Saga of Christine Collins
The 2008 movie The Changeling (developed and directed by Clint Eastwood) was based upon the real story of a woman tormented by two criminals and the legal system. It is the story of kidnapping, murder, of an improbable imposter, and of a police department with too much despotic power. It is the story of Christine Collins and her search for her missing son, killed by Gordon Northcott in what became known as the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders.
Through an investigative chain of events beginning with the nephew Sanford Clark, Gordon Northcott was arrested and convicted of three murders (his first victim was an itinerant Mexican youth; the others were two local brothers, the Winslow boys). Gordon was executed by hanging at San Quentin on October 3, 1930. Northcott’s mother confessed and pled guilty to the murder of Walter Collins, Jr., and was sentenced to life imprisonment. She served less than 12 years of the sentence before being paroled; she later died in 1944. Sanford Clark (because the prosecution determined he, too, was a victim of Northcott’s) for his minor role in Walter Collins’ slaying (he was forced to strike one axe blow) received a few years’ detention in a youth facility. He later returned to his native Canada and lived out the rest of an uneventful life. He died in 1991, 78 years old.
Christine met Walter J. Collins in 1917; they married the same year (she at age 25, he at 27). Christine stated she did not know of Walter Collins' prior criminal history (he was a two-bit crook who had just gotten out of Folsom several months prior to their meeting). On September 23, 1918, a son, Walter J. Collins, Jr., was born; this was their only child. She worked as a telephone operator, and because her husband was later in prison, she raised their son alone most of the time, without support from the senior Collins.
On March 10, 1928, the boy Walter went missing. Christine had given Walter, Jr., a dime to go see a movie on the day of his disappearance. She never saw him again. She reported his disappearance to authorities immediately. Walter Collins, Sr., was in prison for eight counts of armed robbery at the time of his son’s kidnapping. The father’s criminal behavior led authorities to originally believe the boy had been taken or harmed by some of Walter, Sr.’s, enemies. Walter, Sr., worked the prison kitchen as a cook; he was also a “rat”, reporting on various rules infractions of other inmates. Police first theorized it was ex-inmates who kidnapped Walter, Jr., for revenge.
Walter’s case went cold. For five months the LAPD had no leads on the abduction or any idea of possible suspects. Walter’s kidnapping received national attention, however, and, in August 1928, police received a tip and possible break in the Walter Collins, Jr., kidnapping case.
A public meeting, with invited press, was staged upon the boy’s arrival in Los Angeles. Immediately, Christine Collins knew this boy was not her son, and she said as much. The LAPD, however, were embarrassed beyond reason by lack of results on Walter’s kidnapping, and of similar lackluster performance in other cases. Public pressure to bring closure to this case had mounted tremendously over the five months since Walter’s abduction. The LAPD desperately wanted to close the books on this one. Captain J.J. Jones, in charge of Walter’s kidnapping investigation, refused to hear Christine’s denials of this boy. He actually asked Christine (to avoid public embarrassment at this mix-up) to please take the boy home and “try him out for a few weeks.”
The audacity/idiocy/gall/mendacity behind such a statement is unimaginable. Jones’ even suggesting such a thing under these circumstances should have been cause for his immediate dismissal in today’s world (for unprofessional, incompetent behavior). But this was the late 1920s, and civil rights and common sense weren’t always in the fore. To complicate things further, however, Christine Collins agreed to Jones’ suggestion. It is reasonable to believe this simple woman was so desperate to have her son back home she would have borne any insult or lunacy. And Jones had persuaded her that in the intervening five months Walter’s appearance “could have changed somewhat”, thus explaining why she thought the new boy wasn’t her son.
This is what is incredible. Christine Collins took this boy home and lived with him under her roof for a few weeks, even though in her heart she knew he was not her son. One cannot imagine how tormented she was having this imposter in her home, feeding and caring for him, yet willing to delude herself he just might be her lost child. Ultimately, though, she refused to accept him as Walter, and she began a campaign to discredit him.
She repeated her assertions to Captain Jones about this imposter. Walter’s clothing didn’t fit the boy properly, his shoe size was wrong, his eye color was slightly off, and it was no stretch that he bore only a mildly passing resemblance to the real Walter Collins, Jr. She even produced dental records refuting this boy’s claim. She produced neighbors and friends who said this boy was not her son. Captain Jones would not hear her complaints; as far as he and the LAPD were concerned the case was closed. Christine Collins had lost a son; a replacement was found. Therefore, she was whole again.
Christine’s continued badgering, though, over the few weeks since the imposter’s arrival wore on Jones. Abusing his authority, and a particular city penal code's intent, he actually had Christine Collins involuntarily committed (as a “nuisance”) to the psychiatric ward of the Los Angeles County Hospital. He claimed she was irrational, deranged, and deluded in her vehement rejection of the boy in her home.
A local do-gooder named Rev. Gustav Briegleb took up Christine’s cause after being outraged by the mishandling of her kidnapping case and her commitment. Briegleb was a Presbyterian minister and radio evangelist. Certainly, the publicity in Christine's case could not hurt him if he were involved. He lobbied to have her released from the LA County Hospital (his efforts, however, were not what gained her freedom).
Christine sat in the institution while the imposter remained in police care. During her incarceration (having committed no crime) the boy from DeKalb, IL, finally admitted to police he wasn’t really Walter J. Collins. Christine had been in the ward for five days when the boy confessed to fraud. Ten days after his admission Christine Collins was freed from the mental hospital.
