Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Review of Nittany Nightmare: The Sex Murders of 1938-1940 and the Panic at Penn State

Book Review by Robert A. Waters 

By Derek J. Sherwood 

On December 13, 1938, nineteen-year-old Margaret Martin received a phone call from a stranger.  He said he needed a stenographer for an insurance company he was starting and offered her the job.  Margaret, a recent graduate from Wilkes-Barre Business College, agreed to meet him in downtown Kingston, Pennsylvania.  Jobs were tough to come by in the Depression, so she seemed downright giddy as she left home.  But within hours, Margaret was dead, having been kidnapped, tortured, raped, and murdered.  The Pennsylvania Motor Patrol took charge of the investigation but never developed any real leads.  The crime is still unsolved.

On March 28, 1940, seventeen-year-old Rachel Taylor disembarked from a Greyhound bus to return to her dorm at Pennsylvania State College (now Pennsylvania State University).  It was a cold, raw night with drizzling rain and few people about.   Rachel never made her destination.  Her body was found the next morning, battered to death.  Again, the Pennsylvania Motor Police investigated.

Both cases received extensive coverage by local and state media even though college administrators, fearful of a drop in enrollment, did their best to hush up the Taylor murder.  The parents of both girls, eager for justice to be served, continued hounding police for years.  In the end, however, neither case was solved.

Nittany Nightmare describes the futile search for the killer (or killers) of Martin and Taylor.  Over the next few years, additional rapes and murders plagued the area  and taxed the capacity of detectives.  Most would remain unsolved.  Police suspected one killer may have committed all the crimes.

Set among the backdrop of Penn State football, state politics, and a then-backward law enforcement agency that later became the renowned Pennsylvania State Police, Sherwood’s tale includes many strange characters and weird circumstances.  It is at once a local history of Happy Valley and its surroundings, a compendium of the growth of Penn State football into the dynamic team it became, and a grouping of strange true crime mysteries.  Some readers may wonder how these disparate entities became entwined in one volume, but believe me, it works.

Before the term serial killer was coined, before DNA, before surveillance video and modern crime-solving techniques, investigators struggled to identify the man they suspected was a lone phantom killer.

Nittany Nightmare is my kind of book.  Buy it and read it—I think you’ll enjoy it, too.  

Sherwood is author of the popular book, Who Killed Betsy?: Uncovering Penn State’s Most Notorious Unsolved Crime.

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