The Disappearance of a Girl in Amiens

...even after twenty-seven years she was driven by the memory of her loss...

In January of 1935 the eyes of the world were focussed on the trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, accused of the kidnapping and subsequent murder of Charles Augustus Lindbergh, Jr., the son of pioneering aviator Charles Lindbergh. The great nations were still struggling under the burden of the Depression, and the National Socialists in Germany were consolidating their power, in an evil direction of which the world was not yet aware.

It seemed every day brought more reason to avoid reading the papers. Yet I was content in my own life - I had ceased my travels abroad, and was financially secure. I had memories, both of the wondrous sights and experiences of the continent, but more importantly, the many years I had shared with my late wife. I had absorbed myself in my hobby of lepidoptery, engaging in lengthy correspondence with prominent entomologists, and was preparing a treatise on the diversity of moth species in Northern Queensland. The occasions when I happened to read the newspaper were seldom, and the little that I read rarely captured my interest.

Yet the Lindbergh affair seemed to mesmerise the world, and even I began to follow the trial. It was in mid January that I was surprised to read that a highly respected Dutch criminal investigator had been consulted on one or two minor points associated with the case. I knew it could only be the man I had met in Bavaria, my friend Pieter Lindenbaum.

I wrote to congratulate him on achieving such prominence in world affairs. He in turn replied promptly;

Dear Albert,

Thank you for your kind sentiments. I assure you I was not able to offer much advice. There is no mystery to the Lindbergh case. It is only complicated by the overwhelming intrusion of the press coverage, fabrication of evidence and a number of hoaxes. From the records that have been submitted to my office, there seems little doubt that Hauptmann will be found guilty.

I am glad to hear that you are well. The two cases with which we were involved are among many that have begun to affect my reputation such that I am being more frequently consulted with investigative police work, and I am beginning to wonder if I may need to leave the insurance industry.

Upon learning that I had been consulted on the Lindbergh case, a woman by the name of Maria Montpelier has asked me to investigate the abduction of her six-year-old daughter Louisa in Amiens, in 1908. As you can imagine, it seems highly unlikely that there can be anything new to discover after twenty-seven years. On the other hand, there will be no activity required - merely a number of cardboard boxes containing evidence to review, and no urgency to obtain a result.

Would you care to visit? It would be of some help to have your comments, and I have no doubt it will be more interesting than the Lindbergh case! My wife Emma is a charming hostess, and would be as thrilled as I to welcome you.

Warmest regards,

Pieter

Of course, the invitation was warmly accepted, and within two days I found myself in the study of his home in Amsterdam.

"Have a cigar, my friend."

Lindenbaum lit our cigars, and we sat down in the two large armchairs in his study.

Lindenbaum reached down to a large cardboard box beside his armchair, extracted a number of documents and placed them on his lap. Then he passed me a small photograph. It was a picture of a young girl, blonde, with a fringe. She was smiling for the camera as children are so often instructed, but the pretense seemed to convey a vulnerability, almost as if she was afraid of something. Lindenbaum pointed to another photograph in a frame on the shelf.

"That's my younger sister Rachel. She was born in the same year as the abducted girl, and that picture was taken about the same time as the abduction. She looks like Louisa, don't you think? Fortunately my sister is alive and well. Perhaps I may not have been so inclined to review the case if I hadn't seen this photograph."

He looked at the picture of Louisa for a moment longer, then placed it gently back in the box.

"Not long after it happened, my sister and I were walking to school, when we were questioned by a policeman who thought she might be the missing girl. After Louisa disappeared, everything changed. Every mother feared for her children after dark, even here in Amsterdam. Of course, there were abductions before, but Louisa - well, she just... vanished. After all this time it may take a lot more than just reasoning to find the truth."

Lindenbaum brushed a trace of cigar ash off his lapel and put on his spectacles.

"I was able to give a small hope to Maria Montpelier. One of the many pieces of evidence in the case was an invoice from a suspect, a gas-fitter called Franz Volke, dated a year before the disappearance. What do you observe?"

He handed me the bill, and I examined it carefully. It was a straightforward invoice to a government department for work the gas-fitter had done on some office buildings, but there were no fingerprints or anything remarkable that I could discern.

"I can't see anything unusual..."

"Neither did the police. But notice the date."

"January 6th, 1907. And the disappearance was in 1908?"

