For many people, the days between Christmas and New Year’s are a time to stop working for awhile, to reflect on the previous year, prepare for the new one and spend time with loved ones. But for one family in the 1920’s, this time period turned tragic. Let’s talk about Melvin Horst, whose disappearance is one of the oldest, if not the oldest missing persons case in his state’s history.
Melvin Charles Horst was born on July 2, 1924 to mom Zora and dad Raymond. He was also welcomed by older brother Ralph. A few years later, the brothers were joined by sister Elgie. (some sources called her ‘Elzia’)
For the next few years, Melvin and his siblings seemed to have a relatively normal life in the town of Orrville, Ohio, about 50 miles south of Cleveland. But just a few days after Christmas in 1928, that all changed.
On the afternoon of December 27, 4-year-old Melvin left his home to play with friends in the neighborhood. After being wrapped up in his winter clothes, he also chose to bring along a red toy truck he’d gotten for Christmas.
The kids played for awhile in a vacant lot about a block from the Horst home. From here, the times are a bit fuzzy. One source said Melvin left around 5:15 pm and his mom called him in for dinner around 5:30. Another source said his mom called him for dinner around 4:30. But regardless of when he was called in, he didn’t come. When Raymond Horst got home around 6 pm, there was still no sign of his son. The Horsts began searching but, when they still couldn’t find Melvin by 7 pm, they called the police.
News of Melvin’s disappearance spread quickly, and people were shocked. Orrville had a population of about 4,600 at the time, and nothing like this had ever happened there. Volunteers and investigators, began searching that night, with several hundred people turning up to look. The search continued for several weeks and covered about 100,00 square miles; searchers looked in houses in the neighborhood and bodies of water. At one point, firefighters drained a pond after finding a hole in it. But none of these searches led anywhere. The only piece of evidence found was Melvin’s toy truck, which was found in the Horst’s front yard.
One person involved in the investigation from the start was city marshal Roy Horst, Raymond Horst’s brother. Roy initially thought his nephew might have just wandered off and would be found within a few hours. But as the days went by, people started to wonder if something more nefarious had happened. Zora Horst knew her son had no fear of strangers and would talk to just about anyone. She and her husband soon started to wonder if Melvin had been kidnapped.
And police seemed to share this fear. They suspected from pretty early on that Melvin had met with foul play. Another, more wealthy family lived close to the Horsts and had a son close to Melvin’s age. Had Melvin been mistaken for this child and kidnapped for ransom? But there were never any ransom demands made.
Investigators also looked into a few sex offenders in the area. But the ones they found all had alibis, and searches of their homes turned up no evidence.
There were other theories as well, such as Melvin being kidnapped by mobsters. But a lot of speculation in the early days centered on Prohibition. Melvin’s dad was passionate about the enforcement of liquor laws at the time, and his uncle Roy had arrested numerous people for violating said laws. There was even an early theory that rum runners wanted to kidnap one of Roy Horst’s sons as revenge for arresting them, but accidentally kidnapped Melvin instead and drowned him in Lake Erie.
the Arnold trial
Just four days into the investigation, police found an 8-year-old boy who would later become very important in the case. Charles Hanna, who went by the nickname “Junior,” claimed he’d seen Melvin lured into the house of his uncle, 55-year-old Elias Arnold. Arnold was a bricklayer by trade — at least by legal trade. He was also a bootlegger who had been arrested numerous times by Roy Horst. Several other members of of Elias’s family, including two of his sons and his son-in-law, had also been in trouble with the law in the past.
On January 2, 1929, Elias Arnold, two of his sons, his daughter and son-in-law were all arrested and charged with kidnapping. After being arrested, Elias did admit to holding a grudge against Roy Horst, but said he had nothing to do with Melvin’s disappearance.
Charges were eventually dropped for most of the family members after they provided solid alibis. But Elias Arnold and his 17-year-old son, Arthur Arnold, went on trial in March of 1929.
At the Arnold trial, prosecutors claimed Melvin was kidnapped as revenge against Roy Horst for arresting so many members of the Arnold family. The defense claimed the Arnolds had been framed by a detective who wanted the reward money. Elias Arnold continued to maintain his innocence, saying: “If I wanted to get even with Marshal Horst, I’d take it out of his skin.”
The prosecution’s case largely hinged on Junior Hanna’s testimony. Junior and another child witness both said on the stand that they’d seen Melvin being lured into the Arnold home on the day he went missing.
And the jury bought it. Elias and Arthur Arnold were convicted of kidnapping later that month. Elias was sentenced to 20 years in prison, and Arthur was sentenced to an “indeterminate period of time” at a reformatory.
But just a few months later, Junior’s statements, the ones that had put the Arnolds behind bars, were called into question. Several details of his story had changed, including exactly who was involved — sometimes he said it was actually Elias Arnold’s son-in-law, Basom McHenry, rather than Elias himself. He’s also testified at trial that he met up with two of his friends around 5:15…but another witness said he saw Junior several blocks away at 5:12 pm. There was no way he could have gotten to the Arnold house in that short amount of time. When he was initially asked why he waited four days to come forward with his story, Junior said it was because he was scared. When asked again later on, he only claimed he didn’t tell anyone what he saw because “nobody asked me.”
In late 1929, a retrial was scheduled and Elias Arnold was released on bond. Upon retrial, both he and Arthur were acquitted on all charges.
Even after the Arnolds’ initial conviction, police continued to receive reports of alleged sightings of Melvin. Later on, a letter was mailed to a reporter from someone who claimed he’d taken Melvin and would bring him home in exchange for $100. This letter was later determined to be a hoax.
And Junior Hanna’s accusations didn’t stop with the Arnolds. He later said his own father, as well as a neighbor of theirs, had actually kidnapped Melvin and convinced him to throw the Arnolds under the bus. The two men did say they killed Melvin after they caught him drinking whiskey in their garage, but these confessions were later determined to be coerced by police and were dismissed.
At the time of Melvin’s disappearance, his family still had their Christmas tree up. It stayed up for several more months, maybe even over a year, before it was taken down. According to Melvin’s sister, Elgie, who was one or two when her brother disappeared, the family didn’t get another Christmas tree until she was a teenager.
Elgie also later came into possession of her brother’s old truck, the one he’d had right before he disappeared that was found in the family’s front yard. She later gave it to her own son. As of February 2020, Elgie is the only surviving member of their immediate family; their brother Ralph and both their parents have since died. The case is still open, but police aren’t optimistic about new information coming to light or any arrests being made.
So what happened to Melvin Horst? Let’s talk speculation and theories.
The first theory is that Melvin got lost and succumbed to the elements. I don’t think anyone questions that he knew how to get back home — he was only a block away — but he could have easily been distracted by something, as kids often are. He might have wandered off, not been able to find his way back from there and died of exposure or in some sort of other accident.
There’s also been speculation that Melvin was the victim of a hit and run, his killer his his body and it has never been found. I talked about the same theory in my video on Rick Bendele, which I covered last week. Apparently this is a more popular theory for missing people than I ever realized.
But most people online seem to think Melvin was killed by a sexual predator. He disappeared at a time when this phenomenon might not have been in the front of people’s minds like it is today. Despite a few sexual predators being investigated, it could have been another one who flew under police radar. Or maybe it was one of the ones who were investigated but, for whatever reason, police just couldn’t find enough evidence to make an arrest. If Melvin was kidnapped by a sexual predator, most people seem to think he was probably killed soon after.
Melvin Charles Horst was 4 years old when he was last seen on December 27, 1928 in Orrville, Ohio. Melvin is a white male with brown hair and blue eyes, who was 3 feet 1 inch tall and 49 pounds at the time of his disappearance. He was last seen wearing a dark brown coat, checked sweater, blue overalls and a stocking cap. He has a burn scar on his hip and would be 97 years old if alive today.
This case has a lot of drama, finger pointing and ‘he said she said’ — or, rather, ‘he said he said.’ It seems like there’s been renewed interest in the case in the past couple of years, so hopefully modern investigators can put all that aside and finally find Melvin.
If you have any information about the disappearance of Melvin Horst:
Orrville Police Department
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
1-800 THE LOST (843-5678)