By Scott L. Miley
The Herald Bulletin
NEW CASTLE, Ind. —
Catherine Winters vanished one March afternoon nearly 100 years ago. The 9-year-old was selling sewing needles door-to-door to raise money for a church missionary society.
As hundreds scoured New Castle for the girl, there would be rumors linking her disappearance to gypsies, white slavers or relatives. She would never be found although in later years some women came forward claiming to be Catherine.
It is a tale that intrigued Colleen Steffen, a Muncie writer who has spent five years piecing together the girl’s story. Steffen, a former features editor at The Herald Bulletin in the late 1990s, is currently trying to sell a first draft of her book to a publisher.
“The reason it fascinated me is the reason it fascinates everyone, just the unsolved aspects of it,” she said.
“There were so many weird coincidences and characters — the fact that she disappeared on the same day as the beginning of this massive storm, this biblical flood that swept through the state.”
Catherine Winters vanished on March 20. Her disappearance was reported in newspapers along with stories of storms that would damage buildings in New Castle and lead to flooding.
And a week earlier, an 8-year-old girl was abducted by a man in a buggy but she was set free; her attacker was never found.
In addition to the mystery, Steffen found that the Henry County community reflected a hopefulness and good spirit.
“What kept me going back is the story of New Castle. New Castle exemplifies that time and that place and an optimism that I wasn’t really aware of existing in Indiana at the time.”
“The Catherine Winters saga marked a linchpin in their history. They don’t see all the terrible things coming down the pike that she foreshadows.”
Steffen, who teaches journalism at Ball State University (as does her husband Ryan Sparrow), started the book as a side project to keep her occupied when she was pregnant with her daughter.
“Five years later it was a full-time job. It got away from me.”
Within days of Catherine Winters’ disappearance, there was a townwide work stoppage so the community could check every nook and cranny. But the residents’ unified efforts seemed to turn when, months later, politicians tried to capitalize on the event, and when charges were filed and then dropped against Winters’ parents and a one-time boarder in the Winters’ home.
“The prevailing theory in New Castle is that the stepmother, the one-armed boarder and the father did it,” said Steffen.
“But I don’t agree,” she said. “I think a child predator was at work at the time.”
In the last few years, there have also been reports that a local filmmaker was attempting to tell the story. However, Steffen is not working on that aspect of the story and instead is focused on her book.
She has developed a website at whereiscatherinewinters.com.
And if the case had happened in this century, Steffen feels there would have been a different approach by investigators particularly in light of reports of attempts by a stranger to abduct other girls at the time.
“If that happened nowadays, I think police would be all over that. But at the time, they make a very loose connection and they let it go while they search gypsy camps and do other sorts of ridiculous things.”
She added, “A lot of opportunities were wasted and for that reason we’ll never know an answer.”