Boston has long felt like a place where secrets stayed kept, an old city whose winding streets have a remarkable ability to shield their truths from outsiders. What’s inside those walled gardens of Beacon Hill, the unmarked buildings around Harvard Yard, the blank-fronted bars of Southie?
Recently we’ve seen that sense of mystery take two big blows. First, the feds tracked Whitey Bulger down to his hiding place—not right among us, as some had imagined, but in a sunny apartment complex in Santa Monica. And now the FBI claims investigators have identified the two thieves who robbed the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990, potentially laying Boston’s last great mystery to rest.
Solving the Gardner heist and finding Whitey count as big victories in the fight against crime. But as those doors finally swing shut, it’s hard not to feel like something is being lost—that the city is saying goodbye to something essential to its character. It makes a Bostonian wonder if the city has any good secrets it’s still hiding.
The answer is there are more than enough. And while they might not have the national altitude of Whitey or the Gardner robbery—the latter still considered the largest art theft in history—there are still plenty of tantalizing unanswered questions lingering in our midst. Some are sad, like the 1961 disappearance of socialite Joan Risch. Others are grand historical oddities, like the 1919 explosion of a molasses tank in the North End. Others still, like the great Plymouth mail truck robbery, are Hollywood-style capers whose perpetrators managed to melt away. None of them, to this day, have satisfying endings. To look at them is to realize there will always be secrets haunting Boston—that a mysterious city does not cease to be mysterious overnight.
THE LADY VANISHES
“Mommy is gone and the kitchen is covered with red paint.” With those words, Joan Risch’s 4-year-old daughter kicked off an investigation that haunted police officers decades later, and remains unresolved to this day.
Joan Risch disappeared from her home in Lincoln on Oct. 24, 1961, leaving behind a phone ripped from the wall, a phone book open to the emergency numbers section, and a trail of blood leading from the kitchen to the end of the driveway. That afternoon, several people told police they’d noticed a dazed-looking woman covered in blood walking alone along a road near Route 128, which was then under construction. But no further sightings were reported, and Risch, a wealthy socialite who worked in New York publishing before giving up her career to raise a family in Lincoln, was never heard from again, and was presumed to have been abducted.
The case took a surprising turn when a local reporter discovered, by chance, that not long before Risch vanished, the 31-year-old had checked out a book about the mysterious disappearance of a woman who had been married to Brigham Young. After some digging, it was ascertained that Risch had recently checked out something like 25 books from the library, almost all of them about murders and disappearances. A theory emerged that Risch had staged the incident in her kitchen out of a desire to escape a life she no longer wanted, and had been reading the books in an effort to do it right.
Over the years, the Lincoln police received numerous calls from people who thought they’d seen Risch, and according to a report in the Globe marking the case’s 25th anniversary, several skulls and bodies were found in the area that were initially thought to be hers.
Today, there are those who think Risch, perhaps in a state of confusion following an attack, fell into a pit in the ground that had been dug as part of the construction of Route 128, and was buried there by accident. But nothing has ever been proven. “It’s still an open case and an active investigation,” said Lieutenant Kevin Kennedy of the Lincoln Police Department, where officers are still accepting tips.
THE MONEY’S IN THE MAIL
At the time, it was the single largest cash heist in history, a whopping $1.5 million in unmarked bills pulled from a mail truck on its way to the Federal Reserve Bank in Boston. Its sheer magnitude, combined with the apparent skill of the robbers, made the Plymouth Mail Truck Robbery a national story in the summer of 1962, and was later turned into a book by the screenwriter behind “The French Connection.”
The mail truck was barreling up Route 3, loaded with cash from a busy Cape Cod summer weekend, when a man who appeared to be a police officer flagged the driver down. The truck pulled over to the side of the road and was promptly stormed by several men brandishing machine guns who forced the postal workers in charge of the truck to open their doors. There were no other witnesses: Several coconspirators stationed about four miles down, dressed as highway workers, had barricaded the road using equipment stolen from the Massachusetts Department of Public Works and forced all other traffic off the highway.
After blindfolding and tying up the postal workers in the back of the vehicle, the criminals took the truck for a long drive, making several stops, presumably to unload the bags of money, before abandoning the truck, as well as the tied-up drivers, in Randolph.
The money was never recovered. Police eventually concluded there were six people involved in the heist, and in 1967, three suspects were indicted by a grand jury. But before the case went to trial, Thomas Richards, who was supposed to testify against his associates, mysteriously disappeared, and a jury ended up acquitting the remaining two defendants. In 1972, the papers reported that the statute of limitations on the heist had passed. To this day, the crime remains unsolved.
MOLASSES, MO’ PROBLEMS
One of the most bizarre events in Boston history was also the trigger for accusations and suspicions that were never truly settled. Around noon on Jan. 15, 1919, a massive storage tank full of hot molasses exploded in the North End, sending 15-foot waves of the sticky sweetener flowing through the streets at 35 miles per hour. In the chaos that ensued, 21 people were killed, 150 were injured, houses were flattened, and the area was flooded with three feet of standing molasses. As the Boston Post reported the day after, “Horses died like so many flies on sticky fly paper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. Human beings—men and women—suffered likewise.”
