And a Little Child Shall (Mis)Lead Them: The Mystery Boy of 1915

It was a mystery that would rivet readers of newspapers around the country for months—a mystery whose solution inevitably would create one winner and four losers.

Was the little brown-eyed boy the son of E. S. Carell or W. C. Richter or Will Broomes or Mr. and Mrs. Peter Delo?

In January 1915 a man, age thirty-two, and a boy, age six, arrived in Fort Worth on a freight train hauling horses from Oklahoma. The man, E. S. Carell, told people that the boy, Roy, was his son. Carell was soon arrested for vagrancy and jailed. While in jail Carell developed pneumonia and was transferred to City-County Hospital. The boy was allowed to stay at the hospital. Hospital staff saw that Roy was affectionate to Carell. When the boy was told he would be separated from Carell and placed in a temporary foster home he became agitated.

Nonetheless, the boy was placed in the custody of Mrs. J. S. Nash, a volunteer at the hospital.

And that’s when the mystery began.

Soon after the boy arrived at the Nash home, he told Mrs. Nash that Carell was not his real father. The boy claimed that his real father was a “great big man” who drove a big green automobile “lots bigger than jitneys” (taxis) and that the family lived in a big house with stone steps. The boy said he had lots of “pretties,” his mother wore pretty clothes, and a maid helped her dress. He said he was taken from the front porch of his home by Carell and an old woman, that Carell cut another man over a card game and disappeared, and that “a very good woman” cared for him for a time. But, the boy further claimed, the “old woman” abducted him and took him to see Carell, who by then was in prison and wearing convict stripes. The boy described seeing Carell being handcuffed at the time of his arrest. Later Carell, still in convict stripes, came to the old woman’s house, knocked down another man who was there and took his clothes, and then left with the boy. The boy said he and Carell moved from town to town, mostly by freight train.

The mystery boy said that his real name was “Robert James” but that Carell had begun calling him “Roy.”

Mrs. Nash told the Star-Telegram: “Every night before he [Roy] goes to bed he kneels down and prays, ‘God bless Carell and have mercy on him, even if he isn’t my papa.’ One night I heard a racket in the front room. When I went in, I found Roy sitting on the floor punching viciously at a picture . . . of Carell. Roy was saying, ‘You ain’t my papa.’ He almost destroyed the picture before I got it away from him.”

Carell insisted to authorities that he was the boy’s father and said the boy had an overactive imagination influenced by “photoplays” (movies), especially one entitled Trey of Hearts, which featured prisoners in striped convict clothes.

But Roy/Robert claimed he had never seen a movie until Mrs. Nash had taken him to one soon after he became her ward.

Meanwhile, questioning of Carell proved equally unsatisfying to authorities. Carell would not offer much in the way of proof that he was the boy’s father. He said only, “Yes sir, when the time comes I can prove it” and “It will all come out in the wash.”
Likewise, investigators were not able to confirm much of Carell’s account of where he and Roy had lived: Denver and Salida, Colorado; Bisbee, Arizona; Topeka and Wichita, Kansas; Duluth; St. Louis; Ardmore and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Big Spring and Paris, Texas. The people he referenced could not be located.

Carell said his wife—the boy’s mother—had died in Denver. Authorities could find no record of her death.

Carell said he had suffered from “wanderlust” since his wife’s death. He admitted to having a minor police record: fighting and passing bad checks.

When Carell had been in the hospital, Mrs. Nash, in order to get more information from Carell, had told him he was going to die. (He wasn’t.) He told her that if he died he wanted the boy sent to a woman in Shawnee, Oklahoma. Authorities could find no such woman.

Carell told Mrs. Nash that he had a large sum of money coming to him from an injury suit against a railroad but did not know the name of the railroad.

The Star-Telegram wrote: “The boy had no clothes except the ones he wore when Mrs. Nash took him in. Carell said he had left a suitcase full of clothes at a hotel here, but Mrs. Nash has been unable to locate it.”

