No one in Muncie was surprised when Perlie Guelsby Hogg went missing. It seemed an expected end to a boy’s life that was tragic from tongue to tail.
Perlie’s father abandoned the family in 1907, only weeks before the boy’s birth. His deadbeat dad went out to cut wood and never came back. This left an overwhelmed Mrs. Hogg (maiden name Guelsby) to raise a newborn Perlie and his unnamed sister.
Mrs. Guelsby Hogg moved to Muncie to be closer to her family, and then she died of unrecorded causes when Perlie was four. Too young to understand, but old enough for her death to scar him. His mother’s sister, Mrs. Charles Cooper, then took guardianship of Perlie. Nothing more could be found as to the fate of his unnamed sister.
This shift in guardianship—along with two versions of his first name—gave several handles to this Indiana boy. News articles would later identified him as Perlie/Pearlie Guelsby, Perlie/Pearlie Hogg, Perlie/Pearlie Guelsby Hogg, and sometimes Perlie/Pearlie Cooper.
Perlie lived a hard life. His aunt and uncle used Perlie as a servant rather than a son, with him constantly toiling at their home on East Jackson Street. An obedient child and tireless worker, Perlie had few if any friends and exchanged only small talk with those that knew him.
By the time he attended Muncie’s Central High School in 1920, he was working almost full-time, often leaving directly from school and driving a delivery wagon until dark. His goal was to leave high school at 16, when he could be legally emancipated from his aunt and uncle. He almost made it.
On December 21, 1922, Perlie left home at a light sprint, telling his uncle he had to hurry or he’d be late for school. The boy made it to school but never returned home. Or returned anywhere else for that matter. No trace of Perlie was ever uncovered, despite the uncle’s insistence that he spent a small fortune and countless hours searching for the boy.
Nine years passed.
In the heat of a July afternoon in 1931, two plumbers cracked open a basement door to access one of the 75-foot air shafts in Muncie’s Central High School. The school’s pipes were due—or overdue—for an inspection and leaks inside these inky-dark shafts were notorious. Falling brickwork often dinged the thing metal and pipes here could leak for weeks or months with no one the wiser.
The school’s air shafts had no purpose other than moving air, so they were infrequently checked. The plumbers knew it had been at least four years since anyone had even peaked inside. Around 1918, the school had sealed all access doors shut after catching kids blowing cigarette smoke into the upper shaft.
The two stepped carefully into the shaft’s grated iron flooring. They didn’t worry about the metal giving way, but slipping on the flotsam that had collected there over the years. Hunks of masonry and crumbling bricks had fallen down the shaft. Their work boots crunched and cracked on the shards.
Only it didn’t SOUND exactly masonry. Or feel like it either. It crunched too lightly and gave too easily under their feet. One of the workers called out for a light and dragged in a single, caged bulb on an extension cord. He flicked it on.
And saw that the toe of his boot rested directly inside a human skull.
With the help of another workers, they removed the remains. It was only a skeleton by now and its skull had separated from the neck. The body had long since decayed. DNA testing was still 80 years away, but examiners knew enough to confirm the body belonged to a 15 to 16 year old male.
Along with the bones, the workers discovered bits of heavy work shoes, a folding pocketknife, and scraps of a folder and pictures. The last were typical school supplies. Within hours folks mentioned the disappearance of Perlie Guelsby and less than 24 hours after the body’s discovery, Charles Cooper identified the shoes and pocketknife as belonging to Perlie.
Several conflicting theories were put forth, all mostly presumptive. There was virtually no evidence of…anything at all.
Teachers assumed Perlie had been smoking between classes and tumbled down into the air shaft accidently. Police thought Perlie might have crawled inside the shaft for solitude, stumbled down, and injured himself. In his efforts to scramble to safety, they believed he had removed one shoe (possibly because the foot was injured) and tried to crawl up with the aid of his knife.
His aunt and uncle insisted it was murder. Suicide was considered a shameful taboo in the 1920s. After speaking with those that knew Perlie, police dismissed the murder theory.
Police gathered similar testimony from others that knew Perlie, and painted a picture of a life that ended with suicide, or something close to it. His guardians seemed more concerned that the boy wouldn’t embarrass them from the grave. They went to great efforts to push the murder theory. They also made sure the whole town knew Perlie was NOT a smoker, something considered a low-class habit in the 1920s.
Charles Cooper, his uncle, told reporters “I advertised for him widely until my money ran out. I also followed every possible clue to his whereabouts.”
Whether he fell or jumped, Perlie had not died immediately. For two or three days, the boy had lingered alive and aware at the bottom of that air shaft. He had vanished on a Thursday and it was possible he had been unconscious for an entire day, then woke the next day after everyone had left the school.
Two days in absolute blackness, calling for help, trying and failing to rescue himself. And finally dying alone and hurt in the dark.
Better writers than I have told and retold Perlie’s story, yet it remains virtually unknown, probably because it’s so abysmally sad. Even Schindler’s List had comic relief. There is no thread of Perlie’s story that’s uplifting. Most tragic of all is what happened AFTER his death…
Newspapers.com is an indispensable tool for amateur or professional historians and has digitally archived almost one BILLION pages of national and international newspapers, with more added every day. I spend about fifteen hours a week wandering through its digital stacks, and I did the same for Perlie’s story.
I did four database searches, using the four versions of the boy’s name. This combed every archived Indiana newspaper from 1922 (the year he vanished) to 1930 (the year before workers discovered Perlie). Here are the results:
Folks, no one, not even his aunt and uncle, was looking for this boy.
He died alone at the bottom of a 75-foot air shaft, and his closest kin were more concerned for their reputation than his well-being.
If you’re in Muncie, swing by the Elm Ridge Memorial Park and say a brief word over the grave of a boy who deserved better in life and in death. His grave is small and plain. It’s a grave that his aunt and uncle hadn’t bothered paying for but had been donated by the town.