Joan Risch

“Mommy is gone and the kitchen is covered with red paint.” [1]

This statement triggered the investigation into the disappearance of an attractive 1960s housewife named Joan Risch.

Joan Risch, housewife and missing mother of two

Lincoln, Massachusetts on October 24, 1961…  here is a breakdown of the day…

6:50am-Martin Risch, an executive for the Fitchburg Paper Company, left his home for a business trip in New York City.  He took his car to the airport, leaving his wife another car for her use.  Martin told police that Joan was still in bed when he left that morning.

8am-Martin’s flight took off for New York City.  Joan woke her daughter, Lillian, 4, and son, David, 2, for breakfast.

9:30am-Joan dropped David off at Barbara Barker’s home (her across the street neighbor) so that she could go to a dentist’s appointment in Bedford, Massachusetts.

10:55am-Joan picked up David and Baker’s son, Douglas, and returned to her home.  Douglas and Lillian played in the yard.  Joan was in and out of the house while the children played.  Sometime after 12pm, Douglas and Lillian went to play in the Barker’s yard.

Front of the Risch home

2:15-2:30pm-Barker saw Joan outside by the car.  There were trees lining the driveway that block Barker’s view, but she saw something red.  She though that David might have been wearing a red jacket and that Joan was chasing him.  She was hunched over and wearing a trench coat.  She saw Joan go back in the house sometime later.

The Risch driveway, showing the trees that blocked the view from the street to their house

2:45pm-It is reported to police that a woman in her early 30s, wearing a knee-length grey coat and handkerchief, was seen walking on the side of Route 2A in Lincoln, Massachusetts.  The woman seemed cold, untidy and lost.

3:15-3:30-A woman, early 30s, wearing a dark knee-length coat and handkerchief was seen with blood on the front and back of her legs walking down Route 128 in Waltham, Massachusetts.  She appeared confused, was holding her stomach and was described as untidy.

3:45pm-Barker returned Lillian to the Risch home and took her own children shopping.  She did not see Joan at this time.

4:15pm-Barker returned home.  Lillian ran across the street and said that she couldn’t find her mother, her brother was in bed and the house was in disarray.  Barker went to the Risch home and found David upstairs in his bedroom.  There was blood in the kitchen and on the stairs.

Kitchen of the Risch home, overturned table and blood on the floor can be seen

4:25pm-A woman, approximately 35 years old, wearing a grey knee-length coat and handkerchief was seen walking on Route 128.  The woman’s legs were covered with what the witness called mud.  She walked with her head down and her hands in her pockets.

4:33pm-Barker called the police saying that she couldn’t find her neighbor.  She reported blood in the kitchen and the telephone receiver had been ripped from the wall.  The police Chief was notified and the dispatcher was told to contact local hospitals.

Kitchen of the Risch home, telephone receiver can be seen in the trashcan

4:45pm-The police officer responding to the call asked that the Chief and Sargent come to the Risch home.

5pm-A description of Joan was given to the dispatcher calling hospitals.

5:15pm-Barker called the Fitchburg Paper Company looking for Martin.  She left a message for him saying that something had happened at home and that his children were with her.

5:40pm-Martin receiveed a phone call from Bob Larsen of the Fitchburg Paper Company in Concord, Massachusetts notifying him of his wife’s disappearance.  He took a cab to the airport and flew home.

6:05pm-A detective was called to the Risch home.

6:20pm-State Police at the airport awaited Martin’s return.

6:39pm-The dispatcher was asked to call taxi companies in Lincoln, Massachusetts and inquire about anyone picked up on Old Bedford Road (the street on which the Risch family lived).  The dispatcher also checked all Western Unions for any telegrams sent that afternoon.  The Concord, Lexington and Weston Police Departments are also contacted for information.  Nothing was reported from any of these entities.  The responding officers reported a blue sedan, seen in the Risch driveway, to dispatch.

8pm-A neighbor reported seeing a blue car parked on Route 2A at 4:15pm.  A man got out of the car and went in to the woods just off the highway, cut long branches from a tree and placed them in his car.

8:22pm-Responding officer requested lights from the fire department to continue the search at the Risch home.

9:58pm-A dispatcher at a local cab company responded to the call for information stating that a man came in to send a telegram to his brother requesting money and was acting very strange.  This man’s description was similar to the man seen cutting branches on Route 2A.

10:15pm-Another person reported seeing a blue sedan on Sunnyside Lane near Route 2A at 2:45pm.

10:35pm-A Sergeant from the local police department determined the owner of the blue sedan seen at 2:45pm and cleared him of suspicion.

Character witnesses and alibis…

Martin described his wife as shy and in good health.  He was aware of his wife’s daily routine.  He knew that she had a dentist appointment in Bedford, Massachusetts that morning and recalled that the dentist’s name was Anderson.  He said that she normally fed the children at 12pm and then put David down for a nap, which usually lasted until 2pm.  He was adamant that she would never leave the children without someone to watch them and noted that she was cautious, citing that she wouldn’t often take them for walks because she was afraid of the traffic on their street.

