The Broad Mountain Mystery (Part 1 of 3)
|The Pottsville barracks of Troop C of the Pennsylvania State Police, headquarters of the murder investigation|
Schuylkill County can claim dozens of unsolved murders, but it was the gruesome slaying of a young woman in 1925-- a victim still unidentified to this day-- that still holds the undisputed title of Schuylkill County's greatest unsolved mystery. The investigation spanned several years and took detectives on a wild goose chase through the seedy underworld of teen prostitution from New York to Chicago. This is part one of a three-part article on the infamous (and still unsolved) mystery of Broad Mountain.
On the unseasonably Palm Sunday of April of 1925, Mr. and Mrs. Claude Duncan, of the village of Gordon, were hunting for arbutus atop Broad Mountain when they made a sickening discovery not far from the state highway. Turning their car off the main highway onto a side road leading to an old coal drilling hole, they noticed a pair of legs sticking out from the bushes. It was the badly charred body of a girl. Less than two square inches of clothing remained on her blackened corpse, and yet several rings remained on her fingers.
An autopsy performed by Deputy Coroner James Roth of the Fountain Springs State Hospital concluded that the girl had been dead from four to ten days. Although he was unable to determine the exact cause of death, Roth speculated that the unfortunate victim had made a desperate struggle for her life before being overpowered by her killer. The state police believed that she had been murdered at a different location and brought to Broad Mountain in order to conceal all traces of the crime.
Lieutenant Keller of the state constabulary planned to distribute photographs, but the victim's face was burned beyond recognition. He thought, however, that an identification might be made through the girl's rings. Photos of the dead girl's jewelry were taken and copies were distributed throughout the state. Keller was optimistic; one of the rings was an antique wedding band and, though the ring bore no inscription, its unusual design might lead police to the identity of the charred girl on the mountain. Keller was less optimistic about making an identification through clothing, however-- all that remained was a shred of tan stocking, a scrap of olive green dress material and a half-melted shoe. A red hat was found a few feet away near the bushes.
Humpty Sullivan Walks Into a Bar
Police questioned virtually every man, woman and child for miles around and believed that the victim was Annie Richards Smith, 28, known throughout the area as "Humpty Sullivan". At least that's what the locals called her, and they positively identified the body as being that of Humpty, a moniker she earned for having the mentality of a twelve-year-old child. There was just one problem-- Humpty showed up, alive and well, at a saloon in Shamokin just as a group of state troopers arrived to question the bar's owner. Humpty Sullivan was taken into custody, questioned by police, and promptly committed by Judge Bechtel to the Home for the Feebleminded at Laurelton.
Palm Olive and the Botched Abortion
The day before Annie Richards Smith wandered into the saloon, Dr. Spencer examined the remains at Mills' undertaking parlor in Ashland and concluded that the victim had died as a result of a stab wound to the head. Her body was then saturated with kerosene and set on fire. Dr. Spencer found a two inch gash on the side of the victim's head. Another deep wound was visible on the right forearm, an obvious defensive wound. Spencer couldn't be certain, but there was a chance that the girl was not yet dead when set ablaze. But still the authorities were confident; a newspaper article from April 7 stated: "It is intimated in Pottsville that the State Police have valuable clues that will possibly lead to startling discoveries in a short time."
On Tuesday, April 14, the head of the murder victim is identified by family and friends as that of Lillian Tyler, a teenage runaway from Shamokin who was last seen in Mount Carmel in the days before the murder took place. Her mother, Mary Elizabeth O'Connor, refused to believe that the victim was her daughter, but admitted that it could be possible. Patrolman Hughes of the Reading barracks was sent to Mount Carmel to investigate. He questioned five people in connection with the murder mystery.
Hughes carried along the remnants of clothing salvaged from the body, as well as a red hat found near the scene, but nobody could positively connect them to Lillian Tyler. Hughes was informed that Lillian had left Mount Carmel for the Shamokin Hospital in order to be treated for a hemorrhage caused by an illegal abortion. This witness, a friend of Lillian, confided in Hughes that she was frightened to hear Lillian remark, "Goodbye. I only have 24 hours more to live."
The investigation turned up some unsavory details about the missing teenager. She had been working as a prostitute at the Sunset Inn near Numidia, under the name "Palm Olive". Friends informed Hughes that Lillian had had an appendectomy, and this aroused authorities; physicians examining the remains concluded that the murder victim had also had an appendix removed. Hospital records, however, revealed that Lillian Tyler was merely lying about the nature of her medical treatment. Lillian had undergone surgery at Fountain Springs the previous November to correct another botched abortion job.
With Lillian Tyler missing, police still believed that she was the victim found on the mountain, but they continued to pursue other leads. Another local runaway, Sarah Trutt, was located in Shamokin. Reports of runaway girls from as far away as New York and New Jersey poured in, and they too were investigated. Ironically, the search for the Broad Mountain Killer probably resulted in locating more missing teen girls than any other operation in Pennsylvania law enforcement history.
