LINDEN – For her sake, it can only be hoped that the first blow to her head killed her instantly.
Or at least, it can be hoped that it knocked her out cold, so she never was consciously aware of the vicious onslaught that followed.
It happened more than 95 years ago, on Nov. 12, 1917, in a wooded area of a farmer’s property in the tiny, usually peaceful Genesee County hamlet of Linden, about 40 miles east of Buffalo. It was a horrific murder that remains unsolved to this day, along with the brutal murders of at least four other people who were slain – possibly by a serial killer – in or near Linden.
The case still fascinates and intrigues. The current county judge was still hearing about the case when he was district attorney. And an author who has studied the evidence now says he is almost certain he knows who did it, while others who know the case still are not sure.
Late that chilly November morning, a short young woman, perhaps 25 to 30 years old, was seen walking up a crooked road leading into the woods near the intersection of Route 63 and Bethany-Center Road.
The woman wore a black plush coat. Witnesses saw a man walking with her.
A short while later, the man was seen emerging from the woods. This time, he was alone. The woman never came out alive.
Farmer Frank Hunt, owner of the property, found her body three days later while looking for some kindling wood. When he kicked aside some loose leaves and branches, he spotted a young face – battered beyond belief – looking back at him.
Police photographs of the victim showed a face so gashed and disfigured that it barely looked human. Investigators never identified the victim, and never made any arrests. For lack of a real name, they dubbed the mystery woman “Ruth.”
Linden was a pretty, usually quiet community of apple orchards, corn fields and about 100 people within the Town of Bethany, about midway between Batavia and Attica. Residents were frightened and upset.
Less than five years later, on Oct. 17, 1922, they had reason to be scared again. This time, the victim was someone almost everyone in Linden knew. She was 73-year-old spinster Frances Lenora Kimball, a feisty and outspoken critic of alcohol consumption. The hard-working, deeply religious woman grew apples and sold milk and eggs at her 60-acre home off Linden Road near Skates Hill Road.
A family friend found her body hidden away in the dark cellar of her home. Like “Ruth,” her head had been bashed in.
“Fiendish Murder Of Aged Woman Has Elements Of Fearful Mystery,” screamed the headline of Batavia’s Daily News.
“Wedged into an empty apple bin, lying on her side, terribly disfigured, her brains protruding, her cheek bones broken, the body of the aged woman presented a spectacle to haunt the dreams of the most stone-hearted for many a night to come,” the newspaper’s crime reporter wrote.
The newspaper called Kimball “the manifest object of the pent-up and deliberate fury of the animal’s blows.”
An autopsy showed that Kimball had been clobbered about 20 times on the right side of her head with a heavy instrument. Semen was found on her clothing.
So savage was the beating that fragments of her false teeth were founded scattered on the basement floor.
“The peaceful village of Linden has never been stirred to such excitement,” The Buffalo Evening News reported. “Villagers today were amazed that such a hideous crime could be committed in their midst.”
But for Linden, the worst was yet to come.
A ‘maniac’ on the loose
Seventeen months passed, with no arrests in the Kimball case. On March 11, 1924, someone killed Thomas Whaley, a 65-year-old railroad worker; his 63-year-old wife, Hattie; and their friend and neighbor, Mabel Morse, 51, whose family ran Linden’s only general store. Their bodies were found in the Whaley home on Silver Road near Linden Road.
The killer – called “a maniac” by the Buffalo newspaper – had shot both Whaleys and repeatedly struck Morse in the head. The killer put their bodies in a pile, covered them with old rugs and set the rugs on fire. Neighbors found the bodies after breaking into the house to put out the flames.
Police believed the Whaleys were killed first. They theorized that Morse was killed when she found their bodies after stopping by to get some milk from the Whaleys.
Howard Morse, the victim’s son, lived in Buffalo. According to news reports, he received a strange telephone call that night from an unknown person who said, “You will never see your mother again.”
“This case is as great a mystery as the Kimball case,” remarked Genesee County’s district attorney, Albert J. Waterman.
A reward of $7,000 – big money in those days – was posted for information leading to the arrest of the killer. That was in addition to another $1,800 that had been posted during the search for Kimball’s killer.
Fear gripped the community, even worse than it had after the other two murders. Linden residents worried that they would become the killer’s next targets. A special detachment of state troopers was temporarily assigned to roam Linden on horseback at night, watching for suspicious characters.
