Lisa Q. Mathews

The Girls of Summer, 1969: Peace, Love and Murder

I can pinpoint exactly when my interest in crime solving began: May 1969. That was the year I turned nine. It was also the year when a 10-year-old girl named Mary Mount disappeared.

She lived two woodsy, Connecticut towns away from me. Our fathers worked together, IBM executives a train commute away in White Plains, NY. The last time she was seen, she was wearing a pink dress, chasing her kitten. When she didn’t show up for dinner (these were the 60s, so kids weren’t accounted for 24/7), her mother grew worried, and contacted the police.

mary

Mary never came home. Days went by, then weeks. The police were sure she’d been kidnapped, and patiently awaited the ransom request. I didn’t get many details, because the 60s were also a time when kids were seen but not heard in regard to “grown-up” matters.

The ransom request never came. I knew something was very wrong, because my dad was quiet and tense when he got home each night. At Sunday Mass, I could tell he was praying for Mary. I prayed for her, too—and thought about her out there in the woods somewhere, maybe lost and all alone. But in my heart, that didn’t seem right. None of us ever got lost in the woods. I even kept a sharp eye out when I went to New Canaan, Mary’s town, for a dental appointment—just in case. I tried to remember if I’d met Mary at one of the annual IBM family picnics. Maybe we’d played together. She was just like me, I was sure, except she had brown hair and mine was blond.

They found her in June, in a wooded area near a reservoir. According to the newspaper, her head had been bashed with a rock. The horror of this news hit me, quite literally, like a sucker punch. I could hardly breathe. Mary was dead—and no one had any clue who was responsible for her murder.

woods.CT

There was an investigation, of sorts. Mary’s grieving family moved to Massachusetts. Four more young girls were murdered, and the papers warned of a “Connecticut Boogeyman” on the prowl. I didn’t go into the woods anymore. None of us did. I eyed every stone wall with suspicion. But to this day, no one has ever been charged in Mary’s death. The police had a good idea of who the killer was, but because that individual ended up in jail a short time later for the murders of three mentally-challenged people in New Haven, also struck with rocks, they didn’t put much extra effort into the case. No forensics, no trail…no anything.

In July 1969, a month after Mary was found, my parents rented a house surrounded by woods on Cape Cod. Most of it was glass—trendy for the time, I suppose, but all I could think of was Mary and her killer as I stared out into the trees. Then came a new distraction: on my birthday, a young woman named Mary Jo Kopechne drowned off nearby Chappaquiddick, in a car driven off a bridge by a famous, local favorite son, Ted Kennedy. The Cape was suddenly full of activity, a jump-off spot for crowds and reporters headed to the Vineyard. The bright blue skies and ocean air now held death and mystery, and even a newly-minted nine-year-old was confused by the seeming lack of answers. Why had Mary Jo been left all alone in the water?

MaryJo

While my parents shopped at the tiny general store in North Wellfleet, I stared at a creepy newspaper photo (I think it was the National Enquirer) of a young woman with her eyes closed, surrounded by bubbles. The police didn’t have any answers, it seemed, but a world-famous psychic named Jeane Dixon did. How was that possible?

Unfortunately for Mary Jo, and perhaps fortunately for Ted Kennedy, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planted the American flag on the moon two days later. Like everyone else, I watched the event on TV, but all I could think of was, What about poor Mary Jo? If this Jeane Dixon could talk to her, was she…a ghost? And would she show up somehow at our glass house in the woods?

moon.landing

When we returned home in August, it was time for school shopping in New York City—and my dad needed some new Fall suits. While he was being measured by tailors in the dressing room, I flipped through the magazines and newspapers fanned out on a coffee table for bored wives. That’s where I discovered the New York Daily News—and screaming from the front page, the horrific murder of pregnant actress Sharon Tate and several others, at the hand of the drug-crazed Manson Family.

tatehouse

I didn’t know anything about Woodstock in mid-August. (For the record, there were two deaths there, one from an overdose and one by tractor.) But Joan Didion would later say that, for many, “the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969,” with the Manson murders. I’m not sure if that’s true, but the summer of 1969 was definitely a turning point in my understanding of life—and death. I considered a career with the FBI.

