4 Terrifying Historical Crimes No One Can Explain
Psst. Hey. Come quick, step on this alley before they see you. Who, you ask? Murderers, man, murderers. They're everywhere, didn't you know? And what's worse, we don't know who they are. History is teeming with mysterious crime cases that left behind corpses but never managed to find out who exactly made them corpses in the first place.
But don't worry. We'll catch the culprits. We'll catch them all. Quick, friend, grab your trusty magnifying glass and put on your best research pants. Let's analyze the available evidence from a bunch of famous, unsolved historical murder cases once more, and see if we can't get to the bottom of heinous crimes.
Villisca Ax Murders
The Villisca ax murder case is the kind of sordid tale that stains the crime scene itself forever. These days, the house has a creepy website and ghost tours where dumbasses occasionally lay a couple of extra bricks to the house's reputation by stabbing themselves during a tour.
That's not to say the reputation is undeserved, because the events that took place there in the summer of 1912 are, to put it mildly, creepy as balls. Josiah and Sarah Moore, the doomed occupants of said house, were a popular and prosperous couple without any known enemies. They spent the evening of June 9 with their four children and two house guests before retiring for the night.
At some point before the morning of June 10, someone grabbed Josiah's ax, systematically went through the bedrooms, and hit all 8 occupants in the head, repeatedly and with some determination. Most of them died in their sleep. One of the guests woke up. Briefly.
And you thought stepping on a LEGO is the worst thing that can happen on a midnight bathroom visit.
To make things even more unnecessarily creepy, the killer had covered all mirrors and windows -- along with the victims' faces -- with curtains and cloth. There was also a bowl of bloody water and a plate of uneaten food on a table, which I generously choose to assume was the killer's haphazard attempt to clean himself and find out that he's not into post-homicidal snacks, instead of some dumbfuck "fear me" ritual. Dude, you just mauled eight people to death, a plate of untouched casserole isn't going to add any extra oomph to that.
Investigators soon found out that Iowa was carrying potential crazed ax killers by the dozen. A vagrant builder with an unhealthy interest for the case, a penchant for muttering to himself and, oh yeah, lugging around a large ax was understandably detained but had a rock-solid alibi. A strangely behaving traveling minister called George Kelly gave a good, old-fashioned "the voices in my head made me do it" confession and was tried two separate times before being ultimately acquitted. The fact that he had been interrogated (feel free to add liberal air quotes at this point) for hours before giving the confession and recanted it the second he had a chance may have had something to do with this. Moore's son-in-law had hurled death threats at him, but also had an alibi.
Even Iowa state senator Frank Jones was drawn in the action, thanks to being an old business acquaintance turned rival to the victims. Jones was rumored to have hired a ruthless killer called William Mansfield (who just so happened to ax-murder his own family a couple of years later) to do the dirty work. And while we're on the subject of serial killers, there's also Henry Lee Moore (no relation), who was not initially connected to the case, but would later go on to murder his family in an extremely similar fashion.
God dammit, Iowa. What is it with you and axes?
"Oh, like you don't own one for every weekday."
Pauli's Favorite Theory:
Nothing in this case makes sense, really. Show me a person who can sneak around a house with eight people in it in the middle of the night, cover all windows and reflective surfaces and murder them in the most violent manner this side of actual chainsaws, and I'll show you . . . well, the Villisca ax murderer. Or a ninja. Either way, it was nice to know you, because in the time it took you to tell me that person has already covered all your mirrors and oh God he's standing behind you right now.
But assuming pre-WWI ax shinobi weren't a thing, all the peculiarities of the case can be explained with a single theory: there was more than just one killer.
The parents were sleeping in the same bed. I don't care if you can sleep through the sinking of the Titanic, I refuse to believe anyone can calmly slumber their way to oblivion when someone is actively clobbering their partner to death with an axe right next to them. That's why all those individuals confessing the murders can be ruled right out -- I don't buy for a second that there was just a single murderer, let alone murder weapon. (Pro tip, investigators: just because you find a bloody axe on a mass murder scene doesn't mean that it's the only axe in the world.)
So, here's what I propose: either the Moores and their guests were drugged somehow (a possibility no source seems to bring up) before the crime, or it was at least a two-man job. With that in mind, let's crank up the official Cracked Speculation Machine: Maybe both of those guys who later pulled a Villisca on their own families were involved in the murders - - on Senator Jones' dime, because why the hell not - - and later tried to relive the thrill because fuck it, they were ax murderers already.