Carell in describing past events to authorities also was inconsistent on dates, including the boy’s birthday.

Carell admitted to authorities that he once locked the boy in a cold storage vault for a half-hour for lying and once tied the boy to a bedpost. The boy told authorities that a scar on his head had resulted from Carell pushing him to the pavement.

The Star-Telegram wrote: “The boy is a very clever dancer and says that Carell used to make him dance on the streets for nickels.”

When the mystery boy told authorities that he had lived in a town named “Picksburg,” they wondered if he was Robert Allen Striker, a boy who had been kidnapped in St. Petersburg, Florida in 1914 at age four. Authorities here asked authorities in Florida to send a photo of the Striker boy.

Also the Striker boy’s stepfather, W. C. Richter, provided Fort Worth authorities with some interview prompts, saying his stepson might talk about his friend Buddy, his dog Rex, his kitten, or his bantam hen.

But Roy did not respond to any of those prompts and did not resemble the boy in the photo.

W. C. Richter became the mystery’s first loser.

An assistant county attorney said Roy would be made a ward of the juvenile court until Carell could prove (1) he was the boy’s father and (2) he was a suitable parent.

After Carell was released from jail on bond on the vagrancy charge, Mrs. Nash found him a job. He vowed to stay in Fort Worth and fight to be reunited with his son. Carell continued to say that Roy’s wild claims were inspired by movies. Carell also claimed that Roy had been whipped at the Nash home when the boy said he wanted to be reunited with Carell.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Nash allowed Roy out of her house on South Main Street only with an adult escort, kept the doors of her house locked, and did not allow strangers into the house.

“I’ve got a six-shooter right there in the dresser if anyone attempts to steal Robert, and I know how to use it,” she told the Star-Telegram.

She said that one night two men “tried to sneak around the back and get him.”

Another time a “big woman wearing heavy earrings” asked to see the boy. Mrs. Nash said the person wore a dress but spoke with a man’s voice. Mrs. Nash refused to let the person into the house.

“He can’t be seen,” Mrs. Nash told the person, “and if necessary I’ve got a pistol to keep anyone away from him.”

The person left.

Reports of children whose identity is uncertain inevitably spark hope in parents of children who have disappeared.

Will Broome, a miner from Cross Plains, had been searching for his son since the boy had disappeared three years earlier at age two. Broome came to town to see if the mystery boy might be his son.

Mrs. Nash kept her six-shooter concealed but handy as Broome talked with her mystery boy. She saw some similarity in the physical features of the boy and Broome, but ultimately Broome left town disappointed, admitting that the boy was not his son.

Will Broome became the mystery’s second loser.

Meanwhile E. S. Carell continued to try to regain custody of the mystery boy.

Mrs. Nash asked the boy: “Don’t you want to go back to Carell—your papa?”

“If he’s my papa,” the boy said. Then, the Star-Telegram wrote, he “shook his head violently.”

“But he ain’t my papa. I don’t love him. I don’t want to go back to him. I want to stay with you, Mrs. Nash.”

The boy put his arms around her neck.

“I wish I could keep you with me, but I can’t,” Mrs. Nash said.

On April 14 Carell followed Mrs. Nash to a store on South Main Street and tried to take the mystery boy from her. Carell struck Mrs. Nash. The storekeeper came to her rescue, and Carell fled—without the boy—in a taxi that had been hired by Carell’s attorneys. Carell was sentenced to thirty days in jail for aggravated assault.

In July the mystery deepened. The Tarrant County sheriff had notified authorities in major American cities and American consuls in Canada about the mystery boy. The American consul in Quebec placed an advertisement in a newspaper there. Mrs. Peter Delo saw the ad and began to correspond with Mrs. Nash. The women exchanged photos. Mrs. Nash sent Mrs. Delo photos of the mystery boy. Mrs. Delo sent Mrs. Nash photos of herself and of the Delo home.

