Catherine Winters’ disappearance

A little girl lost, a great flood
Events coincide with each other in 1913
This photo of the Winters family shows Dr. Frank Winters (second from left in back row) and his second wife, Mrs. Byrd Ritter Winters. In front of them are Catherine and her little brother, Frankie. Photo courtesy Doug Magers.
This photo of the Winters family shows Dr. Frank Winters (second from left in back row) and his second wife, Mrs. Byrd Ritter Winters. In front of them are Catherine and her little brother, Frankie. Photo courtesy Doug Magers.
Panel discussion of Catherine Winters mystery set March 24 at library
The Henry County Historical Society — with help from the New Castle-Henry County Public Library — will host a panel discussion of the 100-year-old Catherine Winters mystery at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 24, in the library auditorium.Featured speakers include:– Lisa Perry-Martin, daughter of local author Charlene Perry who ran a bed and breakfast in the home Catherine Winters grew up in on North 16th Street.– Colleen Steffen, a Delaware County resident who has done extensive research and written a book about the Catherine Winters mystery.– Dr. Donnie Hamilton, New Castle attorney, teacher and author who has written magazine articles and given presentations on the Catherine Winters mystery.

As part of the event, the 1913 film showing some of the search efforts for Catherine and providing a birds-eye view back in time, will be shown on a big screen. The short film shows what New Castle looked like 100 years ago.

The event is free and refreshments will be served afterwards. For more information, call 529-4028.

Historically Speaking

“Never before has New Castle been so almost cut off from the outside world as today.”

One hundred years ago this month, a confluence of two tragic and unforgettable events occurred. On March 20, 1913, a 9-year-old girl named Catherine Winters disappeared from the busiest street in town. Hours later, heavy rain began to fall. It was a precursor to one of the worst floods in Indiana history, leading to the statement above in the Tuesday, March 25, 1913, edition of The Daily Times. Indeed, after “almost 48 hours of incessant rainfall,” the search for a missing girl proved futile.

It was a cruel twist to the Catherine Winters story, which drew nationwide interest and brought famed frontier lawman and New York columnist Bat Masterson to New Castle’s Bundy Hotel and generated a $1,000 reward for information from multi-millionaire newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst.

The 1983 spring edition of the Henry County Historicalog said some residents at the time believed the storm may have proved fatal to Catherine, whom they believed was taken by a band of gypsys seen in the area that day.

“Heavy rains that produced one of the worst floods in Indiana history began the night of March 20, 1913,” the historicalog read, “and some holders of the gypsy theory speculated she was in a fifth wagon residents claimed they saw and this wagon was swept away in the flooding.”

If Catherine had been taken by gypsys, there was no escaping the rain. The flood affected much of the Midwest and Ohio River Valley, especially Ohio and the central two-thirds of Indiana. Newspaper reports said that over a five-day period beginning on March 23, which was Easter Sunday, rainfall totaled six inches in Indianapolis and up to twelve inches in areas north of the city.

Previous rains, starting with the day Catherine Winters disappeared, had saturated the ground, causing the excess water to flow to rivers and creeks. In Indianapolis, levees failed, sending water rushing through the city, especially in the western part where some areas were under 30 feet of water. Statewide the flood killed as many as 400 people, left about 200,000 homeless and destroyed as many as 60,000 buildings.

The late Delbert Reason, a long-time journalist from Shirley and veteran Courier-Times reporter, wrote this 1979 historical account of what happened locally. His story reminded readers that New Castle — while more fortunate than most — had both significant damage and loss of life as well.

“John Hagner, a well-known farmer in the New Castle area, fell from a temporary bridge being constructed across Blue River on an extension of the Muncie-New Castle interurban line,” Reason wrote. “Due to the swift flowing water late Monday afternoon, efforts to save Hagner were fruitless. The bridge was in danger of being swept away by high waters and Hagner was attempting to save the structure at the time of the mishap.”

Headlines in the Tuesday, March 25, edition of The Daily Times reported that the New Castle Water Works plant had been flooded.

“At 5 a.m. … the water began rising and at 8 a.m. it was 26 inches deep inside the plant,” the story read. “The water is only a short distance from the belts on the motors and if it reaches the belts, the city will be without electrical power.”

Other local problems included:

n It was reported that at noon on March 25, 1913, Cambridge City was “completely under water.”

n The Honey Bee Interurban line was “badly crippled.”

n The train track at Springport was “badly damaged.”

n The Big Blue River “completely inundated” the valley.

n Mt. Summit Pike and Cadiz Pike were “washed away.”

Perhaps a U.S. Weather Bureau log for Logansport summed up the great flood. It contained this entry on March 26, 1913: “Rain gauge washed away by flood and no further record available.”

When the rains stopped, however, the search for Catherine Winters began anew and continued for years to come. The search for answers continues to this day. Next week, we’ll have more on the Catherine Winters story. In the meantime, we hope you’ll mark your calendar for 2 p.m. Sunday, March 24, when a panel of local experts discusses the Catherine Winters mystery at the New Castle-Henry County Public Library. For details, see the box accompanying this story.

Darrel Radford is executive director of The Henry County Historical Society and a staff writer for The Courier-Times.