Has the answer to Tamaqua's biggest mystery finally been uncovered?
Resident George Fredericks thinks so. The senior citizen believes in his heart he knows what happened to Jerome Coonon, the two-year-old boy who went missing from a backyard. Jerome was never seen again, a case that stumped police, search teams and even the FBI.
Approaching age 86 and in the twilight of his life, Fredericks, a U.S. Army veteran, wants the story to be known.
"The boy never left that backyard," says Fredericks. "And there was nobody else around."
Fredericks came forward on Sunday, April 29 - exactly 75 years to the day of Jerome's disappearance - and told his story to the TIMES NEWS during an interview at Tamaqua's East End Fire Company.
Fredericks is very likely the last person to talk to Jerome and to see Jerome alive. Fredericks also is the only one remaining from a group of boys playing basketball at a barn near the rear of the residence when Jerome vanished.
The toddler was visiting grandparents Mr. and Mrs. James Berry and playing in the sandbox in the fenced-in backyard at 223 Brown Street on April 29, 1937. Mrs. Berry was fixing supper. Jerome was left alone only a short time. When Mrs. Berry went to check on him, he was gone - and never seen again.
The case launched the largest search ever mounted in the history of the town, with unprecedented rewards offered for his return. The Coonon drama in the coal region town drew state police, the governor's office and even the FBI. Tamaqua became the center of intense broadcasts nationwide by WJZ Radio, New York, capturing the country's attention for months in the era prior to television.
Tamaqua was virtually turned upside down. Every tunnel was searched, every mine hole scoured, every house, sewer, and swimming hole scrutinized. But search teams, local police, firemen, state police and the FBI came up empty.
Many say Jerome fell into a bootleg coal hole even although repeated searches found nothing. Others believe he was kidnapped by a childless couple, a theory that persists.
But Fredericks, who was playing with friends near the backyard all along, is convinced he knows what happened.
Child never cried out
"We were playing basketball, using a peach basket," says Fredericks. "It was Buddy Moyer, Ben Herring and Herbie Schickram. Jerome came out to the back and wanted me to open the gate," he says. Fredericks knew the toddler and family well and occasionally had played with Jerome.
"I said to him: 'You're not allowed out of the yard. Go back and play in your sandbox.'"
Fredericks says the child returned to the sandbox, playing with a toy truck and shovel, as Fredericks and his buddies played ball for perhaps the next half-hour. It was getting close to supper.
"I heard Mrs. Berry come out and call him. Then she asked me if I'd seen him. She said he was missing. Then they called police. It was (Chief) Nelson Hughes and Sgt. Brecker, and they got a search party. I told them he never came out of the yard; maybe he fell down the toilet," referring to the outhouse to the rear.
Fredericks says Citizens Fire Company responded and checked the outhouse using a long pike hook.
"They tried poking down but couldn't get anything out," he says. The search then spread throughout the town, expanding over days and weeks. But Fredericks believes the answer was in the outhouse and police didn't take him seriously because he was a child of only 10 or 11.
"I felt they didn't want to talk to a kid."
Why is Fredericks revealing his story now? He says he's actually told the story all along but nobody wanted to believe it.
According to friend Steve Schickram, grandson of Fredericks' buddy Herbie Schickram, Fredericks becomes emotional about the subject and tears up when he talks about Jerome.
"He cried the first time he told me," says Schickram, who'd like to see the case solved.
Fredericks told the TIMES NEWS that Jerome was very bright for a child only 2-1/2 years old.
"He had a very good vocabulary," says Fredericks, who remembers Jerome's attire. "He was wearing a red jacket and light tan coveralls." Fredericks says a red jacket was found at the outhouse but he's unsure what became of it.
According to Fredericks, nobody entered or exited the yard, nor did the child cry out. All along, those circumstances led Fredericks to conclude that Jerome fell into the outhouse. There simply was no other explanation.
According to reports, some 45 minutes after Jerome disappeared, neighbor Charles Jeffries heard a child crying, along with screams mingled with the word "Daddy."
Despite efforts by Jeffries, the source of the voice couldn't be found.
An unusual outhouse
If Jerome fell into the toilet seat opening, why did searchers fail to locate him at the bottom of the outhouse?
Turns out, it wasn't a typical privy, says the man who owns the property.
"The outhouse was built over a spring," explains Scott Konsavage, homeowner since 1987. His relatives, the Betz family, owned the house since 1950 and Konsavage knows the history of the place. He says waters flowed constantly through a natural, subterranean conduit beneath the outhouse and hillside home.
"My grandmother said it was an outhouse that never needed to be flushed," says Konsavage, who showed the TIMES NEWS around his property on Sunday, the 75th anniversary of the child's disappearance.
Essentially, beneath the outhouse was a waterway leading downhill to possibly Pitt Street and eventually into the Wabash Tunnel where a creek flows beneath the community. Such underground waterways are prevalent in Tamaqua, known as the Land of Running Water.
During times of heavy spring rain, as was the case when Jerome disappeared, the mountain spring would become so active it would gurgle up from the ground and flood the rear of the house and the one next door. "Even if there was a drought, the water still ran," says Konsavage.
To help remedy the problem, Konsavage landscaped the yard, partially reversing the contour of the land and installing a storm drain.
The outhouse was eventually torn down and despite being filled in, the ground in that area was always unstable, prone to sinkholes. Subsequently, Konsavage poured a large concrete slab to stabilize it, over which thick macadam was applied.
It is now part of a driveway and parking area, although a small section had subsided as recently as last year.
Konsavage says his house is familiar to townspeople due to a history of tragedy and heartbreak.
On March 26, 1958, a chimney fire swept through the third floor and killed three daughters of Freeman and Dorothy Betz.
"My grandmother used to say this is a house that doesn't like children," says Konsavage.
As for little Jerome, the circumstances are unthinkable. Did the bright, happy toddler tumble down the dark outhouse and fall into the rushing water, and is that why he couldn't be located by firemen using a pike hook?
Even after 75 years, the people of Tamaqua want answers about the fate of little Jerome Coonon.