Mrs. Delo became convinced that Roy/Robert was really her son Tommy, who had disappeared from the porch of the Delo home in Quebec four years earlier.

When the mystery boy saw photos of the Delos’ front porch, he said, “I was playing out there when a man came along and got me.”
When he saw photos of Mrs. Delo, he said, “That’s my mama.”

That was good enough for Mrs. Delos. She came to Fort Worth to claim her long-lost son, bringing with her a passport for him so he could return with her to Quebec.

“All I want to do is to take my boy back with me as quickly as I can,” she said upon arrival here. “I’d like to start right now. I don’t care what they do with the man [Carell] in jail. I have no desire to prosecute him.

“When Tommy disappeared four years ago last April, it was from the porch of our little house in Champlain street. We found his hat in the water of the St. Lawrence River near the docks and two hundred men tried to find his body. They said it couldn’t have been washed out into the river. So I watched from April until the winter snows for the body. Then I became convinced he had been kidnapped and ever since have prayed to God that the man or men who took him would return Tommy to me.”

At this point in her narrative, the boy interrupted: “Mama, your hair has turned white since I saw you.”

“It turned white within a few months after you were taken away,” Mrs. Delo said, patting Roy/Robert/Tommy on the cheek.

On August 24 a hearing began in the court of Judge Ben Terrell to determine if the mystery boy was the son of E. S. Carell or Mr. and Mrs. Peter Delo.

The hearing was emotionally charged from the beginning. Roy “grew hysterical” as Carell testified, causing Judge Terrell to call a recess.

After Carell testified he asked for “a chew of tobacco,” saying “my nerves have been frazzled.”

Carell claimed he had been in Arizona when the Delo boy was kidnapped but could offer no proof.

Then came a new twist. The mystery boy claimed that the man who had kidnapped him wore a brown uniform and had “things strapped about his legs.” Those details led authorities to believe that the boy’s abductor was a member of the British army. The U.S. district attorney asked the immigration department to determine if Carell should be deported as an undesirable based on a new theory: that Carell was a deserter from the British army in Canada and had kidnapped Tommy Delo and fled with him to the United States.

On September 1 Mrs. Delo was joined here by her husband.

After that day’s court session, Judge Terrell arranged two “lineups” at his home. In one lineup, Peter Delo was asked to identify his son from a group of boys that included Roy. Delo identified Roy as his son.

But Peter Delo was not convinced that the boy was his son based on both tangibles (the boy’s hair color and voice) and an intangible (his interaction with the boy had failed to rekindle paternal feelings).

As to the intangible, Mrs. Delo told her husband to, in effect, give it time.

In the other lineup, Roy was asked to identify his father from a group of men that included Peter Delo. Roy identified Delo but when pressed admitted that he picked Delo only because he earlier had seen a photo of Mr. Delo with Mrs. Delo.

At this point, can you stand another twist? Peter Delo claimed that during his trip from Quebec to Fort Worth a “gang” of men seated themselves around him on the train and, without addressing him directly, talked about what they would do to him if he did not abort his trip and return to Canada.

The Delos did not have a lot of money. Mr. Delo was a dock worker. But the Delos managed to retain one of Fort Worth’s power attorneys: William and Charles Mays.

At a time when establishing paternity by DNA and even by blood tests was still in the future, the Mayses suggested that the boy, Carell, and the Delos be subjected to “Mendelistic testing,” which was based on the genetics research of Gregor Mendel. The Mayses suggested that the testing be performed by Dr. Charles B. Davenport, an expert in the field, assisted by TCU biology professor W. M. Winton (as in Winton-Scott Hall).

But as far as I can determine, such testing was not performed in this case.

Instead, attorneys for both sides concentrated on physical similarities and differences between Roy Carell and Tommy Delo.

Mrs. Delo said a scar on Roy’s head was similar to one her son had. Roy said he got his scar when Carell threw him to the pavement. Mrs. Delo said her son got his scar when he fell against a sewing machine cabinet.

