"TAKEN BY GYPSIES"
THE TRAGIC STORY OF ELSIE PAROUBEK
The story of the kidnapping and murder of a young girl named Elsie Paroubek in the spring of 1911 is almost a forgotten tale in the annals of Chicago crime. Few but the most dedicated historians remember much about the case today, but at the time, her disappearance and the subsequent search for her involved law enforcement officials from three states and galvanized the people of Chicago. Nearly everyone was transfixed by the newspaper articles dedicated to the story – a story that did not have a happy ending.
To this day, the murder of Elsie Paroubek has never been solved.
Eliška "Elsie" Paroubek’s mother was born Karolína Vojáček in November 1869, in Míčov, East Bohemia, in what is now the Czech Republic. Elsie's father, František (Frank) Paroubek, was born in Bohemia in 1867. At the age of 15, he came to the United States, but later returned to Bohemia for a ten-year span between 1882 and 1892. He and Karolina were married in Bohemia in 1892 and returned to America. Frank worked as a painter while Karolina took care of their home and raised a large brood of children. Eliška (Elsie) was their seventh child. She was a happy child with light, golden hair, blue eyes and a ready smile.
On the morning of April 8, 1911, five-year-old Elsie left her home at 2320 South Albany Avenue in Chicago, telling her mother that she was going to visit “Auntie,” who was Mrs. Frank Trampota, who lived around the corner at 2325 South Troy Street. Turning left on 22nd Street, then left again on Troy, she met her nine-year-old cousin, Josie Trampota, and a number of other children who were listening to an organ grinder on the street. When the organ grinder moved on to the corner of 23rd Street, the children followed him past Mrs. Trampota’s gate – except for Elsie, who stayed behind. At that point, no one realized that she was missing.
Several hours later, Elsie’s mother followed her daughter to the Trampota house. When she arrived at her sister’s, Karolina learned that Elsie had never arrived. Because the little girl had many friends in the neighborhood, the women assumed that she must be visiting at another home, perhaps even spending the night and returning in the morning. At 9:00 p.m. that evening, Frank Paroubek came home from work and learned about Elsie’s absence. He was not as unconcerned as his wife and sister-in-law and went immediately to the Hinman Street police station to report her missing. Initially, the police agreed that it was likely she was staying with friends, but when Elsie had not returned home the next morning, Captain John Mahoney took personal charge of the search for the missing girl.
Detectives from several stations canvassed the neighborhood and suspects soon emerged. A boy named John Jirowski told detectives from the Maxwell Street station, led by Inspector Stephen K. Healey, that he had seen a “gypsy” wagon (identified as Romani people in some accounts) on Kedzie Avenue, a block west of Troy Street. There were two women on the wagon and one of them was holding a little girl. The police knew of several gypsy camps along the Des Plaines River, near Kedzie, and went down to speak with the residents. They told investigators that one wagon had decamped and left on the morning of April 9. While the idea of being “stolen by gypsies” sounds far-fetched today, the theory was plausible at the time because Elsie’s disappearance was almost identical to that of a girl named Lillian Wulff, who had been found with gypsies four years earlier.
Meanwhile, Frank Paroubek had offered his life savings of $50 (about $1,165 today) as a reward for the girl’s return. Detectives from Maxwell Street searched the Italian neighborhoods around West 14th and South Halsted Streets, where it was reported that a girl fitting Elsie’s description had been seen with an organ grinder. Inspector Healey ordered that the drainage canals be dragged for the child’s body on April 12, and again on April 15, and Illinois Governor Dan S. Deneen asked the public to assist with the search. Soon, there were thousands of people on the lookout for the little girl – but she was nowhere to be found.
Frank Paroubek, accompanied by Detectives Komorous and Sheehan, went in search of the departed gypsy wagon, which was originally believed to be headed for Round Lake, Illinois, a small town about 50 miles northwest of Chicago. There were about seven wagons encamped there at the time and local farmers were alerted to be on the watch for Elsie. Unfortunately, many of them took it upon themselves to question the gypsies and attempt to search their wagons. In the middle of the night, they broke camp, now headed for Volo, Illinois. Volo residents reported a child matching Elsie’s description with the gypsies, adding that she appeared to be “stupefied” or “drugged” and partly covered with a blanket. They also attempted to search the wagons, but the gypsies again escaped and departed for McHenry, Illinois, about 60 miles from Chicago. When the police finally caught up with them at McHenry, they discovered the little girl was a gypsy and did not match Elsie at all, other than they were about the same size and age.
According to the police, the gypsies often kidnapped small children because of the “natural love of the wandering people for blue-eyed, yellow-haired children.” The Chicago Daily News consistently described Elsie as small, “having long curly golden hair, blue eyes and pink chubby cheeks, with a prominent dimple in each. At the time she disappeared she wore a red hat, a red dress, black stockings and high top black boots.”
