No One Home

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On the afternoon of Oct. 24, 1961, 31-year-old Joan Risch was found to be missing from her home in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Blood that matched her type was found in the kitchen and the driveway, a table had been overturned, and a telephone handset had been torn from the wall. Risch’s 2-year-old son was safe in his crib upstairs. Her husband, returning from a business trip, said he could not explain the source of some empty beer bottles in a wastebasket.

Risch had last been seen wearing a trench coat and carrying something red quickly up her driveway, toward the garage. Several people reported having seen a two-tone blue car in the neighborhood, and possibly in Risch’s driveway, at about the time of her disappearance, and a number of witnesses reported having seen a disoriented woman matching Risch’s description walking along nearby roads.

Some time after her disappearance, it was discovered that Risch had checked out 25 books on murders and missing-persons cases over the summer of 1961. The case has never been solved. Both Risch’s husband and police chief Leo Algeo died in 2009. Algeo said, “I thought they’d find a body or bones or something. … Things do turn up. People don’t disappear without a trace.”

Podcast Episode 268: The Great Impostor

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Ferdinand Demara earned his reputation as the Great Impostor: For over 22 years he criss-crossed the country, posing as everything from an auditor to a zoologist and stealing a succession of identities to fool his employers. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review Demara’s motivation, morality, and techniques — and the charismatic spell he seemed to cast over others.

We’ll also make Big Ben strike 13 and puzzle over a movie watcher’s cat.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 267: The Murchison Murders

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In 1929, detective novelist Arthur Upfield wanted to devise the perfect murder, so he started a discussion among his friends in Western Australia. He was pleased with their solution — until local workers began disappearing, as if the book were coming true. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the Murchison murders, a disturbing case of life imitating art.

We’ll also incite a revolution and puzzle over a perplexing purchase.

See full show notes …

Cant

The Coquillars, a 16th-century company of French bandits, created “an exquisite language” “that other people cannot understand”:

A crocheteur is someone who picks locks. A vendegeur is a snatcher of bags. A beffleur is a thief who draws fools into the game. An envoyeur is a murderer. A desrocheur is someone who leaves nothing to the person he robs. … A blanc coulon is someone who sleeps with a merchant or someone else and robs him of his money, his clothes and everything he has, and throws it from the window to his companion, who waits below. A baladeur is someone who rushes ahead to speak to a churchman or someone else to whom he wants to offer a fake golden chain or a fraudulent stone. A pipeur is a player of dice and other games in which there are tricks and treachery. … Fustiller is to change the dice. They call the court of any place the marine or the rouhe. They call the sergeant the gaffres. … A simple man who knows nothing of their ways is a sire or a duppe or a blanc. … A bag is a fellouse. … To do a roy David is to open a lock, a door, a coffer, and to close it again. … To bazir someone is to kill him. … Jour is torture. … When one of them says, ‘Estoffe!’ it means that he is asking for his booty from some earnings made somehow from the knowledge of the Shell [their syndicate]. And when he says, ‘Estoffe, ou je faugerey!’ it means that he will betray whoever does not pay his part.

Jean Rabustel, public prosecutor and clerk of the court of the viscountcy of Dijon, wrote in summary, “Every trickery of which they make use has its name in their jargon, and no one could understand it, were he not of their number and compact, or if one of them did not reveal it to another.”

(From Daniel Heller-Roazen, Dark Tongues: The Art of Rogues and Riddlers, 2013.)

Podcast Episode 261: The Murder of Lord William Russell

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Image: Harvard Digital Collections

In May 1840 London was scandalized by the murder of Lord William Russell, who’d been found in his bed with his throat cut. The evidence seemed to point to an intruder, but suspicion soon fell on Russell’s valet. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the investigation and trial, and the late revelation that decided the case.

We’ll also marvel at Ireland’s greenery and puzzle over a foiled kidnapping.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 258: The First Great Train Robbery

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In 1855 a band of London thieves set their sights on a new target: the South Eastern Railway, which carried gold bullion to the English coast. The payoff could be enormous, but the heist would require meticulous planning. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the first great train robbery, one of the most audacious crimes of the 19th century.

We’ll also jump into the record books and puzzle over a changing citizen.

See full show notes …

Poetic Justice

After being caught driving at 91 mph on the 60 mph A361 North Devon Link road in 2011, filmmaker and traffic legislation activist Martin Cassini presented his case at Barnstaple Magistrates Court in a series of rhymed couplets:

Before you today stands a man in the dock
To whom this bleak chapter’s a terrible shock

Kind and aware on the road as a rule
He tripped up that day and transgressed a rule.

The outlandish speed was but a short burst
On a dual lane stretch to get up there first

To the top of the hill to avoid getting stuck
Down the single lane stretch by a slow moving truck.

If you averaged my speed over hillock and dale
You’d find it to be not at all yon the pale

The law’s quick to judge if you’re over the limit
No praise if you’re under — one sided, innit?

