5 Creepy Murder Mysteries From History We'll Never Solve
I've always enjoyed reading up on old, creepy murders from history. There is an inherent crude, puzzle-like quality to them, although one that will bite you in the ass at 2 a.m. when you have to wake up in four hours, but the wallpapers of your imagination are oozing Jack the Rippers. Sometimes, you may even find a whodunit that you're pretty sure you could have solved, if only you had been the cop handling the case.
And other times, you'll find yourself staring face to face with impossible-to-solve cases straight out of a crime novel. One where your dog ate the last 70 pages.
The "Locked Room" Mystery Of Joseph Bowne Elwell
The old "the door was locked from the inside" plotline has been used by everyone from Sherlock Holmes to The X-Files, and a large reason it ever became a thing is because of this dude named Joseph Bowne Elwell. Or, rather, his very real locked room murder in 1911. Oh, the genre had existed well before that -- heavy hitters such as Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle had taken care of that, and elements of locked room stuff can be traced way back into Biblical times. Still, there's nothing like a bloody true event to really make a thing popular. You know, like how Friends only really took off after Ross bit the head off a bat during a live show.
"No, man, you're confusing things. That was actually Kramer and Seinfeld."
The dapper chap above is our victim, J.B. Elwell. Mr. Elwell's housekeeper found him sitting in his living room a little after 8 a.m. on June 11, 1920. There was an open letter on his lap and a pile of unopened mail beside him, delivered to him just one hour prior. Oh, and there was a hole in his forehead. On a nearby table was the bullet that had killed him. Nothing had been stolen, despite the fact that the house was full of cash and valuables -- there was even a freaking Rembrandt painting. No one had been seen entering or leaving.
The fact that Elwell had been killed was not a huge shock to those in the know. The man had been not only pretty wealthy, but a bit of an asshole playboy: He was a very successful card player by trade, routinely raking in large sums from the elite. He also very much fucked the elite's wives; in his belongings was found a personal notebook with the names and numbers of around 50 ladies, married and unmarried alike. In 1920. That's a lot of soiled reputations, jealous suitors, angry brothers and husbands, and fucking furious fathers. Add that to the people whose money he had won at the ol' gambling table, and the dude was easily reaching late 1990s rapper figures of people who had beef with him. According to NY Daily News (who seem to have a soft spot for the case, as it was one of their first chances as an upcoming paper to fling shit at notorious people), the police estimated roughly 1,000 potential suspects.
"Five arrogant rich bastards -- who can all get us fired -- interrogated, only 995 to go!"
And here's where it gets weird. As promiscuous a dandy as he might have been, Elwell wasn't a moron. He was a rags-to-riches guy with a background on the streets, man, and although he was an affable and courteous person, there's no way he could have been exactly unaware of the fact that tons of folks wanted to give him the ol' fisticuffs, at the very least. Yet, he had caught completely unaware, by someone he freely let in his home (none of the locks had been tampered with) and who knew his routines well enough to enter the house during the short window between the mailman and the housekeeper.
What's more, the shot had come from slightly below his head, suggesting the shooter casually shot Elwell while sitting in a chair opposite him ... and then retrieved the fucking bullet and put it on display. How many people who aren't Nazi villains in a noir movie do you know who are capable of that shit? The cops knew none, even out of the huge pool of potential suspects. The case remained unsolved, and, eventually, became the inspiration of The Benson Murder Case, a crime novel that helped popularize the closed room mystery subgenre.
Pauli's Favorite Theory:
One writer seems to think the murder was either done or ordered by banker Walter Levinsohn, whose wife was apparently on Elwell's list. That may or may not be the case, but you know what? I'm going with the housekeeper. She's probably innocent, but, hey - - this is the most classic of all classic murder mysteries, and goddammit, she's the closest thing we have to a butler. Also, she was the person who first saw him dead.
The Hollywood Murder Of William Desmond Taylor
William Desmond Taylor was a famous actor/director back when TMZ wasn't a thing and renowned Hollywood figures actually could mess around more or less unchecked. Sadly for them, that shit was about to come to an end. Sadly for William Desmond Taylor in particular, the era of sensationalist newspaper fuckmuckery would be ushered in by the fact that he got murdered.
The year was 1922, and the police were facing a true mystery: Taylor, a renowned figure in silent movies, had just been found lying on the floor of his home, with a bullet in his back. That wasn't enough to make this anything but your average murder scene, though, famous victim or not. The problem was that the body of the ex-star was far from alone, and the bullet holes in his vest and jacket didn't align. Soon enough, even the dumbest Keystone Cop realized that the word "shenanigans" was brightly painted all over the Hollywood sky.
This is what all murder investigations looked like before Columbo rolled in.
