Nothing gets amateur criminologists excited quite like unsolved murders. As grotesque as it may sound, a well-orchestrated murder captures widespread attention unlike any other crime. Of course, such attention says something about the sickness of modern society, for it is rare for people to know the name of the innocent victims. In some of the cases below, the unfortunate victims have either gone unnamed or have been given the prosaic surname of “Doe.”
Prior to the proliferation of DNA evidence, murders were much harder to solve. Police investigators mostly relied on eyewitness testimony (which is notoriously faulty), confessions, and circumstantial evidence that pointed towards a motive and a methodology. Although it is still the norm in some jurisdictions, the “Unsolved” files in many police records used to bulge to the point of almost breaking file cabinets. The further back one goes in history, the more they are likely to find unsolved murders.
The fifteen entries in this list remain unsolved and will likely always remain unsolved. Some were probably crimes of passion, while others were cool and calculated. Each left something unique behind at the crime scene, and every one of these murders captured the fleeting notice of their societies.
15. The Murder of Dagobert II
Medieval Europe was not a clean, cuddly place. Peasants and commoners frequently fell victim to highwaymen, disease, or rampaging knights. Even Europe’s kings weren’t immune, as royal succession was often accomplished by the sword. Such was the unfortunate fate of the Merovingian King Dagobert II.
Among conspiracy theorists, the Frankish Merovingian dynasty of France is best known for the “Jesus Bloodline” theory that states that the Merovingian “Fisher Kings” protected the secret of Jesus’s family (the so-called Holy Grail) in southern France. One of these “Fisher Kings” was Dagobert II, the son of Sigebert III, who had grown up in an Irish monastery. In 662 AD, Dagobert’s cousin, Chlotar III, King of Neustria, secured the place of Childeric II as the king of Austrasia. In 675, Childeric was assassinated.
A mere four years later, in 679, Dagobert was murdered. While on a hunting trip, unknown assassins murdered Dagobert by stabbing or slashing him in the skull. It’s likely that these killers were hired by Ebroin, the rival Mayor of the Palace. Today, Dagobert is a saint in the Roman Catholic Church and his feast day is December 23rd.
14. The Murder of Joseph Bowne Elwell
Joseph Bowne Elwell was the dashing rouge of New York City. The Daily News of the 1920s called Elwell a Lothario who had thrown himself into “the quicksands of indiscriminate associations with women.” Elwell’s “little black book” was reputed to have hundreds of names in it, including some of the wealthiest society matrons in the city.
While rumors about Elwell’s indulgences were true, his reported wealth was not. Elwell was certainly richer than the average New Yorker, but his fondness for betting on horse races had depleted a good bit of his fortune. Besides women, the only other thing Elwell was good at was the card game bridge. Elwell had in fact written books on the game, thus showing off his undeniable mastery.
On June 11, 1920, Elwell’s housekeeper arrived at 8:30 a.m. and discovered Elwell’s unresponsive body seated in a chair. In his lap was an opened letter, while unopened mail was scattered at his feet. Elwell eventually died en route to the hospital.
The immediate theory was that Elwell’s killer had been a jilted lover. A .45-caliber shell casing proved that Elwell had been shot, while the bullet’s trajectory and positioning indicated that Elwell had been shot at close range. Investigators therefore surmised that Elwell had been killed by someone he knew. However, others investigating this now ice cold case have concluded that Elwell may have been the victim of a random home invasion.
13. The Lamb’s Gap Murder
Not far from the tiny borough of Marysville, Pennsylvania, the bodies of Harry Ganster and Leah Ellenberger were discovered dead, the victims of a single gunshot. On May 17, 1924, investigators found the pair inside of a parked car that belonged to Ganster’s grandmother. Ganster’s body was found on the vehicle’s running board, while Ellenberger, a young school teacher from Hollidaysburg, had been found slumped over the steering wheel. The lone bullet was found in Ellenberger’s left arm.