The entire city was on the lookout for the girl. On April 17, Police Captain Mahoney received an anonymous telephone call saying that a child of Elsie’s description had been seen with a man at a hotel in Western Springs, Illinois. Again, detectives dispatched to the hotel found nothing. In Sycamore, Illinois, the local police chief accompanied Frank Paroubek when he investigated several gypsy wagons at Cherry Valley. But they found no children resembling Elsie. Meanwhile, Hinman Street police officers fielded reporters' questions about a $500 ransom note received by Karolina. They "denied official knowledge of the communication, but admitted it might be true.” Nothing ever came of the alleged ransom note.
In the second week after Elsie’s disappearance, Lillian Wulff, now age 11, came to the police to offer her assistance. She had been the subject of an identical manhunt four years earlier when she had been stolen by gypsies and forced to work for six days as a beggar. She was recovered after being spotted by a farmer as she was walking behind a gypsy wagon outside Momence, Illinois. Lillian provided what details she could about the typical behavior of the gypsies and offered to lead a “rescue party” if Elsie was found. One of the men who had kidnapped Lillian was tracked down in prison and suggested that the police contact Elijah George – the “King of the Gypsies” -- for help. George was found in Argyle, Wisconsin and brought to Joliet, but “failed to give the desired information” and was released. At this point, Inspector Healey again ordered the drainage canal dragged, along with a search of wells, cisterns and other places into which Elsie might have fallen.
By April 30, Elsie had been missing for three weeks and the city was in an uproar. The superintendent of schools, Mrs. Ella Flagg Young, requested that all of the schoolchildren in the Chicago area organized neighborhood searchers during their spring break. Around this same time, Frank Paroubek, out of desperation, consulted a psychic medium, who said that Elson was in Argo, Wisconsin. Chicago politician Charles J. Vopicka sent officers to the area that she indicated, but there was no sign of the girl. The search went from Illinois to Wisconsin, from Wisconsin to Minnesota and then back again to Illinois – but with no luck.
In the midst of the investigation, something sinister was going on. A few days after Elsie had vanished, Frank Paroubek began receiving anonymous letters from an unknown source. The letters, described as “insulting,” were all written in English, which he could not read. He asked neighbors to translate. The letters claimed that Elsie had been taken by someone who “hated” the Paroubeks and accused the family of mistreating her. Frank was so angry about the accusations that he burned the letters. Regardless, detectives attempted to follow up on the lead.
The Czech community in Chicago rallied to support the family. All Czech-speaking policemen were put into plainclothes and assigned to the investigation. The women’s auxiliary of the Club Bohemia also helped with the search, creating what they called an “endless chain letter,” which was mailed to every party of the city, asking that recipients mail copies to everyone they knew. Various Czech-American politicians became involved and the Bohemian Charitable Association offered a $500 reward. Other reward offers poured in. Governor Deneen asked the legislature to revise the statutes so that a reward could be offered by the state of Illinois. At that time, state laws did not allow the offering of a reward for the apprehension of kidnappers, as it did for murderers. Mayor Carter Harrison, Jr. contributed $25 ($600 in today’s money) to a personal reward fund that was set up. Anton Cermak, then a Chicago alderman, stated that if Elsie was not found by the next city council meeting on May 1, he would call upon the city council to offer an even larger reward.
The police were overwhelmed with calls. Every time a girl in a red dress was sighted in a gypsy camp, the tip was called into the police. By May 1, though, investigators had all but abandoned the idea that Elsie had been stolen by gypsies and returned to their efforts of searching wells and dragging rivers and canals. Judge Joseph Sabath objected to what he said was a lackluster search. He claimed that the police hunt was becoming "listless" because Elsie's parents were poor. He had been receiving contributions to the reward fund from all over the country and increased his own contribution to $100.
Meanwhile, Detectives Zahour and Zalasky were still searching for the writer of the letters that had been sent to the Paroubeks. They believed that the man lived near Madison and Robey Streets and that he knew more about the disappearance than he was saying. Lieutenant Costello, supported by Inspector Healey, flatly declared: "Elsie Paroubek fell into the drainage canal from the Kedzie Avenue Bridge or near it. She was not murdered." They believed the author of the letters witnessed her fall. Their search turned up no trace of him, however.
The search of the gypsy camps continued. By May 7, twenty-five camps had been searched and several false leads had turned up nothing. Police Captain Mahoney sadly announced his belief that Elsie was dead, but vowed that the police would continue to search for her body.
