“Friday the 13th Curse” : Smith College Disappearances Haunted Popular Imagination (1920s)

Tragedy came to Smith College on Friday, November 13, 1925, when 20 year old Jean Robeson was found dead in her dormitory kitchenette. Her death was accidental, attributed to asphyxiation from a gas leak in her room’s lighting. This sad incident would likely have been lost in the folds of history altogether, if it had been the only trauma to strike the elite Northampton college that day.

By Saturday, though, news had broken of a search under way for another Smith student, Alice Corbett. Corbett, a friend of Robeson’s, had left her room at 8AM the morning of her death, and was not seen again. An unsealed letter found in her room addressed to her mother was never released in its entirety, but indicated “a confused state of mind” according to investigators. “Mother, I am coming home,” read its final line.

Alice Corbett, b.1906- d. __ ?

Friends of Alice said in retrospect that she had seemed in poor spirits the week leading up to her sudden departure, but not to an extent that had alarmed anyone. Widespread searches were made, particularly of the Mount Tom woods, where a girl fitting her description had been seen. Her father immediately posted a $500 reward for information.

On November 20, some telephone lineman reported that a girl resembling Corbett’s photo had held them up at gunpoint on nearby Mount Whiting, demanding food before disappearing into the woods. A deluge of less reliable tips and outright hoaxes came in, as well, as they do in any well publicized missing persons case. In April, a middle-aged woman “of at least 45 years” went about some stores in Cheshire, Mass, claiming to be the missing student; she was interviewed by state police, who ended up giving her trolley fare and sending her back to her home in Adams.

Active searches of woodlands and waterways throughout western Massachusetts and neighboring states continued for nearly 2 years. Despite an increased reward of $1000, no worthwhile information about Alice ever surfaced.

Barely more than 2 years after her disappearance, another Smith student went missing. On Friday, January 13, 18 year old Frances Smith was reported missing from her dormitory, by a friend who said she had not been in her room all day. From the very first day of the investigation, suspicions percolated about a connection between her disappearance and that of Alice Corbett from the same campus 26 months ago. Lead Detective Joseph Daley of the state police -“although not superstitious,” according to Boston police commissioner Alfred Foote, who wrote of the case 2 years later- certainly felt the Friday the 13th timing gave the two cases an ominous connection. Only the lack of a note seemed to differentiate the circumstances.

Certainly, such disappearances were not a common occurrence; prior to Alice Corbett, the last case of a student going missing anyone could recall in the area was Bertha Lane Mellish, who vanished from Mt Holyoke College in 1897.

Publicity was even greater for this disappearance, as Frances was well known in society as the heiress daughter of a millionaire family. Coincidentally, she was also a somewhat close friend of Anne Morrow, who shortly would become Anne Lindbergh, and whose child would 5 years later become one of the most famous disappearances of the 20th century. As with the Lindbergh disappearance, and Alice Corbett earlier, dubious tips and unhelpful leads poured in and were systematically investigated, to no avail. Frances was “sighted” in Westfield, in Boston, in the Berkshires; in Connecticut and Maine, in New York, and more. By the following year, Frances St John Smith had been seen in almost every corner of the U.S., and in Europe.

The search for Frances was the most extensive ever conducted in Massachusetts at that time. After two weeks of failed searching, Commissioner Foote called a “secret conference” at the Lee barracks, with Frances’ father, uncle, top police officials from around the region, and the president of Smith College. Over two straight days, “the life of Miss Smith was discussed and considered from every angle since childhood.”

By 1928, Daly, Foote and other police investigators had become convinced Frances must be dead. Proof of their suspicions came on March 29, 1929, from two men dragging the Connecticut River 20 miles from Northampton in Longmeadow, for a coworker who had drowned the previous day. Instead, they found the partially nude body of young woman, who was later identified by clothing and dental records as Frances. An autopsy by Dr. Frederick D. Jones listed her cause of death as “drowning, sustained under circumstances undetermined.”

Associated Press, March 29, 1929

National coverage of her body’s discovery didn’t stop people from “seeing” the famous missing heiress, and tips continued to come in from around the country over the next couple years.

Frances St John Smith, b.1909- d.1928

The strangest reference to Frances came in 1933, where she is alluded to in one of the many bizarre anonymous letters received early in the search for her friend Anne’s infant son Charles. In the ransom message, which investigators at one point considered one of the only credible letters, the anonymous author writes, “You know the fate of the Smith girl, who received a similar letter and did contrary to our instructions by making it known… she was dropped out of the picture, and so will you if you tell anybody about the contents of this letter.”

