On January 25, 1949, a tragic disappearance occurred in the city of Philadelphia. Although I had no connections to the event, other than a sad interest in it, the story that I wrote about it went on to become one of the most controversial of my writing career.
As some readers know, I’ve always had an interest in unsolved disappearances. But the case of Dorothy Forstein is among the saddest of these stories and is also one of the most unusual in the annals of American crime. To this day, her disappearance has never been solved and strangely, the case was dropped from newspapers within a week after she vanished. Numerous attempts have been made to remove this case from the history books in recent years, but weird, tantalizing details still remain.
Dorothy Forstein vanished from her Philadelphia home in 1949, having been married nine years to her childhood sweetheart, Jules Forstein, who was a clerk for the Philadelphia City Council at the time of the wedding. Dorothy was a happy, outgoing young woman and she became the devoted mother of two children, Marcy, an infant, and Merna, age ten, who were children from Jules’ first marriage. His wife had died in childbirth not long before he and Dorothy had become reacquainted. Their marriage was a happy one and Forstein’s professional life began to prosper when he was made a magistrate in 1943. Another child, Edward, was born a short time later.
The Forsteins’ idyllic life was shattered on January 25, 1945. Dorothy left the children with neighbors and went out to do some shopping. She reportedly joked with the butcher and chatted with friends as she went about her errands. Later, her neighbor saw her return home and thought that someone was with her, or walking behind her, as she made her way through the late evening shadows to her front door. It was getting dark and the neighbor, Maria Townley, admitted that she didn’t look closely at the man who was behind her. It was a safe neighborhood and she never imagined that Dorothy was in trouble.
Just as Dorothy was entering her three-story brick home, the stranger-- or whomever it might have been that Mrs. Townley saw-- jumped out of the darkness at her. He began beating her with his fists and some sort of blunt instrument. Dorothy fell to the ground and was pounded into unconsciousness. As she tumbled into the house, her arm dislodged the hall telephone. In those days of live operators, the voice on the other end of the line heard the commotion and quickly summoned the police. The attacker fled at the sound of approaching sirens.
Police officers arrived moments later and found a battered Dorothy on the floor of the hallway. She had suffered a broken jaw, a shattered nose, a fractured shoulder and a brain concussion. She was rushed to the hospital and when she awakened, she could only weakly explain that “someone jumped out at me. I couldn’t see who it was. He just hit me and hit me.”
Investigators labeled the attack an attempted murder and Captain James A. Kelly of the Philadelphia Homicide Division began trying to put the pieces together. He concluded that it could only have been someone trying to kill Dorothy since no money, jewelry or anything else had been taken from the Forstein home. Jules Forstein himself was investigated but he had an unimpeachable alibi and the children were too young to have been involved. The case was complicated by the fact that Dorothy had no known enemies and in fact, was one of the most well-liked residents in the neighborhood. The most prevalent theory for the police investigators was that the attacker might have been someone who had appeared in court before Forstein and had assaulted Dorothy for revenge. Every possible lead was investigated but no arrests were ever made.
Dorothy recovered from her injuries but was so shaken by the incident that she was never the same again. Her happy and carefree personality was gone, replaced by an anxious woman who was nervous and upset, jumping at every noise in the house and checking and rechecking the locks on the doors and windows. She was sure that someone was out to get her - but who?
Jules Forstein was perplexed. He was sure that no one with whom he had come into contact as a magistrate would bear him enough of a grudge to hurt his wife or his family, and yet he could not explain Dorothy’s attack. He seldom left his wife and children alone but on the night of October 18, 1949, he made plans to attend a political banquet. As he was leaving the office, he called his wife to check on her, explaining that he didn’t plan to be home too late.
Dorothy replied that everything was fine at home and she joked with him for a moment, finally seeming more like her old self. “Be sure to miss me!” she reportedly said just as she was hanging up. Tragically, her words would turn out to be prophetic ones.
Around 11:30 p.m., Forstein came home to be greeted by the wails of his two youngest children, Edward and Marcy. They were huddled on the floor, crying and shrieking. Their sister, Merna, was staying at a friend’s house and Dorothy was nowhere to be found. Forstein quickly discovered that the children were crying because their mother was gone!
While surprised that she would have left the children at home by themselves, Forstein assumed that Dorothy was visiting with friends or neighbors. He telephoned for several hours and no one had seen her. Finally, he called Captain Kelly again and the detective soon started his men checking hospitals, morgues and hotels all over Philadelphia. They worked frantically but no clues were discovered. Kelly went door-to-door in the neighborhood but no one had seen anything unusual. Wherever she was, Dorothy had left her purse, money and keys at home. The front door to the house had been locked.
The only lead came from nine-year-old Marcy Forstein, but her story was so wild that detectives at first dismissed it as nothing more than a child’s frightened and overactive imagination. She told Captain Kelly that she had been awakened and had left her room to see a man coming up the stairs. He went into her mother’s room. The door was cracked open and Marcy stated that she could see Dorothy lying face down on the rug. “She looked sick,” the little girl offered.
Then, the man, who she described as wearing a brown hat and brown jacket with something sticking out of the pocket, picked up her mother and put her over his shoulder. Dorothy was wearing red silk pajamas and red slippers at the time. Marcy asked the man what he was doing. He patted her on the head and replied: “Go back to sleep, little one, your mommy has been sick, but she will be all right now.”
The man carried Dorothy downstairs and out the front door. He locked the door behind him and vanished. Marcy awakened her brother and they waited together for their father, who arrived home about fifteen minutes later. The little girl told the detectives that she had never seen the man before and had no idea who he was.
As bizarre as the story sounded, it was the only possible explanation the police had for Dorothy’s disappearance. Nothing was disturbed in the house. There was no sign of a struggle and also no indication that anyone else had been there. There was not a single fingerprint in the house that did not belong and the investigators wondered how a man could have walked down the street with a woman in pajamas over his shoulder without someone noticing. And how had he gotten into the locked house anyway? It seemed impossible that the girl’s story could be true and yet it had to be. If no one had spirited the young woman away, then where had she gone? If she had walked away on her own, why had she not taken her purse or keys with her?
Dorothy Forstein was never seen again. There were no leads, no suspects and no explanations as to who might have taken her or why. Newspapers all over the country, especially in Pennsylvania, carried stories about her disappearance and possible kidnapping and then, by the end of October, the story largely disappeared, just as Dorothy had done. She simply vanished - gone without a trace.
For decades, no further word of Dorothy Forstein appeared in print. Then, in 2003, I featured the story of Dorothy Forstein on my website and soon after, I received a letter from an attorney from the Forstein family asking if the story could be removed. The letter was not threatening. It merely made an appeal for the privacy of the family members and asked if I would consider removing it from the internet out of consideration for their grief. I agreed to do so and I later learned that several sites that had also featured my article on the disappearance had received a similar letter.
Why the secrecy about a fifty-year-old disappearance? No one could say and to this day, no one is talking. I have never heard anything else about this mysterious case and there has been no further contact with anyone about it. After all of those years, the 2003 attention to the case of the missing housewife is almost as mysterious as the original vanishing – and neither is likely to ever be solved.
Read more about unsolved vanishings in my book Without a Trace, available as a Kindle edition or in print on the Whitechapel Press website.