Monday, January 29, 2024

Skeleton in the Fireplace: A Note on the Old Lady and the Poor Child in Agatha Christie's Mystery Fiction and the Gruesome Discoveries in Baltimore in 1950


The discovery, a bloodcurdling one, made newspaper headlines in April 1950.

The previous year thirty-eight-year-old divorcee Marie Plage and her seventeen-year-old daughter Janie had moved into the small second-story apartment in a somewhat decrepit three-story row house at 1804 East Pratt Street in downtown Baltimore, Marie's native city.  Marie had recently parted ways with her husband of nearly two decades, Richard Plage of Rochester, New York, who had worked as a bus driver and cabbie.  To help support herself and her daughter, she now operated a sewing machine in a factory while Janie completed her senior year in high school.  

The mother and daughter had come to Baltimore from Rochester, New York and presumably taken the place on Pratt Street because Marie's young uncle, Fredrick Scheidegger, an electrical pump operator with the Baltimore Water Department, lived at the apartment below, along with his wife Catherine, a "janitress" at the Baltimore County Board of Education, and their daughter Marilyn, a teenager like Janie.  

the house on Pratt Street
The skeletons were found behind
 the fireplace on the second floor.
The woman's suicide  had taken
place on the ground floor.  
Were the two terrible events
somehow horribly linked?

On the night of April 12th, 1950, the ex-Mrs. Plage to her vexation inadvertently allowed her wedding ring to slip through a crack in the fireplace mantelpiece.  The ring then dropped into the fireplace hearth, which had been long concealed behind a sheet of tin. These sorts of frustrating everyday mishaps have happened to us all, but what happened next was decidedly, thankfully unusual.  

Prying the sheet loose so that she could recover her ring, Mrs. Plage discovered in the hearth an old bundle of cloth, which she proceeded to lift up in her arms and unwrap.  Was there some lost treasure hidden in the fireplace?  Not exactly that....

A few second later Marie was running down the stairs to her uncle's place, screaming at every panicked step.  After she had hysterically babbled her story out to Fred, he investigated upstairs.  Then he came back down and grimly rang up the police.  Fred informed the authorities that his niece had just discovered a cloth-wrapped skeleton in the concealed hearth of her fireplace, a skeleton the size of a human baby.

It got worse.  The investigating policemen, Sergeant Blair Overton and Patrolmen Edward Kelly and Charles Lambdin, discovered two more bundles in the fireplace, these both wrapped with newspapers, the one set dating from 1921, the other from 1923.  These two packets both contained skeletons as well.  Medical examiner Dr. William Kammer confirmed that all three sets of remains were human.  

the staircase at the house

The story hit the press around the country the next day: "Skeletons of Three Babies Found" ran the horrific headlines. 

Soon Baltimore police were investigating the matter of who had lived at the house at 1804 East Pratt Street in the early 1920s, the dated newspapers being their initial clue.  The residents in question turned out to be the family of George Schaub, a twice-married plumber who had died three years previously in 1947 at the age of 71.  

George Schaub had married first, a few years after the turn of the century, to Frances Plitt, who had died in 1914 at the age of thirty and was the mother of George's daughter Louisa and his eldest son, Charles.  

After France Schaub's untimely death in 1914 George the next year wed Anna Strauss, who in rapid succession between August 1916 and December 1919 bore him three additional sons: George, Albert and Frederick. That is three sons in a little over three years.   Doubtlessly Anna Strauss Schaub was a hard-pressed mother.  

The Schaubs moved into the Pratt Street place, which appears to have been Anna's former home, after their 1915 marriage.  Five years later Anna resided there with husband George, her teenage stepchildren Louisa, 15, and Charles, 14, and her own three sons, aged 3, 1 and one month.  Twelve years later, Louisa had married and moved away, but Charles, who worked as a delivery driver for the Sun newspaper, still resided at the place on Pratt Street, along with his father and stepmother and his three half-brothers.  

house in Pratt Street at time of
discovery of trio of skeletons

In December of that Depression year, 1932, less than three weeks before Christmas, young George Schaub, age sixteen, was awakened in his second-floor bedroom by the smell of gas fumes wafting up from the ground floor.  Going downstairs he discovered his mother unconscious on the sitting room couch with a piece of gas tubing, connected to the kitchen range, in her mouth.  

Anna Strauss Schaub was rushed to the hospital, but efforts to revive her proved futile.  The coroner in charge of the case pronounced a verdict of suicide.  Questioned by Sergeant Cornelius Murphy of the Baltimore police, young George Schaub declared he could offer no opinion as to why his mother would have committed suicide.  What the other family members said was not reported.