The problem wasn't that they couldn't find evidence on who pulled the trigger on Taylor, a man popular enough to head the Motion Picture Directors Association. It was that they found enough evidence and motives to lock up half of Tinseltown. A popular comedienne was found rummaging through Taylor's stuff as the police arrived. The guy who found the body (Taylor's valet, who incidentally had a criminal record and had last been arrested just three days prior to the murder) couldn't provide an alibi. A teenage rising-star actress from the 50-year-old Taylor's films was madly in love with him (as in, sneak-in-and-leave-creepy-love-letters madly) ... and she had an overprotective tiger of a mother who just happened to own a gun exactly like the one Taylor was shot with. And then, they found the victim had been a staunch anti-drug crusader, challenging the drug industry in fucking Hollywood. And then, rumors started emerging that Taylor had been an active member in a strange, gay, opium sex-orgy cult.
Yeah, rumor guy. That's totally an opium-sex-orgy face right there.
New, strange players kept emerging in the great game Taylor's death was rapidly becoming. A previous valet -- who turned out to be a career criminal that had wrecked Taylor's car, liberally abused his checkbook, and even fucking burgled his house after inevitably getting fired -- disappeared from the face of the earth following the crime. A neighbor, who people ended up believing was the real killer, swore she saw a strange, cartoonish, makeup-wearing figure exiting Taylor's house. So, fuck it, it might have been the Joker for all we know. Tasked with finding out the real killer in a world of lunatics -- some of which were pretty rich and influential -- the cops eventually had enough and filed the case under "Fuck That Noise."
Pauli's Favorite Theory:
As much as I enjoy the theory that Taylor, a renowned anti-drug figure with ladies swooning all around him, would have secretly operated a druggy dude-boning sect, that one's probably the first to go bzzzzzt. Back then, newspapers and Hollywood bigwigs were both figuring out the exact, flimsy code of conduct between each other and the world, so many reporters were basically just writing fan fiction about the stars involved and publishing it as news. The various disappearances and inevitable deathbed confessions should probably also be taken with a pinch of salt: After all, what better way for a washed-up, former Hollywood big shot to earn that final "all eyes on me" moment than a final confession about this thing they totally knew, did, and/or saw, but, for whatever reason, kept inside until the final curtain approaches. So, you know what? Let's just go with that mysterious burglar figure in makeup. This shit has been a Hollywood mystery for more than 90 years, so the culprit might as well be Snidely fucking Whiplash.
The Santa Rosa Hitchhiker Murders
Serial killers stalking hitchhikers are the sort of thing you immediately assume some overprotective parent made up, and the rumor just got out of hand, such as the annual Halloween panic about people giving kids poisoned candy when it all really traces back to just one immeasurable dickhead. But, that's the thing -- live in a wrong place at a wrong time, and that stupid and weird thing everyone keeps scaring their kids with could happen for real. To you.
Here's your complimentary puppy picture to soothe the existential dread caused by that last sentence.
Such was the case for seven poor girls in Sonoma County between 1972 to 1974. During those two fateful years, a ruthless killer went full True Detective on them along Interstate 101 and the nearby areas. The victims, aged between 12 and 23, were found strewn across the roadsides, naked, and very much dead. The methods of mayhem varied -- one victim died of a broken neck and was found frozen in a ravine, another was strangled, another still died of poison. Still, there were enough similarities to convince investigators it was all the work of a single person ... one who was never caught.
Ted Bundy was (and is still considered by some) a suspect, despite evidence suggesting he was up in the Northwest area during the murders. Then again, other people whom the cops looked into during their ultimately fruitless investigations were notable serial killers David Carpenter, Edward Kemper, and even the Zodiac himself.
Man, you know your case is creepy when literally every suspect the cops can round up is already a serial killer.
Pauli's Favorite Theory:
Look, Zodiac killer, you really need to stop this whole "pretending to be different people every now and then" thing. We know you were active at the time and general area (shifting blame to Ted Bundy was a nice touch, but they caught that fucker, didn't they?).
Besides, every self-respecting conspiracy nutcase already knows you're really Nazi uberdoctor Josef Mengele, murdering your way through history under various serial killer guises with the blessing of the CIA. Hitchhikers are a low-hanging fruit with that CV, and you know it.
The Janet Smith Mystery
Here's what we know about the facts in the strange death of Janet Smith: It happened. Everything else is up for speculation.
Some details: In 1924, Vancouver was shaken by the death of Ms. Smith, a 25-year-old European housemaid of Doreen and Frederick Lefevre Baker. She was found dead in the house of Mr. Baker's brother, holding a gun she had apparently shot herself with and sporting some mysterious burns and stains on her arm and hand. For reasons left ripe for speculation, the police paid jack-shit attention to her weird injuries, ordered her embalmed, and ruled the death accidental. It soon turned out this could not be the case (presumably, someone pointed out that people generally don't accidentally shoot themselves in strange houses), and it became a suicide. You can probably guess what the next step in Efficient Canada Policemannin' was.
That's right -- Tim Hortons.
The case became a murder case, and a suspect emerged: Wong Foon Sing, the Chinese houseboy of the Bakers who had found the body. Soon after the incident, the fucking Ku Klux Klan marched into their household and kidnapped Wong. They took him to a secret hideout and started torturing him to make him confess about the killing.
