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The Christmas Hatbox Baby

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At dusk on Christmas Eve, 1931, Edward and Julie Stewart, on their way to Phoenix, had a flat tire and pulled off the road about 10 miles west of Superior. While Edward fixed the flat, Julie wandered into the desert. She heard what sounded like a baby crying, returned to the car and asked her husband to investigate the sound with her.

About 100 feet from the road, the couple discovered a black pasteboard hatbox with the lid fastened. When Edward nudged the box with his foot, the couple heard another cry. Edward opened the box and discovered a tiny red-haired baby girl in flowered pajamas.

The Stewarts took the baby to Mesa Constable Joe Maier, who was working late that Christmas Eve. Maier, in turn, took the baby to Helen “Ma” Dana, a midwife who ran a maternity house on the outskirts of town. Ma Dana called a doctor, who examined the tiny waif and pronounced her to be about 6 days old. Although wet, hungry and crying, the baby appeared to be in good health.

Ma Dana named the baby Marian, and the search for her parents began. Police combed the desert fearing the child’s mother might have been killed or have committed suicide, but found no clues.

When the story hit the newspapers on Christmas Day the blue-eyed, red-haired little hatbox foundling received an outpouring of love and gifts. A Mesa jeweler gave her a gold locket. Ma Dana bought her a new dress, white shawl and pink and white booties. Arizonans welcomed her with generosity even as they reeled under the hardship of the Great Depression.

Seventeen couples applied to adopt baby Marian. On Feb. 10, 1932, after hearing all the petitions for the child, Pinal County Superior Court Judge E.L. Green awarded the baby to Faith and Henry Steig of Phoenix. The Steigs named the little girl Sharon.

Judge Green then ordered the court record sealed.

The Steigs divorced not long after the adoption, and Faith Steig kept custody of Sharon. She later remarried but did not tell her adopted daughter of the circumstances of her birth until she was dying of cancer and Sharon was retirement age.

In 1989, Sharon Elliott retired from a job as an aerospace worker in California and decided to move back to Arizona because her daughter and son-in-law had been transferred to Mesa.

It was then her mother told her she was the famous Christmas hatbox baby.

Sharon Elliott says, “My adoptive mother knew that I was moving back to Mesa and she did not want me to find out that I was adopted from someone else. She was afraid I would be hurt.” Several members of the family knew of the adoption. However, Sharon, who never even had heard of the hatbox baby was shocked.

She says, “I loved my adoptive mother. She was the only mother I had ever known but after she died I wanted to know more about my real mother.” She began a search to find her birth mother. She contacted Alice Symon, a researcher with Orphan Voyage, an organization that helps adopted children find their birth parents.

Symon urged NBC’s “Unsolved Mysteries” to air Sharon’s story in 1989. The program explored the possibility that the Stewarts knew more about the hatbox baby than they had indicated and speculated that they made up their account of finding a baby in the desert to protect an unwed mother. The Stewarts refused to comment.

When the program aired, a number of individuals surfaced who claimed either to be Sharon Elliott’s birth mother or to know something about her circumstances. One man drove from Minnesota to see Sharon, telling her that not only was he her brother but the kidnapped Lindbergh baby as well. None of the claimants provided proof they were her legitimate relatives.

No one has come forward and it appears the secret of her birth parents never will be revealed.

Photo courtesy Sharon Elliott; research by Jane Eppinga. (C) Arizona Capitol Times

One comment

  1. People of unknown parentage are finding their biological families every single day with DNA testing. DNA Detectives is a facebook group and there is a subgroup for foundlings. For Texans by birth or residence, there is Texas DNA and Adoptee Search Support. DNA testing provides the truth for everyone.

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