Barbara Newhall Follett: The Child Novelist Who Later Vanished Into Thin Air

Praised for her fantasy novel debut at age 12, Follett went from a child prodigy to a grown woman who disappeared without explanation. Some think they know what happened.

Barbara Newhall Follett in an undated photo.
Barbara Newhall Follett in an undated photo. / Courtesy of Stefan Cooke/

For months, Barbara Newhall Follett had been dreaming of a fantasy world full of forests and animals, meadows and mountains. Now she watched as it all went up in flames.

It was October 1923, and Follett, age 9, stood as her family home in New Haven, Connecticut, slowly disappeared in a haze of fire and smoke. No one in her family perished: Her parents Wilson and Helen were safe, and so was her little sister, Sabra. But her other life, the one she had been meticulously, precociously building in the form of a 40,000-word novel, was reduced to ashes, its manuscript pages going up like flash paper.

While it may seem overwrought to call it her life’s work—she was, after all, not yet 10—the book would indeed become the centerpiece of Follett’s world. She began from scratch, meticulously reassembling her fiction and garnering acclaim as a child virtuoso when the novel was published. Then personal tragedy struck, over and over again, until the only solution that seemed sensible for Barbara Follett was to vanish.

What Follett couldn’t have known was that her fate would be intertwined with a woman she had never met, and that her life would be remarkable not just for how it began, but for how it would end.

The Creative Type

If someone wanted to nourish a child into loving literature, you could hardly do better than the Folletts. Wilson was a Harvard graduate who worked in publishing, first at Yale University Press and later Alfred A. Knopf, all while finding time to contribute to The Atlantic. His wife, Helen, was a former teacher and Wellesley graduate who gave up her career for their children.

Barbara was born March 4, 1914. According to Helen, who later had occasion to write of Barbara’s formative years, their community was small and the schools underdeveloped. (The move to New Haven came later.) Rather than send her daughter off to class, Helen opted to teach her at home.

Follett had already displayed a keen curiosity. At the age of 4, she became fascinated with her father’s typewriter, its clack-clack-clack mechanism offering an amusing rhythm. But Follett didn’t approach it with any random abandon. She took to it, Helen wrote, like a child takes to a knife and fork, mastering the skill to the point where her imagination had an unimpeded link to the paper.

Barbara Newhall Follett is pictured
Follett poses for a publicity photo. / Courtesy of Stefan Cooke/

Her parents gifted her a typewriter of her own, which stood up to Follett’s frequent compositions, including letters and poetry, short stories and fantasy lore. She imagined visits from the likes of Beethoven and Wagner. Like Edgar Rice Burroughs, she grew lost in her own dreams, steadily expanding on a world she named Farksolia. It had its own language, Farksoo, that she tracked via a card catalog system. Helen also kept her on a steady diet of authors, including Walter de la Mare.

By 9, Follett had decided that her mother’s birthday gift would be a novel—one not bought but written by her. Over nine months, she labored over the adventures of a protagonist named Eepersip, a girl who runs away to find adventure with woodland creatures and to commune with nature. Though Eepersip’s parents keep dragging her back, she insists on returning to her metaphorical house without windows—a world without confines.

Day after day, Follett toiled in her own home office, insulating herself from distractions by taping a handwritten notice to her door cautioning others not to knock.

As she wrote, she showed Wilson passages. He was encouraging, as many fathers would be, but also stressed the importance of editing and revising, gently reminding his daughter she couldn’t spin only gold. He promised to get it typeset so she could proofread it and perhaps print a few copies for her friends.

Follett titled it The House Without Windows and Eepersip’s Life There, which informally shortened to The House Without Windows. But before it could be gifted, a fire sparked in the kitchen consumed everything.

Follett must have been crestfallen, but it soon gave way to pragmatism. If she did it once, then she could certainly do it again. Between 1924 and 1926, she conjured up the book a second time. Once she was done, Wilson had a new thought: He asked his daughter if he might be able to show it to his colleagues at Knopf.

By the time Follett was 12, she had received a letter from the publisher congratulating her. The House Without Windows was going to be an official Alfred A. Knopf title.

Not long after, Follett’s world would be turned upside-down. And not for the better.

A Fantasy Interrupted

Knopf sold all 2500 copies of The House Without Windows when it went on sale in January 1927, necessitating a second printing. The demand appeared driven by human interest stories that ran in newspapers across the country. The hook was not that Follett was simply a 12-year-old novelist. It was that she was a 12-year-old novelist who had written a pretty good book.

“Books by children are often very popular because of their quaint spellings and their naïve outlook on life,” wrote J.P.P. Wedgefield of The State in Columbia, South Carolina. “The House Without Windows by Barbara Newhall Follett, a 9-year-old author, is, on the other hand, a finished bit of art. The first reaction to it is that a child could not have written it, but the second is that nobody but a very young and unspoiled person could have conceived or executed it.”

