A whimsical look at life growing up in the small town of Waldron, Arkansas in the 1960s and 1970s, plus occasional observations from the present. Want to start at the very beginning? Click HERE.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Whatever Happened to Little Pearl?

This post is based on an article that appeared in the Feb. 11, 1979 edition of The Southwest Times Record newspaper.  The author of the story was historian Walter H. Watts.  This story is familiar to may long-time residents of Waldron.

It was Friday morning, October 19, 1923.  The little community of Tate was located between the Scott and Logan County line, in the remote White Oak Mountain region of Arkansas. 

Lynn Turner was a sharecropper.  He was out cutting firewood with two of his five children, Rosa and Ruby, when little three-year-old Pearl came out to where they were working.  Lynn told his two daughters to take Pearl back to the cabin so she wouldn't get hurt.  Rosa and Ruby gathered up a handful of wild huckleberries and bribed Pearl to follow; she did, and the girls left her in the front yard of the cabin and went back to help their father.  They left little Pearl sitting on a tree stump, eating the huckleberries. 

No one would ever see her again.

When the family gathered for the noon meal, Lela, Lynn's wife, asked, "Where is Pearlie?"  Only then did the family realize that Pearl was missing.  Leaving their infant son with Nola, Lela's unmarried sister, the family began a frantic search.  They soon found tracks in the dirt road leading to White Oak Mountain, two miles away.

More tracks appeared along the road nearer to the mountain, and at the base of the mountain, where the tracks stopped, lay a little hankie that Rosa had made from a flour sack for Pearl that morning.  It would be the last piece of physical evidence of little Pearl ever found.

Lynn and Lela Turner in 1969.  They died wondering.
Frantic by now, Lynn rode to the home of hid landlord, L.P. Wilson, and requested help in organizing a search party.  Before dark, a posse of more than 25 men led by Sheriff Allen of Scott County arrived and began searching the area where the last tracks were found.  With darkness approaching, and the temperature dropping, Lela Turner searched frantically with the posse, crying, "Oh, my poor baby- out there in the dark and cold.  Please find her!"

The long night passed with no trace of little Pearl.  At dawn, more volunteers from Waldron arrived, and by noon, volunteers from Booneville showed up to help with the search.  Sheriff Allen lined the men up 20 paces apart and told them to march forward, searching the entire area carefully. 

All day, volunteers arrived on horses, in wagons and buggies, and on foot, to help with the search. 

The Sunday edition of the Southwest American newspaper in Fort Smith carried the front-page headline "SCORES JOIN HUNT FOR LOST MOUNTAIN CHILD."  Monday brought more searchers from Fort Smith and Oklahoma.  One man arrived in a Model T Ford, which was the first car the Turner children had ever seen.

From Booneville, a man named Walker arrived with bloodhounds, and Lela Turner was beside herself with joy.  "I dreamed about you!" she told him.  "You're the man I saw find my baby in a dream last night!   I'm going to stay with you until you find her." 

The hounds, however, were unable to pick up any scent, and and Sheriff Allen advised Walker to call them off.

That night, the mountain looked like a giant Christmas tree, with lights from campfires scattered across the slope.

The next day, trucks furnished by OK Transfer and Storage Company in Fort Smith arrived, carrying Boy Scouts of America, Boy Rangers of Arkansas, and new camping supplies for the searchers.  More wagon loads of supplies and searchers continued to arrive over the rough mountain road.  A wagon loaded with groceries and supplies arrived, bearing a placard that read "From The Ku Klux Klan of Mansfield, Arkansas."

The search dragged on for days.  The cold weather, and the hungry packs of wolves that lingered around campsites drawn by the smell of food diminished all hope.  Lynn and Lela Turner searched along with the volunteers until they were forced by exhaustion to return to their cabin to rest.

On Sunday, October 28, services were suspended in all area churches in Waldron and Booneville and a call was made for more searchers.  Repeated searches with no success led most of the searchers to believe that Little Pearl had been kidnapped.

Frustrated by failure, the attitude of the searchers changed to sullen suspicion.  Muttering groups of searchers assembled in the Turner's yard began to demand that the Turners tell what they had done with the child. 

Others pointed a finger of suspicion at a community resident known as "Preacher," the leader of a small religious group.  He had been at the cabin throughout the search, but never joined in with the searchers, choosing instead to sit on the porch.  He was known to be fond of Pearl.  The sheriff was urged to arrest him for suspicion, but Sheriff Allen was too busy with the search to do it. 

By the third week of the search, people began coming out of the woodwork.  A fortune teller arrived in a car from Hot Springs, telling Lela Turner she would help locate the child.  In a vision, she saw the child being held captive in a home in the community.  A posse was dispatched to the designated home, but the child was not there.  Then, the fortune teller said that Pearl was being transferred from house to house by the kidnappers.  The posse searched every house in the Tate community, but did not find Pearl.  The uproar, however, caused even more people to turn against the Turners.

It was discovered that, on the morning Pearl had disappeared, a man had visited the Turners at the cabin and had then proceeded on foot on the road toward the mountain.  When this became known, it turned many neighbors who had been kind and concerned into an angry mob.  The man, of course, was never seen again. 

