HORROR IN RURAL NEW YORK
They began in November 1917 – a series of brutal murders that terrified the people of Linden, New York, a village located about forty miles east of Buffalo. Over the course of a number of years, the murders shocked and horrified locals and captured the attention of a national audience through lurid newspaper accounts that detailed the brutality. And then, they faded away, lost to time. Nearly a hundred years later, though, some believe the murder have been solved. But can we know for sure? Or will the brutal slayer who terrorized the region remain forever unknown?
Today, there is little left of the community of Linden. It’s a cluster of houses, hidden away in the hills of southern Genesee County in New York. There are no major highways that pass nearby. There is no school, churches, gas stations or even a post office. There is only a two-lane highway and a single railroad line that connects the community to the outside world. In the 1910s, though, Linden was a small farming town with about 100 residents who lived and worked on the surrounded acres. There was a post office back then, along with a general store, a railway station, a mill and a blacksmith shop. Everyone knew one another – they’d been born and raised together. One person’s business soon became everyone else’s. There were few secrets among the friends, relatives and neighbors of Linden. Perhaps this was why, when the murders began, the little community was so terrified. There was a killer among them – perhaps even someone they knew. But his identity was never discovered. The crimes were never solved. No motive for them was ever discovered. The killer took his secret to the grave.
The mysterious “Ruth”
The first person to fall victim to the Linden killer was an unknown young woman, who was murdered on November 12, 1917. Her body was found in a wooded area of a farmer’s property outside of town. Late on that chilly fall morning, the young woman, who was perhaps between 25 and 30 years old, was seen walking up a road that led into the woods. Witnesses later reported that she was wearing a black plush coat. There was a man walking with her. A short time later, the man was seen walking out of the woods – alone.
Three days later, Frank Hunt, the farmer who owned the property, found her body in the underbrush while gathering kindling for his heating stove. When he kicked aside some loose leaves and branches, he saw the woman’s beaten, battered and bloody face. Her dead eyes stared up at him. She had been so disfigured that she barely looked human. The police were called to the scene but they never identified the girl and they never made any arrests. For lack of a better name, they called the mystery woman “Ruth.”
The town of Linden, with its corn fields, apple orchards and ordinary residents, was shocked to the core. Who would do such a terrible thing? For a short time, doors that were usually left unlocked at night were bolted and chained. In time, though, the murder was almost forgotten. The gossip ended and the whispers fell silent. Life in the little farming town moved on.
Terror returned five years later. On October 17, 1922, the killer claimed a second victim and this time, it was someone that almost everyone in Linden knew. She was no stranger. She was a 73-year-old spinster named Frances Lenora Kimball, a feisty old woman who was best-known for her feelings against alcohol consumption and her support for the Prohibition laws that had banned alcohol in America. The hard-working, deeply religious woman grew apples and sold milk and eggs at her 60-acre home off Linden Road near Skates Hill Road.
Miss Kimball’s body was found hidden away in the dark cellar of her home. Like the mysterious “Ruth,” her head had been bashed in. The alarm over Miss Kimball’s absence was first raised by her closest neighbor, Charles Speed, who stopped at her house that morning around 8:00 a.m. Her door was locked and no one appeared to be about. He returned an hour later, knocked again and received no answer. He realized soon after that her cow had not been milked, which was something she did faithfully each day by 6:00 a.m., and he became alarmed. He told his wife, who called Miss Kimball’s best friend, Miss Grace Smith, who along with Mrs. Robert McWithey, went to the home. They had a key to the house but looked around and failed to find her. She was not in the barn either. The place seemed deserted. Miss Smith called Justice Maurice Nelan, the local magistrate, but his search of the property offered no clues – until he found that the telephone line had been cut. It was time to call the state police. Officers arrived and scoured the entire property in vain.
During a search of the cellar, State Police Corporal White illuminated a dark area with his flashlight and saw the body of Miss Kimball stuffed under a shelf, covered with an old door. Her head had been smashed in with a heavy object. The Batavia Daily News gave a gruesome account of the discovery: “Wedged into an empty apple bin, lying on her side, terribly disfigured, her brains protruding, her cheek bones broken, the body of the aged woman presented a spectacle to haunt the dreams of the most stone-hearted for many a night to come.” The newspaper’s crime reporter called Miss Kimball, “the manifest object of the pent-up and deliberate fury of the animal’s blows.”
The Kimball Farm
An autopsy showed that Miss Kimball had been hit about 20 times on the right side of her head with a heavy instrument. The beating had been so savage that fragments of her false teeth were found scattered all over the cellar floor. Semen was found on her clothing. The time of her death was established to be about 6:00 p.m. on the previous evening. Percy Fleming, a Linden resident, had seen her in the yard at 5:30 p.m., as he passed by the home.
