Dec. 3, 1957-April 26, 1958
Note: Jack Daniel McCullough has been charged in the 1957 killing of Maria Ridulph. Here’s an article I wrote about the case in 2007.
Maria E. Ridulph* was a 7-year-old girl from Sycamore, Ill., who was kidnapped Dec. 3, 1957, and whose decomposed body was found April 26, 1958, near Woodbine, a tiny, unincorporated settlement in rural Jo Daviess County, about 98 miles northwest of her home.
Many details of the case are murky because the only witness was 8-year-old Cathie Sigman, who was playing with Maria in the frontyard of a neighbor’s home at the time of the abduction and gave different versions of the incident as the investigation unfolded. Like Maria, Cathie lived on Archie Place, five houses west of the Ridulph home on the south side of the street.
Maria was the youngest of four children born to Michael and Frances Ridulph, who lived in a white frame house with blue shutters at 616 Archie Place ** in Sycamore, a rural town of 7,000 people 68 miles west of Chicago. The Ridulphs had two older daughters, Patricia 16, and Kay, 15, and a son, Charles, 11. Although many people lived or worked on farms, Michael had a job at one of the few factories in town.
The missing girl was a second-grader with dark brown hair and brown eyes, the Chicago Tribune said. She was 44 inches tall, weighed 53 pounds, got good grades and received awards for perfect attendance in Sunday school at Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. John.
According to her mother, Maria was high-strung. “My daughter was a nervous girl and if she got in any trouble would become hysterical,” Frances said. “Someone would probably have to kill her to keep her quiet. I am the only one who could calm her down.” She was a “screamer,” her mother said, and afraid of being alone in the dark.
On the evening Maria disappeared, she and Cathie were playing in the frontyard of the Cliffe family home at Archie Place and Center Cross, which is part of Illinois 23 and heads north to U.S. 20, an east-west route through Woodbine and Galena to Dubuque, Iowa, that ends in Newport, Ore. The large block where the girls lived was bounded by Fair Street on the west, and to the south was De Kalb Avenue, which also forms part of Illinois 23. There was a large open space on the block and portions of it had been plowed.
According to Mrs. Thomas Cliffe and a neighbor, Stanley Wells, Maria and Cathie were screaming as they chased each other around the trunk of a huge elm tree a little before 7 p.m., Dec. 3, 1957. It was cold and without street lamps, there were only the headlights of passing cars for illumination as the girls played in the dark.
Maria was wearing a boy’s type tan jacket, black corduroy pants, a black and white checked shirt, hand-knit mittens, brown socks and white saddle shoes with zippers on the side that had leather tassels.
Whatever happened next is a bit confusing, but remember that it’s a tale told by an 8-year-old girl who had lost her friend.
Cathie said that a young man about 24 who called himself Johnny introduced himself to the girls. He was about 6 feet tall with curly blond hair, she said. Although it was cold, he wasn’t wearing a jacket, just a sweater. He was “tall, skinny and kinda white-faced,” Cathie said.
In an early version of the story, the man said: “I’m Johnny, I’m married and I’m 24 years old.” He asked the girls if they wanted piggyback rides. Cathie went home to get permission and when she returned, Maria and “Johnny” were gone. In a slightly later version, Cathie said she went home to get her mittens and when she returned the two were gone.
The next version is still different:
Johnny approached and said: “Hello, little girls, would you like to take a piggyback ride with me? My name is Johnny. Do you have any dolls?” In this account, he said: “I’m not married.”
Cathie had a doll, but Maria didn’t, so she went home to get one. While Maria was gone, the man held Cathie’s arm and said: “I like you.”
Maria took her best doll to get a piggyback ride, but Frances told her to take an older one instead. “You don’t want to take that one with the new dress,” Frances said. Cathie went home to get her mittens and when she returned Maria and the man were gone.
Unable to find Maria, Cathie went to the Ridulph house and said: “Maria is lost.”
The search for Maria began by calling her name and checking with neighbors, but quickly expanded to include more Sycamore residents and the police.
There was some confusion about the discovery of Maria’s doll, which was found near a neighbor’s garage. Several people insisted that it hadn’t been there during the initial search, but was found after police moved on. Investigators theorized that someone found the doll and moved it without realizing its importance. The doll was sent to the FBI crime lab for processing, but the results were never reported.
The FBI joined the case and in the ensuing days of frigid December weather, Sycamore and the surrounding area was thoroughly searched by hundreds of volunteers as well as military planes and helicopters. Police set up roadblocks and questioned motorists and searched vehicles.
As the only witness in the case, Cathie was asked to view dozens of suspects and was placed under 24-hour police guard.
Maria’s badly decomposed remains were found by Frank Sitar, a retired farmer from Hopkins, Minn., and his wife, who were searching for mushrooms on Roy Cahill’s farm, about 20 miles east of Galena. Maria’s body was about 500 feet off U.S. 20, lying face-down under a partially fallen tree and had apparently been there all winter. She was wearing her shirt, undershirt and socks. Her coat, pants and shoes were never found.
The discovery was reported to Emma “Two Gun” Grebner, the sheriff of rural Jo Daviess County, in northwest Illinois near the Wisconsin and Iowa borders. The local authorities were completely unequipped to handle an investigation of this magnitude. Grebner’s force consisted of two deputies, one of them her husband, and Coroner James Furlong said he had never handled a murder case.
No photographs of the crime scene were taken, Furlong said, because “he did not want to see pictures of the body ‘slobbered all over the front pages,’ ” according to the Tribune. Grebner said she didn’t intend to even investigate the case because as far as she was concerned the crime wasn’t committed in Jo Daviess County.
State pathologist Dr. A.R.K. Matthews of Rockford said the body was so badly decomposed that he could not determine a cause of death. With the abdication of the county authorities, the Illinois State Police took over the investigation. “It’s going to be a difficult case,” said Lt. Ray Kramer (or Cramer or Carmer). “It’s just going to be tough police work.”
Once the body was found, the Ridulph family removed Maria’s playthings from her corner of the living room. “We took them away this morning,” her sister Kay said. “There were many little things–her perfect tests from school and the toys she played with.”
Hundreds of Sycamore residents attended the visitation the night before the funeral. A spray of pink and white carnations and pink sweetheart roses, and a large color photo of Maria were placed on her small, white coffin. There were also a bouquet of red and white tea roses from her second-grade classmates and a spray of white chrysanthemums from the neighbors.
About 300 people crammed into Evangelical Church of St. John for the funeral. “All hope and pray that the criminal will be apprehended,” the Rev. Louis I. Going said.
More suspects were questioned but no leads ever materialized. The Tribune published a few anniversary stories about the crime, the last of them in 1961.
The case remains unsolved. Maria E. Ridulph, born March 12, 1950, died Dc. 3, 1957, is buried at Elmwood Cemetery. Her grave is close to that of Police Chief William Hindenburg, who led the investigation and died less than a year later of injuries he suffered in a car accident.
The newspapers never published any further information on Cathie Sigman of Sycamore, Ill. She would be 58 years old now.
I’d like to extend a special thanks to Larry Underwood of the Chicago Tribune library for help in researching this post.
* Often misspelled Ridolph. The multiple spellings in these stories present unusually difficult challenges to the diligent researcher.
** The Chicago Tribune reported that the Ridulphs lived at 616 Archie Place, but noted that it was the third house west of Center Cross, which may actually be 622 Archie Place. It’s a bit hard to tell without making a trip to Sycamore.