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The bizarre true story behind the ‘Changeling’

If any story proves the adage “truth is stranger than fiction,” it’s this one.

It began in Los Angeles on March 10th, 1928. Christine Collins, a manager at a telephone company, sent her nine-year-old son Walter to the movies.

She never saw him again, though the Los Angeles police (LAPD) would have loved to convince her otherwise.

When little Walter didn’t return, Collins was at first convinced her son’s disappearance was an act of retribution against the child’s father, a conman and robber who was serving time at Folsom State Prison for armed robbery.

Collins’ cries for help didn’t fall on deaf ears. The case received nationwide attention and the LAPD followed up on hundreds of leads…all for naught. Pressure on local law enforcement increased as the public demanded to know why this boy hadn’t been returned to his mother.

A chilling new development

Then, five months after Walter’s disappearance, there was a chilling new development. A boy in Illinois claimed to be Collins’ son. After exchanging letters and photographs, an overjoyed Collins agreed to pay for the child’s train ticket to Los Angeles.

There was only one problem.

When Collins arrived at the happy little reunion the LAPD had arranged, she saw immediately that the boy wasn’t her son. He resembled Walter, but Walter he most definitely was not. And that wasn’t the only thing strange. When the police questioned “Walter” about the kidnapping and how he’d ended up in Illinois, the child’s story didn’t make any sense. Doctors felt the boy was keeping a secret, but they couldn’t coax it out of him.

The bizarre true story behind the Changeling. When Christine Collins' little boy went missing, an imposter claimed to be her son. When she told the LAPD that he wasn't her child, the police had her COMMITTED!

“Try the boy out”

It’s terribly sad, but lots of children go missing. What made this story worthy of a Clint Eastwood movie almost a hundred years later was LAPD Capt. J.J. Jones’s response. Instead of apologizing to Collins, reimbursing the money she’d spent on the boy’s train ticket, and vowing to find her real son, Jones insisted she “try the boy out,” as if he were a new type of toothpaste rather than a child.

Jones was insistent, so Collins struggled to convince herself the strange boy was her son…for THREE weeks. Finally, she’d had enough. This time, she brought Walter’s dental records and an army of friends to the police station with her. Her friends backed her up–they also insisted the child wasn’t Walter Collins.

Rather than back down and admit his mistake, Jones got angry. According to the Los Angeles Times, Jones allegedly accused Collins of shirking her duty as a mother and trying to make fools of the police.

“You are the most cruel-hearted woman I’ve ever known. You are a . . . fool!” he apparently told her. Nice guy, huh?

Committed!

Not only did Jones refuse to believe Collins’ protests that the boy was not her son, he had the poor woman COMMITTED to a psychiatric ward! But he must have had his own doubts by then, because during the first five days she was in the hospital, Jones extracted a startling confession from the changeling. Finally, the child admitted he was not Walter Collins. His name was Arthur Hutchins. He was a twelve-year-old runaway who’d pretended to be Walter so he could get a free trip to Hollywood and meet his favourite stars.

Collins was finally released from the hospital TEN days after Hutchins confessed, and she immediately sued Jones and the LAPD. She won, but never saw a penny of the judgement.

So what happened to the real Walter Collins? Sadly, trial testimony showed he was a victim of Sarah and Gordon Northcott, mother-and-son serial killers who had kidnapped, sexually assaulted, and murdered a number of young boys.

Understandably, Collins was not so convinced. While Gordon confessed to murdering Walter, he kept changing his story. When he couldn’t recall Walter’s eye colour or clothing, or in fact ever meeting the boy, it gave the grieving mother hope her child was still alive.

Collins continued to search for her son until her own death on December 8, 1964.

Have you heard this scary true story before? Why do you think the police were able to get away with such bizarre behaviour? What do you think happened to Walter Collins?

(Please be sensitive in your comments, keeping in mind that the Collins or Jones families and friends may read this post. If you have any information on this case, please contact the LAPD at 1-877-527-3247. This tip line is completely anonymous.)

PS…If you like scary true stories you may like this one about the mysterious murders at Dyatlov Pass or this one about the truth behind the A Nightmare on Elm Street movies.

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50 Comments

  1. I certainly don’t have any info on the case. So sad how this mother was treated! Makes me wonder if someone higher up on the police department was pulling some strings because they were involved with the bad guys the hubby was associated with. Or maybe Jones sincerely thought they had the right boy, or was being pressured to close the case. No one may ever know.

