Photo of the Day

Sally on the telephone after being rescued. A little girl of 13 told police today she accompanied a 52-year old man on a two-year tour of the country, in fear he would expose her as a shop-lifter. The girl, Florence Sally Horner of Camden, N.J., was found after she appealed to Eastern relatives “send the FBI for me, please?”

The Chilling 1948 Kidnapping That Inspired Lolita

The story of 11-year-old Sally Horner’s abduction changed the course of 20th-century literature. She just never got to tell it herself.

History remembers her as “the real Lolita,” because young Florence “Sally” Horner’s grim ordeal helped inspire Nabokov’s novel. But the author drew on multiple sources for his famous tale, so it’s not an exact retelling. And Sally’s real-life kidnapping was much worse than the fictional version.

Acting on a dare from some of her fifth-grade classmates in June 1948, Sally was clumsily shoplifting a notebook when a man who claimed to be an FBI agent caught her in the act. He was decades older than the 11-year-old was, and he frightened her. But he let her go … until the next day when he appeared as she was leaving her New Jersey grade school. This time, the “FBI agent” had some odd new instructions for the girl.

Without warning, the rules had changed: Sally had to go with him to Atlantic City—the government insisted. She’d have to convince her mother he was the father of two school friends, inviting her to a seashore vacation. He would take care of the rest with a phone call and a convincing appearance at the Camden bus depot.

His name was Frank La Salle, and he was no FBI agent—rather, he was the sort G-men wanted to drive off the streets, though Sally didn’t learn that until it was far too late. It took 21 months to break free of him, after a cross-country journey from Camden, New Jersey, to San Jose, California.

Sally Horner walked into the Woolworth’s on Broadway and Federal to steal a five-cent notebook. She had to if the girls’ club she desperately wanted to join were to accept her into its ranks. She’d never stolen anything in her life; usually, she went to that particular five-and-dime for school supplies and her favourite candy. But with days to go before the end of fifth grade, Sally was looking for a ticket to the ruling class, far removed from the babies below her at Northeast School in Camden, New Jersey.

It would be easy, the girls told her. Nobody would suspect a girl like Sally as a thief. Despite her mounting dread at breaking the law, she believed them. On the afternoon of June 13, 1948, she had no idea a simple act of shoplifting would destroy her life.

Once inside, she reached for the first notebook she could find on the gleaming white nickel counter. She stuffed it into her bag and sprinted away, careful to look straight ahead to the exit door. Then, right before the getaway, came a hard tug on her arm.

Sally looked up. A slender, hawk-faced man loomed above her, iron-gray hair peeking out from underneath a wide-brimmed fedora. His eyes, set directly upon Sally’s, blazed a mix of steel blue and grey. A scar sliced across his cheek by the right side of his nose, while his shirt collar shrouded another mark on his throat. The hand gripping Sally’s arm bore the traces of an even older, half-moon stamp forged by fire. Any adult would have sized him up as well past 50, but he looked positively ancient to Sally, who had turned 11 just two months before. Sally’s initial nerves dissipated, replaced by the terror of being caught.

“I am an FBI agent,” the man said to Sally. “And you are under arrest.”

Sally did what many young girls would have done in a similar situation: She cried. She cowered. She felt immediately ashamed.

As the tears fell, the man froze her in place with his low voice. He pointed across the way to City Hall, the tallest building in Camden, and said that girls like her would be dealt with there. If it went the way they normally handled thieving youths, he told her, Sally would be bound for the reformatory.

Sally didn’t know that much about reform school, but what she knew was not good. She kept crying.

But his manner brightened. It was a lucky break he caught her and not some otherFBI agent, the man said. If she agreed to report to him from time to time, he would let her go. Spare her the worst. Show some mercy.

Sally felt her own mood lift, too. He was going to let her go. She wouldn’t have to call her mother from jail—her poor, overworked mother, Ella, still grappling with the suicide of her alcoholic husband, Sally’s father, five years earlier; still tethered to her seamstress job, still unsure how she felt about her older daughter Susan’s pregnancy, which would make Ella a grandmother for the first time. Sally looked forward to becoming an aunt, whatever being an aunt meant. But she couldn’t think about that. The man was going to let her go.

