The Childers Claimant: A Drowned Kentucky Girl’s Return

An excavated antique china doll's head. From

An excavated antique china doll’s head. From

While I was searching for “doll buried with child” (as one does), I ran across an intriguing child-disappearance mystery from Louisa, Kentucky.   

This was the first item:

BURIED DOLL Dug Up By Girl To Prove That She Was the Stolen Child

Story Like Fiction

Louisa, Ky., June 4. After having been mourned as dead for 16 years a daughter of Tip Childers has returned to his home at Buffalo, 20 miles south of this place. She disappeared at noon on Sunday, May 10, 1893, while the family sat at dinner.

The Childers home stands near the Big Sandy, and it was believed the child was drowned in the river.

The family refused to believe the girl’s story, for she was only 4 years old when she disappeared. However, she told them of how she buried a china doll in a corner of the yard, a circumstance they recalled. She then went and dug up the pieces. This removed all doubt.

She said she was swinging on the gate on that Sunday at noon, when a man in a buggy came along, grabbed her up and drove away. He took her to Kansas and reared her respectably and only recently while very ill and fearing death, disclosed her real identity and gave her money to return home. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 5 June 1909: p. 3 

Here is a fuller account: 


Remarkable Story Comes From Johnson County.

Grown Daughter of Tip Childers, Supposed to Have Been Drowned in Childhood, Returns.

A story is in circulation to the effect that a daughter of Tip Childers, of Buffalo, Johnson county, has returned to the old home within the last few days, after having been mourned as dead since her early childhood.

About sixteen years ago a little daughter of Mr. Childers disappeared and was thought to have been drowned. The river was “dragged” for days, but the body was not recovered. Some bones were found a year later that were supposed to be those of the child.

The story says that a few days ago a young woman of near twenty years of age appeared at the old home and declared herself to be the lost child. Her story was not believed until she went into the garden and dug up a doll that she had buried just before her disappearance. She claims that she was swinging on the front gate, which was near the edge of the river bank, when a man came along and carried her away, holding his hand over her mouth to smother her cries. Being under four years old she had only an indistinct knowledge of her identity. The story says she was taken to Kansas. Recently the man became sick, and believing death was near he told the girl whose daughter she was and sent her home.

We learned of the story too late to get direct information as to its truth or falsity. Some local citizens who knew all about the details of the supposed drowning declare the story to be very improbable and we publish it only for what it may be worth. We find the following item in the files of the Big Sandy News, issue of May 19, 1893.

“A two-year-old child of Perry (Tip) Childers, living on the Big Sandy river, five miles below Paintsville, walked into the river Sunday while the family were at dinner and was drowned. Only tiny foot prints remained to show its fate. The Big Sandy News [Louisa, KY] 4 June 1909: p. 1 

Well, that is truly a remarkable story! I wasn’t expecting that the newspaper would actually locate the original article on the drowning (which, I hasten to add, I have seen in the original paper.)  It is a shame that we do not know how the paper learned of the story.  It does seem improbable that such a young child would remember details of being carried away.  

I went looking for more information on the drowning. A year after the child disappeared, the local paper reported developments in the case:

Lost and Found

On the 4th of last May a man named Tip Childers, living on the river about four miles below Paintsville, left home to go to the river where he was rafting. Shortly after he left the house his little daughter, a child of about four years, disappeared in the direction of the river, and when the house dog, a play fellow of the little one, trotted off in the same direction it was supposed he had followed the child. Search was made for the girl but without avail. The dog’s tracks could be plainly seen going down the steep banks of the river, and as the animal was devotedly attached to the girl it was reasonably inferred that it had followed it, and as the tracks ended at the river side it was as reasonably supposed that the child had fallen into the swollen river and was drowned. Diligent search was made by thoroughly dragging the river. Months were spent in looking and watching, but in vain. No trace of the household pet was found, and up to last Sunday all was completely hidden. On that day, however, the completely denuded skeleton of a child was found in the river about four miles above Richardson. A young man was rowing in a skiff near the shore when something half covered by sand and drift attracted his attention .He called for assistance, and the ghastly find was made. Taken altogether it is extremely probable that the skeleton is that of the little one who met her untimely fate nearly a year ago. By a singular coincidence the man who found the remains is also named Childers. The Big Sandy News [Louisa, KY] 13 April 1894: p. 3 

I’m not sure how much significance to attach to the discrepancies: 2- vs. 4-year-old; family at dinner vs. father going out on raft; and differing dates for the disappearance. The “singular coincidence” does not seem very singular when looking at local records: the surname “Childers” was a very common one in the area. 

