This post revisits a 1961 Lincoln, Massachusetts case involving a missing person. Joan Risch vanished from her home under mysterious – and bloody – circumstances. Her unusual case continues to fascinate true crime enthusiasts almost 60 years later.
To their friends and neighbours, the Risches seemed the quintessential all-American family, an ideal to strive for in the dawn of the Kennedy era. Martin had served in the Air Force and in 1961 was a rising executive at the Fitchburg Paper Company. His wife of five years, Joan (née Nattrass), had a degree in English literature and was a former editorial assistant for two New York publishing houses, having put her career on hold to raise a family. Their first child, Lillian, was born shortly after they got married; a son, David, came along in 1959.
By the time autumn arrived in 1961, the young family had been living in their Cape Cod-style house in Lincoln, Massachusetts, for seven months. Their Old Bedford Road neighbours described the couple as reserved, but friendly. A friend of Joan told of a “compellingly lovely person”, a voracious reader who enjoyed the works of Yeats and James Joyce. Others who knew her said she was fiercely devoted to her two children, and was a loving, attentive mother.
Early on the morning of October 24, 1961, Martin rose and left for New York on a business trip he had planned the day before. After he departed, Joan made breakfast for the children, then took David across the road to stay with a neighbour, Barbara Baker, while she and Lillian left to keep a 10:30 a.m. dental appointment and go on a quick shopping trip in Bedford. They returned home at around 11:15 a.m.
Shortly after they got back, a driver for a dry cleaner’s arrived to pick up some of Martin’s suits. He went inside the house and picked them up in the kitchen. He said that Joan was in good spirits when they spoke and claimed to have noticed nothing unusual during his brief visit.
A loving, attentive mother.
Joan made lunch for the children, then took David upstairs to his room for his afternoon nap, which usually lasted until 2 p.m. Barbara showed up at around 1 p.m. with her son, Douglas, for his playdate with Lillian. As the 4-year-olds played in the driveway, Joan did some yard work and was observed going in and out of the house and two-door garage.
Shortly before 2 p.m., Joan came outside and took Lillian and Douglas across the road to play on the swingset next to the Barker’s garage.
“I’ll be back,” she told them, and left.
At around 2:15 p.m., Barbara was in her kitchen when a blur of movement caught her eye. She looked out the window and saw Joan across the road in her driveway. Her neighbour wore what looked like a trench coat over her clothes and was walking hurriedly beside her parked car, arms outstretched. There was something else, as well — something …
Was she carrying something red? Or was it one of her children wearing a red jacket? Was she giving chase? Barbara squinted through the brown oak leaves, but she couldn’t tell for sure. She watched as Joan hurried up her driveway towards the garage and house. And then — she was gone.
“I’ll be back.”
The sighting lasted only a few seconds, and though Barbara wasn’t quite sure what to make of what she saw, neither did she see any cause for alarm. She dismissed it and went back to her housework.
She didn’t know it then, but hers would be the last reliable sighting of Joan Risch.
Barbara went outside at 3:40 p.m. and took Lillian back home so she could take her son shopping with her in Concord. She left the little girl on the lawn, believing her mother was inside. After she got back home thirty-five minutes later, Lillian showed up on the doorstep.
“Mommy is gone and the kitchen is covered with red paint,” she complained.
David was crying in his upstairs bedroom, as well, Lillian told her. Barbara went across the street and up the Risch driveway. She brushed past the blue Chevrolet sedan she had seen her neighbour hurrying up next to earlier that afternoon, stepped up to the house and went inside. She called out for Joan, but the only answer she received was the toddler’s cries from upstairs.
When Barbara reached the kitchen, she recoiled in shock at the sight. In a panic, she turned and raced upstairs, snatched the crying child from his crib and hurried back downstairs and out of the house as fast as she could. Once she got to the safety of her home, she called the police.
“Mommy is gone and the kitchen is covered with red paint.”
A Lincoln police officer arrived within minutes of Barbara’s call. In the kitchen, he saw what had frightened her so badly — the floor and walls were painted in violent streaks of blood. A roll of paper towels, books, and other debris lay scattered about the floor. And – most curious of all – the handset of the wall-mounted telephone had been ripped out and tossed into a wastebasket that sat in the middle of the floor.
