10 Unsolved Murders That Inspired Books, Movies & Music

Last Updated on February 19, 2019 by Palessa D

10 Unsolved Murders that Inspired Books Movies, & Music - AuthorPalessa.com

I was listening to the radio about a murder that happened years before, and the men who perpetrated it were found not guilty after 15 to 20 years of their lives in prison. Now, the social justice part of this story is another post. As a writer, I had another tangent that I went off on: in popular culture, how have unsolved murders manifested in books, movies and music? Here are some of the more interesting cases I found.

The Beautiful Cigar Girl

A young perfume shop employee’s body is found in the Seine and the story becomes a sensation. Le Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin and his assistant investigate the murder of Marie Rogêt and infer that she was killed by a sailor and then dragged off to be dumped in the river.

The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe
Collection of stories including
The Mystery of Marie Rogêt

At least that was Edgar Allan Poe’s take on the 1841 murder of Mary Cecilia Rogers. Known as the Beautiful Cigar Girl to male clientele at a local tobacco shop, her body was found floating in the Hudson River[1]. Her murder received national attention and was further sensationalized by details of her past, including an alleged elopement with a naval officer, a supposed abortion, and the subsequent suicide of her fiancé Daniel Payne during the inquest. The 1842 poem, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” by Edgar Allan Poe was possibly the first time a real crime was turned into a story. [2]


View of Hinterkaifeck from the south
Date: April 5, 1922 
Author: Andreas Biegleder
Farmstead 5 days after the bodies were found

In March 1922, Andreas and Cäzilia Gruber, their daughter, Viktoria, her children, Josef and Cäzilia, and the family housekeeper, Maria, were massacred on their farm in Hinterkaifeck, Bavaria.[3]. Two-year-old Josef and the housekeeper were murdered in the house while the rest of the family was killed in the barn. The history of the family as well as the events surrounding the massacre were disturbing. For instance,  there was recently eaten food that was found at the scene, which was discovered four days after the family was killed. While modern technology helped them to narrow the suspect list down to one likely killer, the case is still considered unsolved because the name of the now-deceased killer was not publicly released out of respect for living family members. The 2009 German movie Hinter Kaifeck is a fantasy movie was inspired by the massacre. [4]

Georgia Lee

On August 22, 1997, the badly decomposed body of an African American female was found near the Highway 101 ramp, at Petaluma Boulevard in Santa Rosa, California. Three days later, police get an anonymous call that the body may be that of 12-year-old Georgia Lee Moses, who had disappeared from her home on August 13.[5]The funny part is no one reported the girl missing.  

She was last seen with an older, taller man, between  25 and 30 years old. Georgia Lee had dropped out of school to take care of her disabled mother, 7-year-old sister, and her mother’s 50-year-old boyfriend. The murder of Georgia Lee Moses bore similarities to the murder of another Petaluma girl, Polly Klaas, whose case garnered national attention and a subsequent conviction. More than twenty years later, Georgia Lee’s heartbreaking disappearance and death remain unsolved, and it was the inspiration behind Tom Wait’s haunting 1999 ballad, Georgia Lee [6] from his Grammy-winning album Mule Variations.

Yogurt Shop Girls

On December 6 1991, the I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt shop in Austin was set afire. Firefighters fought to put it out and found the gagged and assaulted bodies of 13-year-old Amy Ayers, 17-year-old Jennifer Harbison, 15-year-old Sarah Harbison, and 17-year-old Eliza Thomas [7]. Jennifer and Eliza were yogurt shop employees. Amy and Sarah were sleeping over the Hardison house and planned to get a ride with Jennifer. Police suspect it was started off as a robbery and became a case of arson as a cover up. Over 50 people confessed to the murders. The suspects who were convicted had those overturned due to false confessions and exonerating DNA evidence, which wasn’t available at the time. Will Scheff lead singer of the indie rock band Okkervil River was inspired by the broadcast of the trial when he penned the 2002 ballad Westfall.[8]

The Black Dahlia

Elizabeth Short body
Body of Elizabeth Short

On a vacant lot on January 15, 1947, Betty Bersinger walked with her three-year-old daughter in Leimert Park, Los Angeles, when they happened upon what she thought was a discarded store mannequin. As she got closer, what she saw prompted her to rush to a nearby house to call the police. The mysterious murder, mutilation, and dismemberment of 22-year-old Elizabeth Short,[9] an aspiring actress, was unlike anything the world had seen outside of war. The list of suspects seemed long, and those falsely claiming to have killed the young woman only made things more muddled. She was nicknamed The Black Dahlia by the press because she loved sheer black clothes and was fond of the 1946 movie, The Blue Dahlia, about the murder of an unfaithful wife. It remains one of the most famous unsolved cases to date and has been fictionalized many times, including in the popular series American Horror Story with Mena Suvari portraying Short. [10]

The Drapette

John Waters' cult-classic, Cry Baby

Wade Walker, the leader of the Drapes, falls in love with Allison Vernon-Smith, a pretty-girl Square. What ensues is a teen musical romance, from writer and director John Waters, that would become a cult classic. Set in Baltimore, Maryland in 1954, Cry Baby was loosely based on the worldwide media surrounding the murder of 14-year-old Carolyn Wasilewski. She was found on a railway line with the name “Paul” written on her right thigh.[11] Waters, a Baltimore native, was only eight at the time of the murder and was already fascinated with the Drape subculture of the time. He remembered how the media framed  Wasilewski’s murder around the negative aspects of her identity as a girl who liked to date drapes. Her unsolved case is still known as a Baltimore legend.[12]

