Sunday, October 19, 2014

Murder, Mayhem, and the American Past


I enjoy a good mystery as much as they next person, after all, I was a detective. But reading about them is preferable to seeing them in person. I can say that for sure. As a Half A$$ Historian, I've always had an active interest in crime fighting of old and unsolved cases from the American past. I'm not saying I could have solved any of them, but I would have liked to have been around back then to give it a try. These days, thanks to shows like C.S.I. (or B.S.I. as I call it) we tend to think that the only way you solve crimes is to run a bunch of tests and there you go, you have a killer. The truth is, you still solve cases today just like you did a hundred years ago, by beating the pavement with your feet and talking to people. So today I give you another one of my top five lists as I give you my five "favorite" unsolved murders in American History in no particular order.

Andrew Borden

1. The Borden Murders

Who knows the childhood rhyme:

Lizzie Borden took an ax
and gave her mother forty whacks
and when she saw what she had done
she gave her father forty-one

She got away with murder!

On August 4, 1892, the small town of Fall River, Massachusetts was rocked by a vicious double homicide. Andrew and Abby Borden were bludgeoned to death with an ax. I won't go into all the details but it suffices to say that it was not the Fall River Police Department's finest hour. Suspicion centered first on the Irish maid as back then, they solved cases by blaming the nearest Irish person to the crime, but then it came to focus on their daughter, Lizze Borden. At the time of the murder, she was seen as a spinster as she was unmarried, 32 years old, and lived at home. None of that really qualifies your for spinsterhood today, but the times were different back then. Eventually she was arrested and put on trial for murder. Given the botched police investigation, they were unable to present a lot of evidence though they built a decent circumstantial case. The trial was a media circus in line with O.J. and Casey Anthony. After deliberating an hour and a half, the all male jury returned a not guilty verdict. Why? It is partially due to the evidence. The real reason? The penalty for murder was death by hanging. They were not about to send a white Protestant woman to the gallows to die a somewhat slow death by strangulation. Men and immigrant or minority women were frequently condemned to death on less evidence than what was presented in this case. Personally, I think she either did it or was otherwise involved in the crime. But what do I know?

The Beautiful Cigar Girl

2. Mary Rogers, The Beautiful Cigar Girl

By all accounts Mary Rogers was incredibly hot. Alas, there were no cameras back then and I do not think she was a redhead, so I probably would not have been interested in her anyway. That said, she was considered quite the catch. She grew up as the only child of a widow who ran a boarding house. When she was seventeen, she went to work in a cigar store after her father died in a steamboat explosion. (That was commonplace in the 1840s). Given her beauty, she really helped the business. One customer penned an ode to her in the New York Times. None other than the great James Fenimore Cooper patronized the shop while she worked there. (Of course, Mark Twain would disagree with me calling him great, but that is a tale for another day) On July 25, 1841, she left home and told her fiance that she was going to visit some relatives. On July 28th, her corpse was found floating in the Hudson River in Hoboken, New Jersey. How she died and why is still a mystery. Some say she was murdered and dumped there. Others claim that she died during a botched abortion as a well known abortionist lived near where her body was discovered. There are all sorts of rumors and speculations. The case filled the New York City newspapers for weeks but eventually they moved on to other things. The story caught the eye of Edgar Allen Poe who immortalized her in his short story The Mystery of Marie Roget

A sad Hollywood tale.....

3. The Black Dahlia Murder

Postwar Los Angeles was a happening place. Money flowed like the cheap wine served in bars filled with women hoping to be discovered and the men who took advantage of them. Gangsters rubbed elbows with moved stars. The film industry was at perhaps its greatest era and pumped out classics on a regular basis. But there was something else. Something lurking under the surface. Murders happened on a regular basis. Many of them were bizarre, almost ritualistic. And a person or persons roamed the streets who were capable of murdering a beautiful young woman, cutting her body in half, and posing it in a vacant lot. Her name was Elizabeth "Beth" Short, but we know her today as the Black Dahlia.

Her naked and severed body was found in a vacant lot off of West Norton Avenue on the morning of January 15, 1945. The woman who spotted the remains thought at first that it was a discarded mannequin. Everything is sensationalized in Hollywood, even homicide. The media went wild. There was no shortage of suspects and no shortage of people coming forward to confess to the crime. But the case grew cold, given the investigative limitations of the time and the fact that they never found the original crime scene, only the secondary scene where the body was dumped. To do so, they would have had to find the killer or killers first.

This is still, perhaps the most "popular" of our unsolved murders. New books come out on a semi-regular basis claiming to definitively solve the case. The most interesting one to me is by retired LAPD detective Steve Hodel called The Black Dahlia Avenger. He goes into the connections between the Dahlia case and other similar unsolved murders of women in Los Angeles and the surrounding area from the same time period. There is one man who connects with all of them. Steve Hodel's own father! Could he have been the killer? We'll never know.

A tragic tale....

4. Dark Places

Please allow me to let another writer set the scene for you:

"The body of Geneva “Jean” Hilliker Ellroy was discovered at approximately 10:00 am on Sunday, 06/22/58.  Her body had been dumped in an ivy patch just a few inches shy of the curb near the playing field at Arroyo High school in the small city of El Monte, California.  Officers from the El Monte Police Department arrived at the scene at approximately 10:15 am.  According to Ellroy, they noted the following:
“It was a female Caucasian.  She was fair-skinned and red-headed.  She was approximately 40 years of age.  She was lying flat on her back…  Her right arm was bent upward.  Her right arm was resting a few inches above her head.  Her left arm was bent at the elbow and draped across her midriff.  Her left hand was clenched.  Her legs were outstretched.
She was wearing a scoop-front, sleeveless, light and dark blue dress.  A dark blue overcoat with a matching lining was spread over her lower body.
Her feet and ankles were visible.  Her right foot was bare.  A nylon stocking was bunched up around her left ankle.
Her dress was dishevelled.  Insect bites covered her arms.  He face was bruised and her tongue was protruding.  Her brassiere was unfastened and hiked above her breasts.  A nylon stocking and a cotton cord were lashed around her neck.  Both ligatures were tightly knotted.” (My Dark Places, 4-5) Online cite here.
What makes this so remarkable is that Ellroy is describing the murdered body of his mother. I admit, I take this murder personally as the victim in this case was an attractive redhead. There was a string of similar murders in the greater Los Angeles area at the time but they were never connected to this one. The police had no suspects and the crime quickly went cold. Decades later, James Ellroy, now one of America's greatest crime writers, partnered with a retired detective to reopen the case. Ultimately, they developed some leads but came up empty. If you want to know more, read My Dark Places. You won't be sorry.

A tragic day at the library...

5. Death in the Library

On the evening of November 28, 1969, Betsy Aardsma, a graduate student at Penn State University went to the library to work on a research paper. Somewhere close to five pm, an unknown assailant stabbed her once through the heart. Immediately afterwards, a clerk reported that either one or two men walked out of the library and on the way, said "Someone better help that girl!" Bystanders tried to revive her as help was summoned. One item of interest is that they did not know that she had been stabbed until they got her to the hospital. The reason given is that there was not a lot of blood and she was wearing a red dress. The murder is still unsolved. I just find it to be extremely bizarre and random. Libraries are suppose to be safe places for learning. Not places to get away with murder. 

So there you have it, Dear Readers, the most interesting unsolved murders in American History in my opinion. I hope you enjoyed the read. And stay safe out there. Trust your instincts. 

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian.

1 comment: