The Babes in the Woods

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I entered the grounds of Westminster Cemetery, located on the northwestern edge of Carlisle to pay my respects to three young girls whose senseless murders in 1934 shocked the residents of the Cumberland Valley and grabbed the attention of the nation. Heading west from Carlisle on Route 641, I entered the cemetery through the second entrance I encountered and only drove a short distance to the resting place of the three girls, located beneath a large evergreen in the middle of the first intersection .

The plaque on the stone gives a brief account of their story:

The Babes in the Woods

Norma Sedgewick Noakes    Aged 14 Years

Dewilla Noakes                     Aged 10 Years

Cordelia Noakes                    Aged 8 Years

Natives of Roseville, California

Found dead in South Mountains near

Pine Grove Furnace, November 24, 1934

Saturday, November 24, should have been a typical day for the residents of the Cumberland Valley. However, the shocking discovery made by Clark Jarmine and his uncle, John Clark, while gathering firewood on the northern slope of South Mountain would make the day anything but normal.

The two men noticed a large green blanket spread roughly twenty feet from the road (present day Centreville Road) with something obviously beneath it. They tossed around ideas of what was under the blanket as they approached it. They initially thought it was a deer that had been poached, waiting for the poacher to come back and get it. Another possibility, due to the beer bottles littering the ground was it was somebody from the nearby Civilian Conservation Corps camp who got drunk and was sleeping off their night of drinking.

What they discovered was neither of these – lifting up the corner of the blanket they discovered the bodies of three young girls. They dropped the blanket and ran back down the mountain to contact the authorities of their grisly find.

When the authorities arrived at the scene on South Mountain, they found the bodies of three young girls who they believed were sisters due to all three having similar facial features, light brown hair and grey eyes. The girls had been placed side by side and appeared to be peacefully sleeping.  An autopsy revealed that the three girls had been either strangled or suffocated by a soft blanket or pillow and had been dead approximately two to four days before their discovery.

The public’s reaction was unlike anything the area had seen before. Many people viewed the bodies at the crime scene in an attempt to identify them. After the girls were moved to the funeral home in Carlisle, over ten thousand people passed by them in the first twenty-four hours in an attempt to identify the bodies, but nobody recognized them. The attempts were in good faith – though it did draw the curious to the scene too – but authorities had immediately determined no girls were missing from that area.

Locals, afraid that they would be discarded in the local Potter’s Field and forgotten about, raised money to have them buried in Westminster Cemetery with a proper marker. Under the guidance of American Legion Post 101, the funds were gathered for their burial and on December 1, in the pouring rain, the girls were interred, resting side by side, in the same order that were lying when they were discovered on the mountain.

The same day that the three girls were discovered, authorities near Altoona were investigating a murder-suicide that happened near Duncansville. The two bodies were identified as Elmo Noakes (32) and his niece Winifred Pierce (18) originally from California. Authorities were convinced from the day of the discovery of all the bodies that they were somehow connected, but it took a couple days before a definite connection was made between the three girls found on South Mountain and the two bodies found in Duncansville. The girls were identified as Norma Sedgewick and her two half sisters, Dewilla and Cordelia Noakes, while the two adults in Duncansville were Elmo Noakes and Winifred Pierce.

The tragedy that played its final scenes in Pennsylvania had its origins two years earlier in Roseville, California. On July 10, 1832, Mary Noakes passed away leaving Elmo to care for their two children and also the daughter Mary had from her first marriage. What no one could have realized at the time of Mary’s death was that this would be the first step resulting in the tragedy that happened on the opposite side of the country two years later.

Unable to take care of the three girls himself, Elmo sought help from his niece (by blood) Winifred Pierce. Winifred dropped out of school six months before the tragedy to become Elmo’s housekeeper and possibly his lover. This bizarre relationship caused fighting within the family and on November 11, 1934, Elmo and Winifred hastily packed the girls in a 1929 Pontiac sedan that Elmo had just purchased, and fled California.

What exactly happened over the next two weeks remains a mystery. What is known is on November 18, the group was spotted in North Philadelphia. They were approached by a lady who noticed the hungry and tired looking girls and offered to buy some food for the youngest.

The family did stay at a campground near Langhorne from November 19 through November 21. It is believed that Elmo murdered the children the night they left the campground, possibly even before leaving the grounds. Elmo and Winifred drove westward and would hide their suitcase along the way.  A hunter came across it on November 22 roughly seventy-five feet from the main road; two and a half miles away from the place the three girls were to be discovered two days later. Turning it over to authorities, they found it belonged to the family from a puzzle book with Norma’s name written in it. The suitcase was connected to the girls when authorities discovered belts made of the same dress material two of the girls wore.

Also on November 22 the car was discovered abandoned. Though the license plate had been removed the vehicle’s identification number proved it to be the one Elmo had purchased the day before they left California. Note: I find it odd that while other details of this case were covered closely by the newspapers at the time, where the car was abandoned seems to be very vague. Most newspaper reports list it as being abandoned between Pine Grove (meaning Pine Grove Furnace) and McVeytown, which is quite a distance. A couple modern sources place it as being found near McVeytown, which would make a little more sense due to the fact Elmo and Winifred must have either hitched a ride or jumped a train to end their journey into Duncansville that evening.

On November 23, Winifred sold everything they had remaining on them and Elmo used the money to purchase an old .22 rifle. That next day, he shot Winifred in the heart and head before turning the weapon on himself. Their bodies would be discovered at the small, single room building that served as the Spring Meadow Railroad Depot near Duncansville.

Sadly, the police, after investigating the crime scenes concluded Elmo killed the girls because he could not afford to take care of them. Not wanting them to grow up in poverty or in an orphanage, he made the terrible decision to end their lives. This fear of poverty caused Elmo and Winifred to take their lives a short time later. Elmo and Winifred would also be buried in Westminster Cemetery, a short distance from where the girls rest.

I finished paying my respects to the girls and went in search of the graves of Elmo and Winifred. With only the vaguest directions to go on, I wandered about the section where they were buried, when I noticed a lone American flag away from the rest of the burials. Curious about the lone flag, I walked over and discovered it was marking Elmo’s grave due to his service Marine Corps. Strangely the date on the stone for his death is wrong. It states he died November 9 instead of November 24. In the plot next to him rests Winifred. I paused momentarily at their graves and left them alone at their slumbering place.

I paused again as I passed the headstone for the three young girls before heading back into Carlisle, leaving the girls to rest under the watchful eye of a community that came to adopt them as their own in the wake of the tragedy.

As always, if you choose to visit the cemetery I ask that you do so with the respect it deserve.

Note: There is a sign along the Centreville Road that marks the location where the girls were discovered. While the community had rallied to provide a monument at the cemetery, the memorial here is a simple wooden one that, although someone had done work to it recently, definitely was showing the wear of time on the day I visited.

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