"...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, September 26, 2022

A Shot in the Night: The Murder of Mary Ludwig

"Asbury Park Press," January 27, 1975, via Newspapers.com

There have been real-life "locked-room murders" that gained fame as classic unsolvable puzzles:  The deaths of Isadore Fink and Joseph Bowne Elwell are probably the most famous examples.  However, there was a killing just as weird as those two renowned cases, which has sunk into near-total obscurity.  This week, let us look back at one of the New Jersey shore's most puzzling unsolved crimes.

For most of the year, sixty-year-old widow Mary Ludwig lived in Kearney, New Jersey, where she worked as a school custodian.  However, every summer she vacationed in a bungalow she rented in the bayside area known as the Highlands.  It was in the section of town known as "Water Witch," about 400 yards from the bay.  In July 1965, Mary was at her summer home, along with her daughter and son-in-law, Dolores and Edward Gunner.  Also there were the four Gunner children and a family friend, Joseph Rodgers.  It was the usual placid, happy holiday gathering, with no hint that something was about to go very, very wrong.

On the night of July 16, Mary was sharing a room with her twelve-year-old granddaughter Marie Gunner.  Their bedroom was in a back corner of the house.  All was completely still in the darkened, quiet neighborhood until around 4 a.m., when the family was rudely awakened by the sound of a gunshot.  This was immediately followed by the hysterical screams of young Marie, running through the house and crying for her grandmother.

When the others came to investigate, they found that Marie had lost her grandmother, for good.  Someone had used a rifle to shoot Mary Ludwig in the head, killing her instantly.   She had been shot at very close range, so the killer must have been standing inside the bedroom.  However, it was never determined from what direction the shot was fired, or the type of rifle that had been used.

When the police came, they took statements from everyone in the house, but no one professed to have any idea how the murder had taken place.  Marie could only say that she had been awakened by a "loud blast."    

Both the front and back doors had been locked, and there were no signs of forced entry.  The screens on the windows in Mary's bedroom were firmly in place, with no tears or bullet holes.  Neighbors had not seen any strangers lurking around the area, and the bungalow was on an open, treeless plot of ground that did not provide any hiding places.  The rifle that was used to shoot Mrs. Ludwig was never found.  If, as the family insisted, all the doors were locked, then it stood to reason that someone already inside the house must have committed the murder.  But if so, what did they do with the weapon?  And who among the household would have possibly wanted to do such a deed--and in the presence of her young granddaughter, to boot?

Detectives spent days interviewing all the residents in the area.  They spoke to everyone who had known the dead woman.  And in the end, they were left with zero clues, zero suspects, zero possible motives.  Mrs. Ludwig was a well-liked, with no enemies.  She was a humble working-class woman with a tiny life insurance policy, so no one benefited financially from her death.  Not even the gossip mill which usually springs up around strange crimes could come up with any possible answers for the tragedy.  Police Chief Howard Monahan essentially threw in the towel, telling reporters, "We have absolutely nothing that you could hang your hat on."  Journalists described it as an "impossible" crime.  It was as if a malevolent ghost had materialized inside the house, shot a sleeping woman seemingly at random, and then instantly vanished back into nothingness.

Five months after Ludwig's murder, John Gawler, the chief of the local prosecutor's detectives, said "We are doing the best we can, and hoping for a ray of light to help solve this one."

That ray never emerged.  And Mary Ludwig's murder was soon forgotten.


  1. I can't even think of how the crime could have been committed, let alone who could have done it.

  2. Maybe some secret way in/out? But I would think the police would have found that. Someone in the house that managed to hide the gun really well? Very strange.


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