According to NAMUS, an average of 600,000 individuals go missing in the United States every year. As it is impossible to determine exactly how many people are reported missing every year, this means there is no centralized database available to the public. That being said, undoubtedly one of the best researched public databases for missing persons is The Charley Project; a self-described “…publicity vehicle for missing people who are often neglected by the press and forgotten all too soon.” From your favorite true crime podcast to crime-related articles on Wicked Horror, odds are the services of The Charley Project were relied upon.
Each week The Charley Project highlights a random case on their main page as part of the site’s ‘Missing Person of the Week’ segment. Following that design, Wicked Horror would like to take a deep dive beyond the speculation and conventional news reports to showcase a missing person each month. From cases in marginalized communities that were passed over by mainstream media, to those that have been dubbed ‘impossible’ to solve, every person deserves to be remembered.
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An unfamiliar car in the driveway. A phone ripped from the wall. A kitchen smeared in blood. These are just a handful of circumstances surrounding a disappearance that has baffled Massachusetts authorities for almost 61 years.
February’s Missing Person of the Month is Joan Risch; a housewife and mother of two small children, who spent the morning of October 24th, 1961 preoccupied with getting her husband’s things ready for a business trip, running errands, and taking her kids back and forth between her home and a neighbor’s house. That neighbor, Barbra Baker, would later give a statement to police indicating she saw Joan at approximately 2:15 PM outside her home. Depending on which publication you read, Joan was either “holding something red” or was walking near something clad in red; “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.”
Regardless, this account would be the last confirmed sighting of Joan Risch. She has never been seen or heard from since. Since 1961, the rumor mill has churned out endless theories, making it, arguably, one of the Internet’s most analyzed missing persons cases. Unfortunately, all of the speculation has yielded little regarding what actually happened to Joan.
Joan Risch was born Joan Carolyn Bard on May 12th, 1930. Originally from Brooklyn, New York, by the time Joan was nine years old, her family had moved to New Jersey. During her adulthood Joan allegedly confided in a friend that she was sexually abused. These claims have never been confirmed. In 1940, when Joan was ten years old, both of her parents, Harold and Josephine, died in a fire that was later described as suspicious. Afterwards, Joan was sent to live with an aunt and uncle and took their last name Nattrass. As Joan applied for a Social Security card with that name, it is technically considered her maiden name.
Joan spent her college years studying diligently, writing poetry for the student literary review and working as the assistant literary editor for her class yearbook. While maintaining good grades, she also worked part time as a waitress to cover her living expenses and had a very active social life that consisted of playing field hockey, bicycle trips, long nature walks and participating in student government. A classmate of Joan’s was quoted in Stephen Ahern’s book, A Kitchen Painted in Blood; “Joan was regular, the most normal person I ever knew. She was quiet, kind and sincere. I do not remember her ever criticizing anybody. She joined in with the crowd and did whatever we did. And she worked very hard as a waitress.”
Joan graduated with honors from Pennsylvania’s Wilson College in 1952 with a degree in English literature. She would go on to work as a secretary, supervise the secretarial pool and ultimately became an editorial assistant at publishing companies Harcourt Brace and World and later Thomas Y. Crowell Co.
Joan met her future husband Martin Risch in 1953 when one of Joan’s roommates, Anne Ellsworth, set them up on a blind date. The two attended a football game at Harvard University where Martin was a student. By all accounts, Martin and Joan appeared smitten with each other. They dated long distance for about two years. They married on December 26th, 1955, in Long Island. Joan left her job at Thomas Crowell shortly before giving birth to her daughter, Lillian, in 1958. Their son David was born the following year.
In April of 1961 the Risch family moved to their Lincoln, Massachusetts home. Martin was working at the Fitchburg Paper Company while Joan stayed home with the children. Her days were occupied with her two small children, gardening, keeping her home immaculate, regularly visiting the local library and being an active member of the local League of Women Voters.
Joan was described as thoughtful, quiet, and studious, with “loads of personality” by almost everyone who knew her. She was well liked by her classmates, co-workers, and current and former neighbors in three states. Joan spoke of becoming a teacher after her children got older.
