The Mystery of the Baby in a Suitcase.
September 16, 2013
Dent County, Missouri is not far from my old stomping grounds. It is just one county distant. Even so, I had never heard of this tale. It happened fifty years before I was born. The story had lost its steam by then.
William Moses Helms moved with his mother to Salem in Dent County shortly after his father died in 1917. His older sisters were grown and had left the nest. In Salem, William finished out his high school courses and found extra spending money as a printer. Printing would serve him well and he would later have his own newspaper. He would not have to pay for his college. His education was already paid for by the St. Louis Iron Mountain and Southern Railway. Odd, you might think. His father had been a farmer and not a railroad man.
One afternoon William was hanging around with a few of his new Salem acquaintances. They often found a spot at the drug store near the magazine rack to drink Cokes with peanuts, or Grapette without, while reading newspapers and comics.
“Hey, look at this weird article!” Gordie pointed to the paper while Earlie, Dougie and William moved closer for a better view. “A grizzly bear is attacking livestock nearby. Everyone knows that there haven’t been any grizzly bears in Missouri for over one hundred years.”
“Some strange stuff has gone on in the Ozarks for centuries. Walnuts once rained from the sky, near here.” Earlie added.
“Really?” William asked.
“Yep. And there was a hailstorm with huge hailstones once, and inside the hailstones were fish, snakes and toads.” Gordie verified Earlie’s report.
“Up by St. Louis, there is a wild man living in a cave. He can’t even speak English and they call him Pappy Joe.” William added something juicy from the rumor mill over by Hopewell.
“There is a headless ghost at Twin Bridges and I have seen it!” Dougie exclaimed.
“Have you guys heard of the strange animal people have seen running about in the woods that is half-coyote, half monkey?” Earlie asked.
“There are so many stories about ghosts, strange animals and things raining from the sky—what about that baby in a suitcase event? Reckon it’s true?” Gordie left the question out to dangle. “That was the king of all weirdness!”
William Moses didn’t say anything. He wanted to scream out loud, but he finished his Nehi Orange and left for home. He had a chore or two to do before his Ma put supper on the table.
He couldn’t contain his curiosity any more. It had been bubbling over for years. He needed more answers than he had been supplied by his parents. He decided to go to St. Louis and look up those answers in the morgue at the St. Louis Post Dispatch. He took a notebook with him. He looked up every article on the “baby in the suitcase.” The facts always boiled down to this:
A farmer, aged seventy-two was looking for some wood scraps to finish out a barn. He was a Civil War veteran who lived close to the St. Louis Iron Mountain and Southern Railway where it crossed the Big River near Irondale. The Number Four had just rumbled past, north bound, making quite a racket, as it always did. As the noise died off into the distance, and the farmer kept searching for good wood, he heard a squeak. He looked about and spied a small suitcase. Someone must have thrown that off the train. I’ll have a look-see. He looked inside the small suitcase and got the shock of his life. It was a baby—the practically newborn baby was wrapped up, but its head had taken some bad bruises. The farmer’s jaw dropped open in horror. Whoever hurled the suitcase off the train was aiming for the waters of the Big River, but had missed.
He carried the precious bundle home to his much younger wife, Sarah,
and, she would not part with the tiny boy. She poured on the love, care and home remedies, and the baby thrived. When he was six years old, they formally adopted him. They had named him William for William Helms, Moses, for the baby found in the bulrushes, and Gould for the owner of the railroad: William Moses Gould Helms.
When the baby was first discovered, many people had traipsed through the Helms’ home to gawk at him, including a mysterious unknown young woman dressed in black who had kissed the baby and left quickly. A mother or a father had never stepped forward to claim him. No one knew anything.
As William Moses was heading off to college, he saw his friend Gordie on the street and pulled him aside. He could not resist saying to him with a sly smile, “By the way, I am the Iron Mountain Baby—the baby in the suitcase.”
Gordie’s mouth flew open. Then after a moment he said, “I almost fell for it, Willie. That was pretty good.”
William Moses Gould Helms smiled. As he walked away, he said, “I’ll see you the next time I come home from school.”
He did not like to discuss his past to others. He was satisfied with his life and did not care to know who his biological parents were. He became a newspaper editor in Fair Grove, Missouri.
Then another strange event occurred. He left town suddenly in 1928, with no explanation. The press was on it in a flash. Why did he leave? He was not a drinker, a gambler or a lawbreaker.
He had gone to Houston, Texas where he eventually married and had a son of his own.
William Moses Helms rode a train exactly two times in his life: when he was thrown off the St. Louis Iron Mountain and Southern Railway in a suitcase in 1902, and in a coffin that carried him from Houston to Hopewell to be buried when he died in 1953, at age fifty.
The Ballad of the Iron Mountain Baby was written in 1902, when the baby was found, by Reverend J. T. Barton, has fourteen stanzas. It has been performed by many, including Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, who did their own version.