Along with the advent of school, the Brady Bunch began airing the very next month, to distract me from more chilling stories of true-crime investigation. But that September was also when I started devouring every mystery book I could find in my school library, and on my dad’s bookshelves. I couldn’t save Mary, or Mary Jo, or Sharon, but I could at least begin my search for (thanks, Superman) truth, justice, and the American Way. And maybe, hopefully, happier endings. RIP, Mary.

Chappy

Readers, is there a particular crime, solved or unsolved, that haunts you? (Or tell Lisa your favorite childhood mystery title!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

40 thoughts on “The Girls of Summer, 1969: Peace, Love and Murder

  1. Oh, Lisa, I’m sorry that was such a scary summer for nine-year-old you! There were woods near where I grew up that kids cut through walking to/from school. (I wasn’t supposed to, but sometimes I did.) Worst thing I ever knew happened in those woods was when Jody swung from a tree, fell and broke his arm.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m so glad your woods were safe, Vickie–if we don’t count Jody’s arm-breaking incident. I always wished I’d had other kids in the neighborhood to hang out with, but we didn’t really have a neighborhood, so no paths. It was (literally) more like The Ice Storm movie.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Lisa, I didn’t know you were from CT. I am, too. I grew up in Stamford, but I haven’t lived there in decades. It’s interesting that it’s that same case, the case of Mary Mount, that still haunts me. I was in college at the time. Many of my friends and I worried about the safety of our little sisters. Was the possible suspect supposed to be driving a red convertible? For some reason, it seems that we all eyed the drivers of red convertibles with suspicion.

    In the summer of 1969 both of my grandmothers died four weeks apart. Overall, it was not a great summer for us.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Deb, we were neighbors, almost! (I grew up in Fairfield.) I’m so very sorry about your grandmothers. Re: the suspect, he was alleged to drive a white truck. (Some reports say he was a truck driver, others an ice cream truck driver, and still others a milkman. You’d think they could have figured that part out.) Briefly, there was another suspect, too–a teenage neighbor and friend of Mary’s who killed his whole family a couple of doors down a year later. He was an Eagle Scout.

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      • I keep thinking how much more frightening this was for you, a child with a connection to the victim’s family. (The first death that affected me personally was the death of a nine year old friend and classmate who was hit by a car driven by a drunk driver. Back then, there were no professionals looking out for children who had experienced a loss.)

        Liked by 2 people

      • Deb, you make an excellent point about no ready counseling for kids at the time. Probably no one even knew I (or any of us) was thinking about these events. I’ve noticed, though, that there are often comments in discussion forums that begin, “I went to grade school with X, and I knew…”

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  3. Wow, what a moving piece, Lisa. Totally brought me back to that strange period in my childhood–of peace, love, and murder. For me, I think the rude awakening to adulthood came with the assassination of Robert Kennedy in the Ambassador Hotel in LA. My parents had been watching him speak that night before on TV and then the next morning we heard he’d been shot. With the assassination of MLK just two months earlier (and the riots which followed), it was a very sad and creepy time.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thanks, Leslie! As I wrote this post, I did think about the RFK and MLK assassinations also, and all the violence. They had to have had an effect on young kids as well. (The day of JFK’s assassination was my first, extremely vivid, childhood memory.) I think at the time I somehow considered all of those events “grown-up” stuff (I know, that’s terrible). But there was definitely a very sad and creepy feeling through that entire decade, in my view.

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      • And of course the irony is that it’s now that parents are so much more protective of their kids (because of increased media and communications), even though I think the ’60s were a far more dangerous era, in retrospect.

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      • Leslie, I feel the same way. My mother was a volunteer for Kennedy and met Ethel Kennedy at a fundraiser shortly before the assassination. We were still mourning MLK’s assassination. I remember there was a terrible crash on the road behind our house, which was a rather busy road one night. I had this terrible feeling of being unsafe, of feeling the world was a dangerous place. The next morning, I came downstairs for breakfast and my mother was at the kitchen table listening to a radio, her face white and wet with tears. Kennedy had been shot. For the next few years, to paraphrase one of my favorite Tennessee Williams’ lines, it felt like “the world was lit by lightning.”