    Reply
    • JH

      Interesting theory. Jones was definitely feeling the pressure, but he must have known Christine was telling the truth, since he told her to “try the boy out.”

      Reply
  2. I’ve read about this story before. Strange behavior from the police, but I think they convinced themselves that this was her son, but a mother would know. I guess they were too eager to solve the case rather than get the truth. Either way it’s a sad story.

    Reply
  3. What a terrible thing for the police to do. That wouldn’t fly in this day and age. I wonder what happened to the changeling?

    Reply
    • JH

      Good question, Alex. I’m guessing he was returned to his abusive parents. 🙁

      Reply
  4. I remember reading about this case a while back. Absolutely chilling to think about the things that happen in the world around us that’s NOT fiction!

    Reply
    • JH

      Always stranger than fiction. Welcome to my blog, Kimberly!

      Reply
  5. The boys don’t even look alike. What a terrible ordeal for that mother.

    Reply
    • JH

      Pretty sad. I guess there must have been some photos where it was more difficult to tell them apart.

      Reply
  6. How heartbreaking to think you are going to be reunited with your child, and then it’s not your kid.
    Bizarre reaction from police for sure.

    Reply
    • JH

      Most definitely! Imagine wanting a case solved so badly you don’t care how it’s solved.

      Reply
  7. So many things in this story leaving you asking “What the heck?” So sad for the mother to be treated in such a cruel manner. I agree with Barbara In Caneyhead in wondering if someone on the PD was pulling strings because they were involved with the bad guys (the Mob, maybe?) the hubby was associated with or had ticked off in Folsom.

    Reply
    • JH

      That would add a new dimension to this case, for sure.

      Reply
  8. I can’t imagine a worse pain than not knowing what happened to your child. Grieving every minute of every day, terrified at the thoughts of what happened, and could still be happening to him. Our Minnesota story is about Jacob Wetterling. The family finally got closure this past fall, but certainly not a happy ending. The police were cruel in their treatment of Mrs. Collins. Why did they get away with it? Because of how people treat women, police abuse of power, and who knows, a cover-up?

    Reply
    • JH

      Sorry to hear about Jacob Wetterling. We have a few unsolved cases here where families are still waiting for closure–heartbreaking.

      I think the fact that she was a single mother, and I’m guessing not a wealthy one, had a lot to do with why they were able to get away with it.

      Reply
  9. terrible awful story … I wonder how many times this happens.

    Reply
    • JH

      Honestly? We probably don’t want to know.

      Reply
  10. Such a sad story, for many reasons.

    I haven’t seen the Eastwood movie, but I’ve seen versions of this type of occurrence on various TV shows.

    Reply
    • JH

      I wouldn’t be surprised if other shows were made based on this case. It’s just too bizarre not to be used for fiction.

      Reply
  11. I haven’t heard this story before. Sadly, this kind of cruel behaviour towards anyone who dared to question the authorities – even with overwhelming evidence on their side – isn’t unique for the times she lived in, and probably not just those times either. How tragic she went to her grave never knowing what had really happened.

    Reply
    • JH

      It is a great tragedy. At least in this case they didn’t treat her like a murderer. I’ve seen that happen in too many missing child cases.

      Reply
  12. I know the film and own the DVD. This case, in many ways, is a sign of the times. She was a single mother in the 1920’s which was looked down upon and the average male especially in some sort of law enforcement would treat her as an “hysterical woman”. The cop had a lot of weight and tried to make the poor lady a “nut” since their police force could not find out the truth. We have seen this in other cases when the police can’t find out anything so they try to downgrade the family. I do believe the boy was murdered by that mother/son team. The man had little regard for human beings so he would not remember details and would mix up which boy had blue eyes and which one had brown….those 2 had no regard for human life. Truly sad and I feel for the mother and all the people still living who are haunted by this case.

    Reply
    • JH

      Well said, Birgit. That adds a lot of perspective to the story…thanks!

      Reply
  13. I’ve heard a lot of bad stories about the LAPD, but this is one of the most egregious. I’d heard of this one, but really didn’t know the details. Poor Mrs. Collins was treated so badly. I’m glad she had friends to stand by her and that she was eventually let out of the institution.

    Reply
    • JH

      Me too, Lexa. That must have been absolutely terrifying.