After the discovery of the corpse by the state troopers, the local sheriff, district attorney and coroner were summoned to the scene. The bulk of the investigation was turned over to William Doyel of the Doyel Detective Agency in Rochester, New York. In those days, with so few police departments – especially in rural areas – ill-equipped to handle murder investigations, private detective agencies were often retained to carry out the investigations. Detectives, along with state troopers, questioned everyone who lived within a mile of the crime scene, including Miss Kimball’s two elderly brothers, who had been away picking apples at the time of the murder.
The Batavia Daily News offered a $100 reward for information leading to the arrest of the killer. On October 21, Carl Meyers, a cousin of the dead woman, found a sharp, pointed rock with dried blood and gray hair on it in the corner of the cellar. The coroner determined that it had been the murder weapon. Detectives believe that whoever the killer was, he was familiar with the layout of the house. After the murder, he had locked all of the doors and windows, including the front door, which he bolted when he left.
The police and detectives had no clues and no way to trace the killer. However, a local newspaper reported one detail that apparently came from an eyewitness, but was not mentioned in later accounts of the crime: “Late on Monday evening, an automobile was driven into the Kimball farm and stood for a short time among the trees.” There is no mention of the car ever being identified or of it being linked to anyone in the area, but it does become important in later theories about the case.
As the case stalled, the County of Genesee Board of Supervisors posted a reward of $1,000 for information leading to an arrest. But no one stepped forward to identify the killer. Whoever he was, he vanished without a trace – again.
“The peaceful village of Linden has never been stirred to such excitement,” the Buffalo Evening News reported. “Villagers today were amazed that such a hideous crime could be committed in their midst.”
But the murders were far from over. The worse was still to come.
The Whaley / Morse Murders
Seventeen months later, on March 11, 1924, three more Linden residents were brutally slain. Thomas and Hattie Whaley lived in a home in the center of the village. That afternoon, Mable Morse, the wife of the proprietor of the general store, left to visit their home. When Mrs. Morse had not returned by the time her favorite radio program came on the air, one of her employees went to look for her. When he arrived at the Whaley house, he found it on fire. When the flames were put out, a gruesome discovery was made.
The newspapers of the day provided lurid details of the crime – and they immediately linked it to the Kimball murder of the previous year. The link to “Ruth” would not be made until much later.
The killer – called “a maniac” by the Buffalo newspaper – had shot both Whaleys and repeatedly struck Mrs. Morse in the head. The killer put their bodies in a pile, covered them with old rugs and set the rugs on fire. Neighbors found the bodies after breaking into the house to put out the flames. The fire, investigators believed, had been started to try and cover up the crime.
Thomas and Hattie Whaley outside of their home
Thomas Whaley, 65, had worked for many years as a section boss on the Erie Railroad. His wife, Hattie, was 58 and neither of them were known to have any enemies. Mrs. Morse, 51, had stopped by the Whaley house to get some milk and visit with her friend, a regular thing for her to do. She had evidently surprised the killer at work. According to the autopsy, Mrs. Morse had been clubbed to death and the Whaleys had both been shot by a .32-caliber revolver. The fire had been discovered by Myron Smith, a young man who was employed at the Morse store. When he arrived at the house, his quick actions kept the flames from spreading. The bodies had been blackened, and some of their clothing had been scorched away, but they were not burned beyond recognition. A few neighbors who rushed to the scene managed to use pails of water to put out the fire before the house was too badly damaged.
Mrs. Morse had left the general store for the Whaley home at about 6:30 p.m., taking her milk pail with her. The Whaleys had a dairy cow and provided Mrs. Morse with milk each day. She was gone longer than usual. Usually, each evening, a group of people from the town gathered at the store to listen to a favorite radio program, which Mrs. Morse never missed. Fearing that she would not return in time for the show, Myron Smith hurried over to the Whaley home to remind her that it was about to start. He was joined by a friend, Milton Kettle, who worked with Mr. Whaley on the railroad.
Smith knew that Mr. Whaley had been ill for several days and thought Mrs. Morse might have stayed at the house to help out. He knocked on the door when he arrived, but no one answered. Oddly, he noticed that all of the curtains on the windows had been drawn. After calling out, he tried the door and found it locked. Peering into the house, he saw smoke billowing about inside. He and Milton Kettle broke the window rear kitchen door and hurried inside. They were filled with horror when they saw the burned bodies stacked on the floor and covered with smoldering rugs. The young men rushed from the house and spread the alarm. In a matter of minutes, friends and neighbors had put out the fire and put in a call to state troopers in Batavia.
