Dorothy Ann Distelhurst

Dorothy Ann Distelhurst

September of 1934 was a busy month.  One million textile workers went on strike in the United States on the first.  Evangeline Booth was the first woman to be elected General of the Salvation Army on the third. On the fifth, the 8th Nuremberg Rally opened in Nazi Germany.  On September nineteenth, the same day that Bruno Hauptman was arrested for the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s infant son, Dorothy Ann Distelhurst vanished in Nashville, Tennessee.

Dorothy and Martha

Dorothy Ann was the six year old daughter of Alfred Edgar and Ruby Distelhurst.  Edgar had been married previously to Amanda Firux Distelhurst, with whom he had one child, Alfred Edgar Distelhurst, Jr.  The family lived in New York until 1925, when Amanda died.  Edgar married Ruby sometime afterwards.  She gave birth to Dorothy in 1928 and Martha Jane in 1930.  The Distelhursts were a family of modest means, settling in East Nashville after having lived in Texas and Georgia.  By 1934, Alfred, Jr., had run away from home and was living in Florida.

September nineteenth would have seemed like a normal Wednesday.  Edgar went to work at the publishing house at which he was employed as Ruby saw Dorothy Ann off to her kindergarten class.  Dressed in a blue and white checkered dress, the little girl carried with her a pink lunch pail and her schoolbooks.  As the day began, none of them knew that their normalcy was nearing an end.  It was the last time the Distelhursts would see little Dorothy Ann alive.

Dorothy Ann attended school that day and when class was dismissed she began her walk home.  Somewhere between school and the two to three blocks to her house, Dorothy Ann vanished.  When her daughter was late returning home, Ruby called the police.  Initial searches by the local authorities proved fruitless, the only gains being the increased fears and dread of the Distelhurst family.

Amid the stranglehold of the Great Depression that wracked the United States in the 1930’s, a crime wave erupted in the years ’33-’34 that gave birth to the likes of John Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelley, and Bonnie and Clyde.  In the grip of this lawless epidemic, there arose a practice that was referred to as the “snatch racket”:  it was kidnapping for ransom, and it was considered easy money.  The usual victims to be “snatched” were businessmen, bankers, and anyone perceived of wealth.  Charles Lindbergh’s son was an example.  More often than not, the abductees were released roughed up, but otherwise unharmed.   A few victims were taken more than once.

The Distelhurst family was by no stretch wealthy, and the idea that it was a kidnapping for ransom, though unlikely, was not dismissed.  When the news broke of Dorothy Ann’s disappearance, it made national headlines.  The news not only brought her brother, Alfred, back to Tennessee, it released a deluge of ransom notes on the family and the authorities.  One note the Distelhursts received, a postcard from Augusta, Georgia, demanded $175,000 be paid or Dorothy Ann would be blinded with acid.  Another note required a less substantial sum of $5,000.  It was concluded that the majority of the ransom notes, if not all, were the work of opportunists and were largely discredited.

8th Ave North 1930s

While the police questioned known sex offenders, volunteers gathered to join the search for the little girl.  In 2017, Metropolitan Nashville’s population was estimated at 667,560; according to the 1930 census, the population was 153,866.  In 1934 the city was ripe with undeveloped land.  East Nashville, and Davidson County as a whole, was much less populated and looking for a missing child, whether kidnapped or lost, was even more of a challenge to finding the correct needle in a stack of needles.  The city, and the nation, was on the alert and on the hunt, but Dorothy Ann Distelhurst had seemingly disappeared off the face of the earth.  Her family’s heartache would be compounded soon enough.

Church St. 1930s

In November, Edgar Distelhurst was in New York to meet Alfred Otto Wagner.  Wagner was the author of the $5,000 ransom note.  It wouldn’t take long to determine that Wagner was a fraud, the man had never visited Nashville and would soon be brought up on extortion charges.  While there dealing with the con artist, Mr. Distelhurst received the news that his daughter had been found.

Davidson County Tuberculosis Hospital 1941

On November 13th, two employees of the Davidson County Tuberculosis Hospital were digging flower beds in a secluded corner of the grounds.  As they worked, under two inches of earth, they discovered the decomposed body of a little girl.  Shrubbery had shielded the shallow resting place from the casual eye.  The hospital was located in Inglewood, a neighborhood located north of East Nashville.  About three yards from the grave were discovered a blue and white checkered dress, schoolbooks, and a pink lunch pail.

Daily Illini, 15 November 1934

The body exhibited blunt force trauma, the left side of her skull bludgeoned by a hammer or similar instrument.  In addition to decomposition hindering identification, the child’s face had been disfigured by what the medical examiner, Herman Spitz, determined was acid.  A rag was stuffed into her mouth and it was theorized the body had been stored for several weeks before burial.  There were no signs of rape the pathologist could determine.  Doctor Spitz requested the help of Dr. Leonard F. Pogue, Dorothy Ann’s dentist, in identifying the remains.  After examining the teeth, they concluded it was, without a doubt, the remains of Dorothy Ann Distelhurst.

Newspapers of the time reported that the hunt for the killer was “relentless.”  But with no definitive clues, no witnesses, and no leads, the investigation hit a wall.  A week after Dorothy Ann’s remains were discovered, an iron spike, entangled with traces of hair, was found twenty-five feet from the grave site.  It was speculated to be the murder weapon, yet it led nowhere and to no one.

Headline from Daily Illini, 15 November 1934

Theories circulated as to who killed Dorothy Ann Distelhurst and why, but no theory came to fact.   Was it a crime of opportunity?  Was Dorothy Ann in the wrong place at the wrong time when the wrong person happened by?  Was it premeditated?  Was the murderer someone who saw her on a regular basis walking to and from school?  Was it a stranger or a relative?  A neighbor or a drifter?  The police were confident it was a local person since a stranger was unlikely to be familiar with the more secluded areas of the hospital.  Everything to “who” and “why” was speculation.

Dorothy Ann’s funeral service was held at Belmont Methodist Church and she was laid to rest in Woodlawn Cemetery on November 16th, 1934.  Her father passed away in 1972, her sister, Martha Jane, in 1973.  Her half-brother, Alfred, Jr., gave his life in service to his country during WWII.  Her mother, Ruby, died in 1985.  Her family was left with many mysteries.  The identity of her killer, and the motive, lingered.  The Distelhurst family had to live with the dreams of what Dorothy Ann’s life could have been had it not been extinguished so young.  They were robbed of Dorothy Ann the daughter and sister.  The world was stolen the wife, the mother, the grandmother, she could have become, robbed of the heights she could have achieved.

The Distelhurst family lived with more mysteries, more unanswered questions, than they had a right to endure.  Everyone involved, from Dorothy Ann’s parents to the police to the FBI to family and friends, all of them had to live with the nagging thought that, maybe, at least one discarded postcard was legitimate.