Tennessee

Young girl abducted, found dead after countless ransom notes sent to parents from across the country

September 19, 1934
Nashville, Tennessee
5-year-old Dorothy Ann Distlehurst is abducted

Dorothy was last seen leaving her kindergarten to walk the three blocks home on the afternoon of September 19. When she failed to arrive home at her normal time, her mother called police. Dorothy’s abduction occurred as the Lindbergh baby kidnapping trial was still being conducted, and ransom notes began to pour in to the Distlehurst family, postmarked from around the country. One came from New York and, against the advice of the police, Mr. Distlehurst traveled there to pay a man his $5,000 ransom. It was later discovered, when the man was arrested for attempted extortion, he had never been to Nashville. Another postcard demanding a $175,000 ransom, threatening to burn Dorothy Ann’s eyes out with acid if not paid, came from Georgia.

On November 13, Dorothy Ann’s nude, badly decomposing body was found in a shallow grave. The medical examiner determined she had been bludgeoned to death and acid was used to burn her face. It was the examiner’s opinion the acid was used to conceal her identity rather than used for torture. (If the acid was intended to hide her identity, it didn’t work; Dorothy Ann was positively identified by her dentist.) It was also concluded that her body had been stored in a corrugated cardboard box for at least two weeks before her body was found.

Several theories were formed attempting to explain why Dorothy Ann was killed, two of which — a ransom theory and a sexual assault theory — seem the most likely. As noted, the Lindbergh baby kidnapping was still fresh in the minds of Americans, and while the majority of the ransom letters were hoaxes, one may have been genuine. It is also unknown if the Georgia acid threat was sent by Dorothy’s killer or if the mentioning of acid was mere coincidence. As for the “sex fiend” theory, as newspapers occasionally called the killer, while a medical examination of Dorothy’s body showed no evidence of sexual penetration, she may have been targeted for sexual assault and killed while resisting.

Though local law enforcement received federal assistance, the case eventually went cold. Dorothy Ann’s murder remains unsolved.

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