Ganster and Ellenberger were clearly lovers. Ellenberger wore Ganster’s class ring from Marysville High School on one of her fingers, while investigators pieced together the fact that the pair had traveled to Lamb’s Gap in order to pick wildflowers. Because of the overall lack of evidence, many area citizens began thinking that either a jealous suitor or a protective moonshiner had killed the couple. At this point in time, the only thing known for certain is that someone used a 44.40-caliber 1892 model Winchester to deliberately “pick off” the couple.
12. The Coed Killings
Then as now, Morgantown, West Virginia, the home of West Virginia University, was known as a party school. Drugs and alcohol were easy to find if you went looking. However, just like today, murder was exceedingly uncommon in this Appalachian town.
On January 18, 1970, two WVU freshmen, Mared Malarik and Karen Ferrell, left a showing of the film Oliver at the Metropolitan Theater. Since bus services didn’t run between downtown and their dorm rooms, the pair decided to hitchhike back home. The last time both were seen alive was when they got into a cream-colored Chevy driven by a middle aged man. City and state police quickly went into action, and a $3,500 reward was posted.
The case took a bizarre turn on April 6th. On that date, state police received a cryptic letter postmarked from Cumberland, Maryland. The letter, which included symbols and coordinates, claimed that the girls had been murdered and dumped 25 miles south of Morgantown. Other letters from Cumberland would claim that the girls had been murdered as part of a Satanic ritual. Ultimately, police traced these letters to the Psychic Science Church, which was run by Reverend Richard Warren Hoover.
On April 16th, the bodies of both girls were found in a wooded area six miles south of Morgantown. The killer had constructed crude tombs of stone and tree limbs. Neither body showed signs of sexual assault, although both had been decapitated. The heads have never been found. In 1976, a Pennsylvania criminal named Eugene Paul Clawson confessed to the crime, but his testimony was noticeably inconsistent with the evidence. Clawson recanted his confession in May 1976.
11. The Body In The Trunk
19-year-old Elsie Sigel’s last words to her parents came in the form of a telegram that read: “Will be home soon, or Sunday evening. Don’t worry.” The Sigel family were prominent citizens of New York. Elsie’s grandfather Franz was a popular figure in the German-American community for his service as a general in the Union Army during the Civil War. For her part, young Elsie was a volunteer for the Chinatown Rescue Settlement and Recreation Room, a Christian organization that used former drug addicts and prostitutes as missionaries among New York’s Asian population. Elsie and her mother were known to walk the streets of Manhattan’s Chinatown. On one of these walks, Elise met a Chinese man named Leon Ling, who sometimes went by the name “William.”
William’s cousin owned a restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue. William himself actually lived above the restaurant. In June 1909, restaurant owner Sun Leung went up to his cousin’s room because he hadn’t seen or heard from him in days. Holding his nose against the foul smell emanating from the room, Sun contacted the police. Inside they found Elsie’s strangled corpse inside of a trunk with the rope still around her neck. Leon was never apprehended.
The most tantalizing clues were the numerous love letters that police found that clearly showed that William and Elsie were an item. Later, police also found love letters between Elsie and another Chinese man named Chu Gain. Gain claimed that prior to the murder, he had received letters threatening him to stop courting Elsie or else. The murder touched off a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment in the city, plus it caused many to openly blame General Sigel for neglecting his granddaughter.
10. The Murder of Hitler’s Jewish Psychic
Erik Jan Hanussen was born Hermann Steinschneider, the son of a Moravian Jewish actor and a Viennese Jewish singer. After changing his name to Hanussen, Steinschneider claimed to be a Danish aristocrat. The charlatan and veteran of the Austro-Hungarian Army also made other outrageous claims, such as possessing psychic powers. During the Weimar Era in Germany, when sexual decadence was combined with a popular interest in the occult, Hanussen became a well-known fortune teller, hypnotist, and publisher. Operating out of the Prussian city of Breslau, Hanussen’s journal Hanussen Magazin attracted numerous fans, including some prominent Nazis.
Throughout the years, many have claimed that Hanussen was either a spy for Nazi Germany, or an agent of both Britain and France. Whatever the case, Hanussen had a relationship with Adolf Hitler. Specifically, Hitler consulted with Hanussen in order to predict the future. One of Hanussen’s predictions — that the Reichstag would burn to the ground — attracted negative attention among the Nazi elite.
