4 Terrifying Crimes (That We'll Never Solve)
A strange, unsolved murder case makes us realize that the world is full of cheat codes no one told us about, and there are cold-blooded fuckers out there who know how to use them. That primal dread is why everyone loves a good, old-fashioned whodunit -- except for the victim and their family and friends, and the cops, and a whole bunch of people living in dread in the area because there's a killer on the loose. That's, uh, quite a lot of folks, really. Other than for those guys, though, a good murder mystery is pretty much the most enticing thing you can imagine. Cases in point:
The Lake Bodom Murders
I fully admit that this one hits a lot closer to home for me than your average murder mystery. That's because it literally hit close to home -- I grew up just a few miles from where the Lake Bodom murders took place. I actually once visited what I'm told was the exact site, but I bet the whole area is so trampled by curious folks that by now every single spot along the lake's coastline has played the part of the crime scene in someone's tourist photos.
Here's how shit went down: On the night of June 4, 1960, four teenagers were sleeping in a tent by Lake Bodom in Espoo, Finland, when a knife-wielding maniac attacked them. Three of them perished in the ensuing all-you-can-eat stab'n'bludgeon buffet. The only survivor, 18-year-old Nils Gustafsson, could provide little enlightenment on the events, because it's hard to remember things when your face is so thoroughly, bone-breakingly bludgeoned that you could shake your head to make a passable maraca.
As powerless as the police found themselves, fate was clearly determined to keep the Bodom case as creepy as possible as crazier and crazier potential villains kept popping up. In 1972, precisely 12 years after the murders, a local man committed suicide, his final note containing a confession that he was the killer. The police found that the guy used to work in a lakeside kiosk and that there was hostility between him and the victims, whom he sold lemonade to on the day before the attack. The only problem was that the kiosk guy had a solid alibi; he was at home with his wife on the night of the murders. Yet, for some reason, he had killed himself on the anniversary of the attack and left a confession that could not be true ... or could it?
The next potential culprit emerged when a doctor revealed that his hospital had treated an injured German immigrant called Hans Assmann (Hans Assmann!) immediately after the attack. Assmann, who lived near Lake Bodom, was wearing red-stained clothes and acting strangely, yet seemed to slip through the cops' radar. So the doctor started digging around and found that the German had ties to the KGB (or Stasi, depending on whom you ask). Assmann was something of an enigmatic figure, and after entering the Suspect Radar, many books and stories were written about him that liberally painted him as a violently murderous ex-Nazi drug addict that was responsible for pretty much every unsolved death in the whole country, but, they said, he kept slipping through the cracks because of his diplomatic connections.
Although Assmann had a valid alibi for the murder night and was never officially considered a major suspect by the police, he would not lose his primary suspect limelight until 2004 when, out of the blue, the cops brought in none other than Nils Gustafsson, the lone survivor, based on a new witness that claimed, after mysteriously waiting 45 years, that Gustafsson had been drunk and aggressive just before the murders. Also, new blood-spatter-analysis technology seemed to indicate that he might have murdered his friends in a fit of jealous rage, receiving his facial injuries in a fight with the male victim.
So, case closed, right? Wrong: About 15 months later, Gustafsson was cleared of all charges so hard that it left a dent in the courtroom wall. With him conclusively not guilty and other major suspects dead, it's unlikely that the case will ever be solved.
Pauli's Favorite Theory:
Wait, you're reading an entry featuring an alleged KGB agent/freelance murder-monster called Hans Assmann, and you still need to read the bit where I name my favorite suspect? It's like we don't even know each other anymore.
The Gatton Case
The Gatton murders are considered among Australia's most famous unsolved crimes, and shockingly they have nothing to do with homicidal spiders (as far as we know). On December 26, 1898, a man called William McNeill set out to search for Michael, Nora, and Ellen Murphy, three relatives of his who had gone to a country dance the night before but hadn't returned home as planned. He managed to locate the tracks of their cart and followed them to a desolate area known as Moran's Paddock. Two guesses as to whether he found them happily lounging around and reading poetry.
