Clint Eastwood’s Exchange airs this Sunday evening on Arte. Did you know that this child abduction movie is based on a true story?
Directed by Clint Eastwood and written by J. Michael Straczynski, a former journalist turned screenwriter (he has worked on The Fifth Dimension, Babylon 5 and more recently World War Z and Sense 8), The Exchange takes place in Los Angeles in 1928 and chronicles the fight of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a mother whose son was abducted. Some time after the disappearance, the police return a boy to her, claiming that it is her child, but Christine knows that it is not him. If this story seems absurd (that a mother would confuse her child with another?), It is nevertheless a true story …
In the early 2000s, J. Michael Straczynski discovered the story of Christine Collins, a woman who, by reporting the disappearance of her son, would shed light on the more than doubtful actions of a corrupt police force. Reading documents relating to the case, the journalist and screenwriter cannot believe his eyes. The story seems so unbelievable that Straczynski even doubts the veracity of the documents, he remembers thinking: “It is not possible, it could not have happened like that, there is surely a mistake! “. And yet …
In March 1928, Christine Collins reported the disappearance of her son Walter, but without any clue, the investigation stalled. The press and the public are passionate about this case of unexplained disappearance. Some time later, the police announce that the child has been found in Illinois, but when he arrives in California, his mother does not recognize him. At his insistence, the police captain in charge of the investigation decides to intern Collins in a psychiatric hospital.
After 5 days, the boy confesses that he is not Walter. He simply took advantage of his resemblance to the boy to travel to Hollywood to meet his idol, actor Tom Mix. Christine Collins is freed and, with the help of the Presbyterian pastor, Gustav A. Briegleb (played on screen by John Malkovich), sues the Inspector. The corruption affair created a resounding scandal and ended in the resignation of Captain JJ Jones and LAPD chief James E. Davis.
The murder of young Walter will be confessed by serial killer Gordon Northcott and his mother Sarah Louise Northcott in 1930.
A case related to the Murders of the henhouse of Wineville
Arrested in September 1928, while fleeing with his mother, Gordon Northcott is said to have abducted, raped and killed more than a dozen children. It is his nephew, the young Sanford Clark who reports him to the Los Angeles police.
The story begins in 1926 in Wineville, California. Young Canadian Sanford Clark, then 13, was sent to live with his uncle Gordon Northcott, who lived on a ranch in California with his mother. Sanford is beaten and raped by the latter on several occasions, he talks about it to his sister who decides to inform the American consul in Canada. On August 31, 1928, inspectors from the immigration service went to the ranch.
The young boy claims that Northcott abducted, abused and killed several young children in his henhouse and forced him to help him. To prove his point, the boy, now aged 15, indicates the place where the bodies are buried or covered with lime. The police do not find complete bodies but personal effects, the murder weapon and bones. Very quickly the case is nicknamed “The Case of the Murders of the henhouse of Wineville”.
Gordon and Sarah Louise Northcott were arrested by Canadian police on September 19, 1928. The mother confessed to the murder of young Walter Collins, before retracting. She was sentenced to life imprisonment on December 31, 1928 but was however released on parole twelve years later before dying in 1944. After her arrest, Gordon Northcott Stewart reportedly confessed to the murder of five children before denying. The killer is convicted of murder after a 27-day trial and sentenced to death. He was hanged on October 2, 1930, at the age of 23.
Despite the testimony of the Northcott and the absence of a body, Christine Collins will continue all her life to search – in vain – for her son. She died on December 8, 1964 in Los Angeles, at the age of 75.