Forgotten Crime of the 20th Century
In the annals of “classic” crime many sensational murder cases stand out in the minds of the amateur and professional criminologist alike.
However, if not for Clint Eastwood’s 2008 crime-within-a-crime film, The Changeling, the memory of the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders probably would have continued to lie dormant as it had for nearly seventy years.Credit: Los Angeles Public Library Archives
What Makes “Classic” Murder?
“Classic” murders are generally considered by the armchair criminal analyst as those containing an element of panache. These are the lurid, the sensational, the passionate, and the bizarre. They are the murders sticking in the public consciousness (Jack the Ripper, still fixed in the mind, remains a viable subject after almost 125 years).
Drive-by shootings and gangland slayings do not meet these criteria; they are pedestrian, plebian offenses, motivated mostly from a “business-as-usual” stance. [The only gangland killing that meets the “classic” criteria is “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre”, committed by members of Al Capone’s gang, dressed as police, upon members of a rival operation in the late 1920s].
The Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, however, meet the level of “classic” status easily. The case involves possible incest, homosexual pedophilia, a murderous family, mistaken identity, and a remote rural crime scene. The sensational elements of this case cannot be overstated; they rise to the same criminal stratosphere as the acts of Jeffrey Dahmer or of Ted Bundy. How a crime this exceptional could be largely forgotten for decades is simply a matter of intent.
In the 1920s, several crimes of the “classic” category were committed. A famous case of the decade involved the killers, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. In 1924 these two young men (college students, members of prominent Chicago families, and both of genius intellect) decided they fit the mold of the Nietzschean “Superman”. To prove they were greater than mere mortals they planned the perfect murder, intending to kill a random person and leave no clues, staging the murder as a kidnapping gone awry. Unfortunately, the two geniuses selected a 14-year-old named Bobby Franks who was well-known to both the killers (he was the neighbor and second cousin of Richard Loeb) and their families. After murdering Franks and stuffing his body into a culvert, a ruse of typed ransom notes was set into motion by the boys. The “greater” genius, Nathan Leopold, however, had dropped a pair of eyeglasses at the murder scene, eyeglasses unique and expensive enough the police easily traced them back to him. It was only the brilliant defense machinations of the great Clarence Darrow that saved them from the death penalty (Loeb was knifed and killed in a homosexual prison fight in the mid 1930s; Leopold served over 50 years of a “life” sentence before ending his days in the 1970s in Puerto Rico).
The Loeb and Leopold case does not begin to compare, lurid detail for lurid detail, to the Wineville case, and yet it is considered a classic. The reason the Wineville case, after its conclusion, “disappeared” from the public eye is the town of Wineville wanted it that way.
The Wineville Chicken Coop MurdersCredit: Los Angeles Public Library Archives
Wineville in the 1920s was a rural hamlet about an hour’s drive from Los Angeles. It featured farmlands and some hard-scrabble living for those who wished to try it on. Such an individual was Gordon Stewart Northcott.
Gordon Northcott was born in Saskatchewan, Canada, in 1906 to Sarah Louise and George C. Northcott. He was raised in British Columbia, and in 1924, when Gordon was 18, the Northcott family moved to Los Angeles, CA. Gordon talked his father into purchasing ranch land in Wineville, CA. In 1926 Gordon and his father (who was in the construction business) began building a house and outbuildings on the property. For extra hands, Gordon drove backCredit: Los Angeles Public Library Archives to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, and brought his 13-year-old nephew, Sanford Clark (son of Gordon’s sister, Winifred), back to California to work and live on the ranch.
Gordon, a homosexual pedophile, almost immediately began a program of sexually abusing and torturing the boy. He also had Sanford procure other boys for him, luring them to the ranch where Gordon molested them, then drove them back to town. Sanford Clark later reported he was forced to write letters home to his mother Winifred, describing how wonderful everything in California was and how well he was getting on. It was Sanford’s sister, 19-year-old Jessie Clark, who opened the case for the police.
Jessie found the tone of Sanford’s letters odd, troubling in their niceness and the falsely ringing assurances he was well. She ventured south to California. There she saw Sanford lived in abject squalor with Gordon. After spending a few days on the Gordon Northcott ranch with Gordon and Sanford, she felt something was seriously wrong. Gordon terrified her; when she left, fearful for Credit: Los Angeles Public Library Archivesher brother’s safety, she called on authorities and told them Sanford Clark was in the United States illegally.
The police questioned Sanford Clark in September 1928. Sanford, now 15 years old, told authorities of his abuse at the hands of Gordon Northcott. He also stated Northcott and Northcott's mother, Sarah, had murdered several boys on the ranch and disposed of their bodies. Sanford further reported he had to take part in the removal and burial of the boys’ bodies, and he assisted in the murder of nine-year-old Walter Collins (abducted by Gordon on March 10, 1928).
