Not all crimes can be solved. According to United States federal statistics, only 64 percent of murders in America result in arrest. Even those that do may not end with a conviction. In fact, over a third of such crimes remain unsolved, and even more, without a resolution. Afterwards, the victims’ families and friends remain trapped in the living nightmare of never knowing what happened or, even worse, knowing that the murderer got away. Even officers of the law can become obsessed with such cases – haunted forever by the mysteries whose many threads they could not unwind.
As traumatic unsolved mysteries are for those at their epicenter, they also hold a fascination for the larger public. From remembering an encounter with the victim after the fact to claiming to have predicted the crime before it happened, people participate in these stories in myriad ways. Such enigmatic cases evoke a macabre curiosity, with legends and lore building up alongside books, films, and otherwise. The following stories of America’s most terrible, unsolved murders continue to capture peoples’ imagination – at the horror of what happened and the mystery that could still be unlocked.
1. Villisca Axe Murders
One of America’s most mysterious murders involves a commonplace, rural house in the unassuming town of Villisca, Iowa. In 1912, the Moore family lived here, including Josiah, his wife, and their four children. On the evening of June 10th, the family welcomed two of their children’s friends to stay the night – not knowing that they would all be dead by sunrise. Someone entered the Moore’s home in the wee hours and took an axe to every single person inside. After a neighbor discovered the gruesome crime, an investigation probed ties to then-Senator Frank F. Jones, a traveling minister, and a nameless highwayman seen roaming the town. None were convicted and the case remains open, but the house has become a hotel and museum open to those brave enough to enter.
2. The Axeman of New Orleans
From May 1918 to October 1919, this still-unidentified serial killer terrorized New Orleans and surrounding areas of Louisiana. His victims were poor, Italian American women in their homes whom he attacked after removing a panel from their backdoors. The Axeman was infamous for using his victims’ own straight razor or axe to slash or bludgeon them, leaving many to bleed out. This killer is most famous for vowing in a letter to local newspapers that he would kill someone on March 19, 1919 – albeit only someone not listening to jazz. With every dancehall and house party full of people, no one died, and the Axeman’s reign came to a sudden and mysterious end.
3. Cleveland’s Torso Murders
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the “Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run” began targeting drifters and residents of Cleveland’s shanty towns. The murders were especially gruesome because the killer not only beheaded and dismembered at least a dozen people, but he also often split their torsos down the middle. Accordingly, authorities believed the criminal to be a current or former butcher or anatomy specialist. Two separate arrests were made, but one was released due to insufficient evidence. The other claimed his confession had been forced and later killed himself – though fellow inmates may have been responsible. This case is most famous because Elliot Ness was Public Safety Director at the time, and legend tells that he knew the killer’s identity but lacked necessary evidence to arrest.
4. Texarkana Moonlight Murders
In 1946, a series of murders in and around Texarkana sent the Texas town into a panic. In February that year, the “Phantom Killer” started attacking couples at dusk on the weekend, beginning with Jimmy Hollis and Mary Larey, who both survived. The next attack, just 4 weeks later, took the lives of both Richard Griffin and Polly Ann Moorer, while another couple, Paul Martin and Betty Jo Booker, met the same fate 3 weeks later. In response, residents armed themselves, police increased patrols, businesses closed early, and the Texas Rangers investigated. After the “phantom” attacked Katie Starks and killed her husband Virgil, the murders stopped – but would live on by inspiring the film, The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976).
5. The Black Dahlia
In a case that haunts Los Angeles to this day, the naked body of 22-year-old Elizabeth Short was found lying in a Leimert Park vacant lot on January 15, 1957. Gruesomely, it was initially mistaken for a broken mannequin, as her corpse had been drained of blood and cut in half at the waist. Authorities would discover that her mouth had been cut into a “Glasgow smile” and that chunks of flesh were missing from her breasts and thighs. Local media dubbed her “The Black Dahlia” after the film, The Blue Dahlia (1946) and sensationalized her life and death. The Los Angeles Examiner even lied to Short’s mother to bring her to LA and get the scoop on the case. The investigation considered over two hundred suspects and many false confessions, but it remains a mystery, despite countless investigations led by the authorities and amateur sleuths alike.
6. Boy in the Box
On February 25, 1957, a trapper in the Fox Chase area of Philadelphia, PA stumbled upon a blanket-covered body stuffed into a cardboard box. Although he kept silent to avoid having his traps confiscated, a passing college student later reported the body. The naked victim was 4 to 6 years old with signs of severe malnourishment, a lifetime of beatings, and recently shorn hair. Further searches unearthed a child’s cap, scarf, and handkerchief, while media attention brought forth several confessions. Most strikingly, one woman claimed her abusive mother had purchased, tortured, and accidentally murdered the boy before dumping his body. In 2016, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children added his facial reconstruction to their database, but, to this day, the identity and death of “America’s Unknown Child” remains a mystery.
7. The Zodiac Killer
In the late 1960s, 7 people were attacked by a killer who targeted young couples on dates in secluded areas of Northern California. The 4 men and 3 women ranged from 16 to 29 years old, but only 2 survived their encounters with the dangerous Zodiac, who claimed his name in a series of letters and cryptograms sent to Bay Area police and newspapers. The killer claimed almost forty murders and, more chillingly, provided details from the confirmed crime scenes that he alone could have known. Although Zodiac was never caught, police and amateur investigators have pursued several suspects, and the case remains open in the California Department of Justice and related counties.
8. Keddie Murders in Cabin 28
In 1981, Glenna “Sue” Sharp was staying with her 5 children in cabin #28 in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Keddie, California. Between the evening of April 11 and the morning of April 12, an unknown individual used a claw hammer to brutally slaughter Sue, her 15-year-old son John, and his 17-year-old friend Dana Wingate. The eldest Sharp daughter had slept over next door and discovered the bodies in the morning, though her 12-year-old sister Tina had disappeared. Miraculously, her youngest brother and his friend had slept through the attack, with only a door keeping them safe. No arrests were ever made, though Tina’s skull was unearthed years later near Feather Falls, and the cabin itself was destroyed in 2004.
9. JonBenét Ramsey
In a case that shocked the country, 6-year-old JonBenet disappeared from her Boulder, Colorado home the day after Christmas in 1996. Upon discovering a lengthy ransom note on their back steps, her mother Patsey called 911, but, just 8 hours later, father John Bennett found the girl’s corpse in the cellar. The junior pageant queen had been struck on the head and strangled to death, causing authorities to investigate her parents. Though a handwriting test of her mother remained inconclusive, lead investigator Lou Smit suspected an intruder, and the eventual trial ended with the decision not to indict the family. Later, police theorized that JonBenet’s brother had likely accidentally caused her death, leading the family to cover up the crime, but it remains open with the Boulder Police Department.
10. Long Island Serial Killer
The man alternately known as the “Gilgo Beach Killer” or “Craigslist Ripper” killed 10 to 16 people associated with prostitution over 2 decades. His crimes were discovered in 2010 when 24-year-old escort Shannan Gilbert went missing in Oak Beach. Although she was found months later, having drowned in a nearby swamp, a related search unearthed a woman’s remains in a burlap sack along Ocean Parkway, with several more found soon thereafter. By April 2011, many more had been found at dump sites near Long Island, Gilgo Beach, and Oak Beach, with one murder dating back to 1996. Police believed the killer to be a 20 to 40-year-old white male familiar with the area and with law enforcement, but he was never caught and remains at large, haunting the Long Island area with the legacy of his terrible crimes and the possible victims that have yet to be found.
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