In an adjoining hallway leading to the living room, he found a small table laying on its side. Just beyond the table on the floor was the phone book, which was opened to the page for emergency numbers.
Certain Joan had committed suicide, the officer conducted a top-to-bottom search of the house, but he found no trace of her, nor did he see evidence of violence in any of the other rooms, which, while sparsely furnished, were tidy and well-kept. After a cursory search of the grounds yielded similar results, the officer radioed in for assistance, telling the dispatcher to “pull the plug” — meaning the whole department should be put on alert.
Joan Risch had vanished.
When told what had happened, Martin flew back home from New York that night and made a statement at police headquarters. Shown the contents of the wastebasket found in the kitchen, he recognised the empty liquor bottle as the one he and his wife had finished the night before, but was unable to account for the empty beer bottles the wastebasket also held. Once an inventory of their possessions was taken, the only items Martin thought were missing were clothing Joan might have been wearing when she disappeared: a grey coat, a blouse, a black or brown skirt, blue and white sneakers, and a wedding band with diamonds.
His whereabouts that afternoon were checked and Martin was cleared of suspicion.
It would become one of the largest manhunts in the state’s history. A helicopter scoured the brush from the air, while on the ground, hundreds of police, state conservation officers and airmen from nearby Hanscom Air Force Base searched the surrounding woodlands, fields and secluded roads. Garages and empty basements within a 10-kilometer radius of the Risch home were searched. Eighty-one skin divers were deployed to the muddy bottom of a nearby reservoir. A Boston newspaper offered a $5,000 reward for information that would lead to her whereabouts. Hundreds of tips were followed up on. Alibis were checked. No stone was left unturned.
But no trace of Joan was found.
And as the hunt intensified over the days and weeks that followed, detectives examined a number of clues which – instead of shedding light on the mystery – only added fuel to the fire.
Blood & Fingerprints
Two fingerprints and a partial palm print – found on the kitchen wall and on the telephone – could not initially be ruled out as belonging to the missing homemaker. It was only months later, when a set of fingerprints taken when Joan was a schoolgirl were discovered, that detectives were able to determine that the bloody prints belonged to an unidentified second party.
Traces of blood were found in other areas of the house. A drop just 20.32 mm in diameter was found on the first step of the stairs leading up to the second floor. Upstairs, similar drops were discovered on the top step, in the master bedroom and in the children’s bedroom. Outside, a trail of blood lead from the garage down to the car; here, three bloodstains proved most puzzling to detectives:
- on the rear right fender of the car
- on the left side of the hood near the windshield
- in the center of the trunk
But what wasn’t clear was where the bloodstains began and where they ended; the evidence supported any one of a number of scenarios. The actual amount of blood present – determined to be Type O, the most common – was estimated to be only half a pint (0.24 litres), which told detectives that any injury sustained was likely not a life-threatening one; the amount present could, however, point to some kind of hemorrhage having been suffered.
The manner in which the blood was smeared on the kitchen floor suggested someone had made an attempt to clean it up. Other evidence pointing to this conclusion were the bloodstained paper towels that sat in a corner next to the sink, as well as a pair of child’s overalls on a stool and a pair of child’s underpants on the floor, both which appeared to have been used to sop up the blood.
Finally, detectives were just as confused as to what wasn’t found at the scene: despite signs that pointed to some sort of activity having taken place inside and outside the house, they were unable to find any bloody footprints.
The Mystery Car
A promising lead came early in the investigation when Virginia Keene, the teenage daughter of another neighbour, told detectives that after she got off the bus from school at around 3:30 p.m. that afternoon, she walked by the Risch’s driveway and noticed an unfamiliar car parked beside Joan’s car. The vehicle she described was a dirty, two-tone blue-gray ‘54 or ‘55 Oldsmobile.
Her story found some corroboration in the form of two independent sources. Bernard Sockette, the Risch’s milkman, recalled a similar automobile parked in the Risch driveway when he made a delivery the previous Thursday. Hilda Zeigler, of nearby Virginia Road, stated that at about 3:40 p.m. she drove down Old Bedford Road and slowed down so that another car could back out from either the Risch or Keene driveway. This car then allegedly drove away in the direction of Bedford Airfield. Virginia and her mother were both adamant that no car was parked in their driveway at that time.
