Edythmay: The Story That Haunts Me

As If Swallowed Up By the Earth:” The Disappearance of Edythmay Dierdorf. 

Part One

On April 21, 1949 Terre Haute newspapers trumpeted the selection of Mrs. Fred (Marie) Dierdorf of West Terre Haute as Indiana’s Mother of the Year.  The plumpish, grandmotherly-looking woman was chosen for her community activities, commitment to her family and to her church.  The articles pointed out she had eight children and five grandchildren.  There were two children no longer with her, a son who died of diphtheria at eighteen months, and a daughter who disappeared.

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Edythmay Dierdorf left her home on South Eighth Street in West Terre Haute around 9:00 AM on Sunday, January 27, 1929.  As usual on the Sabbath the ten-year old was headed to Terre Haute to attend Sunday school, and then sell newspapers before returning home.  Her bits of income helped in her large family.  Most thought her “unusually good looking,” if a bit overweight for her age.  Joined by friends, for she was known to be jovial and friendly.  she walked from her home on S. 8th Streetr to the interurban stop on Paris Avenue and rode  the interurban across the Wabash River to Terre Haute.  It was a cold morning.  In the style of the day, Edith was wearing a cream colored aviator cap over her brown hair.  Her mother had dressed her in a pink georgette dress, plaid hose with ankle socks over them and a gray coat.

Around 11:00 her friends spied her from the interurban car as she walked along Wabash Avenue, papers under her arm.  They assumed she was trying to sell just a few more papers before going home.  They could see the small scar on her neck peeking from under her cap.  All looked normal.  No reason for concern.

Around that same time a man, probably most charitably described as a drifter, left his 3 year-old daughter in the care of the owners of a boarding house on  North 13th Street in Terre Haute, climbed into a recently purchased grey Ford, and set off.  Around noon, while parked in front of the Montgomery Ward store on Wabash Avenue he saw a pretty little girl selling newspapers.  He watched her.  He watched some more.  Finally, getting out of his car he approached her.   

He told her he knew where she could sell a lot of newspapers, if she wanted to.

He would take her there if she got into his car. 

The pretty little girl with the long bangs climbed in.

When Edythmay was a little late coming home, the family was not too worried. They assumed she was still with friends and would return soon.  But as the wintry afternoon shadows grew longer and she still had not returned a sense of panic surged through her family.  They contacted the police to report little Edythmae missing.

Soon, a 1920s-style media frenzy erupted.   In modern terms, had Edythmay disappeared in 2011 the story would have dominated many news cycles.  CNN and Fox would trumpet near ongoing coverage.  A search began immediately.  A forty-hour search by hundreds of men combed across the Wabash Valley.

The posse grew to over a thousand over the next ten days.

Rumors and false clues led searchers to Indianaopolis, Greencastle, Sullivan, even to Illinois.

Sightings poured in from dozens of concerned citizens placed her in a dozen places, often at the same time. She was seen on 25th Street, in Rockville, Prairie Creek.   Two days after the disappearance a woman called her mother to “tell her not to cry, Edythmay was safe.”

Fortunetellers, clairvoyants. and spiritualists added their “powers” to the effort.  Their visions were blurred or faulty.

A local hillbilly band did a fundraiser for her on radio station WBOW.  The citizens of West Terre Haute joined in the search and contributed what money they could to establish a reward.  One man literally offered his last two cents to the fund.

For two weeks hundreds of bone-tired men searched swollen streams, dripping caves, tangled woods and abandoned mines to in a fervid search to find little Edythmae.  Each day dawned with less hope than the one before.  A numbness seeped deeping into her family’s bones.

While the search for Edythmay continued the worried drifter stayed a few days more in Terre Haute and then feeling he must go, left his own little girl at the boarding house and headed east.

During the search, Edythmay’s West Terre Haute school, described as a “mecca” for her and which she was looking forward to a new semester, burned.  Firefighters found some of her books, scorched.  Some saw it as an omen.  As if all that remained of Edythmay was being erased.

As the weeks wore on, the media frenzy died down. Men still searched, clues still popped up, but no progress was made and Edythmay’s story was eventually overtaken by the futility of the search and the wild tale of Capone’s gunmen and Chicago Valentine’s  Day Massacre.

Hope of finding her was not abandoned, but it grew dimmer by the day.

As the Spring thaw came, a teacher named Nimrod Slavens took his family on a wildflower hike along Busseron Creek in Sullivan County.  It was April 7.  His son spied a bundle caught on deadwood in the creek.  It was Edythmay. The Slavens were given the reward for finally finding Edythmay.   Her parents made the trek to Sullivan to identify what had been their little girl. Edythmay’s body was returned to West Terre Haute, to Rogerson’s Funeral Parlor.  The town mourned.  Once again the children of the town, like little Mary Eileen Chrisman,  were pulled to breasts and warned about strangers.

Edythmay, her family’s sunbeam, was buried in Highland Lawn Cemetery in Terre Haute on April 9th.  The route from West Terre Haute to the eastside cemetery  passed a few blocks south of a boarding house where another little girl awaited her father’s return.

On that same day the drifter returned to Terre Haute .

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