The Timeline and Details of Disappearance
Stephen Ahern’s book A Kitchen Painted in Blood is essential reading for anyone interested in Joan’s case. With the assistance of a former FBI criminal profiler and an L.A. cold case detective, Ahern is able to provide an incredibly detailed account of October 24th, 1961. The timeline below will be a boiled down, approximate, report that highlights the most important details on the day of Joan’s disappearance.
6:00 AM: The morning of October 24th started early for Martin Risch. He woke shortly before 6:30 AM that morning to catch an 8:00 AM flight to New York for a business trip would keep him in Manhattan overnight. It is assumed Joan woke the children shortly before his departure so they could say goodbye to their father. Martin reports he was on the road by 6:50 AM to go to Boston’s Logan Airport.
9:15 AM: It is unclear what Joan and the children did after Martin left. Either way, all three were up, dressed and had eaten breakfast by 9:15. At roughly 9:20, Joan received a call from her friend Sabra Morton. The call was brief as Joan was running late for a dental appointment. This was most likely the result of Joan losing track of time while cleaning up around the house as it was later discovered the kitchen had been cleaned, the dishes had been washed, and the beds had been made.
9:30 AM: After getting off the phone, Joan dropped baby David off at Barbara Baker’s house. She and Lillian made it just in time for their appointments at Dr. Paul J. Goldstein’s dental office in Bedford. It is reported that Lillian was on her best behavior while her mother was getting a cavity filled. According to Dr. Goldstein, there was nothing in Joan’s demeanor that indicated she was worried or depressed about anything.
10:15 AM: Joan chatted briefly with the dental assistant while paying for that day’s visit. She then made another appointment for herself for the following week. Joan and Lillian left the office by 10:15. They went shopping in nearby Bedford center. They first went to the local W.T. Grant store where Joan bought some clothes for herself and David. While there is evidence Joan spent almost $16 (almost $150 when adjusted for inflation) at a supermarket on October 23rd, police believed she stopped somewhere in Bedford to pick up additional ingredients, possibly for lunch or dinner.
While Joan and Lillian were gone, the Rische’s mailman, Everett Janse, dropped off four or five pieces of mail to the family’s mailbox. He had not seen anything unusual in or around the house. Apparently, the mail had not been collected by Joan, as the letters were still in the box when the police arrived to investigate her disappearance.
The garbage man had been by to empty the Rische’s trash cans. He also saw nothing out of the ordinary.
The family’s usual order of milk had been dropped off and left in its usual spot by the side entrance which led into the kitchen. While milkman Joseph Paskiewicz saw nothing suspicious on October 24th, the Rische’s regular milkman Bernard Socket, who had been on vacation the week Joan vanished, would later come forward about a strange vehicle he noticed on October 19th, 1961. During his regular delivery, Socket saw an unfamiliar car, which was later determined to be a General Motors model, dirty and two-tone with one of the colors possibly being blue- in the driveway of the Risch house.
10:55 AM: Joan and Lillian return home.
11:00 AM: Joan walks across the street to pick up David. She and Barbra chatted for a moment; it was mainly Joan praising Dr. Goldstein’s work. During her initial interview Barbra Baker made a point to note that Joan was in “extremely good” spirits that afternoon. It is assumed shortly after returning to her home Joan put away the milk and shopping, hung up her trench coat, put her pocketbook away then changed her outfit.
11:15 AM: Walton Colburn, an employee of Dud’s Cleaners of Concord, made his regular visit to the Risch house to pick up some clothing. Joan gave Colburn two of Martin’s suits and some of her skirts. Colburn was in the house less than five minutes and reported nothing unusual. There is evidence to support Joan made sandwiches for herself and the children, most likely in the minutes after Colburn’s departure.
12:00 PM: David was put down for a nap, as was typical of Joan’s routine. According to Martin, David regularly slept at least two hours.
1:20 PM: Barbra Baker watched from her property as her son, Douglas, walked over to the Risch home to play with Lillian. What exactly Joan was doing from 1:00pm to 2:00pm is unclear. Police believe she alternated between reading (a copy of Elizabeth Byrd’s Immortal Queen was found opened on a kitchen table) and keeping an eye on Douglas and Lillian, who was playing in the driveway. There is also evidence to suggest Joan did some gardening. Fresh plant cuttings were later found in the garage trashcan.
1:55 PM: Without speaking to Barbara Barker, Joan walked Douglas and Lillian across the street to drop them off at Barbara’s house. It is reported she told Lillian that she would be back. So, the children continued to play at Barbara’s.
