A baby abandoned in the bushes

In recognition of Women’s History Month, Historic Murphysburg Preservation Inc. brings forward a true unsolved mystery set in Joplin’s Murphysburg Historic District.


It was a dry 71-degree summer night on July 11, 1945 at 10:20 p.m. in what is now Joplin’s Murphysburg Historic District. World War II in Europe had just ended with Germany surrendering on May 8, 1945. The conflict in the Pacific (Ocean) Theater would soon end when Japan surrendered on September 2, 1945.

On this particular Wednesday night, Mrs. Jennie Potlitzer was at her home at 219 South Sergeant Avenue with her sister, Mrs. Ruth Weil, and a nurse, Mrs. Don Sanford. Jennie had suffered with a heart condition since 1933, which could explain the presence of a nurse at such a late hour. Jennie’s husband, George, had passed away 14 months earlier. But surely a nurse and two loving mothers were perfectly capable of managing the situation that was about to unfold.

Mrs. Sanford heard a child crying outside, so the three ladies went to investigate. They found a blue-eyed, red-haired baby girl, not more than eight weeks old, hidden in the shrubbery! The child was well bundled and at its side were clothing, baby powder, oil, and other needs for its care. Most likely the baby would have been shielded from view of passing traffic due to the jagged-top, three-foot high stone wall that surrounded the property then and now.

After the ladies called Joplin Police, Detectives W. D. Holladay and Roy Isgrigg took the baby to Dr. V. E. Kenney, the city health commissioner. He determined the baby was healthy in all respects. The baby was then taken to the home of Reverend William Kelley, the Jasper County Juvenile Officer, who would decide, along with Juvenile Judge Woodson Oldham, what to do with her. Mrs. Kelley looked after the care of the child. Dr. C. C. Coats, the city physician, also examined the infant and said she appeared to be a perfectly normal baby.

The next day more than 50 Joplin families offered to adopt the abandoned baby. Telephone calls bombarded the juvenile office and the Kelley’s home. However, Reverend Kelley remained hopeful that the mother would change her mind and claim the child, which he believed would be the best solution.

Many theories as to the mother were put forward and many clues were investigated. On September 5, 1945 the Joplin Globe reported “Abandoned Baby Redhead” to be thriving, healthy, happy, and growing at the home of her foster parents. The baby was to remain a legal ward of the juvenile court for at least two years unless the real parents appeared and could establish parenthood to the satisfaction of the court. After that, she could be legally adopted, probably into the foster home where she had been placed.

The foster family identity was never revealed in newspaper reports or even the first name that eventually was given to the baby. The baby was assigned a birthdate of June 1, 1945.

The Joplin Children’s Home cared for many orphaned and otherwise unfortunate children between 1905 and 1957. However, while researching this story, the orphanage was never mentioned as an option for the baby in local news articles.

Background – George and Jennie Potlitzer were very well known in the Joplin community due to their activities in welfare and civic affairs. George and his father owned Potlitzer’s store specializing in women’s wear at 419 and later 418 S. Main Street in Joplin. George was president of the United Hebrew Congregation and the Jewish Welfare Board for many years. He was involved with the Joplin USO Council, Joplin War Dad’s Club, Salvation Army, the Shrine, United Cities Lodge, B’nai B’rith, Joplin Elks, and World War II bond and Community Chest campaigns.

Jennie was a member of the United Hebrew Congregation of Joplin and the Temple Aid Sisterhood, Joplin League of Women Voters, and the Joplin Woman’s Club. In 1932 she was chair of the Council of Jewish Women unit that was part of the Red Cross sewing committee which made clothing for impoverished families from cloth furnished by the government. This small portion of her life is interesting since the Potlitzer’s livelihood was based on ready-to-wear retail clothing stores. Jennie died on June 4, 1958 at the age of 75. Jennie and George are buried at Mount Hope Cemetery in Webb City.

Theories and Timelines – Is it possible that Jennie or her guests did know who the baby belonged to but chose to keep it a secret? Is it possible that the baby’s mother wanted to leave the baby specifically with a Jewish family or the fact that there was a nurse on duty at the house? Was Jennie’s son or Ruth’s son the biological father?

Assuming the baby was full term, she would have been conceived sometime in September or October 1944 during World War II. Did the baby’s mother know the father’s identity? Was the baby’s biological father a defense worker or a Word War II serviceman who passed through Joplin or Camp Crowder in Neosho? The Joplin USO Council operated at 310 S. Wall Avenue (extant) from September 27, 1942 to June 30, 1946. The Negro Service Council of Joplin operated at 221 S. Main Street (non-extant) from February 6, 1944 to September 1946. The Neosho USO Clubhouse on Park Drive was opened on February 22, 1943.

Better Options Today Borrowed From History – Many states have adopted legal and safe procedures for a parent to give up their baby. The Missouri Safe Haven Laws were set up so that infants, 45 days old or younger, can be handed over to an employee at a police station, hospital, fire station, maternity home, or pregnancy resource center. If the baby has not been neglected or abused, parents will face no prosecution. For complete anonymity, many states have recently installed “Safe Haven Baby Boxes.” Funds are currently being raised to install a box at Joplin Fire Station No. 7. If you wish to donate, make checks out to Safe Haven Baby Boxes-Local 59 and mail to Local 59, P.O. Box 1712, Joplin, MO 64802 or drop off at Fire Station No. 1 at 303 East 3rd Street, Joplin.

But the drop-off box is not a new idea. The concept can be traced back to the Middle Ages and still exists in many countries throughout the world. There are many names for the box such as Baby Hatch, Foundling Wheel, Stork’s Cradle, and Turning Cradle.

Conclusion – Did the baby ever learn about her biological family and situation? She would now be close to 79 years old and possibly still living in the Joplin area. Hopefully she had a safe, loving, and happy life. While we respect the sensitive situation for all concerned and the possible need for confidentiality and privacy, we would appreciate knowing how this story began and ended. If you have any information regarding this Mystery in Murphysburg, please contact Historic Murphysburg Preservation, Inc. at murphysburg@gmail.com. To read the complete story, with pictures, visit www.murphysburg.org.