On March 25, 1933, less than a month after a Dutch communist named Marinus van der Lubbe torched the Reichstag, Hanussen was assassinated and was hastily buried in the outskirts of Berlin. It is commonly believed that SA men killed the mystic in order to cover-up their involvement in the fire, which helped Hitler to acquire absolute power through an emergency decree.
9. The Murder of Vera Page
Child murderers are held with special contempt. Like pedophiles, they’re considered the lowest of the low. Just after 4:30 p.m. on December 14, 1931, 10-year-old Vera Page, a native of Notting Hill, London, left home to visit her aunt.Vera never made it to her aunt’s house, and she never went home again. Two days later a milkman found her body on Addison Road, which was just a mile away from her home.
Police deduced very early on that Vera had been strangled to death. At the crime scene, they also found a finger bandage that reeked of ammonia and imprints of coal dust on Vera’s clothing. A couple of days later, police found Vera’s red beret in a cellar that also contained a coal bin. These clues all pointed to a married, 41-year-old man named Percy Orlando Rush. Rush knew Vera and regularly visited the Page household. Furthermore, until the day of the murder, Rush was known to wear a finger bandage.
8. The Lava Lake Murders
Central Oregon is a desolate place. Beautiful, frequently snow-capped mountains dot the landscape below white, cotton ball clouds. During the 1920s, central Oregon was a popular destination for trappers, fisherman, and other outdoor enthusiasts.
In the winter of 1923, three trappers — 50-year-old Ed Nichols, 35-year-old Roy Wilson, and 24-year-old Dewey Morris — decided to trap together near Bend, Oregon. All three men lived together in a log cabin owned by a man named Ed Logan. If not for what happened in the April of 1924, few people would have ever remembered these men.
First, all three men went missing. Then, after the snow melted during the early spring, the bodies of all three men were found in Big Lava Lake, the victims of gunshot wounds and blunt force trauma. Police suspected that the men had been murdered in January, then had their bodies dumped beneath the ice. Police found pools of blood near the crime scene, a tooth, and a blood-stained claw hammer inside of the log cabin.
Two suspects emerged. One, Lee Collins, was another trapper who had apparently feuded with the men over a stolen wallet. Another, Charles Kimzey, was caught in Portland trying to sell a sack full of furs. Although a very compelling suspect and a man who was later jailed for attempted murder, Kimzey was never officially charged with the triple homicide.
7. The Whitehall Mystery
The Whitehall Mystery of 1888 may have some connection to the world’s most famous serial killer, Jack The Ripper. On October 2nd, a worker connected to the building of Scotland Yard discovered a package containing human remains. The remains constituted parts of a female torso. The package had been left in a three-month-old vault that had last been occupied by a worker named Richard Lawrence. Investigators determined that the remains had been dumped sometime in September.
Amazingly, police surgeon Thomas Bond connected the torso with a dismembered right arm and shoulder that had been found along the Thames not far from Pimlico. The murdered woman had most likely been killed, dismembered, then had her body intentionally scattered throughout the city.
Because of the high degree of mutilation, London’s newspapers immediately blamed the murder on Jack The Ripper. Canonically speaking, the Ripper’s final victim, Mary Kelly, wasn’t killed until November, so the Whitehall torso could very easily have been the remains of one of the serial killer’s unidentified victims. However, unlike Jack The Ripper’s better known victims, the Whitehall torso showed no signs of strangulation, still contained most of its internal organs, and had the appearance of a manual laborer, not a prostitute. The only physical evidence that appeared Ripper-like was the torso’s missing uterus.
6. The Cigar Store Girl
The murder of Mary Rogers shocked and titillated the reading public of New York. Along with the brutal murder of Helen Jewett (more on that murder later), the disappearance and death of Mary Rogers helped to create the American tabloid press. One person in particular was drawn to the case. In 1842, Edgar Allan Poe based his final detective story, “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” on the unsolved murder of Mary Rogers.
