Boston in the United States can boast many strange homicides where the killer got away with it. The 19th century saw some of the weirdest American unsolved murder cases come from that city. So let’s go back and take a look at three really fascinating cases where the police and courts were unable to find a guilty party!
Victim: Abijah Ellis. Date of unsolved murder: November 1872
This unsolved murder is a truly grim tale. In November 1872, Stephen McFadden, an employee at the gas works in Cambridge, Massachusetts – just across the Charles River from Boston – spotted a barrel floating in the water. On impulse, McFadden got into a boat and went after it, probably wishing he hadn’t a few minutes later. Because inside the barrel was the trunk and arms of a man. As if that wasn’t bad enough – the gas worker then spotted yet another barrel. In this one, McFadden was confronted by the head and legs.
The Cambridge Coroner needed to establish an identity quickly before the body rotted. So, in keeping with the spirit of the times, it was put on public display for three days. People clearly had stronger stomachs back then. But the tactic worked.
The body was identified as being Abijah Ellis, a well-known real estate dealer. He often carried large amounts of money on his person. But the remains in the barrels included a gold watch and chain, pocketbook with money, and other valuables. In other words, he had not been robbed.
Money, though, was advanced early on as a murder motive. One of Ellis’s debtors was a teamster called Leavitt Alley who was being pressed for payment that week. In the stable where Alley kept his horses, there was evidence of a bloody struggle. So, the authorities not unreasonably viewed him as a prime suspect.
A contemporary report in the Buffalo Weekly Courier described Alley as a thickset man who physically could have committed the deed. Yet his whole demeanour, in the view of the journalist reporting, gave no indication of guilt. Though it was true he had bought a property from Ellis and was behind on payment instalments. Alley said as little as possible when the whole thing went to trial and was acquitted of the murder charge in what were thrilling court proceedings.
Victim: Kate Leehan. Date of unsolved murder: October 25, 1871
The body of Kate Leehan was discovered by a milkman driving into Boston on the morning of October 25, 1871. She was found beside the roadway. Described as “pretty”, Kate had worked as a servant to the family of Mrs H. H. Brown.
This was a horrific, frenzied attack. Kate’s skull had been crushed by a stone weighing at least twenty pounds. There were three deep wounds to her head, made with a furnace wrench discovered a few feet away, wrapped in blood-stained paper. The marks of human teeth were on one of the fingers of her left hand and a fingernail had been torn clean off.
On the night of her death, Kate had gone out with a friend, Ellen Morris, and at one point ended up in a small store where they met three young men. Then Kate went home with Ellen peeling off for Mrs Brown’s house where she worked. This was at about 9.30pm. But fifteen minutes later, two female witnesses saw her heading back to the store.
It turned out that one of the men at the store was Kate’s “accepted suitor” but prone to fits of extreme jealousy. The three men were taken in for questioning but at the coroner’s inquest, they were discharged. Two other men – said to be very fond of Kate – were also arrested and interrogated. But in the end, no charges were filed. Her murder remains a mystery.
FIND OUT MORE: More unsolved 19th century American murders
Victim: Charles Lane. Date of unsolved murder: October 13, 1872
Charles Lane was a well-off business owner and family man. Even-tempered, self-contained, and popular. At 8.30pm, on a quiet Sunday night, he was sitting in the ground-floor lounge of his house reading and clearly visible from the street. It was a dreary day and he had not gone out. His wife was upstairs in the bedroom.
Suddenly, the front door bell rang “violently”. He initially thought it was his wife using a bell installed in the bedroom but she assured him it was the front door and he went to answer it. A well-dressed man was on the step holding an umbrella in front of his face. He discharged a bullet into Charles. The pistol shot echoed through the house.
Charles staggered upstairs and fell on the bed. The bullet had gone into his abdomen. It took until 10am the next morning for him to die. In the meantime, he murmured that this had clearly been a case of mistaken identity. Charles was sure he did not have a single enemy in the world. Police immediately searched the neighbourhood but nobody could figure out a motive for this ghastly crime.
However, in 1884, a certain Dr. Timothy B. Winn from Boston joined the gold rush out west, settling in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He became keeper of the county jail. And a young man held prisoner under his charge, confessed to the murder of Charles Lane. He claimed to be the son of S. M. Goodale of Cleveland who had been cheated out of some property by Charles. It emerged there was a dispute between the two men but nothing came of Dr. Winn’s information. The murder case remained officially unsolved.