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Haunting Photographs

Inside the puzzle of Roseville’s ‘three little girls’ tragedy

An empty house on Grove Street led to shocking national case
By: J’aime Rubio for the Press Tribune
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For most people, it’s expected that loving parents would keep their children safe at all costs in the face of imminent danger or certain death. In the case of one Prohibition-era Roseville family that gained national attention, it appeared that Elmo Noakes committed the most heinous crime against the very people he was meant to protect, his family.

But did he really engage in such an act?

On Nov. 24, 1934, the bodies of three little girls, Norma Sedgwick, 12, Dewilla Noakes, 10, and Cordelia Noakes, 8 — who were all from Roseville — were found under a blanket in a thicket near Carlisle, Pennsylvania. How the girls met their deaths has remained a mystery for over 80 years, leading many to wonder if the truth will ever be made known?

Only two years prior, former Marine Elmo Noakes had found himself a young widower with daughters to care for in the middle of the Great Depression. After the death of his wife, which autopsy records confirmed was caused by an induced abortion, a devastated Elmo moved the remaining members of his family from Salt Lake City to Roseville, to live with his sister, Pearl Pierce.

Elmo worked at Pacific Fruit Express Company in town while Pearl watched the little girls. 

By July of 1934, Elmo had acquired a small two-bedroom house at 511 Grove Street in Roseville. From then on his 18-year-old niece, Winifred, quit school and took on the role of nanny to watch the girls during the day. Rumors quickly started to spread within the family that Winifred and Elmo were involved in some sort of inappropriate affair.  It was around that time that Elmo, Winifred and the three girls vanished without a trace.

Many in Roseville found the mystery baffling: Why would someone with a good job, a good work record and a stable home get up one day and leave? Equally eerie was the fact that the Noakes home and all of its belongings seemed to be left untouched. It was also reported that Elmo forgot to pick up his two week salary from work, implying he left town without much money. A few days before the vanishing, Elmo reportedly purchased a blue 1929 Pontiac sedan, but said nothing about a planned departure.

Within two weeks news spread across the country that three unidentified little girls had been found dead in the woods of Pennsylvania. It was then that family members in Roseville started putting the pieces together. Later, another story in the newspapers seemed to become connected to the terrible discovery in Carlisle. About 135 miles away from where the girls’ bodies were found, the bodies of Elmo Noakes and his niece, Winifred, were located in a railroad shanty. Fingerprint analysis identified Elmo, and a distinct deformity on Winifred’s foot confirmed her identity.

The coroner determined the deaths of the young girls were due to “external suffocation,” however, it was never confirmed exactly how they died. Speculation spread throughout law enforcement that the girls may have been smothered, but that they also could have died by accident by carbon monoxide poisoning while sleeping inside a vehicle. Roseville Chief of Police E.E. York was convinced that the latter was the case, going on the record to state that he believed the girls died from fumes inside the car, and that it must have been an accident.

Evidence shows that after the girls expired they were laid out in their winter coats, one by one, and covered with a blanket. Ditching the vehicle near a field in McVeytown, Elmo and Winifred hitchhiked to Altoona, where they sold Winifred’s coat and purchased an old .22 caliber rifle. They made their way towards Duncansville, to a little railroad shack.

Elmo’s brother, Robert Noakes openly told several newspapers, including the Prescott Evening Courier, that he didn’t blame his brother for leaving, and that “there’s been trouble in the family for years.”

When asked about the rumors of a love affair between his niece and his brother Robert Noakes said, “There was nothing between that girl and Elmo.” He was also adamant that he didn’t believe his brother would kill his own children.

It wasn’t just Elmo’s brother that came forward about problems within the family. After a feud took place on Thanksgiving Day between Elmo’s sisters, the police were called to the home. Russell Pierce, son of Pearl Pierce, went before Judge Don. L. Bass explaining that on Thanksgiving his aunts, Kate Gibby and Winifred Chaffin, showed up to his mother’s  home “abusing and cursing,” after they were turned away at the door.  After hearing the testimony of other family members, the Judge convicted the two women of the disturbing the peace and gave them 90 day suspended sentences.

It later appeared possible that one of the scorned sisters had started the rumor of Winifred and Elmo having an inappropriate relationship, which may have set off the whole chain of events that led to the horrific sight in the woods. Pearl Pierce remained convinced there was never any sort of improprieties on the part of her daughter or her brother. It was later stated that the local doctor in Carlisle examined Winifred’s body before burial, concluding that she died a virgin.

So why did Elmo flee California? Russell Pierce stated for the newspapers that besides the “love affair” rumors, a dispute had begun in regards to the care of the children — perhaps sparking a fear with Elmo that they would be taken from him.

Either way, Elmo’s brother continued to publicly insist that he “never raised a hand towards the children.”

The kind hearted residents of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, buried all five family members in the Westminster Memorial Cemetery, not far from the spot where the girls were found in the woods. The American Legion spearheaded the fundraising effort and planned the funeral for the three little children. More than 1000 people attended the viewing the day before. Elmo Noakes was given military honors at his burial, while Winifred was given her own spot in the cemetery as well.

Questions remained in Roseville, both as to why Elmo fled and how the little girls really met their demise. Was Elmo threatened by someone? After running out of money so far away from home, could he have convinced himself that death was the only option he had left to spare these children a life of certain poverty? Or was it simply an accident, as many have chosen to believe, ultimately triggering Elmo's own murder-suicide pact as a final act of grief?

In the words of American novelist Booth Tarkington, “Gossip is never fatal until it is denied. …Gossip's a nasty thing, but it's sickly, and if people of good intentions will let it entirely alone, it will die, ninety-nine times out of a hundred.” 

In this instance,  a wildfire of gossip more than likely contributed to Elmo leaving town — an act that only fueled the rumor flames more. And in the end that choice somehow proved fatal to three innocent little girls from Roseville who were caught in the middle.