by Robert A. Waters
The Leah Lloyd Johnson murder case in North Adams, Massachusetts baffled investigators for decades before it died of old age.
It was April 28, 1933 when Edward Dolan found Leah’s remains. The body of the eighteen-year-old lay in a thornapple thicket east of Church Street. Less than a mile from the murder scene, searchers located Johnson’s leather pocketbook. Inside, police found a wrist watch that had stopped at 11:10, a comb, and a mirror. The watch had been dented, as if it had met foul play.
The North Adams Transcript reported that “in order to reach the place where the pocketbook was found a person leaving the scene of the crime would have to cross the road, go down the steep embankment toward the tracks of the Boston & Maine railroad, and cross the land formerly occupied by the Hoosac Lumber Company, up another embankment and down the other side. A person standing at the top of the second embankment might have thrown the articles away.”
Before nightfall, thousands of curious residents trooped through the brush-covered hillside where the body was found. Any possible evidence that the killer left vanished as the crowds trampled the scene.
Investigators determined that Leah lived with her grandfather, A. M. Burdick, a retired janitor. Grief-stricken, he arranged for funeral services and asked that only family and close friends attend.
Rumors began almost immediately. The most persistent was that on the night of her murder she had attended a “whoopee party” with two couples. This alleged night of “merrymaking” took place at a lakeside bungalow where women became “hopelessly intoxicated.” Police questioned those who were supposedly involved, including a Navy sailor, and determined the rumor to be false. Another discounted report was that Leah had eloped with a mysterious young man.
After finding letters written to the murder victim by Albert Reynolds, 23, police grilled him. He stated that he had met Leah when she was sixteen, and they had become friends. But he said he broke off the correspondence when his sister advised him that Leah was not the “type of girl” that he should date. By the following morning, Reynolds, who had an iron-tight alibi, was cleared by police.
Leah had worked as a housekeeper for Mr. and Mrs. Walter Brunson. They stated that she rarely spoke of her personal life, and seemed content to attend movies, read, or listen to the radio. She was a reliable worker who often spoke on the telephone with her close friend, Ruth Crapo. Ruth and several friends were interrogated for 48 hours, but provided no useful information.
Dr. Ellis Kellert conducted the autopsy. The Transcript reported that “Leah was not carnally attacked on the night of the crime and [Ellert] indicates that there was nothing about her condition which needed to cause her or a boy friend to worry.” Leah had been stabbed and strangled with a shoestring designed for use in a heavy work boot or a high-top shoe. Police tracked down the owner of a local shoe store who stated that he routinely sold similar laces.
Throughout the investigation, the motive for the murder remained a mystery. In fact, cops quickly became frustrated with the lack of leads. On May 6, 1933, the Transcript reported that “Assistant District Attorney Harold Goewey and State Detective Silas P. Smith today suspended their investigation of the slaying of 18-year-old Leah Lloyd Johnson, convinced that the mystery is probably beyond solution. The girl, employed by her neighbors as a household helper, was found stabbed and garroted in a remote field after she had left the home of her grandparents last Saturday night, ostensibly to go to a neighbor’s home to mind their children. Investigators determined that the girl had misled her grandparents and did not have an appointment at the neighbor’s home.”
Periodically, police would take another look at the case. In 1936, two confessed killers of a cab driver were questioned about the Johnson murder, but they were quickly eliminated. In 1942, investigators spoke again with Edward Dolan, who found the body. He reiterated that he was merely taking a walk when he stumbled onto the scene. No evidence contradicted his story and Dolan was never charged.
Eventually, the case was shelved and the unanswered question remains: who murdered Leah Lloyd Johnson?