Some wrote the explosion off as a tragic accident, noting that the temperature outside had gone up sharply in the days preceding it, causing the molasses to ferment and increase the pressure inside the tank. But as Stephen Puleo documented in his book “Dark Tide,” others blamed US Industrial Alcohol, the company that owned the tank, for not making sure it was structurally sound.
In defending themselves against accusations of negligence, USIA claimed Italian anarchists had caused the explosion as an act of sabotage—an explanation that played into fears that had been stoked recently by the Boston district attorney. Though USIA was eventually forced by the courts to pay a massive settlement to the victims of the disaster, the true cause of the rupture remains unknown.
THE DOVER DEMON
William Bartlett was 17 when he saw it, just sitting there, on a spring night in 1977. Bartlett was driving at the time along Farm Street in Dover, and though it was dark, he could clearly make it out, staring at him with its shining orange eyes. Its head was like an egg, Bartlett said later, and from what he could tell, it was hairless, and had no nose or mouth. Not knowing what to do, the teenager kept moving.
A few hours later, the creature showed up again, this time in front of a 15-year-old boy walking home from his girlfriend’s house. And around midnight the next night, it presented itself yet again, to a girl driving down the road with her boyfriend.
The sightings attracted immediate attention. “Bizarre four-foot creature with orange skin and glowing eyes stalking a town,” reported one local newspaper. Within a week, self-appointed “cryptozoologist” Loren Coleman, an expert on Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and other mysterious animals, interviewed the teenagers about what they’d seen and came away convinced it was not a hoax. Years later, Coleman maintained his belief that something special had visited Dover that spring. “We have a credible case, over 25 hours, by individuals who saw something,” he told the Globe in 2006, dismissing speculation that the Dover Demon was in fact a small horse or a moose.
Is the Dover Demon still out there? If so, it has been awfully quiet for 35 years. But the legend certainly lives on. “It’s an unknown phenomenon whose fame has stretched worldwide,” as Coleman told the Globe. “And I think Dover should be very proud.’’
THE BOSTON STRANGLER
Sometimes a mystery is so gruesome and captivating that it inspires someone to stand up and take credit for it. That’s what some people believe happened in the case of 13 Boston women who were found strangled in their apartments between June 1962 and January 1964. The murders just kept coming, one after another, terrifying the people of Boston and moving them to buy tear gas and deadbolts to protect themselves.
The Boston Strangler, as he came to be known in the press, haunted the city and kept its residents on edge until the killings finally stopped. In 1965, a convicted sex offender named Albert DeSalvo told a fellow inmate that he had committed the crimes, and before long his lawyer had struck a deal with prosecutors that allowed him to issue a full confession under the condition that it not be used against him. Though he was never prosecuted for the murders, his admission of guilt was widely seen as the final chapter in the harrowing ordeal.
But in the years since, numerous skeptics have argued that DeSalvo was lying about his involvement—that there was no physical evidence linking him to the murders and a high likelihood that the details he supposedly remembered about the crime scenes were gleaned from media coverage. Today, some say that the Boston Strangler was not just one person but several—that despite the similarities linking the 13 murders, there were also differences too great to ignore. DeSalvo himself cannot be questioned on the matter: He was killed in his sleep in 1973 at the Walpole State Prison, where he was serving a life sentence on sex and armed robbery charges. Is the Boston Strangler still out there? Well, one of them might be.
THE AU PAIR IN THE DUMPSTER
In 1996, Karina Holmer left her home in Sweden to work as an au pair in Dover. On the night of June 21, just a few months after she arrived, the 19-year-old spent the evening dancing and drinking with friends at a Theater District nightclub called Zanzibar. She stepped outside sometime around midnight.
Later that weekend, a man rifling through a garbage dumpster for bottles and cans behind an apartment building on Boylston Street discovered the top half of a woman’s body stuffed into a black trash bag. It was soon identified as Holmer. Boston was transfixed by the horrifying story, which unfolded in the papers over the ensuing months.
The girl had been strangled to death with a rope and cut through the middle of her torso with a saw. What had happened that night? Where did Holmer go, and what did she do after leaving the club, and how did her path end up crossing with that of her killer?
Detectives initially hoped that once they found the crime scene, the case would get off the ground. But the crime scene was never located. The bottom half of her body was never recovered. And though police interviewed suspicious-sounding characters—a muscular man who’d been seen talking to Holmer and letting her pet his small dog, a panhandler who’d been spotted singing and dancing with her in the street not long before she disappeared—no real leads emerged. “No one’s a suspect, but everyone’s a suspect,” a source close to the investigation told the Globe a few weeks after the murder. Seventeen years later, that’s still more or less the case.Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.