When the authorities arrived, they deduced that the Whaleys and Mrs. Morse had been killed, or nealy killed, in other rooms and then dragged into the front room, where they were finished off with the handle of a pick-ax. The later autopsy would show that Thomas Whaley had been shot in the neck. His wife had sustained a single gunshot wound to her head. Mrs. Morse had been clubbed to death with the wooden handle. Paper, bed clothing and rugs were then wrapped around the bodies and saturated in kerosene oil, which came from a can found in the house. The killer’s intention had been for the entire house to burn down, taking the bodies and all of the evidence with it. He had closed all of the curtains – even going as far as to nail a piece of cloth over one window that was not covered – so that he would not be seen. When he left the house, he locked all of the doors to prevent the fire from being discovered. If not for the arrival of Milton and Kettle, his plan likely would have succeeded.
The newspapers were quick to point out that the circumstances in the Whaley-Morse murders were very similar to those in the murder of Frances Kimball in 1922 and also to the strange effort to burn down the home of Justice of the Peace Maurice Nelan, which adjoined the Kimball home, on September 23, 1923.
The investigation became heated at once. George Morse offered a $1,000 reward for the capture of the murderer of his wife and the authorities swarmed over the village, where the Whaleys had been well-liked. Several tramps, a common sight along the railroad in Linden, were questioned. Linden was overrun by police (the Genesee County Sheriff's Department and the fairly-new New York State Police shared the investigation), reporters from throughout Western New York, and even sightseers who clogged the narrow snow-covered roads.
One of the many reward posters printed to help search for the killer
Buffalo Police Captain Joseph Whitwell, chief of the Bertillon Bureau and a noted fingerprint expert at a time when the science was just taking hold in America, was retained and examined the scene. Unfortunately, though, fingerprints were of little value since the house had been do badly damaged by water from putting out the fire. Some believed that the murders were the result of a robbery, since purses had been emptied and watches and cash were missing. Others thought it was a maniac who had traveled along the railroad line. As the investigation proceeded, police became more convinced that he murdered was a local resident and concentrated their efforts around the community. No one was allowed to leave the area unless first checked by the police.
But as word spread about the murders, curiosity-seekers from Batavia, Rochester and Buffalo swarmed to the area, impeding the investigation by causing traffic jams on the local roads. Local residents were questioned and then questioned again, but no solid leads ever developed. The state police kept a constant presence in Linden with one trooper assigned to stay in town, available for immediate duty, and two others on horses patrolling the surrounding area. The police were so desperate that when it was suggested that a picture of the murdered victim’s eyes be taken with the belief that an image of the killer would be imprinted on the eyeball as the last vision of the victim, the photographs were taken. Needless to say, it didn’t work, even though several newspapers claimed that the methods had been used to solve several important criminal cases. Again, as in the Kimball murder, time passed and the case grew cold.
The few leads that the police obtained went nowhere, but interest in the case remained high – and people were increasingly frightened. The available rewards grew larger. In addition to Mrs. Morse’s offer of $1,000, the Genesee Board of Supervisors passed a resolution to offer $5,000 to the person furnishing information leading to the arrest and conviction of the slayers. With funds coming in from newspapers and other sources, the reward total eventually climbed to $8,000. Pleas for information were broadcast over the radio, but no substantial leads appeared.
And with so many cases that received wide attention, crackpots and kooks came looking for a moment in the spotlight. In March 1924, John Vetosky, who had been recently released from the Dannemora State Hospital for the Criminal Insane, confessed to the Linden slayings. He apparently gave a reasonable account of how he committed the crimes, but he later recanted and his alibi was confirmed. A few of the investigators continued to believe that he was involved, but with a solid alibi, he could not be linked to any of the murders.
Later that summer, Linden Postmaster Ira J. Page Saturday received an anonymous letter from ‘A Friend’' that was postmarked Detroit, Michigan. The letter asked him to warn the village of an impending fifth murder, which was then being planned. It urged the postmaster to notify the authorities to be on their guard and to “watch and pray.” Unfortunately, it was not the only letter to be sent but like the warning of a “fifth murder,” none of them amounted to anything.
In time, the frenzy calmed down and the newspaper headlines became smaller. On March 11, 1925, the Daily News marked the one-year anniversary of the Whaley-Morse murders, noting, “Genesee County authorities and clever detectives carried on during the next several weeks (after the murders) the most thorough murder investigations that could possibly be made, but the Linden slayer still goes unapprehended.”