Barbara Newhall Follett is pictured
Follett sitting for a photo shortly before her debut novel was released. / Courtesy of Stefan Cooke/

In the book, Follett seemed to revel in describing the natural beauty Eepersip encountered:

“Far and near, far and near rose mountains, mountains, mountains. Stretching away fold after fold, layer after layer, rose marvelous blue peaks, with the dazzling light of the sun brightening the white granite at some of their tops. Peak after peak rose up around her, lake after lake stretched out in the dim blue distance, with the sun striking them until they were a mass of gold like great precious stones in that setting of purple mountains.”

Speaking with an interviewer from The Hartford Courant, Follett seemed vaguely amused at even the possibility of being condescended to. Asked if she had ever driven a car, she curtly answered she had not. “I never even had a bicycle,” she said. Her influences included William Shakespeare (“I have read and re-read many of [his] plays”). Latin was her favorite school subject.

Critics were kind to The House Without Windows, accepting it as a pure and unbridled fantasy. One of the few voices of dissent belonged to Anne Carroll Moore, a New York Public Library children’s librarian who garnered infamy for her abrasive, contrarian opinions. (She even hated Goodnight, Moon.) Moore didn’t dislike Follett’s book. She simply disliked that Follett had written it at a tender age, believing that the weight of expectations could prove difficult for the young writer to handle.

If Follett was bothered, she didn’t show it. Roiling at her typewriter, she declared Moore’s concern to be “very rash” and a “miserable caricature” of her happy self. She accepted offers to review books, including those of Winnie the Pooh creator A.A. Milne. And there was, of course, a sophomore effort to plan. In the summer of 1927, she successfully petitioned her parents to allow her to board the Frederick H., a ship docked in New Haven that was bound for Nova Scotia, to research a book about pirates. Wilson and Helen relented only because a family friend, George Bryan, agreed to act as chaperone.

Follett relished the opportunity, spending 10 days at sea and picking up sailor vernacular. The result was her second book, 1928’s The Voyage of the Norman D., and further acclaim.

Her parents had been instrumental in encouraging her and creating a safe space for her talent and imagination to thrive. But that security soon evaporated. In March 1928, Wilson told his wife and his daughters that he had fallen in love with another woman, a co-worker at Knopf. He was leaving them to be with her.

Wilson’s decision was not only emotionally devastating but financially untenable. He had been the breadwinner for the family. Follett could not write fast enough, nor sell as many books, as would be needed to support her mother and younger sister.

Barbara Newhall Follett is pictured
Follett during one of her many seafaring excursions. / Courtesy of Stefan Cooke/

For a while, Follett and Helen traveled together, leaving Sabra with relatives. She soon boarded another ship and fell for a sailor named Edward Anderson, a young man much too old for her. He was 25; she was 15.

Rebellion seemed to spark within her. When she and her mother returned to the States, she stayed with a family friend and enrolled at Pasadena Junior College while her mother returned to Hawaii to work on a book. Follett had never been subject to formal studies, and she hated it. She hated it so much she ran away to San Francisco, taking up residence in a hotel and prompting a flurry of newspaper notices about the child prodigy who was now suffering from teen angst. When police found her, she attempted to exit via the hotel room window.

A Road to Nowhere

Writing still enticed Follett. She began another novel, Lost Island, and later completed a travelogue, Travels Without a Donkey. But a need for a steady paycheck loomed, and so she took on clerical work. The Great Depression made finding employment harder. In 1931, she met the charming Nickerson “Nick” Rogers. Three years later, when she was 20, they got married and settled in Brookline, Massachusetts, before relocating to Boston the next year.

For Follett, the romanticism of writing seemed to contrast too sharply against domesticity. She took on unfulfilling jobs; Rogers worked for Polaroid. It was a union cemented when Follett was barely out of her teens, and the marriage was far from steady. Later, Follett took up dancing, and—as a kind of escape—eventually traveled back to California, where she participated in workshops and recitals. It was the kind of activity that might entrance a little girl who attended school and pursued activities, something Follett had never experienced.

Barbara Newhall Follett is pictured in 1932
Follett in 1932. The photo was taken by then-boyfriend Nickerson Rogers. / Courtesy of Stefan Cooke/

The distance might not have done the marriage a lot of good. In 1939, Rogers told her he wanted a divorce. Follett suspected there was another woman. While this would never be welcome news, it must have hit her particularly hard given the parallels to her own father’s infidelity. In letters to friends, Follett talked about trying to salvage the relationship, but it seemed to little avail.

On December 7 of that year, Follett and Rogers had a fight. Whether it was more fraught than other disagreements or whether the sheer accumulation was too much is unknown. Follett grabbed her coat and exited their home with $30 and a notebook.