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  4. What a powerful and heartbreaking story. It’s incomprehensible to my adult mind. I can’t imagine how terrifying it must have been for a nine year-old. Thank you for sharing it.

    There have been a few murders that have touched my life, but the strangest (and perhaps most haunting) occurred when I was a young newlywed. For the first couple years of our marriage, I worked at my husband’s business. One of his customers claimed to have been abandoned by his wife. When I waited on him, he’d cry on my shoulder and show me letters from his runaway wife, which detailed her adventures with another man. A year later, the police found her. Our customer had killed his wife, buried her in the driveway, then concealed her body beneath a fresh pour of concrete. Even now, I can’t get those fake letters–and my interactions with him–out of my mind.

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  5. Wow. What a summer for you.

    I don’t have anything like that in my life. I just always enjoyed reading mysteries once I got hooked on the Hardy’s, Nancy, Encyclopedia, and then Trixie.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s the way it should be, Mark! I’m not sure why I wrote about Mary this week. I had a completely different, more lighthearted blog post in mind, but I woke up thinking about her. Another person recently asked me how I could possibly write about murder, and I gave my usual answer (pursuit of justice, mine are humorous, etc.), but I dunno …

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    • The unsolved murders are so haunting. We heard a detective from the L.A. County Sheriff’s dept. speak at our SinC yesterday and he talked about the burden these officers carry with them when they’re trying to solve a case, and in particular, when they don’t and it’s a cold case. When you read about cold cases that eventually get solved, do you notice how there’s always an LE official who couldn’t let go of the case? Whether or not he or she was the one to solve it, he’s still been trying, even if he’s retired and it’s forty years later, like with the recent case of the Golden State Killer.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Gram, I have spent more than an hour now, reading about Kathy and her brave sister Karen. I’ve lived in NH for 10 years now, and I didn’t know about this story, or the Cold Case group. I’m going to buy the books. Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Ellen! There are so many 60s and 70s cold cases out there…With modern forensics and social media (and at times, more diligent police work), a lot them could have been solved. The effects on remaining family members of so many are well-documented, and heartbreaking. Many of them are the siblings, now around our age, still searching.

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  6. Lisa, this is so deeply moving and unsettling. How hard to come to grips with something like that as an adult, never mind as a child. I still remember walking into the TV room (yes, that’s what we called it) when RFK died, seeing my parents so quiet. I don’t remember any abductions that took place when I was a child, but there was a horrific, plain daylight murder at a downtown shopping festival one town over in Middletown, CT. A mentally ill man stabbed a young girl to death in the middle of a crowd, while some men fought to pull him off. I didn’t see it, but I heard about it. I just realized that I don’t like crowds and this is probably why.

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    • Oh wow, Shari! I think it’s a sure bet that’s why you don’t like crowds. And what is it about Connecticut…? (PS: I vote we bring back the TV room–and TV dinners!)

      Liked by 1 person

  7. This must have been terrifying. Hugs to your young self!

    This is so haunting: “The last time she was seen, she was wearing a pink dress, chasing her kitten.”

    There were some abductions in our town, and the school even sent home flyers about it. Supposedly the killer only took kids who had double initials, like BB. I don’t know whatever happened to that! Now I want to go do some research…

    Liked by 2 people

  8. In 1973 or 1974, a girl that I went to high school with (she was a year behind me) was stabbed to death in the parking lot of a local mall. She was 17 or 18 years old. It was really scary, because it was a mall that my friends and I went to a lot. No one has ever been arrested for her murder. It still makes me sad to think about how scared she must have been.

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    • I only realized as I was researching for this post (I’d hoped maybe there had been some recent developments in Mary’s case, with advances in forensics) that all of these events had occurred in the space of a few months. It felt so much longer!

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  9. What a harrowing post, Lisa. When I was younger I don’t remember paying much attention to real-life crimes. Maybe it was because there was no Internet back then and we didn’t watch much news in my house. I guess I should be grateful I was so blissfully ignorant growing up!

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