True Crime: Cabbage Patch Kids

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November 1983. More than 1,000 people stood, gathered in the frigid air, just outside the Zayre’s Department Store in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Cold and anxious, the throng—many of whom had been waiting since midnight—began to shout for the store to open early. Taped inside the glass doors of the retail establishment, taunting the would-be customers, was the sign that had drawn them there: Cabbage Patch Kids – In Stock. And while the most shops had been selling the popular—albeit homely—dolls for $30, Zayres was offering them for the low-low price of $17.99. But the prices weren’t the only thing that would be knocked down that day.

After eyeing the now unruly mob, the assistant store manager positioned himself behind a counter, his legs wide, his hands firmly clutching a baseball bat. Finally, at 8:50am, the manager unlocked the doors. Immediately, the once immobilized herd bull rushed their way inside, each in hope of nabbing a Cabbage Patch doll. In the frenzy, the otherwise civilized humans succumbed to their baser drives. One woman was knocked to the floor as she tried to hold onto a doll being snatched from her hands by a man. Another woman clung to one of the ugly-ass toys as another woman choked her with a purse strap. During the stampede, the assistant manager jumped on the counter before him, swinging his bat, demanding the crowd calm down. Rest in peace: Kyle Hirschfeld.

As five women—their bones broken—were being transported to Wilkes-Barre General Hospital, Cabbage Patch Kids were being birthed at Babyland General 750 miles south of Pennsylvania. And while disputes over dolls at Zayres, and countless other stores across the nation, had left many bruised and battered, the Cabbage Patch Kids were the subject of an even bigger custody battle. The very parentage of the dolls was in question. At stake: a million dollars and a broken heart. This is the true story of the Cabbage Patch Kids.

Seven years earlier: 1976. Born in the two-red-lights town of Cleveland, Georgia, Xavier Roberts had never been a good student. So, poor both academically and financially, Roberts focused his junior college career on—the one path that was all but guaranteed to keep him penniless—art. While studying his chosen field at school, Roberts supplemented the pittance he earned from his work at the state park by crafting pottery and selling his wares to his classmates. Then, one day, he saw something that would change his life.

Roberts’ aha moment, as told to the Washington Post in 1983, was a photo of a soft sculpture, the art form popularized in the 1960s. To his great advantage, Roberts already understood the technique; he had watched as his mother make quilts as a side hustle. Inspired, Roberts began shaping four-way stretch fabric instead of clay. Soon—in what sounds like the premise to a horror movie—Roberts began sculpting his many nieces in nephews out of cloth, stuffing the dolls with soft fibers, stitching the mouths, painting their eyes. And although each one, as Roberts described, was different, each bore the signed name of their creator. But soon it became clear, the dolls Roberts had begun fashioning were not as unique as believed.

According to Roberts’ rag doll-to-riches tale, he began selling his creations at flea markets and craft fairs. In lieu of describing the intimate and, let’s face it, at times disgusting process of creating life—Roberts explained to his customers that he had found his babies in a cabbage patch. And because he couldn’t think of anything more offensive, Roberts called them “Little People.” To further distinguish his product from traditional dolls, Roberts told customers they were not for sale. Instead, they could be adopted. In fact, each doll came with a birth certificate bearing a one-of-a-kind name (gleaned from an actual 1938 Georgia birth registry). But as Roberts’ Little People grew in popularity, it became clear that they weren’t the only thing that were made out of whole cloth.

Born in 1950 and raised in the small town of Mayfield, Kentucky, Martha Nelson Thomas had long known that she wanted to be an artist. Ultimately, leaving her humble home for the big lights of Louisville, Nelson attended the Louisville School of Art in the early 1970s. While studying her chosen field, Thomas eschewed the traditional media employed by her classmates. Instead, she began experimenting with something that would define her life: soft sculpture. Inspired by the children in her circle, Thomas shaped four-way stretch fabric into dolls, whom she thought of as babies. Stuffing each with soft fibers, stitching the mouths, painting their eyes, every baby Thomas “birthed,” was unique. Unfortunately for Thomas, chicanery was commonplace.

By 1976, Martha Nelson Thomas had been making and selling her “Doll Babies” at craft fairs throughout Kentucky to some success. Not only were her soft sculptured dolls one-of-a-kind, but her marketing approach was too. Buyers could not buy a doll, instead they could adopt a baby. Consistent with actual babies, Thomas’ “children” bore no labels or tags. And adoptive parents received a birth certificate and adoption papers identifying their uniquely named child and describing its interests. Her charming approach drew the attention of many enthusiastic customers and cowboy-hat-wearing young man with a punchable face.

While attending a crafts fair in Berea, Kentucky, Thomas was approached by 21-year-old Xavier Roberts. Fascinated with her “Doll Babies,” Roberts told Thomas he wanted to sell them at the gift shop at the state park he managed in Georgia. Intrigued, Thomas agreed. And after returning home with Doll Babies in tow, Roberts began selling Thomas’ creations from his place of employ. Dissatisfied with the price Thomas had been charging, however, Roberts jacked up the cost to the consumer. But soon, when Thomas learned of Roberts’ exorbitant “adoption fees,” Thomas demanded that he return her dolls. And while Roberts complied with the request, he also sent a letter to Thomas saying that he would “carry your type of dolls, either made by your or someone else.”

