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The Walter Collins Case | by angus mcdiarmid
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The Walter Collins Case

When this photograph was originally published in 1928, everyone assumed that it showed the reunion of a mother with her son, who'd been abducted from his home four months previously. In fact, the boy in the picture knows full well that he isn't her son, and the woman is pretty sure that he isn't. Not that anyone's going to believe her when she says so.


"Changeling", directed by Clint Eastwood, tells the story of the woman's attempts to make people believe that that boy isn't who he says he is. I saw it at the cinema on Saturday, and enjoyed it much more than most of the critics seem to have done. I might have been particularly predisposed to like it because it's based on the sort of weird crime story that I always come across in the old 1930s newspapers that I go through when I'm looking for stories for the Unsung Joe.


Best not read any further if you want to go and see the film soon, mind. SPOILERS, as they say.


When I got home, I looked up some old news stories on the case (after first checking out the Wikipedia Wineville chicken coop murders article, of course), and found a good one from near the end of 1928, which was after most of the main developments in the case had unravelled, but before anyone had a clue what had really happened.


I've pasted the article below. If you've seen the film, it's interesting to note the different slants that the article and the film put on the same story -- for instance, for some reason, the article goes really big on the dog aspect, which is entirely missing from the film (much to the film's benefit!) and doesn't place nearly as much emphasis on the "murder farm" part of the story as the film does. But it's an interesting piece even if you haven't seen the film, especially if you bear in mind that there really was no reason why anyone should have been at all certain that the boy was this woman's son, and an enormous amount of evidence that proved that he obviously wasn't.





How 'Walter' Fooled the Psychologists, the Police, a Dog and Even His 'Mother' -- and Then Told!


WHAT has happened to Walter Collins, ten-year-old Los Angeles lad who was kidnapped five months ago? Is he dead, the victim of some fiend's fury, tortured, perhaps, in revenge for actual or fancied wrongs in the darksome shadows of Folsom Penitentiary? Or is he alive, mocking the efforts of experts to establish his identity, and secure behind the impenetrable mask of a talented child actor?


This strange enigma, which confronts Los Angeles authorities, constitutes one of the most involved and baffling juvenile cases on record. The drama is furnished by a child undeniably-keen and gifted, and the plot is being worked out against the colorful background furnished by a "murder farm" where at least four boys have met death, smoldering prison feuds, and the mysterious actions of a band of abductors.


Walter Collins, happy lad of ten Summers, disappeared something over five months ago. So far as his mother, Mrs. Christine Collins knew, he was playing near their Los Angeles home. As darkness settled and he did not return she became apprehensive. Then, after a few hours of tense waiting, she reported his disappearance to police.


A nationwide search was made, but there was no clue to Walter's whereabouts. Finally he was given up for lost, and his mother mourned her son as dead. Then, a few weeks ago, a lad appeared in Los Angeles and said he was Walter.Collins. He was in charge of police officials and here is the story they told:


"Walter" had been turned over to them by the police of Illinois. When Mrs. Collins' son was reported missing his picture was printed on circulars and these were widely distributed over the country. The Illinois officers said they recognized "Walter" from one of these pictures.


It was a strange case, the Illinois officers said, for the lad at first had denied his identity. Then, after long and patient questioning, he had confessed that he was "Walter Collins" and had seemed anxious to return to his "mother" in Los Angeles.


But Mrs. Collins' joy at the restoration of her "son" was tempered with apprehension. "Yes," 'she said, "he looks like Walter. And in some ways he acts like my son. But still I'm not certain about it. You see. Walter was quiet and well behaved. He always called me 'mother.' This child calls me 'ma,' and at times he is hard to handle. I certainly hope he is my son—but somehow I can't bring myself to believe it"


Then the experts raised their eyebrows in surprise. For it is a very unusual-thing for a mother not to know her own child. So far as they were concerned there was no doubt of "Walter's" identity. And they based their belief upon seemingly convincing evidence.


When "Walter" was brought to Los Angeles it was apparent that his memory had been affected by his five months with the kidnapers. He did act a bit strange, the psychologists and police officials agreed, so they planned and executed an elaborate series of tests to prove that the boy really was Walter Collins.


First, the lad was asked to take a man to the house where he used to live. He "remembered" the man, and to the satisfaction of the authorities, he led his companion straight to Mrs. Collins' front porch nor would he be thrown off the track by suggestions of other routes.


Next "Walter" was taken into the homes' of several friends and asked to identify pieces of furniture with which the kidnaped child had been familiar. He met this test readily, remarking that one "former playmate"' had a new cabinet for his radio, and identifying some sketches on the living room wall of another. But. In contrast to this, he failed to remember the names of many of the boys with whom the Collins boy had played, and in some instances his "memory" failed him entirely.


The experts were convinced however. "He is your son," they told Mrs. Collins. "Evidently his abductors told him that he was to forget all about his life prior to his kidnaping, and undoubtedly they threatened him with physical violence. Under such circumstances it is thoroughly possible that the child would forget many obvious connections of memory, but just the same we are sure he is Walter Collins."


Still Mrs. Collins was not convinced and at last a new test was devised. Walter Collins' closest companion and dearest friend was “Tiny,” a small black spaniel. Men's judgment might err, the experts conceded, but the dog would recognize his playmate of six months before. So they agreed that “Tiny” should decide.


Again the opinion of the experts was vindicated. No sooner did "Tiny" see "Walter" than he rushed to him, licked his hands, and evidenced every sign of affection. "That proves it," said the experts—and this time Mrs. Collins was forced to agree.


“Yes,” she said, "I suppose it does. I suppose he is Walter, after all—but I can't seem to rid myself of this lurking fear that the boy is not my son." She was advised, by the psychologists to take objective measures to free herself from this haunting suspicion, and she joined with them in planning to send "Walter" to camp, where he might start life anew and forget his chaotic past.