If there were any clear connections between the murder of the unknown woman in 1917, the Kimball murder of 1922, and the triple slayings of 1924, they were never discovered. Over time, they became known as the “unsolved Linden murders.” No one was ever arrested for any of the five murders. No motive was ever found, nor was the identity of the murderer or murderers ever determined. Gruesome and perplexing as they were, the Linden murders soon faded from the public’s memory.
Has the Killer Been Discovered?
“We will not give up the search until the slayer is found,” vowed State Police Captain Winn Robinson in 1924, but no arrest was ever made. Recently, though, a local author named Rob R. Thompson – with help from a retired FBI agent – has taken a new look at the old evidence and believes that he had figured out the identity of the killer.
Thompson, a former mental heal counselor began delving into the murders several years ago, going through thousands of pages of police reports, including the private notes left behind by investigators on the case. He was assisted in his research by Mark E. Safarik, a retired FBI agent and former violent crime analyst at the FBI Academy. They came to the conclusion that the most viable suspect in the murders was a man named Andrew Michel.
According to Thompson, Michel died at the age of 77 in a Rochester mental institution in 1960. Although newspaper reports state that he was questioned by the police several times about the murders, he was never charged. There was also no physical evidence that linked Michel to the crimes. However, at the time the time of the murders, Michel lived in Linden near Miss Kimball and the Whaleys. He had worked on local farms as a hired hand and had also worked at a steel plant and on the railroad. Shortly after the Whaley-Morse murders, he loved away from Linden to nearby Attica.
Thompson came up with some pretty compelling reasons that suggest he may be right about Michel being the killer, namely that he had grudges against Kimball, the Whaleys and Mrs, Morse. Kimball, an advocate against liquor, had reported Michel for illegally making hard cider. Months before she was killed, she had argued with Michel over the drinking habits of her brother, William Kimball. She had also appeared as a witness against him in an animal cruelty case. Michel had been fined $25 after he was accused of beating a horse with a piece of wood so violently that one of the horse’s eyes had been knocked out. Locals knew he had a violent streak.
According investigator’s notes, Thomas Whaley had identified Michel as a suspect in a 1923 arson case. He had also refused to lend Michel money and Mrs. Whaley had once told a neighbor that she suspected that Michel had killed Miss Kimball.
Whaley’s anger with the Morse family was caused by money problems. Two weeks before the murders at the Whaley home, George Morse had sent Michel a letter, cutting off his credit at the general store until he paid off a debt of $160.
Michel had never been silent about his dislike of Miss Kimball or the Whaleys and Morses. While he repeatedly told the police that he had nothing to with the murders, a man named Brad Burroughs told detectives that he once heard Michel make angry threats to kill Kimball, someone from the Morse family and others in 1916 – vowing that he would kill them if it took 10 or 15 years to do it.
There were others who had run-ins with Michel, including Justice of the Peace Nelan, who were later shocked when serious arson fires were started on their property. Witnesses, including Thomas Whaley, told police they saw Michel leaving the Nelan fire scene, but he was never charged with any arson.
According to Thompson, Michel worked clearing wood in the area where the mystery woman’s body was found in 1917, which may link him to that crime as well. But the police never charged Michel with any of the murders. Twelve days after the Whaley-Morse murders, police told the Buffalo newspaper that Michel had been “freed of suspicion” after lengthy questioning. At that time, a detective noted that the right-handed Michel had only one finger on his right hand because of a sawmill accident that occurred when he was young. That one finger was “twice the size of an ordinary finger” and would not fit into the trigger guard of the type of handgun allegedly used to shoot the Whaleys, the detective stated. But was this really enough to rule him out? The victims had been shot at close range, which could have been done with either hand. Michel also had a tendency to use a wooden club, which had demonstrated on the unfortunate horse.
But not everyone is convinced by Thompson’s theory. Michel is, of course, long dead and cannot defend himself. Court documents show that a petition was filed in Wyoming County Court in 1958, asking a judge to declare Michel mentally incompetent. Two years later, he died in a Rochester mental hospital. So, if he was the killer, the secret of the murders died with him. And with everyone else involved the case long since dead, there can be no conclusive answers.
Some believe the killer may have come from the Genesee County Poor House, which is now called Rolling Hills Asylum
But even today, theories remains. It’s been suggested that the murders were committed by “a transient” – someone who occasionally passed through Linden, perhaps hopping rides on freight trains. Police did question several “vagrants,” but never charged any of them. Others have suggested that the murders were committed by a deranged person who lived at the old Genesee County Poor House, a building that once housed the poor, the elderly and some mental patients who could not fend for themselves. Now known as Rolling Hills Asylum – and believed to be haunted – the poor house closed in the 1970s and was not far from the murders.
The mystery remains, though, and the Linden Murders are still officially unsolved.