On her way home from school the next day, though, the man sought her out again. Without warning, the rules had changed: Sally had to go with him to Atlantic City—the government insisted. She’d have to convince her mother he was the father of two school friends, inviting her to a seashore vacation. He would take care of the rest with a phone call and a convincing appearance at the Camden bus depot.

Sally said “I went with him and a woman, about 25 years old. He called her ‘Miss Robinson’ and said she was his secretary and he paid her $90 a week. Instead of going to Atlantic City we went to Baltimore. Miss Robinson disappeared and I never saw her again.”

His name was Frank La Salle, and he was no FBI agent—rather, he was the sort G-men wanted to drive off the streets, though Sally didn’t learn that until it was far too late. It took 21 months to break free of him, after a cross-country journey from Camden, New Jersey, to San Jose, California. That five-cent notebook didn’t just alter Sally Horner’s own life, though: it reverberated throughout the culture, and in the process, irrevocably changed the course of 20th-century literature.

Sally Horner & Frank LaSalle. A hawk-faced New Jersey sex criminal was held for the FBI today, accused of forcing a 13-year-old schoolgirl to flee from her family, having sexual relations with him and travel across the country with him.

Sally and La Salle—he used the alias “Frank Warner” at that time—moved into a rooming house at 203 Pacific Street in Atlantic City. She called her mother on several occasions, always from a pay station, to say she was having a swell time. For six weeks, Ella Horner thought nothing was amiss—she believed her daughter was on summer vacation with friends.

After the first week, Sally said she’d be staying longer to see the Ice Follies. After two weeks, the excuses grew vaguer. After three weeks, the phone calls stopped. Ella’s letters could no longer be delivered. Sally’s last missive was the most disturbing: she and “Warner” were leaving for Baltimore. Something woke up inside Ella’s mind: she’d been duped, her daughter snatched away not with violence, but with sweet-talking stealth. Ella received Sally’s final letter on July 31, 1948. She called the police later that day.

Cops in Atlantic City descended upon the Pacific Street lodging house, where they learned the man called Warner had posed as Sally’s father. They’d found enough evidence to arrest him, but it was too late: he and Sally had disappeared. Two suitcases full of clothes remained in their room, as did several unsent postcards from Sally to her mother and friends. There was also a photograph, never before seen by Ella or the police, of a honey-haired Sally, in a cream-colored dress, white socks and black patent shoes, sitting on a swing. Her smile was tentative, her eyes fathoms deep with sadness. She was still just 11 years old.

It was terrible enough that the police couldn’t bring Sally home. Far worse was the news they had to break to Ella: the man called Warner was really Frank La Salle, and only six months before he abducted Sally, he’d finished up a prison stint for the statutory rape of several pubescent girls.

Sally Horner in a photo believed to have been taken in Atlantic City in 1948. Florence Sally Horner (1937–August 18, 1952) was abducted by a child molester in 1948.

There was nothing erudite or literary about Frank La Salle. When he was employed, which was irregular, he worked as a mechanic. His prison writings lacked the silky sheen of unreliability that is Lolita’s narrative hallmark; grammatical mistakes peppered La Salle’s rambling and incoherent oral and typewritten declamations. We know little of La Salle’s first 40 years, save that he was born in Chicago and eventually made his way to Philadelphia and neighbouring South Jersey towns, operating under at least five different pseudonyms. But like Humbert, La Salle preferred his ladies young and almost never legal. That included his onetime wife Dorothy Dare.

When La Salle met Dorothy, she was not quite 18, a brand-new high school graduate, brown curly hair framing an openhearted face (a description that fits Sally Horner as well as Dolores Haze). Fights with her father over his strict parenting style grew so testy she looked for any chance to escape. Apparently, she found it by running off with La Salle.