Six weeks later, they released Wong. He was immediately arrested for murder.
The new charges stated Wong had been desperately in love with Smith, who had been afraid of him and rejected his advances. Cue, murder. Friends and allies rose to testify against Wong and said the victim was scared of him, despite the fact that Smith's diary revealed she was mainly amused and flattered by his presents and attention. The case soon became political, and some moose-lord (that's what Canadian senators are called, right?) even started pushing for a bill that would forbid Chinese people from working in the same household as white girls. However, eventually the whole "kidnapped by the KKK for weeks, then suddenly charged with murder" house of cards crumbled. Wong was found not guilty and eventually went back to China because what the hell else are you going to do when the racist part of population is actually riding your face to the Law Lodge? Also, people kept beating him senseless. Literally -- he lost part of his hearing, and his vision became blurry.
"Apparently, I'm the other thing Vancouverians like to get violent over."
To this day, no one knows what really happened to Janet Smith.
Pauli's Favorite Theory:
Look, it has to be the Chinese houseboy guy, doesn't it? He was famously infatuated with the victim, the only person around at the time of her death, and kind of comes across as the exact kind of hard dumbass who might start throwing lethal shade on anyone who rejects his advances.
It's just that when the fucking 1920s KKK straight-up tortures a murder suspect for weeks right before he's arrested, we might want to apply Occam's razor here and suggest the guy actually is innocent, after all. Especially as it turned out that the Klansmen in question were specifically hired by cops and people connected to the victim to abduct Wong.
Still, there's plenty of reason to believe this wasn't a straight suicide case. So, let's go with the next best suspect -- F.L. Baker himself. According to some recent investigations, the man of the house dabbled in drug smuggling, and it's not entirely impossible that someone who's present in his life 24/7 -- such as, say, a housemaid -- might have seen or heard something that necessitated her removal from the equation. Yeah, let's go with that one, if only because the idea of a hardass Canadian drug baron is fucking hilarious.
The Beautiful Cigar Girl
Few people get the honor of inspiring a famous work of one of the finest writers in history. Mary Rogers was one of these people. Unfortunately for her, the writer she inspired was none other than Old Nevermore himself, Edgar Allan Poe. What's more, "her" story is the famous murder mystery without a proper solution, The Mystery Of Marie Roget, which, incidentally, is a semi-sequel to his famed The Murders In The Rue Morgue. None of this bodes particularly well for poor Ms. Rogers, unfortunately; in 1841, she was, indeed, found floating in the Hudson River in Hoboken, NJ.
"Boss, are you sure she was found that way?"
"No idea. Just make sure to include ample cleavage in the picture, ok?"
In New York City, Mary Rogers had been as close to a celebrity as you can be, without actually getting endorsement deals and your star on whatever the shit 19th-century New York's equivalent to a Walk of Fame was. (Street Of Not Too Much Poop On It?) Her semi-fame was based on two things: One, she worked in a popular tobacco shop, frequented by famous writers and other notables. Two, she was hot. Really, really hot, in a way that makes customers linger in a fucking tobacco store for the whole day, and presumably buy way more shit than they originally intended. Add that to the fact that she was a pretty wild personality of the sort Sandra Bullock or Julia Roberts played in approximately 20,000 movies throughout the '90s and early 2000s, and you get the idea.
As such, every move she made was closely tailed by the nascent NY news media if they had nothing better to write about. When she disappeared from the shop for a few days in 1838 (presumably to visit a friend), not only did The New York Sun report her disappearance, complete with a dubious suicide note they had procured, but another newspaper actually debunked that shit the next day. When she returned to work, everyone blamed the tobacco shop owner of a marketing stunt.
So, when they actually found her dead a couple of years later, well ... you can imagine. For weeks, the papers went wild. Speculation ran amok. Her fiance managed to off himself with a kingly bender and some laudanum, leaving behind a sorrowful note that led some people (likely unfairly) to assume he was the culprit. There were theories of mysterious men, botched abortions, and unfortunate encounters. However, no theory was ever proved, so the case went cold, and the reporters moved on to other stories. And that, friends, is how fucking fleeting fame can be.
Pauli's Favorite Theory:
This was 1840s New York. Fucking Gangs Of New York was set in the 1860s. That should give you an inkling of the city's safety at the time Mary Rogers was a highly publicized Prettiest Girl Around. So, while I do have a theory, it's not one I'm going to expand on a comedy site. Let's, uh, let's go with the one Poe suggested, which is, essentially, "The killer probably had a boat, so go find that boat. Also, philosophy."
Congratulations, Mr. Poe. You took your precious time, but, for once, you provided the least depressing ending to a mystery.
As for the rest of us, we'll just assume it was a case of mistaken identity, and she really ran away
to forge a career as a world-renowned ballerina.
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For more from Pauli, check out 5 Real Advanced Weapons Clearly Designed By A Toddler and 5 Famous Cities That Hide Movie-Worthy Secrets.