Rogers was born a New Englander in Lyme, Connecticut in 1820. Her mother was a widowed boarding house keeper. Like a lot of struggling families, the Rogers clan migrated south to the growing metropolis of New York. The beautiful Mary found work in a cigar store. When word of her beauty spread, many of the city’s prominent men would make frequent trips to the store just to see her. Two of her admirers were the writers Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper.
In 1838, for a brief time, Mary was considered a missing person. A reported “suicide letter” indicated her possible fate. However, a few days later, Mary was found at home and explained that she had been visiting a friend in Brooklyn. Three years later, during the summer of 1841, Mary disappeared for real. This time her body was found in the Hudson River near Hoboken, New Jersey. Suspicion immediately fell on Mary’s fiance Daniel Payne, but he was eventually cleared. Poe believed that Mary had fallen victim to kidnappers, while the yellow press of the city put forth the idea that Mary had been killed following a botched abortion.
5. A Murder In Peking
The death of a beautiful, young European girl in the Chinese city of Peking (modern day Beijing) was major news that could have caused an international scandal. Initially thinking that the body belonged to one of the city’s numerous Russian prostitutes, Chinese police discovered to their horror that the mutilated body actually belonged to 19-year-old Pamela Werner, the daughter of a respected British scholar and former diplomat. Werner’s body had been dumped near a fifteenth century tower like so much trash. Her sternum had been cut open, her ribs broken, and her heart removed. The frenzied killer or killers had also stabbed Werner repeatedly.
Tragically, because Werner’s body was found in January 1937, the case more or less came to a close in July 1937, when the Japanese army invaded China and began the Second Sino-Japanese War. However, Werner’s father, Dr. E.T.C. Werner, continued a private investigation that led him to a bizarre conclusion.
Dr. Werner discovered a strange American doctor who lived in the city by the name of Wentworth Prentice. Prentice and his friends liked to visit a nudist colony up in the mountains overlooking Peking. Furthermore, the Harvard-educated Prentice was known to give lewd parties in his apartment that often ended in Peking’s Badlands, an infamous strip of brothels and love hotels full of European and Chinese prostitutes. Dr. Werner concluded that Prentice and other men had drugged and attempted to rape his daughter. When she resisted, they killed and dismembered her.
4. The Murder of Helen Jewett
History has unfairly remembered Helen Jewett as a prostitute. Technically speaking, that is what she was. But, Ms. Jewett was neither a streetwalker nor a brash “call girl.” She was in fact a member of a high-end brothel who was employed because of her good looks and education. She was supposed to ply her trade to a better clientele, including the city’s many college-educated clerks. Young men in the 1830s were not only supposed to seek their fortune, but to also “polish” their manners. Jewett and other women like her were supposed to help facilitate the latter objective.
On the chilly day of April 9, 1836, 23-year-old Jewett, who was commonly called “the Girl in Green,” was found dead inside of the brothel run by Rosina Townsend. The early yellow press of New York latched onto the crime and wrote lurid stories about the unknown fiend responsible for the bloody axe murder.
During the investigation, it was revealed that Jewett was actually Dorcas Doyen, the daughter of a poor shoemaker from Temple, Maine. At seventeen, Doyen was accused of seducing several men and was expelled from the home of Judge Nathan Weston in Augusta, Maine. From here, Jewett moved to New York City. Jewett’s favorite client was an 18-year-old clerk named Frank Rivers. Rivers was in fact a man named Richard P. Robinson. Robinson wanted Jewett all to himself and felt personally embarrassed by his lover’s profession. This may have drove him to murder. The police failed to tie anything solid to Robinson, who left the city and disappeared in the newly-formed Republic of Texas.
3. The Children of Bodom
It’s hard to imagine surviving a murder, but that’s exactly what Nils Wilhelm Gustafsson experienced in the summer of 1960. Gustafsson and three other teenagers (18-year-old Seppo Antero Boisman and two 15-year-olds named Maila Irmeli Björklund and Anja Tuulikki Mäki) decided to camp on the shores of Lake Bodom near Espoo, Finland. Sometime between 4 and 6 a.m. on the morning of June 5th, a mysterious assailant attacked all four with a knife and a blunt instrument. Only Gustafsson managed to escape with some injuries.