For a week or so everything was considered satisfactorily settled. The psychologists spent many hours going over their notes on the strange case. “Walter” had been very reluctant to tell about his "abduction." He furnished only meagre details. He was playing; he said, when a man told him that his mother wanted him to have new clothes. The man would buy them, said "Walter," so he went alone with the stranger.


Then he told fragmentary stories of how he wandered about the country, living a hobo existence -- how his captors tried to make him steal and how he refused; and finally how they abandoned him. He got work on a farm, he said, and that was where the Illinois authorities found him. His story, however, was very hazy on all important points.


The experts had little trouble in finding a motive for the kidnapping: Walter's father is in Folsom Penitentiary, where he is serving a long term. He is a "straw boss." Placed over a group, of other convicts, and most of them are degenerates. Several of them have been released since Walter's father entered the prison, and two men in particular recently were freed. The authorities surmised that Walter was kidnaped in revenge for some actual or fancied wrongs in the prison, and they expressed the opinion that he would return to normalcy if given an opportunity to find new friendships and "establish confidence" in someone.


And then, the other day, like a bolt from the blue, came new revelations. Police had uncovered traces of a "murder farm" in another part of California. They were. Looking for a woman and her son, believed implicated in the murder of four boys, and they picked up a boy who gave the name of "Clark" and told of having been held at the farm, and then of escaping.


Could “Clark” identify any of the "murder farm" victims? He could -- and he told of two of the boys. One was "Walter Collins," he said.


"But," police objected, "Walter Collins has returned home. He is back with his mother, and has told all about his abduction. Surely Walter Collins couldn’t have been a ‘murder farm victim.’”


But young Clark was adamant, so a new check-up was started, and it was then that the police, the psychologists and even “Tiny” got the shock of their lives. The returned “Walter” was closely questioned -- and finally he broke down. “No, I am not Walter Collins,” he said. “I was only playing that I was!”


The authorities were astounded. They hardly could believe their ears for they had been thoroughly convinced of “Walter’s” identity. “But,” objected the psychologists, “this boy must be Walter Collins. Didn’t he lead a man to his home? Didn't he recognize furniture, in the homes of his friends? Didn't he pass all of our intricate tests -- and, finally, didn’t the dog recognize him?"


"That may be," replied Mrs Collins, "but I felt all along that this child was not my son, and believe his confession. He is not my Walter.”


The examination proceeded, and the deeper the experts delved into the strange case the more mystified they became. Finally they have, been forced to give up in bewilderment. Who and where, is Walter Collins? No one seems able to answer.


The boy from the Illinois farm said he was Walter Collins, and he “proved” it to the satisfaction of the authorities. Now he says he is not Walter Collins, and his new story is so plausible that the authorities have been forced to agree that it sounds true. He does not even know his own name, he says, and he simply posed as the Collins boy because he was tired of working on the farm.


Meanwhile, the Clark boy sticks to his story that Walter Collins was a victim of brutal murder at the “murder, farm”, and plice are making every effort to identify the identity of remains found at the farm.


Two of the most, remarkable things in connection with the case are the certainty with which the authorities accepted the testimony of Tiny as final against the doubt of the mother, and the way psychologists, after trying every scientific test known to man, finally relied on the age-old test of whether the dog would recognise the boy or not.


There was seemingly good foundation for the dog test. The ability of dogs to recognize their masters has been an acknowledged fact for some thousands of years.


In relating the story of Ulysses’s return home from his wanderings in disguise as a beggar, the poer Homer narrated how the dogs were undeceived by the warrior’s tatters. They came and licked his hands and jumped all over him in gladness at his return.


There have been many instances in the courts of the United States where disputes have arisen over the ownership of dogs and have been decided by letting each of the claimants call the animals involved and declaring the owners to be the ones to which the dogs responded most enthusiastically.


So the people of Los Angeles were quite contented in their almost unanimous opinion that the real Walter had returned.


What really happened to Walter Collins may possibly never be known, but authorities agree that his strange case has contributed much in the annals of psychological knowledge. The specialists vindicate themselves in very plausible fashion. The admit that empirical reasoning must be applied in the realm of psychology: deductions must be based on past experiences.


“For example”, they say, “at first, the logical solution to the affair seemed to lie in the fact that the returned boy, whom we assumed to be the missing Walter had closed aisles of memory, as we say in the profession. This seemed to be borne out when the murder farm story came to light. We believed that Walter had been on that farm and that the events there had been responsible.


“His brain was tangled, so we thought, and that would easily explain the “closed aisles of memory.” The history of psychology is filled with similar examples.


“When the lad returned to his 'home,' he found his ‘mother’ acting strangely toward him. Of course, this is explained now, and Mrs Collins' conduct is entirely justified, but certainly it appeared at first that his more or less cold welcome had served only to increase the cloudiness which enveloped his brain. We believed that his condition actually was intensified by the circumstances of his return and we were ready to accept many discrepancies in his story. We expected them as the natural result of his experience and his cool reception upon his return.”


Thus the “mystery boy” has furnished Los Angeles experts with the most baffling enigma they have faced for years. He convinced them that he was one person, and now he has convinced them that he is someone else. What next? Certainly the police can’t answer that question. They only fear that “Walter” will again change his story and if he does, they’re afraid that he’ll be able to convince them that he is a third person! And that would be an awful mess, everybody agrees.


By Marjorie Driscoll

© Newspaper Feature Services, 1928




The LA Times has a recent account of the story, which should fill in all the blanks, but which you definitely don't want to read if you're going to see the film. SPOILERS, I say.


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Taken on December 1, 2008