The location of the Risch home and the areas where the alleged sightings took place on the afternoon Joan vanished.
At about 2:45 p.m. that afternoon, a woman resembling Joan and wearing a white or light-colored kerchief tied under her chin, was seen “walking with the flow of traffic” on the side of Route 2A, just west of where it met Old Bedford Road. The woman – described as “untidy” in her appearance – was shuffling along and appeared to be hunched over, as though she were cold.
Another woman, similar in appearance – but with what looked like blood streaming down both legs – was seen walking in a northerly direction on the Route 128 median strip, just north of Winter Street, between 3:15 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. She seemed dazed and appeared to be cradling something to her stomach. Possibly the same woman was later seen walking south along the edge of Route 128, near Trapelo Road, at roughly 4:25 p.m. She walked with her head down and her hands in her pockets.
In none of these instances did the witnesses stop to offer assistance.
The Library Books
A strange twist in the search for Joan occurred months after her disappearance, when a reporter with The Fence Viewer – Lincoln’s local newspaper – was doing background research for a story she was writing on the still-missing woman. In a book on the disappearance of Brigham Young’s 27th wife, she discovered Joan’s signature on the checkout card, dated September 16th — a little more than a month before she vanished. A subsequent search through the records showed that Joan had taken out 25 titles over the summer, with many of them exploring cases of murdered and missing persons.
One such book – Into Thin Air – was eerily similar to the facts surrounding Joan’s own disappearance: a missing woman, bloody smears and a towel.
Almost two weeks after Joan went missing, an unidentified caller telephoned the Risch home 12 times in one day. The calls were intercepted by Martin’s father, René Risch, who said the person on the other end refused to say anything each time he picked up. Around the same period, a neighbour related her story of a hysterical woman who telephoned her to say she had been trying to reach the Risch residence but could not get in touch with anyone she knew. The neighbour described the caller as “terribly excited and talked very rapidly.” She hung up without identifying herself.
Thousands of fingerprints – including those of personnel from Hanscom Air Force Base – were checked against the bloody prints from the kitchen. No match was ever found.
In later years, Martin refused to discuss his wife’s disappearance with reporters. He remained at the house on Old Bedford Road, raised his children, and never sought to have Joan declared legally dead, believing she was still alive and possibly suffering from amnesia. In 1975, the National Park Service purchased the properties in the area to develop Minute Man National Park; the Risch home was moved to Lexington, and Martin moved to another house nearby. He died in 2009.
What We Know
Name: Joan Carolyn Risch (née Nattrass; born Joan Carolyn Bard)
Last reliable sighting: Tuesday, October 24th, 1961 at around 2:15 p.m.
Clothing and Personal Items
- charcoal-grey cloth coat
- blouse (color unknown)
- skirt, black or brown
- low-cut blue sneakers with white piping
- narrow platinum wedding band with diamonds
- white or light-colored kerchief (based on possible sighting)
- walking toward Concord, along the north side of Route 2A, west of Old Bedford Road, at 2:45 p.m. on October 24th
Notes and Speculations
We’ll never know what happened in the Risch home that afternoon almost 60 years ago, and there are too many theories (eg. abortions, miscarriages, etc.) that have surfaced over the years to examine each and every one. But let’s look at a few.
Contemporary newspaper reports generally ran with one or two themes in their coverage of Joan’s disappearance, with varying features:
- She was surprised by an intruder in her home, viciously beaten and taken against her will.
- She suffered from some kind of medical emergency, then inexplicably walked away in a confused state, eventually succumbing to her injuries.
A Second Person
District Attorney John J. Doney reflected at the time, “We’ve never investigated a crime where a man went into a house, attacked his victim, and then carried her away with him.”
Nevertheless, the evidence supporting this very contention is strong, being encapsulated in the as-yet unidentified prints left behind on the wall and the telephone — in the latter instance, in blood. While it is true that early on in the investigation it was surmised that these prints were possibly Joan’s, it was later proved conclusively that they belonged to an unidentified party. So someone else was with her in the kitchen that afternoon.
But who? And why take her away?
