On October 24, 1961, thirty-one-year-old wife and mother of two, Joan Risch disappeared from her residence in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Unknowingly at the time, this case would end up becoming one of the most well-known and complexing unsolved cases to ever strike the state.
Joan was born on May 12, 1930, in Brooklyn, New York. At the time, her full name was Joan Carolyn Bard, but at age ten in 1940, her family decided to move to New Jersey. Unfortunately, her mother and father passed away in what’s considered a suspicious house fire. Subsequently, her aunt and uncle formally adopted her, thus taking their last name, Joan Carolyn Nattrass, and confirming it by an SSN (social security number).
Life continued on as normal and Joan received a degree in English literature from Wilson College located in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania in 1952. Following her passion, she was able to get a job in a publishing company. At first, she started as a secretary and made her way through the necessary steps to become an editor at Harcourt Brace and World which eventually lead to Thomas Y. Crowell Co. in New York.
Within four years, she met a young man named Martin Risch. The two got married in 1956 and moved to Ridgefield, Connecticut. They had their first child a year later, a girl, Lillian, and Joan proceeded to leave work and become a homemaker instead. In 1959, Joan gave birth once more to a boy, David.
While adjusting to the new lifestyle, the happily married couple moved to Lincoln, Massachusetts in April of 1961. Despite the constant moving between states, the transition to Middlesex County went soothingly, and they quickly integrated with the current community.
Martin Risch became an executive at Fitchburg Paper Company and frequently went out of town on business trips. Joan, although managing the home, got actively involved with the League of Women Voters — an organization to help allow women to partake in larger roles for public affairs. Along with this, she expressed the ambition to become a teacher and share her love for literature once her children got older.
Life for the couple maintained its pleasure and contentment, but that all changed on October 24, 1961, a few months after relocating to Lincoln, MA. In the early hours on the day of Joan’s disappearance, nothing was out of the ordinary or amiss in the slightest. Martin Risch left home earlier than usual to catch an 8:00 a.m. flight to New York City for business. Joan served breakfast to the children and then asked a nearby neighbor, Barbara Barker if she wouldn’t mind babysitting her two-year-old son so Joan could run errands in town with her daughter Lillian.
At approximately 11:00 a.m. she was seen arriving back home with her daughter after attending the dentist and shopping for groceries. According to a few locals, both Joan and her four-year-old daughter seemed to be quite cheerful, albeit tired from the busy morning. Sometime between 11:15 – 11:45 a.m. a delivery driver for a dry-cleaning service arrived at her residence to pick up several of Martin’s suits that he regularly had maintenance. At 12:00 p.m. Joan put her two-year-old son down for his regular nap in the upstairs room of their home.
While David was napping, the neighbor, Barbara and her four-year-old son, Douglas, paid a visit to converse while Joan’s daughter, Lillian played with the neighbor’s child. This happened on a regular occurrence in their driveways. Shortly after, Barbara went back to her home, but both parents allowed the children to play together.
Throughout their playtime, Joan was tending to yard work and using the shears to help keep her garden plants healthy. Afterward, it was near 2:00 p.m. when she finished. From this point forward, things started becoming peculiar in more ways than one.
After finishing taking care of the plants, Joan took her daughter, Lillian and the neighbor’s son, Douglas across the road back to Barbara’s home without her knowledge. Joan then told the two children that she’d be back momentarily. Regrettably, that wasn’t the case.
At 2:15 p.m. Barbara was in her kitchen and happened to glance out of her window. She saw Joan wearing what appeared to be a trench coat and running in a haste while carrying an unidentified item in her outstretched arms that was the color red. Since Barbara wasn’t aware of the children being back at her home, she merely assumed Joan was playing (and chasing) with the kids.
The children remained to play for a substantial amount of time and eventually, Barbara went outside on her own accord to check up on the kids. Other than Joan not being anywhere in attendance outside, things were relatively normal. At approximately 4:00 p.m. Barbara guided Lillian back to her home because she intended to go shopping with her son, Douglas. She presumably thought Joan was inside so after dropping Lillian off, she made her way back home.
Moments later, Lillian ran back to Barbara’s home and said, “Mommy is gone and the kitchen is covered with red paint.” Perplexed by this statement, Barbara went to investigate and confirmed Lillian’s concern. Furthermore, Joan’s two-year-old son, David, was crying upstairs in his crib because he needed his diaper changed. Terrified by the scene, she immediately called the police at 4:33 p.m.
When authorities arrived at the scene to conduct their investigation, many oddities stood out. In the kitchen, a table was discovered overturned, and also noticeable was the phone generally mounted on the wall was dismantled and thrown into the wastebasket. This itself was strange as well because the trashcan was typically under the sink, but it was found propped in the middle of the floor. On the counter an address director was open to a page meant for “emergency contacts,” but no numbers were recorded.
Other items in the trashcan were an empty bottle of hard liquor that was finished the previous night between Martin and Joan. However, empty bottles of beer were laying on the pile of trash. This was considered a red flag because there wasn’t any beer in the household at the time, and it wasn’t bought by Joan in the morning hours in town with her daughter.
