A very popular and enduring sub-genre of detective fiction has long been that of what is widely called the "locked room mystery," in which a crime, usually a murder, is carried out by a perpetrator who seems to have carried out their grim work in an impossible fashion, creeping in and out of the crime scene to kill and then disappear to leave a locked door and no apparent evidence at all of their presence. In all of these cases it seems as if the culprit has simply vanished into thin air, a phantom, and the reader is left to try and piece together what happened. It is all good fun and often very baffling, but such cases are not confined solely to the pages of fictional works. Indeed, there have been some very real cases such as this that are just as puzzling, perhaps even more so, than anything ever put to paper. Here are some of the most mysterious, utterly baffling cases of people who were killed within locked rooms, with no rational way in or out, and which continue to be impenetrable mysteries to this day.
Perhaps one of the more well-known mysterious real locked room murders is that of the Polish immigrant Isadore Fink in the early 20th century. Shortly after immigrating to the United States, Fink set up a modest laundromat in New York City, a place where he also lived in a tiny attached apartment. By all accounts Fink was an eccentric and reclusive man, mostly keeping to himself and rarely interacting with others in the neighborhood, and he also seems to have been obsessed with keeping himself safe from the crime he perceived all around him. Indeed, his business and apartment were a veritable fortress, with double locked doors and thick bars over all of the windows, which were also firmly nailed shut from the inside, all in order to keep trespassers out. It seems as if it would ultimately do him no good.
On March 9, 1929, Fink went out to deliver some laundry, and shortly after returning home a neighbor named Mrs. Locklan Smith heard screams and some loud thumps coming from the apartment, as if someone were fighting, which spurred her to contact the police. Oddly, when the policeman arrived almost immediately after it was found that the apartment was completely sealed and locked from the inside, all of the windows remained barred and nailed shut from the inside, and there was no sign at all of anyone having broken in. The only way into the apartment was found to be a tiny transom window that was too small for a grown person to squeeze into.
Not wanting to disturb the crime scene, the police officer found a small, thin boy and had him wiggle and crawl through the transom window to unlock the door from inside. The apartment itself was found to be in pristine condition, with no signs of struggle and nothing apparently stolen. The only thing out of place was Fink’s very dead body lying on the floor with three gaping gunshot wounds ripped through it. The immediate assumption was that he had killed himself, yet it would soon become apparent that there was no gun anywhere to be found, and there was also the fact that there was a close-range gunshot wound to his wrist, suggesting that it had likely been incurred while trying to defend himself from an attacker. Another wound to his chest was thought to have killed him instantly. Adding to the strangeness of it all was that no one else’s fingerprints were present anywhere in the apartment, and the neighbor who had contacted the police insisted that she had heard no gunshots, only bangs and bumps that sounded more like someone having a scuffle.
The lack of a weapon at the scene and the nature of the wounds soon had police considering it a murder, but there were still plenty of mysteries, such as there appeared to be no clear motive. Although Fink was a bit of an oddball he didn’t seem to have had any enemies, and nothing had been stolen from the apartment, including cash that was found in his pockets and in drawers. Perhaps even more pressing was how someone could have gotten into that apartment in the first place, since everything was securely bolted down and locked shut from the inside, with only that transom window that a skinny kid could barely get through.
The whole thing had investigators baffled, and they tried to come up with theories as to what had happened. One was that the shooter had shot through the transom window, but this was soon ruled out as the angle would have made it impossible for Fink to have incurred his particular injuries, especially the wrist wound, which was found to have gun powder marks indicating it had been inflicted at point blank range. There was also the fact that even the transom window had been shut. Another idea was that he had started to have a fight with the assailant outside, during which time his wrist had been injured, forcing him to retreat indoors. The assailant might have then fired through the transom window to deliver the final fatal shot, but this was also deemed rather unlikely, especially since the neighbors had not seen any such altercation.
Yet another theory was that a very small and agile assassin had simply climbed into the apartment, shot Fink, and then left through the window rather than the front door, but this would mean that Fink was killed by a child-sized gun-toting murderer who left no fingerprints and stole nothing, and there was still the fact that no one in the area had heard the actual gunshots. More paranormal theories are that he was killed by a ghost or that he even physically manifested his potent fears of being shot. The murder of Isadore Fink has never been solved, no one has ever apprehended for the crime, and the case has been discussed, analyzed and debated ever since with no real answers in sight. The trail has long gone cold, it has been labeled an impossible and unsolvable crime, and it remains one of the most enigmatic unsolved murder cases in history.
From around the same era is the equally mysterious case of a man named Joseph Bowne Elwell. A wealthy socialite, professional card player, and playboy, Elwell’s playground was New York City in the early 1920s, but this would all come to an end on June 11, 1920, when his housekeeper let herself in to the locked room and found him dead with a bullet hole to his forehead. Elwell was found sitting upright in a chair in his living room as if he had just been relaxing, and there was some unopened mail beside him and an open letter in his lap. On the side table next to him was the bullet itself, carefully placed up there as if on display.
When police arrived they quickly learned that the door to the room had been locked from the inside, as had been the house itself, and a search of the premises turned up no sign of the murder weapon, which had been a .45 automatic Elwell had kept for defense. Although the opulent house was full of cash and all manner of valuables nothing appeared to have been stolen, there was no sign of any struggle, and there was no indication of a break-in, nor any foreign fingerprints. Neighbors also reported not having heard anything out of the ordinary nor had they seen any suspicious individuals about.
The state of the body was also quite strange, as Elwell seemed to have been murdered there as he sat relaxing in his living room. There was no sign that he had tried to fight someone off, and he had been killed by a single perfectly placed bullet hole from about 3 to 5 feet away and at an angle placing the weapon as lower than his head, as if someone had just sat there, had a pleasant chat with him, and then suddenly blown his head off, after which they had bizarrely fetched the bullet to place it up on the table.
Motive was not particularly hard to find, as Elwell had made enemies all over the city by cheating people out of their money in high stakes card games and unrepentantly running around with married women. In fact, there were so many potential suspects that police barely knew where to begin. That he was murdered was a given, but the who of it all remained a mystery. The best lead they could come up with was that the person must have been a fairly familiar and trusted individual to have not raised any alarm and put Elwell at ease enough that he would just casually look through his mail while they were there. As to who this could be, no one has a clue, and no suspects were ever arrested.
There was also the how of it all. How had the culprit managed to get into that apartment, kill Elwell as he calmly sat in his chair, and then leave the place locked from the inside, all while not being detected? Also, why had the killer picked up the bullet to put it on display on the table? Police had no idea, and still don’t. The murder of Joseph Elwell has never been solved, and is such a mysterious case that it was the basis of the famous locked-room detective novel The Benson Murder Case, which is credited with helping to jump start the genre.
In later years we come to the case of a woman named Julia Wallace, who lived in Liverpool, England, with her husband, an insurance salesman named William Herbert Wallace. On the evening of January 18, 1931, Mr. Wallace arrived at the Liverpool Chess Club to receive a mysterious phone message from a man calling himself “R.M. Qualtrough.” The mystery caller had given an address and instructed the staff of the Chess Club to tell him that he was requested to go there in order to discuss an important insurance issue. Wallace had never heard the name R.M. Qualtrough, but nevertheless the following day he made his way to the address by train, but it soon became apparent that the address, 25 Menlove Gardens East, did not in fact exist. Indeed, asking around the area showed that no locals even knew of anyone by the name of R.M. Qualtrough. Frustrated and not a little puzzled, Wallace headed home, where a gruesome surprise awaited him.
Upon returning home, Wallace found that the doors had been locked from the inside, and when the doors were finally opened the body of his wife was found lying on the floor surrounded by blood spattered walls. She had been brutally beaten to death, and police would estimate that she had been savagely bashed about the head with stunning force at least 11 times by some sort of heavy blunt object, although there was no sign of the murder weapon. In fact, there was no sign that anyone else had been there other than Mrs. Wallace, and no one in the area had seen anything suspicious. With no weapon, no evidence, and no witnesses, police were merely left with a mysterious dead body in a locked room.
As with the other cases here robbery did not seem to be a motive, as her handbag, cash, and valuables were all there, and theories swirled as to who the killer was, what connection, if any, they had to the mysterious R.M. Qualtrough, and how they had managed to pull the crime off. Although there were found to be several people by the name of Qualtrough living in the Liverpool area, there was absolutely no evidence at all that any of them had placed the call, and all of them denied having any knowledge of Mr. Wallace or any involvement with the murder.
Much suspicion was cast on Mr. Wallace himself, as although there were no reports of any marital issues between the two there were some rather strange details that seemed to implicate him. One was that it turned out that the call placed by R.M. Qualtrough had been made at a phone booth just a few hundred yards away from the Wallace home at a time that would have conveniently corresponded nicely with how long it would have taken Mr. Wallace to get from there to the Chess Club. There was also the testimony of the tram driver who had taken Wallace to the bogus address, who claimed that the man had seemed suspiciously overeager to make it clear that he was a stranger to the area and did not know his way around.
This was all rather flimsy evidence against him, but Wallace was nevertheless arrested for the crime and actually convicted of it, although this charge would later be dropped after a reevaluation of the evidence. When Wallace was released it left no other potential suspects, no other leads, and far more questions than there were answers. When he died a couple of years later he took anything he knew to the grave with him, and the case has joined the pantheon of great unsolved murders. It has since been variously speculated that Wallace was indeed the killer and that Qualtrough was a bid for an alibi, or conversely that he was innocent and that it was another mysterious stranger in the shadows who placed that call to create a diversion while he murdered Mrs. Wallace. However, no clear motive, evidence, suspect, or murder weapon have ever turned up, nor has there ever been a consensus as to how the crime was carried out, and the murder of Julia Wallace remains murky and unsolved, to the point that author Raymond Chandler once said the case “will always be unbeatable.”
The cases we have looked at here read like something out of a mystery novel, and are seemingly just as perplexing and uncrack able as anything conjured up by fiction. They have become some of the most discussed and debated unsolved crimes in history, and we are not any closer to unraveling their mysteries today than we were when they happened. It seems quite possible that the only ones who truly know the answers we seek are the ones who ended up dead in those locked rooms.