At approximately 4:30 P.M. on October 24, 1961, Sergeant Michael McHugh of the Lincoln, Massachusetts Police Department received a phone call. On the other end of the line was Barbara Barker, a woman living on Old Bedford Road. McHugh listened as Barker expressed concern about the well-being of her neighbor, Joan Risch. Barker explained that she had just been to the Risch home, and found blood all over the kitchen floor. Joan, however, was nowhere in sight.
McHugh hung up and arrived at the Cape Cod-style home in less than five minutes. He entered through the side door and found himself in the kitchen. The floor was smeared in blood, the table was overturned, and the handset of the wall-mounted telephone had been ripped from its cradle; it hung awkwardly on the edge of a small trash pail.
McHugh first believed he was dealing with a suicide. He searched the entire house for a body, but came up empty. He also walked the perimeter of the home, looking for clues, but couldn’t find a thing. Then, McHugh telephoned the station and told them to “pull the plug,” which meant to send out the whole department, for assistance in searching the surrounding woods.
When the rest of the officers arrived, Police Chief Leo Algeo encountered the neighbor who first called the authorities, Barbara Barker.
Barker recalled how she had seen Joan outside around 2:30 P.M. that day, wearing a skirt, sweater, and a gray trench coat. Barker also remembered seeing Joan carrying “something red,” but could not say what it was. She said Joan was levelheaded and faithful—meaning that Joan would not have had any male company in her husband’s absence.
According to her statement, Barker had gone shopping and returned around 4:15 P.M. Shortly after, Joan’s young daughter, Lillian, had run to Barker’s home, crying about not being able to “find her mommy,” and about her baby brother being left in his crib unattended. Barker took Lillian and David to another neighbor’s house across the street, inspected the Risch home, and called the police.
Chief Algeo ordered a search of the local hospitals. After another sweep of the home, additional blood was found on the wall near the telephone, on the door frame between the kitchen and dining room, and on the telephone box. Almost all of the blood had dried except for a few pooled spots on the floor. All signs pointed to a struggle. Strangely, the phone directory was open to a page that listed emergency numbers. Outside, the police also noticed some slight damage to the Risch car. The woods were searched with bloodhounds—without success.
Police turned their attention to Joan’s husband, Martin Risch, who had been out of town for the day. He was summoned back to Lincoln, and brought to the police barracks where police took his statement. Martin stated that he left his home at 6:50 A.M. on October 24, and had driven to Logan Airport for his flight to New York City. He explained his actions throughout the day, including phone calls he had made, as well as the name of the hotel where he had been staying until the police contacted him at 7:00 P.M. that evening.
Martin Risch described his wife as a shy woman. He informed the police that her daily routine seldom changed, and stressed the fact that she never left the children alone. When questioned about the contents of the trash pail on the kitchen floor, Martin could account for everything, except for the presence of empty beer bottles. The damage to the car, he recalled, was either from himself or Joan bumping off the garage doors. He did admit that his wife was often susceptible to the door-to-door solicitations of traveling salesmen. The only extracurricular activity she engaged in was with the Women’s League of Voters.
The following day, the FBI was notified of Joan Risch’s disappearance; six days later, the town of Lincoln offered a $500 reward for information on Joan’s whereabouts. By November, there were still no answers. The FBI could not determine whether or not the amount of blood found in the Risch kitchen was substantial enough to indicate a murder. Additionally, the newspapers published reports that a suspicious man had been seen lurking near the home just before the incident, which the FBI dismissed as “unfounded.” The consensus was that Joan Risch had not been abducted or victimized, but that she had hemorrhaged—the blood type in the kitchen matched Joan’s—or caused a self-inflicting wound, then left the home of her own accord.
Information soon materialized that a dazed and bloody woman fitting Joan’s description was seen running along Route 128 on the date of her disappearance. Police responded by dispatching divers to search the nearby reservoir. Departments in other states were notified, as were relatives in Connecticut, New York, Florida, and California. Nothing turned up. The daughter of the Rischs’ other neighbors, the Keenes, claimed she saw a strange car on their street on the day of Joan’s disappearance. Several leads on this mysterious car, which might have been blue, were explored, all with no success.
The FBI continued to assist Massachusetts State Police whenever possible. But, because there was no proof that Joan Risch was lying dead somewhere outside of Massachusetts, the FBI could not consider it a federal violation. Thus, its hands were tied, and agents could to do little else than sit on the sidelines.
On January 3, 1962, Boston’s Record American newspaper offered a $5,000 reward to mobilize a public search for Joan Risch. The newspaper also ran several pages detailing an hour-by-hour retrace of Joan’s activities on the afternoon of October 24, 1961. There were more details about the crime scene, the amount of blood, and the discovery of three distinct fingerprints—none of which could be traced to anyone, including, because of her absence, Joan. No further leads came, and the reward went unclaimed.
There has never been a definitive explanation for the fate of Joan Risch. Independent investigators have theorized that Joan was murdered by an intruder, and that her body was taken to Lexington, Massachusetts, to be buried on a vacant patch of land that later became a subdivision named Springdale Estates. Some believe Joan staged her own disappearance, when it was discovered that she had been checking out library books about disappearances immediately prior to her own.
Others think Joan’s disappearance might somehow have been related to her traumatic childhood: she was adopted after her parents died in what was reported as a “suspicious” house fire, and the reports that Joan may have been sexually abused as a young girl.
It’s likely we’ll never know what truly did happen to Joan Risch on that October day, 55 years ago.