The design of the road is dubious at most
It’s the link for Pete’s sake from M5 to coast

Why only three lanes? There was good room for four
The vision was lacking, the carriageway’s poor.

The limit is 60 for one lane downhill
And 60 — the same — for two lanes uphill

Until this dark day my licence was clean
Too late for considering what might have been.

They say that speed kills, but throughout these lands
Inappropriate speed kills, or speed in the wrong hands

I wasn’t lacking due care and attention
Indeed I was using true care and attention

I was watching the road, not checking the speed
Could this be a safer, superior creed.

They fined him £175. “I wanted to challenge one-size-fits-all regulation that ignores the spirit of the law, and at the same time recognise that I had disobeyed the letter,” he told the Daily Mail. But “Now I’m taking greater pains to follow the letter of the law.”

(Thanks, Volodymyr.)

A Broken Promise

The Los Angeles Times called this “the most horrible crime of the 1920s”: On Dec. 18, 1927, a man appeared at the junior high school attended by Marion and Marjorie Parker, 12-year-old twin daughters of banker Perry H. Parker. The man said that he was a bank employee and that Marion was wanted immediately by her father.

Marion departed with him, and no one suspected anything until Marjorie came home alone. Police searched the city but had found nothing when a ransom note arrived the following morning asking Parker to gather $1,500 and await further instructions. The kidnapper sent an appeal from Marion and then called that evening with directions to a dropoff location. Parker obeyed, but police were visible in the area and the kidnapper stayed away.

A new letter was delivered the following afternoon:

I am vexed and disgusted with you … You will never know how you disappointed your daughter … Pray to God for forgiveness for your mistake last night.

Fate — Fox

He included a note from Marion:

Dear Daddy and Mother:

Daddy, please don’t bring any one with you today. I am sorry for what happened last night. We drove right by the house. I cried all the time last night. If you don’t meet us this morning, you will never see me again.

Love to all

Marion Parker

A call came at 7:15 telling Parker where to go. He parked his car and turned off the lights as instructed. A car parked beside him and a man pointed a gun and told him to hand over the money. Parker demanded to see his daughter. The stranger lifted the girl’s head from beside him; she appeared to be asleep. Parker assumed she’d been drugged and handed over the money.

The man drove 200 feet forward, stopped, got out, and lifted the girl’s body onto the sidewalk. Then he got in and drove away. Parker ran to the girl and lifted her head, then screamed. Her legs had been cut off near the hips. She had been dead for hours.

Police tracked down 18-year-old bank messenger William Hickman, who said he’d wanted the money to go to college. He did say that he’d strangled Marion with a towel before he’d amputated her legs. He was hanged the following October.

(From Hank Messick and Burt Goldblatt, Kidnapping: The Illustrated History, 1974.)

Instructions

In December 1968, kidnappers abducted 20-year-old university student Barbara Jane Mackle from her family’s home in Coral Gables, Fla., drove her to a remote pine stand near Norcross, Ga., and buried her in a box. Inside she found this message:

DO NOT BE ALARMED. YOU ARE SAFE.

YOU ARE PRESENTLY INSIDE A FIBERGLASS REINFORCED PLYWOOD CAPSULE BURIED BENEATH THE GROUND NEAR THE HOUSE IN WHICH YOUR KIDNAPPERS ARE STAYING. YOUR STATUS WILL BE CHECKED APPROXIMATELY EVERY 2 HOURS.

THE CAPSULE IS QUITE STRONG, YOU WILL NOT BE ABLE TO BREAK IT OPEN. BE ADVISED, HOWEVER, THAT YOU ARE BENEATH THE WATER TABLE. IF YOU BREAK OPEN A SEAM YOU WOULD DROWN BEFORE WE COULD DIG YOU OUT. THE CAPSULE INSTRUMENTATION CONTAINS A WATER SENSITIVE SWITCH WHICH WILL WARN US IF THE WATER ENTERS THE CAPSULE TO A DANGEROUS DEGREE.

YOUR LIFE DEPENDS ON THE AIR DELIVERED TO YOUR CHAMBER VIA THE VENTILATION FAN. THIS FAN IS POWERED BY A LEAD-ACID STORAGE BATTERY CAPABLE OF SUPPLYING THE FAN MOTOR WITH POWER FOR 270 HOURS. HOWEVER, THE USE OF THE LIGHT AND OTHER SYSTEMS FOR ONLY A FEW HOURS COUPLED WITH THE HIGHER AMPERAGE DRAIN WILL REDUCE THIS FIGURE TO ONLY ONE WEEK OF SAFETY.

SHOULD THE AIR SUPPLIED PROVE TO BE TOO MUCH YOU CAN PARTLY BLOCK THE AIR OUTLET WITH A PIECE OF PAPER. A MUFFLER HAS BEEN PLACED IN THE AIR PASSAGE TO PREVENT ANY NOISE YOU MAKE FROM REACHING THE SURFACE: IF WE DETECT ANY COMMOTION WHICH WE FEEL IS DANGEROUS, WE WILL INTRODUCE ETHER TO THE AIR INTAKE AND PUT YOU TO SLEEP.

THE FAN OPERATES ON 6 VOLTS. IT HAS A SWITCH WITH TWO POSITIONS TO SWITCH BETWEEN THE TWO AVAILABLE CIRCUITS. SHOULD ONE CIRCUIT FAIL TURN TO THE OTHER.

THE BOX HAS A PUMP WHICH WILL EVACUATE ANY ACCIDENTAL LEAKAGE FROM THE BOX WHEN YOU TURN THE PUMP SWITCH ON TO THE “ON” POSITION. THIS PUMP USES 15 TIMES AS MUCH POWER AS YOUR VENTILATION FAN (7.5 AMPS); YOUR LIFE SUPPORT BATTERY WILL NOT ALLOW USE OF THE PUMP EXCEPT FOR EMERGENCY WATER EVACUATION.

THE LIGHT USES 2.5 TIMES THE AMPERAGE OF THE AIR CIRCULATION SYSTEM. USE OF THE LIGHT WHEN NOT NECESSARY WILL CUT YOUR BATTERY SAFETY MARGIN SUBSTANTIALLY. IF YOU USE THE LIGHT CONTINUOUSLY YOUR LIFE EXPECTANCY WILL BE CUT TO ONE THIRD OF THE WEEK WE HAVE ALLOTTED YOU BEFORE YOU ARE RELEASED.

YOUR CAPSULE CONTAINS A WATER JUG WITH THREE GALLONS OF WATER AND A TUBE FROM WHICH TO DRINK IT. BE CAREFUL TO BLOW THE WATER FROM THE TUBE WHEN YOU ARE FINISHED DRINKING TO AVOID SIPHONING THE WATER ONTO THE FLOOR WHEN THE TUBE END DROPS BELOW THE WATER LEVEL.

YOUR CAPSULE CONTAINS A BUCKET FOR REFUSE AND THE PRODUCTS OF YOUR BOWEL MOVEMENTS. THE BUCKET HAS AN ANTIBACTERIAL SOLUTION IN IT: DON’T TIP IT OVER. THE LID SEALS TIGHTLY TO PREVENT THE ESCAPE OF ODORS. A ROLL OF WAX PAPER IS PROVIDED – USE IT TO PREVENT SOLID WASTE FROM CONTAMINATING YOUR BED. KOTEX IS PROVIDED SHOULD YOU NEED IT.

BLANKETS AND A MAT ARE PROVIDED. YOUR WARMTH DEPENDS ON BODY HEAT SO REGULATE THE AIR TO PREVENT LOSS OF HEAT FROM THE CAPSULE.

A CASE OF CANDY IS PROVIDED TO FURNISH ENERGY TO YOUR BODY.

TRANQUILIZERS ARE PROVIDED TO AID YOU IN SLEEPING – THE BEST WAY YOU HAVE TO PASS THE TIME.

THE VENTILATION SYSTEM IS DOUBLY SCREENED TO PREVENT INSECTS OR ANIMALS FROM ENTERING THE CAPSULE AREA. YOU RISK BEING EATEN BY ANTS SHOULD YOU BREAK THESE PROTECTION SCREENS.

THE ELECTRICAL COMPONENTS BEHIND THESE SCREENS ARE DELICATE AND THEY SUPPORT YOUR LIFE. DON’T ATTEMPT TO TOUCH THESE CIRCUITS.

WE’RE SURE YOUR FATHER WILL PAY THE RANSOM WE HAVE ASKED IN LESS THAN ONE WEEK. WHEN YOUR FATHER PAYS THE RANSOM WE WILL TELL HIM WHERE YOU ARE AND HE’LL COME FOR YOU. SHOULD HE FAIL TO PAY WE WILL RELEASE YOU, SO BE CALM AND REST – YOU’LL BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS ONE WAY OR THE OTHER.

The kidnappers demanded $500,000 from Mackle’s father, a wealthy Florida land developer. While he was arranging a ransom drop, the FBI identified the lead kidnapper as Gary Steven Krist of the University of Miami. When he received the money, Krist called the FBI and gave directions to the box, where Mackle had spent 83 hours underground. When agents tore it open she said, “You’re the handsomest men I’ve ever seen.”

The kidnappers were quickly captured. Krist was sentenced to life in prison, and his accomplice, Ruth Eisemann-Schier, got seven years.

(From Hank Messick and Burt Goldblatt, Kidnapping: The Illustrated History, 1974.)

Podcast Episode 254: The Porthole Murder

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1947 actress Gay Gibson disappeared from her cabin on an ocean liner off the coast of West Africa. The deck steward, James Camb, admitted to pushing her body out a porthole, but insisted she had died of natural causes and not in a sexual assault. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the curious case of the porthole murder, which is still raising doubts today.

We’ll also explore another fraudulent utopia and puzzle over a pedestrian’s victory.

See full show notes …