25 March 2016

The Hatbox Baby Mystery

The Hatbox Baby, then . . .

By Dixon Hill

The mystery of the Hatbox Baby has intrigued Valley residents for decades.  That such a tiny personage could engender such widespread and enduring interest, perplex so many -- and even work to damage innocent lives -- can seem almost inexplicable.

Yet:  One baby.  In one hatbox.  Managed to do just that.

Christmas Eve of 1931, a young couple, not long married, was driving home though the desert. They had taken their cousins up north to see snow, and were on their way back home, when their car broke down about seven miles west of the mining town of Superior, a town not far from the Superstition Mountains, home of another Arizona legend.

The Hatbox she was found in.
Ed Stewart pulled over in the open desert and, while he worked to get the car running (some say he had to clear the fuel line) his wife, Julia, walked around through the brush and cactus.  She heard a noise, similar to a baby's cry, and walked over to find a hatbox sitting by a clump of mesquite.

She called for Ed.

Ed came over and looked more closely.  Inside the hatbox, lay a 10-month-old baby.


. . . and "The Hatbox Baby Now."
83 yr old Sharon Elliot in 2013
Once Ed got the car going again, the young couple took the baby to Mesa Constable Joe Maier.

Maier temporarily placed the baby in a maternity home run by a woman known as Ma Dana.  A few days later, she was adopted by a couple with no children.

The story made national news in 1931.  Valley newspapers usually ran Christmas stories about her discovery each year.  For decades afterward, Valley residents and newspapers asked, "What ever happened to the Hatbox Baby?"

The answer: she had a full life and even raised three kids of her own.

For most of her life, Sharon Elliot didn't know she was the famous "Hatbox Baby."  In fact, she didn't even know she was adopted.  She finally learned the truth in her mid-fifties.  Yet, she still doesn't really know who her mother was, or how she came to be abandoned, in a pasteboard hatbox, in the middle of the open desert on Christmas Eve.

But what of the couple who found her?

Rumors flew!

The couple hadn't been married long, and wagging tongues claimed it had been a "shotgun wedding," the baby "discovered" in the desert so they wouldn't have to own up to their premarital misdeeds.

In the end, the couple fled the Valley, moving elsewhere, seeking land where no one had heard of the baby they found in the desert.  It became a point of contention between the two of  them, and they constantly refused to answer interview questions from reporters who hunted them down years later.

Thus, while we ponder who could have left a baby in such an inhospitable place -- in only a hatbox -- we are also faced by what may well be the greater mystery of the Hatbox Baby:  Why did folks allow wagging tongues to do so much harm to a young couple who did nothing but save a baby from near-certain death?  In one sense, the Stewart's lives might have been much simpler if they had simply convinced themselves that they had heard nothing crying out there in the lonely desert on that Christmas Eve.  But, then again, they would have had to live with the guilt.

This quandary filed not in the Twilight Zone, but in the SleuthSayers blog, under "A" for Arizona oddities.

--Dixon

10 comments:

Herschel Cozine said...

Interesting story. However, I'm a little suspicious of the story by the couple who found her. It's a big desert and seems highly unlikely they would break down where the baby was abandoned. Stranger things have happened, of course. But it's food for thought.

janice law said...

A sad and marvelous story. I always thought the old saying, no good deed goes unpunished, was too cynical but maybe not in the Arizona desert!

Eve Fisher said...

Since the baby was 10 months old, it's hard to believe that the newly married couple did all of this to hide their "premarital misdeeds". (Surely someone would have noticed before then if the bride had been pregnant or even looked like she was pregnant...) I think it was plain meanness and love of nasty, trash-talking gossip. I feel sorry for the poor couple, and thankful that the baby had a happy life.

Leigh Lundin said...

What an interesting and poignant story, Dixon. I like how you tell the story. I’m glad Sharon Elliot was able to live a normal life after coming so close to the edge.

Funny… first thing I thought of when you mentioned the car breaking down was vapor lock, something you never encounter now that better fuel pumps and fuel-injection are standard. Would vapor lock have been more of a problem at that heat and altitude?

Anonymous said...

I agree with Eve. It's rare that another woman could get away with having secretly a baby, let alone a 10 month old one. I'm glad it turned out well!

Anonymous said...

Leigh, I used to live on the desert many years ago, and don't recall ever hearing about vapor lock being an issue. It was usually radiator problems from overheating of the engine. That was usually the problem when you found someone broken down by the side of the road. The elevation in most of those areas is about 1100 to 1400 feet, which I don't know if it's relevant or not. Anyway, maybe once the engine kind of boiled over then vapor lock kicked in. But that radiator is what tended to go first, if my memory serves.

Leigh Lundin said...

Anon, that makes a lot of sense. The reduced atmospheric pressure would make the radiator more likely to boil. Thanks for the feedback!

Anonymous said...

The baby, according to unsolved mysteries and the original court files when released to sharon when she requested them, was only 7 days old when taken to the police, not 10 months.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the baby was 7 days old NOT 10 months. It's plausible that it was a teenage girl whether the stewarts knew the child or not is up for debate. However, I do find it odd that they would be SO upset of being "falsely accused" that they would decline all interviews. Sounds like the actions of a guilty person not willing to face the truth/ or be linked back to the birth parents. Just my opinion.

lin sioux said...

Ed Stewart was my cousin and the two teens were my aunt and uncle. The Stewarts never left, they lived in Mesa, Arizona. I remember visiting them as a child. The 'baby' looks nothing like my mother's family as they were dark skinned. Also, they went thru all of their school and employment records and none of them were ever un-accounted for for the time it takes to have a baby.