FULL TEXT: On September 2nd, 1980, Guy Schrack buried his long-time friend Stella Williamson. He went back to the home they shared in Gallitzen, PA to begin the onerous task of putting her things in order. He stumbled across a handwritten letter dated February, 1960.
The letter read: “Today I started to bleed and I want to make things right if anything should happen to me. In the attic in an old trunk you will find babies I had to Howard Drass thirty years or more. How I got away with I don’t know but I did so I don’t want anyone else to be blamed for something they know nothing about. This is one reason I could never marry anyone else. I have lived a good life since so as God is my judge this is the truth. Please forgive me if you can.” There were a few lines regarding personal items and then she simply wrote, “Stella.” As a postscript, Stella wrote: “He never wanted me. Only something to play with and I was a fool in his hands.”
Born in 1904, Stella Williamson died at the age of 76 from natural causes. She was the last of the Williamson family, surviving her parents Dessie and Alfred and her two older brothers Arthur and Howard. The few people who attended her funeral claimed to do so more out of obligation than respect. They described Stella as a spinster, a gossip monger, mean and covetous. The few remaining relatives recalled Stella as being overweight her entire life and rarely venturing past the front porch of her life long home on Forest Street. Others said she was just like her mother Dessie; a woman you would cross the street to avoid. Dessie had a strong hold on her children and kept them close to home. It was noted that in her younger years Stella would sometimes disappear from sight for long periods of time leaving some to wonder; what exactly went on in that house.
State Trooper Lawrence Malesky and Cambria County Coroner John Barron arrived at Stella’s house thinking the call had to be some kind of mistaken identity with a family of squirrels. Instead, the men found themselves in the middle of a bizarre mystery that began long before they were born. Guy explained to authorities that he had moved into the Williamson home from across the street as a border after the death of his wife in 1937 and had lived there ever since. He never knew Stella was ever pregnant or anything of the horror that had gone on in that house before he moved in. As for the attic, Guy was only up there once, when he first moved in to store an old deer bust. He remembered seeing the trunk but had no business to go up there so he never did again.
The trunk was transported to Barron’s office and the bundles wrapped in news paper were removed and x-rayed proving they were in fact human remains. The newspaper had hardened from evaporated fluids sealing the bodies inside like coffins. If this was murder then it was mass murder and any potential evidence would also be inside. Further examination of the remains went beyond Barron’s experience and he gave way to the expertise of Dr. William Krogman, a noted anthropologist and Dr. Halbert Fillinger, a well-known and respected pathologist.
The dates on the newspapers were used as a timeline in determining age. The officials decided to open the bundles in the order of which they were removed from the trunk with the first dating back to 1929. The skeletal structure, when removed from its casing fell apart into a jumbled pile of bones. It was a devastating blow for Krogman who could no longer prove degrees of relationship. But the bones themselves were in good condition and Krogman was able to estimate the infant to be 3-6 months old at time of death. No immediate cause could be determined.
The second infant, born in 1927, was removed intact. It was determined to be only a few weeks old and again with no immediate cause of death. Maggots that had laid dormant alongside the 53 year old infant suddenly came to life under the hot lights and humidity. Traces of beetle fissures were found in the bones and based on the remains of mummified flesh it was theorized that the infant was at least well fed while it lived.
The bundle dated 1933 gave more easily than the other two and the age was also determined to be just a few weeks old. But there was something else. Fillinger was the first to see it; an intact ligature still around its throat. This child was murdered. Along with the ligature, Fillinger also found a posterior skull fracture. The fracture was non-fatal in itself and quite common in indelicate births but under the circumstances abuse was strongly suspected.
Dated 1932, Krogman estimated this child to be 9 months to a year old. The x-ray revealed a “lumbar lordosis” or an S curve to the spine, an indication that the child was old enough to walk at the time of its death. Yet the truly horrific discovery was in how it died. This one also had been strangled but more. The scarf like ligature was wrapped around the yearling’s neck so that the remaining ends of the material were wadded into a ball and shoved down its throat. Time and decay distorted the child’s mouth around the obstacle giving the facial structure a ghastly inhuman appearance.
The final bundle, wrapped in newsprint dated 1923, was believed to be the first in the massacre. Krogman carefully peeled back the paper and discovered a second newspaper dated 1925. This child had been unwrapped and rewrapped. Krogman theorized the unwrapping could have been done out of remorse or possible morbid curiosity considering that at the time of the unwrapping the child would have been skeletonized. He also estimated the remains to have been 3 to 6 months old with no evidence of a violent death. This was long before the age of DNA testing so Krogman was unable to determine the sex or relationship of the remains. Barron however, made a discovery of his own. Amongst the chaotic mess of bones of the first bundle was a small discolored ligature; confirming that three of the five babies were murdered.