      Reply
  14. Birgit said much of what I think. Also, any law enforcement agencies could not afford to be perceived as being in the wrong or incompetent. The fear of a “breakdown in society” was strong and the people’s trust in law and the keepers of it was required.

    Reply
    • JH

      Sad but true. Welcome to my blog, Nan! Hope to see you back here again.

      Reply
  15. I have heard of this story and it’s just so appalling. What Jones did, what the child did, and of course want the murderers of Jones’ real son did.

    Reply
  16. That is a very strange and intriguing story indeed! I am overcome by a feeling of helplessness when I read accounts like these. The fact that the mom knew it wasn’t her son, but was not believed and that she never found out what happened to him. Terrible.

    I know quite a few people and circumstances in which the child has passed way before the mother and it is not something I wish upon anyone. It is one reason why I am happy not to have children…

    Reply
    • JH

      As horrible as that is, and it is one of the worst things that could happen to a person, I imagine it’s even worse when you don’t know what happened to your child, or if they’re alive or dead. There’s no closure.

      Reply
  17. Oops. I made a boo-boo. That’s what I get for hitting send too soon. I meant Collins’ real son. Obviously. lol

    Reply
  18. Well, you know, female hysteria was such a huge issue. He was just watching over her. Sarcasm aside, this has always been a sad, scary story. I was reading an article recently on there being a racket of claiming to be a long missing child in order to get money, college paid for, etc. What a terrible thing to exploit.

    Reply
    • JH

      Most definitely. I wonder if there were moments she even wished he were Walter, just so she’d have her son back and not have to be devastated any longer. That poor woman!

      Reply
  19. Sadly I wouldn’t be surprised if stuff like this happened today in some cities. The police in a lot of places are still bullies and refuse to accept if/when they make a mistake, making difficult times for innocent people even more challenging. It’s a weird case, for sure, but I’m sure you could find others that are equally, head-slappingly frustrating.

    Reply
    • JH

      I’ll make a point of it. 😉

      Reply
  20. What a heartbreaking story. I can’t imagine being that poor mother, consumed by the loss and then deceived again and again. As a parent, my heart breaks at the thought.

    Reply
    • JH

      Yes, when I was researching and writing this one, I focused on how cruel the police were, but the little boy was actually quite awful as well, though I’m sure he didn’t understand the consequences of his actions.

      Reply
    • JH

      Sad but true, Patricia. I have my doubts as well.

      Reply
  21. I can’t imagine what that woman experienced. Having children of my own I know she suffered terribly and to have no support from the authorities must have been her greatest frustration.

    Reply
    • JH

      It had to have been absolutely horrible to not be believed about something as simple as whether a child is yours or not.

      Reply
  22. It’s terrible that the police tried to insist the other boy was her son. Aside from the potential damage done to her, what about the other mother who would have been frantically searching for her own missing son! It makes me wonder what the police where covering up!
    Debbie

    Reply
    • JH

      Oh, that I can answer. The changeling had ran away from an abusive situation where his own mother was neglectful. As far as I can recall from my research, she wasn’t looking for him.

      Reply
  23. I know about the story from watching the movie. It was horrifying that the LAPD could treat someone like that.

    Reply
    • JH

      Very much so. Unbelievable this was allowed to happen.

      Reply
  24. As horrible as this may sound, I have a cousin who’s married to a police officer and even he admits that the police are not always the best people to solve a mystery; everyday crimes, yes, but something like this is different. In this day and age, being a detective does require more training than the average beat cop, but I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if something like this happened today, especially now that kids are being taught how to steal identities by watching tv. And as for the behavior of the police, go visit a small town, it hasn’t changed that much. With that said, I do feel that most modern day detectives wouldn’t have been that insensitive nor would have been so willing to close a case as to try and commit the mother. This is truly a sad story.

    Reply
    • JH

      It doesn’t sound horrible at all, Toi. We don’t expect a family physician to perform brain surgery–why would a beat cop know how to investigate a murder? I just wish police departments were better at accepting outside help and support when they encounter a situation that’s beyond their experience and manpower. So often it’s the families of the victim who end up paying the price.

      Reply
  25. I can’t believe the police did that: try to make a woman accept a child that wasn’t hers and put her in an asylum? How bizarre!

    Reply
    • JH

      It is extremely bizarre, but I swear it’s true!

      Reply

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