Like all good mysteries it began with a crime, a crime so unsettling that it disturbed people in what is supposed to have become a jaded time. It was compounded by the setting -- a small rural town -- and by the suspect, an elderly lady, recently deceased, but in her lifetime a respected member of the community.
Stella Williamson was her name. She was a spinster, and she had lived her whole life in Gallitzin. A fine lady, the neighbors say, hard-working and kind. She scrubbed the floors of the United Methodist Church, of which she was an officer, and made hoagies for the firemen's benefit. After she sickened and the diabetes took her leg, she would sit on the rocking chair of her gray frame house and tease the kids as they went by. She was a sucker for kids, playing with them, cuddling them, cooking them little treats.
So it was a shock -- after Stella Williamson died late this summer -- when the people going through her effects found a note, to be opened only after her burial, and even more of a shock to see what lay in an attic trunk.
There were the bodies of five babies, dead, according to the papers they were wrapped in, about 40 to 50 years. And then there was the mysterious note, which the people would not release at first. It was still pained, still angry even after all those years. She had written it 20 years ago when she had gone to the hospital for an operation.
"Today I started to bleed," it began, "and I want to make things right if anything should happen to me . . ."
The town of Gallitzin is small. It had a population of 2,413 at the last census and is the sort of town where everyone knows everyone else -- at least to say hello -- and many are related. It's a depressed town financially. Most of the people go to work in Altoona, nine miles east, or 36 miles west to Johnstown. It's a town where many people get by only because of Social Security and pension checks or because their home has been theirs for generations.
That was Stella Williamson's case. Born in Gallitzan in 1904, she lived in a somewhat dilapidated, three-story wooden frame house and, as much as anyone can determine, made her living from keeping a boarder. His name was Guy Schrack, and he had boarded in the Williamson household for 35 years, ever since his wife had died. But he was, by all accounts, not simply a boarder -- he was a man who was devoted to Stella Williamson. In the last five years of her life, when she was in her early 70s and had lost her leg because of diabetes, he pushed her to church in her wheelchair. It was a sight both comical and sad: a tiny, frail man pushing a big, heavy-set woman.
He built a special ramp to the house to accommodate her wheelchair and on fine days he'd go off with her and they would garden on the little bit of property left to Stella by her brother. A gentle and sentimental man, Schrack. During the last week of her life, when Stella was in the hospital, it was enough to make him cry just to ask how she was.
This past August, in Altoona Hospital, Stella Williamson died. There were few people at her funeral, her preacher recalls barely a dozen, and only two small bouquets. Following the funeral, Schrack went through the house to determine whether Stella had left a will and found instead a letter.
"To be opened after my burial," the envelope said. It spoke of babies, the bodies of babies, in the attic. Schrack, too shaken to go and see for himself, notified the local funeral director who in turn notified the police.
"We went in the house and took possession of the attic and observed the trunk in the corner of the attic," reported state trooper Sgt. John Pudliner. "We carried it out and opened the lid and observed at least one child . . ."
Subsequent examination revealed five. Decomposed, the bones falling away, they were wrapped in newspapers dating from 1923 to 1933. Four of the infants, based on preliminary examinations at the local hospital were at least full-term; one was older, possibly up to a year old. The reasons for death were not determined.
Experts were called in, including a medical examiner from Philadelphia and a noted anthropologist from Lancaster who had researched the mummified remains of Ramses III centuries after the pharoh's death. A month went by, and the talk in Gallitzin increased. The contents of the letter were not revealed. Neither the police nor Guy Schrack were talking. The rumors flew. That Stella Williamson's mother had been a midwife and that's how the babies were delivered. That the Williamson household was a brothel. That Stella Williamson's mother had been an abortionist. Folks started to analyze Stella's character as they never had in her lifetime. Some recalled that she was a bit reclusive, never inviting people into her house except for Schrack's relatives.
It's hard to go solving mysteries in the past, hard when the clues are 50 or 70 years old and people remember things so differently and so many who might remember are gone. What is a memory anyway, but a wisp of a thing, and who can ever say whether the wisps were real?
Nevertheless, the few remaining in Gallitzin who remember the Williamson family say that Stella's father, Alfred, was a railroad man and that her two older brothers were railroad men, too. They can remember nothing special about Stella's father, a pleasant man, quiet. Stella's mother, that's another story.
