History Mystery #18: The Strange Case of Baby H

Author: Kathryn Reiss

Illustrators: Greg Dearth and Douglas Fryer

Publishing Year: 2002

Setting:  San Francisco, April 1906


Twelve-year-old Clara Curfman find herself awoken by her dog jumping her bed early one morning. She's confused at first; the dog should be asleep right now. Then the room starts shaking--it's an earthquake. Clara hears her mother calling for her to get out the house, but first she gets her wheelchair-bound father. The three huddle outside with Humphrey and their lodgers as aftershocks hit. When the shaking finally stops, Clara can see fires. Her mother quickly set about cleaning up--their home was relatively undamaged structurally, and surely there will be people who need places to stay. She puts Clara to work cleaning the broken glass and dishes. Since it's unsafe to light the pilot lights--there are reports of explosions--the lodgers put together a make-shift grill pit with rubble to cook over.

Only one area in the house is off-limits: the room of Clara's older brother, Gideon. He was killed two years before in a boating accident, the same one that injured her father, the captain of the voyage. His room has become a shrine to him. Since the accident, Clara's mother has been harshly critical of her surviving family, and Clara's father has become meek and withdrawn, overcome with guilt.

That evening, Clara finds a different kind of shock on her doorstep. Someone left a baby in basket, with a note explaining that he's an orphan. Clara takes the baby inside, and her mother instantly cradles him, declaring him to be the spitting image of Gideon at the same age (about six months). Clara quickly discovers that he's not really: for one, when she gets some rags to serve as a new diaper, she discovers the baby is a girl. And not bald, either--someone shaved the baby's head. The baby also has a very fancy rattled engraved with an H despite the ratty shirt she was wrapped in, and a bit of paper with something about Cliff House on it. Why would someone try to disguise the baby's sex and class? Clara's mother doesn't seem to mind--the baby's hair probably caught fire so someone quickly shaved it off, and as for the clothes and rattle, they were probably just things picked up in the rubble. Clara's father explains that she just needs a child to love.

The next day Clara and her parents go on a walk with the baby, who they're calling Henrietta, to see how the city is faring. The streets are cracked and littered with debris; it's hard to push the wheelchair. A young woman confronts them, claiming to be the baby's nursemaid and insisting she be allowed to the take the child to her parents in Oakland. Apparently the baby is in danger. But Clara's parents don't believe her story and threaten to call the police, which makes her back off. That night, Clara hears some strange noises that worry her dog as well. She startles a man and a woman, who run off into the night. She finds a torn scrap of clothing, the same color as the dress the supposed nursemaid was wearing.

In the morning, Clara goes Golden Gate Park, where displaced people are setting up shelter. She leaves information about Henrietta on a notice board (and also a note for her best friend Emmaline, whose family seems to have disappeared). She also spies a notice about a six-month-old baby named Helen, who lives in Oakland and was visiting San Francisco with her nursemaid. Could that be Henrietta? But why did the note say she was an orphan?

The woman in red, named Hattie, returns, and the pieces of the puzzle start to come together. Hattie is indeed the baby's nursemaid, and the baby is Helen. Her fiancé, Denny, got tangled up in some scheme to fake a kidnapping to extort enough money for a pair of brothers to go to Alaska to search for gold. The note about Cliff House was part of a ransom demand, where the money was to be delivered. Denny and Hattie hadn't wanted to go along with the plan, but they--and Helen--were threatened at gunpoint. The kidnappers ordered Hattie to disguise Helen. Then the earthquake hit, and Hattie tried to hide Helen. But the kidnappers have seen the notices from the parents searching for Helen, and are intent on still carrying out the plan. They've broken Denny's arm as a warning in the meantime.

Clara's mother and Hattie set out with Helen to the police station. It starts raining, and Clara follows at her father's suggestion, to bring them back until the weather clears. But the kidnappers find them, and steal the baby. The police are able to find Helen's parents, and arrange to provide cover for Helen's father while he hands over the money. But the kidnappers don't give Helen back, worried they'll be arrested. They row away into the night to meet a ship in the bay, leaving Helen on their rowboat. Desperate, Clara swims to her--close to where her brother died--and finds Helen wet and cold, but alive. The boat is taking on water. Clara rows for shore, unsure if she's strong enough to make it before Helen succumbs to the elements. As she struggles against the waves, Clara suddenly feels as though someone is helping her, and thoughts of her brother flit through her mind. Soon she and Helen are back on shore, and Helen is safe in her mother's arms.

A few days later, things are calming down. Emmaline returns, having been visiting her grandparents in another city. Helen and her parents visit, and fill in some details. Hattie and Denny have disappeared, probably to Alaska. Helen's parents suspect she had more to do with the kidnapping than she let on. One of the kidnappers drowned in the storm, the other has been arrested. Helen is safe from them. To show their gratitude, Helen's parents insist they pay for Clara to someday attend the college that Helen's grandfather works at in Oakland (Mill College). Helen has dreamed of being a teacher, but the family's savings were wiped out after the accident two years ago. Now she'll have her chance.

A Peek into the Past

A massive earthquake struck San Francisco at twelve minutes past five on the morning of April 18, 1906. Its exact intensity is unknown, but estimates range from 7.7 to 8.25, with 7.8 being the most widely accepted measurement. The shaking was felt as far away as Oregon, southern California, and Nevada--all far away from the epicenter two miles west of San Francisco. Following the quake, fires raged over much of the city. Eighty percent of the infrastructure was destroyed, and at least three thousand people were killed (Good Luck, Ivy mentions this earthquake). A quarter of a million people were homeless, and many ended up living in temporary tent cities and shelters built by the US Army. With donations of time, money, and supplies from those in San Francisco and around the country, the city was able to eventually rebuild.


Dedicated to "Helen Curfman Mason, beloved great-aunt, and once again for Tom Strychacz, my husband, my hero. You inspire me."

The men staying with Clara's family are briefly drafted to help put out the fires. They come back shell-shocked, having seen some truly terrible things.

A subplot involves a teenage boy named Edgar, who was living with his uncle, his parents having died of influenza some time before. His uncle was killed during the earthquake. He ends up being taken in with Clara's family, and in the final scene of the book he's the last to sit at the table, and ends up taking Gideon's spot. Clara and her parents seem happy it's no longer empty.

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