2:15 PM: Less than 20 minutes later, Barbara spots Joan in a trench coat moving quickly up her driveway.
In her October 24th statement to police she explains, “I saw her run beside her car…I saw something red; I thought that she was chasing a child and the child was a wearing red jacket. She was running with her arms outstretched.” But in the same interview, during another retelling of the sighting, she gave a slightly different account. “It seems to me that when she ran to the car, she went back to the house again. I did see something red, this was about 2:15pm.”
2:45PM: “Someone reports a woman resembling Joan walking west on Route 2A, just 300 yards from the Risch home.”
3:00 PM: Virginia Keene, the daughter of the Risches’ next-door neighbors, got off the school bus a little after 3:00 PM. While walking back to her house, she noticed an unfamiliar car in the Risches’ driveway. Possibly the same car milkman Bernard Socket saw on the 19th. Less than five minutes later, another resident of Lincoln recalled stopping while driving up Old Bedford to let a car back out of either the Keenes’ or the Risches’ driveway. Both Virginia and her mother were adamant that there was no car in their driveway at that time.
3:15 to 3:30 PM: “Someone reports a woman resembling Joan walking north in the median strip of Route 128, near the Winter Street exit, about five to six miles from the Risch home, and across two lanes of traffic from either side of 128.”
3:45 PM: Barbara Barker walks Lillian back home. Barbara takes her children shopping.
4:15 to 4:30 PM: Barbara returns home. Lillian returns to the Barkers’ house where she tells Barbara “Mommy is gone and the kitchen is covered with red paint.” David was in his crib crying because his diaper needed to be changed. Barbara, later joined by neighbor Mary Jane Butler, search for Joan in the house and the yard.
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4:25 PM: “People report a woman resembling Joan walking south on the west side of Route 128, near the Trapelo Road exit, about four miles from the Risch home (across two lanes of traffic from the 128 median stirp).
4:33 PM: Barbara Barker calls the police.
4:40 PM: Lincoln police arrive to the house to find the kitchen in disarray. The walls and floor of the kitchen were coated in bloody smears. It looks like someone made an effort to clean but quickly gave up, hence the paper towels. There were blood drops upstairs, mainly in the master bedroom. There was also a blood trail outside leading from the kitchen’s door. The kitchen handset of the wall-mounted telephone was ripped off and thrown in the wastebasket, which had been dragged from its usual spot under the sink and placed in the middle of the kitchen floor. Along with the phone, the wastebasket was filled with garbage, a liquor bottle and several empty beer bottles. “Martin Risch explained that an empty liquor bottle found in the wastebasket was one he and his wife had finished the night before but could not explain where empty beer bottles found in it might have come from.” There was an overturned table and several items scattered on the floor. Elsewhere, a phone book was found opened to the page where the emergency numbers were listed. Nothing was stolen from the house. Joan’s purse was located in a closet, untouched.
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A Lover: After a thorough search of Joan’s personal effects and numerous interviews with her friends and family, there has never been any evidence to suggest that Joan Risch had a lover; never mind a disgruntled one who could have attacked her.
A Robbery Gone Wrong/Abduction: While suicide was briefly considered, it appears that the police’s first theory was that Joan was the victim of a robbery gone wrong and a spontaneous abduction. The main idea is that Joan ran into an intruder that had broken into the home. Some circumstantial evidence that gives this theory weight is that Joan dropped Douglas and Lillian off at Barbara’s house without giving her any notice. If Joan thought someone was in her home, she may have taken the older children across the street for their safety then returned home to get little David. But, before she could get to her son, some kind of struggle ensued. This would explain certain bloody fingerprints and palm smears on the walls. A robber or robbers attempting to rob the home could also explain the beer bottles in the trashcan. Again, though, it appears that the only thing taken from the Risch house was Joan herself. And apart from the chaos in the kitchen, the rest of the house was in order. There is no evidence of ransacking.
Botched Abortion: Abortion was not nationally legalized until 1973. Meaning if women like Joan, who already had her hands full with two children under the age of five and simply may not have wanted a third, would have had to seek the aid of doctors willing to work outside the law. Even if performed by a medical professional, these secret abortions were often conducted in unhygienic conditions and rarely were they able to provide appropriate post-abortion care.