More evidence uncovered in the kitchen were paper towels strewn about, along with a pair of Joan’s two-year-old son, David’s overalls, of which were seemingly used in an attempt to mop up the flooring covered in blood.
As the police continued their inspection throughout the home, bloody palm prints and various fingerprints were against various walls. Moreover, drops of blood were found leading from the upstairs, to the kitchen, and then traced to Joan’s driveway — the location observed by Barbara when glancing out of her window briefly. Here is an image of the scene.
The blood throughout the residence was taken for sampling and analysis, which was a positive match for Joan’s (Type O). Unfortunately, no confirmation could be definitely made on whether or not the blood belonged to Joan due to never having a recording of her prints prior to this incident.
During the conduction of the investigation, authorities called the hospitals in the area to see if a woman matching Joan’s physical description arrived by happenchance or to notify the police immediately if someone matching her physicality checked in for admission.
Authorities canvassed the neighborhood and questioned many residents. There were a handful of people who claimed seeing a blue and gray sedan parked in Joan’s driveway close to 3:00 p.m. Others reported that same vehicle — and the unidentified male driving the car — was acting suspicious at a later time, with the possible person of interest getting out of his car in order to cut tree branches from a nearby wooded area, and subsequently placed them inside the vehicle before leaving.
However, the investigators dismissed their statements, saying the car that was seen was more than likely an unmarked police vehicle after their arrival from Barbara’s phone call (which happened at 4:30 p.m.) Despite the valiant effort by witnesses testifying and insisting that the unfamiliar vehicle was there prior to authorities showing up to the home, that particular clue that could possibly have valuable information was never competently pursued (from my knowledge).
Other witnesses came forward saying they saw a woman that had the same body frame of Joan’s walking aimlessly near a construction site where a new highway was in the process of being built, and from their perspective the female was clutching her stomach and there also appeared to be some form of substance on the woman’s legs. Some people describe it was mud while others stated that it was blood.
As for suspects, the police questioned Joan’s husband, who was quickly cleared of having any involvement in his wife’s disappearance. This was also the conclusion for the neighbors, mailman, and milkman, and also the delivery driver picking up Martin’s business suits for dry cleaning.
All the avenues pursued by investigators eventually lead to an unfortunate dead-end until a reporter for Lincoln, Massachusetts local newspaper, “The Fence Viewer” went to the public library to research similar cases related to Joan’s disappearance. This particular incident led to a very intriguing piece of new evidence.
A few months before Joan Risch vanished, there was a list of twenty-five books checked out from the library by her. Although she was an avid reader with an immense passion for literature, the books Joan were reading consisted of true crime and mystery, particularly dealing with murders and disappearances.
Even more staggering was the fact that a certain book Joan had recently read in September titled, “Into Thin Air” had a plot revolving a woman disappearing from her home, and the only evidence left behind was blood stains in the house that were smeared with towels; almost an exact replica of Joan’s vanishing not long after.
With this new information, more theories began to arise from neighbors and authorities, but sadly, it essentially was insignificant in propelling Joan Risch’s disappearing forward with positive momentum, regardless of the coincidences from her reading material.
Nevertheless, the circumstances couldn’t be completely ignored entirely. Throughout the many acquaintances Joan made during her brief stay in Lincoln, MA and other areas previously, her personality was different from person to person. Some of her friends described her as an incredibly devoted housewife that loved her family, while others reported her being ambitious and quite unfulfilled in her life as a homemaker.
Furthermore, with Joan’s troubled childhood with her parents dying in a housewife, rumors started surfacing that she was sexually molested and physically assaulted when she was young. Those rumors could not be confirmed or denied, so using that option as a viable reason for Joan’s disappearance had to be put on the backburner.
More speculation and gossip started flowing throughout Joan’s friends, with some theorizing that due to her fiery ambition to fulfill her happiness and the frustration of being not only a wife, but a mother of two children, the suspicious car residing in Joan’s driveway that was reported by witnesses, belonged to a local doctor who tried giving her an abortion in secret, so her husband wouldn’t find out.
Although it is possible, considering that granting a divorce in the 1960’s was deemed preposterous unless there was genuine evidence that portrayed of abuse, adultery, or other various faults complicating the sacred vows of marriage. Thus, due to the difficulties and a lack of verification that would allow a divorce, Joan merely staged her own disappearance to start anew.
There has not been any shortage of theories and wild assumptions regarding Joan Risch’s disappearance, but none have been able to provide adequate answers on what happened that calamitous afternoon on October 24, 1961.
Martin Risch and the two children continued to move forward in their lives albeit suffering from the gaping hole of not having answers to the whereabouts of Joan. Lillian and David managed to lead successful lives. Martin, however, adamantly believed his wife was still alive, but suffering from a case of amnesia. He refused to change phone numbers holding onto hope that Joan might possibly make a phone-call. He never remarried, and in 2009, Martin Risch passed away without having any form of closure.
The baffling case of Joan Risch remains unsolved. If you would like to learn more about her case, you can find more information at these links: