Murder is always a foul deed. It is all the more so when young children are involved. When not one but three young girls were found dead in the woods of Cumberland County in November of 1934, people across the state, and across much of the nation were shocked by so dastardly a deed. This was not long after the nation-wide grief that had followed the kidnapping and subsequent murder of the infant son of America’s hero, Charles Lindbergh. No one is ever ready to hear of the tragic criminal death of a child. A short drive north from Pine Grove Furnace State Park, not far from Carlisle, along Pennsylvania route 233 will bring you to the scene of the crime. A large blue and gold sign says simply, “On this spot were found three babes in the woods Nov. – 24 – 1934.”
On that November day, two men, Clark Jardine and John Clark, were heading up on South Mountain to cut some firewood. Their attention was attracted by what seemed unusual to find in the woods. It was a green blanket stretched across a mound. Of what they wondered? Deer poaching was not uncommon, but who took the trouble to cover a deer carcass? The men carefully pulled back the cover and were rightly horrified at the sight that greeted them. There were the bodies of three young girls, the youngest snuggled in the arms of an older girl; the third lay neatly beside them.
The men went as fast as they could to the nearest place they thought they would find a telephone, a yet uncommon item in these parts in the 1930s. A call was put in to the police station in Carlisle. The police arrived shortly, and as the word was spreading like wildfire, so did hundreds of others, some seeking missing children of their own.
The girls were neatly dressed in nice outfits, with good coats with fur collars. They looked much alike, with gray eyes, freckles, and light brown hair. Police Chief Harvey Kunhs of Carlisle speculated that they were sisters. This was long before the era of DNA testing, but an analysis of their hair by a Dickinson College professor corroborated the speculation. But no one so far knew the girls, or even had a guess about who they were or where they came from. Other clues would show up in the days to come that would help the police piece together the pieces of this crime.
A black leather Gladstone suitcase was found five days later about three miles away by John Naugle. A notebook in the suitcase had the name “Norma” written on it in what appeared to be a youngster’s handwriting. That same day, in Altoona, many miles to the west, a well-dressed man and woman were found at a deserted Pennsylvania Railroad flag-stop. They had both been shot. At first there was no connection between these two adults and the dead young ladies, although the police were sure that was the case.
The clue that would tie it all together was found several days later in a field near McVeytown, in Mifflin County, just south of Lewistown. A shiny 1929 blue Pontiac sedan was found abandoned at a spot favored by local teenagers as a lovers’ lane. The car had California license plates. They were soon traced to a man by the name of Elmo Noakes. It was Elmo Noakes who had been found dead at the train stop near Altoona. Now all that remained was to somehow tie the girls to Noakes.
In an attempt to identify the youngsters, a public viewing was held in Carlisle, and thousands of people came to pay their respects and to see if the girls were recognized. Radio news carried the story, and photographs were sent out to police and news media nationwide. Although no positive identification was soon made, other clues did come in. A Greyhound bus driver from Harrisburg called police to say that a woman with a black suitcase and three young girls had been passengers on his bus from New York recently. This turned out to be a false lead. Other false leads were checked upon, including a report of a man who said he had just come from California with his wife and three children looking for work. This man was found very much alive and still in California. In the midst of this activity, an autopsy of the girls indicated they had been strangled or otherwise suffocated.
Better clues began to surface. A woman by the name of Anna Lafauvre told police that she and her young son were eating in a restaurant in Philadelphia on November 18 when a couple with three young girls came in and sat down at the next table. The man told the children they would have to share a meal. Overhearing this, Lafauvre invited the youngest to eat with her and her son. The parents readily agreed. Lafauvre told police that the youngster told her, “Daddy is looking for work. I’m kind of tired and this food tastes awfully good.”
Lewis Ellis, the owner of that restaurant, remembered the family coming in, and identified a photograph of Elmo Noakes. Noakes had asked him if any work was available, offering to do any kind of work at all. Noakes was quoted as saying, “My children are beginning to be a burden to me.”
The owners of a tourist camp near Philadelphia informed police that a couple from California with three children had stayed there. They had a 1929 blue Pontiac sedan. A blue washcloth that the family had left behind was given to the police. It had a laundry mark which matched the mark on another washcloth that was found in the Gladstone suitcase. A shirt with a California label was also found in the suitcase.
