When I was writing a book called Haunted Crime Scenes
with Mark Nesbitt, I came across a story with several ripples of sadness and horror. The bodies of three young girls were found near Carlisle, Pennsylvania. We included this incident in the book, but I think it was more than just a death event. It was also a metaphor of America during the Great Depression. Here’s an excerpt:
In November 1934, just after the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh, Jr., two men were driving on Rt. 233 on South Mountain in Cumberland County to cut firewood. They spotted a green blanket in the woods. They walked over and picked it up, only to discover that it covered the bodies of three children.
Dressed in coats with fur collars, one was snuggled into the arms of a second one, while the third lay close by. The men ran to get help.
The Carlisle police processed the scene and speculated that, from their looks, they were probably sisters. Still, there were no leads.
Five days later, a black leather suitcase turned up five miles away. It contained a notebook. Inside, in a child’s scribble, was the name, “Norma.” On the same day, the bodies of a young couple were found at a deserted railroad flag-stop in Altoona. Both had been shot.
A few more days passed before an abandoned 1929 blue Pontiac sedan was located at a lovers’ lane in Mifflin County. It had California license plates.
The dead man, it turned out, was Elmo Noakes. Yet this did not establish any connection between him and the dead girls. An autopsy indicated that the girls had been strangled and asphyxiated. They’d also been starving.
A public viewing was set up in Carlisle, drawing thousands of curious people, including parents of missing children. No one could identify them. However, a bus driver recalled a woman with three children boarding the bus. She had a black leather suitcase. They’d come from New York.
It was a false lead.
A restaurant owner in Philadelphia reported that a family had come in recently. The man was looking for work. He mentioned that his children had become a “burden.”
Noakes had family in California who recalled that he’d purchased a Pontiac sedan. The next day, the entire family had vanished. His daughters were Norma, 12, Dewilla, 10, and Cordelia, 8. Noakes’ 18-year-old niece, Winifred Pierce, had also disappeared. Noakes’ wife had died two years earlier and his niece had moved in with him.
As detectives pieced together their travels, it seemed that they had used fictitious names to move around. Noakes was unable to find work. Eventually, he'd killed his daughters, leaving them in the woods, and had driven the car until it ran out of gas. He and his niece then hitchhiked to Altoona. There, Winifred pawned her coat and Noakes purchased a .22-caliber rifle for $2.85. This he used to kill them both.
A large blue-and-gold sign near the site of where the girls’ bodies were discovered says simply, “On this spot were found three babes in the woods Nov.– 24 –1934.”
Some say that paranormal phenomena are experienced here and in the cemetery where they're all buried. Supposedly, the girls cry for their mother.
A week before Halloween in 2013, Mark Nesbitt was in Carlisle with his wife Carol to deliver a speech. They stopped at Westminster Cemetery, where the Babes in the Woods are buried, to do a brief preliminary paranormal investigation.
They took photos at the gravesite, but captured no images.
Regardless of the presence or absence of paranormal manifestations, this tale has many haunting overtones: the image of a hopeless father killing his children, then using his last bit of money to purchase a means for suicide, is chilling in itself. It speaks to a time, 80 years ago, when America was in a very dark period.