From Magazine Mountain 20 miles to the east, an eccentric mountaineer known as Hermit arrived with a report of having seen little Pearl.  Two days earlier, he said, he had seen Pearl, who he knew well, sleeping on a bed at the home of a man on the outer edge of the mountain community.  On the basis of this report, the man, his wife, and their 17 year old son were arrested as material witnesses.  When Hermit failed to appear at the hearing, the family was released.

Nothing was known of Hermit's background except that he had appeared in the mountains as a wandering poet and writer of songs, which he delighted in teaching to the small children of the community.  

From Malvern came a report of a man and a woman passing through in a covered wagon with a child fitting the description of Pearl.  The Hot Springs County Sheriff sent a posse to intercept the couple, but they were able to produce proof that the child was theirs.

From Hodgens, Oklahoma came word of a couple passing through with a child that also matched the description of Pearl.  The man, it was reported, told people at a grocery store that they had found the child wandering in the woods near Waldron and, believing her to be abandoned, had taken her with them.  A Leflore County posse was sent out to look for the couple, but after a week of searching, returned to report no trace of the mysterious couple.

Another report came from the owner of the Atalee Hotel on Garrison Avenue in Fort Smith, who told of a man with a little child fitting Pearl's description staying at the hotel, then catching a train to Oklahoma. 

In a strange development, Lela Turner was taken secretly to Fort Smith to spend the night at the home of the Matron of the Missouri Pacific train depot.  The matron had engaged two clairvoyants to interview Mrs. Turner.  They assured Lela that the child was well, happy, and would return in due time.  On the return trip home, Lela told two companions that she felt at peace about Pearlie for the first time.

On November 8th, the Southwest American ran the headline "MISSING TURNER CHILD REPORTEDLY FOUND IN OKLAHOMA."  A child abandoned by an itinerant construction worker at a boarding house in Picher, Oklahoma was believed to be Pearl.  The man had shown up at the boarding house the week of Pearl's disappearance, telling the owner that the child was his daughter Elizabeth.  The owner, seeing that the child fit the published description of the missing girl, asked the child her name.  "Elizabeth," she replied, "but it used to be Pearl Turner."  The child went on to tell the woman that she used to live in a place where "the hills were all covered with trees."  She left, she said, "when a man and a nice lady" promised her candy, a new dress, and stockings if she would go with them.  The owner of the boarding house contacted her local sheriff, who contacted Sheriff Allen in Waldron. 

Sheriff Allen was getting a haircut at a barber shop in Waldron when he received the telegram.  "Whoops!" he shouted.  "Little Pearl is alive!"

The little girl thought to be Pearl Turner
The wave of gladness that through the community was short-lived however.  When Lela Turner was shown a newspaper photograph of the child in Picher, she said, "It looks kind of like her, but it's not my Pearl."  When the man called Hermit saw the picture, however, he said, "No doubt about it, that's little Pearl."  The manager of the Artelee Hotel in Fort Smith also identified the child as the one that had stayed at his hotel. 

Meanwhile, the drifter who had abandoned the child at the boarding house in Oklahoma was arrested, and when questioned, maintained that the child was his daughter Elizabeth, and that he had left her to await the arrival of her mother to pick her up.  This proved to be false, since it was soon discovered that his wife had been dead for three years. 

Under further questioning, it was discovered that the man had been in Fort Smith at the time of Pearl's disappearance.  To further cloud the issue, he had in his possession the license plate of the Fort Smith clairvoyant who had joined in the search for the child.  The man had no explanation for this curious detail, and it remains one of the inexplicable facets of the case.

Area citizens raised money to send Lela to Picher to see the child at the boarding house.  The Southwest American newspaper provided funds to send Hermit as well.  He told the newspaper that they would know for sure if the child was Pearl, because she would recognize him at once. 

Lela Turner and her oldest child arrived at Picher on the same train as Hermit.  However, Hermit was first to arrive at the boarding house.  When Lela and her daughter arrived, he was sitting on the porch of the boarding house with the child on  his lap.  When Lela and Rosa approached, Hermit asked the child, "What is your name?"  The little girl replied "It's Pearl Turner, and I have a little dog named Robbie."  Lela told Rosa to check the child to see if she had a scar on her rib cage, and Rosa did so, reporting that there was no scar.

"It's not my Pearlie," said Lela.  She left for the railroad depot to return to Arkansas.  Hermit, however, insisted that the little girl was Pearl, and that she sang a little chorus that he had once taught her. 

Lela Turner returned, heavy-hearted, to the little mountain community of Tate.  Hermit returned to his retreat on Magazine Mountain, still insisting the child in Picher was the missing Pearl.  Hermit remained on good terms with the Turners and continued to visit them as long as they lived in Tate.

On November 18th, the last headline about the Turner case appeared in the Southwest American; "NEW HUNT TO BE ORGANIZED IN HILL SECTION."  The proposed new search never materialized, however, and the Turner story disappeared from the newspapers just as little Pearl had disappeared into the White Oak Mountains.  One searcher, however, never gave up.  When winter came and the snows fell, hunters would often encounter Lela Turner wandering in the mountains, crying "Pearlie?  Pearlie?  Where are you?"

When spring came, the Turners left to share crop a farm near Booneville.  Later, they moved to Oklahoma, and then to California, where they remained.  Lynn Turner passed away in 1970, and Lela in 1973. 

Many questions remain about the disappearance of little Pearl Turner.  It is a mystery that will never be solved.

This is a retelling of the story written by Walter Watts that appeared in the Southwest Times Record newspaper.



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