Joan was notorious for leaving the doors unlocked — did a burglar enter the house and was surprised by the homemaker during the commission of a robbery, which resulted in a struggle taking place in the kitchen? None of the available evidence supports this conclusion, as there was no indication of robbery and nothing of value was taken. And it was simply a case of a robbery gone bad, how did it graduate to the abduction of a grown woman?
The idea of a sexual predator being responsible is riddled with the same problems. If his attack went awry, a rapist would cut his losses and run; if he did manage to assault her, having accomplished what he set out to do, he would just leave — why take the victim with him? Especially one who – if the scene in the kitchen is any indication – was so combative?
Someone who wanted Joan dead would have left her body behind — there are too many risks involved in hauling a body away from a crime scene. But then, on the other hand, if there’s no body — where’s the crime? Food for thought.
Another hypothesis that has floated around involves Joan carrying on an affair with another man. If he decided to show up unexpectedly that afternoon, it could explain why Lillian and Douglas were hastily moved across the street to play, and why David remained in his crib. It may also explain the provenance of the empty beer bottles found in the wastebasket, if her paramour brought them with him.
(About the beer bottles — in Martin’s police statement, he stated that guests he and Joan entertained over the weekend had consumed beer. Were those the same beer bottles in the wastebasket? Looking at the crime scene photographs, it’s curious that they’re hidden from view, ie. at the bottom — below the bottle of whiskey Martin said he tossed in the night before, and below a can of spaghetti that was likely the children’s lunch that day.)
As the couple were busily entertaining themselves in the kitchen, some sort of episode transpired. But what kind of episode?
A violent confrontation between a woman and a rejected suitor? Having lashed out in anger and faced with the consequences of his actions, he’d have to think fast. He’s not a murderer, and he doesn’t want her dead, but neither can he leave her behind if there was too much at risk if she talked. She picked up the phone and threatened to call the police; he took it from her, ripped the handle from its base, and tossed it way. Once he overpowered her, he carried her to his two-tone blue-gray Oldsmobile parked out the front. She’d need to be unconscious or otherwise subdued, as were no disturbances reported at the time. He’d also have to be fast, quiet and very lucky, because while Old Bedford Road appeared to be a fairly isolated location at that time, the street was still bustling with enough activity that such a venture would be a very risky one. Did he also try to clean up the mess in the kitchen …?
And once he had driven her someplace where she was under his power — then what?
A Medical Emergency
Did Joan suffer a sudden, unexpected medical emergency? State chemists at one point stated that the blood may not have come from a wound, but was more consistent with menstruation, and hinted at the possibility that the homemaker may have suffered a sudden hemorrhage.
This hypothesis has Joan feeling the onset of some sort of cramp or pain around the time she would usually go and wake David from his nap. Could she have started bleeding in one of the bedrooms, grabbed her trench coat, run outside, take Lillian and Douglas across the street, then run back into her house to eventually hemorrhage in the kitchen? Would it be a stretch to think that Barbara saw Joan going back to her house after taking the two children to the swingset? Maybe Joan was in distress — maybe the red Barbara saw was blood. Maybe as she went back across the street, Joan – already wracked with pain – felt something go very wrong in her body. She reached down to check — and her hand came up bloody. In a panic, she raced up the driveway and stumbled against the car. When she got inside the house, she suffered the worst of whatever was inflicting her in the kitchen, before she made it into the bathroom.
(A point to consider — Joan taking Lillian and Douglas to the swingset across the street and Barbara’s sighting of her in her driveway and are often examined in isolation of each other, as if they were two separate instances; but this doesn’t have to be the case. Witnesses are notoriously bad at timing events, especially if they seem innocuous at the time. When did Barbara see Joan? 2:15 p.m.? 2:10 p.m.? She reportedly felt it was “closer to 2:15 than 2:10”, but it’s impossible to know for sure, just as it’s equally impossible to know exactly when Joan took the children across the street. All this means is that it’s entirely possible that Barbara, while having missed the first part of a single event, managed to see the second part.)
This scenario, though incomplete, goes some way to explain the trail of blood drops found upstairs, on the stairway and out on the driveway. Was there any evidence of blood on the road? Did police check? We don’t know.
And then what happened?
Not enough blood was present in the house to suggest a fatality had occurred, but it would be alarming enough for the person experiencing it. Possibly, if such an episode occurred, Joan panicked. Did she place a call to someone she trusted who was outside her known social group? It’s not clear if calls going out from the house were traced — was this possible in 1961? If someone were summoned by Joan, this person could very well have been the owner of the two-tone blue-gray car that Virginia Keene saw in the Risch driveway. Could this person have gotten the grievously-injured Joan into the car and on the way to the hospital she died? Then, in a panic, he disposed of her body in a place where it remains undisturbed? Could it be that this person possibly had too much to lose by his association with Joan — a lover? An abortionist?
If we take another route, and accept the premise that Joan suffered some sort of trauma and wandered away from home in a delusional state, it’s plausible the 2:45 p.m. sighting (placing her on Route 2A, just west of Old Bedford Road) is genuine; the timeframe and locality of the sighting sits within the known facts. After hemorrhaging in the kitchen and in a displaced state of mind, Joan could very well have wandered off. If this was the case, was she so sick that she didn’t think of going to the nearby Barker home for help? How thoroughly were the local hospitals checked? If it was her on Route 2A, did a motorist eventually come to her aid? What happened then? More questions, no answers.
Of note — two later sightings that placed Joan walking north and south along varying points on Route 128 are not so readily believable. Look at the map. It just isn’t possible for a grievously injured woman – as she is consistently made out to be – would be able to make that trek in the known timeframe under her own power. Who was this woman, then? If she existed, maybe just a hitchhiker. What we don’t know, however, is the origin of these two sightings and if they are truly independent of each other. Did one story inspire the other? And we have to consider that it wouldn’t be the first time someone made up a story as a lark to be part of an “exciting” crime investigation.
Much has been made about the 25 titles Joan loaned from the library over the summer, with most or all of them having something to do with murder and disappearances. One book in particular – Into Thin Air – was reportedly similar enough to the crime scene photos that it is often cited as the template used by the scheming homemaker to stage her own departure from her mundane circumstances. But this is conjecture — all we can take from this knowledge is that – like millions of other people – Joan had an interest in these subjects, which, from this writer’s perspective, does make for fun summertime reading.
But if we accept this speculation as being the true one, the question nags: why? Why that bloody mess in the kitchen?
Staging the kind of crime scene evident in the available photos makes no sense if the intent is to quietly move away and start a new life. Given the raw chaos seen in the crime scene photographs, it’s apparent that if the scene was staged, then if Joan had done so she had to know she was inviting intense scrutiny from the authorities, the press, and the community at large — which is exactly what happened. Hardly what she’d want if she was trying to quietly disappear.
No — she’d be discreet. She would pack her bags and leave a “Dear John” letter on the mantel. If she had any conscience, she would make sure her children were being cared for before she left. And, most importantly, she would have taken the steps necessary to ensure that very few people would have an interest in tracking her down. If law enforcement believes no crime has been committed, they’re not going to use every available resource to track down an errant wife.
Furthermore, to accept the “staged” scenario and believe it was Joan who wandered around the area on foot hours later in a seemingly dishevelled state, then an explanation is needed for what the purpose of this action was. Remember — she was finally free! She’d rid herself of the shackles of her insufferable suburban hell and hit the road to an exciting, new future full of promise and hope! She’d want to get as much distance between her and her shitty old life as fast as she can before she was missed, which was a very small window of time. She’s set the stage — now get the hell outta there! Run!
Speaking of small windows of time — when staging a disappearance like what we’ve seen in the crime scene photographs, why wouldn’t she just put the children to bed that evening, wreck the kitchen, then give herself the advantage of a 12-hour head-start before she’s missed?
To accept the “staged” hypothesis means we have no choice but to also accept that Joan demonstrated a profound lack of concern for the well-being of her children, which was totally at odds with the portrait painted by so many people. Not only are we to believe she left her children completely alone in this scenario – something that was completely out-of-character for her – but she allowed for the chance that her 4-year-old daughter would stumble across a disturbing, bloody scene in the kitchen. There has been no indication whatsoever that she was so cold-hearted.
Additionally, if she ran away, and if those later sightings of her were genuine, why would she linger in the area for hours? Why walk down the sides of roads on a chilly October afternoon without sufficient clothing? To throw the authorities off her scent? How? Was she hoping a motorist would remember seeing her and tell detectives? Why? Or maybe she was she fuelling local urban legends for decades to come — which doesn’t make sense! And — what if someone had stopped to help her? What if a police cruiser had stopped? What was the plan then?