Most of Gallitzin’s residents have been around almost as long as Stella. Their lips were eager to pass tales of running moonshine, the coal mines and other myths of yesteryear. One tale in particular seems germane. Back around the time Stella would have given birth to her first child, it was said a dog had dug up a sack from somewhere in the woods. It dragged the sack all the way to the front porch of the only redheaded girl in town once rumored to be pregnant. The sack contained a dead newborn with red hair. This alleged account of the red headed girl may be the reason why Stella’s 5 deceased infants were kept in a trunk in the attic. But was saving her reputation worth killing?
Hiding a pregnancy is a temporary solution for young unwed mothers who fear judgment or persecution of family and peers. Concealing a full term pregnancy takes ingenuity but secret mothers-to-be seldom have a plan as to what to do with the actual infant after its born. Unfortunately, most of theses scenarios end in infanticide such as the cases of Melissa Drexler and Rocio Leon. Stella, like Drexler and Leon, was also 19 at the time her first infant was born. As a coroner Barron could understand one newborn, possibly two but Stella had 5, an impossible amount to rationalize. And complicating any reasonable theory was that all of them lived for considerable amounts of time. Stella was clearly successful in keeping her secrets from the neighbors; but what about the people inside the house?
Investigators chronicled the activity at the Williamson address. Alfred Williamson died at the age of 72 in 1930. Howard moved out at the age of 38 to marry his sweetheart Marie in 1931. Gallitzen was a railroad and mining town back then and Dessie began taking in borders during that same year to supplement the family income. One of the first borders was a man named Bert Blackburn who lived under the Williamson roof until he died in 1964. Guy Schrack moved in the same year Arthur moved out to marry in 1937. And finally, Dessie died in 1942 at the age of 76. Comparing these dates to the dates to the infants; 1923, 1927, 1929, 1932 and 1933, records indicate there was someone living at the house at the time each were born.
Investigators first considered the borders who resided at the Williamson home. They were said to be of the same character: quiet and docile. They got along with Dessie by going along. Not much was known about Blackburn, who lived there the longest, except that he asked Stella to marry him and she turned him down. If any of the borders had seen anything they came and went without ever saying a word. Marie, Howard’s widow, was also interviewed. She claimed to know nothing about the babies swearing that Howard didn’t either and investigators believed her. They also ruled out the father, Alfred. Officials theorized he must have known about the infants but wasn’t a participant for the murders continued after he died. This left Dessie and Arthur present for all of Stella’s children.
It was said that Dessie had a strong hold on her children, especially Stella. Perhaps the illegitimate babies were Stella’s way of rebelling. Was killing the babies punishment or atonement? In a more sinister theory, perhaps Arthur was a pedophile and the infants were killed as a way to save them. And perhaps Stella sunk into postpartum depression after each birth and killed them herself when no one was around. And what if Howard Drass, the man Stella claimed to be the father, promised her marriage and eternal love when all he really wanted was sex. And when Stella became pregnant, he distanced himself from her and perhaps the only way she could get him back was to get rid of the children. With that theory in mind investigators paid Howard Drass an unofficial visit.
Barron and Malesky knew where Drass was from the beginning of the investigation. The only thing they had linking Drass to the babies was Stella’s letter and they chose to wait until after the remains were examined. What they didn’t know was the condition Drass was in. At 84, Drass was old, senile and had suffered a stroke that rendered him paralyzed. He couldn’t speak, hear or write. They questioned his wife. They married late in life and ironically didn’t have any children. She didn’t know anything and they believed her.
The only hard evidence investigators had was Stella’s letter. Yet it wasn’t a confession to the murder of her infants nor did it accuse anyone. It simply implicated her as the mother of the deceased infants. With all other leads exhausted officials had no choice but to close the case.
On October 10th, 1980 the Stella Williamson case was officially closed and by default Stella’s name joined the growing list of notorious mothers such as Marybeth Tinning, Susan Smith, Diane Downs and Andrea Yates. On October 28th John Barron decided to give the infants the burial they deserved. For fear of their grave being robbed, the remains were buried together in a plywood box at a nondescript gravesite in Potter’s Field. Howard Drass died November 5th; almost two months exactly after the babies were discovered.
[Kristine Bottone, “Stellas Attic,” Aug. 1, 2007; from Murderpedia.com]
THE LETTER (excerpts released by police): “Today I started to bleed and I want to make things right if anything should happen to me. In the attic in an old trunk you will find babies I had to (person’s name deleted) 30 years or more. How I got away with I don’t know (sic) but I did so I don’t want anyone else to be blamed for something they know nothing about.
“This is one reason I could never marry anyone else. I have lived a good life sense (sic) so as God is my judge this is the truth. Please forgive me if you can. Stella”
There is also one small statement within the letter the police have released: “He never wanted me. Only something to play with and I was a fool in his hands.”
[Stella Wadler (various titles), Washington Post (syndicated), Oct., 15, 1980]
For more cases of this type, see Serial Baby-Killer Moms.
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