"It was. But let me ask you - have you ever, in January, mistakenly written the date using the previous year, on a cheque for example, out of habit? This invoice could have been written in January of 1908. Franz Volke was a person of interest, as he was known to police for misdemeanour offences, but like all their suspects, they could find nothing directly incriminating him. As the invoice was dated a year before the disappearance, it was understandably ignored. But evidence from two days before is another matter. The office buildings were close to the house of the abducted girl. I contacted the department - there are no records that go back as far as 1907, but one of the older clerks remembers extensive renovations by a number of recontracted tradesmen being done in the weeks leading up to the disappearance. So this invoice suggests there is a strong possibility that Franz Volke was in walking distance of the house, two days before the disappearance. Now, why did the police at the time find no evidence of Volke being one of those tradesmen? Well, perhaps a certain amount of work had to be done when the offices weren't being used... the gas-fitter could do his work without anyone seeing him often enough to remember him."

Lindenbaum extracted another photograph, and passed it to me. It was a picture of a middle-aged man.

"This is Franz Volke?" I asked.

"A very ordinary looking fellow, don't you think? If I took this away from you now, it would be difficult for you to describe him tomorrow. The invoice was at the very bottom of one of the boxes sent to me. As I'm sure you can imagine, the degree of care taken to examine evidence is usually proportional to the expectation of success. The policeman has to go through the motions of questioning every party, he has many other leads to follow, he must be responsible for what is given to the papers, and so forth. As is also the case with the Lindbergh trial, there was so much evidence, and so desperate a need to work through it quickly, that certain truths, by their indistinct nature, were easily overlooked. If the idea of the date of this invoice had occurred to the police, they would have more thoroughly investigated the possibility of Volke's participation in the renovations."

"You must have examined everything very slowly!"

"Indeed. Unlike the investigators at the time, I'm in no hurry, and I have an imagination. I've contacted the French police, and they'll attempt to trace this man. Although after twenty-seven years I doubt they'll find very much."

Lindenbaum sorted through some more papers, then found another that interested him.

"Here's a plan of the house. This is the kitchen, and this window was found open. Opinion was divided as to whether the little girl was taken through the window or somewhere else. There was a stool moved against the window, as if the kidnapper had used it to ease his exit."

Lindenbaum looked at the plan, then put it aside and briefly searched for another document. Then he looked from one to the other, then he stared into space for some minutes. Then he looked at me.

"Tell me Albert, would you like to travel to Amiens with me?"

Of course, I couldn't say no. We were able to arrange our travel quickly, and soon we were aboard a train. Once again I was travelling across the continent, only this time it was a quest to bring peace of mind to a mother still grieving after so many years. As our train moved along, Lindenbaum told me more about the case.

"Of the nine child abduction cases in France over the last thirty years, all have occurred in broad daylight, in public places. Almost all cases of kidnapping are solved - for better or worse - and generally the perpetrator has some association with the family. But despite a massive search and a reward of 5,000 francs offered some months later, no trace of Louisa has ever been found. It was unusually warm in Amiens that night, and there wasn't enough snow to hold any footmarks that could be traced. The little girl was put to bed at her usual bedtime of about seven o'clock, wearing a yellow night-dress, and holding her favourite stuffed toy, a blue bear. Her parents went to bed much later, at about eleven. Jan thought the front door was unlocked, but Maria thought it was locked. Neither were certain, and neither remember if the kitchen window was locked. Both parents claimed to be heavy sleepers. According to Maria, the passage light was usually left on for Louisa and then switched off by the last parent to bed. But that night, police say, Jan did not turn off the passageway light. At about five o'clock, Maria got up to go to the bathroom. She then noticed the passage light was off. Almost certainly, Louisa had already been taken from her bed.

"The next morning, Louisa was missing, the window was open, and the stool was beside it. The front door was locked. On the path outside the house a scrap of yellow fabric was found, which may or may not have been part of Louisa's night-dress. There was no sign of the bear. The police were unable to provide a clue after lengthy investigation. Suspects were questioned on the basis of circumstance or criminal record, but there was no obvious evidence against any of them. As the family weren't wealthy, ransom wasn't suspected as the motive, and of course no demand was received. The little girl's father was perhaps the main suspect at the time. Jan and Maria were arguing more and more in the days leading up to Louisa's kidnapping, and there was talk of him moving away. There are transcripts from a number of interviews which give one the impression of an angry and unpredictable man - the police had heard reports of drunken assaults on the wife, which she denied to the investigators. Maria also was interviewed at great length, and she was treated as a suspect. If it had been my investigation that wouldn't have been allowed to happen - as if any mother could be complicit in anything that would distress her child. It must have been a devastating experience for her. She came to my house, Albert - she was afraid that I'd send her away, but even after twenty-seven years she was driven by the memory of her loss, driven to try everything..."

Some idea had suddenly come to him, and he was lost in thought for some minutes. Then he spoke again.

