Attacks by sexual predators against our children are skyrocketing. When we read or hear the news of a missing, abducted, or murdered child—no one is shocked. Most of us accept these debaucheries as a modern malady. Psychologists and criminologists cite the decaying morals of modern society as the foremost cause of these crimes. But, the facts do not support the suppositions of these educated theoreticians. Readily available data confirms that deplorable acts against children have plagued humanity for as long as man has had the ability to keep written records.
There is not a single culture or nation that can boast of an unblemished slate when it comes to the sexual abuse of children. Historical and archeological evidence show that children have been the victims of abuse since at least the days of the Egyptian Pharaohs. And, neither the Golden Age of Greece nor the glorious days of the Roman Empire were safe times for children. Wealthy Greeks and Romans flaunted child slaves and often violated these children to satisfy their deviant sexual compulsions.
With the conquering of Rome in 476 C.E. by a Germanic barbarian known as Odoacer, Europe entered a period known as the Dark Ages. Scholars who study this era tell us that children fared poorly during this segment of world history. It’s estimated that 50% of European children born during the Dark Ages perished before the age of five.
In 1440 C.E., Gutenberg invented the printing press and the world changed. Printing-presses and newspapers began appearing in villages across Europe. For the first time in history, ordinary folks were learning to read and gaining reasonable access to current events. Lists of missing children became the most prevalent entry in early European newspapers. Unfortunately, many of these scurrilous newspapers printed hearsay tales about caravans of Gypsies or bands of Jews stealing children. It might seem far-fetched and a bit ludicrous to believe that people heeded such claims. But, because so many children disappeared, people living at that time willingly embraced implausible explanations.
By the 19th-century, reports of children being abducted, sexually abused, and murdered in America surfaced regularly in newspapers. Historian Lynn Sacco discovered that between 1817 and 1899 more than 500 incidents of father-daughter rapes were reported in American newspapers. During the same period, newspapers printed thousands of articles about children who were abducted, sexually abused, and murdered by strangers.
The theory, that crimes against children are more prevalent today than during other periods, is gradually being debunked. Modern means of research and better record keeping suggest that our inhumanity to children is about the same today as it was during earlier times.
During the 20th-century, worldwide reports of sexual crimes against children numbered in the millions. The increased amount of reports over earlier centuries is likely due to better methods of record keeping. Today, hundreds of organizations compile all sorts of complex statistics on child sex abuse. Data from one organization to another may vary. But, they all agree that only 30% of sexual crimes against children are ever reported.
The vast majority of children abducted and murdered seldom stay in the news for more than a few days. If it’s not a sensational crime, like the 1932 kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, or the 1996 murder of a child celebrity like JonBenét Ramsey, people tend to forget the crime and the victim.
Until now, Sigrid Eckstrom was one of the forgotten.
On June 7, 1905, Norway gained its independence from Sweden. For the first time in more than 500 years, Norway would rule itself. Unfortunately, the separation of the two countries germinated an economic recession. Thousands of former Swedes, who were now classified as Norwegian citizens, emigrated to America. Jonathan and Elsa Eckstrom were one of the couples who emigrated. In the early 1900s, crossing the Atlantic from Europe only took six days, but they proved to be six difficult days for Elsa. She was five months pregnant. The pair arrived in New York City in August of 1905. At that time, New York City was a thriving but overcrowded metropolis.
There were plenty of jobs for a man like Jonathan, he was a master carpenter. But, finding decent housing was a problem. Fortunately, Elsa had the address of a cousin who lived in a small Swedish community in Manhattan. The cousin put the couple up while Jonathan searched for a job. A Swedish-speaking businessman who owned a hotel in a semi-rural section of the Bronx called Highbridge hired Jonathan.
Elsa and Jonathan found an apartment a few blocks from the hotel. The apartment was a dream come true for Elsa. It encompassed the entire top floor of a 3 story house on Ogden avenue, the main thoroughfare in the neighborhood. The apartment had a sitting parlor, two bedrooms, a kitchen, and an indoor bathroom.
In 1905, the Highbridge neighborhood was a true melting pot filled with Irish, Italians, Germans, Scandinavians and Eastern Europeans. Five denominations of Churches and one Synagogue dotted the neighborhood. The Harlem river, which flowed along the western edge of the neighborhood, offered a variety of summer fun activities. Boating, swimming, fishing or just relaxing under a shade tree helped to make the Highbridge neighborhood an ideal location to raise children.
Jonathan and Elsa’s first child was born on the 24th of December in 1905. They named their blond blue eyed child Sigrid. Shortly before Sigrid’s first birthday, Elsa gave birth to another fair-haired child, this time it was a boy whom they named Edwin.
Life was good. Jonathan worked full-time at the hotel and Elsa spent her days taking care of her children, baking Swedish cakes, and making friends with other women in the neighborhood.
In the few short years from 1905 to 1912, the neighborhood changed quite a bit. The New York Subway system had expanded to the Bronx, which made it easier for people to travel from the overcrowded slums of lower Manhattan to the Bronx.
On the morning of June 6, 1912, six-year-old Sigrid Eckstrom was playing in front of her home at 1077 Ogden avenue. Elsa, who normally looked out the front window to keep an eye on her children, was busy baking cookies. According to five-year-old Edwin, a man walking along the avenue stopped and gave Sigrid a penny. The stranger didn’t give Edwin a penny, so he ran up the stairs to the apartment to complain to his mom. By the time Elsa glanced out the window to check on her daughter, the child was gone. Elsa’s first thought was that Sigrid had gone to a nearby candy store to spend her penny. When Sigrid did not show up for the noon meal, Elsa panicked and started searching. A neighbor with a phone called the police and the entire neighborhood joined the search. Shortly after sunset, Sigrid’s father found his half-clothed little girl wedged between a wall and a furnace in the cellar of their home.
An autopsy listed the cause of death as strangulation by a powerful left-handed person. There was no mention of molestation. The funeral service and burial were held the next day at a Lutheran Cemetery in Middle Village, New York.
In the meantime, the police honed in on a suspect. He was a 33-year-old unemployed alcoholic named Joseph McKenna. McKenna had been visiting his sister who lived next door to the Eckstrom family. Police became suspicious when McKenna left the neighborhood soon after Sigrid’s body was discovered. Detectives caught up with McKenna in a small town about 20 miles north of the Bronx. While being questioned, McKenna confessed that he unintentionally killed the child. He said he picked Sigrid up and accidentally dropped her on her head. The coroner had the child’s body exhumed and found no injuries on Sigrid’s head.
Joseph McKenna went on trial for the murder of Sigrid on July 18, 1912. He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. During the early morning hours of September 2, 1914, Joseph McKenna was strapped to the electric chair at New York’s Sing-Sing prison and executed for the murder of 6-year-old Sigrid Eckstrom.
Crimes against children occur because society allows it to occur. The key to ending the chronic abuse of children can be found in the words of the 18th-century Irish philosopher Edmund Burke—“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”