An Heiress is Missing
When seventeen year old Laura Louisa Fletcher vanishes, the world takes notice
Sept. 10, 1920. Laura Fletcher was a difficult child: headstrong, petulant, stubborn as a Missouri mule.
By age seventeen, she had been expelled from two private schools for offenses that involved cigarette parties, gambling, and the corruption of her classmates. A bane to headmasters, a headache for her family.
Nevertheless when this heiress to an Indianapolis banking fortune abruptly vanished while studying art on the Massachusetts coast, city newspapers from New York to San Francisco cleared space on their front pages to tell her tale.
An heiress was missing.
Near the end of the summer, 1920, Laura’s mother enrolled her daughter in Miss Felicie Howells’ Art School, Gloucester, Massachusetts. The young woman would live in the family’s beach house at nearby Grapevine Cove.
Laura’s parents hoped that the study of art might settle their daughter, cure her wild ways. Once Laura was established in a routine, her mother returned to Indianapolis. Laura was left in the care of her governess, Miss Fritz.
This did not go well. According to a later statement by a relative, W. J. Holliday, Laura’s art studies appeared to have consisted of “spending time in the secluded nooks along the wharves, smoking cigarettes, and engaging in other Bohemian diversions.” Not only was she neglecting her studies, but Laura found a life supervised by Miss Fritz intolerable.
She decided to take action.
On September 9, Laura and Miss Fritz went for a walk on the beach. Midway through the trek, Laura bolted, running away from her warden. The governess could not match the teenager’s pace. Laura escaped into town.
Minutes later, a Gloucester sailor saw a girl near the Copper Point Wharf cut off her hair with a pair of scissors. She then stripped off her yellow plaid skirt and pulled on a pair of overalls. Suitably disguised, she snatched a pair of oars and strode away on the wharf.
The sailor hurried over to where she had altered her appearance. He discovered the discarded clothing and a pile of auburn hair.
Laura had vanished.
The governess hove into view, and the baffled sailor explained what he had witnessed. Miss Fritz carried the girl’s clothing back to the beach house, and telephoned the police and Stoughton A. Fletcher, Laura’s father.
The elder Fletcher, after discussing Laura’s behavior with the police and governess, dismissed it as “a willful prank.” Laura had resented Miss Fritz’s harsh discipline; two days before, in an attempt to punish the girl, the governess had given her the silent treatment. Running away was Laura’s idea of a suitable revenge.
This was the latest in a series of troublesome incidents. Laura, according to the Boston Globe, had been expelled from two private schools. Earlier that year she had been asked to leave a fine private school after organizing a midnight party with several other girls that featured “home-made wine” and shooting craps.
This latest incident followed a pattern. Her departure was a spur-of-the-moment decision to punish her governess; she had no clothes, no money, and obviously no plan for a permanent break. Stoughton Fletcher was confident that she would return once the experience lost its charm.
Laura was sighted again, late that evening. An East Gloucester police officer reported a young woman with badly cut hair swimming at Niles Beach. He would have spoken to her, but he hadn’t heard that she was missing.
Surely, agreed the sages, she would be home soon.
But she didn’t return. The next morning, her bed remained empty.
The police scoured the town and the coast. A dory, painted white and tied to the Copper Point Wharf was missing. Would she have been foolish enough to row out of the harbor, into the open Atlantic Ocean? As newspapers across the country picked up the story and splashed it across their front pages, the girl-hunt intensified.
After a day of searching, the baffled police began to consider darker possibilities: had Laura been abducted? Had she risked the open ocean in a small dory and drowned?
A second long night passed. Laura’s mother left Indianapolis, taking an eastbound train with her brother-in-law, W. J. Holliday.
On Friday morning the Gloucester police received a tip from an Ipswich woman who lived near the Upland Hill Farm. A young man had applied for a job on the farm, and the owner, Mr. Hepburn, had offered him a position as laborer.
The new employee claimed that his name was Willie Sullivan, but the neighbor was suspicious, because the “boy” matched the description of the missing girl. Marshal Casey, and Laura’s governess, Miss Fritz, climbed into the police car and drove out to Ipswich to investigate the lead.
They found a young man raking leaves by the side of the road that ran in front of Upland Hill Farm. Marshal Casey rolled down his car window, “How do you do, Laura?” he said.
“Who are you?” asked the worker. “My name is Willie Sullivan.”
Her ploy might have worked, but Miss Fritz confirmed the Marshal’s hunch. They had found the missing girl.
Apprehending her was another matter altogether.
“You are going to Gloucester with me,” said Marshal Casey, as he grabbed her arm. Laura struggled violently, trying to break the police officer’s grip. Ultimately, he had to handcuff her to make sure she didn’t flee a second time. Miss Fritz and Marshal Casey loaded her in the car and drove her back to Gloucester. At first she raged against the police officer, calling him a “rough neck,” but eventually she was reduced to tears.
Casey locked the runaway in one of the Gloucester jail cells while they waited for her relatives to arrive. After a hearty breakfast, Laura brightened and told her story. After fleeing Miss Fritz, cutting her hair, and changing clothes, Laura stole an eighteen foot Swampscott dory.
“After I rowed away from Copper Point Wharf, “ said Laura, “I went to a fishing boat in Gloucester Harbor and asked the captain for a job. He said that I was too young.”
“Then I rowed from Rocky Neck shore twelve miles up the Annisquam and Essex rivers to Rowley.”
“At Rowley I went ashore that night and slept in a barn. I slept there the next night, too. For food, I ate apples.”
Friday morning she made her only mistake: seeking employment, which tipped the police.
On Friday afternoon, Laura’s mother and W. J. Holliday arrived in Gloucester. While the mother retreated to their beach house, Holliday went to the police station to discuss the situation with the officers.
After assuring the large press contingent that her escapade had not involved a young man, Holliday issued a scathing indictment of Laura’s behavior: “The whole trouble with Miss Laura is that she does not care for an education, but desires to get out and make her own way in the world as a stenographer or something of that kind — her case being analogous to a boy who runs away to sea.”
The police released Laura into her mother’s custody later that evening. The nation’s newspapers were able to report a happy resolution for the family, although not, perhaps, for the young heiress. When news of her discovery reached her father in Indianapolis, Stoughton Fletcher summarized his position with a terse comment: “It looks like a spanking case to me.”
Sources: Boston Globe, Sept. 11–12, 1920; Chicago Tribune, Sept. 11–12; The Deseret, Sept. 11–12; Tampa Tribune, Sept 6, 1925; Logansport Pharos-Tribune, Sept. 11, 1920.