Unclaimed Luggage and a Letter From Motor City
John Meenahan, a ticket agent at the Reading Railway Station in Mount Carmel, came forward to tell his story to investigators on April 6, long before the body was rumored to be that of Lillian Tyler. According to Meenahan, on or about March 25th, a young woman, who appeared to be around seventeen years of age, bought a ticket to Shamokin. She requested that her baggage be left in the ticket office, stating that she would return in several days to pick it up. Meenahan said the girl told him she had just come from the Sunset Inn where she had spent two days visiting her brother. She planned on staying at the Hanis Hotel in Shamokin and finding a job at the Eagle Silk Mill. Meenahan noticed that the girl, who was a very attractive brunette, wore several rings and listed her home as Chicago. Authorities discovered that if the woman had been planning on going to the Hanis Hotel, she never arrived-- no girls answering Meenahan's description had checked into the hotel, and the girl's luggage remained unclaimed at the station. A tag on one piece of the unclaimed baggage revealed a name scrawled in faded pencil: "Mike A. Krieger". Meenahan went to Ashland to view the remains, but was unable to make a positive identification.
By this time, just about everyone in Schuylkill and Northumberland counties was convinced that the murdered girl found on Broad Mountain was Lillian Tyler. Numerous merchants claimed to remember selling her the clothing and jewelry that were salvaged from the crime scene; one Shamokin dentist even went so far as to insist that the teeth of the murder victim perfectly matched those of the missing teen.
But then, in late April, a mysterious letter arrived at the home of Lillian's mother, Mary Elizabeth O'Connor. The letter written to Mrs. O'Connor stated that her daughter was alive and well in Detroit. It went on to state that Lillian was now married and working at a restaurant. The Pennsylvania State Police immediately wired the Detroit police, informing them to apprehend the writer of the letter and hold her for identification. On Wednesday morning, Lieutenant Carlson of the Pennsylvania State Police set out for Michigan with Lillian's half-sister, Mrs. William Davis, accompanying him. If anyone could identify Lillian Tyler it would be her half-sister; she was one of the last relatives to see her alive.
Lillian Tyler and her new husband, Stanley Bielicki, were discovered in Detroit by Lieutenant Carlson and Mrs. Davis on Friday, April 24. According to the mysterious letter, Tyler had left Shamokin on April 1 with Bielicki in a Ford, settling in Detroit at 524 Congress Street. Carlson arrived at the apartment, only to discover that the couple had moved out just days before. The trooper then went to the restaurant where Lillian was said to be working, and there he finally found the missing teen. Lillian not only denied writing the letter, but she insisted that she didn't know anything at all about the murder at Broad Mountain, and was aghast to learn that she had been identified by friends and relatives as the victim. Lillian stated that she had every intention to remain in the city with her husband, whom she had married en route from Shamokin to Detroit.
The Search For Clues Continues
At the state police barracks in Pottsville, Captain Gerhart assembled his best investigators and assigned them to the case which everyone believed had come to a close. Even though eight different individuals positively identified the head of the victim as that of Lillian Tyler, the authorities were no closer to finding an answer than they had been three weeks earlier.
The mystery, now one of the most perplexing in the annals of the coal region, has held the interest of hundreds of thousands of persons in all parts of the United States. Photographers from metropolitan newspapers have taken scores of shots of the scene of the finding of the body while correspondents have been in the region upon diverse occasions to rewrite the facts as they developed in advance of their coming.-- Mount Carmel Daily News, April 27, 1925.
An Unfathomable Port of Missing Girls
On April 28, while law enforcement throughout Pennsylvania sought answers to the Broad Mountain mystery, a strange coincidence unfolded about an hour's drive away from Chicago. The charred remains of a teenage girl were discovered near Furnessville Road in Chesterton, Indiana. The similarities between the two murders were remarkable; both women had suffered fatal head wounds before being set on fire. Both bodies were found in the same position. Both women were of the same build, had the same hair color and were approximately the same age. The remains were initially identified as those of a 19-year-old runaway named Margaret Bishop. But, just like in the case of Lillian Tyler, Bishop was later found alive and well and the victim's true identity became a mystery. Back in Pennsylvania, people recalled the luggage that some woman had left behind at the Reading Railroad station, a similar-looking woman who said she was from Chicago.
Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania authorities had their hands full. Twenty-nine teenage girls had vanished from Northumberland and Schuylkill counties during a period of just seven weeks. With 34 "houses of ill repute" situated within a 30-mile radius of Pottsville, the press had taken to calling Schuylkill County the "port of missing girls".
The system was well-known to law enforcement. A girl is taken to a converted farmhouse, and her identity is concealed by adopting a fake name (Palm Olive, for example). She is provided with a fake address, a fake family, an entire fake backstory and history. These girls came to Schuylkill County not only from the coal towns, but from New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Miami, Minneapolis, and all points in between. Had it not been for the Broad Mountain murder, little attention would have been paid to places like the Sunset Inn and other seedy roadhouses where living flesh was bought and sold, used and then discarded. And yet, this busy port of human trafficking only complicated the efforts of law enforcement. It wasn't that there were too few leads-- there were simply too many to follow.
Was the Broad Mountain victim a local girl? Or had she run away from a different city in a different state? How was it possible that the clothing and jewelry identified as belonging to Lillian Tyler were found on the burned body?
As April of 1925 drew to a close, nobody had an answer to these questions.