Unresolved Murders: Grist for the Writer’s Mill?

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.”

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8 Responses

  1. I want to resolve something less grisly. For years, someone a few neighborhoods away has had fence posts in his front yard–but the fence never went in. What happened? I imagine various scenarios as I drive past…. 🙂

    • Very odd indeed! But those fence posts surely appeal to the imagination. I’d love to hear your scenarios–lethal or no…

  2. Hi, Nancy,

    You discuss some very intriguing cases. Cold case files are significant. Sometimes they are solved many years later. DNA tests are helping us with that. But as you point out, many are centuries old and we will never learn the truth. We can only speculate. I believe I read somewhere that generally if a murder isn’t solved in the first 48 hours it’s unlikely to ever be solved.

    • A terrible thought–that the murder is most often unresolved. But at least the police are keeping old cases on file, and sometimes they do find a killer–and often thanks to DNA. In the Vermont case, above, the neighbors are sure that they know–even though the murder can’t be proven. Thanks for your comment, Jacquie.

  3. Oh lord, my mind just darted off in an old, familiar direction 🙂 I’ve always loved mysteries and thrillers, so when I read scenarios like this, off I go, down the rabbit hole again 🙂 I’m currently writing cozy romance, a step away from my normal fare…so off I go now, wandering down the other side of my mind…following the footprints left in the written word above 🙂 Great piece, Nancy 🙂

    • You must get back to cozy mysteries, Loretta, although you do romance very well. You might resolve one of the above cases and help the police along with your fresh perceptions! Just follow the footprints, yes! Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Here in VA we have our own quota of unsolved mysteries. The latest: The Lyon sisters–40 years ago 11 and 13 year olds went missing at a mall. Finally, coming to light their possible remains buried in the Mountains of Southern VA. Awful crime but certainly fodder for novelists. thanks for an intriguing post.

    • So good to hear from you, Susan! And the murder of those poor little Lyon sisters–so very sad. Yes, one can imagine a poignant novel built around that tragedy. My granddaughters are a few years beyond that age now, but I still worry about them, of course. It’s a cruel world–much of it.

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