Into Thin Air: What is the Likeliest Explanation for the Disappearance of Joan Risch?

William Keckler
13 min readMar 2, 2019

The internet never stops wondering what happened to Joan Risch on October 24, 1961.

The above link will you give the pertinent facts of the disappearance.

You can read the original police documents and newspaper accounts in this PDF file. Be forewarned: if you find yourself baffled by the ultimate conclusion as to Joan’s hypothesized murderer and hypothesized burial site given at the end of those documents, you are not alone. Virtually nobody who reads those last few documents understands what the underpinnings are for that assertion. Few lend that theory much credence. But the original police reports and newspaper stories are stellar sources for information that has been largely lost, and they contradict some of the “facts” floating around the internet that are patently false.

For example, Joan was not seen “holding something red” just before her disappearance, as so many online sites report. The neighbor had seen something red around or in front of Joan through the trees which fronted the Risch house. Joan had been walking with her arms stretched out before her, and the neighbor thought Joan had been playing a game, perhaps chasing her child.

I just wanted to sum up the most commonly-encountered theories to explain this young mother’s disappearance from her quiet Cape Cod house on a picture book suburban street in a moneyed nook of Lincoln, Massachusetts. This happened in the middle of the afternoon, as her four-year-old daughter played with a neighbor’s child just across the street.

I think this is what mystifies people the most. Joan Risch would have had people within earshot and her daughter could have come running back into the house at any moment. But somehow in a brief “window of opportunity,” where only Joan and her sleeping two-year-old were present in the house, approximately an hour and a half, something horrible happened. The kitchen was discovered to be a bloody mess and the young mother was gone. Blood was found in other rooms as well. But nobody had heard any screams and nobody had seen anything which yielded any substantive leads.

What are the pros and the cons of various theories floating around the internet and purporting to explain Joan’s disappearance?

  1. JOAN STAGED A FAKE CRIME SCENE TO MAKE IT APPEAR SHE WAS ABDUCTED AND STARTED A NEW LIFE ELSEWHERE. (VERY UNLIKELY)

Pros: Probably the only reason people seriously entertain this theory is that Risch had checked out a number of library books in the summer dealing with mysterious disappearances, and one of those books included an account of a staged disappearance with some major details matching up with the state of the Risch home on the fateful day. In the book, a blood-soaked towel had been used to stage a crime scene, and some accounts of the evidence in the Risch home state the actual amount of blood loss at the crime scene, despite its horrific appearance, was surprisingly not copious, perhaps as little as half a pint (240 ml). Other accounts of the crime scene, however, dispute that assessment and that figure.

Joan’s husband believed right up to his death in 2009 that Joan could very well still be alive. But he believed that she had experienced amnesia and gotten lost, not that she had staged her disappearance.

Some people cite Joan’s “troubled past” as a reason to disappear, but she seemed to be a remarkably stable and competent individual and devoted to her family.

Some websites mention phone calls to the Risch home and neighbors’ homes in the days immediately after Joan’s disappearances, made by a woman who might have been Joan in an amnesiac or fugue state. I have not really seen this well-sourced and I wonder if it’s internet rumor. In any case, there was no call tracing done and nobody insisted with any degree of certainty that it was indeed Joan calling. There was speculation it might be have been Joan. It also could have been a hoax, a series of sick prank calls.

Cons: If Joan had planned on staging her disappearance, it would be unlikely that she would have done it in such a gruesome manner and traumatized her children and husband. She would probably have chosen a time in which she had a much larger “window of opportunity” in which to stage the disappearance.

This was a busy day which included a trip to the dentist, shopping in town, and visits to her home by the milkman and dry cleaning man. All evidence points to Joan living out an ordinary day in the life of a busy housewife and mother.

Also, if the sightings of Joan later that afternoon walking the streets in a terrible state (bloodied) by several independent witnesses are to be believed, why would she risk being taken into custody by the police or others?

Most significantly, the bloody fingerprints and palm print at the scene which were determined not to be Joan’s render this scenario extremely unlikely.

2. JOAN HAD A LOVER (OR A MALE FRIEND) AND A PHYSICAL CONFRONTATION BETWEEN THE TWO RESULTED IN HER DEATH. (SOMEWHAT LIKELY)

Pros: If you believe the things people say on message boards online, an individual claiming to be her former neighbor (the house along with its neighboring houses was removed as part of the development of a National Park) states that “local wisdom” was that Joan had a lover and that some nastiness between the two resulted in her death.

There are accounts stating that the two-toned car seen in her driveway the day of her disappearance had been seen in the driveway sometime in the previous week. That doesn’t imply, necessarily, that it was a lover. It could have been a new male acquaintance with whom Joan had been spending time, who perhaps turned out to be a rapist/murderer.

Joan had taken the older child (the one more likely to be able to report a male visitor to the husband) across the street before the unknown incident occurred.

The empty beer bottles in the trash which Martin Risch could not explain might have been part of the lover’s tryst. This alcohol also might have contributed to the deterioration of a bad situation. And Joan’s bottles, if she consumed any, might have been drugged. I’m guessing those beer bottles were never examined for traces of drugs. Because it was 1961.

