America's most famous child kidnapping case is the 1932 disappearance of the Lindbergh baby. The notoriety of this still-enigmatic crime overshadows the fact that just four years previously, another little boy vanished in an equally strange and sinister manner. This earlier case, like the hunt for Charles Lindbergh Jr., had many weird twists and turns that for some time held the nation spellbound over the fate of the child victim.
Before there was "baby Charlie," there was little Melvin.
It was two days after Christmas 1928 in Orrville, Ohio. The Horst family still had the tree and holiday decorations filling their living room, and the presents received by their three small children were scattered throughout the house. The Horsts were of modest means, but the household was a happy and comfortable one. They were an average family, living in an average town, living average lives.
On the afternoon of December 27, four-year-old Melvin Horst left his home to play with two friends in the local school yard. He carried with him a red toy truck he had received as a Christmas present. When it began to grow dark, a little after five o'clock, Melvin's friends went home to get dinner, leaving him to walk home alone. He only had to travel a little over a block, through a one-thousand-foot alleyway.
Dinnertime at the Horst household was 5:30. When Melvin failed to arrive for the meal, his parents, Zorah and Raymond, immediately began to worry. He had never been late for dinner before. All they found of their son was his little toy truck, lying on their front yard. When two hours of searching failed to find any sign of the boy, the Horsts contacted the city marshal Roy Horst, who happened to be the child's uncle. A massive hunt was launched, with authorities in the surrounding communities contacted. The local radio station broadcast a description of the missing boy. For all that night and the following day, hundreds of volunteers combed every square inch of Orrville, including wells, cisterns, and even the ice-covered pond at the edge of town. It was one of the largest manhunts in the county's history. And it came up with exactly nothing. Somehow, within just yards from his home, little Melvin and suddenly and completely vanished.
The Horsts believed someone must have kidnapped the boy, but police were more skeptical. It was no secret that the family did not have the money to pay off ransom demands. The Horsts were quiet, respectable people, with no enemies. What reason would anyone have to abduct the child?
Well, there was one obvious reason, and the authorities did pursue it. Police checked out all the known "perverts" in the area. However, all these men--who nowadays would be called "registered sex offenders"--had alibis for the time Melvin disappeared, and a search of their homes found nothing suspicious.
After a few days of fruitless investigation by the local police, two well-known detectives, Ora Slater and John Stevens, were called in to take over the baffling case. Almost immediately, these two men uncovered what was the first possible break in the mystery. An eight-year-old boy named Charles "Junior" Hanna came forward with a startling tale. He claimed that he had been playing with Melvin on the evening of the disappearance. As the boys prepared to go home for dinner, Junior stated that he saw Melvin enter the home of the Arnold family, which happened to back up on the alley where the child was last seen. The Arnolds were related to Junior, and the whole family had a bad reputation in Orrville. In fact, Marshal Horst had arrested a number of Arnolds for various crimes, including bootlegging and robbery. Could simple revenge be behind the mystery?
Police promptly arrested the Arnolds and Bascom McHenry (an Arnold son-in-law) and charged them with child stealing (which was, under Ohio law, a less serious offense than kidnapping.) Under questioning, the patriarch of the family, Elias Arnold, admitted that he "had it in" for Roy Horst, but he, as well as the rest of the Arnolds, denied having anything to do with Melvin's disappearance.
The prosecutor, Walter Mougey, knew the evidence against the suspects was slight, if not virtually nonexistent, but at the moment, it was all he had. He decided to roll the dice and take the case before a grand jury. His argument was that Elias Arnold and his son Arthur mistakenly believed that little Melvin was the son of Roy Horst, and so they kidnapped the child to get vengeance against the lawman.
The two Arnolds stood trial in March 1929. Their attorney, A.D. Metz, had little trouble making short work of the feeble case against his clients. Metz declared that the detectives framed the Arnolds so they could collect the reward money. He also blasted the prosecution for not allowing him to interview Junior Hanna, even though the boy's testimony was the sole evidence implicating the defendants. Metz also produced a witness, Ora Watts, who managed to poke a considerable hole in Junior's story. Young Hanna--in one of the numerous differing versions of his story--claimed that he had seen Arthur Arnold offer Melvin an orange. Horst had dropped the fruit in the Arnold yard when Arthur picked up the boy and carried him into the house. An orange was indeed eventually found on the Arnold property. However, Watts told the jury that he had made a minute search of the Arnold yard two days before this discovery, and he was positive the orange was not there at that time. The implication was that investigators had planted this incriminating evidence in order to corroborate Junior's story. When Elias took the stand he, naturally, denied having any knowledge of what happened to Melvin. He made no secret of the fact that he had a grudge against Roy Horst, but made the not-unreasonable remark, "If I wanted to get even with Marshal Horst, I'd take it out of his skin."