That someone else was Roberts. Assisted by three schoolfriends and his mother, Roberts’ crew handcrafted dolls that looked in most respects like those created by Thomas. And while he didn’t craft each personally, Roberts was sure to sign all of them. Much like cult leaders before him and since, each of the “Little People” bore the branding of their leader on their buttocks. And when the demand of for the toys exceeded his production capacity, Roberts purchased a derelict clinic, expanded his staff, and established the Babyland General Hospital. When a baby was born there, a nurse announced over a loudspeaker: “Cabbage dilation, all staff on standby!” Beneath the Magic Crystal Tree, doctors would inject the gaping vegetation with “Imagicillin,” just before yanking a nude doll from the leafy womb. Adults will really do anything to avoid teaching children about sex.

1980. As word spread about Roberts’ apparently inventive dolls, not everyone attributed the toys to Roberts. While visiting Martha Nelson Thomas, who had continued to sell her brand of soft-sculpted babies at craft fairs in Kentucky, one confused patron congratulated Thomas, telling Thomas she had seen Thomas’ product being sold at an Atlanta airport. Thomas, of course, had not done so. And when she learned who was behind the knock offs, Thomas was heartbroken.

After some cajoling by friends, the otherwise shy, salt-of-the-earth artist sought counsel from legal aid, the only attorney she could afford. While Thomas had resigned herself to the life of a bohemian artist, she was devasted that her babies were being mass-produced. And soon, a lawsuit seeking $1 million dollars was filed against Roberts. ”I know we’re asking for money,” said Thomas. ”But that’s not the reason we’re in it. It’s not completely honest to sell his dolls, and then, when asked where it originated, to omit my part.” But the case wouldn’t be heard until years after Roberts had become a multi-millionaire.

1981. Babyland General had attracted the attention of more than just Health and Human Services, Atlanta entrepreneur Roger Schlaifer saw the billion-dollar potential of the Little People and sought to license the product. While Roberts was initially reluctant to do so, Schlaifer attempted to woo the quote unquote entrepreneur with a mythology for the babies that placed Roberts at the center of the tale. For although vegetation routinely gave “birth” at Babyland General Hospital, Roberts offered no explanation as to who had f***ed the cabbages in the first place. The answer was one more terrifying than: a penis.

Instead of the male equivalents of a cabbage, BunnyBees—horrifying-sounding hybrids of rabbits and hornets—pollinated the cabbages by quote dropping crystals on them unquote, which is a hashtag one may search for on Tiktok when feeling “thirsty.” Fortunately, 10-year-old Xavier Roberts, had followed a BunnyBee to the debaucherous garden of child-rearing. To save the newborns from the clutches of the evil Lavender McDade, young Roberts brought them to Babyland General that they may be adopted by a loving home. (Or purchased by a parent willing to throw down at a department store.) Roberts was sold.

Schlaifer, who described Roberts toys as “really ugly dolls,” had won the license of the product. Rebranding the dolls, Schlaifer sold the “Cabbage Patch Kids” to Coleco, the toy company that was poised to have the country’s second biggest hit of the season, the Adam computer. While Roberts’ dolls—and Thomas’ before—were made entirely of cloth, Coleco utilized the latest in technology to sculpt the heads from snuggly vinyl. Aided by computers, Coleco factories could mass produce the dolls, while still making each one different: varying the hair, eye and skin color, and dimples, freckles, and cheekbones. And excited Washington Post article reported that “Oriental and other ethnic groups were to come soon.” Barbara Wruck, Coleco’s director of corporate communications, was thrilled, saying, “What a homely little thing.”

1985. As sales of Cabbage Patch Kids and their related products raced toward $2 billion dollars, Martha Nelson Thomas’ lawsuit against Xavier Roberts was nearing its close. The case was divided into two parts: copyright and fair trade. After a copyright hearing in 1982, a federal district court judge ruled that the copyright Roberts had obtained was valid. Roberts, they concluded, had not misrepresented himself by not giving credit to Thomas. For her part, Thomas said she didn’t know she needed a copyright. Likewise, she didn’t put a brand name, or copyright insignia, on the dolls because babies had no place for such things. Roberts, of course, had put a tramp stamp on each of the dolls in his stable.

The second half of the suit, focused on whether or not Roberts was in violation of federal law for claiming in advertisements that his product was quote original. While Roberts’ attorney conceded that Roberts got the idea for his dolls ”partly from [Thomas],” he maintained Roberts’ expression of the idea was quite different from that of Thomas. But Thomas’ attorney disagreed. The differences, he asserted, if any, were slight. And yet, the odds were stacked against Thomas. Courts overhearing other similar disputes between Roberts and rival companies, made an example of Thomas’ dolls, highlighting how they differed from those of Roberts. Thomas was fighting a losing battle. Then things changed.

Before the trial concluded, Roberts’ attorney asked Thomas to settle out of court. Thomas longed to leave the conflict behind her and return to her work as an artist. So, that day, the parties settled. As a result, Thomas was able to provide some input in the doll production and received a monetary award. While that amount could not be disclosed, Thomas told her close friends that “her children would go to college.” Likewise, Roberts, who by then was a multi-millionaire and a “most eligible bachelor,” said he planned to return to school to learn how to become a sculptor. Possibly, we add, for the first time.

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