Teeth also were considered.

Mrs. Delo said four of her son’s front teeth were decayed. Only two of Roy’s front teeth were decayed or missing.

Local dentists, including Dr. M. J. Bisco, brought in their own children of a comparable age to Roy’s and compared the development of their teeth with Roy’s.

The dentists testified that development of Roy’s molars indicated he was six and a half to eight years old. The ages of both Roy and Tommy fell within that range.

Mrs. Delo remained convinced that the mystery boy was her long-lost son.

She found a way to explain away facts that ran counter to her conviction.

Her husband pointed out that Roy’s voice was not similar to Tommy’s voice.

She countered that his voice and accent would have changed after four years in America.

The Delo boy had blue eyes. The mystery boy had brown eyes.

Mrs. Delo said the color of Tommy’s eyes could have changed with time.

But the Delos had gray eyes, and an “optical authority” testified that parents with gray or blue eyes do not produce children with brown eyes.

Then the Delos saw a photo of Carell and his wife. The Delos declared that Mrs. Carell was the woman who, with a bearded man, had driven a carriage to the Delo home two years after the kidnapping of son Tommy and tried to kidnap another son by luring him into their carriage.

Carell countered by claiming that his wife had died a year before that incident and that he had never been in Canada.

On September 13 Carell finally got some much-needed proof. His attorneys produced a deposition that attested that Carell had been in Bisbee, Arizona when Tommy Delo was kidnapped.

Despite that revelation, Roy Carell continued to deny that Carell was his father and to claim that the Delos were his parents.

As the Carell vs. Delo hearing proceeded, the courtroom was packed with spectators each day, some rooting for Carell, some for the Delos.

James W. Swayne, another judge involved in the case, said he was almost sure that Carell was the boy’s father. But Swayne also grew frustrated with the contradictions of Carell and the boy. The Star-Telegram wrote: “Judge Swayne told Carell the only reason he saw to believe the boy was his son was his tendency to tell one story and then go back on it.”

On September 18 Judge Terrell delivered his ruling. He began by referring to the mystery boy as if he were a used car:

“There is absolutely no mystery concerning the title and ownership of the boy, Roy Carell . . . It is . . . the opinion of this court that . . . the child mentioned in the petition, to wit, Roy Carell, is the property of E. S. Carell and that he is the father of the boy. . . . The conclusion is irresistible, with the court at least, after viewing all this testimony . . ., that all that is earthly of the little Delo child is in the bottom of the St. Lawrence River.”

The judge ruled that because of Carell’s “gypsy” past and current financial straits, the boy would continue to be kept in a foster home until Carell could adequately provide for the boy.

Judge Terrell in his ruling did not address the question of why the boy had claimed that Carell was not his father. Nor did I find any newspaper report that the boy recanted.

As Judge Terrell delivered his opinion, one thousand people packed the courtroom, the Star-Telegram reported.

Upon hearing his ruling, most of those one thousand broke into applause.

Not applauding were the third and fourth losers in this mystery: Peter and Julia Delo.

The saga of the mystery boy had been followed from Washington, D.C. to Washington state, from Montana to Louisiana, and, of course, in Canada.

After Judge Terrell’s ruling, Terrell and his wife took custody of the boy and enrolled him in public school and Sunday School.

When Roy was promoted in First Christian Church’s Sunday School, present at the promotion exercise was E. S. Carell.

Fast-forward to January 1916. E. S. Carell had stopped roaming and settled in Fort Worth. He had a job at City-County Hospital. And son Roy had a new mother: Carell married Catherine McCollom, a nurse at All Saints.

Peter and Julia Delo, dispirited, had returned to Quebec, where, the Dallas Morning News reported in April 1916, Mrs. Delo was still convinced that the mystery boy south of the border was her son.

This entry was posted in Life in the Past Lane. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to And a Little Child Shall (Mis)Lead Them: The Mystery Boy of 1915

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *