The Wineville Chicken Coop Murders may sound like something out of a crime novel, yet the acts that caused a nationwide sensation in 1928 are true. Gordon Stewart Northcott, a chicken farmer turned serial killer, lived and worked in the small town of Wineville, CA. From 1926 to 1928, he abducted, assaulted, and murdered young boys with the help of his mother, Sarah Louise Northcott, and his nephew, Sanford Clark. Northcott claimed the lives of at least three victims, though he may have been responsible for many more. The Northcotts fled the country to escape the police but were caught in Canada. The state of California found Northcott guilty and executed him via hanging in 1930 at the age of 23.
The case led to widespread media coverage across the country. And then there was a twist in the case: the police claimed to have found one of the missing boys, Walter Collins, and returned him to his mother. However, the child wasn’t actually the woman’s son, and authorities refused to believe her. The incident inspired the 2008 thriller Changeling, starring Angelina Jolie.
Northcott's Mother Helped Axe Walter Collins
Sarah Louise Northcott lived in Los Angeles during her son's time in Wineville. She reportedly went to visit her son at the same time that he had 9-year-old Walter Collins trapped in his chicken coop. Sarah Louise later maintained that she first proposed the plan to kill Walter as a way to protect her son.
According to her story, Northcott and his 13-year-old nephew, Sanford Clark, repeatedly hit Walter. She testified to her participation. They then dismembered the body and buried it in quicklime.
The Northcotts Killed At Least Three Boys
Sarah Louise Northcott and Gordon Northcott collectively admitted to the deaths of three boys, although Northcott later claimed he killed 20 boys or more. The deaths that authorities definitively attributed to Northcott include brothers Lewis Winslow (age 12) and Nelson Winslow (age 10), Walter Collins (age 9), and an unnamed Mexican boy whose headless body prevented him from being positively identified.
All were chopped up and buried on the Northcott chicken farm.
The Winslow Boys Sent An Odd Letter To Their Parents
Northcott abducted the Winslow brothers in May of 1928. To provide a cover for their disappearance, Northcott wrote a letter to the brothers' parents. The letter claimed that they had run away but were fine.
The note was written on paper torn from the flyleaf of a book found on the Northcott farm. That, along with the bodies of the Winslow brothers, revealed their true fates as two of Northcott's victims.
Northcott's Nephew Became His Unwilling Accomplice
In 1926, Northcott asked his older sister Jessie to send her 13-year-old son, Sanford Clark, to help Northcott on the chicken farm. The teen left his home in Saskatchewan, Canada, with his 21-year-old uncle. Reportedly, Northcott abused Clark.
Clark later testified that his uncle molested him, beat him regularly, and forced him at gunpoint to watch - and even participate - in the murder of several boys.
In 1928, Jessie Clark came to visit the farm and check on her son. Clark told her everything, and after Northcott attacked her, she informed their mother about the situation at the farm. Jessie left and contacted the authorities, who went to the farm to investigate.