"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, October 13, 2014

Joan Risch: Runaway Wife or Murder Victim?



The disappearance of Joan Nattras Risch is a disturbing story, no matter which view of the case you believe. Either a troubled woman fled her life in what was probably a futile search for happiness, or she was the victim of a terrible crime that will never be avenged.

In 1961, Risch lived in Lincoln, Massachusetts. She was married with two young children. On October 24 of that year, her husband Martin was away on a business trip in New York. (He was an executive in a paper company.) Neighbors described the couple--who had only lived in their home for six months--as "quiet and reserved," but showing no visible signs of any domestic trouble.  That morning, Mrs. Risch did some routine errands. Two tradesmen who visited the home later that day recalled that she seemed in good spirits.  Around mid-day she settled her two-year-old son David in for a nap, and sent her four-year-old daughter Lillian to visit at the home of a neighbor. Around 2 pm, a neighbor glimpsed Joan in the Risch driveway.  She appeared to be "walking fast or running and carrying something red."

Lillian arrived home about two hours later. She soon returned to the neighbor’s home, saying that her mother was gone, the baby was crying, and there was “red paint all over the kitchen."

What the child saw was not paint, but blood. It was type O, the same as Joan Risch's.  (Although it was never conclusively proved it was her blood.)  Investigators believed the blood came from a superficial wound which would not have been fatal.  The telephone receiver had been ripped from the wall, and a telephone directory lay open at the section showing emergency numbers.  (No such calls had been made.) A kitchen chair was overturned.  Risch's son was still safely upstairs in his crib, and the house was otherwise undisturbed.  Curiously, considering all the blood, there were no bloody footprints anywhere.  Unidentifiable bloody finger and palm prints were found on the wall.  There are conflicting reports about those prints.  Some accounts state that they were from an unknown intruder.  Others say that there was no record on file anywhere of Risch's fingerprints, making it impossible to say if they were hers, or some stranger's.

Drops of blood led from her son’s nursery to the kitchen, and then out to her car on the driveway. It was also noted that someone had made an attempt to mop up the blood with a pair of little David's overalls and some paper towels.  The trench coat Joan had worn earlier in the day was in a closet, but her cloth coat was missing.  Her purse and other belongings were also still in the house.

Neighbors later reported that an unfamiliar blue/gray sedan was parked in the Risch driveway around 3 pm, although investigators decided that what they had seen was an unmarked police car parked there some time later. (These witnesses, however, continued to insist the car had been there before police were summoned.) Later that day, other witnesses saw a disheveled woman generally matching Risch's description walking aimlessly along a nearby site where a highway was being constructed. Her legs were covered either in reddish mud or blood.  Unfortunately, no one stopped to talk to her.

That is the last we know of Joan Risch. It is anyone’s guess what happened to her or where she went. Her husband was questioned by police, but nothing was found to connect him to his wife’s disappearance, and he was quickly eliminated from suspicion. However, this left police with no possible suspects at all, and they began to publicly suggest she had left voluntarily, possibly "for medical treatment."  They pointed to the lack of evidence there had been an intruder, and declared that "certain key persons" in the case were not telling authorities all they knew.

One day early in November, an unknown woman called the Risch home at least twelve times.  The calls were answered by the missing woman's father-in-law, who reported that the caller refused to speak to him.  One of the Risch's neighbors said that on that same day, a "terribly excited" woman called her, complaining that she had been calling the Risch house, but had not been able to contact anyone she knew.  This neighbor claimed that she had gotten a similar call the day after Mrs. Risch disappeared.  This mystery-within-a-mystery was never solved, or at least publicly explained.

The investigation into her presumed kidnapping took an even more peculiar turn when it was learned that in the months prior to her vanishing, she had obtained from the library at least 25 books dealing with murder or disappearances. One book she checked out revolved around a woman who vanished, leaving nothing behind but blood stains that had been smeared with a towel. Although she had always been fond of mystery novels, many people begin to suspect that she had used these books, not as casual entertainment, but as how-to manuals to stage a “hoax” kidnapping that would leave her free to start a new life.

It’s dangerous to read too much into anyone’s taste in reading material—if I should ever, for any reason, catch the eye of law enforcement, I shudder to think what conclusions they may reach about me by examining my blogs—but there is more that gives this particular scenario some credibility. Friends said that Risch, who had a successful career in publishing before she gave it up to raise a family, was a naturally driven, ambitious woman who was frustrated as a homemaker. Although she seems to have been deeply devoted to her husband and children, they may not have been enough for her. But was this dissatisfaction enough to make Mrs. Risch--described as "a very intelligent and well controlled woman"--abandon them in such a cruel fashion?

Even before her marriage, the missing woman’s life had been deeply troubled. Her parents died in a suspicious house fire when she was only nine, leaving her to be raised by an aunt and uncle. According to some reports, she had been sexually assaulted as a child. Perhaps, it was suggested, she was so miserable being Joan Risch that she gave it all up in order to try her hand at being someone else altogether? Or perhaps, according to another school of thought, her present-day stresses and past traumas, combined with an injury from some fall in her kitchen, left her an amnesiac. Some believe she simply lost her memory and wandered blindly away, possibly—assuming the woman on the highway was Risch—making a fatal fall into the highway construction pit. To this day, there are those who believe Highway 128 is the grave site of Joan Risch. It has even been theorized that the sedan seen in Risch’s driveway was a doctor there to give Joan an abortion she wished to keep secret from her husband. Perhaps the operation went wrong and she began hemorrhaging, causing her to wander off in a state of shock?