In the two weeks after the triple murders, police interviewed just about every one of Linden’s adult males, detaining large groups of men for questioning in the county jail.
After news stories accusing police of “bungling” the case, Rochester Police Capt. John McDonald, an expert in major homicide cases, was brought in to head the investigation. Cops theorized that at least some Linden residents knew the killer’s identity, but were too scared to come forward.
“We have questioned many people in Linden and several of them appear to be holding something back, in fear of their lives,” McDonald said. “It seems impossible that these things happening in this little cluster of houses should be veiled entirely in mystery.”
Community gripped by fear
Current Linden resident May Dembowski, 78, has been hearing tales about the murders since she was a little girl. Her late father, Richard Mallison, knew the Whaleys, the Kimballs and the Morses.
People certainly were scared, wondering who would be the next victim. Quite possibly, they were scared enough to keep quiet about what they knew, Dembowski said.
“My father was at the Whaleys’ house that night, after they were killed. He always remembered the coroner coming out of the house and saying, ‘There’s no life in here,’ ” Dembowski said. “My dad was so scared, he slept in his mom’s bed for the next few nights after that.”
Her father was in his early teens at the time. He told Dembowski that, about a year after the slayings, he was walking around Attica one day when an older man walked up to him and said, “Tell me what you saw in the murder house!”
That incident, and the murders themselves, haunted Mallison for the rest of his life. He always locked every door and shut every blind in his home.
“If his car was parked in the driveway, and he had to go get something from his car, he would lock up the house when he’d walk out to his car, even for a few seconds,” Dembowski said.
Mallison was not the only fearful one in Linden. “Those murders cast a pall on Linden … Quite a few people moved out. Everything about Linden just went to hell,” Dembowski said.
“People started buying rifles. People were unnerved,” said William F. Brown Jr., a longtime journalist from Batavia and a correspondent for The Buffalo News who wrote his own book on the murders in 1984.
When she was a teenager, teens from nearby communities would ask her what it was like to “live in Murder Town,” Dembowski recalled.
Police grilled most of Linden’s 58 male residents after the murders at the Whaley house, but to no avail.
“We will not give up the search until the slayer is found,” vowed State Police Capt. Winn Robinson.
Robinson made that statement more than 89 years ago, but no arrest has ever been made.
But now, an Attica author and researcher named Rob R. Thompson – with help from a retired FBI agent – has taken an extensive new look at the evidence. He claims to have determined the identity of the killer.
“I’m at least 98 percent certain that the killer was Andrew Michel,” Thompson said.
Thompson, a former mental health counselor who has also done paranormal research, said he re-investigated the murders for more than a year for his new book, “The Linden Murders … Solved.” He said he read through thousands of pages of police reports on the murders, including the private notes made by investigators who worked on the case. He said Mark E. Safarik, a retired FBI agent who is a former violent crime analyst at the FBI Academy, helped him to analyze the material.
“Everything we looked at kept leading me to one man – Andrew Michel. He is by far the most likely suspect,” Thompson said. “I believe he had the motive and the means to commit these murders … I believe he was a psychopath.”
According to Thompson, Michel died at age 77 in a Rochester mental institution in 1960. Although media reports indicate that he was questioned by police more than once about the murders, he was never charged with any of them. Thompson said he is not aware of any physical evidence linking Michel to the murders.
At the time of the slayings, Michel lived in Linden near Kimball and the Whaleys. He had worked on local farms, at a steel plant and on the railroad. Shortly after the Whaley and Morse murders, he moved out of Linden to nearby Attica.
Based on his research, Thompson lists a number of reasons for his conclusion that Michel was the killer:
• Michel had reasons to bear grudges against Kimball, the Whaleys and Morse.
• Kimball had reportedly “squealed on” him for illegally making hard cider, and she had appeared as a witness against him in an animal cruelty case. Months before she was killed, she argued with Michel over the drinking habits of her brother, William Kimball.
• According to an investigator’s notes, Thomas Whaley in 1923 had identified Michel as a suspect in an arson case. He had also refused to lend Michel money. Hattie Whaley once told a neighbor she suspected that Michel killed Kimball.
• Michel was upset with Morse’s family over financial matters. Two weeks before the murders at the Whaley home, Mabel Morse’s husband, George Morse, had sent Michel a letter, telling him that he could not have any more credit at the Morse family’s general store until he paid up a debt of $160.