Police were able to track down Noakes’s family in California, and learned that he and his three daughters had disappeared on November 11, the day after he purchased the Pontiac sedan. The girls were Norma, age 12, Dewilla, age 10, and Cordelia, age 8. Noakes’s 18-year-old niece, Winifred Pierce, had also disappeared at the same time. The family informed police that Noakes’s wife had died two years ago, and that the niece had moved in with him and his daughters the previous summer. Family objections to this relationship apparently set Noakes and Winifred Pierce off to start a new chapter in their lives.
The police began to speculate that as Noakes ran out of money as he traveled looking for work, he killed his daughters as he was no longer able to support them. The autopsies of the girls had also indicated they had not eaten anything for some time.
Gradually more leads came to light. Noakes, Pierce, and the girls had stayed at a tourist home in Gettysburg on November 17, registering under a fictitious name. The following night they camped at a location in Langhorne, in the Philadelphia suburbs. The next few nights were spent at the tourist camp noted above, also near Langhorne. Leaving there and heading west again, police speculate that was when Noakes decided to kill his daughters, leaving them in the woods of Cumberland County, as he and Winifred Pierce drove on westward until their car ran out of gas at McVeytown.
A truck driver reported picking up a man and a young woman hitch-hiking near Huntingdon. He took them as far as Altoona, where the couple checked into a boarding house, using yet another fictitious name. On November 23, Winifred Pierce sold her coat at a pawn shop in Altoona. Noakes purchased a rifle for $2.85, and it was that rifle that ended the lives of Elmo Noakes and his young niece. The weapon, a .22 caliber, was found laying between their bodies.
A week after their death, the three young girls were quietly buried in the Westminster Cemetery in North Middleton Township, near Carlisle, Cumberland County, not far from where their bodies had been found. The funerals and burials were paid for by the local American Legion Post. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts served as their pallbearers.
A stone monument marks their burial spot, with the following words engraved thereon: Babes in the Woods Sleep tender blossoms, folded so close In slumber which broken shall be By His gentle voice whispering low “Little Children Come Unto Me”
The girls’ father, Elmo Noakes, is buried elsewhere in this same cemetery. His tombstone notes that he was from Idaho, and that he had served in the U.S. Marine Corps. The girls’ cousin, Winifred Pierce, is also buried there. Her stone notes her birthdate as September 1,1916.
The Carlisle Sentinel newspaper of November 30, published a poem entitled “To the Memory of the Three Little Girls” that had been written by an anonymous contributor. The poem reads in part:
We thank Thee for a few small years of life and childhood, smiles and tears; We thank Thee for the warm soft earth. The kindest bed we’ve known since birth.
We thank Thee for the woodsmen bold, Who of their finding the wide world told; We loved our lives – we sisters three, But now we’re thankful for the life to be.
The uppermost photo above shows the three girls, probably taken in California before this tragedy. The lower photos show the girls’ coffins prior to internment at the cemetery. The rightmost photos shows the stone and brass plaque on it at the cemetery. I do not know if this is their actual tombstone or not.
This story draws from a similar one in the Fall 2002 issue of Common Ground magazine, which features articles about the area in and near the Juniata River valley. McVeytown and Altoona are Juniata Valley towns. That article in turn was based upon a story in a November 1974 edition of the Harrisburg Patriot newspaper.
In 2004, additional information came to light regarding Norma, the eldest of the three girls in this story. Elmo Noakes was her step-father, not her father. The two younger girls, Dewilla and Cordelia, were Noakes’s daughters. A half-sister in Utah, where the girls were born, had been working for years to correct records and provided information to Pennsylvania officials. Accordingly, Cumberland County Judge George E. Hoffer ordered that Norma’s name be changed on county death certificate records to Norma Sedgwick. The names of her birth parents, Roland B. Sedgwick and Mary Isabelle Hayford, were also added to the records. Mary Hayford Sedgwick married Elmo Noakes following the death of her first husband, Roland Sedgwick. When Mary, the girls’ mother, died, Elmo Noakes left Utah for California before coming east to play out this tragedy.