Sacha Howells November 7, 2008
Editors Note: Warning, spoilers ahead.
Changeling hasn’t wowed critics, though the the familiar rumble of Oscar buzz has started for Angelina Jolie, who plays the mother of a kidnapped child. But the too-weird-to-believe story is based on a real incident, a story of kidnapping, murder and police corruption that gripped the nation then faded into obscurity.
In March 1928, Christine Collins, a single mother living in the Los Angeles suburb of Mt. Washington, gave her 9-year-old son Walter a dime to go to the movies. She never saw him again. The missing boy became a national cause and hundreds of false tips were called in to police. Five months later, when a boy claiming to be Walter Collins was found in Illinois, the search was called off, and the incident chalked up as a win for the beleaguered LAPD.
Christine, though, was sure that even though the boy resembled her son, he wasn’t Walter. Anxious to put the incident behind them, the LAPD, particularly one Captain J.J. Jones, pressured her to take the child home. When Collins went back to the LAPD after three weeks to insist that she had the wrong child (with dental records to prove it) Jones, worried about embarrassment to the LAPD, had her committed to an insane asylum.
While she was incarcerated, Jones grilled the boy — and found out that he was an impostor, a runaway from Iowa who thought posing as Walter Collins would get him to Hollywood. Christine Collins was released and filed suit against the LAPD. (Two years later, Christine Collins finally won her suit against Jones, and was awarded $10,800, which he never paid.)
Trying to save face, Jones then linked the Collins boy to another set of horrifying crimes, the mass murder case that became known as the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders.
In September 1928, LAPD officers searched the Northcott Ranch in Wineville, a farming community in Riverside County, acting on a tip about a missing Canadian boy, Sanford Clark. The boy was found, but his harrowing story led to more missing children. Clark claimed that his uncle, Gordon Stewart Northcott, had kidnapped, molested and murdered a number of young boys, with the help of his mother, Sarah Louise Northcott. (The mother’s role, for some reason, has been cut from Eastwood’s film.) Under the farm’s chicken coop, police found graves filled with body parts and quicklime, and shreds of a bloody mattress.
Northcott first confessed to five murders, then to just one, and later told a prison guard he’d murdered as many as twenty; Sarah Northcott confessed to killing Walter Collins with an axe, then withdrew her confession. Northcott was convicted of three murders and sentenced to death, and his mother to life in prison. After Northcott’s execution by hanging in 1930, one of the boys he had been accused of killing was found alive, and Collins never gave up hope of finding her son.
The LAPD was happy to let the incident drift into history, and Wineville tried to erase the whole sorry episode: In 1930, to avoid its newfound notoriety, the town changed its name to Mira Loma. In the end, Northcott may be getting his final wish. At the time, observers worried that the sensational trial and execution gave him the fame that he always wanted. But that fame faded, and the episode was mostly forgotten. Now his celebrity is back, maybe this time for good.
(To see scans of the original news stories and photos of the real Christine Collins, check out Larry Harnisch’s terrific Daily Mirror blog, which covers L.A. history.)
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