The Hall-Mills Murder Case
On the surface, the Hall-Mills murder case of 1922 was a gruesome, but relatively straightforward affair that never should have become the pinnacle of unsolved homicides that it did. The two victims, reverend Edward Hall and choir singer Eleanor Mills, were found lying in a field outside New Brunswick, NJ. Hall had been shot once, while Mills had received the brunt of the attack: three gunshots and a slashed throat. They had been carefully positioned side by side under a crabapple tree, with torn love letters between them and a single calling card of Hall's placed at his feet for handy identification.
Both of them had been married, but not to each other.
On paper, this was the clearest cut case of "uh-oh, the spouse found out" in recorded history, and judging by the wounds the culprit came from Reverend Hall's side of things. In practice, shit immediately hit the fan, as cops of two jurisdictions struggled to clear the scene and find out a proper pecking order (the crime had conveniently happened on the border of their jurisdictions), and countless curious oglers freely wandered the area, grabbing souvenirs, inspecting evidence and trampling the crime scene well beyond the point of saving. What's more, journalists turned up and went absolutely apeshit over the case.
The case turned into the kind of clusterfuck that would make OJ Simpson raise an appreciative eyebrow. Witnesses were questioned again and again, to the point where some of them got jailed because investigations got so intimate, their unsavory secrets started turning up. The victims' bodies were buried, then exhumed for further examination, while their former friends and relatives were busy scrounging up saucy material they could sell to the tabloids.
"This, uh, was the murder weapon."
And all along, the papers just. Would not. Stop. The headlines.
In 1926, when Hall's rich widow Frances and her two brothers -- one a genius eccentric, the other a skilled gunman, because supervillainy -- were arrested and brought to court, the case was already solidly entrenched in popular culture and even had an "inspired by true events" style silent movie called The Goose Woman. Predictably, the ensuing trials were a complete clusterfuck of disinformation, bribery accusations and media barrage. A whopping 157 witnesses were called to the stand, each confusing the situation more and more, until the prosecution's star (and only decent) witness was a bed-ridden hog farmer called Jane "Pig Lady" Gibson, who claimed to have witnessed a lethal argument between the victims and a trio that looked an awful lot like the defendants. Her testimony was only slightly hurt by the numerous inconsistencies in her story, and the fact that her own mother kept calling her a liar as she spoke.
Not kidding about the nickname, by the way. Or the "bedridden" part.
In the end, all of the accused walked away scot-free. The case remains unsolved.
Pauli's Favorite Theory:
Oh, there are theories. Some say the widow and her brothers were actually innocent, and the murders were in fact the work of Ku Klux Klan, whose famously impeccable moral code Hall and Mills had broken with their affair. Others suspect that the Pig Lady herself was behind the killings, because why not?
However, to keep with the case's theme of copious horseshit, I'm going to say they were all innocent. It was an elaborately staged double suicide, designed solely to annoy the maximum number of people and accomplishing it with gusto.
The Wonnangatta Murders
You'd think that the Australians would be pretty laid back toward each other, what with having to already deal with roughly 97% of the world's murderous fauna. Of course, if you've actually ever met Australians, you'll know they're just as ready to murder each other's ass as any other nation (and on a particularly eventful Friday night, quite a bit more eager than most). The place has its decent share of lethal mysteries such as the Wonnangatta murders of 1917. Or 1918. The fact that we're not even clear about the year should tell you what sort of case this is.
In late December, 1917, the station manager of Wonnangatta cattle station, James Barclay, and his cook/handyman Jack Bamford rode out to a nearby city to vote on whatever the shit WWI-era Australians voted about. Less spiders, presumably. The next day, they began their ride back, but never arrived at the station. Their absence was eventually realized and reported by their mailman, and the ensuing search party found the badly decomposed body of station manager Barclay, shot in the back and half-buried near the premises.
To make things all the more depressing, these were said premises.
So far, this didn't seem too weird. The still-missing Bamford had a reputation as a first-rate dickhead with a violent streak, and had even been suspected for murdering his own wife. Dudes had an argument, one got shot, and the other escaped to some town far away. Only, Bamford never rematerialized . . . alive. Nine months later, his body was found under a pile of partially burned wood, about 12 miles from the station with a bullet hole in the head.
To this day, no one knows what happened. Harry Smith, the postman who reported the men missing, was an obvious suspect, but no one had any proof. Besides, he had been good friends with the station manager. Eventually, the Unverified Rumor Gramophone set on a groove called "cattle thieves killed Barclay and chased down Bamford when he tried to escape," and that was that.
Or was it?