Until the day he died in 2009, Martin Risch continued to express the belief that his wife was alive somewhere. For some years after her disappearance, he kept his old telephone number, just in case she called. He never remarried.

Or perhaps, to take the simplest, albeit grimmest, view of the case, the attractive 31-year-old was the random victim of a brutal fiend. After all, there was all that blood and those mysterious prints in her kitchen…

15 comments:

  1. Wow; that was a hard one to wade through. I am disappointed but not surprised by the lack of enthusiasm on the part of the police to solve the mystery. A grim, unfortunate event that stayed with the poor woman's family their whole lives.

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  2. Thanks so much for writing about this case. It's been haunting me for a while (fun fact: according to Joan Risch's Charley Project page, she and her husband had recently moved to Lincoln from Ridgefield, Connecticut. I was living in Ridgefield when I learned about her very weird disappearance, and that made it even creepier for me). I know the passage of time since she vanished makes it highly unlikely, but I hope she might still be found someday.

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  3. Very intriguing, with too many possibilities to narrow down. If she wanted to run away, you'd think she'd at least make provision for the care of her baby, who was left alone in the house. Yet abandoning an unsatisfying life is plausible; so is the abortion theory, and a random murder - but all the possibilities have reasons against them, as well as for them.

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  4. "It’s dangerous to read too much into anyone’s taste in reading material—if I should ever, for any reason, catch the eye of law enforcement, I shudder to think what conclusions they may reach about me by examining my blogs..."

    I am right there with ye, cringing. My google searches used to be worse though because I was working for a SMS question and answer service that was heavily used by teens. We had to cite our answers and some of the questions were so flipping embarrassing

    Can't believe the police just said, ohh this looks hard to solve so we won't bother trying.
    .

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  6. "Perhaps the operation went wrong and she began hemorrhaging, causing her to wander off in a state of shock?"

    That sounds like the most obvious explanation, as it would explain the huge amount of blood on Risch's legs.

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    1. This mystery always baffles me. It seems as though for every hypothesis there is something that still doesn't quite make sense. Abortion gone wrong seems right and also another scenario I agree with..mostly Especially since I read somewhere about the police asking her husband if she was pregnant,...but why was the phone ripped from the wall? Who ripped it? The abortionist? If so, why would he or she just leave her there alive? She could have just as easily have wandered to a neighbor's house to use their phone. (This is assuming she was the one later seen walking along the highway with bloody legs). So maybe she tried to abort it herself. If so, why was the phone ripped from the wall? Did she start to call for help and then change her mind (different times then), panic and rip it out herself? Would going into shock really make her run away? I have been in shock before (injuries suffered in an accident) and I couldn't have wandered anywhere...not sure if she would have made it as far as she was reported to be seen, walking along the highway (more than an hour later, wasn't it?) Unless someone comes forward, I doubt we will ever know for sure.

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  7. I don't believe this story is as mysterious as the media has helped to make it. It certainly sounds as though Joan Risch wanted out of her mundane existence and she walked away from it all to begin a new life far away. I believe she staged it as an abduction by ripping the phone out of the wall and making her home appear to be the scene of a murder. Her son was easily out of the way by being put in his crib. Her daughter might have been uncooperative about napping so she sent her to a neighbors house to keep her out of the way while she staged a crime scene. I don't trust eyewitness accounts of what people saw because they all sound like the witnesses were uncertain of what they saw. I believe Joan Risch was a runaway wife.

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    1. I sometimes think this same thought. I actually bought one of the books she was supposed to have checked out from the library and hope to read it soon. I think it telling that her husband thought she had phoned the house once stating something only she would know. If she did really just up and leave...well, it puts a whole different spin on the story, doesn't it?

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  8. I lived in Concord, the next town over, when this happened. I 11 years old and this case haunted me. Trust me, PKM, the details are true and she was never found. The daughter did come home from school to find the gruesome scene. Years later, the house was removed for some reason due to the Parks service coming through that area....it still intrigues me...

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  9. Incidentally...the house was moved but Martin lived there apparently til it was sold in 2006. I did some checking online. The house looks very much the same. Sad, and eerie too.

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  10. As a kid, 50+ years ago, I found a broken shovel at what appeared to be a grave's depression. I found it again a few years ago. It's at the rear of Walden Pond. I've always thought it to be her 'shallow grave'.

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    1. Did you call police...either time? What do you mean by tear of the pond? Do you still live nearby?

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  11. Did you call police...either time? What do you mean by tear of the pond? Do you still live nearby?

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  12. This is a very strange case, and there are similarities with a few other cases I have read upon - Hannah "Jane" Rowell Clement, who disappeared from her home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in April of 1963 and Christene Nickel Seal who vanished in 1972 in Mount Vernon, Missouri, leaving behind her two-year-old son. Very little information and little evidence. So bizarre and sad.

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