There’s no indication Frances ever received any such letter, though a $50,000 ransom letter had been received by her father in 1928, dismissed at the time as a malicious prank. Charles Lindbergh Jr, meanwhile, was ultimately found dead in May 1933. Richard Hauptman was convicted and executed for the crime, though there’s at least half a dozen books questioning that conclusion.

The murky, unresolved nature of Frances death, and the overall loss of three students from the 2500 student population of the private Northampton college in a 26 month period- all on Fridays that fell on the 13th- led to considerable rumor and speculation for years to come. Some inevitably spoke of a “curse” over the college related to Friday the 13th, though this idea was diluted away as decades passed without related incident.

The intuitive magic marker in the human brain cannot help but try to draw lines between some dots; it’s this mental capacity that most muddies unsolved mysteries. Conversely, this intuitive dot-connector is also the thing that most often solves cold cases, when they do get solved. Double-edged tools should be used with great care. With that said, I will relay just one more coincidence (it cannot be more than that, can it?) in this legend built on coincidence. About 20 years after Frances St John Smith’s disappearance, another Smith student, Anne Straw, went missing. This July 1947 disappearance took place nowhere near the college, but at her parent’s summer house in Squam Lake, New Hampshire. When a thorough search of the area and dredge of the lake was made without sign of her, investigation did circle back to the Northampton area, but without any credible leads.

After more than a year, the search for Anne Straw ended when two boys fishing on the other side of Squam Lake caught a piece of clothing still attached to her remains on one of their hooks. The date was August 13, 1948; a Friday.

Anne Straw b. 1926 d. 1947

Boston Globe, Nov 16-21, 1925; July 31, 1930
Brooklyn Daily Eagle,March 31/1929
Foote, Alfred; Norris, Lowell. “The Strange Case of Frances St. John Smith”, True Detective Mysteries, November 1929.
“Smith Students are Still Missing,” Nov. 13, 1928, North Adams Transcript
“Scores of Clues Scoured in Vain Search for Lindbergh Baby.” Philadelphia Enquirer, March 4, 1932
“Body is Found” St Louis Star and Times, Aug 14, 1948

Vanished: N. Adams Child Goes Missing from Clarksburg Farm (1925)

For the first time since he’d been living on the Woods farm, 11 year old David Lenhoff didn’t come in when Mr. Wood called him in for dinner.

It was Tuesday, June 16, 1925; at that time, the North Adams youth had been living on their Clarksburg farm for about two years at the time. David had suffered some type of brain injury from a childhood illness, and subsequently his parents had paid to have him board on the Clarksburg farm in the hopes that more nature and outdoors time would improve his condition.

When David (who the papers would persist in calling “mentally deficient,” and worse) did not appear at dinner, Mr Wood searched the property, then began combing the adjacent woods. When 9pm passed with no sign of him, Alfred Wood alerted the boy’s father, Robert Lenhoff, who together with 4 other men resumed the search through the night and into the following day. Clarksburg and North Adams police were alerted.

More volunteers joined the search over the coming days. Towns people, boy scouts, state police, eventually national guardsmen. Beginning on June 20, three different celebrity dogs were brought in to track the boy’s scent. Mrs Lenhoff even hired a private detective from Boston, Charles Smith, who pursued the case over the rest of the summer. Smith postulated that the boy had either fallen in a remote area of the woods, perhaps a well, or may have been taken by a man in an automobile. One witness reported having seen a man and a boy in an unfamiliar car in that area of Clarksburg on the afternoon in question, but as with other leads, it brought searchers no closer to discovering what became of David.

Leaving no stone unturned, even psychic abilities were put to the task, as investigators consulted Clara Jepson, the famed clairvoyant from nearby Pownal, Vermont.

By summer’s end, all investigation had stalled. Little was said of the disappearance until the following June, when unspoken tensions between the Lenhoff and Wood families were ignited by a letter from an uninvolved Transcript reader, Arthur Charon of Adams. Charon expressed the unvarnished opinion that the boy’s disappearance was a clear murder, and demanded that more be done by local police to determine the culprit.

This triggered a letter to the editor from Mrs Lenhoff, saying she too had concluded her son must have been murdered.

“I believe if he were on earth he would surely have been found by some of those who searched for him,” she wrote. “Who can tell when or where I can find his little body for which I have suffered 11 years? And I will go on suffering until the end of my days unless the murderer or murderess is found. I do not ask for any punishment for the guilty ones. All I seek is the body of my poor boy.”

