The Case: Background
Joan Risch was born 12th May 1930 in Brooklyn, New York. Sadly, Risch endured a traumatic childhood. In 1939 at the age of nine years old, both Risch’s mother and father died in a house fire. Following their deaths, Risch shared that she was sexually abused by her parents in the first few years of her life. Despite this, Risch moved in with her auntie, excelled in school and later university, and led to live a typically normal, happy life. In 1961 she moved to Lincoln, Massachusetts with her husband, Martin Risch, and their two children Lillian (4) and David (2). Here, Risch was described as a loving housewife who was happy to stay at home to look after the children. Sadly only a few months after moving, October 24th 1961 turned out to be the last time Joan Risch was ever seen.
The Case: The Day of the Disapperance
October 24th 1961 started as any normal day for Joan Risch. Her husband left early to fly to New York for business, Risch and Lillian went to the dentist where she booked an appointment for the following week, and she was visited by the milkman, a newspaper delivery and a dry cleaning delivery. All visitors reported that there was nothing unusual about Joan Risch on that day. At around 12pm she took David upstairs to the master bedroom to nap. Meanwhile, Risch's close friend, Barbara, took her son over to Risch's house so that he could play with Lillian on the driveway. This was the last "normal" reported sighting of Joan Risch.
At 2pm Joan Risch took Lillian and her friend back to Barbara's house and left them in the garden without letting Barbara know. At 2:15pm Barbara noticed Risch running towards her car wearing a trench coat and holding a red object with her arms stretched out. Barbara's house had a very restrictive view of Risch's driveway so details could not be confirmed, however as Barbara believed Risch had the children she simply passed it off as a chasing game. This turned out to be the last ever confirmed sighting of Joan Risch. At 4pm Barbara realised the children were in her garden and returned Lillian to her home. Lillian immediately ran back outside saying “Mummy is gone and the kitchen is covered with red paint”. The kitchen was covered in blood, with a trail of blood from the master bedroom where David was sleeping to Risch's car on the driveway. The phone was ripped off the wall, the kitchen was trashed, and Risch's address book was open to the emergency contact page. As for Joan Risch, she was no where to be seen.
Unconfirmed sightings around the time of the disappearance all describe Risch to be clutching her stomach with blood dripping down her leg. The only other reported sighting was of an unfamiliar car on Risch's driveway on the day of the disappearance, a two-toned blue Sedan. Retrospectively, the milkman reported seeing this same car on the driveway five days prior to the disappearance.
This case is particularly fascinating for the huge variety of theories as to what happened to Joan Risch. Perhaps one of the most believed theories is that Joan Risch experienced implications during a home abortion and sadly died of trauma and blood loss. Abortion was illegal around the 1960s and very dangerous for the mother. Some doctors would secretly agree to the procedure, however any implications would result in the doctor immediately disposing the body to avoid the inevitable sentencing for abortion and manslaughter. Theorists suggest that the blue Sedan car belonged to a doctor who had arrived to carry out an abortion after Risch fell unexpectedly pregnant and did not want to tell her husband. The procedure may been carried out in in the master bedroom where implications may have began, hence the slight trail of blood, followed by a tragic turn of events by the time she entered the kitchen. Risch may have tried to call for help, resulting in the doctor ripping the phone off the wall. The doctor may have fled the scene and Risch bled to death whilst driving for help (which could explain Barbara's sighting of Risch running to her car carrying something red, potentially a bloody rag) or they may have disposed of Risch's body themselves. This theory could explain why suspected sightings of Risch describe her as clutching her stomach and wearing a trench coat; speculating she was hunched over in pain and trying to hide the blood.
Interestingly, a key part of this case is Martin Risch’s reports of four empty beer bottles in the home that he could not account for. In the 1960’s beer was often prescribed as a remedy to restore iron levels. It has been theorised that the doctor brought these beers in anticipation of some blood loss during the procedure, hence the empty bottles that Martin Risch could not explain. This can be supported further by the fact there were three unidentifiable finger prints in the home - supporting the idea that Risch was not alone and that these prints may have belonged to a doctor.