The Big Sandy News had added disclaimers to the previous articles to cover its lack of fact-checking, but a few days after reporting the astonishing story of the daughter’s return, this item appeared: 

The Childers Story is Untrue

The NEWS published last week—not as a fact, but as a rumor only—a story about the return of a Childers girl who is believed to have been drowned 16 years ago. We tried to reach Mr. Childers by telephone on the day of publication, but could not. We have since investigated the story and find it to be untrue. The originator is unknown. The Big Sandy News [Louisa, KY] 11 June 1909: p. 1 

That’s it? That’s all we get? I was sputtering in indignation. They owed their readers an explanation!

But it wasn’t quite the end of the coverage. Ten years later the tale bobbed up again, with a couple of variations: 

We cannot vouch for the authenticity of the following story, but give it as we have heard it from reliable persons: About twenty-five years ago Mr. Tip Childers, who lives eight or ten miles below here on the river, lost a little daughter, who was thought to be drowned as the river was very high at that time. The river was searched and dragged but her body was never found. She was mourned as dead. Now comes the report that an old man dies in the West, and makes a death-bed confession that years ago he stole this same little girl one morning while the family were at breakfast and raised her as his own child. He willed her all that he possessed. Uncle Tip has gone to investigate the matter. The Big Sandy News [Louisa, KY] 19 September 1919: p. 8 

And this:

May Find Daughter Lost for Twenty-Three Years

Paintsville, KY, Sept. 21 – To See his daughter, mourned as dead or lost for twenty-three years, Tipton Childers has started for New Mexico. Several days ago he received a letter purporting to be the confession of a dying rancher saying that the child had been stolen from the doorstep of the Childers Home. There was a flood at the time and many supposed that the child had been drowned. Lexington [KY] Herald 26 September 1919: p. 1 

The latter item I found on a family genealogy page for the Preston-Childers family.

Also on the page was the note below, written by the lady who compiled the genealogical information on the Childers. She says that “Tip” was a nickname for Oliver Perry Childers, who also was called “Perry.”  Her note suggests that there really was a flesh-and-blood woman who returned and not just a tale told to an editor. 

I saw a letter from the woman claiming to be the lost girl (post-marked Canada) when my grandmother, Elma Childers, was cleaning out items on the farm (about 1958) because she was moving to Paintsville after Perry “Joe” passed away. She said the river had flooded at the time the girl disappeared. The last time anyone saw her, she was playing near the edge. Folks assumed she had fallen in and drowned and the swift water had carried her downstream. In spite of a reward being offered, the body was never found. For whatever reason, the girl’s name was never mentioned. 

It is rather extraordinary that in none of the accounts is the girl named. If this was a hoax, what was the motive? The articles about the disappearance/drowning are real enough—and dated well before the girl’s return.  According to my databases, which may be incomplete, the earlier story about finding the skeleton seemed to appear only in The Big Sandy News. If this wasn’t just a story made up out of whole cloth and phoned into the small local paper, the girl would have to have local knowledge and she or a confederate would have needed to plant the doll.  I don’t know how much evidentiary value the doll story has—it’s like a mind-reader subliminally prompting a mark: “Don’t you remember the day I broke my doll and buried it in the yard?”  The notion that the kidnapper was wealthy and left all his money to the girl might open the door to some kind of scam: “I’m your long-lost daughter and I just need legal fees to claim what’s rightfully mine.” And why, ten years after the paper said there was no truth to it, did the story resurface in a different form, with the girl not yet back in Kentucky and the kidnapper taking years to finally die?  Did “Tip” actually leave town or pretend to take a trip to New Mexico/Kansas?  

I’ve only seen records for two Childers daughters. The 1900 census report from the family genealogy page lists 9 children, 7 living including a daughter named Elizabeth, age 16, at school. Another daughter, their first-born, Lona, was married. The 1910 census reports that the Childers had 9 children; 4 living, only one living at home. The Find a Grave database shows records only for five sons, born two years apart. There is a significant gap between Elizabeth, born in 1883, and the last son, Perry Jr., born in 1895, when his mother Susan was 38.  No grave for a girl of the right age is listed in the Childers Family Cemetery, although it is possible the marker has been lost. If the child’s remains had been recovered from the river, it seems likely that they would have buried her in the family plot. Elizabeth would have been 25 at the time of the “return.” Had she been living elsewhere or estranged from the family and her return was somehow conflated with the child’s drowning? Pure speculation, of course.

It’s all rather intriguing and smacks of several high-profile kidnapping cases in recent years where the victims miraculously have been found alive decades after their disappearances. If a real event, what happened to the returned captive? And if someone made up the story, using convincing, insider details—whatever was the point of such a heartless hoax?  Oddly enough, such a case surfaced a little over a year ago, in England.

Thoughts on buried dolls or the drowned child returned from the dead?  Insert with quicksilver in a loaf of bread and float to Chriswoodyard8 AT


Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her new blog at The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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