Or — maybe she staged the whole scene to make it look like her husband murdered her as a “fuck you” before she left for new horizons. Really? Was she so dissatisfied with her life that she wanted to throw a cloud of suspicion over the father of her children and have him put away for life? If this was the intention, then her efforts failed miserably. Martin was obviously going to be a person of interest – as a rule, spouses usually are – but his alibi was solid, and police couldn’t find any incriminating behavior on his part prior or subsequent to Joan’s disappearance. In fact, he had always projected the picture of a sincere, concerned husband who seemed genuinely puzzled about what happened that afternoon.
And finally — where did the unidentified prints come from? At least one fingerprint left behind – on the telephone – was made in blood. If Joan didn’t have an accomplice, how was this achieved? Perhaps she devised some ingenious method – learned from one of the 25 books she read that summer? – to apply unidentifiable prints to surfaces splattered in blood. And then used another method to place the latent prints left on the wall. Or maybe there was an accomplice, one who apparently had little concern about leaving behind incriminating evidence in the very real possibility they were caught.
In essence, “Woman Leaves Husband!” is hardly the kind of headline that sets the imagination on fire. If Joan did decide to pick up and leave it all behind, doing so in a low-key fashion would have been her best bet. The affair would have provoked some gossip and there’d be some embarrassment, but it would have stayed localised, with a decent chance for her to move on with her life in whatever manner she chose to live it.
However — “Attractive Suburban Housewife Vanishes, Leaves Bloody Kitchen Behind!” is a banner so sensational – so salacious – it risks upending the entire future she had planned out. Hell, people may even wind up talking and speculating and writing about it decades later.
What’s inescapable, though, is that a lot of people are taken with the romantic notion of an intelligent woman – unfulfilled with the path she chose in life – choosing to escape from the hellish confines of her suburban hell to an Elysian existence where she could fulfill all of her literary ambitions — ie. the path she would have chosen were it not for societal demands to marry, settle down, and bear children. And how appropriate, that she staged a scene so bloody titillating, it was a certainty her story would be tattooed on the very pages of the true crime novels she so obviously enjoyed.
It’s certainly a good little fantasy — maybe to enjoy as summertime reading?
“The Search for Joan Risch” (PDF). truth-link.org.
Mahoney, Frank (1961, October 18). Wife Kidnap-Killing Theory Strengthens; FBI Moves In. The Boston Globe, p. 1, 2.
Doherty, A. Raymond (1961, October 26). Police, FBI Stumped in Lincoln. The Boston Globe, p. 1, 15.
Associated Press (1961, October 26). Young Mother Kidnap Victim. The Tennessean, p. 52.
Anglin, Robert J. (1961, October 29). Her Neighbours in Ridgefield Loved Her. The Boston Globe, p. 1, 59.
Lerner, Leonard (1961, October 29). Country Home Chosen for Privacy. The Boston Globe, p. 1, 59.
Walsh, Patricia (1961, October 29). Wife, Mother Friendly but Not Outgoing. The Boston Globe, p. 1, 59.
Uncredited (January 3, 1962). Blood Report Key to Risch Mystery. Boston Record American, p. 3, 18.
Uncredited (January 3, 1962). Timetable of Vital Day in the Life of Joan Risch. Boston Record American, p. 3, 18.
Micciche, S.J. (1962, April 10). Mrs. Risch’s Own Prints Found. The Boston Globe, p. 1, 6.
Micciche, S.J. (1962, April 24). Droney Asking FBI Push on Risch Case. The Boston Globe, p. 4.
Reynolds, Ruth (1962, October 14). Blood and Thin Air. Daily News, p. 130.
Doherty, A. Raymond (1962, October 16). New Light on Risch Mystery. The Boston Globe, p. 1, 20.
Claffey, Charles E. (1971, August 19). This Missing Joan Risch: Murder or Amnesia Victim — or Runaway?. The Boston Globe, p. 3.
Morton, Sabra (1976, October 24). An Open Letter to Joan Risch. The Boston Globe, p. A3.
If you have any information that can help solve Joan’s disappearance, please contact the Lincoln Police Department at (781) 259-8111.