A Child Genius Went Missing In 1939, And The Case Is Still Puzzling Experts Today

Barbara Newhall Follett achieved more by the time she was 16 years old than many of us can hope to achieve in a lifetime. She'd seen her first novel, The House Without Windows, published when she was only 12. The book was a critical smash, getting rave reviews in prestigious literary columns. A second book followed shortly afterwards, and Follett appeared to be on the verge of becoming a superstar. But then, one December evening in 1939, Barbara walked out of her home... and disappeared without a trace. Investigations have been searching for answers ever since.

An unexplained mystery

The last time anybody laid eyes on Barbara — as far as we know for certain — was December 7, 1939. After the former child prodigy had returned home from work, she'd had a fight with her husband. She'd then simply left her apartment in Brookline, Massachusetts, taking little more than $30 with her: that would be the equivalent of about $650 today. Her sudden disappearance didn't become a major news story right away, but that hasn't stopped people from trying to find her. And one man claims he has done exactly that.

It took two weeks to inform the police

Barbara's husband was Nickerson "Nick" Rogers. The pair had met in 1931 and married in 1934. Yet despite the couple's long-term relationship, it took Nick two weeks to report Barbara's disappearance to the police. And when he did eventually inform the authorities that his wife had vanished, he asked them to keep the news out of the papers. The police managed to do this, but they didn't manage to track down Barbara. Then Nick changed his mind about the publicity.

Going to the papers — without any luck

In April 1940 — a full five months after he'd seen Barbara for the last time — Nick asked the Brookline police to make the case known to the public. Unfortunately for Nick, this proved to be too little too late because none of the newspapers picked up the story. All that happened was the Brookline P.D. issued a teletype giving Barbara's general appearance and asking people to look out for "Barbara Rogers." This seemingly made no difference to the case, either.

This had happened before

One possible reason Nick had asked the police to keep quiet about Barbara's disappearance could have been that she had gone missing before. That incident occurred in 1929 when Barbara had only been 15 years old. Back then, the story of a child prodigy running away from home had been catnip to the papers, much to the disgust of her parents. So perhaps Nick was just trying to avoid another scandal.

She was a child star

Back in 1929 Barbara had been about as famous as she would ever be. Her novel, The House Without Windows, had been published in 1927 to much acclaim. Its publisher, Knopf, had printed 2,500 copies of the 12-year-old's book; they were snapped up by a curious public. The novel was about a young girl called Eepersip, who loved the outdoors and longed to be free. It wasn't hard to draw parallels between the main character and the author of the book.

A wild child constrained

Barbara's parents, Wilson and Helen, were both writers, and the young Barbara became obsessed with her father's typewriter. This likely came as no surprise to Wilson, as he had already boasted about his child's abilities in the pages of Harper's magazine. "She was always seeing 'As' in the gables of houses and 'Hs' in football goalposts," he said of his then-three-year-old daughter. But the typewriter was a different matter altogether.

The typewriter opened up her world

Barbara was only five years old when she taught herself how to write on the typewriter. And as she was home-schooled, she had plenty of time to master it. "In a multitude of ways," Wilson wrote, "we become more and more convinced of the expediency of letting the typewriter be, so far as a machine can, the center and genesis of the first processes."

A novelist in the making

She started writing her first story when she was five years old, too. This first one was called The Life of the Spinning Wheel, the Rocking-Horse, and the Rabbit. Poems and fairytales would follow until eventually, at the age of eight, Barbara embarked upon her biggest challenge yet: a novel. It was not a task she took lightly; she would occasionally write as much as 4,000 words a day. And not even a fire would stop her.

Lighting a fire

Shortly after Barbara completed her first draft of her first novel, a fire almost took her life. It started in the kitchen of the Folletts' home, and it seemingly spread through much of the house. The family lost a great many of their possessions, including young Barbara's manuscript. But instead of being put off, Barbara merely started the manuscript again and crafted a new tale that was three years in the making. It was this story that got her name in lights.

Fast track to success

It might have helped that her father had already been working with the publisher Knopf. But regardless of that, the final book, The House Without Windows, was praised by critics as a minor miracle. The New York Times called it a "truly remarkable little book," and The Saturday Review of Literature wrote that the novel was "almost unbearably beautiful." Barbara herself wrote that the book was "an expression of joy." She was, suffice it to say, a star.

The "difficult" second book

Barbara was no one-hit wonder, either: she was already preparing for her next book as people were discovering her first. But her follow-up to The House Without Windows was not a work of fiction. It was called The Voyage of the Norman D, and it was about a very real adventure that Barbara had insisted on undertaking. She had apparently always harbored ambitions to sail the seas as a cabin boy... and so she did, at the age of 13.

On the high seas

A lumber schooner called Frederick H. agreed to have the young Barbara on board as part of its crew. The journey took Barbara to Nova Scotia in ten days in the summer of 1927: she finished writing the book just four months later. Knopf took care of publishing it again, and The Voyage of the Norman D hit the shelves four months after that. The reviews were rapturous once more... but a development in Barbara's home life seemingly put paid to her promising career.

