Hal Roth - September 2008

Old News from Delmarva:
The Disappearance of Florence Wingate
Hal Roth

   Reports of missing persons always arouse our interest and stir our imagination. Most folks who go astray are eventually found either dead or alive, but for some the mystery is never solved, and those become the source of legends.
    On August 7, 1953, Florence Wingate vanished from the rural community of Crapo in Southern Dorchester County, Maryland. No trace has ever been found of her.

  Cambridge, August 10, 1953: MISSING SHORE WOMAN SOUGHT – More than 150 men have been searching more than 60 hours for a 66-year-old woman missing from her Crapo home since early Friday.
Dense marshes and heavy rains have hindered the searchers in lower Dorchester County.
    Miss Florence Wingate was reported missing from her home 35 miles southwest of here Friday evening.
    State Police said they were told conflicting stories about the woman’s movements. It was first reported that she had left home to gather kindling wood. Later police said they were told she went to a neighbor’s house.
    A check of neighbors failed to reveal anything about Miss Wingate’s whereabouts. None reported seeing her Friday.
    Miss Wingate lived with her brother Miles and his wife Ruby, and a distant relative, Harvey Wingate.
    The search was continuing today. It is being led by Lt. Harry F. Trumpower of the Easton State Police barracks and Dorchester Sheriff Waldo H. Robinson.
    A plane has joined the search but has reported no sign of the woman in the marshes. State Police say that many potholes and quicksand are menacing the search.
    Police say that they have not discarded the theory that Miss Wingate may have met with foul play.

   Crime fighting techniques were far more primitive in 1953, and to quote one observer I interviewed: “You didn’t have no CSI then, and we had some pretty common sheriffs in them days.”
    Exactly how hard law enforcement officers may have worked to find Florence is now difficult to evaluate, but others have told me the investigation by both state and county officers was extensive.
When no evidence had been turned up after two months, a judge asked for support from the Dorchester County Grand Jury.

Cambridge, Md., Oct. 26 (UPI): GRAND JURY ASKED [TO] HELP SEARCH FOR MISSING WOMAN. 63-Year-Old Spinster Never Returned From Walk August 10. [Wingate went missing on August 7.]
Judge W. Laird Henry, Jr., today asked the new Dorchester County Grand Jury to do anything it can to clear up the disappearance Aug. 10 of Miss Florence Wingate, 63-year-old spinster.
Miss Wingate, who lived with her brother and sister-in-law near Crapo, left home on what apparently was one of her frequent walking excursions through the neighborhood. She has not been seen since, nor has any trace of her been found.
Judge Henry told the grand jury: “The sheriff, state police and residents of the area have left no stone unturned in trying to solve the mystery. If any of you feels you can do anything to solve it, you have the power to call any witnesses who might shed light on it.”
Mr. and Mrs. Miles H. Wingate told police Miss Wingate said she was “going out to pick daisies.” They did not spread the alarm until about sundown, explaining she often was gone most of the day visiting neighbors.

Also in October, a classified advertisement was placed in a Cambridge newspaper credited to “Brother and sister-in-law, Miles and Ruby Wingate.”

The world may change from year to year
And friends from day to day
But never will the ones we love
From memory pass away.

Fifteen years later, in 1968, the investigation was reopened when Ruby Wingate provided new information. A 1994 article in the Annapolis Evening Capital reminisced about the case and Ruby’s surprising statement.

More than 40 years after Florence Wingate was last seen by her family there still is no physical evidence.
There have been rumors that Florence was abducted by a UFO or that her disappearance was all part of the foul play surrounding an Internal Revenue Service investigation.
And, there have been no clues.
One witness said she saw a woman matching Florence’s description – dressed in men’s clothing – walking along a road near her Eastern Shore home that morning.
Florence’s sister-in-law, Ruby, made a deathbed statement to State Police: Florence had died of heart failure and her body had, at Harvey Wingate’s direction, been thrown down a well to avoid funeral costs.
“We thought we had it. We thought we had the body,” said then Dorchester State’s Attorney William Yates II, who reopened the case because of Ruby’s statement – 15 years after Florence’s disappearance.
But when, at Mr. Yates’ direction, police excavated a well near the Wingate home, they found nothing. Mr. Yates today thinks they had the wrong well. “Another well must be nearby,” he said.
Florence’s granddaughter, Martha Edge, said every so often the phone would ring and another person would offer what they thought might be more clues.
Florence was last seen on the morning of August 7, 1953, telling family and friends she planned to gather figs from a tree within sight of her house.
But then Florence, thought to be in her 50s at the time, disappeared.
By that evening 300 men walked arm in arm across the marshes surrounding the Wingate home looking for Florence. The search lasted through the end of August, but still there was no sign of her.

