The Long Silence of Lizzie Borden | Yankee Magazine, 1996
Murder! Mystery! Intrigue! New Englanders have a fascination — maybe even an obsession — with unsolved mysteries. From Lizzie Borden to the Smuttynose murders to a strange case of near-death in Montpelier, Vermont, the region is home to a number of unusual cold cases. Below are five of its notable unsolved mysteries.
Did she or didn’t she? One of the most famous unsolved mysteries and murder cases occurred in Fall River, Massachusetts, around 11 o’clock on the stifling-hot morning of August 4, 1892. That’s when Andrew Borden and his wife, Abby, were hacked to death with an ax.
Almost immediately, the 32-year-old Lizzie, widely seen as an upstanding, churchgoing member of the community, was considered a suspect in the murders. She infamously burned a dress she said was stained with paint, but which police believed was coated with blood. She was indicted on December 2, 1892, beginning what was then the most publicized murder trial in American history.
Prosecutors, however, struggled to pin the murder directly on the suspect, and on June 20, 1893, Lizzie Borden was acquitted of the killings and free to inherit her father’s vast estate. Nobody else was ever charged with the murders. Lizzie died of pneumonia in Fall River on June 1, 1927.
During Yankee’s early years we wrote several stories about the Borden murders. Our coverage only intensified the continued interest our readers had in the unsolved case. Letters and personal anecdotes were sent to editors. Even today, the fascination lives on. The house where Lizzie’s father and stepmother were brutally killed is now the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast Museum. You can stay in the rooms where the murders happened. There are tours of the property and an online gift shop where the inventory includes — wait for it — a Lizzie Borden bobblehead. Only $20, people!
On June 27, 2000, 16-year-old Molly Bish of Warren, Massachusetts, vanished without a trace. Her disappearance came a day after the blond-haired teen had started working as a lifeguard at a pond in her hometown. The resulting hunt to find her became the largest search for a missing person in Massachusetts history.
Molly’s story, along with the story of her parents, Magi and John Bish, to find their youngest child, later became the focus of a 2002 feature by Mel Allen, now Yankee’s editor. At the time of the article, the Bishes held out hope that their daughter was still alive. But the following year Molly’s remains were recovered just 5 miles from her home.
Her murderer has never been found, making Molly’s case one of New England’s most frustrating unsolved mysteries. Police continue to try to crack the cold case, and investigators still receive tips about it on a regular basis.
Missing Molly | Yankee Classic
Nearly two decades before the Bordens met their fate, Karen Christensen and her sister-in-law, Anethe, were brutally murdered by ax at just past midnight on March 6, 1873, on a small New Hampshire island known as Smuttynose, off the coast of Portsmouth. Another woman, Maren Hontvet, Karen’s sister, managed to survive the attack and later testified in the trial against the accused killer, Louis Wagner, a drifter who had once been a boarder at the Smuttynose house where the women were killed. At the time of the murders, he was working at the fishing docks in Portsmouth.
Maren’s later accounts of the attack both horrified and gripped a nation of newspaper readers. But whether Wagner — who was convicted of the crimes and hanged at the Maine state prison in Thomaston on June 25, 1875 — was actually responsible for the murders has been up for debate nearly since his arrest.
In March 1980, Yankee published a story about the gruesome crime. That piece sparked a letter from L. Morrill Burke, then an associate professor at the University of Southern Maine. His conclusion: The blood on Wagner’s clothes was more likely fish blood. The real culprit, in his estimation, was Maren Hontvet. The wounds found on the two victims, he claimed, were erratically placed and superficial and had been inflicted by a weaker (or, as he claimed, “feminine”) arm rather than that of a man who could row the 12 miles to Smuttynose in a dory. Maren didn’t just survive the attack, he went on — she was completely unhurt. Others have pointed to Maren’s husband, John, as the real killer.
Alas, the Smuttynose murders will go down as one of the great New England unsolved mysteries.
New Englanders may be fascinated with murder stories, but not all of the region’s famous mysteries deal exclusively with death. Some, as it turns out, concern near-death. This story, one of New England’s most unusual unsolved mysteries, came to us courtesy of Yankee’s editor in chief, Judson Hale, who recounted the fascinating tale in his 1982 book, Inside New England.
“It’s not possible to freeze old people in the beginning of winter, store them outside, almost naked, and then thaw them out in time to help with the spring planting. Is it? Well, in 1939, Dr. Temple S. Fay of Philadelphia, who had done some experiments freezing human organs, gave a talk in Providence, Rhode Island, in which he related a grotesque story he believed to be true. He said it occurred just outside Montpelier, Vermont, around 1900.
“Dr. Fay quoted the talk from an old diary kept by his late uncle Williams, who visited a remote community outside Montpelier one January 7 and found all the community’s old people lying on the floor of a cabin, drugged into unconsciousness. The diary goes on to describe how, during that evening, the drugged people were stripped of all clothing ‘except a single garment,’ carried outside into the bitter-cold air, and placed on logs.
“‘And the full moon, occasionally obscured by flying clouds, shone on their upturned, ghastly faces, and a horrible fascination kept me by the bodies as long as I could endure the severe cold,’ the man wrote. ‘Soon the noses, ears, and fingers began to turn white, then the limbs and faces assumed a tallow look. I could stand the cold no longer and went inside, where I found the friends in cheerful conversation. In about an hour I went out and looked at the bodies. They were fast freezing.’
“The next day the bodies were covered with straw, placed in layers in a huge wooden enclosure to protect them from animals, and left there. The diary relates that when the writer returned to the community the following May, all the frozen old people were brought inside and placed in tubs of warm water with hemlock boughs until they revived, after which they went about their business ‘rather refreshed by their long sleep of four months.’
“I once asked an old Vermont farm couple in the Montpelier area if either one of them truly believed the ‘Frozen Death’ story.
“‘Certainly do,’ the husband answered emphatically, without hesitation.
“Then his wife added, ‘The only part I doubt is the thawing out.’”
More than 30 years after Hale wrote those words, the mystery surrounding what exactly happened that winter in Montpelier remains.
It is perhaps the grand dame of New England unsolved mysteries. In the early morning hours of March 18, 1990, Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was visited by two men posing as police officers who claimed they were responding to a disturbance call.
It was a ruse to gain access to the art. As soon as the two men were inside the museum, they tied up the guards and proceeded to steal 13 pieces of art valued at more than $500 million. The paintings included works by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Degas, and Manet. It is the largest theft of private property (in terms of sheer value) in history.
In the nearly three decades since the heist, a slow drip of clues and evidence has come in about missing artwork, but nothing has led police or the FBI to make an arrest. What is believed, though, is that robbery was the work of a criminal organization.
The Gardner continues to offer a reward (now $10 million) for information leading to the recovery of the art. In the museum itself, the spaces where the paintings once hung remain blank — a stark and sad reminder of what was lost.
The Night They Robbed the Gardner | Yankee Classic
The 2018 WBUR/Boston Globe podcast Last Seen covers every aspect of the Gardner heist, including the latest leads, over the course of ten episodes.
AND SPEAKING OF PODCASTS…
We also recommend NHPR’s Bear Brook Podcast, which delves into the long-unsolved 1980s Bear Brook State Park murders, for hours of engrossing listening.
What New England unsolved mysteries would you add to the list?
This post was first published in 2017 and has been updated.