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The Unsolved Mystery of Barnesville's Lakewood Park

Who Murdered William Laughlin?



Unpunished murders have always been a blight on Schuylkill County, especially during the 1920s and 30s. The official record indicates that between 1925 and 1932, the lives of eight individuals were snuffed out by killers who have never been caught. In some cases the murderer was identified but eluded capture, disappearing into the night, never to be seen again. Other cases, such as the famous "Broad Mountain torch murder", remain unsolved to this day.

The peculiar death of William Laughlin remains another unsolved Schuylkill County mystery-- more than three-quarters of a century after it took place.



Death of a Candyman

Nobody had seen William Laughlin since Tuesday, March 25, 1930. After three days had passed, a group of fifty local men, led by several police officers, scoured the woods and mountains around Barnesville looking for the 39-year-old man, who worked as a confectioner at a candy shop in Centralia owned by his father. Laughlin's body was discovered a day later, on Saturday evening, in a most unusual place-- inside a concession stand near the entrance of the now-defunct amusement resort known as Lakewood Park, which was located in Barnesville about a mile away from the Lakeside Ballroom.

Mysteriously, Laughlin's lifeless body was found in the nude. An autopsy held in Tamaqua revealed that the man had died of a broken neck caused by a blow to the back of his head. But one thing struck police as being even more mysterious-- police had searched that very concession stand only a day earlier, indicating that his body was carried there sometime between Friday evening and Saturday.

Laughlin, accompanied by eight friends, had traveled to Lakewood Park on Tuesday night to watch a boxing match between Pat Igoe and Mickey Diamond. After the match, he and his friends parted ways. He did not return with John McGinley, who had driven him to the park.

However, a night watchman named William Ault reported that an unidentified man was seen later that evening, wandering the park grounds barefooted and in short sleeves. This was odd, considering that March evenings in the mountains tended to be quite chilly. The watchman attempted to stop the wanderer, but he disappeared into the darkness of the night, making a positive identification impossible.

But on the following day a coat and hat were found on park grounds, and identified as belonging to William Laughlin. A watch was found inside the coat pocket, along with a book of matches and a pack of cigarettes. Both the hat and jacket were dry and clean, even though it had rained hard during the night. Not even the matches or cigarettes were damp.

Immediately, officials ordered the dam opened and the lake drained, suspecting that the missing man might have drowned in the park's 10,000,000-gallon reservoir. On Friday, the day before his body was located, Laughlin's socks and shoes were discovered. Strangely, the socks were dry but the shoes were soaked. Stranger still was the fact that both items had been located along the lake shoreline, on grounds that had been thoroughly searched earlier.

After the autopsy was complete, the body was taken to the home of his father, John P. Laughlin, who owned a candy shop in Centralia. The funeral was held Wednesday morning, April 2, at St. Ignatius Church and he was laid to rest in the parish cemetery. Laughlin's wife, Clara, had died three years earlier. He left behind one seven-year-old daughter, Mary Louise, along with three brothers and two sisters.




Palm Readers and Pajamas

According to local papers, the concession stand where Laughlin's body was found was a two-room bungalow, situated near the edge of the park along the state highway. During tourist season, the bungalow served as a concession stand as well as a fortune-telling stand. The front of the bungalow featured a porch, enclosed with screen netting, and it was on this porch where the body was discovered, a pair of pajamas pulled down around his ankles.

The case was handled by Mary Jones of Tamaqua, the first female deputy coroner of Schuylkill County. It was Jones who ordered the post-mortem examination, which showed that Laughlin's death-- most likely caused a blunt object-- could not have been accidental.

The subsequent investigation by the Tamaqua detail of the Pennsylvania State Police also revealed that robbery could not have been the motive; his gold pocketwatch had not been removed from his coat pocket. In spite of a massive search, Laughlin's trousers, vest and underwear were never found.


A Possible Hit and Run?

Not everyone believed that Laughlin's bizarre death was murder. Some speculated that Laughlin may have been struck by an automobile after he left the match, while walking from the pavilion to John McGinley's car. McGinley waited around for his passenger and, when he didn't appear, decided that he must have gone off with other friends. According to this theory, Laughlin, badly injured, wandered the park grounds in a dazed condition until he arrived at the bungalow near the entrance. Those who believed the hit-and-run theory speculated that Laughlin was still alive after police had first searched the bungalow on Friday, and continued to ramble the grounds, clinging to life and shedding his clothes, while the search for his body was taking place.

But this theory fails to explain why Laughlin's shoes were found wet and his socks were found dry, or why the victim's body was found in the nude, with his pajamas pulled down to his feet. And why couldn't a search party of fifty men and police officers locate the rest of his clothing?


Inquest Held

On April 16 a coroner's inquest was held at the town hall in Tamaqua. At the hearing no new evidence was presented, but the jury dismissed the hit-and-run theory, rendering a verdict declaring that William Laughlin "came to his death as a result of violence administered at the hands of a person, or persons, unknown."

In early May, authorities hinted that arrests were "imminent" in connection with the mysterious murder, stating that "substantial clues" had been uncovered, possibly placing Laughlin at a nearby hotel on the night of his disappearance. This development proved to be a false lead.

Then in early June, State Police once again intimated that arrests in the case were forthcoming. According to the June 7, 1930, edition of the Shamokin News-Dispatch: "The police have been working quietly on the assumption that Laughlin was killed in a hotel near the park. Arrests are to be made within the next few days, it is said."

And, once again, police failed to make good on their promise. This was the last time the mysterious death of William Laughlin was written about, and the case seems to have quickly faded into obscurity.

As for Lakewood Park, it, too, faded into obscurity. It was never as popular or as well-managed as Lakeside Park, with its famous ballroom that is still in operation, which was located less than a mile away in Barnesville. While Lakeside Park had been around since 1880, Lakewood didn't come into existence until 1916. The 88-acre park, owned by Richard and Daniel Guinan, also boasted rides, concessions and a swimming lake just like its rival down the road. In an attempt to steal the wind out of their older and more successful neighbor's sail, the Guinan brothers opened the Lakewood Crystal Ballroom in 1925-- exactly one year to the day Harry Hart opened the Lakeside Ballroom. And, in a display of one-upsmanship, the Guinans made sure their dance floor was slightly bigger than that of their rival (Lakeside's dance floor measured 144x80 feet while Lakewood's floor was 168x104). Lakewood Park closed in 1984, and the Crystal Ballroom burned down in 1998.

Allegedly, when Lakewood Park closed down the grand carousel was sold to an amusement park in Michigan, where it continues to operate to this very day. And when the weather warms and soft breeze of summer whispers seductions of buttered popcorn and candy apples, perhaps some child in Michigan will take a ride on a carousel pony whose glass cabochon eyes may have once witnessed the mysterious murder of a candy man from Centralia.





sources:

Harrisburg Evening News, March 31, 1930
Shamokin News-Dispatch, March 31, 1930
Danville Morning News, April 4, 1930
Shamokin News-Dispatch, March 29, 1930
Shamokin News-Dispatch, April 17, 1930
Shamokin News-Dispatch, May 3, 1930
Shamokin News-Dispatch, June 7, 1930



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