The search didn’t last much longer. Two days later, an electrical engineer named George T. Scully, along with other employees of the Lockport power plant near Joliet, discovered a body floating in the drainage canal. At first they thought it was an animal from one of the nearby farms, but three hours later, realizing that it looked like a child, they sent out a boat to bring it to shore. Undertaker William Goodale, who was called to examine the body, said that it appeared to fit the description of Elsie Paroubek: "The description tallied to the shade of the hair, the texture of the stockings, and the stuff and tint of the dress of little Elsie.” He stated that he believed the body had been in the water for several weeks. It was badly decomposed and original reports said there were “no marks of violence” on the body.
Goodale notified Chicago authorities, who sent Police Lieutenant Costello to the Paroubek home. When she saw the grim-faced policeman on her doorstep, hat in hand, Karolina Paroubek cried out, “Mé drahé dítě!” (My dear child!) and she begged to be told Elsie was alive. Frank was taken to the Goodale funeral home at midnight. He said, "The clothes look like Elsie's. But the face -- I can't recognize it. Her mother alone can tell.”
The next morning, Karolina was brought to the Lockport undertaker’s parlor by trolley car and she positively identified the dead girl as her daughter. She was quoted, “It's you, my darling. Thank God we've found you and you're not in the hands of the gypsies.” For the next hour, she paced back and forth or sat nervously with her husband in an adjoining room. Frank held her hands and they wept and prayed together. Goodale, who had followed the investigation into the girl’s disappearance in the newspapers, made a statement to the police: “The body appears to have been in the water for about a month, which would tally with the date of Elsie Paroubek's disappearance. The child, when she left home, was without hat, and her clothing tallies in every respect with that found on the dead body. There was no ring or other ornament, and in that respect the descriptions correspond. Excepting only as to the color of the eyes, which cannot be clearly observed as to color, the descriptions are identical.”
Arrangements were made for an inquest, with Coroner William Wunderlich of Will County presiding. Frank Paroubek was called as the first witness. Disregarding questions asked of him by the coroner, Paroubek insisted that his daughter had been murder. Through a translator, he told the jury, “I am sure the gypsies stole my girl and then when they knew we were after them they killed her and threw her body into the canal.”
At this assertion, chaos broke out in the jury room. Karolina began screaming and ran from the funeral parlor where the inquest was being held, shouting, “My Elsie is dead! She was murdered, murdered!” Her husband and Detective Zelasky tried to calm her down but in her extreme distress, she started running up and down the street, drawing a crowd of curious onlookers. She insisted that she had known for three weeks that “gypsies” had killed Elsie and that the police had done nothing about it. Frank eventually was able to calm her down and assisted her in boarding a trolley car for home.
The results of the inquest were inconclusive. Coroner Wunderlich stated, “This case has attracted such attention that a minute examination will be made. We will be content with no perfunctory inquest such as this. The jury will refuse to state its convictions -- for it has none -- until after the autopsy has been held. We want the stomach of the little girl examined, and the lungs as well. The father charges murder. It is certainly possible that he is right.”
During the autopsy, two physicians, E.A. Kingston and W.R. Paddock, confirmed that Elsie had not drowned – there was no water in her lungs. Kingston said that she had been “attacked” (a euphemism for rape) and murdered before her body was placed in the water. Paddock said that there was evidence that she had been “wounded” before she was killed. Lieutenant Costello later told the press that she had been “mistreated,” which seemed to indicate that her death had not been the work of gypsies. They also found “deep cuts” on the left side of her face. Although these doctors reported “blue marks on the throat as though the victim had been choked,” another examination by Dr. E.R. LeCount and Dr. Warren H. Hunter of the Coroner’s Office revealed that Elsie had been suffocated, not strangled. The official cause of death was listed as “unknown.” Coroner Peter Hoffman agreed with Frank Paroubek as to the probably circumstances of Elsie’s death – the little girl had been murdered, he believed.
Coroner Hoffman announced, “It is our belief that the abductor of the child suffocated her to death -- possibly by putting a hand over her mouth." The coroner's report recommended that officials continue to investigate. Inspector Healey immediately detailed detectives on a case that had changed from a missing girl to a murdered one. He told reporters, “We have one or two theories, but nothing specific enough to talk about. I intend to place more men on the case tomorrow.” Meanwhile, Lieutenant Costello returned to investigating the anonymous letters that were sent to the Paroubeks, believing them to be the key to solving the case.
On the evening of May 9, Karolina was considerably calmer and gave an interview to reporters at her home. Surrounded by friends and neighbors, she told them, "Before the doctors found that Elsie's lungs were free from water and discovered reasons for believing she had been strangled, I knew she had been murdered. A picture of the crime has been in my mind since the second week of her disappearance, and I am convinced that when the truth is known, as it surely will be, it will be shown that she was choked to death a week from April 8, when she was kidnapped on her way to visit her 'auntie.'" Karolina urged the police to find and punish the killers.
