The Chicks are happy to welcome debut author Susan Kimmel Wright, who shares the fascinating true story that inspired her new mystery, Mabel Gets the Ax…
A Local Unsolved Murder
My cozy Mabel Gets the Ax germinated decades ago, in the fertile soil of a real-life unsolved murder and a purported haunted house. The Stauffer murder story was as much a part of my western Pennsylvania childhood as the milkman, Halloweening, and air raid drills at school.
I grew up less than a mile outside the village of Lambertsville—a crossroads of about a dozen houses and a small church. The combination post office-general store had closed long before my time. During my childhood, we were a peaceful village, with only a haunted house and the memory of the brutal 1906 Stauffer murder by way of excitement.
The haunted house was a natural object of fascination for the neighborhood kids. We rode our bikes up Cemetery Hill, turned at the graveyard—where Mrs. Stauffer now rests, and onto Stauffer Road. Another mile of rough pedaling over dirt and strewn pebbles brought us out of the woods into acres of overgrown pasture, straight to the grassy drive leading to the house.
Though we stopped to stare, we rarely ventured nearer than the wreckage of the old barn by the road, several yards away. Once described by a newspaper reporter as a “fine large brick residence,” the farmhouse was already a ruin. Years of neglect had tumbled bricks, ripped off shingles, and shattered panes. Now it brooded, windows no more than gaping black holes staring out at the bottom of the slope, where the road curved around a murky pond. People told tales of doors that opened by themselves and balls rolling across the floor or bouncing down the stairs of their own volition.
November 9thmarks the 115th anniversary of Catherine Stauffer’s still-unsolved murder. Older now than she was at her death, I’ve been unable to let her ancient cold case rest. With several strong suspects and a wealth of evidence, how did her murderer slip away and never face justice?
Twice widowed and estranged from the rest of her family—with whom she was involved in a property dispute—sixty-four-year-old Catherine lived alone on her isolated farm with two grandchildren. On the night of the murder, fourteen-year-old Grace awoke to a man in her room. When she screamed, he choked her until she pretended to lose consciousness.
As soon as the intruder slipped downstairs, she roused her brother, twelve-year-old John. Together, they went to alert their grandmother in the adjoining bedroom. But the murderer came back up, and the children scrambled to escape. John had grabbed a revolver from his drawer and later said he could have shot the intruder but was too scared.
While the murderer remained in the house, the children, still in nightclothes, ran a half-mile to the nearest neighbor for help. What a living nightmare that must have been. The alarm quickly went up, and according to a newspaper account, most of the inhabitants of Lambertsville swarmed to the Stauffer farm, where they discovered Mrs. Stauffer in a pool of blood. She appeared to have been choked before her skull was broken by a blow from the sharp end of a blacksmith hammer. Eighty dollars’ cash still in her drawer suggested the killer’s sole objective was murder.
Though arrested on abundant circumstantial evidence, Mrs. Stauffer’s son-in-law was later released. And despite rampant speculation at the time—both in the press and community at large—no one was ever convicted or ever will be.
In 1976, the old house’s surviving shell was leveled. Friends of ours eventually purchased the land and built a new home on the property. As far as I’ve heard, the ghosts are now at rest.
The privilege of the novelist is to provide resolution, where real life all too often relegates events to the bin marked “random and unexplained.” I can never provide closure for Catherine and her grandchildren. But letting Mabel solve the historic Sauer ax murders gave me a measure of satisfaction and maybe exorcised a bit of the sadness that’s haunted me all these years.
Readers, do you have an unsolved hometown mystery?
About the book: When Mabel got the ax from her comfy-but-boring job at age forty-nine, she thought she’d hit rock bottom. But that was before she realized getting the ax was more than a figure of speech, and solving murders wasn’t in her previous job description.
Mabel plans to bring the thrills of volunteering to the masses—if she doesn’t get the ax first!
After losing her job of twenty-three years, Mabel decides to launch what will surely be a glamorous new career as an author. Having recently inherited her late grandmother’s house, she has the freedom to spend time volunteering and writing about her experiences. Unfortunately, Mabel’s plans soon go off the rails. Her inheritance comes with decades of clutter, and overgrown lot, a dog named Barnacle, and a neighbor with an ax to grind. And her first assignment as a Medicine Spring Historical Society volunteer is to lead a tour of the Sauer Mansion, known locally as the “Ax Murder House,” site of a notorious 1930s double homicide.
As Mabel shepherds her tour group through the house, it appears history’s repeating itself when she stumbles across a body in the parlor. Finding herself on the suspect list, Mabel scrambles to figure out who swung the fatal ax. In the process, she can’t help being drawn into investigating the unsolved historic murders, teamed up with PI John Bigelow, a man she isn’t sure she can trust. With an ax murderer on the loose, will Mabel be next?
About the author: Susan Kimmel Wright began her life of mystery as a child with snooping into things that didn’t concern her. That led to reading and writing kids’ mysteries and eventually to Medicine Spring with Mabel. A longtime member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, Susan’s also a prolific writer of personal experience stories, many for Chicken Soup for the Soul. She shares an 1875 farmhouse in southwestern PA with her husband, several dogs and cats, and an allegedly excessive stockpile of coffee and tea mugs.