Later, in Salisbury’s Daily Times, Brice Stump and Brian Ponder also commented on the alleged deathbed confession.
“Ruby Wingate gave a deathbed statement to State Police Cpl. Arthur Dobson, who is deceased, that Florence Wingate collapsed on a brick walk leading to her home and died of heart failure after returning from gathering figs. Her body was dumped in an abandoned well at the direction of Harvey Wingate to avoid the cost of a funeral. Harvey Wingate was dead at the time of the Yates investigation.
“Other investigators and family members, however, said they had heard nothing of the deathbed confession, and the confession theory conflicts with statements by investigators that Florence Wingate didn’t make it to the fig tree.”
Stump and Ponder have a somewhat different story to tell about granddaughter Martha Edge and the occasional phone calls offering new evidence.
“‘All I know is that Harvey threatened my mother that he would do to her what he did to Florence if she didn’t do what he told her to do,’ said Martha Edge, Florence Wingate’s granddaughter. ‘We never knew what he meant by that.’
“The disappearance of Florence Wingate haunted her daughter, Birdle Wingate, Edge said. Years after the disappearance, Birdle Wingate occasionally would get telephone calls from people offering what they thought might be more clues.
“‘All she did was cry, cry all the time (when it happened),’ Edge said.
“‘Mom and I believe she was killed,’ she said. ‘I wish somebody would give us the answer. If it’s anybody that’s dead, they can’t be judged (now).’”
It is human nature to magnify things as time goes by, and details always seem to change. After the passing of forty years, reminiscing journalists had doubled the original report of 150 searchers to 300. Even Florence’s age has changed over the years. Initial reports claimed she was sixty-six, then sixty-three. Later she was said to have been in her fifties. Facts and folklore have become entwined, and few elements of the story can now be verified with certainty.
Members of the community have suggested that Florence had few friends outside her family circle. Harvey Wingate, the “distant relative” mentioned in the original report, was actually her common-law husband. They did share a home with Florence’s brother, Miles Wingate, and his wife, Ruby.
Florence is said to have spent the night of August 6, 1953 at a friend’s house and returned home around 8:00 a.m. on August 7 to make breakfast for her family. In spite of varying claims in contemporary news accounts – that she left afterwards to gather kindling, to visit a friend or pick daisies – Florence is now believed by most to have ventured out after an early morning rain to gather figs from a tree that could be observed from the door of her home.
It is noted in several reports that Crapo residents have shown reluctance over the years to discuss Florence’s disappearance – that some have openly bristled at any mention of the case. Authorities have been frustrated by the lack of cooperation and substantial information. According to one investigator: “No one volunteered information, and those approached by the police were reluctant witnesses. It was a hush-hush thing. If the public down there had any information, they wouldn’t give it to us. A lot of the people thought it wasn’t worthwhile solving the case. Nobody wanted to get involved.”
Four suspects, including Harvey Wingate and Ruby and Miles Wingate, were transported to Dover, Delaware for polygraph examinations. “They were either telling the truth,” the attending officer informed a reporter, “or I had one hell of a dumb polygraph operator.”
About fifteen years ago I asked a native of South Dorchester what he knew of the disappearance of Florence Wingate.
“It was about forty years ago, I guess, but you still hear about it now and then. They started it all up again some years ago. They got a letter or somethin’ from somebody. It was supposed to be new evidence. They went in there with a bulldozer and dug around. They found an old well and figured she was in the well. They found some animal bones in there, but they never found nothin’ of her.
“She was killed, and other people know it too. And they know who done it. It was a big-timer – big political name – and he was tied up with a big-time politician. Everybody would know that name too if it were told. Somebody would bring somebody else oysters every week for a long time after that and didn’t charge nothin’ for ’em.
“The fella who killed her is dead now. They’re all dead, but nobody will still mention it. Old ties run deep down there. Those people will still get you. It’s no different than the mafia in the city, just a little more laid back. The poor folks mafia.”
Then he told me the name of the individual who, he claims, killed Florence Wingate – a name that has not been mentioned in this or any other article about the case.

If you have any old news to share, you can reach Hal Roth at nanbk@dmv.com.