The badly mutilated, lifeless bodies of Michael, Nora, and Ellen (yes, of course they had been murdered) were arranged neatly on a rug, with their hands tied behind their backs. Today, this would be a horrifying sight that would probably have Nic Pizzolatto taking notes. In a tiny, peaceful Australian town slowly inching toward the 20th century, there was no frame of reference for this kind of brutality at all. After a quick freak-out and an even quicker trip to get some backup, McNeill returned to the scene with a witness, kicking into gear the sloppiest, most botched investigation since the Keystone Cops. Because First Blood had not yet revealed the obvious drawbacks of the "every vagrant is a criminal" approach in law enforcement, the inspector in charge of the case immediately kicked into small-town-sheriff gear and started accusing a random hobo called Richard Burgess. When it turned out he had an ironclad alibi, they turned their attentions to Thomas Day, another out-of-towner, because he had blood on his clothes. Of course, he also happened to be working in a local butcher shop.
Communication breakdowns delayed the investigation and allowed the public to freely roam the crime scene to the point where someone actually looted Michael's corpse. Along with the tampered crime scene and a lack of reliable clues, the fact that the three victims were well-liked, squeaky-clean people with nothing in their background giving cause to such a clearly premeditated attack didn't help, either. Eventually, thousands of admissions, theories, and potential suspects painted the case into a corner. Today, over a century later, we're not one bit closer to uncovering the identity of the killer.
Pauli's Favorite Theory:
Luckily, a large chunk of Australia's population is composed of elderly amateur sleuths who occupy themselves by tearing through the nation's cold cases. New theories on the Gatton murders pop up almost as often as those about Jack The Ripper, invariably presented by an elderly super-sleuth who should have no business outside an Agatha Christie novel. Most of these new theories come across as rather flimsy ("I don't have any real evidence, but the local priest totally did it!"), but one particular theory by octogenarian amateur detective Stephanie Bennett seems to actually contain some potential. Bennett realized it was unlikely that the three victims, one of which was a powerful and athletic expert bushman, could have been subdued by just one person, so she focused her research on a group attack. Eventually, she reached the conclusion that the murders were most likely a revenge attack orchestrated by a career criminal Michael had identified and sent to prison a few years earlier. Whether this is true or not, a gang of determined criminals sure seems a much more likely culprit than a lone, Mick Taylor-style supervillain.
Hey, wait a minute. Could this mean Jack The Ripper was a teamwork exercise too?
Henry Weston Smith
If the name of Reverend Henry Weston Smith rings a vague bell in your head, it's either because you're extremely well versed in the history of the Old West, or (more likely) a fan of Deadwood. This is him in the show:
And this was him in real life:
I know what you're thinking: "Holy shit! Is that a beard or did he join the Crips at some point during his Deadwood tenure?" I'm choosing to believe the latter, because, like roughly 172 percent of the town's inhabitants, Smith died of what passed for natural causes in the area: acute lead poisoning. Unlike many shooting victims of the area, whose killers were generally hovering in the immediate vicinity as the whiskey clouds parted to reveal the horrible realization, Smith died unseen, methodically, and with a strange element of determination casual murderin' generally lacks.
In the show, Smith's end was (of course) facilitated by one Al Swearengen, who killed him as an act of mercy because Smith suffered from a brain tumor-like condition that was driving him crazy and making him bedridden. This certainly made for a cool Ian McShane scene, but it did no justice to the reverend (a Methodist preacher in real life). In reality, his demise was far stranger: In August 1876, Henry Weston Smith was found lying on a path leading to the nearby Crook City. He had been killed with a single bullet through the chest. He had not been robbed, or scalped, or anything -- just killed and left there.
To this day, we have no real idea who really killed Smith. Most people (including Sheriff Seth Bullock) immediately blamed his death on the Native Americans and left it at that, but seeing as this was the era's equivalent of "a wizard did it," some historians have pointed out that the theory (which is even etched in Smith's gravestone) is just one of many: Other popular potential culprits include highwaymen (who just presumably really sucked at the robbing part of their profession) and, ironically enough ...
Pauli's Favorite Theory:
... this fuckin' guy.
Well, maybe not Swearengen in person, but very possibly one of his ilk; it turns out the large, charismatic preacher had something of a following in the Deadwood area, and his message of morality at the expense of booze and whores was seen as a threat by some of the area's sin-peddling entrepreneurs. Seeing as the whole "one shot, no robbin'" aspect of Smith's death reeks of a hit, these saloon tycoons and their henchmen are where I'd put my "this guy killed that guy" money. Shit, let's just say it was Swearengen himself, if only because that acts as a nice segue to the fact that old Al himself died from a supposedly train-hopping-induced head wound that some researchers deem more than slightly suspicious.
