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Little boy lost

  • TN PHOTO ILLUSTRATION/DONALD R. SERFASS  Jerome Coonan mysteriously disappeared from his grandparents' backyard and was never seen again, a case that brought the FBI to Tamaqua. He had light colored hair and was wearing a wine-colored snow suit and…
    TN PHOTO ILLUSTRATION/DONALD R. SERFASS Jerome Coonan mysteriously disappeared from his grandparents' backyard and was never seen again, a case that brought the FBI to Tamaqua. He had light colored hair and was wearing a wine-colored snow suit and white shoes.
Published July 22. 2011 05:02PM

Little Jerome Coonan always smiled - a happy-go-lucky toddler adored by everyone.

Then, on April 29, 1937, the little tyke wandered away from his grandparents' backyard and was never seen again.

His mysterious disappearance brought the FBI to the little town of Tamaqua and prompted the largest search ever conducted in the history of the community. The event caught the attention of the entire Eastern seaboard and put Tamaqua in the national spotlight for many weeks. The Jerome Coonan story captivated the imagination.

It remains a story without an ending.

Jerome was two years and three months old, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Jerry Coonan of Orwigsburg Street, high in the town's South Ward. It was an unseasonably cool late April day.

The toddler was visiting the other side of town, playing in the backyard at 223 Brown Street, his grandparents' place, the home of Mr. and Mrs. James Berry. It was 4:45 p.m. on Thursday, and Mrs. Berry was preparing supper.

For a brief time, Jerome meandered around the fence at the rear alley to visit a neighbor, William Urbanavage. He was then seen returning to his grandparents' backyard, a small parcel which extends to a rear alley called Jerome Street.

Within moments, Mrs. Berry told her son Frank to go to the yard and call the child in for supper. But Jerome was gone.

The family panicked. Their house was situated atop the steep North Ward mountainside, not far from nearby woods where open coal holes posed a constant danger. In fact, William Kraft of Clay Street had been killed two years earlier when he fell into one of the deep mine holes.

Cries and screams

Forty-five minutes after Jerome went missing, resident Charles Jeffries heard a child crying. Then he heard screams, mingled with the word "Daddy."

The cries were coming from baseball fields near West and Lehigh streets, where Jeffries had gone to get wood. Jeffries searched the area twice but saw nobody. Upon returning home to Clay Street, he learned that the Coonan boy was missing. He immediately returned to where the screams came from, but again found nothing.

By then, police had been notified and search parties quickly organized. It was feared Jerome had wandered into nearby woods, tumbling into a bootleg coal hole or one of the many mineshafts that lined the mountainside.

Darkness of night didn't deter the hunt. "Men armed with powerful searchlights entered the mines," reported the April 30 edition of the Tamaqua Evening Courier. "Nearly all of the holes had six feet of water, some much more, from recent heavy rains."Every moment mattered, and so police asked for volunteers from Tamaqua Senior High School. About 30 members of the senior class turned out to scour the woods above Lehigh Street. It was now after 10 p.m.

Search widens

The search continued through the night and, by the next day, began taking on epic proportions.

Firemen from Citizens and South Ward fire companies jumped into action, using pumpers to drain the large Bungalow pool not far from the site. Nearby Kellner's Dam also was searched using grappling hooks.

State troopers from the Tamaqua substation were called to action, and twenty-five additional high school students joined in, along with adult volunteers. Together, they searched every house in the neighborhood, as well as manholes and large sewage openings.

Meanwhile, news of the missing Tamaqua boy spread like wildfire, hitting all regional newspapers and airing to the entire East Coast in broadcasts from WJZ Radio, New York.

Jerome was described as a typical little boy. Police said he was wearing a dark wine-colored snow suit and white shoes. He was described as weighing 30 pounds and standing 30 inches tall, with light-colored hair, brown eyes and a stocky build. He was missing two teeth at the front of his lower jaw. And Jerome was a child who loved to smile.

Spotted on Broad Street?

A man working on his car reported seeing Jerome on Thursday evening at the corner of West Broad and Lehigh streets.

According to the report, the child peeked into the man's car. The man figured the boy was a neighborhood tot and paid him no mind. As a result of the development, all houses at the west end of Broad Street were searched, with no success.

The case was growing more mysterious, and state police from West Reading were summoned, including Lt. Edwin Griffiths, Cpl. George Smith and Trooper Donald Erickson of Troop C.

Additional reports and tips were received and checked, and additional houses searched, including on Brown Street.

Several experienced coal miners stepped forward, volunteering to check the deepest mines and holes in the North Ward, including one opening described as "bottomless."

Some feared the boy wandered across town to the mountainside in the South Ward, or else along the Pottsville Pike road (today's US 209).

Officers searched woods in an area now called Stadium Hill, as well as all culverts. Each day a new search. Six days after the boy went missing, the hunt intensified and federal agents from Philadelphia were summoned.