"Well, you'll meet her. She no longer lives in the same house - she wanted to be far away from the memories of what had happened. But she still lives in Amiens. I did talk to her when she came to Amsterdam, but I'm constantly thinking of more things I'd like to ask her. And we're also going to Amiens to see the scene of the disappearance - I haven't been able to find any helpful description or photograph of the outside of the house."

We arrived in Amiens in the middle of the afternoon, organised our accommodation, and then made our way to where the Montpelier family had lived in 1908. It was a dull brick house half way along an unremarkable street. The air was cold and windy, and behind the dark branches of the bare trees lay yellow and grey evening clouds, the winter light that always seemed to stir sad memories. Lindenbaum stood in front of the house and looked at it, then looked about. He took his time, and occasionally stood in thought. Then he turned to me.

"So. You're the perpetrator, and you have motive. It's night-time. There's the kitchen window, and the front door. What do you do?"

"Well, er... surely one must determine if they are locked," I said.

"Very well. Let's try the window first. How would you do it?"

"The window is rather high. I'd need a ladder. It would sit easily on the paving stones underneath the window."

"Yes," he said, "and there would be no trace of it in the morning. But you wouldn't need a high ladder. A step ladder would do."

"Agreed."

"So you carry a step ladder with you through the streets at night, hoping to find a random house with the window unlocked, that may or may not contain a child you might care to abduct?"

I thought for a moment...

"Could he have found a ladder nearby?"

"And afterwards taken the ladder with him as well as the child? Surely it would have been easier just to go to some other house."

"Yes I suppose so. The front door then?"

"Very well," said Lindenbaum. "You don't have your ladder, but you're still making illegal entry into a random house. For robbery, perhaps, but to kidnap a child? Let us suppose there's a monster at large in the area, who has an evil interest in children. Would he seek his victim by entering a random house at night, and wandering through the rooms? Surely there are more subtle ways of abducting a little girl. And if this monster had previously seen the girl, and knew where she lived? That would make it only slightly more likely that he would enter the house. He could find other, less risky ways to kidnap her. The police speculated that the stool was possibly an attempt to divert suspicion toward a random prowler. I believe this is quite sound analysis. If one insists that our random kidnapper used the stool, he must also have used the step ladder he had brought with him along the streets of Amiens. No, Albert, everything seems to point to someone who was not a random opportunist. And then, all questions of whether or not the door or window were unlocked are inconsequential."

"And the other clues, the yellow fabric, the missing bear?"

Lindenbaum shrugged.

"They tell us nothing. If I had the yellow scrap I might be able to determine something. But it wasn't with the collection of evidence I was given. As for the bear, if Louisa knew her abductor, she was allowed to keep the bear, and if she was snatched by a random deviant, he may have decided not to remove it from her arms and risk waking her."

"But surely these are questions that the police would have examined at length?"

"I have evidence from the case, but only a small amount of analysis has been included. In some ways it might be better not to know what others thought, as it may distract me. But as I've mentioned, they also thought a random entry was unlikely. Which leaves us with the parents, or someone they knew. But so far I suspect we've uncovered nothing new here in Amiens. Now, let's return to our hotel... We may have received word from the police about our friend the gas-fitter."

Sure enough, there was a telegram for Lindenbaum. He read it quickly. I saw the resignation on his face.

"Bad news?"

"The fools have discovered absolutely nothing. Well, I suppose after twenty-seven years it was unwise to hold any hopes. I'm afraid we may have wasted our efforts. But who knows, we may still learn something from Maria Montpelier."

Maria's home was some distance away from the house where Louisa was abducted. We arrived there, and knocked on Maria's front door.

"Good afternoon, Maria, how are you?"

"Oh, Mister Lindenbaum, thank you for visiting."

"I'd like you to meet my friend, Albert Butler. He is helping me with my enquiries."

Maria looked at me without smiling, and Lindenbaum sensed her discomfort.

"There's nothing to be concerned about, I assure you. Albert is a retiree, and my friend. He will not intrude."

We entered Maria's house, and she invited us to sit down, then began to prepare tea.

"So, Maria, you and I discussed the disappearance of Louisa when you came to Amsterdam. We've been to your old house, and I've given the situation more thought. But there are a few things more that puzzle me."

Lindenbaum's attention was suddenly caught by something.

"Maria, that picture. Is that Louisa?"

Maria nodded, took a framed photograph from the mantelpiece and handed it to my friend. He looked at the picture for some moments, then stared into space, thinking, for some time. Maria sat unmoving, watching him... I noticed her hands beginning to tremble, ever so slightly.

Then Lindenbaum slowly handed the picture back to Maria, and looked directly at her.

"Maria, why did you ask me to solve a riddle to which you already know the answer?"