The bloody fingerprints and palm print indicate another individual was present during the incident.

Perhaps one could explain away the lack of screams as Joan fearing to draw attention to a compromising situation with this man. Maybe the injury he inflicted didn’t seem life-threatening at first. This would explain her going to the telephone book and opening it to the (unfortunately blank) “Emergency Numbers.” That might be something she would do if the man who assaulted her was very familiar to her. If it was some random maniac, a home invasion, it seems more likely she would just run from the house screaming and not try to make that phone call, but who knows, really. It would all depend on how fast things were happening. In either scenario, one could visualize the perpetrator ripping the phone’s handset off the wall to prevent the discovery of his wrongdoing.

The last time Joan was seen (by her neighbor through the trees) she was walking with her arms held out in front of her. This is a very unusual way to walk. The neighbor had thought at the time she was playing a game. But could Joan have been blindfolded at the time? Or had she been blinded in some way? Someone blindfolded who is being marched somewhere is likely to hold her arms in such a manner, to avoid walking into objects that she cannot see. But a blindfold seems more consistent with an attack by a stranger. Joan didn’t lock her house up when she ran out on errands, and some have speculated that a stranger was in the house waiting for her that afternoon when she returned from town.

Joan was also known to be receptive to door-to-door salesmen and had made some purchases of magazines subscriptions in the past. So if the accounts that the two-toned car had been in the driveway a week before were correct, maybe this was a salesman who also happened to be a predator.

Cons: No evidence of a lover was uncovered.

The neighbor explicitly stated that Joan was not the sort of woman to have male visitors. Of course, granted, some friends and neighbors are going to cover for you. But I think in a situation this dire the neighbor would have told the truth to police if she felt a lover had done Joan harm.

Joan had only been living in Lincoln for half a year. By most accounts, she was friendly but kept to herself and her family. It seems she might not have had many opportunities to meet a man and start an affair.

NEITHER PRO NOR CON BUT JUST A THOUGHT: It seems unlikely this theoretical lover would actually park in the driveway, but if he had felt bad after seriously injuring Joan in an attack, he might have moved his car from where it had been hidden down the street to her driveway to transport her. Or she might have been dead or dying at that point and he needed to get the car as close to the house as possible to remove the body. But death at this point in the narrative seems very unlikely, since the later sightings around town seem credible. The perpetrator would have had the trees in the Risch yard shielding the neighbor’s view working in his favor. Most likely Joan was still alive when he left with her in that vehicle. It very well might have been under duress. Maybe he was holding a knife to her. Or maybe he promised to take her to the hospital and she got in the car for that reason. Maybe he vacillated about actually taking her to the hospital or maybe he was lying and just planning on getting her somewhere isolated to finish what he had started. But she appears to have left the vehicle at some point and wandered around in a terrible state. What happened after that we do not know. Did he recapture her? Did she wander off into a wooded area and bleed out? More than one account describes this car departing the Risch driveway that afternoon. I would say it’s a safe bet Joan Risch and a man were in that two-toned vehicle.

3. JOAN HAD A HOME ABORTION AND IT WENT TERRIBLY WRONG. THE ABORTIONIST PANICKED. (SOMEWHAT LIKELY)

Pros: This sort of matches up with scenario #2, except the beer bottles might have been used as a form of anesthesia before the (botched) procedure.

Joan panics and tries to call for help. The abortionist rips the phone from the wall.

This was a time in which abortions in America were mostly illegal, unless a few exceptional circumstances applied. These few circumstances included incest, rape, or a serious risk of the mother’s death should the child be carried to term. Here’s a really depressing visual aid to explain where abortion laws stood throughout America before Roe vs. Wade. Apparently, only four states in that time period allowed abortions on request. Massachusetts would have wanted medical certification that the unborn child was a threat to the mother’s health or life.

Today, law enforcement can distinguish between venous blood and the blood from a miscarriage or abortion. I’m not sure if the police used that sort of forensics back in the early sixties. It’s unfortunate that we’ll never be able to know which sort of blood it was. Unless blood evidence from this case rests in an evidence locker somewhere. It seems very unlikely. Police forensics did match the blood type (the common type O) with Joan’s blood type.

When Joan was sighted on the street later in the day, she was bleeding down her legs, which might indicate the blood was due to a botched abortion. And she was clutching her stomach or womb.

If this is indeed what happened, if Joan vacillated about seeking help after hemorrhaging, for fear of being judged and shaming herself and possibly her family, that is truly pitiful. It reminds us how far we’ve come legislatively and how we must continue to protect a woman’s legal right to a safe abortion. Because whether or not that horrible situation is the one in which Joan found herself that afternoon, think of the countless women in that time period who did die under such circumstances or suffer irreparable harm from such procedures born of desperation. And then there was the social ostracization that went along with that situation.

I suppose the photographs of the kitchen might be seen to lend credence to this scenario. Joan might have been calling for help on that phone when whoever was assisting in or performing the procedure ripped the handset from the wall to stop her. Because it does seem like Joan was on the kitchen floor in that corner (the phone nook) bleeding. The phone is ripped away and she slinks to the floor in that very spot, in despair. It’s a truly depressing scenario.