Dorothy’s father was, to understate, displeased with the situation. She was a minor, and Frank, even after shaving off five years from his actual date of birth, was still more than twice her age. Dare got local police to swear out an eight-state teletype warrant for La Salle’s arrest on July 22, 1937, and 10 days later, the jig was apparently up. Cops arrested La Salle, going by the alias of Frank Fogg, in Roxborough, Pennsylvania, where he was working, and picked up Dorothy in the nearby town of Wissahickon, where the two had rented a room. Police took the two of them into custody, where Frank dropped a surprise on the arresting officers: the couple had legally married in Elkton, Maryland, and they had the certificate to prove it. The charges couldn’t stick.

For a few years, the marriage was a happy one. Frank—living openly under his real name again—and Dorothy moved to Atlantic City. They were still there when the census-takers came knocking in 1940 and noted an addition to the family: a one-year-old daughter named Madeline (not her real name). The marriage began to curdle later that year when Frank was arrested on bigamy charges, few details of which remain other than that he was acquitted. Two years later, when Madeline was three, Dorothy sued Frank for desertion and nonpayment of child support. Family lore had it that Dorothy discovered her husband in a car with another woman, and grew so enraged she hit her over the head with her shoe. It’s also possible Dorothy discovered an even darker truth.

On September 4, 1942, Frank La Salle was indicted in Camden County Criminal Court for the statutory rape of five girls between the ages of 12 and 14. He wasn’t arrested until February 2, 1943, though, and pleaded not guilty to the charges in court the following week. A little over a month later, on March 22, La Salle changed his plea to “non vult,” or no contest, and received a sentence of two and a half to five years in Trenton State Prison. Fourteen months later, on June 18, 1944, La Salle was paroled.

He didn’t make it on the outside very long. La Salle got his social security card within two weeks as a free man. He worked car mechanic jobs in Philadelphia, but an indecent assault charge landed him in more trouble just a few months later, in October 1944 (Camden County prosecutors dropped the matter on Halloween). The next time La Salle got indicted, in September 1945 for “obtaining money under false pretences”—he forged a check for $110 at the Third National Bank in Camden—his luck turned, and he headed back to Trenton State Prison on March 18, 1946. Not only was La Salle set to serve 18 months to five years on the new charges, but the clock began on the remainder of the statutory rape sentence for which he’d received parole immediately thereafter. La Salle finished up those sentences in January 1948, and he was paroled again on the 15th of that month.

Dorothy and Madeline’s whereabouts didn’t interest the news, and they faded from public view.

Having cleared out of Atlantic City, knowing the police were in pursuit, La Salle and Sally settled in Baltimore by September 1948. They kept up the father-daughter pose in the Barclay neighbourhood on the east side of the city—at the time a middle-class enclave—until April 1949. She attended Saint Ann’s Catholic School at 2200 Greenmount Drive, likely within walking distance of her new home. The Church of Saint Ann’s is still open; the school closed in the mid-1970s (a different school, Mother Seton Academy, reopened in the same building in 2009). If records remain of the Saint Ann’s years, they’re difficult to come by the Church had none, and neither did its parish.

They left Baltimore and headed south-west to Dallas, the timing of the move appears to coincide with Camden County indicating La Salle a second time. Back in 1948, prosecutor Mitchell Cohen indicted La Salle for Sally’s abduction, which carried a maximum sentence of three to five years in prison. This second, more serious indictment, for kidnapping, handed down on March 17, 1949, carried a sentence of 30 to 35 years. If La Salle did get word of the new indictment—he told Sally they needed to leave Baltimore because the “FBI asked him to investigate something”—he didn’t want to be in striking distance of Camden, where police could find them.

Using the last name of LaPlante, they lived on Commerce Street, a quiet, well-kept trailer park in a more run-down part of Dallas, from April 1949 until March 1950. Their neighbours regarded Sally as a typical 12-year-old living with her widowed father, albeit one never let out of his sight except to go to school. But she seemed to enjoy taking care of her home. She would bake every once in a while. She had a dog. La Salle provided her with a generous allowance for clothes and sweets. She would go shopping, swimming, and to her neighbours’ trailers for dinner. And while La Salle, as LaPlante, set up shop again as a mechanic, Sally attended Catholic school once more, at Our Lady of Good Counsel.

