One of the most mysterious murders ever committed in the United States occurred in San Francisco in 1902. The victim was a 15-year-old girl, and the murder had been carefully planned. Like a hall of mirrors, there are plenty of places to look, but they all lead nowhere.
The girl was born Eleanor Parline in China in 1886. The family was white and they lived in China because Eleanor’s father, W. Parline, was an engineer on the Tai Wo steamer. In 1890, he disappeared while aboard the ship. No one knew what had happened to him, but he was presumed dead.
His widow, Alice, left China with their two children, and surfaced in San Francisco not long afterwards. Within a year, she married W. W. Fuller, with whom she had two more children. Fuller adopted Alice’s son and daughter from her first marriage. Young Eleanor, called Nora, and her brother Lewis took the last name Fuller. Then the couple divorced, leaving Alice and the four children destitute. Mrs. Fuller moved the family to a cheap house at 1747 Fulton Street.
Elsewhere in the city, on January 8, 1902, a man entered a local real estate agent’s office. He introduced himself as Hawkins and said he and his wife were staying at the Golden West Hotel. He inquired about 2211 Sutter Street. The clerk requested references but Hawkins shrugged. He was a stranger in San Francisco, he said, and could give no local references. However, he had something of far greater importance to the agency, and that was the first month’s rent. The clerk made a quick judgement and gave him the contract. The man signed his name “C. B. Hawkins” and was given a key. A handyman was dispatched to clean the place up so Hawkins and his wife could move in right away.
At the same time, 15-year-old Nora had either decided to quit school and find work, or was told she had to do so. She applied at a theatre but didn’t receive a call-back. Nora scoured the want ads in the San Francisco Chronicle and one advertisement stood out to her: “Young white girl to take care of baby; good home and good wages.”
Nora had experience caring for her younger siblings and she answered the ad. She received a postcard on January 11, “Miss Fuller: In answer to yours in response to my advertisement, kindly call at the Popular Restaurant, 55 Geary Street, and inquire for Mr. John Bennett, at 1 o’clock. If you can’t come at 1, come at 6. ‘ JOHN BENNETT.”
Nora left her house sometime after 5 p.m. on January 11, and about an hour later, the telephone rang at the Fuller home. Nora’s little brother Lewis answered. It was Nora and she told him she was at Mr. Bennett’s house. She had accepted the job and her employer wanted her to start right away.
Lewis repeated Nora’s words to their mother. Mrs. Fuller must have felt a twinge of doubt. “No,” she said. “Tell Nora to come home. She can go to work Monday.”
The boy repeated the message to Nora, who said, “All right.” Then the line went dead.
But Nora did not come home that night. She never came home again.
During their brief conversation, Nora gave her brother her new employer’s address: 1500 Geary Street. Mrs. Fuller likely went to the Geary Street address the next day and found it was an empty lot. After waiting another day or two, Nora’s mother finally notified the police that her 15-year-old daughter was missing. They dismissed her concerns, assuring Mrs. Fuller the girl had likely run off with a friend or with some man.
As the days passed, the newspapers picked up the story. They disagreed with the assessment of the police. Nora was known to be a “good girl.” She wasn’t the type to run away with some man. Strangely, there was much speculation that Nora’s long-lost father may have been behind the abduction. Perhaps he didn’t die in China after all. Maybe he tracked his wife and children back to the United States and cooked up a ruse to steal his daughter away. It seems like a far-fetched theory but more than one person leapt to that conclusion. And if it wasn’t Mr. Parline, what else could have become of the girl?