By Walton Golightly
At about 16h45 on October 24, 1961, in Lincoln, Massachusetts, Sergeant Michael McHugh arrived at the home of Joan Risch. A neighbour had phoned the sheriff’s department to say Joan’s young daughter, Lillian, had run to her house crying because she couldn’t find her mother.
Finding a side door unlocked, McHugh entered the house. The kitchen floor was smeared with blood, a table was overturned, and the handset of the wall-mounted telephone had been ripped from its cradle. McHugh also spotted a number of empty beer bottles. He searched the rest of the house, but Joan was nowhere to be found. Her infant son was in his crib, though.
Detectives soon established the last time anyone had seen Risch was at around 14h30 that day. All signs in the kitchen pointed to a struggle. Strangely, the phone directory was open to a page that listed emergency numbers. Outside, police noticed some slight damage to the Risch car.
Joan’s husband, Martin, had been in New York on business. He described his wife as a shy woman – although she was susceptible to the door-to-door solicitations of travelling salesmen. The damage to the car was either from himself or Joan bumping the garage doors. He couldn’t account for the presence of the empty beer bottles.
The following day, the FBI joined the investigation. However, its labs could not determine if the amount of blood found in the kitchen was substantial enough to indicate a murder. By November, the consensus was that Joan had haemorrhaged or cut herself, then left the house of her own accord. Indeed, investigators soon heard that a dazed and bloody woman fitting Joan’s description had been seen running along Route 128 on the day of her disappearance. Divers searched the nearby reservoir. But Joan wasn’t found. Attempts to trace a blue car seen cruising up and down the road outside the Risch residence also proved fruitless.
On January 3, 1962, Boston’s Record American newspaper offered a reward in an attempt to re-ignite public interest in Joan’s disappearance. It also noted that three fingerprints found in the kitchen remained unidentified. The reward went unclaimed, and the case remains unsolved.
There is this, though. In Spattered Blood And Speculation, Boston Globe reporter Matt Bai tells how, shortly after the disappearance, local journalist Sareen Gerson went to the Lincoln public library to research similar cases. One of the books she looked at had been recently checked out by Joan Gerson was later able to ascertain that most of the 25 books Joan had borrowed in the months prior to her disappearance had to do with murders and missing-persons cases. One told of a woman who had left blood smears when she went missing…