A copy of Sally’s report card from her time at Our Lady of Good Counsel between September 1949 and February 1950 indicates she was a good student, with her only C+ grade coming in Languages in her final month there. Otherwise, she got primarily A’s and A-minuses, with the occasional B, the latter mostly coming towards the end of the school year. Her worst subjects were Geography and Writing. She also missed 10 days of school in September because she was hospitalised for appendicitis, spending at least three nights at the Texas Crippled Children’s Hospital (now the Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children).

Sally’s apparently happy demeanour in Dallas grew more pensive after the operation. Josephine Kagamaster, the wife of La Salle’s business partner in the shop, remarked Sally did not move like “a healthy, light-hearted youngster,” and heard La Salle say the girl “walks like an old woman.” Otherwise, the consensus about Sally and her “father” was that they “both seemed happy and entirely devoted to each other.” Nelrose Pfeil, a neighbour, said, “Sally got everything she ever wanted. I always said I didn’t know who was more spoiled, Sally or her dog.” Maude Smilie, living at a nearby trailer on Commerce Street, seemed bewildered at the idea of Sally being a virtual prisoner: “[Sally] spent one day at the beauty parlour with me. I gave her a permanent and she never mentioned a thing. She should have known she could have confided in me.”

Sally might have stayed late at a neighbour’s watching television, or even in hospital for several nights, but if she told the truth, who would believe her story? Who would comprehend she had been abducted when, to all appearances, it seemed Frank La Salle was her father and a loving one at that?

It turned out one woman did believe Sally. And her belief emboldened Sally’s nerve to escape.

“So my nymphet is not in the house at all! Gone! What I thought was a prismatic weave turns out to be but an old grey cobweb, the house is empty, is dead.” – Lolita, pp. 49-50

Ruth Janish was married to an itinerant farm worker. Little else is known about the couple. They moved where there was work and didn’t stick around long where there was none. During a fallow period at the beginning of 1950, the Janishes lived in the West Dallas trailer park at the same time as Sally Horner and Frank La Salle. Soon after she met them, Ruth began to suspect that Frank was not, in fact, Sally’s father. “He never let Sally out of his sight, except when she was at school,” Mrs Janish recounted. “She never had any friends her own age. She never went any place, just stayed with La Salle in the trailer.” La Salle, to Ruth, seemed “abnormally possessive” of Sally.

Ruth tried to cajole Sally, still recovering from her appendectomy, to tell her the “true story” of her relationship with La Salle in Dallas. Sally wouldn’t open up. The Janishes left for California in early March 1950, thinking they’d have better luck finding work there, but on arrival, Ruth hatched the beginning of a plan. First, she wrote La Salle, urging him and Sally to follow them to the San Jose trailer park, where they could be neighbours again. The Janishes had even reserved a spot in the park for them.

La Salle was in. He and Sally drove from Dallas to San Jose, the house-trailer attached to his car, and arrived in the park by Saturday, March 18, 1950. For some reason, it made more sense for La Salle to take the bus into the city to look for work than to drive. He’d left Sally by herself countless times before, and was confident she would stay put. But this wasn’t Dallas, or Baltimore, or even Atlantic City. This was San Jose, on the opposite coast—the farthest Sally Horner had ever been away from home. And change had been brewing inside her, too.

Before leaving Dallas, Sally mustered up the courage to tell a friend at school of her ordeal at La Salle’s hands. The friend told Sally her behaviour was “wrong” and that “she ought to stop,” as Sally later explained. As her friend’s admonishment sank in, Sally began refusing La Salle’s further advances. And on the morning of March 21, 1950, Ruth Janish’s determined concern and Sally’s burgeoning need for change collided in a San Jose trailer park.

With Frank La Salle safely away for several hours, Ruth invited Sally over to her trailer. Knowing this was her only chance, Janish gently coaxed more honesty out of the young girl. She wanted to go home. She wanted to talk to her mother and older sister. Janish then showed Sally how to operate the telephone in her trailer so the girl could make long-distance phone calls.