An abortion gone wrong would explain a few things; Joan hires a shady doctor to perform an abortion, while David is still napping she walks the older children across the street for some attempt at privacy–most in-clinic abortions tend to take about 5 to 10 minutes–and something goes wrong. Joan, bleeding and scared, opens the phone book to call for help. The doctor panics, rips the phone off the wall and takes Joan in his own car to either drop her off at a hospital or leave her somewhere for dead. While plausible, the foundation of this theory for the most part is shaky due to the lack of blood evidence in the bathroom–arguably the most likely place to go to for a blood clean up. Further, the window of time for an abortion and a violent struggle to take place is fairly short, not to mention the fact there was no real evidence Joan was opposed to having another child. By all accounts, Joan seemed to be content as a housewife and adored her children.
An Accident and Amnesia: At first glance, the blood evidence is striking. However, later in the investigation a state police chemist found that despite the suggestion of a severe wound, the total blood shed amounted to merely half a pint (240 ml), which rules out a life-threatening injury. What it may suggest is Joan suffered some kind of injury, from either an attack or accident in the kitchen, and she became so distressed that she became confused and simply wandered off; potentially wandering into a pit on a construction site along Route 128 the night she disappeared and was unknowingly buried. It was also determined that the blood seemed more consistent with someone staggering around and trying to support themselves following an injury. She has no history of amnesiac experiences, however, and no history of mental illness runs in her family.
Left on Her Own Accord: The most tantalizing theory in this already very strange case is that the scene was staged. There was no attack, no abduction, no abortion and no mental break; the reason for Joan’s disappearance is Joan herself. It was later discovered by a local reporter in Lincoln that Joan Risch had checked out 25 books over the summer of 1961, many of which also had to do with murders and missing-persons cases. One of these books, Into Thin Air, was checked out in September was about a woman who, like Risch, had left behind blood smears and a towel when she went missing. Martin Risch didn’t find anything strange about this ‘discovery’. He described his wife as an avid reader who enjoyed suspense stories. Both the fictional and real kind. “Some people theorized that Risch chose to stage her own disappearance because she was unhappy with her life. She had worked in the publishing field in New York prior to her marriage. She chose to end her career to raise her family. Although many described her as a devoted mother who had a happy marriage and was deeply attached to her husband and children, some friends claimed Risch was very ambitious and was not fulfilled with her home life.”
Over the years, several rewards have been offered by the Massachusetts state police, the town of Lincoln and the Boston Record American newspaper, which ran an extensive package of articles about the case on the first weekend of 1962. But these rewards would go unclaimed. No useful information was ever produced after the initial investigation. Bodies that were later found in surrounding areas were ruled out as being Joan Risch. Martin Risch never declared his wife legally dead. He continued to live in the same house and raise his children until 1975, when the National Park Service purchased the Riches’ and several other properties to develop a park. While the Risch’s house was moved to Lexington, Massachusetts, Martin Risch moved to another house. Martin Risch never remarried and appeared–according to an article from the Globe–to believe his wife was still alive somewhere. He died in 2009 after a long illness.
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Joan Risch was last seen on October 24th, 1961. She was a 30-year-old Caucasian female. She was approximately 5’7″ tall and weighed 120 pounds. She had dark brown hair and blue eyes. Joan has a filling in her left upper molar. Her ears are pierced. When nervous she may break out in a red rash that would cultivate along her neck below the chin. The rash requires an unnamed medication to clear. Joan was last seen wearing a gray cloth coat (possibly from the brand Peck and Peck), a sweater, a blouse, a charcoal-colored wool skirt, blue sneakers with white piping, a slim platinum wedding band with five diamond chips, and possibly a scarf on her head. Her shoes have been variously described as blue high heels, flats, or sneakers with piping. There has never been an age progression photo released of her but, if she is still alive today, she would be 90 years old.
If you have any information on the disappearance of Joan Risch, you are encouraged to contact the Lincoln Police Department (781-259-8111). Her agency case number is 61-2623.
Into Thin Air: What is the Likeliest Explanation for the Disappearance of Joan Risch?
Joan’s NAMUS Entry
Boston Globe Archives- Spattered blood and Speculation by Matt Bai
A Kitchen Painted in Blood by Stephen Ahern
Joan Risch on The Charley Project
Disappearance of Joan Risch on Wikipedia