• At least some Linden residents felt that Michel had a nasty streak of violence. At age 28, Michel had been fined $25 after he was accused of beating a horse with a piece of wood so violently that one of the horse’s eyes had been knocked out. The lead witness against Michel in that case was Frances Kimball.
• While Michel repeatedly told police he had nothing to do with any of the murders, a man named Brad Burroughs told detectives that he once heard Michel make angry threats to kill Kimball, someone from the Morse family and others. “I am going to get them and kill them if it takes 10 or 15 years,” Michel allegedly said in about 1916.
• At least two people who had run-ins with Michel, including local Justice of the Peace Maurice Nelon, later were victimized by serious arson fires on their properties. Witnesses, including Thomas Whaley, told police they saw Michel leaving the Nelan fire scene, but he was never charged with any arson.
• According to Thompson, Michel worked clearing wood in the area where the mystery woman’s body was found in 1917.
But police never charged Michel with any of the murders. Twelve days after the Whaley-Morse murders, police told the Buffalo newspaper that Michel had been “freed of suspicion” after lengthy questioning.
A detective noted that the right-handed Michel had only one finger on his right hand because of a buzz saw accident that occurred in his youth. That one finger was “twice the size of an ordinary finger” and would not fit into the trigger guard of the type of handgun allegedly used to shoot the Whaleys, the detective remarked.
“I still believe he shot them, with his left hand,” Thompson said. “They were shot from very close range, so you didn’t need to be an expert shot.”
Long dead, Michel cannot defend himself against these allegations. According to a court document cited by Thompson, a petition was filed in Wyoming County Court in 1958, asking a judge to declare him mentally incompetent. Two years later, he died in a Rochester mental hospital. The News was unsuccessful in repeated efforts to track down any living relatives of Michel.
No conclusive answers
Jeff Donahue is the museum director of the Holland Land Claim Museum in Batavia, where some artifacts from the Linden murders probe – including locks of hair from the mystery woman “Ruth” and telephone wires that were cut at the Kimball house – are kept. Brown is the veteran newsman who wrote his book on the Linden murders in 1984. Both Donahue and Brown feel Thompson is making a real stretch by pronouncing that Michel was the killer.
“I don’t think it’s fair. You’re accusing someone who has no chance to defend himself,” Brown said. “I don’t think it was Andrew Michel, although it is possible. I spent six months looking at thousands of pages of testimony from that case, and I could not come up with any conclusive answers.”
Donahue thinks it is just as possible that the murders were committed by “a transient” – someone who occasionally passed through Linden, perhaps hopping rides on freight trains. Police did question several “vagrants,” but never charged any of them.
Others have suggested that the murders were committed by a deranged person who lived at the old Genesee County Poor House, a spooky-looking building that housed the poor, the elderly and some mental patients who could not fend for themselves. Closed since the 1970s, the poor house is not far from the murder scenes. It is now called the Rolling Hills Asylum. Some believe it is haunted. It has been featured on several “ghost hunter” television shows.
In Thompson’s view there were two other unsolved murders in Genesee County, not far from Linden, that could have been the work of the same killer.
Workers digging in a gravel pit in Oakfield in late October 1929 uncovered a human skull, and then a skeleton. A coroner’s examination showed that the victim had been a young man of about 20. He had been beaten about the head by “a powerful assailant, apparently in extreme rage.” The body was never identified, the killer never arrested.
In late May 1934, someone used a blunt instrument to kill one-armed farmer Benjamin Phillips, 76. Phillips was beaten about the head. The killer set fire to his body and his bedroom. Phillips lived in the Town of Alexander, close to Attica, where Michel then lived. No arrest was ever made.
Genesee County Judge Robert C. Noonan worked in the DA’s office from 1980 until 1996. He spent the last nine years of that tenure as the county’s district attorney. For a time, he became fascinated with the Linden murders, and he sometimes gave speeches about the murders.
Noonan today calls the murders “the ancient skeleton in the closet of Genesee County.”
“There was still a lot of interest about it when I was DA,” Noonan said in an interview for this story. “I had people tell me, ‘My father told me who the killer was, but I can’t tell you.’ I was curious about it, but I concluded that the killer was long gone by the time I was in office … I never came to any conclusion on who the murderer was.”
“It’s probably the most notorious series of unsolved crimes ever in Genesee County,” Thompson said.
Brown, who is in his 80s, said people who live in and around Linden will probably always wonder about the case.
“I don’t think it’ll ever be solved,” Brown said. “The State Police have told me that a murder case is never closed. But I think this one is closed.”