Sally called her mother first, but the line was disconnected; she later learned Ella had lost her seamstress job and, while unemployed, could not afford to pay for a phone line. Next, she tried her sister Susan, who lived with her husband, Al Panaro, and their baby daughter Diana, in Florence, New Jersey, about 20 miles away from Camden, where the two worked together in a greenhouse. The greenhouse phone rang, and Al picked up. “Al, this is Sally,” she said. He tried to contain his excitement. “Where are you at?” “I’m with a lady friend in California. Send the FBI after me, please!” Sally cried. “Tell mother I’m okay and don’t worry. I want to come home. I’ve been afraid to call before.” Sally’s brother-in-law assured her he would do that if she would stay where she was.

After Sally hung up the phone, she turned to Ruth. “I thought she was going to collapse,” Mrs Janish said. “She kept saying over and over, ‘What will Frank do when he finds out what I have done?’”

But Al Panaro came through. He notified the FBI’s New York office, which in turn notified the sheriff’s office of Santa Clara County. Federal agents and sheriff’s deputies sped to the motor court where they found Sally, alone. She was relieved to be rescued but terrified that La Salle would return. “Please get me away from here before he gets back to town,” Sally said. Police took Sally to the county detention home for juveniles, where she underwent a medical examination.

Having rescued Sally, federal and state agents lay in wait for Frank La Salle’s returning bus to the trailer park and arrested him the minute he stepped off. La Salle not only denied kidnapping Sally but claimed he was her father, that he had “reared her since she was a small girl,” and was married to Sally’s mother. Ella Horner, he told them, “has known where I am and where the girl is every day since I’ve been gone.” He crowed that the authorities “could have found me at any time. I had a business in Dallas. I always registered my cars in my right name.”

History remembers her as “the real Lolita ” because young Florence “Sally” Horner’s grim ordeal helped inspire Nabokov’s novel. The girl was brown haired Florence Sally Horner of Camden. Sheriff Howard Hornbuckle said the girl told him La Salle compelled her to leave Camden on June 15, 1948. The first week they were together, the sheriff said he was told, La Salle and the girl had sexual relations, that these relations continued until three weeks ago when a school chum in Dallas, Texas told Sally that what she was doing was wrong.

The next day, La Salle was charged with violating the Mann Act for transporting a female along state lines with the intent of corrupting her morals. The police required Sally to be in court to hear the charges. She cried and screamed, seeing her abductor for the first time since her rescue. She also denied La Salle was her father: “My real daddy died when I was six and I remember what he looks like. I never saw this man before that day at the dime store.”

Ella was overjoyed to learn her daughter was still alive. “Many times it seemed hopeless,” she said. “But I’ll be thankful when I see her and know she’s all right.” She also firmly denied any connection whatsoever to La Salle: She had only met the man as he led Sally to the bus that day in 1948. Besides, Sally’s father was long dead, and surely La Salle’s prior prison record spoke for itself.

It certainly did to the authorities, who decided La Salle was best off with the state of New Jersey. They dropped the federal charges, with California Governor  Earl Warren signing an extradition agreement. Camden County prosecutor Mitchell Cohen and city detectives Willard Dube and Marshall Thompson flew to San Jose to escort La Salle back East by train, all shackled to one another, as airlines did not allow prisoners to be handcuffed on flights.

Cohen accompanied Sally, clad in a navy blue suit, polka dot blouse, black shoes, a red coat, and a straw Easter bonnet, on a United Airlines plane arriving in Philadelphia just before midnight on March 31, 1950. It was Sally Horner’s first-ever flight. She steadied her mounting nerves by talking about how much she looked forward to seeing her family. She only threw up once, when the plane ran into turbulence just outside of Chicago.

Ella waited at the airport with her family in the back seat of assistant prosecutor William Cahill’s car. Several other planes landed first, each one lifting Ella’s spirits before crushing them anew. “Why doesn’t it come,” Ella said, her face pressed against the car window. Her anguish was short-lived: Sally’s plane delayed 33 minutes, finally landed. Sally’s own excitement grew when she noticed her brother-in-law in the mounting crowd, but Cohen told Sally to wait for the other passengers to leave first.

Then Sally spotted her mother. “I want to see Mama!”

“All right, Sally,” said Cohen. “Let’s go.”

