Isabella and the Missing Girl

It wasn’t unusual for Isabella Alden’s name to appear in newspapers across the country, either in articles about her life as an author or in advertisements for her books.

An 1898 announcement for Isabella’s new book, Reuben’s Hindrances (The Boston Globe, December 3, 1898).

But in July 1923 Isabella unwittingly became part of a surprising local news story.

In the early 1920s Isabella and her husband rented a portion of a house in Carmel-by-the-Sea. They occupied the first floor of the house; the second floor was converted into a separate flat and rented to a group of nurses.

Carmel-by-the-Sea was a picturesque California community nestled against the Pacific Ocean. It prided itself on being the “ideal community for the writer, the artist, the poet, the scientist and the tired business man.”

The coast of Carmel-by-the-Sea, photographed by Arnold Genthe about 1910.

In fact, quite a few publicity-shy composers, authors, architects, and poets had homes in Carmel. Isabella probably fit right in.

A man and three women playfully test the waters on the beach at Carmel. (Photo by Arnold Genthe, about 1911)

On Monday, July 16, 1923 Isabella left her home in Carmel, perhaps after having spent the weekend there. Before leaving, she made certain the house was in order, and she locked the door behind her as she left.

Unbeknownst to Isabella, that same Monday morning a fourteen-year-old girl named Ruth Cator also left her house in Carmel-by-the-Sea. Ruth was the daughter of composer Thomas Cator, and had recently returned home from a stay at a sanitarium where she had been treated for what her parents described as a “nervous breakdown.” When her parents discovered her missing early that Monday morning, they immediately feared Ruth was again “out of her mind” and in danger.

A photo of Ruth Cator published in the San Francisco Examiner on July 18, 1923.

The Cator family and their neighbors quickly organized a search party. A local carpenter said he was certain he saw Ruth around 7:30 that morning near the center of town, not far from her father’s studio.

Another woman said Ruth knocked on her door, and when she answered, Ruth asked for a searchlight and a calendar for July 1925. Other neighbors reported similar encounters with Ruth.

But by nightfall, after an entire day of searching, no one had found even a trace of Ruth Cator.

The next morning author Perry Newberry, who was also the mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea, enlisted help from a nearby military camp; over 300 soldiers joined the search.

Perry Newberry, newspaper editor, author, and mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Another group followed a set of footprints that led from the center of town to the ocean’s edge, but found no sign of Ruth.

From the Oakland Tribune, July 18, 1923.

By the end of that second day, the beach, the town, the woods, the bay, the mountains, and nearby canyons had all been thoroughly combed, yet there was still no sign of Ruth Cator.

From the Long Beach Telegram, July 18, 1923.

On the third day, the situation became desperate, and Carmel’s citizens cast their search net a little wider, searching the state highway that stretched from Carmel to San Jose and Palo Alto, where Isabella lived the majority of the year. They used search dogs to cover a large portion of the region, and seven airplanes flew over the county, searching for Ruth. Some searchers took on the grim task of dragging Carmel Bay in the belief she may have been drowned.

From the San Francisco Examiner, July 18, 1923.

As the third day came to a close, with no sign of Ruth, hope began to fade that she might be safely returned to her family.

And then a strange thing happened. In the house Isabella rented lived three nurses who occupied the upper apartment. Around eight o’clock on Wednesday evening they heard what sounded like someone crying, but they could not find the source. Then they heard glass shattering and went to investigate. Downstairs they found a broken cellar window; when they looked in the window, they saw a girl curled up in a corner of the room.

Perry Newberry was the first to answer the nurses’ call for help. He broke into the Alden’s flat and found Ruth wedged into a small recess beneath the floor. She was weak from exposure, hunger and dehydration, but she recognized Mr. Newberry, which he took as a good sign.

By the time Perry Newberry returned Ruth to her parents’ home, news had already begun to spread through town that Ruth had been found.

From the San Francisco Examiner, July 19, 1923.

Ruth’s first demand was for food—lots of it. A physician who examined her predicted she would make a full recovery. He also said her enforced starvation had “probably broken the spell of the girl’s sickness and that she would regain her complete health.”

From the Stockton Independent, July 19, 1923.

Unfortunately, his prediction did not come true. Not long after her rescue Ruth was admitted to the Agnew State Hospital for the Insane; she remained a resident of the hospital until her death in 1965 at the age of 56.

Ruth was never able to explain how she became locked in the cellar of Isabella’s home. The county sheriff suspected that since Isabella’s house was only blocks away from the Cator’s, Ruth probably went to Isabella’s door that Monday morning to ask her for a searchlight and a calendar, just as she had with other neighbors. But because Isabella was having work done on her home, the sheriff believed one of the workmen might have left the front door open or ajar, giving Ruth the opportunity to enter the home and find the cellar door. But once she entered the cellar and pulled the door shut after her, she was unable to open it again; and Isabella—unaware Ruth was in the crawl space beneath the floorboards—left her house to return to Palo Alto, locking the door behind her, with Ruth inside.

It must have been a great shock to Isabella—a woman with a kind heart and a great love for children—to learn she had accidentally caused three days of worry and anxiety for one young girl, her parents, and an entire town.

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