"Strict," the few neighbors who remember her say, "nasty." A go to hell three times a day Catholic," they say, though that wasn't her religion, just to turn a phrase. "One of those work-six-day-a-week people and on the seventh day you repent your whole life." She kept a tight rein on Stella, a tall, heavy-set, plain-looking girl, and kept her in the house, kept her tied down. She seemed to rule the roost at home as well. She got the deed to the property in her name alone, not her husband's, at a time when it usually worked the other way around. She left the house to Stella as long as she didn't marry. She was the sort who'd keep track of the unwed mothers in town, the sort who'd count the months a woman and man had been married before they had their baby. One woman said she'd cross the street just to keep shy of her.
This shouldn't give the wrong idea about Gallitzin when Stella Williamson was a girl, the Gallitzin the way it is today with one shirt factory and the demolition on Main Street and the porches all boarded up to make sunrooms. Gallitzin the way the mayor's wife, Ursula Schlosser, describes it back then: "People would take walks Sunday evenings and talk to the neighbors . . . we had the coal minin' then and the railroad and there wasn't any bigger thrill than to go around The Horseshoe Curve on a railroad train; sit out back so you could see the locomotive comin' around up front . . . dances? You bet there were dances; the Oriental, that's the big ballroom closed down now, and the American Legion Hall, Guy Lombardo, Fred Waring . . . .
But Stella Williamson, tall, heavy Stella Williamson whose father worked on the railroad and mother kept count of all the scandals in town, where was Stella Williamson when all the good times were going on? The Gallitzan public school records do not show her graduating. They show her only having completed the eighth grade, a good B student, though a little old at the age of 16.
After graduation, the local people say, she stayed home, and never had a job. But whether she dated or not, or had a happy social life, there again is a mystery. Leona Leonard, who lives over on Quarry Street and grew up with Stella, said that Stella did date. "I used to always see her with different boyfriends when I was younger, I always used to wonder about it." Perhaps, because, as Leonard said, "She was never killed with beauty." Then there's Pauline Drass over on Church Street who said much the same: Stella had gone with her brother for years, Pauline said; some people thought they might even get married, but they were different religions and they drifted after Pauline's brother went into the Navy. Yet the mayor of Gallitzin, seven years younger than Stella but friendly with her family, remembers it differently.
"She didn't go out a whole lot," he said. "She was a homebody, ordinary looking, a recluse even in her younger days; she didn't mix."
And there's the question of those babies; who delivered them, and how they died, and who even knew they existed. Stella's father died in 1930, after the first of the babies was born. Stella's mother did not die until 1942, well after the birth of the last baby. But what exactly happened in that household and who was responsible for the babies' death? That's also a mystery.
Yesterday, science did what it could for the case of Stella Williamson. The state police, county coroner, and a local pathologist held a press conference at the Pennsylvania National Guard Armory here and announced their findings.
They reported that the first two children to be born to Miss Williamson, those who had been wrapped in newspapers from 1925 and 1927, had died of undetermined causes, and that the three remaining children, one of whom may have been as old as a year, had been ruled homicides. They were precise in speaking of homicides. The death of the third child, aged between three and six months and wrapped in a newspaper from 1929, was by strangulation. The death of the fourth child, aged nine to 12 months, in 1932, was by strangulation and asphyxiation, and the death of the final child in 1933 was by strangulation.
They were graphic in their description: "Strangulation was performed with a piece of cloth that was wrapped around the baby's neck and used in a noose fashion and in the case of one death the end of the cloth had been formed into a tight ball and jammed into the mouth of the baby."
There was no speculation about motive. Police acknowledged that a man had been named in Stella Williamson's letter and said that he was alive and living in the area, but was in no way implicated in the deaths and could not be of assistance. "The man's mental condition is deplorable and he is in a state of bad health and can give us no information and his wife can give us no informtion," the coroner said.
The pathologist, Dr. Sidney Goldblatt, of Johnstown Memorial Hospital, confined most of his remarks to medical tests. He spoke of infanticide only when pressed, saying that it often occurs after a child is a year old "when stress builds up" and adding that it is not even an uncommon crime. In the city of Philadelphia, for example, there were about 25 infanticides a year.
"What's unusual here is that the infants were kept," he said. "What's unusual is that they were stored in the house as a tomb."
That, in effect, left the final comments on the case to come from Stella Williamson herself, in a letter the police finally released, the letter she wrote 20 years ago, when she thought she was going to die.
"Today, I started to bleed and I want to make things right if anything should happen to me. In the attic in an old trunk you will find babies I had to [person's name deleted] 30 years or more. How I got away with I don't no but I did so I don't want anyone else to be blamed for something they know nothing about. This is one reason I could never marry anyone else. I have lived a good life sense so as God is my judge this is the truth. Please forgive me if you can. Stella."
There is also one small statement within the letter the police have released: "He never wanted me. Only something to play with and I was a fool in his hands."