Sally stood at the doorway, peering into the crowd, then slowly descended the ramp. Ella ran in a frantic flash towards her youngest daughter, holding out her arms. Sally raced down the steps, her face lit up with joy and tears. “Mama! Mama!” Sally cried. She and her mother clung to each other for several minutes, both oblivious to the myriad flashbulbs in their faces looking for the perfect photo to run in the papers the following morning. At first, they wept too loudly to speak. Then Sally wailed what had been uppermost in her mind for nearly two years: “I want to go home,” she sobbed. “I just want to go home.”

Safely in prosecutor Cahill’s car, she explained to Sally that that couldn’t happen just yet. Instead, they were en route Camden County Children’s Center in nearby Pennsauken, New Jersey, which would care for Sally “until the trial is over.” As their car arrived at the centre, so did another one holding Sally’s aunt, Al Panaro, and her sister. “Susan!” she cried upon spotting her older sibling.

“I kissed you at the airport but you didn’t recognise me!”

Susan was holding her daughter, Diana, who had been born two months after Sally disappeared. Sally reached for the niece she’d never met and hugged her tightly. “Gee, she looks like pictures of me taken when I was a baby!”

Cohen, exhausted from the trip, gently informed the family that Sally needed to get some sleep. Visits from anyone but Ella were kept scarce to ensure Sally stayed in a calm frame of mind before and during the trial. But thanks to an unexpected development, Sally’s stay at the centre didn’t last long at all.

La Salle arrived in Camden on Sunday, April 2. The very next day, he pleaded guilty to the abduction and kidnapping charges, waiving his right to a lawyer. “I don’t need any counsel,” La Salle said in a barely audible voice. “I am guilty, and I am willing to go in and plead guilty.” Asked when he wished to plead, he said, “The sooner the better, I want to get it off my chest, and I want my time to commence to run, and I want to avoid this girl any further unfavourable publicity.”

Sally, dressed in the same navy blue suit she’d worn at the airport, sat in the rear of the courtroom. She wasn’t asked to testify, never said a word, and did not once look at La Salle. Judge Rocco Palese sentenced him to 30 to 35 years at Trenton State Prison, with the shorter sentence for abduction to be served concurrently. Palese minced no words as he sentenced La Salle, calling him a “moral leper” and declaring: “Mothers throughout the country will give a sigh of relief to know that a man of this type is safely in prison.”

The wire services’ coverage of the discovery of Sally, compared to the more sympathetic, comprehensive reports of the Camden Evening Courier and Morning Post, was a curious mix of sympathy and victim-blaming. The papers often described Sally as “plump” or “husky,” despite 110 pounds on a five-foot frame being nowhere close to fat. (“A little pubic floss glistened on its plump hillock,” Humbert remarks in Lolita, referring earlier, too, to Dolores’s “curiously husky voice.”) Not only did the press repeatedly publish her name, a practice now frowned upon, but they wrote that Sally had been “sexually interfered with” at La Salle’s hands, and printed when and where she had sex with him. One UPI report had her admit that although sometimes La Salle “was mean and scolded me a little… the rest of the time he treated me like a father.” Societal norms even invaded Ella’s state of mind. A few days after her daughter was found, Ella was photographed holding a picture of Sally, post-rescue. The quote: “Whatever Sally has done I can forgive her.”

Less than two weeks after his arrest, Frank La Salle pleaded guilty to a charge of kidnapping and was sentenced to a prison term of 30 to 35 years. Camden County Prosecutor referred to La Salle as a “moral leper.”

La Salle never saw the outside world again. He died of arteriosclerosis in Trenton State Prison on March 22, 1966, 16 years into his sentence. He was just shy of 70 years old.

Details grow sparse after Sally’s return to Camden, just before her 13th birthday, and the commencement of La Salle’s prison sentence. Though she stayed briefly with her mother upon leaving the juvenile facility in Pennsauken, Sally spent the summer of 1950 in Florence with her sister Susan and her family. Al Panaro is now 91 years old and lives in a nursing home facility near Florence, New Jersey—the same one where Susan died in 2012, at the age of 86. He and his daughter Diana Chiemingo, a year into retirement after working nearly three decades as a Burlington County educational assistant, shared their memories of Sally in separate summertime conversations.

