Unsolved murders that haunt JP

July 20, 2012
By

Jamaica Plain has seen its share of murders over the years, most of them followed by swift justice for the guilty. But JP remains haunted by some of the chilling cases where a killer got away with it.

It is too late to convict anyone for the crime that, nearly 150 years later, remains JP’s most notorious: the Bussey Woods child murders of 1865.

But it is possible that someone, somewhere still knows a crucial clue in other unsolved murders that shook the neighborhood: a double strangling on Sumner Hill 40 years ago, and the brutal beating of a 97-year-old woman in central JP in 2005.

Anyone with information about those cases can contact the Boston Police Department at 1-800-494-8477.

Bussey Woods murders

The murders of a young sister and brother in what is now Arnold Arboretum was once among New England’s most infamous crimes. When the Boston Globe reported on the Lizzie Borden murder case over 25 years later, the Bussey Woods murders was still one of the crimes it cited as one of the few comparisons in shocking violence.

On June 12, 1865, Isabella Joyce, aged 14 or 15, was visiting Boston from Lynn and asked her 12-year-old brother John to show her some of the local woodlands. Alone, they headed for the wooded hinterlands of what was then the Town of West Roxbury. Taking a streetcar from Boston, they got off at Forest Hills Station and probably followed today’s South Street into the woods.

They were drawn to a large wooded hillside then known as Bussey’s (later, just “Bussey”) Woods, now known as Hemlock Hill. It was part of a private estate left open to the public for enjoyment as a park. The children mounted to the top of the hill and found a seat under a large oak. They crafted wreaths from twigs and leaves.

While engaged in this harmless pastime, they were attacked and killed by a dagger-wielding psychopath.

The killer sexually assaulted Isabella and stabbed her more than 20 times with a blade at least 8 inches long. John was stabbed multiple times in the back, apparently while trying to run away toward a nearby house.

A police search for the missing children failed, and it was nearly a week before other visitors came across Isabella’s body. The killer was long gone.

The horror of the crime electrified all of New England. The New York Times reported the story. The famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, now buried in JP’s Forest Hills Cemetery, wrote to his wife about the murders and how they showed the extremes of human nature. A local man later wrote an eccentric book about the crime, claiming to have seen a ghost in the woods that might have been involved. The “Bussey Woods murders” would be talked about in newspaper columns well into the 20th century.

But for all the excitement, police had little to go on besides an opinion that a single killer was responsible. A massive reward was offered for a suspect, leading a corrupt ex-Secret Service agent to scam the family for supposed detection expenses. At least three men supposedly confessed to the crime over the following decade, but none of their stories held up.

One Boston newspaper editorialized that “if the adage is true that ‘murder will out,’ it would seem almost impossible that the wretches who perpetrated this double crime should escape.” But escape is exactly what the killer did.

Bussey’s Woods visitors erected a memorial cairn of stones on the spot where Isabella was killed. This “pathetic little monument,” as one writer called it, was still standing on Hemlock Hill more than 30 years later. The Gazette was unable to find any trace of it during a recent visit. With vague reports at the time and changes to the landscape since, the spot where the Joyce children were killed is now as mysterious as their killer.

Sumner Hill stranglings

The double murder of two women in their Sumner Hill apartment in 1971 was so gruesome, newspapers immediately likened it to the Boston Strangler serial killings of several years earlier.

Theresa French, 36, was an insurance clerk who had lived at 98 Seaverns Ave. for over four years. Donna Daly, 27, a server at a Hyde Square café, had been her roommate for less than a year. Both women were separated from their husbands, both of whom also lived elsewhere in JP.

In late February 1971, French’s brother and sister-in-law, who lived on Lamartine Street, became concerned after they were unable to contact her. On March 1, the landlord entered the first-floor apartment and discovered a terrible crime scene.

The two women’s bodies were lying nude on the living room floor. Both apparently had been strangled with the cord of an electric iron, which was still wrapped around one victim’s throat.

They had been dead for two to three days. Empty liquor and beer bottles indicated there had been a party, and there were no signs of forced entry. Police suspected that at least one of the women knew their killer. But the case quickly went cold.

“We had someone in mind on that one, but no one was ever brought to trial. We didn’t have enough evidence against him,” a Boston Police homicide detective told the Globe three years later. After 41 years, no one has been charged.

Violent death continued to plague Daly’s family. Her estranged husband John was struck and killed by a car on S. Huntington Avenue a month after her murder. And in a chilling coincidence, her 15-year-old son Keith also was strangled to death in 1974, reportedly by another teenager, who left his body left in Franklin Park.

Gerda Bissett

By 2005, Gerda T. “Gerry” Bissett, 97, had lived in her 5 St. John St. home for decades and become a beloved neighbor. Fellow residents held a cookout in her honor in 2004, and she was a client of the JP-based senior service agency Ethos.

But something went wrong early in the morning of May 26. Around 4 a.m., Bissett triggered a medical alarm she wore. Firefighters who responded found her beaten to death, her body wrapped in a blanket or carpet, her home ransacked. Some reports suggested the killer had broken a window to get inside.

Fear struck the neighborhood. Some residents installed security lights. A report of an armed robbery blocks away triggered a near panic. The local police captain addressed the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council about the killing.

While the crime showed signs of a burglary gone wrong, there is an indication that the police suspected something even worse. Some weeks after the killing, a Boston homicide detective visited the Gazette office and asked whether the paper had received any letters from someone describing the killing. Some serial killers have sent letters to media outlets. The Gazette did not report the inquiry at the time to avoid hampering the police investigation.

The Gazette never received any such letters. And the killer of Gerda Bissett remains a mystery.

Sources: Boston Globe archives; Google News archives; New York Times archives; Boston Public Library archives; Gazette archives; Jamaica Plain Historical Society (jphs.org); “Walks and Rides in the Country Round About Boston” by Edwin M. Bacon; Arnold Arboretum website (arboretum.harvard.edu); “Memoirs of the United States Secret Service” by George Pickering Burnham.