He also noted that the police might have found an empty liquor bottle in the trash, as he and his wife had both had a drink the night before, finishing the bottle.  The police informed him that empty beer bottles were found in the trash can, as well.  He was unsure why they were there.  The couple had had beers with some friends the weekend before, but that his wife’s practice was to empty the trash can when it was full.

Martin was asked about a blue car that might have been in his driveway that day.  He said that he did not know anyone with a blue car.  He speculated that it could have been a salesman and that she would have allowed him in the house, citing some magazine subscriptions she had purchased because she felt bad saying no.  He acknowledged some damage to the car in his wife’s possession that was caused by running into the garage door, but couldn’t remember if he had caused the damage or if Joan had.

Joan’s car in the Risch driveway

The police noted that Martin said his wife “was” an excitable type of person. [2] Those considering the case in subsequent years would take notice of his use of the word “was” so early in the investigation when his wife was considered a missing person.  He told police that they had gotten along well for the extent of their five-year marriage.  He mentioned that she didn’t participate in much outside of the home, with the exception of The Women’s League of Voters.

Martin did mention that he thought his wife would fight if she felt the children were in danger.

Joan, with daughter, Lillian

Barker stated to police that she had only known Joan for about six months.  She described her as level-headed.  She said that Joan wouldn’t have had a man in the house when her husband was away.

She confirmed that Joan did not leave the children unsupervised and was very attentive to them.  She doubted that the beers in the trash were hers as Joan was not a day drinker.

Barker said that she only knew Joan to have one other friend, a woman who lived in Bedford, Massachusetts with whom Joan went to school.


A $500 reward (the equivalent of just over $4,000 today [3]) was offered by the town of Lincoln for information resulting in Joan’s return.

A $5000 reward was offered by the Boston Record American to anyone who provided information to the newspaper that led to the location of Joan, dead or alive.


The FBI office in Boston released the following possible scenarios in November of 1961:

Not believing that Joan had been abducted, they concluded that she may have hemorrhaged or injured herself causing her to leave the house voluntarily to seek help.  (Other sources propose that she might have had a reaction to something given to her at the dentist that morning.)


Joan might have become mentally ill, despite no evidence or history of this.  Divers searched a nearby reservoir in the thought that she might have become disoriented and fallen in.

Robert W. Foster was questioned on October 31, 1961 by the Massachusetts State Police after several housewives in the area said that he had visited his home and lingered too long making them uncomfortable.  Foster was in the area on a project for the government.  He was appraising properties in the area for possible sale in order to build a national park.

Foster admitted to speaking to Joan on September 25, 1961.  He stated there was another woman in the home when he visited.  On the day of Joan’s disappearance, he had several alibi witnesses who placed him out of town and then in a meeting during the time that Joan went missing.

Fingerprints found in blood on the telephone and wall of the kitchen were never identified, but could not be compared to Joan’s as hers were not on file.

Kitchen of the Risch home, blood can be seen on the floor

The Boston Record American theorized that Joan injured herself or was injured in her home and may have called for someone to take her to the hospital.  Instead of waiting, Joan left her home and stumbled down Route 2A and may have been picked up by someone on the highway.

Joan may have passed out or died while in this person’s car and they panicked, dumping her somewhere that she hasn’t been found.

The paper, and others, also concluded that an intruder may have entered the Risch home while Joan was at the dentist that morning (she was known to leave the doors unlocked).  When Joan returned later, he was trapped upstairs.  When Joan took the children across the street to the Barker home, he saw his chance to escape (She may have even taken the kids away from the yard because she knew or felt like there was someone in the house with her and David.).  When she returned, she was face to face with the prowler who killed or injured her.

Kitchen of the Risch home

Another theory is that Joan with dissatisfied with her life in Lincoln and ran away to start anew, faking a “crime scene” so that the police and her husband would think that she was dead.  This was fueled by the findings of Sareen Gerson, a reporter for The Fence Viewer, the Lincoln newspaper.  While searching the local library, Gerson discovered that the summer before Joan’s disappearance she had checked out 25 books from the library.  Most of the books were about true crime or unsolved mysteries.  One book, Into Thin Air, was about a woman who disappeared.  She left behind a scene eerily similar to the Risch kitchen.

Some speculate that Joan was the woman seen walking down Route 128 and that an explanation for the blood on the woman’s legs was a botched illegal abortion.  There is little to back this up.

The last theory, possibly the oddest one, is that Barker and her son killed, or arranged for Joan to be killed, and buried her body on land that they owned in Lexington, Massachusetts.  The basis of this theory is a purchase deed dated November 1974 that adds an odd section of land to their existing property before any construction on the land had begun.

A link to a video summary of this story can be found here:

Sources/Photo Credits


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