Sally finished up eighth grade—she was a year behind—at Clara S. Burrough Junior High School on the corner of Haddon and Newton Avenues, graduating with honours. All recalled Sally being “very smart, an A-student,” and that “it seemed like she knew a subject before it was taught.” She eagerly awaited the next step, high school, and looked forward to college and getting a good job. She looked healthy, if older than her years, ate well, and had reached her full height of just above five feet, two inches tall.

Sally loved everything about the outdoors: the sun, swimming, and especially the Jersey Shore, spending a great deal of time there both before and after her abduction. She seemed happy to most people, but there were moments when “she was not all there,” Al said. “She never said she was sad and depressed, but you knew something was wrong.” She never mentioned Frank La Salle again, and the family maintained the same silence throughout their lives. “We’re very private people,” Diana said. She didn’t learn of her aunt’s abduction until her late teens.

Ella found intermittent work as a seamstress, and mother and daughter still lived in the two-story rowhouse on Linden Street. When not in Florence with the Panaros, Sally worked summers as a waitress. She had plenty of friends. One of those girls, 15-year-old Carol Starts, a Burrough classmate, accompanied Sally on a trip to the shore town of Wildwood one weekend in mid-August. It would be Sally’s last.

No one knows if Ella had reservations about letting Sally go. But on Saturday, August 16, she gave her 15-year-old daughter permission to take the bus with Carol to Wildwood, where the girls planned to stay at a resort. What happened next, the local papers reported the following Monday: Carol fled the resort by bus on Sunday evening, August 17, arriving in Camden that night, but Sally stayed on—she had met a young man at the resort earlier that day, and he promised to give her a lift back to Camden early the next morning. Ella had no idea who the man was. It was entirely possible he and Sally met for the first time that Sunday.

Sally and the young man, 20-year-old Edward John Baker of Vineland, a sparsely populated South Jersey town, set out as planned in the early morning hours of August 18, 1952. Just after midnight, somewhere along the Woodbine-Dennisville Road (now part of Interstate 78), Baker drove his 1948 Ford sedan into the back of a parked truck on the road, knocking it into another parked truck. Baker emerged from the four-car collision with minor injuries, which he had treated at Burdette Tomlin Hospital at Cape May Courthouse. The crash killed Sally instantly.3

Her death certificate, issued by Cape May County three days later, listed the cause of death as a fractured skull from a blow to the right side of her head. She’d broken her neck; other mortal injuries included a crushed chest and internal injuries, as well as a right leg fracture above the knee. The coroner didn’t bother with an autopsy. Sally’s death was swift and clear.

The damage to Sally’s face was so severe that the state police felt Ella would be too traumatised to identify her daughter. Instead, Al Panaro went to identify his sister-in-law. “The only way I knew it was Sally was because she had a scar on her leg. I couldn’t tell from her face,” he told me. A veil covered her at the funeral in Camden, attended by dozens of people, including a slew of aunts, uncles, cousins, and schoolmates.

Frank sent flowers to the family at her funeral—the only communication he made with them after the trial—and the family refused them.

Sally and Ella Horner embrace after being reunited. Frank La Salle, an unemployed mechanic, was said by County Prosecutor Michael H. Cohen in Camden to be under indictment for her abduction. Officers said the girl told them La Salle had forced her to submit to sexual relations.

It took 50 years for someone to connect the dots between Sally Horner and Dolores Haze. Packed as Lolita is with countless other allusions, leitmotifs, and nested meanings, excavating a real-life case wasn’t top priority for Nabokov scholars. Sally’s plight was written up extensively in local newspapers at the time, but the New York Times never bothered, and eventually, even the hometown media forgot about the case.

Lolita was so notorious that four American publishers refused to publish the manuscript, one saying flatly to Nabokov that, “if he printed Lolita, he and I would go to jail.” The book had a readership thanks to the French publisher Olympia Press, which printed its first, error-filled edition in 1955. Olympia was known as much for publishing workmanlike pornography as it was for mass market, not-exactly-legal editions of James Joyce’s Ulysses, J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, and Henry Miller’s novels. Nabokov’s experience with Olympia was an unhappy one, largely because of the many mistakes introduced into the text, and he would not find proper peace until Lolita was finally (and at significant cost) cleared for US publication in 1958 by Putnam.

Nabokov said he conjured up the germ of the novel—a cultured European gentleman’s pedophilic passion for a 12-year-old girl resulting in a madcap, satiric cross-country excursion—“late in 1939 or early in 1940, in Paris, at a time when I was laid up with a severe attack of intercostal neuralgia.” At that point, it was a short story set in Europe, written in his first language, Russian. Not pleased with the story, however, he destroyed it. By 1949, Nabokov had emigrated to America, the neuralgia raged anew, and the story shifted shape and nagged at him further, now as a longer tale, written in English, the cross-country excursion transplanted to America.

In his preface to The Annotated Lolita Alfred Appel writes: “Lolita is surely the most allusive and linguistically playful novel in English since Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake(1939).”

Ever since Lolita was published, critics have spent much effort trying to explicate hundreds of allusions, identify concealed quotations and parodic echoes, and pinpoint possible sources for Nabokov’s novel. This exciting and productive paper-chase very rarely, however, goes beyond literature to the real world, which Nabokov explored no less attentively than fiction and poetry. In an interview he once said:

A creative writer must study carefully the works of his rivals, including the Almighty. He must possess the unborn capacity not only of recombining but of re-creating the given world. In order to do this adequately, avoiding duplication of labour, the artist should know the given world. Imagination without knowledge leads no farther than the back yard of primitive art…

Working on Lolita, Nabokov, as his biographer Brian Boyd writes, “undertook research of all kinds” and, in particular,

noted newspaper reports of accidents, sex crimes and killings: “a middle-aged morals offender” who abducted fifteen-year-old Sally Horner from New Jersey and kept her for twenty-one months as his “cross-country slave,” until she was found in a Southern California motel; G. Edward Grammar’s ineptly staged murder of his wife in a poorly faked motor accident… 

But what Boyd seems to overlook is that Nabokov not only noted these newspaper reports in search of details but implanted them into Lolita in a most peculiar way.

Critic Alexander Dolinin proposed in 2005 that Frank La Salle and Florence Sally Horner were the real-life prototypes of Humbert Humbert and Dolores “Lolita” Haze from Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Though Nabokov had already used the same basic idea — that of a child molester and his victim booking into a hotel as man and daughter — in his then unpublished 1939 work Volshebnik it is still possible that he drew on the details of the Florence Horner case in writing Lolita. An English translation of Volshebnik was published in 1985 as The Enchanter. Nabokov explicitly mentions this case in Chapter 33, Part II of Lolita: “Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle, a fifty-year-old mechanic had done to Eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?”

Florence Sally Horner – Wikipedia

The Chilling 1948 Kidnapping That Inspired Lolita (But Was Way …

What happened to sally horner? – Penn State Libraries

The Real Lolita | Hazlitt

Camden People – Florence “Sally” Horner – DVRBS.com

Among the Wholesome Children | sk

How the Terrifying Abduction of Sally Horner Became Nabakov’s Lolita …

The Real Lolita – The story of 11-year-old Sally Horner’s abduction …

Real-life abduction story that inspired Lolita to W&N | The Bookseller

Florence Sally Horner Abduction Case – You Remember That

Sally horner’s real-life abduction was the inspiration for “lolita …

Where Are They Now?! 11 Abduction Victims Who Survived (LIST …

Florence Sally Horner – Wikiwand

Lolita is Based on A True Story of Abduction | Bookstr

The Real Lolita | Broad Street

E-reader: The true story behind ‘Lolita’ – Chicago Tribune

Fascinating Photographs of Famous Literary Characters in Real Life …

1940s sex kidnap inspired Lolita | The Times & The Sunday Times

The Real People Behind Famous Fictional Characters – Jezebel

Florence Sally Horner

“What Happened to Sally Horner?”

“1940s Sex Kidnap Inspired Lolita”


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