Rogers, perhaps jaded to Follett’s frequent absences, wasn’t too concerned: He didn’t call the police to report her missing until two weeks had passed.

A perfunctory search failed to reveal anything. One advantage police had was in Follett’s fame as a celebrated child novelist, as slight as it might have become; it meant more publicity for the case. But Rogers had insisted the police not go to newspapers, wishing to avoid a hungry media again portraying Follett as a wayward former child genius. It was several months before he relented—far too late for it to make a whole lot of difference, especially since she was listed as Barbara Rogers and not Barbara Follett in the bulletin.

In most missing persons cases, there are a few possible outcomes: The person fled and assumed a new identity. (That doesn’t seem likely in Follett’s case.) The person was kidnapped or otherwise met a violent end. (Possible.) Or, the person took their own life.

In letters, Follett seemed to have expressed suicidal ideation, writing: “I still think there is a chance that the outcome will be a happy one; but I would have to think that anyway, in order to live; so you can draw any conclusions you like from that!”

She was used barbiturates to help her sleep, which, when taken in quantity, can be fatal. The failure of her marriage and her aspirations seemed to weigh on her. Circumstantially, it seemed as though she had gone somewhere to end her life.

Months became years. In 1943, Rogers printed an official pronouncement of divorce in newspapers. To contest it, Follett would have had to come forward. She never did.

The Woman In the Woods

Though her family likely wasn’t aware of it at the time, Follett’s disappearance was eerily similar to that of another woman a few years prior. Like Follett, Else Whittemore was married and in some measure of distress because her husband was often away for work, leaving her to care for their daughter. (A second child was on the way.) And like Follett, she too had left home and never returned, announcing she was going for a walk near her home in Plymouth, New Hampshire, on June 29, 1936.

Within days, a search party of roughly 100 people combed the area; dogs were dispatched. The family had no idea why she would simply disappear without explanation; they believed she had been kidnapped. Police never brought word that she was found, dead or alive. Like Barbara Follett, she had simply been present one day and gone the next.

In 1948, a deer hunter in the area near Pulsifer Hill about five miles from Plymouth came across a startling sight. In the dirt were human bones and a pair of women’s shoes, along with a purse and some fabric. The hunter contacted police; authorities reached the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard, the closest thing to a medical examiner in the area.

The bones were examined to extrapolate height and body dimension, which the scientists determined was a match for Whittemore’s frame. Thread patterns from the tattered clothing were consistent with Whittemore’s attire. Law enforcement delivered the bad news to her family: It was Whittemore who had expired in the woods. Their conclusion was that she had likely died by suicide.

The link between Whittemore and Follett would not become apparent until some 70 years later, when author Daniel Mills began looking at Follett’s life and disappearance with fresh scrutiny. He discovered that Follett and Rogers had been renting a farmhouse on Pulsifer Hill that acted as a kind of retreat. She had also gone camping in Holderness with Rogers during their courtship. Intrigued, Mills began looking for any unexplained or otherwise baffling deaths in the area.

He soon came across Elsie Whittemore, whose bones were found just a half-mile from Follett’s rental home.

Further investigation revealed that there were inconsistencies in the Whittemore case. The shoes found near the bones were too large for Whittemore, who wore a smaller size. Objects in Whittemore’s purse—which included a pair of eyeglasses—were foreign to her family. The conclusion that the remains belonged to Whittemore was borne more out of circumstance than hard evidence.

Instead, Mills presented a different theory: The bones were really those of Barbara Follett.

Barbara Newhall Follett is pictured
The last known photo of Follett. / Courtesy of Stefan Cooke/

Follett, Mills believed, left her home despondent and harboring thoughts of self-harm. She went to the farmhouse as a respite or simply took a walk in the general area. She downed barbiturates and collapsed, her body unnoticed for nine years until a deer hunter found her. Unlike Whittemore, she wore glasses. And unlike Whittemore, Follett had a reason to be on Pulsifer Hill. Among the possessions near the remains was an empty pill bottle that contained trace amounts of barbiturates. While Whittemore had been depressed and it was possible she took them, Follett was known to have had the medication.

Stefan Cooke, a relative of Follett’s—his grandfather was Wilson Follett—wrote on his website about Follett that he agrees with the theory. DNA testing could confirm it, save for the unfortunate detail that the bones found on Pulsifer Hill went missing not long after police closed the case.

In 2020, Cooke revived Follett’s novel Lost Island, which was unpublished in her lifetime; all her work is kept on file at Columbia University. She remains enigmatic, a portrait of a child author who grew into an adult unable to escape as easily to her fantasy worlds as she had when she was younger. Her personal life seemed to be under constant upheaval, from her father’s absence to her ill-fated relationships. People seemed to disappoint her again and again until Follett made one final, furtive escape, no longer able to watch as her house went up in flames.

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