The Hinterkaifeck Massacre
What would you do if you lived in a scary old farmhouse in the ass end of nowhere and one day noticed a trail of strange, heavy footprints leading into your house but none coming out? If your answer is, "Poop a whole lot and run forever," congratulations! You're not Andreas Gruber, the master of the Bavarian Hinterkaifeck farm.
On April 4, 1922, a group of locals went to Hinterkaifeck to see why the family members hadn't been showing up for school or church. To their surprise, they found Gruber, his wife, their 35-year-old daughter, two grandchildren, and a maid had been murdered with a mattock (a farm-variety pickaxe). This was particularly surprising because the family had been missing/dead for three days, yet the cows had been milked, food had been cooked, and neighbors had seen smoke rising from the chimney. In other words, someone had been living on the farm after they killed the family. That must have been a pretty horrifying realization for those standing in the middle of said farm, but they've got nothing on the mechanic who had spent five hours repairing a feeding machine at the farm earlier that day without seeing anyone, but had presumably had a hell of a feeling like he was being watched.
Even before things took an unfortunately pickaxe-shaped turn, there were strange things afoot at the farm. Days before the incident, Gruber told his neighbors he had found a strange set of footprints leading from the forest to the farm. Family members also complained about strange noises in the attic, weird newspapers started turning up, and a set of house keys went missing just prior to the incident.
What's more, whatever creepiness had been going on at the farm had clearly been happening for some time: A maid had abruptly quit her job at the farm six months earlier because she became convinced that the place was haunted. The new maid had started there just hours before the murders. (Before we start drafting any Lizzie Borden theories here, remember that she was one of the victims.)
Investigators arrived to a scene full of curious townspeople wandering around and helping themselves to snacks from the family's larder, so hardcore CSI-ing was immediately out of the equation. They were able to determine that the killer had methodically stalked the family, luring the four eldest Grubers into the barn one by one. Finally, he entered the house and killed the youngest child and the maid in their beds. However, that's all they had. The exact order of the killings was left unclear, and there was no motivation in sight. Robbery was out of the question because of the considerable sums of cash money the culprit had left untouched.
Former lovers and potentially grudge-holding neighbors were briefly considered as suspects, but the "killed a ton of people and calmly lived in their house for days" aspect of the case wasn't exactly in line with neighborly disputes and crimes of passion. What's more, the horror-flick nature of the crime was further accentuated by the fact that the Grubers weren't exactly a model family; most of his peers intensely disliked Andreas Gruber for his ill temper and greedy nature, and the family had a reputation for being a bit of an incestuous hillbilly clan. Eventually, the investigators just beheaded the bodies, sent the heads off to be researched (they were lost, because of course), and gave up. Although usual suspects in the vein of "A random Russian soldier totally confessed to the murders" and "A demon did it! Aaaaaargh!" kept popping up at irregular intervals, Germany soon found itself neck deep in ... uh, other forms of brutality, and the case was left gathering moss in the "unsolved" file. I'm told Hinterkaifeck still enjoys quite a reputation in German-speaking corners of the land, but WWII and time have all but erased any chance of ever solving it.
Pauli's Favorite Theory:
Seeing as this was clearly the work of a larger-than-life horror-movie monster, we might as well go with the biggest one running rampant at the time:
I'm not even kidding, here: Old Chaplin-stache (or at least his cohorts) is seriously considered among the potential suspects in one of the grisliest non-Reich-related crimes in German history. The year 1922 was a turbulent time in German politics, with extremists left and right holding secret meetings and stashing weapons. Although no one is suggesting that the future Fuhrer personally mattocked an entire family to death and lounged around in their farm for days like it ain't no thing (yet), it has been pointed out that all the "mysterious figures creepin' around" action in the immediate vicinity of the isolated Hinterkaifeck farm does sound a lot like militant political extremists ruthlessly taking over a secure temporary hideout. Of course, it's not exactly a proven theory -- after all, what sort of deranged political movement would just nonchalantly kill a bunch of people so they could further their own agenda?
Pauli Poisuo is a Cracked weekly columnist and freelance editor. Here he is on Facebook and Twitter.
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