Cons: Joan was not known to be pregnant. Although that’s not a very convincing counter-argument. If Joan was preparing to have an abortion, it seems unlikely she would be announcing her pregnancy.

A big problem with this theory is that it seems highly unlikely Joan would have scheduled an abortion on such a busy day where anyone could have walked in on her (her child, her neighbor). Several working professionals had already visited the house (milk man, dry cleaning). It just wasn’t the right time or place for something like that. But perhaps the theoretical abortionist had portrayed it as a very easy procedure, a matter of minutes. Maybe Joan trusted the wrong sort of confidence-man or confidence-woman who assured her that a home abortion was not a major procedure.

Joan could have just had the child. There was no real evidence indicating another pregnancy would have changed her relationship with her husband.

However, if this was not her husband’s child, was the result of an affair, the situation might have been different. There might have been a strong desire to end the pregnancy.

Some allege she wanted to go back to work in publishing and this third child would have been a hindrance to that.

Strongly militating against this theory is the absence of blood in the bathroom. It seems likely this would have been the first stop for cleaning up.

4. JOAN HAD A TERRIBLE ACCIDENT IN THE HOME AND DUE TO BLOOD LOSS WAS CONFUSED AND WANDERED OFF. (EXTREMELY UNLIKELY)

Pros: Joan had been mowing the lawn. Let’s say she somehow ended up cut by the mower blade in a freak accident. Or take your pick of household accidents resulting in a serious injury that bleeds out. Due to rapid blood loss, she went into shock and was confused. She wandered off and died somewhere and her body has not been found.

Cons: This doesn’t take into account the phone handset pulled from the wall or the car sighted in her driveway. If someone drove her for medical care somewhere, they would surely have come forward to explain that.

The bloody fingerprints and palm print that did not match Joan’s don’t fit in this scenario.

5. JOAN COMMITTED SUICIDE (EXTREMELY UNLIKELY)

Same Cons as above: This doesn’t take into account the phone handset pulled from the wall or the car sighted in her driveway. If someone drove her for medical care somewhere, they would surely have come forward to explain that.

The bloody fingerprints and palm print that did not match Joan’s don’t fit in this scenario.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

I think the most important question about the state of the Risch house on that fateful afternoon is who was trying to clean up the bloody scene and why?

My intuition tells me that it was Joan herself that was trying to clean up the scene. Something (maybe the paper towels) tells me it was she and not the male who was present.

This implies to me that she was somehow linked with this individual, that it wasn’t a random stranger who had broken into her house. In that scenario, the clean-up wouldn’t have even been attempted.

This could mean the individual who assaulted her or at least engaged with her in a somewhat violent manner after a botched procedure was either a lover, a male friend who had attempted to seduce her and turned violent after failing, or that theoretical abortionist (who might have been her lover and the father of the unborn child).

There remains the pathos-filled possibility that Joan’s four-year-old, who was in the bloody house with her sleeping baby brother for some time before the neighbor got back home, attempted to clean the kitchen up for her mother. That’s the saddest possibility to imagine. She had told her neighbor that “red paint” was all over the kitchen. So maybe she thought she was doing her mom a favor by attempting to clean up. I haven’t seen anything corroborating this. It’s pure speculation.

The most disturbing image, besides the bloody photographs, of course, is that report made to police of an individual stopping by the side of the road (the two-toned car again) gathering long branches from a tree and placing them in his vehicle.

These branches were probably being used to cover up either massive bloodstains in the car or the body of Joan Risch.

Although much less likely, they also could have been gathered for a funeral pyre.

Intuition tells me that the sightings of Joan late that afternoon wandering around lost and bleeding were accurate and that the individual harvesting the branches was the man responsible for her injuries.

Probably she either escaped from him or he let her out of the car. I tend to lean towards the former. I think she was in shock and either wandered around and fell down somewhere off the road and was somehow missed, or else this individual caught up with her and forced or coaxed her back in the car. Possibly she died in the backseat of that vehicle after many hours of losing blood.

From the contemporary accounts, Joan seems to have been in an altered state during the period of the sightings. It could have been blood loss and shock, but it could also have been that she was drugged as well as assaulted. It’s really horrific that nobody stopped to help a woman in such an obviously poor state. Who just drives by a woman walking by the side of the road with blood running down her legs?

Since we’re coming up on sixty years without an answer, it seems unlikely we will ever know the truth with any degree of certainty.

I think this case continues to exercise its hold on the darkest part of our imagination not only because of the sheer mystery, the lack of resolution, but also because it’s terrifying to think how any ordinary day could suddenly spin out of control within a matter of minutes and launch any one of us into a horrific situation beyond our worst imagining.

I wish I could believe that this was a staged disappearance, because while that’s a very sad scenario to entertain, it’s still much less depressing to contemplate that than the idea that there are and will always be monsters among us who go to sleep at night with the secret solutions to disappearances like this one in their heads.

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William Keckler

Writer, visual artist. Books include Sanskrit of the Body, which won in the U.S. National Poetry Series (Penguin). https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/532348.