Finnish police narrowed down their list of suspects to a handful a shady characters. Pentti Soininen was a clinical psychopath who confessed to the murders after being arrested for other violent crimes. Although police dismissed his confession, Soininen committed suicide in 1969 on the anniversary of the killings. Valdemar Gyllstrom was a local drunk who loathed campers. His neighbors claimed that Gyllstrom, who died in 1969 by drowning in Lake Bodom, covered up his crime by throwing evidence down a well. Hans Assmann lived near Lake Bodom and was reported to be a KGB spy. On the night of the murders, Assmann checked into a Helsinki hospital wearing blood-soaked clothing. For some reason, police did not take this clothing as evidence.
Finally, many have accused Gustafsson of being the killer. In 2004, police arrested Gustafsson based on newly collected DNA evidence. However, in October of 2005, a district court found Gustafsson not guilty.
2. Bella In The Wych Elm
In 2013, a long-standing mystery may have been solved. A murder victim famously known as “Bella in the Wych Elm” has been tentatively unmasked as a German singer and film actress named Clara Bauerle. During the Second World War, Bauerle was involved with a German Gestapo agent named Josef Jakobs. Because of this, the recent discoveries may give credence to the idea that “Bella” was murdered because of her involvement with espionage.
This is not the only theory, however. For many years, the “Bella in the Wych Elm” case has been synonymous with witchcraft and the occult. On April 18, 1943, four young boys with a passion for bird watching discovered an unusual elm tree in Hagley Woods, Worcestershire. Inside of a hollow trunk, one of the boys saw a skull. Once police arrived, they found a female skeleton at the bole of the tree. Pieces of finger bones and clothing were also found around the tree’s trunk.
A pathologist named Professor James Webster deduced that the woman had been placed in the tree eighteen months prior. Even though the police had the woman’s teeth, they could not make a proper identification. Six months after the body’s discovery, graffiti reading “Who put Bella down the wych elm?” appeared in Worcestershire.
The case took an even weirder turn when anthropologist Margaret Murray, who is well-known for her “witch-cult” hypothesis that claims that an ancient, pre-Christian cult of fertility rites can still be found in rural Europe, asserted that the murder was part the “Hand of Glory” ritual. The idea of murdering someone for black magic gained further traction after police found the body of Charles Walton, a nearby villager who had been murdered with a pitchfork.
New Yorkers in the 1970s cared little about an unsolved murder on the West Coast. That all changed in 1979. In that year, David Berkowitz, aka the Son of Sam, mailed police in North Dakota a book about witchcraft. Inside, the serial killer had written a note that read: “Arliss [sic] Perry, Hunted, Stalked, and Slain. Followed to Calif. Stanford University.” At the time, Berkowitz was claiming that he had not committed his crimes alone. Berkowitz said that he had joined a Satanic cult in 1975 that was responsible for drug dealing and numerous murders across the country. The unsolved Arlis Perry murder was just one of them.
During the morning of October 13, 1974, a security guard inspecting the Stanford Memorial Church found the badly beaten and sexually violated body of 19-year-old Arlis Perry underneath a pew. Perry, a native of Bismarck, North Dakota, was the wife of Stanford pre-med student Bruce Perry. Someone had driven an ice pick into the back of Perry’s skull, stripped the clothing from her lower half, and had inserted a candle into her vagina.
Because the murder involved the desecration of a church, many suspected that Perry had been ritualistically killed by Devil worshippers. In 2016, a 64-year-old technical writer in New York named Brian McCracken told the press that he had seen Perry on the night of her murder. According to McCracken, after leaving a coffee shop around midnight on October 13th, he walked into the Stanford Memorial Church because of the sound of weird flute music inside. On the church’s altar was a naked woman. Above her was a white male in an afro wig. McCracken claims not only that Perry had smiled at him during his interruption, but that he had previously seen the flute player in the Stanford Marching Band. According to McCracken, the flutist he saw that night is a working musician in New York City today.