The Girl Rosemary

1958 German Film directed by Rolf Thiele

The Wirschaftwunder, also known as the Miracle on the Rhine, described the rapid development of West German and Austrian economies after World War II. But in 1957, scandal rocked the country. High-class escort Rosemarie Nitribitt, just 24, was found dead.[13]  Born to humble beginnings, Maria Rosalia Auguste Nitribitt began working as a prostitute during her teenage years. In an effort to bring in a better sort of clientele, she began her own transformation, which attracted more elite customers that brought her higher income, high-priced cars, and enough money to buy her own home outright. Nitribitt’s three-day-old strangled body was discovered in her luxury apartment in Frankfurt on November 1, 1957. Heinz Pohlmann was tried and acquitted of her murder due to the police’s inability to determine her exact time of death. The fictional 1958 German film The Girl Rosemarie was based on her murder case and won the 1959 Golden Globe for Best Foreign-Language Film. [14]

The Hurricane

At 2:30 am on June 17, 1966, two black men entered the Lafayette Bar in Paterson, New Jersey, killing the bartender and two customers [15]. A third customer survived, and along with other witnesses were able to give police some details about the perpetrators. Police eventually arrested middleweight champion boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and his friend, John Artis, and they were convicted during the 1967 trial. In 1975 Bob Dylan recorded the song Hurricane, which harnessed popular support for Carter and become a gold certified hit for the folk artist. In 1985, Carter’s conviction was overturned, because his conviction was, “based on racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure.” In 1999,Carter’s story was turned into an award-winning film starring Denzel Washington.[16] While the officer who investigated the case maintains he got the right men, the Lafayette Bar deaths remain unsolved.

Dr. Sam Sheppard

At a lakefront property in Cleveland, a man sleeping on the daybed hears his wife’s screams in the middle of the night. He gets up, goes to her, and is knocked unconscious by someone in the bedroom. He awakens and chases the intruder but is knocked out again. When he wakes up, he’s half-submerged in a lake. [17] This was the story of Dr. Sam Sheppard, who was tried on Oct 18 1954 for the bludgeoning death of his wife Marilyn back in July of the same year. The case became a salacious sensation even before the trial. Dr. Sheppard was convicted and sentenced to life, but his sentence overturned 10 years later due to bias. Shepherd’s life and medical career would never recover and he died in 1970. The case remained unsolved, and later, DNA, which was not available at the time, showed that there was blood from a third person on the scene, corroborating that part of Dr. Sheppard’s story. But the case remains unsolved. This murder was the inspiration for many works. Some have speculated that the 1993 Harrison Ford movie “The Fugitive” was loosely based on the Sam Sheppard case. Those associated with the movie denied that, but this case was the inspiration for the 1970 film, The Lawyer.[18]

Murder in a Locked Room

A man in a room that’s locked from the inside is murdered… how? That was the question that puzzled the police and the public back in 1920.[19] Joseph B. Elwell was a bridge player, tutor, and writer. Having learned and loved the game since childhood, his obsession with the game became a lucrative endeavor when he married a socially connected woman named Helen Derby, whose cousin, Richard, married the youngest daughter of Theodore Roosevelt. With access to affluent students and gambling opportunities, he became wealthy. He also developed a reputation for being a womanizer, much to the embarrassment of his wife. He and Helen were negotiating their divorce when he was shot in the head in a locked room at home. The sensational case has never been solved and a few years later, it became the inspiration for best-selling author S. S. Van Dine’s The Benson Murder Case,[20] the first Philo Vance detective novel, which became a Paramount Pictures movie starring William Powell.

Source Links

[1] https://www.historicmysteries.com/the-death-of-mary-rogers/
[2] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/edgar-allan-poe-tried-and-failed-to-crack-the-mysterious-murder-case-of-mary-rogers-7493607/
[3] https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/hinterkaifeck-memorial
[4] https://m.imdb.com/title/tt1170398/
[5] https://m.sfgate.com/news/article/Body-Found-Could-Be-Missing-Girl-2806971.php
[6] https://thestringer.com.au/tom-waits-contemplates-the-eternal-mystery-the-ballad-of-georgia-lee-10824
[7] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/austin-texas-yogurt-shop-murders-innocence-lost/
[8] https://cwas.hinah.com/interview/?id=112
[9] https://www.fbi.gov/history/famous-cases/the-black-dahlia
[10] https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/black-dahlia-mena-suvari-american-horror-269188
[11] https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1338&dat=19541111&id=HvpXAAAAIBAJ&sjid=oPYDAAAAIBAJ&pg=7314,346307
[12] http://www.broadway.com/buzz/97214/backstory-cry-baby-and-john-waters-journey-to-broadway/
[13] http://www.spiegel.de/fotostrecke/edelhure-nitribitt-fotostrecke-108499.html
[14] https://m.imdb.com/title/tt0051963/
[15] https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/flashback-bob-dylan-debuts-hurricane-in-1975-170904/
[16] https://m.imdb.com/title/tt0174856/
[17] https://www.nytimes.com/1970/03/11/archives/screen-furies-the-lawyer-arrivesmurder-movie-shifts-spotlight-to.html
[18] https://engagedscholarship.csuohio.edu/sheppard_timeline/
[19] https://justcriminals.info/2017/03/10/joseph-bowne-elwell-1920/
[20] https://mysteryscenemag.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2364:philo-vance-ss-van-dines-forgotten-sleuth&catid=20:articles&Itemid=191

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