The Longform.org Guide to Cold Cases

Cyanide, arson, and an ax—amazing stories about unsolved murders.

Every weekend, Longform.org shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For a daily selection of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform.org or follow @longformorg on Twitter.

The persistent draw of unsolved cases

Unsolved crimes, particularly those involving murder, are uniquely unsettling. They force us to live with the possibility that the perpetrator has either died or walks freely among us without having suffered any consequences. Here’s a look at five such unnerving cases. Only one has been definitively solved.

The Lazarus File Matthew McGough • Atlantic • June 2011

Sherri Rasmussen was murdered in 1986. Twenty-three years later, the LAPD finally had the tools to solve the case, the trial for which starts this month:

“In 1993, the Rasmussens traveled to Van Nuys for a face-to-face meeting with one of the detectives who had inherited the case when Lyle Mayer retired. Mayer’s successor explained that he had reviewed the original case notes and tried to advance the investigation, but he had been unable to identify any suspects, and prospects for new leads were poor. Nels brought up an article about DNA forensics he had read in a science magazine and offered to pay for DNA analysis of the evidence at a private lab. The detective turned him down. Move on with your lives, he advised the Rasmussens. After that meeting, Loretta stopping calling. “Meanwhile, in a freezer in the Los Angeles County coroner’s office, alongside biological evidence from hundreds of other murders, the swab of the bite mark on Sherri Rasmussen’s arm lay waiting for forensic science—and the LAPD’s scrutiny—to catch up with it.”

Capital Murder Skip Hollandsworth • Texas Monthly • July 2000

The Servant Girl Murders were one America’s earliest serial killings, predating Jack the Ripper by three years:

“On July 4, 1885, an estimated six thousand Austinites gathered to celebrate the laying of the Driskill’s cornerstone. Electric lights were strung across the streets. A brass band played. Mumm’s extra-dry champagne was served to the crowd, and Mayor John Robertson proclaimed in his speech, ‘No city in the state has a promise of a more healthful prosperity.’ “At that moment, as the crowd cheered and raised their glasses to toast a gilded age, it was hard to imagine that anything could go wrong. Yet something already was—something rarely seen in American life, and never before in Texas. A cold, calculating killer, his identity unknown, was stalking the women of Austin. The attacks had begun nearly a year earlier, targeting the black servants of the city’s wealthiest white families. Some victims were only injured, having been able to make their escape or scream in time to scare off the attacker. Others weren’t so fortunate. In late 1884 a black cook named Mollie Smith was found laid out in the snow next to the outhouse behind her employer’s home, a gaping hole in her head.”

The Body on Somerton Beach Mike Dash • Smithsonian • August 2011

In 1948, a corpse was found on a beach in Adelaide, Australia. His identity, and how he died, remains a mystery:

“All this left the Adelaide coroner, Thomas Cleland, with a real puzzle on his hands. The only practical solution, he was informed by an eminent professor, Sir Cedric Stanton Hicks, was that a very rare poison had been used—one that ‘decomposed very early after death,’ leaving no trace. The only poisons capable of this were so dangerous and deadly that Hicks would not say their names aloud in open court. Instead, he passed Cleland a scrap of paper on which he had written the names of two possible candidates: digitalis and strophanthin. Hicks suspected the latter. Strophanthin is a rare glycoside derived from the seeds of some African plants. Historically, it was used by a little-known Somali tribe to poison arrows.”

Rayville Man Implicated in Frank Morris Case Stanley Nelson • Concordia Sentinel • January 2011

In 1964, a Ku Klux Klan “hit squad” rode into Ferriday, Louisiana and set Frank Morris on fire. Nearly a half-century later, one of the alleged participants is still a free man:

“The mystery of who killed 51-year-old Frank Morris was the subject of two FBI investigations in the 1960s. The FBI launched a third investigation in 2007. “When Morris’ shoe shop was set ablaze in December 1964 the fire engulfed the shop and consumed Morris as well. It burned the clothes off his body as he ran from the shop. People who knew Morris, including nurses at Concordia Parish Hospital where he was treated following the blaze, said Morris was unrecognizable. ” ‘Only the bottom of his feet weren’t burned,’ said the Rev. Robert Lee Jr. of Clayton, age 96, who visited Morris in the hospital. ‘He was horrible to look at.’ ”

A Bitter Pill Joy Bergmann • Chicago Reader • November 2000

In 1982, seven people ingested Tylenol sprinkled with a fatal dose of cyanide. The case has never been solved:

“‘One of the most sensational murder cases this century has gone unsolved because the person who did it randomly killed seven people,’ says Dan Webb, the U.S. attorney during the investigation. ‘If you have no motive, if all you’re doing is killing people for no reason whatsoever, then that is likely to be the most perfect murder because there won’t be any ties back to you.’

For Webb, the Tylenol case was a crime unlike any other. ‘Human nature says that people will engage in acts of violence. We can’t change that—there’s almost always a motive of some type. This was a calculated murder where someone in a very smart, wise, preconceived way knew that he or she was going to kill God knows how many people—at random.’”