A hackneyed plot twist

Barbara's father, Wilson, may have been an editor and a writer, but he couldn't avoid a certain story cliché in his own life. Not long after Barbara turned 14 years old, Wilson announced that he had fallen in love with another woman and was leaving his family to be with her. It was catastrophic news for the young Barbara, though her appeals for her father to stay fell on deaf ears. Her life would never be the same again.

Barbara responded by running away

Her father's desertion had a profound impact on Barbara, but her first instinct was not to fall into a depression. Instead, the young author eventually convinced her mother, Helen, to take her on another sailing adventure. She even got the backing of a publisher eager for more content. Helen finally agreed, and the pair took to the seas, making their way from New York to Barbados in the fall of 1928. But the extended trip would not be plain sailing.

The ups and downs of sea life

Instead of returning home after Barbados, the Folletts continued their high-seas adventure. They hopped around the Caribbean before eventually making their way to Honolulu some eight months after leaving New York. But whether because of the strains of travel or the tribulations of a broken home, Barbara seemingly had suffered a nervous breakdown during the journey. Helen became so worried about it that she wrote about it in a letter to a friend.

"Barbara has gone to pieces"

"Barbara has gone to pieces," Helen wrote to one Anne Meservey. "Her writing job is not anywhere near finished. She has lost interest in things, in living, in writing. She says, herself, that she is 'homesick.' She is in critical condition, and likely to do anything from running away to suicide. And my advice is not what she wants. She must have a man to help her." But, perhaps just in time, things started to look up.

A vigilant savior

Barbara and Helen made their way back toward Washington aboard a schooner named Vigilant. And it was while aboard this boat that Barbara made friends with a sailor called Edward Anderson. He would become a large figure in Barbara's life: some have said that she fell in love with Anderson during that trip. What can't be doubted is that she was feeling much better about life by the time the journey was over.

"Life was beautiful"

"I suppose that I spent about the happiest month of my life during that sea trip in [the Vigilant]," Barbara later wrote. "And it lasted even during that week in port when I took over the cabin boy’s job… Life was beautiful then." But her time at sea came to an end when she and her mother hopped on a bus to Pasadena, California. And because Wilson had not exactly set up his former family for future financial success, Barbara was about to have a harsh dose of reality.

Her father left them in trouble

Helen and Barbara simply didn't have a lot of money after Wilson left. So Helen left Barbara with friends of the family in Los Angeles while she traveled back to Honolulu to write a book and find work. The problem was, as Barbara later told the press, the young author hated life in the city: that was probably why she ran away to San Francisco in 1929. But things hardly improved when she joined her mother in New York the following year.

No money, more problems

Barbara was still only 16, but the family's money problems were so bad that she was forced to get a regular job. She first took lessons in shorthand and then had to start using her beloved typewriter for business typing. It was, she once wrote, a "decidedly more tawdry use of its magic." Yet despite the Wall Street crash — and her own literary ambitions — Barbara managed to find work as a secretary.

Once a writer, always a writer

The young writer didn't lose sight of her literary dreams, though. She collaborated with her mother to write Magic Portholes, a non-fiction retelling of their travels in the West Indies published in 1932. Barbara also completed one novel — not published in her lifetime — called Lost Island and a travelog called Travels Without a Donkey. But the novels stopped coming after that, and Barbara moved on the next, and final, chapter of her life.

Finding another love

After Barbara met Nickerson "Nick" Rogers in 1931 the pair set about seeing the world. They first hiked the Appalachian Trail and then they made their way through Europe. They were married in 1934 and moved from New York to Boston. She still had support staff jobs, but Barbara also took the time in the summer of 1939 to enjoy dance classes at Mills College in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, though, her husband didn't go with her; in fact, he soon asked for a divorce.

Trouble at home

Nick, it seemed, had fallen in love with another woman. Barbara's letters at this time — the final few months of her life — give a particularly poignant glimpse of her inner thoughts. "There is somebody else..." she wrote in one. "I had it coming to me, I know." The messages revealed that her troubles at home were causing her to rely on sleeping pills just so she could rest. But a letter written in November 1939 was even more disturbing.

Calm before the storm

"On the surface, things are terribly, terribly calm, and wrong," Barbara wrote in the November 1939 letter. "I still think there is a chance that the outcome will be a happy one, but I would have to think that anyway, in order to live; so you can draw any conclusions you like from that!" Some historians have interpreted this as Barbara confessing to suicidal thoughts. It was written, after all, only one month before she disappeared for good.

The world remains unaware

We know Barbara walked out of her home on December 7, 1939, and she never returned. We also know Nick waited two weeks to report her missing and four months before insisting on a bulletin. But what is truly shocking is that the wider world wasn't generally aware that Barbara had disappeared until 1966: an astonishing 27 years after the fact. And it only came to the attention of the media after Helen wrote an academic paper about her child-genius daughter. Yet there had been other signs.

A father's regrets

In May 1941, for instance, Wilson had written a long essay for The Atlantic called "To a Daughter, One Year Lost." Granted, he wrote the article anonymously and didn't mention Barbara — or anybody — by name, but the details are still rather specific. Wilson mentioned Barbara's age when he left their home, and he talked about her disappearance. The essay was filled with a fascinating mix of emotions, including guilt, anger, and regret.

