investigating a murder-suicide that happened near Duncansville. The two bodies were identified as Elmo Noakes (32) and his niece Winifred Pierce (18) originally from California.

Soon a connection was made between the three girls found on South Mountain and the the two bodies found in Duncansville. The girls were identified as Norma Sedgewick and her two half sisters, Dewilla and Cordelia Noakes.

Memorial along Centreville Road
The tragedy that happened in Pennsylvania had its origins two years earlier in Roseville, California. On July 10, 1832, Mary Noakes passed away leaving Elmo to care for their two children and the daughter Mary had from her first marriage. What no one could have realized at the time that Mary’s death, that would be the first step resulting in the tragedy that happened on the opposite side of the country two years later.

Unable to take care of them by himself, Elmo sought help from his niece (by blood) Winifred Pierce. Winifred dropped out of school six months before the tragedy to become Elmo’s housekeeper and eventually his lover. This bizarre relationship caused fighting within the family.

On November 11, 1934, Elmo and Winifred hastily packed the girls in a 1929 Pontiac sedan Elmo had just purchased and fled California. A week later, on November 18, the group was spotted in North Philadelphia. They were approached by a lady who noticed the hungry and tired looking girls and offered to buy some food for the youngest.

The family stayed at a campground near Langhorne from November 19 through November 21. It is believed that when they left the campground that night, Elmo murdered his step daughter and two daughters.

Elmo and Winifred drove westward and would toss their suitcase out along the way. A hunter discovered the suitcase on November 22 roughly two and a half miles away from the place the three girls were to be discovered two days later. Turning it over to authorities, they found it belonged to the family from a puzzle book with Norma's name written in it.

Grave of Winifred Pierce
Westminster Cemetery, Carlisle
That same day (November 22) their abandoned car was discovered. Though the license plate had been removed the vehicle's identification number proved it to be the one Elmo had purchased the day before they left California. Side note: I find it odd that while other details of this case were covered closely by the newspapers at the time, where the car was abandoned seems to be very vague. Most newspaper reports list it as being abandoned between Pine Grove (meaning Pine Grove Furnace) and McVeytown, which is quite a distance between the two. A couple modern sources place it as being found near McVeytown, which would make a little more sense due to the fact Elmo and Winifred must have either hitched a ride or jumped a train to end their journey into Duncansville that evening.

On November 23, Winifred sold everything they had remaining on them and Elmo used the money to purchase an old .22 rifle. That next day, he shot Winifred in the heart and head before turning the weapon on himself. Their bodies would be discovered at the Spring Meadow Railroad depot at Duncansville.

Sadly, the police, after investigating the crime scenes said the reason Elmo killed the girls was because he could not afford to take care of them. Not wanting them to grow up in poverty or in an orphanage, he made the terrible decision to end their lives.

The three girls were buried in Westminster Cemetery resting side by side, in the same order that were lying when they were discovered. Elmo and Winifred would also be buried in this cemetery, quite a distance from where the girls rest.

We finished paying our respects to the girls before attempting to find the graves of Elmo and Winifred. With only the vaguest directions to go on, it was Zech that noticed the flag flapping by itself in another portion of the cemetery. Curious about the lone flag, we walked over and it was Elmo’s grave. His grave was marked with an American flag for his service in the Marine Corps. Strangely the date on the stone for his death is wrong. It states he died November 9 instead of November 24. In the plot next to him rests Winifred.

The rest of our time of exploration in the cemetery was done in silence, stopping by the girls' grave on the way out to once again pay our respects before leaving them to rest under the watchful eye of a community that came to adopt them as their own in the wake of the tragedy.

There is a marker placed along Centreville Road that depicts the location where the girls were found. While there is no place to safely park near the memorial, there is a driveway a couple yards away where I parked and walked back to the memorial.

As always, if you choose to visit the cemetery or the memorial I ask that you do so with the respect both spots deserve.

Grave of Elmo Noakes
Westminster Cemetery, Carlisle
A note of interest: Every article I've read in the newspapers of the time regarding this tragedy states that the bodies were placed at the location around eight the night of November 23. The reasoning behind this theory (as listed in the newspapers of the time) was due to the blanket covering the bodies was damp but not soaked from the rains of November 23. The the timeline listed in many Pennsylvania newspapers on November 30 correct this error stating that the girls had to be on the mountain on the morning of November 22. For some reason many modern retellings still state that the girls were placed there the night of November 23.

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