Posted on: February 22, 2016

In October 1961 an attractive, dark-haired 31-year-old housewife vanished from her home in Lincoln, Massachusetts, and was never seen again.  This would be disturbing enough, but what makes this case particularly strange is that no one has ever been able to ascertain if Joan disappeared against her own free will, or entirely of her own choosing.  Fifty-five years on, and we’re all still none the wiser.

Joan was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1931.  Her parents were killed in a house fire in 1940, when Joan was 9-years-old, and she was sent to live with an aunt and uncle.  There have been rumours that Joan was sexually assaulted as a child.  Joan was said to have told her husband, soon after their wedding in 1955, that she had been molested by her foster father.  This was denied by her husband the day after Joan’s disappearance.

In 1952 Joan graduated from college with a degree in English, and took a job in publishing.  It has been said that she was quite ambitious, but gave up her career when she married Martin Risch, and devoted herself to life as a home-maker.  This was far from unusual in those days.

Joan and Martin had two children.  A daughter Lillian, and a son, David.  Martin Risch was an executive in a paper company, and he was away on business in New York, on the fateful day of 24 October 1961.  For Joan her routine very much seemed to be business as usual.  She took her 4-year-old daughter to the dentist, then did some grocery shopping, and cashed a cheque.   By 11 AM she was back home.  She was seen by two tradesmen, who called on her, and both said she seemed to be in good spirits.

At noon Joan settled 2-year-old David upstairs in his cot for a nap, and then sent Lillian round to play at the house of Mrs Barbara Barker, a neighbour.  And now we have the afternoon which is shrouded in mystery.  At around 2:15 PM Mrs Barker looked out of her window and claimed to see Joan, wearing her trench coat, in the Risch driveway, walking fast or running, and carrying something red.   The neighbour said Joan had looked “dazed”, but she assumed she was chasing after little David.  There is some confusion over an unknown grey/blue sedan car which was seen parked outside the Risch house at this time.  The police claimed this was an unmarked police car, and the witnesses had seen it later than was thought, something which was disputed by the witnesses in question.

At 4 PM Lillian returned home, and immediately ran back to the neighbour’s house, shouting that Mommy was gone, the baby was crying, and there was red paint all over the kitchen.  It wasn’t red paint, but blood, later established as type O, the same as Joan’s, although it was never established if the blood was hers.  The telephone had been ripped from the wall.  The directory was lying nearby at the emergency numbers page (although none had been dialled).  A chair was overturned.  There was no sign of a weapon, and none has ever been found.

A trail of blood led to David’s cot, then back to the kitchen again, and out onto the drive,  where they stopped at Joan’s parked car.  Although, curiously, there were no bloody footprints.  There were bloodied fingerprints and palm prints on the walls, but it was impossible to ascertain if these were Joan’s, as there was no record of her fingerprints.  Someone had tried to clear up the blood, using paper towels and little David’s overalls.

Joan’s cloth coat was missing, although the trench coat she had been wearing earlier was still in the house, as was her purse.  Later that day witnesses claimed to see a dishevelled woman walking along a nearby highway, Route 128, which was in the process of being constructed.  It was reported that her legs were covered in blood.  No one stopped to speak to her though.  A ground and air search of the surrounding woodland, reservoirs and buildings found no trace of Joan.

A local newspaper speculated that Joan had tried to protect her son from an unwelcome intruder, and husband Martin backed this up by saying that Joan would “fight like a tiger to defend our children”.  Martin flew back from New York and was investigated by the police, but cleared of all suspicion.

The plot thickened when it was found that Joan had, during the previous few months, withdrawn 25 books out of the local library, which were about murders and disappearances.  Her husband said she had a taste for mystery novels, but one of the books was about a woman who vanished, leaving nothing behind but bloodstains which had been mopped with a towel.

Was Joan a bored housewife with an active imagination, frustrated at having to give up a career she enjoyed, who had staged her own disappearance?  That’s just one of the theories about this odd case.  Another is that she is lying under Route 128, after having stumbled into an excavation pit there, and been accidentally buried.  There are also rumours that the scene in the kitchen was as a result of a botched home abortion, and that an empty whisky bottle had been found in a waste-paper basket.  Some have said this accounts for the blood running down Joan’s legs, which was seen by the witnesses at Route 128.  It might well account for her leaving the house in a distressed and dazed state.

One day, in early November 1961, an unknown woman called the house at least a dozen times.  Joan’s father-in-law always answered the phone, but the caller refused to speak to him.  On that same day one of the neighbours said she had received a phone call from a “terribly excited” woman, who complained she had been trying to call her home, but hadn’t been able to get hold of anyone she knew.

The police took the line from the start that Joan had been abducted, although a local reporter, who had discovered Joan’s library habits, took the other view that she had planned her own disappearance.  Something which was denied by an old college friend of Joan’s, who said that she had never seen Joan looking so happy as she was at this stage of her life.

Martin Risch constantly held onto the belief that his wife was still alive, and that she was suffering from amnesia.  Right up until his death in 2009, he had even kept hold of his old phone number, in case she decided to ring him.   Their son David was interviewed by the Boston Herald in 1993.  Now a writer and poet, David said he had no memory of that awful day, as he had been sleeping in his cot, but said “I like to believe she’s in Heaven”.

A very odd, perplexing and tragic case.




“Later that day witnesses claimed to see a dishevelled woman walking along a nearby highway, Route 128, which was in the process of being constructed. It was reported that her legs were covered in blood. No one stopped to speak to her though.”

If only one of those witnesses had bothered to stop and talk to the woman, then maybe this mystery could have been solved.

Yes, it’s astonishing no one did

The empty whiskey bottle was actually accounted for. Joan’s husband said he and Joan had finished off the remaining whiskey the previous night. But there were several beer cans and he had no idea where those came from.

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