"I miss you"

"It is preposterous that such a one should just drop out of existence for that length of time, as if she were one of the indistinguishable crowd," Wilson wrote. He later added, "A year, in common adult experience, is no eternity, but it is quite long enough to have told me to the last chapter the story of how I miss you. Surely you will not recoil from knowing just this: that simply, humanly, sorely, I miss you."

Helen stepped in

Eleven years after this article appeared, Helen began to search for her daughter with renewed energy. Researchers have discovered that the mom contacted the Brookline police department in 1952 and tried to force them into action. "There is always foul play to be considered," she told the chief of police. And if that was Helen's attempt to be subtle, she was significantly less diplomatic when she wrote to Nick, Barbara's former husband.

Silence speaks volumes

"All of this silence on your part looks as if you had something to hide concerning Barbara's disappearance," Helen told Nick. "You cannot believe that I shall sit idle during my last few years and not make whatever effort I can to find out whether Bar is alive or dead, whether, perhaps, she is in some institution suffering from amnesia or nervous breakdown."

A private investigation

Helen's letter also stated, "I hope not, since I have always trusted you, to the point of believing you were doing all you could to solve the mystery." And it's possible this lit a fire under Nick, because it seems that he later hired a private investigator to try to track Barbara down. That attempt failed, of course, as did any efforts on the part of the Brookline police department. But this hasn't stopped researchers from coming up with their own theories.

Returned to Edward Anderson?

Stefan Cooke — an expert on Barbara's story who also happens to be her half-nephew — once theorized that Barbara may have walked out to reunite with Anderson. He had made quite the impression on her during their time aboard the Vigilant, after all, and he had been a correspondent afterward, too. The idea Cooke had was that Barbara had just wanted to escape her life and start again. But some later research proved him wrong.

One theory scotched

It turned out that Anderson had passed away in 1937 two years before Barbara had vanished. Cooke wrote about the new research in an edition of Barbara's Lost Island novel, which Cooke published in 2020. But that wasn't the end to the theories surrounding what might have happened to Barbara. Writer Daniel Mills had become similarly intrigued by the child prodigy's life, and his independent research uncovered a new discovery.

Into the woods

Mills published his theory in an essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2019. Contrary to Cooke, Mills thought it was possible that Barbara had taken her own life at the end of 1939. The writer even believed he knew where Barbara might have gone to do it: Squam Lake. This is a body of water in New Hampshire which Barbara and her husband had visited a few years before her disappearance. The place was apparently a "sanctuary" for Barbara.

One last visit to her sanctuary?

After taking a deep dive into local newspaper reports from 1939 onwards, Mills found a piece about a strange death that caught his eye. In 1948 the remains of a 25-year-old woman had been discovered near Squam Lake. A pathologist later declared that the bones had been in the woods since no time later than 1939. The authorities had claimed that the remains were those of Elsie Whittemore, a woman who had disappeared from Plymouth in 1936. But Mills had another idea.

Reclaiming remains

Mills reported that there were several differences between the remains found in 1948 and the known measurements of Elsie Whittemore. The writer also claimed that the details revealed about the remains were more similar to a woman of Barbara's physical stature. His theory was that Barbara had left her home on December 7, 1939, had taken the train to Plymouth, walked to Squam Lake and then had decided to end it all. This also contradicted the idea of "foul play" being involved.

A suspicious husband?

We know that Helen had vaguely accused Nick of having "something to hide concerning Barbara’s disappearance," and many online theorists have latched onto the possibility of Nick being a killer. For Cooke, though, there is no evidence — circumstantial or otherwise — to suggest that Barbara's husband was responsible for her sudden vanishing. He put Helen's accusation down to a health scare and a frantic need to find out what had happened to her missing daughter.

Lingering questions

The murder theory would at least answer a lingering question about Barbara's disappearance. Because if you believe that Barbara had run away to start a new life or that she had died at her own hands, then you have to also wonder why she hadn't left a note or a message for her family. "Did she want to punish Nick so badly that she kept him and everyone who knew her in the dark about where she went and how she was faring?" Cooke wondered on his Farksolia website. Yet for Cooke, suicide appears to be the preferred theory.

Nick moved on

The facts that we do know are that Nick eventually moved on with his life, although with some legal difficulty. When he first tried to get a divorce from the disappeared Barbara in 1941 his appeal fell on deaf ears. Nick later moved to Vermont and managed to successfully divorce Barbara — after she didn't show up in court — in 1944. He then remarried in July 1944 to Anne Bradley, the woman to whom he remained wed until his death in 2000.

An ongoing mystery

Barbara's mother, Helen, may have worried about her heart in 1953, but she survived for another 17 years before passing away in 1970. Her father, Wilson, died in 1963. Barbara also had a sister named Sabra, who was also exceptional. In fact in 1961 Dr. Sabra Follett Toback became the first female graduate admitted to Princeton University, where she later earned a Ph.D. in Oriental languages and literature. Sabra would live until 1994; none of the family would ever learn what had happened to Barbara.