The Strange Disappearance of Russell E. Smith
By William F. Hanna
Here’s a story that describes two intersecting tragedies, and it shows yet again that despite the wonderful information-gathering power of the Internet, some historical events will always defy our efforts to fit them into a coherent narrative.
In June 1923 a young boy was found abandoned on a busy street corner in the Loop section of Chicago. When questioned by authorities he was dazed and uncommunicative, but he was able to say that his name was Arthur Tyne and that he was six-years-old. The boy’s left eye was crossed, and he labored under a speech impediment, but as authorities gained his trust, he was able to tell them a bit more about himself. Young Arthur had no clue as to where he lived, but police were shocked when he told them that his mother had shot and killed his father. He even acted the scene in pantomime for them, but beyond that, he couldn’t add any details.
Arthur was put in the care of the Illinois Children’s Home and Aid Society, which placed him in a boarding house with a benevolent landlady. After several weeks of working with a speech pathologist he was able to tell more of what he remembered. He talked about having two fathers, one a tailor and the other a railroad shopman. He also said he had two mothers, one light-skinned and the other a dark-complexioned woman who wore glasses. He recalled that he had once lived in an apartment near water, and that he had been to New York and St. Louis and had ridden all night in an automobile to get to Chicago. He told the detectives that he had a brother George, a sister Susie, and a “baby Dolly.”
There was one final location Arthur was able to remember, and he called it “Eatontown,” or sometimes just “ton ton.” One of Arthur’s fellow boarders was from Boston, and to him it seemed as if the boy was trying to say Taunton, or perhaps East Taunton. Based on that, Massachusetts authorities were notified and state and local police in Taunton were asked to investigate.
Two things happened when the search for Arthur’s identity moved east. First, it was found that there had been a George F. Tyne (actually spelled Tine) living in Taunton, and he had indeed been employed by the railroad. When he died suddenly (of natural causes) in February 1917, his obituary in the Taunton Daily Gazette mentioned other family members living in Frankport, New York. Police in that town investigated potential ties to young Arthur, but none were found.
The possibility that Arthur had once lived in the Taunton area was widely publicized in the press and this brought additional, if unintended, sorrow. Into the story stepped Mrs. Clarence A. Smith, who lived on present-day Route 44 in Dighton, just over the Taunton line. Four years earlier, on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in April 1919, Mrs. Smith’s four-year-old son Russell had disappeared without a trace while playing in his backyard. A massive search over many days found no sign of the boy and his parents remained distraught. Although there was never an official explanation for the boy’s disappearance, many local people believed that “gypsies” had kidnapped him. In those days it was not uncommon to see bands of transients traveling together, often using wagons pulled by horses or ponies. Labeled “gypsies,” they were blamed for just about everything bad that happened while they were around.
Because the Smiths had little in the way of financial resources, there was no money to hire private detectives to continue the search for Russell. Clara Smith, heart-broken and desperate, turned to clairvoyants for help. Based on the assertion of a soothsayer, she became convinced that Arthur Tyne was actually her missing son. Armed with photographs which she thought would confirm Russell’s identity, she headed to Chicago to petition the court to grant her custody of the child called Arthur Tyne.
It wasn’t easy. First, Mrs. Smith found that another woman — who was only identified in the press as someone having significant resources — wanted custody of Arthur and would contest her application. Whether or not Mrs. Smith’s recent history was made known to the court is unclear, but this was not the first time she had claimed a distressed child as her own. In 1922, her attention had been drawn to the plight of a French Canadian boy named Bobby Beede, who while traveling by pony cart through Maine (gypsies!) had told bystanders that Eugene Choquette, his mother’s husband, had cruelly whipped him. This was widely reported in the press and after consulting with a psychic, Mrs. Smith stepped forward, convinced that Bobby Beede was really her Russell and that Choquette had stolen him three years earlier. Taunton police had Choquette arrested and returned to Massachusetts, where he was jailed while they searched for enough evidence to support a charge of kidnapping. Meanwhile, Bobby was placed in the custody of the Smiths, whose prayers had apparently been answered.
This made for a heart-warming story, but it came apart quickly. Eugene Choquette quite easily proved that he was nowhere near Dighton in April 1919, and not long after, a blood test confirmed that Bobby was indeed the son of Gertrude Beede, Eugene Choquette’s wife. The boy was taken from the Smiths and placed in a foster home.
Whether the Chicago juvenile court took this into consideration in deciding the Arthur Tyne case we’ll never know. Mrs. Smith put up a stubborn fight and the judge decided to grant her petition, with conditions, and over the objections of the other claimant. She would be given custody of Arthur Tyne for a period of three months, during which she would make doubly sure that the boy was really her son. As for Arthur — now called Russell — it was off to Dighton, Massachusetts by train.
Not surprisingly, it did not take Mrs. Smith three months to decide that Arthur Tyne was not her missing son. She said that she came to this realization because of two things. First, the contour of the boy’s head was dissimilar to Russell’s, and second, young Arthur could not possibly be her son because he had no respect for her or anyone else. He was very poorly behaved, to put it mildly, and she notified the Chicago court that she was returning the child. Several newspapers unkindly reported that she was “disowning” the boy.
How Arthur felt about all of this went unrecorded, but in the first week of September 1924, John Hallahan, an agent for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, took him to the Taunton Central Depot and bought two tickets to Chicago. Only one was for a round trip.
And this is where our story begins to unravel. Upon his arrival in Chicago, Arthur, homeless again, was placed in the custody of child services, where he drifted into obscurity. Four years later his name briefly resurfaced when an anonymous, but allegedly wealthy, benefactor expressed an interest in adopting him and funded a highly publicized campaign to establish his whereabouts. Part of this involved a nationwide radio broadcast that recounted his abandonment and discovery, as well as Mrs. Smith’s part in the story. When neither Arthur nor anyone else came forward with additional information, the plan was scrapped and Arthur was again forgotten.
From there, we can only wonder what happened to this unfortunate child. Did the unknown philanthropist eventually find the boy, and did Arthur finally get to enjoy the many things in life that he had so far missed? Or as seems more likely, was he the Arthur Tyne who appears in the 1940 Federal Census, twenty-four years old, unmarried and with only a seventh-grade education? This young man, born in Illinois but living in Cass County, Michigan, worked as a laborer on a small farm. We may never know, because from there he disappears from the records.
While Arthur Tyne may never have had a real connection to Taunton, the Smith family certainly did. Clarence and Clara Smith left their Dighton home in 1929 and moved to a house at 125 Burt Street. Living with their daughter Helen, who was born after Russell’s disappearance, they continued to grieve for their lost boy. In 1934, Mrs. Smith came to believe that a fifteen-year-old orphan living in Barre, Vermont was actually the son who had been kidnapped by gypsies, but this too turned to bitter disappointment. Clarence Smith died in 1951 at age seventy-five. Clara outlived him by fourteen years; she was eighty-three when she joined her husband in the family plot in the Stevens Corner Cemetery in Rehoboth. Russell Smith, who would have been fifty-years-old when his mother died, was never found.