Pauli's Favorite Theory:
What would you do if your dad was mysteriously killed? Curl up and cry, sure, but after that you'd probably attempt to find out the identity of the killer, or at least as much of the circumstances of daddy's death as possible. What you definitely wouldn't do is shrug the whole thing off and go work for a guy that may or may not be your dad's murderer, which is precisely what James Barclay Jr. did when he went off to work for Harry Smith after school. Why is this, one wonders?
Because he fucking well knew who killed who, that's why. Here's a quote from an interview he gave in the 1970s, after Harry was already dead: "It was all a long time ago and both the murderers are long since dead. I can't see that anything can be gained now, it's all best forgotten."
Both murderers. Long since dead.
Basically, this leaves us with two scenarios. One theory suggests that Bamford indeed did kill Barclay, and when Smith (who was friends with the latter) found out, he hunted Bamford down and treated him to a heaping helping of bush justice, Punisher-style. Another, which I just made up, carefully points out that Harry, too, was long dead at the time of the interview. Maybe, just maybe, Barclay Junior's employment under him was just one Eliahu Itzkowitz -style long con to befriend Harry, just to see the look on his face at the time of the inevitable "You killed my father. Prepare to die."
Either way, it's good to remember that Australia is a land where the most famous city was originally called freaking Batmania. It makes sense that their default reaction to family tragedy is to go full caped crusader.
The Lady of the Dunes
With the amount of dodgy and conflicting reports out there about the ever-loving clusterfuck that is the Lady of the Dunes case, Wikipedia's as good a place as any to start your quest. Here are the essentials: On July 6, 1974, the naked, decomposing body of a horribly mutilated woman was found in the Race Point Dunes of Provincetown, Barnstable County, MA. She was lying on a green towel with a blue bandanna and a pair of jeans under her head. If you're into knowing exactly what interesting bits she had been chopped into, feel free to hit Google -- since this is a family website, I'll refrain from going into details about missing hands and teeth and the grossly decomposed state of the body.
And that's it, really. Apart from hints of expensive dental work and a clearly athletic build, no one has been able to determine, well, anything about the woman, up to and including her age. We're fairly sure she looked like this, though:
"You've exhumed me, like, three separate times and this is the best you can do?"
Her murderer is an equally great mystery. There were two sets of mysterious footprints, some tire tracks, and enough violence to justify suspicion that this wasn't just some random passerby or an overreacting jilted lover. Basically, the Lady's death was some gangster and/or serial killer bullshit, and it looks like we'll never get to the bottom of it.
Pauli's Favorite Theory:
Funnily enough, two separate serial killers have been connected to the case. One of them, Hadden Clark, even attempted to confess, but this was largely dismissed because the dude is a notorious liar and serial confessor. As for gangsters, none other than Whitey Bulger (the crime boss who inspired Jack Nicholson's Frank Costello in The Departed) was allegedly seen in the area with a woman who looked suspiciously like the Lady. Incidentally, Bulger was notorious for removing his victims' teeth.
So, yeah. In all likelihood, the Lady was murdered by at least one of those insane motherfuckers. To solve that mystery we'll need to get to the real one -- her identity. There have been a fair few theories about this, ranging from unassuming summer vacationers to escaped convicts, all of which have led to precisely jack fucking shit so far. My favorite take on the Lady's possible identity is a very recent one and comes from none other than horror writer Joe Hill, who has pondered the case at some length and happened to stumble on a curious find. You know what else was going on in the Barnstable County area in the months before the body was found? Turns out, a little-known movie called Jaws was filmed there. It was quite a publicized event in the county, and attracted a ton of hangers-on. Some of these people wound up as extras, and when Mr. Hill happened to attend a 40th anniversary theater screening of the movie, a certain extra caught his eye:
No, not the ripped porn-stache guy on the right, though his look is glorious.
Hold on, that lady on the left with the blue bandanna does seem a little familiar. Let's zoom in:
For reference, here's that composite of the Lady again:
You can read Hill's theory in full here in his blog, and although he fully admits the facts of the case are far from conclusive and it's way, way too convenient for a storyteller to find the star of his favorite mystery just hanging around in his favorite movie, there are some fairly intriguing points in there that may at some point shed some much needed additional light to the mystery in his quest to uncover the identity of this suspiciously familiar looking extra.
As for me, I'll just assume that the poor Lady of the Dunes was accidentally maimed by the once again malfunctioning Bruce the Shark and some poor special effects intern had to hastily dump her out of sight.
If that wasn't enough murder to sate your need for Mortal Kombat Style Fatalities, then check out some axe-wielding terror in 5 Real Killers More Terrifying Than Any Horror Movie or take a look at even more mysteries, like the Santa Rosa Hitchhiker Murders, that still leave authorities scratching their heads in 5 Creepy Murder Mysteries From History We'll Never Solve.
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