When she first opened the door of the bathroom closet, Policewoman Ruby Brandt thought she was looking at a heap of rags on the floor. But as her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she realized there was a child under the rags. Ruby bent down, took the child in her arms, and carried her out into the light.
The child—a girl—blinked and the light seemed to hurt her eyes. Ruby set her down, but the child couldn’t stand on her own. Her arms and legs were covered with bruises and her teeth had fallen out.
Despite having recently turned twelve, Edith Riley weighed only thirty-eight pounds and was under four feet tall. Ruby would soon learn that Edith had spent most of the last four years of her life a prisoner in that dark closet in her family’s apartment at 1110 Rhode Island NW.
Edith was immediately taken to Gallinger Hospital for physical, mental, and emotional assessment. The highest priority was to increase her dangerously low weight. A psychologist at the hospital determined that Edith had the mental age of a four-year-old.
The news of the girl in the closet shocked the public. How could this happen in a country like America?
Edith had been named for her mother, Edith Annadale Riley, who died in January 1919 shortly after her daughter was born. Her father, Harry Riley, a painter by trade, got remarried to a widow named Elsie Webster when Edith was about five.
Soon after Elsie came into the family picture, the trouble began.
Edith had two older siblings: a brother, Francis, born in 1916; and a sister, Louise, born in 1912. Both reported that their stepmother had also mistreated them, but not to the same extent as Edith. The principal of Francis’s school heard rumors that Edith was being abused at home. She also wondered why the girl wasn’t attending school. So shortly before Thanksgiving 1931, she called the police and asked them to investigate Edith’s whereabouts.
The discovery of Edith led to much finger pointing and blame shifting by social services and police. Edith’s grandmother and aunt had pleaded with social services to investigate parental abuse of the children in 1925, but it’s not clear if a social worker ever actually went to the home. Social service workers later claimed that Elsie had legal custody of the children and there was nothing they could have done.
The Annadale women continued to press their case over the next few years. They even tried (and failed) to get legal custody of the children. They requested that the police investigate, but the police told them they couldn’t enter the house without a search warrant.
Harry and Elsie were arrested and charged with “feloniously torturing” Edith. They pleaded not guilty and wisely chose not to have a jury hear their case—a judge would decide their fate.
The press focused most of its criticism on Elsie, who was viewed as “the wicked stepmother.” At trial, Elsie offered birthday and Christmas cards given to her by Francis and Louise as proof of their warm feelings towards her. She claimed Edith was a difficult child who required vigorous punishment. She insisted that she only locked her in the closet when she needed to leave the house. However Edith was not listed on the 1930 federal census with the rest of the Riley family—proof that Elsie was lying about Edith being locked up only when she wasn’t at home.
The judge found Harry and Elsie guilty and gave them each two-year prison sentences. Edith and Francis were sent to live with their maternal grandmother.
By the time the Rileys left prison, in July 1933, Edith had regained her physical health and was described in the press as mentally “normal.” Whether she had recovered from the psychological distress of her ordeal is a question I can’t answer.
By 1940, according to the federal census, Edith was still living with her grandmother and was attending high school. Her father was residing as a mental patient in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. Elsie was living under her earlier married surname of Webster in rural Maryland with the son from her first marriage and his family.
Because I know someone will ask me about Edith’s later life, I was unable to find any trace her after the 1940 census. It’s unlikely that she’s still alive (she’d be 102), but if she’s deceased, she’s not buried with her mother and the Annadale family. Harry died in 1953 and is buried with his first wife. Elsie died three days before Christmas in 1969.
Featured photos: Mugshots of Harry Newman Riley and Elsie Riley that were reproduced for the press, collection of the author.