Despite the lack of solid proof against the defendants, the fact that they had no alibi for the evening of Melvin's disappearance, coupled with their generally shady history, obviously told heavily against the Arnolds. After deliberating for only seven hours, the jury found them both guilty. Elias was sentenced to spend twenty years in the Ohio State Penitentiary. Arthur, who was only seventeen, was sent to the Mansfield Reformatory.
The Arnolds vowed to fight the verdict. While their attorneys sought a new trial, the search for little Melvin continued. "For God's sake," Elias told Ora Slater, "find that boy." The publicity given the disappearance brought in the usual crop of "sightings." One witness claimed to have seen Melvin on a train in Columbus, Ohio. Another said that the boy had been hit by a car, with his body thrown into the Scioto River. Others told of seeing the child in a green car which had been seen in the area. Still others suggested that Melvin had been snatched by bootleggers fearful he would "rat" on them. None of these leads went anywhere.
The lawyers for the Arnolds went before the Ninth District Court of Appeals to ask that they be given a new trial. These three appellate judges agreed, on the grounds that Junior Hanna's testimony should not have been admitted in court. In fact, two of the judges advocated that all charges against the Arnolds should be dropped, but this would have required a unanimous decision from the court.
The second trial took place in December 1929. It was essentially identical to the first proceedings. The prosecution claimed that the Arnolds abducted Melvin in order to get their revenge against Roy Horst. The defense argued that the Arnolds had been framed. They also proved that Junior Hanna had changed his story no less than five times. In one statement, Junior said he had seen Arthur carry Melvin into the Arnold home. In another, he said only that he had seen Melvin and Bascom McHenry in one of the windows of the Arnold home. In yet another, Junior stated that he had left for home before Melvin entered the alleyway. Some days, Junior said Bascom and Arthur abducted Melvin. On other days, Arthur and Elias did the dark deed. Which one of Junior's statements was the truth? Were any of them the truth? Junior was also asked why he had waited until four days after Melvin vanished to tell what he had allegedly seen.
"Because nobody asked me," the boy replied.
Naturally, the defense made much of the fact that Junior Hanna's ever-shifting and highly untrustworthy testimony was the sole piece of evidence against the Arnolds, and this time, the jury was sympathetic to their argument. After six hours of deliberation, they returned a verdict of "not guilty."
The next bizarre chapter in the story came when Junior Hanna came up with a fresh new tale: this time, he accused his own father, Charles Hanna, of Melvin's murder. Under intense questioning by the police--which probably included techniques that would be frowned upon by civil libertarians--Hanna Senior signed a confession. His story was that an Akron bootlegger named Tony La Fatch mistakenly believed that Melvin was Roy Horst's child. La Fatch offered a payment of 25 gallons of liquor to anyone who could deliver to him the hated marshal's son, dead or alive. Hanna went on to say that he witnessed a friend of his, Earl Conold, kidnap the child and strangle him to death, after which the child was buried in Hanna's back yard. The infuriated Conold responded by accusing Hanna of the boy's murder. While all this finger-pointing provided a great deal of lurid newspaper copy, the police had a hard time finding any sort of actual evidence that either man had anything to do with Melvin's disappearance. An excavation of Hanna's property found nothing. Before long, Hanna withdrew his confession, stating that he had only signed it to end three days of brutal interrogation, and both men were eventually released from police custody. Once again, an initially promising lead went nowhere.
The hunt for Melvin went on. Investigators spent days sifting through the numerous sightings, local rumors, tips, and, in some cases, outright hoaxes that streamed into the prosecutor's office. The Horst family refused to take down their Christmas tree, insisting that it would remain until Melvin came back home. Zorah Horst vowed that the family would never celebrate another Christmas without him. Melvin's relatives believed that he had been kidnapped by bootleggers who kept the boy alive. In 1943, Roy Horst theorized, "The hijackers caused more of a sensation than they intended, and feared to return the lad...but they wouldn't kill him and get themselves in any deeper...He probably was passed from one bootlegger to another until they lost all idea where he came from...and now he's probably in the army."
The sad, dried up Christmas tree--symbol of a small boy's last holiday--was fated to stand for a very, very long time. Months, then years, went by, without anyone finding the slightest trace of Melvin. In 1940, the governor of Ohio ordered that the investigation be re-opened, but this second inquiry was no more fruitful than the first. Up until his death in 1961, Melvin's father continued the search for his son, pursuing every possible clue he could find, no matter how unlikely.
Nearly a century has gone by, without anyone being able to offer the answer to one very simple question: "What happened to Melvin Charles Horst?"