Beginning with King William of England in the year 1100, shot through the heart by an arrow, law enforcement records are crammed with unresolved murders—along with the books, plays, and ballads they inspired. To this day the 15th- century deaths of two young princes remain unsolved. 19th-century Lizzie Borden, unknown until her parents’ axe murders, is now infamous in stories and verse, but the case has never been proven. And in the 20th-century Edgar Allen Poe wrote “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” inspired by a young cigar girl whose body in 1841 was found floating in the Hudson River. He re-imagined the scene in Paris, turned Marie into a perfume shop employee who was killed and dumped into the Seine River, and “solved” the crime through the ratiocination of his canny detective Auguste Dupin. He claimed he used newspaper reports “to get into the mind of the murderer.”
Much has been written about six-year-old child-beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey, found strangled in the basement of her Colorado home. Her parents were suspects, but subsequently cleared. In 1947 the horribly mutilated body of 22-year-old Elizabeth Short, known as the “black Dahlia,” was found in a vacant lot in Los Angeles—and became the subject of books and films. Marilyn Monroe’s 1962 “suicide by overdose” has been overdone by writers, as has Elvis Presley’s death, still questioned by autopsy experts.
Thousands of murders have occurred through the decades in small country towns. Only this spring my Middlebury, Vermont newspaper published a photo of two women—one a police detective and one a victim’s advocate–laying flowers on the gravesite of an unknown woman and two children who were killed sometime in the early 1930s. Their remains were discovered in 1935, the police have published simulated drawings of their faces, but to this day there have been no clues to their identities.
On December 31, 1957, in Newbury, Vermont, police pulled the bound body of a cantankerous dairy farmer, Orville Gibson, from the Connecticut River. Rumor had it that Gibson had just beaten his old hired man and that angry neighbors had lynched him. The story even reached the pages of Life magazine. Months after the crime, a local doctor told police he’d seen a car with two men he recognized driving past the farm on the day of the disappearance. But there wasn’t enough evidence to detain the men. And some wonder why the doctor waited so long to come to the police?
Retired Judge Stephen Martin, who in 1960 represented one of the two men accused, has recently published a book, Orville’s Revenge,” in which he calls the death a suicide, a desperate attempt to pin the blame on his accusatory neighbors. Gibson, the judge argues, climbed out on a pier, bound his ankles, tied his hands behind his own knees, and rolled into the water.
Neighbors who knew Gibson don’t agree. They speak of threats to keep people quiet, a note stuck to a tree with a knife at the home of a witness. Investigators take note of the fellow’s wealth and snobbery, the cruelty toward his hired men. How, early on, he surreptitiously beat out more established townsfolk for the land and farm he purchased. On the day of his death a neighbor saw drag marks on the barn floor, a crushed milk pail. Some still insist it was a vigilante-type killing by a small mob of townspeople, full of drink, who kidnapped and tied him up, then tossed him in the river. The death certificate reads “suffocation by means unknown.”
Still, Gibson’s niece would “like to know the answers” to her uncle’s death, and is glad to hear people, including the retired judge, once again writing and speculating. But she feels “there’s no purpose in trying to arrest anyone. It’s way past time for that.” Is it ever too late? Even if most of the original players are dead, including Gibson’s wife, who died in 1973? Gibson’s death remains an open question. A question, perhaps, that a writer like Poe, or any living novelist reading this post, might try to “resolve.”