Despite this theory being so widely believed, there are certainly complications. The majority of accounts describing Joan Risch’s disappearance describe her blood loss as severe. In reality, police reports suggest that there was not actually enough blood to indicate any life threatening condition. Additionally, the blue Sedan car that many theorists insist belonged the the doctor was dismissed by investigators, claiming the car was most likely an unmarked police vehicle arriving after Barbara called for help at 4:30pm. The face validity of this theory is questionable too; descriptions of Risch on the day of her disappearance seem unrealistically calm and cheery for somebody who was planning an illegal and dangerous procedure. These arguments, as well as the notion that there were no reported signs of Risch being pregnant at the time, lead me to question this theory, encouraging research into a second theory - a staged disappearance
There are two perspectives to the theory that Risch staged her disappearance. Some argue she ran away because she was having an affair, whilst others argue she felt incredibly unfulfilled and ran away to begin a new life. Regardless of perspective, theorists agree that the bloody scene was intentionally created to keep everybody distracted on a complex goose chase. The affair theory proposes Joan Risch was having an affair with whomever owned the blue Sedan car and the three unidentifiable fingerprints. Martin Risch flying out of town may have been to perfect opportunity for Joan Risch to run away with her secret lover. This would explain why the milkman reported seeing the car five days prior to her disappearance as they may have been planning the logistics of this day. This theory is supported by the fact divorce was far from the norm in 1960s; one partner would have to provide evidence of the other committing an offence of cruelty, desertion, adultery, or incurable insanity. Thus, Risch may have felt she had no other choice but to stage an extravagant disappearance and run away. Alternatively, some believe Joan Risch felt so unfulfilled with her life that she simply decided to run away and start a new life. Growing up Risch adored literature; her degree was in literature and she had experienced various jobs that were all supporting her in her ultimate literature career. This all came to an end when Lillian was born and Risch became a house wife, and theorists believe Risch felt hugely unfulfilled by this and did not know what else to do. Critics could easily dispute this by the fact most reports described Risch as a happy housewife, however the fact Risch had moved around America 3-4 times since being with Martin Risch makes it questionable how well Risch’s neighbours and local friends really knew her. Additionally, records show that in the summer before Risch’s disappearance she had checked out 25 library books about staging a disappearance/murder, with the book “Into Thin Air” being eerily similar to Risch’s case. I personally question this "evidence" as I believe this could be explained by her love for literature and perhaps a genuine interest in crime novels, however it is certainly food for thought.
3. Self Inflicted Pain
With personal doubts on the staged theory, there is a final theory to discuss that proposes Joan Risch disappeared as a result of self inflicted pain. Regardless of whether her level of blood loss was intentional or unintentional, it may be possible that Joan Risch became disorientated and alarmed by her body's reaction and ran or drove away to get help. Due to the disorientation she may have got very lost and sadly died before help had been reached. This theory often gets rejected too, again due to the reports of her happy personality, however when considering Risch's traumatic childhood it seems possible that she may have been much lower than people perceived. A childhood emotional trauma therapist explained it is extremely common for individuals who experienced childhood trauma to live their adult life as a “false self”. I must emphasise that this is simply a theory as nobody is in a position to diagnose Risch, however it may be possible that this was Risch's unfortunate reality and it sadly became too much to cope with.
There remains an outstanding amount of theories about what happened to Joan Risch, however these were the theories that fascinated me the most. I personally am most inclined to believe the abortion theory however I am certainly not satisfied with the theory as it stands. I cannot dismiss the fact that Martin Risch consistently believed his wife was still alive; this leads me to believe there is a lot more to this case than any report suggests and that this theory is very much incomplete. I am fascinated by all the existing theories and as it stands I do not entirely agree with any of them, so I would love to discuss these and hear your thoughts and opinions too.
Thank you so much for reading, and please do feel free to leave any comments so we can discuss your thoughts below!
21 year old Psychology student, running a blog to satisfy my love for writing and debating.