Joan Risch and Overthinking Cold Cases

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joan risch

One of the cases I go back to again and again is Joan Risch, the homemaker who went missing in, yes, 1961. Fifty-six years ago. I was not born yet.  I’ve never been to Lincoln, Massachusetts and my only experience of the state is getting lost on the Boston subway on my way to a hotel with my now-husband, during a stop on our way to Connecticut. Where the fuck even is Lincoln?

Yet I always circle back to this case. Like an annoying song stuck in my head except more terrifying. Something about Joan rings familiar to me, being alone in your home with your children and that fleeting thought that an unwelcome stranger could approach you as you prepare the cola ham with pineapple rings for dinner (or whatever era-appropriate food you happen to be cooking).

Joan Risch was alone when she disappeared. Her infant was asleep, and her older child was playing at a neighbor’s.

Someone was perhaps watching Joan, waiting for Joan to walk her child across the street to the neighbor’s house. Was it a neighbor? A milkman?

Not creepy at all

I think what has done the most damage to this case is the eye witness accounts of a woman trudging along a nearby freeway, supposedly with varying levels of blood on her clothing and/or legs. Consider the actual evidence in the case.

When a neighbor found Joan’s house empty except for her son, unharmed, in his crib, there was blood everywhere. The phone was ripped out in the kitchen. The phone book was on the floor (this was before 911, y’all). A phone table was knocked the fuck over.

There were unknown beer bottles in the garbage bin. (Oh, DNA testing, why must you have been so recently invented?) THE evidence, in my opinion.

So, yeah, that brings me to my theory and why I think people need to stop overthinking Joan Risch.

Joan was known in the small neighborhood; door-to-door salesman, neighbors, the milkmen (there were at least two who frequented the Risch home). A man surveying the land which would eventually be turned into a national park. A man who tended to overstay his welcome, according to neighbors.

She drank beer. Either by herself that day or with someone else. Joan was not known to be heavy drinker but a social one, according to the police report. A missing social drinker with a bucket of empty beer bottles in her kitchen.

Someone had a few beers with Joan and killed her.

There was no back-door abortion (one of the popular theories), no woman roaming the highway covered in blood. Those eyewitness sightings are false. Not one single person would stop for a woman covered in blood? Only two people on a busy highway would notice? Nah. People suddenly ‘remembered’ things only after the story hit the newspapers. I’m not saying people are lied, but people are suggestible. Remember, there are people who remember committing a crime they didn’t commit.

Joan was alone with her children, at home, and a target for some psychopath who happened to fixate on her during his daily route. Someone who wouldn’t be seen as out of the ordinary in a suburban neighborhood. Someone who could routinely seen carrying things, like a milkman or a dry cleaner delivery service.

Someone who knew her daughter routinely went to play at the neighbor’s.

When I think of Joan’s case, I always think of the image of Joan trudging along the highway in a headscarf, a ghost. It makes a creepier story, but in unfortunately, I think the eyewitness “sightings” altered the outcome of this case.

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