Yesterday's News

Case of missing baby flumoxed judge

By FRANK BOYETT, Gleaner staff
July 10, 2005

Button, button, who's got the button?

Except in this Henderson Circuit Court case from 1955 they were playing with a live baby girl instead of a button.

"The case of a vanishing baby both startled and confounded circuit court yesterday," The Gleaner reported in early July 1955. "The two-month-old daughter of a former inmate of the county farm near Corydon was given away at the age of about four days. Its mother wants her back. The person who gave it away insists she doesn't know who has it."

But let's begin at the beginning. In mid-February of 1955 a woman from Arkansas named Mary Edith McElvain became a resident at the county poor farm, along with four of her five children. She was pregnant at the time, but told county farm matron Hazel Smith she didn't want to keep her baby.

Consequently, Smith testified, she agreed to find adoptive parents for the child. Marie Wynn of Evansville introduced her to a well-do-do couple, who apparently came up with a list of prospective names even before the baby was born in April: Debra Elaine if a girl, Edward Louis if a boy.

"Mrs. Smith repeatedly said (on the witness stand) that Mrs. McElvain did not want her baby, that she didn't want to see it, and that she wanted Mrs. Smith to have it sent away."

McElvain testified that "five minutes before she was taken away from the farm to the hospital Mrs. Smith gave her a piece of paper to sign, and that she believed it was only a paper that permitted the baby to be cared for until it was formally adopted." On her return from the hospital, she said, she was told the baby had gone to a family "on a 2,000-acre farm and that a fund had been set up for its complete schooling."

Two months after the baby was born the McElvain family reunited. J.E. and Mary Edith McElvain hired Bill Sullivan as their attorney, who filed a motion for habeas corpus to regain custody of the child.

The case had Special Judge Earle Nichols exceedingly frustrated. At one point during the testimony he stood up and declared, "I want to know who has got this child!"

Smith replied she didn't know. She had met the prospective parents only through Marie Wynn, and when the baby was about four days old they came to the county farm one afternoon and asked for the baby.

"She said she gave it to them, but did not know who they were, nor had seen them before. But on cross-examination she admitted she had been introduced to the couple previously by Mrs. Wynn, but did not recall their name nor could she describe them."

"Did you receive any money for this transaction?" Sullivan asked.

"'Well, Lord no,' Mrs. Smith replied heatedly."

The Gleaner described the hearing as "brief but tense," and as it ended the judge rubbed his forehead and said:

"There is no evidence that the mother has released this baby. The mother wants her baby and is entitled to it. I have never seen such carelessness, nor have I ever been so bewildered by such a chain of evidence."

At the end of July The Gleaner reported that "the case of the missing baby has been happily solved." The baby girl named Debra had been living with an unnamed couple in Webster County, but was restored to the McElvains and the family returned to Arkansas. (The fact the baby had been given to a Webster County family probably was the reason the regular judge stepped aside; Circuit Judge Marlin Blackwell was a resident of Webster County.)

"The local Child Welfare agency, which under Kentucky statute has jurisdiction over adoptions, is on the lookout for a replacement of Debra in the home of the Webster County couple which had for a time thought they had adopted a much-wanted little girl. In the meantime, they are keeping in touch with the mother of Debra, who promises to keep them informed with letters and pictures of Debra's progress.

"At the present time no further court action is contemplated since the mother of the child now has her and the couple which kept Debra expects to have a legally adopted child when one is available through the welfare agency."



Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2005 HCH&GS