The feds likely were called in after a Philadelphia newspaper reported that the family had received a ransom letter. West Reading State Police and Tamaqua Police Chief Nelson Hughes denied the existence of such a letter.

However, federal agents pursued the case anyway. Herbert J. Cronin, agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, arrived in Tamaqua on May 6 and questioned the parents for over an hour at police headquarters. The feds questioned the parents concerning the possibility that Jerome had been kidnapped, as many suspected. But there simply were no clues.

As the search continued, newspapers reported that state police summoned 30 "colored men" from the Nesquehoning Camp of the Civilian Conservation Corps. The C.C.C. group, under the direction of foreman Peter Maholick, searched woods from Tamaqua to Newkirk, and then performed another search of the woods and freshwater spring area of Kellner's Dam.

Tunnel, rivers searched

A call for additional volunteers went out to scan the Little Schuylkill River from a point one mile north of town to South Tamaqua, along with woods above North Ward. Fifty C.C.C. workers turned out for the job, along with two large Army trucks. Mines and bore holes were again investigated without finding a trace. Why did they repeat the searches?

"The baby may have been killed by a degenerate and put in one of the holes after the first search was made," said police.

A search also was done in Locust Valley near the home of Harry Houser after his sons, Fred and Elmer, reported a foul odor in the woods. That search turned up a dead animal.

On May 11, eight men including state police and volunteer firemen "entered the Wabash Tunnel at the rear of Goeser's Warehouse on South Railroad Street," say reports. (Goeser's Warehouse is more commonly called the Ferm Auto Parts building.)

The search crew trekked northward through the river tunnel and emerged at the west end of town, where a temporary dam had been built to control water. The fire company pumped water to keep levels low enough to permit passage.

On May 12, town council desperately offered a "$100 reward for the boy, $50 if found dead." Council printed 500 circulars and 1,500 posters and delivered them to police departments throughout the area.

"There were posters all over town," recalls Ruth Essington, 86, Tamaqua. "I remember it. I was only a young girl at the time," says Essington, a lifelong Tamaqua resident.

A search of the Little Schuylkill River was conducted on May 18 from Tamaqua to Zehners.

By May 20, there were still no clues and frustration was setting in. Theories circulated that the boy may have been hit by a bootleg coal truck and his body snatched up, or perhaps he was kidnapped by a childless couple, a theory that persisted.

On May 26, town sewers were again checked, along with the Little Schuylkill River "from the area of the High Mines all the way to Zehners," according to reports.

In a last-ditch attempt, the following plea appeared in the newspaper: "If any other persons have seen a child similar to the description of missing Jerome, they are asked to come forward at once and thus be an aid to the officers and at the same time help a grief-stricken mother and father and grandparents. Any clue, no matter how small it may seem to the person having it, should be turned over to either the local police or the state police."

Everyone was mystified about the Tamaqua boy who disappeared without a trace.

What really happened?

Jerome's family was devastated and a town was heartsick.

On May 26, almost four weeks after the disappearance, the family told the media they hadn't given up on little Jerome.

"They hope against hope he will be found safe and restored to them," reported the Evening Courier.

The story was daily front page news for a full month or more. Not even the Hindenburg disaster in Lakehurst, N.J., on May 6, 1937, could bump the Coonan story from the front page of local daily papers.

In fact, the saga of the lost little boy is the largest single mystery in the history of Tamaqua, founded 1799.

"It was a big thing back then," says Essington. "Everybody was talking about it."

Pauline Heffelfinger, Tamaqua, is about the same age as Essington. She remembers the tragedy, but says details of the story have become more vague. "It faded over time," says Heffelfinger.

Paul Scherer, 98, was in his 20s when it happened and recalls details with clarity. "They thought he fell into a mine. There were all kinds of bootleg coal mines back then," says Scherer. "Or else he was kidnapped."

In the end, Jerome Coonan was never found. Police investigators who worked the case have since passed away, and the story has been lost to time.

It is unclear what became of the Coonan family. No Coonans are listed in the Tamaqua or Schuylkill County phone directories. Genealogist Bob Kunkel, Schnecksville, says records suggest that Jerome's grandfather on his father's side lived at 319 Union Street, according to the 1920 U. S. Census. There were many Coonans living in Tamaqua at the time, according to research done by Kunkel, a Tamaqua native.

After 74 years, the big question remains: what exactly happened to the small boy? Did Jerome fall into a mine hole and cry out for his daddy, and were those the screams heard by Charles Jeffries?

If he had fallen into a mine hole, how did he manage to elude several intensive day-and-night searches by hundreds of volunteers and professionals?

Or was the smiling boy kidnapped as surmised by the FBI - grabbed by a local couple and raised as their own? If so, Jerome might still be alive. But he'd be living under a different name, unaware of his past and with no idea of his true identity. Today, he'd be 76 years old.

Is Jerome Coonan still alive, and maybe even living in Tamaqua?

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