On the morning of April 8, 1911, a five-year-old Czech-American girl named Eliška "Elsie" Paroubek walks out the door of her Chicago home to visit a nearby relative but never returns. The last to see Elsie alive are her nine-year-old cousin Josie and a group of neighborhood children, gathered around a street performer to hear his music. Spurred by the xenophobic belief that gypsies are petty criminals and child thieves, Elsie’s parents accuse the nomadic ethnic group of stealing their daughter, which members of the press and police are quick to take as truth. Weeks later, the accusations of thievery turn to murder when Elsie Paroubek’s body is found floating in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.
In this episode of Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories, show hosts Carter Roy and Wenndy Mackenzie track the case from its beginnings as a search for a missing girl to the heartbreaking discovery of young Elsie Paroubek’s body.
George Scully and two other Lockport Power Plant employees spot what they think is a dead calf floating in the canal during their lunch break. Upon closer scrutiny, Scully verbalizes his fear that the body doesn’t belong to an animal. One of the two employees curses and states they should take their boat out to get a better look. They end up pulling the body of a little girl out of the water before she can float further downstream.
Weeks earlier, on April 8, 1911, Elsie Paroubek leaves home to visit her aunt who lives down the block. Along the way, Elsie is distracted by the sound of music and her cousin Josie, who’s listening to a hurdy-gurdy player with a group of other children. They follow the performer down the street but eventually grow bored. Josie, wanting to leave, bids Elsie to come play hide-and-seek at her house, but Elsie stubbornly refuses, preferring to continue listening to the music. Josie and the other children leave Elsie behind.
Later that afternoon, Karolina Paroubek, Elsie’s mother, walks to her sister’s house to check on her daughter, but when she learns that Elsie never stopped by, she contemplates looking for her. However, her sister comments that she worries too much and confirms with Josie that she saw Elsie that morning. Karolina assumes her daughter must be spending the night at another friend’s house and doesn’t consider it further. But when Frank Paroubek returns home from work, he worries immediately, and insists they report Elsie missing. Before heading down to the police station, Frank rebukes Karolina for not making any attempts to find their daughter and voices his belief that Elsie has been kidnapped by gypsies.
Just four years earlier, a girl named Lillian Wulff was kidnapped in a similar fashion. While authorities and press called the culprits gypsies, the transient husband and wife duo responsible for taking Lillian weren’t Romani. Inspector Stephen Healey, motivated by the Paroubek family’s accusations and prior assumptions about the Lillian Wulff case, sends twelve detectives to look for Elsie in the gypsy encampments located along the Desplaines River. No one finds her.
A week after Elsie Paroubek’s disappearance, an eleven-year-old neighborhood boy named Joseph Jirowski tells police that he saw two gypsy women hold down a crying girl in a wagon. He didn’t get a good look at the girl but assumes it was Elsie. A week after that, Lillian Wulff reenters the scene with an offer to help police find the missing girl. Familiar with “gypsy ways,” Lillian gives them tips on where to look, who to talk to and how to conduct their investigation. One of Lillian’s kidnappers also provides information when approached by investigators. He tells them to talk to Elijah George, the gypsy king, because he would know where Elsie was if gypsies truly took her.
Police promptly track Elijah George down to Argyle, Wisconsin and arrest him for the kidnapping of Elsie Paroubek. Elijah George swears neither he nor the Romani have any idea who took the missing girl, and the police let him go. Desperate for a break in the case, police take a reading Frank Paroubek gets from a medium seriously; the medium allegedly “sees” Elsie in a Romani camp somewhere in the non-existent town of “Argo,” Wisconsin. Police assume she means Argyle, and they return for another unsuccessful round of searching.
Finding nothing in the Romani encampments across the country, Detectives consider another possibility – that Elsie fell into a canal and drowned. They drag the local canals multiple times, but are unable to find her body.
Members of the Czech community, including Czech-American judge and U.S. House Representative Adolph Sabath, step in to help the family. Sabath interviews the Paroubeks on a hunch that someone with a vendetta against their family kidnapped Elsie. Both parents state that they have no enemies and reassert their belief that gypsies stole her; Sabath fails to find potential suspects in their history on his own.
Two days later, electrical engineer George Scully and two other employees at Lockport Power Plant pull a little girl’s body out of the river. Her face was badly decomposed but her blonde hair and clothes match Elsie’s description.Karolina positively identifies the corpse as Elsie’s remains.
The doctors who examine her body disagree on how she died – some say that she was strangled and sexually assaulted, others say that the killer suffocated her – but they all agree that she was murdered.
Stay tuned for next week’s episode of Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories, where show hosts Carter and Wenndy examine several intriguing suspects, including a peddler living in a makeshift shack down by the canal, the author of a scathing anonymous letter to the Paroubek family and a reclusive American writer.