The Mystery of the "Murder Marsh"

Downtown New Castle as it appeared in 1940s

Two headless male bodies, the skull of a female, and a bundle of clothing belonging to a child. These were the gruesome items discovered in a swamp just south of New Castle in the fall of 1925. The "murder marsh" (as it was being called by the national media) was located in Taylor Township, west of the Beaver and Pennsylvania Railroad yards and east of the Pittsburgh, Lake Erie & Baltimore yards. It was a putrid, stagnant cesspool, almost entirely impassible.

Four boys hunting in the woods discovered the first body on October 6, partially buried in mud and clay. It was little more than a skeleton, and found next to it was a rotting wool cap without any labels. It was the type of cap "favored by foreigners", according to one newspaper description. The location, designated on maps as Shield's Swamp, was a popular drinking spot; whiskey bottles and other relics of parties long forgotten littered the landscape. It was said that the railroads brought in Mexican laborers to lay the steel, and these laborers lived in shanties along the Beaver River. The popular opinion was that the bodies were of those immigrant laborers, who used to go to the hollow to gamble and drink.

From the Mount Carmel Item, Oct. 20, 1925:

New Castle, Pa., Oct. 20.-  The miry recesses of "murder marsh", where the decapitated bodies of two men and the skull of a woman have been found within two weeks, will be combed today by State Police, county authorities and residents of this district in an attempt to clear the mysterious murders.
Before starting out on the arduous task of traversing the slimy quagmires and treacherous quicksands of the swamp, members of the party expressed the opinion that more victims of the murder might be found, or the criminal himself might be discovered. 

The swamp, situated between New Castle Junction and West Pittsburgh, yielded its first victim on October 6, when the headless body of a man was found. His head was found the following day. On October 17, the second headless body of a man was found, and in searching for its head, the skull of a woman was discovered yesterday. Nearby a bundle of men's clothing was found, and some claim that indicates there is a fourth victim of the brutal murderer.

State Police, without any concrete clues, express the belief that a fiend with an obsession for beheading his victims chose this musty, hidden back woods either as the scene of the crimes or as the cemetery for his victims.

Since one skull without a body and one body without a head have been found, there is at least another body and another head hidden by the dense foliage of the marsh. And authorities say they would not be surprised to find a half dozen more. The horrible similarity of the murders leads detectives to conclude that a maniac or a fiend committed the crimes. The victims heads were cut off in the same way; they were hidden in the same swamp.

Indications are that at least two months elapsed between the killing of the two men. When the woman whose skull was found was slain has not yet been determined.

The search for additional bodies was called off the following day, after a party of forty volunteers combed the swamp and nearby woods for additional clues. Their search would prove fruitless. Sheriff Will G. Andrews of Lawrence County shifted his focus toward identifying the corpses, while Detective J.M. Dunlap took the bundle of clothing to a local dry cleaning establishment to have the bloodstains removed. Authorities hoped that, once displayed, somebody might be able to identify the clothing, which consisted of two pairs of pants, a bathing suit and a sweater.

New Castle News, October 24, 1925

It seemed no one could identify the bodies or the clothing. Within days, police were sidetracked with all sorts of wild rumors, false leads and erroneous information. Some residents believed one of the bodies was that of a local man named Fletcher who had gone missing, but he was later found alive and well in Columbus, Ohio. Relatives of missing persons from all over Pennsylvania and Ohio traveled to New Castle to examine the clothing that was being displayed at the police station to see if it matched clothing worn by their missing loved ones.

Lew Hawthorne, a local who assisted authorities in searching the swamp, found the bundle of clothes wrapped in soggy newspaper. He took the wet bits of newspaper home and dried them, and was able to piece them together well enough to determine that it was a Pittsburgh daily paper published on September 25, 1925. Hawthorne believed the clothing belonged to a child, even though all of the bodies discovered thus far were those of adults.

In a mind-boggling display of apathy, police closed the case on October 24, little more than two weeks after the first skeleton was discovered and just four days after the additional bodies were found. Calling the case "unsolvable" and citing lack of cooperation from local residents, authorities decided that nothing more could be done. They claimed the number of volunteers was too small to search the area, and that the bog was too deep and treacherous. This sentiment was echoed by the local newspapers, which had already lost interest in the unsolved mystery.

New Castle News, October 24, 1925

Not only had the locals of New Castle washed their hands of the whole mystery, they seemed to delight in mocking it. A few days later when Halloween rolled around, the "headless ghost", in representation of the unidentified victims of the mysterious massacre, was a popular costume choice for children and adults alike.

New Castle News, October 30, 1925

Today, ninety years after the "murder marsh" victims were found, the case not only remains unsolved, but the victims still have yet to be identified. There were never any orders to drain the swamp or to drag the river for additional bodies, even though the evidence suggests that somewhere in Lawrence County there is still a woman's headless skeleton waiting to be discovered, and perhaps the moldering remains of a child whose clothing was found by Lew Hawthorne.

Even in the following years, with more gruesome discoveries made in the vicinity of the murder marsh, the case was never re-opened. For instance, in March of 1929, the body of a Pittsburgh & Lake Erie railroad worker named Tony Rossi was found in the river, near the headwaters of the swamp, with his skull bashed in.

In October of 1934, another body was found in the swamp, only a few hundred yards away from where the three decapitated bodies were discovered. The body was that of a brown-haired man about six feet tall who was never identified. He was buried completely nude, facedown in a shallow grave, indicating foul play.

Mysterious deaths and the Murder Marsh went together hand in hand, even before the headless victims of the 1925 massacre were found; on May 6, 1916 the badly-decomposed body of a 4-year-old boy named James Carroll was found in the swamp. His cause of death was never discovered. He had been missing for three weeks, and it was generally believed he had been kidnapped by relatives.

When the decapitations took place, the marsh was already in the process of shrinking. As early as 1922, slag was being deposited in the marsh by the Lake Erie & Pittsburgh Railroad in an attempt to fill it in. Very little of the swamp remains visible today. Perhaps this indicates that the murderer may have known about the plans to fill in the swamp, which suggests the killer may have been a railroad employee. At any rate, whatever skeletons and clues that are left remain buried beneath tons of slag and fill, perhaps guarding their secrets for all eternity.

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