Hutchins would have been no lost, naïve waif by this time. “Hobo-ing” in the late Twenties, and certainly during the Depression, was an extremely rough existence. It has been documented that hobo gangs often raped new arrivals as a form of initiation into the hobo life. This boy would have been easy prey on the road, and it is highly likely he would have been sexually molested more than once. It is also possible he would have exchanged sexual favors for food as well as working the odd job here and there for money. The upshot is that without some sort of help (whether from other vagrants in a group setting or seeking a single protector in exchange for sex) this boy could not have survived, on the road alone, as he did in that time in America. Thus, it should be noted Hutchins was no babe in the woods by the time he interfered with Christine Collins’ life – he was a wise, hardened, street punk.
Walter Collins was still missing when Hutchins haled into DeKalb. The police were getting nowhere, and Gordon Northcott hadn’t been suspected of murder yet. Christine still did not know where her son was. The most popular photo of Walter Collins, Jr., plastered on the front page of every major newspaper in America, was a shot of him sitting astride a dark pony. Hutchins happened to be in a café in DeKalb when another diner said he looked like the missing boy in the newspapers. This gave Arthur an idea. He hated his stepmother, and wanted to get as far away from her as possible. Also (and the shallowness of this reason for his later behavior cannot be overstated), he desired to visit California so he could see his favorite film actor, the cowboy star Tom Mix. Hutchins, with the aid of a sympathetic waitress, had a picture taken of himself on a pony (à la Walter Collins). He then made his presence known to DeKalb’s authorities. Local police reported finding the “missing” Walter, and Christine paid to have him transported to California.
Hutchins, under his pretense of being Walter, was vague on details of how he came to be in Illinois. The LAPD weren’t interested. Hutchins resembled Walter; the “pony” picture of Hutchins was convincing enough for the police. Hutchins spent more than two years in the Iowa State Training School for Boys in Eldora, Iowa, as a result of his actions (a very small price to pay indeed). He returned to the care of his father and stepmother Violet. A couple of years after his fraud he issued a shallow and superficial “apology” (“I know I owe an apology to Mrs. Collins and to the state of California”) for the torment he caused Christine Collins. As an adult Hutchins worked in carnival concessions, and then later moved to California permanently as a horse trainer. He died in 1954 of a blood clot at the relatively young age of 38. He was survived by a wife and daughter. He was unrepentant for his actions toward Christine Collins, considering it as some great lark, and an adventurous part of his life.
Gordon Northcott plagued Christine up to the time of his death, taunting her with tidbits of information. Before his execution in October 1930 he sent her a telegram; if she visited Northcott he would tell her all about Walter’s disappearance. She received consent; upon her arrival at San Quentin, however, Gordon vacillated. He at first said he didn’t want to see her. Then he agreed to chat, but only told her he didn’t know anything at all about Walter’s disappearance, and he was an innocent man.
Christine left this meeting disappointed, but still somewhat hopeful, too. Northcott’s fudging on details about Walter (his eye color, the kind of clothes he wore) left her with the irrational sense Walter Collins had never been a captive of Gordon Northcott.
About a month before Gordon Northcott’s execution Christine Collins filed a civil suit against the LAPD and Captain J.J. Jones for her illegal and unnecessary incarceration in the psychiatric unit of LA County Hospital. She won her case and was awarded almost $11,000 (nearly $140,000 in today’s money).
Jones never paid the court-ordered judgment. Christine Collins’' last public records appearance is in 1941 when she sought enforcement of the judgment against J.J. Jones (retired by then) from the LA County Superior Court.
Jones, for his part in the debacle involving her son (once the imposter revealed himself) was temporarily suspended and censured, as was his superior in the case. His dismissive air toward Christine stems from the times in which he lived (women were considered inferior, subject to fits of hysteria, etc.), but his own arrogant smugness contributed heavily. Christine Collins was a plain woman (unlike Angelina Jolie who portrays her in the movie), nor was she particularly dynamic. She was an easy woman to dismiss. The belligerent Jones wanted this case closed – he was being made to look bad publicly, and Hutchins' arrival on the scene fixed his immediate problem. Once Northcott was arrested, though, the case was resolved. And Hutchins was quietly processed and released.
Walter, Sr., was a career criminal. He was born in 1890 in Nebraska. He entered San Quentin in 1908, and served a hitch there for burglary until May 1910. From November 1910 until November 1916 he was in Folsom prison for robbery. He stayed on the straight and narrow for a few years, working as a streetcar motorman. An interesting side note is he used the name “Conrad” J. Collins for a time (probably to disconnect himself from his criminal conviction record, having already served time in two notorious prisons). During September 1923 (for unknown reasons) he went on a crime spree, robbing several streetcar conductors of cash and their personal effects at gunpoint. He was convicted on eight counts of armed robbery and entered Folsom prison in early 1924 (this is where he was incarcerated when his son was kidnapped). Because he was an habitual offender he was given five years to be served consecutively on all counts (40 years).
Christine adopted an alias in the wake of the kidnapping to avoid publicity ("Kathleen" Collins; she actually used this alias in a letter to Folsom's warden dated August 28, 1932, in response to being notified of Walter, Sr.’s death). Although she disappeared from public view, she spent the rest of her life believing her missing son was still alive somewhere. Christine Ida Dunne Collins (a/k/a/, Kathleen Collins) died December 8, 1964, never admitting Walter, Jr., was dead.
It is Christine’s unwilling role within the greater drama of the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders that forms the basis of Mr. Eastwood’s excellent movie on the subject. The film does a wonderful job of showing how Christine Collins was victimized in many ways: she married a criminal; a murderer killed her son; a conniving little cretin named Arthur Hutchins, Jr., pretended to be her lost boy. But most shockingly, she fell victim to the police department in general and Captain J.J. Jones in particular. No one should ever have been treated as Christine Collins was; most certainly her commitment to a psych ward was completely out of order, victimizing the victim.