During the time of Sanford’s living on the Northcott ranch several local boys had gone missing. Gordon’s pedophilia led to his fear of discovery, and rather than risk arrest, in 1928 he began killing his victims. [Although upwards of twenty victims were rumored, direct evidence of only four could be found, and of these only three deaths were squarely placed on Gordon Northcott at trial. One murder, that of Walter Collins, would be ascribed to Gordon’s mother, Sarah Northcott.]
The known victims for whom convictions were obtained are:
1. Walter Collins (abducted March 10, 1928; murdered because he recognized Gordon as having once worked at a grocery store Walter and his mother, Christine Collins, frequented, and could thus identify Gordon)
2. Lewis and Nelson Winslow (brothers; aged 12 and 10 respectively; abducted May 16, 1928; kidnapped by Gordon after they ran away from home to pick cantaloupes to earn money)
3. unknown “headless” Mexican boy (first victim; possibly named Alvea Gothea, a ranch hand; his head, under duress, disposed of by Sanford; balance of corpse buried roadside near modern-day La Puente)
Upon taking Sanford Clark’s statement about the grisly activities at the Northcott property authorities proceeded to the ranch with an investigative team. There they found graves as Sanford had described; however, only fragments remained in these burial sites, and it was clear Gordon (upon learning of police interest) had dug up the remains and moved them [he later reported they’d been scattered and partly reburied in the surrounding desert – they were never recovered]. Gordon and his mother, Sarah, fled to Canada. Extradition proceedings began, and ultimately the two returned in custody to the United States on November 30, 1928.
Gordon Northcott, a true psychopath, played a cat-and-mouse game with police (one he would later play with Christine Collins, the aggrieved mother of her missing son, Walter). He confessed, Credit: Los Angeles Public Library Archivesthen recanted, then confessed again. Ultimately, enough evidence was secured, and the case was fairly open-and-shut. With a true narcissist's ego, Gordon Northcott fired his counsel and elected to represent himself in court. Damning testimony (from Sanford Clark, his own father, and his own mother), in addition to all the physical evidence, led Gordon Northcott to an easy conviction on February 8, 1929 (only 27 days after the trial began).
In a separate hearing Sarah Louise Northcott, who confessed to and pled guilty to killing Walter Collins, was sentenced to life imprisonment on December 31, 1928 (about a month after her return in custody to the US). Sarah was spared the death penalty, though applicable, because she was female.
During her hearings, Sarah Northcott explained she had been the driving force behind the killing of nine-year-old Walter Collins. She knew of her son's sexual predilection for young boys, and knew of his molestation activities at the ranch. In March 1928 (just a few days after Gordon had abducted Walter Collins) she drove out to spend a few days with him on his ranch. Gordon behaved oddly; he went to great lengths to keep her away from the Credit: Los Angeles Public Library Archivesranch’s chicken coop (where he was keeping Walter captive). She finally found out what was going on; she reportedly told Gordon that Walter had to die because he knew Gordon and could name him to authorities. At that point Sarah advised Gordon and Sanford that all three in turn would have a hand in slaying the boy so no one of them could betray the others. The flat of an ax was used to bludgeon Walter to death while he slept on a cot in the chicken coop – Sanford was forced to strike a final blow to ensure his coöperation [Sanford would serve a few years in a juvenile facility for his part in the crime].
Sarah’s revelations and histrionic outbursts at her trial were interesting. She, of course, claimed Gordon was innocent of all crimes levied against him. Like Gordon, she first confessed then recanted. But the most interesting thing to come from her testimony is the allegations about Gordon’s parentage. She first said he was her illegitimate son by an unnamed English nobleman. Later, she reported she was not Gordon’s mother, but his grandmother, saying Gordon was the product of an incestuous union between her own husband, George, and Gordon’s “sister”, Winifred. Thus, if true, Sanford Clark, rather than being Gordon’s nephew, would have been his half-brother. [There may be some merit to Sarah’s claim Gordon was Winifred’s son. Sarah was born in 1868, meaning she would have been 38 years old when Gordon was born, a bit late in life for childbearing, though not impossible. In photographs of the period, Winifred is very matronly and certainly looks old enough to have at least reached sexual maturity around the time of Gordon’s Credit: Los Angeles Public Library Archivesbirth; she also had a 19-year-old daughter, only three years younger than Gordon – indicative of her fecundity at a certain age. It is, therefore, in the realm of probability Winifred could have been Gordon’s mother with an unknown father, and Sarah, as was common practice in that era, would have raised the child as her own and not face the stigma of having an unwed daughter with a child in her home].
Finally, Sarah said Gordon had been sexually abused by his entire family when he was a child (and by “entire family”, it is presumed Sarah included herself. Gordon alleged his father George used him anally at the age of 10). Sarah served somewhat less than 12 years of her life sentence before being paroled, and she died in 1944.