Unfortunately, the poor family had other matters to deal with – Elsie’s funeral, which they could not afford. Karolina told Judge Sabath that the search had exhausted all of the money the family had and there was nothing left to bury her with. The judge gave her a check for $25 and promised to raise more funds. Friends and family members pitched in and gave money and also raised more money for the reward fund. Mrs. Sophie Johanes raised over $50 by giving a benefit party and soliciting donations from Bohemians on the West Coast.
Elsie’s funeral was held on May 12, on the front lawn of the Paroubek home. Hours before it was scheduled to begin, mourners and onlookers began to gather, numbering almost 3,000. They crowded into the yard, around the house, along balconies and on porches of nearby homes. There was no hall in the neighborhood large enough to hold them all. The Paroubeks had been offered the use of a union hall, but Frank knew there were just too many people and he didn’t want to turn anyone away. He said, “They have come to say goodbye to my Elsie. Don't let them be disappointed.” Reserve police officers from the Hinman Street station were tasked with keeping order and preventing the crowd from breaking down the fence.
Elsie’s tiny white coffin was placed on two brass stands, surrounded by lilies of the valley, roses and carnations sent by Mayor Harrison, Judge Sabath and numerous city officials. Eight little girls dressed all in white brought out huge sprays of lilies and roses and encircled the stand. Someone brought out two chairs from the Paroubek home, set them near the casket, placed a board across them and used it as a platform to hold the hundreds of floral offerings. Karolina was seated at the head of the coffin, while Frank and the other children stood nearby. The Paroubeks were not religious, so a simple service was read by Rudolph Jaromir Psenka, editor of the Bohemian Chicago Daily Svornost. He spoke of the need to cooperate with the police to find Elsie’s killers. As the undertaker went to lift the coffin into the hearse, Karolina begged him to open it so she could see Elsie's face once more, but her relatives persuaded her to let him go about his duties. Most of the attendees followed Elsie's casket to Bohemian National Cemetery, where Psenka gave another address.
With the funeral over, the police investigation was reinvigorated, despite the time that had passed. Police Chief John McWeeny vowed to devote the entire Chicago police force to finding the killer. Alderman Cermak asked Governor Deneen to increase the reward by another $200 and he announced that he would, “Ask the governor to issue a proclamation calling upon all the people of the state to interest themselves in this case, in order that her murderer be apprehended." Coroner Peter Hoffman also started a public reward fund, contributing $25 out of his own pocket.
Investigators soon had a suspect – a man named Joseph Konesti. Described as a “bearded Bohemian” and a “hermit peddler,” he was said to have “frequently enticed little girls to his hut by the drainage canal” – the same canal where Elsie’s body was discovered. He lived in a shack about a mile and a half from the Paroubek home and had been “frequently been seen” nearby. The owner of the shack that he lived in, Mrs. David Shaughnessy, told police that she had complained to Konesti about “bringing children around the house,” and had evicted him on May 9. The following day, knowing he was suspected by the police for the murder, he threw himself in front of a train and was killed. Five days later, though, he was cleared of any wrongdoing.
On May 15, Frank Paroubek had information for the investigators. He told detectives that he had spoken to a man he did not know, who told him that he had seen Elsie later in the afternoon on April 8 on Kedzie Avenue, south of 28th Street, long after she was supposed to have been taken by gypsies. Lieutenant Costello tasked detectives with finding the man. A previous sighting of Elsie had her walking toward the canal on South Troy Street, a half block south of her aunt’s house. If the unknown man was telling the truth, Elsie had been only three blocks away from the bridge. Costello had his own thoughts about the case. He disagreed with the coroner’s report and had become convinced that Elsie’s death was an accident. She had simply fallen into the canal and died and if he could prove that she was closer to the canal than was previously thought, it would give more weight to this theory. The problem was that Inspector Healey had repeatedly dragged the ditches and canals during the search and her body was not found. In addition, there had been no water in her lungs and she had been molested. Costello was clinging to the initial examination by Dr. Kingston, who told Costello that Elsie had drowned and there were no marks of abuse on her body. He changed his report the following day, but Costello was convinced the first report was accurate.
Costello followed his leads – which led nowhere – while other detectives chased suspects of their own. At one point, they surrounded a house near Madison and Robey Streets and then conducted a house to house search on the southwest side for a former boarder in the Paroubek home. They also looked for the unknown witness who passed on information to Frank and the anonymous letter writer who seemed to know more than he should. Unfortunately, none of these men – like Elsie’s killer himself – were ever found. After more than a century, we still don’t know what really happened to little Elsie Paroubek.
The same cannot be said for her parents, who were destroyed by their daughter’s death. Two years later, on the anniversary of Elsie’s funeral in 1913, Frank Paroubek died. He was only forty-five years old. Karolina lived until December 9, 1927. In death, they have been reunited. All three of them are buried together in Chicago’s Bohemian National Cemetery, leaving a haunting mystery in their wake.