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.


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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21 thoughts on “Edythmay: The Story That Haunts Me

  1. This story is important to me. My dad was the youngest of the ten Dierdorf children. During his life he rarely talked about his family, and I knew very little about this case. He was a toddler when it all happened. I’m researching my family history now, and this fills in some gaps for me. I stumbled on this blog while searching for information on the Dierdorf Piano Company. I will keep returning to it to read more about the town my dad grew up in.

    1. Mr. Dierdorf, I will be writing a second part to the story in the coming weeks. Thank you for commenting

    2. Hi Bob,

      My grandfather was Fred Dierdorf. He was one of the younger Dierdorf kids. He must have been just older than your dad in the line up.

      1. Lauren, This is your Aunt Nancy writing! I am following the Dierdorf Genealogy for my kids and came across this interesting info. Grandpa Dierdorf talked to me a little bit about this tragedy but he also was very little when it happened and really didn’t even know his sister’s name.
        It seems like they didn’t talk about it at all. Wanted to tell you that when I moved, Steve took the Dierdorf piano that I had restored and I thought he put it in storage, so it might still be around if someone in the family is interested in it.

  2. Thank you for posting this story. My grandfather was Edythmae’s younger brother. We’re having a family reunion and we’re talking about what happened to all the Dierdorf children from that generation. Several people had varying versions of the story an this helped clarify a lot. Interestingly, we were also talking about Dierdorf pianos 🙂

    1. Lauren,

      Life got in the way and I never followed up with you on this. Your grandfather was my Uncle Fritz. Which of his three children are you the daughter of, Steve, Chris, or Elaine? I haven’t seen any of them in many years. My Dad, Chuck Dierdorf, died in 2004. Bits and pieces of family history have been filled in for me, but there is still so much I do not know. My dad was a baby when Edith disappeared.

      As a professional musician, I am very interested in anything to do with Dierdorf pianos. I would live to know the location of one if there are any left in existence. I also have a lot of information on my grandfather and great grandfather (add a great to each for you) and patents they had on piano improvements and also an electronic violin that helped bring about the invention of the electric pickup for instruments. I would love to communicate with you or anyone else who might have information to share, about Dierdorf pianos or anything about the family. I hope you will email me. Thanks!

      Bob Dierdorf
      Katy, Texas

      1. Carole Henderson December 5, 2014 — 5:15 pm


        This is your cousin, Carole. I’m your Aunt Helen’s daughter. I am interested in getting in touch with long-lost cousins from this very spread out family!! How do I reach you?

  3. Hi everyone,

    Sorry I didn’t see all the responses above until just now. I never bothered to check back on this site.

    I am Christianne (Chris’s) daughter. I have an older brother, Jason as well.

    And, I am actually inheriting a Dierdorf piano in the next week or so! My Uncle Steve is sending it to me (Nancy, I’m assuming this is the one you are talking about). My husband and I just bought a house and we have the perfect spot for it. My husband is more musically talented than I am, but I’m hoping to learn to play it as well. I actually stumbled back on this site because I was trying to research more about the piano and this was one of the first links that popped up.

    I would love to know more about the Dierdorf family history. I think my brother has been looking into geneology information as well. We should all get together, either in person, or electronically and share information to try and piece together information. My e-mail is LSRoberts795 at gmail dot com (trying to prevent spammers by spelling it out) if you want to catch up more.

    Nancy – I miss you! I haven’t seen you in years. We should catch up some time.


  4. Thank you or posting this and the follow up. It is a story that has haunted me, too. My grandfather was county sheriff at the time and in learning about what he did, have read the Tribune’s stories. I was not aware that the case was ever resolved. A cousin who still lives in Terre Haute tipped me off as to your website. It’s a great one and much needed. Thank you again.

  5. Pam Pauli Gudeman September 1, 2015 — 4:07 am

    While looking for information on Dierdorf pianos, I came across this thread. My grandmother was Elsa Dierdorf Pauli. Steve and Carol, I remember you clearly. Lauren, I remember your mom too. My dad was Herbert Pauli Jr. I have a Dierdorf piano. I’m working on family genealogy too. Would love to share info.

  6. Gail Dierdorf Hughes October 4, 2017 — 8:27 pm

    I am yet another of the Dierdorf offspring. My dad is Edwin (I am his daughter, Gail). We are having a family reunion at my house in just a few weeks. Though most of you have not been on this site for a couple of years, I’ll just put this out there incase someone see it. We will be meeting in Schertz, Texas on Oct. 20-22. You can contact me at mail4gail_2@yahoo

    I wanted a Dierdorf Piano soooo bad when I was a girl, but was told that moving it to Texas would dry it out.
    This article about Edythmae was a real eye-opener because, as someone said “nobody talked about it”. Thanks to the author for probing into this case. I have a newpaper headline dated February 13, 1950: MAN ADMITS DIERDORF MURDER from the Terre Haute Tribune.

    1. Thank you Gail, I hope your message reaches other family members. FYI, I devoted a chapter to Edythmae in my recently published book. Link below contains information about the book.


  7. Found lots of clippings when I was downsizing this spring. I have a Dierdorf school piano that might be looking for a new home. Would love to keep it in the family. I’m on FB. PM me there.John Dierdorf was my great grandfather, his daughter Elsa was my grandmother.

    1. That would be John Dierdorf was my great grandfather.

    2. Pam, I don’t do Facebook, but I’m very interested in the piano. Contact info: 281.455.7821, call or text, rdierdorf1957@gmail.com. John Dierdorf was my great grandfather. I have some piano tuning tools that belonged to him and his son Fred. I live near Houston. The only time I played a Dierdorf piano was at my Uncle Fritz’s house inTerre Haute, about 50 years ago.

    3. Pam, I don’t do Facebook, but I’m very interested in the piano. Contact info: 281.455.7921, call or text, rdierdorf1957@gmail.com. John Dierdorf was my great grandfather and I have some piano tuning tools that belonged to him and his son Fred. The only time I played a Dierdorf piano was at my Uncle Fritz’s house in Terre Haute about 50 years ago. Bob

      1. Pam Pauli Gudeman July 29, 2021 — 11:13 pm

        Bob, My grandmother was Elsie Dierdorf, Fred’s sister. I have a Dierdorf piano in storage and no one in my family is interested in it. The piano is in Myrtle Beach, SC.

      2. Hi, Pam. Please email me at rdierdorf1957@gmail.com.

      3. Lauren Roberts July 30, 2021 — 4:29 am

        I recently moved to Myrtle Beach! Are there Dierdorfs nearby?! I’d love to meet up with some family.

  8. Pam Pauli Gudeman July 30, 2021 — 1:35 pm

    I live in Murrells Inlet. My grandmother was Elsa/Elsie, sister to Frederick, Daughter of John and Catherine.

    1. Lauren Roberts July 30, 2021 — 1:50 pm

      I live in Surfside Beach!

      My mom is Christianne Dierdorf, daughter of Fred and Elizabeth Dierdorf.

      We should meet up for coffee or lunch sometime!

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