by Robert A. Waters
During the Second World War, not everyone who died a violent death perished in battle. As the conflict raged, numerous war-time murders ravaged America. Because almost all able-bodied men were serving in the military, many local police investigators were less than competent. In addition, with troops constantly moving from town to town, killers often had the advantage of anonymity. Here are ten little-known murders that occurred during that chaotic period.
10 – The Unsolved Murder of President Roosevelt’s Nurse
On August 28, 1943, Maoma L. Ridings, a corporal in the Women’s Army Corps, was murdered in Room 729 at the Claypool Hotel in Indianapolis. That afternoon, she took a bus from nearby Camp Atterbury, stopped at a liquor store where she bought a bottle of whiskey, and registered at the hotel. Around 2:30, she ordered soft drinks and ice from room service. At 8:00, a bell boy delivered more ice and said that, in addition to Maoma, he noticed a “woman dressed in black” lounging on the bed. The hotel’s cleaning staff discovered Maoma’s body early next morning. No one admitted to hearing the cries of the woman as she was being slashed to death with the broken whiskey bottle she’d bought. At the time, Indianapolis teemed with military personnel and war workers, and the killer was never caught. The death of Maoma Ridings briefly made national news because she’d once been a nurse to President Roosevelt on his visits to her hometown of Warm Springs, Georgia.
9 – Death of a WAC
In 1943, 2nd Lt. Naomi Kathleen Cheney, a Personnel Officer in the Women’s Army Corps, was found beaten to death in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. At about 8:00 p.m., the pretty Alabama native left an armed forces hospital and began walking home. Along the way, an assailant dragged Naomi into a wooded area and viciously attacked her. The WAC died from a basal skull fracture and other facial injuries. There seemed to be no motive for the crime. She’d only been in the area for five days, and journalists were quick to report that she had not, in the jargon of the day, been “criminally assaulted.” Local authorities and military police investigated, but never developed any real leads. A faceless killer got away with the crime.
8 – Murder at the National Cathedral
Catherine Cooper Reardon met her demise between 8:00 and 9:00 a.m. on March 1, 1944. Reardon, a librarian at Washington’s Great National Cathedral, had complained to her supervisor about the shoddy work of a handyman named Julius Fisher. When word got back to him about her complaints, he decided to take revenge. After an exchange of words, Fisher slapped the librarian. When she began screaming, Fisher struck her with a stick, stabbed her, and strangled her. Then he heaved Reardon’s body into a dump pit.
Fisher was black, and in later confessions said he snapped when Reardon used a racial epithet as they shouted insults back and forth. (He didn’t mention this in initial police interrogations, leading prosecutors to discount the claim.) In 1946, Fisher was executed in Washington DC’s electric chair. This murder later became the basis for a story by novelist Richard Wright.
7 – Blood Feud
In Littlefield, Texas, on October 27, 1943, five-year-old Jo-Ann Hunt ran next door and told a neighbor that her mother and father had been killed. Police found Dr. Roy Elwin Hunt and his wife, Mae, lying side-by-side in bed, tied tightly together with rope and coat hangers. Hunt had been shot, his wife bludgeoned to death. There was a suspect: eighteen months earlier, Dr. William Newton had been convicted of attempting to kill Dr. Hunt, though the conviction was soon overturned. Bad blood between the two resonated all the way back to medical school, when both dated a co-ed who eventually became Newton’s wife. The murders officially went unsolved, though investigators suspected Newton of hiring a hit-man to carry out the crime.
6 – Stalked and Slashed to Death
On a sun-drenched day in 1942, eighteen-year-old Fidelia Briand walked along a path beside the Charles River in Boston. Suddenly, a knife-wielding stranger rushed toward her. Fidelia, pursued by her assailant, began to run. Her screams alerted the neighborhood, and residents called police. As the chase continued, three Boston College students raced to help. After about a hundred yards, the frightened girl stumbled and fell to the ground. Her attacker leaped on her, and stabbed her to death. He then flung the knife into the river and fled. While one BC student stopped to help Fidelia, the other two caught up with Harry Adams. “Don’t hit me,” he cried. Police quickly arrested him. When asked why he attacked Fidelia, his reply was simple: “I wanted a woman.”
5 – Just Plain Evil
On March 10, 1944, Ernest Hoefgen’s long criminal career ended. During his life, he’d committed at least three murders, including the one for which he was hanged. Driving through Kansas in a stolen car, Hoefgen, an escapee from a Texas prison, picked up hitchhiker Bruce Smoll. As they talked, the fugitive began to suspect that Smoll recognized him, so Hoefgen shot the hitchhiker in cold blood.
Bruce’s father, A. E. Smoll, watched the execution with little enthusiasm. He told reporters he held no grudge against his son’s killer, but that Hoefgen was the “worst kind of traitor we have in the country. He took the life of my boy, who was preparing to be a soldier.”
4 – Murdered for $28.00
On December 15, 1944, Phillip Heincy, 71, and his son, William, 45, boarded a train in Quincy, Illinois, and rode to Spirit Lake, Iowa. After spending much of the day in local bars, they walked five miles to a resort owned by Robert Raebel. They’d heard he kept a safe filled with cash in his home, and their purpose was to rob the wealthy business-owner. As Robert’s wife, Esther, filled out Christmas cards, Phillip and William broke into the house. They shot Robert, killing him. Clubbing Esther with blackjacks, they took $28 from her purse, but found no safe. Esther survived to identify the killers. Each had long criminal records, and had served multiple prison sentences. This time, they were sentenced to death. Phillip and William Heincy became the first and only father and son to be executed in Iowa.
3 – The Lipstick Killer
As the war wound down, a murder in Chicago signaled the arrival of a serial killer. On June 5, 1945, Josephine Alice Ross was found slashed to death in her apartment. A bloody mattress indicated that the attack began on her bed, likely as she slept. Every drawer in the room had been dumped out, and a few items stolen. Police were stumped, though they suspected the murder was a burglary gone bad. After the war ended, two more victims, Frances Brown and six-year-old Suzanne Degnan, died in a killing spree that ended with the arrest of William Heirens. The University of Chicago student earned his moniker when he used Brown’s own lipstick to write a message to police: “For heavens sake catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself.” A brilliant student, Heirens was also a petty burglar known to cops. Heirens confessed to all three murders and was sentenced to life in prison.
2 – Judge Murdered in Revenge
Before being executed, the Utah judge who sentenced Austin Cox to death wrote, “It is my opinion that the defendant has a mean, revengeful and surly disposition, and that he is dangerous to the lives of the people of this state.” There was little doubt about that, just as there was no doubt as to his guilt in the murders of five innocent people. On July 23, 1942, Cox seethed with rage because his wife, Wanda Mae, had divorced him. Cox felt he hadn’t gotten a fair hearing, so he shot Lewis Trueman, the judge who’d presided over the divorce, as well as four strangers. Wanda Mae survived only because Cox couldn’t locate her. In 1944, the mass murderer died from a hail of firing squad bullets.
1 – Japanese Balloon Bomb Murders Six
During World War II, the Japanese government launched thousands of high-altitude bomb-laden balloons. Drifting across the Pacific, some landed in America and Canada. The only known casualties of these traveling booby-traps were Elsie Mitchell and five children from her church. They’d gone to Gearhart Mountain in Oregon for a picnic. Finding a balloon lying on the ground, they approached it. When one of the boys touched the balloon, an explosion rocked the forest, killing Mrs. Mitchell and the picnickers. Military personnel surmised that the bomb had fallen to earth weeks before, lying in wait for some unfortunate soul to activate it.