“Can’t say,” he returned, in an abstracted study.
“It’s awful if it is,” I pursued. “And if it is, I suppose all that will result from it will be a momentary thrill of the newspaper-readers, and then they will fall back on the old saying that after all it is only a result of human nature that such things happen—they always have happened and always will—that old line of talk.”
“That sort of thing is not a result of human nature,” returned Kennedy earnestly. “It’s a System. I mean to say that if it should turn out to be connected with the vice investigations of Carton, and not a case of aphasia, such a disappearance you would find to be due to the persistent, cunning, and unprincipled exploitation of young girls.
“No, Walter, it is not that women are weak or that men are inherently vicious. That doesn’t account for a case like this. Then, too, some mawkish people to-day are fond of putting the whole evil on low wages as a cause. It isn’t that—alone. It isn’t even lack of education or of moral training. Human nature is not so bad in the mass as some good people think. No, don’t you, as a reporter, see it? It is big business, in its way, that Carton is fighting—big business in the commercialized ruin of girls, such, perhaps, as Betty Blackwell—a vicious system that enmeshes even those who are its tools. I’m glad if I can have a chance to help smash it.
“Now, I’ll tell you what I want you to do, just so that we can start this thing with a clear understanding of what it amounts to. I want you to look up just what the situation is. I know there is an army of ‘vanishers’ in New York. I want to know something about them in the mass. Can’t you dig up something from your Star connections?”
Kennedy had some matters concerning other cases to clear up before he felt free to devote his whole time to this. As there was nothing we could do immediately, I spent some time getting at the facts he wanted. Indeed, it did not take me long to discover that the disappearance of Betty Blackwell, in spite of the prominence it had been given, was by no means an isolated case. I found that the Star alone had chronicled scores of such disappearances during the past few months, cases of girls who had simply been swallowed up in the big city. They were the daughters of neither the rich nor of the poor, most of them, but girls rather in ordinary circumstances.
Even the police records showed upward of a thousand missing young girls, ranging in age from fourteen to twenty-one years and I knew that the police lists scarcely approximated the total number of missing persons in the great city, especially in those cases where a hesitancy on the part of parents and relatives often concealed the loss from public records.
I came away with the impression that there were literally hundreds of cases every bit as baffling as that of Betty Blackwell, of young girls who had left absolutely no trace behind, who had made no preparations for departure and of whom few had been heard from since they disappeared. Many from homes of refinement and even high financial standing had disappeared, leaving no clues behind. It was not alone the daughters of the poor that were affected—it was all society.