The Wineville Chicken Coop Murders

Gordon Stewart Northcott smiling
youtube | The1920sChannel

News & Politics
Gabby Etzel

Flappers, speakeasies, and the Harlem Renaissance are some common associations with the Roaring Twenties, and with good reason. Most of the time, though, the glitz and glam of the Jazz Age do a brilliant job of concealing the darker truths of the decade.

Some of the most demented kills in American history occurred in the 1920s, with the Wineville Chicken Coop murders at the top of the list.

In 1928, Gordon Stewart Northcott devastated southern California's population by abusing and murdering young boys on his chicken ranch.

The Murders

Gordon Stewart Northcott
youtube | The1920sChannel

At just 19 years of age, Gordon Stewart Northcott committed unspeakable crimes. He kidnapped, raped, tortured, and murdered several little boys.

His father, Cyrus George Northcutt, promised to build his son a chicken ranch on a small plot of land in Wineville, California. Gordon enlisted the help of his 13-year-old nephew, Sanford Clark, to work the farm.

Police had no reason to suspect that any foul play was occurring in the chicken coop. Not when a handful of young boys started to go missing, not when the station received tips that children were begging for help from the back of a man's car, not when they found a headless boy a few short miles from the ranch, and certainly not when neighbors told the police that the chicken rancher next door was torturing a child.

Or, perhaps, they should have paid closer attention.

During this time, Gordon Stewart Northcott kidnapped boys and took them back to his farm. In his free time, he would rape and torture them. Then, in an act of unprecedented kindness, he would take them to the incubator room to watch baby chicks hatch.

It was here that he would murder them with an ax. He mutilated their bodies so badly that small remains were found all over the ranch–In the chicken coops, the mechanics of tractors, and buried beneath the ground. His mother assisted him in carrying out the murders and covering the bodies with quicklime.

The Winslow brothers, Nelson and Lewis, were among the victims. Shortly after their disappearance, the 10 and 12-year-olds' parents received strange letters in the mail that claimed to be from their sons. The letters said the boys would only return home once they made it to L.A. and became famous.

Another victim was known at the time as "the Headless Mexican." The boy's real name was Alvin Gothea, and Northcott later confessed to beheading the child.

The most infamous victim of the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders was a boy named Walter Collins.

The Changeling

The Wineville Chicken Ranch
youtube | The1920sChannel

Ten-year-old Walter Collins disappeared on March 10, 1928, on his way to see a movie. At first, his mother, Christine, believed his father must have kidnapped him after being released from jail. This was not the case.

Unbeknownst to investigators, Walter Collins had been thrown into the Northcott's car and taken to the ranch. Witnesses alerted the police that a young boy was screaming to be let out of the back of a car. It was not until years later that these witnesses confirmed that the boy was Walter Collins with a photograph.

Gordon's mother, Sarah Louise, would later own up to Walter Collins' murder on the ranch.

The Los Angeles Police Department was failing miserably at finding the kid. Naturally, when a glimmer of hope caught their eye, they clung to it. In Illinois, police picked up a young boy who initially said his name was Arthur Kent.

Shortly after, he changed his story to match a question one of the officers had asked him earlier. He told them that his name was Walter Collins. He looked similar enough to the missing boy for them to believe it. Police showed his photograph to Christine Collins.

"Is this your son?"


Captain J.J. Jones' response came from embarrassment and doubt of a mother's instinct. He said she should "try out" the boy for a while.

However, mother knows best. After three weeks, she showed up at the police station with signed dental records to confirm that the boy in her home was not her son.

Captain J.J. Jones, mortified, took the more straightforward route for a man in the 1920s. He called Christine "crazy" and utilized "Code 12." This allowed him to throw Christine into the psychiatric ward of the Los Angeles County General Hospital, no questions asked, just because she was a nuisance to the police.

It wasn't until the truth came out about the Wineville Chicken Coop that Walter Collins' murder was proven, and Christine was able to leave the hospital.

The boy that claimed to be Walter was Arthur J. Hutchens Jr. He had been trying to get as far from his stepmother as possible, and he had his sights set on California. So, when police asked if he was Walter Collins, he figured that he bore enough resemblance to the missing boy to pass as him.

This would give him a roof over his head and food in his belly in the Golden State.

Clint Eastwood fans may recognize this series of events as the plot of The Changeling. This is because Walter Collins' story inspired the 1980 film.

If it weren't for the strength of one teenage boy to look past years of brainwashing and abuse, the story would have never been told.

The Clarks

Sanford Clark
youtube | The1920sChannel

Shortly after building the ranch, Gordon began to physically and sexually abuse his 13-year-old nephew, Sanford Clark. The child feared for his life, enough so that when his older sister Jessie visited him two years later, he had to wait until Gordon was sleeping to tell her the truth.

Unfortunately, he did not just clue her into his own abuse. Instead, he told her that Gordon Northcott had tortured and murdered four boys on the ranch. Often, he would force Sanford to watch and participate in the rapes and killings.

Jessie was alarmed. After leaving the ranch, she immediately alerted the police.

Gordon Stewart Northcott fled as soon as authorities showed up at the chicken coop. He told Sanford to stall the police as long as possible or he would shoot him. Sanford obeyed.

He stalled them for nearly two hours before deciding that Northcott was far enough away, and he finally told the police that the serial killer had fled. The cops stayed hot on his trail and eventually caught up to him and Sarah Louise in Canada.

Without Sanford and Jessie Clark, Northcott would likely have never been caught. At least, not before the murders of countless more children.

The Northcotts

Sarah Louise Northcott
youtube | The1920sChannel

Serial killing aside, the Northcott's were far from an average family.

Sarah Louise Northcott, Gordon's mother, revealed some disturbing truths about the Northcott's before she was hauled away for her confession to murdering Walter Collins.

She claimed that Gordon was not her biological son. Rather, he was her grandson. Gordon was born from an incestuous relationship between Cyrus George Northcott, Sarah's husband, and the couple's daughter. According to Sarah, Gordon's "sister" was his real mother.

Gordon asserted that his father sexually abused him throughout his childhood and had a consensual incestuous relationship with his supposed mother, Sarah. Sarah took the claims one step further by saying that everyone in the family regularly sexually abused her son, and she allowed it.

Sarah boasted these awful truths to the court as if they would make Gordon less culpable. Some believe that she falsely confessed to the murder of Walter Collins to protect her son from the death penalty.

Of course, a horrendous past was not enough to soften the blow of the rape, torture, and murder of three or more little boys, and at age 23, Northcott would have to face the consequences of his actions.

The Consequences

The Wineville Chicken Ranch
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Sarah Louise Northcott served time in Tehachapi State Prison for the murder of Walter Collins. She spent twelve years behind bars before receiving parole. Because she was a woman, she narrowly escaped the death penalty.

Before her sentence, after learning that her son would be hanged, she attempted to commit suicide. She yelled at the police, "If they'll just be good to my boy if they just won't hang him!"

Still, they hung him.

At 23 years old, Gordon Stewart Northcott was hanged.

The legacies of Northcott's victims live on in media like The Changeling and American Horror Story: Hotel. The killings may have happened nearly a century ago, but they are no less appalling to learn about today.