Anna' Schaub's self-destruction by asphyxiation made the news again in 1950, when the trio of bundled baby skeletons was discovered in the second floor fireplace of the former Schaub home, which had been divided into two apartments after the death in 1947 of George Schaub, Sr.  "Skeleton Case Inquiry Bares 1928 Suicide," the Baltimore Sun reported, missing the right date by four years.  

The paper's informant was Charles Schaub, who was still unmarried (he would die a bachelor at the age of sixty in 1966) and still employed by the Sun.  Charles confessed both that his father had frequently been an insufficient provider for his family and that his stepmother had made several previous attempts to kill herself, frequently complaining of her poor health.*  

*(You might have noticed, by the way, that virtually all of the actors in this true life tale were of German descent.  By 1914 people of German descent comprised nearly 100,000 of the inhabitants of Baltimore, one-fifth of the city's population.  Many of them were fluent in the German language.)  

With the report of Anna Strauss Schaub's long-ago depression and suicide, that, as they say, was that, at least as far as newspapers were concerned.  There appears to have been no additional reporting on the matter, leaving us to ask our own questions about the dreadful affair.  

Had Anna given additional births in the early Twenties and, suffering from postpartum psychosis, killed these infants?  Had she miscarried?  Were her husband and her elder stepchildren complicit in covering-up the tragedies?  But how could three infant deaths in one family in a Baltimore row house have been concealed so well and so long (nearly three decades)?  Yet if the killer was not Anna and the victims not additional children she had born (or miscarried), how on earth had the skeletons gotten there, hidden behind a tin screen in Schaub fireplace?  Whose children had they been, in that case?  Truly, a conundrum.

another look at the house on Pratt Street


The above accounts all were made in American newspapers between Apr. 12-14, 1950.  On April 15, however, the story about butchered babies in Baltimore was picked up in English newspapers, in a brief AP story, which was nothing more than a snippet.  It one paper it was seven items down in the Little Despatches column, right below news of American comedian's Jack Benny's coming appearance at the London Palladium (see below right).

Skeletons found--skeletons of three babies, dead for more than 25 years, were discovered behind a boarded-up fireplace in a house in Baltimore, U.S.A.  

covered-up for over 25 years

In 1950, Agatha Christie was making, according to authority John Curran, her final revisions to Sleeping Murder, a Miss Marple detective novel she originally composed a decade earlier and then thriftily set aside for publication after her death.  In that novel there occurs an eerie little incident which will repeat itself in two later Agatha Christie mysteries, The Pale Horse (1961) and By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968).  While visiting a care home married protagonists Giles and Gwenda encounter an old, white-haired lady holding a glass of milk, who leans toward Gwenda and asks: "Is it your poor child, my dear?...Behind the fireplace...."  

In The Pale Horse, a character recalls having encountered at a mental home a "nice elderly elderly lady...sipping a glass of milk," who leans forward and asks him: "Is it your poor child who's buried there behind the fireplace?"

Seven years later it's By the Pricking of My Thumbs and series character Tuppence Beresford, wife of Tommy, who at a care home is approached by Mrs. Lancaster, an old, white-haired lady with a glass of milk in her hand who says: "I see you're looking at the fireplace....was it your poor child?...That's where it is, you know.  Behind the fireplace."

Writers on Agatha Christie have often speculated on the recurrence of this unsettling incident in the Christie canon, asking whether we are to take it that this is the same elderly lady on each occasion or rather to assume that a forgetful Christie just did not remember that she had used this "bit" before.  In either case, the macabre notion of a baby's skeleton buried behind a fireplace (coupled with a seemingly sweet old woman making the ghoulish revelation) clearly captured Christie's imagination at some point.  

Could the Queen of Crime in April 1950 have read the AP snippet, quoted above, about skeletons of babies having been discovered behind a boarded-up fireplace in Baltimore?  The incident seems quite on point, aside from the brilliantly incongruous addition of the elderly lady, which contributes  another layer of creepiness to it.  

Of course anyone of Christie's generation would have known about "baby farms," those ghastly for-profit orphanages where unwanted babies were neglected and even murdered.  Concerning them you read accounts of skeletons dug up from unmarked graves and the like, but the detail of skeletons behind a fireplace seems very particular to the Baltimore case.  Also the fact that the deaths were long in the past.  

It would not be the first time Christie got ideas for her books from true crimes....


  1. I have to say, I found the old lady and the baby behind the fireplace to be incredibly creepy. Finding out there was a real life counterpart makes it even better.