After attending church on 8 May 1938, which was Mother’s Day, the West family, who lived at 5 Cornen Street, Bradford, Pennsylvania, took a country drive of about 40 minutes for a Sunday afternoon picnic.
Father of three Mr Shirley M. West was an assistant engineer for an oil refining company and making the most of his day off with the family.
Making their way south along US Route 219, they followed an old railroad grade from Custer City to the tiny hamlet of Marshburg. Taking Chapel Fork Road in McKean County they entered the heavily wooded White Gravel area, part of the Allegheny National Forest.
They parked just off the Morrison-Marshburg road, a quiet country road connecting two larger highways. Here they unpacked their basket and enjoyed the delicious food their mom had prepared for their picnic.
After lunch, as it was such a beautiful day little Marjorie, four years old (born 2 June 1933) and her older sister Dorothea, aged 11, asked if they could play in a field next to the trail. The girls’ father and brother checked the area out and warned the girls not to play behind a large boulder nearby the field in case rattlesnakes were hiding there.
Dad went fishing in a nearby stream while Mother, sleepy after the meal, sat resting quietly in the car.
Marjorie was decked out in the very popular Shirley Temple style, which like Princess Sonja of today was a fad which many a girl wanted to follow. She was dressed in a red hat with a blue dress and coat, and patent leather shoes.
The two sisters picked some spring wildflowers to surprise Mom with later.
Dorothea left Marjorie for a minute or two at about 3 pm and ran to the car to take the flowers she’d picked to Mother at but when she returned she couldn’t find Marjorie. Her dad and seven year old brother Allan combed the area, calling her with increasing anxiety but there was no reply; just an unnerving silence.
Failing to find any sign of her they drove to the nearby town of Kane and reported her to the local police as missing.
Witnesses came forward to say they saw two vehicles drive past the picnic site before the little girl vanished, but authorities identified these cars as local residents and established they had nothing to do with the case.
200 young men from the CCC at Kane, many equipped with miner’s lamps, searched half that night, including the stream, but found no clues. They returned at daybreak to resume the search.
The forest supervisor who co-ordinated the search placed the men 25 yards apart over a line of one mile, and in this way covered an area of four square miles during that Monday.
The rescue team worked on three possible theories:
- That she fell into the nearby stream – however, a thorough search revealed no body;
- That she fell into a crevice on a nearby hillside;
- That a sympathetic motorist found her wandering along the road and took her to the safety of a nearby town.
After four days of searching but no news Bradford mayor Hugh J. Ryan broadcast an appeal for 1000 volunteers to aid in the search.
Others involved in the search included the Pennsylvania State Police, National Guard troops, police officers from New York with bloodhounds, and the pilots of two private airplanes.
On 10 May bloodhounds led searchers half a mile up a mountainside to a bunch of violets and the imprints of a child’s shoe in the soft earth. They then led rescuers to one of the many isolated cabins in the area, the door of which was nailed shut. However, nothing suspicious was found inside.
The Bradford American Legion offered a reward of $2000 for her safe return but no one ever came forward with any definite leads or info.
By 9 August just four State Troopers from the Kane police sub-station were continuing the search on a daily basis, but their best efforts remained in vain.
Speculation about what possibly happened to her: Marjorie, or a lookalike?
- Some believe she could easily have fallen down one of many abandoned oil wells which occur in the White Gravel area.
- A Thomas, West Virginia taxi driver reported that he saw a crying girl matching Marjorie’s description and wearing similar clothes, riding in a green car with a man in his thirties. He saw this late on the night of Marjorie’s disappearance, at 11:38 pm. He asked the taxi driver to direct him to the nearest motel. He said the little girl was his daughter. Leaving her in the car he went across the street to the motel which the taxi driver showed him, but it was full. He then asked if there was a liquor store nearby, so the driver told him of a bar down the road. This man seems to have been seen filling up at a gas (petrol) station outside Thomas. The attendant saw a bundle wrapped in a grey blanket on the back seat. Authorities worked out that the distance from White Gravel, Pa to Thomas, WV would take about eight hours – thus arriving in Thomas between 11 and 11:30 pm. However, West Virginia state police stated that the man was “a motorist accompanied by his adopted daughter.” This report was confirmed on 12 May in an official statement by Bradford police chief Edward Edmonds. So this clue went nowhere. Maybe the little girl was just tired at being awake so late at night – small children don’t enjoy long road trips?
- There’s a theory that other family members took Marjorie to Canada. (Why would they do so when the Wests seem to have been a perfectly happy and normal family with no known issues?)
- Some speculate that the sinister Georgia Tann, who ran the Tennessee Children’s Home Society near Memphis, and kidnapped as many as 1200 small children to sell to childless couples in New York or Los Angeles between 1932 and 1951, could have been involved. But why would she have been in a rural area of distant Pennsylvania on that fair Sunday afternoon? It’s unbelievable how long this evil woman was able to continue her activity without any suspicion.
More about Georgia Tann:
Factors to bear in mind regarding the motorist seen in Thomas, WV
- The driver obviously didn’t know the town since he had to ask for directions
- If he were searching for a motel at 11 pm he evidently travelled a long way
- Why would a motorist with a child in the car, ask for a bar or liquor store. Would he be prepared to leave his own (or adopted) child sleeping in the car while drinking and then drive on under the influence?
- If he had abducted a little girl in Pennsylvania that afternoon, why head for West Virginia as opposed to numerous other possibilities?
No one has ever heard from Marjorie West, alive or dead since that tragic Mother’s Day.
It seems improbable that the little girl could have been snatched in a quiet are from under the noses of her family in such a short time without so much as a sound. It would have required an opportunist actively watching their every move, followed by a speedy and audacious getaway – speeding away from the area – something which would surely have roused the suspicions of any passers-by including the occupants of the other vehicles driving by.
Maybe she did suddenly plunge headlong down an abandoned mineshaft without so much as a scream. Several children have been reported missing in the general area over the years, and finally in 1962 an effort was undertaken to close all these disused mines and wells.
Twenty-eight years before Marjorie’s disappearance, two boys went missing in the same area on the same day. Seven year old Michael Steffan disappeared while fishing in Ludlow, eleven miles from White Gravel and nine year old Edward Paul Adams from Lamont, nineteen miles away – also while fishing. Neither of them was ever found. Coincidence? Abduction by a dodgy adoption agency or paedophile? Abduction by UFO? Accidentally stumbling into a time warp?
It’s always distressing when children vanish without trace, and must be worse for the parents than losing the child to illness or violent death, since they have no body and no inkling of what may have occurred, and whether their child died lonely and in distress..