The immediate response from Mrs. Wood is curious. Though the Lenhoff letter does not contain a single mention of the Woods, Mrs. Wood went to the Transcript the following day with her response, not so much to the letter as to other rumors of accusations she said the Lenhoffs had made around town.

“Only yesterday a person called at my house and said the day before, Mr and Mrs Lenhoff said I must have done something with their boy,” Wood alleges, then launches into a plethora of details about the Lenhoff’s spotty payment of the agreed board money for David. As the letter concludes, Woods implies it is the Lenhoffs who might know more about his disappearance. “The boy had no enemies who would be apt to take him, and I know of no one who would take him to hurt me. Mrs Lenhoff has my sympathy if she don’t know where her boy is.”

After this flare up on the letters page, the case largely disappeared from public discussion again, until revived by the discovery of child-sized bones in Clarksburg years later, on North Adams Country Club land. In the fall of 1937, bones believed to have been from a child about 9 or 10 were unearthed on the northern side of the golf course, and the caretaker who found them immediately thought of the missing Lenhoff boy. Closer examination revealed that from the decayed condition, the remains must have been much older, and were probably from an early family burial ground known to have been on the property.

The complete disappearance of David Lenhoff would become another enduring mystery for Clarksburg, which had already weathered the vanishing of another young boy the previous decade. In 1911, just two miles from the Wood farm on East Road, 15 year old George Hinkell of Lincoln Drive had failed to meet up with some friends headed fishing, and no trace of the Clarksburg was ever found.

Within less than 15 years, this small town of about 1,200 people had seen two youths go permanently missing. No definitive sign or remains of either child has ever been recovered.

Missing Time: The Bizarre Abduction of Louis Judd (1927)

A random knock on a door late one summer evening in Ashley Falls quickly spun into a dramatic mystery that’s never been properly explained.

Louis Judd was a 51 year old lifelong resident of south Berkshire county, a farmhand and laborer at various odd jobs. He had a wife in Great Barrington, but had lived the past 2 years at the farm of Rudolph Bailey and his sister, in Ashley Falls. On the night of June 25, 1927, the three were preparing to retire to their rooms, about 9pm, when a knock came at the door.

Judd opened the door to a man who gestured to his broken down car and asked if he could give him a lift. As the man walked over to the car, about two hundred feet away, Bailey and his sister saw two other men standing beside it.

“I’ve got him, Fred!” they would tell police they heard one say, as Louis Judd was grabbed and tossed into the back of the supposedly broken car. It sped off down the dirt road.

State police from the Lee barracks headed up the investigation, but “were at a loss to ascribe a motive to the abduction,” though they were quick to dismiss two initial theories- bootleggers, or the Klan (both at their height in the Berkshires at that time).

“The impression exists that some persons know more about the case than they are willing to admit,” said the Berkshire Evening Eagle, four days after he was taken. “No one seems to think he has met with foul play althoAwwugh the murder theory was thought of at first.”

After a week’s time, Judd reappeared as mysteriously as he had been taken. Frank Bunce of Alford found him wandering in his yard in a confused state, with no apparent memory of where he’d been.

After the men threw him in the car, Judd told state police Corporal Martin Joyce and Great Barrington’s Chief W.J. Oschman, they shot some kind of “liquid dope” into his mouth. After that, everything was a blank, until he was pushed out of a car in Alford on July 1.

In his pocket was found a hastily scrawled note, demanding that Judd’s sister, a Mrs Skinner, turn over $1000 from an inheritance she had recently received. If she did not, both Judd and she would be abducted next. The note was signed “the leader of the gang.”

Chief Oschman and the state officers were said by local papers to be investigating unnamed leads in the case… then it was never mentioned again. So far as I can tell, no follow up ever appeared in the press.

Louis turned out alright, that much I know; he died 23 years later, and is buried with his 2nd wife in Ashley Falls. His sister survived him, according to his 1950 obituary.

What really happened to Louis Judd during the week of his apparent abduction? Was he in on the scam, or did a gang really drug a 51 year old man for a week in this otherwise amateurish ransom attempt? Was it all an alibi for some other getaway, perhaps some all week bender in Albany’s nearby red light district? I like to picture a 4 man jug band bumping out “Big Rock Candy Mountain” over some backwoods gin still, but that’s just me…

Or maybe… hmmm… 3 mysterious strangers in the night… and he couldn’t quite remember their faces, or what happened to him… could it be…

Just kidding, folks.