Maria Montpelier looked at him for a moment or two. Then she burst into tears, violent sobbing, tears of a mother's loss, of the pain she had been in for so long, wanting her little daughter back. We waited for her tears to abate... But after some minutes, Lindenbaum decided he must speak.

"A child's mother would never be complicit in anything that would harm her child. Maternal instinct is the strongest of all instincts, greater even than self preservation. This means that the mother may not be involved in the kidnapping of the child, but she might believe that remaining silent about the kidnapping is in the best interests of the child. What can have happened, so that you said nothing about what happened to Louisa, in the belief that it would protect her? And can the tradesman, Franz Volke, be a player in this sad drama as well? Of course, the great likelihood is that he must. He hasn't taken the girl for ransom, so what does he hope to gain? How could he ensure the silence of both parents? And how could this state of affairs have lasted for twenty-seven years, so that you came to me, with as strong a hope as ever that somehow your daughter could be found? Then I see this photograph. Unlike the one provided by the police, which was posed, this photograph is more candid. So much so, that one might more easily discern a family resemblance if one was to compare it to another photograph. The one we have of Franz Halke. Surely he is the girl's true father."

Maria offered no denial, but kept crying. Lindenbaum went on...

"He had taken to living and working as close to your family as he could, and when you and Jan's fighting grew to a point where the child was in danger, Franz felt he had to intervene, to protect his daughter. He hastily conceived a plan whereby he could take Louisa away from Jan, without giving Jan any opportunity to do anything about it. But perhaps Franz felt he had to leave the continent, to avoid the investigation, and took Louisa with him. Then, somehow, the lines of communication between you and Franz were severed. But you hoped that somewhere Louisa was still alive, and safe."

It took some time for Maria's sobs to weaken, and Lindenbaum and I waited patiently. Eventually she was able to speak through her tears.

"Yes, Mister Lindenbaum, you are right. Jan and I could not conceive a child. Louisa was the product of a moment's indiscretion - Franz was a good man, he was liked by everybody, and Jan had grown cold toward me. When Louisa was born, only I knew who her father was. But as the years went by, the marriage lost all the love it ever had, and eventually I decided to tell Franz the truth. He had lost so many years where he could have watched his daughter grow up, and yet he was not bitter. Jan and I had so much debt from our mortgage that Franz believed it would be too destructive to interfere. But eventually he saw that Jan was becoming consumed by anger, and he made a plan. I talked to Louisa, in the days leading up to the kidnapping, I told her that she had to go away, that she must trust Franz, that I would see her again soon. Then, on the night that we had planned, after Jan had gone to bed, I woke Louisa and we left the house, to where Franz was waiting. It took all my self control to say goodbye to my daughter, without making any noise that might wake Jan. I watched them go, and disappear into the darkness, wondering if I would ever see them again. Then I returned, locked the front door, opened the kitchen window and pushed the stool against it, to try to make it look like the exit of a prowler. But Franz must have decided that he must leave no trace whatsoever. And in doing so I lost contact with him. The investigation eventually ceased, and Jan died some years later. And I have spent twenty-seven years waiting for some sign that Louisa was somewhere in the world, and happy. I have thought about her every day, Mister Lindenbaum. Every day."

"But Maria, why didn't you tell me all of this?"

"Because my head told me to do one thing, and my heart another. What if you should look into this case, and not find Louisa, but uncover my own involvement? Then I might be found guilty of the crime, and worse off than before. And yet I had to do something, I had waited for so many years, not knowing. So against my better judgement, I decided to risk everything, and come to you, hoping that somehow you might find my daughter without discovering what had happened that night."

After a while, Lindenbaum gently took her hand, and said,

"I understand. Be brave, Maria, I haven't finished with this case, I promise you. Come, Albert, there's more work to be done!"

Even though the French police had found no trace of Franz, Lindenbaum's abilities and influence were greater, and by cross-referencing records of emigration against records of trade skills accreditation in other countries, within a month he was able to locate Franz and Louisa, who had moved to Australia not long after she was taken from her home in Amiens. Once again my friend had found the truth when all others had failed. Lindenbaum wrote to me some time later;

Dear Albert,

I want to thank you for the assistance you gave me in solving the disappearance of Louisa Montpelier. You may be pleased to learn that Maria has moved to Australia to be re-united with her daughter. From what I can tell, Franz is a good man, and he has raised Louisa as well as any loving father. She has grown up happily, married a piano teacher, and they have two children of their own. You may wonder why Franz never contacted Maria - the fact is that he suffered so much scrutiny from the police that he has spent twenty-seven years in fear that he and Louisa were still being hunted, and he could not bring himself to endanger her. But he told me that he believed what he did that night was the greatest thing he had done in his life.

I only wish that all such cases would end as happily.

Warmest regards,

Pieter

August, 2013

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