Christine Collins, tormented by the uncertainty of her son’s fate, needed closure. It is the bizarre “crime-within-a-crime” involving Christine that informs the movie, The Changeling. The film Credit: Los Angeles Public Library Archivesnarrates Christine’s struggle to find out what happened to her son Walter.
During 1928 the real Christine Collins was victimized repeatedly. First, she was victimized by Gordon Northcott who murdered her son. Next she was used by a conniving little sociopath named Arthur J. Hutchins, Jr.. Gordon Northcott one final time disrespected her when he refused to tell her what really happened to Walter before his execution. Finally, Christine Collins suffered abuse from the legal system that was supposed to protect and help her.
Christine’s story is so engaging it warrants a separate narrative. In brief, these are the basic facts surrounding her plight at the time. Walter Collins, Sr., in prison for eight counts of armed robbery, was not in the family picture. Christine reported Walter missing from their home immediately in March 1928; it was initially believed some of Walter Collins, Sr.’s criminal enemies might have kidnapped the boy. Walter’s kidnapping received national attention. It is this shining media light that led to The Changeling story.
Arthur J. Hutchins, Jr., an Iowa native, residing in Illinois ran away from home at age 12 in late 1928. He shifted for himself, working odd jobs and panhandling. Walter Collins was stillCredit: Los Angeles Public Library Archives missing. The police were getting nowhere, and Gordon Northcott hadn’t been noted yet. In September 1928 a stranger remarked that Hutchins, while in a café in DeKalb, IL, resembled Walter Collins (whom the stranger had seen pictured in newspapers). This gave Arthur the idea to pretend to be Walter as he wanted to get to California. His presence in DeKalb was made known; local police reported finding the “missing” Walter, and Christine paid to have this boy shipped to her in California.
She knew immediately this was not her son. Los Angeles police, however, wanted closure on this case, and refused to hear her complaints about the imposter. The captain in charge of her case basically told her to keep the kid and “try him out.” Even though she returned with dental records and other evidence that the imposter, Arthur, was not her son, Capt. J.J. Jones refused to hear her complaints, and then had her involuntarily committed to a mental institution (under a "nuisance" code) for a brief period. While Christine was in the institution Arthur finally admitted he wasn’t Walter Collins, and ten days after this admission she was released from the institution.
Then Gordon Northcott was detained, and in early December 1928 Christine was able to speak with him while he awaited trial. He played with her: first confessing, then recanting, then claiming he didn’t know Walter, or if Walter had even been one of his victims. Given Gordon’s behavior, she concluded he was mentally imbalanced. Deluding herself, Christine left that meeting with a small sense of some hope her son might still be alive.
Christine continued to hold out hope of her son’s survival. It wasn’t true, of course – the police had enough evidence, both physically (from remains and clothing recovered from the crime scene) and from eyewitnesses, to conclude beyond any reasonable doubt Walter Collins was dead.
But even to the end, Gordon Northcott would not stop tormenting Christine. Just before his execution in October 1930 he sent Christine a telegram saying if she would visit him he would tell her the truth about Walter. She secured permission to do so, but upon arrival Gordon refused to coöperate, first saying he didn’t want to see her, then saying he didn’t know anything at all about Walter’s disappearance, and that he was innocent of any wrongdoing.
Christine came away from this last meeting with Gordon Northcott, both disappointed and hopeful simultaneously. She was embittered because he had not satisfactorily answered her about Walter’s fate. His vagaries about such things as Walter’s eye color and clothing (Gordon not describing either to her satisfaction), however, left her feeling Walter had not been in Northcott’s clutches, believing as she did that Northcott would accurately recall such details. She would spend the rest of her life believing Walter perhaps was still alive somewhere.
Finality, Obscurity & Resurrection
Gordon Stewart Northcott for his part in the Wineville murders and kidnappings was hanged at San Quentin Prison on October 2, 1930. He is reported to have asked, from the scaffold, a prayer be said for him.
The town of Wineville died, too. The town changed its name to Mira Loma in November 1930, mostly as a way of shedding any negativity and avoiding publicity associated with the area and Northcott’s murders. Some streets carry the name “Wineville” in their titles as a reminder of the town’s old moniker.
The history of the murders and the publicity, though, were purposefully allowed to die on the vine. The events were only resurrected in any significant way in 2008 by Mr. Eastwood’s movie (although a light radio drama and a television treatment were based on “The Changeling” aspect of the story in the early 1950s).
In 2009 a long-overdue book was finally written about this most intriguing case. The Wineville Chicken Coop Murders truly rank in the pantheon of “classic” murder cases.
Author’s note: This case is extremely complex, with many side-trails, twists and turns, and supporting characters. Almost as many details have been omitted as were included. As noted, Christine Collins’ role is examined separately in detail – she deserves it.