The disappearance of Joan Risch has to be one of the weirdest missing persons cases, no matter which theory you read. Either she was a troubled woman who left to search for happiness or she was a victim of a terrible crime that has yet to be solved.
Joan’s childhood was kind of a tragic one. Her parents died in a suspicious fire in 1940. Before being adopted by her aunt and uncle, she was placed with foster parents. While there, Joan said that her foster father sexually abused her.
Despite her childhood, Joan went on to graduate college with an English literature degree. She started working as a secretary and worked her way up to an editorial assistant. While working she met Martin Risch, who she later married in 1956. This is when she left her job to start a family with him.
In 1959, Joan and Martin were living in Ridgefield, Connecticut when they had their first child, a daughter they named Lillian. A year later they had a son, David. The family then moved to Lincoln, Massachusetts in April of 1961. The family settled into their new town easily. Joan was active in the community, joining the League of Women Voters, and Martin began working at the Fitchburg Paper Company.
These are the events that lead up to the disappearance of Joan Risch.
On October 24, 1961, Martin left early to catch an 8 am flight to New York City for an overnight business trip. Little did he know that this morning would be the last time he would ever see his wife.
After her husband left, Joan woke the children and fed them breakfast just like every morning. She then dropped her son off with her neighbor, Barbara Barker who lived across the street, so that she could run a couple errands. She took 4-year-old Lillian to her dentist appointment, then went to the bank to cash a check, and after they went to the store to pick up a few things.
Joan and Lillian returned home around 11 am. A couple deliver drivers, the milkman and the mailman, said they didn’t notice anything unusual when they made their deliveries that day. The dry cleaner who picked up Martin’s suits for cleaning from inside the home said the same thing- nothing about Joan, the children, or the home seemed out of the ordinary.
Around noon, Joan made the children lunch and then put David down in his crib for a nap, he was only 2 years old so he normally would sleep a couple hours. While David napped, Lillian played with the neighbor boy, Douglas, and Joan was outside pruning some plants and doing light yard work.
A little before 2 pm, Joan had Lillian go with Douglas to his house to play and told Barbara that she would back shortly. The two kids played in the backyard on a swing set.
Fifteen minutes later, Barbara looked out her kitchen window and saw Joan come out of her house in a trench coat carrying something red in her arms. She said Joan looked dazed and was walking quickly, but she just assumed she was chasing after David.
That is the last verified account of anyone seeing Joan Risch.
At 3:40 pm, Barbara sent Lillian back to her own home because she needed to run errands for herself. She returned home around 4:15 pm, and that is when Lillian came running out of her house saying, “Mommy is gone and the kitchen is covered in red paint!”
Barbara rushed into the house to look for Joan. She found David crying, still in his crib. And the red paint Lillian said she saw all over was not paint– it was blood.
Police arrived at 4:33 pm and Sargent Mike McHugh arrived a few minutes later. He saw the blood on the floor and the walls. He noticed the phone had been ripped off the wall and thrown into the garbage can, which was usually kept under the sink and was now in the middle of the floor, and that the table and chairs had been overturned. An address book found nearby was opened to the emergency numbers section, but no numbers had been written down.
Sgt. Mike then noticed that the blood on the kitchen floor trailed all the way to David’s bedroom, which was upstairs, and all the way back into the kitchen. The trail continued all the way outside and stopped at the trunk of Joan’s car.
The amount of blood found would not lead investigators to believe that Joan had suffered a life threatening wound. There was only about a pint of blood. Also it appeared that someone had tried to smear the blood around to make it look like there was actually more blood than there really was. The blood type of the blood found was type O, which matched Joan’s blood type, but was never determined if it was in fact her blood.
Investigators found it odd, though, that with all the blood on the floor that there were no footprints in the blood.
There was, however, a bloody partial palm print and a two fingerprints on the wall and a single bloody thumbprint on the phone. It could not be determined at the time if they were Joan’s prints because she didn’t have any fingerprints on file, but eventually they were able to find prints of Joan’s at a hospital and ruled them out as being hers. To this day there hasn’t been a match.
Initially it was thought that she had committed suicide so backup was called in to search the surrounding areas to try to locate her body. Calls were also made to local hospitals to notify police if someone fitting her description happened to be admitted.
Joan never turned up, and is still missing to this day.
Here’s where it gets weird.
The next door neighbor’s daughter told police that she saw a two-toned Oldsmobile Sedan parked behind Joan’s own vehicle in her driveway around 3:20 pm the day she disappeared. About 4:15 pm, someone from the neighborhood said they saw a similar vehicle park along a street, get out of the car to cut a couple branches from a tree in the woods nearby, then get back in and drive off. The milkman said he also saw that vehicle parked in Joan’s driveway five days earlier when he delivered their morning milk.
There were also several other people who claimed to see Joan the day she went missing. Many reported they saw her walking along Route 128 in Waltham, which was close to the Cambridge Reservoir. Investigators took these tips seriously and had the water searched thoroughly, but nothing was found. Another report was that she was walking along the side of Route 2A, which was only a couple hundred yards from her home, wearing a loose-fitting grey coat that went to her knees and had a handkerchief tied under her chin like she was trying to hide her face. She was described as “shuffling along and hunched over” and also that she was clutching her stomach and had what looked like blood on both her legs.
Joan had checked out several books from her local library leading up to going missing. All the books were about true crime and mystery, mainly murders and disappearances. A total of 25 books had been checked out by her over the summer of 1961.
The Hunt for Richard Thorpe was one she had checked out, which was about a 12 year old boy who disappeared on purpose. Another book, Death of the Heart, was a novel about an orphan teen who runs away.
The book that stood out the most was Into Thin Air, which was checked out the month before Joan went missing. In the book a young wife disappears from her home, the only evidence left behind being blood that had been smeared with towels. Sound familiar? Except in the book, the woman left her husband and newborn child behind to find a more fulfilling life. Could this have been what Joan did?
What’s your theory?
Do you think Joan disappeared willingly? Was she attacked in her home and abducted?
The Into Thin Air parallel is super interesting to me. To me it sounds like she was searching for ideas through the books she read, this one caught her eye the most and she gave herself a superficial wound to trail blood through the house. She knew that Lillian would come home and see the mess, look for her, and go back to the neighbor’s to get help.
Another theory is that Joan had a botched abortion or maybe even a miscarriage, and that’s where all the blood came from. After all the blood loss, she may have become disoriented and tried to walk to the hospital. She might have passed out somewhere, eventually bleeding to death. Her body could still be undiscovered, or if a botched abortion and she died during it then her body could have been dumped somewhere by whoever performed it.