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